Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. What Did Josh Trank Do?: The Production Troubles Behind “Fantastic Four.” Last Thursday, “Fantastic Four” director Josh Trank sent off a tweet about his new film that read, “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” Needless to say, the tweet was almost immediately deleted, but the damage had been done, breaking the studio’s careful facade and Hollywood’s code of silence. Entertainment Weekly’s Anthony Breznican reports the “Fantastic Four” story and tries to discover what exactly Josh Trank did that cost a studio a tentpole superhero movie.
Some who worked on the film say Trank broke, for sure, but was driven to the breaking point by the studio, and that his clash was not with Kinberg but Fox production president Emma Watts. According to several individuals who worked on the movie, the studio delayed casting and script approvals, slashed the budget by tens of millions from what was originally promised during the development phase, and tried to force last-minute script changes to the film just as principal photography was beginning. The list of producers, which includes not only Kinberg but former Fox production chief Hutch Parker, and “X-Men: First Class” filmmaker Matthew Vaughn, suggests the studio kept switching up managers and expectations in a bid to save something that was clearly foundering from early on. Fox executives desperately wanted to reboot “Fantastic Four” after the indifferently received big screen versions in 2005 and 2007, but they also bristled at many of the traditional comic book elements that defined the characters. There was uncertainty about who should star. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm was set from the start, but the studio wanted a different actor than Miles Teller for Reed Richards. Trank won that battle, even though he later developed a mutually disdainful relationship with the actor – but Fox insisted that Kate Mara be given the role of Sue Storm, and Trank treated her badly as a result. Some say he was cruel, others say merely cold. No one says they got along.
2. Moment of Zen: Jon Stewart’s Perfect Goodbye. Last Thursday, Jon Stewart signed off of “The Daily Show” with a moving, funny send-off. In the weeks leading up to his departure, as well as in the days after, many writers, including Criticwire, waxed poetic about Stewart and what he meant to comedy, politics, and the media for the last sixteen years. Grantland’s Andy Greenwald reviews the finale and explains how Stewart’s “intelligent exasperation” defined a generation.
For a finale, the episode was surprisingly joyful. Part of that has to do with the fact that Stewart isn’t being pushed out by anyone but himself. Leaving was entirely his choice, and considering the good judgment he’s shown over the years — killing “Crossfire,” refusing to make “Death to Smoochy 2″ — even heartbroken fans seem to trust him with it. Rather than toil on, Stewart can walk away, secure in the knowledge that his legacy is tied to a very specific, and often very odd, period of American life. His first show began with a Monica Lewinsky joke; his last week was filmed in the shadow of Donald Trump’s hair. But between those cartoons, there was plenty of catastrophe. For people of my generation, who grew up in the relatively staid ’80s and ’90s, Stewart was an essential shepherd for the post-9/11 world, one in which the unthinkable suddenly became the unavoidable. And though Stewart himself trends toward Luddism — the way he pronounced “Drizzy” was charming proof of that — his strident disruption of generations of top-down journalism presaged and shaped the Internet age. That his own show had fallen victim to the same sort of echo-chamber choir preaching that now defines much of the web was unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable — and the one reason Comedy Central isn’t 100 percent distraught that Stewart chose to cede his chair to a younger, potentially savvier voice. About that. I was surprised yesterday to read some pre-obituaries of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” that claimed his show had succeeded in part due to the anger of its host — and how that anger had been in perfect harmony with a furious era now passed… I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, Stewart could be cranky, dyspeptic, shocked, or even, on occasion, legitimately appalled. But any psychologist can tell you that anger, even in its mildest forms, is essentially another expression of love. We rage only about things that matter to us, deeply and personally. If anything, Stewart’s primary emotion was intelligent exasperation — the type born out of unkillable optimism. That’s why his questions remained as strident as ever, despite the passage of time and the utter lack of satisfying answers. Why couldn’t bankers and politicians be honest? Why shouldn’t the media be responsible?
3. Everyone’s Amiable Goofball Takes a Big Leap: Jason Segel in “The End Of The Tour”. In James Ponsoldt’s new film “The End of the Tour,” Jason Segel plays acclaimed novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace. Though Segel has played roles that straddle the line between comedy and drama, this is his first “serious” role and he’s been garnering some nice acclaim for his performance. For the Washington Post, Scott Tobias profiles Segel and explores his leap into this decidedly melancholic role.
