The Counselor (Unrated and Extended Version) – Film Review

I first saw The Counselor when it was released in 2013. I was attracted to it because of the strong cast (Brad Pitt, Javier Bardhem, Cameron Diaz and Michael Fassbender), a solid director in Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy as the screenwriter. Mr. McCarthy has reached esteemed status as a novelist and his screen adaption of No Country for Old Men in 2007 earned him an Academy Award. He has authored a number of original screenplays but none of them were every brought to the screen until The Counselor.

Coming out of the showing I found myself torn about how I felt about the picture. It was quite dark and intense (good things for me), but I felt it best to put it aside for a while. That “a while” continued. Eventually I did something I rarely do; read reviews of the film. This film evoked quite a lot of backlash. In my unscientific survey the comments were about 80% negative as in WTF did I just see, 15% were completely lost on all levels. If you dug for it, about 5% of critics found some merit.

This led me to a decision not to write a review because the polarizing nature of the reaction left me unsure that I could provide a thoughtful contribution. Time has passed and the Unrated and Extended Version has been released on DVD and Streaming services and so I gave it another longer look.

What I saw this time answered several questions that were hanging for me, even still a few are left open. But the the real power and narrative of this film is more clearly revealed in this longer cut and so, here goes.

The Counselor is a deep, dark odyssey that grabs the main character, The Counselor, played with mashed teeth by Michael Fassbender, and drags him into a world he could never imagine on his own. He is a public defender who has some kind of money trouble he wants to cure quickly so he partners with an old friend on a get rich quick drug deal involving the Mexican Cartel. His fiancee, Laura, is played by the beautiful Penelope Cruz. She unfortunately has the worst part in the film, as the Counselor leaves her completely in the dark even when things go very, very bad.

The director, Ridley Scott, has pretty much taken the entirety of Cormac MaCarthy’s script and brought it to the screen. It’s almost word for word, and those words are heavily stylized and heady. The screenplay is written more in the form of a novel than a script, with most of the ink devoted to dialog instead of atmosphere. You can download a copy of it here.

Javier1

The Counselor has befriended Reiner played by Javier Bardhem. Mr. Bardhem has black spiky hair, big tinted glasses and a flashy wardrobe. He juts into and out of the frame throughout the film spouting words that long for sentences but are very compelling to listen to with his deep voice and accent. He actually doesn’t deliver the lines. It’s more like his mouth is repeating a script he’s read to many partners over the years, right before they commit to being involved. Reiner always gets to the point by way of not getting there.

REINER  You pursue this road that you’ve embarked upon and you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise. You won’t see it coming at all.

Reiner’s girlfriend is Malkina played by Cameron Diaz who approaches her role with a bleak coldness. Malkina is brilliant, has Reiner wrapped around her finger and is hatching grand designs to get her portion of the take on each deal. You never know what she’s thinking but you know it’s definitely not good.

Malkina 2

MALKINA  When the world itself is the source of your torment then you are free to exact vengeance upon any least part of it. I think perhaps you would have to be a woman to understand that. And you will never know the depth of your hurt until you are presented with the opportunity for revenge. Only then will you know what you are capable of.

The other key player is Brad Pitt playing Westray. He’s the middleman who brokers two sides (usually more than two sides) so a deal can be done, and charges his fee. Mr. Pitt is the clever street smart one and plays the Texas part with a white Stetson and tailored western suits. As with all Mr. McCormak’s characters he speaks in philosophical riddles that sound confusing, but with a second thought you realize he’s dead on. Here Westray is trying to communicate the seriousness of what they are about to set in motion to the Counselor.

Westray and Counselor

WESTRAY  Good word, cautionary. In Scots Law it defines an instrument in which one person stands as surety for another… The problem of course is what happens when the surety turns out to be the more attractive holding.

There are so many people involved in this deal it’s impossible to keep track. You see $20 million attracts a crowd. The meaning of the story lies in the fact that these conversations and events occur in another world. A world far away from the one we live everyday as law biding citizens. Reiner, Malikna and Westray have been inhabiting that world for years. It’s taken their toll on each one in different ways. The Counselor lives in an entirely different world. The world we live in. And thus, that’s why, in my opinion, so many critics had trouble accessing the altered reality that Mr. McCarthy has clearly written and Mr. Scott has so faithfully and rightly preserved in his translation to the screen.

The film propels itself and soon things go wrong, double crosses are set in motion and eventually the violence comes. It’s Coen Brothers style and extremely graphic. The Counselor’s world becomes a free fall into an abyss that we know has a bottom, we just don’t know how far he has to fall until he hits it.

In the end the Counselor gets a one to one conversation with the ultimate Kingpin, Jefe, played by Rubén Blades. Mr. Blades summons all his acting experience which is needed to explain the entire purpose of the story to a hapless and helpless Counselor.

 JEFE  I would urge you to see the truth of your situation, Counselor. That is my advice. It is not for me to say what you should have done. Or not done. I only know that the world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made. You are at a cross in the road and here you think to choose. But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done long ago.

…life will not take you back. I have no wish to paint the world in colors more somber than those it wears, but as the world gives way to darkness it becomes more and more difficult to dismiss the understanding that the world is in fact oneself. It is a thing which you have created, no more, no less… There will be other worlds. Of course. But they are the worlds of other men and your understanding of them was never more than an illusion anyway.

The Counselor is of another world. Not a film world we are used to seeing with the familiar and expected three acts of beginning, middle and end. This world is very different. It is dark and cautionary, but in it are meaningful performances and lessons.

The technical aspects of this film are top shelf all around. Camera, sound and editing come together nicely. The set decoration and production design deserve strong recognition. A new world needed to be created to offer a fitting stage for this unique story. It was handled skillfully.

I enjoyed Daniel Pemberton’s score. It is a layered and well integrated soundtrack. He ignores the choppiness and wild swings in the script and seamlessly stitches the various worlds together.

I cannot recommend this film to the general public. It is best served to stalwarts of cinema who crave a challenge. If you are one of those, then by all means spin it up. The Counselor official movie site relies heavily on an Instagram feed that was used on the run up to the release of the film.

Photos: 20th Century Fox

Dialog excerpts from Cormac McCarthy. The Counselor: A Screenplay (Vintage International Original). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The City of the Century

Chicago has been called the City of the Century, Nature’s Metropolis and a number of other things that are maybe not so flatteringMany of you are sick and tired about me talking about Chicago, so instead of writing about it again, I’m embedding this incredible time-lapse video crafted by Eric Hines. He calls it Cityscape Chicago. He captures the unique architecture, juxtaposition to water and the bustle of a thriving urban culture.We have our warts for sure, but we camouflage them better than most of our peers.

This video celebrates the beauty of this city. Put aside your politics and enjoy. Be sure to watch it full screen.

Career Opportunity at Discover Bank

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THIS ROLE WAS FILLED ON JUNE 13, 2014

I’ve recently changed roles at Discover and am working on building out my digital team. There’s already a solid group of professionals in place shaping a best-in-class banking platform, but we are rapidly growing and I need more help.

This is a Senior Manager role with three direct reports, reporting to the Director which would be yours truly. I have worked at Discover for almost 15 years. We have a terrific culture and are recognized as one of the best run financial services companies in the country. We have a great credit quality portfolio, are well capitalized with strong profit and stock performance (NYSE:DFS).

We are located in Riverwoods, Illinois, just north of O’Hare airport and have a Chicago city satellite office.

Job Description

  • This position leads a team responsible for developing and enhancing a best-in-class banking web interface for Discover Deposit products. This person will work closely with a peer to drive the current and future state of the user interface across all digital platforms. It is critical for this person to steer and coordinate cross-functional groups that include Product Teams, Marketing, Business Technology and multiple external agencies to create and deliver innovative, simple, highly functional and aesthetically pleasing interfaces based on user-centered design principles. This person should be keenly aware and passionate about emerging design and usability trends across web, mobile and tablet, as well as the evolving digital payments ecosystem.
  • The Digital Experience team’s primary role is to understand business requirements and goals, and then work with external agencies to develop wireframes and design comps that will deliver the business results with a superior customer experience.
  • The Senior Manager must be analytics focused and able to leverage web tracking to inform design and enhance functionality already in production. It is important to be able to weigh quantitative and qualitative data before design begins.
  • Time to market is critical. The candidate must be comfortable operating in an agile development environment and make strong judgment calls based on the information and alternative scenarios.

