by Philip Price
10. Vox Lux
Never have I felt more bewildered by a movie after watching it. Part of me was fascinated by what I saw unfold as the life of this young woman played out in two halves and three complete acts while the other half of me wanted to completely reject-in a sense-what this woman became or rather, what the world turned her into. It has to mean something for a film to be so internally divisive so as to not even be sure of where one ultimately lands in overall opinion of the film days after seeing it. I still don't know if I liked “Vox Lux” or not, but I kind of loved it and I know I'm still thinking about it and I know "Wrapped Up" continues to give me chills every time I listen to it-which has been damn near constantly since I walked out of the theater. I need to see this again. Immediately.
9. A Quiet Place
The third directorial effort from John Krasinski starring real-life wife Emily Blunt in their first on-screen collaboration (and as a married couple no less) is a movie that encapsulates the equal amount of unexpected fear as compared to the expected amount of joy that comes along with becoming a parent. This is something society doesn't often prepare one for and that expectant parents don't hear much about when embarking on this particular chapter in their life. People talk about how having children will change your life, certainly, and how it will do so for the better as well as how tough things will be at different times for different reasons, but no one ever seems to warn expectant parents just how much fear will encompass their lives and in what are otherwise seemingly normal of situations. This isn't what “A Quiet Place” is about outright, but as the father to a now four-year-old daughter it is what “A Quiet Place” is most explicitly about to me and is therefore, the scariest and one of the most affecting films of the year.
8. If Beale Street Could Talk
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is simultaneously simple yet contains mountains of emotions and social commentary aching to be unpacked; ideas, inclinations, and images that will continue to resonate in my mind for months. A meditation session of a movie and a complete experience. There is story if not sporadic plot points that guide the viewer through the series of themes director Barry Jenkins is keen on communicating, but ‘Beale Street’ features what are really only three complete scenes while the rest of it is more montage or anecdotes that swirl around the three major moments to create a deeper context for the more full, finite scenes that pinpoint the beginning, middle, and end of the film. Working with what is more of a loose, jazz-inspired structure the viewer is fed little bits of information from different stages in the characters' lives, but it is through the power of how Jenkins and his editors weave the layers of the story of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) together that not only do we become convinced of their love for one another, but of their friendship and, as a result, that they are meant to be. Also, that score.
7. Paddington 2
“Paddington 2” is one of those films I would have most likely labeled simply as "great," but not included on this list had I not had a four-year-old daughter. As anyone who's ever been around little children ever knows-they tend to latch onto a movie and stick with it repeatedly for a couple months time. While the daughter had various favorites throughout the year the one, I always found myself suggesting was “Paddington 2.” She and I saw it in the theater over MLK weekend at the beginning of the year and both of us found it endearingly charming (or at least I did and I'm pretty sure she felt the same way). I couldn't wait to purchase the Blu-ray and show it to my wife, and then we would throw it on again, and again, and before I knew it, I couldn't help but to admit that I completely adored “Paddington 2.” If you'd told me in January that I was seeing what would eventually be one of my favorite films of the year I 1) might not have seen as many movies in the subsequent months and 2) probably wouldn't have believed you. That said, Paul King's sequel is infinitely charming and endlessly humble. "If we are kind and polite, the world will be right."
6. First Reformed
Paul Schrader has made a career of analyzing the psyches of tortured male souls and their having to grapple with the varied struggles and conflicts their environment and/or time in history dictates they deal with. In “First Reformed,” the writer/director is very much speaking to the time in which the film has been made as this is a story of a man full of anxieties and uncertainties despite his outward facade of peace and a certain serenity that only such measured priests can uphold. “First Reformed” doesn't care to follow a repeated quandary such as a crisis of faith, but instead takes on the story of a man who was beaten down by life long before he decided to make the church his one and only true love. Ethan Hawke portrays Reverend Toller in one of his best performances to date in a career filled with memorable performances as Schrader analyzes the mentality of suffering to earn salvation, but as Toller at one point poses, "Who can know the mind of God?" At another point though, Toller derives what is necessary to please God in his own, twisted way, thus painting the broad themes of contradiction that often informs the religious as well as “First Reformed.” In short, it's a thinker, but it's a stunner.
5. Mission: Impossible - FALLOUT
The older Tom Cruise gets, the less time there is between his ‘Mission: Impossible’ sequels. “Mission: Impossible – FALLOUT” is the pinnacle of what it seems this entire series, knowing or unknowingly, has been leading to. It is writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's “The Dark Knight,” it is Cruise's commitment to celluloid that will define the middle act of his career, and it is by far one of the best action movies ever made. Yes, ‘FALLOUT’ is everything a fan of the previous films could want in that it revolves around a convoluted plot of double crossings and inconspicuous baddies throwing obstacles at our beloved team of core heroes, but what elevated this latest entry above many of the others is the way in which it caps off this trilogy of sorts that began with ‘Ghost Protocol’ where these movies weren't just using Cruise's Hunt as a conduit for action or trying to humanize him, but more discover the person Hunt actually is while detailing his journey to figure out who he truly wants to be.
A history lesson and galvanizing procedural all in one, Spike Lee's “BlacKkKlansman” is one for the ages. An incredibly heavy, effectively powerful film that drenches you in the world in which it operates, pulls absolutely no punches, and delivers a film from a focused filmmaker who is not only presenting a timely conversation that needs to happen, but conveying his side of the conversation with style, eloquence, and immense profundity. Many of Lee’s films are pointedly about what they’re about, but when Lee actually has a story to work his themes through, he is able to create more fulfilling and impactful experiences. This is what makes “BlacKkKlansman” the perfect story for Lee to tell. The true life events the film is based on provide an entertaining template to discuss the politics Lee desires to discuss while the true story is also entrenched in the racially charged dilemmas of the late seventies (and unfortunately, of today as well). In essence, it’s a perfect melding of artist and material.
