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Daily Reads: How Disney and Marvel Killed Happily Ever Afters, Why the Coen Brothers’ Movies Make Everyone Want to Rank Them, and More

Daily Reads: How Disney and Marvel Killed Happily Ever Afters, Why the Coen Brothers' Movies Make Everyone Want to Rank Them, and More

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

1. Unfinished Business: How Disney and Marvel Killed Happily Ever Afters.
Our neverending movie franchise culture has many unfortunate byproducts, but none more obvious than the noticeable lack of endings. Seeing as every Marvel and Disney movie has the inherent duty to set up the sequel in the not-so-distant future, no movie can be treated as a discrete unit and can’t quite have an ending but rather a stopping point. The Guardian’s Nicholas Barber examines how Disney and Marvel killed “happily ever afters.”

It’s not just Han and Leia who aren’t being allowed to live happily ever after, either. More and more film franchises are spoiling their heroes’ retirements, thus snatching away the simple pleasure we once got from picturing their pipe-and-slippers contentment. Take “Creed,” for example. Sylvester Stallone had wrapped up the story of his punch-drunk alter ego numerous times over the decades, but 2006’s “Rocky Balboa” seemed to be the real deal. Rocky was finally at peace. Or so we assumed. But Ryan Coogler’s torch-passing drama yanks the champ away from his cosy neighborhood restaurant, inflicts cancer on him, and forces him to watch as his protegé embarks on a series of fights as bloodily punishing as his own. Both Rocky and Han Solo must have been tempted to quote Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part III”: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Have we reached the end of endings? In “The Dark Knight Rises,” Bruce Wayne turned his back on both Batman and Gotham City so he could swan around Florence with Selina Kyle. But in this year’s “Batman v Superman,” the poor chap is having to squeeze into his rubber suit once again. Similarly, “Iron Man 3” was the third part of a trilogy, and it was just as valedictory as “The Dark Knight Rises.” It finished with Tony Stark blowing up his robotic armor and lobbing his high-tech pacemaker off a cliff, so that he could settle down with his girl Friday, Pepper Potts. But it wasn’t to be. In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” he had his full metal jacket back on, and there is no chance that he’ll take it off again soon. Like the characters in “Star Wars,” “Iron Man” and his buddies are owned by Disney, which means that Iger gets to decide their destiny. “[With] Marvel, you’re dealing with thousands and thousands of characters,” he said last week. “That will go on for ever.” There are some superhero fans, I know, who will be overjoyed by this promise, but I’d argue that the true fan would prefer his or her idols to have some well-earned downtime. For instance, the last “X-Files” film had Mulder and Scully living together in a secluded cottage, which is just what the pair’s devotees had always prayed for. But now a new television series of “The X-Files” has begun, and in it we learn that – surprise surprise – Mulder and Scully have long since split. And so another happy ending goes up flames. In “Independence Day” in 1996, Will Smith’s Steven Hiller saved the earth from aliens. Surely, after that, he deserved an easy life of book tours and medal ceremonies. But it’s now been announced that Hiller won’t be in this summer’s “Independence Day: Resurgence.” Apparently, he was killed while testing a jet fighter developed using those aliens’ technology – so it looks like the bug-eyed monsters had the last laugh. Sequels are nothing new, of course. And it’s not unlike Hollywood to milk their cash cows until they moo for mercy. What has changed is that viewers are no longer being given – to quote Frank Kermode or Julian Barnes – the sense of an ending. What we used to get from our blockbuster movies was the comforting illusion that even the most mountainous obstacles in life could be surmounted in a couple of hours – and that those obstacles would stay surmounted. Certain characters would go on to face other challenges in sequels, it’s true. But we always knew that after two or three films, our heroes would move beyond the most stressful periods of their lives. Marty McFly could marry Jennifer, the Ghostbusters could hang up their proton packs, Indiana Jones could literally ride off into the sunset. And to many of us, that fairytale fantasy was one of cinema’s most attractive aspects. It wasn’t like watching football, in which one Saturday’s win could be followed by another Saturday’s loss, or a soap opera, in which a family’s troubles would grind on ad infinitum. The movies had what media analysts are now calling “finishability.” James Bond aside, their characters had one or two major crises in their lives, whereupon they could look forward to indefinite rest and recuperation.

2. Why The Coen Brothers Movies Make Everyone Want To Rank Them.
If you have spent any time on social media in the weeks before or after the release of a new Coen Brothers film (or any other time, really), you’ll see many passionate, diverse rankings of Coen Brothers films. Slate’s Gabriel Roth explores what it is about the directors’ filmography that makes people want to do this.

