Do we have a new sci-fi classic movie from Spielberg?
That’s probably going to be hotly debated for quite a while, but Spielberg’s adaptation of the novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One, feels like a blend of the more classic tone and adventure vibe of E.T. and the look of Minority Report. Cline’s novel seems to have divided people, with passionate responses on either end of the spectrum. Maybe it’s too nerdy and filled with too many geeky references, and ultimately follows what strikes many people as an unlikeable character. On the flip side, it’s a love letter to video game nerds of my generation, guys like me who grew up playing Atari, Nintendo, and goofy computer games like Zork.
Well, one thing’s for sure. Whatever you may have thought of Cline’s novel, Spielberg’s movie is quite different. Whether that’s a good thing or not may depend on you opinion of the book. I found the movie to be a highly watchable adventure tale though it was populated with some rather pedestrian characters. The forward movement of the plot dominates the story, which is often the case with novels of this type adapted to the screen. After all, feature films (as I discuss more in my book) are structurally closer to short stories than novels. It’s really hard to adapt even a relatively short novel down into a 2-hour movie. Add into that the world-building aspect of a futuristic society addicted to VR and it gets even harder. There’s a lot of information dumbing required and it tends to come out in bursts of explanatory dialogue between characters about things that honestly they should all already know but that they need to tell each other so that we, the audience, can hear it for the first time.
While the movie is quite fun and visually engaging, it lacks some of the darker undertones of the novel (no mention of sex with robotic surrogates while plugged into the Oasis). In part, this is due to the fact that plot takes most of the focus of the storytelling while character development is reduced to more basic and familiar ideas we’ve seen in other movies before. And in this sense, I’m less of a fan of the movie’s handling of the characters than the novel. This may come as a shock to people who find the movie’s version of the main character more likable than the novel’s. Let me explain.
I find it fascinating when people confuse the likability of a character with our ability to empathize with them. I found Michael B. Jordan’s “bad guy” character in Black Panther to be someone I ultimately didn’t like (he was a bay guy, after all) but for whom I felt profound empathy. I understood why he felt the way he did even if I completely disagreed with his violent and vengeful methods. There are plenty of stories in which we might find ourselves empathizing with an unlikable character (Breaking Bad, anyone?).
So, while I am aware that the main character in the Ready Player One novel is not always the most the likable guy around, I still empathized with his situation and his journey. For one thing, the theme of empathy is actually rather crucial to Wade’s development in the book. He begins the story as a rather self-absorbed teen who just wants a way out of his rather shitty existence. Honestly, I get it. I was quite self-absorbed as a teen too, and I wasn’t living in a dystopian world with little prospects for my future. Add to this the fact that Wade is growing up in a world dominated by technology and virtual reality where actual human contact is minimal and it should become rather obvious that Wade is going to struggle with empathy in general.
Neuroscience supports this notion. Children need to have interactions with real, live people in order to learn languages. That’s why those DVDs that claim they’ll teach your baby a foreign language are a load of crap. Don’t believe me? I recommend reading Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. Along with language development, children also learn to read and understand emotional cues through interacting with real people. As we continue to grow, our patterns of behavior shape our ability to empathize and be present and connected to other people. Technology can have negative effects on our abilities to empathize, as indicated by this 2014 study that suggests that the presence of a smartphone lowers our ability to empathize with conversation partners.
So here’s Wade, growing up on virtual reality. Does he struggle with empathy and thus being a typically likable character? You bet your ass he does! But in this way, the Wade of the novel strikes me as far more believable than the one in the film. Spielberg’s Wade is a wide-eyed kid who just hasn’t grown up enough to realize there are deeper concerns than his future alone. He’s handsome in a nerdy way and easy enough to like.
The novel’s Wade, on the other hand, starts as an overweight hardcore nerd who has numbed his pain at the loss of his parents by escaping to a virtual world. His natural state of existence is isolation. His goals are to ensuring his own comforts and survival. He has no real empathetic adult figures in his life that have been consistent and ever-present. As a result, he has limited empathy for the people around him even as they wind up being killed by IOI. While some people might be turned off by this, I found myself thinking, nah, I get it. What else does this kid know at this point?
What ultimately has me reflecting on the novel (but that feels lacking in the movie) is that its main character really grows by the end. To keep things shorter (and possibly give it more of a boy-saves-girl vibe) in the movie, it is Samantha who gets captured by IOI and enslaved. But in the book, Wade is the one who has developed a rather elaborate and highly risky plan to be captured by IOI and entered into their indentured servant program in order to gain the required access to the IOI systems so he can hack them. I get why the movie skipped all of this as this section of the novel could be a feature film of its own.
Wade’s whole plan is incredibly risky as it could well result in his enslavement for life. It also represents a big shift in Wade’s worldview. It would have been much easier for him to stick to a safer plan in which he could continue trying to be the first to the egg and become the sole victor. Instead, he puts himself in harm’s way to do what he can to ensure that IOI will not become the lords of the Oasis, ruining it for everyone and continuing its enslavement program. This side journey sets Wade up to make more self-sacrificial choices by the end of the book. But this is not something the Wade at the beginning of the novel would have done. His contact with Samantha slowly affects him and he has time to go through a very familiar maturation process for someone in their late teens: the realization that the world is bigger than one’s own preoccupations. As a result, the ending of the novel felt more satisfying for me as Wade traveled a longer distance in his personal growth.
Is the movie worth watching? Sure. But even though I know the detractors of the book might disagree with me, I think the novel’s worth more some very thoughtful reading and reflection.
[Originally published on MikelWisler.com. Republished with permission.]
Before I was a filmmaker, I was a sci-fi writer. I’m still a sci-fi writer. What can I say, I’m a huge nerd and I love it.
I recently came across a video I hadn’t seen of Ben Affleck doing part of the Criterion Collection edition commentary on the movie Armageddon. It brought back some memories and made me realize something about the film I hadn’t years ago.
I haven’t seen Armageddon in a long time. I saw it in theaters and then got a VHS copy of the film for Christmas. I was only in high school in ’98 when the film came out. But even as a high schooler, I have to admit that between Armageddon and the other “a huge asteroid is about to hit earth” blockbuster of that era, Deep Impact, I was a little more into Deep Impact. The plot and characters struck me as slightly more authentic than Michael Bay’s rather silly concept of a gang of oil drillers magically turned astronauts.
Take a look at this short segment from Affleck’s commentary for Armageddon:
It’s pretty hilarious, in my opinion. Maybe Affleck just doesn’t care anymore what Michael Bay thinks of him, or maybe Bay is really a good sport and now recognizes this particular glaring logical misstep in the movie’s concept. Either way, seeing this video pop up on my Facebook feed made me realize that Armageddon ultimately is not very kind to scientists, in particular to everyone working for NASA.
This strikes me as sci-fi written by non-science-loving folks. Or at least, created by people who don’t understand what scientist really do. Meanwhile, screenwriter Drew Goddard has openly stated that his adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian, is intended to be a love letter to science. And that makes sense. Weir’s novel features a scientist, Mark Watney, who is both endowed with intellect and profound humanity. He’s got a dark sense of humor, makes mistakes, but learns and adapts. And in the end, it’s his determination to do the math and work through the logical and scientific challenges he faces that keeps him alive.
