Monthly Archives: December 2018

Welcome to Marwen (2018)

When I saw the trailer for Welcome to Marwen my first response was pained wincing. Robert Zemeckis is one of the most daring, inventive, and imaginative filmmakers working today, but this movie just looked misguided with its approach. Welcome to Marwen is so fascinating, so tonally off, that I might almost recommend people watch it.

Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a war illustrator until the day he was attacked by a gang of neo Nazis. In the ensuring months, Mark has lost portions of his memory, is unable to use his hands to illustrate any longer, and has become something of a shut-in. He has gained notoriety through his new artistic outlet. Mark has created a WWII era Belgian town called Marwen with a group of dolls fighting evil Nazis. We escape into fantasy sequences where Mark imagines himself as Cap’N Hogie and his gang of supportive ladies. Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in next door to Mark and he takes an immediate interest in her (she even appears in Marwen in doll form). Mark must grapple with his feelings and work up the courage to attend the court hearing to make sure the men who hurt him stay in prison.

I was amazed at how miscalculated Welcome to Marwen plays out. It feels like Steve Carell’s Patch Adams, a sentimental movie where every step seems strange, mistaken, maudlin, and false. Firstly, this is the second documentary that Zemeckis has taken and adapted into a live-action film, as if the man is spending the wee hours of his nights pouring over award-winning documentaries of the past and determining which he can add a little razzle dazzle to with visual whimsy. Look out The Cove because maybe an undersea realm of talking dolphins will open up that horrifying Oscar-winner to a whole new mainstream audience. I’d have less of an issue with Zemeckis remaking the documentary if it didn’t seem like his entire rationale was the fantasy interludes.

The original documentary is about one man and his unique brand of healing through art. He is becoming further whole by building an intricate world through his imagination. By visualizing the fantasy worlds, Zemeckis is turning the doll segments into literal escapism that becomes tedious, obvious, and often redundant. The doll segments are about his gang of girls supporting him, expressing his interest in his kind new neighbor, and tackling the Nazis in a safe space where he can win. Every time we cut to the doll sequences it feels like the movie is spinning its wheels with these ill advised fantasy cut scenes. It gets boring watching the doll segments without any sense of stakes. The special effects are creepy and there are aspects that amplify this, like one doll’s penchant for having her top ripped off in combat, revealing her stout, rounded chest. Keep in mind that the female dolls, with the exception of one, are all analogues for people in his life, so then Mark is consistently indulging in stripping one woman of her clothes. Even though the movie sets this character up to be a potential love interest, it’s still not a good choice. Zemeckis intends to literalize Mark’s struggles and fears so that he can triumph over them, but it feels like it’s minimizing the complexity of trauma into digestible whimsy. With every trip to Marwen, I was eager to return back to the land of human beings where they might still be over-the-top but at least I wouldn’t have to watch creepy doll CGI.

The most significant doll is the blue-haired Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who is meant to represent Mark’s suicidal impulses. He keeps her atop his wall so that she can watch over him, and in his sleep he dreams about her whispering in his ear, “Nobody will ever love you like I do. You should just end it now.” Oh man, that’s heavy, but when applied through the prism of a talking Barbie doll it loses its sense of seriousness. If you don’t lose yourself in the central conceit and take the dolls seriously, the movie will fall flat. Take for instance the cross-dressing aspect of Mark, which is what lead to his brutal beating. It’s a delicate subject and something easy to get muddled, and that’s exactly what happens in the presentation of this movie. The shoe fetish is initially portrayed as wacky and then becomes serious and then becomes like an artifact of horror. It’s another sign that the tone for this movie is mismatched. These things require a delicate touch with some ambiguity and sensitivity. Welcome to Marwen turns these into a loud, noisy cartoon that bumbles into its messages. Things that are meant to be charming or endearing or emotional can come across as goofy or campy or even uncomfortable.

I felt bad for so many of the actors. Carell (Vice) is trying to maintain his character’s sense of dignity throughout, but the story often goes into contrived contortions to force him into dramatic confrontations. It turns out the court appearance is rescheduled to be the same day of Mark’s photographic exhibit. Will he be able to triumph over these forces to stand up for himself? Carell is a capable dramatic actor but he’s struggling here to find stable footing because of the mish mashing tones. The development of Mark makes him come across as a creep in some moments, like his one-sided advances for Nicol, and a simpleton at other moments, where he might have sustained brain damage. Mann (Blockers) is sweet and gentle but strangely the movie hides her most interesting character aspects, like the prospect of a deceased child. You would think overcoming tragedy would be a tool for Nicol and Mark to bond. Merritt Wever (Godless) is another sweet and gentle woman in a world that seems overstocked with them. It feels like everyone in this small town exists just to be nice to Mark. She’s clearly romantically interested in Mark but he doesn’t care until the very end. She deserves better than being someone’s runner-up choice, especially only after he was turned down.

