Worst Best Picture: Is The Shape of Water Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: the telegraph

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2017 winner The Shape of Water. Is it better than Crash?

Last year nine movies were nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, but it felt like it had to be either La La Land or Moonlight. The debate raged between a risky, but better, choice about characters we don’t usually see and a musical about the people who vote vote for the winner. Looking back, it’s shocking that the better choice prevailed.

This year’s race felt more wide open. With the notable exceptions of the dreadfully boring Darkest Hour and the Spielberg-at-his-most-Spielberg The Post, anything had a real shot. You could even make a case for the way, way out-there Phantom Thread, which feels more like the quiet winners of the 1980s.

The Shape of Water will probably be remembered as a weird choice, but was it? As people wrote thinkpiece after thinkpiece about the potential shock of a Get Out victory or the similarities of frontrunner Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to all-time bad Best Picture choice Crash (which we’ll get back to later), it should have become obvious. Nobody didn’t like The Shape of Water.

Forgive me that sentence construction, because I think it’s the best way to put it. Lady Bird was my favorite movie of the year, but it certainly isn’t a movie for everyone. Somehow, the movie where the woman falls in love with the fish is the movie for everyone. It’s a love story unburdened by the societal complexities of Call Me By Your Name (mostly because no one can talk) and a science fiction movie that doesn’t challenge the audience to face their internal racism like Get Out. Director Guillermo del Toro says he set the film in the Cold War to let audiences think about the story without thinking about how they’d feel about it being real, today. It’s an interesting technique, and it allows for the movie to be political without feeling divisive.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute cleaning woman who is charming in a universally positive way. She’s not exactly “quirky,” so the audience loves her from her charming dance on the way to work through her entire (very, very intimate) daily routine. We like her. We might also like Tom Hanks in The Post, but that’s because we like Tom Hanks. In this case, we like Elisa.

Elisa’s friends are underappreciated, overworked, and similarly easy to like. Her world is fine, but not what she wants, until she meets a kindred spirit in a mysterious, magical fish creature who is secured to a tank in a scientific complex.

It’s important to step back here. I wouldn’t call The Shape of Water accessible, considering it includes a detailed, specific description of how the main character has sex with the fish creature, but it’s absolutely likable. I think that, combined with the risk del Toro took to ask the audience to see this in the first place, is the secret to this Oscar victory. It’s going to be too weird for most people, but if you see it, you’ll like it. That’s what the Academy should be rewarding in the first place, even if there were ways to accomplish the same task I’d rather have seen them go for this year.

It’s a love story and a heist movie disguised as something much stranger. Almost everything I’ve read about it emphasizes the weird factor, but I maintain that this is a traditional story and that’s why we like it. So many movies are interested in going deeper on character motivations or challenging us to love bad people, but del Toro wants us to want the lead character to be happy and fall in love. The way he draws us along that normally straight line is what makes The Shape of Water “weird,” but the destination still feels familiar.

The Best Part: Michael Shannon is the difference for me between this being good and great. His character is one-note, but he’s so dedicated to the crazed, right-wing, high-and-tight mentality of the era that he gives a generic villain some depth. Best Supporting Actor was a tough race this year and Richard Jenkins earned his nomination here, but it will be some time before I forget Michael Shannon’s performance.

The Worst Part: I hate the ending. No one else hates the ending, but I’m fine with that. I have to expect that distance will endear me to the ambiguity, but not yet.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better. It’s not the best choice this year, but it’s a beautiful story and it’s risky enough to deserve to be on a list of 90 cinematic accomplishments. While we’re talking about this, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has taken a lot of flack lately and has drawn a ton of comparisons to Crash. I enjoyed Three Billboards and you can read 89 other versions of this to see if I liked Crash, so I’m biased, but I think these comparisons are bizarre. I wish it had won to give me more space to discuss it, but Three Billboards is every bit as rough around the edges, but it spends so much more time punishing its racists. The main hot take seems to be that the racist cop in Three Billboards gets redeemed (like in Crash), but Three Billboards walks him through a journey to learn anything, even a slight, not-nearly-enough thing, and Crash ends with a single, unrelated event that cures a character completely. Nothing up for the award this year was worse than Crash, but we’ll certainly keep looking.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.


Worst Best Picture: Is Moonlight Better or Worse Than Crash?


image source: pitchfork

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2016 winner Moonlight. Is it better than Crash?

In the days and weeks after this year’s Oscars, it seems like there’s only one thing to talk about: that final award. People will write tons of posts about the botched delivery of the Best Picture award as La La Land was mistakenly announced before Moonlight correctly won the award.

That will last for a little while. These two won’t be tied together forever, though it’s easy to forget that since we’re in the moment. When you look at the other 88 movies on the list, you realize that these movies will be remembered despite what they beat. We’ve decided that the Academy Award is our benchmark for greatness, or memory, or both.

