Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)

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Photo: StarWars.com

I never talk much about Star Wars, do I? I never talk much about my skeleton, either. Like Star Wars, it’s way down inside, it helps hold me up, and I take it for granted.

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia was a huge part of my childhood. I saw Star Wars in the theater at age 8, but it wasn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that I became a true fanatic. Thanks to that fanaticism, I met the artist known as Rosemary O’Malley, who responded to my impatience for the movie’s arrival with this suggestion: “Why don’t we write a story about what might happen in the movie?

That’s how the Star Wars fanfic started, which led to the X-Men fanfic, which led to me calling myself an author from age 14 up.

I loved Princess Leia long before I loved Carrie Fisher. I thought Leia was incredibly heroic. She defied the Empire, risked her life to prevent the Death Star from becoming operational, refused to give up the plans even when everyone she knew and loved was threatened, and even quipped to her rescuer, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” She could shoot, fly a Y-wing (in the comic books, which I read religiously), strategize, and lead. Luke was the kid with the big destiny and Han was the overgrown boy who loved trouble, but Leia was the adult in the room. You could count on her to do the right thing, to be courageous no matter what, and to keep her chin up even in the worst circumstances. Plus, she ran around in white go-go boots with flat heels. In an era when even superheroines wore heels to work, Leia had intelligent footwear.

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Photo: Lucasfilm LTD

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Carrie Fisher in 2013

Carrie Fisher was a different story. At first she shocked me with her wicked wit, her fearless honesty, her transformation from ingenue actress to bestselling author. Gradually I realized that while Princess Leia was a wonderful role model for my early teens, Carrie Fisher was a person the grown-up me could look up to.

I’ve struggled all my life with my weight, especially as I’ve entered middle age. She had a few things to say on the topic. I’ve also struggled all my life with clinical depression, something I’ve kept secret in my writing life because of the stigma. Now that Carrie, a brave and indefatigable mental health crusader, has left us, I suppose it’s time for me to do something she might have liked: add my voice to the long list of people living with depression.

In 2015 I suffered a major episode that lasted from early summer through the fall, throwing a monkey wrench into my writing schedule. By that I mean, I couldn’t write a word or do much of anything. It was hell. Lucky for me, modern medicine prevailed and I feel like myself again today. But take it from me, #depressionlies and there is help available.

Let me repeat: there is help available. I was lucky enough to regain my mental equilibrium before my vision problems started. Because of that, I went through the surgeries and life changes that followed with renewed strength.

So with a heavy heart I say farewell to Carrie Fisher. Princess Leia will always be with us, for a new generation of little girls and boys to discover and admire. Carrie has moved on, and she’ll be greatly missed.

Stranger Things

Today’s post will be another quick one, as I am still very deep in writing, and it’s going well. I just want to alert those of you with Netflix to a remarkable 8-part series, set in 1983, called Stranger Things. It’s kind of Firestarter meets Jean Grey of the X-Men, with a little It thrown in. I’ve heard Stephen King is a fan, and I don’t doubt it. The series owes a lot to him, and I don’t just mean his trademark, the seamless intermingling of horror and real life. Like King’s best work, Stranger Things spotlights children in an unusually believable way, provides interesting backstories to virtually all adult characters, and unfolds at a unhurried, masterful pace.

Stranger Things stars 80s staples Winona Ryder (with a haircut straight out of the movie Silkwood) and Matthew Modine, who some of you might remember as the hunk from Vision Quest. It also features several future stars, including Millie Bobby Brown as El and Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin.

That’s it. Enough from me! Go watch it.

Stranger Things Poster

The Lady in the Van starring Maggie Smith

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This post comes in two versions, long and short.

The short version: Quit reading this post and rent The Lady in the Van right now.

The long version: Allow me to recommend a lovely and moving film, not only to my fellow Anglophiles, but to anyone who enjoys a human interest story. It’s called The Lady in the Van, and it stars the indispensable Maggie Smith as the titular character. Written for the screen by the celebrated playwright Alan Bennett (who also penned a short story and stage play of the same title) it’s the “mostly true story” of his unlikely friendship with an eccentric homeless woman named Miss Mary Shepherd.

Miss Mary is the proverbial study in contradictions. She speaks like an educated woman but dressed like a derelict; is vain about her personal qualities, yet stinks to high heaven; claims to be fervently Christian, yet is generally snappish, rude, and ungrateful. As Bennett said of the real Miss Mary, “one was seldom able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.”

