It’s been 27 days since I officially went on hiatus. I think that’s long enough. Here's a double review: The Counselor and Saving Mr. Banks.
From its opening moments, The Counselor is an unusual beast. Cheetahs stalk wild hares on the savannah, not of Africa but Mexico; a flamboyant, eccentrically rich couple picnic nearby in the company of some luxury motors. Sometime soon Michael Fassbender’s nameless eponym will be buying a diamond from Bruno Ganz’s merchant, who pontificates on the beauty of the stone lying in its flaws. A pure diamond, he says, would seem to be comprised of air. The Counselor, however, manages to be both flawed and ultimately insubstantial.
Cormac McCarthy’s script hides its hollowness behind philosophizing, behind its sparse literariness (he may have written the novel No Country For Old Men, but the adaptation was notably penned by the Coen Brothers). Fassbender is nicely understated in the lead role and shares impressive chemistry with Penelope Cruz as his sexy Catholic fiancé – a scene with them hidden, writhing, beneath the covers, carrying on a breathy conversation, is well-conceived, if a touch too explicit dialogue-wise.
The film’s fundamental disconnect is summed up in an already-notorious scene where Cameron Diaz’s Malkina mounts the bonnet of a yellow 2013 Ferrari California HS and proceeds to grind on it, panty-less, till orgasm, an act her boyfriend (Javier Bardem) appropriately describes as “too gynecological to be sexy”. Similarly, The Counselor is too gynecological to be insightful. Combine this with the cartel violence, familiar touches like bodies in barrels, and it feels an attempted cross between Breaking Bad and Shame. It even features – SPOILER – a somewhat wasted cameo by the usually great Dean Norris.
Ridley Scott shoots the New Mexico brilliantly - dusty, rocky, scrubby, in shades of brown and yellow - but there’s no one to really connect with. Bardem’s vivid, wild-haired, wide-eyed, nut-brown drug dealer Reiner (one of the aforementioned eccentric rich couple) is arresting, but ultimately listless. The autoerotically-inclined Malkina, too trashy to be attractive, is an ingenious apparently all-knowing provocateur. With her cheetah print tattoo and her cool, pouty monologuing, she provides the clearest insight into the film’s nihilistic central theme of greed and survival. Like the film as a whole, though, it's a case of “all fur coat and no knickers”.
Despite all this, and its plot hinging on a neatly lamp-shaded coincidence, the film manages to occasionally be both textured and complex. It’s at its best when at its tensest and most technical, like with the rigging of a metal-wire trap across a roadway or the gruesome reminder that a bolito is not, in fact, a type of necktie (well, it is, of sorts). There’s a memorable shootout across a road, gunmen firing desperately across the flat surface from shallow ditches at either side, but, again, no characters to really root for.
Instead of Tommy Lee Jones’ rumpled, deeply human Sheriff a la No Country, The Counselor gives us Brad Pitt’s mysterious, knowing-yet-ultimately-hapless middleman. There’s enough wit to mostly cover the lack of substance (McCarthy, after all, does have a Pulitzer to his name), but being stylish and well-lit cannot compensate for the film's thematic and textual murkiness. Overall, The Counselor is an intriguing failure for the talent involved. It feels more like a more pretentious take on the middlebrow thrillers of Tony Scott (RIP) than a classic Ridley Scott outing; that being said, it’s still a darn sight better than Prometheus.
The Counselor gets 5/10.
SAVING MR. BANKS
Try to think of an occasion on which you've seen the celebrated Mr. Walt Disney portrayed in film. Simply put, you can’t: the Disney corporation has fiercely guarded the image of their founder, almost as fiercely as their iconic mascot. It’s only now, some 47 years after his death, that the creator of the beloved Mickey Mouse makes his first appearance in fiction. Who better then to capture his twinkly geniality than another cinematic legend, Tom Hanks?
Saving Mr. Banks, though, is not the story of Disney and the birth of his dream factory, but of P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, and Disney’s attempt to solicit from her the movie rights. Miss Travers – as she insists on being known – is played by none other than Emma Thompson, a British national treasure perhaps best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Remains of the Day. Travers herself, however, is more reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins’ character in that same film: prim, fastidious, and nursing a secret wound.
Saving Mr. Banks focuses on a trip Travers made to California in 1961, brought there that Walt Disney might try his charm in person. Frequent flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in rural Australia serve to illuminate her attachment to her creation, especially as she relates to the figure of Travers’ roguishly charming but put-upon alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). If this sounds like a dark, complex topic for a Disney movie, it is, of course, never less than family friendly in its treatment
Of course, the film has a lot of fun in its evocation of the classic movie. Thompson’s Travis is wonderfully snippy in her dismissal of Mary Poppins as “careering towards a happy ending like a kamikaze” and hectoring the film’s lyricists, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) for making up a word (prompting Schwartzman to quickly hide the sheet music to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. However cynical you may be, Saving Mr. Banks’ nostalgia factor is irresistible.
Which is not to say there are no depths. Saving Mr. Banks revolves around Travers’ journey towards letting go of the past, such as in the fraught association between her own father, Travers Goff, and the figure of Mr. Banks. As she exasperatedly remarks to Walt, Mary Poppins isn’t there to save the children at all, though the film dares to suggest that Disney’s attempt to adapt the book may just save her, if only by finally forcing her to confront these issues.
If never quite fascinating as a study of a deeply unhappy woman – Travers’ problems are too lightly and broadly sketched for that – Saving Mr. Banks nevertheless succeeds in bringing to life Disney’s creator. Hanks’ Walt is loquacious and expansive; if a little caricaturist, wandering the streets of Disneyland with his pre-signed autographs. However, Hanks also lends him an indefinable authority: silence falls when he enters a room, not merely out of respect to but because of his presence.
Paul Giamatti appears as Travers’ L.A. chauffeur, Ralph, whose buoyant nature belies his own troubles, while Ruth Wilson shows the true cost of Travers’ father’s recklessness as her tormented mother, Margaret. The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford is largely wasted as strenuously well-mannered screenwriter, Don DaGradi, but it’s a small enough complaint in a film that otherwise gets so much mileage out of Travers’ biographical jaunt across the pond.
Saving Mr. Banks is heartening and humane, one of the most genuinely feel-good films I can remember seeing in a longtime. It may provide little insight into the figure at its head, but that is, perhaps, to be expected. Thompson and Travers may well pick up Oscar nods for their performances, and deservedly so. In any case, after five years of the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney is back on live-action form. If this is what it takes for Disney to make good drama, maybe they should stick to self-nostalgia.
Saving Mr. Banks gets 8.0/10.