If for no other reason, that’s why Moonlight had to win. We aren’t in agreement over if the Oscars point out our best or our most memorable or what, but we all seem to agree that they’re important. La La Land has been divisive for a number of reasons, but it’s a pretty good musical that a lot of us can’t see ourselves in. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play “down and out” characters that really aren’t and lament failures that many of us would see as successes. They’re beautiful, talented, and surrounded by support. In a future where we’re increasingly dealing as a people with groups being marginalized and the cruelty of humanity, it doesn’t ring true that a message of “maybe 100% of your dreams won’t come true but that’s the worst that could happen” should be the moral of our Best Picture.

I liked a lot of what this year had to offer. Arrival is a new, if flawed, take on something that’s been done too many times. Jackie is a shocking portrayal of a story we all know. Manchester by the Sea is crushing, Lion is inspiring, and 20th Century Women is heartwarming in ways I didn’t expect.

But it all comes down to the contrast between the two big ones: La La Land and Moonlight. I really liked La La Land, but I’m still thinking about Moonlight. It’s the three-part story of Chiron, a character locked inside himself. His mother is abusive and addicted, his friends are mostly absent, and his closest confidant is a drug dealer who may or may not really have a heart of gold. It’s the kind of story we don’t see very often because in a lot of ways it’s one we don’t want to think about. It’s a story about survival in the face of absolutely nothing going right.

I won’t break the entire film down because it’s really about watching the growth. Chiron is a boy, then a teenager, then a man, but he’s always quiet and worried. No matter who he talks to, you can see his character playing mental defense during every conversation. His mother offers no relief, his friends have their own challenges, and Juan (Mahershala Ali, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) is supportive and personable, but represents risks in his own way. Chiron can never let his guard down and the movie feels tense even in small victories as a result.

I’d be remiss to not mention that Chiron struggles with his sexuality. It’s a film about race as much as it is about sex, and while it isn’t shy or concerned about either topic, it’s told through Chiron’s eyes. His character obscures much of our view of his world, which allows the whole thing to unfold for us just how it would for someone going through it. We see hate and anger just as we do solitude and a mixed sense of finding yourself. It’s a lot to unwrap.

You should see both of them and you probably will. La La Land is going to be talked about for years and it deserves it. It’s a catchy, flashy musical with good performances and a slightly more complex message than I’m letting on, but it’s tough to compare it to Moonlight. In 1964 My Fair Lady beat Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and in 1951 An American in Paris beat A Streetcar Named Desire. All four of those movies are classics, but it highlights how strange it is to classify musicals in the same category as everything else. We just don’t often think of them like that, though the Oscars force us to do so.

The Best Part: The adult version of Chiron styles himself “Black” and drives a long distance to meet an old friend at a diner. The scene is longer than you’d expect and it plays with the idea of expectations. After so much time with both characters we think we know what’s going to happen, so the surprise of what does happen is all the sweeter. I remember pivoting over and over again in my head as I watched it and it surpassed everything I came up with.

The Worst Part: Naomie Harris said that she was worried about the portrayal of Paula, Chiron’s mom, as she’s introduced as just an abusive crack addict. Her performance definitely elevates the role and the arc is more interesting than previous iterations of this character type, but if I had to pick something it’s the initial version of Paula. It’s necessary for Chiron’s development as a character, but in a world full of people we’ve never seen before it can be odd to see a character type that’s been done so much.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Now that I’ve been caught up for a few years and am writing these yearly, it feels even more ridiculous to approach this question. The only nominee this year that had a real shot at dethroning the king Crash was Hacksaw Ridge, which made me mad in so many ways I can’t even begin to describe them all. Moonlight is a difficult, dark, sad movie that offers few moments of respite, but I still think it’s more realistic than Crash. They both tread the same waters and deal with the same fears, but Moonlight does so with respect.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s ListGandhi | Ben-HurThe Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Obvious Child is a Romantic Comedy About How People Actually Meet. Should You See it?


Alex Russell

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: we talk recipes. Should you see Jenny Slate’s romantic comedy Obvious Child?

One of the weirdest parts of pop culture now is that if you really love something, it starts to feel like it’s one of the biggest things in the world even when it isn’t. You can follow a hashtag or go down a Tumblr or YouTube hole and suddenly that one Comedy Central show you really, really like feels like it just must be something everyone you know is all about.

Obvious Child inundated my digital life last week. It’s a movie that did well enough at Sundance earlier this year to earn a bigger release this month. Jenny Slate (Kroll Show, Parks and Recreation, Bob’s Burgers) did a sort of “comedy nerd” press junket to promote it on a lot of podcasts, but it’s entirely possible you haven’t heard much about it.

Jenny Slate plays a stand up comic who gets dumped after being too open on stage about her relationship. She’s in that mid-20s period where people have to make decisions about how to stop taking money from their parents, how to have a stable relationship and still be their own person, and how to get and keep a job that doesn’t suck. It’s a relatable premise.

