Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Are Prequels Killing Movie Franchises? Last week, the Cabal of Hollywood Executives announced that a “Die Hard” prequel is in the works. Though anyone with a working heart and brain would reasonably argue that the John McClane “origin story” is simply the original “Die Hard,” the film will nonetheless be yet another prequel from the Hollywood franchise machine. We may know that prequels are bad movies, but are they actually doing irreparable harm to movie franchises? Rolling Stone’s David Ehrlich explores how prequels are killing movie franchises.
Despite what it’s title might suggest, “Die Hard: Year One” is not about John McClane’s time as an infant, but will instead focus on a younger version of the iconic action hero — played by a much younger actor, probably someone British — fighting crime in the late 1970s. The biggest problem here isn’t that a director couldn’t make a good movie of this if he tried; someone couldn’t make a good movie of this even if he wanted to. Central to the premise of the original “Die Hard” is that McClean, though a veteran of the police force, is in way over his head. He isn’t Rambo or James Bond, he’s just a stressed out New Yorker who wanted to go to the coast and have a few laughs. “Deadline’s” story about the project observes that Wiseman’s film will show “How [McClane] became a die hard kind of guy,” but the original movie is about how McClane became a die hard kind of guy. That’s why it’s called “Die Hard.” And that’s why the very concept of a prequel feels so inherently cynical: The vast majority of them unfold like reboots that have been strip-mined of their ambition, their makers aspiring to accomplish nothing more than to safely return you to where you started. That’s what you hope to achieve with a minivan, not a movie. It’s no coincidence that several of the best prequels ever made (i.e. “Final Destination 5” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” to name two completely dissimilar examples), either ignore their place in a larger continuity or protect it like a plot twist. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why, despite Hollywood’s ongoing obsession with serialized filmmaking, prequels weren’t particularly common for years — at least in an undisguised form. (You may insert the requisite “The Godfather, Part II” reference here.) But they’ve slowly become an epidemic, a way to extend a series’ lifespan and corporate bottom line by scuttling backward when it seems impossible to move forward. “Monsters University,” which suffered from the lowered stakes that threaten “Year One,” was unusual for how baldly it copped it to a “Muppet Babies” mentality. Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” films proved that prequels can still be problematic even when unimpeachable source material exists to support it. (There’s a reason the novel doesn’t include four chapters about Legolas’ love life.) Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” promised to answer questions that “Alien” fans would rather ask themselves or not at all — Where did xenomorphs come from? Who was the Space Jockey? Can Michael Fassbender convincingly play an android? — only to prove that in space, no one can hear you navel-gazing.
2. How Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” Embodies “Gothic.” Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” entered theaters last Friday to mixed critical reception. Many critics have strongly championed the film for its stunning visuals and unique vision, whereas other critics have criticized its tired story and labored effects. In her mostly positive review, Slate’s Dana Stevens argues that “Crimson Peak” embodies all the meaning of the word “gothic.”
The word “gothic” has a long and conceptually twisty history in English. The Goths were one of many Germanic peoples who invaded the Roman empire around the third century, and for centuries afterward their name was a synonym for barbaric, warlike, or crude behavior. (Shakespeare plays on these two meanings in the first scene of “Titus Andronicus,” when a character who is an actual Goth looks back with longing at a time “when Goths were Goths.”) In the 17th century, the word “gothic” became associated with Teutonic culture more generally, eventually providing the name for a style of medieval architecture that originated in northern Europe. By the late 18th century “gothic” had also come to stand for an emerging genre of popular fiction with medieval, romantic, or supernatural themes: One element common to such novels was the central presence of an ancient, dilapidated, and often haunted house. And finally, sometime in the mid-1980s, the word took on its most recent sense: A “goth” became a disaffected young person in black eyeliner who listened to the Cure and dressed in fashions that evoked the languid heroes and heroines of those long-ago novels—Victorian lace-up boots, tattered velvet jackets, jewelry suggestive of the occult. I may appear to be browsing the shelves at the local Hot Topic, this style says for its wearer, but really I’m gazing off the parapet of a ruined castle, awaiting the return of my one impossible love. Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” brings together all those meanings of “gothic.” The human characters engage in plenty of crude, barbaric, and warlike behavior, planting hatchets in each other’s skulls and bashing one another’s faces against…ugh, never mind. Much of the film takes place in an enormous and impressively dilapidated mansion — complete with pointy medieval turrets — that’s inhabited by a growing population of unquiet souls. The protagonist, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is a classic gothic heroine: A prim fiction-scribbling spinster, she’s seduced away from her desk by a suspiciously ardent English aristocrat named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). And the lavish production and costume design — especially as regards Thomas’ sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), a spectral brooder who appears to be modeling Hot Topic’s new line of haute couture — are as goth as it gets.
