For a physical production practically perfect as Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns (C+), its makers should have spent some tuppence on the sequel’s songs and screenwriting and provided its glum protagonist with a jolly holiday from all the topsy turvy plot contrivances. The lavish set design, resplendent costumes and meticulous vintage Disney animation are all in fine form, and the movie opens and closes very, very well. There’s just a lot of filler material that’s super- califragilstic- expiali- average in between. Emily Blunt’s taciturn take on London’s cloud nanny gets a bit eclipsed in all the madcappery, and Marshall’s tenuous grasp of tone does few favors for Ben Whishaw, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep or Lin-Manuel Miranda, the latter projecting for the balcony seats even though he’s on the Cherry Tree Lane where it happens. While passive protagonist MP tries to save two generations of Banks children from eviction and from their own imaginative inertia, it’s unclear for whom the audience is even supposed to cheer. Plus the youngest kids (the true heart of the film) frankly seem pretty well adjusted at the beginning of the movie. Marshall brings little dazzle dazzle in the form of fresh choreography, aside from a song trying to make fetch happen for lamp lighters (was that a skateboard ramp at one point?) And oh, don’t name check the bird lady just to wing-flap out of another plot hole. Despite the lovely craft, the art of the film’s storytelling is lacking. The fact that there’s not one single element this belated sequel improves on over the original shouldn’t sway families from seeing it, and there are indeed some tender and nostalgic moments; but this spoonful of chutzpah proves mild tonic.
Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield (C) is a mash-up of found footage horror movie and a Godzilla action film, but the you-are-there format fails to impress, and the lizard fails to scare. It just feels a little tedious and cheap and is better remembered for its pre-release hype and buzz campaign. A game cast including Lizzy Caplan and T.J. Miller doesn’t have much to do as young New Yorkers start off celebrating a friend’s farewell and then fleeing for their lives. There are a few passable action sequences and occasionally some nice camera trickery, but it doesn’t add up to much. We want to exclaim, “It’s alive…” but really it’s just ok.
Phyllida Lloyd’s film adaptation of her theatrical hit Mamma Mia! (B) is largely a joyful confection, taking its cues from the music catalogue of Swedish hitmakers ABBA to playfully chronicle how the plucky young female descendant of a 1979 “dancing queen” cavorting with three summer boyfriends on an exotic Greek isle endeavors to discover the identity of a dad to walk her down the wedding aisle. Central to the charm of the film is the relationship between Meryl Streep as the mom and Amanda Seyfried as her inquisitive offspring; each has a natural warmth and pleasant singing voice. Some of the supporting subplots and singers (ahem, Pierce Brosnan) are a bit atonal or adrift. The musical numbers are lovely and limber, and the locale adds enchantment to the affair, as if something vaguely mythological is afoot. It’s a rom com within a rom com with karaoke moments to punctuate every Big Emotion. It’s frisky, fun and recommended.
Rebooting the legend after Ang Lee’s esoteric flop five year before, Louis Letterier’s The Incredible Hulk (B) reminds viewers from the opening frames that this is an action movie, pure and simple. A parkeur-style chase across rooftops is just the beginning as the film winds through a global adventure wuth Edward Norton as Bruce Banner/THe Hulk in full enraged scientist mode. Liv Tyler and Tim Roth provide ample support for this solid action film that brings Hulk closer into the Marvel canon in time for Avengers activity.
Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (B+) is a giddy, inventive adventure that gives talented actor Robert Downey Jr. the role of a lifetime. As genius Tony Stark who refashions himself as a magnificent flying machine, Downey carries the high-flying comic book adventures on his shoulders. Quick with a quip and fast with the action, he grounds a new franchise with supporting help from Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard.
Gus Van Sant’s Milk (A) is a stirring biopic, faithfully recreating a San Francisco of the 1970’s and, as embodied by Sean Penn, giving a star turn of an American hero in Harvey Milk. The film blends personal and political triumphs, with a touching performance by James Franco as Milk’s love interest. The sometimes avant garde Van Sant minimizes his grittier aesthetic for a wide canvas Hollywood epic, and the result is a soaring triumph.
Buoyed by a brilliant performance by Heath Ledger as criminal mastermind The Joker, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (B) is a complex superhero movie that posits that people dressed as bats and harlequins could really be in the realm of political theater and then asks what would happen if they were. The addition of Aaron Eckhart as Two Face, a villain #2, causes Christian Bale’s hero to recede a bit from prominence, and that always hurts a Batman movie in my book. The political machinations are also not quite as interesting as Nolan would like to believe. Still, it’s a pretty good drama that just happens to be a superhero movie. The part of Katie Holmes is now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and I still don’t know what that character does.
Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E (B) is a fantastical futuristic fantasy in which the earth is filled with garbage and a tiny, adorable clean-up robot is awakened from his drudgery by a beautiful girl droid and a chance to blast off into adventure. The lyrical earthboard sequences are far superior to the latter ones, but this is another Pixar original that will have something to offer both kids and adults.
Can we pretend the Indy films were just a trilogy? Because from the opening moment when the prairie dog pops his head out of the ground to the sequences with young sidekick Shia LaBeouf swinging from trees with monkeys, I found Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (F) stomped on everything this franchise held sacred. Harrison Ford gives a truly haggard performance opposite a poorly-accented Cate Blanchett as a Russian villain. There is also a survivable nuclear blast and a UFO visit. And surprisingly, there’s not one interestingly staged action sequence. There are cameos from past movies, and then those characters are given nothing interesting to do. This is the only film in the series in which the quest isn’t well articulated, in which the characters are lazy and cynical and in which there’s little joy or continuity from scene to scene. A 19-year hiatus between films should have yielded better than this. It’s an epic misfire.
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (A-) focuses on Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie as soldiers who dispose of bombs during the Iraq War and how they get deeper and deeper into their mission. Told with stunning authenticity and reverence for the work of the military, it’s a highly dramatic and exciting film as well as a technical marvel.
Danny Boyle’s India-set Slumdog Millionaire (A) is an adult fairy tale with elements of magical realism that shows how fate and fortune weave their way into our lives for our own version of happily ever after. As the boy (Dev Patel) who wants to get the girl (Freida Pinto) struggles through poverty, cross-country adventures and ultimately a game show that conjures up his life’s learnings, the brilliant bright-colored cinematography and A.R. Rahman’s propulsive score fuel an absolutely delightful story that will hook you in to its spell. This is an accomplished piece of cinema that will speak to people from many backgrounds around the globe.
Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (B+) is the latest in the writer/director’s European travelogue in which a Spaniard (Javier Bardem) proposes a three-way to two lovely travelers (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson), and then they all encounter his former wife (Penélope Cruz). Alternately ambiguous and enchanting, the film is full of comedy and rich characters, with everyone at the top of their game.