Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. New York Times Film Critics Champion Hollywood (Provisionally and with Qualifications). The summer film season is winding to a close, and it’s only natural that we look back at the biggest season for Hollywood and examine the state of the American film industry. Though critics often find so much at fault with the Hollywood system, especially during summer blockbuster season when all of its worst qualities come out of the woodwork, this summer wasn’t so bad for Hollywood. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott examine the state of Hollywood on the edge of the fall movie season.
Dargis: So it’s the worst of times, the best of times all over again, even if it’s mostly just changing times. The diversity of work from across the globe and on big and small screens is as astonishing as it is overwhelming. And while creators and consumers have each embraced on-demand as an ethos, people still go out to see movies. A few years ago I worried that movie theaters faced mass closures, as when television swept the country in the 1950s, another era of industry crisis and change. But there are 40,000 movie screens in the United States. I don’t like much that plays on those screens, but the movies aren’t dying. As always, they are mutating. And in a sense the movies are bigger than ever as every television program that aspires to cinema shows. Some of the biggest are bummers, but some are not half bad, or are pretty decent or even great; like the terms art-house movie and foreign-language film, comic-book movies and blockbusters are categorical distinctions, not qualitative ones. There are too many of both, sure, and even superfans may be losing interest, as the dismal returns for “Fantastic Four” suggest. But the industry chases a sure thing until the audience says “Eh,” which is why dozens of musicals were released in 1930 and why stars once wore spurs and now wear capes. These behemoths will keep coming because they can produce boffo box office, and, when they don’t, it may not matter: Disney’s earnings, buoyed by its parks and television offerings, jumped 21 percent the year “John Carter” tanked. These movies will also keep coming because, as the French director Olivier Assayas observed not long ago, the blockbuster is “the most coherent representation of the world” in which the audience lives. “Fast and Furious” proves him right, I think. And that brings me back to Ferguson, who argued on behalf of Hollywood movies, and saw art and life where others saw trash and propaganda for the masses. The big studios, which have outsourced production to independent contractors for decades, produce and release far fewer features than in the classical era. Yet despite this and in spite of the industry’s panic and our complaints, and despite the on-demand fever, the studio bean-counters, the media consolidation, the banality and the cartoons, movies are made that, yes, come near to our life.
2. The Graduate: Alison Brie’s Adult Education. Leslye Headland’s new romantic comedy “Sleeping with Other People,” opened last Friday to mostly positive reviews, with most of the acclaim going towards Headland’s writing and the performances from Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie. Brie has slowly but surely become a force to be reckoned with, gathering notices for her roles on television shows lik “Community,” “Mad Men,” and recently, “BoJack Horseman,” but up until now, hasn’t yet received a film role worthy of her talents. Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen profiles Brie on her career, her new film, and her new steps forward.
Thinking back on her attempts to flesh out her image, Brie’s conflicted. “Any type of photo shoots I’ve done have been SUPER. SEXUAL,” she explains. “Which, I think, was sort of a mistake.” She laughs, reconsiders. “Maybe not a mistake, but it was always about the work — booking more work. At some point, though (she pauses, titters with laughter), I crossed a line. I mean, I’m a fairly sexual person, and I’m open about that kind of stuff, but if you google me, or my dad googles me, and…” Brie trails off, waiting for me to say something. I mention the Reddit page, and she starts nodding. “Exactly. At this point, I wonder if the image of me that’s out there is from specific shows, or, you know, what they’ve seen of me in ‘GQ Mexico.'” Which is what makes the celebrity publicity game so frustrating: What she wanted was an integrated, complex image. What she has — at least up to the release of this movie — is a split personality. “There are so many people in this industry who put you in a box and try to tell you who you are,” Brie says. “Every meeting I sit in, there’s a guy saying, ‘You know what’s great about you, you’re funny and attractive'”— at this point, she’s in full douche executive voice — “and I’m like, ‘Good, that’s a great compliment, I appreciate it, but I can do other things too.’ I could get my hair cut super super short like I had in high school, just bad and unattractive, and be like, ‘Am I still funny? Am I stillllllll funny?‘ I mean, I’m a woman, of course I’m more than one thing.”
