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Daily Reads: The Evolution of TV Criticism, “Queen of Earth” Is the Scariest Movie of the Summer, and More

Daily Reads: The Evolution of TV Criticism, "Queen of Earth" Is the Scariest Movie of the Summer, and More

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

1. The State of Television: TV Criticism Then and Now. 
For the past two weeks, NPR’s Linda Holmes has written a series on the state of television in 2015. The series has covered everything from the phenomenon of “Peak TV,” different structural modes, and the industry’s perpetual diversity problem. Concluding the series, Holmes writes about the changes in TV criticism over the years, and what it’s like to write about TV in an oversaturated environment.

Writing about TV is in a weird place, for some of the same reasons TV itself is. “Here’s a new show; they sent it to me in advance; here are some thoughts including whether it’s good or not” is still part of the picture, just like the traditional fall rollout of broadcast network shows is still part of the cycle of TV. But just like delivery has changed and content has changed, writing has changed, too. And that traditional vision, in which your task is to generate a single review of a new show based on a pilot and then perhaps to do a remembrance when it ends, is entirely incomplete. As shows have gotten more serialized and more complicated, and as online writing has provided a lot more space, the practice of writing about every single episode of a show has gotten more common. Shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” have been proving grounds for people who built audiences by breaking down metaphors, commenting on form, dissecting story directions, and generally working alongside viewers who want a more thoughtful experience out of watching television. Of course, even that has gotten trickier to do. Early in this series, we talked about how the full-drop model, in which seasons of shows are released all at once, complicates public conversation. It complicates criticism, too (in a way that, were it true that TV critics just review pilots, it wouldn’t). Just now, “The New York Times” is posting two-a-day reviews of the episodes of the new Netflix show “Narcos,” because…it’s as good a method as any. Well, wait. Technically, those aren’t reviews; they’re recaps, and if you want to get a weird and surprisingly boisterous argument going that’s of interest to a tiny number of people, get the TV critics of your acquaintance to reach agreement on how different those things are and how you tell them apart. (Spoiler alert: they won’t.) For me, recaps are a little more driven by the structure of the episode and the commentary follows that structure, while reviews are structured more like traditional cultural criticism. But there are countless gray areas and countless writers where “recap” and “review” both seem like reasonable labels to attach to their work. Of course, I came up writing 15-page scene-by-scene epics about episodes of “Survivor” that didn’t publish for four days, which is the kind of thing that simply wouldn’t/couldn’t happen now. At the time, people sort of went with it. You will now typically be asked at least once why a piece is so long if it runs past about 500 words, and the actual answer I would have given then – which was “…For pleasure?” – would not suffice.

2. “Queen of Earth” Is the Scariest Movie of the Summer. 
Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” follows two friends on a retreat to a country house. One of them is in the midst of a complete mental breakdown after the death of her father and the breakup with her boyfriend. The other tries to help and understand, but old wounds reopen and their shared resentment returns. The Week’s Scott Meslow argues that “Queen of Earth” is the scariest movie of the summer.

Perry often shoots his actresses in close-up, but in “Queen of Earth,” the effect doesn’t lead to intimacy — it leads to claustrophobia. The film begins with a showstopper of a scene in which Catherine sobs and snarls her way through a nasty breakup. (When I first saw the film at BAM Cinemafest in June, I was convinced there was something wrong with the sound mix. When I saw it again, I realized the scene was supposed to be that abrasive and ear-splitting.) After that bleak opener, Catherine and Ginny arrive at the cabin, and basically don’t leave it, allowing the the film to cultivate a constant, creeping dread. “Queen of Earth” is scary because it doesn’t give you the comfort of knowing what the rules are. The cabin is all angles, with a wide-open floor plan making actual privacy a virtual impossibility. We don’t even really know why Catherine and Ginny are friends; they don’t particularly seem to like or trust each other (though they share a low-key rapport that hints at a relationship spread over many years). And while time clearly progresses in the film — each passing day is noted with a title card akin to the ones in “The Shining,” and the parallel can’t be unintentional — the days themselves are poisonously languorous. “Queen of Earth” hops madly from scene to scene, with little indication of how many hours have passed between, or what the characters have been doing in the interim. Most of all, it’s impossible to pin down what’s actually going on in either character’s head. Though they spend much of their time openly hashing over their thoughts and problems, Catherine and Ginny remain unknowable; though something is clearly wrong, it’s unclear just how bad things could get, or how dire the consequences would be if the prevailing passive-aggression curdled into aggression. As Ginny, Waterston keeps her cards close to her chest, vacillating between concern, callousness, and menace. As Catherine, Moss proves herself once again to be one of this generation’s truly brilliant actresses, reaching emotional depths that evoke both pity and terror.

