Tag: Kathy Baker

Saving Mr Banks (2013)

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson clash on the making of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr Banks

Director: John Lee Hancock

Cast: Emma Thompson (Pamela Travers), Tom Hanks (Walt Disney), Colin Farrell (Travers Robert Goff), Ruth Wilson (Margaret Goff), Paul Giamatti (Ralph), Bradley Whitford (Don DaGradi), Jason Schwartzman (Richard M Sherman), BJ Novak (Robert B Sherman), Kathy Baker (Tommie), Melanie Paxson (Dolly), Rachel Griffiths (Ellie), Ronan Vibert (Diarmuid Russell)

Walt Disney was a man used to getting what he wanted. And what he wanted more than anything was the rights to PL Travers’ Mary Poppins series. It was his kids favourite books, and he had promised them he would make the movie. It took decades – and Disney had to wait until Travers needed the money – but finally a deal was struck, with Travers having full script approval. So the hyper-English Travers is flown across the Atlantic to Los Angeles where she reacts with a brittle horror to every single suggestion from the Mary Poppins creative team, and distaste at the commercialisation of Disney’s enterprise. Based on the actual recordings (which Travers insisted on) from the script meetings, Emma Thompson is the imperious PL Travers and Tom Hanks the avuncular Walt Disney.

John Lee Hancock’s film is a solid crowd pleaser that, if it feels like it hardly delivers a completely true picture of the making of Mary Poppins, does put together an entertaining and interesting idea of the difficult process of creation and the tensions when writers (who don’t want to change a thing!) clash with film production companies. These problems being made worse by the clashing worlds of the loose, casualness and breezy friendliness of Los Angeles, and the intensely cold, buttoned-up Edwardianism of Travers, hostile to all shows of affection and any touches of sentimentality.

The film gets more than a lot of comic mileage out of these mixed worlds, with Travers’ every look of aghast, repressed, British reserve (“Poor AA Milne” she mutters while manhandingly a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh toy out of her way, followed by “You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety” as she dumps a massive Mickey Mouse cuddily toy against the wall of her bedroom) bound to raise sniggers at both her blunt hostility and cut-glass wit. Against this the American characters – all of them forced to dance to her tune – meet wave after wave of hostility with a practised American friendliness and warmth. It works a treat.

The film walks a fine line with its portrayal of Disney who is both a charming uncle figure and also a savvy and even ruthless businessman. Tom Hanks is spot-on with showing both sides of this man, making it clear how he managed to make so much damn money but also from how he managed to inspire such loyalty from many of his staff. Yes the film soft-peddles on many of Disney’s negatives – from refusing to show a single second of Disney smoking, to no mention of his active union-busting activities – but this is a film focused on Disney the impresario and negotiator. 

And what a person to negotiate with! That the film works is almost exclusively down to Emma Thompson’s imperious performance in the lead role. Thompson has a very difficult job here of turning someone so consistently rude, aggressive, arrogant and unpleasant as Travers (and over half of the film goes by before she says something nice to anyone) into a character we genuinely invest in, care about and laugh with as much as gasp at her rudeness. It’s a real trick from Thompson, adding a great deal if inner pain and vulnerability just below the surface, but only allowing a few beats of letting these feelings out for all the world to see. It makes for a performance that is superbly funny, hugely rude but also someone we end up caring about.

A lot of that spins from the careful recreation of Travers’ past in flashback, particularly her relationship with her father, Travers Goff (played with charm by Colin Farrell), an alcoholic bank manager in Australia when Travers was a child, who lived a life of irresponsibility mixed with bursts of playful, imaginative games with his daughter. It’s the realisation, by the elderly Travers, that her father was feckless and irresponsible that motivates her writing of Mary Poppins, the super-Nanny who flies in and saves not just the whole family, but specifically the father. Equally good in these sequences is Ruth Wilson as the despairing Mrs Goff.

