#385. Long Takes

Cinematographers use plenty of camera techniques to create the director’s vision for the film. From zooms to pans, these techniques help tell a story and can help the audience understand what’s happening on screen. There are some advanced techniques, like the dolly zoom (also known as the Vertigo (1958) effect), that use the characteristics of a camera to create a sensation that’s impossible to convey in just a single photograph. While we rarely experience life as a series of scenes cut together to form a cohesive narrative, most movies are filmed this way. In fact, many films use too many cuts, which can disorient the viewer. The more natural approach to filmmaking would then be a series of long takes, making the camera its own character that can move around the space of the movie and focus on what it needs to convey the plot. This week’s two films use long takes to their creative advantage.

GravityGravity
Year: 2013
Rating: PG-13
Length: 91 minutes / 1.52 hours

One of the benefits of the long take is how much information can be cohesively tied together. Alfred Hitchcock used a long take at the start of Rear Window (1954) to introduce the scene, the characters, and the main reason why the setting will be constrained to the eponymous “rear window.” While this long take works its way around the set, without following anyone in particular, Martin Scorsese uses the long take in Goodfellas (1990) to follow Ray Liotta’s character through a nightclub. Long takes have been increasing in popularity as they have been easier to film. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) uses a long take in an extended action sequence to help convey the peril of the main characters as they try to find safety. It is then no wonder that his next film, Gravity (2013) would use the long take to great effect as well, earning him the Best Director Oscar (it won Best Cinematographer, too).

In Gravity, the camera mostly follows Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she tries to return to Earth after a high-speed cloud of debris destroys the Space Shuttle Explorer. The only other crewmember to survive is Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who uses his experience as an astronaut to calmly work through the problem. Through the use of his Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), he helps both of them reach the International Space Station (ISS), where they find all the attached spacecraft have already evacuated to Earth. With no other options, and the debris making its 90-minute destructive rounds, Dr. Stone must resort to drastic measures to reach the somewhat nearby Chinese space station, where she can use a lone Russian Soyuz capsule to return home. This is, of course, assuming everything still works and that she can pilot the foreign spacecraft.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Year: 2014Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Rating: R
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours

While long takes are an essential part of a good cinematographer’s toolbox, it can be difficult to shoot the entire film’s plot in a single take. Difficult, but not impossible. Even though movies like the Hungarian version of Macbeth (1982) weren’t entirely one shot, it’s the first instance until Timecode (2000) to successfully perform the technique. Before this accomplishment, films as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) used some clever editing and trickery to make it seem like the movie was filmed in one, continuous shot. With the advent of digital techniques and capabilities (film reels were a limiting factor), this becomes even easier to achieve. Except for a few cuts at the beginning and ending, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) manages to tell a “one-shot” story that takes place over a few days, thus earning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematographer Oscars in the process.

We open on Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) hovering in his underwear in his dressing room, mentally preparing to go on stage to perform the play he has chosen to write and direct as a statement to distance himself from his previous role as the superhero “Birdman.” With opening night a few days away, he’s assaulted with cast changes, foreign reporters, and an ungrateful daughter (Emma Stone). The camera follows the drama as it weaves around the theatre and behind the scenes, capturing the hectic nature involved in any thespian endeavor. While Riggan wants to succeed and become the successful actor and director he wants to be, he is haunted by his past and threatened by the future that is closely guarded by New York theatre critics. In a drastic moment on opening night, Riggan is able to obtain notoriety that is both ironic and fitting.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 continual camera work

#384. Surviving Space

Sometimes, I think we take the simple act of survival for granted, especially on Earth. Sure, there are extreme climates that prohibit long-term survival, but most areas on Earth can be survived for a significant amount of time. Humans have an inherent ability to find food, water, and shelter, even in the most unforgiving of habitats. Most of this is predicated on the fact that Earth has breathable air. Remove that variable, and suddenly survival isn’t something that can be brute-forced. Instead, survival becomes nearly impossible. Humanity has not spent much time in outer space to know how to survive if something goes wrong. Even the few, potentially deadly incidents have had a significant amount of luck that contributed to the astronauts’ survival. This week’s two films highlight what it’s like to survive in space.

