“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

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“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

I have never been a diehard fan of Southern Gothic fiction. Not really. But there have been some fictional works in that genre that have appealed to me. In fact, if you ask me, I could come up with a pretty good list of Southern Gothic movie and television productions that I have always enjoyed. 

Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, “The Beguiled” aka “A Painted Devil” first came to my attention when I saw the 1971 movie adaptation of the novel years ago. I became an instant fan of the film and read Cullinan’s novel. Then I became a fan of the novel. So when I heard that director Sofia Coppola planned to direct her own film adaptation, I looked forward to it. One, I liked the story. Two, I am a sucker for a good Civil War film, being an amateur historian and movie nut. And I had also learned Coppola had won the Palme d’Or Best Director award (the second woman to do so) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for this film.

Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation had made a few changes to Cullinan’s novel. One, he and the movie’s screenwriters made the story’s leading man an American of Irish descent, instead of the Irish immigrant portrayed in the novel. The story was set in 1863 Mississippi, during the Vicksburg Campaign. And two of the novels’ characters – the 17 year-old biracial Edwina Morrow and the nearly middle-aged Miss Harriet Farnsworth – were merged into a young white schoolteacher named Edwina Dabney. Sofia Coppola’s movie maintained the novel’s portrayal of leading man as an Irish immigrant and Cullinan’s setting – 1864 Virginia, during the Civil War’s Overland Campaign. However, Coppola’s movie followed Siegel’s example by merging the Edwina Morrow and Harriet Farnsworth characters into a schoolteacher.

“THE BEGUILED” began in the woods, near the Farnsworth Seminary, an all girls’ school in 1864 Virginia. When one of its students, a thirteen year-old girl named Amy is searching the woods for mushrooms to pick, she comes across a wounded Union Army soldier named Corporal John McBurney. He had been wounded in the leg before deserting the battlefield. Amy brings McBurney to the school where he falls unconscious. The school’s headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth, decides to heal the corporal’s wounded leg before turning him over to the Confederate Army as a prisoner. But Miss Farnsworth, Amy and the other females inside the school become “charmed” by the Irish-born soldier, as he slowly heals from his wounds. Amy, another student named Alicia and the school’s remaining teacher, Edwina Morrow, become especially captivated by McBurney’s charm. However, McBurney’s presence in the school generate a good deal of jealousy between the young students and the two women before an unexpected incident spirals the entire situation out of control.

Like the 1966 novel and its 1971 adaptation, “THE BEGUILED” took me by surprise in many ways. One of the film’s most noteworthy aspects was Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography. I have never seen any of his previous film work. But I must admit that his photography did an excellent job in creating this film’s Old South atmosphere:

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Le Sourd’s cinematography definitely helped setting up the film’s atmosphere, especially due to the lack of any solid score. I also have to give points to Stacey Battat for creating costumes designs indicative to the Civil War period – especially for women and girls. Mind you, I thought some of the costumes may have been slightly anachronistic.

I also cannot deny that “THE BEGUILED” featured some strong performances from the cast. Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst were top-notched, as usual. Kidman did a fine job portraying the no-nonsense and pragmatic headmistress, Martha Farnsworth, who seemed to have little problems with controlling those around her . . . including her only schoolteacher. Despite Martha Farnsworth being her second role as a Southerner (I think), I was surprised that Kidman’s Southern accent wavered a bit. Although Farrell is at least twenty years older than the literary John McBurney, he was free to portray the character as was described in Cullinan’s novel – an Irish immigrant recently recruited into the Union Army upon his arrival in the United States. However, his McBurney’s charm seemed to have more of an edge of desperation, due to his circumstances. And Kirsten Dunst gave a very competent performance as the emotionally repressed Edwina Morrow, a young schoolteacher who finds herself drawn to the handsome McBurney, despite her efforts to ignore him. Dunst also did a competent job in not only conveying Edwina’s growing attraction to McBurney, but also her wariness of being under Miss Farnsworth’s control.

The movie could also boast some surprisingly excellent performances from the younger cast members, who portrayed the school’s students. Elle Fanning gave a decent performance as the adolescent Alicia, whose attraction to McBurney partly stems from her growing awareness of her sexuality. However, there were moments when it seemed she was losing some control of the character. Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, and Emma Howard also gave very competent performances. But I was especially impressed by Addison Riecke’s portrayal of young Marie, an impish student who borrowed Edwina’s earrings for the dinner party with McBurney and managed to manipulatively avoid returning them to the schoolteacher. Excellent performance by the young actress.

