SAVING MR. BANKS
Emma Thompson Saves The Holidays
A tailor-made Hollywood crowd-pleaser, “Saving Mr. Banks” deploys as much fantasy as fact in telling Walt Disney’s tenacious efforts to transform “Mary Poppins” into a movie — with the necessary approval of its popular children’s book author. Emma Thompson has the thankless task of playing British novelist P.L. Travers, whose fierce temperamental nature comes through in little things she says and does while being hosted by Walt in Los Angeles in order to collaborate on the screenplay and music for his planned film production of “Mary Poppins.”
Mrs. Travers has demands — lots of them. She insists that all production meetings be tape-recorded. The lady from London (by way of Australia) insists that every American she meets call her “Mrs. Travers.” No one complies. She is not amused.
The ever-reliable Paul Giamatti steals the show in a subplot as Ralph, Mrs. Travers’s regular chauffeur. The slow-burn bond that develops between “Missus” and Ralph gives the movie some of its best scenes. Still, there are plenty of ensemble sequences — many involving singing — that turn the picture into an actors’ love fest.
Emma Thompson nearly levitates in her role as a strong-willed woman with a sophisticated editorial wit and style. Tom Hanks is smooth as silk in the foil position of the soft-and-generous antagonist, who belies the real Walt Disney’s less than delightful reputation. It’s fun to read between the lines and imagine Hanks’s Disney as a cunning corporate raider winning in a battle of dominance over the real P.L. Travers. You have to admit — as Mrs. Travers constantly complains — the “animated penguins” were a bad idea in Disney’s version of “Mary Poppins,” a children’s movie that hasn’t withstood the test of time.
Although Mrs. Travers is suffering from money problems — she’s broke — she has no loss of ego when it comes to defending the purity of her book. Her relationship with her father, Robert Goff Travers (Colin Farrell), informs her character’s motivations in concise flashback sequences that provide essential insight into Mrs. Travers well-defended mindset. There’s a twist to the story that is presaged in the film’s obfuscated title.
A daily script-meeting schedule on Walt’s production lot puts Thompson’s suffer-no-fools character in Disney’s piano-equipped studio with sibling songwriters Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak). “Impromptu” brainstorming scenes glue the movie together. Everyone’s editorial voice and musical imagination is heard — some more than others. Animated discussions — over whether a note goes up or down — are rewarded with performance examples that reveal hands-on aspects of inspired musical creation.
It doesn’t hurt that the filmmakers had access to actual tape-recorded documents of the work sessions with the mercurial novelist and Disney’s right-hand men. Mrs. Travers was clearly onto something in requiring that the workshop sessions be recorded.
Everyone likes to peek inside a recording studio where music is being created. There’s something innocently voyeuristic about it. Having a producer as opinionated as P.L. Travers drove her equally biased collaborators to distraction, but it also forced them to create better work.
The studio story-within-the-story enables something that you rarely see characters do in movies — work. Watching how these polar-opposite artists come to agree on issues that seem insurmountable — Mrs. Travers demands there be no red in the movie, for example — is half the enjoyment of watching “Saving Mr. Banks.” The other half comes from the fine performances, not the least of which belong to Emma Thompson.
Rated PG-13. 125 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Writer-director Ken Scott does the same thing twice by repurposing his 2011 French-language film “Starbuck” into a Hollywood movie that predictably loses something in translation. Pumping up the volume on the comic account of a sperm-bank donor who finds out he has sired more than a few children — under the name Starbuck — 20 years ago isn’t exactly a recipe for success, especially if the main entertainment quotient has only one thing going for it: Vince Vaughn.
While the ageless man-boy is perfectly adequate in an ensemble buddy movie such as “Wedding Crashers” or a silly sports comedy such as “DodgeBall,” Vince Vaughn doesn’t have the dynamic comic pizazz to pull off the high-wire feat of leading a comedy without heavy-duty support from other comic actors. Chris Pratt is hardly prepared for such heavy rib-tickling lifting in his supporting role as David’s attorney pal Brett. Jason Segel would have been a better casting choice. Segel would have been a better choice for Vaughn’s role for that matter.
