Empathy Machines

Movie, Book, and Music Conversations



YES Songs: Euphoric and Transcending: Ten of My Favorite Songs by YES

Lift Me Up
On the Silent Wings of Freedom
Love Will Find a Way
Wonderous Stories
To Be Over
Owner of a Lonely Heart
And You and I
Heart of the Sunrise
—Curtis Smale



David Foster Wallace’s 1998 Thoughts on the Academy Awards

It is not a coincidence that the Oscars ceremony is held during TV’s Sweeps Week. We pretty much all tune in, despite the grotesquerie of watching an industry congratulate itself on its pretense that it’s still an art form, of hearing people in $5,000 gowns invoke lush clichés of surprise and humility scripted by publicists, etc.—the whole cynical postmodern deal—but we all still seem to watch. To care. Even though the hypocrisy hurts, even though opening grosses and marketing strategies are now bigger news than the movies themselves, even though Cannes and Sundance have become nothing more than enterprise zones. But the truth is that there’s no more real joy about it all anymore. Worse, there seems to be this enormous unspoken conspiracy where we all pretend that there’s still joy. That we think it’s funny when Bob Dole does a Visa ad and Gorbachev shills for Pizza Hut. That the whole mainstream celebrity culture is rushing to cash in and all the while congratulating itself on pretending not to cash in. Underneath it all, though, we know the whole thing sucks.


ANNIHILATION (RedBox) Movie Review by Curtis Smale 🎥🎥🎥

(There are minimal story give-aways in this review, basically the premise in the trailers and a couple of events I give as examples that I do not define.)

ANNIHILATION is another low-story, soulless, conscienceless, material-world and evolution fantasy-based science fiction/horror film starring Natalie Portman. 

Director Alex Garland has put out another movie that adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of anything, and provides very little in the way of entertainment value or narrative enjoyment.

The basic premise of the film is that a “religious, alien, or higher dimension threat,” “The Shimmer,” has been sighted near a lighthouse. It is expanding into the forest at a continuous rate, corrupting everything in its path. Five smart women, mostly scientists, are sent in to investigate, after Portman’s husband came out of the area somewhat zombified.

One of the first things I noticed in this film is that the backpacks and the heavy machine guns were being carried and flung around as if they weighed 2 ounces. I’ve been backpacking many times, and I have held a machine gun, and they do not move in the way they moved in this movie. It seems that the director wanted to make it easy on the ladies, so he lightened the backpacks and he gave them super-light plastic machine guns, which look really fake—exactly like super-light plastic machine guns.  Not in their appearance, but in how they move kinetically. This is lazy and uncaring filmmaking—an amateur filmmaker’s mistake.

In another ridiculous concession to the lack of arm-power in the ladies, there is a scene where the five women are paddling in boats. They are over-emoting and barely paddling, and the boat is moving at a very steady pace. I have paddled a boat that size, and they do not move that way. It is so obvious that the boat is being pulled that it is distracting.

There is a shot where one character rifle butts another, but the actor pulled back on the “punch” so much that it takes you out of the narrative. This also qualifies as an amateur movie mistake.

Ridiculous Dialogue Department: The black man Portman’s character is having an affair with actually says something very close to: “we’re having an affair.” The writing is so on the nose, it’s laughable.

Also in that same scene, Natalie Portman‘s anger and throwing the black man out of her bedroom is so unmotivated and artificial it screams a lack of screen writing ability.

Another screenwriting gem: a character is explaining that her friend was eaten alive, and makes the profound emotional statement, “I wouldn’t like that at all.” Wow, I am so moved by the emotion and the dialogue!

This movie seems to gave been written by someone whose actual experience of the world is very limited, his humanity not very developed, and he just wants to get to the next overly-dramatic horror scene, like a teenager would.

There are some good lines delivered by a haggard-looking Jennifer Jason Leigh about people not committing suicide but self-destructing through smoking, drugs and other addictive behaviors.

