How realistic is HBO’s ‘Barry’ when it comes to acting class?

I had a chance to chat with legendary character actor Stephen Tobolowsky about the new HBO original series Barry. Stephen and I talk about the show’s themes and how realistic its depiction of acting class is. Also: Stephen gives advice to anyone interested in taking acting classes for themselves.

Check out Stephen’s new book, My Adventures with God, on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

My five favorite podcasts (right now)

I was recently featured in an alumni magazine for my work in podcasting, and I was asked what my five favorite podcasts are. When you listen to dozens of different podcasts at differing frequency, it can be difficult to distill your list to only five (particularly when your preferences can change over time). Moreover, it feels pointless to list podcasts that are already extremely popular — why not give love to shows that need it?

I tried to strike a balance between longtime shows that I love and shows that are relatively new that could use more attention. Here were my submissions:

Reply All – A show about the internet that manages to take major trends and online obscura alike to create compelling, emotional stories.
The Next Picture Show – A movie review podcast that evaluates older films and their newer analogues. It’s a must-listen for folks interested in how the past has inspired the present.
On The Media – A show about the media that looks past the headlines to explore how coverage is influenced and deployed.
Death Sex & Money – Anna Sale interviews people from all walks of life and has in-depth discussions on topics that we all think about but don’t usually talk about: death, sex, and money.
Today Explained – This relatively new daily podcast explores the biggest news topics of the day via interviews with experts and other people impacted by world events. Impressive production value for a show that is produced so frequently.

A review of Mixtiles – a cool way to mount and hang photos on your wall

I had a fun time trying out Mixtiles recently, which is an app that lets you print out photos that are ready to hang. I found Mixtiles via an Instagram ad and was intrigued at the idea of being able to easily print, mount and move around photos.

Mixtiles cost $49 for the first three, and $9 for every Mixtile thereafter. Shipping is free (although it’s basically just built into the cost of the first three Mixtiles).

Overall, I had a good experience with Mixtiles and think it’s great in certain circumstances. Find my full video review above and my pros and cons of the service below.

Pros:

  • Responsive customer service — You get the sense that this is a mom and pop operation, but not necessarily in a bad way. Customer service through the app was extremely fast, and responsive. These people really want you to have a great experience.
  • Adhesive quality is good — Mixtiles stick really well onto walls, and aren’t super difficult to remove.
  • Photography quality is decent — Photos appear to have a matte finish. Fidelity and sharpness is solid.
  • Weight — Mixtiles are super light and easy to carry around and transport

Cons: 

  • Foam core does not feel like a premium product — From far away, Mixtiles look great. But when you get up close and touch them, they look exactly look what they are: Photo prints mounted onto foam core. They feel flimsy and don’t seem built to last.
  • The first few are expensive — The first three Mixtiles are $49 (including shipping). That is a high price to pay for this quality level. But the more that you buy, the more it makes sense to do so. This service is particularly useful for events, where you might need to gather large set of mounted photos in short order.

The Art of the Video Essay

I’ve been diving into the work of Patrick Willems on YouTube recently and I enjoyed his piece on the art of the video essay.

Willems argues that the format is fairly stale at this point. Many video essay-ists are actually filmmakers in reality, but their essays don’t reflect the full breadth of their creative abilities. Why not?

I appreciate that Willems is trying to push the medium forward. His subsequent video essay on Star Wars begins to show what may be possible with the medium from a narrative standpoint.

An Oral History of Bob Costas’ Pink Eye

Kelly Conaboy, writing for Vulture:

Bob Costas: I found it odd that some people thought, “Well, he just can’t bear to give up his seat at the Olympics.” I’d done ten Olympics by that time. My honest feeling was: this is my job, and I’m the one who’s prepared to do this job. You know, it’s hard to just — when Matt and Meredith were thrown into it, the researchers wrote stuff for them, and they did a great, professional job. But I’d prepared to do the job; I was the person suited to do the job. And you don’t want to let your colleagues down. They work harder than the hosts do. They’ve spent a year, or a year and a half, traveling the world, doing research, compiling all these research manuals, producing these pieces, and you’re kind of carrying the ball for them. So you don’t want to feel as if you’ve let them down.

I thought this was a ridiculous premise for an oral history piece, but it turned out to be a thought-provoking meditation on what life in the spotlight is like, and the limits of professionalism. Amazing work by Conaboy.

The /Filmcast Interview with Rian Johnson

This is one of the best things that I’ve ever been a part of.

This week, Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson stopped by the /Filmcast for a couple hours. We talked about what it was like to get the offer to direct Star Wars, how he arrived at some of the themes of the film, and how he’s dealing with the polarized reaction from fans.

