The Theory of Everything

As a student at Cambridge, Eddie Redmayne had seen Professor Stephen Hawking across campus occasionally. Years later, he was starstruck to meet him and have the privilege of portraying him in The Theory of Everything. Eddie and Felicity Jones, playing Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde, met Hawking and Wilde several times before making the film.

The film was based on Wilde’s book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen. Shortly after meeting as students at Cambridge, Stephen was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease (one of which is ALS), with a life expectancy of two years. They refused to believe it. They became engaged. He said it gave him something to live for. They married and had three children.

Redmayne shows a Hawking who smiles as he fights. He needs crutches. He needs a wheelchair. He can’t write. He can’t speak.

It’s only his body that’s betraying him. Nothing and no one approaches his mind.

After 30 years, Jane has become a caretaker and left behind her studies in the arts. Her outlet is her choir – and her choirmaster, with whom she falls in love. And Stephen has fallen in love with his nurse. Jane marries the choirmaster, and Stephen marries the nurse.

Stephen’s second marriage ended in 2006, and he and Jane became closer, enjoying their children and grandchildren. They were on hand with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones at the UK premiere of the film.

There’s an enormous Oscar buzz. The movie meets some predictable Oscar criteria:

It’s about a real person: Ray. Milk. The Iron Lady. Capote. Lincoln.

It’s about someone afflicted: Charly. My Left Foot. Shine. Rain Man.

An actor looks, well, unattractive: Raging Bull. Monster’s Ball. Syriana. Monster. American Hustle.

And the Academy likes to be highbrow. Just my theories, but they’ve often proved true.

Hereafter

Hereafter is a 2010 film starring Matt Damon, who has grown as an actor and whose portrayal I enjoyed. The movie follows the diverse experiences of three unrelated people who somehow were connected to the afterlife.

Like many who watched the movie expecting to see interesting theories besides “walking into the light,” I found that the film didn’t go in that direction. It did tell the interesting individual stories, but it was unsatisfying because it didn’t expound on the premise. For a movie directed by Clint Eastwood, it was slloww-moving. That surprised me. Eastwood’s direction is usually tight and not boring. (He lost a lot of points with me when he spoke to an empty chair, but I still thought I’d enjoy an Eastwood-directed movie more than this one.)

George (Damon) is a factory worker. As we learn from his brother, Billy (Jay Mohr – where has he been?), George has a psychic gift. He can hold someone’s hand and see enough about the person to give a reading, reaching someone who has died. He made a lot of money doing that, but he has given it up because he felt his life became more about death. He’s through.

Marie (Cécile De France) is a French journalist. While on assignment in Thailand, she is a victim of a violent tsunami, but she survives. Barely. She has vivid memories, including several people walking toward a light during the time she “died.” The timing for this part of the film was unfortunate. One month after its release, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, and that country pulled the film from all theaters.

Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) are London twins. Their mother is an alcoholic and drug addict. When Jason is sent to the chemist – pharmacy, that is – he’s beset by a teenage gang who steal his Mom’s “rehab medicine,” and he is struck and killed by a car while trying to escape.

Marie’s story is told primarily in French with English subtitles. That’s how the film starts, and you’ll wonder if the whole thing is in French. But non.

Somehow all three stories intersect. Just when you think you shouldn’t have bothered, it redeems itself in the last half-hour or so. It had a $50 million budget and made $105 million at the box office. A lukewarm reception.

Your call. To rent or not to rent.

 

Binge-watching The West Wing

The West Wing is not a new show; in fact, it was on the air from September 22, 1999 to May 14, 2006. Everybody’s binge-watching these days: Breaking Bad, Homeland, Prime Suspect, Angels in America. You’re watching some older shows because the DVDs and boxed sets weren’t immediately available. Long after The West Wing ended, Twitter accounts for many of the characters began to appear in 2010.

If you have the boxed set of The West Wing, you’re looking at 47 discs. This is how addictive it is:

  1. You’ll lose sleep.
  2. All your auto-recorded shows will fall off your list.
  3. You’ll want to take a leave of absence from work.

Binge-watching has its benefits. Of course there are no commercials. Another advantage is that you don’t have to wait for the new season after being presented with a cliffhanger.

The West Wing revolves around President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his senior staff. It is somewhat serialized but also includes new plots in each episode. It could really be called a dramedy. You see great stress and drama every week. There’s also a good serving of humor. Creator Aaron Sorkin, who wrote every script for the first four seasons, planned on the President’s appearances once a month. Instead, Sheen was in every episode. Rob Lowe was assumed to be the big draw, but after four seasons he left the show after the emphasis switched to Bradley Whitford’s character. Not the greatest career move.

