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A Children’s Classic…A Few Decades Late

Better late than never? I finally watched a children’s classic this weekend. It might represent overcoming about forty years of tardiness in my case, since the British Film Institute lists The Wizard of Oz as one of the “50 Films to be Seen By 14.” Or forty years of subconscious fears perhaps.

Of course, it’s not like I was unaware of the film, or the novel it was based on. I knew its premise and the characters, I’d seen little clips from the movie here and there; I even have a Tinman ornament for the Christmas tree. No particular reason for that, I had no special affinity for the character. I just thought it looked rather neat and would fit in with other silvery ornaments. Nonetheless, I’d never sat down and watched the movie in its 100 minute glory. Perhaps that goes back to my childhood memories related to it.

One December when I was young, probably three, four at the most, I was in hospital. Coincidentally, the local theatre company in town must have been staging their version of the Baum classic. So, some outside-the-box thinker at the hospital had some of the cast visit the kids. You can see what’s coming, can’t you? It wasn’t blue-dress clad, wide-eyed Alice who popped in to see us, nor the affable Scarecrow. No, instead the hospital had the Wicked Witch of the West , green face and all, burst into our rooms cackling. (Whenever I tell stories like this, my sweetie asks “does Canada just not like kids or what?”). Suffice to say it didn’t cheer my tiny self that holiday season and in later years I lamented that they couldn’t have been staging The House at Pooh Corner at the theatre at that time. In the hospitals credit, they didn’t deliver our lunches via flying monkey.

My mom was of the age to be taken to see it when it came out in the theaters as a child, being promised it was a tale about a little girl like her. She recalled that she thought the movie was good…but why did they have an adult playing little Dorothy? It marred the experience for her, and I must say it did strike me as I watched that the reason Judy Garland was able to act the part so well was that she looked like a seasoned, mature actress rather than someone age-appropriate for the role. She was, if you were keeping track, 17 when the movie premiered. But big Dorothy or not, the movie was good. It still plays quite well but if we put it in context of 1930s audiences, it must have been a mind-blowing experience. Just the fact that most of it was filmed in color – vivid, day-glo colors by and large – would have made it stand out in the midst of the Black & White era, and the special effects – flying monkeys, the shimmery Emerald City, the floating bubbly Glinda witch – seem cheesy to us now, but back then would have been like nothing anyone had seen before. Our generation experienced the same sort of effect while watching the 1977 Star Wars. Try explaining to a Gen Z kid why that movie was then the most spectacular blockbuster with unprecedented effects and they’ll look at you with a mixture of pity and disbelief, quickly changing to an expression of joy at not being born in the Stone Age like us old-timers.

Indeed, perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie, in context of its times, was that it won only two Academy Awards of the six it got nominated for – Best Original Score and Best Original Song. It surely would have snagged more trophies had it not the misfortune of coming out in the same year as Gone With the Wind, which took home eight including Best Picture.

The movie, and the story itself, remains beloved, it would seem to me primarily because it represents one of the classic, timeless story themes. One of only six (or seven depending on which literary nerd you ask) archetypical themes that comprise all stories of note, the story of Voyage and Return. “There’s no place like home.” In fact, the theme is the same as that of one of the ’80s most decadent and popular novels and movie adaptations , Bright Lights, Big City. Frank Baum might seem to have nothing much in common with Jay McInerney and the Yellow Brick Road may seem to have little in common with Interstate 80, but both lead to big shiny cities. Cities which offer much more excitement and opportunity than Kansas, but leave the heroes ultimately wishing to return to the simpler life they once so wanted to escape.

Oddly, although I’d not seen the movie nor read the book, I had read the sort of counterpoint to it, Wicked. That one turns Oz on its tail and presents the story of Elphaba, the so-called Wicked Witch of the West, who in fact doesn’t start out as all that wicked, but finds herself rejected and scorned on account of her green color. When this new interloper (Dorothy) sails in and kills her sister, only to be rewarded with the prized family possession (the ruby slippers), it’s about the last straw. I quite liked that one and it was a good reminder of how there are usually more than one side to a story, no matter how well told.

Things may look different from the other person’s perspective; be thankful for your “home” wherever, whatever or whomever it might be to you. Great, timeless messages from a great, timeless movie. And one more great message – don’t send a Wicked Witch in to cheer up tiny sick children, people!

Think For Yourself – An Apology To Robert Wagner

Sometimes, a bit of thought and 90 minutes could make you rethink what you believe.

Last night my sweetie and I watched a relatively new HBO documentary, What Remains Behind. It was made by Natasha Gregson Wagner…actress and daughter of famous actress Natalie Wood. I recognized her from her bit role in High Fidelity (the journalist who flirts with Rob near the end, causing him to make her a mix tape before he began asking himself what was wrong with him and why he couldn’t be happy) . I knew Natalie Wood’s name, and that she was a pretty successful actress in the ’60s…and that she drowned under suspicious circumstances way back in 1981. She had been on a boat with her husband Robert Wagner, and actor Christopher Walken before she met her demise. Somehow, I hadn’t realized that Natalie was the little cynical girl in Miracle on 34th Street, nor the star of West Side Story. Nor that she was so very good looking as a young woman, nor that she was one of the hottest stars in Hollywood. I did know that she drowned, the California coroner considered her death accidental…and that many people for years accused Wagner of killing her. A few figured Walken might have. It seemed few believed the official report, and more gas was thrown on the fire when the boat captain wrote a book in the 2000s suggesting maybe she got knocked overboard in an big fight, be it deliberate or not. L.A. Investigators actually re-opened the case because of it. And I knew my sweetie, who was a fan of Natalie’s, firmly believed Wagner had killed her and struck some kind of deal to cover it up. It made sense to me, based on tabloid headlines and innuendo I saw.

