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.

The Lone Ranger by Gore Verbinski

The Lone Ranger by Gore Verbinksi

Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

What really interested me in seeing The Lone Ranger was reading the Native Appropriations blog, which has been very vocal about the film’s cinematic misrepresentation of Native Americans. I have felt similar dissatisfaction with Chinese misrepresentation in Hollywood films in the past. This is not my fight, and my opinion probably wouldn’t matter much in this regard because I am not Native American. This is not something for me to be offended by or to tell other people that they should be offended by it or not. I do, however, believe that misrepresenting somebody’s culture in a medium as wide-spreading as film can be damaging by building a false misleading impression. So I wanted to be a witness while this discussion was ongoing.  So here goes…

The film is way too long. Mostly because of the Lone Ranger character is set up antithetically to what the audience wants to see – a triumphant hero. Armie Hammer, as proven in other films, is a capable actor. But this clumsy, nerdy, somewhat unlikable version of John Reid just doesn’t justify the running time. The intended arc for John Reid was that he starts off believing wholeheartedly in the law, the belief is then shattered and then he learns that to give justice, he must provide the justice himself. Verbinski spends way too long at phase one and it takes two hours before we arrive to phase two. In between that time the audience is just waiting for John Reid, a very inactive character, to change.

Johnny Depp has said that in playing Tonto, he hopes to change the past cultural misrepresentations of Native Americans on film. This hasn’t been brought up, but Johnny Depp previously played a Native American in a film he directed called The Brave ( I wonder what Native Americans thought of that film). The Brave actually was closer to accomplishing this very goal by presenting present-day Native Americans that were living in harsh conditions and it told a story about a father trying to help his family to escape said conditions. Marlon Brando, who has also been trying to make a film about the Native American condition for years, makes a cameo in it. So how can Depp, who previously made a film that was considerate to the Native American condition make an aesthetic choice that would further mystify and misrepresent their image? It’s inconsistent with his intended goal.

Depp’s Tonto performance, however, is fun to watch and drives the whole movie. Depp brings his usual tricks to comedy, namely a lot of mugging and facial reactions. This is why I think people are saying he’s doing Captain Jack Sparrow again. Comparatively, Tonto is a darker, more introverted character and more prone to solving his problems with violence than deception.

The Tonto costume looks cool but I am of two minds about it. On one hand, I wish this costume was really authentically Native American so there’s no political problem. But on the other hand, it is not difficult to design a cool looking costume with actual Native American attire. The filmmakers probably should have done the latter and dodged a bullet. The concept comes from a painting that was drawn by a Caucasian artist that wasn’t referring to anything authentically Native American. In the painting, a crow soars over the Native American warrior’s head, which Depp has taken literally, making the crow a headdress for Tonto. The film justifies this by establishing that Tonto is an outcast, and therefore is able to make up his own set of beliefs with the white face paint and crow headdress. I honestly do not know how to feel about that but Johnny Depp’s Tonto is the most entertaining part of The Lone Ranger. I enjoyed it, but it feels like I shouldn’t be enjoying it.

The production design is impressive; you can see literally where the budget went. The choice to shoot anamorphic was a great one; it transports the audience into the beautiful landscapes of the Old West. I read an article that argued how Westerns always underperform in the American box office, I don’t know why that’s the case. After all, Westerns are distinctly an American film genre.

The two major action set pieces, one in the opening and one at the film’s climax, is where Gore Verbinski fares best. The William Tell Overture kicks in and completely energizes these action scenes. I completely dropped thinking about misrepresentation, and just went along with it. They are heavily designed in a way that evokes Verbinski’s previous film MousetrapThe set pieces are an exhilarating thrill ride, and I wish the film would have just focused on delivering the fun.

For every goal The Lone Ranger tries to achieve with the material, the filmmakers have set up something antithetical going against it. The idea of making a commercial summer blockbuster movie out of an ugly part of American history is a noble one and I applaud it. There are scenes that show what has happened to the Natives that was genuinely tragic. The final result does fall short from balancing such a heavy subject with its fun factor. Verbinski shouldn’t be blamed completely as it looks like the studio’s marketing team checking boxes as well. It doesn’t accomplish the goal of changing how Native Americans are perceived in the media, perhaps the best thing is it’s gotten people talking about the subject.

