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Daily Reads: How ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Fails Its Audience, Universal’s Blockbuster Year Without Superheroes, and More

Daily Reads: How 'Straight Outta Compton' Fails Its Audience, Universal's Blockbuster Year Without Superheroes, and More

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

1. How “Straight Outta Compton” Fails Its Audience. 
F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” has garnered some controversy for whitewashing the group’s history and superimposing a clean narrative over a complex story. Some especially have balked at the film’s exclusion of Dr. Dre’s assault on Dee Barnes, others have sneered at the film’s exclusion of women at all. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg explains why “Straight Outta Compton” fails its audience because it treats them like simpletons.

The way “Straight Outta Compton” treats music has justifiably gotten much less attention than director F. Gary Gray’s decision to exclude an important part of N.W.A.’s story: the role of women as both collaborators and label mates, and as victims of violence. But both choices are animated by a lack of interest in the rough sides of process and personality, and to a certain extent, a lack of trust that the audience will be kept engaged for 2½ hours by anything but hagiography. “Straight Outta Compton” is comfortable depicting its characters treating women poorly, even violently, as long as the women in question are entirely disposable. Our introduction to Eazy-E involves him viciously cussing a drug dealer’s girlfriend for the simple crime of getting him a 40 at the dealer’s request. Later in the scene, when members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums squad show up to raid the house with a motorized battering ram, E flees the house, slamming a refrigerator door into the woman with such force that she’s thrown across the room. After N.W.A. goes on tour to support “Straight Outta Compton,” Ice Cube (played by Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr.) throws Felicia (Asia’h Epperson), a groupie who has been having oral sex with another member of the group, out into a hotel hallway after a man claiming to be her boyfriend shows up toting a gun. To me, it was an ugly scene: I felt such fear for this young woman, thrown out of a hotel suite, nearly naked, at the mercy of whatever violence her boyfriend felt justified in meting out to her. But I’m not sure it’s intended that way. Felicia isn’t a person in “Straight Outta Compton”; she’s an Easter egg for the audience, an origin story for a meme. The film’s sympathies are with the members of N.W.A., with their cleverness in finding a way to sacrifice a woman that will protect them from the consequences of their own profligacy. And women like Dee Barnes, Michel’le and Tairrie B, all of whom had longer-standing professional and personal relationships with members of N.W.A., and all of whom were allegedly beaten by members of the group, don’t appear anywhere in “Straight Outta Compton.” There’s no question that the movie leaves out their worst acts and that Gray preserves a clear line between their conduct and that of the movie’s villains. For all that Eazy-E looks out for himself first, he lacks Jerry Heller’s avarice and endless self-justification. And for all that Dre craves independence and control, “Straight Outta Compton” suggests that he’s appalled by business partner Suge Knight’s (R. Marcos Taylor) capacity for violence and tendency to implement his business decisions with force.

2. Selling Out the Newspaper Comic Strip. 
Bill Watterson and Charles Schulz, creators of “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Peanuts” respectively, are two of the most acclaimed comic strip writers of all time. Charles Schulz embraced the opportunities that success opened up, like national syndication, corporate marketing, and even TV specials. Bill Watterson, to put it lightly, didn’t, and eventually retreated from the media entirely after the conclusion of “Calvin and Hobbes.” The L.A. Review of Books’ Luke Epplin explores notions of selling out and authenticity in the comic strip world through Watterson and Schulz’s fundamental disagreements.

In 1989, organizers of the Festival of Cartoon Art, a triennial gathering of cartoonists and their fans at The Ohio State University, tapped Bill Watterson, the creator of the newspaper comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” to deliver one of the keynote addresses. The reclusive Ohio native put forth a list of demands that was in keeping with his burgeoning reputation as the J.D. Salinger of cartoonists: no audiovisual recordings, no photographs, no signing session afterward. To a packed room of his peers Watterson delivered a fiery manifesto against his commercialized industry. “In comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art,” he declared. “Licensing has made some cartoonists extremely wealthy, but at a considerable loss to the precious little world they created.” For Watterson, cartoonists, upon their first taste of mainstream success, too readily transformed from solitary artists into CEOs of ravenous commercial enterprises, flooding the market with derivative knickknacks that bore the likeness of their beloved characters. As a result, “strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in.” Art, in other words, gave way to brand management. Watterson’s speech divided the audience. Many younger cartoonists cheered him, while the older guard mostly bristled at his perceived condescension. Mort Walker, the creator of “Beetle Bailey” — a strip that debuted in 1950, eight years before Watterson was born — rebutted Watterson’s claims in his address the following night. “I love to see cartoon toys and t-shirts […] They add color, life, and good humor to the world,” Walker stated. “If you don’t want to [license your characters], OK […] but you shouldn’t say others can’t do it,” he continued. Notably absent from this discussion was Charles M. Schulz, the iconic creator of “Peanuts.” “Peanuts” launched a mere month after Walker’s “Beetle Bailey” and had become, four decades later, one of the most widely syndicated strips ever. Even though Watterson cited “Peanuts” as a chief artistic influence, some of his barbed arrows appeared to be aimed unmistakably at his venerated idol. After all, with more than one billion dollars in annual merchandising sales, “Peanuts” too often seemed to sacrifice the strip’s subtle humor and bleak sensibility for bland corporate marketing. In his rare public statements, Watterson maintained a subliminal dialogue with the cartoonist whose commanding legacy he might have equaled had he not abruptly retired in 1995. “Calvin and Hobbes,” which centered on a headstrong child and a stuffed tiger that comes to life under his gaze, shared many similarities with “Peanuts”: articulate children, fantasy sequences, episodic storylines, philosophical undercurrents, and an aversion to facile punch lines. But Schulz and Watterson harbored fundamental disagreements about the nature and direction of their medium, and their entrenched beliefs shaped their divergent approaches to comics as both an art and a business. Unlike Schulz, Watterson was unable to reconcile his creative ambitions with the lucrative opportunities that success had opened up. He was every bit Schulz’s artistic heir, but he had little interest in inheriting the fertile commercial landscape that Schulz had so carefully cultivated. Twenty-five years later, their disagreements come across as equal parts quaint and timely — a remnant from the last era when newspaper cartoonists commanded widespread readerships and profitable product lines, and an ageless meditation on what selling out and authenticity mean in a commercial art form.