Although “THE BEGUILED” possessed some admirable traits, overall I was not that impressed by the film. Frankly, I am at a loss over how Coppola managed to win such a prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps the voters had no idea that the narrative for this film is basically a Southern Gothic tale? Who knows? Coppola had erased so much from Cullinan’s story.

One aspect of “THE BEGUILED” that came to my attention was the lack of background for most of the characters at the Farnsworth Seminary. Now, unless my memory is failing me, the movie only revealed the fact that Edwina Morrow had a father living in Richmond. I believe the movie also touched upon the wartime fate of Amelia’s brothers. I believe. To be honest, I am not that certain. Coppola deleted Martha Farnsworth’s family history – especially her incestuous relationship with her brother. After all, one of the reasons Miss Farnsworth eventually opened up to McBurney was his resemblance to this “much loved” brother. Although the film revealed the existence of Edwina’s father, the screenplay never touched upon his role as a war profiteer or his lack of concern toward his daughter. The movie revealed nothing about Alicia’s family background – especially her prostitute mother who had abandoned her at the seminary. The movie revealed nothing about the remaining students’ backgrounds. McBurney’s discoveries and knowledge of their personal histories played a role in the events that occurred in the movie’s third act. Without the revelations of the female characters’ backgrounds, Coppola resorted to whitewashing the reasons behind their actions in the film’s third act.

Coppola claimed that she wanted “THE BEGUILED” to give a “voice” to the story’s female characters. Why did she make that claim? Each chapter in Cullinan’s 1966 novel was written from the viewpoints of a major female character and NOT . . . from Corporal McBurney’s point of view. Although the 1971 film featured scenes from McBurney’s point of view, it also did the same for the female characters. Also, McBurney was the only major character who lacked an inner monologue. Since the novel and the 1971 film featured the females’ points of view, what on earth was Coppola’s goal? To portray her female characters as ideal as possible? I noticed that neither anger or jealousy played a role in the violence that marked the film’s third act.

Alicia slept with McBurney because she was an adolescent “exploring her growing sexuality”. Not once did Coppola’s screenplay hint how her past experiences with her prostitute mother may have influenced her behavior with the opposite sex. By removing Martha Farnsworth’s incestuous history with her late brother – the one whom McBurney resembled, Coppola removed any possibility of Miss Farnsworth being driven by anger and jealousy over his tryst with Alicia to amputate his leg. By having McBurney behave like a borderline stalker in one scene following his amputation, Coppola justified the females’ decision to kill him with poisonous mushrooms. It seemed as if Coppola’s idea of feminist sensibilities is to portray her female characters with as little flaws as possible. And this led to her portraying the female characters’ decisions in the film’s last hour to be marred by a lack of moral ambiguity of any kind. This decision on Coppola’s part strikes me as cowardly.

If Coppola’s decision to portray her females characters with as little ambiguity as possible was bad enough, she also eliminated the school’s remaining slave, an African-American woman named Matilda (“Mattie”). Coppola gave a reason for this decision in the following statement:

“I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”

What depiction was she referring to? Cullinan’s portrayal of Mattie in the 1966 novel? The only character who saw through McBurney’s charming bullshit and wanted nothing to do with him? Or Hallie (who was renamed) from the 1971 film, who also saw through his charm, despite their occasional bouts of flirting. I had no problems with either Cullinan or Siegel’s depictions of the character. Naturally, some movie reviewers supported Coppola’s decision, including one reviewer from the ALLIANCE OF WOMEN FILM JOURNALIST, who stated:

“The film has been criticized for its lack of comment on the Civil War or slavery. The war is a backdrop, the circumstance that isolated than part of the story. Unlike the 1966 novel and the 1971 movie, there are no African American characters in this film, explained by a single line says they left. Because it is set in the Civil War, it is a valid point but addressing the issue would have taken the focus off the women’s issues that are Coppola’s main point.”

Apparently, Coppola and her supporters do not regard women of color as a part of “women’s issues”. Or perhaps they feel that non-white women are not . . . women. White feminism at its height. If Coppola felt uncomfortable at the idea in exploring a non-white character, why on earth did she adapt Cullinan’s novel in the first place?

