Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. 10 Commandments of Turning “Hamilton” Into a Movie Musical. Even if you don’t live in New York or follow the Broadway musical scene, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” the Broadway show that has revolutionized musical theater. The phenomenon has swept the nation, and subsequently a ticket to “Hamilton” is one of the hardest tickets to get in the country. In honor of the show, Rolling Stone’s David Ehrlich writes the 10 commandments for the eventual film adaptation of “Hamilton.”
Get Your Right Hand Man Back: The choice of director is key. A handful of filmmakers have displayed the nerve and creative vision required to not throw away this shot — Paul Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” for example, is an opulent masterclass in how to break a biography into a work of art. And let’s not forget how Kanye West, a nascent filmmaker in his own right, practically is a modern day Hamilton (“When was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry?,” he raps on his new album). But Tommy Kail, who directs the show’s current incarnation, is the best choice for the job. Not only has he been Miranda’s right-hand man from the beginning, but the staggering visual dexterity with which he helmed Fox’s recent “Grease: Live” (seriously!) is proof that his creative vision is only clarified with a camera lens to his eye.
Stay Live: Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” movie took that musical to the guillotine, but he deserves credit for insisting that his cast perform their songs live. The technique created a sense of immediacy that would be absolutely crucial to a “Hamilton” film, as the crux of Miranda’s story is about how the past is always alive — never static — constantly mediated by the present. “America then, as told by America now,” reads the tagline. Theater offers a responsiveness that cinema can’t, but having these actors sing for real will make it feel like the raps are being freestyled before our very eyes.
Let’s Get This Guy in Front of a Crowd: Finally, it’s important to remember that “Hamilton” was kind of conceived as a movie. From the very beginning, Miranda has refused to yield to the accepted rules of musical theater, and one of the most radical aspects of his approach was writing a stage show that flows like a film. In an unpublished excerpt from his “Rolling Stone” interview, Miranda discussed how he often thinks in a cinematic language: “I’m just as fluent in Kurosawa as I am in fucking Sondheim, and that informs ‘Hamilton.’ There are seventy different scenes, seventy different set pieces in that show, and the challenge for my collaborators was to figure out how to stage all this shit — how to just go from ‘we’re on a battlefield’ to ‘we’re in a cloakroom.'” In other words, “Hamilton” is made possible by cuts. “I’m just picturing the movie of it in my head. I’m not picturing it stage-wise, I’m really not.'” Miranda’s collaborators did such a good job that it became extremely difficult to imagine how this story might work in another medium, but there’s a million things that could be done. Just you wait.
2. “Downton Abbey” Did More to Push TV Into a New Golden Age Than Any Other Show. Last night, the acclaimed long-running series “Downton Abbey” premiered its series finale. The LA Times’ Mary McNamara argues that “Downton Abbey” pushed television into its new Golden Age more than any of its contemporaries.
Just as quickly, “Downton Abbey” became PBS’ first bona-fide hit in years. It won six Emmys in its first season (which was entered in the movie or miniseries category) and was soon racking up numbers that outpaced those of many hit shows on cable and broadcast networks (more than 10 million tuned in for the premieres of Seasons 4, 5 and 6). Together with “Mad Men,” “Downton” launched a thousand period dramas; suddenly, we were all discovering things we did not know about the history of sanitation disposal and early forms of birth control. Even HBO took note; the premium cable titan aired BBC’s “Parade’s End” in 2013 (which may be the first and only time HBO took a page from the PBS playbook). Unlike many networks, PBS already knew a thing or two about merchandising, and soon those Signal catalogs were filled with “Downton”-related merchandise. Highclere Castle became a vacation destination, while venues from the local tea shop to the Queen Mary began staging “Downton” events. A standout even in the new “golden age,” the show was increasingly referenced on talk shows, in the news and by characters on other shows. In 2014, when George Clooney starred in a spoof for Britain’s Text Santa fundraiser, it seemed to have hit full market saturation. Until LeBron James talked about it in “Trainwreck.” “We watching ‘Downton Abbey’ later?” he asks his friend, played by Bill Hader. “I’m watching it tonight because I’m not going to practice and all the guys are talking about it, and I’m left out.” When a PBS series about fictitious post-Edwardian aristocrats and their staff becomes an inside joke made by an NBA star in a movie by Judd Apatow and starring Amy Schumer, something very big has happened. Like so many shows that debuted in the early 21st century, “Downton Abbey” brought cinematic grandeur to the flat screen; but unlike other series, in which an Oscar winner might direct or write an episode or two, Fellowes remained the show’s only writer, one of if not the first, of TV’s new auteurs. The singleness of his vision most certainly led to its tendency toward repetition (How many fortunes can one man inherit? Are the Bateses truly cursed?), but it also created an air of consistency. “Downton” proved that drama didn’t have to be dark or bloody or revolve around some ill-shaven antihero to be popular and good, which was part of the reason it was so popular.
