Sunday, December 15, 2013

Memories of Youth

If I told you that the latest film from Disney was warm, uplifting and moving, your reaction might be, "I've seen this before." Well, guess what? You haven't. Saving Mr. Banks does have all of those qualities, but it also has an emotional depth that you don't see in many commercial films these days. Yes, it's heartwarming and it's for the child in all of us; it's also beautifully written, directed, photographed, edited and acted and takes the viewer on a sensitive journey that addresses topics such as trust, friendship and the loss of a loved one. It is the best film I've seen this year.

The film is set primarily in 1961 as P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins, is persuaded by her agent to go to Hollywood and accept the offer of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to make her book into a feature film. Travers is set against this, fearing her beloved creation will be "Disneyized" and made into a cute family film, but as sales have dried up and royalties are shrinking, she changes her mind and makes the flight to Los Angeles, for what she thinks will be a relatively brief period.

Once there, she meets Richard and Robert Sherman, who are assigned to writing the songs for the film; Travers doesn't even like the idea of this film as a musical, so you can imagine how well she gets along with them. She's quite bitchy in her attitude toward everyone from her driver (Paul Giamatti) who picks her up every day for the ride from her hotel to the Disney offices all the way up the ladder to Mr. Disney himself.

This situation alone would have made for a good film, but this work takes on greater complexity, as we are given the story of Travers as a little girl in Australia early in the 20th century. It's the relationship she as with her father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell in a gem of a performance), who takes her on flights of fancy with her imagination, that reveals much about Travers' insight into writing her book as well as why she fears the Disney treatment of her work. The flashbacks are filmed with such detail and visual beauty (cinematographer John Schwartzman is keen on the soft sunlight of the Australian frontier in these segments); clearly this was a time in her life that has remained deep in the psyche of Travers.

Combining these two stories works well for numerous reasons. As moments of her past are revealed, we understand why Travers loved her father so much and why she wants the character of Mr. Banks in the film to be so precise. There are other requests - seemingly trivial at the time - that the author makes to the creative team that make a great deal of sense, once we learn of her childhood.

Arguably the finest sequence in the film is the one where director John Lee Hancock meshes the two worlds together; as the Shermans perform the "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" song for Travers at the rehearsal studio, flashbacks take us to a particular moment in her life where she saw her father in a new light, one that would take on a deeper meaning in her soul. The whimsy and energy of the Sherman brothers performing their latest creation contrasted with the melancholy of Travers as she remembers a significant moment from her childhood is a key to understanding what both Travers and the Disney team must do if they are to make this film. The surface level of Mary Poppins as a book or movie may seem light and fluffy, but at the core, this is a disturbing memoir for the author.

The two leads, Thomson and Hanks, are marvelous performers and have a nice chemistry together. Emma Thompson is especially wonderful, as she basically has to play a bitch, yet she wins us over with her honesty, determination and finally her willingness to work together with the creative team. I can't imagine another actress in this role. As for Hanks, while he has received a great deal of notice for his excellent work in Captain Phillips, I think he is even better here, as he brings a minimalist approach to the character of Walt Disney. He's on screen only about half as much as Thompson, but when he speaks, his words are well chosen for effect. This is one of the most enjoyable and precise performances he's given in sometime.

This is a technically accomplished film; lensman Scwartzman, editor Mark Livolsi and costume designer Daniel Orlandi are deserve special mention and are worthy of Oscar nominations. Thomas Newman's original score, which will probably be overlooked amidst the famous songs the Shermans wrote for Mary Poppins, is excellent, setting the emotional tone throughout the film in a sensitive and mature manner.

Hancock takes a relatively light approach with this material; yes, this is highly emotional and many audience members would be smart to bring their Kleenex, but his direction is not heavy handed. He deals with the personal moments of Travers's memories with the proper attitude and lets the story play out with all its joyful and bittersweet moments. Hancock's last work was the saccahrine-infused The Blind Side; this is a much better film and the director handles this material with greater sensitivity and style.

I walked into Saving Mr. Banks expecting an interesting film to be sure, but honestly did not know how lovely this work would be. Credit to everyone - including screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith - for making such a moving film that deals with the memories of youth in such an honest and enchanting way.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Setting Things Right

Philomena, the latest film from British director Stephen Frears, is a rewarding film about setting things right. The focus of the film is about a terrible experience from one woman's past and her desire to learn the truth. But this work is just as much about one man's quest to find himself and his real worth, even as he goes to great pains to help this woman.

