Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Depression Modern: The Existential Risk-Taking of “The Leftovers.” HBO’s “The Leftovers,” a series about life after The Departure in which 2% of the world’s population inexplicably disappears, garnered mostly positive reviews in its first season, but many claimed that its bleak worldview stifled the series. But now in its second season, critics argue that the series has taken a leap forward. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum writes about how the second season expanded on the first and acts almost like a reboot.
At heart, “The Leftovers” is about grief, an emotion that is particularly hard to dramatize, if only because it can be so burdensome and static. The show, like the novel, is set a few years after the Departure, a mysterious event in which, with no warning, two per cent of the world’s population disappears. Celebrities go; so do babies. Some people lose their whole family, others don’t know anyone who has “departed.” The entire cast of “Perfect Strangers” blinks out (though, in a rare moment of hilarity, Mark Linn-Baker turns out to have faked his death). Conspiracy theories fly, people lose their religion or become fundamentalists — and no one knows how to feel. The show’s central family, the Garveys, who live in Mapleton, New York, appear to have lost no one, yet they’re emotionally shattered. Among other things, the mother, Laurie (an amazing Amy Brenneman, her features furrowed with disgust), joins a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose members dress in white, chain-smoke, and do not speak. They stalk the bereaved, refusing to let anyone move on from the tragedy. Her estranged husband, Kevin (Justin Theroux), the chief of police, has flashes of violent instability; their teenage children drift away, confused and alarmed. That’s the plot, but the series is often as much about images (a girl locked in a refrigerator, a dog that won’t stop barking) and feelings (fury, suicidal alienation) as about events; it dives into melancholy and the underwater intensity of the grieving mind without any of the usual relief of caper-like breakthroughs. Other cable dramas, however ambitious, fuel themselves on the familiar story satisfactions of brilliant iconoclasts taking risks: cops, mobsters, surgeons, spies. “The Leftovers” is structured more like explorations of domestic intimacy such as “Friday Night Lights,” but marinated in anguish and rendered surreal. The Departure itself is a simple but highly effective metaphor. In the real world, of course, people disappear all the time: the most ordinary death can feel totally bizarre and inexplicable, dividing the bereaved as often as it brings them closer. But “The Leftovers” is more expansive than that, evoking, at various moments, New York after 9/11, and also Sandy Hook, Charleston, Indonesia, Haiti, and every other red-stringed pin on our pre-apocalyptic map of trauma. At its eeriest, the show manages to feel both intimate and world-historical: it’s a fable about a social catastrophe threaded into the story of a lacerating midlife divorce.
2. Blame “Steve Jobs” Slow Roll-Out For Its Poor Box Office Numbers. Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s new film “Steve Jobs” opened wide last Friday but despite its critical acclaim and promising numbers in major markets, the film hasn’t done well nationwide. Though the Internet has many theories, like Michael Fassbender’s relatively low-profile and over-saturation of “adult” films currently in theaters, none have really made a mark except for one: the release strategy. Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey explores “Steve Jobs'” slow roll-out, how it places undue advantage on coastal regions, and how it may have affected the film’s numbers.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “platform release” refers to a film rolling out slowly in major markets before going into wide release — ostensibly to accumulate positive buzz, good reviews, and an impressive per-screen average as a kind of marketing ploy for its eventual run everywhere, even “the sticks.” So, in the case of “Jobs,” Universal followed well-received screenings at the Telluride and New York Film Festivals with a limited release to four theaters in New York and Los Angeles on October 9. It then expanded to 60 screens and a few additional markets the following Friday before breaking wide on the 23rd. This initially looked like a smart strategy: in that first weekend, “Jobs” saw a $130,380/per screen average, the best for any film this year and the sixth-best of all time for a live-action film. In week two, it boasted $25k/per screen. But as “Forbes'” Mendelsohn notes, buzz for the picture was actually dissipating over that two-week stretch, rather than