A New York Winter’s Tale (2014)

Winters TaleIt’s 1886, and rather than be exported to Eastern European with their baby two anonymous parents encase him in a model boat and entrust him to the currents of New York Harbour. Twenty-one years later Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is on the run from demon-turned-gangster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), and meets terminally ill tuberculosis sufferer Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay) while trying to rob her father’s house. Desperate to punish Peter, Pearly makes a pact with Lucifer (Will Smith) — Lou to his friends — that leaves Beverley dead and Peter cursed to live forever, alone. In 2014 he happens across Virginia Gamely (Jennifer Connelly), a kindly food journalist who takes an interest in Peter’s unlikely story.

Akiva Goldsman has written some terrific scripts in his time, from A Beautiful Mind to Cinderella Man; he has also written some pretty terrible ones. What’s remarkable about Goldsman is not the inconsistency in his writing, but the fact that his failures are often as remarkable — sometimes even more so — than his successes. After all, this is the man who wrote Batman & Robin; who wrote lines like “There’s something about an anatomically correct suit that puts fire on a girls lips” and “I hate to disappoint you but my rubber lips are immune to your charms”. He has turned incomprehensible narratives and unbelievable dialogue into something of an artform; and A New York Winter’s Tale may very well be his masterpiece.

If you think the synopsis reads like some sort of feverish cheese-dream, as imagined by an old fashioned romantic introduced to the likes of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Twilight, then you may be surprised to learn that the really crazy stuff is still to come. This isn’t just the story of an ageless Irishman, born to Eastern Europeans and raised in America (did I mention that Colin Farrell is supposed to be twenty-one throughout?), but of his magical flying horse and his uncanny ability to fix all machines — be it a nineteenth century boiler or a modern day computer — too. Supporting players include a 106 year-old magazine editor, a woman who can freeze water by listing stars and a coin-tossing miracle worker. Did I mention the magic horse? It has wings made out of light.

The performances are just as mind-boggling as the plot. Farrell’s character has lived for centuries drawing the same chalk image of a woman with red hair. He plays the whole thing completely straight, leaving your eyes to wander to the two equally distracting haircuts he wears at different points during the movie. Findlay-Brown, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to realise she’s supposed to be dying, and spends the whole movie looking luminous and content, lazing about on a purpose-built tent on top of her  family’s castle. Connelly, on the other hand, is going for the Oscar, pursuing emotional realism even as she and her daughter are beset by demons. It’s Crowe who really lets loose, though, with an Irish accent that verges on deranged and features that seem to be chasing completely different expressions simultaneously.

A New York Winter’s Tale — adapted from Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale — is more of a drinking game than a movie, and you might half expect the DVD to be sold in a box with shot glasses and sambuca. Drink every time a character speaks of light, miracles or Ursa Major; take a shot each time Crowe calls his enemy’s horse a dog; down another whenever Will Smith turns on a light bulb, and by film’s end you might actually know what’s going on — just in time to tell the paramedics.

1-Star

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Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Saving Mr BanksIn 1905, the Hoff family moved inland from Maryborough, Queensland to Allora, where alcoholic father Travers (Colin Farrell) became ill with influenza. Nearly sixty years later, having relocated to London and substituted her surname for her father’s forename, Mary Poppins author Pamela (Emma Thompson) is on the move once more — this time bound for California where she will negotiate with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for the film rights to her book. He has his work cut out for him, however; whereas the rest of the world adores just about everything Disney does, Mrs. P. L. Travers shows little regard for his cartoons, theme parks or philosophy, and has no intention whatsoever of giving him her character.

Mary Poppins — at least, Disney’s Mary Poppins — is a classic, and one that has continued to enchant both children and adults throughout the intervening years. The songs are timeless, the performances are charming and the animation is beautifully integrated. P. L. Travers’ series of source novels, on the other hand, have proven rather less enduring, and as John Lee Hancock’s film would have it sales of the stories were already drying up as early as the 1930s. Nevertheless, Disney have decreed that the corresponding chapter in their history is worth revisiting, and here dramatise the film’s difficult development, not least the studio’s decades-long struggle to acquire the rights.

