Archive for November, 2013

Frozen

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 28, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Frozen photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe 53rd animated film in the Walt Disney canon is a musical adventure celebrating the bond of sisterhood. The idyllic childhood of two princesses is disrupted when one little girl accidentally freezes her younger sister with her powers. Anna is cured, but Elsa subsequently isolates herself so as not to endanger her sibling again. After their parents are tragically killed at sea the elder Elsa becomes queen. On her coronation day, a disagreement between her sister causes Elsa to inadvertedly trap the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter. She flees amidst accusations of sorcery. Anna sets out to find her sister the Snow Queen and seal the rift between them. Frozen has been molded very much in the same girl power attitude that has been a characteristic of every Disney princess since Beauty and the Beast in 1991. Both are feisty independent women that don’t need to rely on a man, thank you very much. This time the final resolution manages to tweak the formula in a way that gently affirms the importance of family.

Frozen has been promoted as based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen. They both share a snowbound location and have a queen, but the plot has a lot more in common with the storyline of the smash musical Wicked. The tale of two sisters, one incorrectly labeled as a monster when she’s simply just misunderstood, parallel each other. The voice cast even features the star of that production, Idina Menzel. That’s appropriate since Frozen has been fashioned as an old school musical. Menzel is Elsa, former princess now Snow Queen. Anna, the younger sister and also a princess is portrayed by another theater alum Kristen Bell (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). Rounding out the primary cast are Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana, and Josh Gad. Broadway stars all. Frozen’s transition from animated movie to the inevitable stage should be a smooth one.

Frozen is an enjoyable production. The picture favorably compares to recent hits like Tangled. The musical is highlighted by a few really good songs. “Let It Go” in particular is a first rate ditty that I was still singing as I left the theater. The anthem about looking forward to the future, is one of their best songs in years. The music is composed by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. The latter of whom collaborated on the music & lyrics for Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. And while the complete score doesn’t approach the apex of composer Alan Menken in his prime, there are some standout tunes: “For the First Time in Forever”, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “Love is an Open Door” are among them.

As usual an anachronistic mentality plagues a Disney movie. It’s never clear why a tale set in 1845 in a Nordic setting, is beset with teen protagonists that talk like they’re from the San Fernando Valley. The pair of women parrot vocal inflections like they just stepped out of a rom com. In contrast, side characters like The Duke of Weselton and Wandering Oaken, the owner of a Trading Post (and Sauna), speak with accents germane to their respective origin. The physical details of the princesses is a bit of a snooze. Pretty, tall and slender with huge doe eyes, they sport virtually identical facial features down to their freckles. The main difference? Anna has red hair and Elsa has white hair. Once again, a supporting sidekick is the most memorable personality. Olaf the Snowman steals the show. His buck toothed expressions are amusing and provide the laughs, although his goofy shtick feels like it belongs in a completely different story. There are a group of Trolls that are entertaining as well.

Frozen is a visually spectacular tribute to sisterhood for the entire family. It’s a solid addition to their recent cannon. Granted Disney’s tendency to favor a modern sensibility pales to depicting the actual time period. The studio’s quest to subvert the traditional princess has been their ongoing mission for the last 20+ years so the way they tweak “formula” is nothing new. Its contemporary take on princesses is very much a product of our times. Idiomatic twenty-first century argot taints the proceedings. There are genuine moments of inspiration, however. One has Elsa, the Snow Queen building her snow castle using her own supernatural abilities. The sequence highlights the movie’s signature song “Let It Go” a soaring declaration that says goodbye to the past, rejoicing that she no longer has to hide her gift. With arms outstretched, Elsa builds an ice staircase as she simultaneously ascends up to the sky, Snow flurries abound. She stomps the ground and a fractal image of a snowflake grows from under the foot. Then she raises her hands and a glittering shiny ice castle of frozen spires appears from all around her. It’s a positively gorgeous spectacle, among the best of the year, and a joyous reminder of the heights to which music and images can combine in a Disney film. Not since Superman & his Fortress of Solitude has a home been made so beautifully in ice.

