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Daily Reads: How Untested Directors Land Studio Franchise Gigs, ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ at 10 Years Old, and More

Daily Reads: How Untested Directors Land Studio Franchise Gigs, 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' at 10 Years Old, and More

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

1. Studios Gamble on Untested Directors for Big Movies With Mixed Results. 
As anyone who pays attention to these things knows, major film studios have been giving high-stakes tent-pole movies to largely untested directors in recent years. Films like “Jurassic World” and “Fantastic Four” were both directed by men who had only previously directed indie films, but the divergent box office receipts between those two films demonstrates the varying results of this strategy. The L.A. Times’ Josh Rottenberg reports on this recent trend in filmmaking, and interviews some of these young directors.

But as the wildly divergent fates of “Jurassic World” and “Fantastic Four” show, when a studio places a bet on a director new to the blockbuster realm, the results are unpredictable. At best, an up-and-coming director can shake up a franchise with an edgy sensibility; at worst, things can spin terribly out of control. Of course, seasoned directors can make giant bombs too (the last major superhero movie to land with a thud, “Green Lantern,” was made by the highly experienced Martin Campbell). But in today’s Hollywood, the path for many filmmakers to the A-list has become shorter than ever — and the learning curve far steeper. “We’re making far more of these giant tent-poles than we ever have, and we’re running out of people, so studios need to reach further into the farm system,” Trevorrow told The Times in June. “Ideally when they bring on these filmmakers to do these larger films, they’ll give them a sense of freshness. But I think it will be met with varying success.” Indeed, while Trevorrow’s own career arc is a Cinderella story — last week Disney and Lucasfilm announced he will be directing “Star Wars: Episode IX” — Trank’s has become something of a cautionary tale. In the wake of “Fantastic Four’s” dismal $26-million opening, a bitter blame game erupted, with some pointing fingers at Trank for allegedly erratic behavior during the film’s production, while others argued the studio undermined him and watered down his original conception of the movie. The debacle — which climaxed with Trank disavowing the final cut of the movie in a now-infamous deleted tweet — highlighted the difficult power struggle that can come into play when a filmmaker with a strong point of view but limited experience is suddenly thrown into the tent-pole realm, where the pressure to deliver a four-quadrant hit is crushing. “I had learned a certain scale and epic quality working on ‘Game of Thrones,’ and without that I wouldn’t have been able to do ‘Thor,’ ” Taylor said. “But it’s a real trial by fire.”

2. “The 40-Year-Old-Virgin”: The Most Influential Comedy of the Last Decade. 
Ten years ago yesterday, a young whippersnapper named Judd Apatow released his directorial debut, the relatively modest “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” starring relative unknown Steve Carrell, with supporting roles by Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, and Catherine Keener (whoever the hell they are). Now, Apatow is a major Hollywood player, and he’s provided plenty of young comedian their big mainstream break (Rogen, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, etc.), but back then, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” was the little movie that could. Over at GQ, Scott Tobias looks back at “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and how it became the most influential comedy of the last decade.

It Upended the Teen-Sex-Comedy Formula: As an adolescent in the early to mid-1980s, Apatow was surely weaned on the post-“Animal House” glut of smutty frathouse comedies with a little bit of T&A and a lot of sexual embarrassment. The freaks and geeks that populated pay-cable after midnight were nearly all bespectacled virgins, subjected to endless false starts and public humiliations before finally scoring in the end. The premise for “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” is such a simple twist on the same formula that it’s amazing it took so long for anyone to think of it. It’s possible to imagine that Andy Stitzer, Steve Carell’s post-post-post-adolescent naif, was raised on these movies, too, which helped reinforce the idea that sex was a terrifying prospect and that breasts possibly felt like bags of sand. Making a sex comedy around a middle-aged man only partly explains how the film turns the disreputable subgenre on its head. What made most of those ’80s comedies so intolerable is they were fundamentally cruel: They may have nerds for heroes, but they’re aligned mostly with the bullies who laugh at them. Apatow brings a sweetness, self-deprecation, and camaraderie to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” that not only invests the other characters (and the audience) in Andy’s quest to get laid, but makes it seem as if he’s not the oddball for holding out for so long. He just has a little growing up to do.

3. “Phoenix” Is The Cure for The Common Holocaust Movie. 
Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” features the story of a young singer who was sent to the concentration camps by her husband, experienced a facial disfigurement while there, and returns to Germany trying to put her life back to what it once was. “Phoenix” is very much a “Holocaust movie” insofar as the movie is about the Holocaust in metaphor and suggestion, making the film’s emotional potency all that more powerful. Movie Mezzanine’s Charles Bramesco argues that “Phoenix” is the cure the common Holocaust movie.

