My 2017 Oscar Picks

Ladies and gentlemen, the post you’ve all been waiting for. My picks to win the 89th Academy Awards. This year’s nominees gives us hope that the Academy has at least made some effort to look across the wonderful diversity that makes up the filmmaking community. The Academy released a list of 683 new members last year, which is a record. It’s encouraging to see 46% are female and 41% are nonwhite from 59 different countries. There were also a small number of members who were transferred to “emeritus” status. Without the further wasting of pixels, here are the picks.

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Hidden Figures is worthy for uncovering an amazing piece of history. It was important for NASA and for the history of on way in which African Americans have advanced our country. Throw in the fact that they’re women and you’ve got something very powerful. I wish the filmmakers had a bigger budget (estimate $25 million) that would have allowed them to up the production value and perhaps expand their impact.

Moonlight is the other film that should worry La La La Land, with it’s ground zero approach and quiet choices. The arc of this story is very long and the main character evolves across three different actors. The way this film is presented might look simplistic but simple it is not. This film takes it’s time for a reason and could sneak in.

Arrival is my favorite among the nominees. It’s a story of time, memory and language. The main character, Louise (Amy Adams) knows what’s going to happen in the future. Not everything but some things for sure. She uses her training in linguistics to communicate with beings who visit earth and the two become entwined in a fascinating personal story.

Fences is non-stop. A theatrical performance, but this time your vantage point is not Row E, Seat 17. We get to see inside these characters. What motivates them, enrages them, satisfies them. Once you have the script for a film like this, you need talent to deliver. Denzel Washington, who also directed, is a national treasure.

Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of WWII conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, who wound up in the bloody battle over the island of Okinawa. He selflessly saved over 70 men without ever touching a gun. The back story is business as usual, but the battle scenes are almost in a class on their own. We begin to understand at least a little, Doss’s vow and struggle to succeed.

Hell or High Water evokes many films and combines a number of genres but manages to carve out it’s own brand. Texas brothers need to pay off the ranch and set out to rob banks until they have enough to meet the reverse mortgage debt taken out by their mother. It’s smart and solid with a twist of sticking it to the banks.

Manchester by the Sea has so much to offer. Script, performances, humor, tragedy and yes hope. It starts where it ends, on the sea. A story about what draws people, the workings of their soul and what happens when those workings break.

Lion, another true story, tracks the life of a young Indian boy from the time he becomes misplaced by chance to a new and full life a continent away with adopted parents. Both the adopted family and the parents that lost him are on constant guard. One side always hoping, the other always wondering.

The La La Land factor may be too much for the other films to overcome. Good musicals are rare and beloved by the Academy. Mia and Sebastian have dreams, then they find each other. First by fate on a crowded Los Angeles freeway, then through relentless pursuit by each. Their relationship leads them to the dream they cannot achieve together.

Pick: La La Land

Actor in a Leading Role

caseyTough category. From a purely acting perspective I would rank them in the following order; Casey Affleck, Denzel Washington, Viggo Mortensen, Ryan Gosling and Andrew Garfield. Casey has a dark cloud over him offscreen which could cause a problem. Denzel’s performance is the powerful remaking of a stage play, beautifully transformed to fit the screen. Viggo is surrounded by a bunch of kids in the wild. A bit unorthodox but he has definitely reached back to his Aragon character for inspiration. Ryan, well he’s Ryan. Andrew is the story in the vehicle picture Hacksaw Ridge. I preferred him in Scorsese’s epic and overlooked picture Silence.

Pick: Casey Affleck

Actress in a Leading Role

emma-rightFirst I have to get something off my chest. The fact that Annette Bening didn’t receive a nomination for her amazing portrayal of Dorothea in the time capsule of a film 20th Century Women is at least a misdemeanorNow back to the post. Natalie Portman brought a new perspective to a subject that has been examined to no ends in Jackie. It was obvious she did her homework and was up to the courage it must have taken to play such an iconic persona. Great work. The picture Loving shares a high level theme with Hidden Figures, Fences and perhaps even Moonlight. Ruth Negga gives a tour de force performance as the wife of a white man who’s love is so strong it rises to the Supreme Court. Isabelle Huppert is delicious and mysterious and has been one of my favorites for many years. But the film is in French, so maybe not. Then there’s Meryl Streep. Nothing more needs to be said. But I don’t think it’s her year. That leaves us with a darling of the Academy, Emma Stone. In La La Land she showed more range and what sold me was her ability to be hopeful and defeated at the same time.

Pick: Emma Stone

Actor in a Supporting Role

maThis one is not so hard. Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water was great, but he was Jeff. He’s so good that I expect him to excel. Lucas Hedges as the lost teenager in Manchester by the Sea was asked to pull off a difficult character and did it beautifully. He was funny and desperate and, well a 16 year old. Dev Patel was amazing as the adult lost soul in Lion. But the real art performance was turned in by Mahershala Ali in Moonlight. Calm on the outside but you know he’s a steeping pot. Although his character took a few wrong turns, we see a coach and perhaps even a mentor in his surprisingly tender approach to a young boy. His choices are careful and measured, putting aside the chaos that surround his current profession and environment.

Pick: Mahershala Ali

Actress in a Supporting Role

oliviaNaome Harris in Moonlight. Amazing performance of a woman trapped in a personal prison without bars, but unable to escape. Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures. Smart, driven and won’t take no for an answer. When she had enough she took it to the next level and when at along last was given the stage, she owned it. Nicole Kidman in Lion as the mother who adopts two children from India and takes it all the way to the end once she finds out what her adopted first son really needed. Michelle Williams is the heartbroken wife in Manchester by the Sea. Despite her short screen time, Ms. Williams stands up to tragedy that could be beyond recovery and takes the next steps. Lastly Viola Davis is the wife in Fences. She stole the show in my opinion. In scene after scene she stands out with strength and valor. Pride is important, but her inner compass allows her to ensure her conscious and heart will forever be in order. She does all this without ever forgetting her responsibility as the pillar of the family.

Pick: Viloa Davis

Original Screenplay

When you decide to write a script you always start from scratch. Certainly life experiences and artistic influences provide inspiration, but in the end it’s the writer, alone, that chooses how to string together the words. All five of this year’s nominees for original screenplay are stand outs. The top two for their power and weight are 20th Century Women by Mike Mills and Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan. Both weave numerous complex characters through a maze of personal emotions and cultural circumstances. Mr. Mills perfectly captures a time and place. A single mother in the ’70’s is bringing up a son at the same time the country is in the midst of cataclysmic shift on how it views women. Mr. Lonegran drops us into a family minefield. It’s full of seminal moments that never go away and we are always wondering how the characters will respond. Of course there’s La La Land by wunderkind Damien Chazelle. It’s less a script and more of a visual score with lyrics. An amazing piece or work that sets the entire experience in motion. Lastly we have Lobster, which I would categorize as a species unto itself.

Pick: Richard Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea

Adapted Screenplay

Arrival (Eric Heisserer based on a story by Ted Chiang) avoids the bent on destruction visiting aliens and instead turns it into an intergalactic story of compassion and a study of time that may hold the secret of our survival. Fences (August Wilson, based on his play) boils down a broad cultural macrocosm into a local microcosm of the lives of a family and the strong personas of a husband and wife. Hidden Figures (Allison Schroder and Theodore Melfi)  lets us in on a piece of history that reminds us how easy it is to cover things up. Lion (Luke Davies from the book by Saroo Brierley) spans two continents and beautifully exploring the powerful themes of choice, assimilation, chance and search. and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins from a story by Carell Alvin McCraney) outline the essentials of three acts in the lifetime of an African American growing up in the slums of Miami.

Pick: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight

Cinematography

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The usual suspects are represented. Arrival, Fences, Hidden Figures and Lion. The fifth nominee is Silence, Martin Scorsese’s personal campaign into faith. The look of this picture is lush, textured with the quality of a fine oil painting. By far the best work done by Rodrigo Prieto out in the wilderness under stark weather and light conditions, this effort easily exceeds all others.

Pick: Rodrigo Pireto for Silence

Score

Scores the year were a nice mix and I enjoyed listening to them well after I had seen the films. The soundtrack for Hollywood’s favorite, La La Land (Various Artists)is energetic, but mostly I only remember City of Stars. The work done for Jackie (Marci Levi) was deeply sonic and captured the gravity of those few weeks after the assassination of JFK. A personal, singular statement on the widow and mother. Passengers (Thomas Newman) is intriguing and helps the film hang onto it’s mysterious qualities. With no less than twenty-six tracks Mr. Newman tries to keep up with the speed of their spaceship Avalon. Moonlight (Nicholas Britell) draws on a collection of works in order to cover the significant passage of time, and like La La Land, the music is as much inside the movie as outside of it. Lion (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka) add to this picture’s story in a very special way. It’s the closest to a classic score as we have this year and I think that without it the film would be significantly diminished. My pick is off book, but here goes.

Pick: Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka for Lion

Film Editing

This category is either obvious or too close to call. This year it’s the latter. Arrival (Joe Walker), Hell or High Water (Jake Roberts), La La Land (Tom cross), and Moonlight (Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders) are all so very well cut. Each required a different strategy to help the Director bring to the final vision. The one that stood out because of it’s sheer size and scope was Hacksaw Ridge (John Gilbert). The battle scenes alone was worth an individual achievement.

Pick: John Gilbert for Hacksaw Ridge

Costume Design

Space, WWII, the streets of African American neighborhoods in Miami, and an activist wizard from England visiting New York on his way to Arizona provided great challenges to the seamstress artists this year. My pick is made based on the need for variety, an adherence to an undefined period as well as making it all look really cool.

Pick: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Documentary Feature

This category doesn’t ever get much attention. The art of the documentary is lost on the majority of moviegoers in the United States. I fear that it might become more obscure as production costs drop and video technology becomes easier to use. That coupled with the rise of streaming services could marginalize this genre even further. I was riveted by Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. A tale of culture that cuts through race, sports, fame and money. Worth a look from end to end despite it’s 467 minute running time.

Pick: O.J.: Made in America

Animated Feature

My favorite was Kubo and the Two Strings. Mystical, unique with just the right amount of peril. Moana is a close second. I always love the strong girl figures who hold their own against all odds. But I think this year they’re gonna give it to the bunnies.

