Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. The Year The Studios Get It Right. In just two shorts months, the Academy Awards will be upon us, but as of right now, the competitive “Oscar season” is under way. The Oscars specialize in highlighting prestige multiplex entertainment, films that will be seen by the most eyes, and luckily some of the best films this year appeared in the multiplex. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis examine the last year in movies and how the studio got it right.
Manohla Dargis: It’s the season, in other words, for what the film critic Manny Farber in 1962 called “white elephant art,” which he partly described as pictures that “blow up every situation and character like an affable inner tube with recognizable details and smarmy compassion.” Some of his targets (“Jules and Jim”!) have become art-house classics. Even so, the white elephant rubric is particularly useful around awards time, when everything seems overinflated from digital grizzly bears to critical rhetoric and the roar of the Oscar Industrial Complex in full swing. Of course the one film that united almost everyone this year in a passionate, sustained frenzy is “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — it’s been a collective bliss-out. Some of this is just relief that at long last, a sequel isn’t an abomination. Yet the director J. J. Abrams (and his team) also provided moviegoers with more than just competency and characters; he created a sequel that complicates a pop myth with its real-world diversity. “The Force Awakens” may not be anywhere near as beautiful-looking as “The Revenant” or as provocative a critical plaything as “The Hateful Eight,” but it does more than get the job done. And while its populism is commercially driven, it feels as if it’s trying to appeal to more than cultists, critics or the Academy — which may itself be an argument for it as best picture.
A.O. Scott: It can also be argued — based on ample recent historical precedent — that the fact that a lot of people had a good time at “The Force Awakens” might disqualify it from Oscar consideration. Not officially, of course, but the American film industry prefers to let the Academy see to the prestige economy while the globally marketed franchises look after the money. This year there were, as ever, some very worthy middle-size movies, some of which took chances with narrative form and cinematic technique. I’m thinking of “Carol” and especially “The Big Short,” which is surely in the running for Most Improbable Picture. I certainly would not have predicted that Adam McKay, the director of the “Anchorman” movies and “Step Brothers” (which is a bona fide masterpiece, but that’s a topic for another day), would make a movie that not only explained the financial meltdown of 2008 but also did so in a way that was crowd-pleasing and rabble-rousing at the same time. With all respect to Mr. Abrams, General Leia, Han Solo and the new trio of Rey, Finn and Poe, “The Force Awakens” was not, to me, the best or most significant latter-day entry in a 30-plus-year-old franchise. Nor even the best seventh chapter in a series that started back in the ’70s. That would be “Creed,” Ryan Coogler’s reinvention of the ancient “Rocky” cycle — a near remake of the first movie that revised its hoary pugilistic themes and brought them into the present. And I know you and I — and just about every other critic in the world — agree that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a bloody, noisy chunk of manna from movie heaven. Critics like to complain — with ample justification — about the soullessness of sequel-driven commercial cinema. We also like to be surprised, and maybe what surprised me most in 2015 was how much risk, heart, imagination and relevance could be found in large-scale, big-studio releases.
2. Why It’s Okay That George R.R. Martin’s New Book Is Delayed. If you’re a fan of the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones,” the series will return this April, but if you’re a fan of the original “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series by acclaimed author George R.R. Martin, then you’ll have to wait even longer. Martin announced that his new book will not be finished before the new season premieres, and naturally, fans have had mixed emotions. However, Variety’s Maureen Ryan argues that it’s okay that Martin’s new book is delayed as it’s a natural part of life to accept the fragility of life.
