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.

Walter Chaw’s review of ‘Rough Night’

I had a chance to see Lucia Aniello’s Rough Night last night and I had a great time at the theater. It’s a fun, inconsequential, bawdy movie in the vein of Broad City (which Aniello also has a big part of), where a group of female friends engage in crazy hijinks and maybe learn something about themselves and their relationships to each other.

I appreciated this profile of Aniello at The Ringer (who, btw, have been killing it with their director profiles recently):

“I don’t think that I’m making strictly political content — it’s comedy first,” she says. “Obviously I’m a feminist and I feel like my voice reflects that and I feel that the things I make reflect that. It’s funny because it’s probably too feminist for some people, and probably not feminist enough for other people, so I just have to be honest and be like, ‘This is what I truly find funny.’”

All that said, I was also stunned to read Walter Chaw’s (spoiler-filled) review of Rough Night, in which he gives the movie zero stars:

Very Bad Things ends with paralysis, death, and half-life; Rough Night ends by excusing everything, making sure everyone is friends and cool and shit, and explaining away why it is that the truly noxious character at the centre of it all is the way she is. Spoiler: it’s because her mother is dying of Alzheimer’s and she’s trying to give her a rosy picture of her…you know what, never mind. Above and beyond any ugliness embedded in the film’s premise and execution, the exploitation of this disease for some sort of moral reclamation is the ugliest. It’s completely unnecessary. It’s noxious.

It’s also what makes Rough Night genuinely terrible rather than just run-of-the-mill unwatchable. Imagine The Hangover if it’s revealed after everything that the Zach Galifianakis man-child miscreant was acting the way he did because he had sick relatives. It’s the kind of thing pictures without any courage do. Rough Night takes a shot at being a Weekend at Bernie’s, but garbage decisions like this align it more closely with Patch Adams.

I obviously don’t agree with Chaw that the film’s problems completely sink it (nor do I think the movie was unfunny; there were many laughs throughout the audience in my screening). But Chaw is right that there is a fundamental conservativism to these Apatow-esque comedies that inhibit them from hitting harder with their messages and becoming legitimate critiques of some of the awful human behavior they traffic in. This definitely describes Rough Night too. But not all movies have to be all things to all people.

Leave Tom Cruise alone

The other day, director Dan Trachtenberg wondered on Twitter why some movies that are only okay get completely destroyed while others are bafflingly elevated by the critical community:

I’m not sure if he’s referring to anything specifically here, but The Mummy certainly falls into the latter category for me, a movie that is inoffensive at best, and comes off as a craven cash-grab at worst. In our podcast review of The Mummy, we weren’t huge fans, but I was a bit confused at why critics decided to take a huge dump all over this one, when other equally terrible films this year have not endured such harsh treatment.

I can’t speculate too much on when/why critics sense blood in the water and try to bury a film. But what’s indisputable is that this one certainly has created a lot of anti-Cruise sentiment.

Many observers (including me) think Cruise needs to change career trajectory. Here’s Chris Eggersten writing for The Hollywood Reporter:

It’s hard not to be disappointed by all of this. Cruise is undoubtedly one of the greatest stars of the modern era, and over the course of his long career he’s consistently championed original projects over release-date slot-fillers. Like him or not, his reputation as a star who cares deeply about the quality of the films he puts out is beyond refute. While his current trajectory doesn’t necessarily suggest he’s getting lazy (I honestly don’t think he has it in him), it is an indication that he’s finally been forced to concede to the demands of an industry that has left old-guard action stars like him scrambling to find their place.

Then, this week, Variety published a harsh and somewhat confusing hit piece on Cruise, seemingly built from sources inside the studio, Universal:

As Hollywood is playing the blame game on what went wrong on “The Mummy,” which had a measly domestic opening of just $32 million, many fingers are pointing to Cruise. In the same way that he commanded the stage at the film’s premiere, leaving his cast standing awkwardly by his side, several sources close to the production say that Cruise exerted nearly complete creative oversight on “The Mummy,” essentially wearing all the hats and dictating even the smallest decisions on the set. On stage, Cruise admitted his own perfectionist tendencies. “I don’t just make a movie. I give it everything I have and I expect it from everyone also.”

