“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

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“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

When I first saw the trailer for the recent biopic, “SAVING MR. BANKS”, I knew I would like it. First of all, the movie was about the development of one of my favorite movies of all time, the 1964 musical “MARY POPPINS”. And two, it featured some very humorous moments that I personally found appealing. Not long after the movie first hit the theaters, I rushed to see it as soon as I possibly could.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, “SAVING MR. BANKS” told the story of “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers‘ two-week stay in 1961 Los Angeles, while filmmaker Walt Disney attempts to obtain from her, the official screen rights to her novels. The development of “SAVING MR. BANKS” began when Australian filmmaker Ian Collie produced a documentary on Travers back in 2002. He saw a potential biopic and convinced Essential Media and Entertainment to develop a feature film with Sue Smith as screenwriter. The project attracted the attention of producer Alison Owen, who subsequently hired Kelly Marcel to co-write the screenplay with Smith. Marcel removed a subplot involving Travers and her son, and divided the story into a two-part narrative – the creative conflict between Travers and Disney, and her dealings with her childhood issues. Because Marcel’s version featured certain intellectual property rights that belonged to the he Walt Disney Company, Owen approached Corky Hale, who informed former Disney composer, Richard M. Sherman of the script. Sherman supported Marcel’s script. Meanwhile, the Disney Studios learned of the script, as well. Instead of purchasing the script in order to shut down the production, they agree to co-produce the movie, allowing Kelly Marcel access to more material regarding the production of “MARY POPPINS”. The Disney Studios approached Tom Hanks for the role of Walt Disney, who accepted. When they failed to secure Meryl Streep for the role of P.L. Travers, they turned to Emma Thompson, who accepted it.

Through the urging of her literary agent, a financially struggling P.L. Travers finally decides to leave her London home, and agreed to meet and negotiate with Walt Disney in Los Angeles over the film rights to her “Mary Poppins” stories, after twenty years. While in Los Angeles, Travers express disgust over what she regards as the city’s unreality and the naivety and overbearing friendliness of its inhabitants like her assigned limousine driver, Ralph. At the Disney Studios in Burbank, Travers collaborates with the creative team assigned to develop the movie – screenwriter/artist
Don DaGradi, Richard and Robert Sherman. She finds their casual manner and their handling of the adaptation of her novels distasteful. And Travers is also put off by Disney’s jocular and familiar personality. She pretty much remains unfriendly toward her new acquaintances and a new set of problems arise between her and the studio. Her collaboration with the Disney Studios also reveals painful memories of her childhood in 1906-07 Australia and memories of her charismatic father, Travers Goff, who was losing a battle against alcoholism; and her mother Margaret Goff, who nearly committed suicide, due to her inability to control Goff’s heaving drinking.

Hollywood politics can be mind-boggling. I learned this valuable lessons, following the reactions to not only the recent historical drama, “THE BUTLER”, but also the reactions to “SAVING MR. BANKS”. The first movie came under fire by conservatives for its historical inaccuracies, when President Ronald Reagan’s son accused that movie of a false portrait of his father. Some four-and-a-half months later, many feminists accused the Disney Studios of not only damaging P.L. Travers’ reputation, but also of historical inaccuracies. Actress Meryl Streep, who had been an earlier candidate for the role of Travers, added her two cents by openly accused Walt Disney of being a bigot on so many levels, while presenting an acting award to Emma Thompson. Since political scandal brought “SAVING MR. BANKS” under heavy criticism for historical accuracy or lack of, I figure I might as well discuss the matter.

Was the movie historically accurate in its portrayal of P.L. Travers? Many criticized the movie’s failure to delve into the author’s bisexuality and relationship with her adopted son. What they failed to realize was that Travers’ sex life and adopted son had nothing to do with her creation of “Mary Poppins” or her dealings with Disney. The movie they wanted was the movie written by Sue Smith. And Alison Owen had put the kibbosh on those storylines long before the Disney Studios got involved. Disney did meet with Travers at her London home. Only he did so in 1959, not 1961. But the movie was accurate about him gaining the movie rights after her 1961 visit. Disney’s 1959 London trip only resulted in his acquiring an option – which gave the filmmaker a certain period of time to acquire the actual film rights. However, Travers’ family, the Goffs, moved to Allora, Queensland in 1905, not 1906 as the movie had suggested.