The science fiction ideas and conceits in this and Garland’s other movie, EX MACHINA, are so thin that they are worthy of a 10-minute short at an amateur film festival.

In discussing the evolutionary ramifications of the alien threat, at least the biblical truth that you cannot crossbreed between two species was mentioned at one point in the movie.

Even the camera placement is so formulaic, so boring, with very little creativity. Thinking about this, it seems as if the studio executives, when looking at the script, basically said, “let’s sell it as a special effects extravaganza, but really only give a couple of expensive animal monster effects and one shimmer effect that looks like colorful soap being pulled down the side of the window upside down, to keep our production cost down.” 

Many of the set designs are really cheap-looking and over-used.

Another of the reasons there may not be a lot of camera movement in this movie is that the budget was low they wanted to keep it simple and have fewer set-ups.

Garland is no prude, judging by EX MACHINA, so it seems that in the sex scene with the black guy, they only show Portman’s back more out of a fear of racial stuff than any concern for propriety. 

I actually think that’s the way love scenes should be done in a movie.

I wonder if Garland hates women, because he makes them all look so ugly in this movie.

Garland did no favors to 36-year-old Natalie Portman with the body-double. They created one of the ugliest alien bodies I’ve ever seen. 

ANNIHILATION is dramatically and narratively at least watchable. It is on the level of a B movie from 30 years ago in acting directing and special-effects.

It would be no major loss if you missed this film, unless you would like to watch it for all the amateur errors and see why some movies do not work very well.

3  Movie Cameras out of 10. 🎥🎥🎥

Curtis Smale

PS: I think the quality of this review suffered. When I really dislike a movie or many of the elements in it, I just feel like throwing rocks at it. When I love a movie, I tend to write a much more cohesive and beautiful movie review.

PPS: I just cleaned some stuff off my iPad screen, and just deleted this entire movie review, hitting the trash button by accident. I thought I had just lost two hours of work, but if this ever happens to you, Notes can be recovered by hitting the orange back arrow sign above “Notes,” and then recovering “Recently Deleted” Notes. Frustration annihilated!

16 Great Independent Films

What is an “independent” film? How can you recognize one? What sets an independent film apart from a commercial Hollywood movie? What are the distinguishing characteristics of an independent film? What are these films “independent of? What is the “Indy Spirit”?

What makes good independent films so unique and special and satisfying?

I took a look at my shelf of movies tonight, and I picked out every DVD box that I thought was an independent film and then lined them up on the left side of the shelf.

I came up with 12 DVDs. Here they are:


This is a realistic forbidden-love story in a dystopian future starring Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton.


This is a half road-movie about a really screwed-up family that is trying to get their little girl, Olive, to a beauty and talent contest for little girls. There is more pathos and hope and hysterical comedy and ultimate optimism in this film than you can imagine. The acting in this film is so emotionally ALIVE it’s a cinematic miracle.


This film stars Northern Exposure’s John Corbett. It’s a story about the theater and the actors who live their lives in it.


This movie stars Jack Nicholson as a insurance company employee who retires and who then tries to put some life back into his life. (A briefly naked Kathy Bates is not naked for lust value, trust me.)


Robert Redford is the rich owner of a huge rental car company, who evaluates his life, his love for his wife, and his relationship with his employees. Also, by the way, he gets kidnapped by a violent disgruntled former employee played by Willem Dafoe.


A group of scientists is flown by spaceship to our dying sun, to restart it.


A man who has been lobbying for years to commit legal suicide sees the value in his life.


A Woody Allen drama about a man who doesn’t believe in God, and therefore contemplates that no one is coming to punish him… and thinks about committing murder.


A very funny Robin Williams comedy about falsified insurance claims involving a dead brother.


Jeff Bridges’ character’s marriage is in trouble and a young male intern of his gets involved with his sexy wife (a gorgeous, fragile, Kim Basinger).


A man is about to propose to his girlfriend on a hillside in England when a hot air balloon comes down out of the sky and bounces back up with a terrified young boy in it. The man and others run and try to hold the balloon basket down and save the boy. What happens when the balloon rises into the sky and what happens to the people scarred by the experience, creates unexpected results.