3. All 29 of Steven Spielberg Movies Ranked. Let’s get this out of the way: Rankings are silly and meaningless. They posit authority and expertise when they’re really a subjective judgment. Plus, when you’re dealing with accomplished auteurs, what’s the point of ranking their work from worst to best? On the other hand, they are fun and they produce fun arguments and conversation. On that note, in honor of Spielberg’s new film “Bridge of Spies,” Vulture’s Will Leitch and Tim Grierson rank all 29 of Spielberg’s films.
“Hook” (1991): In some ways, “Hook” was ahead of its time, pre-dating Hollywood’s current obsession with rebooting and reimagining already existing properties. But that doesn’t make this cringe-worthy film, which tells the story of a grown-up Peter Pan (Robin Williams in wounded-manchild mode) who has forgotten his true identity and become a cold, heartless lawyer, any more tolerable. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Captain Hook comes from the “Dick Tracy” school of blockbuster overacting, and the film’s unbearably long at almost two-and-a-half hours. We get it, we get it: We need to hold on to our inner child. Leave us alone.
“A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001): Probably the most heavily debated film in Spielberg’s canon,”A.I.”started out as a project dreamed up by Stanley Kubrick (from a short story by Brian Aldiss) before he handed the reins over to Spielberg. Released two years after Kubrick’s death,”A.I.” is Spielberg’s tribute/homage to his idol: This sci-fi tale has the chilly, intellectual air of the dead master’s finest works. And Haley Joel Osment is just terrific as the android who, like Pinocchio before him, longs to be a real boy. “A.I.” features some of Spielberg’s darkest moments, and even if the two filmmakers’ aesthetics don’t perfectly mesh, it’s an utterly mesmerizing, albeit uneven effort.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977): Still one of the only two films Spielberg ever wrote — the second was “A.I.,” a project with so many cooks it barely counts — this may be the closest he’s come to delivering a pure, unfiltered expression of his artistic voice. The dialogue might not always sing today, but his combination of the lyrical and the extraterrestrial — the pop art and the art — remains masterful. Say what you will about “Star Wars,” but that film feels more dated than this does, and they came out the same year.
4. Our Post-Snowden TV Paranoia: “Homeland,” “Quantico,” and Privacy Inside the Surveillance State. Television has a funny way of catching up to and tapping into lingering, pervasive national sentiments. Unlike film, television doesn’t really bake it into atmosphere or tone, but instead creates whole shows based on such sentiments, like America’s fear of being watched in a post-Snowden world. Salon’s Sonia Saraiya explores TV’s new trend of paranoia and how it’s more profound than ever.
In the current roster of television programming, paranoia about the far-reaching power of the government holds just as much power as ever. But the content has changed. Where previous nightmares included torture at the hands of the military, racial profiling and corrupt elections, many right now are about surveillance — some even name-checking whistleblower Edward Snowden. It’s an interesting paradigm shift, but clearly a topical one; the worst fears of films like “Enemy Of The State” (1998) were realized in real life. “The Wire,” which debuted in 2002, gets its title from wiretaps initiated by the police in order to entrap and prosecute incredibly well-organized drug dealers. Although the dealers were very sympathetic — and were just as important characters to the show as the police — the point of the show was to try to stop them, and most of the first season is about the team of police jumping through hoops to authorize even just one or two wiretaps. Given that we trace so much of prestige television’s lineage through “The Wire,” it’s bizarre to see how the same issue has mutated and evolved. “The Good Wife,” which is often one of the first shows to respond to a widely discussed issue in the news, did a whole arc on wiretapping in its critically acclaimed season five. Although creator Robert King isn’t a supporter of Snowden’s actions, the whistleblower is mentioned repeatedly in the season. Eventually, the characters call out the Department of Defense and the NSA — on CBS! — and go to the mat with their unwelcome observers. “Homeland” this season has a whole arc that hews closely to Snowden’s story — although instead of starring a Snowden stand-in, it features a Hollywood version of Laura Poitras, the journalist that filmed and released “CitizenFour.” (She is named, conveniently, Laura.) The catalyst for the narrative is that two amateur hackers accidentally stumble into possession of a cache of classified CIA documents; Laura (Sarah Sokolovic) is the journalist they coordinate with. Plenty of stories throughout history have grappled with watching and being watched, but in our current moment of post-Snowden global security, plotlines about the unwelcome intimacy of surveillance have taken on different resonance. ABC’s “Quantico,” which is so melodramatic about national security that it leaves all kinds of subtext in its wake, is exclusively about a terrorist attack that was executed by someone on the inside — another FBI agent. And though wiretapping is not specifically invoked, the driving force of drama is about all of the agents-in-training uncovering secrets about each other. Privacy of any kind is an illusion, because the rigors of Quantico eliminate any possible artifice. The investigation into the attack that provides the narrative spine of the show is the end point of all of this secret-finding; the last secret, the ultimate secret, the last shred of privacy.
