SAVING MR. BANKS



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When Emma Thompson first appears on screen as children’s author and Mary Poppins’ creator P.L. Travers (sorry, that’s Mrs. Travers to me) in Saving Mr. Banks, she’s pinched face, irritable, unpleasant and deeply unhappy, possessing the personality of the second nanny in the horror film The Omen. 
I know she’s an unlikable human being, so unlikable she probably makes dogs run for their lives just by glaring at them.  But from the first moment I saw her, I loved her and was on her side.  I mean, she has one of the best “save the cat” moments in recent films.  When she can’t get her suitcase into the overhead rack and a mother with a baby comes to her rescue and offers to move her own bag to give her room, Travers responds by asking whether the child is going to be a nuisance since it’s an eleven hour flight.  Now, if you can’t adore someone like that, then you just don’t have a heart.
I suppose part of her immediate appeal to me could be because I’m a screenwriter as well, and so I could easily identify with her fears of what a producer might do to her beloved creation Mary Poppins.  And she has good reason for these fears, with the constant complaints from authors whose novels and plays Hollywood has, well, what’s a good PG-13 word for it—misinterpreted, distorted, altered, disfigured, twisted, warped, raped, sodomized up the anus cavity with a heated iron rod like Edward II…but I digress. 
But it’s not just that.  There’s more to it than just that.  When she arrives in Los Angeles and steps off that plane, she’s confronted by a constant barrage of “it’s a small, small world” happy people with toothsome smiles out of The Sound of Music and a city so brightly lit with mind-numbing sunshine, that all I wanted to do was slap those merciless grins off of everybody’s faces and ask God to do to the city what Mark Robson did to it in Earthquake.
So when she constantly throws her Noel Coward-like snarky comments at one and all; or school teacherly corrects the screen and song writers of the movie to be when they make the somewhat dubious claim that Dick Van Dyke is one of the greats; or she gets so frustrated she throws the screenplay that has so disgusted her out the window, I was yelling “you go, girl” (well, no, I didn’t yell it, I was in a movie theater, after all, but you know what I mean).
And then it happens, the exact same thing that happens to Travers in the movie.  The charm of Disneyland and Los Angeles just wears you down and you have no choice but to succumb to it all.  It’s inevitable.  And there’s no shame in it because it happens to god bless us one and all who transpose themselves to this bright and shining city on the sea. 
And so, like everyone who has come before her, by the end of the film, Travers has embraced the sordid cheeriness of the City of Angels and gives up fighting for control of her story, letting “Walt, you have to call me Walt.  Mr. Disney is my father” turn her no-nonsense, all business nanny into a singing, dancing, twinkling (“and the magic word is”) Julie Andrews.
Saving Mr. Banks is the Hitchcock of 2013.  Based as was Hitchcock on a true Hollywood story of the making of a classic movie, it also leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to the facts.  But also like Hitchcock, it’s one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year.  The screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith is witty and bright and full of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (OMG, believe it or not, that did not come up wrong on spell check; spell check actually has that made up word in it) energy and John Lee Hancock’s direction is taut with expert timing.  
It’s not perfect by any means.  The psychology is simplistic and obvious, and there are scenes that aren’t as convincing as they might be, as when Don DaGradi, Mary Poppins’ screenwriter, gets Travers to tap her toes and dance with him (calling Joseph Campbell, calling Joseph Campbell, I think a couple of steps in the hero’s journey got left out here).   And some of the visuals are painfully on the nose (as the change in Travers’ fashion from sensible, brown tweed to free flowing blue and white cotton after she signs over her creation’s life to Disney’s implacable will). 
But gosh darn it all to heck, it just doesn’t matter.  You can point out the problems and bewail and bemoan it all, but that won’t stop the whole thing from winning you over and thoroughly delighting you.  Even when it doesn’t work, oh, my, does it work.
The cast is one of the finer ones of the year.  Both Emma Thompson, as Travers, and Tom Hanks, as Disney, seem to have had something of a Renaissance here.   Neither has really been doing anything of real note lately.  Thompson had been hiding out in small supporting roles in such movies as Brideshead Revisited, Pirate Radio and seasonal revivals of Love Actually.  But now she’s back in a lead and she’s brought all her glory with her. 
And Hanks, who had been making some of the most painfully uninteresting movies of late that a major actor could make (Cloud Atlas, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Larry Crowne), gives the second of two remarkable performances this year, first in Captain Phillips, and now in Saving Mr. Banks, where he brings a mythic Walt Disney down to earth (and does one of these impersonations where whenever I think of the original, now all I’ll see is Hanks).
Maybe both just needed to go through a period of adjustment as they grew older and had to reinvent themselves in order to reinvigorate their careers (most actors do). 
But the movie also has some of the most imaginative casting in supporting roles as well, from Wes Anderson refugee Jason Schwartzman as one half of the Sherman brothers song writing team (B.J. Novak is also solid as the other half); Kathy Baker, who really has nothing to do as Disney’s secretary, but she makes the most of it anyway (she has a terrific bit at the end where she’s laughing as Disney comes into the office because she knows something he doesn’t); and perhaps most wonderful of all, Collin Farrell, who gives a magical and haunting performance as Travers’ dipsomaniac father in the moving and heartfelt flashback episodes.
So in the end, is Saving Mr. Banks a good movie?  Sure it is.  Even very good, I’ll venture to say.  Is it more than that?  God, no.   But like Los Angeles and Disneyland, it’s easier not to fight it and just enjoy the hell out of it.  It’s the only way you’ll get out alive.  Just ask Mrs. Travers.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and MACHETE KILLS



