Movie Review ~ Dumbo (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus, but when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Alan Arkin

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: As the screening date for the live-action remake of Disney’s Dumbo was arriving I realized I hadn’t seen the original in probably two decades. Though it is classic Disney, 1941’s Dumbo is just not one that has ever made it on my rotation when it comes to revisiting the old classics. Plus, I still think I have traumatic memories of Dumbo’s Circus on the Disney Channel back in the day. So I decided to fire up the 64-minute chestnut and there were a few things that really stood out for me. One was the simplicity in the storytelling and animation – this is why movies becomes timeless because they are handled with a delicate touch that helps them transcend the years. The other thing was, slightly spoiler-y, but the dang elephant doesn’t even fly until the last five or six minutes of the movie. You remembered it differently, too, right?

Now seeing that Dumbo isn’t one of my all-time favorites I don’t have the same precious feel toward it that I would have with, say, Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone, Pinocchio, or Sleeping Beauty. So I was less up-in-arms with Disney continuing their trend of turning their animated classics into live-action films…but more concerned with the guys they hired to do it. First up was screenwriter Ehren Kruger, best known for Scream 3 and a handful of the Transformers movies. What about his credits made it seem like he’d be the best choice to tackle the tale of a baby elephant at first ostracized for his large ears before being embraced when those same ears allow him to take wing? Second potential problem was the one time can’t-miss director Tim Burton, who hasn’t had a sizable hit for years and already biffed a major Disney adaptation with his brain-numbing bloated expansion of Alice in Wonderland.

Then the first teaser appeared and it seemed like things may be going in the right direction. Showing just enough of those baby blue elephant eyes against the strains of the melancholy Oscar-nominated song Baby Mine hit audiences with the right dose nostalgia and the tide seemed to shift from uncertainty to curiosity as to how Burton would bring Dumbo and his circus adventures to life. Maybe Burton would go back to the type of fantastical creations that became his calling card in his early films before he fell into relying on a never-ending rampage of CGI world he’s been filming in for the last two decades.

Sadly, Kruger (Transformers: Age of Extinction) and Burton (Big Eyes, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Frankenweenie, Dark Shadows) have not only run off with the circus in Dumbo but they’ve taken most everything you liked about the original with them. What they’ve given audiences (family audiences, no less) is a tale that’s too dark, scary, and frankly, boring. It also represents yet another failure by the studio to make any kind of case that these live-action remakes are somehow improving upon their source material. In fact, going all the way back to the Glenn Close led 101 Dalmatians, Disney has yet to totally perfect this formula…though 2015 lavish Cinderella came quite close.  And it’s another Burton fiasco where an entire world is created on a soundstage rather than use the types of old-school Hollywood movie-making that used to set Burton apart from his peers.  It’s all make-believe but there is no whimsy or fantasy to anything.

It’s 1919 and the Medici Bros. traveling circus has seen better days. Led by Max Medici (Danny DeVito, The Lorax), the performers are weary of another season traveling on a shoestring budget yet they are happy to see trick riding sharp shooter Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks) back from the war. Holt returns to his two precocious children (Nico Parker & Finley Hobbins) to be a father figure to them after the tragic death of their mother while he was overseas. Though he lost an arm in battle, Holt is eager to engage in his old act…if Max hadn’t sold his horses and most of his possessions already. Max suggests Holt work with the elephants, and it just so happens a new one has arrived and is due to give birth any day. When the baby arrives he causes an uproar with his oversize ears…as if any of these circus clowns and carnies don’t also have faces/features only a mother could love.

How the baby elephant gets his name is one of the few clever bits Burton brings forth but too soon the kids have figured out Dumbo seems to take specific delight in flight whenever a feather is in his presence and we’re off on a very different movie. In the original film Dumbo doesn’t learn to fly until the final moments, in the 2019 version he’s soaring around the circus tent before the movie is ¼ finished. That leaves 75% of the movie for Kruger and Burton to expand Dumbo’s world and introduce new characters and, in some good news, excise those horribly racist crows.

