Hail, Caesar!


Friends, Romans, Communists...

Friends, Romans, Communists…

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Alex Karpovsky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Ming Zhao. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Hollywood is often portrayed as a dream factory and during its golden age, it was just that. Massive studios cranked out classic films (and, to be fair, a lot of crap too) and created lasting images of a time that never really existed. We look back at that era fondly because in many ways it was a lie.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio chief at Capital Pictures. He fixes things when they go wrong, be they a ditzy starlet posing for risqué pictures or a family musical star (Johansson) ho has gotten herself knocked up and needs a husband pronto. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, has been unaccountably put into a drawing room comedy lensed by the immortal British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And the studio’s big budget production of Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ – looks to be a huge hit.

Except that Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the film’s star, has turned up missing. And not just missing, kidnapped by a group that calls itself The Future. This could be an absolute public relations disaster. Not only does Eddie have to get the ransom paid and his mercurial star back on the set in time to film the climactic speech, he also has to make sure it stays out of the gossip columns particularly via twin sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Swinton). However in the meantime he’ll have to oversee a Sailor’s musical starring an athletic dancer (Tatum), a Busby Berkeley-like mermaid spectacular, a singing cowboy Western as well as the aforementioned films.

This is equal part tribute to old Hollywood and spoof of it. Clearly the Coens have a good deal of affection and reverence for the old movies. They also have a sense of whimsy that has influenced people like Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. That’s present here too, more than in recent Coen Brothers films and more subversive in a lot of ways.

The production designer does a wonderful job of capturing the 50s look and the big studio vibe. Bright colors, as you’d see in a Technicolor production of the time, dominate here. The costume design is also flawless. One of the things that is typical to Coen Brother period films is the attention to detail is generally very serious even if the films themselves are more comedic.

As with many Coen Brother pictures, the cast is impressive. Clooney plays the empty-headed star to the hilt, while Brolin gives Mannix – who as a real person on the MGM lot by the way although he is fictionalized here – the harried demeanor that you’d expect from a studio executive. While Brolin’s Mannix is a bit more quirky than the real one was (the real Mannix was rumored to have had mob ties), his Catholic need for regular confession and ability to juggle a number of different balls in the air give him more personality than other writer-directors might have given a character like his. Ehrenreich projects a good deal of likability which bodes well for his future career.

Some of the supporting roles are little more than cameos but the ones that caught my attention were Swinton as the imperious gossip columnist twins whose rivalry is as abiding as their twin noses for a story. Hill is low-key as a notary public, and Johansson has moxie as the knocked up mermaid. As is usual for the Coen Brothers, the absurdity of the characters and their situation is played deadpan which only heightens the absurdity.

The problem I have here is that there are certain scenes that drag a little bit and fall a little flat. The scenes where Whitlock is having philosophical discussions with his captors is a bit silly and a lot more uninteresting. I know Da Queen complained that she was bored with the movie and I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends, some of whom are Coen Brothers fans. I can’t say that I was bored but I can see why they were.

I get that the Coen Brothers are not for everybody. People who didn’t like The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example, are not likely to enjoy this either. There is a quirkiness to their work that is I grant you an acquired taste. From a personal standpoint, it’s a taste I’ve acquired but I recognize that isn’t necessarily the same for you – and that’s not a bad thing. Your taste is your taste.

Any Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing. In my book, they’ve yet to make a movie that had no redeeming qualities. And to be fair, this isn’t going to be considered one of their best I’m quite sure – I’d rank it right about the middle of their pack. But the middle of the Coen pack is better than the entire work of plenty of other directors out there.

REASONS TO GO: Typical Coen Brothers vibe. Captures the era and location nicely. Love the whimsy!
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: For the most part, pretty harmless although there’s some content that’s slightly racy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional Capitol Pictures Studios also appears in the previous period Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Where to Invade Next?

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story


There's nothing funny about The Graduate.

There’s nothing funny about The Graduate.

(2015) Documentary (Adama) Harold Michelson, Lillian Michelson, Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Krohn, Rick Carter, Jim Bissell, Gene Allen, Gabriel Hardman, Richard Sylbert, Tom Walsh, Stuart Cornfeld, Norm Newberry, Tish Hicks (voice), Will Vought (voice), Anahid Nazarian, Marc Wanamaker, Patrick Mate. Directed by Daniel Raim

Harold Michelson was a storyboard artist who kind of fell into the work after serving his country in World War II. He had met and fallen in love with Lillian, a penniless but beautiful orphan from Miami who was originally friends with his sister. Although they didn’t know each other well, Harold was smitten and brought her out to California where they eventually got married and started a family.

She had gone to school to become a librarian but ended up founding a research library which would become one of the most valuable in Hollywood. Wanted to know what undergarments Jewish girls wore in Russia in the last decade of the 19th century? The makers of Fiddler on the Roof did and Lillian found out for them. Want to know what a drug lord’s mansion would look like? The makers of Scarface did and Lillian found out for them.

They were never a power couple but as their close friend Danny DeVito put it, they were the beating heart of Hollywood. Respected and beloved, both Harold and Lillian were well known for mentoring young people who were hoping to do what they did someday. Both of them worked on some of the most iconic films in the history of movies, from West Side Story to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

One of the most fascinating sequences in the movie looks at Harold’s storyboarding work on The Graduate. Harold wasn’t just someone who sketched drawings; he understood camera angles and creativity and often his ideas helped make films better, making him much sought after and after The Graduate even more so. Shots like Benjamin Braddock being framed by the crooked leg of Mrs. Robinson were Harold’s idea and many of the shots that we still remember today from that film came out of Harold’s mind.

