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.

Movie Review ~ The Lone Ranger (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Gore Verbinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 149 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I made the mistake of reading too many early reviews of this update on the classic character featured first on the radio, then in a run of popular films in the 50’s, and finally on television.  Words like disastrous and failure were touted loud and clear and maybe that’s why I wound up like the film far more than I thought I would.  Does the film have its problems?  Oh yes.  Did it wind up being a total bomb for Walt Disney Studios?  Oh yes.  Is the film as bad as knife wielding critics would have you believe?  No, not by a long shot.

It’s probably safe to say that the deck was stacked against this from the start.  While The Lone Ranger has been a popular icon of American culture since his debut, there has been an inescapable cloud hanging over the franchise when looked at from a modern day perspective.  Simply put, there are some serious un-PC stereotypes going on and even dismissing these incidents as a product of the time in which the episodes were shot can’t fully exonerate those involved.  So the film had to find a way to parlay the relationship between John Reid (aka The Lone Ranger) and Native American Tonto into something more than a master/servant sort of relationship.

The casting of Johnny Depp (Dark Shadows) as Tonto didn’t start things off so well.  Though Depp has claimed to have Native American heritage, there were more than a few eyebrows raised when Depp, known for his broadly sketched characters, was cast in a role that already had studio heads sweating.  To the credit of Depp, director Gore Verbinski, and screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio there are strides taken to make Tonto his own man.  Given a back-story, motivations of his own, and ample screen time, the character becomes more central and fleshed out than the title character…so much so that it can feel like overcompensation.  Depp bookends the story under some quite impressive old age make-up and at times I totally forgot the actor was there.

Even though they spend the large majority of the film squabbling, Depp and star Armie Hammer (Mirror, Mirror) have a nice rapport and it’s their eventual team spirit camaraderie that gives the film some much needed steam as it trudges ever closer to its too long two and a half hour running length.

Working with Depp for the third time, Verbinski makes a case for the resurrection of the Western though there are perhaps one too many sweaty bearded men on hand and audiences may feel they need nametags to keep everyone straight.  It’s an efficient if overproduced picture that, while never boring, does meander through its middle section while Tonto and Reid find some footing in their growing friendship.

Though the film markets Helena Bonham Carter (Les Misérables) as a supporting player she’s a glorified cameo with quite limited screen time.  She makes the most of it though in a role that has one or two tricks waiting to be discovered.  William Fichtner (The Dark Knight) is a wonderful character actor equally at home in good or bad roles.  He’s a real bad guy here and the performance would be a highlight…if the appalling decision to give him a cleft palate hadn’t been employed.  It’s pretty much an unforgivable move in my book.  Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina) is memorable as Reid’s sister-in-law who finds herself and her son in trouble when a greedy landowner (Tom Wilkinson, Batman Begins) sets his sights on her and her property.

Halfway through The Lone Ranger I couldn’t help but think of 2012’s John Carter, another mega flop from Walt Disney Studios that I found to be unfairly maligned by critics.  Both films have handsome production values and maybe overreach and oversell in their attempt to make a proper adventure epic.  I feel both films got a bum rap and it’s up to audiences to make the final call

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Lone Ranger – Trailer #2

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Synopsis: Native American spirit warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

Release Date:  July 3, 2013

Thoughts:  The first trailer for summer’s would-be blockbuster The Lone Ranger kept its cards close to its chest, revealing just enough to let audiences know that Johnny Depp was falling down another rabbit hole of chameleon acting as Tonto, the trusty sidekick of the titular character (Armie Hammer).  The second preview is more of the same with some added plot details and a few more impressive effects shots.  For the most part, I enjoyed Depp’s previous collaboration with director Gore Verbinski (Rango, the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies) but westerns have traditionally been a tough sell for modern audiences.  If anyone can breathe some life into the old genre, it’s the dynamic duo of Depp and Verbinski.  Count me in as ‘highly interested.”