Universal, according to sources familiar with the matter, contractually guaranteed Cruise control of most aspects of the project, from script approval to post-production decisions. He also had a great deal of input on the film’s marketing and release strategy, these sources said, advocating for a June debut in a prime summer period.

I found this piece to be odd because I’d always just assumed that Cruise exerted significant creative control over most of his films, whereas this piece presents it as a revelation. Cruise is one of the biggest movie stars in the world and, for most of his career, he has understood what makes a good action film (he’s a producer on all the Mission Impossible films, which have grossed over $2 billion worldwide). I would’ve found it strange if Cruise hadn’t had a huge amount of veto power on The Mummy, which is presumably the studio’s first entry into their Dark Universe of films.

In a recent issue of The Ankler, Richard Rushfield takes aim at the absurdity of the Variety piece:

Will you just look at that!  A star throwing his weight around on a set and taking over everything! And just because Universal had, “contractually guaranteed Cruise control of most aspects of the project, from script approval to post-production decisions.”  It’s like he took that contractual guarantee literally!  When all Universal meant by it was as sort of a big cuddly bear hug.

But what’s a poor little studio to do when their star out of nowhere, with no warning at all that he can be a little controlling, suddenly wants to run the ship.

Anyway, good job, entertainment media. You actually made me feel bad for Tom Cruise and The Mummy this week. A high accomplishment.

[Note: The headline of this blog post is not meant to imply that Tom Cruise should be left alone for his complicity in Scientology’s abhorrent actions. Those he should still be held accountable for.]

The 25 best films of the 21st century so far

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott have written up an interactive feature for The New York Times counting down the best 25 films of this century:

We are now approximately one-sixth of the way through the 21st century, and thousands of movies have already been released. Which means that it’s high time for the sorting – and the fighting – to start. As the chief film critics of The Times, we decided to rank, with some help from cinema savants on Facebook, the top 25 movies that are destined to be the classics of the future. While we’re sure almost everyone will agree with our choices, we’re equally sure that those of you who don’t will let us know.

The write-ups are obviously worth reading in their entirety, but here’s the list of just the films:

  1. There Will Be Blood
  2. Spirited Away
  3. Million Dollar Baby
  4. A Touch of Sin
  5. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
  6. Yi Yi
  7. Inside Out
  8. Boyhood
  9. Summer Hours
  10. The Hurt Locker
  11. Inside Llewyn Davis
  12. Timbutku
  13. In Jackson Heights
  14. L’Enfant
  15. White Material
  16. Munich
  17. Three Times
  18. The Gleaners and I
  19. Mad Max: Fury Road
  20. Moonlight
  21. Wendy and Lucy
  22. I’m Not There
  23. Silent Light
  24. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  25. The 40-Year Old Virgin

I personally find several of the choices puzzling (for instance, I wasn’t a massive fan of Inside Llewyn Davis like many of my colleagues — it’s probably my least favorite Coen Brothers film that they’ve made since 2000, which is no dig on the movie but more a testament to how damn good and consistent the Coen Bros are). But I’m impressed with the breadth and scope of the list.

Any list in which The 40-Year Old Virgin can co-exist with There Will Be Blood is good in my book.

My favorite music from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films

With the forthcoming release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (see my video reaction to the film here), I’ve been thinking about all the great music that this series has given us over the years. These scores not only help create the world of the films, but they help imbue it with a whimsy and a poignancy that would otherwise be totally missing — especially the more incoherent films like At World’s End and Dead Man’s Chest. Below are some of my favorite tracks, and a few thoughts on each one.

Note: Geoff Zanelli does the music for the new film, replacing Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt. His work is fine, but he mostly re-uses memorable themes from the previous movies (think Don Davis in Jurassic Park III and you have a good idea of what the score is like).

He’s a Pirate – Written by Klaus Badelt for the original Pirates of the Caribbean, this track is oft-imitated, never equaled. It combines modern, bombastic action film sensibilities with a heavy emphasis on strings that make it one of the most memorable themes of all time.