In some ways, this is four movies for the price of one. We get the story of Harold and Lillian’s courtship, with lots of drawings (presumably by Harold) that depict them during this period. We also meet their family, including an autistic son who has since become a computer programmer. Second, we find out about Harold’s work, the films he worked on and how important his contributions were to some of the most classic films of the era. Third, we see Lillian’s development into the top research librarian in Hollywood and what her own contributions meant.

But it was the fourth part that’s magic. We get more of a sense of the relationship between the two and the love that exists between them, with all their own insecurities (and they both had plenty). The last is set to the strains of Claire de lune by Claude Debussy and a more perfect soundtrack they could not have asked for. The music means something to me personally (I used it to court my own wife) so in the interest of fairness I have to say that the emotional resonance for me was far more than perhaps it might have been for others.

But as informative as the middle two segments are, it is the last one that will stay with me. The couple stayed together for sixty years until Harold sadly passed away in 2006 – Lillian is still alive and living in the Motion Picture Retirement Home and is in her 80s, possibly 90s by now and still beautiful and vivacious and even though her husband has been gone nearly a decade, her love for him is still very much apparent.

The secret to their successful marriage is not just that they were a great team, although of course they were, but simply because they didn’t let anything get in the way of their love. Sure, they fought and sure, they had disagreements but they resolved things between themselves. I won’t say that they draw a roadmap to a successful relationship because every relationship is different, but there’s no doubt that their formula can be useful to anyone who wants to make their relationship last. One can only wish for a marriage and a love like theirs – it’s what most of us aspire to.

This is a beautiful film that is also an informative film and I can count on the fingers of one hand how many films I’ve seen that are both, and I’ve seen thousands of films, maybe tens  of thousands. This movie is going to stay with me for a very long time. It’s premiering at the NYDOCS festival tonight and then playing again tomorrow. After that, keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit this Winter and next Spring (which I think would be the perfect time to see it). Hopefully after that, a savvy distributor will give it a theatrical release or at least make it available for streaming or VOD. This is a movie that very much deserves to be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about the Hollywood process. Some wonderful anecdotes. The love story is beautiful and presented in a touching, heart-warming manner. Great use of music.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit of talking head syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The King and Queen in Shrek 2 are based on Harold and Lillian and even bear their names.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Home movies of people you adore
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Phoenix

Too Hip for the Room


Making it in Hollywood can be a slimy business.

Making it in Hollywood can be a slimy business.

(2015) Drama (The Dreaming Tree) Kelly Monteith, Anthony Russell, Robert Dubac, Caroline Alexander, Jake Krickhan, Kip Addota, Franklyn Ajaye, Jay Brothers, Devin Dugan, Seamus O’Brien, Sam Kwasman, Isaiah Ervin, Donny Conn, Waylynn Pitts, Eugene Lebowitz, Nathan Hurd, Gregg Binkley, Evelyn Wu, Bridget McCarty, Briana Feehan. Directed by Oktay Oktabasi and Kelly Monteith

We make our beds in life through the choices we make. We choose a career that takes us away from our family and tell ourselves that we’re doing it for the family, only to discover that we’ve been away  so much we no longer have a family. Or we chase a dream so hard that it becomes an obsession, causing us to burn through family and friends along the way.

Jake Dietz (Monteith)  is a stand-up comedian who is on the downslide of his career; once a young Turk in the standup circuit and being considered for network sitcoms, he is reduced to taking rubber chicken corporate gigs in places like Moline, Illinois. He is struggling to make ends meet even though he drives a Mercedes, a remnant of better times.

Jake is divorced from Trish (Alexander) and together they have a son Patrick (Krickhan) who is autistic with the potential to be high-functioning except that his social skills are lacking. Patrick has a thing for fellow student Briana (Feehan) but doesn’t know how to approach her, which frustrates him. Jake wants to help but he’s also not exactly sure.

The school’s president, Dr. Hertzog (Brothers) is offering up a special program which seems perfectly suited for Jake, but the price is very high – fifteen grand to be exact. Wanting to give the best to his son, Jake starts looking in less desirable places for gigs, starting with his friend and a former standup himself, Stuart (Dubac) who has become an agent. In fact, Stuart got mutual friend Buzz (Dugan) a network sitcom that at one time Jake had been considered for until he turned it down because he thought it would be demeaning. Instead, it turned out to be a hit for Buzz and angry, Jake left Stuart’s agency and brought his best friend Art (Russell) with him.

But there is some hope. Stuart got Jake a small role on a TV show and another ex-comic friend, Danny (Conn) may have a slot on a corporate gig that would pay Jake the money he needs for the program. But despite another rage-fueled encounter with Stuart which may have derailed some of Jake’s hopes, something more promising lands in his lap after a really good gig that Jake does after a cancellation forces a local club owner to turn to Jake for help. However, taking that hope which might lead to Jake’s dreams finally being fulfilled would mean giving up the sure thing that would pay for his son’s treatment. What will Jake choose?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a big fan of Monteith’s since he was a young Turk on the standup circuit. In the intervening years he’s had a good deal of success, mostly in Britain (and yes, I’ve seen some of his BBC work in various outlets on the Internet and cable) but never quite made it to household name which I always thought was criminal; this is a very funny man and even though some might consider his style “old school” (which he comments upon in the movie) some of his standup sets here show that he hasn’t lost his touch.

There are also some of his fellow stand-ups of the late 80s and 90s like Addota and Ajaye who make brief appearances here which just reminds me that even funny young stand-ups become funny old stand-ups. Aging catches up with us all, even those who make us laugh. It’s still nice to see some comics I haven’t seen in more than a decade doing what they do best. I wouldn’t mind seeing them on a comedy nostalgia tour. Hey if New Wave bands can do it, why not stand-up comics?