building. “Sure, they got two weeks of terrific per-screen-averages,” he writes, “but they also let the film’s news cycle (reviews, think pieces, reaction essays, etc.) play out before anyone had a chance to see it.” Universal originally planned to just go wide on the 9th; they certainly would’ve lost the weekend to “The Martian,” but might’ve boasted a more significant take overall that the $9.9 million it’s accumulated thus far. But, to be candid, this is something your film editor isn’t exactly an objective observer on. You see, I hail from the Midwest, aka flyover country, aka not a “major market,” aka not a “select city,” where I just spent some vacation time visiting family and covering my hometown film festival. And while there, I contemplated taking advantage of free baby-sitters and taking my wife to see “Jobs” — only to be reminded that no, we couldn’t do that there, because Kansas isn’t important enough to see movies when the big city folk do. Look, I get why small and small-ish indie flicks platform; when you’ve only got limited resources at your disposal, the buzz and revenue of a slow rollout are legitimately valuable (or, in the worst-case scenario, can prevent distributors from throwing good money after bad). But in the prestige picture-heavy fall season, even big-budgeted, studio-distributed, star-led movies adopt the strategy, and it’s infuriating for the pockets of film fans that exist all over the country. It’s hard not to take it personally, as coastal cultural elitism — it’s not like they’re not going to release these movies in those markets, they’re just going to make them wait, for no real reason other than that they can.
3. The 25 Best Horror Movies Since 2000. It’s October, and besides the fall foliage and the impending arrival of winter, it’s also the month of Halloween, which inevitably means classic and contemporary horror flicks of all shapes and sizes. In light of this annually spooky fare, The A.V. Club published a list of the 25 best horror films since the new millennium and it’s an eerily good list.
“The Host”: Elements of horror, comedy, melodrama, action, agitprop, and several other genres intermingle in Bong Joon-ho’s crazy-quilt creature feature, about an enormous amphibious mutant that suddenly crawls out of Seoul’s Han River one day. In some respects, “The Host” is Bong’s version of a Godzilla movie; in particular, it boasts a similar origin story, with the monster accidentally created by an American military advisor who cuts corners by pouring 200 bottles of expired formaldehyde down the drain. In lieu of the lumbering beasts familiar from Japanese monster movies, however, Bong and his effects team fashioned a slimy, fast-moving fish with legs, able to wreak havoc on a smaller, more thrilling scale. And yet it’s arguably the least of the hero’s problems, given the outrageous institutional negligence and incompetence on display throughout the movie. Come for the virtuosic mayhem, stay for the bitter political commentary.
“The Ring”: Japanese horror had a profound influence on genre filmmakers and fans in the early years of the 21st century, leading Hollywood to respond the only way it knew how: by pumping out a slew of misguided remakes. Of course, every trend produces an exception — which, in this case, happens to be the movie that kicked it all off. With its urban-legend premise (watch a mysterious VHS tape, die within a week), perpetually overcast Pacific Northwest backdrop, and meticulously cold color scheme, Gore Verbinski’s remake of “Ringu” is an exercise in horror atmospherics, Hollywood-style. In lieu of gore, “The Ring” offers a careful balance of immediate and abstract threats — with the spooked horse that leaps to its death in the propellers of a ferry falling somewhere squarely between the two.
“The Descent”: The most effective horror films use emotional turmoil as a backdrop for genre tropes, and few recent films do this more effectively than Neil Marshall’s “The Descent,” which elegantly combines grief and claustrophobia with the fear of being eaten alive by preternatural monsters. “The Descent” terrifies even the most hardened horror fans because they can relate to the characters, a sextet of fearless female spelunkers too hubristic to fear the unknown. They rappel into a subterranean cave system — just the latest of their death-defying girlfriend getaways — only for their friendships to fracture after a series of mishaps leaves them trapped without hope of rescue. Marshall builds the relationships and ratchets up the dread so effectively, it’s easy to forget it’s supposed to be a monster movie. By the time the pale, razor-toothed foes show up, Marshall is gilding the lily. It’s scary enough watching the friendships dissolve as the women are sealed inside a coffin of rocks.