Was Travers that difficult, as suggested in the movie? I honestly have no idea. Richard Sherman made it clear that he found her difficult to like. I have read somewhere that Travers had managed to alienate both her adopted son and her grandchildren by the time of her death in 1996. And there are also . . . the audio tapes that recaptured Travers’ sessions with Don Di Gradi and the Sherman Brothers in 1961. Tapes that she had requested. She did not come off well in those tapes. Critics also claimed that the movie idealized Disney. Here, I have to keep myself from laughing. Granted, the movie and actor Tom Hanks portrayed the “Disney charm” at its extreme. But the movie also made it clear that Disney was utilizing his charm to convince Travers to sign over the movie rights. And quite frankly, his charm came off as somewhat overbearing and manipulative in some scenes. I perfectly understood Travers’ reaction to the sight of Disney stuffed animals, balloons and fruit baskets in her hotel room. And I certainly sympathize with her reaction to being dragged to Disneyland against her will. I have loved the theme park since I was a kid. But if I had been in Travers’ shoes, I would have been pissed at being dragged to some location against my will.

When the movie first flashed back to Travers’ Australian childhood, I had to suppress an annoyed sigh. I really was not interested in her childhood, despite what the movie’s title had indicated. But the more the movie delved into her childhood and made the connections to her creation of the “Mary Poppins” and the development of the 1964 movie, the more I realized that Kelly Marcel had written a brilliant screenplay. By paying close attention to the story during my second viewing of the movie, I noticed the connections between the tragic circumstances of Travers’ childhood, “Mary Poppins” and her 1961 Los Angeles visit. Some of the connections I made were the following:

*Travers’ aversion of Southern California weather, which must have reminded her of Australia and her childhood

*Her aversion to pears, which reminded her of Travers Goff’s death

*Her aversion to a Mr. Banks with facial hairs

*Her aversion to Mr. Banks’ cinematic personality

*Her aversion to the color red, which may have also reminded her of Mr. Goff’s death

*Her reaction to the Sherman Brothers’ song – “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank”, which brought back painful memories of an incident regarding her father at a local fair

*Her Aunt Ellie, whom she re-created as Mary Poppins

I also have to compliment the movie’s visual re-creation of both 1961 Southern California and Edwardian Queensland, Australia. Production designer Michael Corenblith had to re-create both periods in Travers’ life. And if I must be honest, he did an exceptional job – especially in the 1961 scenes. His work was ably supported by Lauren Polizzi’s colorful art direction, and Susan Benjamin’s set decorations. I also enjoyed Daniel Orlandi’s elegant and subtle costumes for the movie. I was amazed by his re-creation of both Edwardian and mid-20th century fashion, as seen in the images below:

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I found John Schwartzman’s photography very interesting . . . especially in the 1961 sequences. Unlike other productions that tend to re-create past Los Angeles in another part of the country (2011’s “MILDRED PIERCE”), “SAVING MR. BANKS” was shot entirely in Southern California. But what I found interesting about Schwartzman’s photography is that he utilized a good deal of close-up in those exterior scenes for Beverly Hills and Burbank in an effort to hide the changes that had occurred in the past 50 years. But as much as he tried, not even Schwartzman could hide the fact that the Fantasyland shown in the movie was the one that has existed since 1983. Mark Livolsi’s editing did a solid job in enabling Schwartzman to hide the changes of time for the Southern California exteriors. But I also have to commend Livolsi for his superb editing of one particular sequences – namely the juxtaposition of the 1961 scene featuring the Sherman Brothers’ performance of the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” song and the 1906 scene of the bank-sponsored fair in Allora. Thanks to Livolsi’s editing, John Lee Hancock’s excellent direction and Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Travers Goff, this sequence proved to be the most mind-blowing and unforgettable in the entire movie.