Well, first of all, I hope Martin has a long, healthy and happy life, whether or not he ever writes another word. Having created so many vivid, thoughtful worlds and done so much to further genre fiction in popular culture, he deserves to do a victory lap for the rest of his days. But he keeps on writing, praise the old gods and the new, even though, if I were him, I would have retired long ago in order to roll around in piles of money. But OK, let’s speculate: What if, for whatever reason, Martin never publishes another novel in his “Game of Thrones” series? That would be a drag, but it would not be the end of the world. It wouldn’t even be the end of that world. As he has noted in various interviews, he has told David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the executive producers of the HBO drama, where the story goes and how it ends. Of course, the show and the books have diverged, so they were always going to be different animals (and should be viewed as such). But whatever Martin’s output, that show is such a winner for HBO that presumably the Westeros saga will keep trundling along until Benioff and Weiss want it to stop. Whatever Martin does or doesn’t do, the show will be what it’s going to be, and it isn’t going anywhere. So let’s go back to the worst-case scenario: What happens if Martin never publishes another book in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series? To be clear, I don’t think that will happen — Martin said substantial progress has been made on the sixth book of a projected seven tomes — but if those books dried up, what would that teach us? It would serve as a reminder that life is tenuous and fragile and it’s not up to us how things end. That’s just how it is sometimes. Would it be frustrating? Sure. Sad? Of course. But it’s far sadder to contemplate the artists whose careers did actually end too soon. Not a week goes by that I don’t wonder about the masterpieces Kurt Cobain would have created in middle age. Thinking about the early death of writer Harris Wittels still brings me to tears, even though I never met him; that’s how much his work meant to me. I’m sure we can all name friends and relatives who’ve died too soon, with children to raise and brilliant prospects in their futures. That is where tragedy lies, not in a guy blowing a deadline.
3. Listening to “Star Wars.” Though the “Star Wars” films are fun for all the obvious reasons — including but not limited to space battles, corny yet repeatable lines of dialogue, father-son strife, Chewbacca, etc. — it’s also fun because of John Williams’ recurring sonic motifs and trademark booming introduction. At eighty-three years old, Williams is a powerful force in film as well as music, influencing numerous musicians and composers that have followed him. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross writes about listening to “Star Wars,” Williams’ influence, and how his myriad ideas have pervaded the multiplex.
Williams’s wider influence on musical culture can’t be quantified, but it’s surely vast. The brilliant young composer Andrew Norman took up writing music after watching “Star Wars” on video, as William Robin notes in a “Times” profile. The conductor David Robertson, a disciple of Pierre Boulez and an unabashed Williams fan, told me that some current London Symphony players first became interested in their instruments after encountering “Star Wars.” Robertson, who regularly stages all-Williams concerts with the St. Louis Symphony, observed that professional musicians enjoy playing the scores because they are full of the kinds of intricacies and motivic connections that enliven the classic repertory. “He’s a man singularly fluent in the language of music,” Robertson said. “He’s very unassuming, very humble, but when he talks about music he can be the most interesting professor you’ve ever heard. He’s a deep listener, and that explains his ability to respond to film so acutely.” It has long been fashionable to dismiss Williams as a mere pasticheur, who assembles scores from classical spare parts. Some have gone as far as to call him a plagiarist. A widely viewed YouTube video pairs the “Star Wars” main title with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music for “Kings Row,” a 1942 picture starring Ronald Reagan. Indeed, both share a fundamental pattern: a triplet figure, a rising fifth, a stepwise three-note descent. Also Korngoldesque are the glinting dissonances that affirm rather than undermine the diatonic harmony, as if putting floodlights on the chords. To accuse Williams of plagiarism, however, brings to mind the famous retort made by Brahms when it was pointed out that the big tune in the finale of his First Symphony resembled Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: “Any ass can hear that.” Williams takes material from Korngold and uses it to forge something new. After the initial rising statement, the melodies go in quite different directions: Korngold’s winds downward to the tonic note, while Williams’s insists on the triplet rhythm and leaps up a minor seventh. I used to think that the latter gesture was taken from a passage in Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, but the theme can’t have been stolen from two places simultaneously.
4. “Inside Out’s” One Bad Scene. Pixar had a banner year in 2015. They released two films, and one of them, “Inside Out,” was universally acclaimed by fans and critics alike. Parents and children flocked to the multiplex to see the story of Riley and her feelings inside her head and how they adapt to external changes. But in light of the new year, Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey explores the one scene in “Inside Out” that holds the film back, the one scene that falls far beneath the film’s general quality.
