Kevin Spacey is masterful in his voicing of the equally masterful screenplay of American Beauty, written by Alan Ball. Spacey calibrates perfectly the voice of a middle age loser, who transforms into anything but, and at that climatic moment, when he simply says he’s feeling, “great,” when someone, a beautiful teenage girl, finally asks, “how are you?”, he loses his life to a point blank bullet in the head. Spacey’s spoken lines capture the pathos of a weary and beaten-down husband, father, and cubicle-based employee on the verge of being fired, and then charges up his speech as he begins his rise from the living dead, motivated by the urge to get between the loins of a Lolita-like high school girl, who is his daughter’s best friend. His language becomes more emphatic, the voicing of a man finally taking command of his life. He dies happy, as signified by the way, Ricky, his dope dealer, troubled boy next door, daughter’s boyfriend, and son of the man who murders him, smiles curiously at him, while his head lies in a pool of blood. What would come next for this character? Would he return to his wife, his once great love, or would he simply shove off, and continue his journey of breathing life into his former depleted soul? The screenwriter opted not to tie-up loose ends in such a way, the ends are knotted with a sudden termination. Spacey, in voiceover narration, describes poignantly how his life flashed through his eyes in his moment of death, and his memories are pleasant, including thoughts of his estranged daughter as a loving child, and his once beloved wife, laughing while on a carnival ride, who sadly forgot how to do it. Spacey deserved his Academy Award as Best Actor, the film itself for its Best Picture award, and Ball for Best Screenplay. The film lives on as a timeless classic.
- Godfather and Godfather II: Let’s take them as one. The best all-time movie with a sequel. Francis Ford Coppola, with a screenwriting assists from the Godfather author Mario Puzo and Robert Towne (talk about an “A team”) set the standard for good mob films, and many excellent ones followed, particularly by Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino, which rank among my very top favorites).
- Apocalypse Now: So, I’m a Coppola fan (when he was in his prime). He was a screenwriter who became a director, and he blended his skills to create masterpieces. The beginning of the film to the trip down the river is a classic, and the film only starts to fade, remarkably, with Brando’s over the top depiction of Kurtz. Thank God for Dennis Hopper’s interjection in those final scenes.
- The Shawshank Redemption: This film was a good thing, maybe the best of things. Incomparable dialogue and narrative technique.
- Saving Private Ryan: The best war movie of all time. The murderous Omaha Beach landing scenes…no other war film can top the sense of realism and bloody chaos. It’s a director’s movie reflecting Spielberg’s mastery but the collaborative script was well-crafted, hitting all the numbers.
- Forrest Gump: Culturally influential, whenever it’s on TV, I will watch for the umpteenth time, and even suffer the commercials, though I could watch the film again without them! Who doesn’t use lines from that movie all the time? May the screenwriter Winston Groom bask in glory.
So many more but there is a top five! And a bottom five…
- Daddy Daycare: Eddie Murphy should have quit while he was ahead. Role reversal stereotype tropes, just unfunny.
- Shrek I and II: Not a fan of these crowd-pleasing Mike Myers vehicles in computer animation, sorry DreamWorks but Pixar just kicks your butt each and every time. And Eddie Murphy as the Donkey…as Donald Trump would say, “Sad.”
- The Cat in the Hat: I don’t think I laughed once when I took my kids to this bomb of a movie. Probably my too salty movie house popcorn with a Diet Coke was the best part.
- Any Adam Sandler movie fits into my bottom five. Insufferable, cannot bear to watch.
- Anchorman sequels: Will Ferrell should have quit while he was ahead, but we know he cannot. As you can see, I can be harsh on former Saturday Night Live stars when they misstep, and they have done so with frequency. For example, I did not pick on Chevy Chase, but I should have.
