If anyone wants MY TAKE on a fun way for HBO’s GIRLS Season 3 to have started, here it is…
While this new Disney film is ostensibly a love letter written by Disney to itself, the sometimes startling insight it provides into the creative temperament and process is more than welcome. Telling the dual story of both a young and older PL Travers, irascible writer and creator of that well-known nanny Mary Poppins, Banks has all the trappings of a ‘timeless Disney classic’ – replete with emotional music, sweeping cinematography and a tearjerking plot. At the core of this piece is a woman so vulnerable, so sensitive, her artistic sentiment is in danger of snuffing itself out in the breeze. And the two actresses who capture her are the incomparable Emma Thompson as the grown and accomplished author, and beautiful young newcomer Annie Rose Buckley, who in addition to a stage-ready name, has gorgeous auburn locks and an angelic, innocent look.
That very innocence is what’s at stake here, in a film that explores that intangible moment when childhood shatters and gives way into adulthood. It happens early and with brute force for the young girl who would one day create Mary Poppins, when she begins that unfortunate process of self blame and even hatred that happens all too frequently to those young adults who are creatively gifted and often burdened with an acute sensitivity to the world around them. In Travers’ case, it’s at the hands of her well-meaning but desperately unstable (and alcoholic) father, played beautifully by Colin Farrell (in some of the best work of his career). And the story of her childhood provides a beautiful backdrop to Thompson’s part, in which the grown woman travels to hopping 1960s Los Angeles to meet with Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks) to discuss (or rather, naysay) the details of turning Poppins, up until then a treasured literary character, into the timeless cinematic icon she is to become.
Saving Mr. Banks rests on brilliant performances small and large, from Thompson in usual powerhouse form all the way through to Bradley Whitford, BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman, who play Disney’s insanely talented music and story team who must convince the unimpressed (and downright grouchy) writer that the studio has what it takes to do justice to her beloved heroine Mary. Thompson’s relationship to Mary Poppins, as well as the other characters in that world (notably Mr. Banks, who is a thin foil for her real father), is the tripwire to a whole cavalcade of both comedy and drama here, since the actress and filmmakers dutifully respect what it means to create a character and the terrifying prospect of letting that character and story out into the real world.
Look for another brilliant cameo, by Brothers & Sisters’ Australian-born Rachel Griffiths, who plays the woman who would inspire the magical nanny, seen through an impressionable child’s eyes.
Sitting in a press screening for Thor: The Dark World (after waiting on a long line, which is all but unheard of for press screenings), it’s easy to remember what being a fanboy is like. We have to give credit where credit is due: for all the bank-breaking, louder-than-thunder effect and circumstance of these superhero ‘event’ films, Marvel has succeeded, more often than it has failed, in providing good old escapist fun by way of that standard fanboy text: the comic book.
Sure, a film about an intergalactic Viking warrior-god is one of the tougher sells to come out of the still relatively nascent movie powerhouse Marvel Studios, now that effects can all but match the whimsy of comic book creators. But thanks to director Kenneth Branagh, the first Thor never took itself too seriously and managed to dazzle both visually and performance-wise. A sequel to a film about an intergalactic Viking, of course, is an even tougher sell, and although the storyline is grade-A filler (more like a nice bland grade-B), the actors are game for some fun (yay Kat Dennings!) and, in true fanboy form, the flying scenes are just so cool it’s hard to say no to enjoying this film.
After an extremely exposition-heavy opening involving ancient evil and a maiden in peril (those clunky comic book plots don’t just explain themselves), the action truly gets underway, but nothing really sticks until Tom Hiddleston’s tortured and mischievous Loki, the quintessential Misunderstood Son, resurfaces. Like in the original film, the fraternal rivalry between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor (who is increasingly like a chiseled show pony with lots of cooler stuff happening around him) and Loki is more than compelling, the only thing keeping the very long-feeling second act afloat here.
