Monday, May 25, 2015

Saving Mr. Banks


 
Saving Mr. Banks has a fundamental structural flaw that keeps it from being more than half of a good movie.
The film tells the story of one P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, and you owe it to yourself to queue up Wit right away), author of the ‘Mary Poppins’ book series.  Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) flies her to California to convince her to sell him the film rights, but she’s having none of it. 
This is a recipe for a good movie.  Thompson and Hanks (and Paul Giamatti, in a small supporting role) rank among the best actors of their generation; I love Mary Poppins and I’m interested in the “making of;” and "unstoppable force meets immovable object” is a great recipe for drama. 
There’s a problem, however.  The film tells a parallel story, that of young Ginty (Miss Travers), her father (Colin Farrell, and you really, really should see the Fright Night remake), and their family’s attempt to make it in the banking business somewhere in the Australian outback.  Not only did not I not particularly care about Ginty and her dad, but I felt the time spent showing us Ms. Travers’s deep backstory killed the momentum of the Thompson/Hanks conflict.  What the film could have told us through a few lines of dialogue, a photo on a mantelpiece, and Thompson’s extraordinary talent, it instead delivers through a plodding, predictable, depressing series of flashbacks.
An hour-long Saving Mr. Banks, with most of the Ginty material excised, would make for a film I’d happily recommend.  As it stands, however, I suggest you see this one with your thumb on the fast forward button.

Monday, May 11, 2015

This Gun for Hire

I’m not a Veronica Lake guy.  A human charisma sump who nearly torpedoed Sullivan’s Travels, this hairstyle with a mannequin under it sleepwalks through This Gun for Hire as if she’s on gin, or quaaludes, or both.  Pair her with Alan Ladd as an antihero with absolutely zero redeeming qualities, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, This Gun for Hire features Robert Preston as the police lieutenant out to catch the evil Ladd and save Ms. Lake.  Even though the great actor’s forced to recite lines like “I want you to darn my socks for me.  To wash my floors and make my corned beef and cabbage,” and even though he’s forced to act like he’s attracted to Lake, there’s no denying his irrepressible charisma.  For every moment Lake brings the film to a halt, Preston fires it right back up again and keeps us in the game.

The story?  Oh, some noirish nonsense about men in fedoras and doublecrosses and spies and poison gas.  It clicks along ok, enlivened by excellent character work from the aforementioned Preston, Marc Lawrence as a henchman who takes particular pride in his work, Laird Cregar as an amorous nightclub owner, and Tully Marshall as the mastermind of the aforementioned spies and poison gas storyline.

One could imagine this movie with Barbara Stanwyck or Lana Turner – what a joy that would have been.  Unfortunately, with Veronica Lake front and center, it doesn't quite work.  How did this woman get a career, anyway?

Friday, May 08, 2015

The Green Berets

The Green Berets is a Vietnam War movie that feels like a WWII movie.

Most movies about the Vietnam War, from Go Tell the Spartans to Apocalypse Now to Platoon, speak to the war with cynicism, sorrow, or some combination of the two.  The Green Berets, however, seems almost triumphalist in comparison.  It’s really two stories: one a “men holding out against impossible odds” tale and the other a “men on a mission” yarn, connected only by the fact that both stories feature some of the same characters.  Neither story focuses on what Green Berets actually do, which mostly revolves around the training and professionalization of the partner nations’ military forces.

But that’s ok, really.  Why?  Well, first, because it stars John Wayne, who may be the greatest star the medium has yet to produce.  Second, because both stories get told rather well.  I understood the geography, motivations, and tactical situations of both stories, I got where the characters were coming from, and I invested in their journeys about as much as I do with any action picture.


And that’s what this is: a straight-up war movie.  Not much to chew on, but well put together and a fine Saturday afternoon on the couch.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Interview



Vulgar, irreverent, and hilarious, The Interview works from start to finish.

Here’s the setup:  James Franco plays the host of a celebrity talk & gossip show like ‘Entertainment Tonight.’  Seth Rogen plays his director.  The show’s successful, both guys are making good money, and everyone’s happy.  Everyone, that is, except for Franco and Rogen, who want something more than money and fame: they want respect.

Their opportunity comes in the form of an invitation to interview Randall Park as Kim Jong Un.  Kim, as it happens, is a big fan.  They jump at the chance, and the CIA jumps at the chance to recruit them to assassinate the North Korean dictator.  Hijinks ensue.

I’ve been hard on Franco for performances such as the one he gave in Oz the Great and Powerful.  Here, however, he’s spot on.  He plays his character as a charming, well-meaning idiot, and there’s something so genuine about the performance that it makes for a comically sympathetic character.  Rogen’s the straight man, the smart guy who sees the angles and spends most of the film in shock at just how screwed he and his partner are.  It’s a fine comic pairing, and helps to keep the tension high even as the pile one on top of the other.

