Movie Review ~ tick, tick…BOOM!

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The Facts:

Synopsis: On the cusp of his 30th birthday, a promising young theater composer navigates love, friendship, and the pressures to create something great before time runs out.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Bradley Whitford, MJ Rodriguez, Richard Kind, Judith Light, Ben Ross

Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  As a life-long RENThead and a true RENT-aholic*, I was already quite familiar with the 2001 off-Broadway production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! before it was made into a Netflix movie by musical theater Swiss Army Man Lin-Manuel Miranda.  I was also aware that Miranda had starred in a smaller concert version of the show which seemed like a natural fit for him.  Miranda, the multiple award-winning composer/lyricist behind In the Heights and the behemoth known as Hamilton was greatly influenced by RENT’s late composer, and the two have lead strikingly similar career paths.  It’s not hard to see how Larson might have had the same type of trajectory as Miranda has rightfully enjoyed had he not passed away so tragically at age 35. 

I had reached a bit of a Miranda saturation point when this film was announced and if I’m being really real with you (like, really really real), tick, tick…BOOM!! always felt like a minor cash-in on RENT’s juggernaut rocket ship took off.  What started as a solo show by Larson was adapted into a one-act play that was a small success off-Broadway but nothing on the scale that RENT had.  It went on to do quite well regionally but it served more to show that Larson was a good songwriter from the start…but that even good songwriters wrote some clunkers at the beginning as well.  The impending arrival of the movie didn’t set off any major bells or whistles to me because it wasn’t one I felt strongly about either way.

So, take it from that perspective as I write that in the days since I’ve seen tick, tick…BOOM! I’ve been unable to get it out of my head, and not just the music.  The performances given by the cast Miranda has assembled and what the director has brought to the screen surpasses anything that had been put onstage before.  Screenwriter Steven Levenson bounces back from the disastrously bad adaptation of Dear Evan Hanson with a positively inspired take on how to further mold what was once a one-man show.  Miranda takes all of these elements and then puts a Broadway polish on it all, the cherry on the top of what is already a musical theater fan’s starry-eyed dream come true.

While the 2001 stage version wasn’t as direct, the movie layers the real-life story of Larson’s life as a struggling artist over the existing script and it amazingly works.  I wasn’t sure at first how much I wanted to see Larson’s life essentially made into a musical, an existing musical even, but everyone involved treats it with such respect, grace, and dignity that it doesn’t come off as either too serious or overly sentimental.  This is sincere moviemaking through and through and if it had leaned in either direction too far it would have collapsed in on itself.  Levenson’s screenplay is sturdy enough to hold together.

The glue, or cement rather, that solidifies it though is Andrew Garfield’s mesmerizing performance as Jonathan in what is without a doubt career-best work for the actor.  Put aside the fantastic dramatics he brings to the more emotional side of the character but from all the documentaries, books, film clips, etc. I’ve seen over the years in conjunction with RENT, Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) has Larson the person down to an eerie “T”.  He looks like the composer and easily conveys the charm everyone that knew him always speaks of.  And when he’s not speaking, his singing is first rate.  All the singing in the film is soaring and, in another extremely smart move, Miranda switches between Garfield as Larson performing the show with an onstage cast (including Bad Boys for Life’s Vanessa Hudgens and Broadway powerhouse leading man Joshua Henry, Winter’s Tale) and what are often their “real-life” (movie-wise) counterparts, Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon) as girlfriend Susan and Robin de Jesus (The Boys in the Band) as Michael.

Much of the film (and the play) is leading to Larson’s composition of “the song”, a powerhouse ballad he’s been trying to create for his new show.  Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (played by The Cabin in the Woods’s Bradley Whitford sometimes and the real man himself on voicemails) encouraged Larson to keep writing and, if you believe the musical, it’s his advice that kept him searching for this major movie moment.  It’s very much worth waiting for and what existed onstage as a satisfying 11 o’clock number for an actress turns into something far more surprising here.  Then there’s even more movie to come.  I won’t spoil it but Miranda and company continue to blur the lines between what is the solo show, the musical, and the movie musical in clever ways throughout. 

