Film re­views

Opens De­cem­ber 14 | Rat­ing: NNNN

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MARY POP­PINS RE­TURNS

AOpens De­cem­ber 19 | Rat­ing: NNN

t no point dur­ing Mary Pop­pins Re­turns did I miss Julie An­drews. Emily Blunt fills the iconic role fab­u­lously, do­ing the rosy-but­stern bit with her comic and thor­oughly de­light­ful charm. Blunt’s per­for­mance pays homage while giv­ing it her own spe­cial oomph.

Else­where, the movie doesn’t fare as spec­tac­u­larly.

The se­quel to Dis­ney’s 1964 clas­sic has Blunt’s Mary re­turn­ing to Lon­don dur­ing the De­pres­sion era, find­ing her for­mer charges Jane (Emily Mor­timer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw) as adults. The lat­ter is a re­cent wid­ower with three kids who are far more ma­ture than he and Jane were when Mary first ap­peared.

Mary’s ad­ven­tures with the new kid lit­ter in­volve whirling into a dec­o­rated china bowl (as op­posed to div­ing into a paint­ing), vis­it­ing a ro­tat­ing house (as op­posed to an apart­ment where peo­ple just float up to the ceil­ing) and danc­ing the night away with Lin-Manuel Mi­randa’s Jack and his lamp­lighter en­tourage (as op­posed to chim­ney sweeps).

Though noth­ing here can up­stage the orig­i­nal, most se­quences are daz­zling or dis­tract­ing in their own right, with all the colour­ful flur­ries and dé­cor a modern pro­duc­tion af­ford. The mu­sic, though, is a dis­ap­point­ment, where even stand­out songs like A Cover Is Not The Book and The Place Where Lost Things Go don’t de­liver any­thing catchy or quotable.

Most cru­cially, the pa­ter­nal drama where Michael strug­gles with fi­nances and loses sight of what mat­ters is a to­tal drag – nei­ther as in­volv­ing nor as con­vinc­ing as what David Tom­lin­son’s grouchy Ge­orge Banks brought to the ta­ble.

The movie feels hol­low when­ever it strays from the grav­i­ta­tional cen­tre that is Blunt’s Mary, which is thank­fully not of­ten. That’s the char­ac­ter we’re here to fawn over, rem­i­nisce with and step in line for. She’s enough to leave ev­ery­one in a cheery dis­po­si­tion.

RAD­HEYAN SI­MON­PIL­LAI

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

TOpens De­cem­ber 14 | Rat­ing: NN

here are peo­ple who love Shekhar Ka­pur’s El­iz­a­beth and El­iz­a­beth: The Golden Age for their op­u­lence: the cos­tumes, the busy cine­matog­ra­phy, the shout­ing, the Cate Blanchett of it all.

If you loved those films, Mary Queen Of Scots is an­other one. You don’t get Blanchett, but you do get Saoirse Ro­nan and Mar­got Rob­bie in­ter­pret­ing his­tor­i­cal drama as empty pageantry in­stead.

Fo­cus­ing on Mary’s re­turn to Scot­land as a teen widow, where her pres­ence threat­ens El­iz­a­beth’s reign in Eng­land, the film drains all en­ergy and feel­ing from the story, trap­ping Ro­nan and Rob­bie in elab­o­rate cos­tumes (and, in the case of Rob­bie’s El­iz­a­beth I, in­creas­ingly com­pli­cated makeup) at the cost of their char­ac­ters’ in­ner lives.

They oc­ca­sion­ally ex­change threat­en­ing let­ters through their en­voys, and com­plain about the slights within. Rob­bie’s El­iz­a­beth shouts a lot; Ro­nan’s Mary prefers to sim­mer. David Ten­nant pops up ev­ery so of­ten as a froth­ing preacher who ap­pears to spend his en­tire ca­reer rag­ing about Mary’s evil ways; hey, at least he’s lively.

An ac­claimed stage di­rec­tor mak­ing her first fea­ture, Josie Rourke’s big­gest creative con­tri­bu­tions ap­pear to have been swap­ping out Ka­pur’s spin­ning cam­era for the oc­ca­sional drone shot and as­sem­bling a di­verse sup­port­ing cast. But mostly she seems con­tent to let the art di­rec­tion tell the story, just as Ka­pur did.

