‘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.”

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.

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).

Inside the world’s largest collection of ‘Jerry Maguire’ VHS tapes

I missed this short film from Vice when it was first released in February, but am glad I finally found it. It’s a look inside the effort by Everything Is Terrible to not only amass the largest collection of Jerry Maguire VHS tapes, but also their desire to build a permanent pyramid in the Nevada dessert that will serve as a tribute to these “Jerry’s.”

On the one hand, there are probably better things for one to devote one’s time to than anything Maguire VHS-tape-related. On the other hand, this project gives me so much joy with its randomness that I kind of want these guys to succeed.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Honest Trailer for ‘Kong: Skull Island’

I was stunned by this Honest Trailer for Kong: Skull Island, which features the participation of the film’s director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts. It’s rare to see a director be so blunt and relentless about criticizing his own film, but Vogt-Roberts deftly shows that he still has the self-awareness to recognize his own film’s weaknesses.

In retrospect, I now understand why most directors don’t do this kind of thing. With film being such a collaborative medium, there are many people who could interpret commentary like this as throwing them under a bus: screenwriters, actors, editors, (heck even the studio itself) etc. I’m sure Roberts is on good terms with all, but it just feels like the risk is large for misinterpretation.

That said, this is an extraordinary work of self-examination, taking place on the massive stage of an insanely popular YouTube channel. Kudos to Vogt-Roberts for putting the magnifying glass on himself.

The John Denver-aissance

On a recent episode of the Slashfilmcast, we discussed the odd fact that a ton of 2017 films happened to use John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Over at Vulture, Karen Han has written a piece that explores why:

Amy Abrams, one of the managers of Denver’s estate, confirmed in an interview with Vulture that there’s been an uptick in “meaningful feature film requests” for Denver’s music in the last few years, in part because those who loved Denver’s music as kids are now adults able make those requests. “John Denver’s songs were iconic to a generation, and have been passed down in the public consciousness,” said Abrams. “It also helps that a lot of directors, producers, actors, editors, and music supervisors grew up fans and are now in powerful positions to sync the music they love.”

Abrams also attributed the uptick to the estate’s partnership with Kobalt (they were brought on in 2014, replacing BMG, and also represent artists such as Carly Rae Jepsen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers), in addition to making licensing a priority with their new team. To secure the rights to a Denver song, Abrams explained, the filmmakers must submit scene briefs. If they aren’t clear enough as to how the music will be used and further questions don’t clear the matter up, Denver’s children and their business managers are consulted as well. What’s most important, said Abrams, is that they remain in line with Denver’s ideals: He’s remembered as a philanthropist and humanitarian as much as he is a musician, and much of the content on his official web page is devoted to his messages of peace and compassion.

It’s a great song, but it really does feel like we’ve reached Peak Denver this year.

From ‘Ocean’s 11’ to ‘Baby Driver’ and ‘Logan Lucky’: Why happy endings aren’t enough for heist films anymore

[This article contains SPOILERS for Baby Driver, Ocean’s 11, and Logan Lucky]

The ending of Steven Sodberbergh’s Ocean’s 11 is one of the most iconic heist movie endings of all time. Having successfully pulled off one of the most elaborate casino heists ever, Daniel Ocean’s associates stand at the Bellagio fountain and watch the water show together set to an orchestral version of Debussy’s “Clair De Lune,” reflecting on the depth of their achievements. They go off on their own separate ways, presumably to enjoy the winnings they’ve obtained.

I thought about this ending a lot when I saw Logan Lucky yesterday, which is out in theaters almost 16 years after the release of Ocean’s 11. Both feature a male mastermind with a complicated love life who assembles a team of people to steal a huge sum of money from a large location with a complex security system. In both movies, the protagonists encounter events that are seemingly setbacks, but that we later learn were part of the plan all along. In other words, they’re both fairly conventional heist films.

With one major difference.

