Copyright

All blog posts, unless otherwise noted, are copyrighted to the Author (that's me) and may not be used without written permission.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Not THAT Great

So, the inevitable backlash has started already, and the movie has been out for barely a week. Heath Ledger's performance isn't "that great" I read on one response to an article about The Dark Knight. "Nothing special," said another poster. "Aaron Eckhart was better," said another.

I am not surprised by the backlash, but I am disappointed in it. Regardless of the fact that his cast mates were extolling his performance prior to his unfortunate death, most of those who are against Ledger's acting today seem to be in one of a couple of camps:
  • He is only being considered for an acting award because he died.
  • He shouldn't be considered for an acting award because of how he died (i.e., that the Academy would be somehow praising a "druggie").
  • He simply didn't do a good job of acting.
Point one is a bad argument because many of the principles on The Dark Knight were praising his work prior to his death. Christopher Nolan is said that Ledger created something special with his performance and was hired because he was "fearless" (site). Michael Caine said many very positive things about Heath's performance (site) -- in October, well before the actor's death. A variety of places like Entertainment Weekly, E!, and others all had very positive hype about his performance prior to his death (I'm trying to find links, but it seems like of them are gone now--- or just buried in all the July 2008 articles and I'm not finding them now).

Point two is faulty reasoning. Ledger died from an accidental and lethal combination of drugs that were all legally prescribed to him (site). There are plenty of people who argued that it would be very difficult to OD on any one of those drugs, but taking even a few of them together could lead to issues-- which is, according to the official record, just what happened. To say that he was a "druggie" or to imply that Ledger was trying to commit suicide is simple distortion.

Point three is the only one that has any credible argument to it, simply because what is one person's idea of good acting may not be for another. Without having some sort of guideline for what makes an acting job superior means that all awards for acting are either popularity contests or subjective interpretations, or a combination thereof. I have my own assessment of what makes for good acting, but admit that it may be too stringent.

What I think makes Ledger's performance stand out in The Dark Knight is that he completely subsumes himself into the role he has created. He is virtually unrecognizable as Ledger, and you see nothing of his prior roles in this one. It is a unique character formed from the imagination of the actor. I also think that the consistency with which the actor plays the role is important-- the character as interpreted by the actor must remain consistent throughout the movie, suffering little to no instances of the actor shining through or the character overwhelming the scene in such a way as to be a distraction.

As an example, George Clooney was nominated for the movie Michael Clayton last year. While I happen to like Clooney, and I very much enjoyed Michael Clayton, I thought this nomination was a bad choice. Clooney did a damn fine job, but it was the same character with the same emotions as has appeared in a few of Clooney's last few dramas. Compare Syriana to Michael Clayton, and you will see little difference in the way Clooney portrays either character. You could also use nearly any one of Kevin Costner's roles as another example of this; he is always basically the same guy with the same range no matter if he's dancing with wolves, saving a post-apocalyptic world, or playing catch with his ghost dad. Another example is actually Jack Nicholson's 1989 turn as The Joker. His version was more clownish than psycho, but you never, ever forgot it was Jack Nicholson up there. The writer tailored lines to his specific cadence, makeup was used in a way that allowed as much of Jack's face to shine through as possible, and they generally played to all of his strengths from years of playing the crazy guy in movies. Nothing wrong with that, and it was a great counterpoint to Michael Keaton's portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman, but there was little to no "acting" going on in the role.

I believe, if you could find someone who somehow didn't know that Heath Ledger was The Joker and had them watch the movie without seeing the credits, there would be little chance of them guessing it was the guy from A Knight's Tale or Brokeback Mountain. There are no mannerisms or affectations of the actor's in the role he is playing. I did not see him break character or have an "up" (too over the top-- which is hard to judge on a character such as this, but worth the effort) or "down" (you can see the actor shining through, or the actor is not putting the same level of effort into the character) moments. He was this person.


In the end, though, I know that posting this argument is just tilting at windmills. Nearly every year there is some sort of nifty movie-related thing that comes along and, just as soon as the mainstream jumps on board, the people who originally made it popular jump off and start the backlash. We saw it with Juno last year, as a recent example.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Good Authors Gone Bad

I am reading a newer novel by one of my favorite horror authors, James Herbert. He always has nifty ideas for his horror and has been writing it for years. However, as with all authors but especially those who write horror, his ability to close out the story in a satisfying way is a little hit or miss. In his best works (Moon, Rats, Domain, The Fog, The Magic Cottage), he hits just the right tone and nails the ending in a way that is very rewarding for the reader. When he misses, he doesn't miss by much (The Dark, The Survivor, Fluke).

