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‘Twas the Week Before Christmas in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden ‘Twas the Week Before Christmas in TheatersPhoto still from "Mary Poppins Returns," via IMDb.
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The holiday onslaught is here! It’s not the greatest pre-Christmas haul we’ve seen, but it is far from the worst. Here’s a quick what’s-what.

Aquaman

by Matt Weiner

A movie that brings together Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Julie Andrews and Dolph Lundgren is inevitably going to have a lot going on. That’s certainly the case for James Wan’s Aquaman, a weird mix of origin story, Arthurian myth and anti-racist appeal to coexistence. If that sounds like a lot for the frat bro character from 2017’s Justice League, well… it is. But thankfully it’s also never boring.

The new movie takes place after the events of Justice League, allowing half-man/half-Atlantean Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) to resume his day job of serving as a one-man Coast Guard and drinking. Flashbacks piece together Curry’s life story: his father (Temuera Morrison) fell in love with the queen (Kidman) of the underwater kingdom Atlantis, who later had to choose between endangering her taboo love child or returning to the kingdom.

A series of tragedies pushes Curry on his hero’s journey, with enough family strife between him and his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) to fill a Greek play. Together with the Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard), Curry strikes out in search of a golden MacGuffin along with his destiny, even finding time to pick up an archenemy for good measure (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta).

How much of a comfort it is that Aquaman is one of the better recent superhero movies depends on where you fall on the debate over whether distinctive directors should get picked for more of these big comic book projects (and given a long leash) — or if you wish we lived in a universe where they could pursue these visions without yoking themselves to Disney/Marvel or DC.

It is to the film’s benefit that Wan, veteran of horror franchises Saw, The Conjuring and Insidious, manages to tie Curry’s predictable Arthurian ascent to the most disturbing Lovecraftian horror this side of Hellboy. And it’s almost shocking to see the cotton candy brightness of Atlantis after the pummeling color palettes of Batman v. Superman and Justice League.

With his nonstop pace, steady stream of exotic settings and action that never gets bogged down in its own seriousness, Wan’s entry in the genre hits the mark as his loving homage to vintage Spielberg and Lucas — plus tentacles. Best of all, it’s a refreshing reminder that you shouldn’t need a flowchart and multi-phase corporate synergy to make a good popcorn movie.

Which is good, because it doesn’t look like these franchises are going anywhere anytime soon, so if any other directors are looking to wed their creative vision to the corporate motherships, then maybe I can learn to be more tolerant of the products they give birth to. It’s a message that sounds oddly familiar.

Grade: B

Mary Poppins Returns

by Christie Robb

Recreating the magic of a classic film like Mary Poppins seems like it should be impossible. Thankfully, with the sequel Disney proves that truly everything is possible, even the impossible.

Set 20 years after the original, Jane and Michael Banks are grown and eking out a living during the “Great Slump” (the term for the Great Depression in the United Kingdom). Michael (Ben Wishaw) has been recently widowed and is struggling to raise his three children alone when the bank sends some agents to inform him that his family home on Cherry Tree Lane is in foreclosure. He’s got until Friday at midnight to cough up the cash.

Enter Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who returns to take care of the Banks children. This time, the stakes are clearly a bit higher. Instead of the children and nanny dealing with neglectful and boring parents, they have to negotiate grief over their dead mother, probable homelessness, and some light animated kidnapping. It’s a more Lemony Snicket approach that keeps the plot moving at a good pace, but may be intense for the more sensitive kiddos.

The drama is balanced with some exhilarating song and dance numbers that mirror, but update, those in the original film. Remember Uncle Albert? Now we have a song with Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep). The live action/animated number occurs inside the pattern of a Royal Doulton china bowl instead of a chalk drawing. And instead of chimney sweeps elevating the kids to the London rooftops for a jig, lamplighters led by Mary’s friend Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) wind the kids through the sewers and engage in some stunt biking and parkour.

Throughout, director Rob Marshall is faithful to the tone of the original film. There’s a continuity established from the opening credit sequence that continues through the choices in musical score, sets and costuming. However, Marshall’s experience directing movie musicals (for example, Into the Woods and Chicago) makes for more dynamic camera work and the occasional vaudevillian set piece.

This charming bit of nostalgia makes for an excellent holiday movie that celebrates the joys of childhood, imagination and family.

Grade: B+

Ben Is Back

by Hope Madden

Family can be a nightmare during the holidays, eh? Well, if you think your Fox-News-spouting uncle is a problem, you need to meet Ben.

