Saving Mr. Banks by John Lee Hancock

Saving Mr. Banks by John Lee Hancock

 

As a writer, it is my opinion that how authors view the film adaptation of their own work is irrelevant and inconsequential to the quality of the adaptation itself. For example, whether Stephen King appreciates Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining fundamentally does not make it a lesser film. This is the central question presented in John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks.

The story recounts Author P.L. Travers (Mary Poppins), writer of Mary Poppins, reluctantly meeting with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who seeks to adapt her book for the big screen. As they are collaborating on the film adaptation, Travers reflects on her childhood growing up in Australia with her father (Colin Farrell), revealing her own personal attachments to the Mary Poppins story.

Emma Thompson breathes a great inner life into P.L. Travers, humanizing a role that is greatly restrained and otherwise very unlikable. Tom Hanks, combining his star persona and natural ease, gives us a living and breathing Walt Disney. Hanks makes everything look so easy. Colin Farrell turns an affecting performance as Travers’ chronic alcoholic father Travers Goff, and also props to Annie Rose Buckley as the young P.L. Travers. The heart of the story lies in the flashback segments, as we see P.L. Travers’ past with his father in Australia and it shows that P.L. Travers essentially wrote Mary Poppins as wish fulfillment.

Director John Lee Hancock balances the material perfectly. Even though I fundamentally disagree with Travers’ persnickety demand of complete faithfulness, I empathize deeply with why she was so overprotective of her own material. It makes for much of the laughs as we watch the gloom Travers single-handedly killing all the child-like enthusiasm of the staff at Disney.

It is probably best to see Mary Poppins first to get a more wholesome experience, as seeing the numerous classic scenes and songs that Travers could have prevented from ever being created gives a whole other level of tension. Also, stay for the credits for a surprise easter egg.

Despite probably being overshadowed in terms of awards recognition, Saving Mr. Banks is a very enjoyable experience. Audience will find laughs and tears, as it is a well-made feel good movie.

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American Hustle by David O. Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

 

David O. Russell’s latest caper American Hustle is fundamentally more interested in its characters than doing anything with them.

The story is a fictionalized account of the FBI ABSCAM operation in the late 1970s. Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale), a con man, falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the couple start running a con operation together. Everything seems perfect at first, but Irving refuses to leave his adopted son and wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who refuses to divorce him. When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches Irving and Sydney in a loan scam, they are forced to help him make four arrests for their release.

What happens with the characters never matches the depth of their characterizations. As the narrative switches perspectives and cross-sections into the inner monologue of several characters, it keeps the viewer perpetually wondering who is the main character of the story. The con, or more specifically the plot, is cast to the side. The joy of watching the construction of the con is not present; O. Russell is not interested in those nuts and bolts.

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are all very good and very free in their parts. Louis C.K. even has a funny supporting role as Bradley Cooper’s FBI superior who is frequently bullied. Despite of the nominations, the acting is not Oscar worthy. It just seems like it should be.

O. Russell directs like an acting coach running a class exercise, having the actors improvise scenes and go off script to no end. The scenes do feel raw and unrehearsed. At its best, energy is building and chaos seems to be imminent, like a lit fuse burning its way to the end of a dynamite stick that we cannot see. At its worst, it feels plodding and going over information we already know. The inverse effect is it makes the actors, as good as they are in their parts, look like they are playing dress up. So as much as it wants to be an anarchic character study, the final result is oddly shallow.

American Hustle does not quite live up to its awards hype. The truth is, it was overhyped from the beginning, and somehow David O. Russell has everybody believing he has made something good. Or somehow the people just want to believe he has made something good. Good for him, but I really doubt anybody will be talking about this film six months from now when the hype dies down.

The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese

The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorcese

 

Martin Scorsese’s latest is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker and founder of Stratton Oakmont, a company which engaged in securities fraud and corruption on Wall Street during the nineties. 


First off, the performances are top-notch. Leonardo DiCaprio has managed to find new depths by playing a character that is even debatably worse than the racist plantation owner in Django Unchained. DiCaprio has done more than enough to win his Oscar, and winning for The Wolf of Wall Street is as good any of his other roles. My favorite DiCaprio performance is still Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Though my vote goes to McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club this year. Speaking of which, McConaughey has a great cameo as Jordan’s mentor, who gives Belfort the inspirational push. However, Jonah Hill is the standout as Belfort’s psychotic sidekick Donnie Azoff, delivering an even more impressive performance than in Moneyball.

