December 20, 2013


Are we all agreed that “Saving Mr. Banks” is the Worst. Movie. Title. Ever? Good. First: Who is Mr. Banks? He’s the father of the little family in “Mary Poppins,” and the filmmakers must have assumed that we all had massive group recollection on that one. Second: “Banks” rhymes with “Hanks” who plays Walt Disney. Third: Tom Hanks was in the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” All so bloody confusing. Maybe they were trying to testosterize the title (seeing that the main character is a woman), but they didn’t really need to do that because just Hanks’ presence in the film is enough for moviegoers, AND there’s such a wonderful interplay of the masculine and feminine between them, as well as flashbacks to the authoress’ relationship with her own father.

Notwithstanding the title, “Saving Mr. Banks” does succeed as a movie, which must have been a very difficult feat to achieve. Think about it: A prickly, precise, practically perfect British authoress does not want to sell (sell out) her “Mary Poppins” character to Walt Disney so he can turn her into a singing, dancing bit of fluff. And God forbid he should cast Dick Van Dyke or add animated, soft-shoe-ing penguins.  That’s the unexceptional premise. So how does the movie unfold?

At least half of the movie is set in authoress Mrs. Travers’ (a spot-on Emma Thompson who should get an Oscar for “facial expressiveness”) childhood. The flashbacks are mainly about Mrs. Travers’ relationship with her beloved father, who, although he loved his little princess and was probably responsible for her fertile imagination, was an alcoholic and did not provide well for his family. An alternate title for this film could easily be: “When Life Disappoints.”

Many of the laughs come from Mrs. Travers’ utter disdain, no, horror at all things American. She shuns our optimism, vulgarity, juvenility, food, and even our sunshine. But she is in a predicament where she desperately needs the money that selling the Mary Poppins character to Disney would bring her. However, Mary Poppins is “family” to her, so she postpones signing over the rights while still micromanaging every step of the script. Walt Disney and his collaborators know that she could pull the plug at any time, and that’s what makes it all so precarious every step of the way. She keeps recalling her father’s suspicious attitude toward money and his love of make-believe (what he called his “Celtic soul”).

Disney simply does not know how to please her, but as a fellow artist/creator, he knows how difficult it is to let go of a character. That’s exactly the way he feels about The Mouse. But that doesn’t mean he’s taking “no” for an answer. To arrive at “yes,” he must dig deep into Mrs. Travers’ soul and find out what makes her tick. Even here, it turns out, they are very much alike.

There are some fleeting visual glances intimating that Mrs. Travers might practice Buddhism, or be inspired by it. And her father’s “this life is just an illusion,” is a little disturbing. (Also, the bookends: “feeling it all happened before.”) If you’ve ever lived in L.A., you know that Buddhism is the religion of choice (for Westerners not raised in Buddhism). When Westerners graft Buddhism onto their existing Western mentality, it can quite literally mean that “we’re not real,” and “nothing really matters.”A fellow student  (Christian turned Buddhist) in my UCLA screenwriting program incorporated an abortion into his screenplay. Because of his belief in reincarnation, he reasoned: “It doesn’t matter if we kill the baby’s body, because its soul will get to come back in another body.” Ideas have consequences. But I diverge.*

If you enjoy behind-the-scenes looks at Hollywood, how things came to be, or hashing out stories, this is your film. It’s great to watch the writing/songwriting team trying to find the heart of the story. This is Disney Films telling a story about a Disney film story. As I watched, I thought: I’d love to see Walt Disney’s own story.

What is the takeaway? Forgiveness, letting go, healing, redemption through imagination (love this concept!), finding interior freedom, choosing joy over sadness.
*And don’t get me started on “Kung Fu Panda” and "Eat, Love, Pray"! What is the Christian view here? The world is NOT an illusion, but it is passing away “as we know it” (1 Corinthians 7:31). There will be a “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17, Revelation 21:1), but it is very dependent—for  us--on what we do in reality here and now.


--Look for the “Sleeping with the Enemy” scene!

--Stuffy London meets Swinging L.A in the 1960’s. Very funny.

--I am not a fan of Hanks, but he is very enjoyable in this film. Ditto Colin Farrell.

--The soundtrack is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious by the stratospheric talent of Thomas Newman. It’s old-timey without being sappy, grand, contemporary and fresh. One of the performances included in soundtrack is by the wondrous Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Yessssss.

--In the beginning, the flashbacks are very heavy-handed. EVERYTHING reminds her of her childhood and whoosh! we are transported back in time. But the uneven storytelling eventually evens out and we become invested in her early life.

--Good to see Kathy Baker! And Rachel Griffiths!

--So American! If a word doesn’t exist, we just make it up! (And just about everything else, too.)

--THEOLOGY OF THE BODY: Mrs. Travers sticks up for motherhood (when male writers want Mrs. Banks to have a job because she isn’t “doing anything.”)

