Friday, 23 December 2016

Saving Mr. Banks

P.L Travers is broke. Her royalties have dried up. There has been a film rights offer on the table for 20 years, but Travers is highly protective of her work. The first 4 minutes of Saving Mr. Banks sets up the story with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Let me explain though how I came to love this film.

Emma Thompson is forceful, aggressive, yet very entertaining as P.L Travers. Throughout most of the film every line of dialogue she has is overly cynical and is delivered with a 'very English' demeanor, which is to say overt contempt. Even when others are being nice to her or trying to raise her spirits, such as her cheery and well meaning driver played excellently by Paul Giamatti. Mrs. Travers' stubbornness is never more evident than when Thompson reacts with disgust to finding her hotel room has been decorated with Disney toys and Mickey Mouse merchandise. Not even the magic of Disney can phase P.L Travers' bitterness. Many of my thoughts on the film to this point can be summed up by the moment Mrs. Travers removes the giant Mickey Mouse toy from her bed and sits it facing the wall, murmuring "you can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety". This line had me howling with laughter for the wrong reasons, because at this point I almost did the same to my TV. Attempts to put her character over the top could easily have felt overbearing in the hands of the wrong actress, but they are entertaining thanks to Emma Thompson. I'd expect no less from a footlights graduate in the same class as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Thompson's P.L Travers appears completely unflappable even after she finally meets with Walt Disney face to face. Mrs. Travers might not have been enamoured, but I was.

Walt Disney is played in this film by Tom Hanks, who brightens up the screen from the moment he walks onto it surrounded by trophies and memories. Hanks' performance made me smile every time he was on screen, and thats high praise for a character whose sole motivation is to acquire the rights to Mary Poppins. Once again motivations are made very clear very fast, as Disney wastes no time in stressing how long he had been wanting to purchase the rights, 20 years in fact. Tom Hanks made me smile every moment he was on the screen, and that, at least to someone of my generation, is what you would expect the mythical Walt Disney to do. The film does attempt in small ways to dethrone the cinema legend. One of the more notable instances of this is where he is caught smoking in his office, a habit he didn't want revealed publicly in fear that it would taint his wholesome image. Given that this is a Walt Disney Pictures film co-starring Walt Disney, this is as much dirt on the Hollywood icon we're going to get. I don't know much about the man himself beyond Disney's own media, but Hanks' Disney seems to care a great deal about his self image, and the impression he leaves on the world, and that is what makes him fascinating. The only other real slight on him is the lack of effect his charm has on Mrs. Travers, and this creates great chemistry between the two sides of the same coin.

Saving Mr. Banks does a great job at building P.L Travers as a magnificently stubborn character but then explaining deeply what made her that way. In sections throughout the film we are shown small segments of her early life. These are helpful in providing some interesting background, as well as giving us an entertaining Colin Farrell performance as Mrs. Travers' father, an increasingly complex character who wants to please his children to a fault. These flashbacks are cut into the story very well and they never feel intrusive or forceful. Given that the writers of this film seem to have no trust in the audience to work the plot out for themselves, the line "we have to teach the witch to be happy again" feels like another blow from that aforementioned subtlety sledgehammer. These scenes come to signify the struggle between Travers' headstrong defiance and her childhood memories of imagination and creativity powered by her father, especially when they are placed alongside his inevitable implosion. A line in the trailer tells you all you need to know, as does the films title itself. These asides begin to make you realise how important Mrs. Travers' creation is to her and why. We see why she aggressively protects her beloved Mary and the Banks'. It is here where we discover the core of her character, and I like how this builds throughout the film.

One the greatest things for me about Saving Mr. Banks is the musical score by Thomas Newman. At one point Newman invokes 'Hi Ho' from Snow White when introducing the Disney studios, a film that would have enraged Travers given her hatred for Disney's 'Silly Cartoons'. At this point I was struck by the irony that I was watching a film depicting a person who heavily resisted her own work being brought to the silver screen, yet is now on it herself. Newmans score conveys despair when you are looking at it, and joy when you are looking at that too. Ever since I saw American Beauty I have been able to spot a Thomas Newman score, and this made me enjoy the film even more.

If I were to describe the tone of this film in one word, it would be 'sunny', and this is evident even
from the photography. There are plenty of bright colours and vivid landscapes that make the film easy on the eyes. California is of course portrayed with nothing but sunshine, and the flashbacks are almost glowing with vibrance. The plot is filled with conflict and angst, so you really needed that bright tone to remind you that this is a Disney film.There was also a fair amount of humour drawn from Travers' conflict with Disney's writers and musical staff who each have their moment of levity. My favourite being a debate over the word "responstible" not being a word.

When we screened Saving Mr. Banks as part of our Film Club season some left the film on the edge of tears. This was soon alleviated by an extra I hadn't known existed in the credits of the real P.L Travers in the tape recorded writing sessions that are recreated in the film. Without saying too much these extras definitely serve the authenticity of the film, and I would hope that more of these tapes were made available someday, so that we might understand the creative process a bit more. This film succeeded in that is took a potentially combative and unfilmable thing, a business deal, and sprinkled some of that Disney magic on to make it both engaging and entertaining throughout.


Thursday, 1 December 2016

Absolutely Fabulous (2016)

Reels on fire...

