Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and the Complicated History of Musical TV Shows. One of the best, least-watched shows on television right now is The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a musical series about a single woman who follows the object of her affection from New York to California. Co-creator and star Rachel Bloom recently won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Series (Musical or Comedy). In honor of the series’ mid-season return, Vulture’s Jenny Jaffe chronicles the complicated history of musical TV shows, from “The Monkees” to “Glee.”
“The Partridge Family” (1970–1974)
Speaking of fake TV bands based on real bands, ABC’s family band was inspired by the slightly-less-popular-than-the-Beatles Cowsills, and not, as I’d previously thought, on Dr. Fünke’s 100% Natural Good Time Family Band Solution. The music from the show was written by super-successful Wrecking Crew (yes, that Wrecking Crew), which is probably why many of its songs remain among the most popular to come out of the ’70s. Also popular was the show’s troubled young heartthrob, David Cassidy. In 2004, a pilot was filmed for a reboot called “The New Partridge Family,” which starred a young Emma Stone, but it never went to series.
So was it any good? Mileage may vary. I am sure the nostalgia factor is a big part of the enjoyment for a lot of people, but as someone who didn’t grow up with it, I find it pretty schmaltzy.
After the wild success of the movie “Fame,” NBC ordered a series by the same name, also about the gritty coming of age of a group of performing-arts-high-school students. The show was a commercial flop but a critical success, and one of its songs, “I Still Believe in Me,” was nominated for an Emmy despite being obscenely boring. In syndication, some of the hour-long episodes were stripped of plotlines and musical numbers in order to get down to sitcom length.
So was it any good? I think so, but I also love “Degrassi,” leg warmers, and ’80s musicals, so make of that what you will.
“Flight of the Conchords” (2007–2009)
In 2007, HBO introduced New Zealand imports Jemaine Clement and future Academy Award winner Bret McKenzie to a mainstream audience (and they, in turn, introduced us to the likes of Kristen Schaal, Rhys Darby, and Aziz Ansari) with a show about a musical comedy duo from New Zealand trying to make it in New York City. Though “Flight of the Conchords” lost a little bit of steam when they burned through their tried-and-true material and had to start writing new songs, it lasted two seasons and featured such classic hits as “Hiphopopatamus vs. Rhymenocerous” and “Albi the Racist Dragon.
So was it any good? If you’re a Vulture reader, I’m pretty sure you’re a “Flight of the Conchords” fans.
2. Why “Bottle Rocket” Is the Greatest Movie Ever Shot in Dallas. This years marks the 20th anniversary of Wes Anderson’s debut feature “Bottle Rocket,” an enthusiastic first feature about oddballs who plan a major heist in order to live out a 75-year plan. For D Magazine, writer Matt Zoller Seitz explores “Bottle Rocket’s” legacy and why it’s the greatest movie ever shot in Dallas.
Because I’m from Dallas, people sometimes ask me to name the greatest movie ever filmed in Dallas. I always answer “Bottle Rocket,” not just because Wes Anderson’s 1996 debut is of great professional significance to me — I was the first critic ever to review one of his movies, specifically the black-and-white short film version, which played the USA Film Festival in 1994, and I’ve been writing an ongoing series about his work titled “The Wes Anderson Collection” — but because, from the instant I popped the VHS screener into my VCR in my apartment on Cabell Drive, near CityPlace, I realized that Anderson was showing the city in a uniquely personal and artful way. If you go back and watch that original short again — viewable on YouTube as well as DVD — you’ll see what I mean. From the opening scene of petty thieves Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (co-writer Owen Wilson) walking through the lush commons of Greenway Parks en route to a burglary, Anderson showed an appreciation for architecture, light, and space. There was something enchanting about the way the film looked and felt. It had jump cuts and was partly scored with jazz, including “Skating,” from Vince Guaraldi’s score for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which played as Dignan, Anthony, and Robert Musgrave’s Bob went target shooting in a field. Sunlight streamed through windows and lit the sides of actors’ faces in the manner of 1960s fashion magazine photography. I remember thinking that if I were living in a small Texas town, this short film might inspire me to move to Dallas. I also remember thinking that it somehow felt French. I must confess that growing up I’d never thought of Dallas as a beautiful city, though it had some beautiful places. Mostly I thought of it as a flat place with a lot of malls and chain stores, looming and often obnoxiously glittery skyscrapers, and so many roads and highways that, at times, it could feel like a city of cars that just happened to tolerate people. It was only when I talked to Anderson not long after watching the short for the first time that I learned one of his favorite movies is Francois Truffaut’s debut film, 1959’s coming-of-age drama “The 400 Blows,” which is shot in