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Daily Reads: Why No One Remembers “Avatar,” the Best Blu-rays and DVDs of 2014, and more

Daily Reads: Why No One Remembers "Avatar," the Best Blu-rays and DVDs of 2014, and more

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

1. How “Avatar” Made 2.7 Billion Without Leaving a Mark. For Forbes, Scott Mendelsson examines the curious case of “Avatar,” which stands as one of the most successful movies in history but, five years after its release, is all but gone with the wind.

It did not become a cultural touchstone in any real sense. Kids don’t play “Avatar” on the playground nor with action figures in their homes. There is little-if-any “Avatar”-themed merchandise in any given store. Most general moviegoers couldn’t tell you the name of a single character from the film, nor could they name any of the actors who appeared in it.  Even its strong showing at the Oscars hurt the film, as the narrative turned into “mean and scary James Cameron” against “weak and helpless Kathryn Bigelow” as if the former Ms. James Cameron needed any sympathy votes as she went on to become the first female Best Director winner for “The Hurt Locker.” “Avatar” didn’t inspire a legion of would-be “Avatar” rip-offs, save perhaps for Walt Disney’s disastrous “John Carter.” It didn’t set the mold for anything that followed save its use of 3D which turned the post-conversion tool into a valuable way to boost box office overseas.

2. The Best Blu-rays and DVDs of 2014.
As physical media’s fortunes have fallen, fewer publications are covering them. But the Los Angeles Times’ Noel Murray has been keeping the beat, and picks out 10 great releases from a surprisingly robust year. Murray also argues that things might not be as bad as they seem: Blu-ray and DVD sales aren’t growing, but consumers who were buying them are staying loyal to their chosen format.

There’s still a need for physical media. It’s easy to download a copy of “The Lego Movie” but more complicated to download all the extras that are available on a “Lego Movie” Blu-ray. And while a lot of Criterion titles are available to Hulu subscribers, there’s no way for a streaming service to replicate the value of a good Criterion box set with all of its interviews, commentary tracks and bonus short films that put a director’s career in context.

This much is true: As the number of screens in our homes and on our persons multiply, the demand for entertainment to fill those screens goes up too. Figuring out the right way to deliver movies and TV shows to all the various devices is something the big media companies are sorting out. But the market isn’t going anywhere.

3. “Breaking Bad’s” Wonder Woman. For New York’s year-end issue, Matt Zoller Seitz profiles Michelle MacLaren, “the best director on TV.” From “The X-Files” through her distinctive stints on “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead” and “Better Caul Saul,” MacLaren, who will make her big-screen debut at the helm of the upcoming “Wonder Woman,” has mixed a kinetic style with a wicked sense of humor and a practical mindset that comes from working her way up through the production crew.

MacLaren loves math, sports, games, and puzzles, and sees elements of all of them in filmmaking. “I approach an action sequence almost like a mathematical problem,” MacLaren says over drinks in a West Hollywood hotel bar, a few weeks before her “Wonder Woman” assignment hit the internet. “Sometimes you get these action sequences that you read and go, ‘Oh my God, this is huge, how do I do it?’ and I go, ‘Just a step at a time. Sit down and plot each piece of it out.'” To demonstrate what she means, she reenacts a car stunt from the end of the “Breaking Bad” episode “Shotgun” on a tabletop, repositioning a water glass, a cocktail glass, a salt shaker, and a pepper shaker, sketching frames in the air with her fingertips, indicating cuts with little karate-chop motions. “And now Jesse’s here, and they’re here … and then bam!”

4. Dadhood: 2014 Was a Bad Year for the Patriarchy, at Least on Film. Fathers real and surrogate had a rough time of it at the movies, as figures like “Whiplash’s” tyrannical music teacher, “Foxcatcher’s” psychotic sports patron and “Boyhood’s” late-maturing manchild were shown up as failures. Glenn Kenny follows the thread at Vanity Fair.

Yep, cultural distaste for The Patriarchy is perhaps at an all-time high, and it’s no surprise this was reflected in the movie mainstream in a big way. Make no mistake: the put-upon, ineffectual, bumbling, clueless dad has always been part of pop culture. He was a particular staple of post W.W. II comedy: inchoate as an archetype in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but more fully formed in fare ranging from “The Seven Year Itch” to “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation” and more. But even in “Jingle All the Way” the bumbler eventually gets the toy. In a culture in which the LCD Soundsystem lyrics “with a face like a dad and a laughable stand” are almost a generational rallying cry, fatherhood is sapped of whatever inherent nobility cinema once attached to it.

5. Bring Back the Mid-Budget Movie? Not So Fast. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody rebuts Mark Harris’ Grantland lament, “The Birdcage,” in which Harris argues that the unprecedented emphasis on pre-tested properties has made Hollywood a hollowed-out creative wasteland. (See also David Poland’s counterargument at Movie City News: “It’s fun and easy to feel like the victim of the noise and the loudest, brightest (maybe lest challenging) films on the market. But if you really love movies, there were about five movies I could recommend to you in any major city on any week of this year… and surely in years to come. Hail Hydra!”)

Harris’s argument is a familiar one; it comes every few years. Roger Ebert, David Edelstein, and Ross Douthat made it in 2010, and Harris himself made it on Twitter earlier this year. (I wrote about it then, too). The argument is a twist on the long-standing lament for the death of the “midrange drama” or the “adult drama,” and it’s an essentially reactionary, anti-artistic conception of cinema, in two different ways. In decrying the separation of leading directors from the studios, it comes down to a “genius of the system argument, an assertion that movies come out best when directors’ inclinations are harnessed and channelled into the high-stakes commerce imposed by studio budgets and studio politics. It’s praise of industrial product in lieu of personal creation — praise of the business in place of the art.

In decrying the great success of franchises and the modest success of the humanistic movies that he admires, Harris seems to be writing in an echo chamber — as if a movie that doesn’t open on three thousand screens, doesn’t cost a hundred million dollars, and doesn’t make a hundred million, doesn’t really count. He’s wrong. What counts is the movie, whether it’s seen by a few thousand viewers or by millions, and what makes a movie count (whether it’s seen by millions or thousands) is the critical judgment that asserts that it counts and shows why it counts.

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