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The Ankler is my new email addiction. It’s a daily newsletter that Richard Rushfield puts together and it is full of piss and vinegar, plus fun perspectives on all the movie industry news of the day.

I’ve enjoyed Rushfield’s work for quite some time and while I think The Ankler does have the shortcomings of any publication produced from only a single person’s perspective, it is still an absolute delight. I’d highly recommend it for anyone keen to stay abreast of all the rumors and gossip in Hollywood.

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The state of the film industry is bleak

David Lieberman over at Deadline has a fascinating interview with Doug Creutz about the state of the movie industry. Overall, things are not looking good:

CREUTZ: It’s a classic tragedy of the commons scenario. Everybody’s optimal strategy is to go aggressively after blockbusters. But when everybody’s doing that, it’s bad for their collective outcome. In industries where you have overcapacity or shrinking market, typically companies get merged or they go out of business. That’s competition. That’s capitalism.

DEADLINE: Why isn’t that happening?

CREUTZ: All of the studios are owned by larger companies. So there isn’t this overriding financial pressure: “Oh my God, were going to go bankrupt. We better do something.” Paramount could lose money for 50 years and Viacom would not go out of business. It’s small compared to the overall company. There was an option on the table for them to sell Paramount to a Chinese bidder. There were lots of rumors about that. They opted not to. Why? Well, some of this has to do with it being a family business. The movie business is a sexy business to be in. Very prestigious. People have a hard time letting go of those assets. You wouldn’t see a merger unless two of the larger companies merged.

Disney is the only studio that’s really raking it in. But even for them, the growth trajectory seems uncertain:

CREUTZ: Disney’s doing great but investors expect them to continue doing as well as they are doing —  potentially, if not forever, then for the next several years. And they probably will. But in the event that they stumble, it’s going to be bad news for Disney stock. When you’re at 60% of industry profits, it’s hard to see how you go up much from there.

I was having a discussion with somebody this morning: “Now they’re doing all these live-action remakes of their animated films. Isn’t that better for Disney?” I said, “Look, how much better are things going to get?” They had the top five grossing films in the world last year and six of the top 10. I guess they could have 10 of the top 10. It’s possible. But at a certain point it’s like, “Okay, you are the industry, practically.”

If current trends continue, medium-budgeted films will keep getting squeezed out in favor of ultra-low-budget or massive-tentpole releases. By and large, the movie industry isn’t really a growth industry anymore — it has become a zero sum game, with studios all trying to out-blockbuster each other.

While it’s a great time to be a filmmaker, it’s insanely difficult to get noticed or to get any critical mass of attention these days. That will only get worse as time goes on.

An appreciation of ‘The Fugitive’ 

Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for Rogerebert.com, on Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive (1994):

The train crash itself is one of the great action sequences of the nineties, but for my money there are four others that are nearly as good: Kimble eluding Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) in the sewer tunnels a la Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (the inspiration for Roy Huggins’ original TV series); the raid on the house the results in the death of Richard’s fellow escaped prisoner (Eddie Bo Smith, Jr.); Richard’s escape from the Marshals on St. Patrick’s Day; and Richard’s fight on the train with Sykes, a great reminder in this age of wildly overscaled action that all you need to get the audience’s pulses pounding is a good guy and a bad guy whose motives are clear.

It’s worth noting that this film was shot and edited a few months after Oliver Stone’s innovative paranoid thriller “JFK” won an Academy Award for best editing. You can detect the Stone film’s visual signatures in Davis’ flash-cuts, as well as in the brisk yet legible way “The Fugitive” fills in the past and present at the same time. In that opening section, we’re continuously finding out exactly what’s meant by the ominous questions of the Chicago detectives, but in a way that spares “The Fugitive” of the indignity of having to stop the action while somebody delivers a recap.

It’s appropriate that Seitz is running Ebert’s namesake website. Like Ebert, Seitz’s reviews make me desperately want to re-visit the films he writes about.

How clickbait is killing criticism

Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, on how criticism, as an industry, is dying:

The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm. In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tax cut for the super-rich.

The drive to revamp cultural coverage has overtaken major newspapers, including the New York Times, just as the wider public has been rediscovering the virtue of traditional reporting. In the wake of the 2016 Presidential campaign, with its catastrophic feedback loop of fake news and clickbait, people have subscribed in surging numbers to so-called legacy publications. Do these chastened content-consumers really want culture pages dominated by trending topics? Or do they expect papers to decide for themselves what merits attention? One lesson to be learned from the rise of Donald Trump is that the media should not bind themselves blindly to whatever moves the needle.

