Pinnacle Peak Hike – Scottsdale AZ

Stunning day for a hike. Clear skies, mid 70’s and low humidity. At the entrance to the trails a volunteer had a solar telescope set-up trained on, you guessed it, the sun. They use special filters to ensure safe viewing. When you look at the sun through these filters you see a red ball of fire. The glare around the sun that we normally notice during the day is gone, replaced by flames shooting up from the sun’s surface, each one larger than 40 earths.

The trail is quite wide and switchbacks nicely to the top. You meander up then down before ascending again. Due to cooler and more moist winter, the wildflowers are flourishing.

Oscar Predictions 2021

A tougher than usual year to choose in the wake of a pandemic, intense political events, our continued struggle with race relations, and plethora of acting performances. This year we have a seriously diverse set story lines and filmmakers. Makes things more interesting, but so much harder to cast votes. Without fanfare, here are my picks.

Actor: Chadwick Boseman

Actress: Frances McDormand

Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya

Supporting Actress: Yuh-Jung Youn

Animated Feature: Soul

Cinematography: Nomadland

Costume Design: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Directing: Nomadland

Documentary Feature: My Octopus Teacher

Documentary Short Subject: A Concerto Is a Conversation

Film Editing: Sound of Metal

International Feature Film: Another Round

Makeup and Hairstyling: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Original Score: Soul

Original Song: Speak Now

Production Design: Mank

Animated Short Film: If Anything Happens I Love You

Live Action Short Film: Two Distant Strangers

Sound: Sound of Metal

Visual Effects: Tenet

Adapted Screenplay: The Father

Original Screenplay: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Picture: Nomadland

“Lady Bird” Cinematic Album of Greatness – Film Review

Lady Bird CloseOne of my favorite films of 2016 was 20th Century Women. I’m a sucker for these social/cultural concept pictures that have a big cast, all with issues. They transport me back to my youth. Lady Bird is cut from the same celluloid and although it doesn’t take me all the way back to my boyhood, it comes close. The problem for me is I never came of age, so when I see all these coming of age films and identify with just about everything in them, I’m confused. But I digress.

Greta Gerwig played Abbie in 20th Century Women. She took it upon herself to explain to Jamie, the young son of Dorothea (Annette Bening) some of the basic facts of life; of course from a girl’s point of view. Lucky guy.

In Lady Bird we have Greta Gerwig again, but this time as writer/director. Her protagonist is Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who feels trapped in her Catholic Sacramento high school, lives on the wrong side of the tracks, and has her attitude set on attending college far, far away. Lady Bird is the name bestowed on her by herself.

Her best friend and ruiner of dreams is her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). The film opens with them lying side by side in the same bed. There’s an amazing scene in a car listening to the last few sentences of “Grapes of Wrath” via book on tape. Both cry. Not moments later they are discussing colleges and when Lady Bird indicates she wants to get out of California, her mother has a fit. Lady Bird abruptly ends the discussion by opening the car door and jumping out while traveling at a high rate of speed.

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Lady Bird (Saorise Ronan) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf)

That explains the pink forearm cast she sports for the next quarter of the film. And that’s how this film is unpacked. Again and again we get snapshots of the story, as if one is turning pages of a book, but it’s right there on screen one scene after another that adds up to the movie. We’ve seen this technique before, but seldom is it done with such skill and with so many characters that move in and out of Lady Bird’s life whether she likes it or not.

We see the usual high school drama. Wishing they looked like other girls, wondering what it takes to be cool, hoping boys will choose them. Ms. Gerwig extends it to the neighborhoods and even the homes. Lady Bird sees her dream home and wishes she could live there. Later on she is escorted right to the front door by a bright young boy, Danny (Lucas Hedges) who is bringing her to his grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.

Lady Bird was the miracle baby her mother thought she’d never have. As a result she has an adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), that is we think he’s adopted. The story doesn’t dwell on it. Miguel has a wife. Some things are just a little bit askew, and in a good way. Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) is an engineer type in a company that’s failing and her mother works at the hospital in some sort of psychological help role. Ms. Gerwig doesn’t feel compelled to tell us everything, which is how it is in real life. Her father seems to get her and supports her big dream of attending college on the east coast.

Despite the friction with her mother the still manages to have conversations that only a mother and daughter can have. Like, when is it the right time to have sex? Which of course was brought up after Lady Bird loses her virginity to one of the school’s bad boys who smokes his own hand rolled cigarettes and is trying to opt-out of the economy.

This passage from the screenplay is between Lady Bird and the high school counselor discussing a strategy for selecting a college. It’s a spot on example of what Lady Bird’s life is like day in and day out.

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Lady Bird written by Greta Gerwig

Just as with the particles of visuals, we get fragments of music to go along them in Jon Brion’s (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) soundtrack. Twenty-three individual compositions ranging from seventeen seconds to the closing track which is five minutes and ten seconds. I love the looping, jigsaw approach he has taken to the film. Fits Lady Bird perfectly. Mostly slow, sad and brooding with moments of reflection. My kind of score.

We can identify with wanting to get out of Sacramento, everyone wants to leave their hometown. But there are gaps. The religious school choice doesn’t really show up anywhere else in the film, especially not in the family scenes. Her situation is not great, but it’s not dire. She has friends and makes them as well. Is this just normal teen angst?

The film has been nominated for four Golden Globes including Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) as Lady Bird for Best Actress. She carries the film from cut to cut. Funny and determined, she sells the eccentricity of the picture with ease, and when called on to make the metamorphosis to adulthood, she makes it look like the time is right. I breathed a sigh of relief in the final  frames, for throughout the entire film I worried for her sanity and later on her safety. I cared about her.

Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother got the Best Supporting Actress nod. It is truly a mother/daughter focused story and if Ms. Metcalf was not this strong it might have been passed over for Best Musical or Comedy nomination.

Ms. Gerwig took the fourth one for Best Screenplay, but was denied Best Director recognition. It’s tough to get both but I think the strongest of the two properly won out. It’s refreshing to see a picture with young people not constantly on cell phones. Where things are slowed down and we see lives played out in human time instead of social media time. It’s a real cinema experience.

Jon Brion’s score on Spotify

 

I would recommend this film to anyone.

94 minutes

Images courtesy of Scott Rudin Productions, Entertainment 360 and IAC Films

 

 

 

“The Big Sick” Romantic Comedy Remade – Film Review

I really enjoyed The Big Sick. l think in large part for its ability to make me laugh even through a life or death circumstance. Michael Showalter directs this surprising gem written by married couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (HBO’s Silicon Valley). Its based, I’m assuming, on their real life exploits, but maybe not. No matter.