The lack of Mattie/Hallie in Coppola’s adaptation raised other problems. One, the slave woman’s presence allowed both Cullinan and Siegel to portray the school’s other occupants with a level of ambiguity that Coppola lacked the guts to face. I wonder if Mattie’s presence would have robbed Coppola the opportunity to explore her fantasies regarding Southern white women. Mattie was one of two characters who knew why Martha Farnsworth was willing to amputate McBurney’s leg in the novel. In Don Siegel’s movie, she was the only one. This knowledge led to an interesting scene between the two women in both the novel and the 1971 film. In both the novel and the Siegel film, Mattie/Hallie was the person who actually prepared the poisoned mushrooms for McBurney . . . and she did it out of her own anger toward the Union soldier. Without the slave woman, who prepared the mushrooms in this film? Edwina Morrow, who had been serving as the establishment’s cook, following the slaves’ departure? At the time, she was busy enjoying lustful relations with McBurney. Miss Farnsworth? Did she know how to cook? The movie never established this.

“BEGUILED” did feature scenes of the students and the two teachers engaged in household and garden duties. First of all, none of them looked as if they knew what they were doing. Second of all, since they were such abysmal housekeepers, how did they managed to keep their clothing looking so pristine? Without the benefit of servants?

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Judging from the costumes worn in the above image, Dunst and her younger co-stars do not look as if they are dressed for household duties. Instead, they seemed to be dressed for Sunday church services in the mid 19th century, an afternoon tea party or a picnic. At least other Civil War movie and television productions have their Southern female characters dressed more realistically . . . even the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. I find it difficult to believe that Miss Farnsworth and her fellow inhabitants were capable of keeping their daily clothes looking so pristine – with or without a servant. All of the look like figures in some Southern belle fantasy.

For me, there were other problems in Coppola’s adaptation. I had a problem with her characterization of McBurney. Both the novel and the 1971 presented the character as something of a snake-tongued charmer. Farrell’s interpretation seemed to present McBurney more as an obsequious man who resorts to slavish politeness, instead of charm, to win over the school’s inhabitants. Farrell had the skill to convey McBurney’s charm, but it seemed as if Coppola had somehow held him back. Worse, the movie barely touched upon the Civil War, despite the presence of a Union soldier. I also did not understand why Coppola maintained the character of Emily Stevenson, and yet transferred Emily’s “pro-Confederate” personality to a character created for the film. Why did she do that? Why did she film this movie in Louisiana? Coppola retained the setting from the novel – Virginia 1864. Yet, she shot the film in the Deep South – a region that looked nothing like Virginia. Coppola could have changed the setting to the Deep South or shoot the film in the Upper South. She did neither. I also need to rephrase my comments regarding Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography. Although I admired his exterior shots in the film, I cannot say the same about his interior shots. Quite frankly, I could barely see a damn thing, even when a scene was set during the daytime.

I am still at a loss on how Sofia Coppola thought she could improve both Thomas Cullinan’s novel and Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation. Granted, the cast – including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst – gave competent performances. But Coppola stripped away so much from this story. She stripped away a lot of the characters’ ambiguity. She stripped away an important character who had the misfortune – at least in the director’s eyes – to be an African-American. Which meant that she stripped away the topic of slavery and to a certain extent, even the war itself. In the end, “THE BEGUILED” seemed like a Southern Gothic tale with barely any life. It struck me as a shell of Cullinan’s novel and Siegel’s own adaptation. After watching this film, I found myself asking why Coppola felt she could adapt the 1966 novel in the first place, considering that she seemed incapable of exploring it with any semblance of real honesty.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set During the 1600s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the 1600s: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET DURING THE 1600s

1. “The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge” (1974) – Richard Lester directed this adaptation of the second half of Alexandre Dumas père‘s 1844 novel, “The Three Musketeers”. The movie starred Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway.

2. “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1977) – Richard Chamberlain portrayed duel roles in this loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas père‘s 1847-50 novel, “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later”. Directed by Mike Newell, the movie co-starred Jenny Agutter, Patrick McGoohan and Ralph Richardson.

3. “The Three Musketeers” (1973) – Richard Lester directed this adaptation of the first half of Alexandre Dumas père‘s 1844 novel, “The Three Musketeers”. The movie starred Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway.

4. “Adventures of Don Juan” (1948) – Errol Flynn starred in this swashbuckling movie as the infamous Spanish nobleman and fencing master for King Philip III and Queen Margaret of Spain’s court, who comes to the aid of the couple when another nobleman plots to steal the throne from them. Vincent Sherman directed.

