How an Indie Film About Turkish Orphans is Germane to the Presidential Election

When “Mustang” opened to a small handful of U.S. theaters last year, critics gushed. But like many independent films, it evaporated at cinemas like an ice cube on a hot stove. When it showed up on Amazon recently, I was ecstatic and planned an evening to watch it with my husband and teen aged daughter. From the opening scene to the end credits, we were totally engrossed. Charmed and repelled. Happy and incredulous. Our hearts broke. The good news is that “Mustang” has a good outcome, although it’s bittersweet. Then a funny thing happened on our way out to get ice cream: We realized this Turkish/French film is soberly relevant to the U.S. presidential election.

The film takes place in a small village in Turkey. At its center are five beautiful and spirited sisters on the last day of school before summer break. As the girls leave the school grounds, they decide to ditch the hot, crowded bus and walk home. On the way, they frolic and gallop, like a group of wild mustangs, with their long, dark hair, blowing in the warm wind. A detour to the beach with a group of boys soon has them in the sparkling, azure water, soaking their school uniforms and their hair, as they chicken fight atop the boys’ shoulders.

Their gleeful fun has extreme consequences when a meddling neighbor in a “shit-colored” dress (Lale’s description), rats the girls out to their strict grandmother before they arrive home. They walk in the door, still giddy with joy, but the mood in the house is anything but mirthful. The sisters are surprised by the reaction to their innocent behavior. Without any discussion or respect to their viewpoints, they are scolded, shamed and physically abused. Meaningful possessions, like makeup and music, and are locked away. They are stripped of phones and electronics to block them from the outside world. They are made to wear those ugly shit-colored dresses. Home becomes a “wife factory” where the sisters learn how to stuff dumplings, sew and do other chores reserved only for females. They are living in a virtual prison, complete with iron grates on the windows and locks on the doors.It is determined that the girls will all be married off, to men they don’t know, whether they want to or not. They are disrespected and have no choice. So the girls are forced to play hostess to strange men that come to over to “approve” them, while serving Turkish coffee they’ve resentfully spit into. In another scene, Lale, an enthusiastic soccer fan, begs her uncle if she can attend a match. It’s out of the question, but that doesn’t crush her spirit. Being the catalyst for much of the action in the film, Lale finds a way to escape to the stadium with her sisters. The scenes are delightful, from climbing through a tunnel to get off their property, to flagging down a ride and cheering in the stands with their long dark hair flowing like wild horses. The girls break loose on other occasions, but afterwards, the house is reinforced with even more iron and steel. As a final blow, the girls are not allowed to return to school (a waste of time anyway, since girls are only good as baby making machines and housekeepers). Their environment is closing in, but the strength of their bond and fiery spirit fortify us. Kinship is reflected in every glorious frame of the film and these sisters make confinement almost seem tolerable. One scene shows all five girls entangled on the floor as they play with each other’s toes before falling asleep. The atmosphere is comforting and warm, despite the cold, dark place in which they’ve been trapped.

Appallingly, the movie reflects how women in many countries are still treated today. (In fact, the film is based on an actual experience by the film’s director, Deniz Gamze Erguven.) There’s no equality for women — no driving, no sex before marriage, severe punishment for not abiding by men’s rules and no continuing education. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Women are second-class citizens with no say. Women are degraded, humiliated and disrespected all the time. Sadly, their suffering is as routine as the setting sun. Girls in progressive, democratic countries who see “Mustang” will be astonished to observe a culture that oppresses women in this day and age. Sadly, traces of this attitude aren’t all that outrageous to some here. Of course, a Donald Trump presidency would not turn America into a small village in Turkey. What it will do is set women way back, undermining much of the progress that has been made. “Mustang” is a must-see movie for anyone who is within spitting distance of voting Republican this year. This important film will break hearts. Most importantly, it can change minds.

 

 

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The Many Shades of Whitey in “Black Mass” — Johnny Depp is phenomenal. So is everyone else.

Julianne Nichols, who plays Marianne Connolly, steals every scene she's in.

Julianne Nichols, who plays Marianne Connolly, steals every scene she’s in.

