Put Down the Duckie

AER-p0009-STpril 23, 2018 – I never watched Sesame Street as a child, but I treasure the moments I shared watching it with my son when he was a toddler.

Sesame Street was never better than it was during those years. It was the mid 80s and we sang along to such classics and C is for CookieThe Ladybug Picnic and the Peanut Butter and Jelly song, sung tenor style to the tune of the graduation march, Pomp and Circumstance.

But the best songs were the Muppet inspired music videos that imitated Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun with Kids Just Love to Brush, the Beatles’ Let it Be with Letter B, and Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell with Rebel L. The creative geniuses behind these music videos stole the heart of every parent who watched with their kids.

Thanks to YouTube.com, these oldies but goodies are still available to view. Below are my two favorites, the blues inspired Put Down the Duckie and Springsteen inspired Born to Add.

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Screenplays I Wish I Wrote

April 9, 2018 – With a passion for writing and a love for movies, you’d think I would want to attempt writing a screenplay. I’m still waiting for inspiration, but here are ten screenplays (in no particular order) that have made me crazy with envy over the years:

1. The Big Chill (1983)William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, JoBeth Williams
Seven thirtysomething college friends reunite for the weekend and the funeral of another college friend. It is the perfect scenario, the perfect cast, and the perfect blend of drama and comedy. Who wouldn’t want to have their name on this wonderful script?

2. Passion of Mind (2000)Demi Moore, Stellan Skarsgard, Sinead Cusack, William Fitchner
I may be the only person who saw and/or liked this little Indy film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth viewing. Moore plays a woman stuck between two worlds – her real life and her dream life. The problem is she does not know which one is real and which is the dream. Just when I thought all of the original ideas were gone, this clever movie was released.

3. Notorious (1946)Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman
This is my favorite Hitchcock film, and my favorite film overall; therefore, by law it has to make this list. The script is compelling and at times witty, combining spies, romance and Nazis – and how could you go wrong with that?

4. The Breakfast Club (1985)Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall
Five very different high school students spend the day together in detention and it changes their lives and their opinions of each other forever. I am willing to bet everyone can relate to one of these characters, who represent the best and worst of our high school years. A tender and heartbreaking story, and one of John Hughes best.

5. Being There (1979)Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine
A brilliant performance by Sellers highlights a unique and wonderful script. He plays Chance, a simple gardener who had never left the estate where worked his entire life until his employer dies. Sellers is thrown out onto the street to survive on his own, and runs into a plethora of people who mistake his views on gardening – which is all he knows – as pure genius. The script is a clever take on suddenly becoming famous.

6. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza
This Indy film is based on a real classified ad the writers found in a magazine that read: “Wanted – someone to go back in time with; must have your own weapons; safety not guaranteed.” Intriguing? Yes. When you find a real life gem like that, how can you not write a fabulous screenplay around it?

7. Amelie (2001)Audrey Tautou
A wonderful and heartwarming French film that focuses on a shy and lonely Parisian waitress (the adorable Tautou) who secretly does good deeds for her neighbors. The story is simple, yet it balances humor and drama brilliantly, and it will change your outlook on life forever.

8. The Sixth Sense (1999) Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment
This is perhaps the best “I didn’t see that coming” screenplay in history, and although everyone probably knows the twist, I won’t ruin it just in case. In addition, with the Philadelphia connection (M. Knight Shyamalan wrote the terrific screenplay), it’s as if my neighbor wrote it, which means I am close to his perfection.

9. Midnight in Paris (2011) Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams
Woody Allen’s fantasy about a writer vacationing in France who accidentally finds a wormhole back to the glory days of Paris in the 1920s, and the wonderful writers and artists who gathered nightly at “salons” to discuss their art. Hey, Woody, it’s my fantasy, too.

10. Airplane! (1980)Robert Hays, Leslie Nielsen, Julie Hagerty
This hilarious spoof on the disaster movies of the 1970s, is one of the best comedies ever. Whenever I try to add humor to what I’ve written, I fail. Since this is the ultimate funny script, it makes my top ten list. It proves simple humor can be very funny, and makes me believe that one day I will succeed.

A Little Sap with My Cheese

November 20, 2017 – I’m a reasonably intelligent person. I’ve read some of the classics, enjoy films with subtitles and stay up-to-date on current events. I also engage in the occasional political debate and can hold my own. My math and science skills may not be Nobel Prize ready, but no one expects me to create the next Facebook or cure cancer, so I get by.

That being said, forgive me for what I’m about to reveal. I love Christmas movies. I can’t get enough of those sugary sweet, sentimental stories that bring tears to my eyes and a smile to my face.