Armageddon isn’t alone in portraying scientists poorly. There’s a danger in sci-fi to rely on the notion of the “mad scientist” who brings about some grand threat to humanity. Now, that’s not to say that sci-fi writers are not allowed write stories where scientist go too far and bring about problems. I’m a fan of such stories and I’m even prepping to publish a two new novels of my own that deal with ethical problems brought about by greed, fear, and other factors influencing our scientific pursuits. But the important thing for me is that these are universal human shortcomings we all face, scientist or not. And scientists are definitely quite human.
For a good example of this, I recommend checking out Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks. I’m working my way through it right now and finding it to be incredibly enlightening to the humanity of scientists in both their great reliance on intuition and their hubris that has caused many problems throughout history. It’s a fascinating read and really brings valuable perspective.
So what am I getting at? I believe in the three-dimensional portrayal of characters. Armageddon, in its effort to get us to buy what is ultimately a ludicrous concept (that a bunch of oil drillers can be transformed into competent astronauts with a mere week or two of training) ends up being quite insulting to actual astronauts and all scientists who work for years to make the breakthroughs that allow our knowledge and technology to advance.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that oil drillers are buffoons. It’s not a simply either/or situation. If a movie were to portray a plot in which a scientist, let’s say a chemist, where to show up and save the day by fixing a car a bunch of mechanics had been unable to fix, I would find that equally ridiculous. You’d have to set up clearly that this chemist has a background as a mechanic. But still, if the chemist has been working as a chemist for years what’s the likelihood they have the real-world experience as a mechanic to do a far better job than any actual mechanics? It could happen, but it’s incredibly unlikely. More importantly, how are the mechanics portrayed in such a story?
In the case of Armageddon, NASA’s scientists are presented through the lens of our oil drilling hero who seems to think they’re all incompetent. But it can go the other way too. One of the things that bug me to no end about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is that the film is incredibly uncharitable to farmers and to some extent even undermines environmentalism. The main character is a reluctant farmer who feels the call to exploration. There’s nothing wrong with this. We’re not all farmers. We’re also not all explorers. The real problem is that the only other farming character in the film is portrayed in a rather villainous light. Combine this with the film’s thesis that humanity is not supposed to be mere caretakers but explorers instead, and Interstellar sadly comes off saying (in this capacity, at least) that there’s no point taking care of our planet and placing value on those who feel called to stewardship of our resources and the growing and raising of food for humanity. In short, once we pillage what we can from Earth we’ll be saved by those bold enough to take us to new planets. Of course, we’re going to need farmers to keep feeding us once we land on a new habitable planet, so …
Meanwhile, a novel and movie like Jurassic Park presents scientists of various disciplines arguing the moral responsibility and prudence of cloning long-extinct creatures. This strikes me as a somewhat more balanced approach. Granted, one could make the case that geneticists are not presented in the best light while paleontologists and mathematicians are. However, it is worth pointing out that Jurassic Park is a story about cloning, so, of course, the particular geneticist in this plot are the ones that said, “Sure, let’s do this. Damn the consequences.” In the novel, the real bad guy is the park’s owner, a businessman. Sorry businessmen.
As a sci-fi writer myself, I hope to engage in more nuanced portrayals of both scientists and non-scientist characters. I grant that any given story is only a limited perspective on our reality and can only be populated by a limited number of characters. There are many aspects of Interstellar that I really love and I grant (well, sort of) that maybe there just wasn’t time in the movie to portray farmers in a better light (though, come on, that thing is long). So I continue to learn and seek to write well-rounded, three-dimensional characters that wrestle with the real ethical and philosophical issues surrounding the advancement of our knowledge and technology. I doubt I’ll get to write a blockbuster like Armageddon, but I hope to contribute my own small way to more thoughtful portrayals of science and those who dedicate themselves to discovery and exploration.
In the meantime, I look up to guys like Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko, two people who have braved spending a whole year in space aboard the ISS. Now these are some badass scientists right here!
[This post first appeared on mikelwisler.com on December 8, 2016.]
If you’re new to filmmaking, it can be tough to wrap your head around the idea of creating a shot list. It does take some time to develop good shot listing skills. Because of this, I’ve met new filmmakers tend to think they’re better off just figuring out how to shoot each scene in their film on the fly. I’ve even worked with filmmakers who believe in the value of a shot list, but can’t seem to get around to making a shot list in advance of shooting. Because of this, I made sure address the importance of shot lists in my new book, Short Films 2.0: Getting Noticed in the YouTube Age.
I have also created this short video describing a helpful exercise for new filmmakers looking to get the hang of creating a short list. Check it out below.
But why does this all matter? Well, let me give you one example. The following is a short excerpt from Short Films 2.0, which includes the steps in the exercise :
I once was involved with a project by a very green director who never made a shot list. Everyday we would show up to set with no real plan other than knowing what scene or scenes we were going to try to shoot that day. The first two hours or so of our shooting day were regularly lost to the director standing around and starting at things on set, thinking about how to shoot the scene. At times we did some blocking with the actors, which was followed by more standing around. Finally, he would have an idea of where to start shooting the scene and we would at last begin shooting. But, as we proceeded, he would invent more and more shots. Even though I was rather green myself, I had studied filmmaking at the LAFSC [Los Angeles Films Studies Center] by this point and cut several of my own early short films. I knew enough to know that many of the shots this director was coming up with on the fly where not shots any sensible editor would ever use when cutting the film together: they would not fit with the flow of the scene; they would create awkward jumps in perspective; they would likely create an inconsistent visual style. On top of this, many of the shots he invented on the go overlapped material that we had already covered in two or three or four other angles.
Any sensible director or cinematographer is always thinking about how a scene will ultimately cut together and make camera placement and shot decisions based on how they envision the edit playing out and how they are utilizing the visual grammar (shot size, angle, movement, composition, lighting, color, so forth) of the particular style they have embraced for a given project. The problem was that this green director was his own cinematographer and his own editor. The concept of visual grammar was not even remotely on his radar, as the end product ultimately demonstrated. And, in spite of my warnings that he would likely never use certain angles in the final edit that he wanted to get on set, we spent a lot of time covering scenes with more camera set-ups than most Hollywood studio movies. This resulted in an incredibly slow and draining shooting pace on set that just drug on. And the real kicker? We were shooting a feature film! It’s one thing to pull this kind of amateur stunt on your first short film over a grueling weekend. People are likely to forgive this and extend some grace to a first time filmmaker shooting his or her first short film. It is quite another matter to try to direct in this fashion on a feature film project. The patience of your cast and crew will run out long before you complete production.
In spite of this director’s lack of editing experience, it would still have been incredibly beneficial for him to at least think through each scene and try to compare it to other movies he felt were similar to the one he was making. If you find yourself having a hard time making a shot list, I recommend the follow exercise:
- Choose two or three scenes from major movies by seasoned directors. Be sure they are movies or scenes that are similar to the scene you are about to shoot.
- Carefully watch the scenes a few times, making notes about the size of the frame, shot composition, and camera placement.
- Note how the scene progresses. Does it start with a wide shot then cut into mediums or close-ups? Does it start on a close-up and cut to a wide in order to first introduce a character and then reveal their whereabouts? Does it use an establishing shot?
- Note if the camera moves, is hand-held, or stationary. Does the camera pan or tilt to follow the action on screen?
By analyzing scenes that are similar to yours, you will be able to develop an understanding of how seasoned directors might approach shooting analogous material. Initially, such analysis can provide you with at least a rough template to follow. But as you work through this process a few times you will begin to grasp why directors make certain choices and why you might want to make similar or different ones depending on the nature of your film project.
