HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM TWO GUYS IN THE DARK!
Before we get down to official cinematic business this week, Pat Craig and I (that’s him on the left in the photo just to prove that he really does still exist; we’re both waiting for him to have more time to do film reviews for this blog in addition to his weekly theatre reviews for the Bay Area News Group papers, so hopefully 2014 will be our lucky year) wish all of you the very best in this new rotation of our planet around the sun (oh, you thought it was the other way around; then maybe you should contact me individually and I’ll find an astronomy site to recommend to you), with good fortune and blessings to shine upon all of us. If you’re new to the commentaries on the Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark site, let me (Ken Burke) quickly fill you in a few things about our (OK, my) style: (1) Many of the films (the higher-aspirational releases) or movies (the more mainstream fare; these aren't hard-and-fast-distinctions, but it may help you to know the intentions of this fundamental vocabulary here) that I review will already be in circulation by the time my explorations get posted (for now, it’s mostly just me as One Guy, but Pat’s still with us in spirit, plus regular-contributor Richard Parker also offers useful additions in the Comments boxes far below on a very-frequent-basis, which we much appreciate), so I’m quite active in divulging plot details in order that those who’ve already seen a given review subject can re-consider the experience along with me in full depth while those who haven’t can limit themselves to the star rating and opening summary statement if they wish to save the specifics for later—further warning on this issue, I also give away plot points normally left unelaborated in reviews of films that are just opening in my San Francisco area, if I’ve had a chance to see them at critics’ preview screenings, in order to give some closure to my thoughts even for these very new opportunities, so be especially forewarned about spoiler alerts where current openings are concerned, (2) I tend to write in what might be called conceptual clusters with a good many asides in each paragraph (so I put those in a lighter color to allow you to follow the main thoughts more easily, then explore the parenthetical stuff as you wish), and (3) I also like to offer metaphorical musical connections to each film/movie under review—or sometimes just one song to reference more than one of the reviewed subjects, depending on what hopefully holds together better—so link up with these if you like for additional gestalt but don’t feel obligated to wander down these offshoot paths if you’d prefer to just stay focused on the main road. With all of that in mind, let’s move on this week’s review proper, with encouragement for responses of any sort—agreement or not—with what I’m presenting to you on behalf of Two Guys in the Dark.
Secrets and Lies
Review by Ken Burke The Wolf of Wall Street
Based on the true story of a once-successful-swindler, DiCaprio shines as an ambitious, hedonistic stock broker who grew very rich while helping others become broke.
Saving Mr. Banks
Mary Poppins may never have soared into cinematic history had Walt Disney not found a way to convince author P.L. Travers to relinquish the film rights to her creation.
Caught in the Web
A story of pubic and private troubles in modern China as a woman becomes a negative social-media-sensation while personal trouble brews for the people in her life.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting. But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge. Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark hompage. Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]
At least until the Oscars for 2013 have been awarded on Sunday, March 2, 2014 (which, in no relationship whatsoever, is also Texas Independence Day—some things you don’t forget after they’ve been drummed into you for 37 years [after which I finally escaped to California]) I’m also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2013 films made various individual critic's Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards. You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success—which you can monitor here—and any sort of critical/statuette recognition), but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
The connective fiber in the 3 cinematic offerings presented for your consideration this week is the deception that underlies each of their stories, some of it intended for personal protection while other aspects are used for self-enhancing-mercantile-purposes. In a couple of the cases the private becomes very public, exposing secrets not intended for further knowledge, while in others the whole idea is to use clandestine understandings for personal profit with the hope that revelations don’t occur that could upset the intended schemes (there might be a temptation here to cite Col. Nathan Jessep’s [Jack Nicholson] courtroom-meltdown-line to Lt. Daniel Kaffee [Tom Cruise] in A Few Good Men [Rob Reiner, 1992], that for many of the characters under consideration this week “You can’t handle the truth!”, but the real truth is that these folks know full well what’s involved with their individual circumstances, simply hoping to prevent disclosures that would impede their self-interests while Col. Jessep’s misguided-military-cover-up was at least intended to preserve his perceived-higher-good of national security). With all of that in mind, we’ll start these explorations with the film that has generated the most PR buzz—not all of it in the intended-studio-publicity-manner—the latest triumphant collaboration between famed director Martin Scorsese (along with Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen [in recent years, at least, for the latter] probably the most celebrated and honored filmmakers on the planet today) and increasingly-well-respected-star, Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the tell-all-and-brag-about-it-autobiography of all-too-successful-bull-market-broker, Jordan Belfort. As you can explore in a couple of usefully-relevant articles by David Haglund and Eliana Dockterman, most of what you see on screen is shockingly accurate (at least from the manner in which Belfort presents his life in his book; how exaggerated that may be from his actuality is for your further investigation, although little seems to have been denied by others associated with this tale of capitalism-gone-wild), no matter how horribly-hedonistic-Belfort (DiCaprio) and his colleagues are portrayed on screen because the drugs, hookers, lavish life styles, and other accouterments of unearned-yet-easily-accessible-excess-success depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street are apparently-all-too-true, if only for the type of bank-account-blood-suckers of Stratton Oakmont Investors in their mid-1990s-post-1987-Black-Monday-recovery-heyday. (You can also access a long interview with the actual Belfort in the suggested video links far below where he’s still showing himself as a smooth-talker who could sell ice cubes to Inuits rather than having much remorse for the scams that sent him away for just a few years, only to re-emerge as a successful author—including for this film’s origination book—and motivational speaker.*) Ultimately, it’s Belfort’s unrepentant attitude and the society that continues to revel in such characters (even though we don’t specifically wallow in such voyeuristic presentations as TV’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous today but instead we fawn over such “celebrities” in every form of social media available) that leave me with an ambivalent feeling about this film (hence my 3 ½ stars compared to the high praise offered by many other critics I’ve read—although the mid-70s average percentages offered by Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic reviewers are right in line with me), despite my willingness to praise it as a story well-told with a lead performance that is the height so far of DiCaprio’s increasingly-well-lauded career.
