Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. How To Get Journalism Right, Via the Movies. Thomas McCarthy’s “Spotlight” follows the famous 2001 Boston Globe investigation into the widespread abuse of children by priests. The film has garnered almost universal critical acclaim for its thrilling depiction of journalism as process and a culture of indifference, but another film “Truth,” about the Killian documents controversy and the last days of Dan Rather, received negative reviews for the opposite reason. The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr writes about how to get journalism right vis-a-vis these two films.
“Truth” told the story of the “60 Minutes” crew that in 2004 broadcast allegations regarding George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard that were quickly discredited. “Spotlight” describes the 2001 reporting by an investigative team at “The Boston Globe” that cracked the Catholic priest abuse scandal wide open. Both are essentially structured as narratives of heroic journalism — the latter, accurately; the former, insanely. The anti-parallels between the films are so acute that it almost seems as though the two could have been conceived as a package deal — say, as paired examples of don’t and do for use in a J-School seminar. “Truth” celebrated reporters who got their story — or at least significant elements of it — wrong. “Spotlight” celebrates reporters who got their story right. The former’s scoop (in addition to its inaccuracy) was incremental and a second-tier scandal at best. The latter’s scoop was shocking, revelatory, and far-reaching in its consequences. “60 Minutes” rushed its story onto the airwaves to meet a set air date. “The Globe” resisted publishing until they had tracked down every lead, despite the risk that they might be scooped by the “Boston Herald.” But beyond these particulars, what is perhaps most striking about “Spotlight” and “Truth” are the differing attitudes displayed by their journalistic protagonists. As the “60 Minutes” team sees their story unraveling, they cling ever more tightly to it. Despite the movie’s Always Ask Questions mantra, the reporters never ask themselves whether they might have simply gotten it wrong. When they finally offer a correction, it;s treated as a betrayal of principle rather than the fulfillment of one, a capitulation to power rather than a capitulation to the facts and a duty to their audience. They remain self-righteous and defiant to the end. In “Spotlight,” by contrast, the “Globe” crew is riddled with regret even after they’ve nailed one of the most important — and labor-intensive — investigative stories of the decade. Why didn’t they get to the story earlier, they ask themselves. How could they have missed something that was, to a considerable degree, hiding in plain sight? As the head of the investigative team, Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton), asks himself: “What about us? We had all the pieces. Why didn’t we get it sooner?”
2. “Star Wars” and the Enduring Appeal of Lando Calrissian. As any “Star Wars” fan worth their salt would already know, Lando Calrissian was the administrator of the Cloud City, friend-then-betrayer of Han Solo and Chewbacca, and the only major black character in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Though he’s not slated to appear in “Force Awakens,” his character lives on for many generations. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg examines the enduring appeal of Lando Calrissian.
Long before he was cast in “Star Wars” in a role that was the epitome of sophisticated cool, Billy Dee Williams had earned the title of “the black Clark Gable” for his performances in “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Mahogany.” In 1976, he told the New York Times that he wanted to play “more historical movie roles, notably Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Alexander Pushkin, the Russian poet who was half black, Hannibal and King Solomon, ‘and other great classical figures who have never been done by men of my hue.'” Those dreams never quite materialized; in subsequent years, he’d show up in television shows and movies, as well as in films such as Tim Burton’s “Batman” — but Lando Calrissian became by far Williams’s most iconic role. “Billy Dee Williams has a complicated relationship with Lando Calrissian,” Chris Taylor wrote in “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe.” “On the one hand, the… actor laments that his other movie roles were overshadowed by the suave gambler and administrator of Cloud City. On the other hand, he is strongly proprietorial of the role. When I interviewed Williams, he reminded me that he has reprised his role in every medium going: the NPR adaptation of ‘Empire Strikes Back,’ the two ‘Star Wars: Battlefront’ games, ‘Robot Chicken,’ ‘The Lego Movie,’ a Funnyordie.com video. If Lando were to show up in an ‘Episode VII,’ Williams is ready to go.… Says Williams, banging his cane, ‘No one’s going to play Lando but me.'” That dedication to the character has put Williams in an unusual position: He both originated an iconic character, and has played a number of the riffs that comment on Calrissian and his unique place in the culture. Some of the tensions around the character, among them the draw of his character, the risk of shading into stereotype and his status as the lone black character in an overwhelmingly white fictional galaxy, have been there from the beginning.
3. Angelina Jolie’s Personal and Daring “By the Sea.” Angelia Jolie’s new film “By The Sea,” stars both her and her husband Brad Pitt as a married couple vacationing in a seaside town off the coast of France in the mid-70’s. The film has garnered mixed reviews, with many pointing out its narrative and emotional inertia, and the harshest critics deriding it as a vanity project. But The New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues that “By the Sea” is personal and daring.
