Saving Mr. Banks

January 16, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

“Winds in the east / mist comin’ in / Like somethin’ is brewin, about to begin / Can’t put my finger on what lies in store / But I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”

That’s a foreshadowing thought from Bert in the Disney film “Mary Poppins”; it’s also used as the first and last words of narration in spoken-song by the father of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to begin “Saving Mr. Banks”, a biographical depiction of the development of her novel into the film. The story goes that it took Walt Disney 20 years to persuade Travers to sell the rights of her best selling book to him in order to make it into a film. This film is about the final weeks before she finally does indeed sign over “Mary Poppins” to Disney in 1961.

But it’s still not an easy fortnight. We are first introduced to Travers as a little girl living in Australia in 1906. She is sitting by herself, possibly daydreaming, until it fades into the adult Travers sitting in the same position when she is awakened out of her trance by her agent. At this moment, she still does not want to sell her book to Disney. Even after it’s revealed that Disney has given her full script approval, and the stipulation that there be no animation in the film, she still must be convinced to go to California and meet with Disney and Co. to go through the table readings.

Once she’s there, she butts heads with just about everyone who is involved with the script process, including the song writers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak respectively). She initially wants no singing, no “twinkling”, no cavorting, nothing. It must be proper, and English. The screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) allows the sessions to be recorded while she breaks in to the table reading to voice her disapproval with everything. She meets Disney (Tom Hanks) and gives him just as much trouble. But Disney is not willing to give up. He claims he has given a promise to his children that he’s kept for 20 years that he will bring “Mary Poppins” to life.

Meanwhile, we are given a back story to Travers’ life as a girl growing up in Australia. She has a seemingly normal family, except her father (Colin Farrell) is an obvious drunk who is also irresponsible. He seems to live in a fantasy world of his own, retreating into drinking when things get too hard. He also never calls her by her given name, which is Helen Goff. He is the real life Mary Poppins–but the film version of her, not the book. In the book, Mary Poppins is very proper. But he is reckless, and while he seems to care for his children, he treats them more as if they are participants in his fantasy world than actually as his children to raise and feel responsibility for.

This presents the conundrum that is P.L. Travers. She adored her father, looked up to him, and never wanted anything to spoil the relationship she had with him. We do find out there was an actual nanny to take care of her and her sister (played by Rachel Griffiths) who happens to be her aunt. She promises to “fix everything”, but is not at all into playing games and imagination. She disciplines the children while trying to take care of Travers’ father and mother once his health begins to fail. As we see her in adulthood, she has created a cold and hostile exterior because of the tragedies she experienced when she was a girl.

The giddy child in her does come out in one scene where the writers have invented an ending that allows Mr. Banks to fix his son’s kite and realize how important his children are to him. After all, that’s who Mary Poppins was “saving” to begin with–not the children. Then it all falls apart when she finds out that there will in fact be animation, for the penguins in the film. Until you see what her father means to her, you wonder why she is so hardened and against little specific things like animation and singing. But then it all comes together as part of something she is afraid of, which is really confronting what her father really was. She uses the character of Mr. Banks as a representation (her father was a banker) and at one session at the studio, she lashes out at everyone telling them what a good person Mr. Banks is.

“The woman is a conundrum,” says Walt Disney to one of the Sherman brothers after watching him perform “Feed the Birds” alone on the piano in an empty studio one night. Obviously we know that ultimately Travers does not get her way in the end. “Mary Poppins” indeed had animation, musical numbers–and, no sequels. That’s because Travers was so upset with the final product that she never again gave permission to Disney for any of her other works, including other volumes of the Mary Poppins series.

The performances here are exceptional, especially that of Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. You can feel her pain and even her suppressed emotions as she stares blankly at nothing. Colin Farrell is fine as her troubled father, and Hanks is right on pitch as Disney, never allowing the persona of Disney get in the way of his performance. He is still just a man, and just a character, and Hanks has always had an ability to play his characters on the right note. There’s also the character of the limo driver whom Travers befriends (“You’re the only American I’ve ever liked, she tells him) played by Paul Giamatti that adds a nice touch to the story. Whether this person actually existed, I’m not sure. But even as an invention, he works well.

The story is a sad one, but the film never overwhelms you with sentimentality that it becomes sappy. Its poignancy is never compromised. That’s what makes it a strong film and a fine directing job by John Lee Hancock. It’s a nice experience to rediscover why “Mary Poppins” is such a treasured classic; and it shows that show business can be very, very hard work, especially when there’s extremely guarded source material by a very strict author.

