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Daily Reads: The Demise of Hollywood’s Hottest Algorithm, Why Americans Are Ignoring Trevor Noah’s ‘Daily Show,’ and More

Daily Reads: The Demise of Hollywood's Hottest Algorithm, Why Americans Are Ignoring Trevor Noah's 'Daily Show,' and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. The Demise of Relativity Media, Hollywood’s Hottest Algorithm.
Anytime a film studio green-lights a movie, they’re inherently assuming quite a bit of risk, not just the initial investment but also that it will be financially viable in the long run. But what if there was an algorithm that could predict the financial success of a movie with close to absolute certainty? Well, that was what Ryan Kavanaugh of Relativity Media promised for a while, at least before the mini-major filed for bankruptcy. Vulture’s Benjamin Wallace explores Kavanaugh, the initial success of Relativity, as well as the causes of their downfall.

Kavanaugh had spent his 20s building a venture-capital firm with his father in Los Angeles, an experience that was financially unsuccessful but taught him how to raise money and manage the egos of Hollywood potentates. His first act in the film business was to use that experience to broker deals between Wall Street and the studios: He teamed up with Lynwood Spinks, a former executive at the defunct independent studio Carolco whose wide network of industry contacts made up for Kavanaugh’s youth. It was Kavanaugh, though, who had a nose for the shifting demands of the moment. Studios, newly conglomeratized and recently bereft of a favored German tax shelter, were looking for fresh ways to fund movies and hedge risk. Meanwhile, Wall Street’s bubble was re-inflating, and alternative asset classes — franchise rights to restaurants, royalties from drug patents — were the rage. In the market’s frothiness, Kavanaugh spied opportunity. Because the performance of any one movie is unpredictable, studios have always managed risk by betting on an entire slate of films. But Kavanaugh presented banks with a couple of big ideas: Borrowing a tool from Wall Street, he touted his “Monte Carlo model,” a computer program that runs thousands of simulations, as a device that could predict a film’s success far more reliably than even a sophisticated studio executive. Better, Kavanaugh convinced several studios that he could raise more money for them if they gave him access to their guarded “ultimates” numbers showing the historical or projected performance of a film across all platforms (DVD, video-on-demand, etc.) over a number of years. If, for instance, a studio was planning to make an “Untouchables” prequel starring Nicolas Cage and Gerard Butler and directed by Brian De Palma, Kavanaugh posited that he could evaluate the potential investment by plugging scores of historical-performance variables into his model, from Cage’s average global-box-office grosses in a particular genre to De Palma’s track record within a particular budget range. Applying this analysis across a studio’s entire slate, he could theoretically cherry-pick the winners and channel investors’ money into those alone. Kavanaugh proved as effective at raising money to launch his own studio as he was at financing other studios’ movies. In fact, he landed as sophisticated an investor as anyone could imagine: Elliott Management, the hedge fund founded by Paul Singer, one of the Republican Party’s largest donors. Elliott had already taken a small position in Gun Hill 1, and a senior director at the firm, Chuck MacDonald, was impressed by Kavanaugh’s business model — in particular, the fees it took regardless of how the underlying assets performed. (In this sense, Relativity was operating like a hedge fund itself.) Elliott knew that Kavanaugh wanted to build out his own studio, but the firm was reassured that his proprietary methodology and risk-hedging model would ensure that the company delivered a steady stream of “singles and doubles.”

2. Why Are Americans Ignoring Trevor Noah?
Comedian Jon Stewart left his post at “The Daily Show” in August and new host Trevor Noah took over in late September. Though Noah’s show has received generally positive reviews, the show has not had the same rousing success as Stewart’s show did just yet. Slate’s Willa Paskin examines why Americans are ignoring Trevor Noah and his “bloodless finesse.”

