Movie Review: Saving Mr Banks (2013)

March 11, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

SAVING-MR.-BANKS-Poster

First Private Ryan, now Mr Banks. It seems Tom Hanks always has someone to save.

In Saving Mr Banks, Hanks plays none other than Mr Walt Disney, who has been courting the author of the Mary Poppins books, PL Travers (Emma Thompson) for 20 years in the hopes of delivering a big screen version to audiences. Unfortunately, Travers a bit of a stubborn biatch with very concrete ideas of who her characters are and the limits of what she would allow them to do, and so begins a difficult process of trying to please her while putting together the classic 1964 Mary Poppins film we all know about today.

I had lofty expectations for Saving Mr Banks, but in the end I just thought it was just an OK movie, somewhat sentimental, mildly amusing and rather predictable. It’s charming, warm and driven by wonderful performances and songs and all, though it’s a stretch to suggest it’s anything approaching one of the best films of 2013.

Part of the reason I’m not as high about the film as most others could be because I’ve never been a huge fan of Mary Poppins. In fact, I didn’t even see the film for the first time until I was in my 20s (or at least that’s how I remember it) and I had no idea the film was based on a book. I later saw a stage musical version of it and therefore know all the catchy songs quite well, but as a whole it doesn’t have a special place in my heart like it does for many others of my generation.

This is really a character journey film about the internal struggles of Travers, with Disney playing a more minor role as the facilitator. Travers is snooty, defensive and opinionated, but as we find out throughout the course of the film through flashbacks to her childhood, there is a reason for the way she’s turned out like this, and a reason why she’s so fixated on who her characters are. And the majority of it has to do with her loving father, played by Colin Farrell, is fighting a losing battle against demons of his own.

The 125-minute running time is mostly dedicated to Disney and his team trying to break through the ice and soften Travers up so that they can make the type of film they want to make. For me, the best parts are watching the Mary Poppins music composers, Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak), developing the famous songs such as Chim Chim Cher-ee and Let’s Go Fly a Kite — I found the process to be intriguing and fun, and I wonder how realistic it actually was.

The main problem I had with it — apart from the claims of historical revision and shameless Disney PR — is that Travers (notwithstanding Thompson’s brilliant performance) never comes across as a very likable person. Yes, you get to understand her and ride along with her as she undergoes her character journey, but the sense of empathy was lacking because I found her to be quite insufferable. The other problem is that we all know Mary Poppins gets made in the end, so no matter how much Travers threatens to pull out, we know how it’s going to turn out in the end, and knowing that this is a Disney film, we also know everything will ultimately be A-OK.

That said, from the perspective of an origins story, Saving Mr Banks is a fascinating look into how films were made back in the day. It’s also smartly written and educational (eg, you find out Travers is actually an Aussie!) without being saccharine. If you were/are a fan of Marry Poppins then it’s likely the film will resonate and provide a warm and fuzzy trip down memory lane. For me, on the other hand, it’s just a reasonably enjoyable couple of hours.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

December 19, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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To be honest, I wasn’t really all that interested in Captain Phillips, which depicts the true story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking by Somali pirates in 2009. I dunno, maybe I had been put off by pirates because of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (there may actually be an element of truth that joke), or perhaps it was because it looked like another boring a Oscar bait. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Captain Phillips is, without a doubt, one of the most thrilling and captivating movies of the year.

As always, if you don’t know about the Maersk Alabama hijacking then don’t read up about it before you go watch the movie. First of all, it’s best not knowing how the story ends, and secondly, you won’t be distracted by any of the creative liberties taken by the filmmakers. I went into it not knowing anything about it at all other than that it’s based on a true story, and as a result I was glued to the screen for the entire 133-minute running time, which didn’t feel one bit overlong at all.

To just give a basic background of the premise, the film tells the story of Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama who took orders to sail through the Gulf of Aden to Mombasa with aide cargo. The ship gets hijacked by a band of Somali pirates, who take Phillips hostage for ransom and sets off a major international incident. It’s an extraordinary story of bravery and survival, one that I’m sure has been at least a little embellished and sped up for the purposes of the movie, but I have no problems with that at all because it worked. Apart from a brief intro, Captain Phillips is intense all the way through, rarely easing up to give audiences time to take a breather. The sense of dread is real, the fear of danger is genuine, and the action feels authentic without being not over-the-top. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking considering that almost all of it takes place on the sea, and in nothing more than a couple of boats, and yet it’s far more exciting than many films that follow characters to multiple locations all around the world.