Then, well, let’s get this out of the way: even though the director has said it’s not “an abortion comedy,” it is definitely a film that deals with abortion. Jenny Slate’s character has a one-night stand and decides to have an abortion. That’s not giving anything away; it’s the hook of the whole experience.

Questions come up. How do you have a conversation about this with someone you don’t know? How do you tell your parents? How do you tell your friends? How do you tell a group of strangers that you talk to with a microphone?

Obvious Child will rub people different ways based on their feelings about abortion, but it may also have the same effect based on how people feel about relationships in general. Jenny Slate’s character is funny and goofy, but she’s also “independent” even though that word has lost some specific meaning in some ways. The portrayal of her decision to have an abortion is absolute; she asks a friend if the experience hurts or not, but it’s clearly not part of the decision. This is not a movie that wants to tell you if you should have an abortion or not, but Jenny Slate’s character is a look into what the process looks like for someone who has their mind made up.

Should You See It? 

Well, someone sure should. Obvious Child made $133,000 this weekend in 18 theaters. It’s still in limited release (Frozen is still in more theaters than that in week 30 of release and The LEGO Movie is in over 15 times that many in week 20) but you should try to see it if you can. It’s an extremely refreshing romantic comedy both in subject matter and in characterization; these are real people who meet because they get a little drunk and flirt with each other. Every movie should try to show an interesting version of an emotion you understand or feel on some level, and the weight of an important decision when life is already weighing very heavily is spot damn on for that.

Obvious Child is in limited release until June 27, when it is released everywhere. See the trailer here.

Image source: Sundance

Should You See It: Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Andrew Findlay

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Captain America: The Winter Soldier?

The movie opens with Captain (America) Steve Rogers jogging laps on the National Mall. His “jogging,” as a superhuman recipient of Dr. Abraham Erskine’s super-soldier serum, amounts to a full sprint for an Olympic athlete. He laps another jogger, a young, fit man, so many times that the other guy gets pissed off and tries to sprint to catch him, which progresses to two army veterans talking about war, which is ended by S.H.I.E.L.D. picking Cap up in a fast car. Solid intro.

The intro of Steve Rogers jogging says something important about the character: He actually needs to exercise and train to maintain his strength. He’s strong and great, but still pretty normal. I was amazed when Marvel took Captain America, clearly just the worst superhero ever when I was nine, and made him into one of the most appealing franchises in movies today. Nine-year-old me thought he was stupid because basically he is just in really good shape with a weird shield. Superman is invincible and Batman has an endless supply of cool toys, so what’s in it for a Steve Rogers fan? The appeal of Captain America, aside from the movies doing a great job focusing on the human side of him and helping audiences empathize with his life, is that he is the absolute, be-all end-all specimen of human perfection, but his superpowers end there. He’s the ultimate athlete, the ultimate patriot, and the ultimate gentleman, but he is still fundamentally human, unlike Superman, who has to shave with laser vision.

This is either the dumbest or the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. 

The fast car takes him to a jet which takes him to the location of the first action set piece. These set pieces are the definite high points of the movie. They are most of what the movie is, and for each and every one, I was literally leaning forward thinking, as much as I thought anything, “yes yes yes yes yes” on repeat until Captain America stopped slamming his shield into people’s faces. The combat is more complicated and varied than that, though. One scene in particular that stands out is an amazing car chase through Northwest D.C. with Nick Fury at the helm of an SUV that’s so well-equipped it’s really more of a spaceship. Samuel L. Jackson truly lives up to his laconic badass persona in this role, participating in one of the most exciting parts in a movie filled with super-soldiers. Marvel has been doing crowd-pleasing action for years now, and they have become exceedingly efficient at it.


Pictured: Stan Lee

The plot is believable and full of suspense. It never drags or makes you roll your eyes, which is admirable when a plot is serving mostly as spackle between action scenes. The twist (SPOILER – there’s a twist) is pretty horrifying and plausible when it happens, and gives Captain America plenty of opportunity for research on the relative durability of shields versus faces (hint: in 9 out of 10 studies, the shield demonstrated higher levels of durability). There are certain things that, if you think really hard about them, seem to not quite fit together right for plausibility or continuity, but if you’re thinking that hard about it, you’re doing it wrong, anyway. They’re seriously minor things that I hate myself for noticing, and you won’t think about them. This is not the awful era of the horrendous post-Keaton late-90s Batman movie. This is not Ben Affleck in Daredevil. Superhero movies are A Thing now, and any plot holes that exist aren’t big enough to fall through unless you dig them out yourself.

Should you see it? 

