Film Review: Saving Mr Banks

This film review was posted on the Orange Post on Sunday 19th January 2014.

I saw Saving Mr Banks several days ago and the sense of satisfaction that I experienced as I departed the cinema has since dissipated. The more I think of this biopic, the more problematic the film and it’s plot holes seem to be.

That’s not to say that the film is not an enjoyable look at the making of one of the most beloved children’s films ever. I am really drawn to films about the making of films. And Emma Thompson gives a powerhouse performance as the acerbic author of the Mary Poppins books, Australian born P.L. Travers. It’s just that a Disney produced biopic about a Disney produced film is not a good sign of an objective warts and all portrayal of real life events.

For instance, Walt DIsney himself was present for Travers’ arrival in Los Angeles, however he soon left California to avoid having to deal with the difficult author. In this film, Disney is a constant presence. I guess there is no use in paying Tom Hanks to be a supporting player.

Rumours persist that Walt Disney was a misogynist, a racist and an anti-Semite, with Disney’s own grandniece supporting these allegations. It’s not surprise then that Tom Hank’s portrayal of Disney is instead the caring fatherly figure that we all imagine the creator of Mickey Mouse and Disneyland to be. Fair enough that Hanks has picked up the unique walk and smoker’s cough but if you’re going to show Travers with all her irrational ideas and quirks, then why DIsney-fy Disney?

The scenes where Travers picks apart the work of composers The Sherman Brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) and writer Don Dagradi (Bradley Whitford) are great fun. Her demands such as the colour red not appearing in the film and her objections to lead actor Dick Van Dyke demonstrate how protective the author was about her famous character. However, the script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith lets the film down by never resolving these demands. Obviously Dick Van Dyke starred in Mary Poppins and no primary colours were missing in the sets and costumes so how was Travers convinced to sign off on the rights?

Travers was born in Maryborough, Queensland, and unlike the Disneyland and Disney Studios scenes which are appropriately recreated, or in the case of Disneyland simply aged back to 1961, the Australian components of the film disappointingly look like the backlot of Universal Studios (which it actually was).

The flashback structure explaining Travers’ love and dedication to her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) is a little clunky but leads to a nice revelation at the end and goes some way to explaining many of the aspects of the Mary Poppins persona, on page and on screen. Less effective is the kind hearted limo driver (Paul Giamatti) who was created for the film for Travers to warm to, and therefore defrost in the eyes of the audience.

Saving Mr Banks wears its heart on its sleeve, much like Mary Poppins the movie. Despite some great performances, you can’t help but feel that the filmmakers aren’t quite telling you everything.

Apparently P.L. Travers travelled to Ireland to adopt twins but returned with only one. This son ended up an alcoholic, and eventually met his own twin by accident. He too was an alcoholic. There’s a much more powerful film there already.

Box Office Bomb Autopsy: The Lone Ranger

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 23rd July 2013.

Hollywood is reeling after a string of blockbusters failed to perform at the box office. White House Down (starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, due in Australia on September 5), Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger (both now showing) have all tanked, with the latter projected to cost Disney over $100 million in losses. That’s a lot of Disney Dollars for the House of Mouse.

Hi-ho Silver, let’s perform an autopsy on The Lone Ranger before the body gets cold, although one could argue that it was already dead on arrival.

I booked ahead for a screening of The Lone Ranger on its first weekend of release, anticipating a full house. To my surprise, there were only a handful of people in the cinema. That’s a pretty clear indication of the lack of interest in the franchise. How many people worldwide have been waiting for a Lone Ranger movie? Well, I only know of one, my dad. He absolutely loved the film. As for me, I can’t remember ever seeing a Lone Ranger TV show. I know the catchphrases and the William Tell overture but that’s it. How did Disney expect to market this film to children?

Previously, Disney relegated its more adult orientated output for Disney-owned imprints such as Hollywood Pictures, Miramax Films or Touchstone Pictures. Not so anymore. The Lone Ranger begins with the standard Disney opening sequence and soon follows it with the villain, Butch Cavendish, played by William Fichtner, eating an adversary’s heart. Despite the Lego playsets and merchandise, this violent film is not for kids.