It adds a sadness to the backstory of Travers – and an understanding of why she behaves the way she does – and the film also brings it round to a neat mutual meeting ground between her and Disney, who himself had problems with a father who drove him hard to achieve. It also explains Travers’ growing warmth to her chauffer, played by Paul Giamatti as a loving dad, the one person she demonstrates some affection to within the film.

It’s a film that wants to have its cake and eat it though, and it can’t resist adding a “happy ending” to the story of Travers finally accepting (even if she denies it) that she enjoys the Mary Poppins film and is moved by the saving of Mr Banks that it contains. In reality of course, Travers hated the film (though claimed some of it was passable) and refused Disney all permission to ever make any sequel. But that hardly matters here, to this fairy tale of saved souls which wants to see Travers saved – even if the truth was far more complex.

Cold Mountain (2003)

Nicole Kidman and Jude Law are souls in love separated by war in Cold Mountain

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Jude Law (WP Inman), Nicole Kidman (Ada Monroe), Renée Zellweger (Ruby Thewes), Eileen Atkins (Maddy), Kathy Baker (Sally Swanger), James Gammon (Esco Swanger), Brendan Gleeson (Stobrod Thewes), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Reverend Veasey), Natalie Portman (Sara), Giovanni Ribisi (Junior), Lucas Black (Oakley), Donald Sutherland (Reverend Monroe), Cillian Murphy (Bardolph), Jack White (Georgia), Ray Winstone (Teague), Melora Walters (Lila), Charlie Hunnam (Bosie)

There was no difficult novel Anthony Minghella couldn’t adapt for the big screen. Cold Mountain is as beautiful and handsome a film as any he made, and his masterful scripting of a complex story is testament to his skill. So why is Cold Mountain not more loved? Is it because it’s almost too well made, too handsomely mounted, too literary and intelligent? Is it, actually, trying a little too hard? Is it a Cold Mountain itself, a giant structure of beauty but with an icy heart?

Based on Charles Frazier’s novel, set in the final days of the American Civil War, confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law), knowing the war is lost, deserts to return to the woman he loves, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). The two of them have only spoken a few times but they feel a deep personal bond. During the years of war, poverty has hit preacher’s daughter Ada, although she has crafted a life-changing friendship with 18th century trailer trash Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger) which has helped her survive. As Inman’s odyssey home leads to him encountering a number of different vignettes that show the despair Civil War has brought to America, Ada struggles to survive and avoid the sinister attentions of home guard enforcer Teague (Ray Winstone).

There is so much to admire in Cold Mountain I want to start there. The photography is beautiful, and the film is assembled with a striking grace and skill. Walter Murch’s editing and sound design is perfect, with each shot of the film being fabulously composed and each carrying a specific message and purpose that contributes to the overall impact. The use of music – a collaboration between T Bone Burnett and Gabriel Yared – is perfect, a series of wonderful period compositions and impactful orchestral pieces. 

Everything about how Minghella captures the feel of the time, the mood of the South heading into war, and the disintegration of social conventions as the war takes hold and lays waste to the land, rings completely true. From the celebrations of the young men at the film’s start, to the increasingly haunted, tragic look of Jude Law’s Inman as he discovers new horrors at every point in his journey, you know war is hell. Minghella ironically opens the film with a catastrophic defeat for the North – but the slaughter disgusts Inman, and his burial under mounds of rubble during an explosion leads to a spiritual rebirths with Inman deciding senseless killing isn’t worth the candle any more. In a war of willing volunteers, how do we respond when these volunteers don’t want to keep fighting?

And why should they, as each of the various vignettes Inman walks through is a wasteland of moral collapse? From a sex-obsessed preacher (an amusing performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has lost his morals to a tragic widow desperately trying to feed her baby (Natalie Portman, effectively stealing the whole show with an intense performance of utter desolation), everything Inman sees shows that nothing is worth all this. The film gets a very good sense of the drive that pushes Inman forward: constantly moving, he’s rarely seen sitting or resting. Each of the Odyssey-inspired stories gives him something to reflect on, or another opportunity for moral and emotional torment , from dragging bodies in a chain gang to avoiding the lustful advances of a group of hillbilly sirens who trap deserters for money.

