Why Megan Phelps-Roper left the Westboro Baptist Church

In this TED Talk, Megan Phelps-Roper shares the moving story of how she saw the light via Twitter and left the abusive ways of the Westboro Baptist Church. She concludes with suggestions on how it’s possible to persuade even the most closed off mind.

Her story is one of hope — hope that we can find mutual understanding in an increasingly polarized world. It is something we need today.

See also: This November 2015 feature on Phelps-Roper in The New Yorker.

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.

‘Logan’ is about fatherhood

Micah Peters, writing for The Ringer, on what Logan is really about (assume spoilers):

When Logan begins, there’s any number of directions it could take — a sullen cogitation on violence (what do 10-inch, razor-sharp claws really do to human flesh?); a protest piece in the age of Trumpism (it’s not a coincidence that most non-Wolverine characters are young, nonwhite, and targeted); a prestige drama about death and loss. It is all of these at various points, but the film it chooses to be makes it the superhero movie I’ve been waiting 17 years for: At its core, Logan is about hard-earned pessimism, the inertia in which it suspends you, and the practical difficulty of overcoming both.

The vehicle for overcoming that pessimism and inertia is fatherhood. About a quarter into the movie, Logan is charged with caring for a young girl with adamantium claws who, like him, is given to fits of homicidal rage. Exhausted by life and waiting impatiently to die, he doesn’t want to be the one to teach Laura Kinney — or “X-23” (played by excellent newcomer Dafne Keen) — how to quell those urges, but there’s no one else to do the job. The scene that appears in the trailer, where Charles croaks from the backseat that “someone has come along,” turns out to be in reference to a family whose truck was run off the road. But really, it’s an epigram for the movie: a call to lead by example.

A beautiful piece about what these movies can mean.

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.

A husband’s dating profile 

This is a devastating edition of “Modern Love,” one of my favorite New York Times features:

Want to hear a sick joke? A husband and wife walk into the emergency room in the late evening on Sept. 5, 2015. A few hours and tests later, the doctor clarifies that the unusual pain the wife is feeling on her right side isn’t the no-biggie appendicitis they suspected but rather ovarian cancer […]

So many plans instantly went poof. No trip with my husband and parents to South Africa. No reason, now, to apply for the Harvard Loeb Fellowship. No dream tour of Asia with my mother. No writers’ residencies at those wonderful schools in India, Vancouver, Jakarta.

No wonder the word cancer and cancel look so similar.

“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.

Twitter Threads of the Day: Ira Madison III and Myles McNutt on the Moonlight/La La Land narrative

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 we have two Twitter threads: culture writers Ira Madison III and Myles McNutt both had some insights to share about the Moonlight/La La Land fiasco at the Oscars, and the resulting narrative that has intertwined both films (rightfully or wrongfully). This narrative is best exemplified by a recent Variety cover story featuring directors Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle.

Let’s begin with Madison’s:

Next, McNutt responds with his own thoughts on this issue:

First Nintendo Switch reviews hit the web

In a rather odd turn of events, the press embargo for the Nintendo Switch lifted today, resulting in a wave of console reviews. This is weird because it seemed clear from “first impressions” posts that a Day One patch might fix a lot of problems. This patch has not yet been issued, as the console does not release until March 3, 2017. As of this writing, Nintendo has not detailed what, if anything, might be in that patch.

Overall, while the reviews are cautiously optimistic (with universal praise for Switch launch title “Zelda: Breath of the Wild”), nearly every writer suggests waiting rather than buying this thing on Day One. There are just too many unanswered questions about the product roadmap and software titles at this point to make the Switch a decent investment.

Let’s begin with Kyle Orland from Ars Technica:

At this point, it looks like buying the Switch as your only game console means missing out on everything from Mass Effect and Call of Duty to The Witcher and Assassin’s Creed to Tomb Raider and Destiny. That list can go on and on. Maybe those major franchises will eventually be forced to pay attention to a Switch that absolutely flies off the shelves. For now, though, relying on the Switch for all of your gaming means risking that you’ll miss out on a huge array of the most popular and well-received current franchises. That’s a big price to pay for access to fully portable Zelda and Mario games.