Director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp have previously struck box office gold with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The same formula is employed here: a complex story with supernatural overtones, Depp completely engrossed in a goofy character, big budget action sequences, a Hans Zimmer score and an overlong running time. Unfortunately, audiences were already starting to lose interest in Jack Sparrow and company by the third sequel (with a fifth entry on its way) and Verbinski and Depp may have gone to the proverbial well once too many. And why call it The Lone Ranger when it’s clearly Depp’s film as “sidekick” Tonto?

There are some major problems with the tone of this movie which is also confusing audiences and critics, much of it surrounding Depp’s portrayal of Tonto. There’s no doubt that Tonto is a racist stereotype. Whether you are comfortable with this largely depends on whether you believe that Depp has Native American ancestry. In May 2012, Depp was adopted as an honorary son of the Comanche Nation but has no confirmed Native American bloodlines.

The Lone Ranger features some violent sequences of Comanche warriors getting mown down en masse by machine guns. Clearly it is trying to acknowledge historical atrocities, but almost immediately we return to Depp playing the fool as Tonto. The film is trying to say something. I’m just not sure what. And neither do the filmmakers.

Despite its problems, I still had fun with The Lone Ranger. Armie Hammer has a great name and shows solid comic timing as the real sidekick of the film, the titular character also known as John Reid. The cinematography, especially in Monument Valley, Arizona, is handsome and the action sequences are skilfully handled. You can see every one of the $250 million dollars spent on the film. The baddies, played by Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson, are appropriately nasty (for a non-family film). Besides my complaints above, my only other gripes are some pretty poor prosthetic work on Depp’s old Tonto (although not J. Edgar terrible) and Helen Bonham Carter playing her standard quirky character.

The Lone Ranger may have failed to fill Disney’s coffers but don’t feel bad for the House of Mouse. Last year they reaped in $1.5 billion on The Avengers and will soon be launching some new entries in a little known film franchise called Star Wars.

Published in: on July 23, 2013 at 17:50  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

This review was originally published on The Orange Post on Sunday 17th March 2013.

What happens when you take a well known filmmaker with a distinct visual style and a back catalogue of cult and popular hits, and run them through the Disney corporate movie machine? There are two answers to this question: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and now Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful.

Burton’s 2010 blockbuster was a bland CGI heavy 3D mess that dispensed with character in favour of spectacle. Unfortunately, Oz suffers the same fate. Responsible for three of my favourite films of all time, the Evil Dead trilogy, Raimi’s trademark fast paced style and wry humour is crushed by the Disney steamroller leaving behind a pretty screensaver and little else.

With the rights to The Wizard of Oz, including all of the elements introduced in the 1939 MGM film which did not originate in L. Frank Baum’s book, held by Warner Bros., art director Robert Stromberg was forced to redesign the Land of Oz for this unofficial prequel. Thus, there are no ruby slippers, the yellow brick road in Munchkinland has a different swirl and even the Wicked Witch’s green skin tone is slightly (but legally) different.

These limitations, coupled with a reliance on CGI, results in landscapes which appear to have been lifted straight from last year’s Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, another ho-hum green screen adventure.

As the titular Oz, James Franco is out of his depth. Smiling is not the same as emoting and I wonder what the earlier casting choices of Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jnr. would have brought to the film. Oz is a complex character who treats people badly at the beginning of the film, but then begins to see the value of friendship and love. Unfortunately, all of this character development is undermined by the audience’s knowledge that he will bugger off in the balloon at the first opportunity in the next film.

Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis are serviceable as witchy sisters Evanora and Theodora. Michelle Williams fares better as Glinda, a role that requires her to do little else but look pretty and speak in a breathy style. Zach Braff appears in the beginning as Oz’s offsider Frank and then voices the CGI monkey bellhop Finley. A little Zach Braff goes a long way so don’t be surprised if you feel like reaching out and trying to strangle the 3D monkey by the end of the film.