Angelica – For On Stranger Tides, Zimmer collaborated with my favorite band in the world right now, guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. One of the results was this tango that features some beautiful riffs.

Jack Sparrow – The composers of the Jack Sparrow theme found a way to express his personality using a cello solo. It’s beautiful, silly, and grand.

Up Is Down – One thing the Pirates films are great at is crafting inventive visuals. In a memorable scene in At World’s End, Jack Sparrow uses the weight of his crew to flip his entire ship underwater. This fun track captures some of the whimsy and challenge of that task.

I Don’t Think Now Is The Best Time – This track is an extremely intricate one that plays at the end of At World’s End. As the climactic battle is coming to a head and all hell is breaking loose, Elizabeth and Will declare their love for each other. Almost every single theme in the Pirates movies shows up for a moment in this thing, but my favorite aspect of this track is how it manages to combine them, often layering one on top of the other, all while still managing to match the action on screen. It’s probably the track I’ve listened to more than any other.

For more reading, see my review of Hans Zimmer’s live tour.

The state of film criticism in Seattle

I was delighted to participate in this panel at the Seattle International Film Festival with fellow Seattle film critics Charles Mudede, Sara Michelle Fetters, and Zosha Millman. Brendan Harris moderated a discussion about the economics of film criticism, the role a film critic plays as an advocate of films and consumers, and past opinions we’ve regretted.

You can watch the entire panel here on Periscope.

Has Pixar lost its way?

Christopher Orr, writing for The Atlantic:

A well-regarded hollywood insider recently suggested that sequels can represent “a sort of creative bankruptcy.” He was discussing Pixar, the legendary animation studio, and its avowed distaste for cheap spin-offs. More pointedly, he argued that if Pixar were only to make sequels, it would “wither and die.” Now, all kinds of industry experts say all kinds of things. But it is surely relevant that these observations were made by Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, in his best-selling 2014 business-leadership book.

Yet here comes Cars 3, rolling into a theater near you this month. You may recall that the original Cars, released back in 2006, was widely judged to be the studio’s worst film to date. Cars 2, which followed five years later, was panned as even worse. And if Cars 3 isn’t disheartening enough, two of the three Pixar films in line after it are also sequels: The Incredibles 2 and (say it isn’t so!) Toy Story 4.

The painful verdict is all but indisputable: The golden era of Pixar is over. It was a 15-year run of unmatched commercial and creative excellence, beginning with Toy Story in 1995 and culminating with the extraordinary trifecta of wall-e in 2008, Up in 2009, and Toy Story 3 (yes, a sequel, but a great one) in 2010. Since then, other animation studios have made consistently better films. The stop-motion magicians at Laika have supplied such gems as Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings. And, in a stunning reversal, Walt Disney Animation Studios—adrift at the time of its 2006 acquisition of the then-untouchable Pixar—has rebounded with such successes as Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. One need only look at this year’s Oscars: Two Disney movies, Zootopia and Moana, were nominated for Best Animated Feature, and Zootopia won. Pixar’s Finding Dory was shut out altogether.

TL;DR: Pixar has lost its way artistically because it is now making a ton of sequels, and some of its recent movies haven’t been great.

I don’t really buy this argument for a few reasons. Firstly, the article itself acknowledges that Pixar has frequently figured out ways to make excellent sequels, best exemplified in the Toy Story series. Sure, Finding Dory and Monsters University were mediocre, but the concept of sequels is not inherently creatively bankrupt. Yes, the idea of Toy Story 4 fills me with dread, but I’m willing to take a wait and see approach to that film in the hopes that Pixar will find a good angle for it.

And secondly: Inside Out. That movie came out less than two years ago and is, by many accounts (including mine), a masterpiece. Any animation studio that can produce a film like that in its recent past still has something remarkable going for it.

I say let’s give it a few years and see how Coco turns out before we start making judgments.

Summer 2017 will be brutal at the box office

Ryan Faughnder, writing for The LA Times:

Last summer, sequels to “Star Trek,” “X-Men,” “Independence Day,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Alice in Wonderland” all performed worse than their predecessors.