The cast consisted of 15 major characters in its seven seasons, but there were many cast changes. Eight actors appeared in every season. There were some I didn’t like. OK, I’ll say it: Moira Kelly (who disappeared after the first season); Mary-Louise Parker (sorry, I just can’t stand her nasal and monotone voice); and Mary McCormack (although I liked her in Murder One).

There were people in the background with pretty good resumes. Two pollsters and six former White House staffers (including two former press secretaries) acted as consultants. Former senate aide Lawrence O’Donnell wrote several shows and was also an actor, portraying the president’s father in flashbacks.

The show, the actors, producers, directors and crew won more awards than they had shelves. They included Emmys (26), Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, and the Peabody – twice. In 2013, TV Guide ranked the show #7 in its list of the 60 Greatest Dramas of all time, and its readers voted the cast the Best Drama cast of all time. The Writers Guild of America ranked it #10 in its 101 Best Written TV Series List.

It’s fun to spot the changes in certain issues. There was no medical marijuana (the Surgeon General was almost fired for talking about it), and gay marriage was referred to as a state issue, as it is now, but backing it would be political suicide.

In many ways the political situations stand up to today. Maybe that means there are problems we haven’t solved since 2006.

Read This Book

If you thought The Tonight Show began with Jay Leno as host, and you never saw the show before 1992, you missed The King Of Late Night, the best Tonight Show host ever, often called television’s best host of all time. Johnny Carson.

The Tonight Show actually started in 1954 with Steve Allen as host. He was followed by Jack Paar, Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien for about 15 minutes, then Leno again, and presently Jimmy Fallon. Johnny Carson was the host for 30 years – the duration of all other hosts combined.

The book is fast-moving, chatty, and a real tell-all – written eight years after Carson’s death. (There are 15 others about him.)

Henry Bushkin was a young lawyer when he met Johnny Carson in 1970. They worked together for 20 years, and when that was over, it was followed by a dismissive ending typical of Carson. (Think of Joan Rivers’ blackball from NBC.) Bushkin describes himself as his lawyer, counselor, partner, employee, business advisor, earpiece, mouthpiece, enforcer, running buddy, tennis pal, drinking and dinner companion and foil. He also cleaned up all Carson’s messes. They saw each other every day. When Johnny occasionally delivered a joke about “Bombastic Bushkin,” Henry was flattered by the name.

Johnny Carson was a brilliant comedian and interviewer. He wasn’t snide to his guests like David Letterman, and he didn’t fawn all over them like Oprah Winfrey. But you’ll read about a personality very different from the man who never forgot a joke in his life and occasionally delivered a Nebraska aw-shucks style. Bushkin shows the two (maybe more) sides of Carson. “… one minute gracious, funny and generous; and curt, aloof and hard-hearted the next.” Beloved by millions, but a man who just overdid it: drinking, smoking (four packs a day), and cheating on his four wives. “… never have I met a man with less aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships.”

Carson didn’t want to host The Tonight Show for 30 years. Contract talks, more like fights, were handled by Bushkin, containing byzantine timing and details that kept him on the air. His salary was discussed and guessed in newspapers, but Bushkin refused to come right out with it. Let’s just say it was several million dollars a year, for three days a week.

The Mr. Hyde side of Johnny’s personality came from a horrifically dysfunctional relationship with his mother. Bushkin goes into some detail about her and the effect she had on Johnny. She was never proud of his success and belittled everything about him. Little aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships? Guess where that came from.

Johnny Carson died in 2005 of respiratory failure due to emphysema. He left an estate in excess of $450 million. Among his bequests were more than $156 million to the Carson Foundation for the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Free Clinic, Planned Parenthood, and several other charities.

One of the most famous and beloved people on the planet died alone. We lost one of a kind. Where would the laughs come from now?

Gone Girl — Book 4, Movie 6

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was published in 2012 and sold 8.5 million copies (and counting) and spent 92 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Flynn had previously published Sharp Objects and Dark Places.

When the 2014 movie arrived, it had a $38 million opening weekend.

I’m going to surprise you. I wasn’t crazy about either.

I excitedly bought the book as soon as it came out and heard later it would be a movie. However, it turned out to be one of those books. I put it down and read another book, then returned to it briefly, then put it down and read another book, then returned to finish it, almost as an obligation. It was covered with dust.

Unlike the movie, the book travels back and forth between Amy Dunne’s diary entries and Nick Dunne’s reporting of the bizarre events that are happening.

On their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears. Nick gets a call from a neighbor about trouble at the house and walks into a crime scene. No body, just a messed up living room. The police arrive, and he starts his lies. He’s nonetheless seen as the good guy. Amy’s pretty psycho. However, you can go back and forth looking for a hero. Or a villain.