Everything about “Delivery Man” feels, well, labored. Every joke ends on a flat note. David Wozniak (Vaughn) drives a truck for his family-owned meat-delivery company — hence the film’s title. He’s a reliably unreliable character whose good intentions are constantly getting quashed due to his lack of focus. The basketball team uniforms he promises to bring to a photo shoot for his co-workers, go missing after he leaves them in a delivery truck that gets towed away.
His policewoman girlfriend Emma is tired of his BS, yet plans on having their unplanned baby in the knowledge that she will have to bear the burden of the parenting duties when the time comes. David has some double-time personality tweaks to make.
The plot shifts out of first gear when an attorney brings it to David’s attention that 142 of the 533 offspring of his once-frozen sperm are now looking to reconnect with their biological father. A class-action lawsuit brews, and brings media attention to the case. Equipped with a thick file containing the identities of 142 of his progeny, David sets about tracking them down one by one. He attempts to take a positive role in the lives of the handful of young adults that he manages to engage — which predictably isn’t many.
Part of the film’s failure derives from the way the script overshoots the mark regarding the number of kids David has given life to. Had the number been three or even four, the story could have had somewhere to go. As it stands, the film’s drawn out climax washes over the audience like a mudslide of dead narrative weight.
From a social commentary perspective, “Deliver Man” misses the mark on purpose. If anything, the filmmaker’s pro-life message gets muddled to the point of distraction. David is accepting, if not entirely empathetic, regarding one of his sons' homosexuality. He goes the extra mile to visit and spend quality time with his disabled son who is confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. However, the reality of the situation is that he hasn’t been a father to these kids and he never will be because there simply isn’t enough of him to go around. With effects of overpopulation crushing the planet’s natural recourses, the “Delivery Man” should probably have kept it in his pants.
Rated PG-13. 103 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
THE WORLD'S END
Tapering Off —
Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright Lose Some Magic
Although it exhibits nowhere near the level of inspired deconstructionist comic sophistication of “Shaun of the Dead” or “Hot Fuzz,” the latest effort from the writing team of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright has enough witty panache to compensate for its failings. The movie is all about the set-up — something that becomes a crutch disguised as a narrative tic as the story unfolds. Five former high school friends from the tiny hamlet of New Haven, England come together roughly 25 years later to right the wrongs of their most storied night of alcohol-fuelled debauchery. After their high school graduation, the “five musketeers” attempted to drink a pint of beer in each of the town’s twelve bars on a single night. They didn’t make to the finish line. It’s time for a do-over.
Gary King (Pegg) — the loser of the bunch — gets the bright idea to reunite his long lost mates, while telling their story of drunken revelry at a substance-abuse meeting. Pegg’s gift-of-gab motors the movie even when the on-screen action flags. Gary uses his wits to convince his domestically minded pals — Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and Andrew (Nick Frost) — to return to the scene of the crime, namely an area aptly dubbed the “Golden Mile” for its many pubs.
Gary rifles through the designations of the 12 bars like a well-memorized soliloquy. Names like “The Famous Cock,” “The Two-Headed Dog,” and “The Old Familiar” roll off Gary’s salivating tongue. While it’s entertaining to watch the long out-of-touch men settle into crumpled versions of their former selves, the film’s assemble-the-team first act takes up a few scenes too many. Part of the problem is that the screenwriters don’t bother to drop any clues about where the main plotline is headed. As a result, the film’s second-act craziness — involving a Stepford-wife kind of revelation regarding the locals of New Haven — arrives without sufficient preparation to make the plot twist click in the viewers mind. More questions are raised than answered.
Once on their nostalgic mission of drink and ruin, the boys discover that all is not as it appears. One bar looks exactly like the last. Call it the Starbucks effect.
The filmmakers squander an opportunity to address changes in the landscape of craft beer that have added considerably more flavor and alcoholic content to many adults’ favorite beverage. Little more than a passing reference to hops informs the tidal change that has occurred in the beer world in the past 15 years.