Pick: Zootopia

Director

A film’s Director is it’s visionary. The steward, project manager, father, soul and so much more. Without him or her, there is no compelling story even if the village of people behind it do their jobs amazingly well. This year’s offerings tell subtle stories. Their narratives are in some cases based on truth but all are fresh tellings of the human condition.

The nominees are Damien Chazelle for La La Land. Mel Gibson, welcomed back into the tribe for Hacksaw Ridge. Barry Jenkins for Moonlight. Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea and Denis Villeneuve for Arrival.

Pick: Damien Chazelle for La La Land

 

 

Social Media – Nine Years In

Nine years ago this evening I sent my first Tweet. I believe this was after I joined Facebook, but it’s all a blur. For years I was energized by the small pipe platform of Twitter. I saw it as a way to connect with people all over the globe. A platform to learn, gain knowledge and better understand the world. I viewed Facebook as a convenient way to share and connect. I didn’t think Facebook was as pure as Twitter, and I still don’t. Facebook has always been burdened with; should I friend them? Why are they friending me? What about my boss or direct report? So much cognitive weight.

How did that work out? Social media, led by Twitter and the largest thing in the world, Facebook, have become the opposite of connectedness. Facebook and Twitter separate, segment and quarantine people.

Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.

Houston, we have a problem.

  • Power – Opinions are frequently weaponized.
  • Open and Connected – Anyone can say or post anything, including their suicide.
  • Connect with Friends and Family – I’d love to see the real stats on this. For the most part, Facebooks tries to connect you to complete strangers or companies because they can profit from it.
  • Discover What’s Going on in the World – Facebook is it’s own reality. A planet Twilo. Keep your oxygen tank filled.
  • Share and Express – Totally nailed it. Bring it on.

I’m listening to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s soundtrack to The Social Network (so brilliant) as I write this. All the while realizing the genesis of social media (losing the caps) is nothing new. I grew up in the ’60’s and I know what a revolution looks like. We stated, “The revolution will be televised.” Today the revolution is fractured. Hamilton has resonated precisely because it repurposed a timeless message. The brilliance of Hamilton shows us nothing has changed.

Silicon Valley thinks only of the future. Of what the next world could / should be. To that I say hooray. But don’t leave behind the foundation that gave you this privilege. Being able to express an opinion is a privilege, not a DIGITAL RIGHT. Rights are fought for, they can’t be coded. Silicon Valley is fighting mostly for profits.

Time is the ultimate teacher. The final arbiter. How much time do you have or are willing to spend in the world of bits? How much time will you spend in the world of atoms with your family and friends without a wall of code between you? Social media is a force multiplier. The question is, of what?

Amazon Prime makes my life easier because it delivers atoms to my doorstep. Things I use, need, and yes, indulge in. That’s worth my time.

Notation: I embrace technology on all levels. I am pre tech-innate. I am suspicious when opinion coupled with technology is peddled for absolute truth.

EVEN THE RAREST OF SOULS MUST STOP AND REST

oneta-sepia-toneOneta Fay Furman: April 11, 1919 to January 21, 2017. At 97 one knows that day is inevitable and possibly close. I wasn’t prepared. There have been many words used over the decades to describe my mother. Kind, caring, thoughtful, strong, energetic. All true. The word I always saved for her was “rare.” She was a rare soul. Life incarnate. Smiling. Always thinking of others. Always doing for others.

One of seven children, Oneta grew up on a farm in central Illinois. I enjoyed my uncles and aunts so very much, but as one of the youngest offspring I found myself always having to catch-up to my cousins. She lost her life partner, Oscar Furman in 1992. She watched all her siblings save one, pass away ahead of her. Now there is a lone Marsh remaining; her sister Marguerite, who turns 100 this April.

The life Oneta lived was completely transformed over and over. Witness to the great depression, WWII, countless presidential campaigns (we always voted. Always). Immediately after Pearl Harbor, she moved to San Diego to work for Consolidated Aircraft as part of the war effort. She was not one to let an opportunity slip by.

Oneta was always focused on her family and her faith. As the saying goes, “Goodness by the inch invites evil by the yard.” And so, she had to face something that is the hardest thing for any parent; the loss of a child. We lost Janet (age 21) in 1970. Her strength during that trying chapter was a classic example of her character. We all made it because of her. Because she showed us how to make.

She taught me through her behavior first and foremost. Thanks to her I don’t have a racial bone in my body, although she, and my father were from a generation that had to work hard at it. Oneta showed me that one should be honest, hard-working, care for others and do the right thing. All the while making it look effortless. But of course, I know it wasn’t. I know I fail at this every day, but I wake up and try again.

I would ask her repeatedly through her 70’s, 80’s and eventually 90’s; what keeps you going? It was always a two-word answer, “I’m happy.” Then she would say, “We have a choice. Why wouldn’t one choose happiness?”

I notice that it’s a little less bright out there now. Her smile was a bright glow in the sweep of the galaxy. It’s out now. But it will return.

 

Jackie – Portrait in Distress

jackie-posterThe decision to make Jackie was a risky one. Millions of people have strongly engrained beliefs of that famous first lady, while millions more have little to no connection at all to her or what happened on November 22, 1963. But the topic of Camelot and Kennedy royalty cannot be visited enough, and so we have the film Jackie. Noah Oppenheim wrote the detailed script and a talented filmmaker from Chile, Pablo Larraín, who had no first hand experience with that slice of history was asked to direct.

Making a film is a collaborative process. Hundreds of talented people work to tell the story through their own craft. No different here, but this film truly belongs to Mr. Oppenheim, Mr. Larraín and Natalie Portman.

This is not a biopic. It’s the story of a mother. A mother of two children who also became the mother of a mourning country, thrust into that role by the untimely death of her husband and President of the United States. When you lose a president in office you also lose, in a way, a father.

The script is often highly prescriptive, providing not only exceptional dialogue but also a blueprint for the director in the way of visuals, editing and at times even the sounds.

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The directing decisions Mr. Larraín makes are frequently up close and more than you may be prepared for by the last reel. We see Jackie filmed head on, face filling the frame. She is confronting the tragedy and doesn’t blink. Only in the presence of her trusted assistant does she drop her guard, a signal that she is looking for a reassuring word or helpful guidance. The filmmakers are dealing with emotional, global history as the entire picture takes place in the days following the assassination. No matter how Mr. Larraín decides to use his camera, it’s Ms. Portman who ultimately forges the feel.

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Ms. Portman obviously poured herself into research to prepare for this challenging role. I was most struck by how she used her voice and accent to communicate the emotional toll that Jackie must have been feeling. She takes control of the funeral arrangements, modeling it after President Lincoln’s. The talk with her priest while walking through a quite preserves gives us an important piece to her puzzle. I came away with a new understanding of her and the Kennedy’s. Quite something to say for someone who has studied that chapter extensively.

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We see the story solely and completely from her perspective. Jackie kept in the background during President Kennedy’s term and so the country did not see this other persona. The one that must have emerged during these tragic weeks. The first persona was on public display. The second, at least as told in the film, was more forceful and questioning. Ms. Portman gives us searing deep dive into the second Jackie.

Right after the assassination Jackie read what was being written about her husband and was displeased. She summoned a famous journalist, Theodore H. White (not identified in the film) to set the record straight. Billy Crudup plays the journalist and challenges her perspective by carefully asking key questions. The film largely plays back and forth between these interactions and the surreal events of the killing.

In case you’re wondering, the filmmakers do include shots of the actual assassination. This is necessary as it’s the catalyst for everything else that happens in the film. I have never seen these few short moments handled in such a way. Largely from above in drone-like perspective, swooping into the limousine and zooming in on Jackie’s lap. I always marvel when a director can turn out a visual treatment of something all of us have seen over and over and make it completely new.

Mica Levi’s minimal and haunting score might be a bit of an overreach in the sadness category. The tenth track, Vanity, goes deep inside the character’s mind. Someone who puts a high priority on her physical appearance suddenly finds herself being dragged down by something evil. Someone, a nobody, has ended the shining light of her John.

 

Technical aspects of the film are solid. Weaving in special effects to recreate the fuzziness we witnessed on black and white television was highly effective.

It’s been nearly impossible for this country to shake off what happened in Dallas, which is what I believe this film is all about. Highly recommended for discerning fans of serious cinema.

 

Related Post: Parkland – Film Review

Moonlight

moonlight-1Moonlight, a film by Barry Jenkins, is a deeply moving, personal and challenging 111 minutes. Mr. Jenkins’ screenplay is based on the story “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, might just be the biggest small film I’ve ever seen. It carefully and painfully captures the life-arc of a black man struggling to find his place in a world that is in no way made for him.

Picture is framed in three acts, and titled as such on-screen. In the first act we are introduced to a boy who is dubbed Little by a fellow grade-schooler. He has a drug addict mother, no father in sight and lives in a tough Miami neighborhood housing project. He’s on his own most of the time, pushing through the difficult days and nights. Juan, a local drug dealer sees him and tries to help, but Little has few words. Mahershala Ali plays Juan, delivering a masterful performance as a man with two sides. One street tough the other tender and understanding. He unlocks something in Little’s soul. Plants a seed that will sprout later in the film.

In act two Little has grown into high school and becomes Chiron. We’re thrust into a more frightening world than before. Chiron does not dress like the others but carves out a semblance of a friend in Kevin who is used against him by the bullies in a violent way. Chiron has hit his breaking point and a single act changes the course of his life forever.

Chiron’s mother, Paula, is played by Naomie Harris. She delivers a combustible performance that is enhanced by Mr. Jenkins’ choice in framing and at times, silencing her dialog. One of the most impressive things about Moonlight is the quality and consistency of the acting. Role after role, actor after actor the characters are laid bare and the audience is drawn in; transported from spectator to witness.

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In the final act we meet Black (Trevante Rhodes). Grown now. Changed but still on a difficult journey. He has had time to ponder the past. In some ways he learns, in others he falls victim. Eventually Black catches up to his past.

The craft of Moonlight coupled with the amazing performances reminded me of Spike Lee; especially Do the Right Thing. The camera revolves to cover the story. We get dozens of perspectives and strong angles, but when necessary, it holds still, capturing the moments of truth, allowing us to process how far we as a culture and country have to go.