The movie opens in Camden Town, London, where Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is writing about the homeless lady who resides in a Bedford van parked in his garden. One of the movie’s clever conceits is presenting Bennett as two separate identities who consult, and occasionally argue, with one another. The Alan Bennett-who-writes sits at his desk night and day, trying out phrases and making pithy observations. The Alan Bennett-who-lives is tasked with actually experiencing the world, which he often seems to do reluctantly, with more than a little fear. Miss Mary, however, is fearless.

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As the movie opens, writer-Bennett describes her thus:

The smell is sweet, with urine only a minor component, the prevalent odor suggesting the inside of someone’s ear. Dank clothes are there, too, wet wool and onions, which she eats raw. Plus, what for me has always been the essence of poverty, damp newspaper. Miss Shepherd’s multi-flavored aroma is masked by a liberal application of various talcum powders, with Yardley’s Lavender always a favorite. And currently it is this genteel fragrance that dominates the second subject, as it were, in her odoriferous concerto.

Like many writers, Bennett can’t help observing, which leads to thinking. And in extreme causes, thinking may lead to uncomfortable insights. In his case, he becomes keenly aware of how often he would prefer to turn a blind eye on Miss Mary. Her rank odor is a barrier, and so is her absolute determination to have everything her own way. She never evinces gratitude for assistance (food, Christmas presents, attempts at friendly banter from Bennett’s more cheerful neighbors). Her van is an eyesore, made worse by the piles of refuse she stacks around it, and she thinks nothing of dictating to the homeowners around her, scolding their children for playing music, etc. But while Bennett’s polite, upwardly-mobile neighbors are mostly content to endure her, it’s only Bennett–frowning, groaning, reluctant-to-his-marrow Bennett–who proves willing to help her: not for a day, and not for a week, but for the rest of her life.

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Both Smith and Jennings are outstanding in their roles. Their characters are finely drawn, and their growing friendship is sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious. In the end, Bennett learns a bit about the circumstances that drove Miss Mary to a life on the street, and a good deal more about himself. Rent this one–I promise you won’t be disappointed.

I Saw 12 YEARS A SLAVE–And So Should You

Solomon Northrup, a free man, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE, based on a true story.

Solomon Northup, a free man, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE, based on a true story.

12 Years A Slave is one of *those* movies. One of those movies you want to see, yet dread to watch, concerning truths you know must be faced, and would perhaps prefer not to think about. It’s stark, and beautiful, and unflinchingly brutal. Director Steve McQueen has made two other movies, Hunger and Shame. In both cases, he revealed not only an artists’s eye, but the ability to coax superior turns from his muse, fellow Irishman Michael Fassbender. In 12 Years A Slave, McQueen also showcases soulful performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor (Talk to Me) and Lupita Nyong’o, a stage actress making her feature film debut.

!2 Years A Slave is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup. Northup, a highly educated professional living in upstate New York, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. This makes the movie particularly accessible to a modern audience, since the protagonist wasn’t born on a plantation or subjected to the social conventions of life in the antebellum south. Solomon is like one of us, accustomed to earning his own living and being treated with respect. Finding himself in chains, he’s horrified to realize if he means to survive, and perhaps get back to his wife and children, he must never reveal that he can read and write, much less his true identity as a freeman. Of course, this proves almost impossible, given that his captors are ignorant and fatuous as well as cruel. An altercation with an insecure, uneducated overseer rips Solomon from his relatively safe position with Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a “good” slaver who isn’t vicious or physically violent … yet has no moral qualms buying human beings. Master Ford sells Solomon to Edwin Epps (Fassbender), and on Epps’s cotton plantation, Solomon’s circumstances go from bad to incomprehensibly worse.

Solomon Northup attempts to survive direct questioning by the cruel Epps.

Solomon Northup attempts to survive direct questioning by the cruel Epps.

Epps, an alcoholic, is terrifyingly “hands-on” when it comes to his human chattel; it’s clear he relishes shifting from benefactor to tormentor and back again in sudden drunken lurches. Of particular fascination to him is Patsy (Nyong’o), his most talented cotton-picker, whom Epps calls “queen of the plantation.” Of course, after sundown, Epps creeps into the slave cabin to use Patsy another way. The on-screen rape is brilliantly written, acted, and shot. It’s a triumph for McQueen that he can present something so terrible and make it feel absolutely authentic, yet not a whit exploitative or unnecessary. And Fassbender’s performance is probably his finest to date.