* For another indication of how accurate The Wolf of Wall Street likely is regarding true-trader-operations, Variety.com reports that the film has set a new record for use of the word “fuck” at 506 times (now, there’s a job for you: counting expletives), breaking the old record of 435 set by Spike Lee in his 1999 Summer of Sam (you'd better get busy, Spike, you f***in' slacker).
DiCaprio is joined by others on an ascending-career-arc as well, especially Jonah Hill (continuing his enhanced recognition following Oscar’s Best Supporting Actor nomination for Moneyball [Bennett Miller, 2011]—despite what I consider to be a big distraction for all concerned in the self-referential-feature-length-“selfie” This Is the End [Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, 2013; review in our June 20, 2013 posting) as Belfort-primary-collaborator Donnie Azoff (a renaming of actual Danny Porush, as with most of the folks in this film except for Belfort himself), a guy with enough integrity to have married his first-cousin, Hildy (Mackenzie Meehan), and Matthew McConaughey (on a huge career-upswing of his own, whose excellent work in Dallas Buyers Club [Jean-Marc Vallée; review in our November 21, 2013 posting], another of the many marvelous reality-inspired films to grace screens in 2013, will likely bring him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, possibly helping close the door on DiCaprio’s chances, despite his superb work in The Wolf of Wall Street, although this is where Hill could score again for a Best Supporting Actor nod if his field’s not too overcrowded as well—for that matter, McConaughey could be a Supporting Actor contender despite his limited screen time because if Judi Dench can nab the gold for her under-8-minutes as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love [John Madden, 1998] and Beatrice Straight can do likewise for her roughly 6-minute role in Network [Sidney Lumet, 1976] then anything is possible at Oscar time) as Mark Hanna, Belfort’s short-term-mentor at his first Wall Street firm—the one that collapsed in the unexpected October 1987 crash—who teaches him a primal-self-enhancement-chant to go along with his advice that the key components of being a successful broker are to masturbate (to help keep you relaxed—and you can fantasize about money instead of sex while you’re doing it) and snort cocaine (to help focus on the constant number-crunching-madness of the business) a few times each day, advice that Jordan enhances to include hookers (even during his two marriages) and a wide variety of other drugs—especially Quaaludes, which he’s trained himself to ignore the calming effects of—as his success soars in the money-mad-days of the 1990s, when the long-sluggish-economy recovered in the Clinton era (whatever further comparisons you’d like to make between these two embracers-of-the-high-life—substituting Big Macs and Monica as you wish [maybe he didn’t inhale but it sure seems like she did] is up to you). Essentially, Jordan’s story is that he went from humble, client-consideration beginnings to intoxication with big commissions in selling high-risk-penny-stocks to gullible investors (whom he soon learned to despise as being anything but enrichment-opportunities for him and his boys) to leader of a massively-successful-brokerage-house where well-crafted-scripts brought in buckets of cash from the suckers on the other end of the telephone line while Jordan’s personal excesses finally ran him enough afoul of the law to earn some prison time, although in a relaxed-security-facility where he was still able to use his wealth to maintain a comfortable lifestyle that turned even more profitable upon release with his new career as a best-selling-author-and-well-paid-motivational-speaker (in a nice bit of irony, DiCaprio’s Jordan is introduced to prospective entrepreneurs in the film’s last scene by the actual Belfort). DiCaprio excels in portraying one of the most charming criminals this side of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990; another filmic success based on real events), while the director—with his masterful control over depictions of lavish lifestyles laced with semi-to-fully-nude-bodies, enough expletives to populate a half-dozen street-gang-movies, substance-consumption-scenes that leave you feeling a bit disoriented yourself, and the usual well-constructed, densely-packed soundtrack (also highly energetic in this case, including the most amped-up-versions of “Sloop John B. [Me First and the Gimme Gimmes] and “Mrs. Robinson” [The Lemonheads] that my tired old ears have ever heard)—is earning praise for this latest accomplishment, with some claiming this is his best work since that earlier gangster film (to which I can’t fully concur, given the presence of The Departed  and Hugo  among those which would thereby be demoted), just as the rest of this cast—especially Margot Robbie as Jordan’s gorgeous, spoiled, yet rightfully-resentful-second-wife, Naomi—wonderfully supports an exhilarating (although a bit overlong, in my minority opinion, at 3 hrs.) rendition of this intended indictment of money-mad-hysteria.
