Movie review: Saving Mr. Banks

We were predisposed to like this film, as we are huge fans of all things Disney and enthusiastic fans of the movie “Mary Poppins.”  But this film surpassed our expectations.  The basic plot is the story of how Walt Disney convinced P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins series of books to let him make a movie from the books.  Clearly, we all know how the story ends, given the enduring popularity of the movie.

But “Saving Mr. Banks” is more than just how a Hollywood movie mogul convinced a children’s author to license the movie rights.  The movie delves into the traumatic childhood of P.L. Travers (her father was an alcoholic) and how she coped with his struggles.  Emma Thompson does a marvelous job creating a curmudgeonly author who is over-protective of her family (her books) and who adamantly opposes her books being made into either a musical or an animated movie.  She is gradually won over, less by Walt Disney, and more by the Sherman brothers and the scriptwriter, at least, until the climax of the movie.

Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney with a benign touch, although you see glimpses of the iron fist underneath the genial exterior.  But he, too, reveals his complexity of character, combining charm with a touch of manipulation and the revelation of his own difficult childhood.

Be sure and stay through the credits.  The movie plays the actual audiotapes of P.L. Travers discussing the script with the Disney folks.  (I think they do it just to be make sure you know they weren’t exaggerating her cantankerousness.)

“Saving Mr. Banks” is an extraordinarily touching movie about two very different people finding healing and closure in the making of the “Mary Poppins” movie.  The two main characters are well fleshed out and are complex characters.  The secondary characters are well-acted.  I can see why the movie has generated such a buzz.  I do think much of the complexity of the characters and the nuanced relationships between the characters went over the heads of our two kids, so while they liked the movie, it didn’t resonate with them as much as it did with us.  The grownups enthusiastically give the movie two excellent thumbs up, and the kids give the movie two very good thumbs up!

Movie review: Frozen

We all went to watch “Frozen” last night.  “Frozen” is the newest Disney animated movie and is roughly based on “The Snow Queen,” one of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales.

This is definitely one of Disney’s better animated movies (I’m excluding the Pixar movies from this comparison, as that wouldn’t be fair.)  The story is interesting and even has a bit of a plot twist.  The animation, especially of the ice castle, is stunning, and the music is impressive.  Elsa’s character is voiced by Idina Menzel, from the Broadway music, “Wicked.” The relationship between the two sisters, Elsa and Anna, is complex and loving.  Comic relief is provided by a snowman, Olaf, and a reindeer, Sven.  (It is Disney, after all, so look for stuffed Olafs and Svens in a Disney store near you.)

There is also the requisite romance, but since that part of the movie is part of the plot twist, I won’t say anything more.  It is interesting that the narrative arc, while consistent with all other Disney animated movies, is more complex and rich in this movie than is typical.

There is also the requisite tragedy (the death of Bambi’s mother still haunts me decades after seeing the film the first time).  Let’s just say that you shouldn’t get too attached to Elsa and Anna’s parents.

All in the family (including the teenage daughter and the tween son) enthusiastically give “Frozen” a thumbs up!  We highly recommend seeing it!

Asia-Lite Summer Vacation

What we did on our summer vacation:  we visited Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Honolulu—what I laughingly call our Asia-lite trip (anytime you go to Asia and you can drink the tap water, it’s not a true Asia trip).

The weather was hot and humid in both Hong Kong and Tokyo, but they were really fun trips.  Here’s a view from our hotel in Hotel Kong:

view from the Island Shangri-la Hotel

view from the Island Shangri-la Hotel

Hong Kong Disney was a blast, and we were fortunate the day we went because there was some cloud cover and a slight breeze.  Then, in true Hong Kong fashion, it poured during one of the parades where the characters spray you with water guns.  As the kids said, “We didn’t get wet from the water guns at all!”

Hong Kong Disney parade

Hong Kong Disney parade

We also discovered the Museum of Coastal Defence in Hong Kong.  (I know, the British spelling can be most disconcerting.)  They used one of the actual bunkers to create the museum, which is very well done.  Once again, the only quibble I have is the commentary about modern times.  (“Reunification has brought about a new solidarity and brotherhood of common defence.”  Or something along those lines.)

