Thursday, January 9, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks, Frozen, and Nebraska

Saving Mr. Banks:

Saving Mr. Banks is an interesting film, but not a great one, and arguably not an important one, either.

The film follows Walt Disney’s efforts to convince P.L. Travers to allow him to make Mary Poppins, as I think most are aware. But much of the scenes involving the script-reading, song-singing, etc. are acted standardly by Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzmann, and B.J. Novak and are dreadfully directed by John Lee Hancock, known best for his saccharine, yet still somehow watchable, The Blind Side. He infuses each and every scene in the cinematic present with sugary sentimentality, which it didn’t need at all because Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s script is perfectly fine just how it is where that’s concerned.

To elaborate, Marcel and Smith’s script isn’t fantastic, but it’s certainly strong. It may be a little sugary, but it never comes close to being overly saccharine. Its weakness is its first third to a half are too sparsely written. The film is also hurt because Hancock fails to create any sense of dramatic tension.

The technical production elements of the film are quite well done. The costuming and art direction are perfect. Thomas Newman’s score is also fascinatingly modern for a film that takes place in the 1960s and early 1900s.

Instead, it is the scenes not directly related to Travers’ script-scrapping and conversation-recording that pack the punch and compose the best parts of the film. This is surprisingly astute film that isn’t just about the making of a “Hollywood classic.” It’s also, in equal measure, about guilt and forgiveness and family and love. It’s about saving Mr. Banks, but it’s also about saving P.L. Travers from herself, from the guilt she feels about her father, whom she is unable to save, perhaps a major reason she feels the need to have Mary Poppins save Mr. Banks.

The film’s quality improves gradually, and the final third to a half is great. Much of this is due to the improving quality of the flashbacks and the increasing number of scenes involving just Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks.

Overall, the film is saved by the acting of Emma Thompson, as P.L. Travers, of Tom Hanks, as Walt Disney, and of Colin Farrell, as Travers’ father. Emma Thompson is my favorite living actress. She has this natural austerity, some might call it coldness, coupled with a remarkable ability to show humanity and vulnerability beneath the rough exterior, and it makes her perfectly cast as Travers. She utilizes her skills as an actress brilliantly, managing her entire transformation wonderfully, even when the script is somewhat lacking at her critical transformative scenes. That people don’t change all that much is a recurring theme of the film, and she works it into her character beautifully; she’s changed, transformed even, but she’s not a different person than she was before.

Tom Hanks, about whom I had qualms, fearing he was severely miscast, is a surprise. His Disney is sweet and, more importantly, sincere in his almost constant positivity. He has a couple of great scenes, but his scene with Thompson in the living room about art’s healing power is easily his best. He and Thompson share a strong chemistry, especially in the film’s second half.

Honestly, though, Colin Farrell is the unsung hero of the film, and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why nobody, and I mean nobody, is singing his praises. He is wonderful and sincere and, finally, heartbreaking. He made me feel more sympathy for Mr. Banks than David Tomlinson ever did, despite not literally portraying him.

This is a decent film, perhaps even a good, but not quite a very good one. It is a sweet film at heart that is ruined by a director who instills enough sugary badness in movies to make them diabetic.

P.S. It’s also a great film to train yourself to watch a movie critically. It’s full of connections between time periods to tie the film together. On an unrelated note, it’s also interesting that the quality improvement of the film as a whole is a rough microcosm to the gradual improvement of Travers and Disney’s relationship.



This film is pure joy, plain and simple.

The film, written by Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, and Shane Morris and based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, follows Elsa and Anna, the princesses of Arendelle. Elsa, however, has been gifted with the ability to create ice and snow, but it’s also a curse she struggles to control. When their parents die, Elsa is crowned, but her powers get the best of her and she retreats into self-imposed exile, simultaneously creating universal winter. Anna has to go get her to restore summer. True love and all that good stuff are also involved, as per typical Disney.

At face value, it’s not a groundbreaking storyline, with a few elements beginning in a clichéd manner. The brilliance of the screenplay, however, is in its resolution of each of these elements. Not one of the situation resolutions is as to be expected, even the act of true love necessary to save the heroine. In fact, this act is touching and raw (strange to say that about any aspect of an animated film). While the script doesn’t measure up to the height or ambition of those of 12 Years a Slave or The Wolf of Wall Street, it makes up for it by being funny and heartfelt, two qualities that help it become a film for both children and adults.

The animation is gorgeous and stylish and Christophe Beck’s score adds perfectly to every moment of the film in much the same way Alan Menken’s did in the early part of the Disney Renaissance. He will not receive the credit he is due for two reasons. One: he is not Alan Menken. Two: the score is overshadowed by the absolutely brilliant songs.

