an appreciation of the best sequences in: sneakers

My voice is my passport…

A quote attributed to filmmaker Howard Hawks contains the assertion that the secret to a good movie is that it contains “three great scenes and no bad ones.”

By that measure, 1992’s Sneakers is not just a good movie but among the greatest of all time. To prove that point, here are five of the best sequences in the film, written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson and starring Robert Redford, Mary McConnell, Sidney Portier, Ben Kingsley, David Straitharn, Dan Ackroyd and River Phoenix.

Bishop becomes an honorary blind person

The back and forth between Redford and Straitharn here is remarkable as Bishop, with Whistler’s help, realizes he remembers more details than he originally thought.

Calling Mr. Abbott

It’s the countdown as well as the visuals of the connections being made that adds substantial tension to what in other movies would be a standard scene of the good guys trying to get more information from an unseen character.

Figuring out the black box

It’s not just the giddiness of a bunch of hackers figuring out a new toy, it’s that moment where Whistler’s glasses reflect a sudden flood of data indicating they’ve finally made the right connection.

Posit / Consequence / Result / Conclusion

The reunion of Bishop and Cosmo is the midpoint highlight, the moment the first half of the story has been building toward and it doesn’t disappoint, especially not since it finally gives Redford and Kingsley an opportunity to play off each other.

Breaking into the office

Redford doesn’t get enough credit for being an incredible comedic talent, but he is, and his side of the conversation about how to defeat an electric keypad on an office door proves that definitively.

Of course this is just a partial list. The movie is filled with top-notch 2-3 minute sequences filled with humor, tension and music, the latter composed by James Horner with appearances by Branford Marsalis. It starts with the opening flashback of a young Martin and Cosmo, thankfully made before studios discovered the technology to de-age actors.

You can find the movie on most rental services as well as HBO Max and, I presume, your local library.

Random Thoughts on Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Let the airing of grievances commence.

Well, it’s here, and it’s been long enough that most people who wanted to have likely already watched Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the official title for The Film Previously Known As The Snyder Cut.

As such, it’s time to finally share my random thoughts after watching the…film?…just to put it out there for discussion. So, in no particular order:

About the Movie Itself

This is exactly what I would have expected from a movie fans demanded. It plays like a collection of scenes the members of a message board wrote, with no cohesive material making them into a whole.

It’s easy to see most of what’s new compared to the theatrical version, but at no point is there an answer as to “why” things are different.

The one improvement over the theatrical version is Cyborg’s story actually has some sort of point, but even that is sketchy. Still, it’s better than it was.

It once more needs to be noted, especially since we just watched Wonder Woman 1984, how different the Amazons are clothed in this movie compared to Patty Jenkins’ films. The latter look like warriors, the former like the worst stereotype of female video game characters.

While Henry Cavill’s face in the theatrical cut was certainly disturbing, at least it gave us a Superman that occasionally smiled, something completely missing from Snyder’s previous movies.

The Martian Manhunter bits make zero sense.

The Martian Manhunter ending makes less than zero sense.

The Martian Manhunter bits mean Henry Lennix’s previous appearances as General Swanwick make zero sense. Zero.

Mera: “Your mother would have been responsible for following Steppenwolf to the surface, Arthur, but also let’s sit here and have a leisurely conversation about the burden of parental legacy while you stick your hand in the water like a four year old at a shopping mall fountain.”

Can anyone explain to me what the point of all those random supporting character introductions was? I mean, great, that’s Iris West, but it doesn’t go any further. Same with Mera. And Lois Lane. Oh, hey, I think I’m figuring out a connection.

At one point someone is asking Dr. Stone about an item that has gone missing from a high-security lab with multiple government contracts dealing with items of alien origin. Stone says “Oh yeah, we just kind of lost track of that.” and the investigator shrugs and moves on like this wouldn’t bring the entire operation to an immediate halt.

