The Pale Blue Dot

•March 29, 2020 • Leave a Comment


I’m a sucker for docu-series of any kind, but especially when it comes to science…I’m instantly hooked.  For the last few weeks National Geographic has been running Season # 2 of “Cosmos,” inspired by the lifelong research, writing and original 1980s PBS series (of the same name) by Carl Sagan.

To quickly summarize if you don’t know much about him, Carl Sagan was an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist and in later life fiction and non-fiction author.  And as I just learned in the latest episode of Cosmos 2.0, Sagan was a vital bridge between the study of these sciences throughout all of human history before him…to all of us.  Before Carl Sagan, scientific research and much of the knowledge gained by the global scientific community was held by the intellectual and economic elite.  But from early childhood, Carl Sagan was determined to democratize this knowledge and transfer it to the masses of humanity.

So beyond being a brilliant scientist, he was also an empathetic communicator and a pioneering scientific populist.  Both his research and communications efforts make him, in my opinion, one of the most visionary and important people of the 20th century.

He’s the author of the novel that inspired one of my favorite science-fiction films, 1997’s Contact.  The film, released about 18 months after his death has the high concept blockbuster hook that’s a must to market a movie released in mid-July (especially back in the 90s).  It’s the story of a brilliant but combative scientist Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) who’s lifelong quest to connect with extra-terrestrial life comes to fruition when she makes the biggest discovery in the history of humanity.  And eye-popping CGI adventure ensues…right?

Well, sort of…but not exactly.  Carl Sagan’s a little too sophisticated to go down the pure “popcorn flick” road.  Instead, he uses the bigtime concept to draw us in and explore the deeper and more fragile aspects of our humanity.  Orphaned at an early age, Ellie turns her back on spirituality and only trusts her scientific pursuits.  And when she makes the great discovery, she finds herself in the middle of forces beyond her control – political, economic, and even spiritual.  Without spoiling the story (if you haven’t seen it), Contact is much less about this humanity-changing discovery and much more about challenging us to ask ourselves — what would we do with this?  At it’s core the film deals with questions Sagan was often asking us to consider, such as who we are and how we are treating each other while sharing the only home that any of us — has ever known.  Before we search the stars for an alternative, we have a lot of things that need fixing right here and right now.  It’s a repair job of which none of us…is immune.

At the same time, Sagan reminds us that while we are far from perfect — we are rare, and precious — just like the tiny blue dot.  A beautiful pearl floating in an infinite sea of darkness, the life raft we all share and must keep afloat.  They’re messages that were certainly resonant and timely in the late 20th century.  But twenty years into our current century, I’d argue that they’re just as important now.  In the midst of this current moment — they’re relevance is maybe the greatest it’s ever been.

I’ve looked at or listened to Carl Sagan’s reflection on us…all of us…and the home we all share.  He calls it, “The Pale Blue Dot…a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”  Each time I’ve read or listened to his words these last few weeks, I’m moved, inspired, and most importantly…humbled.

Here are those words…

“From this distant vantage point the Earth might not seem of any particular interest.  But for us…it’s different.  Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot…

…the only home we’ve ever known.”

I hope this article finds you doing the best you can right now upon the tiny corner of this speck of dust.  In my opinion, these words are not meant to make us feel small or insignificant – but instead the opposite.  We are unique, and we are lucky.  Our entire planet and our struggling species (especially right now) is a constantly evolving work in progress.  Never perfect, rarely great, sometimes good, and often — far from it.

But out in the darkness, suspended together on this life-giving blue pearl we have each other.  And we always have the opportunity to do, and be…better.

Look for The Helpers

•March 25, 2020 • Leave a Comment


“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.'”

– Fred Rogers

mr. rogers

Maybe it’s because we’re living in a time where we’re more divided than we’ve been in decades, but the words, lessons and memory of Fred Rogers have enjoyed a renaissance in the last few years.  From the critically-acclaimed documentary about his life Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in 2018 or last year’s Oscar-nominated A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood it seems that in the midst of our polarization, anxiety and divisiveness we trace our way back to this man and his unique way of being, teaching, and supporting others.  Mr. Rogers was seemingly always present, always thinking of others — especially children — and delivering what they needed to feel seen, understood, and self-confident.

Today, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic engulfs America at an unprecedented rate the virus has completely transformed all aspects of our life in disruptive and destructive ways.  And we don’t need to be a math expert to come to the sobering reality that things will likely get worse before they begin to get better.

Crises like this have a funny way of waking us up to our shared commonalities instead of exposing and capitalizing on our perceived differences.  So with COVID-19, I paid attention to the news coming out of China that started at the end of last year, reading stories, watching videos, diving deep down into the virtual rabbit hole created by each terrifying hashtag.  And I certainly felt sadness and sympathy for the infected, a number quickly rising by the day.  But sympathy and sadness are one thing, and empathy is another entirely.  Empathy requires much more of us, tasking ourselves with stopping our daily routine and really imagining what it would be like to be in someone else’s unique situation.  Maybe it’s because we’re all desensitized to tragedy when it’s not right on our doorstep.  I just don’t know.  Maybe these are the kinds of questions you’ve asked yourself too in the last few weeks or even days.

As January turned into February and the real threat of COVID-19 became less peripheral and more imminent I started to do the “just in case” shopping and planning a lot of us did.  Little by little, buying frozen food, that 3-pack of disinfecting wipes instead of the solo container, etc.  Since many of us have ever gone through a pandemic like this in America, we were arrogantly ill-equipped – preparing as we would for an incoming hurricane.  As major events, sports leagues and in our case – jobs we’d been planning out for months – quickly and dramatically got cancelled, the day-to-day course of our lives seemed to transform overnight.  The shock of it all was bizarre, something I think we’re all trying to quickly wrestling with as we struggle to adjust, and merely hang on.

Moving from “hanging on” into perseverance means discovering those glimmers of hope.  We all need that right now, and looking to lessons from people that inspire us isn’t a bad place to start.  I’m certainly not the first person to think of Mr. Rogers and his advice for what to do and where to look in the midst of this crisis. But know what?  I don’t care about being unique right now.  I care about being thoughtful, about being present, and most importantly this time…being empathetic.

We can look now to The Helpers in this crisis we all face as beacons lighting our way through the dark.  Doing what I do for a living means I’m lucky enough to work with a lot of people in many different paths of life.  I’ve worked with police officers, with firefighters, with scientists, with educators, professionals in the hospitality and food service industry and many healthcare professionals.  These are just some of the professionals at the front lines of this crisis, going out everyday and risking their own health for the rest of us.  Throughout my now almost 20 years working in media, I’ve sat with them and crafted scripts, I’ve sat across from them and talked to them about their day-to-day; their successes, their struggles, their professional and often personal journeys.  I’m also lucky enough to call some healthcare professionals and volunteers (don’t forget about our volunteer emergency services workers) some of my closest friends and family.  These are The Helpers that we so easily take for granted when life is easy and good, but immediately look to in times of adversity and turmoil – like the current moment.  These are the heroes that Mr. Rogers would point out to nervous children and say, “look, there are The Helpers.”

So how do we support them, how do we honor them in this dire time?  At least in healthcare, most physicians or nurses that have been asked this question have routinely answered the question in bizarrely consistent ways…

Top of Mind:  “Send masks, gloves, and other PPE equipment you can.”

In the last few days, we’re seeing this begin to happen.  From major businesses all the way to individuals producing and / or physically delivering whatever protective equipment they have to the doorstep of the nearest hospital.  We need more of this action for sure, but again the lesson holds – look to those producing, and donating — they’re The Helpers too.

From there:  “Stay home.  Practice social distancing.”

This is really difficult for us, especially as Americans who are used to doing whatever we want…whenever we want.  This crisis is a real test of our freedom.  But it’s a test we have to pass to support those putting their lives on the line to keep us healthy and safe.

And then:  “Send food.  We love food.” 

Well now we’re definitely speaking my language.  Not only is this a great way to recharge and refuel, but it just shows people you’re thinking about them and they’re appreciated.

And this brings me to my final thoughts on how we can honor The Helpers.  Think of the times in your life where you’ve worked the hardest, no matter what you do for a living.  The times where you’ve gone with little to no sleep to get a project accomplished or meet a deadline that at first seemed impossible.  When you’re in it, what signs do you look for to know you’re doing okay?  It’s simple.  You look for people around you to show their appreciation, to tell you that all the work you’re doing is being recognized, that it’s not all for nothing.  You look for those tiny emotional energy boosts, igniting hormones in the brain that push you forward.  No matter who we are or what we do, we’re all human and we all need those boosts of supportive energy.  I’d think this is true right now for The Helpers out there, working endless shifts, running out of supplies, putting their lives on the line.

This starts with each of us thinking about the individuals we know and love who are out there now working tirelessly right now.  It means reaching out to them, letting them know we see them and deeply appreciate their service and sacrifice.

In the aftermath of the great tragedy on September 11th, 2001 many then also looked to Mr. Rogers for his wisdom and guidance.  On the first anniversary of 9/11, in the middle of battling the stomach cancer he would succumb to a few months later he delivered his final thoughts to the generations that grew up watching him.  Here’s an excerpt from that broadcast:

No matter how old we are right now, we’re likely all scared on some level.  Scared for our children, are parents and grandparents, our family and friends all across the country.  And most likely, we’re scared for ourselves too.  In the face of vast uncertainty and in the absence of leadership we’re all looking for The Helpers right now.  But this time around, discovering them isn’t good enough.  We need to let them know we see them, that we’re grateful for them and their sacrifices in order to move us all forward.

Sometimes The Helpers are looking for glimmers of hope too.  They’re looking for signals and signs that all the work isn’t for nothing, that they’re having a positive impact and headed in the right direction.

Sometimes, The Helpers look back at us.  They need our help too.


The Revealers: My Favorite Films of 2016

•February 27, 2017 • Leave a Comment

In the last remaining hours before this year’s Academy Awards, I’ve given a lot of thought, as I always do, about all of this past year’s most-acclaimed films as a whole.  Collectively, is there a certain theme that runs though them all?  When cinema studies students of the future (like I used to be) study this year’s films and dissect them, debate them and rate them – how will they be measured?

Then, as it is now, it will probably be difficult to look at the films of 2016 without involving the environment from which they’ve emerged.  It’s an environment where politics and culture have seemingly become conjoined and inseparable – in our conversations, our daily feed, and all throughout our entertainment spectrum.  As a nation, we are seemingly defined much more by our ever-deepening divisions than we are our bonds and similarities.

Whether you view films or the act of movie-going / watching as art or entertainment (or a little bit of both) – one thing is universally certain…films are supposed to create some kind of common ground for us all, they are often the spark that allows complex conversations that would otherwise seem so impossible – to begin.  They help us find it within ourselves to slip into the shoes of someone that is either so much like us, or someone we’ve perceived so different – even if it’s only for a couple of hours.  No matter the character, we suddenly can see things about our truest nature reflected back to us. Suddenly our own life experiences transcend beyond the screen, giving us a deeper and better understanding of ourselves.  Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, a film can bring to light something we may not have known about, an experience of even a fictional character that could cause us to look at the people around us or even the world in a different light.  Some of this year’s films reflect and explore these deep divisions, helping us to better understand all sides of the great equation – while others present hopeful solutions for mending these divisions and growing stronger at the broken places.