Enter the movie. The whole fact that her daughter, not Robert’s biological one,  made the film and narrated it, and its whole context was to clear Wagner might be a clue. Not every conspiracy theory is really covering something sinister. Natasha, her half-sister and step-brother all talked at length about what a complex, warm but slightly troubled person Natalie was. Her childhood wasn’t happy, with her mom being very critical and pushing her to be a star in order to make enough money to pay the bills for her parents. She was a movie star by age eight. She was talented, pretty, and headstrong. Ahead of her time. She was perhaps a bit promiscuous as a teen and young star…nothing new these days but probably quite scandalous back then. And she knew what she wanted, be it in men, movie roles, or later, children and a a happy home. She usually got it, but not without a price. She had the looks and the acting chops to get them all, but at times she still struggled with depression.

Wagner, for some reason nicknamed “RJ”, entered the scene when they were both kids, and it didn’t work out. Initially. Years later, they hooked up again, more mature, and both with kids. They remarried and remained so, with no hints of black clouds on their marriage horizon, until her death. They became a family. Both Natasha and her siblings (be they from Natalie, Robert or both of them) spoke about how happy the house was and how both parents loved them unconditionally. Natasha interviewed Wagner and calls him “Daddy Wagner”. They talked about the family, their love of his boat, and the trips to Catalina Island on it. Oddly, Natalie was noted as being afraid of “dark water.”

Flash forward to Thanksgiving 1981, a rainy, stormy weekend in the L.A. area, and Natalie, Wagner, and Walken (whom she was in a movie with at the time) took off for a spin on his boat. Natasha said she had a bad feeling and begged her mom not to go; other friends said they were invited and felt guilty for not going out with them in the rain. Maybe they could have changed things and she’d still be alive. But, like it or not, hours later she was found dead in the water not far from the boat, with its dinghy floating around. Many piled on to accuse Wagner of killing her in a jealous rage.

The coroner found she drowned, and had quite a bit of booze in her system as well as sleeping pills and other (unnamed but presumably prescription) drugs. She had a bang on her head, but the ultimate demise came from the water. He called it accidental. But that wasn’t enough for many…especially supermarket tabloids who lured buyers with tales of lurid affairs and drugged out violent orgies, and other total fabrications of their imagination. Then came the boat captain’s book decades later, and it all came to the front again.

Not hard to imagine then that her mad, jealous husband beat her up and threw her off the boat in the dead of night. But, there is little to support that. Numerous police agencies investigated and found no evidence of it. And Natasha – her daughter – sat and talked to her stepdad, “Daddy Wagner” and clearly loved him like a real father. She recalled how he wouldn’t get out of bed for days after Natalie died. How the press would climb on top of fences to snap pictures at the funeral and while the kids walked around their home yard, distraught. She detailed the emotional toll it took on her, her brothers and sisters , and most of all, on Robert Wagner. And he seemed fully believable. Yes, he’s an actor, and yes, he admits to drinking a lot that night and being “a little high”. But it’s also clear she was the love of his life. He eventually got back on his feet and kept the kids – his and hers and theirs alike – close. He was breaking up thinking about Natalie and about that fateful night.

The most likely explanation, the original one. Natalie was, a bit drunk, a bit under the influence of sleeping pills, just wanting to sleep. She got up and went to the boat life raft/dinghy which was banging against the boat in the storm. Making noise. Her daughter said she was a light sleeper and had complained before of the noise the dinghy made banging into the boat. She probably figured she could tie it up tighter to keep it from banging around, and fell overboard in the stormy seas, perhaps banging her head off the little boat doing so. A tragic accident.

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy… I do believe there are at least some extraterrestrials flying around our planet at time and not all UFOs are ‘swamp gas’ … but this one seems like … the obvious answer was the real one. Moreover, my love, who for years fully believed Wagner to be a murderer, was turned around after watching it. Nothing pointed towards murder. She, and I, now fully believe it was a horrible accident, a result of poor choices by all involved regarding going out on a boat in a storm and drinking too much …but an accident nonetheless.

It was a good lesson. Sometimes bad things happen for no apparent reason, and remember, the entertainment and tabloid media need headlines to sell their product. At times they may uncover real dirt…but sometimes, they just fabricate it. And real people end up paying the price for it. And it showed the power of a good, thoughtful documentary.

Moral of the story – once again…examine all the evidence, then think for yourself. The truth is out there… and sometimes, it’s not as hidden as we might think.

Smith’s Punch Drunk Love

That was one hard slap! How hard? Well, apparently the reverberations it caused are still being felt over a week later! It’s the story which seemingly won’t go away, so I’ll weigh in on “Slapgate.” If somehow you’ve been lucky enough to be on a tropical holiday on a beach without wi-fi for the past ten days or so, I am of course referring to an incident at this year’s Academy Awards show, in which Will Smith seemingly “lost it” and barreled on stage and hit (“slapped” seems too mild a description) comic Chris Rock in the face for making a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, Will’s wife. He then continued to yell obscenities Rock’s way from the front of the audience for some time after that. It turned out to make this year’s “Oscars” the most talked-about in years…for all the wrong reasons.

For me, some issues are very gray. Issues where one can see both sides of an argument, have difficulty really discerning the right and wrong. This, is not one of those cases. Smith was wrong. So too was the Academy itself. Rock on the other hand did nothing wrong and actually carried himself with surprising maturity given the situation.

