Category Archives: Movies/Television

Watch a Movie to Become a Better Writer

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Children watching Charlie Chaplin film, 1951 (from teara.govt.nz photograph:21963)

In case you’ve never visited my blog before, you may not realize what a big fan I am of movies. I love films almost as much as I do books. When I was young, the concept of premium movie channels didn’t even exist, and there were only three networks, with commercials, and with heavy editing of any films they did air. Sometimes, when my newly divorced mother was first dating, my siblings and I got dropped off at a local movie theatre on Saturday afternoons, where the theatre showed many different films all day long, not just the same one all day, so we got to see at least two or three movies without leaving our seats.

We didn’t even have color television for the first decade of my life, so books became more important to me than films if only because I had easier access to books. There was a library in the school, and the Bookmobile came around to our neighborhood once a week, enabling me to get as many books as I could read. Still, I watched as many films as I could.

When I first became a writer, I wrote poetry. I’d fallen in love with TS Eliot’s poems when I was 6, although I certainly didn’t understand them. I loved the music of his language, and I wanted to write words like that myself. Gradually, over the years of writing and publishing poems, my poems began to get longer and more complex. More of my poems became narratives, with distinct storylines. Some had multiple protagonists and different perspectives. Editors at journals where I submitted my work began to write notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” I thought the editors were just being obtuse. Eventually, though, I began to wonder if I should write fiction instead of poetry, if only because my poems were getting too long and complex for most poetry journals.

But how to write a novel? I got as many books as I could on novel writing technique, but they said things so simplistic that I wondered what pre-school class they’d been written for. Have a plot, have characters, make something happen. I knew all that from years of reading books, getting degrees in literature, and from teaching literature. But I was at a loss about how to move from writing poetry to writing fiction. Then, one of my favorite movies aired on Turner Classic Movies, without commercials — Gone with the Wind — and I wondered if I could learn to write fiction by watching a classic film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

I hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book at that point, but I was a huge fan of the film based on her book. I watched Gone with the Wind once again, but that time I tried to pay attention to what made the film a good story. In particular, I wondered how the film managed to tell its story – with the American Civil War and its Reconstruction period as its setting – without ever confusing its viewers. I first saw Gone with the Wind when I was 5 or 6, and though I’m certain I didn’t understand it all, I understood enough of the story to fall in love with the film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

As an adult, and as a writer who wanted to move from poetry to fiction, I watched Gone with the Wind over and over, paying special attention to the storytelling techniques, and I learned enough to feel confident enough afterward to write my first novel. All writers can learn good storytelling from great films, and camera angles and acting techniques can also teach something about writing fiction, but you have to know how to watch a film in order to become a better writer.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Roman Holiday ©

The Plot
To learn good writing and storytelling techniques from a movie, re-watch a movie that you’ve seen several times. If you’ve never seen the movie or if you’ve only seen it once or twice, you’ll probably be paying attention to the plot only, which includes all the story’s conflict. Obviously, it’s imperative to have a strong plot in your story, whether you’re writing a short story, novella, or novel, but there’s more to fiction than plot. All good writing has Urgency, which keeps the reader turning pages, but plot Urgency has solely to do with what happens in the story, and that means conflict.

Traditionally, conflict has been divided into four major categories, and you should be familiar with these if you’re writing fiction. For details, you should see my post on Urgency, especially conflict in plot. An author can have as many categories of conflict in fiction as he wishes, but the first time most of us read a book or watch a film, we are most interested in what happens so we are only reading or watching for plot. To learn fiction-writing technique from any book or a film, you should already know what happens in the plot, i.e., you should be intimately familiar with all the conflicts, so that you can concentrate on storytelling technique.

James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel without a Cause, 1955 ©

The Protagonist
Once you know the plot of the film, pay attention to the character who is the focus of film. Who is most often on camera? Who has the most lines? Who do all other characters in the story congregate around? That is the protagonist. Now imitate that technique in your own story & writing by making sure that you view the protagonist as if you were the camera. Make sure you focus on your protagonist consistently.