It seems that Mrs. Travers was reluctant to sell her character to Walt Disney for fear that she should be softened, reimagined and — worst of all — animated. Poppins (“never just Mary”) was incredibly close to her creator’s heart, and stemmed from a troubled childhood that left her mother broken, drove her father to drink and led to Travers herself disowning her free-spirited Australian identity. She is an intriguing character: how does her own creative process work, and how does she reconcile her authorial flights of fancy with her disregard for Disney’s own works of art? Unfortunately, the story is less a peek behind the scenes of one of Disney’s most remarkable films than it is just another PG-rated Disney movie.

That Saving Mr. Banks is light, slight and superficial is not in itself an issue — many perfectly decent films are — but it becomes rather more problematic when your lead character spends much of the movie denouncing Disney for being just that. Finding an early draft of the film to be heartless, Travers storms out of the room determined that her creation, given all that it represents, stands for more than fluff and frivolity. One wonders what she would have made of Saving Mr. Banks, a film which seems to commit many of the crimes with which she once charged Disney’s Mary Poppins: Whereas their adaption of her books made Poppins a friendlier figure, this film takes the real life hardship, trauma and tragedy that fed the author’s imagination, and turns it into something just as happy-go-lucky.

Thompson, who showed her admiration for the original film by adapting the thematically similar Nurse Matilda as Nanny McPhee, does a decent enough job as the terse Mrs. Travers, but it is not a performance that comes across as particularly honest or true. Indeed, she often feels — rather blasphemously — like one of Walt Disney’s cartoons. She is so far removed from Annie Buckley’s young Helen Goff, in fact, that they might as well have been playing different people, and whereas a more interesting film might have tried to bridge that gap by probing further into the reasons behind Goff’s crisis of identity the filmmakers instead focus on the rather more flimsy subject of creative development. But the creative process is deeply personal and unknowably complex, and not something that can be tackled with a few fleeting flashbacks to dropped pears. More importantly, it isn’t particularly dramatic, either.

The simplification of Travers isn’t the film’s only issue, however, and Hanks’ Walt Disney is just as under-drawn. Like The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty‘s uncritical endorsement of Life magazine, Saving Mr. Banks is just as brazen in its embrace of the Disney brand — perhaps unsurprising, given that the film was produced in-house. Sure, Travers might at first be unconvinced by Walt’s intentions, but by the end of the film she has either sold out or been beaten into submission, neither quite qualifying as living happily ever after. As she lies in bed, hugging a Mickey doll, the film begins to feel a little insincere and confused in its message. This isn’t helped by Hanks’ portrayal: despite showing the studio boss hand out pre-signed autographs and hiding his smoking habit to maintain a public image, the film pays the specifics of his character little attention.

There is admittedly a lot to like about Hancock’s film: the supporting performances are strong, with Paul Giamatti standing out as chauffeur Ralph; the art direction, production design and costumes are all astonishing, if hardly authentic; and Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman’s songs are as delightful as ever, even as sung by Jason Schwartzman. Ultimately, however, Saving Mr. Banks is all sugar, precious little medicine.

2.5-Stars

Epic (2013)

Epic 3DForced to move in with her eccentric father (Jason Sudeikis) following the death of her mother, Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried), now MK, finds that he is still obsessing over tiny people he believes to inhabit the woods. While out looking for the family dog one evening, MK crosses paths with the queen of the forest, who has been left for dead following an attack by the villainous Boggans. The encounter leaves her shrunken and bequeathed with the queen’s dormant powers. Together with Leafmen Ronin (Colin Farrell) and Nod (Josh Hutcherson, who is apparently a man now), MK must protect the powerful magics from the Boggans’ leader, Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), if they are to save the forest and she is to return to full size. Read more of this post

Dead Man Down (2013)

Dead Man DownSeeking revenge for the death of his wife and daughter, Lazlo Kerick (Colin Farrell) — now going by the name Victor — infiltrates the crime empire of the man responsible, a ruthless kingpin called Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard). Lazlo is forced to accelerate his plans when Darcy (Dominic Cooper), a friend from within Hoyt’s outfit, perceives a threat and begins to investigate. Meanwhile, Victor’s motivations are tested when he strikes up a romance with French neighbour Beatrice (Noomi Rapace). Read more of this post

