Monday, January 6, 2014

2013 Recap: Working Our Way Up to the Top (Part One)

 Now that we're done wallowing in the worst of 2013, it's time to move on and work our way up to the very best. When we last met I promised that starting with this batch, the Cap'n might not be covering the best that last year had to offer, but from here on out I'd recommend almost everything. There are any number of diverse options for varying tastes, and I suspect you'll find at least something to like in what I saw.

 Unlike the normal "list" format that you see so often on the Blogorium, I'm going to try grouping movies together under loosely unifying themes. It keeps things from getting too long in the tooth and will give you a rough idea of where I'm coming from while evaluating each entry. Some are more logically connected than others, but while I was putting this together, individual films gravitated together, so hopefully this works. Let's start with a fairly logical grouping:

 Three Disney Films That were Pretty Good, but I'm in No Hurry to Revisit.

 I didn't see Frozen last year, which I suppose is in keeping with an unofficial trend of missing newer Walt Disney animated films in theaters (I think the last one I saw during its first run was... The Lion King?), but I did see two live action features and the second sequel from the re-branded Disney / Pixar. Of the three, I probably enjoyed Monsters University the most; it's slight, and problematic in that it's a prequel to Monsters, Inc., so we already know that Mike and Sully will end up friends.

Putting aside the fact that they claimed to have met much earlier in life according to the first filmMonsters University is an amusing and sometimes clever Pixar version of the "college" genre. There are prerequisite references to Animal House and lots of foreshadowing of things to come in the movie we've already seen, but it's nice to have everybody back and Billy Crystal and John Goodman are clearly giving 110%. Steve Buscemi is in and out of the story as a younger, nicer, Randall Boggs, and the new additions (including Nathan Fillion, Charlie Day, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, and Alfred Molina and Helen Mirren as faculty members) are all welcome. If there's one thing that pushes it slightly over the "prequel" trap, it's that while most of the most goes exactly how you'd expect it to, the denoument is quite a surprise. I'm impressed that Dan Scanlon, Robert L. Baird, and Daniel Gerson opted to take the road less travelled by in closing the story out, and there's a sense of earning the connection to Monsters, Inc. that I appreciated.

 While we're on the subject of prequels, Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and Powerful got its share of grief for being simultaneously too much and not enough like The Wizard of Oz earlier this year. I will admit that the movie is perhaps not what it could be (although, what were we expecting?), the nearly unanimous consensus I've heard from friends - particularly ones with children - was that they were entertained. Unlike most people, I liked James Franco as the Wizard-to-be, and found some interest in the fact that Raimi keeps him as a basically weasely trickster for most of the movie. Whereas Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland sequel-ish thing for Disney headed down the Narnia-route with an unnecessary battle scene, Raimi keeps the great showdown between Oscar Diggs and the Witch of the East (yes, I'll still keep it a secret which witch is which) limited to an unorthodox clash between magic and illusion. The Wonderful Wizard triumphs specifically because he's so good at misdirection.

Is the rest of the cast great? Eh... maybe not. I liked Michelle Williams as Glinda, and Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz are okay as Theodora and Evanora, but neither of them really get the chance to develop as characters. Bruce Campbell puts up with a beating from Tony Cox to secure his name in the opening credits (and he's in the movie for maybe five minutes, tops). Joey King's China Girl is something of a marvel as a character but Zach Braff's Finley the talking monkey is mostly there for Oscar to have someone to be mean to. The special effects range from very impressive to okay, but I did enjoy the vintage "Raimi inflicting pain on his lead actor" during the tornado after an otherwise okay opening. I will say the change in aspect ratio and color was a nice touch, but there are too many forced connections crammed in very quickly before Franco shuttles off to Oz.

 The parts may not all work or, at times, even fit together, but the sum is fitfully amusing for one of two viewings. I have no idea if I'm going to watch Oz: The Great and Powerful again any time soon, or if it will have any lasting replay value, but for one go-round the trip down the Yellow Brick Road was worth it.

 I don't mention it here a lot, but the Cap'n is a lifelong fan of Mary Poppins. It's not the kind of thing you'd probably expect, which is why it doesn't come up much, but it's true. Even Dick Van Dyke's terrible cockney accent doesn't bother me; I can settle down and watch it almost any old time and feel like a kid again. Accordingly, I was cautiously optimistic about Saving Mr. Banks, the Disney-approved story of Walt Disney's efforts to secure P.L. Travers' approval of the Mary Poppins we all know and love today (okay, I'm assuming you have the same affinity for it as I do).