NOR­MAN WIL­NER

SPI­DER-MAN: INTO THE SPI­DER-VERSE

Re­mem­ber how much fun The LEGO Movie was, and how shock­ing it was to see a movie that am­bi­tious be so light on its feet? Spi­der-Man: Into The Spi­der-Verse is like that. It’s a bright and shiny de­light, stuff­ing half a dozen Mar­vel spinoff char­ac­ters into a crossover ad­ven­ture that finds fan-favourite char­ac­ter Miles Mo­rales (voiced by The Get Down’s Shameik Moore) gain­ing his Spi­der-pow­ers just in time to meet a whole mess of Spi­der-folk when the King­pin (Liev Schreiber) rup­tures the space-time con­tin­uum and threat­ens the ex­is­tence of re­al­ity as we know it.

In the process, the King­pin also man­ages to kill the one per­son who might have been able to men­tor Miles – and maybe save the day? – which kind of sucks for ev­ery­body.

But wait! Thanks to su­per­col­lider logic, Miles gets to swing around with the Peter Parker from Earth-616 (Jake John­son), a grumpy men­tor who’s given in to his worst in­stincts af­ter some per­sonal stuff back home, and par­al­lel web-slinger Spi­der-Gwen (Hailee Ste­in­feld), who’s way bet­ter at the hero stuff than ei­ther of them.

And there are yet more Spi­der-pals: Ni­co­las Cage turns up as the hard-boiled Spi­der-Man Noir; John Mu­laney is Peter Porker, the Spec­tac­u­lar Spi­der-Ham; and Kimiko Glenn is Peni Parker, a mech-driv­ing Ja­pa­nese teen – from the fu­ture, I think? – who has a psy­chic bond with a spi­der.

I know it’s a lot to process, but it all plays beau­ti­fully; it’s fleet and fun and very, very silly, as di­rec­tors Rod­ney Roth­man (who shares script credit with The LEGO Movie’s Phil Lord), Bob Per­sichetti and Peter Ram­sey de­ploy con­stantly mu­tat­ing CG an­i­ma­tion with hand­drawn el­e­ments that shifts be­tween tones and tex­tures as char­ac­ters re­quire.

But for all the spi­der-chaos, it’s re­ally Miles’s story – and it’s a great one. There hasn’t been a Spi­der-Man movie like this be­fore. And given how many Spi­der-Man movies we’ve al­ready seen, that’s re­ally say­ing some­thing. Book your tick­ets, true be­liev­ers.

NOR­MAN WIL­NER

ON THE BA­SIS OF SEX

IOpens De­cem­ber 25 | Rat­ing: NN

t’s re­ally an­noy­ing to sit through On The Ba­sis Of Sex and watch Ruth Bader Gins­burg’s story be slowly boiled down into a glossy, by-the-num­bers biopic about a plucky hero who tri­umphs against im­pos­si­ble odds. Even if that’s what hap­pened (and it is), was it nec­es­sary to have Gins­burg’s sin­gu­lar ca­reer, and her decades of ad­vo­cacy for equal­ity un­der the law, boiled down into a generic Hol­ly­wood pack­age? We just saw her life’s work cel­e­brated in the doc­u­men­tary RBG; we can take a lit­tle com­plex­ity. Di­rec­tor Mimi Leder seems afraid of it.

As dis­tract­ing as it is to watch Felic­ity Jones strug­gle to cap­ture Gins­burg’s ac­cent in scene af­ter scene, it’s worse to re­al­ize first-time screen­writer Daniel Stieple­man has writ­ten more vivid roles for the pro­tag­o­nist’s male al­lies. (Ar­mie Ham­mer, as her hus­band Martin, and Justin Th­er­oux, as her snarky pal Mel Wulf, get all the laughs.)

Fo­cus­ing on the Gins­burgs’ work with the ACLU on a 1972 tax case that opened up a gen­der-dis­crim­i­na­tion chal­lenge, On The Ba­sis Of Sex shapes it­self into a court­room drama. Ruth must muster her courage to ar­gue dis­crim­i­na­tion against her for­mer Har­vard pro­fes­sor (Stephen Root) and dean (Sam Water­ston), the em­bod­i­ment of sta­tus-quo gate­keep­ers.