Steppenwolf and Darkseid are idiots. The former came to Earth, lost the Mother Boxes to a bunch of Atlanteans and Amazons in the Battle of Helm’s Deep and retreated. Then he comes back looking for the Mother Boxes and fights a bunch of Atlanteans and Amazons. When he calls Darkseid he’s like “Hey, I think this is the same place we lost that big battle eons ago…”

On a related note, Darkseid’s inclusion in this cut was a major selling point in the campaign and something folks were super-anxious about. But he’s barely in it, and the one moment that seems as if it might turn into a confrontation with the heroes instead becomes a staring contest.

Does every scene actually require a six-minute establishing shot?

Sure, taking out the Russian family that needs to escape from the battleground is an improvement, it also means there’s no context to the fight, but that’s par for the course.

I’m actually a bit surprised some of the jokes remained, assuming they had been Whedon’s contributions.

How much more objectivist nihilism could you fit into a single movie? None. None more.

The chapter titles are insulting and ludicrous, mostly because they imply the existence of an actual story, which is inaccurate.

Oh, you fridged Lois in the Knightmare epilogue in order to make Superman even more of an angry worldwide terror who apparently is hunting down his former friends and teammates? How original.

Four hours, $70 million dollars and not only are there

  • Scenes in the trailer that didn’t make the final version, including one that seemed to be the main point of one spot in particular, but also
  • Snyder’s already out there complaining about the rules WB put in place regarding what could or couldn’t be included and what additional scenes he shot despite those rules knowing they would be cut. So now there’s even more gristle for conspiracy-minded individuals to chew on.

About the Movement That Birthed It

Of course it took less than a week for “fans” to demand that Snyder now be restored as the captain of the DCEU. Even Neville Chamberlain would have known this appeasement wouldn’t work.

Along those same lines, I’m completely unsurprised by the renewal of the #RestoreTheAyerCut movement, seeking to restore some version of Suicide Squad that might be better than what hit theaters.

A black and white version? Who was asking for that?

If you’re wondering what this means for the future of film, it’s simple: Anything less than exactly what has dominated the fever dreams of angry trolls will not be tolerated. We’ve already seen that in various ways.

“Just let people enjoy things” only seems to be said regarding massive international IP releases and not about movies like Small Axe, Promising Young Woman or others.

It’s remarkable we got through the movie’s entire hype cycle without revisiting Ezra Miller’s filmed assault of a fan from 2020.

It’s Not Crime, It’s a Hustle

Gotta get paid, son, no matter who gets hurt.

John Mahoney gives an unmistakably great performance in Say Anything… even if the character he plays is someone the audience is ultimately asked to condemn. He may still evoke some amount of sympathy or empathy, but he pleads guilty to what in 1989 seemed like a horrible crime: Stealing from the elderly individuals he claimed to be caring for. While his motivations may have been something approaching honorable – wanting to provide the best for his daughter – they didn’t justify the actions he took in their service.

It’s hard, at least for many people like myself, to not think about that movie while watching Netflix’s recent I Care A Lot. Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a woman who has made a career of being appointed by family court judges as guardian to senior citizens she and a network of healthcare associates target in order to raid their estates. Grayson is running roughly the same scam James Court was 30+ years ago, but with more overt accomplices and in a way that’s almost impossible to revoke should a relative of one of her marks challenge the court order.

Stick The Landing Or GTFO

Aside from Pike’s blonde bob haircut, the thing that’s been noted most frequently about the film is that the story casts little to no judgement on Grayson’s actions. She’s not held accountable by the legal system she’s manipulated, there’s no justice as we would expect if her character were being investigated on an episode of “Law & Order”. Whether or not she falls victim to a more raw form of justice is vague thanks to some creative editing, but it seems as if she makes it away unscathed.

Criticism that Grayson didn’t face legal consequences for her immorality seemed to be based on the belief that stories need to be wrapped up nicely at the end and offer the audience a sense of ethical and moral closure. We want to make sure that societal norms are being upheld and communicated.

The lack of such consequences didn’t bother me much, but then again I’m the guy who feels the best ending to a modern movie can be found in No Country For Old Men, so it’s possible I’m a sociopath on this front. Others are currently debating whether or not the ending of “WandaVision” was both satisfying and legitimate, as if art can only be judged to be worthy if the final half hour lived up to expectations.