A movie that deals with delicate issues through fantasy escapism can work, but it requires a precise hand with tone and with its storytelling detours. Guillermo del Toro has been able to prove he can tell rich, adult stories with the assistance of whimsical, weird fantasy elements. Charlie Kaufman has been able to weird the mundane and the fantastic. It can be done and Zemeckis has done it himself before, best evidenced by the masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. However, Welcome to Marwen is a sizeable tonal misfire. The serious elements don’t blend well with the fantasy elements, and even worse, they are made less serious and approach the realm of camp. The fun, fantasy elements are given bizarre and unsettling contexts that make them creepy and inappropriate. Escaping into Mark’s imagination winds up stripping him of much of his agency, and literalizing his psychological push-and-pull feels like a misguided examination on depression. I left my theater in a daze, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. The filmmakers and cast certainly mean well and want the film to be a triumph of the human spirit. I found it to be two meandering hours of watching somebody play with their disused toys.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

Coming ten years too late, the inane sequel to The Strangers is a home invasion thriller that was so bad that I had to stop it five separate times to collect myself. It’s about a boring family that takes a vacation (?) to a trailer park (?) and is terrorized by mask-wearing strangers who insist on killing set to diegetic 80s pop music (?). Seriously, the music is part of the scene and these imbecilic killers almost have an OCD-level compulsion to have to listen to their kickin’ tunes when they’re kicking in heads. One killer literally won’t leave a car radio until he gets that exact right soundtrack. This is the only aspect of note in what is otherwise a thoroughly rote slasher film. At one point one of the killers is going to be unmasked and the film plays it up as great reveal? Who could it be? Oh, it’s nobody, because the anonymity is the point but the movie forgot. I paused this movie to give myself a break and only 20 minutes had passed! Here’s another example of the bad plotting: we have a teen girl kicked out of school for some rebellious, disciplinary action. Surely, you would assume, that in the final act, she will make use of this same skill to save herself, you know attaching a payoff to a setup. This never happens. It’s just one poorly executed attack sequence after another with nothing to offer but forced irony. It feels like random scenes that just stretch and stretch and it’s hard to even bother paying attention. The kills are lame, the suspense set pieces are dumb, and the attackers are boring. How the hell do these people get the jump on everybody? It’s like they can choose to make sound or not. Listen for the looming 80s soundtrack as a giveaway, people. The Strangers: Prey at Night is worth burying in the past.

Grade: D-

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up from his Oscar-winning masterpiece Moonlight is an affecting adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel exploring a larger picture of the African-American experience through the life of one family under pressure. It’s a beautifully tender movie that aches with human feeling, tragic and joyous. We follow a young couple where Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant and Alonzo “Fonny” (Stephen James) is in jail for a crime he did not commit. Jenkins jumps around in time, providing mirrored juxtapositions that enliven the emotional outpouring of the scenes on screen, adding a sense of dread at the hardships we know await and a extra compassion for the good times while they last. Regina King is so outstanding as Tish’s mother, who goes out of her way to gather evidence to free Alonzo, that I wished she had more to do than her handful of big Oscar moments. There’s a racist cop that comes into the picture and is easily sidelined again. Many moments follow this lyrical, free-floating structure, zipping from one memory to another, which nicely presents a fuller picture with less. However, it also makes the film feel like it doesn’t fully come together by its very end and whether all of the assorted moments and insights are as helpful. It presents a case study of criminal justice reform and reminder that this family is only but one example. The intimate cinematography is gorgeous and the use of color is spellbinding. The music by Nicholas Britell is also highly involving without being overbearing. If Beale Street Could Talk might not have the awe-inspiring power and artistry of Moonlight, but it’s a moving, compassionate, and beautiful movie that confirms Jenkins as one of the greats.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Show Dogs (2018)

I was expecting something much worse but ultimately it’s hard to get too upset with Show Dogs, a lowest common denominator slice of entertainment for the youngest of children. There are two separate Lego Movie references in relation to star Will Arnett, a cop who partners with a dog for an undercover operation. The weird part is that the movie seems to exist in a world where animals talk to one another but humans cannot hear them. Fine, except then why does Arnett treat a stray dog like an equal? Occasionally human beings will interact with the animals like they can hear them. World building inconsistency aside, it’s simply a very unfunny comedy. The lazy puns and slapstick are somewhat excusable in smaller doses but the movie is nothing but. The only reason to watch Show Dogs is to look for the former material relating to a storyline that literally involved the hero dog having to learn to go to a happy mental place while adult judges fondle his genitals. Shockingly, the filmmakers did not see any problem with this storyline aimed at children until weeks after its initial release, and then it was re-cut with the offending and abuse-grooming material wisely removed. How does something like this happen? How does it pass through so many editorial approvals? It wasn’t a simple joke but an ongoing character arc for the protagonist. Show Dogs is for the dogs.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Truth or Dare (2018)

A group of college friends spend Spring Break south of the border and stumble into a deadly game of… truth or dare? Blumhouse has spun gold out of just about any high-concept horror property but can it make Truth or Dare work? Here’s the truth: nope.

