Category Archives: General Life

“Skin in the Game” hits shelves!

My story, “Skin in the Game” appears in the newly released Alternative Truths III: Endgame, the final volume in the best-selling Alternative Truths series from B Cubed Press. Edited by Bob Brown and Jess Faraday. Skin in the Game explores what might happen if our leaders were held a bit more responsible for their decisions, right or wrong, in very permanent ways.

From the publisher:
Endgame features 30 of today’s best writers and political thinkers taking a look forward at possible outcomes of our political decisions.

This collection has visions of a better world as well. In Paula Hammond’s “Fortunate Son,” we explore what kind of man Donald Trump might have become had he answered his country’s call and served alongside his fellow Americans in the Vietnam War.

Most of all Endgame will make you think, with thought-provoking essays by the likes of David Gerrold and Adam-Troy Castro as they seek to share their understanding of how this happened and what do will we do.

A significant portion of the proceeds of this book are donated to the ACLU of Washington to honor and support their unending quest for the freedom of the American people to express themselves.

The book is available from Amazon.com on Kindle Unlimited as well as in Kindle Edition or Print Book.

A quick word about Kindle Unlimited…the authors get paid as long as you “read” at least 10% of the book (more or less). So read a story or two and help authors earn as well as supporting the ACLU!

Oscars 2019 – The Nominations

Below is a recap of the nominations. Generally I fared pretty well at predicting them. I’m afraid I didn’t have time to go on record before they were announced, but I promise I’m being honest in my commentary as to what I had thought.

I will say it is one heck of an open field in a lot of categories, which is exciting. It speaks to a volume of talent. Of course, this also means a lot of people who are really good at what they do will not be going home with statuettes. But that’s the biz.

So here are my preliminary write-ups. I’ll update as I see some of the missing films and, as usual, I’ll post a final call before the awards night. The show itself may not be great this year, but the choices are certainly going to keep me interested.

THE MAJOR AWARDS

Actress in a Leading Role

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

This is one of those rare times where I wouldn’t be upset by any one of these people winning. They were all great performances, and all very different. To my mind, it is between Colman and Close. But McCarthy was also excellent and Aparaicio may have some momentum (and was a wild card for me in terms of getting on the list). And, of course, Gaga. Close has yet to win, so that may get her votes, but Colman’s performance is just so funny and powerful, it may win the day…and her movie was much better received.

My choice: Glen Close
Likely win: Olivia Colman

Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

This is by no means a lock for Bale, but he so disappears into his role that it is astonishing. I am not a huge Bale fan, but he had me utterly mesmerized and not even able to see him under all that makeup. In terms of the field, only Dafoe’s name surprised me, though that last slot was somewhat open.

My choice: Christian Bale
Likely win: Christian Bale

Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Supporting roles are hard to pin some times. These were all good performances, though I think Elliott isn’t necessarily to the same level (and I didn’t expect him on the list over Chalamet), nor was Rockwell’s performance that brilliant, though it did win me over as it went on. But Mahershala Ali was incredibly affecting and Richard Grant, equally so, but with much less screen time. That said, Green Book is hitting headwinds due to aspects unrelated to the movie…but which are likely to affect its chances in any category. And while Driver is excellent, the character just never really got to fully develop for me.

My choice: Mahershala Ali
Likely win: Richard E. Grant

Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

This is a brutal field. Stone and Weisz should have to mud wrestle for the win here and that is likely going to split the vote. Tavira was solid, but it wasn’t break-through and I was surprised to see her here rather than Clare Foy. Adams was also really good, but felt in the background most of the time…even though she really wasn’t.

My choice: Rachel Weisz (but only because I had to pick one)
Likely win:  Regina King

Adapted Screenplay

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Can You Ever Forgive Me?,  Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters

Again, so much to consider here. BlacKkKlansman was a great movie, but, like Green Book, it remade the facts freely. Which is fine, but that is being used as a wedge against Green Book, so not sure how to parse that effect. Star is Born is a great reinvention of the story, but it isn’t brilliant, however entertaining. I am surprised that Black Panther didn’t make it on, even though I didn’t think it should. I’m still behind on the other two at present, but hope to close that gap…but in the meantime I can make some guesses.

