LONDON - "Saving Mr. Banks" closed the 2013 BFI London Film Festival Sunday night and, as expected, officially entered the 2014 Oscar race. When your movie tells the true story of the sparring relationship between the Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks, no less) and author P.L. Travers (Emma "where have you been this past decade" Thompson) over the making of "Mary Poppins," the Oscar bait signs are pretty obvious. Happily, and you can learn more in Guy Lodge's review, the film is actually pretty entertaining with some honest dramatic moments audiences won't expect. And yet, whether "Banks" will have a real impact on the Best Picture race might be too hard to gauge Stateside.
LONDON - You needn’t have seen the 1964 Disney family staple "Mary Poppins" -- though I shudder to think, almost 50 years after its release, of a childhood completed without it -- to be familiar with the practically perfect English nanny’s all-purpose maxim that "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." It was a line conceived not by P.L. Travers, the famously prickly Australian author of the children’s books behind the film, but by Richard and Robert Sherman, the Disney studio’s in-house songwriters.
Intentionally or otherwise, it was a cannily appropriate bit of invention: in a sense, it neatly sums up the Disney ethos of using whimsy and cheer to make life lessons more palatable to young viewers. (Or older ones, for that matter.) Disney, after all, was the man who changed the definition of “fairytale” in the public imagination from Grimm-dark allegory to one of mandatory happy endings. Travers, for her part, liked the medicine.
"Saving Mr. Banks," John Lee Hancock’s bright, entertaining and -- inevitably -- somewhat selective overview of "Poppins'" conflict-laden journey to the screen, is a film that aims for the inverse of that formula: a small dose of acrid personal history is applied to make its sentimental study of creative collaboration yielding personal catharsis that much easier to swallow. That's not necessarily a knock against it. If the tidy emotional geometry of Kelly Marcel's script occasionally feels Disney-esque, that seems only right for a film explicitly about the pervasiveness of Disney’s optimistic storytelling principles in popular culture -- and more implicitly about the way even those heightened principles can mirror the odd human truth. Sometimes life is sentimental, and some will fight it more than others.
Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips" is currently entering its second week at the box office having riveted both critics and filmgoers. Much of the praise the film has received has focused on its exceptional realism. Much of that is courtesy of the film's director of photography, Barry Ackroyd, who spoke to HitFix earlier this week about his work bringing the saga to life.
We're all pretty much on the same page here at HitFix when it comes to Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave." Greg was impressed at its Telluride premiere, and Kris immediately followed suit. Last week, Drew McWeeny added his approval with an "A+"-grade review. With the film still smoldering in my mind from this morning's London Film Festival screening, I wouldn't go quite as far as that, but it's an imposing, impassioned work from a truly vital filmmaker -- like McQueen's first two films, "Hunger" and "Shame," it's a sensually vivid exploration of physical extremities and endurance, here married to more expansive, even universal, story material. Performances are as every bit strong as you've heard they are: not just from the Oscar-buzzed principals, but such striking cameo players as Alfre Woodard and Adepero Oduye.
Anyway, with the film now on limited release -- yes, we realize not all of you have access to it -- it's time to turn the conversation over to you. Muse on the validity of its Oscar-frontrunner status if you wish, but it's also a film that offers up plenty for discussion and debate away from the awards race. Vote in the poll below, and have share your thoughts in the comments.
After bowing at the Cannes Film Festival in May and selectively navigating the early fall festival circuit, J.C. Chandor's "Margin Call" follow-up "All is Lost" is finally floating into theaters this weekend. Here is Drew McQeeny's A- review. It's a brilliant film, which I wrote about in tandem with "Gravity" at Telluride. Reviews are stellar and it looks like it could figure into the Best Picture race in addition to a sure-bet Best Actor nomination for Robert Redford. At Telluride, Chandor told me of Redford, "Everyone has such a history with the guy that it's really hard to get a role where he can kind of play a blank slate." It's true, but it's a hurdle cleared by the actor's work here. As it moves out into limited release, more of you will have a chance to see it. So when and if you get around to the film, please tell us what you thought in the comments section and feel free to vote in the poll below.
Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" hits theaters this weekend as part of an overall theme this Oscar season, or a theme the media has made sure is pronounced, in any case. But while films like "Fruitvale Station," "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and, indeed, "12 Years a Slave" do plenty to stoke a conversation about race in America, McQueen feels there's something much bigger at stake, at least with his film.
Any longtime reader of this blog ought to know full well my affinity for Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." The film instantly won me over the moment I saw it on the heels of its Venice Film Festival world premiere and Toronto Film Festival North American premiere in 2007, and it definitively held the top spot on my list of the decade's best films. (It also, by the way, took the top spot on another list: the inaugural Top 10 Shots of the Year column). It is a masterpiece, and any chance to soak it up on the big screen should be welcomed.
Well, one such chance has arisen, and full disclosure up front, I had a small hand in putting this program together. The Museum of the Moving Image in New York is presenting, along with upstart programmer, museum member (and In Contention reader) Jamieson McGonigle, a screening of the film in December. "No Eulogies: A Revival of 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'" will take place at the Sumner M. Redstone Theater on Saturday, Dec. 7. Dominik will be on hand to participate in a Q&A after the screening, and who knows what the candid artist will have to say with six years removed from what was a troubling post-production process and a release that, quite frankly, could have been more delicately handled by the studio?
Scarlett Johansson says she feels "disconnected" from the awards talk for "Her," which started at last week's NYFF premiere and seems to be gaining in volume. That's appropriate enough, given that she's a disembodied presence in the film -- with critics heaping praise upon her vocal performance as a seductive operating system, a conversation is starting over whether she can be the first actor to get nominated without appearing on screen. Johansson, however, is bemused by it all: "I feel very disconnected from the awards process. I don’t even know how it works. And I’m an Academy member! It seems like a political thing. It just seems like such an abstract thing. Probably as abstract as trying to fit my performance into any particular category ... If people want to translate it into an awards conversation, it’s fine. More exciting for me is that the performance works, because it was such a big challenge.” [LA Times]
LONDON - It’s not hard to see why Anthony Chen won the Camera d’Or for best debut feature at Cannes this year, beating such higher-profile candidates as “Fruitvale Station.” Assured, humane delicacy is always an attractive quality to festival juries wary of more swaggering talent, and it’s one his warmly melancholy domestic drama “Ilo Ilo” (unsurprisingly selected as Singapore's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) has in spades. Light on story and heavy on curdled sentiment, this study of a communication-challenged middle-class Singaporean family weathering the country’s 1997 financial crisis – and numerous finer household fractures besides – has immodest formal reach behind its softly-softly approach.
It may turn out to be the most competitive Best Picture race in years, but the showdown between co-frontrunners "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave" to win it all may soon turn into a three-way race. Walt Disney Studios' "Saving Mr. Banks" will debut at the London Film Festival on Sunday as the Brits will be the first to chime in on the long-buzzed awards player. And, at this point, "Banks" may be the only remaining unseen contender who can make a real mark on the long marathon for the top prize.