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Daily Reads: The Downside of ‘Political’ Films, Why ‘Heat’ is Still a Masterpiece, and More

Daily Reads: The Downside of 'Political' Films, Why 'Heat' is Still a Masterpiece, and More

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

1. Participant Media Brings You the Most Politically Charged Movies of the Year. 
The Toronto International Film Festival ended last Friday with Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” winning the festival’s coveted People’s Choice Award. Since festival coverage often latches on to a few choice narratives to filter the entire festival through, there are often a few stories that get the short shrift. For example, Participant Media brought five films to TIFF each of them with a leftist political bent. Over at GQ, Scott Tobias looks at the production company’s films and reviews their ability to tell politically-charged stories without devolving into didacticism.

For filmmakers of a leftist bent, Participant Media’s ascendency has meant a dramatic increase in opportunities to make political films that mainstream Hollywood might be reluctant to bankroll. But for moviegoers, it’s been a mixed proposition. Capra’s dictum still holds true: Raising awareness isn’t a terribly inspired artistic goal. Great movies don’t typically end with a URL where interested viewers can “join the movement.” In the best-case scenario, the messaging is incidental, which is why “Spotlight” is such a standout at the festival. The closing credits may emphasize the widespread problem of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but the movie itself is primarily about the nuts and bolts of journalists chasing down a great story. Our revulsion at social injustice comes as a side effect. By contrast, the other two Participant-backed features at TIFF, “Beasts of No Nation” and “Our Brand Is Crisis,” have a much harder time keeping the messaging under wraps. Bankrolled by Netflix, which plans to release the film in theaters and on the streaming service simultaneously — much to the chagrin of major theater chains — “Beasts of No Nation” is directed by Cary Fukunaga, whose evocative style was the best thing about “True Detective’s” first season (and sorely missed by many after he stepped down before the second). But a clearer point of comparison is Fukunaga’s debut feature “Sin Nombre,” another widescreen social drama that followed a Honduran girl and a Mexican boy as they try to make their way to the border by train. Even on a strict budget, Fukunaga has the vision to turn the lives of poor, desperate, forgotten children into grand-scale adventures that suggest the scope of serious second- and third-world problems. But in both cases, the politics flatten the characters into types, helpless conduits for big statements on immigration and the exploitation of children in war zones.

2. “You’re The Worst’s” Sensual Depiction of Food. 
Over at FXX, FX’s younger-skewing sister network, the second season of Stephen Falk’s “You’re The Worst” is well under way. The series about two narcissists forming a relationship together gained a small, but dedicated audience as well as widespread critical support. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg writes about how the series’s depiction of food and eating, and how it makes it one of the most sensual shows on television.

Jimmy and Gretchen aren’t alone in being defined by food. Edgar, a veteran struggling to define himself in terms other than his post-traumatic stress disorder, shows his love for Jimmy by cooking him elaborate meals; when Jimmy started dating Gretchen in the show’s first season, Edgar encourages the relationship by coming up with special dishes for the couple. Gretchen measures her comfort in her relationship with Jimmy by whether she’s willing to be seen with him at a fancy restaurant. Gretchen and her best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) mooch free samples from a frozen yogurt shop and meet regularly at a diner, and the show gives each woman her own, distinct style of eating. Gretchen’s constantly trying to stuff more food into her mouth than will actually fit, while Lindsay often ends up eating with her hands, particularly in moments of despair. And when Jimmy discovers that Gretchen has been lying to her parents about nearly every aspect of her life and reveals to them that actually she’s a hard-drinking rap publicist, Gretchen’s father punishes her by forcing her to polish off an entire glass of milk all at once. “Our characters eat a lot. I think at the end of the day, food is probably near the front of everyone’s mind nearly at all times. We’re animals, and we need to feed in order to live,” series creator Stephen Falk told me when I asked him about this aspect of the series in August. “And we’re also sensualists, and the characters in ‘You’re The Worst,’ they’re hedonists. And so they have big appetites for sex, for booze and for food.”

3. Cahiers du Cinema 2.0: Critics Go Behind the Camera at TIFF. 
Speaking of TIFF stories that don’t get a lot of play, the festival featured a few films directed by critics and writers themselves. Much like the team writing for the Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950’s and ’60’s, these critics bring their own interesting perspective to process of filmmaking, and there’s often crossover between both processes. The National Post’s Chris Knight profiles three of these critics-turned-filmmakers in the second week of the festival.

