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Daily Reads: Why Blockbusters Need Fresh Blood, The Stalled Storytelling of ‘Game of Thrones,’ and More

Daily Reads: Why Blockbusters Need Fresh Blood, The Stalled Storytelling of 'Game of Thrones,' and More

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

1. How Can Films Change the World? Though some critics like to wax poetic about how art has the power to change the world, it’s a different thing entirely to ask the harder questions, like how does one construct a film that has the power to create change, alter minds, and mold better human beings? Little White Lies’ Sophie Monks Kaufman interviews directors Joshua Oppenheimer, Mahdi Fleifel, and Kim Longinotto and asks them these hard questions.

Does a movie actually have the power to instigate real political change?

Oppenheimer: Certainly but I’ll just say one more abstract thing because I don’t think those two things are separable. It’s not like there’s abstract, theoretical change and then concrete change. A work of art should function as a mirror or maybe even more of a kind of microscope or prism that forces us to confront some of the most mysterious and painful aspects of what we are and in doing so it makes possible conversations which weren’t possible before that. So, maybe I believe that a genuine work of art is like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes who comes and says, ‘Look, the king is naked’ Everybody knew it but was too afraid to say it. But having said it, a whole new conversation becomes possible and that’s different from activism and different from journalism because it’s not about exposing new information, it’s actually about exposing what everybody already knew and didn’t want to look at or suspected but didn’t want to look at.

2. Welcome to Being Done With “Game of Thrones”.
“Game of Thrones” ended its fifth season last Sunday and plenty of viewers have professed that they are unwilling to continue watching the series because of its violent content and its depiction of brutality. Though it’s obviously a personal decision to watch a television show, many claim that the show “has gone too far” without really critically analyzing what that phrase even means. Tor.com’s Chris Lough explains why he’s done with “Game of Thrones” and how it’s more to do with storytelling and less to do with shock and awe.

The books feature an even greater loss of momentum than the TV series, keeping Tyrion apart from Daenerys, introducing yet another new contender for the Iron Throne, and promising huge battles in Meereen and Winterfell without actually delivering them. (The book series comes to a complete stall in one of Davos’ chapters, where the contents of a stew are described at length over two terrifying pages.) Jon Snow still dies in the same manner, and while it’s a thematically strong death — he dies doing the right thing, just like Ned, assuming a loyalty amongst his peers that has never actually been demonstrated — it feels transparent and cynical in comparison to the lack of momentum in the series. As if killing a main character is now the only way to keep “Game of Thrones” and “A Song of Ice and Fire” interesting.
This is an utterly cynical way to think about Jon’s death, but can readers and viewers be blamed for presuming such cynicism after experiencing it season after season, book after book? That “A Dance With Dragons” and “Game of Thrones” Season 5 also share a peculiar focus on brutality certainly adds to this sense of cynicism. Altering Sansa’s plotline in “Game of Thrones” to make her the victim of rape was essentially the last straw for The Mary Sue, and the conclusion of this season of the show saw the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Vox, and other outlets noting the unrelentingly grim nature of the show, as well. “A Dance With Dragons” features depictions of abuse, executions, and rape with such frequency that, when I first read it, I began noting how many pages it had been since the last mention or instance of sexual violence. It was rare for that number to reach double digits. And while that might not be entirely new for the series, it felt gratuitous when compared to the relatively motionless plot. “A Song of Ice and Fire,” and by extension “Game of Thrones,” has always been about the conflict between the realistic actions of a society versus the demands of an epic fantasy storyline, but these days it feels as if there’s no story being told at all, leaving us with the realistic actions of Westeros and Essos’ disturbingly violent society.

3. Why Blockbuster Directors Need to Change.
Once upon a time, Universal Studios placed a bunch of money in the hands of an inexperienced kid named Steven Spielberg to adapt a bestseller into a summer film, and despite the numerous setbacks during the shoot, he ended up making “Jaws,” a film that created the summer blockbuster. It’s a great rags-to-riches story, but why are these stories only about white guys? Over at RogerEbert.com, Jessica Ritchey explores why there’s no “inexperienced young artist given the keys to the kingdom” template for female or minority directors?

