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Daily Reads: The Case Against Cinematic Universes, ‘Whiplash’s’ Messed-Up Idease About Genius and More

Daily Reads: The Case Against Cinematic Universes, 'Whiplash's' Messed-Up Idease About Genius and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. The Case Against Cinematic Universes. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has set off a chain reaction of studios trying to set up similar franchises, typified by the launch of a new Universal Horror series with last week’s terrible “Dracula Untold.” Scott Tobias of The Dissolve wrote about why that’s a bad idea, from the need for the films to stick to the same template to issues with films containing scenes that are more set-up for the next big thing than satisfying moments unto themselves.

Granted, there’s a big difference between ending the movie with a set-up for some future team-up, as “Dracula Untold” does, and tucking a scene behind the credits like an Easter Egg. But the bitter aftertaste is the same: The movie we’re watching is really just a prelude for the next movie we need to watch, when all that narrative business will really pay off...it’s hard to think about a movie as a discrete and satisfying piece of entertainment when part of it is given over to Comic-Con hucksterism. Read more.

2. The Year’s Best Apocalyptic Film. In his new book “Approaching the End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film,” Peter Labuza examines films that truly push humanity to the edge, arguing that noir is one of the essential apocalyptic genres. Writing for The Critical Press (who just published the book), Labuza argues that this year’s best apocalyptic film is the Liam Neeson thriller “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” He writes that director Scott Frank’s choice to update the setting to 1999 is primarily an apocalyptic choice.

Second, but more importantly, it allows for a very well remembered apocalyptic event to cloud over the gray skies of Brooklyn: Y2K. Frank never overplays what initially comes off as a silly plot device. After all, Y2K became a punch line after the terror it caused turned out to be for nothing. But Frank works it in as a call-response type of narrative, the same way Fritz Lang uses nuclear trauma in “The Big Heat,” or Terrence Malick uses the Christian apocalypse in “Days of Heaven.” Read more.

3. How “The Affair” Demands Your Attention. The new Showtime drama “The Affair,” which premiered last night, has been praised for its “Rashomon”-like construction. The show veers back and forth between the memories of both Dominic West’s Noah and Ruth Wilson’s Alison, varying their perspectives on what happened during their affair ever so slightly. Scott Meslow of The Week wrote about how “The Affair” demands your attention to the details.

The key to “The Affair” is that it’s impossible to make Noah and Alison’s stories line up — but it’s totally unclear why. Is one of them lying? Are both of them lying? Or have they unconsciously recast their own transgressions in a more flattering light, as a way of coping with the role they each played in the beginning of the affair? The show requires close viewing to tease out the small discrepancies — the length of a skirt, or a different brand of cigarettes. But the basic details of the affair are so drastically different that it’s hard to imagine someone isn’t intentionally trying to lead the detective astray. Read more.

4. “Whiplash’s” Messed-Up Ideas About Musical Genius. The new film “Whiplash” frequently repeats the tale of how Charlie Parker became “Bird” after drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him because the saxophonist messed up, motivating him to practice endlessly and become a musical genius. “Whiplash” uses the story as a parallel to how J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher uses extreme, abusive methods to motivate drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) to reach greatness and question whether or not it’s worth it. Even so, Forrest Wickman of Slate takes issue with “Whiplash’s” distortion of the story and its strange notions of what makes a musical genius.

Jones didn’t throw the cymbal at Parker’s head. He threw it at the floor around his feet, “gonging” him off. In other words, it was not an episode of physical abuse. Perhaps more importantly, according to the usual Parker lore, he wasn’t so much following the charts as flying off them, modulating into unusual keys, and demonstrating the kind of daring improvisation that would revolutionize the art form (though many versions of the story do say that he eventually lost his key). The humiliation of Jones’ gesture did help motivate Parker to keep practicing, but creative genius is more than discipline and how-fast-can-you-play athleticism. Read more.

5. Films About White Dude Problems. Many complain about films about White Dude Problems, but does that include all films that focus primarily on white dudes? Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly sorts out the difference between the White Dude Problems movies that popped up in the 90s (“Fight Club,” “Office Space,” “Falling Down,” “American Beauty”) and the great films featuring primarily white male casts, noting the didacticism of the former is missing from something like “Citizen Kane” or “North by Northwest.”

Put simply: There’s a difference between movies about white dudes with problems and a White Dude Problems movie. The latter is a subgenre that positively flourished in the ’90s. The tenets of the genre are simple: Passive white dude feels somehow left out and/or left behind by the modern world. There’s a speechifying instinct in these movies, a sense that the white dude at the center of the story is an everyman—and, as an everyman, he is actually symbolic of Larger Things. Read more.

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