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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 13 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 50
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Jolly Mr. Banks - An ebullient glance behind Disney's curtain
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SAVING MR. BANKS
Now Playing


For two decades, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has been trying to wrestle the film rights from author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to her popular Mary Poppins series of books. With money troubles making things increasingly a hardship, the fearful writer, certain the cartoon impresario will transform her beloved heroine into something she will abhor, flies to Hollywood to meet with the studio head in person for the first time. She is presented with a script, assaulted with songs she doesn't find remotely appropriate to the source material, Travers and Disney match wits and butt heads as they try to sort out their differences, discovering the seeds of family dysfunction and tragedy that led to the blossoming of the literary inspiration children of all ages have treasured for generations untold.

Using the massive Disney vaults for inspiration, Saving Mr. Banks charts the ins and outs of a 1961 meeting of minds that would ultimately lead to the production of one of the studio's most cherished productions, their 1964 Academy Award-winning classic Mary Poppins. Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith use the information stored by the Hollywood studio in the historical vaults to craft a plot revolving around the two weeks Travers spent working with Walt, writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak) on the motion picture as she contemplated signing over the rights to the character. Intermixed inside that tale are flashbacks to her Australian childhood, her relationship to her doting, alcoholic banker father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) deduced to be the key to inspiring the books she would eventually pen.

The movie isn't nearly as imaginative as either Travers' writings or the live action-animation hybrid, which inspired this movie - that goes without saying. But as a whimsically audacious drama about how a motion picture masterpiece came to life, about the real people who worked, sometimes at cross-purposes, with all their might to stay true to what they believed to be the most important themes found within the source material, the movie is kind of wonderful. Not perfect, mind you, not supercalifragalistic&.well, you know the rest, but wonderful all the same. And this look behind the curtain is a thoroughly entertaining enterprise worth flying kites to the highest heights in order to see.

Playful hyperbole aside, director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) has done a nice job here, balancing with relative ease the more melodramatic bits - mostly the stuff revolving around Goff and his twinkly-eyed daughter in the Australian outback - with the more authentically emotional beats in the story. He allows the relationship between Travers and Disney to blossom and grow without extra padding, refusing to layer on saccharine or syrup when in lesser hands the movie would be drowning in it. All of the pieces revolving around her visit to the Hollywood studio, working with the Sherman brothers and with DaGradi, each note comes home to roost relatively unobtrusively, bits of magic filtering through oftentimes at the most unexpected moments.

Yet, the main reason that all of this ends up working as well as it does is because of the performances, not just from Farrell, Whitford, Schwartzman and Novak, but also from fellow supporting players Paul Giamatti (as Travers' gregarious limo driver), Kathy Baker (Disney's highly trusted secretary Tommie), newcomer Annie Rose Buckley (Travers' younger self, nicknamed Ginty) and Melanie Paxson (Disney's flustered assistant Dolly). Each of them, especially Farrell, has a field day diving into their respective roles, all going above and beyond as they attempt to make this movie something more than just a reasonably enjoyable cinematic history lesson.

But the reason to see this movie, why it ends up being something close to special, is entirely due to Thompson and Hanks. Neither looks or sounds a thing like their historical counterparts yet somehow, someway, they both manage to disappear inside their roles. Thompson, in particular, is close to genius, her performance a slow burn of angst, apprehension, creativity and protectionism hiding secrets she'd rather the world not be made aware of. Her transformation isn't an obvious one, doesn't contain many, if any at all, overdramatic flourishes, all of it building to a few delicate moments of quiet retrospection and catharsis that's as sublime as it is compelling.

In some ways, Hanks has the more difficult challenge, portraying one of the 20th century's most iconic personalities, so much footage existing on Walt Disney that kids born by the time I finish writing this review will probably know the guy by sight within a few years' time. Somehow, someway, the two-time Academy Award winner, who already gave one of his greatest performances in October's Captain Phillips, does it again here, his multifaceted, intricately balanced portrait full of continuous wonders. He's excellent, a scene near the end inside Travers' London home as compelling as it is mesmerizing bringing all of the film's themes to life with emotionally ebullient ease.

Saving Mr. Banks can feel slight, and there are some annoying focus and pacing issues that keep it from sniffing greatness. Rachel Griffiths is wasted in a central role that by all accounts was the key ingredient inspiring Travers' signature heroine, while Thomas Newman's (Side Effects) Sherman-sampling score alternates between brilliance and tediousness, sometimes both at once. But the writing is unusually sharp the majority of the time, while Hancock's direction is confident and assured, the filmmaker rarely allowing the picture to go astray or meander into corners it shouldn't be examining. Coupled with the greatness of the performances, these facets and more help make the movie a relatively sublime jolly holiday, the resulting party one I'm happy to be celebrating.


