We’re All in the Same Swan Boat

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A Review: Welcome to Me

   welcome to meToday I watched a movie that had a brief run in theaters in 2015. I discovered it buried in Netflix’ Independent Films. Welcome to Me stars Kristin Wiig (SNL and Bridesmaids) as Alice Klieg, a woman who wins an 86 million dollars jackpot in a California Sweepstakes Lottery. Prior to the big win, Alice’s income was a monthly disability check from the State of California. Alice has borderline personality disorder, a serious mental illness that makes it difficult for her to regulate her moods, leading to impulsive behavior and fear of abandonment. Alice’ self-absorption and inability to let go of past traumas limits her perception of reality, herself and the world around her.

Directed by Shira Piven (Fully Loaded), written by Eliot Laurence (The Big Gay Sketch Show) Welcome to Me has a great, though underused cast including, Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, James Marsten and Tim Robbins.

Before her big win, Alice spent most of her time in her cluttered but color-coded apartment, watching old VHS tapes of Oprah shows. Her eyes glazed, Alice mouths Oprah’s lines as Oprah delivers them, nodding her head. Alice is joyful in her certitude of how the world works. Despite her isolation and inability to focus on anyone but herself, Alice (Kristin Wiig never descends into parody; she is a wonder in this role, truly impressive work) has a long-term and loyal friend, Gina, an amiable ex-husband and a concerned therapist (Tim Robbins). Convinced that she can regulate her disorder through restricting the carbohydrates in her diet, and much to her therapist’s dismay, Alice is off her meds.

After claiming her reward at a televised-event where she announces on camera that she self-soothes through excessive masturbation, Alice attends a taping then hijacks her favorite local protein product cable show. Soon, she decides to produce her own reality show, a show called Welcome to Me. “Me” is Alice, and not only is she the star of the show there will be no guests. She, Alice, is the only topic. Oh, and she wants to enter by riding on a swan (a cart made to look like a swan).

As his studio team shoots nervous glances at each other, the production company owner (James Marsden) flashes a big smile and takes Alice’s 15 million dollar check. Alice sobs while recording her theme songs as local actresses line up to appear in show segments, re-enactments of the traumas in Alice’s life. The show is not all about trauma, cooking segments feature Alice making her favorite low carb high protein recipes including a cake shaped meatloaf covered in frothy mashed potatoes.

Predictably, Alice’s unfiltered revelations, outbursts and the bizarre premise of the show, which tops the most exhibitionistic, exploitive of the competing reality programs, make Alice a minor celebrity. One student fan tells her that she has created a new genre: the narrative infomercial. As the show gains more viewers, Alice funds upgrades in production, the show gains viewers, Alice’s narcissism shuts out even those loyal few, including her new lover, Gabe (Wes Bentley) the cable host. Hi-jacking Gabe’s protein powder infomercial was Alice’s first on camera experience.

The story continues to follow a familiar formula: A star is born; a star is corrupted; a star pays the price for bad behavior by being exposed (literally in Alice’s case), deserted by those who loved her for her regular-person-self. Star realizes her wicked ways and makes amends. All is forgiven and humbled star, no longer a star, goes back to her old life.

I hesitate to call this a spoiler, though I suppose that her extreme behavior could have led to even more celebrity ala Andy Warhol, enabling more, even flashier ways of exploring the sad inner life of Alice (perhaps a movie or an HBO Special, better yet, Amazon and Netflix have a bidding war to create a “Me” series), ending in a close up of Alice’s shining tears and her lips trembling with the message, “I made it happen and so can you.”

What is this movie trying to say? Mental illness can be compelling entertainment? When it comes to the world of reality TV and the self-involved, Welcome to Me is not that bizarre? If that’s the case I must plead ignorant. I’ve never watched any of The Bachelor, American Idol, no dancers, no Ice loves Coco, none of the Housewives, no Kardashians, and certainly none of the addiction and teen mother ones. A lot of people do and perhaps by seeing others struggle, their own problems are easier to bear. I don’t know.

Life, however short or long, painful or pleasurable, with fame from accomplishments or with none of it, is fleeting. We’re but a tiny blip on the timeline and we yearn for it to mean something, anything—any mark that says we were here. By dramatizing her traumas, Alice insists as Willie Loman’s Linda did, “Attention must be paid!” My pain matters; I matter.

Because of the severity of her illness, Alice fails to see the pain of others and she fails to see that she is more than her pain. She does finally, catch a glimmer of truth, and her future may not be as bleak as it was before her windfall.

