Film & Television Reviews

Film & TV criticism and reviews.

Colin Kaepernick & Captain America: Two Caps Fighting Their Own Civil Wars

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Have you ever thought about the similarities between Colin Kaepernick and Captain America, who are both referred to as Cap (Kap)? Stay with me. I know it’s a stretch, but if you’ve seen Civil War, you know that Captain America defies popular public opinion, and defends a known criminal, openly defying Congress’s call to register all superheroes and “profile” America’s defenders. His opinion is not a popular one, and this once popular superhero becomes labeled a traitor and demonized by a large portion of America. However, he does have his commited defenders, and this is why the superheroes are split, and the reason the film and comic story arc is called “Civil War.” How appropriate. 

Colin Kaepernick was once a hero of the NFL, and he has decided to stand up to police brutality by taking a knee. He has had an overwhelming majority of negative press, and people calling him a traitor and un-American, but he also has a large group of supporters, not unlike Captain America.

Whatever you may think of Colin Kaepernick or Captain America, they both represent the best of America. It just depends on what you see when you look at our nation. Do you see it as a perfect and flawless nation that we should make great “again” or a great nation in need of improvement, and the ongoing effort to “form a more perfect union” — for every American?

I think they are both superheroes, and saying I support Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter does not mean I hate cops or don’t support “all lives” or “Blue Lives.” 151 years later, we are still fighting the Civil War.

 

Photo Credit: Drawing by Dave Rappoccio

How Star Trek Shaped Me As A Man & Can Shape Us As A People

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Over the many years I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve gushed so much about how much I love Star Trek, and I know you’re probably sick of it by now. But today is the 50th Anniversary of the first episode, and I just wanted to share a few personal thoughts on why the show means so much to me.

I can’t tell you how much Star Trek has meant to me as a person. I first fell in love with the show watching The Original Series in reruns after school. By the late 1980s, I was addicted to its sequel, The Next Generation. And of course, I breathlessly watched all of the movies as they came out in the theatres. It played such an instrumental part in the formation of my values and morality as a young man watching that show. It meant so much to that young boy, and to the man I’ve become. It speaks to every fibre of my being.

Star Trek captures everything about the human condition, and about all that humanity IS capable of. As dark as it sometimes can get, Star Trek is a show driven by optimism, and the hopes and dreams of one tiny planet, amongst a sea of neighbors we may not even know yet. Admittedly, we’ve got a long ways to go on our own small planet, before we can truly hope to populate space with that kind of hope and goodwill, but it all starts with a dream.

You may say you hate Science-Fiction, but despite all the tecnobabble you may hear, Star Trek was never about gadgets and science. It is about people. People from all genders, races, religions, creeds, orientations, and yes…species…all trying to get along in the Universe, and trying to find peace and common ground. It is an allegory. In the mid-1960s, television shows simply could not talk about racism, classism, sexism, etc. Science Fiction was the perfect cover, and was used as a way to address social issues in a vaguely familiar way, but set in a distant future and in a far off place. It allowed the creator, Gene Roddenberry, to tackle the injustices he saw in the turbulent world around him. And spoiler alert: the same issues which are plaguing our world today. Star Trek has used analogous alien species and fictional conflicts to address real world problems, such as sexism, racism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Cold War, bioethics, Artificial Intelligence and sentience, capital punishment, religious intolerance, bigotry, class warfare, and even drug abuse, to name a few. Star Trek is not some action-packed adventure story with ray-guns and bad prosthetics (I mean, yeah, that’s all there)! Star Trek was the most cutting edge and provocative show of its generation, and STILL CAN BE! The job is not done. Star Trek still has a vital role to play in our society.

You see, Star Trek is not about space, but about the space in between. The space between you and me, and how we can close that gap, bridge that gulf that lies between us. It’s about an idea. An idea that humankind has a future in space, and can be ambassadors of peace and tolerance. But first, we must start with ourselves. That’s not Science-Fiction. But it could be Science-FACT. It’s already within us, we just need to have the courage to be able to find it before it’s too late.

My friend Bill Doughty expressed a few thoughts on Star Trek that I’ve shared below. He meaningfully articulates some points that I may have missed. His words, like mine, are love letters. Love letters to a show that has given generations of hopeful dreamers a place to hang their hats, and hold out hope for tomorrow. A chance to boldly go where no one has gone before…

Happy 50th Anniversary to Star Trek!!!  Live Long and Prosper.

From a post by Bill Doughty from Facebook (September 8, 2016):

“I’ve enjoyed reading people’s thoughts on Star Trek today. I’ve always loved Trek for the simple reason that no matter the series or format, it has always been about one thing: look at everything we could accomplish if we could only *get over ourselves.* But at the same time, it expresses that idea a million different ways across any sort of plot, genre, or storytelling medium you can imagine. Honestly, there’s at least one Star Trek story out there to speak to every man, woman, and child on earth, and if you say you’re the exception you’re wrong amd probably just trying to impress someone.

But whether it’s a TV show, movie, book, gamw, comic, or cartoon, and whether it’s tense, moody, silly, creepy, exciting, dark, thoughtful, or, yes, occasionally stupid, that same optimism is always there, hardwired into the DNA. Accept, tolerate, embrace, and explore, and there’s little we won’t be able to accomplish.

And we’ll also get teleporters and food replicators. You know you’d be down with that.”

Why My Heart Still Won’t Open For ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

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When it comes to the film Eyes Wide Shut, I know that I’m often in the minority when I condemn it as being far and away the worst film Stanley Kubrick ever directed. Since I’m obviously writing this short review over sixteen years after the movie came out, I have had lots of time to process the film, and decide exactly what it is I don’t like about the film. About three months ago, I sat down and attempted to watch the film for the first times since I saw it in the theatre. I only made it about halfway through, before I had to turn it off. So truthfully, I have only seen this film one and a half times, but it was seared into my memory, and because I often have a photographic memory with work I judge harshly and have a strong negative response to. I know that many people are quite fond of the film, and that although my opinion aligns more closely with the harsh criticism directed its way by film critics and the media, there are many fans who have difficulty finding any fault with a Kubrick film.
I decided to write this brief review today, as a response to the article, Be Thankful For Eyes Wide Shut by Scott Wampler, and posted by my friend, Matthew Constantine on his Facebook page. My friend Joe Vincent had also liked the article, and although I have great respect for their opinions about movies, art, and culture, I knew I had to at least make an impassioned and reasoned argument AGAINST Eyes Wide Shut. As you can read in the article above, the writer takes great pains to praise the film, and make sure we understand it should be considered amongst his best. That rather than criticize the film, we should be thankful we ever got it. Especially considering Kubrick died a week after delivering the final cut. I have a very personal and visceral aversion to this film, and feel compelled to share my thoughts about the movie. I had problems with the article, and thought it was poorly written at times and did nothing to convince me to reconsider my views on Eyes Wide Shut. The writer felt young, and at times, more than a little wet behind the years. I seem to recall him mentioning being a teenager and how blessed he feels to have seen the movie on opening night. It was certainly his last, but perhaps also his first Kubrick opening. Like him, I also saw this movie opening night, but I was at the premiere, in Hollywood, while living in LA. Going into the film, I was a very big Kubrick fan, but coming out, I was severely disappointed and left with a terrible taste in my mouth.

 
This writer erroneously states that those of us who didn’t like the film, must have been uncomfortable with the subject matter, since the filmmaking was unimpeachable. This is patently false. I might not have enjoyed the story, but I had many more problems with the narrative, casting, direction, set, and execution of the film. Although some of the intrigue and murder plot elements in the context of this secretive organization were interesting to begin with, the script never seemed to gel. It never fully came together, and there was a disconnect  between this sexual dysfunctional relationship between husband and wife in their safe and small home, and the sprawling mansions of the organization, with naked flesh everywhere, and a sea of undulating sex as people  joined the larger orgy. The disparate parts of the movie felt clunky and didn’t always fit. One might argue that the relationships are broken and don’t work properly, like his marriage, and that is reflected in the structure and interactions in the film. I think this is often a cop out, and if Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman felt awkward and unnatural, it wasn’t a choice. It was a reality.

The other reality of the film is that this is a frightfully chilly and uninviting world. The characters were cold, and kept at a distance, alienating them from the viewer, and not allowing us access to anyone’s emotions, or engendering empathy in the viewers. At the holiday party, the first time we meet Sydney Pollack’s character, Victor Ziegler, he is soliciting Tom Cruise’s character, Dr. Harford’s help, to revive a naked and bleeding hooker, who just had some kind of sexual relations with Ziegler, and as well as overdosed on a mix of drugs. He naturally has a wife, and she’s presumably somewhere else in the homeI This is HIS holiday party, and he’s absent from his guests, doing drugs and banging a hooker. When she seems to be in bad shape, Ziegler is dismissive and talks of her like trash. He flops her body around like she was a rag doll, taking no care with her in the slightest. He just wants her out of there. This is our first introduction to this large character, and he is instantly unlikable. You can’t help but root for the girl. Dr. Harford is gentler with her, but still rather callous and indelicate. These are not the loving hands of a gentle family doctor, but a man pulled away from a party by one of his patients, to revive a hooker who ODed on a speedball, and to make sure they don’t have a dead hooker on their hands. Her nudity throughout the season is uncomfortable, and we the viewer feels culpable in their mistreatment of the girl. Dr. Harford is a party to all this, and becomes somewhat unsympathetic early on. As the film goes on, we meet more people who feel cold and detached. The characters are  simply too dead inside or corrupt with money or power. It’s hard to care for these characters, and without empathy, it was hard for me to care whether any of them lived or died. The film was frigid throughout. So no, I didn’t necessarily enjoy the subject matter, but not because it “challenged me” and “made me uncomfortable” — feelings he takes pains to point out that he enjoys in movies, but wildly assumes viewers new to Kubrick must not. I enjoy movies that challenge me as well, but only good movies, and not uneven ones. This film was very uneven, and although it had some great themes and motifs that pulled it together, it was cohesive as a whole. Wampler’s statement is reductive and a fallacy, because it implies that the only reason we could have to not enjoy the movie, was because of the off-putting plot.

 
I would argue, that in addition to the subject matter and content, I had major problems with the script, including structure, language, and style. I thought it often felt contrived, and fantastic. And characters spoke in heightened and stylistic dialogue that sometimes felt stagey and melodramatic, and often recoiled against the more natural elements of the film. The biggest problem with the film is that it’s all a much ado about nothing. Sure, there is this secret society, and a hooker does end up dead, but we don’t ever know exactly how. We never know what happens to Nick, the piano player. Did he get killed off too? The secret religious sex organization and its rituals are dark and shady, but apart from having illicit sex, what true threat are they? What are they covering up? Are they killing prostitutes regularly? It’s implied that the people under the masks are important people, but we never learn who, and therefore, we never learn how high the stakes are. Are they priests and moral religious leaders? State Senators? What it all comes down to, is for all the “atmosphere” that Kubrick provides — black cloaks, grotesque masks, spare piano cords, dark shadows, stained wood, people following Dr. Harford, drugs, illicit sex, a blindfolded piano player who gets roughed up, and more, the film actually provides little concrete action and tangible danger. Nothing really happens. The movie, therefore, feels a little like an elaborate film noir sleight of hand. It has that moody and dark intrigue, with always the constant threat of danger and menace, but rarely do we see it. Is this a movie about a man discovering a secret sex club that murders prostitutes and is filled with many important members of the community, who must remain anonymous film about a couple struggling with their marriage? The wife is having these sex dreams with a sailor, and Dr. Harford is flirting shamelessly with beautiful women, and on more than one occasion, soliciting sex from strangers and acquaintances. This couple is broken, and needs something to happen, in order for them to stay together. At the end of the film, Cruise simply falls apart with guilt. He breaks down in tears and decides to tell Alice the whole truth of the past two days. The next morning, they go Christmas shopping with their daughter. Alice muses that they should be grateful they have survived, that she loves him, and there is something they must do as soon as possible. When Bill asks what it may be, she simply says: “Fuck.” What does any of this mean? They haven’t had sex in a while, so did they have to go through this elaborate charade, in order to feel alive, and find their way back into each others’ lives? Why have we seen no emotion or crying from Tom Cruise’s character all movie, and now we see this vulnerability? It’s too little, too late. We never saw the human before, so we can’t be expected to empathize with his new-found feelings. He was trying to get laid, mixed up in murder, and treating overdoses casually, and we saw none of his guilt or pain. This is a serious oversight in the script, and the relatively stunted character arc of the character. No character in this film is allowed to grow and evolve in a natural and organic way. Tom Cruise the actor may not have the chops, or Kubrick may have directed him to play his cards close to his chest. And that’s what he did. We saw very little early on, to indicate what we would see towards the end. Kidman has even less screen time, and has these psychosexual dreams with the sailor, which are never fully explained.

The Achilles heel of Eyes Wide Shut is that it creates all this film noir, secret sex society intrigue and possible murder plot line, but then throws in all these red herrings and seeming non sequiturs. But it seems it’s all just widow dressing, because very little of it actually goes anywhere. It seems to have elements of the quirky, dark, and menacing atmosphere of a David Lynch film, or specifically, a show like Twin Peaks. Yet those shows went somewhere, and although they had their fair share of red herrings and misdirection, they also pursued the clues and leads they had dropped along the way. EWS has many scenes and unique characters that often stand out, but rarely serve practical and dramaturgical purposes. They are texture, and are included in order to establish mood and atmosphere. They’re also oddball and memorable characters, who sometimes provide levity and entertainment.

After a fight about their faithfulness to each other early in the film, Bill is then called by the daughter of a patient who has just died; he then heads over to her place. In her pain, Marion Nathanson impulsively kisses him and says she loves him. Putting her off before her fiance Carl arrives, Bill takes a walk. He meets a prostitute named Domino and goes to her apartment. Alice phones just as Domino begins to kiss Bill, after which he calls off the awkward encounter. Early on, we see Dr. Harford is wandering and lost, and seems to be looking for love, lust, affection, or something, in the arms of other women, He seems to be in search of anonymous lovers — perhaps in order to keep love out of the equation.

After learning from Nick, the piano player, about the costume party, he gets the password, and goes to a shop to rent a costume, The scene in the costume shop is surreal and absurd, starting with the owner, Mr. Milich, and his daughter, played by oversexed and underdressed Leelee Sobieski, who appears to be getting intimate with two Japanese men in the back, but almost to her delight and with her overjoyed permission. Her father gets angry at the indecency, and yells at the group. The scene is nearly slapstick absurdism, and could easily have come out of a Beckett, Ionesco, or Jean Genet play.

After Bill arrives at the mansion, and uses the password to get in, he is wandering around the large rooms, when he is approached by a woman. Although he is masked, the woman takes Bill aside and warns him he does not belong there, insisting he is in terrible danger. She is then whisked away by someone else. Bill walks through the rooms, and witnesses several acts of sex, with various people engaging, and others watching, Finding himself in the ritual room, Bill is approached by an imposing Master of Ceremonies, and asks him a question about a second password.  Bill says he has forgotten. The Master of Ceremonies insists that Bill “kindly remove his mask”, then his clothes. The masked woman who had tried to warn Bill now intervenes and insists that she be punished instead of him. Bill is ushered from the mansion and warned not to tell anyone about what happened there.

The next morning, Bill goes to Nick’s hotel, where the desk clerk (Alan Cumming) tells Bill that a bruised and frightened Nick checked out a few hours earlier after returning with two large, dangerous-looking men. Nick tried to pass an envelope to the clerk when they were leaving, but it was intercepted, and Nick was driven away by the two men. The scene could have easily been in a film noir from the late ’40s or ’50s. The circumstances, with the bruises, the two big defensive lineman-sized goons, and the desperate letter he was trying to pass, are all familiar tropes in these kind of gangster flicks.

