Saving Mr. Banks Has Few Saving Graces

Courtesy: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Courtesy: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Walt Disney Studios’ recently released full length picture Saving Mr. Banks is not the worst movie that the studio has ever released. It is also, hardly the best movie that WDS has ever released. The story presented in this movie is little more than another period piece that can be tossed into the ever-growing pile of movies that are “based on actual events” and forgotten over time. It tries to make up for this by throwing in an attempt at a serious story about Travers’ attempt to reconcile her past and present that ultimately falls flat. That is thanks in large part to the glut of flashbacks and the unevenness of those transitions between the flashbacks. For all of the negatives that weigh down the story, there is at least one positive to the whole presentation. That bright shining light is the acting on the part of the movie’s largely A-List cast. Other than that sole beacon, it’s difficult to ultimately say that there is anything that truly “saves” Saving Mr. Banks.

Saving Mr. Banks is anything but one of the best movies that Walt Disney Studios has ever released. There is very little that one can argue actually “saves” this period piece. That’s because ultimately, it’s just one more movie that is “based on actual events.” Co-writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith seemed to have gotten down Travers’ persona. And veteran actress Emma Thompson brought Travers even more to life with her expert depiction of the famed author. However, one cannot deny the fact that Disney likely took a certain amount of liberties with the story of how Travers’ beloved book Mary Poppins came to life. That is just the way of movies that are “based on actual events.” Marcel and Smith had to have known that there are those—like this critic—that would know this, too. So their answer to that was to throw in a personal drama story on the part of Travers that sees her trying to reconcile her troubled childhood as she worked with Walt Disney and his people on their adaptation of her book. It’s a bit much. Add in the glut of flashbacks and the unevenness of said flashbacks, and audiences get what is one more loose brick in this movie.

The attempt on the part of Marcel and Smith to craft a dual-pronged story in Saving Mr. Banks is a major part of the movie’s downfall. It isn’t the end of the movie’s problems, either. The glut of flashbacks that Marcel and Smith toss into the story and their unevenness hurts the script even more. One doesn’t even fully realize that the pair is using flashbacks as part of the story until after about the fifth time that the transition happens. The primary reason for this is that there is little to indicate the separation of the scenes. The story constantly jumps from Travers’ present day life to her childhood growing up in Australia. And because there is no clear indicator of the jump back and forth in time, audiences are left scratching their heads at who the little girl is until again, after about the fifth or sixth time that the transition happens. There is perhaps one clear transition that finally makes it clear for audiences that they are looking into what is supposed to be Travers’ childhood. While Marcel and Smith do finally make it clear what audiences are seeing in the scene transitions, things don’t get much better. That’s because it actually starts to feel like the flashbacks in question tend to happen at an increasing pace. Even in that increased frequency of flashbacks, the transitions between past and present are still not entirely clear. They just seem to happen at random points without any clear separation. It only serves to hurt the movie even more. Thankfully for all of the problems with Saving Mr. Banks, it does have one saving grace. That saving grace is the acting on the part of the movie’s largely A-List cast.

If not for the acting on the part of Saving Mr. Banks’ cast, this movie would possibly be classified as one of the least of Disney’s movies in recent years. That being the case, Casting Director Ronna Kress deserves a standing ovation. Kress pulled in some of the biggest names in Hollywood for this movie. Actress Emma Thompson (Stranger Than Fiction, Nanny McPhee, Nanny McPhee Returns) was an obvious choice considering her time in the role of another literary nanny named Nanny McPhee. McPhee’s character was based on the literary Nurse Matilda. Nurse Matilda’s books came years after Mary Poppins was published. But her stories are arguably far more enjoyable than that of Mary Poppins or even this semi-historical look at how the book was adapted to the big screen. Ironically enough, Thompson’s depiction of author P.L. Travers was just as spot on as that of Nanny McPhee. One can’t help but laugh at the obvious cultural differences between herself and her American hosts. And while he is in a supporting role in this movie, fellow veteran actor Paul Giamatti (The Illusionist, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Duets) is incredible as Travers’ personal driver Ralph. Ralph’s innocence makes him such a lovable character. Jason Scwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom, The Darjeerling Limited, Rushmore) and B.J. Novak (The Amazing Spiderman 2, Inglourious Basterds, The Smurfs 2) are just as entertaining as the famed Sherman Brothers. Anyone that knows the history of Walt Disney Studios knows that the Sherman Brothers are responsible for some of the greatest musical numbers to ever grace the big screen in Disney’s golden age. And their drive to get the songs right despite Travers’ constant refusal makes them such sympathetic characters. Not once did they ever get mad at her for her stubbornness. And their playful nature in playing their songs makes them even more lovable. Tom Hanks can’t be ignored here either, as the one and only Walt Disney. Those in the makeup department got the look of Walt Disney pretty close with Hanks. And one must agree that he expertly channels Disney, too. He worked so hard to get the part down that he even tried to get down Walt Disney’s accent for the role. It’s subtle. But it’s there. And it makes his depiction all the more enjoyable to watch. It’s one more piece of the whole of this movie that makes Saving Mr. Banks at least somewhat bearable.

