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Daily Reads: Why ‘Spotlight’ Has Style, ‘Star Wars’ and the Hollywood Nostalgia Machine, and More

Daily Reads: Why 'Spotlight' Has Style, 'Star Wars' and the Hollywood Nostalgia Machine, and More

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

1. Making Things Right: “Star Wars,” Nostalgia, and the Hollywood Machine.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has been written about to death ever since it opened in late December, but there have only been a handful of critical pieces that tackle the film as a text and as a product of corporate, Hollywood interests. This is one of them: The L.A. Review of Books’ J.D. Connor writes about how “The Force Awakens” makes things right by finally understanding itself.

In short, “The Force Awakens” is tighter than it has been given credit for. The problem — the problem that most reviewers have had with it, the problem that its defenders have had to shunt aside — is that the resonances with earlier versions are far too strong. These are not nifty callbacks for dedicated fans or the marks of a well-told tale. This movie is, in more ways than it should be, assembled out of the pieces and parts of the earlier ones, especially the first one, the one now called “Episode IV: A New Hope.” Critics have blamed J.J. Abrams, or George Lucas, or Disney (as Lucas and Michael Hitzlik have) for the film’s lack of novelty, but whomever they’ve singled out, the range of causes has been far too narrow, locating responsibility within the production narrative of “The Force Awakens.” That’s typical. For decades “Star Wars” has inspired a strangely blinkered sort of criticism that leans on the franchise’s unique success and Lucas’s unique authority to justify treating it as somehow apart from Hollywood as a whole. It has been seen as responsible for the end of The ’70s, but somehow not the product of that ending. Worse, Lucas’s own cod-Jungian narrative theory has governed the understanding of the films’ stories to the exclusion of changes in Hollywood storytelling over the same period. As a result, criticisms — or defenses — of “Star Wars’s” narrative retreading are misguided, not because the film is narratively innovative, but because critics continue to regard it as far more immune to the broad tendencies in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking than it is now or ever was.

2. On The Reserved and Refined Crafts of “Spotlight.”
Tom McCarthy’s new film “Spotlight” about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the abuses of the Catholic Church is widely considered an awards season frontrunner. Yet, many have claimed that the film lacks style or is visually inert. Variety’s Kristopher Tapley discusses the reserved and refined crafts of “Spotlight” via cinematography, editing, and directing.

Most of the early discussion centered on the emotional elements of the story, which really landed for Takayanagi when he first read the script. He was drawn to the fact that you don’t invest too much in any one character, and yet “for some reason, there was really great emotional flow in it,” he says. One visual decision of note revolved around the use of handheld photography. The film utilized handheld considerably everywhere apart from inside the actual Spotlight office, where it would more often settle down with locked-off tripod shots. This was to establish the focused work being put into the story in that space, deep within the bowels of the Globe, and the comparative chaos of gathering the information away from those confines. When it came to post-production, editor Tom McArdle had his work cut out for him. Keeping material this potentially dry interesting and moving is a challenge, even if a lot of the heavy lifting vis-a-vis pace happened in the script stage. “We spent eight months editing and we spent a lot of time thinking about pace and clarity,” McArdle says. “We would have screenings every three weeks and sort of feel where things were playing well and where they might be lagging. We ended up cutting out five complete scenes and then pieces of other scenes. A lot of scenes we would just cut out a line or two of dialogue just to keep it moving, but it was definitely a concern, to keep it interesting to people.” McArdle, who has edited each of McCarthy’s features to date, was in a position to see some added backstory for some of the characters that was ultimately dispatched, leaving a residue of a private life for each of them that is rarely plumbed by the narrative. “Some of the scenes were scenes of the reporters’ personal lives, and it just sort of seemed later in the edit that we wanted to stay focused on the investigation and we didn’t want things to sort of throw us off that course,” he says. “On [McCarthy’s] other films there were scenes we would have had a concern about losing, but not this one.”

3. “Unfriended” Redefines Art Direction For the Webcam Era.
Leo Gabriadze’s “Unfriended” is a found footage horror film set entirely within the confines of a Macbook screen. The film has garnered praise for its filmmaking choices within a decidedly new framework. For The A.V. Club’s Oscar This column, Adam Nayman praises “Unfriended” for its art direction in the “webcam era.”