Kumail (played by Kumail) is a Pakistani man who is struggling to be a stand-up comic, performing regularly in a small club in Chicago. He has strayed off the culture reservation his parents and brother faithfully live. The connections he has built with other comics also have big dreams and this is how he keeps it together. During one of his sets he is heckled by a young graduate student, Emily (Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks, What If). Later that night he spots her in the bar and has a brief back and forth. Soon after they end up at his apartment. We sense an immediate but cautious mutual attraction that neither will admit to or cash in on for many days.

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The Big Sick (2017) Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani

The early reels of the film focus on Kumail and how he circles the uneasy relationship with his mother who parades a constant stream of hand-picked Pakistani women before him each time he’s home for dinner. Kumail is not honest with himself or anyone else. When his parents remind him to pray, he retreats to their basement, but instead of praying, he practices his one man show. He is lost between two cultures, hasn’t picked a future and runs away from a past that was never his to begin with.

The relationship between Emily and Kumail begins to bloom. Both are guarded about their past, which is the catalyst for a stressful breakup, Emily falls seriously ill and her roommate phones Kumail insisting he go the hospital and report back. He does and is forced to make a decision that could determine Emily’s future.

Enter dad and mom. Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter). The picture shifts gears and reveals the universal message in the story that almost every character will face. Mr. Romano and Ms. Hunter have terrific chemistry and breeze through the film despite Emily’s dire condition. Kumail’s persistence to be present begins to resonate with them, cracking the door open on their true selves and what it has meant to their marriage and child. This unveiling hits Kumail particularly hard and that of course extends to his parents, especially his mother.

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Ray Romano (Terry) and Holly Hunter (Beth)

The writers cycle us through a lot of will she or won’t she? Will he or won’t he? Will they or won’t they? This technique often causes me to want to take a walk, but the filmmakers manage to pull off these swings with enough skill to keep me around. In the end I was glad I did.

Zoe Kazan, who played Emily (granddaughter of director Elia Kazan) is one to watch. Her character is in a coma for a good portion of the picture so she had to work hard to ensure we wouldn’t forget what she stands for. Ms. Kazan nails it.

Production values are just a couple of notches above a a solid Television pilot but we don’t really care. The Big Sick was snubbed by the Hollywood Foreign Press (no Golden Globe nominations), but it could sneak in with an Oscar nom. It’s happened before.

Listen to The Big Sick soundtrack by Michael Andrews on Spotify.

Enjoy, but stream it.

Rated R, 120 minutes

Images courtesy of Aptow Productions, FilmNation Entertainment and StoryInk

 

She holds all the Cards. “Molly’s Game” – Film Review

Molly SmallEvery time I go into a theater or turn on a TV that has a script written by Aaron Sorkin, I’m convinced this is the time he will run out of words. That trading his soul for the talent to write unending, spectacular dialogue will have finally run out. Well, I’m happy to report whatever it is that supplies the words is alive and well. And I was just kidding about that deal with the devil thing. Mr. Sorkin has not only written the script, he makes his directing debut at the encouragement of his producers. No surprise, his directing mirrors his writing style; frenetic.

Molly’s Game is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (book with the same title) played by the always strong Jessica Chastain. She is a highly competitive skier and sharp as a tack from Colorado. Her father, Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) a university professor, was uber-focused ensuring his kids were overachievers in academics as well as sports. Molly’s two brothers were at the very top of most everything they tried. A a million to one freak accident derailed her from a final run bid to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in the freestyle.

The skiing injury caused her to take a step back from her a law school goal and instead took a year off to live in Los Angeles. A waitress job helps her along until she meets Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) who hires her to be his assistant. The job pays horribly and the hours are 24/7, essentially doing anything Dean wants or needs. Pick-up dry cleaning, buying bagels and oh yes, being the punching bag for his faltering business.

Dean is starting up a weekly high stakes poker game and tells Molly that she is now going to help run that as well. The players are famous movie stars with a buy-in of ten grand and the blinds (forced bets) are fifty/one hundred. You learn a lot about poker watching this movie. Molly sends an invite email to all the names scribbled on the pad and everyone replies within minutes that they’re in.

With a poker game you might expect the occasional quite screen time as players size each other up looking for a tell. If you’ve watched Poker on cable you know it’s a bunch of guys sitting around a table, inside, wearing sunglasses. But this is Sorkin. There are some moments of brief pause, but we have lots of cuts and constant dialogue or Molly’s voice-over. It keeps you on your toes. Words come flying out of actors’ mouths in a constant stream. If you’re not listening to every word you miss a lot. It almost seems too perfect.

Mr. Sorkin cleverly conceals all the famous people’s identities by giving them screen names like Player 1, Player 2, and Player X (a quiet but chilling Michael Cera), who turns out to be the sharpest player in the room as well as the most dangerous to Molly.

Ms. Chastain was a great casting choice. She is strong, but has a vulnerable side, and she brings both to bear with great effectiveness. There is no doubt that she relished this part.

Carefully observing all the details of the game, listening for the tribal poker keywords and Googling them gets her up to speed quickly. She invests in a new, sexy wardrobe and hairstyles. When things get slow at the table, she brings in new fish. A fish is a new player to the game who has money, plays loose and is good, but not too good.

Mr. Sorkin shuffles the scene order, cutting from the main story line of Molly in game mode to her in court mode. The feds have arrested her and drained her bank accounts. She needs a lawyer and finds her man in Charlie Jaffey. Idris Elba plays Jaffey with just the right dose of seriousness and humor. I can’t help but feel that he reminds Molly of her father after a discussion with his middle-school daughter related to academic expectations. During the client/lawyer discussions he sees lots of red flags but is fascinated with the case as well as Molly’s strong personality and ethics.

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Ms. Chastain (Molly) and Idris Elba (Charlie Jaffey)

Dean’s business is not doing well and he is no longer winning at the table. In a conversation with Molly he informs her to no longer expect a salary for her day job. The money she gets from the game is enough. Molly is not pleased and goes into action to set up her own game.

Soon he fires her, which is the worst thing he could have done. Molly hands over the game to the new girl hired to replace here. The transition consists of texting random phone numbers instead of the real player’s numbers. She then contacts the regulars and tells them the game has moved to a luxury hotel, but doesn’t tell Dean.

The film takes a fateful turn when Molly is forced out of L.A. in a dirty-handed move by Player X and chooses to start over again, this time in New York. She is a full-on pro at this, but just like the players she becomes addicted; but for her it’s drugs to stay awake and sharp. The longer she stays in, the deeper she sinks into a dark place with some very nasty people.

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Ms. Chastain (Molly) and Chris O’Dowd (Douglas Downey)

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From Molly’s Game, written by Aaron Sorkin

Eventually she has to face federal prosecutors who want her to cooperate in exchange for leniency. Her father (Kevin Costner) has been following her exploits and catches up to her with the hopes of reconciling, at least partly, for their falling out. A deep discussion between them reveals a lot about their relationship and some of Molly’s choices.

