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Daily Reads: John Oliver on Why He’s Not Covering the Presidential Debates, How Fans Saved the Original ‘Star Wars,’ and More

Daily Reads: John Oliver on Why He's Not Covering the Presidential Debates, How Fans Saved the Original 'Star Wars,' and More

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

1. In Conversation With John Oliver.
In our constantly divided political climate, and especially during an election year, we need better, funnier, and more pointed late-night talk show hosts. Enter John Oliver, whose HBO show had its season premiere last Sunday, and who strives to ride the line between comedy and journalism much more so than his peers. Vulture’s David Marchese sits down with Oliver to discuss his show, his career, and what’s next.

Q: This is the first time that “Last Week Tonight” has been on during a presidential-election cycle. I was watching one of the debates, and it occurred to me that a debate is probably not something that you guys would cover.

A: No, I’m not interested. I think we’re much more likely to take a more forensic look at how the election is run. So that means not really the personalities involved, and more the process underneath it. It’ll be fun to try and pick apart the way that elections are run in this country.

Q: What about the campaign has been surprising to you so far?

A: It’s been depressingly unsurprising because it follows a similar pattern: The media starts getting excited before the race is remotely exciting.

Q: You don’t think that Trump changed the typical narratives?

A: Yeah, he’s the embodiment of how powerful, to a bad extent, name recognition is in American politics. There were some incredible things he inadvertently brought to light. There is a power in a candidate openly saying, “Of course I gave to both parties in the past. I’m a businessman, that’s what you do.” He’s like the Wizard of Oz, pulling back the curtain, and there is something interesting in that. The Trump version of the Wizard of Oz would be saying, “Hey, Dorothy, go fuck yourself.”

2. The Fans Who Saved “Star Wars.”
The “Special Edition” versions of “Star Wars” are considered by many to be a blight on the face of one of the best sci-fi film series’ of all time, but unfortunately, they have become the de facto version for a whole new generation, that is until now. Movie Mezzanine’s Corey Atad examines the actions of Team Negative1, a group of “Star Wars” fans that digitally restored a copy of the original version of the film source from the 35mm print.

Much internet blood has been spilled in fights over the so-called “Special Editions” of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Those versions, released in 1997, ahead of the prequel trilogy, were the beginning of fan outrage at creator George Lucas. He had gone back to his films and updated them with new and altered scenes, as well as then state-of-the-art computer generated effects. The changes, some say, are an affront to the childhoods of people everywhere. Worse, the unavailability of the unaltered originals, has raised questions of authorial ownership versus the public domain. Mallory Andrews covered all the arguments back in 2014, making a strong case for the importance of preserving the unaltered versions to preserve a piece of history. “George Lucas’ actions have set a dangerous precedent for film preservation,” Andrews wrote, “potentially, authors are able to manipulate their work, and present the altered copy as the ‘new’ original — an effacement of history that Lucas once called the actions of a ‘barbaric society.'” Rumors of a potential restoration and release of the unaltered original trilogy have been popping up semi-regularly for years, gaining extra traction after Disney bought LucasFilm in 2012. Unfortunately for fans, those rumours have remained just that. If you want to watch “Star Wars” with any reasonable level of picture quality, you’re stuck with the 2004 DVD, 2011 Blu-ray, or 2015 digital HD release, each with its own unique alterations, as well as an overall darkening of the image and a shift toward pink color tones. At this point, nearly 20 years after the introduction of the “Special Editions,” a whole generation have grown up with these altered versions. Most older fans probably don’t remember what the original versions looked like anymore. The more time passes, the more the 1977 “Star Wars,” with its classic matte paintings and cutting-edge model work, fades into obscurity. For fans like Team Negative1, though, the prospect of losing the original “Star Wars” is a non-starter. They’ve taken the preservation of “Star Wars” into their own hands.

3. The R-Rated Superhero Movie Before “Deadpool.”
The financial success of the new R-rated Marvel movie “Deadpool” has inevitably spurred another studios to produce and finance more R-rated superhero movies down the line, filling standard superhero narratives with cursing and nudity in order to liven them up. But there was a R-rated superhero movie before “Deadpool,” one that quietly slipped under the radar. Gizmodo’s Charlie Jane Anders discusses the underrated James Gunn’s “Super” and how it pushed superheroes further.

“Super” is an incredibly fucked up movie — guaranteed to offend pretty much everyone — which digs deep into the contradictions and hypocrisies of the superhero genre that “Deadpool” only pokes a teeny bit of fun at. The whole “hero” concept, the notion that one person can go out and fight evil, the delusion that violence can be pure and wonderful, and the whole power fantasy that causes you to put on a costume and fight “evil.” Rewatching bits of “Super” today, it’s even more messed-up and insane than I remember. Rainn Wilson (from “The Office”) plays Frank Darbo, a regular guy who works as a short-order cook. After his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him to go live with her scummy drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), Frank decides to become a superhero — so he puts on a costume and calls himself the Crimson Bolt. But he attracts a sidekick, the unstable Libby (Ellen Page). On one level, “Super” is sort of pushing the limits of the vigilante/sociopath divide — at one point, the Crimson Bolt bashes two people’s heads in for cutting in line at a movie theater, and Libby nearly kills someone for allegedly keying her friend’s new car. The Crimson Bolt has an exaggerated sense of right and wrong, and absolutely no sense of proportion, and his catchphrase (“Shut up, crime!”) seems more like the sort of thing a crazy person would yell on the street. But part of the genius of “Super” is that Frank is such a compelling character that you can’t help but root for him and empathize with him, and Kevin Bacon is such a scumbag, you desperately want him to get what’s coming to him. I remember thinking that Kevin Bacon played two comic-book villains in the same year (the other one was in “X-Men: First Class”) but his villain in “Super” is by far the more memorable and hateful of the two. Even if Frank’s crusade is off the rails before it even starts, you want him to save his wife. But meanwhile, “Super” is funny as shit — and a lot of its funniest stuff is digging into the ways that the superhero genre makes no sense whatsoever. The whole thing of dressing up in a brightly colored costume so you can beat someone up, the self-righteousness of the self-proclaimed hero, and the whole delusional fetishistic mess. No mainstream superhero movie could afford to be 1/10 as irreverent as “Super” manages to be, because “Super” gleefully saws away at the very foundations of the genre.

