‘Nathan For You’ Season 4 Review

This week, Nathan for You concluded its fourth season with an unprecedented two-hour event entitled “Finding Frances.” I wanted to share some detailed (spoiler-y) thoughts on the finale and the season as a whole.

As we begin, it’s important to note that I am not just a Nathan for You fan; I’m a Nathan for You evangelist. Nathan Fielder’s show, which features the comedic actor suggesting and implementing ridiculous business ideas, has been a razor-sharp satire of reality TV, not to mention an occasionally thought-provoking look at the media and human nature. I not only appreciate how the show has exposed weaknesses in our institutions (as Nathan does this season when he smuggles in an elaborate chili-dispensing system into a hockey stadium with nothing more than a doctor’s note) but have also laughed heartily at the way Fielder revels in the awkwardness of humanity.

All that said, I found the fourth season overall to be a bit disappointing. Fielder’s ideas for improving businesses became increasingly outlandish, and his elaborate “side quests” often showed even less connection to the original mission than in seasons past. While Fielder has always used a local business’ problems as a jumping off point for crazier pursuits (see: Dumb Starbucks), the gulf felt especially pronounced this year — and even occasionally mean-spirited, as Fielder’s dragnet entangled everyone from a local councilman to Craigslist musicians.

When I watch Nathan For You, I want something that uncomfortably blurs the line between reality and fiction, and that makes me question the nature of my reality. The finale of season 3 broke my brain with its ambition and execution, and I was hoping for something similar to occur this season as well.

I got my wish, twice.

I always enjoy checking out Fielder’s appearances on late night television, as I find them delightfully awkward. His appearance on Kimmel (above) showed Fielder at his best, delivering a long, drawn out anecdote about a run-in with police. A few elements of the story seemed off to me (the photo of the suit seemed too perfect and also, why would someone carry their mom’s ashes in a baggy?), but hey, who doesn’t exaggerate things on late night television?

In season 4 episode 4, “The Anecdote,” Fielder reveals that the anecdote was an elaborate ruse. He had watched countless late night appearances and reverse-engineered the perfect late night anecdote, then used his extensive resources to make the anecdote’s events come true in real life. What’s great about Nathan for You is it forces us to retroactively reconsider everything that has occurred up until this point. Was Fielder pretending to bad at late night talk shows this entire time, as an elaborate set up for this episode? How much of his entire personality is a public performance? The mind reels at the possibilities.

“The Anecdote” is a brilliant examination of the performative nature of these talk shows, as well as one of the best instances of transmedia storytelling I can recall (Fielder went on to discuss the anecdote on Seth Meyers and Conan). It is, in other words, Nathan for You at its finest.

The second time the show really got to me was with its finale, “Finding Frances,” which I found to be painful, funny, and moving. Shot as a full-blown documentary, Fielder takes on the case of Bill Heath, who is regretful about Frances, an ex-girlfriend from decades ago that he believes he should have married. Nathan agrees to help track her down so that Bill can confess his love to her. Along the way, we learn that Bill’s intentions and character are not quite as sterling as we’d hope for a mission that is this ambitious.

For one of the first times ever, “Finding Frances” forces us to consider the challenge of making Nathan For You. Fielder stages elaborate schemes, such as claiming that he’s filming a sequel to the indie film Mud, or having a “57-year Reunion” at a local school, all to try and get some scraps of information about Bill’s mysterious long lost love. At one point, Fielder describes himself as wandering aimlessly through Arkansas, with hundreds of hours of footage, unsure if this would even turn into an actual episode. There’s lots of footage of Fielder falling for Maci, a local escort, who he’d originally hired to socialize (non-sexually) with Bill. It makes you wonder how many Nathan For You episodes we never actually get to see because, while expensive, they never amounted to any story worth telling.

I was profoundly uncomfortable for most of the episode, as Bill not only seemed like a compulsive liar intent on using Fielder’s resources for his own gain, but also a lecherous old man with no empathy. I questioned not only whether the already-creepy idea of tracking down someone from a past life and exposing her info to a national tv audience was worth doing, but whether this was the guy that one should do it for. In one scene, Fielder asks Bill to play act his hypothetical interactions with Frances, and Bill is creepy AF, touching the actress inappropriately and believing that he and Frances can pick up right where he left off. But through the exercise, Bill does eventually gain an understanding of why Frances left him, and even admits to cheating on her.

