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.

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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.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Director Lee Daniels faced many daunting tasks while filming Lee Daniels’ The Butler. In addition to the legal wrangling that resulted in adding his name to the title, Daniels had to condense seven decades into two hours, prevent all the famous cameos from becoming a distraction, and effectively demonstrate the conflicts that existed between black fathers and their sons during the Civil Rights Movement.

Forrest Whitaker delivers a stellar performance as Cecil Gaines, the White House butler who believed that the only way to advance in life was to be hard-working and non-confrontational. Two attributes that served Cecil well as he worked through seven presidencies, Eisenhower to Reagan.

His son Louis (David Oyelowo) believed in forcing the issue and taking a stand, behavior that led to threats from the KKK, beatings and incarceration. After Martin Luther King’s death, Louis became even more radical and joined the Black Panthers.

The tension between father and son lasts decades and contributes to even more turmoil in Cecil’s home. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is an alcoholic who resents Cecil’s devotion to his job. Despite limited screen time, Winfrey delivers an excellent performance in this supporting role. Other notable supporting actors include Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, and Vanessa Redgrave.

During the 1960s, I was aware of the turbulent race relations in the United States, but this film clarified many of those issues and, more importantly, demonstrated how the White House dynamics changed during the second half of the twentieth century. While “dramatic license” was taken with real-life Eugene Allen’s life (inspiration for Cecil Gaines), all the White House scenes actually happened. I found many of these scenes amusing; in particular, the Lyndon Johnson bathroom scene.

An excellent film worthy of many Oscar nominations. Bring Kleenex—you’ll need it.



Blue Jasmine

It is definitely Cate Blanchett’s show. She delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Jasmine (née Jeannette), the middle-aged trophy wife who is the dazed victim of a financial scandal involving her former husband Hal (Alec Baldwin).

The film opens with Jasmine arriving in San Francisco, broke but still flying first class with a full set of Louis Vuitton luggage. Also homeless, she is forced to depend upon the kindness of her estranged sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who is romantically involved with blue-collar Chili (Bobby Cannavale).  Shades of A Streetcar Named Desire. Interestingly enough, Blanchett also played Blanche DuBois on stage.

I could feel Jasmine’s discomfort during that double date with one of Chili’s friends and the scenes with her overly amorous dentist employer. In spite of her many pretentious comments and cringe-worthy behavior, I sympathized with this delusional woman, attempting to pick up the shards of her shattered life.

 A long-time fan of Cate Blanchett, I believe this is her best performance to date. Throughout the film, I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she allowed us frightening glimpses into Jasmine’s fear, panic and vulnerability.

I also enjoyed the flashbacks involving Alec Baldwin. With his trademark grin, he nails the character of the con man in Brooks Brothers clothing.

I highly recommend this post-crash fable.