Movie Reviews: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)


Title: Saving Mr. Banks
Release Date: November 29, 2013
Director: John Lee Hancock
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Ruby Films | Essential Media and Entertainment | BBC Films | Hopscotch Features
Summary/Review:

This movie dramatizes the two week period when author P.L. Travers travels from her home in London to Los Angeles to work on the Walt Disney Studios adaptation of her Mary Poppins’ books.  Since Travers is a British woman, Emma Thompson is, of course, cast to play her, while Walt Disney is obviously portrayed by American actor Tom Hanks.  I jest, they both do a great job, although its more of a challenge for Hanks because Disney is already well-known from his tv appearances.

Travers is cranky and dismissive of the whimsy and sentiment that is the cornerstone of the Disney empire, and basically hopes to sabotage the adaptation.  Disney comes off kind of creepy – a mansplainer who insists on calling her “Pam” when she asks to be called “Mrs. Travers” and acting as if Mary Poppins is his story as well.  Hanks’ Disney sees Travers standoffishness as a characteristic of her womanhood rather than recognizing her as a fellow artist who wants to protect her creation.

Working with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and music composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) stirs up memories of Travers childhood in a remote part of Australia when she was known by her birthname Helen “Ginty” Goff.  She is an imaginative child who looks up to her adventurous father (Colin Farrell) who takes greater interest in playing with her than his job as a bank manager.  It’s slowly revealed that he is an alcoholic and that he is in failing health.  An aunt who comes to help the family when he is bedridden is depicted as the firm and practical person who restores order to the household, and also the influence for Mary Poppins (albeit a surprisingly small part in this movie). Scenes in 1961 Los Angeles blend into flashbacks of the Australian outback in the early 1900s.

The movie is an excellent and emotionally-rewarding story.  It’s also largely lacking in historical accuracy.  But Hanks’ Disney states flatly that storytelling is creating the story we want to fix what happened in reality.

George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.

It’s up to the audience to decide if that is the correct use of imagination and creativity, or if something is lost in the artifice.

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 8


BackStory :: Songs of Ourselves?

Walt Whitman and the American Imagination on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

The Moth :: Mets, McDonalds, and a White House Secret

The story of the author of “Go the F**k to Sleep” ends up at a fundraiser with Dr. Ferber and a family finds a way to get to see the Mets first World Series championship.

Code Switch :: The Original ‘Welfare Queen’

The story of a con artist, child abductor, and possible murderer whose crimes were used to justify to slash welfare safety nets by the Reagan and Clinton administrations.

99% Invisible :: The Automat

When I was a kid, I loved going to the last surviving Automat in New York City, a surviving relic of Old New York.  This podcasts details the 100 year history of the innovative Horn & Hardart restaurants in Philadelphia and New York that became a cultural touchstone.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Album Review: Cut & Stitch by Petrol Girls


AlbumCut & Stitch
Artist: Petrol Girls
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Big Mouth
  • Monstrous
  • Weather Warning
  • Naive

Thoughts:

I have a soft spot for punk rock that features women’s voices shouting over shredding guitars.  The Petrol Girls website bears the tagline “Raging Feminist Post Hardcore from the UK and Austria” which about sums it up.  And while the shouted lyrics may not always be easy to understand, I appreciate that they’re saying important things, the emotion behind them is clear.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen


This books is my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Greenland

Author: Niviaq Korneliussen
Title: Crimson
Translator: Anna Halager
Publication Info: London : Virago, 2018.
Summary/Review:

I can’t say I know enough about Greenland to have any misconceptions about Greenland, nevertheless I was surprised that this novel was set in an urban area.  The city of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital and largest city with 18,000 people, is described by one of the characters:

“Nuuk is big when there’s somebody you actually want to bump into.  People you don’t want to see pop up all the time, but people you want to see are nowhere to be found.” – p. 170

The novel is in five chapters, each from the perspective of a different young adult in Nuuk, focusing on that individual’s experience as a queer person.  They deal with issues such as the first-time feeling of same sex attraction, the shame and anger of a relationship with a Greenland politician going public, cheating, and recognizing transgender identity.  The stories overlap as the characters know one another as siblings, housemates, and romantic partners. Each of the character’s writes in a different style, which includes letters, journals, stream of conciousness, and even snippets of text messages. The names of the characters also tie into gender identity in the original Greenlandic, which this translation is good about making clear.