I won’t spoil the film by telling you more. if you value movies about history, or social issues, or if you simply adore superb acting and direction, go see 12 Years A Slave.

 

I Watched THE COUNSELOR — So You Don’t Have To

Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in Ridley Scott's The Counselor.

Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor.

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Michael Fassbender. I’ve been looking forward to The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott, ever since early photos arrived from the set last summer. It sounded good: a lawyer decides to walk on the wild side, involving himself in a major drug deal with the intent of returning to his straitlaced life a few million dollars richer. But when things go wrong, he and his fiancee (Penelope Cruz) face death at the hands of a vengeful cartel. In addition to Fassebender, Pitt, Cruz, and Scott, the movie boasts several other fine actors, all doing their best to sell what quickly proves to be a silly, self-important, pseudo-intellectual mess of a movie.

From the very first scene, we’re subjected to the sort of dialogue that might look pretty on the page, but sounds completely unconvincing when spoken aloud. The camera loves Fassbender and Cruz, and no one can blame Ridley Scott for lingering on them: in fact, it’s worth pointing out, the entire film is beautifully shot. If you came across it playing in a bar with no closed-captioning and you couldn’t read lips, you might think the movie would be worth checking out. But the sad fact is, you could get a bar full of drunks to redub the movie themselves using ad libbed dialogue and not only would it probably be more entertaining, it might actually make sense.

Fassbender’s character is, of course, the Counselor; he has no other name. This excruciating conceit leads to all sorts of super-stilted dialogue in which various people, including old friends, acquaintances, a mafia boss, and a Mexican drug lord, repeatedly say things like, “You’re in over your head, Counselor.” Or: “The world has changed for you, Counselor.” To which Fassbender’s character replies in three ways: stupid good humor, vague worry, or a soft, “Jesus.” Because the Counselor is an enigma– a lawyer who is unforgivably naive, a friend of drug lords who doesn’t understand that selling drugs can get you killed, and a man with inexplicable connections to the Italian mafia yet no street smarts–it’s difficult to care about him, or even miss him when he’s off-screen. You’d never guess the actor who was so compelling in Scott’s previous film, Prometheus, is this same fellow with the blank smile and (apparent) learning disability. Then again, in Prometheus (a movie with its own share of problems) Fassbender was playing a character, even if that character was an android. Here, he’s playing a suit.

The movie’s worst sin, however, is its long, long speeches that go nowhere and illuminate nothing. I have the suspicion the screenwriter wanted to out-Tarantino Tarantino, to create some movie moments like the “they call it Le Royale with cheese” bit from Pulp Fiction. Instead, we get weird pretentious dialogue that makes little if no sense:

“Greed pushes us to the edge.”
“No. Greed is the edge.”

And this:

“That’s a little cold, don’t you think?”
“I believe the truth has no temperature.”

Finally, there’s the pièce de résistance, a truly ghastly and pointless scene in which a drug dealer tells the Counselor how his girlfriend once … well, to use the sort of stilted dialogue the movie loves, “had congress with a conveyance of glass and steel.” I glanced around the theater to see if any of the women were preparing tp walk out, but they were all reading stuff on their phones. And I’ll admit, around minute six of this tripe, I tried to log into Facebook so I could post my derision. Alas–not enough bars.

Trust me, you don't want me to caption this still.

Trust me, you don’t want me to caption this still.

So what else can I say about The Counselor? Something positive? I’ve got it. It’s made me twice as eager to see 12 Years a Slave tomorrow … so Fass can redeem himself, and I can get this simpleminded nonsense out of my head.

The Twelve Movies of Christmas

Author’s note: if you know of any terrific winter holiday movies that don’t revolve around Christmas, please let me know. I’m always glad to expand my horizons.

#12: Miracle on 34th Street (1947): A classic by any yardstick. Doris (Maureen O’Hara, that most beautiful of women), plays a divorcée so damaged, she believes in nothing. Yet her boyfriend John Payne, plus a mysterious man who calls himself Kris Kringle, and her own child Susan teach Doris the folly of unbelief. Watch and try to be unmoved.

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#11: While You Were Sleeping One of those movies that validates the existence of both Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman as movie stars. A charming romance about a loser (Bullock) who lets her cat eat out of her bowl, because she hasn’t Found the Right Man. Except in this case, the Right Man includes the Right Surrogate Family. Try and resist this one, you stone-faced troll.