In as divisive and tumultuous times as we are currently living, we all have certain ideas or outlets we look to for clarity, inspiration, and perspective.  My go-to is now as it has been on and off for the past 7 years – the works and ideas of mythologist Joseph Campbell (big surprise, I know).  In the midst of watching the series “The Power of Myth” I’m reminded of his views on the role of all artists.  He says…

“The role of the artist I now understood as that of revealing through the world-surfaces the implicit forms of the soul, and the great agent to assist the artist was the myth.”

Campbell believed in the collective creation of myths (on a subconscious level) to explain that which could not be explained – the mysteries of existence and our very human essence.  Just before his death in the mid-1980s he talked a great deal about the role that artists would play in the years ahead, as a new world was emerging – one we are deeply entrenched in now.

This year’s best films, in my opinion, have held the mirror up to us and challenged us to take a long, hard look – at our past, at our current times, and deeply at ourselves – emboldening us to take responsibility for defining what kind of world lies ahead.  Here are my favorite films of 2016…


#10.)  Moonlight:             Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama is unlike any other, focusing in on a shy, withdrawn black boy named Chiron – living in Miami with his mother (Naomie Harris) – an erratic, abusive, drug addict.  Chiron comes under the wing of a local drug dealer Juan (played with such patience and thoughtful precision by Mahershala Ali) who serves as more than a father figure to the boy.  Act one of this film is gripping and heartbreaking – as Chiron struggles to come to terms with his own sexuality, amidst other challenges.  When Chiron asks Juan what a “faggot” is and if he is one, watching this man quickly process the importance of his own response and respond so gracefully is unforgettable.  Act two of the film shows Chiron as a lanky, soft-spoken teenager, now without Juan for protection or guidance – he’s left to fend for himself against his own mother and the incessant bullying waiting for him in and outside of High School.  Pushed to the very edge, he chooses violence – forever altering the man he’ll become.  The third act of the film was for me, the weakest (which is why this film isn’t higher on my list) but in it we see Chiron fully embracing a man he isn’t, and denying who he really is.  When he returns home to reconnect with a lifelong friend and lover Kevin he seems to finally realize the truth behind all the lessons Juan had taught him as a boy.  Juan was a man who as a drug dealer and gangster was living a life that wasn’t him.  Many years earlier he had encouraged Chiron that he and he alone would someday have to decide on the man he wanted to be.  In the final minutes of Moonlight Chiron finally makes his choice, culminating in a film that allows Jenkins to smoothly navigate difficult themes such as drug addiction, poverty, bullying and homophobia – an even uglier experience for black teenagers coming to terms with and discovering confidence in their sexuality.


Oscar-nominee Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight”

9.) Before the Flood:              Fisher Stevens’ (yes, THAT Fisher Stevens…the guy from Short Circuit) climate change documentary puts all-world actor Leonardo DiCaprio (recognized as a United Nations’ Messenger of Peace) at the center of the climate change debate in a jarring film that somewhat consciously takes on the role of sequel to former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth.  The film follows DiCaprio around the globe as he meets with leading scientists, diplomats and even The Pope who all share grim opinions on the Earth’s prospects if we do not reverse course on many of our environmental policies and practices.  The weak link in the film is ironically DiCaprio who often asks paper-thin, softball questions to experts who are in almost all cases very passionate about getting their points-of-views across. At its most upsetting (and revelatory) the film shows us aerial footage of fossil fuel extraction and deforestation.  A scorched, gauged, and disfigured landscape that looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie – not our current, collective home.  While Before the Flood continually embraces shock value, there is a pervasive sense of hope and optimism laced throughout.  The film presents clear solutions for reversing the damage that don’t seem that impossible.  As the film not so subtly reminds us, it’s up to us on where we want to go from here…as a species.

8.)  Jackie:   Ahh, the year of non-linear storytelling….

In Jackie, this device may be most effective for ushering the audience around a narrative they’re already very familiar with – the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, in 1963.  But this film takes a road-less traveled, by working through the experience of the tragic first lady (played by an absolutely fearless and committed Natalie Portman) in a raw, macro-emotional way.  Much like it’s real-life heroine, and its lead’s performance the film takes-on the depiction of a larger-than-life icon courageously by getting inside her mind as we jump back and forth from the day of and days around the death of her husband and her meeting with a prodding journalist (Billy Crudup).  Portman owns the role – reminding us not only how skilled of an actress she is, but how in many ways she may still just be scratching the surface of her talent.  Her performance is draining, (dual thanks to the meticulous direction of Pablo Larrain) and you feel all of the devastation and confusion as she tries to hold her family, her own psyche and in many ways the entire country together in the wake of the assassination.  But just when you feel like she doesn’t have anything left, she picks herself up and courageously moves forward.  The film positions her as the main driver behind a very public and exposed funeral that she believed the country needed to begin mending their wounds and find closure.  The most surprising aspect of Jackie is when it moves away from historical dramatization and explores the questions this woman may have asked about God, existence and the fate of her own soul.  It happens seamlessly – thanks to Portman, who for 2 hours brings Jackie Kennedy back to life before our very eyes and in a way that honors her as a strong, intelligent, and compassionate woman that gives us all a worthy embodiment of patriotism and courage.


Oscar-nominee Natalie Portman portrays first lady Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie”

7.)  Loving:       Mildred and Richard Loving (played by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton respectively) were a real-life couple that fell in love in Virginia in the 1950s.  Like most couples in love, they decided that they wanted to get married.  Unfortunately Mildred is black and Richard is white and in 1950s Virginia they’re not allowed to get married.  So they drive to Washington, D.C. where it’s legal to get married as an interracial couple – problem solved, right?  Well the state of Virginia says, “not so fast,” giving them an ultimatum, move out of Virginia or go to jail, all after a barrage of harassment and intimidation.  So Mildred and Richard obey and move to D.C. where they have 3 children and go-on with their lives.  But so far from their families, especially Mildred’s who doesn’t have the money to relocate – they yearn to return home where Richard’s purchased a piece of land he had always planned to build their house on.  Ultimately, Mildred and Richard’s case is taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case that is actually the model legislation for the Court’s recent Same Sex Marriage decision.  What makes Loving so sweet and powerful is that it never strays far from this couple, who’s relationship seems so effortless, intimate, and real.  Both leads are strong and genuine in understated roles – but it’s Negga that really shines.  Tonight, La La Land will probably walk away with Oscar gold, and will be touted by many as a “love story,” but Loving is really this year’s best love story – pure and simple – a reminder of how powerful true love can be…so powerful it can change the world.


Joel Edgerton and Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga portray Richard and Mildred Loving in “Loving”

6.)  13th:      So I was probably a little late to the Ava DuVernay party – not knowing anything about her until 2014.  That year, she was involved in two of my favorite films – at the helm of Selma and interviewed in the Roger Ebert biopic Life Itself where she talks about how the iconic film critic used his influence to elevate her first film, I Will Follow.  Ebert, as he was often known to do, saw something great in DuVernay – and her latest documentary, 13th would no doubt make Mr. Ebert proud.  13th is an unflinching look at racial tensions tracing back to the era of Jim Crow and how systemic racism remains strong and pervasive in America to this very day, specifically in our criminal justice system.  13th is at its very strongest when it shows the rise in prisoners from one administration to the next and bluntly exposes the private organizations that make billions off of our country’s prison system.  Thoroughly upsetting, thought-provoking, and masterfully constructed (the use of iconic/kinetic typography to disseminate statistics is particularly noteworthy) , 13th shows DuVernay at her finest as a documentary filmmaker and a sign of more powerful work from her, still yet to come.


Star-crossed lovers Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) find each other in “La La Land.”

5.)  La La Land:    With 14 nominations, La La Land has already made Oscar history (tying Titanic and All About Eve).  There have been a lot of naysayers that have come out of the woodwork in the last few weeks to knock this awards juggernaut down a few pegs.  I’ll say this about all the criticism as to how it relates to the film’s placement on this list.  1.)  I saw it in late December before it started to get really hyped, and 2.) I’m not a fan of musicals, often having a viscerally negative reaction to when characters break into song and dance for no reason.  But La La Land is NOT your average musical.  In the hands of filmmaker Damien Chazelle – this film is in all definitions – a work of art.  Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are strong as the leads, with Stone really doing her best work.  As she continually gets rejected (or worse, ignored) as she pursues her dreams we can feel each hit to her confidence as if we were punched in the gut – she’s that good.  And Gosling is fast-talking and gregarious as always.  His performance in this film is something we’ve seen him do before, for sure, always maintaining a vulnerable / easy-to-root for persona.  Someone like Campbell would tell you that we all, no matter who we are, have a “dream” in life and that the pursuit of this dream is the fulfillment of our destiny.  Stone’s Mia and Gosling Sebastian both struggle to maintain sight of that dream, especially when life throws them off-course – most of all by falling in love with each other. Alright, enough about Stone and Gosling though because Chazelle’s direction is the real star here.  He starts the film off with a huge musical number on an LA freeway that seemingly is ONE shot (maybe there’s a cut in there).  From here, he beautifully pays homage to classic musicals past from Singing in the Rain to West Side Story all without missing a beat.  Somehow, this musical seems to capture the essence of navigating and surviving the entertainment industry in Los Angeles from the perspective of the “cheap seats.”  La La Land manages to make us think about what is sacrificed in pursuit of our dreams, as we have to make hard choices that are always accompanied by regrets and the feeling of “what if?”  It’s a lot deeper and contemplative than the film’s critics would lead you to believe.


Academy-Award Winner Denzel Washington directed and stars in “Fences,” based on the award-winning play

4.)  Fences:             So on the opposite side of the scope spectrum, we have Denzel Washington’s Fences based on the play by August Wilson (also starring Washington and Viola Davis in the lead roles).  Washington’s character Troy is a 53-year-old garbage man living in Pittsburgh in the mid 1950s.  He lives in his small home with his wife Rose (Davis) and his son Cory (Jovan Adepo).  Most of the film, being true to the play, takes place at their home – which is never short on tension.  Troy’s past is a complicated one that includes beatings by his father, abandonment by his mother, 15 years in jail for armed robbery, and an unfulfilled career as a major league baseball player because of his skin color.  He still talks about the homeruns he hit, and the adulation he received, even though he scoffs when his son encourages him to get a TV so they could watch the World Series together.  Cory has a lot of talent like his Dad, with potential as a college football player – but Troy puts up road blocks to his son’s success at every turn, all while lecturing him about responsibility and pride.  Dialogue scenes in Fences go on seemingly for 15-20 minutes at times but the performances of Washington and Davis especially are incredible (I’m not exaggerating with my adjective choice here).  When tensions reach their highest between these two Davis steals the film with a heartbreaking monologue about the 18 years she’s lost as her bombastic husband’s wife.  Troy’s warned by his best friend about screwing up his life, that he doesn’t realize he’s got it pretty good.  But Troy’s own insecurity, inferiority and regret takes over – as we watch a man preaching pride push everyone away (or as the film not so subtly infers – “fence” them out).  Fences proves less is more when you have great actors and a solid script and a great director (Washington also directed) knows that their best work often comes with the lightest touch.

