Tag Archives: film

Sorry Good Will Hunting, I Need that T.P.S. Report By Monday

Two movies from the late 1990’s stand out as favorites, for me and many others: Office Space and Good Will Hunting.

Both truly stand the test of time, and entertain now just about as well as as they did when released. Both also have something to say about what “Work” is, and what kind of man should pursue what line of it, and what’s respectable or questionable about the choices they make along the way.

Construction labor plays an understated role in both narratives, repelling one protagonist and rescuing the other. Will Hunting (Matt Damon) begins his story as a workman, who is encouraged and motivated to find his way into a more intellectual profession. Peter (Ron Livingston) begins his story as a cubicle drone, who is encouraged and motivated to find his way into a more physically laborious occupation. For what it’s worth, Will Hunting lives in a dramatic universe, and Peter lives in a comedic one – but through its dry humor, Office Space manages to leave the viewer with a moral aftertaste just as significant as Good Will Hunting’s.

I don’t have a grand thesis to accompany to this comparison, it’s just something I noticed and that I’ve wanted to share for a while. I feel like these two movies are celebrated more than most others as time capsules of their era, but I’ve never heard any critic stand them up next to each other for comparison. On the surface they’re wonderfully different films, but at their core, both represent the challenges of a man trying to discover his true calling.

Let’s look at how each character begins his journey:

Here’s Will Hunting, on the job –

And here’s Peter, working –

But by the end of each film, their roles have reversed.

Peter, on the job:

Will, working:

Good Will Hunting (1997) was released two years before Office Space (1999.) It’s reasonable to assume Mike Judge had seen Good Will Hunting as he was writing and directing his film, but who knows whether he was intentionally making a response, or had even registered a connection between the stories.

Nearly twenty years later, enough time has passed for the once brilliant jokes to go just a bit stale, and without their original novelty, these two films now seem to have a lot more in common than they were originally meant to. How’dya like them apples?

on the Oscars and Being Liked

If you haven’t seen Birdman, Boyhood, or the Imitation Game, maybe don’t read this post yet.

Three of the films nominated for Best Picture this year had climactic scenes in which characters confronted the importance of ‘being liked.’  

Coincidence? Or important cultural phenomenon, captured? I’m leaning towards the latter. The ‘being liked’ discussion did heavy lifting in these narratives, and served as a critical character-defining plot point in each.

In Birdman, Michael Keaton’s character Riggan is overwhelmed by the criticism and potential of failure he faces for trying to re-define his legacy. As a former action-movie star, now forgotten, his quest for recognition has led him to produce a serious drama on Broadway. He tries to explain his motivations to his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) but she calls his sincerity into question. She’s right.

Riggan: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.
Sam: This is not important.
Riggan: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is…  God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Sam: You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important.

Stage actors can’t convincingly argue that no one’s opinion matters, or they would find something to do that doesn’t require a live audience. Being liked becomes the foundation of Riggan’s identity – he can’t exist as an artist without an audience, and the audience has to like him if they’re going to stay in their seats.

The theme repeats in the film, as Sam and Edward Furlong’s character Mike Shiner have a less animated, but more to the point discussion about the same thing.

Sam: Why do you act like a dick all the time? Do you just do it to antagonize people?
Mike Shiner: Maybe.
Sam: You really don’t give a shit if people like you or not?
Mike Shiner: Not really.
Sam: That’s cool.
Mike Shiner: Is it? I don’t know.

When Sam dreamily asks whether Mike cares about being liked, his response sets up the antagonizing force that will eventually transform Riggan. Mike’s success seems to have been born from his indifference to recognition, and his attitude is partially what teaches Riggan that letting go of the need for acceptance will set him free and allow him to create ’true’ art.