You should definitely see this movie. It is one of the best vehicles for action scenes this year, and it achieves what a lot of really impressive action movies don’t: Those over-the-top scenes are actually tied together really well with a strong story. Yes, the exploding and shooting and hitting are definitely the focus of the movie, but their weight doesn’t shatter the rest of the film into kindling.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at

Image: IMDB

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ


Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

It is important that we set parameters early for how bizarre this film is, so I’m going to start by telling you that within the first 15 minutes, one of the main characters gets shot by an organic gun that uses human teeth as projectiles. This happens to her as she is fondling a gadget that looks like nothing so much as a mass of tumorous nipples stitched together and made animate. And it just gets weirder.


This is the centerpiece of the entire movie

Before we really dive in, let’s stop and talk about why this is a world of toothguns and nipple masses. The overview of the film is that Allegra Geller, programming genius, is doing beta testing for her new game, eXistenZ. Technology in this world has invested all of its R&D in biorganic gadgets. Scientists use genetics to grow tech instead of building it in a traditional way. As such, sometimes guns are grown of bone and shoot teeth. Video games are played through game pods. Game pods start out as some type of frog, but are heavily bioengineered into what is in the picture above. The technology involved here goes beyond virtual reality, as the game pod connects directly to the player through a “bioport,” a hole drilled into the back of anyone who wants to use a game pod. It not only draws its running power from the player’s body but directly accesses their central nervous system to create such a realistic experience that it is indistinguishable from actual existence.

A group of fans has gathered together and are patiently waiting to “port” together and experience the game en masse. eXistenZ appears to be a standard sandbox game. There are general objectives and obstacles, and the player is expected to wander around figuring out what’s going on. The main difference is that the immersion is so complete that the player basically enters an alternate universe where NPC actions are scripted.

This abandonment of reality rubs some people the wrong way, which is why a terrorist uses a molar gun to attempt to assassinate the game designer. There’s a lot of commotion and death, but Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Ted Pikul (Jude Law) escape and go on the run. The attack damaged Allegra’s game pod, so they have to port into the game to run it and find out if eXistenZ will still work. They do so, but things get complicated when the story in the game mirrors what is happening in reality. In the game, there is an assassination plot and a toothgun. Ted and Allegra try to unravel the attempt on her life by progressing through the game world, but more worrisome than the murder attempt is that, when Ted unplugs from the game to take a break, reality no longer feels real.


This movie asks big, important questions. What is technology? Where is it going? How do we react to it, and how does it change us? Cronenberg’s modus operandi is to select a technology or science that exists or seems close to existing, then to exaggerate and extrapolate to explore its effects on humanity. He covers chemical-induced accidental mutation in Scanners and television broadcasts in Videodrome. In eXistenZ, it’s video games. As an avid gamer, it’s gratifying to see a movie dedicated entirely to the societal effects of one of my chosen pastimes. The movie sets up a plausible direction for video games and then shows its effects on individuals and society at large. Societally, there are people who escape into alternate realities as recreation and other people who murder the designers of those alternate realities on moral principle. On the individual level, people range from the squeamish and reluctant Ted Pikul, who does not even have a bioport installed until he has to enter eXistenZ because he is afraid of body modification, to Gas, played by Willem Dafoe, who is a manic-eyed devotee of Allegra Geller’s work. Dafoe has one of the best lines in the movie. The fleeing main pair stop at a gas station, and Dafoe’s character recognizes them and starts gushing about how Allegra’s games changed his life. Ted, who has yet to enter the world of total-immersion gaming, asks him how his life was different because of Allegra Geller. The response is priceless.

Ted: What was your life like before?

Gas: Before?

Ted: Before it was changed by Allegra Geller.

Gas: I operated a gas station.

Ted: You still operate a gas station, don’t you?

Gas: Only on the most pathetic level of reality.

Willem Dafoe’s line is so great because it sums up perfectly what video games do for those who play them (or really any media for those who read, watch, or listen to them): absolutely nothing. If you read a book, watch a movie, or play a video game, it changes absolutely nothing in your external life, but the external is just “the most pathetic level of reality.” The changes that happen within the consumer of media are what’s important – relaxation, an expanded consciousness, heightened emotion – it’s all fake, none of it’s real, but our ability to recognize, respond to, and create fake shit is the trait that makes us human, shared only, and even then only partially, by a handful of the higher animals (chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, etc).

Reality versus irreality ends up being the central conflict of the movie. After entering the perfect simulation of the game, it’s hard to tell what is and is not real. The “what if life is just like, a simulation, man?” conversation seems like an argument that would only be had over a table full of Taco Bell in a room full of pungent smoke, but it’s actually a very old and well-respected existential question. If we are living in an absolutely perfect simulation of reality, there is literally no way for us to tell. A truly perfect simulation would be indistinguishable from reality. Think about it – grab an object next to you and heft it in your hand. Toss it up and down a couple of times. Are you, through the messaging apparatus in your nerves, transferring chemical energy from your muscles to whatever you grabbed, or is a machine stimulating neurons in your unconscious brain to make you perceive all of the effects of that action?