4. How “The Witch” and “Mustang” Boldly Expose Sexual Repression’s Survival.
Robert Eggers’ new horror film “The Witch,” the story of a 17th century family isolated from their colonial community and living out in the wilderness, enters theaters this Friday. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Mustang,” about five sisters living under an oppressive patriarch in modern-day Turkey, came out at the end of last year and is up for a Foreign Language Oscar. Bustle’s Casey Cipriani explores how both films illustrate how societal repression has existed for centuries.

Throughout history, for some convoluted reason, female sexuality and bodily empowerment has been seen as a threat, especially within deeply religious and socially strict communities. For as long as women have been struggling for autonomy, their sexuality has been a major part of the fight, with women learning how to embrace sensuality that they’ve long been told is shameful, and by challenging the societal norms that for centuries have declared such things as a threat. Which is why it’s so interesting that two current films, “The Witch” and “Mustang,” explore how the oppression of young women is inherently connected to their sexual development and prove that despite centuries of advancement, the problems continue to persist. “The Witch” first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015 and opens in theaters Feb. 19. Directed by Robert Eggers, who won the Directing Prize at the festival, “The Witch” follows a 17th century family who, for unknown reasons, is banished by their colonial community and lives isolated in the New England wilderness. The patriarch, William, is a pious Christian Puritan whose belief in God dictates the actions of the entire family, which consists of his wife, teenage daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, twins Mercy and Jonas, and newborn Samuel. When Samuel goes missing, the family begins to suspect Thomasin of witchcraft. The more horrific and sinister things that occur the more Thomasin is accused, though she claims innocence throughout. “The Witch” is not only a satisfyingly creepy horror film, it also manages to explore Puritan ideas of female sexuality and empowerment while successfully offering a chilling story. Thomasin, being the only teenage girl in the family, is almost immediately accused of witchcraft as a result of her budding womanhood. Her pre-teen brother Caleb, coming into his own manhood, at times takes quick glances at her growing chest, exaggerating the repression these children must be experiencing as a result of their ignorance and strict upbringing. That the film’s witch in question is a seductive, large breasted woman adorned in a red cape solidifies the idea that female sexuality is the result of a deal with the devil, drenched in sin and definitively unholy.

5. Hell to Pay: Indie Horror Icon Larry Fessenden On Wendigos and Ugly Americans.
Larry Fessenden is an American indie horror icon having spent over thirty years making a name for himself that stands apart from his contemporaries. RogerEbert.com’s Simon Abrams interviews Larry Fessenden about American exceptionalism, Wendigos, and Donald Trump.

Q: Cannibalism is often seemingly used in horror films as a sort of revenge against capitalism, or just financial inequality. Like zombie movies, there’s a built-in class warfare element to it, though it often devolves into a war of all against all. What is unique about the wendigo and the fears we project onto it?

A: Well, cannibals seem to really freak people out. [Both laugh] Because it is about eating another person. I’ve never had the same reverence for humanity that most people do. I don’t eat animals either, except fish. So to say you could never eat human flesh…I see it all with a bit of irony, as an expression of narcissistic anxiety! Anyway, the wendigo is a fundamentally cautionary tale about not eating your fellow traveler in times of extreme duress, like if you were stuck in a winter storm. And extrapolating from that, the wendigo is a caution against over-reach, and rapaciousness.

Q :It’s a corrective.

A: Exactly. And I think that’s how it was used in Native American cultures. Another thing that some of the authors in “Sudden Storm” discuss: there’s a very real condition called “Wendigo Psychosis.” And that’s a description of actual madness, not just a fear of something. It’s the fear that you’ll become possessed by the spirit of the wendigo. These people would become unhinged, and try to eat their families, in the way that you do when you’re unhinged. [Laughs] There are all of these intangible elements with the wendigo, whereas with werewolves it’s a much more clear description of a man/beast dichotomy. With Frankenstein’s monster, we understand that to be science run amuck. With the wendigo, it’s a little harder to grasp.

Q: I mentioned cannibals and zombies because they’re the closest commonly-used analogue to the wendigo that we have in horror cinema. But the wendigo is, as you said, different from a cannibal in that the wendigo is based on folklore, and is therefore often an avatar of the environment. Talk a little about how you use the wendigo as a symbol of either environmental apocalypse or rejuvenation in your films.

A: Even that’s unclear. There’s only one mention of the wendigo in my movie “The Last Winter.” But you can see the creatures at the end of the film as some sort of nature spirit. A lot of people tended to see that as nature’s revenge, but I think of it differently: nature simply is. It’s the people’s sense of dread that overcomes them, and it is almost like a parable about guilt. When the world falls out of balance as it has, there is hell to pay. The wendigo is a way to discuss that. It’s manifested in different ways. Sometimes it’s a creature with antlers, and sometimes it’s something in the wind. In my film “Wendigo,” I have the creature appear as a bunch of sticks and branches. But in my movies, I always try to get at the fact that all of this is in the mind. And if your mind is troubled by what you’ve done, or by real, scary elements in your life, then maybe the wendigo will visit you.

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