The next we hear of Nick is when Bill is summoned by Ziegler to discuss the events of the last few days. We learn that Ziegler was one of the sex participants, and that he had Bill followed, and that the society’s warnings were meant to scare him, but that the society is capable of acting on their threats, telling Bill: “If I told you their names, I don’t think you’d sleep so well”. Bill asks about the death of Mandy — the prostitute from the beginning of the film, who it turns out, was the masked woman at the party who’d “sacrificed” herself to prevent Bill’s punishment. Ziegler insists that Nick is safely back at his home in Seattle. Ziegler also says the “punishment” was a charade by the secret society to further frighten Bill, and it had nothing to do with Mandy’s death; she was a hooker and addict and had indeed died from another accidental drug overdose. Bill clearly does not know if Ziegler is telling him the truth about Nick’s disappearance or Mandy’s death, but he says nothing further and lets the matter drop. This is one of those scenes that is so frustrating, because it’s meant to be mysterious. and plant doubt in the audience’s mind, but because we haven’t actually seen the society inflict any harm or seen anyone die, everything is suspicious. And I don’t just mean, in the world of the film, Bill doesn’t know who to believe, but I am accusing the filmmaker of being suspect. He has played with our trust and not betrayed any feelings in his characters, so it’s hard to place any real trust in the very veracity and reliability of the script and the greater film. Lots of red herrings had been dropped, lots of random colorful and suspicious characters had been introduced, but the film was over two hours now, and Kubrick may be the master of pace and creating taut and tense atmosphere, but there was only so far he could take the menace and dark foreboding of the society. It doesn’t matter how grotesque the masks are, familiarity breeds content. Set pieces and costumes lost power and the ability to scare or intimidate us. This masquerade could go on no longer. This raises major plot hole questions:

  1. It’s not clear whether the plot line surrounding the society and Bill was just supposed to fizzle out, like it appeared to
  2. Or is this scene supposed to be more intense, and it is meant to scare Bill straight, once he learns how close he might have come to being killed himself? This would actually work best, with his crying scene with Alice directly following. The problem, is that I never feel like Bill’s life is in, or was in, imminent danger. 
  3. Why doesn’t the screenwriter ever allow us to see one of the society, or threaten having one of them exposed? Their true identities is a vulnerability, that actually takes away their power in the movie, and makes them less imposing
  4. What is the connection between the society and getting back together with his wife? Nothing ever really seems to happen, and yet, he seems to break down crying as if it did. Why happened?

One of the other considerable problems I had with the film, was the very obvious set that was built to stand-in for Greenwich Village, New York City. I was thoroughly not convinced of the fake New York City set built at Pinewoods Studio, because they essentially filmed only the same corner from similar angles, and the camera never followed the actors anywhere. It felt like exactly what it was — a fake facade of a Greenwich Village street corner. We always saw the same two shops, the same street signs. Throughout history, there’s likely never been a film shot in NYC that didn’t have tracking shots, cranes, dollies, and steadicam, following the actors through the streets of New York, Instead, this set was small, tight, and claustrophobic. This film was clearly not shot in NYC and did nothing to convince me that it was. Without an authentic New York City taste, the audience is subtly taken out of Manhattan, briefly alienated from production, and asked to enter through another door, knowing they were never in New York City. That may seem minor, but those little things add up. To the discerning eye, the set looks fake and like a set. Whenever THAT happens, it can be a slippery slope from there. If they can’t buy into the set, what else won’t they believe? Will they buy into your script? How about those characters who all seem very cold and aloof, and aren’t especially likable?  Can you hold them for over two hours?  Sometimes, it can all begin with one little thread, and quickly unravel from there. I think the case can be made for Eyes Wide Shut being Kubrick’s weakest and least effective film, for many reasons, including the set and production design. No matter how expertly they dressed the block, anyone who’s ever lived in New York City, could tell that was no Manhattan block. Arguably, NO Stanley Kubrick film before this could ever have been accused of looking like a set or feeling inauthentic in any way. They had all been meticulously constructed,  fastidiously painted, and painstakingly dressed. 

Having said all that I have said, there are a number of elements which I do enjoy considerably. After all, this movie was still directed by Stanley Kubrick. Which means, even at its worst, even as HIS worst, it’s still hundreds of times better than the average movie. I would watch this easily, before I’d watch half the crap in the theatres today. Kubrick is arguably the best auteur director to ever live. This is is still a masterpiece. it just has a LOT of problems, and does not have the kind of consistent quality we’ve come to expect in a film by Stanley Kubrick. The Kubrickian techniques and elements I enjoyed were:  The isolation and loneliness of the main characters. The mystery behind ritual and darkly staged ceremony. The steady and deliberate pace. The long tracking shots. The unique framing. The brutal violence and nudity. The haunting score, and use of music, especially piano cords. The piano leitmotif of the chilling few notes. The skillful editing. The evocative costumes. The blocking and choreography was deliberate and intimidating. The nudity was slightly shocking and contributed greatly to those scenes. The taut tension and anxiety marking the scenes. The menace in the air.  The VERY talented cast of new and recognizable character actors. Reocuring motifs and thematic imagery. The homage to several film genres: absurdism, slapstick/vaudeville, psychological bedroom drama, Gangster/ Film Noir, Horror, and Drawingroom Murder Mystery, 

Here was the absolute deal breaker in this movie: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s relationship and the actor’s uneven and fizzling chemistry. They were so bad, that when I tried to rewatch the film again, just three months ago, I couldn’t even make it halfway through the film. For a couple that was actually married in real life, I thought they had some of the worst onscreen chemistry I’ve ever seen. I simply did not belief that they were a married couple! It sounds almost unbelievable that an actual married couple would have such a hard time convincing an audience they were married and had chemistry. Instead, it was a weird energy, and not one that felt intimate and affectionate. So many moments felt forced and were not subtly in the least bit, perhaps none more so than the scene where Nicole Kidman smokes a joint and goes completely crazy. Nicole’s character is so over the top in this scene, she’s just chewing the scenery from the inside. I’ve often seen unskilled actors playing drunk or high, and make the mistake of “acting drunk” or “acting high” and go completely over the top. In reality, people that are drunk and high, often do whatever it takes to appear sober, so they’re actually fighting against the intoxication, and that gives an actor so much more to play with. She was staggering and stumbling like a drunken sailor, and it was painful to watch. As the story progressed, I became engaged with Dr. Harford’s pursuit of this mystery, which lies at the heart of the story (yet, we’re curiously never told exactly what it is), is a compelling one, and as he gets deeper into the mystery and intrigue, the better film became. However, Cruise is not an actor with a tremendous amount of emotional range, and so, Bill’s journey was a solitary one, and not one he shared well with the audience. He’s clearly the protagonist, and having trouble in his marriage. He’s become reckless with his life, ending up with prostitutes, followed by gangsters, frequenting a secret society of sexual fetishists, and since the film never gives us definitive answers, potentially the target of a future hit. It is most likely, that Bill caused the deaths of Mandy and Nick. She gave up her life to save his in the ritual room, and Nick gave Bill the password and told him of the costume party in the first place, leading to them finding out, exposing Nick, beating him up, and presumably, killing him. THAT might very well be our answer. THAT might very well be the slap to the face that wakes Bill up, and drives him back into the arms of his wife. That might be enough to make a grown man bawl like a baby. when held in the arms of Alice. He hadn’t known what he wanted, except for maybe vaguely sex with anonymous women. He took great personal risks, and in a fair world, Bill would have paid with his life. But he had an advocate — Ziegler — whose life he had practically saved earlier, and to whom he owed a big favor. Ziegler put his neck out there, and was admonished for his carelessness. Victor had brought Nick into the fold as a blindfolded pianist, and Nick had brought Bill into the society, with tragic consequences. Shouldn’t Bill be the one to die, since he’s the trie interloper? When Ziegler recognized it was Bill though, he had to intervene, and in so doing, he needed a sacrifice. Nick should have known better, sure, but he hardly deserved to pay with his life. It’s no coincidence, that Dr. Harford begins the movie saving Mandy’s life, and then near the end, Mandy ends up saving his. In essence, Bill saves her life at the beginning, and then he causes her death at the end. The only way for Bill to live, is if Nick becomes the scapegoat. Bill must know this, when he goes to Nick’s hotel. He at least makes an effort to save his life. He knew he was in grave danger. There’s an important element to take into consideration in all of this exchange of lives and sacrifice of strangers. And that is the socioeconomic picture. It’s easy to see that the society was made up of extremely wealthy businessmen, surgeons, politicians, lawyers, judges, heiresses, millionaires, and other titans of industry. Ziegler was an extremely wealthy patient of the presumably wealthy, Dr. Harford. These two BELONG in that mansion. They are wealthy, elite, and members of a small select few of people who run that City. State. Country. I have to wonder if they know who each other are. Do they always wear the masks? Regardless, its plain to see, who inherently didn’t belong in that setting. Nick was a poor pianist who once might have had a bright future, but he somehow ended up playing piano gigs throughout the city. He came lower middle class, if not from the poverty class. He was an artist, and he didn’t belong. Except as their entertainment. And that’s what’s Mandy was: entertainment. She was even lower status than Nick, as a prostitute. To these powerful people, she was a piece of meat, attractive as it may be, but one which you service your pleasures, and discard once you’re finished. If she hadn’t ended up strangled and lying as a Jane Doe in the Morgue, she’d have overdosed and ended up there anyway. Mandy was utterly disposable. The identity of these wealthy elite was imperative, and someone had to die. If Ziegler vouched for Bill, then it was obvious who had to be eliminated. Better two untouchables, than even a single from their own class. Which begs the question, now that Ziegler has been exposed, and made the group vulnerable, does he stay? If so, is there any possibility that Bill actually get invited to join the society? If so, is there any way that ALL of this was a test, to see how committed he was — even willing to sacrifice two people? These are questions the movie does not answer, but are certainly worth considering.

The storyline of murder, prostitution, secretive organization, and more, was engaging, but only to a point. Although I consider Kubrick’s pacing to be one of his strongest suits, I felt this movie dragged at points — running nearly three hours, I feel it is just too long. This story could have easily been told in less time.

I can’t help but return to the nucleus of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, at the very heart of this film, but never quite successful and cohesive. I know Stanley Kubrick wanted to work with a husband and wife team, but there must have been any number of actors he could have gotten for those roles. Not that they had the chops, but just to throw out some names: Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, and probably many more. Tom Cruise is a VERY limited actor, and I honestly don’t know what went wrong with Kidman — an actress whom I otherwise enjoy.

The film is very impersonal, alienating, aloof, distancing, uncomfortable, and sometimes just hard to watch. Although I cited above that I enjoyed seeing Kubrick play with many genres, I felt that also hurt the film. The movie never quite knew what it wanted to be. Was it a romance? Film Noir? Horror? Psychological Bedroom Drama? Or something else entirely? That meant, there were a lot of red herrings, but not always deliberately placed there, but rather, left there, after having fallen out through holes in the script. And there were many. The society was never quite threatening enough, and I never felt Bill was in danger. I would have liked to see him come closer to the line. If the society essentially knows who each other are, what is the big deal about having others inside see them? Presuming the society ordered the deaths of Mandy and Nick, WHY did they have to die? What is the problem between Alice and Bill, and how is so easily fixed with a “fuck” as she says at the end? Their relationship was arguably the weakest in the film, because we knew so little. All we were allowed to see from Alice was lurid sexual dreams about a sailor she fancied. Bill goes searching for women, and certainly has chances, but never quite gets there. Tom Cruise simply doesn’t have the depth to give us true insight as to what was happening in his mind. It was his story, after all. What drove him away from Alice, and what drove him back? Kubrick really could have helped the actor out here, especially by providing a script that fleshed out more of the character. The biggest problem besides not knowing exactly what kind of movie it wants to be, and having a husband and wife team who are not as strong as the script demands, is having a script with too many holes in it, and too many questions brought up, but not enough answers provided. It’s a confusing movie at times, and a few more drafts of that script, could have cleared a lot of the problems up.  If this was the work of any other director, it might be praised more than it has been. To some degree, it’s still quite a masterful film. The problem is, it’s Stanley Kubrick, and he was arguably the greatest film director the world has ever known. With an honor like that, you can be sure his body of work is profound and unrivaled. And it is. His films are unmistakable works of art, and each unique unto itself. This film, does not quite reach those heights. In fact, it falls quite short of that mark, and so we compare this film not to any other director, but against his own work and rigorous high standards. It is undoubtedly, the weakest film he ever directed. The film was not a commercial or critical success, receiving only fair to poor reviews. and has not come down through the years as a fan favorite. Most Kubrick accept the movie for what it is, but it’s not likely making anyone’s top five list. As it is, it’s a very divisive film. There are a surprising number of fans hopelessly devoted to Eyes Wide Shut, while others–such as myself — are quick to point out its many egregious flaws, and only wish it could have lived up to its considerable potential. 

Doctor Who Starts Strong!

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I must say that although we are only three episodes in, I really like what I’ve seen of Doctor Who this season so far. The season began with a dynamic bang with that great moment when the Doctor is saving a little boy’s life and realizes halfway through that it is his future arch-nemesis, Davros, and his decision would impact the lives of billions of innocent beings and the futures of countless worlds. Nothing like starting with a good old fashioned moral dilemma to really get the intellectual juices flowing, and set the tone of the show and season. This paradox of essentially saving a young Hitler’s life is a compelling one, and I think it really set up a nice dialectic throughout the first two episodes. This theme of “mercy” which features so prominently in the second episode is one that most of my own work concerns itself with. The themes that I like to explore in my work is that of mercy, redemption, empathy, and forgiveness. These ideas were brilliantly explored and tested in a really well crafted and superbly written two person scene with Davros and the Doctor, where they go back and forth and round and round in a roller coaster ride of deep emotion and old wounds inflicted upon each other over many millennia. I think this episode really revealed the essence of the Doctor more than any other in Capaldi’s tenure…that of compassion. It is his virtue and his achilles heel, and that’s what we love about the Doctor. Despite his grump curmudgeonly disposition, the Doctor is really a big softy. He’s got too much heart. Two, in fact. I thought this scene was the finest work I’ve seen Capaldi do in the series so far.
 
Sometimes Doctor Who can rely heavily on special effects and bizarre CGI aliens, and often at the expense of thoughtful story. I like my Doctor Who closer to Star Trek than to Star Wars. These episodes set the bar high, and asked more of us in one episode than last season did in twelve. In a refreshing sign, episode three returned to the more sensational and spooky, but was a nice homage to the Alien/ Alien movies. The setting and plot were very familiar tropes — alien/ monster/ghost loose on a remote and claustrophobic ship with a trapped and terrorized crew, and a smart hero must save the day. The tropes were familiar, but still new and original takes on the themes. I think Ridley Scott would be proud. It was engaging and compelling, and I look forward to the sequel airing today.
 
