HOLIDAY SEASON 2018 MOVIE REVIEW ROUND-UP, PART II
Yes, ye long-suffering faithful filmgoers, there are more movies to discuss during the still-overcrowded holiday season of 2018. In fact, there are so many more, we couldn’t even see all of them—there’s just so much time in the world to trek out to the movie theaters for all of us. Alas, as noted in the first holiday season movie review round-up, most people just cannot see most of the films released during the over-stuffed holiday season—and that’s a shame, because there’s more quality, or somewhat-and-scattershot-quality, in the case of “Aquaman,” films to discuss. There’s great news to report regarding Robert Zemeckis’ wonderfully emotional, touching, mature, insightful and consistently heartwarming and intelligent “Welcome to Marwen” and Rob Marshall’s wonderfully upbeat, positive, music-and-dance-filled and thoroughly enjoyable, fun, funny and entertaining “Mary Poppins Returns”—both of these films are highly-recommended to see in the theaters! However, there are some cautionary qualifers, alarm bells, hesitations and warnings regarding James Wan’s weirdly, bizarrely scattershot, over-done and over-long fish in the water story “Aquaman”—it’s not great, it’s not horrible, but the assuredly-popcorn-movie rests uncomfortably, shakily somewhere in-between, just like how its protagonist exists shakily between his two worlds. So head out to the theaters and confidently see “Welcome to Marwen” and “Mary Poppins Returns”–but caveat emptor–buyer beware–for “Aquaman.”
WELCOME TO MARWEN
Starring Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Neil Jackson
Written by Caroline Thompson and Robert Zemeckis
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Produced by Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey and Robert Zemeckis
Cinematography by C. Kim Miles
Edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll
Music by Alan Silvestri
Robert Zemeckis, the wonderfully talented and technologically proficient director, producer and writer who gave the world “Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away,” “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Romancing the Stone” and “The Polar Express,” courageously embraces state-of-the-art technologies yet again to compliment pure drama, emotion, humanistic storytelling and the examination of people who are different but just as alive and relevant as anyone else to create a unique film that tells that human-based story with high-technology that never detracts and always enhances the ever-present human condition and heart in the beautiful, enriching “Welcome to Marwen.” The film is always grounded in the human heart—the deepest, most intimate areas of the heart in regards to feelings, emotions, drama, tragedy, empathy, sorrow, love, relationships and all of the attendant, concurrent complexities that all of these areas bring to a person’s life—while the film also revels in that aforementioned technology to help tell the story. The result is a most unique, original and inventive movie that will have filmgoers laughing and weeping—yes, that cliché, unabashedly embraced here, and, yes, that is a cliché—along with the lead characters as they try to work their way through this barrage of feelings and emotions in a most complex situation that is never easy to categorize or deal with.
This examination of complex, varied human feelings and emotions and personality traits, quirks and differences, and how people deal with each other in difficult, different and unique human situations form much of the foundation of “Welcome to Marwen”—and what on earth could be more important than human emotions and how people deal with them in hard situations? Additionally, “Marwen” dares to tackle—head-on—mental illness, mental difficulties in general, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the aftermath of violent crimes against people and all of the concurrent problems that that brings to people and their lives, and, again, how people deal with all of these equally-difficult elements of life. Once again—these are relevant subjects—mental illness, mental difficulties, coping issues, post-crime stress and trauma, the general loneliness in life for many people suffering from these types of ailments—and, again, what on earth could be more important to examine in a film, and in life?
Thus, here you have the storytelling foundations that so intelligently support everything else in “Marwen.” When a film starts with the foundation of the basic examination of a troubled soul dealing with PTSD, trying to work through his PTSD, trying at times to just literally survive his PTSD, and fighting his PTSD in clever, unique and life-affirming ways, well, then you have a story, and that story, again, is what so wonderfully lifts up, carries and supports “Welcome to Marwen.” It’s a touching, emotional, life-affirming and, ultimately, positive and upbeat story—and it’s unique and different.
And it’s all based on a true story.
