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.

Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass

Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass

 

Captain Phillips tells the real life story of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean during the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009 led by Abduwali Muse.

The most noteworthy aspect of Paul Greengrass’ canon is his ability to create immediacy, which is the key ingredient in Captain Phillips. The surface explanation behind Greengrass’s crackling visual style is simply that he shoots handheld. The truth is much more complicated than that. What’s behind Greengrass’ method is not merely the shaky cam, but his ability to create reality and punctuate immediate tension in his dramatic filmmaking. He understands that people receive information in fragments all the time and has found a way to incorporate that human reflex into a cinematic experience. So even with the fast cuts and shaky photography, the audience is able to follow what’s going on. It is emotionally connective.

The set pieces in the first half of the film are visceral and tense. They feel like they’re happening right before us and we are immersed into the crew’s helpless dilemma. There’s a significant genre shift in the second act, as the film becomes a rescue mission procedural. It goes on a bit long by the end. The first half is definitely more fun than the second half, if only because the crew members become less active in the latter portions.

Tom Hanks plunges into the title role in a way I haven’t seen in years. The trademark Tom Hanks movie star charm is removed and what remains is Hank’s everyman quality. Captain Richard Phillips comparatively is a relatively colder character compared to Hank’s past roles, which frees him up to embody the role. The last few moments of Hanks’ Captain Phillips in shock dealing with the aftermath is breathtaking. It’s a great human moment, though overall the entire performance is probably not Oscar worthy.

The Somali pirates are well casted. It’s baffling how the filmmakers found these actors in a cating session in North Carolina. They rise above their skinny appearances and rough-hewn looks and each individually play dimensional characters. Greengrass builds an interesting group dynamic between them and gives them a backstory that suggests that they are not intentionally evil people.

Something noteworthy is how Greengrass depicts the military in a cold neutral fashion that doesn’t take political sides. They aren’t glorified like they are in Michael Bay films. The military here is functional and follows procedures to get the job done. There’s a lot of room for audiences to bring in their own views about the response time of the coast guard, the military’s handling of the rescue or the harsh circumstances of the Somali pirates. Although interested in world issues in a journalistic fashion, Greengrass isn’t overbearingly preachy in any sense. His focus is the drama and fully delivers on that.

Cloud Atlas by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

Cloud Atlas by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

Lets start with the good things, Ben Whishaw gives a great performance as the aspiring musician. Man he can really rock a voice-over. There’s something very convincing about Hugh Grant playing sleazy disgusting characters. This sounds like a backhanded compliment but I don’t mean it that way. He’s much more believable being slimy than in his romantic comedy roles. I liked the central musical score that the film is named after. That’s about all I can say.

Cloud Atlas asks the audience to do an incredible amount of math to keep up with its stories. In my opinion, the movie doesn’t use much style or story devices to help the audience follow the story. Sometimes they downright made it difficult to follow, personally I found the language in the future timeline hard to tune to. I tried very hard for the first two hours trying to figure out how the six story lines connected to each other. I don’t know if it’s something you have to know from the book but I sincerely hope that is not the case. If reading the book is necessary to understand the film, then does that not mean the film failed entirely as a standalone piece?

The make-up concept was problematic. Why deliberately make an actor who is Asian look Caucasian? Or a Caucasian actor into an Asian?  Racist stereotyping aside (there are Asians who have double eyelids), it kept taking me out of the movie because I am suddenly aware that the cartoonish-looking character would not genetically exist. Seriously, look out for Hugo Weaving dressed as Nurse Hatchett from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in one of the storylines. That said, I still gave it a chance and searched hard for the internal logic of the film. I reflected upon viewing, why is one actor playing six roles in six different storylines? Is the fact that I can recognize the actor’s face in a different character meant to be a narrative device? Is it suggesting a thematic connection between the multiple roles that actor is playing? Or is it trying to evoke juxtaposition between them? I failed to see it.

The Wachowski’s have gone on record saying that critics are going to dismiss the film as incomprehensible schlock from the frustration of not being able to piece it together. They’d prefer if the audience will just find their own interpretations. I know what they mean, though that doesn’t magically make the movie critic-proof.

I probably need to have a dialogue with people who did enjoy Cloud Atlas, because I simply did not connect with the material. As a standalone piece, it did not hold together cohesively. Mainly because I have seen this type of material done much better, I recommend anybody to see watch Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody (my thoughts here). An underrated film that shares Cloud Atlas‘s ambition. It masterfully used every cinematic technique in the book to visually guide the audience easily through it’s attention-shifting tree branch narrative structure. I was able to track the entire story through the twelve different versions of the protagonist as the story developed simultaneously. As for the six story lines in Cloud Atlas, not the case!

Who? What? Where? When? Why? Zilch. It’s not a bitter angry ‘zilch’, but I worked very hard following a story that did not payoff.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel covers the life story and legacy of Roger Corman, his films, his struggles and his impact on modern cinema. He’s worked with many of today’s top talents, he can make a feature film in 7 days and simply does not believe in the word “No”.

Even though I haven’t seen any of Roger Corman’s productions, how I have come to know about Roger Corman was hearing about his approach to filmmaking. The idea is you get the guy who wants to be the next Federico Fellini, give him 7 days to complete a movie with 2 chase scenes and a scene in a strip club that you will only have for a hour without going over budget. What I liked about this approach is that it cuts through all the pretentious notions that filmmakers/artists often get caught up on about expressing themselves or putting their stamp or trademark onto the film. What matters most is the film and whether the audience responds to the product. It comes down to problem solving and giving the audience what they want – entertainment. After all, the only thing a filmmaker owes an audience is to never bore them.

The behind-the-scenes stories were fascinating and insightful to Corman’s journey as a filmmaker. Particularly the story of Corman’s experience with The Intruder, a film starring a young William Shatner about race relations in the south. It was a film that Corman wanted to say something from his heart and it ended up being his first commercial failure. Corman later learned the idea of supertext and subtext from a method acting class and figured out the best way to balance putting his own message was to put it underneath the entertainment (i.e. monsters, boobies, or explosions). Other worthy mentions from the documentary was the story behind 1963 Corman film The Terror, which was a film shot on the same set and cast  as The Raven (Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff) to capitalize on the new soundstage. Much of the story was improvised, it was done by 4 different directors at different points in time and the onscreen result hardly made any sense.

What made Corman a great leader was that he would push people to do things that seemed impossible. You could see how that pressure created seeds of creativity and experience which lead to mastery and success. One example was Ron Howard not having enough extras in the racing arena for the finale of Grand Theft Auto. He pleaded to Corman asking for more extras and was rejected. From what it looks like in the Grand Theft Auto excerpts, the shots with the audience members were done with tight shots. There’s another part with Pam Grier and they mention what made her distinct from other female stars was she was not afraid to get dirty and do her own stunts. I assumed that probably lead to her breakthrough with the advent of blaxploitation. It was a very Darwinistic process that I would have personally loved to be a part of.   

It was quite something to see Jack Nicholson break down and cry talking about his friendship with Roger Corman and how Corman was the only one to hire him before mainstream success.

The documentary shows the best way to learn something is just do it, learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward. To know that Roger Corman still continues to make films in the present proves that as long as you have the will, the possibilities are infinite. A very positive message for any creative/aspiring filmmakers out there today.

(As a postscript note, the Vincent Price Edgar Allan Poe films look intriguing. They were a massive success at the time. I’m an Edgar Allan Poe fan so I’m going to check them out.)