Soundtrack on Spotify.

Arrival – What is Your Purpose on Earth?

arrival 2.jpgIt’s always a tough decision. Do I buy a ticket to yet another dystopian, futuristic, science fiction bleak house of a film? Last year I bought one for Ex Machina, which caught me by complete surprise. Armed with that memory I decided to take a chance on Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.

The carefully crafted screenplay by Eric Heisserer is based on Ted Chaing’s vignette, Story of Your Life, published in 1998 and winner of several prestigious writing awards. Mr. Heisserer spent years going studio door to studio door, reworking the script at each turn. It was finally picked-up by 21 Laps Entertainment. Good call ladies and gentlemen.

Arrival stars the always cerebral Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a world renowned linguistics expert who, thanks to a hypnotic opening sequence appears to be damaged goods. She teaches at a university and is annoyed at how on this particular morning the cell phones of her students keep interrupting her class plan. All for good reason. Twelve bean-shaped massive crafts have descended from space and are hovering just above ground across the globe.

In short order, Colonel Weber, played with earnest calm by Forrest Whitaker, shows up in Dr. Bank’s office on campus with a recording of the voices from the beings inside those beans. She’s recruited along with Dr. Ian Donnelley (Jeremey Renner) a scientist, to enter the craft and try to communicate with the heptapods, labeled for each having seven legs.

Most of the film is about the process of trying to record and decode the heptapods, named Abbott and Costello by Dr. Donnelley. It is a arduous process that requires patience. Something the politicians and military leaders don’t have. The filmmakers inject bursts of how the other eleven sites are progressing around the world, as well as military-political aspects are influencing the mission.

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Predictable world chaos ensues. People panic. The military overreaches. Countries collaborate at first, but over time mutual distrust causes them to drop off the grid, keeping their growing lakes of data for themselves. As if that will save their way of life, while others are eliminated by the current disruptors.

Despite all those side stories the filmmakers need to deal with, they make ample time for the real stuff. Arrival is about learning, communication and above all understanding. Dr. Banks insists on focusing on the the basics to build vocabulary and understand syntax to avoid dangerous confusion later on. She and Ian work together and slowly decode the heptapod’s language and begin to hold primitive dialogue. Mr. Heisserer’s script demonstrates her reasoning.

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Her persistence and instinct is recognized by Colonel Weber, who allows her the space she needs to make a connection. Over time she removes her hazmat suit and lets them see what she really is.

The most interesting scenes in the film involve Dr. Banks’ encounters with the heptapods. She is able to show them she’s serious and respects them. Their speech is meaningless, but when they write, it’s art, poetry and meaning integrated in circular symbols. We realize that all new things require building blocks. The present cannot understand the future without them. In a way, Arrival is a parent / child relationship story. The heptapods and humans play both roles in order to make the connection and understand each other’s basic objectives.

Watching Arrival propelled me back to many other films that fall into this category. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. All thee films explored this fascinating and important theme of being an earthling in a world where there are non-earthlings. What if we’re not alone and what would happen when we found out we weren’t?

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Arrival takes it a step further by intertwining the heptapods with the psyche of Dr. Banks, who has unusual powers of intuition for a human. Those gifts (or not) led her to make some decisions in her life which cast her into an relentless unhappiness. In the end she finds her compass and so do the heptapods. Each of their missions can be considered, for now at least, a success. It’s only the beginning.

The technical aspects of this picture are excellent. Ms. Adams stands out for her courage and ability to manage this overwhelming situation. The soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson is hard to listen to outside the context of the images of the film. Works on screen, but is a bit repetitious.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s original score can be heard on Spotify.

 

I would recommend this picture not only for its cinematic craftsmanship but as a reminder that we live in a vast and mysterious universe. It helped me move beyond the hype-moments we see today.

Magic and Loss – Book Notes

magic-and-loss-9781439191705_hr.jpgVirginia Heffernan has calmly gone about her business observing, creating and now taking us beyond the veil of media.  Magic and Loss is an autobiography of the internet. We may have found our internet incarnate.

When you scan the contents you see a simple line-up. Design, Text, Images, Video, Music and something called Even if You Don’t Believe in It. You think to yourself, self, this is going to be a breeze. Then you start reading. OMG.

Ms. Heffernan fills 242 pages with one reference after another. All artfully placed as proof that what she writes is truth. She shows us the internet is more culture than technology. In fact she posits technology takes second chair to society as well as history. That the internet is the Star Trek transporter we wished for but no longer need.

Two sages in particular came to mind while reading Magic and Loss. Sherry Turkle with her watershed Life on the Screen. Marshall McLuhan, who envisioned the internet and then encapsulated it on paper, because that was the only tool he had. The comparison I make is one of immersion. Of mastery of a domain and the ability to record it. The act of writing it down differentiates itself from experience.

DESIGN

Once you enter the labyrinth there is really no way out. It’s like turning on the camera once a scene has started and turning it off before it ends. You get a compelling snippet but no context, and you don’t care. Design on the internet is all over the place. No one knows what it should or could be. In this section she tells us stories about what people did to evolve what we saw online. That was design. It was made up on the fly. Bitmaps, languages, cognitive orientation.

TEXT

“The history of digitization is the history of reading.” Text matters, but writing matters more. None of it matters unless someone reads. Reading on the internet is oddly much harder. She talks about how the internet denies us a break. We don’t get white space or a respite from the tsunami of information. She observes that, “Americans read with highlighters.” Information is what we’re after so we can sound important and knowledgable. Then she fell in love with the Kindle. Regardless, we are always reading. Reading is everything. The internet has, in my opinion, disrupted the ritual of reading with videos, graphics, maps, images, music. We have a new reading paradigm. I’m still adjusting. Ms. Heffernan points out that the brilliance of Confucius almost never exceeded 140 characters. That Twitter got so much right. The poetry of the internet.

IMAGES

The tapping or words. “The Blackberry was a literate device.” It turned us into heads down mops who couldn’t wait to read or type (that keyboard was so good) a reply. Ms. Heffernan reminds us that the iPhone changed words and took advantage of “symbolic communication.” Then came Flickr, Pinterest, Vine, Snapchat and Instagram. She closes this chapter by telling us our now ubiquitous camera is for capturing our personal moments. There is no time lag between shutter snap and image viewing. We see it. We capture it. We are.

VIDEO

In this chapter we are taken from the first YouTube video post through the golden age of television, which apparently was not all that golden. “It was a colossal waste of time.” I don’t agree. I always scheduled my TV time carefully and for many years in the 1970’s I didn’t even own a television. A long time ago in my mailbox was discovered a Nielsen TV ratings diary. It contained a crisp, new one dollar bill and an ernest note that told me the future depended on me (the fools). They asked me to fill in my viewing behavior each day for seven days. I was so proud to send it back completely blank. I kept the dollar.

This chapter is potentially a turning point in the book. Her choice to place video ahead of music puzzles me. I would say that more has taken place in video than music. We now regularly attend 3D movies and Virtual Reality (Oculus) is potentially a powerful spark to something really accessible. But, are these part of the internet?

MUSIC

She loved her iPod, as did I. I still keep my iPod fully charged and filled with over 12,000 songs. From my cold dead hands will it ever be separated from me. Music continues to be the rhythm of my life. It’s everywhere. It has meaning. It’s accessible. I consumed vinyl then 8-Tracks followed by cassettes, then compact discs.

Eventually we got the MP3. I thought it was a new element on the periodic table. Not so. It was a trick of the mind to make us believe we were still listening to music. Those of us of a certain age know that digital music is a sonic betrayal. I went to hundreds of concerts. Things were removed by the MP3 in the name of compression. There was a need to skinny down the richness so it could pass through the eye of the internet. It is here, finally on page 183 that Ms. Heffernan first writes the words magic and loss.

The chapter goes on to explore music encapsulated inside no less than fifty references. Even if we knew them all we would never be able to conjure them up and make the connection to music. She closes Music with a reminiscence. Vinyl records as a fireplace of sound bringing to mind discussions with friends and long phone calls (land lines). Yes, Ms. Heffernan, I did perfect the art of courting girls with calls via dial tone. I miss those days as well.

EVEN IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IT

She wraps up this amazing tome with a wide swath of history references. As with many of those pointers, I got lost, but never felt left behind. Ms. Heffernan always brought me back to the present and did it by pointing toward the future. Her book was both a challenge and a pleasure. It took me months to work up the courage to write about it. Still today, I find it hard to categorize, which adds to the importance of measuring the balance between magic and loss.

In Closing:

Clearly Ms. Heffernan has done us a service. She is a rare digital citizen. Top of the house. I learned a lot and was inspired to do more research and chase down those interesting references. What I wanted to read more of was her personal story. When spotted, those moments provided welcome texture and joyful nostalgia. It made this unique work more accessible.

Magic and Loss is a serious, realistic work that owes a lot to culture. It’s the blueprint of the past and a template for the future of media.

 

Oliver Stone’s Snowden – There Are Many Ways to Serve Your Country

Snowden 3.jpgTraitor or Whistleblower? This question might cross the mind settling in for a screening of Oliver’s Stone’s first feature film in four years; Snowden. We are steered to a specific message, nothing unusual for Mr. Stone. He provides his usual dose of investigative dramatic filmmaking; a style he owns. In short order we become less obsessed with passing judgement on the man and enthralled with this vivid and sweeping look at the long reach the NSA and CIA crafted in a post 9/11 world. The vast surveillance apparatus developed by these government departments to collect and analyze millions of messages from as many citizens was born out of fear, and hardened by a determination to block future catastrophic attacks.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Edward Joseph Snowden. In his interpretation we see a person who made an irrevocable decision to expose a top secret government program. In his heart he’s sure he did it for all the right reasons. Based on what I’ve seen and read, Mr. Gordon-Levitt gets a lot right. His stature allows us to recognize Snowden, which is confirmed in Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning and important documentary Citizen Four. Mr. Stone showed the real Snowden the script (co-written by Kieran Fitzgerald) and carefully reviewed his extensive notes. “Ed would help us get it right,” Stone commented in a recent Wired magazine interview.