Just as Logan Lucky was hitting the 90-minute mark or so and wrapping up its main heist plot, the film introduces two new characters — FBI agents played by Hillary Swank and Macon Blair. For an additional 15-20 minutes, the film chronicles the FBI’s attempt to find who was responsible for the speedway heist. When the FBI ultimately fails, that’s when we get that happy ending we’ve been looking for: All the members of Logan’s crew drinking and enjoying life at the Duck Tape bar. The final shot of the film reveals Swank’s character is also at the bar, presumably having put all the pieces of the puzzle together and about to create some real trouble for the Logan brothers.

I found this ending to be curious. First of all, I thought Swank’s performance was an…interesting choice? She plays her investigative agent very much like a cartoon character, devoid of any emotion and unrelentingly stern.

But beyond that, it felt similar in a lot of ways to the ending of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. In that movie, the protagonist Baby has seemingly escaped town with the love of his life, Debora, only to be apprehended by police at a roadblock. In a rapid fire montage that follows, we see the trial that occurs in the wake of the film’s events. Many of the side characters we’ve seen in the film testify on Baby’s behalf. He’s eventually released, presumably not too long after he was imprisoned, and he and Debora get the chance to drive off into the sunset.

Both Baby Driver and Logan Lucky feature something I don’t recall seeing too often at the end of heist films: a glimpse at how the legal process would play out in the wake of each film’s extraordinary events. Why complicate the film in this way? Why add on a few minutes of runtime (or in the case of Logan Lucky, what amounts to a rushed third act) simply to tell us something that viewers might not even care about? I have a few theories.

I believe that filmgoers in general have gotten too smart about how society actually functions. In a world of smartphones and ubiquitous surveillance, we know that one simply can’t create a ton of havoc in downtown Atlanta or steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from Charlotte Speedway without either being caught or experiencing some form of consequences.

In both films, the function of the legal process basically allows us to feel good about the actions of the protagonists by communicating to us that these people got off (almost) scot-free. Yes, Baby had to serve time, and yes, Hillary Swank might be ready to re-open her investigation. But the crimes of the film have been largely resolved in the eyes of our country’s legal system.

Of course, Logan Lucky and Baby Driver aren’t the first movies to have people experience the consequences of their actions. Just look at the opening minute of this Ocean’s 12 teaser trailer:

The only other idea I’ll posit about why these movies ended this way is that, in our new interconnected age, perhaps society has gotten more communal. Actions no longer take place in a vacuum — everyone acutely understands how we’re all connected and how kindness can actually affect people in the longer term (just think of how the witness testimony in Baby Driver is all about the character’s good nature).

Maybe seeing someone abscond with millions of other people’s money with zero consequences — regardless of noble intentions, regardless of if the money is insured — is no longer something we can feel 100% good about. If that’s the case (BIG if), I actually think that’s a step in the right direction for us.

Jon Brion’s score for ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

I’ve been going through a lot of changes in my life recently. While I’m excited at what lies ahead, I’m wistful for what has been left behind. To quote Don Draper, “‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” I have a lot of nostalgia lately.

One of the ways I’ve been coping is by listening to Jon Brion’s score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With its plaintive piano melodies and synth-y backdrops, it makes for perfect listening as you’re reflecting on the past.

Here are a few of my favorite tracks:

Only downside? The tracks are extremely short and, mirroring many of the scenes in the film, often feel like they end with no warning. Nevertheless, they still provide my day with sublime moments of beauty.

