Saturday, February 27, 2016

Oscar The Grouch

Oscar showing his true colors.


So here’s my two cents. 

I was talking to a theatre friend the other day about the Academy Awards and whiteness, and how it kind of makes this year’s Oscars like Moby-Dick, complete with harpoons in its flanks, and I said: “Y’know, if any of the movies up for Best Picture had been staged as plays in New York in the last twelve months, there would have been multi-cultural casting all over the place.” And my friend said “Except Manhattan Theatre Club,” and we both cackled with glee, because MTC is doing its White Male Season this year. But with that notorious exception, theatre in this city, for the most part, has it all over movies because the world which theatre is trying to reflect is New York City, and you can’t get more diverse. The world that movies is trying to reflect is the LA version of Davos. 

YOU: What’s Davos?
ME:  It’s where the World Economic Forum is held.
YOU:  Ah—rich white people.
ME: Rich anybody—because as long as you’re rich, you’re honorary white. All of them reaffirming the bubble they live in.
YOU:  New York is a bubble too.
ME:  Yeah, but its gum has more flavor. 

The point being, if it doesn’t say THIS GUY IS BLACK in the script, Hollywood doesn’t even think of casting a person of color in the part. Which is sadly one of the few times it ever actually honors the wishes of a writer. 

HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER:  You didn’t say he was black.
WRITER: If I said he was black, you would have asked me to make him white.
HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER:  And I cast a white guy anyway. See? It all works out! 

And you won’t hear it out loud for publication, but you can bet that someone somewhere in LA is saying “Black movies don’t make money,” or “Black actors don’t deliver good opening weekends,” which is the capitalist form of racism, as if movies can take on the color of a lead actor, or an actor’s connection to his or her audience is based not on talent but on melanin. It’s the same dismissal you get when movies are defined as “women’s films,” or when producers believe that boys will spend money to see Scarlett Johansson kick ass but not kiss assholes; and if it didn’t piss me off so much, I would pity these poor dopes, because they cannot view the world except through categories. They do not see people; they see types of people, they see metrics and they make assumptions about income and likes or dislikes based on an arbitrary category—the most public of which is the audience age breakdown that always gets talked about with each new movie. “We’re targeting males from 18 to 30!” the studios cry, and I would just love it if some nothing-to-lose reporter would respond by asking: “So are those white males or what?” Which, when it comes to Hollywood, is a rhetorical question. 

And I’m sorry, but adding people of color to the Academy voting rolls or their board of advisors, or whatever the hell they have, is pointless. Making the referees black doesn’t change an all-white football team. You need to field a team with diversity. If the product the Academy is judging for an award isn’t diverse in the first place, then the judges are still going to have to pick an MVP from that all-white roster. It’s Hollywood that needs to change; not just the Academy.  

Will it change? Doubtful. The whole Hollywood system is supported and perpetuated by its ability to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to money versus art. When people blame Hollywood for being artistically irresponsible, you get: “But we’re a business, we’re marketing a product here, and that has nothing to do with art.” And then when you accuse them of being the worst kind of crass number-crunching plutocrats, you get: “But movies are the cultural mainstay of our society, they’re the highest art form in creation, and that has nothing to do with money. And can somebody look up plutocrats for me?”
The truth is that, in the eyes of Hollywood, art is valued at precisely 1/365th the value of money, because that’s the ratio of how many days a year box office totals come first and how many days a year the Oscars are given out.

(And that was actually about twenty cents; sorry.) 

So. On to the Awards.


The trick to gaming the Oscars is trying to figure out how Old White Guys with gorgeous twenty-year-old female assistants will vote when presented with a list of films they slept through. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it’s hard. But it’s always a window into their brains. In the minor awards area, that window opens out onto a stage where Inside Out should win Best Animated Film and Amy should win Best Documentary; Foreign Language Film is either going to be Son of Saul or Mustang (probably Son of Saul because Holocaust); Original Score will go to either Morricone for Hateful 8 or John Williams for Star Wars: The Sequel Awakens; and Best Song will go to “Til It Happens To You” from a movie nobody saw because Lady Gaga.  

