Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog

March 4 2015 9:59 PM

Ian McKellen Makes a Very, Very Good Old Sherlock Holmes

A new Sherlock Holmes adaptation is rarely surprising: Guinness World Records once deemed the detective history’s most portrayed literary character, with over 200 film and TV appearances by over 70 actors. Those actors each approached the character differently, and most played Holmes in his middle-aged prime. But whither old Sherlock? According to Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon, Holmes retires to a sleepy English town and takes to beekeeping, a delightful career coda that never gets screen treatment.

Enter Sir Ian McKellen. In Mr. Holmes, the actor plays an ageing Sherlock befriended by his housekeeper’s son and consumed by one last mystery.

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March 4 2015 4:12 PM

The Best Teen Movie Ever Made About Cyberbullying? The Duff.

In the new teen film The Duff, Bianca (Mae Whitman) walks down the hallways of her high school, surrounded by gawking classmates. They snicker at their smartphones, watching a video of Bianca swooning over her crush, Toby. Then the camera cuts to a short scene in which two girls on the high school’s front lawn discuss how embarrassing this video must be for Bianca with convincing sympathy—only to turn to each other and quickly agree to send it to everyone they know.

 

The movie, which stars Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, and Bella Thorne, seems to have a good chance of becoming a new teen classic. It cast YouTube stars in cameos and campaigned heavily on Twitter. It raked in 10.8 million on its opening weekend, and the buzz among the high school demographic has steadily built since then. And the reason for this, at least in part, is a simple one: The Duff is offering the most realistic, interesting depiction of cyberbullying we’ve ever seen.

March 4 2015 3:00 PM

The Action-Packed New Avengers: Age of Ultron Trailer Unveils a New Character

If you watch enough these Avengers: Age of Ultron trailers, they can really start to blend together. But this one definitely has its surprises. First, it has a bunch of new action footage, with the Avengers fighting off Ultron’s army of drones in increasingly absurd configurations. (Is anyone else getting an unpleasant Matrix: Reloaded, army-of-Agent-Smiths vibe from those scenes? Hopefully they’re more like that crazy sequence in Endhiran.)

The other surprise comes at the two-minute mark, where we see a major new character. I can’t pretend to know the comics, but it seems pretty clear that it’s Vision, the already-announced android character to be played by Paul Bettany. (Vision is a member of the Avengers in the comics.) This will mean nothing to some readers, and a lot to others, but I’ll just say that, because Bettany’s deadpan performance as JARVIS has quietly been one of the very best parts of the Marvel movies since the very beginning, I’m excited to see him finally kick some ass.

March 4 2015 1:35 PM

The Legend Is True: Prince Was a Basketball Star

While low-res versions of Prince’s middle school basketball photo have been quietly circulating on fan message boards for a while now, the shot is finally going full-blown viral. The catalyst? Journalist Libor Jany, from Prince’s home paper the Minneapolis Star Tribune, has dug up a zoomed-in version of the pic from the paper’s archives. Finally, we can see middle school Prince in all his glory:

March 4 2015 10:55 AM

The Oscars Are So Much Better Without Dialogue

If, like pretty much everyone else, you were more than a little disappointed by Neil Patrick Harris’ hosting duties at this year’s Oscars, this video highlighting all of the moments of silence will at least make you chuckle. YouTube user Bill Smith has created a fun, short montage of the show, sans all of Harris’ embarrassingly lame banter.

His performance is made instantly better—and the highlight is certainly viewing his stripped-down Birdman-inspired moment on stage without so much as a word, only the boisterous roar of approval from the glamorous audience.

(Via Digg.)

March 4 2015 8:46 AM

Can You Tell If Your Favorite TV Show Is Secretly Sped Up? Take Our Quiz.

With viewers flocking to streaming services, TV executives have racked their brains to figure out how to make up for lost revenues by jamming in even more commercials. Their solution? Speed up the programming. Cable networks like TBS and TNT have used video compression technology to speed up shows to a barely perceptible degree. But somebody noticed; a video circulated online last month showing that broadcasts of Seinfeld on TBS were accelerated by about 8 percent, shaving nearly two minutes off of each episode. Here’s a side-by-side comparison showing the subtle change:

March 4 2015 8:16 AM

These Fake Stock Photos Made to Promote Vince Vaughn’s New Movie Are Brilliant

In a brilliant marketing move, 20th Century Fox has released a series of stock photos starring the cast of the not-very-good-looking office comedy Unfinished Business. Stock photos, of course, are staged photos intended to illustrate abstract ideas that various media outlets might want to convey. They usually feature unknown, blandly good-looking models smiling, frowning, yelling, or otherwise conveying emotions as cartoonishly as possible. The Unfinished Business shoot was a chance for Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, and Dave Franco to put their hammiest acting to good use—let’s examine their performances, starting with the best.