3. Mike Nichols’s Life and Career: The Definitive Oral History. Legendary director Mike Nichols died last November just past his 83rd birthday. Responsible for films like “The Graduate,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Catch-22,” and not to mention his famous comedic relationship with Elaine May, Nichols helmed some of the most influential and best films and theatre. Vanity Fair’s Sam Kashner and Charles Maslow-Freen compiles a comprehensive oral history on Nichols’s life and career, with comments from family members, actors, and admirers.
Eric Fischl (Painter): The last time I saw Mike [in the spring of 2014] was particularly sad. There was a show, “Degenerate Art” [featuring paintings condemned by the Nazis and the propagandistic artwork they celebrated], up at the Neue Galerie, so I said, Hey, do you want to go and check it out? As I’m walking across the park to meet him I get a call from [his wife,] Diane [Sawyer], who says, Don’t say that I called you, but could you please come and pick him up? It was closed that day, but we arranged to get a tour from the curator, so it was incredibly quiet — it was just us. And we start going through and the curator’s talking, and pretty soon Mike is moving ahead. He’s moving into the next room and the next, and I’m thinking he’s probably looking for a place to sit down, but he wasn’t. When he came back, you could see he was devastated. But then he started to talk to me about how he was in Berlin at the time [the Nazis were arresting Jews and vilifying nonconformist artists] and his father had left for America. The mother stayed behind — she wasn’t strong enough to travel. He was left with a kindergarten teacher who took care of him while his mom was in the hospital, and she watched out for him and hid him as the [Nazi] stuff was beginning to really unfold. And then when he and his mother finally left, the schoolteacher was arrested. That was the end of her. All these memories were flooding back to him. I was apologizing profusely — the last thing I wanted was to bring him back to that place — and he was like, No, no, no. It’s good to remember.
4. 30 Minutes On: John Woo’s “The Killer”. Over at RogerEbert.com, editor Matt Zoller Seitz debuts a new feature called “30 Minutes On.” In the feature, Seitz spends 30 minutes writing about a movie and then publishes it then and there. For his first entry, Seitz writes about John Woo’s “The Killer” and how it commits to the primal feelings it summons.
Every relationship in “The Killer” is love relationship, and some are more romantic than others. The heart of John Woo’s 1989 international breakout is a love triangle. It consists of a world-weary hitman named Ah Jong, known as “Jeff” in some subtitled prints (Chow Yun-Fat); Jennie (Sally Yeh), the singer Jeff accidentally blinds during a nightclub gunfight, then guiltily adores and protects, and Hong Kong police detective Detective Li Ying (Danny Lee), who’s obsessed with capturing or killing Jeff but ends up…well, I was about to write “befriending” him; but for all the talk of manly honor and duty packed into almost every scene, Li and Jeff’s story is a great (if unconsummated) obsessional love story, one that pushes right up to the edge of “21 Jump Street”-level homoerotic spoofing without going full “Brokeback.” In the end, this is really Jeff and Li’s story, just as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (another inspiration) was really about Butch and Sundance expressing their affection for each other by tear-assing around the American West and South America with Katherine Ross’s Etta Place. We see Jeff cradling Jennie at various points, but theirs is mostly a chaste love, with overtones that feel capital-C Christian — not just because Woo keeps cutting from closeups of Chow’s anguished face to closeups of crucifixes (Li’s own torments are matched to shots of Buddha statues), but also because the killer’s story is essentially that of a devil shattered by remorse, refashioning himself as a Christlike protector of innocents (mainly women, who are presented here as collateral damage from male ego wars), redeeming himself by killing instead of healing, and repeatedly being shot down only to rise again and be shot yet again, shells tearing his flesh like centurions’ nails. Li’s adoration of Jeff has aspects of religious worship as well. He gazes upon him as a pilgrim or acolyte might gaze upon a saint. And when Jeff springs into action and dispatches a dozen foes with eerie grace, or lingers at the edge of a scene only to vanish (like many an Eastwoodian wraith-like antihero) when foreground objects “wipe” him away, it feels as if Li is witnessing a miracle. (He is: both Woo’s filmmaking and Chow’s grace are miraculous.)
5. The Dark, Delicate Dollhouse of “Doll & Em”. The second season of the British TV show “Doll & Em” premiered last night on HBO. The show stars Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer as the titular “Doll & Em,” with the former being a personal assistant to the latter actress living in L.A. In honor of the new season, The A.V. Club’s Brandon Nowalk explores the series’ “‘All About Eve’ psychodrama” and its “home video” DIY style.
What sets “Doll & Em” apart most immediately, though, is its look. The colors are restrained, the lights are low, and the camera;s a nervous wreck. It’s not enough to say “Doll & Em” has a handheld style. Everything has a handheld style. What’s going on here is so mobile it’s practically a home video. That’s just one element of the show’s DIY feel. The cast is composed of Mortimer’s old co-stars like Jonathan Cake (“Parlour Song”) and Ewan McGregor (“Young Adam”), as if everybody’s pitching in. What became “Doll & Em” was originally shot on a DSLR by the best friends and Mortimer’s husband, Alessandro Nivola, who produces and joins the cast in season two. But most responsible for the handmade look is the third leg of the triangle, Azazel Jacobs, who writes (with Mortimer and Wells) and directs every episode. Jacobs is the microbudget auteur behind “Momma’s Man,” the editor and cinematographer of which reprise their roles on “Doll & Em” (Darrin Navarro and Tobias Datum, respectively). The story follows an adult who finds himself regressing on a visit to his parents’ loft that turns into an extended stay. The production resembles “Doll & Em,” in that the parents are played by Jacobs’ actual parents, avant-garde filmmaker Ken and Flo Jacobs, and the setting is their actual apartment. The loft Azazel Jacobs grew up in is an antique store jungle, festooned with knickknacks like film canisters and wind-up toys. Perhaps that contributes to Jacobs’ sharp sense of texture and collage. His earlier film, “The GoodTimesKid,” a dirty, deadpan doppelgänger story, makes pointed use of layered backgrounds, like a refrigerator dotted with photos and magnets or a houseboat full of maps and books and octopus décor. Jacobs’ movies look like mixed media, like the actors are part of a giant arrangement of objects of various shapes and sizes, patterns and textures.
6. How Spalding Gray Moved Standup Comedy Beyond Jokes. This August, a number of Spalding Gray live performances were added to Howl Premium. Gray was a famous monologist who made his bones in the New York experimental theater scene in the ’70s and ’80s. Though Gray tragically killed himself 11 years ago, his work has had a subtle influence on many modern standup comedians today. Splitsider’s Harry Waksberg argues that Spalding Gray himself moved the artform of standup beyond simple jokes and into more emotionally dense territory.
By the late 70s, of course, Woody Allen was no longer performing standup, but the world of standup was reflecting very closely the development of personal material in Gray’s work. As Richard Zoglin notes in “Comedy at the Edge,” the late 1960s-1970s rise of standup comedians who wrote their own, personal material, rather than relying on “jokes written by others” “paralleled a revolution that was taking place across the popular arts… rock artists were no longer satisfied merely to sing other people’s songs; now they were writing and performing their own work.” Drawing more from their personal experiences, standup comedians were telling longer stories, not just moving from punchline to punchline. You can watch Richard Pryor’s performances over the course of the 70s evolve to the point that he can tell a ten minute story about his own heart attack, his father’s death, and his relationship with his grandmother that’s hilarious, but has almost no real setup/punchlines that can be taken out of context as jokes per se. As the “New York Times'” Jason Zinoman notes, Pryor, like Gray, “found the humor through these dark, confessional stories.” By the mid-80s, Gray’s work was getting more and more attention, leading to a rarity for monologists, even today: a theatrical release of a filmed performance of his monologue “Swimming to Cambodia.” It was directed by Jonathan Demme, who had previously released a different kind of concert film: The Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” (coincidentally[?] one of Gray’s greatest screen roles was in The Talking Heads’ David Byrne’s film “True Stories”). “Swimming to Cambodia” plays much like a standup concert film — Spalding Gray enters the theater, sits down at his iconic table, and begins speaking to his live audience. He uses some props, like maps, but there are very few film effects other than what happens onstage (unlike Steven Soderbergh’s 1996 film of “Gray’s Anatomy,” which is more effects-heavy). It’s funny, of course, but not constantly. Unlike an actual standup performance, Gray is comfortable going plenty of time without getting any laughs. It’s distinctly not comedy; it’s storytelling.
Tweet of the Day:
/ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS/ (Sirk, 54) A society woman decides she would rather Netflix and chill than simply Netflix.
— Peter Labuza (@labuzamovies) September 12, 2015