I think it was an inspired choice to select Charlotte Bruus Christensen as the cinematographer (Fences, The Girl on the Train). A woman photographing a woman results in a different feel than we would get from a man behind the camera. Angles, lenses, lighting and other subtle choices.

Molly and Jaffey are the primary players, but a lot of time is spent developing the secondary and even the background players, each doing their part to tell this complicated and fascinating story.

Top production values all around and of course that crisp Sorkin dialogue. It clocks in at 140 minutes just making it under the contractual limit. Yes Sorkin likes them long and I’ll bet there was a lot left on the cutting room floor.

Listen to Daniel Pemberton’s Score on Spotify.

Highly recommended.

Images courtesy STX Entertainment

Another side of Churchill in “Darkest Hour” – Film Review

Never SurrenderOftentimes we hear of the larger than life figures of history through a fairly narrow window. Their stirring quotes and courage summed to make decisions, all the while carrying the weight of a country on their shoulders. Certainly if you read in depth biographies you get to see various sides, but the number of people who take the time to do that is quite small.

Whether intended or not and I have no idea if it was, Darkest Hour could be looked at as a comment on the political situation we find ourselves in across the globe. This film is about courage and leadership for an entire country. Not just a popular idea, or a subset of the population.

In Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright (Atonement) and writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), significantly shorten the story horizon while putting their Churchill on the defensive in Parliament as well as himself. It takes place in a span of less than a month; from the time he becomes Prime Minister due to Neville Chamberlain’s (Ronald Pickup) ousting, through the exiting of the British solders stranded on the Dunkirk Beach.

They give us a seasoned politician who has been through the ringer, drinks constantly and smokes like a chimney. During the crisis moments he is hesitant, demanding and absolutely certain that he has figured out how to deal with Hitler. Despite knowing the outcome, the filmmakers manage to build suspense through great pacing and the urgency of saving 300,000 troops.

Gary Oldman is splendid in his portrayal which is given a huge push with a near perfect prosthetic body suit and superb facial make-up by Kazuhiro Tsuji. I have always admired Mr. Oldman’s skills which have been carefully honed over years and dozens of films. There’s the action Oldman; Romeo is Bleeding and Air Force One. He looks different from movie to movie, paying special attention to the physicality of who he is playing. His performance as Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK and Shelly Runyon in The Contender are two of my favorites. I can’t see anyone else ever playing Oswald again. His Runyon character was a warm-up to Churchill; cigar included.

Near the end Churchill must address Parliament to lay out his next steps and overall vision. He observes ordinary Londoners walking the street and entering the Underground. When his limousine stops he gets out and walks onto the Tube. He has warm exchanges with the working class going about their day. I don’t care if this actually took place, but this film made me want to believe it had. This grounds Churchill who had never been on a bus or a subway before. It also validates his thinking.

The film is shot almost entirely in a fog; either from all the smoking or the filmmakers foreshadowing the coming fog of war. Britain was unprepared for the German Blitzkrieg and no one was really sure Churchill was up to the task; him included. Once installed as Prime Minister by King George IV (Ben Mendelsohn) in a most informal manner, things get into high gear very quickly.

Early on we meet his new aide. A young woman who is thrown into the lion’s den of Churchill’s constant drinking and smoking and oh yes; his lack of manner. Elizabeth Layton apparently drew the short straw and despite a shaky start, gives it the still upper lip, much to Churchill’s advantage. Lily James (Baby Driver) plays the part with a straight spine and regal neck. She’s also a perfect typist. When Churchill does let his human slip show, it’s done more often with Layton than anyone else besides his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas). Ms. Thomas shows up just at the right time to both support and advise her husband as well as provides some needed comic relief.

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Kristin Scott Thomas Churchill’s wife, Clemmie

Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) a prominent conservative and personal friend of the King was Foreign Secretary at the time and wanted to negotiate a peace deal with Germany. He viewed Churchill as a war hawk with no room in his head for dealmaking. As if there wasn’t enough friction in Churchill’s life, this one had the potential to derail many things. Mr. Dillane has one of the best lines in the film. After listening to Churchill’s first speech as PM he turns to Chamberlain and says, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” It had a double meaning. Indeed Britain would surely go to war and it sent a clear message to Hitler that the storied history of the kingdom would not lie down as Europe had done.

Much of the film was shot in the Churchill War Rooms, nicely recreated for the film. I went back and looked at the photos I took in those rooms on my last visit to London, and was impressed at how faithfully and how much attention to detail the set designers took. Small historical inaccuracy. Churchill didn’t use the War Rooms until late in 1940 because there were no air raids yet.

When the story ventured outside London we mostly see only overhead shots from the vantage point of Luftwaffe bombers pounding Europe below. There are also no live shots of German soldiers and Hitler is only seen once, on the cover of a newspaper and heard once in the War Rooms. Even the opening credits show the Nazi war machine in black and white stills. They hadn’t yet crossed the Channel and Britain was still untouched.

The only Golden Globe nomination for Darkest Hour went to Gary Oldman for Best Actor in a Drama. Mr. Oldman is the film and his performance is worthy of serious recognition. If Dunkirk hadn’t come out in 2017, this film might have faired better with audiences as well as in the upcoming awards season. If you want to see a veteran actor perform his craft beautifully and are keen on WWII history, you will have an enjoyable experience.

Soundtrack by Dario Marianelli and Vikingur Ólafsson

125 minutes

Images courtesy of Focus Features

 

 

mother! Breaks the Hollywood Mold and It’s Terrifying! – Film Review

large_qmi2dsuoyzZdJ0WFZYQazbX8ILjmother! defies description! For those who took the leap or were led there unwittingly by a friend or spouse, you found yourself peering into the abyss. Writer, director Darren Aronofsky’s latest film was written in five days. It may take me five months to be satisfied enough about the whats and whys to let it go. Not since Martin Scorsese’s Silence last year has a picture stuck with me this long.

One cannot categorize mother! into one of those tidy film genres. But let’s give it a go. Definitely a horror film. It’s also an allegory (not a standard movie category). But first and foremost it’s a product of the filmmaker’s deep passion and a desire to make something very different. To take the necessary path. To be true to the idea. Attend to every detail. To the art of it. That demonstrates courage. To stop at nothing to collect all the artifacts required to make the film. To have the confidence in the larger team to pull it off.

There was considerable secrecy during production. People didn’t really know what it was about which could have contributed to some of the negative reaction it received once released. “Hey, it has Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. That’s going to be fun.” Not even close.

The final product has been controversial to say the least. I must admit that there were times during my viewing when I felt uneasy, but the craft of the picture along with the amazing performances caused me to lean in. To pay close attention. I found myself dissecting mother! on a granular level. There is so much to unpack and discover.

