Henry Fonda once said, "When I'm playing someone else on the stage or in a movie, I have no trouble at all. But when I have to speak for myself, I become tongue-tied."
The same with me. When I'm writing about other people, or things, my thoughts flow and my words sparkle. But when the spotlight turns on me, I become camera-shy. Or gun-shy.
My portfolio, of course, can speak for me. But what it can't tell you about me is what I think are the two prerequisites for good writing: a love of reading and a love of words.
As a matter of fact, I feel there are only two ways to learn how to write in the first place. One is by writing, of course. The other is by reading.
And I love to read, anything, from the hold-it-all-in starkness of Hemingway to the let-it-all-hang-out prolixity of Proust. As long as it's real, as long as it's sincere, as long as it reflects the thoughts and feelings of an authentic human being.
And I love words. I love all the things you can do with them. To me words are like notes of music. You can run them up in simple scales. You can arrange them into catchy tunes. You can transform them into operas that plumb the depths of the human heart, or into symphonies that resonate with the awe of the universe. You can reach out--across thousands of miles or thousands of years--and touch another human being so that his or her life is never quite the same again.
Words are magical. I love being a magician.
My stories have appeared in Weber Studies, Writers' Journal, The Panhandler, The Mark, Pinehurst Journal, Dream International Quarterly, Monocacy Valley Review, PBW, Riding Out: Contemporary Writing (Australia), Foolscap (England), The Chronicle (South Africa), Brainwave (Pakistan), Menzed (New Zealand), Asztal Lap (Hungary), Apocalypse I, Yomimono (Japan).
My articles and reviews have appeared in Films in Review, Boston Herald, Houston Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, St. Petersburg Times, Bestsellers.
Fellowship grant in literature from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts
New York society in 1905 is, at least as envisioned by Edith Wharton, an endless game of cat and mouse. Instead of paws with claws, the players rely on innuendo, ambiguity, archness. The purpose of the game is to get your interlocutor to reveal or commit him or herself, so you can continue to be aloof and unaffected. Nuance and coolness are everything; sincerity and feeling, nothing. Those who play the game well win all the best prizes: brilliant marriages and advancement up the social ladder. No price can ever be too high. Those who have too much integrity, like Lily Bart, live lives of ever increasing quiet desperation. Even a discreetly phrased cry for help falls on deliberately deaf ears. Asking for help, which implies needing help, is embarrassingly infra dig. One must never allow the least chink to mar the artificial façade. One must suffer, even die, in silence rather than reveal the awful truth.
Watching this smiling danse macabre is like seeing an elaborately staged ballet. It looks delicately beautiful because you are too far away from the dancers to know or to care that their feet, if not their hearts, are bleeding.
This is a movie in which talk—what is said or not said, and how it is said or not said—is of paramount importance. To keep it from being merely talkie, you need actors who know how to use their voices like musical instruments to underpin their seemingly inconsequential remarks with layers of unexpressed significance. Gillian Anderson, of The X-Files, is the last person I would have thought of to play Lily Bart; now I can’t think of anyone else. Her tone of voice, her eyes, her expression, her body movements all eloquently express what is going on in her mind while she tries to play this deadly game of social bluff and counter-bluff. She gets flawless support from Dan Aykroyd, Eleanor Bron, Terry Kinney, Anthony LaPaglia, Laura Linney, Elizabeth McGovern, Jodhi May and especially Eric Stoltz.
Writer-director Terence Davies has done an admirable job of adapting the novel and choreographing his large and diverse cast. In his faithfulness to the original, however, he has been forced to give his movie a melodramatic, soap-opera-ish ending that smacks too much of the heavy hand of Theodore Dreiser (Carrie) than Wharton’s more delicate touch. But this is merely the blemish that sets off the beautiful whole.
We all know the drill all too well. The day she meets him, she describes him as an “asshole” (fast replacing “fuck” as Hollywood’s obligatory naughty word; check out Proof of Life for confirmation). In the movies, that always means she’s going to fall head over heels in love with him; and so she does. But they’re from two different worlds, you see. She’s a middle-class gal who comes to live in the ghetto with her run-away father when her mother dies; he’s one of the boys in the ‘hood. She’s a ballerina; he’s a hip-hopper. She’s naïve; he’s street-smart. She’s white (Julia Stiles); he’s black (Sean Patrick Thomas).
Since they’re also teenagers, the parallels to Romeo and Juliet are unavoidable. But in this case, it’s not their families that are feuding but their races.
Yes, the plot is twice-told, even thrice-told. But don’t forget, the original story had been kicking around Europe for at least 120 years before Shakespeare appropriated it for his own. Not to mention the various film versions, with Leslie Howard, Laurence Harvey, Leonard Whiting, Richard Beymer (West Side Story) and that Leonardo kid.