The first time I spoke with Rian was many years ago when he wrote/directed a a tiny, weird movie called The Brothers Bloom (I loved it). To see him go from that $5MM movie to commanding one of the biggest franchises in cinema history has been a wonder to behold.

And not to toot my own horn, but I also think this is one of the best interviews that’s out there on the topic of the film. Strongly considering retiring after this one – might as well go out on top.

Anyway, so honored to have been able to do this. I hope you enjoy it.

My 10 favorite longreads of 2017

I didn’t get nearly as much reading done in 2017 as I wanted to — hence why this year’s list is coming out much later than usual. I didn’t even know if it was worth putting together a list, as many of these choices are from the first half of the year, before I got a new full-time job and barely had the time to enjoy longform journalism regularly.

But hey, I’ve been keeping this list running for several years now, and it would be a shame to stop it just for having an off year. So without further ado, here are 10 pieces I read in 2017 that I really appreciated:

My President Was Black – On the verge of the Trump presidency, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ wrote a moving account of the Obama White House, capturing both its redemptive nature and the high price that came with it.

The Republican Waterloo – Healthcare was a hot button issue this year and in this essay, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum explains why the Republican strategy was always bound to be a losing one.

The Heart of Whiteness – Ijeoma Oluo’s interview with Rachel Dolezal is contentious, uncomfortable, and revealing. It also helps to bring some closure to this crazy saga of the past two years.

The Lost Picture Show: Hollywood Archivists Can’t Escape Obsolescence – One of the side effects of the digital age is the challenge of archiving films. With a frightening, clinical approach, Marty Perlmutter lays out the very real possibility that many of our greatest cultural works are in danger of being lost forever.

The Leftovers: Life, Death, Einstein and Time Travel – There’s been a lot of great writing about The Leftovers, but this piece by Maureen Ryan is my favorite. It really destroyed me. Ryan powerfully relates personal tragedy with how the show captures grief.

The Silence of the Lambs – Kathryn Joyce chronicles a sex scandal in the Protestant church, demonstrating that complicity and cover-ups are not confined to any single religion.

Four Castaways Make a Family – You don’t have to be biologically related to be a family. In this piece, Rene Denfield describes the process of adopting children. And while she makes it sound intensely difficult to love someone that much (especially when they don’t love you back), it’s also clear that sometimes only the hard things are worth doing.

The Two Americans – Sabrina Tavernise writes about the case of Abraham Davis, who helped vandalize a mosque in Fort Smith, Arkansas, then unexpectedly found forgiveness by the people he attacked. Even in the increasingly divided age that we live in, love still trumps hate.

How Uber’s Hard-Charging Corporate Culture Left Employees Drained – Caroline O’Donovan and Priya Anand’s deep dive into Uber’s intense culture asks the question: What is the true cost of unicorn startup valuations, and is it worth it?

Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Accusers for DecadesHarvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories, and many others  Possibly the most socially consequential stories of the year, Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow broke the story on Harvey Weinstein’s years of sexual assaults, and helped create a movement whose impact is still being felt today.

The best movie moments of 2017

I love thinking through the best movie moments in a given year. More than any other aspect, the individual moments of grandeur and spectacle in films stay with me long after I’ve watched them.

That’s why I was glad to contribute to /Film’s “56 Best movie moments of 2017” piece. There are some great moments on here, assembled by the entire staff. Here’s what I had to say about the ending of The Killing of a Sacred Deer:

My longstanding belief about conspiracy theories is that they’re popular because deep down, humans prefer to believe there’s a higher power at work. It’s terrifying to contemplate the possibility that every occurrence is completely random. Much more reassuring to think that someone is pulling all the strings, even if that someone is malevolent. The Killing of a Sacred Deer turns this notion on its head. Here, surgeon Steve Murphy (Colin Farrell) becomes increasingly certain that teenager Martin (played chillingly by Barry Keoghan) exerts an other-worldly power over his family, causing them to become sick. The only thing that will cause it to stop is if Murphy takes one of his family member’s lives – retribution for Murphy errantly taking the life of Martin’s father in a botched surgery. After agonizing over how to proceed, Farrell decides that introducing randomness into the equation is the only solution. He ties up his family in the living room and spins around randomly, firing a rifle until one of them is dead. It’s a brutal, heartbreaking scene with an unspeakable outcome, demonstrating that sometimes, chance is only outcome we can live with.

