Sunday, February 22, 2015

My Oscar Picks 2015

I love the movies.  Always have.  From the start, I wanted to be a filmmaker.  Other boys dreamed of being an astronaut, a baseball player, a fireman.  I wanted to live on the big screen and make people laugh or cry.  The best do both.  I don't consider myself a failure.  I never tried.  You can't fail at something you don't attempt.  Am I disappointed?  Of course.  Most parents live vicariously through their children by forcing them to play sports or by pushing them into advanced classes until their heads pop off.  My children do theatre.  It helps that I teach acting.  My son plans to take a gap year after high school and try his luck in Los Angeles.  He has his sights set on the Groundlings (where Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon studied).  Good for him.  I'd rather pay for his roadtrip than see him waste his talents in college without ever trying.  (I'll pay for both, of course).

I've watched the Oscars for as long as I can remember.  This dates back to the late 70s.  I remember Bob Hope's final gig and loved Johnny Carson.  What matters more is that this has become a family event in the Drago household much like watching the Super Bowl (I picked the Pats 24-20, by the way).  In fact, just as I sat down to write this post, my phone rang with my mom asking for my picks.  She might do better than I do this year.  Ten minutes later, my daughter saw my ballot on my desk and asked for her copy.  This matters to us.  My wife and I watch every film nominated in all the major categories.  The last conversation I had with my grandmother in 2011 was during the Oscars.  She called The King's Speech.  I teased her about the hospital not having an oxygen mask big enough to fit over her potato nose before I told her I loved her for the last time.

I do well with my picks.  I study history and the current trends.  I review the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, the SAGs, DGA awards, WGA awards, national press selections, local critics choices.  It's a science.  Last year, I chose 23 out of 24.  I don't expect to do as well this year because I'm picking with my heart in a few categories.  That never gets me anywhere.  I hope I call at least 16 right out of the 24.  We'll see.  Enjoy the show!

Best Picture - Birdman (probably will go to Boyhood; Birdman isn't nominated for Best Film Editing, but I'll take the chance)
Best Actor - Eddie Redmayne (not sure Michael Keaton's had the staying power through award season)
Best Actress - Julianne Moore (loved her since Benny and Joon)
Best Supporting Actor - J.K. Simmons (you go Yellow Peanut M&M!)
Best Supporting Actress - Patricia Arquette
Best Animated Feature - Big Hero 6 (the favorite is How To Train Your Dragon 2, but I think Disney takes home the trophy)
Cinematography - Birdman (Boyhood not nominated here, interesting)
Costume Design - The Grand Budapest Hotel (been calling this The Grand Budacrap Hotel for so long, I almost keyed that; yes, I don't care for Wes Anderson - I've always thought comedies should be funny)
Best Director - Birdman (could go to Boyhood)
Best Documentary Feature - Citizenfour
Best Documentary Short - "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1"
Best Film Editing - Boyhood
Best Foreign Language Film - Ida
Makeup and Hairstyling - Foxcatcher (could go to Budacrap Hotel, along with everything artsy)
Original Score - The Theory of Everything
Original Song - "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" by Glen Campbell (a sentimental choice - I met Glen Campbell in a Best Buy in Scottsdale 20 years ago and heard he's been calling out for Elvis of late; "Glory" from Selma will win and probably deserves the nod)
Production Design - Budacrap Hotel
Best Animated Short - "The Bigger Keeper"
Best Live Action Short - "Boogaloo and Graham" (check out "Baby Ray" - the live action short about a washed-up rock star that my kids and I made a few years ago!)
Sound Editing - American Sniper
Sound Mixing - Whiplash
Visual Effects - Interstellar (could go to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - I watched the 1968 original a few nights ago; still better than all the sequels and reboots)
Adapted Screenplay - The Imitation Game (my son read the book and enjoyed it)
Original Screenplay - Budacrap Hotel (funniest thing about this movie is that it will win this award)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Horror! The Horror!

