Remembering Bill Paxton

I was super upset this morning to hear of the passing of Bill Paxton.

Paxton was an actor who was memorable in every single role he played. I always found his characters to be relatable and likable, no matter what film he was in, or even what kind of character he was playing.

Aliens. Apollo 13TitanicNightcrawlerTrue Lies. The man had a ton of range and was a frequent presence in some of my favorite movies of all time.

His directorial debut, Frailty, was a confident, creepy thriller and foretold the McConnaissance. It’s a movie that does not get nearly enough love.

His recent performance in Edge of Tomorrow may not be his best but it is one of my favorite. In it, he plays Master Sergeant Farell, a hardass who whips Tom Cruise’s character into shape and delivers harsh pronouncements with style:

The good news is there’s hope for you private. Hope in the form of glorious combat. Battle is the Great Redeemer. It is the fiery crucible in which true heroes are forged. The one place where all men truly share the same rank, regardless of what kind of parasitic scum they were going in.

No one could deliver a monologue quite like him.

RIP Bill Paxton. You brought joy to a lot of people.

The stakes of this year’s Oscars

David Cox, writing for The Guardian:

It is easy to see why the Academy’s voters have embraced La La Land. Many of them will have followed a path all too similar to Seb and Mia’s. Seeing their life-choices vindicated by the witchcraft of their trade must have been something of a comfort. All the same, the best picture winners that stick in the memory, such as Schindler’s List, Gandhi, Chariots of Fire and Titanic, tend to extol humanity’s better nature, not its shortcomings.

This time round there are also films among La La Land’s doomed rivals that could make us proud of our species. Moonlight deals with love. Manchester by the Sea offers contrition. Arrival honours inquiry. Hacksaw Ridge celebrates selflessness. Any of these would be a worthier winner than Damien Chazelle’s tawdry and dispiriting confection. La La Land’s victory on Sunday night will tell us something about our era. But it will be no triumph for film-makers, filmgoers or film.

Amrou Al-Kadhi, writing for The Independent:

I’m now 26, and in my career, I’ve been sent nearing 30 scripts for which I’ve been asked to play terrorists on screen. Roles have varied from ones as meaty as “Suspicious Bearded Man on Tube” to “Muslim man who hides his bombs in a deceptive burka” […]

Stories onscreen have the rare ability to arouse empathy for diverse characters in audiences across the world, so leaving out Arab and Muslim voices in such a context of global Islamophobia is particularly damaging. With masterful directors, sublime works like Moonlight happen; now the story of gay black masculinity in the Miami ghetto has become that much more relatable and mainstream. It is my genuine belief that if the TV and film industry had been more diligent in representing Arab characters – with all our humane, complex, intersectional three-dimensionality – xenophobia would not be as pandemic as it is today.

And hence I pray that La La Land doesn’t clean up at the Oscars (as at the BAFTAs). For this would be a sign that the industry prioritises the celebration of itself first of all, self-indulgently rejoicing in its own nostalgic – and white – mythology.

As I touched on in this week’s Gen Pop, many aspects of life seem to have become proxies for other battles our culture is currently engaging in. Some people look at the Oscars race between Moonlight and La La Land and see an epic conflict between celebrating diversity and celebrating whiteness. In reality, those films are the end products of two passionate filmmakers who just wanted to tell their stories.

Thus, I’m not sure how much significance to place on who wins Best Picture this year. It’s the product of so many different variables, some of them unknowable and uncontrollable. At the same time, I can’t begrudge Al-Kadhi his own reaction; if I’d been subjected to the same treatment as him during his career, I might have a lot of hope in Moonlight this weekend too.

Twitter Thread of the Day: Anand Giridharadas on Kansas hate crime

I spend a lot of time on Twitter and I see tons of amazing dialogue and reflections. Twitter Thread of the Day is a feature on my blog where I’ll try to share one thread that was particularly interesting, smart, moving, or impactful for me. Go here to read previous editions. 

Today’s TTOTD comes from Anand Giridharadas, who writes about the shooting of Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani in Kansas. The attack seems like a clear example of a hate crime, fueled by the current political climate that’s awash in anti-immigrant sentiment. Giridharadas explains how this happened.