(4) The Coens started strong and never lapsed for long. 
Every Quentin Tarantino ranking has to account for the fact that the director’s imperial phase came and went with his first two movies, whereas there would be nothing especially surprising about a Coens list that put “Raising Arizona” (1987) next to “Inside Llewyn Davis”(2013) at the top. That career-long consistency makes Coen-ranking a more flexible medium for self-expression.

(5) The Coens’ favorite themes
— criminal schemes gone awry; desperate individuals caught up in events beyond their control; the challenge of maintaining a moral compass in a brutal world — recur from film to film. It’s impossible to watch a new Coens film without tracing its connections to its fellows: “Hail, Caesar!” is set in the 1950s like “Hudsucker,” it’s an old-Hollywood story like “Barton Fink,” and it revolves around a kidnapping like “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo.” It’s a short hop from that kind of pattern recognition to making relative value judgments and tweeting about them.

(6)
 Beyond these recurrent obsessions and motifs, though, what’s really consistent from film to film is the Coens’ artistic voice. They keep their protagonists, even the most sympathetic ones, at a remove from the audience. Their jokes never quite grant the relief of a belly laugh. Their comedies are tense; their thrillers hover on the verge of farce; even their most picaresque movies are intricately organized. (We know exactly how much money Llewyn Davis has on him at any moment.)

3. The Crucial Tension Between Artists and Critics: An Interview With A.O. Scott.
The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott’s new book “Better Living Through Criticism” was released yesterday, and he’s now doing the round with loads of other critics to discuss criticism. For Hazlitt, writer Adam Nayman sits down with Scott to discuss critical vocabulary, anxiety of writing, and intellectual culture.

Film criticism is, in my experience, a very charged lightning rod, because cinema is a largely democratized art form. People don’t generally claim to be able to do the job of an architecture critic, or an opera critic, but everybody goes to the movies…

That’s true, and it’s definitely the case with television now, which is newer as a self-conscious art form and as an object of serious criticism. And yes, everybody goes to the movies, which is ingrained in the history of film critics, with James Agee, and Robert Warshow and Otis Ferguson. The first important film critics approached their jobs very explicitly in this way. “A man goes to the movies, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man,” is how Warshow formulated it. Agee was the same way. In The Nation, he told his readers he was an amateur, and that he would just write about what he saw. He was one of the greatest film critics ever, partly because he was an extraordinary writer, and he kept that amateur status out in front while finding intelligent things to say. In France or Germany, the intellectual culture is different and the ideas about film are a bit different; here, movies are a vernacular art and they demand a vernacular form of criticism. They resist specialization and expertise. If you read an opera critic or an architecture critic or even the theater critic in a newspaper, you feel like this person is an expert, and that their readership should defer. Not so with film criticism.

When there is specialized knowledge, it’s untrustworthy. It’s elitist, or it’s a word that is misused so frequently — at least in regard to film — that it’s completely lost its meaning: “academic.” There is a stigma there.

It’s a real stigma. There’s also a strange sense of a divide about what we’re all looking at. There’s a mistrust of a critical vocabulary that isn’t tied to the immediate experience. We were talking about thinking and feeling going together, and emotion as the seedbed of that experience, but it’s also important to stand back and think about the thing that made you feel that way. It’s striking how often film critics will think and speak in a different register — about form, about what the director is doing — than the stories or the characters, whereas many people will only want to talk about that other thing — whether or not they liked the people on the screen, or approved of what they did. Or they’ll have prejudices about genres. Just last night, I was out with some friends who didn’t understand what the big deal was with “Mad Max: Fury Road.” They said that it was terrible and boring, and just a lot of action. They don’t like action movies. It can be tricky to try to engage with what the audience is seeing and responding to versus what you think is there. And for tactical and ethical reasons, you can’t just cite your own intellectual superiority. You can’t be didactic or instructive. W.H. Auden has this great line about how if somebody only likes soggy boiled cabbage, there are only two ways to persuade them otherwise. You can prepare them a delicious dish of sautéed cabbage, or you can say “the best people all like it this way.” Both of these ways might work, but one is better than the other.

4. Ten Movie Couples Who Definitely Didn’t Make It.
The majority of romantic comedies often end with the main couple together presumably living happily ever after beyond the end of the movie in question. But there are so many couples where that cannot reasonably be the case. Flavorwire’s film editor Jason Bailey counts down ten movie couples who definitely didn’t “make it.”