For a brief time in human history, when information was scarce and difficult to obtain, personal ads in newspapers were able to subsidize a whole host of other kinds of reporting. Now that that period is over, consumers need to make new and different decisions about which kinds of criticism are worth paying for.

Ross’s piece is yet another lamentation of a bygone era. But he gives short shrift to the fact that new kinds of criticism and discussion have sprung up in its place — not to mention new ways of funding them, like YouTube ad dollars or direct subsidies from the audience. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Why ‘Beauty and the Beast’ represents a troubling trend for Disney

Alison Willmore, writing for Buzzfeed, about Bill Condon’s new Beauty and the Beast:

Beauty and the Beast [1991] was considered more nuanced and more sophisticated in its interpretation, its not-to-type bookish protagonist, and its aesthetics, a landmark for the company — the first animated feature to have ever gotten nominated for Best Picture.

Sad and a bit alarming that 26 years later, this new Beauty and the Beast is so fundamentally stuck in place beneath its few middling gestures toward inclusivity. Being stuck in place is a conscious choice here, nostalgia having become very good business, but there’s something more than cynical to the way the film regurgitates so much from a past classic. The new Beauty and the Beast may be live action, but it feels less alive than the animated feature it follows. It’s not comfort food, it’s Disney saluting how much it’s done right — so much so that it insists, over a quarter century later, that it barely needs to change. It’s a corporation’s ode to itself, and to setting expectations for progress very low.

While the new films are doing gangbusters at the box office, I find Disney’s live action remakes to be artistically bizarre. More often than not, they are shells of their former, animated selves, often taking the same plot, the same characters and even the same look, then gussying them all up using modern day technology and production design. They rarely add anything new or worthwhile to the original story, and thus feel beholden to their predecessors.

Disney is a multinational conglomerate that is producing many different kinds of films. But it’s a bummer that it has chosen this decade to revel in its former glory with these remakes when it could be telling newer, more interesting stories instead.

Thomas Newman’s ‘Passengers’ soundtrack is beautiful

Sure, Passengers is a pretty morally reprehensible film and basically a feature-length adaptation of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s The Implication.” But one of the best things to come out of it was Thomas Newman’s beautiful, plaintive score (which was actually nominated for an Oscar last year).

The theme from “Spacewalk,” the track above, plays several times in the movie. It appears when Jim takes his first spacewalk outside the cruise ship he’s on and sees the wonder of the ship in the vastness of space. Later, he brings Aurora to show her as well.

When I play it, it reminds me that even in the most hopeless, dire situations, beauty still exists. It just needs to found and appreciated.

Breaking Bad – The Movie

Someone has edited all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad into a 127-minute long film. According to the creator:

What if Breaking Bad was a movie ?

After two years of sleepless nights of endless editing, we bring you the answer to that very question. A study project that became an all-consuming passion.

It’s not a fan-film, hitting the highlights of show in a home-made homage, but rather a re-imagining of the underlying concept itself, lending itself to full feature-length treatment.

An alternative Breaking Bad, to be viewed with fresh eyes.

This is a pretty interesting, well-executed experiment. Of course, it’s not Breaking Bad at all — countless scenes are lost, the pacing is dramatically different, and the timeline of the film (unlike the show) is largely linear. Nonetheless, a fascinating concept and a clear labor of love.

[Thanks to Shayne B from the Slackfilmcast for bringing this to my attention]

Vimeo now supports 360-degree video

Nathan Ingraham, writing for Engadget:

From a playback perspective, 360-degree playback is now integrated into the website as well as the iOS and Android apps. You can watch video in either monoscopic or stereoscopic mode — the latter of which means you’ll be able to properly view this footage while wearing a VR headset. Not all headsets are supported today, however. For starters, Vimeo’s 360 video will work with Google Daydream, Samsung’s Gear VR and the Zeiss VR One. But support for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive is coming soon.

Watching these videos is pretty straightforward. On the web, you can just click and drag anywhere in the video to look around; on a smartphone, you just swipe around the screen. You can also use your computer’s trackpad to pan around, and there’s also a helpful little compass that shows which way you’re “facing” in the 360-degree landscape — tapping or clicking that restores you to the default point of view, assuming the uploader enabled it.

