Action, Adventure, Alfred, Batman, Cameron Cloutier, Casting, Comic Book, DC Comics, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Jesse Eisenberg, Justice League, Lex Luthor, Man of Steel 2, Podcast, Superhero, Superman, Warner Brothers, Wonder Woman
Action, Adventure, Alfred, Batman, Cameron Cloutier, Casting, Comic Book, DC Comics, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Jesse Eisenberg, Justice League, Lex Luthor, Man of Steel 2, Podcast, Superhero, Superman, Warner Brothers, Wonder Woman
April Fool's Day, Blair Witch 2, Book of Shadows, Cameron Cloutier, Cannibal Holocaust, Cat's Eye, Cherry Falls, Clownhouse, Dario Argento, Dirk van Sloten, Discussion, Don Coscarelli, Dust Devil, Eating Raoul, Game of Werewolves, Ginger Snaps, Gorotica, Gothic, Hannibal, Hardware, Horror, I Madman, Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, Joe Berlinger, Ken Russell, Mr. Frost, Night Life, Nightbreed, Opera, Pan and Scan, Paperhouse, Podcast, Ridley Scott, Suspense, Terror at the Opera, The Cabal Cut, The Reflecting Skin, Troll, Waxwork, Widescreen
By Shane M. Dallmann
And just like last week, the opening studio logo goes “sputter-fitz” as we herk and jerk into the second consecutive “camcorder” horror film of the young year.
Why am I here? Because last week I caught PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES in spite of myself and was surprised to find that it was actually pretty good. Here’s the thing: in PATMO, we got characters who stumbled into something and kept investigating it throughout the story even as worse and worse things started to happen… basically, we learned what was going on at the same pace that the characters themselves did, and it stayed interesting (not to mention frequently scary).
Now comes DEVIL’S DUE, and, well, it’s one of those that starts with an ominous Bible verse and then cuts straight to the nasty aftermath of whatever just went on before telling you the rest of the story. So, the opening quote tells you it’s about the birth of the Antichrist, and the very first scene pretty much spells out how it’s going to turn out. So, if you choose to stick around, you’re going to spend minute after agonizing minute waiting for the movie to finally get around to showing you what you already know.
You’ve got to sit through the pre-wedding banter. The wedding. The reception. The honeymoon in the Dominican Republic. The fortune teller. The cabbie who insists on taking the otherwise hopelessly lost newlyweds to a “really fun place.” (I thought he might be setting them up for a mugging, and that was a scarier idea than anything that actually happens in this movie.) THEN we finally get to the unexpected pregnancy and the initial “something’s wrong” jitters.
On and on and on we go with this rehash. But don’t blame the ancient concept. Not a bit of it. We’ve seen more than enough times that if a filmmaker truly has a vision and an attitude about even the most hackneyed, old-school ideas that he can still score a knockout. That’s how you get THE CONJURING and YOU’RE NEXT! (be honest–if I had just given you a brief plot summary of either one of those, would you have cared?). But more often than not, you just get some guys who said “Hey, that worked in THAT movie, so let’s do it in OURS!” This time around, unsurprisingly, it’s slavish PARANORMAL ACTIVITY imitation to a point that PATMO itself never even reached. (Try this on for size: our leading lady decides to take a bath at an extreme distance from the camera which just happens to be running on a desktop or some such. But after she gets in the bath, the camera turns… ALL BY ITSELF, oh, no!!!… and starts zooming in on her in the tub… and then they abruptly cut to the next scene which starts with the dog barking at the camera, which is supposed to make you jump. But they already did the “just the dog” jump scare within the first five minutes. Was there a POINT to any of this business?) You see, PATMO knew how to be just different enough to recapture my attention. But while I’m at it? We’re apparently getting a new entry called PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 5 later this year? Wouldn’t that be the sixth film in the series now? Except if they’re trying to say PATMO doesn’t “really count,” even you know it actually DOES “count” if you saw it?
Notice how I’d rather be watching last week’s movie again than talking about this one? Okay… is there ANYTHING at all good about DEVIL’S DUE? It’s not one of those amateur hour DTV products where nobody knows how to use a camera and the actors don’t know how to act… but that just makes things all the worse, as these guys could and should have tried harder (it was directed by two of the V/H/S guys, but what they saw in THIS story, which they did not concoct on their own, baffles me). Oh, there’s the title itself, which, upon reflection, qualifies as a decent bit of wordplay. But you know what I’m going to do because I’m mad at the movie AND the studio for wasting my time? I’m going to be petty and change the title of this movie to DEVIL’S ULTIMATE DUE just so I can call it DUD for short.
