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Criticwire Survey: Gear-Changers

Criticwire Survey: Gear-Changers

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: Whether through evolution or calculated deception, many great movies and long-running TV shows start out as one thing and end up as something else entirely. “Scandal” was a show about the complicated love life of a D.C. fixer before it got into shadow governments and gory assassinations; “John Wick” begins as a hard-boiled revenge drama before becoming a nocturnal vengeance fantasy of vengeance. What’s your favorite example of a show or a movie where you start out watching one thing and end up watching another?

John Keefer, 51 Deep

Mad Men,” at the beginning, seemed like a well-written soap whose ammunition was the shock of the old: pregnant woman smoking, kids running around with dry cleaning bags on their heads when they weren’t getting smacked by neighbors, general attitudes that seem shocking today. It could have continued on being a “Look at what we considered acceptable!” type show with lots of sex and cheap melodrama thrown in for good measure, along with Don Draper running in to save the day with a brilliant last minute idea for a new campaign. Instead it revealed itself to be a show about the traps of identity, what we present to the world, painful choices and unforeseen consequences. It’s brilliant but at the beginning it was a show on AMC whose previous attempts included “Remember WENN,” a slight, light comedy about the golden age of radio. They’ve come a long way.

Max O’Connell
, Rapid City Journal, Movie Mezzanine

My go-to answer for this question is Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild,” which begins as a kooky romantic-comedy/road movie in which yuppie Jeff Daniels and free-spirited Melanie Griffith hook up and go to her high school reunion, only to morph into a nervy, punchy thriller when Ray Liotta shows up as Griffith’s ex-con husband. The switch is cued by one of my favorite lighting changes of all time: after Daniels finishes dancing like a goofball to The Feelies’ cover of David Bowie’s “Fame” and he and Griffith embrace, the auditorium lighting goes from high-lighting to a blue filter, “Loveless Love” starts up and Liotta dances his way into the frame, immediately signaling that we’re about to veer off into radically different territory. Suddenly the rhythms get jangly, the songs switch from feel-good world music to moodier stuff like X and The Go-Betweens, and the film turns from one great movie into another. Best of all, Demme hints that it’s coming in the first half, and there are still signs of the lighter earlier movie in some of the offbeat touches Demme employs in the second half (Daniels getting a goofy disguise in a gas station, Sister Carol breaking the fourth wall), so as jarring as it is it never feels inorganic.

Mike McGranaghan
, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

The one that immediately jumps to mind is “Parks and Recreation,” which started off as a fairly straightforward “Office”-style sitcom and eventually morphed into an incredibly astute satire of American politics. How this show failed to get a boatload of Emmy nominations is beyond me. Actually, it’s not. Emmy voters clearly didn’t watch it. Because — and please read this in a Ron Swanson voice — Emmy voters are a bunch of lazy, incompetent morons.

Alissa Wilkinson , Christianity Today

I know I’ve gotten hold of one of these shows by whether I have to beg people to keep watching past the first season. Besides “Mad Men,” there are two others. “Parks and Recreation” starts out being a (terrible) rip-off of “The Office” and then suddenly rockets to greatness as a gentle political satire/lovable character comedy. And then “Fringe,” which is basically just “The X-Files” without Mulder until suddenly, gloriously, a wormhole opens and everything shifts sideways. Thank goodness.

Josh Spiegel
, Movie Mezzanine

I wonder if my answer is going to crop up more as a whipping boy, but here goes: “Lost.” As much as I’m willing to agree that the show had some serious low points — you complain all you like about the flash-sideways world; I’ll be over here bitching about the episode where we find out what one of Jack’s tattoos means — its highs are equally undeniable. For me, those highs far outweighed the times when Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, and their writing staff may have stumbled.

To the point of this question, I’d argue that “Lost,” especially in its first season, is a vastly different piece of work than what it wound up as. Certainly, its science-fiction bona fides are on display from the pilot, which features an unseen monster as well as a polar bear on a tropical island. Yet here is a show that invoked time travel, immortality, religious mysticism, and more in its final three seasons. None of that is evident in season one; Lindelof and Cuse, for whatever other flaws they may have had, did an excellent job of introducing more heady sci-fi concepts as the situation allowed. (A secondary answer, also from the J.J. Abrams school of TV, is “Fringe,” which is “X-Files”-ish in its opening season, but grew vastly stranger and screwier over time.)

