MVPs of the Month: Scientists and Nerds

Posted on November 16, 2014 at 3:23 pm

Copyright 2014 BBC
Alan Turing, Copyright 2014 BBC
Stephen Hawking, copyright 2014 The Guardian
Stephen Hawking, copyright 2014 The Guardian

November 2014 may just be the greatest month in film history for the portrayal of heroes and heroines whose achievements are not about athletics or fights but about equations and science. Last week we had two blockbuster hits featuring fictional scientists. In Disney’s animated “Big Hero 6,” a group of young robotics whizzes (and one amiable slacker) save the day with their inventions. And in “Interstellar,” despite a society that has explicitly rejected science and technology as a way to solve problems, a small group of brilliant scientists use their skills to try to find another planet for humanity to inhabit.  To hear a physicist on the science behind the film, take a look at “Cosmos” host Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s explanation.

The physics advisor on “Interstellar” was Kip Thorne, who is portrayed on screen by Enzo Cilenti, a colleague of Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest mind of our generation, “The Theory of Everything.” For more information, see Stephen Hawking’s Universe.

And coming up soon, we have the story of the man Winston Churchill said did more than anyone else to make it possible for the Allies to win WWII, the brilliant Alan Turing, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game.”  Turing was one of a group of mathematicians and cryptologists brought in to decipher the Enigma Code, widely considered to be unbreakable.  Even though we know how it came out, the story is gripping.

Turing knew something about secrets.  He was gay.  At that time, gay men could be imprisoned — or ordered to undergo chemical castration via hormones.  And the movie also portrays the difficulties faced by the women codebreakers.  For more on this story, see Breaking The Codes.

It’s great to see heroes in popular culture who accomplish their goals by being smart and persistent.  Maybe sometime the #breaktheinternet hashtag will be assigned to the scientists who landed a probe on an asteroid instead of pictures of kittens and naked celebrities.   Meanwhile, this month, we also have “Dumb and Dumber To.”

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Behind the Scenes: Eddie Redmayne and Stephen Hawking on “The Theory of Everything”

Posted on November 14, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of “The Theory of Everything,” with comments from stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, director James Marsh, and Stephen Hawking himself.

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Actors Behind the Scenes

The Theory of Everything

Posted on November 13, 2014 at 5:31 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Serious, debilitating illness, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: Disabled character
Date Released to Theaters: November 14, 2014
Date Released to DVD: February 16, 2015 ASIN: B00QFSIIFK
Copyright 2014 Working Title Films
Copyright 2014 Working Title Films

We have seen many film biographies of great individuals (mostly men). But we have seen almost no films, fact-based or fictional, about great marriages. And we have certainly never seen any films about great marriages that end up with the couple married to other people. But that is what this is.  It is the story of a “marriage of true minds,” an equal partnership in every way, with two very intelligent and committed people working as hard as they can to be the best they can for one another.

And they are portrayed by two people of enormous talent, with both Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne giving performances of enormous depth and understanding.  Of course Redmayne has the showier, awards-bait role, and he is meticulous in Hawking’s physical decline. In his previous films like “Les Miserables” and “My Week With Marilyn,” Redmayne has shown a gift for the sensitive, doe-eyed young hero.  But as Hawking, he shows a shrewdness and wit we have not seen from him before, even at the end, when Hawking has just one cheek muscle he can control.  There is never a hint of stunt-ishness.  It is always about the character whose mind is perhaps even freer to roam the farthest reaches of the universe and of human comprehension as his body is failing and he is completely physically dependant.

The luminous Jones matches him every bit of the way as Jane Hawking ages and as she grapples with finding a way to continue to relate to her husband as an adult and an equal while caring for him.  She is also a scholar in her own right who wants to do her own work, while somehow caring for her children and her husband, an intellectual supernova who is becoming an icon.

The screenplay is based on the book by Jane Hawking, the first wife of the scientist many people think of as the greatest mind of our generation, the physicist Stephen Hawking, best known for his appearances on “The Big Bang Theory” and his mega-best-selling book for the lay audience, A Brief History of Time. (The book’s purported status as the most-bought but least-read best-seller has inspired the “Hawking Index.”) And so we get a rare glimpse into what it was like from the point of view of the “wife of.”

Jane met Stephen when they were both students.  They had very little in common.  He was studying physics. She was studying Spanish poetry.  He was an atheist.  She was a churchgoer and believer.  He was disorganized, not socially adept or at least not interested in fitting in.  She was a natural rule-follower and very comfortable in social situations.  There was never anything conventional about their encounters or conversations.  

And yet, they felt the kind of pull that is better described by poetry than physics, the kind that seems to mean that only the similarities matter.  She smiles, “I like to time travel. Like you.”

And then Hawking is given the devastating diagnosis of motor neuron disease (ALS), with a life expectancy of perhaps two years of calamitous decline of all muscles.  “Your thoughts won’t change,” he is told, “but eventually no one will know what they are.”