My choice: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Likely win:  If Beale Street Could Talk

Original Screenplay

The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay

Another interesting field. Green Book was one of the best films I saw this year. It was unexpected and complete. Favourite is hugely popular and darkly funny, but I think flawed. Was expecting Stan & Ollie and Eight Grade over Roma and First Reformed, but that was a tight race. However, of the remaining choices, Roma’s script is just too spare in comparison and Vice a bit too political and nauseating, while First Reformed is just too dark. So…

My choice: Green Book
Likely win:  The Favourite

Cinematography

Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Roma for me. Hands down just a beautifully shot film. The others are nice as well, but Cuarón’s use of the camera was just brilliant and the result gorgeous.

My choice: Roma
Likely win: Roma

Directing

Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

I’d have said this was Lanthimos’s to lose if it weren’t for the ending of his latest film. It is a brilliant bit of satire; just not a perfect one for me and some of the movie just doesn’t fit well together. Roma is brilliant on so many levels, but a bit self-indulgent in its direction. Vice is great, but mostly about the editing and script (and some performances). BlacKkKlansman, however, is really all about the performances, keeping you engaged without making you turn away. Lee had the hardest task and executed it well…and it’s been years since he’s had a shot.

My choice: Spike Lee
Likely win: Spike Lee (though it may well go to Lanthimos)

Best Picture

Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

I don’t even know what this category means anymore. Is it by what’s popular, what’s fun, what’s brave, what took the most skills? So, crap shoot.

My choice: Green Book
Likely win: Roma

THE NEXT TIER AWARDS

Animated Feature Film

Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I’m a sucker for stop-action animation and Isle of Dogs was a hoot. But it wasn’t a great story, for all its fun. Spider-Man truly surprised me, however. It is pretty to look at, solid in story and script and acting. Overall a great and fun film, beating out its competition by a mile on many levels.

My choice: Spider-Man
Likely win: Spider-Man

Foreign Language Film

Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Shoplifters would have been my early bet here, but Roma is truly a great film and has huge momentum and a ton of noms. Those who have no interest in voting for it for Best Pic are likely to balance that by voting for it here. It may well cost Roma as Best Pic ultimately that the safety valve exists.

Likely Win: Roma

Documentary Feature

Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
RBG

Likely Win: RBG

Documentary Short Subject

Black Sheep (The Guardian)
End Game (Netflix)
Lifeboat
A Night at the Garden (Field of Vision)
Period. End Of Sentence

Likely Win: no clue yet

Animated Short Film

Animal Behaviour
Bao (Disney)
Late Afternoon
One Small Step
Weekends

Likely Win: no clue yet

Live Action Short Film

Detainment
Fauve (H264 Distribution)
Marguerite (H264 Distribution)
Mother
Skin

Likely Win: no clue yet

THE TECHNICAL AWARDS

Production Design (production; set)

Black Panther, Hannah Beachler; Jay Hart
The Favourite, Fiona Crombie; Alice Felton
First Man, Nathan Crowley; Kathy Lucas
Mary Poppins Returns, John Myhre; Gordon Sim
Roma, Eugenio Caballero; Bárbara Enríquez

My choice: Black Panther
Likely win: Mary Poppins Returns

Costume Design

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth Carter
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne

Period pieces abound in this list, but so do some inventive futures.

My choice: Black Panther
Likely win: The Favourite (though Mary Poppins could sweep in)

Film Editing

BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
Vice, Hank Corwin

All of these films have excellent editing, but only one lives and dies by its edits.

Likely win: Vice

Original Score

Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman

If old-school Hollywood wins out, Mary Poppins will be a runaway. It is certainly one of the more classic and evident scores in the field, and complex while trying to maintain and reflect on the original. Music certainly pushed along the tale in Isle of Dogs in an engaging, if repetitive, way, and the others were more subtly supported.

Likely win: Mary Poppins Returns

Original Song

“All The Stars” — Black Panther
“I’ll Fight” — RBG
“The Place Where Lost Things Go” — Mary Poppins Returns
“Shallow” — A Star Is Born
“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” — The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

There is only one song here that has any traction to my mind.  It isn’t perfect (and story-wise it shouldn’t be) but just try to get it out of your head.

