Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Lego-izing, Theorizing, and Problematizing: How We Process Movies in 2015. In today’s culture, the way we process movies says quite a bit about who we are and where we come from. Do we approach it through fandom, parody, an ideological lens, or even just critically bankrupt scrutiny. Over at Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Musings blog, Noel Murray unpacks the different ways we process movies and how it compares with the practices of intense “Rocky Horror” fans.
That said, a good list can serve a function, if only by prompting readers to watch some older films that are similar to the big hit of the week (and thus putting a blockbuster into a broader historical/cultural context). Really, that’s the case with of a lot of the ways that the internet turns movies into original content. Not every example is insidious or lazy. Consider “the supercut.” Done right, a mega-montage of film clips calls attention to common beats and images, revealing either their hidden power or how they’ve become cliché. Supercuts can be sharp critical tools — as in Dylan Marron’s recent “Every Single Word Spoken By A Person Of Color In ___” videos, which indict a lack of inclusiveness in American independent cinema in particular. The same is true of think pieces. There are ways to discuss what’s “problematic” about a film without registering complaints that are too broad or too nitpicky to be relevant. Multiple articles were inspired by Bryce Dallas Howard’s distractingly weak heroine in “Jurassic World,” and many of those made valuable points about how one poorly conceived character can hurt a story — which is very different from complaining that she sets a bad example. Several of those pieces also suggested that the character’s flimsiness was the inevitable byproduct of Hollywood’s tendency to exclude women from positions of creative control. That’s the kind of argument that could lead to actual institutional change someday — or at least provide a record of legitimate social concerns, so that future generations won’t watch “Jurassic World” and presume that we were all cool with it in 2015. The primary problem with the new rituals of reaction and repurposing is that they’re becoming played out. There’s very little surprise left in “this in the style of that” craft projects. And often there’s not much need to read outraged essays — or the response pieces, for that matter — to know exactly what they’re going to say.
2. Why Movies Need More Platonic Pairings. If anything, movies have always been under attack by forced romances, or worse they suffer from, as Charles Bramesco calls them, Needless Romantic Subplot Syndrome. Hollywood always tries to push two people, mostly of the opposite sex, to come together by the end of the movie and lock lips, regardless of their circumstances or situation. Buzzfeed’s Allison Willmore argues why the movies need more platonic pairings, and how it’s a relief when film accepts that romance isn’t always inevitable between a man and a woman.
Of course, romance is as fundamental a cinematic element as action and comedy. It is one of the basic things that movies are about — and who doesn’t like to watch larger-than-life beautiful people falling for each other (or at least falling into bed together)? And of course, films have told some fine romances in the past, and will in the future. So I mean nothing against love stories when I say that platonic onscreen pairings like the one in “Mad Max: Fury Road” are like treasured drinks of Aqua Cola out in the arid wastelands. They are rare enough that they deserve a salute for what they don’t do — for not insisting that love or sex is an inevitability from which, barring sexual preference, no man and woman in close proximity can escape. Giving a protagonist someone to ride off into the sunset with is such a standard part of a studio happy ending that love interests can become nothing more than plot accessories — another part of the hero’s journey, around for ornamental purposes. Perfunctory romances get thrown into movies that devote almost no time to their characters forming a connection or even showing a plausible attraction to each other. It’s no accident that the lack of a love story in “Mad Max: Fury Road” feels directly related to how sharply drawn the characters, particularly Furiosa, are in the midst of all that fireball freneticism. It would be an injustice to shuffle them into something underdeveloped, when throughout the movie their priorities are elsewhere. Having leads who don’t dutifully smoosh their faces together allows that romance isn’t the only relationship option for a man and woman, and, more pointedly, that it isn’t a requirement for leaving characters in a better place than when the movie started.
3. High Camp: The Giddy, Goofy Return of “Wet Hot American Summer”. Today, Netflix releases the highly-anticipated prequel series to David Wain’s 2001 cult film “Wet Hot American Summer,” the story of love, friendship, competition, and fridge-humping grease cooks at Camp Firewood. Grantland’s Andy Greenwald praises “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” for providing some nice summer goofiness just at the right time.
