Spotlight on Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – Interview with Kim Barker, whose memoir inspired the film

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I first saw the trailer of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot about a month ago which stars Tina Fey as a 40-something female who finds herself in a rut and wants to completely shake up her life, which she does by taking up a journalism assignment in Afghanistan.

The film is directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa and has a great ensemble cast in addition to Tina FeyMargot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina and Billy Bob Thornton. Check out the trailer:

 

TalibanShuffleBookIt turns out that the film was based on a best-selling memoir by Kim Barker called The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days In Afghanistan And Pakistan that’s got great reviews on Amazon. The book is a dark comedic take on her time in South Asia, which was published by Doubleday in 2011. When I got the opportunity to chat with Kim Barker, I jumped at the chance.

A bit of background about the author:

Barker was the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009, based in New Delhi and Islamabad. Barker has covered natural disasters such as the tsunami in Asia and the earthquake in Kashmir, as well as tracked manmade disasters — the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the corruption in Afghanistan, and the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

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Before going overseas, Barker worked at The Seattle Times and the Spokane Spokesman-Review. After coming back in 2009, she was the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she freelanced for Foreign Affairs, Reader’s Digest and The Atlantic. In 2010, she joined ProPublica, where she wrote about campaign finance and the fallout of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Barker, who grew up in Montana and Wyoming, now lives in Brooklyn and works as a New York Times metro reporter specializing in investigative reporting and narrative writing.


My review of the movie

This is the biggest role I’ve seen of Tina Fey in a feature film. She plays the protagonist based on Kim Barker, though they changed her name slightly to Kim Baker and she’s a tv reporter instead of a print journalist. The fact that she’s unmarried and childless makes her the ideal candidate for the job as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, and she had wanted an escape of sort out of her mundane life. Well, she’s certainly got the adventure of her life as soon as she arrives in Kabul.

It’s a fish-out-of water dark comedy that’s perfect for Tina Fey‘s brand of snark. Even the title, military alphabet speak for WTF, should tell you what you’re in for. Some reviews say it’s a drama marketed as a comedy but I think it leans more towards a dark comedy with some dramatic moments. I was laughing throughout and found Kim’s journey quite engaging. At times there are scenes that seem way over the top that made me think Kim’s a reckless reporter, but I’m aware that it’s definitely Hollywood’s way of sensationalizing stuff for dramatic/comedic purposes. People who are really curious about what really happen to Kim should read her book [more on that in my interview below]

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The supporting cast are wonderful and they all have a great rapport with Fey. Margot Robbie is one of the most interesting actresses working today, this is the third movie I saw her in so far and I’m a fan. She and Martin Freeman as Kim’s fellow reporters, as well as Billy Bob Thornton as a US general, are all wonderful in their roles and have some memorable moments in the film. The casting of British Alfred Molina and American Christopher Abbott in prominent Afghan roles, as the attorney general and Kim’s fixer/translator respectively, is a curious one. I mean they’re both great in the roles but in light of the hot button issue of diversity, I kept wondering why they didn’t look for actors of South Asian (or even Middle Eastern) background. In any case, I thought Abbott as Fahim was especially memorable in an understated performance. His relationship with Kim is the most developed in the movie and the scene towards the end actually made me tear up a bit.

Robert Carlock‘s script is definitely perfect for Fey’s screen vehicle, the fact that he’s worked with her on 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The dialog are sharp and pretty funny, even the romance between Fey’s and Martin Freeman’s character (speaking with an amusing Scottish accent) is hilarious with some genuinely sweet moments. Unlike the book, there’s no shuffling between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the movie, they pretty much stay in Kabul the entire time. But there is a shuffle between drama and comedy here that at times feels uneven, but I’d say for the most part the movie plays out as a comedy.

Overall I enjoyed this one, it’s definitely one of the most entertaining female-driven comedies out there. If you’re a Tina Fey fan, I highly recommend it. It’s also no surprise to see SNL creator Lorne Michaels as one of the producers.

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Kim Barker [left] during the post-screening Q&A
After the movie ended, there’s a Q&A with Kim, moderated by The LOFT’s education director. I didn’t have the early part on tape but Kim explained that she didn’t really have any say about the script once she sold the rights of her book. She was consulted by the film’s screenwriter Robert Carlock, but knowing that they were going to fictionalize a lot of what happened in her book, she wasn’t exactly given the rights to make any modifications to it. Check out her thoughts about her life as a journalist and some tidbits about the film.

From the Q&A:

Q: When you’re overseas reporting, with all the risk involved, what is the x factor, the synergetic factor that make you still want to keep doing what you’re doing considering you might lose a limb or even your life? 

A: As a journalist, when you go into a story, you start to go into a spiral and you just need to go into the next part of the story. When I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it felt like you’re covering the most important story in the world. Once you start seeing it unfold, I couldn’t see myself leaving, I want to see how the story unfold and I care so much about the people there. And you also stop seeing yourself as somebody who’s in danger. It’s like we’re all frogs in boiling water, we had no idea the water is boiling. So your friend would do this thing, they go to the middle of Kandahar to talk to the Taliban. Well that seems crazy but that means I can invite the Taliban here to this hotel and talk to them. And you just start thinking of yourself, that you’ve been here for so long, your friends’ been here for so long, and nothing really bad’s happened to anybody, so we can keep going. But then bad things started happening, in terms of the kidnappings.