What happened to Armond White

Stephen Kearse has written a great profile on film critic Armond White over at Hazlitt:

What tarnishes White’s appeal is how calcified his expertise has become. No longer even nominally engaged with larger discourses, he writes with an embittered detachment, scoffing at an anonymous conglomerate of lesser writers and thinkers. White was always adversarial, but in his old columns, his rivals were named: Stanley Crouch, Greg Tate, Robert Christgau, Ann Powers—virtually anyone who ever wrote for the Village Voice. His tone was just as sardonic as it is now, but there was an air of community to all these callouts, a sense that he, and all critics, were participating in a grand commitment to art that necessitated disagreement and dialogue. White’s current reviews have no sense of any conversations beyond the ones in his own head. “Hollywood movies have become television at just the point when media shills are spreading the fake news that we’re experiencing a ‘new golden age’ of TV,” he writes emptily in his review of Baywatch, the shills, the movies, and the television shows unnamed. “Kong: Skull Island and Contemporary Color coexist because Millennial culture is at odds with itself,” he writes of those two movies, citing a mysterious conflict within a demographic group that no one can accurately define. Critics are expected to make loaded comparisons and to use their own inclinations as a wellspring for new perspectives, but since his expulsion from the NYFCC, White’s oppositional writing style has struggled. He brings the gusto of his past work, but he writes against criticism that doesn’t actually appear to exist, the silliest resistance. […]

Ultimately, the world doesn’t need Armond White, but it’s a shame that he’s slipped away. He wasn’t initially a contrarian or a hack or a troll; he was a gay black man with the audacity to demand that movies not be condescending and escapist and patronizing to the people that loved them, that needed them. He believed in black art and art in general and fought, sometimes pettily, sometimes harshly, for it to be appreciated seriously. He sneered at goofy shit like consensus and Tomatometers and Stanley Crouch because they had nothing to do with criticism. Criticism was arguments, confrontation, politics, enlightenment, resistance. But that’s who he was, back when he had colleagues, back when he listened, back when the NYFCC was accountable to him, and he to it, back when he was a journalist and not a blowhard. Now he’s just a joke. And even worse, he’s the most unfunny kind: the kind that used to rock you to your core, but now just confounds you, broken synapses firing into the void.

This profile links to an interview I conducted with White after the NYFCC controversy. I was honored to have the opportunity to have White on the Slashfilm podcast multiple times, including our review of Inception (and its After Dark), our review of 12 Years a Slave, and our review of Real Steel.

We always got lots of flak for every one of these appearances. Here’s one example of such criticism, emailed in by one of our listeners after the 12 Years a Slave episode:

Armond White is a troll and I really did not enjoy listening to him on the latest episode of the podcast. Not only is he a troll, but a classic troll. When confronted with any of your arguments against his points, he almost always deflected the question and either changed the subject or nit picked at your question/choice of words.

Another tactic that grew wearisome was his referencing older films that he can assume you have not seen and therefore remain unable to engaged him in a conversation about. And calling Steve McQueen’s film an “art thing?” It’s just juvenile.

Also, by his definition, any film that shows characters to struggle or to face tough odds would be considered “tourture porn.” I wonder if he would consider All is Lost to be “tourture porn?”

When I was younger, folks like Armond used to infuriate me. “Who dares besmirch the perfect RottenTomatoes score of Toy Story 3! Clearly not someone who had any good taste!” my logic went.

But as I grew older, I started appreciating folks like Armond White more and more. In a sea of “yes,” he dared to be a “no.” What drove him? Was it just the desire to be a troll or did he legitimately buy what he was selling?

Ultimately the reason I invited White on the podcast was because I wanted to see if there was any “there” there. And for awhile, I believed in the purity of Armond White’s motives. When he insisted that he could break down a Michael Bay film and a Christopher Nolan film frame by frame and prove that Bay had better visual storytelling acumen than Nolan, I didn’t necessarily believe it but I believed that he believed it.

In a piece after the NYFCC controversy, Owen Glieberman explained his thoughts on Armond White in a way that matched how mine evolved:

