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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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Taking a Second Swing at the 2014 Oscar Predictions

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A lot has changed in the weeks since my first Oscar prediction post. A big contender is now out of the running with Monuments Men unexpected move to a 2014 release, while Saving Mr. Banks debuted to soaring reviews, and The Wolf of Wall Street secured its chance in this year’s Oscar after solidifying a Christmas release date.

Although buzz has Gravity and 12 Years a Slave going head-to-head for the title, that conversation is nothing more than preemptive positioning, as there’s just so much more to see before the we start setting things in stone. One thing is for sure though, Gravity’s continued praise and high box office numbers make it a stronger contender than expected and it’s pretty much locked in nominations across the board. Nonetheless, expect it to pull an Inception/Life of Pi manuever and mostly walk away with technical accolades. Although unlikely, a director-picture split could potentially see Alfonso Cuaron taking home his first Oscar but after last year’s Affleck, Argo drama, don’t cross your fingers.

After seeing 12 Years a Slave, Blue is the Warmest Color, and Nebraska, I had to shake up a few categories, first and foremost, the Best Actor category, as I can’t imagine Bruce Dern not seeing some recognition. As for Chiwetel Ejifor‘s lead role in 12 Years, it’s beyond powerful, and he’s very likely to take home the gold. Nipping at his heels, Robert Redford continues to climb the charts for his near silent role in All is Lost and could just end up playing a legacy trump card when it comes voting time.

Another black man playing a role tailor man for the Oscars, Forest Whitaker got pushed out of the top five for now but it wouldn’t be unlikely for him to step back in sooner or later. Perhaps the biggest unknown quality in this category though is Leonardo DiCaprio, who leads Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Criminally undernominated, DiCaprio was pegged for an Oscar for this role early on but now his odds are shakier with the knowledge that Wolf is a nearly three hour long dark comedy. Now that the film will definitely see the light of day in 2013, there’s still a chance he can pull some last minute punches. For once, it’s a rather interesting race for Best Actor with some massive talent pining for those top five spots.

The Best Director category seems pretty firmed up as none of the top five spots managed to budge. Expect further momentum in that category in December when Saving Mr. Banks, American Hustle, and Inside Llewyn Davis play for a wider audience. For now, it’s a race between McQueen and Cuaron but if American Hustle is the success story that so many people expect, a win for David O. Russell would be more than understandable.

Glancing through the list for now, you’ll notice a bit of a 12 Years a Slave domination. Does that mean I expect 12 Years a Slave to clean up at the Oscars? Not necessarily, but all current momentum does have it as an early frontrunner, making it the one to beat at the moment. Gravity is currently perceived as its biggest competition but that’s little more than hogwash, as Gravity, no matter how well received, just doesn’t stand a chance at the top.

The closet thing we have as a lock for now is Cate Blanchett‘s stronghold on Best Actress. Although Judi Dench will give her a run for her money with her titular role in Philomena, Bullock is assured a nomination, and Streep is never someone to be scoffed at, this category is all but signed, sealed, and delivered for Blanchett.

Best Picture:

1. “12 Years a Slave” (No change)

2. “Gravity” +1
3. “Saving Mr. Banks” +1
4. “American Hustle” -2
5.  “The Wolf of Wall Street” +4
6. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (No change)
7. “Captain Phillips” -2
8. “Nebraska” +4
9. “Dallas Buyers Club” -2
10. “All is Lost” +1

Fringe:
11. “August: Osage County” -1
12. “Rush” +1
13. “Before Midnight” +1
14. “Blue is the Warmest Color” (New)
15. “Prisoners” (New)

Best Director:

1. Steve McQueen “12 Years a Slave” (No change)

2. Alfonso Cuaron “Gravity” (No change)
3. David O. Russell “American Hustle” (No change)
4. John Lee Hancock “Saving Mr. Banks” (No change)
5. The Coen Bros “Inside Llewyn Davis” (No change)

Fringe:
6. Martin Scorsese “The Wolf of Wall Street” +2
7. Paul Greengrass  “Captain Phillips” -1
8. JC Chandor “All is Lost” +1
9. Alexander Payne “Nebraska” +1
10. Jean-Marc Vallee “Dallas Buyers Club” (New)

Best Actor:

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1. Chiwetel Ejifor “12 Years a Slave” +1

2. Robert Redford “All is Lost” +2
3. Matthew McConaughey “Dallas Buyers Club” -2
4. Tom Hanks  “Captain Phillips” -1
5. Bruce Dern “Nebraska” +3
 
