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Saving Mr. Banks

There’s no telling how much of “Saving Mr. Banks” is actually true. Just how callous was P.L. Travers? Was Walt Disney really out to make dreams come true in adapting her popular book, “Mary Poppins”? And is it true that he essentially acted as Travers’ psyche savior as portrayed in the film? It’s tough to say, though recent articles have pointed out that much of what is portrayed in the film is a fallacy, an illusory look into one of the world’s biggest and most recognizable companies made by that very same company. Surely much of the truth—particularly the occasionally harsh realities of Mr. Disney himself—were glossed over for reputational purposes. But based-on-true-stories don’t succeed or fail solely on their historical accuracy, but rather on their ability to take even what could amount to a small kernel of the truth and craft something worth watching. In this regard, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a rousing success.

The movie, in a nutshell, is about Travers’ (Emma Thompson) popular book’s journey to the big screen. Through flashbacks that portray her rough childhood with an alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) that she nevertheless adored, it paints a picture that explains her hesitance towards adapting it. For over 25 years, Disney (Tom Hanks) tried to convince Travers to allow him to make this movie, a goal he claims stems from his desire to keep a promise he made to his children who adore her book and the characters in it. Over the span of a couple weeks, Travers travels to Walt Disney Studios and puts its employees through the wringer, insisting on having creative control over the final product and demanding all kinds of ludicrous things, like the complete removal of the color red from the movie. Eventually, her stubbornness starts to wane, resulting in one of the most beloved films of all time.

It’s that stubbornness, however, that gives the film its weight, even if some journalists are failing to see the meaning and misconstruing it as misogynistic. Seemingly every ridiculous demand she makes has an explanation, which is explained by the film’s frequent flashbacks. While Ms. Travers may seem unreasonable and cruel at first, these moments shed light on her in a way that builds empathy. By the end, she isn’t painted as a villain, but rather a woman who has had trouble coping with the reality of her childhood.

In terms of storytelling, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a tour de force, managing to jump back and forth between timelines seamlessly and without confusion. All of it adds up to an enchanting whole, one that has lots of things to say and explains itself well, even within its two hour time constraint. Perhaps its most successful idea comes in its emphasis on imagination. Echoing the (admittedly more thoughtful) sentiments of 2004’s marvelous “Finding Neverland,” the film understands the importance of imagination, in the ways it can make something bad seem good and fix past memories to be something of profound happiness. Even as adults, it’s important to remember the good things, even when it’s hard to forget the bad, and that’s what “Saving Mr. Banks” explores so well, even going so far as to say that there’s no greater joy than “seeing the world through the eyes of a child.”

That single line encapsulates the film’s very essence, as the “Mary Poppins” film ended up keeping the memories of Travers’ father alive, but more in the way she wished it had happened rather than as they actually did. In this way, “Saving Mr. Banks” proves itself to be surprisingly moving. Anchored by a terrific, Oscar worthy performance from Emma Thompson alongside a top notch ensemble cast, the film is a real treat. It may be hard to fight off the cynical realization that the film is trimmed in a way to protect the Disney company’s image and it may not portray the events at hand in a fair and balanced way (even if the real recordings that play over the credits create striking parallels between it and what we’ve just seen), but that’s not the film’s intent. “Saving Mr. Banks” has higher aspirations and it succeeds in reaching nearly every single one of them.

Saving Mr. Banks receives 4.5/5


Cloud Atlas

I can’t say I’ve read the book that Cloud Atlas is based on, but from what I’ve heard, it’s a thematically complex novel that most people think would be very difficult to adapt to the screen. After having seen the film, I understand why. There are six stories in this one movie that span across multiple time periods and locations involving characters who seem to have some type of connection to each other. It cuts back and forth between all six stories throughout its nearly three hour runtime and leaves it up to the viewer to connect the thematic dots. It’s an intriguing movie with narrative ambition akin to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and it suffers from the same problems. Its ideas don’t always fully come together, certain narrative threads aren’t entirely finished and it thinks it’s more spiritual than it really is. Indeed, the transition from book to movie must have been a tough one, but that in no way means it is bad. When those ideas do come together and meaning manages to sneak through its sometimes pretentious demeanor, Cloud Atlas is quite fascinating and thought provoking.

Cloud Atlas is at its best when it explores the meaning of life and death and the idea that we are all bound to each other, when it explores the idea that our actions, both good and bad, affect the world around us in ways we can’t even imagine. The film explores the idea of reincarnation and karma, that the choices we make now ripple throughout time. It’s about the spiritual connection we have to each other and the world, which dictate our behavior, our actions and who we ultimately fall in love with. It’s all that and more and when these ideas aren’t shrouded behind thick ambiguity or too obviously spelled out through sometimes unnecessary narration, the film is magical.

The problem is it rarely hits that middle ground and I sometimes felt like I was putting more effort into trying to make sense of the movie than it was itself. Keeping something intentionally vague does not make it profound, which is something that the directors, Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, must not have realized. Too often, particularly in the first 45 minutes or so, the film doesn’t bring its themes together. It takes so long to figure out what the hell is actually happening (unless you’ve read the book, I assume), that much of the meaning is lost. While there’s nothing wrong with making the audience work to discover the depth of the film they’re watching, there must be something that leads them in that direction. Cloud Atlas is too opaque for that to happen and it’s guaranteed to bring about wildly different analyses. It’s the type of film that film snobs will claim to love and pretend to understand.