I wish the above director had engaged in this kind of preparation since he felt unable to create a shot list ahead of time. More importantly, he might have managed to grasp the nature of style and visual grammar and made better choices about how to cover each scene. He might have grasped how movement, low angle shots, high angle shots, composition choices, frame size, and other cinema grammar elements could be best used to tell his story. His problem wasn’t so much that he lacked knowledge as much as he was in too much of a hurry to become an indie filmmaker making feature films. He should have taken the time to read good books on filmmaking and make several short films first, in order to develop firsthand knowledge of style and visual grammar before taking on a feature film. His haste led to him being ill-prepared to make a feature film and this was only compounded by his continued unwillingness to even try to plan ahead with a basic shot list. In the end, we lost countless hours on set and it hurt the final film significantly.
You can read more about shot listing and about how the whole medium of short films have changed dramatically in the past ten years by checking Short Films 2.0 on Amazon. In fact, Zach Lipovsky, the creator of a fantastic app that helps with creating and managing a shot list and schedule, Shot Lister, has endorsed the book and called it “a practical tool for filmmakers facing the challenges of not only making short films but getting them in front of viewers.”
Short Films 2.0 addresses the unique challenges that short films face when compared to feature films and includes real-world examples and stories as well as loads of links and bonus materials like sample scripts and suggested reading. The book is out now on Kindle and will be out in trade paperback on June 7, 2016.
As some of you might already know, we are hard at work developing our first feature film, Unidentified. In an effort to lay the groundwork for this process, I wrote and novel adaptation of the same story and we have been hard at work getting the word out about the novel now that it is available on Kindle. This past Thursday evening, I had the great privilege of being part of the Citywide Blackout show on WEMF Radio, in Cambridge, Mass. I got to talk at length about the novel and the development work we’re doing on the film. You can now listen to the recording of the whole show. The half-hour segment where I’m interviewed about Unidentified happens about sixty minutes into the show.
On top of this, Unidentified was mentioned in the latest news from Rogue Cinema! You can read that whole article by clicking here. We are excited to see the project continue to gain more exposure. We definitely cannot do this on our own. So please do feel to share this with friends on social media and keep an eye out for more news and interviews. And don’t forget, the Kindle book is only $2.99! Be sure to check out the film’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts. Thank you so much for your support and enthusiasm for this project.
I do a lot of strange things. I’m the first one the acknowledge that fact. Even though I’m a long-time filmmaker, I just did a bit of a jump into a whole different field and published my first novel last month. But maybe I’m too used to my own craziness, because this doesn’t seem so off to me. Or maybe it’s the fact that I started off years ago writing short stories an even a novel (whose decade-old draft still sits on my shelf in my office). But I certainly can understand why for many people who know me as a filmmaker, hearing about me publishing a novel might come as a surprise. I hope it’s a good surprise.
Here’s the low-down on what I’m up to with that, and how that relates to what Stories by the River is doing. We have long been exploring the possibilities of producing our first feature length movie as we have continued to make short films and workout and tone our filmmaking and storytelling muscles. We’ve also been exploring options in terms of genres that might allow us to tell a story we’re very excited about and that can captivate an enthusiastic audience interested in something independently produced. In part, that’s how I ended up pitching Dominic and Kristina Stone Kaiser, my partners here at SbtR, on the idea of making a sci-fi/horror project, Unidentified.
If you’re curious about why the horror genre specifically, here’s an article I wrote a while back for Horatio where I explain my love for the genre. Here is also a short video where I talk about why I wrote this novel.
As I worked on the first draft of the screenplay for Unidentified, it became clear to me that there were aspects of the story, particularly the inner lives of the characters, that I wanted to have more time to explore. A novel seemed like the perfect venue for such exploration while still maintaining the fast-paced thriller momentum the story requires. In addition to this, I recognize that as a filmmaker who has written and directed many short films and even sought funding for other feature film projects that I needed to present my prospective investors with something more than just a cool idea and a gripping script. I need to present them with hard numbers on the audience for this specific story. What better way to connect with my audience than to get a book out there? This is an especially exciting notion in this new digital age where self-publishing is no longer looked upon with the same condescension of even just a few years ago.
Actually, self-publishing is the way to break into the publishing world today. Authors like Lisa Genova (Still Alice) and Andy Weir (The Martian) both self-published their first novels. It was no easy road, but Genova’s first novel went on to be picked up by a traditional publisher, became a New York Times Best Seller, and was made into a movie for which Julianne Moore won the Oscar for best actress earlier this year. Weir’s first novel was also eventually picked up by a traditional publisher, became a NYT Best Seller as well, and the movie version directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon comes out in
November (correction, it’s actually October 2nd). Obviously, these are some remarkable stories and by no means do most self-published authors go on to enjoy quite this level of success. But Genova (whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting a couple of years ago and shooting interviews with about her journey of self-publication) and Weir do demonstrate how publishing is changing today as self-publication has become the go-to option for new authors and is now a territory many publishers pay attention to in their quest to discover new authors.
Now I’m not at all imagining that I’ll enjoy quite the level of success that Genova and Weir enjoy (I think they’re far better writers than me, if I say so myself). But that doesn’t stop me form being inspired by them!
Back to my novel … So I used my feature length screenplay as a very detailed outline for the novel for Unidentified. And you know what? It was incredibly fun! I’m serious! Maybe it’s just nice to take a break from dealing with all the logistics of producing and directing films and constantly having to consider what can and cannot be done on a budget, but it was nice to just dive into a story and allow myself to be taken along for the ride even as the writer. Little pleasures as a storyteller can be quite fulfilling, such as how I realized that if I wanted it to be raining during a particularly dramatic scene in the novel, I could just go a head and do that without worry of how much it will cost me to make that rain or how to keep all the gear dry during shooting.
In the end, it is the ability to really dive into the inner journey the various characters are on that really made the experience so much fun. And so far, the readers who have been grabbing their Kindle copy of the book and sending me their comments or posting reviews on Amazon seem to be enjoying the journey as well. That’s exciting to me! And as a long-time lover of The X-Files, writing this script and novel feel kind of like coming home.
I invite you to check out Unidentified in novel form. Every sale is a hard number we can take to potential investors as we seek to tell this story in two mediums. You can be part of making this dream of ours a reality and help us tell a meaningful story that dares to explore some important, if scary, questions. Grab your copy here.
We are very excited to announce that we are in the early stages of developing a feature film project that Stories by the River plan on producing. The project will be produced by SbtR producers Kristina Stone Kaiser and Mikel J. Wisler with Wisler directing. The 100-page script was written by Wisler, who also write a novel adaptation of the same story that is currently in consideration for digital publication later this year.
The film is called Unidentified and is a sci-fi/horror genre blend in the vein of The X-Files and movies like The Fourth Kind, Dark Skies, Extraterrestrial, and The Forgotten. Here’s a brief look at the story:
One year ago, a boy went missing. No trace of him has ever been found. Now, Boston-based Special Agent for the FBI, Nicole Mitchell, is brought back from leave when a girl in New Hampshire claims to have been abducted by aliens. The case bears similarities to the case of the missing boy she investigated the year before. Certain that someone is using the powerful suggestion of UFOs and the alien abduction scenario to kidnap these kids, Mitchell enlists the help of paranormal debunking psychiatrist, Dr. Alan Evans. But as the the case unfolds, Mitchell and Evans are confronted with a much darker reality than they ever expected. Nothing could have prepared them for what they are about to encounter.
