Balls

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Who would have thought the word could conjure so many meanings. Certainly not a non-football fan like myself. But the point here isn’t the shock, outrage and banner headlines caused over the fact that 11 of the 12 footballs thrown by New England Patriots star/pinup/QB Tom Brady at his recent AFC championship game win were a full 2 lbs. under minimum ball weight requirements (10.5 lbs. per square inch vs. the minimum 12.5-13.5) – thus making them easier to grip, throw and catch– but why ANYONE AT ALL is surprised.

Amen, Chairy, amen.

Amen, Chairy, amen.

Is there really someone out there who thinks business is fair? Or even, at the very least, consistently above board? And yes, football is foremost a business. The NFL is the most profitable of all American sports, generating in excess of $9 billion (that’s with a “B”) of revenue each year. And just because none of that money comes from me don’t think for one second I am going to back away from a story this good – or timely – especially when it involves or even owes to balls in any context.

But neither should you.

The meaning of this “scandal” has nothing to do with the size of Mr. Brady’s balls or whether he or his team is punished for playing with ones that are too small. After all, under NFL by-laws the recommended fine for altering ball size is just $25,000. Even if one were to multiply that by the 11 balls in question it would still only come to a mere $275,000. Percentage wise that would have about as much effect on the New England Patriots as the ticket you or I receive for parking our cars at an expired meter. Probably less.

Tom & Gisele's LA mansion has a moat. #nuffsaid

Tom & Gisele’s LA mansion has a moat. #nuffsaid

Rather – the importance of this story is hero worship and how much we Americans can talk ourselves into believing in anything about the iconic people or institutions we truly admire. In order to topple said person or institution in that strata the proof has to be beyond rock solid – it needs to be both superhuman and have undeniable consequences for the world or aggrieved parties far beyond the specific incident – and in counterbalance to just how much we value the iconography of the culprit.

And even then there is no guarantee a certain percentage of minds will ever be changed in reference to said icon or those like-minded icons in the future who follow in said icon’s footsteps.

exhibit A

exhibit A

I haven’t mentioned Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, O.J. Simpson, Richard Nixon, Pete Rose, Wall Street, stock brokers, hedge funders, your local police, the legal system, your local realtor, or the entertainment industry in general or specific here, but feel free to fill in with a name, institution or particular system of your choice when appropriate. These are merely the ones who come to mind for me off the top of my head.

All this said, there is no reason for one to automatically condemn any or all of the above. We all – each and every one of us – benefit from time-to-time by having the “inside advantage” when we can. Okay, I suppose there are some exceptions but I find myself at a loss right now to think of one. Even Mother Theresa realized the value of good publicity for her cause. Not to mention the necessity of fundraising off of it.

The material just writes itself

The material just writes itself

Part of this reality has merely to do with human behavior. I don’t consider myself a cynic – just more of a realist. In other words, I don’t romanticize the acquisition of a lot of fame, money and public success because at a certain age, if you’re paying attention, you see all the pros and cons, ups and downs, moral and yes, immoral choices or passive participation – which is sort of the same thing – that goes into it.

I have no idea if Tom Brady is lying about his “balls” (Note: why couldn’t he just say footballs – was it a deflection of attention, aside from his 8000 mega-watt smile and perfect color gray sweatshirt on his perfectly filled out…oh, forget it). Or if Coach Bill Belichick is. Any more than if I really know for sure 100% just how much Richard Nixon knew of every single detail of the Watergate break-in, Bernie Madoff’s wife and sons got the full extent of what he was involved in, or if Bill Cosby, Woody Allen or Roman Polanski knew the entire breadth of the violations they were committing when they did. (Note: Though I do have my VERY STRONG opinions). Still, instinct tells me none of them were completely innocent and many of them are completely guilty. The question is how much, to what degree, and how severe their punishment should be. The one reaction no one under 35 is really entitled to in the lens of 2015 is sheer, unadulterated surprise.

Can we trust anyone that looks that good in a gray sweatshirt?

Can we trust anyone that looks that good in a gray sweatshirt?

This IS how the world works. Change it, write about it, prosecute it but don’t get up on a soapbox to express SHOCK (Note: Or even feign mild taken aback).

There is a song lyric in Stephen Schwartz’s critically underrated yet mega successful musical Wicked where the phony Wizard of Oz sings to green witch Elphaba – the latter of whom serves as the moral compass in this real story of Oz and who dares to challenge the false political rhetoric the Wizard is feeding his people in order to keep them in line. As the song Wonderful goes and the Wizard sings:

There Are Precious Few At Ease

With Moral Ambiguities

So We Act As Though They Don’t Exist….

This was right after a conversation where, when Elphaba accuses him of lying to citizens of Oz in order to keep them happy, he retorts:

Elphaba, Where I Come From We Believe All Sorts Of Things That Aren’t True. We Call It History. **

(** Note: Though it is impossible to know, one might credit the musical’s book writer Winnie Holzman with that line, or perhaps even the writer of the original novel of Wicked – Gregory Maguire).

This musical, still running strong on Broadway after 12 years and in line to be the longest running Broadway show of all time at some point, is based on Maguire’s 1995 novel of the same name. On so many levels the show is about the Reagan era of the eighties (and beyond) – a time when Americans were mostly thumbing their nose at the homeless, embraced the idea that greed was good and ballyhooed trickle down economics. This mushroomed into a no-holds barred economic prosperity where everyone could buy a house, borrowing against anything they did or didn’t have because the ingenuity of Americans and the belief that their markets could sustain anything. At least, that was the narrative we lived to then that continued for several decades until the economy massively crashed.   Never mind that the Reagan era eighties were also a time when the pandemic of AIDS had taken hold in America, most specifically in the gay community which saw mostly homosexual men dropping dead left and right with little help from the counterintuitive Morning in America speeches the American public bought lock, stock and 8000 mega-watt smile from Pres. Reagan. The lack of actions of that administration to aid the others in American culture was at full force and the gays, the homeless and soon – though they wouldn’t realize it until later – the middle class – were expendable. Forget same-sex marriage, we’re simply talking about survival – and in relation to what we were being sold it just wasn’t important back then – especially when it came to others.

Another Patriot in question

Another Patriot in question

So as a gay guy in my late twenties at that time who managed to survive, my view of reality behind the rosy curtain has clearly been colored. Perhaps too much, though, I’m not so sure. I’d rather err on the side of skepticism and then be surprised when everything turns out better than I had hoped than buy into a fiction that doesn’t exist and will pollute the reality and ideals I – and all of you – live by both right now and in the future.

Perhaps you can see, then, why I am never shocked, surprised or even mildly roused when the elite in sports, politics, entertainment, business or any other of our top dogs are found to be taking liberties in order to attain or maintain their #1 status. The day we decide to take these transgressions a bit more seriously – both for those who commit them and with our own behavior – will be the time when perhaps my own mood will lighten towards Tom Brady and his balls. Though even then, probably only just a little. As I stated upfront, I’m not and never have been much of a football fan.

The Oscar Race

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There is not much to count on in life anymore but one of the constants is that upon the announcement of the Academy Award nominations there will be a significant group of people outraged by the choices made by the group’s almost 6,000 voting members. This is not to denigrate the passionate emotions those who are outraged display. I myself have still not gotten over the fact that Mia Farrow was not nominated for her star turn in Rosemary’s Baby and that movie was released before I reached adolescence (Note: Yes, it’s true, I had opinions even then). Not to mention, we’re not taking into account the biggest Oscar slight of all – Judy Garland losing the best actress race to Grace Kelly in 1955. I mean, all things being equal could you honestly say that you’d rather watch The Country Girl on a loop until the end of time rather than A Star Is Born??? Please.

