Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks
A feel-good movie about Walt Disney's (Tom Hanks) 20 year battle to adapt P.L. Travers' (Emma Thompson) Mary Poppins to film.

Flashing between the 20th (and final) year of Disney's attempt to get the rights to Mary Poppins and the childhood of Helen 'Ginty' Goff aka P.L. Travers, the movie has a bit of an identity crises as to whether or not it wants to be a full life-encompassing biopic or a a more focused narrative on the battle of wills between Disney and Travers.  It never really successfully juggles the two, although it does manage a rather powerful moment where P.L. Travers flashes back to a speech made by her banker father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) while the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) sing "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank."  Otherwise, the cutting between the two seems rather arbitrary, as if director John Lee Hancock was worried the audience might forget what they've seen if he waited to long to return.

The movie is still enjoyable, despite this, mostly because of the performances given throughout.  Emma Thompson, especially, gives a spirited turn as the sour P.L. Travers.  Many of her line deliveries are incredibly cutting, yet you still laugh due to how well she times them.  Her scenes with the Sherman brothers and co-writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) are amongst the films best, with her constantly dampening their collective enthusiasm while the struggle to work with her constant demands.  B.J. Novak, as Robert Sherman, shines the best of the three, with his constant wordless reactions to Travers being some of the strongest supporting work in the film entire.

Tom Hanks gives a much more human portrayal of Walt Disney than one would expect, given that Disney is the one that made this film.  A scene involving him giving out pre-signed autographs while walking the part with Travers is particularly surprising, given how tacky it makes Walt look.  The movie still pushes the 'magic of Disney' brand despite this, but it is still a more honest portrayal than I thought we would get.

Given how strong the 'Making of' sections of the movie are, it isn't the least bit surprising that many consider the 'Early Life' scenes to be amongst the weakest.  I would argue otherwise (I think Colin Farrell does a rather nice job of a man who hates his job and turns to alcohol while still loving and doting on his children), except that tonally they take you out of what is mostly a feel-good comedy and take you into a rather depressing look at childhood neglect.  The problem isn't how the scenes are played or written, it's that they are there at all.  They don't work, and the director and/or the screenwriters should have either cut them or reduced their length considerably (at just over 2 hours, the film could've been shorter without suffering).

Still, despite its many flaws, the movie is an enjoyable look at the making of Mary Poppins (and I think many would want to watch said movie after seeing this).  6.5 out of 10.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review Catchup (Pt. 4)

The final 3!  Woohoo!

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
I saw this movie for one reason only:  To see Peter Jackson do his special effects thing on a dragon.  I was not disappointed.

But, to give a slightly fuller review, this movie is more than the dragon.  It is a considerable step up, much more action packed and character driven than the first movie.  Instead of just focusing on Bilbo, and to a lesser extent Thorin, we get some bits on Fili, Kili, and Balin - not to mention newcomers (kinda) Legolas, Tauriel, and Bard.

The movie does make you wait to get to the dragon:  First the merry band of dwarves (plus one hobbit) meets Beorn, a shapeshifter, then they run into giant spiders (because there are always giant spiders), then they ride some barrels down a river as they escape Thranduil (Lee Pace), and finally they run into Bard (Luke Evans), who sneaks them into Lake Town (much to his later dismay).  Then, the dragon.

While everything before the dragon is enjoyable (indeed, the Wood Elves' Kingdom is great), Smaug is in the title, and it is Smaug we want to see.  Once Bilbo (Martin Freeman) descends into the ruined Dwarven kingdom in The Lonely Mountain to steal the Arkenstone from Smaug (voiced and motion-captured by Benedict Cumberbatch), the movie kicks it into high gear, and it was everything I wanted in a dragon-fighting sequence.  And even better (maybe not), they stopped midway through and will finish it in the third movie a year from now!

Damned cocktease of a movie (I would totally watch it again just for Smaug).  7.0 out of 10.