At a 3-hour running time, the film is too long and it easily could have been shorter with less party scenes and throwing midgets into giant dartboards at the office. As a rise-and-fall story, it has too much ‘rise’ and not enough ‘fall’. I wanted the story to move on and inform us about the financial damage this all caused and all the lives it hurt in the process, but Scorsese does not seem interested in the forensics. Overall there are some very good party set pieces and funny scenes, but after a while, I was just numb.

The story is essentially told from the villain’s point of view. Extending this idea to the classic children’s storybook The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which is told from the Big Bad Wolf’s perspective. The Wolf retells the Three Little Pigs story and asks the reader to consider his side of the story. The Wolf was simply trying to bake a cake for his grandmother’s birthday while nursing a bad cold, and things got out of hand. Therein lies my criticism: there is nothing redeemable from the Jordan Belfort character in The Wolf of Wall Street. Or at the very least, the filmmakers do not seem interested in showing anything beyond the surface. 

The breaking-the-4th-wall story device of having the villain narrate his story to the audience is raunchy and creative, but Scorsese totally forgets that it is supposed to be ironical. The premise of the black comedy is that we’re supposed to laugh at how vile and putrid these people are. But by the nth orgy scene, the characters are matted into two dimensions and we never get beneath the surface. The morality play tips over to the other side and it mistakenly justifies itself. Just because this a tale about self-indulgent shallow people doesn’t mean we have to tell their story in a self-indulgent shallow fashion.

The bad taste left in my mouth at the end is not the film’s self-indulgence, but out of worry that The Wolf of Wall Street is so unclear about its cautionary message, that there are certain viewers that will admire this lifestyle and become inspired to become a stock broker. For the rest of that find the Belfort character repugnant will feel empty wondering what justified the three-hour running time.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller

 

Walter Mitty is a daydreamer who escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. But when his job is threatened, he takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.

I am typically not a fan of Ben Stiller’s comedy – whenever he dons a wig and plays a crazy character, it is one-note and awkward. Stiller fares best when he is a normal person reacting to an awkward situation, instead of being the source of awkwardness and the nebbish Walter Mitty character certainly plays to those strengths. Stiller’s other brand of ‘costume play’ comedy in the fantasy sequences is fortunately reduced to a minimal. Here he is at his most naturally charming and while Zoolander fans may disagree, but this is now officially my favorite thing Ben Stiller has directed and acted in.

Kristin Wiig is also naturally charming as Mitty’s love interest and gets to shine in a musical sequence where she does a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Sean Penn has a funny supporting role as artsy photographer Sean O’Connell, a role that smartly sources Penn’s trademark intensity for laughs.

The production design is impressive, with its visual compositions practically lifted from hardcover graphic design books and nifty editing transitions accompanied by cool looking fonts, which to some extent owes itself to Stranger Than Fiction. Stuart Dryburgh’s photography delivers a true sense of awe for New York’s urban cityscape and Greenland’s natural landscapes. The story reason is to make Walter Mitty look like an ant in a big world, but that overwhelming sense of the environment towering over man seeps over onto the audience.

The reality of the film’s own world is suspect, like the logistics of how an employee is able to leave work and fly off to a foreign country, or how big of a jerk the new corporate supervisor played by Adam Scott is being. None of this matters because the story is a fable after all. The viewer may feel in moments that they need to give the story the benefit of the doubt, and if that moment should occur, go along with it. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is imaginative and humorously made, and even in its weaker illogical moments is ultimately compensated by its charm. The lesson of someone who realizes he is missing out on life by daydreaming is just darn compelling, and it is emotionally cathartic watching Mitty wake up.

Personal Tailor by Feng Xiaogang

Personal Tailor by Feng Xiaogang

“Personal Tailor” is an unique business which specializes in allowing their customers to escape their day-t0-day life and live their dreams by staging specific scenarios that are tailored to meet their requests , no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched, every client is able to “live the dream”.

It is a phenomenon how Feng Xiaogang has established himself as the voice of the people in terms of Mainland Chinese cinema. Nobody else that makes films as didactic and on-the-nose as he does and still be so loved and supported. His latest comedy Personal Tailor is a series of vignettes about its four employees taking on different clients and making their dreams come true. The clients include a chaffeur who wants to be an important authority figure, a schlock B-movie director who wants to learn the essence of good taste and a working class cleaning lady who gets to be rich for one day. The vignettes vary from farce, satire, the absurd and even sometimes the fantastical. Reality is out of the window but it is the fable-like quality that holds the piece together.