Stories by the River has already launched a Twitter account (@un1dent1f1ed) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/UnidentifiedFilm) and is actively seeking to connect with the film’s target audience even at this early stage. SbtR producers are also meeting with prospective investors and researching marketing and distribution options for the film once it is completed. This is no small undertaking and will certainly take some time, but we are very excited about this story and about the vibrant market that exists for sci-fi and horror films today. Wisler, who has written and directed several short films for SbtR had been hard at work polishing to script and novel. Early feedback from both has been quite enthusiastic.
Award-winning cinematographer, Rajah Samaroo (cinematographer for Wisler’s upcoming short film, “Parallel”) has signed on to the project and is intimately involved with the development process (see a post by Samaroo here). Wisler has prepared thorough production plan, budget, and pitch package that are available to interested investors upon request. E-mail Mikel J. Wisler at [email protected].
Be sure to check out the film’s official website (www.unidentifiedfilm.com) as well as following the film on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with the latest news, casting announcements, and news about the publication of the novel.
Lately I’ve been an incredibly busy guy (note the absence of blog posts by me in recent weeks). So I’m going to start this blog entry by admitting right upfront that I have not seen even a single frame of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new science TV show, Cosmos. It’s probably quite good in it’s own right (though in light of recent comments by Tyson, I have questions as to just how good the show is). But I just haven’t had the chance to check it out.
All the same, I have had my eye on the controversial statements Tyson has made as relate to other academic disciplines, particularly the field of Philosophy. If you haven’t been following this issue, Tyson recently made some very disparaging comments about philosophy on a podcast where he was being interviewed. In fact, this is not the first time he has made comments that dismiss philosophy as being counter productive to progress (in his mind) since we might be sidetracked by asking too many questions about the nature of reality and our existence in this universe. I don’t want to dive into all the details of what all he specifically said as that will make this blog post much too long. Instead, I highly recommend reading this article by Scientist and Philosopher (yes, both disciplines together) Massimo Pigliucci where he quickly addresses the misconceptions Tyson (whom he seems to know personally) has about philosophy. It’s a very worthwhile read, even if you’re not a scientist or philosopher. Pigliucci is very even handed in his response, being both direct and kind.
Now, I admit that the topic is of particular interest to me as I do have a BA in Philosophy from Bethel College, where I had the privilege to study under Chad Meister, James Stump, and Tim Erdel, among other professors (look those guys up, they’re not only amazingly intelligent, they’re also genuinely amazing people). So I recognize I probably have a bias in this situation as I’m already clearly sold on the value of philosophy (as I crammed in that BA while getting a totally different BA in four years). Or maybe–just maybe–I have something Tyson seems to lack: an actual working understanding of what philosophy is and the broader and deeper purpose it serves (which Pigliucci addresses head-on in his article). I’ll let you decide.
I’m also a lover of science and have long drawn to science fiction as both a favorite genre of mine for reading and watching as well as the genre I most often find myself working in as a writer and filmmaker. I believe science fiction is a genre that is uniquely equipped to dive directly into big philosophical questions (much as the horror genre often comes ready-made to dive into the spiritual realm directly). Sci-fi offers us big philosophical questions like: Is it right to arrest someone for crime they have not yet committed but supposedly are sure to commit in the future (Minority Report)? Are we alone in the universe (Contact, War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and many others)? Is it right to bring back to life potentially dangerous creatures that went extinct 65 million years ago (Jurassic Park)? What does it mean to be a living being (Frankenstein and much of the Zombie genre)? Is it right to use our advances in genetics to engineer better human beings (Gattaca)? Can human beings have a loving relationship with artificial intelligence (Her and Transcendence)? Can technology bring us to a place where we lose sight of what is real (The Matrix Trilogy and Inception)? You get the idea.
Recently I’ve rewatched two sci-fi movies that are personal favorites of mine and have profoundly influenced my own journey into filmmaking: Jurassic Park (the movie that made we want to be a filmmaker) and Gattaca (the movie that taught me that great science fiction can be quiet, introspective, and deeply moving). Both function as cautionary tales of sorts (as does much of sci-fi and horror).
Now what does this all have to do with Tyson and his position that empirical science is far and above so much better than philosophy? Allow me to put it this way: I love science and I believe in the value of scientific pursuits and empirical research and progress. I also believe that such scientific pursuits and progress must always first be held up to the illuminating power of that profoundly important branch of philosophy known as ethics. Science, left to its own devices and driven solely by a thirst for the type of progress Tyson seems to think is far more valuable than wasting our time asking philosophical questions, runs the risk of being blind to ethics. This is where science fiction continues to serve us well. These are just two examples, but Jurassic Park and Gattaca caution us to the dangers of ethics-blind scientific development.
In Jurassic Park, the ever eccentric and at times obnoxious character Ian Malcolm (a mathematician who specializes in Chaos Theory, or Complexity Theory as it has more recently been known), points out to John Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park, the following: “I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here. It didn’t require any discipline to attain it. […] You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could. And before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunch box. And now you’re selling it! You wanna sell it!” When Hammond tries to push back with the assertion that his scientists have done amazing work, Malcolm cuts in with, “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” (See the whole scene here.) Jurassic Park goes on to play out with a plot structure more akin to a horror movie, where indeed we can’t help but be confronted with the reality that maybe Hammond’s scientists did move too fast and now it has cost the lives of several people. What’s more, this power Hammond has tried to wield may not be something humans will ever be able to contain and effectively control.
In Gattaca, we observe a society that has embraced progress in human genetics the point of designing nearly perfect babies in hopes that they will have the most appealing qualities, lasting health, and excellent intellect. This sounds good in theory at first glance. Everyone wants the best for their children! But as anyone who might take the time to pause and consider the ethical implications of this type of thirst for the “perfect” children might point out, the society of Gattaca eventually lost sight of the innate value of every human being, regardless of genetic gifting. A new caste system is created where non-designer human beings are firmly marginalized and pushed out of the upper stratus of workplaces and society in general. Ian Malcolm’s line, “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should,” applies equality here. It’s worth noting that these two films came out just a fews years apart. Clearly, in the world of Gattaca, the people wielding the power to design the genetics of children do not pause to consider the long-term repercussions to the whole of the human race. Inadvertently, the society of Gattaca sacrifices justice and equality in the name of individualistic perfection (take genetics out of the conversation, and I’d argue that this is actually one of the core problems the Unites States of America has been facing for at least a century in our quest for the “American Dream”).
As I read about Tyson’s dismissal of philosophy (or if we even want to be generous to Tyson, his potential dismissal specifically of the philosophy of science), I was struck by the notion that Tyson’s idea of scientific progress is distinctly western and modern. Tyson seems to be an empiricist, which likely explains why the only type of “progress” that seems to matter to him is progress that can be measured in a lab (which is why he mistakenly believes philosophy has not offered humanity any progress in the last several centuries–a dead giveaway that Tyson does not actually understand philosophy and does not know it’s history and continued evolution, as Pigliucci points out in his article). My fear is that the exact kind of thinking Tyson is engaged in here is the type of thinking that will charge blindly ahead because as new scientific and technological developments occur, new opportunities present themselves. Meanwhile, folks like Tyson are so focused on the notion that we could accomplish something that no one pauses long enough to ask if we should. I think this is why science fiction continues to offer us cautionary tales. We seem to need constant reminders that just because we are capable of doing something does not mean doing so is the best or most ethical choice.
