Category Archives: Movies

A Little Oscar Math

One of the stories going around this week was that several black celebrities — including Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith — had announced they would not be attending the Academy Awards ceremony this year in protest of the lack of black acting nominees. Or as director Spike Lee put it in his oddly-capitalized Instagram rant:

How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White?

Let’s do the math.

When looking at racial statistics in the United States, it’s important to remember that black people really are a minority. I’ve seen complaints of the form “It’s outrageous that only 10% of <whatever> are black!”, but that’s actually not too bad. According to recent census estimates, approximately 12.6% of Americans are black, so 10% isn’t too far off. Depending what we’re talking about, the 2.6% difference could easily be explained by benign cultural and environmental differences.

Given that 12.6% of Americans are black, and assuming for purposes of the calculation that academy award voters are not racially biased in any way, what are the chances that not a single acting nominee is black? Could it just be random chance?

If there was only one nominee, then there would be a 12.6% chance of picking a black actor, which is the same as saying that there would be a 100% – 12.6% = 87.4% chance of picking a non-black actor. Expand the selection to two nominees, and there’s an 87.4% chance that the first one will be non-black, and then another 87.4% chance that the second one will also be non-black. So the chance of both of them being non-black is 87.4% * 87.4% = 76.4%. More generally, every time we add another person to the sample, that’s another 87.4% chance to keep the non-black streak going. So if we choose a group of N people at random, the chance of all of them being non-black is given by

(0.874)^N

From this, we can get the odds of all five nominees for Best Actor being non-black,

(0.874)^5 = 0.510

So we’d expect the Best Actor category to shut out black actors about half the time, even if the nomination process is completely colorblind. Add in Best Actress — raising the size of the sample to 10 nominees — and that works out to about 1-in-4 chance of a black shut-out:

(0.874)^{10} = 0.260

Two years in a row makes it 20 people, and the odds get worse:

(0.874)^{20} = 0.068

In other words, pure random chance will deliver an a slate of Best Actor and Best Actress nominees with no black nominees about 7% of the time.

I was just about to conclude that it’s not unreasonable that completely colorblind Academy could give black actors a two-year shutout entirely by chance, but then I noticed that Spike Lee says “For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White.” At first I thought Lee made a mistake — I counted 20 Best Actor and Best Actress nominees over both years, i.e. two consecutive years of 10 nominees, not 20 — but then I realized Lee is also including the Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories, which also haven’t had any black people for two years. That’s a 40-person-long streak of non-black nominees. The odds of that are pretty low:

(0.874)^{40} = 0.00458

That’s less than a 1-in-200 chance that this could have happened entirely by random selection. That’s not impossible, but it’s pretty unlikely. By comparison, in the social sciences, any result that has a less than 1-in-20 chance of arising under random chance is considered significant enough to publish. The lack of black acting nominees is very unlikely to be random chance. Something is going on here.

These simple statistics alone, however, cannot tell us what that something is. All we’re doing is comparing the racial composition of the population of acting nominees to the racial composition of the entire population of the United States. There’s a lot of room between those two populations to explain the differences, which could be caused by a number of factors other than racist voters in the Academy. For example, just making stuff up off the top of my head,

  • Perhaps cultural and environmental conditions make black Americans 10% less likely to think of acting as a legitimate career choice, and
  • Perhaps racial bias in acting schools makes it 10% less likely that blacks will get in, and
  • Perhaps racial bias in acting schools cause blacks to receive 10% less effective educations in acting, and
  • Perhaps cultural and environmental conditions make black Americans 10% less able to devote time and energy to their acting careers (e.g. because of a greater need for a paying day job), and
  • Perhaps racially biased casting directors are 10% less likely to cast black actors in the bit parts that will give them experience and exposure, and
  • Perhaps racially biased screen writers are 10% less likely to write major parts for black characters, and
  • Perhaps racially biased studio heads devote 10% less promotional effort to movies with black leads (possibly in response to racially biased audiences spending less on those movies), and finally
  • Perhaps racially biased Acedemy voters are 10% less likely to vote for black actors and actresses.

Combine all of those elements, and the calculation looks something like this:

\left(1-\text{0.126} (1-0.10)^8\right)^{40} = 0.108

So if there’s a 10% drag on blacks at eight different places along the way, then the odds of a two-year shutout for the acting categories is about 1 in 9. That means this explanation is statistically plausible.

I should emphasize, however, that I totally made up those explanations and the numbers to go with them, merely as an illustration of the kinds of things that might influence the acting nominations. These are the kinds of things we might want to look for if we are serious about figuring out what’s happening. It could turn out that all of the bias is indeed at the Academy voting stage, in which case a boycott might be a sensible response. Or it could just be that there is just an accumulated drag on black actors which builds up enough over their careers to keep them out of the nominations. I have no idea.