Gordon-Levitt covers a lot of ground but is at his best in the later reels of the film when he has completed the transition from, by-the-book government man to someone who has drawn a bright, red line on behalf of all citizens who inhabit the planet. I was stuck by the sense of burden he displayed, as well as the calmness that was obviously required while living inside such a tempest.

Mr. Gordon-Levitt played Philippe Petite last year in The Walk. The story of the man who walked between the World Trade Center towers (full review here). There is an erie parallel between Petite and Snowden. Both were driven by strong passion, were immensely talented in their field and orchestrated an amazing performance, instantly captivating the entire world. Petite christened the Towers. Snowden made a choice to not let their falling lead to the death of privacy.

Picture opens unexpectedly with Snowden’s first pass at patriotism; becoming a member of the Special Forces. His attempt ends prematurely due to leg injuries suffered in training and not treated in a timely manner. When the doctor delivers the devastating news that he will never become a front line solder, he reminds Snowden, “There are many ways to serve your country.”

Soon we are thrust into assignments inside the covert walls of an acronym government. He rose quickly through the ranks, gaining more access and with it classified clearance. Over time he became increasingly entangled in the dark web of the CIA. There is no doubt that, despite being mostly self-taught he was wicked smart.

Snowden meets Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley. They communicated through a dating site for certified geeks whose families are life long employees of the military or state department. Lindsay falls for Edward but their relationship is tested by Edward’s stress, his professional requirement for secrecy and his stubbornly revealed epilepsy.

One of the most interesting characters in the story is Corbin O’Brien, played by Rhys Ifans. O’Brien is a high ranking official at the CIA and takes Snowden under his wing. O’Brien epitomizes the CIA of the time. Super smart, experienced and full of guilt that he did not see 9/11 coming. He is given some of the script’s best lines and is purposely framed in cartoonish style. On a hunting trip with Snowden he says, “The modern battlefield is everywhere.” Snowden’s exchanges with O’Brien had a strong influence on him, and certainly weighed heavily later on. O’Brien believed he could control Snowden and used the digital dragnet technology to calm his fears about Lindsay. It didn’t work.

Snowden asks for field experience while in Switzerland and O’Brien grants it. For the first time he ventures to the other side of the computer screen; straight into the action. Snowden has trouble in this strange world written in a completely differently coding language. Lindsay comes to the rescue and uses her social skills to give him an opening. As the assignment evolves. Snowden is asked to do some things he’s uncomfortable with. In the process he sees a system that collects content about people. All people. Emails, Tweets, Facebook posts, text messages, access to their device cameras and microphones; everything. It can even be viewed in real time. Snowden is jolted and quits the CIA.

Eventually he makes his way back to the as a contractor working for Booze Allen Hamilton, this time from a concrete bunker inside a Hawaiian mountain. The film’s pacing picks-up and tension builds as he chooses to download classified documents and makes the decision he can never take back. Although the crucial moment is filmed to be a tough decision, we know that it was carefully and deliberately planned.

Stone begins to cross-cut scenes, injecting the interviews (seen in the Poitras documentary Citizen Four) conducted inside a Hong Kong hotel room. Snowden meets with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian. He passes the torch directly to them, and only them, destroying his source material before checking out.

This is the first time Mr. Stone has filmed a feature completely on digital. I definitely missed that Stone / Robert Richardson (cinematographer) magic in the visuals, but there was no other way to shoot this story. Bits not celluloid for Snowden.

Mr. Stone turned 70 this year, and although he continues to pursue an active career, his approach to this material is less intense than in the past. He is very interested in character and the push and pull of power, but he doesn’t give us the bold grit of taking if one step further. I miss that. Perhaps he’s just exercising discretion in a world where nothing seems private. As Snowden says in the film, “We all have something to hide.”

The production values take some detours, mostly for the good, but occasionally seem out of place. The editing evokes Nixon and at times even JFK. There is liberal use of quick-cuts, mostly to artifacts from Snowden’s past. They are not overused and succeed in providing just enough to keep us wondering; who really is this man.

When one takes on a film about a person who is still alive, especially someone so young, it must be interesting to meet and invite them into the storytelling. When the cinematographer on Snowden, Anthony Dod Mantle met him, his reaction was, “He’s like an old soul in a very young body. He’s got fingers like violins.”

In the final minutes of the film, the Gordon-Levitt Snowden is on screen alone in a small room, as he often is; telling his story via the internet. Stone slowly transitions to the real Ed Snowden, who offers the following.

“When I left Hawaii, I lost everything. I had a stable life, stable love, family, future. I lost that life but I’ve gained a new one, and I am incredibly fortunate. And I think the greatest freedom I’ve gained is that I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.”   — Edward Snowden

The soundtrack mixes two styles. An original score and an orchestral score, both penned by Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters. The original is more like what we hear in Mr. Stone’s films; written to punctuate the on screen drama. It’s right inside the frame and has traces of digital cadence. The orchestral version is further away from the press of Snowden’s day, reminding, almost haunting him of his past which is rapidly changing.

The real gem in the film, something that no one seems to be talking about, is the closing song by musical genius Peter Gabriel. His song The Veil is vintage Gabriel. Sonic, deep, deliberate, moving, etc…The Veil Blog.jpg

Orignal score on Spotify.

 

Recommended reading. A  New York Times piece that examines how Mr. Stone came to acquire the film rights and the filmmaking odyssey. Very good back drop material.

Real to Reel: The Oval Office on Film

unknownHere we are once again. The four year presidential election is nye upon us. I’m at a loss for writing anything about how this cycle is, shall we say, unusual. No matter which side you’re on, or on neither side, or are not sure. We can always count on the cinema to provide a retreat from the noise. I wrote a similar post in 2012, and so this is a reprise with some new entries.

Fire up your favorite streaming service, or put one of those 5″ shiny discs into your device. Here are my top recommendations. They are worth it.

All the Way (2016) –  HBO and Amblin Entertainment have collaborated to tell the story of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), 36th President of the United States. The accidental, or tragically elevated, president was sworn in on Air Force One the same day John F. Kennedy was cut down by a sniper’s bullet in Dallas. That event has in some ways overshadowed LBJ’s accomplishments. This film does an outstanding job reminding us just how much he accomplished. Bryan Cranston (most recently of Trumbo) puts on a vivid portrayal of LBJ. This is deep tracks worthy from a consummate pro. The filmmakers attended to every detail, allowed Cranston to perform his persona magic, and laid out what people who attain high office, but have even higher aspirations face.

House of Cards (2013 – 2016) –  A Netflix original series based on the 1990 UK miniseries has done its part to prepare us for the 2016 presidential campaign. Dark, selfish, spontaneous and opportunistic describe Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). They stop at nothing to achieve power and influence. This one requires a significant time commitment, but the first two seasons and part of the third are all that is necessary to understand what’s going on. Let’s hope this is not a foreshadowing of things to come. But I digress. Just queue it up and enjoy some excellent acting, dialog and mystery. All fully sanctioned, because as Richard Nixon once said, “If the president does it, it’s not against the law.”

Lincoln (2012) –  If it were true that people actually did turn over in their graves, then Lincoln is the guy who would do it first. When you watch Daniel Day-Lewis become Lincoln, or at least the figure of what we imagine Lincoln might have been, you understand so much. You understand that politics has always been a contact sport, democracy is in the bottom of the first inning and old habits die hard. Steven Spielberg traded in his boyhood kaleidoscope with Schindler’s List and I for one am very happy. His position in the industry has allowed him to recreate everything in obsessive detail. This one should be viewed every year.

Frost / Nixon (2008) –  A searing, in-depth recreation of the famous interview that in many ways settled once and for all President Nixon’s involvement in Watergate for the American public. Frank Langella is the cold, calculating Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen is David Frost, who bet a personal fortune that he would get the goods on Nixon as well as a big audience. Takes place entirely post term and captures the time and culture perfectly. Directed by Ron Howard. Full review here.

W. (2008) – A psychoanalytic vista of the life and first term of President George W. Bush. It ultimately becomes a story of the entire Bush family and the presence of the elder President Bush is felt throughout. James Brolin plays W. pitch perfect, and surprisingly, Mr. Stone does not go off the reservation on this one. It’s toned down, compared to his other political outings. Worth a look, or another look to remind us of what things were like during the eight years under Bush. Full review here.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) – An updated version of the 1962 classic. Soldiers from the first Gulf War are captured and brainwashed. An alternate takes credit for being a war hero and becomes a Vice Presidential candidate (Liev Schreiber). His commanding officer, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) begins to think things are not what they seem. The details soon unravel for the master planners and they take additional actions to ensure their plan is carried off successfully. A high octane, paranoid thriller directed with precision by Jonathan Demme.

The Contender (2000) – Joan Allen plays Laine Hanson who is running  for Vice President to President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges). The story line takes many twists as the characters fight for power and to preserve their view of the way things should be. Sexy secrets are found out about Hanson who refuses to discuss them as irrelevant to her qualifications for the office. Bridges chews the scenery and Allen is steely strong. Gary Oldman is superb.

The West Wing (1999-2006) – Highly acclaimed and popular TV series covering the lives of the President and staffers inside the White House’s west wing. 154 episodes were produced and aired. This series captured the attention of millions for it’s realistic portrayal, likable characters and its occasional wink. Created by Aaron Sorkin with Martin Sheen as President Josiah’Jed’ Bartlet. Quality scripts, acting and production.

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Wag the Dog (1997) – Wonderfully funny, oddly prophetic and highly entertaining. Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro are over the top. Anne Heche swears like a drunken sailor and Denis Leary is, well Denis Leary. Barry Levinson and David Mamet scooped the Monica Lewinsky scandal before it even happened, with eerie parallels. The White House staff members create a fake war to distract from the president’s troubles. Hoffman, a seasoned Hollywood producer is hired to carry out the task.

Nixon (1995) – A biographical story of former President Richard Milhous Nixon. Oliver Stone follows Nixon from his days as a young boy to his presidency, which ended in resignation during his second term. Anthony Hopkins inhabits the persona of Nixon so thoroughly that you completely forget it’s not Nixon as early as the first reel. The Vietnam conflict was a major event during the Nixon presidency and Stone, a Vietnam veteran himself, intercuts combat scenes into the political theater. He takes the filmic style used in JFK and pushes it even further, mixing eras and cultures freely across the screen.