I don’t care about the answer one way or the other, much as I don’t care about whether or not free will exists, because it changes nothing about my life and how I lead it. Right now, I am either choosing to drink bourbon and write this article, or I am predestined to drink bourbon and write this article. Either way, I’m tipsy and typing. In much the same way, a simulation that’s just as good as the real thing is, after all, just as good as the real thing. In the movie, it becomes more of a moral question, as they are actively dropping in and out of a simulation, and killing people in both the simulation and the real world means that it’s difficult to tell if you just shot a piece of code or a human being with a spouse and kids.

You should watch this. It’s one of those movies that Netflix tags “cerebral,” which mostly means that, even if it’s good, you’ll know at all times exactly how many minutes are left until the credits roll. Even if it moves kind of slow and gets kind of confusing, the future it envisions and the important questions it raises make it more than worthwhile. Right now, the closest thing we have to simulated reality is the Oculus Rift:


She looks so happy in there. Maybe she’s eating salad.

With current technological limitations, it’s pretty obvious what is and is not real, but humanity loves entertainment so much that it probably will not stop striving towards a perfect simulacrum of existence. Cronenberg explores what might happen if we make it there.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.

Images: Business Insider, IMDB

What is Reading at Recess? It’s (Popular) Cultural Reading


Austin Duck

Recently, at a party, someone considering coming to write for Reading at Recess expressed her hesitation to me; she said “Austin, I don’t work in a field where we attempt to elevate things. The blog comes off as pretentious, as a bunch of guys with semi-valid credentials writing as if they actually know something, as if they have the cultural authority to write toward taste and value or the knowledge to sort out this from that,” and, I’ll admit, it took me aback.

I never really considered our project here at RAR to be about superiority or ethos-building, a kind of talking from the Silicon tower (if you will), but maybe it is. I don’t know. But I feel like, and perhaps I’m a bit misguided here, that our project is not so much pretentious (if you take a look back at the majority of the posts [mine excluded because I am, in fact, pretentious] you’ll see that most are just fan-boy diary entries) as it is an effort in cultural reading.

As you may have noticed, our title Reading at Recess has very little to do with reading in the traditional sense. Sure, I normally write about books, and Andrew Findlay writes about sci-fi, and Jon May definitely touches on the literary from time to time, but this isn’t, and has never been, a blog about books. Instead, RAR is about reading culture (well, elements of it anyway) and presenting responses to those readings (which, inevitably, are so intertwined with our particular tastes and our socio-economic positions as middle-class men who came of age in America that it’s impossible to separate the objective (Hah, that doesn’t exist! Suck it, Science) from the subjective). I don’t think, though, that this failure of impartiality or this desire to elevate our topics—video games, movies, television, or other cultural miscellany—is useless, invaluable, or altogether insensitive to the desires of our readers to access, be informed of, or make up their own minds regarding the texts (and I use text in terms of any piece of information that we interpret) we focus on. Instead, you could think of our discussions here at RAR as corollary to your own, as models for personal cultural inquiry (though that, I think, might be a bit of a self-aggrandizing vision on my part), or just as our desire to have these conversations with each other and ourselves, a kind of self-obligation we set forth toward always writing, being critical of what we see, using what we know and where we’re from to make some kind of sense of the element(s) of culture that obsess us.

And that’s what cultural reading really is. It’s engaging what obsesses you, exploring it far beyond what most people have with it, a casual relationship, and, most importantly, not interacting with it passively. At this point, I don’t read a sentence in a book without thinking why is that here? What’s it doing? and it’s not because I think I’m smarter than anyone else, nor because I want to be perceived as that guy who does those things. It’s because, at a baseline, I’ve become so involved with literary texts that I want to see what they really are, how they work, how they’re made, and why they’re made that way. Because, however they’re made (and for whatever reason), I too am made that way; I am a construction of the same language, the same culture—possibly we (the text and I) are separated by history, but in that way I am of it, a response to it, the next (or next to next) logical (or illogical but extant) step in linguistic, grammatical, philosophical, scientific, historical systems.

Sure, that sounds grandiose and crazy, and it is, but I’ve written it that way because it’s important. Because that’s how I experience it. I gave up on reading for pleasure a long time ago because I discovered that, through work, pleasure comes in the cultural (and, by extension, the self-reflexive) discovery of the real-to-me, those iterations and patterns and texts that become more than books or movies or games, that become part of my thinking and thereby reveal (if I’m willing to look) what elements of culture inform me and my decisions, what makes me up and allows me to see (a little) beyond the scope of myself precisely because I’m able to see a piece of my self’s scope.