But I can do the math. And at 1-in-200 odds…something is going on.

The Wrong Terminator

So there’s another Terminator film in the works, scheduled for next summer. I want it to be awesome, but I’m not expecting much. From what I gather, the impetus to make the film was that the company that made the last one went belly up and somebody ended up with the rights and figured they’d better do something with them, and Arnold’s available again, so what the hell, let’s try to squeeze out another film…

Besides, they’ve got the wrong person playing the Terminator. It’s true that Arnold Schwarzenegger created the role, but he doesn’t own it. In my mind, the role belongs to the one person who’s played a Terminator for much more screen time than Arnold ever did:

Summer Glau played Cameron the Terminator for 33 episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which took place after the events of the second movie and which did more intelligent things with the world of John Connor and Skynet than than either of the last two movies. Or probably the next one.

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Ender’s Game…Meh

I’m not sure whether I’m going to see the new Ender’s Game movie.

I’m not alone in facing this decision. The big-budget movie is based on the much beloved science fiction book of the same name, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. However, a lot of people are reluctant to see it because its author, Orson Scott Card, has in later years turned out to be something of a deranged anti-gay bigot. There’s even an organized boycott of the movie, to which Card has responded with a somewhat tone-deaf call for “tolerance.”

Personally, though, Card’s despicable politics aren’t the problem for me. I don’t pay much attention to the politics of the artists whose work I enjoy because it seems like a silly place to draw the line. I mean, I give business to my dry cleaner without a clue about how she feels about gay marriage, and I couldn’t begin to guess how my auto mechanic feels about immigration. And that waitress I tipped a few days ago — for all I know, she donated the money to Stormfront. As a libertarian, I’m sure most of the people I pay money to every day are supporters of political ideas I oppose, but I see no point in obsessing over it or allocating my spending according to any criteria other than what I want to buy. And I see no reason why I should start making an exception for art.

Other people feel differently, of course, and many of them face a real dilemma: They loved the book, and they expect the movie to be equally amazing and wonderful, but they don’t want to support an anti-gay bigot like Card, not even symbolically.

My reluctance to see the movie is due to something completely different. You see, I have a confession to make: Unlike all those loved-the-book-but-hate-the-author folks, I didn’t like the book. I didn’t hate it either. I barely even remember it. Something about a child who is raised to be a commander in a war against some aliens, right? And “the enemy’s gate is down” is supposed to mean something…?

Whatever.

I generally like science fiction, and I might enjoy the story more as a movie than a book. So I might go see it. Or my wife and I might just spend the weekend reading some good books.

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Zero Dark Thirty – Short Review

Zero Dark Thirty is a terrific spy thriller.

Almost nobody mentions that. Everybody talks about the controversial issues raised by Catherine Bigelow’s new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden — the use of torture, the slam at criminal defense lawyers — but if you can set aside your differences with the politics of the characters (and by extension, the filmmakers) Zero Dark Thirty is thoroughly enjoyable as a modern espionage thriller about an intelligence agency’s attempts to break open a terrorist network and trace it to its heart. The plot may not be as intricate as George Smiley’s battle with Karla, but the movie is filled with crunchy details of tradecraft, and the characters are just as morally dubious.

 

Resident Evil: Retribution – Review

RE-Retrib.JPG

So my wife and I went to see Resident Evil: Retribution last weekend. We decided to splurge a bit on the tickets, because if we’re going to watch some trashy hot-chick violence porn, we really should watch it in IMAX 3D.

This movie hits all the key points of the Resident Evil franchise: Zombies, soldiers, zombie soldiers, a giant slimy boss creature, Milla Jovovich face-kicking zombies, Milla Jovovich gunning down zombies with a pair of shiny pistols, Milla Jovovich waking up on the floor half naked… It was exactly what I expected.

I think this film has secured Jovovich’s position as the top name in ass-kicking ladies (although there is much to be said for Kate Beckinsale in Underworld: Awakening — I’d pay money to see a slow-motion 3D catfight between Alice and Selene). But just in case Milla’s not enough, she’s brought a few friends. Sienna Guillory returns as Jill Valentine, although for most of the movie she is acting under the influence of evil forces. Li Bingbing also makes a good impression as Ada Wong, but she doesn’t get a lot of screen time.