The gang’s slippery slope toward inebriated oblivion is tempered by a bigger challenge involving the attenuated mental and physical state of nearly everyone around them. Suffice it to say that a prominent science fiction element co-opts the movie without adding much more than a series of well-choreographed slapstick set pieces to the action. Pierce Brosnan makes a glorified cameo appearance that helps usher in a showdown between our five heroes of personal liberty and the shady forces responsible for enslaving humanity. Surveillance, overpopulation, and forced consumerism receive a light roasting in a movie that probably would have been better if it had been written a year later. In any event “The World’s End” has its heart in the right place about where Western society is headed, and it ain’t pretty.
Rated R. 109 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Freddy Got Fingered — CLASSIC FILM PICK
In this sadly unloved comedy, class clown extraordinaire Tom Green brings his anti-establishment performance art comedy to a recurring boil with a movie that combines a punk rock esthetic with acted-out cartoon abandon. Where teen gross-out movies like the recent "Say It Isn’t So" or "Tomcats" sink in their own toilet humor, "Freddy Got Fingered" soars because of Green’s sincerely committed imagination, curiosity, and irony-free execution of comic stunts that frequently involve oral fixation, word play, or Green’s bizarre take on large animals' naughty appendages. Non sequitur comic gags involving skateboard ramps, salamis, a British Bobby uniform, and a cordless phone play out behind cartoon animator hopeful Gord Brody’s (Green) attempts at finding his niche in society, thereby making his father (Rip Torn) proud. Green masterfully achieves his goal of ‘confusing audiences enough to enjoy’ his signature brand of demented comedy with a heart of gold. It’s a movie that works perfectly on its own terms, much like a Swiss watch in a doghouse overrun by bees and monkeys.
Tom Green is a comic genius. Audiences familiar with his MTV show already know the twisted magic that pops out the lanky prankster with unrelenting regularity. As director, Green layers songs from punk music standard bearers The New York Dolls and The Sex Pistols to fuel his irreverent vision while subtly commenting on the scene at hand. The Pistol’s song "Problems" becomes an opening power chord statement for the movie as Gord skateboards through a shopping mall while being chased by irate security guards. Gord pulls off a few skating flourishes to show mocking grace under pressure before catching up with his parents who are waiting to see their boy off to Los Angeles to pitch his cartoon ideas and make something of his life.
Dad and mom surprise Gord with a blue convertible Le Baron that instantly becomes an award of favoritism that the 28-year-old Gord flaunts over his 25-year-old brother Freddy. Freddy is as straitlaced and dull as Gord is unpredictable and wild. It’s a classic sibling rivalry that goes beyond crisis when, after Gord’s dad Jim ruins his skateboard ramp, and Gord responds by accusing daddy of ‘fingering Freddie’ to a family counselor. In this way, Gord pits authority on itself and wins a victory over his brownnosing brother and his overbearing father. Sure it’s a last ditch mean-as-snakespit thing to do, but Gord seizes the opportunity like the underestimated no holds barred man-boy that he is. Gord doesn’t want to be taken seriously, he just wants to be taken (as in accepted).
After meeting with failure in getting a top L.A. television executive to hire him, Gord returns home to Portland to further incubate in his parent’s house. On a day that Gord is supposed to be out looking for a job, Jim returns home to find Gord wearing one of his suits backward while holding a briefcase in front of a full length mirror and repeating a ditty to the effect of, ‘I’m a backward man, I’m a backward man.’ The scene is loaded with humor as Gord lies about having secured a job with a computer company to his overjoyed father before going back to his self entertaining mirror act.
The character that the movie turns on is Gord’s adorable love interest Betty (Marisa Couglan - "Teaching Mrs. Tingle"), a paraplegic nymphomaniac who also happens to be an amateur rocket scientist. Betty can’t get enough of having Gord cane her lifeless legs or letting her give him oral sex. It’s through Betty’s bottomless inspiration that Gord is able to turn his personality crisis into a successful career as an animator and finally reconcile the differences he has with his dad.