So, what’s my problem with what many consider to be among the best films of 2013 (and could easily end up on my Top 10 list as well once I’ve had a chance to see all of the late-released-contenders)? Basically, it’s the feeling that I’m left with after I see Jordan suffer little for the bilking he’s done to so many unsuspecting investors (not to mention the mere brief acknowledgement of others in his company facing penalties for their calculated wrongdoings—including Donnie, who apparently returns his friend’s attempt to warn him away from self-incrimination, during a conversation in which Jordan wrote out a message that he was wearing a wire, by turning over the napkin-scrawled-upon-message to Jordan’s FBI and SEC handlers, insuring jail time for the head honcho probably in Donnie’s attempt to create some goodwill for himself with the Feds), still living high on the success ladder after minimal incarceration, leaving audiences—especially younger ones so fascinated with the cult of celebrity and material comfort, as explored in yet-another-reality-based-film this year, The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola; reviewed in our July 16, 2013 posting)—with the impression that Jordan and his materially-besotted-followers may be excessive in their pursuits but it’s still a glamorous indulgence to be desired, as about the only naysayers to be found here are a stern, middle-class-lawman, Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler)—especially in a cinema season where we’ve seen the folly of a more-over-reaching-but-undone-by-the-seduction-of-career-ambition-G-man with the ruined life of fictionalized-but-also-based-in-reality-Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) in American Hustle (David O. Russell; review in our December 27, 2013 posting)—and the failed attempts to impose some control over his son’s flagrant empire by exasperated Dad “Mad” Max Belfort (Rob Reiner), neither of whom give us much reason to see the errors of Jordan’s ways, nor does he do so either in that neither his drug-fueled-debauchery (certainly there’s nothing charming about his spastic incoherence after an overdose of legendary “Lemmon” ‘ludes, but the fact that he recovers with a huge dose of coke makes more for Pulp Fiction [Quentin Tarantino, 1994]-memory-laughter than the horror of near-death-experiences suffered by both Jordan and Donnie in this scene-cluster) nor his abuse of his (admittedly, willing-accomplice) wife (including her horror during his drug-fueled-attempt to abscond with their young daughter, Skylar [Giselle Eisenberg]) lead to any legal action nor true reform by him (except a pledge to sober up after nearly dying yet again in a yacht-capsizing-scene) nor any effective demand from her that he mend his evil ways (in fact, she runs off to Italy with him, Donnie, and equally-willing wife-cousin-Hildy so they can run their business without U.S. government interference and be closer to the $20 million or so they’ve smuggled into secret Swiss bank accounts). Nevertheless, in a Variety.com article DiCaprio says that "I hope people understand we're not condoning this behavior, that we're indicting it," an attitude shared by David S. Cohen in another Variety.com article, although Cohen admits that Scorsese's film doesn't carry the blatant admonitions against crime, somewhat mandated by the industry-self-censorship-group, the Hays Office, that are contained in the classic Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932) with Paul Muni as Tony Carmonte, clearly based on Al Capone; Cohen further cites scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street with McConaughey instructing Belfort on the real purpose of a broker—to take the client's money—along with the speaker-phone-scene where Belfort does just that, giving the middle-fingered-insult to an investor while his colleagues cheer him on (seemingly giving the audience the bird as well, in an attempt to warn us away from being seduced by Belfort's style of success). However, in yet-another-opinion from industry-Bible-Variety.com (I'll never be able to open another article from the Hollywood Reporter site after that remark), Whitney Friedlander argues just the opposite, noting—along with me—that no serious repercussions faced our protagonist for his illegal actions (nor do we get any sense of what became of his ratted-upon-colleagues, after the "honor" has totally dissolved among thieves). Even Jonah Hill seems to agree with my position regarding the unsavory and unaccountable aspects of the film's characters: "Your average Wall Street trader doesn't get up in the morning and ruin somebody's life. These guys did, every day. They stole from people. What greed makes people do just shocks me," although we get only an oblique sense of how that shock should be addressed as Scorsese has presented the victories and repercussions of this vicious, unregulated "wolf pack."
I’ll leave it you to decide where you place your response to this glorification/condemnation of the self-proclaimed “greed-fest” presented in The Wolf of Wall Street’s calculated lies and deceptions, but despite the positive feelings I have toward the skill with which all of these events are depicted I’m still somewhat put off by the message I perceive, even if that’s not at all what Scorsese intended. As to why I can better accept the ending of American Hustle, despite its parallels with The Wolf of Wall Street, my only defense is that the former appears to be much more fictionalized, the whole Abscam concept seems to me to be FBI-overreaching in an attempt to create problems for elected lawmakers instead of finding ways to bust them for illegal actions already done rather than luring them into a scheme of concocted-entrapment, and the actual scams being conducted by Christian Bale and Amy Adams’ characters were small-time-crimes compared to the millions being raked in by Belfort’s army of silver-tongued-devils; maybe that’s just all naïve rationalization on my part, but it’s what helps slightly separate the 2 films for me, despite my continued praise for DiCaprio in bringing to life the well-crafted script (by Terence Winter, who could easily be a contender for Oscar’s Best Adapted Screenplay)—a performance marvelously enhanced at times by expertly-delivered voice-over narration or direct-address to the camera that effectively portrays the cynical superiority that characterizes “Wolfie’s” dismissal of those beneath his respect (almost all of us, including his wives)—that he chose to align himself with, in order to once again work with Scorsese in a generally-well-respected-accomplishment but one I’m not as fully charmed by as I want to be, largely because I feel that it ends up glorifying what it wants to critique in a manner that makes it hard to appreciate any intended distain or satire of the obnoxious material that the film presents. The Wolf of Wall Street just doesn't help me detest these guys any more that I already did when I sat down to watch the film; I doubt that it creates much distain for them in many other viewers either because there are such limited penalties for them to pay, despite all they did to rip off their regretfully-trusting customers.
