Saving Mr. Banks (2013) review

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The best stories often emerge under the shadow of immense pain, brought to life by damaged little boys or broken little girls. P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the popular children’s series Mary Poppins, was one such broken girl (played with natural grace by Annie Rose Buckley), still grieving her father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), a loving, but temperamental alcoholic. Over the course of the film, we learn how P. L., born Helen, nicknamed Ginty, goes from that sweet, playful girl in the Australian bush to the prickly, no-nonsense Mrs. Travers, who proceeded to make miserable the lives of all involved in the film-making of Mary Poppins. In particular, she vexes Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), songwriting brothers Robert (B. J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman) Sherman, and film co-writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) to the brink of madness with her demands: No mustache on Mr. Banks, no red in the whole of the film, and, perhaps most important of all, no animation.

P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks)

P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks)

Watching her, it’s hard to believe such an austere woman could be responsible for a story as lively and lighthearted as Mary Poppins. That’s where the flashbacks come in handy. We learn Travers inherited her imagination and inclination to fancy from her father, a born dreamer stifled by practicality. Travers and Helen share a special bond–“a Celtic soul,” he calls it–but as his drinking worsens, Helen unwittingly becomes his enabler. Farrell’s and Buckley’s effervescent performances light up the screen during these scenes, and special mention must go to Ruth Wilson, given less to do as Mrs. Margaret Goff, but who shines in one particular heartbreaking sequence. Mary Poppins herself, at least partly, seems to have been inspired by Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who comes to help the family after Travers falls ill. A hushed giggle falls over the audience as she quips, “We are not a codfish!” But largely, P. L. maintains that the beloved character “flew through a window.”

The Goff family in Australia: Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), Margaret (Ruth Wilson) and Travers (Colin Farrell)

The Goff family in Australia: Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), Margaret (Ruth Wilson) and Travers (Colin Farrell)

It should be mentioned that Travers maintained–publicly anyway–that she hated the film adaptation, and no matter how much Disney begged, she refused to let him bring another one of her books to the big screen. It is ironic that a woman who obstinately resisted her film being Disney-fied has had her struggle itself Disney-fied. That said, the concluding scene seems open for interpretation. To me, it’s a pretty sweet film about daddy issues. Almost everyone’s got them, it seems. Disney discloses to Travers his own complicated relationship with his father Elias Disney in one particularly tender scene. The same scene lays out the film’s ultimate purpose:  how to forgive, make peace, and live a life no longer dictated by the past.

I doubt it will win anything this upcoming awards season, although it is beautifully shot by John Schwartzman (Jason’s half-brother, by the way) and perfectly acted. Thompson, especially, is in top form here as the steely P. L. She’s somehow funny without turning the woman into a caricature and callous without making her heartless or unsympathetic. Hanks, too, turns in a strong performance as Walt Disney, father of animation and childhood. Schwartzman, Novak, and Whitford also deserve notice for pulling off such high-pressured roles with so much sincerity and openness. All in all, Saving Mr. Banks is a really good film, more than worth the watch and the polite nods its sure to receive in coming months.

4 out of 5 *  

25 Days of Christmas Movies: A Christmas Story (1983)

A Christmas StoryFirst of all, Merry Christmas all! You know it’s Christmas Day when TBS broadcasts its annual marathon of A Christmas Story,  the tale of one boy’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun one Christmas. Why has Ralphie Parker’s (Peter Billingsley) story touched so many hearts and souls? What keeps us from getting sick of it running back-t0-back every Christmas? I’d wager it’s because the film is hilarious and relatable for anybody who has ever been a nine-year-old.