This year, at the Toronto International Film Festival, several critics have jumped over the velvet ropes and into the filmmaking fray with their own shorts or features. The critics have become “the talent.” The most visible is Brian D. Johnson, until recently a critic for “Maclean’s” magazine, and still president of the Toronto Film Critics Association. His feature documentary, “Al Purdy Was Here,” looks at the life of an under appreciated Canadian poet. Is there any other kind? Purdy died in 2000 and is commemorated by a bronze statue in Queen’s Park in Toronto and now, thanks to Johnson’s film, by a series of original songs penned by Canadian artists inspired by the poet and his work. “He’s a great poet but he’s also a great character with a great story,” says Johnson. The film started to take shape when Johnson’s wife, Marni Jackson, participated in a benefit to save the poet’s dilapidated A-frame home on Roblin Lake in Ontario. The restoration was originally meant to be the thrust of the doc, but “Al gradually took over the film.” Johnson previously directed two short films, and his montages of nominees for the annual Toronto critics’ awards are legendary. But a feature was a different beast. “This is the most difficult and rewarding project that I’ve ever undertaken,” says the man who, in addition to his magazine writing, has published five books, including a 2001 history of TIFF. He isn’t certain whether he’ll return to being a critic, though he notes that insight into the filmmaking process would be a help. “You’re more inclined to look at a shot and see how it was set up, but there are critics who do that anyway,” he says. In the end, “the job of the film is to make the critic forget that he or she is a critic. The best experiences you have as a critic are when you’re blown away and afterwards you have to pick up the pieces and figure out why.”

4. Rape on TV: The Female Artists Behind Those Harrowing Scenes. 
It’s always been a difficult thing for television to depict rape without treating it with the proper sensitivity it deserves, and as a result, there’s been a critical pushback in recent years against shows like “Game of Thrones” for depicting rape as part of the wallpaper. But very rarely do we hear how rape scenes are made by artists themselves. Salon’s Sonia Saraiya interviews some of the women behind these said rape scenes and how they feel about the depiction and their role in it.

Abigail Spencer was a regular on two shows with sexual assault in the story line — the second season of “True Detective,” where she plays Ray Velcoro’s ex-wife Gena, a woman whose years-ago rape precipitates the emotional tailspin we find Ray in at the beginning of the show, and Sundance’s “Rectify,” which is preoccupied with the aftermath of many kinds of assault and trauma. With “True Detective,” she told me, she and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto “talked at length about the back story. We knew every single thing about Gena and Ray before you ever meet them on the show. So I knew everything about the dates and the timing, and we discussed point-of-view, and what she did since, and why she did this. You maybe get one word of it on the show. But, I think, if you make a lot of really detailed and internal and very specific choices, then even if you never talk about it, hopefully it’s felt and it’s seen. I think Colin and I just knew.” “It was really important to Nic that, yes, she was a victim of this thing, but that wasn’t what destroyed them. He went and killed someone; he became a killer. She was a victim, but he took vengeance.” At that point, we were interrupted by Spencer’s co-star on “Rectify,” Aden Young — Spencer, Young and creator Ray McKinnon were trying to eat lunch while I was asking questions — “You’re giving me all the fucking spoilers!” Young’s character, Daniel Holden, is both accused of rape and then, in prison, a victim of it. I asked him, as well, how he prepares. “Well, you do horror. You take the moments of horror in your life, where you’ve experienced something, and you amplify it and you what if, and it’s as if,” he said. “But also, you take your own human empathy that you feel for people who’ve survived that mutilation, and bring it forward as an artist, to portray — and in order to perhaps welcome them back into themselves, when they’ve been so brutally ejected from themselves, because of that act. You want them to feel as whole as possible, even though your main focus is the entertainment of this concept.” I asked — who is “them”? He elaborated: “The victims of these crimes, and the families of these perpetrators, and the families of all that have suffered at the hands of a single choice, a single moment in time where the monster came out. Where does that ripple end? Where does that tsunami touch shore?” “I’ve always said — we have to be very careful with how we measure our fiction against their truths, because their truths are what our stories are about,” he added. Spencer added, “It really only works well if you tell it through character, and you’re not actually commenting or trying to tell the story of sexual assault. That is impossible to me, with grave danger of mishandling.”