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Captain Phillips, the new, inspired by real events, film written by Billy Ray, directed by Paul Greengrass, and starring Tom Hanks, is a big-budget, studio type blockbuster (though technically an indie, but tomayto, tomahto) version of the Danish film A Hijacking.  And god damn it if the sons of bitches don’t get away with it.
I’m not prepared to say that Captain Phillips is the better film of the two.  I’m also not prepared to say it’s not.  But it’s a fine film in its own right and one that will grip you by the gonads (or whatever you have that you don’t find comfortable having gripped) and will not let go.  The basic plot concerns Hanks, as the title character (natch, I mean, it is Tom Hanks, so c’mon, you know), at the helm of an American cargo ship when they are taken over by Somali pirates and then what happens when the Navy SEALS are called in to resolve the situation.  And resolve it they do; hell hath no fury like an America scorned.
Everyone contributes more than their fare share to the gritty, down to earth, yet still over the top, effectiveness of the film.  This is perhaps Hanks finest performance in quite some time (possibly because it’s his most interesting character in quite some time).  His Captain Phillips is an excellent leader that defines grace under pressure.  But he’s also rigid, a stickler and a bit of a prick (well, according to the crew members who are suing the owner of the cargo ship, he was much more than a bit of one).  Though people have complained of his faux Boston accent, in the end, it doesn’t get in the way of his losing himself in this character and completely disappearing at times (or is it that Phillips loses himself in Hanks; again, tomayto, tomahto).  And those harrowing final scenes of Hanks trying to hold himself together as a medical practitioner calmly, very calmly, very, very calmly tries to help him are quite haunting (improvised on the spot with Corpsman Danielle Albert).
The screenplay by Ray does start out a bit wibbly-wobbly with some dull, flat and on the nose conversation between Phillips and his wife (played by Catherine Keener for some unknown reason; I know the economy is rough, but there wasn’t any lesser known actor who couldn’t have spared a day or two for the shoot?) on the way to the airport.  But once Phillips boards the ship, the dialog is tight, to the point, with a strong feeling of verisimilitude.  Ray does an equally amazing job of creating very real, three dimensional characters in the Somali pirates, not just making them the enemy de jour, but trying to understand why they do the things they do without making them innocent.
Greenglass, however, is the perfect director for a film like this.  His trademarked hand held camera that shakes and his constant, jagged cutting give the whole procedure the feeling of a documentary.   And he never allows the forward momentum to stop.  Whether his camera sores through the heavens or focuses in close up on the characters, everything keeps going someplace.   The whole things feels as if the editor is on meth, or at the least has ADD (BTW, that’s a compliment).
Special note, though, must be taken of Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, the “look at me, look at me, I’m the captain now” head of the pirates.  He’s not a professional; he was discovered driving a limo in Minneapolis, though he spent his first seven years in Somali.  But every once in awhile a movie finds a non-professional who, by being a non-professional, can bring something to a role no actor can.  This happened with Harold Russell for The Best Years of Our Lives and Hang S. Ngor for The Killing Fields.  Abdi gives a powerful realization of his character and his scenes with Hanks are riveting.
There is one aspect of the film that I must say I found myself becoming quite unnerved by.  Though the movie is filled with human beings, everything is so controlled by machines and computers.  Everything.  The helm of the cargo ship is filled with the latest, up to date IT toys; and so, it almost seems, is the Somali ship.  Both play a cat and mouse game using computers and radar alone for awhile.  And then at the end, the SEALS arrive, with the calm determination, the lack of emotion, the steely focus of the Roman soldiers in Spartacus.  In many ways, they seem half human, half machine, like a troop of Robocops.  At this point, the drama takes a rather curious emotional turn as Phillips and Muse’s humanity is squashed by technology.   Is this really the only way we can resolve our differences?  Maybe so, but I was still left feeling somewhat uncomfortable at this brave new world that hath such creatures in it.
What is there to say about Machete Kills?  Well, I realize that it is very difficult to make a good movie that is suppose to be a bad one, but still, this is the best director Robert Rodriguez and writer Kyle Ward can do?  It certainly starts out well enough with a fun preview of the next Machete movie, Michete Kills…in Space (kill me now, Machete, kill me now) and the preposterous opening scenes achieve the tone that Rodriguez is going for.  But from the moment Carlos Estevez (it’s hard to tell from the filming whether he’s out of house arrest yet) as the POTUS without the mostus shows up, it’s all downhill from there.  The whole thing is both too clever, yet not clever enough.  And the casual and cavalier killing of people as a joke is almost never funny, just dispiriting.  Only Demian Bicher (as a Mexican revolutionary with a multiple personality disorder), Sofia Vergara (as a madam with mammaries that can kill), and William Sadler (as a quite funny parody of Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night) get away with the ridiculousness.  Mel Gibson shows up, but he’s no Auric Goldfinger; even worse, he’s no Doctor Evil.  In the end, it’s a movie that doesn’t seem to have a reason for having been made.  With Danny Trejo as Machete.