Lest we forget 1951's blasphemy

Lest we forget 1951’s blasphemy

So you see where I’m going with this.

This year the principal outrage is about the movie Selma receiving only two Academy Award nominations – one for best picture and the other for best song. So powerful were the passions stirred that the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending almost instantly. Among my favorites was:

#OscarsSoWhite that the statue counts as a person of color.

Oh snap!

Oh snap!

Bravo! (or Brava!) to whoever thought of that one.

As a lifelong Oscar watcher, former entertainment reporter, person who has been going to Academy screenings for 30 years, and screenwriter who admittedly would LOVE to at some point get nominated for one of those things as I’m simultaneously made fun of by 50 million people from their beds and/or living rooms, let me just say this:

None of this is fair. And it is NOT a conspiracy of exclusion. The day that the creative types and non-creative types who make up the membership of the Academy could truly agree on what is a good movie is the day when Oscar watching will cease to be an attraction. Or even vaguely interesting. Which, in laymen’s terms means — IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN.

Here’s the deal. Minorities ARE underrepresented in movies. But if you take the entire list of films in distribution in each year, so are — intelligence, depth, humanity, and individuality.

And just think.. 3 years ago this was the Black and White debate of the Oscars

And just think.. 3 years ago this was the Black and White debate of the Oscars

There are a MINORITY number of films in release these days with many of the above qualities and most of those are the ones being considered for Oscar statuettes. That’s a small number compared to the amount of movies each year that can qualify for consideration by the Academy but a large number when taken as a group unto themselves. So given that most categories are limited to five nominees means that when it comes down to it there is A LOT of competition for those top slots.

What happens then is that it becomes a matter of taste. Well, all you have to do is go into the recently revamped bland, near empty, high-tech nightmare that accounts for the new lobby of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and you can see that its ingenuity in that area is – to be kind – sorely lacking. While it does deserve credit for keeping the traditional cushy red velvet seats in the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre – still the best sound and best place in town overall to see a movie – the design of the new lobby itself tells you all you need to know about the organization’s taste level at this moment – or really, any moment. And that is – well, go down the list of nominations and judge for yourself. The one thing that is for certain is that you can find quite a bit not to like.

The only Oscar lobby we care about this year

The only Oscar lobby we care about this year

It’s difficult to defend the Academy’s record for the employment and recognition of non-white, non-male and non-heterosexual people on the whole. On the same token, it’s equally difficult to find much consistency in many of their choices. For instance, if the 21st century of Academy voters were truly white-centric why did they award Oscars to 12 Years A Slave last year for best picture, screenplay and supporting actress, among the film’s nine nominations? If they are so white, traditional and such an insular club, how is it that they failed to even NOMINATE the unofficial KING of Hollywood directors, Steven Spielberg, for best director on The Color Purple in 1986 yet saw fit to vote the movie a whopping 11 nominations back then?

Apparently having brown eyes also puts you in the minority. #creepy

Apparently having brown eyes also puts you in the minority. #creepy

Don’t try to answer because none of it makes any sense and it’s about as fair as who wins the lottery or is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games. Though it is a lot more fun to watch than either. Especially when the right people lose and the wrong people win. Admittedly those are sad facts but undoubtedly true ones.

I took myself to see Selma a few days ago before I weighed in on any of this. I liked the film, which gained power as it went on – not unlike the march for voting rights did in Selma. Its director Ava DuVernay did a fine job and David Oyelowo so powerfully evoked the spirit of the late Dr. Martin Luther King in such a uniquely human fashion that there were occasional moments that felt like discarded behind-the-scenes documentary footage rather than beats of a large scale, mainstream Hollywood-type movie.

And to think he's British!

And to think he’s British!

Yes, it would have been just to finally have an African American woman nominated for best director. In fact, it’s beyond ridiculous that it hasn’t yet happened. But when going over the list of nominees, who clearly doesn’t belong and should absolutely be eliminated?

Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Not going to happen. Those two are the frontrunners of arguably the most unusual and complicated films made this year. So that leaves three more slots.

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Morten D. Tydlum, The Imitation Game

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

One thing's for sure: they all need a haircut.

One thing’s for sure: they all need a haircut.

Well, I for one always feel left in the lurch with Wes Anderson movies (Note: Students don’t hate me and yes, it’s probably a bit generational). Yet given the complicated visual execution here and the fact that the Academy has a new and growing group of younger voters who have finally brought the average age down to somewhere around 60, you can see why it’s hard to argue a case against this. It’s a film that feels hip and quirky and there almost always seems to be one slot for that.

The Imitation Game is, like Selma, somewhat of a film about injustice but unlike the march for civil rights it centers on the life of a little known previously unsung GAY man who pioneered the use of computers which significantly contributed to the Allies winning WWII (Note: Never underestimate WWII stories in Academy circles).

OK... maybe not all of the time.  #sorryangie

OK… maybe not all of the time. #sorryangie

It’s also strangely about humanity and civil rights but also manages to make the puzzles surrounding the computers that baffle most Academy voters in daily life seem decipherable. All told that’s a triple relevance factor overall and it’s hard to compete with that.

That leaves Bennett Miller’s nomination for Foxcatcher, a rather unsavory, artsily-disturbing look at a murder. It has a lot of sparse, directorial flourishes and features a beloved comic actor who has not been recognized previously by the Academy in a stomach churning, disturbing star turn. One can’t imagine it’s the White choice or even the commercial choice. The oddness of it feels like the choice of the director’s branch – a group composed primarily of men who probably related to its themes of maleness.

And yet THIS is the Academy president

And yet THIS is the Academy president

The latter could alone validate the reasons of the outraged and the fact that certainly more female-driven stories need to be made, hopefully by more female directors. Meanwhile, the one female to actually win best director, Kathryn Bigelow, did so seven years ago for The Hurt Locker – a war film with maleness written all over it, despite its female director. 12 Years A Slave had an even more violent underpinning and also got recognized in spite of, or perhaps because of, its quite violent subject matter. Hmmm.

This all does not address the best director omission this year of perennial Oscar alpha male favorite Clint Eastwood for American Sniper, The Theory of Everything’s James Marsh’s unique take on Stephen Hawking, or why Whiplash could get a best picture, screenplay and supporting actor nod while Damien Chazelle was completely left out of the aforementioned category. Did that movie direct itself?

Ageism?

Ageism?

Best actor is an even more impossible competition. Do you by pass by Michael Keaton for Birdman, Eddie Redmayne in Theory of Everything, or Benedict Cumberbatch in Imitation Game? Those three were locks. That leaves two major movie star, star turns. Both Bradley Cooper and Steve Carell left behind all traces of their charismatic and jovial selves in American Sniper and Foxcatcher and if nothing else the acting branch are suckers for that. I would wager at least a box of Red Vines and a small Diet Coke that Mr. Oyelowo came in sixth for a performance that was so good it managed to blend into the movie rather than stand above it. That is a credit to him as an actor, regardless of race. It is just not always the best strategy to net an Oscar nomination in a super competitive year. One only needs to look at the Oscar nominated best actor performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave last year to see the difference. Which begs the question of why Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler was overlooked this year for totally transforming into…well, see it. My guess is he was #7 even though he clearly delivered one of the three best acting jobs of any sex or race in 2014.