3.)  Lion:                It’s just absolutely crazy to me to think that Lion is based on a true story.  When / if you see it, you’ll know what I mean.  Lion’s all about a little boy in India named Saroo who gets separated from his entire family when he falls asleep on a train that takes him thousands of miles away from home.  Being that it’s the mid 1980s, and he’s barely five years old he has no idea about how to get home, nor can anyone help him find it.  Luckily for Saroo, an Australian family adopts him and raises him.  20 years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is a successful young man who has a deep bond with his adoptive mother (Nicole Kidman) and a pretty, down-to-earth girlfriend (Rooney Mara).  But even though his life’s pretty good, he’s never been able to move on from the home and family he lost so many years ago.  So, he commits himself to finding his mother, brother and sister – fully realizing that without knowing the correct name of his town the chances are slim to none – never mind the fact that even if he DOES find it, the chances are minuscule that his family will still be there.  But the film does a wonderful job of showing the effects this separation has on Saroo as he becomes a man – something from him is incomplete – and he finds that this “hole” within him makes it impossible to move forward or find happiness in his life.  So if you want to see one movie that will absolutely inspire you this year – THIS is it.  Dev Patel reminds us how his desperate, and romantic determination can buoy a story and make its audience’s heart race – hoping that he meets his goal.  In the process, Lion reminds us about the ability of absolute strangers to love us unconditionally and root for our happiness, even in our most desperate times of need and despair.  Lion will do what few films this year could, reaffirm your belief in people and that miracles can and do happen.


Oscar-nominee Dev Patel plays Saroo, a boy searching for his family in “Lion”

2.)  Arrival:                   Everyone has their  own “biggest snub” every year, and if I had to pick one this year it’s Amy Adams.  From the opening frame of this film, when Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” begins to play – this smart, ultra-timely sci-fi film grips you emotionally (strange for the genre) by making it, at its core – a story about a woman and her daughter.  I know, you don’t get that from the previews…

It’s a pretty “high concept” plot – about a dozen alien spaceships suddenly arrive at locations across the world and just hover there.  But what do they want?  Since we have no way of communicating with these beings the United States military enlists the help of an acclaimed linguist Louise Banks (Adams).  Communication with the beings isn’t easy – Louise explains that she basically has to create a new baseline language with the beings to even start basic communication.  This sort of thing takes time.  But the countries of the world are getting anxious since these beings could conceivably wipe out humanity in a second if they wanted.  As months pass, Louise makes progress – but in the process seems to be taking her work home with her, including when she’s sleeping – in the form of powerful, somewhat prophetic dreams.  It starts to become clear to Louise that these beings can communicate telepathically and Louise is their surrogate translator.  But some countries are tired of waiting, and have decided to launch a preemptive attack on these ships, forcing Louise to take extreme measures to stop an unnecessarily world war.

What makes Arrival so special is not the suspenseful, thriller aspects of the story, but instead the ultimate message these aliens have for us about our truest selves and our deeper destiny.  By making the story intimate and focused on only Louise Arrival manages to clearly articulate the deeper mysteries of our existence, much more effectively than 2014’s Interstellar did a few years ago.  It’s a must-see that’ll make you think very deeply about who we are, what lies unlocked within, and how we must all work together for our collective future.


Amy Adams talks to aliens in this year’s Oscar-Nominated “Arrival”

1.)  O.J.:  Made in America:      I had a hard time ranking the top 3 this year, but ultimately I decided on # 1 because it was the film I most aggressively persuaded other people to see this year.  And for each person that took my suggestion, their response was the same – they’d shake their head with a slight air of astonishment and despondency mixed and say, “unbelievable.”  Yup, that’s a good way to describe it.

At almost 8 hours, documentary filmmaker Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America becomes the longest-ever film to be nominated for an Academy Award.  At first I was real skeptical about watching it, feeling it would be sensationalist and true-TV-like – all of the feelings I have when I think back about the actual O.J. Simpson trial/saga of the mid 1990s.  And there’s certainly some of that in here – but Ezra’s doc is consciously aware of it and ready to explain how O.J. Simpson’s murder trial marks the origins of so many less-than-attractive qualities that exist in our current click-bait, sensationalist, 24-hour news cycle society.  Never mind the fact that this trial indirectly launched the career of the Kardashians.

But Episode # 1 of O.J. starts way before anything having to do with the trial and not where you’d expect.  Almost 2 hours is spent on O.J.’s childhood, his Herculean-status at USC where he won the Heisman trophy and his up-and-down NFL career inter-cut with a history of black people and racism in Los Angeles, starting post-World War II.  It’s clear from the beginning that Edelman’s ready to roll up his sleeves and get real serious about this and Episode # 2 doesn’t disappoint as he juxtaposes the Rodney King beating / LA Riots with O.J.’s relationship with his second wife – Nicole Brown Simpson.  Courtship and bliss quickly turns to control and domestic abuse as Edelman sets the stage for the murder of Nicole and victim Ron Goldman.  The remaining 3 episodes take us through the murder, arrest, famous Bronco chase, “Trial-of-the-Century” and the aftermath of Simpson’s life that leads him to serving a 13-year sentence for armed robbery.

It’s hard to see an event and story so exhaustively covered with fresh eyes, but Edelman goes so deep into the trenches of this story and explore all of it’s competing personalities and framing the cultural, racial, and historical impact that it had in such a wide way that it’s impossible to remove yourself from feeling how this tragedy is still with us in so many ways to this day and long after the final verdict.  Ultimately, Edelman’s film is not shy about telling you whether or not it thinks O.J. is guilty or not, but that’s besides the point.  In its unraveling, we come to realize the ingrained complexity of American racism and how it can be used by either sides of the issue to persuade action.  For me, personally, I finished each episode of this series feeling a different emotion – which is remarkable.  One night after watching I went to bed fascinated, the next…deeply and unshakably disturbed, the following viscerally angry.  For a documentary to have that effect is remarkable in my opinion.   The O.J. Simpson trial proved all too well how easy it is for an entire country to get caught up in a tragedy such as this – and unfortunately after watching this documentary, you’ll realize that America in 2017 is not that improved from America in 1995, most especially when it comes to violence against women.  Edelman knows how to effectively use Simpson’s story to commentate on so many of these vital issues, and weave them together into a disturbing documentary you’ll never be able to shake free of.

OJ Simpson

Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America” is nominated for Best Documentary

Rebel & Revolt: My Favorite Films of 2015

•February 29, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Tonight’s nominees for “Best Picture” at the 88th Annual Academy Awards

You say you want a revolution…

Mere hours before the 88th Annual Academy Awards goes live we find ourselves coming off of the most turbulent and tense years in recent memory.  Increasing racial tension, a growing rift between the classes, mass shootings, debate over gun control all loomed over the American psyche throughout last year.  As we close out the second month of 2016, we find ourselves tumbling towards one of the ugliest, most polarizing Presidential Elections (if not, THE ugliest) in our nation’s history.

Hollywood, a famously recession proof industry is known for producing entertainment that allows us to escape from society’s issues or ills.  And the Oscars are Hollywood’s greatest night, a celebration of its greatest stars and the previous year’s best films.  But Hollywood too finds itself in the cross hairs of controversy this year, and perhaps facing its own drastic changes.  2015 Hollywood produced some of the largest money-makers ever (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Jurassic World to name two of the now all-time highest grossing films ever), and on the surface it looked like 2015 was more business-as-usual with seemingly more superhero movies, big budget re-makes, prequels and sequels than ever.

But beneath that looms uncertainty and industry revolution with the rise in streaming entertainment, including NetFlix’s Beasts of No Nation, curiously overlooked by Academy voters.  On the social front, this Academy Awards has come under fire for lacking diversity (with no African American nominees in any of the major categories) and overall, just being “out-of-touch.”  Academy leaders vow that things will change for the better (and have been for years now) but so far the evidence just isn’t there.

Every year I like to find a common theme through my favorite films.  In 2013, I’d argue that all of the year’s strongest films were about the fight for survival; Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club and more abstractly, a raw love story like Her.  2014 featured films whose theme was more about personal struggle, evolution and in some cases transformation, from Wild to Selma to Best Picture Winner Birdman.  In my opinion, neither 2013 or 2014’s films clearly reflected our society’s most prevalent and public issues and concerns as closely as 2015.

Many of 2015’s most critically-acclaimed narratives touch upon common themes of rebelling against an oppressive government (Straight Outta Compton, Trumbo) or personal oppressor (Room), uncovering the devastating  lies and corruption of a major religion (The Roman Catholic Church in Spotlight) corporation (the NFL in Concussion) or the world’s financial infrastructure (the mortgage crisis that catalyzed the 2008 Recession in The Big Short).  

So after that lengthy introduction, here are my Top 10 Favorite films of 2015…(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD)

#10.  Concussion

In all ways, the NFL has become one of the most successful corporations in the world, typified by some of the most dynamic and toughest athletes we’ll ever see.  When one of these athletes (Pittsburgh Steelers Hall-of-Fame Center Mike Webster) died in 2003, his body would come across the examination table of Bennet Omalu (played by notable Oscar snub Will Smith).  Omalu’s obsessive research uncovers an accelerated brain disease which he comes to define as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.  Webster is not the only player to suffer from CTE, as he quickly begins to learn as more and more former NFL players take their own lives, a consistent and tragic end result for suffers of CTE.  Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant wants to take his findings to the NFL where he can help them learn more about the condition and work together towards developing strategies to stop it.  He’s surprised to find out that the NFL doesn’t share his concern for their player’s safety and well-being.  In fact, they see him and his findings as a direct threat to their wallets, so instead they try to destroy his reputation, and even get the FBI to investigate and deport him.  It’s all part of the NFL’s calculated cover up and control over the awful truth (one that continues to this day). While Concussion certainly has its flaws, Will Smith’s portrayal of Omalu is impossible to shake.  And after he demonstrates what happens to the brain by smacking a floating piece of fruit repeatedly against the base of a mason jar, he 100% assures that if I’m ever fortunate enough to have a son, he won’t be allowed to play football.  I assume this decision may be the same for many other parents, one strengthened by the fact that the NFL clearly hasn’t done enough to get out in front of the issue, nor care for the core of their beloved “product…” their players.

#9.  Steve Jobs

Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs was one of the most anticipated films of 2015, although it didn’t perform at the Box Office as well as expected.  Created from a script by Academy-Award winning, all-world screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs feels like a sprinting, speed-talking stage play with the visionary co-founder of Apple portrayed by Oscar-nominee Michael Fassbender.  As the titular character, Fassbender is phenomenal, displaying a clearly brilliant but deeply flawed ground-breaker who struggles with his own manhood, especially when it comes to being a father to his oldest daughter Lisa.  This relationship is not his own strained one, as he battles with his mentor and surrogate father figure John Sculley (played by Jeff Daniels), his reliable best friend and partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and his loyal confidant (Kate Winslet).  All while struggling to repair his most important relationships, all Steve Jobs do is revolutionize the way we compute, communicate, do business, and oh yeah…think.


Alicia Vikander plays “Ava” in Ex Machina

#8.  Ex Machina

When young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected for a prestigious experiment in artificial intelligence by his uber-rich and eccentric boss Nathan (the guy that was everywhere in 2015, Oscar Issac) he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), a striking artificially intelligent android.  As Caleb spends more time with Ava he uncovers the terrible truth of Nathan’s work, while simultaneously falling in love with her.  I’ve always been a sucker for smart sci-fi, and Ex Machina delivers just that – a story that effortlessly unsettles us and question what’s next in our evolution, especially if we abuse and try to control all that supports us.