[Note: If you’re ever featured here and don’t want to be, feel free to get in touch with me via email at davechen(AT)davechen(DOT)net]

The Washington Post’s new slogan

The Washington Post’s new slogan is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” It’s fitting, punchy, and alliterative. And it could’ve been so much worse.

In an article in their style section, Paul Farhi reveals some of the rejected options:

The group brainstormed more than 500 would-be slogans. The choices ranged from the heroic (“Dauntless Defenders of the Truth”) to the clunky (“American democracy lives down the street. No one keeps closer watch.”) to the Zen-like (“Yes. Know.”).

The group ultimately ended up where it started — with “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

Note: apparently coming up with a new slogan is now a good way to generate a lot of media coverage (including one’s own).

Early buzz for the Nintendo Switch

The Nintendo Switch will be released on March 3, but today a bunch of “pre-reviews” and unboxings hit the web. The hardware sounds great. The software? No one really knows.

Chris Plante, writing for The Verge:

The tablet summons that giddy feeling I got from Apple’s original iPhone, and long before both, Nintendo’s own original Game Boy. It’s beautiful, it’s simple, and it feels a bit like magic. Nintendo has long encouraged players to step outside, and now they’ve made a home console that allows for that. Relaxing in a lawn-chair in my backyard while tooling around an open-world Zelda feels luxurious […]

I just wish I could say the same about its software. A little over a week from launch, I can’t tell you a single thing about what it’s like to download games, play online with friends, or even format a microSD card. That is absurd. And while I know we will have answers, the fact that we don’t know at this point leaves me concerned, bordering on skeptical. It doesn’t help that Nintendo leadership can’t give clear answers to simple questions in Q&As.

Arthur Gies, writing for Polygon:

[T]he Switch’s online components, including account registration and retrieval, online play, wireless networking for protected hotspots and even the online store are not currently functional. These are locked behind a “day one” software update that Nintendo apparently expects to go live right around the same time the console goes on sale.

How functional this will actually be on day one is up for debate, as even Nintendo has admitted that online play will be more or less in beta until this fall. But that isn’t the only thing that feels unfinished about the Switch right now.

The biggest current issue with the Switch is one of basic reliability. Over the course of my time with Breath of the Wild, I’ve had repeated problems with the left Joy-Con controller partially or even completely losing sync from the Switch console while docked and connected to my television. This is a pain in the ass at best, but has also resulted in several deaths playing Breath of the Wild.

Sounds like Nintendo is going to pull another WiiU and issue a massive Day One patch to solve these hardware/software issues. Beyond basic functionality, it sounds like Nintendo is scrambling just to get this thing done on time.  A lot of these written impressions and tweets convey that the system feels unfinished. Maybe that feeling will go away eventually, but for now it really feels like they rushed the system to launch at the same time as Zelda: Breath of the Wild (a critical launch title, also coming out for WiiU), and not the other way around.

Spotify’s “Cinematic Chill-Out” playlist will give you chills

Over the course of the past year, I’ve gotten addicted to Spotify. I enjoy the fact that it’s cross-platform, and thus integrates into products like my Amazon Echo. But I also love the playlists and Discover Weekly feature, which surface musical choices that I never would’ve thought of.

Today, “Cinematic Chill-Out” popped up on my “Browse” tab and it’s a great playlist full of film scores that are easy on the ears. I already loved a lot of these selections, but there are a bunch that I’d never considered before. You can take a listen to it below.

Ignoring Trump is impossible

Farhad Manjoo, writing for The New York Times, about his attempt to ignore any news related to President Trump for one week:

On most days, Mr. Trump is 90 percent of the news on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and probably yours, too. But he’s not 90 percent of what’s important in the world. During my break from Trump news, I found rich coverage veins that aren’t getting social play. ISIS is retreating across Iraq and Syria. Brazil seems on the verge of chaos. A large ice shelf in Antarctica is close to full break. Scientists may have discovered a new continent submerged under the ocean near Australia.

There’s a reason you aren’t seeing these stories splashed across the news. Unlike old-school media, today’s media works according to social feedback loops. Every story that shows any signs of life on Facebook or Twitter is copied endlessly by every outlet, becoming unavoidable.

Trump is inescapable in ways that previous presidents have not been. It is impossible to discuss pop culture or media without considering his influence. We touched a bit on this in the most recent episode of the Gen Pop podcast.