Michael Keaton (RoboCop) positively chews his way through every green screen Burton has erected as V. A. Vandevere, the scheming sovereign of Dreamland, a permanent circus that bears a striking resemblance to Walt Disney World with it’s multiple themed lands, wildlife on display, and cleverly concocted thrill rides. His star attraction is aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green, Cracks) and after seeing Dumbo in the local papers Vandevere sets his sights on purchasing Medici’s circus and establishing an act between Colette and Dumbo that will pack the audiences in. When Max, Holt, and the kids find out Vandevere has set them up only to gain access to Dumbo, it’s up to them to save the elephant and expose Vandevere for his greedy selfishness.

This plot is directly from any number of family films (many released by Disney) so it offers little in the way of surprise or fulfillment. It’s hard to believe Disney executives green lit something so pedestrian, actually. Considering this is the studio that also has live-action remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King still coming in 2019…I’m worried more than ever about how those films will turn out. As for Dumbo, this is mostly disappointing because there was potential here to make something with more appeal and charm.

Aside from the CGI elephant, there’s a seriously lack of personality anywhere to be found in the movie. DeVito seems like someone wound him up with a coffee IV and let him go while Farrell (who looks more handsome in clown make-up than he has any right to) is almost completely disengaged with the action. It doesn’t help the two tykes playing his kids are not only struggling to hide their British accents, they also are incapable of pulling empathy from an audience with their pallid line readings. Green, as always, feels like she wants to do something wild with her character but is operating within a framework that doesn’t support that. There’s no depth to anyone here, least of all in their choices or actions which are wholly dictated by the screenplay not by any real passion.

If you’re looking for any hold-over moments for the original, you’ll be disappointed to know that most of the music has been replaced by Danny Elfman’s same-sounding score. There are hints at the original tunes but maybe the biggest sleight of all is the beautiful lullaby Baby Mine delivered by a ukulele strumming carnival worker as a campfire dirge to no one in particular. Admittedly, the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence has made the transition into the remake largely intact, this time as part of an impressively trippy Dreamland circus act. When all else fails, there’s Dumbo who will likely charm the pants off you and nearly made me forget how crummy the rest of Burton’s film is.

Movie Review ~ Widows


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago, amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Stars: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Robert Duvall

Director: Steve McQueen

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one truly unfortunate thing that happened at the movies this year it’s that Steve McQueen’s Widows failed to catch fire at the box office.  The director of 12 Years a Slave and Gillian Flynn, the writer of Gone Girl, have adapted an ‘80s UK crime series and updated it to present day Chicago and cast some of the best actors working today.  It’s a gritty, great film and that it went largely unnoticed just totally baffles me.  Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) turns in what I think is the best performance of her career as a woman whose life is totally turned upside down and then is tossed sideways by a series of revelations that shock her and the audience.  Gathering together a group of disparate women (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby, Michelle Rodriguez, Furious 7) to follow through on a crime their husbands were planning, just when you think you’ve figured out where the movie is going it throws in multiple twists that I just did not see coming.  It’s hard to pull one over on movie-goers but McQueen and Flynn do it twice.

Hopefully, this is one movie that people will rediscover when it arrives on streaming services and then kick themselves for missing it when it was on the big screen.  Perhaps it was marketed wrong or maybe it was released at a bad time of year, but something strange happened with Widows because this is one of the best films of the year that just totally vanished way before it should have.  Find it, see it…you’ll understand what I’m saying when you do.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dumbo (2019)

Synopsis: From Disney and visionary director Tim Burton, the all-new grand live-action adventure expands on the beloved classic story where differences are celebrated, family is cherished and dreams take flight.

Release Date: March 29, 2019

Thoughts: I must say when I heard Disney was making a live-action version of their classic 1941 animated film Dumbo to be directed by Tim Burton I was less than thrilled. Dumbo is a family favorite and one that seemed unlikely to lend itself to the kind of success other adaptations like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and The Jungle Book enjoyed.  Even more, was the dark whimsy of Burton (Dark Shadows) really the right choice to take this simple and lovely tale to the big screen?  After watching this first look at the 2019 release, I’m relaxing into the notion that this marriage of Burton’s style and Disney’s chestnut might not be so strange after all.  It looks downright charming.  Starring Colin Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks), Michael Keaton (Spider Man: Homecoming), Danny DeVito (Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax), Eva Green (Cracks) and a big-eyed CGI elephant who is destined to fly to great heights, this just jumped up a few notches on my radar.

