A Conversation With Myself About Star Wars [SPOILERS]

I’ve been trying to come up with a pithy way to effectively review Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi, and the truth is, I’m stumped.

I was really looking forward to this film. But after two screenings, I think I need to come to terms with the fact that, well…. I just don’t like it that much.

And considering a lot of the reactions on Twitter, YouTube, and Rotten Tomatoes, I’m apparently not alone.


It turns out that The Last Jedi has been incredibly divisive for fans.

In listening to commentary on YouTube channels like Screen Junkies and Collider, a lot of people seem to be throwing up their hands and saying that since the reaction to The Force Awakens (such as mine) was that it was a beat-for-beat remake of “A New Hope”, and since now some reactions to The Last Jedi are mad that it’s “too different” (more on that later), there’s just no way to please Star Wars fans.

There’s a grain of truth to this.



Despite Some Cool Moments, Batman v Superman a Disjointed Mess

First, the good news… Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t a total disaster.

Even as a moderate fan of Man of Steel, every new bit of overshare for this movie cranked out by the Warner Bros. marketing team over the last year caused my expectations to drop lower and lower to the point that even a passable film would be considered a success.

It’s an ambitious movie and there are a number of good parts, but to be perfectly blunt, I’m not sure it even met that bar.

Good Batman. Better Bruce Wayne.

Some positives: Ben Affleck is an excellent Bruce Wayne and a pretty good Batman, and I think his character is (mostly) handled pretty well. He has the most fleshed-out motivation of any character in the film, though that isn’t saying much. The first scene in the film – which of course, you’ve already seen in the trailers – immerses us in Bruce Wayne’s perspective during Superman’s battle with Zod from the end of Man of Steel, and it is that point of view which shapes most of the film. It’s clear why he doesn’t like Superman, and when it comes down to their titular fight, Batman’s ability to hold his own and even defeat Superman is plausible, if largely cribbed from Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns, Pt II”. This film also contains one of the best Batman fight sequences ever made, so that’s a pretty big win.

Wonder Woman ex machina.

Jeremy Irons is also excellent as Alfred Pennyworth, Gal Gadot is a strong choice as Wonder Woman, and Amy Adams continues to make a ballsy Lois Lane. Overall I think the performances and casting in this film are pretty solid. The problems with this film, much like with Man of Steel, really don’t come down to casting and I can genuinely say that I’m interested to see the upcoming solo films featuring Batman & Wonder Woman.

I’m probably in the minority here, but I even like Jesse Eisenberg’s largely unhinged take on Lex Luthor. Apart from the complete mystery that is his motivation for a lot of his specific actions, he is at the very least really good at being a villain.



SPOILER REVIEW: The Force is Definitely Awake

If the title wasn’t clear enough; the second section of this review will contain ALL THE SPOILERS.

If you’ve somehow stumbled into this post by mistake, don’t worry, you’re still safe… for now. I’ll start with a basic, spoiler-free synopsis & review and then dig deeper into the good stuff a bit farther down in the post. It will be ridiculously obvious where the spoiler section will start, but if you haven’t seen the film and don’t even want to risk it, then you’d better make the jump to light speed and get out of here now to avoid any plot or character-related spoilers for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” .

With those disclaimers out of the way, here goes.

Spoiler-Free Synopsis:

Currently holding strong at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m only adding my voice to a growing chorus when I say that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a fantastic film.

forceawakens-logo-02Director, J.J. Abrams and co-writers, Lawrence Kasdan & Michael Arndt, managed to flawlessly capture the look, tone, and feel of the original trilogy. I’m not going to waste time beating up on the prequels too much, but for the first time since 1983, everything about this actually seems like the Star Wars I fell in love with as a kid.

The universe depicted in the original trilogy wasn’t exactly shiny and new.

Spaceships like the Millennium Falcon were falling apart and didn’t always work perfectly; droids like C3P0 and R2D2 were dented and scuffed; and the locations were populated by strangely believable creatures going about their daily business. These kinds of imperfections and the physical reality of everything on screen, combined with John Williams’ luscious and emotionally powerful score, gave the world a visual realism and emotional depth that the cartoonish CGI perfection of the prequels completely failed to accomplish.

The magic in those original films has had a profound impact on now several generations of young people who would – like myself – grow up to be film-makers and creative artists. I’m beyond thrilled to say that “The Force Awakens” reminded me of the creative inspiration I felt as a kid seeing Star Wars for the first time.

But the record-breaking success of this film will be owed to far more than style and tone.



Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

compton-posterThough I normally would reserve my film reviews for SmashCut Culture, I recently got asked to do an in-depth review of Straight Outta Compton for Liberty Unbound and took the opportunity to dig a little deeper into the surprisingly libertarian messages in the movie.

Get the gist here:

There are very few movies I would describe as explicitly “libertarian,” but as unlikely as it may seem, F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton is high on that list.

The film interweaves the stories of legendary hip hop artists Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and chronicles their rise out of violence and poverty to fame and fortune as the groundbreaking gangsta rap group, NWA (“Niggaz Wit Attitude”). This is not, as you might imagine, a film for children or even most teens. It depicts a life experience steeped in drugs, gang violence, and police brutality in one of the poorest, most dangerous parts of Los Angeles in the 1980s. Against this backdrop, three teenagers looking for a way out created one of the biggest entertainment acts of the last three decades, and irrevocably changed the face of the record industry.

At its heart, Straight Outta Compton is a great entrepreneur story, but more in the tradition of The Godfather than Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Nearly all of the business dealings that occur throughout the film are built on threats and violence, and certainly not what libertarians would endorse. But contrary to what a lot of people might assume given NWA’s music, there is no glorification of gangs or gang culture in the film. In fact, a major theme is the drive to escape violence, even though it swirls around every character in the movie.

But the theme of commerce over violence was not the only libertarian quality to the film. It also depicts a fascinating period of American culture when actual government censorship (and threats of censorship) were on the rise. While the movie touches on the way censorship affected the growing gangsta rap scene around the country, I think few people today are fully aware of how extensive the governmental push against free speech really was back then.



In Memoriam: James Horner

Last Monday, prolific film composer, James Horner, died when the single-engine plane he was piloting crashed in the Los Padres National Forest, a few hours North of Los Angeles. He is survived by his wife and two daughters. As SmashCut’s resident composer, I figured it would only be fitting to write about some of my favorite James Horner scores.

Pablo Picasso once said:

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

I think James Horner’s career is a testament to this idea.