Now, even though they could be poised for a repeat of that scenario, Hollywood studios are sticking with the same strategy. Why? At a time when the risks of failure in the movie business have become more costly, studios are still focusing their efforts on films that are perceived as safe bets, especially with overseas audiences that increasingly drive profits. Additionally, the movie business is notoriously slow to change course because of the time it takes to make big films. So, in some cases, it may be too late for studios to pull the plug on movies that already appear doomed long before they hit theaters.

“Man, this is depressing,” one prominent producer, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect studio relationships, said of the summer lineup. “It is just entirely sequels and franchises, and something’s got to give.”

The damage? An estimated 5-10% fewer ticket sales for the period between May and Labor Day, leading to possibly the worst sales revenue of the decade.

What’s fascinating to me are the institutional factors that continue to lead us into this era of non-stop comic book movies and franchises. No studio executive will ever get fired for greenlighting another Pirates film — the Pirates franchise has generated over $3.7 billion worldwide.

Valerian on the other hand…

Brief thoughts on ‘Alien: Covenant’

I had a chance to see Ridley Scott’s new film, Alien: Covenant, last night and I wanted to share a few thoughts on the film:

  • Overall, I am very torn about it. On the one hand, all the complaints that people had about scientists/crew members behaving stupidly in Prometheus are back with a vengeance. On numerous occasions, a character says “I’m just going to wander off by myself in this extremely dangerous location, but I’ll be right back!” Did these people learn nothing from Wes Craven’s Scream? The fact that it’s 20 years later and filmmakers like Ridley Scott are still using the same tropes of people acting super dumb is a disappointment.
  • On the other hand, I think this movie is one of the best prequels/requels/sidequels/sequels/whatevers ever made, in the sense that it not only improves upon previous films like Prometheus, but actually makes them more thematically resonant. The story, the plot, the ideas are really strong in this film — the characters are not.
  • Fassbender’s performance in Covenant is one of its highlights. Putting aside his blockbuster fare, Fassbender continues to choose roles that are artistically challenging, and his role in this film is no different.
  • There are Xenomorphs in this movie and they mostly look pretty weird because they are mostly CG creations. Remember when you first saw Attack of the Clones and there were a gajillion storm troopers that didn’t look quite right (because they were all CG and not practical)? That’s what it kind of feels like to see Xenomorphs move and behave in ways completely free from the constraints of their filmic predecessors.
  • DEFINITELY watch Prometheus before you see this film, if you want to be slightly less lost about WTF is giong on.

I think Covenant is definitely strong enough to recommend it. I just wish its profound ideas were in a better film. I discuss my thoughts further in this Periscope broadcast.

Decksposition

Forrest Wickman, writing for Slate, on the recent trend of supervillains using elaborate PowerPoint presentations to explain their plans:

But lately many supervillains have been taking things to a whole new level. Like wannabe entrepreneurs, they’ve begun preparing their own pitch decks, complete with slides and videos and futuristic holograms. If Game of Thrones has “sexposition” (in which the show uses nudity to hold the viewer’s attention while delivering dry plot exposition), superhero movies have what I’d call “decksposition.” It’s no less shameless, and a lot more dull, because decks are a lot less sexy than sex […]

But it’s Marvel Studios that’s combined these threads to make the holographic infodump a summer-movie staple. It started with the Iron Man movies, where, given Tony Stark’s entrepreneurial streak, it at least felt more natural to the territory. It’s plausible that a huckster like Stark might recap the night of his parents’ death via a hologram presentation at an MIT Alumni Honors event, as he does in his co-starring role in Captain America: Civil War.

The hologram technology Stark uses (which in the real world is still at least a few years off), is a regular feature of the Iron Man franchise. But by Iron Man 3, the series’ villains had started delivering their own evil TED Talks. In that 2013 movie, Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian explains the fictional technology he will use to try to take over the country, via a holographic livestream of his brain.

A few points. I think that due to the rise of superhero films, we are in the midst of a “supervillain arms race,” whereby the villains in these movies need to have plans of increasing complexity.