But the sheer technics of this film succeed in picking up the slack, where in most other genre films they are not nearly enough to make up for gaping holes in character or plot. Here, character and plot are fairly thin, but they are there. As the resident maiden-in-peril Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who surprisingly signed on for a much meatier role in this second go-round) discovers strange anomalies in the physical world, we go along for the ride as she and her team discover—and play with—gravitational inversions and mini-wormholes. Later, there are those remarkable bad-guy flying machines, which manage to reinvent the aerial battle scene yet again, and added on top of that are some amazing anti-matter bombs that literally suck victims right out of existence. Fanboys rejoice!
It’s hard to believe, but we are already coming to the end of ‘Phase 2’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—the honchos over there were smart, mapping out their strategy for blockbuster domination—and without revealing too much, the wackiness of Phase 3 awaits us next year with Guardians of the Galaxy.
What the Carrie remake teaches us: More kids should be reading Stephen King
In spite of his place as one of the bestselling authors of all time, Stephen King is often overlooked for the quality of his stories, for their sometimes far-reaching social ramifications. Carrie is the first, and perhaps most pristine, example of this. But with the release of yet another iteration of his pivotal first published novel, this a full-fledged Hollywood remake of Brian De Palma’s artfully horrific 1976 treat, the tide may finally be turning.
The story of Carrie is simple enough— a meek and unpopular high schooler, here played by YA sensation Chloe Grace Moretz, is routinely tormented by the Mean Girls and ignored by the Hot Boys, but she has nowhere to turn: her unhinged and fanatical mother (a lackluster Julianne Moore) is abusive in a different, but even more harmful way at home. Soon, the girl discovers she has a power, a fiercely strong telekinetic force, which she tries to keep under wraps. But when the social situation at school goes from bad to way worse, thanks to a particularly vindictive queen bee (standout Portia Doubleday), the elements are set in place for a prom that no one will soon forget (to say the least).It’s none too surprising to see this remake now, what with the appearance of school bullying as a ‘trending topic’ in recent years. And the filmmakers dutifully upgrade the bullies’ treachery to include Facebook and Youtube, trying to be as relevant as possible. If only the film as a whole could have been as relevant as the topics it brings to light.While it’s commendable that director Kimberly Peirce (of Boys Don’t Cry renown) and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (of Glee) returned to the source material and looked askance of De Palma’s film, the new Carrie fails to step out from the shadow of its predecessor. The main reason for this: the new movie is too clean. While Sissy Spacek brought an awkward, waif-like energy to this antihero in the original film, acting so strange that it’s almost understandable why she would be so ostracized, Moretz plays Carrie straight as an arrow, as just a scared little lamb from the start, a victim who hasn’t truly earned her victimhood.
As for her mother Margaret, the new film does give Julianne Moore a few extra scenes to flesh out the character, but when considering Ms. Moore’s kooky turns in films like Magnolia and Safe, the end result here is rather humdrum: far from Piper Laurie’s gloriously off-kilter (and Oscar-nominated) portrayal of Carrie’s mother in the first film. The casting here was perfect, but the direction seems to have been misguided.
Nonetheless, it must be said that while this remake feels mostly unnecessary, any homage to Stephen King’s timeless story is a welcome one. With bullying still a major problem (perhaps some form of it will always exist), Carrie as an allegory to how children and teens treat each other in the real world was not lost on the director. Ms. Peirce is even ready to draw some surprising parallels between Carrie’s story and that of Brandon Teena, the murdered FTM trans person portrayed by Hilary Swank in Peirce’s groundbreaking debut Boys Don’t Cry. For Peirce, both stories feature “an essential protagonist with a hugely strong need. Carrie and Brandon both have similar needs, [they are] yearning to be accepted. Both live in small towns, tightly configured communities.”
While Brandon’s story is a true one and Carrie is of course fictitious, the parallels are there. Part cautionary tale, part revenge fantasy, Carrie takes the story of the victim to another level and shows bullies for what they are. It’s just another testament to King’s original book, how it can teach a lesson to practically any generation. Perhaps, if the novel had a rightful place as part of the American high school reading syllabus, some bullies would think twice before behaving the way they do.
Short Term 12
While her United States of Tara co-star Michael J. Willet is enjoying his status as everybody’s fave G.B.F., Brie Larson (Kate on Tara, and Cassidy in the simultaneously released Spectacular Now) brings us the troubled and many-layered lead character Grace in the new Short Term 12, a sensitively directed examination of life on the inside of a foster care facility and those who run it.