In “Black Mass,” the crime movie that’s taking the country (especially Boston) by storm, Johnny Depp carries off what makes him one of the most talented actors of our time. He delivers a realistic, multi-layered performance that is both vile and humane. Depp achieves this by peeling away the onion, frame by frame, in his chilling portrayal of Whitey Bulger. “Black Mass” is a richly textured, well- played symphony of events, based on a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, formerly of The Boston Globe. The movie weaves jailhouse interviews in with the Whitey’s world of corruption and violence to make a shimmering tapestry of a film.

Unfortunately, recent remarks by Depp about Whitey are generating some negative headlines. After a preview in Boston, Depp told a reporter, “There’s a kind heart in there. There’s a cold heart in there. There’s a man who loves. There’s a man who cries. There’s a lot to the man.”

On “Nightside,” WBZ’s talk radio program, Kevin Weeks, Whitey’s right hand man, said he had seen Whitey be nice. Of course, many people are infuriated with these description of the violent and cold-blooded sociopath. But for a film to be compelling, the lead characters must be developed and multi-dimensional. And the director and the lead actor know this. So while Whitey is pure criminal, Depp brings out a few qualities that aren’t so bad. Whitey is:
Kind to old ladies When he crosses paths with an elderly neighbor, he chats pleasantly and directs his fellow mobsters to carry her groceries. In another early scene, he plays cards with Ma Bulger in the kitchen.
Well-groomed His hair is never out of place and his shirts are always tucked in.
Caring Upon returning home for the evening, he bolts upstairs to see his son, Douglas, who’s fast asleep. When the boy gets a fever the next day, Whitey is worried sick.
Philosophical He tells a victim thoughtfully, “Everyone has a choice. You just happened to make the wrong &%$ one.”

Sensitive The death of his mother throws him for a loop and he’s never the same.
Didactic When Douglas gets reprimanded at school for punching a classmate, he gives him some fatherly advice: “It’s not what you do. It’s when and where you do it.” In other words, if nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.
Funny When an FBI supervisor uses an incriminating phrase, he tells him, “’Just sayin’ sends people to ‘Alleywood.’ ‘Just saying’ got me into Alcatraz.” Then, unexpectedly, he flashes his gnarly teeth and emits the creepiest, longest laugh I’ve ever heard. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

’Just sayin’ sends people to ‘Alleywood.’ ‘Just saying’ got me into Alcatraz.”

Sanitary Sitting with fellow mobsters in a bar, his ice blue eyes fixate on hitman, Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown) and a bowl of nuts. Whitey is disgusted and reprimands him for putting his “fat, &*%$ fingers in his mouth” and then into a bowl “that’s meant for public consumption.”

Hands down, Depp’s great.  But there are other reasons to see “Black Mass.” Especially the female characters. Julianne Nichols, who plays Connolly’s wife, steals every scene she’s in. Juno Temple is adorable and genuine as Deborah Hussey, who is strangled by Whitey in front of her “boyfriend” (and stepfather!) Steve Flemmi (aka “The Rifleman”). Dakota Johnson is heartbreaking as the mother of Whitey’s son. (It’s a shame that Catherine Grieg’s character, played during production by Sienna Miller, was cut. Another woman would have added more color and balance.) Overall, the accents are good, considering that the Boston dialect is so difficult to master. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Whitey’s brother Billy, tries his best. (The only people who can do a Boston accent are people from Boston). Joel Edgerton, who portrays Connolly, is convincing as a conniving, lying opportunist who isn’t too bright. Jesse Plemons, who plays Whitey’s right-hand man, Kevin Weeks, literally gives a knockout performance. (The movie is gory, but the violence is not gratuitous.) Corey Stoll plays Fred Wyshak, a new FBI prosecutor in town who smells a rat. He’s a serious, no nonsense guy who restores our faith in the criminal justice system. (Mr. Stoll had me at refusing Red Sox tickets. He tells the corrupt Connolly, “Just bring me cases. It’s all the help I need.”)

