Book/Film Reviews

"It is impossible to discourage the real writers - they don't give a damn what you say, they're going to write." ~ Sinclair Lewis

“Saving Mr. Banks”–the Genesis of the Disney Movie

Clapboard & cinema reelMary Poppins, the beloved Disney movie of 1964, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and won numerous other awards, has been known for decades. What hasn’t been as well-known, until now, is the story behind the story. In Saving Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney, and Emma Thompson is brilliant as P.L. Travers, the contankerous creator of Mary and a real test of patience. How Disney and his people were able to work with her to bring her book to the screen is a testimony to how dedicated they were to this endearing children’s story.

The flashbacks of Pamela Travers’ childhood with her sick father in Australia greatly inform the 1961 storyline of the development of the screenplay for a film Travers really didn’t want to see made. We’re glad she did finally allow it to be made since the film allowed many legions of families to be introduced to her characters.

Sadly, Travers never allowed any more of her Poppins books to be adapted, and thankfully, Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t delve into that aspect and leaves us on a much more happier note, just like Mary Poppins herself would have done.


“The Book Thief” Reminds Us of the Value of Reading

Clapboard & cinema reelThey nominate ten movies for Best Picture at the Academy Awards now, where it used to be only five. I, movie lover though I am, albeit a picky one, have wondered how they can find ten movies that are good enough to be considered for that prize. I’ve looked over this year’s list, and why, oh why, is The Book Thief not on there? This adaptation of the bestselling YA book is high-class in every way, from its moving story and portrayal of history, to its acting and cinematic look.

Sophia Nelisse, who plays the main character Liesel, a Russian girl whose destitute mother had to give her up to foster parents in Germany, is a find. Word is, she gave up her ten-year-old dream of Olympics gymnastics to take this role. She’s definitely multi-talented. She carries a big movie on her small shoulders, with ample help from Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.

The story pulls in the viewer with its voyeuristic look inside Nazi Germany and what it was like for locals, i.e., it was a scary experience. But the story is made personal with a slice-of-life look at a young girl whose life difficulties are made a little better when she learns to read and commences to “borrow” books without permission. She doesn’t care what the books say, she just wants to read. She serves as a good reminder of the power of reading, alerting us to the oft-forgotten ideas of humility and gratitude for this basic necessity which transcends so many other needs. Oscar missed out with this one.

A Wayback Film Recommendation for Valentine’s Day

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

1996’s The English Patient has several attributes that earned it the Academy Award for Best Picture. Based on Michael Ondaatje’s Booker prize-winning novel, it uses elements of Greek tragedy, with fateful characters fighting moral battles and being mercilessly enveloped by their own environment.

The dual storyline is set amid the lush terrain of Tuscany in Italy and warmed by the deserts of Tunisia. It is 1940 and a biplane is shot out of the skies over the Sahara. Desert nomads rescue a man from the wreckage, a man burned beyond recognition but clinging to life by a thread. This torn and broken form winds up in an Allied army hospital where his nationality is guessed to be English. Five years later, horribly scarred and still waiting to die, the nameless patient is being transported through the mine-riddled Tuscan region when his French-Canadian nurse Hana (played by Juliette Binoche) asks to be left behind with the patient at an abandoned monastery so that she can make his last days comfortable. From here the movie travels back and forth across the five-year time span. The patient, who is Count Laszlo de Almasy (the talented Ralph Fiennes—no, put Voldemort out of your head) remembers more than he has let on, and over the course of the two-hour, forty-minute film, his secrets are unfolded. While working with a British map-making crew in Tunisia, Almasy falls in love with the wife of another member of the expedition. She is Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), but the same desert that brought them together threatens to tear them apart. As was the case with the classic Dr. Zhivago, some of the most memorable love stories emerge from the most harsh of settings, and that holds true here. Beneath the heated passion of the lovers lie the early deep rumblings of World War II, and that, added to the unrelenting conditions of the Sahara and Almasy’s own obsession with his beloved, leads every character in this story to their final destinies.

Among those whose lives are forever affected by the secret lovers are David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a Canadian spy with hatred ruthlessly instilled in him by the Nazis and who is bent on revenge, the nurse Hana who has lost everyone she has loved but risks her heart once more for a Muslim minesweeper who faces danger every day.

These well-written characters are accompanied, if not overwhelmed, by stunning photography intended for a big screen—views of the gleaming white spires of an ancient Saharan city seen through the scrollwork of a window shutter, countered by the peeling-paint walls of the Tuscan monastery overgrown with foliage. One standout scene is when Hana, sizzling flare in hand, is hoisted by ropes to the ceiling of the cavernous monastery to view the fading and chipped Medieval frescoes painted by the hands of a long-forgotten artist. It’s just one magical moment in a beautiful cinematic portrait.