Judi Dench stars as the title character, who is living in a small town in Ireland. Fifty years earlier, she became pregnant and delivered a son; that behavior was frowned upon at that time for a young Catholic girl in her environment, so she was sent to a local abbey where the nuns would care for her child. This was essentially punishment for being so free with her body, as the Catholic church would have her believe; thus she was forced into long hours of demanding work, while only being allowed to see her child for one hour a day.

Her son, as with most of the other children of the young mothers, was eventually sold for a tidy sum to American parents who wanted to adopt a child in the 1950s. Philomena hasn't seen her son since and wonders whatever happened to him - did he grow up to be a success or was he a failure in life?

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC reporter who was demoted due to a political scandal and is now a freelance writer, learns of Philomena's story from her daughter and even though he isn't excited about writing a "human interest" story, he agrees to help her; after all, his upcoming work on Russian history probably won't make him a lot of money, so that can wait.

Their journey takes them to the United States, where Sixsmith can better investigate immigration and adoption records. His editor is paying for the trip, so Philomena and he can fly business class and stay at an expensive hotel in Washington, D.C. As she has never traveled far from her quaint surroundings in Ireland, all of this luxury is eye-opening to her. She wants to know if Martin has received a mint under his pillow in his room and then calls him on the hotel phone to make sure he has a bathrobe as well; she has two in her room and would be happy to share one of hers. These scenes are quite charming and heartwarming.

But when she finds out the truth about her son, the tone of the film changes and both characters become more introspective. She must learn everything she can about her son, no matter the reality. For Martin, he constantly questions Philomena's faith in Catholic doctrine; after all, the nuns took her child, sold him for a handsome profit and never gave her any information about his whereabouts. Their code of silence amounted to little more than a betrayal.

There are so many strong elements to this film, none better than the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope (Coogan also was a producer of this film), based on the true story of Philomena that Sixsmith wrote in 2009, titled "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee." The screenplay is nicely organized, as we follow the events of their search, but there is much more depth in the script, as we learn so much about the world view of these two individuals. She's not educated in the ways of the the modern world, so she can learn a great deal from Sixsmith. But he's cynical about a lot of things and he needs her to set him straight on his journey, not only the immediate one, but also his life's quest. It's a first-rate screenplay, one that goes directly to the heart.

It's also nice that the two actors are quite charismatic and have great chemistry with each other. I've loved Dench for years - has she ever given a routine performance? - and here she offers a turn as a simple, yet richly endowed character; she may not be giving instructions to James Bond here, but she's just as strong emotionally. As for Coogan, who is usually relegated to small, off beat roles (the Night at the Museum films, e.g.), it's a pleasure to see him tackle a role of greater signifigance. It's a complex character, one who is not afraid to conceal his anger towards what the Church has done to Philomena, yet he is also filled with personal angst and often feels guilty about his behavior. Coogan handles this role with panache, flair and introspection.

Alexandre Desplat, who I believe is the finest composer working regularly in films today, has written a sensitive, relatively quiet score that is proper for this film. While this does not break any new ground for the composer and does not rank with his very best (The Ghost Writer, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Zero Dark Thirty), it is a very fine piece of work that meshes perfectly with the emotions on the screen. Too often, film composers write "big" scores with melodies that you can hum after you leave the theater, but may overwhelm the action in the story. Desplat has always been very good at writing music that plays up to the moment and while you may not notice this score, that's a compliment, as that means the composer has done his job.

Stephen Frears directs this film without getting too mawkish; after all this is a highly emotional issue, so it could have been a film loaded with melodramatic scenes and cheap emotions. It's a credit to him - as well as the performers and the intelligent script - that this is a work that feels just right. We're glad to have met these characters and are just as pleased that we took this journey with them.

I for one hope that Frears can make more films such as this. His best-known work The Queen (2006) was a perfectly watchable film, but one that played it safe and took no chances. I never felt watching that film like we really knew what Queen Elizabeth was going through at that time, despite the excellent work turned in by Helen Mirren. Thankfully, Frears has done more than coast here while telling his story; he has directed Philomena with a sensitive heart and hand.