Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog

Oct. 7 2015 8:37 AM

Movies Need to Stop Explaining Everything (Looking at You, The Walk)

This article originally appeared in Vulture.

There’s one shot from Mad Max: Fury Road that has stuck with me longer than most of the two-hour movies I’ve seen this year, and if you blink, you’re liable to miss it. The moment comes deep into the movie, as Fury Road’s dazzling all-day car chase has given way to blue-hued night, and our heroes have driven to a new, different wasteland. The shot that establishes this new location puts their familiar convoy deep into the background, while the foreground is dominated by dead trees, misty muck, and a handful of unearthly, silhouetted feathered beasts.

The first time I saw this shot, I sat up in my seat. Fury Road had already presented more than its fair share of eye-popping visuals, but I found my imagination most captured by these freaky, feathered things. It was impossible to glimpse their faces in the dark, but the way these bird-beasts moved slowly through the sludge on stiltlike legs was arresting, and rare: They never appeared again in any other scene, nor were they acknowledged by our characters. It wasn’t even until my second viewing that I realized these were not mutant birds but hunched men in ragged feather coats, likely postapocalyptic scavengers forced to travel through the swamp on spidery stilt legs. That was my read, anyway. Anything I wanted to know about these figures, I had to figure out myself.

I thought about those bird-men while watching The Walk, the new Robert Zemeckis film about French daredevil Philippe Petit, who performed a high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. It isn’t just that Petit’s grace and balance reminded me of those stilt-walking swamp-dwellers, though I have no doubt that if the eager Petit were swept off to Fury Road, he’d scamper over to the bird-men, swipe their stilts, and say, “Let me try!” Rather, the reason I thought of Mad Max while watching The Walk is that the former film presented its evocative images and then encouraged me to use my imagination, while the latter papered over its visual poetry with unrelenting, unnecessary voice-over.

Nearly the whole film is choked with narration, and the device is introduced early on, as we see Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) addressing the camera from the torch held by the Statue of Liberty. (Not exactly afraid of heights, this one.) But Zemeckis doesn’t just use that voice-over to introduce Petit and then let him run free: Instead, it’s a cloying crutch, employed repeatedly to overexplain what we’re seeing. What’s more, verbalizing Petit’s inner life actually robs Gordon-Levitt of the chance to convey it.

Nowhere is this more egregious than in the wire-walk sequence itself. Visually, it’s one of the most astonishing things Zemeckis has ever produced on-screen—even more so if you have the chance to see it in 3-D, where the preponderance of first-person shots gives the scene a you-are-there immediacy. But it’s not enough for Zemeckis to literally put us into Petit’s head: He also floods the sequence with voice-over, leaving little room for us to come to our own conclusions about what we’re seeing. Everything we need to know about Petit is already on Gordon-Levitt’s face, and everything we need to know about the danger of the walk is apparent in those vertiginous shots. If only the filmmaker had trusted in their potency and cut all that narration. When Petit goes out silent on that wire, so should Zemeckis.

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Oct. 7 2015 8:03 AM

Forget Hash Browns—McDonald’s Should Serve French Fries for Breakfast

All wonderful things must come with a price, as longtime fighters in the crusade for an all-day McDonald’s breakfast menu can attest. As of today, the fast-food chain has bent to the will of their vocal customer base, nixing the 10:30 am service cut-off for such beloved items as the egg McMuffin, sausage burrito, and hotcakes. But as Buzzfeedreports, not all items on the menu will be available at every location, depending upon the region—and the item people are most upset about not having all-day, every day, is that delicious breakfast staple, the hash brown.

Depending on the setup of their kitchens, about 10% of restaurants will not be offering the golden, crispy delight, meaning customers may end up pairing their Egg McMuffin with fries. Fries!

