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Daily Reads:Why Movies Need to Stop Saving the World, Exploring the ‘Benji’ Films, and More

Daily Reads:Why Movies Need to Stop Saving the World, Exploring the 'Benji' Films, and More

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

1. When The Entire World Is Always At Stake. 
It was a refreshing change of pace when Marvel’s “Ant-Man” was released in theaters, mostly because the stakes of the film were much lower than most mainstream superhero/action/sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters. Usually in one of those movies, it’s up to our noble heroes to stop the world from total annihilation, subsequently setting the stakes so high that they barely exist at all. Film School Reject’s Scott Beggs argues that when the entire world is always at stake, nothing is ever really at stake.

By making the stakes as high as they’ll go, movies have permission to be as broad as they want with all other aspects. They can cram runtimes with action sequences at will because truncated character development doesn’t matter as much. Liking the characters becomes a matter of snappy dialogue and charisma tucked in five-minute chunks between the next battle sequence. “Age of Ultron” was a vicious exploiter of that formula with an egregious amount of prolonged fight scenes, but it also benefited from a dozen earlier movies that set up all the heroes we liked. None of them truly change, so let the half-hour destruction commence… Keeping us occupied with spectacle and using the ultimate consequence are inextricable from one another. If you’re fighting to save the world, there are going to be some big battles, and if you need a lot of big battles, you need to have the world hang in the balance. The problem is that high stakes don’t equal high emotional attachment, which is why we can walk out of “Age of Ultron” saying, “Okay. Let’s go get pizza,” and why we can walk out of “The Look of Silence” with our hearts still barely beating on the theater floor. If a movie can make us feel for a character, we will care profoundly about him reconnecting with his father before dying, or her winning the spelling bee, or them realizing they’re in love. No looming annihilation required. Studios, for the time being, are not interested in any of that for their biggest projects. They’re interested in Dr. Whatever and his army, so expect to yawn at the entire planet being in danger several times a year for the foreseeable future.

2. The “Benji” Films: One Well-Trained Dog Is All They Had to Offer. 
The A.V. Club’s “Run the Series” column examines an entire film franchise to see how it has (or hasn’t) evolved over time. Some past entries include the “Death Wish” series, the “Step Up” series, and the “Fast and Furious” series. This month, the franchise in question is a little less obvious, but none less vital. Vadim Rizov explores the “Benji” series and how its pleasures are limited to the impressive training of its title character.

The original “Benji” is pretty dreadful, constructing its skeletal dramatic momentum from Benji foiling a robbery plot hatched by some very dim-bulb burglars who hole up in a decrepit mansion. It looks like what it is: a movie largely shot in or near suburban Dallas, padded out with filler in the grindhouse mode Grady Hendrix described as: “endless footage of people walking, people going in and out of doors, or people sitting and talking.” “Benji” primarily consists of the lovable mutt wandering over the same small number of locations, all of which were clearly shot on the same day: the park, a sleepy downtown diner, etc. There’s also a lot of padding on the human front. Benji’s family consists of two unappealing child actors, their hectoring dad (he hates mutts!), and a theoretically endearing maid, all of whom define anti-charismatic. The movie is structured around long scenes of Benji strutting down the sidewalk that indicate how well-trained he is. One of the film’s paradoxes is that viewers have to be aware that this remarkably sentient dog is in fact just well-trained to respond to stimuli; we’re watching him at his best while pretending he’s an autonomous being. The best thing about the “Benji” films is easily the work of DP Don Reddy, who’s mostly been a journeyman camera operator since but ran the whole show for [director Joe] Camp. When Benji trots, the camera speeds alongside him on a rapid dolly. Similarly, the films of Argentinian arthouse master Lisandro Alonso (“Los Muertos,” “
Jauja”) often rely heavily on long tracking shots of someone walking, with the camera’s pace determined by the subject’s. This is exactly the case with “Benji,” whose camera movements are precisely directed and timed to keep up with and showcase its canine star. Every moment filled with an overacting regional performer speaks to the production’s cash-strapped resources, but the movie does the one thing the audience wants: You get a full-on view of an incredibly well-trained dog, and the camera is always in the right place to showcase him.

3. The Five Arias From Operas That Movies Can’t Live Without. 
Plenty of films over the years have included famous arias in their score, either for narrative reasons or for emotional effect. But what are the most essential arias for film, the one’s that the medium could not live without? RogerEbert.com’s Simon Abrams analyzes the five arias that the movies cannot live without.

“Ride of the Valkyries,” from “Die Walküre” While many people associate this famous aria with “Apocalypse Now” and the smell of napalm in the morning, this exultant, soaring anthem can be found in everything from Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” to John Waters’ “Mondo Trasho.” In many films, the fact that “Ride of the Valkyries” is about a group of women warriors (the Valkyrie) who are boasting about their imminent martial victory is incidental to the music’s use. This piece is tellingly treated as an instrumental piece, partly because the women singers are constantly raising the pitch of their voices, and this song is a war-cry. Despite the female voices, “Ride of the Valkyries” is a song that is gender-coded as masculine, partly because many laypeople associate Wagner with the Nazis; there’s certainly a touch of this thinking in the way “Valkyries” is used in “Apocalypse Now,” as backing for a sequence in which American helicopters destroy a Vietnamese village. Whenever a fascistic villain is on the attack, there’s a chance you’ll hear it, even if the film is a comedy like “The Blues Brothers,” the climax of which finds Henry Gibson’s neo-Nazi pursuing Jake and Elwood Blues.