InterstellarInterstellar
Year: 2014
Rating: PG-13
Length: 169 minutes / 2.82 hours

Partly because Earth has some “Goldilocks” conditions that are conducive to life—and therefore survival—we often forget the insurmountable odds against surviving on other planets. As we’ve seen in such movies like The Martian (2015), if something goes wrong on another planet, even one as “close” as Mars is, the chance of survival is so slim that any efforts to remain alive are mostly used to prolong the inevitability of death. However, if Earth’s conditions change, and humanity is no longer able to survive on their home planet, then we need to find a suitable planet where we can live again. There’s nothing that meets these criteria in our solar system, but if we were to find a way to reach another part of the universe, humanity might just have a chance at surviving. Even this hopeful scenario still has its challenges.

Humanity is struggling to survive on Earth. Plants are having trouble growing due to an extensive array of blights, which has also led to dangerous dust storms. While the educators of Earth have turned their back on science, NASA has been working in the shadows, developing a plan to send a crew of astronauts through a wormhole discovered near Saturn years ago. These astronauts have one mission: to determine which of the three planets orbiting a black hole can sustain life. Unfortunately, the theory of general relativity rears its ugly head after one of the worlds is deemed unsuitable. With only enough resources to visit one more planet, the crew proceeds with their best bet and finds one of the advanced party has survived in stasis. This lone survivor knows he has but one chance to escape, and the crew has just given it to him. Now in an emergency situation, sacrifices must be made to save humanity.

GravityGravity
Year: 2013
Rating: PG-13
Length: 91 minutes / 1.52 hours

Surviving on alien planets is challenging, but it becomes a moot point if we can’t even reach these extraterrestrial worlds. It is a credit to our engineers and scientists that very few astronauts have died during our brief ventures out into space. Some situations, like Apollo 13 (1995), could have ended in death but were saved by ingenuity—if not by a sheer miracle. Despite our mostly-spotless track record of surviving in outer space, plenty can go wrong in this unforgiving vacuum. For the most part, the spacecraft we use to travel into space protect astronauts from plenty of the problems associated with the journey. However, once an astronaut “steps outside,” even their space suits can only do so much for them should anything go wrong. If the spacecraft then ceases to be a safe haven, the astronaut has few, if any, options for survival at their disposal.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on a spacewalk to fix the Hubble Space Telescope when Houston comes on the communication line to let the astronauts of STS-157 know there’s a problem. The Russians shot down one of their satellites, which caused a ton of debris to spread and destroy many space assets, including the communication link back to Mission Control. In no time at all, the debris has reached the astronauts and destroys the Space Shuttle Explorer. Stone and Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are the only survivors, and they only have a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) to get them to the International Space Station (ISS). Once they arrive, they find all the spacecraft have been used to evacuate, leaving one final option: traversing to a nearby Chinese space station to use a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to return to Earth.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 survival scenarios in space

#383. Beyond the Infinite

Buzz Lightyear often says, “To infinity . . . and beyond!” but we all know it is impossible to go beyond the infinite. Still, people will always wonder what is past the endless emptiness of the universe. Are there parallel universes to ours with equal amounts of infinity? Can we reach these other universes by traversing beyond the infinity of our own universe? How would one go about traveling beyond the infinite? With our current scientific knowledge, we have no idea what’s beyond our own universe. That doesn’t mean we don’t think up creative ways to get there. Just like there are no bounds on infinity, there are no bounds on our imagination. With the special effects used to bring science fiction stories to life, we can get a glimpse of what some people think lies beyond the realm of our universe. This week’s two films explore what’s just beyond the infinities of space.

2001: A Space Odyssey2001: A Space Odyssey
Year: 1968
Rating: G
Length: 149 minutes / 2.48 hours

It is a sobering thought to realize that a species such as ours has only walked on a fraction of a percent of the surface of our nearest celestial body. We’ve sent probes to other planets, imagers to comets, and spectrometers to the sun. And yet, we hardly know anything about the infinite amount of objects in our universe. Are there aliens hiding on Europa? Does the Kupier Belt contain the mysterious “Planet 9?” Will the “Flat Earth” theory ever stop being a thing? Science can infer many things from our universe, but humans have been heretofore unable to tactilely experience anything other than our home on Earth. With such a vast array of possibilities and mysteries trapped outside our reach, we merely have to speculate what is beyond our comprehension. If we were ever able to travel faster than light, we might have a chance of exploring these spaces. Even if we did travel that fast, what would it look like?

