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Daily Reads: Animation’s Best Post-‘Aladdin’ Performances, The World According to Paul Rudd, and More

Daily Reads: Animation's Best Post-'Aladdin' Performances, The World According to Paul Rudd, and More

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

1. How Does Paul Rudd Work? This Friday, Marvel’s “Ant-Man” enters theaters, and though the film brings plenty of production baggage (mainly Edgar Wright’s dismissal from the project) and the standard problems of the Marvel Cinematic Universe along with it, it will also introduce Paul Rudd as a (tiny) superhero. Rudd has made a career of playing a wide variety of “likable” characters, but “likable” doesn’t really cover the full extant of Rudd’s talent. The New York Times’ Molly Young profiles Rudd and explores his unique skills.

One thing you always hear about Rudd is that he is “likable,” which is true, but it doesn’t actually explain his appeal. On its own, after all, “likable” is faint praise. If “likable” is the best adjective you can think of to describe an actor, you’re excluding a whole raft of others: intelligent, formidable, mesmeric, knee-buckling (all of which apply to Rudd). The main thing about Rudd is not that he is likable but that he is funny, and that his particular flavor of funniness is something no other actor possesses at the moment. For one thing, Rudd always seems in on the joke, even if his characters tend not to be. He gravitates toward roles that look askance at themselves. If he plays a straight man, it’s a riff on a straight man; if he plays a dreamboat, it’s a dreamboat in scare quotes. And the detachment isn’t chilly or James Francoesque; instead, it’s inviting. He lets you in on the joke, too. This helps: Rudd is handsome, and the union of good looks and humor is as rare in Hollywood as it is in nature. You can add Rudd to any movie, and the movie will taste better. He is the MSG of actors.

2. The 25 Best Animated Movie Voice Performances Since “Aladdin”. 
Robin Williams’ final film, “Boulevard,” was released last Friday, and it has provoked some critical attention towards Williams’ long and storied career, including his turn as Genie in Disney’s “Aladdin,” a film that had to be animated around Williams and not the other way around. Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri lists the 25 best animated voice performances in English-language movies since Williams’ in 1992.

Peter O’Toole, Ratatouille

O’Toole had one of the most beautiful faces in all of cinema, but he also had one of the greatest of voices. As the powerful food critic Anton Ego in this Pixar hit about a rat who also happens to be a talented chef, he starts off as a potential nemesis — haughty and unfeeling. (Given the way he’s initially portrayed, one can’t help but suspect that the Pixar guys are getting out some very primal feelings vis-à-vis critics.) But watch — or, rather, listen — as he goes from grim prickliness to fond tenderness. O’Toole makes you feel both the critic’s loneliness as well as his excitement at discovering something new and wondrous. It’s a performance of rather unexpected depth, achieved almost entirely through the actor’s delivery.

3. The Dissolve’s Keith Phipps on “The Gallows.” 
Everyone at Criticwire is still devastated by the closing of The Dissolve, so we wanted to highlight some of the work done by its ex-staff writers in the past few days. Over at Slate, Keith Phipps reviews the new found footage horror film “The Gallows” and argues that the subgenre has run out of steam.

Found-footage horror tends to be a bit mechanical by nature. Its bad guys have to be of the variety happy to stay off screen — mostly — as they suggest overwhelming power and malevolence while drawing out their torments to the length of a feature film. But the approach only works as long as the technique feels convincing. Otherwise, you get a film like “The Gallows” where going through the motions becomes the whole point. Earlier this year, Blumhouse released “Unfriended,” a film that took the form of footage captured from the laptop screen during one teen’s especially scary night at the computer. It was a much-needed update to an old app, a way to give fresh thought to the subtlety and tension that can make this odd subgenre so effective. It played like a way forward for found-footage horror, an approach starting to seem like it would be better off staying lost.

4. Why “Self/less” Needs A Better Past to Build a Better Future. 
Tarsem Singh’s (best known for “The Fall”) new sci-fi thriller “Self/less” came out last Friday in theaters. Starring Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds, the film follows a billionaire industrialist who, after learning he has cancer, transfers his consciousness into a new healthy body, but realizes that a new life doesn’t happen without some consequences. Over at NPR, ex-Dissolver Tasha Robinson argues that “Self/less” needed a better foundation of its past before it can travel into the future.