Longtime Feng Xiaogang leading man Ge You plays his classic comedy archetype, the swindler with the heart of gold. That character will never get old. Bai Baihe from last year’s hit Love is Not Blind and Li Xiao Lu from Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl are both charming and funny. Jackie Chan and Huang Bao Qiang also make small cameos to ease the investors, however neither should be a reason to see the film.

The star of the film is Feng Xiaogang himself, who in each vignette gives us his thoughts and commentary on topics like social class, materialism, rich vs. poor and reality vs. dreams. It is fun watching the four leads run around in costumes and trying to drive their client’s ambitions down so their business turns out a profit, but their characterizations are not developed. They are merely puppets to a Feng Xiaogang puppet show and only exist to deliver the director’s multiple messages. The heavy messaging has long been a trope of Feng’s films and it must be said that Personal Tailor is the most thinly veiled of all his works. If you haven’t seen any of Feng Xiaogang’s urban comedies, Personal Tailor may not be the place to start.

Lastly, the movie is too long. The segment where the team ventures out in the wild to apologize for man’s appalling crimes against nature is too far fetched and ‘tree huggy’ for my taste. Personal Tailor is by no means Feng Xiaogang’s best work and it probably wouldn’t have a very long shelf life after its Lunar Year theatrical release. For English speaking audiences, the film actually has good subtitles but its humor probably will be lost in translation. Even for Feng Xiaogang fans, this isn’t a movie to own in your Blu-ray collection. To them I say, go see it in theaters while it’s current and  get your laughs from the latest Feng Xiaogang social commentary. It is a sincere hopeful message, but for me, it’s still too didactic.

Bill Cosby: Far From Finished

Bill Cosby: Far From Finished

Bill Cosby: Far From Finished

 

Bill Cosby has been an artist who has always been around who I never took the time to familiarize. Growing up, he was always the Jello guy and then later the host of the hilarious Kids Say The Darndest Things. A few Youtube clips aside, I have not seen any of his standup specials in completion.

The simplicity and universalness of Cosby’s comedic material is the price of admission. Most of the act is themed towards dissecting love and marriage. The highlights for me were his opening bit about people’s expectations of him swearing on Comedy Central, a bit about chess, and another where Cosby uses audience interaction to build a surprise twist.

Cosby’s drawled out diction makes it hard to focus on what he’s saying. I zoned out a few times because he took so much time between words. Maybe this is a case of me not being previously familiar with his past stand up specials, but there was much rewinding on my part. It is ultimately something one just tunes to or doesn’t.

Cosby’s persona and ability to act out his concepts makes up for it. His facial expressions are world creation; they instantly transport the viewer and place them where he wants to them to see the absurdity of his jokes. His persona is likened to an senile man trying to prove that his mind is still working. Don’t be fooled, he’s still very sharp. There’s one noteworthy hilarious moment where he barks at the audience for finishing one of his punchlines. It still boggles my mind how he can rouse that much energy on stage sitting down.

Anybody who wants a laugh for an hour, I recommend it. Anybody can enjoy it.

Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman headlines her very first new HBO comedy special in front of an intimate audience of 39.

Sarah Silverman is a comedian that’s always been around, but an artist I never directly got into by chance. I watched a few episodes of The Sarah Silverman Program, which was too obscure for my taste. But I always enjoyed her cameo in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, Louie and thought she gave an effective supporting performance in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. I enjoyed clips of her standup onlinebut have not seen her perform a complete comedy hour till now.

The decision to shoot the special at the Largo Comedy Club in front of 39 people is a great one. Silverman never looks far off into the distance or above to a balcony booth. There’s no big giant TV screen of her in the background for the cheap seats. The intimacy of the Largo lends itself for Silverman’s raunchy off-the-wall random tangent comedy, giving her much more freedom to roam from topic to topic without transitions.  “I don’t need segue ways.” Silverman quips,
“The brain doesn’t work that way.”

Some of the joke highlights were a childhood story of how her older sister used to scare her, sin atonement in Christianity and a bit about the Make A Wish foundation. It’s nice how much politically incorrect jokes she gets away with, showing an affable innocent girly  persona can really go a long way to make hard topics durable.