As for what can be done to alleviate the situation, people may balk at the idea of hiring quotas, but it’s time for them. And for the immediate counter argument of “they only got hired to fill quota,” well maybe so, but it’s better than the current arrangement of not getting hired at all. And moreover, it brings with it a genuine trickle down effect. If directors of big movies go on to hire people who look like them, what does it mean when the directors look like DuVernay, Alexander, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Justin Lin? And for the argument that “who cares who’s in the driver’s seat of the latest brainless popcorn muncher,” consider that “blockbuster” doesn’t and shouldn’t equal lowered expectations. “Jaws” has aged considerably better than many films that came out last year. And consider too that more diverse voices behind the camera also trickles down the stories selected for event movies. Imagine a beloved film franchise based on Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” series. Imagine it being the normal state of affairs to read in Variety that studios were in a bidding war for the rights to “Saga.” Imagine that when Sony wanted to make new Spider-Man movies to hold on to the rights, they went with the Miles Morales version of the character. The self-imposed brain drain Hollywood has put on who gets to direct summer tentpole movies is turning them in ever increasingly pale imitations of themselves.

4. The Nice Guys of Litchfield: “Orange Is the New Black” on Male Entitlement.
In recent years, there’s been an increased focus on the cultural plague of Nice Guys, men who believe their nice personalities make them entitled to female attention. Well, it turns out that showrunners and writers are also paying attention to culture’s “Nice Guy Problem.” Salon’s Sonia Saraiya unpacks how “Orange Is The New Black” shines a light on toxic male entitlement.

As I wrote in my review of this season, “Orange Is the New Black” is a show fixated on empathy, and in many ways, that is mostly what this dedication to the nice guy is. But the show is also a show plugged into — and often rewriting — the cultural politics of our era, from trans rights to prison reform. In its third season, “Orange Is The New Black” offers up not just an array of male experience, but an array of male frailty; the subversive mission of the show finds ways to lay bare the strength of its women as it exposes the weaknesses of the men. And over and over, what lies at the heart of the men it explores is a stubborn entitlement that makes itself known in a variety of ways. It helps that the men in the show are also almost definitively figures of power, as most are COs. But more than that, it’s clear that “Orange Is The New Black” wants to dissect this myth of male entitlement, and examine not just its prevalence but also its roots, its resilience, and its close relationship with masculinity.

5. The Empty Sundance Aesthetic.
You’ve probably heard someone describe a movie as a “Sundance movie,” and though that phrase does conjure up images of “Garden State” and “Juno,” what does that description actually mean? What’s the difference between a “Sundance movie” and a “movie that premieres at Sundance”? The National Post’s Calum Marsh examines the empty aesthetic of the “Sundance movie” how it’s become so recognizable.

It isn’t hard to understand what Lumenick means when he calls “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” a “prototypical” Sundance movie. He’s shunting it, as a lot of critics have, into a very particular tradition. Its kinship is with “Garden State,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Away We Go,” “(500) Days of Summer” — movies that share, among other distinctive features, a world debut among the mountains of Park City. What’s odd is the synecdochal maneuvering required to get us here. “Garden State,” to take the most widely loathed example, did indeed enjoy its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was received warmly and almost instantly snapped up by Fox Searchlight and Miramax for $5 million. But “Garden State” isn’t really representative of the Sundance programming. It isn’t even representative of that year’s slate: “Open Water,” “Super Size Me,” and “Primer” all premiered alongside “Garden State,” but nobody thinks of them as “Sundance” movies in quite the same way. The honor has been reserved for Zach Braff’s strained hip whimsy alone.

6. The Push to Make People “Watch ‘Rectify,’ Dammit”.
You’ve heard of “Rectify,” right? The quiet, subtle SundanceTV drama about a man’s difficult return to society after being on death row for 19 years has impressed critics since it first aired three years ago, but the problem is that barely anyone is watching it. However, there’s been on a strong push from SundanceTV executives to get people to watch this show. Vulture’s Josef Adalian investigates this new push and the “Watch ‘Rectify,’ Dammit” campaign.

One of the biggest challenges for “Rectify” has had nothing to do with the show itself. The fact that it airs on SundanceTV automatically limits its Nielsen potential, since the channel is available in only 57 million homes — or about half as many as big networks such as AMC (95 million). By hyping “Rectify” on the channel of “The Walking Dead” and “Better Call Saul,” newly installed SundanceTV president Charlie Collier — who recently added oversight of the network to his gig running AMC — hopes millions of more potential viewers who don’t even know the show exists will get wind of it. And if only 100,000 of those viewers exposed to the show become fans, it will represent a significant ratings gain, percentage-wise, for “Rectify.” “We’re using the power of AMC to frame it in the most positive light and bring as many people as possible to it,” Collier says. “‘Rectify’ really is that ‘best show you’re not watching,’ and there are so few shows of that quality that can legitimately be called that.”

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