Does Armond White simply have his own idiosyncratic opinions? Or is he a contrarian, a bomb thrower who’s deliberately out to rile people up? I would say that both are true, but for most people the contrarian label sums him up, and you often can’t tell where the fearless free-thinker leaves off and the bullying, didactic iconoclast begins. And that’s the problem with Armond’s criticism. He writes like he’s the last honest man in America, but contrarianism, by definition, isn’t completely honest. It’s self-hype, designed to provoke a reaction. I truly do believe that Armond White comes to the vast majority of his opinions honestly. He’s a gay African-American fundamentalist-Christian aesthete, and if that doesn’t make him an individual, I don’t know what would. But it seems to me that Armond, over the years, has become so invested in the idea of how different his gaze is from everyone else’s that he has turned individuality into a species of megalomania. The subtext of too many of Armond’s reviews is: Only I see the truth! And it’s that need to be the only truth-teller in the room that, too often, seems to be driving him. A lot of great critics have anger — it was there in Kael, and in Lester Bangs — but Armond’s blistering attacks reflect not just anger but rage. That’s a dangerous place to write from.

In other words, from the outside, White seemed as though he believed in his own hype. And that’s a shame because it clouded a lot of his legitimately interesting and provocative opinions.

All that said, when I look back on my conversations with White, I feel nothing but gratitude. Here was a man whose opinions were admired by some, hated by thousands of internet fanboys, but who nonetheless kept fighting for a truth he believed in. And even though White seems to despise internet fan blogs like Slashfilm.com, he generously spent time sharing his opinions with me and with our audience.

I’ll never know why he agreed to appear on the show. When I asked him about why he was willing to return to the podcast, he just seemed to cherish the spirit of our show’s open conversation. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to chat with White again but for now, that’s how I’ll choose to remember him.

Ten years later, how well has ‘I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry’ aged?

Kyle Turner has written a reflection of the Adam Sandler and Kevin James film, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, assessing how well it has aged 10 years after its initial release:

Yes, it’s a big deal when a piece of culture that’s queer-focused does its job and perhaps—and with Chuck & Larry, that’s a big “perhaps”—makes people less hateful. But this film was released well after the advent of widespread internet access, making it all the more inexcusable. It’s not that Chuck & Larry has aged so poorly because of its crude humor, or because our society is less tolerant of work that’s offensive to marginalized communities, but precisely because the meek efforts Chuck & Larry make in the name of “tolerance” now seem so transparent and one-dimensional. The idea that Adam Sandler even continues to have a career is insulting (and he, in turn, continues to insult). One shudders to think of the world that would have resulted had Sandler’s vision of LGBTQ “progress” come to fruition; one in which queer people are merely tolerated, and one in which our sexuality is sidelined in that way—just as it was by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or years of dehumanizing arguments made against the right of same-sex couples to marry. If anything, this film serves to remind us that it’s been ten long years of gains won and our right to exist in public brutally fought for. No thanks to Chuck, Larry, Sandler, James or the Hollywood industrial complex that continues to prop them up.

So far, there are two works released in 2017 that I think will age particularly poorly: Dave Chappelle’s newest comedy special, which has some transphobic jokes in it, and Split, which furthers negative stigma against Dissociative Identity Disorder. My guess is in a decade, folks will look back on those aspects of those works and wonder how we ever thought that way.

The worst movie I’ve ever seen in a theater

AV Club has a fun feature on the worst movies that people have seen in theaters. Here’s Sam Barsanti’s choice:

I’ve seen all of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies in the theaters, and in college I saw Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull on opening night, but I feel very confident in saying that Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is the worst movie I’ve ever seen in a theater. Even if you ignore stupid stuff like Gotham and Metropolis being practically right next to each other, the hoops the film has to jump through to get Superman and Batman to fight, and the whole “Martha” scene that ends the fighting in a heartbeat, the movie is still garbage for one specific reason: It turns Batman into a killer. I understand that he’s supposed to be a darker and more desperate version of the character, but no matter how you justify it, a Batman that puts machine guns on his jet and blows up criminals with his car isn’t Batman. He’s just the Punisher with better equipment and a different aesthetic.

Since this piece was published, I’ve reflected a bit on what my worst theatrical experience has been. I think I’d have to say it’s Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

I was still living in Boston when this film came out but had the chance to see it on an IMAX screen. I can still remember how excited I was — Bay had proven he could take this toy line and make it into an action-filled, visual effects extravaganza with the first film. Surely with a much bigger budget, a longer runtime, and probably more freedom to do what he wanted, Bay would deliver something that would blow us all away.

