Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Method Men: The Recent Career Trajectories of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu’s new film “The Revenant” opens wide tomorrow after months of press releases about difficult shoots and standard critical rumblings about self-seriousness. “The Revenant” stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass and Tom Hardy as his nemesis John Fitzgerald. Both actors previously starred in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film “Inception.” Movie Mezzanine’s Josh Spiegel examines the recent career trajectories of both DiCaprio and Hardy and the different acting styles they employ.
To watch DiCaprio and Hardy in “The Revenant” is to watch warring styles of acting, butting up against each other like Glass and the bear that mauls him. Much has been made — to the point where “much” is now a gross understatement — about the generally tough environment in which “The Revenant” was made, and the lengths that DiCaprio took to bring a fully lived-in aspect to his performance. (What was once “I ate a raw bison liver during filming” has now been repeated so frequently that it sounds more like “I slaughtered a herd of bison, ate all of their livers with fava beans and a nice Chianti, and then I wore one of their skins so I could go undercover as a bison and see if I could fool other herds.”) Hardy’s experience wasn’t quite as rough, but it did further solidify his status as a difficult actor to work with, which oddly fits the character of Fitzgerald perfectly. Glass and Fitzgerald are posited as extreme opposites on the spectrum of masculinity throughout “The Revenant”: the former is fierce, but always loyal, goodhearted, and appropriately paternal to his teenage son, while the latter is cowardly, selfish, greedy, and slovenly. It’s easy — maybe a little too easy — to make fun of DiCaprio for his preparations for “The Revenant,” but the way that he works the press versus how Hardy works is a fascinating contrast. DiCaprio has been a movie star for the better part of his life (we’re only a couple years away from the 20th anniversary of “Titanic”), whereas Hardy has only recently become a name actor of some renown in the last few years. (In 2002, Hardy played the villain in “Star Trek: Nemesis” and almost had a brief run-in with fame, had the movie been a bigger hit.) Both actors occasionally go to extreme lengths for the characters they play, whether it’s eating bison liver or piling on the Coke and Haagen-Dazs to turn into feared British criminal Charles Bronson. They embody the modern version of a performer like Robert De Niro circa “Raging Bull,” less an actor than a Transformer.
2. “Star Wars”: Space Opera Millennials and Their Grand Narratives. At this point, anyone who has wanted to see the new “Star Wars” film has probably gone out of their way to a theater to go see it. So now is the time to really deconstruct the film: Giant Bomb’s Austin Walker discusses “The Force Awakens” with relation to Structuralism, grand narratives, and intrinsic truths.
That heritage is (among other things) a school of 20th century thought called Structuralism. Building on the work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, structuralists identify and analyze what they see as common, foundational elements inside of any given set of human activity. While others in the field of linguistics were studying how a given language changed over time, Saussure was trying to figure out what was core to the way all languages must work. Levi-Strauss expanded on Saussure’s work, looking not only at human language but also at the structure of human stories and mythology. For both Saussure and Levi-Strauss, answering these questions about human activity was key to figuring out universal and intrinsic truths about humans. Over the decades that followed, structuralist work expanded into analysis of economic, cultural, and political realms. It was often incredibly productive, since it gave people the tools to look not only at individual instances but also broader trends and practices. But structuralism eventually found pushback from folks who doubted that so much was truly “universal.” Structuralist thought sometimes minimized real differences between different phenomena, and it often led to grand claims that prioritized the world views of the powerful and established. Some “post-structuralists” kept the toolset of structuralist analysis, but emphasized that the “structures” they were studying were ever-changing, not eternal: “Yes, we can analyze the structure of myths, but that changes as economic, social, technological, and emotional contexts do.” When I finally brought all of this to bear on “Star Wars,” I realized that it didn’t only lean heavily on supposedly “universal” elements of myth-making, but also featured a fictional setting that itself presumes structuralism to be accurate. There is a fundamental organization and underlying structure to all sapient activity in “Star Wars”: The Force. And as Han says, “It’s real, all of it.” It’s a claim that ancient alien bar-owner Maz Kanata supports, too: In a long enough timeline, “the same eyes appear in different people”–and whether she means that “Star Wars” characters are literally reincarnated or just that we’re looking at a world of endless, thematic recurrence, the point is clear: There will always be a Luke and a Leia and a Darth Vader, even when they’re a Rey and a Finn and a Kylo Ren. “Star Wars” communicates its structuralism not only narratively, but also with a fierce cinematic cudgel. It hits you with black masks, with bright blue and red lasers, with orchestral swells, and with the sort of panoramic wide shots that seem to reach out and say “Yes, there is a transcendent, capital T Truth out there.” The lonely, desert sunsets of Tatooine and Jakku; the surge of heroism as an X-Wing squadron drifts in-formation over the waters and forests of Takodana; the Evil of General Hux’s gathered mass of potential violence, his stormtroopers, his red banners, his technological supremacy, his eagerness to destroy populations we’ve barely met. At its highest points, “Star Wars” is crafted with such mastery that it is easy to convince oneself that it touches something fundamental to all humans, something eternal and real.