Qualifications

  •  Bachelor’s degree required. Specialization in human-computer interaction, graphic design, product design or interaction design is a plus
  • 7-10 years leadership experience in user-centered design, usability and development, preferably with a Fortune 500 company or leading digital firm
  • Seen as a thought-leader in creating best-in-class digital customer experiences for full site, mobile and tablet interfaces
  • Experience leading and/or observing user research and usability testing and translating insights into design decisions
  • Demonstrated ability to lead cross functional teams in the development of scenarios, workflows, site architectures, interactions notes, wireframes and designs
  • Experience in developing processes to manage complex activities
  • Demonstrated ability to translate business requirements into meaningful interactive experiences
  • Ability to effectively prioritize project requests based on clear methodology
  • Strong analytic skills and experience with web site behavior tagging and tracking
  • Effective communicator and comfortable with presenting to senior managers
  • Lean Six Sigma would be a plus.

We are an Equal Opportunity Employer and do not discriminate against applicants due to race, ethnicity, gender, veteran status, or on the basis of disability or any other federal, state or local protected class.

If you’re qualified and want to work for a highly respected company you can apply here.

My Annual Oscar Picks – 2014

oscar-envelopeIt’s that time again. The Academy hands out their picks for best of every category. They can select 10 films for best picture, but apparently could find only nine worthy of the crown. The pictures span history, deep drama, AIDS, hijacking, swindle and a celestial exploration of the human spirit, untethered in space.

Observations. Although the themes are familiar and tightly bunched, the styles and settings are nicely varied. My overarching take is that Gravity overwhelmes all the others for technical achievement. I’m predicting a mini-sweep for Gravity in the technical categories and the film’s director for being able to successfully stitch it together. The softer, more artistic awards will be sprinkled across the vast field based on the individual effort and ultimate impact they contributed (screenplay, song, etc.) on the film as a complete work. Four of the nine best picture nominees have one word titles. with another two managing to use only two words. The Wolf of Wall Street has no chance.

A decade or more ago I was a whiz at picking these. I would have seen all of them in the theater, many twice. Read Variety each week and closely followed the pop discussions found in the likes of Entertainment Weekly. Much of that study time has been re-purposed by a busy career, fatherhood and being a husband. No complaints from me.

Since my extremely active involvement in film has been reduced, my record of wins has become uneven but that doesn’t deter me from making predictions. Let the annual ritual begin.

Picture: 12 Years a Slave

Director:  Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity

Actor:  Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club

Actress:  Amy Adams for American Hustle

Actor in a Supporting Role:  Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips

Actress in a Supporting Role: Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave

Original Screenplay:  American Hustle

Adapted Screenplay:  12 Years a Slave

Cinematography:  Gravity

Animated Feature:  Frozen

Film Editing:  Gravity

Visual Effects:  Gravity

Sound Editing:  Captain Phillips

Production Design: The Great Gatsby

Original Score:  Alexandre Desplat for Philomena

Original Song:  Let it Go from Frozen

Costume Design:  The Great Gatsby

One more thing. Can we please stop complaining about how long the awards show runs?

Six Years on Twitter. How Many More?

imagesI was contemplating whether or not to blog about why I’m on Twitter and how I use it. My first Tweet was February 23, 2008. For some unremebered reason I put it on my iCalendar that day with a perpetual repeat. The internal food fight of whether I should give it life here went on in my brain for days. Guess which side won? Just couldn’t help myself.

Twitter is now a public company that requires it to adopt a solid business mindset. Quarterly earnings calls, more scrutiny and less tolerance for missteps. The platform continues to evolve as do the people who use it regularly. I’ve been pretty strict about who I follow and I am unfollowing more than ever.

Some still miss the basics after all these years and numerous resources to help do it well. Some of the duh’s are; no profile description, no photo, no location, and on and on. I have begun to use a new measure for who to follow. Their photos and videos. These are the visuals of their feed. I find the selection of what images people share reveals perhaps even more of who they are. If the images are lame, I think twice. If I’m on the following fence after reading a sampling of their Tweets, a compelling image footprint can nudge me to click the follow button. Is it varied? Humorous? Interesting? Numerous? The eye matters as much as the hand.

Today I see less spam on the service and have grown new friends. I’m noticing a cycling of connections. There’s a group of people one engages with for a period of time, then they fall out of the river of characters. You check back and find they’ve unfollowed you. I don’t’ take it personal. Chalk it up to the natural flow of life.

The parody accounts are becoming more interesting. There’s a whole cast of Mad Men accounts that are hilarious to engage with. They take it seriously. I haven’t gotten into following celebrity or sports figures. Most of the people I’m interested in wouldn’t follow back or engage. Many may have their PR teams reply.

I have engaged in dialog with Tom Peters, the business genius who wrote “In Search of Excellence” and invented the term MBWA, Managing by Wandering Around. I’ve heard him speak and have learned so much from him about many things. He followed me back years ago and we connected from time to time. In one exchange he gave me real mentoring advice and challenged me to get better. That would have never occurred without Twitter. Mr. Peters continues to follow me.

I’m keen on film. Have you noticed? I became hooked in the 1970’s and ’80’s, which were the best decades for movies during my lifetime. One of the producers I admired was Robert Evans. He was the real Hollywood in my book. He ran Paramount Pictures and turned it into a profit machine for the then parent company Gulf+Western. During his tenure the studio turned out an impressive list of pictures including; Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Rosemary’s Baby, The Italian Job, True Grit, Love Story, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Serpico, Save the Tiger, The Conversation and The Great Gatsby.

I responded to a random Tweet from someone that had attached a photo of Mr. Evans in his prime, sitting by the pool reading a stack of scripts. My response to that Tweet was followed up a few days later by a follow from Mr. Evans. He followed me! Another Twitter moment. Having that brush with history was a thrill. As of the writing of this post Mr. Evans continues to follow me.

Robert EvansThe longer one is on Twitter and maintains connections, the more of a view one gets into life’s passages. People get fired, start businesses, become ill, get married, grow older. You name it they express it on Twitter in 140 characters. I love the spontaneity. One’s true self comes front and center when they commit to Twitter.

I don’t spend much time thinking about how long I’ll stay engaged on Twitter. I’ll know when it’s time to fade away.

The Department of if You Care: Previous blog posts on my Twitter adventure: 2013, 2011, 2008.

Photo Credit: The New York Times

The Death of “Just in Case” Web Design

Just in CaseEver since the first web browsers were created in the mid 1990’s people have been endlessly debating on how to design a web site. Or more specifically their companies’ site. At first it was left to a small group of people to make the decisions, because it was probably a fad and why spend time there. Once the fad thing became the next big thing everyone wanted in on the gold rush. Opinions were as common as… Well, you know.

To see how far we’ve come, check out Evolution of the Web an interactive site that shows the progression of Internet technology and human adoption and integration in their everyday lives.

Usability science came along, disciplines were created and the work was put into trained hands. The problem lies in the fact that most corporate web sites, especially ones that are  C to C and have a significant traffic, must sometimes serve a dozen or more masters. That calls for scorecards, prioritization frameworks and, oh yes, a check back to what the objectives are.

I’ve sat in so many meetings where business partners want to put things in the interface “just in case” a user may be looking for it. They come up with all manner of wild use cases. They are very creative. Bring them back to reality. Search is what we use when we are looking for something. Navigation is for fast access to what you want or need to do during any given visit. Design is for connecting with a customer so they will want to know more.

The new design trend emerging, one of “Point Solution” is I think fantastic. It fills the digital canvas, is responsive to the device that beckons it to life and incorporates a storyscape of the functionality. It seamlessly combines high impact graphics, video, animation and interactive scrolling. When done well one doesn’t know if we are learning or accomplishing a task. And the doing becomes commerce, crossing an invisible line without being detected. It’s bulletproof for solving one or two use cases, but challenged when there are ten to twenty functions available for customers.

The “Just in Case” design is too broad and the “Point Solution” is too narrow. Designers with the help of business partners must find the middle way between the two. Uncovering the dark data hidden in the click stream married with back end analytics is critical. Start with eliminating all of the use cases that are remote, then progressively work your way toward the desired outcome. Oh yeah, you need really, really good designers.

It takes courage to avoid the “Just in Case” design trap and to stave it off you must have hard data showing it’s the right way to go. It’s best to be able to bring a design to life that has absolutely no hierarchy, only a flow of perfectly quilted content.

The poster child for “Point Design” is the Pencil 53 product site from the company Fifty-three. I love the site but loved the product even more. That helps. Their singular objective is to communicate everything about the Pencil 53. What it is, what it does, why it’s better. My review of the Pencil 53 is here.

Pencil 53 Screen shot

Apple is great example of incorporating “Point Design” when they want to be bold about a product, then shifting to a  more traditional design for product comparison, shopping and support. Sometimes you need to tell the story on a deeper level. For Apple’s 30th anniversary they created a time line of their products and the people behind them. They allowed a user to click on their first Mac and let Apple know what it meant to them. Emotive memories. They have always excelled at closing that last mile between a person and technology.