Eventually, they get a break in the case and discover that Frances is now married and living in Muskegon, Michigan. Fielder, Bill, and the whole camera crew drive out to the Frances’ house in Muskegon to talk to her. But after thousands of miles traveled, Bill is unable to get out of the car and go to her front door. Instead, he decides to call her from the car. As the conversation plays out, Bill realizes that Frances has moved on with her life. At first, she can’t even recognize his voice. She’s happily married with nine grandchildren. Meanwhile, Bill’s life as an actor and performer didn’t quite turn out like he’d hoped. And he realizes that he probably shouldn’t confront Frances in person after all. It is one of the most raw pieces of tape I’ve ever seen on Nathan for You, or probably anywhere.

What “Finding Frances” reveals is that everyone has a story. To paraphrase Charlie Kaufman, we are all the main character in the play of our lives. This episode pulls back the curtain on one such main character, Bill Heath, and invites us to examine his regret, his excitements, his desires, even as a 78-year old man.

“Finding Frances” ends with Fielder returning to Arkansas to meet up again with the escort Maci. The two share an impromptu moment of connection before the cameras turn off. Fielder seems to be trying to complete his character’s arc on the show — Bill regretted never marrying Frances because his family looked down on her, so Fielder is determined not to repeat the same mistakes with Maci, even as she has a profession that some might also look down upon.

In reality, we are probably watching a highly edited, controlled, purposeful interaction. In reality, Maci has signed a release form to appear in this scene, and was likely paid some kind of fee. In reality, Fielder may have no feelings for Maci whatsoever, and has scripted “Finding Frances” to end exactly where it would feel satisfying.

But we have no idea where reality ends and fiction begins with Nathan For You. And that’s what I love about it.

What even is the point of Loki in the Thor movies anymore?

[This post contains SPOILERS for Thor: Ragnarok]

Thor: Ragnarok is the best reviewed Thor movie by a longshot (as of this writing, its RT score sits at 93%). I found the film did a great job of infusing director Taika Waititi’s off-kilter sense of humor into a well-established cinematic brand. You can view my Periscoped thoughts on the film right here.

But one thing nagged at me: What even is the point of Loki in the Thor movies anymore?

While I didn’t think Thor was the greatest Marvel film, one thing it unquestionably accomplished is bringing the Marvel Cinematic Universe its greatest villain: Loki. Hiddleston’s performance as Loki was charming but whiny, vicious but vulnerable. In other words, he was complex. Plus, the conflict between Loki and Thor was genuinely poignant — a Cain and Abel story played out against the massive backdrop of Norse/Marvel mythology.

Perhaps due to the MCU’s inability to consistently generate memorable villains (I dare you to use two adjectives to describe Malekith other than “evil”), the MCU films have clung to Loki as though he’s their lifeblood. He showed up as the villain in The Avengers, then appeared once more in Thor: The Dark World where he betrayed Thor, had a sad goodbye-death-scene, then somehow reappears later impersonating Odin.

In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor discovers Loki lounging around on Asgard as Odin. The two watch their father die, then end up in a crazy situation on the planet Sakaar where Loki again betrays Thor(!) before reuniting with him at the end to save Asgard. On a transport ship at the end of the film, Loki stands by Thor’s side as Thor leads Asgard’s people into the future.

At this point, I posit that Loki’s character has gone through so many twists and turns that it is impossible to attach any stakes to his position. One moment, he’s dead. The next, he’s alive. One moment, he hates Thor. The next, they are taking down Sakaarian guards like they’re playing a video game.

It’s a classic case of trying to extracting too many resources from one character, rendering their presence completely meaningless. I hope the MCU can work on its secondary character game a bit more (to some extent, Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, who never got his own film, is a pretty good example of what is possible). In the meantime, I’m sad that Loki seems to have befallen the same fate as Miley Cyrus.

Three lessons on storytelling from Brian Reed, the producer of S-Town

I was a big fan of the S-Town podcast when it was first released, so I was excited to have the opportunity to see producer Brian Reed give a talk about it recently at Benaroya Hall.

S-Town is the fastest growing podcast in history, with over 60 million downloads on its seven episodes to date. I found the podcast interesting because it pulled together disparate threads of American life into a compelling narrative: climate change, horology, poverty, journalistic ethics, and the history of the South.

Reed spoke for about 70 minutes and played a slideshow that featured audio that was cut from the final podcast. He was also gracious during an audience Q&A.

As he began, he talked about how important it was that Ira Glass at This American Life (where Reed is Senior Producer) had built an environment and budget where they could kill one-third of all stories that the staff pursued. This ensured that only the best of the best would ever make it to air, and allowed journalists to pursue stories far past the point most outlets would find acceptable.