It’s re­duc­tive and sim­plis­tic, and hon­estly the idea that any­one go­ing to see a movie about Ruth Bader Gins­burg would want some­thing this timid is pretty in­sult­ing.

NOR­MAN WIL­NER

BEN IS BACK Opens De­cem­ber 14 | Rat­ing: NNNN

Ben Is Back con­fronts the re­al­i­ties of opi­oid ad­dic­tion many fam­i­lies deal with, and it does so with sur­pris­ing light­ness and space for much-needed hu­mour. Holly (Ju­lia Roberts) wants badly to be­lieve her ad­dict son Ben (Lu­cas Hedges) is fi­nally sober, but the rest of her fam­ily is more skep­ti­cal when he re­turns home on Christ­mas Eve. As a pre­cau­tion, she clears out the medicine cab­i­net and hides any­thing of value, but Ben is still con­fronted with trig­gers at home he hasn’t learned to deal with.

When the en­tire fam­ily is at mid­night mass, their house is bro­ken into and the dog goes miss­ing. Ben is con­vinced he knows who did it and why, and Holly agrees to ac­com­pany him to right his wrongs. No one is more wary of the out­come than Neal (Court­ney B. Vance), Holly’s new hus­band and Ben’s step­fa­ther, in part be­cause he knows African-Amer­i­can teens deal­ing and do­ing drugs are never af­forded as many sec­ond chances.

Roberts is ef­fer­ves­cent in her role as a mother who re­fuses to give up on her child, and Hedges, di­rected by his fa­ther Peter Hedges, con­vinc­ingly plays sub­ur­ban good-kid-gonebad. More than any­thing, Ben Is Back is about un­con­di­tional love.

MICHELLE DA SILVA VOX LUX Opens De­cem­ber 21 | Rat­ing: NNNN

Pop mu­sic is of­ten po­si­tioned as es­capist en­ter­tain­ment, but what ex­actly does it mean to pro­vide es­capism for peo­ple when you have a lot you are try­ing to es­cape from? Di­rec­tor Brady Cor­bet’s sec­ond film gets into that seem­ing con­tra­dic­tion in a film about the ways vi­o­lent events be­come en­twined in pop cul­ture nar­ra­tives, and the her­metic world of fame.

Vox Lux stars Natalie Port­man as Ce­leste, a singer who rock­eted up the charts shortly af­ter sur­viv­ing a mass shoot­ing as a teen. The first half finds young Ce­leste (Raf­fey Cas­sidy) mov­ing for­ward from trauma to fo­cus on her ca­reer, aided by her song­writ­ing sis­ter (Stacy Martin) and man­ager (Jude Law). The sec­ond part catches up with 31-year-old Ce­leste (Port­man), who now has a teen daugh­ter (also Cas­sidy), is in a state of ar­rested devel­op­ment and is barely hold­ing her ca­reer to­gether. This part takes place in a ho­tel over the course of a sin­gle af­ter­noon lead­ing up to a tour kick-off.

Cor­bet’s style is brisk and os­ten­ta­tious, evok­ing gritty 70s ac­tion­ers one mo­ment and Todd Hay­ne­sesque golden-era ro­mance homages the next. The un­pre­dictable vis­ual and mu­si­cal flour­ishes (Scott Walker and Sia did the sound­track) make it thrilling to take in, but it set­tles into a more fo­cused pac­ing in the sec­ond act as we tail a heav­ily Long Is­lan­dac­cented Port­man around the ho­tel.

Her ac­cent is among the heavy-handed el­e­ments (also: news footage of Septem­ber 11th, con­de­scend­ing nar­ra­tion by Willem Dafoe) that si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­labour Vox Lux’s themes but also push it in manic, comic and con­fronta­tional di­rec­tions. In other words, it’s mes­mer­iz­ing, not un­like pop mu­sic it­self.

The me­dia satire scenes – es­pe­cially a press round­table – in­sight­fully show how se­ri­ous news is eclipsed by celebrity con­nec­tions.