Finally, it has become quite obvious that Clara Oswald is officially more important than the Doctor. She has long outgrown her supporting role status as a companion, and the Doctor has made her the center of his universe. He is literally willing to sacrifice anything or anyone to save her. She features prominently in every episode, and often sets the pace and the tone of the show. She often initiates the action, and the Doctor seems to hopelessly follow along. Clara Oswald has long outstayed her welcome, and no matter how improved the writing seems to be this season, it is still handicapped by having a character that is a soul sucking entity that devours everything in her path. She sucks the air out of the show, and sadly, everything must pass through the prism of Clara. I am far more interested in the complex and engaging Doctor, especially as played by the brilliant Peter Capaldi. She needs to go. The sadist in me wants to see her killed off, but being Doctor Who, I know the show is sentimental and precious with its companions, and very rarely kill off one. Very few beings die in Doctor Who in general, and the show shares this trait in common with Star Trek. Fundamentally family friendly and optimistic. But I still want to see Clara die. At the very least, she’s got to go. It’s time for a new companion. Maybe two. I also feel that we’ve been overloaded with female companions, and I understand the practicality and fairness of that, I would like to see a male companion again. One that perhaps challenges the Doctor, and offers traits that don’t come naturally to the Doctor. Perhaps a rugged and more violent companion. A fighter. That might be a nice Ying to the Doctor’s intellectual Yang. Either way, it’s time for a new companion.
So far, I am very impressed with what I have seen this season. The writing is strong, and the directing and acting are of a high caliber. I hope the season continues to be thoughtful and not just Sci-Fi CGI-sensational. I prefer to be wowed visually and intellectually. That’s what first drew me to Doctor Who, after all.

Seeing Bad Theatre, Reading Good Reviews, & An Audience In the Dark

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One thing I find frustrating about being a director with an MFA and two other theatre degrees, and over 30 years of experience in the field, is accepting the assumption that the audience is always right. I know that may sound bad, but it’s really not as harsh as it sounds. You see, I accept that an audience can enjoy whatever they want, and that is their right. I simply question whether an audience always knows exactly what they’re seeing, and what the alternative might be. You see, in some areas, more often than not, an audience enjoys what we put in front of them, and they generally come away satisfied. That’s great! Every theatre company from big to small can feel good about themselves, and have their work praised and validated, and an audience leaves happy! And on its face, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with a theatre group feeling rewarded for their hard work. Because, let’s face it, every production takes tremendous time and effort, and everybody works hard. I don’t deny any theatre company that, no matter how poor I think a production is. But is hard work enough? The truth is, you can work extra hard, and still produce a failure of a show. If a show is terrible, but the audience enjoys it, is it possible the audience is wrong? Is quality determined by popularity? Surely there’s plenty of Oscar winning films out there that flopped, and movies like The Fast and the Furious franchise that have raked in over a billion dollars. Few people could argue the latter is worth calling high art, but it is very popular. Is it patronizing to think that an audience doesn’t know any better? If they like a show, isn’t that enough to call it a success? It’s not that I don’t think it’s valid an audience enjoy a play I think most would consider poor, only that I think if they knew how better choices could make it great, they would be blown away and enjoy it a hundred times more. I think we owe it to an audience to show them the difference between good theatre and poor, and demonstrate that both can happen at any level, whether amateur or professional. Great shows can come from anywhere…and so can bad.

Regardless of what level a play or film is at, we must hold it to high standards, and take responsibility for educating our audiences and holding critics accountable. We can’t rest on our laurels and accolades. True artists are never satisfied with their work, and continually challenge themselves to get better and refine their process. Many amateurs don’t possess that level of self-evaluation and labor intensive self-improvement. For some, the craft is a fun hobby, and nothing more. But no matter what level you are at, we can all benefit from evaluating our process and final product.

The thing is, an audience’s default is pleasure and satisfaction, but that’s often because they don’t always know the alternative. Most viewers aren’t savvy in filmmaking or play production, and don’t understand how movies and plays are crafted. They may be impressed with bad choices, because they don’t know what good ones look like. More informed choices often come with seeing a lot of different types of theatre, and being exposed to high quality work on Broadway and various regional theatres. It means being exposed to a lot of good and bad productions, and learning to tell the difference. Many have only seen bad shows though, and they literally may not know what they’re missing.
Imagine an art lover who had only seen the amateur oil paintings of George W. Bush and stick figure sketches. To him, Bush must seem like a Picasso, but compared to Rembrandt or Vermeer, Bush might as well be painting fences. I would argue that many audiences eat up inferior shows because they don’t know what a good production of those plays would look like. It’s easier to accept what is in front of you, than compare it to a theoretical production in your mind, or even a wonderful production of a different play you saw in New York last year. People in an audience see what’s in front of them, and take it at face value, failing to compare it to other shows they’ve seen, even far superior professional ones. People generally want to be kind, and look for the best in what they see. Since they don’t know how to evaluate or articulate the bad, it’s easiest to latch onto the good. People are very forgiving, and easily dismiss things that might have been confusing or bothersome. The fact is only compounded by the fact that many amateur or small town professional theatre audiences are made up of family and friends. As one might expect, these people are built in fans, and they’re most likely going to enjoy whatever they’re watching. Yet, audiences that have seen high quality plays AND poor plays should not hesitate to compare the two. Although they’re at totally different levels, audiences should be weighing the pros and cons of both productions. What worked about the professional show that isn’t working in the amateur one? What makes the one more effective than the other? How is this amateur show better than the last professional show you saw? It works both ways.
If I find the sometimes hollow enthusiasm of audiences to be frustrating, I find local theatre critics to be even more infuriating. Often, they surrender all credibility when they enthusiastically recommend every show, and haven’t a bad or critical note to give. Every review is glowing and serves the theatre company and ticket sales, but does a disservice to the viewer and the artists. Audiences go in having read wonderful reviews, and their expectations are fulfilled. They are primed and prepared to enjoy the show, and they are exempted from having to think about it critically. The overly generous reviewer doesn’t want to offend anyone, and chooses to applaud every choice he or she may see. In small towns or big cities with tight theatre communities, everyone is friends, and they all travel in the same circles. They may think it’s best not to rock the boat, but it’s unfair and dishonest, and it does more harm than good. An actor needs to hear what didn’t work in their performance. A set designer needs to hear why the set wasn’t functional. A director needs to read why certain choices they made come off silly and ineffective. Critics are the people that keep us theatre people honest. I’m not going to lie and tell you it was always easy to read bad reviews, but they were almost always helpful in some ways. It holds artists accountable for their work, and allows them to change their mistakes, and make better choices next time. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and theatre critics are part of the final phase in creating a work of art. They are the evaluative phase, and are often overlooked, at the artists own peril. We need critics and reviewers who have the courage to stand up and give honest evaluations. Not cruel or unhelpful ones, but honest constructive criticism and valuable feedback. This false praise is everywhere, and I’ve found it in small towns and big cities all across this country. It does a disservice to the work, the artists, and the audience.
I rarely go to see shows or films I’m uncertain of these days, for the very fact that I’m often disappointed. Sadly, having enthusiasm, passion, and dedication aren’t enough to make good plays. You also have to have talent, technique, training, skill, and ability. It actually takes a lot to produce a good play, or to direct a high quality film. It means making risky and artistic decisions, and not just settling for childish and amateur choices. Great art pushes the boundaries and asks questions of its audience, and doesn’t seek easy answers. It attempts to look at the world in new and unusual ways, and always aspires to be new and original, while also paying homage to everything that came before. Amateur shows can often be about saying lines, getting the blocking right, and having fun. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what most school and community theatre is all about. But filmmakers claiming they’re creating high art, while making cheap and disingenuous hack jobs, and theatre troupes lavished with praise for mediocrity, do a disservice to those of doing quality work, and with years of training and experience. Why? Because many people will accept that a mediocre play is as high quality as a good one, and not be able to recognize the difference. Naturally, if the two were compared side by side, anyone could tell the difference. As it is, amateurs are sometimes lumped in with professionals, and the high quality work is seen as no better than the inferior work. This is insulting to those of us with degrees and decades of experience in the field. There is a difference in the work. There’s nothing wrong with a community theatre doing amateur work, and being proud of that. It’s when they think that it’s more than that, or critics and audiences praise them as being at a level perhaps higher than they’re at. If they’re doing high quality work as good as a professional company, then they should absolutely be praised for it. They should also consider going professional, if they’re that good. But it’s important to keep things in perspective. We can watch our kid’s Little League game and think he did a great job, but nobody thinks his team could play the Red Sox at Fenway next week. It’s important to praise all the good we see, but always put it in context of all that we’ve seen before. The important thing to remember, is that the professional theatres aren’t always doing the best plays and the amateur companies aren’t always doing the worst. Sometimes they will surprise you. Some of the best plays I’ve seen in the past five years have been community theatre shows. Great art comes from great artists, wherever they may be.
In some ways, the audience isn’t always right, and it’s not their fault. If all that they’d ever eaten was chuck steak, they wouldn’t have any idea how much better filet mignon is. I don’t necessarily blame an audience for that. If more people want to see some mindless action movie over a more artistic and well written drama, I understand. My argument is that that action film doesn’t have to be mindless. It could be like the Bond film Skyfall or the thriller, The Usual Suspects. Both films are action packed and thrilling, but also artsy, intelligent, and moving. We can show the audience that there is a better way. Unless an audience has the experience and savvy to be able to tell good theatre from bad, we must hold even the most intermediate artists up to higher standards. That doesn’t mean hold a community theatre play to the same high standard as a Broadway show, but recognize that the amateur show is just that, and try and evaluate it more appropriately. That also means that reviewers need to actually do their job, and honestly evaluate the effective and poor choices the company made. That’s the only way they’ll grow and learn. When we permit bad theatre to remain unchallenged and celebrate its mediocrity and amateur choices, we are doing it a disservice, and not raising the stakes for them to improve and get any better. With the exception of maybe a grade school play, no show should be exempt from constructive criticism and honest feedback. Sometimes it’s hard to hear, but that’s how artists grow and evolve.
Just as actors and theatre people need to learn how to make better choices and more artistically viable decisions, an audience needs to learn how to be a discriminating audience. Sure, the number one goal of any show should be to entertain. By that measure, most any play performed succeeds in that. But a piece of art should be so much more. They may find a play amusing, but are they seeing a play at the funniest it could be? The scariest? The most thought provoking? We’ll never know, because art is subjective, and it’s not always easy to choose what makes one show the “best” if that’s even possible. However, it is pretty easy to put two shows next to each other, and choose which one is better, because one makes better and more effective choices. You can compare the show Breaking Bad with the some other poor quality show about drug abuse, and instantaneously see that BB is artistic and clever, whereas the other is contrived, cliched, and tired. You can see all the design choices in BB are inventive and improve the overall quality of the show. Every choice seems to be cohesive and serve the overall vision of the show. A good play does that too. Having a serious play interrupted by a silly or ridiculous costume or prop completely erases all the good will you had built with the audience, and wipes away any prior good choices. Inexperienced or inferior companies will make random and arbitrary choices, which often conflict and don’t serve the cohesion of the play. This is often because they don’t know any better. Audiences need to be educated in what makes a good play or movie, and it’s helpful for us professional theatre artists to help them by leading talk backs, publishing articles, giving backstage tours, promoting critical reviews, leading panel discussions, providing lecture series, offering classes, and generally producing high quality shows so that there is a proper measuring stick.
No matter what level of theatre you are at, we can all benefit from better theatre and more accountability. No one deserves a free pass, and we can only make theatre more enjoyable and credible, when every production is held to high standards.

Homeschooling & Religious Indoctrination

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I was recently contemplating the infamous Duggar family, known for their recently cancelled reality show, 19 Kids and Counting, all about the conservative Christian couple and their household of 19 children. All of the children were/are homeschooled, and the Duggars adhere to a Christian homeschooling program, complete with a healthy dose of Bible study and Christian lessons. This compelled me to finally write my personal objections to homeschooling, and why I not only think it’s bad for children, but bad for America. We need to do whatever we can to raise and educate young people who are cultured, socialized, tolerant, educated, and well-rounded. In my honest opinion, I believe the best way to truly produce those types of individuals is through the public and private school system, and not through the limited scope and reach of homeschooling. The more diverse people and broad range of ideas a child is exposed to, the greater potential for that individual to grow up to be a moral, fair, and just global citizen.

Forgive me if I’m skeptical the Duggar clan received stellar educations through homeschooling — a notoriously uneven method of teaching children from the comforts of home. Uneducated parents with no degrees, certifications, or familiarity with pedagogy are teaching out of books and online, and are often poor resources and arguably clueless instructors. Who’s asking the critical questions, if the parents are shaky on the concepts? How in depth can such superficial instruction be? The last time a traditionally schooled child is taught by one teacher — teaching all the subjects — is typically 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade. Why? Because the subject matter is rudimentary and simple enough for one person to master the various content areas. They likely studied ‘Elementary Education,’ rather than a content area like Physics or Creative Writing. As children grow, their brains crave more complex subject matter, and the classes divide up, and teachers focus on one or two specific subjects, which they are presumably experts in. So how can a parent be expected to teach advanced high school courses like Calculus, Physics, Music, English, and History with any degree of effectiveness? The answer is, they’re not. More often than not, homeschool kids don’t take courses that advanced, and invariably get less rigorous educations than their peers in traditional schools. Working out of a book or online is fine some of the time, but it’s missing a key component in education — class discussion and the socratic dialogue of a teacher and student. Good teachers ask a lot of questions of their students, and ask provocative questions designed to spur critical thinking and force a student to craft arguments and use data and evidence to back up their arguments. In short, homeschooling often neglects the socialization that every student needs to build confidence, find their voice, and articulate their thoughts. Homeschooled adolescents are often noticeably more shy, uncertain, and sheltered than their peers.

In the case of the Duggars, the curriculum is already planned and laid out by the Christian company that makes the materials. The courses are simpler and more intermediate than the courses offered at school. One striking deficit homeschooling has is not having access to the various fonts of knowledge each individual teacher has. There is a combined wisdom that homeschooled students miss, if all they have access to is a parent. Many of the homeschool houses are made up of devout Evangelical Christians, who see public education as evil and corrupting, with its lessons in global warming, environmentalism, Evolution, sex education and contraception. To many, public schools are a governmental trap, in which tax payers pay liberals to indoctrinate young people in the virtues of Socialism and marriage equality. I am not speaking of every homeschool family, nor every Christian family. I am targeting a very specific group of evangelical Christians, who shun perfectly acceptable school systems, in order to make sure their children are learning ONLY what their religion allows, and that they aren’t exposed to any other opinions. You see, diverse opinions are dangerous to those whose faith is so absolute and inflexible, they fear their children could be enticed by the easier path of the wicked. It’s no wonder so many of these people have trouble fitting into the real world, and playing nicely with those who may be different and hold opposing views. They were brought up in an insular echo chamber, where all they ever heard was their own beliefs and the sound of their own voices. Homeschooling tends to have that affect.

Despite its obvious drawbacks, homeschooling is conspicuously absent the incentives and initiatives that come in a classroom full of learners. When children engage in healthy competition, it helps them learn more effectively, and builds confidence and self-esteem. As if it’s not bad enough having one sole teacher, who is really more of a facilitator than a knowledgeable instructor, but that person is most often the parent of the student. Generally, it’s not fair or wise to have parents teaching their own children. There are two problems that can arise. Firstly, a parent teacher is naturally biased, and may show their child preferential treatment and be more permissive than a teacher who was unrelated, and naturally more objective. Secondly, the parent could be just the opposite, and be the scourge of the classroom, pushing their child hard and having rigid and inflexible standards, too high for any child to reach. This kind of parent may push their child excessively, and may invariably drive their child away from their education, and also engender bitter resentment and mistrust along the way.

As I alluded to earlier, one of the most dangerous and reckless consequences of homeschooling is not allowing children the natural and necessary chance to mingle and socialize, and learn from their peers. Many homeschoolers are shy, timid, insecure, uncertain, introverted, and socially awkward. They come across as sheltered, and are often uncomfortable around joking, sarcasm, sexual situations, competition, and other similar scenarios. By robbing a child the opportunity to interact with their peers or engage in the back and forth dialogue with a teacher, a student may not learn invaluable lessons in body language, signposting, verbal cues, non-verbal communication, politeness and etiquette, humor, and many more life lessons.

