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Daily Reads: AO Scott Does Comic-Con, The Movie That Invented the Digital Age, and More

Daily Reads: AO Scott Does Comic-Con, The Movie That Invented the Digital Age, and More

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

1. A.O. Scott’s Profound, Meaningful, and Somewhat Unpleasant Trip to Comic-Con
Last weekend, San Diego hosted the annual Conic-Con International, an event filled with celebratory marketing from geek properties of all shapes and sizes. It can be a bundle of joy for some and an interminable Hellscape for others. The New York TImes’ film critic A.O. Scott travels to Comic-Con and writes about his strange experience.

Comic-Con is a trade show and a bazaar, an academic conference tucked into a pop-up theme park, a wholesome family outing and a bonanza for every bar nearby. Even though it’s all one big event, it can be hard to locate the principle that makes its parts cohere. The Comic-Con cosmos includes fans of science fiction and fantasy novels, video and role-playing gamers, steampunks and Trekkies, would-be Tarantinos and binge-watchers of just about any television show whose characters are either animated or costumed or both. It’s easy enough to mock this spectacle, or to complain, as some old-timers do, that it’s all been co-opted by the movie studios and “the big two” (meaning DC and Marvel). But it’s also possible to marvel, so to speak, at how quickly and completely what were once subcultural pursuits have conquered the mainstream, and to appreciate the bottom-up, populist aspects of that conquest. The commonly heard phrase “fan culture” suggests a world made by consumers, a matter less of capitalist control than of popular participation.

2. “Sex & Drugs” & Boredom in the Golden Age. 
FX’s new comedy “Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll” premieres tonight. It stars Denis Leary as an aging, washed-up rock star who reconnects with his daughter who’s also a singer. NPR’s Linda Holmes reviews the new series and explains her boredom with this type of show.

“Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” isn’t badly executed; it is what it is conceived to be. Its limits feel chosen more than encountered. Perhaps it’s inevitable that enough success would begin to make cable less daring and would make middle-aged-white-dude antihero shows, whether dramas or comedies, feel more commercial than artful. This is cable television doing what broadcast television did for decades upon decades: make stuff, and if it works, make more stuff that’s just like it. There are people who can’t get enough romantic comedy, enough period dramas about chilly detectives, or enough crime procedurals, and that’s all valid. That’s traditional American television-watching, hallelujah. And if FX can build a viewership that feels the same way about the stories of pouty, misanthropic washouts who wearily transform into heroes while making as many purely transactional references to breasts as possible, then more power to ’em. But this should not be confused, under any circumstances, with rock and roll.

3. How Kerry Conran Saw Hollywood’s Future Then Got Left Behind. 
In 2004, Kerry Conrad directed “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” a retro sci-fi action adventure film about the adventures of a Sky Captain and a newspaper reporter in an alternative 1939. The film takes its visual cues from old comic books and pulp magazines, and it was one of the first major films to be shot entirely on a digital backlot. Many current films owe a debt to Conrad. So why hasn’t he had much of a career since? Telgraph’s Olly Richards explores the Conrad story and tries to get to the bottom of his exile.

Kevin Conran, and by his inference his brother, seem unusual in the realm of Hollywood’s sad stories in that they don’t really blame other people for their misfortune. Every explanation given by Conran points to something he and his brother got wrong, or failed to understand about the Hollywood game. Conran never once suggests anyone else is culpable. Trying to get him to talk about his and his brother’s achievements is like trying to get a straight answer out of a politician. He just can’t blow his own trumpet. When the subject of the greatest endorsement of his career comes up, that call from George Lucas and the subsequent summit, he evades the question and paints himself as the loser. “It was entirely surreal and continues to be so,” says Conran. “It feels like something that didn’t really happen… George Lucas personally invited us, flew us up there, put us in his place for a long weekend, with all these amazing luminaries, who were genuinely interested in hearing what we had to say. It was unbelievable. I remember the first morning we went down to breakfast. We walked into the dining room and there’s this big table in the middle and it’s George and James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis and Brad Bird, Caleb Deschanel, Robert Rodriguez to name some. “Kerry and I were so intimidated we went and sat at a separate table. We didn’t know what to do! They all turned around, almost en masse, and were like, ‘What are you idiots doing over there? Get over here!’ Then I’m sitting next to Robert Zemeckis.” Conran laughs, but then goes quiet for a few seconds and sighs. “Much to my eternal embarrassment we never stayed in touch with any of those guys.”