And the gags?  They work.  They work because we buy Franco and Rogen’s chemistry, we buy the film’s exaggerated artificiality, and we buy Park’s performance as a man who only seems a fool because he’s so clever.


This is just a very well made comedy, one that deserves to be seen.  I loved The Interview.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Locke

Wait, what?  Tom Hardy is an actor?  I mean, sure, he was terrific in Bronson, but his character was so over the top that he seemed kind of easy to play.  Locke, however, is a movie about a concrete engineer driving to London in a car.  That’s it.  We never leave the car.  We never see any other actors.  Hardy barely even moves – he just has one cell phone conversation after another as his life crumbles around his ears.

But oh man, does Hardy sell it.  We come to admire his character’s professionalism, feel aghast at his mistakes, and completely engage in his problems.  No voice over, no scenery, just a guy and a phone and a crisis.  It’s brilliant, masterful stuff (written and directed by Steven Knight), and it puts Hardy in an entirely different league.  This is the kind of movie that lands an action star in prestige pictures.
And that screenplay – wow.  It fills in the story like a painter adding layers, each layer expanding and deepening the picture.  I want to read it.

This is a brilliant film.  I’m so glad I saw it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Top Five

Chris Rock’s Top Five is heartfelt and funny and a great time at the movies.

Here’s the setup: Rock’s character is a former comedian and comic actor whose attempts at dramatic film have fallen flat.  Now, on the eve of the opening of his latest film (a misconceived epic about the Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791), he’s juggling a ‘New York Times’ interview, promotion duties for his film, and his upcoming celebrity wedding extravaganza.  Oh, and he’s trying to stay sober.

The ‘New York Times’ reporter is Rosario Dawson, which robs the celebrity wedding storyline of much of its urgency, but that’s ok.  This isn’t a film about dramatic tension: it’s a film about one day in a man’s life, a crossroads day in which nothing blows up and nobody gets shot, but in which everything changes.

Watching it, I found myself comparing Top Five to Birdman, another film about an actor in crisis.  Both films feature a style of heightened dialogue in that everyone’s funny in the former and everyone’s overwrought in the latter.  But there’s a key difference: Top Five’s characters feel like real people saying real things, even when they’re clearly speaking for comic effect.  That naturalism draws us into the story, and it makes the jokes land.  This film may have a serious premise, but it’s also very much a laugh – out - loud comedy written by a genius.  It’s just wonderful.

No kidding: I laughed.  I cried.  I loved Top Five.  I look forward to seeing it again.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Catching Up

AMERICAN SNIPER


American Sniper did absolutely everything it set out to do.  While I doubt it meant to remind me that I never want to go back to that part of the world again, it did that, too.

However, it seemed to tread much of the same ground as The Hurt Locker, with its emphasis on the pull of repeated deployments and the toll they take on both servicemembers and families.  The problem, of course, is that I’ve already seen The Hurt Locker.  What does American Sniper bring to the table?

20 FEET FROM STARDOM

Everyone has a story, including backup singers.  20 Feet from Stardom tells this story, and it does so in a way that not only captured me in the moment, but has made me more aware of the contributions of backup singers to my favorite songs.  

BIRDMAN

At no point while watching Birdman did I feel like I was watching actual people say things in the real world.  Consequently, I never suspended my disbelief and never lost myself in the story.

My theater friends, however, seemed universally to love it.  Since it’s set in a theater, perhaps it spoke to them in a way I just didn’t get.  Regardless, I can only report that Birdman never, not for even a moment, worked for me.

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS

I’d like to note that I enjoyed The Magnificent Ambersons, but I don’t have time to give it the writeup it deserves.  Consequently, I’ll leave you with this brief Pauline Kael review.

THE GREAT GATSBY

I don’t know, man.  I love Strictly Ballroom, so I support Baz Luhrmann on general principle (that, and a sense that us guys with two “n”s at the end of our names have got to stick together.).  But some stories are better left on the page.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ranks among the most depressing action-adventure films I’ve ever seen.  Here’s a movie whose ending is written into the title, so though we may root for the various “good primate” factions to overcome, we know what’s coming.

Because of this, I couldn’t commit to the story.  Instead, I dwelled on the remarkable special effects.  This way this film bring its apes to life is worth the ticket price alone.

OUR IDIOT BROTHER

I loved Our Idiot Brother.

I don’t think I can do the movie justice, however, so I’ll post a link to the Ebert review that so stuck in my mind that, years after reading it, led me to queue up the film.  I hope it works for you, too, because Our Idiot Brother is funny, touching, and crazy smart.