Nostalgia aside, this feels a lot like it’s close to Monteith’s heart. The film doesn’t really focus on Patrick’s autism other than as an expense for Jake that he can’t afford, although the bond between Jake and his son is shown to be difficult but nonetheless strong. From my experience of families with autistic children, the relationship looks authentic and the movie gets points for that.

I liked the portrayal of the comedian’s life here; you watch them commiserating together, see the professional jealousies and regrets plainly and see them as people who have more of their career behind them than in front of them; Monteith as Jake puts it best when he says “I remember when too hip for the room wasn’t ironic” when describing his status among new hip comedians.

Monteith makes a compelling lead. He has a soft spot for family and friends but at times sacrifices either or both in pursuit of his dream of sitcom stardom. It isn’t always pretty and there are times when Jake is really not very likable, but at the end of the day he has a good heart that sometimes gets subverted by his baser instincts. Even when Jake isn’t likable, you still end up rooting for him and that’s crucial for a film like this to work.

I do have to say that there are times when the humor seems a little bit forced and some of the situations seem a little bit contrived. It feels like a few shortcuts were taken in the writing and it does detract a little bit from the genuineness you get from the rest of the film and does lower the rating of the film a little bit because it is somewhat noticeable; for example, the sequence in which a distraught Patrick runs away and is later found beaten up is unnecessary to the plot other than to artificially insert tension; the point that it seems to make – the urgency of getting Patrick enrolled in that socialization program – had already been made well enough.

Also the directors other than the opening sequence in which they employ handhelds to put yourself in Jake’s shoes tend to have fairly static camera placement. I actually find that somewhat refreshing, although most movie buffs I know are likely to be fussy about such things. Then again, this isn’t necessarily a movie for movie buffs per se.

The ending is a little bit predictable in that most experienced moviegoers will see it coming, but like the rest of the movie it packs a ton of heart. While this isn’t the most technically perfect movie you’ll see ever, this is a movie that clearly means a lot to the people in it and behind the cameras for it. Sometimes that’s enough for a movie to get by on, and in this case it’s very true. I actually think I enjoy the movie more now that I’ve had a chance to think about it than I did when I was first watching it and that is actually a pretty good feeling.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting look at the life of a comedian. Feels like a passion project. Monteith is an engaging lead.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points seem a little contrived. Ending is a little bit predictable. Staging may be too “old school” for hipper cinephiles.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some drug use and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Monteith’s son Kyle and daughter Tierney cameo as passengers on the plane from Moline to Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny People
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Room

Walt Before Mickey


“Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

(2015) Biographical Drama (Voltage) Thomas Ian Nicholas, Jon Heder, Jodie Sweetin, Armando Gutierrez, David Henrie, Taylor Gray, Ayla Kell, Owen Teague, Hunter Gomez, Sheena Colette, Jeremy Palko, Kate Katzman, Tamela D’Amico, Arthur L. Bernstein, Amber Sym, Beatrice Taveras, Conor Dubin, Timothy Neil Williams, Donn Lamkin, George Licari, Briana Colman, Maralee Thompson. Directed by Khoa Le

The name of Walt Disney is one of the most beloved and best-known names in the history of mankind. Nearly everywhere you go on God’s green Earth, everyone knows his wonderful animated features, his theme parks, his movie company and of course the mouse that started it all. Few people know, however, that before that great success that grew into a multi-billion dollar company that it is  today, Walt went through some lean times.

Disney (Nicholas) grew up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri where he felt a certain amount of affinity for animals – and also an affinity for drawing pictures on the side of the barn, something that irritated his father Elias (Lamkin) no end. When his father grew ill, the family had to sell the farm and move to Kansas City.

When the First World War broke out, Walt was too young to enlist like his brother Roy (Heder) did but he did manage to drive for an ambulance corps and was sent overseas anyway, continuing to draw whenever he could. When he came back home, his brother had contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a Veteran’s Hospital in Los Angeles to recover. Walt, having been laid off from an advertising company, decided that animated films were the wave of the future. He started his own company, Laff-o-Gram Pictures along with artist Ub Iwerks (Gutierrez) whom he met at the ad agency.

Adding other local artists like Friz Freleng (Gray), Rudy Ising (Henrie) and Fred Harman (Williams), Walt proved to be a better animator than he was a businessman and after realizing that the amount he was charging had only covered cost, his company eventually went bankrupt. Selling a camera Iwerks gave him to use, he bought a train ticket out west and convinced his brother Roy to stake him and start a new company, Disney Brothers Animation which was eventually changed to Walt Disney Pictures. Walt would bring over many of his cronies from Kansas City to work for him; he also agreed to hire women to do the inking and painting because they worked for less. One of those ink and paint girls was named Lillian Bounds (Katzman) who would eventually become Mrs. Walt Disney.

At first Disney tasted success as his live action/animated hybrids, the Alice cartoons, sold well. However the underhanded distributor (Dubin) sent over his brother-in-law George (Licari) to sow seeds of discontent among the troops and drive Disney’s business into the ground, putting Disney in a position where all the characters that Disney had come up with – including the popular Oswald the Rabbit – would become the property of the distributor. Walt was up against the wall, but he had one last shot – a plucky mouse who would become the world’s most famous cartoon character.

This is a production shot in the Orlando area for the most part and with Central Floridian talent in front of and behind the camera. Clearly this is a labor of love and if sometimes the filmmakers seem to be a little star-struck by Walt, I suppose that it’s understandable especially considering what Walt meant (and continues to mean) to the economy of the region.