JFK (1991) – Oliver Stone’s (again) telling of the assassination of John F. Kennedy caused quite a stir in many camps. Regardless of camera-reverse
what you believe about the murder, this picture broke new ground in filmmaking style. It plays more as a sonic mix than an edited picture. Based on the book Crossfire, it features an ensemble cast. Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones are stand outs, while Gary Oldman nailed Lee Harvey Oswald. Special nod to Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), as an absolute loon.

All the President’s Men (1976) – Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) uncover the details of the Watergate scandal that leads to President Nixon’s resignation. Perhaps the best explanation available on the Watergate scandal. A taught drama that combines intrigue, power and investigative reporting. Excellent work from director Alan J. Pakula.

The Missiles of October (1974) – Made for television mini-series about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, three years after Castro assumes power in Cuba. William Davane plays JFK in this tense, detailed and an up close look at the process of decision making for an American President in a time of crisis. Also stars Martin Sheen. A good history lesson.

The Parallax View (1974) – Another reporter vehicle. This time Warren Beatty uncovers some nasty things while investigating the assassination of a prominent United States Senator. Ultimately he finds a conspiracy net with a powerful multinational corporation behind it all. The ’70’s produced some of our most interesting films thanks to “director as auteur” freedom afforded many filmmakers by the studios. Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men) directs.

Enjoy and please feel free to add your own favorites. Oh, and VOTE!

Career Opportunity for a Mobile Professional

THIS JOB HAS BEEN FILLED

Project Manager, Mobile Applications

Apply Here.

Discover. A more rewarding way to work. At Discover Financial Services, you’ll find yourself in the company of some of the industry’s smartest and most reliable professionals. And at a company that rewards dedication, values innovation and supports growth. Thrive in an environment that promotes teamwork and shared success. Build on a foundation of mutual respect. Join the company that understands rewarding careers like no other.

Seeking an experienced Project Manager to lead feature development and implementation for the Discover Mobile App. This individual must have proven experience managing large, cross-functional projects, he or she must be detail oriented, able to work autonomously and be able to pivot quickly based on changing needs of the business. This role requires strong people leadership across areas including marketing, customer service, business technology and third party agencies. This individual needs to have a strong focus on delivering results to meet business goals and deadlines, a strong desire to understand new emerging technologies and exposure to working using agile principles.
Promote a risk-aware culture, ensure efficient and effective risk and compliance management practices by adhering to require standards and processes.Key Responsibilities:
Lead projects through full product development process cycle (creation of project proposal, requirements gathering, usability testing, design feedback & support, build, test support & coordination and post-install defect resolution).
Work with impacted Business Units to obtain their high level requirements; Work with Finance and Analytics to create cost benefit analysis when needed; Work with Business Technology (BT) and the Design Agencies to develop a project timeline that supports the mobile release cadence.
Act as a liaison between the Business Partners, BT Project Managers, Agency, Deposit Operations, Legal, Risk and Customer Experience team; Schedule and facilitate Business Project team meetings; Address and resolve project problems and issues, and escalate as appropriate; Create requirements documents and obtain necessary approvals.
Serves as a knowledgeable resource to obtain answers to business-related questions for the BT partners; Work with impacted business units to produce UAT test plan and test cases; Help resolve testing issues; Participate in daily checkpoint meetings, Sign off on UAT and get necessary business approvals.
Ensure all questions/issues/legal and risk requirements are resolved prior to release; work with BT to develop post-installation validation task list; ensure all business validation occurs successfully.
Effectively manage Agencies, BT, Business Partners, Legal, Security, Risk, Customer Support, Customer Experience and Sr. Management in order to achieve goals, reach delivery targets and to deliver high quality product within budget and on-time.
Develop the supporting marketing collateral to stimulate demand for application through cross-channel highly integrated marketing strategies (discoverbank.com, emails, Account Center, etc).
Be able to manage uncertainty, rapid change, ambiguity, surprises, and a less defined environment.
Takes immense pride in getting things done.Required Skills/Knowledge/Experience: 
3-5+ years successfully managing large cross-functional projects and familiarity with AGILE.
3+ years Digital Agency management experience.
Strong problem-solving, resource management, and time-management skills.
Demonstrated ability to coach, manage change, collaborate across groups, develop people and influence the organization.
Demonstrated experience as a role model and leader.
Exceptional written, oral and presentation skills.
Advanced PowerPoint, Excel and MS Office proficiency required.
BA or equivalent experience required; MBA, MS or PMP recommended.
We are an Equal Opportunity Employer and do not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, sex, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, status as a veteran, and basis of disability or any other federal, state or local protected class.

Discover Financial Services is an equal opportunity employer. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, protected veteran status, among other things, or as a qualified individual with a disability. Equal Employment Opportunity is the law.

Please let us know if you require a reasonable accommodation to apply for a job. Examples of reasonable accommodation include making a change to the application process, providing documents or job listings in an alternate format, using a sign language interpreter, or using specialized equipment. Please email us 2-3 available times and the best method to reach you: HireAccommodation@discover.com.  Thank you!

Apply Here.

My 2016 Oscar Picks

Oscar for PostThe Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will will hold their 88th award ceremony Sunday, February 28th. I will not be discussing the over indexing of whiteness among the nominees, except to say it is something that certainly needs to be addressed. My interest here lies in the films, filmmakers and artists that were nominated by the Academy.

2015 brought us a raft of thoughtful, sometimes uneasy and exciting films, including pictures and performances that didn’t make the coveted short list. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq comes to mind. His films are always on a mission and he tackled a huge problem we have here in Chicago.

Overall I feel we seem to be on an upturn of quality out of Hollywood lately, potentially teetering on entering a period that blends eras, as excellent artists who have paved a path mixed with new, emerging talent. We got to see once again Charlotte Rampling, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern and Sylvester Stallone. All excellent performances that bring back the emotional memories only the art of film can divine.

The major film studios dominated the noms as usual, with Fox leading the way with 12 (see table below). Tech firms like Netflix and Amazon are trying to carve out their own slice of original content, but they seem better suited for the smaller screen format and have yet to master the vast drama needed for the main cinematic stage. Netflix did have 2 noms, both documentaries. Turns out some industries are harder to disrupt than others.

Hollywood is still holding on to the sequels/remake formula (Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed). They are doing a better job at selection than in the past. Mad Max: Fury Road certainly wasn’t phoned in. However, I’m thankful it was a small list, leaving more room for original stories. The material that made it into production was top shelf. A discriminating mix of stories derived from books (The Big Short, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, Brooklyn), journalism (Spotlight), culture (Straight Outta Compton), icons (Steve Jobs, Trumbo), organized crime (Sicario, Cartel Land), dystopian artificial intelligence (Ex Machina), complex relationships (CarolAnomalisa,The Danish GirlInside Out, Room) and finance (The Big Short). Then of course there’s that stand alone category called; Tarantino (The Hateful Eight).

We are seeing cinematic technology become more and more digital which lets filmmakers do things that were very difficult to do on celluloid. CGI dominates, but a number of films chose a more traditional approach to making their film. In Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle shot the first act on 16mm, the second act in 35mm and the last act on digital. Likewise, For The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino dipped deep into the Panavision vault for original 70mm lenses and had them retrofitted to the current camera format, complete with larger than normal film magazines. The result was stunning.

On the other hand, acting performances do not necessarily benefit from technology advances – in fact they can make it harder (Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina) to connect with the audience. Many of the performances this year rose above the project, escaping the gravitational pull of the story. Writers worked over time to give them this power and pitch perfect dialog. It was indeed a choice year for actors and they took full advantage of this prime opportunity to cultivate characters and perhaps, for a few moments, wrest the helm away from the director.

I’m changing my prediction format this year. Instead of listing my picks, I’m dividing them into who I think should win (my pick) and who I believe the Academy will pick. I wondered why so many are doing that, but then I realized it gives one wiggle room. It gets harder each year. Here goes.

Actress in a Leading Role

Should win and Will win: Brie Larson for Room. Space, time, parenthood and courage in the face of agony conspired against Joy to go on for years with her small son. Ms. Larson’s performance shattered that tiny skylight in the Room. By the way, the boy, Jacob Tremblay was amazing.

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Actress in a Supporting Role

Should win: Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs – Will win: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl. The energy inside the inspired three part script of Steve Jobs by Aaron Sorkin was a marvel in word arrangement. Ms. Winslet took those words and never looked back. Then we have Ms. Vikander. When  you look at her versatility you are in awe. Her Ava in Ex Manicha was calculated and cunning; hidden away in the novelty of her artificial intelligence. In The Danish Girl she was exactly the opposite. Not made up of 0’s and 1’s, but deep emotions for her husband who lost his gender.

Alicia V The Danish Girl

Actor in a Leading Role

Should win: Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs –  Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant. Mr. Fassbender combined dialog mastery, comic timing, anger and crass genius in his portrayal, not of Steve Jobs, but of an inventor for the mind. Mr. DiCaprio will win and he deserves to be recognized for his growing body of excellent work. Go back and look at his portrayal of Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Exactly. I was not a fan of The Revenant, but I very much respect the work as a whole.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Should win: Christian Bale for The Big Short – Will win: Sylvester Stallone for Creed. I will not be that guy who denies Mr. Stallone another chance to be recognized, Rocky Balboa is a fixture of hope and victory done with hard work. Nailed it. However, Mr. Bale delivered something quirky and entertaining, while being smart and, oh yes, right under extreme pressure. And it was a true story.

Original Screenplay

Should win and Will win:  Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight. Outstanding and courageous effort to revisit a coverup by the Catholic Church that impacted so many for so long. Mr. Singer and Mr. McCarthy recreated the time and temperature of Boston in an unflinching, but respectful manner. Their ensemble cast took it over the finish line.

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Adapted Screenplay

Should win and Will win: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for The Big Short. One would have thought it was impossible to turn Credit Default Swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations into entertainment. Turns out you need a lot of F-words. The screenplay extracts the essence of Michael Lewis’ book and spins it at a hundred miles an hour. It’s not perfect, but there is not a fraudulent bone in it’s body.