I’ve been a fan and critic of director Paul Greengrass, who directed two of the Bourne movies (Supremacy and Ultimatum) as well as the underrated war movie Greenzone. I like the way he handles his action sequences but I’m not a fan of his trademark handheld camera. In Captain Phillips, however, it feels as though Greengrass held back on the queasy-cam sequences, and even the scenes where the handheld cameras were more obvious were almost fitting because they were on the rocky seas.

As for the performances, I expected an Oscar-nominated one from Tom Hanks, which he delivers, but I was equally impressed by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who has nabbed a Golden Globe as the lead pirate and I think deserves an Oscar nod too. You would think as a hostage Hanks won’t get to show off his acting chops as much, but he’s so solid as the stoic but clearly terrified captain and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off the role the way he did. Adbi, on the other hand, is brilliant as the young leader of the pirates, who is frightening and vulnerable at the same time. All of the newcomers who play the pirates are terrific — they are the bad guys but you almost don’t want anything to happen to them — but Adbi is the one who stands out the most because of his screen presence.

In all, I was very impressed by Captain Phillips. It ticks all the right boxes — riveting plot, thrilling action, just the right amount of political intrigue and well-developed characters backed by top performances. A smart, intense and highly enjoyable film.

4.5 stars out of 5

Book Review: “Inferno” by Dan Brown

June 23, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

inferno

I did it. I finally made the decision to read Dan’s Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, and I stuck with it until the end. I don’t mean to be a dick about it. After all, I was a fan of The Da Vinci Code (which I credit as the catalyst for getting me back into reading regularly) and found Angels & Demons exciting in a guilty-pleasure kinda way. Even The Lost Symbol, which came after the blistering success of Da Vinci, was a page-turner.

But let’s face it, Dan Brown is not the greatest writer in the world and has been ruthlessly ridiculed for years because of it. After reading Inferno cover to cover, it’s easy to see why the man has his critics — but honestly, he is not that bad. Perhaps he has improved his writing over the years, or maybe he got a new editor, or both. He might still be no Hemingway, but he’s no Stephenie Meyer (the blood-sucking vampire who gave us The Twilight Saga) either, and he is certainly no EL James (the demon who sucked the blood of Stephenie Meyer to create The 50 Shades Trilogy).

Inferno is the fourth book to star Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbolist played by the worst haircuts Tom Hanks has ever had in the movie versions of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. The Da Vinci Code was focused largely on the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, in particular The Last Supper, while Angels & Demons was about the Vatican, and The Lost Symbol about the masons in Washington DC. This time, Inferno is centered on the 14th century epic poem of the same name written by Dante Alighieri, which is all about his journey through the nine circles of hell.

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It sounds pretty fascinating and it is, at times, but I found Inferno to have the least intriguing subject matter of all the Langdon novels despite having possibly the highest and most realistic stakes. Can’t say more than that without divulging spoilers.

Anyway, kudos to Brown for trying to build something to rival his most popular books when he could have been counting money instead. The formula of Inferno is pretty much the same as the other Langdon books. It starts off with the same spiel under the now-infamous title of FACT, and follows Langdon as he travels through various cities (this time predominantly in Italy) to solve cryptic clues that lead to more cryptic clues that could help him save the world from some catastrophic terror. Again.

For all his faults as a novelist, Brown is the master of creating fast-paced action and threading the action with the requisite background and explanations without skipping a beat. The chapters are short to keep up the suspense and there are plenty of twists and turns and red herrings to throw you off track, which I admit Brown does very well, probably as well as anything he does with the exception of describing architecture and giving history lessons on the run.

As expected, Inferno is filled with historical and architectural nuggets, much of which is very interesting but also completely unnecessary and irrelevant to the narrative. I had the feeling that Brown had plenty more trivia to share but was forced to pare it back (to 480 pages). There were a few times in Inferno where I felt he slowed it down too much to explain something, but in general the novel was effective as a page-turner — not bad for a book that at times felt like a collection of glorified Wikipedia entries.

Inferno’s biggest flaw is that Brown does not claim that Dante’s poem contains any secret messages in itself (like say Da Vinci’s The Last Supper or in the architectural symbols in Washington DC). All the cryptic clues are artificially “inserted” by a Dante fanatic who really has no reason to be giving them away, especially when they would help the fanatic’s enemies from stopping him achieve his ultimate goal. That’s the thing with Dan Brown novels — you start wondering “why” and it all falls apart.