What we got instead was an incoherent mess of a plot, and a film loaded with some truly reprehensible material. Racist stereotypes. Robot testicles. Robot heaven. None of it made any sense. The only thing sadder than the hours of my life I wasted watching this film was the fact that Bay would go on to spend the better part of a decade devoted to creating more of these awful movies.

Part of me died that day in the theater: the part that would ever look forward to a Bay film ever again. (Pain and Gain was good though).

What’s the point of life if the universe will one day end?

In David Lowery’s recent film, A Ghost Story, one of the characters goes on an extended soliloquy about the nature of humanity and how one could easily interpret the whole of human existence as a pointless of exercise. One day, everything as we know it will be gone — even, most likely, the universe. So what’s the point of it all? A24 released a short excerpt of the speech on YouTube above. (You can also watch my Periscope review of the film).

This week, the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt released a new video that tackles this very issue.

From the video:

If the universe ends in heat death, every humiliation you suffer in life will be forgotten. Every mistake will not matter in the end. Every bad thing will be voided. If our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is.

Humans will most certainly cease to exist at some point. But before we do, we get to explore ourselves and the world around us. We get to experience feelings. We get to experience food, books, sunrises, and being with each other. The fact that we’re able to think about these things is already kind of incredible.

Obviously, there’s no one answer for this eternal question, but I appreciate them taking a shot at it.

In short: in the grand scheme of the universe, our time on earth is but a blink of an eye. We might as well enjoy it and try to help others enjoy it while we can.

For more ruminations on making the most of life, see Wait But Why’s post on Life in Weeks.

A detailed stunt breakdown of ‘Atomic Blonde’

Wired has a super cool feature with Atomic Blonde stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave, who breaks down one of the film’s fight scenes in extreme detail.

I saw Atomic Blonde last night and was really impressed by the action (here are some brief, Periscoped thoughts). There’s one fight scene in the film that people will be talking about for decades (not the one covered above). Definitely worth the price of admission.

Valerian’s financial failure is bad for the film industry

Deadline has a report on the dire outlook for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets:

EuropaCorp’s stock has dipped 9.4% in trading on the Paris stock exchange over the past two days which comes only a month after EuropaCorp took a $136M write-off. Remember: Fundamental — apart from their 28% and roughly $67M equity stake in EuropaCorp — is also on the hook for about $50M in equity in the picture.

Added another executive: “Everyone is going to lose money on this. It’s sad actually. This kind of failure actually hurts the business, not just the companies with a financial stake involved.”

This is a huge bummer. Luc Besson has stated that if Valerian does as well as Lucy’s $460MM international gross, then his investors would be fine, financially. But it now looks like $200MM internationally is a best case scenario. There’s a lot of blame to go around but my guess is one of the biggest miscalculations was pitting this against another event film like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Had Valerian opened in August, it might’ve had a little more breathing room to be a sleeper hit.

In our discussion of Valerian on this week’s /Filmcast, we praised its dazzling effects and its dense, bravura visual storytelling, even as we weren’t huge fans of the casting of its leads and the dialogue. Nonetheless, I wish filmmakers like Besson and the Wachowskis (Cloud Atlas) would be richly rewarded whenever they take chances on independently financed, bold sci-fi.

Unfortunately, based on current trajectories, Valerian will be forever destined to be that gem that people find in a VOD catalog one day, wondering what it might’ve looked like in 3D on a big screen.

On the desire to see yourself represented onscreen

Well, speaking of films being used as political lightning rods

Aditi Natasha Kini has written a piece for Jezebel entitled “I’m Tired of Watching Brown Men Fall in Love With White Women Onscreen.” In it, she not only conveys her personal dismay at watching recent shows and films like The Big Sick and Master of None, she also explains how race (and specifically, whiteness) has been operationalized in popular culture:

The Big Sick has been roundly lauded in the press lately, including here at Jezebel, and not without good reason: it’s a funny, heartwarming love story based on the true-life experiences of cowriters/married couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. But as much as I liked it—and I did—I also found myself exhausted, yet again, by the onscreen depiction of a brown man wanting to date a white woman, while brown women are portrayed alternately as caricatures, stereotypes, inconsequential, and/or the butts of a joke.

I know, I know: isn’t it progress to see Asian men get the girl for once, instead of stand-in as a prop, token or joke? Sure, it’s great that Hollywood is putting its money behind narratives with brown men at the helm, as in The Big Sick and Master of None. But both also center white women as the love interest—a concept which, in the complex hierarchy of power and race in America, pays lip-service to the one notion that has shaped the history of South Asian and American culture alike: Whiteness as the ultimate desire, the highest goal in defining oneself as an American. Both of these works are part of a larger trend that’s common in films in media portraying the desi community, that the pursuit of white love is a mode of acceptance into American culture, and a way of “transcending” the confines of immigrant culture—the notion that white love is a gateway drug to the American dream.

There have been a lot of writers online attacking this piece, and I myself am quite torn on it.

On the one hand, Kini’s point is undercut by the fact that The Big Sick is largely autobiographical. The movie is a passion project by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, and it’s difficult to understand the counterfactual that Kini is advocating for in this case. Should they have altered the film details (and thus, the details of their life) to conform to Kini’s concept of a film that’s more ethnically diverse and representative?

[I should also point out that the fact that The Big Sick exists at all and is receiving a major theatrical release is a bit of a miracle. I think the film will do a lot to expand people’s idea of what the American immigrant experience is.]

On the other hand, as an Asian-American immigrant, I can totally sympathize with where Kini is coming from. Americans who aren’t white spend decades of their lives watching films/TV shows in which white people are the romantic objects of affection, OR films/TV shows where white people get the romantic objects of affection by the end (often, the latter are of a different race).

Consider this: When was the last time you watched a film that had a Pakistani woman as the love interest? When was the last time you watched a film that had a white woman as the love interest? Imagine what it feels like to acutely perceive that imbalance every single day of your life.

The Big Sick is a great film. Kini’s concept of a similar film from the perspective of a Pakistani woman would also be something I’d want to see. I’m sad that we can’t watch both this year, but maybe they will coexist one day.

When it is time to leave film criticism

The other day, I saw a tweet from film writer Chris Webster that got me intrigued:

As someone who recently tried to direct a film, I felt like I understood what Webster was talking about. When you try to go through the process of making a film (even a tiny indie film), it changes your perception of movies altogether. It makes the great ones seem even more miraculous, and the terrible ones feel more tragic.

I contacted Webster to see if I could get him to talk more about his decision to leave film criticism. He agreed to answer a few questions via email. You can follow Chris on Twitter or at places like Screen Anarchy and Quiet Earth.

David: How long have you been reviewing movies (in print or on the internet)?

Chris: The first time I was paid to review a film was in 2005 when Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker (aka. A Fistful of Dynamite) was re-released through the arthouse circuit. I was writing a film news column for a local weekly called SEE Magazine and lobbied to be allowed to review it as I was a big spaghetti western buff and was desperate to see the film on the big screen.

I remember the photo that was published along with the review was from a completely different film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as I recall, and for some reason I was crushed when I opened the paper the following Tuesday morning on my way to University, thoroughly convinced that readers would assume I was responsible for the gaff and my days as a cineaste would end prematurely.

That weekly paper folded two years later which is when I started investigating the online world, reading sites like Ain’t it Cool News, Twitch Film (now ScreenAnarchy), First Showing, Slashfilm, Bloody Disgusting and others. I was immediately impressed by the relentless pace and scope of the coverage that was possible when you assembled a team internationally and hit most of the major festivals. It was clear that you didn’t need to expend a lot of travel costs for instance, just ensure you made connections with contributors in crucial locations.