5. “The New World” (2005) – Terrence Malick wrote and directed this cinematic look at the founding of the Jamestown, Virginia settlement. The movie starred Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale.

6. The Three Musketeers” (1948) – George Sidney directed this adaptation of Alexandre Dumas père‘s 1844 novel. The movie starred Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Lana Turner and June Allyson.

7. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (2005) – Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson starred in this adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 historical novel about a Dutch housemaid; her employer, painter Johannes Vermeer; and the creation of his famous 1665 painting. Peter Webber directed.

8. “The Wicked Lady” (1945) – Margaret Lockwood starred in this adaptation of Magdalen King-Hall’s 1945 novel, “Life And Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton”. Directed by Leslie Arliss, the movie co-starred James Mason and Patricia Roc.

9. “Forever Amber” (1947) – Otto Preminger directed this adaptation of Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 novel about the rise of a 17th century English orphan. Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde starred.

10. “The Crucible” (1996) – Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder starred in this adaptation of Arthur Miller’s 1953 stage play about the Salem Witch Trials. The movie was directed by Nicholas Hytner.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” (2016) Review

 

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” (2016) Review

After the 2011 movie “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART II” hit the movie theaters, I had assumed that would be the last film set in J.K. Rowling’s “wizarding world of Harry Potter”. Her 2007 novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was her last one in a series of seven books. But . . . lo and behold, Warner Brothers Studios, who had released the films based upon her novel, found a way to continue the series. The end result was the release of the recent film, “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” is based upon a 2001 book written by Rowling. Somewhat. First of all, the book is not a novel, but a “scholarly” book about the magical creatures found in the Harry Potter universe. Second of all, the book was published under the fictional pen name of one Newt Scamander. What Rowlings, who served as the film’s screenwriter, did was used the Newt Scamander pen name and transformed him into the movie’s main character. In the film, British wizard and “magizoologist” Newt Scamander arrives by boat to New York City in the fall of 1926. Newt has arrived in the United States to release a magical creature called the Thunderbird in the Arizona desert. While listening to a sidewalk speech given by a non-magical (No-Maj) fanatic named Mary Lou Barebone, one of his charges – a creature called Nifler escapes from his magically expanded suitcase, which contains other magical creatures. Even worse, he meets No-Maj cannery worker and aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski, and they accidentally swap suitcases. As Newt struggles to regain possession of his suitcase, Nifler and other magical creatures that have managed to escape; he runs afoul of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), thanks to a demoted auror named Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, eager to regain her position. Between his search for his missing magical creatures, regaining his suitcase from Jacob Kowalski and the MACUSA; Newt has to deal with a creature called the Obscurus, which uses children as host bodies and is causing destruction around Manhattan and not attract the attention of Ms. Barebone and her abused adopted children – including the adolescent Credence Barebone.

When I first saw “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, I was surprised to discover that J.K. Rowling was the movie’s sole screenwriter. I found this especially surprising, considering that one of the movie’s producers happened to be Steve Kloves, who had served as screenwriter for seven of the eight “HARRY POTTER” movies. And I must say that I thought she did a pretty damn good job. At first, I thought Rowling had created a disjointed tale. The movie seemed to possess at least three separate plot lines:

*Newt’s search for the missing creatures in his possession

*The Obscurus’ destruction

*Mary Lou Barebone’s anti-magic campaign

But Tina Goldstein finally exposed Newt’s magical suitcase to MACUSA, Newt’s plot line became connected to the story arc regarding the Obscurus. And both story arcs became connected to Mrs. Barebone’s anti-magic campaign when audiences learned that MACUSA Director of Magical Security Percival Graves had recruited Credence to help him locate the child who might be the Obscurus. Seeing how these individual story arcs formed to become part of one main narrative reminded me of the 2008 World War II Spike Lee drama, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. Speaking of World War II, I was happily surprised to learn that a major plot twist near the end of “FANTASTIC BEASTS” promises to lead to the featured a major plot twist that will serve as part of this new series’ main narrative about the upcoming Global wizarding war that will play out during the rise of fascism and the war. How clever of Rowling.