3. Why “Sleeping with Other People” Deserves a Best Director Nomination. Amidst all the half-baked awards analysis that pops up this time of year, there are the occasional “Oscar” columns that try to do something different. The A.V. Club’s Oscar This column picks dark horse, left field candidates for Oscar nominations in order to discuss the formal qualities of unlikely candidates. Writer Jesse Hassenger explores Leslye Headland’s “Sleeping with Other People,” and why it deserves a Best Director nomination.
Headland has directed only two feature films: the wonderful “Bachelorette,” based on her stage play; and “Sleeping With Other People,” an original film with a clear basis in “When Harry Met Sally…” dynamics. It follows Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie), who hook up once in college before unexpectedly reuniting over a decade later at a sex addiction meeting. Jake is a compulsive (if high-spirited and charming) womanizer and cheater, while Lainey’s compulsions focus on a single, toxic relationship with an attached guy; they strike up a friendship and attempt to keep it sex-free as they try to heal their romantic lives. That set-up alone is reason enough for awards-watchers to dismiss “Sleeping With Other People” from serious consideration in a category like Best Director. This kind of movie, if it does get any kind of recognition, tends to be honored for its writing, and Headland is, indeed, an excellent writer of emotionally honest scenes punctuated with crisp, self-aware but never smarmy banter. But it’s worth remembering that movies are not solely writing, and the reason “Sleeping” works as well as it does — why it’s more than the sum of its laughs — is Headland’s assured hand behind the camera. It’s not just that Headland provides her actors with good dialogue and, it would seem, does a fine job guiding their delivery of it. She also creates physical space for Brie and Sudeikis onscreen, individually and as a quasi-couple. When the movie re-introduces the present-day version of Jake after its college-set prologue, Headland stages a scene wherein he attempts to chase down his sorta-girlfriend and talk her down from her apoplectic rage over his infidelity. It’s the first of several scenes that make great use of actual New York City locations as settings, rather than romantic landmark check-boxes. When the film sends Sudeikis hurtling through the frame, both at regular speed and in slow motion, the people and cars he has to barrel past feel like real obstacles, not comic detritus. Headland’s dialogue is funny and sometimes elaborate, but she roots her characters in the real world. So the obvious thing to do to create a feeling of urgency in this scene would be to use jittery, clearly handheld cameras for faux-realism. Headland, though, lets the scene between Jake and his jilted lover play out in takes slightly longer than the usual back-and-forth cuts. They’re not bravura, technically complicated shots, but by keeping passing cars in the frame throughout the conversation, Headland both sets ups and makes semi-serious (if still amusing) the moment when the woman pushes Jake into the path of an oncoming cab. Headland employs unfussy long-ish takes like this throughout the film — important for a movie about intimacy. The first and most substantial scene between Lainey and her longtime hook-up Matthew (Adam Scott) winds up with the two of them fucking on the desk in his office. Most of the actual sex also plays out in a single shot (with one early cutaway to the office door, ajar), and Headland captures white glints of sunlight coming through the window in the background, giving the moment lighting that’s both dreamlike and a little bit harsh. The “wrong guy” is a stock character in a romantic comedy, but this particular romantic comedy actually makes an effort to convey both what’s wrong about this guy and what feels right about him in the moment, all at once, in a matter of minutes.
4. Slate Movie Club: Brave Performances and Problematic Movies. Slate’s annual Movie Club is well under way, and with a great lineup of opinionated writers and critics to discuss the year in film. Yesterday, writer Mark Harris examines the performances he found most brave and the problem with discussing “problematic” films in this day and age.
And David, you’re brave to bring up the multiple powder kegs of representation-versus-endorsement, of “problematizing” movies as a way of punishing them for discomforting us, and of labeling as a way of ending rather than starting a conversation. (I just had an argument with someone who didn’t like “Brooklyn” because he felt that the indecisiveness of Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis made her a bad role model. Sigh.) I no longer know how to reply when someone calls a movie racist or misogynistic or homophobic or transphobic (all labels I myself have used about various works of art). It’s not that I don’t think those qualities exist in movies, or that they shouldn’t be called out; it’s that often I don’t think those condemnations are deployed with any desire to spark a counterargument. They’re just a way to tell you that a particular movie has landed in the wrong house of Hogwarts, and if you disagree, you’ll be sorted there too. And that frustrates me since, in looking at these movies, conversation is the only currency all of us can possibly share, informed by whatever the differences in our individual backgrounds, experiences, and affinities are.