--LOOSE ENDS: When asked if she has children, Mrs. Travers answers “not precisely.” Mrs. Travers keeps looking sadly at couples, but nothing it said of her love life, and it’s never resolved. The stakes of Mrs. Travers' needing the money to save her house (remembering how she lost her house as a child) should have been higher, more dire, more urgent, IMHO.

--Mrs. Travers: “Rain makes things grow.” Limo driver (Paul Giamatti in a very humble role): “So does the sun.”

--The reveal/conclusion/speech in Act 3 is a bit convoluted.

--Movies feels a tad long, but it’s only 85 minutes.

--This movie could have bored us to death, but it didn’t.

--May I just say that “catharsis” used to mean being able to experience the pain of OTHERS. Now it’s just about experiencing our OWN.

--Commerce and Art are NOT mutually exclusive.

--There are two kinds of people: those who love musicals and those who don’t.

--Oh-oh. I found myself identifying with Mrs. Travers sometimes. I prided myself on having lived in SoCal for 5 years and coming away unscathed by a visit to Disneyland. (I couldn’t imagine a place on earth that would make me UNhappier.) I’m more of a Warner Brothers girl: Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote, Tweetie, Taz, Bugs Bunny and my fav: Daffy Duck. Thuffering Thuccotash!

--I would never have seen this movie on my own (were it not assigned me by sweet gig at LifeTeen) due to Disney and Hanks.

--Filmed in nice, bright, popping colors!

--Was Walt Disney really a nice guy?

--A woman savior! A strong maternal woman of mystery! Nannies rock. Everyone needs a nanny. Especially grownups.

--How we wish the ones we love would change, even just a little bit.

--"Don't you want to finish the story?" Our stories aren't finished yet....

This review with cool graphics:

December 17, 2013


“Nebraska”--the latest offering from director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”)--is more of Payne’s unblinking look at the difficulty of human relationships and relatedness. Reminiscent of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” “Nebraska” is in the road trip film genre, a physical journey of an old man (a mesmerizing performance by Bruce Dern, of whom it has been said that he has an “unmatched natural acting style”) trying to set things right for himself.

Woody, the old man in question, is a flawed human being, but no more flawed than anyone else. He is completely average. His demon side is his drinking, and his angel side is that he wants to help everyone (and thus gets taken advantage of). Oh, and he also “believes what people tell him.” Because of this, he believes he has won a million dollars when he receives a sweepstakes mailing promotion. His son David (Will Forte in a serious role, enhanced by his sad, droopy eyes is a bit of a revelation) is an enabler, a dutiful son, a buddy, and almost a tender parent to his father. He humors him and goes along with the charade.

Does Woody REALLY believe he won a million dollars when everyone around him (except David) is telling him he didn’t? Somewhere down deep, probably not, but the sweepstakes letter has become his great hope, his raison d’etre, and he even sleeps with it. When you discover the reason for Woody’s fantasy (I’m no spoiler!), you will realize this film is NOT about dreams as I first thought it was.

The screenwriter has an incredible understanding of the older generation. I think we will all see our elderly parents, grandparents, relatives or neighbors in Woody and his contemporaries.

THEOLOGY OF THE BODY? Two contrasting views of marriage! Woody and Kate (Woody’s wife who is constantly berating him, June Squibb) knew that marriage was what you did. You commit and then you stick it out. David and Noel--his live-in girlfriend of two years who just moved out—aren’t as sure about commitment. But in both cases, the men are more concerned about sex and the women are more concerned about getting on with the permanency of the relationship. There are some good-natured digs at (along with some admiration of) Catholics being about having babies--(Yay! I wear that proudly!)—and then a questioning of the whole notion of divorce today (say what?—that’s even a question today??? In a film???): “Divorce used to be a sin. I guess God changed his mind.”

Don’t be turned off by the vulgarities you may see in clips of this movie. (Most of the vulgarities come from Kate, and are not all throughout the film.) I guess marketing figured it would be a selling point. But I know people who lost interest in the film because of these clips. Even if you’re incensed by profanity (and the name of the Lord being frequently taken in vain), I would encourage you to look beyond to this touching (and very funny) story about truth, hope, marriage, but mostly about a father and a son who have already reached an understanding even before they set out together on an impossible (or is it?) trek.


--“Nebraska” is a black and white film which suits it so perfectly. We are caught up in people’s expressions, and the small, rather desolate farming towns are bleak anyway.

--Pleeeeeeze give Dern an Oscar! I know there’s stiff competition with Chiwetel Ejiofor from “12 Years a Slave,” but pleeeeeze! Dern’s an old man! This is his last chance!

--Kate says the nastiest things with the most gleeful look on her face. You will criticize, judge, condemn, giggle with, forgive and applaud Kate at different times in this film. I would NOT be surprised if June Squibb is nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She is Woody’s perfect foil.

--I thought David’s brother, Ross, was Kevin Costner for the whole film. It’s Bob Odenkirk. Tell me he does not look uncannily like Costner. With a little plastic surgery.

--Life is tough. Love is tougher.

--There were several points in the film I just wanted to CHEER.

--This film is not about fading away gracefully or ungracefully or about closure. It’s about living. It simply doesn’t matter how old you are. We can always grow and change and LIVE. (Notice how much Woody sleeps and then when he finally perks up.)

--I cried when Peg Nagy almost did.

--Men will understand the theme of HONOR in this film.

--The most broken and ordinariest of lives matter. These two lines from “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” kept rolling around in my head during the movie: “And we'll guard each man's dignity /
And save each man's pride.”
Watch how David does this for his father.

--You DO know that Bruce Dern is Laura Dern’s father, right?

--Another Korean war vet story (like “Gran Torino”).

--Watch how many times people say and do the exact opposite of what they just said/did.

--I would die in a non-talkative family!

--Woody’s sad, roughed-up childhood “doesn’t matter,” but he looks forward with hope to a bright future.

--Love the attention to detail (character has to get a chair and pull it up to the table), and the old-fashioned language: “cool your jets,” “it’s a total come-on,” “you dumb cluck.”

--Yummy, homey, homely settings.

--Is that what humans look like watching TV? Truly terrifying.

--This story is partly told in SIGNS. All kinds of signs: highway signs, store signs, neon signs. My favorite: “MONSTER TAN” in the middle of a sparsely-populated, dilapidated center of town.

--Payne went to UCLA for film. Me too! Me too!

--Payne has gotten kinder and kinder to his characters through the years. “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants.” So let me go on record that I pretty strongly disagree with most of Chris Nashawaty's review in "Entertainment Weekly," November 22, 2013.

--The only time Woody looks ashamed in front of his son (and he has a few things to be ashamed of) is when Woody’s old frenemy tells David—right in front of Woody—about Woody’s infidelity when he was married to David’s mother.

--Some interesting excuses for exposition: going to a graveyard and talking about the folks at their tombstones, driving down the road and talking about who lives in the houses.

--There’s a fair amount of unnecessary repetition in the film, but it’s not annoying. Only two lines stuck out as totally on-the-nose (and they happen toward the beginning): “He didn’t care s*** about us,” and the constant threat to put Woody in a “home.”

--“Nebraska” is a master class in set-ups and pay-offs in film. Payoffs are so often visual.

--Truly VISUAL storytelling and some great use of AUDIO.

--The humor is sheer Midwestern deadpan.

--My favorite line is whenever Woody says: "It doesn't matter." #KnowingWhatMattersIsEverything

--Some of the ribald humor actually works well to comedic effect (and unexpectedly reveals something about Kate).

--Some very clever and creative mis-en-scenes: looking through the windshield while driver and passenger exchange places. Just LOTS of visually interesting shots. No shot feels perfunctory. Payne is meticulous and precise in everything he does, anyway. According to, Payne is on a short list of directors who have final cut rights to their own films. “Nebraska” feels like an indie film. A welcome relief from the formulaic, super-shiny, more-android-than-human characters in so many Hollywood blockbusters.

--We need way more HUMANIZING films like this. Thank you, Alexander Payne!

--In Alexander Payne’s own words (I love his philosophy of filmmaking!):

I want all of my films to belong to me. There is an audience out there for literate films - slower, more observant, more human films, and they deserve to be made. Which is why I want Sideways (2004) to succeed, to encourage other film-makers.

While accepting his Director of the Year award for Sideways (2004) at the Palm Spring Film Festival: "I thank you for this award, though I think there may be a problem with a world in which making small, human and humorous films is 'an achievement.' It should be the norm".

We don't have movies about ourselves, and we don't have a national film culture. It shouldn't be an epic aspiration to make simple human stories, but it is.

Where is it written that if you are not getting your money from a studio you have more freedom? If I had tried to make Sideways with independent funding I would have had to secure foreign presales and cast big stars in order to get my budget. This movie took a studio to say 'We're gambling on you. Cast whoever you want.'

It's my hope that we're getting into an era where the value of a film is based on its proximity to real life rather than its distance from it. To do that, you need actors - stars, basically - who don't necessarily look like Ben Affleck.

When I'm shooting I don't care who the star is. I have an actor playing a part, and I'm serving the script, not serving anyone's career. My hope is that, after twenty minutes, perhaps the audience forgets it is George Clooney or Jack Nicholson and just sees the character.

One of cinema's greatest uses or values lies not just in it's ability to capture reality, but to capture or suggest dreams. And silent films excelled from the start in fully embracing the weirdness of real life and dream and how the two can be combined into a story, the likes of which I think, we've not seen in the talkies - a fuller, weirder totality of human experience.

Great interview with Payne about his getting into filmmaking: (Sadly, though, Payne also made "Citizen Ruth" because he thought the contention between pro-life and pro-abortion people made great fodder for comedy.)