The only thing I disagree with Manjoo about is that this level of Trump news “isn’t sustainable.” It can certainly be sustained if media decisionmakers wish it. But per Manjoo’s concerns above, it’s probably not advisable.

Brief thoughts on Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’

I had a chance to see Jordan Peele’s Get Out last night and I thought it was great. A few (non-spoilery) observations:

  • Do yourself a favor: don’t see the trailer before you see this one. I went in almost completely fresh and I think I enjoyed it much more as a result. Also: since there are a few big surprises in the film, I’m going to be as vague as possible with my thoughts below.
  • Both Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele showed on Key and Peele that they could master virtually any genre stylistically, from hard-core action film to irreverent comedy. It’s one thing to be able to imitate a style for a two-minute sketch — it’s another to be able to sustain a horror film atmosphere for a little over two hours. Peele definitely does that here. As a debut film, Get Out is stylistically solid. Thematically, it’s spectacular.
  • There are so many layers of allegory here that it’s astonishing Peele was able to fit them all in. According to Peele, the target of the film is racism. “We were living in this post-racial lie. So I wanted to call that out,” he said in an interview with CNN. I look forward to discussing this further after the movie is out in theaters.
  • There are several memorable performances here for actors that weren’t really on my radar before: Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson both have amazing moments, but LilRel Howery really steals the show.
  • A few people have asked: is the film scary? Are there a lot of jump scares? I’d say there are very few hallmarks of conventional horror films here, like gore, body horror, or jump scares, though they are there in judicious amounts. It’s not a particularly violent film (although I definitely wouldn’t take a child to see this movie, like someone did for our screening last night). Instead, what the film does well is projecting an atmosphere of menace throughout.
  • If you can, see the movie with a lively crowd. This is one of those horror films that benefits from audience participation.

I also shared some thoughts on Periscope about it last night, so do check that out as well.

The benevolent deception of fake progress bars

Kaveh Waddell, writing for The Atlantic, on how some programs like TurboTax use fake progress bars in their UIs:

It’s not because TurboTax delights in messing with its clients. Instead, the site’s artificial wait times are an example of what Eytan Adar, a professor of information and computer science at the University of Michigan, calls “benevolent deception.” In a paper he published in 2013 with a pair of Microsoft researchers, Adar described a wide range of design decisions that trick their users—but end up leaving them better off.

Benevolent deceptions can hide uncertainty (like when Netflix automatically loads default recommendations if it doesn’t have the bandwidth to serve personalized ones), mask system hiccups to smooth out a user’s experience (like when a progress bar grows at a consistent rate, even if the process it’s visualizing is stuttering), or help people get used to a new form of technology (like the artificial static that Skype plays during quiet moments in a conversation to convince users the call hasn’t been dropped).

From my experience with TurboTax, the fake progress bars work. If “checking my taxes” was instantaneous, it’d probably feel way less satisfying, and I’d be more doubtful that the software was functioning correctly. That being said, as Waddell points out at the article’s end, these positive feelings can also have some insidious effects, like making the software seem more complicated and valuable than it truly is.

The world’s first color-changing hair dye

Wired has a look at this color-changing hair dye, which makes for some spectacular time lapse videos:

Lauren Bowker’s firm The Unseen uses chemistry alongside design to create so-called “reactive fashion.” The brand’s patented colour-change technology focuses on material science and data to create bespoke inks, compounds and coatings that result in clothes that change colour with different temperatures and humidity. Within fashion circles, Bowker is known as ‘The Alchemist’.

Her latest creation, FIRE draws upon the powers of transformation that have epitomised her work. A specially formulated hair dye, FIRE is a chemical concoction that can reveal an array of colours previously unseen.

FIRE is designed to be responsive to temperature fluctuations, and is available in multiple colour ranges from bright red to subtle pastels. The data used to create the dye stems from the process of thermoregulation in the human skin and the colour change chemical reaction occurs in response to a certain stimuli – in this case, changes in the environment. When the temperature drops or rises, the carbon-based molecules at the core of the FIRE dye undergo a reversible reaction.

“If it arouses an emotional response in you, double-check it.”

