Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. On Grantland and Endings. Last Friday, ESPN announced that it would be folding its beloved publication Grantland effective immediately. This decision provoked quite a bit of backlash from many readers and writers who bemoan the loss of such a dedicated publication. At his blog, former staff member Sean Fennessey eulogizes Grantland and what it meant to him.
Grantland was like Vibe in that it was the most important thing I’ll ever do, until the next thing. We yearn to crystallize the moment. Eulogies are a beautiful vehicle for emotion we can’t reconcile in our day-to-day. I worked even harder for Grantland than I did for Vibe. That’s not a value judgment on the experience, but it is a reality of contemporary media and what we perceived to be our mission. The people who worked at Grantland were profound talents. Astronomical. Also, kind. The biggest challenge you’ll find in this line of work is not “Ugh, this piece is a mess, let’s start over.” It’s “This first draft seems sort of perfect, is there actually anything wrong with it?” And the people that I worked with who were capable of the Impeccable First Draft were not arrogant about that — they were open-minded, thoughtful, engaged, desperate to improve. That’s a blessed professional environment. Grantland was an extraordinary circumstance, no matter your opinion. Supported by corporate largesse, until it wasn’t. Praised in that uniquely transient way, until it wasn’t. Glorious for the people who worked there, except when they were operating on 4 hours sleep with a bad attitude in a planning meeting. (Me.) Grantland changed irrevocably in May, and that’s important for me to emphasize. Bill Simmons was a weathervane, and the tropical storms that consumed the region after his departure were unpredictable and unnerving. What happened to Grantland yesterday is the product of cosmically upsetting corporate maneuvering and I hate that, as I’ve hated it forever. It’s a reality, and the stuff of “On to the next one.” You get a chance, you make your chance, you go forward; you get heartbroken, you start again, because this feels valuable. What differentiated this experience for me, aside from my yearning to be close to something so eminently great, was that it lived up. We failed less. And even then, it was impermanent. I’m most grateful to the people who made it, and also to the people who cared about it. To everyone who concern-trolled the people who worked at the site about its goals, its budget or its traffic, I hope you’re stoked? We always did as well as we could.
2. “Our Brand Is Crisis” and the Case For Flipping More Men’s Roles For Women. In the David Gordon Green film “Our Brand Is Crisis,” Sandra Bullock plays an amoral American political operate who travels to Bolivia to run a presidential campaign (inspired by real events). Bullock’s role was initially meant to be a man, but it was later switched during pre-production, ultimately making the role (albeit not the film) more interesting. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore argues that flipping more men’s roles for women is an easy corrective to reductive female roles.
Bullock’s role in “Our Brand Is Crisis” is one of a few this year originally conceived of as male, then switched — like Britt Robertson’s Casey Newton in “Tomorrowland” and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Rome in “Magic Mike XXL.” This isn’t a new idea, but three over the course of six months suggests a short-term fix for Hollywood’s continuing, compulsive consigning of women to supporting, decorative, and reactive roles — why not reclaim some of the ones people seem to have no trouble writing for men? It’s not without challenges — there’s a well-intentioned weirdness to the way that no one in “Tomorrowland” seems to notice that Casey is a beautiful teenage girl, or that she’s running around with a middle-aged curmudgeon played by George Clooney — but “Our Brand Is Crisis,” like “Magic Mike XXL,” tweaks its gender-flipping in a provocative way, suggesting that until there are more projects actually created with interesting female characters, this is a start. And “Our Brand Is Crisis” gets a capriciousness from placing Bullock in a role that doesn’t follow the usual beats — as Jane, she staggers through the first part of the film poleaxed by altitude sickness, toting an oxygen tank and vomiting sporadically. She hates being touched and had some real problems with alcohol. She’s permanently clad in a camel overcoat that looks a bit like a bathrobe. Like Rachel in “Unreal,” Jane is in a toxic relationship with her work, which gives her a rush like nothing else does. She doesn’t care about how whether Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida) is actually the best candidate to run Bolivia (he’s not); she cares about winning, and her team (played by Scoot McNairy, Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, and Zoe Kazan) goes from looking at her askance to looking at her in alarmed admiration. Jane is a mess of a sort who couldn’t and shouldn’t be solved by a romance, and, fittingly, the closest thing she has to a love interest is a flirty but genuinely adversarial relationship with her old rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s running the opposition’s campaign. The two savor their attempts to destroy one another (“So what are you doing here? I thought you retired or gave up or something,” Pat says in greeting), and Bullock and Thornton are delightfully sparky together. But there’s never any thought that Jane and Pat would be suited for anything more long-term than some spontaneous hate sex. No one’s going to save Jane but Jane.
