Saving Mr. Banks


The happiest place on Earth.

The happiest place on Earth.

(2013) True Life Drama (Disney) Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Kathy Baker, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Lily Bigham, Melanie Paxson, Andy McPhee, Rachel Griffiths, Ronan Vibert, Jerry Hauck, Laura Waddell, Fuschia Sumner, David Ross Patterson, Michelle Arthur. Directed by John Lee Hancock

There are few adults or children who aren’t at least aware of the Disney classic Mary Poppins and most of those bear at least some sort of love for the film. In the review of the film, I mentioned that there are no others that take me back to my childhood like that one and I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard. It is therefore somewhat unsettling to note that the movie nearly didn’t get made – and if author P.L. Travers who created the character had her way, it would have been a very different movie indeed.

Walt Disney (Hanks) had always been enchanted by the tale of the flying nanny and made a promise to his daughters that he would make a movie of it someday. However, getting it done was a whole other matter entirely. P.L. Travers (Thompson), the prickly author of the Mary Poppins books, was unwilling to part with her creation to Hollywood which she considered a vulgar and schmaltzy place. Her prim and proper Poppins would doubtlessly be turned into a mindless dolt or worse still, a cartoon. Travers, you see, hated cartoons.

Finally nearly broke, she at last reluctantly consented to travel to Hollywood to sign away the rights to Poppins and the Banks family which she thought of as her own family. However, she insisted on script approval and Disney in a nearly-unheard of move for him granted it. He gave the chilly Brit over to writer Don DaGradi (Whitford) and composers Richard (Schwartzman) and Robert (Novak) Sherman.

Things go rapidly downhill from there. Travers is uneasy with the idea of making Poppins a musical – “Mary Poppins doesn’t sing” she sniffs – and absolutely hates the idea of casting Dick van Dyke as ert the Chimney Sweep. She’s very uncomfortable with the Americanization of her characters and the songs – well, she hates those too.

In fact there’s very little American that she doesn’t hate from the architecture to the smell of Los Angeles which she describes to her Disney-supplied driver Ralph (Giamatti) as “sweat and exhaust” but what he describes as jasmine which pretty much sums up the difference between the characters. She hates the pastries and treats that the long-suffering production assistant Biddy (Bigham) supplies and she barges in on Disney which drives his assistant Tommie (Baker) batty.

And nothing they do makes her happy, not even a trip to Disneyland with Walt himself. Walt is at wit’s end, particularly when she announces that the color red has been banned from the film. “You’re trying to test me, aren’t you,” he murmurs quite perceptively. “You’re trying to see how far I’m willing to go.” She holds the unsigned rights over his head like a Sword of Damocles. It isn’t until she retreats back to England, furious that Walt is planning on animating the chalk drawing sequence, that he figures out what is motivating her and why she is so reluctant for the movie to proceed.

There are clues throughout, almost all of them in flashback sequences in which an 8-year-old Travers, nicknamed Ginty (Buckley) adores her banker dad (Farrell) in rural Australia in the early 20th century but watches alcohol and disappointment slowly wear him away. It is there we see the genesis of Mary Poppins and the reason that P.L. Travers is a far different woman than Helen “Ginty” Goff was meant to be.

It’s something of a miracle that this movie got made at all. Although the script was independently commissioned, what other studio other than Disney would buy it? And Disney had a tight rope to walk on the film; if Walt comes off as a saint, it smacks of self-aggrandizement but if he comes off flawed they might see their brand eroded. I think that in the end that Walt comes off here as a genuinely good man but one who was a sharp businessman and who could be equally as cold and calculating as he was warm and compassionate. Near the end of the film, Tommie asks him why Mrs. Travers was left off the invitation list for the premier of Poppins and Walt says in a somewhat cold voice that there would be interviews and press to be done and he had to protect the film. Travers had to literally ask for permission to come and she never forgave him for that, among other things.

In fact the movie seems to imply that a certain understanding and mutual affection existed between Disney and Travers and that simply wasn’t the case. She found him overbearing and thought him deceitful and refused to work with him ever again. In fact when Broadway musical producer Cameron Mackintosh approached her to do a stage version of Poppins, she outright refused but later relented with the stipulation that nobody who worked on the film be connected in any way with the musical. After Travers’ death in 1996, Mackintosh later approached Disney and got input from them.

Thompson’s name has come up in Oscar discussions and for good reason; this is one of the finest performances of a stellar career on her part. Travers is a disagreeable, cantankerous sort who insists that every script meeting be audio taped and finds reason after reason why things can’t be done. However when she allows people in, the vulnerable child emerges and we see her regrets and her pain. I certainly wouldn’t object to her getting nominated for Oscar gold and I wouldn’t be surprised either.