I spent nearly every painful minute of this film wanting to walk out and wondering why I was preventing myself from doing so. What did I think was going to happen to make things better? I could have been reading a book. I could have been solving a logic problem. I could have been catching up with my video reviews. I could have been training myself to sing in Italian (if you’ve never heard it, I’ll have you know that I’ve got one FINE singing voice if I do say so myself). I could have been experimenting with the possibilities of rubber cement as a substitute for chewing gum. I could have been giving peanuts to squirrels.
It’s too late for me. But don’t do what I did. Don’t sacrifice the tiniest fraction of your life by even glancing at a mere moment of this utter DUD.
2016, Action, Adventure, Batman, Batman vs. Superman, Ben Affleck, Blockbuster, Cameron Cloutier, Comic Book, Discussion, Film, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Justice League, Man of Steel, Movie, Podcast, Postpone, Sequel, Superhero, Superman, The World's Finest, Warner Brothers, Wonder Woman, Zack Snyder
By Shane M. Dallmann
When I wrapped up my “year in review” post for 2013, I allowed that while I had sworn off any further PARANORMAL ACTIVITY entries after the dismal fourth installment, I was under the impression that P.A.: THE MARKED ONES was merely using the franchise title to sell a new movie with new characters, and as such, I’d still probably check out the first horror release of 2014.
Well, fool me once. There IS a connection, and if you aren’t familiar with at least the first film in the series, you’ll walk out with a great big “Huh?” Had I bothered to do my homework, I would have learned ahead of time that this was the directorial debut of Christopher Landon (who wrote all but the first film) and I would have been automatically on my guard. But… there’s a reason I don’t do my homework. I like movies to be as new and surprising to me as possible when they show up, no matter how much I take for granted in real life.
And this time? It definitely worked in my favor. So, in brief: we’re in the Hispanic community of Oxnard, California. Best friends Jesse and Hector are quite amused to suspect that their frumpy, matronly neighbor Ana may actually be a nasty “bruja,” and they’re more than a bit titillated when they contrive to spy on her and actually see her performing a ritual. It’s still all a joke to them until their pal Oscar (who just graduated from high school as valedictorian) shoots Ana dead without warning. And this event coincides with Jesse’s discovery that some intangible force is apparently looking out for his own safety (and, in some cases, his remarkable good fortune).
Okay, it’s another camcorder movie and all that that entails. You can either still tolerate the format or not, and it gets harder and harder every time to accept that someone’s always remembering to keep that camera running to the bitter end. But I’m still essentially okay with it, and in this case I’m glad that I didn’t approach it as an actual PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movie, because it really does try to be different in its own way. We’ve got a fresh and believable neighborhood and set of characters; and there are none of those endless “camera running overnight” speed-up sequences or other over-elaborate surveillance gimmicks; nor are we impeded by having to keep track of what the hell went on in the other four movies (until the appropriate moments when it actually works). Oh, and I also enjoyed the use of the vintage electronic game “Simon” as a substitute for the typical Ouija board…
THE MARKED ONES does things its own way and manages to keep the momentum going even when it crosses familiar territory. The effects are excellent and the scares are often ferocious (even though there are also moments where you just KNOW something’s going to yell boo). So yes, fool me once. But had I figured this for yet another helping of the same old P.A., I wouldn’t even have bothered. Yet since I did? I have no trouble pointing to this as the best of the sequels.
By Shane M. Dallmann
Oh, come on… this isn’t fair! It’s only JANUARY… we’ve got ALL YEAR to find the worst film of 2014… why are you starting your lineup off with your unbeatable champion???
Look, I knew this wasn’t going to be great. In fact, I had planned to skip it completely. But I found myself with unanticipated hours to kill yesterday and there was really no viable alternative. So, to my own disbelief, I actually bought a ticket to THE LEGEND OF HERCULES. In 3-D, even. And now that I HAVE seen it, I’m sorely tempted to suggest that you do so, too–just so you can say that you did. You know, the way I did with BATTLEFIELD EARTH and I KNOW WHO KILLED ME.
It’s so rare that a movie lets you know that you’re in serious trouble from the VERY FIRST SHOT. The CGI soldiers clanking swords and hurling spears? Well, let’s be fair. If this WERE a video game, I’d give it high marks for its graphics. But this isn’t a video game. This is supposed to be a $70 million (!!!!) epic motion picture. You know–a REAL, NON-ANIMATED MOTION PICTURE.
