True family values: Saving Mr. Banks (PLUS – Steve Jobs, Vivien Leigh, and The Way Way Back!)

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Christmas is rough. It’s an emotionally, physically, financially exhausting gauntlet. And, please, no “reason for the season” kickback. I can’t take anymore cornpone trumped-up “War on Christmas” and “you better honor my good old fashioned values” talk when someone dares to suggest this end-of-year retail bonanza is anything but an overhyped, overbaked marketing ploy foisted on us all.

(And I might add: that internationally embarrassing and entirely unnecessary dust-up about the Southern-fried dipsticks in Duck Dynasty and their inane social views has about finished me off on any and all “values talk” at this point. Sarah Palin, you should be proud – your insidious, brain-dead buffoonery is complete. The nation has become completely addle-headed. Cue spooky lightning bolt and thunder effects.)

I love my time with my family over the holidays – the movies and card games with my parents in Indiana, the quiet moments after the holiday has passed at home in Michigan enjoying the new gifts and getting ready for shiny Baby New Year’s imminent arrival. Unfortunately, this year Typhoid Roy hit and I managed to infect everyone in my path with the ugliest cold/flu hybrid this side of a Michael Crichton novel. Consequently, our standard film marathon was trimmed to just one flick – the delightful Saving Mr. Banks – while the rest of the holiday was spent dozing with visions of NyQuil and Kleenex dancing through our heads.

Fortunately for us, Banks is a keeper. The film is an exploration of the unending challenges Walt Disney faced convincing author P.L. Travers that he and his film studio would respect the spirit of her literary creation in bringing Mary Poppins to cinematic life. The movie suffers from a rather conventional narrative structure with a few too many clunkily intrusive flashbacks to Travers’ girlhood in dusty rural Australia. Overall, though, Banks is a gem.

Emma Thompson takes the fussy personage of Travers and spins comedic (and dramatic) gold from the character. Travers’ unease with the Mouse House’s carnival huckster ways leads her to throw barrier upon barrier in Disney’s unceasing path. The poignant joy of the film is the discovery as to why Travers is so resistant … and I’m not going to spoil your potential “fun” (fun being debatable, as I suspect you will shed as many tears as I did).

She is well met in Tom Hanks who succeeds marvelously in the unenviable task of taking on the iconic role of Walt Disney himself. With a twinkle in his eye, Hanks resists the urge to play too far to the cuddly “Uncle Walt” end of the spectrum, tempering his portrayal by hitting all the right notes of Disney, the canny businessman. Hanks and Thompson dance a fine tango of two strong personalities, scarred by life but undeterred in their respective visions.

The supporting cast is outstanding, including Paul Giamatti as Travers’ relentlessly cheerful driver, Jason Schwartzman as one of the songwriting Sherman Brothers, Rachel Griffiths as a Travers’ family member who may (or may not) have inspired the Poppins character, Kathy Baker as Disney’s impish executive assistant, Bradley Whitford as the put-upon screenwriter, Ruth Wilson as Travers’ long-suffering mother, and most notably Colin Farrell as Travers’ beloved, fancy-free, ultimately tragic father.

Farrell is in great respect the heart and soul of the film, turning in a deeply felt and moving portrayal of a father, whose steady diet of whimsy and rye leads him to a number of questionable if well-intentioned parenting decisions.

Ultimately, the film serves as a Valentine to true family values, the ones whereby we in the present try to honor the spirit and aspirations of our forebears. Travers is depicted lovingly and honestly by Thompson as an artist who struggles to make meaning of a fractured childhood, exploring the written word to create an indelible flight of fantasy that could provide sanctuary to others like her and that would honor and redeem the father she dearly loved.

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Postscript…

Given that rampant illness kept me generally confined, there are a few home viewing options to mention. Jobs with Ashton Kutcher (!) in the title role as Apple’s storied founder is a meandering dud. Everyone in the cast seems to have done less research than reading half a Vanity Fair article on Silicon Valley’s hey day, mumbling their lines ‘neath shaggy 70s ‘dos. I was bored silly and I don’t think that was the influence of my cold medicine.

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The Way Way Back on the other hand is a witty and touching romp, detailing the travails of a poor sad-sack kid stuck at a summer beach house with his mother (the always dependable Toni Collette) and her stultifyingly arrogant, menopausal-jock-bully boyfriend (the also great Steve Carrell playing the drama for once and eerily reminding me of some relatives whom I would just as soon forget). It’s one of those “aren’t we proud to be an indie film!” movies with a lo-fi pop-punk soundtrack and plenty of glowering, but there is much sweetness afoot, particularly when the boy finds his muse in Sam Rockwell’s scruffy water park lothario.