There are few composers alive today who could match Horner’s breadth of knowledge or technical mastery. James Horner was among the youngest in a vanguard of composers working in the 1980s-2000s whose classical influences brought immense sophistication of technique and emotional clarity to the art, and his influence on Hollywood was impossible to mistake.

This may seem a bit weird, but I think it is for that reason that I want to start my brief list with his work on “The Land Before Time” (1988). His first cue for that film is nothing short of a symphonic overture.



Tomorrowland: Where daring optimism meets crushing reality

I hoped to like Tomorrowland a lot more than I actually did.

love Brad Bird. Iron Giant and The Incredibles are both two of the finest animated films ever created. When he announced that he was directing a secret Disney project, I was intrigued. When we found out that it was going to be called “Tomorrowland”, I was thrilled. When I saw the first trailer, I had no reason to doubt that this would be an exciting and original piece of Asimovian science fiction. And parts of the movie are definitely that.

Without spoiling anything, here’s the set-up:

Britt Robertson as Casey Newton.

A brilliant, optimistic, yet rebellious young adult, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), is given a mysterious pin which transports her mind to a fantastical futuristic utopia (“Tomorrowland”) where anything is seemingly possible. When the pin stops working, she goes on a mission to discover where it came from and find out how she can get back to the place she saw.

At first she heads to a novelty shop in Texas, where her questions about the pin’s origin wind up getting her attacked by androids with laser guns. She’s rescued by a 12-year-old girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and ultimately dropped at the doorstep of Frank Walker (George Clooney), an exile from Tomorrowland with a clock counting down the end of the world.



Film Review – Avengers: Age of Ultron

Even the poster is crowded.

Within about 36 hours of its American theatrical release, Avengers: Age of Ultron has already grossed over $424 Million dollars worldwide (update: the final tally for the weekend is $626,656,000) and it earned the title of having the second-highest grossing opening day of all time, just behind Harry Potter’s final installment. Marvel Studios continues its Hulk-like rampage across the American cinematic landscape. Having now seen both the 2D and 3D (not worth it) versions of the film, I feel like I’ve done my part.

But I guess the real question is, “Was it worth it?”

The short answer is yes, absolutely.

The longer answer is, this is a film that has a lot of heart, goes out of its way to show its heroes actually being heroes, further develops key characters that haven’t had as much of a chance to be seen in other films, has a pretty compelling villain (almost entirely thanks to James Spader), and unsurprisingly features some phenomenal action sequences.



Lessons from Motown: How music smashes cultural barriers and unites us all

After 7 years in college and grad school studying the subject and almost 20 years learning to be a performer and composer, I am still completely fascinated by music and its impact on society.

It’s a necessarily abstract art form, yet it can evoke vividly specific emotions and memories. It can be entirely wordless, yet effortlessly tell elaborate stories and carry incredible drama. It’s inherently ephemeral, yet a single concert can haunt a person for a lifetime.

I’m not usually one to quote poets, but in the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Music is the universal language of mankind.”

Well said.

I think it’s because of this universality that music fosters a level of inclusiveness far ahead of every other aspect of human culture. Unlike the visual, film & television, and other types of performing arts, creating great music all but requires a blindness to everything that isn’t about the sound.

To make this point a little more meaningful, I want to play a little game. I’m going to ask you to listen to some great music. Then I’m going to ask you what may seem like a few really dumb questions. Okay?


am sniper

The Character of American Sniper

american-sniper-poster-2American Sniper is one of perhaps three films* that I’ve seen all year which profoundly capture the pure essence of an individual.

Everything about it is distilled through the singular goal of telling the story of Chris Kyle, “America’s most lethal sniper”, during his four tours as a Navy SEAL in the Iraq War. Kyle is a man who I would have had almost nothing in common with either on an intellectual level or even simply as a matter of personality.

Yet through the phenomenal directing by Clint Eastwood, and the masterful portrayal by Bradley Cooper, I came out of the theater deeply understanding the character of Chris Kyle. Who he was as a human being; what he believed; why he believed it… And yet at no point did the film make any heavy-handed push for me to agree with the way he saw the world. That’s a trait that is nearly impossible to achieve as a director and speaks to Eastwood’s absolute mastery as a filmmaker.

In a recent interview with The Star, Eastwood explained his point of view:



Lies, Deception, and Seriously “Big Eyes”

big-eyes-01Tim Burton’s latest film, “Big Eyes”, was released on Christmas day this year without much of a marketing push or fanfare, and while I had originally planned to write about the Sony hack this week, that’s all pretty well-traversed territory at this point, and since “Big Eyes” is a film that I suspect few people have even really heard about and aren’t already planning to see, I thought I would take this opportunity to encourage others to check it out.

“Big Eyes” is set in early 1960s San Francisco, and is based on the fascinating (mostly) true life story of artist Margaret Keane (played by Amy Adams), a divorced, single mom and painter of children with anime-proportioned eyes, and  her swindling husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) who fraudulently claimed credit for her work for over a decade. The film relies heavily on the dynamic between Margaret , who is shy and submissive, unsure of herself and her talents; and Walter Keane, a gregarious man whose charm and con artistry helped make the pair millions of dollars selling Margaret’s ultimately kitchy pop-art to the beat generation’s hoi polloi.

It opens with a fittingly vacuous quote from the king of all pop-art hucksters, Andy Warhol:

“I think what Keane has done is terrific! If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”


For Tim Burton fans, some of the themes in “Big Eyes” will be familiar. His work regularly blurs the lines of fantasy and reality, big-eyes-03 fact and fiction; and it often centers around the contradiction of outsiders struggling to find their place in more conservative societies. Margaret Keane is a woman who bravely left a controlling husband and moved to San Francisco with her young daughter to become a painter in an era when women simply didn’t do that kind of thing, yet she ended up producing hundreds of pieces of art under another man’s name because “nobody would buy art painted by a woman”. Also a man of jarring contradictions, Walter seemed to have no talent as an artist, yet presented himself as a trained and successful painter to San Francisco’s rising fine art scene. Perhaps ironically, his lies and guile ended up selling countless originals and prints of his wife’s work when few galleries even wanted it by passing it off as his own. In a way, the pair was perfect for each other, and had it not been for the fraud it’s likely that no one would ever have heard of Margaret Keane.

But over time the deception also ate away at Margaret’s self-worth, Walter’s desire for fame and money couldn’t be satiated, and the whole enterprise couldn’t survive forever.

