by Steve Habrat
Director John Lee Hancock is no stranger to crafting crowd-pleasing dramas. He’s the man responsible for such films as Dennis Quaid’s 2002 sports drama The Rookie and Sandra Bullock’s unstoppable 2009 hit The Blind Side. When it came to telling the enchanting story of how Walt Disney managed to get the rights to P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins, Hancock was certainly the man for the job. Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks is certainly a well-oiled piece of period filmmaking with several performances that certainly scream for Oscar. It’s a mushy tale about how much the character of Mary Poppins meant to Travers, served up in a candy shell that audiences are guaranteed to savor. Both Hancock and Disney Studios are playing to our hearts with the emotional script from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, but the magic of Saving Mr. Banks really comes alive through the performances from its spread of A-list celebrities. This is Emma Thompson’s show, but Tom Hanks, who is still hot off the success of Captain Phillips, warmly beams his way through his performance as the ultimate dreamer, Walt Disney. And then there is the sweet performance from Paul Giamatti and a particularly touching turn from Colin Farrell, who becomes the film’s beating heart and soaring soul.
Saving Mr. Banks picks up in 1961, with Mary Poppins author Pamela P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) tight on money and low on options. Through her agent, Diarmuid Russell (played by Ronan Vibert), Pamela receives an offer from Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) for the rights to her beloved story so that he can make it into a movie. At first, Pamela refuses to sign over the rights to Disney, who she believes will ruin her very personal story, but her reluctance to right another novel to bring in more money puts her in a difficult spot. With no other alternatives, Pamela travels to Los Angeles to meet with Walt to discuss the project. Upon her arrival, Walt goes above and beyond to charm the scowling Pamela, but each one of his attempts bounces right off her thick skin. Pamela soon begins meeting with scriptwriter Don DaGradi (played by Bradley Whitford) and composer/lyricist brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) to pour over every single detail of the script, storyboards, and musical numbers—all of which she finds fault with. As the exasperated Disney crewmembers try to please Pamela, she strikes up a friendship with her kindly driver, Ralph (played by Paul Giamatti), and begins flashing back to her dysfunctional childhood in Queensland, Australia, with her alcoholic father, Travers Robert Goff (played by Colin Farrell), who instilled a vivid imagination inside the young Pamela.
Saving Mr. Banks juggles two storylines, one which flashes back to Australia, 1906, which gives us a glimpse inside Pamela’s upbringing at the hands of her drunken but loving father and her wounded, soft-spoken mother (played by Ruth Wilson). The scenes set in Australia are given a fairy tale glow, romanticized and shimmering in true Disney fashion. The dramatic outback flashbacks are met by the scenes set in 1961, which posses a more humorous side as Pamela grapples with her idiosyncrasies with her beloved character. Thompson plays Pamela as a porcupine of a woman, a prissy control freak who never passes up a chance to put old Walt Disney in his place. When she isn’t complaining that Los Angeles smells like sweat and chlorine, she ripping into ol’ Walt for anything and everything. Initially, she appears to be immune to Walt’s charms and she scowls every time she lays eyes on a familiar mouse that we have all come to adore. When she meets with DaGradi and the Sherman brothers, she stomps her feet and demands that all of their meeting are recorded. She especially detests the songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and she groans over the mustache added to the character of Mr. Banks, an addition that Walt has personally requested. For as cold and heartless as she seems to be, Thompson molds the character into a sympathetic soul who wrestles with painful memories that she feels doesn’t deserve the pixie-dust whimsy that she is convinced Walt will give her story.
As far as the rest of the performances go, Hanks beams his way through his performance as Walt Disney, a happy-go-lucky businessman who is absolutely perplexed by the whirlwind that is Pamela. Watching his reactions to feisty writer is a treat, especially when she recoils in horror at his suggestion of taking a trip to Disneyland. As his battle to make the movie culminates, he tells a personal story that reveals his understanding over how much the character of Mary Poppins means to Pamela. Then there is Giamatti, who gives one of the most sensitive performances of his career as Ralph, Pamela’s gee-whiz limo driver who makes every effort imaginable to get to know this rigid sourpuss. Watching Ralph develop his friendship with Pamela is hilarious and near the end, it takes an emotional turn that will make your heart swell. Whitford nabs several chuckles as DaGradi, the cautious scriptwriter tasked with battling with Travers on a day-to-day basis. Schwarztman and Novak are a terrific tag team as the Shermans, the composers who just can’t seem to come up with a tune that gets Travers tapping her toes. Then there is Farrell, who just leaps across the screen on the wings of imagination. Behind closed doors, he is a withering heap of a man consumed by alcoholic demons and an illness that threatens to take his life. However, when he is facing the young Pamela in the sun, he is a dancing court jester, her encouragement to never stop dreaming or chasing imagination. Trust me when I say that this role is one of Farrell’s finest hours.
