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Daily Reads: It’s Time To Start Liking Tom Cruise Again, How Jon Stewart Changed the Media, and More

Daily Reads: It's Time To Start Liking Tom Cruise Again, How Jon Stewart Changed the Media, and More

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

1. It’s Time to Start Liking Tom Cruise Again. 
“Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation” opened to $56 million this weekend, making it Tom Cruise’s third best opening behind “Mission Impossible II” and “The War of the Worlds.” Cruise has been criticized in recent years for his off-screen antics and his close relationship with the Church of Scientology, but as a movie star and an actor, he’s been as consistent and lively as ever. Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri argues that it’s time to take another look at Tom Cruise’s storied career and start liking him again.

There was something about Tom Cruise’s…well, Tom Cruise-ness that felt like it needed to be brought down a peg. It’s a combination of that aforementioned confidence, that eager-beaver quality, but also a kind of insincerity. It’s a weird mix: Here’s a guy who’s giving 150 percent, and yet you’re not sure if he means any of it. He’s a true believer, but he’s a very deliberate, calculating one. Unlike, say, Matthew McConaughey. who if anything can sometimes seem too sincere, too un-self-aware, Cruise always sounds as if he’s sticking to an inner script. That should make him a bad actor, but for some reason, it doesn’t. A great actor uses his tools. A movie star uses his limitations. Tom Cruise uses both. He understands the effect his presence provokes. In his best films, he indulges the complicated mix of emotions of being Tom Cruise. He’s handsome, expert, cocksure…and really just a little too much. “Jerry Maguire” (1996) kicks off with that idea, letting Cruise be brought low right near the beginning, then finding a way to keep us constantly on the knife’s edge, unsure of the character’s authenticity. Stanley Kubrick used that quality to great effect in “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), by letting Cruise play a smug, successful doctor so secure in his world that he can’t even stomach the notion that his wife might have had an unfaithful thought or two. (The best way to watch that movie is to imagine Cruise’s character walking around the whole film with a “Kick Me” sign on his back.) Sometimes, Cruise modulates our empathy in surprising ways. In what might be his greatest role, as Frank “T.J.” Mackey in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999), he sits down for a literal interrogation, and although he’s portraying a Neanderthal macho self-help guru whose catchphrase is “Respect the Cock!” it’s clear that he’s also playing a variation on our vision of Tom Cruise – and knows it. He knows we’re watching this guy and thinking, “I knew it! I knew he was a jerk all along!” (Is it any wonder that not only was the part written for Cruise, but that he had an enormous amount of input during production?) And when Mackey breaks down late in the film – in the presence of his dying, estranged father, a scene eerily reminiscent of Cruise’s own story – it feels as if we’ve experienced the breaking of a cosmic fourth wall.

2. The Comedic Stylings, Intentional and Otherwise, of Tom Cruise. 
Speaking of Tom Cruise, last week was “Tom Cruise Week” over at Grantland. The site featured various articles written by Grantland staff members about Tom Cruise’s varied career, from his cock-sure ’80s days to his Serious Phase in the ’90s. In his installment, Steven Hyden analyzes the comedic stylings of Tom Cruise, and how often he’s funniest when he’s not in on the joke.

For most movie stars, comedy typically derives from inserting the actor into a strange or outrageous situation, allowing him or her to react. Cary Grant coolly navigates the corrupt world of 1940s newspaper journalism in “His Girl Friday.” Jack Nicholson is the last sane crazy man in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Tom Hanks falls in love with a mermaid in “Splash.” Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne try to out-prank a squad of frat boys in “Neighbors.” But in Tom Cruise movies, the setup is inverted: He is the strangeness that the rest of the world must contend with. No director understood this better than Stanley Kubrick, who cast Cruise in 1999’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” Back when the project was gestating in the ’70s and ’80s, Kubrick considered two of the most popular comic actors of the time, Woody Allen and Steve Martin. After settling on Cruise and Nicole Kidman as the leads, Kubrick integrated the weird subtext of the couple’s real-life relationship into the movie, and exaggerated Cruise’s amiable aloofness to the point of parody. The stock Cruise character is a man who can’t connect — he fears intimacy, he has daddy issues, he has a need for speed but not necessarily people. Cruise’s character in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Dr.Bill Harford, takes this archetype to its logical extreme. In a movie where characters don literal and figurative masks and then have them stripped away, nobody clings harder to his “normal” façade than Cruise. Everyone he encounters tries to seduce him out of his shell, to no avail. “Eyes Wide Shut” ultimately is a very strange and extremely deadpan comedy about how everyone wants but inevitably fails to penetrate (or be penetrated by) the world’s biggest movie star.