March 3 2015 10:12 PM

If Wes Anderson Directed X-Men

The X-Men franchise has produced seven movies since 2000, all of which were helmed by big-budget, mainstream directors like Bryan Singer and James Mangold. But in the above parody trailer, YouTube user Patrick Willems puts an indie twist on the series, imagining the mutant world as seen through the eyes of Wes Anderson.

The pairing seems ill-advised, especially given how most parody trailers—and there are a lot—tend to force two random, disparate concepts into an awkward whole. But there is something Andersonian in the social isolation that plagues X-Men’s characters, and Willems does a bang-up job mimicking the director’s style: we get lots of manicured compositions, British Invasion tunes, and wry, deadpan narration. And as the making-of video notes, portions of the trailer were filmed around the very same building that houses the title family of The Royal Tenenbaums.

March 3 2015 5:11 PM

A Close Read of Bill O’Reilly’s “Nonfiction” Children’s Book

Kennedy’s Last Days, Bill O’Reilly’s illustrated 2013 book for young readers about the JFK assassination, has emerged from retirement. Written for 10- to 18-year-olds, it might have remained harmlessly out to pasture, emitting the occasional flatus of patriotism or self-aggrandizement, had its author not been accused of fabricating part of its epilogue. In the book’s final pages, O’Reilly describes how he, then a young and intrepid TV reporter, tracked down a shadowy associate of Lee Harvey Oswald’s in Florida. The Russian-American businessman George de Mohrenschildt had known Oswald’s wife Marina, and helped Lee get his first job in Dallas. “As I knocked on the door,” O’Reilly writes, “I heard a shotgun blast. He [Mohrenschildt] had killed himself.” But now news outlets are challenging that narrative with reports that O’Reilly was in Texas at the time of Mohrenschildt’s suicide. Said Byron Harris, a former anchor at WFAA-TV: “He stole that article out of the newspaper. I guarantee Channel 8 didn’t send him to Florida to do that story because it was a newspaper story. It was broken by the Dallas Morning News.”

Well! If you missed Kennedy’s Last Days the first time, this is not the most auspicious introduction to a text that bills itself, somewhat defensively, as “completely a work of nonfiction. It’s all true. The actions of each individual and the events that took place really happened.” On the other hand, the book—mostly present tense, told in short chapters that meld charged moments from the lives of its main characters into a dramatic crescendo—doesn’t feel like the kind of document you’d consult for absolute accuracy. It’s a classic feat of O’Reilly storytelling, spiked with his curious blindness about what exactly it is he’s up to. He may think he’s delivering parcels of correct history. Yet his perceptions of reality are so shaded by an obsession with image and reputation, his whole worldview so fundamentally theatrical, that you almost can’t fault him for confusing good stories with true ones. 

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Papa Bear deserves his reputation as an entertainer. Kennedy’s Last Days, riveting and shameless, gleefully pursues immediacy at the cost of taste. There’s a cheesy reliance on meanwhile, back at the ranch transitions. We meet JFK, rising star, and then his nemesis: “About 4,500 miles away, in the Soviet city of Minsk, an American who did not vote for John F. Kennedy is fed up.” Sometimes these devices make you squirm. “Another event … jump-starts John Kennedy’s journey to the Oval Office,” O’Reilly writes. “Kennedy’s older brother, Joe, is not as lucky as John at cheating death.” If that doesn’t seem like the most sensitive/adept way to introduce the tragedy of Joe Kennedy’s plane crash, at least it outclasses the sensational description of the assassination itself. On a single page, there is “explodes,” “slices,” “knocked,” and “exploding.” Then: “Brains, blood, and bone fragments shower the first lady’s face and clothes. The matter sprays as far forward as the limousine’s windshield.”

Yikes. But some of the stage effects are less offensive, and more head-slappingly fun. A daftly disarming account of JFK’s heroism after a Japanese destroyer ploughs into his WWII boat has the young lieutenant stranded on an island, “choking down live snails and licking the moisture off leaves.” You see, he and his men had to evacuate their ship because “remaining with the wreckage meant either certain capture by Japanese troops or death by shark attack.” (The 1940s axis of evil: Germany, Japan, sharks!)

O’Reilly has a knack for simplifying or blurring historical details without exactly falsifying them. He just…makes them fit his overarching design. And so we learn that the athletic Kennedy swam for Harvard, but not that the president’s coaches remember him as “frail” and “mediocre.” An aura of accuracy emerges from an onslaught of numbers: JFK “naps for exactly 45 minutes” every day; he “can read and understand 1,200 words per minute”; his presidential limousine boasts “three rows of seats” and a 54-year-old driver. The book, its trivia bobbing around in a soup of assumptions, is disingenuously crafted as if readers care how many heads of state attended JFK’s funeral.

