Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Nanny & the Mouse

The story behind the story behind the story of ‘Mary Poppins’

SAVING MR. BANKS

Saving Mr. Banks

Starring Tom Hanks & Emma Thompson

Directed by John Lee Hancock

PG-13, 123 min.

A Walt Disney movie about Walt Disney making a Walt Disney movie, Saving Mr. Banks is a story behind a story behind a story that will strike a sentimental chord with anyone who remembers Disney’s 1964 hit about a certain singing, flying British nanny.

The true tale of how Uncle Walt convinced P.L. Travers, the writer of Mary Poppins, to sell him the rights to turn her storybook series into the now-classic movie musical is spun here into a witty, heart-tugging yarn about Disney’s unstoppable force confronting Travers’ immoveable object.

Tom Hanks plays the avuncular Disney, atop his Magic Kingdom empire in 1961 and trying to finally come through on a 20-year promise to his young daughters to take their favorite childhood character, Mary Poppins, from the storybook to the screen. The prickly Travers (Emma Thompson), the British author of the series of books featuring the English nanny with magical powers, has consistently, persistently tuned down Disney’s offers.

But now, in a financial bind, Travers finally agrees to come to Los Angeles and proceed with a film treatment as long as she’s given script approval and made part of the process. She tells Walt to his face, however, that she won’t have her fiercely guarded Mary “turned into one of your silly cartoons.”

SAVING MR. BANKSThe movie toggles between Travers’ comically difficult work with Disney and his staff, and flashbacks to her golden-glow childhood in Australia with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), building connections between the author, her past and her literary creation that don’t become evident until much later in the movie.

Travers hates everything, at least initially—everything about Los Angeles, Hollywood, Disney and the movie his company is trying to make. She hates Dick Van Dyke, the actor hired as the star.  She hates the songs, written by the crack Disney tunesmith siblings Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). She hates the idea of dancing penguins.

SAVING MR. BANKSPaul Giamiatti has a recurring role as the friendly chauffeur hired by Disney to squire Travers around, becoming the only American she meets to really break through her icy shell. (It’s enough to make you wonder how the same actor could be playing a heartless slave broker just a few multiplex doors down in 12 Years A Slave.)

We all know how things turned out: Walt compromised just enough to win the tug of war, and the movie got made the way he envisioned it. Disney’s Mary Poppins was a smash. Critics praised it, fans adored it and it helped segue Disney from cartoons into live-action features. It won five Academy Awards.

As he did in The Blind Side, director John Lee Hancock pours on the emotion, so much so that it sugarcoats the shortcomings in the script, which fails to neatly, completely wrap up the rather dense details of Travers’ daddy issues and why exactly Mr. Banks, the father of the children in “Mary Poppins,” was in need of being saved.

But Thompson does a fine job, and so does Hanks, especially in a late scene together where their two characters warm to each other when he shares a story about his own hardscrapple youth, and about his own daddy issues—one that helps seal his deal.

And by golly, if you don’t get a bit of a lump in your throat during the “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” scene, well, you’ve got more ice that needs melting than even Ms. Travers.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Dark as a Dungeon

Twisty, turn-y thriller poses provocative question

Prisoners

Prisoners

DVD $28.98 / Blu-ray $35.99 (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)

How far is too far to go when the law doesn’t go far enough? That’s the provocative question this gripping crime thriller asks as Hugh Jackman portrays a distraught father who takes matters into his own hands and hunts down the man (Paul Dano) he believes is responsible for abducting his young daughter and her friend. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the police detective drawn ever deeper into an increasingly dark, twisted case, and Mario Bello, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, and Melissa Leo round out the solid cast.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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One of the Good Guys

Box set collection celebrates Gene Autry’s 1950s television show

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The Gene Autry Show: The Complete Television Series

DVD ($79.99, Timeless Media Group)

The most successful singing cowboy of them all, Autry’s multi-media empire spanned radio, music, movies, television and live performance—he’s the only entertainer with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame for each. This deluxe 15-disc roundup of his 1950-1956 TV series also includes a corral full of bonus content: TV commercials, episodes of his Melody Ranch radio show, film trailers, photos, and segments from some of his other television shows. But what’s really cool is watching the parade of guest stars, a Who’s Who of ’the 50s West: Denver Pyle, Clayton Lone Ranger Moore, Alan Hale Jr., Lee Van Cleef, Chill Wills and many others, dustin’ it up with one of Hollywood’s all-time good guys.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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They Shall Be Released