THE CYNIC IN ME: And by the way, Academy, you should be ashamed of yourself for nominating that feculent howler of a song from Spectre for ANYTHING. I mean, there’s clueless and then there’s fucking clueless, okay? 

The writing awards are a little trickier. I’d give Best Adapted Screenplay to The Big Short, because it was both a well-told story and an entertaining lecture. My other choice would be Room, for opening up the first-person narration of the novel without losing any of the charm and wonder of that point of view. Which one will the Academy pick?   

THE CYNIC IN ME: The Martian, because it had the snappiest dialogue, and the Old White Males probably think Matt Damon wrote it. 

Best Original Screenplay could legitimately go to any of the nominees except Bridge Of Spies and I would be happy. (Have I told you how much I hated Bridge of Spies? No?  Then you need to read this.) Inside Out was smart, Ex Machina was brilliant, Spotlight was solid, and—wait, there’s a movie about non-whites in this category? WTF! Wow. This could be where the Oscar actually attempt a little atonement. Bu-u-u-u-ut it won’t be, because none of the Old White Voters went to see it, thus fulfilling their prophecy that people don’t go to black films, and inadvertently clarifying their definition of “people.” Who will win? Smart and brilliant don’t stand a chance against solid in this world; Spotlight should get it.  

THE CYNIC IN ME: But solid doesn’t stand a chance against didactic, and that’s Bridge Of Spies to a T. Which is why I say Bridge of Spies. 

The shorts and the animated stuff: I usually see these at Landmark, but I didn’t this year, so I have no clue. And when I have no clue, I usually go by The Unwritten Rules Of Oscar. To wit: in anything live action, Holocaust trumps race; race trumps children; and children trump women. If there is a current medical issue, that pulls away in the stretch, as does any horse from the Middle East. As for the animated shorts, Pixar trumps everything, with the possible exception of Wallace and Gromit. Good luck. 

The rest of the categories all have Best Picture implications, because they are the early contests in which The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road are up against each other. They are: Cinematography, which should go to The Revenant; Costume Design, which should go to MM:FR; Film Editing (a toss-up; I’d give it to Mad Max); Makeup and Hairstyling (Mad Max 4ever); Production design (Mad Max 4sure); and the crucial Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, which are usually key indicators of Best Picture. Again, a toss-up.  As for visual effects, this may well go to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, not so much for breaking new ground but for replicating the old ground so exactly. If SW:TFA doesn’t get it, then I think the winner of this award will get Best Picture.


This should go to Mark Rylance, who’s the only good thing in Bridge Of Spies. (Okay; I’ll stop now.) 

THE CYNIC IN ME: No I won’t. 

Tom Hardy plays one note in Revenant, and he does it so well that you feel like every other character on-screen with him has to be blind and deaf not to see and hear that he’s a craven little shit. Christian Bale is also one note, but it’s a more complicated note: what every other character on-screen with him sees has nothing to do with his inner self, and he’s a good enough actor to let us see that and not them. Sylvester Stallone?  In a way, I’d love to see him get it because it’s just so typically Hollywood to give an award to the old white guy in the movie that stars the young black actor who should have been nominated but wasn’t. And then there’s Mark Ruffalo, who got the nomination because of his One Big Speech in Spotlight, but also because he’s just so Mark Ruffalo. If it’s not Rylance, then I think it’s going to be Ruffalo; and if he does win, then he’ll be winning as a representative of the entire cast, which means that Spotlight has a great chance to win Best Picture.  

Notably missing in this list: Benicio Del Toro in Sicario. (I really liked Sicario.)


This is an odd category this year, because it includes two women who should be up for Best Actress and aren’t: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl, and Rooney Mara for Carol. One of these two should win, and rightly so—neither of their movies would work without them. Mara totally looks like 1950’s Audrey Hepburn, which sells the period completely; plus she has the stillness to balance and anchor Cate Blanchett’s theatricality. And to my mind, Vikander is the Danish girl of her movie’s title. The heart of the movie lives in her, and her reaction to what and who her husband is. Either one would be a fabulous choice, and the only edge Vikander has is that she’s won earlier awards in the same category. As for the others, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a long shot for H8teful, Rachel McAdams is solid but not quite the female Ruffalo in Spotlight, and Kate Winslet is actually better in the five seconds she shows up in the Triple 9 trailer than she is in all of Steve Jobs. 