Someone get this man a hot meal!

Someone get this man a hot meal!

Of course, this and all other Oscar analyses and prognostications are sheer guesswork.   Yes, we all need a lot more work on inclusion and equal opportunity. But like most of us, Oscar is primarily an equal opportunity offender. Which is to say there is no coherent reason for why they are doing the offending in the first place.  This makes it quite different from the events in Selma and near impossible to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why that film received a paucity of nominations.   Or why some of the others you and I didn’t care for received a plethora of them.

Which doesn’t mean I won’t be watching, waiting and ready to comment when they give out those little suckers for the 87th time next month – along with most of the rest of you.

To Die For

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Twenty years ago there was a movie called To Die For in which Nicole Kidman starred as an aspiring TV anchor who hires three teenagers (one of them played by a young Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her loving husband when he kindly asks her to take time off from her job as a weather girl.   It became a cult hit that most people remember fondly but I never cared for it. The twists and turns always struck me as too absurd, even for a black comedy, but then again I’m the guy who thought Gone Girl was ridiculous from the outset and became only more so as it droned on and on and, even as we speak, on some more somewhere else.

Seriously... get gone, girl!

Seriously… get gone, girl!

Still, I couldn’t help but think about To Die For (Note: I refuse to consider Gone Girl for even one more second) in light of our latest terrorist attacks last week in Paris where 12 people were gunned down at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. As best as we can figure this was because Charlie published a series of cartoons that depicted said killers’ historical religious leader in offensive and disrespectful ways. Three of the killers are now dead after murdering eight more citizens and the fourth – the girlfriend of one of the deceased – is the subject of an international man, er woman, hunt and, given that, her time on earth seems limited.

Imminent death clearly didn’t bother the above mentioned quartet – they are believed to have gone to special camps that give you training in this sort of thing with the full expectation that they would eventually die in a blaze of glory but for a higher cause. Hmm, I thought, and then asked myself – what would you DIE FOR???

... and what would you leave behind?

… and what would you leave behind?

As it turns out, not much. Oh, certainly if someone were holding up a gun to the Significant Other, a family member or friend I adored, or perhaps even some passing stranger who looked innocent enough, I’d likely step in during the heat of the moment to thwart the bad guy. I do that weekly against the criminals who cut me off on the road or try to take my parking space, so clearly that’s not too big of a leap to make. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Terrorist acts are planned in the name of an idea and the people involved clearly know they will likely die. So again I ask myself – what would you DIE FOR, Chair?

I'm thinking....

I’m thinking….

As it turns out – uh, nothing. No, really. Not anything. Nada. Blank comes to mind. I’m a pretty principled guy but the idea of putting myself in mortal danger for a belief instead of a loved one is not going to happen. Clearly, I would not have made a good soldier – for this and so many other reasons. And before you go there, I’m going to just say upfront don’t throw Hitler and World War II into the conversation. That was basically about stopping a madman taking over the world.

Politicians and religious zealots of all sorts like to cloak violence in terms of ideas and goals and extreme needs and defenses. But the instigators of most wars can’t cite direct dire need on their doorsteps as the real reason to be killed or to kill. They, meaning many of us, can argue a good case in the name of violent death and destruction but as a former high school debate team member who had a pretty good score card I can assure you that just because you win an argument on your presentation of “facts” does that mean you’re correct. See exhibit “A” below, if you still don’t believe.

Misty water colored memories

Misty water colored memories…

Religious beliefs and the distortion thereof is a sticky subject for public and even private consumption. I never quite understood why. Perhaps this is because I am not religious even though I consider myself Jewish. How can this be? Well, not everything is logical but the best I can figure is that it has something to do with my love of chicken, arguing, guilt, Barbra Streisand, and deli food. And even though I have claimed in my life that I would kill over any one of them, I confess now to meaning it in only the most metaphorical of ways – even at the times when I proclaimed that any one of them were my Gods.

So you can see why I don’t get the outrage over the desecration of a religious leader or even patriotic symbols like, dare I say it, the American flag. Really? Yes. These are ideas, things. Paint a swastika on my door and I’ll be outraged and offended. Continually make AIDS jokes as Eddie Murphy did for a time back in the eighties and I will do my best to never see one of your movies again. But murder and death – really? Are you kidding?

pGkhIoK

It is easy to chalk up those committing acts of terror as insane, demented and otherwise crazy. Most certainly, there are those that fit into those categories. But just as certainly there are any number of other perpetrators and silent supporters of these acts who have reasoned out their positions in rational ways that make a certain kind of intellectual sense. A healthy percentage of these have been used through history to start wars (Note: The Crusades, anyone?) and other international conflicts (Second Note: How about most of the conflicts in the Middle East?). Others have been used to strong-arm those weaker and unarmed into doing what we want them to do on a smaller scale. (Third Note: See the movie Selma).

But it’s A LOT easier to believe in non-violence – or perhaps in all of your minds, cowardice – when you do not believe in Heaven, Hell or Reincarnation. While it would be appealing to spend my life up above eating pizza and listening to Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler records with my S.O., who would clearly also want to sandwich in episodes of Saturday Night Live and Big Bang Theory – but hey, who said there is no compromise in heaven – I just don’t think this is realistic. So here I sit, cynic that I am, wondering: you’re going to risk your life over a cartoon, or some land, or for a natural resource, or for revenge? Really? This of course does not account for the various leaders and zealots who claim to be believers (Note: Not BELIEBERS) but send people to do all of the dirty work for them. Meaning former Vice-president Dick Cheney never served a single day in the military and in fact received not one, not two, not three, not four but FIVE military deferments. Yes, it’s a whole other set of mass destruction when it is not your personal body that is a primary weapon of said mass destruction.

It's not a game of risk

It’s not a game of risk

None of this is to mean that there is not a principle in this world worth fighting for. But dying for and killing for unless you under direct threat – especially when you believe this is the ONE and ONLY stop? I’m not sure. And before you call me an immoral coward consider this – if no one in the world believed in Heaven, Hell, Reincarnation or any sort of After-Life at all, how many terrorists attacks, real wars or random acts of violence do you really believe we’d have? Would there be less or more than are already occurring on any given day? Imagine a world where we’d be forced to truly believe this was THE LAST STOP.

Then ask yourself, if they were taking volunteers, what would you, DIE FOR? But only before asking yourself, what do you want to – LIVE FOR?

All That Jazz

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 1.10.11 PMNormal people use the time between New Year’s Eve and going back to work on that dreaded Monday to -– well, come to think of it what do they do? I have absolutely no idea. And what is normal anyway? Again, I got nothing.

What I spend my time doing – and have done for most of my life at this time of year – is to go to the movies. For as long as I can remember (Note: And that’s long before anyone, even Louis B. Mayer, got screeners in the mail) I’ve spent the primary part of the post Christmas holiday season catching up with all of the “prestige films” the studios have mostly kept from us.

This is not simply because I’m Jewish. I probably haven’t been to temple in at least five years and even then I think it was only for a bar mitzvah. Though I did walk through several synagogues on a trip to Italy this summer, which really doesn’t count since they were FAR outweighed by the at least 437 churches I also managed to stroll through

Where were we? Oh yes, the cinema.

