Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Why More Actors Should Be Cast Against Type. As any purveyor of pop culture surely knows, actors are often typecast in certain roles or personality types based on the patterns of their previous work. Naturally, typecasting limits the potential diversity of roles any actor could play, but sometimes a casting director casts an actor “against type,” meaning that the actor plays a role in opposition to established expectations. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz argues in favor of casting against type using contemporary TV shows like “Fargo,” “Deadwood,” and “Breaking Bad” as examples of its success.
Throughout film history, and TV history, casting against type has yielded not just some of the best performances of certain actors’ careers, but some of the defining moments of the show or movie they appeared in. Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola — and, for that matter, any filmmaker worth getting excited about, in any era, from any country — routinely cast against type or against experience (by putting “new” actors in major roles). Television has also benefited from against-type casting and casting that puts an unfamiliar face in a prominent role. Bruce Willis was barely known when he got the lead role on ABC’s mid-’80s series “Moonlighting” opposite Cybill Shepherd; according to legend, he won the role over competitors because the lone female network executive in the room made an observation that none of the men there would have made: Willis looked like “one dangerous fuck.” He’s reinvented himself at least four times since then, as a motormouthed wise-guy action hero, the strong silent type, and finally as a beleaguered, world-weary leading man of the sort that French directors would’ve adored in the ’70s. For more examples, just look at one of TV’s greatest dramas, “Deadwood.” It’s filled with counterintuitive casting that made stars of up-and-coming actors or revealed new aspects of established actors’ talents. Brad Dourif, who was mainly known for playing naïve innocents and psychopathic killers, shined as Doc Cochran, the conscience of the town. Robin Weigert, then known mainly for playing cops and forensic scientists, was ferocious and pitiable as the foulmouthed alcoholic Calamity Jane. The show’s co-star, Timothy Olyphant, is now typecast as Clint Eastwood–style stoic badasses (he even played a Clint Eastwood–type in the cartoon “Rango”), but prior to playing that sort of role on “Deadwood,” he was being groomed for a different kind of typecasting slot — as a talkative, Jack Nicholson–styled, funny bad boy in roles like the drug dealer in “Go.” Ten years ago, Olyphant told me on the set of “Deadwood” that he wondered what prompted creator David Milch to cast him as the furiously violent sheriff, because there was little in his previous roles to suggest that he could convince in a role like that.
2. “Spectre” and the Wasted Potential of Daniel Craig’s James Bond. The new James Bond film “Spectre” has garnered mixed-to-negative reviews, with many citing its throwback style and Daniel Craig’s fatigue as some of the reasons. But some point out that its the film’s refusal to push the Bond character forward, as opposed to the three previous Craig-starring Bond films, that’s the real problem. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg examines “Spectre” and the wasted potential of Daniel Craig’s James Bond.
“That old thing is taking quite a bit of time. There wasn’t much left to work from,” Q (Ben Whishaw) tells James Bond (Daniel Craig) early in “Spectre,” the dispiriting fourth movie in Craig’s run as 007. It’s a wry acknowledgement of the dilemma facing anyone who attempts a James Bond film today. How can you retain the character’s essential characteristics, while finding ways to make a retro — and sometimes retrograde — icon feel fresh and to move him forward? In the outstanding “Skyfall,” director Sam Mendes and writers John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade appeared to have found a solution by leaning into Bond’s supposed disconnect with modern methods and modern politics. But in “Spectre,” that team, plus writer Jez Butterworth and minus cinematographer Roger Deakins, seems to have lost insight and nerve. After a magnificent sequence set at a Mexico City Dia de los Muertos parade that deftly dresses up Bond as both Sex and Death, “Spectre” turns into a disappointingly conventional Bond film that’s all the more depressing for its claims to be something more sophisticated. “Skyfall” had a clear idea animating its action and visuals: the blowback to the British Empire, particularly to the merciless way M (Judi Dench) treats her agents. The film begins with M ordering Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to take a shot at a fleeing villain, even though there is a risk the younger woman will hit Bond, which she does, leaving him presumed dead. While Bond ends up returning to duty and the service of his country after a bombing, his adversary turns out to be one of M’s former agents (Javier Bardem), whom she gave up in a prisoner exchange, and who was deformed by an ineffective cyanide capsule meant to kill him. The British flag is everywhere, and everywhere in danger: draping the coffins of MI6 employees dead in the bombing, decorating a little china bulldog on M’s desk, repurposed for the hacker’s grotesque, taunting videos. The dog figurine finds its way to Bond’s apartment in “Spectre,” and a tattered Union Jack flies near the end of the movie. But “Spectre,” in addition to not necessarily making much sense from scene to scene and within individual scenes themselves, lacks a similarly compelling animating idea. There’s some incoherent nonsense about the morality of the surveillance state and drones vs. double-0s (about which I’ll have more to say on Monday). Surveillance is bad, apparently, unless you’re Q using nanobots in Bond’s blood to track him.