Ambiguity in thrillers can be a rare and great thing: The ideal for smart film fans is a movie that doesn’t over-explain, or try to hold the audience’s hand with a sweaty, anxious grip. But a story so subtle that it doesn’t make a statement can undermine a film. And vagueness doesn’t work at all in a film that’s so clearly about a transformation arc. Some of the changes Damian goes through in “Self/less” are physical: The film’s initial hook is that he’s dying of cancer, until a shadowy organization offers to move his mind and memories into a fresh new body for a mere $250 million. Damian is told his new body was grown for him in a vat, but once he’s actually running around as a young, fit man (and being played by Ryan Reynolds), he starts having flashbacks to what appears to be the former life of his new body. Once he starts investigating, he finds people who were badly hurt by choices he didn’t know he was making. And then he starts taking actions that are — cue knowing, chuckling “Oh right, the title of the film” moment — profoundly selfless. Somewhere in this muddled, chase-heavy, curiously anonymous movie is the spine of a great story about that mustache-twirling villain type who realizes that with a great body comes great responsibilities. Or to be less flip, it’s the story of someone who isn’t satisfied with his life, and finds to his surprise that he can start over not just superficially, with young muscles and a young libido, but in a larger, more meaningful way. The film does occasionally point in this direction, as he starts bonding with a young girl in the way he wishes he’d bonded with his daughter. But because Damian himself starts as such a blank, the big changes in his life barely register as a change. Mathematically, an arc can be drawn with three points. He’s missing the first one, the origin point. Who is he before he becomes something different?

5. A Review of Showtime’s Underappreciated “Ray Donovan”. 
Last night, Showtime premiered the third seasons of “Ray Donovan” and “Masters of Sex.” While the latter drama has garnered some consistent critical acclaim, “Ray Donovan” has been lambasted in certain circles for perpetuating another in a long line of brooding white male anti-heroes who are “difficult” and “complicated.” Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott contends that “Ray Donovan” is much better than its critics suggests.

A big ratings slugger for Showtime, “Ray Donovan” doesn’t appear to have the fanatical hold on Talmudic students of every microfilament of narrative nuance, sexual politics, symbolic resonance, ominous portent, and Zeitgeist relevance that “True Detective” (its first season anyway), “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “The Good Wife,” and “Louie” command. Showtime series just don’t seem to bask in that HBO/AMC cachet, as witness the relatively muted send-off “Nurse Jackie” received. In fact, the only other person I know who regularly watches is the legal, literary, and academic theorist and polemicist Stanley Fish
, whom I wish would write about the show, not a far-fetched notion given his book-length tribute to “The Fugitive” (the TV one, with David Janssen’s anxious rabbit twitching, not the movie version with Harrison Ford’s stalwart heroics). It’s a tough show to recommend to virgins, and not just because of its head-whomping violence and considerable backstory. Its Raymond Chandler–in-reverse approach to crime and depravity beneath the billboards and palm trees, with Ray Donovan as Philip Marlowe divested of all illusion, often turns masochistic and stilted in its posturings. There are only so many moguls’ swimming pools Ray can stand at the edge of or picture windows he can stare glumly out of before it seems a bit much, a mannequin variation of the Don Draper existential blues. There was one moment in a previous season in which Ray, standing, received a blow job from his wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) and you would have thought he was a martyr at the stake from the stoic resignation on his face, captured in Ingmar Bergman close-up. I’m unable to tell if the Boston accents on “Ray Donovan” are dead-on acc or a tin-eared symphony of bogus vowels because all Boston accents sound bad to me, just as every Cockney accent now sounds like caricature. The performances of the supporting cast range from sharp, convincing, and no-fuss (e.g., Katherine Moennig, so great as Shane in “The L Word,” as Ray’s put-upon, unappreciated junior partner Lena) to the Hollywood hammy (Jon Voight hoking it up whenever he has a brainstorm, as if creaking to a disco beat), which certainly keeps things bopping. The show’s debut season gave us series regulars Voight, Elliott Gould, and James Woods, and had Bruce Dern joined the cast, the popcorn popper would have exploded. Season 3 gives us new regulars Ian McShane — and when is Ian McShane not welcome? — and Katie Holmes, as his chip off the old ice-block of a daughter, a scruple-less sports agent who leaves anyone who crosses her stilettoed with high-heel marks. I’ve always liked Katie Holmes and happy to see her here, swashing about and adding a slice of lime to the classic femme-fatale cocktail.

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