First let’s examine the situation. The Smiths, (Will and Jada that is, not the British band) big-name stars that they are, were seated right up in the best seats, in easy sight of the people on stage. Chris Rock is a comedian, and was expected to do a few little funny bits between trophy hand-outs. As most in his position usually do, he ran through a few jokes about the night’s subject – movies, and threw in a few references to the stars he could see in the crowd. Routine for awards shows. His actual “offence” was making a joke about seeing Pinkett there and waiting for the new GI Jane movie. An obvious reference to her more-or-less shaved headed, bald appearance, reminiscent of Demi Moore in the ’90s movie he mentioned.

A fall-off-your-chair, slap-your-thigh kind of joke for the ages? Hardly. But neither was it an insult of any significance. He didn’t call her “ugly” or “fat” nor refer to her as dumb or invoke the “n-word”…he just made note that she seemed to have a bald head and playfully suggest she was making a movie about being a military cadet. Most actresses would smile politely at least and probably be pleased to even be mentioned and get the cameras pointing her way. And the initial – momentary – facial reaction of Will Smith was that. Mild amusement. His wife though, was clearly steamed. Others nearby suggested she was furious and said something to him like “you gonna let him get away with that?” and queried Will’s manliness. That’s when Will-Hulk kicked in and he stormed the stage and decked his fellow star.

Turns out Pinkett has alopecia, a term for a number of similar medical conditions which in men usually get termed “male pattern baldness.” In a nutshell, her hair’s falling out. Unfortunate, absolutely, even more so for a lady than a guy. But not cancer that could kill nor anything genuinely embarrassing like syphilis. She’s got thinning hair. If she wanted to hide that fact, she could very easily have worn a wig…many of which look more realistic than real hair these days. She could have phoned Elton John months ago and asked for his hair replacement guy’s phone number. She could have shown up wearing some low-slung cap or hat and been lauded as making a wonderful bold fashion statement. Instead she chose to not disguise it and by the look of it, shave off what hair she still had a day or two earlier. In a business all about looks and superficiality, she couldn’t be dumb enough to think that would go unnoticed.

Rock seemingly didn’t even know about her condition, but going back to the earlier point… his joke wasn’t really that “out there.” I’m not a huge fan of Chris’s but he can be funny at times. At other times, he can be a bit rude or offensive. So be it. Lenny Bruce made a career out of being considered vulgar or offensive, being arrested for it several times. Now many consider him one of the best stand-up comedians of all-time. Don Rickles, a favorite of late night shows for decades, once said “every night when I go out on stage, there’s always one nagging fear … I’m always afraid that there is one person in the audience that I’m not going to offend.”  Most of what we call “comedy” today is offensive to at least some people and pushes boundaries. There are some out there these days who are popular that I find dumb, rude and all-around offensive. My way of dealing with them? Not watching their shows.

If Will Smith really had a problem with the innocuous little joke, he should have gone up to Rock afterwards and told him – with his words, not his fist – that it was disrespectful to his wife and fill him in on her medical condition. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rock would have apologized and sent her a bottle of champagne or a bouquet of roses to let her know. But instead, he acts like the hyper-aggressive fool so many of his colleagues in the audience get paid millions to play on the big screen, hitting first, crying later. Not only does it set the wrong example for children who are fans of his movies but as the Today Show‘s Craig Melvin railed it perpetuates “this long held perception that men of color can’t control their rage and anger.” It’s doing ordinary, peaceful Black people no favors when the only thing anyone is talking about after an awards show is one angry Black man assaulting another Black man there.

Then there’s the show’s producers and the Academy itself, who say they “asked” Smith to leave but didn’t press the issue when he refused. “Asked”? If you have someone at an event who disrupts the ceremony and commits what would normally be construed a criminal act on stage, you don’t “ask” them to leave. You tell them to, and if they refuse, you remember why you pay to have security at such events and make sure they do leave. Instead, they let him get up on stage and accept an award and give a teary speech minutes later. I’m not in the faction who believe he should have lost the award automatically. He’d won it based on a role he played in a film months earlier, he was the one chosen for it and deserves to keep it. But he didn’t deserve to get back up on that stage that night and revel in the glory and make a self-serving speech.

Everyone, Will Smith included, have bad days and do something ill-advised at one time or another.  In the end, this will all go away. Smith will go back to making movies; Rock will do more stand-up routines and now have some more material to use in them. But to a lot of people like myself, I’ll long think that despite Will’s height advantage , Chris Rock is the far bigger man of the two.

Everydave’s Christmas Classics Collection

My friend Max over at Power Pop Blog‘s been running reviews of some of his favorite Christmas films lately, most are classics indeed. To me, sitting around with the family, watching Christmas specials was one of the most happy of memories of my childhood winters, not far behind getting to the stocking Christmas morning. Of course, decades have passed, but those moments are still special to me, so I give you a list of my Top 10 Christmas movies or TV specials, in no particular order. To me, Christmas isn’t quite Christmas without catching these…

The Oldies:

A Christmas Carol – the 1951 B&W version if you please, with Alistair Sim playing Scrooge. The kiddo in the house likes the more recent animated one, which is actually quite good, but nothing beats Sim’s acting, Cratchitt’s cheerful optimism and the charm of the story. Plus it was the one my Mom and I watched many a Christmas Eve together.

It’s A Wonderful Life – now a classic, surprisingly it wasn’t considered much of a movie for a few decades after its 1946 release despite starring the then-hot Jimmy Stewart. Is there a better reminder of how the “butterfly effect” means our lives have impacts far and wide, or to have hope that good will prevail over greed and spite?