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Why this movie in particular struck such a chord was perplexing to me until I read one of the essays in Jia Tolentino’s 2019 book Trick Mirror. In it she talks (and I’m paraphrasing *very* loosely here) about how over the last 20-odd years people have come to believe that everything is legitimate if it’s done in the pursuit of that all-alluring bling. All of life is a scam, the only way to make a living is to engage in some sort of hustle 24 hours a day etc.

They Believe In Nothing…

Such a worldview is disconcertingly nihilist, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t representative of reality to some extent. In an era where getting a full-time job with healthcare and a 401(k) is a pipe dream for many while becoming a TikTok influencer seems much more realistic and attainable, if it makes you a buck it’s condoned.

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Why should Grayson be held responsible for stealing from senior citizens, then? In fact, why should her doing so be viewed as a crime – or even something to disapprove of – at all? She’s found an angle and is working it, so let’s not judge her. Life is a zero-sum game, so anything I don’t actively work to take is something I don’t have and you might, so you’ll excuse me if I throw under this oncoming bus before you do the same to me.

That same attitude can be found in the real estate office location of Glengarry Glen Ross, where the salesmen engage in tactics they know to be unethical if not illegal because “only one thing matters; get them to sign on the line that is dotted.”

Even then, the story at least made an effort to present the actions of those men as wrong. They are somewhat conflicted about what they’re doing, even if they choose to put their moral compass in the drawer in order to keep the job they need.

Whether or not I Care A Lot writer/director J Blakeson wanted to portray an “anything goes in pursuit of a buck” ethos or simply wasn’t interested in showing how Grayson might get some form of comeuppance is unclear. That choice, whichever way it went, certainly shows how our artistic conscience has adapted over the last 30 years, from one where bad people by necessity must pay for their crimes to one where bad people are simply making different choices for their own reasons and it’s not our place to judge.

The Privelige Of The MCU’s Heroes

Marvel’s heroes are part of the problem.

There’s been a lot of good storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the last 12 years. Black Panther, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor: Ragnarok and others particular stand out from among the 20 movies as particularly enjoyable and well-told stories offering something new and creative in the superhero genre.

There’s also a problem with many of them that I never quite noticed until recently rewatching Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Now Winter Soldier is a movie I’ve watched and greatly enjoyed a few times before. It’s usually ranked among my favorites of the MCU for how it uses Marvel characters to tell an updated version of a late-70s paranoid political thriller. Chris Evans fully comes into the role of Cap in the film, Scarlett Johansson gives my favorite of her performances as Black Widow and you can never go wrong with Robert Redford gliding through every scene.

This last time through it, something stuck out at me, though. It’s a moment right at the end of the film, with Natasha Romanov testifying before Congress about how Hydra was able to infiltrate SHIELD for decades, coming within seconds of killing millions of citizens because it deemed them a potential future threat. Why, one individual asks, shouldn’t she and others who aided – albeit unwittingly – this massive conspiracy be put behind bars?

In response she says they won’t put her in jail because, despite the role they played previously, they’re the ones best qualified to fix the very problems they contributed to.

You’ll recognize this logic from every appointment of an oil industry executive to the EPA because “they have experience with this subject matter.” Or the committees making recommendations on reform in the financial sector that are staffed solely be executives from the biggest firms in that industry.

It’s not an uncommon sentiment in the MCU, either. In the first two Iron Man movies, Tony Stark’s entire philosophy is that despite the fact that his irresponsible business practices having put terrible weapons in the hands of terrible people, he should be trusted to clean up that mess. Not only that, but he embodies the conservative notion that the duties traditionally entrusted to government should instead be handed over to the wealthy elite. He resists any government oversight or accountability of Iron Man, asking instead he simply be trusted.

At the end of The Avengers, Nick Fury is asked if he knows where the various heroes are and how he’s planning on reassembling them if the world faces another day like no other. Not really, he says, simply hoping and believing they’ll be there when needed. That sentiment is picked up by Secretary Ross in Civil War, when he asks if anyone knows where Thor or Hulk are, rightfully pointing out he’d be in a heap of trouble if he lost a couple nuclear weapons.