Sure, the musical retains at least one of the songs that fails pretty spectacularly (mostly because it sounds achingly like the title song from RENT) but then again you have to remember this was written first.  Of all the movie musicals that have been released lately, this might be my absolute favorite in terms of overall success in transition from stage to screen.  It’s hard to expand these worlds and while In the Heights worked wonders with its transition, what Levenson and Miranda have accomplished here with tick, tick…BOOM! is sort of amazing.  The show now lives on in another completely new form separate from the original creation by Larson and the updated version reconstituted after his Pulitzer Prize winning musical became a revolutionary touchstone.  I would never be so bold as to make a statement like “Jonathan Larson would have loved this.” but I can say that as someone that was so moved (and changed) by the work that Larson has put forth and a fan of his for decades, this was a monumental undertaking with an exceptional execution.  Do not miss this one.

*What’s the difference between a RENThead and a RENT-aholic?  Well, RENTheads are fans of the show that have seen it more than five times and have won the lottery to sit in the front two rows at least once.  RENT-aholics have traveled across more than two state lines to see the show from any vantage point…and yes, I’m certified as both…and not just in NYC!

Movie Review ~ Songbird (2020)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In 2024 a pandemic ravages the world and its cities. Centering on a handful of people as they navigate the obstacles currently hindering society: disease, martial law, quarantine, and vigilantes.

Stars: KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Bradley Whitford, Demi Moore, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Walter Hauser, Craig Robinson, Peter Stormare

Director: Adam Mason

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I’ve boo-hoo-ed enough on here about how much I miss the experience of going to the theaters and cherishing that feeling of sitting in a darkened movie house with a packed crowd waiting for something exciting to happen.  What I don’t think I’ve spoken of is the flip side to that, the exasperation of dragging yourself out of the house after a long day of work (yes, some of us have to keep that day job), battling traffic and often out of the way theaters, and then getting a turkey of a film for your efforts.  That’s likely why so many critics get such a bee in their bonnet over not that bad films…it’s just because they were annoyed they left their house for a middle of the road piffle that was neither here nor there.

That’s why it’s been nice to not have to leave the house while watching a stinker, you literally can roll over and go to sleep if you want when it’s over; or, in the case of the dreary Sometimes Always Never, wake up first, brush your teeth, and then go to bed.  So should you happen to get the urge to commit some electronic funds to the el dweeb-o new Michael Bay produced pandemic thriller Songbird upon its release, you won’t be kicking yourself for wasting precious gas money for the round trip out to the theater.

The first movie to shoot in L.A. since the onslaught of COVID-19 shut down most Hollywood films, Songbird is an odd duck of a film that never can quite decide what it wants to be.  Shot in 19 days over the summer of 2020 and coming under early scrutiny for kinda-maybe-probably not adhering to all the health protocols put in place while filming, writer/director Adam Mason aims for a sort of ensemble feel but winds up with no one story or character that’s interesting enough to invest in.  Even worse, timely as it may be, there’s something just a tad ugly about releasing a film via Paid Video on Demand about the continued deaths attributed to COVID-23 right as many are in lockdown and facing a dark winter ahead.

In 2024, over 100 million people have died from the spread of COVID-23 which continues to mutate and is airborne.  Half of all people who contract it will die but there are a rare few that have proven to be immune to the virus, bearers of a coveted yellow bracelet that goes for big bucks on the black market. These people can roam free outdoors, though there’s not much out there to be living for.  Instead, the majority of the population exist behind glass walls and UV cleansing spaces where they receive items from the outside and take their temperature daily through an app and pray it doesn’t detect a virus.  Should they fail their test, armed guards come to take them and everyone in their house to quarantine zone (Q-Zone) from which no one returns.

Mason introduces a wealth of characters in quick order, keeping his eye on the 85-minute run time that is swiftly ticking away.  There’s bike messenger Nico (KJ Apa) who works for Lester (Craig Robinson, Dolittle) making deliveries to wealthy families like the Griffins (Demi Moore, About Last Night and Bradley Whitford, Saving Mr. Banks).  The Griffins make their money selling those yellow immune bracelets to high-paying friends and are in business with the shady head of the Sanitation Department (Peter Stormare, Clown) who doubles as the one that comes to cart people away to the Q-Zones.  Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) plays a wheelchair bound vet and associate of Lester’s who takes time in between flying his drone to follow aspiring singer May (Alexandra Daddario, We Summon the Darkness) on social media.  May, meanwhile, has a connection to one of the above-mentioned individuals that’s a bit of a spoiler so I’ll keep that one secret to myself.