What’s important is not the familiarity or even predictability of the plot but the way Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards’ screenplay and Thomas Carter’s direction make you feel as though you were seeing it all for the first time. And the way Stiles’s and Thomas’s sincerity and intensity make you suffer through all the ups and downs of their relationship as though you’d never gone through it all on the screen many times before.
The milieu is novel too, at least to this white man—not Shakespeare’s Verona but an integrated inner-city high school and an all-black club. And so are the vividly drawn characters—Kerry Washington, as Thomas’s outspoken sister, Chenille; Fredro Starr, as his best friend and worst enemy; Terry Kinney, as Stiles’s father, to name just a few.
Equally novel is the way the racial difference is handled: they fall in love as though it were the most natural thing in the world. It’s his sister and friends who resent her intrusion into their world. Even though Stiles is her friend, Chenille resents this white girl taking “one of the few decent men left after drugs, jail and drive-bys.”
These days, some people are so terrified of their own emotions that they label any movie that makes them feel—like Save the Last Dance, Chocolat, Billy Elliot or Remember the Titans—corny or sentimental. Ignore them. Feelings are good. They’re what make us uniquely human. Responding to the feelings of others makes us even more human. This is a very human movie.
This new Nicolas Cage movie inevitably calls to mind It’s a Wonderful Life. In that 1946 Frank Capra movie, an angel (Henry Travers) shows George Bailey (James Stewart) what life in his hometown would have been like if he’d never been born. It’s all nonsense, of course. I don’t mean the angel or being able to see an alternate time stream—I can accept them as plot devices—but the idea that without George everybody’s life would have been ruined.
Take Mary (Donna Reed), the young woman who would become George’s wife. We meet her when George does. She’s pretty, spunky, charming, and she already has a boyfriend. Is it conceivable that if she hadn’t met George, she would have been inexplicably transformed into the dried-up old-maid librarian we see in the fantasy sequence? Not to me, it isn’t.
David Diamond and David Weissman’s script for The Family Man is more plausible, assuming you accept the basic premise. Hard-driving, Type A Wall Street tycoon Jack Campbell (Cage) is given a chance to see what his life would have been like if he had married his college sweetheart (the lovely and charming Téa Leoni) after all. Thirteen years before she had begged him not to go to London to take advantage of a one-year scholarship at a prestigious London school because she felt he’d never come back to her. He didn’t. I found it hard to swallow the fact that a guy who was so much in love would just dump his sweetheart without even a Dear Jane letter, but once I got that down, it was smooth sailing.
Deprived of his high-living perks, Jack finds himself with two kids, a dog and a job at Big Ed’s emporium. (How this Jack was able to step so effortlessly into the other Jack’s shoes, even to the point of becoming a crackerjack tire salesman in nothing flat constituted another leap into the dark for me. More realistic is Rock Hudson’s faux sales ace in Man’s Favorite Sport?) At first he hates his new life, then he realizes that this is really the life for him. So, of course, the Ghost of the Christmas that Might Have Been (Don Cheadle) yanks him back into his old, now unwanted milieu.
Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol and TV shows like Twice in a Lifetime and even Touched by an Angel appeal to us because they reassure us that it’s never too late to take the regretted road not traveled, to be psychologically, if not spiritually, born again. Director Brett Ratner’s movie is a particularly good example of the genre because its characters are so real and human. We need them to find what we now know they really want, so we can believe that we too can go back to the crossroads and take a turn for the better. When they resolve their dilemma, as we know they will, we not only feel good, we feel uplifted. It really is a wonderful life after all.
When Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night and revealed nothing but his bare chest, sales of men’s undershirts plummeted. When President John F. Kennedy kept appearing bareheaded, men’s hat sales went south. Now that Ryan Phillippe dons glasses every time he sits at a computer (which is very often) in Peter Howitt’s thriller, can we expect contact lenses to also lose their allure? No man can tell.
Phillippe, who played the pretty young hunk in 54, is a computer geek who takes a prize job at a Microsoft-like company against the advice of his higher-minded buds and soon discovers that the worm in the apple (pun intended) may very well be the Bill Gates-like president of the company (Tim Robbins). To unravel the mystery, Phillippe spends an inordinate amount of time at the keyboard tapping out incomprehensible (to me, at any rate) code.
You’d think all this reading of arcane screen text would have the same turn-off effect as non-English subtitles. But once I realized there was nothing to be lost by not trying, I just assumed that what I couldn’t understand was as earth-shattering as the Rosetta stone and let it go at that.
The plot is all too familiar—one lone man trying to save the world from a megalomaniac. (By the end of the flick, Robbins is giving Norma Desmond a run for the money in the eye-rolling histrionics derby.) Of course, he doesn’t know whom he can trust, and, of course, he finds out that the people he thinks he can trust, he can’t. And so on.