The film further confuses its already convoluted narrative with actors playing multiple roles (most of them play six, if you didn’t guess), but each actor’s prominence differs depending on what story they’re in. One can’t help but wonder, if these characters in these different time periods are somehow connected in some way and may actually be the same people reincarnate, wouldn’t their importance to the story remain the same? Switching up which actor plays the larger role from story to story only brings about unnecessary confusion. When we learn that one character from each timeline has a shooting star in the shape of a birthmark, thus connecting their spirits on their journey through multiple lives, things begin to make more sense, but by then it’s a case of too little, too late (and too long). We’ve stopped caring, so although the narrative connection is made, the emotional connection remains missing.

Not all of its problem stem from its occasionally incoherent plot and sporadically explored themes, though. Questionable decisions continue to appear and reappear throughout the film, most notably in the timeline that takes place in what appears to be a mixture of the distant future and a long forgotten past. In this time, there is an interstellar being called a prescient who visits a primitive group of scavengers in the hopes of finding her way home. They talk in some strange half broken English dialect where they repeat certain words and phrases for no real apparent reason. Because of its assumedly futuristic setting, this was no doubt done to differentiate it from the past and present, but it simply doesn’t work. I’m sure it played better on the page, where readers could create their own appropriate context, but here, it’s ridiculous.

I’ve mostly avoided describing the story in Cloud Atlas because to do so would be a fruitless endeavor. There’s far too much going on and far too little space to discuss it, which makes me fear that my review may come off as too negative. Make no mistake, I am recommending this movie. It doesn’t suffer so much from a lack of focus as it does simply an overload of ambition, which isn’t always a bad thing. Cloud Atlas has many flaws that are all too apparent, but when it works, it’s beautiful, meditative and unique.

Cloud Atlas receives 3/5


Toy Story 3

Things were simpler in the early 90’s. Hollywood worked the way it always had. We had our dramas. We had our comedies. We had our romances. We also had our animated movies, a group of films largely meant to be for children. Most were hand drawn with perhaps a few touch ups from our friendly computers. Then in 1995, along came a little company called Pixar with Toy Story, a film that completely redefined what we could expect from animation, making it a smash hit. Being the first fully computer animated movie certainly helped its cause, but it also provided a story that could be understood and loved by any age, finally proving that animation wasn’t just for children. Four years later, Pixar topped themselves with Toy Story 2. Now eleven years later, it looks like they’ve done it again with the marvelous Toy Story 3, which is easily one of the best films of the year, animated or otherwise.

Andy (John Morris), now grown-up since we last saw him, is about to head to college. His toys he used to have so much fun with have sat in a trunk in his room for the last few years. It seems he’s simply outgrown them. His mother (Laurie Metcalf) explains to him that when he leaves for college, she wants all of his stuff out, including his toys. He needs to stash them up in the attic, throw them out, or take them with him to college, so he makes the decision to take his favorite toy Woody (Tom Hanks) with him while his other toys collect dust. He unwisely packs them in a trash bag, however, and his mother throws them out, but instead of being demolished they end up at Sunnyside Day-Care where they are promised attention from a seemingly gentle teddy bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty). But not all is as it seems and the day-care becomes more like a prison. So now Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and the rest of the gang devise a breakout plan under Woody’s supervision, hoping to get home before Andy leaves without him.

When I was a child, I had a very active imagination. Just like the kids in these movies, I used to cherish my toys and play with them as if they were alive. They were my best friends. I used to wonder what they did when they were alone. I wanted to believe they had their own little world outside of my playtime with them and sprang to life when I was gone. Therein lies the brilliance of the original Toy Story. Never before had I seen my thoughts and wonders as a child translated so faithfully. Now I’m an adult. I live in the adult world. I have an adult schedule and I have adult bills to pay. I haven’t even seen my old toys in many years, much less played with them, but for the first time in a very long while, I can feel my imagination springing to life. Toy Story 3 is one of those films that reminds you what it’s like to be a child, jumping and running and having the time of your life. This is a special movie.

At a certain point in your life, you are pressured to give away your cherished possessions. All those dolls and action figures you spent countless hours with simply need to go. But if you’re like me, you felt guilty and simply refused to give them away (I have boxes of action figures under my bed). Like the previous movies, Toy Story 3 taps into this guilt, but its meaning goes much deeper. It’s about clinging onto those memories, but also helping others forge their own. It’s about growing up and learning valuable lessons. It’s about identity. It’s about family. It’s about a host of things that all get to the core of what it’s like to come into adulthood.

And it’s like that for all the characters—plastic, plush, furry or flesh. Woody, Buzz and the gang find their own revelations through the events that unfold. They love Andy and want to be with him, but things don’t seem to be going in that direction. The film's not so much about Andy giving them away, but rather them wanting to do what’s best for Andy. The final scene in this movie, a beautiful one that echoes how the adults in the audience will feel while watching it, wraps the trilogy up perfectly. It closes every door while giving just enough of a glimpse into the future so we know that the gang is in good hands.

Of course, everything before this climactic scene is a joy as well. It’s funny. It’s exciting. It’s scary. It’s heartfelt. It’s what every movie should strive to be. It’s a juggling act of fear, anxiety, humor and tenderness and not a single ball falls. The fluidity of that hectic combination is masterful in itself. Add in the charming usage of sub-genres, including a story flip to what is essentially Escape from Alcatraz with toys, and you have a surefire winner for all ages.

Toy Story 3 is a delight, a tour de force of childlike imagination and spirit. This isn’t simply premature praise for what some may call a pleasant nostalgia trip. It’s much more than that. Toy Story 3 is truly terrific and will be cherished by generations to come.

Toy Story 3 receives 5/5