In The Imitation Game, the ‘different’ and ‘weird’ Alan Turing character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, doesn’t begin with the need to be liked, and then find relief from it, as Riggan of Birdman does. Turing’s story goes in the other direction – starting from a place where ‘likability’ doesn’t matter, but eventually being required to strive for it. Turing’s social environment would ever ‘like’ or accept him as who he is, so he was forced to adapt and perform a ‘likability’ act that would keep him out of trouble. A mantra verbalized by Keira Knightley’s Joan Clark character repeats throughout the film:

Joan Clarke: Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

Turing embraced the notion that an un-liked, low profile persona would give him the space to explore his scientific interests. But a wonderfully awkward scene in which Turing’s fellow scientists try and fail to invite him to lunch illustrates the problem Turing faces. He must confront the reality that working with other people is necessary to accomplish the mission he is called into, and that as smart as he is, he can’t do everything on his own. In contrast to Birdman, Turing’s not trying to be ‘liked’ for his own emotional satisfaction, but as means to an end.

Joan Clark (Knightley) explains to him that if he’s going to succeed, he’ll have to get the other scientists to like him. ‘They won’t work for you if they don’t like you,’ she says. She suggests that he bring them snacks as a first step toward amiability, and in a scene as comically awkward as the failed lunch invitation, he arrives at the lab with a basket of apples and bluntly relates the logic that drove his actions – I hope you’ll like me, for bringing you apples, he says. The wheels are set in motion, and the film becomes as much about Turing playing the likability game as it is about him developing a electronic computer.

Boyhood comes to the ‘likability’ table in the first scene that exhibits a true independence of the main character, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. A road-trip with his girlfriend opens the door for a thoughtful discussion about whether or not it matters to be liked. The ‘likability’ dialogue takes place without Birdman’s gripping intensity of emotion, and without the Imitation Game’s dry humor – of the three, it feels the most genuine.

Mason: I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I’m just not.
Sheena: Why aren’t you?
Mason: I mean, I guess, it’s just being afraid of what people would think. You know, judgement.
Sheena: Yeah. I guess it’s really easy to say, like I don’t care what anyone else thinks. But everyone does, you know. Deep down.
Mason: I find myself so furious at all these people that I am in contact with just for controlling me or whatever but you know they are not even aware they are doing it.
Sheena: Yeah. So, in this perfect world where no one is controlling you. What’s different? What changes?
Mason: Everything. I mean, I just wanna be able to do anything I want, because it makes me feel alive. As opposed to giving me the appearance of normality.

The scene follows Mason’s first monologue, and it occurs nearly two hours into the film. After watching him quite literally grow from a child into a young man, this becomes the first thing we know about how Mason is feeling and what he is thinking as an adult. Because the film is about his journey from Boyhood to manhood, the scene is significant. It’s remarkable that the first vulnerability he exposes, as he transitions away from ‘boyhood,’ is weighing the importance of being liked by others – and it probably won’t be the last time, as evinced by the older characters of Birdman and Imitation Game.

So, does the spirit of each film come to the same conclusion about likability? Birdman’s narrative is fueled by an intense desire to be liked, and the struggle to escape from it. Imitation Game is propelled by likability as a game – a game in which Turing must conform to the standards of social acceptability by suppressing his true persona. To those films, being liked is important to the characters, but in different ways. Boyhood takes the position that likability is only an encumbrance – to quote Mason, “feeling alive” is better than “the appearance of normality.”

The primary reason why I’ve seen all these movies and paid such close attention to them is because the Academy nominated each as Best Picture of the year. Their nominations all prove, to some extent, that being liked matters – if they weren’t liked by the Academy they wouldn’t have been nominated, and I might not have seen them or cared to think deeply about them. But what’s curiously interesting is the result of the competition – the film whose character had the greatest ‘need to be liked’ turned out to be the winner, while the film that stood firmly in its notion that being liked isn’t all that important didn’t get the top Oscar… and perhaps, it didn’t need really need to.

“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” – Oscar Wilde

on The Smartest Guys in the Room

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room [Motion picture]. (2005).