I watched “Hell or Highwater” while simultaneously reading the script. The director and/or the film editor cut a lot from the screenplay to shorten the film to 102 minutes, and I think some of the cut scenes might have enriched the film, nonetheless it succeeds, and it won considerable favor with both critics and audiences (97% and 88% respectively on Rotten Tomatoes). As a Texan, I loved the depiction of the dying oil towns in the barren, windswept prairies of Northwest Texas and bordering Oklahoma, and the characters as portrayed fit right in. The main actors, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, playing the bank robber brothers, Toby and Tanner, and Jeff Bridges, playing the Texas Ranger sheriff, Marcus, performed great characterizations of their assigned roles. The film captivates your attention from start to finish, a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde set in about the same place but with loving bank robbing brothers (sort of) instead of bank robbing lovers. We’ve seen the character of Marcus, the aging Texas Ranger sheriff on the cusp of retirement, before, and as fine a performance as Jeff Bridges delivered, Tommy Lee Jones, with a superior story, tops him as an aging Texas sheriff on the cusp of retirement in No Country for Old Men. Marcus is a curmudgeon, humorous, hard drinking racist who needles his “half-breed” Mexican/Native American deputy sheriff, but I didn’t feel much sympathy for him, so you end up rooting for the bank robbing brothers, who after all are robbing the bank chain that is stealing the land that their departed mother owned, and that land has oil on it, offering a solution for Toby’s desire to provide for his sons who live with his ex-wife. The evil bank stealing land from poor prairie folk takes a page from The Grapes of Wrath, but it delivers the reliable dramatic convention of the poor versus the corporate system, and a raison d’etre for all the bank robbing. The screenplay delivers faithfully on all points that a good screenplay must possess. We’re clear on what Toby wants, and the obstacles he faces, which include his risk-taking, once-jailed wild brother, Tanner; the Texas Rangers led by the wizened Marcus; and of course, the bank that wants to steal his dead mama’s land. I liked the film along with everybody else but here is what I noted that doesn’t work so well with the film. After Tanner dies at the sure-shot from Marcus, Toby escapes, and the subsequent lame explanation in the Texas Rangers’ office demonstrates that everyone is a dumbass except Marcus because they believed Toby had an alibi and no criminal record. And by the way, wouldn’t the Rangers have told Marcus they could not share case information with him now that he was retired and a private citizen? To reinforce the prior point, either the actor (Pine) or the director (David Mackenzie) decided (because it’s not in the script) that Toby would take a bullet in the Bonnie and Clyde shoot ‘em up as Toby and Tanner emerge from the last bank they rob (wow, the citizenry responded faster than the police!), but it was a great scene and Tanner’s crack during the getaway about the downside of “conceal and carry” for bank robbing was humorous, to which he adds poetic emphasis by scaring off the car chasin’ gun totin’ citizens with sprays from the assault rifle he probably bought from his friendly local gun show. Now, Toby probably would have had to treat that wound in a hospital, thus triggering suspicion, right? Well, charitably, we might conclude he treated it himself to evade capture. I could find other small quibbles but otherwise the film did not reach too far, and it provided great entertainment in a film landscape dominated with superheroes where super excessiveness is the new normal.
Primary Location: Oklahoma City
Story Idea 1: “Deli Dollars” or “KO-OK”
A middle-aged Korean woman talks her slightly younger sister into moving to Oklahoma City to takeover a deli business in the basement of an aging office tower complex amid semi-urban decay in the western part of the city. The business, against the odds, begins to succeed, drawing obese, conservative Oklahomans, particularly men, who love to eat and ogle the two attractive Asian women. The ladies have immense charm though they can be a bit ditzy, and innocent, in the ways of the midwestern, cowboy American world they inhabit. Their business succeeds to the point where they believe they can expand, and they start a food truck business called “Double Wide,” catering to the tastes of overeating Oklahomans. However, they begin to feel guilty about their food practices, making Oklahomans fatter than they already are, and they decide to serve healthier food they call KO-OK (Korean-Oklahoman). They also decide to start a running and cycling club, and recruit members, mainly Oklahoman obese men, but also women, who want to follow these charming heroines. Their “clients” start to slim down, and they begin to feel better about themselves. The two Korean heroines listen to the stories of their “clients,” and find out their tales of woe. They begin to give Eastern-styled Zen advice, helping their clients with their forlorn love lives. They teach lessons of the importance of respect, and honor. Teacher clients tell them stories about Oklahoma’s woefully underfunded education system. The two Korean ladies, who had proudly sent their kids to Ivy League schools with the proceeds from their business, are outraged (in their disarming way) and decide they want to do something about it. They organize a running and cycling biathlon whose goals are to encourage OKC residents to be more fit, and to raise money and awareness for better education. The two Korean ladies are feisty (the two “Korean hot peppers,” with its double entendre), and they start calling out Oklahoma political leaders in the capital city for their failures, and even go after “Big Oil” interests in OKC, for their failure to pay adequate taxes. The ladies begin to attract local TV, and eventually national press interest, for their cause, and the biathlon achieves wild success, attracting thousands of participants, and raises huge proceeds and matching corporate gifts. Eventually, one of the sisters runs for mayor of OKC, and wins, even though she speaks English with a heavy accent.
