Tag Archive: movies

Creative Hack

I didn’t have all that much interest in seeing the new movie, The Interview, before the latest controversial threat, seemingly coming from North Korea, that anyone is goes to see the film faces consequences similar to what happened on September 11th, 2001. The film comedically explores the idea that two US citizens traveling abroad could assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and in the fallout controversy, Sony Pictures’ computer system itself was attacked and hacked, and private emails and information was leaked to the press.

The Sony company is based in Japan, and the studio portion of the company have decided not to release the film anywhere in Japan, citing Japanese citizens who are currently being held in North Korea, and Seth Grogan, one of the films stars, has cancelled his press promotional tour for the next few days.

This whole fiasco reminds me of the controversy over the freedom of creative expression. Books such as Ulysses, by James Joyce, and To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, have been banned in the past in an attempt to keep people from being exposed to ideas or expressions of ideas that challenge the norm. This is, in all likelihood, a forgettable spoof that would have otherwise disappeared shortly after its release, but it’s now garnering more attention than it would have otherwise, simply because the North Koreans take even a comedic attack on their leader as a serious provocation. My mind casts back to the time when Salmon Rushdie’s life from the Ayatollah of Iran for writing a book called, Satanic Verses.

I think we must work to retain the right to artistic freedom as one of the most fundamental, basic, and important freedoms we have.


The Trip to Italy

No indeed, I have not been to Italy yet, though I hope to remedy that in the coming few years, but I recently saw the film “The Trip to Italy,” starring Steve Coogan from “Philomena” and British humorist Rob Brydon. I have not seen the original movie, “The Trip,” on which this sequel is based, but one key element to any successful story is whether you would want to spend two hours in the company of the main characters, and in this case, I can answer with a resounding, “yes.” Their impressions of actors Christian Bale, Al Pacino, the Godfather Marlon Brando, and Robert DeNiro are spot on target. I have heard, however, that many of the impressions are retreads of those done in the original movie and they might not seem as fresh the second time around, and also, there is not enough plot. We learn about the main characters’ individual penchants and foibles, but much of the screen time simply follows them aimlessly around. In some ways, it’s meant to be a meditation on life and death, and a crucial scene takes place when Coogan’s character meets his son and a woman who join them on their journey at a burial site, attendant with shrunken heads, and references to Hamlet.

I was also not particularly taken with the anti-gay slur/attempt at humor in the first few minutes of the film, and found it off-putting. I don’t think two men should feel compelled to justify spending time together or taking a trip together without first establishing that they are clearly heterosexual.

Maybe I’ve read too many plot driven narratives lately–I’ve been immersing myself in murder mysteries as I prepare to write one–but this movie came up short in terms of a compelling storyline. One of the main plot points is that Brydon’s character, doing his best Godfather impersonation, lets Steve know he really, really wants to go to Sicily, yet he abandons this interest abruptly when Steve’s son promises to fly overseas for a familial reunion.

I have to admit, though, that in terms of tone, “The Trip to Italy” succeeds brilliantly, and reminded me a bit of the “Before Midnight” film series, starring Ethan Hawke, only more humorous. It’s worth two hours of time to be entertained by these two engaging characters, but I wish they had drawn more conclusions about what it means to suffer with existential angst.

Boozy But Beautiful

Veronica Lake made a splash in Hollywood in her breakthrough role in the 1941 war drama “I Wanted Wings.” During filming, her trademark blonde hair slipped over her eyes, creating her signature peekaboo look.

She struggled mightily with stardom, however, and fame was a fickle friend. Alcoholism and mental illness dogged her career and marred her legacy, and she faded into ignominy later in life.

I worked at E! Entertainment television between 1997 and 1999 on a little known show called Mysteries and Scandals, and we used to do profiles of all the old Hollywood legends, covering, of course, all the greats, such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner, but we also focused on lesser known figures like dancer Isadora Duncan, comedian Fatty Arbuckle, actor John Barrymore and, naturally, Veronica Lake.

Veronica Lake made several films with the five-foot five stature-challenged actor Alan Ladd, including the memorable “This Gun For Hire,” and the lessor known film noir classic, “The Blue Dahlia.” Ladd was known for his height, or lack thereof, and Lake was known for her hair and smoldering eyes. She later became a pin-up girl for soldiers during WWII and sold more than her fair share of war bonds.