If the film has more than one protagonist, notice which is the major protagonist around whom the minor protagonists rotate. The minor protagonists are satellites or moons to the planet that is the major protagonist. Notice how the camera and all the other actors concentrate on the major protagonist all the time. That is how you want to tell your story: around the major protagonist. Use that technique when writing your own fiction. Keep your own camera focused on your protagonist so your readers should find it easy to follow your protagonist through the book.

Watch the film at least once without sound while paying attention to the protagonist and his relationship with the camera. Notice how the camera is directed toward and focused on the protagonist. Note camera focus on the protagonist in every scene: you want that kind of focus in your own story. No matter what’s happening in the film, notice where the camera is in relation to the protagonist. Even in action sequences, the camera often returns to the protagonist to show his reaction, however brief, to the events around him. Learn from that. Use that technique to improve your own writing.

Joan Fontaine and Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca, 1940 ©

The Antagonist
All characters in fiction need to be fully developed, not just your protagonist. Watch the film once more, concentrating on every person or thing that causes conflict for the protagonist. This could include the protagonist’s own behavior, doubt, hesitation, etc. Anything that causes conflict with the protagonist becomes an antagonist in the story, and, obviously, there can be lots of antagonists. Watch the film at least once listing every single conflict that happens. Identify antagonist(s) that are the cause of each conflict. Group all the conflicts that go with each antagonist together. This helps you become hyper-conscious of conflict, which is important in good storytelling.

Just as there can be more than one protagonist in any story, there can be multiple antagonists, though one is usually dominant. After you have listed all the conflicts and all the various antagonists, determine which is the major antagonist. In Moby-Dick and Jaws, for example, the whale and the shark are the major antagonists respectively in each book, but the sea is also an important antagonist in both stories, as are fellow sailors. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the major antagonist, whom Harry encounters even before he is conscious of doing so, but Harry also has conflicts with family members, teachers, supernatural creatures, and himself throughout.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

The Dialogue
There’s more to writing effective dialogue than just the words characters say, and film can teach you what else to put in talking scenes. Take a few weeks or months off from watching the film because you need it to be fresh the next time you play it. Watch it again, but don’t look at the screen while the film is playing. Instead, listen to it closely, and try to recall what the actors are doing when they say their lines. Don’t worry if you can’t actually remember what each and every character is doing while you’re listening to the film: instead, try to imagine what each actor is doing if you can’t recall his actions. When you are writing your own story, you will have to imagine what your characters are doing without having any actors to provide the action that accompanies the dialogue, so this is good practice.

Next, watch the film against without looking at the screen. This time, pay attention to the inflections (stress or accent on words or their syllables) and intonations (rise and fall of the voice in speech) of everything the actors say. You will not be able to imitate this in a written story because they are attributes of spoken language, but you should still become aware of the role that inflection and intonation play in speech. Listen also to the pauses and to the silences. Think about these things in reference to your own writing. You may have to re-arrange sentences or choose your words more carefully to imitate inflection or intonation. You may have to insert dialogue tags to mimic pauses, like this: “Are you trying to tell me,” she said when her husband remained silent, “that you’re seeing someone else?”

But whatever you do in writing dialogue,

Do. Not. Do. Something. Like. This. In. An. Attempt. To. Imitate. What. Actors. Are. Doing. In. A. Film.

DON’T DO THIS.

Don’t do this either.

AND DEFINITELY. DO. NOT. DO THIS.

Those are just examples of really bad writing.

Find more imaginative ways to imitate in writing how a character is speaking. Use silence and action as well as direct speech. You are not writing a screenplay. Even if you were, actors do not have every single movement and facial expression written out for them. They interpret. They ACT. But if you’re writing fiction, you need to supply this information to your readers. Don’t overdo it with bad writing or grotesquely incorrect punctuation.

You are not trying to slavishly imitate film by trying to write down every single thing the actors are doing with their voices: that would be impossible. You are trying to learn from the film’s storytelling and from the actors’ acting. You are learning what a visual art form does to tell a good story. You will have to learn how to translate those techniques into a different art form: a written art.