Yes, “Welcome to Marwen” continues the most-welcome film trend in 2018 that has seen a string of quality films based on true-life people and events easily rise to the top of the list of the best films of 2018. These films include the feature films and documentaries “Green Book,” “First Man,” “Boy Erased,” “Operation Finale,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “Divide and Conquer,” “Watergate,” “Mary, Queen of Scots,” “The Old Man and the Gun,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” among others. That’s quite a list of quality films, and quite the testament to the power of real, true-life, fact-based stories.
“Welcome to Marwen” tells the true story of Mark Hogancamp (insightfully, touchingly and beautifully portrayed by a quite-in-control and moving Steve Carell), a talented artist who, one horrible night in 2000, was savagely, brutally, violently beaten by a group of five pathological thugs. Hogancamp was beaten so badly, he lost his memory, his ability to draw, his standing—and, essentially, his ability to function well as a human being. He was able to survive, but he survived as a ravaged, troubled, scared and paranoid man who daily has to deal with the always-present difficulties of mental illness, insecurities, pain—physical, mental and social, flashbacks, a tenuous grip on reality, a need to be overseen by a caregiver and caring friends, acquaintances and neighbors in his small town, and, essentially, a lingering difficulty to cope in general. And—Hogancamp was beaten simply because he admitted that he sometimes likes to wear womens’ shoes. Of course, one of the many insightful lessons in “Marwen” is that it doesn’t matter why Hogancamp liked and likes to wear womens’ shoes—who cares, really?—and that—of course—no one on earth should ever have to beaten to the point of near-death because of something so incredibly trivial and non-important. Yet that’s what happened to Hogancamp.
However, this man had a second story to tell. Hogancamp’s wonderfully unique method of coping after his beating was to artistically construct and create an alternate fantasy world on the grounds of his house using whatever he could find—thus building miniature sets that made up the fictitious town of Marwen in Belgium. Hogancamp built a miniature town in his yard, using various materials, and then populated that town with various characters he created, and he then used dolls of various types—dolls similar to G. I. Joe and Barbie that resembled real people more than other, more fantastical dolls—to play the characters in the town. Marwen then created various storylines to accompany each character, and then he used the dolls to act out various story scenarios—all of them set during World War II in Belgium. And Hogancamp used real-life people as influences for his doll-characters, thus infusing the dolls with very lifelike qualities. Hogancamp dressed the dolls well in authentic period clothes, gave them noticeable hair styles and expressions and jobs and backgrounds—and then he staged the characters in life-like poses. And then—Hogancamp photographed all of this to perfection. He did such a good job creating this miniature town and fantasy characters, his resulting photographs have become a huge hit on the art circuit in the United States, and his photographs of Marwen’s inhabitants have been displayed at art galleries nationwide—really.
All of this is true.
Zemeckis and his talented cast and crew—his crew of special, visual, computer, green screen and CGI artists are all to be commended, praised and noted—smartly realized that Hogancamp’s true story wrote itself, and all they had to do was compliment the real inspiring story with those special effects to give the story a heightened filmic style, flair and lift—and, presto, they were done! And that’s exactly what Zemeckis has done, again—he adhered kindheartedly, emotionally and caringly to the human story at the heart of “Marwen” and added just the right dose of filmic effects to provide that counterbalance. But that counterbalance, it should be noted, is not just there for filmic entertaining reasons—the scenes where the dolls come alive and live out Hogancamp’s fantasy stories serve to remind filmgoers that this Hogancamp’s alternative fantasy world, and this is an extension of what is going on in his mind, and this is a major way that Hogancamp functions, exists, deals with his pain—and survives. Thus, the fantasy segments where the dolls come alive serve a great purpose to show some insights into Hogancamp’s mind, his feelings and his emotions—and once that settles in, it’s quite moving and emotional.