The author, Venessa Wong, writes this as if it’s a travesty, an unconscionably huge step backwards immediately following a giant leap forward in the movement for equal breakfast at all. And as a lover of potatoes in nearly every form, I get it. We should all shed a tear for the little lost hash brown. But there’s a more important war to be won, and that is for the delicious, delectable, unmatched perfection that is the McDonald French fry. Forget your all-day hash browns: Give us your all-day fries, and stat!

Oct. 6 2015 9:42 PM

Kanye West and Weezer Join Forces in This Surprisingly Good Mashup Album

Another day, another mashup album, except today’s entrant—Yeezer, Chuckie Nugget’s lively coupling of Kanye West and Weezer—is more than a collection of mediocre music inspired by a mediocre pun. Nugget, aka Ohio State sophomore Alex Hodawanec, had a single objective when pairing these two incredibly popular, wildly disparate artists: Make sure “that they sound good together.”

Mission accomplished.

Oct. 6 2015 5:32 PM

ABC Family Is Smart to Change Its Name. Maybe Other Networks Should Follow Suit, Too.

ABC Family is “ABC Family” no more. The network has chosen a new name, in the hopes of shedding what it seems to have deemed an unfairly wholesome reputation: “Freeform.” “Our core viewers know what to expect from our content,” Network President Tom Ascheim told LA Times. “But among nonviewers, there’s a very different perception of our brand. We over-indexed on two adjectives: one was family-friendly and the other was wholesome. It led us to believe that the huge perception gap is based on our name.” Ascheim told LA Times that the network is shifting its focus away from the millennials, whom they’ve successfully courted for over a decade, and instead looking at people ages 18 to 34—a life stage they describe as “becomers.”

Oct. 6 2015 12:16 PM

Kurt Cobain’s First Solo Single, “Sappy,” Has Arrived Two Decades After His Death

Kurt Cobain died on April 5, 1994, but almost two decades later we have his first official solo single. While making the documentary Montage of Heck, director Brett Morgen unearthed several of Cobain’s unreleased home recordings.* He’s now turning most of them into a solo album titled Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings. 

But even before that album comes out on November 13, we’ll get a 7” with two additional singles: Kurt covering the Beatles’ “And I Love Her,” and a polished version of rare Nirvana song “Sad,” also known as “Sappy” (because it’s sad/happy...get it?). Versions of this song have been floating around YouTube for years, and even this one starts out a little fuzzy, but by the time Kurt’s familiar forlorn vocals come in, you’re ready to forgive the recording any sin—it’s just good to hear his voice again.

Correction, Oct. 6, 2015: This post originally misspelled Brett Morgen's last name. 

Oct. 6 2015 11:47 AM

Watch an Emotional Video Montage of Movie Characters’ Key Moments of Revelation

It’s the moment from which all spoilers are derived—the moment in a movie that changes everything. It’s Bruce Willis realizing he’s dead at the end of The Sixth Sense, or Christian Bale coming home to a spotless apartment in American Psycho, or Edward Norton in Fight Club discovering Brad Pitt is a figment of his imagination. It’s “Soylent green is made out of people,” and it’s “Luke, I am your father.” 

The moment is difficult to describe but easy to recognize; it’s often accompanied by misty eyes, trembling hands, and the open-mouthed gape of someone who’s just had their entire universe flipped upside down. In that moment they know, and we know they know, and we know now, too, and nothing will ever be the same. 

Oct. 6 2015 11:20 AM

Ridley Scott’s The Martian Has Far Less Profanity Than the Book—but Its F-Bombs Are Perfect

If you’ve read Andy Weir’s The Martian, you know it’s a vulgar book. Mark Watney, its NASA botanist hero, doesn’t mince words when he learns that his fellow astronauts have left him for dead on the red planet. Fucked is the fourth word in the novel; it’s also the eighth. Thereafter, it—along with its various permutations—appears somewhat less frequently, but still regularly—roughly once every six pages, or 59 times in all.

