Woman in Gold – A Review

A fan of Helen Mirren, I make a point of seeing all her films. She usually exceeds all expectations and such was the case with her superb portrayal of Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish woman intent on seeking justice and reclaiming her heritage. I was pleasantly surprised by Ryan Reynolds who delivered a stellar performance as Randy Schoenberg, the inexperienced but determined young lawyer who helps Maria fight a lengthy court battle that takes the unlikely duo from Vienna to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Klimt’s famous painting, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1” is at the heart of Maria’s determination to recover property illegally stolen by the Nazis. Considered the Mona Lisa of Austria, the painting has hung for decades in the National Museum of the Belvedere Palace. It is not surprising that the Austrian establishment presents so much resistance. But Maria has a special connection with her beloved Aunt Adele (figure in the painting) and persuades an initially reluctant Randy to take on her case. As the legal battle drags on, both characters experience financial and emotional strain. But Randy bounces back and persuades Maria to keep fighting.

Set in Austria and the United States, the film also includes flashbacks to World War II. Tatiana Maslany skillfully portrays young Maria during this turbulent period. Good supporting performances were also delivered by Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Elizabeth McGovern, and Jonathon Pryce.

Several days have passed and I’m still thinking about this film. Definitely worth seeing.


Almost two years have passed since reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, but the powerful scenes and vivid imagery in Wild have lingered in memory. I eagerly awaited the film adaptation and wondered if 38-year-old Reese Witherspoon could capture all the nuances of a 26-year-old embarking on a journey of self-discovery, or as Cheryl eloquently put it: “Finding the woman my mother thought I was.”

I was not disappointed. In fact, I was riveted by the Oscar-worthy performances of Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who played Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi.

A bit of back story…

After Bobbi died of cancer at age 45, Cheryl’s life took a downward turn. Her wild love for her mother turned into wild sorrow and then she went wild into her life. Hungry for affirmation, she indulged in bouts of sexual promiscuity and drug addiction. Fed up, her husband asked for a divorce. Unhappy and desperate, Cheryl picked up a guidebook about the Pacific Crest Trail and six months later started hiking from the Mojave Desert to Oregon, a distance of over one thousand miles.

Screenwriter Nick Hornby has skillfully adapted this memoir, interspersing Cheryl’s internal thoughts and a series of flashbacks with an adventure tale featuring the highs and lows of this unimaginable solo trek. From the opening scene, we can feel Cheryl’s anguish while removing a septic toenail and watching one of her boots tumble into a ravine. More unnerving episodes follow, among them dealing with extreme temperatures, running out of water, and encountering a rattlesnake.

Early in the film, thoughts of quitting occupy Cheryl’s mind. The backpack—aptly named Monster—provided the first challenge. It was well over half her weight and Cheryl could barely stand up, let alone walk. Her boots were too small and a constant source of pain. Truthfully, I don’t think I could have lasted one day, let alone three months.

Photos of the real Cheryl Strayed in the closing credits add an authentic touch to this larger-than-life film.

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men is not a traditional World War II film. Based on a real-life treasure hunt, this action drama features an all-star cast led by George Clooney. As aging art expert Frank Stokes, he persuades President Roosevelt to include art recovery as part of the war effort.

Determined to rescue artistic masterpieces from the Nazis, Stokes recruits seven other art specialists played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Sam Epstein. Once in Europe, they split into teams and search for promising leads.

Switching back and forth between the teams made it difficult to keep track of the characters and, for most of the film, I simply thought of them as the “Bill Murray character” or the “Matt Damon character.” While there were several moving scenes, I felt there weren’t enough of them. I would like to have known more about Donald Jeffries’ (Hugh Bonneville) past and why Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) was in exile. My favorite scenes were those with Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett, who plays an art curator and member of the French Resistance.

An extra hour of film time would have added more depth to the characters. Alternatively, the film could have been told from the perspective of the Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett characters, focusing on the budding romance (or not) between them.

Life Lessons from Mary Poppins

In addition to many fond memories of the magical nanny played by Julie Andrews and her side-kick Bert (Dick Van Dyke), a Cockney jack-of-all-trades, I have a great appreciation for the life lessons imparted by Mary Poppins.


Well begun is half-done.

When Mary arrives at the Banks household, she finds the nursery in total disarray. The children are apologetic, but they make no effort to tidy up. With the help of a few magical tricks, Mary sets in motion a whirlwind of events that motivate the children to complete the tasks at hand.

Never judge things by their appearance…even carpetbags.

The children were fascinated by the bottomless carpetbag that yields an assortment of decorative items, among them a hat stand and a lamp. While there was magic in the air, Mary models a valuable lesson to her young charges: Dig deep and you will find your treasures.

As I expected. Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.

