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Daily Reads: ‘The X-Files’ and the Problem With TV’s Nostalgia Boom, Errol Morris on ‘Making a Murderer,’ and More

Daily Reads: 'The X-Files' and the Problem With TV's Nostalgia Boom, Errol Morris on 'Making a Murderer,' and More

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

1. “The X-Files” and the Problem With TV’s Nostalgia Boom.
Fox’s classic sci-fi series “The X-Files” has returned for a six-episode revival. The first two episodes have already premiered to relatively mixed reviews, with the first episode especially being critically maligned in many quarters. Variety’s Maureen Ryan examines new and old “X-Files” and TV’s obsession with reviving the dead.

As a TV critic, it’s weird to be in a position of actively hoping that some shows never come back. For a long time, a significant chunk of the job consisted of campaigning for marginal shows that deserved more chances and better odds. But these days, comebacks for successful shows and updates of cult properties are almost more common than pilots based on fresh concepts. At press tour, when a Showtime executive said “Never say never” when asked about a “Dexter” retread, all I could think is, “Please, for the love of Deb, say never.” The way that “The X-Files” has been brought back makes me afraid of the return of “Twin Peaks”: Both shows had rough patches (actually, in the case of the Fox show, it was a disappointing and clearly profit-driven decline that lasted for years). Both shows were brought back by their creators and many of their original associates; at least they aren’t cynical brand extensions from those who weren’t present at the creation. But it’s hard not to wonder if the evocative magic they created over the course of many hours is just too difficult to create out of the gate decades later. Everyone wants what they loved right away, but “clunky” and “frantic” — adjectives that aptly describe the first two new “X-Files” installments — are not the words you’d choose to describe the best Mulder and Scully adventures. At their bests, “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files” depended on a semi-mystical bond between the audience and the creators, and the chemistry that floated around the characters themselves. Those complicated relationships were fostered by ambiguous, thoughtful and symbolic stories that were not just about murder and monsters but about scarred people who forged unlikely connections. When they worked, “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files” took you on atmospheric journeys that prioritized bittersweet, humane moments about compelling outsiders. But it’s harder for the new “X-Files” to evoke poignant emotions or explore evocative mysteries when the flop sweat is all too evident.

2. Errol Morris on the Reemergence of the True-Crime Drama.
In the past few years, there has been a noticeable reemergence of true-crime entertainment, from the podcast “Serial” to HBO’s “The Jinx” and recently Netflix’s “Making a Murderer.” Back in 1998, documentarian Errol Morris released his true-crime opus “The Thin Blue Line,” which eventually lead to the release of the film’s main subject Randall Dale Adams. For Slate, Isaac Butler interviews Errol Morris on his thoughts about “Making a Murderer,” looking back on “The Thin Blue Line,” and his general thoughts on true-crime stories today.

Q: As someone who’s done a number of true crime pieces and is working on another one now, why do you think these stories appeal to us so much? Why are they so addictive?

A: However you want to describe it: the whodunit; the mystery of what really happened; the mystery of personality; of who people really, really are is powerfully represented when you have a crime standing in back of all of it. It’s a way of dramatizing really significant issues: How we know what we know? How have we come to the belief that we have? Is justice served by the various mechanisms in our society? Is the law just? And on and on and on and on and on. I think it’s a mistake to assume, however, that all of these stories are doing the same thing, because they’re not. They’re doing different things. And…you see more and more criticisms of “Making a Murderer” because they say it’s biased — it leaves out this, that, and the other thing. To me, it’s a very powerful story, ultimately, not about whether these guys are guilty or innocent — but it’s a very powerful story about a miscarriage of justice. There’s so many themes in it that are relevant to investigation. But what is powerful in “Making a Murderer” is not the issue of whether [Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey] are guilty or innocent. It’s the horror of the courts and how that story was handled the first time around and subsequently. I can never ever forget Dassey’s attorney and the investigator. The attorney with the catfish mouth and the investigator crying — unforgettable.

3. In Defense of Daniel Radcliffe’s Farting Corpse.
The Daniels’ debut feature “Swiss Army Man” produced some of the most divisive reactions when it premiered at Sundance because, among other reasons, it prominently features a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe. Filmmaker Magazine’s Dan Schoenbrun argues in defense of “Swiss Army Man,” fart jokes and all.