3. Ready Player One
Director Steven Spielberg has a way with not only bringing the viewer into the spectacle but making them appreciate the aura of the spectacle he has concocted on screen. We're not just in awe of what we're seeing on screen, but we're in awe of how it makes us feel. Spielberg is a master of this kind of spellbinding visual storytelling, but as the filmmaker has grown older his filmography has naturally become more serious. That is to say, it's been a decade since that fourth Indiana Jones movie, but with his latest, “Ready Player One,” Spielberg returns to that era he helped define as “Ready Player One” mines the kind of wonder each of those films elicited as they were all, in some fashion, told from the point of view of a child who was allowed to run wild with and fully indulge in their imagination. “Ready Player One” doesn't just utilize the same tone and a barrage of references to trick audiences who might have an affection for any one of the many cameos this thing trots out in order to make them feel an affinity for this new product, but rather it takes the real world into account, advances it into a hyper, but probable reality, and then comments on how it's nice to indulge in our imaginations and appreciate what others have given us with theirs, but that-as with everything-balance is key and it requires real-world interactions, relationships, and experiences to allow those imaginations to grow.
2. A Star is Born
Often in movies about individuals who strive to make a living telling stories the process of capturing the true essence of such lives strays from the actual topic of why the way these particular people tell stories is so special. What it actually takes to get from a lyric to a melody to an arrangement or in whatever order inspiration decides to strike is completely glossed over. With “A Star is Born,” Bradley Cooper goes from movie star to film director, screenwriter, musician, and songwriter. In taking on these new roles and applying them to what is the fourth incarnation of “A Star is Born” Cooper has found a way to work through his creative process by exploring the creative process. Cooper and Lady Gaga's performances define the film, their chemistry enrapturing, and the music is pretty damn great too. While this is the fourth incarnation of the film, 2018's “A Star is Born” is more than capable of standing on its own and nails the ending in a way that is so devastatingly heart-wrenching it's impossible to not feel everything that has come before it.
1. Avengers: Infinity War
‘Infinity War’ is as sprawling as you could imagine, as epic as you would hope, and as devastating as it needed to be, but hoped it wouldn't be. That this works as well as it does and that it was pulled off at all is a miracle and earns the movie points upon points, but that-by the time the credits come to a close-the film has shaken you to the core and chilled your skin off is a sign of something more than satisfying, popcorn entertainment, but more it signifies the arrival of a game-changer and if ‘Infinity War’ is anything at all it is groundbreaking. It's understandable how this choice for my number one film of the year might be baffling to those who haven't been following Robert Downey Jr. and the rest of Marvel Studios for the past decade, but what ‘Infinity War’ signifies (and furthermore delivers upon) is something that has never before been accomplished successfully in the film industry or in movie-making and should be applauded for that reason alone, but that the directing team of the Russo Brothers were actually able to pull this off in a fashion that barely registers as two and a half hours due to the relentless pacing and amount of stuff happening is incredible. The fact we, as an audience, feel all of this stuff though, is what is most incredible and if you have any investment in these worlds or these characters at all it's not difficult to see why ‘Infinity War’ is the triumph it is.
by Philip Price
Director: Josie Rourke
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie & Jack Lowden
Runtime: 2 hours & 4 minutes
By definition, “Mary Queen of Scots” is a movie. It's competently made, one would even say a rather gorgeous film to behold (the costume design is especially noteworthy), and it has performances from two of last year's Best Actress nominees with a story that more than lends itself well to drama yet despite all these strong components “Mary Queen of Scots” never becomes anything compelling. It's as if first-time feature director Josie Rourke was able to successfully implement all of the technical skills and story knowledge she's accrued over her career thus far and implement them into a film that meets all the standards of what is supposed to make-up a film, but with none of the intangible stuff one needs in order to craft something truly moving or impactful.
Saoirse Ronan is Mary Stuart, who was the Queen of France at 16 and widowed by 18, who then defied pressure to re-marry and instead returned to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. Scotland and England fell under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I as played by Margot Robbie though, intensifying this rivalry of sorts between two women who have unsuspectingly come to power in the absence of their husbands in a world that is designed to allow the masculine to rule. The majority of “Mary Queen of Scots” revolves around the back and forth between Mary and Elizabeth as they play games involving marriage and child bearing that result in betrayal, rebellion, and conspiracies within each other’s courts that only tend to further complicate who the one true ruler is meant to be.
To certain extents the film is perfectly content in being what it's so very clearly intended to be-an enticing period drama-but despite bouncing back and forth between Mary's provocations and Elizabeth's deliberations as to how she should properly respond to said provocations there isn't much of a drive to the overall film. The shorter vignettes within the whole of the film have a hit or miss quality where the reaction each individual has will either entice them to continue on this journey with the characters or push them to look at their phone and determine how much of the running time remains. For all the good intents, grand costumes, and researched performances “Mary Queen of Scots” so clearly sports it was near impossible to not glance down at the time more times than I should have.
by Philip Price
Director: Brady Corbet
Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy & Jude Law
Runtime: 1 hour & 54 minutes
“Vox Lux” director Brady Corbet, at the age of 30, has worked with the likes of directors such as Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier, Ruben Östlund and Noah Baumbach, so it comes as no surprise that the actor, writer and filmmaker's second directorial effort is a divisive meditation on pop culture, how news-worthy tragedies spawn faces of such that then carry the weight of the audience's projections, and how the masses expect these public figures to help us heal from such tragedies without having the privacy or benefit of the doubt to handle whatever they're going through in regards to whatever they're expected to help everyone else cope with. In other words, as simple as the presentation is in “Vox Lux,” this is an intensely dense picture that has so many ideas floating around in its head it can't even keep track of everything it starts a conversation about. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly allows for some disconnect and confusion walking away from the film. It seems the film's intent is not to be about a single thing or single aspect of one thing, but it's also not clear which of these many things it's discussing should be the loudest.