Exceptional acting, superior direction, a compelling story and brilliant cinematography make “Black Mass” a “Must See.” The soundtrack is retro cool, and perfectly sets the mood for each scene. But the movie belongs to Johnny Depp. Despite sprinklings of humanity here and there, the actor’s Whitey Bulger is a never ending horror show.

Note: This article appeared originally in The Huffington Post.

The Show Must Go On — When Sensibility Trumps Sensitivity

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Nothing says Americana quite like musical theater.

The entertaining format has been enjoyed by all ages for decades, despite rampant stereotypes and exaggerated stock characters. Most traditional musicals take place in another era, so characterizations are often overlooked (and laughed at) by many theatergoers. Others aren’t so forgiving. To make these old shows more palatable, some groups are going so far as to ‘sanitize’ them. But doing so washes away all sense of history and context, not to mention the artistic integrity of many well-loved productions. Our very own, uniquely American originals will be lost forever. Not to mention that altering these productions is fruitless. How is it possible to change a character, from one type to another, without offending someone else? When does sensitivity become censorship? (Not to mention violating copyright licenses.) Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers are rolling over in their graves.

A recent Boston area production, of Thoroughly Modern Millie, generated quite a buzz for a high school musical that didn’t even star Zac Efron. Feature stories appeared in The Boston Globe, including one that landed on the front page. A TV program, community newspaper articles, blogs and letters to the editor continue to roll in. (In fact, it was a local blog that launched a thousand conversations.)

Any theater publicist would be jumping for joy about all the attention. But in this case, it’s had quite the opposite effect. The ‘ink’ about “Millie” has not been about the extraordinary talent or dedication of the cast and crew. Instead, it’s been negative, focusing on outdated Asian stereotypes in a story that takes place in 1922.

Had the legitimate feelings of the Asian community been discounted, the theater should have gone dark. Happily, for the hard working young thespians at Newton North, the curtain went up for “Millie” at Theater Ink, the school’s teaching and working theater. The award-winning musical, that has been performed by high schools across the country for more than 30 years,  played for three nights in Newton. At least one of the performances was sold out.

Going on with the show was the right thing to do. Here’s why:

Discussions about stereotypes in “Millie” began even before the first rehearsal. The high school worked with the Office of Human Rights to come up with a way to maintain the integrity of the production, while addressing negative images with students and the public. Workshops and discussions about stereotypes and their impact were held throughout production. Most importantly, Newton North has faith and confidence that its young people are mature enough to interpret outdated stereotypes. There was also the fun factor to consider.  Featuring a large cast of characters, the show enables many students to participate. Combined with entertaining song and dance numbers, plus its comic script, make “Millie” a staple of many theater programs.

Before each performance, the director drew the audience’s attention to an extensive production note in the program. It specifically addressed one of the most negative characters in the story.  It read, in part:

“Mrs. Meers must be understood as the villain…She is racist and covers her own insecurities and life failures with hateful attitudes and behaviors.  Without question, Thoroughly Modern Millie contains extreme negative stereotypes and offensive attitudes…the opinions expressed in this musical do not necessarily reflect the views of Newton North High School…in fact they strongly oppose the beliefs and attitudes found within our school culture.  Furthermore, we have worked hard to analyze and revise these images in order to align them with our socially conscious mission of acceptance and open mindedness…”

 

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When the show’s run ended, Newton North issued a lengthy and contrite letter to the community. Following is an excerpt:

“It is our sincere hope that this production is one of both artistic integrity and one where significant learning has occurred.  It certainly was never and is never our intent to offend members of our school or Newton community.  Theatre Ink prides itself on being “Newton North’s Teaching and Working Theatre.” The process of producing this show, and the thoughtful and sometimes challenging dialogue it has generated among staff, students, and the broader Newton community, exemplifies the program’s commitment to explore, critique, and interpret how the human experience is conveyed through the arts.  As the curtain went up this past weekend we brought the constructive conversation and learning process that our school community has engaged in over these past few months to an audience of students, parents, and community members.  We hope that you will choose to participate in it with the same appetite for learning that we have seen in our students – a genuine desire to understand our differences, our history, and ourselves…

After the letter went out, the school held a public forum, attended by the members of school’s administration, Theater Ink directors, parents and students.

