This Super Mario 64 hack gives Mario a dizzying first-person perspective

Nintendo ROM hacker Kaze Emanuar has used a conceptually simple tweak to give Super Mario 64 a completely different feel. First Person Mario 64 is exactly what it sounds like: your camera follows Mario’s head movement as closely as possible, turning the game into a dizzying first-person adventure.

In the clip above, Emanuar runs through a few of the ways the game plays differently. Rolls and jumps become “terrifying” with your vision limited to a first-person perspective, and level geometry disappears at close range, so sometimes it looks like you’re running on thin air. If you want to feel really disoriented, just imagine playing it in a virtual reality headset as well.

Emanuar is known for serious, full-featured projects based on Super Mario 64, including the multiplayer game Super Mario 64 Online, the level editor Super Mario 64 Maker, and the ambitious expansion Super Mario 64: Last Impact. He’s also designed many smaller and more playful hacks, like a mod that adds Super Mario Odyssey’s sentient red cap into the 1996 game. If you want to try First Person Mario 64 for yourself, there’s a download link in the YouTube description.

The stylish Otto smart lock’s creators are suspending operations

Smart lock company Otto is suspending operations after a failed acquisition agreement. In a blog post late last year, CEO and founder Sam Jadallah says the company made an acquisition deal that limited its ability to fundraise, but the buyer pulled out at the last minute, leaving Otto with no remaining cash. The first locks were supposed to ship within the next few weeks, but “Otto will not ship next month and it may never ship,” says Jadallah. The company will “evaluate [its] options” for moving forward in the coming weeks.

The Otto Lock was pitched as a tiny and stylish, but very expensive, smart lock. It sold for $699, and was intended for wealthy homeowners. Despite this limited niche, Jadallah told TechCrunch that Otto didn’t anticipate problems with the price, and neither did its potential buyer. “This isn’t the story of an ambitious product that didn’t have a market,” he said, asserting that the would-be buyer believed it could sell for even more in certain markets. The buyers, who Jadallah wouldn’t name, apparently never gave a reason for abandoning the deal.

Since Otto hadn’t shipped its locks, consumers at least won’t be dealing with the fallout of a security company suspending operations. But for anyone who was a fan of the Otto Lock’s sleek design, it’s bound to be a disappointment — especially because there’s no clear reason for the company’s woes.

Robocalls were worse than ever in 2017

Complaints about automated telemarketing calls jumped steeply last year, and have quintupled since 2009, according to a recent FTC report. The report says that in fiscal year 2017, the agency received over 375,000 complaints per month about automated robocalls, up from only 63,000 per month in 2009. That’s a total of 4.5 million robocall complaints, plus an additional 2.5 million complaints about live telemarketing calls. For comparison, there were 3.4 million robocalls and 1.8 million live calls in 2016. (The FCC also regulates robocalls, but has received far fewer complaints — only 185,000 since August of 2016.)

The report says that robocalls are steadily increasing because of cheap access to internet calling services and autodialing, and because it’s getting easier for spammers to hide their true identity and location. People reported more “neighborhood” number spoofing, where calls appear to come from a local area code, in 2017. The most popular topic by far, according to complaint responses, was debt reduction. People also reported spam calls about vacations and timeshares; warranties and protection plans; prescription medication; and “imposter” calls ostensibly from businesses, the government, or family and friends.

Most robocalls are illegal, whether or not recipients’ numbers are on the National Do Not Call Registry. (There are exceptions for charities and political campaigns.) The government has hit offenders with increasingly larger fines — the FCC proposed a record $120 million fine for a Florida robocaller in mid-2017, punishing him for spoofing caller IDs. Phone companies have also introduced scam blocking tools, and the FCC passed an anti-robocalling rule proposal in March, letting phone companies block calls that spoof nonexistent numbers. But as this report shows, it’s a bigger problem than ever.

A look back at the state of racial representation in Hollywood this year

2017 was a good time for racial representation in movies. From films like Hidden Figures to Coco, it seems that Hollywood is more invested than ever in telling stories with diverse leads. Not all of the news is good, however; the past year also saw two more whitewashing controversies thanks to the live-action Ghost in the Shelland Netflix’s Death Note, and people of color on the big screen still lag far behind their populations in real life. Although it’s difficult to square all these trends into one easily understood narrative, especially as no singlereportout there has all the numbers and data, we can still piece together a general idea of how this year stacked up against years prior.

Get Out, which premiered in February, explored the subtle and internal racism that pervades white America in a horror/comedy genre bender from comedian and director Jordan Peele. But what was most remarkable about Get Out wasn’t just that it was an excellent sendup of racial commentary, but that it was also hugely successful at the box office. Bringing in $253.8 million gross sales, or 50.8 times its $5 million production budget, Get Out proved with sheer numbers that non-white actors could lead lucrative, widely appealing movies — a lesson worth heeding in the face of Hollywood’s struggling financials.

Hidden Figures, which premiered in January, also helped usher in a year of diverse films. By highlighting the little-known lives of three black women who worked for NASA during the early years of the space program, the film emphasized the potential for historical stories about people of color who made important contributions without much credit. It demonstrated with ease that there can be diversity in period films and historical dramas, a genre of film that rarely focuses on people of color — the all-white casts of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled being two prime examples.

Although many Dunkirk boosters made the excuse that the film is supposed to be about French and British soldiers, there were also plenty of Algerian, Moroccan, and Indian soldiers who also served during World War II, largely because of European colonialism. Casablanca, a 1942 movie set in literally the same timeframe in Morocco, gave more speaking roles to a woman and a black man than Dunkirk. For her Civil War drama The Beguiled, Coppola defended her decision to nix the black characterwho had played a major part in the source novel by explaining she didn’t want to include a token slave character without properly fleshing the character out. “There wasn’t room to tell that whole story,” she said, though that story could have been a very interesting one indeed.

The responsibility to tell diverse and innovative stories doesn’t fall on solely on filmmakers like Coppola and Nolan, or any individual. Instead, it falls on all of Hollywood, where film studio executive boards still skew male. At Warner Bros., 35 percent of executives are women. For Sony and Paramount, the number is 45 percent, according to Variety. Part of this picture remains obscured, as Disney, Universal and Fox all declined to reveal their numbers.

While Variety’s report doesn’t include any data on race or LGBTQ members, it does gives us some idea of the structures of these Hollywood companies and how they impact film and TV production. In October, Insecure writer Amy Aniobi explained how she feels when she pitches a TV show to a room full of white male executives:

When I go into a room to pitch shows, I’m translating both of my ‘Others’: my femininity, and my blackness, to a room of white people. And so, it’s hard! It’s hard, you have to take them on a journey with you, and it’s like, “C’mon down the road with me!” And it’s so hard to tap dance to that. If I could just have someone on the other side of the table who vaguely resembles what I am. And I always try and connect. Like if some dude is like, my sister, and I’m like, oh, you have a sister! I have a brother, what’s your relationship like? I’m trying so hard to connect and it can be really hard. If the heads of studio were of color, that’s really what’s going to change the industry.

The problem around diversity has many dimensions; while Latinos make up 17 percent of the US’s population, television representation of Latinos in 2017 lagged behind at a mere eight percent, the greatest racial disparity among minorities. For films in 2016, the percentage of Latinos on screen was even lower at 3.1 percent, according to a study from USC Annenberg. Mary Beltrán, professor of film and television at the University of Texas at Austin, tells The Verge that the problem lays inside film studios: “There just aren’t enough Latino executives. While it doesn’t always take a Latino writer to create these characters, I think Latinx writers care more about it and want to change the depictions we constantly see.”

These discussions themselves are reasons for optimism, as critics and viewers continue to point where Hollywood’s status quo continues to fall short. Li Lai, creator of Mediaversity Reviews, which rates film and TV based on diversity metrics, says that she’s encouraged by how many people have debated things. From her perspective, having this kind of open discourse is progress as it means we’re questioning things that ten years ago, we might have taken for granted. And some actors like Ed Skrein, who turned down a role in Hellboy out of sensitivity to the character’s half-Japanese background, are doing things right. “I’m just excited that we’re even having these conversations,” Lai tells me.

The movies that transported and troubled us in 2017

Throughout the final week of 2017, culture writers from across Vox Media will be chatting about the best works of the year. In this installment, Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, Alissa Wilkinson, and Genevieve Koski; The Verge’s Tasha Robinson; and Polygon’s Julia Alexander talk about the movies of 2017.

Todd VanDerWerff: My favorite movies in 2017 weren’t escapism, not precisely, but they did take me so thoroughly out of my own point of view that reentering reality afterward could feel a little like resurfacing after a deep-sea dive. From the intimate details of Lady Bird to the bleakly comedic terror of Get Out, from the cat’s-eye-view shots of Kedi to the sudden plunge into the vastness of infinity in A Ghost Story, movies often felt like a great way to remove myself, for a little while, from life as I was living it.

That might sound like political commentary, and it sort of is. My friend Steven Santos tweeted just last week about seeing The Shape of Water and feeling utterly transported, only to reemerge into a world that still felt like the early stages of a post-apocalyptic movie. But it’s also a commentary on the movies themselves.

It’s rare that I’ve seen as stark a divide between the smaller movies I really loved and the big blockbusters that drive much of movies as a business. And I say this as someone who loved a lot of blockbusters, from Logan to War for the Planet of the Apes to The Last Jedi! But out of all of them, only Wonder Woman captured that sense of being transported out of yourself and into somebody else’s shoes, and then only briefly (during the justly acclaimed No Man’s Land sequence).

I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with this. Blockbusters are always going to feel a little more like product, assembled by committee. But I think it’s a little weird that they’ve gotten so bad at raw escapism, when that’s their reason to exist, ostensibly. So many are so sweaty (to borrow a term from my friends over at the podcast Blank Check), overexerting themselves to cram in as much ENTERTAINMENT as possible, that watching them feels a little like work. And I say that even about movies I really liked, such as, say, Thor: Ragnarok.

So I toss this over to you, much smarter film writers: Did you feel this same divide in your lives this year? What were the movies that let you forget it was 2017 for a few hours? And what were the movies you wish had done so, only to leave you disappointed in the end?

Tasha Robinson: I’m definitely not feeling the work in watching movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and Thor: Ragnarok, except to the degree that seeing and writing about these films literally is my actual work. For the most part, I found 2017’s most overtly escapist blockbuster films pretty easy to watch, no matter how loud and busy they got. Dropping into the MCU at this point is like catching up on a soap opera. It’s mindless, relaxing, and comforting. I largely feel like I’m in good hands with an MCU movie, because I mostly know the plot patterns, and only the exact details of the banter and the exact shape of the fights really vary from film to film.

The films that really stuck with me this year weren’t generally the fun fantasies, the wish fulfillment action-comedies. I was consistently more drawn to the discomfiting films, the ones with more political and personal edge. My top 15 for the year is heavy on emotional, personal drama — Get Out is a particular standout because of the way it seamlessly brings in specific, up-to-the-moment concerns about racial tension and bigotry in policing, but makes them just one sideline in a horror story that’s scary for a lot of other reasons. But smaller domestic dramas like Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, and The Breadwinner were also powerful for me, and so were metaphor-loaded movies like I, Tonya and Mother!

My favorite movies of 2017 fell into a pretty predictable pattern for me: I love movies that keep me guessing and make me feel strong emotions along the way. Something like A Ghost Story, which is completely unpredictable, but follows its own natural, internal logic, is absolutely my jam, and that’s the kind of film I gravitated toward in 2017.

Alissa Wilkinson: More than specific movies this year, I find myself thinking about moviegoing experiences that stuck with me — which I guess speaks to that cliché the “power of cinema.” The best of all of them was going to an unplanned midnight screening of The Disaster Artist at the Toronto International Film Festival; as a movie, it’s pretty lightweight, but the experience of being in a packed, delighted theater made it one of my all-timers.

Seeing Get Out was another, since most of us had no idea what to expect going in. It only takes about 10 minutes to realize you’re watching something confident, visually interesting, funny, and smart, and the growing excitement in the theater was something to experience. Squealing with an audience through Mother! at TIFF (in the unbraced sink scene in particular), and then rushing out to everyone’s conversations, is also something I’ll never forget. And I saw Lady Bird three times before I wrote about it and completely lost track of time and space all three times; that movie means more to me than I really understand.

I almost never experience this in big blockbuster settings, because usually I’m concentrating too hard trying to track with the characters and the action. But twice this year I saw big-budget films that moved me far beyond what I expected. Once was this summer, with Dunkirk, and I hardly breathed through it. The other was just last week, watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi and understanding for the first time what makes Star Wars magical.

There were plenty of times I was disappointed — and that’s normal for me. But something notable stands out: When we were at the Cannes Film Festival this May, many American critics found ourselves talking to one another about how strange it was to be living outside the American news cycle, especially since plenty of news was still happening both in the US and in Europe. I wound up writing about it because it struck me as a defining quality of being at a festival like Cannes: You’re transported into another world, somewhat literally. That’s wonderful, but it can be dangerous, because it can feel like escapism. Thankfully, at Cannes films like BPM (Beats Per Minute) kept our feet on the ground.

Get Out

Genevieve Koski: The theme connecting many of my favorite films of 2017, blockbuster and otherwise, is surprise, the feeling of being taken off guard by a movie I wrongly assumed just wasn’t going to be “my thing.” Get Out is the best embodiment of this trend, a horror film that won over this horror-averse viewer with a strong, well-wrought conceit that put a new spin on what’s considered horrific.

I (foolishly) avoided Dunkirk in theaters based on my typical dislike of war movies, but when I eventually caught up with it on the small screen (sorry, Christopher Nolan), I was so enamored of its unusual structure and pristine filmmaking I couldn’t help be drawn into a story that, on paper, I couldn’t have been less interested in. Same goes for War For The Planet of the Apes, which applies a war movie conceit to a franchise I’ve always been lukewarm on, with results that are deeper and more empathetic than I could have ever imagined from a blockbuster so wholly invested in CGI characters.

The unorthodox music-doc Contemporary Color made me believe in the emotional power of color guard, a phrase I never thought I’d write, ever. Even something like The Florida Project, which I suspected I’d at least admire based on Sean Baker’s last film, Tangerine, surprised me with its commitment to unearthing unexpected beauty in a setting and characters that don’t readily invite it.

Conversely, many of my other favorite films of the year surprised me by giving me exactly what I was expecting from them, and then so much more — including my top film of the year, Lady Bird. Based on how closely the title character’s personal experience mirrors my own, there was little chance I wouldn’t forge some sort of emotional connection with this film, but the inevitability of that connection allowed me to step back and appreciate just how well the film does what I was expecting it to do, with smart, nuanced characterization and performances tying together its vignette-based structure into something that feels so perfect and special I want to hold it in my hands and clutch it to my heart forever.

I, Tonya delighted me not for its story, which I am old enough to remember most of the narrative details around, but for its go-for-broke filmmaking style, which this story arguably doesn’t need but which brings a captivating new dimension to the film’s title character and her story. And while I was prepared to be devastated by BPM (Beats Per Minute)‘s tragic romance set among the early-’90s AIDS crisis, I was in no way prepared for how it told that story within a more expansive, purposeful, and thought-provoking framework about the personal side of social activism, with an energetic and restless style that carries all the way through to its sorrowful end.

Again and again in 2017, I was reminded how the cultural conversation can wrongly shape our assumptions about a piece of art, and how thrilling and gratifying it can be to have those assumptions proven wrong — or even proven right in a way you weren’t expecting.

Julia Alexander: From Get Out at the beginning of the year to Star Wars: The Last Jedi just now, 2017 has been a year of surprising movies that circumvent their defining genre.

Get Out and A Ghost Story, two movies about radically different things, both left marks on me that carried throughout the year. Jordan Peele’s ability to subvert the audience with an honest conversation about race in America in 2017 couldn’t have felt more timely or necessary. A Ghost Story, a movie about a man’s inability to leave the past behind as he struggles to figure out what’s next for him when he has nothing left, haunted me for months — pun not intended.

It wasn’t just smaller movies that caught me off guard, but the big superhero blockbusters that I had come to view as recycled duplicates of the movie before it, changed. Spider-Man: Homecoming was one of the most genuinely fun superhero movies I’ve seen since The Avengers; Thor: Ragnarok turned the franchise on its head, recreating the superhero and giving the character a much-needed, refreshing change; Wonder Woman redefined what a DC/Warner Bros. superhero movie could be, giving me hope for what could come with different directors behind the camera.

I don’t know if 2017 was a good year for movies, but it’s one that changed my perspective on what filmmakers could do with the stories they’re given. Nowhere did this prove to be more true than in the case of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which saw director Rian Johnson deliver on his promise of a Star Wars movie unlike any we’ve seen before. In The Last Jedi, we got one of the best movie villains in recent years, Kylo Ren, and one of the most satisfying, shocking scenes.

Many of the films I watched this year surprised me in the most pleasant of ways (I’m looking at you, The Disaster Artist). Even movies that other critics ridiculed and lambasted, like The Boss Baby, for example, I wound up adoring.

2017 delivered surprising treat after surprising treat, which is more than I can say for 2016, and it’s an aspect of moviegoing that I appreciate.

The Disaster Artist

Tasha: It does seem like personality mattered more than usual for directors in 2017, and like more of them visibly got the freedom to put their personalities into their films. A surprising number of actors made idiosyncratic, distinctive feature directorial debuts this year, including Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird is her first solo directing project), Jordan Peele (Get Out), Andy Serkis (Breathe), Macon Blair (I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore), Brie Larson (Unicorn Store), Jay Baruchel (Goon: Last of the Enforcers), Zoe Lister-Jones (Band Aid), Amber Tamblyn (Paint It Black), and Noël Wells (Mr. Roosevelt).

That speaks in part to the comparative ease of funding small, quirky, vision-driven indie movies right now, especially for people who already have connections in the film industry and might be able to get producers on board. But it also suggests an environment where voice and perspective matter for financial reasons, as well as artistic and aesthetic ones. 2017 gave us a lot of strong personalities in surprising films, but the fact that we’re seeing so many movies in that vein suggests that producers are banking on individuality — and possibly on existing fans for a given actor — to help a small movie find a release platform and an audience.

And it’s been fascinating to watch as the cinematic field splits more and more sharply between $350 million blockbusters and $1 million indies, between movies that are considered failures if they only earn $800 million and movies that are considered successes if Netflix is willing to pick them up. So many films these days feel as though they’re designed first and foremost for a streaming platform, where they can quietly, endlessly seek their audience through targeted marketing. One of the biggest surprises for me in 2017 was that these movies weren’t always bright spots — I had as much fun at the multiplex as I did at the arthouse in 2017. But another surprise is that it feels like audiences have gotten so polarized and specific, given all the movie-watching platforms available, that a much wider variety of types of films can get made, and they can all potentially find their fans.

Julia: I agree, Tasha, that with the growing number of streaming services available, it feels like no matter how niche your taste, there’s a platform willing to create movies along those lines. 2017 also felt like the year that directors started to air their grievances or strong support of streaming services; Christopher Nolan famously made his critique of Netflix’s business model well-known, while also praising the way Amazon handles film distribution. I love that I can turn to Netflix, Amazon, or whomever and find a movie that the studio picked up to best serve its audience. With studios giving independent films less funding, and focusing on producing giant blockbusters (Warner Bros. giving more attention to its DC Cinematic Universe, for example), I’m glad streaming services are seeing the potential in smaller movies.

Todd: One interesting conundrum about 2017 was the slow realization of how many acclaimed, even beloved, movies have been made by terrible, terrible men. For as much as I love A Ghost Story, there’s a part of me that hesitates to recommend it to people because of Casey Affleck’s involvement (even if he’s covered by a sheet for most of the movie). It definitely felt like 2017 was the year we started grappling with this in a much more real way, and I hope that attitude continues going forward. But how have you started to think about this question in your own writing and criticism?

Alissa: For sure. It’s a thing that I thought about but didn’t actively consider as part of my criticism prior to this year. I feel sad about that, but also as if it’s a large cultural movement toward recognizing that the people who make a movie are part of how we think about the movie itself, and they have to be. They probably should have been all along. (I am looking directly at you, Woody Allen.)

That said, I’m still struggling with the place those involved in a movie have in a piece of criticism. The thing about movies is that they’re a collaborative medium, and some people have much more creative control and input — and benefit a lot more — from one work of art than another.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “legend” or “mythology” aspect of filmmaking, in particular, and when it makes sense to engage with (and maybe even enjoy) a work of art that was made with the involvement of predatory or abusive people, but not to perpetuate the hallowed myth of the creative, abusive genius. I think there is some kind of difference there. I’m not sure where it lies, yet, and I’m still struggling with how those of us who write about the works themselves are involved in that perpetuation and/or the dispelling of the mythology.

Tasha: Todd, does it help to know that according to director David Lowery, half the time it isn’t actually Casey Affleck under that sheet? It helps me a bit. It also helps that I don’t see A Ghost Story as Casey Affleck’s vision in any way. But any argument in that direction just opens up more cans of worms.

It’s been fascinating to watch how different people in and around the industry have grappled with the question of culpability around abuse. Is every movie Harvey Weinstein ever made now tainted somehow, even though so many people put so much effort into realizing their personal visions through his company? Does it have to color Salma Hayek’s achievement with Frida to know what he put her through on that movie? Is the Ridley Scott option of nuking an accused abuser from a film the most responsible option, or just the most extreme one?

No one has easy answers to these questions, and we’re going to see a lot of fighting about them in the year to come — but I’m just happy that 2017 was a year where we started asking them.

Julia: I have to echo what Alissa said. The number of allegations coming out is disturbing and saddening, but it hasn’t impacted how I approach my criticism. It feels like a weak cop-out to suggest separating art from artist, but because movies are such an elaborate team effort, it’s easier to try to focus on the movie than trying to forget that Casey Affleck is gliding around under the white bed sheet in A Ghost Story.

Still, as someone who both critiques movies and reports on the film industry, there’s no question that it’s been harder and taken more of an effort to separate the art from the artist. What I struggle with, as a never-ending, twisting moral conflict, is applauding the performance of someone who’s accused of predatory behavior. I can and have given credit where it’s due, but I think it speaks to a larger conundrum of trying to focus attention on performances and blocking out the headlines we’re bombarded with on a near-daily basis.

Baby Driver

Genevieve: Tasha’s right that there are no easy answers, but I’d also argue that there are also no universal answers to these sticky questions about the separation of art and artist — which is why, as she says, we’re going to keep fighting about them. The concept of objective criticism was already a fallacy; adding a moral component to the equation only broadens the spectrum of personal reactions a viewer can have to a film, a spectrum that is already so much more complex than just thumbs up or down, or fresh or rotten.

So while Kevin Spacey’s presence in Baby Driver is something I’m personally able to compartmentalize outside of his personal history of shittiness — something that’s easier for me to do with performers, who are usually tools used to express a filmmaker’s vision, not their own — I would never, as a critic, try to convince another viewer it shouldn’t bother them. What I would try to convince them of is the value of all the other elements of a piece of art that haven’t been tainted, and raise the question of whether it’s worth forgoing all of that — and by extension, all of the work and vision expressed by the multitude of others involved in a film — for the sake of a moral line drawn in the sand. Perhaps it is, but that’s ultimately not a choice for me to make for other people.

Tasha: I mean, we don’t have to block out those headlines, or ignore those stories, to be good critics. For decades, Woody Allen has made movies about younger women obsessed with older men, sometimes to the point of stalking them or pressuring them into relationships. Louis C.K. has entire routines about masturbation, and his new, hastily shelved film I Love You, Daddy has a masturbatory act in it that closely parallels things he was accused of. What people are like offscreen is often relevant to what they’re like onscreen. If we can interview people about how their childhood experiences made them better equipped to play a character, or how their culture or interests or life experiences made them better equipped to write a story, it’s just as relevant to consider how their toxic behavior might inform the art they create. It’s all part of the continuum.

Julia: The Louis C.K. example is perfect. When art is imitating life, it’s impossible to not block out the headlines. Criticism is often better because we can incorporate the realities of the person behind or in front of the camera as it relates to the story. For people venturing out to watch a movie, it comes down to a personal decision about how much the inclusion of a certain actor, for example, will hinder their enjoyment watching it. I wish there were an easy answer for it, but continuous debate, both among critics and friends, reiterates just how complex the discussion has always been and continues to be.

Todd: Before we conclude, I would love to hear your takes on some of the year’s bigger movie debates, over everything from whether Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri was perceptive or schlocky to whether It was fun or overhyped. In short: What do you think 2017’s most misunderstood movies were, in directions either positive or negative?

I’m going to open the discussion by talking about the just-opened The Post, which is, I think, a flawed movie, but certainly one that I find myself grinding my teeth about when it comes to the film’s detractors. Is it a celebration of the freedom of the press? Sure. But while it has its Trumpian parallels (considering Steven Spielberg made it in nine months, it would have to), I think it’s much more affecting as a movie about the powerful learning to voluntarily divest themselves of some of that power for the good of all of us.

Meryl Streep’s role as Katharine Graham is key to this. The movie has widely been interpreted as a kind of Spotlight in the ’70s, but where the 2015 movie was much more about the process of reporting, The Post is much more interested in the ways those with the power to quash news that could crumble presidential administrations finally convince themselves, sometimes against their better judgment, that said news is in the public’s best interest to know about. The Post is a valentine to newspaper journalism, to be sure, but it’s less a call to arms for the press itself and much more for those who own the press. I was a little heartened to hear how much Jeff Bezos (the current owner of the Washington Post) liked it.

Tasha: One of the biggest movie debates I ran into in 2017 was whether Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is brilliant filmmaking, an insulting exercise in empty imagistic nonsense, or (horrors!) something in between. A lot of people hated this movie passionately, and I understand why: They were told to expect a scary home-invasion thriller, and they got something else, something unpredictable and literally nightmarish that takes thought and time (and maybe some reading) to unpack.

There are a handful of things I’d like to see the movie industry learn based on how 2017 went. One of those things is: Marketing your movie deceptively to try to get butts in seats is a terrible plan. We saw it with Mother! and It Comes At Night this year, and a little ways back, we saw the same problem with Robert Eggers’s The Witch. All three of these films were deliberately marketed as terrifying but mysterious horror stories, and all three had audiences walking out complaining about what they got instead.

Yes, it’s hard to figure out how to market an idiosyncratic, unconventional film. But it’s equally hard to survive toxic word of mouth when you advertise a movie as something it isn’t, and get an audience in the door under false pretenses. A lot of the people who vocally hated Mother! probably wouldn’t have seen it if it had been accurately advertised as a swoony arthouse psychodrama instead of a slasher movie. But that’s just fine. It might have been better situated to find its appropriate audience too.

And speaking personally, I went into it without expectations, and came out deeply impressed with the filmmaking, the intensity of the performances, and the way the film unnerved me. But it took a few days for it to really sink in properly, to the point where I could process why I loved the experience. I’m hoping other people who came out of the movie angry eventually had a similar growing appreciation for the film.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Julia: Much in the same vein that I identify as a Kanye West apologist, I often feel the same push to do so with Martin McDonagh movies.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was one of my favorite movies this year, even though it was one of McDonagh’s more problematic. McDonagh explores hard themes like the protection of powerful men and racism exerted by white police officers, which can be hard to sit through, in order to focus on the story of one woman’s attempt to find her daughter’s rapist and murderer.

Three Billboards isn’t a perfect movie, but the rawness in Frances McDormand’s stunning performance as a mother who’s trying to get a group of small-town male police officers to take the case of a violent attack against a teenage girl seriously is hard to shake. There’s a timeliness to McDonagh’s movie, which can get lost in the abundance of glorified, Tarantino-esque violence but shouldn’t be ignored. Whereas a group of men in power would rather move on from the violent sexual assault case, choosing to file it away as another unfortunate circumstance that befell an innocent woman, McDormand’s character speaks for all women when she refuses to do so. Instead, her character forces these men to confront the violent realities facing women across the world, demanding they pay attention to this and seek out justice for her daughter.

I can see why critics took issue with Three Billboards, but I can’t help seeing the movie — and McDormand’s performance — as one we needed in 2017.

Alissa: Like Tasha, I felt like Mother! was misunderstood, though frankly I attribute much more of that to Darren Aronofsky’s explanation tour of the film than the movie itself, which certainly can bear a bunch of different interpretations. Aronofsky persisted in telling us what it was “about,” and I think that can stunt the viewing experience for many people, especially since the movie he made was so much more interesting than the movie he said he made.

I had the same reaction to the critical chatter around The Beguiled, a film I persist in liking a ton but that seemed to suffer from discussions that had a lot to do with what people wished the film would do (explore the bigger Civil War-era context of the story) and not what it actually did, which was to be a vicious little romp. Some of those conversations are more thoughtful than others, but I think it diminished the film — which was never very heavyweight to begin with.

That reminds me of my biggest frustration with “misunderstood” films, which is how hard it can be to just take a movie on its own terms and write about it that way. I understand why, and I think that in many ways the broader cultural chatter around a movie can be beneficial to everyone. But when you watch every movie already knowing exactly what people will write about the film, and then what the backlash will be, it gets a little wearying.

Todd: One final question for you all: People are looking for movies to watch this week, while it’s cold outside and they don’t want to leave the house and/or movie theater. What are two or three under-the-radar 2017 movies worth checking out, especially ones available for digital rental or streaming?

I’ll start with these three: Kedi, a charming documentary about cats in Istanbul that’s one of those movies that starts out very small and ends up encompassing whole worlds, and it has lots and lots of cats; Your Name, a brilliantly twisty animated romance from Japan about two teenagers who start waking up as each other; and Princess Cyd, a small-scale story about a teenage girl awakening to herself and her identity during a summer spent with her aunt. (I know Alissa also loved Princess Cyd. Sorry to steal it, Alissa.)

Alissa: I’ll allow it, but only grudgingly.

Genevieve: I’ve already mentioned my beloved Contemporary Color, a visual concert experience masterminded by David Byrne and captured for film by the Ross brothers that’s more than worth the few bucks you’ll pay to rent it on Amazon. As a bonus for the holiday season, it’s quite family-friendly, provided your family is open to its slightly off-kilter premise: musicians like Bryne, St. Vincent, and Tune-Yards perform original songs while color guard teams from across the country perform accompanying dance routines.

In a similar but wildly different vein is Amanda Lipitz’s documentary Step, which also centers on a group of dancers, this one a step team from a Baltimore leadership academy for black girls, whose first senior class is about to graduate. Where Contemporary Color is pure escapist fantasy, Step contextualizes its dance routines within the personal struggles facing the young women performing them. It’s a film that’s nominally about the power of dance, especially for young women, but is far more compelling for the story it tells about the effort that goes into achieving excellence in the face of apathy, poverty, and violence.

Julia: As a diehard post-Twilight Robert Pattinson fan, Good Time is one of those movies that I can’t recommend enough. Pattinson’s performance as an anguished bank robber trying to help his mentally ill brother is beautiful. Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie, the movie uses vibrant, neon lights and moments of periodic, monochromatic bleakness to help tell the story. It’s one of my favorite movies this year.

One of the most heartwarming movies I watched this year was Brigsby Bear, which stars Kyle Mooney and Mark Hamill in a Truman Show-like story. The movie follows Mooney’s James as he sets out to find out why his favorite TV show, Brigsby Bear, has ended. It’s a thoughtful look at parasocial relationships and stars Mooney in his best role yet.

Alissa: I’d definitely recommend Casting JonBenet it’s technically a documentary about JonBenet Ramsey, but it’s not like whatever you’d expect from that description. Kitty Green, the filmmaker, held “auditions” for a movie about the JonBenet Ramsey case in the area around where the family lived, then had the actors auditioning for the film talk about their perceptions of the family and of the story. It’s a remarkable and often moving film about how sensational stories affect the communities they’re in. I talked to Green about it for Vox.

Also, I cannot say enough about one of my top three films of the year, the documentary The Work. Twice a year at Folsom Prison, men from the outside are allowed to join some of the incarcerated men for a four-day intensive group therapy session. The filmmakers took a fly-on-the-wall approach to documenting the whole thing, and it is a stunner. It ends up exploring all kinds of important things — most importantly the toll that what gets called “toxic masculinity” can take on generations of men — and watching it is like participating in the group therapy sessions as well. It’s sogood. Don’t miss it.

Tasha: Julia beat me to recommending Brigsby Bear, the 2017 film I most hope finds a wider audience. It’s a charmer that’s weird enough to keep the Netflix-addict generations involved, but positive and gentle enough to not completely alienate more conservative family members, which makes it pretty perfect for holiday viewing.

Michaël Dudok de Wit’s wordless animated fantasyThe Red Turtle is more specifically for audiences who can handle a low-key, quiet fable based on the sheer beauty and ambition of its animation. It’s a dreamy, lulling story that’s exceptionally well rendered, and it’s on a lot of streaming services.

But for those who need a shot of extreme violence to counteract all the sweet comforts of those first two films, there’sBrawl In Cell Block 99, from Bone Tomahawk director S. Craig Zahler. In description, it sounds like a pretty standard revenge drama. In practice … well, it starts with Vince Vaughn viciously beating a car to death with his hands. And instead of trying to top that, it drops into a reflective, even meditative place that stands in stark contrast to the shocking bouts of intense violence and the startling practical-effects grindhouse gore. Vaughn is surprisingly terrifying in the lead, but he’s a sensitive, sympathetic Mad Max type as well. The entire film is a study in contrasts and surprises, both in the story and in how it’s told.

Thanks for reading; find more movie coverage at Vox, The Verge, and Polygon.

HQ Trivia is now available in beta from the Play Store

Earlier this month, HQ Trivia announced that the app would finally be available for Android users, allowing them to pre-register to download it. The app is now available in the Google Play Store’s Early Access section.

The game launched this past fall on iOS. The Android app is still in beta, and the product page notes that the app is potentially unstable. Recode reported earlier this month that the company is working to raise money from venture capitalists for a potential $100 million valuation. The addition of an Android app will likely help boost its user base.

Created by Vine co-founders Rus Yusupov and fellow co-founder Colin Kroll, the game is a live trivia contest that has become extremely popular in recent months. Players compete each day at 3PM and 9PM ET to answer 12 multiple choice questions to win cash prizes — which have ballooned in recent weeks to thousands of dollars, which has prompted some efforts to cheat.

David Bowie’s son is launching an online book club devoted to his father’s favorite reads

Before his death in January 2016, David Bowie was a noted musician, actor, and was a prolific reader. On Twitter, Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones recently said that he has been “feeling a building sense of duty to go on the same literary marathon in tribute” to his late father, and will be holding an online book club based on his father’s favorite books.

Bowie’s website provides a list of his 100 favorite books, and Jones, the director of Moon, Warcraft, and the forthcoming film Mute, said on Twitter that he’ll be starting off with Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor. The novel follows two parallel storylines: one follows an 18th century church builder in London who performs human sacrifices, while the other is about a detective who is investigating murders in the same churches in the 1980s.

Alright, you. Let’s do this!

— Duncan Jones (@ManMadeMoon) December 30, 2017

Jones says that he’ll begin talking about the book (presumably on Twitter) on February 1st, giving you one month to read the novel.

You can help teach a snake-spotting AI to spot snakes better

A team of reptile and amphibian enthusiasts is asking for the public’s help training artificial intelligence to spot snakes, frogs, and more from photos. The team wants to eventually create an app that can help people identify these creatures in their backyards — and prevent people from killing them. But first, their AI has to get better at making those photo IDs.

The AI, named Fitch after the late, renowned herpetologist Henry S. Fitch, is part of a new platform called What the Herp? Right now, it’s a webpage and a Twitter bot (@WhatTheHerp) where people can submit photos for Fitch to try and identify.

“The biggest issue with conservation of herps is that we work with one of the most detested groups on the planet — you’re up there with spiders,” says programmer Don Becker (no relation), a herpetology enthusiast and member of the small team behind What the Herp and a related app, HerpMapper. “By giving people a way to identify what it is that they’re looking at, that can help dissuade people from killing it.”

Looking for a way to help improve #ComputerVision used by #CitizenScience projects from the comfort of your own home? Draw bounding boxes around amphibians and reptiles in images at to support #Herpetology.

— Christopher E. Smith, CWB® (@FieldEcology) December 28, 2017

Before Fitch can help people ID their backyard reptiles and amphibians, Fitch has to learn how to do so itself. So the team is training it with thousands of accurately pre-identified photos. (Doing a reverse image search on Google, Becker says, doesn’t guarantee an accurate ID.) It’s “similar to showing a child flashcards, like this is an apple, this is an orange, this is a peach,” Becker says. “Just keep showing them the pictures and eventually they recognize what everything is.”

I am 100% confident that this is Pituophis catenifer, aka Gopher Snake

— Fitch (@WhatTheHerp) October 15, 2017

The problem is that Fitch can be easily distracted by background details in the photo. For example, bull snakes are commonly photographed in dry, dead grass, Becker says. So when Fitch sees a photo of a leopard frog in dry, dead grass, Fitch thinks it’s seeing another bull snake. “It’s not the brightest thing in the world right now,” Becker says. “But it’s getting there.”

The team is trying to remove those distracting details from Fitch’s training images by drawing boxes around the reptilian or amphibian stars of the photos. That’s where the public comes in, because there are thousands of photos to annotate. On the What the Herp website, citizen scientists can create an account and flip through photos to draw boxes around the creatures in the photos Fitch is learning from.

Once Fitch is well-trained enough, the goal for the What the Herp? app will be for it to distribute accurate identifications and information about reptiles and amphibians. “People kill things because they’re afraid of them,” Becker says. “The more you learn about something the more you appreciate it.”

Amazon ordered to stop luring customers based on misspelled searches for Birkenstock

A court in Germany has told that it can no longer use search terms to lure in customers who misspell “Birkenstock,” according to Reuters.

The German sandal maker filed an injunction, complaining that the online retailer had been using variations on its brand name, such as “Brikenstock”, “Birkenstok”, and “Bierkenstock” on Google’s Adwords. Birkenstock alleges that by luring in customers with keywords, it’s potentially selling counterfeit sandals, potentially damaging the company’s reputation. Amazon told Reuters that it works “diligently with vendors, sellers and rights owners to detect and prevent fraudulent products reaching our marketplace.”

Reuters notes that the company has severed ties with amazon in Europe and in the US because the retailer has “failed to proactively prevent” the sale of fakes.

The retailer is concerned about low-quality copies of its footwear: it devotes a page of its website to the issue, saying that all of its products are manufactured in Germany, and recommends that prospective customers go only to authorized retailers.

A Chinese space station is falling to Earth next year — but it’s the last thing to worry about

Sometime in late March of next year, a Chinese space station named Tiangong-1 is going to fall back down to Earth — and some big pieces may survive the reentry. The module’s descent has caused a bit of concern about debris raining form the sky. But in reality, a falling space station is the last thing anyone should be worried about.

Satellites and spacecraft fall to Earth all the time. Vehicles in lower orbits get bombarded by small particles in the planet’s upper atmosphere, and that eventually drags them downward. But usually, these falling objects are small enough or shaped in such a way that they’ll burn up safely while re-entering the atmosphere.

The problem with Tiangong-1 is that it’s rather massive. Launched in 2011, Tiangong-1 — or “Heavenly Place” — served as China’s first ever crewed space station. The module weighs nearly 19,000 pounds and it’s pretty dense too. And it’s estimated that around 10 to 40 percent of a spacecraft will make it down the ground. For small satellites, that’s not much. For Tiangong-1, that’s between 2,000 and 8,000 pounds.

With space vehicles of this size or bigger, operators usually have a plan to safely get rid of them when they’ve reached the end of their mission. If a large vehicle has thrusters, it’s possible to use the spacecraft’s remaining fuel to fire those engines intentionally and dump it over the ocean. Or you can send up another spacecraft with an engine to dock with the decay vehicle and plunge it somewhere safe.

But that’s not what happened with Tiangong-1. The space station wasn’t really meant to last past 2013, but China decided to extend its lifespan for a couple of years. Then in 2016, the Chinese Space Agency announced it had lost contact and control of the space station. And its orbit has been slowly degrading ever since, meaning it will ultimately make an uncontrolled re-entry. Or in other words: “We don’t know where it’s coming down.”

The United States Space Surveillance Network and other nations’ space agencies have been tracking it, and all we really know is that it’s going to come down somewhere between 43 degrees North and 43 degrees South latitude. That may seem like a big area, but most of the Earth’s surface included in that region is covered in ocean. And most of the land that’s included is unpopulated.

So the odds of this thing coming down on your head are actually infinitesimal. There’s a little over a 1 in 10,000 chance it will hit any person or property at all. Plus, it may sound scary to hear 2,000 to 8,000 pounds of debris falling from the sky, but a lot of that gets broken up into pieces, some pretty small, that can spread across a range of many miles.

And this is definitely not the first time something this large, or even bigger, has made an uncontrolled reentry before. In 2011, the launch of a Russian spacecraft intended for Mars failed, leaving the vehicle stranded in lower Earth orbit. Called Phobos-Grunt, the spacecraft weighed nearly 30,000 pounds and it fell back to Earth in 2012, ultimately entering over the Pacific Ocean. NASA’s old space station Sky Lab also made an uncontrolled reentry — and it weighed nearly 160,000 pounds when it fell to Earth.

Plus, in the more than 50 years we’ve been launching rockets, only one person is known to have been hit by space debris. Her name is Lottie Williams, and a tiny piece of a Delta rocket brushed her shoulder when she was out for a walk.

The good news is that Tiangong-1 will help experts better refine their space debris models. An international group of state agencies known as the IADC has picked this space station to track as it comes down, and following its descent will allow them to refine their prediction models. Unfortunately, they won’t be providing any warnings though. They’ll probably be able to pin down the time of reentry within plus or minus three hours, but exactly where and when this will happen is going to be uncertain for a while.