#7.  Creed

So Rocky is arguably the greatest underdog story of all-time.  An iconic character created by Sylvester Stallone, one that launched a career and a slew of sequels.  Each subsequent sequel to the Academy-Award winning original took another step down the quality ladder (even though I loved Rocky III and IV when I was a kid).  So when I first saw a preview for Creed which centers on the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (Rocky’s one-time nemesis and later best friend) getting into the ring, I was skeptical about how good it would be.  But Michael B. Jordan (as the title character) injects brand new life into the franchise by introducing us to a new underdog to root for.  What made the original film so powerful was that it was a relatively small story about mostly down-and-out people.  Creed gets back to the story’s roots and personal intimacy, with the bond between Jordan’s Creed and Stallone’s Rocky Balboa (now taking on a reluctant trainer’s role) is sweet, moving, and a nostalgic reminder of what made the original so inspiring.  Filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s Creed will make you believe in underdogs again, and Stallone will tug at your heart strings.  Creed’s a winner.


Academy-Award nominee Sylvester Stallone and star Michael B. Jordan in 2015’s Creed

#6.  Trumbo

So Bryan Cranston’s one of the most decorated television actors in history, winning numerous times for AMC’s Breaking Bad.  He’s a phenomenal, transformative “character actor” who can fool you into believing a menacing bad guy is actually a desperate and forgivable entrepreneur who only wants to give the best to his family.  In Trumbo he’s at the forefront, playing historic novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who also happened to be a known communist.  Trumbo was a leader of the Communist 10, a group of Hollywood filmmakers who were convicted for Contempt of Congress when they w0uldn’t admit to wrongdoing as communists.  Trumbo spent over a year in prison, and when he came out he found himself blacklisted, unable to make money as a writer under his own name.  So, Trumbo assumed various pen names throughout the 1950s, with his screenplays winning 2 Oscars (for Roman Holiday and The Brave One).  On Hollywood’s most prestigious night, Trumbo watches his work  awarded to someone else from his tiny living room.  In my opinion, Cranston gives 2015’s best performance – acting excellence at every level, commanding the big screen as well as he ever did on TV.  His performance in Trumbo offers an interesting parallel between the blacklist of the 1950s and our own modern day witchhunt for Islamic extremists or illegal immigrants.  Rooting out subversives is nothing new for humanity, as is the fear of people with different religions, ideas, or cultures from us (especially when they threaten to lighten our wallets).  Fear-mongering is timeless and past is prologue – two things Trumbo is sure to remind us of.


Oscar Nominee Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass in The Revenant

#5.  The Revenant

20 years from now, I feel that The Revenant will be the film most talked about (and studied), remembered for it’s epic direction, eerie cinematography and of course the brutal crawling, grunting, fighting for air survivalist performance of star Leonardo DiCaprio.  Essentially a lock to take home his first Oscar, DiCaprio is at the center of the film, portraying 19th century fur trapper and scout Hugh Glass.  After he’s horribly mauled by a mammoth grizzly bear, some of his companions (led by Tom Hardy) decide it’s better to kill his son and bury him alive than drag him through the wilderness any longer.  But Glass overcomes all odds and finds his way back to his murderer, seeking vengeance.  Last year, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won his first directing Oscar for Birdman.  In Revenant he uses a few of the same camera tricks, but mostly creates a very different film all-together, brutal, cold, one where the audience feels truly one with nature.  It’s beautiful direction, stunning cinematography, and gritty performances make The Revenant 2015’s best made film, but the story pacing can be sluggish and uneven, and the film occasionally feels in love with it’s own artsy imaging osmosis.  However, DiCaprio’s ability to wordlessly convey anguish, regret, and loneliness in a non movie star way is nothing short of awesome.

#4.  Room

If not for one hard pill for me to swallow character choice, this would be higher on the list.  Room is a chilling and uncomfortable film that will move and inspire anyone that’s ever had a mother (there’s a few of us).  Brie Larson’s character Joy lives in a tiny room with her five year old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay).  On the day of his 5th birthday Joy starts to unravel the harsh truth about their lives to her son – that they are being held captive here in a shed by an abusive predator, and she’ll need him to muster courage he didn’t know he had to help them escape.  And boldly, that’s only the midpoint of Room which while boasting a tricky, high concept plot, is really an intimate story about a mother protecting her young son, and amazingly, how he can reciprocate that love and heroism.  Brie Larson’s Joy and Tremblay’s Jack are this year’s greatest heroes, even though the only people they’ll save are each other.  Room is a thriller that’s more concerned with the psychological effects of pain, and the ability for us to overcome such pain because of a mother’s or child’s love.

# 3.  Straight Outta Compton

Telling the origin story of 1990’s Rap group NWA mostly through the experiences of its three most important members (Ice Cube played by O’Shea Jackson Jr., Dr. Dre played by Corey Hawkins, and Eazy-E played by Jason Mitchell).  Three friends from the very tough streets of Compton in Los Angeles would blaze a trail for music.  In the process Straight Outta Compton shows us the police brutality so publicized in 1990s Los Angeles and how it shaped their rebellious music, mostly chastised by the American establishment.  Easy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube all have their own experiences with the greed that comes along with big business, never mind other challenges that come with gang violence, drugs, and the AIDS epidemic.  While this drama does its due diligence in framing the story with these events and issues, at its core SOC is a film about the unbreakable bond of friendship between three guys, no matter what happens to them in life, success or tragedy.


Oscar-Winner Christian Bale plays Michael Burry in        The Big Short

# 2.  The Big Short

Focusing on several different groups of financial experts in the years, months and days leading up to the 2008 Financial Collapse, The Big Short takes a quick-talking, sarcastic, fast-moving approach to great greed and financial tragedy.  A big star cast (including Ryan Gosling, an understated Brad Pitt, a very serious Steve Carell, and a transformative-as-always Christian Bale) lead the way as filmmaker Adam McKay moves us through the mid-90s housing crisis with swift and unforgiving ease. His film’s aloof, arrogant, “who gives a shit” tone underscores the arrogance of a greedy time where people made as much money as they possibly could for themselves, and worried about the consequences to everyone else…uh, never.  The mortgage crisis led to a devestating recession where countless people lost their homes and their savings.  Of course the financial visionaries at the center of this film ultimately profited from the crisis in one way or another as they saw it coming, but the devastation leaves its scars on them as it did all of us.  The Big Short gallops from scene to scene, and even though its characters are energetic and compelling, the despairing nature of the subject matter is overwhelming, especially as characters in the film learn incredibly alarming truths about the crisis that we all know (but seem to have forgotten) years later.

The most poignant aspect of the film is that it reminds us that NO ONE was really punished for their excessive greed, other than the average American. Late in the film, after the impact of the crisis is assured Steve Carell’s Mark Baum tells a colleague…

“I have a feeling in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.”  

The film later goes onto add via title…“and teachers.” 

# 1.  Spotlight

In my opinion the best film of 2015 is longtime supporting actor Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight which tells the story of an investigative reporting team called “Spotlight,” which works within the Boston Globe.  Thanks to the paper’s new editor and chief, portrayed by Liev Schreiber, (a transplant from Miami who as we are reminded often in the film also happens to be Jewish) he re-focuses the S-Team, led by Michael Keaton’s Walter “Robby” Robinson onto the story of a Catholic priest accused of abusing a Boston boy.  As the team begins to investigate it soon becomes apparent that this one priest and this one boy are really just the tip of a terrible iceberg.  After some work, the S-Team has uncovered almost 80 Priests in the Boston area they believe to be pedophiles, and a controversial cover-up that travels all the way up to the Vatican.  The truth rattles these reporters (all Catholics) to their spiritual core, but compels them to keep going to uncover the truth and assure the victims receive justice, against all odds.

The best scene in the film comes from Mark Ruffalo.  His character, quirky reporter Mike Rezendes blows up with an impassioned speech to his boss Robby about how this abuse can’t continue and how they have to stop it.  The raw anguish and conflict is unmistakable, and one that speaks perfectly to a cast displaying guilt-ridden, conflicted, but determined to find the truth characters.  It’s an actor’s film; selflessly directed, shot, and edited. One you won’t be able to get out of your head.

In my opinion, it’s the best film of the year.


Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, & Brian d’Arcy James portray the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team in Spotlight




It’s Personal: My Favorite Films of 2014

•February 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment
David Olyeowo portrays Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay's "Selma."

David Olyeowo portrays Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.”

Anyone that knows me knows that one of my favorite days of the year is here.  I’ve been watching the Academy Awards religiously since I was eight years old, rooting for my favorite films and performances to be rewarded with Oscar gold.  Every year I do my very best to see as many of the top movies as I can and this year was no different.  What’s always interesting to me, every year, is seeing the certain currents or themes that run through all of a year’s best films.  Even though the focus or plots of the very best films are vastly diverse – certain thematic patterns develop every year.  For example, at their core many of last year’s top films Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips were all about the struggle for survival. When I look at all of my favorite films from 2014 as a whole what stands out the most is no matter whether they were a “big” or a “small” film by Hollywood standards they seemed to be most interested in intimate and personal storytelling instead of epic grandiosity.  2014 was not a year for ensembles.  Even an ensemble-esque film like Birdman is about one man’s very personal struggle to re-create himself.  A story about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could make for an epic biopic, but Ava DuVernay’s Selma instead chose to zero in on a short stretch in King’s life.  Her film’s greatest focus was not necessarily on events and their meaning, but MLK’s inner struggle as the pressure of the situation around him mounted.    A war epic like American Sniper’s climax comes not on the battlefield, but on the homefront – as it’s protagonist finally faces the cumulative effects of  PTSD.  Arguably the biggest film of the year Interstellar, all about the survival of the entire human race, is at it’s core, about something so personal, intimate and seemingly “small” – the love between a father and daughter that is so strong it transcends time and the universe itself. Great drama’s closest friend is irony.  And in a year where Hollywood saw a sharp decline in overall box office sales thanks to bloated, loud, and empty blockbusters the films that ultimately may be remembered years from now are films took huge external conflict such as war, violent racism, and even humanity’s extinction itself and journeyed inward; deep into the struggle raging on in the mind, heart, and very soul of their central characters. These are my favorite films of 2014… WARNING:  May contain Spoilers.

10.)  The Imitation Game:                         On the surface The Imitation Game is about how real-life mathematician Alan Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) code-breaking team is fighting a race against time to crack the Nazi’s unbreakable “ENIGMA” system before the Third Reich destroys the rest of Europe.  Super-charged, suspenseful, where the stakes are at their greatest, right?  Not really.  The war is mere backdrop to Turing’s personal struggles.  Much like many of the “heroes” on this list, Cumberbatch’s Turing seems to view himself as anything but – struggling with his decisions and all of his most important relationships.  In a film cluttered with smug, pithy, and polished co-stars, Cumberbatch’s performance is what endures – not for the celebration of Turing’s heroism…but for the honoring of his tragedy.

9.)  Gone Girl:                                                If not for a “now what do we do?” third act (although thanks to its stars, the ending is better in the film then it was in the novel), David Fincher’s pulpy thriller would be much higher on my list.  This film certainly isn’t Fincher’s best (Social Network or Se7en) but it’s also not his worst (Panic Room).  Eerie, disturbing and downright shocking in a way that only Fincher films can be (Neil Patrick Harris may still be bleeding) this film will always be remembered for Rosamund Pike’s scorned psychopathic performance.  What makes Pike’s performance so everlastingly creepy is that her Amy is genuinely oblivious to how screwed up she is.   In her twisted, perfection-obsessed mind she is actually amazing.  In that so-far-removed-from-reality self image, her actions are merited and even virtuous.  Amy is the very worst kind of monster mostly because she doesn’t realize she is one.  Pike owns this persona in each hissed word, measured movement, and cold stare.

Academy-Award nominee Rosamund Pike plays "Amazing" Amy Dunne in David Fincher's "Gone Girl."

2015 Academy-Award nominee Rosamund Pike plays “Amazing” Amy Dunne in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl.”

