Friday, December 27, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks Movie Review

When I was little, one of my all time favorite movies was Mary Poppins. I've grown up hearing stories of a cute little three-year-old Dusty singing and dancing along to the tunes. Let's face it; I was a movie buff from a time when I could barely talk. Since I love movies about making movies (like Hitchcock), I was elated when I heard about Saving Mr. Banks (2013) I could barely contain myself in anticipation. The movie wasn't quite what the trailer suggested it was, but it was a pretty darn good movie.
When Walt Disney's daughters begged him to make a movie of their favorite book, P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins, He made them a promise - one that he didn't realize would take 20 years to keep. In his quest to obtain the rights, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) comes up against a curmudgeonly uncompromising writer who has absolutely no intention of letting her beloved magical nanny get mauled by the Hollywood machine. But, as the books stop selling and the money grows short, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) reluctantly agrees to go to Los Angeles to hear Disney's plan for the adaptation. For those two short weeks in 1961, Walt Disney pulls out all the stops. Armed with the imaginative storyboards from the scripts' co-writer, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and chirpy songs from the talented Sherman brothers, Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Shwartzman), Walt launches an all-out onslaught on P.L. Travers. But she won't budge. He soon begins to watch helplessly as Travers becomes increasingly immovable and the rights begin to move further away from his grasp. It's only when he reaches into his own childhood that Walt discovers the truth about the ghosts that haunt her, and together they set Mary Poppins free to ultimately make one of the most endearing films in cinema history.
Saving Mr. Banks is simultaneously a biopic of P.L. Travers' life as a child and the story of her and Walt Disney at odds with one another over artistic expression. The narration leans more towards Travers' childhood than the story of making Mary Poppins. Walt wants to make an entertaining movie with musical numbers and the sort of whimsical magic and imagination that Disney studios is famous for. Travers has written a very heartfelt piece of fiction that is heavily influenced by her childhood experiences. The character of Mary Poppins is to P.L. Travers what Mickey Mouse is to Walt Disney; and she doesn't want  her character to be made into something ridiculous. They both want very different things, and yet the same thing; it makes for a fascinating conflict of interests. The characters in Travers' book were based on important figures in her life. If you had someone who had meaningfully changed your life, would you want a caricaturized version of this person dancing around with cartoon penguins for all the world to see? The more that Travers' history unfolds, we understand why seemingly trivial things such as the existence of Mr. Banks' mustache are important.
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney
I don't know that any prosthetics or special makeup jobs were used on Tom Hanks to make him resemble Walt Disney, but the similarities were impressive. Hank's eyes are more narrow than Disney's, but apart from that, they do look pretty similar. I thought it was a gutsy move for a Disney movie to place its founder in a movie, and to depict him as he is rather than the kindly grandpa image he did his best to project. Once Disney studios was on board for the project, the production team was given access to Travers' audio recordings of herself, Disney, the Shermans, and DaGradi that were produced during the development of Mary Poppins, in addition to letters written between Disney and Travers between the 1940s and 1960s. Much of the script was directly influenced by these documentations. John Lee Hancock, the director of Saving Mr. Banks, had reservations about Disney Studio's involvement, fearing they would edit the screenplay to sanitize or change the character of Walt Disney in any way. But Disney studios made no interference other than insisting that they omit any on-screen inhalation of cigarettes; more of a studio policy to not promote smoking in any way, rather than being an issue of censorship.
Saving Mr. Banks will likely change how you looked at the Mary Poppins movie. There's an impacting scene I won't go into detail about, but you'll know which one when you see it. You'll cringe, be relieved, and possibly be brought to tears when you see it. I know I did. I don't know how many times I've seen Mary Poppins, but Saving Mr. Banks changed how I perceived it, and not at all in a bad way. You'll likely become more emotionally invested in the Mary Poppins movie.
Saving Mr. Banks was an good drama film. It was significant to me since it was about movie making and about one of my childhood favorite films. The cinematography was fantastic, the special effects and costuming really brought to life the years 1906 and 1961. It was remarkable to see Disney Land as it was in the 1960's. There's a lot of emotional sentiment to be had for the characters, as well as some humorous scenes brought about by Travers' pompous British demeanor contrasting the American personalities. This probably won't appeal to everyone; if you're not into movie production stories, have never seen Mary Poppins, or don't like dramas much in general, you may not enjoy it very much. This movie also made me want to go read the book and see the Mary Poppins movie again. I think Saving Mr. Banks is worth seeing, but you could probably wait for it to hit home video. I enjoyed it a lot, and will probably be getting a copy on Blu-Ray when it comes out.