Newton is a standard bearer of political correctness. (This is a city with schools that promote a campaign called, “Respecting Human Differences,” hold lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender assemblies and ban Halloween.) So the extra effort made by the high school to head off concerns about an old fashioned musical is not surprising for those who of us who live here. Expected or not, the extensive outreach for “Modern Millie” is public relations at its finest. Institutions across the country should look to Newton North’s example as a model of urban sensitivity and respect.

Theater Ink has been a treasure trove of talent and high caliber performances for many years, providing students with endless golden opportunities. The community at large also reaps the benefits of this theater. Hopefully, the spirit of those who work so hard on its behalf has not been diminished by the “Millie” firestorm. Image

 

Recommended Reading for Hollywood

“Lisa, Bobby Orr is on the line.”

My palms got sweaty and I took a deep breath.  I was organizing an event that the former Boston Bruin was involved with, but I never expected him to call me.  Several colleagues gathered around my cubicle, incredulous that a junior level PR girl was talking to the living legend.  I hung up and swiveled my chair around.  “I’m going to Bobby’s house tomorrow to bring him to the event,” I told the group nonchalantly.

I was cool on the outside.  Inside, my mind raced.  I imagined the look on Bobby’s face when he saw my old Honda Civic croak up his manicured driveway.  What if the car broke down on the way to the event?  Worse yet, what if we got into a crash?  But talk about the publicity!  (As long as no one got hurt, of course.)  I thought about putting the client’s banner on my bumper.  Fortunately, I emerged from my panic stricken mania and good sense kicked in.  I dialed a car service, but before I could say, “Do you have a car available tomorrow?” I got buzzed on the other line.  This time, it was an assistant.  Mr. Orr was all set, no need to pick him up.  To say I was relieved would be an understatement.

The event was being held to promote a local real estate project.  Bobby had been asked by his friend (the developer and my client) to come and sign autographs.  When the event was over, he signed an autograph for me.

OrrautographJust before he left, told him how my grandmother worshiped him. How she and I watched the Stanley Cup playoffs for hours. That she cried when he got traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.  He must have heard these stories on a daily basis.  As Bobby listened politely, I quickly grabbed another photo for him to sign. “You can make it out to Ethel,” I said excitedly.

I was crestfallen when Bobby asked for her address.  I preferred getting his autograph then and there.  “Thank you so much, but that’s alright, I said.  “My Nana will be so happy to get this one.”

Bobby still preferred to send Nana a color photo.  As I wrote down the address, I thought, “Oh well, I tried.”  I imagined the golden opportunity was lost.  Who could blame him if he forgot?  He has hundreds of fans.  Sending an autograph, to a little old lady he never met, wouldn’t stay on his radar.  So I didn’t tell Nana about my interaction with her hero.

Weeks later, Nana called.  “You wouldn’t believe what I got in the mail today!” I played dumb but was hoping it was from the famous athlete.  I was elated when she confirmed this.   “The greatest hockey player who ever lived remembered Ethel!”

Bobby Orr is unique.  In a world where many celebrities behave badly and shamelessly promote themselves, he does things for all the right reasons.  He recently told the Boston Globe’s Bob Hohler,

“If you’re going to help someone, you sneak in, you sneak out… I don’t do things to get ink.”  He also said athletes should live up to a special code of conduct. “Once you’ve turned pro and you’re making the big bucks and kids are buying your sneakers and your skates and your gloves and so on, you are a member of that role model club.”

Years after my client’s event, I attended a function where Bobby was the guest of honor.  After waiting in an endless line, I got to shake his hand once again.  I asked if he remembered me.  Graciously, he said, “Of course I do. ” He agreed to a photo that I treasure to this day.   LRBobbyOrr

His new book, Orr: My Story, comes out this week.  I do not represent Bobby Orr, or his publisher, and have no stake in whether or not it sells.  I have no idea whether or not it will reach the wide audience it deserves.  What I am sure about is that this bio should be read by actors, kids, young adults, parents, teachers and anyone in a position to influence others, or be influenced themselves.  Bobby Orr is the consummate gentleman and an example of how everyone — famous or not — should be.