Great article by Deena Shanker at Bloomberg, talking with experts on how to avoid fake news:

“My biggest rule of thumb is if it arouses an emotional response in you, double-check it,” said Brooke Binkowksi, managing editor at Snopes, a website that specializes in debunking popular internet myths from both the left and the right. “They upset you because they’re meant to.”

When a story seems outrageous, such as a five-year-old Syrian refugee shown in handcuffs before deportation, it might not be true—or entirely true. That Syrian girl wasn’t in handcuffs, her father said after he had heard the reports, and they aren’t refugees. The photo shows detained Syrians trying to go on vacation who, despite their visas, were denied entry and had to return home. Binkowski and D.C. Vito, executive director of the Lamp, which teaches media literacy in New York, suggest searching for a second source, especially when a story is incendiary.

Twitter Thread of the Day: Zeynep Tufekci on “Liberal Outrage”

I spend a lot of time on Twitter and I see tons of amazing dialogue and reflections. Twitter Thread of the Day is a feature on my blog where I’ll try to share one thread that was particularly interesting, smart, moving, or impactful for me.

Today’s TTOTD comes from Zeynep Tufecki, a scholar whose work I’ve admired for quite awhile. In the wake of a conservative personality’s book getting canceled and his speaking invitation at CPAC getting rescinded, Tufecki tweeted some trenchant insights about the forces that are really responsible for this. It’s not liberal outrage.

[Note: If you’re ever featured here and don’t want to be, feel free to get in touch with me via email at davechen(AT)davechen(DOT)net]

Re-creating a scene from ‘Goodfellas’ with a $2,000 camera 

TheCameraStoreTV is one of my favorite YouTube channels. They offer in-depth reviews of cameras, delivered with an affable tone and an air of fun.

One series they’ve been doing is “Wooden Niccolls” in which their main host, Chris Niccolls, tries to re-create famous scenes from movies, but using the consumer-grade cameras that they have access to. For their latest entry, they tried re-making a scene from Goodfellas using the upcoming Panasonic GH5:

These videos are very amusing, and the final results are impressive. It seems like it truly is possible to get pretty close to the look of a scene from a classic film, so long as you have the right lighting setup. However, this is also true of a lot of other high-end mirrorless and DSLR cameras these days. I would’ve appreciated a closer look at exactly how much you can push GH5 footage in post, or what flexibility you have with GH5 footage in non-studio conditions. That being said, the ungraded GH5 log footage they show in the video looks fantastic.

I used to own a Panasonic GH4 and while I enjoyed shooting with it, I eventually sold it because I just didn’t find the Micro 4/3rds format (and the Panasonic lenses I used with it) delivered on the sharpness, bokeh, and separation that I was looking for in my images and videos. Moreover, the low-light performance was just not comparable to competitors. I’ve recently fallen in love with the Fuji X-T2, which is a camera I take with me almost everywhere.

That being said, the GH5 looks really formidable in its video specs, and since Canon doesn’t seem to really care about the mirrorless/DSLR video revolution, I might check it out just to see what’s possible.

Twitter Thread of the Day: Abigail Nussbaum on Nick Fury and Black Panther

I spend a lot of time on Twitter and I see tons of amazing dialogue and reflections. One of the things that make me sad about platforms like Twitter is how quickly they move — tweets show up for a few minutes on your feed, and then they’re gone. Maybe they resurface again later in their “You Might Have Missed” feature, but even then it can be rare. Thus, “Twitter Thread of the Day” is a feature on my blog where I’ll try to share one thread that was particularly interesting, smart, moving, or impactful for me.

Today’s TTOTD comes from Abigail Nussbaum, who points out some of the issues with Marvel’s universe of characters. [Note: If you’re ever featured here and don’t want to be, feel free to get in touch with me via email at davechen(AT)davechen(DOT)net]

A ‘Rogue One’ visual effects breakdown

Industrial Light and Magic has released this spectacular visual effects breakdown of the climactic space battle sequence in Rogue One.

The most impressive part to me is that massive lighting array they show, which I assume they use to shoot actors in X-Wings interacting with the space battle. A similar, much more elaborate rig, was used for Gravity. It’s cool to know that even for shots where you maybe see these pilots for maybe a few seconds each, they still put so much care into getting the look just right.