We engage the world through our interests, the roles we play, and our connection with other human beings. We are complex beings in a complex Universe, but we are not unique. And who would want to be? How lonely.

Like Reality TV, the Internet brings out the best and the worst of us—an endless selection of opinions and facts, plus the opportunity to explore the world of whatever you choose. I’m a sci fi geek, I read Mad Magazine till well into my twenties, I dance like no one’s looking (I’m usually right; they’re not), I love tech and all its implications and consider myself a futurist, but most of those tech results will happen long after I’m gone. I hope I live long enough to see us on Mars. I love a good horror book or movie, the same with history; I love to write and to design. I love to opine whether suitably informed or not.

Today’s marketing reality concerns reinventing yourself as a “Brand.” Some people are really good at this; others, like me, not so much. What I’ve discovered as I explore the work of my fellow bloggers and material related to their posts, is that I have remained to true to myself, a self I more fully see as I “like” and comment, tweet and share. So in a sense, my blogging, likes, comments, tweets and shares have become a “Welcome to Me.”

We are all Alice.

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Trumbo vs. Big Mother

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A Movie Review

Trumbo cover image

Bryan Cranston as Trumbo–IMDB cover

Trumbo is a movie chronicling the history of the “Black List,” which was a list of people working in the American movie business who became unemployable when they were marked as traitors. Beginning in the late 1940’s, by the early 1950’s, the Black List ruled Hollywood. In the early 1960’s, a courageous few defied its power. During those years, the Black List targeted thousands of entertainment professionals. The reason? They were communists trying to infiltrate the U.S.A. with their dirty communist propaganda!

It’s true that many of these people had joined the Communist party. Some joined in the 1930’s before George Orwell’s 1984 let the world know what an oppressive, soul-killing dogma it was, or they were closely associated (friends, worked with, went drinking with, etc.) with communists.

Perhaps some of these show biz commies would have approved of Stalin’s gulags, re-education camps, seizing property, putting all the educated to work in factories and collective farms. Maybe a few of these American commies cheered when Mao and Pol Pot purged their countries of teachers, skilled labor and anyone who wore glasses. Who knows?  Most were more interested in less drastic changes like better wages and working conditions. Viewed as subversives, all were considered guilty of “Thought Crimes”.

Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was a prominent Republican, active in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) who made it her mission to destroy the careers of those she considered subversives.

Hedda Hopper, as played by Helen Mirren, was a ruthless ideologue and anti-Semite who would have been right at home in 1984’s “Ministry of Truth.” Big Brother had nothin’ on Big Mother Hedda, who wielded her pen like an avenging angel. The result was the destruction of careers and lives of thousands. Actors, writers, craftsman who made their living working in the film industry were faced with long-term unemployment; some never worked again.

To make things worse, friendships were destroyed when hundreds faced a devil’s bargain.

Called to testify before Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), people were ordered to prove their loyalty by giving up the names of those they suspected of being communists or face contempt charges and possibly prison. Even now, people are bitter—not forgiving those who gave names. Director Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, Streetcar Named Desire) testified before the HUAC committee and his testimony ended careers. In 1999, Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar. Many in the audience refused to applaud, and outside the theater there were demonstrators protesting.

Trumbo was directed by Jay Roach (Meet The Parents, Austin Powers) and stars Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad, Argo, Godzilla, 30 Rock, The Simpsons and a zillion other credits) as Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter who finally broke the back of the Black List, neutralizing Hedda Hopper and the MPA. Along with Helen Mirren as the fearsome Hedda, the rest of the cast is stellar, with Louie C.K as melancholy writer, Arlin Hurd, Diane Lane as Cleo, Trumbo’s supportive wife, and most notably, Michael Stuhbarg (Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire) as actor Edward G. Robinson.

Robinson’s fall from grace after giving up the names of friends sums up the plight of actors caught in the storm of paranoia. “You can write under another name,” he tells Trumbo. “I only have this,” he pleads, pointing to his face.

For all the fine talent on display, it is Cranston who dominates. His Trumbo is a mix of confidence, righteousness, hubris, cunning and peculiar habits.

He often sits in the bathtub as he chain smokes and writes. Trumbo’s a gambler who trusts the odds and when they fail him, our sympathy for the humiliation he endures in prison catches us off guard. Later, when after completing his prison sentence, he writes under pseudonyms, defying Hedda and her minions, we see his commitment to support his family become an obsession to outwit the MPA. During that time, Trumbo won two Oscars for screenplays he wrote. But without his name on them, one for Roman Holiday and the other for The Brave One, they were awards he could not collect.

The Black List began to lose its power when actor Kirk Douglas openly credited Dalton Trumbo as the writer of Spartacus.