3. Fred Thompson R.I.P.: Eulogy For a Character Actor. Yesterday, character actor and former U.S. senator Fred Thompson died at the age of 73. Known for his public service in Tennessee as well as his work in “Die Hard 2,” “The Hunt for Red October,” and “Days of Thunder,” Thompson demonstrated multitudes of skill and personality in many professional capacities. At his blog, Danny Bowes pays tribute to the late character actor and his indelible work.
I always called him Trudeau, because these are the things that happen when “Die Hard 2” comes out when you’re eleven and his particular brand of authoritative competence imprints on you as the embodiment of that particular concept. Fred Thompson was many things in life — minor Watergate figure, politician, lobbyist — but his successful run as a character actor in popular thrillers was my first association with him, and I think he did what he did better than nearly anyone else. One mark of a successful character actor is to define a “type” in your own image. I submit that there was, for a considerable length of time, a “Fred Thompson type” in the popular cinema, and while it’s a very specific thing — roughly “mid-level DC functionary” of a certain age and Southernness — there was a time when it was unthinkable to cast anyone other than Fred Thompson as that guy. Four roles of his (among many others; please, for the love of God, do not tell me I “forgot” about one) have stuck with me for many years. The first, both in terms of its mention above and it being the one that on its own would have made him an indelible figure to me, was as the air-traffic controller Trudeau. He’s introduced in the middle of what most people would consider a rough day at the office: it’s Christmas Eve and snowing with a Renny Harlin-esque lack of subtlety, and as if that’s not enough William Sadler and a ferociously unpleasant retinue take the entire fucking airport hostage. Some characters would resort to bluster, or decompensate into a frazzled mess, but not Trudeau. The whole mess clearly affects him, but he never allows it to interfere with both the proper execution of his job nor his responsibility to project strength as a leader of men. In the wrong hands that kind of thing can come across as insufferable, but one of Thompson’s great strengths as an actor was his ability to inherently project that kind of authority, that which when aspirational is always an inch out of reach. Trudeau’s calm, more than John McClane running around cursing and killing people, is the bedrock of assurance that justice will, in the end, prevail.
4. 50 Years Ago, “Repulsion” Pioneered a New Generation of Gendered Horror. Last weekend was Halloween, which inevitably meant the last week was a host of articles, listicles, and thinkpieces about horror films. In other words, it’s the most glorious time of the year to be a horror fan. To wrap up the month of horror, we at Criticwire have a couple more pieces we’d like to highlight. From the A.V. Club, Greg Cwik writes about how Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” pioneered a generation of “gendered horror.”
“Repulsion,” which turned 50 this year, wasn’t supposed to be a classic. Polanski took on the project with co-writer Gérard Brach to help earn funds for his still-gestating “Cul-De-Sac.” Shooting on the quick and cheap necessitated some thrifty bravado, at which Polanski is unsurpassed: He laces the film with disquieting noises, the banal sounds of daily life amplified severely so they now sound like the clamors of a nightmare. (David Lynch would employ similar tactics in “Eraserhead” less than 10 years later; his film shares many aesthetic and thematic traits with “Repulsion,” but is decidedly masculine.) Expounding on the shoestring classic “Carnival Of Souls” (1962), Polanski uses heightened sounds and simple, articulate camerawork to compensate for budgetary restrictions. A lot of the traits and tropes of the aesthetic were engendered out of necessity, coalescing into the oppressive atmosphere that permeates “Repulsion.” That certain ineffable quality pervades and defines the Girl With A Problem aesthetic. This psychological unraveling manifests in dilapidated architecture, claustrophobic atmospheres, and isolation. Hallways appear long and narrow, walls leaning inwards, ceilings slanting down, and windows awash with sallow light. People often liken films with this kind of feeling to “Polanski’s early movies,” a description of the same nebulous breed as “Lynchian” and “Kafkaesque” in its vagueness. But you know what someone means when they say it; you know the kind of solipsistic claustrophobia they’re thinking of. This distinct feeling differentiates Girl With A Problem movies from other psychological horror films, like Polanski’s own “The Tenant” or Kubrick’s “The Shining” (which presents the point of view of multiple characters instead of just one). It has to do with the perspective these films take, and of course with their femininity. They exist within immersive, insular worlds woven out of the shreds of their protagonists’ psyches, untethered from reason and logic.
5. “The Returned” Season Two Reviewed. Though the American remake of the French supernatural drama was dead on arrival, the second season of “The Returned” has garnered much critical acclaim for its unsettling mood and low-key vibe. Variety’s Maureen Ryan reviews the series’ second season broadcast on SundanceTV.