The Silver Bullet ~ Widows

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except debts left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities take fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Thoughts: Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) had a fondness for Widows, a UK television series created by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect).  In fact, McQueen liked it so much that he brought on Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn to modernize the story and signed on top notch talent to bring it stateside.  The result can be glimpsed in this trailer, an exciting first look at a hard-boiled crime drama that could be an award contender when all is said and done.  The cast is made up of Oscar winners Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) and Robert Duvall (The Paper), Oscar nominees Liam Neeson (The Commuter), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), and Jacki Weaver (Life of the Party), not to mention impressive names like Colin Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby), Michelle Rodriguez (Furious 7), and Cynthia Erivo.  If the finished product is as impressively dynamite as this trailer, McQueen and company will have a very good fall.

Movie Review ~ Roman J. Israel, Esq


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An attorney at an L.A. law firm discovers some unfavorable things about his partner and decides to right his wrongs.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Shelley Hennig, Carmen Ejogo

Director: Dan Gilroy

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Oof…can someone please, PLEASE find Denzel Washington a comedy?  Flying (deservedly) under the radar until it’s late 2017 release, Washington’s Roman J. Israel Esq. is one of those painfully pointed exercises in social importance that thinks it’s a power player but is really just an also-ran that drags several good actors down with it.  Coming off a fun roster in 2016 that saw him cut loose (a little) in the undervalued The Magnificent Seven remake and nearly nabbing another Oscar for his tremendous Fences, this is a paltry piffle of a film that deserves to be buried in paperwork and forgotten.

Writer-director Dan Gilory gave us one of 2015’s best films, Nightcrawler, and one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s most impressive roles so I’m sure the hope was that lighting could strike twice with Roman J. Israel Esq.  Sadly, Gilroy’s follow-up is a draining affair that’s far too long and isn’t destined to be the high point for anyone involved.  This is a film that feels like one you’re assigned to see in a social justice class that you watch half off, get the point, write your paper, and never think of it again.

Washngton (Flight) is the titular character, an enormously intelligent partner in a small Los Angeles law firm.  Best suited for working behind the scenes writing briefs and letting his colleague be the face of the firm in the courthouse, he’s called into action when his partner suffers a stroke and is unable to continue working.  The first day Roman must take over the docket, his consternation at the broken judicial system lands him in contempt of court and running afoul of his clients.

When the niece of his partner brings in a big-wig lawyer (Colin Farrell, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) to take-over the existing cases and close up shop, instead of accepting his offer to work at his fancy firm Roman decides to go it on his own. Reaching out to a non-profit social worker (Carmen Ejogo, The Purge: Anarchy) with the hope of finding assistance in introducing a long in the works brief he thinks will fix the system, Roman finds doors closing to him left and right.  Reluctantly returning to work for the expensive law firm, he’s put in charge of a case that will change everything.

Gilroy’s script has some interesting twists and turns for our leading man, placing upon him a moral dilemma to show that Roman might be just as susceptible to corruption as his colleagues.  Yet the film, told mostly in flashback, struggles with its own timeline and can be confusing if you aren’t paying rapt attention.  This is hard to do with Washington turning in a skittish performance on the spectrum that doesn’t provide any heart or soul.  In Nightcrawler, Gilroy presented an anti-hero as the protagonist that we’re supposed to abhor, but in this one the way Washington plays it we’re supposed to find some nobility in his actions and that never comes together correctly.

When the film first screened at a film festival, the buzz after was that Washington and Gilroy went back and took several minutes out…but by my estimation they could have done well with removing another fifteen.  The film has a serious case of droopy drawers in its middle half, with much too much time spent with Washington trying to intellectually woo Ejogo who strangely falls under his spell much too easily.  Audiences won’t be as receptive, I think, and with good cause.

This is another much too serious film from Washington that’s not as bleak as other recent works but is somehow darker because the actor never truly forms a connection between the material and the audience.  I can see why Washington was attracted to the role but it’s trying to say more than we want to hear, it all winds up a jumble of jargon that feels more like homework than entertainment.