Anyhow, never mind what this battle is all about (there’s some rushed explanation or other), but the long and short of it is that some nasty warrior or other (Bert Bonklefonk) conquers the King of Argos and takes over the kingdom, much to the chagrin of his arranged-marriage wife, who prays to Hera for delivery. And oh, does she get it. Hera scarcely resembles a goddess, she’s more of a wispy whiner who agrees to let Zeus cheat on her for the sake of fathering a champion destined to rescue the kingdom, etc. etc. You never see Zeus. But his invisible form bonks the queen in a sequence sure to make you howl (that’s one way to keep your PG-13… another way is to cut away every time someone falls on a bed of spikes, which they do twice in a row, but that’s another story).
Anyhow. King Nasty isn’t happy about this, but to keep up appearances, he raises the new baby under the name of O-Cedar (though the queen and Hera know his name is REALLY… ) and declares him inferior to his simpering, jealous older half-brother Proctologus (Scratchy Von Bumcakes).
Twenty years later, O-Cedar (Puffy McPickle) is “secretly” dallying with the Princess of Crete (Cookie LaSchputz), who’s been promised to Proctologus. The “unkillable” Nemean Lion shows up and is killed by O-Cedar in about thirty seconds, but the snarky older brother takes credit for it and claims the princess while O-Cedar is sent off to Egypt to do battle. He and his buddy the soldier captain (Quincy Boomsplat) survive a planned massacre and get sold as tag-team mud wrestlers, eventually working up to a big tournament where O-Cedar stands alone against six unbeaten fighters (five men and a woman) and kills five of them (the other way to keep a PG-13 is to have the good guy incapacitate, rather than kill, the woman).
King Nasty doesn’t like any of this, so he and Proctologus strike back, while the guy who doesn’t want to be known as Hercules FINALLY accepts his heritage and gets his super-strength when everyone in the audience who believes in fairies claps their hands. But he STILL won’t use his superpowers on King Nasty–he wants to fight him mano a mano with his regular “man” strength. And apparently the ancient Greeks invented the saying “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Really. King Nasty invokes it around this point.
THE LEGEND OF HERCULES (originally publicized as HERCULES: THE LEGEND BEGINS, even though it certainly won’t continue from here) comes to us from director Renny Harlin. Now, I know what you’re thinking–his name has been synonymous with “box office death” for quite some time, but he HAS made some terrific movies, and rarely have I accused him of being sloppy or incompetent. THIS time, I was desperately searching the credits for the name “Uwe Boll.” Yes, it’s THAT bad. THAT. STAGGERINGLY. BAD. The story was an afterthought, the effects are cheesy, the performances… ugh, that coy, “aw shucks” romantic smile the guy I simply can’t call “Hercules” keeps giving the princess… the fight scenes are all MATRIX-y (they freeze-frame each and every leap, somersault, etc.).
Why the hell didn’t they just re-release the Lou Ferrigno HERCULES on the big screen. It would have done just as well and “been” just as good (I’m not quite ready to say that about the sequel–even I have standards). If you DO go to experience this awesome awfulness, however, you may as well spring for the 3-D, because that’s the one thing that was less than lousy… some decent arrow/spear in your face action, and one pretty good sequence involving the swinging of huge stones attached to chains.
And now I’ve said every possible good thing I can say about this movie. I immediately followed it up with my one-week-delayed viewing of the latest PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Review to follow. The worst thing about that is that I had to sit through the I, FRANKENSTEIN trailer two more times in one day.
Bad Grandpa, Bullet to the Head, Carrie, Catching Fire, Chapter 2, Dark Skies, Escape Plan, Evil Dead, Grudge Match, Homefront, Hunger Games, Insidious, Iron Man Three, John Dies At The End, Kick Ass 2, Oblivion, Oldboy, Pacific Rim, Paranormal Activity, Parker, Prisoners, Riddick, Room 237, Scary Movie V, Side Effects, Stand Up Guys, Star Trek Into Darkness, Texas Chainsaw 3D, The ABCs of Death, The Call, The Conjuring, The Family, The Last Exorcism 2, The Last Stand, The Lords of Salem, The Purge, The World's End, World War Z, Would You Rather, You're Next
By Shane M. Dallmann
Wow… when you look back and actually count on your fingers, 2013 was one of the sparsest years in a while for the “horror film,” at least as far as the big screen was concerned. I normally dive straight into the “horror” category and then sum up the rest of the movies I caught over the past year, but this time I think I’ll save the scary stuff for last?
Okay, first let’s dispense with the absolutely NON-horror titles I managed to catch on the big screen. These mainly concerned themselves with aging action stars and their appointed (I’d certainly use that term when Sylvester Stallone designs a vehicle to showcase Jason Statham) successors. Interestingly, NONE of these made a splash at the box office.