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy, 1931 (Cagney added the grapefruit in the face) ©

The NonVerbals
After you’ve identified the major protagonist, any minor protagonists, all the antagonists, and all the conflicts, and you know the story well, it’s time to watch the film again, without sound, paying very close attention to the actors’ facial expressions and body language. You may have to do this several times, concentrating on different characters each time. This is where you get ideas for description and behavior in your story. Notice what the actors do with their hands, eyes, lips, mouths, eyebrows, feet, etc. whether they’re talking or not. (In the photo above, James Cagney improvised the grapefruit-in-the-face action during an argument with Mae Clarke’s character, so her intense frown and raised hands were honest surprise and outraged shock at his actions: they were not in the script.)

Note the actors’ bodies when they’re walking, sitting, standing. Become aware of how you determine what the actor is feeling without hearing what he’s saying. Use that knowledge to describe your own characters and reveal what they are feeling by showing what they are doing instead of always having them tell the readers (or other characters) how they feel.

Joan Crawford (in fur) in Mildred Pierce, 1945 ©

The Setting
After you’ve watched the film about a trillion times and think you’ve got absolutely everything you can get out of it, you have more to learn if you want to become a better writer. Watch the film again, without sound, and notice all the costumes, hairstyles, makeup, furniture, buildings, night, day, weather…

Setting is more than just a place: it is the time period of the story, the society, the government, the religious background, the environment, the weather, etc. Notice all of that in the film.

Look at the characters’ fingernails (something often overlooked, as when a poor sharecropper has finely manicured nails), the soles of their shoes, how their clothes move when the actors walk, fall, run, embrace. This may all affect what characters do, and you can learn character behavior and description from closely observing how the actors move in their costumes.

Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle and Joseph (Buster) Keaton in The Bellboy, 1918 ©

Watch carefully and note every single time an actor interacts with something in his environment, whether he’s sitting on the edge of a desk, clutching a handkerchief, picking up a coffee cup, turning away from another actor, holding onto someone’s arm, or petting a cat. Look at how they move across carpet, bare floor, a sandy beach, around bodies lying on the ground, up a steep hill. Learn from every single thing in the film’s setting with which the actors interact. Learn from the setting and how it affects the actors’ behavior. Use it in your own story.

Gary Cooper (in white shirt) and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, 1942 ©

Keep in mind that you can’t learn to write a book from only watching movies. You also need to read, all the time, in your genre and outside of it, and you should read short stories and novellas, stand-alone novels and series. After all, writing is a job, not a holiday jaunt, and all sorts of fiction can help you learn to write better.

When you watch films to become a better writer, you’re not copying everything the film does: you’re learning from the actors, who inhabit the characters; from the director, who determines scene and camera focus; from the setting, especially if setting is an antagonist; from the conflicts, which are plot. Most good films can teach you how to become a better writer, but you have to become conscious of film techniques, and then learn how to translate those visiual cues into written languae.

You don’t have to worry that this exercise will make you hate your favorite movie. If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for all the artistry involved in making a good film. You can learn from that to make art in your own way, by telling a good story. Learn how to become a better storyteller and writer by noticing all the fine details of your favorite movie(s). Learn to translate actors’ actions and camera angles into written language. Then go out and tell a good story, and tell your story better than anyone else could do it.

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Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View

Write a Novel Without an Outline

Publishing & Writer’s Life

Pitch Your Book

Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Book

A Week in the Life of a Writer, and a Peek Inside my Office

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Filed under Actors, Authors, Books, Classics, Creative Writing, Films, Films/Movies, Movies/Films, Movies/Television, Research, Stories, Storytelling, Writing

Horror and Suspense Films

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listed in alphabetical order by name of film

Scary Because It's Possible: The Bad Seed, the Film

Scary Because It’s Possible: The Bad Seed, the Film

#NoSpoilers It's October, and that means it's time for scary movies. When I was young, vampires and ghosts and werewolves usually did the trick. As ...
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To Make Cynics of Us All: Devil, the Horror Film

To Make Cynics of Us All: Devil, the Horror Film

#NoSpoilers There is a long history of stories about humans being influenced or tempted to commit evil by some outside being rather than by their ...
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The Tragedy Doomed to Repeat Itself: The Devil's Backbone, the Film

