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Watching The Movies: Aquaman, Bumblebee, Mary Poppins Returns

First one's bad; second's fine; third's a surprise. Read on!

In my spare time I watch a lot of movies. I’m not a trained movie critic, I didn’t go to film school, and I probably haven’t seen enough black-and-white classics to comment on whether the latest film from acclaimed indie darling Whatshisname was a tour de force of artistic brilliance or whatever. Modern blockbusters are more my speed, because I think they’re entertaining and (at best) say something about our culture due to their mass-market appeal.

So I was interested to see the three major flicks this holiday season: Aquaman, Bumblebee, and Mary Poppins Returns. They all opened on the same weekend, in direct competition. I made up my mind to see all three, and it’s taken me a hot minute, but now I have. And I have enough to say about each one that I thought I’d write something about it.

For me, a good movie has a compelling plot, interesting characters, fitting dialogue, and competent visuals. Do all those things right, and I’ll like your film. Do them excellently, and I’ll love it. But that might not be objective or quantifiable enough for you, so I’ll give every movie a rating out of 10 as well.

Just like my Watching College Football articles, I have disclaimers. First, this is just my silly opinion, and if you want to see any given movie, you should. Movies are fun, and you might like different ones than I do. Second, I try to keep my reviews spoiler-free, so no need to worry. Onward!

AQUAMAN

This is the holiday movie I saw most recently, but it comes first because it’s making the most money of all of them. I honestly don’t know how. It’s a ponderous trope-filled mess weighed down by a nonsensical script and mediocre performances.

Let’s start with the first bit of that last sentence. One of the themes of this three-part review will be how each of these films used tropes – essentially plot devices or callbacks that feel familiar to the audience because they’ve been done previously. It can be done correctly. It wasn’t here.

Almost everything that happens in this film is a trope. You’ve seen all of it before. This is a common problem for superhero movies, because the comics they’re based on already borrow tropes from other places and recontextualize or smooth them down for a mainstream audience. The Marvel movies solved this conundrum by making the superheroes and their supporting cast likeable and unique. DC, on the other hand, tries to solve it with big visual setpieces. Think Zod and Superman fighting through Metropolis in Man of Steel.

But people don’t care about what’s happening, and where it’s happening, unless they care about who it’s happening to. DC puts the action before the heart of any film, the characters. Marvel smartly reverses the formula. That’s the difference. And the trend continues here.

I cared about Temuera Morrison’s lighthouse keeper. He’s just a simple guy, waiting faithfully for his otherworldly wife and trying to do right by his kid. I also cared about Black Manta, the submarine-piloting, pirate-commanding kid in the first scenes of the movie who becomes one of Aquaman’s greatest villains. He should have been the main antagonist, because Oceanmaster is boring at best and hokey at worst, suffering from the same issues as the worst Marvel villains.

And Jason Momoa’s Aquaman? Well, he sells the swagger of a dude who knows he’s powerful, but he lacks any discernable charisma and doesn’t really have an arc. He experiences no character growth at all, from what I could tell. No one else in the movie is all that interesting either.

The plot itself contained twists and beats so obvious that I predicted them far before they occurred – another casualty of relying on tropes. The soundtrack absolutely does not fit the movie. I facepalmed when I heard the chorus of Pitbull’s awful “Ocean to Ocean,” ripped straight from Toto’s classic “Africa,” serenading Aquaman and his Atlantean buddy as they flew over the Sahara Desert.

There’s no denying that the visuals in this movie are stunning, creative, and gorgeous. They reminded me of Avatar. But as in that movie, they weren’t in service of a particularly good script or story.

The characters do not talk like people. The heartfelt lines come off as cringey. “Where I come from, the sea washes our tears away.” “Not here. Here, you feel them.”

It’s not the worst thing DC has ever made, but it needed to be better to save their floundering franchise. RATING: 4/10

BUMBLEBEE

It’s putting it mildly to say that the Transformers films are not very good. I’d say the first one is fine, the second is abominable, the third and fourth are still bad, and the fifth is nearly unwatchable. This is mostly due to the generally hackneyed direction of one Michael Bay and the clear presence of studio meddling. Yet these giant-robots-fight-each-other epics do so well at the box office that Paramount keeps making them.

So here we have a spinoff focusing on the titular Autobot warrior, set in the 1980s when he crash-lands on Earth, hunted by the evil Decepticons. This picture is helmed by Travis Knight, director of the underrated gem Kubo and the Two Strings, and you feel the difference from the first shot. The action is coherent, not a bunch of sloppily-shot metal-clashing sound and fury. Bumblebee’s transformations look real, and his interactions with the world and the characters are flawless.

Hailee Steinfeld needs more work in Hollywood, because she’s the heart and soul of this movie and she has to act to thin air – and she KILLS it. The secondary characters are mostly forgettable, except for John Cena’s hammy military commander. I couldn’t tell whether he was attempting to be corny or whether it happened in spite of him. If it was the former, it worked. If the latter, he should stick to comedies.

Dialogue is alright, occasionally verging on forced, but serviceable. The story follows the beats of E.T. and The Iron Giant, glazed over with a John Hughes sheen. It’s a nostalgia bomb, and as with Aquaman you will have seen these scenes before. Unlike Aquaman, however, they’re mostly entertaining.

I don’t have much more to say. I hope Paramount keeps this new direction up. If this is what Transformers movies become, I’ll watch them with interest rather than dread. RATING: 6/10

MARY POPPINS RETURNS

This feels like a breath of fresh air, like something out of time that stumbled its way into modern moviegoing. It aims to be an old-school classic Disney musical movie and hits the mark in nearly every way. The story is simple, straightforward, and well-told. It hits many beats from the first film, but given its point, that’s acceptable. (And yes, to keep up our theme, that’s how you do tropes well: only include them in service of the movie’s driving purpose or goal.)

The acting is compelling, too. I cared about every single one of the characters, especially Ben Whishaw’s older Michael Banks. There’s a few fun cameos, and a bigger role for Meryl Streep too that’s plain ol’ smile-inducing. And even though I still can’t stop hearing and seeing Hamilton whenever Lin-Manuel Miranda’s on screen, his Cockney isn’t bad. He has the most catchy of the song-and-dance numbers with “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.”

Emily Blunt does an excellent job as Mary Poppins, paying homage to Julie Andrews’ classic performance while making the role her own, playing it with a bit more precision and strictness than the original. She also displays fantastic range, especially in her duet with Miranda called “The Cover Is Not The Book.”

The only weak point here is the villain, whom I won’t reveal. He was so cartoonishly evil given his position that I couldn’t take him seriously, and his motivations felt forced. I’m not even sure this film really needed a villain, but here we are.

I doubt very much that any of the new songs will become Disney staples, but that’s mostly because the world that we live in now generally doesn’t go for movie songs. They’re exceptionally well-written, and the accompanying choreography is intricate and a feast for the eyes.

The movie is gorgeously shot, varied in its beauty and shine. It’s a real treat. Go see it and feel like a kid again. RATING: 8/10

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