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: :-)

Flight

November 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

I’m pretty sure if you gave me a few lines of cocaine, an all night binge of drinking and casual sex, I don’t think I could land a malfunctioning plane the very next morning. Of course, I don’t know that I’d function at all the next day. But that’s just the scenario commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) has put himself into–and he lands the plane, inverted, and saves 96 out of 102 people on board.

That’s the set up of Rob Zemekis’s new film, and his first live action film since “Cast Away” in 2000. That film, too, had an airpline crisis that wound up leaving Tom Hanks stranded on a deserted island. Here, though, all is well, and the plane…lands.

But that’s not the whole story. After the crash/land, Whitaker sustains a few injuries, as well as his co-pilot (recovering from a coma), and his casual sex partner who happened to be one of the flight attendants, is one of the dead. He’s obviously shaken by this event, and after being offered some pick-me-ups from his dealer (played jovially by John Goodman, who always puts a smile on your face whatever he does), decides he wants to stay clean. That’s a good idea for him, as he’s battled addiction before and lost his marriage and custody of his son over it. Whip is considered a hero to the media and to the people he saved–but the NTSB (a federal investigation bureau assigned to the crash landing) has produced a toxicology report that, if brought to light, could put Whip in jail, possibly for the rest of his life. The positive results of alcohol and cocaine being in his system at the time of the flight and landing mean that the 6 who were killed would be charged as manslaughter against him.

Someone from the pilot union is on Whip’s side, Charlie (played well by the always reliable Bruce Greenwood), and an attourney, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), agrees to help Whip and thinks he can have the toxicology report thrown out.

All of this works out well for Whip, who could walk away clean. On top of this, while in the hospital, he meets another recovering addict (of heroin), Nicole (Kelly Reilly). The two of them go off to his father’s old crop dusting ranch, retreating from the media and secluding themselves from outside conflicts. But it’s the inner conflicts that begin to haunt Whip, as he delves back into alcoholism and drives Nicole away. Meanwhile, he tries in vain to reconnect with his ex-wife and son, who kicks him out in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes.

The film is full of dramatic scenes, all of them involving Denzel, delivering his best and most complete performance in years. But while the film has its heart in the right place, and is highly likeable, something is just a little off.

In the first place, I never really bought the NTSB investigation. The media hype alone would have staved off any kind of investigation because it would have been a PR nightmare. This was due to airplane malfunction, not pilot error. The toxicology report would’ve been shredded immediately. Sure, it’s the government and they have a responsibility. And we all know how honorable and trustworthy government agencies are in this great nation, right? …?

Then, there’s a real missed opportunity with the theme of “hero worship” in general. Whip saved 96 lives on a plane that was doomed to kill all on board. Yes, he tries to escape the media. But what if he actually tried to embrace it, like so many do? Book deals, interviews, 60 minutes, talk shows? What if that related to the alcohol abuse, or gave him more of a reason to use again? There’s not a lot of backstory on how much Whip was a user while flying. Did he do these things because that’s the only way he could fly? That’s never really explored.

In fact, the film gets tunnel vision right around the time that Whip and Nicole hide out together. Nicole is completely heroin-free, something else that’s a bit hard to believe since withdrawal from that drug can actually cause death because it’s so intense to get off of.

Then, there’s the religious angle. There are scenes where the film tries to hint at the question of whether God was involved in saving that plane. There’s some symbolism, and there’s one very confused and uncomfortable scene where the co-pilot has awoken from his coma, and he and his wife (who can only speak in “Praise Jesus” words, literally), go from berating him and judging him…to praying with him and telling him everything will be OK. It’s very awkward, and doesn’t do anything to raise the stakes for Whip. Because there’s no direct agenda on what the film’s trying to say about whether God exists or not, it just comes off as flimsy.

While there are stakes in the background for Whip, in the foreground it just doesn’t come across dramatically. I never felt that the investigation was going to find Whip guilty of manslaughter. There is a “courtroom” scene that’s well done, in which Whip finally has to force himself to take responsibility.

But all of this is done in a somewhat muddled way–it’s uncharacteristically unfocused for Zemekis, who is usually in command behind the camera. The film’s title is an obvious double meaning, similar in the way “Cast Away” was. But while it is a wonderful character study of addiction, and Denzel Washington does an incredible job of bringing that to the screen with brutal honesty, the film itself…does not…take…

OK, I’ll spare you the pun. It just doesn’t come together for me in the end. There were some things the film did well, but I think it was missing out on something even bigger. If a guy lands a plane and saves lives but was on drugs, it raises great moral questions

I think there were other questions this film could’ve pondered, too, and it would’ve made it a stronger film.

