Opens December 14 | Rating: NNNN
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.