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Daily Reads: How Children Survive in ‘Room’ and ‘Beasts of No Nation,’ Mr Robot’s Inequality Entertainment, and More

Daily Reads: How Children Survive in 'Room' and 'Beasts of No Nation,' Mr Robot's Inequality Entertainment, and More

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

1. The Burden of Representation on TV. As anyone with eyes and ears is aware of, there’s a scarce amount of minorities on television, so when one does pop up in a prominent role, they assume the burden of representing their entire race or ethnicity. Naturally, this is unfair, and there’s quite a bit of pressure on minority actors to dodge stereotypes and break down walls. Salon’s Sonia Saraiya interviews Alexandra Billings, Teyonah Parris, and Constance Wu about their experiences as a minority actress on screen.

Perhaps we now understand better the disenfranchisement of blackface, the humiliation of straight-washing. But representation is still a maze with many pitfalls. On one hand is the struggle to be seen or heard at all (Dylan Marron’s Every Single Word, on the topic of minorities in film, is devastating in its simplicity). On the other hand is the vast minefield of stereotype, marginalization, exploitation and misrepresentation — terms that very few people see entirely eye-to-eye on. Underlying all of this is an industry that trades ruthlessly and at times exclusively on appearances, as I discussed in my last installment. Subjective, image-based discrimination is the literal business of Hollywood. If it is problematic, at best, for the industry at large, it is purely discrimination for its most marginalized groups. Wu is one of the actors who has dealt with what I called, earlier this year, the “just one guy” problem: A situation where an actor or a show becomes a lone representative of an underrepresented group, and as such, have had to navigate a morass of identity politics. Teyonah Parris, who played Dawn Chambers — the first black character on “Mad Men” with any interiority — is another. “I knew that [“Mad Men”] didn’t really have a lot of African-American representation,” when she auditioned, she told me. But, she added, “I did not know the degree to which that character would affect that show when I first auditioned for it. That was one of those beautiful moments where the universe aligns with what my goals are.”

2. How “Beasts of No Nation” and “Room” Depict the Strength of Children. Two films that premiered at TIFF were Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” about a young boy forced to join a unit of mercenary fighters, and Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” about a young boy and his mother who are being held captive in a garden shed. Both of these films depict children forced to rely on strength in unimaginable situation (played by talented child actors to boot). Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore writes about how these two films feature child actors who steal the spotlight from their adult counterparts.

Child endangerment and suffering have always been reliable ways to demand an emotional reaction from whoever’s watching, which is why they’re also easy to resent. It’s a primal impulse to feel protective over children, and seeing them menaced onscreen can feel like someone jabbing cynically at an exposed nerve. Miraculously, neither of these movies, the former about an 11-year-old war conscript and the latter about a kidnap victim growing up in near isolation, feels exploitative, which speaks to their quality as well as to how they’re framed. They’re both inspired by real situations, which helps, but they also couch their stories in the point of view of their young protagonists rather than looking down at them from a distance. They’re about the experience of being young as well as the experience of enduring terrible things. Agu (first-time actor Abraham Attah, 14, a real stunner) becomes a child soldier in “Beasts of No Nation,” Netflix’s debut dip into original scripted films, adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name. But before that, he lives a life of tense but relative ordinariness with his family in a buffer zone still untouched by the war that’s been raging. The movie leaves the conflict, with its clashing acronymed forces, vague in the same way it leaves its West African setting unnamed — it’s not meant to be about a specific situation, and anyway, its protagonist is more interested in bantering with his older brother and playing with his friends than understanding the details.

3. Marionettes, Animation, and Humanity in Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa.” “Anomalisa,” Charlie Kaufman’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2008 directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York” premiered at the Venice Film Festival last week, and featured screenings at the Toronto Film Festival. Today, Paramount Pictures announced it has picked up the film for distribution and it will be released in New York and L.A. on December 30th of this year. The film itself features stop-motion animated puppets, but though it doesn’t feature real human beings, it contains a shocking amount of humanity. Film Comment’s Jonathan Romney explores “Anomalisa’s” use of animation and how it finds the positive in the “uncanny valley.”

Discussions of CGI have of late inherited a term that was first in use, I think, in the fields of robotics and then of computer games. The term is the “uncanny valley” and it refers to a certain point in the development of realistic artificial simulacra of human beings. A robot, or a photorealistic CGI image of a human, may be developed to such a degree of resemblance to a real person that a certain point is reached at which the resemblance becomes too close, and therefore too unsettling, to be anything other than disturbing. It’s the conjunction of resemblance and irreducible difference that upsets us, that makes us recoil from a somehow unacceptable relation to the genuinely human.I’m not sure that this phenomenon altogether accounts for what’s unsettling about “Anomalisa,” a film which, in any case, doesn’t feature CGI-created humans. But there’s something genuinely uncanny about the puppets in this extraordinary feature co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and animator Duke Johnson, a film that manages at once to be moving, horribly funny and deeply disturbing. It’s a film in which the uncanny valley is revealed not as a negative but rather as a kind of sweet spot at which the humanity within unhuman things is revealed to incredibly poignant and philosophically rich effect.

4. “Mr. Robot” and the New Inequality Entertainment. USA’s “Mr. Robot” ended its critically-acclaimed first season a week ago. The series features the adventures of an anarchist group called fsociety whose goal is to cancel all debt nationwide. Vogue’s Alissa Quart argues that “Mr. Robot” is the latest example of a genre she describes as “inequality entertainment.”

