Desperate Acts of Magic — Now on DVD/Streaming

Posted on November 2, 2013 at 8:00 am

Magic is in the air. “Now You See Me” had an all-star cast and one of the most entertaining scripts of the year. 17-yearo-old Collins Key wowed the judges on “America’s Got Talent” and how has millions of fans called “Keypers.” And the charming indie Desperate Acts of Magic is now available on VOD and iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and major cable networks including Verizon Fios, AT&T, Dish, and Charter.

Writer/producer/star Joe Tyler Gold told me, “I was a magician for many years and I did tons of kids’ birthday parties and entered lots of magic competitions.  We were looking for something we could produce on a low budget.  I had a lot of magician friends and there was a magic convention in San Diego happening in 2010 that we knew was coming up, so we went at it and put a script together and there you go.”

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Ender’s Game

Posted on November 1, 2013 at 6:35 pm


Director Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”) has skillfully adapted the Nebula and Hugo award-winning novel about a boy who leads an interplanetary battle against insect-like aliens, doing justice both to the fun of the sci-fi action and to the seriousness of the book’s themes.   The story has been adapted for film — Ender is several years older in the film than in the book and an extended and astonishingly prescient subplot about his siblings writing something resembling blogs and becoming highly influential political commentators has been dropped.  But it is very true to the spirit of the book and its characters and with special effects technology vastly beyond what was possible when the book was written, spectacularly realizes some of the book’s most thrillingly imaginative passages.

A memorable scene in Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” has its two slacker heroes arguing about one of the most rousing moments in the history of film, the destruction of the planet-destroying Death Star in the original “Star Wars.”  Randall points out that while the Jedi and the audience are cheering the explosion, they are overlooking the fact that the Death Star, still under construction, was not staffed with military but with independent contractors, who are at least arguably innocent bystanders in the conflict and unarmed.  In the middle of a raunchy comedy there is suddenly a more nuanced moral sensibility than is exhibited in the the usual big-budget sci-fi extravaganzas.

That is what makes the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card so compelling.  The original book has been a worldwide best-seller for more than 20 years.  Like “Star Wars,” “The Matrix,” and other YA favorites, it is the story of a “chosen one” of extraordinary skill who takes on the oppressive and vastly powerful but corrupt enemy, and it is filled with exciting action.  But it also engages directly, thoughtfully, and sometimes provocatively with profound questions that are even more apt today than they were in the 1980’s: Should we sacrifice the interests of one person to benefit the rest of the world?   Should we stage a pre-emptive attack by an enemy that is not currently demonstrating aggressive behavior?  What is more important, the ability to win a battle or the ability to feel compassion or empathy?

The setting is at a time in the future when earth has successfully defended itself against an attack by an insect-like race of aliens called Formics and disparagingly referred to by humans as Buggers.  The effects of the war against the Formic were devastating, and the entire resources of the world have been turned to just one goal — seeing out the Formics and destroying them to make sure that they can never return to attack the humans.  They have determined that only a child has the reflexes, flexibility, and singleness of purpose to lead that attack.

All children are fitted to monitoring devices so that the military can see how they behave and find the likeliest candidates for military training.  Couples are strictly limited to no more than two children.  The Wiggins family is permitted a rare third because their son and daughter, while not suitable for training, show extraordinary ability.  The third is Ender Wiggins (“Hugo’s” Asa Butterfield in a considered performance of great dignity and focus), whose deliberate but savage attack on a school bully brings him to the attention of the commander in charge of training, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford, returning to space for the first time since the “Star Wars” trilogy).  Ender is brought to a space station for a series of training exercises called “games.”

A disagreement between Graff and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis, once again speaking on behalf of humanity) is one of the film’s clearest statements of the moral conflict it lays out.  Anderson wants the training to do what is best for Ender.  Graff wants it to do what is best for humanity, and if that means inflicting the kind of trauma and encouraging the kind of brutality that will make Ender a better commander, he is willing to make that trade-off.  Of course it is out of the question to consult Ender or his parents.  Card wisely makes it clear that there are two questions here.  One is whether the ends ever justify the means.  The other is who should decide what ends or means to consider.

The games are fascinatingly constructed and the battles in the weightless chamber with freeze-ray weapons are absorbing and immersive.  It gets more exciting when a new teacher with a fabled history and an impressive Maori face tattoo (Ben Kingsley) takes over.  The climactic battle is as dramatic as we hope, but it is a remarkable twist and a surprising coda that bring depth and meaning to the story.


NOTE: In real life, author Card has demonstrated hateful homophobic bigotry that has led some people to call for a boycott of the film.  Here is my view: I believe that the principles of courage, integrity, compassion, empathy, and service to others that “Ender’s Game” promotes are essential values.  While I regret that the author’s ugly and bigoted statements show that he himself is still struggling to learn the lessons of his book, I agree with the poet Don Marquis that “an idea is not responsible for the people who believe in it.” The best of his vision should be shared with young people in the hopes that the next generation will transcend some of the biases of the previous ones.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi violence and peril with characters injured and killed, themes of interplanetary genocide, brief mild language, theme of child soldiers and moral conflicts, and bullies.

Family discussion: What does it mean to win “the right way”? Was Graff or Anderson right about the best way to treat Ender?

If you like this try: The book and its sequels by Orson Scott Card and the “Star Wars” movies starring Harrison Ford.

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Time of Death — Showtime’s Brave New Series About Dying

Posted on November 1, 2013 at 3:31 pm

We pride ourselves — for better and worse — about being very open and modern in contemporary society.  Topics that were previously not spoken of in polite society are discussed openly — sex, money, race, politics, religion.  But the one thing we still do not talk about is death.