Unfortunately, alcoholism, and later, mental illness, took its toll. The two in combination proved deadly, and she died of hepatitis and acute kidney injury at age 50. In reality, Lake ran through her money, and was forced to stay in a series of low rent motels, barely able to pay her bills or put food on the table. When fans tried to send her money, though, she turned down their offers of assistance, insisting that she was still able to make ends meet, and that she was doing just fine on her own, thank you very much.

In our Mysteries and Scandals TV feature at E! Entertainment television, we hinted through a bizarre interview clip that Veronica Lake may have had a lobotomy, but this idea was never substantiated, and in fact, her behavior, strange though it was, could probably have been chalked up to tipping back one too many drinks, one too many days in a row.

I’m reminded of the Marlon Brando quote from the film, “On the Waterfront,” where he shouts out, “I coulda been a contender.” Veronica Lake coulda been a big star, but her career careened off-course, and she never really dealt with the personal demons that haunted her.

Dreaming of the Day When

From the movie “The Vow:”

“These moments of impact define who we are.”

Argo Sets Pace For the Oscar Race

The year is 1979. The American embassy in Iran is being stormed and taken over by Iranian radicals who resent that the US is giving the ousted Shah of Iran sanctuary. The radical Iranians, who support the Ayatollah Khomeini, capture 52 Americans. In the midst of the chaos, six Americans escape and the Canadian ambassador hides them at his residence.

To get them out, Ben Affleck’s character hatches a plan to make a space fantasy movie, Argo, a la Star Wars, while issuing the fugitives Canadian passports, and helping them escape.

The fake movie Argo will never actually be made, but it serves as a cover for the motley crew of US citizens. The morass of Hollywood is spoofed, and there is great fun and many humorous moments as a make-up artist, played by John Goodman, and a film producer, Alan Arkin, set up the appearance of an actually movie that is in production. They even go so far as to host a script reading by actors at the Beverly Hilton. The comedic moments serve as a momentary rest from the tension and drama as the audience hopes, but is unsure, whether the plan will succeed.

This is a true story which was kept secret by the CIA for eighteen years, and in my mind, this is the best film of the year so far. I predict it will be a front runner for Best Picture in the Golden Globe and Oscar season. Despite Hollywood’s penchant for happy endings, I was unsure how the story was going to turn out, and I found myself nervously shifting in my seat, completely mesmerized by the story. It would have been tempting to slap-dash together and toss off a thriller without the depth and richness of Argo, but director Ben Affleck is not satisfied with taking the easy way out.

Despite the many years fraught with conflicts in the Middle East, I don’t believe the average American truly cares much about what is going on abroad. This movie will make you care for the safety of the characters, and may even inspire interest in understanding how tension in the Middle East affects everyone.

Look for Argo as one of the films to watch this award season.

Perks of Being a Wallflower

It’s somewhat rare for a novelist to direct and bring his novel to the screen, but with the film “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Stephen Chbosky does both, and succeeds brilliantly. I’ve just ordered the book; it’s that great a story. The main character Charlie, played by Logan Lerman, is an outcast as he tries, sometimes better, sometimes worse, to manage his mental illness. Charlie makes friends with his English teacher who gives him seminal works of fiction to read and discuss, but Charlie is not happy with his one friend, simply because his only friend is a teacher and not a fellow student. Charlie is slow in learning the lingo that would help him fit in, but two seniors, Sam and Patrick, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, befriend him, and his world opens up quite suddenly and dramatically. It is a story jam-packed with teen angst and crushes, yet the movie is careful not to wallow in a mode of alienation. Charlie’s life becomes a lot more complicated with his new friends, but he finally finds happiness of a sort. One of the characters at one point says directly, “Don’t make yourself small.” The message: we accept the love we think we deserve.

The characters attempt to navigate and float above the murky waters of adolescence. Patrick gets into a gay relationship with the captain of the football team, and things start to go badly because their two worlds are so far apart. In frustration, Patrick announces, “My life is officially an after-school special.” Basically, the movie reinforces the notion that we all just want to be loved. The implicit thought asks the question as to why we pick people who treat us as if we don’t matter.