5. Structure vs. Content: A Discussion of TV Critical Theory. In the past few years, the rise of television criticism has ultimately given rise to different approaches to television criticism. Many focus on characterization, fewer focus on form, and some focus on macro and micro structure. In his Episodes column, veteran TV critic Todd VanDerWerff examines his approach to TV criticism via an argument he got into on Twitter.
I made what I assumed was an incredibly innocuous tweet about how “Breaking Bad’s” greatest influence was in its cold opens (something I plan to write a longer post on for Vox, since people seemed into it). It was inspired by the upcoming episode of “The Walking Dead,” which has a hugely “Breaking Bad”-esque teaser sequence that’s, honestly, better than the episode that follows (and the episode that follows is pretty entertaining). But most of the initial responses to the tweet were baffled and seemed to boil down to, “‘Breaking Bad’ didn’t invent cold opens.” I reacted with bemused frustration because, of course “Breaking Bad” didn’t invent cold opens. Obviously, I know that. So I said something along the lines of how “Breaking Bad” used its cold opens to create disconnected short films, rather than set the stakes for the episode at hand, and that only seemed to confuse the matter more. (It also didn’t help that explaining why comedies, which have been doing basic comedic shorts featuring the characters as cold opens since the ’80s took way, way more characters than Twitter allows. (Basically, comedy and drama have always been separate tracks in American TV writing, which means that similar traditions have developed completely independently of each other. It’s like how certain evolutionary forms popped up all over the planet.)) The more I got into this discussion, though, I realized that this was, yet again, prompted by the fact that I tend to reverse-engineer television a lot, and most people…don’t do that. (For one thing, it can kind of suck the fun out of even shows you love.) My tendency when I watch an episode is to try to figure out what it looks like as a skeleton, as the series of notecards hanging up on a writers’ room wall that it started out as, rather than the beautiful, skin-covered whole that it becomes once it’s on TV.
6. Amazon’s “Red Oaks” Hits a High Point With Its “Fourth of July” Episode. Amazon’s new series “Red Oaks,” a coming-of-age story about an existentially-lost college student who works at a country club in suburban New Jersey set in 1985, is much more than cheap 80s nostalgia. It’s a series that systemically takes many stereotypes from many of its 1980s comedies inspirations and goes out to deepen and specify them. The A.V. Club’s Molly Eichel reviews the series’ “Fourth of July” episode (directed by famous indie director Hal Hartley!) and explains why it’s a series high point.
My two favorite songs about the Fourth of July — X’s “4th of July” and Bruce Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” — are both sad songs reminiscing about life that was once great but is now long behind the narrators of each song. “This boardwalk life for me is through / You know you ought to quit this scene too,” Springsteen sings, in a perfect encapsulation of what David wants to say to everyone in his orbit but can’t. So it makes sense that I love “Fourth Of July,” the fifth episode and midpoint of “Red Oaks” and my favorite so far. Independence Day is supposed to be a time of celebration and hope; life in America is great now but it can only get greater. But “Fourth Of July” had a wonderful plaintive sadness running through the entire episode. There is hope there — that Wheeler might now actually get the girl, that Skye may actually want to spend time with Getty, that Nash will become rich off of insider trading — but there’s also an inherent sadness to the episode. It’s all handled beautifully by Hal Hartley, a director who flashed big on the indie scene in the ’90s but has faded away since. That’s best perhaps personified through Judy’s thread throughout the episode. She was my least favorite part of the pilot, all broad innuendo and nag nag nagging over Sam. But as her character has developed, she’s become this beacon for a life not-yet-lived. In “MDMA,” she talks about her loss identity, how she feels adrift without a role as mother or as a happy housewife. But going to the party at her yoga teacher’s house just confused her more. She has no idea what she is, how she was born, because she’s never seen it before. This hidden happiness is presented to her twice in the episode: as her yoga teacher adjusts her and she begins to feel better than the average stretch and when that same teacher takes her face in her hands and is on the verge of kissing her. But her teacher’s advances only confuse Judy more. She’s ignorant of her own lust. Her final scene of the episode is not one of lust, as she stares at the girl in the bikini walking down the street and swaying a sparkler. She may be attracted to this girl, but what pulls Judy to her as the girl walks slowly away is a sense of freedom that she has never gotten the chance to experience. Sam is adorably ignorant of everything, mistaking Yvonne for Juan and believing that the mustachioed man with the Marines tattoo is as straight as he is. It’s lovely comic foil to Judy’s inherent sadness. Sam can’t see what’s right in front of him while Judy is just starting to open her eyes.
Tweet(s) of the Day:
Producers take a good small movie by a guy as a sign he’s ready to step up; by a woman, it’s a sign that she’s found her niche.
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) October 18, 2015
When Larry David was on SNL he got one sketch on the air. 30 years later he’s Bernie Sanders: pic.twitter.com/YyzAPdIkZt
— Mike Ryan (@mikeryan) October 18, 2015