By that time Gord has perhaps fondled one too many animal penises (once while repeating "I’m a farmer, I’m a farmer"), and spent a little too long getting intimate with an umbilical cord (by duct taping a piece of umbilicus to his navel that gets discovered by Betty), or a roadkill deer (which he guts and wears on his head). What’s important is Tom Green’s priceless comic delivery, quick to the mark timing, and daredevil sense of humor. When Gord tries to impress Betty at a nice restaurant by pretending to be a stock market consultant, he uses an out of date cordless phone with a tape recorder to fill in as a cell phone. Gord’s haiku rendition of the stock market is in a league of its own. For every person who walks out of "When Freddy Got Fingered," there will be two hundred others howling in laughter.
Rated R. 92 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Ivy League Tina Fey
Higher Learning Gets Schooled
An above-average romantic comedy, “Admission” profits considerably from Tina Fey’s reliable comic efforts as Portia Nathan, a Princeton University admissions officer approaching an unforeseen midlife crisis. Sending up Ivy League practices for attracting and, mostly, rejecting desperate young college applicants is all part of the film’s canny satire. If the American college system is one big scam, Ivy League schools are shown as the worst offenders. It’s especially droll that the real Princeton University is used rather than a fictional school. In an age when the cost of higher learning comes with potentially bankrupting student loans, “Admission” is about how the process of learning is an ongoing activity that never stops. Having the ability to work inside the system means having the aptitude to move beyond it.
Fey’s upwardly motivated Portia anchors the film’s personal aspects. She’s engaged in a catfight struggle with her African American co-worker Corinne (Gloria Reuben) to take over the soon-to-be-vacant Dean of Admissions post currently held by Wallace Shawn’s Clarence character. Portia’s NPR-approved home life marriage to a pretentiously highbrow college professor — Mark (Michael Sheen) — is going down the drain quick. Tina Fey’s quirky-but-sexy-librarian manner makes her an ideal protagonist ripe for ethical challenges. She receives a doozy.
Recruiting road trips to high schools come with Portia’s job description. Her canned Princeton pitch doesn’t go over so well at New Quest, an alternative high school run by one-man-show educational visionary John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a world traveler committed to bringing up his adopted son. Assembly-line learning isn’t what the students at New Quest have in mind. Here are a group of informed kids capable of reading between the lines of a collegiate educational system built on capitalist ideals of greed, racism, and sexism. There’s comic satisfaction in seeing intelligent — rather than intellectual students — speaking truth to bravura. Portia gets stung.
John has an ulterior motive. He introduces Portia to Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) a young man John has reason to believe is Portia’s biological child that she gave up for adoption nearly two decades ago. John is a helper. He also has the hots for Portia, a fact that her feminist mom (Lily Tomlin) is none to pleased to endorse. She’d rather point her shotgun in his direction.
Paul Rudd continues his winning streak of amiable comic post-hippie characters. A more congenial romantic comic pairing — Fey and Rudd — you are not likely to find.
Portia takes up the insider cause of insuring Jeremiah’s entry into Princeton at any cost. However much Jeremiah has blossomed academically at New Quest — he’s something of a prodigy — his educational past isn’t so impressive on the printed page.
Crosscurrents of romance, drama, and comedy flow through one another. The movie hits its stride during a roundtable admissions process whereby each officer defends his or her picks for applicants. Comic suspense builds as Portia plays her best game of political strategy on Jeremiah’s behalf.
“Admission” is a “talk film.” Shifts in comic tone come without warning. The audience gets caught up in the battle for pent-up hopes between the film’s three main characters. We want the best for them, but understand that the status quo will never fill that gap. We’ve all still got a lot to learn.
Rated PG-13. 117mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
Roman Coppola’s '70s-era scattershot comic apologia for Charlie Sheen’s sins of womanizing and drug abuse has a train-wreck appeal that makes it moderately interesting to look at —i.e., a snapshot of our times as seen through a retro view. Our eye is drawn to the excess of pop-art style that Coppola flashes to distract us from the film’s utter lack of narrative momentum. Still, “experimental” would be too polite an adjective to describe Coppola’s deconstructionist misfire in the name of maturity avoided. Charlie Sheen’s man/boy persona is doubtlessly more interesting to himself and his close friends than it is to moviegoers at large.