There’s a lot of fun by the shore for a pair of stars in retro mode. Pitt is done up in the full Warren Oates with a mustache and oversized eyeglasses, and Jolie Pitt reflects the smoldering smoothness of Faye Dunaway, but the underlying models for their roles (not for their performances) are a pair of couples who were the toast of the cinema at the time — John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Yet the throwback mood of the film arises from more than just the clothing and the hair styles and signifies far more than a tribute to a prior age of movie heroes; it’s the very essence of the film. “By the Sea” conjures the mood of erotic recklessness and discovery, along with a sense of loss — a time of heroic feats of self-liberation as well as of centrifugal forces throwing couples into crisis and making the personal dramatically public, of the veneer of glamour yielding to the urge for truth, of personal breakdown under the force of unresisted impulse. “By the Sea” is a sun-hot, sea-cool tale of elegant breakdown, an evocation of a time when liberation was burning out, when those who had driven themselves and others too hard (or had let themselves off too easy) were facing the mirror in the long morning after. No, the writer and director Jolie Pitt didn’t live through those times; she was born into them, a fact that’s built into the script: Roland’s last name, Bertrand, is her mother’s. The scopophilic scenes and the practicalities issuing from them evoke high-priced, high-society closed-door soirées of refined vice. They hint at private Hollywood diversions of the sort that are conjured in Erich von Stroheim’s resort-town ribaldries “Blind Husbands” and “Foolish Wives,” Charlie Chaplin’s “A Woman of Paris,” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and that tie the knot between sex and wealth, between erotic power and worldly power.
4. Filmmaker and Critic Jim Hemphill Talks Greg Berlanti’s DC Comics TV Shows. The Talkhouse is an online publication that specializes in publishing writing written by artists about other artists’ work. It’s a great way to get insight into one artist’s approach through their perspective of work that’s not their own. On Saturday, filmmaker and critic Jim Hemphill, director of “The Trouble with the Truth,” discusses Greg Berlanti’s DC Comics TV shows like “The Flash,” “Arrow,” and “Supergirl.”
Now, I’ve never subscribed to the idea that filmmakers are better off with more limited resources – having done a couple low-budget features, my opinion is that people who say you’re somehow better off with less money and time because it forces you to “use your imagination” are just trying to put a positive spin on the brutal realities of independent filmmaking. Yet there’s no denying that the limitations of television – combined with the talents of the people behind “Arrow,” “The Flash” and now “Supergirl” – have led to an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the comic book genre. Those three shows are all produced under the aegis of producer Greg Berlanti (who also produces “The Mysteries of Laura” and “Blindspot” – does this guy ever sleep?) and collaborators like Ali Adler, Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim, writer-producers who share Berlanti’s gift for flawlessly juggling action, drama and comedy. Without getting into that tired argument of whether or not TV is “better” than film, I’ll just say that Berlanti’s television shows offer different – and for me, deeper and more varied – pleasures than their cinematic counterparts. Berlanti and his partners have taken the tighter schedules and smaller budgets of television and used them to their advantage, creating three series that deliver all the delights of big-screen comic book spectacles with virtually none of the drawbacks. In features, it often seems to me that scale trumps all other concerns; I don’t know whether it’s the studio executives, the producers, the directors, or a combination of all of the above, but the mandate on Marvel movies seems to be to spend as much as possible on special effects, whether or not they’re motivated by anything other than sheer spectacle. I like spectacle as much as the next guy when it’s real – or at least when a filmmaker is convincing me that it’s real – but when I sense that I’m just looking at millions of pixels masquerading as destroyed cities and fleeing extras, I go to sleep. On Berlanti’s shows, the effects are always there for a reason, because the economic realities of television prohibit any other approach. To my eye, the effects are often technically better than the more expensive corollary effects in features – maybe because the VFX artists are actually responding to something in the material as opposed to a meaningless “bigger is better” mentality. There don’t seem to be any corners being cut on the technical end on these shows in spite of the fact that I know the crews must be under insane time constraints, but there is a slightly stripped down quality to the effects that nicely complements the characters and relationships.
5. The Women of Schwarzenegger’s Golden Age. Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the cinematic landscape as an action star from the mid-80s through the early-90s. His beefy physique and unique comic timing made him an indelible screen presence, especially when pitted against the interesting, complicated women that populated his films but go unnoticed. RogerEbert.com’s Jessica Ritchey argues in favor of the women of Schwarzenegger’s golden age and how those years more often than not had good female leads.
1985’s delirious “Commando” gets a large part of its “It Happened One Night”-on-steroids charm from Rae Dawn Chong. She plays a flight attendant who through an “only in an eighties action movie” series of convoluted steps ends up awkwardly firing a rocket launcher at a pursuing car. She goes from terrified to taking great delight in the spirit of things as she aids Schwarzenegger in rescuing his daughter. The film is hilariously bright and buoyant. Its violence is as cheerful as the steel drums on the soundtrack. The film clicks because everybody looks to be having the time of their lives. And that mood is infectious. “Raw Deal” is one of Schwarzenegger’s most underrated films. Playing a former Fed who infiltrates a mobster’s gang he meets his match in Kathryn Harrold. Playing the usually thankless role of the Mol, Harrold has a real forties movie dame quality. You could easily see Barbara Stanwyck play this type of part, sizing up Schwarzenegger as a phony in one glance, and braining a would be assassin with the arm of a mannequin when they’re attacked in a dress shop. The film earns major points by not killing her off horribly to prove the bad guy’s bonafides. Instead she expertly navigates a sea of dangerous men, including the hero. There’s even an admirable sense of partnership between Harrold and Schwarzenegger. His character is married and rather than get bogged down in an ill fated dalliance they help each other make it out alive.
Tweet of the Day:
THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS should be compulsory viewing for everyone alive at this moment in history.
— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) November 14, 2015