Home

 


 

fbook icon 60Film Review: ‘Saving Mr. Banks'

                                                                                            Admit one movie ticket isolated on white Stock Photo - 9269231

If you were a child in the late Fifties and early Sixties, it's likely you would have watched Walt Disney's 'Disneyland' on Sunday evenings*. It was the highlight of the week, especially when ‘Uncle Walt’ would take us to visit his cartoonists at work in their studio or lead us on a tour of the newly built theme-park bearing his name. I longed to visit that place and finally made it there as a thirty-something adult. To my delight, I could still feel the magic.

Even now, Walt Disney remains an iconic figure in my memory. That's why I was wary of seeing ‘Saving Mr. Banks’, the film about the gestation of the movie ‘Mary Poppins’. I couldn't imagine an actor, even one as good as Tom Hanks, capturing the spirit of the man. But I didn’t need to worry. Hanks inhabits the character of Uncle Walt so completely that I became a small child again, watching him on a Sunday night.

Speaking of Hanks, I saw him a month ago as Captain Phillips. What a stunning performance! I once referred to him as a modern-day Spencer Tracy, but he’s much more than that. Tracy was a great actor, but he was always Spencer Tracy playing someone else. Hanks, on the other hand, loses himself in every part he plays.

But enough of Tom Hanks. This film is the story of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the 'Mary Poppins' books, and her reluctance to hand over the film rights to Walt Disney. We first meet the author as a dreamy child in turn-of-the-century Queensland. In the next scene she’s become a cantankerous middle-aged woman living in London, who can’t bear to part with the books she's written, for fear of them being trivialised. Over the course of the film we discover why she feels so strongly, the reasons lying deep within her Australian childhood. Like Tom Hanks as Disney, Emma Thompson’s performance as Mrs Travers illuminates the film. If she doesn’t win an Academy Award for this, I’ll be seriously disappointed.

The supporting actors are perfect: the versatile Paul Giamatti as Mrs Travers’ driver; Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak as the Sherman brothers, who composed so many memorable film scores; and English actress Ruth Wilson (who delivers a convincing Australian accent) as Travers’ mother. But the standout is Colin O’Farrell’s moving and nuanced portrayal of the quixotic and troubled father.

The final credits are an added bonus, featuring photographs and story-board illustrations from the Disney archives, as well as a tape recording of P.L. Travers in a script session. Among the credits I noticed an acknowledgment to Valerie Lawson’s book, ‘Mary Poppins She Wrote’. I've always enjoyed Lawson's insightful newspaper articles and I look forward to reading her biography of P. L. Travers.

I loved the sets in 'Saving Mr. Banks', the attention to detail, the way that 1961 Los Angeles came alive. My only issue with the film is the depiction of Queensland. If you’re going to get everything else right, why not film the Australian scenes in situ? The houses of early 1900s Maryborough are jarringly 'American gingerbread' in their architecture (in fact, they look like a street out of Disney's 'Pollyanna'). And WGH* tells me that we never had steam engines with ‘cattle catchers’.  

But let's not get pernickety. This is a delightful and engrossing film and I commend it to you.

 

*6.30pm on TCN, now known as the Nine Network.

**WGH – World’s Greatest Husband. It says so on his coffee mug.


Deborah O’Brien

9 February, 2014


 

 


 

fbook icon 60THE VALENTINE’S DAY SERIES – PART 3

All’s Well That Ends Well:

My Top Ten Romantic Comedies

 

                                                                                                 

Having written a recent blog about unrequited love, I decided it was time for something a little more upbeat. That’s why I’ve chosen romantic comedies to finish my Valentine’s series. 

It was Shakespeare who originated the rom-com genre four hundred years ago with his ‘comedies’: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘As You Like It’, ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ and ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’. You can see his legacy in films such as Richard Curtis's ‘Love Actually’.

I’m not giving anything away when I say that every film in my list has a happy (or potentially happy) ending. It’s the standard rom-com formula. You can’t possibly have a romantic comedy that ends tragically. It would be like including a sex scene in a ‘Muppets’ movie. Unthinkable!

N.B. Mild spoiler alerts for those of you haven’t seen ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and ‘When Harry Met Sally’.

 1. Love Actually (2003)

This Richard Curtis film could easily be labelled contrived, but I can’t help loving it. Like Shakespeare’s comedies, ‘Love Actually’ is a story with a number of romances developing in parallel and interrelated threads. There’s a stellar cast including Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman (he of the golden syrup voice), Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and Laura Linney. Meanwhile, Kris Marshall plays the part of Colin (‘cousin’ of Spike in ‘Notting Hill’) as a modern-day Bottom, crude, funny and strangely endearing.

