Friday, October 31, 2014

Trick or Treat: Happy Halloween!

Last week I began watching movies on DVD about writers/authors that had been recommended by one of the websites that I subscribe to on Facebook, like Book Riot or Shelf Awareness or Buzzfeed or Goodwill Librarian. I had assumed that out of the five that I chose off of a list, that at least one of them would rock my world and provide insight into the writing life, if not via journalism, at least via general wordsmithing.
Turns out, all of the movies were bizarre, depressing or just plain bad in one way or another. 
Starting Out in the Evening with Frank Langella was a movie about an old man (I assume they meant for the author Leonard Schiller to be somewhere in his mid 70s, but Langella looked about 85) who is trying to complete his final novel while dealing with the life of his daughter Ariel and dealing with a rude, arrogant young woman who is ostensibly doing her master's thesis on his previous 4 novels. Heather shows up at Schiller's door and will not take no for an answer, insisting on interviewing him and foisting her own ideas and thoughts on him about his own work, while also needling him about his life and how it effects his writing. Schiller is an old-school gentleman, somewhat introverted, who lives a lot inside his head, so when this redhead starts rudely challenging him at every turn, he gets upset and angry but eventually gives in and tells her what she wants to know about his life, even when it is something he'd rather keep private. Also, she seems to have a crush on him, and repeatedly hits on the man, though it is obvious that he's at least 50 years older than she is. So when, after a couple of failed attempts at luring him into bed with her, she finally manages to get him to have sex with her, it's rather grotesque to watch, even though they cut away before Langella gets all his clothing off (thank heavens...shudder. Who wants to see his wrinkly thighs and wiener? Not me). Heather is basically using Schiller, and when she finishes her thesis and gives it to him to read, he edits it and rewrites part of it to make it an even harsher critique of his latter works, which Heather doesn't like because they aren't as romantic as his first two books. If all that were not odd enough, Ariel is carrying on a second affair with a guy who she broke up with years ago because he didn't want children, and she does. So now she's compromising what she wants, again, to be with him. She eventually realizes that he usually gets whatever he wants in their relationship while she doesn't, so she breaks it off, only to have him come crawling back, saying that he will change and, one assumes, have a child with her. Meanwhile, her father has a massive stroke, and her boyfriend is the only person around who can help him, which he does quite tenderly, though Ariel is too busy blaming Heather for her father's ill health to notice. Again, oddly enough, Ariel does an about-face not 5 minutes later in the film and asks Heather to come and visit her father, who has recovered slowly but well from his stroke. Heather sits down to tea and tells Schiller that she's sure the book he's finishing will be his best, which Schiller takes as completely condescending, and slaps her face. This apparently signals the end of their relationship, as Schiller tells her she was a nice distraction for an old man. Ouch. He then gives his manuscript to Ariel's boyfriend, and notes that he needs to start a new novel to say what he really wants to say. So the last shot is of Schiller at his typewriter. What a wretched portrayal of the writing life. I felt like the only person who didn't get what he wanted was Schiller, while everyone else gets to happily go on with their lives. And Frank Langella needs to stop doing love scenes. Like right now. I'd give this movie a B, and I am being generous because I used to think Frank Langella was a real hottie in the 80s when he played Dracula. I also love his voice. It's beautiful and soothing.

