“I’m a blunt instrument, and I’m damn good at it.” Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee, and Aquaman

For the past few years now, Disney and Lucasfilm have had a lock on the holiday blockbuster season with a little, revived franchise named Star Wars. Alas, the wheels fell of that wagon when the underrated, under-performing origin story Solo debuted in theatres this May with a thud, and there was no end-of-year galactic adventure to follow.

Into this December’s “let’s thumb our noses at Oscar bait” box office breach rushed Warner Brothers’/DC’s Aquaman, Paramount’s Transformers prequel Bumblebee, and Disney’s own Mary Poppins Returns. By some strange twist of fate, the fish king roundly beat the giant robot and the buttoned-up British nanny in ticket sales in their collective first weekend of release.

I am certain that all of these popcorn epics will clean up, though, in the gray and dreary vacation days following Christmas, as they each bring a great deal of heart, just enough ingenuity, and a comforting if lightly derivative familiarity.

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“Still. Today or never. That’s my motto.” – Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) in Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns is, yes, practically perfect. Predictable and formulaic? Mayhaps. But it doesn’t matter. You’ll laugh and cry, occasionally scratch your head … at times all three simultaneously. You’ll love it nonetheless … in great part due to Emily Blunt’s bonkers, measured, heartfelt commitment to the title role.

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Not dissimilar to Disney’s decades-later reboot Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mary Poppins Returns feels like a subtle remix on the original film’s greatest hits.

The screenplay by David Magee dutifully follows the same story beats as Julie Andrews’ flick – for example:

  • a crabby dad (little Michael Banks, portrayed poignantly by Ben Whishaw, all grown-up and repeating the sins of his father, but in a mopey/angsty widower way);

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  • a politically woke sister (Emily Mortimer’s Jane Banks, the sunniest class warrior you’ll ever see, taking the place of Glynis Johns’ suffragette Mrs. Banks);
  • some lost soul children who need to rediscover the joys of imagination;
  • a no-good banker (Colin Firth, all sleazy charm as nothing says holiday kids movie like the threat of foreclosure!);

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  • a winking-wise lamplighter instead of a chimney sweep (Lin-Manuel Miranda being slightly less insufferable and overeager than usual … and, yes, he raps, sort of … once);
  • and a finale that swaps out balloons for kites, and throws in Angela Lansbury for good measure … in case you’d forgotten about Mary Poppins‘ knock-off Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The score by Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) is perfectly fine, but follows a similar path as the script, presenting new numbers that evoke the overly familiar tunes of yore and serving similar narrative purposes. “Spoonful of Sugar” becomes “Can You Imagine That?” to get the ornery kids to embrace bathtime. “A Cover is Not the Book” (the best number in the new film) is an animated fantasia a la “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is an ode to the unappreciated lamplighters (who even do some BMX- style bicycle tricks?!?), not unlike “Step in Time.” And so on.

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Rob Marshall’s direction (Into the WoodsNineChicago) is effective, if workmanlike, evoking the past film through iconography, color palette, choreography, and overall composition. Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t wow as much as it sedates the viewer, and the film never quite escapes the physical confines of the sound-stages upon which it was obviously filmed.

In the end, though, this is Blunt’s show, and she is an absolute pip. I could watch her read the phone book as Mary Poppins, with a knowing glance here, an arched eyebrow there, and a master plan to make all of us decent again. And that is why we all need a movie (and a damn nanny) like Mary Poppins Returns.

“The darkest nights produce the brightest stars.” – Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) in Bumblebee

If you’d told me the tone-deaf, garish, migraine-inducing, jingoistic Transformers film franchise would eventually yield one of the sweetest, warmest, funniest, family-friendliest “girl-and-her-[robot]-dog” coming-of-age yarns since, say, the Paddington movies, I’d have sold you my vintage Hasbro figures for $1. But here we are. Bumblebee, the sixth (!) installment in this series, jettisons director Michael Bay (praise be!), adds nuanced and charming leading lady Hailee Steinfeld, and delivers a lovely cinematic homage to simpler sci-fi allegories of the Spielbergian 80s.

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Travis Knight, Oscar-nominated director of Kubo and the Two Strings, picks up the reins from Bay, working from an almost pastoral (!) script by Christina Hodson that wisely puts human/robot emotion and familial interaction before special effects and mind-numbing battle sequences (although there are still about two or three too many of those).

