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Saving Mr. Banks (2013)


by Steve Habrat

Director John Lee Hancock is no stranger to crafting crowd-pleasing dramas. He’s the man responsible for such films as Dennis Quaid’s 2002 sports drama The Rookie and Sandra Bullock’s unstoppable 2009 hit The Blind Side. When it came to telling the enchanting story of how Walt Disney managed to get the rights to P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins, Hancock was certainly the man for the job. Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks is certainly a well-oiled piece of period filmmaking with several performances that certainly scream for Oscar. It’s a mushy tale about how much the character of Mary Poppins meant to Travers, served up in a candy shell that audiences are guaranteed to savor. Both Hancock and Disney Studios are playing to our hearts with the emotional script from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, but the magic of Saving Mr. Banks really comes alive through the performances from its spread of A-list celebrities. This is Emma Thompson’s show, but Tom Hanks, who is still hot off the success of Captain Phillips, warmly beams his way through his performance as the ultimate dreamer, Walt Disney. And then there is the sweet performance from Paul Giamatti and a particularly touching turn from Colin Farrell, who becomes the film’s beating heart and soaring soul.

Saving Mr. Banks picks up in 1961, with Mary Poppins author Pamela P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) tight on money and low on options. Through her agent, Diarmuid Russell (played by Ronan Vibert), Pamela receives an offer from Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) for the rights to her beloved story so that he can make it into a movie. At first, Pamela refuses to sign over the rights to Disney, who she believes will ruin her very personal story, but her reluctance to right another novel to bring in more money puts her in a difficult spot. With no other alternatives, Pamela travels to Los Angeles to meet with Walt to discuss the project. Upon her arrival, Walt goes above and beyond to charm the scowling Pamela, but each one of his attempts bounces right off her thick skin. Pamela soon begins meeting with scriptwriter Don DaGradi (played by Bradley Whitford) and composer/lyricist brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) to pour over every single detail of the script, storyboards, and musical numbers—all of which she finds fault with. As the exasperated Disney crewmembers try to please Pamela, she strikes up a friendship with her kindly driver, Ralph (played by Paul Giamatti), and begins flashing back to her dysfunctional childhood in Queensland, Australia, with her alcoholic father, Travers Robert Goff (played by Colin Farrell), who instilled a vivid imagination inside the young Pamela.

Saving Mr. Banks juggles two storylines, one which flashes back to Australia, 1906, which gives us a glimpse inside Pamela’s upbringing at the hands of her drunken but loving father and her wounded, soft-spoken mother (played by Ruth Wilson). The scenes set in Australia are given a fairy tale glow, romanticized and shimmering in true Disney fashion. The dramatic outback flashbacks are met by the scenes set in 1961, which posses a more humorous side as Pamela grapples with her idiosyncrasies with her beloved character. Thompson plays Pamela as a porcupine of a woman, a prissy control freak who never passes up a chance to put old Walt Disney in his place. When she isn’t complaining that Los Angeles smells like sweat and chlorine, she ripping into ol’ Walt for anything and everything. Initially, she appears to be immune to Walt’s charms and she scowls every time she lays eyes on a familiar mouse that we have all come to adore. When she meets with DaGradi and the Sherman brothers, she stomps her feet and demands that all of their meeting are recorded. She especially detests the songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and she groans over the mustache added to the character of Mr. Banks, an addition that Walt has personally requested. For as cold and heartless as she seems to be, Thompson molds the character into a sympathetic soul who wrestles with painful memories that she feels doesn’t deserve the pixie-dust whimsy that she is convinced Walt will give her story.

Saving Mr. Banks #2

As far as the rest of the performances go, Hanks beams his way through his performance as Walt Disney, a happy-go-lucky businessman who is absolutely perplexed by the whirlwind that is Pamela. Watching his reactions to feisty writer is a treat, especially when she recoils in horror at his suggestion of taking a trip to Disneyland. As his battle to make the movie culminates, he tells a personal story that reveals his understanding over how much the character of Mary Poppins means to Pamela. Then there is Giamatti, who gives one of the most sensitive performances of his career as Ralph, Pamela’s gee-whiz limo driver who makes every effort imaginable to get to know this rigid sourpuss. Watching Ralph develop his friendship with Pamela is hilarious and near the end, it takes an emotional turn that will make your heart swell. Whitford nabs several chuckles as DaGradi, the cautious scriptwriter tasked with battling with Travers on a day-to-day basis. Schwarztman and Novak are a terrific tag team as the Shermans, the composers who just can’t seem to come up with a tune that gets Travers tapping her toes. Then there is Farrell, who just leaps across the screen on the wings of imagination. Behind closed doors, he is a withering heap of a man consumed by alcoholic demons and an illness that threatens to take his life. However, when he is facing the young Pamela in the sun, he is a dancing court jester, her encouragement to never stop dreaming or chasing imagination. Trust me when I say that this role is one of Farrell’s finest hours.