And the losers are: Cate Blanchett for Carol, who was a little too theatrical for my taste. (And besides, Sarah Paulson should have played Carol. She wouldn’t have been as glam, but I think Blanchett’s obvious flashiness was the main reason why the movie wasn’t as good as it thought it was. Paulson would have raised the movie to the next level. Given that she’s essentially the GBF in this film, what a missed opportunity.) Also a loser: Jennifer Lawrence, who had the misfortune to be great in an ambitious but so-so film; Charlotte Rampling, who was great in a small but slight film; and Saorsie Ronan, who was nowhere near as great as she’s been elsewhere in what is basically a Lifetime movie. 

That leaves Brie Larson, and the award is hers to lose. And rightly so. This movie punches your heart in so many different ways, and she's half the reason for that. The other half is Jacob Tremblay. The chemistry between the two of them is one of those HFS things that can move creative mountains. When Larson wins this award, it'll be his as much as hers. 

Notably missing from this list: Emily Blunt in Sicario. (I really really liked Sicario.)


And the losers are:  Bryan Cranston for Trumbo (It’s an honor to be nominated, Brian); Matt Damon for The Martian (Remember the five minutes when The Martian was going to win everything? Good times.); Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs (has anybody spouting Aaron Sorkin dialogue ever won an acting Oscar?); Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl (you won it last year, pommy boy; and besides, it’s Alicia Vikander’s movie); and Michael B Jordan for not even getting nominated for Creed while Stallone was.

That leaves Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant, the odds-on favorite to win the male version of the Uglified Babe Oscar that went to Nicole Kidman for The Hours and Charlize Theron for Monster. Because really, all he does in this movie is grunt and look like shit. Which you and I do before we shower every morning, so where’s our fucking Oscar? 

Personally, I think the Oscar should go to one guy who deserves to be on this list and isn’t: Tom Hardy, for Legend. Even though it wasn’t the greatest movie in the world, and  I was one of maybe 50 people in the country who saw it, the work he did to make each of the Cray twins unique was phenomenal. It’s on par with what Jeremy Irons did in Dead Ringers, and you all know how great that was. 

YOU: I don’t.
ME: Then you need to WATCH IT RIGHT NOW. Plus it’s a Cronenberg movie.
YOU: Hot damn. Wait—it’s not crappy later Cronenberg, is it?
ME: Nope. 1988—between Dead Zone and Naked Lunch.
YOU: Yowza! 


All five nominees here are also up for Best Picture, and only one nominee has won before, so does the Academy go for the double-play or do they mix and match? Will they give Alejandro Innaritu his second Director Oscar in a row? Will they give it to George Miller for basically being the Bernie Sanders of directors (age and politics both)? Or do they reward the Funny Or Die cleverness of Big Short, the solid workmanship of Spotlight, or the subtle handheld brilliance of Room? All I can say is, I really want to see George Miller win this. In fact, I would rather see him win this instead of Best Picture, because he shares one thing in common with Innaritu—the movies they made would look and feel completely different if anybody else had been at the helm. The only other film I think you can say that about is Big Short; it has a very specific stamp on it, and it’s not Adam McKay’s usual stamp. Room and Spotlight are stampless—the direction serves the story, which makes it invisible, even when it’s unique. So which way do you lean? Direction that’s invisible, or direction that looks like DIRECTION?  

THE CYNIC IN ME: We’re talking Hollywood. Guess. 

Flashy it is then. My heart says Miller will get it. But my head says Innaritu. But my inner Old White Guy says Tom McCarthy for Spotlight.


The great thing about great movies is that you can re-watch them over and over and still get something out of them. The sad thing about the Oscars is that they almost always go to a movie that you only watch once.  

ME:  Seriously: who’s seen The King’s Speech or Slumdog Millionaire recently? Anyone? I didn’t think so.
YOU:  But then: Lawrence of Arabia. Casablanca.  So it cuts both ways.
ME: Maybe so, but the watch-it-only-once side is the thicker cut. 