Nick and Amy (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) had lost their New York magazine jobs and moved to Carthage, Missouri, Nick’s hometown. Nick bought The Bar with his twin sister, Margo (possibly the only sane person in the story), from Amy’s trust fund. Amy sat around hating Carthage, Missouri.

We continue with Amy’s escape travels and Nick’s increasing trouble with the police, quickly assuming he’s murdered his wife.

I found the book slow-moving and talky. It did have ups and downs – who’s right and who’s wrong? Additionally, there is a whodunit factor, but the excitement happens in the middle (See? You have to want to get there). And we know who dun it.

The movie didn’t travel back and forth but gave a confusing look at Nick, with all his lying, and Amy, who doesn’t know what she wants or where she wants it. There were some changes to the book, which I’m not going to spoil, and there has been a real dustup about a new ending – a whole new “third act,” which Gillian Flynn has defended.

You’ll see some glowing reviews. You might have read glowing reviews of the book two years ago. I’m not glowing.

Here’s your chance – comment and yell at me. Or agree. I want to know what the other 8.5 million readers and $38 million ticket holders thought.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History — Chapters Two to Seven

Chapter Two of Ken Burns’s documentary continues with Teddy Roosevelt, rough-rider, protector of national parks,and  builder of the Panama Canal, among other accomplishments, but one line by the narrator was strange: Theodore Roosevelt liked war. He was quoted: “No triumph of peace is as great as the supreme triumph of war.”

We continue to more detail on Franklin Roosevelt. He had a privileged childhood with a doting mother, and all his life he admired his fifth cousin, the president. He followed exactly in his career footsteps as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, and President of the United States.

We meet Eleanor, favorite niece of Teddy, to whom FDR proposed marriage in 1903. She was 19, and he was 22. They married two years later, with TR giving the bride away. They complemented each other with their individual strengths, but they didn’t have the warmest of marriages. A major struggle occurred in 1921 when Franklin contracted polio at age 39. He refused to show weakness, and the press cooperated (as they never would today) with his demand never to be photographed in a wheelchair.

His strength was also tested by a worldwide depression with an astounding 24 percent of Americans out of work. The New Deal created the “alphabet programs:” the CWA, AAA, CCC, NRA (National Recovery Administration), FDIC, HOLCP, PWA AND TVA, among others.

FDR was in office for over 12 years, the only president to be elected to four terms. Starting in 1941, the U.S. abandoned its policy of isolationism from World War II with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, leading the U.S. into World War II. Those 12 years represented arguably the most awful period in the 20th century.

After FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor came into her own. She went down into coal mines, fought for women’s rights, and traveled incessantly. She was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations and the fight for civil rights.

Although the documentary creator Ken Burns has been called predictable, The Roosevelts really represented seven small documentaries. They’re being repeated on PBS, but to watch the complete series, go to http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-roosevelts/watch-videos/

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

This seven-part documentary follows the lives and careers of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. It is the twenty-fifth documentary by Ken Burns and is narrated by Peter Coyote (who always seems to be the narrator for Burns’s features). Each episode is two hours long.

Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly child, dangerously afflicted with asthma, and there was a time in his infancy when doctors told his parents he may not survive. By his teens, he followed his adored father’s advice and engaged in weightlifting and boxing. He continued to fight health problems and become the “tough guy” among other sportsmen. But he had a considerate side. During a bear-hunting trip, the group captured a cub whom Roosevelt refused to kill, calling the other hunters’ behavior “unsportsmanlike.” That’s why we call the stuffed toy a teddy bear.

Graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, he entered Columbia Law School. However, the law was not his goal. He later became the youngest representative of the New York State Assembly. Tragically, his mother and his wife died on the same day, and in his crippling grief he traveled to the Dakota Territory as a cowboy and rancher for two years.

Roosevelt returned to politics in 1886 and remarried. His lifelong fascination with the Navy led to the position of U.S. Navy assistant secretary under President William McKinley. He later left the post to join the Spanish-American War, organizing the Rough Riders, famously taking San Juan Hill. Seen as a war hero, he was elected governor of New York in 1898.

Roosevelt was more progressive than many Republicans, and to put him aside, they nominated him for the Vice Presidency on McKinley’s ticket for re-election. (The Vice Presidency was considered “where politicians go to die.”) In 1901 McKinley was assassinated, making Roosevelt, 42, the youngest President in history. (The episode goes into much more detail about Roosevelt’s presidency. PBS is repeating it several times. You can also see it on PBS.com.)

In 1905 he walked his favorite niece and goddaughter, Eleanor, down the aisle as she married Franklin D. Roosevelt (her fifth cousin once removed). This first episode simply touches on Franklin and Eleanor. There are six more to come.