The Tragedy Doomed to Repeat Itself: The Devil’s Backbone, the Film

What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to ...
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If You Dance with the Devil: 8MM (Eight Millimeter), the Film

If You Dance with the Devil: 8MM (Eight Millimeter), the Film

#NoSpoilers Crime films, frequently inspired by crime fiction, concentrates on criminals, their crimes, and (sometimes) on the detection of those crimes. The famed Noir films ...
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The First Award-Winning Horror Film: The Exorcist

The First Award-Winning Horror Film: The Exorcist

#NoSpoilers Though the word "horror" was not used to describe a film genre until the 1930s, films including supernatural or frightening elements, usually adapted from ...
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Setting the World On Fire: The Girl With All the Gifts, the Film

Setting the World On Fire: The Girl With All the Gifts, the Film

#NoSpoilers Pandora, whose name means either "all-gifted" or "all-giving," was ostensibly the first human female created by the Greek gods. Each of the gods helps ...
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Killing Others To Survive: Identity, the Film

Killing Others To Survive: Identity, the Film

#NoSpoilers The 2003 psychological horror film Identity is not a direct adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1939 mystery novel And Then There Were None, though the plot of Identity is ...
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The Demons Within Us: The Innocents, the Film

The Demons Within Us: The Innocents, the Film

#NoSpoilers I first read The Turn of the Screw when I was ten years old after I learned it was about ghosts, and much of ...
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Coming-of-Age with a Vampire: Let Me In, the Film

Coming-of-Age with a Vampire: Let Me In, the Film

#NoSpoilers The concept of vampires or vampire-like beings — undead who return from the grave and exist by stealing the "life essence" (flesh or blood) ...
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The Plague That Cast the World Into Darkness: Open Grave, the Film

The Plague That Cast the World Into Darkness: Open Grave, the Film

#NoSpoilers I'm going to be honest with you: I don't think much of post-apocalyptic dramas that include zombies. I mean, who's going to root for ...
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When Children Scare You to Death: Orphan, the Film

When Children Scare You to Death: Orphan, the Film

#NoSpoilers This story has been recycled a few times: parents who are longing for another child and also to do good in the world -- ...
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Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

#NoSpoilers Of all the horror films I have ever watched or blogged about, The Orphanage (2007) -- written by Sergio G. Sánchez, directed by  JA Bayona, and ...
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The World of the Dead and the World of the Living: The Others, the Film

The World of the Dead and the World of the Living: The Others, the Film

#NoSpoilers Okay, so the lit-tra-chure purists complain that this film, which some say was inspired by Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw, isn't ...
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Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic

Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic

#NoSpoilers Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which was itself loosely based on the story of Wisconsin serial killer ...
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Suspense via Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven, the 2012 Film

Suspense via Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven, the 2012 Film

No Spoilers I'm not sure why the 2012 film The Raven doesn't have at least 9 out of 10 stars on popular reviewing sites because ...
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The World Breaks Everyone: Horror Film Classic Rosemary's Baby

The World Breaks Everyone: Horror Film Classic Rosemary’s Baby

#NoSpoilers The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong in the broken places. Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms It all seems so ordinary ...
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Shutter Island, the Film, Is Shuddery Good

Shutter Island, the Film, Is Shuddery Good

No Spoilers You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it. Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, the films explore morality in ...
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You Are Now Entering the Cruel World: Texas Killing Fields, the Film

You Are Now Entering the Cruel World: Texas Killing Fields, the Film

No Spoilers You are now entering the cruel world bridge sign near The Killing Fields Since the 1970s, at least 30 young women and girls ...
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Hansel & Gretel With A Video Camera: The Visit, 2015 Film

Hansel & Gretel With A Video Camera: The Visit, 2015 Film

No Spoilers (okay, there's a couple, but they're not about plot) When I first saw the description for the 2015 film The Visit, written, directed, and produced ...
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Filed under #31DaysOfHalloween, Actors, Classic Films, Films, Films/Movies, Halloween, Horror, Horror Films, Movies/Films, Movies/Television, No Spoilers Review, Psychological Horror, Review, Review/No Spoilers, Science Fiction, Serial Killers, Suspense

Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Guest Lydia Schoch @TorontoLydia

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Review of  The Handmaid’s Tale season 1
by Guest Lydia Schoch @TorontoLydia

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a speculative novel about a woman who was kidnapped and forced into reproductive slavery after the U.S. government was overthrown by a group of religious extremists called the Sons of Jacob. Last year, I was thrilled when I found out that it was going to be turned into a TV series.