Even as a secondary system, though, it’s hard for me to recommend you go out and buy the Switch immediately unless you have a burning desire to play the latest Zelda literally anywhere. The system as it exists now feels a little like it was rushed to make it to store shelves before the end of Nintendo’s fiscal year. After all, at launch there are some lingering hardware issues and extremely limited initial software support.

Ross Miller, writing for The Verge:

The most shocking thing about the Switch might be how many obvious pitfalls Nintendo has managed to elegantly avoid. Going from playing on the tablet to the TV is completely effortless, and there’s no sense of compromise whichever way you choose to play. Once you hold and use the Switch, it just makes sense.

Great hardware alone isn’t enough, of course. I have little doubt Nintendo’s first-party lineup will be amazing — Breath of the Wild alone is almost worth the cost of admission here — but the company’s weak spots have always been continuing and expanding third-party support, as well as providing a robust online service. Those are the potential pitfalls to come.

Jeff Bakalar, writing for CNet:

Unless you absolutely need to have the latest and greatest hardware on day one, you should hold off buying a Switch. If you’re a die-hard Zelda fan and have to play Breath of the Wild right away, just be aware you’re going to be shelling out $360…Wii U owners should keep in mind that the game is also hitting that console the same day.

There’s a lot that’s up in the air regarding the Switch’s future. Anything can happen. A purchase right now is definitely a gamble. First wait and see how the online functionality rolls out. E3 is less than four months away too, so hopefully there’s more clarity coming about the Switch’s roadmap.

Devin Coldewey, writing for TechCrunch, has perhaps the most positive take:

I think Nintendo has a winner here. The Switch is well made, super easy to get the “gimmick” of, though that’s not really the right term, and it does what it promises. Problem is: there’s just not much to play, and there won’t be for some time to come. I firmly believe Nintendo will make the Switch more than worth its purchase price, but there’s no reason for you to pay up front unless you really want to.

Specifically, unless you really must have Zelda on the go (it’s available for the Wii U as well), the Switch is not by any means a day-one purchase, and you can feel perfectly secure holding off for a bit. In a couple months you’re going to see game bundles, deals on accessories, additional info on things like the online services and virtual console, and more. Armed with that information you can form a better idea of what you’re willing to pay for the console. Hell, in six months you may even be able to find one used.

Personally I’m looking forward to the Switch not just as a platform for the next few first-party games, but as a platform fitting to lighter indie titles and innovative mobile crossovers. It’ll be great for kids, for people on the go, and for gamers who don’t always have the time or inclination to sit down and do the big screen thing.

Vince Ingenito, writing for IGN:

As a handheld, the Switch is a powerful piece of hardware with a gorgeous screen, but it’s too large and power hungry to feel like you can really take it anywhere. As a console, it’s underpowered, unreliable, and lacking basic features and conveniences that all of its competitors offer. It’s nicely built and cleverly designed to be used in a variety of ways, but the bottom line is that the Switch doesn’t do any one of the many things it can do without some sort of significant compromise. Our testing will continue for the next few days as we try out the online features and other functions enabled by the day-one patch, but if I had to score it now I’d give it a 6.7.

Kirk Hamilton, writing for Kotaku:

Big picture: I fundamentally like using the Switch. It accomplishes its central goal admirably, and has already gotten me thinking about it differently than my other game consoles. It also has a number of irritating flaws and hidden costs, and there are so many things about it that Nintendo still hasn’t explained.

Any new gaming hardware is defined by the games it can play, and here the Switch bucks convention. It has a single sensational launch game, albeit one that can also be played on the Wii U you might already own. The rest of its launch lineup is nowhere near as compelling, but the fact remains that playing this Zelda on the Switch has been one of the finest gaming experiences I’ve had in years. I suspect that, Wii U version or no, Breath of the Wild will entice a lot of people to buy a Switch. I couldn’t fault them for doing so.