widescreen black-and-white and takes a similarly intoxicated view of its setting. What Anderson had done was treat Dallas as if it were Paris, and the strange offhandedness of that decision only added to the magic. That magic was apparent when the short screened at the USA Film Festival. You could hear murmurs of recognition and appreciation every time the film shifted location, from Greenway Parks to downtown Grand Prairie (where a scene of Anthony and Dignan critiquing their burglary and then playing pinball was shot at Millar Drug) and the interiors of local homes and apartments. The feature version of “Bottle Rocket,” shot on 35mm color film, was even more lovely and embellished Anderson’s vision of Dallas as City of Enchantment. Anderson’s director of photography, Robert Yeoman — who would go on to shoot six more Wes Anderson features, including the multiple Oscar-nominated “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — kept still-frame images from Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 thriller “The Conformist” next to his viewfinder as a reference. That says a lot in itself. Shot on location in Rome and Paris by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now”), “The Conformist” is widely considered one of the most sensuously photographed films ever made. Anderson wanted the crew to keep it in mind whether they were shooting locations as intrinsically lovely as the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed John Gillin Residence in North Dallas, as imposing as the Hinckley Cold Storage facility (now the Texas Ice House) in Deep Ellum, or as nondescript as the now-long-gone Bookstop at NorthPark.
3. The Two Sundance Movies That Will Be Talked About In 2016. Though the Sundance Film Festival is still going on, there are two movies that have already premiered which have dominated the critical conversation: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” and Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation.” Both movies were sold for high prices (Amazon bought “Manchester” for $10 million, and Fox Searchlight bought “Nation” for a record-breaking $17.5 million) and have garnered mostly rave reviews. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore examines these two films and why they’ll be talked about for the next year.
“Manchester by the Sea” is centered on a Boston maintenance man named Lee Chandler, played with breathtakingly submerged intensity by Casey Affleck. Lee’s been living a life of colorless isolation, shoveling snow and plunging toilets and getting drunk alone at night and then into bar fights. The why of it all comes to light slowly after he’s summoned home to the seaside town of the title, up the Massachusetts coast, after his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies and he’s left in charge of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Patrick’s a high school star, an athlete with a lot of friends and more than one girlfriend — he’s a local boy who has no interest in selling his dad’s fishing boat and leaving behind everything he loves. But Lee, it turns out, has some very compelling reasons for not wanting to settle back in the close-knit home town he left years earlier, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and the past is never left to fade away. The more that’s revealed about why Lee has chosen to live alone in a basement apartment far from his loved ones, the less “Manchester by the Sea” seems like a story about how a grumpy bachelor and his outgoing nephew learn to share a home. That’s still part of it, sure, but more than that, it’s about loss, how grief ebbs and flows and exists alongside conversations about “Star Trek” and trying to get laid, and about how it can sweep some people away, maybe permanently. The film’s characters are working-class New Englanders who bicker and rag on one another easily, but who aren’t always so free with expressing their feelings. Instead, “Manchester by the Sea” lets details about its characters and their pasts accrue, holding them up to the light and turning them to highlight every facet of their wounded, vulnerable wholes. And while Affleck is day-wreckingly excellent, he gets backup from a strong array of supporting players, particularly a tremendous Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife. Lonergan hasn’t always had an easy time making movies. “Margaret,” his last feature, was delayed for years due to issues over final cut, resulting in lawsuits and a film that was critically acclaimed but a box office bomb. Even after that, he was able to get this new work made, with help from producer Matt Damon, originally also set to star. But “The Birth of a Nation’s” director, screenwriter, and star, Nate Parker, has had a tougher go of getting funding for his Nat Turner passion project. He’s been working on the film for seven years and was repeatedly told it wasn’t commercially viable.
4. Smirking in the Boy’s Room: Samantha Bee’s New Late-Night Show. Former “Daily Show” correspondent Samantha Bee has a new late-night talk show premiering in about six weeks on TBS. “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” will be the only late-night show with a female host, and one of the few ever in comedy history. New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister profiles Samantha Bee and her evolution as a comedian and a personality.