Tokyo was just a brief stop in order to participate in the US-Japan Leadership Program’s weekend activities.  It was lovely to see a lot of people whom we hadn’t seen in a while and catch up.  It was also nice to meet the new delegates and discover what an impressive group they are.  We had a tour of the Diet (the Japanese Parliament building), walked around the fish market, and toured the Nezo Museum, which has a small but excellent collection of Chinese antique bronzes.  (They have several other items of interest, but we love Chinese bronzes.)

Our final stop was Honolulu where we stayed at the Halekulani, our favorite hotel there.

Waikiki

Waikiki

The kids took surfing lessons every day; we visited the Bishop Museum, the Honolulu Art Museum, and the Plantation Life Museum.  For a bit of kitsch, we went to the Dole Plantation, where we went through the maze and, most importantly, ate some Dole Whip.  (I mean, yes, you can get fresh pineapple there, too, but what would be the fun in that?)  We had some fabulous dinners at Alan Wong’s, Morimoto, Town, and Sushi Sasabune.  More about the meals later.  Their magnificence deserves their own blog entries.  We also weathered Tropical Storm Flossie, which fortunately for us, only lightly touched Oahu.  I’ve included some photos showing the imminent arrival of the storm (and the view from our hotel room).

view upon arrival

view upon arrival

Tropical Storm Flossie approaching

Tropical Storm Flossie approaching

Tropical Storm Flossie

Tropical Storm Flossie

after Tropical Storm Flossie

after Tropical Storm Flossie

It was a relaxing and fun break, and we look forward to our next trip there!

Monsters University

We are huge Disney fans, as most of you know, and we were all quite eager to see Pixar’s latest offering, Monsters University. While we were mildly disappointed that Pixar chose to release a prequel to a well established hit, it didn’t make us any less eager to see it.
Prequels are sometimes more difficult to make than sequels since the outcome of the movie is pre-determined. For example, you know before you see Monsters University that Sully and Mike are successful scarers. And so, as a result, much of the action in Monsters University is predictable. Nonetheless, the movie does manage to surprise, especially towards the end. And, as with all Pixar movies, the animation is superb and the dialogue is lively and witty, appealing to both children and adults. Some of the secondary characters are a bit two dimensional, but it was certainly fun to see Randall (boo! hiss!) as a college student, and much of the satire about college life was spot on and amusing.
I (and the rest of the family) highly recommend the movie!

Disney Half-Marathon & 5K

Jim and I have been training to run a half-marathon since June.  (I haven’t wanted to mention it because I didn’t want to jinx us.)  We chose the Disney Wine and Dine Half-Marathon which was held at Disneyworld this past weekend on the theory that if we were really going to run a half-marathon, what better place to run it than at Disneyworld?

Training has had its ups and downs.  But, fortunately, the wonderful thing about training together is that very rarely do we have the same timing.  So, for example, about 2 months into our training, I hit a wall, and if it weren’t for Jim, I would never have gotten out of bed to run.  But he pushed me out the door and once we were at the track, it was much easier to just go ahead and do it.

We did most of our training at the Y for two reasons.  First, running outside during a Washington, DC summer and the accompanying heat and humidity would have resulted in us stopping almost immediately, either because we would have ended up in the ER due to heat exhaustion or because we would have moved immediately to the West Coast where there’s no humidity.  And, second, the track was easier on our knees.  Despite all our precautions, we ended up with some training injuries.  Jim pulled a thigh muscle and then a calf muscle and lost about a month of training near the end.  My knees started hurting about a month ago, and I’ve alternated between knee braces and knee bands to help with the pain.  A new pair of shoes also helped.  (I like Adidas Tempos.)  We discovered that wristbands for our ipod nanos really made running to music easier, and we created a running playlist with up tempo music (with many suggestions from our teenage daughter).

Some friends of ours very kindly volunteered to come down with us.  They and our kids ran Mickey’s Jingle Jungle 5K on Saturday morning through Animal Kingdom.  I’m told it was quite the festive atmosphere with Disney characters lined up along the route, the park decorated for Christmas, and Christmas music piped in.

After the 5K, we all had breakfast, and then our friends took their kids and ours to the Magic Kingdom while Jim and I napped and stressed about the race.  We spent some time by the pool (we were staying at the Yacht Club), had a light dinner, and then headed to the start point.  Our friends also watched the kids for the evening.  (I know, I wouldn’t have done it either.)