I threw myself in and joined the founder of Quiet Earth on a mission to emulate that model. And for a few years we did a decent job growing the team and readership as well as making some great friends in the community along the way. I also have the pleasure to be writing at many of those sites now.

Why did you decide to get into movie writing in the first place?

Look, everyone loves movies, but there’s a limit to how long your friends and family will sit and talk with you about them. I’m sure most of us who have gravitated to blogging about film have faced this and it’s pushed us to find other ways to keep the conversation going. Writing about movies, podcasting, that’s what we’re doing, keeping the conversation going ad infinitum.

Do you make money from writing reviews? What portion of your personal income does it contribute to? Do you have a full-time/day job?

The money I make from writing about movies fluctuates as it’s based on various revenue streams including affiliate partnerships, advertising and commission work. If you’re not staffed full time at a big site, the trick seems to be writing for multiple sites. Since the monthly figure is generally in the hundreds of dollars it doesn’t make up a significant portion of my income. For that I rely on a full-time job in marketing/communications.

Is there a movie review or a moment in your writing career you’re particularly proud of?

As you know, there’s nothing more important than being FIRST! in the online world, so I would say my firsts have been my some of my proudest moments.

For example, I had the opportunity to publish the first English review of Switzerland’s first science fiction film, Cargo. With my permission, Io9 ended up re-publishing the review, which was a nice surprise and I was glad to have been able to help that film get some exposure. It’s very ambitious and beautiful and the director is a really cool guy.

Reviews where I have been extremely positive on a film also seem to stand out as well. My review of Kevin Smith’s Red State for example sticks out because I was able to attend one of the director’s roadshow screenings and the film completely rocked the house. I was floored by that movie and that whole experience definitely helps the review I subsequently wrote stand out in my mind.

I could go on, but I’ll stop at two.

What made you decide to stop writing reviews?

In 2010 I made the choice to try writing a screenplay, just to see if I could. Finishing that 100 page script was incredibly challenging, but also insightful. I sent it around and managed to attract an established director and a producer of movie video game tie-ins. Development hell, as they say, ensued and that project eventually fell apart. But I had caught the bug, so I wrote another one which lead to some time working with an Australian producer, which in tern lead to working on another project with a well known Canadian director. Most recently, I’ve worked on the upcoming series, Dark/Web, from the producers of last year’s Circle.

Once I had gone through development on a number of feature film projects that experience started to warp my process of reviewing films until it became a totally unrecognizable endeavor.

Knowing how the sausage was made on a creative level alerted me to the fact that there was some investigation missing when it came to truly understanding the intention and considerations of a writer and his/her collaborators, which debilitated discussing a film completely. I began losing my ability to write about movies from an emotional perspective, while at the same time, I became frustrated by how I saw others writing about films.

Everywhere I looked, critics seemed willfully unwilling to explore how movies were made in any significant way to enhance their writing. And I started to think, ‘In a world where VICE will go live with terrorists in Iran, or whatever, to bring a level of authenticity to their reporting, I don’t see any movie critics really willing to gain a rich understanding of what it’s like to produce a film from script to screen.’

I believe if more film critics went down this investigative path, tried to write a film or work on a set, it would radically change the profession and the discourse. Because what I see in the space now are critics proclaiming reasons a film isn’t working with very little content to back it up. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, the script was terrible, some of that dialog was on the nose,” which you read all the time, because what are you even talking about exactly? Did you read the screenplay? A screenplay isn’t just the dialog; it’s everything from what we hear on the soundtrack to how the characters are costumed to the tone and pacing. It’s a thousand considerations, each of which will go on to be compromised in some small way by each person who comes along after it’s written to help bring it to the screen. Nobody sets out to make a bad film. For that reason, I think great films are miracles and the idea of reducing this rich and collaborative art form to 500 snarky words seems preposterous to me.