Looking at what happen since then in the Arab Springs, like Libya and Syria now, it seems that Afghanistan is just child’s play for us. If you were to say to me, ‘hey I have a ticket for you to go to Syria,’ I’d say, ‘You’re out of your f****ing mind, no way I’d go to Syria.’ You start to get the sense… I mean I really felt like that with Faruk (Fahim in the film who was her Afghan fixer) y’know, when he got married and have kids, I didn’t want to have him on me, y’know, because in a lot of this situation, when a Western journalist and the driver/fixer or whatever got kidnapped or whatever happened to them. When I was over there, it’s always the driver or fixer who got killed or got into trouble more than the foreigner and I just couldn’t deal with that anymore. So that kind of moderated the risk I’m willing to take over there.

[spoiler alert]

Q: Where there any scenes in the movie involving Tina Fey that actually happened in real life? How much was fictionalized?

A: That’s a good question. Um, read the book [audience laughed] I mean you’ll learn, I mean when I saw the movie, I was like ‘hey you cut out a lot of the funny stuff from the book.’ Like when I go to interview the war lord, that is true. But they cut a lot of the parts in the movie. I was like, ‘you just lost part of the jokes there as it got really funny with that war lord.’ They also made the war lord to be a much bigger deal than he actually was. But the part when I was shooting guns with the attorney general, that’s actually true. That’s one where people thought, ‘that can’t possible be true,’ but it was. Although I never would’ve fired an AK-47 like that. I’m from Montana, I know about y’know, saving ammunition. I’d point and I aim, I’d hit the target that’s been set up. Those things are true. I did live in a place called the ‘fun house’ that’s not quite as grand as in the movie. There’s no address in Kabul, so every house has a different name and ours was called the ‘fun house.’

As far as the military, the story in the end involving the soldier that was very accurate. But he only lost one leg instead of two legs. I didn’t actually go visit him in his ranch, but I called him on the phone. He said a lot of the same things as in the movie, but he’s much nicer in real life. The speech actually came from this guy Doug, he’s the drug czar for the US. I was sort of torn up about [the soldier losing his leg] and I didn’t hear about it until I got back. I was blaming myself, basically the entire unit got moved to a more dangerous area because of the story I did with them, because they all seemed so puffed up and kept saying, ‘no we’re not locked an loaded.’So when I was writing the book, I remembered talking to those soldiers and I said to Doug, ‘Oh no, I’m responsible for this.’ And he’d say ‘What about the Taliban?’

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Iain is portrayed by Martin Freeman

Q: The storyline about Ian being kidnapped, how close to the real story was that and are you still in touch with him?

A: Iain’s real name is Sean Langan [a British war photographer]. He was kidnapped by the Taliban for three months. He was a good friend of mine, no he IS a good friend of mine, I didn’t want to talk about him in the past tense [laughter]. He met with me before he went to meet with the Taliban in Pakistan. He said ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do this.’ And I said, ‘You’re a f***ing idiot, you’re gonna get kidnapped.’ And he kept changing the subject, ‘how about if I do it this way or that’ and I just said ‘you’re a f***ing idiot, you’re gonna get kidnapped.’ So when he went there he immediately got kidnapped. It was awful, I’ve been in that situation before where someone close to you got kidnapped. I mean, it turned your world upside down because you couldn’t do anything but think about it and fixate on it.

He eventually got out three months later. There’s a ransom paid for him, I didn’t really have anything to do with the marines going in to rescue him. And he wasn’t as dumb as taking the bus out of Kabul to go to Pakistan but he was pretty stupid. We’re still in touch and we’re good friends and he’s going to the premiere. The premiere is March 1 and Faruk is also trying to come to the premiere but he’s sort of blocked by the US embassy. He’s in Canada now but y’know, he has a Muslim name so his papers are still in further review. I’m hoping he can make it to the premiere.

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Q: Once the film comes out, people might assume that what happens in the movie actually took place in real life? How do you reconcile that given that most of the movie is fictionalized?

A: I answered the same way like I did in the Q&A. If people ask me if something is accurate, then I’ll say ‘well this one is accurate, this one isn’t.’ When you sold your book to Hollywood, Hollywood will do whatever it’s gonna do. There are plenty of examples where the book says one thing and the movie is totally different. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City turned into Green Zone [a movie by Paul Greengrass starring Matt Damon] which has no resemblance to the original book. But it was optioned for a movie. I think in Hollywood, ‘based on’ means ok it’s the source material but we’ll do the Hollywood thing with it.

I mean, I’m a TV reporter in the movie and I’m a print reporter in real life. People ask me, ‘how do you feel about that?’ and I’m always rational about it. I don’t think it’ll be very interesting to watch me do my job writing a story as I’m sitting in front of my computer for several hours. Y’know what I mean? It’s far more interesting to watch a TV journalist do her job because you have to be there to capture the story, you have to get the shots and everything so people understand what the character’s doing. I’m ok with that.