Million Dollar Man - Heartfelt Nebraska is a striking father-son drama
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

NEBRASKA
Now showing


Nebraska revolves around a conceit that, somewhat understandably, might have some scratching their heads in incredulity. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has received one of those sweepstakes notifications in the mail, the type that proclaim the company has been 'authorized' to award him its million-dollar grand prize. It's not true, of course, but he's convinced himself that it is, much to the flabbergasted shock of youngest son David (Will Forte). They will make the 750-mile journey to Lincoln, Nebraska - the former to pick up his expected prize, the latter to ensure he doesn't get into trouble - stopping in their former hometown of Hawthorne to visit the family along the way.

Much like a person wants to believe they'd never be fooled in the same manner the central protagonists in Compliance were tragically, horrifically hornswoggled, it goes without saying that all of us like to think we'd never get into Woody's situation. Thing is, people have done exactly what he does in real life, so it isn't as if Bob Nelson's first produced screenplay isn't drawn from actual events. More, there is a deep, understated insight as far as mental illness and aging are concerned that can potentially catch viewers by surprise, the subtly of the dramatic interactions between father and son universal even if the elements of the cross-country road trip itself feel slightly implausible.

Director Alexander Payne (Sideways), for the first time taking the reins of a motion picture he hasn't played a part in scripting, showcases absolute control while shepherding things along their relatively preordained path. Woody and David's journey doesn't so much surprise as inspire, each step of their trek inching them closer and closer to a place neither could have expected before it began. There is a level of understanding of the human condition and all its peculiar nuances and idiosyncrasies the filmmaker seems particularly good at exploring, this film comfortably fitting into his short - if outstanding - cinematic résumé with relative ease.

DERN, FORTE EXCEL
It helps considerably that Dern, a legendary actor with decades of great performances and moments under his belt, is spectacular, capturing one's attentions the first moment he laconically wanders into the frame. More, he does so without his usual assortment of tricks and quirks, and much like Payne forced Jack Nicholson and George Clooney to refrain from their usual trademark thespian traits in About Schmidt and The Descendants, he gets the former Academy Award nominee (Coming Home) to do the same here. He is extraordinarily subdued, quietly intense, tapping into Woody's frazzled intellectual synapses with surprising ease, showcasing the interior battle he's having inside his own head with a clarity bordering on magnificent.

But he is equaled, in some respects shockingly so, by Forte, the former Saturday Night Live cast member giving the performance of his career as the caring, moderately befuddled son unsure if helping his father in this fashion is doing him more harm than good. David is more or less the straight man, forced to react most of the time to all that is spiraling out of control around him, the majority of the showy emotional theatrics in the hands of his co-stars. But if Forte weren't so strong in the role, if I hadn't related to him so completely and without reservation, it is highly unlikely the movie would have resonated as beautifully, and to my mind as supporting turns go his is without a doubt one of the best I've seen in all of 2013.

Nelson, best known for his work as a cast member, writer, and all-around go-to guy working on Seattle television's groundbreaking sketch comedy show Almost Live, shows terrific screenwriting chops, his dexterous script a grand mixture of laughs and emotion reminiscent of Preston Sturges' Miracle at Morgan's Creek and Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude. He does a great job of balancing heart, sentiment, and drama, things rarely, if ever, slipping into treacle-laden sentimentality, he and Payne going out of their way to keep things convincingly centered no matter how absurd events might indeed become.

UNIVERSAL TRUTHS
Phedon Papamichael's (This Is 40) dexterous, shatteringly beautiful black-and-white cinematography amazes, the windswept streets of Hawthorne recalling in many ways the ethereal, emotionally tragic sparseness of Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. There's also some excellent supporting work turned in by the likes of June Squibb as David's whip-smart, acid-tongued mother who isn't exactly thrilled to see her ex-husband wandering the streets of town, while Stacy Keach has some dazzling moments as Woody's self-professed ex-business partner who firmly believes he's deserving of financial recompense for wrongdoings he'd rather not revisit.

Overall, however, this is Dern and Forte's show all the way, the pair achieving a symmetry in performance and in chemistry that is incessantly authentic. For all its imbalances, even with the absurd nature of the premise that compels events forward, their relationship is entirely real, the simple triumph of saying, 'I love you' a victory all of us can relate to, making Nebraska a father-son saga of perseverance and commitment worthy of celebration.


