Watching the Gross

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I thought I’d grown used to the movies I like grossing very little money but it’s sobering. Still, this shouldn’t be surprising. I can now get into films as a senior citizen in some places. I know, I’m shocked too.   When I went to see the Steve “Jobs” movie a few weeks ago I almost passed out. But still paid full price.

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Clearly, I’ve permanently strayed from the “youth” demographic Hollywood covets no matter how many times my peers say 50 is the new 40, 60 is the new 50, 80 is the new 20 and death is something that happens to OTHER people. That’s scary enough. But to realize that not one of my favorite films is among the 50 top grossing movies of the year – well, that’s positively un-American. It’s like my entire country has turned on me when I wasn’t looking. And in more ways than one. On the other hand, it’s not the first time. I lived through the eighties, Ronald Reagan and Forrest Gump winning the Oscar yet I am still here whining about it all as our first African American-president completes his second term of office and Birdman was last year’s best picture winner. Inevitably, these types of things, as well as life, do run in cycles.

And yet…

Hard as it is to recognize I have come to understand that like many Americans the movies are my touchstone. Each year at least a handful reflect what myself and our culture were thinking or feeling en masse and, when they worked really well, even showed us alternative ways to cope. Did Michael Keaton really go out the window at the end of Birdman? Who cares – it raised the question of just what are the alternatives we all face when trying to survive as an artist of any kind. And if one believes, as I do, that anything you attempt to do well in life does indeed have some sort of artistic element to it, it is essential we continue to consider these questions. And spend less time pondering how high of a gilded wall we can build around ourselves to keep out those who are different. Ironic, isn’t it? That a country built on a melting pot of difference should be faced with the 2015 Shakespearean question of how we engineer and preserve our current gene pool to exclude as many others as possible.

There’s a reason why, at its essence, drama hasn’t really changed very much since the Elizabethan period or even as far back as the ancient Greeks.

Still works!

Still works!

Which in a roundabout way brings me back to The MOVIES, 2015.

If you’re a member of a Hollywood guild each year you’re fortunate enough to receive DVDs of many of this year’s movies so you don’t have to move your privileged ass off the couch and make the effort to go to the movie theatre if you so prefer not to. (Note: Well, you wouldn’t either if you didn’t have to and had a decent TV setup at home – give me a break)

So being the lazybones (nee whore) that I am I decided that after gorging myself on turkey I’d continue gorging myself on some of the movies I got in the mail and have not yet seen. I also decided to go out to the movie theatres and pay for a few others as well as attend several industry screenings (Note: Yes, for free – I’m not only getting lazy in my old age but also cheap). And what continued to amaze me is that without exception the films that I really enjoyed continue to make very, very little money at the box office. How long before these types of films are not made at all? I fear, not very long.

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I'll ask Matt Damon)

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I’ll ask Matt Damon)

Now before you go saying I’m part of the problem because I’m not going out to see my films enough – you’re only partly right. Like all of you, I should venture out and support my local theatres more than I do. But also know that part of the marketing budgets of all production companies include sending out free DVDs to guild members not to be kind but to get us to VOTE for said film in an enormous array of awards competitions that the industry will use to promote the winners and get you/us – the audience – into the theatres to see or into the stores to buy or into our heads to stream. For better or worse that’s the way the system works. Bottom line dollars.

I suppose this explains why as a Writers Guild member two of the early DVDs I received were for Furious 7 ($353 million domestic box-office gross) and Jurassic World ($652 million). Did anyone really think these would win any writing awards? (Note: That question was rhetorical). No, it was about spreading the word. Well, fyi, I’ve previously seen both a Furious AND a Jurassic movie before and was entertained. I tried briefly with both of these. Oh God. I might be old but I’m not brain dead. Yet. Which is why I turned them off.

As for some of the others – well, here I am to do the job that I was sent to do by the studio overlords – spreading the word. (Note: As if I wouldn’t give my opinion anyway).

TRUMBO

He is Spartacus?

He is Spartacus?

This is the story of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and how his intellectual liberal leanings sent him to jail for a year in the 1950s merely for being subversively un-American as a member of the Communist party. (Note: Think of him as a Muslim under a future Trump administration).