3. The Bleak World of “Peanuts.” The new computer-animated “Peanuts Movie” has garnered mostly positive reviews for its gentle, fun-loving nature and for making an effort to stay true to creator Charles Schultz’s original spirit for the comic strip. But it’s nigh impossible for any big-budget, mainstream “Peanuts” movie aimed at children to really stick to the dark, existentialist tone of the comics. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff explores the bleak world of “Peanuts” and the man behind those beloved character.
For the entirety of its run, “Peanuts” was the work of one man: Charles Schulz. Unlike many comics, “Peanuts” was never farmed out to other writers or artists. It wasn’t produced on an assembly line, as, say, “Garfield” is. It was, for the entirety of its run, the work of Schulz, who filtered his own darkest feelings into the trials and tribulations of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Linus and Lucy, and all the rest. In television interviews, especially late in his life, Schulz appeared to be a warm-hearted, paternal figure, who had a sort of gentle, Midwestern amusement at his own good fortune. But Schulz included at least a little bit of himself in every character he wrote, and for years, “Peanuts” hinted at the sorts of personal grievances and frustrations he felt toward other people in his life and in his personal and professional relationships. For instance, as David Michaelis points out in his essential biography of the author, “Schulz and Peanuts,” when Schulz’s first marriage was dissolving, he turned, again and again, to the theme of Lucy railing against Schroeder for caring more about his art than about her — which wasn’t hard to read as Schulz’s critique of his own wife. And yet Schulz could be Lucy, too, or Charlie Brown, or Snoopy, or Linus, or any of the “Peanuts” gang. The characters who proved to be the most successful were those who had singular obsessions — sometimes many of them — and great fantasies they could never quite escape, even if they were as seemingly harmless as believing there was a strange pumpkin who visited children every Halloween…The characters who never took off were either bland everykids like Shermy and Patty (not of the Peppermint variety; a different one), or gimmick characters, like Pig-Pen, who lacked personality beyond a couple distinguishing characteristics. Without something to strive for — or something to struggle against — they simply faded into the woodwork. Schulz might have achieved his childhood dream of becoming a successful cartoonist, but he was always driven by his own feelings of inadequacy. Thus, the longer you read “Peanuts,” especially its Golden Age from 1954 to 1974, the more obvious it becomes that the strip is an extremely personal work. It feels, at all times, as if you’re looking directly into Schulz’s soul to survey his values and cares. There are hints of gentle folksiness throughout that make the more depressing stuff bearable — but it’s utter despair that makes the strip so bracing. That’s why “Peanuts'” rise in the 1960s was so precipitous. Here was an empty, stark comic strip for an age in which mankind had the capacity to destroy itself — and yet it was laced with a gag (sometimes a very dark one, but a gag nonetheless) every day. It was the ultimate Midwestern expression: horror served with a smile. And then Snoopy got turned into a stuffed animal, and everything changed.
4. The Strange Saga of Joe Son: Bond Villain Parody, Gang Rapist, and Possible Murderer. In 1997, a young Jay Roach directed a Bond parody entitled “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” that became an unlikely success story. In the film, there’s a henchman named Random Task, a parody of the Bond henchman Odd Job, and played by South Korean mixed martial artist and actor Joe Son. He is now serving life in prison without parole. The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato explores the story of Joe Son in depth and how he ended up in prison.
Hollywood knew him best as Random Task, the bowler-hatted thug who hurled shoes as deadly weapons in 1997’s “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” Mixed martial arts fans remembered him as a stocky combatant with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it UFC career who tapped out after being pummeled in the junk in an infamous 1994 pay-per-view brawl. But even as actor and pro fighter Joe Son flirted fleetingly with fame in the ’90s as “Austin Powers'” Oddjob knockoff, he was hiding a dark past that would only come to light in 2008 — thanks to a DNA sample linking him to a brutal kidnapping, rape, and torture cold case that sent him to prison for life. Just one month into his life sentence, Son further sealed his fate as spy cinema’s most notorious off-screen criminal when he was accused of murdering his cellmate in yet another violent case likely to go to trial next year. Justice tends to come swiftly to the most heinous of James Bond baddies: Boiled to death in a nuclear reactor, shot into space, sucked out of an airplane window at 30,000 feet. That also goes for the lampooning villains of “Austin Powers” and even Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx in the latest 007 adventure “Spectre” — another silent but brawny Oddjob dupe. In the biggest scene of his short career, Son is incapacitated by a penis pumping Mike Myers before Elizabeth Hurley lays him out with a bottle of champagne. In real life it took authorities 18 years to connect Son to the vicious 1990 Christmas Eve gang rape that left its victim beaten, traumatized, and terrified for her life.
