Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014): Simply Sublime

Still from trailer for Hector and the Search for Happiness

Despite having worked as a “film critic” and being a member of the Nevada Film Critics Society, I am not jaded enough to find the 2014 film Hector and the Search for Happiness anything other than simply sublime. Reading various reviews and finding that the film opened to mixed and negative reviews surprises and disappoints. Simon Pegg is truly wonderful as are his co-stars in the film and Rosamund Pike works brilliantly in this far removed from Gone Girl role.

Helmed by award winning English director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity, Shall We Dance) from a script adapted from the French book of the same name by François Lelord, the film follows the journey of Hector, a psychiatrist who is fed up with his relationship, his job and his life. He undertakes a trip to discover just what happiness is and how to get it.

In many ways the movie is like an exotic travelogue. Pegg’s character visits Singapore, Africa and America in his journey. Like a modern day Phileas Fogg, just without the balloon, Passepartout or indeed the wager that gets the whole thing started, Hector travels to several different countries meeting new people and old friends in his search.

Hector and the Search for Happiness also has a bit of an Alan Whicker or Michael Palin (the old Monty Python member who traded in his comedy chops for travel documentaries) feel, where the main figure learns of other cultures and how they see the world. Even before finding out that the film is based on a French novel, one can tell by the structure of the film and its plot that this could very easily have been a film from that country.

The use of cardboard cutouts in the plane scene, the flashbacks to childhood and the feeling of the film is one of arthouse chic. This combined with the simplicity of its message must have put off the more serious minded critics who reviewed the movie at the cinema.

Leaving such pretentious prattling behind and looking at the cast, the film delivers brilliantly. Stellan Skarsgård drops his Norwegian accent, and leaves the world of the Avengers behind, to become Edward; a richer than rich businessman who insists that one can buy happiness. Jean Reno leaves his badge and assassins tools at home to play an African drug lord who trusts no one but loves his wife completely.

Christopher Plummer uses his dulcet tones to narrate and play the small cameo of a professor who uses a machine that looks like an old fashioned hair dryer to track emotions in the human brain. Toni Collette plays Hector’s former flame with perfection.

The end of the film moved me to schmaltzy tears as Pegg discovers a few home truths. (I’ll not say what they are, no spoilers here.) His journey may not be life shattering over all, although at one point it looks as though Hector may not survive, but it is interesting enough to keep the viewer watching.

*On a side note, I did notice that just as in real life, all airport terminals do indeed look the same no matter where they are.*

Sure, some of the signposts are a bit stereo-graphical in nature but that does not spoil the message of the film or take away our delight when Hector finishes his search. Despite what other reviewers have said about this particular offering my verdict is a full 5 stars. Any film that can make me cry in Burger King in front of strangers, without the darkness of a cinema to hide my blushes, gets full marks. Hector and the Search for Happiness is streaming on US Netflix now. Watch this one and enjoy, unless you are too sophisticated for it.

My Summer Vacation: Acting and Adventure

My Summer Vacation

The film I worked on this summer has now been made available for public viewing on Vimeo. It was filmed in July around Sidmouth, England with an intimate cast and crew. I worked with some brilliantly talented people and hopefully will work with them again. The experience was another life changer for me.

I had given up the idea of ever working in a profession that I’d been hooked on since my teen epiphany that this was the ideal occupation for me. When I reluctantly turned my back on it, I knew that I would never have the chance to prove that I still had the chops for this type of work. I was wrong about that, just as I’ve been wrong about many things in my life. One thing I think I’m right about is, I have always honestly believed that people are born to be actors, writers, directors, et al. I still do.

Just as there are people who have certain party tricks; like being able to imitate Christopher Walken or John Wayne after a couple of drinks, there are others who have a talent that they were born with. They enter the world as a sort of idiot savant. The ability; the talent, exists already. All they need is the opportunity to develop the skill required to polish and hone that innate talent. Like the joke goes, it takes practice to get to Carnegie  Hall.

My month of July 2013 (my summer vacation, if you will) was filled with excitement. Not only did I get to step in front of the camera for the first time in years, I also got to prove to myself that I had not lost the urge, or the ability, to act. It was still a part of me and though I’d turned my back on it, the creativity had not left me. Nor had the imagination needed to “pull it off.”