MAC 30 Time line

Microsoft is also getting in the game. They are simultaneously upgrading their product design as well as their sites. Their Surface experience is excellent and they are working hard to put the brand back on track after years of being completely lost.

Surface

Samsung has a very difficult design problem to crack. Parts of their site are absolutely on point while others appear archival but are probably effective at selling, so it may not matter. Remember the data. The Apps and Entertainment section is outstanding at showcasing a breadth of products and covers a lot of ground without being overwhelming.

Samsung

We see people, read their stories, watch their videos and learn how technology works in their lives for convenience, efficiency and peace of mind.

Your Favorite Film of 2013 – Poll

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has the ability to nominate ten films for best picture in any given year. In the 1930’s and 1940’s eight to twelve films were nominated, but in the 1950’s  there was a conscious decision to limit it to five. In 2009 that rule changed, allowing ten films to be nominated. This has helped films that can’t afford to lobby the Academy members to be on the ballot for the top prize. Ever since that change ten films indeed were nominated each year up until 2013. This year’s crop consists of only nine.

The Academy has also evolved the category name several times outlined below.

  • 1927/28 — 1928/29:  Academy Award for Outstanding Picture
  • 1929/30 — 1940:  Academy Award for Outstanding Production
  • 1941 — 1943:  Academy Award for Outstanding Motion Picture
  • 1944 — 1961:  Academy Award for Best Motion Picture
  • 1962 — present:  Academy Award for Best Picture

Which one of the nine nominated films was your favorite? I’m not asking you to try and predict which film may win. Which one did you enjoy most?

Was your favorite not on the nominated list? Let me know what it was and why.

Pencil 53 – Product Review

Post Updated with writing image February 16, 2014 (Scroll Down)

One of the consistently read posts on my blog is Notability + Bamboo + iPad = Paperless Note Taking. I’m constantly looking for better ways to transfer necessary note taking from paper/pen/pencil to digital. Once we had the rise of the tablet it made sense to use the tablet to collect my thoughts created by our hands. The Bamboo stylus paired with the Notability app on my iPad has served me well and I still use that combination on nearly a daily basis.

Despite that use my search never ends and I recently got a hold of the Paper 53 Pencil. It’s from the makers of the simply amazing Paper App that is the standard for sketching, note taking, diagraming, etc. It was the App of the year in 2012 and deservedly so. I’m not an artist so I didn’t turn to this App very often. Once I discovered the Paper 53 Pencil, that all changed.

The first thing that’s different from other stylus’s is the shape. It’s modeled on the classic carpenter’s pencil that has been in use for decades by tradesmen on the job. The wider, flat surface is easier to hold and can be rotated to make progressively thinner or thicker lines. It’s rugged which is a requirement on an exterior job site and it won’t roll away if you set down on a uneven surface.

Pencil Toolbar

I’ve been using my Pencil 53 for about three weeks. It has encouraged me to open up my Paper App more often and begin the process of integrating it into my everyday life. The Pencil 53 and latest Paper App is really smart.

  • The lower part of the Pencil slides out and plugs into any USB port, charging in about 90 minutes.
  • Paper claims a full charge will last up to a month. I’ve not had to recharge it during my three weeks of use.
  • Pairing it with the Paper App is a cinch. Simply tap and hold.
  • Paper’s toolbar elegantly emerges and you have access to all the various writing, sketching and painting tools through Pencil, which means it’s many tools in one.
  • The screen knows when it’s the Pencil or your wrist or finger on the screen. It only records friction from the Pencil.
  • When you make a mistake, and I do all the time, you simply turn the Pencil around and erase it with the tip. No more tapping on an interface to switch to erase mode then back to write/sketch mode.

I opted for the graphite color. The wood Pencil 53 is $10 more. The weight and feel are very satisfying and I’m using it on other Apps like Penultimate and Notability. Very happy. There is one thing you really can’t do with this pencil. Rest it behind your ear. Too large.

Fifty-Three, Inc. packs an extra tip and eraser in the cool tube packaging.

Sample of Pencil 53 and Jot Script on iPad Notability app

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The Wolf of Wall Street – Film Review

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Once again we find Martin Scorsese taking serious inspiration from his lifelong muse, New York. So much has happened in this Metropolis and continues to happen, and the material just never seems to run out. He returns to the underworld but not gangsters. This time he delves beneath the underworld; Wall Street. Mean Streets, Wall Street, what’s the difference? Perhaps less violence on Wall Street or is it just another category of violence? I must admit when I saw the trailer for this film over the summer I was quite surprised to see that it was a Martin Scorsese picture. The film is large format all around. The running time is three hours and it’s laced with foul language, morbid use of drugs and alcohol, is degrading to women, and props money up on the highest pedestal at any cost to anyone.

It’s Goodfellas meets Glengarry Glen Ross, meets Wall Street. Process that for a minute.

I approached this film with mixed feelings, as it deals with financial crimes and unethical goings on by stockbrokers and so called investment managers. A lot of people lost their retirement believing the frauds over the last few years. So why make this film? Scorsese has said he made it out of “frustration and a kind of anger.” In a recent Los Angeles Times interview Scorsese states.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember being told that America was created so that everyone could get rich. I remember being told it was about opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. Not happiness itself, but the pursuit. In the past 35 years the value has become rich at all costs.

Jordan Belfort was hooked on becoming a Master of the Universe on his first day on Wall Street. He was seduced by a greed that would permeate every aspect of his personal and professional life. Based on a real character and the book by Belfort, screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) hits the accelerator in the first scene and never lets up.

Leo DiCaprio plays Belfort and let’s animal persona off the leash. All he wants is more, and not just of money. His performance makes us laugh, gasp, shake our head and even cheer. But we are never afraid. Nor do we feel sorry for him even though he loses much more than he ever gained.

Black Monday was Belfort’s first day  as a bonafide stockbroker having passed his Series 7 exam. It was October 19, 1987 and the worldwide stock markets crashed along with the firm that gave him his first chance. This first lesson was not lost on Belfort.

He cobbled together a typical Scorsese band of characters who would eventually pledge their undying allegiance and yearn to unlock his secrets and live like Belfort. The group successfully traded Penny stocks from pink sheets to the middle class. He made money, but Belfort had higher aspirations. He created Stratton Oakmont, Inc. selected a lion as the firm’s symbol and wrote this mission statement; Stability, Integrity, Pride. They began targeting the top 1% of the population, sold them blue chips to get them comfortable, then make 50% commission on the crap. They made more money than they knew what to do with. It was brilliant, in a tragic sort of way.

From the screenplay The Wolf of Wall Street.

Script 1

Script 2

It’s one continuous party. The lines between the office and strip clubs or beach houses are blurred so badly no one knows if they are working or partying. Sex, drugs, drinking. Nothing was too much or off limits. Eventually Belfort meets Naomi (Margot Robbie) and his first marriage dissolves like a quaalude in bourbon. The wedding in Vegas cost Belfort $2 million and he didn’t bat an eye. From there things just get even more amped up as they take the women’s shoemaker, Steve Madden public in a very unorthodox and illegal manner.

Scorsese turns the camera directly on DiCaprio who addresses the audience first person. It’s fitting. We need someone to remind us we are not looking at a dream, but real life and the people who are acting it out know it’s wrong but can no longer tell right from wrong. Only rich from poor.

As the FBI closes in Belfort gets a bit more serious. He hatches a plan to move cash to a Swiss bank and turns his attention to blocking the investigation. No matter how much the heat gets turned up, nothing can stop Belfort and his lieutenant, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) from getting messed up. Donnie comes across a long lost bottle of Lemmon 714 quaalude pills give to him by a pharmacist client. The Lemmon 714 is the mother the Quaaludes. The scene that follows their taking of several of these potent pills is hysterical. I have not laughed that hard in the theatre since Three Weddings and a Funeral.

We need to be careful not to forget that activities of Stratton Oakmont are not victimless crimes. We don’t see the victims, and in fact almost never hear the voices on the other end of the telephones. But they are real and the damage done is serious and life-destroying in some instances. Belfort crashed so many things. A helicopter, expensive car, 170 foot yacht and countless lives. He never gets a scratch and always falls up, landing on his feet.

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DiCaprio also played Gatsby in Baz Luhrman’s interpretation of Fitzgerald’s novel released earlier this year. Both Gatsby and Belfort came from humble, poor beginnings. Both had aspirations and through a quirk of fate were able to gainfully apply their individual gifts to achieve great wealth. Gatsby built his empire out of the love for Daisy. Belfort accumulated his fortune out of the love for greed. Gatsby had an unfulfilled heart and Nick Carraway as his compass of good. Belfort lacked a heart and had Donnie Azoff as his enabler. Someone always willing to open the next door to excess.