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Finally, I read a book. Yes, a book! Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean. In both visual and written detail, the book rhapsodizes over the talent, beauty, and ambition of the once and forever Scarlett O’Hara. Leigh’s dynamism leaps off the page. The author stumbles a bit with a near canonization of Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier, whom I’m not convinced was as saintly as implied. Regardless, the book is an exuberant and frothy look at a true star who blended celebrity and craft with genius-level precision and who left this world too soon, haunted by a career that lends itself too easily to wildly veering swings of colossal fame and crushing rejection.

Post…postscript…

To come full circle, happy 45th wedding anniversary today (December 28th) to my parents Susie and Don Sexton – I’m very proud of them! And, yeah, it happens to be my birthday today too. I told you the holidays are something for my family! Thanks for reading…

Yeah, I know. We should have known better … the sequel: Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas

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Well, when I started this adventure called Reel Roy Reviews a little over a year and a half ago, my first review – perhaps just to telegraph to readers how few standards I had – was of Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection Program. No lie – proof here.

As if to come (shamefacedly) full circle at this holly jolly holiday time of reflection and penance, this fifty-eighth (!) entry in my weird, lightly trafficked corner of blogdom highlights Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas. And, yeah, we still should have known better. It is just dreadful.

(Tyler Perry, that dollar store indie-auteur, is helping me formulate a new supposition: the more possessive apostrophes in a film’s title, the worse the cinematic outcome.)

Perry is no dummy. His bread and butter is Madea, and, as poorly (under)written as his scripts are and as shoddy as his direction, that character – a loving (and honest) homage to his mother – remains the bright spot in the Perry universe. As broadly as she is drawn (sometimes spinning perilously into full-blown cultural offense), Madea as a characterization, I would argue, belongs in the cinematic canon of franchise comedy series players like Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, or Francis the Talking Mule.

Strange company, I realize, but when Perry is firing on all saucy cylinders, his Madea transcends the sub-par narrative context in which she’s placed and can make me laugh like a kid watching Laurel and Hardy reruns on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It’s just too bad Perry as a filmmaker doesn’t know his limitations – imagine if Hal Roach thought he was Ingmar Bergman.

This brings us to Perry’s latest – A Madea Christmas – which is one of his weakest efforts to date. He bears the remarkable distinction of actually getting worse as a filmmaker the more movies he directs.

As an aside, the high-water mark for the series (which isn’t saying much) remains Madea Goes to Jail, which leverages Madea’s ongoing rage at the cosmic ineptitude of mankind to great effect, most notably during a run-in in a Kmart parking lot. Madea Goes to Jail also has the good sense to include Viola Davis (at a time before we all realized how amazing she is) in one of Perry’s trademark melodramatic subplots: some nonsense about Rudy from The Cosby Show becoming a drug addicted prostitute … and then finding Jesus. Davis, whose actorly commitment could make an episode of Full House bearable, plays the prison counselor that gets Rudy (and Madea) back on track and offers one of the rare instances of a compelling character-driven performance in a Perry film.

A Madea Christmas on the other hand features the magical acting chops of … Larry the Cable Guy. And he’s one of the most subdued (and funny) people in this mess. Color me astounded. Kathy Najimy (who should fire her agent) and Larry play liberals-in-rednecks’-clothing whose son secretly marries Madea’s niece. Madea, of course, is fine with all of it, as long as she gets to crack wise and crack heads. The girl’s mother, histrionically played by Anna Maria Horsford as if she thinks the movie’s audience is located somewhere on the moon, is less than thrilled by her daughter’s choice of life mate. Bad 1980s TV movie hijinks ensue.

There’s a bizarre subplot about a dam that has cut off water from the town and is robbing the hateful farmers there of crop-growing potential; a Christmas pageant sponsored by the conglomerate that built said dam and that now wants to deprive the town of their “Christ in Christmas” by making the event a non-denominational “Holiday” pageant (with no – gasp! – nativity); and a school that apparently is located right inside the town hall (!), has six students, and is run by sweet-faced principal Lisa Whelchel (yeah, The Facts of Life‘s Blair) whose notion of the separation of church and state is decorating her classrooms with Christmas-light-festooned crosses. It’s like Sam Walton’s fever-dream.

Mr. Perry, I implore you – take some time off. Cranking out two movies a year does not a great director make. Assess what you do well (fish-out-of-water comedy, class warfare satire) and what you don’t (poignant melodrama, humanist messages) and be brave enough to let someone else … anyone elsedirect you (as Madea) in one of your scripts. That would be the best holiday gift of all to those moviegoers (like yours truly) who keep waiting (but probably not for much longer) for you fully to realize your potential.

