Girl on the Train (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 52 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.

Proverbs 20:1

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Rachel looks for the same house & woman on its upper porch each day as she rides by on the train. (c) Universal Pictures

For Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) it is not wine, but cheap vodka that fogs her mind and helps her to forget her troubles. She is the Girl on the Train in director Tate Taylor’s tale focusing upon her and two other women living in the New York suburb of Ardsley-on-Hudson. The film is both a murder mystery and a study of a divorced woman unable to cope with her loss and fixating on what she thinks is a far happier woman living the life she dreams of regaining.

Each day, her vodka concealed in a designer bottle, she rides the commuter train back and forth while drinking. The houses she stares at through the window become familiar, especially a stately two-story one with a second-story porch where she notices a beautiful blond woman standing—sometimes alone, seemingly in thought; other times the woman is in the arms of a handsome man whom the viewer takes to be the husband.

Then on another trip there is the same woman embraced by a man, but he is not the one Rachel has always seen. Soon Rachel is hurtling down a rabbit hole of a tale wherein her fate becomes entwined with two other women and her former husband married to one of them. The woman she has been observing has gone missing on the very night that Rachel has decided to confront her about her infidelity. Thus, Rachel might be the one who has murdered her, though due to a violent blow to her head in a pedestrian tunnel she cannot say because she has lost her memory of the events of the fatal night. Her former husband and new wife also figure into the disturbing mystery.

Emily Blunt is excellent in this jumbled tale of loss, envy, lust, and hatred. Told by Rachel in a series of often confusing flashbacks, there are some surprises, as one expects in a mystery. In olden times of double features, this film would have been the B film. It never rises to the level of Tate Taylor’s The Help, also a tale of women under stress, but a far better one.

No discussion questions for this film.

 

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 5 min.

Our Advisories (1-10): Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
and remembering, I keep a grip on hope.

Lamentations 3:19-21 The Message

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Everyone but P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, is impressed that Walt Disney is conducting a personal tour of Disneyland.
(c) 2013 Walt Disney Pictures

If you are like me, one who enjoys movies about movies (from the fictional Singing in the Rain to RKO 281:The Battle Over the Making of Citizen Kane), you will like the new one giving us a peek into the making of Mary Poppins. It could be said that those behind this Disney-produced movie, director John Lee Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, used more than just “a spoonful of sugar” in portraying the tumultuous relationship between novelist P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and studio head Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Disney would have loved this film (that omits all of his dark history, such as his strike-breaking tactics and his informing on actors and writers tarred with even the slightest suspicion of being Communists). I believe too that P.L. Travers would have hated it, much as she hated the film inspired by her children’s novel. (More on this later.) I am sure it is no coincidence that Saving Mr. Banks was released just in time to help promote the 50th anniversary of the release of Mary Poppins.

Our film, begins with the shot of a little girl in 1906 in Australia with the barely heard words of the song that also starts off Mary Poppins, “Winds in the East, mist coming in, like something is brewing, about to begin.” The movie frequently jumps back and forth between that distant time and place and the two weeks in 1961 when L. P. Travers is forced by dire financial need to finally leave her civilized London home and venture into what she regarded as the jungle of the Walt Disney Studio.

For almost 20 years the movie magnate had tried to keep his promise to a daughter that he would bring her favorite novel to the screen, but each time had been rebuffed. Travers hated the Disney animated films, and feared that he would ruin her beloved Mary Poppins by over sentimentalizing her and the story. By her tart remarks aboard the America-bound airliner and, upon emerging from LAX, her putdowns of the quality of the city’s air, we see that she is pretty soured on about everything. Soon Walt, who asks her to address him by his first name, and his staff discover just how prickly and petty (in their eyes) she can be. The contract that she carries about on her person gives her final script approval, and she has thus far refused to sign it, so the success of the film project constantly hangs in the balance.

Her demands and insulting objections to the work of scriptwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the song-writing team of Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak) are unremitting. She is opposed to the story being made into a musical filled with “silly songs.” She does not like Dick Van Dyke, preferring instead a serious actor such as Lawrence Olivier or Richard Burton. There is to be no romance between the chimney sweep and Mary Poppins. The house sketched by the art department is too grand. The address number is not quite the same as in the book. Mr. Banks should not have a mustache. She even stipulates, to everyone’s utter amazement that the color red is not to be used in the film. (She sweeps aside the objections that London’s phone booths and busses are red.) There is to be NO ANIMATION! She also insists on addressing Walt as Mr. Disney and that she not be called by her first name (Pamela or Pam), but Mrs. Travers. Clearly, it will be a time of hell for all concerned.