Late night’s writers’ rooms — strike that, television’s writers’ rooms — are notoriously white pits of testosterone. “The Daily Show,” which was created by women, Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg, has earned quite a bit of ink for the fact that it’s written mostly by men. Bee wanted her show to be different not just by virtue of its host, but when it came to the people penning the words she would say. Bee and Miller have worked hard to create a diverse production staff, carefully crafting a blind application process to make it more accessible to people who have not traditionally spent any time in writers’ rooms. The result is a writing staff that is 50 percent female and 30 percent nonwhite. It’s a mix of experience levels as well; there is one writer who was previously at “Letterman” and another whose last job was at the Maryland DMV. “If we don’t do anything else right, we hired incredible people across the board,” says Bee. “Our hiring process was great.” Diversity is a problem the industry has faced for ages but has had a hard time addressing practically. “There’s a lot of people sitting around in rooms discussing how to make it happen as opposed to just, like, doing it,” Bee says. “Asking: ‘Do you have any 45-year-old-woman friends who you think are really talented who could submit an application to us?’ ‘Do you have any black friends who are great writers who haven’t had a shot?'” And so the show is also at work on a mentorship program, designed to draw more unlikely suspects into writers’ rooms. “It’s a little bit embryonic,” says Bee, but they’ve hired the playwright Winter Miller to formulate a plan to find the “pockets of people who don’t formally have access to this world, who want to be in this world, who have no idea how to get there, and who demonstrate some skill in some capacity and a passion for it.” Bee imagines bringing mentees into the office, giving them weekly writing assignments and some instruction. “So much of this is about practicing, about steeping yourself in this world, about developing an ear, an ear for writing for someone else’s voice,” she says. “We are going to learn a lot the first time we do it. It may be janky, we don’t know. Or it might be amazing, and you’ll find a diamond in the rough, and then you’ll find a job for that person…and then you start actually seeing the ratios change. That’s the goal.” If the ratio changed, maybe, in a while, there would be more female faces, beyond even Bee’s, in the inevitable “Vanity Fair” spread. Though Bee also reflects that the recent all-male photo was likely just a giant case of trolling from the same magazine that published Christopher Hitchens’s assertions on women’s not being funny. “It felt really on purpose to me,” Bee says. “I mean, it was such a big misstep that if feels like a lot of brainpower went into that misstep.” Bee pauses. “Did you note that their follow-up photo had Miss Piggy in it?” she says, her eyes flashing. “I mean, trolling times a million, like: Fixed it! Here’s this puppet who’s voiced by a man, who’s a pig with a man’s hand up her ass making her talk. That solves it!”
5. Was “The Happening” Supposed to Be Taken Seriously? The A.V. Club has announced two new film columns. The first of those is called “The Overlook,” in which critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky explores “misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.” In the first installment of the column, Vishnevetsky examines M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” and asks whether or not it was supposed to be taken seriously.
Patterned on the B movies of the early atomic age, the best of which could be sophisticated in everything except premise and acting (exception: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), the movie swaps out radiation for climate change, but otherwise keeps to the template, complete with an ending in which a man in a suit explains everything that happened, but not really. It’s a disaster movie with no large-scale scenes of destruction, which makes it seem absurd or surreal, especially when you factor in Shyamalan’s fixation on the banal Americana of Northeastern industrial backcountry: Amtrak trains, nuclear power plants, wood-sided five-doors. Sometimes, it mimics the goofiness of authentic ’50s B movies; this is one of those cases where the miscasting — namely, Mark Wahlberg as a Philadelphia science teacher who looks and talks like a football coach who’s been forced to sub sex ed — seems at least partly intentional. And yet, even with its non sequitur references to food (tiramisu, hot dogs, “lemon drink,” etc.) and its winks of self-parody (e.g., Wahlberg talking to a plastic plant), “The Happening” is a movie that a lot of people presume is trying and failing to be taken seriously. And maybe it is. On the one hand, it’s basically re-skinning tropes from the nuclear anxiety era, and the result seems just as silly as the threat of irradiated animals did to Joe Smartass in the mid-1950s. On the other, it’s a much more sincere horror film than it lets on, regardless of whether you take it as a campy (but very