This is a powerfully dumb movie that caused me to yell at the screen several times, shake my head even more, and contemplate my own life choices. The entertainment level is related to every befuddling choice this movie makes, and it makes many of them. Take basic dramatic opportunities that it weirdly pushes aside. One character is gay and hasn’t come out to his father yet, so the demon-inhabited game dares him to come out. Rather than watch this genuinely dramatic moment play out, Truth or Dare has it all take place entirely off-screen. Hilariously, the gay student comes back and recaps the audience what they missed (“Yeah, I came out to my dad, and he said some things, and we’re good now.”). Imagine if an action movie did something similar (“Hey, yeah, so I jumped out of a flaming helicopter onto that skyscraper and then scaled down only using my pants as a makeshift rope”). That’s bad writing no matter the genre. Take another scene where Olivia (Lucy Hale) tracks down the old Mexican lady who supposedly started the curse. She gets there but is told by the granddaughter to wait outside. So she does. Then we cut to a later scene where the granddaughter says, “She has agreed to see you.” Why did we need that first scene denying them entry? If all it does it kill mere seconds in the running time, why is it even included? This scene also involves the granddaughter being coy when Olivia asks to speak to the old lady. She cut out her tongue long ago and the granddaughter knows this but is just being a jerk. These are basic storytelling miscues that Truth or Dare doesn’t seem capable of overcoming.

We must talk about these silly demonically possessed faces. Oh the faces. It looks like a bad Snapchat filter promotion. I am convinced some studio exec saw a Snapchat filter and said, “Hey, we can make a horror movie based on that” (Look out for the upcoming dogface filter horror movie in 2019). The faces are so dumb. They pinch into pained rictuses, big eyes, and triangular, pointy chins. It’s not a creepy image at all. It’s like a bad special effect trying to turn the cast into caricature. Then they even directly address it, as one character literally cites the look as a “Snapchat filter.” Don’t hang a lampshade on it, movie, and make us all realize that even you know how dumb and derivative you are. The accompanying scary modulated voice is also worth a hoot. The end credits even end on the demonic voice challenging the audience to a game of truth or dare. Joke’s on you, movie, because nobody stuck around for the end credits of this one (except for me). The faces are never scary, are always goofy, and always funny looking, and that’s all we get.

The scariest thing in Truth or Dare is the uproariously bad dialogue. These are actual lines of dialogue spoken in the movie: “The game followed us home from Mexico.” Oh? “We’re not playing the game, it’s playing us.” Uh huh. “I dare you to get on the pool table and show everyone your pool cue.” Oh, PG-13 movie, how naughty of you. “I know things have been a little Bette and Joan since Mexico.” No, movie, you do not earn referencing Bette Davis and Joan Crawford or even Bettie and Joan from Mad Men.

The characters might be as bad as the cringe-inducing, laughable dialogue. Our protagonist is kind of a terrible human being (spoilers to follow). Olivia is obviously in love with her best friend Markie’s (Violett Beane) boyfriend Lucas (Tyler Posey), blurts out her best friend’s cheating ways to the whole world, will eventually sleep with the best friend’s boyfriend (more on that later), and then also reveals a painful secret regarding her best friend’s deceased father, namely she is indirectly responsible for his death, suggesting he kill himself after he tried to sexually assault her. All of these abuses are targeted at her best friend, and yet she constantly keeps trying to say, “You have to trust me,” as if these cruel torments should be waved away. It’s so one-sided and directed at one person, her ostensible best friend, that it becomes comical. At one point Markie has a gun to her head and screams she has nothing left. “You have me,” Olivia says, and I wanted Markie to pull the trigger right then because this was after Olivia told her everything. Hale (TV’s Pretty Little Liars) has a fixed expression of confusion with her large doe eyes, which don’t require that much in the way of adjustment for the Snapchat filter face. I don’t think we’re supposed to care about any of these characters, including our eventual Final Girl played by Hale. I was rooting for the demon to bump them off in bulk.

The mysteries of Truth or Dare are exasperating and demand further analysis, which I will ably try and perform for you, dear reader. First off, the rules of this game are very sketchy and feel rather arbitrary. A demon will jump around participants but needs more contestants, like the Ring cursed videotape. Eventually more players will be roped in but the old players are still part of the game, I guess, which means there’s no escape. This all started because some demon was released from its containment pot at an abandoned monastery, and it just so happened there was a group of teens playing truth or dare. So the evil demonic spirit said, “Hey, why not?” and adopted the game as its own? What if they had been playing spin the bottle or “Head’s up 7 UP”? I am almost certain, given the cannibalization of the horror genre, there has to be an evil spin the bottle movie somewhere (a cursory Internet search found a 2011 film with the premise). I feel like the other demons at Hell High pick on this particular demon and with good cause.

When given a choice between answering a question and doing some dangerous dare the choice seems obvious. The game seems to know this as well, which is why halfway through the characters are not allowed to choose “truth” any longer. This seems like cheating. The game is called “truth or dare” and not “…or dare.” By removing the choice it stops becoming a game. Admittedly, most human beings will tap out of horrible truths to reveal after a while unless you happen to be a politician. After a while it will just resort to making people talk about their Internet search histories. When these people have to blurt out painful truths, why do they scream them? Could not whispering achieve the same results? There’s the question of what constitutes finishing a dare as well. Since one’s life is on the line, it’s important to see the dare through. There’s one scene where the game dares Olivia to have sex with her best friend’s boyfriend. I don’t know about you, but if somebody said, “an evil force says I must have sex with you or else I’ll die” it would be a real mood killer. Regardless, they strip off their clothes and take the wanton opportunity given to them (Her: “You’re just doing this because you have to” Him: “No, you do. I’m doing this because I want to”). Except in the middle of their coitus the dare demon returns and possesses Olivia, challenging Lucas to pick next. Has Olivia finished fulfilling her dare? What constitutes “finishing” when it comes to sexual congress? The dares also escalate to an arbitrary degree, often robbing the player of a real chance to see it through. When the demon dares you to kill one of two people and the previous dare was far less significant, then it feels like the movie is compensating for a lack of developing thrills. If I go, “I dare you to eat that cheese,” and then next, “I dare you to rip it out of your intestines,” it feels like too much too soon. Alas, demon party games and pacing.