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Philomena

Posted in Drama with tags on November 27, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Philomena photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgAn Irish woman spends decades searching for her son Anthony. As an 18 year old in the 1950s, Philomena was taken in by an Irish Catholic convent operated by Magdalene nuns. Their charity was to care for wayward girls the church considered “sinners.”  Many were unwed mothers sent away by families to keep their indiscretions private. For the first three years of his life, Philomena got to see her baby for one hour a day in the midst of doing backbreaking laundry chores. Her son born out of wedlock was ultimately removed and sold into adoption overseas.

Writer-producer-star Steve Coogan co-adapted the screenplay from Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. He portrays the journalist of the story. Much of the film details the intricate relationship amongst the godless Irish writer and the distraught god-fearing mother. They’re certainly a peculiar team in which actors Judi Dench and Steve Coogan form a mismatched pair . Although both are in pursuit of the same goal, each represents wildly conflicting ideals. One second Martin is decrying the existence of God, the next Philomena is lighting a candle in a chapel. Yes their differences are sometimes emphasized awkwardly. Subtlety is not the script’s strong suit. The saving grace is Judi Dench’s performance which never makes her an object of derision, despite the screenplay’s occasional attempts to label her as such. Philomena endures as a model of decency and compassion. It’s hard not to gravitate toward her personality in her dealings with Martin, the disgraced reporter assigned to (horror!) a human interest story.

The chronicle works best as a warmhearted rumination of a woman’s journey to find her son. The dialogue isn’t particularly deep. The odd couple pairing of devout mother Philomena with atheist journalist Martin Sixsmith forms much of the plot. This is a drama of human interaction between two polar opposites. In their conversations, there are times when Philomena is portrayed as naïve and Martin as enlightened. The script manages to impugn the Catholic church (easy target) of 1950s Ireland as well as the Republican party (even easier target) of the 1980s. However The Magdalene Sisters is a vehement attack. Philomena is more good-natured and sweet in its tale. Thank Judi Dench for her dignified, sensitive portrayal. At one point she rebukes Martin for his lack of faith and forgiveness. At that moment she is the character with which we most identify. View the narrative as a testament to the undying bond that’s exists between mothers and their children. Throughout it all Philomena remains a staunch supporter of Catholicism. This picture may be a manipulative crowd-pleaser. But it’s also an emotional tear-jerking family drama with captivating flashes of anger, sorrow, humor and poignancy. Judi Dench makes the concoction pleasant.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on November 24, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgIt’s rare when part 2 of a trilogy can not only live up to expectations, but surpass them.  The second entry isn’t the exciting setup, nor the epic conclusion. There are examples, but second installments are often a holding pattern for the final and third climatic entry. Attack of the Clones, anyone? My feeling about Part 1 are a matter of public record. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I even felt that it jettisoned superfluous aspects of the book in service of an improved cinematic experience. Now we come to Catching Fire. I appreciated the novel, but it was hampered by the law of diminishing returns. The plot begins when the people of Panem greet Katniss as she tours the 12 districts with Peeta on her victorious return from the Hunger Games. The two arrive as heroes. But President Snow is not happy with the outcome. The seeds of revolt have been planted. The leader seeks to contain the building restlessness of the populace. His solution will affect the lives of many former winners. Catching Fire violates a commonly held belief that sequels are inferior. This shouldn’t have happened, but Catching Fire actually surpasses The Hunger Games. The film does the impossible. It presents a 2 ½ hour movie that is thrilling from beginning to end and leaves the audience breathlessly waiting for the next installment.