The half-marathon didn’t start until 10:00 pm Saturday.  Because it was our first half-marathon, we were in the last group that didn’t start until closer to 10:30.  It was a cool night (mid-60s), but you didn’t notice it once you started running.  The race started at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, wound its way through Animal Kingdom, then through Hollywood Studios, and finally through the front half of Epcot, finishing up at the Epcot parking lot.

The first 5 miles went very smoothly.  I will say that while I have always thought of Disneyworld as being relatively flat, I have revised my opinion.  🙂  As with the 5K, there was much visual stimulation to be found.  There were various Disney characters along the way (I remember the dancing hippos from Fantasia most vividly), there were colorfully decorated and themed mile markers, and live bands playing up-tempo music.

Miles 6-10 were more difficult but still quite manageable.  At Mile 11.5, Jim came down with leg cramps, which made the last mile and a half somewhat tortuous (especially for him).  But we finished in about 3 hours (he gave me permission to run the last mile without him).  There was an after-party at Epcot that we cheerfully ditched.  We were in our hotel room by about 2:30 am and in bed a little after 3:00 am after icing our various aching body parts.  We were up at 6:45 to see our friends off and then to celebrate our daughter’s birthday.  With the help of some Advil and ice, we managed to hobble around Epcot for the better part of the day before flying home.

Running the half-marathon was a surprisingly fun experience, but, then, it is Disney, after all.  We really feel like we have accomplished something that we never dreamed was possible 5 months ago.  But the idiocy only goes so far.  We are most definitely NOT running a full marathon!

Birthday Dinner at Disneyworld

We celebrated our son’s birthday dinner at Disneyworld at a restaurant called Citrico’s in the Grand Floridian hotel.  It’s pretty casual, as most Disney restaurants are, but the food is surprisingly good.  With five reasonably sophisticated eaters, there were a lot of fun choices.

Dinner started with an amuse bouche from the chef of venison with capers.

amuse bouche of venison with capers

There were a variety of appetizers ordered, including arancini (crispy risotto with crimini mushrooms, asiago, and charred tomato coulis),

arancini

a charcuterie plate (with prosciutto, beef bresaola, duck breast prosciutto, and palacio chorizo),

charcuterie plate

a cheese plate (with murcia al vino from Spain, fourme d’Ambert from Auvergne and petit agour from the Basque region),

cheese plate

a macerated heirloom tomato salad,

macerated heirloom tomato salad

and sautéed shrimp in lemon, white wine, tomatoes, and feta cheese.

sauteed shrimp

I’ve also included a photo of the cheese plate description.

description of cheese

There were only two different main courses ordered at the table (evidently, we suffered appallingly from a lack of originality when ordering that night).  The most popular dish was Berkshire pork two ways, consisting of a rotisserie pork tenderloin and roasted pork belly with aged white cheddar polenta, escarole, Brentwood corn salsa and cherry gastrique.

Berkshire pork two ways

The other main course was Madeira-braised short ribs served over trofie pasta with wild mushroom ragout and truffle crème fraiche.

madeira braised short ribs

There was a celebratory birthday treat of miniature vanilla ice cream cones with sprinkles on top.  Unfortunately, these were consumed before I could get a photo of the dish (I often lose dessert photos that way).

The birthday boy was quite happy with the birthday festivities.  Of course, popcorn and hot dogs would have been fine since he was already at the happiest place on earth!

Brave (the movie not the adjective)

We saw Brave, the latest Disney/Pixar movie yesterday.  In general, we are predisposed to like Disney/Pixar movies, and Brave was no exception.  To begin with, the animation was visually stunning.  From the panoramas of the Scottish highlands to each individual strand of Merida’s (the heroine’s) hair, everything was beautifully rendered and surprisingly realistic.  It was easily the best animation we’ve ever seen.

The story was also excellent.  Our 13 year old found the story predictable, and the plot did follow a traditional story arc.  But Jim and I thought the storyline of the evolution of a mother-daughter relationship extremely touching.  Perhaps it’s because we have a teenage daughter, and we can see the beginning of the appearance of adolescent angst.  I also found it interesting that the critics who were mildly critical of the movie (which seems to be as negative as the reviews got) were all men.  The universal theme of the continually evolving relationship between parents and children appeals to all, but the story definitely centers on the mother-daughter relationship.  We were also amused by the strong resemblance between Merida’s “wee devils” of brothers and our 10 year old (much to his displeasure).