3. In “Digging For Fire,” Joe Swanberg Stays Put. 
Joe Swanberg’s newest star-studded film “Digging For Fire” opens in limited release today. Swanberg tends to traffic in ambling indie dramedies with entirely improvised dialogue and crushingly low stakes. So has Swanberg grown as a filmmaker at all? Grantland’s Amos Barshad argues that he’s mostly stayed the same with his new release.

This week, [Swanberg] drops “Digging for Fire,” decidedly his most ambitious work to date. This time it’s Jake Johnson, also a cowriter, doing the manchild-ing. His wife, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, wants him to do the taxes. But he found a gun and a bone in the backyard of the gorgeous Los Angeles home they’re housesitting, and so he’d much rather just putz around with that. DeWitt takes off for the night with their cute kid (played by Swanberg’s own child, Jude), and ends up having a quasi-romantic dalliance with Legolas, of all people. Back at the house, Johnson invites a revolving door of friends and young ladies — Sam Rockwell! Brie Larson! Chris Messina and his dick! — to drink, smoke, blow lines, and dig for bones. For “Happy Christmas,” Swanberg shot on film, which was a notedly marked departure for a guy so closely associated with the freedoms of digital. But it was Super 16, and so the effect — a grainy, home-movie feel — was ultimately in line with his previous work. This time he’s stepped up to 35mm, and the results are astounding. The cinematographer Ben Richardson makes the location — the lovely home of screenwriter Larry Karaszewski (a.k.a. the guy who wrote “Problem Child”!) — pop; any given still would make for an excellent, colorful above-your-couch accoutrement. Meanwhile, composer Dan Romer’s original synths and an excellent selection of musical oddities make for a delightfully welcome score. At one point, Johnson stomps around with the pistol to Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs’ “Li’l Red Riding Hood” in a rich person’s white-washed living room, and it’s like we’ve suddenly stumbled back into Mia Wallace’s coked-out party den. The look, the sounds, the cast — everything is bigger and better. The optics are there. The narrative is ready to be fulfilled. And so why does “Fire” feel like it all fizzles out at the end? While praising Andrew Bujalski — a peer of Swanberg’s from the indie digital days of the aughts — for his latest, “Results,” and the creative growth it exhibited, our own Wesley Morris had this to say about our man Joe: “He’s prolific within … self-imposed imaginative constraints. And that embrace is, at least, making for more watchable films. There are charm and warmth, if not artistic purpose, in this last batch of movies, which includes ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘Drinking Buddies.’ For one thing, he’s working with professional actors, who can impose some personality on the humdrum settings and no-stakes stories.” I find myself nodding vigorously at this. Scene to scene, moment to moment, Swanberg is excellent at creating content; he’s got great, talented friends, and he lets them be their natural, charismatic, fucked-up selves. So why do I still find myself sitting on the couch, shouting at Pavement: “Try harder, dammit!”

4. Universal Studio’s Financial Success Without a Superhero Movie. 
Universal Studios has made more money than any other movie studio this year, and they somehow did it without a superhero tentpole. It’s a remarkable achievement and it speaks to something else pulsating underneath The Culture: marginalized demographics support films that feature them. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff examines Universal’s slate and strategy and argues that it targets these type of demographics.

Universal’s big six contains neither superhero movies or young adult novel adaptations, both of which are current Hollywood sensations. To be sure, three are straight sequels, while “Minions” is a spinoff of the successful “Despicable Me” series. And neither “Fifty Shades” nor “Compton” — a novel adaptation and a biopic, respectively — are going to win awards for cutting-edge originality. But keep in mind that one of those sequels is to a movie about an all-female a cappella group, while still another is part of perhaps the most racially diverse Hollywood franchise going, and you start to see how Universal’s counter-programming is paying dividends. When everybody else in Hollywood is going after white guys in their 20s, Universal is going after everybody else (and, okay, dinosaur fans). And it worked. That suggests, at the very least, that counter-programming is alive and well as a Hollywood business strategy. And taken with a few other signs, it just might suggest that superhero fatigue is settling in.

