Saving Mr. Banks (2013) Review

Saving Mr Banks

7.5/10

A film about Walt Disney, produced via the Walt Disney Company, so I am sure it is full of saccharine notions about storytelling and imagination. And as is to be expected, the film opens up with a scene about a little girl making a house in the grass, and her father (Colin Farrell) goes on about princesses. The girl will grow up to become a writer, P.L. Travers, who is the author of the Mary Poppins books. This film’s whole self-aggrandizing purpose about Disney and storytelling is a handicap that it has to struggle against from the start. My only hope is that it has some good acting, some comedy and a solid story. Let’s have a look.

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) wrote her Mary Poppins books years ago and but right now (1961) she is quite bankrupt. She hasn’t written anything else either. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) wants to make a film about Poppins and so wants to obtain the rights from Mrs. Travers. Her agent desperately tries to convince her to sell those rights, but Mrs. Travers steadfastly refuses. Her Poppins stories are very personal to her and she doesn’t want some director to change them. After much hemming and hawing, Mrs. Travers agrees to travel to Los Angeles for 2 weeks (and 2 weeks only!) to meet with Mr. Disney.

What she finds there turns her world upside down. What we find there is quite a delightful movie.

We are alright in the acting department. Emma Thompson is great as the eccentric Mrs. Travers. Her eccentricity comes with a nice British flavor, which makes her totally out of place in warm and welcoming Los Angeles. She will not be taken in with any of that silly animation business, and Mary Poppins will definitely not be a musical. Preposterious! Tom Hanks meanwhile, dials his charm up to eleven as Mr. Disney and tries to melt the ice cube that is Mrs. Travers like a furnace. Mrs. Travers is a riddle that he wants to solve.

Saving Mr Banks2

We get part of that riddle in scenes about Mrs. Travers’ childhood, in which not everything is working out well for her family. Colin Farrell has a fine supporting role here, radiating that fatherly love like a warm bath. He talks as if he is in fact a character from a Poppins fantasy. Maybe that is why Mrs. Travers’ Mary Poppins stories are so personal for her. This film could be a companion piece to Finding Neverland (2004), in which Johnny Depp plays the equally mysterious J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, and Kate Winslet tries to solve that particular puzzle. Both movies have the same whimsical piano music.

You know how these stories go. The whole story structure instantly turns Mrs. Travers into a tragic figure. All the while we are waiting for something bad to happen in the flashbacks, and I really don’t like that feeling at all. And it all plays out in a rather predictable way and it does feel like a manipulative and drawn-out part of the story. I’m sorry to say that it is typical Disney tearjerker material and it is too standard of a story to really surprise you. You’ll just have to sigh and accept it as part and parcel of such tales. I’d rather have liked to see more of Emma Thompson and her little fights with Disney and his writers.

Emma Thompson is the best reason to watch this film. She delivers a performance that is in the end quite heartfelt and she puts a lot of emotion into this role. It is much more her film than it is about Walt Disney, even though there is this undercurrent in the story of Disney winning people over with his “magic”, which does feel put on too thickly. Still, a recommendation for a well-acted, lighthearted and eventually touching story.

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Wonder Woman (2017) compared to Man of Steel (2013).

Wonder Woman2

7.5/10 This is not so much a review but more a comparison with Man of Steel and some musings about their underlying themes.

It’s interesting how the story of Wonder Woman is almost an echo of Superman’s in Man of Steel. By laying these movies side by side it becomes clear how Wonder Woman succeeds much better at being a film, but still plays it a bit too safe.

These two heroes don’t really follow the standard monomyth hero structure of receiving powers and then helping the people they came from. Both heroes come from some kind of magical, heavenly place, but never really go back to Krypton or Themyscira to help their own people. Instead, they find themselves on Earth and have to figure out their role on this planet. But the similarities go deeper than that. Superman grows up with super powers and as a wide-eyed, naïve kid he tries to save people. In Man of Steel, his parents tell him that “this world does not owe you anything,” and that perhaps he shouldn’t be saving anyone. So he doesn’t, and works far away on some oil rig.

Diana of Themyscira, similarly wide-eyed, innocent and naïve, tries to save people, but the world is more complicated than that. Her mother tells her that “The world of men doesn’t deserve you, Diana” and they are all a bunch of sinners and she believes it in the end. But Superman then falls in love, and he tells Lois Lane that “your are my world” and then starts saving people because of love and out of some sense of duty or something. I don’t know, Man of Steel is rather vague about Superman’s intentions. Wonder Woman also falls in love and changes her perspective as well. She too now wants to save the world through love.