Look, they do their own version of the story and the real story is in the book. I’m hoping that people who watch the movie would go, ‘could life really be that weird there?’ and then go buy the book and hopefully learn something about Pakistan and Afghanistan. Because the book is, even though it’s more of a dark comedy, I want people to know more about Pakistan and Afghanistan and by the end of it, they’ll learn about those two countries. That’s my goal. So if the movie will drive people to the book I think that’s great. I think that the narrative arc of the movie is like the narrative arc of my book, I feel like it’s *truthie* There’s something in every scene, if it didn’t happen to me, it happened to somebody I know. And it shows the absurdity of the bubble we lived in over there and I think the movie captured that pretty accurately.

Tina Fey’s character is basically a fictional character based on me. They changed all the names because if they had kept all the names that’s in the book, they’d have to be truthful to the book. So this way they’d just fictionalize things, but there are still grains of truth to them. As I watched the movie I’d be like, ‘oh yeah that happened, I did say that’ even if they happened in a different context. I think they did a good job with it. I think if they wanted to portray everything as accurately as in the book, it’d have been really long and narratively it’s not something that people would want to sit through. [spoiler alert] I didn’t get together with Sean [Iain in the film] like in the movie. But I love that they also didn’t have me end up with him in the end. I love that, because that’s exactly like my narrative arc. I decided to come home because it was time for me to

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Q: What did you think about the title of the film, which is basically WTF? Did you help to come up with that?

A: No, I didn’t have anything to do with that. But Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is military speak, so it’s a nod to the military. You could certainly say ‘what the f***’ about Afghanistan. And it’s got the same dance thing that I did with the Taliban Shuffle, y’know Tango Foxtrot.

Q: It seems to me that the WTF title has that snarky-ness people associate with Tina Fey and is that right that you share a similar sense of humor?

A: Yeah we do. My book has that snarky-ness as well. There’s a dance back and forth between the two borders. I think that’s another reason they didn’t want to use the title of my book is because they keep the movie just in Afghanistan. There’s not enough room to go to Pakistan in the movie. But in the book, the shuffle refers to the going back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan, that’s what the Taliban was doing between the two countries and that’s what we’re doing as journalists. There’s no Pakistan in the movie. I talked to [screenwriter] Robert Carlock and he said, ‘we’re going to fictionalize this’ and I said ‘do what you guys do.’ I mean they’re the ones who knew how to make a movie. If I were to sit there and write a movie script, I won’t be able to do it, it just wouldn’t get anywhere.

Q: Since you know about all the real life people in the story, what did you think about the actors portraying the part?
[I mentioned to Kim that I was surprised that they had American actor Christopher Abbott, who was in the acclaimed indie drama James White, cast as the Afghan fixer Fahim] 

A: I didn’t have anything to do with the casting so I can’t answer any question about casting. But I thought [Christopher] did a great job, I mean he looked Afghan to me. Farouk [the real life counterpart of Fahim] loved the trailer and he came off really well in the movie. Fahim came across as the only adult in the room and Farouk was truly the only adult in the room. The thing about Faruk is he has a great sense of humor, whilst Fahim was a very serious man. I suppose we need a straight man there in a comedy movie.

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Christopher Abbott as Fahim
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Alfred Molina as Attorney General Ali Massoud Sadiq

The attorney general had white hear and a bushy beard, not dark hair like in the movie. But I thought Alfred Molina did a great job and the dancing scene, there’s supposedly a real video of the attorney general dancing on youtube. I wrote about it in the book. I thought he did the Afghan dance very well in the movie, let’s see how my Afghan friends think of him.

Q: Despite all the fictionalized accounts that they did, did the movie captured the tone of your book the way you envisioned it?

A: I always go back to what Stephen Colbert said, y’know, truthie. I think it got the narrative arc and I felt like it captured the relationships that are most important to me, which to me is the one I had with Farouk. I mean obviously all the friendships I had were all important but the one I had with Farouk is the most important one in the book and it’s that way in the movie. It’s the most developed relationship in the movie, y’know, when he leaves her when she was going down. He’s like ‘I don’t want to be a part of this.’ I have to say I teared up a bit when he showed up at the airport. Farouk was the first person I got in touch with after I saw the movie, and Sean was the second.

 


Thank you ALLIED Marketing and Kim Barker for the interview opportunity!


What did you think of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

FlixChatter Review: Monsters University

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I remember rolling my eyes when I first heard of Pixar making a prequel of Monsters Inc., one of my favorites from its canon of animated features. But then I saw the trailer and I thought it looked pretty funny, and got me curious if revisiting the world of the colorful monsters would be well worth the effort.

Well, after seeing it a week ago, I can happily say that I enjoyed it immensely!! Mike Wazowski, the one-eyed green monster with Billy Crystal‘s high-pitched voice, remains one of my all-time favorite Pixar characters. Here Pixar crafted yet another ingenious storyline, an ‘origin story’ if you will of how the Mike + James P. Sullivan (Sulley), the best ‘scarer duo’ at the Monsters, Inc. end up working together and what the job meant to them.

