Who Really Named This Website?

Orange cat sits in the sunlight, looking calm.

What’s better than me? Photo courtesy of Merlijn Hoek via Creative Commons on Flickr.

I thought I coined the phrase “better than a baby,” but it turns out the legendary movie director Preston Sturges beat me to it. Of his 11 rules for box office appeal, the last three are:

9. A baby is better than a kitten.

10. A kiss is better than a baby.

11. A pratfall is better than anything.

Not sure how much of a kindred spirit Preston was, given that his #1 rule is “A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.” But I’m happy to see my website’s name has some Hollywood cred.

Photo credit: Cat waiting patiently, by Merlijn Hoek, via Creative Commons on Flickr.

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Who’s Your Babadook?

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Image by swxxii, via Creative Commons.

When a movie haunts me months after I’ve seen it, I try to figure out why. One of the films from last year that I just can’t stop thinking about is the low-budget Australian horror film The Babadook.

I kind of freaked out when I saw this movie at one of my favorite theaters in Boston. I was enthralled throughout, but afterwards felt so disturbed, so alienated, that I made a quick and ungraceful exit from the friends I’d seen it with and almost literally ran away.

The movie isn’t very gory, though there are a few violent moments. It’s terrifying because of its psychological accuracy, and because of the powerful anchoring performance by Essie Davis.

Here’s an interview with her about the international reaction to the film.

The story is about a single mom, Amelia, and her young son, Samuel, who has behavioral problems (i.e., acts like a right little monster). They find a creepy picture book in their apartment about a creature called the Babadook, which preys on children. And Samuel becomes convinced that the Babadook has invaded their house.

This plot taps into primal fears–some of which, as a non-parent, I can only skate along the surface of. Wanting to protect your child is hardwired into mothers, and I can barely imagine what it must feel like to have your offspring be threatened.

What the movie’s really brave about is that Amelia also bears a deep resentment toward her son. Samuel is a difficult and infuriating little boy, and the Babadook is a manifestation of Amelia’s own rage. So her life-and-death struggle with the monster is really a struggle with herself.

This is all deeply freaky–William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, said that it’s the scariest movie he’s ever seen. But I was still struggling to find out why it tipped me over the edge like that.

I’ve struggled in the past with obsessive-compulsive thoughts, and some of them involved a fear that I was going to harm others. These thoughts are now gone from my life, due to some awesome therapy and a great book about obsessive-compulsive disorder: Brain Lock.

But this movie, with its themes of harming those you most love, tickled those old terrors back to life. The only antidote was to rush home and watch Masters of Sex until I felt reassured of my own sanity.

Anyway, if you’re a horror fan and haven’t seen The Babadook yet–what are you waiting for? It’s terrific. But it will also freak. You. Out. You’ve been warned!

Where Are All the Childfree Protagonists?

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Tatiana Maslany speaking at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con. She plays a clone, and a mom, on the BBC America show Orphan Black. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore  (via Creative Commons) on Flickr.

I’ve been looking for movies and TV series with compelling adult characters who aren’t parents. And mostly, I’ve been drawing a blank.

Seems like when a screenwriter wants to amp up the tension, a “Don’t take my baby!” storyline often is the go-to option. Even on an unconventional show like Orphan Black–a science fiction drama involving clones–our main character, Sarah, is driven by her desire to have access to her small daughter, who has been in foster care.

I was pleased to see a childfree couple, the ruthless and brilliant Frank and Claire Underwood, on the Netflix series House of Cards. The fact that they don’t have kids fits them well: they’re a driven pair, angling for political power, and for them, kids would be a distraction. Even though this contributes to one of the big stereotypes about childfree people–that we’re selfish–it’s a brave choice for the writers to make.

On the wonderful, eerie French drama The Returned (also available on Netflix), one central character, Julie, has no kids and winds up caring for a mysterious little boy. I liked that dynamic, but Julie is more childless than childfree–there is the implication (a few episodes in) that she physically cannot have children, rather than that she’s chosen to live without them.

Characters I identify with are often parents: Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, for example. Even dark protagonists like Walter White on Breaking Bad and Don Draper on Mad Men are dads, and fatherhood is a key motivator.

Can you think of movie or TV characters who have chosen not to have kids, or are portrayed as content without them?