In the end, the beginning and the end of The Lone Ranger is a lot of fun, but a lot of fat could have been trimmed from the middle. Even the bookending device with an aged Tonto telling the story to a boy is extraneous and adds a post-modern layer onto the film that continually takes you out of the story. I have no problem with downplaying the Lone Ranger to make Tonto a more central character, but it’s overdone. The Lone Ranger is just not an interesting protagonist, and the central story is about John Reid. It’s like the filmmakers got confused with that and couldn’t handle the material with discipline. I imagine if I saw it as a child, I’d just fast-forward through the fun parts.

Oz the Great and Powerful by Sam Raimi

Oz the Great and Powerful by Sam Raimi

Oz the Great and Powerful is the story of Oscar Diggs (played by James Franco), who arrives in the Land of Oz and encounters three witches; Theodora (played by Mila Kunis), Evanora (played by Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (played by Michelle Williams).

When I was a kid, every time I got sick meant that I would risk an ear infection. My mom would take me to the Sick Kids Hospital in downtown Toronto. The most distinct thing I remember about that hospital was that in every waiting room they would loop The Wizard of Oz over and over on a television screen for kids. As a child, I do not recall ever sitting down and properly watching from beginning to end but my body was frequently shitty enough for me to bracket the entire movie through multiple shortened viewings.

As a child, the following things about The Wizard of Oz distinctly struck me. First, I remember the vibrant Technicolor look of Oz. Second, I noticed how every character in the story had an impediment or flaw, which was something they all had to overcome together as a group. Lastly, I recall being deeply scared by the Wicked Witch of the West, her flying monkeys and even the initial appearance of Oz.

Sam Raimi has reportedly said he does not believe in 3D filmmaking, but decidedly to make an exception for this film, believing it would immerse the audience into the world. Along with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi last year, this is probably one of the best uses of 3D I have experienced. Not once did I squint during the movie or was tempted to take off the glasses at any point.

The 3D enhances the spectacle of Oz, but it’s not solely responsible for it. There’s a really great sense of wonder from the world and it even builds upon the world of Oz you see in the original. There’s an imminent feeling that things are happening in this world beyond what you are witnessing onscreen. The set pieces often felt like a theme park ride and like a child I would physically flinch to the things happening onscreen. I held onto my legs in a sequence where Oz’s balloon is tossed by wind and descends through a waterfall. Suffice to say, I recommend seeing it in 3D.

The film has a great cast. James Franco carries the film competently by making an unlikable character very watchable. The best performance by a mile is Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch. She hits the right combination between doing an impression and adding her own interpretation of the role, like the cast of the Star Trek films.

The origin of the Wicked Witch of the West could have used a little more time to flesh her character out, but it was the most intriguing out of all the subplots. The actress who plays the fully-formed Wicked Witch of the West is seemingly lacking in vocal range. A lot of the Witch’s dialogue is screamed and it seemed like her voice was constantly on the verge of cracking.

Sam Raimi has an in-depth understanding of the similarities between a laugh and a scare. He knows when to pull back and hold a shot to build tension. You know something’s about to happen, but there’s no way to foresee if it’s good or bad until it happens. There’s a great sense of rhythm running through the film. I can only imagine it comes from Raimi’s DIY approach directing the Evil Dead films. Yes, this is a very funny movie. The dialogue between Oz and his monkey sidekick Finley is witty and stands out as some of the best-written clean funny dialogue I have heard in a while. For it’s scary moments, it’s balanced to the point that I think the majority of kids can still withstand and enjoy it. I laughed my way through the scares myself.

It’s unfair to measure Oz the Great and Powerful to The Wizard of Oz. The explorer who discovered Nova Scotia is simply not going to measure up to Christopher Columbus discovering America. You cannot rediscover a creative landmark. It’s just that simple. But I do think Oz the Great and Powerful gets as close as one can to realistically matching the joy of The Wizard of Oz for today. It spiritually retains the things that I found compelling about The Wizard of Oz. I was awed, tickled, scared and finally was touched at the film’s conclusion. Above all, it made me feel like the sick boy in the hospital waiting room again.

The Avengers by Joss Whedon

The Avengers by Joss Whedon

Nick Fury, director of the peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., recruits Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America to form a team that must stop Thor’s brother Loki from enslaving the human race.

