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Out in Theaters: ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’

Don’t mess with a good thing, so croons an age old adage and Beauty and the Beast, the most recent live action Disney remake, is exemplary of that statement. A near-perfect update of the beloved animated Disney classic, this live-action contemporary version is in many ways a literal note for note transfer, with everything from story beats to musical runs to the lavish costumes tracing 1991’s hand drawn offerings but despite its reciprocal, borderline redundant nature, Bill Condon’s product feels sumptuously loved nonetheless. Read More

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Out in Theaters: A WALK IN THE WOODS

*This is a reprint of our 2015 Sundance review.

Robert Redford‘s adaptation of Bill Bryson‘s popular 1998 memoir A Walk In the Woods is an unremarkable journey with a short sprinkling of low-key chuckles and a heaving dose of schmaltzy sentiment. As Redford’s travel companion, co-star Nick Nolte manages to give this low-percolating buddy comedy/road-movie-on-foot at least some minor footing, but its not enough to balance the overwrought equilibrium. Mining the material for all its geriatric sitcom worth, director Ken Kwapis‘ internal clock ticks with the fervor of a retiree, as he fails to charge the material with any sense of driving momentum. As much as Nolte’s character drags his feet, it’s Kwapis who lags most. For a film all about the journey forward, that presents a major problem. Read More

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Sundance Review: A WALK IN THE WOODS

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Robert Redford
‘s adaptation of Bill Bryson‘s popular 1998 memoir A Walk In the Woods is an unremarkable journey with a short sprinkling of low-key chuckles and a heaving dose of schmaltzy sentiment. As Redford’s travel companion, co-star Nick Nolte manages to give this low-percolating buddy comedy/road-movie-on-foot at least some minor footing, but its not enough to balance the overwrought equilibrium. Mining the material for all its geriatric sitcom worth, director Ken Kwapis‘ internal clock ticks with the fervor of a retiree, as he fails to charge the material with any sense of driving momentum. As much as Nolte’s character drags his feet, it’s Kwapis who lags most. For a film all about the journey forward, that presents a major problem.

There curtain opens on Bill Bryson (Redford) plopped in an interview chair and grilled by a Boston newscaster. Between high-browed snaps at travel journalism, this liberal-shmearing mockery of a media man criticizes Bryson for writing solely about experiences abroad. He questions, “Why have you never written about America?” Something twinkles in Bryson as a hit from this overcharged snark battleship appears to sink something within him. Seeing Redford seemed only half-full to begin with, his deflation fails to strike a nerve.

We’re lead to believe that that exchange – in addition to the death of a distant friend – inspires Bryson to reach outside the box and spring for that one final adventure. Now well over the hill, his spirit journey down the Appalachian is not one his wife (Emma Thompson) is willing to broad. Not unless Bill has a buddy in tow.

After a series of cold-called rejections, Bryson finds himself on the phone with a washed-up alcoholic friend of yore, Stephen Katz (Nolte), who he’d not seen since a calamitous Euro-trip some 40 years back. Desperate for company, he succumbs to this only option and sets out to take on the 2,179 mile trek with this “friend” of unenviable gait. Their journey brings them to head with annoying companions, bears and vengeful boyfriends but never fails to feel like more than a montage of mildly assuming moments.

Nolte’s gruff grumbles provide a sense of abject naturalism – an old half-bitter man quietly raging, forsaking himself of bad life choices – that is oddly lacking in this flick that’s surrounded by nature. He’s the only one on the border of bearing his soul as Redford seems to more or less ice-skate his way through his depiction of an aging, intellectual playboy. An uncomfortable amount of blame ought be laid at screenwriter Michael Arndt‘s (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine) feet as the script is flatter than the Georgia section of the trail. It doesn’t help when Kwapis can’t discern when to start and stop the camera. Or where to point it.

There’s a nice moment in A Walk in the Woods where a star-gazing Katz waxes on existence, speculating about just how many millions of stars they can see out here in the great nothing. Bryson matter-of-factly corrects him: only five thousand are visible to the naked eye. Katz shakes it off, “I’m a big picture kind of guy.” If only Kwapis could have learned this same lesson.

