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Daily Reads: 11 Ways to Make a Great Action Movie, the Personal Politics of ‘The West Wing,’ and More

Daily Reads: 11 Ways to Make a Great Action Movie, the Personal Politics of 'The West Wing,' and More

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

1. The Bright But Uncertain Future of Film Criticism. After The Dissolve closed last week just shy of its 2nd birthday, there have been plenty of discussions about the future of film criticism and if it was even possible for it to continue in such a saturated marketplace. Movie Mezzanine’s Daniel Carlson provides his prognosis for criticism’s future and how it might adapt in these new times.

This is the future of film criticism: deep, meaningful essays that aren’t afraid of spoilers and that blend aesthetic investigations with social reflections. These are the kinds of pieces the best TV critics work to assemble each week, though they’re at a disadvantage because the series is still unfolding as they write (and might wind up being cancelled before various plot threads can be tied together). Film doesn’t have that disadvantage, though. The endless tease of comic-book movies notwithstanding, films are self-contained units, which means they can be digested and discussed in their entirety much sooner, and more easily, than a TV series. There are practical applications as well as artistic ones. Criticism has always been a challenging format to create and publish, but in the era of free online content, it’s become even more difficult for quality writing to find a home. Part of that’s just economics: When users don’t want to pay for a product, you’re going to have a hard time finding the resources to make it. But part of it is also the changing tastes and interests of the audience. Old-style reviews, written before a film’s release and designed to act as an opening-day preview and cursory assessment, seem like harder sells these days: Even The New York Times, which once strove to review everything that screened in the city, has had to cut back on reviews given the sheer volume of films released and the unlikelihood that those reviews will get any kind of readership. Reviews are starting to feel like wallpaper: in the background and easy to ignore. But longer, more personalized pieces have a higher likelihood of reaching readers and defining an outlet’s voice, and it’s those two qualities — impact and personality — that help to create community. Richer criticism has a better chance of being all things to all people, and it’s more rewarding to write, to boot.

2. How to Make a Good Action Film: 11 Lessons From Modern Movies. 
Speaking of The A.V. Club, their weekly inventories have been a staple of the publication for many years now and often make implicit connections across the broad spectrum of pop culture. This week is no exception. The A.V. Club staff picks characteristics from eleven different modern action movies to construct an argument for what makes a good action film.

Privilege the set pieces above all else (“Mission Impossible  Ghost Protocol”)” One does not go to “Mission: Impossible” movies for the convoluted espionage plot lines, or the snappy banter between agents, or even to bask in the smoldering (if fading) star power of Tom Cruise. One goes for the set pieces, the scenes built around daredevil stunts, ingenious gadgets, tight time constraints, or all of the above. “Ghost Protocol,” the fourth and finest of the “Mission: Impossible” movies, recognizes that these self-contained spectacles of suspense are the raison d’être of the franchise. And so director Brad Bird just keeps them coming, one after another, creating a daisy chain of wow: There’s little superfluous connective tissue between Cruise breaking out of a prison and breaking into the Kremlin, or between him climbing the world’s tallest building and then leading a car chase through a sandstorm. “Ghost Protocol” devises a bunch of cool spy-game sequences, then severely cuts down on everything that doesn’t fit that description. More action films could stand to follow its just-the-fun-stuff lead.

3. “True Detective” and the Changing, Divisive Nature of the Aerial Shot. 
Back in 1948, Nicholas Ray decided to start his debut film “They Live By Night” with a shot from the sky and was the first director to employ a “helicopter” shot in a Hollywood film. Now, aerial shots are ubiquitous across film and television and have become somewhat of a cliché. Vulture’s Adam Sternbergh examines the visual technique in light of “True Detective’s” second season which has employed the aerial shot many times in the previous four episodes.

