Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

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A Lesson from St. Vincent and The Fisher King

** SPOILER ALERT *** If you haven’t seen these two movies, consider reading this essay after you do.

Watching Bill Murray’s film St. Vincent last week, I was reminded of another movie: The Fisher King, starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams.  Both the 1991 and 2014 releases are similar, not just because they’re manipulative and contrived, but because they could potentially lead one to view the more downtrodden among us differently.  How?  Well, that depends on how you look at things.  For some, the movies might invoke a spirited response similar to that of Christopher Tookey, who wrote of the Fisher King:

"The sagacity of the saga is diminished by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's naively sentimental approach to homelessness and insanity.  Madness in this film can be cured just by knowing that someone cares about you, and homelessness is not a social problem, but a picturesque way that individuals have of coping with personal tragedy.”

Whereas Tookey feared people could stop viewing homelessness as a real problem, I remember walking away from The Fisher King with a more positive thought:  that its tale of a personal tragedy might lead people to view homeless in a more humane way, concluding that perhaps it wasn’t drug use, crime, or other poor choices that led their downfall, but rather a terrible event over which they had no control.

Never mind that generalizing a film’s depiction of a fictional character as a universal truth is unfair to a medium that’s primary purpose is to entertain.  After all, just because Robin Williams’s character suffered a horrendous tragedy doesn’t mean all homeless people have.  But it might be a positive step when we’re confronted with, say, a panhandler, to help use the movie as an example, and consider that this person asking for money may once have been living a full and rich life only to have a tragedy propel them downward (of course, you could argue that it shouldn’t matter one way or the other.  A person in need is a person in need, no matter what led to their circumstances).

St. Vincent walks a similar line to that of The Fisher King.  Its egregiously manipulative screenplay has the main character – who’s been a complete ass for most of the film – conveniently throw out the remnants of his nobler past just as a neighborhood kid watches through a window, thus casting the curmudgeon in a new light.  Like The Fisher King, this film seems to shout out, “Don’t judge a person too harshly – you don’t know what he’s been through.”

And as contrived as this message may be, this is exactly the default setting we should be employing in our lives.  When someone cuts us off on the highway, treats us inconsiderately at the cash register or demeans us at the doctor’s office, it’s easy for us to conclude that the person we’re dealing with is simply a low-life asshole who thinks of nothing but himself.  And you know what?  The easy conclusion may actually be right on the mark. 

But aren’t we much better served by assuming that the person who’s cut us off on the highway is in a terrible hurry because he just found out his spouse has cancer, or the inconsiderate cashier just discovered she can’t pay this month’s rent, or the demeaning physician just had to tell a patient that he’s dying.  Unlikely scenarios, perhaps, but possible, just like it’s possible the homeless person you encountered lost his wife in an unspeakably horrific way, and it’s possible that the cranky neighbor who everyone dislikes is a war veteran who’s been taking care of his wife with dementia for years.

It doesn’t hurt to assume the best in people, and it could even do a lot of good.  As Atticus Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  It’s a difficult ideal to live up to, but it’s certainly one to aspire to, and movies like St. Vincent and The Fisher King are helpful – if a bit melodramatic – reminders if that ideal.

The Perks of being an Author who writes his own Screenplay

We’ve all read good books that made terrible movies (“The Great Gatsby,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” and “Bee Season” come to mind), and some good books that made good movies whose final product bore little resemblance to the original (“The Shining,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”).  But what makes a good film based on a book?

Often, it comes down to the screenplay.  The new film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, succeeds largely because of the continued involvement of Stephen Chbosky, who authored the 1999 epistolary novel, wrote the screenplay and directed the movie.  As such, the integrity of the material wasn’t compromised.  There are no Hollywood endings (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), no invented characters (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), no weird plot twists (what exactly was the point of the character Halloran in Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining?).  All the important plot points are there.  All the critical dialogue is there.  And since the book was only 170 pages or so, the novel didn’t need to be butchered to make it onscreen.  Yes, the Harry Potter movies are good, but so much material was relegated to the cutting room floor that some hardcore fans felt cheated.

I’d never heard of Chbosky’s novel before, but after reading a review of the movie, my daughters and I quickly read an ebook version of Perks and saw the movie to a mostly empty theater on a Thursday night.  Too bad, because the experience was moving and exhilarating, one of those rare examples of a film not only matching the book, but matching the absolute best in the genre of teenage coming-of-age movies.

Chbosky has written screenplays before, most notably the underwhelming film adaptation of the musical Rent, but the experience clearly paid off with the challenging task of adapting his own material.  The first ten minutes feel a little clumsy and forced as the characters and essential information is introduced, but once the characters are firmly established, the movie takes off.

Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame acts four years her junior in the movie, playing step-sister to Ezra Miller.  Together, the seniors befriend outcast freshman Logan Lerman, who’s struggling to find his place in the wake of personal difficulties, but he soon finds that his newfound friends have personal struggles of their own.  That Watson and Lerman would befriend a freshman so fully is perhaps a plot point that’s difficult to believe, but if you can suspend that bit of reality (and the reality that Lerman is actually a freshman – he’s twenty in real life), then you’re in for a beautiful ride.  It’ll be leaving theaters soon, but mark it down as a definite rental a few months from now.

