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Knight at the Movies: Saving Mr. Banks; Six by Sondheim
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Those who read the Mary Poppins novels by P.L. Travers as a child ( or had the books read to them ) knows that the magical nanny of the books is not nearly the mostly sweet, "spoonful of sugar" character portrayed in the 1964 film classic by Julie Andrews in her Oscar-winning debut. And the books have no animated, comical penguins; no singing, dancing chimney sweeps; and certainly no made-up words like "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," either. But as John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks movie posits in one of the year's most pleasing and thoughtful movies, although the inflexible Travers was determined to hold the line with Disney on her beloved creation, the process set loose long-buried, bittersweet memories that threatened to derail the entire production at the outset.

Written by Kelly Marcel ( and polished up by Sue Smith ) the movie shifts between 1961, when Disney was preparing to turn Mary Poppins into a big-budget musical, and Travers's childhood in Australia in 1907. At the outset Mrs. Travers—as she insists on being called—is just about broke and after decades of royalties from her novels, the public has moved on. Begrudgingly, Travers ( a tremendous Emma Thompson in a part tailor-made for her ) is, at last, ready to consider the idea of Disney, who has pursued the rights for 20 years, making a film from her book. She agrees to travel to Hollywood to commence negotiations—forewarning anyone within earshot that she will have none of Disney's pixie dust sprinkled on her beloved creation and withholding her written permission until she is creatively reassured.

Arriving in California, it seems that nothing will thaw the twist in the panties of this ultimate crabby pants. Not Ralph, the sunny chauffeur assigned to squire her around ( Paul Giamatti ); not the young and enthusiastic songwriting team, the Sherman brothers ( Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak ); and not even Walt ( Tom Hanks, who subtly conveys the power behind the benevolent father image ), who goes so far as to give her a personal tour of Disneyland himself. Nothing seems to make much of a dent in Mrs. Travers' tough veneer.

As the film's creative team plows ahead, trying to keep Mrs. Travers ( or Pamela, as Walt insists on calling her ) happy, they're unaware that she's also confronting childhood memories centered on her handsome but ne'er-do-well father, an irresistible, charming Irish alcoholic with a fierce temper ( played with heartbreaking gentleness by Colin Farrell ), and her aunt—a real-life, no-nonsense Mary Poppins. Disney's growing impatience and frustration reach a climax that ultimately reveals a crack into this difficult woman's interior life—a crack that, at last, points the team in the right direction.

On a very basic level, Saving Mr. Banks offers a familiar and very satisfying collision of art versus commerce or lowbrow, mainstream taste ( those animated dancing penguins and the crass familiarity of the sunny Californians Travers encounters ) versus highbrow sophistication. ( Travers, who her biographer Valerie Lawson claims had affairs with women and men, was a friend of Yeats and a devotee of the mystic Gurdjieff. ) The glamorous, nostalgic, behind-the-scenes elements of the making of Mary Poppins—the movie's undeniable drawing card—is surprisingly leavened by an underlying and insistent bittersweet tone.

On that score, Saving Mr. Banks brings to mind Finding Neverland and Miss Potter—two other fine films detailing the genesis of classic fantasy stories ( Peter Pan and Peter Rabbit ) whose creations also helped their authors transcend the sometimes tragic circumstances of their lives.

After decades of tribute concerts—many of them televised on PBS—HBO is finally going beyond the songs and giving us a long-overdue biographical look at legendary Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Six by Sondheim, directed by longtime Sondheim collaborator and dear friend James Lapine, ostensibly gives us the backstory of a half-dozen of the maestro's songs—"Something's Coming, "Send In the Clowns," "Being Alive," "Opening Doors," "I'm Still Here" and "Sunday." While artfully detailing the circumstances of the creation of these musical masterworks with a blend of vintage interview and performance footage, along with dazzling, innovative, newly filmed performances, Lapine weaves in Sondheim's life story as well.

As expected, the 80-plus-year-old legend is funny, acerbic and tremendously insightful about his process and many of his professional relationships, and is almost embarrassingly forthcoming about the difficult relationship with his hateful mother. However, although we see a brief segment that offers a glimpse of Sondheim with partner Jeff Romley, the film doesn't delve into the impact being gay has had on his creative life—a deficit that I would hope the once reticent genius will expound on in the future.

That's a small quibble in the face of a movie that offers such a rich portrait of this great treasure of the American musical. There's also the bonus of three new short films—"Opening Doors" directed by Lapine like a Technicolor musical of yore featuring Darren Criss, America Ferrera and Jeremy Jordan; "Send in the Clowns," gorgeously sung by Audra McDonald; and the most eye-opening, "I'm Still Here," sung against type by Jarvis Cocker in deadpan style and directed by Far From Heaven's Todd Haynes. The single most powerful performance in a film filled with them is Dean Jones' moving and surprisingly powerful rendition of "Being Alive," captured during the recording session of 1970's Company.

Six by Sondheim is playing throughout the month on HBO and is a must for any fan of the musical.

Film notes:

—One of 2013's Best LGBT Films: For me, one of the most anticipated films of 2013 easily had to be The Happy Sad, from out director Rodney Evans. Nearly a decade after Brother to Brother, his winning movie about the Harlem Renaissance that provided Anthony Mackie with his first starring role, Evans finally returned to feature filmmaking this year.

The Happy Sad is a provocative romantic drama adapted for the screen by Keith Urban from his play of the same title. It focuses on a gay Black couple ( LeRoy McClain and Chicago Fire's Charlie Barnett ) and a straight white duo ( Cameron Scoggins and Sorel Carradine ) whose lives intersect when both decide to open their respective relationships. The film examines the politics and protocols of open relationships with wit, wisdom and candid sexuality while blurring gender boundaries and expectations in the process. For those who missed the film's recent area premiere at the Reeling Film Festival you're in luck: The Happy Sad is playing at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., on Wed., Dec. 18.

—The Northwest Chicago Film Society has unearthed another rare oddity with 1970's Colossus: The Forbin Project, a futuristic thriller about an evil supercomputer, with Eric Braeden ( the longtime star of the soap opera The Young and the Restless ) as the computer's brainy but sexy enabler. It plays Sunday, Dec. 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

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