3. How Jon Stewart Changed Media. This week marks the end of Jon Stewart’s sixteen-year tenure as the host of “The Daily Show.” During his time on “The Daily Show,” Stewart has had a profound effect on the culture at large: He single-handedly became one of the media’s biggest critics, he inspired a whole generation to become interested in politics, and his show has produced many great comedians and actors, including Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver. Over at The Hollywood Reporter, Bill Carter writes about how Stewart changed the media and became its harshest critic.

It is no exaggeration to say it: When Jon Stewart goes, the country will be losing the most focused, fiercest and surely funniest media critic of the past two decades. As one longtime executive at CNN put it to me: “The irony always was that most people in the place truly enjoyed his show, never missed it. So it was always incredibly painful that he would attack us the way he did.” And oh he did. When Larry King asked him directly why he picked on CNN so much, Stewart memorably fired back: “You’re terrible!” Terrible, in Stewart’s view, for blowing stories (like “poop cruises” or missing planes) out of proportion; for substituting holograms of reporters in place of substantive news; for foisting on viewers what he perceived as poseurs (favorite Stewart pinatas included Tucker Carlson, Rick Sanchez and Eliot Spitzer
 — none of whom survived long after the eviscerations); but mainly for not living up to Stewart’s — and by extension his viewers’ — expectations. Inside CNN, many felt Stewart’s barbed contempt tilted unfairly in their direction — and it may have, because it sprang from chagrined disappointment more than pure disdain. Colleagues reported that Wolf Blitzer took Stewart’s hectoring especially hard. (Among other instances, Stewart memorably spit-roasted Blitzer the night CNN jumped the gun to report the Supreme Court had overturned Obamacare, only to backtrack with Blitzer citing “widely different” reports.)

4. “Trainwreck,” “The End of the Tour,” and The Complicated Bond Between Journalist and Subject. Two recent films focus on the strange, often adversarial, sometimes friendly relationship between a journalist and subject. “The End of the Tour” makes that topic its thematic centerpiece while “Trainwreck” relegates it to its premise. Vulture’s Lindsay Zoladz explores the relationship between journalist and subject in both films and how gender impacts both its depiction and its reception.

Given my admitted professional sympathy for its protagonist, not to mention my die-hard Wallace fandom (no celebrity death before or since has rattled me more deeply than his 2008 suicide, even though I know he’d turn over in his grave to hear me call him a “celebrity”), I couldn’t help picturing myself in Lipsky’s shoes. But also…I couldn’t, exactly. So much of the film is about the struggle to overcome the inherent awkwardness of interviewing someone and to establish the kind of genuine, empathic bond that, paradoxically, gives you access to all the best dirt on them. (As Joan Didion says, writers are always selling somebody out.) In one scene, shortly before Wallace graciously offers to let Lipsky stay overnight in his guest room, the journalist goes to the bathroom and runs the sink on high so Wallace can’t hear him rifling through his medicine cabinet. Wallace is at first skeptical of Lipsky, but he eventually earns his trust, basically by bro-ing down with him. They chew tobacco together. They make late-night junk-food runs. They talk about girls. Not unlike Schumer’s character in “Trainwreck,” Lipsky’s relationship with Wallace crosses the line and becomes something a little too intimate for comfort, veering decidedly into bromance territory. Whether intentional or not, the film very subtly asserts that Lipsky was able to crack Wallace — eventually getting him to talk candidly about sex, marriage, and loneliness — because at the end of the day they were just two dudes talking to each other about dude things, man. During one particular conversation, when Wallace sheepishly admits that he wouldn’t mind getting laid on his book tour, I wondered if or how the scene would have played differently had the interviewer been a (straight, single) woman. Then I realized I couldn’t even picture it. I’m not suggesting Wallace would have made a pass at her, and I’m not suggesting he wouldn’t have opened up to her. I actually think there’s a good chance that the interview and the film would have been more interesting had the writer been a woman, because a person so adept in describing the unspoken social dynamics as Wallace probably would have had something interesting and uncomfortably honest to say about why he wasn’t making a pass at her, or why he was or wasn’t opening up. All I’m saying is that it would have been a very different story than what we’re used to seeing on screen. “The End of the Tour” reminded me of all the subtle reasons why a female writer’s experience of reporting this story (were she even assigned it in the first place) would be different from a man’s. I both related to this movie deeply and yet felt alienated by it on almost every frame.