Familiar, yes. But so is a roller coaster, yet no matter how many times you’ve taken the same ride, it still gets your adrenaline pumping.
Not as good as The Spanish Prisoner or The Game, but enjoyable if your expectations aren’t too high.
Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) puts it this way, more or less, in The Bad and the Beautiful: If you want to scare people, don’t show them the monster; let them imagine it for themselves. What this fictional movie director (based, I believe, on the young David O. Selznick) realized was what we imagine is always more frightening than what we see.
Sure, you can scare anyone by jumping unexpectedly out of a hiding place. But once he realizes what happened, his fear evaporates. The fear that lasts is the fear you create in your own mind. (Think of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.)
Director Patrick Lussier takes the second approach. He scared me again and again by lulling me into a sense of false security, then springing another slavering vampire at me. It worked, but like stereotyped Chinese food, it didn’t stick with me. It was a cheap trick and I resented it, as I would if he had made me laugh at a comedy by tickling me.
Even in a horror film, I want characters I can believe in and a plot that, however fantastic, makes sense in its own context. Here we have animated stick figures that even an accomplished actor like Christopher Plummer (another fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into, Chris) or a charismatic one like Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager) can’t bring to life.
And the plot. Yes, the plot. There is that to consider, isn’t there?
I wonder how Jonathan Shields would deal with something that doesn’t exist.
The great, burning, unanswered question is how the dude who’s looking for his car (Ashton Kutcher) ever got a driver’s license in the first place. We are not talking dumb or dumber here; we are talking hands-down dumbest. To quote Warren William in The Dark Horse: “He's the dumbest human being I ever saw. Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”
Kutcher and his bud, Seann (sic) William Scott, are not only dumb (I want to make this perfectly clear), they’re predictable and boring too. Their humor is straight out of a junior-high-school toilet: a man getting hit in the crotch by the baseball bat of a blind boy, for example. (Did I fail to mention that not only are these doofuses dumb, but the first-time script by Philip Stark is every bit as dumb?)
And yet—guess what?—Kutcher and Scott are, in addition to being dumb (you get my drift, I trust), so good-natured and high-spirited that you just can’t help liking them. It’s like having a big, lumbering dog that keeps doing the same stupid thing over and over again. The stupider he acts, the more you love him. And these dudes are really…but I think you get the idea by now.
This Walt Disney production has a lot going for it: a cheeky script by Roger Allers, director Mark Dindal, Matthew Jacobs, David Reynolds and Chris Williams; deliciously irreverent and high-spirited voiceovers by David Spade, John Goodman and Eartha Kitt; and lively animation that does justice to the vocals. I wish I could say that I enjoyed it more than I did, but my inner child, for whom this movie was made, obdurately refused to come out of hiding. Like me, he says he prefers sophisticated dialogue (All About Eve), mature plot development (The Heiress), “slurpy” romantic songs (“Long Ago and Far Away”), and, above all, real, live human beings (or, at least, animals) to identify with. Maybe some day, when I’m in my second childhood (he’s still in his first, of course), we’ll join hands and revel in the adventures of a self-centered young monarch who learns humility when he’s turned into a llama. Don’t hold your breath; I’m not holding mine.
The really funny thing about writer-director Guy Ritchie’s British import is that it really is funny, despite the foulest (and loudest) soundtrack and the most sadistically brutal storyline of any movie I’ve seen since I started reviewing current releases again at the beginning of October. Just when I think that the word “fuck” couldn’t be used more often in a script without its becoming incomprehensible or that the word was being phased out in favor of the more delicate “asshole,” Madonna’s husband exposes me for the hopeless naïf I am. And just when I thought that the decibel and the gloating sadism levels couldn’t be cranked up any further, the Brits show up on our shores to prove me wrong again. (The bright side to all this is that putting your fingers in your ears muffles the noise without blotting out the dialogue.)
But that’s not all. Ritchie’s plot is so complicated that after a while I gave up trying to integrate the scene I was watching into the whole and just enjoyed it on its own merits.
Finally, the British accents sometimes made me wonder whether or not we really do speak the same language. This is especially true in the case of American Brad Pitt, who speaks a pikey (Gypsy) patois that even the Brits find impossible to understand. Oddly enough, even though I hardly caught even a snatch of his meaning, just listening to him and trying to read his good-natured expressions was a delight.
All the characters have Runyonesque soubriquets, like Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro), Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones) and Boris The Blade (Rade Serbedzija). Del Toro does an impressive turn imitating a Hasidic rabbi discussing with four other imitators how the mistranslation of the word for “young woman” gave Christ an immaculate conception. I got so involved in the conversation and the novel way it was presented that I was quite annoyed (and startled) when it ended literally with a bang. But don’t go to this movie expecting to see much more of Del Toro: he’s gone within the first half hour.