I didn’t see THE LAST STAND (Schwarzenegger), but I really enjoyed Walter Hill’s good, old-fashioned BULLET TO THE HEAD, which would make a fine double bill with the Stallone-scripted HOMEFRONT (Statham and company deliver exactly what they promise). By comparison, PARKER also gave us some good Statham, but the Donald E. Westlake adaptation could have been seriously streamlined by eliminating the character played by Jennifer Lopez altogether (nothing against her personally, she just slowed the story down immensely).
And all of the above were superior to the weary ESCAPE PLAN, but even that had its moments (mainly from Schwarzenegger).
We also got some strange blendings of action and sentiment from the real “old school” players. STAND UP GUYS wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I found it engaging and amusing. Meanwhile, THE FAMILY was completely and disappointingly unrecognizable as a Luc Besson film, but DeNiro, Tommy Lee Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer still had some worthwhile bits to offer.
And no, I had no interest whatsoever in GRUDGE MATCH. But speaking of “aging,” I have to throw BAD GRANDPA in here somewhere because it doesn’t belong anywhere else. It was an efficient “practical joke/candid camera” movie, but the punchline was done much better in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.
OLD BOY doesn’t fit anywhere else, either. I’d call the Spike Lee remake “controversial,” but since almost nobody in the world even saw it? I thought it was a perfectly respectable retelling of somebody else’s story, simple as that.
And Steven Soderbergh’s alleged ‘fiinal’ feature was SIDE EFFECTS, which was one hell of a gripping, surprising medical thriller and so much more.
No, the reason “horror” itself got such short shrift is because this was the year of constant science-fiction/superhero epics, most of them sequels and/or reboots.
Superheroes: IRON MAN THREE was yet another disappointing follow-up to what I thought was the best of the pre-AVENGERS Marvel sequence. But I’ll take that over MAN OF STEEL, which gave us another “angsty” Superman and continued to drain all of the fun out of what was supposed to be the most uplifting of franchises. I don’t care how good the special effects, etc. were. I want Superman to be FUN again. We’ve already GOT a Batman, okay? Meanwhile, reviews were split down the middle on THOR: THE DARK WORLD. Put me in the camp that found it a distinct improvement over a lackluster original.
KICK-ASS 2 was a strange bird which tried a bit too hard to raise the stakes of the original. But Chloe Grace Moretz deserves plenty of kudos, and the film also boasted terrific supporting roles for John Leguizamo and Jim Carrey (who, of course, promptly disowned it, claiming he had no idea how violent it was going to be. Sure, Jim. Sure.).
Also in the sequel department? RIDDICK was better than CHRONICLES OF… but still not up to PITCH BLACK (which it could have been if it hadn’t been determined to linger on screen quite so long). STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS was mostly satisfying as a follow-up to the big-screen reboot… at least until Spock became an action hero. And really… was there any point in naming the otherwise fine villain “Khan?” Far more successful at going above and beyond its origin was CATCHING FIRE, the second installment of THE HUNGER GAMES: this film boasted enough quality for me to recommend that even naysayers of the original take a look at what’s been going on in that world lately. Top cast, too…
As for “original” science fiction? OBLIVION was a fantastic-looking rehash of a very basic story, while GRAVITY made a new art form out of total immersion 3-D in a far more gripping tale.
And thank goodness that lackluster American box office did NOT spell the end of Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM. Nobody honors his childhood monsters so effectively, be it through the subtle DEVIL’S BACKBONE or the bombastic HELLBOY movies… and now he’s given the kaiju concept everything in his arsenal with movie designed to please us as much as it obviously did himself. (To this day I have never seen a TRANSFORMERS film, so I had no chance of being burned out by giant ‘mechas,’ okay?)
NOW let’s segue into “horror” with two projects that aren’t QUITE horror on their own but which draw heavily on our beloved genre… in one case, via one specific film. ROOM 237 was the documentary on all the “conspiracy/hidden meaning” theories expounded upon ever since Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING came out. You don’t have to subscribe to a single one of them in order to enjoy just hearing/seeing about them, especially with the mad editing scheme and bounty of surprise movie clips worked into the frame. Pure entertainment, and enlightening even if you think it’s all crackpot stuff.
And then there’s THE WORLD’S END. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright top off their “Cornetto” trilogy with their best effort yet (yes, I loved SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but this is in a class by itself), earning huge laughs and surprising emotional payoff in the deceptively simple tale of a “pub crawl” that becomes more than a personal apocalypse. Without a doubt, this is my favorite film of 2013. And then some.
As for pure “horror?” I couldn’t even stretch the list to twenty titles (although I’m sure I deliberately skipped a few. No HOBBIT movies for me, either).
Here’s Del Toro again, not directing, but choosing and guiding MAMA to another highly successful look at the world of children and the adults who become their monsters.