“Swiss Army Man” is far from a perfect film, but it’s packed with enough passion, imagination and originality to set it apart from the vast majority of feature debuts. But there’s something more important to highlight here, something that’s been missed in the conversation: the fact that this film even exists is in itself a massive triumph. It’s almost inconceivable that an American debut this defiantly odd — one clearly conceived as a challenge to notions of ‘good taste’ — could be produced at this budget-level, with this cast, in 2016. Perhaps a decade ago the concept of a young American director (or, in this case, directors) being given the opportunity to experiment with an inherently uncommercial premise at this scale was common. These days, it’s almost unfathomable. It’s just not how the independent financing structure we have functions nowadays, at least in the U.S. Contrast The Daniels’ premise against the rest of Sundance’s Competition lineup. There are many strong filmmakers represented (including proven talents like Chad Hartigan, So Yong Kim, and Andrew Neel), but to comb through the film write-ups is to receive a visit from the Ghosts of Indie Hits Past. It’s a sea of reverent biopics, ensemble comedies, coming-of-age dramas and issue films. How could a farting corpse be anything other than the black sheep? The backlash around “Swiss Army Man” in Park City is bumming me out. And that feeling has only multiplied as I’ve seen the same condescension about Radcliffe’s farting corpse spread across the Internet (even though most of the people writing about the film online clearly haven’t even seen it). Given how homogenized the American filmmaking landscape has become, a farting corpse in the Sundance Competition lineup isn’t something we should be deriding offhand. It’s something we should be celebrating. Independent film isn’t supposed to be safe or easily defined. It’s supposed to provoke, to challenge. It’s supposed to be a tool of the counterculture, serving up the stories, ideas, and visions that mainstream movies couldn’t hope to produce. Sundance, our country’s premiere launchpad for independent cinema, should be a place where a film that zags as aggressively as this one does is embraced.

4. How Screenwriter Drew Goddard Made Physics Fun in “The Martian.”
Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” garnered mostly positive reviews and has been nominated for a slew of awards this Oscar season. For Vulture, screenwriter Drew Goddard explains the toughest scene he had to write for the film, and how he made physics entertaining.

With “The Martian,” I knew that the challenges came from the fact that it’s a very dense text, and the science is very dense, and you have to make it accessible for an audience. I knew that would be the question that came up over and over. I felt like, All right, just trust that if I love it, other people are going to love it, too. My job became much more about protecting what was in Andy Weir’s book. I said to the studio, “Don’t come to me and say we have to dumb this down. Because if we do, I don’t know that we have anything.” If we have to strip all that out, suddenly we’re left with a Robinson Crusoe story. Which is okay, but it wouldn’t be special the way I think the movie is special. The intelligence of the book is key to its success. It was all about finding that balance. For me, the secret was: As long as we’re relating to Matt Damon, we’ll go along with the exposition. But that was always the challenge: finding ways to make each scene human so that the science had context. There’s one scene that stands out as being especially difficult. I essentially called it the “Matt sets up the third act” scene, and it’s just a monologue. We had this concept of what the third act is, which is that we’re going to launch Matt into space in a tin can. That’s it. When we explained that that was going to happen, we needed to explain why, and we needed to explain the velocity involved in what’s going to happen, because one of the things that’s hard about filmmaking is speed can be difficult. For example, if you look at race cars on tracks, you need to see them blowing past something to understand that they’re moving at a high rate. It’s perspective. The problem with launching off the surface of a planet is, we really wanted to sell how dangerous all of this was about to be. It was this exposition that I was struggling with, of just Matt Damon talking.

5. Color Science and Film: The Ten Best Color Systems.
Color science is very important to film restoration, as evidenced by the BFI’s symposium Color In Film, which brings together experts in the fields of color film restoration and color science. At BFI’s website, Uli Ruedel lists the ten best color system and how the very best ones achieve a heightened sensation of emotion.

Gasparcolor: Admittedly short-lived after its 1933 introduction, but vibrant and pioneering, Gasparcolor was a so-called dye destruction system, requiring extensive exposure. Animation scholar William Moritz described the system by its “perfect hues for animation,” and it was this way it was used by artists such as Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye and George Pal. For a while it was the only technically serious competitor to Technicolor. For the most recent restoration study, consult HTW graduate Andrea Krämer’s master thesis (in German), available through the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

Introduced in 1935, the Kodachrome reversal process was the first successful color system employing what we know today as color development, using so-called couplers that create the dyes within a film upon photographic development. Available as a reversal material only, it entered the amateur movie market while the cinema market was only slowly moving towards Technicolor. Most Kodachrome films are vibrant (even a national park, Utah’s Kodachrome Basin, has been named after the system) and quite stable, and thus home or non-theatrical movies shot in the format can provide rare historic color images such as those of the Second World War or the lives of ordinary people.

Glorious Technicolor:
 In the year of the 100th anniversary of the company that developed it through the years (“Glorious Technicolor” is actually the fourth Technicolor system, with two-color Technicolor systems No. 2 and 3 its most important predecessors, see above), Hollywood’s first enduring color system easily makes the number one spot on this list. With prints that are essentially made in a lithographic, “dye transfer” process, its vibrancy is reminiscent of the earlier, “unnatural” applied dye colors, yet it was the first system to offer full “natural” color photographic moving images. Hollywood classics like “Gone with the Wind” (1939) are unthinkable without the systems, but there were also, in their aesthetics, distinctly European and British implementations of the system, such as “The Red Shoes” (1948). Even after the bulky Technicolor camera had to succumb to the use of Eastman color negatives in conventional film cameras, Technicolor printing remained the preferred way to ensure vibrant prints even from Eastman negatives, well into the 1970s, for everything from spaghetti westerns to Hammer horror.

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