That’s enough plot for most two hour films but Mason isn’t quite done – we’re not even into the main plotline yet.  Nico loves Sara (Sofia Carson) who he’s never met but talks to from behind her apartment door where she lives with her grandmother.  With their plans on starting a new life together if/when a cure is found, the Romeo + Juliet parallels are hard to miss, but it’s too bad that Apa and Carson don’t have a chemistry that could keep some sort of fire burning between the two.  When Sara’s safety is threatened, Nico has to find a way to get her out of the city before she winds up in a Q-Zone of no return…and to do that he’ll have to use his connections and resources in a short amount of time.  Ditching his bike for a motorcycle (what is this, Premium Rush?), Nico races around a danger zone of a city to avoid being caught by double-crossing government agents and making it back to Sara before she’s gone forever.

It almost feels at times that Songbird was made long before Hollywood was shut down and the filmmakers went back in post-production to overlay the words COVID in place of whatever random disease name was previously there.  Despite being sold as a pandemic thriller, there’s very little in the way of actual thrills on display and once you realize this is all going to be about finding a way for Nico and Sara to be together the interest just empties from the film in a flash.  At first, I was pulled in a bit at Mason and co-writer Simon Boyes set-up and though I shudder at the thought of our current lock-down extending, gulp, another four years the film presented at least a visually impressive view of a Los Angeles ravaged by a mass exodus.  The longer it plays, the more I grew bored with it because the characters are so bland and there are just so dang many of them.

Leads Apa and Carson are charming enough holding solo scenes to themselves but not totally ready to carry their own film yet, even forgettable fare like this.  You can see Apa possibly developing into a decent boyfriend character for a popular star down the road but not this type of nervy action hero…it’s not for him.  Carson was the better of the two on the whole, though Mason doesn’t know quite what to do with her; once she’s put in peril she becomes that sad standard female that needs saving.  I quite liked Moore as a ballsy take-charge mama bear protecting her immune-compromised daughter but when she ditches subtlety toward the end the character gets away from her.  Hauser and Daddario have worthlessly thankless parts and they know it, the less said about their awkward conversations about war, the better.  At this point, I’m not ever sure how to classify what Stormare is doing…it’s so kooky and weird that I guess in some way it works almost by accident, but this is a well he’s returned to so many times that he’s just repeating old hat characters now and collecting a paycheck.

Blessedly skipping a run in theaters and heading straight to streaming, I’m not sure how many people unable to visit their favorite local small business or go to a restaurant are going to want to watch a film about an endless plague with no hope in sight.  No time would really be right for this but is the second week of December really the best choice they could come up with?  Watch, it will snow real soon and you’ll be tempted to watch Songbird (by the way, the title makes no sense whatsoever.  What. So. Ever.) when it’s bleak and horrible out.  And you’ll feel worse after.  Don’t take the bait.  This tune is foul.

Movie Review ~ Three Christs


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A boundary-pushing psychiatrist treats three schizophrenic patients who believe they are Jesus Christ.

Stars: Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, Bradley Whitford, Charlotte Hope, Julianna Margulies

Director: Jon Avnet

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It seems like a rite of passage for every serious actor (or actor that wants to be taken seriously) to play a psych patient at some point in their career.  Watching Three Christs, you get the feeling the three actors that signed up for this slow rolling drama felt as if this was their chance to cross the padded room experience off their list.  The trouble is, they’ve found themselves in a movie that isn’t very interesting outside of its central subjects and there’s not enough warmth within any of those characters to keep audiences engaged for its lengthy run time.