Many of the films now made in the U.S. look and sound the same. Shot on digital. Packed with CGI. Story retreads. Everybody is a Super Hero. Repetitive music. Explosions. Have you noticed a certain deep sound that comes standard in almost all previews you see before your feature begins? The bass drop sound effect (called “Bwah” by insiders) is standard in almost every trailer.

Hollywood has always been a bit of a copycat business. Studios now prefer to latch onto a franchise that allows them to turn out multiple films which is much safer for them financially. But studios now have a lot of new competition from Netflix and even Amazon. I’m glad Paramount took this chance and did it right.

Does mother! go too far? Was this shot choice or those words written necessary?…

Picture opens on Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), engulfed in flames. Bruises and blood dots cover her scuffed face. A tear begins to fall from her right eye. Cut to Him (Javier Bardem), placing a large crystal on a pedestal. His hands are dirty, as if they have been digging in the earth. A sly smile appears on his face.

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mother! Earth

In a heartbeat we learn we are entirely on our own. There will be no Cliffs Notes version. Nothing clearly spelled out. No narrator or helpful on-screen hints (“Three years later…”). Even though we are thrown into the fire from the first frame there are hundreds of clues sprinkled throughout. Those clues and their connections add texture and stick in your brain for days.

No character in this film has been given a name and there is no music soundtrack.

Mother awakes in an empty bed. She is the restorer of this house that suffered an intense fire. She is the project manager and has done all the physical work “wall to wall” while Him, the great writer, broods and waits for inspiration.

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Jennifer Lawrence as Mother

One evening while they are in the drawing room there’s a knock at the door. Man (Ed Harris) enters and immediately captures Him’s attention. Regaling him with stories and offering praise for Him’s work as a writer. He is also called the poet. Numerous aliases. Man fires up a cigarette using a lighter adorned with an odd symbol. Mother informs him that there’s no smoking, but he is indifferent to her request. Soon Him shows Man to his study and points out the beautiful crystal we saw at the beginning of the film. Man is captivated by its beauty. He constantly coughs and drinks too much, so Him invites Man to stay the night without consulting Mother.

The next day Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Man’s wife, shows up standing on the front porch, roller bag in tow as if she just got off the plane and is arriving for Thanksgiving dinner. Soon they talk about family and Man shares photos of their two sons. Mother is unsettled that Him invites them to stay as long as they like. And just like that the Jeannie is out of the bottle and Mother is powerless to stop it.

After an awkward exchange between Mother and Woman, Mother uncovers a suspicious item in their luggage. While discussing this with her husband, Man and Woman steal away to the third floor study. They want to see the crystal. Suddenly we hear breaking glass. The crystal hits the floor and shatters, setting off a fit of anger in Him.

He boards up the study and in a fit of spontaneous rage, snaps off the door knob with a swift barehanded blow. It tumbles off the stairs to the floor below. Mother picks it up and places it on the breakfront in the foyer.

The sons of Man and Woman suddenly enter the house. They are loud and rude. A fight breaks out between the brothers over a trust document their father (dying of a disease) has written. As the scuffle escalates, the oldest son finds the abandoned door knob on the breakfront and strikes his brother resulting in a grave injury. Him accompanies the family to the hospital.

Brothers fighting
Michelle Pfeiffer (Woman), Ed Harris (Man), Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson (Sons)

Mother has a deep emotional relationship with the sprawling house which is located in a vast green meadow in the middle of nowhere. “This is home.” She always goes barefoot, caresses the walls and occasionally goes in close to hear its heartbeat. While in the basement, she comes across some, well, shall we say odd things. An exploding light bulb. Blood running down the foundation walls. Mother is curious as a cat but we don’t know how many lives she has already used. Scratching at the wall with a pair of channel lock pliers she opens up a hidden space packed with massive steel tanks and a hopping frog.

Magic Elixir Bottle
Mother’s crystalline elixir

She experiences episodes of stomach pain and chases it away by mixing mysterious, but effective golden crystals with water. It soothes her and allows her to return to what has now become an ongoing nightmare. Her elixir is kept in a brown, antique glass bottle with a well-worn label making it difficult to read. The only words I could make out were “remedy, pharmacy and Buffalo, N.Y.” There are a series of numbers at the top of the label “096” followed by a symbol that seems to match the one on Man’s lighter. Some have identified it as the Wendehorn symbol.

Shortly after Him returns from the hospital, Man and Woman also appear, closely followed by a number of friends. The group was invited by Him to mourn the loss of the younger brother, but they lack manners and Mother is more and more becoming a steeping pot, and not the good kind. People continue to arrive swarming the three level structure and eventually collapsing a sink that has not been properly braced in the remodel. Water pipes burst, flooding the kitchen. Mother snaps and her roar drives out the unwanted guests, leaving her and Him to have a brief, private exchange.

Script Snags CombinedThey consummate their marriage; something we can believe has never take place. Mother awakes. Her face bathed in beaming sunlight. She is absolutely radiant and dead certain she is with child. Suddenly he finds lighting in a bottle and begins to write. He produces his opus.

The Poet’s book sells out on the first day. To celebrate, Mother prepares a feast fit for a god and sets the table for an intimate dinner for two.

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Javier Bardem as Him

Her carefully planned celebration is interrupted by a large group of people descending on their house, which is now a vessel adrift in the ocean of the darkness of humanity. They want to see the Poet. He has written an algorithm for human salvation and purpose. His desire to be loved by everyone has come true and the ultimate sacrifice is now inevitable.

Him’s publisher Herald (Kristen Wig) arrives with the second printing and a book signing takes shape. Later we see that Herald has a much more serious role than a simple messenger.

The crowd moves slowly at first. Then more aggressively through measured small annoyances; people helping themselves to food or the bathroom. Soon things get out of hand and all out chaos takes over. Worship of the Poet is the unspoken excuse. Him has given them permission to make his home theirs. “Share, like the Poet said. Share.” They move from wanting to see him, to getting his autograph, to touching him, to stealing something he owns. There will be more desires to satisfy. Him adores it. He cannot create without a mess. Others must sacrifice.

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What could go wrong?

The house is transformed into Dante’s inferno with each floor becoming another gate of hell. People are tied-up, put in cages, shot at point blank range. Soldiers burst in, molotov cocktails are thrown. Mother is nine months pregnant and finds herself crawling over dead bodies covered in ash throughout the house. Contractions are coming faster now. She wants desparately to get out of the house, “The door! The door!” Him finds her, but Instead of leaving he takes her to the third floor study.

Mother gives birth to their son. Him wants to hold the child but she will not have it.

The final scenes are difficult to watch as they involve the infant and some brutal treatment of Mother by the followers. The door knob Him snapped off the study and used by Man’s son to kill his younger brother is now in the hand of the Zealot (Stephen McHattie). He wields it and brings Mother to the floor.

With nothing left to lose, Mother takes matters into her own hands. She has found Man’s lighter and sets off a fury that completely transforms the situation. All has changed. Him and Mother have one last exchange, but Him still needs more.