The Definitive Takedown of ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’

MovieBob (AKA Bob Chipman) has created a series of video essays totaling 4 hours (!) discussing everything wrong with Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is one of the most comprehensive analyses of any film that I’ve ever watched — Chipman covers everything from the film’s aesthetics and structure, to why Snyder’s overall attitude towards superheroes might’ve made him the wrong director for this film.

Most importantly, I think Chipman hits the nail on the head by calling Batman v Superman an act of cultural vandalism. It takes characters who are beloved, revered, and admired, and it completely defaces everything we know about them. That is not inherently a bad idea. Great pieces of art often subvert, deconstruct, and satirize. But in this case, the end result does not make it feel worthwhile.

Batman v Superman was a disaster of a film, but what remains tragic to me is how it has essentially ruined these characters for a generation. If I had a child, I would not take them to go see the film and if I’d seen it when was a kid, I can’t imagine admiring or wanting to be either of these characters. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman created this psychic void of heroism and integrity that these characters used to fill. Watching these video essays helped me reckon with that loss.

This set of videos isn’t without its own flaws — some of Chipman’s points are self-admittedly minor nitpicks, the aesthetics of the videos might not be up to everyone’s standards, and there is a significant amount of repetition — but if a YouTube video essays can be said to be a genre, then this is one of the best entries in that genre that I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended for any film fan.

Black Mirror: Season 4 review

When I watch Black Mirror, I’m really only looking for the show to do the following: Take my understanding of technology, extend it to its logical conclusion, and then twist it in such a way so as to make me question all my values. By this measure, the fourth season of Black Mirror is a resounding success.

I binged the entire season on the day it was released on Netflix. Here are a few thoughts on each episode:

“USS Callister” (S4E1): This episode refines ideas from Black Mirror Christmas special (specifically, the concept of enslaved computer programs), and combines them with commentary on toxic male fandom and unsafe workplaces. I love that it captures the feel of Star Trek — both original series AND new Abrams reboot (somehow). It’s clearly made with a lot of love towards the franchise, and felt like it honored Star Trek, while adding to it. The third-act suffers from incredibly far-fetched plotting but the episode’s very last moments are great. Grade: A-

“Arkangel” (S4E2): The lesson of this episode is that you must never parent too much. But never too little either. It must be precisely the right amount, lest horrors befall you and your family. This is the kind of episode that people who dislike Black Mirror often think of it as: facile, alarmist, and moderately ridiculous. Grade: D

“Crocodile” (S4E3): This episode is insane — nearly a self-parody in how over-the-top and dark it was. The premise is ludicrous. The ending is so stupid as to be insulting. It does almost nothing to explore the inner life of the main character and as a result, ends up revealing very little about technology or human nature. That said, it is gorgeously shot on location in Iceland and I will happily watch Andrea Riseborough act the hell out of anything. Grade: F+

“Hang the DJ” (S4E4): A wonderful, heartbreaking look at the dehumanizing effects of modern dating apps (with some dystopian aspects of The Lobster mixed in for good measure). Hell is dating other people. This episode is beautiful, though, and joins “San Junipero,” “Be Right Back,” and “The Entire History of You” as part of a excellent quadrilogy of short films about how technology impacts love and relationships (Thanks to Kyle Turner for pointing this out). Grade: A

“Metalhead” (S4E5): What happens when we piss off robots one too many times? This mostly thrilling episode (shot completely in black and white) tries to answer that question. A solid modern-day riff on The Terminator, with impressive visual effects. While it’s a decent genre exercise, it’s not as thought-provoking as the best of Black MirrorGrade: B

“Black Museum” (S4E6): How would advanced technology impact the fields of medicine and crime? This mini-anthology episode tries to answer that question by masterfully weaving together three stories into a main narrative that involves a girl visiting a mysterious and horrifying museum (loaded with Black Mirror easter eggs). I loved each of the vignettes and enjoyed the broader story as well. This is as good as it gets. Grade: A

Overall thoughts: If there’s one overarching theme for this season, it’s the concept that one day, computer programs will be able to experience consciousness, and therefore, pain. Our society will be ill-equipped to deal with this when it happens.

I think we got three great episodes (USS Callister, Hang the DJ, Black Museum), one good episode (Metalhead), and two outright terrible episodes (Arkangel, Crocodile). Any show would be great to rack up numbers like this, but for a show as ambitious as Black Mirror, it’s especially impressive given that we’re already into the show’s fourth season. I’ll be crossing my fingers for a fifth.