What else did I like about the movie? Frankly, the production designs. I was very impressed by Stuart Craig and James Hambidge’s re-creation of 1926 Manhattan. For me, among their best work proved to be their creation of a 1920s magical speakeasy operated by a goblin gangster named Gnarlack. Nor am I surprised that the pair managed to earn an Oscar nomination for their work. I was also impressed by Colleen Atwood’s costume designs for the film. One, she did an excellent job in re-creating the fashion of the mid-1920s. More importantly, Atwood put an interesting fantasy twist for the costumes worn by the magical characters. For some reason, the clothes worn by the American wizarding community of the 1920s seemed to be more tasteful and elegant than those worn by the British wizarding community of the late 20th/early 21st century. And guess what? Ms. Atwood also earned an Oscar nomination for her work. The only problem I had with the movie’s technical effects was Philippe Rousselot’s photography. Mind you, I had no problems with the film’s epic sweep. But I did not particularly care for the photography’s brown tint – a color that I personally found unnecessary and rather disappointing. I realize that the story is set during the middle of autumn. But was it really necessary to photograph the movie with an unflattering brown tint to indicate the time of the year?

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Eddie Redmayne did a marvelous job in portraying the introverted wizard Newt Scamander, who seemed to have an easier job of interacting with the creatures in his care instead of his fellow humans. I also noticed that in one hilarious scene, which involved Newt’s attempt to recapture an African Erumpent at the city zoo, Redmayne displayed a talent for physical comedy by engaging with a “mating dance” with the animal. Katherine Waterston, whom I last saw in the 2015 drama “STEVE JOBS”, gave a very intense, yet engaging performance as the demoted auror, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein. I was impressed by how Waterston combined two aspects of Tina’s personality – her driving ambition, which has come close to undermining her strong penchant for decency on a few occasions. Dan Fogler gave a very entertaining and funny performance as the No-Maj cannery worker and wannabe baker, Jacob Kowalski. Not only did I find his performance very funny, he also managed to create a strong screen chemistry with both Eddie Redmayne and Alison Sudol, who portrayed Tina’s sister Quennie Goldstein. Sudol was an absolute delight as the carefree witch, who is not only proficient in Legilimens, but who also falls in love with Jacob.

I never thought I would see Colin Farrell in a “HARRY POTTER” film. To be honest, he never struck me as the type. But he seemed to fit quite well in his excellent portrayal of the ruthless and intense Auror and Director of Magical Security for MACUSA, Percival Graves. I was especially impressed with his performance in scenes that featured Graves’ interactions with Credence Barebone – scenes that seemed to hint some mild form of erotic manipulation. Speaking of Mr. Barebone, Ezra Miller was in fine form as the emotionally repressed Credence. The ironic thing about Miller’s performance is that at first, his character seemed slightly creepy. In fact, one could label his Credence a “young American Severus Snape with a bad haircut and no wit”. Thanks to Rowling’s screenplay and Miller’s performance, I came away with a portrait of a sad and abused young man, who hand channeled his anger at those who exploit him via magic.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” marked the first time in which I can recall a magical person of color as a major supporting role – namely the MACUSA’s elegant president Seraphina Picquery, portrayed by Carmen Ejogo. Unlike characters such as Dean Thomas or Kingsley Shacklebolt, President Picquery was not simply allowed to speak a few lines before being swept to the sidelines or off screen. Audiences received more than a glimpse of the glamorous Seraphina. I was also happy to discover that President Picquery was not portrayed as some one-dimensional character without any depth. Thanks to Ejogo’s skillful performance, she portrayed the MACUSA as a pragmatic and ruthless woman who could be quite ambiguous in her efforts to maintain order within the American wizarding community. I found myself equally impressed by Samantha Morton’s portrayal of the religious fanatic, Mary Lou Barebone. What really impressed me about Morton’s performance is that she did not resort to excessive dramatics to convey Mrs. Barebone’s fanatical . . . and abusive personality. Morton gave a subtle and intense performance that conveyed a portrait of a rather frightening woman – especially one who was not magical. The movie also featured solid performances from Jon Voight, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Faith Wood-Blagrove and Ron Perlman’s voice. The movie also featured a surprise cameo appearance from Johnny Depp, whose character will play an important role in the sequel films that will follow this one.

I find it ironic that when I had first learned about the plans for “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, I was against it. I thought J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers Studio had taken the Harry Potter franchise as far as it could go after seven novels and eight films. And yet . . . after seeing this film, I immediately fell in love with it. The movie had a few flaws. But I ended up enjoying it, thanks to the complex plot written by Rowling, David Yates’ solid direction, the visual effects and the first-rate cast led by Eddie Redmayne. And now . . . I look forward to seeing more films about the different wizarding communities during the early 20th century.