Today I’m going to tell you what season one of The Handmaid’s Tale was like and what I thought of it without giving away any spoilers for it. Let’s begin with the introductions of the main characters and a brief summary of the plot.

O.T. Fagbnele as Luke, Jordana Blake as Hannah, and Elisabeth Moss as Offred (Photo: George Kraychyk © HULU)

June was the protagonist. Before the United States government was overthrown, she was married to a man named Luke. They were one of the dwindling number of families who had been able to successfully have a healthy child. They named their little girl Hannah.

Unfortunately, this family’s happiness was short-lived. Fertility rates dropped so much in the place formerly known as the United States that it became rare for any pregnancy to lead to a healthy, viable baby. The Sons of Jacob, an extremist movement whose political platform was based on harsh, literal interpretations of certain passages from the Bible, believed that this widespread infertility was a curse from God.

When they gained power and formed Gilead, they passed punitive laws aimed to strictly control marriage, fertility, gender roles, and how people were allowed to live in an attempt to win God’s favour again.

Elizabeth Moss as Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale © Hulu

As you might have already imagined, fertile women were highly sought after in this new society. June and her family was no exception to this rule. June was prized because she’d proven herself fertile, and Hannah was prized because there were far more families hoping to adopt than there were children of any age or race who could be placed for adoption.

After being captured by the authorities, June was torn away from her family and assigned to be a Handmaid for the wealthy and powerful. That is, her only duty in life now was to bear children for couples who couldn’t have their own.

Rather than keeping her own name, June was renamed at every posting. Offred — or “of Fred” — became her new identity after she was sent to live with Fred Waterford, a top-ranking Commander of the new government.

Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu ©

His wife, Serena Joy, was a wildly unpredictable mistress whose sole desire in life was to be a mother. Her jealousy of June’s fertility is only matched by her hatred of this arrangement.

Offred had a limited amount of time to conceive a baby with Fred. If she failed to become pregnant, she would be sent to a work camp to die a slow, agonizing death. While she waited to see if the monthly sexual assaults from Fred will result in a baby, she also quietly worked to find out what happened to her husband and daughter.

Are they still alive? Will she ever be able to see them again? Even saying their names was forbidden, but this didn’t stop Offred from fantasizing about what it would be like to be her family again.

Roughly translated, nolite te bastardes carborundorum is supposed to mean “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It was a phrase she found scratched into the wood of one of the pieces of furniture in her room at the Waterford’s home. While Offred waited to see what would happen to her next, she had to figure out how to avoid being ground down to dust in the process.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1st edition)

Analysis

As someone who has been a huge fan of the book for nearly 20 years, I was quite happy with how this story was translated to the small screen.

Gilead was a violent and dangerous place to live for anyone who stepped out of line, and the screenwriters weren’t at all afraid to show exactly what happened to people who broke the strict rules there. While I can’t go into any details about that part of the plot without giving away spoilers for everything after the first episode, I will say that this portion of the storytelling was exquisite.

There is a massive difference between maintaining the appearance of a virtuous society and actually constructing it in a way that benefits the very people it was originally meant to help.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that showed the stark difference between the outward appearance of someone’s life and the quiet reality of it behind closed doors. While most of the villains were at least outwardly pious, what happened when they thought no one was watching them was much more complex than following or breaking specific rules.

One of the other things I loved about this season is how it handled the character development. No one in this world was completely evil or good, including people who really did seem like they could be boxed in by these labels when I first saw them.

There were times when the good characters made decisions that I detested. In other scenes, characters who had been violent or cruel showed moments of mercy.

This is not to say that a single act of kindness can wipe away even the worst crime or that good people should be forever judged by their worst mistakes in life. All of these characters are a mixture of faults and virtues just like real people are, and that has permanently endeared them to me.