Americans spend less that 20 minutes per year really studying their finances. I’m not talking bills, but real finances. College funds, retirement, real estate. Don’t be taken in. Do more work on your own financial state. Scorsese reminds us that finance underpins so much of our daily life and it can vanish in an instant.

Listen to the Podcast of this Review: 

Photo Credits:  Paramount Pictures

Download the The Wolf of Wall Street script legally here.

Inside Llewyn Davis – Film Review

Davis 2The Coen’s never make it easy on the audience. They weave their stories from the inside out. The very inner circle is deep with details and rich in emotion and meaning. As the circles swirl outward the fidelity of the details is dialed back. Occasionally they circle back to the inside but then come right back up, continuing to draw the circles but with dashed lines as they approach the surface of the film. That surface is what we see and hear on the screen. Their process is unique and always fascinating.

Inside Llewyn Davis is textbook Coen. Joel and Ethan leave it to us to color in meaning while they present us with one staggering scene after another. Most films today are cut, cut, cut; never allowing the camera to linger long enough to see everything in the frame. The Coens have perfected the exact opposite approach. They cut when the emotion of the scene says to cut.

Llewyn (Lou-in) played with solid pitch by Oscar Isaac is a wanna be folk singer now on his own after a break-up with his partner. He’s pretty much a despicable, irresponsible person that we have trouble drumming up even a smidgen of sympathy for. Llewyn does not have a home, or even a winter coat. He crashes at a different place every night, carrying his guitar and one bag of belongings. He sleeps on the floor, but on a good night he gets a couch.

He bounces from one bad experience to the next like the silver sphere in a pinball machine. The time is 1962 in the Greenwich Village poet/art scene. He rings the buzzer of Jean (Carey Mulligan) clutching a yellow cat with no where else to go. Ms. Mulligan has one of the sweetest smiles on the screen but can never show it off in this part. She constantly rails against Llewyn but has her own demons to wrestle with. Jean is with Jim (Justin Timberlake) who is connected to the record industry in a more orthodox fashion.

The story is a big circle, starting and ending in the Gaslight Poetry Cafe where folk singers take the stage in a dark, smoke-filled cellar space to perform. In between the bookends of the opening and closing scenes, the Coens take us through a truly realistic early 1960’s landscape. The clothes, cars, settings. All of it transports us back to the time of vinyl albums and big steel sedans, without the political statements. They are masters at conjuring up past worlds.

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Without a clear explanation, Llewyn gets into a car on its way to Chicago driven by Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and a burned-out jazz performer named Roland Turner (John Goodman). The exchanges between Llewyn and Roland are rich and hilarious. It’s a stranger’s perspective designed to provide Llewyn with validation that everything everyone is telling him is truth. There is a very large gap between the functioning world and Llewyn’s world, but he cannot see it. He is completely disconnected while being completely connected. Look for Goodman to get an Academy Award nomination for this small but powerful performance.

The film is beautifully crafted from top to bottom. Most of the technical aspects, despite being solid, take a back seat, overwhelmed by the acting and scene choice. The soundtrack was produced by the Coens with T. Bone Burnett who previously collaborated on Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. The music is the heart and soul of the film and if you listen closely and often enough, including dissecting the lyrics which were included by the filmmakers, you can fill in all those missing details.

Llewyn says, “If it’s not new and never get’s old, it’s a folk song.”

Davis Song List

Reviews of other Coen Brothers Films.

True Grit

Burn After Reading

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men Essay

A Serious Man

Photo Credits: Mike Zoss Productions

Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age: Book Review.

j9941A search on Amazon of “Nikola Tesla in books” will repaint your browser with 1,872 choices. A Viemo search on Nikola Tesla will yield 552 videos across 56 pages. That’s too much content for me to absorb with my busy schedule so I did what I always do when faced with so many choices. I chose carefully.

My choice was Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson. I selected this book because the author is a professor of science, technology and society and has a long history of being published and well regarded in the technology field. It was a bonus that his three areas of interest, science, technology and society are closely connected to my interests of society, media and technology.

Mr. Carlson is an academic with a strong research ethic and that seemed most appropriate to unpack some of the mysteries of Tesla. I wanted to read through the eyes of a historian who understands technology. I got that in this book.

The book is big at 500 pages including a thorough index. A good index is always a sign of a serious writer. If there is no index in a work of non-fiction then we have been given the right to label him or her as lazy.

I’ve come to realize through the reading of this book and the sampling many others, that Tesla had a magician’s flair trapped inside a brilliant, visionary mind of a meta-physical scientist. I’ll stop short of sorcerer, but part of me thinks he would have liked being placed in that category.

Tesla worked very hard his entire life, tirelessly pursuing his dream to bring wireless power to the world. He was his biggest fan, always looking for just a one more round of funding that would finally close the very narrow gap between his desire and reality. It’s been said that he was ahead of his time. Perhaps he even felt that way.

The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter – for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.

He had a rare condition known as Synesthesia. Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations: a stimulus in one sensory modality (hearing) involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another sense (vision). Likewise, perception of a shape (number or letter) may cause an unusual perception in the same sense (color). This allowed him to fully design all the details of an invention in his mind and actually run the test or experiment. Since he was completely clear in his mind he often did not fully document his designs, and so the Tesla archive is not as complete as it is with other inventors.

It was an amazing life for sure, but not one any of us would likely want to lead. He made perhaps the biggest contributions to the world we share today with our indispensable soul mate, electricity. As I read through the book I jotted down a list of Tesla’s major accomplishments.

  • Mastering Alternating Current (AC). Tesla’s inventions drew interest from the likes of George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan toward him for investment purposes. Edison was not a fan of AC after seeing men electrocuted by its power. Today’s world is electrified by alternating current.
  • Tesla’s input into the Niagara Falls power project led to that team adopting AC as their power choice to send large amounts of power over long distances.
  • Invented the photographic process for producing X-rays (X for unknown) weeks ahead of Wilhelm Roentgen who is officially credited with the invention. Tesla discovered X-ray photography, but failed to realize it at the time.
  • Tesla was the first investigator of electromagnetic waves which was then furthered by Marconi and resulted in the invention of the Radio. Tesla devised circuits using capacitors and coils that improved Marconi’s invention.
  • Other inventions: Induction motor, rotary transformers, high frequency alternators, the Tesla coil, the Tesla oscillator.

The writing of this book is thorough, but dense. The material is very well organized and written in a consistent style throughout, which for a book of this length and a life this diverse is quite an accomplishment. It’s not an breezy read. One must be determined to learn about Tesla to make it through to the end.

Tesla in France
Tesla lecturing at the French Physical Society and International Society of Electricians (Paris, March 1892)

Mr. Carlson takes us back to Tesla’s earliest years. He recounts a difficult childhood that included the tragic loss of a brother and a challenging sickness. Later Tesla began to blossom while attending Joanneum Polytechnic School in Graz, and his first introduction to electricity and motors. One of his professors said of Tesla.

Tesla was peculiar; it was said of him that he wore the same coat for twenty years. But what he lacked in personal magnetism he made up in the perfection of his exposition. I never saw him miss a word or gesture, and his demonstrations and experiments came off with clocklike precision.

From there Tesla never stopped studying and experimenting. It was the age of the dawning of the magician and he fit right in. He would organize elaborate stage productions to showcase his latest inventions, captivating the crowd with his prestidigitation skills and the magic of electricity. He was viewed as a showman. People didn’t fear him but they did consider him a genius which carries with it a certain amount of eccentricity.

Tesla Receiver
Receiver used by Tesla to detect electromagnetic waves (1890)

To the end, Tesla always believed that wireless power was possible. His work at a Colorado Springs laboratory brought him as close as he would ever be to achieving his dream. But he was not a particularly good businessman and despite his abilities for showmanship, it did not translate well into a cogent story or proposal. His genius just wasn’t taken serious.

He was never rich, but his inventions over the years meant he had ongoing but modest royalties that kept him going through the last decade of his life. Sadly he died nearly penniless in room 3327 of The New Yorker Hotel at the age of 86 in 1943. He never married and there is almost no record of his being involved with a woman at any point in his life.

It’s fitting that Tesla Motors, maker of the pre-eminent electric sedan is named for Nikola Tesla. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is following in the footsteps of Tesla, but doing so with business smarts and Silicon Valley speed. If you want to know more about Nikola Tesla and have some time. I would recommend Mr. Carlson’s book.

Check out my experience as a Tesla Model S Driver here.