In this new novel, Nobody True, he not only misses, but misses badly. The idea is promising; a man is killed by a serial killer while having an out-of-body experience. Since his spirit wasn't inhabiting the body when it was killed, he is not a ghost but he also cannot pass on to whatever awaits him beyond this life. He has little to no effect on the world in general, but soon learns that he must find his killer and stop him somehow.

The execution of this plot is simply bad. Herbert reiterates things as though he is writing a children's novel. There are pages and pages of repetitious examples of just how the main character, James True, cannot effect the world around him, how he can move around, how horrible the serial killer's actions are. Last night, there were five pages in a row that described, re-described, and then rehashed again the problems True was having. I got the point during paragraph one and two, I certainly didn't need the remaining 4.75 pages of reiterations to make me understand that what he was doing was hard. I don't think even the most obstinately stupid reader was confused after the first page of this-- and most readers are not that dumb to begin with-- so the remaining 4 pages of rehashing this concept were pointless. And this is just one example; the entire book is full of this kind of thing.

It is reminding me of the last Harry Potter book. While, ultimately, I enjoyed the book and the conclusion to the series, the middle about 200 pages were all about how nothing happened. Ron, Hermione, and Harry had run away, were 'porting around the countryside, hiding, and nothing happened to them for days and weeks on end except that they got on each other's nerves. Most of the readers, including children, got the point after the first time. The second and third times Rowling reiterates, it sets up that the three are in for a long, hard time. But each time basically the same thing continues to be iterated, it gets boring and I lose interest. And I'm not the only one; many of those with whom I have discussed this book say the same thing. And all of us are surprised that they are filming this book in two movies, as we all assumed they would cut this section out into a montage with a "Time Passes" type of segue to the end.

I still enjoy James Herbert and I see that there are still a couple of books by him that I do not own. I look forward to getting them but I sure hope that they don't fall into the same category as Nobody True. Here's hoping for another Moon or Rats, instead!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight

This is a movie that would likely be up for awards... except that it is about a man who dresses up as a bat and fights crime. While Ledger, deservedly, may get a nod for his unreal depiction of The Joker, I doubt the film will do well in any other category come Oscar time. Which is a shame.

This is a dark, adult crime story about three people who all are trying to clean up crime in a crime-ridden city. One is breaking the law to save the city, while the other two are trying to uphold the law even against an anarchic psycho and a conglomerate of mobsters. In no particular order, one of the three is nearly killed, the other is severely injured and turns to evil, and the last allows himself to become the hunted in order to preserve the city's new-found hope and rejuvenation.

If that story were directed by Scorsese and starred DiCaprio, Crowe, and Washington, you would be talking about a sure Oscar nomination and probably multiple acting, writing, and direction nods. But, this story is "from a comic book" and therefore it may not get anything.

The acting is very strong. The all-star cast gives you everything you expect. Bale is once again strong as a mostly affable but also playboy-ish Bruce Wayne and also excels as the grim, gritty, angry Batman. Eckhart and Gyllenhaal are great additions to the strong supporting cast of Caine, Freeman, Murphy, and Oldman, who all do incredibly with their roles (as they did as well in the first). And then there is Ledger. Heath Ledger is incredible, creepy, sardonic, and more than a bit scary as the Joker; he plays him like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp if the Tramp wanted to light a fire and watch the whole world burn to ashes. Or the Little Tramp as played by Alex DeLarge. He is magnificent, and it makes it that much more tragic that this actor cannot be around for the next movie and take this character somewhere new.

The action is, again like the first film, predominantly real effects over CGI. This helps the believability of everything. There are a lot of explosions and fight scenes scattered throughout the film, plenty of guns and wackiness, and one scene of cross-dressing that will make you laugh.

The script is, as I mentioned at the opening, a very strong crime story interlaced with the theme of good versus evil. The Joker is, in essence, anarchy incarnate while Batman breaks rules for the "greater good." The Joker proves that it isn't "evil" we fear so much as the loss of normalcy and routine in our lives. Batman is struggling to bring normalcy and routine back to Gotham City by taking out the overabundant criminal element. Gordon (Oldman) and Dent (Eckhart) are trying to champion justice and the law to provide hope to the people of Gotham City.