Then there’s the would-be solution, which as you could assume also doesn’t make much in the way of logical sense. They can rope the demon itself into the game if they reach the hallowed spot where the game began and time things right. the demon has the ability to alter your vision and hearing, so it can already alter your reality to its whims to whatever ends it wants. When the rules are arbitrary and you’re dealing with a supernatural presence that flouts mortality, what good is any of this going to do? It’s like the kids from a Final Destination movie scheming to have Death killed by Death. This isn’t the only movie to offer false hope as far as defeating a supernatural curse, like with The Ring and It Follows. Actually a lot of the plot is similar to It Follows. Just watch It Follows.

Truth or Dare is a thoroughly entertaining and thoroughly bad movie. It’s not scary and it’s not effectively dramatic. It’s confusing and capricious and hilarious. And yet, it does find that ineffable groove to come across as something in the “so bad it’s good” echelon, something I wouldn’t mind watching again with a group of friends and some adult beverages at hand. Truth or Dare is this year’s Bye Bye Man. I dare you to watch it.

Nate’s Grade: D

Vice (2018)

If Oscar-winning funnyman Adam McKay can take the arcane, convoluted world of finance and spin it into one of the most entertaining, accessible, and enraging films of that year, then just imagine what he could do with the life of Dick Cheney?

We follow Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a college washout, to Washington intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to youngest chief of staff in a White House administration, to Wyoming Congressman, and eventually Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) where Cheney redefined the VP role as a defacto second president. This is the story of his 60 years shaping the annuls of political power.

If you have one reason to watch Vice, it’s the staggering performance by Bale (Hostiles). As is custom, the man completely transforms himself into his subject, gaining weight, building muscle in his neck to simulate the Cheney shoulder hunch, and going unrecognizable in startling older age makeup. He doesn’t just look the spitting image of Dick Cheney but he sounds like him too, exhibiting his cadences and mannerisms, and fully inhabiting the man every second he’s onscreen. It’s a compelling, captivating turn that ranks up there with Bale’s best. He’s beyond great but strangely nobody else is. Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife and shrewd political partner, and her worst acting moment is her introductory scene where she lays into the young Cheney. It’s like an audition where the actor is hitting the wrong notes too strongly. Adams regains herself as the film carries on but never has a standout scene. Nobody else other than Bale is given the material to stand out. Rockwell (Three Billboards) and Carell (Beautiful Boy) are enjoyable and aided by impressive makeup, especially old Rumsfeld, but they’re given one note to play. Their roles become more impression than performance and both men drop out of the movie for long periods of time. The next best actor might by Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) as Colin Powell, and maybe that’s because Perry is used to brokering nonsense with his own array of nonsensical characters. He’s already the weary adult.

The meta interludes and fourth wall breaks that helped The Big Short succeed conversely are part of the problem with Vice. Most Americans know a decent amount about the Iraq War and its documented fallout, so there’s less need to have celebrities interject and explain complex scenarios and institutions (the absence of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath will always be felt). The narration by Jesse Plemons (Game Night) doesn’t feel necessary, and his ordinary identity becomes a guessing game for most of the film, trying to link him with Cheney. I was thinking he would be an Iraq War soldier and get killed later on, that way establishing a stand-in for the thousands of men and women who are no longer walking this Earth as a direct result of Cheney’s misguided action. Nope. When his identity is finally revealed you’ll go, “Oh,” and that’s it. Because he wasn’t really a character, he was a narrative device and one that didn’t stand for anything larger. The visual metaphors can also be very, very obvious. There are consistent cuts to Cheney fly-fishing in a river, meant to evoke him luring others into his desired machinations. Even the end credits feature fly-fishing imagery, in case you had forgotten about this enduring metaphor. The conclusion literally involves a heart being removed and the sequence cut along a more figurative betrayal, and you can feel McKay vigorously pointing at the screen and yelling, “See, it’s because he’s heartless, get it? Do you get it?” We get it. The documentary-style and comedic techniques that allowed The Big Short to be as entertaining and accessible, and one of the best films of 2015, are paradoxically the things that seem at odds with Vice.

The meta breaks are meant to provide a degree of comedy to the picture, which is generally absent comedy otherwise, unless you count the rise of Cheney’s reign as the darkest of comedies. I suppose Cheney’s nonchalant recognition of his heart attacks (he’s had five) could be a potential comedic lifeline if you’re being generous. One second we’re told people don’t speak in Shakespearean soliloquies in real life, and the next second the Cheneys are talking in Shakespearean verse. When it looks like the Cheneys will drop out of public office to spare their gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) the inevitable storm of harassment, the movie has a fake-out end credit sequence to sum up their hypothetical lives. To demonstrate Cheney’s knack for making the most ridiculous statement sound statesmen, he recommends that the Oval Office team put miniature beards on a part of their anatomy and perform an adult puppet show, which draws solemn nods of approval from the others. It’s a joke that feels too glib, like the intended point is being lost by the lewd nature of the comedic aside. The only meta aspect that feels earned is the final one, where Cheney turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, acknowledging he can feel their contempt but refuses to apologize for his actions in order to keep people safe. Because he’s having the final say, because he’s offering a rebuff to his movie, it feels more earned and fitting, and it would have had even more power if it were the only break in the movie rather than the last. It’s hard to call this a comedy; it’s more an incredulous indictment looking for its mob.