Reed also mentioned a few principles that guided his work with the S-Town Podcast:

  1. Don’t use verbal sign-posting – In most podcasts, the hosts to go great pains to remind you what the program is about throughout the runtime of the show. This not only is helpful for a radio audience where someone may have tuned in halfway through the episode, but also helps convince someone to stay engaged and to understand the stakes. S-Town eschewed these methods in favor of a novelistic approach. Normal novels don’t explicitly state, “Hey, this is where these facts are all leading so stay tuned, okay?” Neither did S-Town, increasing the mystery and making it more engrossing for listeners who went in fresh.
  2. Create and include tape that tells the story and tape where emotional work is being done – Getting interviews of people conveying the narrative you want is table stakes for journalistic podcasts. What Reed thought was the most fascinating was tape where emotional work is actually being done by the journalist and subject — tape where stuff is happening and people are bouncing off each other in interesting ways. How did the subject react to something the journalist said? How were they egged on or discouraged? How have they decided to alter their decision path? Hearing all those things transpire can be fascinating, and Reed put a lot of the focus on that kind of tape when he was assembling the final podcast.
  3. Fact-check – Fact-checking is an extraordinarily useful way of extracting meaningful details out of the seemingly mundane. The key was to pursue promising but obscure avenues that had the potential to bear fruit. Everything in S-Town was rigorously fact-checked and some of the material uncovered (particularly content about mercury poisoning and fire gilding) was so fascinating that it helped shape the narrative of the podcast itself.

Overall, it was a fun talk, but I’d say it was only truly useful for people who were fans of the show or fans of journalistic podcasts in general. Also, at $35/ticket, I thought it was a bit steep given that many of these insights could be discussed and revealed in, say, a lengthy podcast interview. 

Back when I was making the Gen Pop podcast (RIP), I recorded a review of the S-Town podcast with Joanna. You can listen to it below:

The origin of David S. Pumpkins

This is a great piece by Jesse David Fox at Vulture about how the David S. Pumpkins sketch on SNL came together:

“Haunted Elevator” is a Saturday Night Live sketch about confused people trying to figure out what this guy named David S. Pumpkins’s deal is. The now-classic sketch (more commonly referred to as “David Pumpkins”), starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Pumpkins, was written by similarly confused people trying to figure out what his deal is. The character — his signature wardrobe, orange hair-streak, hand motions, voice, name — became clearer with each step in the SNL process. Exactly one year from the debut of “Haunted Elevator,” and a week away from a new David Pumpkins Halloween special, this is the story of how it came together, told by those who wrote it — Bobby Moynihan, Mikey Day, and Streeter Seidell.

This piece captures the fortuitous circumstances and insane amounts of work required for a sketch like this to come together. Sometimes, something created for sheer entertainment value (and nothing else) can be what endures.

Fame and its discontents

Now that I’m taking a break and finally have enough time to do things like read books and listen to podcasts, I’m finally catching up on a lot of media I’ve missed over the past few years.

One such program is a podcast called Heavyweight, where the host helps people resolve long-held grudges or other issues. In particular, I really appreciated the second episode of the show, which features an interview with the musician Moby.

The setup is that a friend of Moby is upset with Moby’s success, especially after Moby refused to acknowledge the friend’s contributions to it. When confronted about this, Moby explains that fame is not all it’s cracked up to be and that it was at his most successful that he felt the most despondent:

You think when you get to where you want to go, finally you’ll finally be happy. But then you get to where you want to go, and you’re just as miserable as you were. In fact, you’re even more miserable because you no longer have anything to aspire to. And you feel this hopelessness because, what’s left to aspire towards?

This quote really struck me coming from someone as successful as Moby. No matter how successful you are, someone else will always be more successful. It’s how one deals with that knowledge that determines one’s level of happiness.

‘Long Shot’ is a short Netflix doc about chance and happenstance

To explain the premise of Long Shot is to basically give away the entire plot. With that in mind, here is what the movie is about: Long Shot is a new Netflix documentary about the trial of Juan Catalan, who was wrongly accused of murder in 2003. Catalan was at a Dodgers game around the time the murder was said to have taken place, but had few ways of definitively proving his whereabouts. Desperate to solidify his alibi, his lawyer turns to an unconventional place: footage from an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that just happened to be shooting at Dodgers Stadium that night.

Long Shot is that rare Netflix property that doesn’t overstay its welcome. The film, directed by Jacob LaMendola, is well shot and efficient with its interviews and b-roll. With a documentary this short (39 minutes, in this case), it can be challenging to have a broader takeaway from this story of near-catastrophe. But I did get one idea from this film that I haven’t been able to shake, and that is that we are all just one random decision away from complete and utter catastrophe befalling us.