Hogancamp also has to deal with a quite fetching new neighbor, Nicol, a beautiful, kind and caring woman who lives across the street and shows real kindness toward Mark. However, Mark develops a quick, powerful crush on Nicol, and that, too, provides a moving subplot. Meanwhile, Mark doesn’t quite pick up on the shy affection shown toward him by the girl at the local hobby shop where Mark buys his dolls, costumes and props. And also meanwhile, Mark has to deal with an upcoming court date where his attackers are scheduled to be sentenced, and his lawyer is asking that Mark please attend the sentencing and read a statement to the court. All of this could be overpowering to someone who was not brutally attacked and left with PTSD and mental difficulties, but for poor Mark, the world seems to be crashing in on him from all quarters, and he dangerously, increasingly retreats farther into his fantasy world as all of these life challenges increase in intensity.
Carell is to be praised for his multi-layered, complex portrayal of Hogancamp. As Carell has now shown in several quality film dramas, he can play dramatic characters with as much ease as comic characters, and he brings an intense power to his dramatic portrayals. As Hogancamp, Carell expertly brings the viewer into his sheltered, hermit-like world of despair, yet it’s not all sad or depressing. There is some bright life there in Hogancamp’s Marwen world, and Zemeckis lets filmgoers enjoy Hogancamp’s fantasy world. When things get tough, yes, it’s harrowing, but fortunately, in the film as in real life, things sometimes have a way of working out positively in the end.
Hogancamp bravely, courageously, proudly and defiantly summons that inner intelligence and insight that he knows he has, he understands the boundaries of crushes and reality and relationships, he learns to confront his difficult realities, and—it’s no spoiler—he learns, basically, what’s right and wrong, how he should cope, how he can embrace and be proud of who he really is, and he learns to embrace all of the good that is there in his life. To watch Carell, and equally-talented co-stars Leslie Mann as Nicol and Merritt Wever as Roberta, the hobby shop girl, deal with and through Mark’s difficulties is, again, enriching and inspiring.
Much like Forrest Gump, Mark comes to realize just who he is, why he is, and where he is in life—and he realizes there’s much to like and celebrate about Mark Hogancamp.
Just like there’s so much to like and celebrate with “Welcome to Marwen.”
MARY POPPINS RETURNS
Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep
Written by David Magee
Story by David Magee, Rob Marshall and John DeLuca
Based on “Mary Poppins” by P. L. Travers
Music by Marc Shaiman
Song lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Cinematography by Dion Beebe
Edited by Wyatt Smith
Animation sequence supervised by Jim Capobianco and Ken Duncan
Film history tells us that Walt Disney literally worked for about twenty years to bring P. L. Travers’ popular “Mary Poppins” books to life (the story about Walt Disney’s efforts and discussions and troubles with Travers is the story that was told so well in the true-life-based feature film “Saving Mr. Banks” in 2013). Finally, Disney convinced Travers, and the wonderful, joyful, instant-classic “Mary Poppins” film was released to instant and everlasting acclaim in 1964, making its mark indelibly on several levels. First, the film was a catchy, melodic film musical, with fun, melodic songs from songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman; the film utilized what was at that time groundbreaking film technology that expertly melded live action and animation; the film appealed—cliché alert, but it’s true—people of all ages, from kids to teens on up to everyone else; the film was an entertaining movie as a whole, directed by the talented and golden-touch successful director Robert Stevenson, who directed a string of hits for Disney for decades in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s; and, of course, the movie depicted two triple-threat actors at the peak of their entertainment powers, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. The movie was a huge hit.
Apparently, everything associated with “Mary Poppins” takes a long. A whopping forty years after the hit 1964 film, a musical stage version hit Broadway—and was equally instantly a huge hit.
And how, in 2018—a whopping fifty-four years after the original film, Disney has released an official sequel, “Mary Poppins Returns,” with Emily Blunt in a nice, fetching, appropriately fantastical turn as Mary; the well-cast Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack, a London lamplighter who was an apprentice of Bert (Van Dyke) in the original film; Colin Firth (who’s been on a noticeable acting streak lately) as William Wilkins, the evil bank lord who is the movie’s villain; and Ben Wishaw as Michael Banks, the grown-up version of Michael from the first film. Van Dyke makes a brief, too-quick cameo—but it’s still nice to see him no matter where he turns up; Meryl Streep has a great time in a whirring, spinning, twisting number as the keeper of a most unusual gift shop; and Angela Lansbury makes a wonderful, late-in-the-film in another musical number—still lighting up the screen after all these years. A talented company ensemble of dancers and singers appear throughout the movie, wonderfully, excitedly, beautifully and consistently impressively performing great song-and-dance numbers—just how it’s supposed to be done, with a still camera, precision dancing, novel uses of props and sets, and numbers that fit right into the story, the characters and the film. This is no juke-box musical, this is no dance-to-a-song lame musical—“Mary Poppins Returns” is, above everything else, a consistently entertaining movie musical that deservedly, appropriately and welcomingly harkens back to the best classic film musicals.