Cloud Atlas

November 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

“What is an ocean? But millions of droplets.” That line, spoken by one of the protagonists in the new Wachowski film “Cloud Atlas”, pretty much sums up the idea of the film in general. It also illustrates how empty headed this nearly 3 hour pseudointellectual exercise is.

It’s hard to really lay out the plot of this film, because it’s one of those movies that strings together a bunch of little vignettes to try to tell one singular narrative. In this case, your choices lead to consequences, which lead to legacies. That’s what the film is about, and it strains it until it becomes completely meaningless.

It takes a few different main characters, some played by the same actors, and tries to tell a story throughout time about people who all have choices to make. Their choices will change the futures of some of the characters, just like in real life, you know? The most interesting stories involve a journalist (played by the always appealing Halle Berry) uncovering a malicious nuclear plot that could destroy mankind, set in the 70’s; and a bisexual pianist who has been chosen by one of the greatest composers to flesh out his last masterpiece before he dies. The pianist, Robert Frobisher (played by Doona Bae), has to leave his lover, Sixsmith (played by James D’Arcy in one of the film’s only Oscar calibur roles), and in doing so, compromises his only true love for the love of himself and musical self-glory. This story is probably the most keen in bringing out what the film is about.

The film’s at its weakest and most groan inducing when it is in the future, where 2 of the stories are set. One looks straight out of “The Matrix”, in a place called Neo-Seoul, where servants are produced and re-produced to supplement the regular population. The other takes place deeper into the future, something that looks straight out of “The Time Machine”, where a tribal people led by Zachry (Tom Hanks) are ruled by a god that was actually one of the replicants from Neo-Seoul hundreds of years ago. The Neo-Seoul future is just preposterous and retread. But it’s at least somewhat entertaining. The tribal future is just downright silly, and there’s an annoying “demon” that honestly looks like Leprechaun popping up whenever the hero Zachry has a moral dilemma.

There are other plots involving a slave stowaway on a ship in the 1800’s, and a publisher who becomes the victim of his brother’s revenge after a debt is needed to pay off gangsters. The former is a bit stiff, and the latter is amusing but sometimes over the top in its attempt at humor. All of the stories, as I said, reuse the same actors. I would say that by the 6th incarnation of Tom Hanks, you’ll be rolling your eyes. There’s one version of Hugo Weaving that is supposed to be funny, I guess, but it really just comes off as ludicrous and stupid. And it’s somewhat disjointed in its attempt to be humorous because the rest of the film is supposed to be taken so seriously.

The nicest thing I can say about the film is that it’s ambitious. In the tradition of similar films that try and use different time periods to beat you over the head with a simple theme such as “Being Human” and “The Fountain”, “Cloud Atlas” tries too hard to be important, and doesn’t try hard enough to be engaging. The characters are never given enough screen time to be anything more than a guessing game of “OK which actor is this?” Behind the makeup (some of which is awful), it is hard to tell at times. And I’m sorry, but as much as Tom Hanks can be a fine actor–here it’s like he’s trying to be that fun uncle at a birthday party to trick the kids into thinking he’s 8 different people. But he is always Tom Hanks.

This film is based on a book, and I can imagine the book is not this abrasively eager. It could be equally ambitious; but a book can get away with that, because I’d imagine the characters are more fleshed out in the book. A film is constantly moving; you can’t sit there and ponder something when the film changes to something else. And this film doesn’t let up for a second with its story. You go from the middle of a story to the next, with no breather. It’s literally flipping back and forth, with its own agenda, and it’s up to you to keep up.

There are good performances by Jim Sturgess and the man who plays a slave, David Gyasi; and Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant have some funny moments in their different roles. But as I said, you become so aware of who the actor is far more than who the character is, and that takes the emotional impact the film is going for right out of you. There are perhaps 2 moments where I “felt” the film. One of those involved the characters of Sixsmith and Frobisher. There’s a very nice moment where Frobisher has lured Sixsmith into thinking they’ll meet, and they never do. There is a wonderful subtle beauty to that scene, that moment, and that idea.

But the film never achieves take off with its ideas. Instead it uses narration to drum between the ears about its supposed thoughtfulness on life, the universe, and everything. And that ocean of droplets becomes nothing more than a body of water that can easily be flushed down a toilet, and never thought about again.

My rating: :?