Walt Disney worked for more than twenty years to get permission from “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers to make a movie of her story. Travers, it turns out, was difficult and demanding. The backstage story of Disney’s wooing makes for great fun, thanks to a wonderful performance by Emma Thompson as the testy author. Tom Hanks feels perfect as Walt Disney—so good you’re left thinking — who else but Hanks? The movie sprinkles some fine character actors in various roles–including Paul Giamatti as Travers’ driver, Bradley Whitford as head script writer, and Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak as composer brothers Robert and Richard Sherman. We know going in that the movie got made and made well. ”Saving Mr. Banks” contrasts the difficult adult with the young girl growing up in a troubled family in far away Australia. After seeing the story behind Travers, watching things work out feels exhilarating. When Travers attends the ”Mary Poppins” premiere and watches her story on screen, her reaction leaves not a dry eye in the house. And please stay for the credits and hear the real Travers on tape in the sessions recreated for this story. They’re hilarious and a testament to the quality of Emma Thompson’s abilities. Does it deliver what it promises? A great story behind a story. Is it entertaining? Funny and touching and leads to a glorious climax. Is it worth the price of admission? One of the year’s best.
Make no mistake, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is a fan’s movie. Those of you who walk in cold will encounter a lot of exposition leading to some pretty good computer action but you’ll need iron pants to survive the almost three hour running time. Ian McKellon adds a dash of Shakespeare style as Gandolf the Wizard–who started this whole quest in the first movie. Likeable Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Boggins, the dwarf enlisted to aid the little people in regaining their kingdom. Evangeline Lilly adds some interest as an elf warrior. The story starts off with a lot of speechifying, builds to a thrilling encounter with giant spiders and tops it off with a talking flying fire breathing dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. I didn’t care much for the first movie as it merely stops rather than pause to set up the next episode. ”The Desolation of Smaug” does better, ending with a cliff-hanger that leaves you wanting more. If you’re a fan, that is. Does it deliver what it promises? More of the story. Is it entertaining? Some nice action and computer generated sequences. Is it worth the price of admission? For fans.
“Out of the Furnace” tells a tough story about tough people with a stellar cast, but feels like a lot of other better told movies. Christian Bale works at a dying steel mill in Pennsylvania. When his brother Casey Affleck returns from Iraq, he recommends Casey work in the mill. But Casey wants a different life and falls in with the tough criminals who stage bare knuckle back woods fights. Menacing Woody Harrelson takes Casey on and when Affleck refuses to take a dive murders him. Bale, fresh from a jail term for killing a bystander while DUI, mourns the loss of his soul mate Zoe Saldana who takes up with local constable Forest Whitaker. Bale insists Whitaker find his brother’s killers, but they’re a wiley backwoods crew, so Bale takes it on himself. ”Out of the furnace” tells a familiar blue-collar rust belt story. This one feels earnest but flat and predictable. Does it deliver what it promises? Blue collar drama. Is it entertaining? Earnest but a labor to watch. Is it worth the price of admission? Feels recycled.
I knew going in that “Philomena” was based on a book about an Irish woman’s search for the child she gave away fifty years earlier. But the movie gave me a lot more. Usually comic actor Steve Coogan plays it straight as a sophisticated out of work government spokesman/journalist who gets a tip about an old woman looking for her son. He hears her story and pitches the idea to a publisher and gets a contract. He’s in this for the money. Soon he’s spending time with Philomena Lee, played in the movie by Judi Dench. She shows over the course of this performance why she holds the title as one of the greatest actresses of our time. She breathes life into this woman sent to a Catholic home as a pregnant teenager. Now old older frumpy woman, the mismatched characters travel together in buddy comedy style. She represents faith, he represents skepticism. Together they discover the harshness of Ireland’s baby and mother homes where children were regularly given away to wealthy Americans in return for large donations. Mother and writer discover the identity of the son and the outcome of his life and the truth of the situation that separated them. Many in the audience sat through the credits as a way I think of taking in the extraordinary experience of watching “Philomena”–without doubt one of the year’s ten best movies. Does it deliver what it promises? Profound surprising story. Is it entertaining? Well told. Is it worth the price of admission? Every penny.
The holidays can always use a Disney animated musical and “Frozen” looks like just the ticket. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” it plays like a Broadway show. (Hey there’s an idea.) Kristen Bell plays the youngest girl in the royal palace. Her older sister, whom she worships, has to live with special powers which she can’t quite control. One wave of her hand and ice forms. One day during a play session, Elsa the elder (played by Broadway great Idina Menzel) hurls an icicle at Anna and almost kills her. The event traumatizes the family and Elsa retreats to her room growing up apart from the little sister who loves her. At her coronation as Queen, Elsa loses control and throws the kingdom into perpetual winter. She flees and Anna must go on a quest to find her and make things right. The music sounds delightful although don’t expect the king of hits that came from “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast”. Another Broadway star Josh Gad voices Olaf a snowman who comes along for comic relief—(he longs to feel summer not knowing it will melt him.) “Frozen” runs a few minutes long but plays so well I stayed to watch the credits. I didn’t want it to end. I suspect families and children will feel the same. Does it deliver what it promises? Disney family musical. Is it entertaining? In the classic mode. Is it worth the price of admission? A great Thanksgiving holiday present.