Books and Movies I’ve Loved

My son who is currently a student at Brigham Young University is in the process of applying to film school. One of his requirements is to list ten books/music/movies/TV shows that have had some effect on his life. Naturally, I began to come up with my own list of such that has had a major effect on me. In fact, it became an obsession—that’s just how my brain works.

You can really get to know a person by learning about the factors that have influenced them most. It’s an icebreaker, a little window into their personality, and with authors, it can give you a clue as to what informs their own creative expression.

Without further ado, here are ten things I came up with that have been the most significant creative influencers for me, not in any particular order. I bet I could easily come up with ten or twenty more.

The Little House book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – I already loved reading when I hit fourth grade, but it was my teacher’s practice that year of reading aloud a chapter a day from novels that really set me on fire for reading, and eventually, writing. Her reading of Little House on the Prairie was my first introduction to Laura and her stories of mid-19th century pioneer life. I devoured the rest of the series, several times, and many of her descriptions of things like small prairie towns, textiles used for women’s clothing, and commonly eaten foods have informed my own western stories.

Native American potteryBury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown – I’ve been through this tome twice, and for me it remains the single most knowledgeable and powerful description of the tragedy of the American Indian.

The Jackrabbit Factor by Leslie Householder – This quick read was my first introduction to the Law of Attraction and the power of positive thinking. I’ve read many things since which have completely changed my perspective on our own potential, and goals and how to achieve them, but this was what started me on the path.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis – Been through this one twice too. (I’d rather read a good book twice than a mediocre one once.) I loved Lewis’ humorous and thought-provoking take on human nature, temptation, and how to recognize and guard against evil.

The 5000 Year Leap and The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution both by W. Cleon Brass bookendsSkousen – I include these together because I studied them simultaneously as part of a course. These gave me a real in-depth understanding of the U.S. Founding Fathers and the principles they studied which shaped their ideas on freedom and government, and I gained new appreciation and awe for the Constitution.

Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? by Richard J. Maybury – A good, simple-to-understand explanation of the principles of sound economics, a subject I feel is very important to learn about currently, but which I always had trouble understanding before.

The music of Johann Strauss Jr. – When I was a girl, my father bought a collection (of LPs, remember those?) of all Johann Strauss music…and I was in heaven! It was my first real introduction to classical music, and to this day my heart thrills to hear “The Beautiful Blue Danube,” “Tales of the Vienna Woods,” “The Emperor Waltz,” and so many other majestic and beautiful pieces.

Dances With Wolves – In my humble opinion, the greatest movie ever made. No other film since 1990 has ever captured my imagination like this one. As a lifelong fan of the Old West, this film made me feel, for the first time, that I was truly there and could feel the spirit of it.

Antique store picture & bottlesLonesome Dove – Where Dances With Wolves gave me the Native American view of the Old West as it was, this 1988 miniseries did the same for the cowboys’ view. Its characters are so memorable, our family has quoted them for years.

The Harry Potter movie series – How did that get in here, right? Okay, it’s true I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy, but my reason for including this is quite different than my other entries. For two summers in a row, my two sons and I have watched all eight movies. We call it a marathon, even though we only watched one movie a week. It’s the memories of that activity with my boys that I so treasure, and will my whole life as they grow up and move on in life. What fun that was, and you know what? I loved the movies too, and J.K. Rowlings’ brilliant concept.

Well, there it is, 10 things, and I didn’t even get to Who Moved My Cheese? or Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, or the movie Glory or…

But I’ve got more reading, listening, and watching to do. Bye for now.


Film “Doubt” is Strong on Theme

Clapboard & cinema reelOscar season is upon us now–a good time to remember past nominees which may have gone largely unnoticed but which are well worth a look. Doubt received many acting and writing nominations at the 2009 Oscars and some wins at other awards. Today I welcome guest blogger Taylor Davis, who reviews this powerful film.

John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 film Doubt tells the story of a parish in peril as a pastor is accused of child molestation, and depicts the gospel principle that “the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center” (1 Nephi 16:2).

Although the story is openly religious, taking place in a Catholic church and school and including several scenes of Father Flynn preaching sermons, this message is conveyed mostly in the familiar style rather than the abundant. The film shows a man facing the consequences of his sins in a way to which we may relate… or will relate someday.

Father Flynn is obviously shaken by the accusations against him. Whether or not he actually committed the crime is never revealed, though it is implied that he has a dark past, as he was thrown out of three other parishes in the past five years. His angry temperament when confronted with these accusations is a manifestation that, whether or not he did it, the subject is very personal to him. He hates its mere mention. The first time he is confronted by Sisters James and Aloysius, he does what any sinner might do: he retaliates angrily and changes the subject, asserting that he is unsatisfied with how the situation was handled. In this way he redirects all negativity away from him and at his accusers.

