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Daily Reads: In Defense of Zack Snyder, The Current State of Foreign-Language Film Distribution, and More

Daily Reads: In Defense of Zack Snyder, The Current State of Foreign-Language Film Distribution, and More

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

1. In Defense of Zack Snyder.
The highly-anticipated blockbuster melee of the year “Batman vs. Superman” opens this Friday and thus it’s time for some critics to look back at director Zack Snyder’s filmography and see if there are any gems they may have missed. While many argue that the filmography by and large is filled with dreck, The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin defends Snyder’s work claiming that it’s been unappreciated by the film community.

Describing Snyder as a latter-day Man Ray or Ken Russell would be pushing it, but he’s certainly a polarizing figure. And that’s surprising, because aside from “Sucker Punch,” which only just broke even, his films tend to be enormously successful and are generally warmly reviewed. Even though his films are typically adaptations of someone else’s material – four of his seven titles to date, including “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” have been based on comic-books – the finished products are always covered in his distinctive fingerprints. Snyder slots fairly neatly into the school of pop filmmaking that grew out of the advertising business in the mid-1980s – pioneered by Tony Scott in films like “Top Gun” and “Days of Thunder,” and brought to its fullest, most ludicrous flower by Michael Bay in the “Bad Boys” and “Transformers” franchises. But unlike Bay and his many imitators, Snyder’s visual style is classical: he composes his shots carefully, and never hides behind choppy editing or shaky camerawork. And like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, Snyder has always insisted on shooting on film, rather than digitally – and “Batman V Superman” will be screened from a 70mm print in the UK at the Odeon Manchester Printworks, and at the Odeon Leicester Square and Waterloo IMAX in London. Even the more gimmicky aspects of his style are rooted in good visual sense. In his 2007 Spartan action romp, “300,” Snyder used “speed-ramping” – those sudden drops into slow motion made famous by “The Matrix” – to bring beauty, clarity and weight to his action sequences. With due respect to Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner, Snyder’s 2013 Superman reboot, “Man of Steel,” was the first time I really believed a man could fly. Snyder’s checkered reputation might stem from his first film being a remake of a revered horror classic: George A Romero’s unflinching masterpiece “Dawn of the Dead.” Romero’s original was a bleak and timely (for 1978) consumerist satire, in which zombies shamble around a suburban shopping mall on lizard-brain instinct. Snyder’s 2004 version, which was written by Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, abandons that, and instead uses zombies as an allegory for western fears of “otherness” – immigrants, refugees, Muslims, you name them. This time, civilization is the mall, about to be swamped by a rising tide of subhumans – although as the film’s ultra-bleak finale makes clear, any distinctions between “them” and “us” are ultimately meaningless. Twelve years on, it remains scorchingly relevant, and its zombie childbirth sequence stands up as a horror set-piece for the ages.

2. “La Dolce Vita” No More: On the Current State of Foreign-Language Film Distribution.
In the mid-20th century, foreign-language film distribution was at its peak, exploding with Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” throughout the 1970’s. Now, it’s very difficult for the majority of foreign films to even get limited distribution in the states. RogerEbert.com’s Steve Erickson examines the current state of foreign film distribution in the United States.