Sad Movies Versus Depressing Movies

I love sad movies, but I can’t stand depressing movies.

What’s the difference? It’s the way you feel at the end.

Two recent movies about race and tragedy in America illustrate the distinction.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. Image credit: Fox Searchlight, via Screencrush.

12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. During his years of forced labor on a plantation, he had to witness and endure unspeakable brutality. As viewers, we do the same–though at a safe distance.

12 Years is powerful. But for all its high production values and sterling performances, it’s ultimately a depressing movie. I walked out of it nauseated and feeling hopeless about American civilization.

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Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station. Image credit: The Weinstein Company, via Us Magazine.

In sharp contrast is Fruitvale Station, which also came out last year and also tells a remarkably sad true story. Fruitvale is about Oscar Grant, a young black man who was shot and killed by police in an Oakland, CA train station on New Year’s Eve 2009.

I’m glad I watched Fruitvale at home, since I cried loudly at several parts. But while I was heartbroken at the end, I was not for a moment depressed. That’s because the writer/director, Ryan Coogler, infuses the story with humor and humanity.

The film follows Oscar on the last day of his life. We see him playing with his young daughter and buying food he can’t afford for his mom’s birthday dinner. Amid this normality, and the everyday tensions of Oscar’s life, you can feel what’s coming, like the distant rumble of a train.

What breaks your heart is how close Oscar gets to making it–to escaping from the trap he’s in as a young black American male with a criminal history. He almost makes it. But not quite.

I’m not saying these two movies have the same objective or are telling the same tale. But after watching Fruitvale, I felt moved and inspired–inspired to write a movie that good someday, to learn more about the reasons our country’s justice system is so sick and broken.

After 12 Years a Slave, I felt like I’d been bludgeoned for a couple of hours. With a really beautiful weapon.

We are shown in the opening moments of Fruitvale that Oscar will get killed. You would think that this might reduce the film’s tension. But in a weird way, it invested me more deeply in Oscar’s story.

It’s like when you watch Hamlet. You know things aren’t gonna end well for the Great Dane. But you can’t help hoping he’ll somehow turn the situation around.

Somehow, knowing Solomon will escape in 12 years takes me off the hook as a viewer. But watching Fruitvale, I want to save Oscar with my sheer desire for him and his family to be OK.

What do you think about these movies–or other sad movies?

A Setback and a Triumph

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last few months, I completed a short screenplay that I started writing over two years ago. It’s a horror movie, an adaptation of a story I read years back that I couldn’t get out of my head.

I wrote a draft in fall 2011 and gave myself nightmares. The tale is dark. It tapped into some of my most secret fears. I wasn’t comfortable diving deeper into them.

Last October I reread it and liked it more than I expected to. My writing group read my draft and, instead of deciding that I was a creepy weirdo for having written such a thing, gave enthusiastic feedback.

I started revising, and investigating how to get permission for my adaptation. This would be necessary if I were to try to produce the film, or enter it in a contest–put it out into the world in any way.

After running a gauntlet of reps, lawyers, publishers, and other gatekeepers, today I got my official answer:

No.

The author, who is well known, has a policy of only taking permissions requests from well-established agents or screenwriters with whom he is familiar. I understand that he needs to protect himself from a million screaming fanboys. But I am truly bummed. This is the first script I’ve written that is strong enough to produce. And I can’t.

On the other hand…This is the first script I’ve written that is strong enough to produce. After two years sitting in a drawer because it scared me so much, and another four months of revisions, it is solid. I’m so proud that I wrote it.

I think adapting from existing sources suits me well, since plot is the hardest element for me about screenwriting. Next time, I’ll get permission first before I really throw myself into it.

In the meantime, I’m working on an original, feature-length screenplay. Permissions not an issue. Plot? That’s another story…

Movie Review: TiMER

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Image courtesy of cinema.theiapolis.com.

What if you could have scientific proof about finding your soul mate? That’s the premise of TiMER, a subtle little movie that blends romantic comedy with science fiction.

Here’s the concept: In the five-minutes-from-now future, a hip technology company has invented a device called the TiMER that signals you when you’ve found the love of your life. People get it implanted in their wrist (about as painful as getting your ears pierced).