Likely Win: Shallow

Visual Effects

Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Despite the wealth of blockbusters here, one is infinitely better than the rest in scope and seamlessness…

Likely win: Avengers: Infinity War

Makeup and Hairstyling

Border,  Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer
Mary Queen of Scots, Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher and Jessica Brooks
Vice, Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe and Patricia DeHaney

Typically, I’d stay the period piece would get this hands-down, but Vice has magic in its blood with its makeup and hair, completely remaking its actors and capturing the period perfectly.

Likely win: Vice

Sound Editing

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
A Quiet Place
Roma

My choice: A Quiet Place
Likely win: Bohemian Rhapsody

Sound Mixing

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
Roma
A Star Is Born

My choice: Bohemian Rhapsody
Likely win: Bohemian Rhapsody

2000 and counting

As you may have surmised, this marks the 2000th post (and approx. the 500,000 word milestone) for this blog, covering well over 2000 movies and shows. When I started it back at the end of 2009, it was for two reasons.

Primarily, I wanted to capture my thoughts and prevent having to repeat myself endlessly to friends who kept asking me, “What should I watch?” As a side benefit, it helped me remember what I’d seen, since I watch around 200-300 films a year. And here’s the scary confession: I write up less than half of what I see (if that) during the year. Most movies make it, most TV and streaming series and presentations do not.

My other main drive was to keep my writing skills and habits lubricated. Basically, I wanted to be writing every day. I’ve continued to write and publish my fiction through all of this. Not as much as I’d like, but still some here and there, and I’ve collected the requisite mountain of rejections in between to prove it. (As a sneek preview, I’ve a new story coming out shortly and will announce that when I have the dates.) My lifetime writing total in words has easily surpassed 1 million, which is daunting even if done in small chunks over a long period. Talk about water wearing away a rock. Not that the effort is ever likely to pay off, if the NYT is to be believed.  (To be fair, there is nothing in that article I couldn’t have told you before reading it based on what I make for stories and the current well-known advances for novels my friends are getting.)

I know that the last couple years have exposed more than my critical thoughts on entertainment…I do try to keep that to a minimum, but it has been challenging. Every once in a while I feel I just have to get the word out or, at least, relieve the pressure in my head. If you don’t agree, that’s fine. I don’t tend to judge other’s beliefs. I’m just not particularly fond of bullies, particularly those who abuse their power and are, to paraphrase Pooh, people of very little brain. Apologies to anyone those posts annoy.

I do want to thank everyone and anyone who has used this site as either entertainment or sign post. If I’m helpful either for what to watch, what to not watch, or even if it is: He likes that? I’d hate it! Cool. That’s the point here, to provide a stable and predictable benchmark that helps you save time and pain as well as discover the new and wonderful.

And now on to 2001 and beyond!

 

Three peas in the pod (new Story Seed Vault tale)

A new small bit of humor this time (literally), is up on Story Seed Vault today.

The challenge for this market is to tell a whole story in 140 characters or less; essentially no more than one Tweet’s worth. And the story has to be based on some new bit of science. They can explain it a bit more and how you can tackle entry into the Vault yourself.

The current tale is at:
https://storyseedvault.com/2017/10/24/70/

My previous tale is still on the site at:
https://storyseedvault.com/2017/10/06/1451/
https://storyseedvault.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/40/

The world didn’t end…

This last week I took off for the wilds of Oregon (Unity Lake Recreation Site, to be exact) to view the total eclipse. The days were hot, the nights were cold (around 5C/40F), and the stars magnificent. But it all paled to the 2 minutes of totality.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. It didn’t get dark like night, but more like a deep twilight. I didn’t get to hear all the animals go to sleep as none were hanging around making noise before the moment the sun winked out. But the difference between partial and full eclipse really indescribable, or as I tried to explain to a neighbor on my return, it is like being not pregnant and a little bit pregnant; it is all or nothing.

I took a slew of photos, but the best is probably this diamond ring at the end of totality:

Even at higher res, it isn’t brilliant photography, but I was there to see it, not photo it for magazines. And I took it, so I’m rather proud. Two minutes was not quite enough to satisfy, but I can completely understand why some people chase eclipses around the world. It is unlike anything you can picture if you haven’t seen one. One moment there is sunshine (even if dim and slightly red shifted) and the next there is a black hole in the sky. Staring up at that, you really understand why ancient civilizations were so terrified of them when they occurred.