4. Make It Real: The Filmmaker as Adventurer. 
This month, there will be three documentaries that feature filmmakers traveling to dangerous places and exploring them first-hand. There’s “Cartel Land,” which has already been released, about the Mexican Drug War; there’s “Meru,” about three mountain climbers who struggle to climb Mount Meru; and finally, “We Come as Friends,” about the South Sudanese fight for independence. All of these films feature the filmmaker as an adventurer himself, doing unsafe things in foreign lands while capturing them in real time. Film Comment’s Eric Hynes examines the filmmaker-as-adventurer trope and how these three films employ it.

The director-as-adventure-hero conceit has a very long history, stretching back to the early silent films of the American Romantic tradition, in which far-flung lands were explored and visually captured for the audience’s edification and amazement, and in which the dangers faced by the filmmakers were sometimes acknowledged but always implied. That’s often been the case for travelogues as well as for war pictures — the proximity of the camera to danger grants us vicarious excitement, and engenders gratitude for the risk it required. That’s been a key element in discussions of “Cartel Land” since it took home a cinematography prize (as polished films involving high-risk shoots often do) at Sundance in January. Director Matthew Heineman never appears on camera, but we’re constantly aware of the volatility of the environments he and co-cinematographer Matt Porwoll have thrust themselves into. (It’s not for nothing that Manohla Dargis led off her review in “The New York Times” with the following: “The director Matthew Heineman has a terrific eye. And, to judge from ‘Cartel Land,’ his immersive documentary about American and Mexican vigilante groups, he also has guts and nerves of steel.”) Again, the filmmaking itself becomes heroic, with the visual texture of that heroism — the camera jostling, the where-is-that-gunshot-coming from whip pans — registering as much if not more than the action being captured. (We’re not necessarily emotionally invested in everyone we see in a given scene, but all that reactive camera movement ensures that we identify, and feel, along with the person capturing it.)

5. Comedy Central’s “Review” Is a Bleak, Funny, Painfully Real Gem. 
One of the best, least talked about shows on television is Comedy Central’s “Review,” an adaptation of an Australian series with a similar name. “Review” follows Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly) who reviews real-life experiences, only in the process of completing those reviews, he ends up destroying his own life and alienating everyone he loves. For GQ, ex-Dissolver Scott Tobias argues that “Review” is the funniest, bleakest, truest show that you’re not watching.

Were “Review” nothing but another faux-documentary comedy show about tormenting a poor schlub, it would still, quite honestly, be worth watching. The individual segments are funny, and newcomers to the show can jump right in and enjoy it as a standalone half-hour. But the true genius of “Review” is that it’s not about one experience but all of them. A comparable show like “Nathan For You,” Nathan Fielder’s fiendish parody of reality television, basically hits the reset button after every episode, just like “Extreme Makeover” and the other self-improvement hours it’s sending up. “Review’s” secret weapon is continuity: Forrest, his cheery co-host A.J. Gibbs (Megan Stevenson), his wife, his producer, his surly assistant (Tara Karsian), and his unpaid intern (Michael Croner) are all characters, and their relationships evolve just as they would on any serialized show. Forrest divorcing Suzanne isn’t a one-time trial, but an ongoing psychodrama that’s as compelling as a particularly twisted subplot on the afternoon soaps. These are the days of this poor sucker’s life. What “Review” really teaches us about life is that it’s about the accumulation of events, and no one experience can be isolated from all the others. Wondering what being Batman is like? It’s not that great in the middle of a child custody hearing. Is road rage an exhilarating cathartic release? Not when you’ve just discovered your ex-wife is sleeping with her divorce attorney. And what about those 30 pancakes? If you can survive them, in your lowest moment, then you can get a taste of transcendence.

6. The Real “Real Genius”: The 30th Anniversary of “Real Genius”. 
Thirty years ago today, the 1985 sci-fi comedy “Real Genius,” starring a young Val Kilmer, was released in theaters. Set on the campus of Pacific Tech, the film follow Chris Knight (Kilmer) as he shows high school student and prodigy Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) the ropes at the new school. Over at Slate, Phyllis Rostykus explains how she inspired the lead female character in “Real Genius” and why she understands why some critics disliked its portrayal of women.

Once it got around that I was connected to the creation of Jordan, I started receiving thanks from women who had seen “Real Genius.” Jordan is an inspiration for them. She is smart, keeps up with the boys, doesn’t conform to feminine stereotypes, rescues others, is nice, and still ends up as the romantic interest. All good things for the time, and a huge step up from when she wouldn’t have been there at all (before 1970). Still, like me, she had to be more like the guys to be one of the guys. Recently, when I heard Neil deGrasse Tyson discuss his experience as a black man becoming a physicist, some of it resonated. Like him, I had always known what I was going to be — in my case, an electrical engineer — and I just ignored the people who said that I should be something else. Like him, I had a very successful career in my field. And like him, when I looked around when I was at the top, there just weren’t that many other women with me. To my knowledge, no one I worked with in engineering has ever questioned my abilities to do the work to my face. I don’t recall anyone making a joke related to female engineers or asking me to make the coffee. No one has ever said to me that girls can’t do the math. I’ve been extremely lucky, and maybe I chose to ignore slights. But when I think about the real fights I have had over my decades in STEM careers, I can see why other women would quit. When I went to the University of Washington for my master’s in electrical engineering, I graduated as one of two women in a class of 200. My work life was so full I couldn’t think of having children until I was 35. I had very few women to talk with about my work. I changed careers, from hardware engineering to software programming, so I could work with a female manager two decades my senior.

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