The Cartoons:

How The Grinch Stole Christmas – the original, the Dr. Seuss-approved version in all its animated glory. Sure the cartoons look primitive compared to the current CGI efforts but nothing beats the simplicity of the story and the innocence of little Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two, or the empathy little Max the dog provokes trying to haul that sled up the mountain.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer – Rankin/Bass’s claymation giant, another of those childhood traditions. Burl Ives as the snowman and the Island of Misfit Toys are as wonderful as any Christmas characters. Maybe one more people need to see to this day to be reminded being different can be quite OK

Charlie Brown Christmas – the acme for that great comic strip, a 1965 cartoon that defied convention (and apparently killed off the aluminum tree business in the doing!). There was a whole lot of psychology in that kids’ comic and animated spinoff, and how many of us relate to Charlie, feeling overwhelmed by it all and searching for meaning. Linus’ reading is still pretty much my favorite little telling of the Christmas story. And of course, a crazily-good jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi recently picked by Billboard as the best Christmas album of all-time.

The Romances:

Love Actually – it was a hot, stormy afternoon when I first saw the 2003 modern classic. No matter, I loved it and found it enthralling. A fun and feel good movie, which at the time seemed revolutionary with the way it tied together so many interwoven stories dealing with love, requited and not, at Christmas time. It took me about four viewings to finally see how all the stories tied together (I think…maybe I’ll still find more this year.)

The Holiday – a 2006 film that my sweetie introduced me to a few years back; one of her Christmas traditions which I now share with her. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet are romantically doomed, it seemed in their homes this Christmas, so they trade homes (one in California, the other rural Britain) and find love with men from the others’ lives, Winslet’s brother and a musician contracted to Diaz. Eli Wallach gives a tour de force performance near the end of his life, as an aging screenwriter brought back to “life” through Winslet’s friendship.

The New Fun Ones:

Polar Express – I still can’t get over how realistic the motion-capture animation of this one is…but since it teams movie-maker Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks up again (they of course collaborated on the ’90s great Forrest Gump) why should I be surprised? A great reminder of the power of belief.

Elf – probably if I was ranking them, this one would be the one to squeak in at #10; I like it but find most people I know head-over-heels love it. Part of that stems from how generally, I’ve never been a fan of Will Farrell. But it’s impossible not to like Buddy the Elf and his over-the-top enthusiasm for everything…including of course Zooey Deschanel…he was human after all (to his surprise.) Some of the best laughs of the Christmas season…”call me an elf one more time…! – You’re an elf! He’s an angry elf!”

Christmas Story – poor Ralphie, he’ll shoot his eye out! Who can’t relate to the childhood of his, wanting just one thing that seemed out of reach at Christmas, being inundated with pink bunny suit pyjamas instead? Like the previous one, few things get me laughing harder every December than that bunny suit, the store Santa and his big boot, and of course…the leg lamp! It’s a major award after all!

Maybe a new one will be added to the list this year, who knows. But even if not, I feel like it’s a good Christmas-time if I’ve checked these ten off the list.

Anyone else have their own list?

Thankful Thursday XXX – Netflix Shows Nothing Came Easy To Forrest, Forrest Gump

This Thankful Thursday, which is to say “yesterday”, I thought of a show I saw on TV the night before that : The Movies That Made Us. It’s a semi-regular show made for Netflix that looks at how movies we loved came together… often not as easily as it might seem! This week I’d watched the one concerning Forrest Gump. I’ve seen several other instalments, including recently Pretty Woman and Dirty Dancing, all movies I like or love. They have movies chronicled that I don’t care for too, but it’s not as interesting watching what almost went wrong on a movie I wish had gone south, is it?

Dirty Dancing was a small budget feature that couldn’t find anyone interested in buying the script until a direct-to-video company that seemingly operated out of a small office bought it for a pittance. It didn’t go direct-to-video and made more money than pretty much everything else the company did combined. Pretty Woman‘s creators wanted Richard Gere to be the leading man all along, and got him, and Julia Roberts to be the heroine, the “hooker with a heart of gold.” Only at the time, Roberts was an almost-unknown quantity, a co-star of the B-movie Mystic Pizza and not much else, and Gere was holding out for a known superstar to drive people to the box office to see him. Once he was convinced Julia had screen appeal, it still took weeks to find the right fabric and right designer to assemble her style metamorphosis. Oh… and in the original script, Vivian, (Roberts) was a druggie prostitute who was left behind after her whirlwind week of the high life with him. Not exactly the romantic fairytale, “Cinderella” people dream about or pay money to see. Re-write!

Then there’s Forrest Gump – the all-American unlikely hero movie that was the third-biggest money maker ever for Hollywood at the time and took home a cart of Academy Awards big enough to carpet Alabama. It starred Tom Hanks, already a solid, A-list actor, and Sally Field, one of America’s sweethearts. Seemed like a can’t miss, right? Of course, it was far from it. The orignal novel which it was based on is vaguely similar in outline … to put it impolitely, “idiot savant stumbles onto great deeds accidently”. But the author’s Gump was rather a rude, unlikeable sod with a pet monkey. Hardly anyone to get the masses cheering on. So, new writers came in to revise his character and it got bought by a biggish studio. But people changed desks there and soon the studio was telling the director, Robert Zemeckis, to cut back, it was costing too much. They wanted no shrimp story in the movie – filming on a boat on water costs more than on land -, wanted no part of the Vietnam saga… costs money to ship people overseas and some of the shots might be expensive, and if he had to run across the country, couldn’t they shoot all the shots in an L.A. city park instead of all across the country? And don’t even get us started on the complications of superimposing Hanks into historical footage of JFK and so on. Thankfully, Zemeckis stood his ground and he and Hanks ended up pitching in some of their own cash to get it completed.

