I recently saw a pop culture bracket that I found pretty baffling and infuriating:
— io9 (@io9) March 15, 2019
I recently saw a pop culture bracket that I found pretty baffling and infuriating:
— io9 (@io9) March 15, 2019
The college admissions scandal that unfurled this week has become a national obsession, and with good reason: Virtually everyone in this country needs to deal with college admissions at some point in their lives, whether for themselves or for their children, even if it’s just to look at the entire corrupt process and decline to participate in it.
This scandal has everything: wealthy, recognizable people in high positions using their power to get their oblivious children into universities where it would otherwise be a challenge for them to gain admittance. Plus, so many delicious details about how this scam went down. Here’s my recommended reading on the subject:
What this scandal reminded me of is how unfair the process is to begin with, even without all the illegal bribes. Wealthy people can legally donate buildings to get their kids into school (for now). They can pay for the best test prep classes available. They help their children participate in sports, unavailable to others, that make it more likely they’ll be admitted.
Even with all these advantages, it still wasn’t enough. These parents wanted guarantees, no matter what the legal and ethical cost. Now, to paraphrase Francis X. Hummel, they are reaping the whirlwind.
Netflix canceled the critically beloved sitcom One Day at a Time this week (Disclosure: I currently work at Amazon and have a friend who was a regular on the show). Shows get canceled all the time, but what was remarkable about this one was the tone-deafness of Netflix’s tweet announcement and the ferocity of the backlash to it. A hashtag meant to try to save the show, #saveodaat, was trending worldwide within an hours.
In an era where the streaming giant is trying to cultivate an aura of “wokeness,” we got to see this week what happens when progressive politics meets business reality. Companies presenting themselves as guardians of diversity and representation are now treading on shifting ground.
At the Washington Post, Ric Sanchez explains how important the show was to him, and why Netflix’s tweet was so painful:
The Latin American experience is not monolithic, and the show was careful to illustrate that. There were Cuban in-jokes I was not familiar with, sure — but there were also story lines relatable to anyone who has been threatened by their abuela, shamed for their Spanish proficiency or walked a well-meaning peer through a microaggression.
These are the small moments in which “One Day at a Time” excelled. Whether you’re Latin American, a single parent, a veteran or part of a working-class family, it felt like the show could take an experience you thought was painfully specific to you and present it to a wider audience with charm and empathy. It helped you see yourself in a new context. […]
Netflix certainly is under no obligation to support a show that’s losing money. It’s a business decision, sure. But to cloak a business decision in the language of inclusiveness is tone-deaf at best and condescending at worst. They’re effectively telling us that we matter — we just don’t matter enough.
James Poniewozik has a similar piece at NYTimes, writing:
I am not a mind reader. Maybe the sentiment is sincere, maybe it’s spin, maybe a little of each. Either way, Netflix is trying to throw away its cake and get credit for having baked it.
Poniewozik also provides some good perspective on Netflix’s claim that “simply not enough people watched.”
Other links from the week:
I had a fun time chatting with the filmmakers of the sci-fi indie film Prospect recently. The film just hit video on demand on March 8, and you can watch our conversation by clicking above or read a transcript at /Film.
We discussed how challenging it was to design a good practical space helmet that would also look good on film (of note: many big-budget sci-fi blockbusters, such as the recently-released Captain Marvel, often feature major characters wearing CG helmets). But one thing a good helmet can do is also open up more space for the actors to work in. Here’s production designer Matt Acosta, on how this was made apparent to him in one scene early in the film:
You start to learn how the actors are acting within the helmets and it becomes this other extra level for the actors. And there was this very specific scene where Jay Duplass literally holds a gun up to Pedro’s helmet and puts it against the glass. And it had this completely different threat and weirdness to it because Pedro could like look at the gun and there’s this forced distance between the gun and the character, which in other movies you don’t really have. It was so interesting to see him playing in that space because it’s just a new thing, a new piece that he had to play with.
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Some more interesting links from the week:
I was grateful to get a chance to chat recently with the filmmakers of the indie film Prospect. We talked about designing space helmets and what challenges you need to overcome when you’re trying to make a sci-fi film with mostly practical effects.
You can check out my interview in written form over at Slashfilm. Prospect is out on video on demand March 8th.
Programming note: This update comes a bit late this week. I’m still trying to find the correct balance between waiting until I have time to write a substantive update, vs. being as timely as possible. Thanks for sticking with me as I figure it out.
The Oscars happened this week! I know, it feels like a few years ago already, but as we pass this moment, I wanted to pause and take a moment to reflect on how historic the 91st Academy Awards were. Lots of talented people of color took home awards, including:
And then Green Book won Best Picture.
