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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Saving Mr Banks and Other Releases from 21 February 2014

Just in time for my look at this week's movies, a look back at the films that came out last week.

Oh, but first a Channel 24 review. And, no, I'm not giving it it's own post. It doesn't deserve one. 

What it's about

Surly, a wily squirrel has been expelled from his park community but while he wonders the scary city streets, he comes across a nut store with all the nuts he and his park brethren will need to survive the winter. What Surly doesn't know though is that the nut shop is actually a front for a bank robbery by a gang of human criminals.

What we thought

Just about the only good thing to be said about the Nut Job is that it has some perfectly OK character designs and its animation in general is quite nice. Other than that, this third-rate, Loony Toons rip-off will quickly be forgotten by its target audience(kids still watch Loony Toons, right?), while their parents will be left wondering just how in the hell they got stuck watching a kids film where a bunch of cuddly animals get involved in a bank heist. We've already had speed racing snails and time travelling turkeys but even by those standards The Nut Job seems like something of a stretch.

Putting aside the ludicrous leaps in logic, The Nut Job is also pretty lacking in laughs and its lead character is frankly a bit of an ass. Like most big-budget digital animations, The Nut Job may have a rather good voice cast, including the likes of Will Arnett and Liam Neeson, but they're wasted on bland characters and seriously sub-par writing.

And it's not going to take long to see how wasted Arnett is here. The Lego Movie comes out in a few weeks and his few (voice) appearances as Batman in just the trailers alone, show how well suited he is for voice-acting work and how disappointing he is as Surly the Squirrel.

Here's the problem though: However much adults are all but guaranteed to hate this film and however much their kids are bound to forget all about minutes after leaving the cinema, it's currently the best, if not only, real kids offering at the cinema. And with cuddly animals that cute and that cuddly, there's a pretty good chance your young kids will want to see it.

But hey, maybe I am being too harsh. This is a perfectly innocuous kids flick, with nothing really objectionable about it and with enough cheery cuteness to keep your kids occupied for 85 minutes. Is “inoffensive” really the best we could hope for with this sort of thing? If these sorts of cuddly animated movies are basically guaranteed their audiences, is it really too much to hope that the filmmakers behind them at least put in some effort to make something worthwhile?

The Nut Job was never going to be Toy Story 3, but is aiming for the modest heights of even something like Despicable Me too much to hope for?

Oh. Wait. Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is still on, isn't it? Never mind then. Go watch that instead.

OK, I don't want to start and end the review with negative stuff so I'll keep this week's only good movie for last. For now though, here are a couple of other movies that really aren't worth your time. 

Ride Along. Remember all those '80s buddy cop movies? Sure you do. They never really went away. But whether we're talking about Beverly Hills Cop or Hot Fuzz, the best ones always had one thing in common: they were funny. Sadly, Ride Along is many things but funny it ain't. It's uninspired, pedestrian and more than a little silly but that's often par for the course for this particular genre, but the fact that it's gags fall so hopelessly flat and that its two leads are so utterly unengaging are what make it such a failure of a buddy cop comedy. Ice Cube is a truly terrible, uncharismatic straight man and though Kevin Hart may be a far more likable screen presence, Eddie Murphy he definitely isn't. Or, to put it another way, this is a film that believes the clearly improvised  line: "You're White! You don't fight!" to be funny, rather than entirely befuddling. Seriously. What the hell does that mean? (3/10)

Pompeii. Take one part Ridley Scott's Gladiator and two parts James Cameron's Titanic and you've basically got Pompeii, a swords-and-sandals-type tragic romance. The only difference is that this time we get Resident Evil's Paul WS Anderson at the helm who proves once again that no one in their right mind would ever confuse him for those other Anderson-monickered directors, be they Wes or Paul Thomas. If you ever had problems with Titanic, be it its length, dialogue or soppy love story, watch Pompeii to see how much worse it could have been. In comparison to Pompeii, Titanic finally looks like the masterpiece that all of its fans always claimed it to be. Pompeii is actually fairly short, but it feels like it goes on forever (you'll be praying for that bloody volcano to blow within minutes) and the acting, characterization, dialogue and storytelling universally suck, while its CG-heavy special effects are guaranteed to have you longing for the days of stop motion and model work. You know what's really sad though: this is still easily one of Anderson's better movies! (3/10)

Ech. Enough of that. Onto something good...

Saving Mr Banks. Saving Mr Banks has been weirdly overlooked by critics (a pathetic 65 rating on metacritic) and various awards ceremonies (the Oscars especially) but it's exactly the sort of charming gem that is easily embraced by general audiences. As it should be. Yes, the film is utterly and unapologetically sentimental but it's a Disney film about the making of Mary Poppins, a Disney classic, and features Tom Hanks as Walt Disney himself. Like the very best of Disney, Saving Mr Banks' sentimentality is well earned and is leavened somewhat by a wonderfully sardonic performance by the great Emma Thompson as Poppins' creator, PL Travers.

And yes, again, Travers does go through a quite neat character arc that may be a somewhat "Disneyfied" take on the real person but Travers retains a prickliness about her that never quite goes away, even as she is somewhat won over by the Disney magic. Indeed, whatever else you might say about the film, Emma Thompson is simply incredible throughout, delivering an unquestionably fun performance but one that is streaked through with both sadness and subtlety. She is supported by great performances from everyone from Tom Hanks to BJ Novak but this is very much her film and that she wasn't nominated for a Best Actress gong at the Oscars is something of a crime to me.           

However, Emma Thompson and the rest of the cast are hardly the only good things the film has going for it. Aesthetically, it looks and sounds grand with a polished sheen that suits the film to a tee but the real triumph of this story is, well, the story itself. Saving Mr Banks is less an insider's look into the making of a film and more an insight into both the creative process and how creativity can take on all kinds of intensely personal dimensions that far exceeds simply the ability make stuff up. It's a lot like Atonement in this way but is airy and funny where Atonement was weighty and very, very serious.

The film's most notable flaw - which actually diminishes quite significantly on a second viewing - is that the flashbacks that the film uses quite liberally are rather distracting at first. Some seemed to be rather confused by them at first but I just thought that they were obvious and constantly diverted out attention from Thompson, Hanks and the characters in we're more interested. No disrespect to Colin Farrell and the rest of the flashbacks' cast but for the first half hour or so of the film, these portions take the air out of the magic being woven out of the present day scenes.    

Even this problem almost entirely vanishes, however, when these scenes are placed further into the context of
what both Mary Poppins and this very film are actually about and fall away completely during a second viewing of the film where you have a greater understanding of their overall purpose. Still, they felt uneasy enough at first to stop me from giving the film an even higher rating. Make no mistake though, Saving Mr Banks is the real deal and is well worth checking out on the big screen.


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