Showtime’s new series, “Time of Death,” premieres tonight, with stories of people in the last months, weeks, and moments of their lives. It is sad and it is painful. Sometimes it is raw and ugly and scary. But it is also moving. There are stories of the dying and their families finding forgiveness, meaning, and peace. There are moments of fear and also moments of courage and resilience. There is laughter and there are many tears. Above all, there are moments of absolute honesty. Watching this series will make you want to have some important conversations with your family and will give you a place to start.

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Documentary Television

Interview: Composer Dominic Lewis of “Free Birds”

Posted on November 1, 2013 at 7:00 am

“Free Birds,” an animated film opening today, stars Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler, and Woody Harrelson.  And it has a great score by composer Dominic Lewis available on iTunes.  He talked to me about what it was like to write music for a movie about time-traveling turkeys.

You could hardly have set yourself a more complicated challenge because you had science fiction element, history, comedy, and even romance.  How do you begin to approach something like that?

I always watch a movie a few times before embarking on trying to come up with stuff that works.  And I guess the great thing about it was that Jimmy gave me free reign.  You know, it was a blank canvass.  And he basically said “Do your thing.” And the lovely thing about the movie is it’s so fast-paced, I got a chance to explore all those different genres of music and it’s not just all those one thing.  But I’d like to think that they’re going to take together in some shape or form.  So it’s really great to be able to not just be in one box, which is what’s so great about animations is that you’re allowed to speak completely freely at whatever you’re doing to express yourself.

Is it different to score for animation that it is for live action? Free-birds-movie-500x332

Oh, hugely, yeah.   I mean the thing with live action is that everything needs to be modern and visual.   So gone are the days of being able to really pull from classical composers such as a lot of Stravinski and Chopin was used back in the day. With animation, it’s just a really great opportunity to be able to pull all your tricks out the box and really write.  Whilst in live action and not negatively at all, but there are boxes that you need to tick.  But it’s the animation that’s definitely freer which I love.  It’s just lovely to do that.

I’m a little interested to hear that you saw the film before you started writing the score.  So at what point did you get involved with the project?

Well music is the last thing to go in.  I got involved, I guess I’d say, slightly before a composer would normally would come on which is nice because I saw the whole thing evolve from storyboards all the way through to its finished product now.  That’s been a really cool journey.  But yeah, I mean music is the last thing to go on so the film is able to be watched and you need to be able to see the whole thing down and ideas if they’re going to work with the whole thing.  So that’s the normal process.  And I guess, from then on, it was a question of coming up with scenes based on the images.  I had meetings with Jimmy about what he wanted and so we kind of went from there really.

And does the theme of time travel pose any particular challenges?

It has to be in the realm of the sci-fi world which is nice.  I got to use a lot of space-like sounds and electronic stuff with time travel.  It was a nice challenge.  It was a really good challenge to me to get my hands dirty with that one and trying to come up with something that works.

What was the first film you worked on?

I did my first movie in about 2007.  In the US, it was called “Hearts of War.”  Everywhere else, it was called “The Poet” and that was directed by Damian Lee.   Before that, Rupert Gregson-Williams sort of took me under his wings when I was 15, 16 so I would go down to Rupert’s studio and watch him working and do a few vocal things for him, and he’d leave to make a cup of tea, and he’d say just tell me to play around with the samples and get a feel of his stuff.  So a teenager, I was in and amongst the world of film music.  Plus my father is a cellist and plays on all the movie soundtracks and pop stuff in London.  So I was brought up with this stuff.  We had work experience at school.  When you’re 14, 15 you’re shoved into a workplace to see what you want to do.  And I was lucky enough to go to work with my dad. I just fell in love with it.  It was from then on, it was like “I have to do this.”

What kind of music did you listen to in the home?

It was everything.   I mean it was predominantly classical with both parents being classically trained and working in the classical world.  My Mom’s a singer and my Dad’s was in a quartet and played on soundtracks.  And I started cello when I was 3.  So a lot of classical, but as every parent is, they are also huge Beatles fans.  We listened to the Beatles and the Beach Boys and, you know, on trips going to the seaside and stuff.  So it was everything.  And I’ve got an older sister as well so when she was a teenager, she was listening to all sorts of grunge music and Iindie music.  And that all filtered down to me.  Yeah.  It was everything, really, which you need to have in film music.  You need to have everything.

Was it recorded in England?

Yeah.  We went over to London to record the orchestra which was great because I got to hang out with my Dad for four days.  Normally when I go back to London, I’m working and I don’t get to see my family.  But my Dad is the only one I get to see because he’s always in the sessions with me so it’s really nice to have it in the family like that.  It’s great.  And the guys over there, they’re unbelievable musicians.  I mean some of the stuff in this score you can probably hear is quite tricky.  Hard and it’s all over the place, and epic, and big.

Do you have a favorite all time film score?

I absolutely love Alan Silvestri’s “Back to the Future.”  I still think its theme is just perfect.  It’s one of those things that you can just put with anything and it just worked.  If I could choose a moment of filmmaking married with music, I think I’d choose the last 15 minutes of E.T. John Williams.  It is just incredible and also because of the whole story behind it.  It’s one of the very few times that picture has been cut up to music rather than the other way around.  They were recording the score of E.T. and he couldn’t quite get the performance he wanted so in the end, Spielberg said “You just record it how you want it done and I’ll cut the picture with the music.” It’s just a perfect performance and it’s just so perfect for the end for that moment in the movie.  When that track comes on my iPod or whatever, I can be in the bus and I’d get off the bus, absolutely in flood with tears.  I think if I have to choose, that would be the moment that I’d choose.


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