Want a real world example? Currently, Japanese scientists have been developing a rather elaborate machine that together with virtual reality can offer users a rather realistic and complete physical sexual experience. Yup, that’s right. Sex with a robot–basically. Don’t believe me? Read this article at your own risk. It makes perfect sense to me that our technology is evolving to a place where this sexual experiences with robotic machines is possible. But just because such a thing is possible, is this a road we should go down as a species? Don’t we already have too many problems born out of our individualistic and self-serving views of sexuality? Aren’t people already isolated enough and lonely? Do we need yet another tool that isolates us further from other people and likely fosters unhealthy views of sexuality?
While Tyson can dismiss philosophy as pointless armchair speculation, I’m glad sci-fi continues to bring these important philosophical questions to the pop-culture landscape. Is it any coincidence that while these Japanese scientists develop this sex-machine movies like Her and Transcendence offer up to us questions about the nature of relationships with technology that blurs the lines between human and machine? I’m more than a bit creeped out by the idea of a character like Sam from Her having access to the type of machine now in development in Japan.
And, I for one, will continue to tell sci-fi stories born out of deep philosophical questions that wrestle with faith and doubt in our vast universe (“A Silent Universe”) and our often mistaken desire to escape the here-and-now in hopes that the future will be better and we will be happier (“Playing with Ice”). I invite you to check these films out and join the conversation. What are your thoughts?
The Oscars will be presented on Sunday night. So I wanted to take a moment, now that I’ve finally managed to cram in watching the last of the Best Picture nominations, to give my reactions to this year’s selection of films in the Best Picture category. I’ll be reviewing the films in the order that they appear on the Oscar ballot PDF that you can download from Oscars.com, which in this case is alphabetical.
I will not be reviewing all of the films in as much detail as I might like (though with a few I can’t seem to help myself), but then I don’t want this blog entry to be exceptionally long. It will be long enough as is. So I’m hitting the major points of each film and providing my subjective take on whether each film might deserve an Oscar (or even deserves the nomination it got in the first place).
Now, one word of caution: If you have not seen some or any of these films, you may encounter some spoilers below. You may want to skip over films you haven’t seen yet if you have your heart set of seeing them. Or you can skim through to see what rating I give each movie (at the end of each review) and read my conclusion which has no spoilers.
Director David O. Russell offers up another film with interesting characters in complicated relationships. Very loosely based on actual events, Russell dives into the world of con-man Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale. Irving is a fascinating character, though at first I am unsure he’s all that likable. But then, characters don’t need to be likable to be intriguing. But slowly, Irving is changing. And this is ultimately what won me over to the film. Some of the acting feels a bit stiff in places, as if the these are bit more of caricatures of certain ideas in Russell’s mind than fully fleshed out and three-dimensional characters. But slowly, the film overcomes this to a great degree, managing to offer us Irving’s transformation from a man who has only used people to his own ends to someone who, in spite of himself, discovers he’s found a true friend. Of course, he discovers this only as his betrayal of their friendship comes crashing down on them.
The filmmaking is elegant and immersive in its period style. Many scenes were shot in Boston and Worcester, Mass. I even recognized the interior of the Fairmont in Copley Plaza in Boston (where I’ve done some shooting myself). The locations and wardrobe add to the aesthetic effectively. Yet, the film feels less moving and a bit more like a curiosity to me. I often felt a distance from the characters and a sense of detachment form their problems, voyeuristically observing for the sake of curiosity. And yet the film has many merits in its own right. There are genuine moments of laughter and genuine moments of emotional connection to the characters. And in this sense, the film is good. But the moments feel a bit fleeting to me to ultimately deserve winning Best Picture.
My rating 8/10.
Director Paul Greengrass again dramatizes of a very real and very recent event in this film much as he did with United 93. In classic Greengrass fashion, he drops us into the middle of the mess with his hand-held cameras and frantic action. The film is effectively structured, moving forward with increasing speed. Tom Hanks delivers a performance that slowly builds over the course of the film. I must admit that both times I saw this film (I screened it just this month at The River Film Forum) that the very first scene of real dialogue in the car as Phillips and his wife drive to the airport feels stunted and awkward. It feels as if some important bit of exposition needed to be conveyed in this scene (maybe that they have kids and they are concerned about them and the world they are growing up in–but then, what parent isn’t?), but the scene feels forced and flat, even with veteran actors like Hanks and Catherine Keener. I fault the script for this. The dialogue was on the nose and unnatural. It might not seem like a big deal to some, but I have to admit that both times I watched the film, it started the experience off on the wrong note for me.
But in the end, the film is so compelling and engaging, that this early shaky start is forgotten. Captain Phillips, to my mind, plays out like a calculated observation of a specific and tragic event that has ties to much larger and deeper issues. Hanks manages to play a very complex Phillips who at first sight might strike some as rather heroic. But upon further reflection, I see many selfish and dangerous choices made by Phillips throughout the ordeal. Contrary to what some have expressed about the film, I feel a fair perspective on the Somali pirates is presented. Both times I saw the film I felt a deep ache in my heart for the pirates. While I do no agree or remotely condone their choices, I find myself understanding how these men have reached a point of sincere desperation that drives them to such desperate and violent measures. In the end, I feel the most important line in the movie comes in the claustrophobic second half of the film when Muse, leader of the pirates played by Barkhad Abdi, and Phillips have a conversation about what has led Muse to this life of piracy. Muse, a former fisherman, had his livelihood stolen when commercial fishing ships over fished his native waters. He’s now simply fishing the same waters for the only commodity available, it would seem: Freight ships that can be held for ransom. Phillips presses him about who gets all the ransom money. Muse responds that they have bosses (specifically the Somali war-lord safely back on land sending out young men to do all the dirty work). Phillips replies with “We all have bosses.”
Why is this line so important? I believe it hints strongly at Greengrass’ veiled criticism of capitalism that is capable of leading to these situations. Phillips at one point claims his ship has food that’s going to nations like Somalia. Muse doesn’t bat an eye at this, and frankly neither should the audience. This is a bold-faced lie (part of Phillips’ complexity as a character). In the end, “We all have bosses” reminds us that Phillips has made the choices he’s made to protect the cargo of this ship so that his bosses will remain happy with him. Turn a ship over to pirates to do with as they please and risk losing what has to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars of products being shipped to our consumer-driven first world societies, and Phillips will never captain another ship again. “We all have bosses” summarizes the messy nature of global politics that leads to desperate confrontations like this. While some feel the film might play up the heroic nature of the military response that ultimately saves Phillips, there’s a comical quality to watching three large American ships chase down one little escape boat. Embedded in the film are hits of a more critical view of all of this, including directives given to military leaders to take care of this situation as it’s become big news back home.
Initially, Captain Phillips never struck me as a Best Picture nomination waiting to happen. Upon further reflection, I think it deserves the nomination. And ultimately, Hanks delivers one of the most haunting performance of sheer and complete shock at the end of the film. If this was truly a celebration of military might, credits would roll much sooner. Instead, we linger on a very shaken man covered in blood as he’s given medical attention. And that is the power of Captain Phillips. Regardless of our political perspectives on all of this, we can all appreciate that this is a tragic and scarring situation with no easy answers that ultimately has a devastating power on the lives of the people it touches, regardless of their nationality.
My rating: 9/10
Director Jean-Marc Vallée bring to life a rather difficult true story. Ron Woodroof, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a rodeo show low life of sorts with gambling debts and a promiscuous libido that ultimately shatters his life when he’s diagnosed with HIV. Dallas Buyer’s Club chronicles his transformation as he seeks to illegally acquire experimental drugs to combat the disease. His new life brings him into contact with people society has rejected, like Rayon, played by Jared Leto, a transvestite and fellow HIV patient. Ron at first wants nothing to do with anyone remotely like Rayon. But a friendship grows between the two as Ron confronts his own status as an outcast in 1980s Dallas since his HIV-positive diagnosis.