Based on a book written by Timothy S. Susanin and vetted by the Disney family (Walt’s daughter Diane wrote the book’s forward), the film looks hard at Disney’s struggles with bankruptcy and poverty. Despite his best intentions, his first business failed, leading to eviction from his home and seizure of his possessions. A homeless Walt resorts to eating garbage. Nicholas captures Disney’s despair and his guilt feelings for having failed his employees.

And, to his credit, Nicholas also shows one of Disney’s less savory side; he was something of a tyrant to work for, firing one employee for sleeping on the job despite forcing him to work brutal hours. We don’t get a sense of Disney’s love for children or how that was developed – certainly by the time the first silent Mickey Mouse cartoons came out he was writing for the younger set – and the movie would have benefitted from giving the viewer more of a sense of that affection he had for kids. It certainly would be a driving force in the rest of his career.

Although Heder, Sweetin and Nicholas do well in their roles, much of the rest of the cast is less successful. Some of the acting is stiff and the line readings more suitable for community theater. Not knocking community theater, mind you, but those expecting more should be forewarned as to what to expect. I have to admit that some of the dialogue sounded like it was being read rather than being said.

It should also be noted that this is a first feature for much of the cast and crew; a little leeway is recommended when viewing this. While much of the technical end is professional, some of the creative side is a bit rockier. One gets a sense of a cast and crew doing their best but flailing a little bit. I don’t doubt that they’ll get better with more experience.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of setting the period correctly for both the Kansas City and Los Angeles settings. They also do something that is unusual in the film business when creating period movies; they get the rhythms of language, culture and everyday life right. You may well feel like you’re getting a glimpse of American life in the 1920s. Main Street USA indeed.

I can only give this a mild recommendation because, at the end of the day, movies should live up to certain standards and even as you recognize the effort, you can only judge the results. I will say that you learn a great deal about Walt Disney that you may not have known before. If you are interested in learning more about the man behind the legend, this is a good place to start. I would also highly recommend a visit to the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio in San Francisco as well. Nonetheless, the movie truly captures Walt Disney’s determination to make his own dreams come true. In doing so, he would make many new dreams for millions upon millions of children from then to now.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about Disney’s early business failures. Nicely creates early 20th century setting.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and often amateurish. Sometimes treats Walt as more icon than human being.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words scattered here and there, some adult themes and period smoking (and a lot of it).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: American Idol finalist Julie Zorrilla sings the song “Just a Wish” over the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Mr. Banks
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The End of the Tour

Finding Bliss


"What do you mean there's going to be a quiz?"

“What do you mean there’s going to be a quiz?”

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Phase 4) Leelee Sobieski, Matthew Davis, Denise Richards, Donnamarie Recco, Jamie Kennedy, Kristen Johnston, Mircea Monroe, P.J. Byrne, Caroline Aaron, Tim Bagley, Christa Campbell, Marcus J. Spencer, Sammi Hanratty, Stormy Daniels, Garry Marshall, Ron Jeremy, Zach Cumer, Mario Cassem, Maggy Bashaw, Kimbre Lancaster, Julie Davis. Directed by Julie Davis

Mainstream filmmakers and film fans tend to look down their noses at the porn industry. Even though it has become a multi-billion dollar business, the general feeling is that the writing is godawful, the acting is worse and the production values are almost non-existent. The popular conception of the porn business is that it is made up of predators, the desperate and the drug-addicted. Rarely are those who work in the business given any sort of, I don’t know, humanity.

Jody Balaban (Sobieski), has graduated from NYU film school and heads to Los Angeles armed with a student film she’s inordinately proud of, despite the inconvenient truth that nobody has yet been able to sit through it from start to finish. Still, she’s ready to make her splash in the industry which is sadly uninterested in her potential.

She gets a job as a film editor for Grind Productions, which is at least a foot in the door. When she opens the door, she is horrified to discover that it is a porn studio. Jody, you see, is a bit uptight about sex, being still a virgin at 25 and quite content to remain so for the foreseeable future. However, she’s surprised to discover that the star director for Grind is Jeff Drake (M. Davis) whose art film from the beginning of his own career is an inspiration to Jody, one she considers to be a masterpiece.

Deciding to make the best of things, she tries to make it through the hardcore sex she witnesses daily, using the studio facilities and sets at night to make her own non-pornographic film with the actors and actresses from the sex productions; they are eager enough to help not just out of the goodness of their hearts but also because they hope it might be a ticket into the mainstream. The leads, Bliss (Richards) and Dick Harder (Kennedy) turn out to be real sweethearts.

And for her own part, Jody is slowly falling in love with Jeff despite the odds being stacked against them – they really don’t appear to have a whole lot in common, particularly since Jeff is a hardened cynic and Jody a card-carrying optimist. Still, stranger couples have worked out.

While Boogie Nights looked at both the dark side and the less so, Finding Bliss plays it strictly upbeat. Everyone in the movie more or less has a heart of gold; even the a-holes turn out to be not so bad once you get to know them. Sobieski as Jody is a little bit naive, a little bit plucky and a little bit arrogant but soon comes around to discover that porn Isn’t So Bad. The last half of the movie kinds of descend into a typical rom-com purgatory with all the cliches therein, burning away any goodwill the audience might have accrued during the first half.