And for all of that, filmgoers can put aside any worries about this sequel to a beloved film, and they can indeed celebrate, welcome the film—and enjoy this movie.
Along with those wonderful precision dance numbers, of course, are the real foundation and base of “Mary Poppins Returns”—the songs. And there are many of them, they are melodic, they are harmonic, there’s plenty of beats and rhythms and clever writing, and, like in the best movie musicals, the songs fit the characters, they fit the appropriate mood and atmosphere at the respective times and parts of the story and the film, they have catchy, fun and funny—and sharp—lyrics, and, again, perhaps most importantly, they are catchy, melodic and memorable. Several of the film’s song’s melodies will rest comfortably in your brain as you leave the theater—and that, of course, is a wonderful feeling!
The credit for the melodic songs and score go to the talented Marc Shaiman, and lyrics are by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The biggest accolades anyone could give Shaiman and Wittman is that their songs would be most likely praised and enjoyed by the Sherman brothers, Stevenson, Andrews and Van Dyke—assuredly. The new songs have that same sense of innocence mixed with sly knowing, nod-nod-wink-wink, otherworldly insight and fantasy that Andrews’, and now Blunt’s, Poppins demonstrated—after all, Mary Poppins does have some supernatural powers, she comes out of nowhere, and her complete background and resume are a bit of a mystery. And the songs—has it been mentioned yet?—are melodic. This is noted repeatedly simply because of the fact that one of the biggest criticisms leveled at too many modern-day musicals—on stage and in film—are strangely devoid of actually memorable, melodic songs. That seems odd or surprising—amazing, actually—but this has been true for many people regarding many modern-day musicals.
However, again, that’s not the case with “Mary Poppins Returns.” The memorable song list—all new songs by Shaiman and Wittman—include “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky,” “A Conversation,” “Can You Imagine That?”—there’s that noted mix of playfulness, innocence and fantasy; “The Royal Doulton Music Hall,”
“The Place Where Lost Things Go”—more fantasy fun; “Turning Turle,” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” and others, including a rousing song near the end of the film where everyone drifts up into the sky while holding onto balloons as Angela Lansbury sings beautifully. Why not? It works, and it’s beautifully uplifting, pun intended.
Director Rob Marshall, who directed “Chicago” (2002) and “Into the Woods” (2014) and who started out in show business as a theater dancer and choreography, is obviously the right director of the demanding job of directing a sequel fifty-four years after the beloved original. Marshall knows how to direct musicals, he knows dance, he knows music, and he knows musical theater, which is exactly where he got his start decades ago. Marshall’s genuine, career-long love of music, dance, dancers, singers, actors, film, musical theater and how all of these entertainment elements are supposed to come together in a film musical is clearly displayed in “Mary Poppins Returns.” To his, and the film’s credit, Marshall keeps things moving quickly and breezily—some might say too fast, as the film rarely slows down—but that quick pace works here, because the film does not come across as rushed or moving too briskly. “Returns” simply has a lot to accomplish, and if the film simply wants to get along to the next entertaining song and dance number, well, so be it.
Marshall obviously works well with actors in song-and-dance situations, and in “Returns” he directs the lead actors, and troupes of talented dancers, and three talented kids who play Michael Banks’ kids. They are cute, they sing and dance and run around like normal kids would, and they do not over-act or exhibit an over-reliance on their inherent cuteness. The kids do a great job, and it’s evident that Marshall is just as comfortable directing young kids as he is directing adult veterans like Blunt, Firth, Miranda, Van Dyke and Lansbury.