The problem with Brown’s writing is still…the writing. Inferno is an unsightly adverb fest (zing!) with little subtlety (never his strong suit), too much overwriting, and littered with irritating phrases like “smiled at the handsome academic beside her” and “involving the distinguished academic in the crisis” — for God’s sake, his name is Langdon! Even a simple “him” would have sufficed. But you know what? It’s still better than it used to be.

The characters are also made of paper (zing again!). We’ve followed Langdon for four books now and all we know is that he is tall, handsome, has a wry sense of humour and is claustrophobic. His new lady friend (he has a new lady friend in each book) has a little more depth, but it is impossible for someone like her to exist in real life. On top of that, there is a villain who seems to have been created with actor David Morse in mind (very tall, green eyes, enigmatic), and a beautiful, elegant silver-haired woman who conjures images of Helen Mirren. None of them are particularly interesting.

On the whole, however, I would rank Inferno as Brown’s third best book, below The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, but above The Lost Symbol and the non-Langdon Deception Point and Digital Fortress. The subject matter of Inferno is just not as interesting as the other Langdon novels, making it also less of a page-turner, even though the writing is technically better. That said, Dan Brown fans will surely lap it up, and casual fans could still find the brisk and educational read enjoyable.

3.5/5

DVD Review: Toy Story 3 (2010)

December 21, 2010 in Movie Reviews

I absolutely intended to watch Pixar’s Toy Story 3 (in 2D) at the cinema, but for whatever reason I missed it.

Thankfully, it’s no longer too long of a wait these days before films go to DVD, and I finally watched the third instalment of arguably the greatest animated feature film series in history.

The thing with the Toy Story franchise is that you know exactly what you’re in for — a focused and clever storyline, fantastic animation, an all-star voice cast (Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, etc), a touch of poignancy, and plenty of great laughs.  So while Toy Story 3 offers no real surprises, it’s still extremely funny and a joy to watch for the whole family.

This time, toy owner Andy is all grown up and heading to college, and Woody, Buzz and the gang are in danger of being tossed out for good.  But as fate would have it, the toys find themselves in a brand new setting, with new friends, enemies and challenges.

As usual, the toys (especially Barbie’s boyfriend Ken, the Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, the freaky Baby and the Monkey with the cymbals) offer many laugh-out-loud moments, most of which are pure genius, but it’s the touching relationship between the toys and their owners that elevate Toy Story 3 (and all the films in the series) to that whole other level.  While it may not be as magical as the first film, Toy Story 3 is in my opinion better than the second, and is arguably the best in the franchise.

At 108 minutes it is probably a little too long for animation, but on the whole Toy Story 3 is a perfect blend of comic brilliance and emotional satisfaction.

4.25 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Angels & Demons (2009)

May 16, 2009 in Movie Reviews

Angels and Demons

Yesterday I saw Angels & Demons, you know, the highly anticipated follow-up to the controversial (and hugely successful) The Da Vinci Code, also adapted from the novel of the same name written by Dan Brown.

After the somewhat modest reactions to the The Da Vinci Code (which I actually think deserved more credit), my expectations were held in check this time.  Another good thing is that it had been so long since I read the book that I had kind of forgotten what it was all about.  Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised.  It was fun, exciting, and the pieces came together at the right moments.

In short, it was a vast improvement on the first film and I totally enjoyed it!

Background

Angels & Demons the book is a prequel to The Da Vinci Code, but the movie is filmed as a sequel (and there are several references to the events of the first film in the opening scenes).  As per my review etiquette, I won’t divulge plot details, but given the success of the novel, it’s safe to assume most people at least have an idea of what it is about.   All I will say is that, like its predecessor, Angels & Demons is heavily influenced by religious themes and involves a desperate race against time that leads to a lot of running around.  Whereas The Da Vinci Code was set predominantly in Paris, Angels & Demons leads you through a breath-taking adventure through the various attractions and sights of Rome and Vatican City.

Action, action and more action

Dan Brown’s novels are known to unveil at neck-breaking pace.  However, unlike the book, many felt that The Da Vinci Code movie was, frankly, a bit of a bore.  Angels & Demons doesn’t suffer from the same problem because it’s made as more of a popcorn movie with full-throttle action right from the beginning, rarely pausing to catch its breath.

The difference is in the adaptationThe Da Vinci Code movie was bogged down by the need to fully explain its complex conspiracy theories, and despite doing so very well (and innovatively), it led to dull patches that killed the momentum.  Director Ron Howard certainly learned his lesson, because even though the plot and theories of Angels & Demons also require a fair amount of explanation, this time they did it right – by giving you the essentials upfront and then feeding you bits of information at a time so that the pace never sags for very long and things are kept moving.