Fringe:
6. Leonardo DiCaprio “The Wolf of Wall Street” (No change)
7. Forest Whitaker “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” -2
8. Christain Bale “American Hustle” -1
9. Joaquin Phoenix “Her” (No change)
10. Oscar Isaac “Inside Llewyn Davis” (No change)

Best Actress:

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1. Cate Blanchett “Blue Jasmine” (No change)

2. Judi Dench “Philomena” (No change)
3. Sandra Bullock “Gravity” +1
4. Meryl Streep “August: Osage County” -1
5. Emma Thompson “Saving Mr. Banks” (No change)
 
Fringe:
6.Amy Adams “American Hustle” (No change)
7. Adèle Exarchopoulos “Blue is the Warmest Color” +2
8. Julie Delpy “Before Midnight” -1
9. Brie Larson “Short Term 12” -1
10. Berenice Bejo “The Past” (No change)

Best Supporting Actor:

1. Jared Leto “Dallas Buyers Club” (No change)

2. Michael Fassbender “12 Years a Slave” +1
2. Daniel Bruhl “Rush” -1
4. Tom Hanks “Saving Mr. Banks” (No change)
5. Barkhad Abdi “Captain Phillips” +3

Fringe:
6. Bradley Cooper “American Hustle” (No change)
7. Jake Gllyenhaal “Prisoners” (No change)
8. Jonah Hill “The Wolf of Wall Street” (New)
9. John Goodman “Inside Llewyn Davis” -4
10. James Gandolfini “Enough Said” (New)

Best Supporting Actress:

1. Lupita Nyong’o “12 Years a Slave” (No change)

2. Oprah Winfrey “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” (No change)
3. June Squibb “Nebraska” +4
4. Julia Roberts “August: Osage County” -1
5. Octavia Spencer “Fruitvale Station” -1

Fringe:
6. Lea Seydoux “Blue is the Warmest Color” (New)
7. Margo Martindale “August: Osage County” -1
8. Melissa Leo “Prisoners” (No change)
9. Jennifer Lawrence “American Hustle” (No change)
10. Carey Mulligan “Inside Llewyn Davis” (No change)

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Round One of the 2014 Oscar Predictions


As 2013 races to a close, it’s time for the first round of Oscar predictions. 2013 started with a whimper with a truly slumping spring season that moved into a relatively disappointing summer slate of blockbusters (at least from a critical perspective). But the fall season hopes to make up for any inadequacies of the rest of the year with a lump sum of certifiably great films. Although some of my predicted contenders have yet to see the light of day, there are now enough pieces in play to make a fair judgement as to what may and may not make the cut come the year’s end. Come join us to discuss our first round of 2014’s Oscar predictions.

I’ve personally only seen a few of the big contenders for Best Picture (Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips), some have played their way through the festival circuit (Inside Llewyn Davis, Saving Mr. Banks, 12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis) and the remainder have yet to be seen at all (The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, The Monuments Men). But even for these unknown qualities, all you have to do is look at the talent and directors and a shoe-in is the rule rather than the exception.

Coming off a fiery debut at TIFF, 12 Years a Slave seems the clear front runner and is sure to nab nomination across the board (including Steve McQueen‘s first directing Oscar nomination as well as first time nominations for Chiwetel Ejifor and Lupita Nyong’o). Others such as Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks won high praise out of Cannes and the AFI fest respectively and will similar play across many categories.

As far as those that have yet to play for any audience, David O. Russell’s sterling track record speaks for itself and, depending on how well-received American Hustle is, he may prove to be 12 Years a Slave and Steve McQueen‘s biggest challenge. While The Wolf of Wall Street is involved in a bit of a juggling act, it’s darkly comic tone may keep it from being amongst the top tier, a similar situation to George Clooney‘s The Monument’s Men. Although Clooney’s name, an all-star cast, and a historic context have proved successful in the past, the first trailer looked a little too light to make it a serious player in a very heavy year.

Gravity still sits pretty as a critical darling that will have the backing of the mainstream, who rushed out to see it this weekend to a tune of more than $50 million and for it, is likely to take home a bulk of the technical categories.

Probably one of this year’s biggest talking points will orbit the discussion of an unprecedented amount of African-American nominees. Steve McQueen may not be the first black director to be nominated (he would actually be the third after John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) and Lee Daniels (Precious)) he is the first who actually stands a fair chance at winning. Likewise, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o lead their respective category. Even more impressive is the fact that the Best Supporting Actress category is likely to see nominations for three black actresses (Nyong’o, Oprah Winfrey, and Octavia Spencer)

Best Picture:


1. “12 Years a Slave”