There are several lessons here. First of all, Mary is not 100 percent perfect. “Practically” could imply 80 or 90 percent, an achievable percentage and reminiscent of the 80/20 rule. Second, Mary displays a healthy dose of self esteem by setting the bar very high for herself. And most important of all, the magical measuring tape does not display any numbers. Wouldn’t it wonderful if all measuring devices outputted only practical advice and empowering messages?

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Not every task will be pleasant. The trick, according to Mary Poppins, is to find or create elements of fun. It could be singing and sharing jokes while you work or making a game out of a tedious task.

A little spontaneity keeps conversation keen.

Mary sprinkles her conversations and songs with interesting expressions, among them one of the most famous made-up words of all time—Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Even the ultra-conservative Mr. Banks finds himself using the word when involved in a challenging work scenario.

I never explain anything.

Brimming with confidence, Mary is not upset or frazzled when dealing with a reprimand from Mr. Banks. She is not apologetic at any point in the film, moving gracefully from one situation to the next.

I shall stay until the wind changes.

It was not Mary’s intention to become a permanent fixture in the Banks’ household. Once she succeeds in helping Mr. Banks prioritize his life and spend more time with the children, she takes her leave. Had she stayed, it would have been comfortable, but not challenging enough for the effervescent Mary Poppins.

Enough Said

This witty and light-hearted romantic comedy that is probably more “dramadey” features two wonderful performances by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini.

Eva (Dreyfus) and Albert (Gandolfini) are divorced, single parents dreading their daughters’ impending departures for college. They meet at a party where both confess they are not remotely attracted to any of the guests. In spite of this initial ambivalence, Eva and Albert start dating. At the same party, Eva meets and adds a divorced poet (Catherine Keener) to the roster of clients for her masseuse practice.

As an unlikely and often awkward relationship blossoms between Eva and Albert, we see another side of Gandolfini, one that was absent in his former role as Tony Soprano. As Albert, he is thoughtful and caring, willing to drop everything to please others. Eva is charmed, but still reticent about making a full commitment, and when she discovers that Marianne (Keener) is Albert’s ex-wife, she starts picking at the budding relationship.

I loved the acting and dialogue in this well-paced movie and hated to see “The End” flash across the screen. Thoughts of a sequel came to mind, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find another Albert. Had he lived, Gandolfini could have enjoyed a second career as a rom-con king.

American Hustle

Loosely based on the Abscam affair, a real political sting in the 1970s, American Hustle is easily one of the year’s best films. And its A-list actors—Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence—are definitely contenders for the 2014 Golden Globes and Oscars.

While corruption is at the core of this film, it is difficult to pin down each of these complex characters. As the balding and bloated Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale displays the empathetic side of a con artist who actually wants life to work out for others. He bonds with former stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who joins Irving’s scams, posing as a British aristocrat with banking connections.

Volatile F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches up with these partners in crime and coerces them into carrying out his big-time sting. As this unlikely trio works together, Richie falls under Sydney’s spell. Struggling with jealousy, Irving must also deal with his much younger and unpredictable wife, expertly portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence.

I highly recommend this engaging and entertaining film.

Saving Mr. Banks

This movie tugged at my heartstrings as I recalled many fond memories of the classic Mary Poppins. After leaving the theater, I rented the DVD and watched as Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke sang and danced in a magical production that continues to delight viewers of all ages.

While Saving Mr. Banks may not achieve the same acclaim as Mary Poppins, the contemporary film provides an extraordinary back story to the beloved classic.

I was surprised to learn that author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was a difficult woman who did not like children and often spoke her mind. Early in the film, she asks a woman seated near her on the flight to Los Angeles: “Will the child be a nuisance?”

Appalled by the excesses in Los Angeles, Mrs. Travers constantly reprimands the pleasant Disney secretary (Kathy Baker) when she brings in platefuls of food. In her hotel room, she turns a large Mickey Mouse doll to the wall with the following reprimand: “You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety.”

Mrs. Travers appears petty and demanding as she questions every step of the creative process. As the film progresses, however, we discover why she is so protective of Mary Poppins and determined not to depict Mr. Banks as cruel and insensitive. Through a series of flashbacks, we are given glimpses of a dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), a suicidal mother (Ruth Wilson) and an upbeat, orderly aunt (Rachel Giffiths).

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks deliver Oscar-worthy performances in one of the best films of the season. Hanks is very convincing as Walt Disney, effectively capturing the revered founder’s mannerisms, boyishness, and optimism while Thompson nails the part of the prickly author, determined to save Mary Poppins from the excesses of the Disney empire.

Interesting Disney anecdotes involving P.L. Travers…

At the Mary Poppins premiere, Mrs. Travers informed Walt Disney there was still “a lot of work to do” on the movie. Disney responded, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.” The two never spoke again.

Years later, when J.K. Rowling outlined her expectations for a Harry Potter attraction in a theme park, several of the Disney executives recalled the Travers debacle and decided to take a pass. Universal stepped in and acquired the rights.