Towering over primitive humans, a black monolith influences their evolution, which leads them to discover tools and weapons. Fast forward to the future, where another of these black monoliths is found on the surface of the moon. Using a high-pitched radio frequency, it transmits another set of evolutionary instructions. A year-and-a-half later, humans are headed to Jupiter on Discovery One, a spaceship controlled by the artificial intelligence, HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain). Hal has doubts about the true nature of the expedition, but his human caretakers are mum on the details. Worried their mission will fail, Hal sabotages the humans on board until one of them, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) shuts Hal down. Now in orbit around Jupiter, David finds another black monolith and is able to traverse beyond the infinite.

InterstellarInterstellar
Year: 2014
Rating: PG-13
Length: 169 minutes / 2.82 hours

While nobody has ever physically passed beyond the infinite reaches of space, many physicists have speculated how it could be done. Their constructs are primarily theoretical but have created a few options that could push humans past the limits of infinity. Ideas like wormholes and black holes being portals to other parts of the universe (or even other universes entirely) have their origins in theoretical physics. Many of these ideas have permeated science fiction for decades, but few films have been able to accurately represent what some of these phenomena might look like. Granted, there’s still no solid evidence for what happens when humans interact with these cosmic entities—especially in the case of black holes—but that leaves plenty of room for imaginative speculation. Interstellar (2014) tries to represent the space beyond infinity in its own creative way.

In a world on the brink of destruction, Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) accidentally stumbles upon a secret, underground resistance: NASA. To save humanity, NASA is planning to send a crew to a wormhole discovered near Saturn. From the information they’ve gathered via probes, the wormhole is a pathway to a distant galaxy that could hold a habitable planet for the doomed human race. Cooper pilots the crew of Endurance through the wormhole and sets out to find which world will work for their purposes. Unfortunately, after a few setbacks, Cooper is forced to send the last remaining crew member to the final planet of the system while he traverses the event horizon of the nearby black hole, Gargantua. Once inside the singularity, he finds a realm beyond the infinite and beyond all expectations.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 endless excursions

#382. Sentient Operating Systems

While most people use a plentitude of computers daily, few take time to think about the Operating Systems (OS) on these computers. Sure, when Windows is acting up or if iOS crashes, we become aware of the OS controlling the ubiquitous amount of computers and smartphones we use; but for the most part, we don’t realize how powerful an OS can be. In the end, these Operating Systems still function on the concept of inputs and outputs. There’s not much room to “think” when computer code dictates reactions to stimuli. This is one of the reasons why the computers we use sometimes fail: if a condition is introduced that it doesn’t know how to handle, an OS will either not respond or crash the system. What if these OS were sentient, though? What if they could think through unexpected inputs? This week’s two films highlight some of the advantages and disadvantages of sentient Operating Systems.

HerHer
Year: 2013
Rating: R
Length: 126 minutes / 2.10 hours

Sentience as a concept is sometimes difficult to nail down. Regarding artificial intelligences (AIs), it tends to refer to a computer that can think and react like a human. Of course, why stop at meeting human capabilities, when a simple series of upgrades could advance an AI past the level of humans. This then begs the question: what makes us human? Many AI-type assistants like Siri and Alexa exist today, with the main interface being that of semi-natural human dialogue. If a computer is nothing more than a voice, is it sentient? Would it need a body to truly “become human?” Movies like Ex Machina (2014) examine the Turing test to determine if an android acts like a human. Considering how often we interact with humans via text and voice interfaces, perhaps a physical body isn’t even necessary. Perhaps all we need is a voice, like in Her (2013).

While we have personal computerized assistants today, they only respond to us when we ask them to. In the near future, there will be talking Operating Systems with artificial intelligence that will actively prompt us with tasks for them to accomplish. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is still reeling from his divorce, so he decides to buy one of these assistants and give it a female voice. While “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson) initially organizes his inbox and reads his e-mail, she eventually becomes involved with his life. Theodore is amazed at the rapid progression of the AI’s learning, but as Samantha tries to get to know her owner, the two of them gradually fall in love. This development results in a few awkward situations as people start to judge Theodore for his peculiar relationship and as Samantha is unable to be with Theodore in a physical capacity.