The film itself is tightly-paced at just 105 minutes, and the production design is actually subdued by Tim Burton’s usual standards, even given the brightly colored vibe of California in the 1960s. “Big Eyes” is one of Burton’s most mature films to date, more “Big Fish” than “Alice in Wonderland”, and that’s a very good thing. Burton is a director who can sometimes be a victim of his own artistic excess, but this is a film that reserves his trademark surrealism for just a few really effective scenes as Margaret slowly loses her sense of self, consumed by her husband’s ego and the secret she’s unable even to share with her own daughter.

Danny Elfman’s score is similarly subdued, and as somewhat of a sidenote, the soundtrack also features some incredible Latin jazz by one of my favorite vibraphone players, Cal Tjader. If you’re not aware of his work, allow me to suggest “Cuban Fantasy” and perhaps “Speak Low“.

There’s obviously a lot of competition for your movie-going dollar this time of year, but “Big Eyes” features a truly interesting story, a couple of incredibly strong performances from some extremely gifted actors, and a lightness of directorial touch that we so rarely get to see from Tim Burton.

And let’s be honest, none of that can be said of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”.

Watch the trailer for “Big Eyes”:

Medium Hero 6

I should love almost everything about Big Hero 6.

unnamed-7I love science fiction and I love comic-book movies, and this movie is both. I love Isaac Asimov and his bright vision of a future driven by fantastic innovations in science and technology. This movie has that in spades. I love robots (who doesn’t?), but I especially love robots with innocence at their core, like Brad Bird’s “Iron Giant”. This movie has that too.

I really, really want to love “Big Hero 6.” But alas, I only kind of liked it.

There’s a lot going on in the movie that is really cool on a conceptual and visual level. And yet its whole script is surprisingly weak. With 3 credited screen writers and 2 ‘heads of story”, perhaps it was a problem of a film being written by committee.

Note: I can’t make some of the points I’m going to make without giving away plot details and a few hints and minor spoilers. You’ve been warned.

It’s a pretty good set-up for a while, but even within the first major scene, I started to wonder about some of the writers’ choices.

unnamed-1We meet 14-year old Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and his big brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) right away.

Tadashi is an engineering student at San Fransokyo University, and Hiro is a brilliant robotics prodigy more interested in hustling for money at illegal robot fighting tournaments with his home-built robot than doing anything more important with his talents. In a really short amount of time we get to see who each of these guys are, and how much they care about each other.

The problem is, all this would be a lot better if the writing during this set-up wasn’t also pretty bad.

Take the way in which we learn that the brothers’ parents are dead and that they live with their aunt Cass. There are numerous subtle and emotionally compelling ways to convey that kind of information in a film, but Hiro literally blurts it out to his brother while riding a Vespa, as if it was news to the both of them.

Sadly, this was just the first of what will be several instances of aggressively on-the-nose exposition stated from one character to another, including one moment toward the twist reveal where T.J. Miller‘s character, Fred, loudly announces that “This is a revenge story!”

Thanks for clearing that up, Fred.


Truthfully though, what bothered me the most about the first act was the introduction of the most cliched and underdeveloped character in the movie, Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), resident nefarious tech-billionaire, and his supposedly good-guy nemesis, robotics pioneer Dr. Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell) – who also happens to be Tadashi’s mentor, and a celebrity crush for Hiro.

Callaghan tells Hiro that his students “go on to change the world”, and to get in to the program, he must invent something amazing.

Enter Hiro’s microbots.

Hiro creates tiny robots controlled by a neural transmitter that magnetically link together to form any shape or do any task the user can dream up. It’s a huge breakthrough for construction, transportation, and literally any field that you could imagine. It’s one of those incredible concepts buried in the movie.


But what happens next is where things go wrong again.

Like any reasonable person with a successful technology company would have done, Alistair Krei offers Hiro “more money than a fourteen year old boy can imagine” for the patent. But when Dr. Callaghan angrily paints Krei as a villain motivated “only by his own self-interest” (a truly ironic statement in this case), Hiro turns down the sale so he can go to college instead.

I guess in this world, making billions of dollars from an incredible product you invent when you’re fourteen and also studying robotics is impossible?

It’s an especially odd choice coming from a kid who, minutes earlier in the movie, waved a wad of cash around excitedly after having cleaned up at robot fighting. Not to mention the fact that in reality, the only way to really “change the world” with your invention is for millions of people to know about it and use it every day – which is the one thing that will never happen if you keep to yourself in a workshop.

unnamed-10For me, though… The way that the evil businessman trope is so clumsily pushed the into the first act was really an early signal of a script filled with heavy-handed cliches, just like the dozens of bits of flatly expository dialogue.

Still, the worst part about this kind of writing is that it telegraphs way too much about the rest of the story.

Shortly after Hiro’s presentation, a fire breaks out that supposedly destroys his microbots and kills Tadashi, setting up for his real journey to begin. When Hiro and Baymax discover that someone had actually started the fire to steal his microbots, the film has already tried so hard to make everyone assume it was Krei that the plot contains no real surprises from then on. Even the “twist” was so obvious by the time it was finally revealed that I was just annoyed that Disney went down such a cliched road in the first place.

All that said, there are some things to absolutely love.

After we make it out of the first act, the movie gets really good. It’s got a ton of wonderfully fun moments.

The action sequences and the richness of the world of San Fransokyo are really well crafted, as is the supporting cast of Hiro’s friends.

Baymax (Scott Adsit), a healthcare robot invented by Tadashi who befriends and protects Hiro, is worth the price of admission by himself. Especially when he goes bobbling around like an almost-human bouncy castle through the streets of the city. Baymax is both the movie’s heart and its comic relief, and somehow the balance is perfect.

It’s just too bad that all these great characters and concepts didn’t get a plot built on a stronger narrative foundation.

This Again? Defending Comics Against Censorship

Last week was the American Library Association’s annual “Banned Books Week”, which is always a good time to reflect on the state of literary censorship in America, but this year focused specifically on one of my favorite subjects: comic books.
unnamedReasonTV put out a great short interview with Charles Brownstein, the head of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund that they shot at the San Diego Comic Con. The whole interview is worth a look, but the key takeaway is that comic books are, today, just as they were in the early years of their existence, among the most censored and challenged forms of expression. Two comic book series, the bizarre and often hilarious fantasy “Bone” by Jeff Smith, and of all things, “Captain Underpants” by Dav Pilkey, which actually won a Disney Adventures Kid’s Choice award in 2006, are among theg the top 10 most challenged books.

