“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.

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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.

“I don’t recognize this world.” “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Justice League

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Justice League isn’t getting a fair shake. At all. Was there far too much hype, including an insane amount of expectation put on this film to be DC’s answer to the cinematic superhero genre’s watershed Avengers? Indubitably. Did DC dig its own grave by playing coy about reviews and critical response in advance of Justice League‘s pre-Thanksgiving release? Yep. Is the critical backlash reflective of years of pent-up frustration that producer/director Zack Snyder continues to crank out one  overindulgent, sophomoric, bleak video-game-by-Abercrombie-&-Fitch-esque flick after another? Darn tootin’.

And that’s a shame.

Justice League is a lot of fun with a crackerjack cast and a ton of lovely character beats (no doubt courtesy of co-director/screenwriter Joss Whedon – Avengers, Buffy – who stepped in when Snyder left the production after a family tragedy). A few years ago, this film would have been a critical and popular blockbuster, but in a year that brought us smarter, savvier, and edgier comic book fare like Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming,Logan, and DC’s own Wonder Woman, Justice League pales in comparison as it pretty much aims for the Saturday matinee crowd and succeeds on those popcorn terms.

The plot is more or less lifted from The Avengers … and any superhero movie of the 80s or 90s. There is a rather forgettable villain in the form of Steppenwolf (part of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World/New Gods saga), a tragically Shakespearean character in print, rendered CGI-mundane and unrecognizable (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) in the film. He journeys to Earth to conquer our planet and thereby reclaim his place in the royal family of his intergalactic despot nephew Darkseid. The “MacGuffins” (a la Marvel’s “infinity stones”) are three “Mother Boxes” that have been hidden on Earth thousands of years ago by the Amazons, Atlanteans, and mankind and that, when united, will create some globby-swirly-Jackson-Pollock-looking “engine of destruction” to wipe all of us from the globe. Steppenwolf is aided by an army of screeching bug-warriors called Parademons who primarily serve the purpose of letting our Super Friend heroes bash and smash in a fairly bloodless PG-friendly way.

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Now that you’ve read that byzantine description, please note that none of that matters. What does matter is the delightful dynamic created among luminous a$$-kicker Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and DC Universe newcomers Ezra Miller as a delightfully manic and winsome Flash and Jason Momoa as a brash and swaggering yet completely adorable Aquaman. The bit with Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s “lasso of truth” is particularly priceless.

Ben Affleck seems to be running on vapors at this point as Batman, but his sullen exhaustion just accentuates the sparkling character work of Gadot, Miller, and Momoa. The trio also brings out the best in Henry Cavill, who heretofore seems to have struggled with the balance of homespun charm and godlike awe required of Superman. We even get to see Superman crack a joke or two and … wait for it …smile!

(Spoiler alert: surprising no one, Cavill, whose character died in the previous Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justicelord, THAT TITLE?!?! – is brought back to life in a fairly convoluted but nonetheless poignant sequence that evokes as much of Joss Whedon’s own Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it does DC’s classic Death of Superman comics event.)

Rounding out the League is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg (who in the comics actually started his career as a Teen Titan but was upgraded to League founding member in one of DC Comics’ never-ending and exhausting universe reboots a few years ago). Fisher is saddled with a burdensome CGI “costume” that only affords him about 1/3 of his face with which to turn in any kind of performance. Alas, he gets a bit lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, I thought he did credible work conveying the Frankenstein’s monster dilemma of having remarkable powers (in this case, 90% of his body being replaced with robot parts) at the expense of losing his humanity and any kind of so-called “normal” life.

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There are a number of fun turns in the supporting cast from Jeremy Irons’ acerbic Alfred Pennyworth to JK Simmons’ hard-boiled yet hopeful Commissioner James Gordon. Amy Adams does her best with a handful of underwritten Lois Lane-in-mopey-mourning scenes, and Diane Lane continues to breathe feisty life into Superman’s Ma Kent. Billy Crudup (once Doctor Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s overbaked Watchmen) is heartbreaking as Barry Allen’s/The Flash’s falsely incarcerated papa. Amber Heard’s Mera (eventually Aquaman’s wife) looks the part but has far too little to do, and the same can be said for Connie Nielsen’s Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, regrettably downgraded to mere cannon fodder.

The film’s color palette is brighter than anything we’ve seen in the DC oeuvre to date (save Wonder Woman), replacing the sepia tones of Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad or Man of Steel with some pops of four-color glory, especially as the film barrels toward its denouement. Danny Elfman’s score is also notable in that it boldly incorporates themes from previously “out of continuity” DC films like the original Superman and Batman movies, sonically (at least) indicating that maybe DC learned a lesson from the success of the humane and witty Wonder Woman and is allowing a little life and joy into the larger franchise.

Justice League seems to offer a message of transition, ending on an optimistic note of friendship and collaboration, family and hope. We haven’t seen too much of that in DC’s films since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the “official” kick-off of DC’s extended cinematic universe Man of Steel. That lack of joy has hobbled these films to date (again, save Wonder Woman). I can only wish that audiences ignore Justice League‘s critical drubbing and give the frisky if simplistic adaptation a chance and reward the filmmakers for this much-needed course correction.

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Irons’ Alfred reflects to Affleck’s Bruce Wayne early in the film, “I don’t recognize this world.” Bruce replies, “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Amen. DC did just that with Justice League, IMHO.

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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.