It’s here, finally. The movie that Marvel really wanted to make and arguably the film every fan really wanted to see, anyways. It really started to test my patience while I was watching Captain America: The First Avenger. It wasn’t that it was a bad movie, but it’s more or less of the same thing and I wanted to see these Marvel movies go somewhere else. The good news? The Avengers go somewhere else with it and it works!

The major sell of The Avengers are the characters themselves and that’s what the story is mainly about. In Joss Whedon’s own words, there is no reason for all these heroes to share a movie. After all, if I had superpowers and had the ability to solve my own problems, why would I work with another dude? Or take orders from somebody that’s supposedly weaker than you?

Whedon accomplishes this with a lot of discipline and balance. For example, the alien army that Loki employs to take over the Earth with are underdeveloped and their motivations are quite simplistic, but it works because it acts only as an extension of the heroes’ conflict. They’re fighting these aliens not because the monsters necessarily have a direct beef with our heroes, rather they just exist as an idea to push them to working together as a team. It is functioning quite like a musical in that aspect. Conflicts are physicalized in the form of fights (everybody fights with everybody at some point like a fighting game), comedic verbal banter and things are kept light and bounce along smoothly. Personally I found myself enjoying the banter more. Yes, The Avengers was a lot more funnier than I expected.

It was fun anticipating and seeing how each character interacted with each other, very much like how you might anticipate different friends will interact with each other at your birthday party. Like in 2009’s Star Trek, I appreciated that each member had a individual specific contribution to the team.

People tend to argue about how filmmakers interpret the Hulk in the past. I do like the Ang Lee version because Lee attempted to bring a genuine pathos to The Hulk that seemed unpopular with the masses. The issue I actually have with the Hulk is that his character never seemed heroic to me because he is not in control of his own actions once Bruce Banner is in the Hulk state. It’s just random carnage and it happens that he’s a hero because he does good, albeit accidentally. Suffice to say, they solve that in this movie.

As for the switch with Mark Ruffalo, fans will perpetually argue over which actor played the best interpretation of the Hulk. I personally do not see an actor-specific interpretation. It seemed like Ruffalo is playing the continuation of Bruce Banner/The Hulk after the events of The Incredible Hulk (what Edward Norton would have played had he stayed in the role). This is a less conflicted Bruce Banner who’s made peace with who he is and is in better control. I do not know why in the past the actors who have played Bruce Banner did not get to play The Hulk on motion capture, I am glad that is over because the consistency really makes a huge difference. Ruffalo manages to be scary at times but it is ultimately drowned out by the film’s light tone. The ever-present humor does work against the story at times because I would have liked a few darker moments in the film. Suffice to say, Ruffalo makes the role his own.

I can see from a writer’s standpoint how Captain America is a challenging character to tackle. There is no real darkness within him and he always does the right thing. So how do you make that engaging? The story of The Avengers was originally going to be based from Captain America’s point of view and there was a whole subplot about him trying to reconnect with the modern world. I’m glad that was cut out (this is fully packed as it is). All those scenes can totally be in Captain America 2. Even stripping his storyline away, they do manage retain Steve Roger’s charm in The Avengers. The charm of Captain America are not his powers; the character represents the human limit and how human will and heart can push someone to do great things. He is a competent superhero in his own world and story, but his powers do not mean much standing next to Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man or even the alien army. They do highlight this fact in the battle scenes. There were many instances where I was thinking, “Wow, Captain America can totally die right now.” The humanity and obvious vulnerability of the character engaged me and it stood out as he starts leading the Avengers. It made me think about how poorly Cyclops was handled in the X-men movies. Captain America was the stand-out character for me.

The Hawkeye and Black Widow story is serviceable and it only gives them enough motivation for the duration of this installment, which really is just giving them an excuse to exist and kick ass in the story. It doesn’t really develop them that much in my opinion, I’m not complaining but it didn’t really do much for me either. They are not interesting enough to have their own movies.

Robert Downey Jr. has really settled into his Tony Stark role and gets all the zingers, as expected. I liked that his character is consistent with the end of Iron Man 2. They give him a small arc in The Avengers and I rather liked that. He is comparatively less of an ass and more likable than in Iron Man 2. Shane Black is doing Iron Man 3, sign me up baby!