These scraps of data attempt to conceal O’Reilly’s biases, which list toward Great Man theories of history and cartoonish notions about fate, good, and evil. (No dice. Nor, for that matter, does O’Reilly’s “helpful teacher” voice—“The Secret Service’s job is to protect the president”—make him seem less grandiose or self-regarding.) Other feints at fair-and- balanced are so laughable they backfire. “Oswald finds strength in the ideals of communism. He believes that the profit from everybody’s work should be shared equally by all,” O’Reilly intones piously. (Look at him being all generous about socialism!) An extravagant hagiography of Birmingham’s Civil Rights marchers is equally crazy-making. (Now he’s bravely, patiently explaining that segregation is wrong! What a guy.)

But slamming O’Reilly for O’Reilly-osity surely misses the point. It’s more interesting to mine the characterization of Kennedy and his assassin for insight into what the author might value and fear. O’Reilly’s president is two things: a Hero and a Performer. As both, he is admired, beloved. Oswald is his opposite—the Envious Nobody. There goes LHO, “unhappy that his return to the United States has not attracted widespread media attention,” needing “to be noticed and appreciated,” with “little to show for his time on earth.” See his power fantasies and spasms of shame—how he measures “Marina’s cheap dresses” against Jackie O’s glamor. On the other side, Kennedy. Courageous, handsome, anointed, “deadly serious about defending his country at all costs.” He “exudes fearlessness and vigor.” His “greenish-gray eyes” sparkle above a “dazzling smile and a deep tan.” You can feel O’Reilly reaching for both the highest compliment he can give JFK and the cruelest insult he can hurl at Oswald. They are these: Kennedy is Great. Oswald is small. Were the “slightly built drifter” given the opportunity, you could almost imagine him lying about his reportage on Fox News.

And that is another star of Kennedy’s Last Days: the idiot box. O’Reilly keeps returning to John and Jackie’s camera-readiness. He lingers over the aspirational force of their bond, their poise, their clothes and hair. JFK, he notes approvingly, “was our first president who liked to be on television.” In Camelot (as on The O’Reilly Factor?) image-consciousness counts as a virtue. Communicators are champions. There is a strange passage where O’Reilly unfolds the origins of Kennedy’s commitment to racial integration; the literary curtain rises on the president as he encounters a newspaper photo of a Birmingham police officer siccing his dog on a student protestor:

Just one look, and JFK instinctively knows that America and the world will be outraged by Hudson’s image. Civil rights are sure to be a major issue of the 1964 presidential election. And Kennedy now understands he can no longer be a passive observer … he must take a stand … he makes a point of telling reporters that the picture is ‘sick’ and ‘shameful.’”

Is O’Reilly subtly critiquing Kennedy here? Implying that his morals are up for grabs, or only accessible through his eyeballs? I don’t think so. Sick and shameful are among the news anchor’s favorite words. Here is what he wants his young readers to admire: the president’s knack for self-mythology, his ability to spur change by presenting an inspirational face to the world. And, Papa Bear takes care to remind us, JFK is not the only crusader to hang his dreams on stage presence and the gift of gab. “If I see injustice, I say something,” he writes in his epilogue, right after the Mohrenschildt passage. Of course he does. He should run for office.

March 3 2015 3:49 PM

Nutella’s Attempts to Keep People From Calling It “Poop” Are Valiant but Futile

Last week, Nutella launched a campaign in France called “Say It With Nutella.” This campaign did not, as I’d hoped, involve putting Nutella in frosting pens and letting people scrawl notes on toast with it. Rather, Nutella invited fans to visit a website on which they could enter personalized messages and see them plastered on pictures of Nutella jars, which they could then share on social media.

What could go wrong? If you think the answer to that question is that pranksters might put rude, offensive, or otherwise off-brand messages on their virtual Nutella jars—well, not quite. The social media mavens behind the campaign anticipated such mischief and disallowed certain words from appearing in its users’ personalized images. For instance, if you wanted to put the word sextoy on a Nutella jar, you’d get a message saying “Your message contains a word that doesn’t conform to Nutella’s terms of use.”

This might not have been anything but an annoyance for puerile trolls if enterprising programmers hadn’t gone looking through the source code and found the (extremely comprehensive) list of banned words. And to the extent that people are talking about this campaign, it’s because not all of those banned words were scatological—some were political. The French words for diabetes, obese, bisphenol, phthalates, Indonesia, palm oil, and orangutan were all banned. (Palm oil—huile de palm in French—is an ingredient in Nutella whose harvest threatens the natural habitats of orangutans in Indonesia; phthalates and bisphenols are endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonly found in plastic packaging.) And then there were a few head-scratchers on the blacklist: lesbian, Jewish, and Muslim were also disallowed by the “Say It With Nutella” algorithm.

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