The cynical view is that “Unfriended’s” desktop aesthetic, borrowed from Nacho Vigaldondo’s “Open Windows,” is just a gimmick. But it feels more like a real breakthrough in mise-en-scène — a kind of online production design that fixes the action in a time and place as surely as the costumes and vintage props in a period piece (which, in a way, “Unfriended” certainly is). The use of Facebook and Skype as structuring devices is brilliant: The sites’ standardized graphics and typefaces imply real-life social networks intertwining circa 2015. The potentially infinite points of connection and contrast permitted by new media are showcased as the tab showing the snuff video is closed and another one opens up into some Skyped sex play between high-school sweethearts Blaire (Shelley Hennig) and Mitchell (Moses Jacob Storm), who vamp for their respective webcams. But because we’re looking at Blaire’s computer screen, we can see all the things her hands are doing just out of Mitchell’s view — texting friends, surfing websites, or clicking through a playlist at the bottom of her taskbar. Immediately, “Unfriended” establishes a provocative dichotomy between how people present themselves online and what they’re actually thinking and doing at their keyboards, and as more characters join the fray via a group chat — infiltrated by the late and apparently supernaturally empowered Laura — we’re cued to realize that an equally compelling movie could potentially be made from their respective, digitally mediated points of view. In interviews, Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves explained that “Unfriended” was rehearsed more like a play than a movie, and filmed with its actors in separate rooms, each at a computer of their own as a way of “joining” the shoot in progress. Since the characters go in and out of the story at different points, they could use the breaks to take direction via text message. The original plan was to shoot the film in a series of 10-minute takes, but Hennig found it hard to get her energy up each time and asked if they could try to do the whole thing in one go, which is supposedly what was captured in the final cut. Even leaving aside its horror movie elements, “Unfriended” is thick with tension between the claustrophobic containment of the screen and the portals that get opened up to different places, people, and bits of plot information with each new program, file, or web page. This is an amazingly pressurized movie in the sense that it reflects — and also satirizes — its target teenage audience’s experience with the rituals and rhythms of online life. It unfolds as a tangle of pop-up ads, slow-loading videos, and stalled programs, all of which are presented with amazing fidelity, right down to the plausibly misspelled texts and dozens of hastily erased and rewritten IMs. It feels in many ways like the first movie produced for a generation that takes multi-tasking as second nature, and it exploits that distraction for dramatic effect.

4. The West Memphis 3’s Damien Echols on “Making a Murderer.”
If you’ve been on social media for the last month or so, you may have seen many, many people discussing the new Netflix true-crime series “Making a Murderer” about the story of Steven Avery, a man wrongly imprisoned for sexual assault and attempted murder, later exonerated, and then convicted yet again of murder. At The A.V. Club, The West Memphis 3’s Damien Echols, a man who is intimately aware of the injustices of the legal system, discusses his feelings about “Making a Murderer.”

I was convicted of three counts of capital murder in 1993. Along with the two others who were convicted with me, we became known as the West Memphis Three. After enough evidence had been found to grant us a new hearing that would prove our innocence, the state of Arkansas offered us an insane deal called the Alford plea — as part of it, we could legally claim we were innocent, but the state would maintain our guilt. The deal would prevent us from seeking compensation for the 18 years we spent in prison. I spent those years on death row, 10 of them in isolation. We took the deal, knowing that even if proven innocent it would take us years to be processed out of the prison system. We were released in 2011. Today all three of us are legally considered felons. Steven Avery is paying a higher price. After being proven innocent of rape, and serving 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit, he sued the Wisconsin county that convicted him for $36 million. All evidence suggests that in order to avoid paying out any settlement, Steven was framed for yet another murder, and is now serving a life sentence with no parole for a crime he didn’t commit. He has been in prison for another 10 years. As in my experience, it was a team of filmmakers who shined the light on his case and the heinous actions of those involved in the criminal justice system. And as in my case, people from all over the world are coming forward and acting, demanding that this total disregard for justice be righted. People have told me over and over that my story is unique, the circumstances of my case — the injustice to the real victims, their families, to the West Memphis Three — made for a perfect storm, never to be seen again. But lightning does strike twice, and many more times after that — my story and Steven’s are only two in the vast, impenetrable legal landscape.

5. What’s So Great About Harmony Korine’s “Gummo”?
For better or worse, director Harmony Korine has a unique vision that he’s been playing with for over twenty years. His directorial debut “Gummo” still looks and feels like a singular film about the grimy nature of Middle America. Little White Lies’ David Jenkins explores the greatness of “Gummo” and why it has endured for so long.

“Gummo” is a painstakingly (creatively!) repellant heroin chic cine-scrap book which demands its brave viewers question if what they are watching contains any artistic or intellectual nourishment whatsoever. Or whether it’s all just a bunch of grotesque E numbers set to black metal ditties. This strategy in itself is what great art should do – dismantle its true identity, or at least coquettishly obscure it from outsiders. Like poking dog shit into the vol-au-vents just as they’re being carried into the society ball, the film retains the feel of a grand prank, like its raison d’être is not merely to steam-up the monocles of the conservative critical cognoscenti, but to force them to claw their own eyes out in abject opprobrium. And then it laughs when they do so. Perhaps one sign of the film’s endurance is that it has become a critical shorthand in its own right. The term “Gummo-esque” (or variants thereof) is often employed to describe movies with a fascination in locating aesthetic beauty in crumbling, small town landscapes, or those that capture balls-out parochialism with a spare naturalism. The unyielding and uncomfortable manner in which Gummo grapples with human diversity has also allowed it to linger long in the memory. Where some may see it as a young, affluent oik putting together a Barnum-esque freakshow for the delectation of braying lollygaggers in expensive baseball caps, others could ally Korine’s cosmetically unvarnished mode with work by photographers like Nan Goldin or Diane Arbus. Maybe it’s magical social realism? And just to confuse matters further, Korine leans on the redoubtable (and classically-inclined) talent of the late cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier who captures all the rasping degradation on show by mixing ghostly, gliding pans with fuggy, close-quarters hand-held techniques. The director pays lip service to these prestige qualities while using them to capture innocent transgression, which in turn makes deciphering the film’s meanings (whatever they may be) even tougher. The question of whether Korine is mocking his subjects, or whether he’s presenting them in the same flawed way as we would do any human character, constantly hangs over the film. And it’s not a question with a clear cut answer.

6. Social Conscience and Social Responsibility: Notes on “The Hateful Eight.”
Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” has garnered divisive reactions from all critical quarters. Some have called it one of Tarantino’s best, most fascinating works, and others have called it juvenile dreck. On his blog, veteran critic Glenn Kenny writes notes on “The Hateful Eight” and wades through the film to explore some of its meaning.

Like “Bigger Than Life,” a film many critics have interpreted as being about a very particularly American kind of grandiose madness, “The Hateful Eight” ends with an invocation/evocation of Abraham Lincoln. As the probably mortally wounded Mannix and Warren hang Daisy Domergue, Mannix reads aloud Warren’s “Lincoln letter.” Previously decried by Mannix as a fake, it’s at his request that Marquis Warren retrieves it, for what the audience has every reason to believe is its last reading anywhere. For some reason, Mannix now wants to believe. “Nothing can bring together a black man and a white, a young man and an old, a country man and a city man, than a dollar placed between them,” the critic and historian Nick Tosches. But what’s bringing Mannix and Warren together at the end is…a thirst for vengeance? Well, sure, but one ought to remember that unless he really is lying, Mannix is the duly appointed sheriff of Red Rock, and by putting in with Warren and executing Daisy Domergue, the fellows form one nation under God perpetrating the opposite of “frontier justice.” But deriving great personal satisfaction from their work nonetheless. Regardless of how you interpret what they’re up to, what they’re up to is very nasty indeed (the hanging figure of Domergue does come to perversely resemble the hanging wooden Christ of the movie’s opening), and part of this film’s cinematic jolt, if it carries any power for you at all, derives from the sensibility dissonance in which a grindhouse ethos is mounted in an overblown “distinguished” presentation. The UltraPanavision, the overture, the intermission; the second-rateness and claustrophobia of “Ice Station Zebra” do not quite provide precedent for the Italian zombie-movie gore and Euro-redolent extremes of pessimism and cynicism that distinguish this movie’s vision. (By the same token, much Euro-sadistic cinema doesn’t have the visual clarity and fluidity that Tarantino brings to this largely in-close-quarters narrative; in terms of making every space a cinematic space, Tarantino is not Kubrick, it’s true, but he gets the job largely done.) Said pessimism and cynicism has sent more than one writing viewer of the film to the Good Liberal Fainting Couch, and I can’t say that’s not understandable. Tarantino’s approach does have, undeniably, more than a touch of “giggly viciousness.” I think “giggly viciousness” is Martin Amis’ phrase, and if I continue to remember correctly he coined it as a description of something he’s proud to have grown out of. Some people, some artists, never do. It’s an open question as to whether unexamined self-righteousness is the most apt response to an artist who does not. I don’t think it’s particularly constructive to spend a lot of time speculating as to whether the cynicism and pessimism of “The Hateful Eight” is “earned” or not. One recollects Sam Fuller’s original ending for his 1957 Western “Forty Guns.” This would have showed his ostensible hero, Griff, as a guy who would actually kill the woman he professed to love in order to then gun down the foe who shot his brother. This was not permitted, so Fuller concocted a ridiculous but ultimately very pleasing compromise: he made Griff so good a shot that he could plug the woman he loved so accurately that the woman he loved would fall but not suffer permanent or even vaguely life-threatening injury, clearing the way for him to then kill the foe who was holding her as a shield. Had Fuller been permitted to go with his original ending, could he have been said to have “earned” it? Whatever Tarantino’s intentions or aspirations, the cynicism and pessimism of the movie is, I think, inarguably pertinent. Because Tarantino arguably revels in a mess rather than even trying to offer a solution, does that make him part of the problem? The extent to which this is or is not genuinely troubling would depend on the extent to which you rely on film and film criticism to be “problem”-oriented.

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