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What to Watch at the Movies

A high-flying 'Mary Poppins Returns,' Clint Eastwood's 'The Mule' and more

 Mary Poppins Returns, PG

You can take grandchildren to the blockbuster Mary Poppins sequel and please them, but it’s really made for us grownups still humming those 1964 tunes. Nearly every song (by Hairspray’s composers) updates one in the original. Though most are merely catchy, not immortal earworms, there’s a rousing dance-hall number and the still-dancing Dick Van Dyke, 93, sings a supercalifragilistic one: “When they tell you [that] your chance to dance is done, that’s the time to stand, to strike up the band and tell them that you’ve just begun!” The plot — Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is almost bankrupt thanks to his late wife’s medical bills, so a wily banker (Colin Firth) means to evict his family — is only a mild distraction from the high-stepping musical fun afoot. Emily Blunt makes a magical airborne nanny, more wry and acerbic than Julie Andrews, and takes a larky plunge with her charges into a bathtub’s undersea world and the cartoon universe inside the family china. Meryl Streep (as cousin Topsy) romps with the kids in her upside-down house, and Angela Lansbury does the climactic “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” equivalent. As Mary’s fond lamplighter pal, Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda is no Dick Van Dyke, but he’s tuneful, and the reboot adds Broadway brio to the original’s blend of actors and animation. And Van Dyke’s British accent has improved since 1964.  —Tim Appelo (T.A.)

Still in Theaters

 The Mule, R

Clint Eastwood, 88, is wonderful as a 90-year-old horticulturalist who goes broke and becomes the Mexican Sinaloa cartel’s most successful drug runner. An unlikely tale based on a true story, it’s the most ambling DEA versus druggies movie ever, less focused on the thrill of the chase than on the life of the hero, whose obsession with daylilies (and the many young women he charms into bed on the road) alienates his neglected family. The script’s sentimental lesson about valuing family over work is way too on-the-nose, but Eastwood directs the heck out of it, and it’s gratifying to see him outwit the young by exploiting their condescending prejudices about oldsters. It would make a fine double bill with Robert Redford’s fact-based senior criminal film The Old Man and the Gun —T.A.

Linda Thorson, Stuart Margolin

The Little Film Company

Linda Thorson and Stuart Margolin in "Second Time Around."

 The Second Time Around, Unrated

In this charming indie film, Linda Thorson, 71, who replaced Diana Rigg on TV's The Avengers, and Stuart Margolin, 78, Angel Martin on The Rockford Files, meet when she breaks a hip and checks into a facility to convalesce. Recuperated, she buys a nice red dress for the annual Family Dance — he gets it for her wholesale, and being a tailor, mends it, along with her widowed heart. He's a curmudgeonly Holocaust survivor who needs her sunny smile (and remarkable good looks) to lighten his mood. They both need the moonlight streaming into his room, which he never noticed before. The script isn't as good as they are, but they're very good indeed. —T.A.

Stephan James, KiKi Layne in

Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

 If Beale Street Could Talk, R

Harlem in the '70s has never looked so gorgeous as it does in this dreamy, poetic, heartbreaking adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel about a false rape charge and the families it traumatizes. Director Barry Jenkins made 2017's best picture Oscar winner Moonlight and hasn't lost his artful touch. In a strong ensemble cast, Regina King, 47, stands out as the fiercely protective mother of the accused man's fiancée (KiKi Layne). The cinematography is swoonily beautiful, with a strong spine of storytelling. —T.A. FULL REVIEW 

 Mary Queen of Scots, R

Saoirse Ronan is marvelous as the fiery-eyed Mary Stuart, the 16th-century Catholic British queen whose Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), cost her the throne (and her head) in this historical epic penned by Oscar and Emmy nominee Beau Willimon (House of Cards). It could score Ronan’s fourth Oscar nomination and Robbie’s second, with its sumptuous period atmosphere and timely feminist theme — when men try to put a husband in charge of her, Mary snaps, "If God wills Mary to marry, Mary will marry only whom Mary wills to marry!" But the story meanders and the frenemy monarchs don’t dramatically connect (in reality, they never physically met). It’s intermittently terrific, but a nastier Brit historical film, The Favourite, will stomp it at the Oscars. —T.A.

Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges in Ben is Back

Mark Schafer; LD Ent./Roadside Attractions

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges are a mother and son trying to reconnect after his battles with addiction.

  Ben Is Back, R

No thriller is more tense than this story of a doting but no-nonsense mom (Julia Roberts, 51) struggling to keep her addict son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), home from rehab on Christmas Eve, safe from relapse. Roberts isn't just America's sweetheart anymore, she's a grownup whose career is on a roll. And she hasn't had a role this impressive since Erin Brockovich, which it in some ways resembles. —T.AFULL REVIEW

Mali Music, Revival!

TriCoast Worldwide

 Revival!, PG

If you liked the John Legend-starring Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert and The Wiz, check out this black-cast musical of the Gospel of John written by Harry Lennix, 54 (The Blacklist), who also plays Pilate. Michelle Williams is Mary Magdalene, and Chaka Khan, 65, is Herodias. It's a sassy hybrid, with onstage song and dance, location shoots, animation and CG. In one great continuous scene, Lennix's Pilate strides from a modern corporate boardroom to a World War I battlefield to the Bolshevik Revolution to Jesus' day — he changes costumes, but corrupt authority never changes. —T.A.

Tom Schilling and Paula Beer sitting at a table in

BUENA VISTA INTERNATIONAL/Pergamon Film/Wiedemann & Berg Film

Tom Schilling and Paula Beer in "Never Look Away."

 Never Look Away, R

Germany’s submission for the best foreign film Oscar is the most ambitious movie yet by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose must-see The Lives of Others won that Oscar in 2007. This one is about an artist (based on Germany’s greatest living painter, Gerhard Richter) who survives the firebombing of Dresden and escapes East Germany after World War II for the wild art world of West Germany. It’s a romantic historical epic that justifies its three-hours-plus length. —T.A. FULL REVIEW

 The Favourite, R

Olivia Colman, 44, takes over for Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in TV’s hit The Crown in 2019, but as 18th-century Queen Anne in this faster, funnier, infinitely nastier best picture Oscar contender, she’s a far more interesting person. Decadent, depraved, grief-stricken, she binges on cake and the manipulative, two-faced wooing of her lady-in-waiting, Sarah (Rachel Weisz, 48). The real Lady Sarah, ancestor of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, was described by the Telegraph as “the world’s most ambitious woman.” But into the palace of intrigue comes Sarah’s rival, her wide-eyed yet equally ambitious cousin Abigail (Emma Stone, 30), who’s broke thanks to her gambler dad. Sarah thinks she’s got two women under her thumb now, but she’s never seen All About Eve — Abigail can’t wait to replace her as royal favorite. Even the impulsive queen is a schemer. When she says, “I have sent for some lobsters — I thought we could race them and then eat them,” she might as well be talking about Sarah and Abigail. —T.A.

Roma

Netflix

 Roma, R

Even though it’s in black and white, in Spanish, and it has no stars you ever heard of, this touching story inspired by the childhood of director Alfonso Cuarón, 56, could win more Oscars than his outer-space smash Gravity. Yalitza Aparicio is irresistible as an indigenous Mixtec woman who becomes a domestic worker for a middle-class family in Mexico City and a second mother to the kids. It’s on Netflix starting Dec. 14, but its gorgeous photography and stunning sound design are better savored in a theater. —Thelma Adams (T.M.A.) FULL REVIEW

Liam Neeson and Viola Davis hugging in a scene from

Twentieth Century Fox

In "Widows," Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) leaves his wife, Veronica (Viola Davis), a multimillion-dollar mess to clean up when he dies.