This is an “against the odds” story, a celebration of the success of female immigrants, in the most unlikely of places.
- One of the husbands is an American, and he had just arrived from a large eastern US city with his wife, who is the younger sister. He is appalled by OKC, and wants to leave immediately. Moreover, the Korean husband of the older sister is putting pressure on him to invest money in the business, because he has it, and this is the Korean way. In the end, OKC begins to grow on the American husband, and he and his wife agree that she will contribute “sweat equity” to help her older sister’s business grow instead of making a monetary investment.
- The two women encounter racism, and are typecast as stereotypical submissive Asian women. People poke fun at their broken English. However, the women are “hot peppers,” and stand up for themselves.
- Conflict between the two women and politicians and Big Oil over the education problem. However, an aging, legendary oilman (styled after T. Boone Pickens) comes in to defend the women, and says in a gruff cowboy accent, “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.” He donates big money to the two ladies’ cause. The ladies call him “cowboy haraboji” (grandpa). The oilman dies near the end of the movie, with the two tearful ladies at his bedside. In his dying moments, he urges the older sister to run for mayor. He leaves his fortune to the ladies’ newly formed foundation, and a portion to a political campaign fund. The older sister feels an obligation therefore to run, so she does, and surprisingly wins in an upset.
Story Idea 2: Grapes of Wrath Revisited
The movie narrative will revisit the Grapes of Wrath, the classic film version of John Steinbeck’s Great Depression tome depicting the Joad family that lost everything due to the Dust Bowl in rural Oklahoma and encounters a different set of struggles as the family attempts to start anew in California, which it had perceived as a land of milk and honey. In this new, “modern” take on the story, we encounter a blue-collar Okie family struggling to make ends meet in Oklahoma City as the oil economy goes bust yet again. The area of town where they live is desolate, a place of broken streets and broken dreams. Pawn shops, loan stores, and vape shops abound, along with an abundance of fast food joints feeding a mostly obese population. There is hardly any green vegetation, there is a brownish tint to everything, and the strong prairie winds are omnipresent, as are apoplectic threats of hail and tornadoes. In a nod to the original story, the family’s name is Joad, and the main character is Tom Joad, just released from prison for killing a man, in self-defense, just like the original character. In reuniting with his family, he finds a haggard yet still hauntingly beautiful wife struggling to support the family as a beautician. Hoping for a better future for their kids, they are dismayed with Oklahoma’s abysmal education system, with underpaid teachers begging for supplies, and the school week reduced to four days, which is a problem for a family that cannot afford daycare. Meanwhile, rich kids, scions of OKC oil families, go to private schools with well-watered lawns. The family qualifies for Medicaid, but they cannot see overbooked health providers who accept it, and when they do finally get in, the health care quality is beyond pathetic, which is a problem for one of the kids who suffers from asthma, and another who has ADHD (who also suffers in the school system). Tom has trouble locating work, and the family, reluctantly, decides to move on, targeting Los Angeles, a big city where surely things are better – more jobs, the beach, sunshine, where the beautiful people are, “for every damn good reason,” declares Tom. Yet, despite all its problems, the Joads love Oklahoma City and the state of Oklahoma. Tom and his wife’s families have been there for generations, arriving not long after the land rush (but they missed the opportunity to claim free land). They love the sunsets on the prairie, the friendliness, the family barbecues, the country music, the pickup trucks, even the wind blowing over the flat landscape – it’s home, always has been. The Joads quickly find LA is a struggle. It’s expensive, and they live in a crowded apartment in Hollywood, nowhere near the beach, and its decay reminds them of western OKC, without the family. People poke fun at their Okie accents, even the way they dress. The kids are in (sort of) a better school, at least the teachers show up and are getting paid. But they’re just not fitting in. The Joads finally decide they’ve had enough of LA, and head back east to OKC, but they decide they’re not going to accept the things that prompted the move in the first place. They decide to organize, to rally against the politicians and Big Oil interests that they hold responsible for the mess OKC and the state are in. They organize friends, family, and as word spreads, sympathetic radio announcers urge others to join a Joad-lead march to the state capitol building. Native American tribes like the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Shawnee nations, historically at odds with white Okie settlers, decide to join in sympathy for the cry for better education and health. The Native American nations show for the march on horseback and in full tribal regalia. The Joad-led forces ultimately prevail, but not before an epic battle…
- Conflict between Tom and his wife, Betty, as he returns home. Things are not peachy as he tries to reintegrate into family life after being away in prison for four years. However, Tom and Betty rekindle their love and develop an even stronger appreciation of each other.
