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Daily Reads: Steven Spielberg on the Cold War and Hollywood, Don Cheadle’s ‘Miles Ahead’ Is The Anti-Biopic, and More

Daily Reads: Steven Spielberg on the Cold War and Hollywood, Don Cheadle's 'Miles Ahead' Is The Anti-Biopic, and More

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

1. Steven Spielberg on the Cold War and Other Hollywood Front Lines. 
Steven Spielberg’s new film “Bridge of Spies” enters theaters this Friday. The film, about a Brooklyn lawyer (Tom Hanks) who negotiates the release of a spy pilot shot down over the Soviet Union, has garnered some early critical acclaim, with a few people saying that it’s his best films in a decade. The New York Times’ Cara Buckley interviews Steven Spielberg about his new film and the state of Hollywood today.

Q: Women’s point of view has been a huge topic lately. Do you feel someone in your position has a responsibility to cultivate young women filmmakers? 

A: I’ve cultivated women in film ever since I decided to make my secretary my producer and form my company, Amblin. I’m much more comfortable in the company of women. I’m talking about women in creative capacities, not administrative. The first movie I ever greenlit for DreamWorks was a film called “The Peacemaker,” and Mimi Leder directed it. Women are very much in executive positions all over the film industry today — the head of Universal, head of Fox 2000. The former head of Sony. What I don’t understand is the lack of diversity and color in the executive ranks of motion-picture companies, and that is something I think we have to look carefully at and have to ask why.

2. Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” Is The Anti-Biopic. 
Don Cheadle’s passion project “Miles Ahead” about a day in the life of Miles Davis had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, but to call “Miles Ahead” a biopic feels lacking. Cheadle designed “Miles Ahead” to be like an improvisational riff both in terms of genre and structure. Vulture’s Jada Yuan and Trupti Rami explore this idea of “Miles Ahead” as the “anti-biopic.”

Cheadle isn’t the first person to upend the biopic genre — Todd Haynes’s impressionistic Bob Dylan movie, “I’m Not Here,” and Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs,” which debuted as this year’s NYFF centerpiece film, are likewise worthy rebels. “Miles Ahead,” though, is the only one that basically turns its famous subject into the star of “Lethal Weapon” (with Miles Davis as Mel Gibson). “I had no interest in making a biopic,” Cheadle told us at the premiere. And you can thank Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow for that disinterest. After watching their 2007 spoof on biopics “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” starring John C. Reilly as a fictional country musician, Cheadle and his co-writer Steven Baigelman vowed they would never allow themselves to be part of that joke. “It’s just terrifying because you’re like, ‘That’s every trope, that’s everything that’s ever used in a biopic,'” said Cheadle. “Variety” called the resulting trope-averse biopic “wild, and wildly uneven,” while other critics have pointed out difficult-to-justify omissions in Davis’s life story, like all of his childhood, any reference to his contemporaries, and the assertion that Frances Taylor was his one true love without any reference to his last wife, Cecily Tyson, who helped him beat his coke addiction. Cheadle isn’t bothered, though. “I care personally about when Miles met John Coltrane,” he said at the premiere, “but I don’t need to make that be a part of the film unless somehow that factors into the forward thrust of the movie we’re trying to make. It’s not to me about hitting signposts along the way, and Miles was never about that. I felt like for this particular artist it would really be a violation to try to do something standard and something kind of cookie-cutter.” Davis’s notoriously protective estate was surprisingly onboard (which makes the Cecily Tyson omission particularly interesting). “And thank God his family was of the same mind,” said Cheadle, “because it would have been impossible had they wanted some very paint-by-the-numbers story told. But when I said, ‘Do you think your uncle, do you think your father would have wanted a movie like that? Or do you think that he’d want a movie that he would star in?’ Because for me it was always Don Cheadle is Miles Davis as Miles Davis in ‘Miles Ahead.’ That’s how I thought about the movie.”

3. “Unfriended” and the Shifting Definition of a Film Director. 
One of the best found footage horror films of the year “Unfriended” takes place entirely on a laptop screen. It’s filmed in real time and characters pop up in Skype windows just like they would do in real life. With a film like this, the questions remains: How was it “directed”? Where does the direction come from. Over at Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Musings blog, veteran critic Mike D’Angelo analyzes the direction behind “Unfriended” and how it signals a shift in the definition of “director.”