When the wicked are suspected of a sin, they will often do anything they can to hide it from the world and keep their reputation in good standing. In this way they act cowardly, and ignore the eternal and inevitable consequences of their actions. They will plug their ears and scream when someone tries to warn them of what will happen to them if they do not change, because the wicked take the truth to be hard. This is the theme of Doubt.

Doubt stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis.

My Two Favorite Poems

My two favorite poems are about as different from each other as can be. One is deeply serious, one is entertaining and funny. But they each tell a riveting story, and I, in my unschooled literary way, have found an interesting comparison between them. See if you can find it.

The first one is “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” by Myra Brooks Welch.1069243_10200458558922481_1936795622_n

The second one is “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer.

I love “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” because it beautifully expresses a powerful moral about the worth of a soul using a fine, old instrument. I find myself longing to hear the song the master played that so stirred its audience. “Casey at the Bat” entertains me anew every time I read it. It brings to mind that old Americana scene of a small-town baseball game. I picture the stands full of men in suits, ties, and hats and women in the dresses of yesteryear.

But the last stanzas are what bring out the true meaning of each poem. “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” is about a man who thinks he’s nothing special but finds out that he is. “Casey at the Bat” is about a man who believes he is very special and finds out he isn’t. We can certainly be taught in the most unlikely places.

A Wayback Film Recommendation: 1995’s “Restoration”

Clapboard & cinema reel

The age of Restoration, as the opening narrative of the film Restoration tells us, is a period in British history when King Charles rescued his country from strict Puritanical rule and fostered a carefree open-mindedness marked by scientific discoveries and medical advances which challenged long-held superstitions. But it is also the poignant story of the restoration of one man’s soul.

Young Dr. Robert Merivel, played brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr., is a physician who is more interested in partaking of the physical pleasures of the age than in curing anything. Spoiled and schooled by daddy’s money, he has no idea that he is perfectly poised in his profession to be part of the dawn of a new era. He is distracted by the new ’60s sexual revolution, 1660s that is. The monarchy and all of upper-crust society live in a whirl of wanton lust and debauchery, and Merivel craves this life of leisure. His destiny is set in motion the moment he becomes the first man to touch a living, beating heart. This draws the attention of his idol, King Charles himself, who requires such a man to heal his beloved…dog. Merivel subsequently becomes the royal veterinarian and is given his own estate complete with clothing designers and “playmates”, and oh yes, an arranged marriage with the king’s mistress, Lady Celia, played by beautiful Polly Walker, the only rule being, he is not to become attached to her, in any way. That’s like asking a happy dog not to wag his tail. Next thing we know, Merivel is living in the fetid squalor of London’s slums, treating patients in a sanitarium. All is not lost though. Merivel has a lot to learn about the potential that rests within him and the stimulus it needs to awaken it. This man may not understand the difference between love and lust, but he understands compassion; he understands friendship in its truest form, and it’s not at all far-fetched that the secret to stamping out the dreaded plague which is gutting the land rests in his unassuming mind.

It is obvious why Restoration won its two Oscars in 1996 for art design and costumes. The rich reds and golds of palatial splendor lavish a feast on the senses and are evocative of the story they are telling. A beautiful classical soundtrack brings this rich tapestry to life, as does a superb cast. Special mention should be made of Meg Ryan who plays a woman scarred by tragedy and wrongly labeled as crazy. Her convincing Irish accent makes her almost unrecognizable from the actress we know. Restoration is a journey in itself, and after we’ve traveled its dark roads we may find ourselves counting our blessings today.

Our Family’s Required Reading List

Old library chair

In the last few months I regaled you with recommended read-aloud lists categorized by age. I said that those titles were only a few of the many excellent ones out there. I’d like to add to them now by posting our “required reading” list. These are all books either required by the language arts curriculum that we used, or were required by me because I felt they were important to read.

Because there are so many worthy books and not enough time, we only studied excerpts from some of the high school books and read some others straight through. But here they are, labeled by the grade in which they were read.

3rd Grade:

The White Stallion by Elizabeth Shub

Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans

Meet George Washington by Joan Heilbroner

The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh

4th Grade:

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Wilbur and Orville Wright:  Young Fliers by Augusta Stevenson

Benjamin Franklin:  Young Printer by Augusta Stevenson

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

Favorite Poems Old and New by Helen Ferris

5th Grade:

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

Meet Addy by Connie Porter

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

6th Grade:

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

7th Grade:

The Star of Light by Patricia St. John

Adam and His Kin by Ruth Beechick

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

8th Grade:

Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt

A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich

Eric Liddell by Catherine Swift

God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew

When the Banks Closed, We Opened Our Hearts by Mike Beno

We Pulled Together…And Won by Deb Mulvey

Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh

9th Grade:

Holt Anthology of Science Fiction

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

10th Grade:

The Epic of Gilgamesh

11th Grade:

The Train-of-Thought Writing Method:  Practical, User-Friendly Help for Beginning

Writers by Kathi Macias

Of Plymouth Plantation:  Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement 1608-1650 by

William Bradford

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Stephen Crane

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

12th Grade:

Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Emma by Jane Austen

Silas Marner by George Eliot

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The 5,000-Year Leap by W. Cleon Skousen

The Making of America by W. Cleon Skousen

Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? by Richard J. Maybury

The Jackrabbit Factor by Leslie Householder

Homeschool Curriculum Series: Music, Art, Foreign Language

George Frideric Handel

As homeschoolers, we like to cover all bases, go beyond reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. As a creative family, we value the arts and consider it vitally important to include them in our curriculum. Thus, we’ve used some resources I’d love to share.

