Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Dear “Star Wars” Fans: I’m Super Sorry I Ruined the Whole Thing for Everybody. As with any major geek entertainment property these days, their fans can be a little overzealous. That enthusiasm can often curdle into cruelty and venomous attacks when confronted with a contrary opinion. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir explores the nature of these fans after receiving death threats for giving a “rotten” review to the new “Star Wars” film.
But still: Why is it important to fans of a hugely popular movie, which has already dominated the entertainment media for weeks and will surely wind up among the top-grossing releases of all time, that no one disagrees with them or adopts a more detached perspective? Why are dissenters from a mass-culture wave phenomenon like “The Force Awakens” or the “Avengers” and “Dark Knight” movies so often subjected to venom and name-calling, as if they had simultaneously run over someone’s dog, spat on a wounded veteran and begun a conversation by loudly saying, “Not to be racist, but …”? I’m not claiming that kind of exaggerated rancor is unanimous, because it definitely isn’t. I’m sure the vast majority of “Star Wars” fans could not care less what I or Stephanie Zacharek of Time or Kate Taylor of the Toronto Globe and Mail or the authors of the other “splat” reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes have to say about the franchise reboot they have awaited so long and embraced with such enthusiasm. Why in God’s name should they? Have we dampened their enormous collective love-fest with our complaints (many of which are exceptionally mild in nature) or our attitudes of irritating intellectual dispassion? Have we cast doubt on the movie’s box-office prospects, or endangered the production of future sequels? The answers to both of those questions ought to be “no,” and the answer to the second one is NO in boldface and capital letters with a whole lot of exclamation marks and 1’s after it. That throws us back toward an irresistible conclusion that is likely to make me even more friends than that “Star Wars” review did. When some subgroup of fans becomes enraged about a few critics pissing in the punch bowl at the super-fun party to which everyone in the world was invited, that isn’t really about the critics. It’s about something else, most likely a lingering sense of insecurity and doubt. It seems laughable for people who love “Star Wars” or the Marvel movie-verse to feel insecure about anything, but I can understand it a little. Despite the total global victory of ComiCon-style pop culture on all fronts – which happened years or decades ago, at this point – the last ghostly vestiges of the old, defeated high culture still linger on the margins of the battlefield, wearing pince-nez and translucent cardigans and murmuring in disapproval. Victory was total, yes, but not yet totalitarian. Fans of space operas and comic-book movies and other dominant popcorn genres in film and TV can dimly remember, or think they can remember, a not-so-distant past when “culture” was the province of severe-looking Susan Sontag people out of New Yorker cartoons who looked down on them and viewed everything they loved with contempt. That past existed, I guess, but it was a lot longer ago than they think. The first time I got paid to write a movie review was in 1987, and for at least that long (and probably much longer) the so-called intellectual mandarins of the cultural sphere have desperately labored to embrace pop culture and mass-market tastes. Consult your local university library for a full list of all the dissertations about Madonna written in the ‘90s.
2. Quentin Tarantino, “The Hateful Eight,” and Capturing the Zeitgeist. Quentin Tarantino’s new film “The Hateful Eight” opens Christmas day in a roadshow 70mm production. It will be the director’s eighth film in over 23 years, and the release of his films are still cinematic events with the auteurist always finding his way into the zeitgeist. Well, The Village Voice’s Amy Nicholson argues that “The Hateful Eight” is Tarantino’s most unconventional film in years, and that it intentionally or not fits right into the zeitgeist.