For argument's sake, let's say that nothing scares me more than the bogeyman.  I'd call that kind of fear terror.  So would most horror writers, I believe.  Terror is the fear before the thing.  I've never seen the bogeyman.  Never even heard him.  I have no proof he exists.  But still, he's my biggest fear, got it?  Scares the shit out of me.  I dread nothing more than leaving my closet door ajar after dark because I know I'll feel those two beady eyes staring at me while I'm trying to sleep.  I've read the Stephen King short story.  I know how he works.  

Horror is the disgust that follows.  I can't be horrified until after I see the fucker.  Not until after I know for certain he's in there.  He'll creak the floorboards.  Chuckle.  Whisper my fucking name.  Maybe he'll attempt to tear my head off my shoulders so he can guzzle the subsequent eruption of blood.  I'll see his claws, two elongated shadows, writhe above me in the moonlight.  Then I'll be repulsed.  Horror will exist for me.  If only for a moment.  Until that happens, I can't know horror.  I must have the event first.

An excellent example of the transition from terror to horror comes in the film Jaws.  It's even marked by one of the most famous lines in cinematic history.  "You're gonna need a bigger boat."  Watch Roy Scheider shovel chum before he first sees the shark.  He's a terrified police chief.  Nothing more.  In fact, he only fears the water up until that point.  He has no idea what he's facing.  But as soon as he sees that fucking shark, he knows he's the hunted, and it horrifies him.  The acting is perfect.  Everything about him transforms.  His body language, his vocal inflection.  He personifies how horror stories take you from pure terror into unadulterated repulsion.  40 years later, I haven't seen a better example on film. 
Fear comes on both levels.  The best horror writers know this.  They use mystery and suspense to create both terror and horror.  That's why it fucking pisses me off that some steer away from the label.  Let's call what you write a thriller, OK?  You'll sell more copies, buddy.  People won't think you've written a slasher book.  You wouldn't want that.  They're a joke.  They have no literary value.  Jason Vorhees?  Freddy Krueger?  In print?  Get serious, you asshole!  Even Stephen King's recent releases aren't categorized as horror.  They're Mystery/Suspense/Thriller.  Are they that different from anything he's done?  I don't think so.  His heart of darkness hasn't changed.  Let's re-classify all his work then.  The Shining isn't a fucking horror story anymore.  It's a supernatural thriller.  Bullshit.  You want to experience true horror?  Live with an abusive alcoholic.  Then come and tell me you aren't repulsed after your head careens off the kitchen cabinet because you got bitch-slapped.

I've been told I shouldn't market Crow Creek as a horror novel.  If that's because I failed at creating both terror and horror, fine.  Then I failed as a writer.  I accept that.  I'm not going to mask what I attempted by changing the label.  Losing a child is the worst kind of horror.  Religious hypocrisy is as scary as hell.  Those are the two major themes of Crow Creek.  I'm right where I belong.

Friday, February 13, 2015

50 Shades of Drago


Well, not much.  Honestly, I read the Fifty Shades series a few years ago and remember little (Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty series is better).  Maybe if it had sparkling vampires I'd recall that part (with disdain).  Anyone who works that hard to enjoy time in the bedroom is doing something wrong.  It's about meeting your partner's needs.  The same thing applies outside the bedroom.  Even more so.  Once you understand that, relationships are much easier (and more successful).

I actually want to talk about my playroom.  My toy closet.  You know, where I keep my matchbox cars, my action figures, and my wiffle balls.  Where I stash my poker chips, my dominoes, and my backgammon briefcase.  I've always loved playing games.  Candy Land, Connect Four, Life, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Chutes Away (don't ask me how the fuck I remember that one - maybe the Dick Van Dyke commercials?), Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Taboo, Apples to Apples, Cards Against Humanity (now).  You get the idea.  The memories I have of playing games with my family could be what I cherish most about my youth.  (For anyone reading who remembers "the thing you stick in a stick-in-a" I hope I just made you smile.)

