Dueling Mary’s At The Multiplex – Plus “Free Solo” At IMAX

By Chris Narloch

January is famous for being a cinematic graveyard, where movies that weren’t good enough to open around the holidays go to die.

So this week, I review several holdovers from last year that are still going strong in theaters, plus one worthwhile new movie.

Mary Poppins Returns

Reviews have been mixed for this sequel to the beloved 1964 film, which starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but I loved it. I have a thing for old-fashioned movie musicals, and the new installment stays true to the spirit of the original – it avoids crass humor and never attempts to modernize the sweet appeal of the Banks family and Cherry Tree Lane.

I’ll admit that the storyline of the new movie is very close to the first film, but what “Mary Poppins Returns” lacks in originality it more than makes up for in sheer entertainment value, thanks to a pleasurable musical score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, smooth direction by Rob Marshall, and a first-rate cast that includes a superb Emily Blunt, the charming Lin-Manuel Miranda, plus Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Angela Lansbury, and the miraculous Dick Van Dyke.

Mary Queen of Scots

I was surprised by the queer content in the latest big screen historical drama about the famous queen who lost her head in 1587, but it definitely makes the film more interesting -- if hard to watch -- for gay viewers. (All three queer characters in “Mary Queen of Scots” come to pretty gruesome ends.)

Since this is an unapologetically ‘Hollywood’ version of the historical record, it doesn’t really matter to me whether Mary’s close male confidant and her second husband actually cheated on her with each other in real life, but it does make for juicy royal soap opera on the big screen.

Director Josie Rourke gives the famous story a feminist spin that connects Mary and Queen Elizabeth emotionally, as parallel victims of the cruel, power-hungry men around them. This makes “Mary Queen of Scots” feel oddly modern in some ways, despite the period piece trappings of its lush costumes and locations.

In other words, don’t go see this movie expecting accuracy. While certainly not a classic, I enjoyed “Mary Queen of Scots” as intriguing revisionist history and for its strong performances by Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, and Ian Hart.

Free Solo

If you missed the amazing 2018 documentary “Free Solo” at the Tower Theatre, you have another chance to see it now that this mesmerizing, edge-of-your-seat movie has returned to the (really) big screen, at the Esquire IMAX Theatre on K Street, for one week only, Jan. 11 – 17, 2019. Sacramento native Alex Honnold (who now calls Las Vegas home) is the focus of the film, and what a fascinating ‘character’ he is; the 33-year-old, professional rock climber, who dropped out of UC Berkeley, undertakes one of the most death-defying feats of athleticism ever when he climbs El Capitan in Yosemite without ropes or assistance from other climbers. A perfect climb or death are the only possible outcomes for Honnold, and so his ascent up the 3,200-foot face of the famous rock known as 'El Cap' becomes a riveting psychological study of the power of the human mind and body. Visit: https://www.imax.com/imax-esquire-oo.

The Upside

Why do movies that are “inspired by a true story” often end up feeling phony and clichéd? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a question I kept asking myself during this new dramedy starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart as a very odd couple who become patient and caretaker.

Based on a French film that was in turn based on real people, “The Upside” stars Hart as a parolee with a bad attitude who is hired to help take care of a rich quadriplegic (Cranston).

Anyone who has ever watched a movie in their life can guess that the two will become best friends by the end, and the trick for moviemakers is to make this predictable plot anything but cloying and sentimental.

That starts with a great cast, which this movie does have in Cranston, Hart and Nicole Kidman, and with a smart, tough script, which “The Upside” unfortunately does not have.

Still, there are moving movements and a number of laughs along the way, and any movie that is dedicated to the late, great Aretha Franklin (and features several of her songs on the soundtrack) can’t be all bad.

Vice

The latest film from director Adam McKay (“The Short List”), “Vice” stars the cinematic chameleon Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Alison Pill as Mary Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld.

With all of that star power, “Vice” is definitely worth a watch, although the satirical script tries to cover too much ground. Despite being uneven, the movie is undeniably entertaining, and Christian Bale deserves an Oscar nomination for his remarkable transformation.

The Favourite

If you haven’t yet seen the latest film by director Yorgos Lanthimos, get thee to the Tower Theatre, or any of the other area screens playing this wonderfully warped dark comedy starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.

That terrific trio of actresses creates a sexual triangle that involves two scheming underlings (Stone and Weisz) who vie for the favors of crazy Queen Anne (Colman), a sickly, real-life monarch who held the English throne during the 18th Century.

You definitely need to enjoy warped, dark humor to get “The Favourite,” but the film gave me more guilty laughs than any other movie in 2018. Olivia Colman totally nails it as a spoiled, unhappy queen who is not above throwing Trump-like tantrums, and Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz provide wicked support in this deliciously cracked comedy.

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