Springsteen, Sting, other stars headline for Amnesty International

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Released! The Human Rights Concerts

DVD $59.98 (Shout! Factory)

 

Between 1986 and 1998, Amnesty International staged several massive concert events to raise awareness and funds for human rights, featuring some of the biggest musical stars of the times. Now all those shows have been released on DVD, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the concert series’ highest-profile event, the “Human Rights Now!” world tour headlined by Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Tracey Chapman. Other performers featured in the nearly 17 hours of concert footage (most of it never before made commercially available) include U2, The Police, Bryan Adams, Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, Sinead O’Connor, Radiohead, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Carlos Santana and Shania Twain, and net proceeds from sales of the box set, just like proceeds from the original shows, go to the ongoing work of Amnesty International.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Blood & Bullets

Navy SEALs mission goes tragically off course in Afghanistan

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Lone Survivor

Starring Mark Walhberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster

Directed by Peter Berg

R, 121 min.

Director Peter Berg’s bloody, violent Lone Survivor comes by its blood and violence honestly. It’s based on former U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s account of a bloody, violent 2005 mission in Afghanistan from which he emerged as—well, you can probably figure that out from the title, based on Luttrell’s New York Times Bestseller.

Luttrell’s book chronicled his involvement as part of a four-man team tasked with covertly tracking down a Taliban warlord in the remote, rugged Kunar province. But Operation Red Wings was quickly compromised and the SEALs (played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster) found themselves in a deadly bind, pinned down by Taliban fighters.

Berg, who adapted Luttrell’s book for the screen as well as directed, has made a rip-roaring war movie that literally rips and roars. Gunfire tears ferociously into flesh, clothing and bone; one shoot-out scene, in particular, is a nearly deafening chorus of high-caliber zings, zips, booms and pops as bullets fly and spent shell casings bounce off rocks.

5685_FPF_00265RThe SEALs’ predicament hinges on a decision they make when an Afghan shepherd, two boys and a herd of goats accidentally come across their mountainside surveillance spot. What they do in that decisive moment sets the rest of the movie in fateful motion.

And what rough-and-tumble motion it is, as Wahlberg and his co-stars absorb blows, bullets and shrapnel, break bones, lose body parts, dent skulls and plunge off the mountainside not just once but twice, sliding, slamming and ramming into boulders and tree trunks. Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler shoots the punishing, pummeling violence as if it’s both horrific and saintly, a Passion play of blood, saliva and bodies battered and bullet-riddled to pulp for a higher cause.

Lone SurvivorIt’s a super-macho movie without a single female character, and definitely not for the squeamish—but neither is war, and what it sometimes requires, and that’s the point. A pre-credits slideshow introduces the real servicemen portrayed by the cast, as David Bowie sings “Heroes.”

And you’ll see another photo of someone in the movie who was also a hero, but I won’t spoil it by telling you who. A modern-day Good Samaritan pivotal to the story in the final stretch, he also reminds us that not everyone in a place where we’re at war is an enemy.

Lone Survivor isn’t exactly a cup of Christmas comfort and joy. But this brutally intense, emotionally stirring tribute to America’s fighting spirit has a message that will certainly resonate, like a punch to the gut, with anyone who’d prefer a steaming slab of gung-ho movie sausage to yet another slice of nutty holiday fruitcake.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Sweet Baby James

Two-CD James Taylor set serves up 30 tracks of ‘the good stuff’

JamesTaylor_Essential_CVRThe Essential James Taylor

CD $11.98 (Legacy Recordings)

It’s not everything he’s ever recorded, by a long shot, on his 16 albums across a career spanning five decades, but it’s definitely the good stuff: This two-disc collection features 30 songs by the five-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, from his best-known ’70s hits (“Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Long Ago and Far Away,” “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” “How Sweet It Is,” “Shower The People,” “Handy Man,” and “Your Smiling Face”), through his later work, including live versions of “Country Road” and other cuts, a duet with fellow West Coast troubadour J.D. Souther on “Her Town Too,” and more selections from the catalogs of Warner Bros. and Columbia Records.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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The Norman We Never Knew

New biography reveals much about famous illustrator

AmericanMirror American Mirror

By Deborah Soloman

Hardcover, 494 pages ($28, Farrar, Straus and Girous)

Norman Rockwell, the illustrator who idealized small-town Americana through his covers for The Saturday Evening Post and other assignments, gets put under the microscope in this detailed, meticulously researched biography. In addition to telling the stories behind many of his iconic pictures, the author, who was granted access to the celebrated painter’s previously unpublished letters and other writings, also paints her own colorful portrait of a complex, complicated and often contradictory man—a frequently misunderstood, conflicted artist whose well-known work offered only one dimension, as it turns out, to a much more fascinating life story.