Movie Review ~ Anna Karenina (2012)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel.  The story powerfully explores the capacity for love that surges through the human heart. As Anna questions her happiness and marriage, change comes to all around her.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  ‘Tis the season for grand costume dramas adapted from classic literature and the holiday is off to a good start with this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian drama of alienation, deception, and doomed love.  Though Anna Karenina has been seen on screens both big and small since film was invented, this 2012 version is ablaze with passion framed within a highly theatrical landscape that is both inviting and cold.  Think Moulin Rouge! meets Merchant Ivory. 

Now don’t roll your eyes…Moulin Rouge!  has its rabid fans as well as those that wrote off Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical as MTV hyper cut filmmaking but it reintroduced some needed theatricality into film that had been lost for some time.  I consider Anna Karenina a sister film to Moulin Rouge!…meaning that if Moulin is the excitable sibling that can’t sit still, Anna is the lovelorn romantic that dreams of something bigger and better.

Re-teaming for the third time after collaborating on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, director Wright and star Knightley have brought in playwright Tom Stoppard to lend his distinct voice to the telling of this sad tale.  Stoppard has cleared away some of the muck in Tolstoy’s hefty (but well respected) tome and let previously underplayed storylines come to the forefront with ease.  Though the story is clearly centered on Anna and her affairs of the heart, under Stoppard’s pen we are treated to some beautiful moments from our secondary characters.

Wright has consistently given Knightley her best work (and led her to an Oscar nomination for Pride and Prejudice) and Anna Karenina is no exception.  I’ve found Knightley to be a hit or miss type of actress – her screeching performance in 2011’s A Dangerous Method almost broke the camel’s back and her work in the little-seen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World didn’t do her any favors .   Thankfully, she’s ended 2012 with a searing take on the Russian wife swept away into a sea of deceit spurred on by an unfaltering love.  Though she knows it will lead to no good, she can’t pry her heart out of the trouble it’s getting into.

As the two men in her life, Law and Taylor-Johnson are interesting choices to stoke the fires of her heart.  Law, with a balding pate and stuffy demeanor shows us his struggle more than he actually lets us see behind his cold exterior as Anna’s husband that tries to save her from ruin.  Taylor-Johnson is the young buck who catches her eye and falls just as hard for her without remorse of consequences.  It can be frustrating to see some of the choices our characters make…but our actors make these choices appear unavoidable.

Secondary love stories are usually introduced for comic effect in classic literature but Stoppard has given a nice sheen to Gleeson’s courting of Vikander’s pretty princess.  Though she only has eyes for Taylor-Johnson’s character, a shift in her heart happens on screen that is a wonder to behold – and it’s not just because Taylor-Johnson goes after Knightley instead.  Gleeson and Vikander share one of the best scenes of the year…a wordless exchange where they literally spell out their feelings for each other.

On its own, this Anna Karenina had all the elements to make a perfectly respectable motion picture but Wright takes it several steps further by setting the film in a theatrical environment that adds a magical touch.  Largely set in and around the stage of an ornate theater, Wright lets the camera push through the scenery into a Narnia-like world that exists behind the curtain.  Scenes are shifted in front of your eyes to new locations with striking detail.  Production designer Sarah Greenwood should keep Oscar night free because her lavish sets and ornate design will earn her a nomination without question. 

Even highly theatricalized, the film doesn’t seem gimmicky.  It would have been so easy to take this too far and make the film much too strident in its artifice but it always seems to work like it should.  Sometimes it feels like the concept has been forgotten but soon Wright sweeps you back into the backstage drama that plays out.  Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey creates a hypnotic pulse that the film hums along to…a dance sequence is played out with breathless beauty that captivates you fully. 

It’s a film that has been on my mind as the days go by but be aware that, like Shakespeare, there is a period of adjustment you must get through with Anna Karenina. When the film began I wasn’t sure this was going to be something I would enjoy as much as I dd.  The first fifteen minutes or so just spills over the audience and it’s up to you to hunker down and get up to speed.  For those that do, you’ll find a clever and visually stunning film experience that is good fodder for a wintery day at the movies.