Friday, December 21, 2018

'Twas the week before Christmas and 'Poppins Returns' among 5 new films

HO-HO-HO! Five paragraphs for five movies opening in the ever-mad rush during the week before Christmas:

A confident Blunt likes what she sees as Mary Poppins. So will most of you.
Emily Blunt certainly is no Julie Andrews, but the versatile British actress is swell enough to carry the bubbly "Mary Poppins Returns" on her thin shoulders and into territory that only a grinch could hate. Following in the footsteps of the 1964 original, with a story that apparently starts about 25 years after that one's ended, magical nanny Mary actually comes back to look after the three young children of George Banks (Ben Whishaw), himself now all grown up into a sad widower facing foreclosure on his home. That's all anyone needs to know about plot, though a bad-guy banker (Colin Firth) pops up in and around some fantasy sequences in which Blunt and company happily sing, dance and take the kids on an assortment of fantasy adventures. At least one, featuring some animated characters toe-tapping along, takes another cue from Disney's first "Poppins" film, as do a couple of major star cameos, which we'll leave to personal viewing. Otherwise, the OK music, primarily comprised of all original tunes, and the chimney sweep played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose stage presence in his own "Hamilton" certainly had to be more solid than what he projects here, share a lot of screen time. It all makes for some fine family viewing, but "A Spoonful of Sugar" might have made it all even a bit sweeter.

Rated "PG": some mild thematic elements and brief action; 2:10; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Two other lovely ladies help some 16th century medicine go down in the sluggish but ultimately effective "Mary Queen of Scots." They would be young Saoirse Roman in the title role, and Margot Robbie, once again flexing her acting chops rather meaningfully as Britain's Queen Elizabeth I. Religious goings-on get in the way of politics when young, Catholic and newly widowed Ann returns from France to take her rightful place on the Scottish throne, thus setting the Protestant masses into a tizzy. War, gossip and constant wooing from weak men with ulterior motives all make Ann stronger, and her pen-pal friendship with the superb Robbie's powerful Liz, the cousin whom Ann eventually wants to succeed, offer some compelling royal intrigue. By the way, though the two never met historically, the one fictional scene they share here is both a visual and performance knockout. 

Rated "R": some violence and sexuality; 2:05; $ $ $ out of $5

Roberts and Hedges help make "Ben" a difficult watch.
"Over by the river. That's where they all wind up," becomes a key piece of dialogue in the scary holiday drug-addiction tale, "Ben is Back." This one, which covers much of the same ground that the recent "Beautiful Boy" trampled, comes from always competent writer and director Peter Hedges, whose ever-brilliant son, Lucas Hedges, stars as the title character. It begins when Ben unexpectedly returns home from a treatment center on Christmas Eve. Tension unfolds immediately since his sister (Kathryn Newton) from the same dad, as well as their stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) barely want to let him through the door. Meanwhile, his Mom (the splendid Julia Roberts) and two cute little half-siblings are mostly overjoyed to see him. After a nicely uplifting church service, the family returns to find their home ransacked and their dog, a vital creature in Ben's recovery, missing. Not a lot of holly jolly ensues, just some serious melodrama and often hard-to-take truths, with Roberts and young Hedges leading the ultra-emotional charge to uncover them all.

Rated "R": language throughout and some drug use; 1:43: $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Another of America's former screen sweethearts, Sandra Bullock, plays a tough pregnant woman who doesn't want kids early in the Netflix apocalyptic tale, "Bird Box," then learns to love not just one, but two of them while the world goes mad. Right from the start, we discover that what people around the globe are witnessing leads them to almost instant suicide. When the self-destruction epidemic spreads to the States, Bullock and fellow survivors, including crazy ol' John Malkovich, try to figure out the here and now, as intertwined with constant flash-forwards to not-so-sweet Sandy -- in full kick-ass mode and mostly blindfolded, no less -- compelling her tykes to safety. Director Susanne Bier (AMC's "The Night Manager" and a couple of decent films) keeps a novel-based screenplay from Eric Heisserer ("Arrival" and "Lights Out") absorbing, under control, and routinely bordering on the brink of outrageous thrills. The Netflix streaming begins today.

Rated "R": violence, bloody images, language ad brief sexuality; 1:57; $ $ $ out of $5

Momoa's marine man makes plenty of waves in the latest from DC Comics.
It's been a big couple of movie months for Willem Dafoe. First came his masterful Critics' Choice-nominated performance as madman artist Vincent Van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate," and just last week "Vox Lux," featuring his indelibly snarky narration, opened in northeast Ohio. Now, comes the mainstream role likely giving Dafoe the biggest paycheck of the three when he portrays oceanic mentor to "Aquaman." Certainly, his acting skills swim circles around someone such as the muscular Jason Momoa, who gives the salty title character more of a professional rassler spin than smooth superhero. Still, the diminutive Dafoe does seem minnow-like compared to the whale-sized guy with all the tattoos in this even bigger, effects-laden adventuure. Aquaman, aka Arthur Curry, begins his watery way to an underwater throne when the beautiful queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman in one extremely odd-looking bodysuit) washes up on a New England coast and falls in love with a nice-guy lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison). Of course, it quickly becomes a lengthy lesson in DC Comics legend, but only Julie Andrews voicing a sea monster, a CGI octopus playing eight drums at the same time, and the great Roy Orbison's "She's a Mystery to Me," which backs a video-like tribute to Curry's blooming love interest (Amber Heard), gurgle up anything memorable. The rest remains clunky, junky and all wet. Regardless, expect Santa to deliver zillions into its box-office stocking, not to mention a very Merry Christmas to all!

Rated "PG-13": sequences of sci-fi violence and action and some language; 2:23; $ $ out of $5