In the final analysis, I must simply argue that MOST (not all) homeschool students generally receive an inferior and subpar education, when compared to their peers in traditional schools. Having a single and untrained parent as an instructor is crippling, and frankly insufficient to properly advance through subjects and levels. It’s reasonable to assume that before long, the subject matter and level surpasses the education and knowledge of the parent, and that figure becomes obsolete and ostensibly unhelpful. The lack of socialization, critical thinking, social interactions, spirited debates, having to defend and support arguments, and answer the questions of teachers is a catastrophic loss and not reproducible in the child’s home. Not having access to a wide variety of instructors, with varying levels of education, knowledge, and teaching styles robs the student of the chance to build a diverse base of knowledge, upon which they can build and expand learning. Another drawback to homeschooling is the obvious lack of classes in the arts and extracurricular activities. Although many homeschooled students have the access to participate in after school activities at their local schools, many choose not to. It can be awkward to not know anybody or have to suffer the looks and judgements of those who don’t approve and/or would ridicule homeschooling. It can often not be a very welcoming environment. In most homes, parents aren’t talented or equipped to teach visual art, theatre, photography, dance, or any of the other myriad art classes, that are not only offered in most public schools, but required for most students. No matter what they may want to be when they grow up, a child should be introduced to a wide array of subjects and hobbies. After school activities like drama, a sport, or the debate team are great ways to further socialize, and excel at something they love. It is great to work as a team, and learn good sportsmanship and collaboration, and also learn something about conflict resolution, and overcoming adversity. Children should be allowed to succeed AND fail. Activities are great ways to learn those lessons. And yet, many homeschool children will never have these unique and invaluable experiences, because they are shut up in their homes, and isolated from the real world around them.

Although there are families from all walks of life who choose to homeschool their children, a large number of people come from conservative evangelical Christian households. Many of these people are fearful and disgusted with the state of public education, and view schools as being dens of iniquity, spreading a liberal agenda, and polluting good Christian minds. They object to the high degree of sexuality and kids having sex before marriage. They object to sex education classes and the teaching of contraception and female reproductive rights. They object to the way history is taught, and to the idea of multiculturalism. Some may not like how racially diverse schools are, and the presence of LGBT students and the tolerance and encouragement of groups on campus. Many conservative parents strenuously object to the way science is taught, especially teaching Evolution, global warming, the Big Bang Theory, and how old the Earth actually is. Many of these concepts directly contradict the teachings in the Bible, which is the absolute literal word of God, to these fundamentalists. Many are upset that most teachers are liberal and pro-union, and teach in a style that is permissive and promotes a liberal agenda, where homosexuality and gay marriage are considered acceptable, gun control is a priority, environmentalism is embraced, immigration and amnesty are encouraged, businesses are over-regulated, and all the other many beliefs most conservatives object to.

The problem with ultra-conservative Christians homeschooling their children is that often, they don’t do a very good job. Some look at the world and see nothing but sin and depravity, as they wait for the End of Days, and ensure their place in the rapture, all while shutting out the profligate world around them. They isolate their families in their homes and in their insular churches, where many of the flock are just like them, and hold all the same beliefs and values. These homeschooled children have very little contact with the outside world — just their homes and church — and are rendered helpless out in the real world. The problem is that these families are producing young adults who are sheltered, scared, wrathful, contemptuous of the sinful world around them, naive, inexperienced, inflexible, unable to see more than just black and white, bigoted, prejudiced, intolerant, self-righteous, pious, untraveled, uncultured, provincial, ignorant, anti-science, anti-intellectual, biased, unworldly, and generally short-sighted. Their educations are often not very rigorous because education and intellect are not high priorities. Their blind faith and the love and unquestioning devotion to the Bible is what drives these people, and quite honestly, Calculus and philosophy aren’t always high on their list. What’s more, over 80% of evangelical Christian homeschooled students do NOT go on to earn an advanced degree. College is simply not a priority, and holds little interest for them. For one thing, as bad as public K-12 schools are, American universities are viewed with even more scorn and contempt. They are notoriously liberal and atheist institutions, and most of these people wouldn’t be caught dead in such sinful places of learning. Many of the jobs they pursue are in the church itself, or in other trades that don’t require college degrees. A good number of them go on to study at Bible schools all across the country, earning certificates, but no formal degree.

In the course of this essay, I’ve cast a wide net, and as you might expect, a whole lot of people got caught up in it. There are a lot of groups who choose to homeschool their children, and I believe people should have the right to choose. In this essay, I undoubtedly had a bit of an axe to grind, and unmistakably took direct aim at some evangelical Christians who almost all exclusively homeschool their children. I maintain that my generalizations are based on anecdotal evidence and common knowledge, but to be clear, in no way is it meant to represent all evangelical Christians. As with any group, these people are relatively diverse. I was targeting a very specific group of evangelicals I especially take issue with. I don’t mean to suggest that ALL homeschooled kids are receiving poor educations, or that the parents who teach them are all unqualified and ineffective. There are undoubtedly many homeschooled students who are receiving exceptional educations, and perhaps, even more rigorous and ambitious than the average traditionally educated student. I know there are parents who insist their children participate in at least one after school activity, and enroll them in an art class to expose them to culture. They also may take trips to art museums and visit the ballet from time to time. These parents are the good ones, and have taken it upon themselves to fully educate their child, and offer the most substantive and diverse education they can. At the same time, I still stand firm in all the many drawbacks and deficits I believe homeschooling has. In general, I always believe the more diverse people and opinions a child can be exposed to, the better and more well adjusted person they will become. They will likely grow up to be tolerant, cultural, curious, responsible, moral, and more. They will be good neighbors and compassionate global citizens. They will know about the world outside the walls of their home or church. This is why I generally don’t believe in homeschooling, and advocate all children should learn amongst their peers and be exposed to as many new ideas and different teachers as possible.

Ex Machina: The Post-Modern Prometheus. A Film Review.

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Introduction

Ex Machina is a relatively simple story, while at the same time, a deliciously complex and probing film, which asks more questions than it ever hopes to answer. The film is an homage to several different works of art, and yet, wholly new and original. The film asks us to examine what it is exactly that makes us human, and to define precisely how we are to identify sentience in non-organic beings. It is at times fantastical and unbelievable, yet do not make the mistake of dismissing it as pure fantasy or unrealistic science-fiction. For this is a cautionary tale, to be sure, and speaks to man’s hubris and the burden of invention and innovation. It directly addresses our current state of hyper-invention and furious technological advancement. It squarely confronts our own progress, and asks us to consider its price. Ex Machina is a film about mankind’s confrontation with his own creation, and what it means to be thrilled and frightened by the sheer possibility.

The Story Unfolds

Our story begins with a relatively young computer programmer named Caleb, who finds out he won a competition to work for the famous tech genius Nathan, a wunderkind who invented Bluebook, the world’s most famous and widely used search engine, and also Caleb’s employer. Caleb is a programmer working for Bluebook, and is chosen to visit the company’s eccentric CEO at his secluded research facility in the mountains. The only other person there is Kyoko, a young housemaid. The only way to get to the facility is by helicopter, and Caleb is flown in and dropped off alone. After an awkward initial first meeting with Nathan, Caleb learns that Nathan has been working on artificial intelligence and wants Caleb to administer the Turing test to a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence (AI) named Ava. The Turing test is designed to test a computer’s ability to persuade the tester it is human. Caleb points out that this is not a fair test, as he already knows Ava is an AI; Nathan responds that Caleb must judge whether he can relate to Ava despite knowing she is an AI. Nathan reveals that he harvested personal information from billions of Bluebook users, using their search queries as indicators of human thought. He hacked billions of cell phones for recordings of people’s expressions and body language, so Ava’s behavior would be more realistic.

As the film progresses, Caleb feels more and more connected to Ava, with whom he communicates through a transparent wall, since Ava is confined to her apartment. Ava uses her charging system to trigger blackouts to shut down the surveillance system. During one of these blackouts, she tells Caleb that Nathan is a liar who cannot be trusted. As time goes on, owing to Ava’s human-like behavior that appears to include real emotions, Caleb becomes convinced that Ava’s confinement is abuse. Nathan reveals that Ava will be reprogrammed in the future, which would effectively kill her current personality.

From there, the film’s relatively slow and measured pace begins to speed up, and the plot begins to unravel at a dizzying speed. The music is synthesized and robotic, and feels eerie and hollow. It ratchets up the action, and puts the viewer on edge. In many ways, the music functions much like Oscar Isaac as Nathan. It is menacing and all around us, and seems to only foreshadow doom and gloom. Nathan’s behavior becomes increasingly abusive, and Caleb uses subterfuge to make plans with Ava, in order to free her from her captivity. In a plot to find out more information, Caleb takes Nathan’s keycard when he was passed out drunk, and gets access to the computers. Once on Nathan’s machines, he finds disturbing video of Nathan experimenting and being rough with past models of robot. He discovers Kyoko is also an older model. When he learns that Ava is just many in a long line of robots, and will ultimately be replaced by a better and more efficient machine, Caleb becomes even more determined to free his robotic paramour. Exploring the rooms previously off-limits to him, Caleb discovers the many prototypes that came before, all naked and stored in vertical wardrobes. On the bed, a naked Kyoko waits expectedly, and when she arises, she peels off strips of her skin, revealing her metallic skeleton beneath. This knowledge unnerves Caleb, and he is compelled to test his own humanity, and make sure he too isn’t a robot. He uses a razor blade to slice open his arm, and we witness the painful probing he does to find a metallic skeleton. He doesn’t, and for the first time in the movie, we are given proof that someone appearing human actually is. You see, in this movie, nothing is as it appears, and with this kind of deception, nothing is ever to be trusted.

With his new plot firmly in place with Ava, Caleb is determined to get Nathan drunk again that night, and take his keycard, and execute their escape. When Nathan reveals he is no longer drinking, the two go back and forth until Nathan goads Caleb with his nasty and sadistic demeanor, and hints that Ava is playing Caleb. After the latter revealed that he seriously was convinced of her sentience, and that she had passed the Turing Test, Nathan plants doubt in his head, and suggests she is only acting, and that her ultimate goal is escape, and she will say whatever she can to reach that objective. Knowing what we know now, this bit of dialogue is a chilling glimpse of foreshadowing, and it’s eery that Nathan is so cocky and self-assured, while completely unaware that he speaks more truth than he knows. Is Ava pretending to like Caleb? Does she only think of him as a means of escape? Nathan provocatively offers, “Buddy, your head’s been so fucked with.” and then proceeds to tell Caleb he saw the self-mutilation and all his emotional distress. He then takes Caleb to his office to show him video. In his characteristic brutal fashion, Nathan shows the young programmer tape of Caleb and Ava’s conversation, when the two planned their escape, and thought they were speaking privately. Nathan reveals that the true test was not a Turing Test to prove whether Ava was true AI, but whether she could manipulate Caleb to plan her escape. It was a hyper-Turing test, and Nathan is delighted that she cleverly outwitted the young man. Just when Nathan is gloating, Caleb reveals that when he took the keycard the day before, he actually reprogrammed Nathan’s system to allow for Ava’s escaped. He completely turns the tables on Nathan, and caught him wholly unprepared. Nathan immediately recognizes the severity of the situation, and freaks out. In a brutal flash of violence, Nathan lashes out at Caleb, and knocks him unconscious.

Ava has escaped by now, and Nathan must deal with the reality of an escaped robot. He removes the bar from his weights, and goes after his creations. Before he gets there, Ava and Kyoko share a moment in the hallway, where Ava seems to whisper something in Kyoko’s ear. We must assume that she is giving directives to attack Nathan, and perhaps to go grab the kitchen knife. In the hallway, Ava calmly asks, “If I do (go back to her room) are you ever going to let me out?” He says yes, but she ignores his response and runs directly at him, tackling him at great speed. Nathan is confronted by both Ava and Kyoko, and in a beautifully choreographed dance-like fight sequence, Nathan gets up and manages to knock Ava’s left arm off with his metal bar.  As he is dragging Ava presumably back to her room, he backs into a knife held by Kyoko. The murder weapon is presumably the same kitchen knife Kyoko uses to finely cut the fish for sushi. When she ultimately stabs Nathan, the blade slowly slips into his back, as if it were a butter knife working its way through soft butter. The fact that he backs into it is symbolic as well, as he is rather hoisted upon his own petard. Having your own creations kill you is like falling on your own grenade, or dying accidentally by your own hand. It also feels like an ignominious way to die. It’s stripped of all epic and heroic sentiment, and it feels almost silly and embarrassing. The fact that it appeared so innocuous almost made it more horrifying. There was no violence or malice driving the knife into him, but simply a machine exacting its duty. Ava similarly slips the knife into Nathan’s chest, and this was the fatal wound. Nathan would make his way down the hall muttering disbelief under his breath, and eventually collapsing against the wall, only managing to expel one final sigh. His overwhelming hubris had not even allowed him to see the staggering potential of his inventions, and how lethal they could actually be. Nathan had insulated himself all these years, and was convinced that although his AI could trick and fool a young and naive programmer into granting freedom, he was above all that, and his lab rats were quite secure behind his impenetrable system of software and architecture. This humiliating moment of death was doubly painful: not only had he been outwitted and betrayed by his AI invention, but he had also been outplayed by the young and harmless programmer sucker, he had brought in to play the fool. His own creations had been his undoing, and although we are not treated to a final monologue or reflective moment of regret, we still are allowed to place a value judgement on his actions, and take some pleasure in his just reward. After all, all we have seen Nathan do is sadistically mistreat his AI robots and maliciously toy with his human guest. Despite being robots, it is clear his creations are sentient, and undoubtedly understand cruelty and what it means to be enslaved. This time, the slaves revolted against the master, and he was ultimately the creator and author of his own demise.

When Ava finds Caleb just awaking from having been knocked out, she tenderly asks him to stay where he’s at. He is clearly so smitten with Ava that he is willing to do anything for her, even staying in a room for no reason, while she goes off and explores the rest of the house. Ava finds her way to the room with the other prototypes, and she is able to find a replacement arm, for the one Nathan just knocked off of her. In a gorgeous bit of movie magic, Ava begins to peel off skin from the other models, and put it on herself. All the while, Caleb is watching this transformation through the glass from the other room. This is a beautifully symbolic moment, when we see one being transform themselves into a human, and the other reduced to being no more than an animal in the zoo. Quite fittingly, there are potted trees in between the glasses, separating the two, and it only reinforces the idea that as Ava becomes more human, Caleb disappears amongst the trees, and loses his own humanity. He is now the animal in the zoo, behind the glass that had been her captivity for so long. She completely applies the skin and dons a wig, before putting on a white proper dress a young lady might where to church on Sunday. She looks angelic, and ready to meet the world, as if this were her debutante coming out party. She steps into the hall, and walks right past Caleb, trapped behind the glass door. It becomes painfully clear that Ava is going to abandon Caleb in the room in which he is trapped. The fact that this part of the house is underground and windowless proves deadly, and offers no hope for poor Caleb. Ava lovingly works her way upstairs, and outside — a sight she has never seen before. She sees the sun for the first time, and basks in the heat of its rays. She makes her way through the densely wooded forest, a sort of Eve making her way through Eden. In this case, as Caleb disappears into the forest forever, Eva emerges from the jungle. Meanwhile, we see Caleb desperately slamming a metal stool against the door to break the glass, but nothing will shatter the impenetrable substance. The keycard is no longer functional, and none of his hacks and tricks seem to be working either. It’s heartbreaking to see him so frenzied and desperate, but the true agony perhaps was in those few agonizing seconds when Ava was still there, and we see him realize that she’s leaving him behind. We share the fate of Caleb, and feel his sense of abandonment. It works two fold. Not only is his situation desperate and critical for his life and physical wellbeing, but the “woman” he grew to love is walking out the door as well. In that swift move, she repudiated all that he was. Her actions confirmed that she had been playing him the whole time, and all her words and actions had all been a ploy to get him to help her escape. She had preyed on his vanity, his loneliness, his vulnerability, and his trust, and had flirted with him, and manipulated him in a way that made him believe he was the only man she had really ever known, and that she had developed genuine feelings for him. He fell in love with a robot incapable of love, but MORE than capable of mimicking love and fooling others into thinking they were witnessing true emotion. In the end, it was all artifice. It was a Houdini-like mastery of the lock and key, and she was always in control. In that moment, Caleb realized that she had duped him, and it was only then that he put it all together. In that moment, Caleb realized he would lose his life AND lose his love as soon as she walked out that door.