The end result was a project that I could take pride in. All because Natasha Harmer took a chance to use an old out-of-practice actor, who could have turned out to be  a ham or an actor who could not act. She writes a blog titled Films and Things, which was the name of the production company incidentally, and if you haven’t already, you should go check her out.

For those of you who want to see the film, Once Bitten, Twice Shy, just click on the link. Once you’ve seen it, drop by and let Natasha “Tash” know what you thought. Personally, I think that every single person attached to the film did a bang-em-up job, but I could be a little prejudiced.

My Summer Vacation
In Mandela House July, 2013

The second thing I did in July was to travel to South Africa to track down a couple of sources who’d turned our paper, the Las Vegas Guardian Express (guardianlv.com) onto the news that Nelson Mandela was no longer with us. Despite the huge smoke screen thrown up by the world’s press, based on news released from his children who have their own reasons for not acknowledging the great man’s passing, we received information that was disturbing and obscene. We’d been told by quite a few sources that the man was really gone.

I will not go into the story, you can follow the above link to see the articles written by myself and other journalists in the paper. I was chosen, at the last minute, to fly to the country and search for the truth. I have written about my experiences and will be adding more of what I learned about the country  in the paper itself.

I met people in Johannesburg who watched over me in this dangerous area of the world and treated me like a long lost family member. I travelled around the local areas, saw where the poor lived and the rich. I went to Pretoria visiting  the hospital where Madiba was interred.  I spoke to fellow journalists who were camped outside the hospital waiting for the next act in this tragedy to unfold.

This trip was another life changing event. It  made me realise that I was addicted to the adrenaline rush. The feeling of hyper-reality that comes with the territory of increased heart rate and focussed vision. Johannesburg emits a feeling of underlying danger, somewhat akin to working in the prison service when there is trouble brewing from certain elements. You are on edge and, seemingly, aware of everything going on. Afterward, you are exhausted by all of the hyper-awareness.

I have been incredibly lucky in the time following my near brush last year with the grim reaper. I have, in essence, rediscovered myself. I’ve learned that there are some things in me that will never change. The actor in my soul will never die and my yearning for adventure, aka adrenaline addiction, will always be a constant companion. I have also rediscovered my love of writing.

I’ve written about all the above mentioned  things before, but, I’ve been a bit lackadaisical with my blog of late. My  work for the paper has pretty much overtaken everything in my life at the moment. But I will remember to make time for my inner actor and will soon be preparing a showreel to see if anyone else would like to hire an old “not-so-out-of-practice actor again.

Until then, my summer vacation with its adventures in acting, world news, and dangerous surroundings will be in my memory book. If I close my eyes, I can see South Africa unfold before me just a vividly as the day I arrived. It is amazing that the end result of being so close to death has made me feel more alive than ever before.

I have been truly blessed by whoever, or whatever, is in charge. I thank all of you lovely people who take the time to follow my little blog and who leave comments or like my efforts. May you all find what makes you feel truly alive in your lifetime.

Michael SmithMy Summer Vacation

United Kingdom

18 October 2013

South Africa My Personal Journey: Soweto and Mandela House

Outside Mandela House personal photo
Outside Mandela House personal photo

The recounting of my personal journey through South Africa has so far been fraught with the dangers that people face in certain parts of the Johannesburg area. But the whole trip was not all about the crime and precautions, although a lot of it was. There were two areas that welcomed people and visitors into their world.

Soweto was on my list of things to see mainly because of the Mandela House Museum.  As we approached the township my two companions (our driver L, who was a star and D our correspondent) pointed out that the area we were entering welcomed outsiders. Apparently it had to do with the fact that the denizens of Soweto liked the idea that  white visitors weren’t too terrified to visit.

On the way there, while stopped at a traffic light, a mini-pickup truck with a small group of black men in the back, noticed me taking pictures. They began to wave and smile and make camera gestures (this consisted of making a square with both hands and holding them up to their face). I was happy to oblige and after getting a few shots of these friendly people, they gave the universal “thumbs-up” sign and “okay” sign.

One very enthusiastic fellow blew us a kiss.