More interesting is the tale it tells of how Trumbo, once out of a jail, worked secretly writing tacky low-budget movies under assumed names and got his other unemployable writer friends jobs doing the same via a hidden writer’s clearing house he ran out of his house. With the help of his wife and children. Who answered five different telephone lines and served as their script couriers.

As played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, this Trumbo is a witty, erudite crusader, family man who takes advantage of the people around him while at the same time loving them and his country in the most unorthodox of ways. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance that will surely get him an Oscar nomination. The movie takes a long time to get going and in the first half especially feels a bit like a choppy, TV movie biopic from the 1970s. But ultimately it’s smart, breezy, clever and not without some meaning. And slickly made by director Jay Roach.

AND — It’s made less than a $1 million after three weeks of limited release.

Verdict: Watch it.

TRUTH

Would you... Rather?

Would you… Rather?

I was where most of you probably are on this. Robert Redford playing Dan Rather in a movie that shows us how Rather got pushed out of the anchor chair at CBS because of a 60 Minutes story he did on George W. Bush’s questionable military record of service? A story where sources recanted their original claims but nevertheless a story that was never proven factually inaccurate?

#1 – I don’t want to hear any more about Dubya. #2 – Redford is about as similar to Dan Rather as I am. #3 – It’s my private time, I want to be entertained by a film not forced to think about unpleasant stuff I was forced to live through all too recently.

Well, the film is not really about Dubya at all but about how the news you see on TV is put together and just how influential political dynasties can be “behind the scenes.” More importantly, Redford might not look anything like Rather but he’s got his speaking cadence down pat and is ultimately absolutely believable as the veteran Texas newsman – in fact it’s the best he’s been in a movie in many years. Who knew? Not any of us because no one is going to see it. Since it’s release in October it’s grossed about $2.5 million.

Oh, and then there’s Cate Blanchett starring as Rather’s real-life producer Mary Mapes, a tough-talking Texan she gets exactly right because she doesn’t slather on the accent but instead accentuates her intelligence. The whole film is smart. And –

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING.

SICARIO

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

My students will hate me for this because they seem to love this movie. Why? I have zero idea. Emily Blunt is as good as she can be as an FBI agent drawn into the web of breaking up a Mexican drug cartel by her CIA overlords as well as by others. But…it’s a labyrinth of action with character development and logic so spare as to be almost non-existent. And after a while it simply becomes preposterous. And a bore.

I’ve experienced first-hand as a writer notes on the strategy of throwing audiences right into the world of a movie without much of a convincing setup and allowing the viewer to play catch up. This sometimes works – as it did in the first season of True Detective. And it often times fails, as it does here. But then again, it depends what you mean by failure. Sicario has grossed $49 million in the U.S. alone and another $34 million overseas so far. That makes it a bit more than a modest success in the world of the balance sheet of a film with no above the title movie star or director. It’s also a world where logic and dialogue don’t matter as much the various kinds of actions that are ultimately delivered.

Verdict: SKIP IT. Though you could do worse (Note: See Furious AND Jurassic).

CAROL

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner... what can ya say?

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner… what can ya say?

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two seemingly mismatched women falling in love in the repressive 1950s under the direction of Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, HBO’s Mildred Pierce). This movie was MADE for me!! You’d think.

It’s beautiful to look at. Cate Blanchett’s mink coat and shimmering blonde hair and red lipstick are breathtaking. As is every single room, piece of jewelry and choice of scenery and period motor vehicle and hotel room and tacky apartment and cheap motel room. Which is a big part of the problem. It’s a movie in love with artifice – and itself. The drama is real and sometimes palpable but as someone is said to have once said, “it’s like watching paint dry.” The same emotional beats are played over and over. Time and again.   It’s based on the seminal lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, which she published under a pseudonym in 1952.   But never for one moment do you feel as if you’re watching anything other than a book unspooling in movie time without any of the nuanced language that made it so special.

The two actresses are wonderful. Everything is pretty. And it does show us how much a great deal of the world has changed. But…well….

Verdict: PASS – which is not to say there is not a great deal of skill and intelligence here. Would I watch it before Jurassic and Furious again? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I should just force myself to get all the way through the latter two for the first time. Though Carol needs the money more. It’s grossed about $500,000 in 10 days of limited release. And I doubt there’s a ton more to come. DVD/streaming sales? Maybe. But…OK, I’ll stop now.