3. How “Hannibal” Was “The Sopranos”. 
This past Saturday, the beloved television series “Hannibal” came to an abrupt end with its third season. The series has garnered critical acclaim for just about everything — performances, cinematography, direction, editing, etc — and has produced some of the best TV criticism of the past few years. On the eve of the finale, EW’s Darren Franich explores the connection between “Hannibal” and David Chase’s “The Sopranos.”

Maybe it’s enough that they are both great; maybe the only thing that unites them is how their radical disparity demonstrates the possible breadth of TV-as-entertainment-art. But as we reach the end of “Hannibal’s” brilliant run — or as we reach the point when “Hannibal” transforms from a TV show into a hopeful hashtag, #HannibalSeason4, #HannibalMovie, #HannibalWhatever — I remember “The Sopranos.” Because as different as the TV shows are, they have the same inciting incident: A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office. On “The Sopranos,” it’s Tony, a lovable bear of a suburban dad who’s also a rising mob boss. “The Sopranos” doesn’t necessarily read as a meta-anything. At this point, we’re more used to things like “Kill Bill” or “Community” or “Adventure Time” or everything Marvel Comics is doing right now: over-the-top genre mash-ups existing in a universe built from pop culture detritus. But “The Sopranos” was always a self-aware product. Tony is both a mobster and some Platonic Ideal of Mobster, and the central joke of the show is: What happens when a mobster archetype goes to see a psychiatrist? On “The Sopranos,” that psychiatrist is Dr. Jennifer Melfi. She is both the most important or least important character on the show. She lives in a silo’d corner of the “Sopranos” universe. Whenever the show follows her away from the office, we’re in a different world: The people are educated, they drink wine, they speak with all the psychological fluency of people who have had their worst instincts defined by science. Dr. Melfi is never really important to the “plot” of the show — although compared to most shows today, “The Sopranos” is nigh-plotless. But the scenes in Melfi’s office are central to the series. Her role varies. Sometimes, she’s the audience surrogate. Sometimes, she’s the only person who can call Tony out — the only person with power over him. Sometimes, on this most Catholic of TV shows, she is Tony’s confessor. “Hannibal” initially flips the script in a few ways. Will Graham isn’t a mobster: He’s a good guy, a “criminal profiler,” the kind abstract occupation that TV cop shows love. Tony is the kind of guy who has never thought much about his psychological perspective on the world. Will is the superego opposite of that: He is a man drowning in his own psychological empathy; he’s entirely too good at seeing the world from the perspective of freak psycho murderers. So we’re already beginning where “The Sopranos” ends. Dr. Melfi spent close to a decade trying to get into the mind of a killer — and Will is already there in “Hannibal’s” first scene. He needs some help, Will. So his boss sends him to see a psychiatrist. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is unquestionably the most important character on the show, although the nature of that importance shifts the more you watch the show: It’s difficult to tell if he is a puppet master or just a hilariously reactive improvisation artist, suggestively “Yes, And”-ing everyone around him toward madness. You could argue that “Hannibal” is just a simple script-flip from “The Sopranos”: This time, the psychiatrist is the killer.

4. A Review of the “Hannibal” Finale. 
Though there’s still a minor chance that “Hannibal” might return in some format in the near future, chances are that the third season finale, “The Wrath of the Lamb,” will be its last. Vulture’s Greg Cwik reviews the “Hannibal” finale, sending it off with a very fitting eulogy.

Assuming “The Wrath of the Lamb” was the final episode of “Hannibal,” I guess this is my eulogy. This season was a milestone of network television, a great Becoming, in its own way. Thematically, aesthetically, it went places no show has gone before. “Hannibal” is a bacchanal of high- and low-brow influences, a Greek tragedy by way of “Liquid Television” drawing its wicked, moribund sense of humor from the same poisoned well as Edgar Allan Poe and Tod Browning; its baroque marriage of sound and vision channeling David Lynch and William Blake; its thematic obsession with duality and identity not far removed from Ingmar Bergman or Frederico Fellini. In its elegiac poetry, “Hannibal” harkened to Longinus, Ovid, Burke, Baudelaire, Eliot. I can name names of varying erudition all day. I think of “Hannibal” as the geeky, overachieving cousin to “American Horror Story’s” lunk-head high-school jock. As weird as the weirdest network show ever got — “Max Headroom,” “Twin Peaks,” “H.R. Pufnstuf” — they look quaint compared to the avant-garde Grand Guignol of Bryan Fuller’s show. (Okay, maybe not “H.R. Pufnstuf.” That show is terrifying.) “Hannibal” ditched the monster-of-the-week format that had worked so well in season one and went for something more ambitious. Vincenzo Natali’s dive into pure phantasmagoria wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but few directors have brought such singular vision to a network television program. Even now, series opener “Antipasto” feels daring, refusing to answer any questions left by season two’s cadaverous closer, divulging details in hushes and whispers. It’s incredible that “Hannibal” ran on NBC, a network that’s been skulking in the doldrums for years and is subject to the restrictions of public TV. Maybe TV censors, like most of the world, didn’t even notice the show existed.

5. Running on EDM-ty: The Dull DJs of “We Are Your Friends”. 
The new EDM-themed film “We Are Your Friends” stars Zac Efron as an aspiring DJ who desperately tries to permeate the culture with his sick beats. The film has received a mostly mixed-to-negative reception, and opened to a dismal $1.8 million this weekend. Grantland’s Wesley Morris reviews “We Are Your Friends” and how it’s a dull, anemic exercise at a generational film.

“We Are Your Friends” is a process musical like “Center Stage,” “Step Up,” or “Magic Mike.” But it also takes swings at being generational. The house where Cole stays with his friend Mason (Weston) looks like the one in “The Graduate,” except the pool is empty, which is a metaphor the movie can’t do much with. There’s talk among these guys of wanting more, like becoming the dudes who start the next Instagram, but how, with what idea and whose magic capital? They stand there collected above the city, at a loss over their respective futures. This moment is almost persuasive. Were Joseph and cowriter Meaghan Oppenheimer to connect the dishonest real estate work of Bernthal (basically redoing the goon he played in “The Wolf of Wall Street”) and Cole’s drive to make art instead, the movie would be up to something dangerous. But it’s hard to make even a smartish movie about the young, clueless, and stoned. When a character bites the dust at a party, it’s a nauseating reach, like watching “Good Will Hunting” cop a feel on “Kids.” It’s so much easier to let the yammering that Cole does with James and with Sophie dominate the proceedings, and to stuff the moral and social commentary into a clever but cheap one-shot coda that comes during the closing credits. This is the second botched tale this month of young and restless Southern Californians desperate to make art. “Straight Outta Compton” refused to survey the crater that N.W.A’s music made in American culture and the bruises its members left on other people’s lives. It’s a generic fairy tale of Making It. The stakes couldn’t be lower. “We Are Your Friends” is a silly movie that’s, like, two butt scratches away from articulating something. But it’s afraid of being weird or gross or smart about sex or music or dancing or venality. It’s as if a Michael Lewis story or a 1980s Paul Schrader movie were intercepted by studio marketing execs who said, “You should turn ‘Saturday Night Fever’ into a commercial for SunnyD.”

6. Loving Films As a Feminist. 
It can be difficult sometimes to reconcile art with personal politics. Oftentimes, art has plenty of things going for it but also contain troubling or #problematic gender, racial, or identity politics. The Pool’s Helen O’Hara explores her perspective as a feminist who loves film even when they don’t fit her ideology.

When I went to see “Straight Outta Compton,” my expectations were pretty low. I’d read articles about the film’s sexism, the complete omission of Dre’s history of violence against women and its almost total lack of credit to N.W.A.’s female collaborators. It’s guilty on all counts. And yet the film has a lot going for it. The music is, obviously, electric, the performances are terrific and – particularly against the backdrop of recent protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere – the emphasis on racial discrimination is incredibly powerful. I enjoyed it and, with a huge caveat for its treatment of women, I wrote a positive review. So, am I letting the side down? It’s a question I have to ask myself a lot these days, both as a film journalist and as a person. At a karaoke night with some friends recently, a mate announced, “Right, we’re suspending feminism for five minutes.” She put on “Blurred Lines,” we all sang along and it was awesome. Sure, those lyrics are objectionable, but caring about it all the time is just exhausting. I try to be a person of principle, but I don’t want to filter every single experience through the lens of gender discrimination. It’s depressing to do so – for one, because we keep seeing the same problems. Just in film we see women objectified. Women ignored. “Women in refrigerators,” a name for the trope where women are killed or maimed to prompt action by a male hero. Endless gendered violence against women. Worse than that, it’s limiting. If we only allow ourselves to enjoy stuff that’s somehow ideologically pure, we’d be denied most entertainment. I have a ridiculous – really, a shameful – love for the “Fast & Furious” movies, for example. The endlessly gyrating car groupies wiggling their underbum are so over the top that it’s hilarious rather than offensive, and the male leads are such paragons of masculinity that they cross right over into parody. At least, that’s what I tell myself so I can overlook its most obvious faults (and I at least 76 per cent believe it). Even to pick up on every fault seems wrong. I don’t want to become the sort of person who uses the word “problematic” all the time because too many things are problematic. Even if something’s A-OK by feminism, it isn’t off the hook. “Straight Outta Compton” is deeply sexist – but it’s progressive on race, so does that balance things out? “Girls” nails great female characters, but doesn’t do so well on people of color, so should I reject that? The “Police Academy” movies have a recurring joke about a gay bar – should I give those up? (Yes, probably!)

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