An Angel at my Table with a New Zealand actress (4 of them) with really bad red bozo hair about Janet Frame, a famed NZ poet/author. This poor woman grew up in an impoverished family, lost three siblings to drowning, and lost her parents as well, yet somehow managed to have a writing career in the midst of all the madness, both literally and figuratively. For some reason, because she was a shy and not very confident person, she was told that she needed to enter a mental hospital, where they cavalierly diagnosed her with schizophrenia and gave her shock treatments that she didn't really need. They were about to lobotomize her when a nice young doctor saved her by noticing that she really was sane, just scared, and he tells her that he will let her go as soon as she gains some self confidence. She also has all of her teeth removed, which is gruesome (why were there no dentists in NZ, or no one to tell the child to brush her teeth, ever? The point is made that she needed to bathe as a child, but everyone in the film looks grubby, so I assumed that bathing wasn't a priority during and after WW2 in NZ). My main problem with this movie was that Janet had so little self confidence and felt so little of herself as a writer or a woman that she did whatever anyone told her to do, especially any man. Men told her to write more, so she did, an American had an affair with her and then just left her, and so on, with her doing whatever anyone said and sculking around like a terrified child the rest of the time. I found myself wondering if her father had abused her, but we didn't see that in the film, so I don't know if that was the reason she was such a scared bunny rabbit of a person. Her writing seems to have been brilliant, though we don't see a lot of her actually doing that. As a writing movie, there are great swathes of this film that are just boring as all get out, where nothing happens except for the author staring out over the ocean or swimming in a lagoon or taking a bath. So I would give the movie a C, and I'd not recommend it to anyone who doesn't have loads of patience.
 Marjorie Morningstar with Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly. I am a huge fan of Herman Wouk, who wrote the novel Marjorie Morningstar. So I had assumed this movie would be a delight. Instead, it seemed to be a vehicle for a very young and lovely Natalie Wood to play a conflicted Jewish girl, and an aging Gene Kelly to play a man who never really grew up and who is completely unsuccessful as a playwright, though he obviously has the talent to write this one song, which is played over and over throughout the film (enough so that you will hear it in your sleep for at least a week). Marjorie falls for old Gene while he's teaching at a fancy resort that is across the lake from a camp for I think Jewish kids, where Marjorie is a teacher. Her parents keep trying to marry her off to various wealthy doctors and lawyers, but Marjorie has dreams! She wants to be an actress!Though her parents disapprove, Marjorie goes off to teach summer camp with a "wild" friend (played by a young Caroline Jones in screaming red hair, which is so different from her long dark hair as Morticia Addams in the Addam's Family TV show that I grew up watching, that if you didn't know it was her, you'd never recognize her as a brash, loud girl) who is eager to meet men, especially wealthy older Jewish men who can take care of her. This is all too pedestrian for our young heroine, though, who is at once a wide-eyed innocent and yet determined to fulfill her DESTINY. That is, until she meets wastrel and ne'er do well Gene Kelly, who, as an immature older man who has thrown his life away, is of course drawn to the bright optimism of our Marjorie. He sees her as so bright he tells her she should be called "Morningstar" instead of  "Morgenstern" which she of course adores and adopts right away, because, she's really not like all these money-grubbing Jewish people she grew up with and is surrounded by...she's an ARTIST, which means she is ABOVE such things! To be fair, Gene Kelly's character, Noel Airman (he has anglicized the spelling of his last name to appear less Jewish) tells Marjorie, repeatedly, that he's never going to be the wealthy provider who marries her and settles down to have a bunch of kids. He tells her he's a serial philanderer, and that he drinks too much and can't seem to finish his musical play. Marjorie ignores his warnings and gets involved with him, even after he sleeps with other women and fails at working at a "real" job at his father's advertising firm. She keeps going back for more abuse, and when he finally manages to complain that she's not putting out, and that he "needs" her, she of course starts sleeping with him, and he finishes his play. Martin Milner, who would later become a cop on a TV show that my family watched religiously called Adam 12, plays a young playwright who grew up under Noel's tutelage, but is a real go-getter, and keeps telling Marjorie that she should date him instead, because he's going places, and he's in love with her. Of course, Marjorie tells him it's too late, she's too in love with Noel, but that doesn't stop her from asking for a part in Martin's successful play (one of many that he seems to have) and then quitting the minute she feels he's giving her the part not because of her talent but because he loves her and wants to hang around with her. Meanwhile Caroline Jones has landed a whale, an old wealthy Jewish producer whom she reluctantly marries because of course he can take care of her financially. This guy is the first to put money behind Noel's play, and he brings along a bunch of his wealthy old Jewish guy friends to also invest. There follows a scene in which Gene