The superb script and Douglas’ moving performance as Spartacus, the slave who defied the Roman Empire resulted in an unqualified success. Box office success is power and Douglas used it to free Trumbo from the grip of the MPA. The nail in the coffin of Hedda’s power was John Kennedy’s endorsement of Spartacus, saying, “It’s a fine film.” Trumbo’s success opened the gates to employment for others on the “List.” Then Trumbo jumps years to an event that occurred long after Trumbo was vindicated. Cranston, as Trumbo, delivers a speech describing the damage done by the Black List, acknowledging all who suffered, including those who named names—“We all were victims.”

Dalton Trumbo was an enormous talent. The injustice he suffered was a product of the fear and politics that gripped the entire country. The movie is worth seeing, if only for the Oscar worthy performances by Cranston and Mirren.

In addition, I recommend it because of its rendering of Hollywood during these pivotal years. As Trumbo asks more than once in the film, “Where’s the story?” More than style, innovation, setting or wit, story is what matters to me. In Trumbo the story is a battle between determined foes and what they represent: Trumbo (First Amendment Rights and artistic freedom) and Hedda Hopper (the paranoia of the Cold War). Because these foes are rendered as complex human beings (Trumbo more than Hopper) we are invested and care about the outcome.

This is a part of history that anyone who cares about movies, our culture or freedom of expression should know.

When I was a young actress, Dalton Trumbo interviewed me for a role of “the girl back home” in his film, Johnny Got His Gun, based on his 1938 National Book Award-winning anti-war novel with the same title. As he patiently explained a pivotal scene, I sat politely nodding my head. It was one of many interviews and readings I did during that time. I remember how old he seemed with his face a city map of lines (all that smoking), the hunched posture and the drooping white mustache. During the fifteen minutes I was there, he was gracious and tried to make me feel at ease, but I knew I didn’t make an impression and the part went to someone else.

How I wish that I had known I was in the presence of an Industry lion, a master of his art, someone who had led a rebellion, a guerilla warrior fighting the Thought Police of 1950’s Hollywood.

I do now.

A spoon full of formula makes the story go down

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The Boy: A Review

SPOILER ALERT!

 I was in the mood for something scary and decided to check out The Boy, a movie about an old English couple who hire a nanny for their child, a boy named Brahms. If you’ve seen the trailer or even just a poster you know that Brahms is a life-sized doll. Creepy doll movies are among my horror favorites. Years ago, when I was a painter, my work focused on the disquiet we feel when we catch an unguarded glimpse of a doll plopped on something or discarded—its painted eyes staring placidly, seeing—what?   The Boy

I perceived a quiet acceptance of its fate. Inevitably, it would be discarded. Soon it would be part of a landfill, probably sooner if it lost a limb or its head or when the fantasy it offered no longer entertained and something newer took its place.

I painted other toys besides dolls, but the blank gaze and snarled hair of my daughter’s favorite doll made it my favorite. I created an alternate reality for it—the theater of our child minds was where dolls and other toys existed. I set the stage and painted the scenes. That was many years ago. I had some shows and eventually moved on. Using dolls as subjects is no longer cutting-edge. Long after my paintings were done and gone, the movie series Toy Story explored this idea and though charming, much of it is poignant and dark. Dolls have that effect. Our toys are usually forgotten as we mature and like any friends we leave behind and then unexpectedly encounter, they know things.

Why do I tell you this? Most of us find dolls creepy, especially the life size ones like the ventriloquist’s dummy in the movie Magic, like Chucky, like Talking Tina in the Twilight Zone episode or Annabelle; like little Brahms.

I had expectations!

Written by new screenwriter, Stacey Menear (Mixtape) and staring Lauren Cohen (The Walking Dead), The Boy, directed by William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside), starts out well enough. Greta, a young American ends a long trip from the States, arriving somewhere in the English countryside to interview for a job as a nanny. She sees a big house that she deems “storybook” and I would describe as a standard horror movie mini-mansion. Inside, it definitely reads scary with the obligatory stuffed animals, bizarre knickknacks and lots and lots of stairs. No one is there to greet her. Intimidated and confused, she removes her boots before she explores. The boots disappear. There’s a family portrait of a couple in their late fifties and their son, a rather sullen little boy of eight.

As she and we are doing the math, figuring out how a couple that old could have a kid that young, a woman interrupts her. It’s the mom—or mum I should say. Only Mum is way older than she was in the portrait. After getting a list of to-dos and not to-dos, meeting Malcolm, the cute grocery guy who hesitates to give her the scoop on what’s going on, Greta meets Brahms. As we know and Greta finds out, Brahms is a life size doll. Greta struggles to keep a straight face as Mum talks to Brahms and describes his daily routine. The job is hers; unlike the other applicants whom he rejected, Brahms likes her.

