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Daily Reads: ‘UnReal’ and the Accidental Authenticity of Reality TV, the Smart Stupidity of ‘Wet Hot American Summer,’ and More

Daily Reads: 'UnReal' and the Accidental Authenticity of Reality TV, the Smart Stupidity of 'Wet Hot American Summer,' and More

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

1. “UnReal,” “I Am Cait,” and Accidental Authenticity in Reality TV. 
Last night, Lifetime’s original series “UnReal” ended its first season. The series has garnered rave reviews from critics, like our own Sam Adams, for “[wrapping] its critique of patriarchal structure in a compulsively watchable drama.” The A.V. Club’s Genevieve Valentine writes about “UnReal,” the new E! series “I Am Cait,” and how the only authenticity in reality television comes from unstudied “accidental” moments.

It’s a fascinating show to watch in the wake of “
UnREAL,” Lifetime’s scripted drama about the behind-the-scenes of the distinctly “Bachelor”-esque dating show “Everlasting.” It’s a ruthless takedown of the ways reality TV is manipulated, packaged, and managed behind the scenes, but its cleverness lies in the ways it uses its central characters for more than “I knew it” gotchas; they’re all examinations of the idea of authentic identity. And ingeniously, “UnREAL” illustrates this using the familiar cadence of a reality show. Freelance producer and master manipulator Rachel (Shiri Appleby), vicious and canny showrunner Quinn (Constance Zimmer), and this season’s adrift suitor Adam (Freddie Stroma) are mainstays, but women in the ensemble of contestants come to the fore at the same pace as a reality show would single them out: either for a twist that makes them a player, or a looser edit that’s doomed to send them home. This structure manages to be both a knowing wink and a subtle indictment of the hunger for reality TV, particularly as the stakes become more personal behind the scenes — and as the contestants become real people even to Rachel. Some of the show’s finest moments spring from this untenable tension. Certainly Rachel, a glorious garbage fire of a person on most days, feels visibly closer to her ideal self when coaxing contestant Faith (Breeda Wool) into accepting that she’s a lesbian. Rachel and Adam even manage to keep Faith’s big reveal off the show, which is the closest to heroics either one of them has come all season. But “UnREAL” is at its core a deeply unsentimental show, and treats most of its characters with the inevitability of a Russian novel: It’s impossible to be purely authentic in front of an audience, and it’s equally impossible to maintain an illusion for long without beginning to fall for it yourself. As those walls collapse, the penultimate episode of “UnREAL’s” first season is a series of failed negotiations. Adam negotiates with Rachel to run away with him; Anna, Grace, and Faith all negotiate to be the last woman standing; Quinn negotiates to get her own production company and to hire Rachel against Rachel’s better instincts; and Rachel negotiates with herself to get her life together and get out of the business. All of them fail for the same reason: Whatever illusions the show has presented in front of or behind the camera, everyone is beginning to believe the setup. That means delivering accidental authenticity: brutally candid interviews, real feelings complicating the “Everlasting” narrative, and admissions that real honesty is, at the last, impossible.

2. “Wet Hot American Summer’s” Undefinable Brand of Smart Stupidity. 
David Wain’s new prequel series to his 2001 film “Wet Hot American Summer” premiered on Netflix last Friday, and it features Wain’s typical off-the-wall, anything-goes absurd humor. It’s easy to look at Wain’s style of humor, or even “The State’s” humor, and see a lack of rigor or discipline, but that wouldn’t be giving Wain and co. enough credit. Vulture’s Lucas Cavner examines “Wet Hot American Summer’s” brand of smart stupidity and the legacy it left behind.

Looking back on the initial reviews of the film — and they are famously, almost unanimously vicious — critics clearly shared the Blockbuster guy’s opinion, focusing on “Wet Hot” as some sort of gleefully misguided genre parody. Even the most positive of the bunch, Owen Glieberman’s review in “Entertainment Weekly,” called it an “ingenious pop satire” of 1980s teen comedies. But this isn’t how I’d describe “Wet Hot” to anyone, nor would any other fan I know. Sure, it’s based in the ’80s world of overstuffed workout montages and tight striped shirts and short shorts, but by god if it wasn’t so much more than a parody, so much more than a satire. “Wet Hot” created a tone and a world all its own. Yes, it was dumb and absurd — so profoundly, beautifully dumb and absurd! — but it didn’t feel dumb in a way I’d seen before. It was dumb-smart, its dumbness freshly imbued with a deep, winking self-awareness. And even while its characters followed no logical trajectory, it maintained a big, open heart, which became more and more evident upon repeated viewings. The movie made us legitimately care, for example, about Gene, a Vietnam vet who humps fridges and confides in a can of beans, even though there was no realistic reason for us to do so. And it invested real love in an actual gay relationship — with an actual sex scene, no less! — which I can safely say no other comedy was doing in 2001. It was this blend of cynicism and sweetness that also happened to reflect the cultural moment when “Wet Hot” was released — around the turn of the millennium, at the midpoint between Gen X irony and Gen Y earnestness. Christopher Meloni, who played Gene, told me in an interview that he thought of David Wain, Michael Showalter, & Co.’s style as a comedy “jazz riff,” and that’s certainly apt. “Wet Hot” always knew what you were expecting, then tended to go the opposite way. See: Coop and Katie’s final moment together, or the counselors’ progressive response to catching McKinley and Ben together — at once commenting on a genre cliché then undercutting it with something more ridiculous, like a massive gust of wind at the climax of a talent show. You also couldn’t explain why “Wet Hot” was funny, which gave its admirers an “exclusive club” feel. Try telling a friend about your favorite scenes, and you sounded like a lunatic. “That part when everybody stands in front of a wall!” “In the barn where they switch shirts over and over!” “Paul Rudd picks up cutlery for two whole minutes!”