Right from the get-go, I felt glad to be back in Monstropolis. Ever since he was a youngster, Mike has always been enamored by the profession of collecting screams from human children for the city’s power supply. A school field trip to Monsters Inc. got him all wide-eyed about becoming one of those scarer himself… it’s akin to how a field trip to NASA made some youngsters yearn to be an astronauts! So when Mike’s enrolled in Monsters University (modeled after Univ of Cal Berkeley according to the campus website), he was pretty gung-ho about learning to be the best scarer he could be. I LOVE how they introduce him walking around campus as a freshman, it’s such a fun character development that’s classic Pixar, and visually it’s as beautiful as I had expected. It’s interesting how Mike’s roommate is none other than the chameleon Randall (he still goes by Randy here), who seems pretty harmless and even nice at first, but of course his sinister side is later revealed.

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His meeting with Sulley is a memorable one, both hilarious and moving at the same time. Y’see, Sulley came from a legendary family of scarers, in class the professor actually mentioned the Sullivans by name and holds it in high regards. So Sulley is one of those students who could get by with not much efforts on his part, which infuriates Mike as in contrast, he’s the kind of guy who’s always been told he’s not scary at all, that he’s not cut out to be a scarer, etc. So naturally, he’ll do everything in his power to prove everyone wrong.

MonstersUnivDeanHardscrabbleAs with many Pixar films, it’s chock-full of awesome characters and this one is no different. The fraternity students where Mike & Sully end up belonging to are a hoot, they’re the nerds in school that the cool crowds make fun of, so immediately I sympathize with them. Plus they’re just such a hilarious bunch! One of the most memorable characters is definitely Dean Hardscrabble, a red dragon-like creature with millipede legs and bat wings. Voiced by the great Dame Helen Mirren, she’s quite a terrifying character that’s no doubt feared by everyone at school. Another British actor I like, Alfred Molina, also lends the voice of the professor of the Scaring Program.

I find the story to be quite engaging from start to finish, I was fully invested in Mike’s journey and the plot surrounding the Scare Games is definitely well-crafted. The beauty of this movie, as with many Pixar movies, is how relatable the story is. Even though we’re dealing with weird-looking creatures, the emotional issues they face (disappointment, betrayal, inferiority, etc.), are situations we could all identify with. But of course, they didn’t forgot about the sense of fun and that aspect is definitely here. The scene at the library is perhaps one of the highlights for me as I was in stitches the whole time, and also the finale of the Scare Games that’s action-packed and emotionally-charged.

If you’re a fan of Monsters, Inc. and its fabulous characters, I think you’ll enjoy this movie as much as I did. The chemistry between Mike & Sulley is still the primary strength of the film, and Billy Crystal and John Goodman are such excellent voice actors. Having just rewatched the original though, I still rate that one higher than this. The moment the duo met Boo in the beginning of the movie was pure comedic gold that’s tough to beat, even by Pixar itself. Now, as charming and entertaining this prequel is though, I do hope Pixar will return to delivering fresh, innovative ideas instead of recycling their old ones.


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What say you, folks? Did you enjoy this one?

Hollywood Fantasy Draft Pitch II: Last Voyage of The Valentina

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Based on the novel by Santa Montefiore (yup, that’s the author’s real name!), Last Voyage of The Valentina is a romance mystery taking place between war-torn Italy at the end of WWII and aristocratic London in the early 1970s. The story switches back and forth between Italy and London in the span of about 25 years.

The story begins with a brutal murder at an Italian palazzo in 1945. Twenty years later, this unsolved crime touches the live of the story’s protagonist, Alexa (changed from Alba in the book), a hedonistic but unhappy woman who lives on a houseboat on the Thames named after her mother, Valentina. Propelled by her discovery of a portrait of the mother she never knew, Alexa is determination to find out the truth, which takes her back to Incantellaria, an unexpected jewel hidden within the red cliffs and caves of the Amalfi coast where her parents first met. Themes of love, obsession, decadence and betrayal peppered the drama as she delves deeper into her forbidden past. With the ‘alluring woman of mystery’ that is her mother at the center of it all, the revelation might just be the key of finding happiness in her own future.

BACKGROUND

I picked director Joe Wright for his work in Atonement (also based on a novel), as I think he’d be able to handle a dark, mysterious tale that’s also unabashedly romantic. After only three full-length features (Hanna will be his fourth), he’s quite an accomplished director who’ve won a BAFTA and was the youngest director ever to have a film open the Venice Film Festival with Atonement. His movies are often beautifully-shot, which is crucial for this story for its depiction of the Italian setting and he’s also displayed a capable hand in handling films with multiple flashback scenes. Also, I’d like him to incorporate one of his long tracking shots, such as this continuous 4.5-minute shot of the Dunkirk evacuation.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

For the rationale of why I selected these actors for each role, visit my Dream Cast post. Special thanks to Prairiegirl for lending me the novel and for being a consultant for this pitch.

Charlize Theron as Alexa Arbuckle
The protagonist of the story. 26-year-old Alexa is the daughter of British naval officer Thomas Arbuckle and the alluringly mysterious Italian beauty Valentina. She’d also play the young Valentina during the flashback scenes (where she’ll be sporting dark brown locks), which would require Charlize to get some dialect coaching to prep for the role.

Long-legged, tanned skin, with long wavy dark hair and piercing blue-grey eyes, Alexa is strikingly beautiful and a free-spirit. Men are drawn to her like bees to honey, but her endless succession of lovers leave her empty and unfulfilled. She may be tough to root for at first due to her hedonistic nature, but she grows up as the story progresses.