This film is dark. It is a very strong PG-13, which I think should really be a an R. The violence is pretty extreme and, while it does not actually show much of the gore associated with the criminal acts depicted, I think any children in the 5-12 range would be disturbed by the incredibly dark story, the gore that is shown, and the emphasis on violence and anarchy depicted by The Joker. My nephew is a very sophisticated 10, and I would not take him to see this movie if he asked.

Most movies have three acts, generally corresponding to a beginning, middle, and end. This movie has four acts. Without trying to spoil anything, one character is turned to evil by the Joker and goes on a rampage, creating this fourth act. I felt this would have been better serviced being presented in full in a third film. However, the storyline for this is shoe-horned into the end of this film, and is primarily what pushed The Dark Knight to a full two and a half hours running length. Do not mistake me-- the story is good, well-acted, and makes sense to tell here, I just felt it could be even better as the beginning to, or entire film for, the next Batman movie.

Nestor Carbonell plays the Mayor of Gotham. While he does a fine job in the role, my wife and I were both a little put off by the intense amounts of eye liner he was wearing. It was noticeable and caused us to giggle a little at him after awhile

I felt the movie had a bit of an over-reliance on gadgets this time around. I realize that Batman is all about "the wonderful toys," but this one felt a slight bit forced. While the bat-sonar was an interesting idea, its use in the finale was a bit off-putting to me and took me a bit out of the story.

Like Iron Man earlier this summer, The Dark Knight is proving that if you a) keep close to the original source and give the "fanbois" what they want and b) get strong acting to go with a strong story you will get a movie that all audiences can enjoy, fanboi and uninitiated alike. I expect this movie to get at least $300 million this summer because of this combination.

I would rate this a solid A on my scholastic grading scale. The acting, general story, wonderful effects, and Ledger keep bring it to a solid A. The length, overly dark story elements, reliance on gadgets, and fourth act keep it from the A+ it should and could be. Anyone who likes a good crime drama, superhero story, or gangster movie will find this to their liking.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Questions

I few years back I developed a philosophy about people. I noticed in my own life and those around me that a specific question word tended to be the main reasoning behind many of our decisions. I started really paying attention to the people around me and found that I could see it happening on just about everyone.

Here, then, is my philosophy.
*** ----- ***
Premise
Each person has a Primary motivator driving his or her life which takes the form of one of the six question words. Secondary motivators are one to two of the remaining question words, and often switch due to stress or circumstances in the person's life. The remaining question words are tertiary; they are motivators only as circumstances dictate and always after answering the primary and/or secondary questions.

Primary Motivators
As we were likely all taught in grammar school, or from Sesame Street, the primary question words are Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Here is how they operate:

Who - People are your primary motivator. You prefer interactions with others over tasks, issues of time or space, or wondering how or why something is the way it is. Your first response to most situations or circumstances is to find out who is going to be there, who is doing what task, or who is involved.

When told there is a party Friday night, you are most likely to ask first, "Who is going to be there?"

What - Tasks, items, and the concrete, are your primary motivator. You prefer the concrete over personal interactions, issues of time or space, or wondering how or why something is the way it is. Your first response to most situations or circumstances is to find out what is going to be involved or what tasks need to be accomplished.

When told there is a party Friday night, you are most likely to ask first, "What will there be to do?" or "What's going on?"

Where - Location/space is your primary motivator. You prefer to think spatially rather than about the tasks, personal interactions, time, or how or why something is the way it is. Your first response to most situations or circumstances is to find out where you need to be (physical location) or where you are going (personally, professionally, etc.).

When told there is a party Friday night, you are most likely to ask first, "Where is it?"

When - Time is your primary motivator. You prefer to think more abstractly about the past and the future, oftentimes to the point of ignoring the present. You prefer to reminisce about the past or envision the future over the concrete, personal interactions, where something is, or how or why something is the way it is. Your first response to most situations or circumstances is to find out when you need to be there, when it is happening, or to think about how it fits into your schedule or about past events or circumstances that were similar.
Note: People motivated by "When" are not people who are concerned with today. People who "live for today" or who focus primarily on today and rarely worry about the past or future are always motivated by one of the other question words as their primary motivator.
When told there is a party on Friday night, you are most likely to ask first, "When is it?"

Why - The reasons behind events, behavior, or circumstances are your primary motivation. You prefer to think about the underlying reasons more so than about the concrete, time or space, personal interactions, or how something is the way it is. Your first response to most situations or circumstances is to delve deeper and figure out the reasons behind the events or situations. You like to know what makes things (and people, events, situations, etc.) "tick."