Unabashedly sentimental and overtly geared towards the elderly folks in the audience, the overly tender Kwapis filters his comic sensibility through an aggressively broad strainer. The outcome is the equivalent of cinematic baby food: mushy, flavorless and far too safe.

C-

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Out in Theaters: MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN

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Sorry Jason Reitman, I don’t know if we can be friends anymore. We had a good run but, I think it’s time to cut the umbilical cord. Though Men, Women and Children is a marked improvement over Reitman’s nearly horrendous Labor Day, it still misses the mark by a long shot, offering a muddled, obvious, sentimental mess trying to pass as smartphone generation gospel. The film’s central thesis is as convoluted as a Reddit comments section, as insincere as an emoticon apology. Reitman’s throughline that “technology bites…or does it?” is set up with the cold precision of a Mac Store. The section on why video games are bad is over here, in the front we have scummy chatrooms, the dangers of technophobia is jammed back there and right this way is the destructive power of internet speed-dating. It’s a Tinder of hot topic issues; a mosaic of D.A.R.E. videos from middle school health class. Through a girth of over-sharing, Reitman steeps the film too deep in melodramatic strife and winds up imparting a cold, stiff, impotent feeling. Like grandpa when he’s taken far too much Viagra.

The film introduces us to not just one, two, or four main protagonists but a heaping ten of them. But before we even get to any of these men, women and children struggling within their mortal coils, Reitman introduces us to a character that will have a significantly larger role than you’d ever expect. That character is a satellite voiced by the wonderfully British Emma Thompson. I guess she isn’t technically speaking actually the satellite – nor is the satellite necessarily anthropomorphized – but every time we see the thing rocketing to the outer reaches of the Milky Way – something we’re supposed to believe is significant but never is – we hear her voice and vice versa. Thompson has a few zingers and crude observations that cull early laughs but the intermittent returns to said satellite is a consummate representation of the film at large. It’s odd, ill-fitting and just doesn’t work.
 
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Ansel Egort
is one of Reitman’s many targets. He’s coping with the fact that his mom abandoned him. He just quit the football team because he’s a teenager and life is pointless because a YouTube video called “Tiny Blue Dot” says so. Because all teenagers prescribe to YouTube philosophy. Now he spends his days playing League or Legends or World of Warcraft or whatever MMO was currently popular when Reitman was filming this. Not to imply that Reitman is actually tapped into what teenagers do and don’t think is cool. I wouldn’t dare suggest that. At school, Ansel’s friends have not only abandoned him but have turned to harassing and outright bullying him. All for tapping out of the varsity pigskin squad. As milk cartoons strike him down, he’s a statue, taking it on the chin like some self-imilkating monk. With him alone, Reitman deals with abandonment issues, bullying, teenage dating and even suicide. Had the princely-named Ansel and his trials and tribulations been the sole subject matter of Men, Women and Children, we could actually be convinced to care. As is, he’s just another brick in a wall of “woe is me”.

Spontaneous abortion is yet another. Anorexia another. Cheating on your spouse just one more. BDSM porn addictions? Check. Teenage impotence? Check. Underage maybe-pornography? Double check. Overbearing, technophobe mothers are an obvious shoe in for Reitman’s catalog of problems. But I know what you’re thinking. What about a woman pimping out her own teenage daughter to online yucksters? Yup, that’s in the mix too. It’s like Reitman fingered through the DSM and earmarked every other page. Then he went Urban Dictionary and yanked some of the most common entries. Finally he made a Facebook poll of what the biggest issues facing people in 2014 were and shoehorned the top ten responses into one bloated, junky, blood-and-thunder diatribe. The product resembles spending two hours on Chat Roulette. The statement, little more than a bunch of obscured dicks in your face.