I’m pushing it to include THE CALL, but see it through and you’ll realize that it does, ultimately qualify as horror. For the most part, it’s a breakneck “real time” kidnap thriller with exceptional work by both Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin (yep, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE herself).
THE PURGE might have become a little obvious by the time it was over, but the outrageous gimmick at its core was a good one, the preppies terrorizing Ethan Hawke and family were genuinely frightening, and the ending was more than satisfying (not to mention troubling).
Another one they tried not to call “horror” was PRISONERS, but this was far more than a typical “vigilante” outing–this reaches back to INN OF THE FRIGHTENED PEOPLE and captures the intensity of THE VANISHING itself. And again, only by watching all the way through to the end will you be able to make up your mind–but the film more than warns you that the journey won’t be a pleasant one.
Perhaps the most controversial horror title of the year (for long-time fans, anyway) was the new EVIL DEAD. Not quite a remake. Not quite a reboot. Call it what you will… for me it worked quite well and entertained me from beginning to end.
YOU’RE NEXT! was perhaps released too closely to THE PURGE (even though it was filmed first) to stand out on its own, but it’s a pitch-perfect “siege” thriller without gimmicks, boasting plenty of jolts, shocks, humor, perversity and THE best ending of the year. Oh, and it has Barbara Crampton. So there you go.
The previous title had me sorely tempted to call “winner,” and I honestly think it’s more of a tie than anything else, but THE CONJURING represents so much more in the big picture… it’s vindication for James Wan against everyone who thought he was a one-trick “torture porn” pony and scorned every non-SAW effort he offered. This “based on true events” haunting/exorcism tale didn’t have an unfamiliar concept in its entire body, but Wan and company treated it like they were doing it for the first time and without a trace of irony and delivered one of the best (and SCARIEST) horror films of recent years. And now we’re going to lose him to the mainstream as a result, apparently…
THE MIDDLE GROUND:
Why, it’s James Wan again. INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 was slick, efficient and more than competent. It was also one of the most unnecessary sequels ever made. Still, the fadeout hints that this series can still be taken in a fresh direction. Whether Wan gets/wants to helm another horror movie is anyone’s guess at this point, though.
I’ve always enjoyed the work of OLDBOY’s Park Chan-Wook and was looking forward to his first English-language feature. STOKER gave us immensely affecting performances and gorgeous art direction and photography. I wanted to love it. I also understand it as a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, but it was the repeated hammering home of that point that constantly distracted me and made me wonder if Park was putting me on (“see that bit from PSYCHO I just did there? If you missed it, I’ll do it again. Hey, here it is for the third time in ten minutes!”).
Then there were three in a row that actually DID play at my local arthouse, but screenings were restricted to one nightly showing out of my reach and pay-per-view was, ironically, cheaper. And about worth it.
With twenty-six short films to choose from, how could THE ABCs OF DEATH land anywhere else but the middle category? There was some great stuff, there was some revolting garbage, and there was some just plain nonsense. I’m not looking forward to another installment… it’s simply too much to sit through in one gulp. For the record, my favorite bits were “D is for Dogfight” and “Q is for Quack.”
Don Coscarelli’s JOHN DIES AT THE END. I’ve got friends who swear by this feature and who enjoyed every second of it. And I’m happy for them, and I liked quite a bit of it myself. I simply could not get ‘immersed’ the way I was hoping to be. Maybe I’ll try it again sometime. Sorry.
And the year that gave us Barbara Crampton also gave us a fine showcase for Jeffrey Combs in WOULD YOU RATHER. I just wish the SAW-school story had given us more of certain characters and a more inspired wrap-up.
Back to the big screen… another movie I really wanted to love was Rob Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM–it began terrifically and stands out as his most original feature to date–unfortunately, it lost track of itself in a sea of obvious Ken Russell tributes en route to an incoherent ending.
And for all the ballyhoo? WORLD WAR Z also started off with a bang but never quite brought the intensity the way it should have. In the end, it wasn’t awful. It was just… okay.
The CARRIE remake disappointed by being just that–a direct remake of the Brian De Palma film as opposed to a new take on potentially timeless material. Julianne Moore and (for the most part) Chloe Grace Moretz redeemed it with their performances, but it all went to hell the moment the bucket dropped.
As for SCARY MOVIE V? The ONLY reason it doesn’t land at the bottom of the slagheap is on the strength of a truly hilarious and up to the minute EVIL DEAD tribute sequence. For the record, it used MAMA, of all things, as its “base.”
I suppose the best thing about the horror year 2013 was the dearth of truly dreadful films. I was torn between putting DARK SKIES in the middle ground on the strength of one very good character (the weary, resigned alien expert), but the film itself was too much of a generic rehash that borrowed far too much from POLTERGEIST to impress me.
TEXAS CHAINSAW tried to be different, but I found it woefully misguided, shallow (I kept asking why the appealing Tania Raymonde was given NOTHING to do but “be a slut,” for one thing) and incomplete–not to mention almost completely pointless as a 3-D project.
But you’re not going to find a worse film than THE LAST EXORCISM PART 2… pretty much anywhere. And it’s all the more shameful considering how impressed I was with the first installment. This was the crudest of would-be-cash-ins and it had absolutely nothing to offer. And don’t blame the overly familiar subject matter, either. Look at THE CONJURING and end this year on a good note instead.
What does the future hold? Well, I’d sworn off any further PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies, but now they went and used the title for an “in name only” installment that at least has nothing whatsoever to do with that overplayed suburban family. So I’ll start there, regardless.
Australia, Author, Blood, Book, Cameron Cloutier, Destiny West, Discussion, Dr. Rev Mayers, Erotic, Erotica, Film, Genre, Gothic, Horror, Interview, Lamia, Movie, Novel, Novelist, Podcast, Sadomasticism, Scary, Sex, Terror, The Awakening, Violence, Writer
My interview with controversial horror author, Destiny West (“Lamia”, “Lamia – The Awakening”).
Also, be sure to read her book, “Lamia”. If you don’t mind a little sex, violence and blood in your storytelling, it will certainly put a smile on whichever part of your body that needs attention.
Update (January 8, 2014):
In a follow up podcast with O&A, Destiny West agreed to answer some questions from her fans and readers. Enjoy!
1964, 2013, Cameron Cloutier, Cherry Tree Lane, Classic, Colin Farrell, David Tomlinson, Dick Van Dyke, Disney, Emma Thompson, Julie Andrews, Mark Kermode, Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, Richard Sherman, Robert Sherman, Saving Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks, Walt Disney
“If you don’t like Mary Poppins, we can’t be friends.” – Mark Kermode (BBC Radio 5 Film Critic)
In the last couple of weeks, two films have opened here in the United States. One being “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the other being “Saving Mr. Banks”. Both films have been immensely controversial for displaying questionable morals when it comes to the art of storytelling, but for diametrically opposite reasons.
In the case of the Scorsese film, it’s about shock, excess and the raw power of confronting limitless egos and pocketbooks at the expense of hardworking people everywhere.
With “Saving Mr. Banks”, it’s about the use of sentimentality in regards to “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers’ battle with Walt Disney, the man who once promised his children he would make a film of her book.
Because this film was produced by the Walt Disney company, the movie has taken a lot of flack by critics for championing Uncle Walt’s venture to whittle away Mrs. Travers’ nerves, until she had no choice but to give up the rights to her book to do with it what he will.
Never mind that the original script was written independently of the studio. I suppose there are some that just “can’t see past the end of their nose.”
Now I have to admit that when I first saw the film “Saving Mr. Banks”, I went in expecting to see this one sided depiction, but what I got was something a whole lot more.
In fact, I was not prepared for how moving the last few minutes of the movie would prove to be.
Up until that point though, the film tells two stories. The first is about P.L. Travers working relationship with the songwriters, screenplay author and Walt Disney himself on the proper way “Mary Poppins” (never just Mary) should be told on screen.
The second chronicles P.L. Travers’ life as a child of an alcoholic banker and an emotionally distant mother.
I hesitantly say these are flashbacks because the film gives almost equal running time to these sequences. A closer equivalent would be to “Godfather 2” in its way of telling parallel stories to reach a common goal.
There are many funny and sad scenes along the way, as you can imagine. There are also characters in the film that are clearly composites (But how is this different from any other true story made into a film?) and other feuds which occured that unfortunately don’t get any screen time at all.
For instance, the Sherman Brothers (played convincingly well by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) didn’t get along outside of composing songs. The reason for that is during World War 2, one of them got stationed in paradise and the other got sent to a war zone and got shot. The bullet is mentioned in the film, but their hostility towards one another is not.
Also, Walt Disney’s smoking habit is only hinted at off screen by a few coughs when we know he died a couple years later due to habitually smoking.
(You see, Disney has a policy in their films about not showing smoking.)
Also, Mrs. Travers is known to have cried during the premiere of “Mary Poppins”; not because she was moved, but because she hated this adaptation.
That being said, whatever the truth, whichever little anecdotes were left out or combined, the fact remains that the “Saving Mr. Banks” ending that director John Lee Hancock and his editor, Mark Livolsi constructed is truly special and not at all the “Disneyfied” version many others are claiming.
Shall we begin..?