When told there is a party on Friday night, you are most likely to ask first, "Why now?" or "Why a party?" (Also, "What's the reason for the party?")

How - The states and conditions of things, or the underlying method to something or that someone uses, is what motivates you. You prefer to think about the conditions of the events, people, and circumstances in which you find yourself over the concrete, time or space, personal interactions, or why something is the way it is. Your first response to most situations or circumstances is to find out how it makes you and others feel, or what conditions are present and may affect those involved.

When told there is a party on Friday night, you are most likely to ask first, "How is that going to affect our plans for Saturday?" or "How are we going to get everything ready in time?"
Note: How is an uncommon motivator. It bears traits with both Who and Why and often can be confused with them. If you are tending to be more concerned with the person involved than how they are doing or feeling, you are more likely a Who than a How. If you are more concerned with the underlying reasons for something than the state of it, you are more likely a Why than a How. If the underlying method of doing something or the end-result of the activity or circumstance is most important to you, then you may be an How.
Concrete versus Abstract
Who, What, and Where tend to be a more "concrete" or left-brained, logical, or analytic approach to the world. Why and How tend to be a more "abstract" or right-brained, creative, or even haphazard approach to the world. When can be either abstract or concrete, and often is both.

However, do not be confused or think that more logical people will fall into one set of questions or another. While these are the tendencies I have observed to-date, there are enough people who are a logical Why or How or a creative Who, What, or Where that no hard and fast rule may be applied in this philosophy. For example, while you can make a reasonable assumption as to the creativity of someone you don't know well but who seems to qualify as a Why or a How, you should also not be surprised if they turn out to be logical and analytical.

Secondary Motivators
The question motivators do not exist in a vacuum. Each of them swirls around in each person and different stresses or circumstances will cause certain additional questions to motivate us at different times.

That being said, I find that most people have usually one question word, in addition to their primary motivator, that seems to pop up more often than the others. After they appease their primary motivator, this is the next most important concern they need to have addressed before they can continue or that allows them to continue on once started. This is the person's secondary motivator. Sometimes a person may find two secondary motivators, one which occurs mostly when they are at ease and without stress and another that takes over at times of stress. So far, I have found this to be somewhat unusual; most people have a single secondary motivator that crops up in most circumstances.

However, the definitions and examples given above remain valid for the secondary motivator.

For example, I am a Why primary. The most important thing for me to know is why I am doing something. Without that answered, I find it incredibly difficult to start or proceed with a task or situation. Once I have resolved that for myself or been provided it by the person giving me the task or circumstance, I can start going. If I'm unstressed and feeling good, I usually next ask What. I shift from the Abstract of the "Why" behind something into the Concrete of "What" I am doing. However, in times of stress, I shift to a "How" motivation. Once I know why I'm doing the task or circumstance, I need to stay in the more abstract and find out what states or conditions apply, what methods I am going to use or ignore, and what my end result should be. This tends to make me good at working in structured environments with high-stress issues, but poor in working in unstructured environments without due dates or with poor procedures.

Gotchas!
Be careful of some of what I like to call "gotcha" questions.

If you ask, "What time is the party?", you might think you are asking a What question. But it is obvious that the time is the motivating factor. The motivating factor behind the question is the primary concern here, and the English language has some fairly complex ways of asking questions that can make it look like we're asking one thing, when we're really asking another.

How and Why questions can often start with a the word "what," for instance. "What can I do to solve this problem?" is a complex question that has many possible motivators to it: are you really asking about the task you can do to solve the problem (What motivator), are you asking about the underlying reasons behind the problem and trying to delve more deeply into it (Why motivator), or are you truly concerned with the method used and underlying conditions that apply to the problem (How motivator)?

My best advice is to "go with your gut." Even if you try to out-think yourself by asking yourself overly complex questions, your gut or instincts usually know what you're really asking. Try simplifying. Whenever an overly complex question comes along, break it down and search for the motivator that appeals the most to you on an instinctual level; go with your first instinct or first impression, it is much more likely to be right.

So, if you have the "what can I do to solve this problem?" question, you should break it down or think about your motivation: is your immediate reaction an image in your head of you doing something? Then you are probably motivated by what. Is your immediate first reaction question why are you doing it? Then you are probably motivated by why. Is your immediate first instinct a quick list of the methods you are going to use? Then you are likely how motivated.

Simplifying the complex and going with your initial first impression are both your friends. Use them!

Putting it to Use
So, how does this philosophy work in the real world? How does knowing this information help you to lead a better and/or more productive life?