Southern-fried noir, Homefront wallows in genre clichés - and therein lies its greasy charm
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

HOMEFRONT
Now showing


After a bust goes horribly wrong, and his wife tragically dies of cancer, former DEA special agent Phil Broker (Jason Statham) has retired to a quiet, secluded Louisiana township with his 10-year-old daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic) to start over anew. But when a school bully makes his move, by defending herself the young girl inadvertently starts a chain reaction that will put both her and her father's lives in danger.

How? The kid's crazed, meth-addicted mother Cassie (Kate Bosworth) just so happens to be the sister of the town's resident drug lord Morgan 'Gator' Bodine (James Franco), and she wants him to exact a little whoop-ass on him as punishment for his daughter's perceived transgressions. But after Broker sends a couple of his men to the hospital with improbable ease, Gator realizes the fish that's swum into his once-quiet pond might be bigger than anyone knows. Putting two and two together he uncovers exactly who this man is, and using his strung-out girlfriend Sheryl (Winona Ryder) as a go-between he's going to broker a deal with powerful criminal forces interested in seeing the former lawman and his little girl come to a brutal end.

Based on the book by Chuck Logan, with a script (apparently written eons ago) by none other than Sylvester Stallone, Homefront is the type of grungy, Southern-fried noir one imagines Burt Reynolds or Patrick Swayze would have loved to call their own back during their respective action heydays. Comparisons to low-rent bayou favorites like White Lightning, Gator, Roadhouse, and Next of Kin are more than obvious, while somewhat subtle allusions to Walter Hill's Southern Comfort waft around the edges as well.

To my mind this isn't a bad thing, per se, because as B-grade as all of those films might be they're not exactly painful to watch. They're dirty, nasty, freewheeling, pulpy fun, almost start to finish, and as silly and stupid as their respective plots might be they're made with just enough style and acted with more than enough forceful machismo their shortcomings aren't near as giant a problem as by all accounts they should be.

A FAMILIAR AROMA
Directed by Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls, Runaway Jury), Homefront wears its retro celluloid heritage like a badge of honor, the film overflowing in genre clichés so ripe they can probably be smelled three screening rooms down at the local multiplex. But Statham was born to play an unstoppable force of nature like Broker, while both Bosworth and Ryder have so much fun portraying their respective dimwitted strung-out antagonists as the film progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to remove one's eyes from either of them. As for Franco, anyone who watched Spring Breakers knows he has no problem slumming into giddily greasy depths of psycho-redneck oddity, his Gator Bodine as memorable a villain as any I've encountered this year.

It is pretty absurd, of that there is no question, the film a dim and dank little thriller where the outcome is never in doubt and the only question is just how high the body count is going to rise by the time everything comes to its preordained conclusion. But Fleder doesn't try to ever hide the fact that, no matter what is thrown his way, no matter what obstacle he has to stare down, nothing is going to stop Broker from exacting justice. His skills are lethal from the get-go and they never become less so at any point throughout. He's a brutal, inflexible killing machine, his only concern his little girl's welfare, and everything attempting to change that becomes fodder for his destructive talents.

None of which makes Homefront a particularly great film, but as throwback genre efforts go (of which, it must be admitted, there have been quite a few in 2013), Fleder and Stallone's adaptation of the Logan novel can be a heck of a lot of fun. Franco, in particular, is a hoot, and it's nice to see a movie not attempt to make its central bad guy more than he actually is, adding an oddly relatable human element that makes the madness almost plausible. The movie, for all its familiarity, as much as it gaily wades in the shallow end of the cinematic intellectual gene pool, is much more entertaining than it maybe has a right to be, and I don't have any problem with that whatsoever.


Wintry wonderland - Disney's enchanting Frozen is overflowing in magic
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

FROZEN
Now showing


Inspired in large part by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, Walt Disney Studio's latest animated musical adventure Frozen is an utter delight. The story of two sisters, eldest Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and energetic Anna (Kristen Bell), princesses living in the far-off land of Arendelle, the movie is a wondrous, inspired coming-of-age fairy tale about love, family, commitment, and sacrifice. It is an imaginative tale that takes a tried-and-true storyline and makes something fresh out of it, the movie an empowering saga of sisterly devotion as well as a beguiling testament to the best angels lurking within us all, sure to enchant viewers of all genders and age groups just about equally.

