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Entries in Emma Thompson (4)

Friday
Dec132013

Saving Mr. Banks

There’s no telling how much of “Saving Mr. Banks” is actually true. Just how callous was P.L. Travers? Was Walt Disney really out to make dreams come true in adapting her popular book, “Mary Poppins”? And is it true that he essentially acted as Travers’ psyche savior as portrayed in the film? It’s tough to say, though recent articles have pointed out that much of what is portrayed in the film is a fallacy, an illusory look into one of the world’s biggest and most recognizable companies made by that very same company. Surely much of the truth—particularly the occasionally harsh realities of Mr. Disney himself—were glossed over for reputational purposes. But based-on-true-stories don’t succeed or fail solely on their historical accuracy, but rather on their ability to take even what could amount to a small kernel of the truth and craft something worth watching. In this regard, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a rousing success.

The movie, in a nutshell, is about Travers’ (Emma Thompson) popular book’s journey to the big screen. Through flashbacks that portray her rough childhood with an alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) that she nevertheless adored, it paints a picture that explains her hesitance towards adapting it. For over 25 years, Disney (Tom Hanks) tried to convince Travers to allow him to make this movie, a goal he claims stems from his desire to keep a promise he made to his children who adore her book and the characters in it. Over the span of a couple weeks, Travers travels to Walt Disney Studios and puts its employees through the wringer, insisting on having creative control over the final product and demanding all kinds of ludicrous things, like the complete removal of the color red from the movie. Eventually, her stubbornness starts to wane, resulting in one of the most beloved films of all time.

It’s that stubbornness, however, that gives the film its weight, even if some journalists are failing to see the meaning and misconstruing it as misogynistic. Seemingly every ridiculous demand she makes has an explanation, which is explained by the film’s frequent flashbacks. While Ms. Travers may seem unreasonable and cruel at first, these moments shed light on her in a way that builds empathy. By the end, she isn’t painted as a villain, but rather a woman who has had trouble coping with the reality of her childhood.

In terms of storytelling, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a tour de force, managing to jump back and forth between timelines seamlessly and without confusion. All of it adds up to an enchanting whole, one that has lots of things to say and explains itself well, even within its two hour time constraint. Perhaps its most successful idea comes in its emphasis on imagination. Echoing the (admittedly more thoughtful) sentiments of 2004’s marvelous “Finding Neverland,” the film understands the importance of imagination, in the ways it can make something bad seem good and fix past memories to be something of profound happiness. Even as adults, it’s important to remember the good things, even when it’s hard to forget the bad, and that’s what “Saving Mr. Banks” explores so well, even going so far as to say that there’s no greater joy than “seeing the world through the eyes of a child.”

That single line encapsulates the film’s very essence, as the “Mary Poppins” film ended up keeping the memories of Travers’ father alive, but more in the way she wished it had happened rather than as they actually did. In this way, “Saving Mr. Banks” proves itself to be surprisingly moving. Anchored by a terrific, Oscar worthy performance from Emma Thompson alongside a top notch ensemble cast, the film is a real treat. It may be hard to fight off the cynical realization that the film is trimmed in a way to protect the Disney company’s image and it may not portray the events at hand in a fair and balanced way (even if the real recordings that play over the credits create striking parallels between it and what we’ve just seen), but that’s not the film’s intent. “Saving Mr. Banks” has higher aspirations and it succeeds in reaching nearly every single one of them.

Saving Mr. Banks receives 4.5/5

Friday
Jun222012

Brave

It’s unreasonable to expect Pixar to put out an animated classic every year. To keep up a standard of excellence as good as Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 would be near impossible and last year, the seemingly infallible studio had its first bust with Cars 2. The film, while fast paced and colorful, was missing the character relationships that were so strong in its predecessor. It was missing the emotion and the humanity (yes, there was humanity in those machines). For the first time, Pixar made a bad movie. It’s too early to tell if that was the beginning of the end of quality entertainment from the studio, but judging from their newest release, Brave, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Brave isn’t amazing and when compared to Pixar’s other 12 full length releases, it’s closer to the bottom than it is to the top, but at least it’s good and it offers some substance to complement its gorgeous visuals.