The 8 podcast episodes of 2017 that I’m most proud of

A lot of writers on Twitter have been sharing pieces they’ve created this year that they’re most proud of. Since I do way more podcasting than writing, I thought I’d take this idea and apply it to the podcast episodes I’m proud of having been part of. Here they are in no particular order:

1) The /Filmcast: Transformers: The Last Knight review with Paul Scheer – Paul Scheer’s comedy career has been ascendant recently (I loved him in The Disaster Artist) so it was a delight to have him on the /Filmcast to dismantle this atrocity of a franchise film. Bonus: We used this episode to raise over $8500 for LA Children’s Hospital.

Download the ep here, or listen below:

2) A Cast of Kings – Live from Con of Thrones: The Ghosts of Westeros Panel – I was honored to moderate this panel with Joanna Robinson at Con of Thrones, in front of an audience of thousands of Game of Thrones fans. We talked with characters who’ve met brutal ends on the show. It was really a geek’s dream come true.

Download the ep here, or listen below:

3) The Tobolowsky Files: The Soldiers of Empathy – This episode from the latest season of the Tobolowsky Files is a wonderful articulation of the challenges and rewards of being an actor.

Download the ep here, or listen below:

4) The /Filmcast: The Dark Tower movie review with Matt Singer – I try not to take too much glee in panning films. Nobody sets out to make a terrible film, and even the worst films feature a lot of hard work from dozens, if not hundreds, of people. But Sony’s The Dark Tower felt like such a half-hearted effort, lacking the resources necessary to tell a story of such epic scope and tragically closing off the possibility of any similar adaptations for the foreseeable future. I had fun deconstructing this film with Matt Singer from Screencrush.

I try to do at least one of these movie dissections per year with Matt Singer and it’s always a lot of fun. See: our review of Collateral Beauty last year.

5) Peaks TV: Series Finale recap – The return of Twin Peaks was a genuinely exciting television event. David Lynch opted not only to subvert viewer expectations, but to deliver episodes that were chock full of exciting ideas and bravura filmmaking. That said, the experience of watching the show could often be baffling and disorienting. I’m proud of the finale recap episode I recorded with Joanna, where we try our best to explain WTF happened and summarize the entire experience of watching this unique show.

Listen below:

6) A Cast of Kings: Season Finale recap – This season of Game of Thrones was amazing and terrible in almost equal measure, hinging largely on an incredibly stupid plotline up North that was totally unbelievable. That said, I was happy that Joanna Robinson and I got to dissect the show in brutal detail as usual. This recap of the season finale really nailed many of the issues and the joys we had with the show as a whole. It’s also Joanna Robinson at her best, bringing wit and insight to this beloved series.

[Side note: A Cast of Kings shattered download records this year. Over 300K people downloaded this episode.]

Download or listen below:

7) The /Filmcast: Blade Runner 2049 review with C. Robert Cargill – I’ve followed C. Robert Cargill’s work since he was a movie reviewer for AICN. Since then, he’s gone on to write two hit films (Sinister and Doctor Strange), and become a brilliant creator in his own right. His appearance on the podcast this year to review one of my favorite sci-fi films of recent memory was a wonderful geek-out session.

Download or listen below:

8) The /Filmcast: A lot of conversations about The Last Jedi – The /Filmcast did two episodes on The Last Jedi, totaling about 3.5 hours of conversation (not to mention this additional 1-hour Periscope I recorded). I’m about done talking about this film, but was super thrilled to have many thought-provoking conversations about how this film takes the Star Wars franchise in bold new directions. Our first episode can be found here. Our spoiler-filled follow-up episode is below.

Download or listen below:

Asians and Affirmative Action

Aaron Mak, writing for Slate, about his decision to hide his ethnicity during the college admissions process:

There are multiple ways to interpret my college application experience, all of which hinge on whether you believe the allegations of anti-Asian discrimination in college admissions. If you believe that the discrimination does exist, then my attempts at passing were a way to sidestep a policy that treats me unfairly. If you believe it doesn’t exist, then I bought into a myth designed to slander affirmative action for the benefit of a white majority, giving rise to an anxiety-ridden climate in which Asian applicants are constantly told that they need to take steps to hide their identities.

I know many Asians who’ve struggled with these kinds of issues. Whether there’s actual advantage or a disadvantage to being perceived as Asian, it’s never something that we have the option to stop thinking about.

Errol Morris’ review of ‘Finding Frances’

Errol Morris, writing for The New Yorker, about the season finale of Nathan For You:

What’s the difference between a bad impersonator and a meta-impersonator? Or between true love and delusion? What makes something real? That we believe in it? That we can convince others to? These questions all come to a head in Fielder’s season finale. Maybe we are all poseurs pretending to be real people. Or possibly the other way around. The series, and this episode especially, is a perfect imitation of life. I mean, a perfect imitation of an imitation of life. However you want to describe it, it is some of the most interesting “reality”-based work yet made.