There’s no end to the essays by baby-boomers recalling the golden age of art cinema from the ’50s to the ’70s, many of them proclaiming the death of the movies in the present day. I was born in 1972, so I missed out on personally experiencing this arthouse heyday; my earliest exposure to world cinema came in the late ’80s, when its US distribution was at an unprecedented nadir. (Anyone who wants to complain that too many films are being released now in big cities should take a look back at how hard it was to see the vibrant Chinese and Iranian cinema of that period.) The ’90s were my personal peak moment for world cinema, particularly the films of East Asia and the renaissance in France spearheaded by Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin. Such films managed to say something new about urban life that resonated with this New Yorker without reducing themselves to the “we are all connected” pabulum popularized later by Paul Haggis and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu. To a large extent, Asian directors like Wong Kar-wai and Takeshi Kitano aren’t working at their peak anymore, but filmmakers such as Wang Bing, Johnnie To, Hong Sang-soo, Jia Zhang-ke and Apichatpong Weerasethakul continue to make masterful work. Fellini, Truffaut, Bergman and Kurosawa were household names even with people who weren’t cinephiles; seeing “The Seventh Seal” and discussing it over cappuccino was a rite of passage for every culturally literate person in the ’60s. (On the other hand, Andrew Sarris spent that time lamenting the brief runs of now-classic films like Carl Dreyer’s “Gertrud.”) The same can’t be said for something like Apichatpong’s surrealist reveries, even if they express something similarly mystical and operate on the same level of skill. Box office analyst Tom Brueggemann, who writes two columns for the “Thompson on Hollywood” blog, agrees that the taste for foreign-language films was largely generational: “It was steady through the ’50s and just exploded with ‘La Dolce Vita.’ ‘La Dolce Vita,’ although it often played in a dubbed version, had a domestic gross that would adjust in contemporary terms to more than 100 million dollars. There had been a domestic audience for Bergman films and other Italian films, but ‘La Dolce Vita’ really opened doors for Italian cinema and the French New Wave. I’m a massive fan of American studio film through the ’70s, but the limitations on thematic material, because of censorship, and style made what got shown over here from Europe and other places a lot more interesting as an alternative.” The Hong Kong cinema of the ’80s and early ’90s was the last “New Wave” that had an impact on mainstream American taste, in the diluted form of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — in unadjusted dollars, the most popular foreign-language film ever released in the US — and dubbed versions of Jackie Chan films, as well as its influence on Hollywood fare like the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix.” But the taste for Asian cinema that Generation X seemed to have didn’t get passed down to the next generation. In 2004, Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” grossed more than 50 million dollars and topped the U.S. box office for a week, despite the fact that it’s in Mandarin. Now it feels like a victory for Wilson Yip’s 2016 film “Ip Man 3” to gross more than two million dollars in American theaters. You’d think there might be a cable channel devoted to foreign films, but the Sundance Channel and IFC have consistently dumbed themselves down instead of offering such an alternative. At the risk of making world cinema sound like kale salad, one of the most valuable services provided by foreign films is showing how Iranian liberals might view sexual politics — Jafar Panahi’s “Offside,” which depicts girls in male drag trying to attend a soccer game from which they’re barred, demonstrates that Iranian feminism is no oxymoron — or how the Chinese might respond to their country’s environmental degradation, even in a film as seemingly frivolous as Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid.” That’s a perspective we don’t usually get from the news, which filters everything through an American perspective.

3. How “Krisha” Went From Home Movie to an Indie Film Sensation.
Trey Edward Shults’ “Krisha” has garnered widespread critical acclaim for its incisive portrayal of family drama, especially from a first-time director. But Shults’ film came from the humble beginnings of his own autobiography. Rolling Stone’s David Ehrlich examines how “Krisha” became an indie film sensation.

