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movies

I still love Interstellar

Unfortunately, Interstellar’s price has risen since I tweeted this last week. But it’s still a fantastic movie!

Christopher Nolan’s 2014 space epic seems custom-tailored for me. I’m a sucker for its core elements: parental conflict (and resolution. Space exploration). Mind-bending science. Terrific music.

Interstellar also serves up some controversial ideas about Love. Some reviewers faulted the movie for these threads, which they thought clashed with the “hard” science fiction backdrop.

Not me; I liked Interstellar’s peculiar hybrid of themes. The film asks questions that have haunted me for years: “Is there anything beyond the material world?” “Is there an objective reason to value self-sacrificial love?” “Is there another, truer story, beside ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’?”

Interstellar is unequivocal, weaving its answer (“Yes!”) with amazing production values and a heart-wrenching story. What’s not to love? ◾

Categories
movies TV

Never unintentional: my brain on linear TV vs. Netflix

We typically spend the late-year holidays visiting my in-law’s home in Pennsylvania. It’s a welcome downshift from our usual, frantic pace. On many of these visits, I’ve watched more traditional, linear-programmed cable TV in one long weekend than I have in the rest of the year combined.

There’s a warm, zombified state that settles in after so watching many Property Brothers episodes. My body falls into sleepy hibernation, lying motionless on the couch for hours on end. My metabolism enters ‘slow burn’ mode, expecting a steady stream of pumpkin pie and sugar cookies. And my brain quiets, barely registering when one hour of bad TV bleeds into the next. The day rolls by.

However, in more recent holiday seasons, these cable TV binges have grown less frequent, for at least two reasons. First, we have a daughter now, and she prefers that her parents be play partners, rather than comatose couch potatoes.

Another reason I don’t binge on cable quite as often? The internet has fundamentally changed my relationship to content, and it’s hard to go back. I’ve grown accustomed to programming my own playlists, and I’ve grown resistant to “choice-less” consumption.

This change isn’t just about Netflix versus cable. Terrestrial radio’s bland playlists and brash commercials also turn me off; give me my podcasts instead. The satellite TV feeds offered on my recent cross-country flights didn’t tempt me in the slightest. I turned to my phone instead, which was chock-full of favorite vlogs, TV series, and movies. Even magazines bore me; why read fluffed-up filler, when I can hand-pick the best of the web?

There’s a huge difference in mindset for these two consumption methods. One, the traditional model, makes me passive and powerless. Someone else steers the ship, and I get sucked into its current. Linear TV puts me at the mercy of the least common denominator; I unintentionally wind up watching formulaic, overproduced reality TV.

In contrast, the internet makes content consumption more purposeful. I watch shows that I actually want to watch. I gravitate to shows with great writing and production values: content that delights me, thrills me, or makes me think. And when a show is bad? I’m just engaged enough that I don’t keep watching mindlessly. Instead I’ll switch and watch watch something else. Or I’ll turn off the gadgets and (gasp!) actually head outside.

(I still bring along the cookies.) ■

Categories
movies

Trailers for trailers

I’ve loved movie trailers since my earliest days on the web. As a teenager, I would wait impatiently for postage-stamp-sized previews to download over dial-up. In college, Apple’s trailers site was a daily visit, despite its reliance on the clunky QuickTime player.

Now, decades later, I still adore trailers, but the medium and its surrounding tech have matured. Full HD trailers download almost instantly—even over my DSL connection. The average trailer’s quality has improved, too—it’s less a sloppy afterthought and more a carefully-planned salvo in a months-long marketing campaign.

One recent change to the medium sticks out. Many action-heavy trailers now begin with a stinger—a 4–5 second preview of the trailer’s most exciting scenes, stitched together with fast cuts and scored with a cacophony of rising sound effects. It’s literally a “trailer for the trailer”:

I don’t really understand this trend. “Nano-trailers” make sense on social media; quick cuts catch a user’s eye as she scrolls through Instagram. But why do studios tack nano-trailers onto the trailers themselves? Are viewers more likely to watch the entire preview if the pre-trailer piques their interest? Are we so attention-poor that we can’t wait for a two-minute trailer to slow-boil?

And what’s next? Where does this trend lead? Will we eventually see trailers for trailers for trailers? A half-second megaclip with 12 single-frame smash cuts, scored with a single BWWWWAAAAAP?