Read enough scholarship about postwar Germany, and you’ll run afoul of a real monster of a word, vergangenheitsbewältigung. In the simplest terms, it translates to English as “the process of coming to terms with one’s own past,” and as such, it’s bandied about quite a bit during discussions of Germany’s years following the surrender. (You’ll notice that America, a country that has played it pretty aloof when it comes to formally recognizing the darker elements of its own origin story, has no equivalent term.) The essence of Germany’s vergangenheitsbewältigung focuses on a nationalized sense of guilt, promoting a widespread recognition of the Holocaust and fostering an understanding of the situation’s gravity. Postwar dictates were crafted specifically to reestablish positive relations with Jewish Germans, but of course, the matter was nowhere near that simple. Anti-Semitic sentiment clung to the country like a nasty odor for years after 1945; many reactionary political leaders blamed the economic ruin and complete obliteration of the Berlin infrastructure on the Jews, and with citizens all too eager to scapegoat someone for the massive deluge of large-scale problems, the difficulties were far from over for the Jewish population. Nelly Lenz, the enigma played by Nina Hoss at the center of “Phoenix,” is one such Jew. She returns to Berlin in search of her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) so that she may resume what’s left of her life, though that’s become impossible. For one, he doesn’t recognize her — terrible injury and reconstructive surgery have left her face irreparably damaged. She’s a stranger to her loved ones. Furthermore, Nina’s been warned that Johnny may have had something to do with her arrest, outing her to the Nazis in an effort get his mitts on her fortune. When Johnny sees this woman who resembles his supposedly late wife, he immediately cooks up a plan for Nelly to pose as herself and collect the errant inheritance, and she goes along with it, if only so that she might scout out his true intentions. Like “Vertigo” dressed in period finery, Johnny goes to work outfitting his fake/real wife with the hairstyle, wardrobe and demeanor of her former self. Here, Petzold goes right for the jugular with his allegorical underpinnings. Like the Jewish citizens of Germany, Nelly returns home profoundly changed by the realities of war, both inside and out. And just as the local non-Jews were all too eager to spackle over the fissures caused by this heinous genocide, Johnny intently restores Nelly to her pre-war glory through superficial means. (Petzold even goes so far as to make Johnny’s impetus for the whole charade financial in nature, reflecting the hurting German economy after the devastation of the war.) Petzold unforgettably seals his allegory in a jaw-dropping final scene, offering a critique of Germany’s reluctant vergangenheitsbewältigung by indelibly revealing that no one can fully conceal the past. Some things, whether it’s a serial number tattoo or the remembrances of inhumanity still fresh in the national memory, don’t fade away. Nelly has the benefit of making her true pain known through the immediate, unmistakable power of her singing. The Jewish citizens in the wake of the Holocaust had no choice but to continue on under national scorn and neglect.

4. A Sexy ’60s Spy Got Dumbed Down in Guy Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”. 
Guy Ritchie’s newest film “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, may seem like an August oddity next to the other summer blockbusters, but it’s actually based on a 1964 MGM TV show of the same name. Developed by Sam Rolfe, the series follows a two-man spy team working for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, Napoleon Solo, an American, and Ilya Kuryakin, a Soviet, the latter of whom was a bit of a heartthrob back in the day. The A.V. Club’s Sarah Kurchak writes about how the new film lets Kuryakin down and robs him of everything that made women swoon back in the ’60s.

Premiering in September 1964, and gaining massive success just under halfway through its first season, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” inspired television’s first full-fledged fandom. Kuryakin, dubbed “the blond Beatle” for his shaggy haircut and passionate young female admirers, received the bulk of that unprecedented fervor from what “TV Guide” dubbed “the mystic cult of millions.” McCallum received more fan mail than any other star in the history of MGM Studios up until that point, including Clark Gable. He couldn’t leave his hotel room without being mobbed, and was often greeted at airports by throngs of young women waving placards that read “All The Way With Illya K.” An appearance at Macy’s in New York had to be canceled when the 15,000 fans who showed up to see McCallum stampeded through the store. The reasons for this kind of response seem obvious in retrospect. On a purely aesthetic level, McCallum was disarmingly dreamy with his mop of blond hair, stunning blue eyes, and a slim but muscular build that perfectly filled out his character’s signature turtlenecks. But the appeal went so much deeper than that. Much like Spock after him, the Russian agent offered audiences an alternative to the more traditional macho heroes that dominated television and film. “Both characters were cool, aloof aliens in a strange world, traits that appealed to adolescents who felt a similar sense of disenfranchisement from an adult world that became known as ‘The Establishment’ when college students began their revolt against the Vietnam War,” author and educator Wesley Alan Britton writes in his 2004 book “Spy Television.” “Kuryakin and Spock appealed to a growing trend championing nonconformity and an interest in fictional figures that were different from previous media heroes and role models.” For his young female fans, Kuryakin represented a romantic alternative as well.