Film Editing

Should win: Hank Corwin  The Big Short – Will win: Margaret Sixel for Mad Max: Fury Road. This is probably the most difficult category to call. Both Mr. Corwin and Ms. Sixel were faced with how to assemble the footage given them by the director. I leaned to Mr. Corwin because the way the film was shot offered many more possible ways the film could be cut. In a way they took the same path; orchestrated collision. Without their ability to manage the heartbeat, these films would have turned out less thirst quenching.

Original Score

Should and Will win: Ennio Morricone for The Hateful Eight. The ultimate composer/maestro gets better as he gets older. I listened to this score before seeing the film and my reaction was guarded. It didn’t captivate me. But once I saw the film with his powerful score supporting it, I was hooked. Cinematic orchestra does not get any better than this. His arrangements are complex and layered and lead the film’s sentiment.

Cinematography

Should win and Will win: Richard Richardson for The Hateful Eight. Here we have one of the greatest, working cinematographers who raids the Panavision vault of their 70mm lenses and adapts it to current day motion picture technology. The result is beyond parallel. If you missed 70mm Road Show you certainly missed a once in a lifetime experience. This large story and even larger dialog demanded a big window. Mr. Richardson gave it the biggest window available.

Hateful Eight Stagecoach

Production Design  Should win: Colin Gibson for Mad Max: Fury Road – Will win: Jack Fisk for The Revenant. So many films could be in contention for this award. Mr. Gibson turned a dictatorship desert into something beyond belief. On the flip side we have Mr. Fisk who had the same task but with wilderness. This one is a toss up. It will depend on which landscape the Academy prefers.

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Costume Design Should win and Will win: Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road. The Academy likes to award costume to period pieces. And yes, that’s very tempting indeed. In Mad Max we get a new period piece and it’s inspired. The reason this stands out is because of the sheer number of different tribes that need wardrobe.

FURY ROAD

Makeup

Should win and Will win: Makeup Department for Mad Max: Fury Road. The only way the Academy would not pick this is the sheer number of people involved in creating the amazing makeup. There were 53 professionals needed to pull off the many looks.

Animated Feature

Should win and Win win: John Lasseter, Mark Nielsen, Jonas Rivera and Andrew Stanton for Inside Out. Depth of story combined with a terrific script and voice performances make this a sure bet. The level of animation storytelling that can be achieved is startling these days. Fear, joy, anger, disgust and sadness are acted out in rich vignettes inside the mind of Riley who experiences change and awkwardness. Join the club Joy.

Inside-Out-Emotions

Director

Should win and Will win: Adam McKay for The Big Short. Sometimes it’s timing. Other times it’s timing. So timing is pretty much kind of important. Mr. McKay is all about timing. Certainly there are challenging moments in this picture where it drifts. Perhaps some of the choices are not exactly right. But taken as a whole this film is important. And importance is one of the things a director strives to deliver. Along with truth.

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Best Picture

Should win and Will win: The Big Short. An epic entertainment romp through the deep, dark underground of big bank greed. When you have smart people who only want money, everyone else is in for trouble.

Good luck on your picks. But remember, it’s about the films, not the Academy. If you enjoyed, select it.

Oscar nominations by Studio

Oscars by Studio 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Credits: Thank you to the studios who allow images from their films to be shared throughout Social Media.

 

The Stakes are High in The Big Short

Big Short 1Adam McKay’s take on the bestseller by Michael Lewis is an investigative romp leading up to the financial meltdown that began in 2007. It’s full of colorful characters and even more colorful language. Mr. McKay uses voiceover and direct talking into an always moving, manic camera. He intercuts images, sounds and liberal use of the close-up in an attempt to show us that chaos was taking place, not simple financial transactions.

Picture begins by explaining that banking was essentially a snooze of a career. Boring, “comatose” and not very profitable. That all changed when Lewis Ranieri, bond trader at Salomon Brothers, invented mortgage-backed securities. Essentially mortgage loans, very stable and reliable, are packaged together and are sold as securities to buyers. When Mr. Ranieri did what he did, the Genie was let out of the bottle.

The casting was inspired. We get Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry, an awkward but brilliant numbers guy who takes the time to read what’s inside the mortgage packages and takes a bold risk. Burry is not in New York, but California and Mr. Bale plays it laid back and barefoot. We often see him in his office blasting heavy metal music and banging drumsticks on his knees. He wears a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the Thorn Guitars logo, a California-based custom guitar company founded by Pete Thorn.

Big Short 2

Burry wants to short the mortgage business and gets the big Banks to create an instrument that allows him to do it. He invests $1.3 billion of his small funds money, much to the dismay of his investors.

Ryan Gosling is Jared Vennet who works at Deutsche Bank in New York. He identified the loans were made without proper income verification and many of the borrowers have unacceptably low FICO scores. In short, they were going to default.

A wrong number call to Front Point Partners, a small hedge fund, lets the founder, Mark Baum into the game. Baum is played by Steve Carell who is in constant manic scream mode, fueled by his disgust of big Bank greed and a personal family tragedy that haunts him everyday. Mr. Carell is fantastic from the moment he learns the truth about what’s inside the mortgage-back securities from Vennet, right up until the final scenes when the meltdown unfolds before the whole world.

Brad Pitt plays Ben Rickert, a retired big time trader now living off the land somewhere in Colorado. He is contacted by Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), two guys who started a hedge fund (Brownstone) in their garage and have also gotten wind of the possibility to short the system. They are too small to be taken seriously and don’t have access to the big boy trading desk. That’s where Rickert comes in. Through his connections he enables Brownstone to play.

Based on true events, there is obviously some poetic license taken to condense the events and make them fit inside the 2 hour and 4 minutes running time. The script works hard to weave in easy to understand explanations of complex financial instruments. Chef Anthony Bourdain uses his kitchen and fish to illustrate how bad loans can be magically transformed into something completely new, but still be bad. We even get a scene in a Florida strip club that turns out to be the tipping point for Mark Baum to pull the short trigger on the system.

Ultimately the dominos fall and slowly each of the players sells and makes amazing amounts of money. Especially Jared Vennet, who fondles a check for $47 million, how bonus for the sell.

The picture is often funny but also makes room for a few moments to digest just how much damage the behavior by the Banks and rating agencies did to the economy. Lost jobs, homes, pensions, savings. It all went south quickly.

In his desire to cover as many bases as possible, Mr. McKay hits a few flat notes. The Florida scene seems out of place and the so called debate between Baum and a rival in Vegas is nothing but a couple of personal comments. Despite these minor flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed the picture.

If you Google Mark Baum, you won’t find him. And Mark Baum isn’t the only character in the movie whose name was changed from its real-life counterpart. Ryan Gosling’s character, Jared Vannett, is based on Greg Lippman, a Deutsche Bank trader; Brad Pitt’s character, Ben Rickert is based on Ben Hockett, a partner at Cornwall Capital partners. The only main character in the movie with a non-fiction name is Christian Bale’s role as hedge fund manager Michael Burry.

View the financial crisis full timeline from the Federal Reserve Bank.

Photo Credit: Plan B Entertainment and Regency Enterprises

“The Martian” and his Earthlings

The-Martian-viral-teaser

Mars has long been the muse to writers, scientists and moviemakers. A wikipedia search for “films about Mars” will yield a page that lists 66 titles although many of them were television shows. The most common plot line that emerges when Mars and Earth are in the same script turns out to be mostly bad for Earthlings. We often survive in the end, but, on my, the destruction.

Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on the novel by Andrew Weir with screenplay credit going to Drew Goddard, is all Hollywood. It’s playful and goes out of it’s way to be entertaining. But it should get noticed for something rare. A movie largely about Mars, science and NASA, completely devoid of little green Martians. Thank you Mr. Weir.

The film opens with a group of astronauts already on Mars to continue studies, presumably preparing for colonization. Suddenly a raging storm rolls in and the team must make an emergency launch to avoid their vehicle from tipping over. In their rush, Mark Watney, played with delightful snark by Matt Damon, is left for dead after a horrible accident prior to boarding.

The Captain, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is riddled with guilt at having left behind a crew member who was in her charge. Ms. Chastain has become one of my favorite actors to watch. Her ability to shape her characters with genuineness, display smartness, not smart-assness, and be an irresistible woman is a winning combination. Mr. Scott is keen on strong women roles and this tradition continues.

THE MARTIANMeanwhile, back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is left to tell the world that Astronaut Watney will not be making the return trip with the rest of the crew. He lies in state on the surface of the Red Planet. Mr. Daniels is as reliable as ever, sporting his wide vocabulary and the doing math in his head.

Mr. Weir has given us a futuristic shipwreck story. It’s a classic theme. A solitary survival tale of man vs. his environment against seemingly unsurmountable odds. But Mr. Weir has a major advantage; technology. In this new age much more is possible. Innovation and disruption for once provides hope of survival and not just monetary wealth.

When Wantey regains consciousness he takes us through a series of amazing feats of survival, physical exertion and some kick butt farming. He overcomes one obstacle after another, fulfilling his determination to survive until a rescue mission arrives. Through good old fashioned NASA trained ingenuity, Watney reanimates the Pathfinder hardware from a decades ago mission and uses it to communicate with NASA. The news that Watney is alive causes even more problems for Sanders, who eventually organizes a rescue mission.

The film frequently shows us Watney through the voyeuristic lens of a Go Pro camera, but with his full permission. It’s a video instagram stream that is expanded to include the left behind artifacts of his crew. The most prominent of which is Commander Lewis’ obsession with music from the 1970’s and ’80’s. The lowest rung on the music one hit wonder ladder. Mr. Scott uses those tunes to great effect, but my ears! He did redeem himself when David Bowie’s Starman came across the speakers while Watney gathered his things for another expedition away from home base.

flat,800x800,075,t.u3Eventually Sanders has to tell the crew that Watney is still alive, which brings into focus the other major theme of the story, being part of a team. A mission to Mars means you are going to adopt a new family while leaving your existing one behind. It’s a serious commitment. Nothing else matters but your knowledge, your team’s knowledge — carefully designed to fill in the gaps—and the Earthlings at the Johnson Space Center. Space travel is new territory and despite the fact we have been studying it since Galileo, it stands to reason that we are not close to being prepared for what it can bring.

The world is enthralled with Watney’s plight, including the Chinese who offer to help. Soon the United Sates and China are collaborating to bring him home. Eventually, Watney’s crew mates are offered a choice. Come home, or return their ship, the Hermes (The God who protects travelers) around and endure hundreds more days in space. Spoiler alert, yes they decide to rescue Watney.