Triple dog-dare gone wrong with Flick (Scott Schwartz), Schwartz (R. D. Robb) and Ralphie (Peter Billingsley)

Triple dog-dare gone wrong with Flick (Scott Schwartz), Schwartz (R. D. Robb) and Ralphie (Peter Billingsley)

When he first asks his mother (Melinda Dillon) for the BB gun, she begins the phrase that becomes the film’s defining mantra: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Ralphie proceeds to take us through the holidays with his family–including his mother, the Old Man (Darren McGavin) and his brother Randy (Ian Petrella)–and his friends Schwartz (R. D. Robb) and Flick (Scott Schwartz). Marking one of the few instances voice-over narration works without being superfluous to some degree, at least half the fun is Adult Ralphie’s commentary on the proceeding events, from a failed Santa Claus visit, to a disastrous triple-dog dare, his Orphan Annie obsession, standing up to bullies, swearing in front of his parents, and a memorable Christmas dinner. The rest is left to the capable, adorable hands of Billingsley, given solid, hilarious support from McGavin, Dillon, and Petrella.

So while you’re enjoying your turkey and ham, it probably goes without saying–or trying–that you’ll likely catch at least one showing of this. It’s not quite Christmas without it.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noël] (2008)

a-christmas-tale-movie-poster-2008-1020420639Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (known as Un conte de Noël in his native France) is easily one of my favorites to watch this season.

The dysfunctional Vuillard family do Christmas like no other. Damaged over the years by loss, jealousy, hatred, emotional abuse, and bottled up anger, when they come together to celebrate the holidays, it can’t be expected to go anything but horribly wrong. The family started off normally when Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) have their first two children: Joseph and Elizabeth (played when she is older by Anne Consigny). But when he is in kindergarten, Joseph is diagnosed with leukemia, and the child–Henri (played when he is older by the always brilliant Mathieu Amalric)–they conceive in an effort to save him proves powerless to help them. Joseph dies, and Henri becomes the painful, hated remainder of the family’s loss.

Paul (Emile Berling), Henri (Mathieu Amalric), and Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) at Christmas Mass

Paul (Emile Berling), Henri (Mathieu Amalric), and Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) at Christmas Mass

Years later, after the Vuillards have had their third son Ivan, the family–with the exception of Abel–continues to act out the pain of their past. Junon is a distant mother, and Elizabeth hates Henri, an alcoholic who often finds himself at odds with other members of the family. Six years prior to the film’s present day holiday celebrations, Henri filed for bankruptcy, and Elizabeth agreed to pay off his debts provided she never see him again and that he stay away from the family. Fast forward to the present,  Junon has been diagnosed with leukemia. She needs a  transplant and wonders if one of her children might be able to donate bone marrow to her.  Christmas gathers all the Vuillards–Elizabeth, her mentally ill teenage son Paul (Emile Berling), Henri, his girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), Ivan, his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni–fun fact: Deneuve’s daughter), their children, and the Vuillard children’s cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto)–under one roof. It is disastrous from day one. 

It’s a pretty dark film for Christmas, given the alcohol abuse and implications of incest among other decidedly un-Christmas-like subjects. But moments of hilarity and levity arise amid the chaos, and it’s well worth the two hours and a half. Although at certain points, it feels the film suffers from one too many characters, that’s because each is well-developed, brought to life by solid and engaging performances. What’s more, commendably, the film takes an unconventional route for its conclusion, neither entirely happy nor entirely dismal. By the end of the film, everything is not all peaches and cream. The Vuillards still need a ton of work and extensive therapy but their “redemption” so to speak is a realistic transformation. They are at least farther away from where they started at the beginning.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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Frank Capra‘s classic–also one of the most critically-acclaimed films of all time–stars James Stewart as the suicidal George Bailey, who, one Christmas Eve, gets a glimpse into what the world would be like if he had never been born. That night, as George ponders suicide, his loved ones and friends all pray for his safety. Two angels give the bumbling angel Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) a portrait of George’s life up til then and all the selfless, generous acts he has committed over the years. He saves his little brother from drowning in an ice-pondbecoming deaf as a result, and prevents a grieving pharmacist (H. B. Warner) from mistakenly giving poison to a sick child; these are the earliest of many sacrifices for his brother and others through the years. Perhaps chief among them is George stopping the ruthless and greedy Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) from taking over the town with his totalitarian measures. By the time he gets to that fateful Christmas Eve night, George has married his childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) and they have four children. But a mistake by his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), coupled with the heartless, vengeful nature of Potter, puts the Bailey’s Building and Loan business into jeopardy and puts George in danger of prison time. So Oddbody is charged with showing George how much his life has impacted the lives of others.