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

“Lost”. Would I have ever hung in there, watching every single damn episode of that meandering, weirder than weird, they’re-making-it-up-as-they-go-along series if I had known how nutso this plane crash on an island would have gone? Never. But watch I did. Even when, several times, I did not know why. Couldn’t our survivors been allowed a few fun love affairs (Oh, Sawyer!), some discovery of inner strength and the keeping of a few secrets and then, after several satisfying seasons, be rescued and allowed a real shower? Why, oh why, did there have to be all those metaphysical allusions and time traveling rich guys? And couldn’t Jack and Kate finally settle into the love we all really knew they, underneath it all, wanted and deserved? But alas. Seems as if Purgatory won over goodness, light and new, clean underwear. Oh well. I’m over it. As you can see.

Scott Mendelson, Forbes

We all saw the trailer so we all knew what it was really about, but for those walking in blind, M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” is two movies split in half. It spends the first 50 minutes of its 102 minute running time as a mostly straight character drama about a troubled but seemingly kind young boy and the overworked, but unquestionably loving and devoted single mother who can’t quite reach him. It is not really until the halfway point of the film, when Haley Joel Osment confesses his secret, that the film becomes a straight-up supernatural thriller. Again, our knowledge of the film’s iconic but thrill-spilling trailer colors our perception of the first half of the film, but there are few explicit hints that the film is anything other than a grim and mournful drama about a tortured and troubled shrink trying to help a young boy and thus heal thyself. Of course, there is no way audiences would have flocked to a emotional drama about a child with a possible mood disorder, even one starring Bruce Willis, so the marketing had to give away part of the game. But for those inexplicably unaware, “The Sixth Sense” starts as a psychological drama/character study and then turns on a dime into a supernatural thriller and ghost story.

Greg Cwik, Vulture, I

The obvious response is “Twin Peaks.” (The obvious answer is pretty much always “Twin Peaks.”) It started off as a melodrama bordering on soap opera with a murder mystery tinge before delving into oneiric horror. (Has there ever been an episode of network television as terrifying, and deeply upsetting, as “Lonely Souls?”). Also “The Conversation,” which grows increasingly paranoiac as it goes. The melancholy jazz score gives way to static noise and reality becomes less lucid. I don’t think anyone expected Coppola to turn that film into a horror movie in the end, but he did.

Richard Brody, New Yorker

No knock on Homer, but if his “Odyssey” had been written by Stanley Kubrick, Odysseus’s climactic return to Ithaca would have been composed not in the same narrative dactylic hexameter of the rest of the epic but in the allusive, abstract frenzy of “Finnegans Wake.” Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is, for most of its running time, a very good science-fiction film made with blatant irony and astonishing pictorial flair — and then, in its last fifteen or so minutes, it goes nuts, and in going nuts, it becomes a work of mad, visionary greatness. Nothing in its first two hours — or, for that matter, in Kubrick’s entire career to date — suggests any such confidence in, tendency toward, or aptitude for such pure and reckless visual phenomena. It’s one of the most exhilarating and daring sequences ever filmed — and it’s all the more thrilling for its utter disjunction from the rest of the movie that precedes it. It’s as if Kubrick were confessing, in his radical break with literal depiction, his sense of the inadequacy of the forms that he inherited, and of which he was a somewhat academic master, for such extremes of experience. But his sense of those extremes seemed mainly geographical: what flew, so to speak, in space found little place on Earth; he knew just how far he could go too far.

Peter Labuza
, The Cinephiliacs

Most films that have narrative changes don’t surprise me particularly, but films that change their filmic style as related to their narrative can be jarring. My case and point would be Delmer Daves’s fantastic “Dark Passage” with Bogart and Bacall. The first 20 or so minutes are all done POV style (using a new style of Arriflex 35mm cameras developed during the war), and at first, there seems no reason for it. But then it’s revealed that the POV of Bogart is assumably not actually the face of Bogart, and the character gets plastic surgery that essentially transforms him into Bogart. Thus the necessity of this POV style is revealed, and then it must change. From there, the film develops a more conventional filmic language, but it also continues to use the new technology to do some amazing fantastic location shooting throughout San Francisco, one of the first major Hollywood productions to do so. I find stylistic jumps like this mess much more with my head than any sort of story jumps.