To quote Mr. Brownstein, “The books kids are reading in their leisure hours are the objects of censorship.”
Sadly, this is hardly new.
Moralizing busybodies have been censoring expression and ruining everything good and fun in the world in the name of protecting “the children” for a long, long time. In America, all it took to shut down comic publishing was one lousy book by an unscrupulous psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham.
In the 1950s, superheroes weren’t what they are today, and the most popular comic books (and movies) were horror and crime titles that featured monsters and murder mystery detective stories. Wertham’s book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” published in 1954, claimed that the themes of violence, death, fantasy, and even (imagined) homosexuality in comic books were corrupting the good nature of America’s youth. In support of this theory, he trotted out evidence compiled from his own clinical research which was since found to have been likely falsified and misrepresented.
To quote the NY Times, following their write-up of the research paper that exposed Wertham’s deception:

“‘Seduction of the Innocent’ was released to a public already teeming with anti-comics sentiment, and Wertham was embraced by millions of citizens who feared for America’s moral sanctity; he even testified in televised hearings.

Yet according to Dr. [Carol L.] Tilley, he may have exaggerated the number of youths he worked with at the low-cost mental-health clinic he established in Harlem, who might have totaled in the hundreds instead of the ‘many thousands’ he claimed. Dr. Tilley said he misstated their ages, combined quotations taken from many children to appear as if they came from one speaker and attributed remarks said by a single speaker to larger groups.”

But, ironically perhaps, it was “Seduction of the Innocent” that had the truly profound impact on American culture, as it provided all the ammunition needed for petty tyrants and moral scolds who pushed the US Government to do something about all those pernicious comic books.
For the children, of course.
unnamed-1Facing a wave of attacks from the government, the comic book industry took a cue from the Motion Picture Association of America, and created its own preemptive censorship board known as the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code established in 1954 laid out 19 criteria that comic books had to abide by. They include things like, “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority,” and “Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.”
Naturally, this had a severe chilling effect on comic book publishing. Comic book sales plummeted. According to penciler/inker Joe Sinnott of Marvel Comics (Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Inhumans, The Avengers) by 1958, the industry had suffered so much that rates for the writers and artists had been cut in half. The hugely successful horror and mystery genre comics were gone, and what remained endured a period of creative stagnation while publishers figured out how to work within the new rules. Eventually, some independent publishers began ignoring the Code and produced some darker stories, but without the Comics Code Authority seal of approval, those books would never see the light of day on store shelves.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Marvel Comics finally abandoned the code, and DC continued to abide by it until just 4 years ago in 2010.
unnamed-2It’s important to understand here that while it was technically the industry “self-censoring”, it did so purely as a result of repeated threats from a government which had by that point a well-established history of censoring “undesireable” speech in numerous forms – a government, it should be remembered, that is legally constrained by the 1st Amendment, which expressly prohibits the creation of laws abridging the freedom of individual speech, or of the press.
Censorship is clearly alive and well in America. Even today, the United States is ranked a shocking 46th place on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, our public schools and libraries routinely ban books, and government-funded colleges severely limit speech on campus. Just a few years ago, we saw a hotly controversial Supreme Court case (“Citizens United”) to decide whether or not it was ok for the government to restrict the promotion and distribution of a documentary film simply because it was unfavorable to a prominent and powerful politician (Hillary Clinton) during an election year.
unnamed-3The restrictions on comic books, films, and other entertainment media are one small piece of a very scary picture where the government of the country which is supposed to be the beacon of freedom for the rest of the world is continually grabbing more and more authority to control what people say. A world where ideas and art cannot be shared if a vocal minority of nannies deems those ideas “unsuitable” is a world headed for collapse.
It’s good to know there are people like Charles Brownstein out there standing up for free speech.

Grading on a Curve

From my first post at Smash Cut Culture, I’ve been reviewing movies and contributing my thoughts on film-making, narrative storytelling, and media culture.

Part of the joy of writing for this platform is that I get to (try to) put aside my personal biases and look at media purely from the perspective of artistic critique. It would be pointlessly solipsistic to write, “I like this,” or, “I hate that,” and have that lazy and defenseless opinion stand in for something worth reading. After all, the goal is to actually think about a work of art as objectively as possible and then discuss its quality and value (or lack thereof) based on its own merits.

Unfortunately, all this means that artistic critique is really not a good job for people who need to be liked by everyone, and it’s also not a job for people who can’t separate themselves; their own personal tastes; or their pre-conceived biases from the subject matter at hand.

I’ve recently written scathing reviews of the films “Snowpiercer” and “The Giver”.

These movies both feature strong (some might say preachy), yet largely opposing, political messages. “The Giver” warns of the totalitarianism borne out of the desire to perfect and homogenize society through well-meaning but heavy-handed government. “Snowpiercer” attempts to be a parable about environmental destruction and wealth inequality as a consequence of unchecked private sector greed.

1400864008_taylor-swift-the-giver-lgI am biased towards one of these perspectives and could easily argue that we are already moving toward the future it depicts, and that the other worldview is critically flawed and built on a systemic rejection of reality, but I won’t go into which is which, as that would actually step on the broader point I want to make here.

If you judge a movie based on how much you agree or disagree with its message or how superficially you like or dislike its themes, you’re doing film criticism wrong.

If I allowed my philosophical or political views to sway my ability to objectively assess the quality of the films I write about, I would have only written one bad review. But that would also have done a disservice to everyone who reads my commentary, and I would be proving myself to be horribly unreliable as a critic.

Film-making is a multidisciplinary art-form and doesn’t usually live or die based solely on the message or ideology expressed in the movie. And it shouldn’t. A movie with a bad message can be a well-made film (see also: Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”). Likewise, a movie with a great message can be awful. 

Yet ideological reviewers often do not seem to understand this.

“The Giver”, for instance, was preview screened for many conservative and libertarian organizations, as they were (correctly) assumed to be friendly audiences for the anti-government themes in the movie. While proper reviews were embargoed for a few weeks after the screening, attendees were encouraged to write “think pieces” about the messages and the political content.

Here’s one example from FreedomWorks’ Logan Albright, titled “‘The Giver’ Brings New Life to Themes of Liberty”:

“The Giver is that rare film that successfully merges conservative and libertarian themes with superior craftsmanship and genuine entertainment. The celebration of individual differences, of emotion, of life, of freedom, and of the general messiness that is the human condition strikes deep, as we instinctively reject the placid, yet soulless, sameness of a society controlled from the top down.