3. On “Downton Abbey,” the More Things Changed, the More They Stayed the Same. However, any long-running series will eventually falter and fall into ruts of their own. The A.V. Club’s Caroline Siede examines how the more things changed on “Downton,” the more they ultimately stayed the same.
But in the big, concrete ways that define a TV show, “Downton Abbey” never really changed. Its main characters theoretically aged 14 years over the course of the series, but for the most part they’re still the same people they were in the first season. Dressed up like a prestige drama, “Downton Abbey” has the heart of a procedural, one in which Edwardian society provides as firm a structure as any hospital, police station, or detective agency. As time rushes forward, its class-conscious characters keep grappling with the same sets of problems over and over again. I mean that partially as a compliment and partially as a critique. The show is clearly deliberately wrestling with the limitations of the class structure that so intensely defined Britain until the mid-20th century (and beyond, really). The entire point of the system was that it kept everyone locked in neatly defined roles that were nearly impossible to leave. Servants might climb the ranks from footman to butler, but they weren’t supposed to dream of rising above their station. Aristocratic families, meanwhile, married among themselves to keep money, titles, and prestige secure. Yet at the same time there’s something lazy about “Downton Abbey’s” repetition. Take for instance the relationship between Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle), who were paired together early in the show’s first season. From then on their storylines dealt almost exclusively with legal drama, to the point where they’ve both spent time in jail for two separate crimes they were falsely accused of. Other shows might have told a variety of stories about the married life of two servants, but it’s not until the final season that the Bateses finally moved on to an arc free of legal turmoil. I don’t want to imply there’s been no character development over the course of “Downton’s” run — Edith’s growing independence, Anna’s rape survivor storyline, and Lady Rose’s maturation have all been incredibly engaging. It’s just that these respective developments happened along a preordained track that kept each character tied to a specific theme: unlucky Edith grapples with hope and misfortune, pragmatic Anna frets about her husband and the justice system, and exuberant Rose thwarts societal conventions — initially as a flapper and later in an interfaith marriage. That’s pretty much true for all the characters. Thomas has spent six seasons scheming for a way out of the monotony of service; Lady Mary tries to find a suitable match worthy of her high breeding; Carson aggressively clings to his Victorian values; Robert manages the Downton estate; Cora and Mrs. Hughes run the Downton household; Isobel crusades for the downtrodden while butting heads with Violet; and Daisy attempts to better herself (in ways that don’t require her to leave the show, of course). To its credit, the show did send a few supporting characters away to get jobs as secretaries, cooks, or doomed soldiers. But compared to the massive changes on historically minded series like “Vikings,” “Game Of Thrones,” “Deadwood,” and “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey” is positively static. The extent to which that can be read as historical commentary vs. artistic inertia comes down to how much credit you want to give creator Julian Fellowes.
4. Conan O’Brien: The Constant in Late-Night Chaos. Though there aren’t any Late Night wars currently raging on, the makeup of the scene has radically changed in the last half-decade, with Jimmy Fallon turning the “Tonight Show” into a circus, Colbert shifting Letterman’s “Late Night” show away from detached sarcasm to earnest curiosity, and James Corden singing with people in cars because, hey, at least it’s not comedy. But oddly enough, the one constant in late night is the veteran Conan O’Brien, who briefly made a splash on the “Tonight Show” before being ousted by the network and settling into a comfortable routine on TBS. The Washington Post’s Emily Yahr examines Conan’s past and present career and how he has remained the constant amidst all the late-night chaos.