By contrast, Ridley Scott’s film adaptation of The Martian has considerably fewer fucks to give. Adapting Weir’s book from a script by Drew Goddard, Scott is uncommonly faithful: Images, ideas, even entire science experiments, march onto the screen largely intact. But only two fucks emerge from the cinematic Watney (played here by Matt Damon), lonely instances of a familiar word, flying alone in the void of space.

Oct. 6 2015 11:07 AM

The New Trailer for The Good Dinosaur Features the Least Intimidating T-Rex You’ve Ever Seen

“What if the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs missed?” This grammatically problematic hypothetical (I believe you’re missing a “had,” there, Disney) opens the new trailer for Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, which imagines a world in which dinosaurs, humans, and a bunch of other fantastical creatures coexist.

Here we see young Arlo, a neon-green Apatosaurus, become separated from his father and meet a tiny human child named Spot. Despite their different backgrounds, the two forge a deepening bond as they face various challenges and try to find their way back to Arlo’s family. If that sounds like a fairly banal kids’ movie plot, rest assured that adults will find plenty to enjoy in the details of the animation, between Arlo’s puppy-like big feet, Spot’s penchant for trotting around on all fours, and a truly imaginative set piece involving groundhogs that look like Tribbles. I also have high hopes for a gang of Tyrannosaurs who talk like cowboys. The Good Dinosaur hits theaters on Nov. 25.

Oct. 6 2015 9:08 AM

The Term “Secret Ingredient” May Be Overused—but This One Is Both Subtle and Amazing

This post originally appeared on Food52.

“Secret ingredient” is a term that’s tossed around much too casually. (I’ve tried to use it judiciously when explaining this column, Genius Recipes, but you can be the judge of that.) What we need more of are the true secret ingredients—the ones that filter in without announcing themselves, but leave everything better in their wake. I’ve seen pickle juice do this for mushroomsred onions for balsamic vinaigrette

I found a really good one recently while taking a class with David Mawhinney, Culinary Director and Executive Chef at Haven’s Kitchen—a trick for making tomato sauce taste so good that you assume the tomatoes must have been grown by monks on a biodynamic farm, irrigated with anchovies or MSG. Or at least that the sauce must have been carefully constructed with garlic and onions and just the right blend of herbs. Nope, none of this.

Oct. 6 2015 8:37 AM

Reza Aslan Addresses Every Mystery in The Leftovers’ Premiere

This article originally appeared in Vulture

After an intriguing origin prologue, last night’s season opener of The Leftovers resettled us in Jarden, Texas, rechristened “Miracle” when none of its town’s 9,261 residents were affected by the sudden departure three years earlier. Now a national park replete with its own rules, Miracle is home to the seemingly normal Murphy family who, like the Garveys of Mapleton, are each trying to find their way in the transient new world. Of course, a show dealing in all things theological needs its own spiritual guidance. So religion writer and future TV personality Reza Aslan, a Harvard Divinity School grad, has come on board to help craft the story for season two, and consult on all matters of faith. He says we’d better get comfortable with the show’s ambiguity because that’s what religion is about, though we can expect lots of clues to help frame the central mystery. Still, those looking for specific answers take heart: Aslan says we’ll get “all the material necessary to draw our own firm conclusions about what happened.” Ahead, more of his divine insights into episode one.

What’s the significance of the prologue, which takes place in the same spot that becomes Miracle?
The episode is called “Axis Mundi,” an ancient thought that goes backthousands of years. The idea is there are parts of the planet that served as a cosmic pole around which the entire universe circles. So for instance, the pyramids at Giza, the temple in Jerusalem, the Kaaba in Mecca are axis mundis. What’s really remarkable about an axis mundi is that putting something sacred there is not what makes it sacred. It’s that the land itselfwas already sacred for some mysterious reason, and that’s why people put something there. Jarden is an axis mundi. To indicate that, Damon [Lindelof] came up with this clever prologue, which will of course pay off in subsequent episodes. The inherent sanctity and magic of this place—whatever it is—is an eternal thing. It’s not just something that happened at the sudden departure.