#10: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Animated version) A movie that affected me deeply as a four-year-old. How would the Whos down in Whoville respond to the theft of Christmas? WHAT would they do? Let me tell you, the response (to my secular toy-cherishing four year old heart) was a surprise.

#9: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer A stop-motion animated feature from the primordial mists. Herbie is a transparently gay elf, though he never asks or tells. There’s an amazing amount of sexism, re: the “women and children,” as the frozen emasculated narrator explains. Still, the bunnies do a cute little palms-up dance while the principals sing. Besides, I’ve always had a soft spot for Yukon Cornelius.

#8: Lethal Weapon Yes, I remember the days before Mel was a scary zealot/anti-semite who called a police officer “Sugar ___”.  This was 1987, when I was 18 years old and Mel’s agony, as a widowed detective THIS CLOSE to eating a bullet really meant something to me. Besides, it’s a fun cop story, with Mel, Danny Glover and Gary Busey at their best.

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#7: The Vicar of Dibley: Christmas Okay, this is just a shameless attempt to get you to watch the entire BBC series. But the Christmas special is really good, too!

#6: Bad Santa: I dare you not to laugh. The black elf (played by Tony Cox) is reduced to wearing white plastic elf ears, because apparently black-toned plastic elf ears aren’t in wide circulation. Santa (Billy Bob Thornton) is a safecracker at the end of his rope. And then he meets a boy…

#5: Christmas Vacation: Okay, I admit it. I am not a huge fan of Chevy Chase. Having said that … everything Randy Quaid says and does in this  movie makes me laugh. Especially the huge trouser snake, bag of Ol’Roy Dog Food, and visible dickey.

#4: It’s A Wonderful Life: Think what you will. Deride Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed as you will. But remember that moment when Clarence says, “Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry?” See if you can face up to that without tears.

#3: The Nightmare Before Christmas: I dare you not to marvel at this one. What’s truer to the Christmas spirit? Jack Skellington wants to be top gift-giver and thinks he has the stuff. But when Santy Claus is taken, Jack realizes his mistake. A true classic.

#2: Arthur Christmas: A modern take on the old chestnut. Is Santa Claus real? Yes, of course, but excessively mechanized, digitized and consumerized. Leave it to bumbling Arthur, St. Nick’s youngest son, to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas.

#1: A Christmas Carol, starring George C. Scott, David Warner and Roger Rees. I defy you to find a more correct or accurate version, especially with regards to Victoriana. As perfect as TV is very likely to get.

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Movie Mention: Wreck-It Ralph and Arthur Christmas

No real spoilers here, just a shout-out to two animated movies that most adults will enjoy as much as their kids.

Ralph at the Bad-Anon support group for video game villains.

Wreck-It Ralph is the story of, well, Ralph, a video game baddie who has been smashing things in his Donkey Kong-like world for thirty years. He performs his tasks perfectly, enabling the game’s hero, Fix-It Felix, Jr., to repair the damage and save the day. Trouble is, when the arcade closes and the game’s digital denizens retire to their homes, the citizens of Niceville want nothing to do with Ralph. He’s a pariah, expected to live in the city dump without a friend in the world. After thirty years, Ralph needs a change. So he decides to travel through the power cord nexus and jump games, hoping to distinguish himself as a good person and win some love.

Ralph and Vanellope.

As you may expect, Wreck-It Ralph is a visual treat, clever and well-thought out, full of video game in-jokes. But the best reason to see it, in my view, is the voice acting. John C. Reilly shines as Ralph; Sarah Silverman, never a favorite of mine, did great as Vanellope, a fellow outcast. Jane Lynch was terrific as Calhoun, a take-no-prisoners warrior, and Jack McBrayer (best known as Kenneth from 30 Rock) was perfect as Felix. Their voice work was so exceptional, the movie would have been almost as good as a standalone audio program … and that’s really saying something.

Arthur, Grandsanta and an elderly reindeer decide to take the old sleigh out of mothballs.

Arthur Christmas, released last year, is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. It comes from the British animation company Aardman, known for high quality and comic genius. (Wallace  & Gromit, Chicken Run). It’s the story of Arthur, youngest male in the Claus dynasty and completely disregarded by the entire North Pole “machine,” as it’s become, until he learns a child was missed during his father’s yearly run. In this modern age, the sleigh has turned into a  quasi-spaceship, virtually all presents are delivered by  elves, and Arthur’s dad Santa is just a figurehead for an increasingly soulless operation. According to Arthur’s hyper-masculine, militaristic brother Steve, missing one child is statistically irrelevant. So bumbling Arthur, with the help of his Grandsanta, a rogue elf and an elderly reindeer, decides to deliver the forgotten present himself.