I am super excited about what stories 360-video will enable, especially on a site with as strong a commitment to filmmaking as Vimeo has.

Gareth Evans explains how he made ‘The Raid’

The Raid and The Raid 2 are two of my favorite action films of all time, so it was a delight to see this recent Vulture piece where director Gareth Evans explains his process behind some of The Raid’s most spectacular set pieces:

There’s a subtle difference about how long a camera lingers on violence, and how much detail is shown. Almost all the extreme violence in The Raid 2 either cuts away on impact, moves onto another opponent, or happens at a distance in a wide shot.

There are moments in The Raid 2 where I wanted to use the camera to question screen violence. When we hold on the shotgun blast — you have a wide frame to look at, you choose where your gaze falls. But violence is pointless if you don’t also use it to say something about the characters. The restaurant scene in The Raid 2, with the lineup of men having their throats slit, barely shows any actual detail of violence. The focus of the scene is about the psychology of [crime boss villain] Bejo and [antihero] Uco, who are capable of committing and witnessing such brutality, yet still conducting a business meeting at the same time.

Or [Uwais’s heroic cop] Rama burning the corrupt policeman on the hot plate — you only really see the aftermath in any detail. Again, the primary focus is on Rama’s anguished face as he battles within himself, as he starts to slip deeper into the world of violence he now resides in. It’s how you present violence that is the key component of this differentiation. If it has something to say about your characters, then it can be as important as a scene of dialogue.

I was honored to do a video essay with Gareth a few years ago, where he dissected his top five action scenes of all time. Check it out below.

Logan, the X-Men, and what they say about the minority experience

At their best, superhero movies and comic books hold a mirror up to our society. They ask us to consider what we would do if we were placed in these fantastical situations. Would we fight for the greater good, even in the face of ostracization and persecution from society? Bryan Singer’s X-Men films certainly asked this question. In James Mangold’s Logan, that question reaches its logical conclusion.

Slashfilmcast listener Steve Alvarez wrote in this email about his experience watching Logan (reproduced here with permission). I found it particularly moving. Spoilers ahead:

As Jeff would say, I’ve been a Marvel Zombie from way back. And I regret to add that I’ve hated every single one of Bryan Singers X-Men films, as well as The Last Stand and Wolverine Origins. These films had always felt like they were merely about characters with superpowers, superficial battles and catchphrases. The exception to these films was Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, for reasons I’ll revisit, and the Quicksilver scene in Days of Future Past, for reasons that are self-evident. Needless to say, I was cautiously optimistic about Logan.

By the time we got to the scene on the farm in Logan, I had already decided that this was easily the best X-Men film of them all, and perhaps one of the top comic book genre films to date. On the farm, I had incorrectly assumed the film was near it’s end. By this point, there had already been so much earthly pain and suffering throughout the film, wonderfully expressed through great writing, an appropriate amount of humor and excellent acting by a convincing cast. Of course, I was wrong about the ending and the film continued. Eventually we got to the scenes in the woods of North Dakota. And as promised, Logan, the X-Man we connected with the most, finally began to die. Somewhat unexpectedly, I found myself holding back tears. But I wasn’t prepared for when Laura cried out “Daddy.” That is when I completely lost it. Right there, next to 7 of my friends. And all the triggers throughout the movie, began an unrelenting assault on my emotions, to the soundtrack by Johnny Cash, a singer a late father figure of mine had loved.

Long before I met my wife, I dared to prepare for a life of fatherhood. I thought about what type of job would best afford me the time, training, and an adequate income (I’m now a school psychologist). Within a year of meeting my wife, we began discussing where we would raise our child, what values we would instill, and how we’d manage as many of life’s curve balls as our imaginations could conjure up (like a sort of mental “danger room” if you will). For the past 8 months or so, my wife and I have started visiting medical professionals, discovering that it may not be so simple for us. And then the unimaginable happened: suddenly we were living in a country that had changed it’s trajectory. And my wife’s greatest fear, of raising a child in the country where Trayvon Martin’s killer walks free, became my own fears, multiplied. In the past few months, I did what any self respecting progressive, minority, feminist, empathetic human being would do: I marched, I wrote letters to my representatives, I educated and I donated time and money. But I also did one other thing. I grew curious about how other countries were responding to the Syrian refugee crisis, and why Canadians appeared to be so welcoming and tolerant. I learned about how the great north identified with the values of multiculturalism and had maintained a very inclusive immigration policy. And I began to ask myself, if my parents could both independently immigrate to this country with the hopes of finding a better future for themselves and their unborn children, why should I feel too embarrassed to do the same?