Wonder Woman1

Wonder Woman as a film succeeds much better than Man of Steel in showing the struggle that these two heroes go through in “finding themselves” and “figuring out their role in the world”. It just has a clearer story: Diana is thrown into World War I and that was a messed-up time and Belgium was hell on earth. No wonder that she has trouble aligning this with her child-like worldview of vanquishing evil. Superman never had that traumatizing moment; he just had ill-equipped parents. Diana’s simple ideas about fighting evil also have an innocent simplicity in their favor, that makes you want to cheer for her. This was also something that missed in Man of Steel’s Superman.

Wonder Woman too is full of religious symbolism. In effect, humanity has to prove itself worthy to these two messianic figures to be saved, and does so through love. It is no coincidence that the film’s action scenes take place at the front of WWI, relating directly to rumors of The Angels of Mons. English soldiers reported rumors of angels helping them at the front. The film Edge of Tomorrow also flirted with this idea, in which Emily Blunt’s character was named The Angel of Verdun.

This is a fundamental difference in the concept of a hero compared to the Marvel universe heroes. Wonder Woman and Superman are portrayed as saviors from another world and their mentality is something that we little humans should try to emulate, but they are here to judge you and save you. Compare this with a hero like Spiderman, a teenage kid who accidentally receives super powers. Spiderman is something for a teenage kid to project him-or herself into, because the hero is one of them.

Whether one approach to a superhero is better than the other depends on what speaks to you personally, I suppose. For me, I would have liked it more if her adversary, Ares, in the role of the devil, turned out to be absent, and that all the horrible weapons of WWI are the inventions of humanity itself because I do think that humans themselves are capable of coming up with horrible weapons all by themselves. If her search for the devil turned into a fruitless chase, that would have peeled another layer of innocence from her eyes, and would have made her internal struggle more pronounced. This would also have made Diana more lost, and more human. In short, I think the film did not went far enough in peeling illusions from Diana’s eyes and could have made a stronger point. The final battle with evil was full of lightning and destruction, but the writers played it just a bit too safe this way.

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Alastair Reynolds – Chasm City (2001) Review

Chasm City

8/10

In the early 00s, Alastair Reynolds must have been scribbling furiously, gripped in the fever of imagination. Within a few years, he cranked out a couple of 700+ page tomes that formed the Revelation Space series, establishing him as one of the great British turn-of-the-century space opera writers. I read Revelation Space (2000) with great interest and then immediately skipped over Chasm City (2001) because it was set decades before the first novel and only loosely related to it. So, while I was enjoying the third book, Redemption Ark (2002), the Internet convinced me that I was dumb and an idiot, because Chasm City might be the best of series, if not of Reynolds’ career. So it was said.

It took me great pains to obtain this book, for after seeing it laying in bookstores for many years and walking right past it, it was suddenly gone. The cashier told me that the store moves on, and 2001 was ages ago in publisher land. Yet, a week later I passed by the store again and saw that they put an old, dusty, light-bleached copy on the shelves that they must have dug up somewhere.

For a story like Chasm City, a bleached, tattered cover is perfect. Reading a book starts before opening the first page. For it is a tale full of darkness and lost glory; full of violence and vengeance. Reynolds’ universe has a cosmic horror to it, in which human society tries to thrive in the immensity of space, but the long travel distances between planets make every society an island and cause people to lose their past or their memories, setting them adrift mentally and physically. Alien influences wreak havoc. The city – Chasm City – lost its great future and tries to build a new one from the ruins. The setting is perfect for a noir tale, starring assassins, organized crime, immoral aristocracy and lost legends.

Main character is Tanner Mirabel (whose name I don’t like at all) who has no moral compass, and identifying with him doesn’t come easy. The plot concerns multiple people seeking vengeance which places them squarely against each other, but neither side is commendable. Together with the themes of memory loss, the story is much more about building up a new identity out of broken parts. Tanner is for example infected with a virus that makes people join a certain religious cult, so even that part of his identity is not truly his own. Everything in this universe is undermined in one way or another. The city itself has the same problem: a nano-virus has changed its buildings into grotesque shapes.

There is a palpable feeling that Tanner’s adventures are a tribute to Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons (1990). Tanner is just as trained as Banks’s assassin Zakalwe and has memory loss as well, like a futuristic Jason Bourne. There is even a scene in Banks’s novel in which Zakalwe is visiting a city in a canyon. But Chasm City does not jump all over the place in its storyline, and compared to Reynolds’s Revelation Space, Chasm City has a tighter focus on a clearer storyline with a clearer main character. This focus is probably due to having Use of Weapons as a story template.