What makes Catching Fire so effective is the utter believability of the narrative. Credit an ensemble cast that delivers without exception. These days, we’re lucky to get one performance that captivates our emotion in a typical big budget fantasy like this. Here I could cite 10 actors that impress with their contributions. However any reasonable discussion must acknowledge the lead. Jennifer Lawrence is a talent of the highest magnitude. Let’s face it. A dystopian future where the state maintains egregious control, is nothing new. We’ve seen this subject before in literary masterpieces such as 1984 and Brave New World to celluloid classics like Brazil and The Matrix. Here the tyrannical state punishes its citizens by making them fight to the death, and then presents the ordeal to the masses as entertainment. The deterioration of society is a prevalent theme in fiction (and in the real world to be quite honest). Yet there still remains an inherent skepticism. In each frame, Jennifer Lawrence expressive portrayal engenders our sympathy. Study her countenance as she takes her National Victory Tour. As she stares out to the faces of the districts whose tributes she has defeated, she reveals pain, often without speaking. Her expressions speak more than a thousand pages. Her tortured soul in full view of a nation. You too might feel sorrow. Miss Lawrence renders a flawless achievement. She treats the role as if she were acting in a biographical drama. Her sincere performance has the gravitas required to engage our passion.

Studio Lionsgate Entertainment increased the budget from the first film by over 60% and it shows. Catching Fire dazzles the senses in almost every scene. The tale is particularly amusing when sending up the frivolous facade of disposable entertainment. The first half detailing the increasing uneasiness, is actually more compelling than the standard-issue combat of the second half. Some of the climactic resolutions will be a bit murky to people unfamiliar with the text. The critique of our media based culture is rather engaging. The actors embody the residents of a despotic state that feels as genuine as any historical saga. Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket coordinates our protagonists’ personal appearances. Sporting false eyelashes that extend out like tendrils from her eyes, she is a glittering Christmas tree of changing outfits. She remains just as intellectually superficial, but her character registers a knowing sadness this time around. Her discontent with the process is barely there, but it is perceptible.  Her ever-so-subtle dissatisfaction mirrors the mood of the citizenry. The depiction is masterful in its nuance. Later, Katniss is on stage with host Caesar Flickerman in her pre-games interview show. The glitzy neon, “Hollywood” production is a humorous parallel to American Idol, although the stakes are admittedly much higher. Stanley Tucci is the preening, purple haired, showman with bright white capped teeth. His flashy persona rivals Ryan Seacrest.

Catching Fire does a brilliant job of taking a beloved work and turning it into a cinematic event. You’ve heard the adage “show don’t tell.” In scene after scene, director Francis Lawrence invigorates the words of Suzanne Collins’ novel into a fully realized picture that exploits the possibilities of the visual medium. The evils of living in Panem are explored with an enlightened depth. The actors personify the victims of a single-party totalitarian dictatorship in the saga of an oppressive government. The anguish is authentic, at times heartbreaking. There is a scene in Catching Fire where Katniss takes a TV stage resplendent in a white wedding gown. She is unveiling the dress she was supposed to have worn in her upcoming marriage ceremony to Peeta. As the live studio spectators watch in rapt attention, she begins spinning. The outfit catches fire, engulfed in flames transformed like a phoenix. Her costume grows wings, becoming a mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion against the capital. The galvanizing spectacle will have grave repercussions later, but it’s a heady display – an instant to share in the power of the collective experience. We’re witnessing the manifestation of a star right before our very eyes – in the movie, but also real life. The fame of Katniss Everdeen parallels Jennifer Lawrence’s own soaring career trajectory. Indeed life imitates art.

Nebraska

Posted in Adventure, Drama with tags on November 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Nebraska photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgA father and son take a road trip from Billings, Montana to Omaha, Nebraska. Their goal? To claim a sweepstakes the father has won in the mail. Bruce Dern is Woody Grant. He looks to be in his 70s and is a man of few words. It also happens to be Dern’s juiciest theatrical role in decades. He is ably supported by a nice ensemble cast. Will Forte is David, his exasperated son unable to convince his father that the letter is just a scam. Given Woody’s declining mental capabilities and his proclivity for wandering off, David agrees to accompany his father to pick up the prize money. June Squibb is Woody’s crabby old wife that wants nothing to do with the lot of them and lets them know at every turn with very colorful language. Along the trip, the duo will visit with family and friends.

