We’re All in the Same Swan Boat

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.

What happened when the candles burned.

This excerpt includes violence and sex. Just a little, but in case it’s not your cup of tea, I wanted to  let you know.

THE REWARD

               November 1894   New London, Connecticut

“Well, luv, what do you think? Shall we tell him tomorrow?” Crispin enjoyed the rest of the rabbit stew. Sucking the delicate bones of the dead rabbit, he watched the woman as she finished cleaning the bar top. It was late, past midnight on a Monday. The “Dancing Stag” was empty, save for the barmaid, her new suitor, and the suitor’s small son, who was sleeping peacefully under a corner table, a knitted blanket keeping him warm. Several carvings of Crispin’s, including an impressive stag’s head, hung above a shelf behind the bar. The sales had afforded him and Bernie a room in a nearby boarding house. He regretted the fact that they would soon be leaving. He had enjoyed the bed and the occasional baths.

Bernie said it must be tomorrow. Crispin glanced at the corner where he slept. Was he really sleeping? Doubtful. Willie said the boy made her uncomfortable. Crispin had reassured her. “He needs the love of a mother; it’s been hard on the boy.” She folded her apron, creasing the folds. Her brown eyes had the look of a dying fawn. He reached up and stroked her hair. Good to feel a woman again, he thought. He’d been too long without. Not a girl, though. She was older than the thirty-two she professed. More like forty-two, and a bit too large for his taste, but still . . . overripe for the plucking.

“Let’s go in the back,” he whispered, “just for a while . . . ” She took a quick look in the corner. The boy seemed asleep. Crispin saw her shudder.

“Such a little boy, I don’t know why I . . . ”

“What, luv?” he asked, knowing exactly what.

She shrugged. “Okay Crispie—but just for a few minutes.”

“That’s my girl.” He nuzzled her neck, then reached around and cupped her breast.

“A few minutes is all, then we must stop.”

“Of course, dear girl, after the wedding, there will be time . . . ”

Much later, when he thought about it, he was glad she came. It startled him. He was just finishing himself, when she let out a stream of moaning, like a cow wanting milking he laughed to himself. They had but a few minutes in the crowded closet. “He might wake.” She was nervous.

“Don’t worry dear heart, he’ll be fine.” In a rare spirit of generosity, he admitted it was rare, he saw it was fitting that she had a small bit of pleasure, considering what happened and all.

He puzzled over what happened that night for weeks, trying to make sense of it. Did they open a door? Is that what happened? “They’ll know it was us,” he worried. He had no objections to anything; however, he didn’t like the thought of hanging.

“Do what I tell you and you’ll be rewarded.” The child’s eyes threatened.

Crispin nodded enthusiastically. Hanging was preferable to what Bernie might inflict. “Of course, lad, whatever you say, I’m completely on board.”

Tuesday night, her house smelled of onions and bread. Crispin sat comfortably on the settee, its rose velvet freshly brushed and looking crimson in the shadow of an ornate lamp. A few eventful moments in their brief courtship told him that there was nothing of value in the tidy white house. Still, he approved of her excellent housekeeping. Aunt Meg could have learned a thing or two. Later, he was surprised to see Bernie eat everything, including the tapioca pudding. Unusual. He knew the boy was selective, despite their periods of hunger.

Candles, how many were there? He hid them in the pull wagon near the house. Bernie had been collecting candles, taking them. Crispin distracted their owners with his wooden carvings. Won’t they see you? Bernie assured him they would not. He wondered what purpose they served. That night he saw what happened when the candles burned.

He struck her with a wooden club he had carved the day before. Crispin made a show of announcing their “engagement” to his “son.” Willie sat at his right, her eyes downcast, unable to look at the boy. “Not too hard,” Bernie warned, she must wake before we finish. Bernie spilled a glass of milk. As she reached to retrieve it, Crispin struck an expert blow. She was unconscious for an hour. When she woke, the satisfaction in Bernie’s yellow eyes made Crispin feel proud.

The star drawn in blood, whose blood was it? They were all naked. Pools of blood, like puddles after a cloudburst, glistened in the candlelight. Bernie’s hands dripped, adding to the puddles. Smears and streaks covered most of his frail child’s body. Did Bernie draw the star using his own blood? Bits of that night were a blank. He remembered the awful smell, wondering if he had soiled himself and fearing the consequences. Bernie seemed indifferent to it.

Bernie cut his palm, smearing the blood on the woman before she woke. He was afraid Bernie would want to cut him too, but Bernie turned his attention to the barmaid. When she woke, Willie screamed, and the boy grabbed her tongue, slicing it off. The screams soon became moans. Not as loud now, Crispin thought approvingly.

The moaning reminded him of when she came. Interesting, how similar the cries were, one of pleasure and the other . . . She was tied down (securely, Crispin was careful) and the candles were all around . . . and eyes, he saw eyes coming through a tunnel, watching. Why did he think of a door? He remembered a ripping sound, like fabric being torn, and then a boom like a cannon that rattled the house. Crispin would have ducked for cover if he hadn’t been startled by the sight of black wings and the click-clack, clack-clack sound from wings slapping or breaking through, but from where?

Bernie knelt near the woman . . . his little body rocking back and forth. Willie’s fawn eyes followed the sway. The child was whispering, while she kept trying to say (plead?), “Kill me.” She had no tongue, but he was sure that’s what she meant to say. He held her tethered hands to keep her steady as Bernie continued to slice her. Tears ran down the barmaid’s cheek and fell into thick red puddles.

As he pressed his palms firmly down on her wrists, Crispin allowed himself to wonder what came next. He decided it was best to keep quiet, do as you’re told. Bernie’s hands, clots of the barmaid’s blood clinging to his fingers, rose abruptly as the light from the candles floated free, the flames dancing and spinning.

Fear clutched at Crispin’s throat. What if those flames, what if they mean to . . . Then a sudden sensation, indescribable, oh the pleasure! The “reward,” he realized with delight and wonder. It poured into him as if he were a wine glass, filling him to the brim.   Overwhelmed, he gazed at Willie. She looked back with supreme indifference.

As if she found it all incredibly tiresome, her eyes turned away from him, her face relaxed, and tilting her head slowly to her shoulder, she died.   The boy cooed as he stroked her hand, his strange face content. The candles dimmed. The floating eyes were gone. “We leave now,” the boy commanded. They cleaned the blood from their bodies and took the ropes from the dead woman. Crispin carried her to her bed. After dressing, they set fire to Willie, her bed, and her small neat house.

“Won’t they know it was us?” He was afraid.

“Stupid Crispin, I told you not to worry. They’ll think she killed herself because you left her. I suggested it already when the bar was full of people.” Bernie was losing patience with him. Crispin decided to keep his doubts to himself. They were on the road a few hours before the pleasure began to fade. He was depressed. He hated the cold.

A spoon full of formula makes the story go down

The Boy: A Review

SPOILER ALERT

   The BoyLast weekend 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?

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.