The theme of duality which worked well in the MGM original makes little to no sense in this prequel. Beginning in black and white and a 4:3 aspect ratio, Raimi’s film then transitions to colour, 2:35:1 widescreen and stereo sound upon arrival in Oz. Several actors make cameos in the black and white segment, and then reappear as different characters in Oz. There seems to be no explanation for this. No-one is clicking their heels and going back to Kansas at the end of the film.

Remarkably, Raimi cannibalises from his own work, with a graveyard sequence and mechanical line of soldiers distracting the enemy ripped directly from Army of Darkness.

In 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, Raimi showed he was capable of finding his mojo again after a creative disappointment with Spider-Man 3. Let’s just hope he does something truly great and powerful after the disappointment that is Oz the Great and Powerful.

The Empire Strikes Back: Disney Purchases Star Wars

Disney Star Wars 2

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 13th November 2012.

On October 30, the Walt Disney Company announced that they would be acquiring Lucasfilm, home of the Star Wars franchise. George Lucas, creator of beloved characters such as Yoda, Darth Vader, C3PO and R2D2, as well as Jar Jar Binks, was apparently contemplating retirement and had four billion reasons to sell his company. The first reason was a dollar. The second reason was a dollar. And so on.

Come to think of it, when you want to retire in the Star Wars universe, don’t you just disappear into thin air like Yoda and Obi Wan? I guess it’s a bit hard to spend your retirement nest egg when you’re a smiling glowing ghost.

Almost immediately after the announcement, the internet went into hyperdrive with opinions, jokes and amusing pictures from fans worldwide. As I didn’t have the photoshop skills to add Mickey Mouse ears to a picture of Darth Vader (plus half of the planet had already done it) here’s my hilarious contribution to the twitterverse:

Peter Young @chipsareready

What would Disney possibly want with the Star Wars franchise? They already have the successful Black Hole property… #DisneyStarWars

For those of you who don’t speak Geek, I’m referring to Disney’s woeful 1979 Star Wars ripoff, The Black Hole, starring Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and Ernest Borgnine (McHale’s Navy), and featuring the rather craptastic robot duo of V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and Old B.O.B., as well as the Vader-ish Maximilian.

In my head, Disney and Star Wars have been closely linked for years. Way back in the early 90’s, I lined up for hours to ride the Star Tours attraction at Disneyland. One of the first motion simulator rides, Star Tours offered space tourists a trip to the forest moon of Endor which inevitably goes awry when Imperial Star Destroyers attack. The ride has since been closed and replaced last year with a new attraction, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, which incorporates high definition 3D graphics. Like all great intergalactic adventures, both the original and new Star Tours attractions end in the gift shop.

I don’t think Star Wars devotees have anything to worry about from the takeover by the (Disney) Empire. The Muppets have enjoyed a cinematic revival that satisfied long time fans under the House of Mouse. You also may have seen a small, low budget superhero flick called The Avengers earlier this year. And the name of the production company was…Marvel Studios, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company.

A new Star Wars movie, Episode VII, will be released in 2015. Screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) has been attached to the project with the director yet to be named. The rumour mill suggests that the storyline may involve characters from the original trilogy.

As a big Star Wars fan, I have no concerns with Disney producing further Star Wars instalments. It’s not as if Lucas was particularly successful with his woeful prequel trilogy. It would be hard for Disney to do any worse. As the Star Wars franchise passes from the control of one Empire to another, rest assured that one universal constant will remain. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together… It’s the pursuit of profit.

Film Review: Wreck-It Ralph

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 18th December 2012.

Aficionados of old school video games have plenty of reasons to hit the cinema this holiday season. Disney’s latest animated feature Wreck-It Ralph takes place inside a traditional video game arcade. Borrowing from the Toy Story trilogy, the film sees the characters of said games come to life when the arcade closes. Linked together by an intricate public transport system (the power supply), the characters interact and mingle inside a central station (a power board).

Ralph is the villain of the video game Fix-It Felix Jnr, a thinly-veiled Donkey Kong clone. Outside business hours, Ralph attends a support group for video game bad guys. Unable to accept his fate, Ralph wants to be become a hero and sets off to make his dreams come true; however, his actions soon threaten the very existence of the video games and their inhabitants.