The final reels of the film are filled with frantic action to capture a now floating Watney, who has launched himself into space with a vehicle placed on Mars in preparation of another mission. It’s all very unrealistic but so enjoyable to watch.

Top notch technical work all around matches the acting performances, all stewarded along by veteran Harry Gregson-Williams’ score. Many will remember the interspersed pop songs that help us laugh during the long, lonely moments. But it’s the deeply intellectual, sonic snippets by Mr. Greyson-Williams that reminds us of the seriousness of each day, while binding together the collective progress of both Watney and the Earthlings.

This is the third year in a row Hollywood has produced a high quality film set in space. Gravity in 2013, Interstellar in 2014 and now The Martian. I hope this trend continues.

The Walk

Robert Zemeckis has given us The Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away and Flight. These are formidable works that strike a cultural nerve and straddle past, present and future. Indeed, Mr. Zemeckis has a way of transporting us across the space-time continuum with flair and style. He weaves humanism into his stories of adventure, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to simply entertain.

The Walk

His latest film, The Walk, seems to be a clear labor of love. It’s based on Philippe Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds. Mr. Petit’s walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 stands as one of the most amazing human accomplishments ever, driven entirely by necessity, courage and the belief that art should play on a larger stage. His story becomes more important with each passing year we live in a post Tower world. This fact alone is more than a sufficient reason to bring the story back for a modern look.

Mr. Petit named his project le coup. it was by definition done undercover and on a budget. There was no investment put into capturing it beyond the amateur photographer accomplices who wore many hats that day, including archer. Hence we have only grainy and mostly black and white archive images of his amazing feat. James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar winning feature documentary Man on Wire was the first time we got an up close look at Mr. Petit and his carefully planned caper. His documentary is the definitive chronology of what happened in New York on August 7, 1974, and I watch it every year on September 11th.

The Walk borrows heavily from documentary style that includes frequent cuts back to Philippe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perpetually perched on the torch of Lady Liberty. It leverages much of what was in Man on Wire, because that’s what’s written in To Reach the Clouds. It validates Mr. Marsh’s work allowing Mr. Zemeckis to focus his 3D, IMAX, big Hollywood budget on putting us on the high wire.

The early reels of the film seem to be from another story. We learn how Mr. Petit came to be drawn by the lure of the wire. There are sequences from his childhood that briefly include his parents and his early mentor, Papa Rudy, played by Ben Kingsley, who apparently can’t function without his hat or his dogs. He meets Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Both are street performers in search of a dream. Mr. Petit has his dream clearly defined and is now on a journey to attract the people and fortune to carry it out.

Wire Walking

Mr. Gordon-Levitt has taken some flack for his accent in many reviews. When I look at his performance on the whole, he delivers on the things that matter. Heart, passion, drive and art. He captured Mr. Petit’s ability to envision and then achieve something most of us don’t even think about. The quality of his accent is of little importance in my mind.

Philippe and Annie make their way to New York and emerge from the subway to the staggering sight and enormity of the Towers. Momentarily discouraged Philippe is given and opening. A door is left ajar and he runs through it, climbing the stairs to the top of the Tower. Once there. Once he looks at the void between the twins, his will is cemented.

A band of characters is assembled to pull off the caper, but there ends up being just a couple who are committed enough to Philippe’s dream to see it through. On the day they decide to carry out the feat, they face numerous obstacles, all of which are somehow magically disappeared. There was a moment when the cable had been hung and Philippe was ready to make the walk, when a businessman emerged from below, surveyed the situation and simply walked back down without saying a word. Perhaps the Towers themselves somehow intervened, seemingly longing what was likely the only above ground physical connection each would have with the other.

The last forty minutes will make you squirm as the wire walker performs. In the documentary Man on Wire, we don’t see any footage of Philippe walking the wire. Only stills. Mr. Zemeckis gives us that gift in The Walk. We are there for every step on the wire hastily strung and secured. It’s worth seeing in IMAX 3D and if you were ever in the Towers, or gazed up or looked down from the observation deck, be prepared for what you will feel.

WTC Pass

The technical aspects of the film are exceptional all around. Highly recommended and rated PG, so take your children and have that discussion. The official website is horrible. I’m so disappointed in how the studios uses their movie sites now.

Photo credits: Sony Pictures Entertainment, Magnolia Pictures

Vinyl Makes a Comeback

I used to be the owner of about 2,000 vinyl, long playing (LP) albums. Also known as records. As the 5″ optical disc (CD) grew in popularity, my CD collection followed suit and I began to pass along my albums to friends or sell them at garage sales. Slowly my music collection went from 12″ discs to 5″ discs. They were easier store and move, but required new playing hardware. I didn’t have a CD player in my car which meant I continued to make mix cassette tapes from CD’s so my music could travel. Soon a portable CD player was added to my travel bag, expending the possibilities even further.

Then Steve Jobs invented the iPod which signaled another shift for music; the conversion to digital and streaming. Yes, we had Napster and other music sharing sites, but use of them was limited to a sub-section of the music consuming public.

First iPod

We began to feed CD’s into our computer and transfer music into iTunes which was installed on the hard drive. From there we could load playlists onto the iPod. Just like that, the death of the Walkman. It was a time-consuming process to transform one’s collection to digital, but we did it anyway.

Music labels stopped placing orders for vinyl, which ended a generation’s cultural icon for the packaging of music and expression. CD’s filled stores and we bought them. Lots of them. But technology was not finished with music. Pandora and Spotify, along with dozens of other sites / apps  cropped up to curate and stream music for free or without embarrassing ads, for a small monthly fee. Streaming is how we listen, discover and share music. There are millions of Millennials that have never been in a record store and most no longer browse CD bins. Music comes across the Internet directly to the glass of their smartphones and into their ears via bluetooth.

But something has been slowing happening lately and I’ve seen evidence in my local Barnes and Noble store. B&N has replaced racks of CD’s and DVD’s and began stocking vinyl LP’s. Hundreds of them.

BN Vinyl 2

The industry has done away with the terms album, LP and record, and are describing this format of music as vinyl. We all knew it was vinyl when we were listening decades ago, but we didn’t much care about the material, only about the meaning of the music. Vinyl is a nice pithy term. A way to distinguish this format from digital or streaming. Seeing vinyl’s comeback makes me smile.

There are two headwinds facing vinyl and they may be too strong for it to be more than a passing fad. First, the factories who manufactured vinyl have been idle for years. Getting them back on line will take investment and time. The second is the hardware needed. To listen to vinyl properly you need a turntable, an amplifier and quality speakers. There are turntables with USB ports that can be hooked up to digital speakers or one’s computer, but this is not at all an acceptable or respectful way to listen.

record-player

I’m going to spend the rest of this weekend dusting off my Hitachi diamond stylus turntable, cable it to my Pioneer amplifier and set it to Phono. The diamond stylus will slowly descend onto the grooves of the thin vinyl disc and sound will flow from my Boston Acoustics speakers. I wonder what my ears will think. I also wonder if I will be purchasing many of those albums a second time on vinyl.

September 11, 2015

911_ large promoToday, September 11th, we will relive that nightmarish day of 2001. We will relive it no matter how hard we try to suppress it. We will read the stories and blogs. Call family and friends. See the photos, yet again. And replay that footage over and over.

What I will remember most about that day and the weeks that followed will be the people who lost their lives or were badly injured. I will remember their loved ones. I will remember how our country stood together and came together to help and heal. I wish we could come together in that manner again, but without requiring a tragic catalyst.

I am no stranger to New York, having visited many, many times across decades. I entered the Towers as a tourist and ate at Windows on the World in the North Tower as a client in the mid 1980’s. I can go back even further to the time Philippe Petit made his fantastical walk between the Towers in 1974. That act was a sort of a human christening of the Towers. A monumental, almost superhuman tribute to the trident based, colossal cuboids.

They were larger than life, and they were beautiful. The Towers are gone. Thousand of people were tragically lost. Neither will ever be forgotten.

Scan (2)Copyright ©1986, Steve A Furman personal photo archives

My 7 year old son experiencing the 9/11 Memorial first hand in 2012

Copyright ©2012, Steve A Furman personal photo archives

Related Post features a photo gallery of the 9/11 Memorial weeks after it first opened.

Oliver Sacks: June 9, 1933 – August 30, 2015 – Some People Can’t be Replaced

Oliver SacksOliver Sacks mattered much more than most people will ever know. He is not a household name, so here’s some background. Oliver Sacks was born in London and educated at Oxford, California and New York. He was a professor of clinical neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and author of numerous books, including Awakenings (1990) which became a film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

I’m not going to recount Mr. Sacks’ achievements or claim to have studied all of his work. This post is not about that. It’s about what came over me when I was given the stunning news that I was the father of a son who had a permanent neurological disability. This was back in the mid 1980’s and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I began to read and research everything i could to understand and learn of ways I could make a difference in my young son’s life.

Needless to say this was before access to digital content. I had to visit libraries, universities, and doctor after doctor. I was not happy with what I was learning or with any of the results.

Then I read Awakenings by Oliver Sacks, and I began to understand that things were not my fault. Nor my son’s fault. The brain is a complex organ. The muscle of thinking. When it’s not shaped perfectly as it grows, things can go a bit off the reservation.

Dr. Sacks demystified the brain, especially brains that work in unusual and sometimes fantastical ways. He did this through deep study and research. By spending time with his patients. By explaining things in stories. He wrote in journal style. Almost like a diary, in great detail. You were there and you began to understand and eventually appreciate people who processed stimuli in a completely different manner.

Mr. Sacks was diagnosed with cancer at age 81 and he faced it head on. My Own Life, which appeared in The New York Times is an amazing read.

His intelligence, creativity and amazing stamina has helped countless people better understand loved ones who are in a way, “out of this world.” He also inspired numerous people to take up brain practice. I always looked forward to his writings and insights, and found it interesting that he was frequently photographed with a hand near or on his head, seemingly trying to reach into his own grey matter for more answers.

He was rare. He will be terribly missed. But at least we had him for a short while. Long enough, I think, to make a huge difference. I know he did for me.

Near the end of his life he said, ” When people die, they cannot be replaced.”