My head hurts. ■


  1. Film strip artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

Categories
movies tech

Avoiding iPhone spoilers

In last year’s run-up to The Force Awakens, some Star Wars nerds went to great lengths to avoid even the slightest spoiler. These super-fans eschewed movie rumor sites, where the film’s plot outline appeared months before the premiere. They muted keywords on Twitter (e.g. “Skywalker”, “Falcon”) and installed spoiler-blocking browser extensions. They even refused to watch Episode VII’s official trailers, choosing a “virgin” first viewing experience over short-term excitement. Their hard work and self-discipline was rewarded on December 17th, when they sat down in a packed theater with no idea what they were about to witness, beyond “a new Star Wars movie.”

Apple’s product announcement events aren’t quite as entertaining as a J.J. Abrams blockbuster. But for tech nerds, it’s pretty close. The Cupertino company has a decided flair for the dramatic. Climactic reveals and slickly-produced videos punctuate its keynotes. And, like Hollywood studios, Apple shields upcoming releases from the public eye. It would prefer that customers first learn about products in an official announcement, where Apple’s marketing department sets the stage and controls the narrative.

Unfortunately for Apple, the Chinese supply chain doesn’t share this commitment to secrecy. For almost every product announcement over the past half-decade, the Apple blogosphere learns what’s coming before Apple has a chance to announce it. Often, we see the new iPhone in fine detail long before its “official” reveal. In at least one infamous case, a gadget blog had the actual prototype in hand, lost not in Shenzen but in Redwood.

If you’re like me, these unofficial rumors are endlessly fascinating. But if the official Apple keynote is the best way to “experience” the announcement of a new iPhone, shouldn’t I treat prerelease leaks like Star Wars spoilers?[1] Wouldn’t keynote day be more fun if I had no idea what’s coming?[2]

Categories
movies

‘Land Before Time XIV’: perpetually prepubescent dinosaurs

Ten points for Gryffindor if you knew that The Land Before Time had spawned thirteen direct-to-video sequels. The latest release, “The Land Before Time XIV: Journey of the Brave,” continues the series after a nine-year hiatus.

Somehow, this property has survived without a reboot for nearly thirty years. The original film’s creative team (including director Don Bluth, executive producer Steven Spielberg, and composer James Horner) abandoned the franchise decades ago. Since then, no fewer than nine separate voice actors have played the lead character, Littlefoot the Longneck.

I’d be fascinated to learn more about these movies’ ongoing production. How do the economics work? Was the original movie so iconic that even the diminishing returns of watered-down sequels can justify the production costs? Or is there some minimum threshold that a cute dinosaur movie is guaranteed to haul in?

I’m also curious who works on these movies. Are these films staffed by leftovers from the heyday of hand-drawn animation? Or by eager young film students, determined to get their feet in the show business door? What’s it like to tell friends and family that you’ve been hired to mix sound for Land Before Time XIII?

Finally, who watches these films? Kids are the primary target audience, but do nostalgic parents keep the franchise afloat? Or is there a “brony” factor at play here? Is there a contingent of adults who follow Land Before Time like the bronies track My Little Pony? That seems possible; there is a YouTube channel dedicated entirely to speculation and “hot news” about the Land Before Time franchise. Here’s a recent video in which a grown man spends nearly ten minutes dissecting the Wal-Mart product page for Land Before Time XIV. Yes, really.


To be fair, I also loved Don Bluth’s original feature film when it hit theaters. But I was seven years old then. Now, at thirty-four, I doubt I could make it through Land Before Time XIV without clawing out my eyes. Please, never tell my daughter that these movies exist.

Categories
movies

What worked (and what didn’t) in ‘The Force Awakens’

Yesterday, I complained about the convenient coincidences that litter J.J. Abrams’ Force Awakens film. In hindsight, I probably should have first explained how much I enjoyed the movie, then moved on to pedantic quibbles.

Better late than never, right? Here are the things I liked—and a few more I didn’t—about the latest Star Wars film. Major spoilers below!