 —Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Bru-u-u-u-ce!

Music-filled Springsteen doc from fans’ perspective

SpringsteenAndI

Springsteen and I

Blu-ray $19.98 / DVD $14.98 (Eagle Rock Entertainment)

For more than four decades, “The Boss” has been an arena-rock god adored by millions. This fan-focused documentary celebrates his music, his wide-ranging influence, and the indelible imprint he’s made on the lives of those shaped by a soundtrack of “Born in the USA,” “Born to Run,” “The River,” “Dancing In The Dark,” “Because The Night” and countless other tunes. With intimate fan interviews interwoven through live performances of dozens of Springsteen classics, it’s a cinematic love letter to one of  popular music’s most powerful performers.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Ice, Ice Baby

Disney princesses in ‘Frozen’ are too cool for storybook endings

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Frozen

Starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff & Idina Menzel

Directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

PG, 108 minutes

Disney princesses are nothing new, but this movie is generous: It has not one, but two.

Loosely adapted from a 19th century Hans Christen Anderson folk epic, Frozen marks a return to the buoyant, song-filled fairytale-fantasy format that became a Disney hallmark in The Little Mermaid (another Hans Christen Anderson fable) and Beauty and the Beast.

Here, a pair of young royal daughters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), grow up apart, sequestered from each other in their sprawling Nordic palace after an unfortunate childhood incident reveals the dangerous darker side of Elsa’s mysterious “gift” to deep-freeze anything she touches.

When the girls become young women and Elsa is reluctantly crowned queen, her coronation ball ends in an unplanned eruption of her powers. Accidentally turning summer into winter and perma-frosting her entire kingdom, the “ice queen” flees to the top of a desolate snow-swept mountaintop.

FROZENSome of the townspeople think Elsa’s a “monster.” Her little-sis princess, insisting she’s just misunderstood, sets off to find her. Along the way, Anna meets a helpful ice harvester (Jonathan Groff, from TV’s Glee), his trusty reindeer Sven, and a goofy, gabby snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad), who longs to experience the warmth of summer—without realizing what heat can do his cool composure.

The songs woven into the storyline are almost all standouts, signaling a new batch of Disney musical cream rising to the top. They’re from the husband and wife songwriting team of Bobby and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Lopez has won Tony Awards for his Broadway work, and the tunes in Frozen likewise sound like they’re just waiting to be launched into a lavish, long-running stage production.

The story sags a bit in places but comes through with plenty of humor, heart and a couple of rousing action scenes, including a thrilling chase by snarling wolves through a predawn forest and an encounter with a fearsome snow monster. And the computer-generated animation is impressive, with many dazzling cinematic variations on the “beautiful, powerful, dangerous, cold” ice themes noted in the opening musical number.

"FROZEN" (Pictured) ELSA. ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.And in the end, we’re left with a message that won’t surprise anyone who’s ever seen any Disney movie—but one that, refreshingly, doesn’t quite conform to a “typical” princess-storybook ending, either. The two Frozen sisters may not exactly represent a new royal standard in Disney females, but they do pack a powerful two-fisted punch about the power of love…and waiting for the right person who, as Olaf puts it, is “worth melting for.”

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Seeing Deeper

Examining two centuries of photography and its artistry

Photo_DVD

Photo: A History From Behind the Lens

DVD $49.99 (Athena/RLJ Entertainment)

We take it for granted now that cameras are practically synonymous with cell phones, but photography hasn’t been around forever. (Only about 200 years, to be exact.) This 12-part documentary offers an entertaining, enlightening examination of the art form’s past and present and looks ahead to its high-tech future, using playful animation to illustrate complicated concepts and covering its many facets and uses. A companion booklet features a history of cameras and a timeline of photographic breakthroughs. So as you’re taking that next selfie or other snapshot, remember, there’s two centuries of technology, trial-and-error and artistry behind that simple “click.”

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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