5. Film Comment on “The End of the Tour”. 
Last Friday, James Ponsoldt’s new film “The End of the Tour” entered theaters. The film follows a conversation between Rolling Stone writer Dave Lipsky and famed novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace as they discuss everything from pop culture to the ugly realities of fame to authentic communication in an increasingly fractured age. Film Comment’s Michael Sragow examines “The End of the Tour” in the publication’s Deep Focus column.

Ponsoldt’s mastery of fresh, unpredictable two-shots, and his ability to stage arguments that transcend verbal ping-pong, enable audiences to experience Wallace and Lipsky’s ups and downs without hyping. This skill is crucial for a movie that choreographs a pop-rock gavotte between an au courant reporter and a reluctantly chic novelist for three-quarters of the running time. It’s as if everyone, audience included, shares the same room temperature. Wallace grows comfortable with Lipsky partly because he can be frank without fear of judgment or misunderstanding, whether he’s discussing TV-watching and media-surfing as addictions and alternatives to the hard work of getting to know real people, or bewailing Americans’ willingness to cede whole parts of their consciousness and social life to unknown puppeteers. “It’s gonna get easier and easier,” he says, “and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right in low doses, right? But if that’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re going to die. In a meaningful way, you’re going to die.” In Ponsoldt’s hands those ideas become concrete. For example, that sermon about high-caloric, non-nutritious visual entertainment erupts organically and hilariously when the two novelists are scarfing down junk food.

6. An Oral History of “Brokeback Mountain”. 
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” the story of a complex romance between two cowboys living in the American West. “Brokeback Mountain” garnered acclaim and controversy at the time of its release for its nuanced portrayal of a same-sex relationship, and was eventually nominated for eight Academy Awards and winning three. Out.com’s Aaron Hicklin explores the film ten years later and interviews Ang Lee, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, along with the principal actors to discuss their experiences on the film.

Gyllenhaal: For the first month of shooting we all lived by this river in little trailers, and I had my dog there. We all just lived on a campground and would walk to set. You know, in a world driven by commerce, particularly in the movie business, there’s no time spent together — relationships are fleeting. But in the old-school way, people really used to spend their time together. They became a family. And that’s what Ang created on the movie. It’s why we are all still close — not just bonded by the success of the film, but bonded by the experience. It was an intimate project in that way. We’d wake up and make breakfast for each other, and hang out. Heath and Michelle fell in love. It was a really special, special time.

Ossana: The first day we filmed that scene where Michelle’s character is on the toboggan and falls off the sled, and Ennis is with her — they’re laughing; well on the third take, Michelle fell off the sled, and at the bottom of the hill she was crying. She’d twisted her knee, and we had to call someone to take her to the hospital. Heath was not about to let her go alone, and as he was getting into the vehicle with her he was smoothing her hair back. I remember him looking at her, and she looking up at him with these wide eyes. She was almost startled by the attention he was giving her, but you could see it every day from thereon. For him it was truly love at first sight. He was so taken with her.

Hathaway: The four of us were taken out to this restaurant in Calgary by the producers, and I remember sitting there and looking at beautiful Heath, and Jake, and Michelle, and it hit me that we were all under 25. It’s funny how recent it was, but at the time we were very far away from this burgeoning humanist moment that we’re having now with gay rights. And it felt like a very big and important step — a statement about love, about the need for love, about the consequences of limiting people. And I was just so blown away that these four 25-year-old kids could bring this to life, especially the three of them.

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