Go on...

Go on…

These days the cinema means lots of things. It could be going out to the mall or your local specialty theatre and paying a bit too much to see a movie that doesn’t quite live up to your expectations. It could also be watching something old you may or may not have seen before on television that you or the majority rule will be fun holiday viewing. If you’re a bit more privileged or connected or facile, it can even be watching a DVD of a current motion picture now playing in theatres at home or at a friend’s house via a screener, day and date VOD, pay cable or, um…some other means (Note: Please do NOT write in and ask what some other means means).

I admit to doing all of these in the past five days (Note: Not the some other means, I don’t want to be expelled from show business any more than I already am). Which brings me to about six and a half films just seen in a relatively short period of time. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. Which doesn’t mean I LOVED them. I liked them all and each did what all good films do – made me think while also entertaining me at the same time. Yet in every case there was something sort of, well, missing. Until today… when I caught up with a small movie that was actually released in October called Whiplash.

hitting the right beats

hitting the right beats

It’s excellent, disturbing, thought provoking, a little over the top and emotional – though not entirely emotionally satisfying. Frankly, at the end you’re of two minds and are not sure exactly what to think or who to sympathize with. Which is precisely what was missing from the other five and a half films that I merely LIKED though really did enjoy.

What were the other films? Oh, perhaps a few you might know or have heard of:

  • Unbroken
  • American Sniper
  • Wild
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • A Most Violent Year

These are some of the best and brightest the awards season has to offer and will no doubt be crowding around the Oscars along with a few others. Yet none of them has the unpredictably and sheer verve 29 year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle brought to a story we’ve essentially seen many times before – that of teacher who for good or bad pushes that potentially special student beyond the limits of where we (or perhaps they) ever thought they could go. In this case it is in the unlikely scenario of an aspiring drummer and his jazz musician professor, which works because it’s visual. Yet it really could be any one of us up there – if we allowed ourselves – who ever went to school and met that key catalyctic person. Go figure.

He already has that "Oscar glow"

He already has that “Oscar glow”

There is no point telling you any more than that or building up a film beyond the point where it could possibly live up to expectations. The only thing to be said for sure is that J.K. Simmons, the veteran character actor who plays the teacher, will indeed be the one person in the movie who will be winning the Oscar this year. That you can take to the bank because he shares the common denominator of all great performances that rivet you in films – you are never quite sure what he is going to do. He pulls you in, scares you, seduces you and then…well, you’ll see. It’s terrifying, sad, difficult to watch and yet impossible to turn away from in fear that you will miss something you might not want to have seen in the first place. This is to take nothing away from Mr. Chazelle, who manages to capture it all in the most original ways.

Taking a cliché genre, any genre, and turning it on its ear without selling out what we love about it to begin with is no easy feat. Yet it can be done. Look at the best films of Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman, Pedro Almodovar and Paul Thomas Anderson – not to mention Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski – and you begin to understand. It takes not only hard work but NERVE, VERVE and the DESIRE to do this in the first place.

Don't believe me? Try some tanis root...

Don’t believe me? Try some tanis root…

One fears that writers, directors and studios have begun to lose their taste for such things. Scratch that. Most people working in the movies know that to a certain extent this is true. Yet that doesn’t mean that one still can’t come up with something quite wonderful.

For instance, The Imitation Game is a very engaging, sad and illuminating look at Alan Turing – the brilliant, secretly gay British logician who broke the secret Nazi Enigma code and became the single biggest contributor to the Allies victory in World War II only to commit suicide less than a decade later after his arrest and sentencing for homosexual behavior. As superbly acted, clever and well-made as the film is there is little surprising in it if one knows anything about the story. Even for those totally unfamiliar, it pretty much follows the traditional dramatic route because you know from the beginning that victory is afoot and who will be primarily responsible for it – and even how.

The war.. from two fronts

The war.. from two fronts

Unbroken follows a similar path though not quite as adeptly. Still, it is not without its merits. The unbelievably true story - as its billed – of former U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini surviving a devastating plane crash and subsequent imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II – delivers everything it says it will deliver. Those are summed up in the adjectives you no doubt have seen in large font on most of its ads: SURVIVAL. RESILIENCE. REDEMPTION. It has all of those many times over. In fact, there is not a moment in the entire motion picture where it doesn’t – which is the problem. As reassuring as that can be to any of us as audience members, it is seldom what makes a really GREAT film.

Take Wild and American Sniper and substitute any or all of the descriptions above. As we roam through the 1100 mile solo hike Cheryl Strayed took through the Pacific Northwest in order to recover from personal trauma or tag along with Chris Kyle on four tours in Iraq where he becomes the most accurate and lethal sniper in US military history, there is excitement and wonderment yet a dulling reassurance of how it will all wind up. Reese Witherspoon and Bradley Cooper expertly pour themselves into each of their roles and give us everything and more than you’d want as their onscreen counterparts. Yet one can’t help but feel deep down that five minutes of any one of their real life adventures were much grittier, exciting and certainly much more morally questionable than any one chunk of time during their entire films.

The great outdoors... in full hair and makeup

The great outdoors… in full hair and makeup

As for Inherent Vice and A Most Violent Year it goes like this. The former is essentially a stoner detective comedy-drama set in 1970s L.A. and is a charming mess that will drive you crazy if you try to follow it as a whole but can certainly be enjoyed in parts and with the help of the chemical aid of one’s choice. The latter deals with working class business moguls making it beyond anyone’s dreams and, well, I only saw one-half because I felt I had already seen it many times before (Note: See earlier Scorsese reference). But again, one could and most assuredly will do worse this year. Annie or Transformers 3, anyone?

Which brings us back to Whiplash.

There will be blood

There will be blood

Part of the reason we loved the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight is we never quite knew what he was going to do or where he was coming from. The best I could figure was total nihilism in order to counter the absolutely useless, insensitive, meaningless materialistic world of today. I’d never seen anyone evil-ing their way through a film for no reason other than every reason – tapping into every bad, justified personal insult each of us has ever dished out or had to endure. No one had ever done that in a movie before in just that way to such great effect up to that point and the mere discussion of it makes me want to pop in a DVD for that scene where Joker Heath saunters through Gotham City wearing a nurse’s uniform.

Oh how we miss you

Oh how we miss you

Movies can simply be great entertainment and that is what’s wonderful. They can also be just polemic enough as they tell the story of a social issue in a satisfying way and that certainly is enough to be memorable.

But what we don’t have much of anymore are the films that make you angry, make you think or seem familiar yet will sneakily unearth something awfully important (or importantly awful) at stake in such a way where we do not know at all until the bitter end absolutely what will happen. The end of Whiplash confounds certain audiences and critics because it is precisely the correct ending of a film that gets it absolutely right even though you are convinced from time to time that it is absolutely missing the boat.

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

As a screenwriting teacher I talk to my students a lot about heroes and villains. That no one is all good (and if they were you’d hate them) and that every supposed monster believes somewhere deep down they are 100% justified to be doing the things they do. I mean, why do anything bad or good if you can’t on some level enjoy your actions? That includes reveling in your evilness. After all if you’re going to dare to be that bad and do a high wire act of contrariness to the rest of society and its mamby pamby meandering rules you better or might as well enjoy it and feel like its for a reason.