At its best, “The Daily Show” is cathartic. It has served a real sociopolitical end by dragging the most offensive, inane, and ridiculous aspects of our politics under the bright lights and laughing at them with intelligence and wit and lowbrow goofiness. “The Daily Show” is an activist joker, deflating gasbags and ridiculing the sanctimonious status quo, so that instead of suffering through it alone, we can laugh at it together. Stewart turned himself gray trying to rain sanity, silliness, and outrage on the hypocrisy, mendacity, and idiocy that is our political discourse. For his effort and his anger, he was rewarded with trust and love, a fake newsman who became more indispensible than a real one. Where Stewart allowed himself to be a divining rod for the news, to feel it all and lose his cool accordingly, Noah is always smooth and telegenic, easy in his manner and on the eyes, never worked up, never letting things get too dark. The daft tweets that got Noah into so much trouble before he even took over “The Daily Show” seemed to presage a clumsy and unsubtle host, one who would say the wrong thing at the wrong time. But Tweetgate proved to be a red herring. Noah’s problem is not that he makes bad jokes but that he doesn’t take more chances to make great ones. All bloodless finesse, he never goes for the jugular. Consider Noah’s coverage of Obama’s recent State of the Union, in which he explained: “Typically a State of the Union is when a president lays out his agenda for the year to come,” just one of the moments when “The Daily Show’s” attempts to expand its demographic suggest it’s imagining an audience who might know nothing about politics at all. Noah often makes toothless jokes about physical appearances, from El Chapo’s bad shirt to a guy who looked like a “wizard” at a recent Democratic debate. The sight of one bespectacled tween in the crowd during the SOTU sent Noah on a reverie about an imaginary sitcom called “Senator Kid.” It was not a particularly funny flight of fancy, and it provided no analysis of the State of the Union. As Noah reached the end of the bit, perhaps sensing that it hadn’t gone over that well, he put his charm to work, scrunching up his nose and giggling hard. “I’m sorry, I can really see the show,” he shrugged.

3. Make It Real: “The Big Short,” A Documentary Feature.
Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has garnered plenty of positive reviews and a slew of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but just as many critics have criticized the film for its glib, aggressively superficial approach to complex material. But Film Comment’s Eric Hynes argues that though “The Big Short” doesn’t ask to be considered a documentary, it blurs the line between fact and fiction so thoroughly that it demands a new lens.

Yes, it’s a matter of semantics, but also of the lens we choose to look through. “The Big Short” doesn’t ask to be considered a documentary, but it also doesn’t employ the same lens through which we look at most “based on a true story” or “based on true events” fictionalizations. From the very beginning, through Ryan Gosling’s narration as investment banker Jared Vennett, McKay torpedoes suspension of disbelief. We’re never asked to buy fully into McKay’s dramatization of the world financial crisis. Instead we’re asked to hold his dramatizations at a remove, to constantly remember that these are actors playing parts, that the way these scenes play out on screen is not exactly what happened. Voiceover asides let us know that certain exchanges didn’t happen in the locations depicted in the film, that certain scenes have been tarted up for dramatic effect. It’s a ploy that fosters skepticism from the audience, but also engagement with each choice and what it conveys. You’re invited to note that you’re watching Brad Pitt play a part, that Christian Bale is working really hard to meticulously impersonate someone you’ve never met before, that Steve Carell is doing a voice and wearing hair that are not his own, that Marisa Tomei is around merely to humanize the morally crucial Carell, that Ryan Gosling is tearing off pieces of dialogue, masticating them around in his mouth, and following every mannered utterance with an invisible fist pump. If you’re being asked to suspend disbelief, any of these affectations could sink the movie like a stone. But instead McKay is accenting these affectations, fomenting our skepticism, underscoring that this is a big Hollywood show. The film stops cold on three separate occasions for cutaways in which celebrities (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez) lecture on the complex workings of various banking-related matters. These aren’t just cheeky interludes in an otherwise straightforward narrative, they’re ruptures that help define the point of view of the entire enterprise. They’re dramatizations within larger dramatizations, and one is no more believable, or asks to be more believable, than the other. Good documentaries invite us to question the methods and subjectivities of their creators, asserting that we can get closer to truths by accepting (and incorporating) rather than denying human interventions. Less subtle but no less critical-minded, McKay doesn’t just invite such questioning — he does it for us via Gosling’s built-in, piss-take commentary, as well as via pull-back-the-curtain narrative interventions. But such skepticism isn’t fostered in order for us to question the underlying facts — rather it’s used to help us see them more clearly. Facts aren’t employed to spin an entertaining narrative — even if the narrative is often very entertaining — but instead an entertaining narrative is employed to drive us to the facts. It’s this conviction about the horrible truth of what happened, and the need for us to understand how and why it happened, that drives “The Big Short.” Say this or that performance is over the top. Say this or that scene doesn’t work. It’s all seemingly secondary to the fact that the movie just might help you better understand the way banks and governments and the corrupt world financial system work. Most documentaries are more committed to their own artifice or arc than “The Big Short,” which behaves closer to an essay film, or even an instructional film in the negative. Its performances aren’t quite reenactments, but they’re all bracketed off from the actual. They’re attempts not to fool us into believing in them, but to help us to better understand the real scenarios the acted out scenes represent. You can get caught up in the movie, and even experience the escapism that Hollywood movies excel at offering. But that experience is defined by and couched within a nonfictional account. It’s a nonfictional adaptation of a nonfictional text, using fictionalized scenes and performances to enliven text into spectacle, and select readers into mass viewers.