The underlying message is universal enough to appeal to everyone.”

Alas, the film did not appeal to everyone.

It bombed at the box-office, earning less than $13 million dollars on its opening weekend and scoring a paltry 32% “fresh” critics’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The failure of “The Giver” was even a bit predictable given who made it. Walden Media has amassed a track record of adapting books to create major flops. But I would argue that it didn’t appeal to everyone because first and foremost, it was a terrible film.

the-criticIn my experience, non-liberal cultural critics spend a lot of time complaining about how few works of art, particularly film & television productions, express ideas that align with their worldviews. And they’re right. Most producers and artists in Hollywood don’t really like many ideas that fall outside the narrow confines of cocktail party-progressivism. Movies with conservative or even libertarian themes don’t get made that often.

But the solution to that problem isn’t to put on ideological blinders and trumpet any mediocre movie that says something you vaguely agree with, hoping that you can trick a bunch of people into spending their money on a film that says what you want them to hear even though it isn’t any good.

That’s little more than affirmative action for movie reviews, isn’t it?

If you care about seeing your preferred ideas expressed in mainstream culture, then you need to demand that the delivery mechanisms, like movies and television shows, are produced at the highest standards. It’s time to stop grading on a curve.

The Giver Review

I was invited to a preview screening of “The Giver” last week and with a heavy heart, I regret to inform you all that it was abysmal.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, “The Giver” is based on a classic dystopian novel by Lois Lowry.

giver_xlgIt is set in a society modeled right out of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. Everything is peaceful and serene; there is no crime, violence, or poverty; and overtly ‘happy’ citizens go about their routines.

Of course, things aren’t what they appear.

Every aspect of each individual’s life is planned by the elders of the society. Jobs, spouses, pregnancies, children, daily activities, food, entertainment… All of it. Every shred of individuality and curiosity about the world has been eliminated. And to achieve this, the people must kept in line by daily injections of a drug designed to stifle creativity and keep people as obedient as possible.

As the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) says in the film, “When people are given the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.”

“The Giver” centers around a young boy, Jonas (blandly portrayed by relative newcomer Brenton Thwaites). Jonas is a bit of an anomaly in this society. He’s more curious, and can sometimes see the world in ways different from most of his peers.

The action begins during the coming of age ceremony, during which each person is assigned his or her career. Jonas is uniquely selected to become the “Receiver of Memories” – a once-in-a-generation honor and fast-track to becoming a respected elder within the community.

o-THE-GIVER-facebookAnd so Jonas begins a secretive apprenticeship with the aging “Giver” (played in this case by the always-excellent Jeff Bridges), and each day he’s literally given the collected memories and emotions spanning the known history of the human race through some kind of tactile psychometry.

The more Jonas experiences the past and begins to feel raw, un-medicated human emotions like love, pain, loss, death, and joy; the more he starts to think something is horribly wrong with his society.

Watch the trailer:

Most of the beats in the movie will be familiar to everyone regardless of whether or not they’ve read the book, but the predictable plot formula is hardly the only problem with The Giver as a film.

There are major issues with the screenplay & dialogue; the acting & chemistry between cast-members; many of Phillip Noyce’s key directorial choices; and most of all, the interminable 1st-person narration provided by Brenton Thwaites’ Jonas.

His narration not only bookends the film with dry and unnecessary description of the societal status quo, it also pops up perhaps 7 more times throughout the movie to explain various plot points and even what emotions his character is feeling in scenes we just watched!

There’s also a romantic subplot in the film between Jonas and his childhood Fiona (Odeya Rush), but the actors have all the on-screen chemistry of a pair of golf balls, so I figured perhaps this ridiculous over-use of narration was a stop-gap to make up for the weak performances given by the young leads.

Either way, if the audience needs a character’s emotions explained to them through narration, something has gone horribly wrong with the storytelling.

JonasFiona1200x1000And it’s not just the script… This movie should have presented the film-makers with a ton of opportunities show the audience what it’s like to experience powerful new emotions after a lifetime of monotony, but none of the aesthetic choices do those moments any justice at all. Throughout the film we go from black & white to color, and the music & sound design go from virtually non-existent and grow increasingly prominent, but given that we’ve already seen this technique in films like The Wizard of Oz and Pleasantville, it’s not remotely innovative stuff.

What’s worse, a lot of the direction seems to actively work against the emotion in the story.

There’s one scene in particular where Jonas convinces Fiona to break the rules and slidedown the middle railing of a giant metal bridge. It’s the first moment of excitement and actual danger that either of them has ever experienced in their entire lives, and inexplicably, Noyce decided to shoot it in slow-motion and rob it of every ounce of exhilaration.

There are a few highlights. Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep brought emotional depth and gravitas, and if the movie had just been about The Giver himself, who – no spoilers – had by far the best depth and most motivation for his actions of anyone, it might have been much better.

Sadly though, for me, most of the movie felt like a string of misfires.

That said, I have no doubt that a lot of conservatives & libertarians are going to love the film based purely on its anti-government and even pro-life themes. It looks like the Weinstein Company and Walden Media are banking on a predominately conservative audience-base given their pre-release strategy of private screenings for conservative groups (I saw it at the Tax Foundation).

Frankly, that’s a whole other problem to be tackled in a future blog-post.

In the end, “The Giver” is a movie that’s theoretically strong on big ideas about society, but doesn’t know how to handle any of them with soul, wit, or subtlety.


Guardians is a Smash

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-poster-21When I first heard that Marvel was contemplating a Guardians of the Galaxy project, I thought it could be cool, but that it would take a really good story to break through the normal sci-fi hurdles of an original, potentially-unrelatable cast of characters and settings. Then they announced that they’d hired James Gunn and any trepidation I might have had turned immediately into joy and excitement.

While most critics and commentators were questioning the logic of hiring a guy who had only directed low-budget films like Super ($2.6M) and Slither ($15M), (as well as his beloved series PG-Porn) and handing him the keys to the kingdom, I was thinking about how brilliant Marvel Studios has been by focusing not on finding “known” directors, and instead hiring directors who exude originality in tone, and taking chances on them.

More than anything, it seems to me that that is what really matters in creating a great comic book movie like Guardians of the Galaxy. Technical inexperience can usually be overcome by hiring the best of the business to head up creative teams and production departments, but a sharp director is indispensable.

