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Daily Reads: How Hollywood Turned Its Back On One of Its Most Exciting Filmmakers, Pop Culture’s Obsession With Cults, and More

Daily Reads: How Hollywood Turned Its Back On One of Its Most Exciting Filmmakers, Pop Culture's Obsession With Cults, and More

The Path Michelle Monaghan Season 1

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

1. How Hollywood Turned Its Back on Karyn Kusama.
Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation” opened in limited release last Friday to mostly positive reviews. Though Kusama garnered plenty of industry attention back in 2000 when her debut film “Girlfight” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, she has mostly struggled since then, trying to gain a larger foothold in Hollywood. Buzzfeed’s Adam B. Vary explores Kusama’s comeback and the arc of her life from “Girlfight” to “The Invitation.”

Emotionally depleted and creatively blocked, Kusama started taking boxing lessons at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn on the recommendation of a friend. The regimented workouts became a kind of therapy — and a source of inspiration. “There was a moment where I just looked at this gym, took it all in, and wondered, Where are the girls?” Kusama said. She began listening to the stories of the young Latino and black men who would train next to her, how they would treat their trainers as surrogate father figures and channel their anger from their days at school into their work at the gym. Then, one day, a male sparring partner in a clinch essentially dared Kusama to hit him. A script began to form: It featured a young Latina character named Diana Guzman, whose mother had died when she was young and whose father was a washout alcoholic who barely paid her any notice at all. It was around this time that Kusama met John Sayles, a dyed-in-the-wool independent filmmaker who was friends with the couple Kusama babysat for. He was in the midst of prepping what would become one of his most acclaimed films, the 1996 Western-mystery “Lone Star,” and Kusama became his assistant. In Sayles, she finally found a mentor, someone from whom she could learn the practical logistics of filmmaking, and who could supply the focused creative motivation for “Girlfight” she desperately needed. “He just had a couple of really great notes along with some incredible encouragement,” she said with a sigh. “I mean, man, it just means so much to have people you respect just give you a little bit of support.” He also gave Kusama something else only a good mentor can provide: a firm push out the door. “She had been kind of wandering in the wilderness for it seemed like a year and a half with a very good script,” Sayles recalled in a phone interview. “And various fairly dilettantish people who sometimes put money into movies were [saying], ‘Oh, yes, maybe, no, maybe.’ It just got kind of ridiculous. I said, ‘Karyn, you have to dedicate yourself to this one thing.'” In essence, he fired her so she could focus on “Girlfight” full-time.

2. Cultsploitation and True Believers.
The new Hulu original series “The Path” focuses on the inner-workings of a fictional cult, and it joins other acclaimed TV series like “The Leftovers” and “The Americans” that explore people’s fascinations with cults. Christianity Today’s Alissa Wilkinson examines the real danger of cults and pop culture’s obsession with them.

Cults look bizarre by nature to the outsider, and that can’t-look-away weirdness is part of the attraction. It’s telling that Scientology is the cult de jour — two documentaries have opened at major festivals about the strange religion (“Going Clear” and “My Scientology Movie”), and a few years ago, P.T. Anderson’s movie “The Master” starred a Philip Seymour Hoffman character with a suspicious resemblance to L Ron Hubbard. Scientology is expensive and arcane, abusive, secretive, and created by a science fiction novelist. Celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta raise its profile, and audiences don’t feel bad about picking on them. All Scientology films also home in on the same question: how could people get suckered in? How do ordinary, interesting folks wind up spending their fortunes and decades of their lives in something that sounds bizarre to the outsider? The post-Rapture (kinda) drama “The Leftovers” is full of cults, all of which have sprung up after 3% of the world’s population disappeared, apparently at random. Some characters spend their time battling cults from within, while others stay outside and others just join up, finding rest for their weary souls in someone else telling them what to believe. “The Path” takes a similar tack, portraying those who join the Meyerists as broken and weary individuals in search of healing and enlightenment. “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” opened its first season with an introduction to our heroine, kidnapped as a teenager and imprisoned in an underground bunker by the leader of a bizarre doomsday cult for fifteen years. She is freed, and she moves to New York City. Capers ensue. The first season’s theme is that everyone has their own “bunker” to overcome — but by the finale, Kimmy must confront her former captor, in one of TV’s most fabulous cameos. In the first season, an episode skewered SoulCycle as a substitute cult, and that theme is revisited early in season 2 (which premieres April 15). No spoilers, but one episode centers around a character who can’t shake the cult — and doesn’t want to. She “needs” a cult to belong to. Her identity comes from the group, not any individual.

3. Inside the First-Person Shooter Movie “Hardcore Henry.”
The new Russian-American sci-fi action thriller “Hardcore Henry” has garnered some buzz for its first-person shooter style. Rolling Stone’s Jason Newman explores the making of “Hardcore Henry.”