Music: The boys both had music lessons with private instructors for a few years. At home, we learned a lot about composers through the ages from Meet the Great Composers, Books 1 and 2. Each lesson provided a short biography, activity, and piece of music from each composer on the accompanying CD. We also read Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, which was an informative book about the inspiration behind the great composers’ work.

Art: In elementary school we did lots of art projects, many of them using a book called Discovering Great Artists. Each lesson discussed a particular artist, taught his/her technique, and then provided an art project using their method, such as lying down beneath a table and painting on a paper taped underneath the table to represent Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Fun stuff right there. In junior high, we used Understanding Art (a mega expensive school textbook which we found dirt cheap on eBay.) It was a very complete study of art through the ages and around the world.

Foreign Language: This is a little bit tougher of a subject for homeschool and many who want to tackle it may want outside lessons. However, there are self-guided resources to use at home. Most are quite expensive. One that was more affordable (and we bought it cheaper used, as we did many of our school books) was Power-Glide, now called Powerspeak. My older son got a pretty good basis in Spanish using this.

As you can see, there are resources out there for every homeschooler’s needs and so much to choose from. Don’t be deterred. The search is half the fun!

Homeschool Curriculum Series: Social Studies Pt. 2

So as promised, I will give some recommendations for social studies resources, things that really facilitated learning for us. As tomorrow marks the 126th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, I will begin with American history and government resources. I used several things available from the National Center for Constitutional Studies, namely the I Love America parts 1 and 2 for young children, and the American Government and Constitution Study Course. I have only good things to say about both of them. They were some of my favorite resources in all of our homeschool and were more memorable to my kids, (in a good way!) than other things. We also kept on hand The Declaration of Independence and Other Great Documents of American History. It’s always good to have the primary sources close by to refer to.

I mentioned in my last post the value of eyewitness accounts to history. Two outstanding books we read were When the Banks Closed, We Opened Our Hearts about the Great Depression, and We Pulled Together…and Won about World War II, both filled with fascinating short stories and anecdotes from the people who lived through those times.

You Decide! Applying the Bill of Rights to Real Cases provided a good study of court cases involving the Bill of Rights. The student is placed in the role of judge and they have to take the facts given, study the amendment involved in the case, and make their own decision and back it up with argument. Then they get to find out what the court really decided.

For economics, Whatever Happened to Penny Candy by Richard Maybury and the accompanying Bluestocking Guide provided a good, clear, understandable study of that subject.

We wanted to study our own state during seventh grade, and most states require such a study. For this, I designed a study myself using websites, books, DVDs, field trips, and several hands-on experiments and art projects. The kids had a booklet in which they could check off assignments and projects and earn treats, with the final reward being a field trip to the state Capitol building when the legislature was in session.

Historical Wall TimelineOne of the most valuable things we ever did and of which I’m most proud, all through their years of schooling, 1st through 12th grades, was to maintain historical timelines. They are indispensable to a good study of history. For instance, Mozart was composing music at the same time the American Revolutionary War was happening, but you never study those two things together, so timelines give you a sense of the world as a whole at any given time. I keep up a large timeline covering an entire wall, running from 5000 B.C. to the present, and color coded according to different types of history, such as political, religious, exploration, scientific discovery, inventions, and cultural events. Then each of the boys had their own sketchbook in which they put the events as they studied them, and including a small quarter-sized picture drawn in colored pencil to go with each entry.Historical Timelines Book

Some favorite geography resources: Children Just Like Mea fun look into the lives of ordinary children all over the world, and Trail Guide to World Geography which includes a most enjoyable study of the Jules Verne classic Around the World in 80 Days. So fun to make an adventure part of your learning.

And speaking of adventure, we are often armchair travelers and have enjoyed some very inspiring documentaries and films to supplement our studies. Some of the most impressionable to us were History Channel’s The Story of Us, the Ken Burns’ documentaries Lewis & Clark and the Journey of the Corps of Discovery, and Baseball. Others that bear mentioning are the old James Stewart film The Spirit of St. Lewis, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, which we never tire of watching, and Steven Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln.

Have fun doing your own exploring. It can be fun for adults and kids alike!



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