8.  American Sniper:                                    Clint Eastwood’s war biopic certainly isn’t an anti-war war movie (and believe it or not, this IS okay sometimes) but I didn’t feel it was pro-war either.  What is unmistakable is that American Sniper is clearly pro-Chris Kyle.  Unfortunately, the film’s major pitfall is that it’s not really pro-anything else.  Most of the Iraqi characters are one-dimensional, I challenge you to remember the name or even a meaningful plot contribution of any of Kyle’s fellow soldiers, and Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife has no real identity or depth of her own.  Yet somehow, none of this mattered to me.  Because for the 2+ hours I sat in the theater watching American Sniper I was riveted.  The credit for this goes 100% to Bradley Cooper.  His Chris Kyle seems to be a man always out of place, always between tours of duty.  He’s awkward as a husband, as a father, and unsettled when labeled a “hero.”  For Kyle, the only time it all seems to fall into place is when he’s staring into his scope, holding his breath, about to make another seemingly impossible kill.  In every other aspect of his life, he struggles to find peace – a man waging an inner war with himself and his bloody acts, one that he’s not as good at hiding from other people as he’d like to think.  It’s Cooper’s most complete, subtle, and best performance yet, and in the hands of Eastwood (nobody’s films do a better job of getting into your bones) Chris Kyle’s painted as lonely, somber, and flawed – not a superhero.  It’s an honest portrayal that honors not only Kyle’s sacrifice but the immeasurable sacrifice of all of our veterans.

7.  Birdman:                                                    I really struggled with this one.  I want Birdman higher on my list, in fact a big part of me wants to put at #1.  It’s brilliant visually (albeit sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard), all of the performances are very good (especially Michael Keaton and Ed Norton) and this film had me all-in until the vague, weird, hanging chad of a final JIB shot.  It didn’t completely ruin the movie for me, but it did annoy me in that I said out loud, “oh c’mon why’d you have to go and do that?” Besides that last shot, what will always stick with me from Birdman is Michael Keaton’s performance.  The parallels between Keaton and his Birdman alter-ego Riggan Thomson are immediately obvious, and unsettling.  Riggan’s a former Hollywood mega-star desperately trying to revive and re-define his stale acting career by putting everything on-the-line (money, his ego, blood, tears, sweat, his life) by writing, directing, and starring in his own version of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  Riggan’s willing to put it all on the line for this show, a last chance to prove his critics wrong.  But during the rehearsals leading up to the big performance we see that the critic he’s really trying to shut-up is himself…or more accurately his nagging, abrasive, raven-esque, subconscious.  Riggan does put everything he is into this show, and Keaton puts all that he is into Riggan.  It’s a raw, frayed, spontaneous performance where Keaton seems to always have Riggan teetering on the edge of nervous shutdown.  Unfortunately Eddie Redmayne will probably take home the Oscar tonight (which will cause me to spit and spew a variety of curse words at my TV) but Keaton’s the one that really should be honored for his incredible work.

Oscar nominee Michael Keaton plays has-been superstar Riggan Thomson, stalked by his subconscious in "Birdman."

Oscar nominee Michael Keaton plays has-been superstar Riggan Thomson, stalked by his subconscious in “Birdman.”

6.  Boyhood:                                                    Before this year, writer / director Richard Linklater was known by many people as “the guy that makes those movies about the sun,” and to many others he’s known as, “who?”  That’s because even though Boyhood only grossed $25 million at the domestic box office it’s easily Linklater’s biggest blockbuster.  Unfortunately the film, and Linklater’s direction is getting the most attention for it’s time-stretching feat.  A few scenes for Boyhood were shot each year over the course of 12 years, all with the same actors.  The aging process is actually natural, OMG!  While this approach is ballsy, what impresses me most is that it’s not gimmicky.  Linklater doesn’t rely on this background to make his film work, scenes fall seamlessly into each other despite a divide of 1-2 years between being filmed.   His story just flows very naturally, with the stages, turning points, and themes of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) washing over him, and if we allow it, us.  Nothing is forced, it’s free-flowing, sweet, and doesn’t take itself too seriously – just the way Mason would want it.  Sitting in the desert, watching the sunset on his first day of college Mason finally figures out that there’s nothing to figure out about life, no rules except what we ascribe value to, and wide open to interpretation.  That life truly is what we make of it, and we should be as present as possible and open to the whole experience.  While half of me thinks “I’d like to see how 30-year-old Mason fairs in the sequel Manhood when reality kicks-in,” for now I’d rather just enjoy the ride with him, stare off into the distance, and absorb the moment’s wonder.  Boyhood is so anti every Best Picture winner I can remember that it’s exactly why I think it winning, would be a breath of fresh air for Oscar.  A momentary respite from test audiences, analytics, protected investments, and overseas box office numbers.  Boyhood is personal storytelling at its best, leaving you feeling good about life without making you feel like it forced you to get there.  More movies like Boyhood would be alright with me.

Unknown Ellar Coltrane grows up before our eyes in Best Picture frontrunner "Boyhood," directed by Richard Linklater.

Unknown Ellar Coltrane grows up before our eyes in Best Picture frontrunner “Boyhood,” directed by Richard Linklater.

5.  Interstellar:                                            Ok, so if you’re still reading at this point (seriously, don’t you have stuff to do today?) this is the moment in the post where you’re about to say to yourself, “wait, but hasn’t he been preaching that smaller films are better?  What a hypocrite.”  What can I say, I’m a paradox – especially when Christopher Nolan is involved.  I will defend him vehemently mostly because I believe that Nolan’s best work is still to come.  Interstellar is high stakes at it’s highest.  Thanks to years of industrialization and man made pollution we are killing future Earth, suffocating ourselves and destroying our ability to produce agriculturally.  Enter Midwesterner Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who will leave his children behind (specifically his daughter Murph) to travel through wormholes all across the galaxy in search of a better planet to re-start humanity.  The issue is that all this space travel is also time travel.  Mere minutes spent on a new planet are decades on a dying Earth.  Now Nolan films are notorious for not playing to the masses, he expects passion and endurance from his audience.  If you’re up to the challenge he will reward you with exhilaration.  And Interstellar has no shortage of exhilaration.  Unlike so many of 2014’s biggest films, the CGI in Interstellar feels reel, touchable, experiential – not like the fusion of live action and Playstation.  And, Nolan always manages to get gritty, emotional performances from his stars – especially the greatest current American actor Matthew McConaughey (yeah I said it, deal with it).  Much like Nolan’s last non-Batman film Inception, this genre-blending epic is polarizing.  You either like it a lot, or you’re confused and angry.  The reason I’m on the former side is because this film is just so damn imaginative and ambitious.  But, much in the way I felt about Inception, at its core is a simple, basic, and heartfelt mission.  This film isn’t about saving the Earth, it’s about a father risking everything to save his children.  Despite the many plot aspects of Interstellar that had me scratching my head, it’s this deep love, one that remains strong despite time and great physical distance, that stayed with me for weeks after seeing the film.  Nolan’s sense of wonder and grandeur always resonate with me and this film is a big-time reminder that there’s so much we don’t know about ourselves, our universe, and the love that binds us all to each other.  I loved Interstellar because it allowed me to imagine an alternate universe where all those souls we cherish are always with us, because nothing in all of existence is stronger than love.

Jessica Chastain stars in Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"

Jessica Chastain stars in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”

4.  Selma:                                                      Director Ava DuVernay’s gripping, inspirational drama focuses on a major chapter in the American Civil Rights Movement.  The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama is center stage in Selma and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is leading the struggle.  The ultimate goal is to put overwhelming pressure on President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to create a bill that will give all Americans the right to vote.  This right, according to Dr. King will give African Americans (and Americans of all races) the ability to alter the course of their destiny in America.  It’s a basic, human right according to our Constitution – yet Johnson has other things on his agenda and the powers that be in Alabama are doing everything in their power to deter African Americans from pursuing this goal, including bullying, beating, and even murdering them.  Selma is one of those films that are vital for all of us to see, not just as a history lesson, but as a reminder of all the good and unfortunately evil that we as a species are capable of.  This film has received its fair share of criticism for inaccurate representations of historical figures such as LBJ and Governor George Wallace.  Whatever.  The bottom line when it comes to Selma is that David Oyelowo is incredible.  If you close your eyes when he’s giving bold, passionate speeches you can swear you’re actuallly listening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But it’s in the real marrow of this story that Oyelowo does his best acting work.  It’s not easy to play larger-than-life historical figures – a lot of the time the mythology takes over and the very film itself seems to be in awe of its hero, completely forgetting that they were actually a real person just like any of us.  DuVernay and Oyelowo never forget this.  We see MLK as mortal – struggling to overcome not just his mounting and powerful adversaries, but also fighting to overcome his own emotional exhaustion and the self doubt that every great leader faces.  The most powerful moments in Selma are not big scene pieces (not DuVernay’s strength) – they are the moments when Dr. King is faced with the consequences of his mission – not on him – but his wife, his children, and the hundreds of Alabama protestors he’s leading.  We dream of all of our heroes to be like Dr. King because they value every little sacrifice made by everyone around them for the greater good.  Watching Oyelowo persevere through each resistance, to dig deep within himself to find the strength to push President Johnson when “being nice” just doesn’t work, is remarkable.  The biggest snubs of the 2014 Academy Awards are DuVernay for Best Director and most especially David Oyelowo for Best Actor.  His performance is better than anyone that’s actually nominated this year and the breakthrough of a versatile acting talent (he was also very good in smaller roles in Interstellar and A Most Violent Year).  Whatever you decide to make next Mr. Oyelowo, I’m there.  Point me in the direction of the box office, I’ll buy my ticket now.

3.  Whiplash:                                                   This film guarantees that I will shudder and break into a cold sweat anytime I pass a drum set for the rest of my life.  Never has jazz music been so visceral, so anxiety-inducing, so damn violent.  Enter the Bobby Knight of music on steroids – conductor Terence Fletcher (this Oscar should’ve just been given to JK Simmons weeks ago – no contest here), spitting, snarling, slapping, spouting the raunchiest, most degrading insults ever to be uttered on film at his music students (never mind the metal chair he flings at someone’s head).  Simmons’ Fletcher is so intimidating he’d cause Full Metal Jacket’s Drill Sergeant Hartman to second-guess his life choices.  An unparalleled editing achievement, Whiplash is all about a very headstrong protege (Miles Teller as Andrew) and relentless mentor butting heads.  Both of them want Andrew to be the greatest drummer he can be, maybe that’s ever walked the Earth, and neither one of them will stop at anything to make this happen.  Try to watch Whiplash and keep your heart from racing, I dare ya. No matter how fast it was beating, Terence Fletcher would scream at you – “FASTER!”

Best Supporting Actor frontrunner J.K. Simmons does a lot of screaming at jazz drumming student Miles Teller in "Whiplash."

Best Supporting Actor frontrunner J.K. Simmons does a lot of screaming at jazz drumming student Miles Teller in “Whiplash.”