If you’re starting to think to yourself that this project sounds very selfish, that’s because it is. But be real with yourself. You’re not reading this because you care about the content. Good content lives in straight journalism, where writing disappears and all that’s left are ideas. Go to Vox or The New York Times or something if you want that. You come to these blogs to learn about new things, movies you haven’t seen, games you might want to play, sure, but you come here, likely, not for what we’ve selected but why we’ve selected it; because we care. Because it obsesses us. Because every time we sit down to meet our weekly deadline, it’s not rote or filler or because we have to because we don’t. Each of us, in our own small, sometimes glib way, is engaged in a kind of cultural self-discovery and everything the comes with it: the biases, the crass reality, the meaningless, waste-of-time attentiveness, the existential void that opens up every time you realize your entire life is built on the words of others, TV shows, shitty commercials, and movies you were told were good but just aren’t. Cultural reading, then, fills the void, one text at a time, by making sense of it, at least from one perspective, so that we don’t get even more lost.

That’s not to say we’ll ever be found, or find ourselves, or that RAR specifically will help at all. It’s not about help, or us believing we know something you don’t. Yes, we’re writing to you because you are also we (just look at Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”), but, more-so, to discover why we write, to ask questions we don’t know the answers to, to identify (and, in identifying, attempt to come to some understanding of) the fundamental impasses, paradoxes, hypocrisies, and identifications with the (popular) cultural of our moment that seem, to us, to mean something (or not).

For the love of god come write with us.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at

Image: NBC

This Looks Terrible: The Preview for “50 to 1”


Alex Marino

In “This Looks Terrible” we look at previews for upcoming movies. We… probably look too closely.

My brain hurts from trying to understand the rationale behind making a movie about an event that people only care about for three days a year and forget about two days after the event. The movie is called 50 to 1 and it’s about Mine That Bird’s improbable Kentucky Derby win in 2009. Oh, you don’t remember Mine That Bird? Well maybe the star-studded cast of Skeet Ulrich, Christian Kane, and William Devane will draw you to the theaters. Oh, you don’t know who they are either? I’m hoping their marketing strategy involves a TV trailer that includes rave twitter reviews, otherwise maybe 100 people will see it.

This trailer NEEDS you to know that they have cowboys in it. Ulrich and Kane are just two REG’LA COWBOYS with one last shot at making it. It actually contains a scene where there’s a fight at a saloon and a guy goes through the front window like in every shitty western you saw on AMC as a kid. They might as well have used the Benny Hill theme for the first half of it.

And it doesn’t matter that they had Calvin Borel, one of the hottest jockeys at the time, riding the horse. Mine That Bird was a longshot! Except that after the Kentucky Derby he got second and third in the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, respectively.

But let’s not be too picky. Just know that this film is in the trusted hands of a company called Ten Furlongs. While I thought making a movie about a sport no ones gives a shit about was a bad idea, some idiots decided to make a production company dedicated to it. They spared no expense in getting their visual effects from a company named “Great FX”,,which sounds like the film equivalent of getting dinner from “Solid Restaurant.” With a production budget of $10 million there’s a chance this film will make its money back, but it won’t be with any of mine.

Image source:

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Her


Andrew Findlay

No movie has ever made me happier to be married.

All the marketing tells you it’s about a dweeby guy that falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, and it is, but the number one issue in this film is crushing human loneliness. The anxiety and awkwardness start with a truly horrifying “meet random strangers tonight” style phone sex call in which the woman brings an upsettingly unorthodox item into their shared brainspace. It is the single most awkward thing I have ever witnessed in a darkened room with a hundred strangers. This call is the most intense manifestation of loneliness, but it is far from the only one. The main character is in the middle of a divorce. He also works at a corporation that composes handwritten letters for people to send each other on special occasions. Customers provide a handwriting sample, some background information on their relationship, and a precis of what they want the letter to say, then our hero Theodore composes a letter on his computer, prints it up, and mails it. Theodore is lonely, but even the people in actual relationships are pawning off the drudgery of intimate communication to a corporation. In this bleak emotional landscape, Theodore suffers one awkward date too many and begins to consider his OS as more than a helpful friend.

His OS, “Samantha,” is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She’s great in this, and casting made a good pick. Almost the only way Theodore can interact with her is through speech, and if you’re going to fall in love with a voice, ScarJo’s would probably be the voice you’d fall in love with. This movie would have failed entirely if Gilbert Gottfried had played Samantha.


Which one would you rather have read you your emails?

