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.

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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.

Music and Film: Perfect Together

Joni Mitchell and Neil Young performing in The Last Waltz

April 3, 2017 – What do you get when you combine music and film?

Aside from two of my favorite things – or a great soundtrack – if you’re a Philadelphia area resident, you get the WXPN Music Film Festival.

WXPN is a public radio station operated by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which broadcasts adult alternative music, and may be best known for its World Café music programs. This year’s festival, which ran from March 31 through April 2 at the Prince Theater, celebrated the 25th anniversaries of both the World Café music radio program and the Philadelphia Film Festival. It featured classic concert films as Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense and The Band’s The Last Waltz. It also featured movies about music, like High Fidelity, Singles and Almost Famous.

I attended the viewing of The Last Waltz on Saturday night, and although I’ve seen it several times, the experience of watching it on the big screen, and at the loud volume it was meant to be shown, made the great concert film even better. Martin Scorsese directed the film, which chronicles The Band’s farewell performance in 1976, and features guest appearances by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and several other notable artists.

The WXPN Music Festival and Philadelphia Film Festival are perfect ways to celebrate the spring and the fall each year. The Music Film Festival takes place each March/April, and the Philadelphia Film Festival in September/October.

Great Cinema: 19 family picks for the best movie ever

great-cinimaMarch 6, 2017 — Ask your family to pick their favorite movie of all time, and if they can do it, you’re bound to get a variety of selections from several different genres. At a recent family get together, I posed that exact question, and although none of us chose the same movie, there are definite patterns that emerged, including movies from the David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino film libraries.

It’s not easy to narrow your favorite movie down to ONE, so I thank my family for participating. It’s also a lot more difficult than picking the worst movie of all time, which we did back in September.

Casablanca. My Dad’s choice for favorite shows up on many “best” lists. Casablanca, released in November 1942, tells the story of an American bar owner (Humphrey Bogart) in Morocco during the early days of World War II, and the woman who broke his heart (Ingrid Bergman). The Bogie/Bergman classic is one of my faves, too, and has given us some of the best quotable lines ever: “We’ll always have Paris,” “Here’s looking at you kid,” “Round up the usual suspects”, and “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” That’s just a few quotable mentions, which is impressive for a 75-year-old film.

My Fair Lady. My Mom passed away two years ago, but I can safely say her favorite was the musical classic from the 1960s My Fair Lady. She loved the music and the story, and of course, Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle. Her favorite scene by far was when Professor Higgins, played by Rex Harrison, takes Eliza to a horse race to test her newly acquired language skills. All is well at first as he glows with pride, but it soon turns to embarrassment when Eliza slips back into Cockney while cheering on the horse. Sure, Mom thought it the language was “fresh”, but she laughed just the same.

Moonstruck. My sister, Linda’s favorite is the charming Moonstruck from 1987. The romantic comedy stars Cher and Nicholas Cage in the lead roles, as the couple that fall in love while the widow Loretta (Cher) waits for her fiancé (Danny Aiello), to come back from Sicily, where he is visiting his dying mother. It’s an enchanting, but funny story that uses an incredibly gorgeous moon as the backdrop. Nominated for six Academy Awards, it won three of them, including Best Actress and Supporting Actress for Cher and Olympia Dukakis, along with Best Screenplay.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. My brother-in-law, Roland’s pick is the great American western starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s hard to get behind criminals in a movie, but Director George Roy Hill made these train robbers delightful enough to cheer for. Based loosely on fact, the film tells the story of Butch Cassidy (Newman) and Sundance (Redford) on the run from the sheriff and his posse, trying to escape the country with Sundance’s love interest (Katherine Ross). It was the top grossing movie of the year in 1969, and is the 34th top-grossing movie of all time.

Notorious. Alfred Hitchcock’s spine tingling Notorious is tops my list. Cary Grant stars opposite a very creepy Claude Raines and Ingrid Bergman (their second mention on the list). Bergman plays the woman the FBI hires to get the goods on Nazis who they believe is planning something big in South America right after WWII. Grant falls in love with Bergman’s character, the girl with the tainted past, and he is often as cruel and he is romantic with her. There are so many thrillingly tense scenes and fine performances in this movie, it’s easily one of the cleverest scripts ever written.

The Matrix. Alas, the first one on the list that I haven’t seen all the way through is my brother-in-law, Rex’s pick, The Matrix. Obviously, Rex, doesn’t share my problem with understanding technology or sci-fi films. The Matrix starred Keanu Reeves, who lives in dystopian future where reality is simulated and known as “the Matrix”. Reeves plays Thomas Anderson, a computer programmer, who is also a hacker known as “Neo”. After he discovers the truth about “the Matrix”, he rebels, of course. The movie has been called one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, and I apologize that I can’t give it the credit it likely deserves.

Gone with the Wind. My sister, Patti’s pick is Gone With the Wind, which is on my top ten favorites list. There’s no greater heroine than Scarlett O’Hara. She may have been a spoiled young woman, but she also maneuvered her way through the challenges of the Civil War with brilliance. She was definitely the mentally strongest in her family and in the story. Despite its four-hour length, Patti can be swept in this saga every time it’s on television. I share her genes, so we’re a lot alike in that regard. I even traveled to see it at the theater on the big screen.