What if Catalan had decided to watch the game at home that night? What if Curb decided to shoot only one take that night? What if the production assistant had chosen a different section of the stadium to shoot in? If any of these things had happened, Catalan might be serving a life sentence today.

It’s a mind-boggling idea to consider, and elevates this doc from “true crime” trifle to something more thought provoking.

Taking a break

For the past five years, I’ve been recording one second of video every single day, then assembling them to create a video representing that year of my life. I typically put these videos together after each birthday but I was a bit late this year. When I finally got around to it recently (see above), I made a startling realization: I’d been sick five times in 2017. I’ve written before about my recent illnesses but it wasn’t until watching the 1Second video that I realized how bad things had gotten.

I got a physical and a blood test and it doesn’t appear as though I have any serious diseases. But I’ve really run myself ragged this year and I need some time to step back and re-assess my priorities in life.

Thus, I’m going to be taking a two month break from the Slashfilmcast. For the first time in my life in over a decade, I won’t be running any podcasts. Instead, I’ll be focusing on my full-time job, my relationships, and my family.

I’m also planning on unplugging more — in some senses, at least. Starting later this month, I’ve committed to deleting Twitter from my phone for awhile and spending more time writing/blogging and reading. (That said, I will probably still auto-post some blog posts and Periscopes on there.) I realize I’m incredibly blessed and privileged to even have the option of doing any of this, and I am grateful to those in my life who have supported these decisions and made them possible.

I hope to return and join the podcast again for our Last Jedi review in December. At that point, I’ll know a lot more about the shape of things. In the meantime, we have a huge list of awesome Slashfilmcast guest co-hosts that listeners have been suggesting to us via email. I look forward to hearing new, exciting voices on the podcast. I look forward to learning how to relax a little bit more. And I look forward to slowing down the pace of things, for just a little while.

My problems with ‘Blade Runner 2049’

Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most visually arresting films I’ve ever seen. Director Dennis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have created a film that is chock full of spectacular shots and breathtaking tableaus.

But for all that the film does to try to explore the nature of man’s relationship to technology, I was still left cold at the end. I didn’t leave the movie with chills (as I did when I saw the original Blade Runner earlier this week), nor with exuberant joy (as I did when I watched a blockbuster like, say, Spider-Man: Homecoming). I wanted to love it…but I didn’t. I try to grapple with my feelings about in this Periscope broadcast.

As I reflected more about the movie this morning, I wanted to quickly jot down some of my issues with the film. MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE FILM FOLLOW: 

  • Freysa: I don’t think it’s a good sign when your film only gives a proper introduction to a seemingly major character when you are 2 hours and 20 minutes into a 2 hour and 45 minute long film. It reeks of either attempted serialization (i.e. crazy stuff we might see in the NEXT Blade Runner that will probably never come), or just plain bad storytelling. On that note…
  • Skins vs. Humans: At the end of the film, Freysa makes a big pitch to Joe: Come join our robot uprising. My response to this: Who gives a crap? The movie has done virtually nothing to establish the conflict between replicants and humans. While Blade Runners still exist and retire replicants with some regularity (memorably so in the opening scene of the film), we see virtually zero indication in populated areas that the human/replicant relationship is fraught with tension (exception: Other cops hate on Ryan Gosling’s character at the beginning of the film, and he has graffiti are on his door). How many replicants are even left? Do all humans hate them? Are there any replicant sympathizers? What level of danger does an uprising hold? None of these parameters are established in the film. As a result, I just couldn’t find it in myself to care about the stakes.
  • The very last shot: One of the things that makes the original Blade Runner so effective is the fact that we are on Deckard’s journey with him. We see virtually everything from his perspective. That’s why I think the last shot of that film is so great: Deckard has come full circle and realized some truth about his situation. Blade Runner 2049 tries to shift that focus onto Ryan Gosling’s character, Joe. And while the shot of him dying on the steps as snow falls on him is gorgeous, the last shot of Deckard and his child kind of left me in a weird place. Deckard himself doesn’t even appear until 2/3rds of the way through this film, but when he does show up, his journey seemingly supplants that of Joe. While I think many will love that last shot, I just didn’t like how it didn’t match the emotional arc of the majority of the film.

I know some people love this movie (see: Matt Singer’s review). I think it’s awesome that the writer/director tried to take the story in totally different directions than the first film. That said, a day later, I still don’t think I connected with it as well as I wanted to and I’m still trying to figure out why.