On a side note, I must mention that Innocence Mission’s “Evensong” astonishingly made it onto the soundtrack of the movie.  I have no idea how this obscure track from an obscure album from an obscure band from 1991 made it into the film, but it was so good to hear.

The film Argo: Go See It!

I should first note that any movie that highlights Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” and The Rolling Stones’ “Little T&A” is bound to please me to a certain degree, no matter the acting or subject matter (Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Way” wasn’t too shabby either).  That “Argo” hits all the marks in a deftly executed historical thriller is more than just icing on the cake; it’s as close to perfection for the genre as any I’ve seen, and for me it’s the best film since 2007's “Michael Clayton.”

“Argo” tells the true story of six would-be American hostages who instead flee to the Canadian embassy.  How to get them out is the question, and CIA agent Ben Affleck has a plan: to pose with the six as Canadian film-makers scouting out locations in Iran for a science fiction movie called “Argo.”  Sound crazy?  It did to me, and still does. 

I was old enough to be very aware of the hostage crisis back in 1979, and I remember the blindfolded Americans being paraded through the streets of Tehran.  Affleck, both an understated lead and a capable director in this feature, manages to shift between real footage and fictionalized scenes seamlessly, taking viewers back to that time period in a flash.  I even had a touch of nostalgia watching younger versions of Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel and Walter Cronkite grace the newscasts of yesteryear.

The opening scenes, in which the mobs of protestors storm the embassy, are chilling, especially in light of the Americans who lost their lives in Libya last month.  Sometimes history repeats itself.  Affleck does a good job of offering a quick tutorial for the uninformed at the film’s opening, summarizing the hostage crisis and what led to it (what led to it?  The actions of the U.S. Government twenty-five years prior.   History doesn’t just happen, folks.  History results from unintended consequences.).

Affleck pulls every suspense string he can clutch near the film’s conclusion, and although I knew exactly what he was doing and that I was being manipulated, I didn’t particularly care.  I just know I would never have been able to pull off the ruse of pretending to be a filmmaker while gunmen questioned me.  I was nervous enough as a viewer.  I would also like to read about actual events to see how much the screenplay was doctored up for the benefit of the film.  If things indeed happened as Argo depicts, then I think I can sum up my reaction in two words: Holy Crap!

Ben Affleck has followed the lead of co-producer George Clooney in smartly handling his Hollywood career, wisely taking on smaller projects that are perhaps a bit under the radar, but are sharp films that please critics and cult-audiences alike.  Take Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck,” a masterfully done historical thriller, multiply the intensity ten-fold, subtract the black and white, and you get “Argo,” including the cigarette smoke, this time inhaled by guys with cheesy mustaches instead of the suave look of the 50s.

John Goodman is also doing a nice job of managing his career, and after his mostly silent performance in “The Artist,” it’s great to see him and hear him in action, along with Alan Arkin, as Hollywood filmmakers.  There are a dozen other faces you’ll recognize, and all were wise to take bit roles in what is bound to be an Oscar contender.

Yes, you heard me right. 

Then again, “Michael Clayton” didn’t win best picture, and last year Roman Polanski’s “Ghost Writer” didn’t even get nominated.  So what the hell do I know?

While you're here, check out my friend Eric's blog on movies that ended up being better than the books that inspired them.

Arbitrage: movie review

I remember almost nothing about business school, but I remember this: arbitrage is the exploitation of inconsistencies in the market.  In debut director Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage,” Richard Gere looks to exploit not only his business dealings, which are quickly crumbling, but his personal life, which isn’t much better.  Half the fun is watching to see if he can pull it off.

Gere is a hedge-fund billionaire attempting to sell his business for reasons that don’t make sense to his daughter and CFO, Brit Marling, but we soon learn what Brit doesn’t: Gere’s company is cash poor, and he’s cooked the books so that it can pass muster with a prospective buyer.  The screws are turning from all sides: a friend who loaned him hundreds of millions wants payback, mistress (Laetitia Casta) demands more of him than he can provide, and the auditors are dragging their feet.

And then things really start to go bad.

To divulge more would be unwise, but suffice it to say that what ensues will require an investigation by the incomparable Tim Roth, a showdown with wife Susan Sarandon, and several pleadings from attorney Stuart Margolin to confess before things get worse.  Margolin (Angel from “The Rockford Files”) was particularly fun to see after all these years.

“Arbitrage” could just as easily be called “The Ides of March 2,” as it shares not only the same cynicism portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie of last year – in which human beings are little more than moveable parts – but also the fall off a naiveté’s pedestal.  Both films are expertly-done thrillers, and both feature a seasoned veteran whose character attempts to juggle all the pieces before they crash as headlines and prison terms.

I hadn’t heard a word about Arbitrage until yesterday morning, but the theater I attended on Friday night was packed (at $10.50 a ticket!), indicating that adults are starved for entertainment and are willing to shell out cash for grown-up entertainment.  Hollywood take notice.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved