Grudge Match

I know, I know, this movie looks like recycled crap. It is some pablum designed to milk a few bucks from undiscerning movie goers who are just looking for a way to kill a couple of hours over the holidays. I can’t really disagree with that too much. It does at times feel lazy, the comedy aspects are weak and the delivery timing on the jokes is bad, really bad. So having accepted the premise that most of you started off with, let me give just a couple of reasons that you should refrain from being so harsh. Those two reasons are in fact the two stars; Robert DeNiro and Sylvester Stallone.

Are they cashing in on old success, yes. The “Rocky” references are everywhere in this film. “Raging Bull” hangs over DeNiro’s performance like a gargoyle, leering at what he has become. Even with all that baggage, both actors suit up and are game for the fight.  In the second half of the movie they start to become characters rather than caricatures. The script does not always give them enough ammunition to pull off an effective dramatic story, it does come up with a few honest moments and enough of what made us love the performers in the past to give them a pass on the flaws of this and enjoy what there is. “Grudge Match” in not a modern classic and it probably isn’t worth your time in a theater, but it is not the travesty that some think it looks like and it overcomes a weak first hour comedy set up to become a mid-level adult drama, not a great drama, but one that does not embarrass us too much by watching.

The tone of the movie is all over the place. Ninety percent of the Kevin Hart sequences look like outtakes from that movie with Ice Cube that he has coming out next month. He cracks wise, makes asides out of the corner of his mouth  and contorts his face into so many clown like expressions that you worry his face might freeze like that, you know, like your Mom always warned you about. Alan Arkin almost always makes a movie better, this film is the one reason that I can think of for saying “almost”. Arkin’s part is underwritten and we are simply expected to use the Burgess Meridith allusion to give it the heart that it needs. His character is supposed to be so infirm at one point that he can’t bath himself and then later he spends time training Stallone’s character. The fact that he uses an electric wheeled cart is not enough to span the chasm between these two views.  Kim Basinger turns out to be a more important character in the story, but she is also not given enough to work with.

So the things that succeed are the stars. DeNiro manages to go back and forth between goofy aging lug and bitter resentful egotist without seeming to be schizophrenic. He does mug for the camera at times but he also plays some scenes with a nice degree of sincerity. The lost family angle is a little hokey, but DeNiro manages to sell the idea of an irresponsible self centered bastard, and the pitiful old guy in funny underwear in the very next scene. The young man who plays his son is fine but is stuck in a pretty cliche role. The little kid who turns out to be his grandchild is “TV kid” precocious, but he also is cute as hell and easy to forgive because of that. Stallone is trapped a bit in the opening sections as the introverted former boxer, that gets financially pushed into making the deal that sets up the fight rematch. We have seen this sullen, silent type in a lot of other films. Once his character reconnects with old flame Basinger, the performance feels a lot more natural even if the script does not. The idea of two men at or nearing seventy, being able to perform in the ring as they do here is far fetched but if you can get past that thought, they sell it as well as anyone could.

This poster is better than the movie.

This movie reminded me of another DeNiro misfire from 25 years ago, “we’re No Angels”. A comedy match with Sean Penn that does not work as a comedy and struggles to work as a redemption story. It’s heart is in the right place but something along the way just did not work. “Grudge Match” actually does have a grain of a good idea in it, but the stunt casting and awkwardness of the set up undermines the more believable although cliched parts of the story. If you see it and enjoy it, good for you, just don’t tell anyone because they already have preconceptions about the movie and then they will start having those same ideas about you.

Saving Mr. Banks

Everyone has their own Christmas traditions. Some open gifts on Christmas Eve, many go to Mass on Christmas morning, at our house we also attend to ritual, the Christmas film screening. The decision of what film to choose depends on what is fresh and seems appropriate. I’m still not sure how we ended up in 2007 seeing Will Smith battle hyperactive zombies after a plague, it must simply be timing. Last year we knew all the way back to the summer months that we would see “Les Misérables” on Christmas day. The trailer was the perfect bait for us. Well this trailer also sold us early on, it is the concept of the film and the stars that made “Saving Mr. Banks” our planned on Christmas film experience since we first heard of it. The story of how Walt Disney convinced a reluctant P.L. Travers to give him the rights to the character of Mary Poppins seems a natural for a family holiday film. Two words, “It is”.