In the Re-Watch Me Race, Mad Max: Fury Road is the frontrunner. I could see that again right now, which I certainly can’t say about  Bridge of Spies even if you put a Kalashnikov to my head. (Okay; I could re-watch all the Mark Rylance scenes, but that’s it.) And Brooklyn was sweet but a little too Masterpiece Theatre safe, and The Martian was fun but it’s one of those films that seems bigger than it really is when you see it in a theatre—watch it on TV and it’s not going to have the same (cough) Gravity (cough). Spotlight and The Big Short are flip sides of the same ripped-from-the-headlines coin, one earnest and one snarky—and yeah, I could re-watch them if they showed up on HBO, one because it’s comforting, one because it’s confrontational—so they each have possibilities.  But really—is there anyone with a certificate of mental health who wants to sit through The Revenant again?  

YOU: Not me, and I’m half-crazy.
ME: And I’m the other half. I liked this movie a lot better when it was Jeremiah Johnson. 

That leaves Room, which is the one movie in this list which was so powerful and wrenching that it’s not that I don’t want to see it again, but that I don’t think I can, because it’s either going to put me through the same wringer all over again, which would be devastating; or it won’t, which would be even more devastating. To my mind, that’s the kind of movie that deserves awards: the kind you’re wary of seeing twice because you’re afraid it might wreck you all over again and even more afraid that it won’t. 

Will it win? Probably not. Judging the movies against each other on their own Oscar-Worthy merits thins the field in a different way. The Big Short is too snarky, Room is too disturbing without being appropriately uplifting and comforting (in other words, it tells a disturbing story without undercutting it with a unrealistically comforting message, which is Death To Oscar), and Mad Max: Fury Road is a stealth-female-lead action-adventure movie that tells the same story twice—once from right to left, once from left to right.  

Now by rights The Revenant should be in this group as well, because it’s basically a revenge western, and when not even The Searchers gets nominated for an Oscar, you’re talking genre suicide.
THE CYNIC IN ME: Trivia question: what is the only award that The Searchers won when it came out? A Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer: Patrick Wayne. Ah-hahahahahaha!)
But—and it’s a big old but—the way The Revenant was filmed, with its long single-shot takes and natural lighting cinematography, are like a neon sign saying THIS MEANS THE MOVIE IS AN ARTISTIC STATEMENT. Because if you take those two things away, all you have left is an Anthony Mann western with a shitty script. I mean, look at the title. When the title is a word that the old men in the Academy have to ask their twenty-something female assistants to look up in the dictionary, that spells ART. 

So The Revenant gets into the Oscar-Worthy group because it plays into  the Academy’s self-importance when they say The Movies are all about Art and not money. And the other movies in the group? They are all, at bottom, inoffensive.  Bridge of Spies isn’t even dramatic; Tom Hanks is always right, and everybody else is a shallow moron except for the Russian spy he defends, who is the only real human being in the whole movie, thanks to Mark Rylance’s performance. Brooklyn is a feel-good movie about the European immigrant experience, which is the only immigration experience that speaks to Old Man Hollywood; he gets to watch this and say “We did all right by those Irish and Italians, didn’t we?” The Martian, which (not counting all those Native Americans in The Revenant) actually has more diversity in its cast than all the other nominated movies combined, is MacGyver In Space, which is an inherently fabulous pitch, a delightfully entertaining movie experience,  and an ultimately weightless affair. Which leaves us with Spotlight, whose implied message of good-old-American can-do truth-revealing reporters-against-a-conspiracy-of-silence gumption is just the kind of message Old Man Hollywood loves. If it was just set in LA, it would be a shoo-in. (Rumor has it that, during an early script conference, some studio DB actually suggested that the story be set in LA because “movies about Boston never make money.”) 

YOU: Really?
ME: No, I just made that up.
YOU: Doesn’t sound made up.
ME: I know; sad, isn’t it? 

So. As much as I’d love to see Mad Max: Fury Road win, if only because it would the second-ever movie with a colon in its title to get Best Picture, it’s either going to be The Revenant or Spotlight. Revenant is the front-runner based on earlier awards, but I think the Old White Males who run the show behind the show want to feel good about themselves this year, and what better way to do that than to vote against child abuse by giving the Oscar to Spotlight?  