4. The Remarkable Influence of David Lynch.
Sometime next year, the revival of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” will debut on Showtime, which will be the first time we will have new material from Lynch in over a decade. Lynch’s influence on contemporary pop culture cannot be understated as his explorations into the grotesquely banal has enervated in the cultured for years now. The Atlantic’s Mike Mariani unpacks Lynch’s influence by offering a brief primer on his work and demonstrating how it lingers over the culture.

Lynch’s first full-length feature, which is in part about the paralyzing fears of child-rearing, could be described as both a difficult birth and a labor of love. After five years of erratic production schedules and troubled financing, “Eraserhead” reached the midnight-movie circuit in 1977, where it gradually won a cult following. The film focuses on the strange and banal Henry Spencer as he discovers that his on-off girlfriend is pregnant. Once the baby is born, the film descends into a Kafkaesque nightmare rife with humor and despair. With the help of a malevolent-sounding ambient soundtrack, “Eraserhead” builds a dystopian landscape that mirrors Spencer’s fraught relationship with everyone and everything around him. Among “Eraserhead’s” many admirers was none other than Stanley Kubrick, who appropriated a great deal from Lynch’s film for his own horror masterpiece, 1980’s “The Shining.” The latter uses the same relentless background noise and lingering shots to build a sense of dread that eventually crescendos into a fever dream of madness. Even “The Shining’s” famous “Room 237” is a not-so-subtle allusion to Spencer’s sultry neighbor’s apartment room 27. In “The Shining” as in “Eraserhead,” sex masquerades as an escape but ultimately propels its central character further into his downward spiral. Beyond its outsize impact on “The Shining,” “Eraserhead” may also be responsible for an entire subgenre: body horror, which focuses on the deterioration of the body by showing it in various states of decay or mutilation. In its visceral investigation into the anxieties of caring for a newborn, “Eraserhead” was one of the first films to portray the human body as something frightening and repellent, not to be nurtured but rather feared. Spencer’s vile offspring is only the most overt instance of body horror in the film; the title, after all, alludes to a dream sequence in which Spencer is decapitated and his head is used to create erasers at a pencil factory. This simultaneous fascination and repulsion with the human body and its infinite variety of deconstructions would go on to inform the work of David Cronenberg and Clive Barker in films like “The Fly,” “Videodrome,” and “Hellraiser.”

5. “Big Love,” Religion, and Television.
Very few television shows usually focus on or embrace religion as a topic of interest let alone a source of conflict. This is often because it’s difficult for television as a medium to capture the feeling of religion like other artistic mediums do so well. On his Episodes blog, TV critic Todd VanDerWerff writes about “Big Love” and how it’s one of the few series to take seriously people’s need to be a part of something larger than themselves even when it shied away from being about “religion.”