Come to think of it, he probably wouldn’t have minded my old Honda Civic after all.

   


 

 

Just say “No” to Smartphones for Teens

Once you say "yes," there's no going back.

Once you say “yes,” there’s no going back.

Just say NO to Smartphones for Teens

If you’re a parent or guardian who’s on the fence about getting a smartphone for a teen, think very carefully about it before you say “yes.”  Nine out of 10 parents I have spoken with who did, regret the decision.

Following is an excerpt from a blog that appears on The Huffington Post (click on the title of this blog entry for the full text):

 Mobile devices can be damaging to a young person’s psyche and it’s easy to get hooked. A recent South Korean report found that the smartphone addiction rate was 18% among teenagers.  Dr. Jonghun Lee, a professor of psychiatry and the study’s lead researcher, presented the findings at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting this summer. He stressed that the more smartphones are overused, the greater the risk for severe psychopathologies in adolescents. Those who are dependent on them experience anxiety, insomnia and depression.  Some self-aware teens are realizing the toll that checking their smartphones is taking on them.  An 18-year old girl told a newspaper reporter recently, said, “I hate doing it, but I can’t help it…Why did I buy a smartphone? Sometimes I stay up all night using Facebook and Twitter.  I quickly became addicted.” 

A Pew Research Center study found teenage smartphone usage increased 23 percent from 2011 to 2012 and that 37 percent of teenagers owned smartphones last year. Dr. Lee says, “The number of adolescents addicted will increase because the popularization of smartphones is an inevitable social trend. And the younger they are, the more vulnerable they are.”

There’s a lot of talk about limits, balance and moderation. But setting restrictions on smartphone and Internet usage is easier said than done. The Web has become a necessity for homework, school communications and research. So it can be hard to distinguish between an assignment, recreational viewing or school-related texting. Monitoring usage consistently, enforcing time constraints and being on top of content can be overwhelming for most busy parents. This becomes even more difficult when their kids are literally carrying the Internet around with them.  

Parents who say “no” level the playing field for the kids who don’t own smartphones.  Moms and dads unite!  Teachers, other parents, society-at-large and your kids (eventually) will thank you.

Parks and Reckless Messaging — TV show is funny enough without the excess drinking

Bring on more waffles and whipped cream! I'm sure Leslie Knope,  would love that more than anything.

Bring on more waffles and whipped cream! I’m sure Leslie Knope would love that more than anything.

Much to the delight of fans everywhere, NBC-TV has ordered up a sixth season of Parks and Recreation. Come fall, this entertaining and intelligent sitcom will surely attract an even wider audience who admire Leslie Knope and the other strong females of Pawnee, Indiana. Here’s the rub: the show is dominated by women, but it perpetuates a behavior that can be particularly harmful to them. Now that the show is on hiatus, this may be the time to influence the writers and producers of the show to cut down on the excessive drinking scenes. Are you listening Amy Poehler?

Many viewers of Parks and Rec are impressionable young women who admire Leslie, Ann Perkins, April Ludgate and the other females. Often, these characters drink to excess. Most people consider a glass of wine or two to celebrate an event or wind down after a long day totally acceptable. In fictional Pawnee, Leslie and the others get so drunk they can barely function. Women in the real world who get wasted suffer long term health problems and other damaging consequences including unintended pregnancy, sexual assault and accidents. How can we forget the 16-year old intoxicated rape victim in Steubenville? Or the inebriated woman who was raped in New Hampshire by a cab driver? Last year, a drunk California girl was sexually assaulted at a party and later killed herself due to humiliation. These stories, all involving female alchohol abuse, are becoming much too commonplace. While some people understand the dangers of excessive drinking, many young girls do not. It is well documented that teens who drink early are at a higher risk for alcoholism later in life. Females are particularly vulnerable. A recent CDC study reports that one out of five high school girls binge drink, while one and eight women (18+) do the same. About 23,000 women die each year from alcohol abuse and related injuries.

