Saving Mr. Banks Has Disney Magic

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers

It’s hard to live in southern California and not be touched by the magic of Walt Disney. It’s pretty much everywhere (even though I, myself, have never been to any Disneyland). The magic of Disney (whatever Walt’s own personal failings) is really the magic of the movies, which in Los Angeles is all around us.

Also, the behind the scenes workings of filmmaking is our daily life here. We know, for example, that Walt Disney’s cough was so strong, you always knew he was coming before he got there. (In fact, he died of lung cancer in the period shortly after this particular movie took place.)

What is kind of shocking (though really welcome) is that over the years, Disney’s image is so whitewashed that you never (or rarely) see any images of him drinking or smoking, both of which he certainly did. I applaud the filmmakers, and even moreso Walt Disney Pictures, which is presenting this movie, for showing Walt’s truth, finally.

That part was nice. All of the Disney elements were wonderful, a joy to behold, as with most Disney stuff.

What makes this particular show a tough sell is the rest of it.

Mind you, I saw it with a roomful of screenwriters in Hollywood, who pitch their trade (or dream of pitching their trade) every day. They know what is allowed and what isn’t. (One must know the Hollywood code to live here, and even moreso to work here.)

Bradley Whitford welcomes Emma Thompson to Disney

Bradley Whitford welcomes Emma Thompson to Disney

So it’s almost comical to watch a movie about, essentially, a crotchety writer who doesn’t want to sell the rights to her book. She makes herself the biggest pain in the butt you can imagine, and then some (all of this was really, in fact, TONED DOWN for the movie!).  For example, at one point, she huffs to Mr. Disney, “There will be no RED in this movie.” Done. No color red, at all. WHAT?

What is really missing from the script, actually, is any pushback from Disney, and I know there had to be some. Someone somewhere saying, this broad’s crazy! There is only eyerolling and some asides, but they basically go along with her nuttiness. This entire movie, btw, would never fly today.

Walt Disney actually pursued her for 20 years. TWENTY YEARS. Can you imagine? I cannot.

However, I, like most, have a magical remembrance of the wonder that was “Mary Poppins” that came of this struggle. Obviously old Walt knew what he was doing.

Tom Hanks (as Walt Disney) and Emma Thompson (as P.L. Travers) are extraordinary to watch on screen. The fact that this crotchety old bitch is made not only watchable, but at moments even likeable, is such a credit to Ms. Thompson’s acting that she is guaranteed an Oscar nomination for this.

It was a joy to see some singing and dancing from Bradley Whitford (the gruff Josh in “The West Wing”), BJ Novak (“The Office”) and Jason Schwartzman (many things, but most recently his own band, Coconut Records) are great as the Sherman brothers, who wrote the memorable songs for “Mary Poppins.” Melanie Paxson is quite wonderful, too.

BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman play a pair of songwriting brothers.

BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman play a pair of songwriting brothers.

Paul Giamatti makes the most of P.L.’s driver, adding some much-needed heart and warmth.

What is kind of shocking when one goes to a movie expecting the backstory of the making of “Mary Poppins” is that all of the above is only half the movie. And you might think, if you’ve seen the previews, where it mentions her father, that the other half takes place in jolly old England, and that her lovely dad was a chimney sweep. Nope.

Down to the wilds of Australia we go. That’s both what’s jarring and surprising, and exquisite and wonderful about this movie. Aside from the amazing acting, I credit the director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) and the editor Mark Livolsi for creating luminous lush joyous sequences.

Colin Farrell plays the girl’s dad, and does a lot with the role. Rachel Griffiths, as you may’ve already seen in the previews, plays the person that Mary Poppins is based on, although it’s not totally clear who she is in real life. (The girl’s mother’s sister? Some Australian governess?)

As a film experience, I do recommend “Saving Mr. Banks.” This you should know though. She finally caved on selling the rights because she needed the money. After all this folderol she put everyone through, she ended up hating the movie so much that she never let anyone else adapt anything of hers again. She died not speaking to these people ever again, bitter and alone.

Whereas Walt created, as he said he would, a joy for generations. In fact, I urge you to go watch “Mary Poppins” again. Remember too, that the landmark sequence that this woman complained about so much (the penguins and the animation) was ground-breaking for its time (to have live action and animation in the same sequence). Walt was busy making history and making children smile while this woman was bitching and complaining. I’d say, over the long haul, Walt won. The magic always wins.


Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Barney is So Self-Indulgent

For the first half hour of “Barney’s Version,” I wanted to walk out. I found it extremely unfunny, irritating, obnoxious and a waste of my time. Part of the problem for this is that the descriptions of this movie fall in the nebulous category, where publicists don’t know what the heck to write about it. “Barney’s cranky, and this is his life,” is about as far as they’d get.

And indeed, there’s Paul Giamatti, irrascible, puffing cigars and drinking booze from the first frame. Making crank calls to his ex-wife at 3 am. Fun stuff. Why the HELL do I want to get involved in this schmuck’s life, one asks?

Here’s why. To me, it’s the story of TRUE LOVE. How true love hits someone and doesn’t let go. And how, even when you have true love, you might just mess it up. That’s what makes it worth seeing.

Barney’s first marriage happens when his bride becomes pregnant. He does the honorable thing, and marries her. Then finds out it wasn’t even his kid. That one doesn’t end so well.

His dad (Dustin Hoffman) sets him up with his next lovely lady. And Minnie Driver is indeed lovely. And rich. What’s not to like? Well, the incessant talking, perhaps…

So, there he is, at his second wedding, surrounded by many of her relatives, everyone getting smashingly drunk. Barney most of all, pounding back the shots. When suddenly through his drunken stupor, he looks across the room and sees her. Not his freshly-minted wife. His true love. And it hits him like an oncoming train.

He ventures closer and starts talking to her. She sees he is drunk. But they do hit it off. He abruptly leaves his own wedding to chase her to the train heading back to New York. And so it begins.

So there was the reason that made me sit in my seat for the rest of the movie, and be rewarded. How can this schlub of a man find true love with such a beautiful woman? But there it is, clear as day.

The film is based on the writings of Mordecai Richler. The film is dedicated to him.

It is packed with a cast of many stunning acting talents. Scott Speedman, for example, looks like sunshine made real as the charming playboy in Italy.

But the revelation, not surprisingly, since she’s been the revelation of several movies of late (Made in Dagenham notably this season, and An Education last) is Rosamund Pike. She is gorgeous, refined, wonderful as a counterpoint to Barney.

It’s sad and kind of tragic that Barney chose to live his life the way he wanted to: drinking, smoking big cigars and watching hockey games with the boys at the local bar. The love of his life chose to grow and evolve. But it’s very interesting to see how all these pieces fall into place.

So trust me. The beginning may be annoying, but all in all, Barney’s Version is a good ride through someone’s life. I really do wanna see “Miriam’s Version” next, though.

Riding to The Last Station

Talking with a friend after this movie, we realized that there was no person we could think of that influenced Russian culture positively more than Leo Tolstoy. Why then, has there been no previous movie about his life?

Not sure, but at least we have one now. The Last Station is a lush portrait of the final days of Leo Tolstoy, the “Tolstoyans” around him, and those battling for control of his works (his wife and his acolyte, Chertkov). Unlike a lot of the Oscar movies barreling at us right now, this one is rich with context, subtext and meaning. Like many of the same movies, its central thesis is that it all boils down to LOVE in the end.

Tolstoy, bravely played by the wondrous Christopher Plummer, has his match in his fiery and tempestuous wife, warmly portrayed by Helen Mirren. It is a joy just to watch these two together on screen. There is a scene where they flirt with each other prior to lovemaking involving rooster and chicken sounds that in anyone else’s hands would be ludicrous. To their credit, you watch it and swoon for them.

Add to this mix, the clearly defined portrait of Chertkov by Paul Giamatti. Three very strong characters, all fighting for control make this movie well worth watching. As if all this isn’t enough, we have our lead, played with fierce innocence by James McAvoy (you may remember him from The Last King of Scotland).

All of the acting in this movie is top notch. The direction and writing by Michael Hoffman is superb. We are dropped into a world we may not have known about, but which is fascinating. We see what may be the first version of paparazzi, camped outside Tolstoy’s home. We learn that celebrity may not just corrupt and distort the person, but also the very works one is trying to defend.

The title refers to the final train stop where Tolstoy spends his final days. This movie is well worth a stop on your Oscar film train.