And, yes, there are sequences that combine live-action and animation—of course there are—and these sequences succeed, too. The animation is colorful, at times breathtaking, fun, fantastical and, you guessed it, accompanied by another catchy song. There were scores of visual effects and animation artists who worked on the animation sequences, and they are to be praised for their work in “Returns.”
As moviegoers leave “Mary Poppins Returns,” they’ll be smiling, they’ll be in a positive move, and those melodies from the new film will be rolling around in their heads. And they’ll also know, comfortably and reassuringly, that there’s no reason to fear this sequel to a beloved film that’s captivated audiences for fifty-four years, there’s no reason to worry, and they can indeed be happy that they took the time to head on out to the theaters to see “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Hopefully, it won’t be another forty or fifty-five years until we get to visit with Mary Poppins again. It would be nice not to have wait for another entire generation to spend some fantastical time with this mysterious, otherworldly nanny—and the uplifting joy and entertainment that she tends to bring to theater and film.
Starring Jason Momoa, Temuera Morrison, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Graham McTavish
Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall
Story by Geoff Johns, James Wan and Will Beall
Based on “Aquaman’ by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris
Directed by James Wan
Produced by Peter Safran and Rob Cowan
Cinematography by Don Burgess
Edited by Kirk Morri
Music by Rupert Gregson-Williams
Visual Effects Supervisors, Charles Gibson and Kelvin McIlwain
“Aquaman,” as previously noted, exists much like its lead character, Arthur Curry, the half-breed offspring of an actual queen of Atlantis, Atlanna, and an Earth-bound human, Thomas Curry, exists—caught somewhere in a difficult in-between existence, unsure about where he really belongs, what he should be or how he should be whatever he is supposed to be. “Aquaman” is neither great nor horrible, but exists in that shaky in-between, lingering on the brink of being great at times—just at times—and, alas, also lingering much of the time of being outright horrible. It’s a fish-out-of-water film—again, just like its protagonist. Where should this film be, what should it be doing, and where is its place?
The problems with “Aquaman” are evident—the movie is over-done, over-long, there’s so much story there ends up being too much story, the movie—and the story—tends to crazily veer here and there and there and here so crazily, at times the movie seems like it’s trying too hard or trying to be four different movies, the dialogue is stilted and at times uninspired and corny, some of the acting is equally stilted and corny, there’s not really much intelligent depth, and, well, even the special effects, costuming, sets and make-up—which often dazzle and are indeed even breathtaking in many scenes—still end up nearly over-done. And the action sequences—fights, fistfights, gun fights, laser fights, ray gun fights, space ship fights, creature fights, superhero fights—start to blur and meld and ooze together to the point where, well, again, the fights get to be just too much. In the end, there’s just too much of everything, no matter how often and how much the production design, set design, art design, costumes, make-up, props, special effects and visual, computer, matte, painting, animation, motion-capture and CGI effects do dazzle, glitter, impress and shine.
The literally hundreds of special effects artists who worked on “Aquaman” are to be praised—no one can fairly criticize the tedious, detailed, hard work done by these artists so well and so effectively throughout this movie. The creatures, ships, fight scenes and action scenes jump off the screen and fill up the screen—even if the film is shaky as a whole, filmgoers will realize and appreciate that the filmgoers used all of their massive estimated $200 million budget and put their work right p there on the screen.
But, again, the story, plot, dialogue and action all end up being a bit too much. Diehards and hard-cores in the comic book, superhero, fantasy and science fiction communities will find much to like in “Aquaman,” and they’ll all likely enjoy the movie, but the film doesn’t have the overall widespread appeal and likeability as some other recent quality superhero/comic book movies have had, such as the excellent “Wonder Woman,” “Doctor Strange,” Ant-Man,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and several other recent films in this genre. Those movies all found just the right balance of drama, emotion, humor, action, adventure, fantasy and science fiction—and these films showed some aspects of restraint. “Aquaman” does not show much restraint.