Sheen plays a slightly altered version of himself as Charles Swan III, a beauty-obsessed romantic with the attention span of mouse. Swan is in the midst of yet another break-up with a gorgeous woman half his age. He feigns heartbreak but is really more frustrated by his own inability to completely possess and abuse a woman as he does his vintage car. By day Charles Swan runs a Los Angeles graphic design studio responsible for projects like designing his best friend Kirby Star’s (Jason Schwartzman) upcoming album cover. Schwartzman’s character gives incidental credence to Liam Hayes’s hippie-groove musical score.
Forget that this is a character that could no more sit down at a drawing board for four straight hours than he could keep his eyes off a woman’s breasts for more than five seconds. Bill Murray adds a twinge of comic interest as Swan’s neurotic business manager Saul, but like everything and everyone else in the movie, his is just one more throwaway performance in the service of presenting Charlie Sheen as a moderately likeable human being. I’m not sold and you probably won't be either. Roman Coppola goes so far as to throw in a literal “kitchen sink” as part of his ploy to entertain, but like reality TV and Sheen himself, “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” can’t even manage to titillate.
Rated R. 86 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)Tweet
Bumpy Road Movie
Melissa McCarthy Packs a Throat-Punch
By Cole Smithey
2013 is Melissa McCarthy’s year. The plus-size actress who blew up big laughs in “Bridesmaids” is making major comic waves with at least three features tailored to her fast-twitch style of physical humor this year. The first of which is director Seth Gordon’s (“Horrible Bosses”) laugh-out-loud road movie of opposites, which paints McCarthy’s Florida-dwelling identity thief character Diana as a walking sociopath of epic proportions. Jason Bateman plays straight-man Sandy Bigelow Patterson to McCarthy’s dance-move-busting crook. She can also sing along to any song that plays on a car radio — goofy hand gestures included. If cornered, she’ll punch her attacker in the throat. A suit-and-tie finance guy by day, family man Sandy is one of those pathetic people born every minute — you know, a sucker. Sandy falls for a phone-call scam committed by Diana, wherein she extracts his social security number and goes on to rob him of his “unisex” name. Buying many rounds of tequila shots for strangers at a local bar is one of the ways “Sandy” chooses to max out the real Sandy’s credit card. She also has an inexplicable affinity for guitars, blenders, and all form of cosmetic products.
After suffering a dose of verbal degradation from his filthy-rich boss Harold Cornish (Jon Favreau), Sandy throws in with a group of similarly disenfranchised co-workers when they mutiny in order to start their own company. The blush of overnight DIY success dims when Sandy gets arrested by Denver, Colorado cops to answer for Diana’s illegal activities committed in his name many states away. A weeklong reprieve from his new job allows Sandy to track down his “Hobbit-like” identity double in Florida. Sandy plans on bringing Diana back with him to Denver to extract a confession from her that will exonerate him once and for all from her misdeeds.
What follows is a series of hilariously rigged set pieces fuelled by outrageous dialogue. One such humorously escalating episode unfolds at a bar where Diana flirts with a turquoise-jewelry-wearing cowboy appropriately named Big Chuck. Diana tells Chuck that Sandy is a “watcher” before the pair hit the dance floor to perform some dirty dancing while Sandy looks on in ambivalent disgust. The situational jokes explode when the trio makes their way to Diana’s and Sandy’s motel room. Diana encourages Chuck to verbally humiliate Sandy, who is forced to seek refuge in the bathroom while Diana and Chuck get down to some noisy nasty business.
One of the film’s best comic bits is as old as the hills. It involves a campfire and a snake. It would be a crime to give the scene away, but suffice it to say it incites some serious belly laughs. The movie is not without its faults. As is the current trend, the “Identity Thief” suffers from a series of false endings. As a result, the comedy peters out instead of closing out with the hoped-for bang that seems promised. Still, Bateman and McCarthy share a great comic chemistry together that more than compensates for the film’s flagging windup.
Rated R. 107 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet