Trailer: When The Game Stands Tall (2014)

Director: Thomas Carter
Stars: Jim Caviezel, Laura Dern, Alexander Ludwig
Plot: The journey of legendary football coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), who took the De La Salle High School Spartans from obscurity to a 151-game winning streak that shattered all records for any American sport.

Release Dates: 22nd August (USA), 21st November (UK)

Review: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Saving Mr. BanksDirector: John Lee Hancock
Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley
Plot: P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, pays a visit to Walt Disney in Los Angeles who intends to adapt Travers’ novel for the big screen.

Buried deep within the avalanche of cinematic cheddar that is Love Actually, there is a subplot involving Emma Thompson whose character Karen is heartbroken to discover that the expensive necklace she noticed in her husband Harry’s (Alan Rickman) coat pocket has been given to the attractive office hussie rather than her for Christmas. She leaves the family opening their presents and has a moment to herself in which the painful realisation is written all over Thompson’s face; it’s an amazingly emotional moment in an otherwise pretty nondescript film. That’s not to say that Emma Thompson can only play similar characters, because in fact her comic timing is exceptional and there is much more to her than just a posh, luvvie facade. Saving Mr. Banks tunes into Thompson’s versatility, portraying a formidable woman who has a wicked sense of humour but is also haunted by her childhood demons.

In 1961, author of Mary Poppins, Pamela ‘P.L.’ Travers (Thompson) is struggling with her bills and the house is under threat of being taken from her. Walt Disney (Hanks) contacts Travers’ agent Diarmuid Russell (Ronan Vibert) once again having tried to buy the film rights to her famous novel for the past 20 years. Travers reluctantly agrees to fly to Los Angeles to meet Disney and discuss the possibility of adapting Mary Poppins for the big screen. However, Travers is far from convinced that Disney will do a good job, because he is most famous for producing animated films and she feels he would spoil the very essence of her famous creation. Through flashbacks beginning in the Australian town of Allora in Queensland in 1906, we learn that Travers was very close to her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) and he provided the inspiration for Mr. Banks, but he suffered a long battle with alcoholism.

On her arrival in America, Travers is horrified by the L.A. way of life, their eternal optimism and in-your-face friendliness. She is given a limo driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti) to whom she is initially dismissive, but eventually warms. At the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Travers is introduced to screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and the famous music composing Sherman brothers, Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert (B.J. Novak). However, she finds their ideas for Mary Poppins misguided and spends a lot of time opposing many of them. Travers’ primary objection is the portrayal of Mr. Banks, who she sees as having a similar personality as her father and it is not long before the production staff realise how personal the story really is to her. Gradually though, Travers, DaGradi and the Shermans start to work well together, but will the finished product satisfy all concerned?

Saving Mr. Banks  is not only a dream for fans of Mary Poppins, but gives us a behind-the-scenes look at a fascinating story that many may not be familiar with. There’s a strong influence from Finding Neverland, which told the story of how J.M. Barrie was inspired to write about the adventures of Peter Pan. While Marc Forster’s excellent film used a linear narrative, hinting all the while at the various characters of Neverland, here there are flashbacks to P.L. Travers’s childhood in Australia and the tragic circumstances that compelled her to pen her famous novel. Featuring a character who is prim, proper and rather hostile to new ideas and suggested changes to her creation which she fiercely protects, is quite a risk but the screenplay is expertly balanced to portray Travers with a razor-sharp wit and an increasing likeability over the course of the film, even though her reservations with Disney’s writing and composing team are very palpable. This could have been an overly sweet and saccharine affair, but thankfully the film has evidently been made by huge fans of the source material and the result is very involving, even if screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith have played fast and loose with historical accuracy, the array of songs that are dropped in at various points are so familiar and terrific that it is hard not to be swept along.

Emma Thompson is simply perfect in the lead role of P.L. Travers. Not only does she capture the headmistress-style demeanour of her character, but Thompson also incorporates a vulnerability that can be sensed from the beginning, but unravels as Travers’s background is revealed. She is essentially playing the anti-heroine, the main obstacle to getting the movie made and even though we know full well that Mary Poppins is eventually adapted by Disney, Thompson’s performance is by no means a hindrance to the ebb and flow of the movie; she is in practically every scene and her irritation with all things Disney is at times understandable, especially when you understand what it feels like when someone tries to meddle with one of your creations. Tom Hanks does a decent job as Walt Disney, but it is far from his best role. Most of the time there is the feeling that Hanks is just being himself with a very jolly disposition, slicked back hair and a moustache. He does however, have the right amount of screen presence and charisma required. Special mentions must go to both Jason Schwartzman (great to see him doing something other than goofing around in Wes Anderson films) and B.J. Novak as the Sherman brothers, who they portray very realistically, bringing the fantastic songs of the musical to life.

Saving Mr. Banks is pretty predictable; frosty writer meets laid back Walt Disney and together they end up producing one of the most beloved films of all time. However, Emma Thompson makes this worth watching alone and if you are failed to be moved by her reaction to Mary Poppins at the movie premiere, accompanied by Thomas Newman’s gorgeous score, then it is probably time for a heart transplant.