Rufus Sewell as Fitzroy Davenport
Viv’s literary agent who pines for Alexa. Described in the book as attractive in a very aristocratic way: intelligent eyes that sparkled with humor; a wide, infectious smile; a strong chin and jaw line; scruffy, with dark curly hair.

Ever so charming yet kind, Fitz plays a large role in Alexa’s quest for her mother and becomes the man she deeply falls for. Rufus is no stranger to romantic roles, as well as being the heartbroken one. But he’s not all longing sigh and yearning gaze, which is why his sense of humor and playfulness will come in handy in spicing up the character.

Michael Fassbender as Gabriele Ricci
Yes I know Fassbender is German but with some tan and dark hair, I think he has no problem playing an Italian gentleman. Witty, gallant and reassuring, Gabriele is the Italian Samaritan who helps Alexa get to Incantellaria after she’s robbed penniless. His part is small but prominent, and with his smoldering quality, he is sure to leave an indelible mark to the viewers.

Alan Rickman as Thomas Arbuckle
I love Rickman’s sensitive portrayal as Col. Brandon in Sense & Sensibility. As Alexa’s estranged father, Thomas rarely speak of his lost love Valentina. Now a wealthy man after the war, the former naval captain has since been married to Margo and has additional children, but he is constantly burdened by his memory of his first love.

Emily Watson as Vivienne ‘Viv’ Armitage
Watson is a passionate and versatile actress who’ll imbue the character of a late 30s London novelist with wit and whimsy. She lives on a boat next to Alexa’s and is the one who introduces Fitz to Alexa. Though Viv is fond of Alexa, she’s also weary of her and knows what the girl is capable of. She constantly warns Fitz not to fall in love with Alexa.

Brenda Blethyn as Margo Arbuckle
As Alexa’s stepmother, Margo can never seem to compete with a dead woman. Despite Alexa’s aversion, Margo is always civil with her difficult step daughter, as well as provide the stability that Thomas needs. Blethyn has a way of portraying a sympathetic female protagonist with a heart.

Rupert Penry-Jones as the young Lit. Thomas Arbuckle
This strapping lad seems born to wear a naval uniform, ehm. Thomas falls hard and fast for Valentina the second he sees her in the crowd of the Italian harbor. After being at sea for over three years patrolling the Italian coastline, Thomas is ready to settle down with the love of his life. When he finds out Valentina is pregnant with Alexa, he’s ecstatic… until her life is robbed far too soon, leaving him devastated.

Alfred Molina as Falco Fiorelli
Alexa’s Italian uncle who’s the same age as her father, late 50s. He’s got brooding looks and formidable physique and a sadness in his dark eyes, making him appear older than he is. He and Thomas harbor a deep, dark secret about Valentina’s death which still haunts him since.

Raoul Bova as the young Falco Fiorelli
Valentina’s eldest brother who came back from the war around the same time Thomas came back to fetch Valentina to England. He’s the only person who knew the truth that Valentina isn’t as innocent as she seems.

Rosamund Pike as Caroline Arbuckle
Thomas and Margo’s eldest daughter and Alexa’s stepsister who’s three years younger than she. She works in a Mayfair art gallery owned by the Arbuckle’s close family friend. She really wants to like Alexa but can’t figure her out.

Maggie Smith as Lavender Arbuckle
Thomas’ 70+ year-old mother who took baby Alexa in when he came back from Italy and loved her as her own daughter. She acts as if she were indifferent about Alexa when in reality she’s actually bitter about being cast aside when Thomas married Margo.

Alessandro Nivola as the Italian stranger
The tall and handsome stranger that caught Alexa’s eye on the plane. He’s flirtatious and incredibly charming, the quintessential Italian playboy.

Franco Nero as Marchese Ovidio
Seventy-something Incantellaria aristocrat who lives on the mansion on a hill, Palazzo Montelimone. Strikingly handsome with slicked-back gray hair, with straight Roman nose and aquamarine eyes. Educated at Oxford, he holds himself with the poise of a prince.


The film opens in 1945 Italy with a quick scene of brutal murder at an Italian palazzo. Two men came in the thick of night armed with knifes. The victim had been expecting them, he knew why they had come and he was ready, unafraid to die. Up until his throat was sliced he was still triumphant, his last words were “Kill me, but don’t forget that I killed you first.”

ACT I

London 1971 – Viv and Fitz were standing on the deck of Viv’s houseboat on the Thames in a balmy Spring evening. They spied on Alexa who’s ‘entertaining’ one of her lovers on her houseboat. It’s right after her tryst with Rupert, one of her many lovers, that Alexa noticed a brown scroll of paper from between the slats under her bed. She stared at the portrait sketched in pastels and felt a rush of emotions overcame her, it’s like looking into a mirror and the woman’s eyes seemed to follow her as she’s unable to look away. At the bottom of the picture, written in Latin, dum spiro, ti amo (“While I breathe, I love you”) and signed in ink Thomas Arbuckle.