Kelly throws a temper tantrum, telling all these bourgeois  people that they have no right to judge him, he's an artist, something fine that they, money-grubbers that they are, will never understand! Despite this insult, they still fund his musical play, and unsurprisingly, it flops and is roasted by the critics. So he goes on a bender, yells at Marjorie that it is all her fault, and the two break up, only to not see each other for quite awhile when Noel flees to parts unknown. In that time, it would seem that Marjorie becomes established as an actress, but we are never sure, as she's sent to Europe, where she supposedly is looking for Noel, but instead becomes quite the finished, fashionable young woman. She runs into Martin Milner's character, who is taking Europe by storm with his plays, and he tells her that Noel is back at the summer resort teaching theater, just as he was when he first met her. Martin tries to tell her that this is as high as Noel can reach with his talent, and that he's happy there because he's not tied down by expectations (mainly hers), so she should leave him be, but of course she doesn't, she goes back to her old stomping grounds and sees Gene Kelly making the young girls swoon by singing at the piano and teaching them to dance, and it finally occurs to her that she and Noel weren't good for each other, since they've been doing so well apart, and when someone mentions that she's all grown up, she has an epiphany, and realizes that he will never grow up and be what she wants him to be. So she leaves without seeing Noel, and when she gets on the bus, there's Martin Milner, sitting on the bus waiting for her, and as the music swells, I think we're meant to realize that she will marry the successful playwright and live happily ever after. First of all, yes, Natalie Wood was a beautiful gal when she was young (and she grew to be even lovelier as she got older) but I honestly don't see why everyone in this film acted like she was the most luscious creature they'd ever laid eyes on. She's no Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor. Secondly, Gene Kelly looked like an old gay man in this film, and I don't know whether it was the makeup or the fleshiness of his face or the wrinkles that were highlighted by eye makeup, but instead of looking like the age he was, 45, he looked like he was nearing 65. He had never come across as effeminate in any of his other movies that I've watched and adored (who doesn't love Singing in the Rain? Or the Pirate? Or An American in Paris? I mean "le time step?" Come on!) so I struggled to figure out what it was about this film that made him seem like an aging queen. He was married three times and had three children, so if he was gay or bisexual, he hid it well. I would give this movie a C, because it was riddled with cliches about Jewish people and actors/playwrights and other "artists." It was also eye-rollingly slow and annoying, with that stupid song playing over and over.
Bright Star with Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish about John Keats as a hottie poet who falls in love with a young woman who is tormented by love of him and his inability to marry or commit to her. This film is, like An Angel at My Table, directed by Jane Campion, who seems to have a thing for making movies that move at a snail's pace, and have scenes that show the main characters staring into space, or walking by the water, or taking a bath but doing nothing to move the plot forward or enlighten the audience as to their character's motivations. The theme of innocent but tortured artist is continued here, with Keats seemingly stricken with "consumption" (the old term for tuberculosis)  and poetic genius simultaineously. He is also poor and dependent on others for food and shelter, so for much of the film he is rooming with a cad called Brown, who appears to be a cross between his agent, his rival and his mother. Brown doesn't approve of Fanny and her fervent love of Keats, but since all he seems to do is make horribly rude and snide comments to her, their affair of the heart continues unabated.When he's not trying to force Keats to write or rest, he's busy forcing himself on the servant girl, whom he gets pregnant, and has to be scorned into doing the right thing and marrying her before she has the child. Meanwhile, though, Keats and Fanny are above that sort of sordid sexual stuff, being all cerebral, and while they kiss a lot and send one another touching letters and notes, you get the feeling that Keats, especially, is not healthy enough for sexual activity, as it says in the Viagra ads, though he's played by the toothsome Ben Whishaw (who was delicious on The Hour, which was a miniseries on BBC America). A moody, sad and overwrought film, I'd give this one a B, though I can't imagine why anyone would want to watch this unless they are huge fans of romantic poetry and weepy Abbie Cornish.