Mostly, I enjoyed personifying my toys.  What good would my collection of model trucks have been if I didn't pretend I was my grandfather driving his R Model Mack while I pushed one around on the bedroom floor?  (My grandfather had the coarsest facial hair, and I always cut my lips when I kissed his cheek.  He'd holler at me, in the same voice I now hear my dad use, for giving him what old Italians called the fungi - pronounced foon-jee - for puckering my lips like a mushroom.)

I made my action figures come to life by changing my voice, improvising a scene, and (of course) drafting my little brother to play a supporting role every time I opened the toy chest.  We had The Six Million Dollar Man (complete with bionic eye), Darth Vader, Bert and Ernie, He-Man, the entire collection of pro wrestlers, Dracula, Godzilla, Lion-O.  I didn't care for that Lego bullshit.  I'm not a builder.  It's so fucking boring.  What do you do with those tiny little pieces once you've assembled them anyhow?  Stare at them?  I'm not a museum curator.  Watch them fall apart because they never stay where you want them to?  Fuck that.

Playing with toys was where I found my first stage, even though my brother and I were our only audience.  I love narrating and storytelling.  I enjoy fantasy.  It's so much more real than the truth.  Does that even make sense?  I thank my parents for giving me the opportunity to let my imagination run wild as a child.  From freewriting short stories to laying out my baseball card collection in a fantasy league that vaulted the New York Mets to the top of the National League every year, I never shut off the switch.  They gave us air hockey, the swimming pool, the pool table, Little League.  They let us play.  They let us be children.

If you'd like to watch me play my guitar (my adult toy) and sing (mostly three-chord rockabilly), check out my YouTube page

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Everything I know about the difference between good guys and bad guys I learned from my childhood adoration of professional wrestling.  Here's the difference:  good guys are only good guys because they don't get caught cheating.  Bad guys are bad guys from the start and don't hide the fact.  That's why I always cheered for the villains.  At least, they were honest.  Nothing bothered me more than a face pretending to be a hero and getting away with it.  Plus, the heels always made for the better characters.  Think about it, who was more entertaining to watch?  Nikolai Volkoff singing the Soviet national anthem and the Iron Sheik spitting at America, or Ricky Steamboat doing whatever it was he did?  And what did he do?  Look pretty?  I can't remember.  The bad guys left an impression.  And remember, bad guys are always bad.  They never hide it.  Good guys who do bad things are fucking scumbags.  For argument's sake, let's ignore those of us who are lawful neutral and in-between.

The same principle can be applied to real life.  An ideal husband is a worthless piece of shit once he starts cheating.  Doesn't matter how wonderful he appears to be beforehand.  And that's all it would've been.  A fa├žade.  You don't cheat if you're good.  I don't want excuses.  You don't do it.  Period.  End of discussion.  A police officer oversteps his authority?  A criminal.  A ballplayer cheats to win?  Doesn't deserve the rewards.  Politician lies?  Shouldn't get the votes or hold office.

But, the line gets blurred when it comes to soldiers, doesn't it?  That's what I learned from watching American Sniper last night.  Clint Eastwood's film is excellent.  Not as artsy as The Hurt Locker but more engaging.  Bradley Cooper earns his Oscar nomination with his portrayal of military legend Chris Kyle caught between his duty and his moral obligation.  Soldiers do bad things but they're not fucking bad guys.  They're heroes.  Those who send warriors into battle are the real villains.  And, I think this goes for both sides.  Sure, the film inaccurately portrays all Muslims as Islamic militants.  But, a careful analysis reveals that we're only seeing their world through a limited-omniscient narration.  We only know what the soldier knows.  What he's taught.  What he learns.  This even applies to his relationship with his wife.  All Kyle hears is … you need to come home, we're your family, I can't take this anymore … so that's all we hear.  There's no depth to his wife's character.  That's not stereotyping, that's storytelling.  We only know the world through our protagonist.  If that's what Kyle believes, we can't be mad at the movie.  Only at the system that created him.