It follows that filmmakers would want to liven up the exposition a little bit. I’m not sure what a good solution is to this problem — just have less complex plans? Or make the telling of them less visually interesting? It’s a tough issue.

Also, Wickman was prompted to write this piece due to a similar scene in the new Guardians of the Galaxy, where the main villain uses a multimedia presentation to explain his plans.  As I tried to argue in our review of that film, the villain at least a character-based motivation for doing that.

/Film’s 2017 Summer Movie Wager

Every year on /Film, we choose our top 10 films of the summer by domestic box office gross. It’s always a fun time full of trash talking and week-by-week nailbiting results. Check out the episode here.

My picks are below:

  1. Despicable Me 3
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  4. Wonder Woman
  5. Transformers 5
  6. War for the Planet of the Apes
  7. Cars 3
  8. Dunkirk
  9. Pirates of the Caribbean 5
  10. The Mummy (2017)
Darkhorses:
  • Alien: Covenant
  • Baywatch
  • Captain Underpants

My biggest uncertainties? Putting Pirates so low, putting Despicable Me 3 at #1, and not having Captain Underpants in the top 10 at all.

Losing a generation of movies and TV

Over at IEEE, Marty Perlmutter has written a sobering assessment of the current state of digital preservation efforts at major studios:

Digital technology has also radically altered the way that movies are preserved for posterity, but here the effect has been far less salutary. These days, the major studios and film archives largely rely on a magnetic tape storage technology known as LTO, or linear tape-open, to preserve motion pictures. When the format first emerged in the late 1990s, it seemed like a great solution. The first generation of cartridges held an impressive 100 gigabytes of uncompressed data; the latest, LTO-7, can hold 6 terabytes uncompressed and 15 TB compressed. Housed properly, the tapes can have a shelf life of 30 to 50 years. While LTO is not as long-lived as polyester film stock, which can last for a century or more in a cold, dry environment, it’s still pretty good.

The problem with LTO is obsolescence. Since the beginning, the technology has been on a Moore’s Law–like march that has resulted in a doubling in tape storage densities every 18 to 24 months. As each new generation of LTO comes to market, an older generation of LTO becomes obsolete. LTO manufacturers guarantee at most two generations of backward compatibility. What that means for film archivists with perhaps tens of thousands of LTO tapes on hand is that every few years they must invest millions of dollars in the latest format of tapes and drives and then migrate all the data on their older tapes—or risk losing access to the information altogether.

That costly, self-perpetuating cycle of data migration is why Dino Everett, film archivist for the University of Southern California, calls LTO “archive heroin—the first taste doesn’t cost much, but once you start, you can’t stop. And the habit is expensive.” As a result, Everett adds, a great deal of film and TV content that was “born digital,” even work that is only a few years old, now faces rapid extinction and, in the worst case, oblivion.

Until a solution that is better than costly, quickly obsoleted LTO tapes is found, original versions of all of the cultural work we value is in danger of being lost forever.

The “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope

YouTube user Pop Culture Detective has created a fairly comprehensive, insightful essay about the film trope “born sexy yesterday,” in which grown (and frequently sexualized) women have the minds of children. From the essay:

“Born Sexy Yesterday” is about an unbalanced relationship. But it’s also very much connected to masculinity. The subtext of the trope is rooted in a deep-seated insecurity about sex and sexuality. The crux of the trope is a fixation on male superiority. A fixation with holding power over an innocent girl. But in order to make that socially acceptable, science fiction is employed to put the mind of that girl into a sexualized adult woman’s body.

It’s a fantasy based on fear — fear of women who are equal in sexual experience and romantic history, and fear of losing the intellectual upper hand to women.

Seeing all the examples laid out like this makes clear how ubiquitous and pernicious this trope really is.