There is a bit of a caution warning to begin with. The story does have immense charm and humor, and there are moments of delight, but all of those moments seem more meaningful because around the edges is a dark cloud of family history that is the source of Traver’s reserve. Those moments are at times sad, frightening and they might be bewildering to the very youngest family members. I can’t imagine that anyone will be traumatized, but you should go in forewarned because the back story of P.L. Traver’s family is not ultimately  a happy one. The story is told through a series of flashbacks and forwards from 1901 to 1961. Those transitions are made in very effective cinematic techniques that are not subtle and may put off film hipsters that object to heavy handed story telling but they will please traditionalists with the craft in which they are interjected into the story. 

Emma Thompson plays Travers as a truculent woman who is unable to be appeased by the most logical appeals a professional film story teller might make. She comes off as unpleasant and dour. At first you might be inclined to wonder how it is that this woman is responsible for the marvelous character she has created. It seems that the performance is to be all frowns and facial ticks conveying unhappiness. As the story develops though, it is clear that there is a trans-formative process occurring. She never becomes cuddly but she definitely becomes human. Here there are some obvious Hollywood tools employed, including a tentative friendship with a wise minor character that delivers some positive energy despite the negativity flowering off on Thompson. It helps that this character is played by the talented Paul Giamatti, who can convey patience and kindness with his eyes as well as anyone can. There is also a very obvious moment when a musical breakthrough occurs and it is shown in a extremely conventional way; a way that completely works and should bring a huge smile to your face even if you don’t like being manipulated. 

It is hard to imagine better casting than Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Even though his voice and appearance might not automatically make you think of Disney, his warm demeanor and the audiences personal history with him as an actor, create a wonderful shortcut to the man that the film wants us to believe Disney was. There are only a couple of hints dropped at the tough minded businessman he was capable of being, for instance his reluctance to invite Travers to the premiere of her own film, but with the force of nature that Thompson represents Travers as, we need the Uncle Walt image to balance the story. Also in the cast are Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Sherman brothers, the genius team behind the song of the Mary Poppins film. Novak gets some laughs for daring to be honest with Mrs. Travers and Schwartzman gets to play the piano and vamp the songs in rehearsal/story meetings. Bradley Whitford is Don DaGradi, the screenwriter who must work with the team to massage the story to Travers liking. Whitford is a personal favorite from his time on “The West Wing”, but he is also a skilled comic actor who helps these scenes work both in their comedy aspects but later in their dramatic moments as well. 

The director is John Lee Hancock, who did two terrific sports themed films in the last dozen years or so, including directing Sandra Bullock to her Oscar win in “The Blind Side”. It is quite possible he will have overseen another Oscar nominee in Emma Thompson’s Travers. He has effectively used the same sentimental palate that Steven Spielberg uses, including warm colors and camera shots that evoke emotional isolation for children. I was especially impressed with the screenplay of Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, who between them do not have any credits suggesting that they could accomplish what they have done here. This is a story that turns dark occasionally and the mixture of the light and dark are matched very effectively. Hanks and Thompson are both well served in the last third of the film, when the pieces start to form a more complete picture and allow us to see the complexity behind then difficulty of the characters. I don’t know if Walt would have approved of his monologue to travers as he reveals his ability to identify with her, but Hanks sells it and it is very nicely written.

Maybe the best teaser poster of the year.
I have never made it a secret from any of my readers that I am a sentimentalist. The idea of this movie is enough to bring a tear to my eye. In the last twenty minutes I gave over to it completely and I am not ashamed to say that my face would have been soaked if not for the discrete presence of a handkerchief in my hand. This movie did for me exactly what I wanted it to, it intrigued me, entertained me and moved me. While it may have done so at times with a heavy hand, I frankly don’t care. Leaving a film with indifferent emotions and only an intellectual experience is not a goal I seek from films. I like when my brain is stimulated, but I also like when my heartstrings are pulled. This movie did enough of the former not to be insulting, and enough of the later for me to treasure it.