5. R.I.P. Jason Wingreen, Indelible Character Actor. There have been many tragic losses in the film world this early into 2016. Along with cinematographers Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond, there is also Jason Wingreen, a character actor of film and television that is best known for the voice of Boba Fett in “The Empire Strikes Back,” despite Lucas replacing his voice with another actor’s in the “Special Edition” releases. The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips pays tribute to the late actor and his accomplishments.
Character actors have a way of marking the pages of our lives, like human bookmarks, reminding us what we watched years or decades ago, or what we saw last night — a “Twilight Zone” here, a “Fantasy Island” there, a performer-driven feature film such as “Spotlight” when we’re lucky. More concretely, character actors also remind us also why certain faces or voices stick in the memory, even if the names aren’t movie-star famous. Take Jason Wingreen, who died Dec. 25 at the age of 95. He attended Brooklyn College and, during World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces in Europe. As an actor he was luckier than many. He had one of those faces, and one of those voices. Average height (5-foot-10) but interesting eyes, capped by eyebrows that looked like they went up and stayed up, permanently. Big, well-trained, gravelly voice, perfect for a train conductor, for example, which Wingreen played in one of the best-loved “Twilight Zone” episodes, “A Stop at Willoughby,” in 1960. Wingreen’s father arrived in New York City in 1910 from Lithuania. Ellis Island officials Americanized the old family name “Vengerin” into Wingreen. The future actor grew up in Howard Beach, Queens, where he lived above his dad’s tailor shop with his father, mother and sister. The radio was always on. His sister became a longtime pianist with the New York Philharmonic. She had the talent, he used to say. “I’m just an actor.” On television, the stage and the movies Wingreen played scads of authority figures — doctors, teachers, more doctors. Also, in a “Star Wars” film, the best “Star Wars” film, he provided the voice of Boba Fett, the Mandalorian bounty hunter who brings in Han Solo. Wingreen once told me it took him maybe 10 minutes to record his four terse lines of functional dialogue for “The Empire Strikes Back.” Years later the voice was replaced by another actor’s voice, per George Lucas’ wishes, for the 2004 “special edition” DVD reissue. This week, the majority of Wingreen’s obituary headlines have included phrases such as “voice of Boba Fett,” even though Wingreen could claim several dozen more interesting and substantial credits. He was, for starters, a founding member of the off-Broadway Circle in the Square Theatre back in 1951. What can you do. Nothing can compete with “Star Wars.”
6. Director Barry Jenkins on Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick.” Though writers and critics write about an artist’s work all the time, it’s nice to hear some opinions from an actual artist themselves. The Talkhouse specializes in publishing the thoughts and opinions of artists on other artists’ work. Case in point: director Barry Jenkins writes about Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick” and how the series’ direction makes it stand alone in a crowded marketplace.
“The Knick” is wonderful for a bevy of reasons. Chief among them are the consistency of its writing and boldness of its visual direction. Unlike the majority of television, “The Knick” is rooted in a pair of single sources: the writing team of Jack Amiel and Michael Begler on the page, the eye of Steven Soderbergh behind the camera. While having either a single writing or directing entity for the entirety of a television season is a rarity, having both is damn near unheard of. There are reasons for this and, for the most part, they are valid. In an era where “golden” has been the chosen descriptor affixed to the state of television, the bar for quality on the small screen is ever higher. This takes work, in some ways more work than required for prestige features and blockbuster bonanzas. The economies of scale dictate aesthetic systems and, where time is limited and budgets constrained, dividing the writing and directing of a show between a cadre of trusted voices (tasked with wielding their unique, yet same voice) is the only way to meet such demands. Which is what makes the “The Knick” so extraordinary. A period piece set a hundred years in the past, in a technical field at the heart of one of the most recognizable cities on earth, its degree of difficulty is pronounced and steep. And yet, rather than spreading the responsibility for shouldering that difficulty amongst a wide group, the HBO/Cinemax brain trust takes the other tack, condensing the responsibility amongst Messrs Amiel, Begler and Soderbergh. What results is nothing less than one of the finest examples of longform visual storytelling ever put to screen. In the consistency of its voice, “The Knick” is the rare visual drama that approaches (and nearly, nearly meets) the hopeless benchmarks of the long form novel (just my opinion, but Kieślowski’s “The Decalogue” and David Simon’s “The Wire” would be the others).
Tweet(s) of the Day:
Everything you find terrible today is what people younger than you will be nostalgic for in a decade.
— Alan Scherstuhl (@studiesincrap) January 7, 2016
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by half-baked true crime series with just enough twists to make them binge-worthy.
— Matt Patches (@misterpatches) January 6, 2016