Considering that Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney production, the film’s sets and cinematography look like a million bucks. While there was no filming in Australia, Hancock does a marvelous job transforming various locations around California into the dusty Australian Outback. It should also be noted that there isn’t a single shot in the entire picture that isn’t crisp, clean, and gorgeous, always eager to show off the fantastic period clothing and set design. Hancock and his screenwriters also do a marvelous job with revealing little secrets about Pamela’s past to the viewer, whether it is her dislike for pears or her fury over Mr. Banks having a mustache on screen. Every little reveal is balanced throughout the picture, one being just slightly more emotional than the last one. Overall, while there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Disney studios has sweetened this story up in places, Saving Mr. Banks is still a wholesome little movie that touches on the importance of imagination and pleas with each and every one of us to never loose our child-like sense of wonder. Thompson and Farrell are Oscar worthy in their respective roles, Giamatti’s Ralph is unforgettable, and Hanks is clearly having a grand old time slipping into the skin of Walt Disney, a role he was born to play.
by Steve Habrat
To say that you have no idea what you are in for in The Cabin in the Woods is a complete understatement. You can’t even fathom the twist that is waiting to be sprung on you half way through this monster of a horror movie. That, my friends, is something you need to be excited about. I’ve said it multiple times, horror has hit rock bottom, from countless remakes, sequels, and retreads, leaving us only a handful of notable films to celebrate. It is truly hard to believe that there is such a shocking lack of vision and creativity working in Hollywood. I can’t believe they are paid millions to repackage and resell recycled garbage that we have already seen before and much better at that. The Cabin in the Woods lays waste to that approach; at first giving us the same weary old setup and then suddenly launching a shock and awe campaign that you will be truly unprepared for. It’s the first real crowd pleaser horror movie to come around in a long time, one that demands you see it in a packed house with tons of other unsuspecting viewers. You will be in for one wild night at the movies.
The Cabin in the Woods follows five college students, virgin Dana (Played by Kristen Connolly), slutty Jules (Played by Anna Hutchison), athletic Curt (Played by Chris Hemsworth), polite Holden (Played by Jesse Williams), and stoner Marty (Played by Fran Kranz), who head to an isolated cabin in the woods for a weekend of debauchery. After exploring the eerie basement, the group finds a worn out diary that they proceed to read from, conjuring up a bloodthirsty force in the woods that slowly descends upon the cabin. Meanwhile, a strange organization watches the kids from hidden cameras placed strategically around the cabin. It turns out that this organization has an agenda all their own and they are hiding a horrifying secret that threatens the world.
Considered a “loving hate letter” to horror by its director Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon, The Cabin in the Woods adoringly tips its hat to the classics every chance it gets. Keep an eye out for a hilarious nod to Evil Dead II, a siege on the cabin that is evocative of Night of the Living Dead, and a sequence that would have felt right at home in the calmer moments of the original Friday the 13th. It also helps that the early premise is loosely based on the original 1981 The Evil Dead. When the twist is revealed, The Cabin in the Woods evolves into a new breed of horror movie that embraces every single subgenre you can possibly think of. I hesitate to say anymore about it other than it does go for broke and it comes up a winner because of it. Fans of the genre will be left beside themselves and at times it was almost overload, so much to take in that you will be flirting with heading back to the theater to experience it again. It’s absolutely exhilarating.
The Cabin in the Woods does have a talented cast behind the wheel, not a weak link in the bunch and then springing a surprise guest on us in the final moments. I loved Chris Hemsworth as the jock Curt, the overly confident hero who uses his strength in some of the most hysterical ways possible. Wait for the scene where he comes face to face with a zombie girl. Fran Kranz also shines as the squinty-eyed stoner Marty who begins to suspect there is more going on than meets the eye. And then we have Richard Jenkins as Steve Hadley and Bradley Whitford as Richard Sitterson, who are members of the mysterious organization who steal every scene they are in. A good majority of the laughs come from their end, especially in a gambling sequence and in their deadpan observations while they watch the kids.
My one minor complaint with The Cabin in the Woods is that I wished it had been scarier than it turned out to be. Sure, it is loaded with jump scares that will have the easy targets filling the jeans, but I wish it had really freaked me out. The audience I saw the film with had a ball with the fake out scares, gasping every time that music blasted over the speakers. I did enjoy the campy melody that The Cabin in the Woods carries, right down to the self-aware chucklers like “We should split up!” In fact, the film is often times more of a comedy than it is a horror movie, but I think that is precisely the point of The Cabin in the Woods. Nothing really scares us anymore, never sending us home from the theater with a handful of sleepless nights. The Cabin in the Woods points out that horror isn’t just failing in America, but is crumbling all over the world, and simply not doing the job that it is responsible for.
The Cabin in the Woods turns out to be a blood soaked, anything goes party that takes absolutely no prisoners. It opts to wipe all the prisoners it could take off the map and then firebomb the map. As an evaluation of the sorry state of horror, it is spot on and leaves you itching to see more horror films like it. In a way it gives horror fans hope, that there is still some individuals out there in the industry who posses creativity and will take a few risks. It baffles me why the film has been shelved for so long and why the studio was so iffy about it. Well written, directed, acted, and featuring the mother of all horror movie finales, The Cabin in the Woods is an adrenaline shot jabbed right into the feeble heart of the horror genre.