Nebraska is a dramatic tone poem in a minor key. There are no explosions, fist fights, car chases or anything in the way of sensational developments. The atmosphere is decidedly somber in tone. Director Alexander Payne has filmed this as a meditation on aging. The stark black and white cinematography perfectly complements the bare bones plot. Alternatively highlighted by scenes of sprawling vistas of the northern Great Plains with carefully arranged men gathered around a TV set in a tiny living room. The ebb and flow of this road movie celebrates the mundanity of life.  It is absurdist in nature. Nebraska is the first film from director Payne that he did not write. Initially Bob Nelson’s script is depressing, almost condescending in tone. The screenplay mines humor from despair. Woody is an alcoholic, David has suffered a recent breakup, his mother is an irritable harridan. But be patient. There is a humorist tone that pokes fun but also warmly embraces these characters. As it plays out, Nebraska becomes a rewarding experience. There is an ultimate poignancy to the story that gently rewards a receptive viewer.

Dallas Buyers Club

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 17, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Dallas Buyers Club photo starrating-4stars.jpgRon Woodroof is a hard-partying, drug addicted Rodeo cowboy and electrician. It’s 1985 and the AIDS epidemic is in its early stages. The earliest outbreak was recorded in 1981. Given the lack of knowledge about the disease during the first 6 years, most sufferers were basically told to just wait it out. It wasn’t until 1987 when the FDA approved the first antiretroviral medication, AZT. Ron’s promiscuous lifestyle involves sex with lots of women. He is diagnosed with HIV and told he has 30 days to live. During these early years of AIDS, there were no medically sanctioned treatment options. There were however clinical trials through which some patients might receive AZT (others would get a placebo). Ron begins taking AZT. Initially there is some response, but over time his condition actually worsens. Instead of accepting this, Woodroof decides to take matters into his own hands.

Dallas Buyers Club is fashioned as the portrait of an iconoclast. By studying the available research Woodroof learns of a black market in other countries with untested drugs not recognized by the FDA. , Many have been shown to counteract the effects of AIDS. He obtains a trial of proteins, vitamins and medicine from a doctor in Mexico. His situation improves and his life is extended beyond 30 days. He then starts selling his own supply to those in need for $400-a-month. The enterprise becomes the Dallas Buyers Club, a huge network of buyers and sellers, for the distribution of experimental AIDS treatments out of his Oak Lawn, Texas, apartment. Dallas Buyers Club is essentially the profile of a man desperate to survive. The very desire to live is the most basic human right. However the script takes the FDA to task for its ‘slow to act’ drug approval policy during this time. Ron Woodroof also butts heads with the bureaucracy of the hospital for not having the patients’ best interests at heart. Actress Jennifer Garner is Dr. Eve Saks, a doctor sympathetic to his plight.

Dallas Buyers Club is highlighted by a pair of extraordinary performances. Matthew McConaughey’s depiction is powerful for its commitment. The individual presented exhibits a stripped down, natural complexity. His achievement is the pinnacle of a career that continues to impress with each successive role. Much of the drama concerns Ron’s slowly evolving attitudes. His character is a representation of society’s changing understanding of how the disease is spread. It’s emotionally resonant, but it’s hard not to also take into account his physical shape. Matthew McConaughey lost 47 pounds for the part. Filmgoers aware of the actor’s regular physique will be shocked by the transformation. A slender wisp of his former self, he is virtually unrecognizable. There are scenes of his ravaged body that are almost hard to watch. Ron’s business receives help from Rayon, a transgender HIV positive woman with a drug problem. She becomes an unlikely ally, especially for the bigoted good-ole-boy . Their improbable partnership provides Ron a link with the gay community through which he is able to distribute his pharmaceutical package. Jared Leto is quite memorable in the part. A scene where she dresses up in a suit and visits her father for money is particularly poignant.