Brief thoughts on the Hans Zimmer Revealed live concert tour

After watching Hans Zimmer’s Coachella set, I knew immediately I had to go see him live. So, this weekend, I drove 1000+ miles to Las Vegas, NV to see the latest stop on his Hans Zimmer Revealed tour. I wanted to just jot down a few thoughts quickly, with the possibility of a more expanded review later on:

  • Overall, I had an amazing time. The full set list included some of Zimmer’s greatest hits, as well as some deep cuts (e.g. True Romance, Sherlock Holmes). The whole concert was 3 hours long, including a 30-40 minute intermission in the middle and an encore. I felt like I got my money’s worth ($100+).
  • In my opinion, Hans Zimmer has done as much to shape the world of modern cinema as any director or piece of technology. His movie scores have not only left indelible impressions, but they’ve also influenced tons of other artists as well (for good or ill). Seeing him on stage, talking about his music, sharing stories about how some pieces came to be, was a delight. Zimmer himself performs in pretty much every song, sometimes on keyboard, sometimes on guitar/banjo, sometimes on percussion. His talent is monumental.
  • In terms of presentation, you could tell that everything was done according to Zimmer’s specifications. There was a band at the front of the stage, with lead soloists, and then behind them a small chamber orchestra and a choir(!). The light show was really intense and impressive. A gigantic screen behind all the performers showed some visualizations of songs that were being performed (There were no clips from movies though, I assume due to rights reasons). While some of the screen images bordered on cheesy (an issue with the Game of Thrones show as well), I appreciated the overall experience from a visual perspective.
  • My only complaint: The show was extremely loud, which itself is not a problem. However, some of the show was really just a bit too loud. I was really excited to hear Zimmer play the main track from Man of Steel, but when that track got intense, it just sounded like a lot of high-pitched noise. That was too bad, because I absolutely love it at a more manageable volume. A few other tracks suffered similarly from being not super well mixed and oppressive in their volume.
  • The encore was three of Zimmer’s tracks from Inception. On the one hand, they are amazing tracks and were performed exceptionally. On the other hand, damn you Zimmer for teasing me with the possibility of finishing a concert WITHOUT playing those tracks.

I felt like my entire life’s interest in film music, which probably started when I first bought a CD copy of the score for Crimson Tide at Circuit City (yeah), culminated in this concert. As Zimmer strolled through a collection of his greatest hits, I started to grasp precisely how much of my life has been spent listening to his music.

Moreover, I realized often his music is better than the movies they are in. Like when he started playing “Up Is Down,” I remembered, “Oh yeah, I DID listen to that amazing string-led track 50x even though I never saw the third Pirates movie more than once.”

Hans Zimmer is a legend in movie music. If you love film scores as much as me (and maybe even if you love it quite a bit less than me), know that this show is worthy of the work he puts out into the world.

I have shared more detailed thoughts about this concert on Periscope.

The Black List’s new AI service ScriptBook already seems to have huge problems

UPDATE: It now appears as though the blog post announcing ScriptBook has been taken down. My original post follows.

Earlier today, the well-regarded site The Black List, which surfaces some of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, announced the launch of ScriptBook, a new AI service for evaluating scripts:

Who is ScriptBook?

ScriptBook is a technology company that uses machine learning and natural language processing to learn about film scripts. By analyzing thousands of produced film scripts, movies and associated data, their algorithm can analyze a film script based simply on its words. By using AI, ScriptBook can provide a more objective analysis of a film script than any single human reader.

Why are we adding this product?

Our goal is to provide writers another tool to help them analyze their work. This product does not replace the evaluation service performed by our team of professional readers — instead, it offers a new, cutting-edge way to look at screenplays. It provides objective metrics and analysis on a very subjective endeavor. Our philosophy is that machine learning combined with real human taste and intuition can help us understand the world better than either alone. Increasingly, these tools are being used by studios and production companies to make decisions, so we want to offer such a tool to writers at the lowest price point possible.

For $100, ScriptBook will provide a 4-page analysis of your feature length script. The site provides a sample report for the Denzel Washington film Fences to show what a typical analysis might look like.

There are obviously lots of challenges with reading a script and offering useful suggestions for improving it. The idea that an AI could perform this analysis accurately feels pretty far-fetched. And apparently it is! Because even ScriptBook’s own analysis of Fences seems wildly off.