There is a right way and a wrong way to do a coming-of-age story, and the correct approach is one where the ‘coming of age’ part is barely felt – like in life, it just sort of happens. That is the case here, with several different ‘troubled’ teens who receive full, well-rounded treatment from writer-director Destin Cretton. None of these kids are defined only by that which troubles them: the resident ‘thug’ Marcus (the excellent Keith Stanfield) is so much more than he seems, as is Sammy (Alex Calloway), who doesn’t talk much and likes to pretend. These characters and others get to come to terms with their identities on all levels, showing sensitive, destructive, hopeless and hopeful sides, sometimes all at once.
The dark heart of the film, however, belongs to Larson and new arrival Jayden (the gifted Kaitlyn Dever, also appearing in The Spectacular Now), whose backstory spurs uncomfortable parallels to Grace’s own story of abuse. While Grace’s consequent withdrawal from the world might feel stark and overdone (when confronted with Jayden’s propensity to lash out, Grace all but stops interacting with others, including her boyfriend), it also is very, very real. With consistent performances and a patient, deliberate filming style, Short Term 12 is a worthy addition to a select group of films and other content about foster children, which includes White Oleander and ABC Family’s The Fosters.
THIS IS THE END was smarter, trippier, and scarier than CABIN IN THE WOODS. That is all. Thank you Seth Rogen!
Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, the sequel you’ve been waiting for—Yossi & Jagger 2?
What are you smiling at? Ohad Knoller and Oz Zehavi in Yossi
Summer’s over and with it, its blockbusters. It’s time to get serious at the movies again.
Fall Film Preview
As Florence and her machine sing, “the dog days are over.” And for Hollywood that means rolling out the big guns at the movies. After another notably poor summer in box office numbers (down even lower than 2011 according to recent reports, despite Avengers), the movie business needs to generate as much buzz as possible. But with these upcoming titles, that shouldn’t be too hard.
10. Cloud Atlas
Stylish filmmaker Tom Tykwer along with The Matrix’s Andy and Lana (once Larry) Wachowski all direct seemingly half of Hollywood in this multi-century, multi-character drama whose trailer is equal parts mind-bending, beautiful and completely nonsensical.
Steven Spielberg directing Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field as Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, with a script by Tony Kushner (Angels in America)? Need we say more? Let the Oscar hunt begin.
8. The Master
With his first film in five years, the unmatchable writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (of Magnolia and Boogie Nights fame) comes back to us with a not-very-well-disguised look at the rise of L. Ron Hubbard and the birth of Scientology. Everyone’s been talking about The Master, and what Scientology folks like Tom Cruise and John Travolta (who has enough to worry about) think about it. Soon it will be our turn. Also of note: this film marks the (sheepish?) return of Joaquin Phoenix, an extremely talented actor who seemingly went off the deep end for a few years there.
Tim Burton, the master auteur of creepdom, is finally (finally!) leaving Johnny Depp and remakes behind and doing something original for a change. A longtime labor of love for Burton, Frankenweenie started as a short back in 1984 starring Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern and a young Sofia Coppola, and is now being resurrected in stop-motion animation form backed by the voices of Winona Ryder, Martin Landau and (the brilliant) Catherine O’Hara. If Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride are any indication, this will be a smash.
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Freshly out-of-closet Ezra Miller joins Hogwarts alum Emma Watson and Logan Lerman (of Percy Jackson & the Olympians) in another adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel, this one about never quite belonging in high school (a somewhat universal feeling).
5. Wreck-It Ralph
Gay gamers (and everyone born post 1970) rejoice: we finally get a big scale but very old-school video-game movie, which hasn’t really been done since Super Mario Bros. (Yes, Tron Legacy does not count.) Although lacking the stamp of Pixar, this Disney animated vehicle boasts the voices of John C. Reilly (as a videogame villain who grows tired of his ‘job’), Sarah Silverman (as a character named Vanellope von Schweetz) and Jane Lynch.
