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Daily Reads: Behind the Scenes of Essential ‘Daily Show’ Moments, David Simon on the Future of American Cities, and More

Daily Reads: Behind the Scenes of Essential 'Daily Show' Moments, David Simon on the Future of American Cities, and More

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

1. A Behind-the-Scenes Look at 9 Essential Jon Stewart Moments. 
This Thursday marks Jon Stewart’s last day hosting “The Daily Show,” and fans and critics alike are spending the week eulogizing his sixteen years in the host chair. In honor of his departure, The New York Times dives into nine of Jon Stewart’s most essential moments on “The Daily Show.”

Stewart vs. “Crossfire”: Perhaps the most well-known moment from Mr. Stewart’s run as host didn’t even occur on “The Daily Show.” In 2004 he appeared on “Crossfire,” the CNN debate show hosted by Paul Begala, a former Clinton administration adviser, and Tucker Carlson, a conservative journalist and commentator. Mr. Stewart critiqued the program and its hosts, whom he blamed for reducing complex social issues to two-dimensional grist for partisan bickering. It’s not so much that “Crossfire” is bad, as “it’s hurting America,” he told the hosts. “Stop hurting America.” Several months later, CNN announced it was canceling the show. “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise,” Jonathan Klein, the president of CNN, said at the time. Making fun of Fox News and CNN was already the bread and butter of “The Daily Show,” but the “Crossfire” incident solidified Mr. Stewart’s status as cable news’ most prominent critic.

Paul Begala: I believe he clearly came in there wanting to blow the show up. And he did so. He was very nervous in the makeup room. That was my first inkling that there was something going on. I went in the makeup room to meet him, because I’m a big fan. Also my cousin was in the Army and Jon’s done a lot to entertain the troops. He never brags about it, never takes credit, never promotes it. He’s not Bob Hope. So I wanted to tell him: “My cousin is in the Army and I wanted to thank you.” And I was struck that he seemed nervous. I was trying to parse how much of this was serious and how much of this was comedic. When he [said that we were] hurting America and everybody laughed, I thought that was obviously a joke. That’s hyperbole. Because I don’t think 30 minutes of debate, even if it’s bad, even if it’s shouting, I don’t think that hurts America. I think this is a pretty tough country. He was extraordinarily earnest after the show. Really decent. I don’t think it was a show. I think a lot of it was our fault. It went off the rails quickly and it wasn’t entirely Jon’s fault. It worked out for him. In my life, it doesn’t make my Top 100 list of bad days. A bad day is when they come to you and say: “They just impeached your boss. And by the way, can you write a statement — we’re about to launch air strikes.” That’s kind of a challenging day.

2. David Simon on Police Brutality, the Legacy of “The Wire,” and the Future of American Cities. 
Creator of some of the best television show in the history of the medium, including “The Wire,” and “Treme,” David Simon has used his keen sense of journalistic observation and natural talent as a dramaturgist to make TV series’ that get to the heart of the issues affecting America today: systemic inequality, institutional dysfunction, corruption, paralyzing bureaucracy, etc. Salon’s Sonia Saraiya sits down with Simon to discuss his new series “Show Me A Hero,” the riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray was murdered.

Simon: What’s happened in Baltimore with that riot was inevitable and understandable — but what drove me crazy about a lot of the immediate response, particularly from outside of Baltimore, was it’s not only inevitable and understandable — it’s good. I’m not talking about the protests, which were epic and good. But a riot is a riot is a riot. And burning is burning and looting is looting. The demeanor of the people writing from London and New York with the dilettante’s stance of saying, “This is how these people get to be heard, and they won’t be heard otherwise,” you know what? Right now we’re trying to end mass incarceration, we’re trying to end over-policing, we’re trying to end this draconian behavior. The optics are such that for the votes and for the consensus you need in the rest of America, what’s playing on CNN and what’s going to play on CNN, inevitably, is the fires and the looting, and the optics were horrible. Also, I live in a city [Baltimore] that hasn’t recovered from the riots of 1968. L.A. can have a riot, New York can have a riot, London can have a riot, and they’ll be fine in a year. Something bad happens in Crown Heights in New York? Eh, it’s bad for Crown Heights, but New York’s going to go right. It’s the financial capital of the world. London, a world capital. Baltimore is a second-tier city. We just stopped losing population for the first time in 40 years three years ago, and you tell me that the riots are a good thing? Fuck you. Come to Baltimore and say that. I live there. I was particularly incensed at the insouciance with which people were proclaiming that the riot — that when it gravitated from being mass civil disobedience, which I admire in every sense and want to see continue, to what we were seeing — was a good thing. Fuck you. You don’t live here. You don’t know what a riot is. You don’t know what it could do to the civic firmament.