The friendly chaps in the white pickup truck outside Soweto
The friendly chaps in the white pickup truck outside Soweto

“See?” Our correspondant asked. “Soweto is very friendly and welcoming, even before we’ve entered the area!”  They were indeed both friendly and helpful.  We made our way to the Mandela House Museum, which was not full of people, although a steady trickle of South African tourist were entering. I appeared to be the only “real” foreigner there.

As you go through the museum, tour guides explain the significance of the house. The little lady who spoke to me got inadvertently ignored for the whole first part of her spiel as I’d assumed that she was just someone else who was there to see the house and not a guide.  She didn’t let that stop her though.

L had to have it pointed out to me that the elderly lady was a guide and that she wanted me to see things in order. Thankfully, I’m too old to blush, otherwise I’d have gone a brilliant hue of red.  I dutifully followed the lady around the small museum and took pictures as she talked.

Mandela House was a solemn moment in a friendly town. The overall feeling was that Soweto was proud of the man who’d moved there and became the first black South African president. The house where he lived, but was not born in, is a stark reminder of the days of Apartheid and the world’s acceptance of it.

The only jarring note at the museum was the price of admission. Not that it was too expensive. Rather it was the pricing system. that was disturbing.  The sign by the ticket kiosk had a list of prices.  South AFricans paid one price, non-South Africans paid slightly higher, and “tourists” paid higher still. I missed the sign, but it was pointed out to me as we left. Rather an unsettling moment where it seems that while “outsiders” are more than welcome, they will pay for the privilege of “not being South African.”

This “triple” pay system was used at other “tourist” attractions as well.

The overall experience of visiting Soweto was relaxed and pleasurable. The streets were full of apparently happy and smiling people and there was a good feeling to the place, with none of the undercurrent that ran though the other areas visited on the trip.  It was  as though the place was an oasis in the tense high crime arena of Johannesburg.

All too soon we had to leave the peaceful surroundings of Mandela House Museum and head off to our next destination. I want to return to Soweto and spend more time there if for no other reason than to soak up some more of that friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

To be continued…

Mandela House Museum photo by author.
Mandela House Museum photo by author.

South Africa My Personal Journey: Day One

johannesburg-airport

I arrived at Johannesburg International Airport roughly between 21:15 and 22 :10 (9 p.m. and 10 p.m. respectively); the large gap  in time is due to my lack of sleep and forgetting to double check it. Arriving at the airport, I was pleased to find that the staff were welcoming and friendly and not above having a joke with you. British and American customs take note.

I meet my contacts D and L.  Before they came to meet and collect me at the airport, D’s shed was set alight by someone. The car they used to transport me had  a broken window; crime is so rampant that they had to hire an airport car park chap to watch the car. If they had not done this it would have been stolen.

*Note: Because of the nature of my trip, I will refer to my contacts by initials only.  Reprisals against any who have helped me to uncover information are a very real threat.

I was taken to where I would be staying for the next four days via the scenic route.  L was the driver and took us along the back streets to show what the area looked like and past a local “government” hospital. I was told that if you go there to be treated, you’ll probably get worse or die.  Everyone has to go private for their treatment and not use the government hospitals

We drove through a section of town where some  drug dealers and prostitutes live.  All the houses  have bars over the window’s and doors and are behind gates and fences with sharp spikes on the top of the fences or razor (concertina) wire strung across the top.

While we drove through the neighbourhood, we reached a couple of blocks where there were prostitutes hanging around on the sidewalks. Some were in pairs, but most stood alone.  One young girl was standing by herself on the corner of a sidewalk and she looked about twelve. All of the young woman, and at least one obvious young man, were black.  I was told that as it was almost eleven o’clock at night, it was too late for the while prostitutes to be out. Apparently the white ones get picked first.

The house where I am staying is right next door to a drug dealer and prostitute “den.” The drug dealer is Nigerian and the Nigerians are not well liked in the Johannesburg area. They are the new “crime lords” of the area. In a short time they’ve taken over as leaders in the drugs trade. C and L have no problems with the neighbour. L is a huge intimidating sized chap and the drug dealer is actually afraid of him.