Saving Private Ryan. The World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, is my cousin David’s favorite pick. The 1998 film directed by Stephen Spielberg tells the story four brothers in the Ryan family, all in Europe fighting the war. Three of the four brothers are killed in action, and the fourth is missing in action when a squad sets out to find him and send him home to his grieving family. The movie opens the morning of June 6, 1944, during the Normandy invasion, and said to be the most intense and realistic 27 minutes on film, which makes it difficult to watch. It’s also been deemed by the Library of Congress to be “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

Gladiator. The 2000 epic historical drama Gladiator is my brother David’s pick for best movie ever. Starring Russell Crowe, who plays a Roman general named Maximus. Maximus is betrayed when the Emperor murders his father to seize the thrown and all hell breaks loose. David considers this not only the best movie ever, but also the most entertaining, as well. And I’d have to agree it would be on my top fifteen list, at least. Crowe picked up a Best Actor Oscar for his efforts, and the film also won Best Picture and several other category awards that year. Gladiator has also been credited with sparking interest in other films and stories centered on the ancient Greek and Roman culture.

Fargo. If you’re picking the best pictures, you’re bound to have a film show up on the list by Joel and Ethan Coen. My nephew Rick’s choice for best picture ever is Fargo. The 1996 dark comedy crime film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where the brothers won the Best Director award. The story focuses on a supposed true crime, but I’m not sure if that has ever been proven. There is a lot of fact vs. fiction surrounding this film. The entire cast is incredible, but it’s Coen Brothers’ regular Frances McDormand who steals the show. She also won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the quirky Police Chief with the perfect North Dakota accent.

Magnolia. My niece Lauren selected another film on the list I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing…yet. The ensemble drama Magnolia is her choice for best movie ever. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who has quite an impressive resume, the story is described as “a mosaic of interrelated characters in search of happiness, forgiveness and meaning.” Magnolia may have struggled at the box office, but received plenty of critical acclaim. Many people who have experienced it say that there is no other film in history that has made them think, feel or question a film like Magnolia.

Anything in the David Lynch Library. My nephew, Ryan doesn’t profess to be the world’s biggest movie fan, and it take a lot to make him notice. However, he does give special mention to anything in the David Lynch collection. From Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive to The Elephant Man and everything in between, including the television show, Twin Peaks, David Lynch is able to make Ryan stop, look and listen.

2001: A Space Odyssey. My son, Charlie’s pick is the third film on the list I didn’t see and the second I didn’t understand. It’s a 1968 sci-fi film epic written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, also one of his favorites. When released in ’68, the film received mixed reviews from critics and audiences, who didn’t know what to make of its space imagery, classical music and little dialogue. Since then, it’s grown in popularity and has a cult following. Like The Matrix, I tried to enjoy it, but the plot was completely over my head. I still question if there really was a plot at all. Honestly, I’ve never gotten through the entire movie; the music, which is fantastic, always lulls me to sleep.

Blue Velvet. David Lynch’s sophomore effort gets the favorite picture vote from my niece, Leigh. Unfortunately, it’s another movie I didn’t see in its entirety because I don’t understand it, and therefore can’t do it justice. The 1986 mystery film had Lynch blending psychological horror with film noir, earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Like most of his films, however, it seemed to gain more attention and a cult following as time passed. Blue Velvet starred Kyle McLaughlin and Isabella Rossellini, and in 2008, the American Film Institute named it one of the greatest American mystery films ever made.

Old School. Finally, a flat out comedy on the list, chosen by my nephew, Adam. The 1993 comedy starring the usual suspects Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson focuses on three middle-aged college friends who attempt to recapture the glory days by opening up a fraternity house near their “old school”. You get the rest. I’d be willing to bet that Adam’s choice has the widest viewership out of any other movie on this list. As the tagline suggests, the film is “all of the fun of college, but none of the education.” Ain’t that the truth.

Pulp Fiction. Like Coen Brothers, I’d be surprised to put together a list like this without Quentin Tarantino. My nephew, Macey’s pick, is the first mention of a Tarantino film, and he chose Pulp Fiction. This movie was my first taste of Tarantino, and I’d left the theater thinking it was one of the most interesting cinematic experiences ever. With so many odd characters like Honey Bunny and Pumpkin, and so many crazy stories intertwined, the 1994 black comedy, crime film was a breath of fresh air. It also revitalized the career of John Travolta.

Whiplash. The movie from 2014 is latest movie on the list and the choice of best movie ever from my niece, Carly. Interesting choice, for sure, and extremely intense. Whiplash tells the story of an ambitious jazz student and his abusive instructor at a music conservatory school in New York. It stars J.K. Simmons (the instructor) and Miles Teller (the student), and was the opening film at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It earned Simmons a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and plenty of critical acclaim. Prior, he had been known, at least to me, as that Farmer’s Insurance guy.

A Dark Knight. Did you think we’d get through the entire list without a superhero crime thriller? A Dark Knight is my nephew, David’s choice for best movie ever. The 2008 movie was written and directed by Christopher Nolan and stared Christian Bale as Batman and Heath Ledger as The Joker. Right after filming Ledger died of a prescription drug overdose, and that may have garnered a lot of attention for the film, as well. Ledger was also posthumously awarded the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work a year later. It’s the darkest of the Batman movies for sure, and quite an interesting adaptation of the comic book hero.

Reservoir Dogs. My nephew Jack’s pick is the second mention of Quentin Tarantino on the list, the crime thriller Reservoir Dogs. The epitome of the classic cult film, the 1992 movie was named the greatest independent film of all time by Empire Film Magazine. The story and film has even been ripped off by Bollywood and remade as Kaante, in 2002. It’s violent and bloody, with an interesting 70s soundtrack piped in. Let’s just say that these days, I can’t hear the song “Stuck in the Middle with You,” without picturing a horrendous torture scene along with it.