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Daily Reads: The Latest Pixar Short Is Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen, David Simon on the Drama of Journalism, and More

Daily Reads: The Latest Pixar Short Is Like Nothing You've Ever Seen, David Simon on the Drama of Journalism, and More

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

1. The Latest Pixar Short Is Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen.
For over twenty years, Pixar has been one of the most innovative animation studios in the country. They constantly push the medium forward not just by their eye-popping computer-based palette, but also through fascinating narratives that engage both children and adults. Though their latest film “The Good Dinosaur” has received mixed review from critics, the short in front of it has garnered raves. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore writes about how Sanjay Patel’s “Sanjay Super Team” is like nothing you’ve seen from the company before.

“Sanjay’s Super Team” is dialogue-free, like most Pixar shorts, but unlike most Pixar shorts, it’s personal — starting with a title card about how it’s based on the “mostly true story” of Patel’s relationship with his father growing up, and ending with a photo of the two of them. It features a young Sanjay watching superhero cartoons on television when his father insists he join him in daily prayers. The boy is resentful and bored until he imagines a melding of the Hindu gods to whom his dad is paying obeisance and the characters in his shows and action figures, a cultural middle ground where he and his parent can meet. Patel had, for years, created pop art illustrations about Hindu mythology and the “Ramayana” on the side, publishing books and putting together art exhibits on his own time. At his day job at Pixar, Patel helped make “Toy Story 2,” about toys that come to life, “The Incredibles,” about a super-powered family trying to blend into suburban life, and “Ratatouille,” about a rat with a passion for haute cuisine — a wide range of stories, but not wide enough for Patel to intuit a place for his own work among them. Which is telling for a company that isn’t just famous for making children’s films with grownup sophistication and emotional maturity, but also for building contemporary classics out of unexpected themes and characters. “Inside Out,” the company’s other 2015 feature, took place in the mindscape of an adolescent girl — hardly an easy sell in terms of concept. For it never to have occurred to Patel that Pixar might be interested in the stories he wanted to tell says more about animation in general, and the kinds of things we can end up internalizing as having the broadest appeal. “I never saw any depictions of characters like me, not just at Pixar but the American animation industry in general,” said Patel, whose parents are from Gujarat, India, but who did most of his growing up in San Bernardino, California. “I never saw somebody of color reach this opportunity to even tell a story that had a minority represented. I just felt like I got this subtle message that because you don’t see yourself reflected in media, you don’t matter. Your stories don’t matter. I think it’s just a subconscious message that you get from pop culture at large.”

2. David Simon On The Drama of Journalism.
Former journalist and creator of such great TV shows like “The Wire,” “Treme,” and the recent miniseries, “Show Me A Hero,” David Simon has a lot of opinions about journalism, process stories, and their depiction in the media. Fortunately, he’s a big fan of the recent Tom McCarthy film “Spotlight.” Vulture’s Jada Yuan talks with Simon about “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy’s time on “The Wire,” and his feelings on Vulture as a whole.

It feels like you don’t see depictions of newspapers in pop culture much anymore. “The Newsroom” and this new movie about Dan Rather, “Truth,” are both about TV journalism.

Listen, I don’t think TV is able to accomplish the same things as prose. But I don’t care about newsprint. I don’t care about cutting down trees and throwing them on people’s doorsteps. That is an anachronism. We’re all going to be working digitally. Everybody in prose is going to work digitally. I mean, books are going to hang on longer because they’re things with greater permanence in the culture, but it’s hard to imagine that any periodical’s digital presence isn’t going to be prominent. So I don’t care about the newsprint at all. That day is gone, and rightly so. I care about the newsroom. The newsroom matters to me because the newsroom is a source of collective institutional wisdom and knowledge and ethics that can’t be replicated by individuals who are working a blog or who are on their own. It’s hard to explain, but the hierarchy of the newsroom is extremely valuable for imposing an ethical standard on reporting and making sure that what was printed was not only true but contextualized and fair. It doesn’t mean it was perfect, it doesn’t mean it always worked, but there was always a core value of the newsroom that at least had to be addressed or argued with. As I often tell people who try to suggest that internet bloggers can somehow replace the ethos and talent of the newsroom, some of the greatest moments of journalism I ever witnessed were editors spiking stories and not publishing things that were not properly reported or were only partially true, partially reported, or things that they were unsure of. Holding back from putting something out there that might not yet be as fair as it could be, some of those moments were the ones that I was proud to be involved with. There’s no comparable moment I can imagine on the internet. Everything just gets thrown up there the moment somebody gets a photograph or a fact. You really see the lack of an ethic. By the way, you work for New York Magazine?