Film producer Keith Calder tore into ScriptBook on Twitter. I don’t think I have anything to add to this:

How Netflix treats great indie films

David Ehrlich, writing for Indiewire, on what it means to have your film on Netflix:

I don’t know if Netflix has the power to kill the movies, but the last few months have made one thing incredibly clear: Netflix certainly has the power to kill their movies, and it’s doing that with extreme prejudice. It’s not a distributor; it’s a graveyard with unlimited viewing hours. Netflix doesn’t release movies, it inters them.

And the problem is getting worse, because the movies that Netflix is buying — and funding — are getting better. When the company first got into the original features game with Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” the tepid response wasn’t much of a concern; the roll-out was a mess, and most theaters refused to play a movie that was premiering day-and-date with a streaming service, but the assumption was that Netflix would learn from their mistakes and better serve their filmmakers.

Cut to: Sundance 2017, when Netflix rolled up to the festival with several of the program’s most exciting titles already in its back pocket. One such title was Macon Blair’s giddily good “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.,” which would go on to win the coveted Grand Jury Prize, joining the ranks of films like “Whiplash” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Not only did the victory lend the streaming giant some much-needed credibility in the indie universe, it also gave them the opportunity to champion Blair as a major talent, and build some momentum for his next collaboration with “Green Room” director Jeremy Saulnier (which the streaming giant will eventually release). Surely they would make the most of it, right? Of course not. Netflix quietly uploaded the movie onto their platform in the middle of the night like it was a new episode of “Fuller House.”

I’m really torn about Ehrlich’s piece. On the one hand, I agree with his overall point: Netflix is buying up great movies and doing very little to promote them. And while being on Netflix might make you financially whole, it’s questionable what it may do for your career or for your movie being seen.

On the other hand, he makes numerous points I disagree with. For instance, he writes:

In fact, Netflix recently took steps to make it even more difficult for customers to find what they crave or stumble upon new delights, as the company made the myopic decision to replace its somewhat worthless star ratings with a completely worthless “thumbs up / thumbs down” approach. Good luck finding your way around that buffet when all of the food is divided into “good” and “rotten.”

Five star ratings are awesome for people who are really into movies and like refining their preferences. But the vast majority of people don’t give a crap about that, and just use one star or five stars. Not to mention there is wide disagreement about what the star ratings even mean. From a piece on The Verge about Netflix’s decision:

Switching to a binary thumbs-up / thumbs-down system might seem less granular than offering five stars, but [Netflix VP] Yellin said there’s an implicit understanding with thumbs-up / thumbs-down that people are doing it to improve their own experience rather than trying to rate it for the rest of the world. And at the end of the day, it’s really about just getting more people to rate things.

“What’s more powerful: you telling me you would give five stars to the documentary about unrest in the Ukraine; that you’d give three stars to the latest Adam Sandler movie; or that you’d watch the Adam Sandler movie 10 times more frequently?” Yellin said. “What you do versus what you say you like are different things.”

Later, in Ehrlich’s piece for Indiewire:

If a movie premieres on Netflix, is it still even a movie? In an age where the word “film” is often a misnomer and content is classified less by the intent of its production than by the means of its distribution, it could be said that movies — at least for the time being — are simply things that play in movie theaters. It may seem like a matter of semantics, but I think we’re talking about qualitatively different experiences. When Netflix buys a movie, it guarantees that the vast majority of people will never get to see it in its full glory. It’s the equivalent of a museum buying a work of art, locking it in a vault, and making photocopies so widely available that people lose sight of the fact that they’re missing out on the real thing.

In the era of peak TV, I can certainly agree that there is a lot of fluidity in the division between TV and film right now. But I also think the implication that the theatrical experience is an essential part of making something a “film” is a somewhat privileged viewpoint.

If Netflix never existed, the vast majority of Americans probably never would’ve seen Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore in a theater. They may never have even had a chance to. That film might never have even played in a theater outside a film festival or special event. But today, over 40 million Netflix subscribing households in the US can pull it up on their TV and access it instantly. The fact that most of them will not is a problem I think Netflix (and its filmmakers) will need to contend with. I don’t see how that makes it no longer a film, though.

See also: The Ringer’s piece on “The End of Independent Film As We Know It”