My rating: :-)

Brave

June 25, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

The original title for this movie was “The Bear and the Bow”. Separating a bit from usual Pixar form, this story would revolve around a female–a princess, to be exact. Much more in the vein of the Disney canon rather than the Pixar formula, this project was also helmed by Pixar’s first female director, Brenda Chapman. Chapman left production while the film was still being made over “creative differences”, and it was taken over by Mark Andrews, this being his first full length feature film with Pixar. The idea for the film is much in the vein of the traditional fairytale. This does have a bit of a Pixar twist, but not it’s as devastating as “Up”‘s and not as deeply involving as “Toy Story”. While the film isn’t all about fun, like “Monster’s Inc.”, it does have some kiddie elements and doesn’t always take itself so seriously.

The film’s heroine is Merida (voiced joyfully by Kelly Macdonald), who just wants to be one of the boys. Actually, she just doesn’t want to be a lady. She’s an archer and is quite skilled at the bow. Her mother (voiced by Emma Thompson with a somewhat questionable Scottish accent) doesn’t like that Merida is so unladylike. She doesn’t like that she goes off into the forest, climbing, shooting, riding. She believes Merida should be proper, and will soon be given a suitor by one of the other clans. Her father (entertainingly voiced by Billy Connolly) doesn’t really have much of a say in anything. He seems to like that Merida is boyish, but also wants to keep his wife happy. While Merida is a little girl, her father suffers a debilitating leg injury while fending off a bear after it tries to attack Merida. This bear will play a larger role later in the film.

Meanwhile, after Merida’s all grown up, she is forced to take the hand of one of the clans’ sons that competes in Merida’s favorite sport–archery. She decides to fend for her own hand, much to the chagrin of her mother, who doesn’t want to allow it. But it’s too late, and Merida and her mother have a large fight that leads Merida to follow some enigmatic wisps of the willow into a forest, all the way to a mysterious witch. Merida wants to change her fate–but for some reason thinks that the way to do that is to change her mother’s fate. I still don’t follow that logic; but the result is quite interesting.

The change in Merida’s mother’s fate causes the two to bond with each other in an effort to make everything go back to normal; meanwhile, Merida’s father still has to entertain the clans while she supposedly deliberates over which suitor she chooses. The adventure in the film focuses on Merida and her mother, and their quest to undo what Merida has done.

The film really becomes more of a coming of age story and a very affectionate tale of mother/daughter relationships. It actually makes the other stuff seem a little forced in comparison. For instance, the cute but underused little brothers Merida has. They’re a joy to watch, but they’re hardly used. Same with the witch, and her strange crow that seems to be able to speak. But instead of having them as the resident villains, they disappear without a trace soon after being introduced. The lack of a central villain is a bit of a risk considering the formula this film follows. However, I thought they were able to pull off the story with having Merida herself being to blame for her mother’s misfortune, and it being up to her to save her. The payoff is a bit too easy, but the film has its share of amusing pratfalls and screwballery that keeps you entertained.

Overall it is a nice little tale, and the ending is moving. But there seems to be two different directions this movie wants to go and never quite gets to either, and I think that can be blamed a bit on the changing of the guard midway through production. Sometimes you can tell when a project changes hands (like in “Hancock”). I even think the title change is rather curious. This film isn’t so much about bravery (in that, Merida isn’t a coward in the beginning and brave by the end), but it is about a bear, and it does involve a bow. Maybe “The Bear and the Bow” just doesn’t resonate as a film title. It’d have to be some kind of Little Golden Book classic to retain a title like that.

For a Pixar film, it’s a tad disappointing. We don’t have the typical lush characters and multiple storylines, and some of the plot elements are just all too familiar. However, I did like the main characters enough, and I loved the look of the film, and the music was wonderful. The 3-D left something to be desired; but it still gave a greater scope of the landscapes of the Scottish highlands than I would imagine you could pull off in 2-D.

The film works enough to recommend and be passable. Maybe if this stayed in Brenda Chapman’s hands all along, however, we could have had another Pixar classic on our hands.