The Polygon Staff:

Compared to the Wii U on its merits, the Switch is a slam dunk. It takes the basic concept of the Wii U, of a tablet-based console, and fulfills the promise of it in a way Nintendo simply wasn’t capable of realizing in 2012. It’s launching with a piece of software that, more than anything in the Wii U’s first year, demonstrates its inherent capability of delivering what Nintendo says is one of the Switch’s primary missions: a big-budget, AAA game that exists across a handheld device and a television-connected portable. The hardware lives up to its name in how easily and smoothly it moves between those two worlds, in how dead simple it all is to make something pretty magical happen.

But beyond Breath of the Wild’s test run and the stunning basic functionality of the Switch lies a field of other obligations and requirements for an internet-connected gaming platform in 2017, and thus far, Nintendo hasn’t done much to prove it knows what it needs to do to recover from years of blind eyes and stubborn avoidance of modern ideas. The best example that Nintendo has a finger on the pulse of the modern gaming audience is a mobile game made by another studio.

Chris Kohler, writing for Wired:

From what I’ve seen, I have high hopes: The user interface currently installed on the device is clean, fast, responsive, well-designed. You can tap the Power button to send the unit into sleep mode immediately during gameplay, and pick up your game of Zelda right where you left off. It seems like it’s a thousand times better than Wii U’s slow, clunky interface. You just can’t do anything with it yet besides start and stop a game of Zelda.

And right now, that’s about all one can say about Switch: It has a new Zelda, you can definitely play it in handheld mode, and you might be able to play it in TV mode if you’re lucky. Switch has the potential to be all things to all people: TV console, next-gen Game Boy, wacky motion controls, traditional hardcore game machine, even multiplayer-in-a-box. But today, with just hours to go before launch, Switch is lacking some basic functionality.

Twitter launches additional tools to filter out trolls

Twitter’s anti-abuse initiative continues. Today on its blog, it announced several new features. Ed Ho writes:

We’re working to identify accounts as they’re engaging in abusive behavior, even if this behavior hasn’t been reported to us. Then, we’re taking action by limiting certain account functionality for a set amount of time, such as allowing only their followers to see their Tweets. For example, this change could come into effect if an account is repeatedly Tweeting without solicitation at non-followers or engaging in patterns of abusive behavior that is in violation of the Twitter Rules. Our platform supports the freedom to share any viewpoint, but if an account continues to repeatedly violate the Twitter Rules, we will consider taking further action.

“Repeatedly tweeting without solicitation at non-followers” is something that happens frequently on Twitter. In fact, it is arguably one of the most common activities. I’m curious how this filter will do its job without flagging a bunch of false positives.

Ho continues:

We’re also introducing new filtering options for your notifications to give you more control over what you see from certain types of accounts, like those without a profile photo, unverified email addresses or phone numbers. Many people requested more filter options for their notifications, and we’re excited to bring these to everyone on Twitter.

We’re also expanding the mute feature to build on the work we did in November which lets you remove certain keywords, phrases, or entire conversations from your notifications. Now, you’ll be able to mute from your home timeline and you can decide how long this content is muted – one day, one week, one month, or indefinitely. This was another big request from you and we’re looking forward to rolling it out.

It is nuts to me that this feature has taken so long to add. Twitter Eggs (new users or new accounts with no profile photos) have become so synonymous with troll accounts that it’s an internet meme at this point. But better late than never.

Your Moment of Zen: James Vincent McMorrow’s “Higher Love”

I love covers that take a beloved song and present to you aspects of it that you hadn’t otherwise considered. While Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” is a classic, it’s also bombastic, loud, heavily instrumented, and in your face. Very 1980s.

James Vincent McMorrow’s “Higher Love” is so quiet and pleading — just a piano and a single voice, asking for something beyond what we can see in this world. I listen to this version when I need to center myself. I hope you enjoy it too.