The acting on the part of Saving Mr. Banks’ cast is the one shining light that makes this movie bearable. The sad reality of this movie is that despite the entertaining portrayals on the part of the cast, there is little to nothing else positive that can be noted of the film. The transitions between Travers’ childhood and adult life are far too many and nowhere near clear enough. And the dual-pronged story crafted by co-writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith ultimately combines with those scene transition issues to make Saving Mr. Banks anything but memorable. Sadly these issues together prove that other than the cast’s acting, there is little to anything else that “saves” Saving Mr. Banks.

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ESPN Giving Cubs Fans A Special Treat Next Sunday On SportsCenter

Courtesy:  ESPN

Courtesy: ESPN

Courtesy:  ESPN

Courtesy: ESPN

ESPN is giving Cubs fans a special treat next weekend as Major League Baseball nears its annual halfway point.  “The Sports Leader” will run a special next Sunday morning during SportsCenter celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of celebrities who have led Cubs fans in the time honored tradition of the seventh-inning stretch.  Next week’s SportsCenter Featured piece, it is narrated by veteran actor Jim Belushi.  Belushi is himself a Chicago native.

The special focuses on the variety of celebrities that have led fans in the singing of ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame’ after the passing of the late great Harry Carry.  The feature will air this Sunday morning at 10am EST on ESPN.

More information on this and all the latest on SportsCenter is available online at http://www.facebook.com/SportsCenter and http://www.sportscenter.com.

To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it.  Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews in the Phil’s Picks blog at http://philspicks.wordpress.com.

New PBS DVD Shows The Importance Of Knowing One’s History

Courtesy: PBS/Inkwell Films/Kundhart McGee Productions/Ark Media/WNET Thirteen

America is a melting pot.  Its history is made up of the stories from the immigrants who settled here from its earliest days.  Sadly, many of those stories have been lost because we as a nation have forgotten our roots.  We have forgotten from where we came.  Now thanks to PBS, a new special has been released that will hopefully re-ignite the fire among Americans to learn their family roots. 

“Finding Your Roots”, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a ten part special spread across three discs.  Gates interviews many of this great nation’s most famous names, discussing their family roots with them.  The famous names come from the world of music, acting, politics, and more.  One of Gates’ most interesting interviews comes in the segment featuring musicians and friends Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis.  Another was his interview with actors Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal.  And one of the most interesting cross sections shown in this ten-part special comes in his interviews with Doctor Sanjay Gupta, comedian Margaret Cho, and famed personality Martha Stewart.  They, along with the other unmentioned interviews, make this special one of PBS’ best to date.

“Finding Your Roots” starts with gates interviewing musicians Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis.  Starting the mini-series with this pair of interviews is more than just an interview with a pair of famous musicians.  What gates and those behind the camera intended to do with this segment was to try and bridge the racial gaps of our nation.  The connection between Connick and Marsalis shows that while people may have different color skin, that’s all that really separates us.  Connick admits in his interview that he wanted to be black.  He says that he dressed and acted the part.  What’s really interesting about this is the discovery that one of his ancestors, James Connick, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.  On the good side, it should be noted that James Connick  did not fight for slavery.  He fought solely for economic reasons.  He wasn’t even a slave owner.  He was just trying to support his family.  Apparently, Harry didn’t know this.  But it raises what becomes a very interesting trend that viewers will see as the special moves to other notables.