Parkland – Film Review

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If you’ve studied the Kennedy assassination or even had a passing fascination with the events of that fateful day, you will instantly know what the subject matter of this film is by the title alone. Parkland refers to Parkland Memorial Hospital of Dallas. On November 22, 1963 the trauma team at this facility received a wounded President Kennedy, having been struck down by assassin’s bullets in Dealey Plaza minutes before. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the slaying of President Kennedy. Every year around this time books, magazines, TV specials and movies about Kennedy and the assassination spring up. Most of them are not worth our time and are produced to cash in on a seminal historic moment and a public yearning for closure. But Parkland feels different. It’s ernest and when the final images fade to black we feel we’ve seen a genuine attempt to help us understand just a little bit more.

Parkland is at its best in depicting the utter chaos experienced by the entire country, and world on that tragic day. No one was expecting this, and I mean no one. Kennedy was beloved and soared to celebrity, almost godlike status His demise was not even in anyone’s consideration set. He represented a turning point in modern American life.

Writer turned filmmaker Peter Landesman makes his directorial debut with Parkland. It’s an apt choice. Who better to take us through four of the most horrifying days in recent American history than a journalist. He is a stickler for details on every level. Landesman flawlessly directs the keen lens of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips and United 93) to deliver a shrewd mix of documentary style camera movement skillfully contained inside the framework of a taught drama. The film is based on the book Four Days in November by Vincent Bugliosi who shares the screenplay authorship with Mr. Landesman. There is no plot, only story. It lacks structure because all structure collapsed during those days. In other words. They nailed it.

The final product with a few exceptions is fine craft. Parkland strives to take a new approach on a topic that has been researched and debated beyond any single event in human history. Most of us think we know most of what transpired, but this film is told in a visual manner that makes us feel as if we are seeing it with fresh eyes. As the title foreshadows, we spend a lot of time inside Parkland’s trauma rooms. Most of the time they are a complete and utter mess. Residents, nurses, doctors, and a confused group of government workers struggle to do their individual jobs, all working for the same goal. To change what they know inside of them is going to be the inevitable outcome. No one summons superhero powers, and a modern day President is lost.

The cast consists of a collection of accomplished actors; Billy Bob Thornton, Paul GIamatti, Marcia Gay Harden, alongside some very strong players. Mr. Thornton (below, third from left) plays Forrest Sorrels, a veteran of the Secret Service and the guy in charge of protecting Kennedy. He is tough and experienced but must now make the transition from being a protection officer for the ultimate chief executive to an investigator of his murder. Sorrels works independently after the assassination, finding Zapruder and striking a bargain to ensure the precious film becomes evidence. Sorrels obviously feels a great sense of responsibility but only shows us once. While viewing the freshly developed footage someone in the room turns to him and says, “You blew it.” Sorrels explodes.

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Mr. Giamatti (above, left) plays Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas businessman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Giamatti’s portrayal is deeply emotional and in some ways feels he is being used, but cannot put his finger on who or what. Zapruder was like any of the hundreds of citizens that day. There to get a glimpse of the President. The only difference was he had a camera and therefore instantly became the nation’s memory in this unthinkable shakespearean tragedy. He didn’t ask for that part, but he accepted it and reacted thoughtfully and respectfully.

Marcia Gay Harden (below right) is Doris Nelson, head trauma nurse in Parkland’s emergency room. She’s a rock and goes about her business strictly by the book. Despite this tough veneer she makes the emotional rounds of her colleagues, taking careful interest in their well being. Her presence in the trauma room while attending to a gravely wounded President Kennedy demonstrates her strength and devotion to her trade. When Oswald arrives after having been shot by Jack Ruby two days after Kennedy, she redirects the speeding gurney away from Trauma Room 1 and proclaims, “No. He is not living or dying in there.” Oswald dies in Trauma Room 5, the same room Jack Ruby passed away in four years later. Clearly Parkland has some deep karma.

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Zac Efron (above left) takes the part of Dr. Charles ‘Jim’ Carrico, who drew the short straw that day by being the resident in the room. Carrico starts off the morning carefree, but the gravity of the day causes him to mature in record time. Essentially he is the leader of the treatment team and after a brief “oh shit” moment, he springs into action. He becomes the collective conscience of the entire country by refusing to give up on a flat lined Presidential heart.

The filmmakers liberally sprinkle subtle visual clues that punctuate the enormous pressure everyone was under. The trauma room scenes are filmed in super realistic style and are gritty and gruesome. When the doctors and nurses work on Kennedy they aren’t wearing gowns or masks. In fact the doctors take off their pristine white coats. When Oswald is delivered, everyone is in full mask, head coverings and surgical scrubs. It’s a disguise, not wanting to be recognized trying to save Oswald’s life.

The Secret Service team suddenly find themselves having to care for a deceased President Kennedy. All of their training has been devoted to keeping him alive, not what to do once he’s dead. They don’t panic, but they become more human and less robotic. As they wait for the President’s body on the plane they suddenly realize they don’t know where to put the casket. Hastily they remove two rows of seats so they don’t have to fly the President back to Washington in the cargo hold with the baggage. In removing the casket from the hearse they fumble it and break off one of the handles. While struggling to carry the coffin up the metal gangway to Air Force One they must turn the coffin sideways to fit through the passage way. When the turn is obviously too tight, a saw is used to cut the bulkhead. They are all in shock but remain focused on “taking care” of the President. This more than any other aspect of the film illustrates just how surreal that day was.

The film pays particular attention to the Owsald family. Jeremy Strong gives it a go as Lee Harvey Oswald, but we will never be able to accept any other portrayal except Gary Oldman’s gripping channeling of the real Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK. Not in a million years. But Lee’s brother, Robert (James Badge Dale), turns in a fine performance. He has an unhinged mother and an obviously confused brother, but he is successful in balancing out the overwhelming insanity. The filmmakers give extra screen time to Oswald’s funeral that requires the enlistment of the press as pall bearers. Everyone else has turned their back.

All of the technical aspects of this film are strong. This is an independent film which typically gets shorter shrift in some areas. The producers, which includes Tom Hanks, were able to secure top talent in key skill sets that matter most. Ackroyd’s handheld camera as mentioned above, plays it raw and in the moment. Interiors are rich and focused, while outdoor scenes are tight but well layered. The era choices are solid and believably transport the viewer back fifty years. James Newton Howard’s score uses percussion, drum beats, pianos and a somber cadence that rightfully fits the mood.

Highly recommended.

Podcast version of this review:

Furman on Film podcast library on iTunes

Photo Credit: Exclusive Media, The American Film Company and Playtone

Rush – Film Review

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Rush, Ron Howard’s latest film, explores the intense rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, two go for broke Formula 1 race car drivers who competed in the mid 1970’s. The filmmakers go to great lengths to seamlessly transport us back four decades, with careful crafting of  locations, costumes and hairstyles. There is attention paid to every detail right down to the period logos of the iconic sponsor brands. Making period films (sorry, but the ’70’s now qualify as a period) requires a unique eye and keen observation for the vibe of the time. Howard has had considerable practice. Apollo 13, probably his crown jewel, forced him back even further in time. Frost/Nixon, another of my favorite Howard films was also about two vastly different personalities playing a cat and mouse game with extremely high personal stakes.

Hunt is British and played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor). Hemsworth sculpts his portrayal of Hunt as a playboy who lives in the moment and that moment is always about one thing and one thing only; driving. His reputation makes it difficult for him to “find a ride” after his primary backer makes a major miscalculation in his initial foray into F1. Eventually Hunt is taken on by the McLaren racing team. We are only allowed a glimpse or two into Hunt’s more introspective side. While preparing for a race he holds the wheel while lying on his back beside his car and visualizes each turn, how he will shift and when to dart through a fresh opening.

Niki Lauda is played by Daniel Brühl, a seasoned actor from Germany. If Hunt is the playboy, Lauda is the perfectionist and deeply analytical. Serious drivers are married to their cars and in Luada’s case it’s beyond an obsession. He knows engineering, physics and the composition of raw materials that make up a quicker machine. During a scene where Lauda hitches a ride with his future bride he critiques her car. He is able to to observe the fan belt is loose and one of the tire is low on air. How? Through his butt. God gave him an ok mind and a brilliant butt. He can feel a car. For Niki, the car is a living organism.

To bring the cars to life, Howard hired cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) to go deep inside the back story. Mantle uses the equivalent of an electron microscope to penetrate the inner workings of an F1 car. Pistons flexing, torque bars shifting and tires blistering. He gives us an exploded view of the car being pushed to it’s limits.

Lauda’s superior car set-up and carefully calculated driving skills are rewarded with the most points on the F1 circuit. Hunt’s marriage dissolves but his desire to become world champion is emboldened. Lauda played the percentages. He was comfortable with a 20% risk, but no more. Hunt had no such scale and felt more risk mean higher reward. Not fame or money, but personal reward. More fuel for his hi-ocatane lifestyle.

