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Daily Reads: The Decline of the American Actor, Why Weird Pixar is the Best Pixar, and more

Daily Reads: The Decline of the American Actor, Why Weird Pixar is the Best Pixar, and more

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

1. The Decline of the American Actor. You may have noticed that many American male roles have been going to international actors, like “Selma,” which features British actors in almost every main role. In fact, non-American actors currently dominate American roles, which didn’t used to be the case at all. The Atlantic’s Terrence Rafferty examines the crisis of the under-40 American actor.

It’s undeniable that non-American actors are a lot more comfortable with American accents than their predecessors were a generation or two ago. Listen, for example, to Laurence Olivier — who was a gifted mimic — struggling to sound like a Midwestern businessman in “The Betsy” (1978); he does not pronounce those flat vowels trippingly on the tongue. For Olivier’s generation, the function of an English actor in an American movie was generally to lend a touch of class to studio costume dramas. (In the early talkies, almost everyone onscreen affected a kind of theatrical diction that sounded vaguely British anyway.) Lord Larry and his contemporaries and their immediate successors were, for the most part, perfectly content to sound like the Englishmen they were, except when, as was frequently the case, they were playing Nazis. They just didn’t get much practice talking American. That’s all changed. The Brits have now become so good at imitating Americans that there’s hardly an American role you can’t imagine them in. If “The Godfather” were to be made today, you might see Daniel Day-Lewis as Don Corleone, surrounded by, say, Tom Hiddleston as Michael, Rory Kinnear as Sonny, Ben Whishaw as Fredo, Benedict Cumberbatch as Tom Hagen, Keira Knightley as Connie, and Romola Garai as Kay. What’s worse, it isn’t nearly so easy to dream up a fantasy cast of American actors that would be as strong.

2. Between Victimhood and Power: The Female Detectives of TV’s Crime Dramas. 
Female detectives on TV are often caught between worlds, designed to project a typically masculine tough exterior while hiding a feminine vulnerability that almost “justifies” her choice in career. The L.A. Review of Books’ Annie Manion surveys TV’s female detectives and examines where they stand between victimhood and power.

There is an uneasiness that underlies on-screen female detectives. They are tough, but sometimes uncomfortably vulnerable and easily victimized. They are not girly, these shows insist, but they are often effortlessly beautiful in spite of their ineptitude around things like make-up and hair dryers. This teetering balance between the masculine and the feminine stems from cultural assumptions: our expectations for characters that work in law enforcement contradict our expectations for characters who are women. Unlike their male counterparts, the women who work in law enforcement must reconcile their femininity with the skills necessary for police work — such as physical strength and emotional stoicism, traits that are traditionally associated with male, rather than female, identity. This is not terribly surprising, given the fact that police work today continues to be seen as men’s work. Many police departments nationwide are still dominated by male employees, with only 12–15 percent female representation on average. The LAPD, for example, has made an effort over the last several years to staff a 20 percent female workforce and so far has only managed to achieve 19.2 percent. In all likelihood, television presents us with a more diverse picture than a glimpse into an average homicide or vice precinct in any city might offer. Many shows are moving away from mere tokenism toward a more nuanced form of representation that incorporates women from different ranks and ethnicities, and as some have pointed out, representation itself is an important part of the process toward gender equality; female characters in fictional police departments may encourage more young women to pursue careers in law enforcement in real life. Despite the progressive image that television presents on its surface, however, there is still a long way to go toward dismantling harmful gender stereotypes and offering audiences examples of women (who are able to unapologetically be women) in power.

3. “Jaws,” and the Lessons Hollywood Didn’t Learn from the Original Blockbuster. 
Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” the first true summer blockbuster, just celebrated its 40th anniversary and has been enjoying a brief run in theaters. But despite “Jaws'” success, Hollywood never seemed to learn the right lessons from the original blockbuster. The L.A. Times’ Rebecca Keegan analyzes the Hollywood blockbuster through “Jaws” and “Jurassic World.”