 

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1960s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1960s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1960s

1 - Saving Mr. Banks

1. “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013) – Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks starred in this superb biopic about the struggles between author P.L. Travers and producer Walt Disney over the film rights for the “Mary Poppins” stories. John Lee Hancock directed.

 

2 - That Thing You Do

2. “That Thing You Do!” (1996) – Tom Hanks directed and starred in this very entertaining look at the rise and fall of a “one-hit wonder” rock band in the mid 1960s. Tom Everett Scott and Liv Tyler co-starred. The movie earned a Best Song Oscar nomination.

 

3 - The Butler

3. “The Butler” (2013) – Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey starred in this excellent historical drama about a butler’s experiences working at the White House and with his family over a period of decades. Lee Daniels directed.

 

4 - Operation Dumbo Drop

4. “Operation Dumbo Drop” (1995) – Simon Wincer directed this comedic and entertaining adaptation of U.S. Army Major Jim Morris’ Vietnam War experiences regarding the transportation of an elephant to a local South Vietnamese village that helps American forces monitor Viet Cong activity. Ray Liotta and Danny Glover starred.

 

5 - Infamous

5. “Infamous” (2006) – Douglas McGrath wrote and directed this excellent movie about Truman Capote’s research for his 1966 book, “In Cold Blood”. Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock and Daniel Craig starred.

 

6 - Brokeback Mountain

6. “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) – Oscar winner Ang Lee directed this marvelous adaptation of Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story about the twenty-year love affair between two cowboys that began in the 1960s. Oscar nominees Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal starred.

 

7 - The Right Stuff

7. “The Right Stuff” (1983) – Philip Kaufman wrote and directed this fascinating adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about NASA’s Mercury program during the early 1960s. The Oscar nominated movie starred Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris and Sam Shepard.

 

8 - Dreamgirls

8. “Dreamgirls” (2006) – Bill Condon directed this first-rate adaptation of the 1981 Broadway play about the evolution of American Rhythm and Blues through the eyes of a female singing group from the mid 20th century. Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and Oscar nominee Eddie Murphy starred.

 

9 - Capote

9. “Capote” (2005) – Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in the other biopic about Truman Capote’s research for his 1966 book, “In Cold Blood”. The movie was directed by Bennett Miller and written by Oscar nominee Dan Futterman.

 

10 - SHAG

10. “SHAG” (1989) – Phoebe Cates, Page Hannah, Bridget Fonda and Annabeth Gish starred in this entertaining comedy about four teenage girlfriends, who escape from their parents for a few days in 1963 for an adventure in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina during Spring Break. Zelda Barron directed.

“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

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“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

When I first saw the trailer for the recent biopic, “SAVING MR. BANKS”, I knew I would like it. First of all, the movie was about the development of one of my favorite movies of all time, the 1964 musical “MARY POPPINS”. And two, it featured some very humorous moments that I personally found appealing. Not long after the movie first hit the theaters, I rushed to see it as soon as I possibly could.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, “SAVING MR. BANKS” told the story of “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers‘ two-week stay in 1961 Los Angeles, while filmmaker Walt Disney attempts to obtain from her, the official screen rights to her novels. The development of “SAVING MR. BANKS” began when Australian filmmaker Ian Collie produced a documentary on Travers back in 2002. He saw a potential biopic and convinced Essential Media and Entertainment to develop a feature film with Sue Smith as screenwriter. The project attracted the attention of producer Alison Owen, who subsequently hired Kelly Marcel to co-write the screenplay with Smith. Marcel removed a subplot involving Travers and her son, and divided the story into a two-part narrative – the creative conflict between Travers and Disney, and her dealings with her childhood issues. Because Marcel’s version featured certain intellectual property rights that belonged to the he Walt Disney Company, Owen approached Corky Hale, who informed former Disney composer, Richard M. Sherman of the script. Sherman supported Marcel’s script. Meanwhile, the Disney Studios learned of the script, as well. Instead of purchasing the script in order to shut down the production, they agree to co-produce the movie, allowing Kelly Marcel access to more material regarding the production of “MARY POPPINS”. The Disney Studios approached Tom Hanks for the role of Walt Disney, who accepted. When they failed to secure Meryl Streep for the role of P.L. Travers, they turned to Emma Thompson, who accepted it.