Ron Woodroof doesn’t start out as a crusader for the betterment of mankind. His crusade is propelled by his own need to survive. The expansion of the Dallas Buyers Club is motivated by self interest. He is more entrepreneur than activist. But over time as his knowledge of the pharmaceuticals grows, he is able to intelligently prescribe based on the patient’s symptoms. His efforts extend the lives of many, including his own. Ron Woodroof doesn’t fit the profile of the typical AIDS sufferer. That’s what makes this story different. His uneasy relationship with gay people is difficult at first. His empathy for Rayon, a transgender woman, develops over the course of the chronicle. Dallas Buyers Club is not a Hollywood glossy biopic of a folk hero. He’s a hedonistic homophobic redneck that inadvertently saved lives and in the process, made a difference.

About Time

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on November 17, 2013 by Mark Hobin

About Time photo starrating-2stars.jpgRichard Curtis the writer can manipulate emotions with the skill of a pro. He is the architect behind the screenplays of such paeans to love as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually. The last of which he also directed. His take has always resonated on an emotional level with me so I greeted About Time with open arms. But here, for the first time, his perspective isn’t so noble. The result is his most self-centered take on love yet.

A poor sad sack of a fellow had just been told by his dad that the men in their family have the power to go back in time upon reaching their 21st birthday. Now if you’re asking yourself, but how? You’re already too smart for this claptrap. You simply walk into the nearest dark closet, clench your fists, and wiggle your nose. Ok, so I made that last part up, but the rest is the gospel truth straight from the movie. I’m willing to suspend disbelief and the logical explanation of a DeLorean and/or a wormhole to accept hokum if it serves a good story. So does he use his extraordinary gift for the betterment of humankind? Ah nothing so altruistic. No, he harnesses the ability to win the woman of his dreams. Now here’s where it gets a bit icky. The chronicle is infected with purely self seeking motives which underlie everything our protagonist does. You see it doesn’t really matter what women need in his world. It’s all about him and what Tim craves is sweet, lovable American girl Mary.

It’s nice to see Rachel McAdams in any movie. Mary is played with genuine sweetness by the actress and her charisma smoothes over a lot of vexing plot points. She is cheerfully oblivious to Tim abilities. Witness when she falls in love with another guy, Tom is able to “fix” things so that she never even meets what could have been the man of her dreams. Tim is actor Domhnall Gleeson, best known as Bill Weasley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Parts 1 and 2. This is a role that Hugh Grant could’ve easily embodied with a lot more personality. Although as great as Hugh Grant is, I question whether even he could make a character driven by such egocentric goals, seem sheepishly adorable. The script so desperately tries to portray Tim in this way. Domhnall Gleeson’s motivation is so self serving he’s more Ugh Grant than Hugh Grant.

Richard Curtis slathers on the adult contemporary hits and stocks the cast with a coterie of wacky stock characters from a sitcom. On the surface, there’s a vague “I did it all for love” mentality that might not seem so pernicious. But this is a purely one-sided affair. Tim is exploitative, deluding an unfortunate woman to benefit his own greedy ends regardless of her feelings. It’s pretty creepy. I kept waiting for some moral comeuppance. Some instance where our “hero” would learn that women are not objects to be manipulated, but it never comes. Furthermore there is very little in the way of conflict for Tim because any time something doesn’t go quite the way he wants, he can merely zip back in time and re-do the moment so that it’s perfect. There’s one particularly troublesome suggestion that he actually sleeps with Mary 3 times in the same night, unbeknownst to her, until he gets the experience right. I wonder how she would’ve felt knowing that once she says yes, he can have his way with her over and over without her consent. Groundhog Day did this subject infinitely better and that comedy acknowledged the inherent ethical dilemma of deceiving people to suit your own selfish desires. That’s clearly the inspiration for this. At its best the message of About Time is treacle and at its worst it’s downright immoral.