Hawking’s father warns Jane away.  “This will not be a fight.  This will be a heavy defeat for all of us.”  But Jane is resolute.  She is determined that they will get married and they will fight.  They get married, with him leaning heavily on a cane.  They have two children.  And he loses muscular control, more every day.  Each downward ratchet is wrenching, but ultimately he has to give up walking and move to a wheelchair as eventually he will have to give up speech and learn to operate a computer with one muscle in his cheek to have it speak for him.  Adding insult to injury, it will be with an American accent.

In the meantime, he is transforming our understanding of the universe and our place in it, and then turning those theories upside down and starting over as he attempts to synthesize the two areas of physics into one simple, elegant, beautiful formula that will explain how it all fits together.  

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh (“Project Nim”) show deep understanding and extraordinary sensitivity in conveying with small, intimate details what is going on in this marriage.  Hands reach casually across a dinner table while two of the people at the table watch, just a slight tightening of the muscles around the eyes or mouth revealing what it is like to see it be so easy for other people.  They can love each other despite his awful knowledge of being a burden while resenting the healthy. And despite her equally awful knowledge of his humiliation in being a burden. We see the combined beauty and soul-destroying relentlessness of being a caretaker.  

They try to keep relating to each other as a couple, not as patient and nurse.  They have another baby. That is joyous but it is more work and more of a reminder of how little he can do as a parent. He is in many respects more dependent than the children. And Jane is exhausted.

Jane’s mother (Emily Watson) has some advice.  She tells Jane to sing in the church choir.  “That is the most English thing anyone has ever said,” Jane replies, but she goes, and as soon as we see the handsome young choir leader, just widowed, (Charlie Cox of “Stardust” as Jonathan), we know there is going to be trouble.  Jonathan, at a loss in his grief, offers to be of help to the family.  He is kind and understanding but he is also healthy and in a beautifully poignant scene at the beach, he runs with the children while Hawking’s wheelchair sinks into the wet sand.

Jonathan and Jane develop feelings for each other.  Hawking and his new nurse Elaine (Maxine Peake) develop feelings for each other.  Perhaps it is because she never sees him as less than a version of himself that is long gone.  Perhaps it is just that he wants Jane to have a chance to be with a healthy man.  Perhaps he knows that there is some parallel universe where they are living happily ever after.  I’d like to think so.

Parents should know that this is a sad movie about a family dealing with a very serious disease.  There are some sexual references.

Family discussion:  Why did Stephen chose that moment to talk about God to Jane?  Why was it important to her?

If you like this, try: “A Beautiful Mind”

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Based on a book Based on a true story Biography Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Romance

Red Carpet: The Theory of Everything with Eddie Redmayne and Screenwriter Anthony McCarten

Posted on November 6, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Copyright 2014 Nell Minow
Copyright 2014 Nell Minow

Tonight was a special screening of “The Theory of Everything” and I was very lucky to be at the red carpet, with star Eddie Redmayne, who plays physicist Stephen Hawking, and screenwriter Anthony McCarten. Redmayne told me about the meticulous chart he created to keep track of exactly which stage of the motor neuron disease Hawking was in for each scene. He also spoke about how inspired he is by Hawking’s passion for learning in all categories. He said that Hawking has now created a Facebook page, where he wrote:

I have always wondered what makes the universe exist. Time and space may forever be a mystery, but that has not stopped my pursuit. Our connections to one another have grown infinitely and now that I have the chance, I’m eager to share this journey with you. Be curious, I know I will forever be.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten spoke to me about Jane Hawking, whose book inspired the film.  “Just as much as I was in awe of Stephen and his ideas, the man, the concepts he was revealing for us about the universe, when I read Jane’s book, that was the catalyst for me, that was when I knew I wanted to make this film.  This young woman who had only just begun to fall in love with this guy who was diagnosed with ALS and given two years to live.  Most people would walk away.  Her internal conviction, her love for him, made her decide to fight this thing with him and not allow him to be silenced.  He credits her with taking him out of his depression and allowing him to work.  We have to be truly grateful.  Without her, we might not have his ideas.  But also, Jane was a forerunner herself.  She was a woman of the 50’s, but he had her own ambitions.  She raised three children, supported Stephen through all his travails, and somehow managed to get her own work done and go on for her PhD.”

I asked what he had learned from the cosmology he studied to write the film.  “How very small we are.  We believe that our galaxy is one of 170 billion galaxies.  A recent simulation by a German team suggested there might be 500 billion galaxies.  That would mean for every star in our galaxy, there’s a corresponding galaxy.  Our problems may seem very huge, but as Einstein would say, it’s relative.”

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Behind the Scenes

After the Ice Bucket Challenge: Two Upcoming Movies About People With ALS

Posted on September 2, 2014 at 7:00 am

The Ice Bucket Challenge has brought a lot of money and attention to a devastating illness, ALS or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s Disease for the the New York Yankee who had to leave baseball when he was afflicted with ALS.

Two upcoming films about people with ALS should help bring attention to ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases and the people and families who are struggling with them. The Theory of Everything is based on the real-life story of Stephen Hawking, one of the most brilliant scientists in history. Here is the real Professor Hawking in a guest appearance on “The Big Bang Theory.”

And double Oscar-winner Hilary Swank plays a musician with ALS in the upcoming “You’re Not You.”

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Disabilities and Different Abilities Trailers, Previews, and Clips
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