Tarantino’s new film pivots away from his sprawling epics, but it’s no less political. “The Hateful Eight” is a pared-down thriller about murderess Daisy Domergue, a bounty hunter, a black Union soldier, two white supremacists, one cowboy, one hangman, one innkeeper, and one stagecoach driver, all trapped in a rural outpost called Minnie’s Haberdashery during a Wyoming blizzard. Count up the characters and you’ll notice that the hateful eight are really nine — Tarantino’s first clue not to trust anything you hear. The Haberdashery isn’t even a haberdashery, and, as the tensions on this cold night get icier indoors, these killers’ claims get harder and harder to prove. We’re not even sure how to pronounce “Domergue.” Is it dough-min-gray or dommer-goo? “Nothing is for sure in this movie,” Tarantino says. “That literally is the goal.” While writing his murder mystery, he’d ask friends what “facts” about these violent characters were true. Any statement people trusted, he’d sabotage. Tarantino laughs. “If they’re going to be that gullible, then I must torture them!” “The Hateful Eight” is a fun puzzle box, a palate-cleanser after Tarantino’s pair of ambitious sagas. But he’s still got plenty to say about race, cruelty, and justice. Legally, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) could shoot the murderess (an animalistic Jennifer Jason Leigh) and trade her corpse for cash. He’d rather see her get a fair trial before she hangs, and professional hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) agrees. “The good part about frontier justice is it’s very thirst-quenching,” Mobray says. “The bad part is it’s apt to be wrong as right.” The ghosts of Francis McIntosh and Elijah Lovejoy would nod in agreement. Yet Tarantino never makes his morality plays simple: Ruth’s ethics are upstanding, but the man himself is a bully, a woman-beater and a jerk. “The Hateful Eight” is set six to ten years after the Civil War, soon enough that everyone remembers what side everyone else was on and what crimes they committed to defend it. Even Samuel L. Jackson’s Union officer, Major Warren, is guilty of atrocities. “Their lives to one degree or another have been ripped apart,” Tarantino says. “They’re sheltering together, these survivors of an apocalypse. But the apocalypse is the Civil War. “I didn’t set out to make it this way, but this is a blue-state/red-state western.” Right now, America feels as polarized as it has in a century and a half, and you see today’s battle lines drawn when Jackson stares down Bruce Dern and Walton Goggins’s Rebel fighters. In the wake of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray, you shudder when Goggins’s Chris Mannix, the town’s flagrantly racist new sheriff, nods, “When niggers are scared, white folks are safe.” “The political discussions that happen in the movie just come out of the characters,” Tarantino says. “The script hits a lot of hot-button topics, but I’m on record as having written it almost two years ago” — when “The Hateful Eight’s” first draft was leaked, and before Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray. “Events have caught up with it,” Tarantino says. “It just means that I’m doing what a writer is supposed to be doing. I’m connected to the zeitgeist.”
3. Why “Eyes Wide Shut” Is a Bizarro Holiday Classic. Stanley Kubrick’s final final “Eyes Wide Shut” focuses on a rocky marriage and a night of sexual adventures into New York City. It features secret societies, orgies, and the Christmas season. It’s arguably Kubrick’s best film. Rolling Stone’s David Ehrlich explores “Eyes Wide Shut” as a bizarro holiday classic.
There are couples that appear perfect, and then there are the Harfords, who might as well be the figurines glued to the bottom of a snow globe. He’s a doctor with a seductive bedside manner and a toothy grin that betrays a lifetime of smooth affluence — the youngest man in the old boys’ club. She’s a recently unemployed gallery manager whose body the camera lavishes with more male attention than her husband has in years. Their relationship is a lot like the massive Christmas tree that’s been hunched into their living room: gorgeously ornamented and completely severed from its roots. When first we meet them, they’re readying themselves for the glimmering holiday party where Alice is shamelessly hit on by a cartoon Casanova who’s equal parts European royalty and cheeseball male escort. When she informs the mysterious stranger that she’s married, he parries with a practiced response: “Don’t you think that one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?” When she later tells her husband about the man, he replies that the stranger’s desire was “understandable.” Wrong answer. Haunted by the Ghost of Carnal Knowledge Past, Bill steals into the New York night, spirited into a dream world populated exclusively by the specters of sexual temptation. Like Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey before him, he’s led on a whirlwind tour of things he would never have seen for himself, pinballing from one erotic near disaster to the next. But Bill isn’t looking to get off so much as he’s looking to weigh the value of what he desires against that of whatever it is he and his wife have lost. He never even manages to take off his clothes — at best, he trades one costume for another, exchanging the medical license he flashes to everyone he meets for the mask he needs to crash a costumed swingers party (where the menacing master of ceremonies becomes the Ghost of Orgies Present). It’s precisely this futility that makes “Eyes Wide Shut” such an essential Christmas movie, however, and makes the holiday so vital to “Eyes Wide Shut.” Bill Harford isn’t trying to get away from his wife — he’s trying to get back to her. Christmas at the movies isn’t the same thing as Christmas at mass. On screen, the holiday isn’t a religious event