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Him carries Mother home

“…Nothing is ever enough. I couldn’t create if it was… I need one last thing.”


rosemarysbabyposter

Mr. Aronofsky was inspired by his work with The Sierra Club and concerns about climate change. Humans are destroying mother earth. There are obvious Biblical references that are woven into the complex message. Or perhaps it’s a strong commentary on society today.

One of the promotion posters used by mother! was obviously modeled after the ionic image Roman Polanski chose for his breakthrough film Rosemary’s Baby. Both stories center around a pregnant wife, an artistic husband struggling to find his way and religious beliefs that humans twist into a cult. Controversy surrounded each picture.

About halfway through mother! I recalled Luis Buñel’s brilliant, surreal masterpiece, The Exterminating Angel. In the film, a group of high-society friends are invited to a mansion for dinner and find themselves inexplicably unable to leave. Power and helplessness are enduring themes.

William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist was made into the movie event of 1973 by William Friedkin. Audience reactions to it visceral. Again, religious motifs. But The Exorcist was a bestseller and the story widely known well ahead of the film’s release. mother! had no such pre-launch.

Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb  is packed with symbolism. Base commander and Brigadier General Jack Ripper’s gone mad. His word game; “purity of essence, peace on earth,” and the mythical CRM 114 Discriminator are carefully planted elements that weave the fabric of the film at the edges and slowly tighten it around the story.


mother! with all it’s careful production and staging is wonderfully balanced between a film and a play. The stage, an amazing eight-sided, three floor mansion is the perfect venue for this story. There are no dead ends in the house, just more passageways to mystery.

Jennifer Lawrence delivers a fantastic performance as Mother. It was obviously a challenge physically, but mentally this must have pushed her into a new space.

Javier Bardem is essentially a chameleon, delivering new versions of himself in each outing.

The eye-popping film is due largely to Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Pi) 16mm handheld photography. His camera constantly whips through the house and encircles the characters. Three basic shots are all that are used to tell the story. His camera is a personal diary of the story.

The sound design is truly astounding. The endless tight shots are paired with sounds and dialogue coming at you from all angles, giving the experience more depth. Andrew Weisblum’s editing (Black Swan, The Wrestler), which took 53 weeks, really is a miracle given the framing limitations and complexity of the shot list.

Although it is difficult to give this a whole-hearted recommendation. If you are a serious film-goer and appreciate high-level craftwork then this is a must see. mother! is a rare find these days.

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Protozoa Pictures. Thank you.

 

“California Typewriter” QWERTY Shines in Important Documentary – Review

This post has been updated: Since writing about this film. I purchased two typewriters. A 1954 Smith Corona Silent and a 1958 Olympia SM-3. The Olympia is a work of art.

Olympia Gray

Despite the abundance of digital software applications available to web designers, many prefer to sketch out their initial ideas with pen and paper. It’s faster than using digital tools and forces your brain to think in a different way. Even if you know the designing program well, a significant part of your brain’s energy is used up remembering commands, menus and locations of the software interface. With a pencil in hand your brain sends creative signals directly to it without interference. The result is you get more bang for your creative synapse.

The same approach can be applied to writing on a typewriter vs. computer keyboard. But none of us do that because pencils and paper are plentiful in every home or corporate office while typewriters are completely absent. It is highly likely that anyone reading this post has never used a typewriter. Or if they have it was decades ago. And that’s a darn shame.

This week I caught up with a wonderful little documentary called California Typewriter, directed, photographed and edited by Grammy winner Doug Nichol. Mr. Nichol centers his story around a small typewriter repair shop in Berkley, California owned by Herbert L. Permillion, III, a former IBM employee who serviced the brand’s Selectric typewriters for over twenty years. He bought the store – called California Typewriter – about the time computers were starting their rise in offices and homes, but has always remained steadfast that the typewriter will always be an important cultural tool.

We get to know Herb, his daughter Carmen and Ken Alexander, a master typewriter repairman over the course of the film. They have lots of ups and downs economically, but their love of this machine always wins the day, and somehow they mange to keep the business going.

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Carmen, Herb and Ken

The film’s other story is how the typewriter has sunk very deep roots in American society and are cared for not only by this team, but by thousands of other enthusiasts across the country.

The film opens with a dramatization of the American artist Ed Ruscha’s photo book Royal Road Test from 1967. In this spiral bound publication Mr. Ruscha carefully documented in black and white photographs and short prose the roadside remains of a Royal typewriter tossed from a speeding 1963 Buick LeSabre, California plate FUP 744. At the time the car was hurtling west on U.S. Highway 91 outside of Las Vegas when the deed was done. They turned the car around and went back to photograph the wreckage as well as the three men who committed the act. This and other books he created at the time paid tribute to the romantic vision of being on the road in the American West.

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Royal Road Trip Recreation

Mr. Nichol includes four accomplished artists in the telling of this story. Each incorporates the typewriter into their daily lives. These profiles are critical to helping us understand that for over a hundred years, analog was how work got done in the U.S. It gave meaning to traditions and even how happiness was experienced in the pre-digital age.

Tom Hanks has 250+ typewriters in his personal collection. He is passionate about the typewriter and when asked which of his machines he would take if stranded on a desert island he chose the Smith Corona Silent (circa 1950’s).

The rise on the keys is almost perfect. Going from an “n” to a “y” requires almost nothing. The size of the type is not too big and not too small. But listen to the solidity of the action. This is a solid piece of machinery. It’s got beautiful highlights… With a good case this would be thee one typewriter I would take if stranded on an island.

— Tom Hanks

David McCullough is the brilliant writer of The Wright Brothers, 1776, Truman and other critically acclaimed works. Every morning after breakfast he enters a small stand alone structure behind his home and goes to work on his second hand Royal Standard typewriter he paid $25 for in White Plains, NY. He has written his entire body of work on this machine.

People tell me that I could do much better. I could go faster and have less to contend with if I were to use a computer. A word processor. But I don’t want to go faster. If anything I prefer to go slower. To me it’s understandable. I press a key and another key comes up and prints a letter on a piece of paper… It’s tangible. It’s real.

— David McCullough

American singer-songwriter John Mayer has opted out of digital tools for writing his songs, doing it now on a typewriter.

I’m not picking the typewriter because I think it’s hip. It’s the best version of the idea that’s ever come around. For me I think the best way to live is to incorporate the best of the last 100 years into a hybrid that works. Write a book on a typewriter and promote it on Twitter. Use the spectrum.

— John Mayer

Pulitzer winning playwright and author Mr. Sam Shepherd would prefer to ride horses than drive a car. He describes in great detail why he prefers a typewriter. Here’s a snippet.

You have to feed a typewriter paper. There’s a percussion about it. You can see the ink flying onto the surface of the paper. So a letter will go bam, but along with it the ink flies into the paper.

