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Daily Reads: ‘Fantastic Four’ and the Future of Comic-Book Franchises, How Greta Gerwig Saved Noah Baumbach’s Career, and More

Daily Reads: 'Fantastic Four' and the Future of Comic-Book Franchises, How Greta Gerwig Saved Noah Baumbach's Career, and More

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

1. The “Fantastic Four” Fallout and the Future of Comic-Book Franchises. 
Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four” entered theaters last week, bombed at the box office, and garnered almost universally negative reviews. It is the most recent superhero movie that was DOA, but what does this mean for the genre and for the film industry? Grantland’s Mark Harris examines the Hollywood landscape post-“Fantastic Four.”

When, in the space of three months, all three movies in a genre arrive with very public news that they are not the movies they could have been, something has gone wrong. There is, I think, an increasing sense that every mark the comic-book genre is forced to hit — origin stories, Easter eggs, big-picture continuity, action beats, fan service, world-stakes battles, potential sequels, post-credit sequences — is obstructing them from being movies. It certainly seems to be keeping their makers (“architects” feels like a more accurate term than “creators”) from any sense of joy — directorial joy, cinematic joy, authorial joy, or even the obsessional joy that allowed Peter Jackson to commit himself to living in Middle-earth for 15 years or that has sent James Cameron off to whatever solar system in which he is currently purporting to make “
Avatar” sequels. These comic-book movies are, first and foremost, assignments. Directors and writers try to get through them with their souls and spirits intact. They pat themselves down afterward, the way you do when you get off a roller coaster, to see if they’re still all there. Some end up less all there than others.

2. The Gerwigification of Noah Baumbach
Noah Baumbach’s new film “Mistress America,” his second of 2015, opens in limited release tomorrow. “Mistress America” is a much different animal than his previous film “While We’re Young,” and the responsibility for that lies with Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote and stars in the new film. Over at Slate, Scott Tobias argues that Greta Gerwig challenges Baumbach’s negativity, and the collaboration has ultimately saved his career.

And yet, there’s Greta Gerwig. Baumbach isn’t the type of writer to succumb to a tidy bastard’s-redemption premise, but Gerwig’s presence in “
Greenberg” goes a long way toward redeeming the movie, even if Greenberg himself is a hopeless case. As Florence, an all-purpose “assistant” who helps the hapless Greenberg housesit while his brother’s family is out of the country, Gerwig functions as an opposing force, as open and optimistic about human nature as he is sour and misanthropic. The comic and romantic tension in the film comes from the push-and-pull between their divergent temperaments, not to mention the generation gap that yawns beneath their feet. But for all of Gerwig’s intrinsic brightness, Florence gets caught in the riptide of Greenberg’s boundless narcissism. Watching her wither under his contempt is part of what makes “Greenberg” such a tough sit for many viewers, including Baumbach’s fans. It’s like “Bambi Meets Godzilla.” But one lost battle is not the war. Gerwig’s challenge to Baumbach’s negativity gained more leverage in “Frances Ha,” his deft black-and-white comedy about the misadventures of Gerwig’s urban nomad, and the new “Mistress America,” which casts Gerwig as an irrepressible autodidact who boasts of teaching herself how to be an autodidact. As Baumbach’s creep into middle age has heightened his Greenbergian instincts — which overwhelmed the disappointing “While We’re Young,” the only one of his past four films without her in it — Gerwig’s presence as his lead actress and co-screenwriter has given his work a levity and balance it might otherwise lack. She’s a positive force, but also an agent of chaos, to the point where Baumbach is just as likely to pick up odd lines, dance moves, and bits of observation from her as he is to stage conventional dramatic scenes. Asked about Gerwig’s distinguishing qualities, Baumbach emphasizes her spontaneity. “You want every actor to be as ‘in the moment’ as possible, but Greta has a way of approaching every take as if it’s the first time,” he says over the phone. “And I tend to do a lot of them. Whatever’s particular to that moment and that take will inform how she plays it, in a way that’s so alive and exciting. She’s in control and out of control at the same time.”