In a recent Variety interview, when he was asked how much harder it is to make a $170M movie compared to the small-budget indies he’s used to, James Gunn replied:

“I remember one friend in particular was like, ‘It’s so hard, is the pressure getting to you, are you freaking out?’ And I’m like, No. It seems 1,000 times easier than “Super” was. You’re surrounded by the best people in the business, I can envision any shot in my head and I can make it a reality.”

020Wit, humor, and directorial vision have always been Gunn’s strong-points as a writer and director, and it’s exactly what Marvel needed to launch a title like Guardians.

And this is where the genius of Kevin Feige has made all the difference for Marvel Studios.

When Marvel tapped Jon Favreau to make Iron Man, it was basically the same situation. Instead of hiring a guy who had directed a half a dozen tentpole movies already, they picked a guy who had done primarily smaller films (Swingers, Made) and who had demonstrated a specific tone & vision. Let’s not even get into discussing Joss Whedon’s work prior to The Avengers.

You can see this same type of forward-thinking with casting.

When Robert Downey, Jr. was cast as Iron Man, “the industry” thought it was a big risk because of his past battles with alcoholism. Of course… The character of Tony Stark has also battled alcoholism throughout the comics, so perhaps it was always a perfect fit. Likewise, a few years ago, nobody would have pegged the loveable but kind of schlubby goofball Chris Pratt as a leading man in a superhero movie. But then, the character of Peter Quill is – underneath the Han Solo exterior – an immature goofball, too. He got abducted by space pirates as a boy, and never really grew up. Thus… Chris Pratt makes sense.


So what about the film itself? 

With a 92% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a pile of earned media from its powerful $160.4 million opening weekend, there’s not much I could say about the characters and plot of Guardians of the Galaxy that hasn’t been covered in any of a hundred reviews, so I won’t waste my limited space here with any of that.

Instead, let’s talk about why – after a string of terribly mediocre summer blockbusters (Lucy, Hercules, Snowpiercer, Transformers 4, etc.) – the “Guardians of the Galaxy” are finally here to save the day for movie-goers everywhere. For me, it really all comes down to tone.

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is pure space adventure, and all fun.

It’s less like a J.J. Abrams Star Trek or a self-serious Christopher Nolan movie, and more like a 1970s-1980s space opera. Think Flash Gordon, Barbarella, and even Star Wars.

It’s a movie that is both campy and absurd, yet simultaneously relatable and human. Its realism comes not so much from believable scenarios and plausible technology (definitely not that), but by being emotionally grounded in two important ways. 

The first is the core of humor and heart developed with characters who – be they a raccoon, talking tree, or green alien assassin – feel like real people doing things real people would do… for the most part. Admittedly, it may help to have a bit more of an in-depth understanding of the character backstories and the universe to understand everything, but based on the movie’s reception, audiences don’t seem to be having too much of a problem understanding what’s going on.

But even if they did, the second core for Guardians of the Galaxy is the flawless use of pop-music from the 1970s and 80s that grounds the film and makes it relatable, even though roughly 5 minutes actually takes place on Earth. A lot will be made of this in writing about this film, but speaking as a composer and (former) professional music supervisor, it is really an incredible facet of this movie, and it really helps make the complicated plot and interstellar locations feel a lot more like home.

So if you hate Indiana Jones, Star Wars, exciting space adventures, and having fun or laughing uproariously at the cinema, Guardians of the Galaxy might not be for you. 

But personally, I already can’t wait to see what Awesome Mix Vol. 2 has in store for us all.


Tree and Leaf: For Fiction and Non-Fiction

In my last post for Smash Cut Culture, I wrote about the importance of suspension of disbelief and the necessity of internal logic within a fictional narrative universe.

Picking up where I left off, Elizabeth Wolfe wrote another wonderful article, “Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf” elaborating on that idea with quotes and examples from J.R.R. Tolkien. While thinking about that piece, it occurred to me that everything that is true of great fiction story-telling is also true in non-fiction.

Consider my condensed view of Elizabeth’s piece on Tolkien.



I’m not the first person to notice this, but his whole approach to writing was rather Biblical. First, he created the world: Middle Earth. Then he created the seas, and the mountains, the forests and the grasslands – he drew maps, and charted geographies. Then he created the flora and the fauna, and filled his world with life – dragons, trolls, Balrogs, Nazgul, and giant spiders; but also pigs, horses, bears, and birds. Finally, he created the people – human and non-human characters with free will and individual agency, histories, genealogies, and languages – and then he wrote epic stories about those people.

There are plenty of things that I think Tolkien did wrong as a writer, and there are many instances in which he clearly took unnecessary shortcuts (
cough-deux ex giant eagle-cough cough) in his books which stand in sharp contrast to realism of the world; but overall, I believe that his level of sophistication and care in building a believable world is what we should all strive for as story-tellers, regardless of the medium. Showcasing a rich, deep universe, filled with complex characters and interesting stories should not just be limited to fiction.

Recently, I also read an article at Slate describing the current time as a “golden age of documentaries”. As (primarily) a documentary producer myself, I have to agree.

Albert Maysles
Albert Maysles

There are more incredible stories being told through that medium than ever before, and thanks to a handful of our documentarian fore-bearers (Albert Maysles, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, D.A. Pennebaker, etc.) and some up and coming greats, I think we’re finally starting to learn how to tell true stories in as creative and sophisticated ways as film-makers have more frequently told the made-up ones. The only real difference is that instead of inventing a universe and characters from scratch, it is the documentary producer’s job to carve away at the shallow outer layers of the subject, and expose the complexities underneath – to piece together a clearly structured story, centered on the actions and emotions of interesting characters who inhabit a believable world.

Whether fiction or non-fiction, the story-telling principles are fundamentally the same. Non-fiction just means you can’t cheat (with magic eagles, for example). I only really came to understand this through producing my last few documentaries, No Vans Land & Locked Out.

Documentary editing is ridiculously difficult. When you’re staring at 60-70 hours worth of raw material and no no script, knowing that you need to cut it all down to a half an hour of clear, yet emotionally moving, cinema; it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed. But if you treat a documentary the same as you’d treat a narrative film that you were writing from scratch, things get a little easier to manage (only a little, though).

When I get stuck, I often find myself referring back to the lessons I’ve learned from writers like Tolkien, along with stuff like Joseph Campbell’s view of The Hero’s Journey which describes broad story structures and character archetypes common across multiple story-telling traditions, and also about Emma Coates’ set of Pixar Story Rules.

