Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Life and Death in “Star Wars” and “Creed.” In 2015, two decades-old franchises roared back to life in part by acknowledging that they’re old. Both “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Creed” featured aging characters confronting mortality at every step of the way, which in turn means the franchises are also doing the same. Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich explores life and death in “Star Wars,” “Creed,” and other movie franchises.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Creed” aren’t just about their aging stars. Both films go out of their way to reboot with an ensemble cast younger, cuter, fuller of life. Han and Rocky both meet surrogate children, played by attractive actors with the brightest possible futures. (Rocky and Han need surrogate children; their actual spawn won’t speak to them.) The central drama of both movies gets bifurcated along generational lines. You could argue the real protagonists are Rey and Adonis on their journey towards self-realization. But Han and Rocky’s journeys aim in stranger, more unsettling, less rah-rah direction. Lots of people have pointed out how “Creed” turns Rocky into Mickey, how “Force Awakens” makes Han the new Obi-Wan. (Time is a wheel: Student becomes teacher, boxer becomes trainer, scoundrel-skeptic becomes self-sacrificing true believer.) But we didn’t have six movies demonstrating the ravages of time on Mickey’s face. And we didn’t meet Young Obi-Wan Kenobi until long, long, long after we met Dead Obi-Wan Kenobi. Han Solo and Rocky Balboa were never tragic figures, but that’s how they feel in “Force Awakens” and “Creed.” Their lives have not gone as planned. Even if they did, surely this wasn’t the plan. Rocky is a Heavyweight Champion many times over. Now, he spends his lonely mornings reading the newspaper to dead loved ones. Han Solo saved the universe. Now, he’s running weird smuggling con games on the outer fringe of the galaxy. They both stare Death in the face. Does it matter if they survive? Nobody does, in the end. There have always been movie franchises. Now, there are more movie franchises. This is because of money, and the fear of original ideas, and a vaguely new-ish thirst for never-ending stories. Lots of people point to the James Bond series as the model and the goal. What studio wouldn’t want a franchise that gets bigger when it turns 50?
2. How “Carol” Got Snubbed Come Awards Season. Todd Haynes’ new film “Carol” is one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and yet since awards season rolls around, it hasn’t gotten much love. Though “Carol” racked up Oscar nominations in the Actress, Score, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, and Costume categories, it was snubbed for the two categories it should have locked: Best Director and Best Picture. Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey theorizes about how “Carol” got shut out come Oscar season.
Over at “Vanity Fair,” Richard Lawson posits: “Maybe it’s that, yep, ‘Carol’ is too gay. The film chronicles the beginnings and early stumbles of a lesbian relationship in repressed 1950s New York, and though its broader themes of passion and heartache may be universal, this is a film written by a gay woman (based on a book by a gay woman), directed by a gay man, that speaks in a vernacular that, I’d guess, only queer people are fully fluent in. Perhaps that was just too narrow, too restricting, too limited in scope for the Academy.” But that’s letting straight people off the hook. One of the most striking thing about “Carol” is, outside of its specific period and cultural trappings, how exquisitely it captures the first flush of infatuation and attraction, and the deepening of that feeling into genuine love. That’s a feeling any viewer can understand, and one put across by Phyllis Nagy’s script, Haynes’ direction, and Blanchett and Mara’s playing – done not only with skill, but with less understatement than the popular narrative would have it. Watch the way those two look at each other when the other’s not watching in that department store scene and the lunch that follows, the hunger with which they’re stealing glances, the electricity of that attraction. That’s why the other popular explanation for “Carol’s” lack of connection to award bodies, its supposed “coldness” or “remove,” smells so bad. Is that just a nice way of saying, “Not enough hot girl-on-girl action”? Or maybe that claim of “coldness” is tied to the picture’s overall subtlety, and how it mostly avoids giant, blowout confrontations and soft-piano-accompanied confessions of one’s True Feelings for a story told in quiet conversations and the pauses between them.
3. Celebrating the Invisible Artistry and Great Direction of “Spotlight.” Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” was nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, including one for McCarthy for Best Director, angering the contingent of writers and critics who believe “Spotlight” has no visual flair. ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer argues that “Spotlight” supposedly “workmanlike” direction contains some great craft and artistry.