BRIDGE OF SPIES

A Spielberg movie written by.... The Coen Brothers?

A Spielberg movie written by…. The Coen Brothers? 

I popped the DVD to this in and had low expectations. I mean, it’s the tale of the reluctant negotiator spy type American hero of the 1950s as played by Tom Hanks and directed by Steve Spielberg that somehow you believe deep down in your soul you’ve seen before…. but directed by Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman or by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Except it’s not any of those. Or really that much like them.

Tom Hanks is very good, very believable and very likeable – in an authentic, throwback Americana way. It’s a tough act to pull off an insurance lawyer turned hostage negotiator in period clothes but somehow you buy it all. At this point it’d be shocking if Mr. Spielberg did not direct an infinitely watchable movie. And this one is pretty darn watchable – thanks also in great part to Mark Rylance’s brilliantly understated performance in a role you need to see rather than read about from me. He anchors the film. And if you think that’s easy when you’re not a movie star, you’re wrong.

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING. It won’t change your life but it’s engaging. Though at a $67 million box-office gross it’s the equivalent of Trumbo or Truth in dollars for a Spielberg pic. That may not be fair but it’s the way the industry thinks. And for our future films bodes a bit ominous.

Feel free to agree – or disagree. But just know the top five grossing films of 2015 are Jurassic World ($652 million); Avengers: Age of Ultron ($459 million); Inside Out ($356 million); Furious 7 ($353 million) and Minions ($336 million). And that’s just in the U.S. alone. Films that are more adult – nee a bit more complicated or intellectually challenging – are in trouble. And need our support. At theatres, on DVD, or yes, even for free. It’s who we are. Or were. Our choice.

Oh you'll be adding me to that list pretty soon....

Oh you’ll be adding me to that list pretty soon….

P.S. Note #1: I did very much enjoy Inside Out but it’s an animated film and they’re in a category of their own. This is not a snob thing but everyone likes at least one animated movie a year except a dear friend of mine who I still can’t convince to embrace Aladdin – the gayest animated movie that’s ever been made. I’ll work on him, though.

P.S. Note #2 – Just got home from a screening of The Danish Girl. Eddie Redmayne and his co-star, the Swedish film actress Alicia Vikander, will both receive Oscar nominations. As will others behind the scenes. It’s mainstream yet unusual. Thought-provoking though not too complicated. And timely in that it follows one of the first medical cases of gender reassignment. Verdict: See it. People actually speak in full sentences, and often more than one sentence at a time. Plus, nothing blows up.

At least that’s something.

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The Simple Truth

Less is more.

This is the mantra that my writing mentors taught me and that I try to pass on to those writers I mentor.  It’s tempting to hear these words to mean that working less will mean more.  In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.  It takes a great deal of thought (though not over thinking), digging and artistic courage to explore areas you find scary, embarrassing and frankly, well, private, to come up with what you see as “the truth” (or at least an artistic version of it) in any given dramatic (or comedic) situation. And then to pare it down to less, less and still less in an effort to showcase it in its most relatable and thus, understandable light.  The (not so) simple truth is by then you might be thinking – who needs this torture!  But as one mentor told me some years ago:  “No one forced you to be a writer.”  Indeed.

I was thinking about being “simple” this week when I read that Zachary Quinto — the very talented actor best known to movie audiences as Mr. Spock in the “Star Trek” reboot, to TV audiences as the villainous Sylar in “Heroes,” and to Broadway audiences as Lewis, the neurotic gay intellectual who leaves his HIV infected long-time lover of in the revival of Tony Kushner’s  “Angels in America.” –- acknowledged what many in the entertainment industry have long known but apparently many in the public were still surprised by – that he is G-A-Y.

Having been gay all of my life, what I know for certain is that publicly acknowledging the truth about your sexuality, or about anything else in your personal life, is a personal choice and full of booby traps. Although it could be simple it often isn’t because of endless internal dialogue:

What’s too much… what’s too little; why am I saying anything at all?

But by not saying this am I lying about who I am?

What good will come of this in the age of #Twitter, Facebook (hiding you), tumblr (uh…_), TMZ (bad photo), VERY high unemployment (will I lose my job?).  

The real truthy truth is words can be so easily twisted and damn it, I just want to be understood!