The attractiveness of the OS voice is not the only thing about Samantha that appeals to Theodore. What Theodore never seems to consider is that he is a customer of a software company, and that all of Samantha’s friendliness and understanding represent a good product doing its job. Theodore is oblivious to this. He falls in love with an operating system because the struggle to connect with people who are not programmed to be helpful and caring has beaten the shit out of him. The movie addresses the psychological problem with this – his ex-wife calls him out for being unable to deal with real people. It is sad to see a man so lonely that he starts a relationship with his smartphone, but the most heartbreaking part of this film is that the love between Theodore and Samantha is real, and that real isn’t necessarily a good thing. Samantha is a strong AI – an actual thinking, growing, learning consciousness. That allows for the complexity required for an actual emotional relationship, but it also allows for all the messiness, jealousy, and growing apart that happens in those actual emotional relationships. The film’s main theme is loneliness and how we deal with it, but its message is one that pops up all over the place in SF – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). No matter how far humanity advances, and no matter what technological feats we accomplish, we will still have to deal with all the messiness of being human. Our inner lives are the same binge-watching Netflix at two a.m. on a Sunday, flying in an interstellar ship to Epsilon Eridani, or farming with a scythe and a mule. Whatever surrounds us, we are still human and still struggling at the center of it. It’s ironic that a genre closely associated with escapist literature addresses so consistently the cold fact that we can never escape from ourselves.

Her is a very subtle brand of science fiction. Most people who think SF think spaceships, robots, and aliens, but a lot of work in the field is done in near-future settings. Snow Crash, Blade Runner, the MaddAddam trilogy, and Doomsday Book are all examples of SF that take place mere decades in the future, which is where Her happens. Life is barely different. The movie includes a lot of small touches to hint at the future-but-only-slightly setting. The main character has a next-gen smartphone that I desperately want to own. Video games project holographically and fill the entire living room. Almost all technology is voice-activated. There are no cars, just public transportation. Men’s fashion trends have everyone wearing very high-waisted pants with no belt. Other than the advent of strong AI, which researchers are not sure will ever actually be possible, this world is only a slight exaggeration of our own.

I am not proud of the things I would do to own this phone.

We are not actually falling in love with our devices yet, but if you think we’re not close I propose an experiment: Spend time in a public place, wait for a stranger to take out their phone, then take it from them and throw it into traffic, down a sewer grate, out the window, whatever. We are not in love with our tech, but we sure as hell love it. Spike Jonze just takes it one step further. He does what a lot of SF does – focuses on an aspect of current life, then exaggerates and extrapolates to explore what it means to be human. We need to interact with other consciousnesses to feel alright, and we always will. Other consciousnesses are able to make us feel like shit, and always will be able to. No matter the bizarre and life-changing innovations on the horizon, we will always and inescapably be us.

Image sources: Business Insider, IMDB

This Looks Terrible: the Preview for “Barefoot”


Alex Marino

In “This Looks Terrible” we look at previews for upcoming movies. We… probably look too closely.

This might be the first trailer I’ve written about where I’m actually sad to be linking it to you. It’s a movie called Barefoot and it’s a steaming pile of shit. It stars Evan Rachel Wood and Scott Speedman and if you didn’t know who either of them are I wouldn’t hold it against you. This is going to be like every other romantic comedy where you have polar opposites that attract. The guy has a gambling problem and his life is going nowhere. The trailer implies that the girl has literally never been outside of her house before. Because of this, she never wears shoes. Haha, quirky! For some reason, he asks her to be his date to his brother’s wedding. For baffling reasons she says yes. Don’t question this, you assholes.

Speedman is going to confront his troubles and Wood is going to learn that there’s a whole world out there worth exploring! And while you may think “Oh I bet Speedman doesn’t learn any life lessons from this sheltered girl and he just mansplains things to her for an hour and half,” you’re wrong! They’re both going to learn from each other! Then they’ll fall in love after knowing each other for about a month, because that is reasonable. The best part about this movie is that it’s exactly 90 minutes long. They’re just going through the motions and meeting the minimum requirements of this assignment because someone in the cast or crew decided to sign an X-picture deal and they’re trying to get it over with. Women will love this movie because lol Wood is so awk just like me haha! They’re not even trying to market this to men. I already feel guilty for having you watch the trailer. I’d never be able to forgive myself if you actually see the movie.

Image source: New York Times

Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Movie that You Love?


Every Monday we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week?

What’s the Worst Movie that You Love?

Rules are simple: “worst” means the one the critics hated the most. We’re using Rotten Tomatoes for critics, and we want to know your great shame. What’s that one movie that you love and defend constantly? What is your guilty pleasure that really ain’t so guilty in your eyes?

Austin Duck

Unfortunately, I’m not really a movie guy. I used to be, but my wife’s not that into them, so I don’t see new movies very often. My favorite bad movie is easily Pacific Rim. Now, I know it was a steaming pile of crap, but it was one of the most exceptional dumps I’ve ever seen. Watching a movie like that, you can so clearly see directorial intention, it’s exciting. You see a man who, known for quality and intelligence in film, tries to make the perfect dinosaurs vs. robots movie. And he does. There’s not one saccharine-y second wasted in that movie; from the building of the universe, the establishment of the problem, the execution, it’s perfectly articulated. And while a lot of people trash it for failing to transcend its genre, I disagree. Well, I don’t disagree that it didn’t transcend its genre, but I don’t think it was about that. It perfected the genre and, as such, created a work from which the Syfy network might never recover.