THE CYNIC IN ME: Hey—that’s my line! 


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Love Is

        for Dawn & Dave

Love is the song that can’t fit all the words
   Into the tune and still say what you feel,
So half of what you sing is for the birds;
   And, if you’re lucky, half of it is real.
Love is the gala that will bring you fame;
   You charm, take charge, go nuts, beg, steal and borrow.
And when it’s done, you check to see who came,
   And start it all over again tomorrow.
Love is the gift that takes after it gives.
   When it’s true love, you never want it back.
It writes a song where something precious lives.
   It plans your fête; and shows you that you lack
      Nothing in you to be the equal of
      The song a bell sings when it’s made of love. 


Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells


Friday, February 19, 2016

Do You Have To Ask?

“You went somewhere just now, where did you go?”
   “Ah; nowhere anyone but me can live.”
“Your own personal hell then?” “Yes and no.”
   “Are you the sinner there, or do you give
Out punishment?” “Both. I am my own devil.”
   “And aren’t we all. I’m only tempted by
What tickles me on some self-centered level.”
   “Same here. Show me the lost, the sad, and I
Will murder God to help them. That’s my hell.”
   “The mortal sin of generosity.”
“That’s where I went just now. I almost fell
   Into the trap of being That Dark Me.”
      “It’s my trap too.” “So if we’re both its whores,
      I’ll show you my hell, if you show me yours.”

Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Get Out Of My Mind


What goes on underneath those piercing eyes
    When they see me? Do they perceive the joke
I think I am, the saint who hates all lies
    Because of all the promises he broke?
What do you see—an old man acting young,
   Or someone young inside an aging shell?
A ballad fading out or still unsung?
   Someone who casts a shadow or a spell?
I’d like to be a threat, but if you do
   See me that way, just run—run far from me.
I’ll hurt you till the thing you thought was true
   Becomes a lie that wounds you mortally.
      Don't trust my words—I want you to believe them.
      Don't trust your eyes—I know how to deceive them.

Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells

Monday, February 15, 2016


"Mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out
a death sentence properly reached." 
       --attributed to Antonin Scalia

I love to see the schmucks who smugly snivel
   And fight their living enemies with lies
Become the saints who say we should be civil
   And act respectful when an asshole dies—
Because he was their asshole, and defended
   Privilege with legal chapter and worse,
And always made sure that he condescended
   When his dissents put the die in diverse.
He was a Pecksniff full of poppycock,
   So don’t ask me to praise this clever prig
For trying to turn back the social clock
   To 1850. I’ll just dance a jig.
      And since deaths come in threes, dear God, please promise
      The next are Kissinger and Clarence Thomas.


Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells

Sunday, February 14, 2016

My Bloody Valentines

                     1. The Possibility

If you would speak with me, cut out your tongue
   And I will read the message in your eyes.
If you would age with me, always be young
   Enough to mystify the old and wise.
If you would walk with me, remove your feet
   From shoes and socks, and feel the naked earth
Cuddle against your toes, for Life’s a street
   That paves Love over, smothering its worth.
If you would fly with me, bind up your wings
   And leap with me from the great mountaintop
Of passion, trusting that—when the wind sings
   Through our feathers—our fall will never stop.
      If you would live with me, then you must die
      To nothing but the right to say goodbye.

                     2. The Vacation Spot 

I map you with my eyes, and chart the places
   I want to visit, if I can get past
Customs with all my baggage (and suitcases)
   Cleared for however long my travels last.
And yes, I’ll hit the sights everyone’s seen—
   The have-to-do that and the must-go-there—
And taste your charms and sample your cuisine.
   But I would rather see the places where
Your true delights live, not the packaged pleasures—
   Where no one goes except the ones you trust
To know you utterly—your hidden treasures.
   I crave those with a passion beyond lust.
      Men come and go, which is the tourist’s sin;
      I’d rather stay and be your citizen. 