Considering that Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney production, the film’s sets and cinematography look like a million bucks. While there was no filming in Australia, Hancock does a marvelous job transforming various locations around California into the dusty Australian Outback. It should also be noted that there isn’t a single shot in the entire picture that isn’t crisp, clean, and gorgeous, always eager to show off the fantastic period clothing and set design. Hancock and his screenwriters also do a marvelous job with revealing little secrets about Pamela’s past to the viewer, whether it is her dislike for pears or her fury over Mr. Banks having a mustache on screen. Every little reveal is balanced throughout the picture, one being just slightly more emotional than the last one. Overall, while there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Disney studios has sweetened this story up in places, Saving Mr. Banks is still a wholesome little movie that touches on the importance of imagination and pleas with each and every one of us to never loose our child-like sense of wonder. Thompson and Farrell are Oscar worthy in their respective roles, Giamatti’s Ralph is unforgettable, and Hanks is clearly having a grand old time slipping into the skin of Walt Disney, a role he was born to play.

Grade: B+

Mini Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

Tom Hanks

by Steve Habrat

In 2006, director Paul Greengrass proved that he was an artist capable of handling sensitive true-life material with United 93, the controversial first Hollywood movie of the 9/11 attacks. Through his shaky, vérité approach, Greengrass made the film feel as real as possible, almost like he was God himself ripping the top of that doomed plane off and peering inside at those passengers until the last crushing second. It was unbearably intense, emotional, and most of all, fearless. Seven years later, Greengrass delivers another scorcher with Captain Phillips, the true story about the 2009 attack on the Maersk Alabama by a small band of Somali pirates. Retaining the fly-on-the-wall approach and tightening the intensity to point where you almost yell “uncle,” Captain Phillips in an arresting thriller with plenty of raw performances from a well-known veteran and a handful of scrappy new comers who jump at the chance to bear their fangs. The suspense is high when we’re on board of the Maersk Alabama, but Greengrass puts your nerves to the test when the action shifts from the narrow passages of the cargo freighter to the cramped conditions of a life boat.

Captain Phillips introduces us to Captain Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), who is preparing to sail the massive cargo freighter Maersk Alabama to Mombasa. After securing the ship and plotting a course with first mate Shane Murphy (played by Michael Chernus), the freighter sets out through waters plagued by pirate activity. Meanwhile in Somalia, two small groups of pirates are gearing up to take to the seas and attempt to highjack a ship. Leading one of these groups is Abduwali Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), a skinny but determined pirate who handpicks Bilal (played by Barkhad Abdirahman), Elmi (played by Mahat M. Ali), and Najee (played by Faysal Ahmed) to accompany him on the mission. The Maersk Alabama’s voyage begins smooth enough, but soon, Phillips notices warnings about pirate activity in the waters that he is sailing. During a routine safety drill, Phillips notices two small skiffs approaching the freighter. With no weapons on board, Phillips alerts the UK Maritime Trade Operations, who advise him to arm the freighter’s firehouses in case these are indeed pirates. Due to the high waves of the freighter’s wake, the pirates are unable to catch up to the Maersk Alabama. The crew members of the freighter believe the threat is over, but the next day, the pirates return and are even more determined to get on board.

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Bringing the same heart-pounding suspense that he brought to all of his other previous projects, Greengrass kicks things off by allowing us intimate glimpses inside the lives of both Phillips and Muse. Phillips worries aloud to his wife, Andrea (played by Catherine Keener), about the future of their children. He expresses concern over them finding jobs in a world that has become increasingly cutthroat. Greengrass then hops over to Somalia, where Muse faces a group of mercenaries that demand that they highjack a ship for a warlord named Garaad. Villagers crowd the mercenaries for a chance to jump aboard the skiffs and assist in the taking of a grand vessel. Greengrass is showing us that there is competition and desperation everywhere, and in some places, you’re reduced to carrying out life threatening business to make money. From here, the tension slowly mounts as you count the seconds before the highjacking. A small blip on the radar screen causes you to squirm and your grip will tighten on the armrest when the pirates finally manage to latch a ladder onto the side of the freighter. When Muse and his men spill over the side of the boat, you may need a constant reminder to breathe as bullets fly, threats are made, tempers flare, and the crew of the Maersk Alabama quietly plot how to take back their ship without weapons. It’s exhilarating and exhausting just watching them.

As Captain Phillips progresses to the confinement of that dreaded lifeboat, Greengrass proves once again that he is a master of keeping the action tight and engaging in a cramped space. Phillips tries everything to convince his captors that there is no way out of the situation they have gotten themselves into, but desperation prevails despite the fact that the Navy closing in on all sides. It’s inside this lifeboat that the performances from Hanks and Abdi burst into flames. Hanks is simultaneously cooperative and plotting against his captors. He tries a friendly approach while never letting his guard down for a second. While the testy Najee constantly argues that they should kill Phillips, Abdi’s Muse reveals a softer side. With Muse, it is simply business and he is playing the hand he has been dealt. Overall, while you may go in knowing the outcome of this extraordinary event, Captain Phillips excels in the finer details. Just how did those SEALS manage to fire off those incredible shots that ended the ordeal? What must it have been like to be stuffed inside the stifling lifeboat with an AK-47 stuck in your face? How did Phillips initially handle the situation when the Muse and his men stormed the bridge? It’s all there drenched in an unmatchable intensity and an unshakable realism that sends you away gasping for air. Bravo, Mr. Greengrass!

Grade: A-