Movie Review ~ The Killing of a Sacred Deer


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teenager’s attempts to bring a brilliant surgeon into his dysfunctional family takes an unexpected turn.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone, Raffey Cassidy, Bill Camp

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  We’re moving into a busy time for movies and that means a packed screening schedule. On these plum-full days this part-time critic has to get creative with his multi-tasking if doesn’t want to go hungry between movies. That’s how I found myself unwrapping and justa bout to sink my teeth into a sandwich when Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer began. Lanthimos opens the film with a graphic (and real) shot of open heart surgery, his camera lovingly lingering on the organ coming back to life and pulsing with blood. It’s an arresting image and one that pretty much demands your attention, as does the rest of the movie. Clearly, my sandwich was going to have to wait.

Surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks) has it all.  A successful career, a beautiful house, a loving wife (Nicole Kidman, Stoker), and two children that haven’t yet met their trouble-making days.  He’s also taken a young boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) under his wing for reasons not entirely clear as the movie begins.  All we can tell is that Murphy obviously feels paternal toward the boy, a boy that has a strange way about him.  Actually, everyone in Lanthimos’s parable on suburbia and privilege has a strange way about them.  Murphy and his wife play out some kinky fantasy with her lying prone on the bed as if under general anesthesia, their daughter (Raffey Cassidy, Tomorrowland) is on the cusp of womanhood and awkwardly makes her first steps into her femininity with Martin as her fellow traveler, and Murphy and his wife speak about family matters in public with little regard for privacy.  There’s a staid, robotic-like quality to the line delivery and it’s not unintentional in the slightest.

For the first half of the movie we’re just getting our feet wet with these people and trying to figure out why Martin’s actions feel so odd and what his game plan could be.  When it’s revealed why he’s getting so close to Murphy and his family the movie almost instantly gets a bit less interesting in plot but not necessarily in character.  Martin makes a proposition, an impossible request, to Murphy and the rest of the movie is about how Murphy chooses to respond.  One by one Murphy’s family members start to come down with a mysterious, near-supernatural illness that Martin seems to have control over…or is the other way around?  Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou leave audiences with little concrete answers and we’re never quite sure who the man (or woman) behind the curtain is.

While the plot tends towards the formulaic in its skeleton, it’s the sinews of muscle and tissue that the cast brings to this that make it one that has nagged at me almost daily since I saw it.  The movie can be seen as a twisted take on suburban perfection and personal responsibility or as an outright Fatal Attraction-like potboiler where no one is a winner by the time the credits roll.  Having worked with Lanthimos on his previous film (the equally mind-bending The Lobster), Farrell is aces as a flawed man asked to take action no father or husband should ever be tasked with and Kidman continues her streak of finding the deepest complexities in a seemingly straight-forward role.  Keoghan is a bundle of nerves and energy, presenting a character obviously on some sort of spectrum that feels just in his actions so has no fear of judgement.  That frees him to express himself openly and unfiltered, a refreshing presentation to be sure but unsettling all the same in our current climate of niceties above all else.  Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) has a brief but memorable scene as Martin’s mother, grieving the loss of her husband (whom Murphy operated on) and following her son’s lead on a plan to unite the two families in his twisted imagination.

As you’ve probably guessed, The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t easy viewing and the ending is sure to prove problematic.  Lanthimos doesn’t let anyone off easy and that includes the viewer.  Still, it’s a handsomely made, eerie film and even when you know where it’s headed it still has one or two twists to keep you alert.  Darker than The Lobster but just as interested in social norms and providing commentary on justice, The Killing of a Sacred Deer might not be the hunt you thought you’d be going on but it’s worth the journey.

Movie Review ~ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Ron Perlman, Carmen Ejogo, Jenn Murray, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Colin Farrell, Zoe Kravitz

Director: David Yates

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: For you die hard Harry Potter fans out there, know that this review is going to be as spoiler-free as possible. You’ve waited far too long to have the secrets of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them spoiled for you so…read on with confidence.