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Archive photo of Niki Lauda’s 1976 crash

On August 1, 1976 in Germany, Lauda’s Ferrari was into the second lap when it hit the wall, drifted back into the center of the track and was struck by another driver. His Formula car burst into flames, exposing him to searing heat for over eight seconds. His injuries were serious. A singed right ear and eyelids. Loss of hair and scorched lungs. His motivation to return to the driver’s seat was provided by a successful Hunt  on the track. Hunt closed the points spread at an amazing pace, and so, Lauda made clear recovery decisions to get back to his ride. Repair my eyelids, yes. The scars on my head, I can wear a hat. And so he was back on the circuit well before anyone had expected.

My personal roots to cars and racing can be  traced back to my childhood. A close uncle drove on the high-banked, dirt oval circuit and my father and I followed him around  the midwest tracks until a crash ended his racing career. Another of my uncles was his mechanic and my father taught me how to perform nearly every maintenance necessary at that time to keep a car in tip top shape. Howard captures the primal aspects of speed, racing and competition.

The mid seventies was a time when sex was safe, but driving was dangerous. On the first day of my classroom driver’s education class my instructor proclaimed  following. “I want everyone to look at the person next to them. One of you will die in a car crash.” In those days you were shown the crash films like “Mechanized Death.” Real footage of the aftermath of a serious vehicular accident. There were no simulators then and you were taught driving game theory. Most roads were two lanes and you had to pass the Sunday drivers or it would take you all day to go anywhere.

When you’re passing someone and you see an unexpected oncoming car stick to this plan. Do not veer. The car coming toward you will steer to the right. The car next to you will steer to the right as well, opening up a window to move back into your lane. If for some reason that oncoming car doesn’t veer, then hit the accelerator. The slowest car loses.

Production is top notch all around. Special nod to Hans Zimmer and his soundtrack. It’s hard to compete with the roar of a gang of highly tuned race cars. But he moves past his  orchestration comfort zone and accepts the challenge to go hi-ocatane.

The official web site is basic. Surprise, surprise.

Photo Credits: Universal Studios

World War Z – Film Review

WWZ 2Before I went to see World War Z, I asked a number of people what they thought of the picture. The replies varied greatly from, “It’s not a real Zombie movie, they move too fast,” to the standard, “Read the book, it’ s much better.”  The trailer intrigued me but what really did the trick was the word world. I absolutely love films that involve the entirety of the planet. And so I went, alone.

Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a retired special investigator for the United Nations. He now lives a quiet life in Philadelphia making pancakes for his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters. Suddenly and without warning a typical big city traffic snarl is rocked with sirens, crashing trucks and people running madly around. From there things go downhill quickly and before you know it, Gerry’s old boss Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) is on the phone begging for him to get back in the game.

Some horrible virus or bacteria of some unknown origin causes humans to become the “undead.” Once turned, which only takes a handful of seconds after being bitten, they blindly take up their mission to bite non infected humans. turning them into “Zeaks.” A term used by a soldier who enjoys mowing them down. These Zombies are fast. No I mean really fast. The filmmakers deliver a jolt to your pulse as you watch the power of millions of human bodies united in a single purpose. It caused me to think what the human race could actually accomplish if we were many in body and one in mind. But despite being world class sprinters, they are really stupid. They can’t even open a door. Instead they try to smash through it with their heads. They stop at nothing and it’s become a real problem for the planet, quickly spreading throughout the world thanks to the over 70,000 commercial airline flights each day.

After some close calls, Lane and family are extracted to a U.N. ship in the north Atlantic. He is persuaded to accompany a doctor to South Korea to follow up on a lead that has come across in an email. On the plane the doctor gives what is the single best instance of dialog in the entire film. It’s a powerful foreshadowing that sticks with Lane. However, the mission doesn’t work out. While planning what to do next, Lane comes in contact with an ex-CIA agent (David Morse) who is behind bars for selling guns to North Korea. Somehow this man knows lots about the Zeak problem and points Lane to Jerusalem, where they seem to have a better handle on things. Or at least we think they do.

Massive scale pictures like this one usually rely on the zoom, cut and hand-held camera work. Images, usually CGI created, wash over us like a raging waterfall. The hero or superhero shows a human side but always summons the special power in the end to take down the bad guys. Not so in WWZ. Pitt is not a superhero. Actually he’s not even a hero. He plays the part of  a regular guy with some experience and a knack for knowing what to do when things go off book. He’s tough, but not powerful. I found his acting choice to be refreshing and added some measure of believability to an otherwise unbelievable story.

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Nearly all of the technical aspects of this picture are amazing. The visual effects, editing, special effects and make-up work together beautifully to make what we are watching seem real. Marc Forster’s direction is tight throughout. He is a master of pacing which in this film is no easy feat. The cinematography by Ben Seresin and an uncredited Robert Richardson is crisp and appropriately moody. Marco Beltrami’s score fits nicely into both the action and the more calmer scenes. The fast-moving Zombies make this more of a horror movie than the slow motion ones we have come to know and love. At least you could out run those guys. With the new and improved models we see here, no one stands a chance.

The film is pulled down considerably by the screenplay. A single person, Max Brooks, authored the book, but it took five people to write the script for WWZ and it shows. There are lot of things that don’t tie together from the very beginning and the ending is a failure. We are left with some hope, but completely adrift.

Audio Podcast of this Review: 

Photos: Paramount PIctures

Iron Man 3 – (3D) Film Review

StarkExactly when did we enter the film season of “Bleak House?” There’s Oblivion, White House Down, World War Z and even the latest Start Trek installment, Into Darkness which is well, dark. Apparently the screenwriters and studio heads in Hollywood need to double their anxiety meds. I know things are challenging in the real world, but really, we used to go to the movies to escape. Dystopia is the new black.

Which brings me to Iron Man 3. Tony Stark is back and he’s in serious mental transition. Pepper has officially  moved in and they live in a cliff hanging spaceship of a mansion. She’s running Stark Enterprises, while he tinkers to create the next breakthrough suit. The picture gets off to a slow start allowing Robert Downey Jr. to chew the scenery.

Stark is bored and has developed a case of insomnia. Nothing really exciting is going on, but fortunately something that Stark has done in the past comes back to bite him. He snubbed a geek at a December 31, 1999 party and decided to spend time instead with a beautiful scientist of a brunette. Note to Stark, “Geeks have long memories and hold deep grudges.”

In this case the geek is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). He has managed to reprogram human genetic code and turn humans into bombs. The ultimate drone. He partners with a not shy terrorist known to all as The Mandarin. Together they plan to take over the world. Yes I know, again. I wonder if one day that fool’s errand of a plan will actually be pulled off. Stark vows to stop him. Finally, something to do.

Although the picture is entertaining and is full of action, it was just too much Tony Downing, Jr. for me. The Avengers approach gave us Tony in more digestible chunks as opposed to having the Iron Man in nearly every frame. It’s tiring and despite all the effort of the filmmakers to give us something else to think about and watch, ultimately it fell well short.

There are some bright spots. Don Cheadle as Colonel James Rhodes, the fully sanctioned government Iron Man who hilariously flies around the world to foil plots based on wrong CIA evidence, and Ben Kingsley, playing an over the top role within a role as The Mandarin. Even Gwneyth Paltrow’s Pepper moves from behind the desk to field work.

It’s hard to argue against a Hollywood formula that takes in $337 million dollars in three weeks. There are more Iron Man films in the works, but I’d be happier if they put him in with the others more often.

The 3D choice was obviously produced and released to increase the ticket price. Nothing outstanding or unique in that effort. In fact I wished I’d seen it in the traditional experience. The film score was forgettable.

Official web site is an improvement to what we usually see. A single landing page with a nice, clear set of choices along the bottom that load quickly and keep you interested. Worth exploring.

Photo credit: Marvel and Paramount Pictures

Five Years on Twitter, or How I Spent 18.1 Days of my Life

Updated April 5, 2013. Some content previously published.

I’ve been using Twitter for five years. It’s amazing to see how much Twitter has changed over that time. Actually it’s only over the last 24 months or so that they have made significant leaps, with the first years serving as setting the foundation. Twitter is about interests and has content from individuals (mostly), but brands are beginning to use it effectively as well. There are about 450 million Tweets per day with over half of the members active on mobile devices. It’s worldwide and has played an important part in furthering the Arab spring. Can you imagine how the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. would have benefited if we had Twitter back in the ’60’s?

Twitter.com has undergone a redesign and is better, but it still falls short for me. I mostly use Osfoora on my iPad. It’s fast, easy to use and enjoyable. I’m not a Tweet Deck fan. On the iPhone I use the official Twitter app.