3. Something Wild: The Sounds of Jonathan Demme
Legendary director Jonathan Demme’s new film “Ricki & The Flash” enters theaters this Friday, and the early buzz is mostly positive. Demme’s storied, four-decade long career has contained more than a few highlights, and though fans may disagree here and there regarding his peak, none of them can argue that many of his best moments involve music. Grantland’s Hazel Cills explores the sounds of Jonathan Demme leading up to his new film.

Talking Heads: No group has been more of a musical muse to Demme than Talking Heads. A superfan of the band, Demme got in touch with them through a mutual friend after their “Speaking in Tongues” tour, looking to make a film. “I’ve always wanted to do a film that was pure music, and to do a film with Talking Heads was a dream come true, you can’t top it,” Demme said. “One of the things I found so exciting was all these relationships between musicians; and that’s something I’m interested in every film I do, in the relationships of the characters.” In addition to directing the group’s famed concert film, “Stop Making Sense,” Demme also directed the band’s video for “Once In a Lifetime,” enlisted David Byrne to write original music for “Something Wild,” and cast the singer, bizarrely, in an episode of “Trying Times” which he directed. Demme also helmed the music video for the timeless classic “Genius Of Love” by the Talking Heads spin-off Tom Tom Club. Talking Heads drummer Steve Scales makes cameo appearances in “Something Wild” and “Philadelphia.”

4. The Rebuilding and Rebounding of “Mission: Impossible”. 
Last Friday, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” was released and has garnered rave reviews and quite a deal of money at the box office. But many people quickly forget that at one point, the “Mission: Impossible” series was as good as dead before it came back to life. Over at GQ, Genevieve Koski writes about how the series artistically rebounded after a lame sequel and how it occupies a strange place in action movie franchise canon.

Woo’s “M:I2” is roundly considered the worst of the series among both critics and fans, even though it’s the highest domestic earner of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise to date. The reasons it made money are clear: It was coming off the success of the first film, and it anchored a summer with a dearth of blockbuster action options. And the reasons for its mixed reputation are even clearer: Woo’s film has a surplus of style and a deficit of brains. “M:I2” certainly has its visceral pleasures — including a gloriously over-the-top motorcycle chase — but its bio-terrorism plot is both dumb and haphazardly executed, and its supporting cast (Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton) is even more forgettable than its convoluted narrative. Given its financial success, though, “M:I2” could have easily pointed the way forward for the franchise, prompting a string of increasingly preposterous, decreasingly lucrative retreads that would have eventually driven the series into glorified-B-movie territory. But that’s not what happened. Instead, “Mission: Impossible,” via ever-canny executive-producer Cruise, made a concerted course-correction when it returned in 2006 with J.J. Abrams’ third entry. Where the first two films were showcases for their respective directors, both of whom have well-established and occasionally overbearing styles, Cruise turned his third Mission over to a feature-film first-timer. While Abrams had already established himself on television with “Alias” and “Lost,” he was an unknown quantity in the film world in the mid-aughts. But Abrams — the first director in the series to also work on the script — illuminated a different path the series could, and ultimately did, take. Where Woo brought endless motor vehicle chases, operatic gunfights, and Limp Bizkit to “Mission: Impossible,” Abrams brought an unprecedented amount of character work, a memorable villain played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a healthy dose of humor, personified by Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn, who would go on to become a staple of the series. Abrams brought the humanity back to “Mission: Impossible,” and in the process gave it the tools to mature from the loud, adolescent franchise it was at the turn of the millennium into the confident, dependable series it’s become with “Rogue Nation.” (Not surprisingly, Abrams has retained executive-producer credit on all subsequent Mission: Impossible films, alongside Cruise.)