Rating: 4 Stars

Review: Noah (2014)

NoahDirector: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson
Plot: When God decides to drown the world in a great flood, he chooses one man to save the animals and to begin civilisation once more.

Whether or not you’re a believer, biblical films are rich with ready-made material and the stories are so widely known they need little explanation; from a PR point of view, they’re an absolute dream. The Ten Commandments (1956 and others), The Last Temptation of Christ, Ben-Hur and The Passion of the Christ are among the best-known, but even if the story is faithfully told, controversy is never far away as there exists a school of thought that says such films should not be made, as they are the sacred word of God. However, there is an unquenchable fascination with the bible, therefore cinematic adaptations are surely to the benefit of Christianity. Noah harks back to the Charlton Heston stubble-and-sandals classics, but with Darren Aronofsky directing, things are inevitably going to get weird at some point.

As a young boy, Noah (Dakota Goyo) witnesses his father Lamech (Marton Csokas) being killed by a king named Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), in his quest for territory. Years later, Noah (Crowe), who lives with his wife Naameh (Connelly) and their three sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), sees a flower sprout and bloom instantly from the ground and has visions of the earth being submerged by water with death all around. He decides to visit his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Along the road there, Noah and his family encounter a number of people who were killed and among them lone survivor Ila (Watson), who was injured in the attack and has become barren as a result. They are chased by Tubal-cain, but manage to seek help from The Watchers, fallen angels cast down to Earth by God.

Methuselah gives Noah a seed from the Garden of Eden which he plants and a whole forest appears within a few minutes. Noah deduces that his visions mean that he must build an ark from the trees and starts its construction. Eight years later, various animals make their way to the ark and are put to sleep by Noah, who burns incense upon their arrival. He dons a disguise and wanders to a nearby camp where food is running low and the people there have turned to cannibalism. Horrified by what he has seen, Noah makes his way back to the ark, where Methuselah has blessed Ila so that she can bear children once more. Ham, denied a wife by Noah, decides to find one himself and encounters a girl named Na’el (Madison Davenport) at the camp. However, as the rain begins to fall, Noah and his family must protect the ark from the onrushing crowds of people whose fate is apparently sealed.

Noah relies very heavily, as expected, on big-budget special effects to recreate the infamously ferocious storm and subsequent flood. However, there seems to be some confusion over how to portray the man himself. If you strip away the biblical histrionics as portrayed by director Darren Aronofsky, we’re left with a family man who has to deal with a tsunami of a different kind; the hormones of his teenage sons. So despairing is Ham to find some random bird to call his wife and satisfy his Neanderthal urges, he chooses a waif from the cannibal camp and tries to bring her back to the ark. In effect then, the soap opera distracts from the fundamental message of the film: why him? ‘The Creator’ is tantalisingly kept out of reach, just occasionally breaking through the clouds in such a way that we half expect a booming Monty Python-esque voice to tell him to ‘get a bloody move on.’ The film represents a glorious opportunity to address the possibility that God wipes out a fair few innocent people because most of Earth’s populace are evil and wicked, saving Noah and his family so that the animals can be preserved and they can start again. Noah’s frustrations with the lack of clarity from God is therefore mirrored in the audience – just what exactly is Aronofsky trying to say here?

Russell Crowe is undoubtedly a fine actor when he puts his mind to it. His very limited range of accents has been well-documented though, especially in Robin Hood, where his supposed Nottinghamshire dialect wavered between Cornwall and somewhere off the west coast of Ireland. Here, Crowe struggles to settle on not just a consistent inflection (speaking of accents, Ray Winstone resolutely sticks to Cockney as always), but also how to portray such a famous character trying to reconcile God’s plan with his own, mortal intentions. His gruff demeanour might please the ladies, but makes his personality difficult to feel empathy with – a little more humanity wouldn’t have gone amiss, although we do get a glimpse right at the end, but by then it is far too late. His Noah lives among the tall trees not too dissimilar to those seen at the beginning of Gladiator, yet Crowe’s Maximus was a much more complex character than the bearded caveman we see here. Jennifer Connelly brings much-needed tenderness to a family dynamic dominated by males intent on bashing the nearest woman over the head with a club and taking them back to their cave. Connelly is essentially the angel on Noah’s shoulder, telling him to be merciful while he seems intent on killing anything that resembles a newborn. Emma Watson, though given limited screen time, is also great and her birth scene is convincing as to make anyone wince.

Noah never really gets going, even when the flood is in full swing. With a strange plot device involving fallen angels made of stone that doesn’t sit well and a highly ironic wardrobe department straight out of Waterworld, Aronofsky’s vision is a strange one; no wonder the Pope was reluctant to endorse it.

Rating: 3 Stars

Trailer: Lucy (2014)

Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Analeigh Tipton
Plot: An involuntary drug mule, with a surgically implanted cargo, is assaulted causing the package to leak. This leads to her slowly ramping up the percentage of her brain she can use, resulting in abilities people dream about.

Release Dates: 8th August (USA), 22nd August (UK)