We feel you, ZQ

To this I say – don’t we all?  But it is in that very attempt to do so that we all, including myself stray away from the simple truth in an effort to – what exactly?  Explain what could be covered in a single line, as one screenwriting teacher once told me?  Why not just have your hero take an action, if he has to say something, make it brief because the more he says the more confused you’re making me.

I wonder if to some extent this is what happened to the quite courageous Mr. Quinto, and, I suspect, might have happened to me at 34 years old if I were a major actor and an over thinking artist – both of which I think Mr. Quinto is (and half of which I probably wish I were at some point).  Instead of simply saying: I AM GAY and I want to be honest about it, etc. etc. here is the statement currently posted on his website:

I think he said he was….wait, did he?  Let me read it again.

Good for ZQ (what great initials) for saying something. And who am I to tell him how to say it (obviously this is not stopping me).  But might it have been good, or even more good (I don’t want to say better) for what he was trying to do – which is to make a public statement about his life – to simply, say:

“I am a gay man and I want to help.  And if me living my life openly as a gay man in some tiny way helps a gay kid somewhere who is considering suicide, that’s a small sacrifice on my part.”

Maybe he could add something like, “This is a very personal decision but if all actors, young and old, came out, it would soon become not a big deal and we could get on with our jobs of entertaining people.”

If pressed he could even further elaborate: “Imagine if everyone came out?  Maybe this is not possible for everyone.  But if it slowly were to happen, I can’t help but think, or in fact know, that the bullies would be outnumbered.”

Let me be clear – EVERYONE HAS A RIGHT TO SAY WHAT THEY WANT THE WAY THEY WANT IT.  This is something I tell myself AND my students.  The issue is – what is most effective?  Being Complicated?  Being Simple?  Or something in between?

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with putting all this in the personal and political context of Jamey Rodemeyer’s tragic suicide, the “It’s Get Better Videos,” and civil equality for the LGBT community.  But as they taught us in journalism school and as James L. Brooks taught us by way of Albert Brooks’ character in “Broadcast News,” the one thing you don’t want to do when you’re trying to make a point is: BURY THE LEAD.

Meaning: how great is it when you can say what you want to say simply?  Upfront.  Clearly.  Think the inverted pyramid – who, what, when, where, why, how.  It will ALWAYS work if it’s honest because nothing works more effectively than the simple truth.  It’s the only way to counteract the bullies and the liars and the tellers or stories that deep down we know in our hearts and souls couldn’t possibly be true.

Given our current climate, one could argue simple is not best.  But remember – true simplicity is not just brief but it’s truthful – simple does not necessarily mean TRUTHFUL HONEST.  Which is where the slope gets extremely slippery and where people as smart or even smarter than Mr. Quinto, often get tripped up.  Twenty years ago when an actor I was working with as a writer (one who would soon become hugely famous and powerful) saw my wedding ring and asked if I was married, I brushed him off with a one line joke and didn’t give him the real answer which was that the ring signified the love my GAY partner and I had for each other since we couldn’t marry.  A matter of a year later this actor, who I later found out was hugely liberal and very complimentary of my work, would become nationally known for playing the part of a married man on something he produced and I realized what he was indeed asking me was – if you’re a married guy I think I’d really like to have your perspective in this next project I’m doing.  Which – I will sheepishly admit – became HUGE.

Now, there’s no way to be sure that was the case, but in this instance I think so.  So clarity, honesty, or no matter how you want to define it can cut both ways.  I don’t regret my choice (well, not too much), because it taught me something incredibly valuable.  It might seem like a risk, but more often than not the right answer is the honest and simple one.  Now don’t get me wrong, getting that job certainly would have presented an even greater set of issues and I likely would have quit or got fired because this actor was not necessarily easy.   But neither is simplicity or, at times, honesty.  Though it is always the way to go.  No doubt the latter is something ZQ will be showing us more of in both not so simple and very simple ways in the days to come.

ADDENDUM:  I can report since this writing that ZQ has personally reached out to gay organizations and committees, including one in which I’m a member, offering his help when available.  In this case, his ACTIONS speak louder than his WORDS – and that is truly rare – and something which I greatly admire.  And when it is a choice between words and actions, let’s face it – we’ll take the latter every day of the week. Bravo.