Now, the reason I’m telling you all this isn’t to make you turn on the TV or pitch myself for a Cinema 101 tutoring job. It is instead to point out that things that things that work out great and seem easy are actually quite problematic and often require many hurdles to be jumped. If it took Tom Hanks and Richard Gere so much to get their classics completed, why should we think it’s got to be a lot easier for any of us to see anything we care about through to completion?

Greatness of any sort requires a lot of work and patience… and a little luck. I’m thankful to Netflix and their series for reminding me that.

Movie Extra 11 – Dead Poet’s Society

As I get to the penultimate category for this fun and informative event (Hanspostcard’s Movie Draft), I tackle a biggie – Drama. There are no shortages of great candidates for this, so I rather randomly picked 1989’s biggest drama – Dead Poet’s Society. It may not be my all-time favorite in the genre, but then again, there are so many good ones it would be difficult to really narrow it down to one. This is a film I’ve consistently liked in the 30-plus years since it came out and which holds its own still.

The irony of Dead Poet’s Society is that it took one of America’s favorite zany comics to elevate it to greatness, in a role decidedly short on over-the-top comic bits (although there are one or two points where Robin Williams adds his own brand of manic fun to an otherwise serious role.) The movie also returns Ethan Hawke to my list; he was the co-star of the “Before” trilogy I picked. In this one, his first significant film role, he has a supporting part.

The overview of the film is that its set in a private boys boarding school in Vermont during the 1950s. It’s the type of school that is designed to prepare young teenage boys and turn them into mature Ivy League business and med students, undoubtedly due to arrive in the pages of “Who’s Who” approximately a decade after their arrival there. Conformity and adherance to the rules is not only expected, it’s a given. Headmaster Nolan (Norman Lloyd) makes sure that is achieved, ruling with an iron fist and wooden paddle.

Enter John Keating, played by Williams. He’s the new English teacher, an alumni of the school, full of pep and excitement and seemingly set on alienating everyone in the school’s organization. He sets out to teach his class (including Todd, played by Ethan Hawke) poetry. Initially not the favorite subject for most of the lads. Keating however teaches it with verve and stresses the passion, the freedom of well-used words. “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world,” he tells them. He also points out that the real purpose of poetry is “Wooing women.” This catches their attention.

His enthusiasm is unusual at that institution, and his methods even more unorthodox. He has the students stand up on their desks.. to see the world differently. He coaxes the boys – terrified of breaking rules – to rip out pages from their text book that teaches a scientific formula for measuring the “greatness” of a poem. He teaches that the greatness of a poem is in how it makes you feel, how alive it makes you, not some mathematical formula. They quickly take to the teacher and start to break out of their shells; writing poetry of their own, persuing seemingly unobtainable young women of the town, and in the case of Neil, a shy boy with few friends, to take up acting. He finds not only does he love to act, he has a talent for it. This however, doesn’t please his 1950’s meatloaf-and-potato father who has him lined up for med school already. It all boils over when the lad takes on the role of Puck in a Shakespearean play, infuriating the father who pulls him out of school and enrols him in a military academy. Neil never makes it there.

In the aftermath, the school blame Keating for corrupting the kids and show him the door…but not before one of the most moving moments in contemporary film (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it), with Todd, then the others in the class all jumping up on their desks to salute the departing teacher, to the utter enragement of the headmaster. One by one they offer him their allegiance and respect.

It’s a touching moment and a great movie which highlights the shortfalls of the educational system , particularly in the past, and showcases the wonders that can happen if kids’ interests and talents are nurtured. It reminds us how much difference even one fine teacher can make in so many lives. It runs over two hours, but seems to end too soon. If you’re prone to teariness, it might be the type of film you want a box of Kleenex nearby for.

I loved it, which perhaps surprised no one more than myself, as I half to admit, I’m not a big fan of the manic, out-of-control, he’s so wacky, comedian Williams. But the man had the acting chops to pull off deep and even at times dark roles, as we see in Good Will Hunting as well. That man, as well as the decent, caring family man and baseball fan – those are the Robin Williams I miss.

The movie took in over $200M at the box office, making it one of that year’s top five films, and it was accorded generally good reviews, although Siskel and Ebert notably disliked it and called it “pious platitudes” with poor acting. To each his own. Dead Poet’s Society won an Academy Award for best original screenplay for writer Tom Shulman, while Williams was nominated for the Best Actor one.

“Poetry, beauty, romance, love – those are what we stay alive for ,” in the words of John Keating. And maybe for well made movies as well. I give Dead Poet’s Society four Neruda sonnets out of five.

Movie Extra 10 – The Answer Man

As this cool exercise (the movie draft run by Hanspostcard) winds down, I find I have three categories left to deal with – Westerns and War, the all-encompassing Drama and the combo of Romance and Holidays. This time around I’m going with the latter…but with a twist. Bear with me.

Last time out, I wrote about a romcom, You’ve Got Mail. I love the movie. Many of you do too, but the comments made it clear that it was a standout in that genre, since a lot of romance and romcoms are well…not great. So while there are a number of romance ones I do like still that I could pick – Sleepless in Seattle, Bridget Jones’ Diary, etc – and there are many excellent holiday movies (Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas to me without seeing A Christmas Carol, and A Wonderful Life, which I think someone already covered) I’m going to risk “wasting” a slot by writing about a movie which, well, frankly wasn’t that good. I’m not especially recommending it. But it did make me stop and think, which I hope you’ll agree is worth shaking up the exercise just a little. So far cumulatively, we’ve read about 100 columns from some terrific writers and reviewers and undoubtedly found a few great gems we’d not heard of or seen before. Now let’s hear about one you might be OK missing…

The Answer Man. Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad. Nor had I. Nor many people. People who’d read a memoir from one of its stars might not have either – she didn’t mention one word about it in her book!