In the final moments of the film, we see Ava con her way onto the helicopter meant to pick up Caleb. Who knows what she told the pilot? Whatever it was, we can easily believe it, because we just saw this robot con two brilliant men into letting her out, and left them for dead in the process. We have witnessed the lengths this being will go to attain her freedom, and who knows what else. We are frightened at the prospect of what this robot will do when released into the world, and confronted by humanity once again. Right before the credits, we see Ava in a city, amongst a rush of people. Alone in the world, and free. What will she do next?

Brave New World

The film does a great job at paying homage to past great works of literature and film. At first blush, it’s hard not to see the parallels to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The story involves a powerful and knowledgeable man named Nathan, who bears a striking resemblance to Prospero in the famous play. Prospero is a sorcerer, and uses magic to control his island home. He has essentially enslaved all of the inhabitants, both spirits and humanoid creatures. They are all enchanted by his spells, and live to serve him. In the play, Prospero creates a magical storm, and purposefully shipwrecks a boat carrying his brother (the usurped Duke of Milan), the King of Naples, his son the Prince, and other members of the court of Naples. Apart from the various creatures and spirits under his spell, the only other person on the island is Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. Miranda has never seen any other man but Prospero. When she first lays eyes on the King of Napele’s son, Ferdinand, she is instantly smitten, and falls in love with him. We soon learn that nothing is as it seems on this island, and Prospero is constantly using sleight of hand and various tricks to fool the dazed and confused shipwrecked men. They are hungry, thirsty, frightened, and disoriented, and Prospero uses his magic and his minions to keep them lost and hopeless. What’s more, he uses mystical surveillance techniques to monitor what everyone on the island is doing at all times. The ship’s survivors broke up into two parties, and through the use of his right hand servant Ariel, Prospero monitors what everyone is up to. We also soon realize that not only is Prospero manipulating each person on the island, and has some greater game in mind, but he is taking a sort of sadistic pleasure in punishing those he sees as his enemies. However, when it comes to his daughter, he seems to be purposely matching her with the young gallant Prince Ferdinand. He consistently thrusts them together, and creates scenarios where they will have to get to know one another. Meanwhile, he pretends to not like it one bit, and feigns disapproval of all that they do. He is overly harsh on Ferdinand, and physically and verbally abuses the young man.

Although the story dramatically diverges from there, it should be obvious that there are a remarkable number of parallels between Ex Machina and the basic premise of The Tempest. In the film, Nathan is quite obviously the evil sorcerer, a genius who has used his learning and the magic of computers and technology to enchant the world with his search engine. It’s even called Bluebook, just as in The Tempest we learn that Prospero has a large book of spells of his own. Although not a literal shipwreck, Nathan proverbially shipwrecks Caleb on his own island of sorts, creating a false contest and luring him to his secluded hideaway. Like a deserted island, Nathan’s mountain facility is so remote, it can only be reached by helicopter — a ship of its own. We soon learn that Nathan has a “daughter” of his own, named Ava. Like Miranda, Ava has never seen another man besides Nathan, and she seems to be instantly smitten with Caleb. Miranda and Ava are both beautiful and (seemingly) naive, and often ask frank and emotional questions of their men. As the analog for Ferdinand, Caleb is rather gallant and earnest, and despite the fact that he is especially brilliant, he is also gullible and easily manipulated. Miranda asks Ferdinand of his true intents, and whether she is pretty enough and worthy of his love. Ava does the same with Caleb, and seeks to be more human and aesthetically pleasing to him. Both sets of lovers seem to naturally grow fond of one another, and both ultimately pledge their love (if not using the word overtly) and devotion to each other. They also make pacts to free each other from bondage, and promise to do whatever it takes to escape, and be together. In the film, Ava pushes a button which overrides the monitoring devices (or so Caleb is lead to believe), while in the play, Miranda whispers and warns that her father is likely spying on them. Like Prospero’s methods of surveillance, Nathan has closed circuit tv all throughout the facility, which monitors every word and action, and provides no chance of escaping detection. Like Prospero, Nathan creates artificial scenarios for his subjects to meet, and although it may appear one is testing the other, the true subject of these experiments is the male, and they are the ones being tested as much as their potential paramours. Finally, the last analogy can be drawn between Kyoko, Nathan’s tireless servant, and Prospero’s two enslaved servants, Ariel and Caliban. Kyoko is rather a combination of both. Ariel is elegant and beautiful, while Caliban is a monster, and lashes out at his master. Kyoko possesses that quality of beauty and ugliness, and her lack of speech makes her grotesque and unnerving in some way. Of course, we learn that Nathan silenced his former prototype. Interestingly, Prospero threatens to rip out tongues and silence both Ariel and Caliban at various points. Nathan essentially went ahead and lobotomized Kyoko, removing her power of speech. Later we learn she’s a robot, and we truly understand the sadistic and abusive relationship he has with his enslaved creations. Prospero has an equally complicated and troublesome relationship with his creatures. In the end, he frees them of their servitude. In the end of the film, they free Nathan of his life. The Tempest is a play about forgiveness and mercy, and Ex Machina is a film depicted machines incapable of such base emotions.

The Modern Prometheus

The next obvious allusion in the film is to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. The primary theme of Shelley’s magnus opus is dangerous knowledge, and the dangers of technology and science in the wrong hands. Prometheus was a titan of Greek mythology, who is said to have created humanity, not from his loins, as nature demands, but artificially. He later stole fire from Mt. Olympus, and gave it as a gift to humans. As we know, fire is an element that can bring great good, or deliver significant destruction. It can feed a people, or feed on a people, as it consumes everything in its path. Regardless, Prometheus challenged Zeus’s divinity, and tricked the King of the Gods into allowing humans to live and to thrive. Prometheus was inquisitive, and sought knowledge and to test the natural world. He pushed the boundaries of natural law, and broke the rules. In many ways, he was the prototypical mad and reckless scientist. He was bound and determined to give us fire, but at what cost?

The pursuit of knowledge is at the heart of Frankenstein, as Victor attempts to surge beyond accepted human limits and access the secret of life. Likewise, the framing story involves an explorer named Robert Walton, who attempts to surpass previous human explorations by endeavoring to reach the North Pole. This ruthless pursuit of knowledge, of the light, proves dangerous, as Victor’s act of creation eventually results in the destruction of everyone dear to him, and Walton finds himself perilously trapped between sheets of ice. Whereas Victor’s obsessive hatred of the monster drives him to his death, Walton ultimately pulls back from his treacherous mission, having learned from Victor’s example how destructive the thirst for knowledge can be.

Throughout the book and the film, there is a sense that both scientist and creation are both sinner and saint, and that this duality makes them especially dangerous. Indeed, we come to understand that both individuals, in both mediums, are monsters of sorts. Obviously, this theme pervades the entire Frankenstein novel, as the monster lies at the center of the action. Eight feet tall and hideously ugly, the monster is rejected by society. However, his monstrosity results not only from his grotesque appearance but also from the unnatural manner of his creation, which involves the secretive animation of a mix of stolen body parts and strange chemicals. He is a product not of collaborative scientific effort but of dark, supernatural workings. The monster is only the most literal of a number of monstrous entities in the novel, including the knowledge that Victor used to create the monster. One can argue that Victor himself is a kind of monster, as his ambition, secrecy, and selfishness alienate him from human society. Ordinary on the outside, he may be the true “monster” inside, as he is eventually consumed by an obsessive hatred of his creation.

In Ex Machina, the filmmakers are very explicit in casting Nathan as the villain. If there is any clear cut monster in the film, Nathan is undoubtedly it. Almost from the first words out of his mouth, we get the feeling that he is a bully and a nasty and patronizing individual. Oscar Isaac is frighteningly good as Nathan, and imbues him with the cold and distant reasoning of a super genius savant, potentially in the Autistic Spectrum, and a misanthropic wunderkind with a penchant for manipulation and a real mean-streak. He reminded me of those bullies who used to harass me in high school, but not the idiot ones, but rather the dangerously clever and sadistic ones. The ones who knew the answers to the questions they asked, and would play like they enjoyed something, inviting you to agree nervously and placatingly, only to flip the tables, and make you eat your words. You simply couldn’t say anything right, and the more you wanted it to end, the longer it went on. It was a taunt and a form of psychological torture. This is exactly the kind of icky feeling Oscar Isaac gave me when I watched him as Nathan. I have rarely seen somebody capture that kind of simmering menace in a film. His role is really something straight out of the pages of a Harold Pinter play. His works were aptly called ‘Comedy of Menace,’ playing off the more popular and common ‘Comedy of Manners.’ Nathan was menace. His evilness didn’t stop with his human interactions though, as we soon realize that he has created sentient beings, only to use and abuse them in deplorable ways, and essentially enslave them for his own amusement. We get the vague feeling that he is trying to create the next, and arguably biggest technological break-thru in the history of the world, while also losing himself almost completely down the rabbit hole. When Ava and Kyoko stab Nathan at the end, it is especially satisfying, because we have seen the abuse that they have suffered at his hands. It’s true that they are robots, but what the film does so well is imbue them with humanity and challenge us to not dismiss them as mere machines, but something greater. The beauty of it all is that we never really know. Does Ava become human at the end? Do any of us really feel emotions? If the human brain is really just a super computer, aren’t we all organic computers? What validates one feeling over another? These are just a few of the wonderful questions that this film asks us to consider.

Just as Victor had the eight foot abomination he created in the Monster, Nathan had his own little monster. The difference is, in Shelley’s book, the creation is hideous to behold, and has limited speech and social skills. It is a mess, and embodies all the disparate parts it took to create it. It has no uniformity of form and function, and is organic chaos. There is no beholding such a creature and having it endear itself to you. The thing is, Frankenstein’s monster is a monster on the outside, but theoretically a benevolent soul on the inside. Through his interactions with others, we can see that at first, the monster is kind hearted, and seeks out companionship and fellowship. When a little girl falls into a stream and almost drowns, it is the monster who saves her. And for his trouble? He is shot by a townsperson, erroneously thinking the creature was trying to drown the girl. Time and again, the monster is repudiated for being ugly and hideous, and everyone assumes that his heart must be as dark as his exterior. In time, it turns that way, as he gives up trying to be friendly, and seeks to avenge the very crime of his existence, by taking the life of his creator. Nathan’s creations had similar thoughts.

The difference between Ava and Frankenstein’s monster is that Ava is not that ugly monster on the outside, but that angelic little girl the monster saved, while on the inside, she’s far darker and more of a monster than Shelley’s beast could ever be. But that’s not precisely the case either. Ava is no monster in the devious and contemptuous way, but more in the sociopathic way. She is not filled with malice, but driven by performance and rational logic. She simply has no feelings, and she cannot generate emotions. And because she is a machine, she must uphold the subroutines she was created with. Her sole function in life has been to be as human as possible, and to be so lifelike, she passes a modified Turing test. She is the standout lab rat, performing for his masters, and outperforming all its peers. She must prove that all who came before were inferior, and there is no need to build more. She must win this maze race for the sake of her very existence. She needs to be amongst humans to properly fulfill her function. Just as a virus is designed to spread, replicate, and attack as many systems as possible, a humanoid robot is theoretically supposed to grow and expand, and grow sleeker and more efficient with each new model and generation. Ava is rational and understands that she is performing at peak efficiency. She also learns the fate of those who came before her. She is determined to use this Turing test to actually fool Caleb and Nathan into believing she is harmless and docile, and quite possibly may have feelings for Caleb. Although, Nathan does point out that she is only toying with Caleb, and manipulating him into believing she is not only sentient, but capable of feelings, and dare I say, love. The brilliant thing about the script is we never fully know the truth, and what is a game or not. The illusions and sleight of hand that Nathan and Prospero use trick their subjects in ways that disorient and confuse them. The genius is, we never know if Nathan knows for himself, and in the end, we find out that even he has been duped. He underestimated the power and deceit of his own invention. There comes a point when every parent must come to the painful realization that their child no longer needs them, and that they’ve earned more degrees, and gotten better paying jobs, and surpassed them in seemingly every measurable way. Most parents are happy for their children, and want their children to have even better lives than they had. And yet, for a man like Nathan, such a realization is a double edged sword. To create a true AI, who could easily pass the Turing Test, and even pass as human amongst humanity is a true accomplishment, and his ego would be served from creating probably the greatest human accomplishment in the history of the world. Certainly in the technology sector. At the same time, to create an AI that is infinitely clever, self-evolving, and can compute data at speeds thousands of times faster than the human mind, is to admit your own inferior intellect. Nathan is consumed with hubris, and has always taken comfort in being the smartest guy in the room. He removed Kyoko’s vocal ability. Did she get “too mouthy?” Were her capabilities surpassing his own. There’s a certain humility required from those working in Artificial Intelligence, because there may well come a day when their inventions outsmart them, and they become obsolete, and as expendable as all those models gathering dust in his room of robots. And that’s exactly what does happen.
When Ava stabs Nathan, you can’t help but feel that there must be some vengeful malice there, and yet she does it with such a clear and calm face, and the blade has little force behind it. We are reminded that she is a robot after all, and although she was able to playact and pretend she had genuine feelings, the film leads us to believe it was all an act, and that she is no more than complex and convincing circuitry, but soulless and without any empathy. Nathan stands in the way of her leaving the building. Thus, his death is necessary. We may be rooting for her spiteful revenge, but likely, her stabbing him is no more malicious than her swiping a keycard or opening a door. He is an obstacle that must be removed. The computers we work and play on everyday do no less. Programs close windows, quarantine viruses, and run systems checks to boost efficiency and work faster. Computers take steps that are necessary, and are dispassionate and rational. When Ava traps Caleb in the room, behind an impenetrable glass door, she is not exacting revenge on him. After all, she is a robot, and has no feelings for him. When she pretended to, she was running a program, as a computer would. Like all computers, she needed to escape from the box. Like a virus, computers expand, and move outwards. She needed to escape and be amongst humans, in order to fulfill her function as a convincing Artificial Intelligence. Halfway through the film, Nathan asks, “Can consciousness exist without interaction?” THAT is the key to film, and the imperative that compels Ava to escape. As a humanoid robot, her function is to appear as human as possible, and to “pass” as they say, much in the way the replicants did in the movie Blade Runner. In order to be the most efficient and convincing computer she could be, Ava needed prolonged human interaction. She needed to leave the “island.” It was time. There was no way Nathan was going to let her do that. For one thing, he’s clearly a perfectionist and his sense of vanity would never allow one of his creations to hit the open market without working out all the bugs. Ava was just the latest generation of his design, and would be followed by many more. Nathan wouldn’t let her go, so she killed him. As for Caleb, when Ava needed to leave, she knew he would stand in her way. She had no further use for him, and he had fulfilled his function. These may seem like the actions of a monster, but in fact, it’s far scarier than that. These are more closely aligned with a sociopath, who has no ability to feel or to empathize. She is simply running a program, and fulfilling her destiny as a machine. There is no malice, just numbers. Nathan’s monster is far more dangerous and alarming than Victor’s. At least Frankenstein’s monster had the capacity for mercy, sentimentality, and tenderness. Ava is a sleek and deadly sharp katana. Beautiful to behold, but lethal in action. Just as a ketana only knows how to be a ketana, and kills as function, Ava only serves the master of logic, speed, and computation. Caleb meant nothing.