The real stand-out guest ass-kicking hot chick, however, is Michele Rodriguez, returning in full bad-girl mode. You may remember that her character, Rain Ocampo, died in the first movie, but as you might also remember, the Umbrella Corporation has can clone full-grown adults. This allows Rodriguez to come back as a badass evil twin of Rain. But it also allows her to come back as another clone of herself that’s been imprinted with a standard-issue suburban soccer mom personality. After seeing Rodriguez playing so many tough chicks with her patented Sleepy-Eyelid Stare of Contempt, I honestly didn’t know she could play anything else. It was kind of fun to discover her versatility.

The plot is the usual Resident Evil goofiness, involving a giant underground Umbrella Corporation testing facility where the aformentioned cloning takes place. It’s mostly just a plot device to allow the filmmakers to bring back some popular characters. In fact, between the regular returning characters, the cloned characters, and the characters who have switched sides, I’ve pretty much lost track of who’s who. They could swap them all around in the next movie, and I’d never notice the discontinuity.

One thing that surprised me about Resident Evil: Retribution was that parts of it were strikingly beautiful. The opening credits begin with Alice floating underwater and then move backwards in slow motion to show how she got there after the ship she was on is attacked. It’s a violent and stunning visual.

Through some more plot goofiness I can’t get into without spoilers, other beautifully-filmed action scenes are set in Tokyo, Moscow, New York, and a submarine pen in the Kamchatka peninsula. There’s also a visually arresting sequence set on the surface of a frozen sea filled with trapped ships.

What more can I say? Do lots of people die? Are lots of zombies shot in the head? Does Alice get away? Does she discover in the end that there is still more fighting to be done in the next movie? I think you can guess.

Still, if you want to see another Resident Evil movie, well, this one is as good as any of them.

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God Bless Bobcat Goldthwait’s America

I’m a Bobcat fan from way back, so I’ll probably want to go see this movie, which he wrote and directed, if it actually gets released to theaters. After which, there will probably be Congressional hearings.

 

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X-Men: First Class – Review

I saw X-Men: First Class on Saturday, and I know some other reviewers don’t agree, but I thought it was the best superhero movie I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve not seen any of director Matthew Vaughn’s other movies, but on the strength of this one, I think I’ll have to. It’s that good.

It was well-written too, which is a bit of a surprise since there are six credited writers, which is usually a very bad sign. Instead, the movie gives us a pretty good origin story for the X-Men as an organization.

Most superhero stories are escapist fun at a very basic level, and First Class delivers, but as with many of the best superhero comics, there’s a strong moral element. Some people complain that comic characters are too simple, but that misses the point. The characters in a story like this are simplified to make their moral choices clearer.

Charles Xavier is a mutant raised in a good home. He’s smart, wealthy, and in possession of a telepathic power with few downsides. He looks completely like a normal human and wants to get along with them.

Hank McCoy’s beastly mutation has its advantages, but he’s also noticeably deformed. He can hide it with the right clothes, but it makes him feel like an outcast. Charles’s adopted sister Raven, later to become Mystique, also feels like an outcast. Her power of disguise allows her to hide herself perfectly, but she resents the need to use it.

Then there’s Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto, who looks like a normal human. However, as a Jewish child in the heart of Nazi germany, he saw the cruelty that humans could inflict on those who were different. He hides now, but he thinks that a Nazi-like genocide of mutants is inevitable, unless the mutants destroy humanity first.

Please don’t let me give you the idea that First Class is yet another show about teen angst over “being different.” (I mean, Claire from Heroes was indestructible, and she whined about it. Sheesh.) There’s more to the story than just a morality play, including lots of fun with the various mutant powers. And the whole story eventually winds up at the Cuban missile crisis, which turns out to be instigated by a Bond-esque supervillain millionaire named Sebastian Shaw.

The film is visually impressive and at times beautiful. The special effects are impressive, yet they’re clear and clean, and about as realistic as you could expect from a superhero movie. They support the story rather than overwhelming our ability to understand it. In one of the key scenes that illustrates their relationship, Charles helps Erik learn to maximize his magnetic powers, which he tests by trying to move an enormous object in the distance. Rather than yet another special effects set piece, the distant motion is quiet and understated. It’s not what the scene is about.

All in all, X-Men: First Class is familiar fare, but it’s a decent story, well-told, filled with interesting characters and impressive sights.

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Skyline – Review

I went to see the movie Skyline yesterday.

I should have known better. The distributor has been advertising it like crazy, but as the release date approached, they didn’t preview it for movie critics. That usually means they’re trying to hide how much their movie sucks. And with a Metacritic score of 28 and 10% on the Tomatometer, the signs were not promising. Still, there was something about it…I wanted to see for myself. That turned out to be a mistake.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

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