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Daily Reads: ‘The Revenant’ Gives Harrowing Films a Bad Name, Marty Baron on ‘Spotlight,’ and More

Daily Reads: 'The Revenant' Gives Harrowing Films a Bad Name, Marty Baron on 'Spotlight,' and More

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

1. “The Revenant” Gives Harrowing Films a Bad Name.
“The Revenant” is set to win a bunch of awards this Sunday at the Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film has garnered a lot of attention for its difficult shoot and how the actors were put through hell and back during subzero temperatures and terrible living conditions. Flavorwire’s Judy Berman argues why “The Revenant” gives harrowing films a bad name.

So, how did “The Revenant” fool so many of us into believing it was a great film? Unless Iñárritu is secretly a marketing genius masquerading as an artist, my guess is that its acclaim can be attributed to a combination of reputation (not just the director’s but also that of his cast) and dumb luck. For months leading up to its premiere, the trades printed story after story about what a debacle the production had become. The project went $40 million over budget, shot for roughly half a year longer than originally planned, and was best known before its release as a grueling, dangerous slog for cast and crew alike. Its producers – who were, no surprise, eventually banned from the set – probably regarded its eventual completion as a victory in itself. From there, Iñárritu’s months of bad press were easily spun to get his name mentioned in the same breath as auteurs like Coppola, Herzog, and Malick, whose productions have also been euphemistically termed “troubled.” “A film like this,” Iñárritu told the “Guardian” in January, “is a homage to the original cinema tradition, where the directors went to the places, and you risked challenges. I passionately believe that that should be an example of how film should be committed.” More than anything else, his 2015 Best Picture winner “Birdman” expressed the director’s belief in his own role as one of the 21st century’s few remaining defenders of cinema as art. He reiterated that view in a “New York Times” profile that coincided with “The Revenant’s” Christmas release: “Too many [movies] today are like the products of fast-food chains, he said, ordered up by corporations that prize predictability and sameness over all else.” After it had survived a weird and ridiculous, viral “bear rape” rumor, the film found its earliest champions in the kind of critics most likely to eat up its director’s brand of bluster: chest-pounding chauvinists who praised it as an endurance test unfit for “movie pussies” or…literally any woman? Even if we laughed at their language, something about the way they positioned “The Revenant” as a measure of our cinephilic mettle penetrated our derision. (I’ll admit that, as a sanctimonious vessel for two X chromosomes with a soft spot for films that are difficult to stomach, I readily accepted the dare implicit in these idiotic utterances.) It’s no coincidence that none of this has anything to do with the story itself, which takes Iñárritu over two and a half hours to tell but can be summarized in a couple of sentences: A bear attack leaves a fur trapper (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass) critically injured and dependent on the care of an opportunistic member of his party (Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald) who kills Glass’ son (Forrest Goodluck) and buries Glass alive. But Glass rises from the damn-near-dead, undertakes a painstaking healing process – both physical and spiritual – in a place where food and shelter are exceedingly difficult to come by, and seeks revenge on behalf of his murdered offspring. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with a movie – of any length – that is light on plot, as long as whatever else is going on in the film justifies its existence. For many critics, presumably along with plenty of the millions of moviegoers who have made “The Revenant” a bona fide global blockbuster, DiCaprio and Hardy’s performances and Emmanuel Lubezki’s masterful cinematography and the combination revenge narrative/Christian allegory (more on that soon) were enough to merit 156 minutes of mauling and crawling and growling both human and animal. Or maybe they were just secretly longing for a film that fetishized, rather than thinking too hard about, pain.

2. “Spotlight’s” Marty Baron on the Power of Journalism.
Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” follows the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up. Liev Schreiber plays the new editor of the Globe Marty Baron who convinces the Spotlight team to look into the story. For The Washington Post, Marty Baron discusses watching the film and how it’s less about him (or any one person) and more about the power of journalism.