 

New Tale to Tell in 140 Characters

My latest sold story is up on Story Seed Vault today. They can better explain  their mission and raison d’être.

The challenge for this market was to tell a whole story in 140 characters or less; essentially no more than one Tweet’s worth. And the story has to be based on some new bit of science. I can’t resist a challenge…

You can find it at: https://storyseedvault.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/40/

I hope to be adding more to the vault over time as well. If I’m going to read science news all the time, I should also find more ways to make it pay!

A few decades ago…

Back in 1981, a whole different century, I began working out as a matter of sanity and as a substitute for sleep. Hey, I was young, stupid, and living on adrenaline.

Five years later, June of ’86 , I had my first (and only) portfolio created for my acting career. The photographer was great and among the shots was one that has lived in infamy as: Leatherman. It got passed around my friends and beyond for a while back then. Thank god the internet was nascent or it probably would have been sent much further. Uploading at 300 baud was not fun.

As it turns out, my twice-a-day, six-days-a-week workout schedule is something I got accustom to and managed to continue even till today (if you’re doing math, I’m starting my 36th year shortly). For the heck of it I decided, if not to recreate the portfolio piece this summer, to see how well I’d held up. I realize this is the worst of ego gone rampant, but WTF, I hardly ever take pics anymore or allow people to take pics, so why not?

So, here I am again just over 31 years later. The hair is shorter (and thinner) and, yeah I was ridiculously underweight back in ’86 (and got worse till the following year, which is another story), but the pic came out not too bad for someone who’s hit their mid-50s.

So, I’ll see you again in another 30 or so years and have a good laugh over it all atrophying…

 

1500 (and counting)

Image result for fireworks

I’ve been at this a few years now and this post marks my 1500th!

Many more movies and TV shows have been covered than the post number represents given that I double or triple-up items at times.

For those that have been finding it useful: you’re welcome. For those that aren’t following it… well, what can I say that you won’t have read anyway?

Seriously, this has been my passion for a while now. As I’ve said before, I do this as much for myself as my own memory aid and thought process as I do for all the friends and acquaintances that request recommendations. It also keeps me writing almost every day.

So what’s next? I’m still seeing about 250 films plus a ridiculous amount of TV a year, though I don’t write up everything…  For the record, yes, I still manage to have a life, see people, and do things. Really, I do. Film and TV are just how I unwind nearly every night, before trundling off to bed to read for a bit.

Thanks to all who’ve have continued to let me know you’re enjoying these posts. Most of that is off this site, but it is good to know it’s still being read.

And now on to 1501 and counting….

Oscars 2017 (nominations)

So I did pretty well with the nominations (my hit rate was 87% based on the full field of 103 choices across the major categories as listed on HSX), but there were definitely some surprises. I also didn’t list all of the potential categories, but I’ll be honest about where I hit or not below. Updates to my picks on winners will occur just prior to the big night… and I’m sure there will be some rethinking after the SAG awards this Sunday. This year, I also discovered 538’s ongoing statistical analysis of the choices, which was both surprising and a bit disappointing. But as we all know, stats often don’t tell the whole or a reliable story.

I still have some gaps at the time of the initial writing, but I hope to fill as many of them as possible before the great event.

THE MAJORS

Best supporting actress

Viola Davis has the edge here in a really tough field. I couldn’t argue with her win, but I think Spencer’s performance was more controlled and subtle.

Best supporting actor

Mahershala Ali is the clear front-runner, and deservedly so. While the other performances are all solid, his was the most ranging and subtle.

Best actress

I did get partially caught out here. Dropping Amy Adams and keeping Streep (who was also up for SAG) surprised me. Adams performance is solid, but understandably challenging to interpret due to the story. But Streep, as talented as she is, just wasn’t that good in Florence Foster Jenkins. Not adding Taraji Henson to this field was criminal. Huppert has a head of steam globally, and I did miss those winds previously, but it wasn’t that surprising. However I did call Negga for Blunt (again as compared to SAG).