The author translated the book into Danish which is the source of this English translation.  The book was originally titled Homo Sapienne and is also being published under the title Last Night in Nuuk.  This book is a good glimpse into contemporary life in Greenland and is a great LGBTQ read for Pride Month, as well as being an excellent work of contemporary literature.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Legally Blonde (2001)


Title: Legally Blonde
Release Date: July 13, 2001
Director: Robert Luketic
Production Company: Type A Films | Marc Platt Productions | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Some time ago, I saw online that Legally Blonde is a better movie than it appears and added it to my Netflix queue.  Since I saw that it was leaving Netflix, I decided that it was time to watch it.  And it was pretty much as bad as I thought it would be.  The basic premise of this movie is that a prosperous, white woman has to overcome prejudice against her blonde hair to succeed at Harvard Law School.  It’s really that cringeworthy.  And worse, her reason for applying to Harvard is to prove her self worthy of her snobby ex-boyfriend, Warner (Matthew Davis).

There are two saving graces to this movie.  One, is that Reese Witherspoon plays Elle Woods with a lot of charm and nuance. She could’ve easily been characterized as selfish, snarky, or snobby, but instead she is kind. Elle never says anything bad about anyone unless they were mean to her first, and she’s usually trying to help people and share her joie de vivre.  Some of the best parts of this movie are when Elle is hanging out with Paulette (charmingly played by Jennifer Coolidge), a shy, older woman who works at a Cambridge nail salon.  The other saving grace is that the movie sets up Vivian, a preppy woman from Connecticut engaged to Warner, as a rival, but in a nice twist they become best friends. I also enjoy watching the transitions from establishing shots outside the real Harvard campus to locations on a campus that’s obviously not Harvard.

For the most part, the jokes miss more than the hit, and the plots is absurd, with Elle becoming an intern on a murder defense case, and then actually being hired as council, being the most ridiculous.

Rating: **

TV Review: Fleabag (2019)


Title: Fleabag
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

The second season of Fleabag is even better than the first. These tightly scripted and plotted episodes tell a story of human fraility and resilience that is full of laughs and heartbreaks.  The series begins a year after the first series and Fleabag has been ostracized by her family in the interim due to her actions in the first series.  But the show begins with the family reunited for Dad and Godmother’s engagement dinner. Claire is still with Martin, but commuting regularly to Finland for her new job there.  A sixth guest at the table is the priest who will preside over the wedding.  Christened on social media as “Hot Priest” and portrayd by the excellent Andrew Scott, he has a lot of similarity to Fleabag, including the tendency to say inappropriate things out loud and drinking too much, but the good qualities as well.  The main focus of the series is the friendship and the illicit romance between that grows between Flebag and Hot Priest.  But the show also delves further into Fleabag’s trauma over the deaths of her mother and her best friend, Boo, as well as her efforts to repair the relationship with her surviving family.  It’s an excellent, bawdy comedy that somehow also delves right into the heart of humanity and relationships.

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 1


Futility Closet :: The General Slocum

The grim history of the worst maritime disaster in New York City.

Best of the Left :: Our built environment shapes society and vice versa

The issues of increasing urban density, building social housing, and deprioritizing the automobile in cities are near and dear in my heart. And yet, even Leftists tend to fall into the pro-car/pro-sprawl trap, so it’s good to hear these arguments for a more livable urbanism.

Hub History  ::  Love is Love: John Adams and Marriage Equality 

It seems like yesterday, but 15 years have passed since Massachusetts became the first state to perform legal same-sex marriages.  Here’s the history of how that came to be.

Sound Opinions  ::  De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising

I have a lot of nostalgia for De La Soul’s debut album which came out when I was a nerdy high school student.  The Sound Opinions crew explore how the album was created and explain why it’s so hard to find the album today.

Hit Parade :: The Invisible Miracle Sledgehammer Edition

If you turned on the radio in the mid-1980s, you were likely to hear music by members of Genesis (Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, and Mike and the Mechanics) while the band Genesis continued to make hits.  Chris Molanphy explains this unusual situation in pop music history.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Album Review: Reward by Cate Le Bon


Album: Reward
Artist: Cate Le Bon
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Thoughts:

Welsh singer Cate Le Bon sings ethereally over lush arrangements in her newest collection of art pop.  The reviews are good but it doesn’t resonate much with me.  Typically, quiet and minimalist music appeals to  me, but this album just feels, well … boring.  I hate giving a bad review, so don’t take my word for it, and see if it is more Reward-ing for you.