It popped up on one of our streaming services here recently, and it was a rainy afternoon so my love decided to press play. Looked like it might be at least half-decent. If not precisely a cast that was star-studded with A-list superstars, at least some decent talent, like Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham (whose memoir was out in the living room… she passed right over this one without a mention of it!) Tony Hale and Nora Dunn among others. The 2009 film was billed as a romance-comedy, though as it turns out both the romance and comedy were in short supply in it.

Now I’ll get to why I chose this one, besides it being fresh in my mind right now, but first a short summary, full of spoilers for those who actually might watch it.

Daniels plays Arlen Faber, a world-renowned author of a series of spiritual guidebooks, started with one called “Me and God.” Alas, Arlen is a cranky, rude recluse, a seeming utterly irreligious sort in reality. He has a bad back, and after throwing it out, he crawls – literally – across the city to a chiropractor, Elizabeth, played by Graham. She’s an over-protective single mother with a 7 year old son who’s likable enough but not very memorable, and new to the city after some poorly outlined bad marriage. She fixes the writer/philosopher’s back and he falls instantly head-over-heels in love with her. Arlen however is not very suave. And he’s inexplicably odd. He gets furious if a piano player plays the wrong song. He has signs on the doors in his house labeling what each room is (one of the few quirks that does get explained). He collects toys but keeps them locked up. And he has a slew of books he’s curiously obsessed with getting rid of.

Why he is so anxious to rid himself of the books is a mystery, so too why in ’09 he wouldn’t turn to e-bay or Amazon to do so. But instead he fixates on having an indie book shop near him take them. Enter the bookshop’s owner, Kris, a sadsack young alcoholic who brings in an entirely different storyline. His shop is failing, so he won’t buy Arlen’s used books. This sets off some sort of weird reaction whereby the writer becomes obsessed with shedding his books at the store, even dressing up in disguise and trying to leave them on the shelves. After some equally improbable twists, Kris figures out who Arlen is and looks to him for advice on all the mysteries of life. Kris has issues with his father, and an assistant at the store who’s only role appears to be to let Kat Dennings have a role and look cute. Arlen begins dating Elizabeth but his erratic behaviour is a lot for her to take, however, he bonds well with her son. She’s conflicted.

He eventually breaks from his incognito existence by doing a book signing at Kris’ store, and then throws cold water over the crowd by telling them his books are a crock of you-know-what. A metaphoric bucket of cold water, although he throws a real one over some other fans at another point. His love is displeased, so he sets off to win her again, a new man.

Wow, right? That’s a lot to take in in less than two hours (which might seem far longer than two while watching.) It was written and directed by John Hindman, his first feature film. Surprisingly he has one more equally obscure one to his credit. If you’d never heard of The Answer Man, perhaps it’s because it seemed to last just one week at the box office and took in less than $50 000! The exact take of the money-loser is up for debate, IMDB has it at about $27K while Wikipedia quote $48k. We doubt the producers who bankrolled it care much either way! It is typical of the indifference to it though; one source says it was filmed in North Carolina while the other agrees with the movie credits and lists Philadelphia. It was just so insignificant as for the reviewers to simply not care apparently. Although review it they did. Roger Ebert for example thought the so-called funny bits looked like “outtakes from a manic Jim Carrey movie” and pondered why such a famous author with so many fans wrote a life-changing book yet “no one in the film – no one – repeats a single thing they’ve learned from it!” USA Today say The Answer Man poses questions like “why do the characters behave in ways that bear little resemblance to reality? Why is this dreary comedy so devoid of humor?”

So why I am writing about it? Well I’d actually like some answers from The Answer Man‘s creator. I truly wonder what he was thinking when he began the work. What he thought of the result. If I had a guess at it, Hindman actually was trying to do too much. He had too many ideas, too many storylines and too little time (arguably too little talent as well) to see them through to completion. That’s a bit of a shame, because if cropped, two or three themes might have been worthy and yielded an interesting or entertaining movie. What if a famous theologian is either a nasty person or perhaps a bit of an atheist? How tough is it for a free-spirited woman to become a worried single mom? What if a grumpy old man is made human by a little child’s presence? What if a celebrity has some personality traits – autism perhaps – that make it difficult for them to function in normal society? Can an “answer man” who doesn’t believe in himself actually give the needed answers to a lost young man? Any one or two of those plotlines might have been an interesting story. Put all of them and half a dozen more into one film and fail to answer most of those questions and you have a mess.

The Answer Man. I give it one and a half hardcover tomes out of five. A failure but an ambitious one. Think of it next time you’re watching a good movie you like and realize how lucky you are, and how rare it is for a writer with an interesting idea to be able to turn that into a film which truly entertains. It might give you a whole new respect for the hundred films that have come before in this event!

Thankful Thursday XIV – The Wizard Of Oz…?

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for The Wizard of Oz. Well, not exactly the movie with Judy Garland nor the Frank Baum book, although both have their merits. And they also inspired some great music that I love, like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the Scissor Sisters’ “Return to Oz”. Rather I’m thankful for it, and many others like it because it’s an example of a well-told story. And where would we be without those, be they in film, in print, or handed down orally generation to generation?

What’s more, it’s a prime example of one of the Seven Basic Plots…and where would aspiring writers like myself be without those role models to guide us?

As an aside, my early memories of the Wizard of Oz weren’t all that great. I was very little – maybe three years old – and in hospital, and they somehow got the local theatre company to perform the play (likely in quite scaled down form) in some sort of auditorium at the hospital. Those who were well enough to be transported out of their room to see it were. I vaguely remember it being a bit disturbing. I clearly remember being very disturbed and frightened when they sent the actors around the hospital. The witch came to my room…not a comfort for an ill three year old!