The trouble is, there really is a lot of really good acting going on within its midst. It’s a frustratingly similar case to Labor Day. Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin weren’t bad so much as they were just trapped in an awful script, working for a director than had never been anything but competent. Men, Women and Children suffers an identical blow. The actors have shown up ready to put in the work but the script lets them down at every turn. Save for (miraculously) Adam Sandler, the sole survivor of Reitman’s mushy hand and the only character whose arc feels genuine and unsentimental. The only explanation for the fierce dichotomy of talent and production is that those Hollywood folk still haven’t gotten the memo to jump ship on Reitman. Accordingly, he’s still got a designer cast to work with and they give it their all.

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Even though I took issue with the trumped up dramatics of his character, Egort’s performance is airtight; frothing with pathos and interspersed with moments of true joy. Jennifer Garner excels as a dictatorial mother who safeguards each and every internet interaction for daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever). She’s easy to hate, though a bit hack-i-ly written, but Garner helps flesh her into an actual person rather than the one-dimensional character she’s sculpted as. As a villain, she works but only ironically and that’s still only because of the depth of Garner’s skill.

Another cast stand out is Dean Norris, father to Ansel and new boyfriend to the washed-up but nonetheless fashionable Judy Greer (the mom pimper). Norris was always a dark horse on Breaking Bad (side note: his garage confrontation with Walt alone should have earned him an Emmy nomination. COME ON!) and he unleashes much of the same macho man with a mushy inside energy here. That guys eyes vibrate when he’s worked up like no one else’s. And those jowls. Whoa mama.

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Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt are as divided in their marriage as anal beads and bounce off each other just as much. Their romance is as snuffed out by the forces of the world as a dog queefing in the wind. Whenever sex needs to be scheduled (or, ugh, rescheduled) you should probably just buy matching his and hers FleshLights. As DeWitt and Sandlers sexual absentia mounts, they each turn to online lovers. Her via Ashley Madison – the go-to cheat on your hubby website (side note: I wonder if they paid a sponsorship for their inclusion)- him with a high class escort. And when I say high class, I mean $800 an hour high class. The only real bit of emotional honesty comes from Sandler’s awkward interaction with said hooker and how he ultimately decides to deal with his and his wife’s infidelity. But, as has come to be expected of a Reitman film, that emotional honesty is few and far between.

At its heart, Men, Women and Children is rochambeau. Not the French general, the nut kicking contest. With so many potentially nerve-striking issues on display, Reitman has money on the fact that at least one will get ya where it hurts. And he does. A few scenes legitimately sting. The duteously great acting makes this feat possible. This doesn’t however make Men, Women and Children “good” by any means. It’s just a statistical fact that if you’re blasting a shotgun blindfolded, you’re bound to hit something eventually. Can we have the old Jason Reitman back now?

C-

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Out in Theaters: SAVING MR. BANKS

“Saving Mr. Banks”
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths
Biography, Comedy, Drama
125 Mins
PG-13
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Saving Mr. Banks may as well have been called How Walt Disney Saved The Day From The Curmudgeonly P.L Travers. It’s as whitewashed a narrative as can be, oozing Disney hallmarks to reinvent the notorious asshat that is Walt Disney into a salt of the earth type inspirationally adept at picking himself up by his bootstraps. He’s the American Dream personified and he circles Emma Thompson‘s P.L. “put the milk in the tea first” Travers with the predatory knack of a hawk.

 

Travers, whose opaque Britishness sticks out like Andre the Giant’s thumb if it’d been slammed in a car door, is a woman desperately struggling to maintain artistic control of a character she’s poured her very heart and soul into: Mary Poppins. Having either run dry in the ideas department or simply too stubborn to pen another Poppins adventure, Travers straddles the line of bankruptcy. Her only option lays in Walt Disney, who’s been hounding after the Poppins property for the past ten years.

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While Travers flies over to LA to be courted by Mr. Disney himself, the earnest, creative folks at Disney are pouring themselves into turning Poppins into a product, equipped with sing-a-long numbers and dancing animated penguins. It’s a far cry from her original vision, and she battles tooth and nail to preserve the soul of these stories that mean so much to her but in the process only comes across as a mean old kook. I mean, this is the 60s, women have no place asserting themselves, amiright?

As audience members, we’re expected to cheer for this moustachioed monopoly man trying to ink out another deal with his enterprising smile. And after Saving Mr. Banks dresses Disney’s acquisition of Mary Poppins up as a promise to his children to one day turn their favorite storybook into a delightful family video, how can you not want him to succeed? Think of the children!