Port­man’s tor­nado of an­tipa­thy and anger is cap­ti­vat­ing, but it all melts away in the fi­nal con­cert se­quence. Var­i­ous dra­mas might be rag­ing around her, but mu­sic still pro­vides fleet­ing sta­bil­ity. The movie cul­mi­nates in a shot that per­fectly ex­presses the in­oc­u­lat­ing power of pop mu­sic. KEVIN RITCHIE BLAZE Opens De­cem­ber 14 | Rat­ing: NNNN

Ever heard of Blaze Fo­ley? I hadn’t. But Ethan Hawke has, and he wanted to make sure the rest of us did. Hawke’s new movie Blaze re­con­sti­tutes the late coun­try singer – who died in 1989 at the age of 39 – through three dif­fer­ent lenses. We see him in his re­la­tion­ship with girl­friend Sy­bil Rosen (Alia Shawkat); we watch his fi­nal con­cert be­fore his un­timely death; and we drop in as his friends re­mem­ber him in a long ra­dio in­ter­view. One of those friends is Townes Van Zandt, who’s played by mu­si­cian Char­lie Sex­ton, which lends a fluid meta tex­ture to this biopic.

Af­ter stel­lar per­for­mances in First Re­formed and Juliet, Naked, Hawke closes out a ban­ner year with this com­pelling di­rec­to­rial ef­fort, which spins the clichés of the self-de­struc­tive celebrity nar­ra­tive into an hon­est ex­plo­ration of a man who couldn’t be­have him­self to save his life.

In his first screen per­for­mance, singer/song­writer Ben Dickey in­hab­its the role of Fo­ley with a rest­less­ness that feels au­then­tic; he’s a gen­uine find, and his scenes with Shawkat have a com­plex­ity and a ten­sion that sim­i­larly rings true. (Hawke co-wrote the script with the real Sy­bil Rosen, work­ing from her mem­oir.)

Blaze might be telling a story we’ve seen be­fore, but it does so from an an­gle that of­fers a few sur­prises, in­clud­ing a col­lec­tive cameo by Sam Rock­well, Steve Zahn and Richard Lin­klater, and Hawke’s own en­gag­ing pres­ence as the un­pre­pared DJ con­duct­ing the in­ter­view that frames the film.

I know Hawke got off to a shaky start as a di­rec­tor with Chelsea Walls and The Hottest State, but be­tween this and his ter­rific 2014 doc­u­men­tary Sey­mour: An In­tro­duc­tion, the guy’s grown into a real film­maker. This should be en­cour­aged. Go see Blaze.

NOR­MAN WIL­NER SHO­PLIFTERS Opens De­cem­ber 21 | Rat­ing: NNNN

Asur­prise win­ner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s tale of a fam­ily of petty scam­mers who take in a ne­glected child is of a piece with the Ja­pa­nese master’s body of work. Like Still Walk­ing, Like Fa­ther, Like Son and Our Lit­tle Sis­ter, Sho­plifters is calm and thought­ful, with long scenes of peace­ful do­mes­tic­ity oc­ca­sion­ally punc­tured by mild dis­agree­ment and the in­tru­sion of ex­ter­nal au­thor­i­ties.

I can see how that might sound dull. Most of Kore-eda’s movies start out from a fairly mod­est premise: a fam­ily gath­ers for a birth­day; a cou­ple dis­cov­ers their son was switched at birth with an­other baby; three adult sis­ters ad­just to the ar­rival of a much younger sis­ter. Even when he ven­tures into court­room drama, as in last year’s The Third Mur­der, the plot is still just an ex­cuse to let him sit and watch peo­ple in­ter­act.

And in prac­tice, Sho­plifters is any­thing but pokey: Kore-eda’s de­lib­er­ate sto­ry­telling style, with its spe­cial fo­cus on Lily Franky and Kairi Jyo as the mommy and daddy fig­ures of the clan, lets us get to know his street-smart char­ac­ters and fully un­der­stand the con­tra­dic­tions that make them vul­ner­a­ble and hu­man.

And as this ap­par­ently amoral group re­veals its col­lec­tive heart, Sho­plifters grows richer and warmer, build­ing to an end­ing that’s no less pow­er­ful for be­ing so very small.

NOR­MAN WIL­NER

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