Rating: **

Monthly Mixtape: May 2019


The Monthly Mixtape for May will take you on a journey!

Sarah Pagé :: Ephemeris Data
Kick it off with some experimental harp music.

The Silver Lake Chorus :: Tabu
Follow up with some tight choral harmonies and hot rhythms.

Black Pumas :: Colors
Then slide into some classic psychedelic soul.

 

Sass :: Spoiled by Rotten
Nex, some aural time travel to 1991.

Sleater-Kinney :: Hurry on Home
And while you’re in the 90s, pick up Sleater-Kinney and bring them to the present to work with St. Vincent!

Is there any great new music I missed along this journey?  Let me know in the comments!

Previous Mixtapes:

 

Book Review: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro


Author: Robert Caro
Title: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
Narrator: Robertson Dean
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011) – Originally published in 1974
Summary/Review:

Robert Moses may not be a familiar name to many people but Robert Caro’s extensive biography argues that he was one of the most powerful persons in the United States in the 20th century.  Moses was a man of contrasts. While known as a park commissioner, his greatest achievements were highways, bridges, and tunnels. While radically redesigning cities to accommodate to the automobile, he never learned how to drive himself.  And while dedicating his life to creating great public works, Moses was dismissive of the people who would use them.

Caro, as a biographer is most interested in the idea of power, how it is gained and how it is used.  Since publishing The Power Broker in 1974, Caro has dedicated his life to writing a multi-volume biography of another powerful figure, Lyndon B. Johnson.  While not a strict biography, nevertheless does begin with an exploration of Moses’ youth. Born into prosperity, Moses is strongly influenced by his grandmother and mother who consider their family exceptional.  Moses is isolated when attending Yale, partially due to being Jewish (although Moses was not actively religious) and partially because of his bookishness.  Moses would instead create new organizations within the university and put himself at the head, a pattern established for his future.

As a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford, he studied the British Civil Service, and became determined to implement its ideas in the United States. Despite establishing himself as an idealist and opposed to the corruption of New York’s machine politics, Moses is not able to gain influence until he attracts the attention of Tammany Hall governor Alfred E. Smith and becomes his advisor.  Smith and Moses would become very close and although Moses would work under 6 governors, Smith is the only one he ever referred to as “Governor.”  Later, when Moses renovated the Central Park Zoo, Moses recognized his friend’s love of animals and made him Honorary Night Zookeeper, so Smith could bring his guests to the zoo after hours

Moses comprehensive knowledge of law lead him to draft numerous bills which the legislature enacted unwittingly giving Moses extensive power. By the time many lawmakers realized what they had done it was too late to remove Moses from office. Smith appointed Moses as President of the Long Island State Park Commission and Chairman of the New York State Council of Parks in 1924 (positions he retained until 1963).  Moses also served as New York Secretary of State in 1927-1928.

Moses’ earliest projects focused on Long Island.  In the 1920s, New York City residents overwhelmed by the summer heat sought to find a bathing beach to cool off at, but instead found themselves on narrow, congested roads and turned away from beaches that were privately owned by Long Island Robber Barons.  Moses built parkways from the city to the new public bathing beaches he also designed.  His crowning achievement, Jones Beach, opened in 1929 providing beach access to tens of thousands of New Yorkers as well as  two enormous bathhouses, a boardwalk, restaurant, an outdoor amphitheater, and numerous recreational sports facilities.  Moses’ design was extensively themed to ships and maritime activities, with staff in sailors’ outfits, who fastidiously picked up litter seems to presage Disneyland (Moses and Walt Disney would later work together on the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair).

The beaches and the parkways that lead to them made Moses a very popular figure and he became seen as someone who could get things done amid New York’s corrupt and gridlocked politicians.  Moses played on the popular perception that he fought the Robber Barons for land to build the parkways, when in fact he actually moved them several miles to accommodate the desires of the wealthy, while providing no similar accommodations to poorer farmers.  Moses also designed the parkways to be crossed by low bridges, preventing them from being used by buses, which many people – including Caro – believe he did deliberately to keep New York City’s poorest residents, especially African Americans, from getting to the beaches.

In 1934, while retaining his state positions, Moses was appointed commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks.  This meant he would be working with the city’s newly elected mayor, Fiorello H. La Guardia, a Progressive Republican who campaigned against Tammany corruption and promised new housing, hospitals, schools, parks, and transportation. La Guardia and Moses didn’t see eye to eye, but Moses had the ability to get money from Federal and state programs and use it to get things done. Moses was able to rebuild dozens of parks and playground and cheaply acquire or redistrict land to build new parks. While unable to get the housing, schools, and hospitals he desired, La Guardia could always appear at the dedication of another Moses park to show that he was getting something done as mayor. Caro details that despite the hundreds of parks, playgrounds, pools and other features opened by Moses, that it was not done in an equitable way. African-American neighborhoods like Harlem received very few parks while middle-class white neighborhoods got an abundance.

Moses ran for governor in 1934, which proved to be a miserable failure as his natural arrogance didn’t play well in the campaign.  Nevertheless, his parks made him popular with the people, and he particularly received strong support from the newspapers.  While never holding elective office, he would eventually hold as many as 12 appointed positions at the same time. Elected officials who served at the whims of the voters found themselves needing to work with Moses if they wished to get anything done.  If they tried to stand up to him, Moses simply wouldn’t distribute money to their projects, and in fact would hold a grudge and never work with them again.  Moses would respond to efforts to slow or rethink his projects by having his crews go in and lay out a roadbed or bulldoze all the trees, making his project a fait accomplis.  Moses would also openly criticize his opponents by creating scandalous rumors about them, including derailing the careers of several politicians by accusing them of being Communists, decades before Joe McCarthy would use the same tactics. Moses vindictive streak can also be seen in his destruction of the Central Park Casino, an historic building in the park that was renovated into a restaurant and nightclub in the 1920s.  The Casino became the place where Moses’ rival Mayor Jimmy Walker entertained and conducted business, and Moses demolished the building as an act of revenge despite calls to renovate the building to its original public purposes.

Moses greatest source of power would come as Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.  The Tribourough Bridge is actually three separate spans connecting the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens by way of Randalls Island, opened in 1936.   Moses’ office beneath the toll plaza on Randalls Island became the base of his empire. The Triborough was able to bring tens of millions of dollars through toll revenues at a time when other city agencies were starved for cash.  Moses raised even more money by selling bonds for construction projects, and instead of paying off the bonds, used the revenues for more projects, creating a cycle that kept Triborough in existence long beyond what lawmakers had expected. Moses merged the Triborough with other agencies, growing it to control seven bridges and two tunnels, as well a convention center called the New York Coliseum.   In 1965, the Triborough was merged into the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which curiously still has the legal name of Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to this day.

Moses also arranged the wording in his bridge construction bills to allow him to contract bridge approaches, which he used to build actual parkways through the city connecting the new bridges to existing parkways in Long Island and Westchester County.  Eventually he took the lead on building highways throughout the city (with plans for more thankfully never completed). Moses used the term parkway because of the practice of early automobile owners taking leisurely, scenic drives, thus the highways were in themselves “parks” designed to display the best scenery. In practice, the parkways were used from their earliest days by commuters who typically looked at nothing but the bumper of the car in front of them.

This rigid adherence to his vision lead Moses to refuse to amend his plans for the Henry Hudson Parkway on the west side of Manhattan and into the Bronx.  Scientists pointed out that the highway cut through a unique wetlands in the Bronx.  Residents of Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood noted that Parkway would destroy the last old growth forest on the island.  The plan also included Moses Riverside Park along the Hudson River, yet the planned route of the parkway would cut off access to the river for people from adjoining neighborhoods.  Alternative plans that shifted the parkway short distances to adjust for the wetlands, woods, and riverfront were all rejected by Moses.