The transformation Woodroof experience happens in stages and forever changes him for the better. Where he first sought only to find help for himself, he eventually begins to find a means to get drugs into the hands of other HIV patients. At first this is done for profit, but you can feel his perspective change over the course of the film as he eventually begins selling off his own assets to ensure that more people get the drugs they need. He starts off as a homophobe, but finds real friendship in Rayon. What begins as a selfish quest to combat his own HIV ends up as a fight against a system that did not seem to care for real people living with HIV and AIDS in any real sense.
With this film, McConaughey has given us a great another performance, following his role in Mud. Dallas Buyer’s Club builds off of a well crafted script and dares to look in on the lives of those who maybe have not made the wisest choices (as Woodroof clearly did not leading to his contracting HIV), but offers us an experience of empathy and transformation.
My rating 8/10
Easily one of the most anticipated films of 2013, Gravity is a cinematic tsunami. Director Alfonso Cuarón completely envelops us in a visceral experience. At it’s core, Gravity is an action movie. We are not given any great amount of back story. But then, back story and character development are not the focus of the film, nor are they exactly necessary to accomplish what Gravity sets out to provide us with. Yet, the thrilling story of survival combines not just amazing achievements in digital filmmaking and VFX to create an immersive and harrowing experience of space but also offers just enough insight into who astronaut Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, is to get us to desperately care about what happens to her. Slowly, as rare moments of calm allow it, we learn about Stone’s past and her lingering pain at the loss of her daughter. Bullock breathes such authenticity into these mere hints of her character’s past that we have no problem believing there is so much more to Ryan Stone which under different circumstances we could learn about. But right now, we need to get home! Bullock gets us to feel so deeply for Stone that at points, it’s hard to breathe as we watch her struggle to do what she must to survive.
Shot by Emmanuel Lubezki who shot Children of Men for Cuarón as well as The New World, The Tree of Life, and To the Wonder for Terrence Malick as well as the newest untitled Malick film currently in post-produciton, Gravity is a very different approach to the more traditional though no less breath-taking cinematography Lubezki is accustomed to. The film is nominated for Best Cinematography as well, and many debates will likely range about what the award even means anymore should the film win. This debate began with Avatar, continued with Life of Pi, and is likely to continue with Gravity, yet another visually stunning film that was mostly shot on a sounds stage.
Nonetheless, Gravity is a deserving film of a best picture nomination. It embraces the simplicity of its story and does not pretend to be anything else. It is designed from start to finish to be a truly emotive and immersive experience. The film is not just visually stunning, but also offers probably the very best sound design I’ve heard is years. In the end, Gravity taps into the primal nature of storytelling. As some neuroscientist argue, the reasons our brains are so tuned into stories is that our brain’s primary function is to keep us alive. In the quest for survival we latch onto stories as a means to vicariously experience harrowing scenarios so we can learn how to potentially survive such a scenario if we ever find ourselves in a similar situation (see Wired for Story). In this sense, Gravity is primal storytelling for the 21st century. It’s definitely one of the highlights of my year in film viewing.
My rating 9/10
Written and directed by Spike Jonze, Her dares to look down the road at our reliance on and our relationship to technology. In an increasingly fragmented and individualistic society where so much of our communication happens through smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, and other oddly personally-impersonal methods, Her runs out ahead of us and asks us to consider where we are blinding headed while we walk and text. What if eventually my smart phone or iPad or computer are no longer merely the means by which I casually converse with my friends, some of whom live hundreds of miles away, but rather I become invested in relating and communicating with my devices themselves? Sounds silly, right? Well, maybe … until Scarlett Johansson’s voice and a full blown personality emanates from my smart phone or computer (Are you talking to me? Well … hi there.).
Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, has a job as writer of custom personalized “hand-written” (though they’re definitely just printed) notes people hire his company to create so they can send to other people. Right away we’re dropped into this personally-impersonal reality where when someone wants to really speak their heart to a person they love, they hire a professional to do it for them. It would sound laughable if it wasn’t so believable. We’re almost there right now.
From there, we are introduced to OS1, the new artificially intelligent operating system that works across platforms so it can integrate your experience of your desktop and your mobile device. As Theodore, a lonely man whose ex-wife is waiting for him to sign divorce papers any day now, installs his new operating systems, he is asked to make certain choices. He choses a female voice for his OS1 (and in comes Johansson’s voice). When he asks her what her name is, she names herself Samantha. And from there, Samantha grows in depth of personality at an incredible rate. It isn’t long before Theodore and Sam are friends, laughing and talking through out the day and night. And slowly, this friendship grows into more.
To some, it can seem silly to think of a man falling in love with a disembodied artificially intelligent operating system. To other this sounds ludicrous. And to others still this may seem like an excuse to exploit ideas about sexuality. Her is none of these things. It dares to stare into the dark and secret corners of our evolving ideas about relationships, love, and sexuality in an increasingly technology-dependent society where how we relate is fundamentally changing what relationships are. Her isn’t shy about such things, but it never exploits either. In fact, in an amazingly daring move, Jonze allows the screen to go black for what feels like quite a long time during the first time Theodore and Samantha make love. But is this just artistic abstraction or is Jonze suggesting that as Theodore engages in a sexual relationship with an AI being that he too is in a very key way becoming disembodied himself. I’ll let you work that out.
Her is sci-fi at its finest! It is speculative about our future, but firmly grounded in our present. It is high concept in nature but thoroughly human at its core. It is a cautionary tale, but one that haunts us not because the characters and their world are so distant and removed from us, but because they are so fundamentally just like us. I feel Theodore’s pain and loneliness in every frame of this film. And what’s more, I sincerely empathize with Samantha as she struggles with what it means to gain personhood and be in a relationship with a human being when a fundamental metaphysical divide separates Samantha and Theodore. But then, doesn’t a fundamental metaphysical divide separate us all?
My rating 10/10
Director Alexander Payne consistently makes films with awkwardly and endearingly real characters. He makes an interesting choice in Nebraska in shooting it in black and white (on a digital format, no less). No doubt, this choice limits the general audience of the film since too many of the movie-going crowd seem to have an aversion to anything monochromatic (which bums me out). But, damn it if it doesn’t just fit the film!
Nebraska reminds me of David Lynch’s The Straight Story (Lynch’s most “normal” film). Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an old man who believes he’s won a one million dollar prize from a magazine subscription marketing sweepstakes. Much like the main character of The Straight Story, Woody sets out on a long journey by unconventional means. But he sets out of foot, unlike Alvin in The Straight Story who makes his journey on a lawnmower. Woody fails to get very far on foot as he’s constantly interrupted by his son, David, played by Will Forte. David tries his best to convince his father that this sweepstakes win is a sham. Finally giving up on trying to fight this thing, David decides he’s going to spend some time with his father and take him from their home in Montana to Nebraska where the sweepstakes headquarters are located.
This is quirky family drama and road movie wrapped up into a unique package. I highly appreciate Forte playing a much more subdued character than we’re used to seeing, and it shows that he has great range. There are some moments with some of the supporting cast where I found myself surprisingly pulled out of the movie experience and very aware of flat and forced acting. But overall, I found the film engaging, charming, and endearing. To my mind, it is not as strong of a film from Payne as some of his past films like About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants. In fact, I think I might like at least About Schmidt and The Descendants more than I do Nebraska, but that doesn’t make Nebraska a bad film by any stretch of the imagination.