Alexa confronted her father about the portrait and demanded to know more about her mother she never knew. She was resentful that her father had been too busy to build a new family with Margo after Valentina died, and the more children he had, the less Alexa felt that she belonged in the traditional upper-class family. Thomas rarely talked about Valentina, though her presence was still felt in the room, in his eyes. Arguments ensued as Thomas insisted that the past should belong to the past and though he loved her mother, she’s now dead and nothing could ever bring her back. Fuming, Alexa left and vented to her neighbor Viv about her desire to find out more about who her mother was. Viv then suggested that her best friend and literary agent Fitz helped her concoct a plot to dupe her father into divulging details about her mother. Viv’s grand plan is for Alexa and Fitz to spend a weekend together as pretend couple to win the Arbuckles’ heart, and for Fitz to bond with Thomas so that he’s comfortable enough to share about Valentina’s whereabouts. As Fitz had such a huge crush on Alexa, he promptly agreed.

Off to Beechfield Park Mansion where the Arbuckles live, a red-brick and flint,300-year-old house that was passed down from Thomas’ grandfather. Though Alexa only wanted Fitz to charm her parents for her own cause, Fitz actually genuinely wanted the Arbuckles to think well of him and he hoped Alexa would return him with love. Just as Fitz had hoped, that night Thomas poured his heart out as the night wore on and the more wine they drank. As he sat in the worn leather chair in his study, Thomas revealed to Fitz who Valentina was and how she had captivated him. La bella donna d’Incantellaria, he referred to her, and that every time he looked at Alexa, he saw Valentina.

Mission accomplished. Fitz happily reported back to Alexa who was already waiting for him in bed. They didn’t make love until the following morning, and for the first time, Alexa actually spent the night with a man in bed without offering her body to him.

ACT 2

Flashback to Italy, 1944 – Young Lieutenant Thomas Arbuckle and his fellow British naval officers arrived in the Italian harbor of Incantellaria. Thomas and his naval crew was tasked to investigate about an arms dump left by the German army to make sure they didn’t fall into the wrong hands. It’s on the way to the munitions dump, on the quayside, was where Thomas first laid eyes on Valentina and fell for her instantly. At first he lost her in the crowd but later when the town carabiniere (Italian police), Lattarullo took them to the only restaurant in town, he was reunited with her, as Valentina was the youngest daughter of the trattoria’s owner, Immacolata Fiorelli. During his brief stay in Italy, Thomas and his friends were also invited to tea by the town’s aristocrat, Marchese Ovidio at his home, Palazzo Montelimone. Just as they left his house, he ran into a handsome young boy, Nero, who ran errands for the marchese.

Following a highly-superstitious ceremony that Valentina’s family attended religiously, Thomas and Valentina retreated from the townspeople to the beach where they made love. But in the morning, he had to go back to the war.

ACT 3

London 1971 – After sharing an intimate weekend together, Fitz was seemingly able to convince Alexa to be exclusive with him. Fitz had become more than a lover to Alexa, he was also her friend. For a brief few weeks, they were happy together until Alexa demanded that Fitz come to Italy with her, but he felt that’s something she needed to on her own. When Fitz refused, Alexa broke up with him. Fitz was devastated but with Viv’s encouragement, he did not relent. Alexa told her father that she was going to Italy with or without his support.

Flashback to Italy, May 1945 – Thomas returned after the war to see Valentina again. He had received a letter from Valentina nine months prior that she had gotten pregnant with their baby, which made him even more desperate to see her. When the townsfolk saw him, they were ecstatic. Valentina came to him with their 3-month old baby in her arms. Immacolata gave her blessings and they soon planned their wedding as they both took care of little Alexa. Thomas then met the rest of the Fiorelli’s family. Three of Valentina’s four brothers had come back after the war, with Falco the eldest who became the head of the family since their father died in the war. Falco didn’t warm up to Thomas right away. In fact, he seemed to be resentful of her sister Valentina as well and that night, Thomas overheard them arguing fiercely but he just shrugged it off and thought that perhaps he didn’t like a foreigner marrying his sister.

London 1971 – Alexa flew to Italy without Fitz. He tried to see her before she left but it was too late. Alexa had a tryst with an Italian stranger who caught her eye on the plane. But she found out in the morning that he had robbed her of all her money. She fled the hotel and managed to trick the ticket agent at the train station for a free ride to Sorrento. But as soon as she arrived, a moment of distraction cost her her luggage. She was robbed twice in the course of 24 hours!

As she cussed loudly in frustration, another Italian stranger noticed her. Upon hearing what had happened to her, the gentleman offered to buy her lunch as well as a boat ride to Incantellaria. Alexa was weary at first considering what she had been through, but she had no choice but to trust him. Gabriele Ricci was a Naples businessman who often spent his summers on the coast. He made good on his promise and Alexa was soon reunited with her mother’s family. Realizing he was out of place in this family reunion, Gabriele slipped away without a fuss, but not before asking Falco to give his card to Alexa.

Alexa bonded with her mother’s family who welcomed her with open arms and joyful heart, even becoming a motherly figure to her 6-year-old relative Cosima, whose mother had ran away with a tango dancer. Alexa finally found a place she belonged, something she had never found where at Beechfield Park where she grew up. But soon she learned the hard truth about her past. At the trattoria one afternoon, Lattarullo revealed that Valentina had been murdered.