We also liked the fact that the heroine stood alone (with no prince hovering in the background) to find her own path and a solution to her problems and eventually took responsibility for her actions.  And I stand by my theory that there is a conspiracy by bow-and-arrow manufacturers as you can add another movie where the hero/heroine shows off their skill in archery.  (See Hunger Games and Avengers.)

After the movie,  I was asked by Jim whether I had eaten any dessert prepared by our daughter lately (you’ll have to see the movie to understand the joke).  It all makes sense when you realize that the common warning given in our family when I’m in a cranky mood is “Don’t poke the bear!”

Beijing & Hong Kong 2012

We had a fabulous trip to Beijing and Hong Kong!  In Beijing, we finally got a chance to see the renovated National Museum.  Jim and I had last seen it in 1987, and the museum now has more than 5,000 square feet of exhibit space.  The Chinese government had hoped to have it open in time for the 2008 Olympics, but differences on how to cover the various political events delayed the opening until about two years ago.

The museum has two wings–the Hall of Rejuvenation and the Chinese antiquities wing.  The Hall of Rejuvenation covers the history of China starting with the Neolithic age.  The more recent the events, the more amusing the commentary.  (Did you know that Sun Yat-sen’s revolution overthrowing the Manchu Dynasty in 1911 was incomplete because it was not a workers’ revolution?  Neither did I.)  The Chinese antiquities wing has some stunning pieces.  In fact, the exhibits are so extensive that we did not have time to see them all.  (A return visit is on the list.)  One of the more stunning pieces is this large bronze vessel from the Shang Dynasty (16th – 11th century BC).

National Museum bronze

For more about what to see in Beijing, you can go to the Travel section of my webpage.

We then flew to Hong Kong.  After several hours there, our kids independently announced that while they couldn’t live in Beijing, they could live in Hong Kong without a problem.  And it’s quite easy to understand why.  Hong Kong is a unique blend of British and Chinese culture.  It has the order and cleanliness of Britain with an overlay of Chinese culture, language, and commerce.  It is an amazing city!

We went up to the Peak to see some stunning views of Hong Kong:

the Peak

But, without a doubt, the highlight of the trip was Hong Kong Disney.  It was interestingly unique to see Cinderella’s Castle amid the surrounding countryside (typically, Disney likes to have the parks be a world unto themselves, but space constraints made that infeasible here):

Hong Kong Disney

I’ll have my Hong Kong travel tome up in the next couple of days with more details of where to go and what to see.

Spring Break in the City of Lights

We left on a Thursday night for Paris after a crazy week where life actually interfered with our carefully balanced routine (more about that in a separate blog).  We stayed at the Shangri-la Hotel, a fairly new hotel where one reviewer commented that it was the one place where you could actually get Asian quality service in Paris.

The Shangri-la is in the 16th arrondissement by the Eiffel Tower.  Our suite had a stunning view of the Tower as well as views of the Dome Church and Montmartre, and we had breakfast on the terrace almost every morning where we stuffed ourselves with croissants and butter and hot chocolate while admiring the view.

the view from the Shangri-la Hotel

You could summarize our stay in Paris by saying that we ate, we shopped, and we museumed.  (I know, it’s not actually a word, but it completed the phrase nicely.)  We started off with lunch our first day at a brasserie called Chez Francis within walking distance of the hotel, and we concluded the day by having a fabulous meal at Shang Palace in the hotel, which is the only Michelin 2 star Chinese restaurant in the city.  The 2 stars are well deserved, as the meal was amazing.  Other memorable meal moments were the brasseries Le Troquet (which was like eating a fabulous meal in a neighbor’s dining room), Le Stella (another excellent brasserie), Le Bistrot de Halles (with some of the best duck comfit we ever had), Julien (excellent French onion soup), and La Closerie des Lilas (overall goodness).  The high end restaurants we ate at and loved were Taillevent and Guy Savoy.  And, of course, Berthillon for ice cream.  More will be written about all of these in my Paris travel tome.