Through the urging of her literary agent, a financially struggling P.L. Travers finally decides to leave her London home, and agreed to meet and negotiate with Walt Disney in Los Angeles over the film rights to her “Mary Poppins” stories, after twenty years. While in Los Angeles, Travers express disgust over what she regards as the city’s unreality and the naivety and overbearing friendliness of its inhabitants like her assigned limousine driver, Ralph. At the Disney Studios in Burbank, Travers collaborates with the creative team assigned to develop the movie – screenwriter/artist
Don DaGradi, Richard and Robert Sherman. She finds their casual manner and their handling of the adaptation of her novels distasteful. And Travers is also put off by Disney’s jocular and familiar personality. She pretty much remains unfriendly toward her new acquaintances and a new set of problems arise between her and the studio. Her collaboration with the Disney Studios also reveals painful memories of her childhood in 1906-07 Australia and memories of her charismatic father, Travers Goff, who was losing a battle against alcoholism; and her mother Margaret Goff, who nearly committed suicide, due to her inability to control Goff’s heaving drinking.

Hollywood politics can be mind-boggling. I learned this valuable lessons, following the reactions to not only the recent historical drama, “THE BUTLER”, but also the reactions to “SAVING MR. BANKS”. The first movie came under fire by conservatives for its historical inaccuracies, when President Ronald Reagan’s son accused that movie of a false portrait of his father. Some four-and-a-half months later, many feminists accused the Disney Studios of not only damaging P.L. Travers’ reputation, but also of historical inaccuracies. Actress Meryl Streep, who had been an earlier candidate for the role of Travers, added her two cents by openly accused Walt Disney of being a bigot on so many levels, while presenting an acting award to Emma Thompson. Since political scandal brought “SAVING MR. BANKS” under heavy criticism for historical accuracy or lack of, I figure I might as well discuss the matter.

Was the movie historically accurate in its portrayal of P.L. Travers? Many criticized the movie’s failure to delve into the author’s bisexuality and relationship with her adopted son. What they failed to realize was that Travers’ sex life and adopted son had nothing to do with her creation of “Mary Poppins” or her dealings with Disney. The movie they wanted was the movie written by Sue Smith. And Alison Owen had put the kibbosh on those storylines long before the Disney Studios got involved. Disney did meet with Travers at her London home. Only he did so in 1959, not 1961. But the movie was accurate about him gaining the movie rights after her 1961 visit. Disney’s 1959 London trip only resulted in his acquiring an option – which gave the filmmaker a certain period of time to acquire the actual film rights. However, Travers’ family, the Goffs, moved to Allora, Queensland in 1905, not 1906 as the movie had suggested.

Was Travers that difficult, as suggested in the movie? I honestly have no idea. Richard Sherman made it clear that he found her difficult to like. I have read somewhere that Travers had managed to alienate both her adopted son and her grandchildren by the time of her death in 1996. And there are also . . . the audio tapes that recaptured Travers’ sessions with Don Di Gradi and the Sherman Brothers in 1961. Tapes that she had requested. She did not come off well in those tapes. Critics also claimed that the movie idealized Disney. Here, I have to keep myself from laughing. Granted, the movie and actor Tom Hanks portrayed the “Disney charm” at its extreme. But the movie also made it clear that Disney was utilizing his charm to convince Travers to sign over the movie rights. And quite frankly, his charm came off as somewhat overbearing and manipulative in some scenes. I perfectly understood Travers’ reaction to the sight of Disney stuffed animals, balloons and fruit baskets in her hotel room. And I certainly sympathize with her reaction to being dragged to Disneyland against her will. I have loved the theme park since I was a kid. But if I had been in Travers’ shoes, I would have been pissed at being dragged to some location against my will.

When the movie first flashed back to Travers’ Australian childhood, I had to suppress an annoyed sigh. I really was not interested in her childhood, despite what the movie’s title had indicated. But the more the movie delved into her childhood and made the connections to her creation of the “Mary Poppins” and the development of the 1964 movie, the more I realized that Kelly Marcel had written a brilliant screenplay. By paying close attention to the story during my second viewing of the movie, I noticed the connections between the tragic circumstances of Travers’ childhood, “Mary Poppins”and her 1961 Los Angeles visit. Some of the connections I made were the following:

*Travers’ aversion of Southern California weather, which must have reminded her of Australia and her childhood

*Her aversion to pears, which reminded her of Travers Goff’s death

*Her aversion to a Mr. Banks with facial hairs

*Her aversion to Mr. Banks’ cinematic personality

*Her aversion to the color red, which may have also reminded her of Mr. Goff’s death