4. A Conversation About Woody Allen’s New Film “Irrational Man”. 
Woody Allen’s 46th film “Irrational Man” enters theaters this Friday, and the early buzz around it is that it’s another rote, uninteresting repetition of his previous work. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore and Kate Aurthur have a conversation about Woody’s new film and ponder whether Allen is aware of the unfortunate parallels between his new film and his personal life.

AW: Posey is terrific in such a loosey-goosey way — the only one who’s having a good time, even if we see too little of her on screen. As for Phoenix, he’s maybe my favorite actor working today, and he does at least avoid falling into doing a Woody Allen impression, even when spouting all those oh-so Woody Allen-esque musings about whether life has any meaning. But he’s playing a supposedly brilliant character having a college freshman’s idea of an existential crisis, guzzling from a flask and giving a Russian roulette demonstration at a party. We’re aware of his appeal because the other characters inform us of it, not because of what we’re shown — “He’s very radical, very original,” gushes Jill, as he neglects to give evidence of being either. There’s enough of a gap between the characters’ perception of him and what we actually see that it almost seems like the point — that Abe is a fraud and a sociopath who’s managed to convince others of his greatness, and has started to believe he’s a man who can get away with anything. Certainly he’s still employable, but I think that’s just me pushing for something of substance in this inert semi-comedy, because Abe is also the only person the film has any real empathy for. It doesn’t undercut his recycled philosophical quandaries, and it endorses his genius, even if it allows Jill to look naive for being so captivated by it. If there’s anything personal going on here, it seems inadvertent.

5. What It’s Like to Be a Contestant on “MasterChef”. 
Based on the British cooking competition series of the same name, “MasterChef” premiered in the U.S. in 2010 and captured the nation’s attention with its “quirky contestants, intense challenges, and charismatic judges.” But what is it like to be an actual contestant on “MasterChef” when the pressure is on you and Gordon Ramsay is in your face? The A.V. Club’s Randall Colburn interviews Elise Mayfield, a contestant during the show’s fifth season, and discusses the particulars of being on the series.

AVC: How did they react to your food?

EM: It was just very, very serious. The tone just all of a sudden got…it was an interesting combination of a lot of nerves from all the energy — I was probably in a room with, like, 20 people — and there was so much nervous energy from all the people that were crossing their fingers that something would happen. The chefs were tasting food and also critiquing, so people were getting critiqued on the spot which was not something I had expected. Then, on top of that, you’re also talking to producers who wanna know what your personality is like. So, from the very start, there’s this pressure to cook and also be a big enough personality to differentiate yourself from all these other people in the room.

AVC: Did they give you any critiques?

EM: Yeah, so the first hand pie that he cut into was under done. And I was mortified and thought, “I’m done. This is it.” I asked him if he could try the other one on the plate, and he did. That one was cooked through and I was like, “Thank God.” He saw there was one Brussels sprout with a piece of core. He picked it up with the edge of his fork and was like, “How did you cut these?” I said, “I used my food processor,” and he was like, “I would’ve used a paring knife around the edge.” It was intense. I was like, “Man. Okay.” I thought it was done. I had dough that was underdone and a piece of Brussels sprout core and this is clearly not gonna go well.

6. The Atticus Finch Effect: Do We Still Need a White Savior? The beloved 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” features Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the treasured attorney who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. Atticus Finch stands as one of literature and film’s fundamentally “good” characters willing to help people across color lines. But this week sees the publication of Harper Lee’s new novel “Go Set a Watchman” where Atticus is a segregationist who attends a white supremacist meeting. With this new information, the L.A. Times’ Rebecca Keegan asks if pop culture still needs white saviors.

For some audiences, however, Atticus has always been a fantasy, among the first of a durable cinematic character we’ve come to know well: the white savior. It’s a hero type that shows up in far more recent movies as popular and critically praised as “The Blind Side,” “The Help” and “Dances With Wolves,” in which a white character rescues people of color from their plight. To see Atticus portrayed as reflecting the racism that might be expected of a white Southern man in the first half of the 20th century is to acknowledge realities that those narratives rarely do. “Now that Atticus Finch has been removed from that pedestal of this benevolent, messianic character, people seem to be reacting as if they’ve been told, ‘No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus,'” said Matthew W. Hughey, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of the book “The White Savior Film.” “But a lot of critical social scientists or literary scholars aren’t upset, because we already saw white supremacy and white paternalism in the form of Atticus Finch. It was just the palatable kind.”

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