Krisha Fairchild is the kind of person who shrieks with infectious laughter as she tells you that one of her index fingers was recently bitten off by “a nasty-ass” dog. Of course, she probably wasn’t laughing about it at the time — 40 years after earning her first professional credit, the actress was only weeks away from shooting the role of a lifetime when she reached in to break a fight between her pit bull mix and her neighbor’s comparatively petite terrier. Suddenly left with a cylinder of gauze where her right pointer used to be, the sexagenarian star-in-the-making called her nephew, filmmaker Trey Edward Shults, and told him that she couldn’t play the part that he’d written for her. The 27-year-old writer/director/editor/producer of “Krisha,” however, wasn’t going to let a little thing like distress over a partially missing digit stop his movie. On the contrary, he felt that Fairchild’s injury was only going to make it better. “Obviously I didn’t want my beautiful aunt to lose her finger — I love her!” Shults explains. “But the filmmaker in me was thinking ‘Yes! That’s perfect for her character.'” It was also perfect for his highly autobiographical portrait of addiction that would rather examine raw wounds under a microscope than pretend that they aren’t still bleeding. Taking “write what you know” to the next level, “Krisha” not only digs up a tragic episode from Shults’ recent family history — it stars the actual people who survived it. Shot on a shoestring budget over the course of nine days at his mom’s house in Texas and almost entirely cast with the director’s blood relatives , the drama is such an unflinchingly honest exploration that it feels like watching someone perform a public autopsy of their family tree. “He was basically outing the skeletons in our closet,” Fairchild says, “but we all knew that it might help.” What they didn’t know was how many people would see it. Thanks to Shults’ unflinching vision and Fairchild’s searing performance, “Krisha” has become an unlikely indie sensation, winning both the jury and audience prizes at the 2015 SXSW film festival, landing a spot at Cannes, receiving the Independent Spirit Award for the year’s best film shot for under $500,000, and earning its director a two-picture deal from A24. Not bad for a home movie. And despite what the title of the movie might suggest, Krisha isn’t playing herself, but rather a thinly veiled version of her late niece, Nica (Shults’ cousin). A longtime drug addict, Nica died of an overdose in the winter of 2012, two months after a memorably painful family reunion. “I didn’t want to look at her or talk to her,” Shults confesses when asked about the fateful get-together. “It felt like a slow-motion train wreck.” It wasn’t the first time that someone in the family had been lost or endangered due to substance abuse, but Shults was determined to make sure that it was the last time that he allowed himself to deny what was happening. He began writing “Krisha” two months after Nica’s death, and — leveraging his experience as a film loader on two still-unreleased Terrence Malick projects (“Voyage of Time” and “Weightless”) — attempted to shoot the film later that year. It didn’t work out: “I had an ego problem back then,” Shults grimaces. “I was a stupid fucking kid and totally threw that away.” But he couldn’t let it go. He cut the abandoned feature into a short, and then, after the death of his estranged father (an alcoholic who had fallen off the wagon), summoned the courage to give it another shot. This time, he was ready.

4. Louie Anderson On Playing Zach Galifianakis’ Mother on “Baskets.
FX’s new dramedy “Baskets” is a strange beast of a TV show, operating on its own weird wavelength and examining the darkness within pursuing creative professions outside the mainstream (specifically clowns.) The series stars Zach Galifianakis as Chip Baskets and features comic Louie Anderson as his mother Christine Baskets. LA Times’ Robert Lloyd interviews Anderson on channeling his own mother for his role in the series.

Robert Lloyd: In “Baskets” Christine is protective of Chip, but she also gives him a hard time.

Louie Anderson:
 The thing that people love to do that always amazed me, that always bothered me, is they love to scold their children in front of strangers. And so I make sure Christine does it. I’ve never said anything mean to Chip when I’m alone with him, it’s always when someone else is there. That’s a really big Midwestern thing. I’m maternal as a person, I’m helpful. I learned it from my mom: “Be nice to people, you never know what kind of day they had.” Big insight. I didn’t get it as a belligerent teenager: “Wha? You’re crazy.” But I heard every word.

RL: You say your mother could have been a star.

LA:
 She was a big personality; funny, a lot of grace.

RL: So even with an alcoholic husband and a lot of kids…

LA:
 …she was able to be herself to some degree, to maintain that person she was. She was a lovely person; people loved being around her; she always had positive things to say. She was an elegant person. She loved soft clothes, colors — when I picked the clothes for Christine, I tried to pick all stuff my mom or sisters would wear. Even though we were dirt poor, she always looked nice.

5. “Zodiac” and the Ends of Cinema.
David Fincher’s “Zodiac” has still captured the minds of critics and audiences alike who caught it in the theaters and herald it as one of the best films of the new millennium. A stunningly obsessive film about the limitations of obsession, “Zodiac” takes a panoramic, macro-historical view of the Zodiac killings and focuses its sights on those who very psyches were tormented by the lack of clear-cut truth. For Sense of Cinema, Sam Dickson explores “Zodiac” and how its digital cinematography connects to the narrative’s analog past.