The good

  • The Force Awakens doesn’t over-explain every little detail. We’re told that the village elder who hands over the Skywalker map is an “old friend” —but we don’t know anything else about him. Similarly, Han Solo references new misadventures with Chewbecca, but these are left to audience’s imagination. We learn that Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Preparatory School crashed and burned, but we don’t know why or how. Suddenly, the Star Wars universe feels big again—as if the franchise has many stories left to tell.
  • When Stormtrooper FN–2187 (later “Finn”) attends to a fallen comrade on Jakku, his helmet gets smeared with a bloody handprint. That’s clever filmmaking; the mark makes it easy for us to the audience to distinguish him from his white-clad colleagues.
  • I love BB–8. That droid has more personality than most human characters from the prequels.
  • Rey is fantastic. She has an interesting backstory, she’s capable, she’s vulnerable, and she’s playful. I love how the film subverts the traditional “damsel in distress” trope; Rey doesn’t really need Finn to rescue her, and she resents his attempt to play her “knight in shining armor.” I can’t wait until my daughter’s old enough to watch Awakens; I’m glad to have mainstream entertainment that I don’t have to revise for her sake.
  • The movie covers a lot of ground, but it also takes the time to tell Rey’s story properly. We understand her, because we seeher life in detail. We know she’s bold, because we see her confidently exploring a cavernous wreck. We know she’s lonely, thanks to her chalk-mark calendar. We know she’s afraid that she’ll never escape Jakku, because we see her watching the elderly scavenger. He know she’s desperate, because she wolfs down her insta-bread. We know she’s got a adventurous streak, because she gazes in wonder at a departing starship. With very little dialogue, we’ve learned exactly who this character is. By the time the sequence ends, we’re fascinated and eager to see what’s next for her.
  • Kylo Ren’s a fun baddie. He may look and sound like Vader, thanks to that bizarre mask. But this character isn’t a rehash. In fact, Ren’s temper tantrums and occasional missteps make him more intriguing than Vader ever was.
  • The bickering between the imperial commander and Kylo Ren felt real to me. Ren subverts the First Order’s clean chain of command in an unpredictable, interesting way.
  • There’s real camaraderie between Finn and Poe Dameron. Their excited banter in the TIE fighter made me grin.
  • Han Solo worked well as this movie’s “Obi-Wan.” After his lackluster recent career, Harrison Ford deserves credit. So do the film’s writers; they made us care about Han Solo again (after his boring Return of the Jedi sleep-walk).
  • Maz Kanata, this film’s Force guru, is the best CG character I’ve ever seen, besting both Davy Jones and Gollum. I was particularly impressed with the character’s facial expressiveness.
  • I loved that we hear Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice during Rey’s vision. Force ghosts are speaking to her, but she’s not quite attuned enough to hear them yet.
  • Han Solo’s murder helps cement Kylo Ren as a bad guy. I despise Ren more fervently than I ever did Darth Vader or the Emperor. Yes, I’m bummed that Solo’s gone, but I’m glad he was sacrificed for a good cause: to make the new trilogy’s villain compelling.
  • I loved the movie’s last scene: the swelling orchestration of the Force theme, the dramatic reveal of Skywalker’s face, and the proffered lightsaber (a wordless invitation back to the fight). That’s how you do a cliffhanger.

The bad

  • See yesterday’s post for nitpicky gripes about the plot line.
  • Does the Republic exist simply to be destroyed by the First Order? I understand the basic conflict between the Order and the Resistance. But then there’s the Republic, which we learn has its own fleet. Why weren’t they fighting the First Order? Why leave your defense to a ragtag insurgency with no big ships? And even if the Republic had underestimated the danger posed by the First Order, why doesn’t its fleet come charging in once Starkiller Base destroys the galactic capital?
  • Snoke didn’t quite work for me. I get that he’s this film’s Palpatine—a mysterious menace who won’t show up in the flesh until later films. But I don’t understand his motivation, and he looked hokey. He reminded me of the alien from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
  • There’s too much nostalgia and fan service. For example, the Han-Leia relationship doesn’t click. Better actors might’ve redeemed the stilted dialogue, but Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford can’t quite hack it. Another sentimental misstep? Han’s familiar line aboard the freighter (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”) felt forced.
  • The climactic lightsaber battle dragged on too long. Even the longest sword fight in Empire changed scenery once in a while—from the freezing chamber out to the dangling platform. Rey’s duel with Ren never leaves the woods.

Again, I enjoyed The Force Awakens. The film’s weaknesses don’t sink it. In fact, I’d probably rank it ahead of Episode IV—but well behind Empire Strikes Back. Like “A New Hope,” Episode VII sets the stage for later—hopefully better!—sequels.

Categories
movies

Convenient coincidences in ‘The Force Awakens’

J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot leaned too heavily on unlikely coincidences. Kirk just happens to get marooned on the same moon as elder Spock. Monsters just happen to chase him straight into Spock’s cave hideout. Scotty just happens to be stationed a few miles away.[4]

Abrams’ latest sci-fi epic, The Force Awakens, features several similar plot holes:

WARNING: spoilers below!