 Widows, R

Nimbly written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Widows is like Ocean’s 8 for smart people, a heist movie about a gang of widows whose robber husbands died in a $5 million heist they must now complete (or be killed by the mob that wants that $5 million). It's got the girl-power mojo of Ocean's 8 and a far more pulse-pounding and brilliantly photographed thriller plot, and it's also about Chicago's corrupt political gangs at war, both white and black. Liam Neeson, 66, is great as the robber husband of Viola Davis, 53, who takes over after he's lost in the fatal first-scene shootout, and Robert Duvall, 87, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya are superb as criminals with political gifts. But this movie is all about Davis' crew (Cynthia Erivo, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez), who swiftly master the heist trade. Adapted from a 1991 British series by the maker of Prime Suspect, which made Helen Mirren a midlife star, it will make Davis a bigger star than ever. —T.A.

Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali in Green Book

Patti Perret/Universal Pictures

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in Green Book.

 Green Book, PG-13

Lord of the Rings’  Viggo Mortensen, 60, gained 30 pounds to play Tony Lip, the Mafia nightclub bouncer who was a bodyguard, chauffeur and lifelong friend of piano genius Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali, 44) on his perilous concert tour of the South in 1962 — when black visitors were wise to carry The Negro Motorist Green Book to locate places where they’d be safe-ish. It’s a true story and a heartwarming Oscar magnet. No surprise Ali is tops, but who knew Viggo could play Italian American mob comedy? Or that director Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber) could direct a smart, only partly funny, socially conscious drama perfect for our times? T.A. FULL REVIEW and Q&A WITH VIGGO MORTENSEN

Willem Dafoe in At Eternity's Gate

Lily Gavin

Willem Dafoe plays painter Vincent Van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate."

  At Eternity's Gate, PG-13

This brooding, beautiful movie about Vincent Van Gogh has the best possible director and star: Julian Schnabel, 67, a famous painter who became an even better, infinitely deeper filmmaker (BasquiatThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and Willem Dafoe, 63 (Spider-ManThe Florida Project), nominated for three Oscars and a 2018 AARP Movies for Grownups award, as everybody's favorite mad, one-eared Impressionist genius. The cinematography by Benoît Delhomme, 57 (The Theory of Everything), is absolutely rapturous. Oscar Isaac is wonderful as Van Gogh's confidant, painter Paul Gauguin, but the film is mostly a death-defying plunge into the heart and soul of Van Gogh — you get to see the world through eyes that saw what nobody else did, in order to paint masterpieces comprehensible only to people not yet born. The script has many soaring moments, but the narrative falls short of the acting and directing. Still, it's the best Van Gogh biopic ever, and among the most artful films about an artist. —T.A. SEE DAFOE TRANSFORM HIS LOOK INTO CHARACTER

Gwilym Lee, Rami Malek in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox

 Bohemian Rhapsody, PG-13

This biopic glorifying and sanitizing Queen is a pleasant enough parade of champion hits and behind-the-music cliches. Rami Malek captures lead singer Freddie Mercury’s polymorphously perverse magnetism, and he didn’t need those prosthetic buck teeth (which people falsely call the secret of Mercury’s distinctive sound — voice scientist Christian Herbst’s 2016 study proved it’s actually his oddly irregular vibrato). Even the true parts of the film seem as fake as those teeth. Mary Austin, whom Mercury called his common-law wife, really did stay in his life (though not bed) after he confessed to being gay, and he willed her about $50 million (versus less than a million for Jim Hutton, whom he called his husband). Mary was likely the “mama mia” who has to let him go in his coded coming-out anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But fine actors Lucy Boynton and Aaron McCusker can’t make Mary and Jim feel real in this infinitely artificial screenplay, and the Queen guys are all ciphers, too.  —T.A. FIVE MORE MOVIES NAMED FOR POP SONGS

Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe in BOY ERASED

Focus Features

Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are parents who send their son to a gay conversion camp in "Boy Erased."