The whole experience is more akin to a live show, as Silverman is able to milk laughs from silences and even counter critique audience reactions when they aren’t up to par. It’s always awkward when comedians do audience interaction in big theater shows and this completely fixes that. The reactions from the 39 people create a more potent, immersive connection to Silverman’s perspective. And making 39 people laugh, after all, is much harder than making 200 people laugh.

Machete Kills by Robert Rodriguez

Machete Kills by Robert Rodriguez

The U.S. government recruits Machete to battle his way through Mexico in order to take down an arms dealer who looks to launch a weapon into space.

Every new additional reiteration of Machete is becoming less funnier than its predecessor. Machete was funny when it was first a trailer in Grindhouse. It was mildly amusing when it was made into a feature film. The sequel, Machete Kills, is now just a bland joke that has been worn out by its many retellings. Robert Rodriguez, the joke teller, can’t seem to get enough of his own joke. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to care how much we like the joke at all.

This film went right through me. As soon as it was finished, it was forgotten. Danny Trejo is an unique onscreen presence and I’m glad he is still working at age 69. Trejo has shown range in many of his supporting roles. Unfortunately, Rodriguez uses Trejo blandly as the film’s straight man, having react deadpan to the supporting cast of crazy cartoon characters surrounding him. Much of the film’s gags feel cheap, and it has nothing to do with b-movie irony. The most noteworthy example being the El Chameleón character, an assassin who is a literal shapeshifter, is a cheap excuse to open up guest star spots to help market the film. See? This all seems funnier to Robert Rodriguez than it is to the audience.

Robert Rodriguez claims to like his characters, and proceeds to populate his film with a cast of supporting characters that are on the surface visually interesting, but doesn’t do anything with them. It’s as if Rodriguez is perpetually trying to sculpt the perfect action icon, but never delivers the pathos to fully sell the character. Instead, the characters are all handled in a throwaway fashion, tossed aside once their iconography is fully formed.

The saving grace of Machete Kills is Mel Gibson, who really devotes himself to the role, milking his dialogue and sells his Bond villian-like character as if he were playing Macbeth. Gibson’s performance matches with the film’s ridiculous tone, but adds that missing pathos that Rodriguez is unable to provide, making every other actor slapdash by comparison. But when Gibson’s Luther Voz claimed to be a Star Wars fan who decorates his evil fortress with Star Wars memorabilia, I gave myself a light face palm. Evoking Star Wars as a source of humor is just about the lamest joke in the book.

That’s how this film slashes itself (pun intended). It is lazy and half-assed; it doesn’t know what to do with its own talent and has expended all of its irony. It’s sad to see Robert Rodriguez fall to this level. He is a very capable and multi-talented filmmaker who can shoot, score and edit, but maybe he just shouldn’t write his own scripts. I do not care about the upcoming Machete Kills Again… In Space. Please wow me with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

The Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

The Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

The Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

As inventor Andy Brewster is about to embark on the road trip of a lifetime, a quick stop at his mom’s house turns into an unexpected cross-country voyage with her along for the ride.

Growing up as a Chinese boy in the immigrant culture of Canada, aspects of Jewish, Italian and Chinese cultures always seemed similar to me. I don’t think we are all that different after all. We are all family-oriented, express love through home-cooking, and share a deep respect for family ancestry. Subsequently, our mothers aren’t that different either; they nag and embarrass us in public and as indicated by the film’s title, they love using the guilt trip. That is primarily how I connected to the truths and comedy of The Guilt Trip.

Barbara Streisand and Seth Rogen create a charming chemistry as the mother and son. Seth Rogen is a good straight man. I don’t know thing one about Barbara Streisand, her music career or seen any of her movies, but she is the secret ingredient that makes everything work. Without the charm or the truth to the way Streisand played the role, the role would have been annoying very quickly.

The nagging and bickering can be grating for some audiences because of how real everything is presented, maybe to the point it doesn’t feel like entertainment. For me with my theory about Jewish, Italian and Chinese cultures being very similar, it was an insightful engaging experience watching that dynamic being acted out onscreen. That said, I probably would enjoy watching it with my sister laughing about our mother than watch it awkwardly alone with my mother.

I laughed throughout the entire film. What I liked most about The Guilt Trip was how honest and real it was. The truth of the situation never precedes the humor. Anne Fletcher and her editor cut the comedy gags with discipline, the gags never outstay their welcome and all move the story forward. There are even times where there aren’t laughs. That’s where the truth  pays off as it delivers some genuine heartfelt moments between the mother and son. And the heartbeat in The Guilt Trip is why I would recommend it.