Try not to roll your eyes too much. I realize these movies are as far removed from reality as they are from receiving an Oscar nomination. They’re predictable and cheesy because every Christmas movie follows the same formula: someone struggles with something big, then the Christmas magic happens and suddenly it’s a wonderful life.

That syrupy schmaltzy formula is exactly why I watch them. I enjoy when the town folk pitch in to help each other, or when that lonely single mom lands her dream man. I cheer when the orphaned children are adopted on Christmas Eve. And I get giddy when the small town is saved from the big bad corporation that wants to take over.

Watching these movies makes me hope for my own Christmas magic. Then by December 26, I come to my senses and realize I‘m happy to be back to normal again.

As someone who typically appreciates movies with artistic value – at least during the other 11 months of the year, I ask that you allow me this guilty pleasure. And know that if I’m not busy with holiday celebrations or with the chores of daily life, I’m sitting next to my tree with a box of tissues waiting for the magic to begin.

The Art of Storytelling

November 13, 2017 — Anyone who can stand in front of an audience and tell a personal story for five minutes is bold, daring and heroic. It’s almost as if you have no fear of standing naked in public, bearing your inner most secrets for all to hear. It’s not for everyone.

As a writer, I can relate. You want people to read what you’ve written, or what’s the point; but you never want to be in the same room when someone’s reading your work. At least I don’t. It’s too revealing. That’s my fear of standing naked in public.

I had the opportunity to attend a storytelling Grand Slam Saturday night, an event that brought together the season’s best StorySlam winners to go head-to-head for the title of “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia”. StorySlam is a live storytelling competition that allows storytellers (slammers) to tell a story in five minutes or less based on the a chosen theme. On a typical night, brave audience members sign up at the door to tell a true story based on a theme, and ten storytellers are randomly selected to share their most outrageous, heartfelt, and often hilarious tales. Judges, also selected from the audience, determine the StorySlam winner, and a chance to compete in the season finale Grand Slam.

Ten of the season’s best storytellers competed for the title Saturday night, and being the best of the best, they told compelling tales on a variety of subjects based on the theme “willing”. At times, I felt like I was attending a therapy session crossed with open mic night at a comedy club since the stories made me shed a few tears and belly laughs. The tales included living with depression and anxiety, family traditions and the Philadelphia Eagles, childhood memories of birthday cakes and dance classes, and the story of a 13-year-old genius who wrote a book, his teacher who secured a publishing contract for him, and the 33-year-old storyteller who admitted publicly for the first time that both the boy and teacher lived only in his imagination, a fact that didn’t go over well with the publishing house once he admitted the truth. The only flaw I noticed was that only one person could win. Life is like that sometimes.

I thoroughly enjoyed sharing the experience with other audience members,  so it won’t be my last visit to a StorySlam. Being a part of the storyteller’s world, even for five minutes, fed my creativity and my spirit. I look forward to the next season, which begins in January.

Celebrate Halloween with the Master of Suspense

October 23, 2017 – Halloween is perfect for an Alfred Hitchcock marathon. He may not be the classic horror film director, but he is the “Master of Suspense”.

Here’s a list of my top ten favorites. Considering the man directed 53 films from 1924 through 1975 – I haven’t seen them all, but I did see more than half – this was a bit more difficult than I expected.

10. Psycho – Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh star in a spine-tingling horror film that focuses on a young man tormented by his past and his mother. Aren’t we all? Not my favorite Hitchcock film by far, but arguably his most popular or at least his best known, so it earns a #10 spot on my list. That, and it’s still hard not to think about this movie, especially whenever I step into the shower while traveling.

9. The Birds – Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren are headliners in this Hitchcock classic, but those nasty birds are the real stars. The plot has the feathered creatures mysteriously attacking anyone and anything in their way. This was the first Hitchcock movie I remember seeing as a child, and it had a huge impact on me. Just like the Night Galley earwig episode that had me sleeping with cotton in my ears, this movie made me wary of our feathered friends for a long time.

8. Rear Window – This film, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, takes spying on your neighbors – and who doesn’t enjoy that – to extremes. Long considered one of the Master’s finest, a photographer (Stewart) is laid up with a broken leg, which leaves him plenty of time to watch from his rear window, and allow himself to get caught up in the drama that his is neighbors’ lives. And what drama that becomes.

7. Vertigo – In this strange film, James Stewart, with Kim Novak this time, both find themselves caught in a never-ending spiral of deception and obsession. Stewart plays a private detective who must search for the truth behind the death of a woman he loved. One of the most interesting characteristics of this movie is the way Hitch filmed it in a dreamlike haze.