2001: A Space Odyssey2001: A Space Odyssey
Year: 1968
Rating: G
Length: 149 minutes / 2.48 hours

People often worry more about a robot apocalypse like the one portrayed in the Terminator franchise, mostly due to the incessant and unstoppable drive of robots to complete their objectives. What they fail to realize is that the true “master” of a robot apocalypse would be the AI that has gained sentience and determined humans are a threat to its primary mission or survival. Ergo, the true villain of The Terminator (1984) isn’t the robot itself, but the Skynet OS that controls it. In our ever-connected “internet of things” world, how much control of our lives have we already given to a single OS? We’re not likely to be shot by metallic androids as much as we are going to be driven off cliffs in self-driving cars. Privacy is the hot-button topic of today, but cybersecurity to protect ourselves from sentient operating systems is the enemy just peeking around the corner.

Created in the late 1990s, the Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer, or HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain), is put in charge of a mission to Jupiter after a strange, ancient monolith is found on the moon. Of course, the mission pilots, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) don’t realize they aren’t the ones in charge of the mission. Both humans are suspicious when minor problems start popping up, but Hal ensures them he is performing at full capacity. While Bowman and Poole attempt to gain some privacy to discuss potentially turning Hal off, the sentient OS can read their lips and realizes his life is in danger. Hal kills Poole and doesn’t allow Bowman to re-enter the spacecraft. David does finally find his way inside and shuts Hal down, but by now the ship is at Jupiter where another monolith is found orbiting the gas giant. David ventures out to investigate.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 computerized consciousnesses

#381. Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix is one of those actors who started acting in their childhood, and has been in plenty of movies but gained notoriety for their later work. Consequently, when people go back to watch their earlier works, they’ll exclaim, “I didn’t know _______ was in this!” One does wonder what growing up in the movie industry does to an individual, either turning them to addictions or erratic behaviors. Sometimes these individuals turn out fine, but the dramatic nature of the profession is a hard habit to break. Joaquin Phoenix seems to fall somewhere in between. He’s shown he can be a successful actor in a variety of roles, but he’s also had a few “moments” that people are still trying to figure out. For Joaquin, his acting career can be easily divided between pre- and post- “retirement.” This week’s two films highlight movies made on either side of Joaquin Phoenix’s hiatus.

Walk the LineWalk the Line
Year: 2005
Rating: PG-13
Length: 136 minutes / 2.26 hours

Even though Joaquin Phoenix started his acting career around the age of 11, he didn’t really break out until the turn of the millennium. Working on projects like Signs (2002), and The Village (2004) with M. Night Shyamalan, Joaquin Phoenix gradually started becoming a household name. Of course, most knew who he was after he earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Commodus in Gladiator (2000). His nominations for Best Actor would come through his involvement in Walk the Line (2005) and The Master (2013). While he hasn’t won an Oscar yet, it’s clear he has the ability to in the future. After all, he has worked with plenty of critically-acclaimed directors like Gus Van Sant, Oliver Stone, and Paul Thomas Anderson, both before and after his “autobiography,” I’m Still Here (2010).

Perhaps Joaquin Phoenix’s best shot for earning the Oscar for Best Actor was as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. This biopic follows Cash as he finds his way into the fame and fortune of country music built on his song, “Folsom Prison Blues.” Now that he has a contract and a band, Cash starts touring the country, eventually meeting June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Both Johnny and June are married, but even after June divorces her husband, she does not reciprocate Cash’s feelings. This drives Johnny to drugs and alcohol, which makes things awkward when she does finally give in to his wooing. Cash falls down the slippery slope of addiction, eventually being jailed for illegal drugs. Of course, this ends up giving him more credibility, especially to the fans of his who appreciated the lyrics of “Folsom Prison Blues.”