5. “American Ultra” Has Gruesome Fun With a One-Joke Premise. 
The new stoner action comedy “American Ultra” has garnered mixed reviews, with many if not most saying that the drug comedy is lame, the action scenes are ridiculously violent and over-the-top, and the genuine chemistry between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart isn’t enough to save the whole venture. However, others have been a little bit more kind. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky reviews the film and argues it has fun with a one-joke premise.

Arriving in theaters in the dog-day dumping ground of August, “American Ultra” is one of those geeky genre mishmashes that’s very clever about being dumb. Written by Max Landis (“Chronicle”), the movie takes a one-joke premise — “What if Jason Bourne couldn’t remember his past because he was baked all the time?” — and gives it more layers of shading than a viewer probably has any right to expect. Nima Nourizadeh’s direction skews eclectic: overhead shots, extreme telephoto close-ups, quasi-ironic slow-mo sequences, digitally composited long takes. The violence is exaggerated into explosive blood spurts and doors ripped apart by gunfire — the stuff of scrappier genre fare, in which the viewer gets hooked on the fun the filmmakers must have had in making it. It’s demented, occasionally inspired, and often very funny. But oddly, the one thing “American Ultra” isn’t very good at is being a straightforward action flick, despite a conceptually spot-on climactic set piece that finds Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg, sporting luxuriant hair extensions) dispatching a small army of goons using whatever he can find on the shelves of a big-box store. Perhaps this is the inevitable trade-off of opting for an actor who could credibly play an anxious stoner over one who could play a world-class killer. As Eisenberg awkwardly elbows his way between stuntmen, the only thing that registers is the goofiness of it all — which is sort of the point.

6. Director Paul Weitz on “Grandma”. 
Paul Weitz’s new film “Grandma” is out in limited release this week. The film stars Lily Tomlin as a confident lesbian poet who tries to gather enough money to pay for her granddaughter’s abortion. Weitz has had an interesting career, involved with films like “Antz,” “American Pie,” and “Little Fockers,” but “Grandma” is arguably his best reviewed film to date. RogerEbert.com’s Susan Wloszczyna interviews Weitz on his new film and his career.

Q: From what I read, having Lily attached to the movie helped you pull the script together.

A: Hearing her voice made it work for me. She made an incredibly strong impression on me when we worked together on “Admission.” She is such a trouper, she is so tough in a great way. There is a point where her character is supposed to run after Tina Fey’s character.. I was watching the monitor. Tina ran out of the room. Then Lilly ran. And the next thing I know, I see her fall out of the frame and hear a loud clunk. There was a sound rug that hadn’t been taped down and she fell. But she hopped back up and said, “Oh, let’s keep on going.” Only later I learned she had hurt her hand. That and the fact she had a lot of juggling in that movie, she had to make sausage with raw meat and she had to fix a bicycle in that movie. She actually kind of learned how to do both those things at the time. We were doing a take and I said, “Lily, we are actually above the part where your hands are fixing the bicycle.” But she wanted to keep doing it. That is when it struck me what kind of actress she is. She is also that thing that you hope, which is someone who is really cynical about human nature and, at the same time, is incredibly kind.

Q: When do you recall first seeing Lily?

A: I can sort of remember seeing “Laugh-In” as a kid. And certainly “Nashville.” I’ve seen that movie at least 10 or 15 times. I have a friend who was an actor in New York before Lily got “Laugh-In.” He auditioned for the same television commercial as her. They did the audition together. He distinctly recalls seeing these men in suits who were judging whether they were going to hire this young women for a shampoo ad or whatever kind of ad it was, and how judgmental they were of her. And they didn’t know how to put her into a box. It’s almost too good to be true, but he says soon afterwards, she told him, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this anymore. I am going to do one more audition and I am going back to Detroit or whatever.” And it was for “Laugh-In.”

Q: You told me how dedicated she is, but is she naturally funny?

A: She is naturally funny, but not in the way you think of most comedians as being funny. Often times, you will be with a comedian and they will tell you something really funny. But then five minutes later, you hear them say the same thing to somebody else with a slight alteration in the delivery at the point where you didn’t laugh. She is sort of like Chris Rock. She isn’t afraid to talk about cultural things that divide people or upset people. I think I have only seen the tip of the iceberg with Lily. I think she has that thing that most of the great actors I’ve worked with who have been doing it for decades have, which is they are still anxious about whether they are going to be good. They are really self-critical. One of the marvelous things about her is how much she cares about Jane Wagner (Tomlin’s spouse since 2013 and partner for nearly 40 years). One little thing that she helped with, which ended up not being so minor, is when I first wrote about the relationship between her and Violet (Elle’s longtime partner who died), it was all glowing terms. Lily said, “Look. this is fake. If they are really together, they would have been crabbing at each other and been on the outs at various periods.” So I layered that in.

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