— Sam Shepherd (1943 – 2017)

More elements of the story begin to emerge. Devoted typewriter collector Martin Howard, whose license plate is QWERTY 1, has studied the invention of the typewriter and its impact on our society for twenty-two years. He loves the beginning of things which explains why he collects typewriters from the 1880’s and 1890’s. He specializes in typewriters of non-standard design.

We’ve now seen typewriter repairmen, collectors, and writers that use them to create their work. But still more protagonists tell their stories. Although we have seen a healthy dose of passion about the typewriter up to this time, these two artists have an almost mystical relationship with the typewriter. Jeremy Mayer is a sculptor who uses parts and materials from typewriters in his work. He studies nature and human anatomy along with typewriter anatomy and combines them to create amazing objects.

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Jeremy Mayer and Silvi Alcivar

If the typewriter had a mind as it was being invented, Silvi Alcivar is what it might have conjured up as someone who would use it. Machines were never viewed as a serious threat to humans unlike robots and artificial intelligence warnings of today. There is nothing artificial about a typewriter. But in the hands of Ms. Alcivar typewriting takes on new meaning. She is a poet and occasionally you might find here on a sidewalk or in a museum at her pop-up poetry store. Give her a couple of thoughts and she will type you a poem on the spot. She trusts that the words will always come and hugs her Royal typewriter close, but no one else can use it.

To help balance out the serious and spiritual themes, Mr. Nichol brings in the Boston Typewriter Orchestra. They write and perform songs using typewriters. No lyrics, simply percussion interpretations. They are serious in a Monty Python kind of way. Not too much so, but enough to make us pay attention. Apparently there is no end to the uses of a typewriter.

In the movie we learn that Christopher Latham Sholes invented the first commercially viable typewriter in 1868 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first keyboard had QWERTY on the top row. Something that has never changed. How did QWERTY get on the keyboard? No one knows for sure. It has been said that it came about to aid salesmen who couldn’t type. They could easily peck out the word typewriter as all of the letters fell on the top row.

Sholes became disinterested in his machine and sold his design. It was made of wood and he sold the rights to the metal gun manufacturer, Remington Arms. They were looking for a new way to keep the factories in operation. The Civil War came to a close so orders for guns had slowed dramatically. After a year spent on developing a metal typewriter successfully, mass production began.

Thousands were made and sold, but there was a shortage of people who know how to use them. The first typing school was established in New York in 1881. Six women enrolled in the six month class at a YWCA. When they completed the course all immediately had job offers. Better paying jobs than factory workers or school teachers. The introduction of the machine helped women enter the male business. They were called “typewriters.”

I learned to type on a manual typewriter in a high school typing class. Yes, there was a class called typing. I had a choice. Take typing or home economics (HomeEc) which was code for cooking and other household chores. I chose typing. Before I finished I was up to 55 words per minute with almost no errors. A skill I have used my entire life.

Late in the film we hear from Richard Polt, author of The Typewriter Revolution: A typist’s Companion for the 21st Century. A book I just finished. In fact, because of this documentary and the book, I bought a Smith Corona Silent manual typewriter. I’m cleaning it up as I write this and hope to be up and typing very soon. Mr. Polt also wrote The Typewriter Manifesto.

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I see a close relationship between the typewriter and the vinyl record resurgence. Music is written and recorded. A record is pressed. It’s a physical representation of the music that springs to life when a diamond needle rests on this sacred platter at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. True sound. Pure sonic. Emotive. Tribal.

The typewriter is the confluence of mechanics, art and psychology. When embraced they become a tactile paradise for the mind to enjoy. They command one to think. To slow down and not be afraid to stop. There is no stream. However, ink is necessary. Paper is required. You publish while you write. It occupies space. No need for the cloud. Digital forgives. Typewritten pages are chiseled, archival records.

In a way the typewriter acts as a mediator. Everyone in the film speaks about this machine as if it was alive. It speaks to you. Always at the ready to amplify the true nature of your being.

Highly recommended for everyone interested in typewriters, documentary fans, or if you’re looking for something interesting to watch. Official site here.

The Battle of the Sexes Revisited – Film Review

Battle 2In The Battle of the Sexes, co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, written by Simon Beaufoy, revisit an early and important story of Women’s Liberation movement.

Tennis was dominated by men, even though there was a small group of dedicated women players who would have to tag along behind and pick-up the scraps of promotional opportunities, attention and prize money. Billie Jean King, the number one women’s player at the time, was sick of it. She knew people enjoyed seeing women play and felt it unjust that they would make only a fraction of the money even though the stands were just as full for their matches as the men.

The women’s movement was not the only thing complicating U.S. culture during this time. There was also the escalating war in Vietnam and the ongoing challenges with racism and general unrest in the population. Change is hard.

Emma Stone bravely steps into the role of Billie Jean King and she shines. Ms. Stone transforms herself from the wispy, inexperienced budding actress we saw in La La Land to a powerful, activist athlete who stands up to the status quo and works tirelessly for  women’s rights. That’s an amazing story on its own, but there is another storyline, Her journey to discovering her real sexual identity.

Just about everyone seems to be standing in her way. Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) heads the lawn tennis organization that schedules the tournaments and manages the rules of the association. He sets the men’s prize money at eight times what the women players will earn and doesn’t feel there’s anything wrong with it.

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Then there’s Bobby Riggs, played with frightening precision by Steve Carell. Mr. Carell recreates the antics that the real Riggs staged as part of his one-man circus. Riggs was the ultimate chauvinist and a showman who wouldn’t stop talking. And he relished any and every opportunity to prove it. Although accomplished and largely self-made, he didn’t hesitate to indulge his desires at the expense of his wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) even thought she was from a well to do family and supported him. Riggs has idea after idea and eventually comes up with an epic one. The ultimate battle of the sexes on a tennis court in front of a global audience with lots of money on the line. He tracks down Billie Jean who is on tour, waking her in the middle of the night to try and sell her the idea over the phone. She doesn’t bite.

The filmmakers weave together three individual constructs. The scenes with only women. These are by far the most interesting ones. The scenes featuring only men and groupings of segments where the men and women are in each other’s company, or watching each other on television, or speaking over the phone. This device is highly effective in sharpening the various points of view.

The scene that turns the tide is between Billie Jean and a random hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett. Ms. Barnett is played beautifully by British actress Andrea Riseborough who is a flower child of the time; both vulnerable but adventurous. One day Billie Jean appears in her salon chair waiting to have her hair done in advance of an upcoming tournament. She gets much more than a good cut. Their interaction moves from a casual discussion about what to do with her hair, to a moving and intimate experience. The filmmakers slowly tune out all other sounds in the salon and close in on the quality of Ms. Barnett’s voice. A calming cadence and warm tones that you hear only from a select group of people. A masseuse, a dental hygienist. a therapist, or in this case a hairdresser. They are trained to use their voices to instill calm and to allow the other person to relax and open up to the moment. Both people know exactly what has transpired. Ms. Barnett has become the catalyst that awakens Bille Jean’s true sexual self.