George (James Stewart), Mary (Donna Reed), and their children

George (James Stewart), Mary (Donna Reed), and their children

You can’t go wrong with this one. It’s a Wonderful Life annually tops all the favorite holiday movies lists–all the great movie lists of any given season, in fact. Uplifting as it is though, it probably wouldn’t hurt to carry some tissues with you either.

 

25 Days of Christmas Movies: Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)

chronicles_of_narnia_the_lion_the_witch_and_the_wardrobe_xlgMy Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again…

C. S. Lewis wrote this letter and in fact The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for his goddaughter Lucy Barfield; and thus originated my favorite quote from an author outside his own books: “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) meet for the first time

Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) meet for the first time

Perhaps needless to say, Barfield was the inspiration for the kind-hearted Lucy Pevensie (played here by Georgie Henley) the youngest of the Pevensie children–Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), and Edmund (Skandar Keynes)–sent off by their mother to protect them from German attacks in World War II-era London. The children are to live with the mysterious Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent) in his large country mansion. Bored and trapped inside by the rain, the children decide to play hide-and-seek one day around the huge house. Lucy hides in the large wardrobe in the spare room, and as she backs deeper into the closet, she finds herself in a snowy new world called Narnia. There she meets the friendly faun Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) who invites her back to his place for a spot of tea. If this doesn’t alarm you, it’s meant to, because as kind as Mr. Tumnus truly is, his plan is to kidnap Lucy and take her to the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). The White Witch rules Narnia with an ice cold fist. It’s always winter and never Christmas, and she has advised its inhabitants to immediately bring to her any Daughter of Eve or Son of Adam. Tumnus’s conscience and good heart get the better of him, and he helps Lucy escape. But when she returns after what felt like hours, she discovers only mere seconds have passed and naturally none of her siblings believe her. Lucy goes back that night to check on Mr. Tumnus, and Edmund follows her. There, he encounters the White Witch, who charms him into bringing his siblings into Narnia. But when Edmund and Lucy return to the Professor’s house, Edmund maintains that Narnia is not real in front of Peter and Susan. After accidentally knocking a ball through the house, the children, fearing the Professor’s  domineering housekeeper, hide in the wardrobe. There, they find Narnia together, and discover their destinies to overcome the White Witch.

The Pevensie children (Anna Popplewell, Henley, and William Moseley) meet Father Christmas (James Cosmo) in Narnia

The Pevensie children (Anna Popplewell, Henley, and William Moseley) meet Father Christmas (James Cosmo) in Narnia

One of the main reasons this adaptation succeeded so well is how aptly the filmmakers managed to capture the spirit of Lewis’s story. Donald McAlpine‘s generous and engaging eye is our view into this fantastical world; somehow he makes the transition from gloomy, war-torn London, to sunlit countryside, to snowy winter wonderland rather seamlessly. The cinematography obviously plays a huge role into creating this world and making it believable, and McAlpine pulls it off beautifully. The music takes care of the rest.  This happens to be one of Harry Gregson-Williams’s best scores, a wistful, ethereal ode to wonder and adventure, vacillating between a child’s lullaby and some kind of fay litany. The child actors are mainly passable, and they are supported by more than capable talents like McAvoy, Swinton, Broadbent, and, of course, Liam Neeson as the noble Aslan.

It doesn’t get any more magical than this.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: Elf (2003)

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Oh, Elf (2003). Bet you were wondering when this one would appear.

One Christmas Eve, when Santa (Edward Asner) is delivering presents to an orphanage, a baby named Buddy crawls into his sack and gets carried back to the North Pole. There, the elf supervisor of sorts, called Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) raises him as an elf. Once grown, the very huge Buddy (Will Ferrell), who remains ignorant of the fact the he’s actually human, finds himself unable to keep up with all the other elves’ in terms of toy making. One day he overhears a conversation describing the true circumstances of his birth and his actual father Walter Hobbs (James Caan). So with a tender farewell, Buddy sets off to New York to reconcile with his father. And in typical Will Ferrell fashion, it can only go horribly, awkwardly, and hilariously wrong.