Like most of the houses in this area, the one I will be staying at is a bungalow style house (single level) and it is surrounded by a high fence with sharp implements on the top to discourage thieves. All the houses have this type of wall topped with razor wire, electrical fencing or sharp metal stakes, et al.  They have also put bars over every window and door.

IMG_0504
All houses have high fences except for those who don’t worry about theft. Author Photo.

The more “expensive” homes have electric all round and D’s house is a combination of electric and wire topped fence as well as the bars over the windows and doors.

The only houses that do not have the high fences and bars are the ones belonging to the drug lords.

Just before you drive onto the block to get to the where I stayed during my short trip, there is a fairly big house that has been vandalised and burnt. It is full of squatters and nothing can or will be done about it.

On the drive from the airport to the area that I will be staying in, D and L tell me the rules for driving in Johannesburg. These are especially important if you are a female driving or you have females in the car with you.

The rules for driving in Johannesburg: 

Lock all your car doors.

Keep all your windows rolled up.

Do not slow down or stop if a car (or two, or more) are stopped by the side of the road and people are standing by them.

If you are a woman, you never drive down the road with your purse or handbag in plain sight most will put them on the floorboards out of sight to stop smash and grab theft.

If you look ahead and see rocks stuck in the road, do not approach them, as it is a trap. If you stop or attempt to drive around the rocks you’ll become the victim of a smash and grab or car theft…or worse.

Remember to check.

IMG_0496
Pictures through rolled up windows is the order of the day. Author photo.

We finally arrive to our destination. The bungalow style house I am staying in is lovely. It has huge rooms and high ceilings. The bathroom is actually bigger than my kitchen back home in England, and I have a good sized kitchen. My bedroom is also quite large and ready for me to occupy.

C and L are lovely people who immediately make me feel like a long lost relative. Like everyone, it seems, they have dogs. One is the size of a small shetland pony, or at least in my tired state he seemed that big, and all the dogs take to me instantly. The couple were afraid that the dogs might overwhelm me. But they weren’t a problem.

It is winter in South Africa. Their winters make me think of Southern California winters; warm, sunny days and chilly nights. I am glad I packed a short, light jacket along with my short-sleeved shirts and trousers. The daytime temperatures get up to around 70 degrees Fahrenheit but drop down quite low once the sun goes down; around an average of 41 degrees. As typical in winter, the days are shorter and the nights longer.

I have a cup of coffee with my hosts and soon amble off to bed. I am too excited and tired to sleep so I start making notes on my Macbook about the first leg of my journey. After an hour and a half, I finally drop off to sleep.

My first day in Johannesburg has been electric, edifying, and enjoyably adrenaline filled.  My first impressions are of a people who are friendly, welcoming and adaptable. I will meet my first “interview” the next day and I’m anxious that all goes well.  As I was a “last minute” substitution for our World Editor (his flight cost was extortionate) I am concerned that I get all the information I came for.

I’ve been told to take lots of pictures so that our paper’s critics realise that I am really there. As I lay in bed still feeling ill from my Hepatitis A injection I’d had the day before, I sunk slowly into a deep dreamless sleep that ended as the rest of the house woke up at seven in the morning. Looking at my iPad, when I opened my eyes, I saw that I’d had just over four hours of sleep.

My first “full” day in Johannesburg as an investigative journalist had just begun.

(To be continued)

Gold Mine Dump
Gold Mine Dump Author Photo.

Nelson Mandela, a Movie, and an Epiphany

Nelson+Mandela+

I have had an amazing amount of things happen to me this year, it seems as if Lady Luck or God or whoever is in charge “up-there” is attempting to make up for my health issues and near-death experiences of last year. But for all the interesting and further “life-changing” events, the last two weeks have been the most…tumultuous? A fortnight of Nelson Mandela, making a movie, and having a sudden epiphany about my life.

I’ll explain.

On June 26, the paper that I work for, and believe me when I tell you I’ve never worked for a better company, had received news from a very reliable source that Nelson Mandela had died. Madiba was no more. The source (actually sources) were very highly placed in South Africa and had no axe to grind or ulterior motive apart from telling the world the truth.

