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New films: Saving Mr. Banks, Inside Llewyn Davis, Grudge Match

Saving Mr. Banks
Directed by John Lee Hancock

This is my favorite movie of the holiday week, for sheer fun and entertainment. It tells the (mostly true) story of the encounters between Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the pseudonym of the woman who wrote the Mary Poppins series of books. Disney had tried to secure rights to “Mary Poppins” for 20 years by the time that Travers, down on her luck financially, finally agreed to travel to Los Angeles and consider the concept for the film adaptation. The result of which was a clash of cultures and visions of epic proportions.

Travers, although born and raised in Australia was, by that time, almost stereotypically, comedically English in her demeanor. And I say that as somebody who is also English. The result being a wonderful performance by Thompson in which one can imagine the director saying “play the role of Maggie Smith!” Travers was acerbic and intolerant and, for example, a hater of all things animated – which obviously didn’t sit well with Walt Disney. And her formality clashed completely with famously informal “Walt” and his team of first name only creative folks.

The film intersperses this battle of wits with scenes from her childhood, scenes which illustrate the themes and characters of her books. These scenes underscore the idea that her characters were never entirely fictional for her – they all had origins in people she had known and loved, which made her intensely protective of them.

“Saving Mr. Banks” also benefits from several delightful supporting performances, including those from Jason Schwartzmann, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, and Kathy Baker. This is a season for strong ensemble casts (see below) and this is certainly no exception. But watching Thompson, as Travers, spar with Hanks’ Disney and the members of Disney’s team is a joy to behold. And stick around for the credits as they play over actual recordings of the real Travers from those same meetings and creative sessions – one of the best ever credit roll bonuses.

 

Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

The latest from the Coen brothers is a downbeat character study of an unsuccessful folk singer in the early 60’s in New York (primarily). There’s an early exchange between Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), half of a pair of husband/wife folks singers he’s (sometimes) friendly with. In it, she accuses him of being the opposite of King Midas, with the natural ability to turn everything he touches into fecal matter. And while you can’t help but think she’s being a little selective in her reasoning, in the moment, she might just be onto something with that analysis.

Davis has lost his musical partner, has an awful agent, and can’t seem to find his place in either the world of music or the world in general. At times, the film feels a little like “Frances Ha” but whereas Greta Gerwig’s memorable Frances was kidding herself about her own talents, Llewyn has true talent but seemingly no ability to translate it into success.

And this isn’t some sad tale about lack of opportunity – he’s surrounded by opportunity at every step, and is in all the right places at all the right times. But it’s like he and the universe are just slightly out of step or of synch. So he continues to surf from couch to couch and from gig to gig, somehow managing to piss off or disappoint, at least once, almost everybody he comes into contact with.

There’s an old saying, with multiple variations, in which it’s suggested that is you meet a difficult person (think a little more colorfully) once it might be misfortune, but if you keep meeting difficult people, the problem might be you. “Inside Llewyn Davis” feels a little like that kind of idea, put on film – and while it might appeal to fans of the Coen brothers and others who like small, dark, largely plotless indie films, it’s probably not a good holiday pick for somebody looking for something a little more accessible and mainstream.

 

Grudge Match
Directed by Peter Segal

“Hey, what if Rocky Balboa and Jake La Motta fought as senior citizens!?”

You can almost imagine the pitch meeting as the worlds and stars of “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” collide in this comedy about two ex-boxers and cross-town rivals who’ve had a long held grudge against each other. Robert De Niro is Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (a nickname he outgrew many years ago) who now owns a restaurant (where he over indulges), and Sylvester Stallone is Henry “Razor” Sharp, ex light heavyweight champion and salt of the earth blue collar worker.

If there was little else to this story than the idea of two elderly men squaring off against each other in the ring, then it would probably be little more than a string of prostate and geritol jokes. And while those are the source of some humor, the film manages to rise above the surface-level premise by actually having a fairly meaningful backstory.

Both men had won a single fight against each other in the past, but Razor quit the sport before their third, tie-breaking bout. This has been a source of great consternation for his erstwhile opponent and the screenwriters slowly reveal nuggets of the story as the film progresses.  In that sense, it’s more of a triumph (albeit a modest one) of writing than it is of acting or directing, although the two stars perform ably in predictable roles and Kim Basinger is solid as the woman who once came between them. “Grudge Match” is the simple and uncomplicated pick for those wanting a holiday movie that won’t challenge their vacation-oriented mindset.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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