Buddy (Will Ferrell) the "elf"

Buddy (Will Ferrell) the “elf”

I challenge you to watch this film and not thoroughly enjoy it. Easily one of Jon Favreau‘s best, Elf also features the charming and solid support of a blonde Zooey Deschanel, Peter Dinklage, and Mary Steenburg. Not to mention, Ferrell and Deschanel manage to turn the creep-tastic song that is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” into something actually endearing. This is a fun one.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: Home Alone (1990) and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

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The adventures of KEVIN! McCallister over the course of two Christmases makes for some good, wholesome entertainment this holiday season. The first film, the highest grossing comedy of all time, sees eight-year-old Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), the youngest, most bullied, but also most charming member of the McCallister clan, left behind by his huge family in their rush to make it to the airport on time. Instead of panicking, Kevin views this as a great opportunity to get in some quality “me” time. As only child, I can only imagine (with dread) how suffocating his childhood must have been and so I understand the initial enthusiasm with which he greets his newfound freedom. Kevin milks the situation with as much creativity as you can expect from a kid: watching old movies and binge-eating his favorite foods. But at the same time he proves himself incredibly resourceful and able to take care of himself, despite his youth. When two thieves (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) known as the Wet Bandits attempt to break into the house, Kevin manages to thwart them using every household item you could possibly think of. Of course, this film wouldn’t work today, in the age of cell phones, high tech alarm systems and constant camera surveillance, but the film somehow never feels dated, even watching it today.

Kevin (Culkin) and the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern)

Kevin (Culkin) and the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern)

In the next installment of Kevin’s adventure (I refuse to count any film after this one–except, if I’m feeling generous, Home Alone 3 is not as bad as reviews suggest), the boy wonder finds himself living the dream again–if for a short while–when he gets separated from his family in the airport and ends up flying to New York. Once there, Kevin checks into the Plaza Hotel, rides around the city in a limo, watches more old movies and eats more junk food. Unfortunately, his trip is ruined when he runs into the same crooks who tried to break into his house last Christmas, as they attempt to rob Duncan’s Toy store. “You can mess with a lot of things, but you can’t miss with kids on Christmas!” So Kevin faces off against the nefarious Wet Bandits again.

It’s Macaulay Culkin at his cutest and writer John Hughes at his wittiest. But wrapped up in all the fun and games and hilarity is a pretty sweet message about appreciating your loved ones (in spite of their flaws) and how loneliness is not an acceptable remedy to pain. The films also remind us to remember and be kinder to those overlooked, displaced persons of our society, for not everyone is lucky enough to share the season with loved ones.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: Harry Potter (1 – 8)

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I’m not sure what it is about Harry Potter that makes it prime watching through the holidays, that is, beyond the fact that we spend every Christmas with the boy who lived from the time he’s eleven to the time he is seventeen.

For those of you who have been living in a deep, dark, secluded cave somewhere for the past decadeHarry Potter began as a series first written by J. K. Rowling, who revolutionized the young adult genre with her tale of a curious orphan who discovers he’s actually a wizard on his eleventh birthday. The books swept the world to become immovably entrenched into the social conscious as well as the lives and hearts of children and adults all over. What’s remarkable is that Rowling spaced the series out so that so many of us actually grew up with Harry Potter, our childhood accentuated with the release of a new installment, and soon, our summers marked with a big screen adaptation of his adventures. No doubt it’s one of the most financially successful book and film series of all time and a pop culture phenomenon.

The trio: Harry Potter (Dan Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in the snow

The trio: Harry Potter (Dan Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in the snow