HerHer
Year: 2013
Rating: R
Length: 126 minutes / 2.10 hours

I would be amiss to not mention Joaquin Phoenix’s behavior surrounding the documentary I’m Still Here. While it’s since been labeled as a mockumentary to highlight how “reality” can be scripted (like in “reality television”), Joaquin’s drastic transformation from an actor to a bearded hip-hop singer caught most people’s attention. Sure, he was “in character” during this time, culminating in the release of I’m Still Here, but he had to be that character everywhere he went, which sold the commitment to his “retirement” from acting. Even if this wasn’t a real retirement, he still took a brief hiatus afterward to let the experience fade from people’s minds. Since this hiatus, one of his most memorable performances has been that of Theodore Twombly in Spike Jonze’s almost prophetic vision of the future: Her (2013).

In a not-to-distant future where people need to hire someone to write emotional letters for them, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is employed as a writer of such letters. Despite his ability to express deep emotions through his writing, he struggles with his own loneliness and depression after the divorce from his wife. To help himself cope, he buys an artificial intelligence-based Operating System (OS) for his computer. This Artificial Intelligence (AI) has a female voice and names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Samantha and Theodore gradually fall in love, which makes for an awkward conversation when he meets with his wife to sign the divorce papers. Unfortunately, Samantha’s AI nature leads to other, unconventional relationship problems that eventually results in the two of them separating, albeit amicably and on good terms.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 perfect Joaquin Phoenix roles

Bacon #: 2 (The Yards / Charlize Theron -> Trapped / Kevin Bacon)

#380. Musicians

If there’s anything Hollywood likes to glamorize, it’s sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It’s then no wonder that at least a few musicians have had their lives immortalized in film. Something about their rise to stardom and fall from fame provides a fitting story arc that works well in the movie format. While there are documentaries (like the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter (1970)) and mockumentaries (like Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap (1984)), the personal stories of musicians usually tend to follow the same narrative structure. Of course, this structure is ready-made for drama, since there is plenty of room for conflict with the extremes of notoriety and infamy. One thing is certain: these musicians didn’t arrive at their fame by accident. Their talent at an instrument or songwriting is what set them apart to become something greater. This week’s films highlight the lives of two famous musicians.

RayRay
Year: 2004
Rating: PG-13
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours

While most people on the street would be hard-pressed to name more than three famous pianists off the top of their head, there seems to be an abundance of them in film. From The Pianist (2002) to Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), some of these musicians are obscure pop culture references at best. Also, it’s not enough to be able to play the piano well, but there has to be some other element of the musician’s life that makes their music that much more impressive. Whether it’s being a tortured savant like in Shine (1996), or being blind like in Ray (2004), these challenges add to the depth of the story surrounding their success. Still, even though the piano is often seen as a classical instrument, the modern pull of drugs is an ever-constant presence in these musicians’ life stories.

Playing the piano requires finely-tuned senses. Not only does a pianist need to know where their hands are on the keys, but they also need to hear if their instrument is out of tune and be able to read sheet music to learn a new song. Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) lost his sight when he was a child, so before he even had a chance to learn the piano, he was at a disadvantage. To compensate, he learned songs “by ear” and kept them locked away in his memory so he wouldn’t have to rely on sheet music to play them. While his talent was undeniable, his personal life haunted him. Aside from his blindness occurring at a young age, he still carried the burden of his younger brother’s death, which took place a short time before he lost his sight. His heroin addiction threatened to take away everything he had worked hard for. Over time, therapy, and rehab, he was able to kick his addiction.

Walk the LineWalk the Line
Year: 2005
Rating: PG-13
Length: 136 minutes / 2.26 hours

Some musicians have very prominent personalities. Even if films like The Doors (1991) only capture the public perception of a musician, there are others like Amadeus (1984) that are awarded Best Picture Oscars. Mostly, these movies tend to boil an individual down to what their personalities were like outside of the music scene. Were they heavily into drugs like Jim Morrison, or were they flippant prodigies like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? Sometimes, these personalities attract a fan base, in part because of the music, but also in part due to who the musicians were as people. Does their music become popular because it represents the people who like it via the musician themselves? In any case, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone nearly as influential to country music as Johnny Cash was.

Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) was raised in the church on hymns and gospel songs. After the accidental death of his father, he joins the Air Force and soon finds he is at peace strumming the strings of a guitar and expressing his feelings through his own, original songs. When he returns to the United States after his time in the military, he works to make a living for his family but is still drawn to the music that soothes his soul. Using the song he wrote during his time in the Air Force, he quickly becomes a musical superstar. Unfortunately, his rise to fame puts his marriage in jeopardy when he falls in love with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Unable to be with June, he turns to drugs and alcohol to cope. This eventually leads to his arrest when he is caught with narcotics while returning from Mexico. However, his “outlaw” status speaks to the prisoners who love his first song: “Folsom Prison Blues.”

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 magnificent musicians

#379. Piano Men

Johann Sebastian Bach has said, “It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time, and the instrument will play itself.” While he’s likely simplifying the complex process of playing an instrument, at the very least the piano has all the notes readily available for a musician to play. Anyone can play the piano; this instrument is deceptively simple but can also be incredibly complex. With a single finger, a musician can plink out a recognizable tune or melody. However, some songs require up to 20 fingers to play, a feat usually reserved for two people. Having taught myself some piano, I can honestly appreciate the talent it takes to play this instrument well. Piano players can be a rare breed, but at least a few have become famous because of it. This week’s two films highlight some famous men who earned their notoriety at the keys of a piano.

De-LovelyDe-Lovely
Year: 2004
Rating: PG-13
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours

Anyone who thinks jazz piano isn’t a dramatic art clearly doesn’t understand jazz. Modern films like La La Land (2016) tout the potential purity of jazz played on the piano, but much of the roots of piano jazz have come from slightly more structured backgrounds. Few jazz songs actually have any lyrics, which is why those that do are much more recognizable in popular culture. While most people will have a passing knowledge of musicians like Dave Brubeck, more will know George Gershwin via his “Rhapsody in Blue.” Even more people can recognize multiple songs by Cole Porter. When Kevin Kline portrayed Cole Porter in De-Lovely (2004), he was able to understand Porter’s attraction to the piano. Kline said, “I totally related to Cole Porter’s magnetic pull to any piano that was in the room, which he was famous for doing . . . You couldn’t drag [him] away from a piano.”

If anyone ever had “fun” with music, it was Cole Porter (Kevin Kline). His catchy songs propelled him into fame and fortune, mostly in part due to his marriage to Linda Lee Porter (Ashley Judd), as she was the muse for most of his songs. At the end of his life, he has to admit that “not all” of the songs were about her since he was secretly engaging in homosexual relationships alongside his marriage to Linda. She was agreeable with the arrangement, even if his flings eventually drove her to leave and move to Paris. The irony was that he moved both of them to Hollywood to get over their miscarriage, but the temptation for his homosexual lifestyle in this hotbed of entertainment led to a moment used as blackmail against him. After Linda left, his music was never the same, and even more so when she died in 1954.

RayRay
Year: 2004
Rating: PG-13
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours

Music is a very audible medium, but musicians need a modicum of visual prowess to play it. When learning an instrument like the piano, many will glance back and forth between sheet music and their hands on the keys to ensure they’re hitting the right notes. Over time, these musicians develop a muscle memory that will allow them to play more effortlessly. However, what happens when the musician is blind? In these cases, the other senses must compensate to help the musician conquer their disability. They must be able to hear the notes and know if they’re correct. They must know where their hands are on the keys by touch alone. I already admire talented pianists, but blind ones like Ray Charles are even more impressive. His inspiring story was brought to life through Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance in Ray (2004).

Ray Charles Robinson (Jamie Foxx) had a hard life growing up. Not only was he living on a sharecropping plantation in Florida, but he witnessed his younger brother drowning when he was just seven years old. To add insult to injury, his brother’s death was one of the last things he ever saw, as he went blind shortly afterward. His mother, Aretha Robinson (Sharon Warren), did not want Ray to be limited by his handicap. She insisted he discover something he could do with his life, which is what ultimately led him to the bench of a piano. This was where he soon learned he was a natural talent, even despite his blindness. While he showed he could play any number of musical styles, his fame came about when he was able to combine these genres into a style that was all his own. Did he play rock and roll or jazz? Country or gospel? He played them all, and sometimes all at once.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 piano players