The teacher captures exactly that in Whiplash in a way I’ve never experienced before. Just as the heroic student – played with superb finesse and skill by Miles Teller – shows us that being a great guy all around is a lot more complicated than the teachings in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” gives one credit for.

Especially if you are a drum...

And don’t get in his way.

I am going to try to remember all of that and more as I continue on the script I’m currently writing as well as the next time I stand before a new group of students (Note: That would be next week) talking about what makes a good movie story. I will also recall and note that the writer-director of Whiplash, Mr. Chazelle, was himself once a young drummer who studied under a mentor of questionable methods and that this movie was inspired by, but not actually based on, real life events.   Yeah, you write or make what you know about because when you give it your all and forget about who’s going to watch and why – you have the chance to show it to us in a true and very real way we all have never experienced or even thought of before even if it would seem like we have. At one point in time, that was what movies were all about. And I’m sort of missing it at the start of this new year.

The Chair’s 10 Best of 2014

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Of course 10 best lists are bogus. After all, what exactly is “best?” Even the first dictionary definition itself can’t decide. It states:

BEST

  1. 
of the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.

I don’t know about you but I find there is a hell of a lot of difference between excellent, effective and desirable. In fact, the moments in my life I can remember being at my most desirable in no way made me the most excellent person in the room – especially when that number was two. Truth be told and given what usually prompts human desire, I’d actually argue that the exact opposite was true.

I can recall once or twice being so excellent at something that it is hard to imagine someone wouldn’t have found me equally desirable. But wait, let’s forget that. If you’ve been in the presence of any writer at his or her most excellent you’d know it’s not a pretty sight. Hair askew, loved ones, friends and usually hygiene totally ignored. Not to mention common courtesy. Meaning – don’t even THINK about interrupting, much less BREATHING, because I will KILL YOU. Or worse, BLAME YOU for stopping the flow. Not to mention what the world will do to you if any more of this genius is lost from its most excellent source – Me.

I have no idea what you're talking about Chairy

I have no idea what you’re talking about Chairy

Finally, we’re left with effective and nothing about the word effective comes close to evoking best. Michael Bay is probably one of the most effective filmmakers to ever work in contemporary Hollywood but, uh – best? Well, you see how words deceive. And yes, he can take it. He married us for it. Which only proves that Edward Albee is the all-time best.

Here then in no particular order are my 10 best of the year. I define best as jarring, original, memorable and cool – to me. There is nothing scientific about it. It’s a purely subjective list. As are all those that deal in bests.

FILM: Birdman and Boyhood

Looking up

Looking up

No one except a few film critics, most of whom do not partake fully in life because they don’t have the time, have seen every film in any given year. But at least I see a lot. And I say these two stand above and beyond the pack for different reasons.

In the case of Boyhood, the feat of shooting a film with the same actors aging over a 12 year period, rewriting as you go, and emerging with anything coherent – much less emotionally affecting – is nothing but the best. It takes drive, focus and talent. Richard Linklater has always been an interesting and adept filmmaker but in this case he’s managed to circumvent the Hollywood system with a truly original approach to a universal story. Anyone can pick apart the movie’s faults, but no one in the narrative commercial world has had the nerve to take a path this original lately. In 2014, that’s my equivalent of the B word.

Birdman has stayed with me for months and I’m not quite sure why. I liked the film yet in teaching screenwriting have certainly been one of those jerks to – yes – pick it apart. Still, there is something about watching Michael Keaton, a former megastar of the eighties who my college age students now barely know, play an outlandish version of his public persona so heartbreakingly that it makes me occasionally want to weep. Yes, weep. I’m not a total cynic. This is a project that for all of its faults could have gone horribly wrong. Credit director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, another fearless chance taker, and a cast of actors working at the top of their game, for keeping the high wire act alive more times than not to its pretty thrilling results.

THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE: Malala

Yes, you are

Yes, you are

You’re a smart teenage girl from Pakistan who got shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out for other girls and their education. You then endure a bunch of surgeries and manage to not only survive but to continue to speak your mind as you gain intelligence and, well, even more nerve (Note: As if that’s possible). Then several weeks ago, these same Taliban types shoot up a school and kill 141 people, mostly children, and you still continue to speak out. Not with speechifying anger but with calm wisdom and directness. This is why you win the Nobel Peace Prize before you are old enough to vote. And how the world begins to slowly change.

AMERICAN POLITICS: Elizabeth Warren

America's truthteller

America’s truthteller

Let’s have a show of hands – how many of you are still pissed off at the big banks and Wall Street but don’t know what to say or do about it? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) does. This time she might have been unable to stop Congress from passing a bill several weeks ago that will once again deregulate Wall Street and allow major banks to engage in the kind of risky investments that almost brought down the economy more than six years ago, but that doesn’t mean she will the next time. She’s like the best and smartest teacher in school that you always remember because she was able to take a subject you never could understand and present it in a way that not only made it clear but made you became engaged. The reason for that is that for years she actually did teach at Harvard and innately understands how to simplify unnecessarily complicated principles to undergraduates – meaning the rest of us. Like all the best academics I have ever met, now Sen. Warren doesn’t fall for the fancy linguistic tricks or ill-conceived arguments the establishment class in her field consistently tries to pass off as absolute truth. She questions so we, in turn, learn to question. This is why she probably always gets high evals at the end of every year.

POP CULTURE LOSSES: Joan Rivers, Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman 

Gone but not forgotten

Gone but not forgotten

This is not the best but the WORST. Still, it needs to be included because of the ripple effect their deaths seemed to have had across the world. Doing great work in the field of entertainment puts you in public view and when you do it over a long period of time the world feels as if they really knew you and mourns accordingly. And perhaps we all did know them – at least partially. It’s an element of what made them all such outstanding artists.

Still, it is quite odd for three such unexpected celebrity deaths to occur in such a relatively short period of time by less than natural means. Flip the channels on television or the peruse the shelves of a film DVD library and you can’t help but run into these three and marvel at the talent as you simultaneously consider the sudden loss.   JR was in her early eighties, RW was in his early 60s and PSH was in his late forties. Yet in their own very individual ways they each were among the very best at what they did. Which is all any of us can hope for at any given moment in time.

TELEVISION: Lisa Kudrow and HBO’s The Comeback

Oh how we "cherish" you (sorry, couldn't help myself)

Oh how we “cherish” you (sorry, couldn’t help myself)

There is nothing currently on television that evokes the humor, pathos and general uneasy brilliant comic drama that Lisa Kudrow brings to her portrayal of actress/reality star Valerie Cherish on HBO’s The Comeback. And when I say nothing I mean her performance is unlike anything I (or you) have ever seen on TV (nee HBO) or pretty much anywhere.

This series has returned ten years after being cancelled after only running a year the first time around. That alone is remarkable. But nothing prepares you for the eight episode arc of the new season as you watch Valerie/Lisa endure the indignities of rising towards the top of a profession that often leaves little room for any real dignity (Note: How may professions do?). Or maybe she just chooses wrong. (Note: Who doesn’t sometimes?). Whatever the reason, she is simultaneously the underdog and her own worst enemy and it’s sad, recognizable, funny and uncomfortably cringe-worthy. Most of all – it’s real.

I will miss Valerie Cherish for everything she is and everything she is not. If you haven’t tuned in, do so. And for god sakes, given Lisa/Valerie the Emmy.