American Hustle
The movie is a bit of a mess, flirting with greatness, but never quite achieving it.  More of an actor's showcase than anything else, there are worse ways to spend two and a half hours.

American Hustle is a somewhat (mostly?) fictional retelling of the ABSCAM scandal in the 70's that got a whole bunch of Congressmen arrested for corruption.  When the movie focuses on this and the many ways it can go wrong, it is pretty amazing.  However, the movie wanders down plot threads unnecessarily and barely manages to hold everything together at points.

Really, everything to love about this movie involves the acting.  Christian Bale is phenomenal (please stop torturing your body though), Jennifer Lawrence is great as his scenery-chewing wife, Bradley Cooper slowly comes unhinged as the FBI agent who keeps going for bigger and bigger targets, and Jeremy Renner is lovably corrupt as the mayor whom Cooper's Richie DiMaso initially targets.  Even the bit parts get some love, with special mentions going to Elisabeth Rohm as Mayor Politio's wife and Colleen Camp as a cat-crazed FBI agent.

The true standout, however, is Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser/Lady Edith Greensley.  And she really should be credited twice, because Adams fully differentiates between the two identities during the course of the movie, and the scenes where she goes back and forth between the two are a marvel to watch.  Lawrence may be the easier one to love, but Adams is giving the better, more nuanced performance.

David O. Russell has had quite a string of movies lately (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now this) and is obviously gifted with actors.  His direction here is solid, and I think that, much like 2001's Moulin Rouge!, the fact that the movie feels like it could fall apart at the seams at any moment is an intentional choice on the part of the director.

A solid film, if a bit messy.  8.0 out of 10

A black and white, silent film from Spain, this outside-the-box telling of Snow White is a must-see for cinephiles.

Blancanieves sets the story of Snow White in (what I assume to be) old time Spain.  Carmen (the titular Blancanieves, played in her youth by Sofia Oria and by Macarena Garcia once she is a teen/young adult) is the daughter of famed Matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho).  Antonio is paralyzed from the waste down during a bullfight the same day as Carmen as born (killing her birthmother, played by Inma Cuesta).  Carmen goes and lives with Dona Coñcha, her grandmother (Angela Molina) while he recovers, and Antonio falls in love with and marries his nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdu).

Encarna swiftly takes control of the household and, once Doña Concha dies, Carmen - abusing both her stepdaughter and paralyzed husband while spending his vast wealth on whatever she desires.  She soon tires of both.  After successfully killing Antonio, she sends her lover to kill Carmen.  She ends up being rescued by 6 dwarven bullfighters with no memory of who she is.

All of this is told with minimal dialogue, and you do not get lost once in the entire endeavor.  Every now and then some exposition is thrown up on the screen, but it is used sparingly.  All of the actors give stellar performances, with special mention going to Maribel Verdu, who seizes upon her role and gives a full-bodied performance of careless evil.  The direction is solid, with nothing overtly spelled out ahead of time (despite the tale being well known across multiple languages) and smart asides and character details filling the screen throughout.

A thoroughly imaginative retelling of a classic, with more soul than any of the more recent 'updates' have managed.  9.0 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Review Catchup (Part 3)

3 more knocked out.

The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire
A substantial improvement over the first one, but still not what it could have been.

Anchored by the better-than-the-movie-deserves performance of Jennifer Lawrence, this sequel thankfully doesn't feel the need to recap the previous movie, but still falls into the same trap as the first where it over-explains everything in extraneous scenes featuring President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Yet again, valuable world-building is cut out for this unnecessary exposition and, even worse, it lessens the threat Snow exudes in his actual scenes from the book.

However, the world-building that does occur is great:  Katniss and Peeta's trip to the Capitol is filled with decadence (the Costume Design, in particular is great) and the best parts of the movie come during this sequence.  It's during this part that we meet Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), along with Mags (Lynn Cohen), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and Wiress (Amanda Plummer).  I wish more time has been spent on these characters (Johanna in particular - Malone is fantastic in the role) as opposed to cutaways to Snow/Plutarch, but all the actors make the most of their material.