Here’s my Twitter take

(note some of this content has been repurposed from earlier posts about Twitter)

  1. Serves as a window into what’s going on in someone’s mind. These can run the emotional gambit from joy, disappointment and challenge, to triumph or simply stating a pet peeve. You are there with them as they experience it.
  2. Allows you to visualize what someone is doing at that moment, and one step further, what’s most meaningful to them about that moment. For instance, when someone Tweets that they are in a familiar restaurant enjoying a fine red wine and chatting with their spouse. It’s a rich picture that comes alive, especially when you know the couple and the restaurant.
  3. Can become the catalyst for later conversations. What were you guys talking about over dinner? What did you have? The wine? Etc.
  4. Provides the cadence of someone’s daily life. If they Tweet with regularity it’s a GPS of their thoughts as they navigate their day. They are turning left… right… now on a long straight track. You can sometimes watch them go off road.
  5. Is a rich digital network. In my unscientific study I have observed that Tweeple are generally early technology adopters, tend to be influencers, have fascinating jobs at leading companies and brands and generally love what they do. Of course some are just bored, which is to be expected with a media service with over 3 million channels. Surf past the noise.
  6. Keeps you in the know. Twitterers are constantly scanning the Internet for interesting and insightful ideas; including breaking news. Their Tweets are littered with tiny urls that lead you to a treasure trove of information and value hidden in the cloud. Great for impressing your friends and neighbors.
  7. Accelerates your knowledge. Tweets flow freely from user to user within the ever-growing social graph. Re-Tweeting, forwarding someone else’s Tweet, acts as an afterburner, further propelling that knowledge. A convergence of channels.
  8. Gets right to the point. After all you have to with only 140 characters. Short, sharp observations. Haven’t seen much Haiku though.
  9. Is entertaining. Some people broadcast on comedy central.

This is how I use Twitter

  1. Share my knowledge and experience I’ve collected over the years. I love solving problems and helping people solve problems. If I can give them a nugget or spark that advances their lives I’m thrilled. No great thought exists in a vacuum. If it’s a good idea then several people have it as well. If it’s a revolutionary idea then hundreds probably have it. It’s the universe’s way of improving the odds that great things reach the real world. Doing the work is much harder than having the idea, so share freely. when you share you get it back in large degrees.
  2. Learn from others much smarter than me. Of course not all smart people are on Twitter, and Twitter does not have only smart people. But it’s full of ideas and insights.
  3. Expand my network. All successful people are well connected. Who you know is critical. The smarter your connections the more power you have.

On May 1, 2011, it was announced that Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of Navy Seals in a compound inside Pakistan. The conversation on Twitter exploded.

I took a look at my Twitter bookmarks folder saved on my Safari browser today. Early on, when I earned of a new tool that leveraged Twitter feeds and users, I would check them out and if I found it useful I’d bookmark it. I have 56 bookmarks in that folder today. These days I hardly ever go back to this folder and pull one of them up. They might have been amusing at the time, but it’s only all about the content in the stream.

Time Investment

During those five years I have Tweeted 20,996 times. It takes me about 13 seconds to craft a Tweet, so here’s how it stacks up.

13 seconds x 20,996 Tweets = 272,948 seconds = 4,549 minutes = 75.8 hours = 3.1 days

Doesn’t seem too bad spread over 5 years. That’s the publishing part. Now for the incoming. I spend roughly 25 minutes per day reading (more like scanning) the river of Tweets. I do it on an array of devices; desktop computer, iPhone, iPad, and occasionally my TV screen, but that’s pretty much a pain in the butt, so I don’t do it often. My scan time is spread throughout the day at breakfast to mid-day, and late afternoon, with a break in the early evening so I can spend time with my son. Then comes my favorite time. Twitter After Dark. The night owls are out and many of them are under the influence. I make no judgements. It’s more fun and interesting, but not as professionally insightful. Out of 365 days a year, I’ll say that I check it 95% of the time, so that’s 347 days.

347 days x 5 years = 1,536 days x 25 minutes per day = 43,375 minutes = 722 hours = 30 days

Now to be fair, I’m scanning Twitter while doing something else, like surfing the web, participating in a webinar, attending a boring meeting, waiting in various lines and of course the all time favorite, driving (just kidding on that last one). So it’s not like I’m setting aside dedicated time for Twitter When I adjust for multi-tasking it comes out to.

30 days absorbing Tweets – 50% multi-task benefit = 15 days

Total days on Twitter over the past 5 years = 18.1

Eighteen point one days of my life over the past 1,825, is .9% of my time. Sleeping has taken up 365 days of my life over the same span of time, which works out to 33% of my life! Note to self. Next killer app wil enable me to Tweet while sleeping. Warren Zevon was definitely on to something.

I’ve made some good friends thanks to Twitter and it’s fascinating to observe how those relationships have progressed. Some of them move from Twitter to the off line world. Conferences, business meetings, even just passing through Chicago to pause for a drink or dinner. Others become Facebook friends and we have never met in person. I’m happy to say  that I’ve blocked only one person in the four years. Not a bad record.

Remembering Roger Ebert

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsAny lover of film my age was heavily influenced by what Roger Ebert wrote about the movies. He was not trained in film theory and started out his career as a journalist. You might say he was in the right place at the right time as the Chicago Sun-Times decided to anoint their first film critic. Ebert was already an accomplished individual and writer and in a way entrepreneur. He was more than up to the task and in no time developed his unique style of looking at and writing about movies. He played several roles; guide, interpreter, analyst and industry watchdog. No matter your education level or understanding of film as an art form, you could easily access his reviews and find something interesting, even unique. Oh yeah, one more, teacher.

His output was nothing short of amazing, watching movies everyday, most days more than one. He reviewed nearly 250 films per year for decades and despite being stricken with cancer, continued to be a film sponge. He was probably the best friend the movies ever had because he connected them to our society through the lens of culture. When you are that deep and long involved in an industry you become a historian as well. He connected the dots across decades, genres, actors, directors, even themes. If I was forced to select one word to describe him, I’d say, rare.

Like so many people, I followed him on Twitter and read his blog to ensure I kept my film mind sharp.

In 1984 he published the  first of his fifteen books called, A Kiss is Still a Kiss. It was s chronicle of the film beat with stories of stars and filmmakers up close and personal. You got to see how near industry people let him get to them and it no doubt helped shape his personal view of the business. It was a business/industry/art form he loved and because of that special relationship he freely criticized it when he felt it was needed.

Ebert Signature

Ebert personalized his first book for me

The 1980’s was the decade I ran a bookstore chain and we had a store in Champaign, IL. Ebert grew up in the neighboring town of Urbana and attended the University of Illinois. I read in Publisher’s Weekly that he was publishing his first book and immediately contacted his publicist and arranged for a book signing event in that store during one of his trips back to Champaign. In he came with no sense of entitlement or conceit. It wasn’t that long before that he won the Pulitzer Prize, but you’d never know it. He was jovial, relaxed and engaging. We spent a good half hour before the signing time in the stockroom of the store talking movies. His all time favorite was Citizen Kane, which I was a huge fan of as well. It was such a pleasure to have had that time with him and my mind and heart will sorely miss him.

Thank you Roger for allowing me to share decades of your life at the movies and I’m so happy that I can go back and pull any of your books off my shelf and indulge in my ongoing quest to learn more about the movies.

Audio Podcast of this post: 

Kiss Ebert book

Book dust jacket scan

ebert young interview facebook 650

From Roger Ebert’s Facebook Page. Interviewing Senator Estes Kefauver, Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956 for his Urbana, Illinois high school paper.

Photo of Ebert from The Chicago Sun-Times

Scan of A Kiss is still a Kiss from the collection of Steve A Furman

Washington, A Work in Progress

US Capitol

I spent last week in Washington D.C. This city used to be a frequent destination for me to visit museums, take in the architectural beauty and reflect on our history as a nation. This was however my first visit in nearly nine years and it was a very different trip as it involved my 8 year old son. We spent some time up front discussing the history and importance of the city and reviewed maps and photo books. When I got there it felt like I was visiting an old friend.

It’s not a perfect city nor a perfect democracy. We need to remember that our country is still a great experiment and there is still much to learn. I do worry that we are in danger of forgetting how to learn or work together for a greater good. We’ve created so much in such a short amount of time. We need to take the next steps, together.

There were people everywhere from all over the world this past week. They came eager to learn and excited for the opportunity. There’s a huge benefit to being a tourist. We don’t have to do the negotiation or the hard work of trying to support a base and stay true to what’s inside one’s heart.  I don’t envy their job, but they chose it and I do expect them to make progress for the nation at large.