Absolutely Fabulous (1990-2004) hit TV screens in an era where neanderthals were still arguing that
women can't be funny, and it therefore had a lot to prove. The film arrived in an era where that stereotype on both big and small screen has beeb obliterated. Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley make it clear early on that they are out to make fun of themselves, and not just others as the style of modern comedy has become. nothing is off limits, how they have aged, how the world has changed, and this is where some of the best comedy comes. Their lack of understanding of the world is at times amazing, with Patsy referring to cash as 'hand money' being my favourite gag. I got the feeling early on that Ab Fab was two decades before its time, and the film is right where it needed to be given that we now live in the media obsessed celebrity culture. However the more I watched, I realised that the comedy doesn't work anymore given that we are too close to the world the series was parodying in the 1990's. Sadly, we have become the joke.

Being a film set in the world of PR and celebrity there are cameos aplenty which range from fantastic to dire. Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones) looking glamorous for a change was brilliant, while I could have done without Richard Arnold and Christine Bleakley (who is bizarrely only shot from the side for some reason). That guy from the X Factor who plays an air steward (appropriately) can fuck off too. There is no doubt however that they deserve a place in this film given that it takes a sledgehammer to gaudy celebrity culture at some points and lusts for it at others. Jon Hamm also puts in a great but too brief comic performance, and this all serves to make series mainstays Lulu and Emma Bunton come across as jarring anachronisms. While their inclusion is faithful to the original I found it hard to believe that they exist in this world anymore. So many cameos are included that by the end of the film they become numbing. From genuinely funny moments to "oh yeah its him/her". Crucially the biggest anachronism is Kate Moss, who is an important part of the plot.

Much like Brienne's appearance I greatly appreciated the cameo by Rebel Wilson, who begged for a role in the film and ad-libbed her greatest line. As a air hostess she refers to herself as the 'designated do noting bitch', which is a glorious reference to MMA great Ronda Rousey's coined term. Only afterwards I realised that this is the most topical joke in the film and it is already dated by over a year. When asked about this ad lib Saunders exclaimed "I don't care as long as its funny", which suggests she missed the poignancy and cultural relevance of this line. In the long run this doesn't really matter because Jennifer Saunders knows whats funny and kept it in, but I still find her dismissiveness concerning. Despite this Saunders shows a solid understanding of the modern world with subtle gags you could miss is you blinked, like the hash tag #IsKateDead? featuring on BBC News while exposition is being blurted out by a newsreader. Reaction clips are highlighted by a brief Jeremy Paxman cameo who asks "is there really nothing else happening in the world?" Quickly followed by some randomer claiming that "fashion is dead." This, in a nutshell, is the tone of the film. It knows that its subject matter is superficial, and that is its saving grace.

Underneath the plot of the TV original is an undercurrent of sympathy towards Eddies daughter Saffy. This time it is centered around Saffys daughter Lola despite a frightening lack of understanding of how to use the younger character. We are told she is 13 but she is shown to know how to drive a car. Lola 'has money' but only when the plot necessitates it. Lola is sometimes interesting but mostly just there because of the time lapse from the series means she has to be, and her final appearence is a throwaway gag just to make her prescent in the final scenes. The film loses sight of the joke of the original, that Saffy was in the Mother role as Edina was the child. If we are to translate that into the film, Saffy has grown to be a pretty neglectful and distant parent and Edina has finally been able to run amok. The id has finally prevailed over the ego, and it makes for a gaudy film.

One genuine positive I can say is that the film is at least faithful to its portrayal of Eddie and Patsy, its two central characters. Ab Fab was always about ageing disgracefully, but Jennifer Saunders (age 58) and Joanna Lumley (age 70) manage to continue this into the film with the same style and attitude of the original series. Numerous references are made to the two being too old for the lifestyle they are trying to maintain, though Eddie is noted as being aged 60, which I found telling about Saunders motivations. While I'm praising performances June Whitfield (age 91 for fairness' sake), reprisises her role as Edinas clueless mother very well.

In my research for this film I realised that Absolutely Fabulous is as old as I am, and although I struggle with pop culture I have aged better. That is a sad inditement on this film. I can't help but feel that if this exact film had been made 15 years ago (and it could have been if you switched a few of the topical cameos) it would have been received a thousand times better and could have been considered the British Zoolander. Sadly it will likely be more of a British Zoolander 2, dated and irrelevant. At times I felt like I was watching a film made in 2001, which is worrying given that I recently watched Dad's Army (2016), set in 1944, which felt more of our time than Ab Fab. There were things I enjoyed though such as Robert Webb as Saffys mild mannered policeman partner, but part of me thinks that is because I haven't seen him in a film since Confetti (2006) and The Magicians (2007), and they were both train wrecks.

For honesty's sake I should note that it took me numerous seatings to get through this film which is a bad sign in itself. I tried really hard to like this film, but in the end its plot was just too awkward despite fine acting from all and a heavy dose of fan service and nostalgia. The BBC's recent sitcom modernisations of Keeping Up Appearances, Porridge and Are You Being Served among others have shown that some are going find it harder to rekindle the magic than others. Some were complete duds while other offered something different and interesting to the old formula. Absolutely Fabulous was always going to be a tough property to make into a film, and this attempt tried admirably and failed fabulously, sweetie darling.