Most years I try to stay attentive, or at least awake, through the Academy Awards. Most years I fail. On Sunday, however, fatigue has an overwhelming counterweight — obvious self-interest. Plus, I will be sitting inside the Dolby Theatre. “Spotlight” brought to the big screen the first six months of a Boston Globe investigation that in 2002 revealed a decades-long coverup of serial sexual abuse by priests within the Boston Archdiocese. Liev Schreiber portrays me as the newly arrived top editor who launched that investigation, and his depiction has me as a stoic, humorless, somewhat dour character that many professional colleagues instantly recognize (“He nailed you”) and that my closest friends find not entirely familiar. The scandal disclosed by the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team ultimately took on worldwide dimensions. Fourteen years later, the Catholic Church continues to answer for how it concealed grave wrongdoing on a massive scale and for the adequacy of its reforms, as it should. The movie has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture. And, journalistic objectivity be damned, I’m hoping it wins the entire lot. I feel indebted to everyone who made a film that captures, with uncanny authenticity, how journalism is practiced and, with understated force, why it’s needed. The awards take the form of a statuette, recognition for outstanding moviemaking. The rewards of this film matter more to me, and they will take longer to judge. The rewards will come if this movie has impact: On journalism, because owners, publishers and editors rededicate themselves to investigative reporting. On a skeptical public, because citizens come to recognize the necessity of vigorous local coverage and strong journalistic institutions. And on all of us, through a greater willingness to listen to the powerless and too-often voiceless, including those who have suffered sexual and other abuse. Aside from the acclaim of critics, “Spotlight” already has delivered one gratifying result. In emails, tweets and Facebook posts, journalists have declared themselves inspired, buoyed and affirmed. That is no small matter in this badly bruised profession. We have felt the traumatizing financial effect of the Internet and been berated by just about everyone, especially politicians in a campaign season that has seen us cynically labeled “scum.” One journalist wrote me that “the story that inspired the movie serves as a wonderful, wonderful reminder why so many of us got into this business in the first place and why so many stayed despite all the gloom and doom and all the left hooks that landed squarely on our chins along the way.” A reporter for a major national publication said he had gone to the movie with his entire family. “My kids suddenly think I’m cool,” he said.

3. Judd Apatow’s Questionable Decision to Cast Andy Dick in “Love.”
Judd Apatow has been one of the loudest critics of Bill Cosby as the numerous rape allegations against him have come to light. In light of this, Vox’s Caroline Framke explores Apatow’s questionable decision to cast Andy Dick, an accused sexual offender, in his new Netflix series “Love.”

In “Andy,” the sixth episode of Judd Apatow’s new Netflix series “Love,” spiraling addict Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) sits somewhere beneath Hollywood, riding the Los Angeles subway with actor and comedian Andy Dick (who plays himself). They’re coming down off “sassafras” — a form of ecstasy — and both are realizing they’ve just catapulted themselves off the wagon. Again. Andy leans back in his seat and sighs heavily. “Every bad choice I’ve made: drinking. Everything I’ve lost: drinking,” he says. Mickey recognizes her own pattern of self-destruction in this bleak sentiment, and blinks back panicked tears as he describes some of the experiences he’s had while wasted. It’s a wrenching moment for Mickey, not to mention a crucial one for “Love,” which only gets going once it addresses her addiction issues directly. But if you know much about Dick’s personal history offscreen — which includes not only addiction issues but a long list of sexual harassment and assault claims and charges — hearing him tell a story about the time he went out with Vince Vaughn and drank so much that he “probably got gropey” is incredibly jarring. Dick’s history of addiction issues is well-documented. Less well-known — or at least oft-forgotten — are the many times he’s been accused of committing sexual assault while under the influence…Note that when people talk about Dick’s history with substance abuse and sexual assault allegations, his issues with alcohol generally take center stage, while his assault charges are tacked on as an almost wacky afterthought. But addiction doesn’t excuse sexual abuse. Being an addict doesn’t automatically make you sexually assault people, nor does it mean you should get a free pass on whatever you do while under the influence — especially if you acknowledge, like Dick does on “Love,” that he has a reputation for groping people when he’s drunk.