Sobieski has always been to my mind an actress with the kind of charm and screen presence to have been a Helen Hunt-sort of actress, which never really developed for her. It’s a shame too; she is certainly the best thing about this movie, deftly handling both the unpleasant parts of Jody’s nature (she’s a bit judgmental about sexuality) and the overly pleasant parts of her personality without becoming cloying or unlikable. We root for Jody even when she isn’t at her best. However, I have to admit that I’m mystified about the romance between Jody and Jeff. Jody doesn’t seem to be the kind of woman that would be attracted to Jeff and it feels more like the two are given a romance because the story requires one. After all, what’s a romantic comedy without a romance?

The rest of the cast is pretty solid as well, with Kennedy showing that he can have a winning screen personality when the right role comes along, and 3rd Rock From the Sun stalwart Johnston showing her underused comedic form as the wise boss of Grind.

While they tend to overuse Jody’s distaste for all things sexual, the movie has some genuinely funny moments although nothing earth-shaking. Overall, if I had to do a one-word review for the film it would be “pleasant” which would be meant in the most empty-headed sense. I would have preferred that the porn industry be portrayed with a little more edge; while I appreciate the attempt at humanization of the people who work in the industry, I would have liked actual humans rather than these overly nice people who remind me unnervingly of Stepford Wives and Husbands.

WHY RENT THIS: Sobieski is charming. Everyone is generally likable.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Devolves into standard rom-com cliches. Romance isn’t believable. Lacks the kind of edge that would draw the viewer in to the story.
FAMILY VALUES: Very strong sexual content, graphic nudity, explicit dialogue and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several actual porn actors appear in one or both of the movies depicted in the movie.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,783 on a $1.2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boogie Nights
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Man With the Iron Fist

Entourage


Rollin' with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

Rollin’ with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

(2015) Comedy  (Warner Brothers) Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Perrey Reeves, Rex Lee, Debi Mazar, Rhys Coiro, Constance Zimmer, Haley Joel Osment, Billy Bob Thornton, Ronda Rousey, Emily Ratajkowski, Scott Mescudi, Alan Dale, Piers Morgan, Nina Agdal. Directed by Doug Ellin

Hollywood is as much a state of mind as it is a place on Earth. You can drive to it but you can never really achieve it; that is, unless you’re one of the lucky, magical few who make it in that town. And when you make it, so do those you brought up with you.

Vincent Chase (Grenier) is a movie star who is celebrating his divorce (or rather, his annulment) after nine days of wedded bliss on a yacht off of Ibiza. His boyhood chums – Eric (Connolly) who has been Vincent’s manager since his younger days; Johnny Drama (Dillon), his older brother whose stunning lack of success in becoming an actor is probably rooted in the fact that he can’t act for squat – and Turtle (Ferrara), Vinnie’s driver who just recently hit it big in a vodka line with Mark Cuban – are joining Vincent to drink away their sorrows, or whatever it is they’re drinking away.

Ari Gold (Piven), Vincent’s long time agent, has retired to Italy with his wife (Reeves) but at the behest of studio CEO John Ellis (Dale) has taken over the studio as production chief. His first order of business is to get Vincent locked into a new movie that looks like it could possibly become a smash hit – Hyde, a techno-retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic .

When the movie runs into some financial issues and needs a few extra mill to finish up, Ari is forced to go to the money for the film – Texas rancher Larsen McCredle (Thornton) who sends his son Travis (Osment) to Hollywood to find out why more money is needed and whether or not the money already invested has been well-spent.

In the meantime, Vincent’s boys are having their own problems. Eric’s ex-wife Sloan (Chriqui) is about to have their baby and is willing to give their relationship another chance. However, perpetual nice-guy Eric has a relationship going with Dana (Zimmer) which might get in the way. Turtle is trying to get in good with MMA superstar Ronda Rousey (herself) who may nor may not be amenable to the idea, and Johnny Drama may have found the role that may finally turn his career around. The trouble is, it’s in his brother’s movie and Travis, the affable but dopey Texan, wants to cut him out of the film. And Vincent’s relationship with gorgeous starlet Emily Ratajkowski (herself) may complicate things more than either of them can imagine.

This takes place right after the HBO series ended its run four years ago after an impressive seven years on the cable network and is awash in celebrity cameos. So many that they are often of the blink and you missed them kind, like a venal encounter between Ari and Liam Neeson. Some of the cameos, like Rousey and Ratajkowski, are much more substantial and integral to the plot.

The good news is that if you didn’t watch the HBO series, you can still enjoy the movie – which is a fear I think may have kept some people away from theaters. Fans of the series will get a lot more of what they want; the teenage boy fantasy of endless parties, endless money and endless women, all of whom are SoCal gorgeous. Of course, there’s plenty of digs at the shallow Hollywood society, from the drug dealers to the studio heads to the creative sorts. Everyone has an angle, or so Entourage would have you believe, other than the innocents from Queens who stuck with their guy through hard times and are there with him to enjoy his success.

The humor here is crude and profane, and those offended by such things are going to have plenty of reasons to stay away. However, there are a lot of good reasons to go see this, in no small part thanks to Piven who made Gold an iconic character on HBO and shows that Ari, despite anger management courses and therapy, still rages with the best of them. Also of note is Osment, who after a successful child acting career has simply developed into a fine actor and shows some fine comic timing here; hopefully roles like this will help him garner more parts in a town which may have pigeonholed him into seeing dead people.