MEDICINE: Ebola Nurse Kaci Hickox

You ride that bike, girl.

You ride that bike, girl.

What can you say about a nurse who goes voluntarily to Africa to fight a deadly disease, returns to the US where she is put into mandatory quarantine by New Jersey governor Chris Christie (even though she showed no symptoms and did not test positive for the virus) and then publicly stands up to said well-known political bully without cursing him out or punching him in the face? That she’s my kind of gal? Needless to say.

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch...

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch…

For those who don’t recall, Gov. Christie insisted on quarantine for Nurse Hickox in a makeshift tent when she returned to the U.S., which caused her to go public and take a stand against the governor by defying his quarantine and returning home to Maine. She did all this with calm determination and the backing of medical facts despite the hysterical witch-hunts and political grandstanding that began swirling around her.

Then once she got to Maine, she and her boyfriend dared to take a bike ride while being hounded by a gaggle of media. And remain polite and calm. I shudder to think what I would have said. #GetChristieNoLove

MUSIC: Annie Lennox, Nostalgia

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

In the 1980s, Annie Lennox was the lead singer of The Eurythmics and known for huge hit records like Would I Lie To You. Once I saw her in concert where she leaned so far into the stage on one foot with her mic that I thought she’d fall over as she hit a note so raw and pitch perfect that you could hear an audible gasp throughout the entire concert hall. Some years later she went on her own and won a Grammy Award for best pop vocal for No More I Love Yous from her second solo album Medusa. She followed that with an Oscar some years after that for best original song, Into the West, from the last of the first three Lord of the Rings movies.

All that being said, it should come as no surprise that for me the best CD/download/album or whatever you want to call it of the year is hers. In Nostalgia she takes classics like I Put A Spell On You, You Belong To Me, Georgia on My Mind and Billie Holliday’s haunting song of the lynching of Black men in the Deep South, Strange Fruit, and presents them all in stripped down versions unlike anyone you have ever heard before. There are so few true real artists these days with worldwide commercial success. She’s one.

APP: Aaron Paul’s YB

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For free or by paying 99 cents for a more advanced version, you can download an app where actor Aaron Paul’s resonant baritone speaks phrases like Yo, bitch or Happy Holidays, Bitch or See ya, Bitch any time you want. Yes, I find this exciting.

See, when Breaking Bad ended its series run we also lost Paul’s Jessie Pinkman, the dumb as a fox crystal meth-cooking sidekick whose signature phrase, Yo Bitch, became a national obsession. A multiple Emmy winner and fan favorite, Paul raised almost $2 million for his wife’s charity, Kind Campaign, which helps young women in need, with a series of contests and giveaways that coincided with the final season. But after being stopped on the street, emailed and tweeted by thousands of people imploring him to curse them out with variations of his signature phrase he gave in and decided to generate some cash with it – for charity and, hopefully, for himself. Because even cursing people out loses its thrill after a while – and especially when they ask you to.

SOCIAL ACTIVITY: Protests 

Sad realities

Sad realities

The consecutive deaths of too many young Black males in the last year in numerous states by law enforcement has created both spontaneous and planned nationwide protests across the country. In the moment it feels as if this is doing nothing but letting off steam yet through the lens of history one can clearly see this is the American way to social justice and evolution.

I would not have thought this was quite true decades ago. But having been born at a time when the civil rights movement first began taking hold, and then living through the Vietnam War, Kent State, women’s rights, gay rights, AIDS, homelessness, nuclear proliferation and marriage equality, I’ve seen how it works. Societal shifts are only fueled through provocateurs that have a real and righteous point about injustice. Therefore it’s our job to take it to the streets, talk about it, write about it or even just write a check in order to make something happen. It moves at a snail’s pace but things ultimately evolve when we don’t give in or give up. #ICantBreathe.

NEWBORN BABY: Sam Van Buren

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Who is Sam Van Buren, you might ask? Well, the coolest, snappiest and best-dressed baby I’ve ever seen – who happens to be the firstborn of my blog cohort and dear friend Holly Van Buren and her husband Michael.

Holly chooses the images and writes the captions for Notes and it might surprise you to know that she literally gave birth two months ago without missing a single week of choosing images, tagging and posting the blog. How is she able to do this along with everything else she is responsible for in her life – I HAVE NO IDEA!!   

It helps when Sam the Man looks like this...

It helps when Sam looks like this…

Sam the Man, as I call him, takes great photos because he is able to both smile and come off as a hipster all at the same time. Again, I have no idea how to do this. But it does give me hope that one day as he gets older he might teach me. That is if I am not too old. Do not say – too late.

GQ baby of the year

GQ baby of the year

For myself, Holly and our marketing director Samantha Rabstein – who has a few surprises in store for 2015 – that’s all he wrote. In 2014, that is.

Gettin’ Woodsy with Meryl

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Anytime you get to spend a few hours with Meryl Streep and Tracy Ullman is a good time and I was fortunate to spend three or more with them some days ago during a screening of the new film musical Into the Woods and the q & a session afterwards.

Yes, most of the rest of the cast were also onstage as were the director, writer, producer, costume designer, cinematographer and, well, others. There were also 1000 plus people seated in the audience with me. But the movie, those two actors and okay, pretty much everyone else either live or on digital associated with the film, were delightfully entertaining and articulate. Will this movie change the world? No. But what really will at this point?

When the real news is a small country hacks into a major studio’s computer system and successfully prevents the release of a film it assumes will be offensive in spite of the fact that it hasn’t even seen it yet, well – what movie or story about one can top that? And what can take your mind off of it? Certainly not the batch of depressing, heady, dramatic or just plain bland and/or derivative holiday films in store for us this season.

We get it.. enough already

We get it.. enough already

I’m extremely grateful and privileged to be part of two Hollywood unions – not least of all for the fact that right around this time of year I receive free DVDs of most of the these movies to screen at my leisure. But between Unbroken, Still Alice, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year and that much needed remake of Annie, can it get any creepier, heavier, or just plain sad? (Note: You decide which adjective fits which film). And Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to you too.

Oh and I'm just a ball of laughs...

Oh and I’m just a barrel of laughs…

I tend to watch mostly heavy, sad or heady movies and I certainly gravitate towards writing them. But there are moments when even I need a break. There will be hell to pay from my much more “serious” friends, colleagues and family members but Into the Woods gives you just that break without making you feel as if you’ve just spent 120 plus minutes in a game of Candy land where unearned life lessons abound around scenes, dialogue and characters designed to primarily service the product placements that surrounds them. Yes, we’re talking about the Annie trailer here.

So let’s continue with Into the Woods.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote the Broadway musical 27 years ago as an homage to fairy tales while simultaneously taking to task the happily ever after endings they traffic in. The movie, like the stage show, is deceptively escapist except eventually it’s not. If one allows oneself to be transported by it there are earned lessons that resonate in a post-9/11 world. That’s an entire universe away from NBC’s recent much ballyhooed live production of Peter Pan – a stunt idea that felt merely like a moneymaking, ratings grabbing event.   This Into the Woods movie feels like it has a reason for being – and therefore a reason to be seen. When will the powers-that-be learn? Maybe never. But they’re looking to make money, not to complete thoughts.

still processing this...

still processing this…

Don’t go in with too raised expectations. This is simply a good, old-fashioned musical that looks great and feels just weighty enough without hitting you squarely over the head with its message continuously. It diverts you for two hours (not three – yay!!!) into a strange magical alternate universe where not everything works out as you hope but as it seems meant to – much the way it occurs 90% of the time in life. (Note: The latter statistic is based solely on my own many decades of living, breathing and seeing countless outcomes and, trust me, if anything I’m underestimating the number).