Based on Milton Rokeach’s 1954 nonfiction book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, the psychiatric case study was adapted into a narrative screenplay by director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes) and Eric Nazarian.  From the beginning, with Richard Gere (Pretty Woman) appearing bruised and worn-down speaking into a tape recorder so that he may, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘set the record straight’, Nazarian and Avent have a hard time translating Rokeach’s landmark study into anything compelling.  If anything, they’ve taken what was evidently a radical approach to treatment of paranoid schizophrenia that wasn’t entirely embraced by the psychiatric community and reduced it to a series of vignettes that pits a doctor (Gere) and his team against his more traditional colleagues.

As the three men believing themselves to be Christ, Walton Goggins (Them That Follow), Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks), and Peter Dinklage (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) have varying degrees of success throughout the movie in their interpretation of mental illness.  While Rokeach’s study is fairly descriptive to the degrees of how the schizophrenia affected each man, all three seem to be operating largely on the same level of energy with Goggins opting for the most expressive approach, Whitford for the most muted, and Dinklage the most practical.  Instead of it being a showcase of their talents, it just gets awkward because you become distracted by Dinklage’s droll insistence on adopting another poor British dialect and Goggins tendency to bug his eyes behind thick glasses that already magnify them.  Whitford likely emerges the most sympathetic because his affectations don’t manifest themselves as outwardly bombastic as the other two.

Per usual, Gere is all business with no one more earnest about the plight of his character than the actor himself.  Gere is always good with convincingly advocating for the roles he is playing; whether they are nice people or not, if they are wrong, he’ll convince us they’re right.  That’s troublesome here because many of the doctors methods aren’t ethical and, while breaking the rules may lead to breakthroughs, it doesn’t always mean it was the right choice.  The doctor learns that the hard way.  Also learning things the hard way?  Any fan of Julianna Margulies (The Upside) hoping to see her get to do something interesting.  Aside from a brief suggestion she’s dealing with her own troubling vices, her role is largely relegated to the wife that stands at the doorway to her husband’s study and asks “when are you coming to bed?”  As the token fuddy-duddy naysayer, Kevin Pollak (Indian Summer) get some mileage as Gere’s colleague who looks down his nose at the new doctor’s questionable methods.  Only Jane Alexander’s (Testament) brief appearance as a respected professional willing to listen to new ways of thinking strikes the kind of interesting note the rest of the movie sorely needed.

Three Christs was filmed in 2016 and had it’s premiere in September 2017 at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Just now receiving its release three years later suggests that no one was in a rush to release this movie and you shouldn’t be in a rush to see it either.  It’s a movie for fans of these actors only…and even then your mileage may vary based on how long of a leash you’re willing to give them.

Movie Review ~ Godzilla: King of the Monsters


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The crypto-zoological agency Monarch faces off against a battery of god-sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Kyle Chandler, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Charles Dance, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aisha Hinds, Zhang Ziyi

Director: Michael Dougherty

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I guess I never knew quite how popular Godzilla was until I started doing my homework in prep for seeing his latest Hollywood endeavor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. While this film is only his third movie to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, it’s the 35th overall to feature the big green lizard/dragon/sea beast that smashes big cities with a mere flick of his craggy tail. That’s pretty impressive for a mega-monster originally conceived in 1954 as a cautionary tale on nuclear technology. As the world changed, so did Godzilla’s alliances, though his popularity waxed and waned over the ensuing decades, getting revived very few years to keep him in the public consciousness.

After a disastrous attempt at bringing him to life for American audiences via a 1998 soggy blockbuster, in 2014 director Gareth Edwards found a formula that worked with the impressive, popcorn-chomping, good-time fun of Godzilla. Always hungry for the next big franchise, Warner Brothers was already in the works on a sequel to their hit film when they decided that 2017’s Kong: Skull Island would be a tie-in experience that was slightly retro-fitted to expand upon their “monster-verse”. With two titans now in their corner and plenty of foes from the subsequent canon of sequels (official and cheapie otherwise), the studio went all in with Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The resulting product is one that doubles down on the monster mayhem but misses the mark on the human element that its predecessor made time for.