I don’t know that there was a demand to see Entourage again; while the creators were hoping that this would spawn a trilogy of big screen installments, the reality is that the show had something of a cult status at best and probably didn’t have enough of a core rabid fan audience to make those plans ill-advised. However, the movie that resulted was entertaining enough and even if you’re not counting cameos – which would be a fun drinking game when it makes it to home video – there’s plenty to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Ari Gold, man; Ari Gold. Osment shows some real comic chops.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many cameos spoil the broth. Maybe excessively crude.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, nudity and sexual references, and a little bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Turtle is based on Mark Wahlberg’s real life assistant Donnie “Donkey” Carroll, who passed away at age 39 on December 18, 2005 from an asthma attack.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Spy

Maps to the Stars


Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

(2015) Thriller (Focus) Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Klara Glasco, Dawn Greenhaigh, Jonathan Watton, Jennifer Gibson, Gord Rand, Justin Kelly, Niamh Wilson, Clara Pasieka, Emilia McCarthy, Allegra Fulton, Dominic Ricci, Jayne Heitmeier, Carrie Fisher, Amanda Brugel. Directed by David Cronenberg

Hollywood is a seductive cocktail. You can hear it whispering “Drink me” in a throaty voice, promising fame, wealth, glamour and the opportunity to be beloved by minions. What you don’t hear it whisper is that it rarely bestows those things on anyone and when it does, the cost is unbearably high.

On a bus to Hollywood there is a young woman named Agatha (Wasikowska). She is, we find out later, hideously burned, wearing gloves and a body stocking to hide them, as well as long bangs to hide those on her face. She is coming at the behest of Carrie Fisher (whom she met on Twitter), she says (and it turns out to be true) to help her co-author a novel or maybe a project for HBO. She also has a bit of an obsession for the actress Clarice Taggart (Gadon), a beautiful and troubled soul who died tragically young in a house fire.

As it turns out, Clarice was the mother of Havana Segrand (Moore) who has had a lengthy career as an actress. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the good fortune to die young and beautiful in a fire and as she is getting older she is getting more and more invisible to casting agents. She is desperate to get a role in the remake of her mother’s most famous movie, Strange Waters  – and not just any role but the role her mother played. Alas, it seems destined for a younger actress named Azita Wachtel (Heitmeier). Nevertheless, Havana needs a new assistant and her close friend Carrie Fisher is happy to recommend the newcomer Agatha for the job.

Havana sees pop culture psychotherapist and self-help guru Dr. Stanford Weiss (Cusack) to help her deal with her mommy issues, which are severe. Havana has claimed to have been abused physically and sexually by her mom, a charge her mom vehemently denies – or rather the ghost of her mom who haunts Havana.

Dr. Weiss has issues of his own. His young son Benjie (Bird) is a child star whose career took a tumble when he went to rehab. Now clean and sober, he’s making a sequel to his best-known role, Bad News Babysitter with another young actor who seems to be stealing all the scenes, which irritates Benjie no end. Of course, everything irritates Benjie no end and he is bringing cruelty and all-around dickishness to a new art form. His mother Christina (Williams) is wrapped around his little finger but she’s been through a lot; a fire caused by Benjie’s sister took the life of a younger brother and caused the sister to be locked away in a mental institution.

As events begin to shift and roil, with Agatha striking up a relationship with a limo driver (Pattinson) who yearns to be an actor/writer and tragic circumstances awarding the coveted role to Havana, the tenuous connections between all these characters become much clearer and darker as things begin to move towards a horrifying conclusion. But then again, this is Hollywood, baby.

Cronenberg has had a career that is iconoclastic. While his output has been uneven, his films are generally interesting even if they haven’t always succeeded in resonating with audiences. This particular movie is as dark as they come with a cast of characters that is unlikable from top to bottom; from the self-centered therapist to the narcissistic child actor to the troubled assistant to the egotistic actress, this is the nightmare Hollywood in which self-serving lies are a kind of currency and kindness a mark of weakness – unless done very visibly in order to garner favorable publicity.

Moore, who recently was awarded the Oscar for her work in Still Alice is definitely on a role; she could easily have been nominated for this performance as well and may well have had the studio elected to release this last year. It may well be too early in the year for Academy voters to remember her work come the fall when ballots are mailed out but she deserves to have her name written down on at least a few of them.

Most of the rest of the cast does solid work as well, although special note should be made of Bird who is not well-known yet but may well be after his performance here. He makes Draco Malfoy look like a sweetheart, and made the character’s nastiness so palpable that Da Queen wanted to kick him in the genitals several times. My lovely wife doesn’t like spoiled brats overly much, particularly of the Hollywood sort.

There are a good number of insider references and those who are fascinated by that kind of thing will be in hog heaven here. However, this isn’t a movie that is going to have mass appeal; things get more and more twisted and perverse as the movie goes on with a dog getting shot (usually a deal killer for me) and even worse as things spiral towards their conclusion.

Cronenberg has always worked outside the Hollywood system which is a little bit easier when you’re Canadian (this movie marks the first time he’s even shot in the United States in a career approaching 50 years and that only for essentially a week) and this isn’t likely to get him any new invitations to parties, not that he would accept any. I will say that as bleak a characterization of Hollywood life as this is (and there is some truth to it), the reality is not quite so extreme as reality often is. There are plenty of people in Hollywood who are genuine and kind but that kind of thing is less interesting; we’d rather see the rich and famous be absolute bastards because it makes us feel better about ourselves, as in “they got rich and famous but they had to sell their souls to get it which I’m not willing to do, hence the reason I’m not rich and famous.”

This isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. There are plenty who will be put off by the pervasive self-worship and the skewed outlook on life by those who live the Hollywood dream. There’s nothing wholesome about it. However, I will point out that the trailers imply that this is something of a horror movie; yes there are apparitions and horrible things happen but this isn’t a horror movie per se, so be aware of that going in.

