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Daily Reads: Cynicism and Sincerity in ‘The Simpsons,’ What Hollywood’s Blockbuster Love Means for Us and More

Daily Reads: Cynicism and Sincerity in 'The Simpsons,' What Hollywood's Blockbuster Love Means for Us and More

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

1. The Cynicism and Sincerity of “The Simpsons.” FXX’s marathon of “The Simpsons” has everybody talking about the show again, but it’s only a matter of time before it hits the lesser seasons. Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson writes about how the show at its best wasn’t a cynical, smirking cartoon, but a show that was as sincere and heartfelt as it was funny, and how it resembled another, not so long-running series from the 90s.

Certainly the calcifying jadedness of Gen X was partly to blame, steeped in “Reality Bites”-esque irony, as we all became. And then the arrival of the early Internet sped the world up, the slowness of sincerity replaced with quick, referential jabs. But it’s possible that “The Simpsons’s” shift toward cynical slickness is maybe just what happens to certain shows over time, as the network works to streamline a series into its most efficient, sellable parts. Which is why I found myself glad this weekend that another great early/mid-90s show, “My So-Called Life,” didn’t get a second season. Read more.

2. “Natural Born Killers” 20 Years Later. In 1994, “Natural Born Killers” split critics and audiences who either found Oliver Stone’s nasty satire trenchant and those exhausted by his “let’s try every style” approach and self-importance (#TeamExhaustion). Playboy’s Ken Tucker took a look at how the film held up twenty years later, praising it for go-for-broke insanity. At the same time, Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey looks at the “Natural Born Killers” that could have been, one helmed by the original writer, up-and-coming director Quentin Tarantino.

Tucker: In 2014, “NBK” plays like an especially ambitious art-film attuned to what’s going on in our fractured real world, then and now. Every scene is shot in multiple styles and formats, with lush 35mm giving way to grainy Super 8, some frames saturated in single colors (green, Stone says helpfully in his commentary, stands for “sickness”). The camera tilts the actors at precarious angles and sometimes morphs into animated versions of Mickey and Mallory to depict their cartoonish reactions of rage and frustration. The extraordinary soundtrack overseen by Trent Reznor uses music by Patti Smith, L7, Bob Dylan, Dr. Dre, and many others as disruptive counterpoints to the action, frequently layering one song atop another for an aural dissonance to match Stone’s visual dissonance. “Don’t expect to follow every changeover,” Stone says of the montage in his commentary: “It plays off texture, instinct, deconstruction of reality.” Read more.

Bailey: While Woody Harrelson’s Mickey and Juliette Lewis’s Mallory are unquestionably the protagonists of Stone’s “NBK,” they are decidedly supporting players in Quentin’s take. His main character is Wayne Gale, “a young, energetic commando journalist à la Geraldo Rivera,” eventually played (with an Australian accent unmentioned in the Tarantino script) by Robert Downey Jr. And a good chunk of Tarantino’s script is spent with Gale and his production team: a cameraman, a soundman, and an assistant, whom Tarantino named (respectively) Scott, Roger, and Julie, all after his co-workers at Video Archives. Their first appearance is indicative of the differences between the two scripts. Gale and his team are seen in a restaurant “adorned with the standard Denny’s décor,” in a scene that is “to be played at a rapid fire “His Girl Friday” pace.” Sound familiar? The opening scene of “Pulp Fiction” is set at basically the same location; Tarantino’s stage directions in that script note that the dialogue “is to be said in a rapid-pace ‘HIS GIRL FRIDAY’ fashion.” In other words, this looser, funkier “Natural Born Killers” is a Quentin Tarantino movie, and Quentin Tarantino (at least at this early point) makes hanging-out movies. Oliver Stone, to put it mildly, does not making hanging-out movies. Read more.

3. “Good Sam” Mourns the Loss of Saintliness with Comedy. After the back-to-back hits of “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” Leo McCarey made another deeply religious film, “Good Sam,” which was recently released on Blu-Ray by Olive Films. Starring Gary Cooper as a do-gooder and Ann Sheridan as his realist wife who has to deal with the consequences of his goodness in a materialist world. Yet “Good Sam” is one of McCarey’s comedies, not one of his melodramas, and R. Emmett Sweeney of Movie Morlocks insists that this is what makes it work. 

Early on Sam invites a mechanic over for breakfast – and ends up paying for his neighbor’s repairs. Sheridan is a marvel of amusement and disdain. Upon the mechanic’s entrance she stares at Cooper mischievously, lowering her head and rolling her eyes up, backed by a disbelieving smirk – entertained by the absurdity of her cluttered life. Then the mechanic hands her dirty plates to clear, and the humor turns to contempt. Her eyebrows shoot down and her jaw drops in disbelief. Then a quick recovery into thick, dripping sarcasm. She asks for “the Crunchies too please” in a fake-civilized tone with a plasticine smile. Her hands full of plates, she raises her left arm so the cereal box can be shoved in her armpit – a perfect picture of overburdened domesticity. Staring needles at him, she says “Thank you” in a sing-song voice, and absconds with the dishes. This all happens in fifteen seconds, packing hilarity into every frame. Read more.

4. Frank Miller’s Dark Night. Once hailed as a genius in the world of comics, Frank Miller has lost a lot of his luster with the triple disasters of “The Spirit,” the Islamophobic and self-plagiaristic “Holy Terror!” and the misogynistic and self-parodic “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” Yet Hollywood is still fascinated by him even if comics have given him up. Grantland’s Alex Pappademas wrote an overview of Miller’s career, from his rise to his simultaneously rise and fall in recent years, and tries to explain what exactly happened to Miller.

Miller moved back to New York just in time for 9/11, and began reckoning with that day’s events in his work before the dust had even settled. His contribution to the 2002 benefit book “9-11: Artists Respond” was a two-page, three-panel comic, as stark and unequivocal as anything in his back catalogue.: Back then, it read like a condemnation of fundamentalism in all its forms, and maybe it was. But it was also a statement. Miller wasn’t ready yet to let the healing begin. In context, the piece’s rawness was striking. “An atom bomb of anger and cynicism,” David Brothers wrote in 2010, “dropped into the middle of a book filled with stories about unity and tolerance and sadness. The rest of the book is your mother comforting you and putting ice on your black eye, while Miller’s two pages are your father asking you if you gave as good as you got, and if not, you better do better next time.” Read more.

5. What Hollywood’s Blockbuster Love Means for Us. 40 big budget superhero movies will hit between now and 2020. According to Anita Elberse’s recent book “Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking and the Big Business of Entertainment,” it’s because investing in a handful of big products is actually the least risky venture for businesses. But what does this mean for the rest of us or indie lovers? Erika Olson of RogerEbert.com interviews Elberse:

Is there anything else from your research that can give film fans who are already sick of franchise movies some hope?

Thank you for asking this question. A blockbuster strategy is not just about making big bets. Rather, it is about smartly investing in a full portfolio of films. It turns out—this is good news for everyone who wants to see more than just tent-poles—that there is a distinct business need for smaller investments, too. Smaller films often serve as test cases. Placing less expensive bets can help a studio discover the next big-hit franchise, or the next big bankable actor. Smart studio executives continue to experiment with smaller films to make sure the well of ideas and talent does not dry up. Read more.

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