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I don’t think I have to tell you whether or not Disney got his grubby hands on the rights to Poppins. So with that, the moral of this Disney story reads something like: big business always triumphs over the solitary artist. How sweet.

For all the tomfoolery that tries to pass as morals here, Thompson is undeniably powerhousing it as Travers. She’s confounding, frustrating, pitiable, and, for a majority of her screen time, detestable. Her 50 shades of gray comes in two flavors: frowny and disappointment. With a no-nonsense attitude so caustic she makes Professor McGonagall look like a bonafide class clown, Travers is the stuff of fairytale stepmothers – strict, rude, and utterly indifferent. But Thompson plays her with understanding, lacking an ounce of judgement. This year’s Best Actress talks have been all about Cate Blanchett but, with a performance of this caliber, Thompson might just have what it takes to knock her off her horse. There is one big thing standing in the way of that though: Travers is entirely unlikeable.

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Typically, it requires a bit of mental gymnastics on behalf of the audience to acclimate to a character who is so legitimately awful and yet director John Lee Hancock makes no attempt to skirt around the dozen or so sticks up her butt. In fact, that seems the primary function of the first act – to reveal just how uptight Ms. Travers is. For most of the movie, she might as well be a plum. Says Hancock’s film, she’s a dried up old cooze more pleased by naysaying than any of this smiling nonsense. She wants for nothing save a paycheck so she may return to her flat in London and live out the rest of her days on trumpets, tea, and sighing. As she closes in on signing over that character which has come to define her and her career, she’s hardly a popular figure on the Disney campus. Making friends along the way is about as high a priority as stepping in a pile of dog shit. To her, they may as well be one in the same. With all her humbuging, she’s the Ms. Scrooge of the 2013 Christmas season.

But there’s no illusion that this pinecone of a woman won’t shed her crusty shell and reveal the little sweet girl inside, that flax-haired Aussie who we become well acquainted to through an unexpectedly prominent series of flashbacks. In his milking of the emotional teat, Hancock knows that you’ve got to show just how sour someone is to make their inescapable third act transformation all the more power. Most will likely fall victim to his ringing of the waterworks bell, but they’ll probably also be smart enough to see through the highly visibly emotional manipulation at work. So though you may cry, you’ll likely feel a sucker for it.

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On the sidelines, the film is stuffed full of cheery secondary characters who either have helped raise Travers into the woman she is or those unlucky dogs who have to deal with her now that she’s grown into a froofy-haired, red lipstick-wearing bulldog. B.J. NovakJason Schwartzman, and Bradley Whitford are a fine trio of slick-job comic relief and their many colored reactions to Travers’ totalitarian workmanship are amongst the best moments of the film.

In stark contrast, Paul Giamatti‘s thick take on a white version of Driving Mrs. Daisy‘s Hoke Colburn is a prime example of Saving Mr. Banks as a hokey tearjerker while Colin Farrell‘s bubbling but bumbling alcoholic father is shaded with true characterization. He’s far richer in depth than many of these hackneyed stereotypes but belongs in a whole other movie; one far darker and sadder. Then again, the wealth the flashback scenes do seem like another movie entirely. It’s not until the end that it all finally comes together and we see the pieces for a whole. Nonetheless, Hancock never really justifies the amount of division the film must carry and the emotionally stirring conclusion still isn’t enough to make up for the sluggingness that clouds the first hour.

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Saving Mr. Banks
is yet another Disney export of saccharine in the highest degree, an uplifting tale that also serves to reinforce the likeability of a dynasty that has swept up Pixar, Marvel, Stars Wars, and just recently Indiana Jones. But for those of us who’ve heard stories of Disney as a man who aligned himself with anti-Semitic organizations and would work his employees to the bone, attempts to make him seem like Saint Walt come across as disingenuous at best and full-blown falsification at worst. But it’s hard to look down your nose when Tom Hanks is playing the role with all his usual charm and gumption. Well played Disney, well played.

C+

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