As for a musical metaphor to put my commentary on The Wolf of Wall Street to rest, I’ve got to go with Pink Floyd’s “Money” (from the 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon album) at http: //www.youtube.com/ watch?v=2qFYmsu C01c (illustrated with images that in some ways are direct antecedents for what’s shown in The Wolf of Wall Street; admittedly, this pictorial essay gets a bit repetitious, but you could say that as well about the overconsumption presented in Scorsese’s film, that once you get into the state of unlimited cash flow your life can just become an endless cycle of more and more of the same extravagant luxuries—in Jordan Belford’s case drugs, women, food and drink, clothes, and opulent living quarters on land or sea). Nevertheless, given the prevalence of material-influence in our capitalistic society you may want more variety in your money songs, so here are a couple more: The Fab Four doing a live version of their cover of the “Money (That’s What I Want)” tune (from their 1963 British album, With the Beatles; this song was Motown’s first hit, written by Barry Gordy and Janie Bradford, recorded by Barrett Strong in 1959) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeqW3t6EnvU (although even all of the Beatles’ earnings couldn’t produce a better quality image in this clip) and the “Money, Money” number, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkRIbUT6u7Q, performed by Liza Minnelli and Joey Grey in Bob Fosse’s 1972 Cabaret (a big Oscar winner that year, taking 8 total including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Director for the participants noted here despite strong competition in all of its categories—except Best Actress—from Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay winner The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola]—which also provided Marlon Brando’s second Best Actor Oscar [the one that he famously refused to accept], a competition in which neither Cabaret's Michael York nor any of the other nominees even had a chance [including Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine for the otherwise-marvelous Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)]); ironically, the popularity of this film song, which was not in the original Broadway play (I saw it on my first foray into NYC in 1969), has led to it now being included in stage productions. OK, if you’ve now properly indulged yourself in a daily dose of material-based-daydreaming, let’s move on to institutionally-organized fantasies that celebrate the American Dreams of wonder and triumph.
The master of fantasy in American movies may someday be understood as Steven Spielberg (depending on what else non-historically-based he’s got lined up for his hit parade as he continues into the older years already occupied by Scorsese and especially Allen) or even James Cameron (depending on what comes of his plan to produce several more Avatar movies, which may allow him an ongoing-all-time-box-office-championship-bout with the Disney corporation as they also oversee a flood of new releases based on their now-acquired-Marvel-franchise), but for now we still acknowledge Walt Disney (played in Saving Mr. Banks [John Lee Hancock] by Tom Hanks in a plausible but not totally transparent manner, given how well “Uncle Walt” was known from his appearances on his Disneyland/Walt Disney Presents/Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color TV series from the mid-1950s through the 1960s) as the master-fantasy-filmmaker of the first century of cinema, with Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964) as one of his company’s great triumphs (it was nominated for 13 Oscars [including Best Picture and Best Director], best ever for the Disney studio, winner of 5 of them including Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects [probably based on the famous photography-and-cell-animation-combination which produced the wondrous penguin dance with Dick Van Dyke and the talented birds—sorry that the only clip I can find is in squeezed 4x3 format instead of the original wider screen; however, I’m sure the Disney folks would be happy to sell you a Blu-ray-special-edition-DVD—how coincidental that this current Disney movie just happens to come out at the same time as the 50th anniversary of the earlier one; wonders never cease!], and Best Actress for Julie Andrews, categories rarely associated with Disney pictures; it was also highly profitable, even more so than 1965’s The Sound of Music [Robert Wise], also starring Andrews, even though the latter brought in a huge box-office haul, putting it for a brief time atop the All-Time Box Office Winners list based purely on actual ticket sales) and a personal conquest for Walt—fulfilling a long-delayed-promise to his daughters—not so long before his death in 1966 (just a couple of days before my birthday: he was 65, I was about to be 19; my dreams of working for him as an animator never quite recovered after that, for many reasons that he shouldn’t be held accountable for). In order to get Mary on screen, though, he had to go through the cash-strapped-but-still-authoritative-author of the Poppins books, Pamela L. Travers (played here by Emma Thompson and who, strangely-enough [more on that later], insists on being addressed as “Mrs. Travers” while Midwestern Walt calls her “Pam” most of the time—despite this implied [enforced] folksiness, though, I’ve heard stories about Disneyland employees being required to address him with “Hi ya, Walt” if they suddenly encountered their employer in the park, with an automatic firing awaiting anyone who sputtered out something more formal), a creator-vs.-creator-negotiation-by-obstinate-strategies in 1961 which provides the events of Saving Mr. Banks. The central conflict here is between Disney’s desire to get the movie rights for his planned jolly-holiday-with-Mary while Travers is determined that her personally-important-heroine (more on that later also) should not be degraded with antics such as music and animation. After almost 2 hours of conflict for our amusement, with ebb-and-flow-approvals-or-refusals being doled out by Mrs. Travers (always addressed by assigned-personal-driver [but completely fictional] Ralph [Paul Giamatti] simply as “Mrs.” after she first corrects him; however, he becomes the only American she develops a fondness for, after she learns that he has a much-loved-but-wheelchair-bound-daughter, so storytelling subtlety isn’t the hallmark of Saving Mr. Banks, in case you hadn’t noticed yet), Walt finally gets what he wants, Travers appears to accept the result based on her tearful response to the film’s lavish premiere at famed Grauman’s Chinese Theater (the one with the concrete hand- and footprints in the courtyard), and we get a heartfelt story of a woman’s difficult redemption of her dead-at-a-young-age-alcoholic-father, who served as a hidden inspiration for the patriarchal character of Mr. Banks in Travers' book and Disney's movie.