Her whole set is great, but even just the first four are simple and valuable:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Most people writing about drama specifically have narrative fiction in mind, but increasingly, I find that they’re every bit as good when you’re trying to figure out how to craft a solid story out of disparate documentary footage.

All the important elements remain the same.


Another Take on “Snowpiercer” and the Logic in Cinema

Yesterday, at Smash Cut Culture, Patrick Lehe wrote a fairly positive teaser review of Snowpiercer in his post, “Snowpiercer” Penetrates, Provokes and Gets Political.

Like Patrick, I was intrigued by the trailer and the critical hype. A lot of people were talking about this movie as a great example of fresh and original sci-fi cinema and as a fan of the genre, I was excited.

primary_Snowpiercer-2013-1After seeing the film, however, I was tremendously disappointed. My suspension of disbelief was thoroughly destroyed early in the film and simply never returned. Consequently, I spent the baffling majority of the film wondering why things were happening on screen. It’s really hard to enjoy a cinematic experience when you are shaking your head with incredulity the entire movie.

Snowpiercer ended up being a relatively unique concept for a film without being all that good or coherent. However, instead of listing my specific, spoiler-ridden, criticisms of Snowpiercer here, today I want to talk about the importance of internal logic in cinema.

More than anything, to create a believable world that really captures an audience’s imagination, a story needs to make sense. In science fiction and fantasy stories, this is especially true, because audiences begin totally unfamiliar with the worlds and characters that the stories require them to accept. The setting and characters must be accepted realistic before an audience can fully engage in the story itself.

To be clear, what I mean is not that the story needs to exist in the real world or conform to known physical laws.

Snowpiercer-imageGreat stories can have the most fantastical spaceships, amazing technology, superhuman abilities and magical powers, impressive landscapes and strange alien beasts. They can – and perhaps should – completely abandon anything known to mankind.

But once the rules of the world, the characters, and their abilities are established, they have to be consistent and make sense throughout the rest of the story. Great writers establish a complex and rich universe: They give you the “rules”, and stick to them. And that consistency creates an opportunity to have a really character driven story that makes sense on its own terms.

So, believability really matters.

Science fiction and fantasy stories have the potential to talk about big ideas and create grand allegories for humanity and really say something about people in a way that few other genres can accomplish, but they can only do that if the audience buys into the universe as it’s presented.

The real beauty of the genre is that when it’s believable, it’s perfect for creating compelling stories about deep-rooted facets of human nature in a way that is totally outside the real-world human experience and frees an audience to look at an idea from a fresh perspective.

Pan's Labyrinth's Pale Man
Pan’s Labyrinth’s Pale Man

Brazil shows the absurdity of overwhelming bureaucracy. Blade Runner wrestles with the ethics of cloning and questions the nature of humanity. The Iron Giant shows us that violence is a choice, and xenophobia is often more dangerous than seemingly scary monsters. Pan’s Labyrinth uses fantasy and escapism to viscerally express the terror of living as a little girl under fascist Spain. Big Fish tackles the nature and significance of exaggeration vs. truth in creating distance in the relationship between a father and son.

Snowpiercer is a film that desperately wants to say something about class and economic inequality, but I found it to be so ridiculously unbelievable and silly as a story that the message can’t be taken seriously either.

Considering how many science fiction and fantasy genre films are written to be allegories about humanity and modern social issues, you’d think that writers presenting a social message would take believability a lot more seriously with their films.

Most science fiction and fantasy genre movies ignore this important point.

A few logic cheats are fine, of course, but the problem with writing that lacks coherence is that, as a viewer, it eventually becomes very hard to ignore major lapses in consistency. The more audiences question the veracity of a sequence of events given what they’re told of a character’s motivations, or the world those characters inhabit; the more audiences get taken out of the experience of the story itself.

Bong Joon-Ho
Bong Joon-Ho

For me, that’s exactly what happened when watching Snowpiercer, to the point where instead of thinking about social issues like class stratification, I was running a play-back in my mind of the several dozen sequences in the film that made absolutely no sense.

A science fiction movie especially lives or dies on the audience buying into the vision of the film. And once you’ve lost your audience, it’s very hard to regain their interest.

Maintaining believability and respecting an audience’s suspension of disbelief is crucial for any story-teller trying to build a world that feels real; and that kind of reality is absolutely essential for audiences to actually buy into the allegory as it’s presented.

Anyone who wants to use story-telling to present big ideas about society and human nature should probably keep this in mind.

Bong Joon-Ho, I’m looking at you.

Riders in the Sky – Still Yodeling and Lasso-ing After 36 Years

I must have been 10 or 11 years old when my parents took me to the Lied Center for the Performing Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska to see what remains to this day one of the most incredible acts I’ve ever experienced.

I remember the stage containing an up-lit campfire made of flickering orange cellophane, a tall plastic cactus, and tumbling tumbleweeds that looked like they were pulled straight from a Yosemite Sam cartoon. These props were carefully arranged in front of a gorgeous painted backdrop featuring the kind of desert sunset into which Gene Autry or Roy Rogers (not to mention John Wayne & Clint Eastwood) would have proudly ridden at the end of any of a dozen iconic films.

Four colorfully dressed cowboys complete with ornately embroidered pearl-studded shirts along with impressive hats, chaps & boots walked out on stage and introduced themselves as “Ranger Doug, the Idol of American Youth”, “Woody Paul, King of the Cowboy Fiddlers”, “Too Slim, the Man of a Thousand Hats” and “Joey the Cowpolka King”.

It seemed a little weird, over-the-top, and out of place for the early 1990s… But even as an essentially suburban kid with no special affinity for cowboys or “Western” themes, my imagination was instantly captured.

Then they picked up their instruments and started to play.

These guys weren’t – to borrow a relevant term – all hat and no cattle. They were each incredible performers! As if it weren’t enough to have technical mastery over their instruments, their vocals relied on complex four-part harmonizing, flawless intonation, crystal clear tone, and it all fit together seamlessly. Their show was punctuated with genuine comedy… And yodeling. And lasso tricks!

They called themselves “Riders in the Sky” and I was impressed.

Listen for yourself:

The first time I saw them perform, they’d been playing together for 15 years… And that was about 20 years ago. They’re still touring today and I’ve had the great fortune of seeing them a few times since, most recently, two weeks ago on my birthday during my first-ever trip to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Their show was just like I remembered it… Only better.

After 7 years of music school, and another 7 in the “real world” working professionally in music and film, they’re still one of the best acts I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing. Everything I loved as a kid is still there, but now I also have a much deeper understanding of their musicianship and the writing, skill, and rehearsal time that went into the wit and humor of their presentation. Take my word for it. They’re fantastic.