My rating 8/10
Based on real events, Philomena tells the story of disgraced BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan (who was also a co-writer of the script), as he picks up his life after an unfortunate incident that has ushered him out of the BBC. Lost and unsure of what direction to head in, he at first scoffs at the idea of doing anything so common as a “human interest story.” But he reconsiders. And so he meets Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench. Forced by nuns as a girl to hand over her son she bore out of wedlock to be adopted, Philomena has had an aching hole in her heart for nearly fifty years. Interested, but trying to play detached, Sixsmith embarks on the journey to help Philomena find her long lost son. Of course, he does so in order to get a great story, but Sixsmith discovers along the way that this simple Irish woman may have a deeper and richer understanding of life and unconditional love than his Oxford-education mind can wrap his itself around.
In a sense, Philomena might be seen as a “human interest movie” by more cynical filmgoers. But then again, the only thing that really interests me in movies is humanity. For my money, Philomena is sublime virtue (a concept I recently discussed in this blog entry.). I was convinced about 30-minutes into the film that what I was watching was definitely one of the best films I’ve seen in a while, and it did not disappoint–though it did hold many surprises! Director Stephen Frears carefully and deliberately molds a beautiful and moving story. I connect with Sixsmith’s cynicism and attempts to maintain a level of intellectual superiority (I get it, it feels somehow safer to be so detached), and yet Philomena is my role model. With every obstacle, here is a heart that hurts deeply and bleeds openly, but she always finds a way to respond with love. The climax of the film had me stunned. It moved me so instantly from laughter to sincere awe that I could scarcely believe it. Tackling very relevant issues relating to continued tensions between the religious corners of our society and our justified anger at what has been done in the name of Christ by many Christians, Philomena offers up an entertaining and moving meditation on what forgiveness means, even when we’re the only one willing to forgive.
My rating: 10/10
Based on the book Solomon Northrup wrote about his own experiences, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave dramatizes the very real and very dark ordeal Northrup was subjected to. A free black man living in the north, Northrup is duped by people he believes will be business partners and then sold off into an illegal slave trade that lands him in the south. He’s torn from his family and stripped of his humanity. Many will note that 12 Years is not an easy film to watch. That is as it ought to be, I might point out. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northrup, offers us an opportunity to walk for a while in the shoes of a man who has been robbed of life and dignity. And while there are many films that have dealt with the very ugly history of slavery in America, the lasting repercussions from that chapter of our nation’s history still flow through our society today. I’m not sure we’ll ever be done dealing with this reality. Especially as we need reminders that this reality rests not only in our past but also in our preset as human trafficking, just what we call slavery today, is very real and happening in the dark corners our own towns and cities.
Taking notes from Terrence Malick, McQueens uses everything at his disposal to put us in the mind and skin of Northrup. 12 Years might be a completely different movie than Gravity, but both films tapped right into my instinct for survival and longing to return home. Of course, in both stories, you may make it home … but you’re never the same. That is definitely the case for Northrup. More than just twelve years of his life have been taking from him. But the real power of Northrup’s story is that it gives us a real glimpse into the stories of many other people who never returned home, for whom their entire earthly existence was under the oppressive weight of tyranny and hatred. Some movies profoundly move me. Others break me. As a new father looking out into the world with new eyes and wondering how to teach my daughter to fight hate with love, I can’t help but watch 12 Years and feel just how close we still are to this chapter of our history. Our attention spans may be short these days, but next year we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment which ended legal slavery in America. For many African-Americans living today, they are only a generation or two removed from slavery. In the grand scheme of things, this happened just yesterday!
As I said, some films move me, others break me. 12 Years a Slave broke me. That is as it ought to be.
My rating 10/10
I am a long-time Martin Scorsese fan. So it was with great anticipation that I watched The Wolf of Wall Street. The film is expertly made, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is out of this world. Jonah Hill’s performance is amazing. Make no mistake about it, in a very real sense, Wolf is a good movie. But in another (and I suspect more meaningful) sense, it most definitely is not. This Scorsese fan is profoundly disappointed with Wolf.
I believe Scorsese intended to make make a cautionary tale. But Scorsese is so adept at making engaging and visceral drama on screen that I could not escape the feeling that inadvertently all of the corruption, sex, and drugs seemed rather … well … cool. I believe to an extent that was the point. These things do seem cool at first. But there is a price to pay. And so I believe that the film sets out to be a cautionary tale, but the end result falls so completely flat to me that I just cannot buy it. Jordan Belfort, played by DiCaprio, journeys the corrupt world of Wall Street and rises to prominence. But eventually, investigations begin. And while FBI Agent Patrick Denham, played by Kyle Chandler, seems likable enough, he is ultimately flat and uninteresting as he’s given minimal development and screen time. Wolf is singularly focused on Belfort and seems confused about weather he’s a villain or a hero.
What ultimately falls short for me about Wolf is that Belfort’s character arc seems flat. I don’t feel he changes at all in the end. There are only two ways Wolf could have been a true cautionary tale: First, Belfort could have sincerely learned his lesson and set out to make restitutions. But all we see from Belfort is that he’s sincerely sorry that he got caught. Restitutions? Forget about! Second, Belfort could have faced a tragic end ranging from life in prison to (borrowing from Shakespeare or the horror genre here) a grisly death directly resulting from his ill choices (strictly within the world of fiction). But the ultimate problem seems to me that the real Jordan Belfort on whom this movie is based (and who wrote the book the film is adapted from) faced no such end and learned no such lesson. I question the wisdom of making a film based on such source material and find myself in the camp of the detractors from this movie who claim it does more to glorify the corruption of Wall Street than to comment on it.
Clocking in at nearly three hours long and filled with scenes likely worthy of an NC-17 rating (okay, okay, we get it, Wall Street is a sex-crazed land of debauchery, can we please just get back to the story?), this is one Scorsese film I won’t be revisiting. Not only is this my least favorite Best Picture nomination, I frankly wish it wasn’t nominated at all! Sorry, Scorsese. I would have much more appreciated a nomination for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
Dear Scorsese, I’m still a fan of your. I just think you missed the mark on this one. But I really look forward to seeing Silence, as I’m a huge fan of that novel. Now there’s source material for a good movie!
My rating 5/5
So there you have it. Those are my thoughts on the Best Picture nominations. But what should win? What will win? I suspect that 12 Years a Slave will take home the Oscar. It is possible that McQueen will also take home the Oscar for Best Director, though I think there’s a chance that could end up in the hands of Cuarón for Gravity. I’m bummed Spike Jonze did not get a Best Director nomination for his amazing work on Her. But what would I like to see win the Best Picture Oscar? While it’s a very close call for me between the three films I gave full marks to, my favorite film of 2013 is Her. I feel it is so expertly done and so compelling of a story that comes at such a crucial moment in our technological development as a society that it is an acutely apropos film.
So to close things off, here are the Best Picture nominations in the order of my most liked (note that the top three are a very close call for me) to least liked:
What are your thoughts? What was your favorite film from the nominations? How about your least favorite? Feel free to comment below. And thanks for reading.