“Perks of Being a Wallflower” proves that we cannot choose where we come from, but we can choose where we go from there.

The Two Snow Whites

I’ve recently seen Mirror, Mirror as well as Snow White and the Huntsman and enjoyed both, but for very different reasons. Both stories are a retooling of the classic tale, but Mirror, Mirror sets itself up as a comedy, while Snow White and the Huntsman remains more faithful to the traditional Brothers Grimm fairytale.

Mirror, Mirror stars Julia Roberts as the Wicked Queen with magical powers and features Nathan Lane as her faithful sidekick and errand boy. When Lane’s character fails her, she turns him into a cockroach. This comes off as a gratuitous comedic attempt (if there even is such a thing), and is one of the few aspects of the story which didn’t fully succeed. It reminded me a bit of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where the Peter Pettigrew character hides as a pet rat named Wormtail. J.K. Rowling utilizes this plot point better than Mirror, Mirror. Most of the rest of the story, however, holds together. Naturally the Queen wants Prince Charming for herself so she whips up a potion, but this backfires when the prince turns becomes a puppy dog, infected with puppy love. I actually liked this aspect of the story, and I also liked the turnaround on the tale whereby Snow White saves the prince instead of the reverse. The role of the dwarves as outlaws and degenerate renegades reestablishes their importance in the tale, so unlike the 1937 Disney movie where the diminutive dwarves are only used as comedic foils for the Wicked Queen. One of the best lines, a line that drives the story is: “It’s important to know when you’ve been beaten.” This adage is turned on its head when Snow White defeats the Wicked Queen. The movie Burlesque echoes this plot point when one performer tells the ingénue and rising star, “Clearly, one of us has underestimated the other.”

In Snow White and the Huntsman, the tale is much more faithful to the very scary aspects of the Brothers Grimm story. One of the dwarves, for instance, is blind, a trope that is often utilized in classic stories to point out that the blind are sometimes the only true seers.

One thing both stories reminded me is that people no longer read as much as they used to. The main way audiences are introduced to classic stories and mythology is through filmic depictions, retold and reimagined. The Huntsman film reminded me of the cinematography of the recent Lord of the Rings trilogy, a broad, sweeping cinematic canvas. Still, in my mind, as a writer, I’m convinced that nothing quite equals the evocative images and use of the imagination when it comes to envisioning stories that are read. I’m quite certain my English and creative writing instructors would agree. My advice: go read books, lots of them, then see the films only as escapist entertainment.

In Hollywood, especially for women, there aren’t all many roles as actors age.  After being relegated to playing the part of the mother or father, there are few roles for grandmothers and grandfathers, and the role of grandparents is generally relegated to minor characters.  Male actors have more options than their female counterparts, but even so, there aren’t all that many roles available. 

No one seems particularly interested in what older characters can teach us.  It’s emblematic of the way we treat the elderly in our society.  Other cultures revere their elders, but we just shove them into nursing homes, to be forgotten rather than honored.

That’s what makes the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel all that special.  Starring amazing actors like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and their male counterparts, including Tom Wilkinson, the story proves the point that it’s okay to want more out of your life, even if you’re in your golden years.  Rather than expecting less and less, the characters plunge into a foreign culture in Jaipur, India, enlarging their experience of their lives.  They might very well have said, “My life matters, if only to me!”

I’m reminded of a quote by Emile Zola:  “If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you:  I came to live out loud.”  Like other films such as Short Cuts, Valentine’s Day, and New Year’s Eve, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel follows each of its seven main characters in separate vignettes, but shows its protagonists coming together at the airport, intertwining their stories into one cohesive tale.

An interesting subplot follows Maggie Smith’s character Muriel who worked for many years as a housekeeper, but managed to stay isolated in her own, exclusively Caucasian world, and she is more than willing to reveal her extremely prejudiced viewpoints to anyone who will listen.  She has travelled to India for a cheaper hip replacement, and she is forced into interactions with Indians, and this rubs up against her xenophobia.  The story proves that prejudice, even firmly entrenched prejudice, can be overcome.  And life turns out to be about connectedness, not disconnectedness.  Rather than simply passing time until they die, the characters seek to enrich their lives.  It’s a great story, well worth telling, and well worth going to see.  Allow The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to transport you to another culture.