I read that some retired Disney sorts who actually worked on the film who saw Saving Mr. Banks were brought to tears because the details were so on-target. Certainly this was a labor of love and like most labors was a difficult and often painful one. Hancock actually plays one of the actual audio tapes of one of the initial script sessions over the end credits so you get a real idea of how the real Mrs. Travers was (the same session is recreated in the film) and if anything, they softened her image from reality somewhat.

Disney, like most men who accomplish the sort of success that he did in life, is either sanctified or demonized depending on the nature of the person making the opinion. The real Walt Disney lay somewhere in between the two extremes. I think that this is as close a glimpse as we’re likely to get at the real Walt and while I tend to think that this is a fictionalized account of the real events surrounding the making of Mary Poppins, it is nonetheless entertaining and engrossing and one of the year’s best films.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by nearly all of the cast. A lovely walk down Memory Lane.

REASONS TO STAY: Diverges from fact a few times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the themes may be a bit too intense for children. There are also some unpleasant images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hanks, who plays Walt Disney, is in fact a distant cousin of the studio chief.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Blood Creek

Arthur (2011)


Arthur

Russell Brand and Greta Gerwig try to out-cute one another.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Warner Brothers) Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Greta Gerwig, Nick Nolte, Geraldine James, Luis Guzman, Christina Calph, Evander Holyfield, Leslie Hendrix, John Hodgman, Richard Bekins, Peter Van Wagner, Charlie Hewson. Directed by Jason Winer

 

The thing about remaking a movie which has become so beloved as 1981’s Arthur is that the new version is inevitably compared to the original and usually found wanting. The thing about films like Arthur (the original) is that they tend to be viewed through the dewy-eyed lenses of nostalgia and their flaws overlooked.

Of course, some movies are just flawed from the get-go. Arthur Bach (Brand) is the son of the CEO of Bach Worldwide, a major investment firm run by his mother Vivienne (James). Arthur is the sort of guy tailor-made for the tabloids, constantly getting involved in one scandal or another, usually having to do with women (he’s single) or alcohol (which he drinks a lot of). He is watched over by Hobson (Mirren), his childhood nanny who drily and somewhat acerbically sees to his needs and fruitlessly tries to protect him from himself.

But there’s one scandal too many and investors are beginning to lose confidence in Bach Worldwide. To stop the bleeding, Vivienne proposes to have Arthur marry Susan Johnson (Garner), her extremely competent right hand and the daughter of wealthy Burt (Nolte) the builder from Pittsburgh. She and Arthur had a previous relationship which ended badly.

Needless to say Arthur is reluctant to agree until Vivienne insists that if he refuses, he’ll be cut off from his inheritance of $950 million  (why couldn’t they just have made it an even billion?) so Arthur, not one to give up his toys easily agrees. Trust me, he’s got a lot of toys from a floating magnetic bed to the Batmobile. Yeah, that one.

So then he meets Naomi (Gerwig), a beautiful and spirited tour guide – well, a non-accredited one but she’s working on it. Arthur gets immediately taken with her and begins to woo her, despite her impending nuptials. He knows he has to go on with his wedding, not just for the money but because Burt the builder is going to use a power saw on him if he doesn’t. So Arthur is left with an age-old dilemma; marry for love, or marry for money.

The new version follows the old very closely, with some minor differences. Linda (the Liza Minnelli character from the original) and Naomi are very different, with Linda being a bit brassier and a bit shall we say less shameless while Naomi is a bit more quirky.

The movie rests on a several factors – the most crucial is the likability of Brand. He’s done this type of role before, the addled rock star Aldous Snow in Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Brand can be charming and is here for most of the show but to be honest, it’s hard to really be too sympathetic to a spoiled billionaire rich kid with mommy issues. In all truthfulness, Dudley Moore really made the part his and Brand doesn’t quite measure up.

Secondly, the relationship between Arthur and Hobson has to be strong, and it is. Sir John Gielgud won an Oscar for his portrayal of the stiff English butler who has an arch streak in him and a soft spot for his gentleman. Mirren is a distaff version of the part who is almost motherly towards her charge but with a Margaret Thatcher iron spine. She doesn’t get as many bon mots as Gielgud did (“I’ll alert the media” in response to Arthur’s announcement he’s taking a bath, a classic) and she doesn’t have the same chemistry with Brand that Moore and Gielgud had.

There is a good deal of crudeness here; the original was for its day somewhat crude in its depiction of drunkenness but this one exceeds the quotient that way and for no good reason. The overall environment for the movie – the middle of an economic downturn might not be a time where the general moviegoing public might be terribly sympathetic to the super-wealthy – might also have contributed to its lack of connection to the audience when it was released to theaters.

There is some charm and warmth here which does go a long way – Arthur isn’t a bad boy at heart, merely a spoiled one. Garner does some nice work as the cast iron bitch who wants to marry him for his name and no other reason, a role that strangely suits her, possibly because she also does the nice girlfriend so well.