so much as a shared shorthand for a certain frame of mind. The films that we’ve now come to most closely associate with the holiday (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Die Hard,” etc.) have one thing in common, and it’s not a reverence for the miraculous arrival of baby Jesus. The films that truly belong to this subgenre — the ones that incorporate the season in context of its broader emotional resonance — share a warm preoccupation with the feeling of return, of reclaiming something that the protagonist is afraid to lose or fears already lost. Theologically, Christmas is about birth; culturally, it’s about rebirth. Bill Harford’s dark night of the soul might appear to have more in common with “The Odyssey” than “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but with each opportunity the journey gives him to throw his marriage away — and with each temptation he miraculously avoids at the last second — he finds himself that much closer to home. For Bill, every offering of sexual bliss is ultimately a perverse step back to his wife (hence the ironic choice of “Fidelio,” latin for “fidelity,” as the password Bill uses to gain access to an orgy of strangers). Retracing his steps in the cold light of the following day, Bill is gobsmacked by the many-faced Ghost of Sex Narrowly Avoided. The sweet prostitute he almost had sex with is revealed to be H.I.V. positive; the orgy house — once an enchanted kingdom of embarrassed pleasures — has been stripped of its magic, its consequences shown to him on a city morgue’s slab. By the time he finds the Creepy-Fuck-Party mask he wore to the previous evening’s shindig on the pillow next to his sleeping wife, the doctor can’t help but be overwhelmed by the reality of how far he’d gone, and how much further he had to go to make the journey home. Finally, Bill and Alice can wake up from their own dreams and begin to restore the one they shared together.
4. The “Rocky” Series Became a Stallone Biography With a Great New Ending. The A.V. Club runs a column entitled “Run The Series,” in which a writer examines a film franchise and how it changes and evolves with each successive installment. Previous columns have explored “Fast and Furious,” “Benji,” and “Death Wish.” This time around, it’s “Rocky.” The A.V. Club’s Jesse Hassenger argues the “Rocky” series became an unintentional Stallone biography (with a great new ending!)
For someone who inarguably ascended to great heights of stardom, Sylvester Stallone has found success within relatively narrow parameters. Though he’s had some one-off hits like “Cliffhanger” or “Tango & Cash,” six of his 10 biggest movies are entries in the “Rocky” or “Rambo” franchises. This is true no matter how the math works out; adjusting for inflation only switches which “Rocky” and “Rambo” movies rank where, and whether entries in a third franchise, the “Expendables” movies, make the list alongside them. But while some actors treat franchises as obligations in between passion projects, Stallone is almost always involved behind the scenes of his sequels. So despite his limited range as an actor and even, as it turns out, as a movie star (his ’90s comeback seems minor compared to the box office dominance of the “Rocky” series in its prime), he does deserve credit for guiding his own career since the first “Rocky,” for which he was Oscar-nominated not just for his performance but also his screenplay. Stallone went on to write all of the subsequent movies with “Rocky” in the title, and direct parts two, three, four, and six (he also has writing credits on all of the Rambo movies, in addition to directing the fourth one). The “Rocky” franchise’s most recent and least direct entry, “Creed,” is actually the first time the Rocky Balboa character has appeared in a movie not at least written by Stallone; even moreso than John Rambo or the more generic likes of Barney Ross, Rocky is a character obviously close to Stallone’s heart. Sometimes, perhaps, too close. But this closeness has allowed the series to function as a parallel history of Stallone’s career, even when Rocky takes a different path than his creator. The movies are often more compelling as a series—as an ongoing chronicle of this character’s life—than they are as individual works. This may be because in an ideal world, “Rocky” probably wouldn’t receive any direct sequels. After the first film’s big box office and subsequent underdog Oscar win for Best Picture of 1976, when it triumphed over the Apollo Creed-like group of “All The President’s Men,” “Network,” and “Taxi Driver,” it became easy to look at “Rocky” as a massive crowdpleaser — and it is, but with more signifiers of its New Hollywood era of filmmaking than its reputation suggests. Less a juiced-up boxing picture than a low-key character study, “Rocky” (directed by John G. Avildsen) often follows its title character with the camera, including an early sequence of Rocky Balboa (Stallone) knocking around Philly streets at night. Rocky, an amateur boxer and collections muscle for a loan shark, has a fight in the first five minutes of the film, then isn’t seen boxing until the second hour, and for an actor probably not often described as verbal, Stallone uses a distinct speaking pattern to define this guy. That mumbly, affable, dorky-joke-heavy style has become very much identified with Stallone himself; he’s doing a more stoic and much lamer-written dialect of this same language in his “Expendables” movies. For the most part, Stallone is more of an auteur in writing than he is in directing, where a strong visual style hasn’t ever really taken root. In the first “Rocky,” his writing (and performing) style is especially lovable and distinct, and even marks an unexpected parallel to another (and, in terms of cinema aesthetics, hipper) iconic character of 1976 when he playfully repeats the phrase “he talkin’ to me?” at one point.