The sequence begins with P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) being led into the “Mary Poppins” premiere by Mickey Mouse himself. This suggests, at least, a partial truce she has made with the Mouse Factory that has sought to bring her story to life.
Regardless of her internal thoughts and feelings, this is a big night for both of them.
The next shot is of the theater curtains opening, presumably from Mrs. Traver’s seat at the premiere.
The audience claps.
The lights go out and the film begins. Anticipation is high, but Mrs. Travers’ expectations couldn’t be any lower.
She is trapped, I mean sitting, between the Sherman Brothers, with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) sitting right behind her.
This is going to be a long night.
Walt Disney himself just wants to enjoy the evening. He has literally spent over twenty years of his life to get to this moment and now he just wants to sit back and be entertained.
Settling in, Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) takes a look around, probably estimating the level of hostility he’ll have to hear from under Mrs. Travers’ breath this evening.
The film then dissolves to Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) in the nursery talking to the children, Jane and Michael Banks.
Mary Poppins: In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and – SNAP!
The moment Mary Poppins snaps, the film cuts to P.L. Travers acting annoyed and dismayed by the sheer nonsense she is now seeing before her.
Mary Poppins (o.s.): The job’s a game!
She rolls her eyes. This is the type of frivolous adaptation Mrs. Travers feared would be made of her work.
While the rest of the world sees magic, she can only see the differences.
The film then dissolves to the infamous scene in “Mary Poppins” where Bert (Dick Van Dyke) dances with a few animated penguins to the tune of “Jolly Holliday”.
This scene, more than any other, is something P.L. Travers fought hard against, but Disney won this particular argument and subsequently put it in the film.
Now she has to bear it in front of a live audience.
This has now become a moment of complete embarrassment for Mrs. Travers as she puts her head down.
Richard and Robert Sherman look over, probably to see which one of them is about to be smacked.
The dancing scene continues…
The audience is laughing and delighted by what they are seeing. Even Walt can’t help but smile.
The crowd is clearly eating this up.
Now it’s not hard for P.L. Travers herself to take note as she gives the crowd a surprising turn of the head.
Cutting back, we see now that she is relaxing a bit more by the audience’s reaction, but it’s clear that Richard Sherman is still in fear for his life.
The film then dissolves further into the “Mary Poppins” screening, in what is probably the only misstep of this entire sequence.
Not because of the acting or the filmmaking talent displayed, but because the “Step in Time” scene occurs later than some of the next scenes we are shown.
However, I think it’s best to let Mrs. Travers enjoy this little ray of sunshine.
(But I have to say, when dealing with a classic film, one that everyone knows backwards and forwards, it’s important to stick to the timeline.)
“Step in time, step in time
Step in time, step in time
Never need a reason, never need a rhyme
Step in time, we step in time”
Now the film literally dissolves from Mrs. Travers face to Mary Poppins herself and we are treated to one of the most iconic lines from the 1964 movie.
Mary Poppins: Sometimes a person we love, through no fault of their own, can’t see past the end of their nose.
This statement jolts Mrs. Travers and makes her take note of what is being said.
Jane (o.s.): Past the end of his nose?
Bert (o.s.): Well now, there must be some mistake.
Bert: Your dad is a fine gentlemen and he loves you.
This statement cuts a little too close to home for the author.
Jane (o.s): I don’t think so. You should have seen the look on his face.
Michael: He doesn’t like us at all.
The author is taken aback by the emotional undercurrent swelling up inside the theater (and her heart).
Bert (o.s.): Well now that doesn’t seem likely, now does it?
Mrs. Travers discreetly wipes away a tear that has not yet fallen.
Bert (o.s.): Let’s sit down…
The film then dissolves to two shots of Mrs. Travers’ family home when she was a child. The camera is static as we continue to hear Dick Van Dyke’s monologue to the children playing on the soundtrack.
“Mary Poppins” the film and P.L. Travers life converge at this moment and the feeling is of a past forgotten (or shunned).
Bert (o.s.) You know, begging your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father.
Dissolving back, the above shot was shown earlier in the film, but now with one alteration. Young P.L. Travers can no longer be seen on the outside stair case pretending to be a hen.
Images like these remind one of the cold detachment of Ingmar Bergman.
As the merry go round revolves without any riders, we sense just how empty a past can seem when one has done everything in their power to ignore, rather than deal with the traumas that life has bestowed upon you.
Bert (o.s.): There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day…
The merry go round horses then dissolve into a shot of P.L. Travers and her mother on a real live horse.
Bert (o.s.) …hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don’t like to see any living thing caged up.
While this may appear as simply a transition, it is also a wonderful, subtle nod to the 1964 classic when Mary Poppins, Bert and the Banks children ride their horses off the merry go round to join the fox hunt.