During the support group scenes, gamers will geek out to cameos from many beloved video game franchise antagonists including Clyde the ghost from Pac-Man, Doctor Robotnik from Sonic the Hedgehog, Kano from Mortal Kombat, Zangief from Street Fighter and Bowser from Super Mario Bros.

From the opening image of the Disney logo rendered in 8 bit, veteran animation director Rich Moore (The Simpsons, Futurama) keeps the in-jokes coming for anyone old enough to remember when arcade games cost 20c, as well as ensuring there is an abundance of slapstick humour for the kiddies.

Like almost every animated feature nowadays, the voice talent for Wreck-It Ralph features several big name actors from the realms of television and film. John C. Reilly lends his dulcet tones (and likeness) to the titular character alongside comedian Sarah Silverman as the precocious kart driver Vanellope, 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer as Ralph’s nemesis (and Mario clone) Felix and Glee’s Jane Lynch as a battle hardened Halo-ish soldier. Reilly and Silverman are perfectly cast, however, McBrayer and Lynch oddly channel their TV alter egos Kenneth Parcell and Sue Sylvester, respectively. I would have preferred that they try something different.

The visuals are spot-on. The game play of several iconic video games is lovingly recreated when we see them from a player’s perspective, and are beautifully rendered into detailed 3D environments when we enter the “real world” inside the games. The 3D (apparently compulsory for every animated feature nowadays) is fine but certainly not vital to your enjoyment of the film.

Don’t be late for your screening. Wreck-It Ralph is accompanied by Paperman, an excellent romantic animated short in black and white.

Wreck-It Ralph is great fun and easily my favourite animated feature of the year. I have a feeling that it may underperform at the box office this holiday season as it faces stiff competition from hobbits and warbling revolutionaries. Take a child and you’ll both love it for different reasons. Highly recommended.

Published in: on December 25, 2012 at 08:25  Leave a Comment  
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Film Reviews: 21 Jump Street and John Carter (of Mars)

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 20th March 2012.

Despite being an aficionado of all things eighties, I must admit that I have never watched a whole episode of 21 Jump Street. I do remember how every episode ended though. The gang would be back at the station following a successful mission. Someone cracks a joke. Everyone laughs, there’s a freeze frame and then the end credits roll, complete with the Stephen J. Cannell closing logo. I must have been a big fan of the show that followed.  I’m not sure what it was. I’m thinking it may have been the craptacular Manimal or Knight Rider.

21 Jump Street is the latest in a long line of TV adaptations for the big screen. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the team responsible for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, have taken the show’s title and basic premise to create an outrageous buddy action comedy in the vein of Bad Boys that will satisfy anyone who prefers their jokes blue and isn’t offended by copious amounts of coarse language.

The flick stars former model turned “actor” Channing Tatum (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, The Vow) and the newly slimmed down Oscar nominee Jonah Hill (Superbad, Moneyball) as recent police academy graduates who are sent back to high school undercover to investigate a drug ring. Of course, neither character wants to relive their traumatic high school years.

Not every joke hits its mark but the cracking pace of the film means that you will hardly notice. Tatum and Hill have great comedy chemistry and the supporting cast, led by a foul mouthed Ice Cube, all get a chance to shine. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that most of the actors cast as students are clearly too old to be at school.

A very unique car chase and hilarious cameos from original stars Peter DeLuise, Holly Robinson and Johnny Depp are worth the price of admission alone. 21 Jump Street is highly recommended.

Throughout the eighties and nineties, Disney utilised its other studio imprints such as Hollywood Pictures to release films with non-family friendly aspects such as nudity and violence. Lately, they’ve become more liberal and happily released their swashbuckling cash cow Pirates of the Caribbean saga under the Disney label. John Carter, with its battle scenes and alien decapitations, is the latest film from the “House of Mouse.”

Known throughout production as John Carter of Mars, the title was shortened after market research showed that the word “Mars” might turn off moviegoers who don’t like science fiction. I’d suggest that the movie poster and trailer, which both feature the red planet prominently, might also be clues.