“Spotlight” certainly doesn’t have the visual panache of “The Revenant” or “The Hateful Eight,” but that doesn’t automatically make it a lesser film. Lavish cinematic style is not an automatic and objective good. It needs to suit the material. And it would not suit the material in “Spotlight.” This is a story about singularly focused journalists who work tirelessly but anonymously in a drab, nondescript office. These are not glamorous people performing exotic activities. They wear big puffy shirts and pleated khakis. They constantly scribble in writer’s notebooks. They hang out in forgotten library archives next to rotting rat carcasses. “Spotlight’s” direction is “unsexy” because it depicts a world that is unsexy; it is “workmanlike” because it depicts a world of work. If the “Boston Globe” reporters’ jobs were fun and exciting, everyone would do them and the newspaper business would be thriving. The whole point of the film is to show why these journalists’ efforts were important in spite of the fact that what they did was, by and large, boring, tedious, and monotonous. Gussying up this film with elaborate camera shots and eye-catching angles would be a betrayal of everything “Spotlight” represents. In the same way that the Spotlight team keep themselves out of the story, McCarthy keeps himself out of the movie. But that doesn’t mean he’s not there, or that film direction is purely the sum total of a movie’s flashy camera moves. Careful consideration of “Spotlight” reveals McCarthy’s subtle but brilliant direction, not just in terms of cinematography but production design, art direction, and editing as well. Little of it is showy and most of it is easy to miss, particularly if you get caught up in the riveting drama of the “Globe’s” investigation into the Catholic Church and its unseemly practices.
4. Revisiting All 8 of Freddy’s Nightmares and the Richest Slasher Franchises. In 1984, Wes Craven released “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to much critical and commercial acclaim. Over thirty years and many sequels later, the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise has fallen in esteem, like every other horror franchise. At The A.V. Club’s Run the Series column, Kenji Fujishima claims that the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise is due for a reappraisal.
The seeds were planted in 1984 with “A Nightmare On Elm Street” — and it is immediately apparent just how different from the norm Wes Craven’s entry into the slasher subgenre was. The premise combines his own childhood experiences being bullied by a classmate named Fred Krueger with reports of some Cambodian refugees supposedly dying in their sleep from disturbing nightmares, Craven conceived of a malevolent child killer with knives for fingers who targeted teens through their dreams. But Craven’s tweaks to the slasher formula run deeper than that. There’s its more empathetic and empowering view of teenagers, especially in light of the behavior of their parents. Generally, parents of teenagers in the “Halloween” and “Friday The 13th” movies are either absent-minded or merely absent, leaving teenagers free to do whatever they please. In “A Nightmare On Elm Street,” however, parents are not only oblivious to the travails of their children, but in some ways actively harmful to them. After all, it was the parents of the now-teenagers on Elm Street who burned Fred Krueger alive in a fit of outraged vigilante justice, and who are now trying to shove that bloody past under a rug as their offspring suffer the consequences. In Craven’s world, it’s the teenagers who dare to face the brutality in front of them, while the adults pretend there’s nothing strange going on. And then there are the teens themselves — the film’s heroine especially. As resourceful as “Halloween’s” Laurie Strode or “Friday The 13th’s” Alice are in warding off the murderous advances of the killers going after them, their attacks are ultimately more defensive than offensive in nature — mostly a matter of using whatever is at their disposal at any given moment to fend off their attackers. Freddy Krueger’s brand of evil, though, demands someone that can match him in sheer imagination, and that’s what distinguishes “A Nightmare On Elm Street’s” Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) from the horror-heroine pack. Langenkamp exudes a sense of headstrong street smarts fully in tune with Craven’s more empowering take on the final girl; she’s positively subversive in a traditionally male-dominated genre.
5. Remembering Alan Rickman’s Greatest Screen Roles. The film world is still mourning the loss of the great character actor Alan Rickman, best known for his work in “Die Hard” and the “Harry Potter” films. At Vulture, writer Noel Murray pays tribute to Rickman’s greatest screen roles, including some overlooked performances that deserve our recognition.