On a side note, the real life Chris Kyle had a rather public dispute with my all-time favorite wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura.  Here's a quick synopsis:  Kyle claimed he punched Ventura in the face for badmouthing Navy Seals.  Ventura denied the accusation.  He was a Seal during the Vietnam War, after all.  Seems ridiculous, right?  Ventura sued Kyle for defamation and won.  Kyle's widow (Kyle was murdered a couple of years ago) is appealing the ruling.  Ventura wants more money now because he believes the controversy (pronounced Jimmy Fallon's way, of course) was used to publicize Kyle's book and subsequent blockbuster movie.  Make sense?

I find the whole case disheartening.  Another tragic twist in another impossible situation.  Kyle serves four tours in the Iraq War only to be killed by a crazed veteran.  What are the chances?  I wish more effort and financial resources were directed to help embattled soldiers.  Too many ruined lives are forgotten.  That's your ugly.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Super Bowl Sunday

Like most Americans, I love Super Bowl Sunday.  It's a national holiday.  Except for Thanksgiving, more food is consumed today than on any other day of the year.  The earliest memory I have of the Big Game is from thirty-six years ago.  The Cowboys tight-end drops a pass from Roger Staubach in the end zone, giving the Steelers the victory in Super Bowl XIII.  I remember my dad jumping up and down in triumph.  "Wait a minute," I said.  "You're a Giants fan, Pop!  Why do you give a shit?"  (I realize I'm putting curse words in a child's mouth, but I also grew up with an older brother who told the neighbor's dad "Go fuck yourself!" when asked what our dad would say if told we were cursing in the street.)  "That's why I care!" Pop replied.  My dad was big to me then.  Still is.  Had plenty of tattoos.  Still does.  I figured I'd better agree with him.  I still do.  I hate the Patriots now, but the idea is the same.  You cheer against your favorite team's biggest rival.  No matter who they play.  You must despise them!  We're Americans.  We compete!  We root against our enemies with every ounce of our souls.  I'm a Jets fan.  Pathetic, I know.  The only thing I can brag about is that if it weren't for Joe Namath, there wouldn't be a Super Bowl Sunday.  But forty-six years later, no one really gives a shit about Broadway Joe.  Or about the Jets, for that matter.  But I'm rooting for the Seahawks today (of course).

I haven't told you why I love the Super Bowl yet.  It's for the same reason I love Christmas and every other holiday.  It brings families and friends together.  OK, this year's a bust for me.  I don't have anyone to watch it with.  My wife's on a cruise to the Bahamas, my daughter wants to play football (not watch it), and my son hates New England like I do (see the pattern?).  Fine.  I get it.  I'll get over it.  I don't want to watch that fucking team again anyhow.  (The commercials do show some promise, however - those Doritos sneak previews online are hilarious!  And there's Katy Perry, of course.)

For me, life would be nothing without Joe Montana (downs the Bengals with forty seconds to go), Marcus Allen (bulldozes the Redskins defense), Bradshaw to Stallworth, Favre and Elway scramble all over the field, Da Bears!, Scott Norwood kicks wide right (holy fuck!), David Tyree's miracle catch buries the Great Satan's perfect season (second greatest moment in New York sports history behind Billy Buckner letting a certain ground ball pass through his legs).  Even if I hated some of those guys, I love them all.  Why?  Because for better or worse, they played and I watched with the people I love.  Even with my mom, who complained on Sundays about how much she hated football yet stuffed us with trays of lasagna every Super Bowl and screamed at the TV alongside the rest.

Three years ago, my dad visited for Super Bowl weekend.  Together, we watched Eli and the Giants rally to beat the Patriots for the second time.  After the game, I collapsed in my wife's arms, bawling as hard as I did when each of our children was born.  "Are you that happy the Giants won?" she asked.  "No," I sobbed.  "I'm just happy I got to watch the game with my dad."