3. You Can’t Always Get What You Want: Noah Baumbach’s Trilogy of Disappointment. 
In 2013, Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” entered theaters to some of the best reviews of his career. Since then, he’s made two other films, “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America,” and though two of them feature Greta Gerwig, it may seem like the three have little in common. Movie Mezzanine’s Kyle Turner examines Baumbach’s unofficial “Trilogy of Disappointment” and how comedy masks tragedy.

What is most apparent about Baumbach’s trilogy is that tragedy exists beneath a layer of exuberantly written and performed comedy. In an
interview between Sarah Polley and Gerwig, the former notes that at the first screening of “Frances Ha” at Telluride, she “had this feeling of overwhelming delight.” She recalls, “[it] was this unmitigated joy of watching a movie, which I hadn’t felt in so many years…It was really strange to me recently, watching it again, watching it a few more times to realize the film is actually filled with this penetrating loneliness, which I somehow didn’t come away with the first time.” Later in the interview, comparing her character to that of David Thewlis in Mike Leigh’s “Naked,” Gerwig notes, “Frances embodied is very sad on the page.” That’s the clever trick of “Frances Ha,” “While We’re Young,” and “Mistress America”: Baumbach has two dramaturgical tones, but instead of clashing with each other, they feel instead more like layers to a cake. Getting each flavor is dependent on how you eat it. In the case of “Frances Ha” (and, for that matter, the rest of the trilogy), hopelessness comes in ripples. Art imitates life in that we don’t feel Frances’s dejection in the immediacy of the moment. Instead, it is felt seconds, even moments afterward, in the silences and conflicted expressions that follow. To articulate these moments, Baumbach favors close-ups and medium shots of Frances’s literal and metaphorical solitude: She rides an elevator down by herself, surrounded by the belongings she has to put into storage, as she has no place to live; she lays nearly submerged in the water, her mother outside the door asking how much longer she’ll be; she runs to an ATM and contemplates whether it’s worth paying the extra fee to withdraw money; she wanders around Paris. In these moments, Gerwig’s subtly expressive acting takes center stage. The inner monologue written on her face is as loquacious as she is by nature, as if she’s arguing with herself, debating whether or not to confront the realities of her situation: She’s an unemployed dancer, a graduate of Vassar with no steady place to live, and her relationship with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) has shifted tectonically, rocking Frances to her core.

4. David Simon on “The Wire,” Freddie Gray, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and “Show Me A Hero”. 
David Simon’s new mini-series “Show Me a Hero” premieres this Sunday. Creator of “The Wire,” “Generation Kill,” and “Treme,” Simon is responsible for some of the best series’ of the past fifteen years, and his shows comment on the numerous social ills that affect our country. Slate’s Isaac Chotiner interviews Simon about “The Wire,” Baltimore, and the future of American progress.

Q: I heard that you said, during an event where members of “The Wire’s” cast read testimonies from Baltimore residents after the death of Freddie Gray, that art or drama or television shows are not appropriate venues for addressing the protests and riots. Rather, journalism is the venue. 

A: That’s a little too broad. What I was saying was, right now, we shouldn’t be attenuating our attentions through a television drama. We don’t need that right now. At some point someone may find a meaningful drama to explain this moment. If not in Baltimore, then maybe Ferguson or Charleston or somewhere. There is a lot that drama can do, and it certainly has a role. But right now it struck me as being inappropriate, that with all the actual substance of what is happening in the streets right now, in the halls of power right now, we need to be straining this through a drama. Why are you doing that? What was it that made people at various publications and blogs reference “The Wire” just because it was black people in Baltimore? That’s fucked up. It’s almost a shrinking of the human mind. Why don’t you attend to what’s actually happening right now in Baltimore? You don’t need McNulty or whoever to access it.

Q: There is a line from Marx about people seeing foreign things and translating them back into languages they understand. 

