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Daily Reads: How Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy Built an Empire, an Oral History of ‘Clueless,’ and More

Daily Reads: How Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy Built an Empire, an Oral History of 'Clueless,' and More

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

1. How “Spy’s” Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy Built a Hollywood Empire. Last Friday, “Spy,” the new comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and written/directed by Paul Feig. After topping the box office opening weekend, it became one in a long line of successful ventures for both Feig and McCarthy. From their large box office returns to high critical acclaim, it’s clear they have tapped into something in The Culture, but what? And how? Forbes’ Monika Bartyzel answers these questions and more in her article.

Their approach is the height of simplicity: place unglamorous female characters in the storylines and genres generally dominated by men. The perspective allows Feig and McCarthy to give audiences familiar worlds while the genderbent setups offer a rich playground for challenging sexist habits in progressive ways. “Bridesmaids” juxtaposed classic feminine stereotypes with an audacity that ripped to the heart of traditional feminine etiquette. “The Heat” played with manifestations of female strength while busting open the male buddy cop world. The newly released “Spy” dismantles 007’s masculine domain while cutting to the very heart of society’s often reductive treatment of women. “Ghostbusters” is set to continue the trend in 2016. Even when McCarthy isn’t collaborating with Feig, her work continues the success and explorations of identity that made them both successes. “Identity Thief” was panned critically, but made almost $174 million (almost five times what it cost to make) exploring a woman who takes on new identities in unsuccessful bids to be accepted by society. The same can be said for her collaboration with husband Ben Falcone, “Tammy,” which made $100 million (five times its cost) exploring the connections between outside pressure and inner self-confidence.

2. The Final Transformation of “Mad Men”. 
It’s been a little less than a month since the “Mad Men” finale and plenty of us are still turning over the last episode in our heads. What did that last few shots mean? How do they fit into the larger narrative? Does it have to? Is Matthew Weiner just messing with our heads? Reverse Shot’s Morad Moazami unpacks the last episode and argues that the series was ultimately leading to a disintegration of an authentic self so an artificial one can grow in its place.

And so, Don’s journey to reclaim his former self terminates with the eradication, the death, of Dick Whitman. Perhaps this trajectory also signifies the death of the authentic in favor of the artificial, the evolution of a man tormented by his anonymity to a product unbounded by a past. The former Dick Whitman can now seamlessly transmute into his previously half-finished creation. The title “Person to Person” (which also refers to three essential phone calls Don makes in the episode) had been suggesting this all along: with Whitman disposed of, the fully formed Don Draper can take shape, a man without a past — and thus a man finally empty. The previous incarnation of Don, haunted by Whitman, longed for authenticity while operating duplicitously. As “Mad Men” ends, however, with the intimation of Don’s successful return to McCann Erickson, Draper seems to have conceded his quest for authenticity to a careerism akin to Peggy’s. Even Don’s revelatory experience as a revitalized Dick Whitman has been merely repackaged for a Coca-Cola commercial, the depth of the experience having been expunged for the sake of an advertisement. A chorus of multicultural figures standing on a hilltop caroling about their shared affinity for Coke stands in stark contrast to what Don had experienced during his cross-country expedition, where the only shared experiences among people — from war veterans to free spirits at a retreat — were their isolation and regrets. But since, throughout “Mad Men,” Draper’s unique creativity had continually been inspired by the dramas of his own life, this conclusion is ultimately not so surprising. The Coca-Cola ad exhibits that Draper’s talents have remained intact, and now that he has been unburdened of the past, they might have even amplified.

3. The Panoramic Scope of Robert Altman’s “Nashville”. 
It’s close to the 40th anniversary of Robert Altman’s landmark musical drama “Nashville,” which follows over two dozen characters across five days over a span of two and a half hours. Altman takes a panoramic approach to the world, packing in every scene with information from multiple storylines at once, shifting focus quickly and often, but all in service of a larger story and theme. “Nashville” is The Dissolve’s Movie of the Week this week, and Andreas Stoehr provides the keynote essay about how every detail in “Nashville” contributes to the bigger picture.

Little in “Nashville” is stated explicitly. Characters’ personalities are expanded on through the visual shorthand of costume and production design. Clueless reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) wears a hat bedecked with a musical note, a signifier of tourist status just like the jacket worn by troubled drifter Kenny (David Hayward), which has “Columbus, Ohio” emblazoned on the back. L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall), another outsider, changes into increasingly outrageous wigs over the course of the film; they mark her as more fashionably protean than the Tennesseans around her. Haven Hamilton’s colossal ego is made manifest in a set of flower arrangements he sends to Barbara Jean, each of them shaped as an “HH” ringed by a horseshoe, and philandering folk singer Tom (Keith Carradine) wakes up to the sound of his own beautiful voice on a record — an audio correlative of his selfishness. Like the decorations on Sueleen Gay’s wardrobe, these details allow a peek into each character’s psyche by way of self-presentation while making economical use of each actor’s time onscreen. By itself, each one of these decisions is inessential and easy to miss. But together, they contribute to “Nashville’s” internal consistency. They’re flourishes that make the movie more complete. These scattered props and garments are like the lyrics to Barbara Jean’s songs, which likewise add emotional dimension to her story. Like many members of the film’s cast, Ronee Blakley (herself a trained musician) wrote the material she performed. Her songs speak poignantly of personal history: “My daddy grew up on his own, more or less,” she sings in “My Idaho Home,” whose title refers to the actress’s own home state. “His mama died when he was just 11.” This is no disposable window dressing; instead, it’s a song so resilient that Blakley incorporated it into her repertoire and still performs it decades later. She penned a song that, like many of “Nashville’s” grace notes, lays bare her character’s vulnerabilities as it readies the audience for the heartbreaking climax to come.