About a young woman whose mother tells her outright that she doesn’t love her, and several other stories about people looking for aliveness, art, love, God, and forgiveness.


I just bought a new copy of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE at King Soopers for $5.

Most of the rest of these movies I got, pre-owned, at Entertainmart for $3.99-$4.99.

Please look over this list. I’m curious, how many of these films have you seen? They were all made pretty much the last five years. How many have you heard of?

That is an important point about independent films. They don’t have the advertising budgets of Hollywood blockbusters.

They are independent of the commercial expectations of unrealistic, plot-driven, cardboard-character, lowest-common denominator, Hollywood movies.

(Most people’s impression of independent films is that they are low-budget and depressing. The reality is that the majority are well-made and most are hopeful, not depressing. (I hate depressing films!!))

People who want to see these eminently worthwhile and rewatchable films make the effort to seek them out.

Maybe they join Netflix, maybe they frequent Kimball’s Theater downtown.

The second characteristic of Indy films is that they may or may not have big movie stars in them.

Most importantly, Indy films are centered on characters, not on the plot.

They are concerned with how people think and feel and what gives them hope and a feeling of aliveness in their lives.

I got more from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE in terms of soul, truth and emotion than I got from the last three times I went to church.

Fourth, usually, independent films don’t usually have $100 million dollar special effects budgets.

Most importantly, independent films are about life insights, their focus is not to create “interesting” (but fake and inhuman as cardboard) characters.

For example, Peter Parker in SPIDER-MAN 3, is a literal comic book character in a Hollywood blockbuster special effects film.

Greg Kinnear, in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE plays a realistic character who tries to put on his own Success Seminars, but is a failure at it. Now that’s an independent film character!

There is nothing about the Kinnear character that would make him unreal or amazing in a Hollywood way.

What is amazing in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is the emotional and perceptual transformations (and the love the characters (eventually!) show each other).

If there is a sex scene in an independent film, it is probably not there for a gratuitous or semi-pornographic reason, it is there to show human emotion and beauty.

Independent movies are more like visual literature and poetry (not boring– interesting), whereas Hollywood movies are more like a Stephen King novel.

Look at the list above again. Even though I picked them out honestly, I was mistaken about two of them. Two of these films are not independent movies.

Can you guess which two are not independent films–and why?

Actually, SUNSHINE and the BIG WHITE, especially, are not Indy movies.

SUNSHINE is big budget science fiction movie with mostly glam-slam characters (with the exception of Benedict Wong who was in a movie I kind of liked called CODE 46. Wong is painfully real with his portrayal of guilt.)


THE BIG WHITE is low-budget, but just fluff– unrealistic comedy entertainment.

Here are a few more great independent films:



An aging Englishman is disgusted with his life after being laid off, and decides to swim the English Channel.



Nick Nolte is a coach who decides to teaches a lesson to the kid who “toilet papers” his house. Also, he takes the kid to his high school reunion with the kid posing a his son.



The great Toni Collette plays a woman who must take a visiting Japanese man on a tour across the Australian outback. Things happen in this truly amazing movie journey, especially at the end, that you will absolutely never see in a Hollywood film.



A depressed IRS agent tracks down a family in the enchanted New Mexico desert. He finds a family headed by a man who is even more depressed than he is (Sam Elliot). Sam Elliot’s portrayal of depression is the only realistic portrayal of depression I have ever seen in any movie, ever. Pure poetry. The entire film comes together in the last two minutes. A miracle! (Not depressing at all–supremely uplifting!)


Maybe start with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and see if you don’t find in that movie nourishment for your soul and something else that you have never before seen in a Hollywood movie.

These are not normal, safe, fast-paced, entertainment movies.

Some even have the power, I am not kidding, to take you to a world you’ve never been to, to give you an emotion or an insight you’ve never had, or to maybe change your perspective on life for the better.