Just as Harry Connick, Jr.’s roots proved to be rather interesting, so did those of Branford Marsalis.  Interviews with Branford’s famed father Ellis Marsalis, reveals that Branford may have actually gotten his musical abilities not so much from his father, but from his mother.  Or rather, he got his talent from her side of the family.  What’s more, it’s also revealed that one of his ancestors was actually the result of a relationship between a white man and black woman.  This brings this very first pair of interviews full circle.  Gates tells audiences that despite the popular belief, far fewer African American males were born of Native American blood than believed.  Many more will find that they have deeper African American and European roots than Native American.  What it seems that Gates is getting at in this first segment is that while the color of our skin is different, blacks and whites may be far more closely related than we think.  We need only take the time to look back and find our roots.

Gates’ interviews with Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis are both entertaining and very insightful.  They’re just one part of what makes “Finding Your Roots” so impressive.  Another interesting pair of figures interviewed for the special is Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal.  It’s revealed that both are descended from Jewish ancestry.  What’s more, Gyllenhaal’s Jewish ancestry is one hundred percent pure Jewish.  She admits in her interview some interesting facts that reveal ancestry and genetics play directly hand in hand.  Again, viewers will see this pop up a lot throughout all ten parts of the mini-series.  What’s really interesting to learn about Maggie Gyllenhaal is that apparently she’s descended from nobility.  It’s revealed through investigations and Gates’ interview with her, that Maggie Gyllenhaal is actually descended from King Henry I.  And somewhere along the line, she’s also linked to both George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, as well as Shirley Temple, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  She showed that she had no clue about any of these links, and just how amazed she was by all of it.

Robert Downey, Jr., on the other hand, had much different roots.  He and Gyllenhaal both are children of film makers.  And like Gyllenhaal, he too has Jewish roots.  It’s also revealed that he has Swiss roots.  Unlike Gyllenhaal’s roots, though, he can’t claim connection to any real famous historical figures.  Ironically enough, he himself has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood throughout his career.

Musicians and actors were only a tiny portion of the whole that makes up “Finding Your Roots.”  Gates also interviewed Sanjay Gupta, Margaret Cho and Martha Stewart.  This feature offers perhaps some of the most interesting material in the series.  These segments reveal to both the celebrities in question and to viewers some rather unexpected and surprising information.  One of the most interesting pieces of information is that Martha Stewart has links back to the Mongols.  She laughs in discovering this as she admitted to Gates that her dog is actually named Genghis Khan.  What’s more, many of her ancestors also had professions that involved much of what she does today.  As noted in previous segments, it seems yet again that there is at least some link between one’s ancestry and one’s own personal genetic makeup.  Maggie Gyllenhaal admitted her pleasant surprise at her link to her Jewish ancestry due to her own recent personal choices before her interview.  Branford Marsalis’ parents told Gates that he got his musical abilities from his mother’s side of the family.  That link is explained in the connection to specific well known acts from the rich history of music. 

The roots discovered in conversations with Martha Stewart are the revelations of Margaret Cho’s family.  Her interview reveals that one of her distant ancestors was a very well respected member of his community.  What’s most interesting in her discussions is that members of her family are not actually Korean.  They came from other regions of Asia.  She shows her surprise, laughing about it.  She tells Gates that this was a surprising revelation, being that her parents always claimed such national pride for Korea.  This discovery is made through genetic testing.

Sanjay Gupta’s interview was one of the most moving of the entire mini-series.  Gupta shows just how amazed he is by all of the information discovered through the research done for his interviewed.  At one point, he even begins to tear up.  That single moment is perhaps the defining moment of this entire special.  The emotion that he shows is the entire point of the presentation.  So few Americans are aware of their families’ histories.  It doesn’t matter if someone is related down the line to this famous person or that, or if they are simply related to some random person.  It’s that discovery of one’s past is the most important.  It can make all the difference in a person’s life.  It adds that much more to the nation’s already rich history as a whole.

Gates’ interviews with members of the entertainment community reveal some very interesting notes about them.  It also reminds viewers that they might be just as interested if they take the time to do some research into their own family roots.  There’s no telling what viewers might find if they take that time.  “Finding Your Roots” is proof of that.  “Finding Your Roots” is available on DVD now.  It can be ordered online at http://www.shoppbs.org.

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