For those not in on the joke, “Wet Hot American Summer” took a gaggle of twenty-something actors — including pre-fame versions of Cooper, Poehler, and Banks and a mid-fame Paul Rudd — and cast them as horn-dogging teenage counselors at a lawless summer camp circa 1981. (Making matters more confusing and often funnier is the fact that the campers themselves are played by actual kids.) Directed by David Wain and co-written by Wain and Michael Showalter, the film alternately spoofed and celebrated the adolescent sex comedies of their own youth. There was Coop, a milquetoast romantic played by Showalter, pining for Katie (Marguerite Moreau), a pretty rich girl attached at the tongue to Rudd’s bad-boy Andy. There were theater nerds (Poehler and Cooper) and frustrated senior counselors (Molly Shannon and Garofalo). There was a ferocious drug binge and a gay wedding. At one point, Garofalo and some campers got the help of an astrophysicist (David Hyde Pierce) to help avert disaster when a piece of Skylab threatened to land directly on the mess hall. And the best gag of all was that everything onscreen happened in the span of just 24 hours: the last day of camp. Fast-forward 14 years and absolutely everyone is in on the joke. As a prequel — set, naturally, entirely on the first day of camp — the new “Wet Hot” is less a parody of 30-year-old movies than a celebration of an aesthetic barely half as old. Wain and Showalter, once again directing and writing, are no longer interested in riffing on any particular trope or theme. Instead, the goal appears to be letting their assembled campers have as much fun as possible. “Camp Firewood is more than a summer camp,” intones H. Jon Benjamin (“Archer”) as camp director Mitch in the first episode. “Camp Firewood is an idea, a promise.” (For superfans asking: Yes, the new series does answer how Benjamin’s mellifluous voice came to inhabit a can of vegetables, and it does so definitively.) So while it’s possible to pick out individual story lines like blades of grass — Poehler and Slattery try to stage a “Starlight Express”–style musical in one afternoon, toxic waste threatens the local water table, Ken Marino makes a possibly fatal prank call — it’s better to just lie back on the warm lawn of general merriment. Or, as Rudd’s Andy might put it, just “hunker down for the doinkage.”
4. Roger Deakins on Working With the Coens, Digital Vs. Film, and His Most Difficult Shots. Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers working in the film industry today. He’s best known for photographing numerous Coen Brothers films, including “Barton Fink,” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski,” and “No Country for Old Men.” Filmmaker Magazine’s Kaleem Aftab sits down with Deakins to discuss his career and opinions.
Filmmaker: What, for you, is the most difficult shot to execute?
Deakins: Sometimes the most difficult shot in a movie is like that [pushing his fingers forward to show a single camera pointing straight] or sometimes it’s a huge rig and blah blah. It can be a technical challenge. I supposed if you are talking about Joel and Ethan, “Barton Fink” was the first film that I did with them, [so] there was more pressure on me. There were some very particular shots that were difficult. One in particular was the camera starting underneath the bed, tracking across the room, into the bathroom and down the plughole. This was the early days of remote heads and all this sort of nonsense, so it was incredibly hard to do that. I figured out how to recalibrate a lens to focus up a plughole; we figured out how to get focus with a string and knots in it, so when the camera went down and the focus puller knew how far — all this sort of stuff. We figured we could get an oversized pipe, I could light it from the back and then have a piece of card that had a painting of a pipe continuing in the distance, and we could bounce light off the painting element to come back and light the foreground real pipe, and then track down that pipe with a probe lens on a camera, and then dissolve from the plug hole of the one shot into the shot as if you were going down the pipe in this fake scale thing. I thought that worked really well. You read it on the page and you go, “Oh shit, how we going to do that?”