I loved Arthur Christmas. I won’t lie, I watched it because James McAvoy does the voice of Arthur, and of course he’s wonderful. But the other voice actors are also tremendous, including Hugh Laurie (famous here in the U.S. as Dr. House) and Bill Nighy. Nighy’s portrayal of Grandsanta — cantankerous, conniving and possessed of some very backward notions when it comes to elves — is genius. Definitely a movie I’ll be adding to the yearly roster.

Movie Mention: PROMETHEUS

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the android David (Michael Fassbender) search for the origins of human life in deep space. (20th Century Fox)

This will be a short movie mention, and spoiler-free, because I think if you enjoy sci-fi, you should definitely see this film. 33 years after the ground-breaking Alien (still a darn good film), director Ridley Scott returns to sci-fi/horror with Prometheus. The plot is simple. On Earth, Dr.Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her lover Dr. Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover cave paintings that suggest human life was created by aliens. Dr. Shaw, a devout Christian, is fascinated by the notion of finding humanity’s origins, which she insists does not diminish her faith. Along for the ride is the mysterious Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a crew of spacemen, some scientists and David, an artificial life form (Michael Fassbender).

Perhaps not surprisingly, David is arguably the most interesting character. Only he knows where he came from — R&D at Weyland Corporation. The knowledge brings him no peace or joy. But the discovery of a “perfect” lifeform? Oh, that’s another story…

Movie Mention: Marvel’s The Avengers (Spoiler Free!)

Marvel/Paramount Pictures

Okay, this will be short and sweet. I really enjoyed this movie. It’s much more like the first Iron Man, Thor and Captain America than the heartbreakingly wrong-headed Iron Man 2. If you like this sort of movie, don’t let anyone spoil it for you by repeating the jokes.

Yeah. Not the action, although it’s very good. Not the “moment” each character gets to shine (most get more than one). The jokes.

But here’s a quick few things about the movie:

Marvel/Paramount Pictures

 

Now get out there and watch!

Movie Mention: The Hunger Games

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) salutes a fallen Tribute in THE HUNGER GAMES (Lionsgate).

I saw The Hunger Games last night — unspoiled! Meaning I hadn’t read the books or any reviews. I love letting stories unfold that way, with as few preconceived notions as possible. Here’s what I got from the film (not a review, just some reactions).

WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW. Come back later if you plan to see the movie and want to remain “pure.”

  • Jennifer Lawrence is very compelling as Katniss. I liked her in last summer’s X-Men: First Class (she played Mystique) even if she was, frankly, overshadowed by the two male leads. Her stoicism was, to me, quite refreshing. A resident of District 12 (a place that looks like 1950s Appalachia) her main concerns are putting food on the table and taking care of her little sister. She has a boyfriend of sorts,Gale (Liam Hemsworth) but her focus is survival.
  • The Capital and its ridiculous Technicolor residents seem to be a gigantic homage to Oz’s Emerald City. Even a grooming scene is included! As always, Stanley Tucci shines as Caesar Flickerman, the game’s oily host. He’s delicately flirtatious with the girls, pretends to give the boys his man-to-man attention, and patronizes the smaller children — certain cannon fodder — with a big white smile. He’s like the evil lovechild of Regis Philbin and Ryan Seacrest. Truly, it’s an excellent performance and likely to be overlooked.
  • I’ve heard a few parents say they wouldn’t let their children (girls, I fear) read the books or see the movie because of the violence. In  this kill-or-be-killed scenario, no one emerges with clean hands. Without going into a rant about strong female characters who aren’t defined solely by a search for True Love … Katiss is a strong female character who isn’t defined by her search for True Love. If you’re going to ban your kids, especially your daughters, from reading any popular YA, for heaven’s sake, hide the Twilight books. Katniss is self-sufficient but not selfish; indeed, her participation in the games is born of self-sacrifice. She’s strong but not emotionless, tough but never cruel. Ignore Bella Swan (the girl who threw herself off a cliff when separated from her beloved Edward) and go for the Girl on Fire.

Lionsgate, 2012.