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Brilliant performances can’t save this smug political satire

      Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) should have been a drunken lineman in Wyoming who lived an entirely unremarkable life. But through fate and a corrupt political system, he became the most powerful man in the world for eight years.
      In a remarkable career, Cheney grabbed power whenever he could, becoming a CEO, a political dynamo and a vice president with nearly unheard-of powers. While accruing power and despite several heart attacks, Cheney changed the political landscape and set up the advancing conservative boon. 
      A biopic with impressive performances and shoddy execution, Vice is an exercise in frustration. Director Adam McKay (The Big Short) trots out every clichéd narrative trick in the book, making a mess of a movie that seems both smug and incompetent. There are a surprise narrator, random credits in the middle of the movie, overlapping visual metaphors that are both obvious and overdone and an overall tone that is so annoying, it’s hard to watch. 
      The narrator, whose identity is purposefully withheld until one of the most obnoxious reveals in film history, condescendingly describes war crimes and legal power grabs like he’s narrating an episode of the Wonder Years.
      McKay clearly views Cheney as a monster, yet Cheney and his cabal of conservatives are the only amusing presences in the film. It’s hard to view Cheney and Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) as the villains of a piece when they’re made to seem smarter and funnier than everyone around them. That fault combines with visual metaphors and narrative frippery to turn what could have been an incisive look at how Dick Cheney ran a shadow government in full view of the American people into a poorly executed sitcom.
     Yet there are brilliant performances. As Cheney, Bale is nearly unrecognizable. His voice, mannerisms and attitude are all spot-on. He gives Cheney barely any empathy except for his family, who he loves fiercely. Cheney’s wife Lynne (Amy Adams) is a fierce matriarch who pushes Dick to greatness and guards her family’s growing power like a lioness. The duo work beautifully together, with crackling chemistry and a deep devotion apparent from their first scene.
      The film also offers excellent comic relief in the form of Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush.
     Instead of using these adept players to show how the world has changed, McKay preaches about American apathy. Apparently, no one has told him that pedantic lectures from smug people turn people away from geopolitics. 
Poor Dramedy • R • 132 mins.
~~~ New this Week ~~~
      Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) feels out of place. He is the son of a human and a queen of Atlantis, an underwater realm that controls the seven seas. Though he has lived his life among humans, Arthur has been trained as a son of Atlantis. When challenged for the throne, he must decide if he is meant to rule the seas or live as a normal man.
      Aquaman has long gotten a bad rap as the lame member of the Justice League. This reboot could go a long way to rehabilitating Aquaman’s image.
Prospects: Flickering • PG-13 • 143 mins. 
      In 1987 Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) buys her first car: a bright yellow VW Bug. She’s surprised to learn that her car is actually a Transformer, a robot alien named Bumblebee and a fugitive on the run.
      Usually, Transformers films are uniformly terrible, but there is hope here. Travis Knight is one of the directors behind two charming animated Laika movies, and Steinfeld is a talented actress. This duo may do the improbable: make a Transformers movie that isn’t a soulless cash grab. 
Prospects: Flickering • PG-13 • 114 mins. 
Mary Poppins Returns
      The Banks children are in trouble again, and only their former nanny, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) can save them. When grownup Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) loses his way after the death of his wife, Mary Poppins flies back into their lives to remind the Banks family what a little magic can do.
       Filled with all the music and magic of the original, Mary Poppins Returns is a family film that’s closer to PL Travers’ original books while paying tribute to the classic Julie Andrews’ film. 
       But at 130 minutes, it may be long for younger viewers to sit through.
Prospects: Flickering • PG • 130 mins.
Second Act
       Maya (Jennifer Lopez) has a great family, but she’s miserable in her dead-end job. She dreams of being an executive in a fancy company, but financial circumstances denied her an education.
      When a fake resume scores her a great job on Madison Avenue, she decides to go for it. Soon, she proves to all that a fancy education isn’t as important as initiative and a little common sense. But can Maya keep up the false pretenses? 
      A modernized version of Working Girl, Second Act could be the inspirational feminist movie modern women crave. Unfortunately, with a script that hits every cliché in the book and clunky dialogue, it’s unlikely to strike a galvanizing chord. Lopez is a charming actress, but she has poor writing working against her.
Prospects: Poor • PG-13 • 103 mins. 
Welcome to Marwen
      Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was attacked and nearly killed outside of a bar. He survives but loses all memories of his life before the attack. Plagued by brain damage and PTSD, he copes with his pain by creating a village called Marwen populated with miniatures of all the people he meets. 
      Based on a true story, Welcome to Marwen plays as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. 
       On Carell’s part, it’s a gambit in his campaign to be taken seriously as an actor. Expect excellent effects from director Robert Zemeckis, and hope for the best.
Prospects: Flickering • PG-13 • 116 mins.