ACT 4

Flashback to Italy, 1945 – The day before the wedding. At three in the morning, Thomas was awaken by a frantic knocking on the door by Lattarullo. He had brought the most harrowing news that Valentina was dead. Along with him and Falco, Thomas found Valentina’s body slumped in the passenger seat of a convertible Alfa Romeo with exquisite leather seat and walnut interior. Her throat had been slashed as blood had stained her sequined dress. At first he didn’t recognize her as she was dressed like an elegant courtesan wearing red lipstick, fur stole and sparkling diamonds.

Fast forward to 1971 Italy – Alexa demanded Falco to tell her the truth about Valentina’s tragic death, who finally revealed that Valentina had been living a double life. Her mother had been the mistress of a famous Mafia boss Lupo Bianco who was dead in the driver’s seat. As Bianco had been hunted down by the police for years, his death was a triumph for the town’s police and to them Valentina was simply a victim who was in the wrong place in the wrong time.

Months went by and suddenly Fitz showed up in a warm night in October, just as Alexa was deciding whether to call him or Gabriele. It’s as if fate made the decision for her as Fitz asked her to marry him. A couple of weeks before they went back to London, Alexa took Fitz to Palazzo Montelimoni, determined to find some answers once and for all. The place had become a ruin with walls crumbling and fallen stones swallowed by ivy and weeds. As they stumbled into the room that seemed to have been lived in, someone came behind them. He was startled to see Alexa as if he had seen a ghost as she had been the splitting image of her mother. He introduced himself as Nero, the same young boy Thomas had bumped into after having tea with Marchese Ovidio. Nero told them he was the marchese’s lover who inherited the decaying palazzo. He explained that the marchese had loved Valentina too, and before they left, he gave Alexa a scroll that apparently Valentina had given the marchese.

That day, Alexa solved the case the Italian detectives didn’t bother to crack. It turns out the marchese had wanted to have an heir with Valentina but became insanely jealous when he found out she had become pregnant with someone else’s child and wanted to leave Italy. Falco somehow found out the marchese had killed Valentina, and so he and Thomas planned to sneak into his house in the middle of the night and kill him in the same way he had robbed Valentina’s life. “It was a matter of honor,” he uttered, the same words he said after he slashed the marchese’s throat.

Alexa and Fitz went back to London. Alexa gave her father the painting that he had been looking for, the third and most intimate portrait of Valentina that he drew. But what mattered more to him was that now Alexa knew the truth and the burden has been lifted. Alexa was ready to move on and leave the dark past of Valentina behind. As a symbol of a new beginning, she and her family let her houseboat sink to the bottom of the river. As she and Fitz planned their wedding, Alexa longed for Italy, her heart ached for her new home and the people that she had grown to love, especially Cosima. With a heavy heart, Alexa told Fitz she had to return to Incantellaria.

EPILOGUE

Spring in Incantellaria. Alexa now worked at Immacolata’s trattoria – she’d been working hard buying supplies, setting tables, serving customers, even learning how to cook. As she looked out the window overlooking the beach, she heard the sound of a motorboat growing louder. She walked outside to stand beneath the awning with a basket of apples hanging on her arm. A wave of anticipation overcame her as the boat drew up and a familiar young man descended. She had been taking out and staring at his now rumpled business card she’s kept for months, and thought about the kind man who gave it to her. His dark eyes met with her piercing pale eyes. It was then when he last saw her disappear from his view as she was reunited with her family. It was then that he lost his heart, little did he know he’d ever get it back.


Well, what do you think? Would you be interested to see a movie with this kind of story and cast? Please let me know your thoughts.

Hollywood Fantasy Draft II: FlixChatter’s Dream Cast

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It’s that time of the year again, the moment lots of movie bloggers/fans have anticipated has arrived. Yep, it’s the second installment of Anomalous Material’s Hollywood Fantasy Draft where we get to be the producer of any movie we could possibly want with any actors we so desire, by selecting them one round at a time.

Since my last pitch was a romantic thriller, this time the genre will be romantic mystery set in Britain and Italy. That’s all I can say about it until my pitch is scheduled to be revealed one week from now. I’m happy to say that I manage to get all the cast and director who I think are perfect for my story, so without further ado, here they are in the order that I selected them:

Round 1

Michael Fassbender, 33
When I picked Michael, I haven’t figured out what my story is going to be about. But now that I’ve figured out my story, I’m glad I picked him. The Irish actor’s star is quickly on the rise in Hollywood due to his great turn in films like 300, Inglourious Basterds, Centurion) and I highly anticipate his upcoming work in Jane Eyre and A Dangerous Method.

Round 2

Rufus Sewell, 43
Since Rufus is on my list of seven talented actors who deserve more leading roles, and I’ve been complaining how underutilized he is in Hollywood, I think he’d be perfect for my story. He’s sooo easy on the eyes but with an enormous talent and versatility to match. Now the trick is finding a leading lady who deserves him.

Round 3

Charlize Theron, 35
I need an exotic beauty who’s intelligent and has an air of mystery about her, Theron would fit the bill nicely. She’ll be sporting a darker hair instead of her usual blond locks, as well as a lot more tan.

Round 4

Joe Wright, 38
I select this English director as I’m impressed with what he did with Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement. For sure this guy can do romance! And since there’s a great deal of mystery and dark undertones in my story, Wright should be able to capture that as well. Plus, his films are always beautifully-shot.