This isn’t Cronenberg’s best film, nor is it his most typical but this is a very good piece of filmmaking indeed. I was really drawn in, wondering what was going to happen next and that’s all you can ask of any movie. It may not have been a pleasant experience (and those looking for one can always go see McFarland) but it was an edifying one and that gets points in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Searing performances by Moore and Bird. Lots of Hollywood insider goodness. Some moments of genuine pathos and genuine hilarity.
REASONS TO STAY: Dark, dark, dark. Intrinsically shallow with characters you’re not going to like very much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some unsettling violence and bloody images, graphic nudity, sexuality, foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore and Wasikowska previously appeared together in The Kids Are All Right in which they played mother-daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Day of the Locust
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Leviathan

Jodorowsky’s Dune


Space...the way-out frontier...

Space…the way-out frontier…

(2013) Documentary (Sony Classics) Alejandro Jodorowsky, Chris Foss, Michel Seydoux, Brontis Jodorowsky, Richard Stanley, Gary Kurtz, Nicolas Winding Refn, Drew McWeeny, Devin Faraci, Diane O’Bannon, Christian Vander, Jean-Pierre Vignau, Amanda Lear, Dan O’Bannon (archival audio). Directed by Frank Pavich

Getting a film made in Hollywood is a treacherous, heartbreaking process. For every movie that makes it to your multiplex, dozens more fall by the wayside, victims of escalating budgets, script issues or studio indifference – or any of a thousand different reasons. Some movies that might have been great just never get beyond the dreams of a filmmaker.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean filmmaker, became famous in the early 70s for El Topo and Holy Mountain, a pair of surrealist epics that essentially created the midnight movie market. Both were successes in the United States which, given the modern more pedestrian tastes in movies, seems almost impossible. We did a lot of drugs back then though.

His success was such that French producer Michel Seydoux gave him carte blanche to do whatever project he wished and when asked what he wanted to do, he famously blurted out Dune even though he’d never read the Frank Herbert classic science fiction novel. One of the biggest-selling sci-fi novels of all time, Dune was everything that would seem to guarantee box office success; a rabid following, epic scope, sex, violence, monsters and intelligence. Okay, maybe the latter doesn’t guarantee box office success quite so much.

Jodorowsky set out to assemble a crew of geniuses both in front of the camera and behind it. To set his landscapes and draw up the overall look of the film, he enlisted Jean Giraud, better known as Mobius of the underground science fiction comic magazine Heavy Metal. To design his creatures, he called upon then relatively unknown Swiss artist H.R. Giger who would go on to design the title creatures in Alien. The spaceships would be designed by well-known book cover painter Chris Foss. One of his designs graces this review, above.

For the script he picked up Dan O’Bannon, who at the time had finished Dark Star and would later be known for writing Alien among others. He also added Douglas Turnbull for special effects. Jodorowsky wanted a frame by frame storyboard which he collected in a huge book which eventually became legendary throughout Hollywood.

Jodorowsky was no less eclectic for his choices in front of the screen. For the pivotal role of Duke Leto, he cast David Carradine, then at the height of his fame for Kung Fu. The Machiavellian emperor Shaddam IV would be played by painter Salvador Dali, who wanted to be the highest-paid actor in Hollywood for the privilege, demanding the then-unheard of sum of $100,000 an hour. That was a lot more than the budget that Seydoux had envisioned could tolerate, but he figured out a way around it by asking Jodorowsky how much onscreen time the emperor would get. When Jodorowsky told him three minutes, Seydoux went back to Dali and said “we’ll pay you $100,000 for every minute of time your character is onscreen!” which satisfied Dali.

He also enlisted the great Orson Welles as the corpulent villain Baron Harkonen, promising him that they would secure the services of his favorite French chef to be his personal chef during the shoot. He got Mick Jagger to take the part of Feyd Ruatha after running into him at a party. He cast his son Brontis as Paul Atreides, the Messianic hero of the tale put him through extensive martial arts and sword training – six hours a day for two years. That his son still talks to Jodorowsky today is something of a minor miracle.

The movie was at last ready to shoot. When it came time to get a studio to finance and distribute the movie however, every single one balked. They were concerned with the psychedelic nature of the movie and worried that it wouldn’t recoup its high for its time budget ($15 million). The movie wasn’t just stillborn, it died in the womb.

At 84, Jodorowsky remains lively, engaging and intelligent. He still speaks passionately about the project even though it must have disappointed him terribly that it was never made. Watching him speak about the project and about the events surrounding it is worth the price of admission alone but on top of that we get to see the amazing production art that was created for the film by Mobius, Foss and Giger. Some of the images would go on to influence other films in the genre from Alien to The Terminator to Blade Runner to Prometheus to the David Lynch version of Dune that followed (and that Jodorowsky proclaimed to be “terrible,” with some relief).

If the documentary has some drawbacks, there are at least two. First, the electronic score by Kurt Stenzel is annoying. Yes it sounds like the electronic film music of the 70s and is somewhat appropriate given the subject matter but I found it overly loud and unpleasant, which also signifies that I’m turning into my dad.

Secondly, there is a tendency for artists to be a little bit egotistical which is understandable given the nature of what they do but when you throw in condescending into the mix it becomes like nails on a chalkboard to me. It is art with a capital A to some people and they speak of art as essentially license to do and say as they please because, well, it’s Art. I get that this might well have been an amazing film had it been made but it might just as well have been virtually unwatchable. One of the talking heads (I think it was Faraci, an internet movie critic) mused that the movie business might have been changed forever had Jodorowsky’s version of Dune been made before Star Wars, believing that movie blockbusters would have wound up being more intelligent and more adult in general than they became because of the impact of George Lucas.