Young Adult with a thoroughly UGLY Charlize Theron was a great surprise to me.If you've ever seen Theron, she's this amazingly gorgeous woman who looks like a cross between Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, with the best features of both. Though she's nearing 40, she looks about 25, and the South African actress has beautiful glowing skin and a perfect, tall and shapely model's body. Which is why I can't figure out how the people that made this movie managed to make her look so strung out, dull-skinned and hideous.Her normally lush blonde locks were greasy and limp, and her complexion sallow, while the clothing that was supposed to make her look vampish and sultry made her look skinny and shapeless. Perhaps that was intentional, as the character she plays during the film, Mavis, is a real creep, a young adult fiction author who is basically ghost writing a series of formulaic books for female teenagers. Mavis is from a small town in Minnesota called Mercury, which is apparently such a horrible place that you can't wait to leave it. So she moved to Minneapolis and got a job as a writer, and though she now considers herself a success, and better off out of podunk Mercury, when she gets an email photo of her high school boyfriend's brand new baby, she is suddenly consumed with the idea that she has to "save" him from his boring and horrible life in Mercury and make him get back together with her, though the two haven't spoken in at least 15 years. Once she hits town, she starts drinking in a local pub and meets up with the class scapegoat, a nerdy guy we'll call Bob, because I can't remember his name. He was bullied so badly in high school that he is now crippled for life. Turns out that Mavis is actually to blame for this, as the popular prom queen spread a rumor about him being gay that set the football players to beating him with a baseball bat until both of his legs were smashed in multiple places, his pelvis broken and his genitals pulped, until now he notes that he can only "pee sideways." (Eww). Theron tells him of her plan to reunite with her high school sweetheart, and Bob, who is smart enough to see a train wreak coming down the tracks, tells her that she's wasting her time, because her ex-beau is happily married and thrilled to have started a family. Theron's Mavis can't believe this, because she's so delusional, vain and arrogant that she can't imagine anyone preferring life in Mercury to life with her in the big city without responsibilities (like children, whom Theron's character seems to loathe in this movie). Theron goes out with her ex, several times, and somehow believes he's still in love with her, though there is no indication of that at all from him. She runs into her mother at the store, and after an awkward dinner with her parents, who make it plain that her ex is happy with his life now, she goes back to seeing Bob, who muses with her about life. Bob has a creepy sister whom we'll call Mary, who has had a crush on Mavis since her early years, and she creeps around trying to help, but only looking pathetic. Mavis meets Ex's family, and treats everyone but the Ex with thinly veiled contempt. When she's invited to Ex's baby's christening, she tries to make her move on Ex, who spurns her and explains that he's happily married and loves his child, and when Theron screams at him for inviting her, he says "I didn't invite you, my wife did, because she feels sorry for you." Mavis goes into meltdown mode, screaming at everyone at the christening party, and somehow they all end up on the lawn of the house watching her throw a huge tantrum. She tells them that she was pregnant by the ex back when, but apparently had an abortion, but somehow she believes that they would have gotten married anyway and that they should have, but for his insistence on staying in a backwater like Mercury. Of course she's drunk and of course someone has spilled wine on her supposedly couture outfit (it looked like something you'd buy off the rack at Sears). So now that all her delusions and dreams have come to naught, Mavis goes running to Bob, (who still has to use two crutches to walk, for heavens sake) and because she's feeling bad about herself, she drops her clothing and cries that she's unlovable, which prompts Bob to say "Guys like me were born to love women like you." In other words, you're so horrible a person that only a cynical crippled guy could love you (and one gets the feeling that he only "loves" her for her exterior beauty, because guys like him aren't getting laid very often, if they ever were). so she and Bob have sex, which would make anyone with half a brain wonder HOW they were going to accomplish such a feat with Bob's penis being bent sideways. But while Hollywood deems it okay for women to show their breasts and genitals all the time, rarely do women get to see shots of male genitals on screen. So viewers get to see Bobs scarred up legs (and she never does tell him that his savage beating was partially her fault) and portly belly moving between her long pretty legs, we don't actually get to see their nether regions fit together. Following this night of what we can only assume is pity sex, Bob's creepy sister meets Mavis in the kitchen the next morning, and when Mavis whines about what a terrible, unlovable person she is, again, Mary goes into a monologue extorting Mavis's virtues, from her beauty to her authoring of real books to getting out of Mercury. "Everyone here is just ugly and fat and stupid. You aren't, you are amazing..." So Mavis soaks in all the ego strokes, and then says she's heading back to Minneapolis, when Mary bleats "Take me with you!" Of course, replenished Mavis can't have some hick like Mary stuck around her neck like an albatross, so she says "No, you have to stay here, this is where you belong." Because, what is unsaid there is "You are one of these dumb, ugly fat small town people, you're not beautiful and accomplished and urban-dwelling, like me." So now that Mavis is free of all this, she makes her way back to Minneapolis, fade to black. Frankly, I was hoping that the movie would end with Mavis dying in a car crash on her way out of Mercury, but no such luck.  What a reprehensible film about horrible people! And it was filled with stereotypes and cliches. I would give this film a D, and that is only for the character of Bob, who finally got laid, which was at least slight payback for what Mavis did to him back in high school. I can't recommend this film to anyone because I can't think of anyone shallow enough that it would appeal to.

