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Daily Reads: ‘Vacation,’ Then and Now, David Simon’s New Miniseries, and More

Daily Reads: 'Vacation,' Then and Now, David Simon's New Miniseries, and More

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

1. “Phoenix” and “The Look of Silence”: Two of the Year’s Best Films Share a Common Theme. 
Over the next few weeks, two of the best reviewed films of the year, Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” and Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence,” will open in more and more theaters across the country. “Phoenix” and “The Look of Silence” are different in crucial ways — the former is a post-war German drama, and the other is a probing documentary about the 1965 Indonesian genocide — but in many ways, the two similarly tackle feelings of post-war guilt and trauma. Variety’s Justin Chang compares the two films and writes about their commonalities.

The difference between seeing and understanding — between simply looking at something and actually grasping the truth of what it means or represents — is a theme as old as Sophocles. It also happens to be central to two of the very finest films that have emerged so far this year: not only “Phoenix,” a surprise arthouse hit now in its second week of Stateside release, but also “The Look of Silence,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful new reckoning with the anti-communist purges that swept across Indonesia during the 1960s. One is a fiction set in the immediate aftermath of a widely documented catastrophe; the other is a documentary set decades after a catastrophe that has been obscured by numerous self-justifying fictions. Both films seek to illuminate the nature of postwar guilt by staging a series of direct confrontations between an aggressor and a victim, between the betrayer and the betrayed, and to raise the question of whether reconciliation is possible. But in both films, the guilty party continues to evade responsibility by refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing — a condition that manifests itself as a willful sort of blindness.

2. David Simon’s “Show Me a Hero” Is a Cautionary Tale About Desegregation. 
David Simon’s new mini-series “Show Me a Hero,” starring Oscar Isaac, is set to premiere on HBO next week. The series follows a housing crisis in Younkers, New York in the late ’80s when a young idealistic mayor decides to place federal public housing in a mostly white middle-class neighborhood. The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman reviews the new series and praises the storytelling and acting.

But as “Show Me a Hero” begins, tensions in the city of Yonkers bubbles beneath the surface of the show. In a lawsuit is brought by the U.S. Department of Justice and the NAACP, the city was found guilty of using federal housing funds to segregate the city (already 80 percent white) by only building housing projects “across the tracks” (in this case, on the other side of the Saw Mill River Parkway). The story begins with an intriguing political reality. Mayor Martinelli had realized it was folly to appeal the government ruling; appealing the case would cost Yonkers tons of money for little reward. But Wasicsko voted for the appeal, and that was enough to get angry Yonkers residents on his side, allowing him to oust the mayor in the election. The appeal was rejected not long after the election, and now the newbie, idealistic Mayor Wasicsko finds himself having to bend to the decision of federal judge Leonard Sand (Bob Balaban) to build 200 units of low-income housing on the white side of Yonkers. That, not surprisingly, is political suicide. This is where “Show Me a Hero” takes off as the ultimate “be careful what you wish for” story. Wasicsko is just nerdy enough to have always wanted to be mayor, but the seat is barely warm when residents accuse of him of lying and selling out as the law forces him to put the housing in place. He never even had a chance.

3. Holidays From Hell: The “Vacation” Movies Then and Now. 
Last week, the remake of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” with Ed Helms and Christina Applegate, entered theaters on a wave of negative reviews. Critics basically called it an exercise in dumb, tired, gross-out comedy that retains none of the wit and charm of the Chevy Chase original. Grantland’s Wesley Morris reviews the film and compares it to the “Vacation” films of the 1980’s.

The original and its 1985 sequel aren’t masterpieces, but they’ve got a coherent badness, especially the first, which Harold Ramis directed, John Hughes wrote, and for which Lindsey Buckingham supplied “Holiday Road,” a perversely catchy, suitably off-kilter theme song. It was trying to be a farce of white middle-class family values. And it doesn’t always know where the jokes are, but sometimes it’s got them and they’re better than anything Daley and Goldstein have come up with. When Ellen’s batty Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) croaks, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) ends her eulogy saying, “I hope at least you kids have learned something about life and death.” “Yeah,” says Audrey (Dana Barron), “don’t die unless somebody’s home.” That’s the sort of superb average-kid line you got in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when child actors weren’t precious, per se — they were simply natural and fully formed personalities. In the 2015 version, when [Steele] Stebbins doesn’t have a vulgar line to detonate, he looks mildly shocked, like he can’t believe he’s being paid to say this stuff. In the original — 80 minutes in, with less than 20 left — the Griswolds finally get to Walley World, and the movie comes to new, crazy life. The park’s closed, so Clark gets a very convincing pistol (a BB gun) and makes the owner’s security team (represented by John Candy) open the place up for his family. The montage of the cast on the rides, looking both nauseated and over the moon, with Chase mugging while holding his gun on Candy, gets at a classically stupid Marx Brothers desperation. Fun is a right that turns into a blissful crime. This is where a strain of American comedy was in the early and mid-1980s, wondering about the limits and privileges of liberal white and middle-class life. Albert Brooks was there and Martin Scorsese twice tapped into something like it, with “The King of Comedy” and “After Hours.” “Vacation” was too sloppy to constitute an official exploration. It was a lark that happened to land in an interesting cultural spot. This new whatever-it-is doesn’t care whether Walley World is special to Rusty. Nothing matters to it.

4. Richard Lester Is More Than “The Man Who Framed The Beatles.” 
Starting Friday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York will run a career retrospective of director Richard Lester’s work entitled “Richard Lester: The Running Jumping Pop Cinema Iconoclast.” Lester is probably best known for his work with the Beatles — he directed “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” — as well as “Superman II” & “III” in the early 1980’s, but he’s directed a wide variety of films, including musical comedies and three “Three Musketeers” movies. RogerEbert.com’s Peter Sobczynski explores Lester’s filmography and laments that he’s not considered one of the great filmmakers of his time.

By all logic, Richard Lester deserves consideration as one of the key filmmakers to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century. Over a career spanning 22 feature films, he has had a number of critical and commercial successes (including one that won the top prize at Cannes), his unique directorial style—shifting effortlessly from classical elegance to formally radical depending on the needs of the material—has influenced any number of filmmakers over the years (one notable fan, Steven Soderbergh, even collaborated with Lester on a book about his career, the must-read “Getting Away With It”) and one of his films has gone on to be enshrined as one of the all-time greats in the history of the medium. And yet, for several reasons—the relatively low profile that he kept as a filmmaker even at the apex of his career, the high profile of the personalities that he worked with on many of his biggest hits, his inability to be pigeonholed as a single entity (not even in terms of his nationality—Lester’s name has threatened to fade away in the minds of the movie-going public except as the guy who directed the first two films featuring The Beatles.

5. The ’80s Flashbacks of “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Deutschland 83.” 
Last night, the SundanceTV series “Deutschland 83” ended its eight-episode season last night. About a young East German native who is sent to the West to spy for the Stasi in 1983, it’s one of a few different shows that function as ’80s period pieces. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum analyze and review “Deutschland 83” as well as AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” a show about the personal computer revolution in the Silicon Prairie of Texas around the same time.

Like “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Deutschland 83” bears a resemblance to a more ambitious cable show: “The Americans,” FX’s series about Russian spies, starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, which just finished a bleak and astonishing third season. But, if “Deutschland 83” doesn’t have quite that show’s depth, it has other charms. It’s a slinky thriller, well scored, well paced, cast with beautiful faces, and nearly as aesthetically aspirational as “Mad Men” ever was, if you’re in the mood to fantasize about being a chain-smoking German spy in green leather gloves. It’s gorgeous and it’s good enough. The show begins with a moment that was also featured in “The Americans”: Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech. “Turn on the TV,” an East German intelligence officer named Lenora Rausch (Maria Schrader, crisp and glamorous) barks at her boss, as she watches Reagan, live, on her small black-and-white screen. The U.S. is about to place Pershing missiles in West Germany; each side is terrified that the other will launch an attack. To get intel on NATO, Lenora pressures her nephew Martin (Jonas Nay), a border guard, into service as a spy, masquerading as the assistant to a West German general. Like “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Deutschland 83” works as a simplified conduit for historical events that have dimmed in memory, even for those who lived through them. For the first few episodes, it treats these issues with relative sophistication, as Martin is deputized to steal state secrets. (To the alarm of his handlers, he finds that they’ve been encoded on newfangled floppy disks.) Under his new identity, Moritz, Martin becomes enmeshed in his boss’ family, which includes a sexy hippie daughter, Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky), and a peacenik son, Alex, who, on the strength of Ludwig Trepte’s warm performance, quickly grows into the show’s most complex character.

6. The Mystery Dance: “Zero Effect” and Bill Pullman’s Finest Hour. 
Jake Kasdan’s 1998 film “Zero Effect” follows Bill Pullman as Daryl Zero, “the world’s most private detective,” who’s great at his job but terrible with human interaction, forcing clients to conduct business through his assistant Arlo (Ben Stiller). Over at Oscilloscope Labs’ Musings blog, Daniel Carlson examines “Zero Effect” and argues that it’s the only film to ever understand the unique charms of Bill Pullman.

“Zero Effect” might be the only movie to ever understand Bill Pullman. The actor has been working steadily since his debut in 1986’s “Ruthless People,” and he’s been in his share of hits, odd wonders, and pop culture touchstones. Yet Pullman is almost never the star: he’s either part of an ensemble or playing a supporting role, in parts that leverage his generic all-American affability and often have him playing the patsy, the cuckold, or the nice guy next door. This makes sense on one level, since his persona doesn’t exactly square with the traditional hero or romantic lead (attempts to turn him into both did not pan out). But it’s also a wild misuse of his unique talent. Pullman’s got a wonderful energy, a kind of crackling darkness underneath an easygoing grin, that lets him seem slippery and aloof while everyone around him plays pretend. He’s soft-spoken, but not weak; in motion, but not manic. He’s naturally complicated. And in “Zero Effect,” he finally gets to be everything, all at once. Not that most people knew it at the time. “Zero Effect” came and went in a month in early 1998, grossing a skimpy $2 million and playing only a smattering of theaters before closing. It had, to say the least, a lower profile than the other movies Pullman had appeared in up to that point in the 1990s. This was, after all, only two years after “Independence Day” and three years after “While You Were Sleeping,” and before that there had been noticeable parts in “Sleepless in Seattle,” “A League of Their Own,” and the admirably insane “Malice.” “Zero Effect” was also Pullman’s only film to be released in 1998, following a run where he’d appeared in several movies per year. It skipped across the surface without making any ripples before disappearing into deep water. This is understandable — the film is a mix of genres and tones, and was probably a tough sell to audiences who were only a couple weeks away from seeing “The Wedding Singer” — but also lamentable. “Zero Effect” is a rich, bittersweet brew. It’s in the general neighborhood of dark comedy, but not in the traditional sense of the genre that finds humor in the awful or the profane. Rather, it’s a film whose darkness is sadness, and whose comedy is pathos. It’s a mystery that builds initial energy with several nice twists, but then it lets that energy go so it can change direction, evolving into a character study before pivoting into a coming-of-middle-age and, finally, doomed romance. Pullman’s character starts out wild and erratic before softening around the edges and learning the value of connection, and the film mirrors that emotional change, slowing and deepening as it unfolds. Pullman’s performance is the key to all of it, and it’s a standout in his career. He hasn’t done anything like it since.

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