The science fiction in this universe has a very light touch. If this is not a genre you typically watch, know that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t like most other scifi shows. Other than the mysterious origins of the infertility plague, everything that happened in this show could really happen in our world. Indeed, much of it already has happened at various times and in many different places.

By the end of the season finale a question lingered in the air. Would we let something like this happen to us if we began to see the signs of a real-life Gilead beginning to form?

Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale is tentatively scheduled to be released in April of 2018. Until then, I hope you will mull over this question and come up with your own answers to it as you enjoy season one.

The Handmaid’s Tale won several Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss, as Offred), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd, as Aunt Lydia), Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series (Alexis Bledel, as Emily), Best Directing for a Drama Series (Reed Dowd), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).

Elisabeth Moss at 69th Emmy Awards, Photo by Kevin Winter, Getty Images ©

The Handmaid’s Tale is available on Hulu (free one-month trial subscription, $11.99 with no commercials, $5.99 with limited commercials), Amazon ($1.99 SD, $2.99 HD per episode, or $14.99-19.99 for season), and, for similar purchase prices, on YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and GooglePlay.

Lydia Schoch is a science fiction author and longtime fan of Margaret Atwood’s stories. Lydia blogs at Lydia Schoch, tweets at @TorontoLydia, and lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Related Posts
on The Handmaid’s Tale
by Lydia Schoch
#Spoilers

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Introducing Offred’s World

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Gender Treachery

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Faithful

The Handmaid’s Tale:
A Woman’s Place

The Handmaid’s Tale:
The Other Side

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Jezebels

The Handmaid’s Tale:
The Bridge

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Night

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When You Can’t Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain: HBO’s The Wizard of Lies

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Even those of us who aren’t even remotely rich have no doubt heard of Bernie Madoff, perpetrator of one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history, causing investors to lose almost $65 billion. Named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian swindler and con artist operating in the US in the 1920’s, Ponzi schemes always collapse, if only because there are no actual investments made with the monies deposited: earlier investors are paid “dividends” with the cash that newer investors deposit, although most of the monies usually go to the fraudster who sets up the plan. The Wizard of Lies, HBO’s film based on the book of the same name by Diana B. Henriques, who plays herself interviewing inmate-Madoff in the film, concentrates more on the fall of the Madoff Empire rather than on explaining exactly how Madoff managed to dupe so many wealthy investors. The Wizard of Lies is a complex examination of a sociopath who, considering the fact that he’s in prison himself for 150 years, doesn’t believe he’s done anything too terribly dreadful to anyone else, especially not to his family members. De Niro’s performance as Madoff is understated and dazzling, and that alone makes the film worth watching.

Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies, © HBO

Robert De Niro, departing from his usual mob and gangster roles, plays sociopath Bernie Madoff in The Wizard of Lies. De Niro’s performance is understated and controlled to the point of disturbed-rattlesnake brilliant. De Niro only raises his voice a few times in the entire film — and even then, he’s not actually yelling — yet he manages to terrify. His gaze alone is a match for Medusa’s.

De Niro as Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

De Niro’s Madoff is so eerie, you wonder how anyone could have fallen for the investment scheme in the first place, but, of course, viewers see this version of the story already knowing about Madoff’s lies and treachery. The family dinner scene, which includes Madoff’s granddaughter, is De Niro at his menacing best: it reminded me of De Niro with a very young Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life. Shivery-scary, my dears.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Madoff’s wife Ruth, who, unfortunately, seems rather dim-witted in this version of the story. As a woman who’s supported herself since the age of 14, I realize that I may be judging Ruth Madoff by standards which did not apply to her, but still I wonder how anyone could live in a Manhattan penthouse apartment, get $400 highlights “on demand” from an elite hairdresser, and not know that the “bottomless” income which supports her über-wealthy lifestyle was illegitimate. The Wizard of Lies portrays Ruth as absent-mindedly “innocent.” Whining and perpetually confused, Ruth is rarely seen without a glass of wine in her hand.