While there are plenty of issues that can be taken with the story in Civil War, Ross’s point is not necessarily one of them. But in this case, Tony Stark’s conversion from “I privatized world peace” to “We need to be put in check” comes off less as realizing he and those like him are part of the problem than from, it seems, him wanting to pass the buck of accountability on to someone else.

That mindset is understandable from characters like Rhodes and Romanoff, who have both operated extensively within military structures and who feel comfortable there. Stark, though, has seen his high-flying adventuring go badly and would like to have someone else deal with it, thank you very much.

(Side note: Captain America might be expected to take a similar approach as Rhodes given his military background. His intransigence on the issue always seemed somewhat arbitrary, especially since it’s justified solely by saying they can be trusted to make the best decisions on their own. More than any other MCU character, Cap has had his belief in “the system” shaken, first finding out SHIELD was using Hydra weapons in The Avengers and then finding out SHIELD *is* Hydra in The Winter Soldier. If Civil War had grounded his stance in this experience it would be a lot more defensible.)

It’s equally understandable why Barton, Wilson and others would disagree, given they don’t come from such privileged backgrounds even if many of them were also military in some fashion. The opposing side is made up of those who have been in the muck a lot longer and worked to lift themselves out. Barton doesn’t have a super suit, he’s just *really* good at what he does. Wilson is like Rhodes in many ways, but doesn’t have the benefits of a long friendship with a playboy billionaire philanthropist aiding his way. Scott Lang, of course, is a criminal who operates outside the system. Wanda is an orphan who lost her brother.

When Romaoff says she and the other heroes are the ones most qualified to clean up the mess created by the fall of Hydra, she’s hinting at what’s to come in Civil War. She’s also mimicking the testimony of every executive in the wake of some crisis. Consider how little changed in the 10 year following the 2008 financial crisis, with many of those who were in charge then still in charge a decade later. This quote from a story on what some of those leaders said in a Congressional inquiry is indicative of that “those who created the problem should be trusted to clean it up” philosophy and sounds a lot like Romanoff’s rebuke:

The witnesses said they supported tighter oversight, but warned against going too far.

Right. Because you wouldn’t want to “go too far” in the wake of the complete collapse of the American housing market, one caused by banks and not homeowners. And you wouldn’t want to go too far in the wake of revelations that an international terrorist organization had compromised a global security force.

Those in power are loath to relinquish that power, especially when the opportunity comes along to be free from any negative repercussions that might happen while exercising that power. It’s unfortunate to see that kind of privilege on display in the MCU.

Expect Streaming and Premium VOD to Stick Around

Just like the rest of society, there may not be a return to what was once normal.

To hear studio executives tell it, they turned to Premium VOD and streaming during the Covid-19 quarantine only out of necessity. Movies like Trolls: World Tour, The High Note, Artemis Fowl and others were pulled from the theatrical schedule and released on home video platforms because the studios had no other available choices. Theater owners, as well as NATO, made various statements about how they would remember how studios have turned against them, but most of those statements seem to have faded in intensity over time.

During a virtual CineEurope presentation, more studio heads made more comments about how excited everyone was about theaters reopening, confident that audiences are itching to get out of the house and see movies on a *real* big screen again.

That belief seems to be rooted in the basic idea that not only are behaviors ripe for changing but that outlets for that changed behavior will be available. Neither may actually be the case.

One study from Google indicates that consumer habits that have been evolving over the years may have taken firmer hold during the Covid-19 shutdowns across the country, meaning people are less likely to venture out and about for their shopping and entertainment fixes. In some ways that may be tied to bigger shifts across society and within the economy, including the higher frequency of someone working from home, the newfound love of cooking for themselves and more.

Those shifts as they relate to streaming behavior are expected to be represented at this year’s Newfronts as media companies make their virtual presentations to advertisers, positioning those platforms as the place where people are and they need to be. Spending on streaming entertainment isn’t expected to fade anytime soon either. There may be some level of subscription fatigue happening, but that’s likely only because people dipped their toe in so many different pools during the early days of stay-at-home orders, taking advantage of free trials or deciding now was when they were finally going to watch “The Handmaid’s Tale” and then cancel Hulu after finishing it. So it may be that these behaviors have now become entrenched in many households.