If I were ever to visit France, this would be my first stop!

Shakespeare and Company
"arguably the most famous independent bookstore in the world, occupies a
prime piece of real estate facing the Seine in Paris, not far from the
Latin Quarter, Place Saint-Michel, and Boulevard Saint-Germain. The
river is just a stone's throw from the front door," wrote Bruce Handy in
his detailed exploration for Vanity Fair of the history and cultural
impact of the legendary bookshop that "is a destination, far from Amazon

"It is definitely Dionysus's favorite bookstore," observed actor and
author Ethan Hawke, who "has been a fan since he turned up in Paris
alone at the age of 16 and crashed at the store for five or six nights
after wandering over, curious, from Notre Dame," Handy noted. The first
impression of Dave Eggers, who first visited as a backpacker in his 20s,
was of "an absurd place--almost down to the last crooked corner and
narrow staircase, [it was] the bookstore of my dreams." (Check out Jess
Levitz's illustrated map of the bookshop

Even Frank Sinatra was a fan, offering this advice to a former pit boss
at the Sands in Las Vegas, "Eddie you must travel and when you do, go to
Paris, go to the Shakespeare bookstore. I know the guy there.... Go see
the guy George [Whitman]--he's a guy that lives with the books."

Handy observed that Shakespeare and Company "remains a singular place,"
where Whitman's daughter, Sylvia, and her partner, David Delannet, "have
done a remarkable job of preserving the store's DNA while modernizing
around the edges and adding revitalizing touches of their own, such as
an irregular series of literary and arts festivals, a 10,000-euro prize
for unpublished writers (financed in part by friends of the store), and
a vital, ongoing series of readings, panels, plays, and other events,
including an annual summer reading series with N.Y.U.'s Writers in Paris
program. A publishing venture is in the works, to be launched with the
aforementioned store history, as is a Shakespeare and Company
café, a longtime dream of George's, possibly in a commercial
space around the corner the store is buying. (His other longtime dream,
of stocking the wishing well with baby seals, has been abandoned for
now.) A new website will be rolled out this fall, and the paid staff--who now number 22, up from 7 when
George died--have some witty ideas about curation and customizing books
as a way to compete, on Shakespeare's terms, with Amazon."

Being a fan of Hugh Laurie, I can hardly wait to see this!

In a new clip from Mr. Pip
adapted from the novel by Hugh Jones, Hugh Laurie (House) "shows a
softer side," Indiewire noted. The film, directed by Andrew Adamson (The
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, Shrek), "tells
the story of Mr. Watts, an Englishman in the tropical village in
Bougainville, who reads Great Expectations by Charles Dickens to the
children of the island, transporting their imaginations to a different
world, all while a civil war draws closer." Mr. Pip opens in limited
release and VOD on November 7.

I just watched a movie about Dylan Thomas, who died way too young (at age 39) from what everyone assumes was pneumonia, but he seemed to have breathing problems his whole life. He smoked, and drank to excess, which didn't help, but I would bet he had emphysema and asthma. Anyway, he was a great, spooky Welshman and poet, and I think he would have be thrilled that his work has lived on and garnered a place in history and literature. Here are two of his famed poems about death, appropriate to Halloween.

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
“Dylan Thomas “ From "And death shall have no dominion"

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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