Watch SNL’s ‘Papyrus’ sketch about ‘Avatar’

Last night, SNL aired a sketch about a deranged individual who was obsessed with the papyrus font in James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s a fairly amusing short film that derives its strength from being ultra-niche in its focus.

For months, a debate has raged on the /Filmcast about whether or not Avatar is still culturally relevant. The film is the most successful movie of all time yet left seemingly zero cultural footprint. One of the vaguely defined barometers of cultural relevance? Being featured prominently in an SNL sketch.

Looks like Avatar defenders just got another arrow in their quivers…

The summer my body almost shut down

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“How do you have enough time to do everything?”

More than any other question, this is the one people have asked me the most over the past decade or so. When I was a younger man in my twenties, I overflowed with energy. I’d jog, bike, work, stay up till late at night using Lynda.com tutorials to teach myself how to use editing programs and take classes to learn the principles of photography. Even recently, I managed to direct The Primary Instinct while holding down a full time job.

Now I’m a bit older, and I find I don’t have quite the same amount of energy for getting things done. Nevertheless, life is for living! This summer, I still felt i could pack my days full of work and movie screenings and podcasts and still come out the other side better for it.

That principle was put to the test when my body almost shut down as a result of a series of illnesses. To be fair, this has been a stressful summer. I started a new, exciting full-time job at a large company. I hosted three podcasts simultaneously, two of which had pretty significant audience (i.e. over 100K listeners). I moved out of my apartment that I’d been living in for five years. I was going at life at a non-stop rate — at least, as non-stop as someone in my line of work can get.

Typically, I get sick once a year or so. I often come down with the flu during winter. It’s usually pretty debilitating, and it takes me out of commission for a few days, but its impact is quite limited and I move on with my life.

I was stunned when in mid-July, during the dead heat of summer, I seemingly contracted the flu again after getting it just a few months prior. After a brutal week of recovery, I felt things were better. I was lucid and felt good enough to go into work, even as I still coughed violently and felt generally miserable. The fact that Seattle was inundated by smog from wildfires significantly aggravated my condition and further slowed my recovery.

Roughly three weeks afterwards in early August, I was at work and waiting for my ride home one afternoon when suddenly I felt dizzy and cold. I barely made it out of the car and into bed. The flu-like symptoms returned with a vengeance, incapacitating me for several more days. It was time to see a doctor.

My primary care provider told me that he thought I contracted a sinus infection while I had the flu, and just never beat it. He prescribed me steroids, antibiotics, decongestants, and a few other things to get me back on my feet. Within two weeks, things were back to normal, even though I did get temporarily worried that the sinus infection had not been extinguished.

I thought that was the end of it, but three weeks after that in September, I went into work one morning and started feeling chills and aches and pains all over. It was like the flu, but much worse — a sort of illness I had rarely experienced in my life. A couple of hours later, I could barely move. My co-workers told me I was pale. I was confined to bed once more.

I went into see the doctor the next day, who told me that I likely had viral gastroenteritis (i.e. a stomach virus). One thing he said that will stick with me: “Sometimes, something like stress is all it takes to breach the immune system. Once that happens, the results can be all-encompassing.” There was no prescription for viral gastroenteritis, other than getting rest, drinking lots of fluids, and taking it easy on the stomach in terms of foods.

It’s now late September and I feel a lot better. I hope I’m out of the woods now, but I’m not going to count on that quite yet.

I realize that everyone has their own health struggles, and that overall, I’ve been pretty lucky for most of my life to not have to struggle with chronic conditions that are debilitating or life-altering. That said, 2017 has been the worst health “year” of my life. I’ve never had so many illnesses in such a short period of time, nor have they felt quite so agonizing.

I’m grateful to everyone who has done things to take care of me and express concern for me during this challenging time. These events have really made me re-asses my life goals and my capacity to accomplish them. If I’m to take any lessons from this summer, they’d be the following:

  • If you keep pushing the limits of your body and mind from a stress perspective, there may come a time when it can no longer take it.
  • Online connections and friendships are wonderful but when you get sick, it’s only the people who you know “in real life” who will be able to help you.
  • Whatever enjoyment you get out of the productive activities in your life, it’s not worth it if there there are significant negative health implications as a result.
  • People aren’t grateful enough for the ability to eat and pass food normally.

Take care of yourselves, folks.

A brief review of Apple Airpods

I’ve been using Apple Airpods for the past week or so and I really enjoy them. I primarily got them so I could listen to podcasts while falling asleep without disturbing those around me. It can be difficult to do this with corded headphones, but the Airpods fit that extremely specific need very well.

Beyond that, here are a few pros and cons for the product.