Yes, Ben is Back, the damaged teen at Christmas drama from writer/director Peter Hedges, is clear Oscar bait. It is, after all, a family drama starring two of the Academy’s favorite thespians, Julia Roberts and the filmmaker’s own son, Lucas Hedges.

Lucas Hedges plays Ben, the eldest son of Holly (Roberts), who surprises his family — mom, sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton), half siblings Lacey and Liam (Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser, respectively) and stepdad Neal (Courtney B. Vance) — on Christmas Eve. Ben’s been away in rehab, and not everyone is as thrilled at the prospect of reliving Christmas Horrors Past as Holly seems to be.

Though filmmaker Hedges’s script has a few rough edges, one of its great strengths is its limits. Ben is Back chooses not to spell out every aspect of Ben’s addiction, his descent, or his likely court-determined recovery program. These are wise omissions, as they make the slow reveals more powerful and leave you feeling less manipulated.

What unspools as a tense family drama takes a wild left turn by act three, when Ben’s shaky present and dark past come crashing into Holly’s living room only to make off with the family’s beloved mutt. The balance of the film sees mother and son drive deeper into an ugly abyss of sexual predators, junkies and criminals to have poor Ponce back for the siblings by Christmas morn.

Once the borderline thriller storyline takes flight, Hedges Senior flails a bit with pacing and tone. Hedges Junior and Roberts, however, lose nothing.

The voyage into the underbelly of Holly’s lovely suburbia offers not only some insight into the realities of drug addiction and our current opioid crisis, but allows these two talents the chance to mine their characters’ psyches.

Hedges never overstates the emotions roiling barely beneath the surface. He is almost simultaneously overjoyed, anxious, guilty, dishonest, tender, vulnerable, loyal, broken and resilient. There is nothing showy in his performance as he conveys with clarity the confusing mix of emotions and motives that surface from moment to moment.

Roberts, who has solidified her status as a formidable character actor in the second act, takes command of this film and never gives an inch. She owns every scene, and equals Hedges in her own ability to swing — sometimes gently, sometimes seismically — from one emotion to the next. Again, there is nothing inauthentic or overly dramatic in this performance.

The film itself dips too often into maudlin traps. And though the third act is far from awful, the filmmaker’s insights for family dynamics and dysfunction are stronger.

He can cast the shit out of a movie, though.

Grade: B+

Mary Queen of Scots

by Rachel Willis

From a technical perspective, everything about director Josie Rourke’s film, Mary Queen of Scots is nearly perfectly realized.

Saoirse Ronan is resplendent as Mary, the rightful queen of Scotland and contested heir to the throne of England. Margot Robbie is equally enlivening as Mary’s cousin, better known as Elizabeth I.

The film begins with Mary’s return to Scotland at the age of 18, following the death of her husband, the Dauphin of France. As she assumes her rightful throne from her half-brother, she is quickly met with opposition. John Knox (David Tennant), a Protestant minister – and also one of the leader’s of Scotland’s Reformation – immediately dismisses her rule as she is both Catholic and a woman.

From Knox’s initial dissent, more threats emerge, primarily from the English queen, Elizabeth I.

Dual narratives tell the story of Mary and Elizabeth’s rivalry. Through letters, the queens express solidarity, but behind the scenes, Elizabeth worries. Her most loyal advisor, William Cecil (Guy Pearce) stokes those fears. But his genuine affection for Elizabeth is a glaring contrast to Mary, who frequently stands alone.

Much history is condensed in the two hour running time. Because of this, the movie flows smoothly, but history is glossed over, changed, or omitted entirely. While this works, it’s also misleading. Mary’s trusted advisor, David Rizzio, is reduced to a minstrel who is more handmaiden than advisor.

It’s not unusual for a fictional film to mold history to fit a story, but the most disappointing aspect is the portrayal of Mary. The film asserts that Mary was a good queen with a good heart who was an innocent victim of the people around her. This begs the question: was Mary truly an innocent – a pawn at the mercy of scheming men? Or was she a ruler like any other? One who made mistakes, bad choices, and whose ambition was outmatched by another’s power?

The history surrounding Mary has always been controversial, and it’s impossible to know exactly what she knew and what she plotted. But by portraying Mary as a victim, the film reduces her to a caricature rather than a woman, or a queen, with agency.

It’s a disappointing decision in an otherwise stunning film.

Grade: B-

Also opening in Columbus:
Antariksham 9000 KMPH (NR)
Bumblebee (PG13)
Second Act (PG13)
Welcome to Marwen (PG13)
Zero (NR)

Read more from Hope and team at MADDWOLF, and listen to a weekly roundup of film reviews on the podcast, SCREENING ROOM.

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