The story nevertheless started to sag in the middle of the book, because of a proliferation of flash-backs that don’t add much. For all this time, we followed Tanner and a second storyline set on a generation ship, which actually plays out during Tanner’s dreams, so we always cut to that story whenever Tanner loses consciousness (which happens often). The problem is that none of the characters are particularly interesting; they are all the same breed of asshole and talk the same way, and the book’s action scenes don’t give much deeper understanding of these people. The same goes for the few women. The woman Zebra in particular came across as constructed as an exotic love interest.

And she isn’t the only exotic female character inserted to bring Tanner from one place to another. Chasm City is in the end not much more than a pulpy adventure tale with influences of noir and hard SF, with bland, basic prose and a plot full of travelling, twists, misdirections and a host of temporary side characters who help Tanner along.

I keep returning to Alastair Reynolds time and again because of his amazing ideas and the hard-edged bleak future he presents. But Reynolds has some structural weaknesses in his writing that keep surfacing: flat characterization, uneven plotting and a tendency to use far too many words to describe everything. Chasm City is hardly the masterpiece that I was hoping for, but for a simple, sensationalist adventure tale it checks many boxes that make me well-disposed towards it.

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Gold (2016) Review

Gold

7/10

Mr. Wells (Matthew McConaughey) is a land prospector for a mining company, which means that he has to find promising digging sites and then sell the idea of digging to investment firms. He promises high rewards, golden futures, but this is a high-risk high-reward sector. And Wells is down on his luck. At good times, he can buy his girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) a golden watch, but right now they cannot even afford an office.

On the edge of the abyss, the washed-up Wells receives a vision at night: Gold. In Indonesia. That’s where we’re going, and this film is “inspired by real events”, whatever that might mean. In this case, the story is supposedly based on a 1993 mining scandal, or at least follows some of the same beats, but all the names have been changed. Wells sells his last golden watch for a ticket to Jakarta to get in touch with the old genius Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) to convince him of his holy vision of gold in Indonesia.

Gold has a fine ensemble cast. McConaughey is just unstoppable in Hollywood, delivering one solid performance after another. Here, he seems a witless man who talks the talk, but has little to back himself up. McConaughey is overacting here, but does so in an enjoyable way. He is wildly gesturing and bulging his eyeballs, smoking and drinking, telling tales to everyone like a Ferengi in Star Trek. He’s a tool. There’s desperation in his eyes, which makes Acosta both pity him and perhaps silently wants to believe in his stories.

Gold1

Edgar Ramirez is the sharp, weathered visionary who is taken by Wells’s stories. He talks like a novel and never really seems happy. He is the mystery. Bryce Dallas Howard doesn’t have much to do at first, except be the infinitely patient girlfriend Kay. I was hoping throughout the film that her character would get more interesting, and the film succeeds only partly in that when she turns on a dime halfway through the story. Kay was never fleshed out that well. All these stories of successful men seem to run the same way, when it comes to their relationships.

Speaking of other such stories, Gold starts out much like The Wolf of Wall Street, with a room full of people selling stories, but Wells never convinces that he knows what he is doing, but he believes in his vision. Films like these seem to be a trend in Hollywood after Scorsese’s hit, with the similar The Founder (2016) and War Dogs (2016) coming out in the same year as Gold. Shot in Thailand, the Southeast Asian backdrop and background actors make Gold feel nicely grounded in the real world. They’re out there in the sweaty jungle and monsoon rains making this film work, but the film still feels like cashing in on an earlier hit.

I’m not too excited about some storytelling choices. The writers opt for a certain “interview after the fact” approach that takes away some of the dramatic tension instead of add to it. Also, the story is clearly crazy-fied to measure up to the other get-rich-quick movies. That said, this is an entertaining film with a good cast. I just couldn’t bring up any sympathy for the main guy, Kenny Wells. McConaughey’s mannerisms are so exaggerated here that he started to grate on me, and he is all talk and insincerity. The ending also comes out of nowhere and actually nullifies the whole point of the movie.

Overall, an interesting, acceptable movie to watch with a nice cast, but its emotional impact is small and the acting leans towards overacting. It’s consistently entertaining though and recommended for fans of the cast.