Remember when we thought that revealing the director is a penis flasher and the writer as an islamophobic racist and they whole movie is based on a lie would be enough to keep this white savior movie from winning?
— Lexi Alexander (@Lexialex) February 25, 2019
Green Book’s journey to the Oscars has been a rocky one. The real-life family of one of its protagonists called the film a “symphony of lies.” Its writer was discovered to have made a Trump-supporting anti-Muslim tweet. Yet Green Book soldiered on.
And that’s all without even discussing the quality of the film itself. To my mind, Mark Harris wrote the definitive explanation of what’s wrong with the film:
Green Book is a but also movie, a both sides movie, and in that, it extends a 50-year-plus tradition of movies that tell a story about American racism that has always been irresistibly appealing, on and offscreen, to that portion of white Americans who see themselves as mediators. They’re the reasonable, non-racist people poised halfway between unrepentant, ineducable racists on one side and, on the other, black people who, in this version of the American narrative, almost always have something to learn themselves. The trope was first, most famously and most effectively, deployed in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, in which the redneck cop played by Rod Steiger has much to learn from the intellectually superior Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), but also something to teach him about not letting anger or a desire for vengeance cloud his judgment. Norman Jewison, that film’s director, knew that that brief comeuppance for Poitier was the spoonful of sugar that would make the medicine of an authoritative black man onscreen palatable to an audience that had almost never seen one depicted before. Fifty years ago, the film was a galvanizing moment in Hollywood history in part because it played wildly differently to black and white, to southern and northern, and to older and younger moviegoers. But while crowds cheered Poitier fighting back, Hollywood gave Steiger the Oscar; for the Academy, it was the white character’s journey, and his humanity, in which the stakes of the film resided.
I found Green Book to be a competently made film, but as Harris indicates, it is depressingly retrograde in its treatment of race and, as a result, feels like it was made for a different era. In a year that saw the release of films like BlackkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, and Black Panther, we’ve seen that tackling racial issues and politics can result in interesting and brilliant work when approached from a unique perspective. Green Book keeps its feet planted firmly in the familiar past.
That’s why Green Book’s win is such a disappointment. It feels like Academy voters grasping for a past that no longer exists and probably never did. In fact, according to a troubling NYTimes piece, Green Book’s evocation of nostalgia is why some people voted for it:
One voter, a studio executive in his 50s, admitted that his support for “Green Book” was rooted in rage. He said he was tired of being told what movies to like and not like. (Much of the public debate about “Green Book” has turned on its handling of racial issues, which some see as woefully retrograde and borderline bigoted.)
“Green Book,” a slick crowd-pleaser set in the Deep South in 1962, strains to put you in a good mood. Its victory is appalling but far from shocking: From the moment it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, the first of several key precursors it would pick up en route to Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, the movie was clearly a much more palatable brand of godawful. In telling the story of the brilliant, erudite jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is chauffeured on his Southern concert tour by a rough-edged Italian-American bouncer named Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), “Green Book” serves up bald-faced clichés and stereotypes with a drollery that almost qualifies as disarming.[…]
I can tell I’ve already annoyed some of you, though if you take more offense at what I’ve written than you do at “Green Book,” there may not be much more to say. Differences in taste are nothing new, but there is something about the anger and defensiveness provoked by this particular picture that makes reasonable disagreement unusually difficult. Maybe “Green Book” really is the movie of the year after all — not the best movie, but the one that best captures the polarization that arises whenever the conversation shifts toward matters of race, privilege and the all-important question of who gets to tell whose story.
There’s very little I disagree with in this piece, but it’s so brutal that it almost made me feel bad for Green Book?
A few more links to consider as we come to the end of a memorable awards season:
A political addendum: We live in extraordinary times. This week, Michael Cohen testified in front of Congress and laid out numerous acts of wrongdoing that the President of the United States has instigated and covered up. The Cohen testimony was gripping television — Shakespearean in its machinations, powerful in its final manifestation — but the one moment that stuck out to me was when Cohen identified his GOP questioners as being on the same dark road that he went down already:
After a relentless battering from Republican lawmakers over his established dishonesty, including lying to Congress, Cohen called them out for carrying President Trump’s water. He pointed to a poster board that a Republican lawmaker had put up with the words “LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE!” next to a supersize photo of Cohen.
“It’s that sort of behavior that I’m responsible for. I’m responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years,” he told the Republican committee members. “I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.”
Then he warned, more ominously, “The more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”
The dynamic was striking: a former lackey, trying to warn the present lackeys that they will one day come to regret their decisions. An image of past and present together on one national stage. Sadly, I don’t think the message got through.