Director James Wan, who has gone back and forth between small, independent-style, hugely-popular low-budget horror films such as “Saw,” (the first and best film in the series, which just should have stopped after the first one), “The Conjuring” and “Insidious” and big-budget movies such as “Furious 7,” should know better—his low-budget horror and supernatural films are all about showing restraint, conjuring and crafting scares at a more down-to-earth level and on a more grounded manner. “Furious 7,” though, was just like “Aquaman”—all over the place, over-done, stilted, crazily scattershot. Yet, for some strange, mysterious reason, “Furious 7” made an estimated $1.5 billion—that’s one point five billion dollars—during its run, and, equally mysteriously, became the seventh-highest-grossing movie of all time. Of—all—time. Really. James Wan directed the seventh-highest-grossing movie of all time.
So it’s no wonder studio executives gave him an apparent green light to excess with an estimated $200 million budget for “Aquaman.”
The story tells a convoluted, layered—over-layered—tale of palace intrigue and battles among several kingdoms that exist underwater. The leaders are battling for control, and for and against a proposed war against those who live on Earth. Arthur Curry tries to intervene, fights with everyone, and goes on a quest to retrieve a hidden, guarded, mysterious sword that could give him unmatched power to lead the underwaterworld. Well, it’s something like Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword. Did we mention that Aquaman is named Arthur, he’s caught up in royal intrigue, and he has to retrieve a sacred sword-thing to gain power? Does that sound like all of the many King Arthur stories, and John Boorman’s classic “Excalibur?” Of course it does. If, somehow, “Aquaman” had been anything like “Excalibur,” there would be praise. However few films—and few of the seemingly several thousand King Arthur films—are anything like “Excalibur.” That movie was released in 1981, and to this day that film remains the gold standard for all of the King Arthur films. “Aquaman” wants to be “Excalibur,” but the 2018 movie never reaches those heights.
Jason Momoa does not exactly excel as a great actor in “Aquaman,” but he does indeed have movie presence, charisma and style, somewhere in that similar in-between zone that so many action/adventure/fantasy/sci-fi/comic book/super hero movie actors tend to occupy. Say, someone like, oh, Dolph Lundgren—who plays one of the underwaterworld leaders in “Aquaman.” And Lundgren somehow works in this context, also—although he too does not exactly excel as a great actor. But Momoa and Lundgren have presence here, and they do fit their characters. And it’s difficult not to like Momoa’s Aquaman, who’s also known as Arthur Curry, because Curry does have conflicts, he does display some slight emotion and feelings, and he does have an interesting backstory, with his father on Earth and his mother disappearing and believed to be dead amid the watery worlds of Atlantis and other underwaterworlds.
Actually, if “Aquaman” had toned down its scale, not included much of the underwater subplots, focused less on loud, clanging and repetitious fight scenes and instead had focused more dramatically—and more intelligently—on those inner conflicts that exist among the Curry family—and if the movie had literally halved its budget down to about $100 million, and cut about twenty minutes out of the film and focused more on the drama and not the action sequences, and had looked inward at Curry’s family with more depth, Wan would have had a much better, reflective and intelligent film.
And it’s interesting to note that one of the stand-out actors amid all of the excess that is “Aquaman” is veteran New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison as Arthur’s father, Thomas Curry. Yet Thomas is sorely, sadly under-utilized, and only appears here and there. If the movie had focused more on Momoa’s conflicted Arthur, his reflective and kind-hearted father Thomas, and Atlanna, played by a beautiful, glowing Nicole Kidman, well, this would have been, again, a much different—and a much better film. Amber Heard and Willem Dafoe also appear, but their characters are strangely underutilized—even though they’re main characters.
“Aquaman” will likely find its audience, Wan will likely have another hit, and some moviegoers will likely be satisfied. Yet, there’s the suggestion that many moviegoers will leave “Aquaman” thinking that somewhere in all of that, that better film was swimming around in that in-between world. Next time out—and there will likely be a next time out—perhaps, hopefully, Aquaman will find his footing—and his swimming—and appear in a better, tighter and smarter film.
So go out and see “Welcome to Marwen” and “Mary Poppins Returns” and enjoy the holidays!
Happy holidays to one and all!