5. Nick Kroll on “Adult Beginners,” Pop Culture Blindspots, and His Role in Terrence Malick’s New Film. 
Nick Kroll has subtly blown up in the last few years, with his now-defunct Comedy Central sketch show “Kroll Show,” his main role on “The League,” and his recurring role on the also-now-defunct “Parks and Recreation.” Now, his latest film “Adult Beginners,” an indie about a entrepreneur (Kroll) whose life unravels on the eve of his company’s launch, is out now on DVD. Playboy’s Sam Fragoso interviews Kroll about his new film and his brief role in legend Terrence Malick’s new film.

Q: I have to ask, what was it like being in a Terrence Malick movie?

A: I got a call on a Tuesday being like, “Hey, do you wanna shoot a Terrence Malick [movie] on Thursday?” And they called me and were like, “Wear something like this,” and that was all the information I got. And then I went in, and I was told very little about the larger themes going on, and I was just so excited about the opportunity to go in. Knowing a little bit about his movies, there’s really no guarantee that you’ll make it in things. But I genuinely went in there and I was like, “I just want to appreciate and enjoy this day, and I’m gonna watch the process and absorb whatever I can, and just say okay to what’s asked of me.” And that’s what I did.

Q: Did you ever find out how this opportunity came about?

A: I don’t even know. I think we had shot “The Kroll Show,” but I don’t know if it had come out yet. I don’t remember. When I met him, he said he liked my videos and my stuff. I honestly have no real idea. I think they were looking for comedians who could improvise, or be on their feet, because I think he really likes people who can feel in the moment and are flexible.

Q: Did you have any scripted lines?

A: No, I was just there to sort of disrupt, and I got to. A lot of my schtick was just kind of to mess with Christian Bale, which was really fun and he was super cool. Someone saw the movie in Berlin and said I was in it. I have no idea where I will l be in it. I was just so grateful to have the experience of being on that set and get to watch and participate in what was such a unique experience.

6. “Space Jam” Forever: The Website That Wouldn’t Die. 
In 1996, Warner Bros released a little film called “Space Jam” starring NBA legend Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes gang. Even though it’s almost objectively terrible, the film has become a cult fascination amongst Millennials who get off on the lamest of nostalgia. However, arguably the best thing that has come from that film is the “Space Jam” website, one that remains the same almost twenty years later. Rolling Stone’s Erik Malinowski explores in depth the “Space Jam” website and other movie websites of its ilk.

The marketing was hitting all the right notes, including on the Internet – even if no one noticed or cared. A few blocks from the flagship Warners store, up on the 29th floor of 1375 Avenue of the Americas, a group of five outcasts, working out of cramped cubicles and closets that doubled as office space, had cranked out what would become, over the next two decades, one of the most beloved websites ever made. At a time when asking to put a web address on a movie poster usually produced blank stares and then exasperated sighs, the site pushed all the limits of web development. There were inside jokes alongside animated GIFs, Easter eggs to be found and virtual reality 360s ahead of their time. It was free-flowing, unsupervised, guerrilla design work, all being done under the umbrella of one of the largest entertainment companies on the planet. The “Space Jam” website didn’t exactly blow up online when it was launched, but studio execs also didn’t care. The film raked in just over $90 million by the end of its theatrical run in North America, as well as another $140 million or so overseas. It remains, to this day, the highest-grossing basketball movie ever made. Jordan and Bugs had carried the day and the site was soon forgotten, just another relic of an evolutionary moment in early web design, when code that couldn’t load fast enough through a 56K modem wasn’t code worth writing. The site lay more-or-less dormant for the next 14 years. But that changed for good in late 2010, when the Internet, exponentially bigger than it was in 1996, rediscovered the site – almost entirely unchanged from its initial launch. It was reborn as a viral sensation, the web’s equivalent of a recently discovered cave painting. We laughed at the site because we couldn’t believe anything was ever designed this way, but also because it still existed. It remains one of the most faithful living documents of early web design that anyone can access online. Today, the “Space Jam” site’s popularity has outlived almost everything to which it has been connected. The Fifth Avenue store shuttered in 2001. Both stars of the movie’s stars made forgettable exits in 2003 – Jordan with the Washington Wizards, Bugs with “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.” And every person directly associated with the site’s creation has now left the studio. But the site lives on, aging for 19 years but free from influence, to our enduring delight.

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