That’s why I love independent films.

(I wrote this a while back: I would add IN AMERICA and EAGLE VS. SHARK to this list…)

Curtis Smale


03C497BA-8587-49B5-A6B7-256DA58F7D4D(No plot spoilers, only the basic setup as given in the movie trailer is revealed in this review.)

I wasn’t sure what exactly attracted me to this movie. Maybe it was the wilderness adventures that I’ve had with my Dad, Harry, and my brother Bryan. I think of the time that we flew in to an area of Alaska (Yakutat) by a float plane, also with my Mom.

The stark wilderness shots reminded me of the movie NEVER CRY WOLF that I saw with my Dad 35 years ago. A crazy coincidence is that this movie was inspired by a book written by Charles Martin, and NEVER CRY WOLF starred Charles Martin Smith.

In movies, all’s well that ends strong. This movie begins with terrifying events and predicaments, but the reactions of the actors were not in line with the life-threatening seriousness of the situations, but as the film went on, the tone changed so much that by the ending, the movie turned into a strong drama, even if it did not have the gritty emotional severity of an indie film.

This movie has dozens of absolutely gorgeous shots of the Utah mountain wilderness terrain.

Two people at an airport are trying to fly to DIA (Denver International Airport) but their flight has been delayed.

Kate Winslet’s character needs to get to her wedding, and Idris Elba’s character is a doctor who needs to get to his destination to do emergency surgery on a young boy.

They decide to charter a small plane together going over the extremely high mountains of Utah. Through a series of events, the plane crashes. They are immediately in a survival scenario as this VFR (Visual Flight Rule) flight was not logged.

Some of the dialogue was choppy and seemed disconnected.

There are many dialogue references to TITANIC, most notably the guy looking for the frozen bodies in TITANIC, who says “Is ANYBODY alive out there?!”

They actually lifted the indelible TITANIC dialogue, “Not without you!” and put it in Elba’s mouth.

Winslet’s acting language is quite similar to her other movies across the last 20 or so years, but when the chips are down, she comes through with the demanded emotion.

Being that both actors have English accents in real life, it must have been a challenge for Winslet to not start matching Elba’s sound.

This movie got a 48 on Metacritic but it deserves a much higher rating, I would give it at least an 75.

This is an excellent film of character and situation and emotion, exactly what people want out of a movie story, and as you’re watching it and it approaches the ending, it ties up loose ends and it satisfies.

At the end, I adored the close-up shots.

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is powerful and moving, and if you watch it to the very end and you see the title of the movie, and a creative hidden meaning in the title, putting the final touch on the movie.

This one is worth seeing. Redbox.

Curtis Smale



MAN ON WIRE Movie Review

The word on the cover of the DVD box perfectly describes this movie: “exhilarating.”

James Marsh’s documentary of the tight-rope heist of Philippe Petit is something to behold.

On August 7th, 1974 Philippe Petit and his motley crew surreptitiously rigged a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City…and he walked across that wire, and danced across that wire, and ran across that wire–eight times, over the course of almost an hour, taunting the police.

He was up so high, the crowd below could barely make him out.

Technically what he did was a crime, but certainly it was one of the most wonderful crimes ever committed.

This beautiful film is tensely exciting and extremely interesting, painting as it does a portrait of the 1970s era in which Philippe’s Petit’s greatest high wire act was performed.

The film follows Philippe’s progression toward the twin towers–first performing in the streets of France, then crossing two points on a cathedral.

In a way, this film is a time-travelling way for Americans to get the World Trade Center back–September 11th is never mentioned.

Our attention is held from the first shot to the last–the wire is stretched across the length of the film, and the emotional climax is well worth the wait.

“If you want something, nothing is impossible.” –Philippe Petit.


If you want to see a great documentary movie, rent this the first chance you get: MAN ON WIRE.

Curtis Smale


MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – Video Movie Review by Curtis Smale – 3 minutes


Why I Haven’t Written a Review of PASSENGERS Yet

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