When O’Brien was a writer on “The Simpsons” early in his career (he wrote the classic “Monorail” episode, among others), creator Matt Groening noticed something: He was happiest when he was performing. This wasn’t a trait shared by most writers. “Conan would be sitting over in the corner [of ‘The Simpsons’ writers’ room], doing his own little show with office supplies, staplers and tape dispensers,” Groening says. “Then when he got caught, he would mime getting into an invisible rocket ship. . .and escaping. It was a very good mime, very convincing.” After David Letterman moved on from his 12:35 a.m. gig on “Late Night,” O’Brien’s former boss, “Saturday Night Live” honcho Lorne Michaels, recommended that O’Brien audition for the host. Michaels saw those same performance tendencies that Groening did during O’Brien’s time as a writer for SNL from 1987 to 1991. No one was more stunned than O’Brien when he — a 30-year-old virtual unknown — actually got the job to replace the already iconic Letterman. Groening remembers O’Brien got the phone call with the news in the middle of a Monday morning “Simpsons” table read. He left to take the call and never came back. “Late Night” started out rocky. NBC renewed it in 13-week spurts, just about the minimum amount of confidence the network could show. Former Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales famously eviscerated the show in the beginning, calling it “an hour of aimless dawdle masquerading as a TV program” and saying that O’Brien “is a living collage of annoying nervous habits. He giggles and titters, jiggles about and fiddles with his cuffs. He has dark, beady little eyes like a rabbit. He’s one of the whitest white men ever.” Eventually, things stabilized and O’Brien captured the college crowd, delighting younger viewers while being as weird as humanly possible. In 1996, Shales wrote a mea culpa and deemed the show “an inspired absurdist romp,” calling O’Brien’s evolution “one of the most amazing transformations in television history.” Through the ’90s, O’Brien and his staff developed an array of reliably hilarious characters and bits, be they random (satellite TV channels — who remembers “Not Cool, Zeus”?), visually disturbing (If They Mated), or random and visually disturbing (the beloved Masturbating Bear). “It was just an incredible place because I think they used that premise of ‘Gosh, no one’s really watching, so we may as well screw around’ to the fullest advantage,” says Will Ferrell, another longtime friend of O’Brien. Strange ideas were encouraged. Jack McBrayer, the “30 Rock” star who started out playing various characters on “Late Night,” remembers being dressed up as a VHS of “Hope Floats” that was shot by bandleader Max Weinberg. “We went into this stretch where I would be shot or killed or beaten up very consistently,” McBrayer recalls. “Like, extremely consistently.”
5. Ten Great Films That Influenced Alfred Hitchcock. For a certain generation of critics and filmmakers, the films of Alfred Hitchcock feel like ground zero, a starting place for basic cinematic grammar and an illustration of the endless possibilities of film. But of course Hitchcock himself was also influenced by plenty of filmmakers that came before him. BFI’s Ian Mantgani explores the ten great film that influenced the Master of Suspense.
“Destiny” (1921): At UFA, Hitchcock had visited the sets of Fritz Lang’s “Die Nibelungen” (1924) and “Metropolis” (1927), soaking up the geometry and largesse of German Expressionism. Asked by Truffaut which film made a special impression on his young filmgoing, Hitchcock offered Lang’s “Destiny,” in which the gaunt, implacable Bernhard Goetzke plays Death, and sends grieving fiancée Lil Dagover on a tour of the ages to demonstrate the inevitability of his reaping. As with The Avenging Conscience, the ghostly effects awakened Hitchcock to the possibilities of demonstrating “phantasmagoria of the mind”, and the succession of chases racing against doom would be absorbed in staple Hitchcock set pieces. Goetzke would later be cast in Hitchcock’s “The Mountain Eagle” (1926), but elements of much Lang coarse through early Hitch: the opening of “Blackmail” (1929), for example, channels the whizzing intrigue of “Spione” 1928), while scholar John Orr interprets the innocent man faking identities in “The 39 Steps” (1935) as an inversion of Lang’s villainous master of disguise, Dr Mabuse. By the time Lang made “M” (1931), the two directors’ careers were dialoguing with each other, as both negotiated the sound era, experimented with including off-screen murders, and Lang popularized the menacing screen presence of Peter Lorre, later cast by Hitchcock in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934), Secret Agent and several TV episodes.
“The Last Laugh” (1924): “The prime example of expressing a story idea…told visually from beginning to end,” said Hitchcock of F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” the Expressionist drama charting Emil Jannings as a proud but aging doorman who faces shock and terror at his sudden dismissal. “The Germans in those times placed great emphasis on telling the story with no titles or at least very few…in ‘The Last Laugh’ Murnau was able to do that, to dispense with titles altogether, except in an epilogue.” Hitchcock observed the filming of the railway station scene in “The Last Laugh,” adopting its use of forced perspective for his production design on “The Blackguard” (1925), and its floating camera and sense of exacting construction for his entire directorial career. Murnau looms, from Hitchcock silents like “The Farmer’s Wife” (1928) and “The Manxman” (1929) echoing the pastoral settings and evocative human close-ups of Murnau’s “Sunrise” (1927) and “City Girl” (1930), to the general free movement in both directors’ filmographies between depicting objective scenarios and psychological states.
