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Daily Reads: ‘Batman v Superman’ as a Post-Disaster Film, Film Critics on the State of Film Criticism, and More

Daily Reads: 'Batman v Superman' as a Post-Disaster Film, Film Critics on the State of Film Criticism, and More

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

1. No Survivors and Heroes: On “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
Though Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman” received a less-than-stellar box office return as well as mostly mixed-to-negative reviews, the film has produced some great criticism. The latest: RogerEbert.com’s Simon Abrams examines “Batman v Superman” as a post-disaster movie.

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” may have under-performed critically and financially, but the film is too eccentrically ungainly and titanically morose to be swept under the rug when the next wave of Marvel movies comes around. Like it or not, “Dawn of Justice” is exactly the film its creators intended it to be: a provocative apocalyptic fantasy. It’s just as much a disaster film as it is a superhero narrative. It is not, however, a typical disaster film, but rather a post-disaster movie that takes place between one catastrophe and the next. Godzilla sequels are good examples of the post-disaster sub-genre since Godzilla films take place in a universe where a singular, personified threat exists, and must be dealt with — even if that threat (i.e.: Godzilla) is inevitably the only thing standing between one major disaster and the next disaster. “Dawn of Justice’s” fears of a post-9/11 landscape are palpable, and they tend to make the film’s more generic disaster movie elements a joyless slog: disaster is a certainty, an unavoidable reality that has happened, and therefore can—and perhaps inevitably must—happen again. They also make the film an unusual, conceptually intriguing anomaly. This really isn’t your daddy’s superhero movie … it’s much more depressing than that. Superman in “Dawn of Justice” is like Godzilla in “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster:” People in the film fear him, but viewers know he’s not the real threat. In the film’s introductory sequence, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) relives General Zod’s near destruction of Metropolis, Superman’s home. We have presumably seen these events from a different perspective, but many “Man of Steel” viewers came away from that film with the same point-of-view as Wayne in “Dawn of Justice”: Superman (Henry Cavill) is responsible. You can’t help but come to that conclusion after you see what Wayne sees: a colleague destroyed in a wantonly razed office building; traumatized, maimed innocents threatened by crumbling debris; space invaders so unconcerned with property damage that they plow through buildings, shearing off the sides of parallel skyscrapers. Why didn’t the government — I mean Superman — stop this? Who’s to blame? Not Superman, actually. In fact, if anyone can be blamed for the precipitation of the film’s new apocalyptic threat, Doomsday, it’s Wayne and/or his villainous foil Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Which is interesting because Wayne is a hero. Mostly.

2. 17 Essential Film Critics on Film Criticism.
With the recent three-year anniversary of Roger Ebert’s passing, as well as the arrival of A.O. Scott’s new book “Better Living Through Criticism,” questions of film criticism’s relevancy and worth are again in the air, but why not hear opinions from critics’ mouths? Flavorwire’s Alison Natasi compiles quotes from 17 essential film critics on their views of film criticism.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Chicago Reader”: “Speaking as someone who set out to become a professional writer but not a professional film critic, I’ve never felt that movie reviewing was an especially exalted activity, but I didn’t start out with any contempt or disdain for the profession either. It was only after the institutionalizing of academic film studies got started in the early 1970s and the glamorizing of mainstream film reviewing got started a little after that I began to wonder about whether the public was often being sold a bill of goods about the so-called “credentials” of film critics..Film critics, who usually put their faith in chance more than they care to admit — hoping to predict audience responses and trends, “banking” on certain favorite directors and actors — tend to read and listen to one another compulsively…Whether acknowledged or not, virtually all critical discourse is part of a conversation that begins before the review starts and continues well after it’s over; and all the best critics allude in some fashion to this dialogue, however obliquely. The worst usually try to convince you that they’re the only experts in sight.”

Carrie Rickey, “The Philadelphia Inquirer”:
 “But how will they find the films they don’t know that they want? Not everyone is a movie geek reading the aggregators. I see a potential for remuneration in filling that gap: Matching consumers with the kinds of movies they’d like to see, a kind of fine-grain version of the broad-stroke recommender systems of Amazon and Netflix. Lord knows, this isn’t film criticism. It’s a cultural version of matchmaking. It’s a means of connecting under-known or obscure titles to those who will appreciate them (which is a byproduct of film criticism) and a means of supporting the writers’ other critical pursuits. It’s just another change in the evolution of film criticism.”

Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968”:
 “I am always being asked to appear on panels bemoaning the state of contemporary film criticism when compared with the supposed golden age of the nouvelle vague and the Kael-Sarris contretemps. I always pour cold water on these projects by asserting, as I do now, that film criticism today is far superior to what it was back in the supposed golden age of the Kael-Sarris cat-and-dog fight, when two comparatively provincial and unsophisticated careerists — one in San Francisco and the other in New York — collided in a maze of misunderstandings that concealed the fact that they were both consumed by movies with much the same emotional intensity…All critics were in some sense consumer guides. There is nothing wrong with being a consumer guide. I know that the term is used in derogation. But the best writers were also the best consumer guides.”

3. On “The Girlfriend Experience” and a New Kind of Show About Sex and Female Empowerment.
Steven Soderbergh has recently executive produced a television adaptation of his 2008 film “The Girlfriend Experience.” Helmed by independent directors Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, the series follows a young law student (Riley Keough) as she becomes drawn into the world of escorts. The series has garnered critical acclaim for its cold visual aesthetic and its opaque narrative style. Slate’s Willa Paskin examines the series and how it tells a new story about sex and female empowerment on television.