The win here is tough. Stone will have a lot of focus and love. If I had to pick this moment, I’d go with the tidal wave of La La Land.

Best actor

Had this, though there was an outside chance Hanks would have been added over Mortenson.

The race here is Washington vs. Gosling. Washington is the better performance, but Gosling’s piano work alone is enough to astound. As of now, I think Washington will walk away with Oscar despite La La’s rolling thunder.

Best director

Chazelle is the likely winner here, but my personal preference would be Villenueuve, whose achievements in Arrival really outshine the other movies in this list.

Best foreign language film

Based on what’s been happening, Toni Erdmann is the likely win here.

Best picture

Had half-expected Silence to be part of this field, but had the rest of them, not that it was a difficult list to guess this year. The winner… now that gets more interesting.

My personal pick for best in this field is Arrival. It accomplished some very difficult feats and left the audience with some very interesting ideas and did it all honestly, while managing to let you trick yourself. Hidden Figures manages to deliver a powerful, but personal story. Either are solid choices for the win.

However, La La Land, which I did enjoy a great deal, has the Hollywood and Broadway inside track and massive momentum (not to mention 14 new nominations). I suspect La La takes the statuette.

THE MINORS

Best adapted screenplay

Arrival. Period.  It even improved on the award-winning original story it was based upon. But, honestly, likely to be one of the others; probably Moonlight.

Best original screenplay

La La Land is the likely winner. While Lobster is quite unique, it just isn’t that great a script/story at the end of it all. Manchester, as well, fell flat for me, the strength it has is really the performances, not its words or story.

Best animated feature

Kubo and Two Strings was one of the best animated flicks I’ve seen in ages. It was original, unique, and flat-out gorgeous and fun. However, I know Zootopia is likely to win.

That said, I’m sticking to my guns on on this one and sticking with Kubo for the statuette because if it doesn’t I will scream a bit at the reveal.

Best documentary feature

This one is tough, but I’m thinking the politics of the moment insist that 13th takes the category.

Best original song

  • La La Land – Audition (The Fools Who Dream) by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
  • La La Land – City of Stars by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
  • Moana – How Far I’ll Go by Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • Trolls – Can’t Stop the Feeling by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster
  • Jim: The James Foley Story – The Empty Chair by J Ralph and Sting

La La may well work against itself here and split the vote. But, while not entirely upbeat as a song, I’d go with Fools Who Dream. If the vote splits, will probably go to Trolls.

The only wild card is Miranda. As I mentioned in the prelim to this post before the announcements, crowning another EGOT is a hard opportunity not to take for voters (and in this case PEGOT since he has a Pulitzer as well, which only 2 others have done before).

Best original score

Yeah, La La Land by a mile. No matter how you feel about this movie, the complexity and originality of the score is way beyond any of the other entrants.

Best live action short

  • Ennemis Interieurs
  • La Femme et le TGV
  • Silent Nights
  • Sing
  • Timecode

As usual, throw a dart and pick one (I really wish you could get to see these more easily). I’ll start with Sing as my choice and will revise based on buzz later.

Best documentary short

  • 4.1 Miles
  • Extremis
  • Joe’s Violin
  • Watani: My Homeland
  • The White Helmets

Ditto: but going with Joe’s Violin for now cause I like the title.

Best animated short

  • Blind Vaysha
  • Borrowed Time
  • Pear Cider and Cigarettes
  • Pearl
  • Piper

Second ditto: Going with Pear Cider and Cigarettes in honor of the nod to Jarmusch.

THE TECHNICAL

Best costume design

This gets interesting. Usually this goes to a period piece… but they are all period pieces. Several are flamboyant period pieces. Based on scope and challenge, I’m thinking Fantastic Beasts. While the others all did wonderfully, they were invisible (a feat in itself) but Beasts had both ends… the invisible and the inventive, which tips the scales in its favor.

Best make-up and hairstyling

Wow, just not the three I’d have expected. Suicide Squad, I think in this case. Harley Quinn and the Joker alone deserve it; utterly unforgettable, the pair of them.