Blackfish

Posted in Documentary with tags on November 12, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Blackfish photo starrating-4stars.jpgBlackfish is a documentary about Tilikum, a male orca held at SeaWorld in Orlando. Orcas, or killer whales, are the largest of the dolphins and one of the world’s most powerful predators. This chronicle details the history of this particular killer whale. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite analyzes the contributing factors that have led to three deaths. Two trainers and a SeaWorld visitor have been casualties during his 30 odd years in captivity. In fact the death one of their coaches is how this record starts.

Blackfish does a brilliant job at charting the life of Tilikum. He was captured in Berufjörður off the east coast of Iceland on November 9, 1983 at two years of age, along with two other orcas. His “career” began at a now-defunct Canadian theme park called Sealand of the Pacific. Archival footage supports how he was attacked by two older females in the tank. After causing the death of one of his trainers there, Tilikum was transferred to Sea World Orlando in 1992. The film makes a strong argument that the trauma and anxieties to which he was subjected to there, remained with him. However the sermonizing is minimal and what comes next is haunting.

Like any documentary, Blackfish should be taken with a grain of salt. It would’ve been nice if a representative from SeaWorld had agreed to an on-camera interview. Instead we’re given re-printed testimony from SeaWorld officials in previous court cases which went to trail. Perhaps their refusal to participate says something. To this day, Tilikum continues to perform at SeaWorld Orlando, following a year-long hiatus after the death of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Cowperthwaite suggests that Tilikum’s continued current use is business related. He is the most successful sire in captivity, with 21 offspring, 11 of which are still alive.

At the very least, this scathing attack on SeaWorld will question your decision to support this amusement park with a visit. Her research is impeccable. In the account she makes a very powerful case that killer whales should not be kept in captivity at all . That their confinement is to the detriment of both the animal as well as humans involved. The cruel conditions they’re kept in is a contributing factor. She lambastes the practice of separating wild whale pups from their mothers. The accompanying footage replete with piercing sounds of a wailing mother is heartbreaking. More than a dozen testimonies from trainers, employees and experts discuss the inner workings of these parks. Many of it from former employees at the actual Sea World park where Tilikum now resides. It’s clear that many guides have been misled by SeaWorld officials on the dangers posed by these 5-ton beasts. Blackfish is more than mere entertainment. It’s necessary viewing and one of the most important documentaries of the year.

The first time I watched Blackfish was on Novmeber 12, 2013, when it was released to DVD and Blu-ray. Therefore my review has been post-dated despite the fact that my review was written on January 16, 2014.

Saving Mr. Banks

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on November 11, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Saving Mr. Banks photo starrating-4stars.jpgSome of the most critically acclaimed classics are movies about making movies: Sunset Blvd., Singin’ in the Rain, , Day for Night, The Player, Ed Wood, Boogie Nights, The Artist. There are others, but you get the idea. Personally I adore stories centered on the filmmaking process. Now along comes Saving Mr. Banks, a feature detailing Walt Disney’s quest to bring the cherished children’s book, Mary Poppins to the big screen. I am happy to report it joins the ranks of that illustrious list.

I fell in love with the magical English nanny when I first saw Mary Poppins on TV as a youngster. Little did I know that the journey from written text to screen was a tumultuous one, and not the lighthearted affair it appears on screen. The plot of Saving Mr. Banks concerns Disney’s desire to convince an extremely reluctant author in 1961 to sell him the rights to the story she holds so dear. Before Pamela Lyndon Travers (Emma Thompson) will agree, she demands script approval which necessitates discussions between screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman Brothers (B.J. Novak & Jason Schwartzman), composers/lyricists for the musical numbers. As head honcho, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) pops in from time to time to see things run smoothly. The scenes are brilliant in explicating the different sides and what exactly each person wanted. Indeed the back and forth tug of war conversation forms the majority of the plot. If there is a criticism it’s that the narrative could’ve had less depictions of these numerous ongoing fights.