 It's a double edged sword, because yes, some of the contentious opinions that Travers had during and after the film's released are, shall we say, smoothed over in favor of a more conventional "dealing with daddy issues" storyline. On the other side, I don't imagine any other studio could have shot on the Disney lot in the original locations (or approximations thereof) and had the level of access and imagery you'd need. Think about Fox Searchlight's Hitchcock, which somehow manages to avoid Universal Studios almost entirely, despite the fact that Universal released Psycho and the iconic house is on their tour.

 Saving Mr. Banks is structured alternating between "present day" 1961 and turn of the century Australia, where Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) remembers her childhood and her whimsical father (Colin Farrell - I'm leaving out the character name on the off chance you don't know anything about Travers). Throughout the film, we learn more and more about her father, why they have to move around the continent, and the foundations of where the character of Mary Poppins comes from, all while Travers struggles with Disney (Tom Hanks)'s insistence the movie be made his way, with animated penguins and songs, much to her dismay. Travers has an inherent disgust for Walt Disney's films, and early in the movie watches Walt on TV with Tinkerbell, only to sigh "Poor (J.M.) Barrie."

 She's staunchly against giving over the rights to Mary Poppins and is reticent to deal with screenwriter Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting duo the Sherman brothers: Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert (B.J. Novak), who don't quite understand why. As an audience, we already know how this turns out, and as we see the kernels of what become iconic moments in Mary Poppins, we're obviously rooting for Travers to "come around." At the same time, Saving Mr. Banks is told primarily through Travers' perspective, and while she's often rude and dismissive, we like her. The film takes a few steps in the "easy" direction of softening Thompson as Travers, in particular through a totally sympathetic limo driver played by Paul Giamatti who just happens to have the perfect bonding moment at the perfect time with the writer. Wisely, Walt Disney is shuttled off to the background, so that the naturally likeable Tom Hanks is able to always be a voice of reason and never grouchy (they do show him smoking, though. Kudos to that).

 While it's a touch predictable and perhaps not the most forthright (I would recommend reading Vern's review for a more thorough examination of the negative reaction towards Disney and Travers from other critics) about the actual facts, Saving Mr. Banks is nevertheless a worthwhile "true story," and one people might not be familiar enough with. If you like Mary Poppins or Walt Disney or just Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, it's an easy recommendation. Just don't expect anything too in depth about the man behind the Mouse or anything hyper-critical, and you'll have a nice time. I liked it, but will probably stick with Mary Poppins from here on out.

 Oh, and while we're on the subject of "true story with some liberties taken..."

 Speaking of "Inspired By a True Story"

 If you're going to watch Oprah Winfrey presents Lee Daniels' The Butler "Inspired By an Article We Read and Pretty Much Went from There," I would strongly recommend not doing so anywhere in the vicinity of 12 Years a Slave or Forrest Gump. It will bring up unsatifsying comparisons to the former and oddly specific connections to the latter, and in all honesty I have the feeling that most audiences will find plenty to enjoy about the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a White House butler that served Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, (I guess) Carter, and Reagan. For me, it didn't do much, but that's largely because the screenplay by Danny Strong (Game Change, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is so predictable.

 The film is "inspired by a true story" in the way that Strong took Will Haygood's Article "A Butler Well Served by this Election" and used it as a springboard to cover race relations in the United States from 1926 to 2008. Eugene Allen became Cecil Gaines, and what Gaines doesn't see firsthand in the White House is covered by his son Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo), giving the film a sort of Gump-like tour through major moments in Civil Rights history. I'm trying hard not to diminish the efforts of Daniels, Strong, or the excellent cast, but the problem I had with The Butler is that you can predict almost like clockwork what's going to happen next based on perfunctory set-up scenes.

 For example (SPOILER, I guess), let's say that Cecil's other son Charlie (Elijah Kelly) has a conversation with Louis about how he's going to Vietnam and Louis warns him he's going to get killed. Charlie tells Louis (who is at this point a member of the Black Panther Party and on the outs with his father) not to come to his funeral if he dies. So when we get the scene that Charlie has been killed, does it happen during the same sequence when Cecil and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) are watching Soul Train and wearing Disco outfits? Look, I can understand the use of emotional juxtaposition, but you can spot it a mile away over and over again during The Butler and that really took me out of the movie.