But, the sort of unintended-encouragement for the audience to gleefully celebrate the unimpeded-hedonism of The Wolf of Wall Street is also a factor with Saving Mr. Banks—despite its upbeat feel and family-friendly-sensibilities—because of direct lies within the story itself (related to us to help propel its dramatic impact) and obfuscations in the telling of it that bring the results a bit into question, although they don’t seem to be having any negative impact on the Best Actress Oscar-nomination-buzz around Thompson as Travers, helped greatly by her already-announced Screen Actors Guild nomination for this same award, an honor accorded by most of the same people who populate the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences actors branch, which is a strong—although not absolute—indication of a likewise nod from the Academy’s voters (but, even if nominated, she’ll have to contend with all roughly 6,000 members voting for the actual award so further, unpredictable complexities await us prior to the upcoming March 2 ceremony).
As for the lies contained in the film’s script based on historical fact, we start with Travers' name, which was her author’s identity but not her birth designation as the much-less-poetic-Helen Lyndon Goff, with the Travers part taken from her father, Travers Robert Goff, a failed Australian banker who loved his daughter dearly (with an equal response from her) but departed from her life far too early, dead of influenza at 43 in the very early 20th century when Helen was just a young girl (often called Princess Ginty by him in the Disney movie, played there by Annie Rose Buckley); thus, her original Mary Poppins book was written to provide a happier ending for her troubled father, recast as Mr. Banks, giving him a reconciliation with his family that Helen/Pamela never was able to experience. Further, she was Australian not British as she presented herself, having moved to England when she was about 25, adopting her pen name, then writing several Poppins books over her life span (she died at age 96 in 1996 but never allowed Disney—or anyone else—adaptation rights to the various Poppins sequels, having had her share of “artistic degradation” through the events portrayed in Saving Mr. Banks). Finally, where Helen/Pamela is concerned, there is the matter of her insisted-upon-“Mrs.” status although she never married (however, as Margaret Lyons notes in Vulture.com,Travers was seemingly bi-sexual [not there’s anything wrong with that] so she wasn’t quite the seemingly-chaste-virgin [?] depicted in the film, even if she did allude to have once been married but now is widowed, or at least that’s what Disney was led to believe until late in this movie’s story). OK, so now we’ve deconstructed a lot of Travers’ reconstructed backstory, but there’s more to be explored in the movie’s presentation of her, where the most blatant lie created for Saving Mr. Banks is that she was childless when in fact at the age of 40 she adopted a son, the Irish boy (which may have also helped remind her of her departed father, given his Irish ancestry so nicely connoted in the movie by casting Colin Farrell in the role) Camillus Hone, although she refused to take his twin, Anthony, nor to tell him that she was not his birth mother, a fact he shockingly discovered at age 17 through a chance meeting with his brother in a London pub—needless to say, things weren’t too cozy between Pamela and Camillus after that. There’s also a good bit of sanitization of Walt here, in that he’s presented as kind and grandfatherly as possible, with no mention, as noted by Rebecca Keegan in Slate.com, of his 1940s labor troubles with his animators nor his anti-Semitic-attitudes, although she also says that Travers was even more obnoxious than portrayed in the current movie, based on what we know of her negotiations with Disney and the Mary Poppins production team (primarily screenwriter Don DaGradi [Bradley Whitford] and songwriter brothers Robert [B.J. Novak] and Richard Sherman [Jason Schwartzman]) from the 39 hours of reel-to-reel-audio-tape-recordings she insisted be made of all discussions concerning the Poppins movie (we get a bit of this under the final credits so stick around if you want to hear what their conversations were actually like—in the on-screen-story she insists on minute script changes, has problems with set and costume design, even refuses to allow them to use the color red, all of which apparently is indicative of the actual trouble she continued to present as pre-production meetings dragged on through those testy days in Burbank). However, the primary manipulation of the truth in Saving Mr. Banks is the very foundation for the movie’s conflict, that Disney had to somehow convince Travers to finally sign over the adaptation rights despite all of her objections, a situation that seemingly reached a crisis point when she learned that Andrews and Van Dyke would be on-screen with those animated penguins, sending her back to London with the approval form unsigned, forcing Disney to travel there unannounced in a last-ditch-effort to salvage a project he’d wanted for over 20 years.
However, Aisha Harris in Slate.com reveals that there’s no evidence that Walt went to London to share his biography with Pam of having to please a demanding father (hers wasn’t demanding but did leave her relationship with him unresolved), so this tear-jerking scene over tea which supposedly allows her to trust him to depict Mary properly not only doesn’t happen but also flies in the face of reality that he had a preliminary agreement in place by 1960 which gave her some level of script approval but him final decisions on the structure of the movie, which undercuts the whole necessary-conflict-premise at the heart of Saving Mr. Banks while adding further confusion as to how DaGradi and the Sherman’s managed to get various agreements from her (whether she was so accepting of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” or not)—an issue not really clarified in the current narrative—when she ultimately had no control over such matters, despite her displeasure with the use of music, a less-impervious-Mary than she had written, and a mustache on Mr. Banks. (Despite insistence for the ‘stache directly from Walt; I wonder where he got the idea for that?) When I compile all of these discrepancies from fact to fictionalization I have to try to weigh out whether the liberties taken in Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s script (based partially on the 1961 tape records, partially on Valerie Lawson’s biographies of Travers, and partially on conjecture or pure—in a mode appropriate for Disney movies—fantasy, such as Walt’s story that led to Pamela signing over the longed-for-film-rights or Walt bringing her to Disneyland in an attempt to soften her up as the negotiations were hitting the wall) undermine too much a presentation that purports to be an accurate representation of the genesis of a Disney classic much beloved for the last half-century; after internal deliberation I decided that these tamperings do create quite a problem for me but one that I’ll temper with an acknowledgement that the overall-feel-good-intentions do work well here.
