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Daily Reads: Restoration Brings New Life to Ken Burns’ ‘Civil War,’ Why DVDs Aren’t Dead (Yet), and More

Daily Reads: Restoration Brings New Life to Ken Burns' 'Civil War,' Why DVDs Aren't Dead (Yet), and More

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

1. Ken Burns’ Updated “Civil War,” 25 Years Later. 
In 1990, forty million people watched Ken Burn’s nine-part “The Civil War” on PBS. The film has since become a landmark documentary and definitively established the “Ken Burns”-style of filmmaking. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg explores “The Civil War” 25 years later as Burns restored it for the second time.

The technical improvements to the film, including a new resolution that restores parts of images that were cropped away for the original TV broadcast, may be most interesting to hard-core film fans. But even casual viewers will be able to see that the remastered version of “The Civil War” is a strikingly different film from the movie that preceded it. Burns and White used some variant of the word “murk” nine times in two hours of conversation to talk about what they were excited to eliminate from “The Civil War.” The result is a much clearer, and in some cases more nuanced, movie. The lurid, iconic battlefield sunsets of the previous film now appear on screen streaked with blue, and while the landscapes retain what Burns calls a “painterly” quality, they look much more like actual places. “I think what happened to the old landscapes was that because of the dullness of the reproduction and the copying, they then did something that worked against what we wanted. Now I think they’re doing what we want them to do,” Burns said of shots such as those of the sunsets or of Burnside’s Bridge, which became a choke point during the Battle of Antietam in 1862. “They’re doors and they’re mirrors…There is the Burnside Bridge. I’d seen it in old archives. This is a real thing and here it is still there, and so it connects you to the past.”

2. Netflix, Streaming, and the Premature Death of Physical Media. 
Nowadays, when people say they want to watch a movie, there’s not only a better-than-average chance they mean they want to watch it on a laptop, but that it’s also available on a streaming service such as Netflix or Amazon or Hulu. It’s only reasonable to ask what happened to home video, the real home video? Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey examines the state of physical media in 2015, how it’s fallen off, and how a few cult home video label are keeping it alive.

Now, home viewers watch movies via Netflix and other streaming and download services like Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, and iTunes. But with each new iteration of the home viewing experience, the volume of available titles decreases. All of the movies available on celluloid never made it to VHS. All of the movies available on VHS never made it to DVD (40-45% never crossed over, according to estimates). And not all of the movies available on DVD are streaming — it’s not even close. Not everyone wants to trade variety for convenience. “I am not excited about streaming at all,” says Quentin Tarantino, in Tom Roston’s new oral history of the era, “I Lost It at the Video Store.” “I like something hard and tangible in my hand. And I can’t watch a movie on a laptop. I don’t use Netflix at all.” Tarantino appears to be in the minority. Yet in the face of the overwhelming trends and depressing statistics, a handful of home video distributors are still fighting the good fight – serving that underserved minority by hanging on to a seemingly outdated medium. They do it for the love of film, but they’re also making a few bucks in the process.

3. The Rise of the Sadcom. 
In the past few years, we’ve seen plenty of television comedies that would reasonably be considered “dark,” or “depressing,” or “intense.” These shows are some of the best on TV, not just because they make us laugh, but because they have a core that’s conscious of the dark underpinnings of the world and are unafraid of depicting it. Vulture’s Jenny Jaffe assesses the rise of the “sadcom,” including shows like “BoJack Horseman” and “Rick and Morty.”

But the emerging American comedy, whether it be animated or live-action, carries with it neither sincere escapism nor cynical nihilism. Consider them sadcoms — the raw, honest, surprisingly hopeful, long-gestating progeny of “M*A*S*H.” “Louie” was perhaps the genre’s modern groundbreaker, showing a person with often-reprehensible morals trying and failing to work against them, for the sake of the many good people around him and a next generation he clearly cares a great deal about. It was shocking, difficult, and heartbreaking, and its honesty resounded deeply with its audience. “BoJack Horseman” is, in itself, a study of the shift from the purely cynical black comedy to the ultimately optimistic sadcom. The story of a hateful drunk horse in a world populated half by humans and half by anthropomorphic animals, “BoJack” started off rocky. But when the show finally gets around to revealing what’s really on its mind, it becomes something astonishing. That particular moment of reveal occurs when BoJack asks a simple question of his friend Diane: “Am I a good person?” Diane doesn’t answer. It is a thoroughly earnest scene. In that moment, we see BoJack for who he is: a sad person trying. 

4. A Review of “Review’s” “William Tell, Grant a Wish, Rowboat.” 
Speaking of “sadcoms,” Comedy Central’s “Review” fits neatly into that category. The series follows Forrest MacNeil as he reviews life experiences, but consistently destroys his own in the process, as well as the lives of anyone vaguely associated with him. It’s a dark, dark show that also features some of the biggest laughs every week. The A.V. Club’s Emily L. Stephens reviews the latest episode of “Review,” in which Forrest gets shot with two arrows, leads a philandering baseball star into the hands of his ex-wife, and accidentally spends 96 days in a rowboat.