Speaking of numbers, at one point during the Woods talk back it occurred to me there were a dozen members of cast and crew onstage at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills throwing out occasional pearls of wisdom about being a working cast and crew member on the top tier of the entertainment industry. Shouldn’t other artists, or aspiring artists, or even the rest of us movie gossips at least get to hear the best of what they had to say rather than having to hunt it down via some website where, given all the Internet traffic this week, we will be buffered into oblivion and quit before it even starts?

the cast about to drop some truth bombs...

the cast about to drop some truth bombs…

So — this goes out to everyone. You may or may not like the film (Hint: Drop the sour face, or as my Aunt Nan used to say – the farbissina punim – and at least give it a chance) but you will certainly find value in at least one or two of their thoughts. And if you don’t, you should. Yes, should.

TOP 10 WORDS OF INTO THE WOODS Q&A WISDOM FOR INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS

1. If a really talented person suggests your next project to you, it would be wise to listen. Director Rob Marshall scored big with his 2002 movie musical version of Chicago and following that level of commercial success many doors open for you. So it was not surprising that a hot director of a movie musical would get to meet with the royalty of musical composers – Stephen Sondheim – and be allowed to review his quite large body of work for the possible adaptation of his next big screen project.

St. Stephen

St. Stephen

But rather than push for a preconceived idea of what he wanted to do, Mr. Marshall instead chose to engage in an extended discussion of Sondheim’s canon and what he hoped to do creatively in the future. According to the director, Into the Woods was actually Sondheim’s choice of the show of his that would best suit Mr. Marshall. I would’ve been happy to do any of them, the director admitted, but he finally looked at me and said, I think you’re really right for this.

2. You can love doing the kind of job you most assuredly turned down three times before. Meryl Streep plays the gloriously wicked witch at the center of Woods but she didn’t initially want to play it. The actress recalls that the moment she turned 40 years-old she was quickly offered three different witch roles and as a quasi political stance couldn’t see herself being thrown on the casting junk heap because moviemakers were so quick to age a woman of her age out. But having now proven her point many times over, at the age of 65 she realized the opportunity to get to be in a Sondheim musical was just too good to pass up. And yes, she chose to reveal her current age matter-of-factly and quite normally – which was probably the most political act of all.

Werk it, gurl!

Werk it, gurl!

3. Inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. The development of big budget films being what they are, it wasn’t until he was watching the ceremonies commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11 three years ago that director Rob Marshall was able to finally personalize the themes of Woods. The moment he heard Pres. Obama tell the surviving family members of those who died on that day that you are not alone, he was immediately reminded of the classic Woods song No One is Alone and realized the inherent dangers of the contemporary world can cause life to turn on a dime, just as they do in fairy tales, and that you cannot necessarily save the people you love.  And to the naysayers: No, we’re not saying this movie is a 9/11 musical. Grow up.

4. When you audition, have a little fun. We all audition for jobs but for actors the process is a stressful part of their continuously free-lance lives. So Chris Pine – known more in the movies as Star Trek’s bad boy Capt. Kirk rather than a singing prince, decided that if he had to demonstrate his chops as a crooner he’d rather do Sinatra than attempt Sondheim. That’s why he chose to sing Fly Me To The Moon for his audition. And got the part of what he gleefully describes as a gloriously two-dimensional prince.

Oh but that HAIR!

Oh but that HAIR!

5. Don’t be thrown by what others say or even imply about you. Anna Kendrick, an Academy Award nominee for Up in the Air and the second youngest person to ever be nominated for a Tony Award, was a bit taken aback prior to filming. That was because wherever she went people would stop her and feel compelled to say, I think it’s so interesting that you got cast as Cinderella.

Turning to the q&a audience the actress asked: Now what does that fck-ng mean? Well, we all know what that means. But really, who fck-ig cares what they think?

Hate on haters

Hate on haters

6. Do your best even when you are told there is no chance you will get the job. James Corden, the very funny British comic actor who plays the Baker, did a staged reading of the Woods screenplay in New York but was told from the outset that it would in no way ensure or even make likely he would be cast in the film. Not being delusional Corden told the screening audience he gave the reading his best anyway because he was happy to even be included and knew movie parts like that have to go to someone famous. But he was so memorable that day that Marshall promised to go to bat for him and eventually landed him the part. As for Corden, he’ll be a lot more famous in 2015 when he replaces Craig Ferguson as the host of CBS’s Late Late Show.

7. You can have a career AND a personal life. The day Emily Blunt was cast as The Baker’s Wife she found out she was pregnant with her first child. This news was quite ironic since the entire story arc for her character is that she is a woman who cannot have a child but desperately wants one. The actress assumed her pregnancy would likely cost her the role but when the filmmakers found out they decided to proceed anyway and hide her behind trees and behind and to the side of James Corden. By the time filming ended she was seven and a half months pregnant and a lot more challenging to hide – a fact that Corden suggests we check out for ourselves with a remote control and the pause button when we’re watching the movie on DVD.

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

8. Writers are inherently cynical. Sondheim collaborator and multiple Tony Award winner James Lapine was tasked with adapting the book of his stage musical into a screenplay. This meant the challenging work of dropping the key conceit of the storybook characters presented directly addressing the audience from the stage and figuring out a way to re-dramatize the action for moviegoers. But the writer was not particularly overwhelmed by the challenge because he is convinced that nothing will ever happen with any project he ever works on, particularly for the movies. I am not sure why but somehow that was immensely reassuring to me. #YouAreNotAlone.

9. Always Cast Meryl Streep First. Granted this is a no-brainer but it is worth noting that once it was decided that Woods would be a film, the first person Rob Marshall approached was M.S. When she said yes, the doors to every actor in the world flung wide open. She also knew all of her lines on the very first day of rehearsal. See, cause that’s also part of the job.

She can do no wrong

She can do no wrong

10. Try to work with your friends. Of all the people onstage Tracy Ullman and Meryl Streep were clearly having the best time. They insulted each other, giggled together and seemed genuinely happy to be there. In fact, Ullman had to force Streep to face front when the compliments began flowing for her performance – at one point physically turning Streep’s body and chair back towards the audience so her friend could be properly appreciated.

Their friendship dates back some 30 years to another film (can you guess which one without looking at IMDB? Hint: It’s good and…). And in the course of the evening one couldn’t help but wonder if yet one more could be in their future. When producer Marc Platt noted that there was indeed a movie version of the hit musical Wicked in the works both Ullman and Streep wildly motioning that they would love to play the younger versions of Glinda and The Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz prequel for the big screen.

Right. I know. They were joking. But is it any more ridiculous than hiring ____________________   and ______________________ .

Feel free to fill in the blanks.

And Happy Holidays.

Hackety Hack

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Yakety, yack. Hackety, hack.

All of Hollywood and then the world were abuzz this week over the massive computer hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s email system.

First it was about the idea that anyone could pull off such a massive theft of so protected a system.