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In contrast, the scenes with only the men are very boring. They are staged in stuffy clubs or locker rooms with the men always at the ready to banter about their superiority and enjoy the comfort in their place at the top. To them it’s always about the sport, the gamble, with little regard paid to woman’s potential.  This might be somewhat of a harsh depiction, but it’s very effective and necessary to telling the story.

Battle of the Sexes Script Clip

The production values of the film are solid. The filmmakers try to over produce. The pace is properly matched to the storytelling. They take their time and let the performances sink in. They also skillfully weave in numerous characters, adding depth and amusement to the picture. The final puts us right there in the Houston Astrodome alongside the 90 million people who tuned in.

Battle 3

Crisp performances by Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, manager of the new women’s league and Natalie Morales as Rosie Casals, a top player and key to the success of the Virginia Slims tennis circuit.

Good artists are aware of their place they occupy in history. Ms. Faris and Mr. Dayton have done society a favor by taking up this story now. Their timing amid the breaking news of women being abused by men makes this film more important and thereby elevates it above what it might have been if tackled at a different time.

Podcast of this review can be found on SoundCloud:

Soundtrack to The Battle of the Sexes by Nicholas Britell on Spotify.

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 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 it.

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.

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With my father post WWII, pre-marriage

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Picture of happiness

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Mother and her children

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Age 97 with my boys

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.

jackie-script-snipit

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 quiet 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.

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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.

u-s-capitol

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!

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

Decoding The Imitation Game: It Wasn’t Hard

The Movie The Imitation Game Delivers and Disappoints

THE IMITATION GAMEI was drawn to this film because of my keen interest in history and technology. During WWII Germany created The Enigma machine that coded and then uncoded messages to their military machine around the world via radio signals. The communications carried intelligence and war strategy directions, and ultimately strike orders. This code was instrumental in giving Hitler a vast head start in his desire to overtake as much of the world as possible, and it was working.

Knowing that breaking the code was critical to winning the war, the British assembled a small group of cryptographers and mathematicians, tasking them to break the Enigma code in a small facility south of London. Among them was Professor Alan Turing, a brilliant but strange mathematician and puzzle prodigy.

The Imitation Game was directed by Morten Tyldum and based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges first published in 1983. The film does indeed tell the code-braking story, but it’s through the lens of Alan Turing who was the mastermind behind the effort and architect of the machine that did so. The choice to make Turning the central story element meant the filmmakers had to veer away from the military drama and focus their storytelling on the arc of Turing’s life.

Turing is played with fine control by Benedict Cumberbatch. He delivers on the challenging task of displaying clumsy genius. He is clear in his objectives, but those goals do not compute in any society. I think he has an outside chance of being nominated for an Academy Award.

In between the fascinating bits about how the project at Bletchley Park, camouflaged as a radio factory, we learn far too much about Turing’s painful and tortured life. He was clearly “on the spectrum.” In other words not a neurotypical (NT). He could not understand how people did not speak the words they meant, instead relying heavily on subtle body language and a secret code that sent the real messages.

This plagued Turing his entire life. That coupled with his homosexuality in a culture where it was illegal, he never had a chance to find a comfortable place in society.

The film’s characters are as expected. Turing’s team at Bletchley, the crusty Commander Denniston (Charles enigma-machineDance) and Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) the head of Britain’s spy organization MI1, all fulfill their duty that leads to the success of the decoding project.

Keira Knightly plays Joan Clarke, a female with a math brain who answered a newspaper ad designed to attract puzzle solvers. Once she gets past the usual hurdles, Clarke becomes Turing’s muse (term used loosely) and contributes in meaningful ways to the project. It’s not a challenging role for Ms. Knightly, but without her, this film would be even harder to watch.

The best part of this picture is the crisp pacing of the film, which I believe is largely due to the great work by William Goldenberg (editor extraordinaire). He weaves three distinct phases of Turing’s life into a seamless montage that makes this a true biopic. The director, Mr. Tyldum, has worked extensively in television and that severely handicaps him here. There is repetitive use of static shots throughout and an uninspired camera. The result is disappointing. A huge story filmed in small format.

I can appreciate wanting to be true to the times and not overuse CGI, but in my opinion, this was an opportunity missed. This could and should be two films. One about the breaking of the code, and the other about Alan Turing.

The soundtrack was composed by Alexandre Desplat, who seems to write all film scores these days. It’s his usual outing, but this time he levels his tracks, which is diametrically opposed to Turing’s personality. No matter, I believe Mr. Desplat is a genius in supporting images with music. He regularly composes twice the number of pieces per film as almost anyone else in the business, except for perhaps Hans Zimmer.

A couple more comments. How can anyone make Keira Knightly look ordinary? And. Those Brits can really keep a secret.

The film’s official web site is, like most movie digital homes, a total mess. You learn nothing new about the movie or Turing, and are subjected to navigation that requires an Enigma Machine to decode.

The-Imitation-Game-Poster-3

Images from the film by Black Bear Pictures and Bristol Automotive

Enigma machine image found on Google images. Thank you interwebs

Appreciation: A Tribute to Poet Mark Strand

Mark Strand   April 11, 1934 — November 29, 2014

m-strandI first met Mark Strand in 1995 on a visit to small apartment in Hyde Park, a Chicago south side neighborhood. He was in town for the summer to conduct a master class in poetry at the University of Chicago and staying with a friend. My purpose that day was to ask Mr. Strand to write prose for a book project that was in pre-production.

The book was an inspired idea from the creative mind of Albert J. Nader, President and Executive Producer of Questar Entertainment where I was working at the time. Mr. Nader loved photography, nature photography most of all, and wanted to publish a book of all America’s National Parks shot by one photographer. No book like that existed and after some research we found a gem right under our noses; Stan Jorstad. Mr. Jorstad lived in St. Charles, IL. He studied photography for a time under Ansel Adams and was an accomplished filmmaker, photographer and commercial designer. He had already been on photographic journeys to over half of the parks, but his images were not the standard fare. He shot the parks with a seventy-five-pound 1902 circuit camera. A circuit camera turns in one direction while the enormous film, ten inches high and twenty-six feet long, moves through it in the opposite direction. When in the hands of a master like Stan the panorama images are, like the parks themselves, not of this world.

We signed Stan to do the book and sent him to the balance of the 52 parks (six more have been added since) and set upon the task to find a writer who could create words worthy of the images. Through my connections in the publishing industry, Mark Strand’s name came to me in an email responding to my broadcast query. I began to read his published poetry and was intrigued and excited. But the work that made him the perfect choice in my mind was his writings on selected paintings by Edward Hopper. The book was a slim volume appropriately titled Hopper. In it Strand deconstructs and explores twenty-three of Hopper’s most important works, his words moving through the layers of the canvas, describing the shapes and colors so distinctive of Hopper.