3. The Vacuum-Sealed Efficiency of “Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation”. 
Last Friday, Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation” entered theaters to critical acclaim and large box office receipts. “Rogue Nation” has garnered acclaim for its action set pieces and Cruise’s stunts, but few critics have discussed its efficiency, how it only conveys or projects the bare essential of character and story. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues that “Rogue Nation’s” vacuum-sealed efficiency constrains its vision of humanity. 

McQuarrie seems to have no interest in any of the banalities that make these characters human. They have no sex, they have no apparent desire, they have no private life; they have no past, no family, no religion, no interests (oh, wait — Benji likes opera and video games), no ambitions. They don’t sleep, don’t eat, don’t dream, don’t fantasize. The situations of the film invite and suggest all sorts of illuminating moments arising from incidental encounters and activities that would bring Ethan, Ilsa, and company to life, whether in unavoidable chitchat at airplane terminals or hotel desks, electronics stores or café tables or barber shops, whether in news from home or offhand banter among crew members. Yet the film is devoid of them. McQuarrie seems to take such care to render Ethan and the other agents so extraordinary as to turn their exceptionalism somewhat ridiculous. The movie is infected with a mild case of Christophernolanitis, in which the presumption of importance yields grimness and bombast. In McQuarrie’s case, the decision in advance that there are important matters at hand meshes with the clever plotting, with his twists and their ostensible implications regarding the way that governments — and their secretive agencies — work. Having decided ahead of time what counts as important, the director eliminates everything that seems unimportant — meaning the personal traits of the characters and anything they do that’s unrelated to the specific plotting of the missions. There’s a strange, surprising, and significant political implication to McQuarrie’s aesthetic choices. The movie’s co-producers, along with Paramount, are two Chinese companies — China Movie Channel and Alibaba — and their logos and names are emblazoned on the head credits, along with Paramoun’s. In Western media, it’s an age of unprecedented transparency; political leaders and aspirants face intense scrutiny in the press, and information about the personal lives and the past of politicians in the United States is common coin and fair game in the public arena. By contrast, stringent government censorship in China makes reporting on politicians very difficult. (Witness the experience of Western media there after a series of reports on the fortunes of the families of China’s leaders.) Under the circumstances, the very notion of heroic cinematic ciphers such as Ethan Hunt and Ilsa Faust, whose private lives and personal characteristics are treated as irrelevant to their vital public function, has unfortunate political undertones.

4. The Sneaky Rewards of “The End of the Tour”. 
Last week, James Ponsoldt’s new film “The End of the Tour” about a road trip between Rolling Stone writer Dave Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). The film has garnered controversy from the Wallace estate who roundly reject the film as well as those who argue that it’s hardly faithful to the real Wallace. On her blog, Lisa Rosman claims that the film works better if you’re not an ardent fan of DFW, and that it distances itself from his cult of personality.