Five years have passed since Godzilla went head to head with two massive creatures that left much of San Francisco destroyed. Returning to the depths of the ocean, Godzilla hasn’t been seen since, nor have any more ghastly beasties risen from the ground to wreak havoc. Still, crypto-zoological organization Monarch has been continuing their covert work on the titan project that began years earlier. The discovery of Skull Island helped them pinpoint other locations around the globe where sleeping beasts may lie and outposts have been set-up in these areas to study these creatures and protect the outside world from disturbing their slumber.

Paleobiologist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobbie Brown, Stranger Things) live on one of the Monarch outposts and as the film opens they are present for the birth of Mothra, a giant caterpillar creature that Emma has developed a way to communicate with. No sooner has contact been established when an eco-terrorist (Charles Dance, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, playing his umpteenth villain) bursts in, abducts mother and daughter, and makes off with the device that not only can communicate with the titans but can also rouse them from their rest and send them on a rampage.

As the titans are let loose, including Rodan and the alpha-est alpha of them all, the three dragon-headed beast King Ghidorah, it calls forth Godzilla from the fathoms and he doesn’t seem too happy about cutting his watery rest short. Audiences should be pleased, however, that Godzilla gets far more screen time in the sequel and actually gets to be the bona-fide star of his own film. He definitely gets more screen time than some of the top-billed stars, many of whom seem to have signed up only to stand with their mouth agape on the bridge of a ship/aircraft carrier/submarine and occasionally throw out bits of trivia (I’m looking at you Zhang Ziyi, The Grandmaster). At least lead player Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now) is a marked improvement over the teeth-gnashing overacting of Bryan Cranston in the first film…but the scenery is still chewed to the bone by Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks) who manages to not only play the same irksome character in each movie but wear the same athleisure wardrobe as well. The only two notable actors reprising their roles are Ken Watanabe (Pokémon Detective Pikachu) and Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) as Monarch scientists and both seem to be squeezing each others hand for moral support for much of the picture.

Cutting his teeth successfully on smaller films like Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus, director Michael Dougherty graduates to the big time in a big way. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an overwhelming film and at times it feels like you’re getting swept away into a vortex along with everyone else in the movie. Surprisingly iffy special effects at times go hand in hand with stunningly rendered creature feature work – when Godzilla and King Ghidorah charge each other (seen in the previews but even more exciting in context) there a definite electric charge that ran through the audience.  Dougherty is best when the action is pulled back on a massive scale to see the creatures in their full glory — it’s only when we get up close and personal that you begin to see the seams…the man in the rubber suit as it were.

If only that pesky plot-stuff didn’t pop up to get in the way of all of the chaos from these colossuses, right? While the crux of the plot has the whiff of something audiences already explored in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, Dougherty penned the script along with returning screenwriter Max Borenstein and franchise newbie Zach Shields.  The film feels like a hodgepodge of ideas and necessary exposition to get us caught up to where we need to be before the next film, Godzilla vs. Kong, arrives in March 2020.   There’s a whole lot going on here and not a lot of time for anything to sink in. Major plot points are glossed over — don’t blink or you’ll miss that a character has a twin who appears in one scene while two major characters perish in separate parts of the movie and we barely notice because it’s so hard visually to see what happened.  As is the case with many sequels, there’s more mythology to explain and some of it (such as where Godzilla goes when he isn’t in battle mode) is quite interesting but we’re yanked away so fast it begins to feel like Daughtery is contractually obligated to get to the next big clash.

This is one of those pure entertainment films that doesn’t ask much of you outside of 2 ½ hours of your time and the price of a ticket. It’s escapist stuff that’s big, loud, silly, but ultimately a fun watch. If you’re spending time thinking about why the actors are doing what they’re doing then you’re missing the point of it all – just wait a few minutes and Godzilla will be back to show you why he’s king of the monsters. Bow down.

The Silver Bullet ~ Destroyer (2018)

Synopsis: A police detective reconnects with people from an undercover assignment in her distant past in order to make peace.