YouTube to end unskippable 30-second ads in 2018

In an official statement to Campaign, Google announced this week that they are ending 30-second unskippable ads on Youtube videos in 2018:

In an official statement, Google explained that its aim is to provide a better advertising experience for online users. “As part of that, we’ve decided to stop supporting 30-second unskippable ads as of 2018 and focus instead on formats that work well for both users and advertisers,” said a Google spokesman.

Unskippable ads were a double-edged sword for YouTube and publishers. While they guaranteed that users would have to watch the whole ad before getting to see the content they wanted, the drop off rates on these videos were significantly higher than for normal videos. Publishers had to balance the higher revenue received for the ads with the worse reach/retention, plus the user experience was degraded. Of course, skippable ads have their own problems, too.

My prediction? We will see more of a shift towards unskippable 5- or 6-second ads that make their point extremely quickly. Folks like Geico seem to have already mastered this format.

What’s Amy Heckerling up to these days?

Here’s a wonderful profile of Clueless director Amy Heckerling by Lindsay Zoladz, that’s as much an exploration of Heckerling’s career as it is about double standards in Hollywood:

Female directors have and will continue to set foot in uncharted territory — how can they not, when so much of it is uncharted? — and every so often a triumphant milestone makes the news. Frozen made codirector Jennifer Lee both the first woman to helm a Walt Disney Animation Studios movie and the first woman to direct a film that earned over $1 billion in gross box office revenue. When Ava DuVernay signed on last spring to direct the forthcoming blockbuster A Wrinkle in Time, she became the first woman of color to direct a live-action movie with a budget over $100 million. With this summer’s Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins will the first woman to direct a DC Comics movie. These are monumental achievements, but they are underscored by the immense pressure on these films to succeed, to stand for something larger than themselves; an unfair truth of the industry is that the opportunities for all women to direct superhero films in the future will be determined by how much money Jenkins’s Wonder Woman makes. The Female Director in the 21st century has cleared so many bars, but she has not yet achieved a milestone that’s less glamorous but no less important to both creativity and equality: the right to fail.

The nightmare of the Peggy Couch from West Elm

I don’t usually blog about furniture here, but this post by Anna Hezel at The Awl about the Peggy Couch from West Elm really got to me:

Around when the throw pillows finally arrived, the couch began to disintegrate in small ways. We would scooch across a cushion at the wrong angle, and a button would pop off, leaving a fraying hole behind. We would lean back slightly too far, and all of the cushions would shift forward and over the edge of the couch in unison. As soon as one button had fallen off of our couch, it was like a spigot had been turned, allowing all of the other buttons to fall off, too. I emailed customer service and asked if this was normal. They sent me a button-repair kit, indicating that this probably happens a lot. The kit was backordered, so it arrived two full months later and contained a wooden dowel, two buttons, and some directions that didn’t make sense. One direction was to “Hold the cushion properly and make sure the pointed end of the stick is all the way through, until you can see both ends of the stick on each side of the cushion.” I tried in earnest to follow the directions, but the wooden dowel would not fit into the buttonholes, and the entire exercise left me with fewer buttons than I started with.

Every component of this story is nuts, from the fleet of disaffected Peggy purchasers out there trying to warn people against this couch to the awful repair kit that West Elm sends out for people having problems. Most importantly: West Elm says the couch is supposed to last 1-3 years with light use. That is an insultingly short period of time, and not a meaningful upgrade from, say, an IKEA couch. In fact, it may actually be worse despite being more expensive.

I have friends who have had bad experiences at West Elm. After reading this article and taking that into account, I can’t imagine wanting to shop there for any expensive furniture. Instead, if you really want something that’s a big improvement over Craigslist/IKEA, I’d recommend a store like Room and Board. IKEA’s high end has also improved significantly over the years, and may be worth investigating.

Update: The Peggy Couch has now apparently been removed from West Elm’s site:

‘Logan’ movie review

I had a chance to see Logan this week and review it for /Film. It’s my favorite X-Men film.  It might even be my favorite superhero film. It’s up there with The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2. I loved it:

What makes Logan special is how it effortlessly navigates different genres and tones. It’s a road movie, but it’s also an action film with ambitious set pieces. It’s a sci-fi superhero film, but it’s also infused with a lot of humor and tenderness. Most importantly, it’s a fitting conclusion for one of the most iconic comic book character portrayals of the past 20 years.