A few more things to consider:
And finally, some other odds and ends from the week:
I made a video essay about the ending and themes of the Netflix original series Russian Doll. You can check out the written version of this essay at slashfilm.com and you can listen to me discuss the show on the slashfilmcast.
Just days ago, Nintendo surprise-announced Tetris 99 for the Nintendo Switch, which brings the Battle Royale concept to the Tetris universe. Tetris 99 is developed by Arika and published by Nintendo. The game pits you against 98 other Tetris players in a real-time fight to the death.
If you’re a Tetris nut like me, that sounds like a recipe for an amazing game. Best of all, the game is free, although it does require a Nintendo Switch online subscription to play. A subscription costs $20 per year, which is significantly less than pretty much any other competing gaming service.
A few notes on the overall experience outside of the gameplay: As of this writing, the game itself is pretty bare bones. You can view some stats but as far as I can see there are no real leaderboards. You can choose between two pre-programmed control schemes. But there’s no private games for you to set up between you and a limited number of players, nor can you party up and enter a Battle Royale game together with friends. You also can’t play against bots. Early reports have suggested that there will be updates to the game, so hopefully at least some of these options will be added in a future update, but we’ll see.
When you get into the game, it’s basically the Tetris we all know and love. The Tetriminos move the way you’d expect. You have the option to hold a piece to deploy later, plus to see a listing of six future pieces you have coming up.
However, there are some important tweaks to the gameplay you should understand. When you clear lines, you send what’s called garbage lines to other players that are currently still playing. You can use your right thumb stick to target four different types of players with your garbage:
You can also target users by using the left stick and moving your reticle over an individual player on the screen, or if you’re using the Switch as a touchscreen, you can just tap on the player you want to target. I found targeting players individually to be a bit too much to manage, so I just generally went with one of the main four options.
When you KO a player, you get badges for doing so and you also collect any badges that that player had. Each KO gives you a certain percentage of a badge – two KOs gives you one badge, four KOs gives you a second badge, and so on all the way to 16 KOs for the fourth badge. The more badges you have, the more damage you inflict on your opponents.
Speaking of inflicting damage, the bar on the left side of the screen shows you what garbage is being sent your way. The garbage doesn’t appear on your board instantaneously – that’d be pretty overwhelming. Instead, it appears after a certain amount of time. It starts at gray and eventually turns yellow, red, and when it’s on fire, that’s when it’s about to deploy. Any lines you get during this process will go towards clearing the garbage that’s targeted at you.
As the game progresses, you may want to try keeping track of want to switch your targeting to KO the most amount of people, or the people with the most badges, or ideally both. A well placed KO late in the game can give you the badges you need to win the game.
A few other gameplay notes that may help you:
I found Tetris 99 to be incredibly addictive and polished. I don’t remember ever experiencing any lag, despite playing with 98 other players on a wireless connection. The classic Tetris gameplay is immensely enjoyable and satisfying. It’s an amazing feeling to KO a bunch of players in a row, or to find yourself in a challenging situation and need to build yourself out of it. Plus, I love the remix of the classic soundtrack, which manages to sound new while still obviously paying homage to its predecessors.
Overall, and I’ve already gotten $20 of value out of it, which is the amount I paid for Nintendo Switch Online for a year. I hope they continue to add to it as time goes on.
If you like the inventiveness of Tetris and you like the Battle Royale, you’re going to love Tetris 99. It’ll remind you why Tetris is so ridiculously addictive in the first place, and why this game is one that continues to stand the test of time.
Last week, the CEO of my employer, Jeff Bezos, published a lengthy blog post in which he described and offered proof of an apparent extortion attempt by American Media Inc. (AMI) whose aim was to cow him into silence. AMI claimed to have compromising photos of him and threatened to release them if Bezos didn’t make false statements about AMI’s motivations for its coverage of Bezos’s affair:
Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can? (On that point, numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI, and how they needed to capitulate because, for example, their livelihoods were at stake.)
In the AMI letters I’m making public, you will see the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
If we do not agree to affirmatively publicize that specific lie, they say they’ll publish the photos, and quickly. And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.
For obvious reasons, I won’t comment much more on the post except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. It’s an excellent piece of writing that has reshaped the narrative on this story and dramatically opened up the scope of what’s happening here. It also portends bad things for AMI going forward [As usual, although I’m an employee of Amazon, all opinions expressed on this blog are my own and don’t represent my company].
There’s also a few supplementary pieces that helped me further understand this story. Bloomberg has a piece describing the history of AMI’s lawyer (he used to work for Amazon). The Daily Beast explains how blackmail has been part of AMI’s business model for awhile now. And finally, Scott Galloway has a smart (and surprisingly poignant) take on a bonus podcast episode of Pivot.