My rating: :-)

Men In Black 3

May 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

I have a continuing dilemma whenever I see that there will be a  new MiB movie released. On the one hand, I have a lot of anticipation that it will be better than the last one that came out; and inevitably, when I see it, I’m always underwhelmed and disappointed that it wasn’t even as good as the last one that came out. Such is the case again with “Men in Black 3”, a movie with just enough ambition to make a smile-worthy film, but tries nothing new to re-invent itself or push its own limits. It goes through the motions and hopes we are pleased. This may work for some people who just want to get out of the house for a few hours and sit in a cool theatre on a hot day (as I call them, “get away” movies); but for me, at least with this franchise, I’m always wanting more. The jokes are predictable, the climax and resolution always seem to leave me empty–and in this case, kind of sour.

This film begins with a  bad guy named Boris “The Animal” (though it’s just “Boris” to you) who is locked up on the moon after being captured by Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). He subsequently breaks out and goes back to earth with the intent to travel back in time, kill Agent K, and start an invasion with his cronies, an alien race known as the Boglodites. Agent K’s original capture of The Animal 40 years ago is legendary because he also installed what’s called the ArcNet, a protective shield that won’t allow the Boglodites into the earth’s atmosphere.

Agent K and J discover Boris’s time travel plot when they are checking out routine alien criminal activity, and when K disappears, J also finds himself in a rip in time that makes him crave chocolate milk, and he soon learns that he’s in an alternate present in which K was killed 40 years ago by Boris. J then has to go back in time to save Agent K to the 60’s.

I’m going to stop here and reveal that I’m instantly on edge whenever time travel is introduced to a plot as a device. It’s so incredibly contrived and overused and because there are so many possibilities and flaws, it winds up being ludicrous and unconvincing. It also usually leads to many, many plot holes. When I was reading about the production of this film, Will Smith had said they had tried everything to make sure that the film’s time travel rules were followed as best as they could. At the same time, the film’s director, Barry Sonnenfeld, admitted they did not have a definitive act 2 or 3 when production began. Well, it certainly showed.

J has to convince K about this plot of Boris (played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) going back in time, stopping K’s original arrest of Boris by killing K, and also killing  an alien named Griffin whose race created the ArcNet (Arcadian is the name of Griffin’s race, and Net is pretty easy to figure out) and gave it to K to begin with. Griffin (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is kind of like a cross between Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, and Robin Williams. He has one of the more memorable scenes when the three of them are in the infamous The Factory (although the Andy Warhol joke is a bit weak, I thought), when he goes on and on about possible futures, confounding Agent J. 

The best scenes in the film involve Agent J (always charismatically played by Will Smith) and the young Agent K (well imitated Jones by Josh Brolin–he has a knack for imitation). We finally see a softer side of Agent K, and find out he did at one point have a love interest, Agent O (played in the present tense by Emma Thompson). That plot is never really explored but it’s probably for the best as it would’ve been far too complicated to sort out in an alien comic action adventure movie.

As relieved as I was that it didn’t become a love story, I was also left unmoved by the main story involving the plot to save Agent K. I’ve enjoyed the two characters through their movies, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I really cared about them. And usually by the time the new movie comes out, the old one has evaporated from my mind. These are not inherently memorable films. While the chemistry is fine, and it’s fun to see some of the antics the MiB go through to catch the bad guys (bowling with an alien’s head, for example), it never really leads to anything that memorable. I also found the villain Boris to be a bit stale at best; and at worst, kind of irritating. You never really get a good read on what kind of personality he has. He’ll toss out a one-liner here or there that makes you think he’s hip; but then he’s stone faced or upset about being called “The Animal”. I also thought that the lack of “place” in the 60’s was a missed opportunity. I get that they can’t go “Austin Powers” on everybody, but what were aliens like 40 years ago compared to now? There could’ve been many possibilities for humor and even some adventure. There’s one flat joke about how the Neuralizer has evolved but that’s pretty much it.

Where the film ultimately fails, though, is the ending (how could you guess?). There’s a twist which I won’t give away–I will just say that it has its heart in the right place, but unfortunately doesn’t have its logic in the right place. Up until that point the film was digestible. Nothing great, but nothing bad. But the twist, with all of its intentions, just falls flat. And you don’t even have to think that hard about it. Almost immediately you will think, “Are they just throwing this in here for the sake of it?”

Sometimes I wish someone would just tell a screenwriter, “Look you don’t have to just throw a twist in there okay?” Just resolve the movie and move on. Sure, the film would still be less than a masterpiece. But it at least would be closer to that than an out of focus Polaroid, which is what “Men in Black 3” ultimately is.

My rating::?