Spike Lee re-makes a Korean revenge classic as an urban mystery. Josh Brolin plays an alcoholic on a bender who wakes up in a room in which he is imprisoned for twenty years. One day for no apparent reason he is released, and sets about looking for revenge. “Oldboy” has a touch of “Pulp Fiction” mixed with classic Hitchcock style. I thought it fascination to watch Brolin unravel the mystery. He gets help from Elizabeth Olson. You’d better prepare yourself for the violence including a scene where the great Samuel Jackson almost has his head pulled off, and an Asian style death dance featuring a claw hammer. I like Spike Lee. This latest feels different from his other films. I could almost hear him giggling as he pulls us into this web which leads to a shock and jolt and an ending that could only serve as the ending of this story. Does it deliver what it promises? Spike Lee Film Noir. Is it entertaining? Fascinating. Is it worth the price of admission? Unnerving fun.
“Black Nativity” aims to expand the Langston Hughes Christmas classic with a contemporary story and contemporary music. The story begins in Baltimore as single mother Jennifer Hudson explains to son Jacob Latimore that the economy has hit them hard: a job loss and eviction. Hudson sends her son to Harlem to stay with her parents. The kid doesn’t know his grandparents because the daughter broke with them over his birth. Forrest Whitaker and Angela Bassett add gravitas and star power. Whitaker walks tall in Harlem as the long time minister of a large church. Bassett makes a find preacher’s wife making a home for them both in beautiful Harlem brownstone. The contemporary songs give way to Langston Hughes’ classic on Christmas eve, as the family break heals in a manner much like the Christmas story. Sometimes the plot goes a little too deep into soap opera territory and sometimes the contemporary music doesn’t quite mix with the classic spirituals. I think “Black Nativity” hopes to find an audience who rarely attend movies. And I think it will. Does it deliver what it promises? Gospel spiritual. Is it entertaining? Has some great moments but sometimes the plot gets a little clunky. Is it worth the price of admission? Always room for a good holiday musical.
Jennifer Lawrence adds another great performance to her career in this second installment of the story of Katness Everdeen, the young woman who takes her younger sister’s place in the annual Hunger Games — a fight to the death television spectacle designed to keep the population under control in the totalitarian world of the future. If you saw chapter one you know that Katness pulled a fast one and made it possible for her and fellow competitor Peeta to survive as a twosome. Now they travel the country in a victory lap. But Katness seems somehow to spark thoughts of revolution in the population. The powers that be don’t like this and declare a new series of games pitting former winners against each other — the better to get rid of Katness. Once the games begin, the movie catches fire, and delivers a thrilling twist at the end–so good you leave wanting more. Most of the great cast return including Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Sutherland, with additions to this story of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the new game designer and Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin and Jena Malone as fellow competitors. I think this sequel does what a good sequel must: It restores your interest and sets you up for the next chapter. Personally I can’t wait. Does it deliver what it promises? And then some. Is it entertaining? Thrilling with a great ending. Is it worth the price of admission? Fans will love.
Alexander Payne has made some delightful movies — “Sideways” “The Descendants “About Schmidt” and now we can add “Nebraska” to the list. Bruce Dern plays a grumpy old man teetering on the edge who gets one of those magazine promotions with the promise you may have won a million dollars. Dern believes and insists that his son Will Forte take him to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his check. As with “Sideways” and “The Descendants” the road trip brings father and son closer and also takes more than a few comic turns. A great character actress named June Squibb steals the show as Dern’s no-nonsense wife. She states the obvious in just the right way to makes it hilarious. The story pulls us into a world of quirky characters who never fail to surprise. Shot in black and white, the stark images make this wry comedy come alive. An old guy wants a little adventure and gets it and we have a great time watching it. How good is that? Does it deliver what it promises? A funny road comedy. Is it entertaining? Delightful Is it worth the price of admission? One of the year’s best.
Vince Vaughn does a likeable job in this remake of a delightful French-Canadian comedy called “Starbuck”—the story of a loveable misfit who over donates to a sperm bank for the money and thanks to a bit of a mishap winds up fathering more than five hundred children. The kids - now young adults – get a lawyer and band together demanding to know their father’s identity. Their representative delivers their profiles and Vaughn wanting to remain anonymous can’t resist finding some of them—even going so far as to help many of them out of various jams. To add to the comedy he finds out his girlfriend–played appealingly by Cobie Smoulders–is pregnant. So parenthood comes on top of parenthood. “Delivery Man’ has some nice moments and gives Vaughn one of his better roles. Don’t expect anything deep but do expect a good time, even if this remake doesn’t hit the stride of the original. Does it deliver what it promises? Pleasant comedy. Is it entertaining? Very funny and touching. Is it worth the price of admission? A good time.