Release Date: December 25, 2018

Thoughts: Wow, Nicole Kidman continues to just be on a roll. It’s so interesting to see this actress continue to grow and flourish with each year, constantly surprising audiences with her choices and performances.  Her bets may not always pan out but her films are never not worth noting.  Coming out of its debut at several fall film fests, the buzz for Destroyer is that it’s another strong performance from Kidman (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) in an otherwise troubled film but this first look has got me hooked to know more.  Directed by Karyn Kusama (check out her spooky The Invitation on Netflix pronto!) and co-starring Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya) and Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), it’s another transformative role for Kidman and one I’m quite intrigued to see.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Post

 

Synopsis: A cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents pushed the country’s first female newspaper publisher and a hard-driving editor to join an unprecedented battle between journalist and government. Inspired by true events.

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (limited) January 12, 2018 (wide)

Thoughts: At the Oscars last year, buzz began to build around a rumored collaboration between Hollywood’s most favorite people. Director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), & Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks) would team up to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers.  Over the next weeks and months, we would get a tidbit here and there but The Post has flown quietly under the radar.  Until now.  I’m sure a number of Oscar hopefuls woke up this morning to see the new trailer for The Post and felt their hearts sink a little bit because it looks like this obvious Oscar bait is going to snag quite a lot of attention.  With an honest-to-goodness all-star cast of A-Listers and well-respected character actors in supporting roles, this looks like a slam-dunk.  If Spielberg can keep this one trucking along (please let it come in under 2.25 hours!) there’s a chance The Post will be headline news during Award Season.

The Silver Bullet ~ Get Out

get_out

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRfnevzM9kQ 

Synopsis: When a young African-American man visits his white girlfriend’s family estate, he becomes ensnared in a more sinister real reason for the invitation.

Release Date: February 24, 2017

Thoughts: If you were asked to draw a line between Jordan Peele and a selection of movie genres, I doubt that horror would be the first (or second, or third) one you’d select. So I’m fascinated that popular comedian Peele (Wanderlust) wrote and directed Get Out, which sorta plopped in out of nowhere for me.  While this trailer (as so many are nowadays) is way, way too long and curiously spoiler-heavy, it does offer some creepy moments and is more than enough for me to want to keep tabs on it until it’s released in February of 2017.  I’m also excited for this cast: Catherine Keener (Enough Said), Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks), Daniel Kaluuya (Sicario), Betty Gabriel (The Purge: Election Year), and Allison Williams.

The Silver Bullet ~ Decoding Annie Parker

decoding_annie_parker

Synopsis: Love, science, sex, infidelity, disease and comedy, the wild, mostly true story of the irrepressible Annie Parker and the almost discovery of a cure for cancer.

Release Date: May 2, 2014

Thoughts: Though the cast for Decoding Annie Parker is filled with celebrated actors like Helen Hunt (The Sessions), Samantha Morton (In America), and Aaron Paul (Need for Speed) and surrounds an important subject (searching for cures/causes of breast cancer) I can’t help but feel overall that this is a movie that was originally intended for the small screen. Yeah, yeah, the film is distributed as an indie but something about it reads television movie to me. That’s not to say it won’t work just fine in your local cinema and I’m interested enough in the true life story of the title character to make the effort to catch this one, but will it be one I’ll be happy I left the house for?

Movie Review ~ Saving Mr. Banks

saving_mr_banks

The Facts:

Synopsis: Author P. L. Travers reflects on her difficult childhood while meeting with filmmaker Walt Disney during production for the adaptation of her novel, Mary Poppins.

Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker

Director: John Lee Hancock

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: I have to be honest and say that I was probably pre-destined to enjoy Saving Mr. Banks.  As a huge fan of all things Disney (especially the early days) and growing up watching Mary Poppins I was looking forward to seeing how the studio that produced the classic film would handle a tell-all tale surrounding its creation.  Would it be a warts and all expose of the dark side of the House of Mouse or would it be a toothless feature length ad for the BluRay release of Mary Poppins?

While there are no warts to be found in the film and the sappy quotient is kept to a minimum, the overall effect of Saving Mr. Banks is one evoking a certain nostalgia for the golden age of filmmaking and Disney itself.  Who knows exactly how “honest” the script from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith is but I can tell you that as a viewer I was moved and as a fan I was impressed.