4. The Guilt Trip
Barbra Streisand fans have a new reason to live, with this mother-son road-trip comedy starring Babs—in her first starring vehicle in over 15 years—and Seth Rogen. (How’s that for spot-on casting?) Yes, this film comes out on Christmas, technically making it a holiday release, but it’s actually been ready since Mother’s Day. Based on insanely positive test screenings, Paramount is so convinced of its success potential that they pushed the release back to the end of this year. We’re excited!
3. How to Survive a Plague
A searing documentary on the crucial early years of the AIDS epidemic, the gross negligence of those in charge and the tireless efforts of a group of New York activists to bring the epidemic to light. This is the unflinching real-life look behind the scenes of The Normal Heart. (See p.14 for more.)
2. Les Misérables
The era of the movie musical is still alive and kicking. Get ready for Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter singing “Master of the House”, along with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. Even though you saw the musical on stage five times, we know you’re going to see this movie.
1. Life of Pi
For anyone who’s read Yann Martel’s epic fable, the excitement for this film needs no justification. But even for those who haven’t, the stunning trailer speaks for itself: an Indian boy on his way to open a zoo in Canada gets lost at sea with a zebra…and a huge tiger. Ang Lee directs this adaptation of a book that is both hard to classify and deeply rewarding.
Who doesn’t love a Dolly Parton track? And cute gay twins? Sold.
A Leslie Sandwich! Leslie Jordan with Gary and Larry Lane in Hollywood to Dollywood
Hollywood to Dollywood
Time Investment: 81 mins.
Return on Investment: 60 mins.
Like many documentaries, Hollywood to Dollywood starts out being about one thing and ends up being about something entirely different, and therein lies both the appeal and minor irritation of this downhome cross-country tale of gay dreams, family acceptance and Dolly Parton. Gary and Larry Lane (isn’t that just precious?) are a pair of (gay) twins living it up in Hollywood, Calif. where they have been working on a joint passion project for over four years: a tribute to several of their favorite female performers and personalities—most notably the inimitable Ms. Parton—in the form of a film script.
Somewhere along the way, their dream shifts from the actual script to its fateful hand-off to Dolly herself, since she is the sun around which the twins’ dreams and inspirations orbit. With the help and guidance of a boyfriend and some very high-profile friends (it’s always nice to see Leslie Jordan, as well as Dustin Lance Black and brilliant character actress Beth Grant), they hatch a plan to finalize the script as best they can, pile into a trailer (named Jolene, o’course), head on over to Dollywood in Tennessee and give the old gal the script directly. Along the way, they encounter some vaguely compelling hurdles (like floods), but most importantly, it becomes quite clear that their need for acknowledgement from Dolly is a very thin veneer over their greater need for acceptance from their mother, who has had major trouble with their coming out. While Dolly, naturally, will accept the boys—she even allowed them to use 15 of her precious songs in the film—the more personal acceptance they seek may never come, and therein lies this film’s true weight. As the brothers grapple with this and fumble through Dollywood with script in hand (a little tediously, in must be said), one thing remains clear throughout: there’s no one else quite like Dolly Parton.
Photo credit: Screened
We hate to admit it, but life is tough. To persevere, rise above and truly succeed, a very simple choice must be made every day: Am I going to do what it takes to take care of myself and those around me, or am I not? It may feel like that decision gets harder and harder in light of new challenges that present themselves day after day, but the choice always remains our own. The brand new Sundance Channel series GET TO WORK examines this process, following down-and-out unemployed citizens as they try to pick their lives back up, find work and unlock their forgotten potential.
The films and characters in this list are meant to motivate and provide examples of those who have chosen wisely and aspired greatly.
Photo credit: IMDb
10. HOOP DREAMS (1984)
Sundance Film Festival alum HOOP DREAMS is a documentary so arresting, it can be considered a Hollywood drama in its own right. Revealing Chicago inner-city life from the inside out through the eyes of two high school boys with dreams of being like the legendary Isaiah Thomas, this doc went above and beyond the world of sports (which would have sufficed on its own) to discuss the hardships brought on by differences in race and class, and what it takes to stick with your dreams.
Check out the rest of these empowering films!