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Reviewing the Movies of 2013, Part I: Saving Mr. Banks and Captain Phillips

Updated on March 1, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

2013 was truly a year of mixed blessings for the Walt Disney Company. Frozen is fast becoming one of their biggest earners ever, and is easily their most buzzed-about CG film not affiliated with Pixar Studios. Their Marvel offerings, Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3, easily trounced the competition (The Wolverine, Kick-Ass 2). However, The Lone Ranger was, for all intents and purposes, an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions (a shame, since it really wasn't all that bad). Somewhere in between lies Saving Mr. Banks, a remarkably charming film wholly unlike anything we expect from Disney, and yet warmly familiar all the same. This film went into the awards season surrounded by loud and incredibly warm praise for Emma Thompson's prickly performance as demanding Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, and almost as much for Tom Hanks' charming turn as the man who hounded her for twenty years to get the rights to the story, Walt Disney. Then the Oscar nominations were announced, and... pfft! One nod, for Thomas Newman's whimsical score. I have to say, I really think Mrs. Thompson got robbed, and one could easily make a case for Mr. Hanks as well. Anyway, on to the review.

Saving Mr. Banks is very much an entry in an unusual subgenre of films that I, as a movie geek, tend to very much enjoy--a look at the making of another film. In this case, the film focuses on the efforts of movie mogul Walt Disney to secure the rights to make a film out of P.L. Travers' beloved but increasingly forgotten books about governess Mary Poppins; it seems that a twenty-year-old promise to his daughters to make the film has driven Mr. Disney (oops, sorry, "Walt") to pursue Miss Travers relentlessly, despite her having made it abundantly clear from day one that she was--not to put too fine a point on it--NOT INTERESTED. However, due partly to the machinations of her agent, and also her reluctant realization that the revenue stream from her books has dried up, Miss Travers VERY reluctantly agrees to accept an invitation from Mr. Disney to come out to California, where he hopes to finally win her approval while she intends to tell him "No" face-to-face. Once there, she meets a friendly driver (a charming Paul Giamatti), the writers behind the film (played with verve by Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), and of course, the big man himself, Walt Disney. She also starts having flashbacks to her childhood in Australia, with her whimsical and not-entirely-there father (Colin Farrell, in one of his best roles). It is these flashbacks in particular which startled me, since they contain subject matter that the Walt Disney Company has often shied away from in its offerings, particularly her father's alcoholism. As to Travers herself, she is prickly, uptight, and quick to dish out criticism, and she is incredibly unlikeable at first. However, as she learns to bend a bit (and we learn more about her), she becomes sympathetic and--ultimately--rather likeable. Disney himself comes across as quite charming and sympathetic--if there is any complaint I can make about Tom Hanks' excellent work here it is that this portrayal of Walt Disney, from the company he founded, must be taken with a grain of salt. Colin Farrell and young Annie Rose Buckley (who played Helen Goff, the young "P.L. Travers") also got pretty meaty roles, and they acquit themselves nicely; the other roles were all decidedly less fleshed-out, but well-performed, particularly Paul Giamatti's Ralph and Jason Schwartzman's Richard Sherman. The film made great use of the music and even footage of the film Mary Poppins, and Thomas Newman's score WAS excellent (though I am once again left wondering WHO decides how original a score is, given the fine use of "Chim Chim Cher-ee" herein). Overall, this was a charming and rather heartwarming film, and one which I will certainly look forward to adding to my collection.

Captain Phillips

And now we have the OTHER Tom Hanks film of 2013, a gripping thriller from Paul Greengrass that is also based on true events but otherwise shares precious little in common with Saving Mr. Banks. Captain Phillips is based on the 2009 hijacking of the American freighter MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, and takes much of its plot and details from a book co-authored by the Captain of the ship, Richard Phillips. It is, in many ways, a typical Greengrass film--slightly shaky hand-held camera, no-nonsense production design, and fine to excellent acting across the board. The film can be largely split into three acts: the introduction, in which we see a bit of Phillips' day-to-day life, and learn a bit about what his job entails before the ship even leaves port, as well as a glimpse into the lives of the coastal Somali who have taken to piracy due to lack of clear options; the ship at sea, including the hijacking, in which a sort of cat-and-mouse game plays out in several different iterations until...; the pirates leave the ship, taking Phillips hostage. Frankly, that last part gets particularly intense. Overall, I thought this was an excellent film. It wasn't truly the best film of the year, but it seems to have deserved a spot among the nominees in that category; it also could be argued that most of its other five nods were deserved, though most of them would not have made the cut on my personal list for the year. This includes the Best Supporting Actor nod for first-time movie actor Barkhad Abdi, whose no-nonsense portrayal of pirate Muse was truly excellent, but not quite on par with most of his fellow nominees (better than Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street, though). Ironically, the most clearly-deserved nod eluded this one--this is one of Tom Hanks' best roles in years, and likely will join Road to Perdition and Charlie Wilson's War as a film for which I genuinely believe he was robbed. That he went into the awards season a potential DOUBLE-nominee makes the sting even worse. I should also single out the equally-overlooked (and in some people's minds equally-snubbed) direction from Paul Greengrass--he does a great job here, truly. Anyway, this film will keep you pretty close to the edge of your seat, and is an excellent window into a corner of the world most of us tend to ignore; you will be entertained, and learn something while you're at it.

Final Analysis

Saving Mr. Banks

8/10: Oscar-worthy for Best Actress (Emma Thompson), Supporting Actor (Tom Hanks, debatably only supporting), Original Screenplay, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Effects Editing, Film Editing and Original Score; nominated for Best Original Score.

Captain Phillips

8.5/10: Oscar-worthy for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Tom Hanks), Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi), Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Makeup, Sound Mixing, Sound Effects Editing and Film Editing; nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi), Adapted Screenplay, Sound Mixing, Sound Effects Editing and Film Editing.

As per usual, I welcome your comments. Do you feel that these films were properly given their due in this year's awards race, or do you think they got overlooked or even robbed?


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