4. Redefining Authorship: Arthur Freed’s “Meet Me In St. Louis.” The current Symposium at Reverse Shot focuses on acknowledging the collaborative aspect of film. The publication has asked its contributors to pitch them articles on the “real” author of a certain text to try to redefine it away from the possessive author. Yesterday, Michael Koresky argues that Arthur Freed is the true author of Vincente Minnelli’s “Meet Me In St. Louis.”
There’s no better — or trickier — place to start than “Meet Me in St. Louis,” one of the most naggingly perfect of all American movies, and the film that is generally considered the first true blossoming of director Vincente Minnelli’s genius. It was Freed and Minnelli’s second film together after the prior year’s “Cabin in the Sky,” a whimsical and moralizing black-and-white musical fable with an all African-American cast that still impresses thanks to its theatrical design and for showcasing such knockout performers as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Ethel Waters, and Lena Horne. Minnelli, an erstwhile Marshall Field’s window dresser, had been a sensation on Broadway for many years because of his elaborate, eye-popping stage designs, but Freed was the first producer who knew what to do with him, tempting him to return to Hollywood in the early forties after a failed Hollywood venture in the thirties with Paramount. Freed, who had proven his might to the powers that be at MGM as a crucial, if uncredited, creative driving force on “The Wizard of Oz” — he suggested making the film a musical, and hiring Roger Edens as musical director and Judy Garland as star — was entrusted with a new unit devoted exclusively to musicals, and Minnelli was one of his first gets. It was thus Freed’s idea to join two of his most promising talents, Minnelli and Garland, on a project that would prove the compositional elegance and musical know-how of the former and solidify the graceful maturing of the latter, who was twenty-one and at a turning point in her career when she would have to start headlining adult dramas. At the time, “Meet Me in St. Louis” was an unlikely candidate for the movie musical, which was often a format for fantasy worlds or let’s-put-on-a-show narratives featuring songs that stood out as performative to-camera moments rather than as engines for moving along the story. Adapted from semi-autobiographical stories by Sally Benson, first published in the “New Yorker” in the early forties, about growing up on 5135 Kensington Avenue in the titular city at the turn of the twentieth century, “Meet Me in St. Louis” could have been little more than a nostalgia-drenched propaganda piece about the innocence of upper-middle-class America tailor-made for a homefront audience looking for positive mirror images during wartime. Instead, it offers the kind of sly, no-nonsense perspicacity about American life and sense of encroaching darkness that marks the greatest Hollywood films, making it more akin to “The Magnificent Ambersons” than “Pollyanna”; it’s a film about American history fully attuned to the daily sacrifices and delusions that even the most privileged among us must face. At the same time, being an Arthur Freed film, it’s also as exuberant and eager-to-please as a vaudeville number, with the rises and falls and tonal consistency of a perfect pop song.
5. Maureen O’Hara: An Alternate Canon. A few days ago, legendary actress Maureen O’Hara tragically passed away at the age of 95. Many publications have published tributes honoring her legacy, but we at Criticwire wanted to highlight one in particular. At his blog, veteran critic Glenn Kenny puts forth an alternate canon of O’Hara’s best work, emphasizing films that have been left out of her “best of.”
“Jamaica Inn” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1939): O’Hara’s more-or-less debut film (her first, at least, under her stage name) is frequently pooh-poohed as “minor Hitchcock,” and the director himself disparages it in “Hitchcock/Truffaut” on account of having been given a hard time by Charles Laughton, but let us never forget that “minor Hitchcock” is better than 95 percent of “major” whoever. This is a highly cracking, cinema-wise, period piece — “[Hitchcock] did not fall into the trap of historical reconstruction but focused instead on making a baroque and highly embellished work,” Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol aptly enthused in their study of Hitch — and young Maureen, entrusted with the job of both carrying the narrative and acting as audience surrogate, does an exceptional job, especially for an 18-year-old.