Diane Court and Lloyd Dobler, “Say Anything”:
 I know, I know, it’s a hard fact to come to terms with, particularly if you’re of an age where Lloyd Dobler represented some sort of ideal – either the kind of guy you wanted to be, or the kid of guy you wanted to find. But Diane Court is a genius and Lloyd Dobler is a kickboxer, and as charming and understanding and reliable as he is through that whole “finding out your dad is a felon” business, she’s gonna meet some other genius in that fancy undergraduate program, and poor Lloyd will find himself lonesome all over again, hanging out at the British version of Gas-N-Sip.

Elaine Robinson and Ben Braddock, “The Graduate”:
 Like “As Good as It Gets,” you can see the couple at the center of “The Graduate” careening towards unhappiness even before the end credits (though in this case, it seems considerably more deliberate). Yes, they’re riding off into the sunset together – but the awkward glance they exchange, the thick and heavy silence between them, underscores the fact that they don’t actually have much of anything to build off from, aside from their shared love of making a big, dramatic scene. Oh, and that whole thing where Benjamin slept with Elaine’s mom, which is more baggage than any reasonable relationship can withstand.

Ramona Flowers and Scott Pilgrim, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”:
 “Relationships based on extreme circumstances never work out,” notes Alex Shaw (Jason Patric) in “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” a movie that I’ll bet you forgot all about until right now; it’s said in relation to the short life of the relationship between Annie (Sandra Bullock) and Jack (Keanu Reeves) following the first film, and in spite of the merciless terribleness of “Speed 2,” he’s got a point. Many an action or adventure tale brings two lovers into each others arms after they’re done running from bad guys or alien forces or whatever, but once that excitement dies down, what’s left? Seriously, how many evenings can someone as cool as Ramona Flowers actually spend downing garlic bread in Scott Pilgrim’s shitty apartment? (See also: Owen and Claire in “Jurassic World,” Smith and Donna in “Shoot ‘Em Up,” Mr. and Mrs. Smith in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and, well, Annie and Jack in “Speed” and Annie and Alex in “Speed 2.”)

6. 30 Minutes On Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.”
Veteran writer and critic Matt Zoller Seitz has a recurring column of sorts on RogerEbert.com called “30 Minutes On…” in which he spends 30 minutes writing on a particular movie and then throws up that writing on the site after that time period. For his latest installment, Seitz writes about Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.”

Odd as it might sound today, after decades of dark American indies, one of the most persistent raps against Wilder, not just for “The Apartment” but nearly everything he directed, was that he was “cynical” and “tawdry” — and that, in general, he was too grim and smug to have anything substantive to say about his troubled and troubling characters. There was a consensus among mainstream critics that Wilder was just getting a kick out of being inappropriate or ugly, and pushing acceptable standards as far as he could while still making films within the studio system — and that if his movies weren’t so funny and involving, no one would suffer through them. There’s truth to the accusation that Wilder loved pushing the outer edge of what is now called “the content envelope.” From “The Lost Weekend” onward, a good part of his reputation was based on getting away with things other directors wouldn’t dare think of doing. But it isn’t the whole Billy Wilder story, and “The Apartment” is the clearest demonstration why saying so is reductive. If the 1960 Best Picture winner is Wilder’s greatest and most perfect movie overall (and I think it is) it’s because it’s compassionate. It seems to want to embrace its suffering characters when they’re at their most miserable, as when Bud shivers on a cold park bench after surrendering his apartment for an unscheduled tryst, or when a range of self-lacerating thoughts passes across Fran’s face after Jeff gives her a Christmas present of money — like a common you-know-what. (There are many great performances in this movie, but MacLaine’s is the greatest, underplaying every moment, even harrowing ones, to devastating effect; the reaction shot of Fran in the hundred-dollar bill scene is Bergman-worthy.) Wilder’s a moralist, but a European kind of moralist. He’s not wagging his finger. He’s identifying certain timeless tendencies in humankind, and perhaps wishing things were not so, but also realizing that they are so, and that there’s not much point denying it. He’s genuinely interested in the pain that expedient choices cause to wronged parties—and also in the ripple effect of those choices on the larger community. (Fran’s suicide attempt disrupts many other characters’ routines — and on Christmas Eve, yet.) The movie casts a mordant eye on the actions of all its characters, but it never seems to enjoy their suffering — except Jeff Sheldrake’s; when he’s abandoned on New Year’s Eve by Fran, the woman whose heart he broke more than once, we feel a bit of schadenfreude, and it’s fine, because Jeff is a sociopath who cares very much what other people think of him, but not about how they feel or what they need. “You know, you see a girl a couple of times a week just for laughs, and right away they think you’re gonna divorce your wife,” Jeff tells Bud. “Now I ask you, is that fair?” “No, sir, it’s very unfair,” Bud says. “Especially to your wife.”

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