You’re dangling off a van driving at an ungodly speed down a three-lane Moscow highway; suddenly, you hear a raucous, jarring thump. With all the violent jostling, it’s impossible to tell if it was a bump in the road or a tire crushing a stuntman’s head. You look everywhere for clues; it’s only once the Russian daredevil, previously lying prostrate in the middle of hectic traffic, flashes the thumbs up and yells, “Did you get?! Did you get?!” that you realize no one has died. Not yet, at least. Congratulations: You get to shoot your first-person-P.O.V. cyborg movie another day. According to Sharlto Copley, the star, executive producer and aforementioned van-dangler of the new cyber-action film “Hardcore Henry,” he can laugh at the death-defying stunt now. “I thought I drove over him and killed him,” Copley says. “It was my worst three minutes in film. But he later showed me this crazy, weird bump that just happened to be there at the exact moment I knocked him down.” It turned out that the only film-related fatalities are the hundreds committed by the titular hero. The Henry of “Hardcore Henry” is a freshly “woken” half-man, half-robot fusion who must figure out why a telekinetic psycho and his army of violence-prone cyber-minions are trying to kill him. Also, the entire film is shot from the perspective of our on-the-run hero. You see only what he sees. You slay who he slays. The audacious, frenetic film, directed by 32-year-old Ilya Naishuller, utilizes countless GoPros and absurd levels of violence to blur the line between film and first-person shooter — think “Doom” meets “Ichi the Killer” meets Kingda Ka<. “I’ve got to play these characters like we’re in a video game,” Copley, who plays 11 half-cyborg versions of his character Jimmy, says. “It’s not like we’re trying to make an Oscar-winning movie here.”

4. How “Sleepy Hollow” Lost Any Faith Its Fans Had Left In It.
Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” has garnered some controversy from its fans for some of its most recent creative choices. Vulture’s Nichole Perkins looks at the recent fallout and the various reasons why “Sleepy Hollow” lost its way.

It all started in “Sleepy Hollow’s” second season, which was widely viewed as a mess. The show changed course by killing off two characters and hiring a new showrunner. The diverse cast that originally drew considerable praise and viewership practically disappeared. Supporting characters played by John Cho and Nicholas Gonzalez left. Abbie’s sister and police captain, played by Lyndie Greenwood and Orlando Jones, respectively, had their airtime drastically reduced, and eventually Jones was not asked to return for season three. His absence was particularly hard to take because he was the main star interacting with fans via social media. He constantly live-tweeted and encouraged them via Tumblr and frequently showcased fan art and fiction about the show. Jones was the most socially engaged of all the cast, and his departure left many fans upset. But the most unforgivable misstep of season two was its treatment of Abbie Mills, who, to reiterate, was one of two leads. She was sidelined while Crane focused on his wife, Katrina (Katia Winter), and devil son, Henry Parrish (John Noble). (Also egregious: Supposedly a powerful witch, Katrina was repeatedly put in peril, frequently making her the damsel-in-distress character.) The show’s audience couldn’t help but notice that the people of color on the cast, one of its main draws for many viewers, had been drastically reduced while the white characters received more airtime. Then the show added another white character, Nick Hawley (Matt Barr), an old flame of Jenny’s who developed feelings for Abbie. Not only was Abbie reduced to playing sidekick as Crane saved Katrina over and over, but the idea that Abbie could have a potential love interest with her sister’s ex was, frankly, insulting. The show didn’t pursue that idea any further but the damage had been done. (The fact that Abbie never had a legitimate love interest is a whole other can of worms.) Much of the audience no longer trusted the show and began to voice their disapproval, most notably with the Twitter hashtag #AbbieMillsDeservesBetter.

5. Writer/Director Joachim Trier on his Latest Film “Louder Than Bombs.”
Joachim Trier’s “Louder Than Bombs” entered limited release last Friday. It’s the Norwegian director’s English-language debut. Filmmaker Magazine’s Scott Macaulay interviews Trier on his new film and its difficult production history.

Filmmaker: In terms of moving yourself from Norway to America to make this film, did you think of this material as being particularly American? Because I could imagine a version of this film set in Norway. Simply by telling this story in America, in New England, it brings up comparisons in American viewers. I put it alongside films like “Ordinary People” or “The Ice Storm” — this “family tragedy” genre.

Trier:
 Yes, from the beginning. I’m interested in that tradition of good character dramas. I’m interested in the Woody Allen films like “Interiors” and “Another Woman,” and in John Hughes’ way of looking at teenagers, particularly in “The Breakfast Club.” I probably saw that 20 times when I was a kid. I mean, what happens a lot to that type of movie, with the autumn leaves, [set in] either Chicago or New York, with communication problems within family, a lot of that has just become melodramatic. I wanted to try to spark a new formal approach to that type of human story that I grew up loving. I think some people are under the impression this is going to be kind of a cheap film filled with people sitting around in a house crying. But we are in different countries. We are in CGI universe. We are in dream sequences. We are in a videogame world. I mean, I wanted to formally approach it the opposite way. I don’t know if we’ve been good enough at conveying that to the audience before they see it, but a lot of people are quite shocked by what they get to see, because it’s not just dialogues and pondering — that could have been a stage play kind of movie, but it’s the opposite.

Filmmaker:
 So you wouldn’t have thought of putting this somewhere else?

Trier:
 No, to me, it’s a New York film, or at least American. It’s also a “coming home” story, from a land that’s been at war now for 15 years. And there’s sort of parallel culture of amazing journalism [in America]. This is a country where there are still being printed deep journalistic pieces, where real good conflict journalism is being appreciated. You could say the same about certain places in Europe as well, but I just felt that this film, it’s about how people drive cars upstate and what happens in those cars. It’s about someone living in the suburbs of New York with photo agencies like Magnum [here in the city]. I know people like that in New York, in Nyack. That feeling — there’s something about it.

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