Meanwhile, things ain’t much better on the homefront, where corrupt bullies like Teague (a slightly too obvious Ray Winstone) are enforcing their own law at the expense of justice. Poverty is also the impact of war, and poor Ada suffers hugely from this, as supplies run low and eventually out. Minghella’s swift and skilful establishment of character shows from the start how Ada is a stranger in a strange land, a middle-class town girl who is completely unsuited for country life and utterly unready to fend for herself when the chips are down without support. 

Is it any wonder in this world, that Inman and Ada cling to memories? Part of the film’s effect depends on how you respond to the romantic bond between these two clinging to a few brief moments (a few exchanges and one immensely passionate kiss on the day of Inman’s departure). It’s an old-fashioned, sweeping, love story and it depends on you relating to that old-fashioned mythic love story. I’m not sure that the film quite sells this as effectively as it could do. Somehow, perhaps because Inman is so insular and Ada a little too difficult to relate to, the passion between them can’t quite carry the sweep that the film demands, even as Minghella skilfully intercuts between them.

Nicole Kidman in particular feels miscast as Ada. Kidman is too intelligent, too determined and strong a performer to convince as a woman who is unable to look after herself and nearly succumbs to fear – she’s just not an actress I can picture cowering in fear in front of an angry rooster. Kidman does her best, but the character never really wins the sympathy that we need for the performance to work. Jude Law has much more to work with as Inman, brilliantly communication a whole world of feeling with very little dialogue. 

What works less well with Law is that his plotline just doesn’t quite grip enough. The vignettes are often entertaining, but feel like episodic sketches, and the sense of a building picture of the despair of the South doesn’t quite come into shape as much in practice as it does in theory. Frankly, after a while, you are ready for Inman’s journey to come to an end and for him to intersect with Ada’s plotline back at Cold Mountain (which is built around a consistent group of characters who engage our interest).

In the home front storyline you’ll be relieved with the entrance (almost an hour into the film) of Renée Zellweger’s blowsy Ruby, a loud-mouthed, trailer-trash woman with a heart of gold and a mastery of farming who effectively saves Ada’s life. It’s a loud, big, Oscar-winning performance from Zellweger that plays with being a little broad, but is skilfully balanced by the slow reveal that this personality is a cover that Ruby uses to hide her own pain. Added to this depth, her heart-warming presence carries such simple pleasure and colour compared to the more muted performances from the leads that you welcome it. 

Because Inman and Ada don’t quite work as a romantic couple. There is something slightly cold about them, slightly hard to relate to. And for all the intense and brilliant construction and filming of the film – and the mastery of Minghella’s writing and direction – it never makes them into the sort of classic romantic couple you care for. You want to connect with it more than you ever really do, and whether that is down to miscasting or the lack of intense chemistry between them I’m not sure, but it means Cold Mountain never becomes the great romantic tragedy it should be. You want a film this good to be as good as it feels – and it never quite is.

The Cider House Rules (1999)

Michael Caine and Tobey Maguire deal with moral dilemmas in this handsome adaptation of John Irving’s Dickensian novel

Director: Lasse Hallström

Cast: Tobey Maguire (Homer Wells), Michael Caine (Dr. Wilbur Larch), Charlize Theron (Candy Kendall), Paul Rudd (Lt. Wally Worthington), Delroy Lindo (Arthur Rose), Erykah Badu (Rose Rose), Heavy D (Peaches), K. Todd Freeman (Muddy), Kieran Culkin (Buster), Jane Alexander (Nurse Edna), Kathy Baker (Nurse Angela), Kate Nelligan (Olive Worthington), J.K. Simmons (Ray Kendall) 

The Cider House Rules is the sort of well-constructed literary adaptation that Hollywood excels at producing: a well-crafted script (Irving adapted his own novel extremely well), juggling serious affairs without hectoring the audience, handsomely mounted, with a Dickensian style and a cast of heavyweight actors delivering performances that speak of their investment in the film.