5. James Urbaniak on “Review,” the Rise of Funny Antiheroes, and “The Walter White of Comedy”. 
Comedy Central’s “Review” stars Andy Daly as Forrest MacNeil, a man who’s job it is to review life, but in the process slowly destroys his own. The series has garnered acclaim for its dark sense of humor and the irony underneath its premise. Observer’s Sean T. Collins interviews actor James Urbaniak about his role on “Review” as Forrest’s twisted producer as well as the rise of the comedic antihero.

At first glance, “Review” appears to be comedy in which someone makes a major production of doing basic things in a very stiff, social-anthropology, insider-playing-at-outsider way — Sasha Baron Cohen in khakis. This is indeed the basic approach. But the show’s genius is that instead of treating each review as a separate, self-contained event, mined for jokes then never referred to again, there’s continuity between all of them. The magical comedy reset button you’d expect them to hit after Forrest, say, gets addicted to cocaine, overdoses, and goes to rehab, never gets hit. The experiences build one on top of another. That’s the angle that stands out to actor James Urbaniak, who plays Forrest’s amoral producer/enabler Grant. “There’s an element of it being a satire of reality TV,” he says. “In reality TV, you make decisions that have an emotional affect on people but are restricted by the parameters of the game or the competition.” Review “is breaking down those parameters, so he’s making very big decisions, like getting divorced, that affect his whole life.” “Affect” is an understatement. Even though the only time he acknowledges it before the first season finale is in one brief fit of self-pity while eating an enormous stack of pancakes (don’t ask), “Review” shows Forrest slowly but surely destroying his life and the lives of everyone around him. His marriage ends. Multiple people get killed. All under the rubric of this preposterous high-concept mockumentary show. In other words, “Review” is a satire not just of reality shows, but of New Golden Age of Television antihero dramas, hiding in plain sight. It takes the basic “man ruins all he cares about in the name of something that makes him nominally freer and more powerful” structure of the genre and plays it for deliberate laughs. Instead of a meth empire or a mafia family or a double life, he commits his bad acts in the name of the television show that chronicles them. He’s Walter White, but without the sense that there’s anything tragic about him — he’s just an oblivious faux-smart buffoon. It’s a satire of the middle-class middle-aged white-male entitlement and privilege that all the big dramas treat as the stuff of life.

6. A Promise Unfulfilled: “My Beautiful Laundrette”. 
The Criterion Collection recently released Stephen Frears’ “My Beautiful Laundrette” on Blu-Ray. Set in Thatcher-era London, the film tackles hot button cultural issues of the time, including racism, homophobia, and the socio-economic climate of London, but was never too didactic about it. RogerEbert.com’s Steve Erickson remembers “My Beautiful Laundrette” and how it represents an unfulfilled promise for both Frears and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi.

Where did “My Beautiful Laundrette” come from? Thirty years after it was made, and a few weeks after it was released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection, the film seems as miraculous as it did in 1985. On one level, that question’s easy to answer: it’s a collaboration between director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi. While Frears had made a few films intended for cinema release, most of his work consisted of made-for-TV movies. Critic Dave Kehr once attacked Frears by pointing to his TV background, but British TV of the ’70s and early ’80s had room for such radical talents as Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke. (Indeed, Clarke’s made-for-TV version of “Scum” bests his theatrical version.) “My Beautiful Laundrette” was made with TV in mind, shot in the then-cheaper format of 16mm, but the response it received at film festivals quickly proved that it warranted a theatrical release. At the time, Kureishi was known for a few plays about the South Asian-British experience. He spent some time researching Pakistani and Indian-owned laundromats, putting it into “My Beautiful Laundrette.” In 1985, British films with South Asian protagonists were rare. Graham Fuller’s liner notes for Criterion’s disc reel off a list of South Asian-British filmmakers currently working, but I didn’t recognize half their names; it seems that much of this work still hasn’t crossed the Atlantic. (Perhaps it’s a mirror image of the difficulties Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” faced finding distribution in the U.K.) As far as I know, Kureishi is heterosexual, but he uses gayness as a battering ram against the prejudices of Thatcher’s England, as well as the narrow-mindedness of his own diaspora. In 1985, New Queer Cinema was still more than five years away. Temporally, “My Beautiful Laundrette” stands midway between the insults of William Friedkin’s “Cruising” and Todd Haynes’ layered AIDS allegory “Poison.” It has few companions: perhaps Bill Sherwood’s “Parting Glances” and some of Derek Jarman’s work, although Jarman was generally more formally adventurous.

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