What a delight to see my favorite filmmaker commenting on one of my favorite pieces of television of the year. See also: My review of Nathan For You: Season 4

 

 

Bojack Horseman Season 4 takes the existentialism up a notch

[Spoilers for Bojack ahead]

No show does modern existentialism as well as Netflix’s Bojack Horseman. Beneath its searing satire of showbiz, its whimsical world in which animals talk and coexist with humans, and its nonstop barrage of obscure references and puns, there’s a core that gets to how painful, lonely, and sad modern life can be.

I enjoyed the first few season but I dragged my feet on getting through season four, for one simple reason: the first three seasons were so emotionally devastating that I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to this world.

Season four takes this punishing feeling of malaise and doubles down on it. There were two episodes in particular that really got to me:

Season 4 episode 9 (Ruthie– In the distant future, Princess Caroline’s great-great-grandaughter recounts one of Princess Caroline’s most challenging days. Princess Caroline loses her baby, then almost blows up her entire life in the aftermath. At the end of the episode, we discover that the future construct is completely imagined by Princess Caroline herself, purely as a means of soothing herself.

It’s a brutal gut-punch of an ending, precisely because the introduction is so enticing. It is reassuring to imagine that your descendants are still around, generations from now. And it’s equally terrifying to consider that this imagining might be the only thing separating us from a total mental and emotional collapse.

Season 4 episode 11 (Time’s Arrow) – This episode is one of the most visceral depictions of dementia I’ve ever witnessed, primarily due to its usage of the first-person perspective. We see Bojack’s mother, Beatrice, experience flashbacks of her entire existence with some notable omissions (many people’s faces, with Henrietta’s scratched out entirely to indicate her esteem in Beatrice’s mind). We see why Beatrice resents Bojack — and men in general. Bojack trapped her in a terrible marriage with a cheating husband.

As the episode draws to a close, Beatrice seems to regain her bearings. And even though Bojack is about to leave her in a terrible place, he provides one final act of kindness by walking her through an idyllic fantasy in their final moments together. Even in anger, there can be flashes of humanity. Even in moments of rage, our familial ties can be impossible to ignore.

**

Was it a great season of the show? It’s not my favorite. Bojack tried venturing away from its more familiar show-biz obsessed formulas and opted instead to dive further into Bojack’s family history. While the episodes above were extremely effective, I find myself more exhausted by this show than I have in the past. Its whimsy no longer counteracts its overbearing sense of fatalism.

I relate so much to the messages of this show. Bojack Horseman has helped me to understand what it’s like to be me, and why I feel the way I feel. But more and more, I think I might need more of a distraction from being me. After all, I’m already me for most of the time.

‘Every Frame a Painting’ comes to an end

Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, writing about the end of their wildly popular YouTube series Every Frame a Painting:

Everyone who works in filmmaking knows the triangle: Faster, Cheaper, Better. Pick two. A film can be made fast and cheap, but it won’t be good. Or you can make it fast and good, but it won’t be cheap. Or it can be cheap and good, but it won’t happen fast.

Every Frame a Painting was made after we came home from our day jobs and paid our bills. That kept it cheap. We also tried really hard to make it good. Which ultimately meant we had to sacrifice “fast.”The big danger for future video essayists is that large websites have started moving away from the written word and towards video, which is completely unsustainable. Video is just too expensive and time-consuming to make.

The end of an era. Every Frame a Painting was one of the gold standards for video essay channels, being both influential and widely viewed. But there’s something to be said about holding close to one’s principles and going out on top.

This farewell essay brings to light exactly how unsustainable and nonsensical all this media industry talk of “pivoting to video” is. Video production and video editing are costly, time-consuming affairs. User acquisition in today’s saturated environment is intensely challenging. And that’s not even getting to the monetization piece yet! Every Frame a Painting couldn’t figure out a way to make it work that satisfied their creative goals, even with robust Patreon campaign. What hope do people who aren’t insanely talented have?

The other troubling issue this essay highlights is how challenging it is to even make video essays for YouTube these days. Zhou had to reverse engineer the Content ID algorithm, then alter footage (or only show extremely brief clips of it) to avoid getting his work taken down and blocked. As someone who’s had their work taken down due to spurious copyright claims, I know firsthand that publishing video essays on Youtube can be a frustrating experience that privileges the copyright holder in nearly all circumstances.

Basically, it’s hard out there for a video essayist these days.