deliberate) B movie pastiche or just a really dumb film. But let’s address the question of intentionality first, because Shyamalan controls the shit out of “The Happening” — in every respect except the acting of the leads. Unusually for the genre, the movie is set mostly in open areas and in daylight; unable to corner the characters or hide a threat in darkness, Shyamalan opts for pure form, in his Spielberg-restrained-by-arthouse style. Perhaps this is one of those cases where a filmmaker invents a problem so that they can prove themselves by directing their way out. (The climax of “Signs” — in which almost all of the action is implied or handled obliquely — comes to mind.) The result is that the so-called scares in “The Happening” are largely abstract and standalone. More often than not, these are carefully staged and timed shots of random people killing themselves: A long take of a gun being passed from suicide to suicide, an eerie low angle of workers nonchalantly tumbling from the top of a constructions site, a telephoto shot of man lying down in front of a lawnmower, a driver’s POV of a tree tunnel avenue where the bodies of the hanged dangle like gourds. And it’s not hard to make a case for the movie on form alone. Though his taste for somber lighting, Steadicam shots, and slow zooms skews New Hollywood — bolstered here by the ’70s bona fides of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who shot “Badlands” and “Melvin And Howard,” among others — Shyamalan is more viewer-perspective classicist than aesthete. There’s always a clear reason for why something is in the frame or why it isn’t, and you can all but see the storyboard pencil marks under every camera movement. Something this confidently made has to have its reasons. And what about the epilogue, which plays like a parody of tidy tie-up closures, and is the only downbeat ending of Shyamalan’s career?
6. Curtains for the Ziegfield: Say Goodbye to Manhattan’s Last Single-Screen Movie Palace. New Yorkers are still mourning the loss of Manhattan’s Ziegfield Theater, a landmark for any cinephile living in the city. For the Village Voice, Simon Abrams pays tribute to the Ziegfield and why it was so essential.
Almost every New York film-lover has a cherished memory of the Ziegfeld Theater. Mine is the final Thursday-evening screening of the unnecessary but glorious “final cut” of “Blade Runner.” Diehards camped out in the first dozen rows and cheered the opening credits. That ’07 event is the kind of experience I hoped for at every subsequent visit to the Ziegfeld. Also memorable: The time the excited woman in front of me tried to shoo away “Jurassic World’s” 3-D dinosaurs by waving her hands. But anyone who caught a big-budget spectacular at the Ziegfeld in the last year knew that the venue could not go on in its present state. The Fisher brothers, the 46-year-old theater’s owners, announced last week that the Ziegfeld would close within a month — and reopen in 2017 as a schmancy all-purpose ballroom/event space. At best, Manhattan’s soon-to-be-renovated movie palace sold out only half of its 1,131-seat auditorium’s gargantuan middle section, even for screenings of hits like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” or “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” The theater’s charms are sadly outdated, even if the efficient, cheerful staff — particularly at the upstairs concession stand — remain helpful. You could see any of the gargantuan monoplex’s recent offerings in nearby Times Square, where ticket prices are just as prohibitively high. (The Ziegfeld charged a lofty $15 for a 2-D movie and a sadly standard $19.50 for 3-D. In spite of this, the theater was running Cablevision — the Fishers’ tenants and the owners of the Bow Tie Cinemas chain — an annual loss of a million dollars, according to the “New York Post’s” Lou Lumenick.) Opened in 1969 after the original Ziegfeld Theatre was demolished in 1966, the cinema was originally heralded for its charming mix of Victorian décor and modern movie technology. Before the Ziegfeld debuted with underwhelming space odyssey “Marooned,” the “New York Times'” A.H. Weiler hailed the theater for being almost fully superintended by a “computerized console…that enables its operator to control every function in the house.” The cutting edge is long gone, however. Lately, the Ziegfeld has mostly been frequented by nostalgists who come for the theater itself and stay for whatever title happens to be on the marquee. Sheer size is its last enduring novelty. And that’s just not enough, says film critic Farran Smith Nehme. “Even with 3-D shows, folks who love special effects are more drawn to IMAX,” Nehme told me. “The old-time ambiance of the Ziegfeld might not mean as much to them.”
Tweet(s) of the Day:
Don’t be mean to people who didn’t like the movie you liked. Also don’t be mean to people who liked the movie you didn’t like.
— Bilge Ebiri (@BilgeEbiri) January 26, 2016
The way they say the word “business” in the GODFATHER movies, like an incantation, is one of the great artistic comments about America.
— Danny Bowes (@bybowes) January 26, 2016