From the beginning, honesty has been the common denominator of Segel’s performances. On “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” two short-lived but cherished television shows that started a long-term collaboration with comedy kingmaker Judd Apatow, Segel specialized in characters incapable of playing it cool in matters of the heart. Their romantic gestures are the stuff of restraining orders, love songs and handwritten letters composed without the thought that they might be coming on too strong. The hit sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” turned Segel’s intensity into a running joke, playing the gooey sweetness of his monogamous relationship against the legen — wait for it — dary tomcatting of Neil Patrick Harris’s committed bachelor. Yet the world doesn’t always reward the kindhearted. There’s also a subtle trace of melancholy in Segel’s work, and it comes to the fore in “The End of the Tour,” director James Ponsoldt’s new film about David Foster Wallace, the acclaimed author who killed himself in 2008. Segel certainly wasn’t the obvious choice to play Wallace, whose brilliant doorstopper novel “Infinite Jest” was such a sensation that Rolling Stone dispatched a reporter, David Lipsky, to Wallace’s Bloomington, Ill., home for a rare literary profile. The story wasn’t published, but Lipsky recounted his time with Wallace in a book, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace,” which chronicles a difficult few days when the author was coming to terms with his success. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies adapted Lipsky’s book into a tense two-hander about Wallace and a reporter (Jesse Eisenberg) seeking the elusive essence of a complicated man. Stopping in Chicago near the end of his own tour in support of the film, Segel explains his unlikely casting. “James told me that in all my comedy, he could feel sadness behind my eyes,” Segel said. “He felt that that was an important thing and that it was also important to remember that David Foster Wallace was incredibly funny. There’s a version of this movie that’s all weighty deification, and that’s not the movie he wanted to make.”
4. Scenic Routes: The Exact Moment Jack Black Became a Star. Veteran critic Mike D’Angelo pens a biweekly column for The A.V. Club called Scenic Routes in which he unpacks a single scene from a film. Some of these scenes highlight a certain idea or encapsulate an entire film, but some of these just showcase a great performance. D’Angelo writes about Jack Black’s entrance in Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” for last week’s column and how it made him a star.
One of the interesting things about “High Fidelity” is that it’s a very American adaptation of a very English novel. The setting has been shifted from London to Chicago, and much of the dialogue has been modified accordingly; to cite one example of many, Rob’s great line, “How can it be bullshit to state a preference?” was originally, “How can it be bollocks to state a preference?” But far and away the most American aspect of this particular scene is Black’s performance, which is brash and obnoxious in a different mode than Nick Hornby imagined when he conceived Barry as a character. Virtually everything Barry says here is straight out of the novel, almost verbatim; the only significant new line is the one about how Belle & Sebastian’s “Seymour Stein” sucks ass. But if you imagine a British actor playing the role, it looks nothing like this. The first one who springs to mind for me is Nick Frost, who’d probably have made a perfectly serviceable Barry in a hypothetical U.K. version of “High Fidelity”…at roughly a third of Black’s energy level. Same with David Mitchell or (though he was a bit too old even at the time) Ricky Gervais. And that’s deliberately choosing comedians who are decidedly on the less reserved end of the British continuum. In other words, Barry isn’t really a star-making part, on paper. Black injected his own sensibility into the character, which is something he hadn’t really done in any of his previous film performances (that I’ve seen, at any rate). Basically, he’s employing a slight variation on his J.B. persona from “Tenacious D,” while still fully respecting the role as written. In the book, Barry “comes into the shop humming a Clash riff.” The movie’s Barry performs a more generic guitar noise, presumably for budgetary reasons, but the key difference is that he doesn’t just come into the shop—he makes an entrance, flinging the door wide open and putting on a show for his fellow employees. And most of what’s memorable about this introduction to the character is Black’s wild physicality as he dances to “Walking On Sunshine” (the same track that Hornby has Barry put on). That whole insanely lewd mime routine toward the end can only have come from Black’s imagination, and it arguably did for him what strutting around to “Old Time Rock And Roll” did for Cruise. Watching him in “High Fidelity,” right from this moment in which he first appears, is like seeing a dog have its leash removed at the park.
5. Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill” and Hollywood’s Cringey Transgender Evolution. Over its relatively short history, Hollywood hasn’t exactly been the bastion of progressive representation. Hollywood hasn’t served female or African American characters that well over the years, but despite recent positive visibility, they’ve arguably failed a minority group like the transgender community even more. In honor of Criterion’s upcoming release of Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill,” critic Keith Phipps explores Hollywood’s cringey transgender evolution and how “Dressed to Kill” stands up to the test of time on this front.