5. Donald Trump on “SNL” Reviewed. Last Saturday night, “SNL” broke history by having a virulent racist and xenophobe who happens to be running for President host the beloved comedy staple. Though “SNL” came under fire for allowing Donald Trump to host their show, including from our own Sam Adams, he still was allowed on stage to perform lame comedy for the entire country. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik reviews the episode and discovers Trump isn’t “nearly enough” of a clown for “SNL.”
It would be unfair to blame Mr. Trump alone for the deadness of the Nov. 7 episode. It’s hardly the first time the show has worked with a host who struggled with comedy line readings (some were professional actors). The bigger problem was the anodyne material. Mr. Trump said he hosted the episode to show he could “take a joke,” but “S.N.L.” hardly threw any his way. Instead, having chased ratings by casting the controversial candidate, “S.N.L.” stuck with obvious, anemic political riffs and apolitical sketches that were cringeworthy all around. Mr. Trump himself had said that he had vetoed some material he found too risqué (a prerogative of hosts in the past), so maybe he killed better material that we’ll never see. But “S.N.L.,” having cast a boisterous figure whose political raison d’être is “winning,” delivered an episode that did nothing except play not to lose. Arguably the most exciting moment of the broadcast came during Mr. Trump’s brief monologue, when Larry David — on set to reprise his role as Senator Bernie Sanders — called out “You’re a racist!” from the wings. It was a clever move to co-opt the $5,000 bounty that protesters had offered to anyone willing to disrupt the live broadcast. But it was a clear setup; Mr. David delivered his lines half-smiling, and Mr. Trump’s prepared response (“As a businessman, I can fully respect that”) fell flat. That bit captured the problem with the episode: no one’s heart seemed to be in anything. “S.N.L.” is not obligated to take sides in the election — or not to take sides — but as a topical comedy show, it needs to have some point of view, an animating idea.
6. Inside Danny Elfman’s Twisted Cult Film “Forbidden Zone.” Though you may now Danny Elfman as the composer of many famous scores, including Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “The Simpsons” theme song, but some may not know that him and his brother made a campy musical comedy called “Forbidden Zone” based on the musical stylings of Oingo Boingo, the Elfman brother’s musical-theater-turned-pop band. Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow goes inside the making of “The Forbidden Zone” and how it became a midnight-movie classic.
“Forbidden Zone” began, for filmmaker Richard Elfman, as a jumping-off point from his performance-art musical troupe the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Before the group modified its name and achieved new-wave success with hits like “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science,” he had concocted the bawdy ensemble that took cues from commedia dell’arte, German expressionism, French absurdist theater, Max Fleischer cartoons like “Betty Boop” and big band jazz. Richard had assembled the expansive troupe in the early Seventies, serving as its creative director and playing percussion; at the onset, he brought his little brother Danny – four years his junior – into the fold. Growing up, the siblings had bonded over sci-fi and horror movies; Richard remembers his brother having no interest in music for years. “Danny had no guitar, no garage bands, he didn’t go to concerts, didn’t have a record collection,” he recalls. “We got him a guitar when he was 16 or so, and he figured out how to do a [Gypsy-jazz] Django Reinhardt solo. Then he got a violin to do the Stéphane Grappelli accompaniment.” He laughs. “I remember hearing Django in an Indian restaurant I used to go to,” Danny says. “I thought it was amazing. And at the same time, I became infatuated with Cab Calloway from Betty Boop cartoons and that led me to Duke Ellington. I’m not sure exactly how I fell into that vortex of early Cotton Club big band, but Fleischer’s animation was part of it.” Prior to forming the troupe, both Elfmans had also spent time in Le Grand Magic Circus, a similarly themed Parisian collective populated by what Richard calls “gonzo, avant-garde types – very French.” The main departure when they formed their own group, however, was that Richard exploited their love of jazz and his sibling’s fledgling compositions. “I looked through hundreds and hundreds of pieces of music, searching for gems people couldn’t hear live anymore – Yiddish theater, Josephine Baker, Miguelito Valdés – and we would recreate them brilliantly,” he says. “Then Danny, out of nowhere like a meatball hits him from the sky — he’s suddenly turned into Mozart. It was like, ‘Where the fuck did this come from?'”
Tweet(s) of the Day:
I really miss Pauline Kael’s frame-by-frame trailer analysis/breakdowns.
— Gravy Whitta (@garywhitta) November 6, 2015
Tech people need to be spoken to like this more often, imo pic.twitter.com/C8l8UV73zL
— Jim Gabriel (@flipyourface) November 7, 2015