4. An Oral History of “Clueless”. 
This summer also marks the 20th anniversary of “Clueless,” a film that both embraces and satirizes its privileged, flighty, and yes, clueless Beverly Hills characters. Vanity Fair has excerpted a section from Jen Chaney’s new book telling the oral history of the 90’s teen classic that will hopefully answer all of your burning questions about the movie.

More important, “Clueless” touched a chord in the culture that was clearly primed and ready to be struck. Pre-teen and teen girls raced to malls in search of plaid skirts and knee-high socks. Almost immediately, Paramount began working with Heckerling to develop a TV adaptation. Within a year, the movie’s soundtrack would sell enough copies to be certified gold, and would eventually reach platinum status. The success of “Clueless” also would defibrillate the barely breathing high-school movie genre, resulting in a flood of teen movies in the late 90s and early 00s. What’s even more remarkable is that, 20 years later, “Clueless” is still as omnipresent in American culture as it was back then. Thanks to its presence on cable, DVD, and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, “Clueless” is still watched on a regular basis by longtime fans as well as young people discovering the film for the first time. Tributes to the movie — in the form of Twitter accounts and Buzzfeed listicles — are ubiquitous in the digital sphere. Fashion designers and labels continue to riff on the costumes created for the film by Mona May.

5. The Making of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”. 
Twenty years ago this summer, “The Simpsons” ended their sixth season with a cliffhanger: after Mr. Burns blocks out the sun, somebody shot him in the chest, and viewers had to wait close to four months to find out whom. In the mold of “Dallas'” “Who Shot J.R.?”, the animated series sought to create as much suspense and mystery around their cliffhanger as possible. So how did they do it? The A.V. Club’s Alan Siegel explores the cliffhanger finale and interviews showrunner David Mirkin and episode writers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein.

“Who Shot J.R.?”, the smash-hit whodunit that unfolded across the third and fourth seasons of primetime soap “Dallas” in 1980, provided the perfect template for “The Simpsons.” The key was to come up with something that stayed both true to the show’s ethos and to a beloved genre. After all, Oakley said, “Procedural mysteries have a certain visceral appeal to people that you just don’t get when you’re doing satirical jabs.” A seemingly gimmicky cliffhanger probably should’ve veered off into “Worst. Episode. Ever” territory. But one important plot point, endorsed by a legendary figure in “Simpsons” history, helped ensure that the two-part “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” became a classic. Fox’s comically relentless marketing campaign helped turn it into an event. On May 21, 1995, part one aired as “The Simpsons’” sixth-season finale. It’s a moment then-showrunner David Mirkin will never forget. “People in the United States have the kind of lives where they say, ‘I can always remember where I was when Mr. Burns got shot,'” he deadpans. “It’s kinda sad.”

6. The Enduring Mystery of “After Last Season”. 
Have you ever heard of the 2009 film “After Last Season”? If you haven’t, don’t worry. The film exists as a low-budget cult object like “The Room,” but unlike “The Room,” this movie is still shrouded in mystery. Over at Medium, Jason Coffman investigates the story and the enduring mystery of the weird “After Last Season.”

“After Last Season” exists in the subconscious of the internet mostly as “that trailer with the cardboard MRI machine.” Even among the most diehard fans of weird cinema, it is something that may have made a momentary blip on their radar if they have even heard of it at all. Given how difficult it has been to see the film since its 2009 theatrical release  —  and how strange the film is  —  this is not surprising. But the whole phenomenon of “After Last Season” is much more compelling than that of just another low-budget film that briefly gained the attention of some of those midnight movie fans who made a cult hit out of “The Room.” The film and the circumstances of its production and release are still something of an unsolved mystery, despite the best efforts of some dedicated fans. In a world where virtually no question about even the most obscure film can go unanswered for long, the enigma of “After Last Season” and its writer/director Mark Region is even more fascinating…On 5 June 2009, “After Last Season” opened for a one-week run in four Cinemark theaters across the United States: California (Lancaster), Illinois (North Aurora), New York (Rochester) and Texas (Austin). Viewers who had followed the discussion about the film online were amazed to discover that it was in fact exactly the experience promised by its inexplicable trailer. A few reviews appeared during the theatrical run on various sites from curiosity seekers who were able to catch the film on the big screen. Rodney Perkins of Twitch reported that it was “so genuinely and startlingly bad that a movie cult will undoubtedly form around it.” David Lowery of Hammer to Nail went even further, explaining that after watching it he felt “no more convinced that it’s real than I did when I first watched (and watched and watched) the trailer after it surfaced online three months ago.” Filmmaker Magazine posted both a video review featuring several baffled viewers recorded immediately after a screening and an interview with writer/director Mark Region during the film’s limited theatrical run. In that interview, Region expressed hopes that the film would perform well enough to justify a wider release.

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