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Daily Reads: “True Detective” and the Dangers of Auteur TV, How Columbus, Ohio Became the Heart of the Somali Film Industry, and More

Daily Reads: "True Detective" and the Dangers of Auteur TV, How Columbus, Ohio Became the Heart of the Somali Film Industry, and More

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

1. “True Detective” and The Dangers of Auteur TV. 
With only two episode left in its season, it’s safe to say the second season of “True Detective” has been a disappointment. Its self-serious exploration of warmed-over masculinity has rubbed many the wrong way, but it didn’t even bring the style or the fun of the first season along for the ride either. Salon’s Scott Timberg argues that “auteur TV” is to blame, how a strong vision for a show can be both a blessing and a curse.

What it may come down to is the limits of something that seemed to define this genuinely great era of high-end television: the heroic showrunner auteur. Instead of being a product made by committee, these new character-driven series were crafted by mavericks and intellectuals who compressed all their experience, all their neuroses, into their storytelling. These smart cable shows were, as journalist Brett Martin laid out in his useful chronicle of the post-“Sopranos” revolution, “Difficult Men,” our age’s equivalent to the Great American Novel, the serious film. (And of course, the term “auteur” was most famously applied to the work of heavy American filmmakers, and it was the individuality of their vision, in part, that made them major artists in the way that mere craftsmen or journeyman directors were not.) Sometimes it works: “The Wire” is one of the great documents of our time, and, a lot of that greatness came from David Simon and his decades of journalistic storytelling. Despite some dissipation near the end, Matt Weiner’s “Mad Men” chronicled a misunderstood period of American life in a fresh, lively way. Would we have wanted difficult man David Milch to have had a collaborator for “Deadwood”? Probably not — though we’d have preferred another season or two. But Pizzolatto, whose roots are in a more purely auteurist form — literary writing — doesn’t seem to be as suited to pure auteurism. (For what it’s worth, even David Simon drew on novelists, including Dennis Lehane, to help write “The Wire.”) With the first season of “True Detective,” he seemed to have a real collaboration going with director Cary Fukunaga, but that didn’t end well. (McConaughey and Harrelson may’ve had a major shaping role on that first season as well.) With Fukunaga gone, and Pizzolatto’s capital sky-high, he brought in Justin Lin, best known for the “Fast and the Furious” franchise — a major stylistic departure. And it still feels like one guy running away with himself and his own bad habits.

2. Welcome to Somaliwood, Ohio. 
It’s hard to believe that Columbus, Ohio is the beating heart of the Somali film industry here in America, but it’s there that two unlikely directors from the diaspora collaborate on films and try to bring their perspective to the world. Over at the Guardian, Charles Bramesco explores Somaliwood, Ohio and learns about the industry beyond Hollywood.

But Haji’s path to being a cineaste has been anything but typical. As a 19-year-old émigré, he left Somalia in 1996 with his father and stepmother. After spending a couple of months at the New Jersey home of humanitarian Steve Colson and receiving assistance from Said Samatar, his uncle and late Rutgers University professor who was an authority on Somali culture, he relocated to Atlanta for eight years. He finally moved to Columbus in 2004, and it was there that Haji’s fledgling career as a director began in earnest. He had fostered a passion for cinema since first arriving in the US. “It doesn’t matter if I’m having the baddest day of my life,” Haji says. “All I need to do is pick up a DVD or go to the movies and I feel good.” But he didn’t dare to try his own hand until arriving in Columbus and immersing himself in the thriving local Somali diaspora. Haji estimates that somewhere around 50,000 Somali Americans call Columbus home, the largest population in America second only to Minneapolis (where a handful of enterprising directors have taken a similar path to Haji’s). Here, Haji would be able to cobble together a crew and cast comprised entirely of fellow Somalis, though he had already met his most vital collaborator before arriving in Columbus. Haji did not receive directorial credit for any of the four narrative features and two documentaries he has produced since arriving in 2004. That distinction went to his professional partner and close personal friend, Abdisalam Aato. The pair have always shared in their all-consuming love for film, fantasizing about a day when their names might be the ones that roll first in the credits. They were regular fixtures at the AMC theater in Atlanta. Haji characterizes their obsession as all-consuming, a familiar refrain from anybody who’s devoted their life to the art of cinema: “In Atlanta, we don’t go to clubs, we don’t go to bars – we’d only go to movies.”

3. What’s Next for Amy Schumer
Amy Schumer’s new film “Trainwreck” is a box office success raking in $61 million so far. But since this is Schumer’s breakout film, it’s only natural to speculate where she will go next. Slate’s Dana Stevens hopes that she’ll shape her own career path and take over her next big project.