It is a bit arrogant to presume anything. It’s possible that this version of Dune could have become as influential and as game-changing as Star Wars  became but let’s be frank here: it’s likely that Star Wars would have been made anyway and even more likely that it would have been as big a hit. The era of the ’70s was already on its way out by the time “A long time ago…in a galaxy far, far away” first crawled across movie screens. The temperature of the nation was changing too. One movie wasn’t going to make a difference in that regard. The movies don’t change America; the movies reflect America. Anyone who believes differently is delusional.

These gripes aside, this is a fascinating look at a movie that never got made. It doesn’t really give us any sort of insight into the film business – this was being made far outside of Hollywood both literally and figuratively. It does give us insight into a madman slash dreamer who had the audacity and the will to chase his vision even though it never made it into the kind of fruition he wanted it to be. Some things are not meant to be but that doesn’t mean we don’t pursue them as far as we can take them. You never know what unexpected tangents may come of the pursuit and that is always worthwhile to find out.

REASONS TO GO: Jodorowsky is a fascinating interview. Production art is stunning. Definitely has some “what if” moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally gets a bit condescending to its audience.  Annoying soundtrack.

FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of swearing, some drug references and some violent and/or sexual images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming the movie, Seydoux and Jodorowsky reunited and decided to make another movie together. That film, La Danza de la Realidad, was Jodorowsky’s first in 23 years and made its debut at Cannes in the same year as this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 21

Frances


Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

(1982) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jessica Lange, Kim Stanley, Sam Shepard, Bart Burns, Jonathan Banks, Jeffrey DeMunn, Zelda Rubinstein, Anjelica Huston, Pamela Gordon, Kevin Costner, Bonnie Bartlett, James Brodhead, Daniel Chodos, Nancy Foy, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, James Karen, Biff Yeager, Allan Rich, M.C. Gainey. Directed by Graeme Clifford

Waiting for Oscar

1983 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actress – Jessica Lange
Best Supporting Actress – Kim Stanley
WINS: 0

Times change. So much meaning can be packed into two little words. It can hide all manner of sins, convey all sorts of poignant meanings. It can refer to an individual, or to society. However it is meant, it is true for all of us.

Frances Farmer (Lange) was just a high school girl in Seattle when she won an essay contest the subject of which was that God was dead. She courted further controversy when she accepted an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow to observe the Moscow Art Theater. Returning home, she had been bitten by the acting bug but hard. It is also here she met Harry York (Shepard), a budding writer who liked her very much but her mind was on other things.

She tries out Hollywood for size and immediately makes a big splash. She refuses to do publicity stunts, won’t wear make-up on camera and essentially opts out of the Hollywood game, even though she’d by this time rung up a couple of legitimate hits. Clifford Odets (DeMunn), the noted playwright, convinced her that she would be better served on Broadway and the two began an affair, one which ended badly for her as Odets was already married.

Frances had her demons however and the break-up of her relationship brought them howling to the surface. She began to rely more and more on alcohol and pills and her combative nature came more and more to the fore. She was arrested for driving in a black-out zone with her headlights on during wartime and was sued by a hairdresser (Bartlett) for breaking her jaw during a studio on-set tiff. Her mother (Stanley) came down from Seattle to help but that was more or less like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Farmer would be institutionalized twice; after the first her constant battles with her mother led the elder Farmer to commit her daughter to Western States Hospital where Farmer underwent shock and insulin therapy, was repeatedly abused and raped by the male staff (who would give her to soldiers to use sexually) and finally was lobotomized. When she was released she was perhaps a more pleasant person but the fire inside her was gone forever.

One thing to remember about this movie is that it is far from a definitive biography; director Clifford says during the DVD commentary that he “didn’t want to nickel and dime the audience with facts” and obliges by sparing us many. For example, York is made up out of whole cloth, the lobotomy sequence never happened (there is no evidence that it occurred) and Farmer was married three times, making her far from the lonely woman who had no romantic relationships other than with the married Odets that the movie portrays her as.

This is Jessica Lange’s movie and in many ways it is the role that this talented actress is most remembered for. It shows a woman in a time when women were expected to be submissive and meek but was instead demanding, loud and full of fire. Watching Lange’s performance you can’t help but think that if this was anything close to how the real Frances Farmer was, there’s no doubt in that case that she had two strikes against her from the outset – the men of that era would certainly not have tolerated the kind of strident independence that Lange portrays Farmer possessing. She may well have been institutionalized for that alone.

Even though there are plenty of people who do Frances Farmer wrong in this movie, there is no single villain. Certainly Odets, the lobotomy doctor (O’Loughlin) and Farmer’s mother come off poorly but then there were other factors leading to the actress’ spectacular fall which makes the story all the more poignant. While I can wish that the filmmakers hadn’t been such bastards in reality (reneging on an agreement with a writer and in general treating people badly) and that they had stuck to the facts of Farmer’s real life which were compelling in themselves, I can only go by the finished product, not by what I wish it might have been. This is a tremendous performance by Lange, one which is worth seeing all by itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Lange and Stanley. Real chemistry between Lang and Shepard.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jumps from time frame to time frame. Never really explains Frances’  breakdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly disturbing scenes and mature content as well as its share of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally based on a fictionalized biography of Farmer by author William Arnold called Shadowland but in order to make the movie seem like original material, the screenwriters created the fictional character of Harry York in order to give Frances a love interest. However, things like the lobotomy which never happened in reality, came straight from Mr. Arnold’s book. He would eventually lose a lawsuit years after the film was released.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A 30 minute featurette on the real Frances Farmer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar continues!

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