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Life (2017) Review

Life1

6.5/10

Life opens with a rousing scene. Our astronauts on the ISS are trying to catch a damaged satellite that is carrying priceless Martian samples. Out in space, catching the wayward satellite like a game of baseball is Ryan Reynolds, playing a loud American. The camera swirls and dives in all directions, aiming to impress with a long seeming-continuous shot, and illustrating at the same time the all-pervading weightlessness inside the space station. All this tells us that Life wants to be a simple straight movie, starring well-known actors, wanting to excite you but not bothering too much with realism or complication, and that it is trying to put its best foot forwards.

There is something too artificial about this film. First, the dialogue: the astronauts have so many conversations about profound things, like how these are the important days of their lives, and about the beauty of life and about violence down on Earth. Second, the casting: Ryan Reynolds feels really out of place as an astronaut. He works as Deadpool, but I disliked his lame jokes here from the start. The British scientist sounds too much as if he is narrating a BBC documentary. It just feels as if this movie was designed so much to be certain ways, that you are immediately and all the time aware of watching a movie.

It’s a relief when all hell breaks loose. The awkward first act of setting the scene is over and director Daniel Espinosa clearly finds himself on firm ground when it comes to action and suspense. Things escalate nicely when an alien lifeform is found in the Martian sample and grows up to be life-threatening. The tension works. The first real scene of trouble is a nail biter. However, this is also one of those films where scientists make very dumb decisions, and some alien lifeform is smarter and indestructible to a degree that is really unbelievable. In effect, we have a human crew fighting an indestructible special effect.

Life2

The story echoes much of the Species and Alien franchises, in particular the biological terror of the face huggers and the weird worms and black goo of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. We have a tiny wormlike creature that is apparently strong enough to break human bones, survive anything and enter our face, like in Prometheus. Like Alien: Covenant, we have people taking unnecessary risks, and what I’d like to call slapstick panic. You know, people slipping over blood… getting their feet stuck between doors, that kind of stuff. It is rather strange that the ISS crew report none of this to the control centers on Earth, but that is hardly the only strange decision made here.

During quiet moments, Jake Gyllenhaal plays the thoughtful hero with the light of the stars in his faraway gaze. Gyllenhaal always brings a realism and intensity to his acting that is very welcome here. Rebecca Ferguson also makes a good impression as a leader and scientist, similar to Jessica Chastain in The Martian. Another positive thing is the design of the alien creature. Not only does it have an intriguing shape, it is also better equipped to move around in weightless environments. Space is its territory, clearly, and not ours. The special effects of the space station are excellent too, taking a page from Gravity.

While Gyllenhaal and Ferguson do their best, and while the effects look good… by the time that most of the action scenes are past us it is all a bit too late to turn this film into something memorable. Melancholic music cannot help it anymore, because too much of the action was just a bit too standard, the science too unbelievable and the humans too clumsy. I’m afraid that that is the destiny of this film: to be a rather standard space horror film in which the space setting feels a bit misused for producing standard thrills.

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Dave Hutchinson – Europe in Autumn (2014) Review

Europe in Autumn

  • Genre: science fiction
  • Similar novels: China Mieville’s The City and The City
  • My Rating: 9/10

I am going out on a limb and say that Dave Hutchinson loves Europe. He loves all those small Eastern European countries and all the various ethnic groups that brush shoulders there. I’d say he loves the deep, rich, sluggish history of Europe with all its strife and the long memories of struggle between cities and peoples; memories that still have an impact today. He loves the European rail network, that brings you everywhere on the continent within a few days, and the cosmopolitan feeling of it. He probably even sees romance in the rusting Polish industrial wastelands.

He probably also loves classical spy novels, such as those by John le Carré. He loves talking about Hungarians and Swiss and Poles and Estonians, doing sneaky business in dark alleys of Central European cities. Hutchinson is intelligent enough a writer to be very aware of the clichés that all this invokes. He has written a book full of intelligence and passion: passion for spy stories, for Europe, for sharp characters and for writing in general.

Rudi is an Estonian, working and wandering all over Europe, mostly working in kitchens. He is recruited step by step into the shadowy organization Les Coureurs des Bios, a spy network specialized in jumping borders for errands and messages. The Coureurs have their own spy jargon and their work is laced with intrigue and paranoia. Rudi learns on the job, is often double-crossed while he sinks deeper and deeper into the Coureur network.

And jumping borders has become a profession in this near future Europe. The continent has fractured into hundreds of small nations, with new ones popping up overnight. When even individual towns, pop-culture fan groups or football hooligans declare their own nation-states, red tape and bureaucracy has mushroomed into an epidemic. When borders rise up and close down, the very human impulse to travel and mingle with others fuels the Coureur network.