4. How “The X-Files” Changed Television.
“The X-Files” revival miniseries recently ended to largely negative reviews, but nevertheless the series is poised to return with even more episodes in the coming years. For BBC Culture, Keith Uhlich examines how “The X-Files” shaped the current television landscape.

The original series aired during a fascinating transitional period for television. Shows like “Miami Vice” and “Twin Peaks” had already laid the foundation for series that were more aesthetically and thematically complex. “The X-Files” embraced that new freedom – creator Chris Carter often noted that he and his collaborators aimed to make a mini-movie every week, a tall order in a 20-25 episode season – while still utilizing plenty of television’s tried-and-true techniques. There was an ongoing story arc, which was something of a novelty at the time. These so-called “mythology episodes,” usually timed to sweeps weeks, involved an alien invasion of earth, which spanned all nine seasons and mostly came about because of Anderson’s unexpected pregnancy toward the end of season one. These installments, with their labyrinthine plots and rogues gallery of recurring characters like the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B Davis), anticipated the strict serialization of the binge-watch era, though the narrative convolutions frequently tended to the nonsensical. This was a high-wire act with a fair share of dramaturgical stumbles, but the valleys were rarely dealbreakers because the plateaus were pleasurable enough, and the peaks were resoundingly high. Despite the serial elements, the series still frequently hit the pause or reset button so that Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) could investigate, in a number of standalone episodes, some cases in which new monsters were presented from week to week (such as a man-sized flukeworm) that were far removed from any space oddities. In story terms, there’s a stop-start sensation to “The X-Files” that’s very much a product of the era before DVRs, Hulu and Amazon series, when there was no guarantee that episodes of a favorite show would be replayed, or that viewers would keep up week to week. The goal was to find a simple formula – one easily distilled to an hour-long chunk with commercials – and stick to it. The Mulder-Scully dynamic leant itself to this formula. He was the believer, she was the sceptic. Just put those personalities in a strange situation and see what happens. Repeat as needed. What couldn’t have been anticipated was the very real and mysterious chemistry between both the characters and the actors who played them. Even when the overarching narrative seems like it’s going off the rails or is at a standstill, the Mulder-Scully relationship (and by extension the Duchovny-Anderson kinship) is always developing, always moving forward. This is one of the great love stories, one where even a sidelong glance or a slight touch feels epochal. Theirs is the kind of magical interplay that happens mainly because of timing and luck. (The show’s unproven creator had to fight to hire Anderson for the pilot.) And it gives a series already preoccupied with mysteries of varying sorts its enigmatic heart – one that a rotating group of writers and directors freely interpreted over the course of more than 200 episodes.

5. Is “Crash” Truly the Worst Best Picture Winner?
Remember Paul Haggis’ heavy-handed race drama “Crash”? Remember when it won Best Picture over films like “Munich” and “Brokeback Mountain”? Yeah, we at Criticwire like to forget that ever happened as well. The New Republic’s Tim Grierson examines whether “Crash” is truly the worst Best Picture winner.