This film nicely wrapped up what was a very complicated story. As the scandal took place, uncovering the important pieces of the narrative was difficult because they were competing with everything else in the daily news information deluge. Letting a few years pass and waiting for the dust to settle makes stepping back and taking the 10,000 foot view easier.

When Enron was originally in the news I didn’t have any sense of the great impact that company shareholders suffered, and I didn’t understand what a celebrated and ‘accomplished’ company it had been shortly before the scandal broke out. Being a high school student in 2001, I wasn’t as tuned in as I would be if something like this happened now, so I appreciate the deep-dive explanation of what really happened.

I am proud that investigative reporting was one of the catalysts for uncovering the story. At a time when many people think the media is suffering, news is biased, and technology has rendered newspapers and magazines obsolete – this scandal was ultimately uncovered because a lone reporter asked a few tough questions. A lone female reporter at that, who not was not only dealing with a very ‘macho’ culture at Enron, but also didn’t have very much career experience before breaking the story.

Energy is a form of technology, and that’s what Enron sold – but this didn’t feel like a story about technology. The company’s trouble mostly came from accounting practices, limiting the supply of their product and creating false demand to raise prices. This could happen with any industry that serves a basic need to the population – auto makers, communication services, airline industries, etc.

It raises the question (although it was seemingly answered for energy long ago) at what point does a technology, or a technology market, become regulable? There are probably actual definitions of this, but I’ve never thought about it before. Energy became regulable a long time ago, and now the internet is approaching that same threshold – but does it meet the same criteria?

How would this story be different if Enron were a broadband provider? I don’t know if they would have been held to the same ethical standards, since unlike energy, broadband hasn’t yet been defined as critical to the functioning of everyday life in American society.

The film presents the notion that Enron only attempted these unethical actions because they believed they were ‘smarter’ than the regulators, and that being smarter gave them permission to break the rules. Is this any different from the idea that ‘code is law,’ and whatever code someone is smart enough to come up with gives the coder permission to circumvent legality?

the Fictionalizations of ‘the Google’

I had a colleague a few years ago who joked about how his aging parents always referred to Google, the search engine, as “the Google,” as if the internet giant had become an entity of such massive, generic proportion that it deserved its own “the..”, like “the city,” or “the ocean,” or “the internet.” The Google.

Popular culture has been producing fictionalized narratives about what life at Google might be like, to complement the hordes of reportage documenting the reality of the company. For an account of how it came to be, and an outsider’s view of the founders, Ken Auletta’s non-fiction book “Googled” tells a fascinating story.

But the real story of Google is about the people who work there, and what they are trying to accomplish. There are plenty of imaginary guesses as to what that’s like – in ‘The Internship,’ actors Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn actually have the blessing of Google’s marketing department to use the company’s real logo, and refer to it by name, in their imaginary take on what it’s like to work for the massive company.

The American author Dave Eggers has recently published “The Circle,” his take on life at Google, (or maybe some combination of Google and Facebook) and how the company is changing the world, but without the happy rainbows and moon-glow sheen of the Wilson/Vaughn film.

Of the two accounts, is one more accurate than the other? I would need first hand experience to answer that with any authority. My best guess is that Eggers is reaching closer to Google’s heart than Vaughn and Wilson.

At Eggers’s Google (He calls it ‘the Circle’) the campus glistens and sprawls, the office parties are legendary, and the ‘Circlers’ on staff are all brilliant, young intellectual heavyweights. But eventually, the villianization of privacy becomes overwhelming, the expectations of world-saving become untenable, and the marriage of life and work becomes suffocating.

Eggers’ Google follows these guiding principles, echoing Orwell’s Big Brother:

“SECRETS ARE LIES. SHARING IS CARING. PRIVACY IS THEFT.”