Add to that the ever-changing landscape of the theatrical industry, one that is already working from a deficit in part because the issue of wearing masks has become one with all sorts of political implications and beliefs. Add to that the recent shift of both Tenet and Mulan to August and it’s clear the summer movie season has all but vanished. There may be a few titles that still come out in drive-in locations and the handful of theaters in states that have done a better job of containing outbreaks, but that’s it.

In short, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what’s next for the public health crisis we’re in the midst of and what the retail response to that is going to be. Texas and Florida are reversing course and closing bars again, while other states like Illinois are doing alright and slowly reopening more and more businesses.

It won’t take much for premium VOD to become much more popular than it already is. Really it seems to come down to 1) Price, and 2) Selection. If Wonder Woman 1984 were available to rent day-and-date with theaters, it would be massive, especially if that rental were just $9.99. To date the titles have been kids films and mid-tier dramas, but a blockbuster at a reasonable price would be a game-changer, one that could potentially blow the market wide open. That price point would be a stark contrast to the cost of taking a family to the theater, including the sunk time in driving etc that goes with it.

Premium VOD may never land as big a fish as WW84 or Black Widow, but it’s very likely it becomes a regular part of studio’s release planning, especially for the kinds of titles that are felt to have only moderate potential for theatrical success. Even so, that price point will have to come down, especially on the kids titles where the value for parents is in repeat viewing.

It won’t be long given the continued issues around what businesses are or aren’t open and what the protocol is for visiting them before the behavior around staying at home and bringing the world there solidifies even more than it already has. Studios will have to adapt to that, as will the theater owners who have been avoiding this conversation for over a decade.

How to Create Character History In One Line

It’s not hard, just very difficult.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes, with one of my very favorite lines, in the last 30 years of film.

Specifically, it’s this exchange:

Reuben: Look, we all go way back and uh, I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place and I’ll never forget it.

Danny: That was our pleasure.

Rusty: I’d never been to Belize.

Look what’s happening there.

  1. It establishes history: Sure, we already get that the three guys know each other, but this cements that they’ve worked together before and trust each other.
  2. It’s vague enough to mean anything: Reuben never states who “the guy,” “the thing” or “the place” are so the audience can fill that in for themselves. We can imagine all sorts of scenarios.
  3. It was a big deal: Rusty dropping Belize in there makes it clear that whatever trouble Reuben was in, it took Danny and Rusty off their usual turf. And Belize is likely such a unknown to most people that it doesn’t immediately bring to mind any specific memories or images, again allowing for all sorts of situations to be imagined.
  4. It establishes a hierarchy: Danny and Rusty are there kissing the ring and looking for Reuben’s help, which puts him above them on the pecking order. But they hold a favor over him that they’re not overtly referencing even if they all know it’s hanging over the conversation. Still, Danny waves it off as being a non-factor, not anything Reuben feels should compel him to agree to their plan.

Danny and Rusty are, in some way, running a small con on their friend Reuben here, hoping that the chit they still hold comes into play in getting his agreement to join their scheme. But that’s not how they approach the situation, which allows for this masterclass in establishing character history to take place.

And it’s so subtle and well-done, all without needing to segway into a 15 minute flashback or long explanation of what happened in Belize. We don’t need to know what it was, we just need to know how it affects the characters and story we’re following now.

That kind of writing is a major reason the movie sizzles with as much energy as it does, because everything we need to know is on the screen, not waiting down some digression. It’s the kind of thing screenwriters, who too often feel the need to explain every little bit of barely relevant backstory and connection down to the tiniest detail, could stand to do more frequently.

Movies For A Troubling Moment

Some ideas on what to watch to help make sense of this moment.

So much is happening right now it’s a bit hard to keep your head above water. But as with so many things it’s important not only to keep some perspective but to appreciate the context current events are happening within and the history that’s informing them.