Some years later I overcame my Witch trauma and watched the movie, and quite liked it although agreeing with my mother that Judy Garland was probably too big and old to be a believable Dorothy. Regardless of that, it was an interesting film and doubtless ahead of its time in production values.

I likely didn’t give it any more thought until I hit my twenties. I picked up the then-trendy novel Bright Lights, Big City and loved its style, I was fast in line to see the movie adapatation. I read through reviews of it and was surprised that several made reference to it being a retelling of the Wizard, give or take. Seemed a bit of a stretch, but when one boiled it down, both were stories of someone being transported from somewhere simple (in fact, Kansas in both) to somewhere shinier and glossier (Oz for Dorothy, the Big Apple and its nightclubs for Bright Lights…), looking for excitement and new meaning, only to be put in harm’s way, ultimately disappointed and going home, more appreciative and wiser. Okay…maybe they had something there.

Years later, I would come across a fiction writing principal known as The Seven Basic Plots. The appropriately-named Christopher Booker had the idea that there were really only seven plots in all of the world’s great stories. There’s Overcoming the Monster (from Dracula to Star Wars), Tragedy , where the “protagonist is a hero with a character flaw or great mistake” (MacBeth, Bonnie and Clyde) , Comedy, which he suggests also needs conflict resolved in the end (Midsummer’s Night Dream, Four Weddings and a Funeral), Quests, something bigger than the person (think of the similarities in the wildly disparate Raiders of the Lost Ark and Monty Python and the Holy Grail) , Rags to Riches, which if successful should also include growth of the character (Cinderella, Great Expectations), Rebirths, where the flawed character grows and becomes anew (Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Elizabeth & Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) and Voyages. Oz. Bright Lights, Big City. Alice In Wonderland. A fantastic journey leading the subject back home, a better person.

Now, it’s entirely possible that if you really think about it at length, you might be able to come up with a popular story, either book or film, that doesn’t fit any of those categories. Hats off to their creator if so… especially if it ended up being a story that resonated. But it’s remarkable how many great stories do fall into one of the seven categories. That’s handy for me, as a writer, to remember. And it’s handy for us all to remember by extrapolation – no matter how different our own stories seem from other people’s, chances are they’re not all that terribly different. There aren’t too many different life stories… the way that we choose to react to them, the tiny details are what make them memorable and separate the good from the bad… the Scrooges from the Darth Vaders.

The witch in the room or the likable Toto. Ultimately, we all decide how our story will be told.

Movie Extra 9 – You’ve Got Mail

As this fun and informative event (for new readers, this year I’ve been one of ten guest columnists doing movie reviews on the Slice the Life website, with each of us covering a movie from a dozen different categories) rolls towards completion, I find I still haven’t gotten to three of the most basic, and to me, best categories yet – drama, romance/holidays (a bit of an odd pairing perhaps but what’s more romantic than some holidays?) and of course, comedy. Today I’ll check off one of those boxes with one that could easily fall into two of the three above (according to IMDB)… the 1998 Comedy You’ve Got Mail. The cyber-age online romance starred America’s sweethearts of the ’90s, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. You couldn’t get much better than that then… unless you added in a golden retriever. Which they did (Brinkley).

It was the third in the triad of romcom movies produced and directed by Nora Ephron, ones which according to journalist Erin Carlson “saved” the entire genre. The two predecessors were When Harry met Sally and another Hanks/Ryan duet, Sleepless in Seattle. I often run into other guys who “hate” romcoms. I don’t; I guess I’m lucky because I’m not suffering when my sweetie wants to put one on for us to watch. But I can see where they are coming from in some cases. The entire genre is over-run with overly predictable and sappy ones where you’re not especially enthralled with either of the pair and the comedy is about as wooden as a canoe paddle. Which is something you end up feeling like you could use when you’re up a certain kind of creek without one as you watch.

The Ephron trio though are something different – witty, reasonably intelligent stories with people you can actually root for. Curiously, the bio of Ephron, I’ll Have What She’s Having, suggests these weren’t her favorite type of story to tell and fell far from her personal, turbulent relationship experiences. But few if any did this type of film better.

For this one, Nora was the primary writer, borrowing heavily from the 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner for the idea. In the oldie, two co-workers who don’t like each other in the store fall in love with each other through letters they are sending to a pen-pal they never suspect is the other. It starred Jimmy Stewart and Maureen Sullavan. Stewart was America’s favorite “Every Man” at the time, so who better to play the male lead in the new one than the country’s ’90s favorite guy, Tom Hanks? And seeing the chemistry he and Meg Ryan had in Sleepless in Seattle, was their any other choice for the leading lady? I think not, and so too did Ephron who realized Meg was the rarest of rare actresses, one that men found attractive and watchable but women didn’t find sexy or blatant enough to be threatening. Hence, relatable.

In You’ve Got Mail, there are modern twists. Joe Fox (Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) aren’t co-workers but business rivals who despise each other. Or at least she despises him. He’s the boss of a large, big-box book store with discount prices and cappucino stands inside (think Barnes and Noble on steroids) while she is the owner of a tiny, well-established childrens book store started by her mother. She knows every kids’ book published and has parties in the shop where she reads stories to the neighborhood children. Her friend Birdie (played nicely by Jean Stapleton who’ll make you forget she’s “Edith” after a scene or two) points out that the store is already in a precarious position financially and the competition from a huge book store could pull them under. Aha! No wonder Kathleen doesn’t like the at-times slightly smug Fox.