I honestly think a straightforward biopic might have been the better route for Cheney. The first half of the film is more interesting and successful because it is the more illuminating half. I never knew that Lynne Cheney’s father likely killed her mother. That’s a pretty bold charge on behalf of the filmmakers. The early Cheney years are the moments the majority of Americans don’t know about, whereas the later years have been well documented by a slew of hard-hitting documentaries, books, and journalistic exposes. There are whole movies about topics like the Valerie Plame leaking (Fair Game), the mounting mistakes after the invasion of Iraq (No End in Sight), the administration’s policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure), the drumbeat to the war and snuffing out of critical journalism (Shock and Awe, Lions for Lambs), the missing WMDs (Green Zone, Body of Lies), the Bush deferment memos (Truth), the long-term consequences for those servicemen who survive (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Stop-Loss, Last Flag Flying, In the Valley of Elah, American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service) and anything that Michael Moore sets his sights on. This list is not exhaustive by any means. Because of that the film seems to become a rudimentary montage once the Iraq War kicks off, sprinting through the rest as an intended tableau of hubris as Cheney’s star and influence falls. I would rather have learned more about Cheney’s early years in the Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush administrations and gleaned more personal insights into the man before he becomes this shadowy, mythic figure that seems downright Machiavellian in his control of government. It’s interesting to watch Cheney and his cohorts plot their unchecked executive power behind the back of President Bush, but then what?

It’s the “then what?” question I keep revisiting with McKay’s film, trying to figure out the larger intended message, themes, and dire warnings. I feel like because of the expanse of time covered, and the meta quirks applied, that the film too often feels like it’s just scratching the surface of Cheney, providing a slight gloss to a political caricature. The biggest takeaway is the slippery slope of the “unitary executive theory,” a term you’ll hear often, that basically follows Nixon’s own words: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” This questionable interpretation of Article II of the Constitution gives the president powers that approach a monarch, which seems antithetical the Founders’ intents. McKay warns that any president could take advantage of this theory to do whatever he or she (sad trombone noise… sigh) desires. This is clearly meant to draw a line right to President Trump, but it’s not like the 45th president needs sketchy legal cover to do his misdeeds. The idea that the Justice Department memos would be a lurking danger is quaint. A bad man with power is not going to look for the rules to allow him or her to break them. The idea that a president could be above the law is also a legally specious argument and one I don’t believe our courts would readily back, even with the “unitary executive theory” (at least I hope so). With that in mind, Vice becomes a cautionary tale about the expenditure of power but lacks the adequate follow-through.

Vice is a tricky biopic for a tricky subject and I wonder if it would have worked better being stripped of its prankster, meta interjections and tricks. It’s a condemnation of Dick Cheney but it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough if McKay’s eventual thesis is that the current world problems began, or were grossly exacerbated, by the actions of Cheney. Climate change warnings going unheeded, ISIS formations going ignored, the generational consequences for unsettling the Middle East, and laying the foundation for an authoritarian strongman to be an acceptable political position for millions of Americans. These charges are clearly intended to be a denunciation of Cheney’s legacy, but the end results play out somewhat differently, like a slap on the wrist. I think Dick Cheney could even watch this movie and nod in appreciation. That seems like a mistake. McKay is still a talented writer and filmmaker that knows how to keep his movie flowing and entertaining, buoyed by an outstanding performance from Bale. It’s a movie with great components but seems to clumsily get in its own way with its presentation. If you’re going to expose Dick Cheney as a heinous manipulator of power that has wrecked havoc for billions, then maybe you don’t want to dilute your message.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Vox Lux (2018)

I don’t know what this movie was trying to say about anything. Vox Lux stars Natalie Portman as the adult Celeste, a survivor of a school shooting as a teen who became an international pop star in the months after. Is there something writer/director Brady Corbet wants to say about the transformation of tragedy into mass entertainment? The dulling effect of an entertainment industry to grind up human beings and re-purpose them into shiny, inauthentic, easily marketable figurines? I don’t know. I warily thought as we open on an upsetting school shooting, “I don’t know if the final product will justify this tone,” and it doesn’t. There are decisions that feel like they should mean something, like having the same actress, Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland), play both young Celeste and her eventual teen daughter, but what? It feels like an idea looking to attach to an interpretative message. Then there’s a modern terrorist group dressing like one of Celeste’s iconic music videos. She distances herself from the violence and even publicly challenges the perpetrators. This will obviously come back and mean something, drawing upon her own beginning stages of fame derived from the bloodshed of others, right? Or during her big concert the terrorists will invade and attack her, bringing the main character face-to-face with the ramifications of hubris. None of these things happen. Instead, Portman enters the scene at the 45-minute mark and proceeds to lash out at others, lament her parenting deficiencies, gets drunk, and then puts on her show. That’s it. It’s like Vox Lux forgot to be a movie for the final 20 minutes and just becomes a numbing series of EDM pop dance numbers. Portman is actually very good and digging deep into her anxious, entitled, and spiraling pop star, rounding out her dimmed humanity when Corbet cannot. There’s a solid storyline here between the adult Celeste trying to reconnect with her teen daughter who she’s been neglecting. This isn’t it. The pretension level of the pedantic exercise made me think of Lars von Trier as filmed by Darren Aronofsky. Skip it.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Bumblebee (2018)