However, a more thorough account of the historic resonance between the two films is locatable at the more basic material level of their respective cinematography. Although “Zodiac” was shot by Harris Savides with a digital camera, it attempts to recreate the naturalistic visual tones and contrast range of Gordon Willis’ cinematography in “All the President’s Men.” In its particular cinematographic fascination with reconstructing the appearance of analogue film images using digital means, “Zodiac” explicitly imitates the naturalistic images pioneered within New Hollywood, testament to a greater anxiety regarding the end of cinema as a photographic art. As one of the first films shot in high-definition digital video, “Zodiac” represents a moment of transition, in which the digital video look is not only carefully erased from the film’s visual texture, but its digitally photographed, edited and enhanced images are reprinted onto 35mm prints for exhibition. The decision to do this leaves a distinct historical marker on the film as the product of a brief period where a mixture of digital and analogue means and methods were involved in the shooting, editing, distribution and exhibition of features film. The historical drift depicted in “Zodiac” corresponds to this uncanny cinematography, a transitional hybrid of a film whose digital images go to painstaking lengths to conceal their own immateriality. Given the near coterminous history of serial killers and the cinema, the murderous figure makes for an exemplary subject for thinking through the implications of the material transition from film to digital cinema. From one of its earliest instantiations, Jack the Ripper, the serial killer has been characterized by an interpenetration of “private bodies and public media.” Jack’s motiveless crimes, and the “endless rituals of noncomprehension” surrounding the murders, are closely analogous to the Zodiac killer. In both cases, the killers sent multiple non-authenticated letters to the press, creating a mass public identity while still maintaining an essential anonymity. The consonance of “letters and bodies, word counts and body counts” is central to the modern phenomenon of serial murder and this attention to written media is crucial to the Zodiac narrative. Serial patterns recur across multiple material substances: the sequentiality of the murders, the repetition of the copycat killer ritual and the mass production of the newspaper press. In addition, the cinematic apparatus itself emerged from and functions through serial production. Friedrich Kittler argues that Samuel Colt’s invention of the revolver pistol is a crucial part of the “prehistory of film,” as its rotating mechanism is used as part of the cinematograph apparatus for the serial movement of photograms. The remediation of the photograph within cinema, a serial flow of photograms to produce the illusion of movement, is marked by its uncanny coincidence of stillness and movement. With digital imaging this movement is instead instantiated by a flux of pixel change within the frame rather than the serial movement across still photograms. If in the former, featuring the repressed still photogram with its Bazinian “mummified” time, there is a persistent reminder of death and absence, then the digital flux of “Zodiac” can be seen as an appropriate (im)material base for its narrative, with its loose ends which resist closure and mysteries which persist like the undead. The significance of the photographic ontology famously outlined by Bazin is usefully expanded upon for narrative interpretation by Fredric Jameson, in his essay on the medial conspiracy films of the 1970s. He contends that “whenever other media appear within film, their deeper function is to set off and demonstrate the latter’s ontological primacy.” Writing in reference to “All the President’s Men,” he notes the intentional use of outdated technology in order to represent the present: the detection process is undertaken entirely through typewritten text and telephone conversations, leaving out computerized and televisual technology that was available in the period. It is worth reconsidering Jameson’s hypothesis in a period of post-celluloid cinema, where the ontological premises of the indexical, photographic image have been supplanted by the code-based digital image. In “Zodiac,” the detection also progresses through a network of information restricted by outdated technology. The murders take place over multiple jurisdictional boundaries and law officials from each county are unable to co-operate via electronic relay. The Vallejo police do not have a fax machine, making it necessary for evidence to be exchanged via the same traditional relay medium used by the killer: the postal system. The plot is bound by automated and machinic technology from an older discourse network, eschewing the contemporary electronic media available during the 1970s. Where “All the President’s Men” is comprised of old media with the consequence of valorizing cinema’s representational superiority to newsprint and television, the entirely digital form of “Zodiac” depicts a simulation not only of the older film form, but a whole body of evidence comprised of older, separable media: the letters, photographs and recorded voices which share the same analogue characteristics as the film-based cinema. However, rather than demonstrating primacy this depiction of other media signals an ontological ambivalence in “Zodiac,” which on the one hand is a bravado demonstration of the capabilities of the emergent digital technology but which also harbors a nostalgia for the appearance of an older, analogue film image.

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