And look, what I am suggesting happens in the film industry as well. I just realized that watching a lot of movies doesn’t necessarily equip you with a robust enough understanding of how films work, or should work, and I realized I was likely doing more disservice to filmmakers than good by bringing more uninformed criticism into the world.

I’ve noticed that many of our critic colleagues who have gotten into producing have quietly moved away from reviewing films altogether. I won’t name names — people can do their research — but I suspect it’s because writing reviews began to feel like a strangely disingenuous exercise for them. Now that I’ve discussed my own decision here, I think I’ll ask them about it. And who knows, maybe they’re just too busy.

Which brings up another reason: it takes a lot of time to write about the work of others when I could be focusing on my own work. Ben Wheatley’s recent comments about not understanding the desire to criticize rather than create hit me right in the gut. It made me consider all the time I had invested in writing bout other people’s creativity and how I wished I had some of that time back to invest in my own endeavors. A very intelligent filmmaker friend of mine takes issue with Wheatley’s sentiments and has suggested that criticism is a critic’s art. After about a year of mulling his opinion, I have decided to respectfully disagree. It’s okay though, we’re still friends.

The final reason I’ve lost interest in reviewing films is that I believe criticism is moving in a very toxic direction where films are being used as political lightning rods to discuss identity politics by some people I would suggest have little interest in movies. I think the market has dictated this. Conflict has always generated clicks, but what this preoccupation with whether or not La La Land is racist [Editor’s note: Um…] has done is drown out those discussing the movie and movies. And I miss that.

On a recent episode of The Canon podcast, critics MTV’s Amy Nicholson and indie Wire’s David Ehrlich discussed the 1998 Academy Award winner Shakespeare in Love. Both of them marveled at how, when going back to read through criticism of it from the time of its release, there was barely any talk of how the film represents gender. They went on to imagine how the film would be put through the think-piece meat grinder if it were released today which struck me as incredibly sad. Gender is a topic worth considering in the film, no question, it’s not that, but it reminded me that we used to sit on films, let history do its thing before assessing their place and relevance in the culture, using context and perspective as an important ally. Now we sort of speed date with movies, savage them with judgment and move on to the next table.

How the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ sequel fell apart

Anne Thompson at Indiewire has a fascinating piece on how Lucy Walker’s sequel to The Buena Vista Social Club was woefully mishandled behind the scenes, leading to creative control getting wrested away from Walker and a disastrous theatrical performance:

The lessons here are obvious: Documentary filmmakers, especially those with living subjects, need to understand all legal agreements before agreeing to make a film. Direct relationships with the subjects, and with the people who control the film, are essential.

But in the saga of “Buena Vista Social Club,” no one comes out ahead. The band didn’t get the extra loving tribute and publicity boost for the end of their careers. They didn’t get a chance to attend the premiere at Sundance or walk the red carpet at the Oscars. The filmmakers lost valuable years of their short lives. And Broad Green lost a lot of money.

Another lesson: a good producer who has your back is worth their weight in gold.

See also: Indiewire’s reporting on Broad Green’s rocky start.

Giancarlo Esposito’s Fresh Air interview

I appreciated Giancarlo Esposito’s recent interview on Fresh Air, in which he opens about what it was like to make a career in Hollywood while being a mixed race actor:

I had to make a choice, and I made this choice over and over and over again in my life. I walk into an audition and I’m “Giancarlo Esposito” and they thought I was a white guy. … I walk into the audition and it’s all white guys sitting out in the waiting room and they come out and they’re like, “We’re sorry. We had no idea … you were black, so this is only for white guys.” …

We still check those boxes, right? And it says “African-American,” “Spanish,” you know, “Indian?” And I, all my life, have checked the box that that said “other.” Now, there’ s a connotation to that, too. I’m an “other”? How did I get to be an “other”? …

I’ve had to revisit this often, and I’m getting a little choked up now, because I believe that we hold ourselves in a way that also projects who we are. And if I project my humanity and I’m a human being, that goes beyond any color. It goes to the soul. … I want to be judged for who I am organically. I want to have real interactions not based on my color.