                  3. Skin Girl

I say I want someone I cannot live
   Without, but every time I feel desire,
It’s for someone I lust for and don’t give
   Two fucks about, except for the damn fire
That burns in me when she extends a limb.
   It’s like I’m Rome and Love just wants me torched.
They’re either bright and cool or hot and dim.
   Why can’t I just be warm instead of scorched?
Why do I have to fight so I can win,
   Like Love’s a battlefield of compromises?
I air-kiss Heaven and French kiss the sin.
   My heart wants what the rest of me despises:
      The chance to share my soul, not just my bed,
      With someone who will be my wine and bread.
                                  4. The Moment

You surge against me like a waterfall.
   I feel your perfect-for-piano hands.
I hear your laughter like a mating call.
   I think of what integrity demands.
I know that the next moment is the one
   That will determine how this night will end:
To let love rule till friendship is undone
   Or with love do no more than friend to friend.
The next step we take here on passion’s cliff
   Determines if we walk away or plummet—
One word creates forever from an if;
   We can betray this moment or become it.
      One night will feed the hunger in our eyes—
      But here and now, it’s better to be wise.

                       5. The Flirt 

When you walk in a room, you make live hearts
   Beat faster, and dead hearts come back to life.
Your smiles pop sad balloons like happy darts;
   Your laugh stabs gloom to death like a bright knife.
You hang on this one’s arm or that one’s shoulder;
   I watch and think: “I wish that could be me,”
Or ask myself: “When do I get to hold her?”
   The answer’s never. You don’t flirt with me.
You’ll work a room from intimate to stranger
   And never start a fire you can’t put out.
You leave my heart untouched, because there’s danger
   In teasing what I’m serious about.
      Because your heart knows mine, you’d only dare
       To hug and kiss me if I didn’t care.

                         6. The Ghost

Above me all the stars are cold and bright.
   The wind cuts through my layers like a knife.
Head down, I wonder who you’re with tonight—
   The drummer, or the lawyer with the wife.
I’m walking even though my ankles ache.
   I like the pain because it makes me feel.
My heart is colder than an Arctic wake.
   I skate around our grave like it’s not real.
I have a friend who likes to tell me lies.
   She says: “I bet she thinks of you a lot.”
You don’t. You walk away when something dies.
   You hate the past. You don’t give it a thought,
      And never waste your time, the way I do,
      Thinking of someone who is dead to you. 

                      7. The Dream

I could die happy if I got the eye
   Faye Dunaway shoots at her handsome hood
Before all the machine gun bullets fly
   At the end of Bonnie and Clyde. I could
Die happy if I found a Mrs. Peel
   To say I’m needed—one who’d be as cool
With me as Rigg was with MacNee, and steal
   My heart like it’s a scene, and be a jewel
That winks and sparkles. And I could die happy
   If I could find a Hepburn or Roz Russell
Who can machine-gun dialogue that’s snappy
   And with whom life would be a screwball tussle.
      Just give me someone fierce and cool and clever
      And my unhappiness will die forever.
Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells


Friday, February 12, 2016



What we forget when we say “recognition”
   Is that it means an echo—nothing more.
To recognize means that, by definition,
   It feels familiar—we’ve seen it before.
So when something appears that is so new
   There is no pigeonhole in which to set it
And nothing common to compare it to,
   The world says “It’s no good!” or “I don’t get it!”
Oh, they would gladly recognize me when
   I write like someone else—but if I dare
To carve or paint, compose or push a pen
   Like nobody they know, they just don’t care.
      Which hurts—but I can’t say that I’m surprised.
      When you’re unique, you can’t be recognized.


Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells


Friday, February 5, 2016

We Interrupt This Story

Proposition: All stories are information delivered through time. How that information is delivered, in the time it takes to tell the story, is style. Like flashback, for instance, where a present-day character begins to talk about something that happened to her ages ago, and then we see it come to life. (For a really great example of this that you’ve probably never seen, hunt down That Hamilton Woman with Vivien Leigh.) Or like voiceover narration, where a bodiless voice comments on what we’re looking at. (Which is normally the sign of a really crappy movie, because most of the time it’s done in post-production; but for a really great example of voiceover (as a deliberate creative style) that you’ve probably forgotten, go watch The Opposite of Sex with Christina Ricci.) 
Two recent movies—one kind of a mess, one kind of brilliant; one told via flashback, one told via not only voiceover but fourth-wall-breaking narration—share a third storytelling technique: stopping the narrative dead in its tracks. In the flashback case, it’s to send us up the timeline to focus on the storyteller; in the voiceover case, it’s to deliver complicated pieces of information as entertainingly as possible.  
Because of this, one of them not only doesn’t work, its lack of success in the style area is like the icing on the failure cake. What movie am I talking about?  Here’s a hint:
So if they got the dash-in-the-title correct here . . .

