“If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins

[Image Source: WIkipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sometimes Hollywood just makes sweet movies. Not often. Just sometimes. These are the movies that you remember from your youth, not completely great films, but kind-hearted ones where people’s common humanity is celebrated, where decency is rewarded, and where foibles are accepted and embraced, not pilloried in some sort of zero-sum football match – loving, slightly creaky movies you would have discovered at the far end of the television dial, some weekday afternoon, when you were home from school sick with the flu.

Two such movies are rolling through your local cineplexes now, quietly charming audiences in the shadow of more cynical, merchandisable fare like Suicide Squad. I happened to catch Florence Foster Jenkins and Pete’s Dragon in a double feature on a warm summer weekday afternoon, no flu required, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pete’s Dragon is the much stronger film. The original 1977 Disney film combined one-dimensional animation, even more one-dimensional performances (who thought Helen Reddy was a good idea?), and treacly songs (“Candle on the Water,” anyone? nah, I didn’t think so) into a forgettable diversion consistent with the Mouse House’s lousy Me Decade offerings (Apple Dumpling Gang … blech).

The new Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery wisely jettisons everything from the original flick, save the boy and his dog … er … dragon conceit, giving us a smart and deeply affecting parable on ecology, tolerance, and the healing power of companionship. Pete (played with a feral wariness by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in an unidentified Pacific Northwest woods when his parents run the family station wagon off the road to avoid hitting a deer (Bambi’s revenge?). Pete is discovered by large, green, furry, canine-like dragon whom Pete quickly names Elliot, after a puppy in a beloved book Elliot Gets Lost. (I said the movie was good; I didn’t say it was subtle.)

Years pass, and Pete and Elliot carve out a pastoral existence, spending their days at play in the woods, sheltered at night in a cave filled with the discarded refuse of humanity (think The Black Stallion meets The Goonies). However, this wouldn’t be a summer movie without some narrative tension, and it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some wholesome, well-intentioned, plucky, small-town intervention narrative tension. Along comes Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger, instantly more believable than the thousand false notes she played as an opportunistic theme park executive in Jurassic World, fighting a losing battle against the foresting company owned by her own fiance Jack (American Horror Story‘s Wes Bentley – about as creepily cardboard as he always is). Pete’s curiosity about these Disneyfied people gets the better of him, he reveals himself, and, in a series of predictable plot points, Pete and Elliot are separated by (in order) hospital rooms, child protective services, and Jack’s skeezy, gun-loving brother Gavin (Star Trek‘s sparkling Karl Urban, who knows how to play a ridiculous cad without chewing too much scenery).

Lowery borrows liberally from the Spielberg school of mid-80s family film-making, and Spielberg himself was beholden to an encyclopedic obsession with films of his youth. One might argue that every Spielberg children’s movie seems to be trying to right any emotional damage that Old Yeller may have caused a young Steven. Lowery even wisely sets Pete’s Dragon in a pre-cell-phone late 70s/early 80s (never completely defined), when a child would see nature with wonder and not as a backdrop by which to catch the latest Pokemon Go creature.

Elliot, the dragon, is a marvel of movie design and animation, rarely exhibiting any of the jarring disconnects from reality CGI can sometimes cause – the work here is fluid and warm and fantastic and heartbreaking. Elliot never speaks and relays sensitivities the way a dog or cat might, through undulating body language and heavy sighs, sideways glances and guttural noises. Elliot is at once the film’s center and periphery, a guide and a protector yet also a victim of the cruel whims of serendipity and fate … which is pretty consistent with how humans treat any and all animals, in fact.

And that is likely Lowery’s point. Robert Redford is cast as Grace’s father Meacham, the town eccentric whose claims of meeting a dragon in the woods decades prior have fueled a host of urban legends and have alienated him from all but the town’s youngest denizens. Early in the film, Meacham foreshadows what is yet to come with the line, “If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Toward the film’s conclusion, when it’s pretty damn evident there is a dragon living in the woods, Grace asks her father to tell her what really happened all those years ago. Meacham looks at Grace (after relating how Elliot hates guns … thank you!) and says, “I looked at that dragon. And he looked at me. And we were at peace. Something changed in me that day, and I could never look at you or any other creature the same way again.” Yeah, I cried buckets.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Florence Foster Jenkins on the other hand may change the way any of us ever look at amateur singers or any other aspiring creative type again. Or not. Long before American Idol, people in this country treated singing competitions like gladiator sport. We applaud and cheer the Susan Boyles or the Kelly Clarksons who may defy our expectations with voices like angels, but we guffaw and leer at the William Hungs or Sanjaya Malakars for whom “pitchy” is the best compliment anyone can muster. We can be exceedingly cruel as a culture; the dark side of our Horatio Alger tendencies.

The film, directed in workmanlike fashion by Stephen Frears (The QueenPhilomena), is a wartime snapshot of the title character’s days and nights as a wealthy patron of the musical arts in New York City and as a woefully untalented vocalist with a shockingly tin ear. Alas, as portrayed by Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods), Jenkins comes off (no pun intended) as rather one-note. Not unlike an episode of the aforementioned American Idol, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are making fun of Jenkins or celebrating her unabashed moxie. Maybe I’m a bit simplistic, but trying to have it both ways with a character who cuts a more tragic than comic figure could be mistaken for cruelty.

In fact, Florence, (spoiler alert) on her deathbed, asks her dutiful (yet dubiously motivated) husband St. Clair (portrayed with surprising nuance by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant) if all this time everyone has been laughing at her. It’s intended to be a devastating self-realization. In fact, everyone has been laughing at her, including us. The film takes comic glee is showing how Jenkins’ simian-like vocalizations send audiences into apoplexy, so it’s a bit tough (akin to emotional whiplash) to suddenly invoke our sympathy after indulging our baser instincts.

That said, the film is a pleasant lark with more sweet than sour at its core. Like the BBC production it is, the film is a clutch of fussy mannerisms and pop-eyed reaction shots. Streep is as hammy as we’ve seen her in years, if her Julia Child from Julie and Julia had spent a long afternoon with her Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Grant does a fine job complementing and contextualizing Streep’s performance (partly it’s the design of his role as Florence’s major domo and consigliere), and there is a lot of joy in watching him out of love, sweetness, and survival clear one hurdle after another, shielding Florence from the worst of her detractors and hangers on. In hiring a new accompanist for his tone-deaf wife, St. Clair delineates to Cosme McMoon (a pleasantly neurotic Simon Helberg, playing a soft-spoken variation on his Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz) some of the more eccentric rules of the house: “The chairs are not for practical use. They honor those who died in them. Are you fond of sandwiches? And potato salad? We have mountains of the stuff.” Grant’s delivery, a perfect blend of pragmatism, wonder, and self-interest, should have been the tone the entire film took.

Regardless, if you are seeking solace from a summer move season filled with smart aleck mutants and half-baked sequels, frat boy comedies and nihilistic explosions, go check out the dragon  (and Robert Redford) and stay for the potato salad (and Hugh Grant).

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Bonus: If you missed this summer’s production of Xanadu, enjoy this video footage!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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…