Photo Credit: Joyce Ravid for Alfred A. Knopf publishers, 1995

Dip Your Chip Card like a Boss!

Change is Only as Hard as One Makes it

It’s so very hard to change the behavior of a population as large as the U.S. Previously-held beliefs, resistance to change and just sheer inertia are but a few of the many forces that keep people on their current track. Marketers love to try to change behavior, but they rarely do. Technologies have had the most success over the past decade at getting humans to adopt new behaviors or shift their rituals to a new channel. Here comes another one.

The credit card dates back to 1950 and has never looked back. Paying with plastic has become commonplace among a large number of U.S. households. The Nilson Report states that there are over 1.14 billion general purpose, credit, debit and prepaid cards in the United States. That’s a lot, but we know many of them are cozied up in the sock drawer. Or as we call them in the business, inactive.

A plastic debit or credit card has a magnetic stripe on the back. That’s the grey bar you are used to swiping. Indeed we have perfected our “swipe muscle memory.” Walk up to the check-out, pull out a card and swipe it. That phrase has made it into the dictionary and lexicon many years ago.

swipe

We’re about to introduce a new definition to your Funk and Wagnalls. The next step change in how you pay with plastic is getting some new moves.
It ChipThis fall banks will begin replacing those magnetic stripe cards with new ones. They will still have the magnetic stripe but also come with a computer chip embedded into the plastic, easily seen on the face of the card. I will not go into the technical details here. All you really need to know is that the addition of the chip combined with systems changes at the merchant and the bank results in the use of cryptographic algorithms that communicate in a manner that does not reveal your card number. Bottom line: your card number will no longer be seen by the merchant and therefore cannot be stolen.

This protection is only available for offline purchases in stores that have the new card readers and software updates. If your store does not have these new hardware devices that can read the chip, your transactions are processed in the same way they are today. It also does not work with online stores, as your card is “not present.” The presence of your card and therefore your chip is required for this improved level of security.

Your Purchasing Routine is About to Get a New Move

Many of you have already received a chip card from your bank. Be sure to activate, sign and replace your non-chip card with the new one. You will now have to add a new move to your check-out repertoire. Keep those swipe muscles honed, as the changeover to the new hardware will take a very long time. But it’s time to acquire the “dip” move.

Old and New Transactions

It’s very simple. Insert your chip card into the reader and leave it. Sign your name on the plastic screen with that handy stylus that’s attached to the reader while the card remains in the reader. When it beeps, remove your card and off you go. Don’t worry if the cashier has never seen it before. Don’t be discouraged that they might not be properly trained. Dip like a Boss!

It’s like those first generation ATM’s You inserted your card. the machine swallowed it while you typed in your PIN and performed your transactions. When it was finished processing it spit your card back at you.

Please embrace the EMV chip card. It will improve security.

Swipe and Dip image courtesy of Sun Trust and the Wall Street Journal with minor edits by yours truly.

Review: Logitech Harmony Smart Control Universal Remote

Harmony RemoteIt’s been a thorny problem for years. Numerous electronics devices purchased across different eras mashed together to create your home entertainment system with no simple way to integrate or control them.

To connect the components you first need to navigate the maze of cables, inputs, outputs and converters. This is not an easy chore as there are no less than 15 different possible cable types that could be part of your array of devices. Next comes the number of input and output jacks which are always limited on equipment. For example, you may want to add an Apple TV but you don’t want to use your TV speakers. Instead you want the sound to be boosted by your Audio/Video receiver which doesn’t have any HDMI inputs nor an Optical audio in jack. So you need to get an Optical to RCA converter, which also needs a power source. There are numerous other things that can pop up. You get the picture.

One way around all of this is to purchase all new equipment that connects wirelessly and use a Sound Bar that incorporates both speakers and an amplifier. As an electronics-phile, I already have thousands of dollars of perfectly good equipment and a custom wired high end speaker system. It seems wasteful to sunset that amount of investment. Besides, what I have now sounds amazing and also controls my outdoor patio speakers which I would likely lose by installing a new system indoors.

Here’s a handy chart Radio Shack has published that is very helpful as you piece together the maze of cables and inputs.

Audio Video Hook-up Guide

Once you get everything connected you’re still left with a stack of remotes that cannot be wired together. The Universal Remote has always been the purported savior to that problem, but they present their own challenges.

I have owned my share of UR’s in my time. My set-ups require RF (radio frequency) not IR (Infrared). The differences is with IR you have to have clear line of sight to all your devices and point the remote directly at the equipment for it to work. I hate seeing wires and components so I hide them in cabinets. In my bedroom they are 40 feet away from the TV buried deep in a closet. I first went with entry level models that worked fairly well for a while but never lasted more than a year. Then I broke down and purchased a high end model that required a technician to program it; total cost over $800. It’s working well and solved the issue in my bedroom, but the media room remote recently bit the dust.

I didn’t want to shell out that much money again, so I went on the research hunt, which led me to the Logitech site. They make the Harmony brand of UR’s and have been at it for quite a while. After much thought I selected the Logitech Harmony Smart Control. The list price is $129.00, but you can find them for $98.00 at many online stores.

This modest looking remote is amazing! It is surprisingly small which turns out to be a big advantage. My high end model is very long and requires you to reposition your hand while using it. The Harmony fits snugly in your palm and you can reach all the buttons using your fingers. It’s thin and has a tactile back that prevents it from sliding in your hand or on a table.

It has dual activation, meaning both IR and RF, providing high flexibility for control. It comes with a very small hub that sits inside a cabinet, connects to your home WiFi network and an IR blaster that sits outside an enclosure to control your components. My other URs required wires that would connect to the hub and then stick on the front of the components over the IR sensors. The Harmony’s IR blaster emits the signals across your room and bounces off walls, finding their way to the sensors on your components. Very, very cool.

The Harmony Smart Control software is programmed to understand thousands of brands of electronics inputs and source settings. The key is you need to invest quite a bit of time to carefully document all your component model numbers and which inputs and mode settings have been used in your current working configuration. I’m pretty savvy and it took me a while to get it all down, including pulling the cabinet out and using a flashlight to record the precise model numbers of my 10 year old Denon A/V receiver.

The set-up was also a bit time consuming but worked seamlessly. One of the ways Harmony extends the utility of this remote is through an iOS or Android app for smart phone. No app for a tablet at this time. You are guided through an interface on the app where you type in model numbers and and select inputs for the connected components. I was truly amazed at how they got all the labels from my Denon exactly right. It found all three Apple TV’s and all of my Sonos bridges and speakers in under ten seconds. There are three activity buttons that act as go to shortcuts. There are only three buttons, but each one can control two activities using a long or short push. So you’ve got six, which works fine for me.

The most impressive thing is there is almost no lag between pushing a button and the activity on the devices. It’s instant. I highly recommend this remote and love that it saved me $700.

My set-up:

  • Samsung PN60E7000 Plasma TV
  • Motorola DAC224 Cable DVR Box
  • Denon AVR-3802 Audio/Video Processor
  • Onkyo 2 Channel Amplifier M-282
  • Samsung BDP-1500 Bluray Player
  • Apple TV A1378
  • Sonos Bridges (2) and a Sonos Play Speaker
  • Monitor Audio Radius 225 High Performance Speakers
  • Monitor Audio Radius 90 Compact Wall Speakers
  • Definitive Technology ProSub 1000 Subwoofer

Image Credits: Harmony remote courtesy of Logitech, Hook up chart courtesy of Radio Shack

Radio Shack Nurtured a Culture of Everyday Technology

UnknownWe knew it was only a matter of time. We just didn’t know how much time. It appears as if that long dreaded day has arrived. By “it” I mean Radio Shack filing for bankruptcy. Radio Shack has been a staple on 4,000 American streets for decades. It was founded in 1921 by the Deutschmann brothers and was the destination of millions of dads, and moms, who walked into their local Shack in search of everything from batteries to diagnostic equipment to an additional cell phone charger. It was not a retailer that emerged because of a fashion trend or a personal hobby. No, no, no. This franchise was in search of a much more noble purpose. It provided a place where Americans could go to see, touch and purchase electronics and home technology. It was the first of its kind and the last of its kind.

The Shack was a savvy retailer—correction, merchandiser—that figured out long ago our country was headed for a serious case of addiction to the magic of technology. The tech then was radio and television waves broadcast across the landscape, captured by antennas and transformed into audio and video that arguably, had more to do with shaping this countries’ culture than almost anything else.

My father was an electrical engineer. He was constantly tinkering with the insides of radios and televisions. Capacitors, transistors, resistors, rectifiers, vacuum tubes; his workshop was full of them. I knew what a printed circuit board was when I was 8 years old. He used a slide rule to compute equations, not a calculator, and wired a Color Bar and Dot Generator to an early color television to troubleshoot problems.

IMG_5981

My Father’s Slide Rule

There’s a generation today that cannot wrap their heads around the concept of a Radio Shack, let alone consider entering one. I’ve heard some bid a happy farewell, while others never even noticed. The demise of Radio Shack is not like what happened to Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster relied on late fees to prop up revenue which is never a viable long term strategy. BV was unable to weather the digital tsunami and were completely lost when it came to the internet.

Radio Shack is not the Apple Store, not by a long shot. But it paved the way for Jobs and Cook to enjoy stunning success. How? By making electronics familiar, approachable and affordable. The Deutschmann brothers likely had no clue that their desire to bring radio equipment to the public would be laying the tracks for the digital world.

OriginalRadioShack

The Original Radio Shack Store

In contrast Radio Shack did embrace the Web and shifted lots of their sales to eCommerce. But it’s very difficult to keep a single brand relevant for decades when you’re being drowned out by new and more interesting messages. Best Buy and Circuit City came along with more ad muscle and bigger stores, further squeezing Radio Shack into smaller spaces in strip malls. Then Amazon came along and soon the American public was trained to shop by Web search and picking up their packages off the porch instead of driving to a shopping destination.

Over the years, Radio Shack saved me many times. The need for a USB extension cord, a liPo Battery voltage meter, but most often it was their small electrical parts that I needed to keep my tinkering habit fueled.

They are not going away forever. Many stores will remain while others will be taken over by the cell phone provider Sprint who will maintain some items from Radio Shack.

Another page is turned.