 There's also a strange sense of moralization going on during The Butler that's reminiscent of Forrest Gump: Freedom Riders are good, Black Panthers are bad. Martin Luther King Jr. is peaceful, but the only scene involving Malcolm X (as Louis and his girlfriend are walking away from one of his speeches) ends with gunshots. Gloria has a brief dalliance with her neighbor, Howard (Terrence Howard), who ends up being shot by someone else's jealous husband. The Black Panther section, in particular, is almost cartoonish - Louis abandons the Freedom Riders after King is assassinated and brings his girlfriend to dinner, only for Cecil to throw them both out. But Louis also abandons the Black Panthers after one meeting that suggest retaliatory violence against the police, which is followed in the next shot by news of the Panthers being raided by the FBI. I'm sorry, there's no subtlety there whatsoever. Louis and Cecil finally reconcile during a rally to free Nelson Mandela, and then it jumps forward to the 2008 election. If you're wondering if someone dies of before she can vote for Obama, I suggest you look for Oprah Winfrey during the Supporting Actress nominations.

 I found that the end result was that while I watched The Butler, I began to wonder about the more trivial moments, like the often bizarre casting of the Presidents. Questions like "are they really not going to use anything other than a fake nose to make John Cusack look like Nixon?" to "I wonder what was going through Jane Fonda's mind while she was playing Nancy Reagan?" floated around with "why didn't they bother finding someone to play Jimmy Carter?" or "isn't Liev Schreiber too young to be Lyndon Johnson?" If you ever wondered what would happen if Alan Rickman was asked to impersonate Ronald Reagan, you'll get your answer in The Butler. Robin Williams is Eisenhower, James Marsden is Kennedy, and Minka Kelly is Jackie Kennedy (of whom Gloria is inexplicably jealous). The individual moments with the presidents are sometimes so odd that you forget the otherwise fine performances from Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as Whitaker's fellow White House butlers.

 Make no mistake about it: I can be a hard audience for movies, in part because I'm always trying to put together where a film is going next, so The Butler was unfortunately too "easy" for me. Most audiences will find more to like about it than I did, and I'm not trying to say it wasn't good. But for the Cap'n, it wasn't anything more than "good," and I saw movies this year that were a LOT better than good.

  And to close this out, I'd like to take a look at another movie "inspired" on a true story (is this just the new thing to avoid people thinking that a condensed version of someone's life isn't 100% factually accurate?), Dallas Buyers Club. I will openly admit I know almost nothing about Ron Woodruff, the Dallas electrician / rodeo rider who contracted HIV and found a way to make money off of medicine not approved by the FDA by bringing it in from other countries. I listened to a segment about him on NPR shortly before the film's release and from interviews with people that knew him, the real Woodruff was perhaps even more gregarious than Matthew McConaughey portrays him in the film, and he cursed more, which is impressive considering the level of profanity in Dallas Buyer's Club.

 That said, I was rather impressed by the film from director Jean-Marc Vallée (Young Victoria) and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack. Woodruff, in the film, is a man out for number one, a gambler and ladies man who ultimately does a good deed mostly out of self interest, but who is often sympathetic even as we marvel at what a selfish, homophobic asshole he can be. Casting McConaughey goes a long way in helping to not be totally repulsed by Woodruff's actions and attitudes (at least early on); the actor has always been likeable, and string of recent performances went a long way to bringing him back from just a "naked bongo" punchline. Dallas Buyers Club is one of two movies I saw with McConaughey this year where I was very impressed with the actor, and his physical transformation as Woodruff is akin to Christian Bale's in The Machinist.

 But it's not just McConaughey, or some clever choices of misdirection early in the film (I'm thinking particularly of one scene where candles lead you to believe Woodruff is in one place when he's in nearly the polar opposite); Jared Leto is also something of a revelation as Rayon, a fellow AIDS patient who becomes Woodruff's business partner and slowly (though never unbelievably) something of a friend. Rayon never gives Woodruff an inch in his behavior, and the interplay between Leto and McConaughey is the film's strongest selling point. Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, and Griffin Dunne are also good in supporting roles, and Dallas Buyers Club mostly keeps things from wandering into maudlin or tear-jerker territory. Woodruff's battles with the medical industry and particularly with the FDA could easily fall into a "David vs. Goliath" narrative, but credit where it is due for keeping the story in less rigidly defined territory. It's a reasonably sober look at someone who did something good for maybe the wrong reasons, but did good nonetheless, and if I'm going to damn the other films in this section of the recap with faint praise, it only seemed fair to close out with something I think you'd all want to see.

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