Round 5

Emily Watson, 43
I need a solid mature actress who’s smart and witty for the role of a London novelist. Watson is so under-appreciated despite churning out consistently good performances.

Round 6

Alan Rickman, 64
I’ve always adored Rickman and he always strikes me as a tortured-soul type which would be perfect for this role. If you think he’d be playing a villain, think again. The seasoned Brit is more than a one trick pony. He’ll play the estranged father of Charlize’s character.

Round 7

Rosamund Pike, 31
I need a British young woman to play Charlize’s step sister. Rosamund has impressed me in several movies (except for Die Another Day) and she’ll be a good addition to my cast.

Round 8

Brenda Blethyn, 64
I need a middle-aged actress to fill a sympathetic stepmother role, for that I choose this acclaimed English actress. She has also worked with Joe Wright before in both Atonement and Pride & Prejudice.

Round 9

Rupert Penry-Jones, 40
For the flashback scenes, this London actor will play the younger Alan Rickman as a British naval officer during WWII. Since he played a Naval Captain in BBC’s Persuasion but did not get to wear his navy uniform, I intend to rectify that situation in my movie 😀

Additional Cast

Maggie Smith, 76
Despite the merely 12-year difference, the Dame will play Alan’s mother. The two-time Oscar winner doesn’t have a big part, but certainly an important one in relation to Charlize’s family’s past.

Additional Cast

Alfred Molina, 57
This veteran English actor is ever so versatile he’s been known to play various ethnicity, due to his Spanish & Italian heritage. In fact, the first time I saw him was as an Iranian in Not Without My Daughter. In my movie he’ll be playing Charlize’s Italian uncle.

Additional Cast

Alessandro Nivola, 38
I’ve been impressed by Nivola in several films, i.e. Junebug, Mansfield Park. In the latter he played a flirtatious Henry Crawford so he’ll be using that devilish charm once again here as an Italian stranger. Nivola’s actually part Italian as his paternal grandfather was the Italian sculptor Costantino Nivola.

So there you have it. Now the question is, would you pay to see a movie with this kind of cast?

Musings on An Education

Jenny, a sixteen-year-old straight-A student has her world turned upside down when she meet a worldly suitor, David, who seduces her with her glamorous lifestyle and charming existence. Set in early 60s London, both Jenny and her parents are in for ‘an education’ when David’s true nature is finally revealed.

  • Though dealing with a disturbing subject matter,  this movie is as charming as the main character, wooing the audience with gorgeous cinematography of London and Paris, stylish clothes, beautiful music and even more splendid performances. It’s a good looking movie that captures the 60s era nicely and presents a stark contrast between the rather stodgy UK and the lively, joie de vivre French sensibilities.
  • It’s an unlikely ‘feel-good’ drama that still feels romantic even though you know there’s something unsettling brimming under the surface. Something that’s too good to be true usually is, and our naive protagonist ends up learning the hard way.
  • Carey Mulligan is sublime. She is in almost every scene and truly carries the movie in her delicate shoulders with her mesmerizing performance as both an innocent and serious schoolgirl and that of an elegant socialite.
  • I have seen Peter Sarsgaard in various things before, but I’ve always remembered him as John Malkovich’s virtuous son in The Man in the Iron Mask. But his performance here is noteworthy not only because he pulls off a believable British accent (he’s from Illinois).
  • The devil comes in attractive packages indeed, disguised as a cultured, charismatic, soft-spoken gentleman by the name of David Goldman. Sarsgaard plays the scoundrel in such a way he comes across like a monster that he is… not because the character is trying so desperately to hide it, more so because he doesn’t think he is a monster. But the fact is, guys who prey on girls half their age are creepy, and the more sophisticated they are, the more reason to beware. Especially one who has the power not to only seduce a teenage girl but her supposedly wise middle-aged parents in the process!
  • An Education is filled with fine performance all around. I just LOVE Alfred Molina! Even playing an infuriatingly strict father of Jenny, he refuses to simply give a one-note portrayal. Dominic Cooper & Rosamund Pike are both effective as David’s friends and partner in crime in his shady business practices. And the always watchable Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams were excellent in their brief appearances, though I feel they’re somewhat underused here.
  • We all know book education is VERY different from life education and there is no shortcuts for either in order to get it right. This isn’t just a moral lesson for the young though, even those who think we’re older and wiser may still may fall prey to deception when they’re not careful.
  • Author/screenwriter Nick Hornby is no stranger to a coming-of-age story, he dealt with that in About A Boy. Though the boy in the title actually helps a 38-year-old man who needs some growing up to do. Just as he did in there, Hornby peppered this movie with witty dialogue and
  • Wonderful story that seems to end too soon, it felt rushed towards the end when the flow had been right up until she found out who David really is. At 1 hour 35 minutes, I wish they spend a bit more time towards the end as Jenny deals with the ramification of her decision. Instead, there are far too many in the Deleted Scenes list that could’ve been incorporated into the movie.

Glad I finally saw this movie, it’s definitely worth watching though hardly a perfect film. As Peter from Magic Lantern Film said in the comments last Monday, it’s a strong film but perhaps not worthy of a Best Picture nominations. I share that sentiment, though after seeing Mulligan’s performance here, I do think she was totally robbed of an Oscar!

Have you seen this movie? Well, what did you think?