Why haven’t they been making these kind of Transformers movies from the beginning? Bumblebee is a scaled-down, character-driven family film where the bigger moments re about fitting in, finding your sense of self, and keeping your new alien robot friend hidden from your parents. Set in the late 80s, Hailee Steinfeld (Edge of Seventeen) plays a high school senior dreaming of a life beyond her neighborhood and family. The ticket out is a new car, which just happens to be an Autobot from another planet disguised as a VW beetle. Because Bumblbee had his memory wiped from a fight years earlier, he’s very childlike and endearing, and the interaction between the big robot and Steinfeld will rekindle more than a few memories for The Iron Giant, E.T., and other classic “boy and his dog” tales. There’s a real attention to the characters, big and small, that makes this the best Transformers movie. Not everything has to be about the next world-destroying cataclysm. There’s plenty of formidable drama in watching a teen girl navigate the world with an unconventional new friend. Director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) graduates to the world of live-action with a terrific feel for the visual parameters and material. It helps that Knight gives his film a sense of scale without sacrificing coherency. The camera prefers wider shots and longer takes so the audience can follow the action. The movie also has a sly sense of humor it knows when it call upon, like a highly enjoyable John Cena who is baffled at his government’s open door policy to evil robot aliens: “They have Decepticon in their name. Is that not a red flag to anyone else?” This is a well-paced, sweetly heartfelt movie with good humor, good characters, and good action. If this is what happens when you strip Michael Bay from the franchise, then lock him up.

Nate’s Grade B+

Aquaman (2018)

It’s hard not to talk about the fledgling DCU without grading on a curve. Wonder Woman was a great success and a definite step in the right direction but it still had clear Act Three problems. However, when your previous movies are the abysmal Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman, anything in the right direction is seen as enlightenment. There are currently no planned Superman films, no planned Batman films, and it looks like the teetering DCU is banking its future on the success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman. If you had told me that the future of an interconnected series of franchises would rest upon the shoulders of a man who talks to fish, I would have laughed. Enter director James Wan, best known for the Conjuring franchise and plugging into Furious 7 without missing a beat. Warner Bros. desperately wanted Wan’s stewardship to get a notoriously difficult comics property to float in the modern market. The early marketing was not encouraging but I held out a slim degree of hope that Wan would make it work. While Aquaman as a whole has its share of problems, Wan has done it. He’s made a big screen Aquaman movie that is fun, visually immersive, weird, and packed with great action. I was just as surprised as you, dear reader, but the smile on my face was evident.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is heir to the undersea throne of Atlantis. His mother (Nicole Kidman) fled her arranged marriage and had a son with a human lighthouse keeper. She retreated back into the ocean to prevent further harm to her shore side family. Arthur is approached by princess Meera (Amber Heard) to return to Atlantis and claim his birthright to the throne, currently occupied by Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson). The reigning king is planning to unite the seven sea kingdoms to launch an attack against the surface-dwellers. Arthur must go back to the people who reportedly killed his mother and challenge his half-brother for supremacy. Along the way he’ll have to venture across the globe with Meera for a series of adventures to reclaim lost artifacts, while also dodging Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate gifted with underwater technology who swears vengeance against Arthur for letting his father die.

Make no mistake, there is definitely a ceiling capped for Aquaman. The characterization is pretty standard stuff with little added nuance. It’s a dash of Chosen One destined to bridge communities, a dash of Prodigal Son outcast trying to make amends and duty, and there’s the general pledged vengeance that reappears again and again for motivation. The plot is reminiscent of a video game, structured so that Arthur and Meera have to travel from one stage to another, finding an important artifact and then going to the next stage. Sometimes there are mini-bosses at these various video game stages. The antagonists are acceptable but without much in the way of depth or charisma. You might even find yourself agreeing with King Orm as far as his pre-emptive strike over mankind (the latent racism of “half-breeds” maybe not as much). The leads are also given little. Momoa (Justice League) is a naturally charismatic actor but his range is limited; he basically has two modes, off and on. This might have been one reason why the screenplay resolves to merely push him toward his “call to action,” which I thought was his Justice League arc. Still he’s an affable and handsome presence even with lesser material. Heard (London Fields) is struggling to find her character’s place in the story. She’s a romantic interest, quest cohort, and there are attempts to push through more feminist agency but it’s too murky. It feels like she’s trapped by her character and her giant Halloween store red wig. If you cannot get over these deficits, it’s going to feel like a relentless 143-minute video game.

