Puppet looking people, a white man in a military hat looking disturbed and a woman leaning over him looking concerned

Captain Hogie, alter ego of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), is comforted by one of his gun-toting friends in Welcome to Marwen.

This year’s usual bumper crop of holiday movies includes a political biopic, a Disney sequel and a bizarre tale of the aftermath of a hate crime. All of them open on or before Christmas Day. Let’s start with the best.

Welcome to Marwen

In the spring of 2000, artist Mark Hogancamp was savagely beaten by a group of men who disapproved of his cross-dressing ways. He survived—barely—but his memory didn’t. Since then, he has attempted to deal with his loss and trauma by creating a fantasy world set in the fictitious town of Marwen, Belgium.

Robert Zemeckis has turned this real-life tragedy into Welcome to Marwen, a film that seamlessly blends fantasy and reality with the technical finesse we’ve come to expect from the director of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump.

We first meet Mark (Steve Carell) as his imaginary alter ego, Captain Hogie, is being shot down over Belgium during World War II. His boots are destroyed in the crash landing, forcing him to don a pair of high-heeled pumps he improbably stumbles upon. He then runs into a group of German soldiers who proceed to ridicule his footwear. Their derision soon escalates into a physical attack, but Hogie is rescued by a band of machine gun-toting women who become his allies.  

All of this is presented as part of a world that is clearly unreal and kinkily sexual, as the characters look like toy action figures and the women wear short skirts, thigh-highs and other fetishistic attire. It’s only after the scene plays out that we realize it’s all happening in Mark’s head while he poses and photographs his “cast” of dolls against a miniature “set.”

In the real world, Mark really does have a group of women who look out for him, including co-worker Carlala (Eliza Gonzales), hobby shop owner Roberta (Merritt Wever) and new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann). They’re so devoted that they don’t seem to mind that each of them has a counterpart in his army of scantily clad dolls.

Unfortunately, none of these guardian angels can protect Mark from recurrent PTSD-fueled hallucinations that he’s being attacked by evil Nazis. His fears keep him from venturing out without his toy “bodyguards.” Despite his lawyer’s pleas, they also threaten to prevent him from attending a sentencing hearing for the men who attacked him.

Zemeckis’s sensitive direction and a strong cast led by Carell and Mann—with a major assist from composer Alan Silvestri’s exquisite score—turn this fact-based tale into a film that is as heartfelt as it is eccentric.

MPAA rating: PG-13
Our rating: 4 stars (out of 5)


In 2015, director Adam McKay tackled the task of explaining the complex financial shenanigans that led to the Great Recession. The result was an offbeat and informative comedy-drama called The Big Short.

This year, McKay and several of his Big Short stars try to explain the man who pushed the George W. Bush administration into some of its worst abuses and blunders. Vice looks at the life of Dick Cheney, the vice president widely seen as the puppeteer who pulled Bush’s strings.  

Starting with Cheney’s unpromising early days as a college wipeout from Wyoming who spends his nights drinking and brawling, writer-director McKay charts his evolution into a business mogul and political manipulator. The result is just as offbeat and informative as his earlier film, with one exception: Though Christian Bale impersonates Cheney with his usual chameleonic skill, even going so far as to gain 45 pounds, Cheney’s true character remains elusive.

The film does a better job of explaining Cheney’s wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), depicted as an ambitious conservative who’s decided her only path to power is to join forces with an equally ambitious man. And if Cheney isn’t that kind of man, she’s determined to turn him into one.

In other words, Lynne is a modern-day Lady Macbeth. But is Cheney a modern-day Macbeth? He acts as ruthlessly as Shakespeare’s power-hungry Scot, but his motivation remains unknown.

Several familiar political figures show up in the course of the story, many of them bearing a startling resemblance to their real-life counterparts. The most indelible impression is made by Steve Carell as Cheney’s take-no-prisoners political mentor, Donald Rumsfeld. But the tale’s most important relationship—other than the one between Dick and Lynne Cheney—takes root when George W. Bush (a folksy Sam Rockwell) enters the scene.

Admitting his ignorance of Washington politics, Bush begs Cheney to be his running mate in the 2000 presidential race. Cheney refuses, but he doesn’t shut the door completely. With the help of imagined Shakespearean-style dialogue and heavy-handed symbolism involving fly fishing, McKay suggests that Cheney is only manipulating Bush into granting him powers no vice president has ever received.

Vice has landed a Golden Globes nomination for best comedy or musical, but this makes no more sense than A Star Is Born’s nomination for best drama. The biopic’s humor, what there is of it, is too dark and/or blunt to inspire much laughter.

Its main strength is as a history lesson that lays out just what a master manipulator did to America, and how. Its main fault is its failure to explain why.

MPAA rating: R
Our rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Mary Poppins Returns

If you’re a fan of 1964’s Mary Poppins, nostalgia will probably drive you to see Mary Poppins Returns. However, you may find that the sequel doesn’t match the original’s emotional appeal or catchy tunes.

On the other hand, if you’ve never seen the original—and thus lack the element of nostalgia to pull you in—you may be bored by a plot that is literally paper-thin.

So who will be entertained by the new film? Children may enjoy its colorful animated sequences featuring talking animals, and they’ll definitely appreciate its patronizing message that the trouble with the world is that adults have forgotten how to think like kids. But young viewers will have to be patient enough to sit through a 130-minute running time bloated by interminable musical numbers that have little to do with the storyline.

Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), Returns stars Emily Blunt as Mary and takes place 25 years after the supernatural nanny (then played by Julie Andrews) dropped in on London’s Banks family. This time around, she finds that one of the children she used to care for, Michael (Ben Whishaw), is struggling to support his family after recently losing his wife. But he’s not doing so well and is on the verge of forfeiting his house if he can’t find a slip of paper that proves he owns shares in the bank that once employed his father.

Playing Michael’s children are Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson, who deserve special Oscars for appearing so enthralled by the boring tale unfolding around them. Also featured are Emily Mortimer as Michael’s sister, Jane, and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda as lamplighter Jack, playing the kind of blue-collar friend that Dick Van Dyke portrayed in the original.

Mary Poppins Returns tries hard to emulate Mary Poppins in other ways, going so far as to include song-and-dance numbers that call to mind the original’s biggest hits. The new songs are pretty, but they just don’t seem as catchy as classics like “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Feed the Birds” or the irresistible “Supercalifragilisticexpialidosious.”

An even more basic problem is that the sequel lacks the original’s heart. As the 2013 Disney flick Saving Mr. Banks pointed out, Mary’s ultimate goal was not to watch over the kids but to help their father see that his obsessive devotion to work was preventing him from enjoying life and being a loving parent.

In the new film, Mr. Banks’ son is already a loving parent, though one who is harried and grieving from his wife’s death. He needs to heal, but what he really needs is the aforementioned slip of paper. It’s not much to hang a tale on, especially when we suspect magical Mary could find it for him if she really wanted to.

MPAA rating: PG
Our rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice (Annapurna Pictures)