I asked Andreas Stoehr, a trans woman film critic based in Michigan, what the film got wrong about the experience of trans women. She struggled to find anything it got right. “Elliott’s pathology — ‘opposite sexes inhabiting the same body’ — bears minimal resemblance to the experiences of actual trans women,” Stoehr replied. “Instead, it reads as a conflation of trans identity with dissociative identity disorder. At its most hostile, ‘Dressed to Kill’ suggests that trans women are dangerous, unstable, and confused. Whereas in ‘Carrie,’ De Palma found truth by telling his monster’s story, here the monster is incomprehensible and alien. This strikes me as damaging, because it leaves Caine playing a character who’s incoherent and, for all her hang-ups, pretty dull.” De Palma spent much of the first phase of his career riffing and expanding on Alfred Hitchcock: the Hitchcock-steeped “Sisters,” the “Vertigo”-inspired “Obsession,” and “Body Double,” a bloody variation on the themes of “Rear Window.” “Dressed To Kill” is his “Psycho” and Bobbi/Dr. Elliott his version of Norman Bates dressing up as his mother to kill the women who turn him on. The psychology of De Palma’s film bears no less of a resemblance to how the mind really works than the pop Freudianism of Hitchcock’s film, but Hitchcock’s film overlaps less with a real-world issue than “Dressed to Kill.” Viewers of “Psycho” will almost certainly never encounter anyone like Norman Bates and his film-specific derangement. But viewers of “Dressed to Kill” might come away with some curious, dangerous notions of transgender people…. It’s an unfortunate tendency of the way we respond to movies today to want to banish to the netherworld anything that inspires headline writers to use the word “problematic.” To do so with “Dressed to Kill” would mean losing what makes it extraordinary along with what makes it discomfiting. It also risks whitewashing the past, and failing to acknowledge that the film reflects some damaging misconceptions about transgender women and men at the time — and even today.
6. What is 70mm?: A History of Wide-Gauge Cinema. If you’ve ever been walking around your city or town and seen some local picture show playing a film in “70 mm,” and thought to yourself, “Hmm, what does that even mean?” you’re not alone. Many people across the world have no conception of what “70mm” is, what it accomplishes, or even how it’s different from watching a movie at home (answer: it’s very, very, very different). For Reverse Shot, veteran critic Nick Pinkerton explains the phenomenon of 70mm and its fascinating in film history.
The appeal of the wide-film image is a combination of consuming clarity and enveloping breadth. Audiences have always been in thrall to the impression made by sheer size, and all the more so when they can lose themselves in a delicate fretwork of detail within that largeness. Herein lay the draw of the original “blockbusters,” paintings on the grand scale teeming with niggling brushstrokes, like the “Belshazzar’s Feast” (1821) of John Martin, that Cecil B. DeMille of the nineteenth century; the heroic nationalist mythologies of Jacques-Louis David and John Trumbull; or Frederic Edwin Church’s jungle vista “The Heart of the Andes” (1859). These are paintings whose subject matters — immersive exotic environments separated from the culture that produced them by vast historical or geographic distance, military fanfare, and the movements of massed men — would often be echoed by those of wide-gauge cinema. We can’t say how, exactly, the original innovators of wide-gauge celluloid would’ve explained their compulsion toward bigness, but while wide-film formats reached their pinnacle of public visibility from about 1955 to 1965, the history of wide-film goes back very nearly to the birth of cinema. The most touted early innovators of the celluloid motion picture camera on either side of the Atlantic, Auguste and Louis Lumière in France and Thomas Alva Edison and W. K. L. Dickson in the United States, both used a practical, puny 35mm film strip for their early cameras and projectors, though at the time it was by no means the only possible option, and other contemporaries had ideas of their own. Stateside, Edison tried unsuccessfully to exclusively patent his four-perforation 35mm filmstrip. This attempt was struck down by a 1902 court ruling, but until then cautious competitors were forced to experiment with their own formats of varying sizes. Birt Acres, who invented the first 35mm moving picture camera in England and who some consider to have been out ahead of the Lumières, shot a 70mm film of the Henley Regatta in July of 1896. Dickson, after leaving Edison’s employ, experimented with a 68mm filmstrip at the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, feeding it through the projector by means of unreliable rubber rollers. France’s Demeny-Gaumont produced a 60mm film, while Prestwich in the U.K. made the 63mm negative on which the first wide-gauge hit of early cinema was shot, depicting the entire fourteen-round fight between boxers James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons in Carson City, Nevada, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1897. (Its unusual 1.65:1 widescreen frame, which captured a broader swath of the ring, was dubbed “Veriscope,” an early episode in the long history of hanging silly names onto wide-film processes.) Even the Lumières got into the act, exhibiting a 75mm “widefilm” at Paris’ Universal Exposition of 1900, where the other attractions included Cinéorama, an immersive early virtual reality ride devised by Raoul Grimoin-Sanson which used ten synchronized 70mm projectors to reproduce the experience of hovering over the Jardin des Tuileries in a hot air balloon. (The Cinéorama was shut down after only four days for safety reasons, but its spirit would live on in such novelty formats as Fred Waller’s eleven-projector Vitarama at the 1939 World’s Fair.)
Tweet of the Day:
Oscar Isaac is the continuation of Al Pacino by other means.
— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) August 8, 2015