5. Why “Heat” Is Still an Action Masterpiece 20 Years Later. 
Michael Mann’s “Heat” turns twenty years old this year. Starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in the only film where they actually share the frame (even if it’s for only one shot), the film follows the twisting lives and intersections between the LAPD and a group of bank robbers. At TIFF, it was screened in a new 35 mm print with Mann in the audience as a tribute to the film’s enduring success. Esquire’s Matt Patches explores why the film is still an action masterpiece all these years later.

“It’s a different experience every time you see it,” Mann told the audience as the credits rolled. This time, the director found himself mesmerized by his ensemble’s eyes, expanded by an 80-foot screen and projected on crisp 35mm. “[I could] just hold on their eyes. There’s no performance. We were all so into character. You were the movie as well as the individual character.” Clocking in at 170 minutes, “Heat” chronicles the sprawling cat-and-mouse game between the LAPD and McCauley’s crew, and the personal lives sacrificed in the process. Mann, who also wrote the script, diligently carves out his characters (the film exists in the gray between feature film and a season of binge-watched TV). “Heat” is known for its 10-minute shootout, a botched heist erupting on the streets of L.A., but it’s cemented by interwoven intimacy. There’s time for Hanna to stop at home, bicker with his third wife, watch his stepdaughter drift into depression, and sense that it’s all provoked by his never-ending pursuit of justice. There’s time for McCauley to sit his number-two, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), down for a life talk, question Chris’ adulterous wife, and walk away realizing there’s no one in his life to even screw over. He’s forever alone. Mann sympathizes with all of his characters, even when they shoot innocents at point-blank range. Morality and criminality are fluid. “Heat” is the only opera to swap out melodious sopranos for a booming M733.

6. An Homage to Davros of Yesteryear: A Review of “Doctor Who’s” Season Premiere  
The beloved BBC series “Doctor Who” returned last Saturday with Peter Capaldi still starring as the series’ twelfth Doctor. The A.V. Club’s Alasdair Wilkins reviews the season premiere and explores the connection between this episode and a 1975 classic episode of “Doctor Who.”

Davros was not inevitable. That’s certainly true in narrative terms. As the creator of the Daleks, he was a natural addition to the “Doctor Who” mythos, but he only made it to the party in “Genesis Of The Daleks,” 12 years and three Doctors after his children debuted. And, if you go back and watch “The Daleks” with no knowledge of what’s to come, the history detailed there doesn’t exactly demand the presence of a single creator, as it’s suggested in the 1960s serial that the Daleks mutated and encased themselves simply in response to radiation. Davros came into existence because “Doctor Who” needed someone who could articulate the Dalek perspective with at least a hint of nuance and without shrieking “Exterminate!” every five seconds. The conversations between Tom Baker’s Doctor and Michael Wisher’s Davros in “Genesis Of The Daleks” were so brilliant…that the show just kept coming back to them through nearly a dozen combined new actors, a point tonight’s episode acknowledges with the audio montage from past Davros stories. It’s Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach’s turn to try their hand at the Doctor – Davros tête-à-tête, and this story, more than any other, takes us back to “Genesis Of The Daleks,” with the episode once more bringing the two characters face-to-face on Skaro. The connections to that 1975 classic do go rather deeper than that, and it’s because of this that we now return to the matter of Davros’ inevitability. There may not be a single more unnerving opening to any “Doctor Who” story than that of “Genesis Of The Daleks,” as a bunch of soldiers wearing makeshift uniforms and painted gasmasks are wordlessly mowed down in slow motion on a foggy battlefield. The beginning of “The Magician’s Apprentice” directly echoes that scene, with laser-equipped biplanes the logical extension of the last depiction of the millennium-long war between the Kaleds and the Thals. An underrated aspect of “Genesis Of The Daleks” is how it sidesteps the Doctor’s question tonight — “Who created Davros?” — by presenting a war-ravaged Skaro that is, as my colleague Christopher Bahn put it, “corrupt, ruined, poisonous and grim.” While the invention of Davros gave the Daleks a specific creator, that first story presented Skaro as such a toxic world that the Daleks — or at least something very much like them — were the inevitable result of a thousand years of hatred long divorced from any reason, with or without Davros. The people glimpsed in “Genesis Of The Daleks” and “The Magician’s Apprentice” had long since proved their capacity for endless war. As the Doctor notes, Davros just removed that last vestige of ability to wonder why.

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