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

With only days to go before his daughter comes of age, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) must win five souls with his travelling imaginarium if he is to best the devil and save her own from damnation. Confined to the London shadows, his troupe– comprising herald-with-a-crush Anton (Andrew Garfield) and plucky not-a-midget Percy (Verne Troyer)–are struggling to find the necessarily virtuous volunteers when they happen across a mysteriously hanging man. Saved from death, Tony (Heath Ledger) vows to help recruit the required souls as his own becomes inexorably tied to the outcome. Read more of this post

Total Recall (2012)

Plagued by nightmares of a mysterious woman (Jessica Biel), Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) feels that there is something missing from the life he shares with wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), discontent with his job working on synthetic soldiers for the UFB. Talked into visiting Rekall by one of his co-workers, Quaid asks to be implanted with the memories of a secret agent in order to sate his thirst for adventure. When the procedure is interrupted by a squad of armed agents, Quaid flees the scene in a sudden display of physical prowess. Met at home not by a loving wife but a sleeper agent claiming everything he knows to be untrue, Quaid is rescued by the woman from his dreams as they go in search of answers relating to his true identity. Read more of this post

Fright Night (2011)

Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) has a new neighbour; a night owl with very literal boundary issues. When cornered by his ex-friend and one-time fellow dresser upper, Ed Lee (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Charley is forced to consider that the strange disappearances slowly robbing his school of pupils might in fact be the handiwork of his potentially vampiric neighbour. With Jerry Dandrige (Colin Farrell) on to him, and alleged vampire expert Peter Vincent (David Tennant) proving less helpful than hoped, Charley must stake-up if he is to protect his mother (Toni Collette) and girlfriend (Imogen Poots) from almost certain undeath.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I freakin’ LOVE Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you might even say I’m a bit of a Buffy buff, if you’re one of those people anyway. It seems Craig Gillespie does too. Having never actually seen the original Fright Night, then (eh, what are you going to do?), I am going to pad out the next paragraph with the few potentially arbitrary comparisons I can make.

Now, I realise that if we do ever see a Buffy movie it will most likely be a Godless, Whedon-less affair courtesy of  the Kuzui heathens, but a part of me nevertheless refuses to surrender the dwindling hope that I will see a smart, good-humoured vampire flick on the big screen. Who knew that what I was actually waiting for was not Sarah Michelle Gellar’s long overdue comeback (come on, we both know Ringer‘s never going to take off), but the decidedly less blonde spectacle of McLovin the Vampire Slayer.

As a self-confessed Christopher Mintz-Plasse hater (hater might be a bit strong actually, let’s say ‘not-getter’), I was as surprised as anyone when I found myself strangely allured by the prospect of seeing Kick-Ass‘ Red Mist wielding a stake. In a film that boasts a hugely bearable Mintz-Plasse, Gillespie could have been forgiven giving himself a good old pat on the back and having a nice, long rest on his laurels. But no, Fright Night has almost too much going for it, with a winning sense of self-awareness poking fun at everything from Twilight to more traditional, archaic vampire lore, while also being an accomplished and hugely engaging genre film in its own right. Take a bow, Ms. Marti Noxon – I knew that Buffy talk was going somewhere.

Anton Yelchin is fantastic as the ex-geek, troubled teenager-turned vampire hunter, bringing the same intensity with which he rather admirably saved Terminator Salvation from old mardy pants to the role of Charlie Brewster. Mum Toni Collette and love interest Imogen Poots provide admiral support, but the real praise should go out to Colin Farrell and David Tennant, who ham it up beautifully as infamous vampire and celebrity weirdo respectively. In sacrificing sobriety for a sense of joviality, all involved have ensured that Fright Night escapes any bad-will currently felt towards the genre, simultaneously distancing it from the less sardonic original. Or so I’m told.

With a great script, some brilliant performances, a good few dustings and some effective 3D, Fright Night is an absolute delight. A welcome dose of vampire slaying and a genuine, ostensible, bona fidely decent remake, this might be as anti-Let The Right One In as it is the anti-Twilight, but it is a balance that nevertheless works magnificently.