Movies and documentaries can help us do just that. This is not by any means a complete list, and I’m the first to admit there are many gaps I’ve yet to fill in, but these are just some I’ve watched recently that I recommend you check out to do just that.

13th

Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the injustices inherent in the justice system when it comes to how black men in particular are treated is powerful and unforgettable. It pairs well with Michelle Alexander’s excellent book “The New Jim Crow” and hits on similar subject matter. Netflix has made the entire thing free on YouTube, so you’re out of excuses and should watch it immediately.

When They See Us

Also from DuVernay and also on Netflix, this is a moving and dramatic retelling of the story of the Central Park Five, a group of young men wrongfully accused of a crime and tried by those in power in the press as well as the courts. The director and producer recently launched an educational initiative about social justice and inspired by the case.

Sorry To Bother You

Head over to Hulu for this tragically under-appreciated gem of a societal comedy about code-switching, racial identity, labor practices and lots more. It’s incredibly funny and then, as you’re laughing, you realize what a huge and important point it’s making.

BlacKKKlansman

Not only is Spike Lee’s true story of a black man who managed to infiltrate a Klan cell funny and dramatic, but the director managed to insert footage at the end of the racial fears and tensions our current president was fanning into flames even as a candidate.

Pass Over

This one passed a lot of people by and that’s a shame. Lee directed this filmed version of a Chicago stage production about two young men who are terrorized by local police for no reason. Most damning is the presentation of the “good white man” character who turns out to be even more sinister than the armed authorities.

I Am Not Your Negro

The vision of acclaimed author James Baldwin is on full display in this documentary, which uses archival footage of interviews with Baldwin as well as contemporary comments from scholars and historians to educate the audience. It’s massively informative and highly recommended.

What Streaming Services Can Do To Up Their Game

As streaming services seize the day, their shortcomings become clear.

There are any number of streaming services – though notably not the big three or four – offering extended free trials or other incentives right now, hoping to capture the attention of people who are locked at home at the moment. Those audiences aren’t going to the theater anytime soon, so may as well try to hook them.

Most all of these services will make much the same pitch they’ve been making for a while now, one that’s based around their own selection of content, especially whatever originals and exclusives they’ve managed to produce or acquire. They will hope people find the balance of content and price point attractive enough to continue on for a while, occupying the rotating fourth “Other” position alongside mainstays including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Disney+.

Most of the streamers feature roughly the same functionality, including search and various forms of recommendations, often based on a combination of what you’ve watched previously and what the company is working to promote at the moment. They also have at least a handful of shortcomings in common.

First, Lack of Context

A big, consistent problem with streaming offerings is that the content available is almost always presented as a one-off. Here’s Raiders of the Lost Ark followed by a handful of random 80s films and then Temple of Doom. That they are part of a series or have any other connective material is completely missing from the presentation.

In other words, there’s no context.

When I look up a particular Coen Brothers film what I’m presented isn’t whatever portion of their filmography is available but a selection of what the algorithm feels is “similar” to what I’m looking for. And when I finish watching one, I’m more likely to get a recommendation for whatever the corporate priority is at that time, not another movie from the same filmmakers or with the same stars.

Part of this is due to the ever-changing nature of the lineup on these services. The Bond movies bounce around from one to the other every few months, as does the Star Trek franchise. Why bother building a hub for these films when they’re just going to be gone soon?

Disney+ does the best job of solving this problem, mostly because they have such strong brands. All the Star Wars, Pixar etc material is helpfully grouped, and watching one leads to a logical and contextual suggestion for what to watch next.

As additional media companies repatriate their content under their own banner, it will be interesting to see how they handle this issue. But Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others that still rely to a great extent on licensed material could do much better with the original content they *do* own.

Second, Lack of Peer Recommendations

Given how big a role recommendations play in the business model of most every streaming service, you’d think that they’d approach the issue from all angles. Instead they’ve focused almost exclusively on their own systems, completely missing out on the word of mouth that many other businesses of all types rely on.

To be clear, the specific problem is on-platform recommendations, which even filmmakers acknowledge is lacking. Off-site recommendations, especially those happening on social media, are still a thing but there’s no peer voice coming at you at the moment you’re in the app or on the site, just when you’re elsewhere.