Fa …. a long, long way to run: The Sound of Music Live! (2013 NBC event)

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A lot of ink (and, one might argue, blood) has been spilled in the intervening days since The Sound of Music Live! starring country/pop superstar and American Idol Carrie Underwood reaffirmed NBC as a destination for “Must See TV.”

It’s taken me a bit of time (for once) to digest all of my thoughts – less about the show and more about the absurd level of snotty, glib, social-media fueled schadenfreude it seemed to generate.

Just when I thought this telecast (which I enjoyed by the way – more on that in a moment) would be another casualty of America’s silly “culture wars,” along came news that it was one of the most highly viewed shows in recent memory.

The chief driver of controversy and ratings? Ms. Underwood herself, who somehow has become as big a cultural lightning rod as my beloved Miley.

Seriously, watching my Facebook feed Thursday night, I found it fascinating that so many of my “Red State” friends, for whom the Wal-Mart sponsored production’s selection of Underwood seemed targeted, dug in their heels and proclaimed they didn’t like “different” and “it wasn’t like the movie” and “how dare they replace Julie Andrews” (whom I should add herself replaced Mary Martin from the stage show). Conversely, my “Blue State” friends all saw this as some Tea Party conspiracy to send Broadway to the Dark Ages and “bring Hee-Haw to high culture.” (And, yeah, they also didn’t like that is wasn’t Julie Andrews. There goes Underwood, finally bringing this country together again!)

Really? Really, folks? Just unclench and enjoy that someone is trying something new -  ironic, I know, given that this particular show is a pretty musty, overdone piece of musical theatre malarkey, but just go with me here.

I applaud producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for attempting – and succeeding – at the herculean task of getting a three hour, live musical performed, mostly without a hitch, on prime time television to blockbuster viewership. Last time that happened? Fifty years ago with another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – Cinderella – which I might also add committed the “sacrilege” of casting a “hot young thing” in place of another actress who had originated the role (albeit in an earlier TV version). Guess who? Yup, Julie Andrews was “replaced” by Lesley Ann Warren, who was not only a bit dodgy as an actress but not that remarkable a vocalist either.

Zadan and Meron have pretty much led the charge over the past twenty years bringing the American musical into the broader popular consciousness of film and TV. And, yes, one of their gimmicks is creative and unconventional casting that gets them sponsorships, studio green lights, and viewership. Vanessa Williams and Jason Alexander and Chynna Phillips in Bye Bye Birdie. Kathy Bates in Annie. Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston in Cinderella. Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb in Gypsy. Richard Gere and Renee Zellwegger and John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Oscar-winning Chicago. And, yes, John Travolta (and Michelle Pfeiffer) in Hairspray. (NOTE: many of these folks were not necessarily considered musical stars before these productions, but are now.) Would these productions have been artistically “better” with Broadway vets in those roles? Probably. Would these films have gotten made, let alone watched and enjoyed by millions, without these stars? Nope.

And, furthermore, Audrey Hepburn was cast over Andrews in My Fair Lady, the Hollywood penance for this decision in turn landing Andrews Mary Poppins and, I suspect, Sound of Music, which had been written for Broadway for Mary Martin (yes, JR Ewing’s mom who made a name among American viewers for playing a boy – Peter Pan). And should Barbra Streisand have played the lead in the film Hello Dolly! or Lucille Ball Mame? And don’t even get me started on Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (the latter of whom is cuter in the role than people give credit). And I’m not sure I was that nuts about Beyonce in Dreamgirls, though I did adore another American Idol – Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson – for her contributions to that film.

What’s my point – other than showing off all the useless and opinionated knowledge I carry around in my noggin? I’m not quite sure, other than everyone chill the freak out!

How was the show? It was fine – not revelatory but not a train wreck either. Quite the contrary. Yes, Underwood is not an actress, but she is a presence with a pleasant personality and a marvelous voice – all of which seemed to suit the rather bland, nun-lite role of Maria, if you ask me. (I kept thinking of Gwen Stefani the whole time for some reason – they vaguely resemble each other and I also love this riff by Stefani on “The Lonely Goatherd” – truly, check it out!)

Before I get labeled an Underwood apologist, let me say I have always been rather neutral about her. I hate American Idol. I love that she’s a vegan and an animal rights activist, vocally opposed to factory farming and ag gag bills. I find her preening, showy religiosity annoying – yes, we get it – you’re so “blessed.” I adore that she is a social progessive who believes in equal rights for all, including ardent support for gay marriageI do not like country music (unless it’s poppy stuff like Shania or Taylor). I enjoy Underwood more when she’s singing about smashing a cheating boyfriend’s car than when she’s imploring for “Jesus to take the wheel.” (She does seem to sing about motor vehicles a lot, come to think of it.)