The film follows the young Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) as she approaches her betrothal. For her entire life, her mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), has prepared her for this moment, where young men from competing kingdoms will compete for her hand in marriage. The problem is Merida doesn’t want to get married. She wants to be free, able to ride the countryside on her horse and practice her archery as she sees fit. Prim and proper isn’t her way of approaching life, so to avoid marriage, she buys a spell from a witch in the nearby woods. The spell is meant to change her mother so she won’t feel it necessary to force Merida into marriage, but the spell instead changes her into a bear. This threatens her safety as her father, King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly), is an avid bear hunter and has been ever since a mysterious bear took his leg years ago. Furthermore, two sunrises from now, her mother will be changed forever, so she must hurry if she wishes to break the spell.

What was sorely missing so much in Cars 2 is central to Brave. This isn’t about dazzle; it’s about human relationships—more specifically, mother-daughter relationships—and the bond the two eternally have. It’s about listening and trying to understand each other even when you disagree. It’s a simple message to be sure, but it’s one that speaks to both children and parents that highlights the importance of love and understanding. The theme is presented perhaps a bit too on-the-nose, however, considering that after Queen Elinor is turned into a bear all she can do is listen. The movie doesn’t set up a scenario where the characters discuss how they feel about the situation. It instead thrusts them into a situation where one is forced to hear the other out. The script obviously had a thematic goal in mind, but it doesn’t seem to know how to get there without literal interpretations. The script is anything but subtle and as far as writing goes, when isolated from the movies they represent, Brave is one of Pixar’s weakest.

The writers don’t even take the time to map out a proper villain, instead throwing in another spellbound human in a similar situation as Queen Elinor to make things a bit more dangerous and further enforce its theme of mother-daughter love as forcefully as possible. Where they succeed is in the creation of Merida’s little brothers, identical triplets named Harris, Hubert and Hamish. They don’t speak a word the entire movie, but they’re easily the best characters in it. They’re energetic, mischievous and very funny and the antics they pull off, both for their own benefit and to help out their family, are endlessly amusing. Their rascally behavior usually means pranking others, which leads to enough slapstick to fill a Kevin James movie, but it’s harmless in its approach and provides the biggest laughs.

But the feeling of disappointment lingers on. A movie as good as this one would be a delight if coming from another studio, but Pixar is capable of so much more. Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction. If Cars 2 was three steps back, Brave is two steps forward. It doesn’t come close to matching the brilliance of their best, but it’s also a far cry from mediocrity. Some people lost some faith in the studio last year and Brave won’t completely restore it, but it will give them cause for optimism that Pixar hasn’t lost their touch. They’re just saving it for something special.

Brave receives 3.5/5

Friday
May252012

Men in Black 3

Men in Black 3 is an oddity. Nobody was really asking for it, but at the same time, it’s easy to understand why it’s here. It comes from a popular franchise with a likable, funny star that has always churned out impressive box office numbers and this new installment is likely to do the same. Still, Men in Black 3 shows its age and while it’s not the funniest movie in the world (especially when compared to the previous installments), it makes up for it with a surprisingly affecting story and an ending that makes you completely reevaluate the relationship between the two main characters.

The film begins with a sultry vixen who is about to break the last Boglodite in the universe, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), out from a top secret prison located on the moon. He has been locked up for over 40 years thanks to Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), who shot off his arm in the apprehension, and his first order of business is to take him out before that fateful day. He succeeds in doing so, but only after going back in time, all the way back to 1969. K’s partner, Agent J (Will Smith) is the only person who isn’t affected by the altered history (for nebulous reasons), so he also heads back in time to save the young K (Josh Brolin) from an untimely demise.

The first thing one notices when watching Men in Black 3 is how much its stars have aged. In the other films, Jones played the hardened older man who had to put up with the uncouth style of a young Will Smith. Now, Jones isn’t playing the hardened older man. He has actually become one and his lack of caring shows. He coasts by in this role, almost as if he’s wondering why he’s there dressed up once again in a black suit, shooting CGI creations with silly looking plastic guns. The filmmakers try to recreate the magic from the other films, but the original film came out 15 years ago and Smith doesn’t fit the young, quick witted role anymore. He’s old enough where he could play the hardened older K from the original film and a younger face could play him.