P.L. Travers is now shown as a child giving her father his last bottle of alcohol while on his death bed.
Jane (o.s.): Father? In a cage?
Bert (o.s.): They makes cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped, some of ’em, carpets and all.
Jane (o.s.): You won’t ever leave us, Mary Poppins?
The film then dissolves back to Mrs. Travers clinging to the words on the screen as each new syllable spoken takes her back to her childhood.
These are thoughts that have clearly both haunted and inspired her, but it’s been a good long while since any of them have been brought to the surface with this kind of intensity.
Jane (o.s.): Whatever would we do without you?
Mary Poppins (o.s.): I shall stay until the wind changes.
The music then segues into an instrumental version of Feed the Birds as P.L. Travers looks on.
In a shocking move, the next cut reveals what scene she is looking at.
It’s the moment when Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson), the kids’ father, is called out to the bank to be fired.
I’m almost certain that when we think of the 1964 classic this is not a scene that first comes to mind. In a film full of wondrous songs and images, this part of the film always seemed long as a child and most of us probably brushed our teeth during this segment whenever it played late on TV.
However, we are now being shown that this is THE scene of the film which harnesses the emotion of the piece and I love that.
I love when a movie can show me something in a new light and make think about it differently.
As the “Feed the Birds” music continues to play, the film then cuts to P.L. Travers as a young girl giving her father (Colin Farrell) a hug just as he is almost fired from the bank.
The camera then cuts in tighter and we are once again reminded how much this woman has had to close off her emotions since she was a child.
We then transition from the little girl coldly looking at the ground and feeling distant from her father (i.e. her whole world) to a middle aged woman whose emotional capacity to feel has now been tipped to the breaking point.
This dissolve back to the present day suggests a lifetime of regrets and sadness…
…but in facing that past, she is now understanding aspects of her heart she thought was lost back in Australia.
Notice the quiet moment when Richard Sherman looks to his right and sees her in pain. This isn’t a look like, “I’m glad that witch is suffering after what she put us through.” There is a feeling of compassion in his eyes that indicates there was more to this story than even he was made aware of.
The camera cuts back to the movie and Mr. Banks is still on his way to the bank. Showing him walking away in this context is also important because Mrs. Travers is once again feeling that her father is leaving and abandoning her.
This time, in front of everyone.
This feeling is practically unbearable for her. She has never felt this exposed.
Walt Disney notices Mrs. Travers is practically struggling to breathe in between her tears. He is genuinely concerned, not smitten by her grief.
Mr. Disney then leans in to comfort her and she takes a hold of his hand.
Walt: It’s alright. It’s over, Ms. Travers. Mr. Banks is going be alright, I promise.
He then makes a small move to go back to his seat but she holds him there.
Not wanting Uncle Walt to think that he succeeded in pulling her heartstrings, she replies…
Mrs. Travers: I can’t abide cartoons.
Walt Disney returns to his seat and lets out a small sigh of frustration. She just won’t give him any acknowledgement of this soon to be cinematic triumph. There’s nothing for him to do but just try to enjoy the rest of the evening.
The film then cuts to the final song, “Let’s go fly a kite” as the audience is fully engaged.
Cutting back to P.L. Travers, we see that while she is still in tears, they have let up slightly and she is once again whisked back into the magic that is this song by the Sherman Brothers.
Even Walt can’t help but marvel at the feeling this song conjures up inside one’s heart.
Mrs. Travers sits in her seat silently singing the song to herself until the music slowly fades out on the “Saving Mr. Banks” soundtrack. In its place, an instrumental version of “Chim Chim Cheree” comes on.
The film then cuts to the Banks singing and dancing in their foyer…
…before recalling a moment Mrs. Travers had with her father in happier times.
As if taking this moment as a sign, P.L. Travers stops watching the film and looks off screen as if to suggest she feels, for the first time, a presence from above looking after her.
It may have been a struggle, but confronting the themes of this novel to film adaptation knocked down these (once) impenetrable walls and have now brought her a new sense of peace.
The film then cuts back to her as a little girl saying to her father, “Don’t ever leave me”.
And her father responds, “Never. I promise. I will never leave you”, as he lays on his deathbed.
Feeling now that her father never abandoned her after all, P.L. Travers can do nothing but smile and feel grateful that her life has brought her to this moment.
In the closing moments, Mrs. Travers is once again seen as a little girl, now sitting with her father in the garden. They embrace in a way that suggests their bond was never fully broken by time. It was just her perception of things.
“Winds in the east, mist coming in.
Like somethin’ is brewin’ and bout to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I fear what’s to happen all happened before.”