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Daily Reads: How Superhero Darkness Reflects American Anxiety, The 30 Best Music Biopics of All Time, and More

Daily Reads: How Superhero Darkness Reflects American Anxiety, The 30 Best Music Biopics of All Time, and More

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

1. Twilight of the Superheroes: How Superhero Darkness Reflect American Anxiety.
If you’ve heard anything about Zack Snyder’s latest superhero film “Batman v Superman” besides the fact that it was critically panned and yet still grossed over $400 million at the global box office, it’s that it’s a very grim film that takes the darkness of superhero mythology very seriously. The Atlantic’s Carmen Petaccio examines how the darkness of recent superhero films reflect American anxiety.

The rise of the superhero blockbuster, which began in earnest with the release of “Spider-Man,” in 2002, is comparably bifold, driven by two dissimilar but potent cultural forces: a civilization’s ancient, collective need for a self-defining myth, and the thoroughly modern drive to commodify that desire. Superheroes have become the contemporary American equivalent of Greek gods — mythic characters who embody the populace’s loftiest hopes, its deepest insecurities, and flaws. Between 2016 and 2020, an estimated 63 comic-book adaptations will receive a major theatrical release, with scores more scheduled to take the form of TV shows, video games, and every salable medium in between. The public’s appetite for these properties appears blind and bottomless, its stomach willing to rupture long before it’s sated. If American culture is indeed in a state of decline, these are the stories built to survive its demise. And yet, as of late movie superheroes have seemed less inclined to heroics. Consider, for example, the upcoming “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a horizontal consolidation of superhero properties set to premiere this March. Based on the film’s five trailers, the director Zack Snyder has recast Superman (Henry Cavill), that paragon of American exceptionalism, as a kind of inadvertent terrorist, a questionable savior for whom destruction is a prerequisite for rescue. Enter an aged Batman (Ben Affleck), never broodier, to serve as humanity’s last line of defense, his Batsuit more SWAT vehicle than Kevlar. And who’s supposed to be fighting crime while the superheroes fight each other? It doesn’t matter, because, as the trailers make unabashedly clear, the heroes will join forces well before one pummels the other into submission. Once again, the fate of humanity rests in the hands of a superhuman few. But unlike previous iterations in both franchises, Batman and Superman have bigger concerns than saving the world: punching each other to no end. A similar fate has befallen Marvel’s the Avengers, who also find themselves thrust into an arbitrary civil war in the aptly titled “Captain America: Civil War.” Scheduled for release less than two months after “Batman vs. Superman,” the movies recall a misbegotten arms race, with each vying to package in as much unwanted internecine warfare as possible. There is, too, a trend in both films toward a darker handling of the subject matter. The Batman franchise, already dimmed considerably by Christopher Nolan, now looks as if it’s filmed through a filter of soot. The playful banter of the Avengers has been subbed for the slap-fighting words of jilted teens. (“He’s my friend,” Captain America says to Iron Man. His response: “So was I.”) The animating energy of both enterprises recalls the worst of Internet fan fiction, or children bored with their action figures. To illustrate, compare Tobey Maguire’s pie-wholesome Peter Parker to the murderous, cuss-spewing Deadpool. Our superheroes have lost all interest in being heroic. In the name of brand consistency, they’ve lived long enough to resemble villains.

2. The 30 Best Music Biopics of All Time.
In the next month, three different music biopics will enter theaters: “Born to be Blue” about Chet Baker starring Ethan Hawke, “I Saw the Light,” about Hank Williams starring Tom Hiddleston, and “Miles Ahead,” about Miles Davis starring and directed by Don Cheadle. In honor of the recent glut of music biopics, Rolling Stone writers count down the 30 best music biopics of all time.

“Bound for Glory” (1976):
 Were it not up against one of the greatest Best Picture slates in Oscar history — “All the President’s Men,” “Network,” “Rocky” and “Taxi Driver” were the other four — Hal Ashby’s “Bound for Glory” might have gotten the recognition it deserved. As it stands, this gorgeous Woody Guthrie biopic — which netted a second Oscar for the late cinematographer Haskell Wexler — speaks profoundly to the relationship between the artist and the ravaged land that inspired and absorbed his music. Set during the height of the Great Depression, the film follows Guthrie (David Carradine) on a westward migration from his home in Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the fertile promise of California. Typical of Seventies heroes, Carradine’s Guthrie is a flawed, difficult, enigmatic figure, but a potent symbol of righteousness and relief for a country that ached for understanding.