What's most interesting is that, strictly speaking, there aren't any true villains lurking at the center of all of this. Yes, there are some bad guys, and without question they have their own designs on what they want and how they can use both Elsa and Anna, but in most respects they are completely superfluous to the main narrative scenario being presented. As stories go, this is outside the typical Disney animated wheelhouse - even though numerous familiar elements (talking supernatural creatures, Broadway-styled musical numbers, scene-stealing human-like animals, etc., etc.) dot the landscape, the primary focus is on the two sisters and their relationship with everything else insignificant when stacked against that.

Directed by Chris Buck (Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph), who also wrote the screenplay, working from a story she helped craft with Buck and newcomer writer Shane Morris, the film takes no time easing viewers into its world and what it is that is going to happen. See, Elsa has been gifted (some would say cursed) with the magical ability to create snowy wonders with just the swift movement of her hands, and what originally was a grand device for frolic and play becomes anything but when she accidentally wounds Anna with her power. Urged by her father to hide her abilities from the world, counseled by a wizened troll (Ciarán Hinds) to gain control of them lest she fall prey to calamity, the sisters are put into a state of forced separation for what appears to be their own good, a situation that does not sit well with the playful, open-hearted extrovert Anna.

A FATEFUL REVELATION
Years pass, a tragedy claiming the lives of the princesses' parents, and during that time the castle remains closed to the outside world as well as to the people living in Arendelle itself. But on the day Elsa is crowned ruler of all the lands, with the doors finally open to citizens and visitors alike, an argument between the two siblings involving a sexy visiting monarch has inadvertently brought her powers into the open. Suddenly all the land is drenched in never-ending snow and ice, Anna taking it upon herself to go into the wilderness to find her sister's whereabouts - she's fled in perceived disgrace - and save them all from a frigidly frozen fate.

A heroic ice merchant named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is thrust into the mix along with his trusty reindeer sidekick Sven, as is an extremely animated snowman calling himself Olaf (Josh Gad), the three of them joining forces with Anna to stop Elsa before it's too late. Oh, sure, there are some behind-the-scenes shenanigans clouding the issue, not everyone involved exactly as they appear to be, and a certain warning spouted from the mouth of a learned troll at the beginning is certain to play a part in the proceedings as events near their end, but that's par for the course. Overall, this is basic stuff, the surprises coming not so much with the twist of the plot but in the decisions the key characters make to extricate themselves from the situation and help the ones they love no matter what the cost.

And it's wonderful, the film rising to the exact same heights as the studio's last out-and-out instant classic Tangled back in 2010 (maybe even exceeding them), and in many ways this could be the finest piece of animated musical family-friendly material the studio (Pixar notwithstanding) has produced since Beauty and the Beast way back in 1991. Better than that, Buck and Lee present us with female role models (their Barbie-friendly physiques aside) that parents should stand up and cheer. The lengths these two young women go to in order to protect, serve, and love each other is as rapturous as it is heartbreaking. While the boys play a part, this fairy tale is all about the girls, their mutual empowerment the crux Arendelle's survival will end up depending on.

There's so much more - we still haven't talked about the animation (stunning!), the vocal work (outstanding!), or the music (Oscar worthy!), but I find myself wanting audiences to experience Frozen with the same wide-eyed surprise that I did. This isn't just the year's best animated film, it's one of 2013's finest motion pictures, period, and as someone who has already seen and loved it twice, I cannot wait to head out to the theater and see it again before happily adding it to my personal library when it comes out on DVD and Blu-ray a few months hence.


Consider yourself at home - Oliver! comes to the 5th Avenue
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Pearl Jam brings it home
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John Waters wishes you a very pervy Christmas
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Ham for the Holidays: Close Encounters of the Pork Rind - The riotous comic duo of Koch and Platt is back!
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Holiday of Error (or Much Ado About Stockings) is a Christmas theatrical comedy that is often genius
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Buika gives ravishing performance of Latin jazz
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Macklemore and Ryan Lewis enthrall local crowd with flawless show
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Ferocious Smaug a fiery disappointment
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Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient - Tam O'Shaugnessy on Behalf of Sally Ride - VIDEO
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Beyoncé reigns supreme in spectacular performance
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Jolly Mr. Banks - An ebullient glance behind Disney's curtain
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Million Dollar Man - Heartfelt Nebraska is a striking father-son drama
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Southern-fried noir, Homefront wallows in genre clichés - and therein lies its greasy charm
------------------------------
Wintry wonderland - Disney's enchanting Frozen is overflowing in magic
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Grammy nods bestowed upon Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Timberlake, Lamar
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Northwest News
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Letters
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Margaret Cho - Mother Tour
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Two Operas: A Hit and A Miss
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