And yet the movie works thanks to the talents of Wan and the overall abundant sense of exuberant fun. Wan has become a first-class chameleon, able to adapt his skill set to whatever genre he attaches himself to, be it high-octane car chase thriller, slow burn horror to grisly torture porn, or now splashy superhero blockbuster. Early on, I knew we were in good hands when Wan showcases a destructive fight scene between Kidman and a group of aqua storm troopers in long takes and wide angles, letting the choreography speak for itself and allowing the audience to fully take in every smash and crash. The action is consistently interesting and filmed in ways to highlight its best points. An underwater brotherly battle takes the movement within water into account, adapting fight choreography to add this new dimension. That’s what good action movies should be doing, applying their unique settings into the action development. There isn’t a boring action moment in the film. Even when we get to the big CGI armies duking it out, Wan instinctively knows to pull back to avoid overkill. Even the otherwise normal hand-to-hand combat is clever and consistently entertaining. The highlight of the movie is actually on land, an extended chase through the villas of Tuscany. Arthur and Meera are battling Black Manta but they’re also divided, and Wan’s camera will zoom back and forth between the two, connecting each on their parallel tracks. They jump from tiled roof to tiled roof, escaping danger. There’s one super aqua storm trooper who takes a more direct approach and just runs through room after room, and the camera follows him on this direct line of destruction. There’s even a payoff where Meera uses her powers in a wine shop to her great advantage. It’s moments like this where Wan is clearly having fun and demonstrating that he and his team have put good thought into their action.

The visuals are wildly immersive and amplify the sense of fun the film has to offer. There are plenty of cinematic reference points of influence here, from George Lucas to James Cameron, but Wan and his team do an excellent job of making this universe feel full. We visit many different undersea realms and people, including seahorse people, crab people, and just taking ownership of the weirdness without irony is refreshing. With the exception of Momoa’s need to undercut moments with quips, the film feels genuine and proud of its old-fashioned mentality, taking the ridiculousness and treating it with sincerity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t campy and absurd moments that are enjoyable precisely because of their camp and absurdity. There are people riding great white sharks and battling crab people to the death. How can that not be silly? There’s one group of creatures that feel plucked from Pitch Black, a band of feral monsters vulnerable to fire. There’s a fun and effective sequence where Arthur and Meera must dive to escape with their lit flare and we see the full totality of their situation, a literal sea of these monsters breaking apart just so as they dive. It’s a creepy moment made even better by Wan’s visual choices, which always seem to correspond to what’s best for the experience. The special effects are uniformly great and the attention to the undersea worlds is pristine.

Ultimately your view of Aquaman will come down to what you’re willing to forgive in the name of fun spectacle. Its best Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) equivalent are the pre-Ragnarok Thor films. There are definite deficits with the minimal characterization and the familiar hero’s journey plot arc, but the execution level and the sheer energetic entertainment are enough to rise above. The action sequences are routinely thrilling, eye-catching, and wonderfully alive and clever thanks to Wan. They’ve found a way to make Aquaman cool and fun, which is what rules the day when it comes to the film version. Aquaman is another step in the right direction for the notoriously gloomy DCU. If Wan was attached for a sequel, I’d genuinely be interested. This is nothing you haven’t seen before in any number of movies (just now underwater), it’s not exactly intellectually stimulating or emotionally involving, and yet the sheer success of the visuals, action orchestration, and the sense of fun override the rest of the detractions for me. It reminds me of the Fast and Furious franchise. I don’t care a lick for any non-Rock/Statham characters; I’m just there for the physics-defying stunts and set pieces. It provides the goods when it comes to action spectacle, and so does this movie. If you’re looking for a 90s throwback to big, fun action movies, then take the dive with Aquaman.

Nate’s Grade: B

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

I have no real investment in Mary Poppins as a character or the original 1964 movie, so I was expecting to walk out of Mary Poppins Returns with a shrug, likely finding it middling at worse. I was unprepared for what I endured, and endured is the accurate statement. Mary Poppins Returns is an insane movie and one of the most maddening and painful experiences in a theater I’ve had all year, and no number of spoonfuls of sugar will help this bad medicine go far enough down.

It’s the “Great Slump,” a.k.a. Depression, in London and the Banks children have grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw) has three young children of his own and he’s struggling to maintain his job at the bank and be the father they need in the wake of his wife’s death. His sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has moved into help but it’s still not enough. Enter that famous nanny, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who takes it upon herself to watch over the children, help them through the grieving process, and explore the outer reaches of London with some help from some friends, chiefly Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda). The Banks family is in danger of losing their home to the head of the bank (Colin Firth) unless they can find a specific title of shares that will grant them a wealth denied their adult lives.

This movie felt like it was eight hours long and I had no sense of how much time was passing, mostly because of its misshaped structure and general lack of pacing. Mary Poppins Returns feels like it could have been renamed The Tony Awards: The Movie. It’s one unrelated song-and-dance number after another, rarely building from the previous one, and so it feels like an eternal televised awards show that just shuffles from one set piece to the next, never providing a sense of direction or finality. Things just happen in this movie and then different things happen but rarely do they feel consequential. This makes the film feel endless because you have no real concept of progression. It’s just another unrelated song into an unrelated magical realm that doesn’t really seem like it matters, and then we’re off to the next. I think some part of me is still trapped watching Mary Poppins Returns, never allowed to leave.