2.  Wild:                                                            Tonight the most sure thing is that Julianne Moore will be awarded the Oscar for Best Actress.  And while she was excellent in Still Alice I still like Reese Witherspoon more.  It could be because she’s one of my favorite actresses (if I catch Walk the Line on TV to this day, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing to watch), but I think I really feel this way because Wild is a much better film – a film that really snuck up on me.  I didn’t know a lot about it going in, but the idea of Reese in a real serious drama directed by up-and-coming director Jean-Marc Vallee (who also helmed last year’s Dallas Buyers Club) got me into the theater on opening weekend.  For those of you that don’t know anything about this film, it’s based on the memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” by Cheryl Strayed.  After a series of tragic catastrophes in her personal life, Cheryl decided to embark on a more than 1,100 mile journey from California to Canada in the mid-1990s.  All alone in the wilderness, Cheryl learns not just how to survive on her own, but works to make inner peace with herself.  Without even realizing it, she lasts longer on the PCT than a lot of accomplished hikers (all men), and interacts with a series of people that each teach her something about herself.  Threaded throughout are flashbacks that reveal why Cheryl went on this mission in the first place, many of them featuring her relationship with her free spirited and endlessly optimistic mother (I’m not a huge Laura Dern fan, but she’s never been this good).  Now I’m a sucker for stories about a character’s journey into the unknown, even more-so when it’s about them learning transformative lessons about themselves.  I’m also a sucker for movies that feel like everyone that was a part of the production, really cared about what they were creating.  Wild is all emotion, and if you’ve ever faced any adversity of any kind in your life (most of us have) then Cheryl’s struggle and transformation into a more confident person will be worth the watch.  Somehow this film (which other than a poorly realized CGI fox as Cheryl’s “power animal”) is flawless in my opinion, fueled by a touching script by Nick Hornby, relentless yet restrained direction by Vallee, and a deeply personal performance by Reese Witherspoon.   She doesn’t get enough credit for being a strong actress – but Wild is all on her, and she’s more than up to the challenge.  In 2014, Wild and Gone Girl were both produced by Witherspoon.  Clearly she knows how to develop powerful stories and put excellent artists together to bring them to the screen.  She probably won’t be holding a statue tonight, but I have a feeling she’ll be back up on that stage real soon – the next time maybe as a Producer accepting an Oscar for Best Picture.

Academy-Award winner Reese Witherspoon starred in and produced 2014's "Wild," based on the bestselling memoir.

Academy-Award winner Reese Witherspoon starred in and produced 2014’s “Wild,” based on the bestselling memoir.

1.  Life Itself:                                                  Life Itself is a documentary about the life story of film critic Roger Ebert – the writer of thousands of articles and dozens of books on film criticism.  However, what Roger Ebert is best known for was his team-up with fellow Chicago-area film critic Gene Siskel in the 1980s and 1990s.  Siskel & Ebert headlined a TV show every Sunday night where they reviewed that week’s new releases for millions of watchers.  Their show came on late every Sunday night, after the local news, but I was one of those viewers almost every Sunday night.   Their passionate arguments over films paced my childhood, with my favorite installments being their annual “Top 10 Films of the Year” episode every December/January.  Gene Siskel passed away in 1999, replaced by Roger Roeper.  Roeper wasn’t necessarily bad, but he was overpowered by Roger Ebert and the show was just never the same.  This documentary, directed by filmmaker Steve James (who also directed Hoop Dreams, one of Ebert’s favorite films) is an un-biased look at Ebert’s life, revealing many aspects of the populist critic that most of us never knew.  In his early career, Ebert struggled with severe alcoholism and depression, he didn’t marry until he was in his 50s and met his soul mate, and the last chapter of Ebert’s life was filled with a rigorous fight with cancer.  This cancer would eventually take his jaw, and subsequent consequences would take his ability to speak.  But, right up until the day he died, Ebert was always able to write.  He never stopped watching films and writing about them from his macbook pro.  Life Itself goes into great depth about Ebert’s entire life, his personal and professional relationships, with a special focus on the last few months and days of his life – while James’ camera was constantly rolling.  Most suprising to me was Ebert’s friendships with filmmakers of all ages.  Most people see filmmakers and critics as enemies – but Siskel & Ebert broke down these barriers.  Aforementioned Ava DuVernay credits her ascension as a director to Ebert seeing something in her after her first film – he constantly encouraged her, as he did for Werner Herzog and even Martin Scorsese – who gets emotional when he remembers how Siskel & Ebert supported him with friendship at a time in the late 1980s when he was battling drug addiction and everyone in Hollywood had written him off.  Siskel & Ebert believed in Scorsese who was then at a veritable crossroads.  Their friendship helped him not only beat back his addiction, but use it to persevere.  Scorsese connects this experience to the making of Goodfellas in 1990, arguably Scorsese’s best film and the beginning of a phenomenal second act in his career.  People often view and portray art critics as curmudgeonly, bitter, and self-important but Life Itself breaks down those barriers between filmmaker and critic the way Ebert did.  It reveals Roger Ebert as a life-loving man who probably loved nothing more than movies.  His words (sometimes of harsh criticism and other times of passionate praise) will be missed, but not as much as the love he brought to the experience of watching movies.  This love connected with me as a ten year old aspiring filmmaker, and Life Itself was a humbling reminder of the magic of going to the movies.  It’s an experience that Roger Ebert enriched for all of us.

And now, as Siskel & Ebert would say, “the balcony is now closed.”

Famed film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert reviewed thousands of films on their show "Siskel & Ebert."

Famed film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert reviewed thousands of films on their show “Siskel & Ebert.”

Chief Seattle’s Letter

•August 27, 2014 • Leave a Comment
A quote by mythologist Joseph Campbell that attempts to articulate how "God" is present in all things.

A quote by mythologist Joseph Campbell that attempts to articulate how “God” is present in all things.

I’ve been re-reading “The Power of Myth” recently…an immersive transcript that details the discussions between author / journalist Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell in the mid-1980s.  At the end of the first chapter, Moyers asks Campbell about the presence of “God” in all things as they dive deeper and deeper into a discussion of the true nature of consciousness.  Campbell begins to speak of a collective consciousness that we all share, and humanity’s unknowing presence and role as the “eye” of this consciousness.

Have you ever thought of all things around you as living, breathing, thinking, being?  Blades of grass, a tumbling sea, the leaved branches of an isolated oak tree in a never ending forest? Mixed with the buzzing of insects and the song of birds, the wind whistling across a landscape there is truly a feeling of being part of something greater – all alive and harmonious – of which we are both separate from and wholly completed by.

Campbell and Moyers refer to this “feeling of completeness” as The Gaia Principle – the thought that all of Earth is one giant organism, living, breathing, feeding off of itself, and all consciously being.

I thought of their discussion recently during a recent meditation by the shore — listening to a proud, grumbling sea, watching seagulls gallop through the foamy ebbing surf, and feeling the surrounding presence of ocean boulders much older and wiser than I’ll ever be.

As an example of our deep oneness with all around us, Campbell references a letter delivered by Chief Seattle to the US Government that requested to purchase his peoples’ land in the mid-1800s.  Re-reading this powerful letter brought immediate resonance to me, and I have been carrying it with me for several weeks now.

Below is the speech, as outlined by Campbell in “The Power of Myth…”


“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?


Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.


We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.


The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.


The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother.


If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.


Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.


This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.


One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.


Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.


When the last red man has vanished with this wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?


We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it, as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it, as God loves us.


As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. 

One thing we know — there is only one God.  No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all.”

Over the years of writing on this blog, a common theme I’ve consistently come back to is the danger of seeing oneself as separate from others deemed different, from one’s own environment.  Separation is the truest sin, and in many spiritual thinkers (including Campbell) sits at the root of violence, hate, and conflict.

Even though it is difficult, it is a greater reward to choose to see all that is around us as a mirror – reflecting ourselves back at us, part of us, for better or worse.

Make the choice to shed seeing what makes you different or isolated from what’s around you and instead choose connection, acceptance, and empathy.  Joseph Campbell dedicated his life to bringing a vibrant collection of myths and stories to a wide audience to show us how much more we all have in common, as opposed to what makes us disperate strangers.

He brought Chief Seattle’s letter to my consciousness – and for that, I’m grateful.


Lessons Learned from My Parents

•April 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I’ve spent a lot of time creating posts on this blog that share either personal or collective lessons that have been learned by philosophical minds, political leaders, great scientists, and unforgettable artists.  On the personal side, I’ve paid tribute to my grandparents by sharing the lessons I learned from spending the hours after and between school with them, growing up.  Many of these people I’ll never meet, and my grandparents passed away many years ago. 

Today’s post is more about celebrating longevity and life by reflecting on the two people that have influenced and shaped my life the greatest, the people I love and look up to the most…my parents, Dominick and Nancy.  Today is their 38th Wedding Anniversary – a symbolic opportunity for me to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned from my parents. 

Stand Up for Yourself:    

I think this is a lesson a lot of parents plan and try to teach their children.  Much of the time, it comes as overreaction and misguided as a sense of entitlement, or a “the entire world is out to get me” victim mentality.  My parents didn’t overrreact, and didn’t instill a sense of entitlement or victim mentality in me.  When I was very young, being picked on by a group of kids in school, my father taught me how to stand up for myself.  I only had to do it once, and kids that may have been bullies later became good friends. 

But I want to look at this lesson much deeper.  Standing up for myself didn’t just mean in the most stereotypical sense.  It meant having integrity and pride in myself, compassion for others, and standing up for other people too.  I watched them do this, growing up, and they conveyed it through their actions.  When I look at certain choices I was asked to make in life, a few in particular where I was pressured by others with influence to do something that defied my instincts, I had the strength to say, “No, I won’t do it that way.”  The only way I could do that is by relying on inner strength and knowledge of Who I really was.  This was a foundation they showed me how to build and it’s a structure I’ll hopefully have with me for my entire life.  That’s a tremendous gift they’ve given me. 

Real Strength Is Quiet:            

This is a lesson I’ve definitely learned from my mother.  People often equate strength with volume; loud, domineering, controlling.  When I think of what real strength is, I think a lot of my mother.  She’s a day-to-day reminder of one of my favorite sayings, “A rich man doesn’t need to tell you he’s rich.”  I think you can apply this to many qualities; happiness, success, confidence, and strength.  My mother has always worked.  When I was little, she worked part time following her bliss as an interior decorator, and then took a series of more administrative roles, one of which she’s still at to this day.  She works hard, and without an ego, supporting everyone else around her while asking for very little in return. It’s gained her the respect and admiration of her co-workers.  Unlike her son, she doesn’t often become the center of attention (sorry Mom) but is happiest when everyone she cares about is around her and is happy.  When they’re not, she’s there to the rescue.  But it’s subtle, not aggressive or abrasive, it’s on their terms — what they need, and is never about her.  Much like in her professional life, she asks little in return. 

To me, this embodies inner strength. The strongest of us can give and give and give because we have so much strength of spirit and courage in our heart.  I hope someday to have even half of her strength.  It’s a goal I aspire to with people, to remove myself, my ego, my needs from interactions and relationships.  I find that when I do, I see progress around me, collaboration, joy — and love.  Maybe this is what it’s like to see the world through her eyes. 

Don’t Give Up:                        

Personally and professionally, I went through a very rocky few years — not that long ago.  If my mother was about subtle support and careful guidance, my father was direct and motivating. We don’t see eye-to-eye all the time like most fathers and sons, but he’s still the first phone call I make in crisis, and the first place I look for guidance and most importantly…hope.  I probably used him as a compass as much as I did through a rough road because I watched him successfully navigate his own when I was younger…

In the early 90s, during another economic recession, my father was out of work for eighteen months.  As a graphic designer by trade, he was in his prime at that time, with not just creative, but sales experience as well.  But work in that industry was scarce at that time, and many of the positions he interviewed for he was told he was “overqualified.”  He did whatever he needed to to find work, taking a whole bunch of short-term jobs in and out of his field.  For a good stretch of months, he drove a truck for a good friend’s company.  In that period, he’d not only struggle to find work, but would also lose his father to a heart attack.  Ironically a few weeks earlier, my grandfather gave my father a similar “don’t give up” pep talk as he’d often give to me years later, and my grandfather assured him that things would get better.  Eventually they did, his hard work paid off – he found a great job that was perfect for him, was surrounded by supportive co-workers that are, to this day, some of his best friends. 

