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Daily Reads: The Year the Blockbuster Was Busted, 2014’s Scarily Determined Characters and More

Daily Reads: The Year the Blockbuster Was Busted, 2014's Scarily Determined Characters and More

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

1. 2014’s Scarily Determined Characters. As the year wraps up, certain themes emerge from 2014’s most high profile movies. For The Guardian’s Anne T. Donahue, it was the year of characters who were so determined they were terrifying.

Fletcher in “Whiplash” said it best: you have to earn it. “It” being success, revenge, money, fame, respect – anything. And the most interesting characters of 2014 did earn it, usually at the cost of their emotional or mental stability. At first glance, “Gone Girl,” “Foxcatcher,” “Whiplash,” “Birdman” and “Nightcrawler” have nothing in common, aside from pro/antagonists whose drive eclipses the need to be liked, loved or even happy. And because of this, we find ourselves rooting for tortured characters whose need to succeed dominates every aspect of their narrative: a woman terrifyingly rebels against the “cool girl” mandate, an Olympic wrestler endures abuse at the hands of his coach, a jazz drummer’s obsession with perfection leads to a public (and genius-like) breakdown, a former action star painfully wrestles with his alter-ego to achieve creative credibility in the theatre, and a man so thirsty for fame sees people as only monetary figures. It’s been the year of scary-real determination. Read more.

2. A Poor “Imitation.” “The Imitation Game” will likely be a major awards contender over the next couple of months, but not everyone is impressed with the film’s depiction of Alan Turing as a tortured genius. Christian Caryl writes that it’s a poor representation of a complicated man.

There’s no question that the real-life Turing was decidedly eccentric, and that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. As his biographers vividly relate, though, he could also be a wonderfully engaging character when he felt like it, notably popular with children and thoroughly charming to anyone for whom he developed a fondness. All of this stands sharply at odds with his characterization in the film, which depicts him as a dour Mr. Spock who is disliked by all of his coworkers—with the possible exception of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). The film spares no opportunity to drive home his robotic oddness. He uses the word “logical” a lot and can’t grasp even the most modest of jokes. This despite the fact that he had a sprightly sense of humor, something that comes through vividly in the accounts of his friends, many of whom shared their stories with both Hodges and Copeland. (For the record, the real Turing was also a bit of a slob, with a chronic disregard for personal hygiene. The glamorous Cumberbatch, by contrast, looks like he’s just stepped out of a Burberry catalog.) Read more.

3. A Cultural Radical in Documentary Form. Les Blank was a great documentarian, but Peter Labuza of The Film Stage argues that the new Criterion Blank box set shows that he was also a true radical of the form.

Trying to formally understand Blank presents something of a challenge. His camera doesn’t wander so much as simply follow its subjects, often in handheld but never distractingly so. He isn’t against interviewing subjects (such as Frederick Wiseman) as adamantly maintained, but they appear sparingly. These qualities of amateurism, however, are less apparent when one considers how the wall-to-wall music creates a rhythmic quality, as Blank (alongside partner and collaborator Maureen Gosling) was obsessed with perfecting his films in the editing room, turning what feels like stray observations into a cohesive whole. Even though no effort has a particular narrative throughline (or even story), this editing creates a fast-paced, whirlwind view that feels completely natural. Characters in his music docs certainly emerge — Gerald Gaxiola in “The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists” (1994) and Tommy Jarrell in “Sprout Wings and Fly” (1983) — but, more often than not, Blank sets up communities with their own ecosystems. The fact that there are so many characters (and the people are often capital-C Characters) makes the lack of central focus feel crucial to each film — they are democratic in the truest sense. Read more.

4. A Revealing Conversation with the Co-Writer of “Big Eyes.” The new film “Big Eyes” was directed by Tim Burton, but the true brainchildren behind it are screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who previously wrote “Ed Wood” for Burton, among other offbeat biopics. Karaszewski sat down with Danny Peary of the Sag Harbor Express to talk about the film and his career.

DP: Though you say the two films are visually different, do you see any similarities between the stories of Ed Wood and the Keanes?

LK: I think there is some similarity.  Ed Wood is regarded as the worst filmmaker of all time, and many people in the art world look at the Keane paintings as completely ridiculous. “Ed Wood” is a really good movie about the filmmaking process, and I think “Big Eyes” is a really good movie about the art world.  “Big Eyes” is much different than a movie about Jackson Pollack or another artist who was really good at what they did.  It is about people with questionable talent who are outsiders and can’t get into the art world.  Similarly, most people’s experience of the film world is closer to Ed Wood’s than David Lean’s.  They worry about finishing their movies because they have no money and all these bad things are happening that wouldn’t happen to David Lean, for example. Read more.

5. The Year the Blockbuster Was Busted. “Edge of Tomorrow” was one of the better tentpole movies of the year, and yet it didn’t draw an audience. Wesley Morris of Grantland looks at it as an example of how Hollywood is having trouble marketing non-franchise movies now, and how they might stop making them altogether.

Why on earth should this bother me? It’s so dumb, because, really: What do I care? I don’t work at a studio. It’s not my money at stake. (Most of the time I’m not even paying for a ticket.) It’s probable that North Americans are tired of Cruise Saves the World. But maybe we’re making a mistake in looking away. Because if we are taking Cruise for granted, the big studios probably are too. This is a business that drove Steven Soderbergh from the movies to Cinemax, where he made, with “The Knick,” 10 hours of television that beat every Hollywood movie I saw this year. Now, not only are midtier, so-called adult movies vanishing — the ones that Soderbergh, Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella, and Mike Nichols made; serious entertainments — but your giant, non-superhero mega-movies are too. Read more.

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