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.

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.

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.


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.

‘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.

‘4.1 Miles’ is an incredible short film about the Syrian refugee crisis

I recently had a chance to watch this year’s Oscar-nominated short documentaries. While my favorite film was The White Helmets (currently streaming on Netflix), I also found 4.1 Miles to be very powerful. It tells the story of a Greek coast guard captain whose job has unexpectedly become saving refugees on a regular basis.

In addition to telling the story from an unexpected perspective, there are some stunning cinematography decisions here that make it a gripping short film. I hope 4.1 Miles affects you as much as it did me.

Regency and Fox launched fake news sites to promote ‘A Cure for Wellness’

Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko from Buzzfeed recently discovered that the producers behind A Cure for Wellness launched fake news sites to promote the upcoming psychological thriller:

At the core of the campaign is a network of five fake local news sites that are inserting promotional references to the film into hoaxes. The sites also host ads for the film and for a fake water brand that in at least one case directs people to a website directly linked to the film.

The fake local news sites mostly publish hoaxes about topics unrelated to the film, and in some cases their fake stories — such as one about Donald Trump implementing a temporary ban on vaccinations — have been picked up by real websites and generated significant engagement on Facebook thanks to people being fooled. Their biggest hit so far is a fake story about Lady Gaga planning to include a tribute to Muslims during he Super bowl performance. It generated more than 50,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

In principle, I’m not opposed to promotional micro-sites that have some interesting twist to them. And when it comes to imitating the actual look and feel of fake news sites like the Denver Guardian, the people behind this campaign actually did a good job.

The problem with these particular sites is that they also contain fake news that seems to incite the sort of hatred and reactions that “actual” fake news sites aim to get. So for instance, “Psychological Thriller Screening Leaves Salt Lake City Man in Catatonic State” is fine (although it still makes me slightly uncomfortable); Lady Gaga preparing a secret message for Muslims in her Super Bowl half-time show? It was a fake news story from one of these Cure for Wellness sites that went viral on Facebook.

In other words, the campaign would be funny and amusing, except for the fact that fake news can have actual, real-world consequences. For one Houston paper, it has already created problems.

It’s worth noting that after the uproar these sites caused on social media, all the film-related fake news sites are now gone, and redirect to the homepage of the movie’s website.

Update: Fox has now apologized for this marketing campaign.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar weighs in on ‘La La Land’ 

From The Hollywood Reporter:

No, I don’t think the film needs more black people. Writer-director Damien Chazelle should tell the story as he sees fits with whatever ethnic arrangement he desires. However, it is fair to question his color wheel when it involves certain historical elements — such as jazz. As an aficionado with over 5,000 jazz albums and having had my own jazz label, Cranberry Records, I’m happy whenever jazz takes center stage in a story, as it did in Miles Ahead, Bird, Round Midnight and Mo’ Better Blues. Jazz is a uniquely African-American music form born in New Orleans and raised in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. Sure, I would have loved to see a film like La La Land years ago starring singer-dancer Gregory Hines, the master of improvisational tap dance whose tapping could sound like a jazz drummer. Having said that, I’m still delighted to see Ryan Gosling play a man (Sebastian) devoted to the artistry of traditional jazz. But I’m also disturbed to see the one major black character, Keith (John Legend), portrayed as the musical sellout who, as Sebastian sees it, has corrupted jazz into a diluted pop pablum.

Related reading:

Data science and the Statue of Liberty

Clive Thompson has a great post on his blog about “The New Colossus, ” Emma Lazarus’s poem about the Statue of Liberty, welcoming immigrants into the country:

You have, without doubt, heard this part:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

They’re genuinely stirring lines! American politicians and businesspeople love to quote them, because they beautifully evoke the image of America as a worldwide beacon of liberty. Listen to any speech about immigration, and you’ll hear this passage.

But the poem doesn’t end there. The Statue of Liberty goes on to describe, in more depth, the type of immigrants she’s talking about. Let’s extend the quote a bit further:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Now, that is a gut-punch of a line. (Purely as a matter of verse, the way those iambs land on the rhyming syllables of the first two words — the WRE-tched RE-fuse — is like a pneumatic naildriver. WHAM WHAM WHAM! I love it.)

But the point is, this additional line complicates the political picture a bit, doesn’t it?

As time has gone on, the “masses yearning to breathe” line has become much more prevalent in our literature and writings. The “wretched refuse” line? Not so much.

The “wretched refuse” line isn’t much talked about these days, both because a lot of people don’t even know it exists, and because it’s politically inconvenient. As Thompson explains, we like to talk about immigrants who are the best and the brightest, and who add value and innovation to our country. The original poem conceived of compassion as an end in and of itself.

It reminds me of this Bible passage in Matthew 25:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

 The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

As the immigration battle rages this year, I think it will be a good sentiment to keep in mind.


How to shoot in a hall of mirrors

[This post contains some very minor plot info from John Wick 2]

Last fall Spike Jonze released a new ad for KENZO fragrance with actress Margaret Qualley:

One of the most spectacular sequences in this ad takes place around 1:50 in, when Margaret dances in front of a hall of mirrors. As the camera does precise, gorgeous movements around her, you never once glimpse a reflection of the rig that the filmmakers are using.

Ian Failes at Inverse has a great explanation of how this was achieved. According to VFX supervisor Janelle Croshaw:

Doron Kipper and Jesse James Chisolm (from Digital Domain) spent hours surveying the mirrored staircase. They used tiny pieces of tape on the mirrors to capture the points needed. Lots and lots of panoramas and high dynamic range images (HDRIs) were taken. During the shoot a clean plate was captured with the Technocrane without Margaret and then the Technocrane was cleared out and a clean plate was captured with a handheld cam. Spike and team were super cooperative in clearing the frame for as long as we needed which was very cool considering those mirrors pretty much reflected two whole floors of the Dorothy Chandler theater.

All of the data collected enabled us to build an environment in compositing software Nuke and also achieve a camera track usable for projections (where the live action footage is ‘projected’ onto a CG version of the environment to enable camera movement). The tracking geometry was mirrored to represent the reflections in the mirror and that mirrored geometry was used to muscle through the matchmove. It wasn’t easy and Jim Moorhead, our matchmove artist, put so much care in to this shot. In the end there was a lot of hand painted clean-up and the shot was split amongst two companies and multiple artists. Artist Rob Fitzsimmons became the keeper of the shot, managing the paint patches and ensuring the quality level was kept to the highest standards. His perfectionism and strong eye made the shot as seamless as it is.

This video came to mind for me recently because I just saw John Wick 2, which has an even more impressive sequence that takes place in a room full of mirrors. I’m not sure whether similar techniques were used, but director Chad Stahelski does describe his process briefly in an interview with Movieweb.

Why the ‘Toni Erdmann’ remake is probably a bad idea

Yesterday, news broke that Jack Nicholson is coming out of quasi-retirement to star in an American remake of Toni Erdmann that will co-star Kristen Wiig and be produced by Adam McKay. Over at the LA Times, Steven Zeitchik has a breakdown of why he thinks this new film is ill-advised:

Right off the bat, the setting is a problem. The sub-surface tension of “Toni” concerns Western Europeans working in Eastern Europe (Ines is involved a Romanian deal for her multinational); it’s a plot line that illuminates so much about modern European capitalism; when Ines comments on a giant mall built for no one, it hits home with anyone who’s ever witnessed the false promise of globalism across the Continent.  Sure, you can imagine Nicholson’s version as some American bigwig in a hardscrabble foreign place too. But it loses that specificity […]

Maybe the biggest problem, though, is the people making this movie. Which director can ably take on such a mix of tones; who can find slapstick comedy and poignant humanism in the same film, sometimes even in the same scene? Jim Brooks in his heyday, maybe. Lawrence Kasdan, possibly. But who actively working today? David O. Russell is the closest name I can come up with. And I’m not even sure about him. (Another remote possibility, someone with an outside shot of pulling it off, is McKay himself. Perhaps knowing the foolishness of the errand, he’s keeping a producerial arm’s length, at least for the moment.)

(See also: Zeitchik’s feature on the making of Erdmann)

I’m mostly in agreement with Zeitchik here. I saw Toni Erdmann and loved it, but it’s a film I’d describe as incredibly specific. It is specific in its setting, specific in its tone, and even specific in certain aspects of its plot, which has the protagonist attempting to pull off a very challenging management consulting gig in a foreign country.

I think Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig would actually be wonderful as the main characters in a film with a similar plot. But it’d be so different from the original that I’m not sure if the result would be recognizably Toni Erdmann.

The absurdity of voice acting gigs

This short film by Tim Mason is absolutely uproarious. It captures so many of the absurd aspects of voice acting gigs: the mind-numbing repetition, the dubious acting direction, the bored but patient sound guy, the willingness of the voice actor to press on no matter what.

Also, love the juxtaposition between what’s unfolding in the booth and the nonsense outside of it. This incongruity often exists in real life too, albeit not in as extreme a fashion.

The truth about film critics 

One of my favorite writers, Nathan Rabin, has an astute piece up at Cracked enumerating 5 truths about film criticism. My favorite? Number 4:

Film Critics Are Not Influential Or Important Enough To Bribe: When DC Films endured vicious critical beatdowns for its massive comic book tentpoles Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Suicide Squad, the internet was filled with ridiculous and angry accusations that Marvel was using its financial and corporate muscle to bribe critics into giving negative reviews to the work of its comic book archrival. If Marvel did bribe film critics into sabotaging DC Films’ commercial chances by giving negative reviews, they failed spectacularly. Oh sure, Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad each garnered scathing reviews, but that didn’t seem to have much of an effect on their box office performances. People simply threw up their middle fingers and slapped down the cash.

Rabin captures how weirdly personal some of the attacks against critics can get. Readers often think of critics as elitist, which is rather bizarre given that the vast majority of film critics don’t make a high salary, and film criticism itself is a dying industry, with critics getting fired from major newspapers left and right.

The only thing I wish Rabin had called out a bit more is that there are a bunch of vocal outliers in the community. Film critics do make mistakes sometimes. They do sometimes judge movies unfairly. They do all sorts of things that sour the public’s perception of the profession. While outliers are by definition not representative of the community, they are a big reason why many of these misconceptions exist.