Our protagonist, 11-year-old Riley, has just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. Due to a haywire afternoon in her brain’s “Headquarters,” the key emotions of Joy and Sadness are stranded in Long-Term Memory, leaving only Disgust, Fear, and Anger to run the ship. But in this scene, detailing a tense family dinner, we go outside Riley’s head and into those of her parents. Mom’s emotions alternate concern for her daughter with exasperation for her ill-equipped husband, prompting swoony nostalgia for the Brazillian helicopter pilot that got away. Dad isn’t paying attention; his emotions are preoccupied by a sports telecast, though they can kick into punishment mode with the precision of a military drill. It’s a very funny scene – if your notions of gender and parenting are rooted in the tiresome tropes and stereotypes of a hee-haw laugh-track ’90s sitcom. Something like, oh, “Herman’s Head,” the three-season Fox series no one had thought about for twenty-plus years, until wiseacres started referencing it in connection to “Inside Out.” And here’s the most telling part: Disney used a barely-abbreviated version of that scene as their first trailer, this time last year. This is how they wanted to sell the movie. Your correspondent wasn’t impressed by that trailer, and I stand by that assessment. It traffics in the most tiresomely retro notions of gender roles, up to and including a goddamn toilet seat joke, operating under the assumption that all grown men are obsessed with sports and all women are obsessed with men from the covers of Harlequin Romances. It doesn’t play any better in the context of the movie – in fact, it plays worse, since it’s so jarringly out of tone with the picture’s otherwise admirably scrambled gender politics. (I’d love to hear what Amy Poehler, who isn’t a part of this scene, actually thinks of it.) Riley is, thankfully, not a traditional “girly girl”; she’s goofy and doesn’t care about boys and is something of a jock, more interested in playing hockey than playing with, oh, Disney princesses or something. And she’s also given the freedom to embrace some of that stuff later, particularly when her newfound interest in boy bands is mentioned near the film’s end.
5. 30 Minutes On “Cool Hand Luke.” Over at RogerEbert.com, editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz pens an occasional column called “30 Minutes On,” in which Seitz watches a classic film and spends 30 minutes writing about it afterwards. It’s effectively a quick writing exercise that often produces some great, off-the-cuff writing. On the day after New Years, Seitz explores the classic Paul Newman prison drama “Cool Hand Luke.”
“Cool Hand Luke” is very much of its period, but what a fascinating period it was! Counterculture attitudes were bubbling up into mainstream entertainment all over in the mid-sixties. Nineteen sixty-seven, the year of this film’s release, was a watershed, marking the appearance of “The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “In the Heat of the Night.” Just five years earlier, novelist Ken Kesey had scored a major critical and popular success with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” another blatantly allegorical prison drama about, basically, a badass Christ figure who stuck it to The Man (though in Kesey’s case, the prison was a mental hospital and The Man was a woman named Nurse Ratched). Another 1962 novel, Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange,” was a more formally daring and hard-to-stomach take on similar subject matter. Stanley Kubrick’s film version might make for a fascinating double feature with “Luke,” particularly for scenes where antisocial types are abused, humiliated and (in theory, anyway) broken, not so much for any specific crimes but because they pose a threat to authoritarian control. “Luke” is one of those movies that seemed almost irredeemably dated maybe thirty years after it came out, but then left period associations behind and became timeless. It has its absurd or regrettable touches — such as that moment where the sexy young farm wife washes a car, nearly fellating a hose and squashing her breasts up against a passenger side window; images quickly appropriated by TV ads and sketch comedy shows — but its vagueness has proved more a benefit than a liability. The filmmakers, including cinematographer Conrad Hall, really did know what they were trying to do, and how to do it. Newman, his costars and the land itself earn the overused adjective “iconic.” At times they are posed like figures in a 17th century oil painting, a church ceiling mural or a stained glass windowpane. It’s easy to imagine people from any culture watching this film and seeing themselves in it. It is a masochistic fantasy but also a story of survival, and the need for heroes, even flawed, reluctant or inscrutable ones.
Tweet(s) of the Day:
Just a reminder to prep for your Roy Batty Incept Day party! pic.twitter.com/CfrXQQg08i
— Tad Leckman (@tadleckman) January 1, 2016
If Leo ultimately wins an Oscar for eating raw liver and getting hypothermia then Dustin Hoffman wins and Olivier loses.
— Alex Winter (@alxwinter) January 3, 2016