“The Land Is Mine” (Jean Renoir, 1943): It is interesting to contrast Renoir’s affectionate near-exasperation with Laughton with Hitchcock’s dismissive account of his frustration. But we’re not here to discuss Laughton, O’Hara’s mentor (had her under contract and everything). This too-little seen wartime quasi-allegory (set “Somewhere In Europe”) features O’Hara quite convincingly portraying an ordinary person under extraordinary circumstances, a school teacher beloved of sad-sack colleague Laughton, who finds his courage and voice after being accused of killing O’Hara’s quisling boyfriend (George Sanders!). Renoir seems hemmed-in by RKO’s backlots, but the movie is not without its touches—a firing-squad scene witnessed by Laughton, the relative nuance of Una O’Connor, of all people, and more.
“The Deadly Companion” (Sam Peckinpah, 1961): Early Peckinpah in lyrical mode, with Brian Keith as a scarred (in many respects) ex-soldier and O’Hara as a dance hall girl whose son Keith has accidentally killed. They band together to cross Apache territory to bury the dead by his father. O’Hara (who found Peckinpah “objectionable”) is fiery in grief; the chemistry between her and Keith is rather different than what they displayed in “The Parent Trap,” on screen that same year.
6. On “Crimson Peak” And Alternative Chick-Flicks. Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” has racked up critical acclaim in many quarters for its visual style and production design which has debts to gothic romance. But can it also be described as a “chick flick.” At her blog, Anne Bilson writes about “Crimson Peak” and alternative “chick-flicks,” and how the latter’s definition should be expanded.
What is clear, though, is that “Crimson Peak” might almost be designed to appeal to the young female demographic addicted to the “Twilight” franchise, which pounces on anything to do with “Wuthering Heights,” “Jane Eyre,” or “Northanger Abbey” with their brooding anti-heroes, beleaguered heroines and high-gothic plotting. Whether or not the message will get through to its intended audience remains to be seen; the film, with its tantalizing glimpse of Tom Hiddleston’s buttocks, may yet find itself welcomed into the Hen Party DVD canon. But it reminded me of this piece I wrote for the Guardian in 2008. It was intended as tongue-in-cheek, though inevitably some readers got hot under the collar about it. How dared I suggest that Miyazaki’s anime or “Suspiria” were chick-flicks! The very idea! But dividing genres into male and female is a ridiculous pursuit in the first place, of course, and since the term “chick-flick” is invariably used derisively, I just thought it was time we extended its reach a little. What do women want? The trailer for the remake of “The Women” has been filling me with dread. Shopping, nail varnish, having a baby, sassy girlfriends spouting brassy one-liners and the art of finding, keeping or standing by your man – all the usual chick-flick boxes are well and truly ticked. It’s like “Sex and the City” all over again. I’ll admit a decent rom-com can sometimes warm the cockles, and must confess to a minor obsession with the role of nail varnish in the movies, but since when did women’s concerns become so limited? The worst thing is that we so often acquiesce in our own stereotyping. I still have nightmares about an otherwise convivial hen weekend where, once the male stripper had got his kit back on, the well-meaning hostess presented us with a choice of “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Steel Magnolias” and “Pretty Woman” on DVD. I think it was at this point that I ran screaming from the room. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Isn’t it time we expanded the definition of “chick-flick” to include more exciting elements? Why is it assumed that women aren’t interested in the lust for power, mid-life crises, saving the world and so on? Why does it always have to be weddings and shopping?
Tweet of the Day:
I can see several ways “Walking Dead” could backtrack from what happened, but no way it could backtrack and I’d still watch.
— Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint) October 26, 2015