Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Saving Mr. Banks" won't save you from needing a tissue...

You want a tear-jerker?  John Lee Hancock can make a tear-jerker.   Oh, yeah, sure, Saving Mr. Banks is a “Disney” picture, and that fact sells a lot more tickets than Mr. Hancock’s name does, I believe in giving praise where praise is due.  Although the director’s name is not featured in any of Disney’s promotion of Saving Mr. Banks, with the aid of a well-written script and some marvelous acting by a few of the finest film actors working today, Mr. Hancock has done it again.  If you saw The Rookie (the Dennis Quaid one, not the Clint Eastwood one) a decade or so ago, or The Blind Side more recently, then you know what I mean.  

This interpretation of the story of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) doggedly pursued and browbeat author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) into granting him the film rights to the first of her beloved children’s books featuring the supernanny Mary Poppins.  Armed with storyboards and songs already created for the proposed movie, he and his creative team try their darndest to convince Travers that her fears of her dearest creation being corrupted are unfounded, although they seemingly fail miserably in the attempt.  We see how some of everyone’s favorite tunes from the resulting movie were created, and how Mrs. Travers did her best to passively-aggressively sabotage Disney’s team’s efforts at almost every turn.

As we follow these events, we also see flashbacks to turn-of-the-(twentieth) century Australia, and how Mrs. Travers, then a mere child of eight years, shared a very close bond with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), as both father and daughter were dreamers incredibly vivid imaginations.   They travel to a small hamlet off in the Australian boondocks, apparently so the father can take a new job, and he does his best to make their near-poverty as bearable as possible with all sorts of make-believe tales with his daughters, but his ever-present flask of hooch and looks of disapproval from his wife shows us that he needs something more to dull the ache of his failures.  The events of Mrs. Travers’ childhood have such influence on her dealings with the Disney folks fifty years later that the two storylines are by necessity intertwined.

Tom Hanks may be a bit beefier in the face than Old Walt was, but his mannerisms are spot-on.  He is marvelous here, but we have come to expect nothing less from him. Emma Thompson also gives an awards-worthy performance, doing her usual fantastic job of portraying the “proper” English lady with something of an attitude.  With the pedigree of these two mega-star actors, my singing their praises would not give you any information that you would not already assume before seeing the movie, so I’ll use this space to give some kudos to Colin Farrell.

I’ve long thought that Farrell is one of the more under-appreciated film actors of this generation.  His films have rarely been huge commercial successes, and his sometimes tabloid-fodder personal life may keep him from receiving more accolades than he has to date, but his performance here just reaffirms my belief in his talent, primarily making an audience sympathetic to his character.  We saw it in In Bruges, we saw it (albeit briefly) in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and even in London Boulevard (although it didn’t help that movie so much).  This movie is the high point of his career so far, in my humble opinion.

Although there are plenty of lighter moments in Saving Mr. Banks, it is a very touching story of must how much a child’s life is molded and shaped by his or her parents’ love, and how parents express that love.  The movie struck me with a notion that is probably so obvious to many of you - how grave a responsibility being a parent is; how every word spoken and action taken, especially those not even intended to be life lessons,  is absorbed by a child and used as a guideline for their own decision-making someday. P.L. Travers’ father, obviously a man who loved his children with a passion not many men may equal, used his imagination and love of tale-spinning not only to mold his daughter’s personality and set her course as a storyteller in her own right, but also as a means of getting his entire family through their difficult times.  

Of course, a movie like this could only have been made by the Disney studios.  The rights issues involved with Old Walt’s likeness alone mean that only the Mouse House could do it, but one would be hard-pressed to name another studio or production company who can create such a heart-warming tale.  If you can recall those live-action Disney films from the 60s like Follow me, Boys, or more recent ones like Invincible, then you’ll understand my meaning.  Especially touching is a scene in which Old Walt explains to Mrs. Travers that he finally understands the real meaning of Mary Poppins, and just how much it means to Mrs. Travers, and why he can be entrusted to translate that story to film faithfully.