In In the Heart of The Sea, pretty much everything is a mess. The CGI is a mess. The plot is a mess. There’s a Mutiny On The Bounty storyline, a class war storyline, an oil-companies-are-assholes-even-in-the-1800’s storyline, a truth versus cover-up storyline, a whaling storyline, a Jaws storyline, a Hawthorne-envy storyline from Herman Melville; and to top it all off, you also get one of the worst regional accents ever committed to film by a lead actor who’s rich enough to pay for a whole college of vocal coaches.
All of which is continually interrupted by the frame story, which revolves around a we-did-a-horrible-thing-to-survive secret. And when I say continually interrupted, I mean frustratingly interrupted. Every time you get sucked into the flashback, bang, you’re back listening to the heavy-set Fenian who got bludgeoned to death by Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York talking to the weedy Brit who plays Q in the current Bond movies, and you don’t fucking care. It’s like every time you round third base and head for home, you have to stop dead in your tracks while the color commentator analyzes your running technique.
And The Big Secret these narrative interruptions are designed to reveal? It’s no real secret at all if you know the story, and no great shakes even if you don’t, because this is a Hollywood movie and you can’t show it—although I bet if they did, they’d still get a PG-13 and not an R. They’d only get an R if somebody said “Fuck—this ensign tastes like fucking chicken.”
And in the end it’s just laughable. I mean, after being stranded on an island and forced to endure incredible privations at sea, our hero arrives home years later dressed in exactly the same outfit in which he left, and in pretty much the same physical condition in which he left, which made me think that Ron Howard filmed the departure and arrival scenes one right after the other, without anyone saying “Hey Ron—since, uhm, we’re gonna make Hemsworth lose a hundred pounds for the starvation scenes, don’t you think we should wait till then to film his return to Nantucket?” 
And it’s probably the same guy who didn’t say “Hey Ron—since we show the actual printed title of Herman Melville’s novel, don’t you think we should put the dash between Moby and Dick? Y’know, just for the sake of authenticity?”
Which is the kind of interruption this movie could have benefited from. In stark contrast to which, you have a movie whose interruptions are just as frequent, but not as frustrating:
Only two of these guys are ever in the same scene together.
The Big Short interrupts its story at least as often as In The Heart of The Beast, but it’s nowhere near as annoying. Part of this is because Beast took a simple story—“We’re supposed to be hunting whales but the whale is hunting us!”—and made it needlessly complicated by adding a longboat full of other stories simply because they didn’t trust the one they had; while Short takes an incredibly complicated subject and boils it down to one underlying message that is the foundation of the film, and why it’s a success: “What you call the truth is actually a lie.”
Right from the get-go, the movie has a narrator, who turns out to be one of its characters. This is what we used to refer to in the last century as Brechtian, but is now called meta—somebody in the story saying “We’re telling a story here.” And it happens throughout the film. Every now and then somebody will turn to the camera and say “That actually happened,” or “This didn’t actually happen this way,” or “Yes, we actually did that and thought of that.” Or the narrator will stop the story dead in its tracks to say, “And now, here’s Margot Robbie to explain mortgage-backed securities while drinking champagne in a bubble bath.” And she does. And it makes sense.
So right from the start, the audience gets the message that this is not the kind of movie which will require them to lean forward in anticipation as Chris Hemsworth hurls a harpoon; instead, this is the kind of movie you would get if  Michael Moore had directed Margin Call. (Another one you should hunt down.)  You’re not asked to become emotionally invested in any of the characters—you get Law And Order level backstory for pretty much everyone except Steve Carrell’s character. And the level of detail we’re given about him is so high, compared to what we get about everyone else, that it's like something from another film. But it’s not high enough to feel like more than just another interruption, one that totally wastes Marisa Tomei as Carell’s put-upon spouse and makes Carell’s one big emotional scene feel, well, kind of embarrassing, really. Me—I would have paid cash money to see Tomei kiss Carell’s forehead at the end of that scene, turn to the camera, and say: “This didn’t really happen, but we wanted to give at least one of the assholes in this movie a character arc.” That would have killed.
Other than that misstep, The Big Short is a very smart movie, which knows it’s smart, and ends up making you smart about stuff that people who’ve worked in the financial industry for years have always known about the business: supposedly-above-it-all rating agencies are just as venal (and capitalistic) as their clients (“If we don’t give it a good rating, they’ll go to Moody’s!”), people on the enforcement side are literally sleeping with people on the corporate side (especially when it comes to Goldman Sachs), and the sad-but-true fact that complicated financial instruments are complicated for a reason: so you’ll trust the fools who explain them to you enough to think you’re getting a steal when you buy them. But there’s always and only one steal going on here.
And the other wickedly fun thing about this movie? Because the underdogs (who are this movie's heroes) predicted the financial crisis of 2008, by rooting for them to win, you’re rooting for the crash to happen. 
Now THAT’S Brechtian.

