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Daily Reads: What Colin Trevorrow Got Right About Female Directors, the Art of Cynical Sincerity in ‘BoJack Horseman’ and ‘Rick and Morty,’ and More

Daily Reads: What Colin Trevorrow Got Right About Female Directors, the Art of Cynical Sincerity in 'BoJack Horseman' and 'Rick and Morty,' and More

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

1. What Colin Trevorrow Got Right About Women Directors and Big Movie Franchises. 
“Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow recently stirred controversy by claiming that the reason why there aren’t female directors attached to superhero or franchise pictures is because they’re not interested in the job. Is it possible he was right? The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg argues that Trevorrow unintentionally highlighted how directors lose when signing on to a franchise.

Given this calculation, it’s no surprise that some rising young directors might decide that franchise pictures aren’t worth the risk. “For me, it was a process of trying to figure out, are these people I want to go to bed with? Because it’s really a marriage, and for this it would be three years,” Ava DuVernay told Entertainment Weekly when she turned down an opportunity to direct Marvel’s “Black Panther” movie. When she passed on the job, she explained to Essence: “I think I’ll just say we had different ideas about what the story would be. Marvel has a certain way of doing things and I think they’re fantastic and a lot of people love what they do. I loved that they reached out to me.”
Under these circumstances, turning out a franchise picture according to the exacting — and inflexible — standards of a studio with very clear ideas about how its intellectual property ought to be used seems less like a ticket to the big leagues and more like a stint in indentured servitude. And it doesn’t particularly surprise me that the two women who have gotten closest to helming superhero pictures have had some bumps along the way. Michelle MacLaren, the outstanding, experienced director who has graced Golden Age television shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” with her astonishing action sequences, was briefly attached to “Wonder Woman” before departing the project. She was replaced by Patty Jenkins, who at one point was scheduled to direct “Thor 2” before being replaced. I’m happy, but I don’t for a moment believe that “Wonder Woman” will have the wild, electric energy and fear of Jenkins’s serial killer drama “Monster.”… I think Trevorrow is wrong to suggest that women directors don’t want to tell stories that “involve superheroes or spaceships or dinosaurs.” But if what he meant to imply was that women don’t want to use their precious few opportunities in the director’s chair to tell written-by-committee stories precision engineered for maximum commercial success, that sounds like a compliment rather than an insult. If anything, the really tough question Trevorrow ought to answer is why he’s willing to make those compromises he says female directors are brave enough to reject. And studios should have to answer why they’re not ambitious or daring enough to let the parade of potential auteurs they’re signing up for indentured servitude exhibit the very independence and vision that made these directors attractive in the first place.

2. “BoJack Horseman,” “Rick and Morty,” and the Art of Cynical Sincerity.
Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” and Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty” are two very different kinds of animated shows, but they do share a specific kind of mood. They both feature a similar perspective on the world that presents itself as jaded, cynical, and borderline-nihilistic, but underneath, there’s a powerful sentimentality that’s neither cheap nor unearned. The A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen explores the art of cynical sincerity in “BoJack Horseman,” and “Rick and Morty”.

Back in the ’90s, BoJack Horseman (protagonist of the Netflix original series “BoJack Horseman”) was the star of a sitcom named “Horsin’ Around.” The clips we see of that show reveal sentimentality at its most toxic: Every line is either a bad joke or an unearned expression of affection; every problem is easily solved; and every lesson learned is simple, direct, and painfully obvious. The sitcom’s shallowness is an every-ready punchline set against the ambiguity and misery of BoJack’s “real” life. Yet the former star remains obsessed with the show that made him his fortune, watching and re-watching taped episodes even as his world falls apart. Those lessons may be obvious, but at least they’re something. It’s a tension that’s practically universal: The knowledge that life is complex, often unfair, and generally mysterious wars with our innate need for simple answers. The airwaves are littered with TV shows that exploit that conflict by offering straightforward escapism, or by scoring surface points off of life’s strangeness without requiring any deeper investment. Then there are the shows that want to achieve a more lasting impact than simple distraction. The challenge being that audiences for that kind of show pride themselves on being jaded and harder to reach. The popularity of the type of sitcom that “Horsin’ Around” parodies informed a generation of cynics, eager to pick apart even the slightest hint of false sincerity. The trick is to find a way to tell stories that get past those well-honed defenses, stories that seem to believe in nothing but ultimately believe in everything. “BoJack Horseman” is very, very good at this. So is “Rick And Morty,” a sci-fi comedy mindfuck currently airing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block. Both in their second seasons, the two are the latest example of a by now recognizable genre: animated series hiding a shockingly rich emotional life behind a thick layer of dark comedy and borderline nihilism. While neither would seem to have much in common — “BoJack’s” surreal, melancholic take on Hollywood and stardom is light years away in texture and tone from “Rick And Morty’s” frenetic cosmic absurdity — they both demonstrate an affection for their ensembles, and a need for audiences to share that affection. Both have beating, vital hearts, even as they do everything in their respective powers to pretend otherwise.