For weeks, I have been wrestling with the idea of staying and fighting to make this country a more hospitable place for my unborn child, versus finding them a home that’s welcoming–sparing them the fate of having to fight for recognition, dignity, safety, and their humanity. And then there’s Hugh Jackman, on an IMAX screen, performing a much more literal, much more dramatic version of the debate that’s playing out in my mind. This is the main reason I loved the X-Men growing up. To me, they weren’t just characters with extraordinary talents, fighting superficial battles that ended in catchphrases. They were members of a minority class, with their own civil rights leaders–some advocating for peace and some struggling with their temptation to radicalize, given their extraordinary abilities. One of the key elements that previous X-Men films seemed to lack was an earthly depiction of the pain that comes with persecution.

Logan shows that years of fighting for what you believe in can take a massive physical and emotional toll. Sometimes, though, it is the only choice you have.

Why visual effects companies have a difficult time making money

A recent Freakonomics podcast episode explores why visual effects companies aren’t overflowing with riches, in an age where the vast majority of big budget films need them desperately. Short answer: a limited market that advantages the buyers (in this case, the studios), standardization of tools used in the industry (depressing wages), and state tax incentives that result in punishing conditions for workers.

Twitter Thread of the Day: David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ in 13 tweets, by Guillermo del Toro

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

[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]

Today, writer/director Guillermo del Toro (one of my favorites!) explains the brilliance of Zodiac. While I think Zodiac is David Fincher’s masterpiece, it’s not a film I’ve gone back to revisit very often. It’s a film about the nature of obsession and it offers no easy resolution of any kind. I find it Fincher’s most disquieting film — it makes me physically uncomfortable to watch it. But I really should check it out again sometime soon.

What was up with that Asian guy in ‘Get Out’?

[This post contains SPOILERS for Get Out]

Ranier Maningding, writing for NextShark, on the appearance of a random Asian guy about halfway through Jordan Peele’s Get Out:

The inclusion of the Asian character was a powerful message, but why did Jordan Peele add one? Why not five? If subtlety was the objective, then one Asian character was enough, but I don’t think Peele was trying to be discreet about his commentary on Asians. Instead, the decision to cast one Asian guy mimicked the actual demographics of Asians in America.

According to the Pew Research Center, Asian-Americans make up 5.8% of the country. Compared to Black Americans who stand at 13.3%, Asians are even more of a demographic minority. By adding one solitary Asian character, Peele highlights the fact that even though Asians are outnumbered by Black folks, we still take on the role as oppressors by standing on the side of white supremacy and anti-Blackness.

I think Maninding’s take on this is plausible. That being said, some of the choices in Get Out seem pretty deliberate only in retrospect (see this explanation from The LA Times of that creepy “milk scene” in the film). In fact, Peele has already said in an interview that this gentleman was a reference to Rosemary’s Baby:

There were so many little things that I got from Rosemary’s Baby. It begins with [sings the creepy music that plays over the opening credits], which showed me that the way to start a horror movie is to give people a hint of where it’s going to go. Even if you move away from that menacing tone for a bit, people know it’s coming back. There’s also a party sequence in Get Out that pays homage to the Japanese character who turns up at the end of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a scary turn in that film because when you see that guy, you realize this is not just a group of run-of-the-mill, Upper West Side devil worshippers. It’s an international cult.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting interpretation and I wish I’d commented on this during our review of Get Out.

(Thanks to Jeremy Wainwright for linking me to the Peele interview)

James Mangold’s advice for young filmmakers

James Mangold recently conducted a Reddit AMA to chat Logan and other insights into his process. Nofilmschool has a great write-up of the key highlights from a filmmaking perspective.