Thompson’s performance especially is magnificent, given how difficult it is to work up any audience sympathy for such a lonely, prickly character, while this current movie successfully celebrates what makes the much earlier Mary Poppins still such a delight to watch, even if (like with me) childhood is a long-gone aspect of the past. Thus, my rating rose up to 3 ½ stars (not great but still very good) because I think that the current Disney team achieved their intentions well, just as did their predecessors with the original Mary Poppins transformation, whereas my rating for The Wolf of Wall Street came down to 3 ½ stars (same result but different rationale) because, despite the successful impact of the presented elements of that construction, I don’t think that Scorsese’s team was as successful in achieving their stated goals of making me loathe all that Jordan Belfort and his cohorts stood for (although I was disgusted by them, but I feel that way about any such ostentatious display of wealth—especially when done at the expense of trusting people being fleeced out of needed resources—not about how such excesses were [not really] denigrated in this film). Disagree as you wish, but that’s the process by which I came to my conclusions about these very different approaches to historical inspiration where one (Wolf) tried to stay true to its source material but thereby encourage us to reject it (not effectively, in my eyes) while the other (Mr. Banks) took great liberties with its resources in an attempt to create a harmonious result that would resonate with what is so loved about Mary Poppins but thereby made me feel too manipulated, even if I did tear up along with Mrs. Travers when she attended the Poppins premiere (uninvited by Disney in an attempt to keep her from trashing the movie to the press if she disapproved of the final result, although she decided to come on her own; but even here the manipulations continue because we’re left with the sense that Daddy issues have been revealed but healed so that Walt’s intrusions into her intended vision of the adaptation have been resolved with “a spoonful of sugar,” when reports are that she never liked the result, even to the point of wanting to discuss changes with him right after the inaugural screening but was told bluntly that “the ship has sailed”) and will readily admit that if you don’t know too much going in or don’t mind too much when crucial historical facts are changed for dramatic storytelling needs then Saving Mr. Banks will likely be a lot more acceptable to you than it ultimately was for me, although as with The Wolf of Wall Street I came in wanting to like it more than I actually did, just as Helen wanted the real version of Mary—her mother’s sister, Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths)—to be her father’s salvation, but his health was already too deteriorated for such a miracle to occur so in her books she made Mary more powerful than that as well as turning her father into Mr. Banks so he could have the joyful resolution with his fictional family that Travers Goff was unable to find with his, dying with just a few cherished ones around him far out in rural Australia. To conclude these remarks, though, with the anticipated musical metaphor I’ve chosen “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio (1940), at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKh6XxYbbIc, illustrated with a lot of Disney-appropriate imagery but in still format, so if you’d rather see Jiminy Cricket singing it in animated motion here’s a version at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=9Q13XS_R2mU where other Disney characters gather ‘round to listen to him (there are also subtitles, brief commentary, and a link to another video, all in a language that I think is Norwegian [as best I can tell from a Net search] for those of you who can benefit from such [or, if this is actually some other Scandinavian language I’d be glad for anyone to enlighten me]). However, you may want something more direct from Mary Poppins, so how about one of the all-time-favorites, “Supercalafragalisticexpialado-shus,” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3zAbQ0aMK8 (this one's in the proper widescreen format). That should leave you in a bouncy mood, which is what you’ll need as we steer away from historical inspirations into a contemporary story set in China that also takes us into the realm of the impact of secrets—known by some, although at times revealed to all—and lies, necessary or otherwise.
Caught in the Web (Chen Kaige, but please understand that in Chinese protocol people’s names are presented with surname first, then given name, so while those of us from other backgrounds would say Kaige Chen as the director’s name he’s not referred to that way by those from traditional Chinese cultures where the surname is what is normally used for direct address or reference, except in imposed-Anglicized-circumstances, so I’ll maintain that non-Western procedure in my review) faces the PR problem of not really being a current film in that it was made in 2012 (there’s a video noted below where the director is giving an interview at that year’s Toronto International Film Festival prior to China offering it as its contender for last year’s Foreign Language Film Oscar; sadly, it didn’t make the finals in 2012—don't be confused by reviews which mistakenly say it's China's entry for 2013 consideration because it's not—then it’s taken another year for this film to get to a wider distribution of American screens); now it further has the obstacle of overcoming the tepid critical response currently in place (see the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic links below if you like, although they’re both based on terribly small samples at the time of my writing), which I hope can become the case because I found Caught in the Web to be an intriguing, multi-directional story with a lot to appreciate in both its depictions of human situations and in its well-composed, striking, contemporary cinematography. It’s recently—slowly—been making its way to American theatres, such as its opening on Jan. 3, 2014 in the San Francisco area. I was able to watch an advance screening of it so, once again, please take heed of my loud Spoiler Alert that I’ll be divulging plot points; accordingly, for now you may want to satisfy yourself with just my brief summary far above and maybe the musical metaphor 2 paragraphs down if you’d like to save review specifics until after you’ve had a chance to see the film for yourself.