Mummy and Daddy leave for a vacation. Later, we watch as they load their pockets with rocks and head into the ocean. Brahms is Greta’s problem now.

All right. I could go through the rest of the plot but it’s typical cat and mouse horror fare. As she’s left alone with the doll and rather than singing it a lullaby, fixing it breakfast, reading to it and all the rest, she tosses it on a chair and does what she likes. Some weird things happen. You guessed it. Predictably, Brahms is in a different place from where she left him, and is the doll looking at her? What was that noise?

When she sets up a date with Malcolm, the tiny gloves come off. Brahms is jealous. Greta’s in the shower and we see her jewelry slide away from the edge of the sink (does Brahmsie get his first woody?). Oh no! Her dress is gone and then later, Greta’s trapped in the attic and misses her date.

What’s going on? Less than you think. After days of harassment, Greta throws in the towel and works the program, hitting all the steps of the care and pretend feeding of Brahms. Concerned, Malcolm tries to persuade her to tone it down, but Greta’s convinced herself that what’s going on is supernatural. Malcolm told her that the real Brahms died years ago in a fire. He was eight, but he was, as people said, odd, and what was it about the little girl who disappeared back then? Was she the one he was glaring at in the old photo? Why, yes she was! Never mind. Greta’s survival instinct has kicked in and she’s going to do what Brahmsie wants.

All is well in Toyland until Greta’s abusive boyfriend tracks her down, the one who beat her to a pulp, forcing her to move to another country to avoid running into him. He wants her back, but Greta knows that Brahms doesn’t share. What Chuckyesque thing does Brahms have up his little sleeve? We eagerly await the cummuppins.

Then—the big disappointment. As bad boyfriend prepares to slaughter the Greta-defending Malcolm who is half his size, we wait for Brahms to defend his woman—I mean nanny. Suddenly a wall breaks open. A man wearing a doll-like mask rushes out and kills the boyfriend. Oh no! Brahms isn’t a devil doll! Instead, he’s generic–hidden-crazy guy! All this time he was hiding in the walls! How unusual!

Oh man—what a disappointment! So the rest of the movie is the chase. You know the drill. Brahms wants to kill and chases Greta and Malcolm who don’t want to die. Finally, with Malcolm seemingly down for the count, Big Boy Brahms has Greta on the bed! Just like when she tucked in Pretend Brahms, Big Boy wants a kiss! As he leers at her through the grotesque mask, presumably hiding scars from the long ago fire, Greta plunges a long screwdriver (very Freud) into him and she and a dazed Malcolm get the hell out. When the movie ends with Big Boy piecing together the shattered face of the doll, it dawns on me. Where have I seen this ending before? I don’t mean the crazy guy chase, but one where crazy guy hides in the walls to make us we think something supernatural is going on.

It’s the House Bound ending! Yes folks, check it out on Netflix!

Last year, I reviewed another of director William Brent Bell’s efforts, The Devil Inside. I summed it up by describing it as Godzilla versus the Smurfs. At the end of my review, I remarked that the story had no ending; it just stopped, as if they had run out of money.

It’s possible the ending of The Boy was the end result of the writer’s angst in finding the right resolution. I will say that much of the first half of The Boy entertains due to Cohen’s performance, and because of Stacey Menear’s deft handling of the exposition. It’s possible again, that the ending was a mere coincidence and nothing more, however my sense of having seen the exact same ending was overwhelming.

So how should it have ended? For a real scare, let’s keep the supernatural in tact. Let’s see—we have ghosts, devils, possession, voodoo . . .

I know. Let’s say Malcolm and bad boyfriend are dead, the victims of what? Greta is missing. Mummy and Daddy didn’t kill themselves. The police call them as they sip Mai tai’s on some beach. They return. Other than the bodies, the result they presume, of a crazed and still missing Greta, the police tell them that nothing else is amiss. Mummy rushes in to find Brahms, still dressed in his pajamas. Unlike the police, Mummy’s practiced eye spots a small drop of blood on her boy’s little hand. As she coos over what poor Brahms has endured, she sees something under the bed. It’s a Greta Doll! Mummy swears to never leave again as she nods her head. “Yes, of course she can stay!” At last, Brahms has a playmate.

Thank you Twilight Zone’s Talking Tina. Thank you Magic. Here’s a win for all you dolls in Toyland.