Although the title could be an intentionally sexual double entendre and the “f” word is used more often than almost any other in the English language (except, maybe, by the Gypsies; God only knows what they’re saying), no one actually does it. These blokes are too obsessed with snatching an 84K diamond to have time for a leisurely roll in the hay. Besides, Ritchie’s machine-gun editing doesn’t give them a chance.
So what makes Snatch so funny? It’s the characters—they’re almost all doofuses. Even more important, it’s the way they react to the scrapes they get themselves into (even when you can’t quite understand them, like the pikey). I felt as though I was watching a British gangster take on Alice in Wonderland. No matter how serious Alice is, the people she meets respond in an off-the-wall manner that doesn’t seem to have very much to do with reality. As for me, I’m very late for a most important tea party.
Most of the commentary I’ve come across dismissed (and dissed) The Contender as farfetched. Farfetched? I’ll give you farfetched.
An American President, with a reputation for sexual harassment, risks his presidency and his much-vaunted legacy in order to get a blowjob in the Oval Office from a White House intern. His semen on her dress clinches his guilt. He is impeached, tried by the Senate and exonerated. His popularity soars.
Or how’s this for farfetched?
Another American President compromises his presidency and his country by having sex in the White House with the mistress of a Mafia kingpin.
And if you really want farfetched, how about the American President who is so determined to win reelection by a landslide that he hires a team of ham-handed bindlestiffs to break into the offices of the opposing party to steal their campaign plans. They’re caught, but he denies having anything to do with them. During a Senate hearing, it is revealed, almost by chance, that the President has been bugging the Oval Office and the tapes haven’t been destroyed. Except that one 18-minute stretch was accidentally erased when his secretary performed a contortion that would have turned Harry Houdini pea-green with envy. Another tape implicates him in the cover-up, and under the threat of impeachment he becomes the first President ever to resign. After delivering an embarrassingly mawkish farewell to the White House staff, he flashes the V-for-victory sign in the doorway of his helicopter and flies away.
Compared to those scenarios, Rod Lurie’s political thriller is as credible as the alphabet. Even more important, it is breathlessly compelling. You don’t have time to think as it sweeps you along in its path. Like a nightmare, you’re so gripped by its emotional intensity that the question of believability never comes up.
As if that weren’t enough, The Contender features some of the best performances of the year, especially Joan Allen as a Senator whose integrity is more important to her than political advancement, Gary Oldman as a Senator whose political advancement is more important to him than his integrity, Jeff Bridges as an easy-going Clintonesque President, Christian Slater as a naïve beltway newbie, and William L. Petersen as a pol with a Machiavellian secret agenda.
What I find farfetched is that so many people were unable to just sit back, suspend disbelief and enjoy themselves.
While all the world has been praising Laura Linney (and rightly so) for her performance in You Can Count on Me, only perfunctory nods have been given to the even more impressive performance by Mark Ruffalo. Linney plays the sensitive, understanding big sister we all would like to have had (and never did) and her lovely performance warms our hearts right from the start. But Ruffalo has the harder task of making us respond to her well-meaning, irresponsible brother. The process begins with one of the most beautiful epiphanies I’ve ever seen on screen: as he’s telling his sister what he’s been up to since they were last in contact, he unexpected and quietly starts to cry. In an instant, the adult façade melts away to reveal the frightened little boy hiding behind it. In another scene, almost as revelatory, Ruffalo is spouting off to his precocious nephew (Rory Culkin) when the boy asks him what he’s talking about. As much a surprise to himself as to us, he answers, quite simply, “I don’t know.” Not only have we gotten another look behind the façade, but so has he. This astonishing young actor makes his character so transparently human that nothing he does can turn off the love we feel for him. Sure, he’s flawed, but he’s also fine just the way he is.
While I’m on the subject of You Can Count on Me, I’d like to pay tribute to another unappreciated performance, that of writer-director Ken Lonergan as a good-intentioned but befuddled priest. In other hands, he might be a figure of fun, but Lonergan is too fond of him to let us do anything but share his affection.
©2001 William Sternman
Short stories and movie reviews
My War with the Camels
Casualties of War
Moonlight Becomes Me
The True Believer
The Ever Popular Ms. Rhonda Honda
Reviews of old movies
Afterglow: My First Movies
Still more movie reviews
Merchant of Venice
How Reliably Realistic Is Realism in Movies
Sermons and Opinions
What Would Jesus Do?
It's a Dirty, Stinking Job, But...
For the Bible Tells Me So
Triumph of the will...or its denial?
“Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more”
Don't ask...do tell
Life seen at the sub-Atomic level