The Circle has incredible ambition – an imaginative product called ‘TruYou,’ which is your real identity, everywhere online; ‘SeeChange,’ a YouTube-like network of tiny cameras placed everywhere in the world, broadcasting everything to satisfy anyone’s curiosity; and ‘Transparency‘, which puts the cameras on individual persons, worn as a necklace, making their every movement a publicly broadcasted act. Numerous other realistic inventions are sprinkled throughout the story, introduced as positive societal game-changers, but simmering beneath the surface with totalitarian terror.

As Eggers’ describes these fictional innovations, without diving into technological reality, they actually seem very close to the realm of possibility – or at least near to the trajectory we can expect to see over the next few decades.

The story follows the path of Mae, an ambitious young woman drawn to the company by its promise of involvement, optimism and excellence. The journey she takes is one that moves from initial bewilderment at The Circle to a creeping acceptance and incapacitating servitude, while she alienates and betrays every real relationship in her life along the way.

The ugly consequences of The Circle’s mission to publicize everything are highlighted by the revulsion felt by Mae’s ex-boyfriend, who chastises her:

 “Every time I see or hear from you, it’s through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone’s wall… It’s always this third-party assault. Even when I’m talking to you face-to-face you’re telling me what some stranger thinks of me. It becomes like we’re never alone. Every time I see you, there’s a hundred other people in the room. You’re always looking at me through a hundred other people’s eyes.” 

At Vaughn and Wilson’s Google, in “The Internship,” the company is nothing more than a place for two aging slackers to take a second shot at being financially responsible adults, who are capable of earning a living to support themselves – it just so happens this place is also Google, where everyone who wears the logo must be disruptively smart and attractive.

‘The Internship’ doesn’t touch on a single thing that Google actually does, or how their real products and technology are used by the world, until a thrown together final scene which vaguely hints that Google can help a small pizza shop – yet this is the fictionalization that the corporation gave a real blessing to, with ample permission to display their bright and shiny logo in nearly every scene, from the extensive coverage of the ‘nap stations’ on campus, and the ample free food and snacks, to the team-building trips at San Francisco strip clubs.

The British film critic Mark Kermode described The Internship as “one of the most witless, humourless, vomit-inducingly horribly self-satisfied, smug, unfunny comedies I have ever seen.”

So which of these representations is the real Google? Hmm, I don’t know…. Maybe you can Google it.

When I was a kid, I remember having playful arguments with friends during our imaginative games that were settled by how many multiples of a number we were better than one another – ‘I’m a million times taller’ or ‘I’m ten million times faster!’

One day, in a conversation with my Dad, he explained the number ‘googol,’ and I felt like a huge cloak had been lifted from the possibilities of the universe. It was the biggest number ever! In my imagination, I could be GOOGOL times faster!

So now, along with all the other cosmic and intricate coincidences that fill up my life, I’m an adult, and Google is still the easiest way to end an argument.

three Films Worth Watching

Senna

Sports films seem to be trending toward documentary lately, leaving behind fictional drama like ‘Hoosiers’ and ‘Rudy.’ ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ series is a great example, and this portrait of Ayrton Senna, the Formula 1 driver, is another.

I’m not really a  fan of auto racing, but I was able to enjoy this critical exploration of Senna’s character, and the sport of Formula 1. Recommended for fans of anything Brazilian, and also as an interesting chronicle of international sportsmanship in the days before Atlanta ’96, China’s economy, and Livestrong.

Holy Motors

Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Holy Motors is the strangest – and most wonderful – movie I’ve seen in a while.

The kind of film that offers more questions than answers, its imaginative course plays out, like other recent French films (Paris, je t’aime) as a series of distinct vignettes, tied by a central character – a man riding in a limousine to various ‘appointments,’ each of which requires him to reinvent himself.

I could guess at metaphor and tone and ‘What This Film Means’ but for now I’m content to just watch and enjoy.

God Bless America

This is basically a rant against recent American pop culture disguised as a movie, with enough gratuitous violence to almost offend the people who agree with its sentiments.

I was reminded of ‘Falling Down,’ the early 90’s film where A Regular Guy goes on a rampage with guns to correct the everyday evils of the world around him.