I was particularly struck by an answer he gave about getting good performances out of actors for small or independent films:

[S]ometimes I go to film schools and advise younger filmmakers about their short films and independent feature projects and invariably I see sometimes that the films are crippled by stiff or unreal acting performances. What I would suggest is to tailor your early projects around talent, amazing talent you know, meaning if you have a friend who is an incredible singer-songwriter and has a kind of very unique personality, write a movie about them as if they were a character, you know? Martin Scorsese’s first movies all revolved around characters who could very ably be played by Robert De Niro or Harvey Keitel and other friends of his. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that his early movies feature such sterling performances, that in many ways the material was tailored to the assets he had access to, the second you’re kind of writing a movie and then trying, with limited resources to find the right person in an acting school or wherever to play this role, you’re already crippling yourself or really limiting your ability to find the best person. Also i would look other places that acting classes. I would look at comedy clubs, I would look for people who just have an amazing look or natural way about them or a very powerful personality and see whether you could take advantage of that.

“Play to your strengths” and “use what you have access to” seem like obvious advice but I think they are worth heeding for those just getting into the field. It was definitely the approach I tried to use.

For related content, see /Film’s interview with Mangold and The Ringer’s feature on Mangold.

How better typography could’ve prevented the Oscars fiasco

I commented on this on the evening of the Oscars, but Benjamin Bannister has written up the definitive takedown of Oscars typography:

With a modified card, even if the presenters had gotten the wrong one, none of this would’ve happened because the presenters would’ve looked at it and one of two things would’ve happened: their eyes would’ve read “Best Actress,” or, “Emma Stone.” Reading either of those would indicate that this wasn’t the card for Best Picture, and they would’ve asked Jimmy Kimmel or a producer to the stage to get it corrected.

As a creator, the importance of typography is an absolute skill to know, and people — not just designers, should consider learning it. Typography can be immensely helpful when writing a resume that’s well-structured, creating a report that looks exciting, designing a website with an intuitive hierarchy — and definitely for designing award show winner cards.

“They froze”

Earlier this week, PricewaterhouseCoopers announced that the accountants involved in last weekend’s Oscars mistake would no longer be working on the show. This led some in my Twitter feed to wonder why both were being taken off the business when it seemed clear that Brian Cullinan (and not his partner in crime, Martha Ruiz) was solely to blame for the mixup.

Steve Pond, writing for The Wrap, has some further clarification on this point. It seems it was both of their responsibility to intervene with the live show in the event of an error. That did not happen:

Because [Stage manager Gary] Natoli was no longer in the wings near Ruiz, he radioed another stage manager to find Ruiz and have her open the second Best Picture envelope. “She was standing there with the envelope in her hand, very low-key,” he said of Ruiz. “And John Esposito said that Brian was very low-key too, no urgency. But we had Martha open the envelope, and it said ‘Moonlight.’”

Natoli said he immediately told the stage managers in the wings, “Get the accountants out there!” But he said both Cullinan and Ruiz hesitated. “John was trying to get Brian to go on stage, and he wouldn’t go,” he said. “And Martha wouldn’t go. We had to push them on stage, which was just shocking to me.”

As I’ve stated on the /Filmcast, I can’t really judge anyone in that situation for how they behaved in an unprecedented situation. That being said, for a live show with this many people watching, it’s prudent to have gatekeepers who are disposed to action:

“I’m sure they’re very lovely people, but they just didn’t have the disposition for this,” Natoli said. “You need somebody who’s going to be confident and unafraid.”

The strong, silent, violent type

Emily Yoshida, writing for Vulture about the popular trend of “silent, violent little girls” that’s sweeping the nation (this piece contains minor plot details about Logan):

Laura and her ilk aren’t characters. And their age and increasing silence has become a handy crutch for writers who might otherwise have a harder time bringing female leads to life. (Look to the lackluster characterization of Stranger Things’ Nancy and Joyce for evidence of this.) So while the device aims for gee-whiz novelty — A little girl who can fight? Now I’ve seen everything! — it ends up being a part of a fusty and familiar trend in genre writing.

Despite countless critical calls for more and better-written women, many genre and action films still find they can get by with a single, one-dimensional woman. Again, that’s fine — it takes all types, though I’d personally like to see more of the other types. But the fact that that single one-dimensional woman is now just as likely to be a girl seems conspicuously regressive, like a joke about Hollywood ageism told with a dead-serious face and deafening BWOOOMMMs for punctuation.

It didn’t occur to me that characters like Laura might be a crutch, but Yoshida brings up some interesting points in her piece. I loved Logan and enjoyed Dafne Keen’s performance as Laura, but the fact that violent girls’ silence is becoming a recurring trope does start to feel less enigmatic and more lazy as time goes on.