Once the actual Hunger Games start, the pace quickens (though we still get those damn cutaways to Snow).  A few glaring plot holes are in this part (if keeping Katniss alive is so important... why do they keep almost killing her?), but it's better-shot than the Games in the first movie.  They do still skirt around the Katniss-as-killer aspect, however.

A step in the right direction, but I worry if they will keep moving forward for the last part where things get much more violent.  6.5 out of 10.

If Catching Fire left me cold, Frozen warmed me right up.  While not quite as good as the hyperbole would suggest (it's better than Tangled, but not quite as good as anything from the Disney Renaissance), it is still a great way to spend an hour and a half.  Especially in 3-D.  The movie follows Anna (Kristin Bell), a young princess, as she goes to retrieve her sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), who was born with magical powers that let her create snow and ice.

This is first Disney animated feature to have a woman as a co-director, and one can't help but feel that perspective enriched the movie as a whole.  This isn't your typical Disney fairy tale.  It's a bit too on the nose as far as the slight mocking of prior Disney films, but it doesn't hurt the film.

The movie moves along at a brisk pace, has some great musical numbers ("Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" is a great passage-of-time number, and "Let It Go" is the main reason to see the movie in 3-D.)  The comic relief provided by Olaf the Snowman works well within the context of the story (the trailers featuring him were my biggest concern about the movie as a whole) and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is a great foil to Anna's enthusiasm.

The real standout is Idina Menzel's Elsa.  In some ways, the movie might have been stronger had it focused on her, but that might have been too much of a good thing.

Not amongst the top tier of Disney movies, but definitely up high.  8.5 out of 10.

Not really sure I can add much to the discussion of this movie, coming into it so late.  Sandra Bullock was quite good in Alfonso Cuaron's auteur piece.  George Clooney was totally phoning it in though.  9.0 out of 10.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Review Catchup (Pt. 2)

3 more movies I should've written about awhile ago.  Whoops!

Drinking Buddies
This is an under-seen gem that I will be recommending to anyone who will listen.  Across-the-board strong, naturalistic performances coupled with a screenplay by Joe Swanberg (also serving as director) that trusts the intelligence of the audience makes this one of the year's best movies, period.

The movie focuses on friends Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) as they work at an independent brewery, go out drinking afterwords, and interact with their respective partners (Ron Livingston's Chris paired with Kate, and Anna Kendrick's Jill with Luke).  What follows is a realistic look at a platonic friendship that faces a challenge when one of the two (in this case, Kate) ends up single.

Of the four principals, it is hard to single one out as best in show, as all are hitting their scenes with refreshingly realistic portrayals of actual people (as opposed to the quippy RomCom dialogue - not that this is any form of a RomCom).  Wilde might be best for so believably playing Kate's bad qualities without making the character unlikeable, or maybe Johnson for his irrational irritation (and Luke's understanding that it is that) with Kate for hooking up with a coworker.  Livingston and Kendrick both provide great support in their scenes, never coming across as standard RomCom villains (maybe this is a RomCom and I just don't accept it?).  And the final scene, played between Wilde and Johnson, is a beauty of wordless dialogue that gives us the ending we need, as opposed to the ending we want.

Between this and Frances Ha, I'm wondering if I am becoming a mumblecore fan.  9.0 out of 10.

Frances Ha
Speaking of, here is another great, naturalistic movie about a 27-year-old having an early-life crises.

Shot in black in white and starring Greta Gerwig (who shares writing credit with director Noah Baumbach), Frances Ha follows dancer Frances (Gerwig) who faces a bit of a crises when her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Summer) decides to move out.  Frances moves from place to place while struggling to stay connected with Sophie, find a job that involves dancing, and figure out what she wants to do with her life in general.