 Boy Erased, R

Director Joel Edgerton (Star Wars' Owen Lars) directs himself as the ruthless director of a boot camp that tries to terrorize gay youths straight in an adaptation of Garrard Conley's memoir about "ex-gay conversion therapy." As the therapist's victim, skyrocketing young star Lucas Hedges is solid, as is Russell Crowe, 54, playing his kind yet uncomprehending Baptist minister dad, but they're outdone by Nicole Kidman, 51, as the patient's mom. A flamboyant, flashily dressed and coiffed Arkansan, she's rooted in religious traditionalism, yet torn by loyalty to her son and a dawning realization that the therapy is quackery. Really, the film is about her coming of age as a grownup. —T.A. FULL REVIEW

Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant

Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox

Melissa McCarthy plays writer-turned-forgery-artist Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant is her accomplice in the true story of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

 Can You Ever Forgive Me?, R

Recent AARP cover subject Melissa McCarthy, 48, is Oscar-buzzed for her performance as the actual celebrity biographer Lee Israel, whose books stopped selling, so she started forging and selling letters from Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward (400 of them, so cleverly conceived she got away with it for a while). Her character is outrageous, sometimes nasty, way too preoccupied with cats and alcohol, yet still somehow charming. But even better is Richard E. Grant, 61, as her shady bar buddy. A brilliant, bitter comedy and a classic New York story. —T.M.A. FULL REVIEW

Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carrell in

Francois Duhamel/Amazon Studios

Timothée Chalamet (left) plays a son battling addiction and Steve Carrell is his strugglig father in "Beautiful Boy"

 Beautiful Boy, R

Based on memoirs by David Sheff and his recovering addict son, writer Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy is an acting duel between Steve Carell, 56, and Timothée Chalamet as the troubled son — and the audience wins. The film takes us from Nic’s dazzlingly promising youth to the ghastly day when David must coldly refuse Nic’s desperately sweaty request for money. You wince at the flashback of late-teenage Nic talking David into sharing a joint — hey, he’s a Rolling Stone writer — unaware that it’s a spark for tragic dynamite. Maura Tierney, 53, is winning as Nic’s stepmom (and Amy Ryan, 50, is an Oscar maybe as his mom), but Carell’s performance, tightly wound but powerfully emotive at moments of crisis, is the news here, a banked fire of helpless rage facing a child blazing out of control. The soundtrack (Nirvana, John Lennon, Bowie) is the year’s best, a greatest-hits collection of genius addicts’ tunes. —T.A.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sitting on the ground with palm trees in the distance.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga play Jackson and Ally in 'A Star Is Born.'

 A Star Is Born, R

Lady Gaga and star-director-writer Bradley Cooper will clean up at the Oscars for their electrifying update of the famous story of an unknown talent who becomes a singing star, while her alcoholic mentor (Cooper) flames out. The first hour is a sensational skyrocket ascent — who knew Gaga could act and Cooper could sing? Or what she looks like with her real hair and face? The final hour and 15 minutes are slightly less superb, but still better than the 1976 hit Barbra Streisand version. Sam Elliott, 74, as Cooper’s brother-manager-rival, and Andrew Dice Clay, 61, as Gaga’s papa deserve best supporting actor nominations. —T.A. FULL REVIEW

Glenn Close looking at Jonathan Pryce in

GRAEME HUNTER PICTURES

In 'The Wife,' Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce play a long-married couple at a crossroads in their relationship.

 The Wife, R

Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close, both 71, brilliantly depict the four-decade marriage of a womanizing novelist and his more talented, totally overlooked wife. Close gives a career-capping performance as a great writer sidelined by wifely duties, poised to explode as her husband prepares to accept the Nobel Prize in literature. No living actor has been nominated for an Oscar more often than Close without winning. The studio released The Wife this year instead of last, avoiding competition with Frances McDormand, who won for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This could be Close's year. —T.A. FULL REVIEW

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