  • BB–8 somehow rolls its way to Rey. What are the chances that the droid who knows Luke Skywalker’s location runs into the Force-sensitive girl with apparent ties to the Skywalker clan?[1]
  • Finn stumbles onto Rey and BB–8. Improbably, the fugitive stormtrooper happens upon the fugitive droid and its new master. Jakku must be a very small planet.
  • The Millennium Falcon is rusting away on Jakku—of all the planets in the galaxy. I actually liked the Falcon’s reveal, but doesn’t it seem improbable that the same ship that ferried Luke from Tatooine has been waiting around to carry Rey away from Jakku?
  • Maz Kanata, this film’s Force-sensitive guru character, possesses Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber. That’s very convenient, since it triggers Rey’s Force awakening. Kanata brushes aside Han Solo’s question about how she acquired it. But… seriously, Maz, why’s this thing in your basement?
  • Finn knows too much about Starkiller Base—more than his low-level First Order position would explain. A stormtrooper peon knows the superweapon’s key weakness?[2]
  • R2-D2 reactivates at just the right time. Why did the trash-can droid pick that opportune moment to wake up? Talk about Deus ex Machina.[3]
  • In general, what are the chances that the events depicted in The Force Awakens would mirror the original trilogy so slavishly? A twenty-year-old orphan on a desert planet finds a droid sought by both the evil imperials and a noble resistance. The droid carries information that could sway the balance of power in the galaxy. Our hero teams up with a roguish outlaw and an older mentor aboard the Millenium Falcon. The mentor character tells stories about the Force and legendary Jedi. A short alien guru guides our hero toward the Light side of the Force. The insurgency destroys a gigantic space weapon just before it blasts them out of existence. Welcome to Deja Vu: the Movie.

    “It’s like poetry. It rhymes.”


Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed The Force Awakens. But these plot seams show where the filmmakers valued nostalgia over storytelling. The writers wanted Han Solo to find our young heroes, so they placed the Falcon (which Solo could track) on Jakku. They needed Luke Skywalker for the cliffhanger, so R2-D2 waits until the denouement to power up.

These twists may cater to aging fans’ sentimentality, but they make little sense in context.


  1. The movie doesn’t actually make Rey’s identify clear. It’s still theoretically possible that she’s just a random orphan, who’s not connected with the Skywalkers at all. But then why even mention the “family” she’s waiting for on Jakku? And why does Anakin’s old lightsaber trigger her Force vision?  ↩
  2. Or was Finn bluffing so that he could rescue Rey?  ↩
  3. One potential explanation: R2-D2 can use the Force. That’s an intriguing theory, but it’s never actually been confirmed by the movies.  ↩
  4. I’ve heard these happy accidents explained away as “fate”—i.e. the universe “course-corrects” and finds a way to bind these characters’ destinies together. Bullshit; that’s screenwriter-speak for “We couldn’t think of a good story reason.”
Categories
movies music

Priming your ears

John Williams’ Force Awakens soundtrack dropped on Spotify last night. I’m listening to it as I type—even though I haven’t yet seen the movie.

Does hearing the soundtrack count as a spoiler? It depends who you ask. For me, the music, disconnected from imagery and dialogue, gives away little about a movie’s plot. Yes, track titles can be dangerous, but composers have grown more cautious since the “Qui-Gon’s Funeral” debacle of Episode I.

So, no, soundtracks typically won’t spoil movies.[1] In fact, pre-hearing the score enhances the initial viewing experience. After all, it’s hard to appreciate instrumental music the first time through. Unfamiliarity holds you at arm’s length from the drama. Your subconscious brain whirs away, dissecting the new music instead of enjoying it.

With “primed ears”, you more easily link leitmotifs to character beats. Melodies hook your heart in a way they can’t the first time around. You hear the tension rising; you can feel the plot revelations as they land.


So… what’s my verdict on the Force Awakens soundtrack? It was fun to hear Williams rearrange the classic trilogy’s themes. But, if I’m honest, none of the new music really captured my imagination.

I blame my virgin ears. The next time I hear these melodies—in a darkened theater, popcorn at hand—I’ll be ready to really listen.