It is only as we see more of those bygone days in Australia that we begin to understand her defensiveness concerning how her book is adapted, as well as comprehending the meaning of the title of the film. Her father Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell) is an imaginative man longing for adventure beyond his boring job managing a bank. He seeks escape in the bottle and in playing with his daughter whom he calls Ginty (played as a child by Annie Rose Buckley)—indeed, we get the impression that he prefers her company to that of his wife Margaret  (Ruth Wilson), who is clearly disappointed at leaving their comfortable city home for a rundown house that is literally at the end of the railroad line in the Outback. Because of his incessant drinking they quarrel at night.

With each short episode from the past we discover Ginty’s hero worship of her father change into disillusionment and despair as she witnesses more of his failings while drunk. The turning point comes when he is to present a series of awards from the bank at the local fair. Under the influence of alcohol, he turns what should be a grand into an embarrassing incident that ends with his falling off the platform and breaking his foot—and of course, being fired a second and final time.

Ginty is also deeply hurt when she brings to his bedside the poem she wrote about him for which she had won a prize, and he discounts it. As the family’s fortune plunges with his increasingly bad health, her Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) arrives to help her suicidal mother care for the children. It is fortunate that Aunt Ellie is there to bring the stability needed by the young girls, especially following Goff’s death. The aunt’s parrot-headed umbrella, over-sized carpetbag, and no nonsense attitude leave no doubt as to the inspiration for the stern nanny Marry Poppins.

Especially poignant, and informing, is the scene in the Disney Studio Rehearsal Room where the song-writing brothers perform “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” for Travers. She, thinking back to her drunken father’s falling off the speaker’s platform at the fair, cries out to them, “Why did you have to make him so cruel?” In the film script the father Mr. Banks, neglectful of his family because of his over-involvement with his banking career, refuses to mend his children’s broken kite.

Thus the Sherman brothers come up with the song “Let’s Go Fly A Kite,” to be placed near the end of the film to show Mr. Bank’s re-engagement with his children as he repairs their broken kite. The scene in which the brothers play the song for Travers is an emotional highlight of the film. We see the catchy song working its way into Travers’ heart as she hums along. A close up shows her tapping her foot in time. The brothers start dancing as they sing. The secretary rushes out to bring Walt back to witness this miracle, and soon Travers is dancing with the others. This is that rare moment in the film where she is in agreement with the would-be filmmakers, experiencing a rare moment of joy—though when the music stops she still points out a grammatical error in the lyrics. I know that some critics consider this scene too much of a dose of Disneyfication, but I was moved by it.

By now it is apparent to the viewer what Disney voices in a later sequence when he makes a last ditch effort to convince the author to sign over the rights. Travers is in bondage to the past, still anguished some 50 years later over her love for and disillusionment in her father, as well as her guilt over not being able to save him from his drinking. Disney now sees that Mary Poppins arose out of tragedy. This could explain her abandoning her given name of Helen Goff and taking her father’s Christian name as part of her nome de plume (as an actress as well as a writer—we are not informed in the movie that she had a stage career before she penned her books).

After she has walked out upon discovering that the penguins in the film were not to be trained birds but drawn by Disney animators, Walt catches up with her and we have another dramatic, heart-felt encounter in which he plays psychologist to bring about some healing—and, of course, gain her signature on the contract. (I would love to learn if the extreme circumstances depicted were true or the result of dramatic license.) The tragic past of her father has cast her into the frame of heart and mind expressed by Jeremiah in Lamentations, but he at least had his faith in God that sustained his hope. Not until her encounter with Disney does she become free of the grief and guilt, and arrive at hope. Or at least so the movie would lead us to believe.

Although P.L. Travers might not be the most admirable human being, we have to admit that her suspicions regarding the Disney treatment of her characters were justified. She was but one of hundreds of intellectuals who decried (and still do) the Disneyfication—they even made up the word—of a work, meaning that it was overly sentimentalized and made “cute.” And to an extent, as hinted at earlier in my “spoonful of sugar” remark, the relationship between her and Walt is Disneyfied in this picture. We see her teary eyed at the premier at Graumann’s Chinese Theater (which she crashed, not having been invited to it!), but I suspect that in reality they were not tears of happiness. Not shown is her approach to Disney right afterward with her list of changes that she wanted to make in the final cut. It is reported that Disney replied that she had final say over the script, but not over the editing of the film, and then turned away without any further discussion. Back in London she was still so hurt and angry that she refused to let the studio make any films of her other Mary Poppins books. Decades later when a stage adaptation was being discussed, she insisted that only English actors be used, and that no one with connections to the Disney Studio be allowed to have anything to do with the production, something that she even put in her will.