CLOUD ATLAS



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Cloud Atlas the movie stars Frank Griebe and John Toll as the Cinematographers; Huge Bateup and Uli Hanisch as the Production Designers; Rebecca Alleway and Peter Walpole as the Set Designers; Kym Barett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud as the Costume Designers; and a cast of thousands when it comes to Makeup and Art Direction.  There are also some actors involved, but they’re all pretty much chopped liver by the time the credits roll.
The movie, for those not on twitter and facebook, contains six story lines set in six different periods of time, including the future as well as the future future.  The basic themes seem to be that we’re all connected; everything that happens is cause and effect; and that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Kansas can cause a tsunami in Japan.  Except it’s not really. 
In fact, as the movie jumps from time period to time period and story to story (as a friend of a friend said, it’s the perfect movie for those with ADD), no one character or event in one time period has any affect on any character or event in another time period.   Or if they did, the writers (those V for Vendetta/Matrix welding Wachowski siblings, Lana and Andy, as well as Tom, Run Lola Run, Twyker, all of whom also directed) did a very good job of keeping it to themselves.   True, there are overlaps.  A book from one period, letters from another, a piece of middle brow music that people go gaga over for some unclear reason, all end up in another era.  But that’s not a connection.  That’s a coincidence.  And of the extremely forced variety.   Coincidence and connection are not the same thing, no matter how much new age mumbo jumbo you want to throw at it.  Or if it is, the filmmakers have a totally different understanding of butterflies and tsunamis that I do (which is more than quite possible).
In the end, there’s only one reason to have made this movie and that is the opportunity to do a tour de force thingy by creating six difference films in six different styles (Bladerunner, Brideshead Revisited/Merchant-Ivory, a 1970’s crime drama cum social ills action movie, etc.), all using the same set of actors.  And if the filmmakers had pulled that off, what an amazing film it would have been.
But alas, the only section that really hits its mark is the Bladerunner type story about replicants in a futuristic New Seoul.  This story has the best acting (Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae in the leads); it hits its emotional mark of doomed lovers on the run (a 22ndCentury take on They Live By Night); and the visual aspects of this section meld well and don’t overpower the human (well, replicant, but let’s not be petty) element.  For the other sections, the filmmakers can’t seem to get the styles or rhythms quite right with the story set further in the future almost impossible to follow.
And then there’s the acting.  The biggest names are Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon and Hallie Berry.  Sarandon isn’t given much to do.  Hallie Berry comes across well enough, especially in the 1970’s action film; all in all, her roles don’t require a great range (and there seem to be little difference in her ambitious investigative reporter and futuristic alien).  But (to paraphrase Pauline Kael in talking about Norma Shearer) oh, that Hanks.  Perhaps because he is so recognizable no matter what thickness of make up and prosthetics are slathered on, he felt the need to overplay every role to really remind people that he really isn’t who you think he is—but the further he tried to get away from himself, the closer he got.
The best performers come from the younger generation, like Sturgess and Bae as well as Ben Whishaw, the perpetually pouting English actor with the big hair.  They seem a bit more comfortable playing their wide range of roles (though the make up for Bae lets her down in the anti-slavery tract section).  And Hugo Weaving is a hoot in his Nurse Diesel/Ratchett turn, this time named Nurse Noakes (but he had a lot of practice in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert).
In the end, Cloud Atlas is ambitious and often overpowering to look at.  But in execution, to be cruel and ruthlessly honest, it comes across more as the perfect choice for bad movie night where everyone can yell out comments as the scenes go by.  One suggestion: in the 1970’s film, when Hanks, coiffed in the typical top and sideburns of the day, and Berry go outside and Berry asks if it’s okay to smoke and Hanks says, I’m cool—yell out, not with that hairstyle, you’re not.