A few years after Occupy activists stormed Wall Street, the storyline of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent has officially entered into the mainstream, alchemized into binge TV. Take the Emmy-nominated “Silicon Valley,” in which the huge gap between ramen-eating, couch-surfing, low-end tech workers and their 1-percent, tech-guru overlords is the show’s main source of drama and humor. Or the 2013 $115 million Matt Damon–vehicle “Elysium,” in which the poor live on a hot, diseased version of earth while the wealthy live in a space station where they never get ill, and which io9 called a “futuristic version of Occupy Wall Street.” Or the chicly meandering Web (now HBO) comedy “High Maintenance,” in which a pot dealer traipses between clients who are often members of New York City’s fallen middle class, including, yes, one of the “hipster homeless.” The new inequality entertainment is far from stuffy, punitive docudrama about the horrors of American debt. It is dystopian or quirkily comic rather than tiringly serious or triumphantly simpleminded. (“Norma Rae” this is not.) The absurd tech-titan excesses in “Silicon Valley” — the venture capital toga parties, the private Kid Rock concerts — are starkly contrasted to life at the lower rungs, where a desperate aspirant pitches his app to customers at the liquor store where he works. Venture firms may try to buy “Silicon Valley’s” hero’s company, Pied Piper, offering up to $20 million, but the show keeps reminding us how easy it is to descend from extreme tech entrepreneurial exuberance to TaskRabbit-y wage slavery. The offers for Pied Piper are retracted: Our heroes are back to penury and couch-surfing, to the antic, aggrieved world of 24/7 coding in airless rooms. “Mr. Robot” in particular, signals the rise of a fresh post-Occupy portrayal of the wealth gap. No longer is the story of income inequity delivered via a well-meaning, crushingly earnest indie film by John Sayles, or in a single laugh line on “Roseanne.” “Mr. Robot” has a supercute protagonist (played by Rami Malek), a melodramatic plot, stunt casting (Christian Slater), and a steampunk aesthetic. While it is edgy, head-on about debt and the digital, it doesn’t say outright that it is about, say, Anonymous, the NSA, Edward Snowden, or Strike Debt. It clearly is.

5. The New Wave of Intimate, Goofy, Deep Television Comedies. As anyone who’s been paying attention to television for the past few years can attest, there’s been a rise of “dark” comedies, only these comedies aren’t simply “dark,” they’re often bleak, nihilistic, and devastating…and also funny. The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan examines this new wave of comedies that explore intimacy and goofiness in the same measure.

 It’s hard to feel lectured or condescended to by a show that features a cop called Officer Meow-Meow Fuzzy Face (a name that makes me laugh every time), a nervous penguin as a book editor and an overly enthusiastic dog who serves as the host of a hit game show. (If memory serves, NBC has a program like this on its spring schedule.) BoJack is clearly the star of the show that uses his name, and Will Arnett is terrific at conveying the character’s hollow grandiosity and abiding sadness, but everybody gets to be a human being on this astonishingly rich show. It has built a well-constructed arc for Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a high-powered agent/pink cat, and it’s given depth to even Mr. Peanutbutter, who I always want to dismiss as nothing more than a maddeningly simple-minded dog-man. But I can’t do that, thanks to the nuanced writing and Paul F. Tompkins’ first-class voice work. That said, Diane should definitely not be with Mr. Peanutbutter, don’t you agree? I’m not saying she should date BoJack — that would probably be a disaster for both of them, despite their obvious chemistry — but she needs to break up with the dog to achieve her full potential, right? I have thought too much about this, possibly. But how could I not?

6. Can “The Mindy Project” Thrive on Hulu? Veteran critic Keith Phipps, former editor of The A.V. Club and the dearly departed The Dissolve, has a new gig as the film/TV editor of Uproxx. For his very first post, Phipps reviews the fourth season of “The Mindy Project” and wonders if it can thrive on Hulu.

Dropped by Fox at the end of last year, it was picked up by Hulu seemingly minutes later and given a 26-episode order, much to the relief of the show’s loyal, if not-large-enough-for-Fox viewership. Its fourth season premiere debuts today and is on the site now. There’s a pattern here: “Community” squeezed out another season by going to Yahoo. Intended for NBC, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (with whom “The Mindy Project” is currently embroiled in a “gift war”) instead ended up on Netflix. As much by accident as design, streaming services now seem to be where shows too quirky for the networks go to live. If anything, it’s a better fit for “The Mindy Project.” The show found plenty of ways to push the boundaries while still on network TV, having spent much of its final season on Fox apparently trying to see what it could get away with. (To date, it’s the only network show I’ve seen to build an entire episode around a thwarted attempt at anal sex, unless there’s a very special “Family Ties” I missed.) It’s less the opportunity to try edgier material that suggests “The Mindy Project” will do well away from the network confines than the chance to play things a little looser than before. At this year’s TCA conference, producer Ike Barinholtz (who co-stars as Morgan, one of the nurses in Mindy’s practice) suggested the changes would have less to do with bringing in more explicit content than giving the ensemble more room to breathe. That’s not much in evidence in “While I Was Sleeping,” the season four premiere, which sidelines much of the supporting cast to pick up where the third season cliffhanger left off — with Danny traveling to India to reveal himself as the father of Mindy’s unborn child to her parents. Here, he takes his time even after meeting Mindy’s previously unseen dad (Ajay Mehta) and mom (Sakina Jaffrey), both veteran character actors and both looking like fine additions to the ensemble. Best known for her work on “House of Cards,” Jaffrey in particular has several scene-stealing moments related to her mostly imagined career, as her husband puts it without any irony, as “the premier undiscovered Bollywood character actress in the greater Boston area.”

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