Before closing I do want to mention one other fine actor whose role was made up so as to bring out a little more of Travers’ humanity. Paul Giamatti plays Ralph, the limousine driver employed by the studio to pick Travers up at the airport and squire her from hotel to studio and back. She dismisses him at first, but Ralph is the cheery sort who eventually brings her to like at least one American.

The film as history no doubt leans in favor of placing Walt Disney in a more favorable light. Tom Hanks not only effectively plays him as a genial man, but the audience’s warm regard for the actor also adds to this. Whether good history or not, “there is an element of fun’ in the film that cannot be denied. Fun not only in some of the dialogue and incidents but also in Thomas Newman’s score that uses numerous Sherman Brothers’ tunes from their original Mary Poppins score. Emma Thompson has her best role in years as Pamela Lyndon Travers. We are given a chance to hear how accurately she imitates her speech: during the end credits we hear a portion of one of 39 tapes the author insisted on being recorded at all of their script conferences. Earlier we had seen that portion acted out. The film is not suitable for children because of the complexity of the tragic past, but it will appeal to the child in the adult viewer—something that Walt himself says to Travers when he coaxes—no, orders—her onto a carousel at Disneyland Park.

The full review with a set of 10 questions for reflection or discussion is in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables. If you are not a subscriber and plan to discuss this film with a group, go to The Store to buy either the single issue or for a year’s subscription.

Nebraska (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

Our Advisories(1-10): Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Exodus 20.12

 And,  fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

 Ephesians 6.4

 Then Jesus* said, “There was a man who had two sons.”

Luke 15:11

Film Review Nebraska

Woody will not believe his son David that the prize money he expects in Nebraska is a scam.
(c) 2013) Paramount Vantage

How far will the love of a son for his father go? Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants), working with a script by someone else this time (Bob Nelson), shows us how far in this father-son road trip film—all the way from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, some 850 miles. And that on a wild goose chase bound to end in disillusionment and frustration.

The disillusionment and frustration will be that of David Grant’s alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern), who has come to believe the letter from the magazine subscription service stating that he might be a winner of one million dollars. We first see the old man walking along a highway. His disheveled hair and grizzled face appears to be more that of a scarecrow than a human being’s, but there are no cornfields in this part of Montana. A policeman stops and tries to question him, but the one word responses offer little information other than his destination is Nebraska. David (Will Forte) picks him up at the police station. He tells his father that the paper is a scam, a come-on to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, but the old man remains convinced that he is a prizewinner.

When they arrive home, Woody’s acid tongued wife Kate (June Squibb) is anything but understanding of her husband. Both she and David try to dislodge Woody’s belief that he has won a million dollars. Woody, however, has the paper that says so, and so it must be true, he tells them, because it is in print. The old man keeps trying to get away. His license and truck have been taken from him because of his condition, worsened by his drinking. Thus each time he sets out on foot, determined to pick up his prize money in Nebraska.

Kate is at her wit’s end, calling the old man “useless.” Older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), news anchor at a local television station, would like to place their father in a nursing home. David, just broken up with his live-in girlfriend and working as a salesman at an electrical appliance store, is tired of being called to rescue his father. But he is the only one halfway sympathetic to the old man and his pipe dream. Seeing that his father will keep on trying, David calls in sick to work and tells Woody that he will drive him. He also apparently sees this as a last chance at getting to know this father who has kept him and his brother at arm’s length all through their lives together.

What follows is not the usual road story, ending in tearful reconciling embraces, but it is a trip in which at least one of the pair will emerge richer for the experience. No, actually, more than one. The miles fly by in silence, with the sight of the wide-open spaces especially suitable for the wide screen format of today’s theaters. It is a landscape in which the sky offers as much scenery as the scrubby fields. At David’s suggestion, the pair stop off to see Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, but Woody is unimpressed, observing that it doesn’t look “finished.” There is also a time consuming interlude when they search along a railroad track for the denture plate that had fallen out of the drunken Woody’s mouth the night before when he stumbled from the bar back to the motel.

Along the way David tries to get his father to open up about the past. He raises the subject of drinking, and the sharp reply is, “You’d drink too, if you were married to your mother.” At another time the son seeks information about his parent’s courtship, “You must have been in love, at least at first.” He seems to be seeking some hint of affection from the surly old man. “It never came up,” Woody replies.