Emma Thompson is terrific as P. L. Travers. I think her reverent take of the author is an extraordinary portrait that is award worthy. Yet the script does tend to exaggerate her combativeness for the sake of humor. Everything is up for debate. Before they start, she asks for clarification on the abbreviations for the stage directions. The “Mr. Banks” of the title is the father of the children in the novel. Even something as seemingly simple as his facial hair becomes a bone of contention. She demands a clean shaven father in the movie. “She wants to know why the father has a mustache” his secretary informs Walt. “Because I asked for it” is his reply. Initially I was worried her performance would be one-note, the cantankerous old maid unwilling to budge an inch. She is extremely irritable. Tom Hanks as Disney comes across much more magnanimous. No surprise since Saving Mr. Banks was made by the Disney studio after all. But in flashbacks we see scenes of the author as a young girl in Australia with her loving (but alcoholic) father played by Colin Farrell. These scenes elucidate the inspiration for her novel and why she keeps the tale so close to her heart. Much was based on her own life. Her worry that Disney would sugarcoat a character she meant to be a much darker sort, becomes an understandable anxiety. Irrelevant of the ultimate success of the Disney picture, it was in retrospect quite justified.

Saving Mr. Banks is a wonderful film about making a wonderful film. I’ll be honest, despite my fondness for the original flick, I really knew nothing of its background or its author. It’s fascinating to learn is that the process was not a smooth one. The author was not pleased with Walt’s casting choices, the use of animation or the suggestion to turn it into a musical. It’s easy to scoff at P.L. Travers because Mary Poppins the movie is now an acknowledged classic. However the script intelligently presents why Travers resisted the Disneyfication of a beloved story based on her childhood. This is the work of a finely tuned ensemble cast that does an exquisite job at giving life to these parts. Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are particularly good at presenting 2 individuals at odds. Their insightful vignettes are among the many memorable interactions about the moviemaking process. Even a small role by Paul Giamatti as Travers’ chauffeur accentuates some key scenes. Saving Mr. Banks is a beautiful portrait of how, positive results notwithstanding, the creative process from book to film can be very difficult.

Thor: The Dark World

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on November 10, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Thor: The Dark World photo starrating-3stars.jpgLet’s see if I can simplify this for the uninitiated. There’s this thing called the Aether see, and it’s a power stone that can be used as a weapon. Actually it’s one of 6 stones in the Infinity Gauntlet. Ah but I’m getting ahead of myself here. The main baddie is Malekith (unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston), ruler of the Dark Elves, who wants to plunge the world into eternal darkness because well that‘s what villains do. He’s out for revenge or something. Anyway, Thor’s earth girlfriend, Jane, is inadvertently infected by the Aether following her teleportation to another realm. Malekith is somehow aware of this occurrence and now he‘s pursuing her. Side note: Thor is still in love with Jane and vice versa. Thor’s evil brother is currently in prison on Asgard for the war crimes he committed on Earth in Thor. However, Loki happens to knows of a secret portal to Malekith’s world so Thor must appeal to him for help.

The first half of Thor: The Dark World is needlessly complicated. You can probably tell from my encapsulation of just a mere fraction of the narrative. Additionally, it has more roles than a Shakespearean play. With names like Malekith, Algrim and Frigga, a playbill would’ve been helpful. Everyone finally restores peace to the 9 realms. On one, Vanaheim, there’s Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and this group called the Warriors Three – Fandral (Zachary Levi), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). The quartet of combatants reminded me of a band of vampires you might find in the Twilight franchise.