It’s been five years since the world said good-bye to Harry Potter and company after the films based on the novels by J.K. Rowling concluded. We all knew the end was coming and it was still hard to bid adieu to these characters and the actors we watched grow up over the course of nearly ten years and eight films. Still, we never really said farewell because Rowling has made sure Potter lives on in theme park attractions (been twice to the one in Orlando and it’s, of course, excellent), on the Pottermore website, and even in a stage adaptation taking London (and soon Broadway) by storm. The hunger for more adventures in wizardry was clearly there but how do you get back to business without sullying the memory of a beloved franchise?

The answer: start a new one.

Adapted by Rowling from her 2001 field guide published as a fundraiser for charity, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is your way back into Rowling’s creative creation and fans of the series are sure to find this was worth the wait. Or is it? If I’m being honest, I had a hard time finding my way in this new world and it’s not because it doesn’t do its job or because it doesn’t fit into the same universe as the series it was spun-off from.

My main problem was that with the Harry Potter movies, we knew what to expect and came looking for our favorite parts of the books to come to life onscreen. There was an endgame to work toward that had set boundaries and pre-defined beats to hit. We don’t have that same advantage in Rowling’s original screenplay which spells a fun discovery for some but uncertainty for others, including this critic.

Arriving in New York City in the late 1920’s, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything, sketching Newt as decidedly on the spectrum) hasn’t come alone. Toting a suitcase with enough capacity to make Mary Poppins green with envy, he’s arrived from London with a mission to restore a “fantastic beast” to its rightful homeland. Before he can get very far, however, he finds himself chasing down some escaped creatures with the help of an American auror (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice) working for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), her mind-reading sister (Alison Sudol, What to Expect When You’re Expecting), and a No-Maj (Dan Fogler, Europa Report) that mistakenly switches suitcases with Scamander to disastrous results.

As if that weren’t enough, Rowling get political (and dark) with the inclusion of a family of Second-Salemers who seek to rid the country of the witches and wizards they suspect are living amongst them. The matriarch (Samantha Morton, John Carter) is another grave, frightening character crafted by Rowling to represent much of the racism, bigotry, and even homophobia of the day. Her adopted son (Ezra Miller, Suicide Squad) has clandestine conspiratorial meetings with a MACUSA big-wig (Colin Farrell, Dead Man Down) that are staged uncomfortably on purpose by director David Yates (The Legend of Tarzan) and are open for multiple interpretations.

Yates guided the last four Potter films and is signed up for the next installment of Fantastic Beasts. It was a wise decision to keep him involved as he brings a needed tonal consistency to this new jumping off point and nicely balances Rowling’s twists and turns with more than a few delightful moments of special effects flights of fancy. Yet the movie is too long by a good ten minutes, oddly choosing to linger when it should leap.  These are all the problems that go along with the first film in a planned franchise…by the time you arrive at a nifty final twist (and it really is a good one) you realize all of it has been in service to setting up the next four films.

As has been the case recently, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is another example of a film marketed to all ages of the family audience that’s far too scary and dark for young children. The Potter films always had sadness at their core but this feels exceedingly bleak and unrepentantly so. Parents are encouraged to view this first before letting kids under the age of 10 have a look. For us grown-ups though, whatever faults lie in the story or calculated forward-looking set-up are lessened by Rowling’s admirable devotion to character development that seems to only richen the deeper you look and the super-duper production design and special effects that put you right back into Depression-era New York City (I half expected to see Annie cross by at ay moment).

More good than fantastic, this first entry in the next saga of Rowling’s witches and wizards is far from a disappointment but could have been tightened and brightened in order to live up to it’s title.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Synopsis: The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.

Release Date:  November 18, 2016

Thoughts: Now that’s how you make a teaser trailer.  I think in the din of awards season and upcoming superhero movies of 2016, we’ve forgotten that there’s a film arriving in mid-November with some serious pedigree behind it.  Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling adapts her own short guidebook for a film directed by David Yates, the man who helmed the last four Potter features (and who will be represented earlier in 2016 with The Legend of Tarzan) with a cast that includes Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice), and Colin Farrell (Winter’s Tale).  A true teaser trailer in every sense, I’ll admit this one gave me some of those good tingles that few previews nowadays can.  Highly anticipated, this only fuels the growing fire.