MYSTERIES BOTH SECULAR AND DIVINE: Reviews of Angels and Demons and State of Play


The producers, director, and writers would have you believe that the intended audience for Angels & Demons are those who find religious issues to be of interest. But in reality, the actual audience for this movie are people who like crossword puzzles, anagrams and other word games. The real theme of the movie is not whether science and religion can be reconciled (in fact, whenever the dialog drifts to rel v. sci it all gets pretty silly), it’s what does this clue; that word hideously branded into a cardinal’s chest; that dead body mutilated and murdered in that way mean, and how will it lead Tom Hanks to what obscure bit of art history that will lead him to the bad guy. Angels and Demons is a perfectly acceptable suspense thriller that is actually very entertaining until the ending whereupon we are blessed (blessed, get it?, get it?) with one of those twists that renders everything that has come before it ridiculously unbelievable. The acting is perfectly fine with Stellan Skarsgard taking the honors. However, the real standout performance is the incredible recreation of the Vatican. The low point of the film is Armin Mueller-Stahl’s last line which is a paraphrase of Deborah Kerr’s final words in Tea and Sympathy (where she tells a teenager she is about to deflower “Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will…be kind”). It’s simply too close not to believe that someone didn’t know.

I consider the original version of State of Play to be one of the great mini series in TV history. So I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie version. The main reason it worked as well as it did for me was that the authors (screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gillroy and Billy Ray) found an absolutely brilliant American parallel scandal to put at the heart of the drama, an attempt by a Big Brother type company to win a government contract to take over domestic spying. And whenever the movie focuses on the central mystery of how two apparently unrelated deaths are intrinsically linked, it’s riveting (the direction by Kevin McDonald is quite satisfactory). It falters when it comes to characterization. Russell Crowe plays one of those scruffy reporters who always looks like he just got out of bed; you know, the kind who don’t play by the rules, but we forgive him because he brings down people like Nixon? The character’s a cliché and if he’s not a stereotype, he should be. The up and coming blogger is played by Rachel McAdams and she has no real character whatsoever; she’s a less developed version of one of those Dirty Harry sidekicks, though in this movie she’s allowed a better fate. The little tete a tetes the two have over the old journalism versus the new journalism never catch fire because the dialogue is the same paint by numbers argument that comes up whenever any new technology is introduced, the old “mark my words, the introduction of sound will be the death of the movies” type stuff. The acting honors are taken by Helen Mirren as the hard as nails editor and Justin Bateman as a slimy bisexual lobbyist. Ben Affleck is becoming more and more interesting as he seems to be taking a page from the Matt Damon play book: be an ensemble player rather than a star. All in all, a fun ride.

Reviews of Sunshine Cleaning and The Great Buck Howard


Sunshine Cleaning is a movie about estranged sisters who bond after starting a business cleaning up crime scenes. It’s one of those formulaic films that have been the basis of American movies since the dawn of silents: someone goes on a three act journey and has a character arc change by the end. As such, the movie is obvious and takes no real chances. At the same time, the script is intelligent and well written (by Megan Holley) with some moving moments and it’s doubtful the audience will be disappointed. It also has some fine acting, especially by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as the sisters and a fine supporting cast of Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn and Clifton Collins, Jr. In the end, it doesn’t quite work as well as it should because the gimmick, the cleaning service, actually overshadows and distracts from the hero’s journey rather than really informs it. The sisters bond more in spite of it all rather than because of it. And there’s one scene, where Amy Adams attends a baby shower, that doesn’t have a strong enough pay off and falls flat. It probably doesn’t help that she has a big speech about what she’s gotten out of cleaning up crime scenes when in reality it’s Blunt who is the one who has come to realize what Adams has supposedly, but not really, learned here.

The Great Buck Howard also has Emily Blunt and Steve Zahn (though this time Zahn is playing the typical Steve Zahn role, complete with unflattering mullet). Like Sunshine Cleaners, it’s also formulaic as well as entertaining and intelligently written (this time by Sean McGinly, who also directed). In it, a man played by Colin Hanks, leaves law school in a huff and against the wishes and knowledge of his authoritarian father (play by Hanks’ real life father, Tom Hanks, who probably isn’t as authoritarian as his character or Colin would probably have never entered show business). In the end, …Buck Howard works better than Sunshine Cleaning because the gimmick here, an over the top character based on the real life over the top mentalist Kreskin, is more central to Hanks’ character arc and provides an ending that is wittier and cleverer than Sunshine Cleaning’s. It’s also buoyed by a delicious performance by John Malkovich as Howard and an equally delicious performance by Tom Hanks playing an unsympathetic character, something he’s actually very good at and the kind of role he hasn’t really played since perhaps That Thing You Do. It’s nice to know that if the public grows tired of Hanks being cast because he’s instantly likeable, he can always take a page from Alan Alda’s page book and revive his career by playing assholes.