One thing is obvious. Much of what our founding fathers did was correct. They knew they were creating something from scratch, but were wise enough to incorporate aspects of what was working across the world at large. The layout of the city. The thought that went into the decisions is probably the most impressive to me. So many things were consciously planned with deep meaning. Lady Liberty on the Capitol dome faces east, because the sun never sets on freedom. The cities’ main architect Pierre Charles L′Enfant is buried in Arlington Cemetery at the highest point so he can forever watch over his design. The streets were labeled based on the population of the states at the time. The most populous states got the longest streets.

The city has bones with a capital B. It’s a low city. Flat. Things happen close to the ground where the interaction is most personal. And nothing is more personal that one’s government.

All Photos: Steve A Furman with either an Olympus E-350 or my iPhone5.

SXSW – It’s About Your Brain

SXSW is not for cowards. You must do your homework before you go or you will wander around the halls of the Austin Convention Center and have little to show for it.

Two talks I attended on Saturday at SXSW 2013 continued the theme of trying to make sense of all that has happened these past few years in digital. We are bombarded with information and dis-information every second of every day. It’s exhilarating but exhausting at the same time. Getting a handle on all this is something we all wrestle with.

The Laws of Subtraction: Rules to Innovate By – Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May, author, blogger and founder of Edit Information talked about my favorite property of mathematics; subtraction. I consider myself an intrapreneur inside my firm, That is someone who has entrepreneurship in their DNA but chooses to work inside a large company. We are the ones who want to move fast and in an iterative fashion and want to simplify the complicated world of corporate America. We are viewed as different and push others to operate on the edges.

Mr. May is all about elegant design and delivering only what is necessary, perhaps even only what is essential. People who live in this world are keenly observant and frequently students of history. We like to say the old days were simpler but I disagree. Each time is as complex as the one before and the one that will come next. This is why we need to study the past and integrate it into the present.

To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom subtract things everyday.— Lao Tzu

May showed numerous examples of the simple. The arrow embedded in the FedEx logo, how comic book panels tell only part of the story, and some eye-mind tricks. He has boiled down his experience into Six Laws of Subtraction.

Laws of Subtraction

In many companies today there is a major piling on of ideas and insertions of rows in spreadsheets. When you ask people to solve a problem our minds immediately go to all the things that can be done or tried. This is the brainstorming period and is very useful but not efficient. From there it goes to what should or could be done. That’s prioritization. But we usually don’t subtract. Subtraction is scary because we are frightened that we might lose an idea. So instead we output a prioritized list, which is very, very long. This is not as helpful as it may seem. I’m going to publish his list to my staff on Monday.

Mr. May reminds us that our brains use different wires or pathways depending on whether we are adding or subtracting. He provides more support for how our minds can get caught up in irrational rituals and block out fresh thinking. This is why we need these reminders. The session description and link to Mr. May’s presentation can be found here.

The second talk addressed how our brain deals with creativity. We ply our cranium with large amounts external stimuli: caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, prescriptions drugs, perhaps even illicit drugs. But we don’t spend much time on feeding it creativity.

Your Brain on Creativity – Denise Jacobs

Ms. Jacobs is a web designer and consultant who obviously lives in the C (creative ) world. She won my attention when she dismissed multi-tasking as something that is harmful, not helpful. She went so far as to say that multitasking is bad for creativity on a neurological level. Science! Only the very few can genuinely multitask. For the rest of us it’s called distraction. Single-tasking is the way to go to advance our ability to absorb, understand and create. Her slides traversed neurology, culture and relaxation techniques.

Relaxed Brain Waves

Something she said really struck me. “Creativity is an internal job.” Yes it is. We have a personal responsibility to nurture our own creativity. To consciously place our bodies and minds in the proper space, both physically and mentally. We need to work at this. It’s not always obvious, but it’s critical to our advancement on many levels. She made it clear that one needs to do this for business success and personal peace of mind. They are intertwined, not separate. The left and right sides of our brain are quite different. Balancing them is important for our well being, and particularly for our ability to be creative.

One of the unique benefits of SXSW is you can find yourself sitting in exactly the right place at the right time. Serendipity is one of the great inconspicuous benefits of attending  SXSW.

SXSW – Digital’s Dark Side

ATT8M0Y3UPDATE March 30, 2013 Video embedded below

On day two I entered a Hilton meeting room to listen to John Hagel‘s talk, Moving Story to Narrative. Mr. Hagel is Co-Chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, a practice that helps senior executives and brands better understand and benefit from emerging opportunities and new technologies. His distinguished career spans 30 years of experience as a consultant, author and founder of start-ups.

As mentioned in my first SXSW 2013 post, stories and storytelling were a consistent thread through lots of sessions. Mr. Hagel kind of turned it all upside down very quickly. His focus was on us, each of us as individuals who are living in the digital age, but specifically those of us who are also working in it daily.

What follows are my notes from his talk. I sprinkle my thoughts and observations inside of his, but the concepts belong to Mr. Hagel.

He got my attention right out of the gate when he rightly called out today’s “mounting performance pressure” environment. We are trying to do more and need to do it faster which causes us to re affix our gaze on the short term and think less about long term horizons. Corporate America is obsessed with the second to second stock price and very opportunistic based. The higher you are in the organization the shorter your time horizon tolerance is for measured improvement.

This is how I categorize senior executives thinking to help me understand their perspective.

  • The Chairman is looking to make the day
  • The President is looking to make the week
  • The CMO is looking to make the month
  • The Vice President is looking make the quarter
  • The Director is left with everything else

Mr. Hagel points out that we still have a finite set of resources and prioritization processes that mean we have to play a zero sum game. If my project gets assigned resources and yours doesn’t we have a winner and a loser. This causes us to look at shorter time horizons as oftentimes firms won’t even consider projects that are a year or more in length. Lean practices and iterative development are pointed to as models for how we should bring things to market. Shorter time frames and benefits that are realized much sooner.

He calls this the Dark Side of Digital. It’s a long term shift and it will stress us out. It’ not a fad or in our imagination, it is very real and it’s her to stay. Preparing for this new normal is important, but how do we prepare? The times we live in today converge and disrupt so quickly that we cannot predict what will be impacted downstream and to what degree. This uncertainly adds to the stress. This will not lead to good things.

Moving from the simple story with a beginning, middle and end to a narrative which is more open ended is what Mr. Hagel seems to be suggesting. Stories are about other things and other people, while a narrative is closer to the core of who we are. The things we think and do when no one else is around. He suggests we ask ourselves three questions.

  • Why are we here?
  • What can we accomplish while we’re here?
  • How do we connect with each other to accomplish something?

Put some real thought to these questions. The digital world allows us to discover, curate, connect and collaborate on a scale in an unprecedented manner. It’s the opposite of pressure; it’s opportunity. Answering these questions for yourself and your brand is critical for our digital and personal survival. It will cause us to contribute and participate in a process that unpacks knowledge over the course of time. He used Apple’s Think Different campaign to illustrate an important point. Think Different was in a way a slogan, and a slogan is not a narrative. But what it did do brilliantly, was to crystalize the narrative that Steve Jobs and Apple wanted to build for. The Think Different campaign did not show Apple products or talk about services. They showed icons that thought different. Don’t make it about your brand or leave it to your PR department to craft it.

 

Creating narratives in this way are very powerful ways to connect with consumers and draw them in. To allow them to, even if it is briefly, create their own narrative, which can nudge someone to trial or engagement. The Google search ads don’t talk about ad words or pay per click or SEO. They show how a father can record the un-reliveable moments of his daughter that can be shared at any time and reassures him that he will never lose those moments.

Small moves made smartly can set big things in motion — John Hagel

He talked about two kinds of narratives, opportunity-based narratives and threat-based narratives. Opportunity-based narratives allows us to magnify the reward side. What is it’s worth to us and our business? It breeds a positive mindset and is a magnet for collaboration. It’s much easier to take risks and invest in the long term. In contrast threat-based narratives makes us feel we are always under attack. Instead of coming together to create we do it for protection; to deal with that threat. We are trying to not lose something.

Narratives provide a form of stability. We have something to hold on to and they help us focus on what’s important. He encourages to make them explicit but explore many types of narratives and to be prepared to shift if necessary. Passion is also important. Be passionate. He stated that passionate workers tend to be twice as connected as those who are not passionate.

As he closed out his talk he mentioned zooming in and zooming out. Ideally we should think and act on two different narratives at the same time. Zooming in are the short term benefits and are probably more monetary based. Zooming out takes into account the longer time horizon and demonstrates how it can positively impact outcomes and people at scale.

A thoughtful, but perhaps cautionary talk.

Photo Credit: Jay Bryant of LiveWorld, Inc.

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