Directed by Andrew Stanton, the man behind Wall-E and Finding Nemo, John Carter stars the serviceable Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) as the titular Civil War veteran who wakes up on the surface of Mars with super strength (different gravity and bone density, you see) and finds himself embroiled in a four way battle between the native inhabitants.

Many of the set pieces are direct knockoffs from iconic sci-fi movies such as the Star Wars franchise but considering that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the John Carter books 100 years ago, it’s pretty hard to know who inspired who.

Much has been made of the film’s mega budget (US $250 million) and poor box office showing so far ($42 million over eight days with a 59% drop off on its second weekend), but don’t believe the hype. Despite an overcomplicated and confusing storyline, the visuals are fantastic and the retro-fitted 3D compliments the alien landscapes. This is the closest you’ll get to a live action Pixar film.

Published in: on March 26, 2012 at 07:35  Leave a Comment  
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Why aren’t cassettes collectible?

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 3rd May 2011.

When it comes to music, many people have an affinity for vinyl. The gatefold sleeve is the perfect size to appreciate the cover artwork and design. The music somehow sounds more alive to the ears. And halfway through the album, you get to have a short intermission as you turn the record over.

For me though, growing up in the late seventies and eighties, the music format of my childhood was the cassette. There certainly was a record player at my home in Olola Avenue but placing the needle on the record was all a little too challenging for my coordination at the time. Playing records at the wrong speed was amusing for a while. Everything played too fast sounded like The Chipmunks, with the exception, of course, of The Chipmunks.

History has shown that cassettes were anything but collectable. They were small and cheap looking. Their size reduced any fantastic album art into a postage stamp and they tended to warp into a twisted mess when left in the sun on the dashboard on a hot summer day. And every now and then, the tape player would decide to eat the cassette, spilling the precious brown stringy contents of Through the Roof ’83 everywhere.

There are several notable cassettes that I remember fondly from my childhood. Despite my assertion that tapes aren’t collectible, I still have these gems packed safely aware somewhere. I’d love to update them to CD but so far I am yet to find them anywhere. I can’t enjoy the cassettes either because, just like a VHS player, I don’t have a tape deck anymore.

Magic Monkey was a soundtrack album to accompany the classic ABC series Monkey Magic. Released in 1978, it features the music of the Japanese band Godiego. My favourite tracks were the closing credit song, Gandhara, and the catchy theme song. I still can recite every word of the title sequence monologue. “In the worlds before monkey…” I’ve seen no sign of this album on CD even though the complete Monkey Magic series has been released on DVD.

The Disco craze in the late seventies didn’t last long. In fact, it came and went faster than The Village People movie, Can’t Stop the Music, could be written, filmed and released. But that’s another column, plus I own the soundtrack on CD. I may regret admitting that. Disco still managed to trickle down to children’s records and that brings me to two cassette classics.

Mickey Mouse Disco was released in 1979. It sold two million copies at the time, peaking at 35 in the US charts. Featuring vomit inducing disco versions of Disney staples such as Chim Chim-Cheree and It’s a Small World, it is pure saccharine. I’d love to cruise down Summer Street with my windows down pumping this album out. Alas, it is out of print in all physical formats.

Not wanting to miss out on the Disco dollars, the Children’s Television Workshop (and the letter C) released Sesame Disco in 1979 as well. Featuring Disco Frog, sung my Kermit the Frog and the English language destroying Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco sung by Cookie Monster, the album is a hoot and now impossible to find. Me miss me album of Disco.

My final MIA album is Father Abraham and the Smurfs. Unleashed upon the world in 1977, selling half a million copies, this album pairs the titular blue creatures with bearded Dutch singer Pierre Kartner. The Smurf Song from the album went to number one in sixteen countries, but my favourite track is Smurfing Beer (you don’t get drunk and it isn’t dear).

I’d also like to mention that there are several Young Talent Time albums on my must find list as well as two classics where the casts of A Country Practice and Neighbours attempt to sing popular songs, but I don’t want anyone to think I have bad taste in music.