What does it mean to say that Levan Gabriadze “directed” this movie? According to interviews, all of the actors were shot simultaneously in real time — they performed the whole film, 76 straight minutes (minus credits), over and over again, from separate rooms in the same house, with GoPro cameras mounted onto their laptops. Gabriadze likens the experience to staging a play, with extensive rehearsal and run-throughs. So in one sense, he just pointed the cameras at the actors’ faces and let them run. All of the real work took place beforehand, in preparation. As I say, though, a huge chunk of “Unfriended” is cursor-driven, and evidently much of that material was heavily manipulated after the fact. Gabriadze and Greaves continually revised the text of the copious chatting and messaging, not just continuing to direct the film, but essentially rewriting significant portions of it. Something similar can be done with dialogue using ADR (i.e., having the actors re-dub their lines), but here it’s the image itself that’s being altered. And the primary image, of Blaire’s laptop screen, is an insanely complicated composite, involving up to 40 layers. In fact, part of me wants to treat “Unfriended” as an animated film, because that would make it easier for me to ignore/dismiss the whole question of whether Gabriadze merits Best Director consideration in various year-end polls. Unfair? Absolutely. But I’ve never really known how to compare what the directors of animated features do with what live-action directors like Scorsese and Bigelow and Fincher do, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. When “Beauty and the Beast” received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture in 1991, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise did not — their slot went to either John Singleton (for “Boyz n the Hood”) or Ridley Scott (for “Thelma & Louise”), both of whom could easily be pictured doing the things we imagine movie directors do. What Trousdale and Wise did is a whole lot fuzzier, unless you’ve worked in animation yourself. And the same is true of Gabriadze, who as far as I can tell never had occasion to instruct a camera to be placed anywhere apart from “on everyone’s laptop,” and whose mise-en-scene is half a dozen Photo Booth compositions embedded in a meticulous simulacrum of a MacBook screen. And yet, for all its narrative clunkiness, and despite a disappointing back half that’s too heavily Skype-y, “Unfriended” remains perhaps the most singular and audacious visual experience I’ve had this year. It showed me things I’ve never seen onscreen before, except insofar as I see them on another screen every single day. (I watched the film on my computer, via VLC, which was incredibly disorienting; it was often hard to tell where Blaire’s screen ended and my own screen began.) It dazzled me with quick wit — not spoken in dialogue, but embodied by Blaire’s Cursor, which at times exhibits something like an actual personality. It moved at a pace that I could readily follow, and that allowed me to glimpse fun details, without allowing the story to bog down. Somebody had to make the decisions that achieved those ends, and presumably that person was Gabriadze. That his work doesn’t match my mental image of film directing is irrelevant. That image was never terribly accurate to begin with, and it’s becoming less accurate every year, in all kinds of ways. I’m glad a movie came along that was able to shatter it, at least to some degree.

4. The Man Behind the Heroes: Mark Pedowitz Breaks The CW Out of Its Niche. 
In the past few years, the CW network has become one of the most well-watched, critically-acclaimed networks on TV by putting its money behind smart, genre shows with serialized elements with everything from “Jane The Virgin” to “The Flash.” The man responsible for this is president Mark Pedowitz. Variety’s Maureen Ryan profiles Pedowitz and details how the CW broke out of its niche.

Pedowitz says the failure of “Emily Owens” was “a light bulb” moment that triggered the turnaround. “We realized that show did not connect because no one was coming to us for a procedural,” he says. “So we took a good look at our schedule. What was really working was ‘Vampire Diaries’ and ‘Supernatural.'” Genre shows with a serialized element. “That’s what our audience wanted.” But as fans of those series will attest, the genre element is irrelevant if the characters, their quests and their relationships don’t justify the audience’s investment. Loyal viewers haven’t spent more than 200 hours watching “Supernatural” because they’re curious about various methods of werewolf eradication. “We always try to find the balance between what’s the big idea, what’s the hook that will get people to show up and watch the show, and what will keep them coming back,” says Gaye Hirsch, senior vice president of scripted development. For the CW, a show’s hook must be welded to emotionally rich relationships and ongoing conflicts that evolve every week. “It’s not just who is Oliver fighting in Act 5, it’s ‘Why is he fighting that person? What are the emotional stakes?'” says Wendy Mericle, an executive producer of “Arrow,” which stars Stephen Amell as crime-fighter Oliver Queen. “I like to write love stories and stories about family and stories about loyalty and stories about loss,” notes Julie Plec, executive producer of “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Originals” and the mid-season drama “Containment.” “And all those themes could just as easily fit into ‘Party of Five’ as they could into ‘The Vampire Diaries.’ But in this marketplace, things have to have the proverbial ‘big idea’ attached to them.” And yet many broadcast network shows have stumbled in recent years because they gave pride of place to “noisy” concepts but didn’t match their shows’ premises or mythologies with characters and relationships worth following. The CW, on the other hand, consistently airs episodes that generally work on both a psychological and structural level. Shows that look like escapist, adventurous diversions but which convey poignance, resonance and ambiguity are harder than they seem to deliver. No network or show is perfect, of course, but CW shows are usually smart, self-aware and even snarky at times; Rogelio alone on “Jane the Virgin” has generated endless GIFs and memes. But the CW’s shows also exhibit a depth of sincerity that can be refreshing in a television landscape that all too often relies on shock tactics, bland characters and hollow formulas.

5. An Unaired “Dana Carvey Show” Episode Offers a Taste of What Might Have Been. 
At The A.V. Club, veteran critic Noel Murray pens a column entitled “A Very Special Episode” in which he examines one episode of one TV show and illustrate how it’s distinctive or how it exemplifies that show’s spirit or how it’s unique and important in any single way. This week, Noel Murray writes about an unaired “Dana Carvey Show” episode and how it demonstrated the show’s comedic sensibilities.

One of the most-seen sketches from “The Dana Carvey Show” never aired on ABC. On October 26, 1996, six months after his primetime series was canceled, Carvey returned to his old stomping grounds to host “Saturday Night Live,” and re-teamed with his former executive producer Robert Smigel to do a near-word-for-word reprise of a bit they’d taped for the eighth episode of “The Dana Carvey Show” — an episode that had been shelved. In it, the comedian plays Tom Brokaw, preparing for a vacation by pre-taping potential breaking news stories, including seemingly infinite variations on the death of former President Gerald Ford. Smigel is off-camera, prompting the anchor and keeping him on-task. It’s a one-joke routine, but the joke’s inspired. What’s funniest about it is that even as Brokaw’s copy gets more and more outlandish — with Ford getting eaten by wolves, mauled by a circus lion, or killed by a zombie Richard Nixon — he keeps the same even tone and zippy pace, questioning his producer only briefly before getting back to work. This could be read as a hard smack at “trusted” news anchors who just read what they’re told, or it could’ve been an excuse for Carvey to do his pretty good Brokaw impression. Most likely, it was just an idle idea that made the writers’ room laugh, and Carvey and Smigel decided to run with it. They were making the most of their opportunity to take 30 minutes a week of prime network TV real estate and fill it with something that no other channel would have — for better or worse. The Brokaw sketch went over well on “SNL.” It’s since been featured in anniversary and compilation specials, and even pops up occasionally on lists of the show’s best moments. But for the too-few fans of “The Dana Carvey Show,” that popularity is frustrating. This sketch was what the series was always meant to be: more subtly strange than pushy. But because the series was canceled after seven episodes — after having its order reduced from 10 to eight — it never really had the chance to fully develop that voice.

6. Owning American Identity: John Wayne, “Hamilton,” and Larry Kramer
A few days ago, Anne Helen Peterson wrote a piece about the making of the John Wayne mythos and how it contributes to notions of American identity. This Spring, Karina Longworth focused on John Wayne in an episode of her fantastic podcast “You Must Remember This.” So, John Wayne has been on a few people’s minds lately, specifically how his image reflects standard American values. At his blog, David D. Boyles writes about the idea of “owning American identity” through the lens of Wayne, the new hit musical “Hamilton,” and activist Larry Kramer.

While reading Petersen’s essay, my headphones were playing, as they have been frequently for the past couple of weeks, the soundtrack to “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wildly praised Broadway sensation. As you no doubt know by now, “Hamilton” has exploded in the culture because of the way the show uses color-blind, multiracial casting (including the Nuyorican Miranda himself as Hamilton) and a mix of hip-hop and classical show tune styles to invigorate the story of one of America’s least-known founding fathers. Having listened to the soundtrack multiple times now, perhaps the most radical thing about “Hamilton” is how respectful it is to Hamilton and the other founding fathers it depicts, whom it presents as living, breathing human beings possessed of incredible intelligence and bravery but also prone to human failings. Though the show gets in a few shots at, say, Jefferson’s slaveholding, this is far from a Howard Zinn-style leftist deconstruction of the founders. Set aside the allusions to Grandmaster Flash and it is as respectful as those doorstop David McCullough biographies you buy your dad for Father’s Day. But at the same time, of course, its music and casting make it profoundly, audaciously revolutionary and troubling to the sorts of folks who share John Wayne memes about Sharia law on Facebook. In writing minorities into the founding of the country, “Hamilton” is making an argument for the American experiment in democracy as an ongoing project, one that racial minorities (as well as women and LGBT people, among others) are a part of, even if they were excluded from “the room where it happens” (to quote a song from the show) at the time of the nation’s founding. It is a musical version of the “living document” theory of interpreting the Constitution This is a bold statement in world where living document theory is largely out of favor and Supreme Court justices proudly trumpet their originalism, while the country’s founding documents have taken on the role among conservatives of holy scriptures, to be revered but not actually read.

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