As for snuggling up with your honey on the big romantic movie night, there are probably some better movies to put on the DVD/Blu-Ray/VCR if you’re of such a mind, but if you’re into extravagant romantic ideas, there are some here that might fire up your imagination.

WHY RENT THIS: The source material had a good heart which shows through here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Russell Brand is no Dudley Moore. Crude in places it shouldn’t be.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of alcohol use here (mostly by Arthur), some sexuality, a few naughty words (very few) and a couple of drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the movie Arthur’s father is 44 when he dies, the same age as the original movie’s director Steve Gordon was when he passed away.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and outtakes which give you a further appreciation for Brand’s skills as a comedian but nothing that really sheds any light on the making of the film. 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $45.7M on a $40M production budget; the movie was unable to recoup its production budget during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Princess Bride

The Lincoln Lawyer


The Lincoln Lawyer

Life is pretty darn good when you're as good-looking as these two are.

(2011) Mystery (Lionsgate) Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, Josh Lucas, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Bob Gunton, Frances Fisher, Bryan Cranston, Michael Pena, Laurence Mason, Trace Adkins, Margarita Levieva. Directed by Brad Furman

Justice is often depicted as being blind. The reason for that is that things are not always what they appear to be, and people RARELY are who they appear to be. Justice needs to be blind in order to sort through all the deceptions.

Mick Haller (McConaughey) is a defense lawyer who generally represents the guilty; sleazebags and criminals alike. Rather than working out of an office, he operates out of the back of his Lincoln Town Car, chauffeured by Earl (Mason), a former client paying off his legal bill. It seems that Mick had been driving himself but after a DUI had gotten his license suspended, a driver was needed.

Mick has lots of friends in low places including Eddie Vogel (Adkins), the leader of a bike gang, and bail bondsman Val Valenzuela (Leguizamo), who often throws a case Mick’s way. He’s got one for him now – a big one that might pay a whole lot of bills. Louis Roulet (Phillippe) has been accused of beating the crap out of a prostitute.

Roulet has deep pockets; a wealthy real estate tycoon mom (Fisher) and a high-powered lawyer (Gunton) who hires Mick for the job after an initial interview. Mick puts his investigator Frank Levin (Macy) on the case.

At first it looks like Mick’s ex-wife Maggie McPherson (Tomei), who works in the prosecutor’s office, is going to be assigned the case but when Mick turns up as lawyer, she has to recuse herself and a new prosecutor, Ted Minton (Lucas), is brought aboard.

The deeper Mick digs into the case, the more it appears to have bearing on an earlier case of his, in which he had urged a young man, Jesus Martinez (Pena), to accept a plea bargain to keep him out of the death penalty. And the more he looks, the more he discovers that he may have sent an innocent man into jail.

In the meantime, his current case is turning ugly and now it appears Mick himself is being set up for a murder charge of his own. It will take all of Mick’s cunning and street smarts to get him out of hot water on this one.

I was pleasantly surprised with this movie. McConaughey has been on a bit of a rut lately, with romantic comedies that really didn’t push him much. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a movie in which McConaughey has really shown what he can do – We Are Marshall to be exact. However, this one harkens back to an earlier McConaughey movie, A Time to Kill. In that one, McConaughey played a clever lawyer as well.

There’s no doubt McConaughey oozes charm and while he is more well-known these days for going shirtless (and displaying his admittedly impressive six-pack) than he is for his thespian abilities, that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of a good performance and he delivers one here. Those folks who are fans are going to be in seventh heaven, even though his shirt remains on for the most part.

He also has a pretty impressive cast backing him up. Macy doesn’t have a lot of screen time but makes good use of what he does have. Phillippe is a very solid actor who sinks his teeth into a role that requires him to be unsympathetic, the poor rich kid. Tomei, an actress who always impresses me, does a solid job here. It isn’t one of her career-defining moments but she gets the job done and is as gorgeous as ever doing it. Even country star Trace Adkins delivers in a role which is totally unlike his nice-guy persona developed on “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

This is based on a novel by Michael Connelly, and has all the makings of a franchise in terms of quality; unfortunately, the box office has been lukewarm for it although it appears that the movie will recoup its production budget. While at times it reminded me of an episode of “Law and Order,” it is at least competently done in terms of a legal drama, and while breaking no new ground is at least entertaining and diverting. I didn’t have real high hopes for it based on the trailer, but I thought this was a better-than-average film and of most of the stuff that’s out there in the spring, might well be the best quality movie in theaters at present.

REASONS TO GO: Really good cast and McConaughey is at his charming best.

REASONS TO STAY: Not especially groundbreaking; typical legal drama that at times reminds one of “Law & Order” and not in a good way.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, a little bit of sex and a smidgeon of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Frank Levin’s first name in the book was Raul.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams “theater!” You can see it at home just as nicely.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Greenberg