  1. A caveat here: you can be too familiar with a soundtrack. I know many John Williams scores (e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark) by heart—measure by measure, modulation by modulation. I could tell you the exact moment when the hero’s theme gives way to the villain’s sinister melody. That knowledge would spoil a movie (if you hadn’t already seen it).  ↩
Categories
movies tech

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mid-Production Tragedy, and Virtual Actors

Hollywood was rocked on Sunday by the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of its finest actors.

Hoffman had not yet finished his work on the final Hunger Games sequel, in which he plays mentor to Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. The actor had one week of shooting left on the marquee project.

It feels crass to ask how filmmakers will handle Hoffman’s absence. But one supporting actor’s death can’t derail a project whose budget surpasses a hundred million dollars. That difficult question must be asked and answered.

So how will they work around the actor’s death? A studio spokesperson indicated that the unfilmed “key scene” will be reconfigured to accommodate the missing Hoffman.

Regardless of how things play out for Mockingjay, this situation seems like a Hollywood executive’s worst nightmare. It proves just how risky it can be to rely on actors. The Hollywood Reporter chatted with Rob Legato, a visual effects guru, about how that risk might be mitigated in the future:

Insurance companies may require actors in big films to be scanned and have a range of facial expressions recorded in advance “in case something like this does happen – and it seems to have happened quite a bit lately.”

Actors might also record vocal demo reels, from which their speaking voices could be recreated.

An obvious next question: if you can recreate convincing performances digitally, why hire actors at all? You’re already hand-crafting the set, the props, the stunts, and the visual effects via CGI. Why not the actors, too?

A CGI cast offers obvious practical advantages. After all, digital actors don’t get paid scale, won’t demand a luxury trailer, and never collapse in narcissistic tantrums. Digital actors can interact more convincingly with digital environments than can their flesh-and-blood counterparts. And, again, digital actors don’t unexpectedly die.

As technology stands, this suggestion sounds preposterous. Too many CGI characters have fallen short of believability.

But it’s just another in a long string of technical challenges, and technical challenges eventually get overcome. Graphic artists can already create convincing performances by referencing a motion-captured actor. Soon, they’ll learn to create similarly convincing characters—entirely from scratch.

Later, this process will be automated and packaged as “actor software.” Algorithms will replicate even the subtlest of emotions. Directors will give computers the same instructions they currently give actors: “Less on-the-nose… More theatrical… Give me a pause there.”[1] Filmmaking will be something that happens in a computer lab, not a sound stage.

Of course, the Screen Actors Guild may have a thing or two to say about it.

UPDATE: Has the age of the “digital actor” already arrived? On February 6, the NY Post reported that filmmakers will use CGI to recreate Hoffman for a key scene in the final Hunger Games sequel.


  1. Can you tell I have no idea what a director does?  ↩
Categories
movies TV

Sell-out

If American pop culture has a High Holy Day, it must be Superbowl Sunday. Not only does the big game venerate our favorite sport’s glorious brutality, but it also showcases our highest art form: the television advertisement.

This year’s commercial cavalcade features this Kia spot:

Here, Laurence Fishburne reprises his most familiar role: Morpheus from The Matrix. The ad parodies the film’s most iconic imagery: the ‘red pill / blue pill’ choice, black-tied Agents, and Morpheus’ improbably reflective sunglasses. The ad concludes oddly; Fishburne bombastically belts out Nessun Dorma, completely subverting the original character’s too-serious aura.

Fishburne joins a long list of actors who have leveraged cult-classic roles into a cheap commercial payday. One example: William Shatner donned the Starfleet uniform to hawk DirecTV? Christopher Lloyd reprised Back to the Future‘s Doc Brown to shill for the same company. Pitching Honda SUVs in 2012, Matthew Broderick reenacted the most famous scenes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—-only this time, Ferris was middle-aged, all alone, and kind of sad.

And “kind of sad” pretty well sums up this trend—-this undead resurrection of beloved characters. The audience chuckles, but they also notice Kirk’s peculiar paunch, Doc’s now-gaunt frame, and Ferris’ pot belly. Actors line their pockets, but they can’t feel good about cheapening their legacy or about banking on fans’ goodwill.


  1. Both Shatner and Lloyd are perennial offenders here. There was the British power company commercial that combined Star Trek, a Shatner/woman body swap, and German hip-hop group Snap. And it doesn’t take much to get Christopher Lloyd to don the Einstein wig and hop into a Delorean. Check out the shameless intro video for Microsoft’s 2007 Tech-Ed meeting.