Then it morphed into the high-minded conversation of whether it was done by North Korea in retaliation for the upcoming Sony movie, The Interview – a film where two schnooks played by Seth Rogen and James Franco are pressured by the US government to assassinate North Korea president Kim Jong-Un.

Yep... these two geniuses

Yep… these two geniuses

From there it went to just about the only thing that can trump international intrigue in importance – and that would be the bitchy, salacious, gossipy and racially insensitive (Note: The latter are Rev. Al Sharpton’s words, not mine) hacked emails themselves.

Someone actually had the audacity to call unofficial Queen of the World Angelina Jolie nothing more than “a camp event,” “a celebrity” (Note: To be said with a sneer) and “a minimally talented spoiled brat,” only to then refer to her plan to star in a new film version of Cleopatra as “a $180 million ego bath.” You can thank Scott Rudin, currently the most prolific producer in contemporary Hollywood history whose credits include No Country For Old Men, The Social Network and Moneyball, as well as dozens of some of your other favorite major studio films and Broadway megahits, for steering the world toward that which is really important.

I have an EGOT, bitches

I have an EGOT, bitches

Except the spotlight was then quickly taken away by other email musings on the unofficial Most Powerful Man in the World, U.S. Pres. Barack Obama, by Sony Pictures Chair (Note: No relation) Amy Pascal. This was when she complained/wrote to Mr. Rudin at the end of one presumably very long day about having to attend a stupid breakfast (Note: Her words, not mine) honoring/fundraising for the prez, and wondered in printed correspondence to said producer, what to ask him. When Mr. Rudin sarcastically wrote, if he’d like “to finance some movies,” Ms. Pascal quipped back, “Should I ask him if he liked Django (Unchained)? To which Mr. Rudin countered “12 Years (A Slave).” To which Ms. Pascal bested or “The Butler” or “Think Like A Man.” To which Mr. Rudin topped “Ride-Along,” confessing he’d bet that the first Black president (who is, incidentally, equally as much White as he is Black) most assuredly likes Kevin Hart.

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Don’t they know the president has very publicly admitted to being hooked on both House of Cards AND Homeland and that each have very few to no Blacks as regular cast members? Oh right, that’s TV. And not even HBO.

Unfortunately, the public conversation has now moved on to the inevitable public apologies by both the producer and the studio executive, ironically dispersed to press outlets mostly via email, where both producer and studio executive are desperately trying to steer the conversation back to where we started. In case you don’t remember where that is it’s the massive computer hacking of Sony Pictures email system and the crooks that perpetrated the crime. But both being extremely savvy and armed with a bevy of some of the most ingenious publicity consultants money can buy, the producer and studio head, in separate statements, each managed to smuggle in one other culprit — the complicit media who ran with the stolen goods (those pesky emails) and are thus continuing the crime of making these private, written conservations very public.

I mean, just who are the real villains here, anyway, they or we may ask?

It sure as hell ain't me!

It sure as hell ain’t me!

Are you tired yet? Well, perhaps. I know I am. But that’s only because we are once again dealing with complex issues there are no immediate answers for. However, these two grown adults (said prod & exec) acting like petty elementary school kids with the centralized power of high school bullies as they privately take down the more accomplished colleagues that they hate, are annoyed by or are just plain bored with, is something much more understandable. We can all relate to that conversation because we have all either been bullied or have been the bully. Perhaps even both.

I was never good at determining villains because I tend to see the world in insurmountable shades of gray that can never quite be fully deciphered. I mean, even when I rant against people like the Duggars, Sarah Palin and Michael Bay I question for weeks afterwards whether I’m being completely fair or going to hell, though not necessarily in that order and not necessarily both every time.

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So I am going to refrain from judgment and talk about two byproducts of this debacle – the victims and the broader reality.

The victims are not Pres. Obama, Angelina Jolie, said producer, studio head or the myriads of other very well paid, successful people whose privacy and/or dignity has been momentarily taken. They are all smart, resourceful, wealthy and have developed somewhat thickened skins from years in the battle. They can take care of themselves. No, it’s not fair but they’ll be fine. Believe it because it’s true. Really.

The victims are the hundreds of other Sony employees who will no doubt have their identities stolen, will lose their jobs because a corporation has to do something when this happens, have their health records compromised and spend the next number of years living in paranoia every time they correspond with anyone – whether electronically, in person or via any other tablet or instrument of choice. I know this as a victim of identity theft myself for two years running because some hateful cow or sow, buck or f–k (Note: Apologies animals) filed a federal tax return in my name and actually got two different four-figure refunds in my place each year. Trust me, it’s not fun.

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Still, there are enough systems in place where these people should all be able to get beyond what’s happened to them and resume some semblance of a new normal life. It sucks the big one and it’s really awful that we live in a world where any one of us at any time can now be virtually violated with little consequence to the perpetrator. But one supposes that is the price we pay for eschewing snail mail for messengers, messengers for email, email for Twitter, Twitter for texts and texts for….microchip implants? I’m surmising, not suggesting. And by the way, I did finally get my tax return after more than a year – each time. I can only hope it takes less than that time for the average lower-mid level laid-off Sony employee to get their next job. But let’s err on the side of optimism. For now

What seems to bother me even more is not the crime – heinous as it is – or the victims of the theft – awful as it is to be a victim. Or even the unfunny racially tinged comments of the producer and studio executive – dumb and small-minded as they were in those moments and even now.

Ugh.. there's more??

Ugh.. there’s more??

Rather, it is the accepted way business is done in the world. The cutthroat, diminishing, low brow fashion so many people exhibit in their industries when they do not get what they want when they want it and the manipulative, back-stabbing, underhanded tactics they will use in the most casual way to sabotage their perceived enemies as all the while they are smiling to their faces, sending them polite, charming and even complimentary communications or merely hiding behind their own work as a way to benignly avoid contact until they pull the big rug out from under those that they choose to engage in the first place.  Perhaps this is human nature. But I don’t think so. And even if it is, we have evolved, if just a little, from the caveman days of hunt or be hunted and fight or flight. Haven’t we? Last I heard there were no Paleolithic nanos or iPods or even iPads. Which reminds me, it was Mr. Rudin’s perception Sony was acing out his upcoming movie about Steve Jobs with intended Cleopatra director and self-professed close friend David Fincher that began the brouhaha here in the first place… but let’s not get off topic.

"Leave me out of this!" says the deity that invented "the cloud"

“Leave me out of this!” says the deity that invented “the cloud”

I’ve spent the majority of my professional life in and around the entertainment industry and I know these hacked emails (Note: See links below for some samplings) typify the best and worst parts of show business. The best being the possibility that people love the piece of entertainment/art you’ve created or hope to create and respect you and your talents so much that they financially and enthusiastically support its coming to life in a way that can be seen by millions of people around the world it will not only please but perhaps influence or change for the better. The worst, however, are the endless and needless betrayals, insults, condescension and out and out lies behind your back or in front of your face by the very people you work with, have dinner with, party with or even do more than that with, who you could have sworn to anyone who will listen are your friends.

There’s an old expression I sometimes evoke to the college juniors and seniors that I try to prepare for the industry each semester and that is that show business is nothing more and nothing less than high school with money. I say sometimes because I’ve sort of put it to bed in the last year or two since after all this time it began to feel, well… tired.  I agree – it’s very tired.   But sadly, that doesn’t make it any less true.