3. “Mr. Robot” Became an Obsession Thanks To One Visual Motif.
USA’s “Mr. Robot” would have aired its season finale last night, but USA decided to delay the finale for a week because it featured a scene that strongly recalled yesterday’s tragic events in Virginia. The series has caught on as a minor hit during the summer season for many reasons, but one of them could very well be the series’ visual strategy. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff demonstrates how “Mr. Robot” garnered cult acclaim thanks to a recurring visual motif.

This has been the summer of “Mr. Robot.” USA’s hacker drama went from that show with the goofy title to a minor TV obsession for many who got wrapped up in its coolly paranoid charms. And when a friend asked me why “Mr. Robot” feels like such a breath of fresh air, my answer came surprisingly easily: the show’s visual aesthetic. TV is getting better about creating shows that feel directed, where it seems as if somebody is behind the camera, telling you the story in a way that would work even without dialogue. But on far too many shows, still, the aesthetic is at best invisible and at worst incoherent. “Mr. Robot” does the opposite of that. Its visual aesthetic is almost deliberately confrontational and in your face. Whenever “Saturday Night Live” makes a “Mr. Robot” parody, this is where the sketch show will start. But that aesthetic also gives the show an overriding feeling of coherence and thematic unity that exists in few brand new shows. By having such a firm idea of what it wanted to look like, “Mr. Robot” bought itself time to engage in some of the typical first-season fumbling (like a mid-season plot line about a drug dealer that ultimately didn’t have much of anything to do with anything but looked like a million bucks).

4. Mean Girls: A “Queen of Earth” Review. 
Alex Ross Perry’s new film “Queen of Earth” stars Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston as two friends who travel to a secluded country house in order for Moss’ character Catherine to alleviate her depression and grief after her father’s suicide and her boyfriend’s departure. The film has garnered acclaim for its psychological acuity, its Polanski-like tension, and of course, the two leads. Reverse Shot’s Daniel Witkin reviews “Queen of Earth” and praises its patient pacing and Sean Price William’s photography.

Four features into his career, Alex Ross Perry has carved out for himself a peculiar niche as contemporary indie cinema’s hottest purveyor of hyper-literate bile. Shot quickly and on a much smaller scale than last year’s “Listen Up Philip,” “Queen of Earth” has been widely billed as a change of direction for Perry, an unforeseeable curveball following the comedy stylings of “The Color Wheel” and “Listen Up Philip”; but make no mistake, it’s of a piece with the others. Included are the director’s penchants for out-of-town settings (relatively little of “Philip,” his “New York Film,” actually takes place in the city), notions of millennial entitlement, and acid-tongued discontents who, despite their jaundiced oversensitivity, manage to remain comfortably oblivious to their own venality. More concretely, it’s another break-up movie, a form well suited to Perry’s brand of intimate redress. Though the film’s tonal range might be shifted toward the ambiguous and threatening, Perry’s dark humor remains in effect, and his characters’ ominously suggestive utterances harbor comic irony no less than menace. At one point, Virginia splendidly declares, “I was victimized by his inability to face reality.” That’s not to say that “Queen of Earth” doesn’t bring Perry’s motifs and concerns to new places. For starters, his characters’ bitter egotism is no longer presented as merely morally disagreeable, but tiresome as well. The bickering siblings and writers of his last two features may have been selfish and cruel, but their verbal wit, directness, and mental acuity made them attractive if not admirable. They were, at the very least, entertaining. Catherine and Virginia, conversely, communicate in the tortured language of passive aggression. Perry and his recurring collaborator, cinematographer Sean Price Williams, shoot them from spitting distance, letting no scowl, grimace, simper, or leer go unnoticed. In contrast to the freewheeling comic energy of “Philip,” “Queen of Earth” has a chilly observational patience, fixating on its dueling subjects as their environment is subsumed into swatches of brown, green, and mauve.

5. Show Me a Boss: Bruce Springsteen in “Show Me a Hero”. 
David Simon’s new miniseries “Show Me a Hero” features quite a few Bruce Springsteen songs. In fact, you can safely say that “Show Me a Hero’s” soundtrack entirely consists of Bruce Springsteen. Furthermore, you can also say that Bruce Springsteen gives the show its identity (or so says Paul Haggis). Grantland’s Chris Ryan examines the show’s use of Springsteen, how the show’s music differs from Simon’s earlier works, and what Springsteen’s place is in the series.

Wasicsko is a David Simon protagonist. He is our vessel for understanding all the complicated issues of local government, housing development, desegregation, and political wrangling that are unfolding. He is new to his job, so as he learns, we learn. Isaac gives an incredibly detailed, humane, and lived-in performance, but there hasn’t been a lot of time for emotional exposition. We’re too busy with court orders and housing sites. That’s where Springsteen comes in. Springsteen’s music isn’t just providing Wasicsko’s musical identity, it’s providing his emotional identity. When “Hungry Heart” plays in a diner, Wasicsko is discussing his professional ambition. When Wasicsko and his girlfriend, Nay Noe, move in together, “All That Heaven Will Allow” colors in their blossoming love affair. “Ramrod” and “Cadillac Ranch” provide driving momentum to his exploding (and imploding) career, and “Brilliant Disguise” hints at something darker emerging in his personal life. Sometimes Springsteen is on the radio, sometimes it’s laid over. It never feels invasive, and it always feels right in time with the show (even when, in the case of “Gave It a Name,” it’s not exactly accurate in terms of chronology). According to Haggis, it was a post-production decision to include these songs, but it’s hard to imagine the same show without them. These songs function as a kind of emotional shorthand — they speak when people are too busy to really talk.

6. Ennio Morricone’s 25 Greatest Music Cues. 
At age 86, Ennio Morricone will score Quentin Tarantino’s new film “The Hateful Eight,” which is reason enough to see the film when it’s released this Christmas. Morricone is a phenomenal soundtrack composer whose work has influenced everything from hip-hop to the avant-garde. For Tarantino Week, Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri lists Morricone’s 25 greatest music cues, and by God, it’s glorious.

“The End,” “The Battle of Algiers” (1966): Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece is one of the most resilient films ever made. A documentary-style portrait of the Algerian conflict, it’s been embraced over the years by colonialists, freedom-fighters, police forces, occupying armies, and terrorists (not to mention film buffs). Part of the film’s enduring appeal has to be Morricone’s innovative, unsettling score. Nowhere is his approach more evident than at the very end, where we watch a chaotic protest to the accompaniment first of thundering, warlike drums — which we’ve heard throughout the film, often during bombings — and waves of high-pitched electronic ululations. Then, briefly, we hear two lovely phrases of an orderly, sad harpsichord theme, which is followed immediately, right as we fade to black, by a jagged little repeated motif in a minor key. Unstable and questioning, it sends us out on an uncertain and disturbing note.

“The Ecstasy of Gold,” “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” (1966): 
One of Morricone’s most famous pieces — Metallica has used it for its concert intros — this lengthy, unforgettable, driving orchestral and choral freakout is a perfect example of the Leone-Morricone collaboration. Who else but those two would give so much screen time just to shots of Eli Wallach running through a cemetery, extended to the point of abstraction? Leone knows at this moment that the music is the real star, and he lets Morricone carry the day.

“The Locust Swarm,” “Days of Heaven” (1978): 
Morricone and Terrence Malick famously did not get along on this film — the composer thought the enigmatic director didn’t understand soundtrack music at all. But somehow, their collaboration worked. This score may well be one of Morricone’s greatest, most romantic works. (Even if he has to share part of the credit with Camille Saint-Saëns, whose “Carnival of the Animals” is also used so effectively by Malick.) But perhaps its high point is the climactic plague of locusts that descends near the film’s end, turning this Edenic Texas farm into a fiery hellscape of jealousy and retribution. Morricone’s dissonant music, with its sharp, discordant strings and rattling pianos, works in tandem with the sound effects and the snatches of screamed dialogue to create an effect that feels unreal and out of control.

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