Despite the almost cardboard-portrayal of Ruth Madoff herself, Pfeiffer’s acting is classy and powerful. As understated as De Niro, Pfeiffer plays Ruth with a skill that reminds you why Pfeiffer is one of the greatest actors alive, especially in the scene with Ruth, alone, complaining about the Bonnie and Clyde comparisons to her and Bernie, and in the scene where she calmly explains to Bernie that she’s going to commit suicide.

Darrow as Andrew, De Niro as Madoff, Nivola as Mark, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

Madoff’s sons, Mark (Allesandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), ostensibly work on “another floor” in their father’s business, and so “know nothing at all” about the actual investments, the faux trades, and the impossibility of investments’ never having any losses. Mark and Andrew live in multi-million-dollar Manhattan apartments, like Bernie, and have vacation houses, also like Bernie, but the siblings protest their innocence all the while complaining about and raging against the public’s perception of them as co-conspirators in their father’s fraud. Though it’s difficult to believe that Mark and Andrew could have been as innocent as the film depicts them, the actors do a credible job portraying the Madoff boys’ disillusion with their father and their subsequent anguish.

Hank Azaria, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

In one of his best roles, Hank Azaria plays Madoff employee and co-conspirator Frank Dipascali, the only person in the entire company who admits — in the film, at least — to having known about the faux trades and the investment scam. Dipascali manages the books in an office that resembles a corner behind the furnace in somebody’s basement. Azaria’s Dipascali is crude and vulgar, but he apparently knows how to use a computer efficiently enough to have Madoff’s complete and absolute trust. The Wizard of Lies portrays Dipascali as the only other person even remotely culpable in Madoff’s horrific scam, and Dipascali makes about as many apologies as does Bernie, which is to say, none at all.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff, and Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

The Wizard of Lies is fascinating and scary, intense and sad. Does that mean I feel sympathy for Bernie Madoff? No. Do I feel sorry for Ruth, Mark, and Andrew Madoff, all of whom claim to never have known anything was suspicious about Madoff’s vast financial empire? No. I don’t believe they were as innocent as they claim, and the film didn’t change my opinion of them.

It’s a tribute to the HBO film, however, that I watched it fully expecting to be bored and confused by multitudinous, labyrinthine financial explanations. Instead, I was totally engaged by the film, which is compelling if only due to the principals’ extraordinary and powerful performances.

The Wizard of Lies is available for viewing free to HBO subscribers and through Amazon (with a 7-day HBO trial membership).

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Pierce Brosnan & AMC’s THE SON Shine Hot & Bright

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Cast of AMC’s The Son, L-R, Zahn McClarnon as Comanche leader Toshaway, Elizabeth Frances as Prairie Flower, Jacob Lofland as Young Eli, Pierce Brosnan as Elder Eli McCullough, Henry Garrett as Eli’s youngest son Pete, Sydney Lucas as granddaughter Jeannie, Jess Weixler as Pete’s wife Sally, and David Wilson Barnes as Eli’s eldest son Phineas © AMC

AMC’s newest series The Son is a “creation myth of America” set in the American West in two different time periods, 1849 and 1915, telling the story of Texas family patriarch Eli McCullough. Based on the Pulitzer Prize finalist and bestselling novel of the same name by Philipp Meyer, who is also an executive producer of the show, The Son explores America’s violent heritage by examining Texas’ deadly involvement with indigenous peoples and its Mexican neighbors. Though Variety claims The Son is “yet another show centered around a morally grey white man with a dark past,” and though the premiere was a bit slow, AMC solved this initial pacing problem by showing the first two episodes in the same night. By the third episode, the series picks up steam and becomes quite an intriguing story.

Pierce Brosnan as the Elder Eli McCullough, and Jacob Lofland as the Young Eli in AMC’s The Son  © AMC

Eli McCullough, kidnapped by the Comanche as a young man, is the patriarch of the family in the series. Played by Pierce Brosnan in one of his best roles, he is a cattleman who, for some unknown reason, is determined to discover oil on his land. Is he losing money at the ranching business? Is he bored with cattle? Is he not rich enough? Is he in so much debt that he must lose the entire ranch if he doesn’t diversify? We don’t find that out, but for the first several episodes, the search for oil is a minor part of the story.