The producers wisely surrounded Underwood with a cast of pros (True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer’s rigid and kinda dull take on Captain Von Trapp notwithstanding). Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess and Laura Benanti as the Baroness were the absolute rock star standouts of the night. I hate “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” but I was in tears from McDonald’s rendition. And Benanti was a sparkling delight, humanizing what could have been a villainous turn. She has a perfect light yet intelligent touch for this kind of production – I hope they do more with her. The kids were all fine and avoided the cloying, insufferable trap into which so many productions can fall. Newcomer Michael Campayno was marvelous in the tricky role of turncoat boyfriend Rolf.

The set design was sublime – beautifully detailed but consciously theatrical. And I got a visceral thrill when the cast would glide from one locale to another through an open door or a raised curtain, most notably when the family leaves their home for the climactic Nazi rally.

My criticism of the evening? Those d*mn creepy Wal-Mart ads that seemed designed to appeal to some modern, overpopulated, Midwestern yuppie family that buys too much crap and communicates in dull, cutesy quips via their cellular devices when they are one. room. away. from each other. Argh!

Why do people love this musical? And feel so fiercely protective of it? I’m not quite sure – there are much better shows out there, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s many other offerings. There is a strange princess element – young nun finding love with a stodgy rich man in a castle. An inversion of the Beauty and the Beast tale? Or is it the nightmare panic that the Nazi element offers, including the pulse-pounding (and clever) escape from that oppressive regime while singing the oddly creepy “So Long, Farewell.” Not sure, but clearly a lot of folks love this darn story, so bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era.

Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.

There is nothin’ like a dame…who deserves a better movie: Philomena

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Is it strange that I prefer my Judi Dench (DAME Judi Dench, if you’re nasty) shaken and not stirred? I wish they hadn’t killed her off last year in Skyfall so I could anticipate her next round of icily maternal spy-mastering and forget the dreck that is Philomena.

OK, this British tragicomic trifle isn’t that bad but it ain’t that good either.

I had high hopes for this one as I always enjoy Dench (she could read the phone book for all I care) as, unlike some UK thespians, she cuts through the pretense and offers her perfect cadence, crisp diction, and profound stares in an earthy and relatable way.

Pairing her with the reliably wry and delightful Steve Coogan (see: Hamlet 2 … no, really, see Hamlet 2 … right now!) seems inspired. And, while I’m not much a fan of director Stephen Frears – whose movies just seem scruffily overwrought to me, The Queen notwithstanding – he is a workmanlike director whom I assumed would be wise enough to just wind his actors up and start the cameras rolling.

All that said, Dench and Coogan are just fine, but the script is sorely lacking. This would have been a marvelous hour-long holiday special teleplay on Masterpiece Theatre or something, but as a nearly 2-hour film, the thin material is stretched to its breaking point. Dench and Coogan look quite bored for about a third of the film, to be honest – and so was I.

The plot, as it is, concerns a young girl in 1950s Ireland who finds herself “in the family way” as they say and is slapped in a nunnery to have the child, endure assorted abuses, do a lot of the nuns’ laundry (yeah…really), and then have her toddler torn from her arms and sent to America to live with a wealthy couple. Flash forward to the present, said toddler now would be 50 years old, and Dench is hellbent to find him and finally meet him, with the assistance of recently “sacked” journalist Coogan.

This sets up what is arguably the dullest road trip on film. (I kept hoping for them to cross paths with The Guilt Trip‘s much funnier though critically maligned duo Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, but, alas, no.) Coogan and Dench go to America, have some funny exchanges on the back of an airport go-cart thing, have some more fish-out-of-water interactions at the hotel omelette station, and then find her son … via the INTERNET (?!?!). They couldn’t have accomplished that remaining in merry old England?

Then they episodically interview a number of folks with whom her son had interacted over the years, get some sad news (which I won’t spoil), chase down some more people, and then race back to England for a throw down with the nuns who treated Dench so shabbily. THAT last part I enjoyed, and it’s the moment when Coogan finally comes alive with that wild-eyed, exasperated, ticked off Brit thing he does so well.

The movie traffics in a few horrendous mid-90s cliches and attempts to say some deep things about gender, age, class, and faith, but it all comes off as a pencil sketch of a movie that could have been so much more.

I did very much enjoy the movie’s point of view that the intent and the reality of organized religion couldn’t be farther from one another, yet there was nothing groundbreaking nor bold in the telling. Cruel and hypocritical people use the umbrella of the church to get their jollies doing cruel and hypocritical things in the name of “morality.” Irritates the living daylights out of me but I would rather watch a movie tackle that pernicious issue in a stronger, more confident manner.

I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but these actors deserve a much better film. You can plaster “based on a true story” on any flick, but, if the proceedings aren’t compelling, well-written, or thoughtful, you may as well just pick up a copy of Reader’s Digest and save yourself a trip to the theatre.