She’s in a relationship with a self-absorbed writer while he is tied to an even more self-absorbed, whiny girlfriend. The only real solace either has is anonymous e-mails they send back and forth after meeting in a chat room. They bond over movies and the small pleasures of New York City, he gives her business advice (“Go to the mattresses!”) when she asks him non-specific questions about her struggling store. Of course, in time they decide to meet.

Well, even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can probably guess where it ends up, but how they end up together, how she forgives him for running her out of business is half the fun.

The movie showcased modern techonology (the title for instance was the little audio clip one heard when checking AOL e-mail, which was de rigeur back then) and the perils of the modern world – urban and cyber anonymity, big box stores taking over neighborhoods. The themes still ring true even though the specifics might now seem laughable to young people… who writes long e-mails to each other anymore? And wouldn’t the big box store now be the one struggling to stay afloat, crushed by Amazon? But the basics are as true as ever. Sometimes we don’t know the people in front of us and are too quick to make assumptions about them. There’s a worth in the small businesses, and there’s a trade-off to be made if we simply go to the cheapest or easiest option available. But then again, the large ones aren’t really all that evil.

The movie works to me even though the plotline might have been predictable. The writing is good, the dialog witty and fast-paced without seeming forced or unrealistic, there are a number of good supporting characters to flesh out the film without weighing it down. But first and foremost, it works because there’s some irresistible charm in the pairing of Tom and Meg together. I’ve seen it many a time and I still feeling like giving a little cheer at the end when the dog runs up, Fox appears, Kathleen sees the man of her dreams and sobs “I wanted it to be you!”

You’ve Got Mail… I give it four and a half bouquets of newly sharpened pencils out of five.

Movie Extra 8 – “Before” Trilogy

This time around, I check off one of the more interesting categories in this Hanspostcard Movie extravaganza – the “Series”. Films with stories so nice they had to be told more than twice! My choice in these is the Richard Linklater “Before” trilogy.

The trio of films looks at the evolving relationship of a bi-continental couple, Jesse and Celine as it evolves over nearly twenty years. It begins with Before Sunrise, a 1995 under-the-radar date movie fave, continues with Before Sunset in 2004 and (for the time being) ends with 2013’s Before Midnight.

The stories involve American Jesse and French mademoiselle Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy respectively. A spoiler-laden overview would be essentially:

Gen X-ers who grew up an ocean apart meet on a train in Europe. Celine is on her way back home to Paris after visiting her grandma; Jesse is taking his time getting back to an airport to return home to the States after being dumped by his girlfriend on a Euro holiday. The pair are attracted to each other, talk their way through a train meal and impulsively spend a romantic night together in Vienna. They talk of life, alternately laugh and argue, wax philosophical and seem to trade off between being youthfully optimistic and prematurely jaded. They see the sights, taking in the Austrian nightlife, charm a bartender out of a bottle of wine and do what neither dared say in the process, namely begin falling in love. The sun comes up, life switches back to dreary reality, they go their separate ways understanding “the long distance thing” seldom works. However, they leave agreeing to meet again in six months.

Fast forward nine years and Before Sunset. Jesse is back in Europe, this time in Paris doing a book signing. He’s written a popular novel…based on a young couple spending a magical night together in Vienna. We aren’t left wondering what happened between him and Celine in the years since the train ride for long. She shows up at the bookstore and we find why what seemed to be destined never happened. They decide to spend the few remaining hours he has in town with the Parisienne showing him around her city. More lengthy, thought-provoking conversations take place between the now 30-somethings who have adult lives – jobs, partners, in his case a child – and plenty of problems with them. She plays him a song she wrote for him and he misses his plane. Leaving us to wonder for nine more years if he ever bothered getting on the next.

Until Before Midnight rolled around. The young romantics of the ’90s, upwardly mobile young near-singles of the ’00s are now a middle-aged couple, driving through Greece with their two children. That is to say their two children together; Jesse is crushed by having to send his son from a previous relationship back to the States. He’s now a famous author, has the woman of his former dreams, two cute little girls… and an increasingly bitter marriage. He pines and whines, while her cheerful quirkiness has largely morphed into spiteful anger and mistrust run amok. Their planned little romantic rendesvous away from the children becomes a soul-searching look at their lives together and apart through a psychologist’s microscope. “This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real” he yells at her at one point, underscoring the theme of the entire series. We’re left with her considering that maybe imperfection might be good enough given the alternatives.

Ethan Hawke is a well-known fan of alternative rock. One might think he almost could have used three REM album titles for a shorthand to the three films – Life’s Rich Pageant, Fables of the Reconstruction and Reckoning. A magical fairy tale beginning, putting it all together for real and then dealing with the consequences of having done that.

The trio of movies stand up on their own, but are best seen as an entity. The settings are beautiful – Vienna at night, Paris, the Greek coastline – but the scene stealers are always the conversations between Jesse and Celine. These are movies for those who value dialogue over special effects or complicated plots. It’s crisp, it’s real, it rings true. Although Linklater and Kim Krizan are credited with writing, both Hawke and Delpy edited to their suiting resulting in characters who fully inhabit the actors, or vice versa. The first of the three has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the second one was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay.

As to whether we’ll see “Before Naptime” (he says snarkily) next year, Hawke recently said all involved like the idea of revisiting the couple again, but it will likely break the timeline and not be in 2022. Still, I hope they will be on screen again, and can only keep my fingers crossed for Jesse that his lady love hasn’t continued on her trajectory towards hostile unlikability!

All in all, I give the trilogy 3-and-a-half lumberjack shirts out of five, but would pick the first instalment as the stand-out for those who only want to see one.