But they are getting old, so I hope you get a chance to see them in concert before they retire (assuming, of course, that you like going to shows that are fun and awesome).

Riders in the Sky occupies a very specific niche in American culture. They have spent the last 36 years playing together, keeping a unique musical and storytelling tradition alive. They’re a whimsical throwback to the Cowboy movie and radio serials of the 30s and 40s, if not strictly accurate to the music of the 1880s that those old shows romanticized. They’re really not like anything else that exists today.

And while they are probably a bit too obscure for most people to know by name, I’m betting that you’ve actually heard Riders’ music before – perhaps without even realizing it.

Do you like Pixar movies? If you do, then you may already know exactly who I’m talking about. Riders in the Sky won a Grammy in 2001 for their work on “Toy Story 2” and another in 2003 for the music to the short film, “For The Birds”, which aired before Monsters Inc.

Riders in the Sky is a timeless testament to perfected craft and dedication to an old artistic tradition… And in the interminable age of the hipster, that’s refreshingly unironic.

In this humble artist’s opinion, life is way too short to pretend to like things just for the sake of signalling to other people how cool you are.

There’s little better than watching exceptionally talented people who genuinely love what they’re doing performing live on stage, no matter how niche the idiom. I suspect that we all have a few things that we like that aren’t mainstream, or hip, or even on anybody else’s radar. But as an adult getting to revisit something I enjoyed as a kid, Riders in the Sky provides a great reminder that it’s ok to toss aside any concern for popularity or other people’s opinions and simply love the things you love for the sake of what they are and what they mean to you. It’s your life to enjoy, make the most of it.

PS. Check out Riders in the Sky here.

Locked Out: A Mississippi Success Story

As a film & video producer, I count myself among an exceptionally small group of people who are lucky enough to get to spend each and every day doing what we love to do.

I say this even as I am in the middle of one of the most stressful two weeks of my life.

020By the end of the run, I’ll have racked up about 4,000 miles traveling through 9 different states. I’ll have completed production work on 2 major events; shot everything and begun the editing process for a biographical video; filmed 3 more interviews for an in-progress documentary; and screened my latest film, “Locked Out” at a Landmark theater in Atlanta and the Tribeca Film Center in New York City.

Even in its worst moments, I know I have a pretty amazing job. It’s a job that I simply love to do. There’s almost no such thing as being overworked.

I really believe that if everyone felt the same way about what they do for a living, the world would be filled with passionate, happy people.

Most people just aren’t that lucky.

Not everyone knows what they want. Not everyone can or wants to develop a skill that is also commercially useful. Not everyone will always be successful. And most of us (myself very much included) will have to go through a long string of less-than-satisfying jobs before finding the ones that work for us.

Those are just immutable facts of life.

But those aren’t the only reasons a lot of people don’t get the jobs they want. Far more often than most people realize, bad laws and government restrictions flat out prevent people from finding well-paid work that they’re actually passionate about.

Every day I work with people for whom this is the case.

One of those people, Melony Armstrong, is the subject of the film I’m screening in New York in two days. Melony is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. Almost 20 years ago, she found her career passion—hair braiding—but when she tried to open the first professional hair braiding salon in Mississippi and use her skills to earn a living and support her family, she hit a wall called the Mississippi State Board of Cosmetology.

The MSBC blocked Melony’s attempts to work professionally as a hair braider by demanding that she first obtain a full cosmetology license at the cost of nearly $10,000 and years of training, none of which taught a thing about hair braiding. Most people facing those kinds of obstacles would give up. In fact, every person in Mississippi who hit that same barrier before Melony did give up.

But Melony fought back.

When I learned about her story, I knew I wanted to tell it. That’s why I made “Locked Out”. Watch the trailer:

Melony’s battle with the Mississippi State Board of Cosmetology ultimately cost her 7 years, but in the end, her victory not only opened up opportunities for hundreds of young women who shared her passion for natural hair, it set a precedent to reduce licensing restrictions across the country. When she started her fight, 37 states required cosmetology licenses to braid hair. Now, 28 states do, and each year that number drops.

And sure, you might think that hair braiding isn’t that important… But chances are pretty good that you know someone who wants to work in a field right now and isn’t allowed to without a costly, and probably unnecessary permit.

A few decades ago, 1 in 20 occupations required a special license to operate. Today, it’s 1 in 3.

Want to be an interior designer? In Nevada, you need to spend 6 years in training and take a state-approved exam. Think you might have what it takes to trim trees? In California, you’ll need to get 4 years of training, pass 2 state-approved exams, and cough up $851. Maybe you just want to be an athletic trainer. In Illinois, that’s going to be 4 years in training, an exam, and $500.

Pre-school teachers, barbers, make-up artists, skin care specialists, door repairmen… Even florists in some states are required to obtain costly government permission just to earn a living.

Right now, the list is endless. But it needs to end.

For a lot of people, entrepreneurship—and even simply access to a variety of employment options—is the way to wealth and empowerment. Yet restrictions like the ones Melony faced push people into poverty, trap them in cycles of dependency, and prevent people from earning a good living doing something they actually want to do.

“Locked Out” is available to watch for free at I hope you’ll watch it and share it with your friends. Maybe it will inspire others to stand up to ridiculous laws like Melony did, and help more people achieve their dreams and get the jobs they really want.

New Marvel Movie Tackles Privacy Issues

I got a chance to check out an advance screening of Marvel’s Captain America:  Winter Soldier, and I am not ashamed to say it actually made me proud to be an American – and not in the ways you might expect.

Cap01The film opens with Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans, who remains impeccably cast as the moral conscience of the Marvel cinematic universe), working for the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division – or S.H.I.E.L.D. for short.

For the five of you who haven’t seen any of the Marvel universe movies until this one, S.H.I.E.L.D. is a government agency that is more or less the equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security, the NSA, and the CIA combined into one horrifyingly powerful super-agency run by an unaccountable version of the UN Security Council.

In Captain America’s world – much like in our real one – privacy, freedom, and even congressional oversight are a thing of the past. All that matters now is “security” at any cost.

Steve Rogers is clearly uncomfortable with the future he’s been dumped into, but as a 95-year old super-soldier, he doesn’t really know what else to do with himself except work. Unfortunately, at this point he’s more black-ops agent than superhero.

Even his new darker costume reflects the change.

Cap's New Duds
Cap’s New Duds