Have you seen Mary Poppins? Did you enjoy that as a child? Do you enjoy it now? Tell me your thoughts on the Mary Poppins movie in the comments below!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra Movie Review

Even the movie poster spoofs old movies!
Hollywood has produced some truly abysmal movies that no one in their right mind should ever have watched. Indeed without comedic commentary, such as from the guys at RiffTrax, many movies would be completely unwatchable. Sci-Fi/Horror B-movies of the 1950's were particularly bad. In 2001 an independent film was released spoofing these 1950's era bombs. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra captures the feel of those cinematic atrocities while also making fun of them.
Dr. Paul Armstrong (Larry Blamire) is a scientist studying alien rock formations that have crashed on earth. When Armstrong and his wife Betty (Fay Masterson) learn that a cache of Atmospherium, a radioactive mineral found in meteorites, has been found in the desert, they set out to find it. But they've got competition. Dr. Fleming (Brian Howe) a rival scientist is also after the Atmospherium and plans to use the high-powered substance to bring a cave-dwelling creature back to life. Meanwhile, Lattis (Susan McConnel) and Kro-Bar (Andrew Parks) are aliens from the planet Marva who have crash-landed on Earth and need the Atmospherium to get their spacecraft back into the air. Hoping to foil the plans of Dr. Armstrong, and aware of the arrival of the aliens, Fleming steals a "Transmutaron" from Kro-Bar that allows him to create Animala (Jennifer Blaire), a sultry neo-beatnik who will crash the Armstrong's cocktail party and sow seeds of marital discord between Paul and Betty, making it easier for Fleming to recover the valuable rock formation and revive The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is every bit as corny and cheesy as it sounds. We've got aliens, killer mutants, evil scientists, a cursed skeleton, and a wanton woman made out of a combination of animals. There's just about every terrible 50's B-movie trope you can think of in this movie. It's got such a classic B-movie quality to it that you'd never have guessed it was made in 2001.
I looked up the actors in this movie on, and it turns out that many of them have been in major motion pictures. They aren't inexperienced actors, but you wouldn't really know that from watching this movie. Here, they are actors portraying characters who are supposed to be depicted by bad actors from old Sci-Fi/Horror flicks. They do it so remarkably well; it's uncanny! That's certainly a indication that these actors are good. They perfectly emulate a ridged, forced, and laughable acting style and manage to spoof it to the point that their delivery is hysterical.
What really sells this movie is the script. It's beautifully written and is positively saturated with irony, redundancy, and illogical dialogue. The lines themselves sound flat out stupid, but in the hands of these actors it makes them sound very funny. Here's a line from Dr. Armstrong early in the movie: "Seriously, Betty, you know what this meteor could mean to science. If we find it, and it's real, it could mean a lot. It could mean actual advances in the field of science."  I don't know how Blamire manages to keep a straight face during delivery of that kind of dialogue. The whole script sounds a lot like that. I'll include the trailer at the end of the review so you can see some of it in action. The female characters in the movie are all conform to 1950's gender roles. Betty in particular is incredibly stupid and can't seem to wrap her mind around anything that doesn't involve fixing dinner or making martinis for her husband. This is done with a great deal of irony about 1950's gender roles, not to be condescending to women.
The special effects department must have had a pretty easy job. The effects were so perfect. They beautifully emulated the visual effects from the old B-movies. There were poorly drawn raygun bolts, miniature spaceships flying around on strings, and a big rubber monster costume. Admittedly I was disappointed that a zipper was not visible on the back of the monster. Even the music and title sequence was magnificently done! It was so campy and cheesy. It just looked so much like an old movie that it was actually impressive. It was even shot in black and white!
While the jokes and satire are prevalent, the joke does start to get old after a while. The redundancy in the dialogue is funny, but eventually starts to feel like it's delivering the same punch line over and over. Towards the end the movie starts to drag a bit.
 The Lost Skeleton of Cadavrais a fun movie, an outstanding satire, and a great spoof of 1950's Sci-Fi/Horror B-movies. Having said that, I think this is only going to appeal to people who enjoy campy movies, have a fondness for old B-movies, or have a very weird sense of humor. If you don't fall under any of those categories, you'll probably just find it irritating. I recommend watching this sometime. It's currently (as of publishing this) on NetFlix Instant Play. What have you got to lose?