I didn’t see Mary Poppins myself until I was over forty years of age, so while I do find it a very good movie, it has never held a very dear place in my heart.  I do accept that it does for countless others, though, so If you are one of those folks, then I believe you would enjoy this tale of how one of your favorite stories came to the silver screen. Even if you aren’t one of those people, however, you would indeed be a heartless creature if you didn’t find this lovely story as endearing as the tale of the mysterious nanny with the magical umbrella.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

"American Hustle" is a tad too long on the "hustle" part...

I remember ABSCAM.  It is one my earliest memories of the “news,” when I began to realize that there was more to the world than just my home, my immediate family and my school - one that involved people I would never see or meet, yet who would still affect my life.  The FBI sting operation that resulted in the conviction of numerous congressmen and a couple of Senators on corruption charges did not necessarily have such an affect on my own little corner of the world, but it just seemed to come along at a time when I was become aware of the larger world around me.  Thus, when the teaser trailers for director David O. Russell’s follow-up to last year’s Silver Linings Playbook began to hit the web, I found myself growing very eager to see it.

While not a literal account of that minor episode of recent American history, American Hustle very accurately portrays the mindset of the times, in addition to the fashions and music of those days.  Russell brings back the principal actors from both Silver Linings Playbook (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro) and his previous film, The Fighter (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) as well, and once again, Russell provides these winners of oh-so-many acting awards with material that allows them to strut their stuff in world-class fashion.  If nothing else, American Hustle is a glowing example of Tour-de-Force film acting, and worth seeing on that basis, despite a few hiccups.

The story here begins with Bale portraying a New York con man who is perhaps a step or two above small-time, and Amy Adams as a smoking-hot drifter/hustler (“smoking-hot” being a phrase I don’t believe could be applied to any character she has portrayed before) whom Bale’s character meets at a party and instantly becomes smitten with, despite his being married to a bizarrely-ditzy younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence).  The Bale and Adams characters begin both an affair and a business partnership, grifting money from folks seeking loans after other, more reputable lenders have refused them.  They are eventually nabbed, however, by a low-life FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who under threat of jail, extorts them into aiding him with a sting operation he’s running on the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremy Renner).

David O. Russell is well-known for allowing his actors to improvise as much as possible, and this method served him very well here.  The dialogue scenes certainly had a feeling of improvisation, with an energy that seemed to result from the actors not being exactly sure what was coming next, much like their characters would’ve experienced.  I suspect Jennifer Lawrence more so than the other lead actors took the liberty Russell granted the actors and ran with it, as she created an absolutely nucking futs (yes, you read that right) caricature of the Real Jersey Housewives-type as might would’ve been found thirty-five years ago.

While I enjoyed American Hustle, I couldn’t rid myself of the sense that Russell never completely decided whether to make a “heist” picture or an actual character study, so he tried to have it both ways.  The movie goes on for stretches where it seems to be building up to a “heist-picture” moment, only to jump back over to character study-mode, then give us a climax with a setup that reeks of some elaborate con-man scenario, like something out of either incarnation of The Italian Job, but doesn’t really turn out that way.

Perhaps he was trying to inject some comedy into the mix, as Jennifer Lawrence so ably provides.  Bradley Cooper’s character, for example, as well-played as it was by Cooper, is portrayed as a loud-mouthed, self-centered glory hound who is such a loser that he still lives with his mother.  Even comedian Louis C.K. surprisingly turns up as the Cooper character’s boss, and does a fine job of it.  However, Bale’s and Adams’ characters certainly don’t exhibit any satirical characteristics (well, maybe Bale’s hideous comb-over is supposed to fulfill that obligation), and since I seem to recall that all FBI agents must have law degrees, just how much of a loser could Cooper’s character possibly be?  I totally get that it’s possible to have black-comedy elements in any story, but those moments in this movie just seemed to stick out a little more than they should. 

Of course, the actual events of the ABSCAM scandal did not play out in the news the way they are portrayed here, and the first words that appear on the screen at the beginning of the movie inform us that history only provides the seed Russell used to grow this story from his own imagination, so the historical inaccuracies don’t bother me.  What did bother me, albeit slightly, was what seemed to be the inconsistent tone of the movie.  With that being said, it didn’t bother me enough to keep me from liking it.  I suppose it’s a testament to the excellent performances given by all of the lead actors that I recommend this movie, if for no other reason than to see some of the best film actors of our generation doing some fantastic work.