A: Right, there were a string of essays: “The Wire” does explain Baltimore, “The Wire” doesn’t explain Baltimore. And then there were my limited comments about the protests, which I very much supported and wish were more ongoing because I don’t think there has been very much systemic change in Baltimore regardless of the indictment of those officers. My concern was the moment it went to burning and looting. At that moment I am speaking not as the guy who did “The Wire.” I am speaking as someone who has covered this stuff for 20 years in Baltimore and lives in Baltimore. That was written in sight of the fires. I am completely indifferent to the notion of white privilege, that I am some rich white writer deigning to give an opinion about what poor black folks should do when one of them dies in the back of a wagon. I am sorry, but if your definition of white privilege now extends to people who have lived in Baltimore for decades and can’t say, “Please don’t burn this town down,” while in the previous breath saying, “Yes, we need answers, but please don’t burn this town down” — if that’s white privilege, then white privilege means nothing.

Q: It seems like you are expressing annoyance with some of the political dialogue about these issues that—

A: What I am saying is, everything is not “The Wire.”

5. The Young Person’s Guide to Max von Sydow, Part One. 
Last week, a website on the Internet reported that Max von Sydow would star in the new season of “Game of Thrones,” and they described him as a “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” cast member. Since von Sydow has been acting for over six decades and has starred in some of the most famous films of all time, including “The Seventh Seal” and “The Exorcist,” that a cursory Google search would enlighten, it’s a little upsetting that the fan-centric Internet would label a 86-year-old actor a cast member of a “Star Wars” movie. Over at RogerEbert.com, Glenn Kenny pens the first part of Young Person’s Guide to Max von Sydow for the benefit of Millennials everywhere.

“The Seventh Seal” (1957) Max von Sydow and his lifelong friend and collaborator Ingmar Bergman grew acquainted in the Swedish theater, where, von Sydow once recalled, he and the maestro did a fair amount of comedy. But their movie collaborations are known for their intensity, profundity, and darkness. Although as we’ll see shortly, that’s not the whole picture. In any event, both the actor and director made a huge impact on international art cinema with this movie, a tragicomic allegory set in medieval Europe after the Crusades. Von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a lean knight returning to a desolate, plague-ridden homeland. Death himself approaches Antonius and challenges him to a game of chess, the stakes being of course the knight’s life. This much-parodied movie became a touchstone of art film and a target for the ridicule of such. The charge against Bergman’s movies is that they’re “pretentious” and of course they’re no such thing. There’s also “slow” and “difficult” and so on. The thing is, “Seventh Seal” is actually a very brisk (97 minutes!), engaging, beautifully shot, and sometimes funny movie.

6. The Art of “Defictionalization”: Turning Fake Movie and TV Products Into a Real Business. 
Pete Hottelet, the sole proprietor of Omni Consumer Products, has made his career off of turning fake pop culture products into “real” ones and selling them back to fans, including products from “True Blood” and “Ghostbusters.” Fast Company’s Jake Rossen profiles Hottelet and explores the history of his business. 

As the sole proprietor of
Omni Consumer Products, Hottelet is constantly scanning the pop culture zeitgeist for imaginary items that can be “defictionalized,” as he calls it, and offered to consumers as a tangible product. While prototypes like the crowbar or an audaciously morbid trash bag and knife set inspired by Showtime’s “Dexter” might invite class-action mayhem and are unlikely to see the light of day, Hottelet has nailed it in other venues. His carbonated beverage based on HBO’s recently wrapped “True Blood” was a huge hit; Sex Panther cologne, the fragrance favored by Paul Rudd’s news doofus Brian Fontana in the “Anchorman” films, is the kind of gift that might prompt an eye-roll if it weren’t so well-made. (The box actually growls when opened.) “You’re not actually selling cologne,” Hottelet says of the reverse product placement. “You’re selling the connection people have with the film.” The trick for Hottelet is to try and anticipate which products will resonate with consumers, feeding nostalgia while avoiding tacky tie-ins. If Hottelet has his way, at least a couple of your friends should have a bag of Stay-Puft marshmallows or “Fight Club” bar soap on display. At 35, Hottelet has a healthy affection for the entertainment culture that’s shaped the last few decades. Until recently, he owned a DeLorean, the same model that shuttled Michael J. Fox back and forth in time; this past spring, he made viral waves for crafting an oven mitt in the shape and style of a Nintendo Power Glove; and when he got wind of a movement to try and get a massive “Robocop statue erected in Detroit, he contributed several thousand dollars to the cause.

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