This movie is really the Greta Gerwig show, and she gives one of the best leading performances of the year in it (he says, despite the pitifully low number of movies he has seen).  Frances is at times incredibly frustrating, hypocritical, selfish, and confusing and Gerwig never once lets her be irredeemably unlikeable.  Michael Zegen provides charming support as Benji, one of Frances' roommates early on, and Summer has a good report with Gerwig, making their scenes as best friends utterly believable.

Director Baumbach keeps a spontaneous energy throughout the proceedings, and every shot feels right, with interesting angles highlighting various encounters between Gerwig and whomever is sharing the screen with her at that time.  I've seen the complaint that the narrative drifts, but that is a credit to Baumbach, as Frances herself is drifting through her life trying to figure out what to hold onto.

The only real complaint I had was an odd music choice during one of Frances' wordless scenes walking New York.  And that is rather small compared to the film as a whole.

Easily amongst the best movies I have seen in recent years.  9.5 out of 10.

The Place Beyond the Pines
A moody ensemble piece that follows two men and how their lives affect their sons, The Place Beyond the Pines is a great drama with solid performances.

Following a 3 act structure where each act focuses on a different character, this movie ties together well and moves at slow, deliberate pace that may turn off some expecting a more action-packed movie.

Act one follows Luke (Ryan Gosling) as he tries to get involved in his son's life, eventually turning to bank robbery to get money for him.  This leads to a confrontation with police officer Avery (Bradley Cooper), who the second act follows.

The third act follows the friendship between the sons of Luke and Avery, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen) and the inevitable confrontation that follows.

The movie feels like a modern-day Greek tragedy, as the sins of the father fall on the sons, with gut choices in what turn out to be life-defining moments shape the structure of the film.  Tonally, the movie has the feel of inevitable sadness, which works well with the screenplay.

Performances are strong across the board, with special mention to Emory Cohen as Avery's son AJ.  His performance as a spoiled rich kid who thinks he is hardcore will annoy some, but the character is supposed to grate on the nerves, which makes Cohen's performance somewhat brave in that he doesn't try to be likeable, just charming enough to get people to do what he wants.

Dane DeHaan also deserves mention for so believably playing an introverted, slightly damaged high school kid (DeHaan himself is 26 years old) who longs to know about his father.

Throughout the film, various well-known actors play what amount to bit parts (though the interactions with said character carry repercussion felt throughout the film).  Harris Yulin, Ray Liotta, and Rose Byrne are my particular favorites, but the richness of all the characters makes picking favorites an enjoyable exercise where there isn't really a bad choice.

All in all, a heavy drama that holds your attention with its strong performances.  8.0 out of 10.

Review Catchup (Pt. 1)

Lots of movies to cover, so we'll get right to it.

A solid effort that doesn't quite reach the level of the original, this remake (or reimagining, if you prefer) puts more focus on Carrie, Sue, and Miss Desjardin with less on Chris and her boyfriend.  Still, it fails to differentiate itself from the original (Lawrence D. Cohen gets top writing credit despite not working on the film) and one can sense quite a bit of producer influence on director Kimberly Peirce.  The changes made do work and hint at a better take on the material, but it falls short of its potential for most of the running time - only coming alive towards the end as we get to see a bit of destruction hit the town at large instead of just the high school.  Chloe Grace Moretz doesn't hit her stride until Carrie's powers are fully unleashed, failing to come across as shy and introverted.  I wish that Elle Fanning had been cast instead, and maybe had Moretz as bully Chris.  Not that Portia Doubleday did a bad job as Carrie's nemesis, but it would probably had helped the film as a whole to recast those two key part.