Never have I ever felt more bewildered by a movie after watching it. Part of me was fascinated by what I saw unfold as the life of this young woman played out in two halves and three complete acts while the other half of me wanted to completely reject-in a sense-what this woman became or rather, what the world turned her into. Two minutes in-as the opening credits rolled-I was already positive I was going to love this thing for all it stood for and as it continued to develop through Raffey Cassidy's star-turning performance as both the young Celeste as well as the daughter of Natalie Portman's older Celeste, it only seemed more and more clear how groundbreaking this thing was; Corbet essentially melding the ideas of news and entertainment and begging (literally begging) his audience to remember there is a difference. As the film enters its second half though, taking place seventeen years after the first half, where we see Portman take over the main character and follow her through a day in the life it quickly became evident I kind of hated who this young, unassuming girl had become. She was now a woman but acted more like a child than ever before. So, coddled to the point her behavior was as tragic as it was laughable. Further, the final 15-to-20 minutes of the film see Portman fully becoming this pop star and it's an odd mix of "what's the big deal?" and "look at the production she's apparently worthy of." Is Celeste especially good? No. Is she insanely famous because she was a product of a moment and has used that moment to her advantage ever since? Kind of. There is something of a twist in regard to these ideas that is a genuinely great idea in and of itself, but needed to have more of a throughline or at least a fair amount more exploration to allow audiences to grasp this somewhat shocking perspective that comes to be the side of the prism Corbet sees his film through.
All of that said, it must say something for a film to be so internally divisive so as to not even be fully assured of where one ultimately lands in overall opinion of the film days after seeing it. I still don't know if I liked “Vox Lux” or not, but I know I'm still thinking about it and I know "Wrapped Up" continues to give me chills every time I listen to it-which has been damn near constantly since I walked out of the theater.
I need to see this again. Immediately.
by Philip Price
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Steve Carell, Eliza Gonzalez & Merritt Wever
Runtime: 1 hour & 56 minutes
If this were 1997 Tom Hanks would have played Mark Hogancamp and I don't know that “Welcome to Marwen” would have been any better for it.
As someone who grew up hearing director Robert Zemeckis' work almost unanimously praised through the likes of the ‘Back to the Future’ films and “Forrest Gump,” as well as “Cast Away” being my first theatrical Zemeckis experience it seemed as if the man could do nothing wrong and was forever interesting due to his own interests in always trying to push the envelope in some way. The director continued to do this as I came of age and developed more of a taste for more varied types of cinema, but did so in the sense that it would become the era when Zemeckis became enamored with motion capture animation. Between “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol” (all of which I saw and each of which I don't largely remember) it seemed Zemeckis was pigeon-holing himself into a trend he'd never be able to give up and then, in 2012, the filmmaker seemed to re-calibrate his career with the Denzel Washington-starrer, “Flight,” that made many people sit up and take note of what Zemeckis was up to again. It was Zemeckis' next film though, “The Walk,” that would really set the stage for ‘Marwen.’
Like “The Walk,” “Welcome to Marwen” is a feature adaptation of a story previously told in a documentary that didn't necessarily need a feature adaptation to improve upon the story, but that Zemeckis had clear ideas about how to interpret and convey in bigger and more interesting ways. Given the subject matter with “The Walk” it was the idea to shoot on large format cameras and in immersive 3D (IMAX VR has a virtual reality experience of this movie, where the guest actually tightropes across the twin towers) while with ‘Marwen’ the hook is to not only take the audience through the trials and tribulations of Hogancamp's story, but to flesh out how he has coped with the tragedies of his life by bringing to life what can only be imagined as what Hogancamp himself is imagining; this done through animated sequences with Barbie and G.I. Joe figures that Hogancamp has utilized to build his own, alternate world and town that is set in Belgium in the middle of WWII. Long story short, Hogancamp was beaten within an inch of his life in 2000 and lost all previous memories as a result thus pushing him to a place where his fictional town he dubbed "Marwencol" became a place for him to escape to and an outlet for him to create from.
Fascinating, right? It's not difficult to see why a filmmaker like Zemeckis would have a unique take on the material and want to again tell Hogancamp's story, but Zemeckis and co-writer, Caroline Thompson (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”) boil this man's story down from what could have been a sweeping narrative about alter-egos and fulfilling ones fantasies through the image one has of themselves in their mind, about creating your own therapy through creating your own world, or about a man who-after losing his memory and being in a coma-had to learn everything over again-both physically and mentally-to a movie about a boy with some issues who meets the new girl across the street that is kind to him, but would never desire to actually be with his weird ass in real life. At least, that's how it all comes off in Zemeckis' film. There are inspired moments, no doubt, as there are hints of how Hogancamp's dolls and alternate reality begin to make their way into what is actually reality and how it becomes increasingly difficult for him to tell the difference, but these never amount to much if anything. The integration of the two worlds is fairly smooth and the intercutting of the storylines unfolding in the real world and in Marwen help to add some momentum to what is otherwise an unfocused mess of emotions, but this is largely a slog. The intrigue of the film should be in the trying to piece together what happened to Hogancamp (more the little details than the broad strokes), who each of the dolls represent in his actual life, and what those people signify in the grand scheme, but Zemeckis fails to ever capture any kind of cohesive tone as characters come in and out with no explanation and are then never seen again to the extent the film as a whole feels like a patchwork of a handful of different ideas rather than a film with a certain perspective on its subject. Zemeckis has a point of view when it comes to how he wanted to relay the story, but no such point of view when it actually comes to telling the story and that's a real issue.
To boot, considering we're watching Barbie and G.I. Joe figures flesh out this world this man is enjoying existing within more than he does the real world and the insane violence depicted as well as strange sexual tension that always lingers it's hard to separate the "interesting" from the "weird". Dammit if Steve Carell isn't endearing as always though; the only other man outside of Hanks that is able to pull off a line like, "reach for the sky" in serious fashion while looking like a plastic doll.
by Philip Price
Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James & Regina King
Runtime: 1 hour & 59 minutes
Though not familiar with writer James Baldwin's work in October of 2016 I found myself suddenly taken with the work of a young director who'd only just directed his second feature after a near eight year break in between his first and second films that I'm sure was anything but a break. Barry Jenkins' “Moonlight,” the eventual Best Picture winner for 2017, was a film that kept knocking at my brain for days after seeing it. It only seems fitting then that Jenkins' follow-up to that much heralded work is a piece that not only requires patience and trust on its journey, but one that is simultaneously so simplistic yet contains mountains of emotions and social commentary aching to be unpacked; ideas, inclinations and images that will continue to resonate in my mind for days upon days.
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” adapted from Baldwin's 1974 novel of the same name, is a meditation session of a movie, but in this sense it is also wholly an experience as well. There is story if not sporadic plot points that guide the viewer through the series of themes Jenkins is keen on communicating, but these plot points seem more present for the benefit of the conditioned viewer than they are for the sake of the film saying what it wants to say.
Jenkins doesn't necessarily need traditional structure to convey what he wants to convey as he proved in “Moonlight” with his triptych approach, but with ‘Beale Street’ there are really only three whole scenes in the film while the rest of it is more montages or anecdotes that essentially swirl around these three major moments to create a deeper context for the more full, finite scenes that pinpoint the beginning, middle and end of the film. It's an interesting way to approach story and it uniquely conveys the sense of feeling and emotion the film wants to relay better than it would were it trying to do the same thing through a more straightforward technique. Of course, with what is more of a loose, jazz-inspired structure the viewer is fed little bits of information at a time from different stages in these characters' lives, but it is through the power of how Jenkins and his editors, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, weave the layers of the story of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) together that not only do we become convinced of their love for one another, but we are convinced further by their friendship and, as a result, that they are meant to be; soulmates, if you will, separated through injustice, but never truly divided.
by Philip Price
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga & Molly Ephraim
Runtime: 1 hour & 53 minutes
“The Front Runner” is about the birth of tabloid journalism infiltrating credible institutions, but what it’s commenting on is how the media often allows a single moment of someone’s life to encapsulate and define that person’s entire existence given the faceted perspective of how said incident is reported on.
This is a fine truth to examine, especially through the lens of a 1987 scandal where the volume is comparably lower than the 11 today’s media cycle has been ratcheted up to, but the point director Jason Reitman seeks to point out doesn’t always jive with the story he’s telling.
The film makes it pretty clear Hugh Jackman’s (always reliable) Gary Hart was something of a womanizer on the reg and that the affair that outed him wasn’t the only instance of this behavior. Reitman seeks to both make an example of Hart while also garnering empathy for the man, but the idea that the scrutiny or even the manner in which the scrutiny came down upon Hart was unwarranted begins to wain as the bigger picture around the Senator becomes clearer. What the movie gets right is highlighting the ramifications of Hart’s actions on the women around him such as his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), his daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever), as well as the woman involved in the affair, Donna (Sara Paxton)-whose line of dialogue, “I did all the things I was supposed to do so men wouldn’t look at me the way you are right now.”-perfectly encapsulates this theme.
While the film has some quarrels about sorting out its question of where the line is between what is interesting and what is important, it must be noted that the roster of character actors in this thing is insane. J.K. Simmons, Josh Brener, Oliver Cooper, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie, Ari Graynor, John Bedford Lloyd, Steve Coulter, Spencer Garrett, Steve Zissis, Bill Burr, Kevin Pollack, Mike Judge, Toby Huss, Courtney Ford, and I’m sure I’m missing others, but among all of these recognizable faces it is Molly Ephraim, who does much of the heavy lifting thematically and gives the film the edge it needs to be heard in today’s climate even if the voice behind it isn’t as firm as it should be.
by Philip Price
Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda & Ben Whishaw
Runtime: 2 hours & 10 minutes
My wife and I took our four-year-old daughter to see this despite her having seemingly no interest in the trailers or TV spots that have been on heavy rotation-especially over the past week or so. Admittedly, this was partly for the reason both of us wanted to see this 54-year-later sequel to “Mary Poppins” and didn't want to have to go through the hassle of finding a babysitter the weekend before Christmas, but it was mostly due to the fact that despite the lack of interest in the promotional materials that sometimes you just have to trust your parents know better than you and, lucky for us, our little four-year-old girl decided to indulge us on this particular matter (the slush and popcorn might have factored in, but I digress). The point being, that once director Rob Marshall's (“Into the Woods”) “Mary Poppins Returns” began and Emily Blunt's incarnation of the practically perfect nanny showed up and began teaching the new generation of Banks children (as well as reminding their parents) that while imagination may not always be approved of, that it's more than necessary to make life fun and largely bearable, the little one was more than hooked by the magic of the titular character. And so, while “Mary Poppins Returns” is admittedly more of a re-hash or re-imagining of that first, 1964 film than I would have either thought or hoped it to be it is also a reminder of how powerful and delightful the imagination can truly be. Though my personal experience with the film may not be as heartening as those who take their teenagers to the theater and see their faces revert to a state of child-like wonder; to experience the kind of magic and possibilities Mary Poppins brings to the table and exerts with pure enthusiasm strike our daughter in such a clear and distinct way-especially during the numerous musical numbers-was quite something. The Julie Andrews picture was always one of those movies that was always on whenever we needed it to be growing up and taking on the burden of crafting a follow-up to that respected classic (the only live-action film Disney saw garner a Best Picture nod in his day) there was a degree of respect built-in for even attempting as much and while “Mary Poppins Returns” could have certainly done a little more to stand on its own it is so excessively charming, appropriately cute, and full of original songs and creative executions that it's hard to argue the film is anything but perfectly pleasant in every way.
And so, while technically a sequel rather than a re-make or some re-configured re-boot, “Mary Poppins Returns” is very much indebted to the original and the film knows that and makes sure you, the audience member, aware of that as well whether you've seen that original once or a hundred times. As we come back to 17 Cherry Tree Ln., we are introduced to leerie or what is otherwise known as a lamplighter, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), as he is more or less filling in for the Dick Van Dyke character of Bert who was so famously a chimney sweep. Jack, while singing "(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky" shows us around the city once more, getting us comfortable and familiar with the space we'll be taking up over the next two hours until we arrive on the iconic lane where Admiral Boom (David Warner) and his Mr. Binnacle (Jim Norton) are still firing off the canon twice a day. More importantly, their house with a ship on the roof is right next door to where one of the Banks children still lives with his family. It has been some twenty-years or so since the events of that original film and little Michael (Ben Whishaw) is all grown-up and working as a banker at the same institution (Fidelity Fiduciary Bank) where his father worked before him, but who has recently been widowed and left with three children of his own in Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathaniel Saleh), and little Georgie (Joel Dawson). Michael's sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), no longer lives in her parents' house, but seems to visit quite frequently as of late so as to check on her brother as well as her niece and nephews. Jane spends the majority of her time being an activist like her mother though as, amid the Depression, Jane rallies with other workers to fight for fair wages. Ellen (Julie Walters) is still around as the supportive housekeeper, but who tends to create more work for Michael than she does save him a hassle. The first striking difference in the original and this sequel though, is that David Magee's (“Finding Neverland”) screenplay introduces the crux of the plot by having lawyers from the bank in which Michael works show up at the Banks' house in the form of Gooding (Jeremy Swift) and Frye (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) to inform Michael of a repossession notice. After the loss of Michael's wife, Kate, the family's been struggling to come to terms with their new normal, and because Kate handled the finances, Michael became behind on the payments; forgetting to pay them on time and although he offers to write a check to catch up, the lawyers inform him he has until that Friday to pay off the entire loan or he will have to move out. This sets in motion a solid story device that immediately triggers a sense of suspense, but it also triggers the arrival of our titular hero to once again look after the Banks children and see them through a critical stage of transition in their lives.
As stated, the idea of even taking on the challenge of constructing a follow-up to that 1964 original seems so daunting that only those slightly out of their minds might be crazy enough to take it on, but as much as it is clear from the get-go that “Mary Poppins Returns” is very much indebted to the first film it is also clear the sequel has been crafted by those who really care about and have a reverence for the original film. What would be the most daunting aspect of such a task though, always seemed as if it would be crafting the songs and accompanying sequences that would inevitably and immediately be compared to the likes of classics such as "A Spoonful of Sugar," and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." It is in being able to anticipate as much and outlining a sequel in which a counterpart of sorts for each of those singular songs from the original is crafted that “Mary Poppins Returns” is able to both draw inspiration from as well as create enough of a fresh vibe of its own that the new songs and inspired dance numbers are a perfect balance of new and old. We're reminded just enough of what came before in order to ease us into what is new, but once invested are taken in enough of a new direction that nothing on display here ever feels cheap or akin to a cop out. For instance, the aforementioned "(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky" is very clearly a riff on the original's "Overture" as well as the way in which "Chim Chim Cheree" served as something of an introduction to and framing device for the film-being reprised at certain points throughout. One could equal, "Can You Imagine That?" to "A Spoonful of Sugar," The Royal Doulton Music Hall/A Cover is Not the Book" to "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" to "Step in Time," "Turning Turtle" to "Love to Laugh," and "Nowhere to Go But Up" to "Let's Go Fly a Kite," but while there are certain correlations between each and even certain moments where the melody mirrors that of what came before there is still an essence to these new songs that allow them to move past where they drew their inspirations from allowing them to become something of their own beast. And while, as a whole-"Trip a Little Light Fantastic" might rank as my personal favorite due simply to the fact I'm a sucker for big, old-school musical numbers that are as bombastic in their lyrics and musicality as they are their routines and settings it is the moment that “Mary Poppins Returns” stops to take a breather and offers something like, "A Place Where Lost Things Go," that we feel a true connection to the original without being able to pinpoint exactly why or draw comparisons to something specific. Rather, that the film is able to conjure this emotional reaction through its own character dynamics that have organically built off of the original film does a lot to ensure this feeling of security and trust in a 50-plus-year-later sequel that very easily could have squandered all the continued good will of that original film.
The single gray cloud that hung over this project prior to seeing the film was that of the involvement of director Rob Marshall. Marshall, who seems to be something of Disney's go-to-guy as of late broke onto the scene in a big way with 2002's feature film version of “Chicago” and followed it up with the critically acclaimed “Memoirs of a Geisha” in 2005, but the guy has had a rough run as of late turning in what is maybe the worst Daniel Day-Lewis movie with 2009's “Nine,” the worst “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie in 2011, and then the somewhat successful, but largely disappointing “Into the Woods” four years ago. It would seem Into the Woods would be the greatest indicator for what to expect from Marshall's ‘Mary Poppins’ sequel, but thankfully “Mary Poppins Returns” is more of a complete film with a full, immersive story featuring genuine stakes and real character dynamics where consequences are faced in all regards and the happy ending feels truly earned through the journey we go on with these characters. In short, there is a real sense of investment in the production whereas-with some of Marshall's past work-there has been a strong sense of simply going through the motions. Of course, the cast Marshall has rounded-up to fulfill this new vision of the P.L. Travers mythology doesn't hurt either and largely comes from relationships formed on “Into the Woods,” so I guess that movie was good for something. While obvious now, even before the project was announced it seemed there was never any other choice for who would (and could) carry on the role of Mary Poppins outside of Emily Blunt. Blunt has established herself as one of the most reliable and versatile actors of the present generation never mind her deep-rooted Britishness that lends itself to how she is able to both inherit this role from the great Julie Andrews while at the same time creating a very different performance than that of what Andrews gave; still, Blunt's version very much stays in line with what Andrews did. In ‘Returns,’ Blunt's Poppins has more of an edge to her in regards to how she manages the very different situation she encounters in the Banks household, but it is appropriate and-if “Saving Mr. Banks” is any indication-more in line with the character Travers envisioned in her source material. The fact one of these children she once looked after has grown up to lose his wife and is set to lose his house any day isn't exactly the stuff of lighthearted musicals, but it is in the inherent escapism of the genre and the inspired ways in which these elements are brought to life and inform the characters while encouraging the audience to remember to maintain a balance of intellect and imagination, of logic and fancy that “Mary Poppins Returns” truly hits its own stride. Everyone else is fine too, of course-including Colin Firth and Meryl Streep-and it is truly a treat to see Van Dyke (at the age of 93) dancing on the big screen again even if it's only for a moment, but this is Blunt's film through and through and it is through her iteration of Poppins that the film brings the past into the future in a way that feels classic without feeling dated.
by Philip Price
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone & Rachel Weisz
Runtime: 1 hour & 59 minutes
It would seem that, to gauge a review of the latest Yorgos Lanthimos film, would be to know one’s opinions on past Lanthimos films. Having only seen his two most recent works a la his Colin Farrell vehicles I was mixed, but very much intrigued by anything the guy decided to lend his voice to. In terms of “The Favourite” it is also of note that this is the first of Lanthimos’ projects where the filmmaker didn’t also write the screenplay with frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou. And so, while it feels strange to say it about a film as unique and frankly, as weird as, “The Favourite” this is by far Lanthimos’ most accessible film. Doesn’t hurt its damn funny to boot either.
“The Favourite” is one of those movies where it feels as if the intention of the piece as a whole came together in exactly the way the creator imagined. Whether it be in the visual aspect, the tone, the music, or the comedy elicited from each of these elements, “The Favourite” captures the essence of Lanthimos’ personality in such a fun and often riotous way that it would seem impossible the film was meant to be conceived in any other fashion. It’s as delicious as it is vicious and much of this is due to the trio of wonderful performances at the front of the film. Of course, the arc of each character helps and it is how Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan document these arcs in wide angle lenses, often times with a fish-eye perspective, to show-off the grandiosity of the architecture and indulgences of the period as contrasted by the select few who were actually allowed to enjoy such indulgences that really provides this throughline reason as to why two of the three main characters are so willing to do whatever it takes to maintain this lifestyle.
Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, a tragic figure, who had to substitute pet rabbits in place of the 17 children she lost-is a woman who feels no love yet has everyone falsely pining for her affection given the power her approval provides. Rachel Weisz’s Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, has been a life-long friend of the Queen’s and her counsel for seemingly everything including the present war between England and France. Sarah uses her intimacy with the queen to control matters of state, but Emma Stone’s Abigail-Sarah’s cousin who has fallen from her nobility and seeks to reclaim some semblance of respect-recognizes the players and begins playing a very different game than Sarah has mastered. Abigail is initially the subject of our sympathy though it becomes more and more evident how clever and manipulative she is and how well she knows how to use her wide-eyed look of innocence to deceive those around her or, at the very least, get them to play along with her instead of Sarah (most notably, Nicholas Hoult in what is a flat-out fantastic performance). And while the rivalry that emerges is the obvious component of the story what is more interesting is the reversal of perspective on how the viewer sees Sarah and Abigail and how this devolves into a conclusion that sees everyone who was trying to get ahead ultimately screwing themselves over and becoming trapped in roles that serve as the opposite of what was once ideal.
“The Favourite” offers prime examples of how cinema can be used to its full extent in nearly every aspect. The look of the film is rich in color and texture while the wide angles and large panning movements with multiple characters in frame lend a scope that matches the lengths these women are willing to go to in order to serve a master who might serve them right. Stone, Weisz and Colman are each glorious in their own unique ticks and charms and the supporting cast-including all the bunnies and ducks-are only utilized to further illustrate this very specific tone Lanthimos is chasing. The fact it’s difficult to imagine the film in any other way, as the product of any other filmmaker, only serves to show how singular a work it is and therefore how good Lanthimos is at his job.
by Philip Price
Director: Paul Dano
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan & Ed Oxenbould
Runtime: 1 hour & 45 minutes
Joe Brinson, Ed Oxenbould's character in Paul Dano's directorial debut, is 14-years old in 1960 meaning he was born in 1946-almost exactly in between the time my grandparents were born and the time my parents were born. He would be 72 today. Still, my grandparents would have been at or around just a handful of years younger than Carrie Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal's characters are here, but they too would of have already been raising children in 1960. I say this not only to get the timeline straight in my own mind, but also to lend some perspective to the experience prior as I always tend to frame these now period pieces as an opportunity to see what life might have been like if not necessarily what the people, I knew who lived through these years might have been like at that time.