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Borrowing liberally from producer Steven Spielberg’s own E.T. (and at this point, that’s just fine), the plot relates Autobot warrior Bumblebee’s arrival on earth, circa 1987. Within moments, the big, yellow, bug-eyed ‘bot finds himself used and abused by the American military (sparkling John Cena, wryly channeling every “shoot first, ask later” cinematic armed forces cliche). Bumblebee is eventually, inadvertently rescued from a junkyard by a plucky, sweet teenage girl Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) looking to rediscover the love of her deceased father at the bottom of a bin of used auto parts. Unsung Pamela Adlon is harried brilliance as Charlie’s befuddled and exasperated mother Sally.

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Steinfeld is still coasting a bit on her stellar Edge of Seventeen performance as a misunderstood adolescent with a dazzling heart of gold buried under a sullen, surly, glowering pout. I guess this is her niche, for now, and it works to great effect in Bumblebee as well.

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Two broken souls – in this case pubescent and robotic – heal one another by giving voice to the underdog and by waving a Breakfast Club fist in the face of institutional repression. I dug it. And the exquisitely curated soundtrack of late FM 80s hits adds an unexpected and refreshing layer of musical-comedy-esque commentary to a movie about giant robots taking over our planet.

“I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it.” Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in Aquaman

I enjoyed Aquaman a lot, but could have used about 30 minutes less of blurry aquatic battles and about ten minutes more of authentic wit. Nonetheless, this is a visually stunning film that never takes itself too seriously and with the wisdom to assemble a world-class cast. Throw The Once and Future King, Black Panther, Tron, Flash Gordon, Jewel of the Nile, Krull, Thor, Big Trouble in Little China, Hamlet, and Lord of the Rings into a Mad Libs blender and you yield this wonderfully loony pic.

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Momoa is nothing but utterly charming in interviews. A great actor? Meh. But a star? Absolutely. That said, he looks great, but I couldn’t help feeling like some of his best lines likely landed on the cutting room floor to make way for more CGI soldiers riding giant seahorses. That’s a shame. The best parts of this film are the human parts. Nicole Kidman deserves a medal for making the Splash-meets-Terminator opening sequence of her Atlantean queen meeting cute with a Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), playing house, and popping out a half-breed sea-prince baby not only palatable, but poignant and downright thrilling.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Taken at a superficial level, the plot is almost identical to Black Panther‘s. Two beefy men square off to rule a hidden, technologically advanced kingdom with the “bad guy” claiming his rule will right the wrongs of the outside world (in Black Panther, it was racial divide, and, in Aquaman it is pollution and global warming). Black Panther has more nuance in its conflict and thereby the stakes are higher.

Aquaman telegraphs its punches, so it is quite obvious from the minute Aquaman’s/Arthur Curry’s half-brother Orm (a dolphin-sleek Patrick Wilson) enters the screen that he is basically a nogoodnik, regardless his sweet speeches about keeping the seven seas free of man-made detritus. He’d like to buy the world a Coke, as long as you keep the plastic six-rings, than you very much. But, with Aquaman, the fun is in the journey, not necessarily the destination. And Wilson is terrific, by the way.

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Director James Wan (Furious 7, Insidious) takes his sweet time getting us to Arthur’s inevitable victory over and acceptance by both land and sea. The visuals are sumptuous, even if the running time is gluttonous. There are moments of true wonder – any time Momoa communes with the creatures of the deep, for instance – and, on the balance, the film is a joy for those who have hoped DC could really start having fun with their characters.

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The pitch perfect Wonder Woman seems less like an anomaly now and more like the beginning of a new, humane, inclusive direction for DC’s movies. I’ll consider my 2.5 hours watching Aquaman an investment in that future.

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So, in 2018, we traded one time-worn, bloated Star Wars entry for three heartfelt, loving, and, at times, inspiring homages to other past fantasy hits. I think that’s a decent, if safely unimaginative, return.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Life is about putting it out there … and then swatting it away.” Sisters (2015)

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Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s latest movie yukfest Sisters is more of a yuckfest. Ever since the seismic arrival of Kristin Wiig’s Bridesmaids, Hollywood has been smitten with this arguably unremarkable, though infinitely profitable, thesis: “Hey, women can be raunchy too!”

Yup, anybody can act like an 8th grader, regardless of one’s gender. The problem is that notion, in and of itself, is just not terribly interesting and, for anyone over 40 in the audience, can just seem kinda sad.