Pros

  • The way they connect with iOS devices (using Apple’s proprietary W1 chip) is incredibly smooth. My bluetooth devices probably have about a 70-80% success rate when it comes to connecting seamlessly. Airpods have closer to a 90-95% success rate in this regard. To quote Steve Jobs, “it just works.”
  • Every component of Airpods feels like it was designed to delight you. The way the bluetooth connection just happens. The fun menus and their animations. The fact that you can program the Airpods to respond to touch commands, not to mention the fact that by default, they pause your music when you remove one of them from your ear. I’m a big fan of the whole product experience.
  • The case looks like a container of dental floss but inside it hides a battery that can charge the Airpods for up to 24 hours. The case can also give the Airpods 3 hours of battery life with only 15 minutes of charging. This effectively means that, even though the Airpods themselves only have 4-5 hours of battery life, I’ve never found the battery life to be a problem.
  • Apparently, the Airpods are extremely durable. In this absolutely insane video, the folks at EverythingApplePro put the Airpods through an increasingly outlandish series of punishing tests. The Airpods came out the other side working fine. Very impressive.
  • The sound is pretty good — better than Apple’s default earpods. However, there is no noise mitigation of outside sounds, so Airpods aren’t great to use in a vehicle or in transit.

Cons

  • At $160, they are very expensive for headphones that are only slightly above-average in terms of sound quality. You aren’t paying that price for the audio — you’re paying it for the convenience (side note: the ship time for these things is still several weeks. Crazy that you still can’t go into an Apple store and buy them easily).
  • Maybe one day these things will become fashionable, but for now, I do not find them stylish. I find them to be anti-style. I can’t help but feeling like I look like a doofus when I’m wearing them. I’m fortunate to work at a company where people don’t really care what you look like, but I still feel self-conscious every time I put them in.
  • I’ve never had an Airpod fall out of my ears, but they do have a very specific shape and if your ear isn’t suited to it then you are pretty much SOL. I have found that the Airpods get loose with even mild jostling, such as if I’m going on a jog or even just briskly walking across the street. Losing one of these in public would be a nightmare, so I find that I’m very nervous when I use them outdoors. Indoor usage is probably safest.

Overall, Airpods feel like the full realization of Apple’s utopian wireless future. I just wish Apple would license out their W1 tech so that all types of headphones and devices could enjoy this level of connectivity.

Pivoting to video isn’t going well

Heidi Moore, writing for CJR:

Many publishers’ pivots to video are ill-considered, and thus they have deployed minimal investment in resources, studio space, equipment, or salaries. This won’t help video grow. Videos that lack personality, style, voice, or visual interest don’t attract many viewers.

The video that does work online—and drives the thirst among publishers—is about food, lifestyle, and animals, according to a study of 100 million Facebook videos. The addictive, bright, fast food-preparation videos done by BuzzFeed’s Tasty are the industry standard. Business Insider also makes snappy, shareable videos that focus heavily on food and lifestyle, and successfully appear on several platforms at once.

When news outlets attempt video, however, it’s just as likely to be a disheveled reporter against an off-white wall, talking at the camera—informative, perhaps, but not well-considered for the medium. The proof that most publishers are getting the pivot to video wrong is how terrible the video user experience is for viewers. If video were comparable to text-based digital journalism, visually most of it is right around the Geocities, circa 1999, with intrusive ads and ugly text.

“Pivoting to video” was never about user needs or desires. It was a desperate ploy to go where the ad money was. For publications like Mic, the pivot is apparently going very poorly.

 

‘mother!’ review

This week on the Slashfilmcast, we are joined by Andy Signore, one of the Emmy-nominated hosts behind Screen Junkies, one of my favorite YouTube channels in existence. I watch Screen Junkies pretty religiously, and have been inspired by them in many of my online pursuits.

For months, we’ve tried to get Andy on my show (and me onto his, Movie Fights). Last night, we finally succeeded. I’m also happy with how this review turned out. If you’re interested in a pretty intense discussion about mother!, then check out our episode.

Halo Top’s brilliant new commercial

Halo Top has released a new ad online and it’s really something. Directed by Mike Diva and released on his YouTube channel, it’s creepy and unsettling and generally provokes a bunch of emotions I wouldn’t think you’d want associated with an awesome ice cream brand.