Somehow God Bless America takes the same story and strips it of the drama, choosing comedic actors with a better penchant for monologue, who also seem less likely than Michael Douglass to carry out their righteous crusade.

two Films worth Seeing

Sidewalls (Medianeras)

For English speakers, the crown of ‘best quirky foreign-language romance’ has been passed from Amelie to a touching film about two neighbors in Buenos Aires. The characters ring true in the age of paranoia about digital loneliness, and their internal dialogues about trying to connect are sincere.

Without any sappy, jokey, over-the-top acting, Sidewalls is funny without losing its credibility as heartfelt. Overall, a great portrait of modern urban life both by virtue of the characters and the photography.

The Tree of Life

When I saw Terrance Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ as a teenager, I wasn’t sure what to think. The lyrical, poetically visual style was a departure from the combat movies I was used to (ahem, American Ninja). I knew there was larger purpose to the seemingly disconnected elements of the film, but didn’t really care.

Malick returns to form in ‘The Tree of Life’ and maybe I understand what he was poking at before – life is big, and doesn’t fit nicely into a 2 1/2 hour narrative, no matter the subject – one way to convey that grandiosity is by focusing intently on the subtleties that define the greater experience. He doesn’t wrap his stories up with a sense of finality, and doesn’t try to force cohesion – which makes Tree of Life a unique and thoughtful experience.

on Netflix Instant Programming, vol. 1 – “Zeitgeist”

The amount of video available to watch instantly on the Netflix streaming service is impressive. Much of it is perfectly entertaining, some is very informative documentary filmmaking, and bits are awful and forgotten creations hanging off the cliff of relevancy.

In this first volume of reviewing what’s out there, I watched the Zeitgeist movie.

Zeitgeist was first mentioned to me in 2007 by a classmate. I thought it sounded interesting but didn’t bother watching until I noticed its availability on Netflix.

 

The first part of the movie discusses religion and I found it to be a generally objective and inoffensive report.  Devout Christians are sure to take issue with the presentation of Jesus as a continuation in the “Sun God” myth, but as someone who has never strictly followed any religion, I didn’t immediately reject this suggestion.

When the film steers into 9/11 conspiracies in part two, however, my credulity evaporated. This isn’t because I have done my own research to discredit any of the analysis presented in the narrative. It’s because watching the film shift topics so dramatically gave me the sense that I was being “had.”

It’s fairly common for magicians to begin with a sleight of hand – a small, unrelated trick in the opening act to build credibility and disguise the efforts of a larger, harder to believe counterfeit to follow. Did you see me pull the bunny from the hat? Of course, now you’ll believe that I can chop this beautiful woman in half! Or, in the case of Zeitgeist: Did I get you to believe that Jesus is a myth? Great, now I’m going to explain how 9/11 was a hoax!

The cheap enactment of this regularly deployed tactic gave me little confidence in the claims made about the September 11 disaster – that a plane didn’t hit the Pentagon, that the WTC towers collapsed due to controlled demolition, and that the U.S. Government was privy to information that could have prevented human loss.

Some of the eyewitness accounts recorded by the media during the event do open up interpretations askance from the near universally accepted story that the towers collapsed due to heat damage from jet-fuel fires. Interviewees report hearing ground and basement level explosions before the crashes, and engineers claim they designed the buildings to sustain jetliner impact. However in part three, the film itself suggests these media reports can’t be trusted, as the narrator claims the mass media is simply a puppet of the ‘invisible government’.

As the film changes course again in part three, to uncover the hidden realities of the Federal Reserve system, I found my interest piqued but my frame of reference missing. Surely whatever ideas presented are concepts on the fringe of the mainstream, but I simply don’t know enough about economics and monetary policy to believe or disbelieve in the film’s thesis.

Like corroded pennies fallen into the bottom of my car’s cupholder, I guess some of the ideas in this film have value, but what are old dirty coins really worth, anyway?