"I love Brecht. Now f#©k off."

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

In The End

                       for Vicki Rose

In the end, we are all the toys of Fate.
   She plays with us until we either break
Or she gets bored, and throws us off the great
   High cliff of Life, a journey all things take.
In the end, all the things we never did
   Die with us, like stowaways on a ship
That’s lost at sea—unknown; unmarked amid
   The victims; but still held in Death’s tight grip.
And after all the charity, the sinning,
   The faith you kept so none would ever doubt you—
In the end, there is only one beginning:
   The story of what happens next without you.
      Our fate is to ignore the obvious.
      In the end, Life goes on. Just not with us. 


Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells

Monday, February 1, 2016

How To Submit

February is many things besides Black History Month, the home of President’s Day and Valentine’s Day, and the longest four weeks of the year.  

But for playwrights, it’s only one thing: National Rejection Letter Month.  

The month when playwrights around the country breathe a sigh of relief when their e-mail inbox and their letter mailbox is overflowing with discount offers and flyers for other people’s plays which aren’t half as clever or moving as theirs are. Or bills. Or IRS audit notifications. Or anything except letters from theatres they sent a play to six months ago. 

The month when they dread opening e-mails or letters and see the words “we received nearly a million applications,” “our selection process was extremely difficult,” “we appreciate your interest,” “we read your play with great interest,” “we wish you the best of luck,” and those three killer words which show up in every single one of them, “unfortunately,” and “we regret.”

A few weeks ago, I was reading the January issue of Poetry Magazine, in which Vidyan Ravinthiran, in reviewing Jon Silkin’s Collected Poems, talks about the “all-important Stamped Addressed Envelope” as part of the submission process. 

The SAE has always been, I suppose, a gesture of status-confirming humility—you provide the editor with all necessary postage, then your spurned works return in an envelope on which you’ve written your own name, almost as if you’ve rejected yourself; nowadays, of course, there’s often a website telling you “How to Submit.” 

"Almost as if you’ve rejected yourself." Oh man, did that get under my armor.

So I pulled out my notebook and wrote a sonnet, which I read to my writer’s group, after which I squirreled it away to be posted and shared today. Because it’s National Rejection letter Month. And it’s all about submission, baby.

                How To Submit

Send out a self-addressed stamped envelope
   So that you may be spurned on your own dime.
Believe that no response means there’s still hope!
   (Acceptance is not instant—it takes time.)
Present yourself at each swipe of the whip
   Of a pro forma form rejection letter;
And when you read the word “relationship,”
   Bite on your ballgag and try to do better.
Accept that it’s a system built to screw you
   And push you to the limit till you blow.
And yes, it's hell when no one wants to do you—
   Masochists say “Hurt me!” Sadists say “No!”—
      But don’t forget, they’re all your competition—
      To beat them soundly takes constant submission. 


Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells