My wife and I had tickets to go see “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” back in March. We’d booked them several days in advance and leading up to that Friday we debated endlessly whether it was something we should even be doing. The pandemic was starting to tighten its grip around New York, and the wisdom of a subway ride and a movie theater outing was starting to seem dodgy.
Ultimately we opted not to go, which in retrospect was the right decision. But how I wish we’d been able to see this big, gorgeous, astoundingly well made arthouse film on a large screen, because it very much is a work of art. Nearly every frame of writer and director Céline Sciamma’s romance about painting is composed like an Andrew Wyeth canvas, though imbued with an otherworldly warmth that Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon crank up with precise care.
At times, the pristine visual craftsmanship is almost a distraction—several shots of a a raging, preternaturally blue ocean practically shout above the acting. On the whole though, the dramatic tension more than justifies the aesthetic conceit: the movie’s characters are effectively stranded on an island with few expectations, and yet they’re able to realize immense beauty from their circumstances. This seamless joining of form and content is rare—and stunning.
Of the sixteen other movies I watched last month, it’s worth noting that the ones that debuted on streaming channels—the atrocious “Enola Holmes,” the diverting “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” and the flavorless “Rebecca” all support my running theory that the Netflix-age of original releases is one of underwhelming, slapdash quality. These movies are very rarely more than “fine,” and while it’s amusing to get easy, immediate access to them, the repeatedly empty calories-like sensation of disappointment is also getting really tiring. I can’t wait for this pandemic to be over.
Yesterday around midday I was at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn not long after the Associated Press called Pennsylvania for Joe Biden. There was a large throng of revelers there, pumped up with the adrenaline of a victory that millions have been anticipating for four long, painful years.
Traffic was knotted all around as the crowds converged on the the southern tip of the plaza, but no one seemed to mind—you could hear car horns blaring and drivers and passengers yelling out their windows, but out of jubilation, not anger. The crowd converged on the iconic Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, where people danced and chanted and clapped to music. A number of folks had brought drums and percussion instruments from their homes and they were beating a powerful tattoo that rang throughout the air, seemingly for miles.
Nothing had been organized but everyone was in unison, and people took turns dancing at the center, directly under the arch, passing around a huge American flag and waving it to the delight of hundreds of onlookers.
This woman danced with her infant child strapped to her back. I tried to get a closeup shot that showed the baby’s face, but I think I was too overwhelmed with the magnificence of her movements.
At one point this man stepped into the center. Even without the flag, he instantly drew everyone’s attention and he proceeded to lead the crowd in an exhilarating, impromptu speech about the triumph of truth. Several times he coaxed the crowd into kneeling down with him, and then together everyone jumped up with a burst of energy, shouting at their top of their lungs with joy.
When the news alert had come through earlier in the day, around 11:30a, I wasn’t even able to emotionally process the victory. My mind had been in such a despondent state since Election Night, both frustrated by the unresolved vote counts and the fact that millions of Americans saw no reason why Donald Trump’s lies, deceit and dereliction of duties should not be rewarded by another term in office. If I’m honest, it just disgusted me. But being there at Grand Army Plaza, surrounded by people of every race, color and creed, I was finally able to enjoy—at least for an afternoon—the wonder and beauty of a truly meaningful moment of progress in a much longer campaign to set the world right again.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a terrific movie title for a year in which each month that passes has taken a “hold my beer” alacrity to one-upping the awfulness that preceded it. The fact that the movie was directed by perpetually inventive misanthrope Charlie Kaufman would seem to promise at least a diverting, brain puzzle-type examination of human experience.
For a while, this movie is that, but then it gets lost in its own head (something which you’d actually expect to happen to Kaufman movies more often than it does). It starts out as a fairly compelling two-hander, with its leads bantering on an extended drive to visit family, interlaced with a surprisingly deft voiceover (voiceovers are never surprisingly deft). Eventually though it starts falling back to standard Kaufman shorthand: dream logic blocking, elliptical editing, jump scare cutaways etc.
No one else can do this stuff like Kaufman can and so few even try, so it’s somewhat forgivable that little of it rises above the amusing. But the last third, which is by turns reminiscent of a rather unenthusiastic David Lynch or Jean-Luc Godard flick, feels much less assured as it devolves into a game of semiotic Clue, leaving the viewer to match up wryly dropped hints with narrative twists. Kaufman does not want to telegraph the “meaning” of it all or do all of the expository work for the viewer, which is fair, but I’m not convinced he’s fully doing his job as a storyteller, either.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a disappointment but then again most of what we’re getting to see this year has been disappointing. I wrote in August about how subpar most of the direct-to-Netflix fare has been in general, but we’re also living through a pretty rough drought of genuinely entertaining movies that may stretch on for a long time. On the one hand, studios are holding back their most anticipated films until such a time when theater-going is a thing again. And on the other hand, the pandemic has surely paused or deferred production for a ton of what would have been entertaining to see next year, too.
Sorry, didn’t mean to be such a downer there.
In total I watched fifteen movies last month. Here’s the full list.
Here’s a project that my team at Adobe has been working on for a long time. In addition to steering the design of Adobe XD, our design and prototyping tool for UX/UI designers, late last year we also took on the task of refreshing its visual identity. You can see the results on our new website at Adobe.com, but you can get a sense for the visual and motion vocabulary we created in this video reel.
If you’re interested in learning more, I wrote about the thinking that went into this work over at XD Ideas. And keep an eye out for more applications of this identity across Adobe XD and related sites and touchpoints soon.
What’s happening with film distribution during this pandemic is pretty fascinating. There are first run movies debuting on all kinds of services and at all kinds of price points. Earlier this year I rented “The Assistant” (superb) on iTunes for US$5.99. Just a few weekends ago “Bill & Ted Face the Music” debuted for home viewing for US$19.99. And Disney is even charging a hefty US$29.99 to rent “Mulan” to customers who are already paying a monthly subscription fee for Disney+. In contrast to the pre-pandemic world where the cost of a ticket was more or less completely dissociated from the actual movie you’d be watching, the perceived value of a given film is more apparent than ever in these rental prices.
I’m not exactly sure then what to think when a movie is free, but I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised when Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s independent film “Bacurau” debuted on The Criterion Channel last month. I’ve been an enthusiastic subscriber of that service since it launched but I’ve thought of it primarily as a terrific catalog of classic and international films, not a platform for releasing new movies that, in a pre-pandemic world, would have debuted in theaters.
I’d heard a lot of great buzz about “Bacurau” and in fact had hoped to be able to see it in a theater one day, so it was a treat to get to watch it from home at no additional cost. It’s a truly odd movie that combines elements of social documentary, science fiction, spaghetti westerns and more to tell the near-future story of a village in Brazil that, soon after burying one of its matriarchs, suddenly finds itself missing from regional maps. That description not only fails to do justice to the premise, but is only a hint of what follows, which I found to be thrilling and weird—so weird that when legendary weirdo Udo Kier shows up halfway through, I was shocked to realize that there would be even more weirdness to come. The movie is not perfect, but it’s so fearless in its willingness to mash up and subvert genres that it seems to be reinventing itself as it unfolds. If you have an appetite for disorientation, I recommend it highly.
It’s worth remembering too that “Bacurau” represents just a tiny fraction of the immense wealth of worthwhile film to be found on The Criterion Channel. Even if you subscribe for only a month or two to watch a few films, you’re coming out way ahead.
All told, I watched nineteen movies in August. Here is the full list.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) ★★★★½ Rewatched. Like a TV season finale so transcendent there’s no need to watch all the episodes that preceded it.
“The Little Prince” (1974) ★★½ Not without its charms, but sunk by the irritating titular performer.
“Big Hero 6” (2014) ★★ Rewatched. Its reverence for tech is not holding up well.
“Never Goin’ Back” (2018) ★★★★ A morally reprehensible but briskly made triumph.
“Extra Ordinary” (2019) ★★★½ Yet another Irish indie in which an unattached driving instructor speaks to the dead and battles a one-hit wonder rockstar, to largely amiable effect.
“The Report” (2019) ★★★★ Setting aside the vanity of a screenwriter directing a movie about a guy writing something so important that middle-managers and executives want to water it down, this meticulous reckoning with Bush-era torture is terrific.
“Speed” (1994) ★★★½ Rewatched. A good example of how a dumb movie can achieve greatness.
“Top Gun” (1986) ★½ This thinly plotted recruitment film remains aesthetically undimmed, but it’s also still just as empty-headed as ever.
“Uncle Buck” (1989) ★½ Disappointingly few laughs; I added a half-star out of fondness for John Candy.
“Revanche” (2008) ★★★★ A taut, expertly directed subversion of the revenge thriller form.
“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) ★★★ Rewatched. A pointed declaration of ideals about comedy vs. realism that’s not particularly funny or realistic.
“Bacurau” (2019) ★★★★ Bonkers B-movie set in Brazil that continually reinvents itself, thrillingly.
“The Truman Show” (1998) ★★★½ Rewatched. Charming but maybe most commendable for neutralizing Jim Carrey’s insufferability.
I’ve been in a bit of denial about the end of summer so I’m having to catch up quickly here on our two latest episodes of “Wireframe.” You can listen to them below but you should also subscribe at adobe.ly/wireframe or in your favorite podcast app.
First up is this newest installment, just out this week, all about designing apps that purport to help people rest easier at night. Sleep is a multi-billion dollar industry so it’s no wonder that there are a host of apps out there that are trying to help all of us sleep more soundly—especially in this time when the world seems to be constantly on edge.
It was fascinating to hear from folks like Ian McConchie, VP of design at Headspace, about the way they think about calming people, relieving stress and improving sleep. We also talked to Lucas Guarneri, who’s working on sleep trackers at Withings, Ania Wysocka, a designer who created her own app—Rootd—to help people manage anxiety, and more.
A couple of weeks ago we also had this terrific episode (one of my favorites this season) on designing the streaming media experiences that are consuming so many hours of our quarantine living this year. We had a terrific, illuminating conversation with Thomas Williams of Ostmodern, a design shop that specializes in video streaming experiences. We also talked to Dan Rayburn, an analyst and journalist who knows the world of streaming media—and streaming apps—inside and out. And we talked to writer Suzanne Scacca about tracking the Netflix user experience and how it impacts what we choose to watch.
For that episode, the “Wireframe” producers and I also did a trial run of a service called Scener, a free Chrome extension that makes it easy for remote groups of people to co-watch content on services like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Prime Video etc. This way of consuming video has become more popular lately for obvious reasons, and in fact I had a more in-depth experience with Scener just last weekend when we used it to host a remote movie-watching birthday party for my daughter. She and eight or so of her friends used Scener to video and text chat while the app also kept a stream of “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” in sync. It was a bit janky at first, especially as I was scrutinizing it for all of its UX and design imperfections. But ultimately it worked really well, and you could absolutely imagine this becoming a much more common way of friends spending time together, pandemic or no.
Netflix is the multiplex now, and it feels like a bit of a gift every time the service rolls out a new original movie direct to our living rooms. In July I was enthusiastic about getting to see “The Old Guard” and “Da 5 Bloods” in their “first runs.” Both were made exclusively for Netflix, and both feature pedigrees I’m inclined to favor: Charlize Theron giving, again, everything she has in an action thriller; and Spike Lee diving into the legacy of the Vietnam War with an unhinged, transfixing performance by Delroy Lindo. But both left me unimpressed and worse, with this nagging feeling that the filmmakers just didn’t think it mattered that much whether they delivered the best possible movies they could. In fact, looking back over the past few years of Netflix’s original films, with the clear exception of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” they almost all fit this description: flashy, star-studded productions that just didn’t feel fully committed to their own success. Forget it Jake, it’s Netflix.
To be fair maybe this isn’t just Netflix; maybe it’s just another kind of “new normal” we must all accept in this time where everything is up for revision. Take Tom Hanks in “Greyhound” (the first thing I’ve ever watched on Apple TV+). It’s a taut, efficient little wartime thriller and a fun ride, but at its edges—the perfunctory love story, the rough CG effects, the scant running time—it still felt lower stakes and less ambitious than a “true” feature film release. As a genre, direct-to-streaming is higher profile and frequently higher-budget than direct-to-video, but I’m not sure it’s proven yet that it can be higher quality.
I watched seventeen total movies in July. Here’s the full list.
We’re halfway through our third season of “Wireframe” already! You can listen to the third episode embedded below or in your favorite podcast player, and of course you should subscribe at adobe.ly/wireframe.
This installment tries to unpack the role of user experience design in crowdfunding and charitable giving. Of course it’s a particularly relevant question now with so many people under so much duress from COVID-19 and the volatile economy that has accompanied it. From the episode notes:
As the pandemic created health and employment crises, a lot of people found themselves in urgent need of financial help. As a result, crowdfunding platforms are proving more popular than ever—creating personal connections between those of us asking for help, and those of us with money to give. We look at how platforms like GoFundMe, Kickstarter, Patreon and Chuffed deploy different strategies in their UX design to encourage us to give, and give more.
You can find Wireframe at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, PocketCasts, Castro or wherever you download your favorite shows, and you can listen to previous episodes and find out much more at adobe.ly/wireframe. And come back in two weeks for the start of our second half of the season; we’ve got a terrific episode on the design of those streaming video services that are enabling all your binging marathons through this pandemic.
There are plenty of tools to edit photos on iOS or iPadOS but surprisingly few to help you edit them to exact pixel dimensions. This is a particular source of pain for me because I do a ton of work on my iPad, which is otherwise my favorite productivity platform. To fix this, I created a tool called ExactPic; it’s actually a suite of Shortcuts that work together seamlessly on your iPad and your iPhone. You can download it here, free.
I made ExactPic because I regularly find myself needing to output images with precision for this blog, or needing to resize or crop images for smaller downloads, or needing to add a frame or a letterbox to a photo. I’ll also occasionally need to size a profile or background picture to specific requirements for upload to various sites or services. On an iPad it’s also harder than it should be to save a JPG as a PNG or vice versa, or to increase or decrease the compression of a JPG. And performing multiple combinations of any of these edits on an iPad or iPhone usually requires several steps and saving out various versions of a single image. That’s just a lot of friction for anyone who works with images regularly.
Over the past few years I’ve created specific shortcuts to solve various of these editing challenges. I made one to resample an image, another one to add a frame or letterbox to an image; I even made one to rename an image in a specific format and upload it to WordPress for me. They all did their job but in isolation of one another, with none of them able to pick up seamlessly from where another left off. ExactPic fixes all that by bringing them all together into a single, comprehensive suite that, within the capable but fairly bare bones constraints of Apple’s amazing Shortcuts platform, unites them into a single cohesive experience.
The principal shortcut is called simply ExactPic. When you run it from the Photos app or your Files app or anywhere you can work with image files, it will quickly present a simple info window like the one below. Then it presents four options for editing that picture, each one launching a separate shortcut:
Resize the image
Crop the image
Frame the image
Save the image
When you run each one for the first time, you’ll be prompted to download that shortcut to your device. (If you have iCloud syncing turned on for your Shortcuts app, downloading these on your iPhone makes them available on your iPad too, and vice versa.)
Once they’re all installed, you can run multiple of these shortcuts on your image in just about any order (though the last one, “Save the image,” exits the suite when you’re done). This makes it possible to perform several sequential operations to get exactly the image file you want in basically one session.
How might you use this? Let’s say you take a picture on your iPhone, which produces fairly high resolution images in HEIC format. From your Photos app, you could use ExactPic to resize or resample that image so that it’s lighter weight; then crop the image to a specific dimension and preview that crop so you can be sure you’re isolating the area that you want (see image above); then add a black, white, gray, red or even transparent frame or a letterbox to the image: then compress it as a JPG to make it as small a download as possible; and finally name it and save it back to Photos, out to Dropbox or iCloud Drive, or even upload it directly to WordPress. All in one go. Here’s a video that demonstrates this in action.
I readily admit that a good deal of the motivation behind creating ExactPic was just the fun of nerding out with Shortcuts for a while. ExactPic is in fact easily the most ambitious shortcut I’ve ever created. To make it work, I had to learn how to read and write dictionaries, pass multiple variables from one shortcut to another, create an ersatz while loop and various other programming techniques that are usually way over my head but are made incredibly approachable by the Shortcuts framework. Though it’s lacking in some usability affordances for both makers and users of shortcuts, I’m endlessly impressed by the power and elegance of what Shortcuts can do today. It’s easily one of iOS’s crown jewels (if hidden in plain sight), and its potential to grow in capability and scope is awesome.
To make installing ExactPic as easy as possible, the suite automatically downloads some assets (very small PNG files to serve as image shims) from a GitHub repo to your device, so you’ll need to give it permission to access iCloud Drive. ExactPic also reads and writes to a JSON file that is automatically created and stored on iCloud Drive. As you run each of the shortcuts for the first time, you’ll also be asked for various permissions to access certain websites, run other shortcuts, save to Dropbox etc.
Another caveat: working with large pictures, especially when performing multiple operations on them, can push up against the memory limitations of Shortcuts. I’ve found it reliable on my iPad Pro, but on my three-year old iPhone X, resizing then cropping then framing a large image can cause the shortcut to quit unexpectedly.
Finally, ExactPic was built on iOS 13 but I’ve been able to test it on public beta releases of iOS 14 too, and it seems to work fine. Of course if you run into any issues there or in any other aspect, or if you have any thoughts on using ExactPic, please let me know.