6. The Man Who Knew Too Much – It’s Doris Day’s turn to star with Jimmy Stewart in this Hitchcock thriller about an American family accidentally caught up in an assassination plot. This was a remake of Hitchcock’s early 1934 movie, which is interesting on its own. How many directors get to remake their own movies? It also introduced the world to the Doris Day classic hit, “Que Sera Sera”. No offense to Day, but check out Pink Martini’s version of “Que Sera Sera”.

5. Strangers on a Train – Hitchcock used a lot of trains and train references in his movies, whether actually filming on a train, or just used as a Freudian symbol, as in “North by Northwest”. “Strangers on a Train” starring Farley Granger and Ruth Roman in a must-see classic tells this tale of strangers who take on each other’s murders. It’s one of Hitch’s only movies to use all B list actors, but it’s still one of his most intriguing. It also inspired the Danny DeVito comedy, “Throw Momma from the Train”, and that doesn’t happen everyday.

4. Spellbound – Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman play the amnesic impersonating a famous psychologist and the doctor who wants to save him even if he is guilty of murder to perfection in this Hitchcock thriller. The fact that this is a black and white movie from the early 1940s, adds even more intrigue and suspense to the plot.

3. To Catch a Thief – When Hitch combines romance and intrigue with a seaside resort on the French Riviera, and stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, how could he go wrong? Grant plays a reformed jewel thief who is suspected of a rash of burglaries, and Kelly, the woman who is drawn to him, yet worried she’ll become his latest victim.

2. North by Northwest – Cary Grand and Eva Marie Saint star in a heart-stopping suspense tale with a little bit of everything mixed in. You’ve got your classic mistaken identity, a man who is falsely accused, a chance meeting on a train, and a beautiful blonde, a little voyeurism, and Hitchcock spins it all masterfully. Not to mention a nice trip across the U.S., from the streets of New York, to the cornfields of Illinois, and the majesty that is Mount Rushmore.

1. Notorious – Starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in a classic tale of love and betrayal. Grant plays a FBI agent who must send the woman he loves to seduce a Nazi conspirator. Like Casablanca, I can watch this movie over and over again and never get tired of it because it has everything from great acting to heart-wrenching romance, and plenty of suspense. Not only is it my favorite Hitchcock, but also it might be my favorite movie of all time.

Word Games

July 31, 2017 – Do people still play Words with Friends?

The popular word game that ripped off Scrabble disappeared in my circles, and I can’t say that I miss it. Scrabble is the original game that holds my loyalty and has stood the test of time.

Other classic word games not likely to disappear soon include crossword puzzles and cryptograms. These games have fed my love of words and helped me with my writing skills, so I partake whenever I get the chance. I’m not the best with crosswords; I am much better with cryptograms, and can challenge the best of them.

Last night I discovered another word game on Facebook that I thought was fun. Granted, it was 4 a.m. and in the battle with insomnia, it kept me occupied until I felt drowsy enough give sleep another try. Word Connect has a simple concept. When letters appear on screen, you build various word combinations and earn coins that allow you to continue to play. It’s a great way to keep your brain active and it’s more challenging than you might think.

Player feedback has been positive so far, earning 4.6 out of five stars. Perhaps it won’t be around as long as Scrabble or crosswords and cryptograms, but for now, it’s an entertaining way to spend your time.

Word Connect is a product of Zentertain. It’s available on Facebook, and as an app on Google Play, Android and the iTunes store.

Writers Beware

May 8, 2017 – Replacing human jobs with computers is nothing new. However, to realize that robots will replace five million jobs by 2020, according to Digital Trends, or half the jobs within 30 years, according to Business Insider, is frightening.

Thankfully, I am a writer so I don’t have to worry about replacement, right?

Scrolling through the LinkedIn feed recently, this headline caught my eye: “What if Hollywood Replaced Writers with AI?” Of course, I clicked to read more and discovered that artificial intelligence algorithms wrote a short film, It’s No Game. They made it into a short film and cast David Hasselhoff to star the main role.

That’s right. AI wrote every line of the screenplay. All seven minutes and 40 seconds of it.

At first, I thought, how cool. A few seconds later, I began to feel envious. My human brain has been plugging away at this game for years, and though I consider myself lucky that I receive a paycheck to write nonfiction all day, I haven’t had any real success with fiction, my real passion.

I watched the film, and although I can’t wrap my head around the technology, or if the guy who programmed the AI could be considered the actual author because created the “author”, I’m back to thinking it is cool. Weird, cheesy and nonsensical, but cool. How did AI come up with a plot? It didn’t make any sense, but there was still a solid plot. And how did it write that ever so evasive first line? They are my biggest struggles.

I’m also relieved to see that with the product AI put out, human screenwriters aren’t likely to lose their jobs anytime soon. But in 50 years, who knows.