In the late 1930s, Moses took control of a project to construct a link between the lower tip of Manhattan and Brooklyn. While many advocated for a tunnel, Moses insisted on a bridge which would include approach routes, a parking garage, and a connecting viaduct to the West Side Highway in Lower Manhattan.  This construction would decimate Batter Park and the New York Aquarium at Castle Clinton, while forever altering the view of the city’s skyline.  In this instance, powerful financial district executives and leaders of old money families lead the opposition.  Yet, even they could not defeat Moses as time after time city leaders were browbeaten into voting for Moses’ plan.

Despite the fact that I know a Brooklyn-Battery Bridge does not exist, I was breathless during these passages wondering how Moses could be defeated. Turns out that President Franklin Roosevelt – a bitter enemy of Moses – was able to get the War Department to declare that if the bridge were destroyed in a bombing it would block access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard up the river.  Moses took control of the tunnel project, but always complained about it and closed off the Battery Park behind fences for the decade of construction. He had the aquarium demolished and came close to destroying the historic Castle Clinton, before the Federal government once again intervened taking ownership of the fort as a National Monument. While Moses’ opponents celebrated these victories, Caro notes the fact that Moses had become so powerful that only acts of the President could stop him was an ominous sign of what was to come. Moses did build a new aquarium at Coney Island, and while it had plentiful parking, it was much harder to access by public transit, and charged an admission fee, unlike it’s free and centrally-located predecessor.

Moses justified the construction of new bridges and highways as ways of reducing congestion on the existing structures.  Yet, as early as the 1930s, the flow of traffic increased on all bridges with the opening of each new bridge, as new construction encouraged more people to choose to drive cars (a process called “induced demand” although Caro doesn’t use this term).  Moses indifference, and even hostility, to public transit exacerbated congestion on the new highways.  The construction of new highways also sped up the process of “White Flight” to the suburbs and lead to decay in the neighborhoods they sliced through. Caro notes that plans for the Van Wyck Expressway in the 1950s provided an opportunity to run a rapid transit line down the median that would perfectly connect Midtown Manhattan to the new Idewild Airport (now JFK Airport), but was rejected by Moses.  He similarly dismissed suggestions for the Long Island Expressway to be bundled with a new high-speed commuter rail, allowing commuters to live in dense residential/commercial districts along the spine of Long Island.  Moses plan for automobile-only infrastructure contributed to the growth of sprawl across Long Island the engulfed the natural beauty that made it a desirable place to live in the first place.

One of the most heartbreaking chapters of the Robert Moses story is the Cross Bronx Expressway.  While previous highway building projects were on undeveloped land (in the suburbs) or along existing parks (in the City), the Expressway was planned to cut right through urban neighborhoods, displacing thousands of residents.  People in the Bronx neighborhood of Tremont fought back, proposing an alternate route only a block to the south that would only destroy a handful of residents.  Bronx borough officials agreed only to switch to Moses’ side when the vote came.  Oddly enough, the alternate route was more of a straight line than Moses’ proposal, which ran counter to Moses’ desiring highways to travel in straight lines.  Caro is not able to explain why Moses refused to switch from his proposed route but rumors have it that the alternate route cut through property owned by a prominent Bronx official or because it cut through the depot of the then powerful Third Avenue Transit Company.  Once construction began, Moses’ operatives cruelly cut off the top floors of buildings once the occupants left, even while people continued to reside in the lower floors.  Children walked to school alongside the deep trenches for the Expressway with no fences protecting them from falling in.

Moses fall from grace began with a deceptively smaller project, an attempt to demolish a Central Park playground in order to build more parking for Tavern on the Green. Prosperous mothers banded together and this time were able to defeat the Power Broker. Another Central Park battle centered on Moses opposition to free Shakespeare in the Park performances.  But the big hit to Moses’ reputation would be the 1964-1965 Worlds’ Fair.  In his arrogance, Moses was not able to get official sanction for the fair, and many nations refused to participate as a result.  Actual attendance at the fair was much lower than Moses’ projections and thus many of the fair was unable to fulfill many of the benefits it was supposed to provide to the city.  Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and his family’s interests in Chase Manhattan Bank, would finally have the influence to remove Moses from power in the late 1960s.

This is a long “review,” more of a book report really, but there’s a lot I want to remember about this book.  This is an important book that details the irrevocable changes to New York City, and by extension to the United States, as the automobile was given priority.  It’s a cautionary tale of what can be lost when too much power is extended to an individual in a democracy under the auspices of “getting things done.”

Recommended books:

Rating: *****