The lifeless introductory crawl of Thor: The Dark World is overly concerned with set up and exposition. It’s rather boring. Luckily, about halfway through things get moving. In fact I can specifically pinpoint the moment at which the tale is transformed. It occurs the second they free Loki from his prison. Thor and Loki are walking together and Loki starts shapeshifting both of them into various disguises as different people. It’s an amusing display and where the picture finally finds its humor. I still like Chris Hemsworth. He has a presence (physique, acting, smile) that makes him ideally suited for the Norse god. Yet Tom Hiddleston is so engaging that Thor is essentially reduced to a supporting actor in his own film. I dare say this is the Loki show.

Thor: The Dark World is saved by Tom Hiddleston. In a production with an astounding number of characters vying for attention, he stands out head and shoulders above the rest. I’ll credit the script as well which makes his “villain” the juiciest part. While he’s kept locked up in prison during the problematic first half, the story looks to be a dud. The overreliance on computer graphics were accomplished by a mind-blowing seven (7) VFX studios. At times the special effects threaten to asphyxiate the proceedings. Once Loki is released, the plot eventually regains its footing. It’s the human element that makes these superhero movies work. His performance and a more lighthearted touch in the second half elevate this fantasy into fun entertainment. This is a superhero movie after all, not some dour historical epic. Thanks to Hiddleston’s solid portrayal, the action ultimately becomes a rousing good time.

Note: By now, Marvel should have you conditioned to remain in your seat until the very end of one of their productions, but just in case you haven‘t been properly trained: There is the traditional ending, a mid-credits scene and then a post sequence after the final credits. Stay for all of them, although one vignette won’t make any make sense to filmgoers unfamiliar with next summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

Kill Your Darlings

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 6, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Kill Your Darlings photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe celebrated writers of the Beat Generation in their early college days is the subject of this docudrama. Allen Ginsberg is accepted to Columbia University in 1944. Intimidated by his new surroundings, he is immediately drawn to blonde haired, blue-eyed Lucien Carr portrayed with charismatic theatricality by Dane DeHaan. The timid and shy, Ginsberg is attracted to the young man’s anti-conformist views. The two strike up a friendship amidst a social circle that also includes Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. But there is an older influence named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) that threatens their comfortable clique. As Allen’s fascination with Lucien grows deeper, David’s interdependent relationship with Lucien becomes clear. This contributes to a growing antagonism amongst the trio

The performances are exceptional. Daniel Radcliffe is our lead protagonist. It’s another daringly uncharacteristic role for the Harry Potter star. He manages to evoke a writer with a lot to say, but still unsure of how to express it. Actor Michael C. Hall interprets English teacher David Kammerer as if he were Philip Seymour Hoffman. And I mean that as the sincerest form of flattery. Honestly I would love to see those two actors as rival brothers in some agreeably turgid drama directed by David O. Russell. But I digress. The genuine revelation here is Dane DeHaan who embodies cool rabble-rousing student Lucien Carr with verve and style. He blithely rejects the writing conventions of the day with a disrespectful air that is cheeky. Yet his ideas are substantially grander than his abilities to compose.

William Faulkner once said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” He was admonishing authors from relying on their personal favorite elements. The title is a clever play on words as a real life murder will infect the lives of their circle. It builds to a fervid climax but that really isn’t the thrust of the narrative. The setting allows for a concentrated biographical study in a minor key. The atmosphere is rather stylish. A memorably mischievous scene occurs when the band breaks into the school library at midnight and replaces the classic works featured, with banned books by Henry Miller, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. First time writer/director John Krokidas further energizes this episode and others by infusing the soundtrack with anachronistic music (TV on the Radio, The Libertines). In doing so he places their philosophy in a contemporary context. Ginsberg’s in-class debates with his professor about the nature of, and need for, rhyme and meter is an amusing vignette that prefaces poems like Howl for which he would later become famous. There are limitations to the account. It’s hard to properly convey the creative process of writing in an exciting way in a movie. Someone typing furiously at a typewriter isn’t the most cinematic of displays. But more often than not, this is an entertaining story about a group of outsiders that ultimately crashed the mainstream party.