Saving Mr. Banks is really two films in one.  The first follows Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, Beautiful Creatures) as she travels from England to California to attend working sessions during the pre-production stage of the film version of Mary Poppins.  It’s well documented that Travers flinched at the idea of her beloved novels being turned into childish films and when Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, Joe Versus the Volcano) finally got her to agree to a meeting after over a decade of trying to get the rights he found the writer’s demanding requests to go down more like ipecac than a spoonful of sugar.

The second film springs from the mind of Travers as she recalls her childhood in Australia and the interaction she has with a father she idealized (Colin Farrel, Dead Man Down).  An alcoholic, her father was the center of her world and even through his failures he remained on a pedestal for her entire life.  We see how elements of her upbringing inspired the Mary Poppins books and can see why she so kept her novels so fiercely protected from those that would sully the memory of not only her creations but her beloved father.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) weaves together both stories in a nicely seamless way, keeping the movie afloat through some rough waters near the end when the movie starts to lay it on thick.  Overall, I didn’t mind that extra dose of syrup because it brought me back to the salad days of the studio when they had contract players and churned out many live-action classics. 

The film provides an interesting peek into the studio system that existed on the Disney lot in the 50’s and 60’s and the period design from Michael Corenblith is right on the money.  It was nice to see the Disney park recreated in the way guests would have seen it back then and the film historian in me loved seeing early production sketches of Poppins essentials that have stood the test of time.

Performance wise, Hancock has assembled the right cast…many of whom turn in surprisingly effective turns.  That’s never truer than in Thompson’s commanding performance as the chilly Travers.  She’s so cross and mean-spirited at times that it takes an actress of Thompson’s class to keep her this side of biddy without making her cartoonishly mean.  There’s Oscar buzz around Thompson and it’s completely warranted for her steel jawed ice queen that may not ever totally melt but thaws nicely.

Tom Hanks proves a bit more troublesome in his role as Walt Disney. Perhaps it was too much to hope that someone could truly portray Uncle Walt as good as the real deal but still I just never felt like Hanks got the job done.  The actor is so good-natured and easy to like but I had a hard time warming up to his off the mark Missouri-cadence and squinty stare…though he does muster up that same twinkle Mr. Disney had when addressing an audience. 

With each passing film I become more impressed with how Farrell has turned his movie career around.  He’s gone from Next Big Thing to Yesterday’s News and has come back nicely with a string of roles that are unexpected and unexpectedly sincere.  He’s wonderful here as the trouble father of Travers and gets the right emotional oomph out of his final scenes.  There’s nice work from Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina, The Lone Ranger) as Travers exhausted mother, Rachel Griffiths (Muriel’s Wedding) as a late in the game familiar visitor, and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom) as the songwriting team of The Sherman Brothers who suffer the most wrath from Travers red pen.  Not usually a fan of Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave), I’ll say that his role as Travers’ chauffer has perhaps the most emotional payoff in the film and I enjoyed his performance quite a lot.

Though mysteriously rated PG-13 (for a few scary moments involving some blood), this is one film you can bring the whole family to.  Pair it with Mary Poppins when you get home and you’ll have a practically perfect double feature.

The Silver Bullet ~ Saving Mr. Banks

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Synopsis: Author P.L. Travers travels from London to Hollywood as Walt Disney adapts her novel Mary Poppins for the big screen.

Release Date:  December 20, 2013

Thoughts: It’s not a huge Hollywood secret that getting Mary Poppins to the big screen wasn’t an easy task.  In fact, it wasn’t an easy task to get the woman who wrote the book that inspired the classic Disney tale to even meet with Walt Disney about his long held wish to bring the magical tale of a nanny to life.  By all accounts, P.L. Travers was fiercly protective of her creation and it was only when faced with some thin funds that she finally relentented….much to her eventual chagrin.  No fan of the finished product, Travers liked the screen adaptation of Mary Poppins about as much as Stephen King liked the 1980 film based on his novel The Shining.  This Christmas tale about Disney and Travers is made by the House of Mouse itself so I’ll be interested to see how warts and all they make it.  I’ll admit that only the last half of the trailer really caught my attention when it becomes more about the reasons why Travers was so close to the material…but coupled with a nice production design and canny performances, this should be a nice way to end 2013.