My publisher asked me to write a piece about the facts as they’d been presented, which I sadly did. We placed the finished article in the “pending” file to wait for our second confirmation that Madiba had died. Our news editor, a great chap and one hell of a newsman/writer, in fit of over-zealousness, published my article.

All hell broke loose.

In under four hours, the article had gotten over half a million views. It also was attacked, both verbally and physically. I received a huge amount of hate-mail and negativity from readers. I got threats from individuals to remove the story at once. Our new’s site was attacked with repeated DDoS attacks that were traced back to South Africa.

The South African government, or their sanctioned agents, attempted to kill the story and our website. They succeeded in slowing the story down, but it is still alive and it is still the truth, in our eyes. Not long after the second day of DDoS attacks on our site, we received further confirmation that the iconic Nelson Mandela was dead.

While the rest of the world’s new’s sites continue to support President Zuma‘s fiction of the man being alive, we know the truth and it will come out.

But moving on from the death of Nelson Mandela, something the South African people aren’t allowed to do yet, by Zuma and Mandela’s family, follow this link to read about it, last weekend I made a movie.

Well, acted in a movie to be truthful. I had a ball! I’ve said repeatedly in my earlier posts that I had not been in front of the camera since *cough* the 1990s. Tash Harmer the owner operator of Films and Things, and if you don’t follow her F&T blog, stop reading this right this instant and do so; Tash is in University and she wrote a brilliant script for a short feature that received top honours at her Uni.

She decided to use the script to shoot her first professional effort. She wisely surrounded herself with a familiar crew, fellow Uni chums Meera Daji, Fiona Lockwood, and Katie-marie Holbrookboosh Penniman Jr, all of whom are in the same media type course as Tash.

Thank you all

I got the lead of Chris in the Once Bitten, Twice Shy short sans audition. Tash’s faith in me never wavered and I’ll always be grateful for the chance that she gave me. The chance to see if I still had my chops. Time and the film will hopefully show that I have still, “got it.”

But what I have definitely gotten is the chance to do the other thing, apart from writing, that I love. Bless you Tash and the gang, I’ll drop everything to work with you and the wonderful actors I worked with that day (who are, by the by, Steve Speak and Sanna Kelly).

Now on to my epiphany.

I have heard all my life two adages that have always irritated the hell out of me. The first one goes: All things come to those who wait, and the second one goes: Everything happens for a reason.

My reaction has always been a heartfelt and loud B***Sh**!

Not any more. I got divorced almost two years ago and I’ve never been happier. The loss of my second wife freed my mind, and her’s I think, and allowed me to devote more time to my first passion, writing. I now have broken the 70,000 view mark and beaten my 600 follow count by a good sum (and it’s still rising) and I’m working as a professional writer whose work is seen by millions. To paraphrase the Bible, “my cup runneth over.”

Blogging aside, and you’ll never know how much I love all of you  in the blogging community who’ve read, followed and interacted with me since I started this blogging venture, as I mentioned above,   I’ve gotten employed for the first time of my life as a professional writer and I’ve acted again, really acted for the first time in years. These two events combined with the warmth I’ve gotten from the blogging community, as well as getting Freshly Pressed last year, have really made me feel complete for the first time in years.

The divorce, my work injury and subsequent near death from a heart attack, and my ill-health retirement from same, all seem to have conspired to put me in this,  almost obscenely, happy place. I work with people that I love and respect as brother’s and sister’s who all have the same hopes, dreams and the overwhelming urge to write.

And I get paid huge dividends for my labour, as does everyone who works for the Guardian Express Las Vegas. I got a chance to re-live my passion for acting and I stumbled by chance into the world of the real news, I usually write what I call the “fluff” aka entertainment. I’ve been truly blessed.

So my epiphany  is this: Everything does, indeed, happen for a reason and good things do come to those who wait; even it that waiting period lasts a lifetime.

So there you have it. An encapsulated, if not long, period of my life and its changes and my changes. I love you all and I thank you all for going with me on this fascinating and wondrous journey. May the force be with you, or may you live long and prosper, or may you never get a wooden nickel.

Or to paraphrase one of my daughter Megs’ and my favourite film’s, Demolition Man, “Be well.”

Mugging at Kate!