I like Chris Hemsworth as Thor, he plays the role with the right combination of masculinity and vulnerability. Thor carries the guilt of bringing a new threat to Earth while trying to stop his brother’s madness without killing him. The film presents all this but it seems like there’s a lot more untapped drama that is not explored. We only get a very serious side of Thor compared to the last installment because the characters like Jane or Darcy that bring out other sides of Thor are not present. I do look forward to seeing if there are more Thor scenes in the 30-minutes of cut footage.

Tom Hiddleston oozes charisma as Loki. Honestly at times I found myself rooting for Loki to win. It’s important that people see Thor to understand his motivations. I wonder if fresh viewers will miss Loki’s complex characterization and magnetism. He’s magnetic as hell and steals the show.

The set pieces are great and should satisfy any comic book fan. We get every superhero match up possible without hindering the story. The end set piece is reminiscent of the finale in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I do wonder if Michael Bay is at home screaming, ripping his hair out right now. The Avengers puts his Transformers films to shame and shows how a similar finale can be truly exciting by developing characters and a story.

So the problems? My biggest criticism of The Avengers is probably that it was overhyped. Even with actively avoiding all the promotional clips and featurettes online, I dangerously felt the presence of the movie before actually seeing it. There’s enough clips of the movie currently available online right now for anybody to piece together the entire story. It was a real fight to go in with a fresh clean mind. There’s a moment at the very end of the finale that was ruined by a shot that was shown in the trailer and I would have preferred if they just left that one shot out because the pre-knowledge ruined the tension of the scene. If it was left out, it would have been more tense wondering if the movie would have just ended on a dark cliffhanger with a character possibly being dead.

It’s imperative that I warn anybody who has yet to see the movie: do not see this movie in 3D. The light loss was problematic (duh!) and I found it very difficult to follow the action scenes (to it’s own credit, they were not edited in a choppy fashion) or anything indoors or at night. Please do your part and pay to see it in 2D and let 3D die. And also, there are 2 end credits scenes, stay till the very end.

What can I say? Marvel has made an awesome achievement with The Avengers and it only seems natural to ponder how Marvel will escalate things for the future. For my money, it seems superfluous to have to go through another set of sequels with each individual hero before an Avengers 2: Still Avenging. Let’s just get to it!

Senna by Asif Kapadia

Senna is a documentary film that depicts the life of Brazilian motor-racing champion, Ayrton Senna.

You do not need to know anything about Formula One racing or even have to be remotely interested in it to enjoy this film. The story provides you with the technical knowledge that you need to know. The most noteworthy thing is, Senna works on primal storytelling instincts. There’s a guy, he loves racing and is pretty talented at it. He wants to race with the best team. The best racer on the best team (Alain Prost AKA “The Professor”) does not want to be second. They are on the same team but they race for themselves. Tensions arise.

Senna and Prost’s rivalry seemed too dramatic to be real. The rivalry was akin to Maverick and Ice Man in Top Gun. It is unbelievable this all really happened. There is a writing credit in the film’s credits (by Manish Pandey) though I imagine that is more compiling the facts to tell the most dramatic order possible than rewriting facts.

Film is an amalgamation of all the arts (photography, music, theater, storytelling etc.), the only new art form to arise out of film is editing. The idea that putting two separate images next to each other can evoke a whole new independent meaning. Senna is a film composed mostly of archive footage and interviews and it is truly impressive the amount of emotion and drama that was conveyed through archive footage. The story was told with great flow. It’s great to know that the editing by Greger Salls and Chris King has been recognized at this year’s BAFTA awards.

Ayrton Senna himself is a fascinating subject. We see the passion and determination in his eyes and you cannot help but root for him. It was not about being the best. Senna speaks of racing as his way of spiritually connecting to God. Racing was simply his purpose.

The musical score by Antonio Pinto brings out Senna’s spirituality and subtly sets the story from Senna’s perspective. Essentially you are either hearing Senna’s feelings or “how we should feel about the situation”. The music at the finale was particularly impactful.

I do not know thing one about Formula One racing and honestly I still do not know very much having seen the film. But Senna took me into another world and it gripped me all the way through. By the end, it struck me still and raised all the hairs on my back ( even though I am Asian).

I could not recommend this more, do not let the fact that this is about racing stop you from seeing it. Give it a chance!

It is one of the best films of 2011.