 2. It Happened One Night (1934)

Despite its age and general creakiness, this Frank Capra film is still a lot of fun. Clark Gable is the fast-talking reporter sent to find Claudette Colbert, an heiress running away from her father. The two of them are thrown together on a Greyhound bus, which makes this the original road movie. The film won Best Picture of 1934 and I can see why – its escapist story and witty dialogue must have been a cheerful counterpoint to the gloom of Depression-era America. 

3. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Attention: Spoiler Alert

What’s particularly clever about this Nora Ephron film is that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan don’t actually meet until the end. Hanks is the perfect leading man in the Jimmy Stewart tradition and Ryan is ‘America’s sweetheart’. I love Ephron’s sparkling dialogue and nostalgic references to ‘An Affair to Remember’, a rather overwrought  1950s ‘weepy’ with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (after whom I was named).

 4. Woman of the Year (1942)

There just had to be a Tracy/Hepburn film in this list and ‘Woman of the Year’ is the best of them. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are reporters – his specialty is sport, hers is politics. As the title suggests, there are some feminist elements, but it’s not what you’d call a feminist film. After all, it was made in 1942 - pre Women's Lib.  You only have to look at the billing – Hepburn always ceded first place to Tracy. Besides, with a few notable exceptions, the notion of a feminist rom-com tends to be an oxymoron  - even now.

5. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

There’s so much to like about this Richard Curtis film – the clever screenplay, Hugh Grant’s ditheringly charming persona (which became the model for his characterisations in ‘Notting Hill’ and ‘Love Actually’), Andie MacDowell’s self-possessed charm and the dazzling cast of supporting characters, including John Hannah, Kristen Scott-Thomas and Simon Callow. I must have watched this film half a dozen times and I always enjoy it. That’s the test of any film – whether it can take multiple viewings.

 6. It’s Complicated (2009)

It's a sad truth that there are very few rom-coms where both the leads are ‘of a certain age’.* In fact, I can only think of two: ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, and ‘It’s Complicated’ in which Meryl Streep is torn between her wicked but lovable ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) and her soppy architect, Steve Martin. I know who I’d choose! Alec Baldwin is so engaging that he steals the picture.

 7. Green Card (1990)

Written and directed by Peter Weir, this is the only Aussie film in my list. Set in New York, it’s a charming story of a young woman (Andie MacDowell) who marries Frenchman Gérard Depardieu (at his cuddly best) so that he can get a ‘green card’ to work in the US. You can guess what happens next.

 8. When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Attention: Spoiler Alert

This is the archetypal tale of best friends, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, who discover there’s more to their relationship than they thought. Written by the wonderful Nora Ephron, it’s brimming with memorable scenes and quotable quotes, the most famous being: ‘I’ll have what she’s having’.

 9. Two Weeks’ Notice (2002)

Here's Hugh Grant again. (I’ve only just realised he’s in four of my top ten!) This time he’s paired with the beguiling Sandra Bullock, who plays the legal counsel to Grant’s spoilt millionaire. Even though this film is formulaic in the extreme, it’s also very entertaining, thanks largely to the charming performances of the two leads.

 10. Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)

Renee Zellweger is adorable as Bridget Jones, thirtyish, rosy-cheeked, pleasantly plump, prone to faux pas and desperately seeking the man of her dreams. Will it be her roguish boss Hugh Grant or the earnestly handsome Colin Firth? There’s a supporting cast to die for – including Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones and the much under-rated Neil Pearson. The ending will make your heart zing.


The films that just missed out (in no particular order): ‘Tootsie’, ‘His Girl Friday’**, ‘The American President’, ‘The Philadelphia Story’**, ‘Notting Hill’.


*      There are plenty of rom-coms where the man is older and the woman  young - for instance,  'Charade' with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, 'Sabrina' with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn and more recently 'As Good as It Gets' with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt.

**    classic oldies


Read the other articles in the Valentine's Day series: My Four Favourite Stories about Platonic Love and My Five Favourite Books about Unrequited Love.

 

 Deborah O’Brien

12 February 2014

 


fbook icon 60Film Review: ‘Twelve Years A Slave’ 

Engraving from Solomon Northrup's 'Twelve Years a Slave' (1853). Source: Wikipedia


Back in the mid-1970s I was mesmerised by the miniseries ‘Roots’, based on Alex Haley’s novel about his African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, a young man who was captured by slave traders and transported to 18th century America. It was ground-breaking television, particularly for someone like me who knew nothing about slavery in the American South except for the 'Gone with the Wind' version. Forty years later, having just seen Steve McQueen’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave’,  I realise that for all its considerable strengths, the 'Roots' miniseries was essentially a sanitised version of what happened.

Based on Solomon Northup’s memoir published in 1853, McQueen’s film is confronting in its realism. It begins in 1841 when Northup is a free man with a wife and two children, living a comfortable life in New York State. After being drugged and kidnapped, he finds himself enslaved on a Southern plantation where he witnesses and experiences unspeakable cruelty.