If not, please dive in with me now as we explore the most recent work from the masterful creator of Farewell My Concubine (1993), one of the great cinematic accomplishments (you owe yourself a viewing of this if you haven’t seen it yet, as it presents an enthralling history of 20th century China as told through the lives of 2 men recruited into the Beijing Opera and all that they endure through Japanese occupation, the Communist revolution and its resulting harsh social reordering, followed by evolving contemporary times as explored by this master of the so-called Fifth Generation [students who entered the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 after the easing up of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76]). Certainly, Caught in the Web isn’t as grandiose nor sweeping in scope as Farewell My Concubine, but it foregoes the historical context of many noted late 20th-century Chinese films in order to plunge us into a society that in many ways is like any other technological culture where privacy is rapidly becoming an obsolete concept, media product at any cost to those presented in various “news” reports is a desirable approach to audience satisfaction, and sincere interpersonal relationships are the most valuable commodities of all because they’re so rare and often have to be found through chance occurrences when all of the social media content in the world (literally) can’t provide much in the way of true human fulfillment. The focus of this story begins with a young business woman, Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan), diagnosed one morning before work with advanced lymphoma which her insurance won’t cover for treatment despite the fact that she needs it immediately, followed by her unwanted moments of “fame” through an incident in which her distraught state causes her to not only refuse to give up her seat to an elderly man on a crowded bus but also to offer him the insult of sitting on her lap, with all of this recorded by a news intern, Yang Jiaqi (Wang Luodan);Yang gives the footage to her supervisor, Chen Ruoxi (Yao Chen), who elevates her own career by broadcasting it, resulting in a viral awareness that leads to much personal information about Ye being posted on the Web; embarrassment for her CEO boss, Shen Liushu (Wang Xueqi); and, ultimately, through a quirk of fate, a relationship between Ye and Yang Shoucheng (Mark Chao), even though as Yang Jiaqi‘s cousin he’s become involved with Chen (all 3 of them share a flat). Given that I’m distributing plot details like paper cocktail napkins here, I’ll also reveal that after a week in absence from her job (in an attempt to deflect some of the constant media attention, including the escalating rumor that she’s the mistress of firmly-married Director Shen, especially in the eyes of his easily-angered-jealous-wife, Mo Xiaoyu [Chen Hong]), in hiding with Yang Shoucheng, Ye commits suicide in order to terminate both her physically-doomed-life and her Web-based-"avatar" who has taken on a life of her own as “Sunglasses Girl,” a briefly-angry-then-disappeared-blank-slate onto which her massive audience can project whatever assumptions they wish, draining the real Ye to the point of no longer wanting to continue the charade of having any control of her own existence.
While much of Caught in the Web is about the undesired, unfixable tragedies that haunt Ye—growing in proportion to her inability (but also, ultimately, disinterest) to repair her maligned public image after she attempts to offer an apology to the old man via a recorded interview with the intern—there’s also the more socially-critical-theme of how easy it is for contemporary media to create and perpetuate crises where none exist (the insult to the old man is blown up into an indictment of all Chinese youth; even a news report analysis of the cultural meanings of such actions by a couple of academics are purposely turned into a debate rather than a discussion in order to appeal better to the audience’s desires for conflicts, especially involving anonymous strangers who are in no position to enter into the dialogue in order to bring some rationality into the heated arguments). Yet, this situation of manufactured-mass-media-stories and their resulting social-media-reaction-explosions is not just a ridiculous erosion of reasonable human contemplations and expressions of interest, it’s also a necessary job path for many young workers whose skills in capturing impromptu images and reconfiguring them into conversation-stimulants are represented by the eager Yang Jiaqi (shown in the photo above) and her manipulative mentor, Chen. Shen’s wife, Mo, is also aware of the power of media manipulation—with all of the secrets and lies involved with such dubious activity—purposely befriending Chen in order to counteract the story about Ye as her husband’s mistress to help preserve an important pending business deal, giving her a tactical advantage in her desire to diminish her husband's socially-predetermined-control over her, ultimately leading to Mo’s ability to acquire a divorce which will likely parallel increasingly-acceptable-Western-mores in allowing her to continue to share in Shen’s accumulated wealth while no longer having to put up with his traditional attitude of interpersonal mastery of the marriage. Further trouble for Ye also comes from Director Shen’s secretary, Tang Xiaohua (Ran Chen), who sends info on Ye to the media, knowing that if Ye has too much trouble to return to work that a promotion is in the offering for the ambitious secretary (which does occur). If you haven’t figured it out by now, there’s not much different here than in the 1990s world of The Wolf of Wall Street nor in any contemporary industrialized Western society—despite the supposed surroundings of collective-action-Communist-ideals-and-governmental-structures still in place in today’s China—so while the specific language and social customs might be somewhat unknown to you the cultural and interpersonal acts should be very familiar, if sadly so given how much dismissal there is of the value of human dignity when there’s a buck (or many more) to be made through structuring of situations for personal gain—not exactly what Lenin and Mao had in mind with their revolutions.