Though I couldn’t recall much from the book, Ron Howard definitely changed or deliberately left out certain parts of the storyline in the film – and I think it was for the better.  To be honest, the conspiracy theories in Angels & Demons sounded pretty silly when transformed from the page to the big screen (and coming from me that says a lot because I tend to believe in a lot of that stuff), so I felt it was a smart choice to leave the emphasis off all of that and focus on keeping the foot on the gas pedal.  There’s probably another reason why they decided to do it, but I won’t say because it may lead to a potential spoiler.  Nevertheless, the end product was much closer in style and pace to the novel than The Da Vinci Code was, and therein lies the biggest contrast between the two films.

Cast

The mullet is gone

The mullet is gone

Terrific all-star cast.

Of course, Tom Hanks returned as professor Robert Langdon, sans the infamous mullet from last time (I still think the new hairdo is a FAIL, just not an EPIC FAIL – perhaps he needs sideburns or something).  Hanks clearly got into good shape to portray the character, as evident from his very first scene, but there was still some awkwardness to him.  Maybe he just wasn’t the right choice for Langdon, but it’s too late now because like it or not the character will forever be associated with the actor.

The big upgrade was Ayelet Zurer (Israeli actress best known from Munich – the film not the city), who portrays the scientist/sidekick to Hank’s Langdon.  As much as I like Audrey Tautou (from The Da Vinci Code), Zurer’s chemistry with Hanks was so much better, and she more than holds her own in the film.

I was glad to see Ewan McGregor (as the ‘Camerlengo’) again on the big screen after bumping into him in person while vacationing in Berlin.  By the way, he was brilliant in the role.

There were other solid supporting roles too, such as Stellan Skarsgard as Commander Richter of the Swiss Guard and the always trusty Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss.  Note both names were changed from the novel.

Special Effects

Ron Howard and his special effects team really worked miracles in Angels & Demons, because despite the film being set almost entirely in Rome and Vatican City, the Vatican made it virtually impossible for them to shoot there.  And yet you would have never noticed if no one had told you.

I don’t know how they did it, but it must have involved building full-scale replicas, smaller scale replicas and lots of digital effects.  Really just shows you can pretty much do whatever you want in movies these days (as long as you have the budget).

There were also some other sensational special effects sequences that were done with amazing realism, though I can’t discuss them without spoiling the plot.  You’ll just have to watch it!

Religious Themes

I found it interesting that the Vatican basically condemned this film before it even began shooting.  It probably had a lot to do with the anti-church reputation The Da Vinci Code had developed, but I actually thought that Angels & Demons had a pro-church and pro-faith undercurrent.  Sure, there were some thinly-veiled criticisms of the Catholic Church, but on the whole the film did a decent job of reconciling science and religion, and reminding everyone that religion is, ultimately, a man-made thing that is not perfect.  Perhaps Catholics might even find the film uplifting.  Regardless, I’m sure the boycotts are already in motion.

Dan Brown

Angels & Demons, apart from being a fun action flick, really reminded me of what Dan Brown is capable of. You see all the copycat authors that are out there today and it tends to dilute what Brown accomplished with his two most popular novels.  Seeing the film made me remember how great the storyline was and how brilliant Brown was in being able to link everything together so intricately, making all the pieces fit so perfectly.  A mind-boggling amount of research and thought must have gone into it.  It’s a great example for aspiring writers who want to pen the next international bestseller.  Brown may not be a great (or even good) writer but he’s put a lot of effort into creating these engaging stories.

This has definitely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which is coming out this September (s0me preliminary thoughts here).

Final Thoughts

In all, Angels & Demons is a great action film (with a little extra) that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.  It’s a movie that caters for a wide audience.

Those that have been to Rome or the Vatican will get a kick out of seeing all those places being used in the film (I had a few ‘remember that place?’ moments myself).  It’s also good for people who haven’t, because it will probably make them want to go now!

I’m sure those who have already read the book will enjoy the film because it is genuinely exciting and captures the thrill ride entailed in the novel.  However, I think those that will like the film most are those who haven’t read the book (and there’s probably not many out there), because they will be even more impressed by the scale of the story and the way the symbols, conspiracies, science, religion, action and storyline is all woven together.

Just go in with an open mind, don’t expect everything to make sense, take the conspiracy theories with a large chunk of salt – and you might be surprised how enjoyable the film can be.

4 out of 5 stars!