In an interview with AdWeek, Diva explains how the ad came together:

I guess the CEO has been a fan of my stuff for a while. He basically just said to me, “We already have enough commercials that explain why Halo Top is awesome. We just want something in your style that just grabs people’s attention.” I came back and pitched my idea in person. It’s one of those things where I felt like, if I just sent it to him over email, I would sound like a crazy person. I had to get in front of this dude and illustrate why it’s going to be funny. On paper, it just reads like it’s super dark, you know? I downloaded a text-to-speech app and kind of acted it out, and played the robot parts on my phone, so he would understand why it’s funny for the robot to say “Eat the ice cream” a bunch of times.

There’s also this later in the interview:

A lot of people are drawing comparisons to Kubrick and saying it’s a take on 2001: A Space Odyssey. That it’s a direct homage. I actually didn’t want that at all. I had reservations about shooting in the 14th Factory Space Odyssey set. I didn’t want people to associate it with Space Odyssey just because there’s a robot in it. We yanked out all the furniture and redressed the entire room to make it look as different as possible. But of course, we still ended up getting a lot of those comparisons.

To quote Gob Bluth, “COME ON.”

Why I’m getting an iPhone 8 Plus and not an iPhone X

I’m typically a fan of buying the newest/latest/best, so I was psyched to see Apple’s presentation of its newest suite of smartphones this past week. Going in, there was much chatter about an “iPhone X” that would feature a larger screen than the iPhone 7, but in a smaller body than the iPhone 7 Plus.

As usual, Apple delivered in a big way when it came to sparking online conversation about its products. But for the first time in awhile, I struggled with the decision on whether to go in for its top-of-the-line phone (you can read feature comparisons here and here, and a neat MKBHD video here). After a lot of deliberation, I’ve decided to go with the iPhone 8 Plus. Here are some reasons why.

Most of the specs for the two phones are the same

The processors. The rear-facing camera. The wireless charging. They’re all identical in both phones. For me, the primary differences are the front-facing camera (which supports Face  ID and animoji in the iPhone X), the iPhone X’s OLED screen, and the fact that the iPhone X screen is taller by a few pixels. Additionally, I believe the iPhone X’s secondary telephoto lens has a slightly better aperture than that of the iPhone 8 Plus. If these sound like compelling upgrades to you, then the iPhone X is definitely the phone for you. But for me, they weren’t enough to justify the additional $200+ on the price tag.

On that note…

Think of the compromises

The iPhone X completely re-imagines the paradigm of how users interact with their smartphones. Face ID replaces Touch ID as how people unlock their phones. There is no more home button — instead, everything is driven by new gestures.

I have no doubt that Face ID will one day be the new standard by which all forms of biometric authentication are measured. I also think that one day it’s likely we will look at phones like the iPhone 8 and wonder how we ever dealt with a barbaric, massive bezel “chin” like that, whose only purpose was to house a home button in the center. But for now, those features feel purposeful and useful to me.

Due to screen size, one-handed operation would be too challenging with the iPhone X for me. The iPhone X requires you to swipe down from the top right for control center. Right now, I can unlock my iPhone before I even look at it, and/or swipe up from the bottom to quickly get to control center. These are actions I perform dozens of times a day without thinking about them, and I simply won’t be able to do those things with the iPhone X.

The iPhone 8 Plus still has better battery life

It’s supposed to last slightly longer than the iPhone X at a couple of primary tasks. Since battery life is one of the most important features for me in a smartphone, this almost swung the decision single-handedly.

The Notch

Maybe one day “The Notch” will be like vertical video — something we used to hate but is no so ubiquitous that most people don’t give a crap anywhere. For now though, it looks pretty terrible.

A festival of F Cinemascores

mother! debuted in theaters this weekend and it’s not only looking like it’ll be a lackluster box office opening, but the film has also received an “F” Cinemascore, indicating that general audiences did not connect well with the film.

Scott Tobias wrote a piece at The Dissolve (RIP) awhile ago tackling this very issue and proposing the concept of a film festival made up of only films that receive the F Cinemascore:

To me, what these cases reveal about CinemaScore is that it isn’t a metric of merit, but a barometer of comfort, with satisfaction on one end and estrangement on the other. But estranging qualities are qualities nonetheless, even if they break from expectation. The romantic comedies of Gerard Butler may be dull, deplorable, or some combination of the two, but they aren’t going to alienate people who unaccountably enjoy the romantic comedies of Gerard Butler. But when Killing Them Softly, a crime thriller starring Brad Pitt, forgoes action in favor of commentary on the 2008 financial crisis and election-year politics, it’s roundly rejected for the crime of cutting against the grain.

Movies with an F Cinemascore, if they’re not outright terrible, are usually at least interesting.

Thanks to Matt Singer for reminding me about this article.