New York magazine did a cover story on The Matrix this week with tons of articles, many of which are worth reading:
But my favorite piece is the interview by Bilge Ebiri with Chad Stahelski, where they talk about The Matrix’s influence on action films. Here’s Stahelski on filming that lobby sequence:
I remember my first time on camera was in the government lobby sequence, when Carrie-Anne does her wall-up. We had rehearsed it a million times. We had squibs that had to go off. It was all practical effects, so you couldn’t have a cell phone within 300 feet of the stage, because at the time, the frequency of cell phones could set off the electronic squibs. They had over a thousand squibs, and they’re blowing off, and we’re seeing them and just going, “Oh my God.” I had to do a thing where I cartwheel over to an M16 rifle, pick it up with one hand, and then Keanu shoots and goes into the fight or whatever. I remember the setup was a day turnover, so you get one take, and it takes a day to reset, and then you do the second take. I had barely met anybody on set at this point. I’m in the getup, and I’m getting ready to go, and I remember producer Joel Silver walking over to me — I had never met the man before in my life — looking me right in the eye and saying, “Don’t fuck this up.” Basically, don’t miss. And he gave me that little stare. He’s a very intense person. And I was like, Okay. Don’t miss gun. They said there’d be a lot of debris, so I just practiced doing the flip with my eyes closed. And I swear to you, as soon as they yelled action, the first squib went off, and I couldn’t see shit. I just threw myself in there and magically found the gun and grabbed it. I was only 25 and I was like, Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. But after that scene finished, I remember calling everybody back in the States and just going, “Yeah, this is gonna be something different. This is real stuff.”
Amazing stuff that makes you remember why this film still retains such immense power.
If you keep up with the news in the podcasting world, you might have heard that Spotify is acquiring Gimlet Media for $230 million! While I’m happy for all the folks at Gimlet who have labored hard for years producing hundreds of hours of entertainment to get to this point, I’m apprehensive about what it means for the state of podcasting. As usual, Nicholas Quah has a smart take on what all of it means:
[T]he major assumption I’ve been seeing around this deal is that in Gimlet, Spotify is primarily getting a show portfolio to use as the cornerstone of their “original podcast programming,” with which they could push more of its users towards consuming podcasts on its platform. That push may or may not take the form of Gimlet’s shows becoming Spotify exclusives, but I’m pretty comfortable betting it will.
But I also think Gimlet Creative, the company’s advertising division, is another key piece to appraise here. Consider that Spotify’s core competency isn’t content, but distribution, engagement, and monetization — and that monetization, in particular, is both a podcast problem a good deal of people are fixated on and the one that established media platforms (like Spotify, but also Pandora) fancy themselves well-positioned to solve with their existing assets.
For decades now, podcasting has been a meritocratic open standard. Essentially, podcasts are just RSS feeds pointing to hosted mp3 files. Anyone with a podcast could rise from a complete unknown to someone with a minimally popular movie podcast (*ahem*). Podcasts could also monetize at will and take a large portion of the profits.
With massive companies like Spotify getting into the content game, absorbing more profits, and pushing more and more for exclusives on its own platform, I see choppy waters up ahead for the wonderful, open world of podcasts. We’ll see how things play out.
I almost quit watching Netflix’s Russian Doll after two episodes, finding it to be an unpleasant warmed over rehash of the “Repeat Your Day” trope. But after a bunch of people urged me to keep going, I finished the series and was richly rewarded. It’s an incredible work, and seems destined to become one of the great shows of 2019.
While Russian Doll owes a lot to Groundhog Day and No Exit, the piece of work that it most closely resembles for me is Makoto Shinkai’s recent film Your Name, which is about two people connected by apparently-supernatural circumstances that help and teach each other what it means to be a better version of themselves (Your Name was one of my favorite films of 2017).
While I’m hoping to make a video essay about the show’s ending in the near future, I did want to point to Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece about the series at Vulture. He has written what I think is the most thorough reading of the film that I can find so far:
What makes this series stand apart from its predecessors is the way it blends parable, psychodrama, and science fiction while maintaining plausible deniability, so that the story doesn’t fall too neatly or obviously into any of those three categories.
Alan Sepinwall also has an interesting interview with Natasha Lyonne about the series. And Jackson McHenry interviewed the production designer who helped make Nadia’s bathroom “reset point” a reality.
That’s it for this week! There was so much news that happened that I tried a different format where I commented a bit more on each story, rather than focus on one main one. As always, feel free to share your feedback in the comments below.