People forget that Bridesmaids and subsequent films like Anna Kendrick’s Pitch Perfect (the first one), Melissa McCarthy’s Spy, or Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck embraced debauchery with an anarchist’s glee and a feminist’s humanism. These films suggest that the great equalizer – across any number of markers: race, age, socioeconomics, faith, ethnicity, and, yes, gender – is our fundamentally base nature alongside our desire and ability to rise from the muck occasionally and do something kind or profound or, well, witty. You can poop in a sink, but you better make it matter.

Tina Fey’s Mean Girls was an early blueprint for these flicks, a sharp-edged, warm-hearted comic bottle rocket of a film in which gender meant everything and nothing, depicting the killing fields of the high school cafeteria where reductive reasoning and shallow judgment form the principle power currency. It’s a perfect film because it is a) gut-bustingly funny and b) discomfortingly trenchant.

Unfortunately, Sisters is only intermittently both, and it never fully gels. It has a lazy feel about it, as if old pals Fey and Poehler watched Risky Business and Sixteen Candles over a box of wine and thought it would be a lark to mount a Gen X mash-up tribute with middle-aged burnouts in the central roles.

As ideas go, that’s not the worst (nor freshest) high concept to come down the pike (see Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion), but it sure as heck needed more work before hitting cinemas this past weekend, aspiring as Sisters did to serve as Force Awakens’ counter-programming.

Fey and Poehler play against type as the titular siblings, with Fey as a “brassy” (her words) and hard-partying beautician/single mom and Poehler as a straight-arrow and newly divorced nurse/animal rescuer. Fey exclaims at one point, “Life is all about putting it out there,” to which Poehler mutters, “And then swatting it away.”

The Poehler/Fey dynamic has always been natural and warm if dangerously “in-jokey” – and that is true here as well. They have some sparkling moments, notably as they learn that their parents (a wry and believable Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) have sold the family home and moved to a pastel-hued, swingin’ yuppie condo complex without any warning to either daughter. With the kind of cracked passive aggressive logic that only occurs in movies like this, Fey and Poehler, unbeknownst to their folks, decide to have one last raging blow-out party (with all their former high school cronies) in the old homestead two days before its sale closes.

So, of course, the house gets completely destroyed in a simplistically escalating Rube Goldberg series of party hijinks. The kind of absurd crap that. does. not. happen. in. real. life. Has anyone actually ever witnessed a washing machine fill an entire home and its surrounding yard with copious bubbles because someone poured a whole bottle of detergent in the drum? No.

A rogues’ gallery of SNL and Comedy Central alums puts in appearances, to varying degrees of success. Samantha Bee, Kate McKinnon, Rachel Dratch, and Chris Parnell all suffer from underwritten roles with lame jokes and even worse ad libs. Bobby Moynihan is just plum obnoxiously unfunny as a past-his-prime class clown. The character is supposed to be moronic, but in Moynihan’s hands he is teeth-gratingly so.

Maya Rudolph has a Teflon-like ability to rise above (and rescue) just about any material, and she soars as a suburban doyenne who at first glance seems to be an assured Queen Bee bully but whose inner life is more longstanding adolescent alienation than smug superiority. John Cena continues to surprise with comedic home-runs, after this summer’s Trainwreck, as a stoically cerebral drug dealer with a soft spot for Dirty Dancing. John Leguizamo shows up as a skeezy former high school boyfriend of Fey’s, and, while he is always a welcome presence, his talents seem wasted here. Mad TV‘s Ike Barinholtz gives the movie its sweetness as a bemused potential beau smitten with Poehler’s quirky, self-conscious charms.

The film stumbles toward a resolution that is as forced as it is predictable. Fey’s character has a daughter (a painfully mincing and whiny performance from Madison Davenport) who hates her mother’s arrested development and is forced to couch surf from friend’s house to friend’s house since Fey can’t manage to keep a roof over their heads. The inevitable confrontation of mother and daughter and sister and parents is utterly contrived, borrowing equal bits from an episode of Lassie, Animal House, and The Family Stone.

Ultimately, Poehler fares best in the film, bringing poignant bite and rag doll charm to her role. It’s a shame that she and Fey (with director Jason Moore and screenwriter Paula Pell) couldn’t have worked out a better movie to feature Poehler’s character, focusing less on the shock humor and the messily filmed bacchanalia and more on the tricky web of love and fear shared between siblings, sisters trapped by the hollow promises of high school juvenilia – two emotionally stunted Gen X Americans for whom those scruffy, mixed-up four years of public education are the alpha and omega of intellectual and social development.

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.