Since I had mentioned Colin Farrell, I might as well discuss the cast’s performances. Emma Thompson won the National Board of Review award for Best Actress for her superb portrayal of the very complex P.L. Travers. She did a superb job in capturing both the author’s bluntness, cultural snobishness and imagination. The movie and Thompson’s performance also made it perfectly clear that Travers was still haunted over her father’s death after so many decades. One would think Tom Hanks had an easier job in his portrayal of filmmaker Walt Disney. Superficially, I would agree. But Hanks did an excellent job in conveying some of the more annoying aspects of Disney’s character behind the charm – especially in his attempts to win over Travers. And two particular scenes, Hanks also captured Disney’s own private demons regarding the latter’s father. Colin Farrell gave one of the best performances of his career as Travers’ charming, yet alcoholic father, Travers Goff. I was especially impressed by his performance in the Allora Fair scene. Bradley Whitford was cast as Disney Studios animator/screenwriter Don DaGradi. He not did a first-rate job in portraying DaGradi’s enthusiasm as a Disney employee, but also in portraying how that enthusiasm nearly waned under the weight of Travers’ negative reactions to the project. Both Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak were cast as the songwriting brothers – Richard and Robert Sherman. And they both did excellent jobs in capturing the pair’s contrasting personalities. Schwartzman was deliciously all pep and enthusiasm as the extroverted and younger Richard. And yet, he very subtlely conveyed the younger Sherman’s anxieties in dealing with the difficult Travers. Novak struck me as very effective in his portrayal of the more introverted and intense Robert. And he was also very subtle in portraying the older Sherman’s own penchant for bluntness, especially in one scene in which the songwriter openly clashed with Travers. Ruth Wilson managed to give a very memorable performance as Travers’ long-suffering mother, Margaret Goff. She was especially impressive in one tense scene that featured Mrs. Goff’s suicide attempt. And Paul Giamatti was simply marvelous as Travers’ fictional limousine driver, Ralph. He managed to be both sweet and charming, without being saccharine. The movie also featured solid performances from Annie Rose Buckley, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson, Rachel Griffiths and Ronan Vibert.

I must admit that I still feel angry over how “SAVING MR. BANKS” was deprived from any Academy Award nominations, aside from one for Thomas Newman’s score. And if I must be brutally honest, I did not find his score particularly memorable. I was more impressed by John Lee Hancock’s direction, the movie’s visual styles, the performances from a superb cast led by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks; and especially the Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith screenplay. And considering how so much talent was overlooked by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts, I do not think I can take Hollywood’s politics seriously anymore. It seems a travesty that this superb film ended up as a victim of Hollywood’s flaky politics.

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“NEMESIS” (2007) Review

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“NEMESIS” (2007) Review

Without a doubt, Agatha Christie’s 1971 novel, “Nemesis”, is one of her most unusual works. It is not as celebrated as 1934’s “Murder on the Orient Express” or her 1926 novel, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. But it was the last novel she had written. And it possesses a slow, yet melancholic air that I find very rare in her body of work. 

Two adaptations of the novel have aired on British television. BBC aired the first adaptation, which starred Joan Hickson as Jane Marple, in 1987. Twenty years later, the ITV network aired its own version with Geraldine McEwan in the lead. While the 1987 version adhered as close as possible to the novel, this latest version turned out to be a very loose adaptation, thanks to screenwriters Stephen Churchett and Nicolas Winding Refn, who also served as the film’s director.

“NEMESIS” begins in 1940, when a German Luftwaffe pilot is forced to bail from his damaged plane during the Battle of Britain. Not long after he reaches the ground, he is spotted by a young, beautiful woman, who comes to his aid. The movie jumps some eleven years to 1951. Jane Marple has received news about the death of a friend – a financier/philanthropist named John Rafiel aka Faber, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany twenty years earlier. Rafiel recruits her from the grave to solve a murder that the murder may or may not have taken place. And the victim is unknown. All that he has given her are two tickets on the Daffodil Tour Company’s Mystery Tour. Miss Marple recruits her nephew, novelist Raymond West, to accompany her on the tour. During the early stages of the tour, Miss Marple and Raymond realizes that the other members of the tour had also been “selected” by Rafiel. Miss Marple also discovers that she had been recruited the solve the murder or disappearance of a young woman named Verity Hunt – the same woman who had met the German pilot during the war. And the German pilot turned out to be one Michael Faber, Rafiel’s estranged son.