Yes, Parks and Rec is a TV show and can’t alone be blamed for risky behavior. But story lines about getting inebriated are irresponsible. Intentional or not, glamorizing excess alcohol intake sends the wrong message. My 14-year old daughter and I love the show, so I try to work with it. During a commercial break, I’ll warm her about the dangers of intoxication, as well as the importance of drinking responsibly when she’s 21. Hopefully Ann Perkins will cut down on the booze, because she is trying to get pregnant, I tell her.

Some of the cleverest and most entertaining sitcoms have featured someone who drinks. Remember Karen Walker on Will and Grace? And who isn’t amused by Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development? Or Saturday Night Live’s drunk Uncle? These people are usually dismissed as flawed, so they aren’t really setting an example. Ron Swanson’s ocasional shots of Scotch are just part of his rugged persona on Parks and Rec. But to have the female leads drink to the point of slurring their words is gratuitous. The show already has everything — originality, well-timed comedy, great story lines, well-developed characters and an uber-talented cast.

So producers and writers of Parks and Rec — while you’re enjoying the summer, here’s something to think about: Instead of the booze, bring on more waffles and whipped cream! I’m sure Leslie Knope would love that more than anything.

Camera-ready madness or Why I hate great movies like Silver Linings Playbook

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the diner scene from "Silver Linings Playbook."

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the diner scene from “Silver Linings Playbook”

As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, let’s hope it doesn’t fall off the radar. Luckily, an increasing number of TV shows and movies with mentally ill characters are being immortalized on discs and streaming video. As a result, viewers will be reminded about the affliction and its toll on families and people who love them. One of the most popular productions depicting the condition, “Silver Linings Playbook,” has received critical acclaim from many groups. With its recent DVD release, the award-winning movie will extend its life, attracting an even wider following. There is one problem: although well-written and superbly acted, the film’s characterization as a comedy is misguided. It’s like calling “Modern Family” a drama. After all, seeing Bradley Cooper, the “Sexiest Man Alive,” rant and rave, waking up his stressed out parents, seems downright funny. Hilarity ensures when the beautiful and talented Jennifer Lawrence acts up in a diner. But to many of us, scenes like these are as amusing as watching a car accident.

In 1988, movie audiences giggled over the antics of the autistic Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” I went to see the movie with my friends, blissfully unaware of how close to home this movie would hit. Each time the audience laughed at Raymond, I tried to understand they were coming from another world, untouched by someone who exhibits inappropriate and weird behavior. To me, Raymond was real. Every time he embarrassed his brother, played by Tom Cruise, my heart sank. Everyday incidents flooded my mind, from having to protect my older brother from bullies, to his embarrassing outbursts in public. Or when he would play with broken pieces of plastic for hours or wax on about nonsense while my friends tried not to laugh. “He’s talking ragtime again,” my Nana would say. Throughout “Rain Man,” I wanted to scream, “What’s so &%$# funny?” I kept my cool because speaking up would classify me as a kill joy or a drama queen. Instead, I vowed to avoid films about mental illness.

As a movie buff, I am drawn to all films, particularly those with great reviews. So I tried again with “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Prozac Nation” and others. Through this exposure, I was convinced that I could become desensitized and eventually gain some objectivity. I reminded myself that most people just don’t understand the havoc that mental illness wreaks. Most importantly, I willed myself to toughen up, so others wouldn’t have to walk on eggshells around me.

These movies still affect me, but not as profoundly. Fictionalized portrayals will always be out there, but they will be misunderstood by people who don’t live with the real characters. No film, book or entreaty by an actor will ever improve these situations, but the publicity can result in better policies and eliminate stigmas so that more people will get help. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, 60 percent of people with the disease are not treated. So I’m all for raising awareness, no matter where it comes from — even if Hollywood movie stars are delivering the message. Now that’s a silver lining.

Despite increased awareness, we may still get an “I don’t understand” or “Buck up and get over it” look if we criticize popular films because they’re too painful or unrealistic for us. So now I just go with the flow. The other day, a friend said “Silver Linings Playbook” was the best movie he’s seen in a long time. When he asked my opinion, I said, “It was great.” Nothing more. My family got the straight dope.