Here's the trailer, you really must watch this:

Do you have a favorite old black and white 1950's Sci-Fi/Horror B-movie? I got a kick out of Teenagers From Outerspace. Comment below and tell me about yours!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Frozen Movie Review

Even when it's a new release, there's still something magical and nostalgic about seeing a Disney styled "Princess Movie" every now and then. Beauty and the Beast remains one of my all time favorite animated movies. As a fan of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Snow Queen, I was psyched for Frozen (2013), a movie version of the story done by Disney. When I saw the trailer I was still excited, but all I could think afterwards was, "Why the heck is there a talking snowman?"
Anna (Kristen Bell), a fearless optimist, sets off on a journey - teamed up with rugged mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) - to find her sister Elsa (Idina Menzel) the newly coroneted Queen of Arendelle. Elsa has trapped the kingdom of Arendelle in an eternal winter. Anna and Kristoff face Everest-like conditions, trolls, and a talking snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) as they battle the elements in a race to save the Kingdom. From the outside, Elsa looks poised, regal, and reserved, but in reality she lives in fear as she wrestles with a mighty secret; she was born with the power to create ice and snow. It's a beautiful ability, but is also extremely dangerous. Haunted by the moment her magic nearly killed her younger sister Anna, Elsa has isolated herself, spending every waking minute trying to suppress her growing powers.  Her mounting emotions trigger the magic and accidently setting off an eternal winter that she can't stop. Elsa fears she's becoming a monster and that no one, not even her sister Anna, can help.
Now if you're familiar with the Hans Christian Anderson classic, you'll notice that as per Disney tradition, Frozen has a very loose interpretation of "based on." But as with the case of Mulan, Chicken Little, and others, Disney can still tell a decent story that has practically nothing to do with the tale upon which it claims to be based. While I would enjoy seeing a movie that is a more closely adapted version of The Snow Queen, I still think Frozen stands on its own as a good story with a strong, romantic fairytale vibe.
I loved the characters in Frozen. Anna is a deliriously happy, optimistic, and bubbly young lady. Admittedly, Anna does get slightly obnoxious once in awhile, since nothing seems to phase her. She's still a very cute and lovable princess. Kristoff is awesome. He's like this gruff, unrefined, mountain man; not a prince. He's rather grumpy, selfish, and lazy. Anna and Kristoff bounce off each other beautifully, which creates some hilarious situational comedy between them.
Elsa was easily my favorite character. She was born inherently different, and while her parents had the best of intentions, they kept her locked away to keep her and others safe. Neither Elsa nor her ice powers are bad, but it her powers are dangerous and frightening to people who don't understand it. My favorite scene is when Elsa has run away to the mountains and is letting herself go and exploring her powers a safe distance from everyone around her. Not only is it an amazing bit of character development, it's accompanied by some spectacular animation and my favorite song in the movie. Anyone who has ever been made to feel like an outcast or who has been bullied for being different in any way will find Elsa a particularly endearing character that they can relate to.
Then there's the frig'n Snowman. I was hoping there would be a  good reason for having the silly sidekick, but there wasn't. All the other characters get funny lines, so adding an extra humorous character who does nothing but a few physical comedy bits was redundant. It was faintly insinuated that Olaf might be meaningful at some point during the movie, but it never happens. Olaf did nothing important. Small kids might be amused by him, but the movie would have been stronger overall without him.
The theme in Frozen reminded me a great deal of the theme in ParaNorman. Both are about how people overreact with fear to the unfamiliar and how that often leads to bullying or worse. Whereas ParaNorman took more of the open communication and conflict resolution side, Frozen was more about making sure that ostracized people know that they are loved and that they are important. ParaNorman makes a great case, but I think Frozen's message is even more important.
I cannot express how amazing the animation is in Frozen. There was massive amounts of detail put into the snow. The characters are covered in snow, walking through snow, throwing snowballs, etc. With a complex physics program used to illustrate the snow, it basically looks real. It moves just right, it crumbles just right, everything about the snow in this movie is perfect. That's great since it plays such a significant role in the story. has a short article with a discussion of the physics program and animation samples which I highly recommend checking out for more details.
I liked Frozen, even with the stupid snowman character. It's got spectacular animation, some charming and endearing characters, some truly fun musical numbers, and a story that the whole family could get into. It's got a great message about accepting those who are different from you and showing them love just the same. It's got a very satisfying finale that that breaks away from the formulaic fairytale status quo; it doesn't end the way you might expect. Good job, Disney! If you've got small kids this is a perfect movie to catch in theaters together, and it's worth getting a copy of on Blu-Ray once it becomes available.