5. A Review of the Lazy, Idiotic, and Gross “Vacation”. The latest adventure in the Griswold Saga “Vacation” opened this Wednesday to very negative reviews. Many cite its puerile humor and its general laziness as reasons to stay far away, but not every critic agrees with that assessment. In fact, some critics aren’t resistent to dumb gross-out humor. Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri reviews “Vacation” and explains why he found it so damn funny.
But perhaps the best way to describe “Vacation,” and my response to it, is to dive into what should have been one of the film’s worst gags. (Spoiler alert, I suppose.) At one point, Rusty and Debbie, who throughout the trip have been getting frisky in an attempt to salvage their marriage, sneak off to have sex at the Four Corners (the famed spot where Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet). Now, as soon as they decide that, you know that the big joke will be that there are other couples there looking to do the same. So you sit there, cynically waiting for the inevitable, predictable, unfunny payoff. Sure enough, there are other couples there, and the initial reveal is humdrum and unfunny, as the Griswolds are spooked in the darkness by another couple right beside them. But then, the scene degenerates into something that looks like a found-footage horror movie, with pale naked faces and bodies suddenly jumping out at the camera – a gag which, while still not original, has its own kind of stupid energy. And then, it becomes something entirely different: The police arrive, everyone else flees, and Rusty and Debbie are left standing there as cops from four different states show up and start taunting each other about their respective states, until it all escalates into an insult-laden Mexican standoff with actual guns. Again, not that funny to describe, but onscreen, in the heat of the moment, I couldn’t stop laughing at this scene’s dynamic, surreal, devil-may-care foolishness. I could say the same for this evil, hilarious movie.
6. My World of Flops: “Cop Rock”. One of the greatest long-running columns over at The A.V. Club is Nathan Rabin’s My Year/World of Flops, an exploration into pop cultural artifacts that flopped upon release and Rabin decides whether they were a failure, a fiasco, or a secret success. The column has covered everything from the TV show “Caveman,” to Dee Dee Ramone’s brief hip-hop career as Dee Dee King, to Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor.” This week, Rabin explores the show “Cop Rock,” a show that has become “shorthand for surreally misconceived projects.”
“Cop Rock” is the television equivalent of a tuna salad and chocolate ice cream sandwich; the ingredients might be tasty and palatable on their own, but combine them in violent disregard of the laws of nature and you end up with something singularly disgusting and untenable. Yet despite the show’s awfulness it nevertheless emits an unmistakable train-wreck fascination. I binge-watched all 11 episodes in a frenzy, partially because I found the show’s world so fascinatingly off and partially because I wanted to see how crazy and awful it would get. It did not disappoint. Like so many of the epic boondoggles I have covered for this column, “Cop Rock’s” colossal failure was born of phenomenal success. As a cop-show auteur, Steven Bochco is a recognized master; as the co-creator of a musical cop show, he was thoroughly incompetent. Bochco was so successful as one of the primary minds behind “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law,” he was able to launch a cop show with a premise so idiotic, it’s doubtful anybody could have pulled it off. After watching all of its episodes, I’m still not entirely convinced the show isn’t a crazy joke that went too far and somehow became real. The show’s hook and fatal flaw is right there in its title, which sounds like a caveman grunting “Cop Rock’s” premise. As a tradition-driven genre, cop shows invariably invite certain expectations: for instance, at no point in their law-enforcement efforts will police officers spontaneously break out into tightly choreographed song and dance. At least, that was true before “Cop Rock”: In “Cop Rock,” police officers are always breaking into song and dance. That’s true even of minor characters like black-market dealer the Baby Merchant (baby-selling bizarrely figures prominently in the series), who swans his way through an elaborate song-and-dance number about how much he loves buying babies from desperate mothers, then selling them to desperate couples at a steep mark-up.
Tweet of the Day:
Over the weekend, Mayor Bill de Blasio came to @FilmLinc to see TANGERINE, an indie comedy about black trans hookers. Your move, Gov. Cuomo.
— John Oursler (@JMOursler) July 30, 2015