This stretch in his life taught him many lessons, but it taught me many as well.  Lessons I wasn’t even aware I had learned until only a short time ago.  Life is struggle, and all of us will face adversity.  My parents’ strength was tested during that stretch severely, but they stuck together, worked through it and persevered. 

The World Is Always What You Make of It:

If there’s one current, or mantra running through all of these lessons and reflections on my parents, it’s probably this one.  It’s one of my mother’s favorite sayings and for me, it speaks greatly to the idea of controlling our own choices.  From the time I was very little to now being an almost 33-year-old man (Dear God), she’s challenged me not to shy away from adversity, but to deal with it, make the most out of it, and find the silver lining deep within it.  It’s an innate sense of optimism, an ability to laugh at life, to face it’s challenges without ever losing yourself in them. 

My parents can be silly, they’re thoughtful, encouraging, and reliable — not just for me, but everyone in their lives.  They’re both meticulous, taking pride in themselves and the home they’ve built together.  They’re best friends who have each other’s back and anyone they care about.  They’ve taught me that life or the people in it aren’t always perfect, they remind me that they aren’t.  But as their only son, I realized that even though they or their life hasn’t always been perfect, that they’ve always made the most of it.  I think because of who they are and all that they do, they sometimes think they’re being overlooked.  But I know that’s not true, because I’m always looking at them…and I’ve always respected, cherished, and loved everything I’ve seen. 

Happy Anniversary to Dom and Nancy.  I know I don’t say it enough, but I love you guys so much.

Your son,


Strangers on a Train

•December 17, 2013 • 1 Comment

My last post on this blog was about my grandfather Anthony, on my Father’s side.  On the other side of the family is my grandfather Pete, a man I have very few memories of.  When I was four or five years old he suffered a debilitating stroke that severely impacted his motor skills and most significantly – his speech.  Most of my memories of him being alive are of this time after his stroke.  He passed away when I was seven. 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought more and more about this man that I barely knew.  From the way my family reflects about him he was larger than life.  Loud, charming, gregarious, dominating in purpose and personality.  He was always the center of attention, always surrounded by a giant and diverse group of friends and his large family, almost a dozen brothers and sisters.  He was tough and outspoken and also displayed incredible warmth and a generosity of heart — especially when it came to being there for a friend or family member that needed him. 

Most of the stories about Pete cause warm nostalgia and eruptions of laughter.  But like anyone else, he had his dark side.  Without a moment’s notice his mood could change.  He could be temperamental, moody, confrontational, and in many ways self-destructive.  He died much earlier than he should’ve because he didn’t take care of himself as his doctor’s advised, this being after he was diagnosed with diabetes.  He lived life as if there were no tomorrow, sometimes recklessly but always unforgettably. 

Watching my cousins, parents, uncles, aunts and grandmother speak of him to this day changes the nature of the air in the room.  Stories of him are told so vividly, with such warmth, and also an unmistakable depth of tragedy…a sadness for a complicated man that they feel should’ve been here longer. 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been compared more and more to this man I barely knew…in my mannerisms, the sound and loudness of my voice, my facial expressions…and most of all my personality.  At my parents’ house for a holiday, I’ll sometimes notice my grandmother watching me and wearing a knowing, and almost private smile.  Apparently I remind her of him.

The past few years I’ve done my best to be self-reflective, to analyze and understand myself, my actions, and how I’m perceived by others.  I consider this kind of self-reflection growth and learning, a learning of self that never ends.  With that learning comes a deepening curiosity about Pete, who he really was beyond the surface level created by stories, and what he would’ve thought of me if we met now, face to face. 

*              *             *

A few months ago I was at my parents’ house having dinner.  My father, not a necessarily soft-spoken man himself, was quiet that night, and somewhat “off.”  Everybody has their days, and their moods, I know I do, so I left it alone.  As we were finishing dinner, he looked across the table and got real serious with me.  He said…”I need to tell you something.”  Obviously, when a conversation starts this way, your whole body tenses up and your imagination starts running all kinds of scenarios.  “I had a really strange dream last night,” he continued (insert deep sigh of relief here) “and I need to tell you about it before I forget.” 

The story of his dream goes something like this…

My father and I are in a New York City subway, waiting for the train.  We’re both the ages we are now, him in his mid 60s and me and my early 30s.  He doesn’t know where we’re going, but we’re not the only ones going there – the platform is packed with people.  Finally the train arrives and we fight our way on.  The train isn’t any emptier, in fact it’s full of people.  We can’t get a seat so we stand somewhere near the middle, not really exchanging much conversation as the doors close and the train begins moving.  Over my shoulder he spots someone, someone he recognizes immediately, but he doesn’t trust his own eyes.  It’s Pete, and he’s making his way through the subway car, towards us. 

My father breaks away from me to meet him.  He encourages me to follow him.  My father asks him what he’s doing here, and how he is, but Pete either can’t or won’t answer him.  He’s also not very interested in explaining himself, he’s more curious about who my father’s with.  He rolls his eyes to my father, his face very serious and he says to him, “who’s this?”

My Father looks back at me, then back at Pete and he says, “That’s Danny.”  Pete’s surprised by the answer for a moment, even thrown off.  Then he angles himself to get a better look at me.  He looks me up and down, from head to toe with curiosity and scrutiny.  Then, he looks back at my father, and startles him with a hearty slap to his shoulder.  He raises his chin and looks my father square in the eye again, Pete’s are welling slightly with tears.  Then, he nods a couple times, which according to my father was his way of showing he was impressed. 

So now it’s my turn to meet him and talk to him, but before I can, two men that are with my grandfather, men that my father doesn’t know, come and put their hands on either of Pete’s shoulders.  They’re not pulling him away, but their touch lets him know immediately that, “it’s time to go.”  He turns without a fight, and despite my Father asking him where he’s going, he walks away from us, deep into the train car and out of our sight again. 

The story was eerie the night I heard it, I could see it so vividly as it was being described I felt like it was my dream and not his.  I believe dreams aren’t simple, that they are more than our subconscious using images and symbols to work out issues in our consciousness.  I believe that dreams are actually windows to our deepest and truest self, and sometimes they are bridges to people that have moved on.  It’s the only way they can connect with us to warn us, enlighten us, or even just to tell us, “everything’s going to be okay.”  I believe dreams are pieces to a puzzle that can only be knit together when we are no longer here, they are mysteries — much like my Grandfather Pete has always been to me. 

Ultimately in this dream, Pete and I remained strangers, but for a man who knew both of us very well, this dream created a unmistakable link between us.  One that shook him, but also gave him a sense of peace.  It’s the type of link to and understanding of my grandfather I’ve been searching for these last few years.

I don’t know if Pete and I will ever meet up, and I don’t know what he’ll think of me, my choices, and the path my life has taken when we do.  Maybe we’ll still feel like strangers.  Maybe we won’t have words for each other.  What I am sure of, is that since hearing the story of this dream, I already feel closer to him; to this man who I’m apparently so much like. And deep down, I believe that wherever he is…he’s proud. 

“The Breeze:” Reflections on my Grandfather

•April 10, 2013 • 1 Comment
My Grandparents, Amelia and Anthony ("Breeze") Fabrizio.  They were married for over 51 years.

My Grandparents, Amelia and Anthony (“Breeze”) Fabrizio. They were married for over 51 years.

His name was Anthony Fabrizio.  Most people that knew him called him Tony.  Those that knew him best called him “Breeze.”

I called him Grandpa.

He passed away on April 9th…20 years ago today.  Time is funny…the way we treat it and the way it treats us.  20 years ago feels like so long ago and at the same time…so far away.  A lot has happened in my own life and to the lives around me in 20 years.  People have come and gone, a few have come back again.  But in many ways, the day he died still feels real and detailed…as if it were yesterday.

I was in 6th grade and on Spring Break when I heard the news.  He had died suddenly of a heart attack on the golf course…his favorite place to be.  Only a few months earlier, I had cracked my left ankle and I’d spent that entire winter on crutches.  Nothing’s worse for a 12 year old boy than being told he can’t run around with his friends, but that was the hand.  At the time I thought it was a punishment…now I see it was a generous gift.

Much of that winter was spent with Breeze…

Every day he picked me up from school and brought me back to my house.  Every afternoon we’d watch a movie.  He’d always let me pick.  And for the two hours between then and the time my Mother got home from work, we’d share that time together.  I’d like to say that time made us incredibly close…that it was then that we really bonded.  But the truth was that we were already very close before that winter.  At 11, I still had most of my life laid out before me…still much more to come.  At 77, he was nearing the end of his own life…sooner than either of us realized at the time.  Yet we seemed to understand each other so deeply, so intuitively.  When I say that he was my best friend, I’m not trying to make a point.  I mean it. Maybe it’s another sign to me to believe my own philosophy…that the youngest and the oldest of us are the ones that truly understand life for everything it is, and how to live it to its fullest.  It’s when we are in the middle of our lives that we understand it the least.

Upon reflection recently, a good friend shared with me some insight into her own grandfather, that when she was a child he seemed,  “to know everything.”  As children, our grandparents are our first heroes.  And Breeze was definitely my hero.  In many ways, he continues to be a compass that guides my morality and decisions from some place else far away and yet so strangely close.  To this day, my favorite movies are still the ones I think he would’ve enjoyed the most…and the experience of watching a special one with someone I care about always reminds me of sitting next to him.

Today, as I think about him, I recognize that I’m no longer a child.  I’m a man who three days from now will turn 32 years old.  And honoring Breeze with my thoughts of him isn’t enough.  I owe it not only to him, but to myself to discover what it is that I can learn from “his way.”  They are the lessons our ancestors leave behind for us when they pass, the story of their struggles, and the tools they used to overcome them and live a blissful life.  In the eleven short years we were together, and the twenty long years since these are the lessons I cherish the most…

Stay Connected:         Even as a I child, I took notice of how many people my grandfather knew.  Every day I spent with him he was taking me to see someone new.  Sometimes they were his brothers / my uncles, other times it was random friends from different stages of his life such as men he spent time with during the war, or the guys he worked with, or the people from the various organizations he led such as the American Legion, or the guys he grew up with after he arrived here from Italy.  But other times it was the wives and children these men left behind when they passed on.  He was always thinking of others, constantly, wondering how they were doing, and making plans to see them.  I was often his sidekick.  I really didn’t mind then, I found people interesting then, and still do to this day.   My grandfather could be a stubborn man, as am I, but he showed me that he didn’t believe in waiting on or blaming others.  He believed in letting those he cared about know he was always there.  By the time I had arrived, the man had mastered the art of the “drop by.”  If he hadn’t seen you in awhile, he’d just get in the car and go over there.  Things were different then, not as much plan-making through countless texts and emails.  It was a simpler time, and in my opinion, probably a better time.

Many times, some in his life would let him down.  They would drift away, and he’d be hurt…likely blaming himself.  It’s a shame, because opposite those few that he lost touch with were so many more that he remained close with.  I know because I remember many of them at his funeral.  They all knew exactly who I was…even the people I had never met.