The first ten years of young Harry Potter’s (Daniel Radcliffe) life are miserable. He’s forced to live with his snobbish, cruel relatives the Dursleys who take every opportunity to slight and abuse him. Holidays were not fun times for young Mr. Potter, until he realizes he is a wizard and is sent to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he makes fast friends with fellow students Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). Harry also finds several adults who, unlike Dursleys, he can rely on for guidance and true affection: Professor McGonagall (Dame Maggie Smith), Hogwarts gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Ron’s parents Molly and Arthur Weasley (Julie Walters and Mark Williams), Harry’s godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and most of all, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (first brought to life by Richard Harris and continued by Michael Gambon). One of the many great triumphs of Rowling’s writing is her creation of Harry, this relatable rather than saintly (a la Oliver Twist) orphan, cursed with a life of frequent loss and grieving. Naturally Harry longs for the love of his parents, but he also aches to simply belong somewhere. Hogwarts, dangerous and treacherous as it can be, offers him that: a home and by extension, a family. His Christmases there always seem memorable, from his first year where he first experiences the delight of presents, including his father’s invisibility to cloak, to his soap opera-esque fourth year where Ron and Hermione argue dramatically after the Yule Ball, to an almost fatal seventh year where he and Hermione visit his parents’ grave on Christmas Eve night. Harry learns, as most people with families can attest, that while Christmas might not always be merry and ideal, it’s certainly worth it and so much better to spend it with those you love.

Professors at the Yule Ball: Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Snape (Alan Rickman) and Prof. McGonagall (Maggie Smith)

Professors at the Yule Ball: Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Snape (Alan Rickman) and Prof. McGonagall (Maggie Smith)

And if there’s one thing you can take from Rowling’s books it’s that without love there is nothing. I’d wager that’s why it’s feels most right to marathon these films around this time more than any other (and I started my marathon last night).

25 Days of Christmas Movies: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

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Although not centrally related to the holidays, Vincente Minnelli‘s musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) has since become something of a Christmas Eve tradition; not to mention, responsible for one of this season’s most poignant, timeless songs: Judy Garland‘s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Our film focuses on the well-to-do Smiths: Mr. Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames) and Mrs. Anna Smith (Mary Astor), and their children Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Garland), Agnes (Joan Carroll), Lon Jr. (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) and the lovable, rambunctious Tootie (Magaret O’Brien). Rose hopes to get a marriage proposal from her sweetheart very soon, and Esther is in love with the neighbor boy John Truett (Tom Drake).  But their lives are soon to be derailed when Mr. Smith shortly learns his job will take him to New York, and the whole family must relocate. No one takes the news particularly well, but none take it harder than the girls. Esther and John Truett have begun seeing each other, and they also realize they will miss the 1904 World’s Fair. On Christmas Eve, after a funny sequence at the annual Christmas ball where a prank gone wrong causes Esther to dance with the town’s most awkward dancers, she and John get engaged. But after returning home, she discovers Tootie terribly upset and sings the iconic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Tootie is probably the only person not moved by it, because she becomes even more upset and storms out into the cold to destroy the snowmen they have made. When Mr. Smith sees this, he decides not to uproot his family after all, seeing how much the move will affect them. 

Magaret O'Brien and Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Magaret O’Brien and Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Even outside the holiday season, Meet Me in St. Louis is a gem, complete with catchy, solid songs (including “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door”) and wonderful performances from Garland and O’Brien. The film was a success, both critically and financially, and a year after the film’s release Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli married (the marriage had a lot less staying power though). It’s not Christmas Eve til you’ve watched Meet Me in St. Louis and listened (and sobbed) to Garland singing about how your troubles will be far away. So have yourself a merry little Christmas with this one.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

a-charlie-brown-christmasI think it’s nearly impossible to miss this staple holiday programming since it has been airing on television every year since its premiere in 1965. Based on the popular Charles M. Schulz comic strip Peanutsthis Peabody and Emmy Award-winning show has become something of a tradition itself.

Despite the approach of Christmas, the lovable Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) feels depressed and not at all excited. Lucy (Tracy Stratford) places him in charge of the Christmas play, but the kids reject the somber mood he decides the play should have. Feeling even more dejected, Charlie goes off to find the tree and comes back with a rather puny sapling. The kids in the auditorium laugh, but Linus (Chris Shea) tells them the true meaning of Christmas has nothing to do with the tree, the decorations or the presents; it’s about the birth of Jesus.

The story works largely as a criticism of the over-commercialization and consumerism of Christmas; a criticism that remains strong as ever today. This cute little nostalgic special, complete with Vince Guaraldi‘s classic compositions (including “Linus and Lucy” and the iconic “Christmas Time is Here”),  ushers in the holiday spirit like no other.