6. Echoes of Stir: Four Hours in Joliet, IL. The small Midwest city of Joliet, Illinois has been the setting for plenty of films, mainly places like prisons and other places from where people want to escape. For MUBI Notebook, Neil Young details his trip to America’s “Prison Town,” the place of “The Blues Brothers,” “White Heat,” and “Public Enemies.”
Despite such off-putting online guidance — and the well-meaning counsel of trusted pals — I elected to visit Joliet (pop. 150,000; est. 1852; pron. Jo-lee-it) in mid-March last year. A day-trip from Oak Forest, the peripheral Chicago suburb where I was staying, 24 miles up the Metra-operated Rock Island Line. I’d seen parts of Joliet before, of course — we all have, the city being one of those much-used locations which even cinephiles seldom think of visiting. Chief exception: hardcore devotees of John Landis’s enduring cult favorite “The Blues Brothers,” which is bookended with Joliet Prison sequences. The opening follows Jake Elwood as he’s laboriously released from clink — the “ancient sandstone fortress” (in the screenplay’s words) now known as Joliet Correctional Center. Located near the middle of town on Collins Street, JCC opened as Illinois State Penitentiary in 1858, ceased operations in 2002, and provides Dan Aykroyd’s porkpie-hatted jailbird with his moniker ‘Joliet’ Jake. “I don’t want to go back into Joliet Prison. The pepper steak they serve on Thursday nights is the worst,” he later quips. The gate from which he emerges is now known as the “Joliet Jake Gate,” its place in cinema history trumpeted by signboards in an adjacent micro-park. The Collins Street jail pops prominently up in Raoul Walsh’s “White Heat,” Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” and the first season of TV’s “Prison Break”; Chicago native Mann also used Joliet’s maximum security Stateville Correctional Center a couple of miles away in Crest Hill, the same spot where the prison riot takes place in “Natural Born Killers.” This is another historic “big house” (dating from 1925) whose oppressively spectacular ‘F-House’ contains the United States’ only surviving ‘panopticon roundhouse’ design, closely following the principles of total surveillance notoriously devised by 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Parts of Henry Hathaway’s cracking 1948 noir “Call Northside 777” were shot here; celebrity inmate Richard Loeb was razor-slashed here, in the showers, with fatal consequences. Loeb and his partner-in-crime Nathan Leopold, who spent time in both Stateville and Collins Street, were the Nietzsche-admiring duo whose murderous 1920s exploits inspired—among others—Hitchcock’s “Rope,” Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion” and Tom Kalin’s “Swoon.” Renowned films set in Joliet but mainly filmed elsewhere include George Roy Hill’s California-shot “The Sting” and David Anspaugh’s inspirational sports biopic “Rudy” — which does include a handful of genuine Joliet locations. Then there’s exploitation king Herschell Gordon Lewis’s softcore 1961 “nudie cutie” quickie “The Adventures of Lucky Pierre,” a chunk of which was filmed “over a long weekend” in the parking-lot of the Hilltop Drive-In — the popular local landmark which went bust under somewhat mysterious circumstances in 2001, and tops the provisional itinerary for my next Joliet jaunt. Notwithstanding this direct and not-so-direct cinematic lineage, the elective presence of an English film-critic—making his way across country on a non-linear, stop-start two-monther from New York to Los Angeles—in such a place of “dodgy” reputation raised eyebrows before, during and after my visit. And my obviously non-local, north-east English accent invariably solicited instant friendly questioning. “Why did you want to come to Joliet?” asked the barmaid at Andy & Sophies’ Bar on Hickory Street in the residential, low-rise Cunningham district, a few blocks up from the city-bisecting Des Plaines River. “Well, I’d heard stuff about it, and I thought I’d come and see for myself what it was like—” “—It’s horrible!”
Tweet of the Day:
freshman year of college vs senior year of college pic.twitter.com/umlXKicx0a
— Matt Erspamer (@erspamer_matt) March 5, 2016