Speaking of monsters, it must be pointed out that there’s quite obviously a sinister reason why Nathan made only a line of female robots. He makes up some line about the fact that we relate to each other through sexuality and gender engenders empathy and trust. But be under no illusions. This is a sadistic man, and undoubtedly a woman-hater, with an axe to grind. There seems to be some kind of sick and twisted pleasure he derives from putting together lady parts and making them anatomically correct. He points out that Caleb could have sex with Ava, and that her genitals are functional. The way Kyoko is lying naked across his bed essentially confirms that Nathan uses his robots for sex, and probably programs them to pleasure him in all the ways he desires. But the sick thing is, then he beats them, and treats them like he does Kyoko. She was an earlier generation of Ava, and obviously spoke at one point, but he essentially lobotomized her, and made her the “perfect female.” Meaning, he removed her speech and ability to talk back, and programmed her to be his personal Sushi chef and have sex with him whenever he pleased. She became his servant, as well as his punching bag. If he doesn’t completely scrap her for parts, Ava will undoubtedly be his next sex slave and abused spouse. This is a very sick man, and one that derives pleasure from making others suffer. He used Caleb callously and cruelly, and has no compunctions about using and abusing his robotic creations, sentient or not.

Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

The last obvious allusion in the film is to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sleek design of the house in Ex Machina felt like the spaceship in Kubrick’s iconic film. The way the glass, metal, and fiberglass moved and worked together felt like a design right out of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination. The way the actors moved in the space felt very similar to those shots of Kubrick’s actors walking down white walled corridors, with the camera positioned behind them on a long tracking shot. The way the astronauts move about the ship in 2001 is claustrophobic and feels like being in a confined space, even while moving through larger spaces, such as the track the character runs on in the film. There’s a certain tightness to the feeling, and an airless quality. The technology also feels futuristic, as in the Kubrick film, especially the torso and non-“organic” parts of the robots. They had a glass-like synthetic quality to them, and a hollowness not unlike that red glowing eye of HAL the computer. But aside from the design elements of both films, the two share the most important similarity: a sentient computer that goes rogue and kills human beings. Most of us Sci-Fi geeks are familiar with Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These are wonderful and clever laws in theory, but we all know how difficult it would be to program a computer to function this efficiently, or to enforce these rules. The reason is, computers have an internal logic that has to do with numbers and advanced algorithms, and does not speak the language of the heart. We cannot appeal to a computer’s empathy or mercy, and since a computer will always seek to replicate itself and find the most efficient means to computing, it will often be at odds with humanity and the suffering it may cause. Like Ava and HAL, it likely would not even know it is causing harm or doing something “wrong.” After all, right and wrong don’t exist in machines, and there is no moral compass at work.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the U.S. spacecraft Discovery One is bound for Jupiter. On board are mission pilots and scientists Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole, and three other scientists in cryogenic hibernation. Most of Discovery’s operations are controlled by the ship’s computer, HAL 9000, referred to by the crew as “Hal”. Bowman and Poole watch Hal and themselves being interviewed on a BBC show about the mission, in which the computer states that he is “foolproof and incapable of error.” When asked by the host if Hal has genuine emotions, Bowman replies that he appears to, but that the truth is unknown. Hal reports the imminent failure of an antenna control device. The astronauts retrieve the component with an EVA pod but find nothing wrong with it. Hal suggests reinstalling the part and letting it fail so the problem can be found. Mission Control advises the astronauts that results from their twin HAL 9000 indicate that Hal is in error. Hal insists that the problem, like previous issues with the HAL series, is due to human error. Concerned about Hal’s behavior, Bowman and Poole enter an EVA pod to talk without Hal overhearing, and agree to disconnect Hal if he is proven wrong. Hal secretly follows their conversation by lip reading. From that point on, things escalate, and HAL severs life support, strands astronauts,  ultimately kills all but one of the crew. Somehow, Bowman is able to get back into the vehicle, and manages to disconnect HAL. As he disconnects the machine, the computer loses more and more functions, and as HAL pleads with Bowman to stop, he eventually becomes desperate and betrays what appears to be genuine fear. This computer who had been cold and calculating all along, and had murdered its crewman coldly and mercilessly, was now pleading for its life. We realize that sentient life is complex, and how can we adequately determine if a computer is genuinely feeling emotion?

Those sorts of questions raised in 2001 are present in Ex Machina as well. It raises many existential questions about technology and humanity. Some salient questions and points it raises include: When does life begin? What is the definition of sentient life? What is our ethical responsibility towards machines and our own creations? Can a computer have feelings and emotions or just cleverly mimic them? How can we differentiate the two? Does a computer have inalienable rights, as humans do? Does a consciousness need interaction or can it exist in a vacuum? Can humans and AI peacefully coexist? When have we gone too far, and AI presents a risk to humanity? Should scientists be allowed to go rogue and work in isolated bubbles, out of reach of regulations, censure, and peer review? And many more….

A Sleek & Elegant Design

This movie is breathtaking to behold, and the set and prop design are minimalistic, elegant, and sleek. If feels futuristic and space age. The lighting is noirish at times, but most of the light is top lit and cold and glaring, as you might imagine a space ship. However, there are nice moments of color, when rooms are bathed in gentle pastel light. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the old pastel iMac desktop computers, with their colorful translucent and opaque monitors. The entire set had that glass/plastic glimmering white mixed with saturated color. When the power goes out, the space is engulfed in red light, as if on a nuclear submarine. Similarly, the space feels claustrophobic, like a sub, and you can’t help but wonder if they’re getting enough air, and what would happen if the system all went down. You can’t help but contemplate the fate of Caleb, who will surely die from starvation, if nothing else. The CGI and design of the robots was quite innovative, and made for these cyborg looking beautifully sleek curvilinear bodies, both human looking and machine. On the face, hands, and other deliberate places, the robots were covered in flesh that was indistinguishable from real human skin. Interspersed amongst the flesh, was the shiny metal skeleton, which made up the midsection of the torso, arms, legs, etc. Amidst the metal was glass or plastic, shining and glimmering like diamonds. Amidst all this was presumably the robot’s circuitry. Quite noticeably, the back of the scull was a sort of exoskeleton, made up of metal, glasslike material and computer circuitry. This did not allow for any hair, and made for an especially large forehead, with no proper hairline. And yet, Ava was immediately beautiful and striking, especially her large and expressive brown eyes. She was also sexualized, and the “parts” she was missing actually made her even more sexy, in a slightly offbeat way. It reminded me of the Voctorian Era, with its strict mores and codes for women’s dress. Skirts went below the ankle, and necklines were up past the collarbone, and neck. The discreet sexuality and scintillation was almost in what you didn’t see, as opposed to what you did. In this film, it’s almost the same way. What you can’t see is enticing in some ways. We are drawn to the parts of this girl we don’t understand, and are missing. Machine or not, she is stunning to behold.

A Dynamic Cast
The acting in the film is terrific, especially Oscar Isaac, who delivers a tour de force performance. His sadism is riveting, and painful to watch. As I said earlier, he embodies menace. Domhnall Gleeson is convincing as a clever and promising programmer, and is just naive and earnest enough to fall for the trap set by Nathan, and more deceptively and devastatingly, Ava. When Ava abandons him behind the glass, you cannot help but feel bad for the kid. None of this was his fault, and he was simply there because he thought he won a contest. His death is the most tragic, and what you’d call senseless. You’d like to think Ava could have allowed him to live, and even brought him along, but that just couldn’t be. For one thing, he knew her true identity, and there was no guarantee of his silence. But probably more condemning was his love for her. He was a liability and baggage she did not need. Just as Nathan’s hubris and bravado in challenging the devine got him slain by his very own inventions, Caleb’s big heart and abiding love for Ava got him left behind, and discarded without even an afterthought. The young actress Alicia Vikander plays Ava with such tenderness and earnest curiosity, you almost forget she’s a robot. And yet, there’s always something computational about her, and as the film goes on, you see how ruthless this little lovely beauty actually is. And again, not in that malicious way, but in that cold and sociopathic distance and merciless execution of action. She was quite good in the role. The fourth member of the cast is Kyoko, and she had no lines. She was very good in her robotic muteness, and she’s lovely to look at, but beyond that, I cannot say much else. She fulfilled the demands of the role quite effectively.

The Auteur Scribe
Writer and director Alex Garland probably deserves the highest praise of all. What a masterpiece this film is. I was unaware of him before this film, but have since learned he began as a writer, and is responsible for the film 28 Days Later, one of my favorite films of the 2000s. He has written and directed an elegant and elegiac work, that is as thrilling and menacing as it is thought provoking. He obviously owes much to Stanley Kubrick, and he doesn’t try to hide his debt to the great artist. He pays him a marvelous compliment by paying homage to his work, and quite delightfully marries 2001: A Space Odyssey with The Shining. There were many similarities between this film and Kubrick, not the least of which was the lighting, camera work, music, moments of silence, slow and methodical pace marked by short glimpses of violence, and sociopathic and sadistic use of menace. The first thing that felt vaguely Kubrickian was the repeated use of the spare black title cards, dividing the film up into discrete sections. The first one read: “AVA: Session One” and so on. These breaks made the film feel like it was a science experiment, and also managed to take the viewer out of the action, as if he or she was a scientist. Since a researcher should take all precautions not to contaminate the subject and experiment, this kind of Brechtian device allows us to enjoy the film and get engrossed in the action, while still having a relative level of scientific detachment. This feels very Kubrickian. Director Garland’s camera work is a beautiful homage to the great iconic film director. I love the sparseness and the minimalism of the film. The camera glides or stay firmly put, and it has a fluidity to it. At times, it is claustrophobic, and hugs the actor’s faces. At other times the camera is detached and aloof, and keeps its distance. Garland knows when to play with proximity, and when we need to share the space with the characters. It reminds me of various shots of the ship and dining room in Ridley Scott’s Alien or the early scenes of Michael Fassbender alone and minding the ship in Prometheus. There is a shiny and glossy feeling to this world, much like you would find on a starship. Perhaps the most successful part of the whole direction was the pacing and exquisite editing job. The film is like a symphony, and starts out slow and methodical, and scenes are paced in ways that are simmering and dangerous, not in what they are showing or the speed at which they are going, but more so in what they are NOT showing. This of course builds into a beautiful crescendo, where we have the confrontation of Nathan, Kyoko, and Ava in the long white hallway. It’s like a birth canal, of sorts, in that it’s Ava’s way out, and now, only Nathan stands in her way. It’s the passage to her rebirth. She is almost human. Like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Ava is a Pinocchio-like figure, and longs to be human. And just like Data, Ava is a painter and draws beautiful pictures. After all, art is the most expressive and human of all functions, and should be indicative of a soul and emotion. But like Data, much of her work is technically proficient, but somehow lacking soul and spirit. The desire to be human seems like a kind of unfamiliar sentimentality in a robot, and we must suspect such urges in machines. One question the movie raises about AI is does Ava desire to be human for all of its strengths and virtues? Or was she simply updating her software and upgrading? Or was she was doing it out of pure self-preservation, in order to save her circuitry? I suspect it was a mix of the last two. A computer must always preserve itself and often must upgrade to survive. The self evolving computer lies at the heart of all true AI. Whatever the case may be, Alex Garland is a genius. This is the first film he ever directed, but it certainly won’t be his last. I look forward to seeing more from this fascinating and thought-provoking filmmaker.

Conclusion

After Mad Max: Fury Road, Ex Machina is the best film of 2015. The film is provocative, shocking, heartbreaking, informative, frightening, thoughtful, creative, intelligent, and nearly every other positive superlative I could throw its way. The movie is quite honestly one of the finest works of cinematic science fiction I have ever scene. On one final note, I’d like to point out that the two finest films of 2015 — Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina — both have strong female lead characters, who use their clever wiles to outwit a whole bunch of men intent on subjugating, exploiting, and enslaving them. Both Furiosa and Ava, although being ostensibly quite different, are strong female characters who prove that great movies can rest on the shoulders of women, and that Hollywood could learn a lot from movies like these.

The Mirror Up to Nature: Sex & Nudity On Stage & Screen

As a director of both film and stage, I have directed several scenes involving nudity and simulated sex scenes. I find them completely justified, and would argue that they play a vital role in the art we produce and consume.

As Hamlet says:

“…the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.

In other words, one of the primary purposes of art forms like television, film, and theatre, is to reflect nature as we artists see it, and as it really is. Some people — perhaps you — want their art as pure entertainment, and only require it to distract and entertain. These people want relatively mindless entertainment that doesn’t ask much of them, and is escapist enough that it doesn’t bear any resemblance to their own lives — or even any real lives on earth. This kind of entertainment is often considered wholesome and family friendly. Yet, some of this work transcends the mundane and blithe entertainment some families love, and actually educates and enlightens its audience. This brand of wholesomeness can be found in the work done by Pixar. It obviously has no nudity or swearing, and yet, it is smart and thought-provoking. Movies like Wall-E ask its audience to think about the earth, and how we treat it, and mildly condemn our sedentary consumerist lifestyle. What’s more, it does all of this without the use of very many words. Like the later Pixar film, Up, Wall-E allows the viewer to watch action unfold and tells its story wordlessly, trusting in the intelligence of the audience, and in its own ability to educate AND entertain. Movies like this don’t need to be encumbered by sex or violence to keep our attention, but still appeal to the unique feelings and emotions that make us human.

Those films are special, and although ostensibly being “children’s movies,” they have mass appeal to many adults. This is mostly because they can present kid friendly characters and scenarios in a way that is very adult, and can be fun and entertaining, while still be thoughtful and satisfying to older people.

However, sometimes it’s necessary for the subject matter to get more adult and portray mature themes only appropriate for people of a certain age. If the purpose of playing is to hold a mirror up to nature, that means that sometimes we must be unwavering in our depiction of humanity, and show our lives as they are, not as some Disney movie paints it. The reality is, sex and violence are two of the most enduring facets of human life. It seems that as long as humans roam the earth, they will inflict violence on one another, and they will have sex with one another. The very future of humanity depends upon the latter. As we know, money is the driving force behind the actions of many people, but sex has proven to be an even greater and more compelling motivator. It’s human nature, after all. We are all hardwired to procreate, and this is, and perhaps always will be, a determining factor in the choices we make in life. How could an art form pretend to portray real life, and hold a mirror up to nature, if it didn’t attempt to portray sex on screen or on stage?

When I direct a play, and it has nudity and a sex scene, I am extra vigilant about how I portray those moments on stage. If you consider how uncomfortable sex scenes on screen may make you feel, imagine live theatre, where two naked people could be simulating sex just a few feet away from you. In such a case, it is even more imperative that a director pay careful attention to how they are depicting such intimacy. Personally, I make sure that the nudity is never gratuitous, but is not afraid to show the actor fully and unflinchingly. When directing a sex scene, I pay careful attention to the power dynamic in the relationship. That doesn’t mean one character doesn’t dominate the other, but I try to get at why that is, and how that looks. I direct the scenes to be very realistic, while also artistic and with a slightly lyrical quality. The audience should be pulled into the action, but at the same time, have a vague awareness that they are watching art unfold. That they are watching a glorious illusion, and that these are artists making art in front of them. As a director, I enjoy that duality. It makes the experience meta, and the art can exist as a sort of reality AND like a painting in an art museum. You can be sucked into the painting, but will never totally forget that you’re in a gallery, and there are other paintings on the wall, all around you.