In positioning himself next to this maelstrom of meta-earnestness, Lipsky can’t help but come off as a suspicious weasel. It’s a real-time example of what was often described as Wallace’s “asshole problem”: the seduction of his reader into loving himself as narrator and loathing the people he described. But when the two men spend a day with Wallace’s female friends (Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner), the more successful author’s predatory nature comes to the forefront. We can see how his eyes narrow when Lipsky puts the moves on one of the women; Wallace seems to regard both ladies as his territory. Ponsoldt and Margulies really draw out these moments, which are barely glanced upon in Lipsky’s too-reverential book. They also linger over how Wallace never cops to his addiction struggles. Perhaps to impart a more conventional dramatic arc, Lipsky gradually works up to asking whether Wallace is the reformed junkie he’s reported to be. Wallace’s circumvention of the topic sounds like grand-standing rather than a protection of his privacy; he waxes rhapsodic about his valiant struggles with existential depression but can’t acknowledge himself as anything so quotidian as an alcoholic. (D. T. Max’s Wallace biography, “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story,” reports the author’s rehab stints and AA membership as fact.) Eventually, Wallace’s love for junk food, junk TV, junk movies – greatly detailed against the drab Midwestern winter backdrop – begins to feel less like a bid for simple comfort and more like an appreciation of anything that reinforces his sense of superiority and Chicken Little-ness. The film never goes so far as to call bullshit on Wallace – to confirm the existence of his addictions, for example – but it does distance itself from the cult of his personality. We never hear him read from his work, for instance, and we observe his aw-shucksiness mysteriously disappear in radio interviews. (Behold those newly discovered “Gs!” Behold the genius of his self-promotion rather than his novels!) In a tenth-inning speech, though, we also experience his genuine, if half-baked, stab at full-frontal disclosure. It’s no wonder that Lipsky bristles, nor that he, along with this narrative, eventually retreats to a worshipful regret. The magnitude of Wallace’s desire to connect is undeniable.

5. When Kids Movies Were Beautiful and Dark.
A few weeks ago, Criterion released Carroll Ballard’s 1979 film “The Black Stallion” starring Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney, and Teri Garr. Based on the classic children’s novel of the same, “The Black Stallion” follows the friendship between a child and horse when they’re shipwrecked on a deserted island. Over at The Daily Beast, ex-Dissolver Keith Phipps explores the classic film and how dark, beautiful children’s movies are few and far between.

An adaptation of Walter Farley’s beloved 1941 novel — which spawned 16 sequels — “The Black Stallion” is the film Ballard was destined to make, even if it came to him by accident. “I grew up in a frontier, pretty much wilderness area,” Ballard tells critic Scott Foundas in an interview included on the Criterion Blu-ray and DVD. “As a kid it was experiencing the world in a very direct way. And to me that was one of the most important, formative aspects of my life.” Ballard became interested in filmmaking after enlisting in the army, thanks to a cinephile sergeant who screened films by Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and others. After his service, he enlisted in UCLA, where he befriended Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola brought “The Black Stallion,” part of a planned series of adaptations of classic children’s literature, to Ballard in the 1970s, by which point he was deep into an unusual, and not always profitable, career that had made him uniquely qualified for the job. For the U.S. Information Agency, Ballard shot the farming documentaries “Beyond This Winter’s Wheat” and “Harvest,” the latter nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 1967. Three later shorts collected on the Blu-ray display his affinity for depicting the lives of animals. The wordless educational short 1965 “Pigs!” captures a day in the life of pigs on a farm while 1969’s “The Perils Of Priscilla,” financed by the Pasadena Humane Society looks at the world from the perspective of a runaway cat. “Rodeo,” created for Marlboro by Ballard, also in 1969, best presages “The Black Stallion.” An artful look at one night at the rodeo focusing on a single bull ride — which Ballard faked by asking several riders to wear the same red shirt — it’s a brutal depiction of the theme Ballard would make “The Black Stallion’s” centerpiece: the delicate, dangerous, and often uneasy balance between humanity and nature.

6. R.I.P. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. 
Last Friday, pro-wrestler and actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper sadly died of a heart attack. Though he’s arguably best known for his long wrestling career, his star turn in John Carpenter’s “They Live” and his recurring role on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” have also been roundly acclaimed. RogerEbert.com’s Bob Calhoun pays tribute to the late Piper and explains why his last tweet functions as a perfect epigraph.

He put on those dark shades in “They Live” (1988), and saw things how they really were. The billboards read, “OBEY.” The 1%-er investment bankers were really skull- faced aliens, and the rising income inequality that has been going on in this country at least since Reagan took office was all laid bare in a modestly-budgeted John Carpenter sci-fi movie starring a professional wrestler. But “Rowdy” Roddy Piper wasn’t just any pro-wrestler. He was probably the craziest man in the insane asylum. He busted beer bottles over his head and let the blood just drip down his face while issuing challenges to the Sheepherders, all in front of a live studio audience. He also wrestled a bear once in Fresno. Another wrestler slapped a handful of honey on Piper’s trunks as he made his way into the ring. The bear buried his snout in Piper’s rear for several painful minutes. This was called paying your dues, and Piper paid them in full with interest. He was an undersized hellhead in a world of giants who made you believe that he was a menace to 6’8″ mounds of muscle like Hulk Hogan through sheer intensity. That crazy glint in Roddy’s eye that made him a top attraction during the WWF’s (now WWE) 1980s WrestleMania boom period, also made him so believable as John Carpenter’s alien-blasting bindlestiff in “They Live.” Sure, Kurt Russell, Carpenter’s muse in so many similar films in the 1980s, could have acted circles around Piper, but he wouldn’t have put in a better performance.

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