Hutchinson’s writing style is crisp and elegant. In fact, I cannot find any fault in it and I am thoroughly impressed with his characters, the pacing of the story and sudden twists, the realism of his environments, his humane observations and gentle wit. I’m overjoyed to feel so gripped by his writing. Hutchinson has long experience with writing short stories, and this novel is built up in a way where every chapter is constructed as a short story, finding Rudi at a new city again and having a new adventure.

Before long, the story starts making erratic jumps as it is tiptoeing around a central mystery. Hutchinson keeps us on edge constantly just because we are trying to understand what is going on. Rudi knows more than we do, but he now only appears on the margin of stories. I am sorry to say that Hutchinson’s choice of telling the story this way does some harm. The flow of the story is broken up because every chapter starts with new characters, and after a while I lost the feeling that I was reading a narrative that had any consistency, and I started to feel more insecure about how much I liked this novel.

Then it hit me. Fracture is the key word. Europe as a continent is fractured. And then reality, geography itself starts to fracture. And in this Europe, there is the railway, the Line, that stitches the continent together. The narrative is fractured in the same way, as it mirrors the reality that it is describing. Rudi’s clandestine adventures take place in the background with Rudi forming a line that stitches all the disparate story parts together. In this sense, the movements of the novel and its revelations make more sense.

This is a stunningly good novel that reads like a smooth whiskey and rocks you like one. It does help that I have traveled extensively in Central and Eastern Europe, and this story nicely mirrors my own fascination with these regions. Others might want to keep a map close, because Rudi covers a lot of terrain.

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A Cure for Wellness (2016) Review

A Cure for Wellness1

7/10

I wanted to see this movie because its premise sounded so intriguing. Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a young executive at a financial firm, is sent to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company’s CEO. The director has gone to a spa, a wellness center in the mountains, and apparently lost his mind. Lockhart travels to Switzerland to find his CEO, but finds as well that the spa’s treatments are not quite what they seem.

The reason the firm thinks that their CEO has gone nuts, is because they receive a letter from him, in which he describes an epiphany that he had about humankind. Something about that humans walk around for too long with sickness in their minds, an then their body starts protesting as well. The young Mr. Lockhart meanwhile is shown as an ambitious but morally shady upstart. Clearly, this story has something to do with moral behavior.

The film’s cinematography is excellent from the start. Good camera angles and image compositions keep every shot interesting to look at. The scenes have a nice pace to them. Director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) is an experienced filmmaker with a good feeling for visual world-building and storytelling, and that is immediately apparent. His movies do tend to bloat, though. The Lone Ranger, for example, had a few plotlines too many, and so did all the Pirates sequels. A Cure For Wellness similarly goes on for too long and has too many twists and turns.

A Cure for Wellness

But let’s go back to the story. Lockhart looks unhealthy. He is always working; he is unfriendly. Some nebulous idea about ambition pulls him forward. The film drops hints here and there that people are merely dream-walking through life. The film is shot as if it is some kind of Dracula tale, with bleached colors and ominous music. The Swiss spa even has a squeaky rusted gate and legends of murdered noblemen. Similar to Shutter Island (2010), Lockhart is called to this suspect place and dragged into it step by step, in an almost predictable but also quite captivating way. The patients, nurses and head doctor (Jason Isaacs, better known as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies) behave rather strangely, and before soon he finds it difficult to leave.

A Cure for Wellness is visually stunning, and beautifully shot at Hohenzollern Castle and an abandoned hospital in Germany. It’s a tasteful combination of effective suspense and a gothic visual beauty. Some visual effects are little leitmotifs that are repeated through the film, and are sure to stay with me. Some scenes are extremely uncomfortable and gross.

That said, it is about half an hour too long. The descent into madness and captivity takes place step by little step and perhaps a few steps too many. The theme of morality is abandoned halfway through and morphs into something very different: something about childbirth and purity. In fact, the theme of the film is a bit of a mess. It is about all sorts of things, but the film gets stranger and stranger and most of it is creepy for its own sake. The past of the wellness center takes over the entire plot of the film, and Lockhart’s character arc is abandoned. Or, they try to do something with it, but his changes in mentality are hard to understand. Many plot points are not followed up, and the film has about five endings.

In short, a visually stunning film that gets lost in its own narrative catacombs. It starts out as a psychological thriller, but ends up as a gothic horror that goes to far stranger places than make sense. It is worth seeing for the creepy visuals alone and the suspense and strangeness of it, but be prepared for it to keep pushing and pushing your suspension of disbelief.

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