Friday, December 20, 2013


Opening in the Valley this weekend:

Saving Mr. Banks—It’s 1961, and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) doesn’t want to sell the movie rights to her novel Mary Poppins to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). She’s afraid he’ll vulgarize it with music, animation and sentimentality. This movie, directed by John Lee Hancock, dramatizes how Disney and his cronies succeeded in wearing the prickly, exasperating Travers down, so that they could, indeed, vulgarize her book into a sentimental, partly animated musical.

Thompson is superb, as usual, as the impossible woman, but Hanks steals the picture with a delightful—and probably appalling whitewashed—portrayal of the drawling, relentlessly genial Disney. With its terrific acting and its loving period detail—we get not only early-‘60s Hollywood but also flashbacks to early-20th-Century Australia, as we learn the author’s sad backstory—this is a highly enjoyable movie. It’s also, being a Disney picture, a rather unbecoming piece of company propaganda: Its message is that once you sign your soul over to Uncle Walt, your life will become a wonderful world of color. Vulgarization is salvation.

Inside Llewyn Davis—The latest from the Coen Brothers is also set against a backdrop of early-‘60s show business, albeit a very different one than that of Saving Mr. Banks—this time it’s the folkie scene in New York. Llewyn, stunningly played by Oscar Isaac, is a performer in the Village clubs. He sings and plays traditional-style folk songs beautifully, but he’s a chronic screw-up, basically homeless, sleeping on other people’s couches after gigs, impregnating women—including, possibly, the wife (Carey Mulligan) of his best friend (Justin Timberlake)—and even losing his benefactor’s cat on the streets. His blundering odyssey from New York to Chicago and back is infuriating to watch—it’s as if the Coens are deliberately trying to see how annoyed they can make us with a protagonist and still keep rooting for him. I almost began to wonder if they were trying to make people hate folk music (more than most do already).

But I, at least, did keep rooting for Llewyn (except in his encounters with animals), and while it’s far from the Coen’s best work, the movie, with its weird humor and unpredictable twists, has stuck in my head since I’ve seen it.

Walking With Dinosaurs 3-D—This feature was made using the same techniques as the popular BBC series aired in the US on the Discovery Channel: majestic live settings (Alaska and New Zealand) into which computer-generated, more or less scientifically-accurate dinosaurs are added, creating the sense of a live nature documentary about the extinct beasts. Unlike the documentaries, however, this movie adds corny voice-over dialogue to turn the story into a kids-friendly adventure. The coming-of-age plot follows a young Pachyrhinosaurus, called Patchi, who has a distinguishing (and occasionally musical) hole in his frill, through his perilous, predator-filled migrations, his conflict with his brother Scowler, his love for a pretty she-dino called Juniper, and his eventual rise through the herd hierarchy.

Justin Long provides the voice of Patchi, and the narration and commentary is provided by John Leguizamo as the bird that rides on his back. The blend of kidflick dramatics with the occasional harshness of the paleontological accuracy creates an odd effect, but the movie is great to look at—even some of the 3D effects are worthwhile—and the young audiences seem to respond to it.

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