Gabriella Wilde as Sue Snell and Ansel Elgort as Tommy Ross are both excellent in their roles.  Nothing against Amy Irving, who was quite fine as Sue in the original, but the additional focus given to Sue gave Wilde much more to chew on, and she sells the conflicted teen wrestling with her own guilt quite well.  Elgort, in particular, is amazingly charming as Tommy; one hopes he gets more roles since he has charisma and presence in spades.

The two main adult characters, Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer) and Margaret White (Julianne Moore) are a mixed bag.  I can't decide if the lack of real authority from Desjardin during the scene where she scolds the girls for their treatment of Carrie is intentional (thus showing the character's powerlessness to stop the bullying) or not (Greer comes across much stronger in virtually every other scene).  Moore, however, shines as Carrie's mother.  If Piper Laurie's performance is the equivalent of Grand Opera in the original, Moore's is the equivalent of an intimate black box production.  There is nothing grand about this damaged woman:  she is every day, human horror.  Yet there was palpable tension when Carrie returned home from the Prom and Moore lurked in the background.

Technically, the movie was fine, with a slight bit of overly-done CGI during the destruction of the Prom.  The best-in-show part would definitely be when Chris flies into the windshield of her car when trying to run Carrie down.  But otherwise, most of the tech was not noteworthy, which is quite surprising given the cinematography of Boys Don't Cry.

The original Carrie is, to me, a solid 7.  Since this one isn't quite as good, but still rather enjoyable, I would place it at 6.5.

 Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon's modern take on William Shakespeare's play is funny, poignant, and crowd-pleasing.  Shot in black and white at Whedon's residence, the intimacy of the direction works well with the performances, creating an immersive slice-of-life tale.

The single greatest change from the play is the allusion to a prior affair between Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) that changes this from two stories of first love (the other couple being Fran Kranz's Claudio and Jillian Morgese's Hero) to one of first love and reunited love, creating a parallel between the two that enriches the experience.

Acker is easily best in show.  Whether trading barbs, comically ease-dropping, or bittersweetly recalling her prior experience with Benedick, Acker's portrayal of Beatrice is fully realized.  Denisof ably plays his part, nailing the physical comedy, but falling somewhat behind Acker when it comes to the romantic and dramatic parts.

Outside of those two performances, no one really stands out.  Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk are funny enough as the comic relief, and Sean Maher is suitably slimy in the manipulative role of Don John, but none of them reach quite the same level as the two leads.  There is something to be said for nice, solid supporting work all around, but I was really hoping for a standout instead of one or two moments of amusement.

Utterly enjoyable, if a bit frivolous.  7.5 out of 10.

I am not a sports movie guy.  And of all sports, I think racing is second only to golfing amongst the most boring sports to watch.  Which makes my clear enjoyment of this movie something of a marvel.

Focusing on the 1976 Formula season, and the rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) as they both compete for the championship that season, the movie has a quick pace and engaging performances.

What is exceptionally great about the film is how well it juggles the lives of the two racers.  Bruhl is the standout of the film, managing to play Lauda's worse traits while still keeping him likable.  Despite this being Hemsworth's movie (as Hunt is the eventual champion of the 1976 season), Bruhl commands it:  One almost wishes the movie had exclusively focused on him.

Which isn't to say Hemsworth is bad.  Far from it, as a matter of fact:  Hemsworth proves his up-and-coming status with a charismatic and carefree performance.  There is a reason I say one 'almost' wishes the movie focused on Lauda.  Without Hemsworth's Hunt, so much of the lived-in energy would disappear.  And despite being the warmer, more fun-loving of the two racers, Hemsworth never fails to nail his dramatic moments, especially during his final seen with Suzy (Olivia Wilde) and his meeting with Lauda after he returns to the season.

The movie has some great makeup and costuming work:  in particular, the burn makeup on Bruhl post-accident is amazing, and the movie feels like the 70s in a way not many have managed.  The editing is another strong technical aspect, keeping up the frenetic feel of the racing while not leaving one confused as to what is going on.

A solid, satisfying flick.  8.5 out of 10.