Funnily enough, this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Dano is exploring in “Wildlife,” a familial drama based on Richard Ford's book of the same name. This idea that our parents were people before they were our parents and in the case of this film in particular, that our grandparents were people before they became the 'archs of this family we've never known a life without. Through “Wildlife,” Dano explores these past lives that come more into perspective the older we grow which we then subsequently appreciate all the more despite the fact the individuals on the receiving end of that appreciation only continue to fade further and further away from who they once were. It's a romantic idea, sure, but Dano deconstructs this further through the chronicling of one family's fissure where the youngest and most innocent party-Oxenbould's Joe-is at the center.
Joe watches on as his parents' marriage dissolves and his mother begins an affair. The film has no driving narrative per se and there is no clear right or wrong answer for the conflict proposed even if some of the actions the characters take are very obviously mistakes. Rather, Dano and his very confined, largely steady direction beautifully capture the slow unraveling of Mulligan's Jeanette as she sways from being this woman who has seemingly held it together for 14-plus years to a mother and wife that reaches a point where she begins making choices that even she herself may know are not in the best interest of her life in the long run or the life of her child, but that she can't help but to give into due to the emotion that has bottled up and that she is finally allowing herself to express. The trio of main actors here are each fantastic in their own regard as is Bill Camp, but it is Jean's actions that kind of cement this thesis of the film that states the bond of family is one of the few things in this life so deep that it will remain a part of you forever-no matter what you or anyone else tries to put it through.
“Wildlife” tees these ideas up and observes them with an expert degree of execution, but what it offers in terms of these observations is where the film somewhat falls short. This isn't asking for resolution, of course, with family there is the understanding that peaks and valleys will occur until the sun sets on our existence, but more there is a desire as the screen fades to black that Dano and writing partner Zoe Kazan (who is also Dano's significant other in real life) might have rounded out these ideas about the family and the nature of how we maintain bonds despite the entire concept of family contradicting what is tranquility. Fittingly, “Wildlife” ends on a note of quiet tranquility that leaves us to ponder why we make it so hard on ourselves and maybe that's the point-maybe if we quit chasing resolution and/or "happiness" we will learn to find these things in what our lives provide from the get-go: those ties that bind.
by Philip Price
Director: James Wan
Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard & Nicole Kidman
Runtime: 2 hours & 23 minutes
Look, I get it, “Aquaman” was never going to be an easy movie to make-especially given the weight of the pressure on the film to make or break Warner Bros.' DC Extended Universe. The losses certainly outweigh the wins at this point, but there was a hope that after the triumph of “Wonder Woman” and the hurried process of simply getting through “Justice League” (a movie already in production when “Batman v Superman” received its backlash and essentially completed when ‘WW’ turned things around) that James Wan's “Aquaman” might be able to finally allow this rival to the Marvel Studios cinematic universe to settle on and find its own distinct tone. “Aquaman” somewhat accomplishes this as the movie certainly settles on its own tone-one that is arguably appropriate for a movie about a man who can talk to fish-but “Aquaman” also never seems to find its rhythm. Wan, a master of suspense and horror, translated his skills into the bigger, action-oriented realm fairly well with “Furious 7,” but while “Aquaman” features some of the best choreographed and executed fight sequences of the year everything around them feels like an exercise in trying to figure out how best to configure an underwater world that the movie still hasn't figured out by the time it reaches its final, climactic battle. So, listen, I understand there is only so much one can do with an Aquaman movie, I really do, but while the ambition is there, and the movie offers some genuine fun in fits and starts the product as a whole never gels in the fashion that it feels like a complete, satisfactory work. Wan's “Aquaman,” as penned by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, feels like if the Power Rangers series had decided to grow up with the generation “Mighty Morphin” premiered with, but never developed mentally past that of an eight-year-old's mindset. Meaning, the only thing growing with the audience was the budget while still retaining the mentality and most importantly, the sense of humor, of that core demographic of fourth and fifth graders. “Aquaman” is a Saturday morning live-action cartoon on steroids likely meaning a certain, large demographic of the audience will absolutely love and revel in what Wan has put together and to be frank, upon further re-watches I can see how it might become more endearing, but upon first impression “Aquaman” leaves much to be desired in terms of substance despite indulging its audience in eye candy and overwhelming them with silliness.
At 143-minutes, “Aquaman” is just shy of two and a half hours, but the best thing that can be said-probably about the film as a whole-is that you never feel the running time. Wan keeps the plot beats moving so quickly you'll hardly remember them the next day while allowing his big, action set-pieces to breathe and take center stage so that what you do remember the next day are the best, most impressive things the movie has to offer. Beginning with voice over from our titular character we are given the backstory of how this half-human, half-Atlantian came to be when his mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), escaped to the surface world in hopes of fleeing an arranged marriage and fell in love with his father, a lighthouse keeper named Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). Things remained quiet and peaceful for a brief moment until henchmen from the king Atlanna was intended to be betrothed to show up demanding she return to fulfill her duties of marrying the king and bearing him a son. In a sacrificial act, Atlanna willingly returns to Atlantis (but not before kicking some serious ass) so that Tom and their son, Arthur, may remain out of harm's way. Though Atlanna returns to the sea, never to look upon the face of her son again we do come to learn through flashback that she has entrusted a loyal servant, Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe), to train Arthur and teach him the ways of her people. It is through these same flashbacks that we learn it was Atlanna's people who also had her executed after they learn she has given birth to a "surface-dweller" only spurning Arthur into a lifetime of hate towards those he comes to learn he must lead. After fast-forwarding to present day and re-introducing audiences to Jason Momoa's infinitely charming Arthur Curry via another exceptional action set-piece set upon a submarine that simultaneously introduces us to pirates Jesse Kane (Michael Beach) and his son, David (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), that instigates a rivalry that plays out partly over this film and likely a few films to follow, we learn that Curry is simply enjoying his existence as this exceptional being if not taking it too seriously. Curry has somewhat deflected the idea of becoming this hero he proved himself worthy of being in his escapades with the Justice League but given it’s now time for his solo feature he can no longer escape his fate when things come to a head under the sea. All of a sudden, Mera (Amber Heard) arrives on land to inform Curry he must help her track down a McGuffin that will make him the one true king of the sea and assist in stopping his half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who wants to wage war on the surface land so as to take his rightful place as ruler.
There is a moment in the first big action sequence Momoa is involved in where smoke is billowing from the floors of the submarine and Wan very intentionally ratchets up Rupert Gregson-Williams' score as our hero walks through the smoke in slow-motion while looking almost directly into camera and it is in this moment that Wan signals to and the audience very clearly understands what kind of ride we're in for. If “Aquaman” can be commended for anything though (and honestly, it can be commended for a lot more than I might seem ready to give it credit for) it is the fact the movie is never ashamed of the type of movie it is. This is a movie that features Oscar-nominated actor Willem Dafoe riding a shark that is itself adorned in battle armor-there is no running from the silliness of it all and Wan thankfully has no intention of trying to ground the material or make the overall tone any more serious than it needs to be. I mean, when Wilson's Orm seriously stops the movie in its tracks and says the line, "Call me...Ocean Master." I half expected him to take off his mask and look directly into the camera before The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" came blasting through the speakers. And while this may sound as if Wan and his team gave themselves completely over to this world and simply embraced the kind-of corniness of it all there is a balance laid out with the tone that is contrasted largely by how genuinely beautiful the film can be. "Can be" is the key phrase here though, as some truly breathtaking CGI is interrupted periodically by stiff ‘Matrix Reloaded’-level CGI in that certain moments look as if they are little more than preliminary animatics that were inserted before they were finished, especially in wide shots of people swimming through the ocean. And then there are times, such as when we first enter the kingdom of Atlantis or when Kidman's Atlanna introduces us to the fighting style Wan will be utilizing in the film as she battles some slickly clad royal guards that the CGI feels nearly flawless-tangible even. To this extent, I absolutely adored how far the costume and set designers went with some of this stuff-the guard's armor and weapons looking especially like the coolest toys you've ever seen; and there is such a "cool" factor to them that the choice to go this direction never feels cheap or schlocky. The visual prowess Wan has encompassed really is the reason to see the film and see it on the biggest screen possible for, while the writing is more than a little clunky at times-especially some of the dialogue-and the acting can be more than a little stiff and/or awkward due to the restraints of having to feel as if the characters are underwater at all times, there is so much grandeur in so much of the scope and such striking technique in the way Wan and co. execute their action set pieces that it would be a shame were they not experienced in the most immersive of circumstances.
Speaking of story, this is yet another factor of the film that very much has both big pros and big cons to it. For instance, the biggest pro for the screenplay is that it doesn't hold itself prisoner to the typical origin story structure. Though Steppenwolf is referenced once, there is no other mention of things that exist outside the world this movie establishes and so, while we understand that Arthur Curry recognizes his origins and is fully-aware of what he is and where he comes from, he has not yet fully embraced the title of Aquaman. From this starting point, Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall set-up not only that Curry is having a good time protecting his little patch of a secluded fishing village where he and his father still live, but also the politics of what is happening deep beneath the ocean and that Curry himself is unknowingly about to become entangled in them. Orm-in a bit of convenient timing- is attempting to rally the five kingdoms that exist beneath the sea to finally attack the surface in order to establish their superiority (which would probably be pretty easy considering the power Curry alone yields not to mention the technological advancements on display). Of course, Orm isn't really looking to unite the five kingdoms (which I wish they'd have done a better job of differentiating between) in order to rule the surface-dwellers in harmony, but so that he might rule both land and sea. As these things go, Mera is the daughter of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) who is one of the rulers of the five kingdoms and is set to be married to Orm, but obviously knows the guy is up to no good thrusting her into a place of great conflict where she will lose everything she's ever known by recruiting Curry for the mission she knows they must go on, but does it anyway in hopes of bringing a balance back to the world. Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall never allow the story to play out in a predictable fashion as far as where the movie might go next, but they do so much in order to try and avoid such tropes that the movie and therefore the audience lose focus on what's really important.
Zipping between the underwater politics, the globe-trotting expeditions, and the family dynamics at play “Aquaman” is trying to accomplish a lot while not forgetting to be a fun, light-hearted comic book movie and in doing so somewhat overcompensates in the latter realm as the pace is so break-neck, the action scenes so aplenty, and the goofiness so boundless that it leaves little time for actual character development or to even flesh out any scenes or circumstances long enough for the viewer to truly become invested in any of the many things that are happening. Taking a note from his horror background, Wan interrupts almost every moment of stillness in this movie with a surprise explosion as if he were pulling off a jump scare and while this works well-enough the first time it quickly becomes a recognizable pattern that then becomes a crutch the movie can't shake. As for the characters and their lack of any real depth (pun totally intended) Momoa is obviously more than a likable guy and is charming and funny as hell in the role, but he's not so much a character as he is a quip-master. That said, the guy wears the iconic orange and green suit well and I can't wait to see where they go with what they've set-up in the future as this very much feels like a movie where they're finding their (sea) legs and figuring out how best to accomplish certain things that will only, ultimately allow the sequel to be a great improvement upon this first outing. The only characters with real arcs in the film are the two villains-Orm and Abdul-Mateen II's Black Manta-which is all well and good and will again bode well for the sequel, but it's hard not to think had Wan and his screenwriters simply streamlined the story a bit and focused more on the characters and less on integrating multiple plot strands that the end result wouldn't feel as surface-level as it does.