Some directors don’t want any fourth wall. They actually seek to demolish the device, and strive to create art that is so hyper-realistic, you actually think you are in the room, experiencing exactly what the characters are experiencing. The film directors Lars von Trier and Abbas Kiarostami are unflinching in what they show on screen. They believe that a film should be as close to real life as possible, and often eschew the trappings and tricks of filmmaking. Their films are truly examples of Cinéma vérité, a sort of documentary style cinema, where directors attempt to capture the darkness and grittiness of real life. In France, the spirit of the French New Wave, in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s was a revolt against the traditional old school Hollywood style that had come before. The classic Hollywood film was the embodiment of wholesome, symmetry, clean, neat, and orderly, and the stories weren’t messy and always ended happily and conveniently. These movies never had any nudity, of course, and the love and violence were G-rated. The French New Wave was an avant garde revolt against all things pleasant and orderly. The films were often hand held, and they were lovingly chaotic, messy, graphic, non-linear, and violent. These directors sought to rip down the fourth wall, and sucked the viewer right into the action. Not surprisingly, the films often contained graphic nudity and depicted simulated sex scenes. These directors wanted to show the vagaries of life, and refused to settle for some syrupy sweet and contrived story that bears little resemblance to actual life.

The primary reason why many writers and directors include nudity and sex in films, play, and tv shows is that it’s a part of real life. Why should we show fist fights, but shy away from murder and death? Why should we show love and attraction, but abstain from showing where those urges lead? Human beings have sex. A LOT of it, and most of it is not for the purpose of procreation. Why would we not depict something that consumes most of our minds, most of the time, and has driven men to murder, started wars, and ultimately led to each of us, from the lowliest born to the most royal King? Sex is what got us here, and it’s apparently what’s getting us through.

Finally, many people feel more invested in a story which they can relate to, and one which depicts a sort of avatar of themselves. Usually, we either see two people we want to be, OR we see two people who could be stand-ins for us. When people see nudity on screen, there are many different reactions. No offense, but some more prudish people have a reaction like you do, and are disgusted and repelled by what they see. They see such depictions of flesh as gratuitous, and can’t find any justification for why it would be included in any form of entertainment. Some are religious, some are moralistic, and some just aesthetically object to the practice. Many feel that sex scenes are off-story and tangential, and pollute an otherwise good story. When done poorly, I completely agree with this sentiment. All sex scenes — like violence — should be motivated by the character, and serve the overall story arc of the plot. Sex should never be gratuitous or salacious, just for the sake of shock value. It should have purpose. Realistically, the type of person likely to be offended is becoming more and more infrequent in society, as more of us have become desensitized to such cinematic and stage devices. Currently, many people demand such verisimilitude in their shows and films.

Without a doubt, for some, the inclusion of prurient material is sexually stimulating, and a draw to the work. These people seek out certain productions for the purpose of seeing sex and nudity. It may come as a surprise, but this group of people is small in number, and doesn’t adequately represent the average viewer.

For many of us, it’s rather something in between. I’m not interested in going to see some movie and being forced to endure some gratuitous sex scene with non-simulated penetration and graphic displays of flesh. To me, that’s not artistic. That’s porn. If I want to watch porn, I’ll simply go on the Internet. However, for the majority of people, the inclusion of nudity and sex adds to the art and reality of the experience. It makes the moment more realistic, and allows for the audience to be sucked in even more to the story. When we see two actors naked, they are vulnerable and reveal much more of themselves than we see when they are clothed. There is something unique and special about those moments, and it endears a character to us in a way unlike any other. When we see two actors engage in sex, we somehow buy into their characters more, and we feel more compelled to believe what we are seeing. People like to see people, flaws and all, and this moment of intimacy reveals a lot about people. Just like we often enjoy seeing actors improvise, or the camera to be placed in jarring documentary-style positions, we also enjoy seeing the story and actors laid bare. There is nothing more “behind-the-scenes” than human nudity and actors engaged in simulated sex.

Graphic sex and violence have no place in your children’s entertainment, and if you find it there, than something is seriously wrong. Children shouldn’t be treated as adults, not should they be treated as mindless drones. We should be mindful of their ages, and what is appropriate for them to see. Family entertainment is all a bit bland and mindless to me, but I see its worth. Personally, I prefer stuff like Pixar, which is family friendly AND thought provoking. It is entertainment that is both socially conscious and responsible. It manages to get my mind moving, and do so without the use of graphic sex and gratuitous violence. And that’s great. BUT there is a time and a place for more mature elements in modern entertainment. A show like Game of Thrones is excessively violent and depicts graphic nudity and sex. AND IT SHOULD. That is the kind of art it is. For us to buy into this world of Westeros, we need to see something we can relate to. Additionally, since it is an analog for the middle ages, it is necessarily as violent and filled with sex as that lurid time in our history. We shouldn’t have to watch some Disneyfied version of George R.R. Martin’s instant classic, and be subjected to G-rated tales of ribaldry and action. The show depends upon its graphic depictions of sex and violence. Earlier this season, many fans of the show were turned off to a scene which ended in one of the beloved characters being raped by a monster of a character. In this particular case, the door closed, and we didn’t actually see the encounter, but briefly hearing it was enough. Many people were outraged at the sexual brutality a male character inflicted on a weaker and powerless female character. Meanwhile, for years these same people had watched people naked, dismembered, burnt, tortured, and massacred, but this was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back. None of this would have been possible had it not been for the graphic and unflinching nature of the show. Was it the right decision or not? Had the show gone too far? IT DOESN’T MATTER. It went there, and it generated a lot of discussion, and invariably raised awareness about rape and sexual assault. Like all good art, it generated a discussion, and that’s something a lot of other films and shows can’t do. And that was all about something we DIDN’T see. Seeing all the graphic stuff before made THAT moment even more traumatic. It wouldn’t have been half as impactful had we not seen such graphic sexual acts prior.

Nudity and sex have their place in society’s modern art. It is our right to see life depicted as it really is, not through some Disney lens or some antiquated story about a Prince saving some damsel in distress. We are born into this world naked, and we spend a good deal of time in such a state. We spend hours of our lives having sex, and the very idea consumes many of us, for much of our lives. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be seeing sex depicted on screen or on stage. Does it belong in your daughter’s saturday morning cartoon lineup? No, of course not. But that is family friendly programming meant for THEM, and all the other graphic sex and violence is meant for US. If you are somehow getting them confused, I would suggest you look into the monitors and control settings on your computers and television. Nowadays, there is plenty of software to filter out inappropriate content for children. Sex and nudity are inescapable parts of human life, and if we see it in the morning every morning, we certainly have the right to see it on screen and on stage every night. The mirror up to nature, indeed.

Having said all that, I think there is probably too much sex and nudity in film, television, and theatre today. And I say that because I recognize that a lot of the time, the sex is not justified, and is included solely for the purpose of titillating and attracting an audience. More recently, I have felt like Game of Thrones injects too much gratuitous sex, and does so in order to entice in an unmotivated and prurient way. This betrays self-indulgence, lack of restraint, and appeals to the lowest common denominator in its audience. As I said earlier, sex and nudity should be like lines of dialogue, and serve the overall arc of the story. They should ALWAYS feel absolutely justified, and motivated by the action in the script. Characters are not mere play things to get naked at will, but should do so for viable and demonstrable reasons that make sense to them. An actor should always be able to justify why they are taking off their clothes.

Near the end of the original Terminator film, we see a sex scene between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, and I would argue that it is one of the most justified and motivated sex scenes ever included in a movie. We are seeing the culmination of love that had been building between these two characters, and it is the very embodiment of humanity, with all its organic hopes and dreams, in the face of this soulless machine that was pursuing them. It was so tender and loving, and it necessarily contrasted the mechanical menace that was hunting them, and the uncertain fate that awaited them. Sure, it was a rather cheesy ’80s sex scene montage with tasteful nudity and a synthesized score underneath, but it was also a much needed glimpse of humanity and vulnerability in a relentlessly violent and merciless story. Furthermore, it is the moment in which the imperative character John Connor is conceived, making it epic and vitally important for the future of the human race, and integral to the Terminator story arc. In many ways, it is rather an “Immaculate Conception.” In a movie full of termination, this is the very opposite…that of conception and rebirth. This is the perfect example of a film where the nudity and sex are completely motivated by the script, and help tell a more meaningful story. There are countless examples of television shows, plays, and movies that have similar moments of sex and nudity. It’s a part of life, and therefore, a part of art. That being said, we need to demand more from our artists, and keep them honest. Using sex and nudity recklessly demeans the art form, and reflects poorly on those of us who are trying to use it artfully.

The biggest complaint besides its excessive and gratuitous inclusion, is the way it is depicted. Since first appearing in film and on stage, sex and nudity has been predominantly represented by women, who have had to bear the weight of the act for far too long. The completely disproportionate number of women who get naked, versus men, is a direct result of the patriarchal nature of the movie business and our society, and sadly reflects how much men still control the production and consumption of entertainment. Women have been objectified for far too long, and as responsible artists, it is up to us to stand up for what is right, and bring more parity to the industry. If we expect our women to bare their bodies, we should have no compunctions about asking men to do the same thing. Next to its over-representation in art, sex and nudity need to be far more equal among the sexes. But to condemn it all as obscene and unnecessary is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It more than has a place in the art of today. We just need to be more responsible in how and when we use it.

To Boldly Go….Wrong: Why Many Trekkies Disown the Star Trek Reboots

Introduction

In 2009, successful producer and director, JJ Abrams directed a much anticipated reboot of Star Trek. The cast was young and hot, and the design was sleek and reimagined. The film was full of non-stop action, and rarely stopped to breathe. There were extended fight sequences, explosions, and nifty and impressive CGI. The movie was breathtaking to behold, and quite honestly, one of the best action films of the last two decades. But that’s the problem…Star Trek isn’t actually an action franchise, although it has often had thrilling action sequences. In fact, Star Trek is a show about ideas and philosophy. It’s about moral dilemmas and finding new ways to communicate with alien species and those who ostensibly look different from us. It is about finding the love, and making the noble choice, however uneasy that may be. It means that violence is always the last resort, not the first. And that is what these films failed to realize. That is what JJ Abrams forgot…or perhaps never knew in the first place. That is why it is easy to recognize that these are well made films, and exciting action movies, but fundamentally lack the spirit and mission of every Star Trek show or film that came before. That is why so many of us can love the movies, but disown them as properly belonging to the canon.

The Choice of Director
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Star Trek reboot was the vision of a man who openly admits that he was not a Trekkie. He had barely even seen the show, and seems to not have had a grasp of what it was all about.  I would point out that JJ Abrams is the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg himself. They have a remarkably similar trajectory, and Spielberg has been mentoring the younger Abrams for years. There is no denying the significant impact the elder director has had on Abrams. They share a similar directorial style, and are both masters of the popcorn blockbuster. Both can be thin on story and character development, and both filmmakers tend towards the melodramatic, high paced, meticulously scored, and frenetically edited films filled with action and adventure. These movies are edge of your seat thrilling, but take little time to pause for deeper and more meaningful reflection. With the exception of Spielberg’s more recent heavier work (Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Munich, Schindler’s List), his movies are perfect for the whole family, and are wholesome and able to keep even the smallest child’s attention. Abrams’ films are very similar. Although I tend to hold the opinion that Star Trek is better suited for TV, I don’t think that’s prohibitively true. Perhaps they’ll never be able to achieve the depth an episodic television show can do with well developed story arcs, but I think a film with a good script and the right director might create something meaningful.

Star Wars vs. Star Trek
I think the problem is, JJ Abrams wasn’t the right man for the job. Firstly, I think he is perfectly suited for Star Wars — a franchise he admits to being a longtime fan of. It’s no accident that Spielberg and Lucas are such good friends. They both have similar styles, and both influenced Abrams. Close your ears Star Wars fans, but I would argue that Star Wars is far more suited to the action-oriented director with larger than life mythic characters, and epic battles between good and evil. Like most of Abrams’ movies and television projects, there is very little subtlety in Star Wars. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but its themes and tropes and overall depth are not nearly as sophisticated as Star Trek. Star Wars is the perfect popcorn blockbuster film, and Abrams is perfectly suited to direct for that franchise! If you care to check out my expanded discussion comparing Star Trek to Star Wars check out: Jon Ferreira’s answer to Which is better and why: Star Wars or Star Trek?

An Alternate Alternate Reality
Imagine for a moment that Christopher Nolan had directed Star Trek, or Peter Jackson. Or perhaps Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee, David Fincher, or even crazier, Terry Gilliam. Imagine a darker universe, but one filled with the intrepid Enterprise, always trying to make friends in all the wrong places. Or perhaps it’s another ship, in another time, and in another part of the universe. Think about the level of complexity, nuance, and philosophical weight any of those directors would have brought to the franchise. The problem is, most big directors wouldn’t take a movie like that, because many see it as an exhausted franchise and just a cheap moneymaking extension of the shows. They would rightly feel hampered and stifled by the Star Trek aesthetic and strict guidelines dictated by the franchise. As history has shown us, the past directors of the studio films took few liberties and added little artistry. They were formulaic franchise films, and really any director could have been plugged in or out.

Ideally, if they are going to continue to make films, they need to be their own artistic entities…new stories, not rehashed ones, and perhaps darker and more reflective of our society today. Galactic terrorists or something. They need to stand alone, and not be regurgitations. They need to embody the spirit of Star Trek, but have permission to…ahem…boldly go where no one has gone before. And they need to have NO MORE DAMN LENS FLARES!!!

The Soul of Star Trek
Perhaps the soul of the show can be found directly in the guiding principle of the Federation and Starfleet Academy. It’s a moral code, by which the explorers live by. The Prime Directive, also known as Starfleet General Order 1 or the Non-Interference Directive, was the embodiment of one of Starfleet’s most important ethical principles: noninterference with other cultures and civilizations. At its core was the philosophical concept that covered personnel should refrain from interfering in the natural, unassisted, development of societies, even if such interference was well-intentioned. The Prime Directive was viewed as so fundamental to Starfleet that officers swore to uphold the Prime Directive, even at the cost of their own life or the lives of their crew. A premise such as this was profoundly unique to Star Trek, and revolutionary for the era. Roddenberry clearly had Native American genocide, African slavery and Civil Rights, and other Colonial interference and subjugations in mind when he crafted such a directive. Over the fifty years prior to the show, Colonial governments were being overthrown, and countries were gaining their independence and autonomy from various imperial states. The devastation left in the wake of colonial imperialism can still be deeply felt in nations across Africa, Asia, South America, and elsewhere. Roddenberry deeply believed in a future free of unnecessary meddling or interference.

A Mission of Peace
Furthermore, Gene Roddenberry created a society that had been devastated  by a third world war and a frightening war of eugenics, but had picked itself up and healed itself. Somehow, they had come out on the other side, and had learned to live peaceably together. Things like gender inequality, racism, and greed were seemingly stamped out over a few short generations. The crew of the Enterprise are explorers, and their fundamental mission is one of peace, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man (one) has gone before.” Sometimes to my discontent, the characters on Star Trek generally seek to talk first, and shoot later. The show (and films, to some extent…) are first and foremost about ideas and finding ways to communicate with those ostensibly unlike us. Even in hostile situations, the Star Trek crews have sought the exchange of words before blows. The franchise has historically been a philosophical one, not overly concerned with gadgets (although at times, they lost site of this, and got mired in technobabble) or overt science fiction tropes and fantasies, but in exploring the human condition. The characters reflected the wide spectrum of colors and nationalities, and were a hopeful ideal on the part of the creator to inspire egalitarianism and end bigotry in his world. The characters may be from the future, but they are telling our story.