Woody injures his head so that stitches are required at a hospital. This diversion has cost them time, so, because they cannot possibly make it to Lincoln before the weekend office closure, they decide to drive down to Hawthorne, Nebraska. It is Woody and Kate’s hometown where his brothers still live with their families.

This segment is a hoot, with Aunt Martha (Mary Louise Wilson) delighted to host the pair. The several other brothers, however, are as undemonstrative as Woody. While the women are in the kitchen talking and cooking, all the men sit stolidly looking at the TV set, the only subject of conversation being what year and make of a car one of them had been driving. Added to the family reunion are Kate and Ross, hastening down to make it a full family reunion. David advises Woody not to say anything about his supposed winnings, but the old man blurts out the reason for the trip anyway. He becomes an instant celebrity, the other family members suddenly interested in his future, especially as it pertains to money. David tries to explain the true situation, but the Hawthorne contingent is certain he is denying the winnings lest he has to share it with them. As we will see, Aunt Martha’s two obnoxious, pudgy sons, still sponging off their parents, make a drastic play for the money later on.

News of Woody’s good fortune spreads around the hangdog-looking town, the citizens also very interested in what Woody will do with his winnings. He answers that he will buy a new truck and also an air compressor to replace the one that was never returned to him by the borrower 40 years ago. One of the townsfolk is more sinister, Ed (Stacy Keach), Woody’s former senior partner in the local garage, claims that Woody owes him a great deal of money. He demands payment, or else there will be a legal battle.

Thus the past hangs heavy over the characters in this film. Woody’s life has not added up to much, nor have those of the rest of the family and neighbors. Hawthorne itself, with it’s rundown stores, some of them vacant, has more of a past than a future, most of its inhabitants being old people left behind by their children needing to go elsewhere for work. During their stay in Hawthorne David learns far more about his father from some of the townspeople than he had ever learned from his parents. The charming elderly editor of the weekly newspaper Peg Nagy (Angela McEwan) reveals that she had been Woody’s girlfriend.

Whether Woody’s withdrawal and mental confusion are due to his lifelong alcoholism or to approaching dementia we do not know. His singular determination to go to Nebraska bares a faint resemblance to the old man in The Straight Story, who set out on a John Deere riding mower to drive the over 200 miles to reunite with an estranged brother (Woody’s motives, of course, are not as pure). Or maybe, we should compare him to the old man in one of director Payne’s own films, Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt, which is about a man retiring from the insurance industry and needing to find a new reason for living beyond the shallow relationship with his wife. Woody, so devoid of an internal life, seems to have no religious faith, and so his only solace comes from the undeserved love of his youngest son. There is grace in this love that will put up with such a negative father and go the distance—some 850 miles—for his sake.

As the end credits rolled, the thought arose that I had witnessed a prodigal son story in reverse: as in Luke’s gospel, this is the story of “a man who had two sons.” But it is the younger son who is the person of love and mercy, and it is the father who is the prodigal. Woody through his drinking has runaway to “a far country,” one not of geography, but of the inner self. David even manages to bring about the best possible result from Woody’s finally learning and accepting the truth in the magazine office–that he has been entertaining a pipe dream. Besides the prize of a cap emblazoned with “Prize Winner,” David gives Woody something else that he has been wanting—actually two something elses, given by a son who, whether a person of faith or not, embodies much of the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13. It is one of the rare heart-warming moments in this appropriately black and white film.

I should mention also one other scene of grace. It takes place in the second hospital to which Woody is taken. Kate, joining David at Woody’s bedside, gently brushes back the old man’s hair, tenderly kisses him, and says something like “Crazy old man.” Listen carefully when you watch this scene. What is the tone of her voice this time? As abrasive as before, or has something that has long been submerged by putting up with Woody’s drinking bouts, finally arisen?

Supported by some spare but lovely music by Mark Orton, this slow moving film, tinged with satiric humor, will stay with you for a long time. June Squibb will make you laugh by her unfettered tongue demeaning not only her husband, but their dead relatives as well. She is no doubt a scene stealer, but it will be Bruce Dern’s career-capping performance that will no doubt be included in “Best Actor” buzz in the weeks leading up to the next Oscars presentation.

The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the January issue of Visual Parables, which will be available early in January. If you are not a subscriber, go to The Store to find out how you can become one. A subscription gives you access to several years of journals that contain many program and preaching ideas for the church seasons.