Amy-the-character’s inability to completely master her final performance of stereotypically compliant femininity (even as Amy-the-performer nails the physical comedy of not mastering it down to the last hilarious microgesture) demonstrates to us, as well as to Bill Hader’s besotted sports doctor, that there’s something of her that isn’t captured by the romantic-comedy archetype of the woman changing to please her man. Still, the movie ends on the hardly fresh image of a reconciled couple making out in public while a crowd of approving onlookers applauds: the modern rom-com equivalent of one of Shakespeare’s multicouple weddings. It’s an ending that, like the movie itself, presents the unruly Schumer to a mass audience in a familiar frame — one that she already seems itchy to escape. That mass audience has embraced Schumer to the tune of
more than $61 million thus far. That’s a testament not only to Schumer’s talent but to the commercial wisdom of Apatow, whom I regard as a benevolent force in the world of comedy and an enormously gifted fosterer of young talent. But now Schumer — like James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Lena Dunham, and other writer/performers Apatow has mentored — is in the rare position of having the power to choose and shape her own career path. I hope she seizes the reins of her next big project, for whatever size screen it’s made, and makes sure it feels less like an attempt to fit her unconventional star persona into a familiar genre category and more like a full-length dive into the conceptually inventive worlds she explores on her own show. She doesn’t have to subvert the romantic comedy from within — she can ignore it entirely, create her own genre, and then subvert that!

4
. Who Gets To Be A Hero: A Look Back at “Attack the Block”. John Boyega first became a recognizable face as Moses in Joe Cornish’s 2011 film “Attack the Block” about a South London teenage street gang fighting alien invaders. Now, Boyega will star in the new “Star Wars” film at the end of the year. RogerEbert.com’s Jessica Ritchey looks back at “Attack the Block” and tries to uncover what made Boyega so compelling.

Our first glimpse of Moses is from Sam’s point of view as he and his compatriots surround her to demand her wallet and jewelry. Cornish doesn’t pull his punches in the threat they represent or Sam’s fear as Moses pulls a knife to get her to remove her ring faster. Before the event can boil over into tragedy they are interrupted by the first alien creature crash landing into a nearby car. Sam flees and Moses and company investigate the wrecked vehicle. The creature attacks and they kill it, drawing the attention of the rest of the pack as it lands. The design of the aliens is marvelous. They resemble large shaggy Muppet dogs, they have no eyes — just mouths full of jagged, sharp, glowing blue teeth. They are ravenous, unthinking brutes, the actual monsters of the movie. Not the spit out “monsters” Sam uses to describe her attackers to a neighbor, her shaking hands barely able to hold a glass. And while the boys crumbling bravado is played for laughs, it’s also upsetting to see their helplessness against this new danger. Later, it’s strangely moving to see each in turn rally some form of courage. An infectious deep pride in their home arises, giving them the resolve that it’s their duty to beat this alien menace back. The boys bravery, sometimes fatal, is shot with all the gravitas of an old studio western or epic film. Leone-like close ups on their eyes narrowing with purpose. Wide shots filling the screen with action. The image of Moses leading the aliens on a chase, the boys’ fireworks being used like smoke bombs streaming around him especially indelible.

5. Adam Sandler’s “Pixels” Could Use a Reset. 
Adam Sandler’s new film has predictably drawn negative critical reviews and it hasn’t yet made back its $88 million budget back at the box office. Could some of this be audiences’ fatigue for Sandler’s silly antics? Possibly. But Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri senses that Sandler is the one who’s fatigued in his new film.

At his best, Sandler plays characters who are mired in self-loathing and disassociated from the world. When the camera focuses on him, especially in his earlier films, something surprisingly dark emerges from behind that casual, devil-may-care façade. And there is a promising idea here: Sam, as a kid, masters video games because he can see the patterns — everything, he thinks, fits into a preprogrammed routine. As an adult, he adheres to the same philosophy. When Violet first rejects him (“I don’t think my rebound guy is a 210-pound guy who fixes TVs for a living”), he launches into a vision of the world that fits everybody into preassigned roles: She’s a snob, he’s a nerd, etc. If you squint really hard, you might discern a theme there. Sam can’t progress in the game of life because he sees everything as predetermined. “The only way to beat these things is to calculate the numbers,” he tells Violet’s young son as they bond over video games. But the boy, raised on first-person shooters in a post-Atari world, has a different existential philosophy: “Pretend you’re the guy, and you don’t want to die.” Jean-Paul Sartre, eat your heart out. Alas, Sandler plays it all so awkwardly that any meaning is lost amid a queasy sea of awkward pauses and halfhearted line-delivery. I say this as a fan: He seems tired. Not merely lazy, let’s-just-cash-the-check tired. It’s a drained, get-me-out-of-here tired. This could have been the ultimate Sandler movie — it’s all ’80s in-jokes — but he’s barely there for it. And his total lack of involvement brings his fellow cast members down: Monaghan is always a welcome presence, with a fine gift for comedy, but her scenes with Sandler feel like she’s running lines against a cardboard box. James, meanwhile, has taken Sandler’s lead and phones it all in. Josh Gad, for his part, doesn’t need any help: He has already achieved cosmic levels of tedium with that patented high-pitched screaming of his. The only actors who manage to shine are the aforementioned Dinklage, in part because his character’s whole shtick is to steamroll anyone else around him, and Brian Cox, clearly having the time of his life as a gung-ho admiral who just wants to bomb the crap out of random countries.

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