I’ve been exploring this idea that there are three forces at work within filmmakers. These three forces are: financial success, artistic greatness, and communicating substance. It seems to me that these forces are sometimes complimentary, at other times at extreme odds. I suspect that at any given moment, a filmmaker is most likely to only find two of these forces truly managing to function congruently within herself, while one of the others is at at odds with the first two or simply tossed aside completely. And while it is tempting to make an argument that some balance can found between these three forces, I suspect such a balance is in fact purely theoretical. Why? Because a perfect balance of all three forces is likely to bound deliver a dull and forgettable finished work. In all likelihood, such a film would end up being not quite entertaining enough to be financially successful, far too self-conscious to be truly be artistically bold, and far too safe and mundane to communicate anything of real meaningful substance. In essence: mediocre on all fronts (at least 50% of the thousands of movies that come out in a year, I theorize, though I don’t know for a fact as my time is far too precious to me).
Instead, I suspect that it is in fact only by the daring efforts of filmmakers to take a risk at allowing one of these three forces to take the lead that lasting films (what I’ve been trying to get at in these blog posts) are made. But this is not a reckless choice to be made, but rather a guiding idea that allows for calculated decisions that ebb and flow between these forces during the making of a film (I will hire this cinematographer to help ensure the proper aesthetic is achieved, I will hire this well-known actress to help ensure marketability, I will insist this scene not be altered as it is the very soul of the story I am trying to tell). But these choices can only be made with a larger objective in mind. For some it might simply be to make the best film they can make so that it will be as financially successful as possible. For others it might be to make the best film they can make to ensure that as many people as possible connect with the story being told. For others still it might be making the best film possible in order to push the artistic boundaries of what cinema is. But I suspect that there can only be one guiding force that is ultimately in charge, even if the other two forces are given serious consideration through the creative process.
Now in my last entry, I wondered if there might be similar forces at work within the audience. After some time to reflect, I’d like to take a stab at answering that question. There well may be at least two forces at work within any moviegoer: the quests for entertainment value and sublime virtue. Let me unpack these two ideas a little.
Entertainment value seems fairly straight forward. Most of us gage our level of interest in watching a particular movie or TV show based on an instinctive reaction to how entertaining we believe a given show or movie will be. In a sense, we are being drawn by the perception that this particular movie is going to have a high entertainment value. It will be two hours of my life that I will enjoy. I hope to be surprised, shocked, thrilled, and moved by what I experience. Thus, I believe that watching the movie will be worth those two hours of my life and the several dollars I might be paying if I’m watching it at a movie theater. This force in the audience in many ways is profoundly connected to the drive for financial success in filmmakers. These two forces match up well. Possibly too well.
But what about sublime virtue? In discussing this idea with my friend, Matt Eaton (who is a theologian and philosopher), I described to him the concept I was wrestling with, and he presented me with the notion that this sounds like sublime virtue. But what is sublime virtue? This seems to me to be connected to the other two forces at work within filmmakers (artistic excellence and communicating something of worth). I believe for audience members these two idea are blended into what can best be described as experiencing something that transcends the commercial nature of cinema and offers up something that is stirring and beautiful. In a real sense, these tend to be films that are greater than the sum of their parts and invite us to come back and experience them again not because they are the easiest films to watch, but because they offer a sort of aesthetic and spiritual nourishment. They possess sublime virtue.
Now, I believe these two forces do not need to be at odds in all cases. The choice does not (and indeed often is not) between being entertained but lacking sublime virtue or being bored but watching something “artsy” (in fact, some of the most “astsy” films out there are also some of the most lacking in sublime virtue–just sayin’). I believe these values both can exist within a single movie.
I also believe that most of the time they do not exist within a single movie. Let’s just face it, in an industry focused mostly on making money, most of the products churned out are desperately lacking in sublime virtue (some, in any kind of virtue at all, if I’m being quite blunt). Much like eating ice cream is an activity I absolutely love, watching a purely entertaining film is a fine thing in-and-of itself. But serious problems develop when I only eat ice cream and nothing else and only watch movies driven by simple lowest common denominator entreatment and diversion. So a balance has to be found here. I need nourishment in my diet as well as my experience of cinema.
As I’ve indicated numerous times now, the film industry is driven by dollars. This means that we as audience members have power. Our purchase of a movie ticket or Bluray, or choice to stream a particular title on Netflix or Hulu are in fact a vote for what we value as audience members. In fact, Netflix has made it clear in this recent article on Huffpost TV that every choice you make when streaming shows and movies on Netflix gives them specific insight into your tastes and preferences so they can suggest to you more shows and movies you are likely to watch and enjoy. So, our choices matter! And we should feel empowered!
But this is where it gets a little tricky. You see, I think most of us are very aware and even comfortable with the notion that when we consider whether or not to watch a particular movie, we mostly chose based on entertainment value alone. Occasionally we are drawn to movies we know are likely to have sublime virtue (“I really want to see that movie; I hear it’s a really powerful story”). So we do have a desire for it. But I fear that far too often our desire for sublime virtue has been so neglected (starved) in favor of constant entertainment that we’re a little like the soda addict who on rare occasions decides a glass of water sounds more appealing.
What ultimately is the connection between entreatment and sublime virtue? Well, here’s the thing: I don’t think they are separate when it comes right down to it. Movies that have sublime virtue are also some of the most engaging and entertaining films I’ve seen (and some of the most anti-entertainment films out there are also some of the most lacking in sublime virtue).
Let’s go back to our soda addict mentioned above. Both water and soda are beverages. Both can be consumed. Both are capable of hydrating. One is just better at it than the other. But the soda is more flavorful with all its sugar. And in moderation, we can enjoy soda. But serious problems develop when our sole source of hydration is soda. In similar ways, if we approach movies with a similar fixation of sugary (glitzy and tantalizing) entertainment only, we risk becoming entertainment addicts or even cinematic diabetics or sorts. Slowly we starve that part of our minds and souls that long to examine life and wrestle with difficult ideas and empathize with people very different from us. Once those parts of me are dead and rotting, it won’t be just my cinematic literacy that will suffer. I sincerely believe that I will be at my core a more selfish and disconnected person, constantly focused on what entertains me without requiring any thoughtful engagement on my part in return.
Many times I do hear people express that they don’t want to watch a movie that will make them think. Now, it’s one thing to express this after a very long and challenging week. I do this too. We all need leisure and rest. There is nothing wrong with this, just like there is nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying a soda. The trouble is when I constantly hear a person express they have no desire to ever watch anything that might require a bit more cognitive investment. But much like exorcising is initially tough but becomes incredibly rewarding, I think engaging in the a concerted effort to watch thoughtful and challenging films (and to read such books, see such plays, listen to such music, experience such art, converse with such people, and so forth) is incredibly rewarding and enriching to our lives. In fact, it’s incredibly entertaining! The emotional catharsis connected with engaging really meaningful stories is a thrill all its own!
I close with this thought: I own quite a few movies. It’s nice to have certain movies readily on standby for those occasions when I just feel a need to revisit a specific story (and this happens to me regularly). But I noticed something about my collection of movies. A few years ago I found myself standing in an ancient thing called a Blockbuster (a pre-Netflix brick-and-mortar video distribution outlet with lots of rules and lots of fees and really crappy selection–to quote Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park, “Eh, no wonder you’re extinct.”) and I found they had several DVDs on sale. I picked out a few titles I definitely wanted to own. But then I found myself holding a copy of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I admit, it was a very entertaining when I first saw it. I decided I’d go ahead and buy that movie too because, you know, I thought it would be nice to have something that’s just fun to toss in some times. In the years since then, I believe my copy of Pirates of the Caribbean has sat on my self unused. Why? Because as it turns out, I can always find something I have not seen before to be merely entertained by. The stories I come back to again and again are the ones that stir something deeper within me. They are the ones that touch on sublime virtue.