Aerial shots are much more accessible and versatile now, thanks to drones. The FAA cleared private drones for commercial use this past September, and they’re cheaper than helicopters, costing roughly $5,000 a day rather than the latter’s $15,000-to-$20,000 day rate. Aesthetically, too, the aerial shot is transforming. Post-9/11 and post-NSA, the aerial imparts a new kind of unease, a more ambient dread. This new take is employed ingeniously by, for example, Christopher Nolan in 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” which opens on the Gotham cityscape over the sound of a ticking clock before we see a skyscraper window explode. What was once the filmmaker’s version of air supremacy now conveys pervasive vulnerability.

4. The Personal Politics of “The West Wing.” 
Long before the disastrous “The Newsroom” and the unintentionally campy “Studio 60 for the Sunset Strip,” Aaron Sorkin was best known for his successful network TV show “The West Wing,” which followed the fictional Bartlet administration and the various struggles they face trying to push their agenda through Washington. Summer is the perfect time for binge watching classic shows, and The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg has been doing just that with “The West Wing.” Rosenberg writes about how the series’ unique brand of personal approach to public policy has not aged well.

There are certainly good arguments to be made that political officials ought to be able to be more candid; that public servants’ private lives should be off-limits as long as they’re abiding by the law and performing their duties at a high level; and that in politics, we should be more willing to treat addiction as a treatable disease than as a permanent moral stain. But in a lot of these plotlines, arguing for these principles through these particular people actually weakens Sorkin”s arguments. Adopting these more tolerant rules would certainly protect bad or abrasive behavior, but Josh’s right to be rude on television and Sam’s prerogative to provide moral lectures to a young woman aren’t actually the best arguments “The West Wing” could make for media discretion. (That would be the entire character of Danny Concannon, the Washington Post reporter played by Timothy Busfield, and my favorite fictional colleague.) And while Leo comes across as a dandy boss on “The West Wing,” and the congressman pursuing him is portrayed as a moralistic toad, it’s not actually unreasonable to ask whether a Cabinet official was impaired or taking large amounts of time off while performing his job. The end result is a show that simultaneously venerates personal character as a sign of goodness and wisdom in policymaking, while complaining about the media’s focus on personality. Judge Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos) is virtuous because he doesn’t use a wrongful arrest as a way to make a point about racial profiling, even though that might have opened up a powerful conversation about policing. Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) is treated as an antagonist because of his personal style and his lack of gratitude to Bartlet, not because he’s wrong on the substance of the issues. (The show occasionally acknowledges, grudgingly, that he is correct.)

5. An Interview with “Mad Magazine’s” Art Director. 
“Mad Magazine” is famous for many things — its foldouts, its ribald sense of humor, its art design — but it’s especially famous for its biting movie parodies that pick apart Hollywood fare. Roger Ebert was a big fan of these movie parodies and claimed that they “made [him] aware of the machine inside the skin.” RogerEbert.com’s Nell Minow interviews art director Sam Viviano about these movie parodies and how they’ve stayed consistent after all these years.

Viviano says that the stars and filmmakers love their parodies, but the problem is the publicists. “Movie press agents are a very nervous bunch. ‘MAD’s’ whole point is to make fun of it, and that makes them worry. It doesn’t matter that they are working with George Lucas or Steven Spielberg or Frank Darabont, who would do anything to have their properties in the magazine.” Spielberg’s office has framed original art from “MAD’s” “Jaws” parody and George Lucas also bought art from the parodies of his films.  “J.J. Abrams came to the ‘MAD’ office in New York to look at Hermann Mejia’s art for our parody of ‘Alias.’ They realize that at its best, ‘MAD’ parodies crystallize what the movie was about and how it was made, the good points and the bad points. These guys are level-headed enough to respect that.”  When Viviano put together a book of Mort Drucker’s movie parodies, he went around the publicists and managers to go to the filmmakers directly. He reached out to J.J. Abrams and ended up hearing back from Lucas, Spielberg  and Darabont, whose email subject line was “Mort Drucker? Hell, yes!”

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