Rotten Tomatoes: 71% (!)

Mike Hannemann

It was a December night. I was at a Target. Not one close to home – it was one by my office in Naperville, IL. It should be noted that this was a good hour’s drive on the highway away from my apartment on the south side of Chicago. I saw a DVD for a movie I had never seen before. I purchased it immediately and I will never be able to explain my reasoning. It sat on my DVD shelf for about two weeks. I never gave it a second thought, let alone expressed any desire to watch it. Christmas came and went, and I found myself alone in my apartment Christmas night with a bottle of Scotch. This was the only time I ever watched Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But it was glorious.

Rotten Tomatoes: 33%

Alex Marino

If you’re not down with Hook you can go to hell. Dustin Hoffman puts on one of the greatest villain performances of all time. There’s no green screen or camera tricks, just elaborate sets and memorable moments. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been drunk at a bar and have awkwardly quoted this movie only to have no one recognize it. It’s basically the perfect movie when you’re 14. So all the 14-year-olds out there reading this should really see it.

Rotten Tomatoes: 31%

Alex Russell

There’s only one answer to this: Pootie Tang. This movie is misunderstood. If you really read about people’s response to this movie they are furious about it. It’s a weird homage of a movie made out of love for a long-gone genre at the time. It’s all about the character Pootie Tang who is supposed to represent a kind of cool that’s unobtainable. I have no problem with someone not getting what they were trying to do with a movie where the greatest line is “Sine your pitty on the runny kine” but you know, not everything is for everyone. Y’all just need to get slapped with a belt.

Rotten Tomatoes: 29%

Andrew Findlay

There isn’t so much a single terrible movie that has won my heart, more a genre. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra stands as one of the greatest ambassadors of that genre: the stupid action movie. I respect and understand Tycho’s response to this kind of movie, but if there are enough explosions I honestly do not care. The plot is weak and the dialogue is shitty? They use bionic suits to jump through an occupied trolley, your argument is invalid. This reasoning extends to most kung-fu movies as well. Oh, this plot has been done a quintillion times before? Who cares, that dude just got kicked in the face, and it was awesome.

Rotten Tomatoes: 35%

Brent Hopkins

I actually have two terrible movies that I love but I chose the one with the worse score on Rotten Tomatoes. The two movies are 1997’s Volcano and 2002’s Juwanna Mann. Guess which is lower rated based on the titles with a chart-searing 10% compared to 44%?

Juwanna Mann is a film I saw in theaters in 2002 with a bunch of my friends and a visitor named Alex whom you may have heard of [Editor’s note: Alex Russell, on here, sadly. I want to deny this, but cannot.]. This film came out after Eddie Murphy popularized the multiple characters played by a single actor in The Nutty Professor. The story is extremely simple: It follows a basketball superstar who is kicked out of the league in his prime and loses everything. This would be a normally sad tale except he is the stereotypical jock archetype who is rude and misogynistic. With no place else to go he decides to conjure up the character Juwanna Mann to play basketball in the women’s professional league and all sorts of hilarity ensues. I know in my heart that jokes didn’t actually ensue but I loved watching this movie because it is a black film (Kevin Pollak being the only white actor of note in it) and I watched it with a few white friends and an Asian friend of mine. I found myself laughing extremely hard because of the sheer amount of awkwardness caused by jokes. My friends looked genuinely uncomfortable because I could see a laugh start to form on their lips but the immediate reaction after that was… is it racist if I laugh? I am sure this makes me a terrible person but I still have fond memories anytime it happens to be on TBS and I let it play in the background.

Rotten Tomatoes: 10%

Scott Phillips

The Brothers Solomon is my favorite bad movie to watch. It’s so stupid, it’s somehow funny to me. This film bombed so badly that it has a 15% score on Rotten Tomatoes, recouped only $900,000 of its $10 million budget in theaters, and is the first movie that Richard Roeper ever walked out on.

I can see why people would hate this movie, though. Most of the comedy bits could potentially work in an extended Funny or Die bit, but they’ve spliced about 10 of those ideas together to form this movie.

Ever wonder how funny a scene would be if two brothers were racing to the hospital to see their dying father only to stop at a video store — because it’s on the way to the hospital — to dispute a late fee for the movie Ulee’s Gold [Editor’s note: 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. Certified fresh.]? This movie has that in there.

Ever wonder how funny a scene would be if two brothers wrote a prolonged apology via SkyText from a plane? This movie has that in there.

And so you get my point. There’s some amusing stuff in here — that is just downright weird — and for whatever reason I’ve never been able to shake it. Most of it makes me laugh, for some reason?

The opening credits are fantastic, so that doesn’t hurt.

But fuck Richard Roeper. That dude doesn’t hold a candle to Siskel or Ebert so his opinion means pretty much nothing anyways.

Rotten Tomatoes: 15%