Pierce Brosnan as the Elder Eli McCullough on The Son  © AMC

Despite some complaints about Brosnan’s native Irish accent poking through the show’s Texas drawl, and despite Hollywood Reporter’s description of his character as “Pathetic White Boy [Eli’s Comanche name]… grown into a powerful and notoriously vicious landowner whose new Comanche nickname would probably be Growls With a Beard,” Brosnan’s Eli McCullough is the most interesting character in The Son.

Jacob Lofland as Young Eli, The Son  © AMC

As a young man in 1849, Eli (Jacob Lofland, one of the shining stars of the series) was kidnapped by the Comanche, led by Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon, a serious competitor with Brosnan, in both talent and physical attractiveness).

Zahn McClarnon as Comanche leader Toshaway, The Son  © AMC

Tormented by the males of the tribe as well as by the lovely Prairie Flower (Elizabeth Frances),

Elizabeth Frances as Comanche Prairie Flower, The Son  © AMC

Eli often doubts his ability to survive captivity. The longer he is with the tribe, however, the more he begins to behave like the other young men, and the more he is accepted as part of their group. Eventually, Toshaway may even come to regard Eli as his son.

Pierce Brosnan as Eli McCullough, The Son  © AMC

The scenes of Eli in the past are interwoven are interwoven with those of Eli as a grown man, in 1915. Living on his ranch with his sons Phineas (David Wilson Barnes)

David Wilson Barnes as eldest son Phineas, The Son  © AMC

and Pete (Henry Garrett),

Henry Garrett as youngest son Pete, The Son  © AMC

his daughter-in-law (Pete’s wife) Sally (Jess Weixler),

Jess Weixler as daughter-in-law Sally, The Son  © AMC

and his grandchildren — Charles, Jonas, and Jeannie (Sydney Lucas, who shines in her scenes with Brosnan, with whom she has obvious chemistry) —

Sydney Lucas as granddaughter Jeannie, The Son  © AMC

Eli is at odds with his sons. They want to sell part of the ranch to get the family out of debt, but Eli fears that dividing the ranch will ultimately lead to its complete loss. How the family got into such serious debt in the first place has never been made clear, but perhaps that isn’t as important as it seems it should be.

Carlos Bardem as neighbor Pedro García, The Son  © AMC

The McCulloughs’ nearest neighbors are the Garcías, led by patriarch Pedro (Carlos Bardem) and his feisty daughter Maria (Paola Nuñez), who seems inordinately attracted to the already married Pete McCullough.

Paola Nuñez as Pedro’s daughter Maria, The Son  © AMC

The Garcías have a large family, but the most important members seem to be these two. The García patriarch has some nefarious associations with Mexican bandits who are causing havoc with the white Texas settlers. War seems to be on the horizon.

Comanches in The Son  © AMC

Though the Native Americans and the Mexicans often seem stereotyped, the storyline is still mostly strong. Admittedly, there are some flaws in the story itself: Eli has two sons, for example, but the eldest, Phineas, largely disappears after the initial episodes; the Garcías have a large family, but no one gets near the attention (or screen time) that Pedro and his eldest daughter Maria have.

The worst problem with the series so far is its major production flaw: the music is often so loud that the dialogue is literally inaudible.

Still, The Son is worth watching, and, as the LA Times review notes, it’s engrossing, if only for the strong performances of Brosnan (Eli as a man), Lofland (Eli as a youth), and McClarnon (Toshaway). The strongest and most interesting female characters are Frances (Prairie Flower) and Lucas (granddaughter Jeannie). Also, the chemistry between Brosnan and Sydney Lucas (Jeannie) is delightful.

The Son is rated MA for its violence, which is frequent though not excessively graphic, and it airs Saturdays at 9:00 pm ET. The first two episodes, Son of Texas and The Plum Tree are available for viewing without login on AMC, and all episodes are free for AMC subscribers.

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Filed under Actors, Coming of Age Stories, Historical Drama, Movies/Television, No Spoilers Review, Official Trailers, The Son, Violence, Westerns