When it comes to the relationship between sex and television, it’s complicated. On the one hand, there are more shows with graphic sex than there have ever been before. Titillation is titillating! Very attractive naked people are something audiences will pay to see. All the rapidly proliferating cable channels and streaming platforms with their rapidly proliferating content are not held to tame network standards, and so butts and boobs and penetration abound. (On premium cable, in particular, you can set a stopwatch by how long a drama will take to exercise its right to nudity: hardly ever longer than five minutes.) On the other hand, there is almost nothing as likely to be deemed “problematic” or in fact to be problematic than sex on television. The standard mode for graphic sex on TV, developed in lockstep with the rise of the prestige antihero drama, is to throw a formulaic bone at gritty realism and a formulaic boner at the male gaze. Some female character who barely has a name takes her top off and/or/while another female character, maybe with a name, is brutalized. The girls at the Bada Bing expose their tits in the background, and Dr. Melfi is violently raped in a parking garage. “Game of Thrones'” extras display their neatly groomed pubic hair, and Sansa Stark is sadistically violated in a castle…Violence and titillation so often appear together because they are connected: The brutality is meant to counter the frivolity. A show may contain entertaining nudity, but it still knows that women aren’t props: look how seriously it takes the awful things that happen to them. “True Detective” displays Marty Hart’s girlfriend’s tits because the whole show is concerned with the creeping, insidious threat against harmless women. The more female corpses appear on a crime procedural, the more grotesque and perverted the way the woman died, as though the one can balance out the other. That, anyway, is how it’s meant to work. Instead, the nudity often plays like hypocrisy, perpetuating the objectification of women in series that purport to take the dangers of that objectification seriously. If you’re really concerned about your female characters, give them some lines.

4. “The Jungle Book” Is the Melancholy Coda to Jon Favreau’s “Chef.”
Jon Favreau’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” opens this Friday and the early critical buzz has been mostly positive. Little White Lies’ Phil W. Bayles explores Favreau’s latest film as a melancholy coda to his previous film “Chef,” despite the former being animated and a children’s story and the latter being a live-action adult tale.

It may have seemed like a sweet little film about a man making toasties on a road trip across America, but 2014’s “Chef” was actually a carefully prepared metaphor for director Jon Favreau’s career at that point. If that movie was a self-contained meal, then Favreau’s upcoming adaptation of “The Jungle Book” is the little tray of mints that come with the bill. If the fact that he was married to Sofia Vergara and had sex with with Scarlett Johansson wasn’t a subtle enough hint, protagonist Carl Casper is a stand-in for Favreau himself. The film opens with Casper working in an LA kitchen where he whips up curious crowd pleasers – such as an egg stuffed with caviar – that leave him cold. He longs to flex his creative muscles, but the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) insists that he give the people what they want: “If you bought tickets to see the Stones and they didn’t perform ‘Satisfaction,’ you’d burn the place down.” Enraged by a scathing review from an influential food critic (Oliver Platt), Casper decides he’s had enough. Admittedly Favreau never had a public meltdown, but after “Iron Man 2” and “Cowboys & Aliens” it’s easy to see how he might have wanted a change of pace. Casper decides to go back to basics, selling Cuban sandwiches out of a food truck, and the gamble pays off – not only does the simple food make him far happier, but the people love it. He even gets bankrolled by the critic who previously scorned him, and given the reassurance that he’ll have the freedom to “cook his ass off.” So it goes in real life.

5. Sit Down: The Vanishing World of “The Flick.”
As many cinephiles already know, theaters that specialize in film projection have mostly gone the way of the dodo, with few left nationwide that specialize in that kind of experience. Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Flick” is set in the last old-school movie theater in Worcester, Massachusetts and focuses on the menial lives of the three employees who work there. The play had a run in New York, and now it’s currently playing at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. The Northwest Chicago Film Society’s Kyle Westphal examines “The Flick,” his time working as a projectionist, and the evolution of the theatergoing experience.

In 2012, when I was between gigs, I picked up a few shifts a week as a projectionist at a struggling movie theater, among the last in the city that had yet to convert to digital projection. It wasn’t an act of principled resistance or anything — the management was just too undercapitalized to acquiesce. I always got paid in cash at the end of the night — often in the manager’s office, in the dark, with the hours calculated in a hurried whisper. Never before had I held down a job that felt so unashamedly transactional. The projection booth was grotty from years of neglect. Posters from the early ’90s covered up the stains on the wall. When I started there, the work room didn’t have a real rewind bench. The booth port holes didn’t even have any glass, but the auditorium was so large that no one would’ve heard anything up there anyway, unless a projector fell over. And then one day, enough money had been miraculously borrowed from banks and scrounged up from couch cushions to buy a digital projector. The projectionists had a few weeks’ warning, but we were never explicitly told we’d be out of a job. I offered to help the manager set it all up, but he told me he’d be fine. Even though he was more a businessman than a cinephile, the manager wasn’t quite ready to let 35mm go. We’d still be running film for some shows and digital for others during the first week, so the projectionists kept their shifts. I showed up for work on a Friday night, hours after the digital projector had been installed. I peeked inside the theater and saw a meager audience enjoying a Blu-ray screening of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” I found the manager at the concession stand and asked how the afternoon had gone. “Great,” he beamed, “there’s a movie running right now and no projectionist upstairs!” I don’t think this episode makes me uniquely qualified to size up Annie Baker’s play “The Flick,” which runs through May 8 at Steppenwolf. (Disclosure: Julian Antos, NWCFS programmer and Music Box Theatre technical director, acted as a projection consultant for the Steppenwolf production.) If the Pulitzer Prize and the raft of rave reviews that greeted the Chicago premiere run are any indication, Baker has plenty of admirers among the ranks of non-projectionists. But anyone who’s ever worked in a movie theater, particularly a struggling one, will feel a strong affinity with “The Flick,” which chronicles a dead-end cinema in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the underpaid laborers who spends their days there.

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