This would be mitigated if the songs were any good. There are over a dozen and not a single one is memorable. It was mere minutes after leaving the theater that I pressed myself into trying to hum any one of them, and I could not. They instantly vanish from your memory because there are no melodies or interesting production aspects that cause them to stand out. They assault you with their blandness and staid orchestration. They’re a careful recreation of an older sounding, 1950s musical, an antiquated sound that doesn’t have the same traction today. The only way you can remember one of these songs is if you have a traumatic experience forever linked to one of these mediocre, warbling collection of sounds.

There are two astoundingly peculiar songs. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a big ensemble number involving the lamp lighters lead by Miranda. However, the song reference is clearly evocative of the Timothy Leary “trip the light fantastic” comment about LSD. It’s strange to think this is only a coincidence when the lamp lighters are dubbed “learies.” It’s not a good song to begin with and the performance literally involves men on BMX bicycles flying around and doing tricks. How is any of this happening in a reported Disney family film? The Meryl Streep “Turning Turtle” song may be the most excruciating five minutes I’ve sat through for all 2018. It’s just embarrassing to watch and made me honestly think of the children’s movie disaster, The Ooogieloves, where you watch once proud actors debase themselves and their legacies in depressing fashion. That’s the level of dread and mourning I had watching Streep slog through a Bela Lugosi accent and dance upside down. It has to be seen to be believed but you shouldn’t ever have to see this. I have a new appreciation for the La La Land songs.

The continual removal of stakes robs the movie of feeling like anything onscreen genuinely matters. Mary Poppins is a magical creature without clearly defined rules or limits. At any point she might simply have the solution to a problem that she wasn’t sharing. Take for instance the ending (spoilers for the duration of this paragraph, but really, who cares?) where the lamp lighters and the Banks family race to ole Big Ben to literally “turn back time” by adjusting the clock hands. The lamp lighters use their ladders to free climb the face of the clock to the very top, only to be undone by not being able to reach the minute hand at it nears twelve. Then all of a sudden Mary Poppins scoffs to herself and flies up to the clock face to adjust it. If she could do this the whole time why did these very mortal men risk their lives in this exercise? I think Mary Poppins may be a cruel god (more on this later). The concluding dash to ensure the Banks family can keep their home involves not one, not two, but three deus ex machinas, a “Turducken of ex machinas” as my pal Ben Bailey termed it. Ultimately all of their actions do not even matter because the film routinely provides an unknown escape route that invalidates their efforts. It turns out, in the end, they weren’t even going to lose their home thanks to (at my best guess) a magical bird head that is best friends with the head of a bank and who never mentioned this before, the same head of the bank who has just been off in what appears to be an adjacent room for whatever reason and that also knows that Michael Banks has accrued a hefty fortune from a childhood investment, and has never mentioned it as well except in this crucial moment. Why, why does Mary Poppins Returns do this? Why does it present stakes or the illusion of stakes only to sabotage them every time?

Is Mary Poppins really a creature of good or does her need to be loved prove her a fickle god who demands adulation, subservience, and obedience? When Mary Poppins travels from world to world, some live action, some animated, all fanciful, every inhabitant seems to know this woman and love her unconditionally despite her prevalent smarm. The bigger question is do these magical worlds exist independent of Mary Poppins? Is there a pocket universe in existence on the side of a chipped porcelain bowl, or did it only come into existence when Mary Poppins decided it would be a lovely vacation spot? If so, that means she is calling into being a throng of adoring creatures that exist to validate her impulsive whims. She is a selfish god that demands an audience of servants and sycophants, not unlike the Javier Bardem character in Darren Aronofsky’s polarizing polemic, mother!.

The actors acquit themselves fine for their roles. Blunt (A Quiet Place) and Miranda (Moana) will still be charming performers even when given substandard material. Blunt holds your attention with her prissy, schoolmarm persona, balancing the audience’s memories of Julie Andrews without going into parody. Her singing (as also evidenced from 2014’s Into the Woods) is above average and can help make some of the songs more tolerable to listen to. Miranda is a talent bursting with charisma and range, which makes it all the more frustrating to squeeze him into the narrow confines of a cockney scamp. He does get a rapping reprise in “A Cover is Not the Book” with a group of cartoon penguins. The stranger element is that it really feels like Miranda’s character wants to have sex with Mary Poppins. They slot him as a forced romantic option for Mortimer’s underwritten sister, but his eyes are clearly set for the woman who bosses people around and has magic in her fingers. He remembers her when he was a boy chimney sweep and I think he’s been fantasizing about her every day since. Plus, she hasn’t aged in 30 years.

Mary Poppins Returns is a bizarre artifact of a displaced time, taking great pains to recreate a style but without providing a purpose or sense of feeling beyond emulation. I don’t know who this movie is for besides the hardcore fans of the original. There are dancing dolphins, talking dogs, bathtub portals, an upside down house, flying balloons, union protests, Angelina Lansbury or an animatronic lookalike, and there’s lots of songs you will be unable to recall and a story that repeatedly removes any stakes or grounding from beneath itself so that the movie never feels firm or purposeful. There were several points where I just wanted to throw up my hands and ask, “What am I watching?” I still don’t know. Mary Poppins Returns is a movie musical that is nothing short of super-cali-fragil-awful.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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