The word “atmospheric” gets used a lot in television and film reviews, but few dramas deserve the adjective more than “The Returned.” Dialogue and set design are minimal, and those hoping for lots of factual exposition should look elsewhere. People stare out windows quite a bit; given that this is a French drama, it’s not unusual for characters to smoke more than they speak. And yet “The Returned’s” willingness to be quietly observant as its characters try to understand the calamities that have befallen them allows it to do a fantastic job of creating a consistent mood that manages to be romantic, foreboding and creepy all at once. The first season of “The Returned,” which is very much worth looking up on Netflix, can be summed up rather succinctly: People who had been dead and buried began turning up — apparently healthy and with no memory of their demises — in a remote town in a mountainous region of France. Earlier this year, A&E aired an Americanized version of the tale (known as “Les Revenants” in France), but it was more concerned with incident than mood. It didn’t work, because the plots within each episode of the original aren’t exactly dense. And yet the French version of the show does succeed because it puts the audience in the same existentially challenging position as the townsfolk and the “dead” themselves: Nobody is quite sure what the rules of this odd situation are, and that confusion continues and is even amplified in season two. As it deepens various stories and introduces new characters with typical restraint and delicacy, “The Returned” continues to be wonderfully effective at exploring the difficult emotional terrain around grief, longing, anger and love. One does not watch this show as much as enter its dreamscape and let its mood of prickly, yearning heartache take over. The sturdiest of the new storylines involves a government inspector who arrives to figure out why large swathes of the town were flooded. There’s a large dam nearby, and that structure had some problems in season one, but the first two episodes of the second go-round don’t get close to delivering any answers about the flood, nor does the show spend much time explaining the arrival of those long thought dead — who keep showing up. By this point, some of the town’s residents have theories about the not-quite-alive status of their former neighbors, but don’t quite know what to do about any of the strange things that are occurring. After the flood, another town faction has taken up residence in the Helping Hands shelter, and most of those people appear to be very much alive, but there’s an unsettling sense of menace about the place regardless. That mood, like everything else, is captured perfectly by the brooding soundtrack by the band Mogwai.
6. Richard Brody on His Favorite Halloween Movie. Though it may be an obvious statement, it bears repeating that horror is a state of mind. The most effective horror films tap into the very nature of fear rather than necessarily showing superficially “scary” things. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody discusses his own favorite Halloween movie, Edgar G. Ulmer’s “The Black Cat,” and how it is “essentially a horror movie of Europe’s own lost generation.”
When Ulmer made “The Black Cat,” Europe was already on the road to destruction again. Mussolini was long in power in Italy, Hitler had recently come to power in Germany, Austria was governed by the fascist (albeit anti-Nazi) dictator Dollfuss (he’d soon be assassinated by Nazis), and Hungary’s dictator Horthy was pivoting toward Germany. The choice by Ulmer and Ruric of the name of the village where the action takes place, Gömbös, is no accident: it was the name of Hungary’s new Prime Minister, who was the first foreign leader to visit Hitler. Sure enough, there’s also a devil cult in “The Black Cat,” an occult counterpart to the bloodthirsty political atavism that had taken power in Germany and was already seen by the foresighted as a menace to all of Europe. Ulmer, born in 1904, worked in Germany with the theatre director Max Reinhardt and, in Hollywood, with the director F. W. Murnau on “Sunrise,” a work of uniquely extravagant visual invention. He was also a co-director of the primordial independent film “People on Sunday.” (Noah Isenberg’s superb biography of Ulmer sheds light on the hazy details of his early career). Ulmer started as a production designer and brought the depth and range of his scenographic artistry to “The Black Cat,” which was his first major studio feature. His high-contrast vision of Poelzig’s villa, with its blend of high-gloss, light-toned sleekness and sepulchral, gothic shadows conveys a philosophical vision of nineteen-twenties modernism and hedonism, of the great artistic flowering that was built on the bones of war’s victims and the hollow hearts of its survivors. The most chilling detail in “The Black Cat,” a vision so alluringly monstrous that it should simply be seen, involves the brilliantly simple use of glass as a sort of Freudian sexualization of Poelzig’s diabolical pathology. The movie is a comprehensive vision of monstrosity under the veneer of civilized artistic refinement. It’s one of the great anti-Nazi movies, a film of frightening anticipatory force.
Tweet(s) of the Day:
I went to a LA haunted house and it was just a screenwriter telling me how they’d ‘do’ a superhero movie. Terrifying.
— Timothy Simons (@timothycsimons) November 2, 2015
Like there’s any horror movie scarier than just being alone and thinking about people who didn’t love you and jobs you didn’t get.
— Julieanne Smolinski (@BoobsRadley) November 1, 2015