But really, what separates “Jaws” from most of the B monster movies that preceded it, and from so many of the summer films that have followed, is the distinct, memorable characters played by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss and written by screenwriters Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. Nowhere in “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron” or “Furious 7,” to name this year’s three biggest hits so far, is there a scene like the Ahab-esque monologue in which Shaw’s coarse shark hunter, Quint, relays his story of going down with the U.S. heavy cruiser Indianapolis during World War II. Instead of the naturalistic acting that sold the peril in “Jaws” — Scheider’s reluctantly heroic, water-averse police chief, Dreyfuss’ arrogant oceanographer, Shaw’s weather-beaten ship captain — there are muscled stars mugging against photo-real CG destruction. The performances in “Jaws” evolved in part due to serendipity. Because the special effects sharks didn’t work properly, Spielberg had to minimize their use, suggesting instead the power of the animal through shots of just its dorsal fin, and selling the danger through the reactions of his actors. Spielberg’s problem was the exact opposite of the one that plagues contemporary directors of big-budget films like “Jurassic World’s” Colin Trevorrow. Today, with digital tools, crews of hundreds of visual effects artists can conjure any monster, devastate any cityscape and defy any law of physics. When literally anything is visually possible, almost nothing is plausible, or truly scary.

4. Glenn Kenny on “Jaws” and How It Took a Bite Out of America. 
It’s somewhat difficult to imagine from our modern standpoint just exactly how “Jaws” blew the doors open on the summer movie season and how studios next take in “nearly 40 percent of its money between Memorial Day and Labor Day.” Veteran critic Glenn Kenny considers “Jaws'” legacy and how its myth stands up today for the Boston Globe.

Watching “Jaws” today, the film shows its age from the very start. The cheesy TV-movie typeface of the credits, the hair and clothes, the normalization of smoking  —  all very ’70s. But there’s more. “Jaws,” especially relative to its more frenetic ostensible inheritors, has a control and a coherence that’s cinematically classical, as opposed to classic. It doesn’t shrug off death the way so many of today’s big summer movies do. Five people fall victim to the shark in Spielberg’s movie. Asked how many people were killed in his 2013 blockbuster “Man of Steel,” director Zack Snyder replied, “Probably five thousand.” “Jaws” takes its time, letting the horrors wrought by the shark’s destructive path sink in. Actress Lee Fierro, as the mother of a young child killed by the beast, has one of the film’s most memorable moments when she slowly approaches Roy Scheider’s Sheriff Brody and then slaps him in the face, saying: “My boy is dead. I wanted you to know that.” “Seven” and “Gone Girl” director David Fincher once said: “I’m always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about “Jaws” is the fact that I’ve never gone swimming in the ocean again.” What Spielberg achieves in the early “Jaws” scenes is a visceral anatomy of destruction, making the ocean as frightening as Alfred Hitchcock’s motel-room shower. It’s a fear that revisits us each time a great white surfaces off Chatham.

5. Why Weird Pixar is the Best Pixar. 
Inside Out” has taken movie theaters by storm, raking in record-breaking box office numbers, even if they can’t match the dinosaurs in “Jurassic World.” Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore explores why Pixar is at its best when it doesn’t pay attention to the rules.

There are some references no child will grasp, and “Inside Out” is agreeably secure in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter, that understanding can be a gradient, that there are enough bright colors and bits of physicality to keep younger viewers entertained even if they don’t immediately appreciate the bit about cell phone numbers or YA-influenced fantasy boyfriends. The mental obstacle course Joy and Sadness have to navigate to get back to Headquarters is the most conventional part of the movie, but the characters’ journey through it carries the movie to some sophisticated realizations about how growing up means leaving things behind and learning that no one is or should be happy all the time. Pixar has smuggled these themes into other movies. The “Toy Story” films deal with obsolescence from the POV of the object at risk of being discarded, while “Finding Nemo” has a father learning to loosen the reins on his son and to accept he can’t be sheltered forever. But “Inside Out” overtly dramatizes these ideas, giving them form in the relentlessly peppy Joy, the doleful Sadness, and their companions. It basks in the bittersweetness of change — which may be its weirdest, boldest aspect.

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