This is part of a bigger problem, which is a lack of social features on many of these sites, but while I don’t necessarily need to see everything my friends are watching on Hulu, I would sometimes like to see what they’ve been watching. More accurately, I’d like to know if something I’m *considering* watching is something they would recommend. Make it a toggle switch, maybe, a feature to turn on and off when I want that extra level of insight.

Third, A Feed

Good Lord it can be maddening trying to navigate some of these sites looking for the most recent additions to the catalog. Some have sections called “New Releases” but those looking shockingly similar to what’s displayed in the “Featured” section more often than not.

It’s become common to see news stories toward the end of the month with lists of what’s coming to Amazon, Netflix and more in the next month, but actually adding them to your list is cumbersome. You need to go to the app *after* that date and either search for it or hope that it happens to appear on the front page.

There are a few options on how to get around this. First would be to just offer a straight RSS-type feed of new releases, both as a firehose and by category/genre. No, it doesn’t actually have to be RSS-based (though making one available would be great) but could be a Twitter-type page of updates showing what’s new.

On Spotify this would be even easier, and the foundation for it is already baked in. Spotify lets you “follow” artists and bands, yet there’s no subsequent section or feed of new additions by those artists and bands.

These are just a few of the areas where significant improvements could be made. As more and more players come on the scene, the existing powerhouses may find they have to up their game and overcome some of these shortcomings, all of which could make them stickier and improve subscriber retention.

Watching Movies Alone Together

Even introverts enjoy the occasional communal experience.

It’s entirely possible we won’t see a major new movie released in theaters before August. That scenario becomes a very real possibility with every new announcement from a studio saying they have pushed out the release of a high-profile film to either later in 2020 or into 2021. Just yesterday Sony moved Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Morbius to March of next year, the latest acknowledgement that theaters won’t be reopening anytime soon.

At some point the big exhibition chains will have to figure out what reopening actually means, especially given the titles available to play are going to be much different than what was originally expected. And while drive-in locations are finding themselves more popular than they’ve been in years, independent theaters, like many small businesses, may not have the resources to make it that long and aren’t going to get the same federal bailout dollars the bigger players will.

Some of the studios that already put their movies out before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of theaters and other venues across the country have sent those titles to home video much earlier than expected. Those changes are bringing more interest and attention to transactional VOD, but consumers are sometimes finding the ~$20 price point for a new release much harder to swallow. Not surprising considering the percentage of the country that’s newly out of work because their employer has closed, reduced staff or altered hours in some manner.

So subscription-based streaming has come along to fill in some of the gaps. A number of services have offered new or extended existing free trials in the hopes of luring customers who find themselves isolating at home and looking for something fresh instead of scrolling through the same Netflix recommendations for the 47th time. The numbers show that streaming at home has increased as statewide lockdowns expand.

It’s a Group Hang

The new reality has also led to an interesting phenomenon: The group viewing party.

In the last week, director Cathy Yan hosted a group watch party for Birds of Prey the day it hit digital download stores.

 

Shortly after that, Nerdist got everyone to watch Clue at the same time. And today AFI launched its MovieClub, which features the tagline “Movies to watch together while we’re apart.” The first feature there is Wizard of Oz, and links are helpfully provided on the page for anyone who doesn’t already own it to download the film so they can join in the fun.

 

It’s a pretty remarkable adaptation to this new and unpleasant reality. While the theatrical exhibition business has lost some of its luster recently, with actual ticket sales falling in 2019 compared to 2018, watching movies remains a communal experience. We instinctively want to share it with others, even if we can’t be in an actual theater with them at the time. It enhances everyone’s viewing, whether it’s pure enjoyment or a hate watch.

A Ground-Up Movement

Like most such behavior shifts, this one is notable for springing from the grassroots. Many started by coordinating over social media and then using Twitter hashtags to organize the conversation and show who’s participating. And the newly-popular Netflix Party Chrome extension, allowing multiple people to watch the same movie at the same time, comes from a third party and not the company itself. AFI’s MovieClub appears to be at least one of the first official efforts along these lines.