“Truly, Madly, Deeply”: Hans Gruber may be Rickman’s most iconic role for moviegoers over the age of 35, but his best performance overall is in writer-director Anthony Minghella’s cult classic rom-dramedy “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” playing the ghost of a grieving woman’s dead boyfriend. Juliet Stevenson plays Nina, who’s initially thrilled to have her lover back in her life, until she begins to realize that he’s a lot needier and more demanding than she’d remembered. Rickman strikes a tricky balance between charming and obnoxious throughout “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” fully embodying Minghella’s meditation on the complicated feelings that accompany a loss.
“Sense and Sensibility”: After establishing his ability to play the louse early in his career, Rickman spent a good remainder of his life taking on roles that exploited — and subverted — audience expectations. As Colonel Brandon in director Ang Lee and writer/star Emma Thompson’s lovely version of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” Rickman initially comes across as chilly to the point of inhumane. That’s what makes it all the more moving when the Colonel generously nurtures Kate Winslet’s sickly Marianne Dashwood, revealing a hidden tenderness that blossoms into romance. Many of Austen’s stories are about the unexpected depths of virtue within seemingly unremarkable men and women, which made the casting of Rickman a kind of masterstroke. It showed how well Thompson and company understood the material.
“Galaxy Quest”: The loss of Rickman may permanently squelch the long-standing talk about a sequel to “Galaxy Quest,” the science-fiction comedy that saw the actor playing the reluctant Leonard Nimoy–like star of a “Star Trek”–esque TV series. Rickman is sublimely funny as depressed thespian Alexander Dane — and as the heroic character, Dr. Lazarus, he can’t seem to escape — but “Galaxy Quest” itself is such a little gem that maybe it’s for the best that it can’t be tarnished now by a disappointing follow-up. As it stands, the performance is just about perfect, following an arc from prickly to powerful as Dane discovers what it really means to be Lazarus during an actual outer-space adventure. Plus, Rickman developed a real rapport with his co-star Sigourney Weaver, with whom he’d appear again in the heartbreaking 2006 melodrama “Snow Cake.”
6. Truly, Madly, Deeply: The Long-time Crush on Alan Rickman. Throughout Alan Rickman’s storied career, he has amassed a fan base of people who adore his subtle acting, his deep voice, and his dark charm. For many, at least many more than you might think, Rickman was a secret celebrity crush that burned long and bright. At her blog, veteran writer Joyce Millman examines about the history of her crush on Rickman and how it bonded her with many women over the years.
But I’m not here to write Alan Rickman’s obituary. I’m here to tell you a different story. The death of this particular actor has hit a lot of women harder than you can imagine, because Alan Rickman wasn’t just an actor — he was our secret celebrity boyfriend. The voice, like deep, dark molasses. The gangly, awkward beauty. The forbidding, intriguing hawklike profile. From the moment I saw Alan Rickman on screen as a ghost in “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” gazing at his leading lady Juliet Stevenson as if there was no one else in the universe, I was a goner. I was pregnant at the time, and I thought, maybe it was my hormonal state. Uh-uh. My Rickman thing stuck, for years. Sometimes it flamed brighter than others, but it was always there, simmering on a low flame. For a while, I thought I was alone, until a friend mentioned Alan Rickman in passing and I thought I detected a little something extra in the way she caressed those four syllables. I was right. She had it too. We passed a VHS tape of Rickman in “Murder, Obliquely,” an HBO film directed by Alfonso Cuaron, back and forth to each other across the country, sharing our celebrity crush like a couple of pre-teens mooning over a copy of Tiger Beat. There was a name for our affliction, but I didn’t learn it until the Internet came along. It was called “Rickmania,” and women had suffered its pleasures ever since he first slinked onto the stage as the silkily decadent Vicomte de Valmont in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” in 1986. Lindsey Duncan, his costar in the play, famously remarked that people were leaving the theater wanting to have sex, “preferably with Alan Rickman.” One British newspaper columnist tagged Alan “the thinking woman’s crumpet,” which was a nice bit of validation and reassurance for us grown-up women with satisfying real-life relationships who nonetheless inexplicably, sheepishly, fancied a bit of Rickman on the side.
Tweet of the Day:
Academy nominated SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM–about a non-white kid looking for heroic faces that look like his–apparently unaware of the irony.
— Scott Renshaw (@scottrenshaw) January 14, 2016