In a Maine orphanage in the 1940s, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is raised by Dr Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) as a surrogate son. Larch is a domineering autocrat with a passionate love for his charges, whose humanitarian instincts lead him to perform illegal abortions. Troubled by this – and feeling pressured into succeeding Larch’s as director – Homer leaves with a young woman (Charlize Theron) and her fiancée (Paul Rudd) after she visits for an abortion. Working as an apple picker in their orchard, under Mr Rose (Delroy Lindo), Homer learns important lessons above love and duty.

There are many similar films that feel like dull awards-bait, and the fact that this one avoids that is a major point in its favour. It’s very easy with material like this – cute orphans and tear-jerking speeches – to feel Cider House is a manipulative film (and I guess in a way it is) but it’s put together with such commitment and sincerity I found it genuinely moving. Hallström’s warm and beautifully paced direction creates a marvellous coming-of-age tale with characters whose flaws can be as deep as their warmth is vibrant.

The film also manages to move beyond its ‘coming-of-age’ roots with intelligent (but not too heavy-handed) mulling on the nature of “rules” – both those imposed on us and those we impose on others. Dr Larch (a magnetic performance by Oscar-winner Michael Caine) is a maverick, disregarding the abortion laws as he believes it is better he does abortions rather than someone untrained; he is also perfectly willing to impose his own rules on Homer as testaments to be followed without question. Similarly the “Cider House Rules” written on the wall of the apple workers’ lodgings are rejected outright by the working gang for their own unspoken code of conduct, no more effective than the system it replaces. All the characters are forced to draft their own rules (or principles) they can live with, matching their circumstances and actions.

The film also looks gently at the conflict between our desires and our duties, with Homer and Candy both yearning for freedom from their natural inclinations to have something to serve. This is presented as a struggle without a natural “right or wrong”, even if the apple orchard is a loose Garden of Eden, into which evil is admitted with tragic (and life-changing) consequences. A small criticism would be that the charismatic warmth of Caine’s performance and the family atmosphere of the orphanage are so endearing that it does unbalance the dilemma Homer eventually faces – instead of the audience feeling as torn as Homer about whether he should stay or return, most audience members I think would want him to return to the orphanage forthwith!

Tobey Maguire is so perfectly cast as the naïve in some ways, wordly wise in others, old-boy-young-man that he effectively reprised Homer Wells as Peter Parker a few years later. His sweet face –uncomplicated innocence and charm are in every twitch of his smile – carries the film, and his easy-going desire for a simple life makes perfect sense of the character’s rebellion against Larch’s benevolent dictation. Equally good for me though is Theron as Candy. She is a wonderfully expressive performer: midway through the film she is caught off-guard by an overlong hug from Homer, and a series of conflicted emotions from shock, to guilt, to attraction play across her face.

There is hardly a weak performance in the film, with Hallström drawing excellent work from the young orphans. Amongst the sprawling, Dickensian feeling cast, Caine is marvellous as the part dictator, part humanitarian Larch making a larger-than-life character feel real and grounded. Lindo captures the pride mixed with arrogance of Mr Rose. There are plenty of other excellent performances, not least from Baker and Alexander as two contrasting nurses in the orphanage.

I almost feel slightly guilty for the impact Cider House Rules had on me. In many ways it’s exactly the sort of safe, middle-of-the-road “serious” drama that seems designed to attract the notice of Oscar voters. But it’s told with a great deal of skill and dedication, and delivers so many emotional moments with warmth and feeling, I found myself genuinely moved by it. In fact I felt a bit teary at least twice. This is closely linked to some excellent performances – and a wonderful swelling musical score by Rachel Portman – but despite being the sort of middle brow Hollywood film it’s fashionable (and easy) to attack, I thought this was engaging, moving and thought provoking from start to finish.