If you know what motivates you, you can eliminate stresses in your life by seeking out the information you need to help you move forward. If you can make reasonably accurate guesses about the motivations in those around you, you can help ease stress in your life by providing them what they need (which eases stress in their life).

Getting What You Need
First, determine which is your primary motivator. Think back to times at work. When your boss came in and yelled at you about that project, what were your first thoughts:
  • "Is he blaming me?"
  • "What is he talking about?"
  • "Where does he get off acting like this?"
  • "When did this happen?" or "When can I explain what happened?"
  • "Why is he so angry?"
  • "How can I solve this problem?"
Also, what were some of the first questions or statements that you made to him when it was your chance to speak?
  • "Who can we put on this project?"
  • "What can I do to make it right?"
  • "Where can I get the right information/people/etc.?"
  • "When is it due?" or "When do you need it by?"
  • "What has changed with the project/with the client/etc. to cause this reaction?"
  • "How can I fix this for you?"
Simplify the situation and pay close attention to your first instinctual reaction to it. Then think of another, maybe less stressful circumstance and ask yourself what were your first thoughts about it at the time. Remember a time when you were stuck and couldn't proceed with a task or project; which question did you keep asking yourself until, once you got the answer, you finally could proceed.

Once you have a pretty good idea into which category you fit, you can start to seek out that information as projects and circumstances occur.

For example, the next time you are in a meeting at work and given a project to do, you could ask specific questions immediately (as appropriate) to gather the information you need to start the project with less stress:
  • "Who wants to help me with this?" "Who can I get approvals from?" "Who can I use as a resource?"
  • "What tasks are appropriate to use to accomplish this project?"
  • "Where can I get the data/information to assist me with the project?"
  • "When is it due?" "Are there any intermediary due dates?" "What time/day do you need it by?"
  • "Why are we doing this?" "Why does the client need this change?" "Are there any underlying factors that I should know about?"
  • "What steps should we take to finish this project?" "Are there any hidden circumstances or issues I should be made aware of before I start?" "How would you like me to proceed with this-- do you have anything you specifically want me not to forget to do?"
Giving What They Need
You can use the same methods to determine what others need. When your boss comes in to talk with you, is he primarily asking about your family and friends? Is he trying to make a personal connection with you? Is he always staying focused on the task at hand? Is he asking you why or how you are doing something, and what you are doing seems inconsequential? These and other observations can help point you toward what motivates those around you.

Once you have a firm grasp of what motivates a person in your life, try providing it.

For example, let's say you have determined your manager is a Who. Every time you speak with him, he is asking about the people in your life. He is concerned with who is going to meetings and who is going to lunch. So, the next time you need help with a project, you shift out of your motivating factor and start the interaction by asking about his family or friends. You ask about his most recent vacation, or simply ask "How are you?" and actually listen to the reply and ask questions about the answer. Once those pleasantries are done, and he has likely asked you about something in your life, you can shift back to the task at hand and ask the question you need answered. You may find he is better able to focus on the task, more willing to help or provide feedback, and is more positive about your interaction.

On the other side of things, when the same boss comes to yell at you about something, it is imperative you pay attention to the questions he starts with or continually comes back to; if it is a who related line of questioning, you likely need to provide him with a who (i.e., "I worked on that project," or "I was part of a group with X, Y, and Z and we came up with that slogan," etc.). I'm obviously not suggesting you should be a tattle-tale, or commit political suicide by saying things at work you shouldn't, breaking confidences, or anything of the sort-- but a person with a who motivator is not going to let something go until he gets a who response. So think about how you can provide him with that interpersonal communication he wants in addition to the motivator questions that will appease your needs.

For example, maybe you allay your need first, by asking him what is wrong or how you can help, or why the situation has come to a head (whatever you have decided is your motivating question). Then, as he answers, you have time to think of a who response to help his needs and allay his issues. "You know what? Let me talk with Sally and Joe about this and we'll figure out a solution for you and get back to you. Before I do that, though, weren't you on vacation recently? Did I hear that it was a fishing trip?" This gives him three defined "Who" people, you, Sally, and Joe, and it offers him a chance at the interpersonal he needs as a Who person. He will likely leave your desk happy knowing who is working on the issue and be calmer because he talked about his vacation trip to Cape Cod.

Conclusion
By using the knowledge of your own motivators and looking for the motivators in others, you can reduce stresses in your life by seeking that information which you need and providing the information that others need in a timely and effective manner.