*Her reaction to the Sherman Brothers’ song – “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank”, which brought back painful memories of an incident regarding her father at a local fair

*Her Aunt Ellie, whom she re-created as Mary Poppins

I also have to compliment the movie’s visual re-creation of both 1961 Southern California and Edwardian Queensland, Australia. Production designer Michael Corenblith had to re-create both periods in Travers’ life. And if I must be honest, he did an exceptional job – especially in the 1961 scenes. His work was ably supported by Lauren Polizzi’s colorful art direction, and Susan Benjamin’s set decorations. I also enjoyed Daniel Orlandi’s elegant and subtle costumes for the movie. I was amazed by his re-creation of both Edwardian and mid-20th century fashion, as seen in the images below:

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I found John Schwartzman’s photography very interesting . . . especially in the 1961 sequences. Unlike other productions that tend to re-create past Los Angeles in another part of the country (2011’s “MILDRED PIERCE”), “SAVING MR. BANKS” was shot entirely in Southern California. But what I found interesting about Schwartzman’s photography is that he utilized a good deal of close-up in those exterior scenes for Beverly Hills and Burbank in an effort to hide the changes that had occurred in the past 50 years. But as much as he tried, not even Schwartzman could hide the fact that the Fantasyland shown in the movie was the one that has existed since 1983. Mark Livolsi’s editing did a solid job in enabling Schwartzman to hide the changes of time for the Southern California exteriors. But I also have to commend Livolsi for his superb editing of one particular sequences – namely the juxtaposition of the 1961 scene featuring the Sherman Brothers’ performance of the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” song and the 1906 scene of the bank-sponsored fair in Allora. Thanks to Livolsi’s editing, John Lee Hancock’s excellent direction and Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Travers Goff, this sequence proved to be the most mind-blowing and unforgettable in the entire movie.

Since I had mentioned Colin Farrell, I might as well discuss the cast’s performances. Emma Thompson won the National Board of Review award for Best Actress for her superb portrayal of the very complex P.L. Travers. She did a superb job in capturing both the author’s bluntness, cultural snobishness and imagination. The movie and Thompson’s performance also made it perfectly clear that Travers was still haunted over her father’s death after so many decades. One would think Tom Hanks had an easier job in his portrayal of filmmaker Walt Disney. Superficially, I would agree. But Hanks did an excellent job in conveying some of the more annoying aspects of Disney’s character behind the charm – especially in his attempts to win over Travers. And two particular scenes, Hanks also captured Disney’s own private demons regarding the latter’s father. Colin Farrell gave one of the best performances of his career as Travers’ charming, yet alcoholic father, Travers Goff. I was especially impressed by his performance in the Allora Fair scene. Bradley Whitford was cast as Disney Studios animator/screenwriter Don DaGradi. He not did a first-rate job in portraying DaGradi’s enthusiasm as a Disney employee, but also in portraying how that enthusiasm nearly waned under the weight of Travers’ negative reactions to the project. Both Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak were cast as the songwriting brothers – Richard and Robert Sherman. And they both did excellent jobs in capturing the pair’s contrasting personalities. Schwartzman was deliciously all pep and enthusiasm as the extroverted and younger Richard. And yet, he very subtlely conveyed the younger Sherman’s anxieties in dealing with the difficult Travers. Novak struck me as very effective in his portrayal of the more introverted and intense Robert. And he was also very subtle in portraying the older Sherman’s own penchant for bluntness, especially in one scene in which the songwriter openly clashed with Travers. Ruth Wilson managed to give a very memorable performance as Travers’ long-suffering mother, Margaret Goff. She was especially impressive in one tense scene that featured Mrs. Goff’s suicide attempt. And Paul Giamatti was simply marvelous as Travers’ fictional limousine driver, Ralph. He managed to be both sweet and charming, without being saccharine. The movie also featured solid performances from Annie Rose Buckley, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson, Rachel Griffiths and Ronan Vibert.

I must admit that I still feel angry over how “SAVING MR. BANKS” was deprived from any Academy Award nominations, aside from one for Thomas Newman’s score. And if I must be brutally honest, I did not find his score particularly memorable. I was more impressed by John Lee Hancock’s direction, the movie’s visual styles, the performances from a superb cast led by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks; and especially the Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith screenplay. And considering how so much talent was overlooked by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts, I do not think I can take Hollywood’s politics seriously anymore. It seems a travesty that this superb film ended up as a victim of Hollywood’s flaky politics.