Speaking of material comforts in a recognizable, comfortable setting, you couldn’t ask for more familiarity to Western eyes than what you find in Director Shen’s luxurious surroundings, about to be made more posh via an impending merger with an American company, showing even further the impact of globalization on the lives of these people so far from U.S. shores but so near in terms of responding to the kinds of financial success so appropriately presented by Scorsese—it’s only the denigration of such that I want more of in The Wolf of Wall Street; his depiction is right on the mark … or the pound or the yen to get back to Cabaret’s “Money, Money” obsessions, although if that story were ever somehow updated to modern times they’d have to work a reference to the Euro in there, but let’s not even think of that because such a scenario would then have to correspond to an emerging return to power by the Nazis. Similarly, I’d hope that we wouldn’t find ourselves in an even-more-intentionally-morbid Chinese story than this one, where not only would there be less human connection in an increasingly-anonymous-technologically-dominated world but there’d also be a shift back to even-more-repressive-party-dictated-policies that would once again demand a Cultural-Revolution-type-“purification-process” resulting in cruel governmental intrusion into most everyone’s life (but hush up, Obamacare-haters, with your attempts to make this about American politics as well; go call your local Fox News talk-radio-station if you want to sound off), relocations of intellectuals and merchants to hard-labor in rural areas, and a burdensome subjugation to some limited interpretation of an enforced ideology that results in a society not just alienated from human warmth but also denied any opportunity to question the rigid rulings of a grotesque central authority—all of which can be seen in segments of Farewell My Concubine (which, again, I encourage you to view on DVD), but try to find an opportunity to catch Caught in the Web in a theater as well, to experience the breadth of Chen Kaige’s abilities both to effectively recreate several past eras and to encapsulate the growing problems of our current one, where mindless-media-domination may be just as bad as imposed governmental authority. For now, though, I’ll bring all of this to a close with my final recommendation for a metaphorical musical connection, which in regard to Caught in the Web I’ll say should be “Every Breath You Take” by Sting and his Police mates (from their 1983 Synchronicity album), with the original intention of the song being about an obsessive lover who’s constantly saying “I’ll be watching you,” rather than being a charming romantic ballad as it’s usually misinterpreted by its admirers; you get a better visual sense of that in the stark music video that accompanied the original release of the song at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMOGaugKpzs. However, if you’d like to see another creative use of this music, here’s one at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuEzd3YOCGE with images from Charlie Chaplin’s mega-classic City Lights (1931; for years a consistent # 9 on my All-Time Top 10 list) that includes the marvelously-ambiguous-ending-scene where the once-blind-now-sighted-Flower Girl realizes that her benefactor was not a millionaire but this little penniless, homeless street tramp (how he got the money to pay for her miraculous operation is something I’ll leave to your viewing pleasure if you’re not yet familiar with the film), so we end in limbo as to whether this once-dreamy-romance can survive (just as how Yang Shoucheng was left unresolved after Ye’s tragic departure but then found that Chen was open to trying again to re-establish their former connection) now that the true identities are known to both parties. For this video, you may want to zoom in or use full screen mode because the images fluctuate between tiny and normal YouTube size.
I realize that with the combination of image and song in this last video we’re getting very metaphorically-distant from the direct narrative aspects of Caught in the Web, but that’s the beauty (I hope) of these more idiosyncratic reviews of mine which are intended to tease your imagination in ways that are appropriate to the manner in which you’ve been teased by the filmmakers, including Chen Kaige who gives you a situation in which true romance seems best expressed by an unfaithful-to-his-current-lover-but-moving-to-a-new-understanding-guy and a depressed woman who expends all of her passion for and despair with life in her final week before purposely putting behind her an existence that can’t survive on love alone. Caught in the Web isn’t very life-affirming because the obsessions, secrets, and lies that underlie the lives of these characters can’t be easily embraced nor desired (unless you’re a Jordan Belfort clone; if so, you have my sympathies), yet they call out to us to reawaken ourselves to our disappearing-but-unique-human-condition before we all become mere fodder for an all-consuming-technological-world that simply uses us as material for meaningless chatter. (Or have I already claimed that territory with my reviews? Depending on your mindset, these unfiltered comments are possibly unfair and unbalanced, but you decide anyway—and please come back next week, I hope.)
One final note if you’re a new reader to Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark is that I also make a lot of personal comments to my fabulous wife, Nina Kindblad, so please get used to that as well because here comes another one: Obviously, my dear, my New Year’s resolution to write less (but more effectively?) hasn’t come to fruition yet with this longer-than-ever-ramble, but there’s lots more of this year to go, so maybe next time … I’ll be lucky… oops, I’ve wandered off into Cabaret soundtrack territory again so I’d better just say “aufwiedersehen, à bientôt, good night”—at least for now. (Curtain closes, fade to black as you drift back to 1931 Berlin at http: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzBTqLy7gkY, but leave the Nazis in the trash can on your way out.)
If you want to know more about The Wolf of Wall Street here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBDsoW1ClJM (The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway in a 26:54 interview—assuming they'll let you watch after that comment I made above about Variety being the more "important" industry publication—with director Martin Scorsese, scriptwriter Terence Winter, and actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill; if you’d like to hear what the real Jordan Belfort has to say for himself here’s a 57:36 interview at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3K92uugO9o where he says that “Greed is not good, ambition is good”)
If you want to know more about Saving Mr. Banks here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zem61-1_ekI (28:20 interview with director John Lee Hancock, screenwriter Kelly Marcel, producer Alison Owen, and actors Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell, and Ruth Wilson)
If you’d like to know more about Caught in the Web here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gmp7qZxIX9k (48:04 interview with director Chen Kaige from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival [some of his answers to audience questions are in Chinese language so depending on your linguistic skills you may not follow all that he says but his statements in English are very informative)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4Ppc3jz3GE, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.