Before we begin, I should say that the thing that keeps “Big Love” from the pantheon is a fourth season that tries to do far too much and ends up spinning its wheels as a consequence. The show was always a high-gloss soap, with characters getting yanked around by absurdist, over the top plots. But season four seemingly abandoned the tight character focus that had made the crazy plotting palatable. The show, having burned through creators Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen’s six-season plan for the series in just three seasons, started winging it, seemingly, and the result was a chaotic mess. The fifth and final season is better, but never reaches the heights of the first three. That said, at its best, “Big Love” was like an antidote to so much of what made dramas of the era occasionally enervating. It was focused, first and foremost, on relationships and community, instead of heroes off on their lonesome. (In that regard, it was like a “Lost” where the characters felt they had all of the mysteries solved already.) It was deliberately female-centric, with three tremendous performances from Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin, to say nothing of a lovely supporting performance from Amanda Seyfried. (Seyfried is just fine on the big screen, but I think television is a much better medium for her skills.) But what was best about the show was the way that it drew you into the world of a modern polygamist compound and made you at least semi-invested in seeing those who lived within it find happiness, all the while reminding you that polygamy, at least as it was practiced by these people, was a tool of the patriarchy meant to keep women from truly fulfilling any role other than wife and mother. It was a tricky balance, one the show couldn’t always manage, but when it could, it was absolutely masterful. The genius thing “Big Love” did was essentially implant its central religion within its central family. Thus, the stakes for leaving the religion (or for questioning it) were always about leaving or questioning the family, which are much higher dramatic stakes. We didn’t need to buy into polygamy or fundamentalist LDS sects in the slightest to get concerned when, say, Seyfried’s character, Sarah, got pregnant and feared what her father might do, or when Tripplehorn’s character, Barb, questioned everything she had given up in letting her husband take a second and third wife. The show was never about religion. It was about family.

6. “Natural Born Kissers” Brings The A.V. Club’s “Simpsons” Classic Reviews to an End.
Back in 2010, Nathan Rabin began reviewing classic episodes of “The Simpsons” for The A.V. Club starting with the very first episode. It was an attempt to place the Golden Years of “The Simpsons” in proper context, exploring how it became an unlikely cultural phenomenon and then later a comedy machine, producing bona fide “classics” every week. But after six years, “The Simpsons” Classic reviews come to a close with Les Chappell’s review of “Natural Born Kissers,” the ninth season finale.

Season nine of “The Simpsons” is a Frankenstein season of television. Ostensibly Mike Scully’s first season as showrunner of the venerable institution, his debut was surrounded by pieces of showrunners past. The departing team Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein had three episodes left from the eighth season: “The City Of New York Vs. Homer Simpson,” “The Principal And The Pauper,” and “Lisa The Simpson.” David Mirkin returned after stepping down in season six to helm “The Joy Of Sect” and “Singing And Dancing.” Al Jean and Mike Reiss, showrunners in seasons three and four (the most gilded of Golden Age “Simpsons”), returned for “Lisa’s Sax” and “Simpson Tide.” The end result is an uncoordinated mix of voices and tones, each of which had its own idea about what made the show work. That unfocused blend of creative energy, paired with the natural entropy that affects any show that’s on the air for eight years, is a large reason why the ninth season of “The Simpsons” is not a great season of television. It’s still a good season, with more high points than lows, but given that it comes on the heels of consecutive all-time greats, being less than great is enough to get it labeled as the end of something special. Episodes were less successful at hitting their satirical marks, plots suffered from a lack of inspiration or felt recycled from prior years, and the family became broader and consequently more grating. It began the string of complaints that have dogged the show for eighteen seasons since: that “The Simpsons” was no longer this brilliant thing at the forefront of television that could be called, without hyperbole, the greatest comedy of all time. Those objections have always obscured one crucial fact: Just because “The Simpsons” isn’t uniformly great anymore, that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of being great. Even as recently as this season, the creative team and the ensemble are capable of producing something that proves the show doesn’t need to be put out of its misery. “Natural Born Kissers,” the season nine finale, is a welcome example of that and a perfect way to close an uneven stretch of episodes. It understands its characters and how to make them funny and human at the same time, and has the ability to go from relationship angst to public nudity without batting an eye.

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