Museums that we recommend include the Musee de Moyen Age also known as Musee de Cluny, a museum with various artifacts from the Middle Ages.  The big attraction there are The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.  Although as our daughter said, the lion is doing just as much work so why does the unicorn get all the attention?  The museum is small but lovely.  In addition to the numerous artifacts from the middle ages, there are also works from the Roman era, mostly statuary and baths.

We also walked through the Pantheon, which doesn’t have the austere simplicity of Rome’s version but does have Foucault’s Pendulum and memorials to many of France’s most revered writers like Rousseau and Voltaire as well as tributes to their fallen military, starting with the French Revolution.  They had a moving tribute to those who died maintaining the honor of France in 1870, and it took me a moment to figure out what conflict that was.  (It was the Franco-Prussian war.)

The Arc de Triomphe is a great place to climb up what is a fairly steep spiral staircase and looked at the gorgeous views of Paris.

view from the Arc de Triomphe

The Musee d’Orsay has a lovely collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings.

And, of course, the museum of all museums is the Louvre.  The custodial staff was on strike so the bathrooms, while reasonably clean, were a little short on amenities such as toilet paper.  We had a lovely tour guide that showed us the highlights of the museum (Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, etc.) as well as showing us the evolution of Renaissance paintings through the Italian painters.  We also went through the Egyptian antiquities section, where both kids showed a surprising amount of knowledge and interest.

Another must see site is Versaille, of course.  The building interior has very little appeal other than the Hall of Mirrors.  None of the furnishings or wallpaper or draperies is original, as looters during the French Revolution took away anything of value they could carry.  And Louis XIV himself considered the gardens to be the main attraction at Versailles.  In addition to the formal gardens, which held several ballrooms and other enclosed “rooms” that gave an illusion of privacy for the king, we also visited Le Petit Trianon, which was built by Louis XV for his mistresses.  Louis XVI then gifted it to Marie- Antoinette, and she built The Hamlet on the grounds of Le Petit Trianon.  The Hamlet was fascinating.  If you could build an idealized version of village life, with the illusion of simplicity and privacy but with all the luxuries you could afford, it would look like The Hamlet.  There were rustic looking buildings (from the outside) that were lavishly decorated with marble and gilt on the inside that served as her bedroom, boudoir, etc.  She even hired a farm family to look after livestock and had a garden planted with herbs and vegetables used to feed the family.  It may be the first high-end organically sourced farm in the world.  :).

the Hamlet

The church we most enjoyed visiting was Sainte Chapelle.  I like it better than Notre Dame.  (I know that’s heresy.)  The stained glass windows are breathless, and the entire church is an engineering marvel.  In over seven hundred years, they have never found a crack.  This is unlike Notre Dame where they found cracks before construction was complete, hence, the flying buttresses.

Sainte Chapelle

And, of course, no trip to Paris is complete without going to EuroDisney!  Going there is a bit odd because it is both like and unlike Disneyworld.  It’s almost like visiting your grandparents’ house where things are both familiar and unfamiliar.  EuroDisney consists of the Magic Kingdom in the main park and a subset of Hollywood Studios in the other park (which we did not go to).  The rides that we thought EuroDisney did better than Disneyworld are Peter Pan, It’s a Small World, and Buzz Lightyear.  The rides we liked better at Disneyworld are Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.  There is no Winnie-the-Pooh or Jungle Cruise.  Big Thunder Mountain was closed, but the guidebooks all say the American version is superior.

There are also some interesting quirks.  Popcorn at EuroDisney is sweet, like kettle corn.  Weiwei and I thought it was inedible, although the other 3 liked it.  Some of the dialogue is in English, other parts in French (Buzz Lightyear is half and half, Star Tours is almost all in French as is Haunted Mansion.). The layout is more spacious than Disneyworld or Disneyland, making the crowds seem much less and some of the rides longer (like Pirates and Small World).  There is more attention to detail at EuroDisney, both in the rides and in the little stores and pseudo-stores and exhibits throughout the park.

We were there for about 11 hours and had a ball.

EuroDisney

We were delighted to conclude that none of the stereotypes of snotty Parisians held true, at least during our trip.  Everyone was friendly and welcoming, even though we spoke very little French.  We were the most delighted and surprised at how well the kids got treated in the fancy restaurants.  Instead of being tolerated, which we half-expected, they were welcomed, even feted both times.