What makes the film particularly moving is the character of Solomon Northup himself, a man who never loses his humanity, even during the most dire moments of violence and pain. The brilliant British actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor brings dignity and intelligence to his portrayal of Northup/Platt. (Platt is the name given to him by his kidnappers.)

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the plantation owner who shows sympathy towards Platt but refuses to listen to his claims that he is a free man and instead sells him to the demonic Mr Epps, played by Michael Fassbender. Epps justifies his claims to ownership of his workers by quoting and paraphrasing Bible texts. The verse he doesn’t quote, however, is Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

As Patsey, the young woman raped and abused by Mr Etts, Lupita Nyong’o imbues her role with nobility and spirit. Alfre Woodard (from ‘How to Make an American Quilt’) makes a brief cameo appearance as Mistress Shaw, a former slave and now the wife of a neighbouring plantation owner, and the versatile Paul Giamatti (last seen in ‘Saving Mr Banks’) is a vile slave trader with a veneer of gentility.

It seems ironic that a film, which depicts inhumanity and violence in such a realistic way, should look so beautiful, but it does, and that’s due to the painterly cinematography and the lush Louisiana landscapes. Think Spanish moss hanging eerily from cypress trees, dark brooding swamps, cane fields stretching into the distance, and antebellum mansions with imposing columns and broad verandahs.

When I came home from the cinema, I went straight to my computer and searched for Solomon Northup’s memoir. Sure enough, there it was – a facsimile version complete with engravings. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. The good news is that the film is basically true to the book.

In summary: ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ is a powerful film. You’ll find parts of it difficult to watch but you’ll also find yourself so immersed in the story that it will linger long after you’ve left the cinema.

Expect this film to win a swag of Oscars at the 2014 Academy Awards including Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Deborah O’Brien

February 22, 2014

 

fbook icon 60Film Review: 'The Monuments Men'

 

Ghent Altarpiece: Hubert and Jan Van Eyck; Source: Wikipedia Commons


I’m not sure what I expected from ‘The Monuments Men’ but when I heard it was based on a real story about the team commissioned to save European artworks from the Nazis, I was hoping for something like the wonderful 1960s movie, ‘The Train’ featuring Burt Lancaster and Paul Schofield. Well, this isn’t ‘The Train’. In fact, at times it’s more like ‘Oceans Eleven’ - or in this case, ‘Oceans Seven’ - meets World War II.

But despite its flaws, I enjoyed 'The Monuments Men.’ It’s an entertaining movie which also delivers a history lesson, albeit Hollywood-style. There’s an interesting cast led by George Clooney (also the director), who, to my eyes at least, bears an uncanny resemblance to 1940s heart-throb Robert Taylor but is thankfully a far better actor. John Goodman literally grounds the film with his tree-trunk physique and hang-dog face which can speak a thousand words without uttering a single one. The ubiquitous Cate Blanchett (when does she sleep?) does a fine job as the art curator at the Jeu de Paume, desperate to keep the collection safe and battling Goering’s underling, Viktor Stahl. Of all the characters in the film, I found him the most interesting.

As an artist, I like any movie which has art at its heart, and this one features the Ghent altarpiece which happens to one of the most beautiful works of art ever created. But it’s not just a story about saving one particular work. We’re shown how the Nazis went about stealing art, both private and public, on a massive scale. Unfortunately, in attempting to cover this entire story in two hours, ‘The Monuments Men’ sometimes loses its focus and veers towards the superficial.

On the historical front, I don’t mind a bit of artistic licence in telling a true story as long as the framework is essentially accurate. This film certainly has an authentic 1940s feel about it and the cinematography is glorious. However there are problems with the dialogue. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know I have a ‘thing’ about linguistic anachronisms – a paranoia about committing them and a penchant for finding them. It really annoys me that in a film with a multi-million-dollar budget, they couldn’t employ someone to check that the language was right. At one point George Clooney says that his team was ‘tasked’ to undertake the mission. Nobody used ‘task’ as a verb back then. And during a conversation with Hugh Bonneville's character, a Brit who has a sorry record with women and booze, Clooney says that everyone is ‘screwed up at some level’. Surely this is sixties psycho-babble, not 1940s conversation.

For me, one of the most moving moments in the film is Matt Damon’s attempt to return a family portrait to the home of a Jewish family from whom it was stolen. Another poignant scene is the cameo appearance by George Clooney’s real-life father. I don’t want to give too much away here so I’ll just say that you should watch the credits and everything will make sense. I also liked the black-and-white photographs of the actual Monuments Men which are shown at the end.

In summary, if you want the serious story about the MFAA*, get hold of the book that inspired the film, Robert M. Edsel’s ‘The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History’. But don’t dismiss this film – it’s entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking. I just wish it hadn’t tried to do so much.

*Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives programme

Deborah O’Brien

March 23, 2014