Yes. Ha. Go on.

The magazine has a standard within its pages that is infinitely superior to Vulture. Now, sometimes Vulture just repeats the magazine and that’s fine. Sometimes there’s very meaningful reporting and essays on Vulture. But sometimes Vulture is a piece of shit, in a way that the magazine is not. The delivery system of the future belongs to the internet, and we’re not going to be cutting down trees and throwing them on people’s doorsteps, so Vulture is the way of the future. But God help us if it’s the standard!

3. Shoe Leather: On “Spotlight.”
Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” focuses on the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church and the massive conspiracy to cover up a host of pedophile priests that work for them. It’s been critically acclaimed and is currently an awards frontrunner. The L.A. Review of Books’ Charles Taylor writes about how “Spotlight” succeeds in telling its particular story and how it’s anything but conventional.

For writer-director McCarthy and his co-writer Singer, “Spotlight” is a leap in terms of scale and depth. McCarthy’s previous films, among them “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” have been small, character-driven dramas that invariably win praise but also, from a certain type of cineaste, are dismissed as quaint and unexciting. (“Sundance movies” is the favored pejorative.) And it just might be that the initial praise for “Spotlight” will give way to faint praise that it’s “conventional.” (I’ve already read one clueless review that chastises it for its “lack of scope and ambition,” though how a film about an investigation that opened a worldwide dam of disclosure can be characterized that way, I don’t know.) Avoiding the obvious — that nowadays there’s nothing conventional about a superbly crafted mainstream movie for adults — “Spotlight” does what it does so deftly that all it does is not at first apparent. “Spotlight” joins the ranks of the great American muckraking pictures, from “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” to “On the Waterfront,” “All the President’s Men,” and “The Border.” In form, it’s a reaffirmation of the possibilities of good clean mainstream craftsmanship, and in content it’s a full-throated huzzah for the shoe-leather style of journalism that digital culture and the economic chaos it’s wrought in the newspaper business has done so much to obliterate. Apart from shots of the reporters quickly checking a fact and Ruffalo’s Rezendes synthesizing their accumulated information into the final story, we don’t see the reporters sitting at a computer. We see them walking Boston’s working-class Irish neighborhoods, ringing doorbells and often being angrily told to go away, hanging out in office waiting rooms while the officials they’ve come to talk to try to avoid them, digging through archives that look as if they haven’t been touched in years, trying to ferret out information during a golf game or over a drink at some official function. These scenes and montages are thrilling. We know what the reporters are going to uncover. The excitement of “Spotlight,” like the excitement of “All the President’s Men,” lies in watching how they go about it, the mixture of instinct and brains and sheer dumb luck that it takes to break a story, plus the reporters’ own mingling of fear and thrill when they realize the scope of that story.

4. Robert Loggia 1930-2015.
Last Friday, character actor Robert Loggia died at 85 years old. Loggia was always a thrilling presence in every film or television show he appeared in, and he had a classic “street tough” look that became an undeniable signature. RogerEbert.com’s Peter Sobczynski pays tribute to the late character actor and discusses what made him so special.