Ben Travers, Indiewire

My favorite recent example of a TV show starting as one thing before morphing into something new was Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.” Sure, it’s only one season old, but Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s adult animated comedy did an about face at the midway point of its freshman year, a transition I only noticed a week or so after its release. I’d reviewed the first season of “BoJack” based on the first six episodes and thought it was an enjoyable if forgettable experience. But then Episode 7 changed everything. First, we shifted protagonists from BoJack’s egocentric slacker to his workaholic ex-girlfriend and agent for an enlightening half-hour from a feminine perspective. Then BoJack had to go seek forgiveness from a dying friend. Before you know it, BoJack is confronting the ugly side of himself more thoroughly and with bigger results than Don Draper’s done in seven seasons. “BoJack Horseman” made the game-changing shift from pun-centric slacker comedy to existentialist think piece with a knack for getting shit done. You better believe I’ll be watching all of Season 2 before putting my thoughts online.

Adam Batty
, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

In amidst the hoopla surrounding the recent release of (the admittedly excellent) “Daredevil” I’ve been attempting to make a case for it’s superior televisual sibling in the Marvel stable, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” What began as an entertaining enough “case of the week”-style affair has steadily grown into an intricate, invaluable member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a piece of work that deserves a wider audience.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

The most obvious example right now is my favorite show of the moment: “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” We all thought it was going to be a supervillain of the week show and a star-vehicle for Clark Gregg, little knowing that halfway through the season, events in a Marvel movie would force a radical reshuffle that made the main characters fugitives, and that a subsequent movie announcement for a more obscure property (The Inhumans) would add a lot more weirdness into the mix. I still have to explain to people who quit during season 1 that it got A LOT better.

Q.V. Hough, Vague Visages

The FX network instantly captured a key demographic with “Sons of Anarchy,” but it took some time for the average viewer to accept that Jax Teller was a dramatic character… with flaws! I’ve had numerous conversations over the years about the inauthenticity of Jax given his emotional slumbers, and many simply wanted him to be a bad-ass in the streets and at home. In that scenario, “Sons of Anarchy” would have been a much different series. 

With the aging of Jax’s children (and the loss of loved ones), the character slowly transformed into a new human, albeit a deeply-flawed one. “Sons of Anarchy” offered plenty for the tough guy crowd, and the lead character ultimately became a polarizing figure that audiences either despised or identified with. 

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

One show I remember slowly transforming into something else was “Rescue Me.” Initially dealing with Denis Leary’s fireman seeing the ghosts of people he couldn’t save, including his fireman cousin who died during 9/11, the supernatural element eventually went almost completely by the wayside, particularly as the secondary characters began to get their own arcs. It didn’t make the show any better or any worse, but it was something noticeable.

Another example might be “Californication,” which had an underbelly of heart and regret about love lost in the first few seasons before becoming a comedy that merely tried to shock you in the latter ones. It could just be a matter of a show going downhill quality-wise, but it felt like the show initially wanted to tug at your heartstrings from time to time.

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times

The trailer for Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July” suggested a straightforward revenge story, one whose lone distinction appeared to be a mulleted Michael C. Hall. Without getting into spoiler territory, all I’ll say is that it starts this way, shifts to something more interesting than that set-up, then keeps pivoting, leaving invested viewers teetering on the edge of their seats, rapt with wonder at how far from the initial premise Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici have taken them.

Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter

Nima Nourizadeh’s “Project X,” which gives the impression of being just another daft teen comedy before steadily — then giddily — escalating into something much more dazzlingly Dionysian, deftly darting back and forth across the porous narrative/avant-garde border. Nourizadeh’s imminent follow-up “American Ultra” will reveal whether he’s a flash-in-the-pan or, um, flashy-in-the-pantheon.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder

Maybe not on the scale implied by this week’s survey question, but the show that immediately comes to mind is “NYPD Blue.” “Blue” started out as not-so-atypical cop show, focused on a younger leading man (David Caruso) paired with an older character actor (Dennis Franz). Its main innovation, hinted at by its title, was the inclusion of nudity and vulgar language on a mainstream network historically subject to stringent censors. Tumult behind the scenes as Caruso’s star began to rise and the possibility of a movie career beckoned led to quick turnover and the hiring of Jimmy Smits, then Rick Schroder, and ultimately “Saved By the Bell’s” Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Through it all, showrunner David Milch relied on the superb Franz to play Milch’s alter ego, Andy Sipowicz, a veteran cop who began as an alcoholic, racist, divorcé and found redemption over the series’ 12-year run. Franz was the only actor who appeared in every episode, outlasting even Milch’s time on the show. While “Blue’s” focus may have changed from the one originally intended, while there was a marked decline in the show’s writing as Milch went on to even greater fame as creator of the much beloved “Deadwood,” producers knew that they could always lean on the tribulations faced by Franz’s Sipowicz to carry viewers through its more banal days. And Franz never let them or us down. Not once.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

“Ravenous” may start out as a western, but it becomes a nifty (albeit nasty) cannibal thriller. And it’s archly funny too. Genre-splicing works best when the genres are done well. Horror and comedy seem to work best because they exercise the same muscles. That said, it’s hard to talk about films that start out as one thing only to become another without revealing spoilers. A film like “Japanese Story” which begins as a lovely, tentative romance turns into a searing portrait of grief. But knowing about this change-up ruins some of the film’s magic. 

Charles Bramesco, Random Nerds, The Dissolve

My first instinct was to go with Takashi Miike’s “Audition,” but because I suspect others may share that instinct and I am terrified of seeming like a lemming, instead I’ll choose “Chuck and Buck.” Years and years before Miguel Arteta directed that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad children’s flick, he teamed with off-kilter genius Mike White for “Chuck and Buck.” It starts out as the cringiest of cringe comedies, as a lonely weirdo (White) with a case of arrested development that’d make Freud salivate ships off to Los Angeles to reconnect with his childhood best friend (Chris Weitz). Arteta wrings some exquisite awkwardness from Chuck’s valiant attempts to remain polite while giving Buck the heave-ho, but the film pivots hard into pitch-black psychosexual drama as it rolls past the halfway mark. There are some sincerely dangerous skeletons rattling around in Buck’s id, and as the depths of his precarious mental state become clear, the laughs turn to chills. Think of it as a deconstruction of stock manchildren like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler; wouldn’t Billy Madison make far more sense if something really fucked-up had happened to Billy as a kid?

John DeCarli, FilmCapsule

One of my favorite cinematic gear-changer is the haunting Japanese “cyber-horror” film “Pulse.” Pulse initially appears to operate within a familiar horror mode, even if it’s clear from the outset that it’s done with uncommon skill, precision and sophistication. Ghosts beckon from within computers, creepy figures appear in the dark, etc. Slowly, around the film’s midpoint, the resonances of “Pulse” deepen and bloom, and the film becomes “haunting” in a far different, more existential sense. The film isn’t about spooky encounters with ghosts, but a deep and unutterable dread associated with death and loneliness. These ghosts don’t do any violence to their victims, they just open their eyes to the horror of meaninglessness. Spooky indeed.

Carrie Rickey, Yahoo! Movies, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Don’t the best movies and television series (and musical compositions) strike multiple themes? “Casablanca,” for instance, is both about a cynic who becomes an idealist as it is a a romance that takes a back seat to geopolitics. “Groundhog Day” is both about an egotist caught in a vicious cycle he makes into a virtuous cycle as well as a romance between a devil who works on improving himself so he can be worthy of an angel. Similarly, “Clueless” is a literary update as well as the portrait of a teenage busybody who recognizes her pleasure in the exterior makeovers of her friends is a diversion from doing the hard work of her own moral makeover. I suppose these are three of my favorite two-tier movies.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters right now?

A: “Ex Machina”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Clouds of Sils Maria”

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