When you strip away all the surrounding clatter that’s now attached to “Crash” — the legend of its surprise 2006 Best Picture win, the vicious backlash against its victory — and watch the movie today, what remains striking about this ensemble drama is just how confidently made it is. A filmmaker fully in control of the story he’s telling, Paul Haggis (who also co-wrote the screenplay) wasn’t just tackling racism: He was showing how divisions of all kinds — whether because of age, gender, economic status, or the specific section of Los Angeles where you live — create imperceptible but significant fissures between people. Meticulously crafted and anchored by a superb cast that imbues the film with feeling, “Crash” is as compulsively watchable now as it was when it was released a decade ago. Also still true: It’s an infuriating, awful movie. As with plenty of Oscar winners, “Crash’s” backstory is now almost as well known as the film’s plot. Most have heard that Haggis, an Emmy-winning television writer who worked on shows as diverse as “The Facts of Life” and “thirtysomething,” got carjacked in 1991 after going to a screening of “The Silence of the Lambs.” Holding onto that traumatic experience for years, he woke up in the middle of the night shortly after 9/11, motivated to hit the keyboard and bang out some initial ideas for what would become “Crash,” a film that follows the exploits of a disparate cross-section of Angelenos over the course of about 24 hours. In many ways, “Crash’s” making and its eventual Oscar triumph are an inspiring, unicorn-rare exception to how Hollywood and awards season normally work. Financed independently and shot on a relatively shoestring budget of about $7 million, the project came together because actor Don Cheadle, who signed on as a producer, and his fellow cast members agreed to defer their usual fees, an indication of how passionately those involved felt about the script. Facing off against higher-profile names like George Clooney (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) and Steven Spielberg (“Munich”) for Best Picture — not to mention the critically beloved Ang Lee romantic drama “Brokeback Mountain” — “Crash” pulled off the upset. This was a true underdog indie film put out by the then-tiny distributor Lionsgate (long before the company got into the “Hunger Games” business) that managed to claim the industry’s top prize. And yet “Crash” remains one of the most derided Best Picture winners, its name practically emblematic of the Academy’s penchant for wrongheaded choices. Despite generally positive reviews upon release, it’s been called the “worst movie of the decade” and the worst Best Picture winner ever. Viewed ten years later, all that vilification isn’t entirely fair. In the age of #OscarsSoWhite, give “Crash” credit for being one of the few recent Oscar champs to make characters of color not just supporting players but central figures in its drama. And then lament that Haggis’s faith in his earnest, melodramatic material belies how misguided the entire project is.

6. On Its 75th Anniversary, John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” Stands as a Marvel of Tough, Sardonic Suspense.
John Huston’s film noir “The Maltese Falcon,” based on the Dashiell Hammet novel of the same name, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. For the Library of America, Michael Sragow explores “The Maltese Falcon” and how it’s still a marvel of tough, sardonic suspense.

Few movies capture men and women living by their wits as keenly as John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Seventy-five years after Huston leapt from screenwriter to writer-director with this swift, charismatic adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, the interplay of hard-bitten private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) with a trio of elegant con artists — breathless prevaricator Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), exotic connoisseur Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), and obese, diabolically articulate Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) — flashes like sheet lightning. As they spar for possession of the golden, jewel-encrusted falcon created by the Knights Templar of Malta during the Crusades to pay homage to the King of Spain, they keep each other and the audience guessing about their tactics, motives, and morality. In this game of existential charades, played for blood and money, you must constantly guess who these characters really are. O’Shaughnessy sometimes goes by “Wonderly” and “LeBlanc,” Gutman is referred to as “G” or “The Fat Man,” and the falcon itself is “the black bird,” camouflaged in ebony enamel. Huston anchors the story (as did Hammett) in Spade’s tough-minded professionalism, which makes no concessions to legality, politesse, passion, or compassion. To Brigid he’s “wild and unpredictable,” to Kasper he’s “an amazing character.” And to them, why wouldn’t he be? Honor among these thieves is strictly negotiable, and the cops on their tail are no savvier or more competent than a hotel house detective, maybe less so. When the competitors and sometime conspirators finally have the falcon in their grasp (or so they think), and their play-acting and flimflam fall away, what’s left is a remarkable group portrait of greed. Yet the movie is no screed against avarice, but a dense, vivid tapestry of men and women zigging and zagging through an urban dream world. Its vision of San Francisco, created on the Warners lot and with stock footage, helped to define the ambiance of film noir, our great iconoclastic urban crime genre — Hollywood’s image-smashing alternative to mom-and-apple-pie Americana. Civic pride, romantic ideals, marriage and other sentimental partnerships — all get upended in film noir. So does the time of day. Cops crowd in on Spade at his apartment in the wee small hours of the morning. The climactic scene is a long night’s journey into day. A film noir like “The Maltese Falcon” can affect you in an overpoweringly sensual way; it makes you react viscerally to artificial light. Huston and his ace cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, streak interior scenes with ominous shadows, like those of an elevator gate closing on a felon who banked on getting away with murder.

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