The life of a character actor is a curious one indeed. They don’t always get the best scripts, the choicest roles or the most screen time. When average moviegoers discuss them, they tend to be referred to solely as “that guy who was in that thing.” If they are recognized, it tends to be because of a striking resemblance to someone’s uncle. And yet, there are some actors of this type who manage to break through these obstacles and connect with audiences in ways that many conventional movie stars could only dream of approximating. One fine example of this kind of performer was Robert Loggia, who passed away today at the age of 85 following a five-year-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Over the course of a career that spanned nearly 60 years, his cheerfully gruff persona, which he could transform into pure malevolence with frightening ease when required, allowed him to rise through the ranks until he became a much-loved actor in films and on television. Born on January 3, 1930, on Staten Island to parents who were immigrants from Sicily, he graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a journalism degree in 1951 and also served a hitch in the army. In his early twenties, he was bitten by the acting bug and decided to try to make a go of it, studying at the Actors Studio under Stella Adler before appearing first on Broadway and then in the blossoming medium of television, where he would make appearances on shows like “Studio One in Hollywood,” “Playhouse 90” and “Wagon Train” before making his first real impact in 1958 as real-life lawman Elfego Baca on “The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca,” a miniseries developed by Walt Disney that was aired as part of the enormously popular “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” (In 1966, Disney would edit together several episodes and transform them into the ersatz feature “Elfego Baca: Six Gun Law.”) In 1956, he would make his film debut in a unbilled bit part in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and would make appearances over the next few years in films such as “The Garment Jungle” (1957), “Cop Hater” (1958), “The Lost Missile” (1958) and George Stevens’ all-star Bible epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965), where he portrayed Joseph.

5. Make It Real: Video Revives The Radio Star.
If you’ve paid attention to documentary films this year, you’re probably aware that there have been a host of music documentaries this year, with everything from “Amy” to “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” But just because the music doc is hot right now doesn’t mean that they are the pinnacle of the genre itself. Film Comment’s Eric Hynes writes about the Peak Music Doc phenomenon and what it says about documentary filmmaking.

Before I get too high-minded about this, the truth is that I’ve loved some of these films. Made with the full cooperation of and collaboration with Nick Cave, “20,000 Days on Earth” (14) is a singular work, refracting one artist’s vision through the equally strong and stubborn vision of the filmmakers. I’m also a sucker for “Searching for Sugar Man’s” career-reviving storytelling, even as I’m aware of its manipulations, which feel earned rather than imposed. Yet while I enjoyed “Amy” and “Montage of Heck” in parts (what the latter makes of Kurt Cobain’s audiotape recollection of his first sexual experience still haunts me nearly a year later), in the end they slid into the familiar groove of the young artist that burns brightly before burning out. Their filmmakers are curious about form, but that formal curiosity feels hitched to another, more tracked ride. Now that the music doc is big business, and record companies and artist estates have taken the lead, there’s less chance of the actual films being auteurist expressions, or of one artist interpreting and communing with another. The who’s-zooming-who days of “Gimme Shelter” and “Sympathy For the Devil” were over as soon as they began — witness the shelvings of “Cocksucker Blues” (72) and “A Poem Is a Naked Person” (74), the latter of which finally made it to theaters in 2015, four decades after Leon Russell decided it was too weird and off brand to earn his approval. Now, more than ever, these are jobs one applies for. Assignments given and taken. Permissions granted. That doesn’t make good art impossible, but it’s also not required. Not with the storylines readymade, with their rising and falling and rising again, their complicated portraits of difficult but brilliant/trailblazing/unsung musicians, and with their once novel formal conceits — largely or entirely archival, no talking heads, staged sequences — beginning to seem rote. What I found exhilarating about “20,000 Days on Earth” was how Cave seemed both exalted and manhandled, physically representing his own life and career as well as the ideas being forwarded by the filmmakers. I felt similarly about the ideas-motivated “Listen to Me Marlon,” which isn’t a music doc but is about an iconic artist, and was made with the participation of the Brando estate. But I feel and fear that these are outliers in a rising tide of adequate movies produced to make good on licensed properties.

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