Once implanted, the TiMER is blank–until, somewhere out there, your soul mate gets theirs too. Then your TiMER begins a countdown, showing the number of hours until you meet your other half. When it goes off–days, weeks, or years later–you lock eyes with someone, their timer goes off too, and you know your search is over.

(The movie is from 2009–if it were made today, the TiMER would probably be an app!)

The protagonist, Oona (Emma Caulfield, from Buffy), is right around 30, and has a TiMER that’s still blank. She’s feeling adrift. Her sister Steph (Michelle Borth) has a TiMER that says she has years to go before she finds her “One.” She dulls her bitterness about this by having commitment-free sex with as many guys as possible. But only guys with TiMERs: as Steph puts it, “TiMER-less guys are so angsty and conflicted.”

TiMER abounds with clever dialogue and rude humor, but it’s not for a moment cynical. The screenplay (by director Jac Schaeffer) is compassionate toward its characters, all of whom are blundering their way to love…or, to a match made through total surrender to technology.

This movie (streamable on Netflix!) got me thinking about the whole concept of “the One.” I don’t think humans have only one soul mate. We’re wired to respond to each other for various reasons, and even the most selective of us (like moi) will probably get to know a dozen or so people we could happily spend our lives with.

So how do you know when you’re ready to be done with the search, and settle with your mate? That I don’t know first-hand–my TiMER hasn’t gone off yet! Those of you with partners, what do you think?

“Orange is the New Black” and the Bad Teeth Rule

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Photo courtesy of Netflix and Slate.

Orange is the New Black is a terrific new Netflix original series set in a women’s prison. It’s funny, at times painful, and whip-smart. The acting is all top-notch, and the writing is intelligent (the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, also created the Showtime series Weeds).

And the cast is truly diverse in their races, body types, and gender expression (Buzzfeed has a great guide here). (Asians are underrepresented, but that may be an accurate depiction of prison demographics.)

Of course, this being America, everyone’s just a little prettier than they need to be.

The show makes attempts at uglifying its characters: a junkie’s skin tone gets green and corpse-like as she’s detoxing, and people sweat convincingly. A few even have bad teeth–though, in fine Deadwood tradition, only the least sympathetic characters are allowed to.

Don’t get me wrong. I love looking at these women. I love that they aren’t all skinny. More than that, I love that they’re individuals. And even the most gorgeous among them never look plastic or styled.

They all look like real people. It’s pathetic how grateful that makes me.

But there are certain lines that are not crossed. We glimpse no armpit hair or leg hair, for example. No one has acne. But then again, why would they? We’re paying to watch this, so there has to be a layer of illusion in place…right?

The opening credits highlight how far the show’s creators are willing to push the envelope on female appearances. They show a montage of women’s faces, containing flaws that are mostly lacking on the show: moles, upper-lip hair, dark spots on cheeks.

Successful film actresses don’t have these distinctive markings. They couldn’t work in Hollywood if they did. You couldn’t cast a show that REALLY looks like the people I see walking around Boston.

The women of “Orange is the New Black” are a remarkable group. And the show’s creators deserve full credit for that. I just wonder when we’ll be ready to let all those other, wonderfully flawed faces speak.

Maybe that’s what documentaries are for?

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth didn’t make a movie between 2004’s Primer and this year’s Upstream Color. In the intervening nine years, I’m not sure how he spent his time. But his new movie is gorgeous and mysterious, and well worth the wait.

It’s almost impossible to describe Upstream Color’s plot, and I don’t quite know why. It’s not incredibly experimental or nonlinear, and I’m sure you could analyze the heck out of it, both logically and philosophically. But it hooked me on a cellular level, the way David Lynch’s movies do. Like Lynch’s work, Carruth’s movies make sense to my guts and my DNA, even when my brain says “Hunh?”.

Upstream Color is a horror movie, a love story, a science fiction film, and a fantasy. It is about mind control, about codependency in relationships, about physical and emotional attraction, about the way humans abuse each other’s trust and the trust of other animals. It is about Henry David Thoreau’s desire to live deliberately. It is about parasites, pigs, abduction, rape, and marriage. I saw it with my buddy Alex, and he summarized it in two words: “Psychedelic bacon.” Once you see it, you’ll know exactly what he means.