5. Dreck The Halls: A Holiday TV Specials Retrospective.A holiday TV special featuring Bill Murray, Netflix’s “A Very Murray Christmas” follows in the tradition of other holiday TV specials going back to the early days of the medium. Pitchfork’s Fraser McAlpine explores 10 examples of the form from both American and British television.
“The Judy Garland Christmas Show”: Every second of this is worth watching, and not just for the early song-and-dance appearance by a teenage Liza Minelli. This 1963 special, which makes a great show of depicting a comfortable family get-together, struggles to get past Judy’s slight awkwardness as a host and the feeling that the kids were forced to take part. And yet it’s clear everyone on camera is willing this thing to succeed. Still, the moment when Joey Luft (wearing a jacket that would look good on the Beatles a year later) yells “have a banana!” during “Consider Yourself” captures the alienating sensation of spending Christmas in someone else’s home.
“The Carpenters At Christmas”: For all that the music of the Carps has been annointed with retrospective gravitas, their TV shows do tend to linger in the shallow end of the emotional pool (as also occupied by critically unrestored Osmonds and John Denver). The cheese runs thickest whenever Karen is not singing — her hallowed voice seems lit from within even during the most nonsensical of lyrics — and the narrative of the 1977 special doesn’t help. The plot: Karen plans a party and Richard decides not to go. Will big brother ruin Karen’s Christmas? Of course not. He’s not a monster.
“Kate Bush”: Also irony-free, Kate Bush’s festive TV special from 1979 is unhampered by the need to dress every set as if it’s a living room with a roaring fire and put everyone in stifling woolen sweaters. Instead she puts two dancers into costume as anthropomorphized double basses (which must be even hotter), sings her own Christmas song, “December Will Be Magic Again”, as if it’s a sober autopsy of the festive season, and does not speak to her live studio audience once. Even her introduction to guest star Peter Gabriel is sung like a Christmas carol. Still, at least her song about Egypt is geographically close to the original nativity.
6. Baby Steps: Love and “The Big Bang Theory.” Though TV aficianados like to turn their nose up at some of the more popular shows on television for not entirely unjustified reasons, it’s important to explore some of what they have to offer. Last night’s episode of “The Big Bang Theory” featured a landmark moment in the series, Sheldon and Amy have sex, and NPR’s Linda Holmes provides the post-air analysis.
See, with Sheldon, you have to read past the text and get to the subtext, because he’s not going to give you a lot of text, emotionally. (Lots of text, but mostly facts.) What’s the most subtext that Sheldon could provide, as far as demonstrating that he loves Amy? What’s the most Sheldon-y thing he could do that would still be profoundly meaningful coming from him? He skipped the opening night of the new “Star Wars” movie to be with Amy on her birthday. The sex part is almost…secondary to that, in terms of how she knows he means it. At the same time, what is the only thing this particular show could do to adequately commemorate something that would mean as much in this universe as the new “Star Wars” movie? Well, it could mark a huge relationship milestone. One of the nicest and fairest things about the episode is that this still doesn’t all come entirely naturally to Sheldon and he’s not swept away by strong emotion. His initial impulse is to do this because he knows it means a lot to Amy and it’s her birthday. It’s certainly not that he doesn’t want to, he just doesn’t have strong feelings one way or the other — at least that he recognizes — about sex specifically. But he has them about Amy. Again, it’s an odd show. A lot of the time, it’s one of those things that is just sort of on a lot that’s so minimally serialized (almost not at all, other than the development of romances) that whatever one pops up, it’s as good as any other. But the specificity of the way certain characters are handled, particularly Sheldon, has the surprising ability to pack quite a punch. As does, it must be said, the new “Star Wars” movie.
Tweet(s) of the Day:
It is possible that THE FORCE AWAKENS is a good movie AND that our popular culture is geared toward making sure nobody really grows up.
— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) December 18, 2015
The Star Wars saga in one tweet
4 Leia, Luke, Han, Death Star
5 “No, I am your father”
You’re caught up
— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) December 18, 2015