- Cultural conflict with Los Angelenos, as the Okies from a backwater city in a flyover state try to adapt (unsuccessfully) to the Southern California lifestyle. The Joads decide the LA lifestyle is not for them, and return to “down home” OKC.
- Conflict with politicians and Big Oil interests that are responsible for Oklahoma’s dismal public revenue situation. They are joined by gun evangelist right wingers who believe the Joads and their growing base of supporters are left wing radicals who threaten the Oklahoma way of life as they perceive it. They come armed to defend the capitol building and the politicians inside it, as the Joad-led allies rally outside it. The allies decide to storm the capitol building, and the right wingers open fire, killing a few people, including a Native American brave. Horrified and sympathetic police forces join the Joad forces, and they overwhelm the right wingers, and plant their flags and banners on the capitol grounds. They demand to meet the governor and legislative assembly leader, who finally acquiesce and agree to address the inequities in education and health through new legislation, and increased taxation of Big Oil interests.
Father (protagonist), about 60 years old but craggily handsome, speaking to cute, young Vietnamese waitress: What’s your best phở on the menu?
Waitress: I like #5, with fatty brisket and round steak.
Father, with a slight smirk: Thẻ á (really)? Well, if you like it, I am sure I will like it. Give me the dặc biệt, nhé (the special, OK).
Waitress, fluttering: Wow anh (uncle), you speak good Vietnamese!
Father: Mọt chút thoi (just a little).
Waitress gives him a big smile: Oh no, you’re very good, anh! (She leaves for the kitchen).
Son (half-Asian, early 20’s): Nice, dad. So, you’re hitting on a waitress about 40 years younger than you.
Father: No, no, just trying to be friendly.
Son: I’ll bet you think she’s wringing out her panties in the bathroom she got so wet talking to you.
Father: What the hell are you talking about? Jesus…
Son: I know you’ve got this Asian woman fetish going on, all the fucking time. You married one, but you can’t stop there, can you?
Father: You can stop this bullshit anytime.
Son: I saw it on your fucking phone, Dad. Tell me the truth, you got girls over there in Vietnam? How many? Tell me, don’t fucking lie. Tell me the truth, or I will kick your ass. I may kick it anyway. Tell me! You’re cheating on my mother, right?
Father: It’s not your concern. You don’t know what I’ve been through. I love your mom but it’s been damn hard, dealing with her depression and anxiety, day in, day fucking out.
Son (rising in anger): Tell me, how many?
Father: It’s not your concern!
Son: Tell me, now, or I will fucking hit you, I swear.
Father (pleading): Michael…stop this…
Son: Tell me!
Father: OK, one.
Son: Fucking bastard. Who was it? What did you tell her? You just used her, right, you scumbag?
Father: That’s it, I’m leaving.
(Father gets up to leave, and walks outside the restaurant. Son follows him outside, and starts throwing punches at his father’s head. The father flees, with the son in pursuit. Just then, a police car happens by, and stops.)
- The protagonist, an advanced middle-aged man, lands at LAX airport, and gets in a cab to meet his wife and two sons.
- Protagonist has just made love to a woman, and as she sleeps soundly next to him, he looks to the ceiling, gets up, and heads to the outdoor balcony overlooking the ocean. He lights a joint, sighs, and says, “Oh, shit, what the hell. What the hell happened?”
- Protagonist is walking on the beach on a bright moonlit evening, holding hands with a beautiful Thai woman. She speaks to him in a sultry sing-song voice. He smiles blissfully as the froth from ocean waves lap on his feet.
- Protagonist is in a bar in Bangkok with aging gray-haired men drinking Chang beer and watching naked brown Thai women swing languidly from poles to a driving rock music beat.
- Protagonist books air ticket for Bangkok online, with a determined look on his face.
- Protagonist drives his drug-addled son home from an emergency room visit. The son accuses his father of cheating on his mother, and as they get out of the car, the son throws punches at his father’s head. The protagonist tries to ward off the blows, and then flees. A police car stops, an officer gets out, and asks, “What’s going on?”