My hunch is it won’t be the last.

Most of the bigger recent pre-Covid releases have already come to VOD, but some smaller titles are still hanging out there, while others are forgoing even the pretense of theatrical release and going straight to digital. It would make a ton of sense for some of these smaller studios to organize group viewing events in an attempt to raise the profile of those films and generate some word of mouth buzz. Filmmakers who were shut out of key festival appearances and are now seeking buyers in the streaming services can also rally their followers once those deals are signed and come to fruition.

There’s a lot of potential here, whether it’s a studio or organization that gets people watching as a group or if it’s a filmmaker or actor behind the effort. For new releases, there’s an option of including this activity as a key part of a movie’s marketing as well, one that’s baked into the campaign at its outset.

More will come, whatever form they take, because we all like watching movies with other people, even in an non-traditional setting.

Star Trek IV Shows You Don’t Need to Explain the Antagonist

The audience can have a little mystery, as a treat.

Over the last 10 years, countless movies have taken pains to make sure the audience understands every single element of the villain’s background, motivation and thinking. We’ve been asked to empathise with Thanos, been told vampires aren’t so bad, consider Killmonger’s point of view in all this and more. The bad guys are not only humanised but put on nearly equal moral ground with the heroes, making us question the motives of those heroes even more than the so-called antagonists.

In some ways that’s not a bad thing. We should consider that the world isn’t black-and-white, that many of the issues surrounding us are some shade of grey. Sure, that means we lack the moral clarity evident in the stories from an earlier age, but it also means whole groups aren’t being painted as criminals.

These kinds of in-depth explanations of why the villain is doing what they are add a lot of time to movies, one reason running lengths have ballooned so drastically.

It also means that the threat they pose is drastically reduced. There’s so much exposition and search for understanding that happens, the audience stops caring about what it is they have planned. That, plus the fact that franchises thrive because individual stories lack meaningful stakes means that even someone as world-shattering as Thanos ultimately becomes a big, purple, petulant child, not a terrible threat that must be eradicated.

All of that stands in stark contrast to the threat presented in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

If you’re not already familiar, the inciting incident that drives the story forward is the appearance of a mysterious, cylinder-shaped probe that travels through the solar system, shutting down all power in ships and outposts along its route. That leaves a trail of dead bodies in its wake, with the probe ultimately arriving at and causing chaos on Earth. It’s up to the Starship Enterprise and its crew to save the day.

star trek iv probe

While the crew takes an educated guess as to what the probe is looking for, there are a number of questions that remain unanswered, including:

  • Where did the probe come from?
  • Who sent it?
  • Why is it trying to make contact with whales?
  • What is it that causes it to short out electrical power?
  • Is it a ship, an unmanned vessel, or is it sentient itself?
  • How long has it been traveling given its late arrival?

Given how modern blockbusters are going, all of those areas would be explored in-depth if the movie were being made today, with at least a half hour devoted to an examination of the family life of the aliens that launched the probe so we could understand their background.

As it stands, though, none of that is on display. There may be some further information offered in some of the Star Trek books or encyclopedias or other sources, but if you’re only familiar with the movie ,the monolithic probe stands as a series of unanswered questions.

It’s all the more terrifying for it. Because the intentions and motivations behind the probe are never stated, the audience is left to fill in the gaps on its own. That means what the probe is out to do can be as dark and destructive as someone’s imagination will allow. It could be out to destroy Earth along with all of Starfleet. It could be out to wipe out the entire universe.

By allowing big parts of the backstory to remain unexplained, the audience has to do some work. They have to make some assumptions and extrapolate on the information that’s offered.

When every last detail of the bad guy’s thinking is rationalized and offered up for easy digestion, it removes some of the dread the audience should be feeling because there’s no mystery there. Part of what makes evil truly terrifying is that it is unknowable. Their thinking should be completely alien to us, like trying to decipher how an armour might be considering the weather.

More movies should follow the lead of The Voyage Home and other films that are similarly uninterested in explaining away the threat faced by the heroes of the story.