In their attempt to recapture the olden days, the humor comes off as outdated as well. This futuristic, science fiction, alien invasion movie, which should be able to come up with better jokes than the typical “look how old this stuff is” material so many time travel movies rely on, succumbs to just that. The neuralyzer, the spiffy device used to wipe the memories of those who witness the actions of the Men in Black, takes time to charge and is attached to a battery pack, for example. It’s this type of laziness that keeps the movie from matching its predecessors in laughs. If you’re going for the comedy, you might as well not go at all.

However, what Men in Black 3 misses in that area, it makes up for with its solid story and emotional ending. It may have an uninteresting and barely menacing villain played by a miscast actor who isn’t all that compelling to begin with, but viewers aren’t going for him. They’re going for the connection between K and J, to watch their relationship grow, and boy does it ever. The final scene, a twist that is satisfying without being obvious, works incredibly well and makes you appreciate their characters that much more. It adds a new, more personal, layer to their relationship that works in the moment, even if it may not necessarily work in conjunction with previous films.

Only repeat viewings of the other two movies will be able to tell if it does or not, sans for a few unmissable plot holes like the supposedly long history Agent K has with Agent O (played in the present day by Emma Thompson and in the past by Alice Eve), despite her exclusion in the series up until this point. The character is connected very loosely to what’s going on, serving only as an expositional narrative device, and fails on multiple levels of poor screenwriting because of it. But the movie as a whole, as cliché as it is to say, is greater than the sum of its parts. Men in Black 3 isn’t a reinvigoration of the franchise or particularly interesting as a standalone film, but as the emotional bookend to two memorable and lovable characters, it works.

Men in Black 3 receives 3/5

Friday
Aug202010

Nanny McPhee Returns

It’s tough to beat Mary Poppins, the 1964 classic that showcased a nanny dealing with and teaching the children of a moderately uncouth family. In 2005, that film was basically remade in the form of Nanny McPhee, a charming, if slight picture that had a heart of gold and a type of energy that was undeniably endearing. While not enchanting enough for multiple viewings, it was nevertheless worth seeing once. Its sequel, Nanny McPhee Returns, unfortunately, is not.

If Nanny McPhee was a retread of Mary Poppins, consider Nanny McPhee Returns a retread of a retread. The story is largely the same as the original: a parent is overpowered by her naughty children when Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) comes along and teaches them five lessons. This time the parent is Isabel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her three children, Vincent (Oscar Steer), Norman (Asa Butterfield) and Megsie (Lil Woods), are too much for her, or at least she’d like to think so. In the original film, the seven children were indeed rotten, spoiled brats that gave their father, played by Colin Firth, hell. He was in desperate need of a nanny. Here, Isabel’s kids are no naughtier than the usual similarly aged children. In fact, while she is off working, they keep up the farm, caring for the livestock, shoveling dung and finishing any other chores to ensure it runs like it should. Isabel’s acting out is childish and much ado about nothing.

Until her niece (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and nephew (Eros Vlahos) show up, and even then they pale in comparison to the hellions from the film’s predecessor. Sure, they fight and run amuck, but they’re children. It’s what they do. Nevertheless, Nanny McPhee arrives and begins her lessons telling them that she has one final rule. When they need her, but do not want her, she must stay, but when they want her, but no longer need her, she has to go.

And so begins, for better or worse, the same movie set in a different time period. The biggest difference between Nanny McPhee Returns and the original film is that the title character is more prominent. She has become a showman since her last job, swirling barley in the air to create a parade of animals, and she is given a friend, a bird by the name of Mr. Edelweiss. Pieces of her mystical world seep through in the movie, thus lessening the mystery around her.

There’s also a more adult story revolving around Isabel’s brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) who has fallen behind on gambling debts and is trying to persuade Isabel into selling the farm, of which he owns half, but cannot sell unless she agrees. Although she refuses, she does not have the money to keep up a productive farm, much like how this story doesn’t have enough originality to keep up an interesting movie.

With at least three times the amount of infantile poop jokes than the original, Nanny McPhee Returns is a downgrade. It has a limited amount of whimsy and charm and it’s certainly not terrible, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth seeing.

Nanny McPhee Returns receives 2/5