It’s a curious thing about the human mind that even when we are so fortunate to have wonderful and abundant relationships with so much good and love circling around us, we find and focus on the negative experiences instead.  While he was aware of them, and they hurt him, he decided to focus on the positive and do the best he could with them.

I hope that I’ve honored him in my own life, and the incredible friendships I’ve not only made, but kept. True friendship isn’t keeping score…or weighing each other’s “involvement” or “contribution” to the friendship.  I’ve seen too many people drift apart that way, too many great friendships silently crumble.  If you’re my friend, I hope you know it and that I remind you of it when we’re together.  I hope that it feels like anytime we see each other that we’ve just picked up where we left off.  If so, then I’ve made Breeze proud.

Cherish Stories:         While my grandmother was truly the “storyteller” in that apartment, my grandfather had a penchant for the artform as well.  But as much as he liked to share stories of his past, he equally enjoyed watching, listening, and reading them.  My summers with my grandparents were filled with these stories.  TV shows, old movies (especially Westerns) and novels.  The summer I was nine, he and I read Frankenstein.  Earlier that summer they had taken me to the Land of Make Believe where they had a Monsters exhibit.  I made them take me back at least two others times that I can remember.  He bought comics for me, asked me to tell me what was happening in the stories, and encouraged me to draw like the art I enjoyed.  The summers spent with my grandparents were special because they fostered an imagination that was still reaching and activating.  There have been many people since that have tried to stifle, suppress, or dismantle the “freeness” of that creativity.  But thanks to my grandparents’ nourishment of it early-on I almost instinctually know to drift from those presences and gravitate towards those that instead encourage, invite, and cherish creative thought and imagination not just in me, but others as well.

Towards the end of last year, when I was doing some deep personal searching I came across a quote that really resonated with me.  “Go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated.”  It’s a great mantra for all of us to follow, and one that makes me think about Breeze.  There was never a time I saw him that I felt tolerated…never a time he treated me with indifference, or a time I was taken for granted.  I still try to follow this path in life.

Listening is Wisdom:      Along the same lines, as conversational and outspoken as he sometimes was, he and my grandmother were the first people I remember that actually listened to me.  I wasn’t judged, or lectured to, and even in the instances where I was definitely wrong he always heard me out and allowed himself to see things from my point-of-view.  Looking back now, I realize this kind of relationship was so valuable and empowering for me.  Not only because he allowed me to build my confidence in myself, but because the act of listening helps you lead others to build-up confidence in themselves.  He’s taught me that sometimes the key to helping a friend in need through a tough time is just listening to them.  The act of offering advice or in his case wisdom comes much later.  In Breeze’s case it usually came in the form of a question I didn’t consider asking myself or a story from his own life that offered another way of seeing the situation.

Enjoy Your Own Company:      As much as Breeze loved his friends, family, and even having conversations with complete strangers — he equally enjoyed the time spent alone.  I only knew him in retirement, but during that time I took notice of the walks he liked to take, or the drives he went on.  Granted I was with him a lot of this time, but we’d go through some stretches where we didn’t talk at all.  This wasn’t awkward, in fact it was peaceful.  He seemed to enjoy his thoughts, and had made peace of much that was within him.  I’d know it because he’d frequently start whistling or humming a random song or smirk about a thought that raced through his mind or laugh a little about a story that had just popped into his head.

When we’re young I think we do everything we can to change all those aspects about ourselves we don’t feel “fit” just right.  Often, it’s so people will like us, and at least one person will really love us.  But the key to being surrounded with these deep, meaningful relationships isn’t figuring out what others like about us but instead finding and being comfortable with all the aspects of ourselves…even the ones that don’t “fit.”

By the time I’d come into Breeze’s life he seemed to have made peace with himself and all the choices he had made.  He wasn’t perfect, and he didn’t try to be.  He did the best he could, but was always trying to be a little better.  Not to meet anyone else standard’s…just his own.  It’s why people enjoyed being around him so much, why endearing thoughts of him lingered hours after he’d left your kitchen.  How he’d leave not just the smell of his pipe behind at the places he visited, but also the warm sound of his laughter.

As I advance down the path of my own life, the smell of his pipe isn’t as easy to remember, the sound of his laughter or the way he’d loudly say my name seems increasingly distant.  At this point in my life, with so much going on, so many commitments and obligations to others, I have to remind myself of these lessons he taught me, the irreplaceable gifts he gave me.

But now as I think about all of the great moments in the past twenty years of my life, I give myself just a little bit of credit.  Because I have taken the time to think about him, what he would say if he were there, the advice he may offer or more importantly the silence he may deliver as he listened.  I’ve been fortunate enough to complete 4 movies I’m proud of since he passed away, and at each premiere I’ve looked out for that empty seat that he and I know really isn’t empty at all.

These were the good times.  They’re easy.  But it’s the rough patches in my life where I’ve really felt him close by…a few times I’d argue he even intervened.  In the last few years I’ve gotten better at recognizing him.  I think he’s helped me discover that the way to find the ones we love after they’ve passed on doesn’t come by looking up or out.  To discover them, we must look deep within.  That’s where they are and where they’ll always be.

That’s where Breeze is.  Close to my conscious, behind my goals and dreams, beside my laughter, and within my heart.   Now, he’s my sidekick…and  I couldn’t have asked for better company.

Into the Eyes of Strangers

•March 21, 2013 • Leave a Comment
Many artists have referred to the eyes as "The Windows to the Soul."  In them, a person's desire, energy, and true feelings can be discovered.  Some say that the eyes, "can never lie."

Many artists have referred to the eyes as “The Windows to the Soul.” In them, a person’s true desires, energy, and feelings can be discovered. Some say that the eyes, “can never lie.”

I’ve been working as a producer for 9 years now.

When it comes to conducting an interview, every producer finds their own technique or ritual over time.  I have come up with my own “style.” It’s something I’ve just developed along the way…a way that I’ve become reliant on like an invaluable tool.  My technique allows me to get someone comfortable in a hurry.  I can either shorten up or slow down my routine depending on the conditions around me, the subject matter being discussed, or the time my cameraman needs to get his shot adjusted right.  As technical adjustments are being made around us I explain to the interviewee to ignore the camera and the lights.  I explain that once we begin, they should only look at and talk to me.  If I do this right, it should feel like any other normal “conversation” they’ll have that day, or any other day.  I encourage them to be comfortable — to relax their shoulders and talk enthusiastically and expressively, to “use their hands,” if that’s what feels natural (it always is for me).  I tell them it’s important to me that they “be themselves,” that there are no right answers, that they already know everything we need to talk about…that they just need to trust themselves, and I ask them to trust me.  I remind them that I’m listening to them, so they don’t have to worry about listening to themselves.  In those moments before an interview begins you have very little time to get someone at ease.  After years of doing this I’ve come to recognize that the best interviews come from people who don’t think and just talk, and those that struggle the most are paradoxically the people that “prepare” their answers ahead of time.  The best interviews happen when people just let their answers….flow.

When the interview starts — I ask my first question, often trying to lead them with it where I’d like them to go. And as they begin to talk, I silently listen, nodding often to let them know I’m there with them.  My most important rule, always try to maintain eye contact.  I remind myself not to look down at my notes and the next question I want to ask, I tell myself, “don’t break eye contact.”  Over time, I’ve found that the more focused I am on them and what they have to say, the less they remember what is going around them.  Usually by the second or third question, something remarkable happens — their body language completely changes.  The tension falls from their shoulders, the shakiness drifts from their voice, their eyes settle and they blink less and less.  Their guard is let down, and a connection is created.

Usually, after twenty to thirty minutes I know we have what we need for the story.   I thank them, we collect the mic, we shake hands — and they walk away.  Sometimes I see them again.  Most of the time, I don’t.  This is the routine — and like any other, at first it’s nuanced and unique, and after awhile it becomes … well, natural.

It’s become very easy for me to walk into any environment, meet the person or people I’ll be talking to and get to work.  Too easy.  My routine has become so engrained and natural that it’s all too easy to lose perspective on what the act actually means…

I think now about all the places I’ve been, at least twenty states in our country.  I’ve conducted interviews in countless NYC highrises, an LA arena, a Caribbean beach, a famous Oklahoma bar, countless schools, hospitals, and churches.  And all of the people I’ve talked to — their ages, professions, ethnicities, and social situations so vast and varied.  I’ve interviewed CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies and the founders of start-ups to volunteers leading life-saving charities.  I’ve talked to police officers from small towns about difficult cases that still eat away at them, I’ve listened to doctors talking about the cures they’re researching, restaurant owners struggling in a tough economy, and firefighters who’d lost a dear friend.  I’ve talked to teachers, convenience store employees, entrepreneurs, engineers, architects, students, athletes and even an Oscar-winning Hollywood star.  I’ve talked to each of them about their work — whether it was building someone else’s house, or re-building their own.  I’ve learned that fighting a fire, teaching classical music, and preventing a heart attack are each an art form of their own.

So many names, so many faces it’s impossible to remember them all.  So many eyes I’ve looked into…and so many stories that’ve been shared with me.  Hundreds and hundreds of them…maybe more.  Most of them you forget over time, but some stick with you and never leave you.  Sometimes the stories a stranger shares with you help you learn an invaluable lesson about how you should live your own life.

As I grow older I become more convinced that no one knows how to live life better, than a child.  The children I’ve interviewed have solidified this conviction.  Most of the children I’ve spoken with aren’t “normal” kids.  That’s why I’ve been asked to speak with them.  Usually they’re dealing with an adversity so great, that the average adult would crumble if they had to face it.  Look into the eyes of a child who has spent time in a homeless shelter, or listen to a little girl who has just battled and beaten cancer — and you discover what true courage is…you redefine “character.”

Character is an indifference to adversity, a fortitude that allows one to not look past it, but through it — without any fear.  You grow up thinking that this kind of character comes with age and wisdom.  But these kids have taught me that the opposite is true — that innocence may actually be wisdom.

The interviews that have impacted me the greatest are the ones shared by children who have faced great adversity in their lives.

The interviews that have impacted me the deepest are the ones shared by children who have faced great adversity in their lives.

I remember many of Joseph Campbell’s passages from “The Power of Myth,” but one stands out right now.  He talks about the experience of stopping your forward thinking for a moment.  About stopping, looking back, and reflecting.  He said that if you look closely and carefully enough, you’ll notice something remarkable.  A thread appears to you, a current that has run through your life since the beginning — a narrative like the one you’d read in any great story.  Your life has a certain path that seems chaotic and uncertain in the present, but appears natural, charted, and destined when you look back at where you’ve been. It’s as if the story of your entire life has already been written and you’re the last one to peel back the pages.

I have to remind myself to do this sometimes, especially when life is at it’s most hectic.  As I do it tonight, and reflect on the individuals I’ve met, the questions I’ve asked, and the stories that have been shared I realize how these experiences have affected and shaped who I am.  I’m grateful for them, and humbled by the opportunity to listen to and later to share each story.

Years from now, when I look back at my own life, I think I’ll see in it the same thing I’ve somehow known since I was a child. Sharing stories is why I’m here.  I picked it, and it picked me.  Whether they’re about real lives or imagined, those stories — no matter how disparate and diverse, I’ll see that they somehow all came together to help me write my own.

There are some people that believe that no one on this Earth is a “stranger.”  They believe that we deeply know, and are connected to every person we cross paths with — we just don’t allow ourselves to be open to it.  It’s a radically different way of looking at life for sure, but after all these eyes I’ve looked into, I’d have to say that I agree.

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