Thoughts on Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’

I wrote up a piece at Slashfilm about my thoughts on mother!:

A poet and his wife live in a peaceful, idyllic home, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. While the woman is happy, the man begins welcoming strangers into their home and sharing his belongings, until the cost to his wife becomes unspeakably high.

This is the plot of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! which can be interpreted in many ways, but seems most obviously to be an allegory about the creation of the world, as told in the Christian Bible. I found the movie to be provocative, bold, and original, even as its basic conceit began to wear on me during the course of its two-hour runtime. This is a movie that will polarize people and cause some to walk out of theaters.  It’s also unlike most things we’ll see in at the mulitplex this year and for that, I’m grateful.

Also worth reading: Julie Miller’s excellent, in-depth exploration of some of the symbolism in the film.

Halo Top ice cream helped keep me sane this year

Ronald D. White, writing for The LA Times, on the rise of Halo Top ice cream:

With a $20 ice cream maker and a hunger for a more healthful indulgence, Los Angeles lawyer Justin Woolverton concocted a dessert that quickly developed a cult-like following. A few years later, his line of light ice cream, called Halo Top, has exploded into surprising market dominance. Halo Top recently bested stalwarts Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs for the top sales spot in its niche — grocery store ice cream pints. “I thought, ‘This is really good. I’ll bet others will like it, too,’” Woolverton said, recalling the trial-and-error breakthrough made in his kitchen.

Halo Top’s appeal is simple: a no-shame pint of low-sugar, high-protein ice cream with just 240 to 360 calories for the entire carton. Vanilla, at the low end, compares with 1,000 calories for a Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s pint. The gold foil that seals each Halo Top carton instructs “Save the bowl” or “Stop when you hit the bottom” — a nod to the way many fans consume the product.

I started a low-carb diet earlier this year and a consistent source of frustration was finding snacks that satisfied my sweet tooth without totally blowing up my diet. Halo Top fit that bill perfectly.

It’s an awesome, guilt-free treat, (especially if you don’t end up finishing the whole carton!). They deserve all the success they are getting and I hope to see Halo Tops in every grocery store soon.

You won’t need to re-buy all your iTunes HD movies

Darrell Etherington, writing for TechCrunch:

Apple is now selling and renting digital 4K movies via iTunes, in addition to its HD and SD resolution versions. The addition of 4K content, which you can stream as well as download, is mainly designed to support the new Apple TV, which supports 4K HDR output for the first time. Plus, if you bought HD versions of titles for which 4K HDR is available, Apple is automatically upgrading them for free.

This is a key piece of Apple’s incentive puzzle for getting users to upgrade to a new Apple TV, as it means there will be a strong content pool that users can access right away. Apple will also be able to take advantage of 4K streaming content provided via Netflix, which has offered both 4K and HDR streaming on other platforms for a while now, and Amazon Prime Video, which is finally arriving on the platform as previously announced.

As someone who owns a ton of iTunes content, I couldn’t be more thrilled with this. This would be like Sony saying “FREE BLU-RAYS FOR EVERYONE!” when the HD transition first happened. It’s insane.

That said, it seems as though 4K-specific remasters that are released separately will not be included in this offer (e.g. the new Close Encounters of the Third Kind). We’ll see how things shake out when the new Apple TV launches, but I’m optimistic about the necessity of double dipping (or lack thereof).

Art is a flat circle

One of the greatest honors of my life is to be able to enjoy great art, then hear from people who helped create that art that I, in an EXTREMELY tiny and minor way, was somehow, weirdly, part of that creation process.

The other day I saw Hamilton at the Pantages and was blown away by the brilliance of its concept and execution. I mentioned this in a few blog posts. Shortly after, I got the below email from a listener named Ben.

May we all have small, invisible connections.

Hey Dave,

I saw on your site that you recently saw and were surprisingly moved by Hamilton.

I actually work in a costume shop that makes a lot of the pieces you saw on stage. Hamilton costumes in particular are among the most complicated and labor intense projects we produce. Today for example I spent eight hours just CUTTING one short jacket haha.

I’m telling you this because it was these demanding pieces that made me first start listening to podcasts about two years ago. The first pod I ever listened to was the /Filmcast, and I’ve been a Dave Chen loyalist ever since. Even when my brain turns to mush and my hands ache, I can always turn on a Cast of Kings, /Filmcast, or Gen Pop (RIP) and push through my work. You make the tedious tolerable, and you’ve helped me get through more giant dresses than I can count.

So really I just wanted to thank you for producing such great pods, encourage you to keep going, and maybe surprise you with your own small, invisible connection to a show you’ve come to love.
Cheers,

Ben from NYC