Best production design

Another tough choice as each succeeds quite well in its way. I’m going to go to an outlier here because, honestly, the production design really did impress me: Passengers. However, Beasts is likely to take this one as well for similar reasons as costume. But I didn’t think the design in Beasts was really all that good… it felt forced and unreal rather than magical to me. Passengers was seamless and felt real to the tale rather than distracting from it.

Best cinematography

For this it is between Arrival and Silence. Arrival’s work is more complex, with focus and framing adding to the story telling. Silence is just plain pretty, from what I’ve seen. With no other nods, Silence may get its shot here. For my sensibilities, though, Arrival deserves it in this field.

Best film editing

Arrival, without question for me. The editing made this film. No other nominee can claim that integral a role for its success.

Best sound editing

La La Land for this. The soundscape of the film is just as important as its story in this case.

Best sound mixing

Thinking Rogue One for this one… keeping any dialogue intelligible over all that racket took some serious effort.

Best visual effects

For sheer inventiveness, probably Doctor Strange, though Jungle Book rewrote the tech handbook quite a bit and it has nothing else on order this year despite being such a huge, popular hit. And I’m not sure I could pull apart Kubo to place it in this category… so suspect others can’t either.

The uncanny plot valley of the strange

There is a concept, “the uncanny valley,” that describes the human ability to unconsciously recognize things that are, well, just wrong. For example, how a CGI object moves, or even if a robot or computer is human, making it a bit of an overlap with the Turing test in concept.

These concepts have been around for a while and speak to the human level of comfort with the real over the artificial, and the consistent over the mixed. Recently, I recognized a reverse of that when it comes to plot construction thanks to the increased approach of using improv in the midst of scripts rather than fully scripted or fully improvised movies. A great example of this is Adult Beginners, where some nicely crafted script is interspersed with improvised scenes. Those moments, while well played and nicely edited into the film, sit oddly. In other words, the fully real interchanges appear unreal, while the crafted, more artificial bits, if you will, feel more natural. I don’t think this is just a matter of the quality of the improv, but more about the juxtaposition of the two which rub against each other in the wrong way. However, I do think there is a preferred leaning to the crafted script over improv for viewers.

Film has gone through many movements over the century-plus it has been around. We have been trained to expect fully crafted moments. This has been true for millennia with stage plays as well. This is a plus and a minus. We have expectations based on structure. Those structures are often unconsciously recognized by most of the audience, but are very obvious to those aware of the tropes and standards. Those expectations help us pick up clues and allow for great catharsis when love conquers, evil falls, or the little guy wins. But if you consciously know it is coming from the outset of the story, the result can sometimes be very unmoving. Scenes of improv have been used to help shake up those expectations, break the rhythms; make you sit up and take notice and think of the story as unpredictable as life really is. But it tends not to work as they stand out as, well, wrong.

This is why I tend to watch a lot of foreign fare; it riffs on the plots I grew up with rather than delivering them as expected. I typically recognize plots in seconds when watching something from the States. Both domestic and foreign approaches are similar, but I get moments of surprise by viewing the foreign because they are based on slightly different cultural templates. Templates, to be fair, which are highly familiar to their local audiences, just foreign (literally) to me.

There are uses of improv that do work, but they are, typically, used as the whole of the film and are then highly edited (aka crafted) into a cohesive whole. Robin Williams turn in Aladdin comes immediately to mind, but there are many out there. In these cases the improv was either an exploration to find opportunity in a story, or a way to provide a uniqueness and deep well of raw material from which the director could shape the story for audiences. Once crafted, it is no longer pure improv, it is scripted, just not in the traditional sense. And by being given shapes we recognize as part of the story-teller’s toolbox, we find it real and comfortable, though it is utterly artificial. Watch for these reactions in yourself as you view movies… what parts feel right and real versus artificial or out of place. This isn’t about bad directing or acting or script, it is about finding those pieces that don’t fit by their very nature, not because the craft was weak… it provides an interesting lens on the post-modernist films and experimentations with social media conventions that are starting to flood the market.

For further reading: A wonderful little retrospective of 2015 movies around the uncanny valley over at Fandor many of which are discussed on this site. There are also some nice examples of the idea over at Stranger Dimensions as well. (And for some truly silly, completely off-topic analytic fun, check out Wired’s Force Awakens vs. A New Hope statistical comparison if you haven’t found it yet.)