Wedged in between the short pieces about specific works are more manifold observations of Hopper’s overall approach.

Hopper’s paintings are short, isolated moments of figuration that suggest the tone of what will follow just as they carry forward the tone of what preceded them. The tone but not the content. The implication but not the evidence. They are saturated with suggestion. The more theatrical or staged they are, the more they urge us to wonder what will happen next; the more lifelike, the more they urge us to construct a narrative of what came before.

Hopper’s people seem to have nothing to do. They are like characters whose parts have deserted them and now, trapped in the space of their waiting, must keep themselves company, with no clear place to go, no future.

In that small sitting room in Hyde Park I opened up a large valet and began to show Strand what Stan Jorstad creates with his circuit camera. He quietly took in each image as I revealed them in slow motion as he sat on a small sofa. Strand was immediately interested.

We wanted him to converge the natural, sacred environment of the parks with the wide moments Jorstad captured through the mind’s eye of his camera. Soon we had a deal.

Writing great poetry is an art that is perfected by so few and read by even fewer. In my bookseller days we would struggle to sell any poetry books that weren’t assigned by a teacher or professor. But the fire grows strong inside the bellies of poets. Their mastery of words paint images in our mind. Their personal experiences mesh eerily close with our own.

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Reading poetry is tricky, for one must read it aloud. “How’s that poem? I don’t know let’s hear it.” I heard Strand read his poetry on a few occasions. His voice was not deep or particularly strong. It was pitch perfect. He recited his words with remarkable diction. Not dramatic. No. His voice did not overpower the words. He simply said it in that Strand way.

Et Cetera

I felt very strongly that these two talents needed to be together, so I sent Strand on a road trip to meet up with Jorstad where they worked together in the parks. Stan photographing and Mark writing. I only wish I could have been there to hear those conversations.

I spent days and days in Jorstad’s darkroom sorting through thousands of contact sheets to make the final image selections. Jorstad was so patient with me. He taught me so much about how to look at photographs. We had decided to sequence the photos in the order the parks were established. I believe that was another first.

I sent Strand color prints so he could hone his drafts. I let him decide which images he would write about. I didn’t want something for every park. Just a sprinkle here and there. The images were always meant to take center stage for the eye, while Strand’s words would spark the mind’s imagination.

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This photograph of Death Valley was taken in the evening when the moon was small and low on the horizon, looking as if it were a marble held between two fingers of a cloud. Gazing at the rough, heavily eroded landscape with its tawny violet cast, we can say that what we see is beautiful, that Death Valley has been the subject of a remarkable portrait.

One evening over dinner, Strand took out his pad and started writing, his pen an extension of a unique stream of consciousness. He stopped and we picked up our conversation. I asked him if he would be comfortable showing me what he had written. He simply handed me this piece of paper.

Poem FragmentFor years I would return to his work and each time it immediately resonated with me. Transporting me back to those days in the late ’90’s when I had the incredible fortune to not only know, but work with Mr. Strand. I consider it a gift.

Mark Strand Signature

These Rare Lands: Images of America’s National Parks was published in 1997. Stan Jorstad passed away in 2013.

Photo of Mark Strand by Denise Eagleson

Poem White by Mark Strand from Selected Poems

Poem Et Cetera, Et Cetera by Mark Strand published in The New Yorker Magazine

Death Valley image by Stan Jorstad from These Rare Lands

Handwritten poem fragment by Mark Strand from Steve A Furman personal archives

Selected Poems signature page from Steve A Furman personal archives

Forrester Consumer Forum 2008: Consumer Driven Eco-systems – Second of Three

You can read my first post on the Forrester Consumer Forum, which provides set-up here.

Alamo Relief in the Gaylord Texan
Alamo Relief in the Gaylord Texan

These forums are usually a great mix of analyst insights, customers talking about how they face and solve real business problems and “outsiders” as I affectionately call them. That is academics, consultants or futurists. The customer speakers were a bit of a mixed bag, but both outsiders were well worth the trip. And since Forrester already gets so much ink, I have decided to devote the last two posts on this Forum roundup (we’re in Texas remember) to these externals.

First Patricia Seybold, Founder and CEO of the Patricia Seybold Group. Her topic was Outside Innovation: Profiting from Consumer-Driven Ecosystems. I had the distinct pleasure of sitting next to her at dinner the evening after her talk, which provided me with greater texture into her thought process. I will try and insert some of that bonus material into my post. Ms. Seybold defines a Customer-Centric Ecosystem as:

A business network that’s aligned to help customers get things done.

It can be formal, informal, organic, dynamic or loosely coupled. This is a pretty blank canvas for sure, but then she expands it further by saying it should be aligned around customers’ outcomes and ideal experiences, and provide real time, real world, objective feedback. Where to begin?

Fortunately she had some examples (not case studies, sorry Forrester, these are externals) of companies that have done this successfully. She cited a Staples example where they cut time consumers have to wait to get their rebate check. Staples had to convince the manufacturers that this would be good for them as well as the customer. The result, happier customers and more sales.

Another example was Lego’s Mindstorms program. They give kids a chance to compete in a series of problem solving exercises under pressure. They work on the problem, build it and test it. They are purposefully not given enough resources, but are encouraged to work in the real world trial and error (sound familiar?) environment. Involving kids is always a stroke of genius. Have you ever given a child a digital camera? You get the most interesting shots or footage. It’s a winner all around. The kids get to rise to the challenge, the adults get to help them and the sponsors build brand loyalty and get to foster new talent for the future. The only nervous group were the actual Lego engineers.

But the real clincher was Ms. Seybold’s involvement with a small village in Kagadi Uganda. She has visited there several times and helped them create the village they wanted. Her framework for advancement is:

  • Vision
  • Current Reality
  • Gap
  • Structural Tension
  • Belief
  • Decide
  • Commit/Act

She employed this process in this village. The residents had to decide what they wanted and then work to get it. They worked on agriculture, outreach programs across the area, set-up a community radio station and educated their girls to be change agents. They also employed a two-generation education program where parents would come in and learn alongside their children.

Ms. Seybold’s approach is to address goals and identify the key moments of truth, which means when partner success aligns with customer success. All of this with the objective of getting things done.

Key sound bites for me were “embed your echo-system experience into your products.” This is a very different way of thinking. Then evolve it via customer pull vs. marketing push. That’s the tough one for most firms to understand.

Patricia Seybold Group
© 2008 Patricia Seybold Group

At dinner I learned of her interest and training in comparative literature, which made perfect sense to me, as she is a storyteller and weaves the great human themes into her keen sense of business. If you think this approach can be applied in your company, look her up.