As Forrest researches “doing a William Tell,” his father offhandedly points out the horror at the crux of “Review.” Forrest’s appalled that Tell was “forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head with an arrow.” Mr. MacNeil replies quietly, “Yup, and he did it, too.” And he did it, too. That’s the horror of “Review,” and of Forrest MacNeil. It resides not in the individual acts Forrest performs, or even in their dreadful results, but in his enthusiasm to continue. He’s horrified by the prospect of shooting an apple off his son’s head, but that doesn’t stop him from broaching the subject with Eric, conveniently due for a visit. “No, I don’t have anything planned,” he says over the phone. “Well, I do, I have one sort of…activity.” After three days of practice “zipping a string off a stick” — and despite his impressive improvement once he learns which way is up — Forrest can’t quite bring himself to shoot arrows at his child. But he might be able to shoot them at a child, so he presents himself as a potential foster parent, getting as far as specifying, “Well, it needs to be a boy, and it would be great if he had a flat head and a thick skull,” before crumbling in shame. “This is a terrible idea. I’m a [bleep]ing monster.” Forrest can be a monster, and the worst kind: a monster who thinks he’s blameless. But in “William Tell,” Forrest accepts both the blame and the danger that accompany his assignment, and he puts himself, not his son or any other child, in the arrow’s path. It’s a rare moment of clarity, and yet another example of Forrest interpreting his obligations loosely to accommodate his preferences.

5. Aretha Franklin Granted Injunction to Stop Telluride Showing of “Amazing Grace.” 
Last weekend, the Telluride Film Festival was schedule to premiere the documentary “Amazing Grace,” which features Sydney Pollack-shot footage of a 1972 Aretha Franklin concert at the New Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, but was completed by producer Alan Elliott who honored Pollack’s deathbed request to finish the film. Franklin successfully argued in court that Elliott did not seek her permission to release the film. The Hollywood Reporter’s Eriq Gardner and Matthew Belloni report on the injunction to stop the screening.

It is extremely rare for a judge to enjoin a film from being released. But Kane said the issue of the First Amendment did not come up at the hearing and was not relevant because the real issue was contractual. “Even though Pollack had permission to film it, he didn’t have permission to release it.” According to the lawsuit, 80 percent of the footage of the film comprises images of Franklin and her performance in connection with her best-selling 1972 album. The judge decided that the film also was a violation of a federal anti-bootlegging statute. UCLA School of Law professor Eugene Volokh believes the decision is a curious one, particularly with respect to the absence of a copyright claim and the use of anti-bootlegging law to enjoin distribution. And while the appearance of contractual rights creates a rub, other attorneys are expressing shock at the development. Lincoln Bandlow, a partner at Fox Rothschild whose clients include Morgan Spurlock and Conan O’Brien, says today’s decision is an “unprecedented, extraordinary and wrong prior restraint that will hopefully be pursued on appeal.”

6. Does “Grandma’s Boy” Deserve Cult Status? 
Veteran critic Nathan Rabin has been showing up all over the Internet these days with new columns in unlikely venues. His newest one for the editorial section of Rotten Tomatoes is dedicated to “sub-cult” films, those that are on the cusp of becoming cult favorites but are not quite there yet. In the first installment of his new column, Rabin argues in the case of “Grandma’s Boy,” a 2006 film that was designed to be a vehicle for one of Adam Sandler’s closest compadres.

“Grandma’s Boy” is wonderfully inclusive in its comedy; it’s the kind of film where, with the notable exception of J.P., damn near everyone gets laid, damn near everyone smokes weed, everyone plays video games, and everyone has friends who like them, no matter how geeky or socially inept they might be. The relationships here are drawn tenderly and with affection, from Alex’s sweet bond with his loving grandmother to Alex and Jeff’s friendship. Covert’s lack of a persona or star-power ends up working in the film’s favor, giving it a scruffy, underdog charm Happy Madison has lacked since Sandler’s early films. This is a movie about a loser who manages to make his loserish lifestyle work for him, starring the least distinctive and well-known member of Adam Sandler’s crew, and it ends up succeeding as a strange form of nerdy wish-fulfillment…. “Grandma’s Boy” is what Quentin Tarantino has described as a “hang out movie,” a genial romp filled with quotable lines and fun characters it’s a pleasure to spend time with. After panning the film originally, I came to warm up to it in this new context. As a movie I caught parts of at my buddy Paul’s house, or on cable late at night, I developed a grudging fondness for it that blossomed into outright, genuine appreciation when I re-watched it in its entirety for this column.

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