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Daily Reads: Disneynature Is Creating New Documentary Fans — or Ruining Them, How ‘Unfriended’s Producer Is Redefining Horror, and More

Daily Reads: Disneynature Is Creating New Documentary Fans — or Ruining Them, How 'Unfriended's Producer Is Redefining Horror, and More

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

1. Disneynature Are Fostering a New Generation of Documentary Fans. Last Friday, Disneynature released its new Tina Fey-narrated nature documentary, “Monkey Kingdom.” The Dissolve’s Kate Erbland thinks these films are producing young new documentary fans.

What’s most astonishing about the Disneynature series is not that its creators can successfully infiltrate different animal communities — although that’s certainly impressive, and a skill set probably deserving of its own series of films — but what they find once they are inside. Although the newest Disneynature films have succeeded because of their anthropomorphization of cute and cuddly animals, that’s only part of the series’ outstanding ability to shape complete stories from the true-life material gathered in the course of crafting a feature. The series often stumbles on stories that would be nearly impossible to invent, like Chimpanzee’s narrative about a male chimp adopting an orphaned baby (believed to be the first instance of its kind captured on film, and certainly an extremely rare occurrence in the chimp world), or “Monkey Kingdom’s” storyline about a displaced monkey tribe temporarily moving to the city before reclaiming their jungle home from a rival group.

2. …Unless They’re Treating Audiences Like Idiots and Foisting a Trumped-up Narrative on Nature Footage, a la “March of the Penguins.” Over at Vox, Todd VanDerWerff blames “March of the Penguins is responsible for the new wave of nature documentary dreck.

The problem, then, is that [“Monkey Kingdom”] is completely unable to let the images tell the story. Instead, it plasters the film with omnipresent narration by Tina Fey, who affects funny voices when the monkeys do goofy things and jokes about mushrooms being like potato chips to monkeys — who can’t eat just one! Fey’s not bad, as narrators go, and she didn’t write the script she has to deliver. But it’s still irritating to be watching a monkey, wondering what it’s up to, and then hear someone provide the most simplistic answer possible.

3. The Producer of “Unfriended” Is Redefining American Horror. Jason Blum has fought his way to the mainstream by producing low-budget horror films. Buzzfeed’s Louis Peitzman interviews Blum to discover how he did it. 

Blumhouse caps films at around $4 million. (Sequels tend to be higher budget, given the proven success of the first and the need to draw back the original talent.) Even if a film only gets a limited release, Blumhouse will almost always at least make back their investment. It’s a tactic that allows Blum and his colleagues to bet on more innovative projects. “Hollywood has a real tendency of, Oh, this movie worked. Let’s make a movie like it. And I like to push our company to do the opposite, which is, You know what? Let’s try new stuff,” Blum said. “I’m able to give filmmakers final cut and say, ‘Do what you wanna do,’ because we don’t actually have that much risk. I couldn’t be as loose if we were making movies for $10 million.”

4. “Unfriended” and Horror’s Tradition of Fearing New Tech. The horror film genre has been fearful towards technology for quite a while now. Wired’s Jordan Crucchiola unpacks the history of horror’s relationship with technology, from the post-WWII era to the Internet age.

Scary movies have always served as one of modern culture’s best time capsules. Using monsters as metaphors, horror films turn our actual fears into fantastically gruesome scenarios. “Unfriended” and its ilk simply reflect present-day anxieties about our lives online — just like teen slasher films tapped into our feelings about taboo topics like sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll in the 1980s. And in every decade from the early 20th century to the present day, each installment in the genre gives us a fascinating window into the fears of our past, and therefore a greater understanding of our present.

5. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “30 Rock,” and Tina Fey’s Vision of Masculinity. Though “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has garnered praise for its treatment of sexual assault survivors, Nicholas Miriello argues in the L.A. Review of Books that Tina Fey’s treatment of masculinity is equally compelling.

By design, then, “30 Rock” should be a satire of absurdist masculinity and immoral capitalism in the face of a not so post-feminist reality. If the effects of capitalism and masculinity amounted to tragedy in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” then in “30 Rock” they would be exposed as farce. Quite simply, it could not be taken seriously; it was stupid, and in Donaghy, we’d have the paragon of that stupidity. For much of the show he was just that. We watch Donaghy go to great, and often idiotic, extremes to assert himself, his “manhood,” as Mamet’s Blake might say. He will say and do almost anything to please his superiors, including using his sexual charisma, irrespective of gender, for his gain. For God’s sake, he worships Jack Welch and Ronald Reagan — two figures intimate with the amorality (or immorality) of capitalism and the great cover provided by masculinity.

6. How American TV ruined “Kitchen Nightmares'” Gordon Ramsay. The National Post’s Calum Marsh believes that the conventions of American reality T.V. have turned Gordon Ramsay into someone he’s not.

The trouble is that Ramsay was never the fuming madman the American networks made him out to be. That’s nothing more than a ruse — a character for sale abroad. I remember feeling astonished, the first time I watched an episode of the original Kitchen Nightmares: the hostility wasn’t there. Ramsay wasn’t lambasting anybody; he wasn’t scolding the busboys for delays or upbraiding the line cooks for slip-ups; he could even be seen, on occasion, smiling and laughing like an ordinary person. You’d never know it were you familiar with him from the show’s America iteration, but in the United Kingdom, Ramsay is exceptionally charismatic, even charming. Mildly pugnacious, perhaps, but likably so, a consequence of his enthusiasm and care. When he yells and screams it’s only on behalf of the people he’s helping.

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