I might as well state it loud and clear. “NEMESIS” is not one of the best Christie adaptations featuring Geraldine McEwan. Refn and Churchett had inflicted so many changes in the plot, it almost left me confused. Not only were some of the characters from Christie’s novel eliminated, new ones were created for the film. Refn and Churchett also changed the identity of the murderer and the crime’s setting. The pair even changed the identity of the Rafiel character from an English millionaire, whom Miss Marple had met in an earlier novel, to a German refugee from Nazi Germany who had befriended the elderly sleuth (he remained wealthy). And his son transformed from a ne’er-do-well to a former Luftwaffe pilot, embittered by his father’s refusal to help him and Verity during the war.

The addition of World War II as a setting for Verity’s death brought about other changes that left me scratching my head in confusion. In the novel, another young woman was murdered, so that her body would be confused with Verity’s. In the movie, there was some kind of confusion over the identity of a RAF pilot who had died at the very convent where Verity was serving, when she first met Michael. I wish I could explain the whole matter, but I found it rather confusing. Come to think of it, I found the Verity/Nora body switching rather confusing in Christie’s novel. The war did serve the movie’s plot in one positive manner – namely the character of Michael Faber and his brief, wartime romance with Verity. Their romance proved to be more poignant and tragic than Verity’s literary romance with Michael Rafiel.

The cast for “NEMESIS” proved to be a mixed bag. There were some . . . theatrical performances that I found wince inducing. The worst came from Ronni Ancona, who gave a ridiculously hysterical performance as Verity’s half-cousin and Raymond West’s former paramour, the aristocratic Amanda Dalrymple. Another over-the-top performance came from Emily Woof, who portrayed Rowena Waddy, the possessive wife of war veteran and former RAF pilot, Martin Waddy. At the other extreme, Amanda Burton gave a disturbingly minimalist performance as Sister Clotilde, one of the two nuns who knew Verity. Perhaps I had been kind by describing Burton’s performance as “minimalist”. Frankly, she struck me as silent and wooden.

Thankfully, there were plenty of first-rate portrayals that made “NEMESIS” enjoyable. I was impressed by solid performances from Laura Michelle Kelly, who had to portray two characters – Verity Hunt and a young wife named Margaret Lumley; George Cole, who portrayed the former butler of Verity’s illegitimate father; Ruth Wilson, who gave a charming performance as the tour’s guide and potential paramour for Raymond; Lee Ingleby, who portrayed the main investigator and budding novelist, DC Colin Hards; and Anne Reid, who portrayed Sister Clotilde’s older and pragmatic colleague, Sister Agnes.

But there were at least four outstanding performances from the cast. One came from Will Mellor, whose portrayal of Martin Waddy, the war veteran with the damaged face, struck me as very intense and sympathetic. An equally intense performance came from the future “DOWNTON ABBEY” star, Dan Stevens. He did an outstanding job in portraying the many aspects of Michael Faber’s complex personality. Richard E. Grant was a marvelous addition as Miss Marple’s nephew and traveling companion, the witty Raymond West. I was amazed at how he managed to create some kind of screen chemistry with more than one cast member – especially Ruth Wilson, Lee Ingleby and Geraldine McEwan. Speaking of Ms. McEwan, she was superb as the quiet and always observant, Jane Marple. She also infused a great deal of wit and warmth into her portrayal of the elderly sleuth.

“NEMESIS” has some aspects of its production to admire. Production designer Michael Pickwoad, costumer designer Sheena Napier and cinematographer Larry Smith all did a great job in contributing to the movie’s early 1950s setting and even the 1940 preclude. The movie could also boast some fine performances, especially from Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. But many of the changes to Agatha Christie’s original plot left me shaking my head in confusion. Honestly, it is not one of the better adaptations I have seen. The 1987 adaptation is better . . . but only slightly better.