I think Disney is starting to run out of fairytale stories to make into movies. Is there any that haven't been done yet that you'd like to see? I'd love to see a non-Mickey Mouse version of Jack and the Beanstalk or The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Comment below and tell me what you think!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Thor: The Dark World Movie Review

Before Thor hit theaters in 2011, I really wasn't familiar with that particular line of Marvel Comics. But after seeing the hero in action in Thor and The Avengers I've really come to like the titular character and his adoptive brother. When Thor: The Dark World (2013) was announced I was chomping at the bit to see these characters in action again.
Eons ago a race of beings known as Dark Elves tried to send the universe into darkness by useing a weapon known as the Aether. Warriors from Asgard stopped them but their leader Malekith (The Doctor Christopher Eccleston) escapes to wait for another opportunity. The Asgard Warriors find the Aether and since it cannot be destroyed, they hide it. In present day, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) awaits the return of Thor although it has been two years since they last saw one another. In the meantime, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) stands imprisoned for his war crimes on Earth while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been trying to bring peace to the nine realms following the reconstruction of the Bifröst, the "Rainbow Bridge" between realms, which was destroyed two years earlier. Jane discovers an anomaly similar to the one that brought Thor to Earth. She goes to investigate, and becomes infected by the lost Aether. Learning of Jane's sudden disappearance, Thor goes to Earth to retrieve her and takes her to Asgard to try and remove the Aether. Malekith, upon sensing the Aether's location attacks Asgard. In a desperate attempt to stop Malekith, Thor is forced to seek help from the treacherous Loki.
While I did enjoy the first Thor movie, I think this is more of what fans were originally hoping for. Thor travels to more of the Nine Realms, we get to see more of Asgard, the characters are a bit more developed, there's bigger action. I really appreciate how events from Thor and The Avengers are acknowledged and were used as plot devices. The Bifröst is kind of a teleportation device that was destroyed at the end of Thor and without it, the Asgardians couldn't travel the Nine Realms to keep the peace. Also Loki tried to take over the Earth in The Avengers and is being imprisoned for it. Because details like these were included, it makes the world setting a bit more believable.
Most everyone reprises their previous role, including Idris Elba as Heimdall, Kat Dennings as Darcy, Stellan Skarsgård as Dr. Erik Selvig, Rene Russo as Frigga Thor's mother, and the legendary Anthony Hopkins as Odin. All do a great job, and their characters are more fleshed out. For example, Dr. Selvig had his brain taken over by Loki in The Avengers which has caused some psychological problems that are both useful and a hinderance. Darcy is now more than comic relief, and plays a more active part in helping saving the world. Tom Hiddleston is simply amazing. His role as Loki did for the Marvel Comics movies what Heath Ledger did for the The Dark Knight as The Joker; they added a hugely successful character that everyone both loves and hates and made the movies all the better for it. What was really interesting is Loki's relationship with his adoptive mother Frigga. Loki is at a very low point and his mother is the only one to offer him compassion; while he tries to act strong and tough, Loki needs his mom. I love Christopher Eccleston; he was a great bad guy in 28 Days Later, and he makes a great, if shallow, megalomaniacal villain out for revenge here.
I was a bit disappointed in Natalie Portman's role. While Jane is certainly longing for Thor, they don't really do a whole lot together; even in scenes where both characters are present. It's a bit sad that the love/hate sibling relationship between Thor and Loki outshines the romantic love interest between the hero and the damsel in distress.
I love this mash up of sci-fi and fantasy. There are holes in space, spaceships, and other sci-fi gadgetry alongside swords, magical items, and spell casting. It's high end sci-fi/fantasy stuff  that is pretty fun to watch. Parts of it feels a bit rushed and undeveloped. I didn't understand why physics didn't apply on part of earth when the worlds were aligning, and why Earth machinery used to detect spatial anomalies was suddenly able to create them. But who cares? It's a sci-fi/fantasy/superhero movie! While the "what" of the story should make some sense in the big picture, some "why" questions don't require detailed answers to still make a fun movie. That results in a story that is mostly just fun to watch and doesn't require a great deal of mental energy to enjoy.
The fight scene at the end was really exciting, but what was also neat was that while these god-like beings fought one another, the humans helped the hero save the day and keep other people safe. They did this in Man of Steel, too. The humans are being heroes every bit as much as the super-powered being from another planet; not just standing idly by and hoping everything turns out okay. They even help Thor get an edge in the fight. I love how everyone gets to help save the day.
Thor: The Dark World was fun, but wasn't a great movie. The action is good, the acting is mostly good, the special effects are great, the story isn't all that original, but the characters are really good; Thor and Loki in particular are interesting with the trust issues and sibling rivalry dynamic. It's better than the first Thor movie and it embraces it's fantasy roots with some exciting and entertaining results. Thor: The Dark World is worth seeing, but probably after it hits home video. Of course if you are collecting the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, you'll want to buy this on Blu-Ray. And of course, stick around for the post-credits scene.

Which of the villains in these Marvel/Avengers movies have you liked the best? I think I have to go with Loki. Comment below and tell me your favorite!