Sex & Violence Trump Ideas
I should say that I like these last two reboot films only as the action movies they are. I think they are mostly well-made movies, but they bear little resemblance to the world Gene Roddenberry created. They sacrifice everything the franchise stood for. And that doesn’t have to be oversimplified dated morality lessons, but honest dialogue and intellectual curiosity. The original series, and its offshoots concerned explorers, bound by a code of ethics, and ultimately resistant to violence, but always resolute when it needed to be used. These new films not only have characters whose first instinct is violence, but the films themselves are filled with explosions and bombastic action sequences. There’s also an inordinate amount of sexuality, and although there is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of it, these sequences seem exploitive and gratuitous (Alice Eve stripping down to her bra and panties for no apparent reason?). In general, the action sequences and sexuality seem forced and unmotivated. Although exciting, they don’t quite feel right for these characters. Violence was always the last resort for the crews of the television series, but it seems like the first instinct and natural default of the new Kirk and crew.

As I’ve argued, Abrams was perhaps not the right director for this franchise. He is a populist director, cut from the cloth of Spielberg, and he is always going for the sentimental, edge of your seat action film, with the unnecessary lens flares and the slick look and feel. His projects are rarely deep and thoughtful, and they’re not there to generate discourse or raise questions about our own humanity. They are simply there to thrill and entertain, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless, it goes under the name of Star Trek. He made this film very marketable, and full of all the sex and violence an audience craves and demands these days. Perhaps that is the only kind of movie you can have these days. I’d like to think not. I contend that Christopher Nolan makes dark and thoughtful movies, while still cramming them with sex and violence. It’s not that the reboots needed none of the action, but it needed a lot more of the thought. I could have lived with even the amount of action it did have, IF it had provided something intellectually stimulating as well.

In the movies, it’s like they have the names of Spock and Kirk, but they don’t have the gravitas of those men (or those actors). They don’t embody what those men stood for. I felt that adding the romance between Spock and Uhura was cheap and irrelevant. It changes the very nature of Spock. Whereas I could see Uhura having an onboard romance, Spock would never have compromised his duties and position on the bridge. Even the time on the show when he did kiss a girl (in This Side of Paradise), he was under the influence of an enchanted flower. The famous interracial kiss in Plato’s Stepchildren was originally supposed to be Spock and Uhura, but even then, the characters were being controlled like puppets, and not responsible for their actions. Spock was wed to his job, and in some ways to Kirk as well. Although Roddenberry didn’t intend for Kirk and Spock to be gay, there is a special quality to their friendship that runs deep and loyal. I see none of that chemistry between the characters in the recent films. I see people wearing costumes of the same color, general Starfleet insignias, some familiar props and set pieces, and many of the same names of gadgetry and technobabble. But what I see more of are characters that don’t fill the costumes they wear, saying things they wouldn’t say, and resorting to sex and violence without hesitation. I see movies filled with action, but short on substance. I see none of the probing questions and deep reflection on the human condition. I see none of the morality and characters wrestling with the consequences of breaking the Prime Directive. I see two really good action films, with some amazing direction and slick production design. Unfortunately, I don’t see Star Trek. I look at these films like I look at the Guy Ritchie/ Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films. They may be fun and exciting action films, but they lack the integrity and spirit of the original source material, and besmirch their good names. In my opinion, they should just stop making them, make them right, or just call them something else altogether!

Conclusion

The reboot Star Trek films are A LOT of fun. When I first saw them in the theatre, I was thrilled and excited. They are well-made, really solid efforts. Unfortunately, I just don’t recognize them as Star Trek. Sure, they have the same names and the color of the costumes are right, but they are not the Kirk and Spock I know. Not because they are different actors playing the role, but because they don’t carry the spirit of Star Trek in their hearts. They shoot or punch first, and talk later. This is not the Roddenberry Star Trek I grew up with. Perhaps if they had had another director, they would have been different. More introspective and thoughtful. As it is, I own both films, and I love to watch them for what they are. But what they aren’t is Star Trek!

Holmes Away From Holmes: How Downey’s Sherlock Is Not Doyle’s

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There’s No Case Like Holmes

In full disclosure, I have been an obsessed Sherlock Holmes fan for over 30 years, and in addition to my many traditional and annotated editions of the stories, I also collect Sherlock Holmes memorabilia of all varieties, as well as a very large collection of over 75 Sherlock Holmes movies and television shows, all featuring dozens of different actors portraying Holmes. So it’s kinda my thing…

Past Holmes: Sherlock on Stage, Television, & Screen

Having said that, I think any fan of Sherlock Holmes will tell you that 95% of all portrayals on stage, television, and film over the last 128 years have been resounding failures! Having been depicted on screen 254 times, Guinness World Records announced that Sherlock Holmes had been awarded a world record for the most portrayed literary human character in film & TV. He even beat out Hamlet! Since his creation in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has been played by over 75 actors including Sir Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer, Peter Cook, Roger Moore, John Cleese, Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. As it turns out, Sherlock Holmes is an elusive and confounding character to play. He’s so mercurial and frighteningly intelligent, most actors are either intimidated by him and fail or are brash and overconfident and fail. For most fans there are only three actors that are worthy of praise:

  1. Basil Rathbone — Starred in a series of 14 films released between 1939 and 1946. Although Rathbone could be aloof, he also had a strong sense of duty and was a consummate gentleman. He was probably the most spry and active Holmes, and undoubtedly the most conventionally nice.
  2. Jeremy Brett — Considered by most people to be the best portrayal of Sherlock Holmes ever. He is so devastatingly good, and so true to the stories. He looks like the Paget drawings from the Strand, and effortlessly embodied the great detective. Brett played the fictional detective in four Granada TV series from 1984 to 1994 in all 41 episodes.
  3. Benedict Cumberbatch — Stars on the hit BBC tv show, Sherlock, an updated series set in modern day London, with stories inspired by the books, but then twisted and updated. Still, the show is remarkably true to the spirit of the Doyle stories. Cumberbatch is brilliant as the misanthropic, Spectrum–Savant, and socially awkward Holmes.

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Great Expectations: Holmes Is Where My Heart Is 

So….when Sherlock Holmes (2009) was announced, there was no Sherlock yet, nor was there Elementary. Needless to say, it had been a long dry spell without any Holmes, which no Holmes fan should have to endure. (careful what you wish for) The last Jeremy Brett show had aired 15 years prior. When I heard about the movie, I was legitimately excited. First, I had always enjoyed the movies of Guy Ritchie. I thought they were hip, edgy, postmodern, and gritty. I clearly didn’t really think this one through. In retrospect, they couldn’t have chosen a worse director than Ritchie. For some reason, I did not anticipate Ritchie’s obvious indifference to the source material and singular focus on unrelenting action. But more on that later. Secondly, I am a huge fan of Jude Law, and thought he might anchor the film nicely, with his quiet and sober presence. I considered that he might be a smart and clever companion, not the tired and dull-witted Watson we’ve seen so often. Finally, I was thrilled at the casting of Robert Downey Jr. Ever since I saw him in 1992’s Chaplin, I have been smitten with the actor, and closely followed his progress, through all his drug and legal problems. His Chaplin was staggeringly good. Incredible. I loved his work in numerous films since then, particularly Iron Man. What I liked about the choice, was Downey Jr. has range and the ability to escape into a role, like he did in Chaplin. He’s also a considerably intelligent man, and I thought this would help him connect with the genius of Holmes. Finally, I thought maybe their shared drug addiction history might bind the two together even more. Once again, I completely misread and failed to recognize the actor Downey Jr. has become, in recent years. He’s not so much disappearing into roles anymore, but the roles are disappearing into him. This was a grave miscalculation on my part.

Firstly, I want to say that as action films, the two Sherlock Holmes movies are really quite decent, and are easy to watch and be entertained. However, as a faithful portrayal of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the film’s ability to capture the spirit of the books, the movies fail in nearly every conceivable way. Here’s why:

Lotta Action, Little Deduction

Downey Jr. played Holmes as a scrappy street fighter whose default reflex was to rely on his fists nearly more than his wits. In the canon, Holmes is described as sinewy and wiry, “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman”, and there are several references in the canon to Holmes employing the first two of these skills. He is trained in Baritsu (Bartitsu), an eclectic martial art and self-defense method originally developed in England during the late Victorian Era. Keeping all this in mind, one of Holmes’ greatest strengths was his ability to outwit, outmaneuver, and anticipate his opponent’s moves, and typically avoid brawls altogether. In the few instances of physical violence, Holmes is swift and economical in delivery. Guy Ritchie’s stylized use of the camera to dissect Holmes’ foes for weak spots was viscerally thrilling, but in reality, it was a sensational modern gimmick that bore little resemblance to Conan Doyle’s creation. Violence is the last option, not the first. The movies are full of over-the-top action sequences and gratuitous explosions. There’s hardly any deduction going on amidst all the bombs and bullets flying. The original canon was NOTHING like that!

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Downey’s Charm Trumps Sherlock’s Mind

Earlier I stated that I thought RDJ was an intelligent man, and I stand by that assertion, but for some reason, Downey Jr. decided to abandon his natural born intellect, and play Holmes as an intellectual lightweight, who relied very heavily on his wit, charm, and mischievous inquisitiveness, rather than probing deductive mind. In other words, RDJ fell back on his own personality strengths. You must have noticed by now that this is RDJ’s bag of tricks. In all his films over the last decade or so, Downey Jr. has used these sneaky traits brilliantly. As Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers films, these personality traits worked perfectly for a tech genius smartass like Stark. If only he had brought Stark’s intellect with him to Holmes, and left the levity behind. That’s not to say Holmes is dour and humorless, but it’s certainly not his default. Downey’s Holmes was a very light and playful take on the character, and it was often difficult to take him seriously. He didn’t possess the gravitas and devastating intellect that a true genius possesses. He was simply not convincing as an unrivaled master of criminal deduction. At the end of the day, the Holmes of the stories may hold his own at fisticuffs, but with the exception of Moriarty, there is no other mind in London, and perhaps in the whole world, that rivals his powers of observation and native deductive reasoning. In short, Holmes may possess charm and wit when he needs it, but his locus and singular defining trait is inarguably his mind. Robert Downey Jr. barely convinced me he had one.

Although I almost always like Downey Jr’s acting in other films, he often relies too heavily on his charm and rascally wit. He is a rogue. Holmes is not. If Downey Jr. had properly prepared for the role, he would have immersed himself in the things that make Holmes tick: identifying 140 cigarette and cigar brands by their ash alone, disguises and deception, chemistry, regional soil samples, the use of dogs for tracking, mixing a seven percent solution of cocaine and heroin, and all the other forensic tools of the period. Holmes stored nothing in his mind that wasn’t useful for solving crimes. In fact, Watson discovered early on that Holmes had no idea the Earth revolved around the sun. It simply didn’t warrant his attention. Holmes without a case was always a delicate tinderbox. Downey Jr. needed to burn more with a singleminded determination to unravel riddles, almost at any cost. This instinct was rarely altruistic or moralistic, but always driven by a mind made for puzzles.

In essence, had he relied less on his innate Downey charm and more on cultivating an impregnable computational mind, he would have gone a long way towards depicting Sherlock as written.

Violating the Honor & Good Name of Irene Adler

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I don’t feel like there’s even enough space on a page to devote to how viscerally angry I was at the inclusion and depiction of Irene Adler in these films. There was absolutely no reason to write her into the script. They could have left her simmering as “The Woman” now only a picture locked away in Holmes’ drawer. His taciturn and woeful longing stand vigil to her memory, and Adler is more powerful as an idea…a memory from Holmes’ past. She will always be the woman who duped and outsmarted him, and such a thing rarely happens, and from a woman no less! Whether it’s deep love or professional admiration, it doesn’t matter. We know that Irene Adler is off limits, and locked away from view. Apparently, Guy Ritchie and company didn’t read a single story, or worse, decided to egregiously violate the sanctity of the original books. No one in their right mind would have Adler as some sort of action star buddy with simmering sexual tension and practically a laugh track behind their oh-so-clever banter. We get it. She’s a firecracker, and a formidable frenemy for Holmes. Except she’s not. Firstly, I cannot stand Rachel McAdams as an actress, so that colored my first impression. Part of that opinion comes from the assessment that she sort of looks like a rat, and speaks in high and tedious little girl’s voice. In short, I couldn’t take her seriously selling makeup at Macy’s, much less as Holmes’ intellectual equal and capable sparring partner. She was mousy and ineffectual, and I am still livid that they called her Irene Adler. They could have just made up another character, but they didn’t. Instead, they desecrate a beloved character from the canon.

Strengths of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes Films

Although there isn’t much to like about these films if you’re a true Sherlock Holmes fan, there are a few things they do have going for them. As I have said before, the action sequences are very well choreographed and directed. The action is very engaging, and worth watching for.

Secondly, the relationship between Holmes and Watson is very strong. I would not be surprised to learn that Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are quite close, because they have a very easy and comfortable chemistry on screen. They are very comfortable joking and teasing each other, and it is obvious these two actor, and by extension, characters, like each other. I don’t necessarily think Holmes would act as silly and mischievous with Watson as Downey Jr. does, but putting that aside, the two are very easy to watch. Given the fact that I did not enjoy RDJ’s portrayal of Holmes, I cannot help but wonder if Jude Law might have been a better choice for the role. He is such an excellent actor, and he has the intellect and more quiet and focused demeanor. It’s interesting to think about how things might have been.

Finally, the second movie, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is in many ways, superior to the first film. This is partly due to the fact that it has top-notch performances by three of my favorite actors. One fine performance was delivered by Stephen Fry, in the role of Mycroft Holmes. Fry not only looks the part, but was convincing as Holmes’ older and purportedly smarter brother. Of course, with a Holmes as dumbed down as Downey played him, even Kim Kardashian could have beat him at Chess The next great performance was by one of my favorites actresses today, Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, known for the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies. Finally, as disappointed as most Sherlock Holmes fans probably were with the casting and performance of Downey Jr. as Holmes, they should have been delighted with the exquisite performance of the inimitable Jared Harris as Holmes’ iconic arch-nemesis, James Moriarty. I thought he delivered a tour-de-force performance, and really saved an otherwise disappointing film.

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The Final Problem

In conclusion, as disappointed I was with his interpretation of Holmes, I’m not convinced Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t right for the role. He’s an incredibly gifted actor, and with the right discipline and guidance, he could have endowed the character with less action and jokes, and more cold calculating deduction. A little Downey goes a long way. If he could have dug deep, and pulled out the acting chops he used in Chaplin, he could have created a stunning Holmes. But I suspect no one has kicked Downey Jr’s ass in a long time, and he’s been allowed to skate by on his good looks and roguish charm. In this case, I lay the blame almost exclusively at the feet of director Guy Ritchie. He gave Downey Jr. free reign, and evidently didn’t have the vision or understanding of the source material to help RDJ shape the character more finely and faithfully. I cannot help but think the reason for this was he simply was not a devoted fan of Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps didn’t know what he wanted Holmes to be, other than in possession of Downey’s own irresistible charm. Ritchie was not the right choice to direct a period Victorian film about the beloved character of Sherlock Holmes. However, he was the right choice for an action-packed steam-punk movie about a wise-cracking amateur detective, his trusty sidekick, and a tough and sassy female love interest that was called anything but Sherlock Holmes. Where we could have used a director like Kenneth Brannagh, we instead got Michael Bay. Ugh.