Husband-wife team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have written 8 of the best film songs in recent memory, and they will likely win the Oscar for one of them. Let It Go is a powerful song sung by one of the musical theater industry’s most powerful voices, Idina Menzel, and while its message in the film itself isn’t the greatest, the basic idea of being yourself and not letting other people get to you, is. The rest of the songs are all unique, and all have great messages. Whether it’s that we all have things about us that aren’t the best that make us special or that sometimes other people aren’t all that nice, the messages are intertwined with some of the catchiest tunes. They’re also surprisingly satisfying musically speaking.

That the film’s messages, the foremost of which is, of course, the power of love (and also of family), do not become cumbersome is a testament both to the screenplay and the film’s directors, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, who I’m strongly considering putting on my personal ballot in the category.

The film has incredibly realistic characters and (relatively) realistic resolutions. Its heroine is a real person as opposed to an ideal for 5-year-old girls to never living up to. Sure, she’s beautiful, but she’s spunky and smart and socially awkward and simultaneously sure and unsure of herself. She doesn’t end up with the most handsome guy, the “prince charming,” but with the other guy, though I must say that this other guy has a strange ruggedness and big-boned Scandinavian-ness that does, I assume, make his reasonably attractive. She’s exactly what animation studios have been trying to create for probably a decade: a strong female, a feminist, even.

Another one of the film’s innumerable strengths is its voice acting. As the heroine, Anna, Kristen Bell, best known as Veronica Mars, is blessed with arguably the greatest lead female character in animated film history (Belle (and possibly Ariel and Pocahontas) are her only real competition), and takes full advantage of it. She is outstanding. Despite being in an animated film, I felt as though I were almost watching her live. Every syllable, spoken and sung, matched and resonated with her character perfectly. As her sister, Elsa (the Snow Queen), Idina Menzel, best known as for originating the role of Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway, is actually heartbreaking. Her singing voice, quite frankly, is enough to have me worshipping her, but she infuses it and her speaking voice with the same dejectedness and power and, at times, incredible warmth she did as Elphaba. Finally, as a snowman named Olaf, Josh Gad, another Broadway import known for originating the role in The Book of Mormon, which also had its songs co-written by Robert Lopez, is hysterical, and, if not for the character being a snowman, he could have been Olaf in the flesh or snow, carrot, sticks, and coal or whatever.

This is easily the best pure Disney film since The Lion King and arguably the most purely enjoyable and lovable Disney film ever made.


P.S. I thought I’d include the Let It Go video just for kicks to show the brilliance of the song and of the animation.


To say I thought Nebraska was anything more than slightly below average would be a lie. It was, at best, a disappointing film.

It’s an Alexander Payne character study of a disconnected man. He’s done it before: 4 times actually (you could argue 5, but it’s more of a stretch than I’m willing to make). But he co-wrote each of those films. This time, Payne’s absence on the writing credits is probably the film’s fatal flaw.

Bob Nelson’s script about a boozy Korean War vet, who’s travelling from Billings, MT to Lincoln, NE with his son because he believes himself to have won a contest for $1,000,000, can’t say no to people, and can’t wrap his head around the world that changed while he blinked, seems, more often than not, like a lesson in how not to write a script. It wants to be witty and personable and off-beat and under, with a wonderfully unexpected (but not jarring) sense of warmth and with important messages about the importance and the oddity of (extended) family, but it just isn’t. It’s rather like a Coen brothers’ movie without both the entertaining performance of the dialogue and without any of the characterization aspects of the dialogue.

The first two-thirds of the film is composed of scenes have sparse, wooden dialogue with more of a sense of caricature than humanity. There are glimpses of truth, but nothing long-lasting. Payne’s films are occasionally chastised for mocking their subjects. Here, luckily, that isn’t an issue; instead, there isn’t anything, character-wise, to mock.

Payne’s direction, unfortunately, mirrors some of the script’s shortcomings. It’s fine enough, but lacks conviction of almost any kind.

But it’s not completely bad. The film’s final act is quite a bit better than average, very good, even, but still not great. The writing shows some warmth toward the end, mixed with the off-kilter sense of humor so clearly Nelson’s goal throughout. This third act provides nearly all of the script-provided nuance of characterization.

The performances, as can be expected, suffer from the script, but they are probably the best thing about the film as a whole. Bruce Dern is lucky because he doesn’t speak much, especially early on, and does a quite good job expressing his trouble and general lack of understanding. Will Forte, who would be my favorite in the film if he was similarly silent in the film’s opening. He does his best during this period, but is unfortunately wooden. He loosens as the film progresses, though. June Squibb is given the best material and delivers accordingly, adding some emotional subtlety to her part as events progress. Her scenes in the cemetery and when returning the compressor are her best.

Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography, much praised, is nothing but standard and would be nowhere near awards talk if it weren’t in black and white.

But it can’t save the film. Now maybe I just don’t understand where the film is coming from because I’m only 20, but I stand by my criticism of it. It’s a lacking film, which is really a shame because its premise had such potential.


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