Movie Review ~ Winter’s Tale

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A burglar falls for an heiress as she dies in his arms. When he learns that he has the gift of reincarnation, he sets out to save her

Stars: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint, Russell Crowe, Ripley Sobo, Mckayla Twiggs

Director: Akiva Goldsman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Oscar nominated director Martin Scorsese (Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, Cape Fear) isn’t known to shy away from many projects.  This is a man, after all, that took a novel like Shutter Island which was considered to be impossible to adapt for the screen and made a perfectly good (if strikingly literal) thriller out of it.  So you should pay attention when you hear that Scorsese flirted briefly with bringing Winter’s Tale, Mark Helperin’s 1983 fantasy novel, to life only to abandon the project because he couldn’t figure out a way to make it work.

The project then fell into the hands of Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind who took on the work as a passion project.  Laboring for years to have his screenplay produced, he finally found himself in the director’s chair surrounding by a fairly impressive cast and a celebrated production team.  How, then, can the final product be so remarkably terrible?

Well…I’ll direct you back to Mr. Scorsese who had the correct premonition that this time jumping epic love story wasn’t destined to be captured on film.  It existed best in the yellowing pages of paperback copies of Helperin’s novel stuffed away on bookshelves waiting for their owners to thumb through them in the doldrums of these wintery months.

My experience with the book is limited, having paged through it a few times over the years but never being sucked in by its storied charms.  It’s essentially a bit of romantic whimsy with prose that helped inspire some imagination of the people, places, and flights of fancy Helperin laid out.  I can’t speak to how close Goldsman’s adaptation sticks to the source but I know that something was absolutely lost in translation.

Opening with a prologue filmed in lovely sepia tones by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (Killer Joe, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Jack Reacher), the story begins in the late 19th century with Polish immigrants denied entrance to America who wind up lowering their infant son in a model boat in the hopes that the harsh waters will see him safely to the shores of New York.  Ah…the American Dream!  Flash forward years later and the orphaned boy is now Peter Lake (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks, Dead Man Down), a burglar on the wrong side of gangster and former father figure Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, Les Miserables, Man of Steel) ready to make an escape out of the city.

Before he can reach the city limits, however, he happens to make one last burglary in the stately Penn home where he meets Beverly (Jessica Brown-Findlay, Downton Abbey), a doomed beauty suffering from consumption with a fever so bad she sleeps on the wintery roof to keep her temperature down.  Love blooms (not naturally because Farrell and Brown-Findlay have precious little chemistry) and soon Peter and Beverly are overcome with passion that leads to a bad end.  Oh…did I mention the film has angels, demons, flying horses, and mythical prophecies?  Well…there’s that too.

I’m giving you more of the plot than I normally would because it helps set the stage for the next act of the film which takes such a peculiar leap forward that you wonder if you aren’t watching a three part mini-series that forgot to include the second installment.  So much of the film takes place in establishing the past that next to no time is left to explore anything in present day New York.  The third act is comprised then of extraordinary coincidences, unexplained lapses in continuity, and half-developed characters (like the one poor Jennifer Connelly is stuck with) culminating in a cornball ending more laughable than the emotionally resonant one the filmmakers intended.

Farrell makes for an engaging lead, though his lack of chemistry with his leading lady and the oddity of his American born/raised character having a perfect Irish accent leaves more of a lasting impression than any good will his commitment earns him.  Crowe is particularly terrible here with his awful leprechaun-y brogue…his scenes with a surprise cameo (and equally atrocious) star is sure to haunt him in years to come.  Brown-Findlay doesn’t leave much of an impression aside from the realization that her narration of the film is better than her onscreen performance.  William Hurt (The Host), Connelly (who will also do time with Crowe soon in Noah), and Eva Marie Saint (make sure to do the math of her screen age when she shows up and see if you cry foul) round out the players.

Running close to two hours I will say that as banal as the film is, it managed to move along with a nice clip.  Goldsman rallies the production design to create a handsome looking film (even with one of the worst Hans Zimmer scores ever) though he lets the whole schmaltzy mess get away from him almost from the start.  If you’re thinking of catching this with a loved one, I’d suggest taking a walk around the block holding hands instead.

Movie Review ~ Saving Mr. Banks

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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.