“Bird” (1988):
 Less of a straight-up biopic than a long, dreamlike series of impressionistic sequences, Clint Eastwood’s atmospheric paean to jazz legend Charlie Parker focuses as much on the heroin addiction that shaped (and consumed) the man they called Bird’s short life as on the development of his revolutionary sound. But Forest Whitaker delivers a monumental performance as the be-bop pioneer, fully radiating the joy, passion and torment of Parker’s creative process. Eastwood doesn’t dumb down the music or its milieu; part of the film’s enduring appeal lies in its expertly staged nightclub scenes, which thrillingly transport the viewer back to the jazz demimonde of the Forties and Fifties.

3. Garry Shandling Was One of American Television’s Greatest Artists.
The pop culture world mourned the loss of Garry Shandling last Thursday after his sudden passing. Comics, writers, critics paid tribute to the late great comedian over the past weekend, and we at Criticwire are here to highlight the best of those tributes. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz examines why Shandling was one of American television’s greatest artists.

“The Larry Sanders Show” — which holds the personal distinction of being the series that made me order cable for the first time — felt in some ways like an inversion of his Showtime classic, or maybe a Cubist splintering of it. Shandling played the title character, a Johnny Carson–like talk-show legend who was perpetually terrified that he wasn’t getting the best guests, that his “best friends” in showbiz didn’t even like him and only hung around him because he was a star, and that his co-workers only put up with his crap because he was paying them. On some level, all of these fears proved accurate, and on another they weren’t true at all. All the other recurring characters and guest stars on the show were just as screwed up as Larry — they just didn’t usually have his wealth and power, so they had to suffer indignities without recourse. The “backstage” scenes were shot on film, in the graceful yet spontaneous manner of a low-budget indie comedy, while the talk-show segments were represented by cutting between brighter, grainier videotape (representing what the camera sees, and what the audience at home experiences) and filmed images of his staff and crew and backstage acquaintances reacting to his performance. That these textural (and textual) distinctions immediately started to seem arbitrary was part of the show’s point, and part of its philosophical richness. Life was all one big show here, and nobody had the script. Few lead characters in TV comedies were as pathetic and needy and sleazy and manipulative as Larry. He took his wife for granted until she finally divorced him. He hit on every halfway-attractive woman who crossed his path (and a few of them went home with him, not because they really liked him, but because he was Larry). He’d bring dates home with him from dinner and then make them watch the broadcast of that day’s show with him, solicit compliments on his excellent work, and feel genuinely hurt when he had to coax the praise out of them. Larry was a great performer, and it’s a testament to Shandling’s physical and verbal skill as a performer that you could watch Larry interact spontaneously with guests in barely scripted “segments” and think, Carson could not have done that any better. But he was a terrible boss, petty and entitled, casually sexist and racist and homophobic, though often not as crude about it as some other people in Hollywood, which allowed him to congratulate himself on being oh-so-very liberal. (Except for Albert Brooks, few filmmakers skewered this aspect of showbiz delusion with such precision.) We should have hated him, but we couldn’t because, like “The Office’s” David Brent and his counterpart on the American “Office,” Michael Scott, we saw how lonely he was, how miserable he was in his own skin, and thought: That poor bastard. I’m glad I’m not him. But you were, though. Shandling knew it, and you knew it. And that’s what gave “The Larry Sanders Show and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show their slow-motion, train-wreck fascination.

4. On the 30th Anniversary of “Blue Velvet.”
It’s the 30th anniversary of David Lynch’s breakthrough success “Blue Velvet,” which is now being screened at the Film Forum in New York through this Thursday. In honor of its anniversary, Film Comment’s Violet Lucca examines “Blue Velvet” via the concept of “homecoming” in mainstream film.

There are few scenarios so well suited to the constraints of mainstream film as the homecoming. It’s a universal experience that perfectly follows the three-act structure, as the protagonist is called back home and there has life-altering experiences that either explode or realign closely held values. But what Syd Field won’t tell you is that the manner of oak which grows from the acorn of this premise — and what sort of discovery the character makes — can vary wildly among extremes depending on the storyteller. You can get something like “This Is Where I Leave You,” Shawn Levy’s cloying, risible drama centered on a family sitting shiva for their patriarch (and being as annoying and self-absorbed as ever), or one of those Christmas calendar-fillers (“The Night Before,” “Love the Coopers”) in which a dysfunctional family snipes at each other for 90 dramedic minutes. Or you just might get a film like “Blue Velvet,” which charts a young man’s journey into a dangerous, adult world that he was previously unaware existed in his hometown. Jeffrey’s level of familiarity with darkness in all senses is part of the film’s narrative intrigue and his emotional development. Just as there are beetles gnawing away under the dark earth of a freshly cut suburban lawn, so is our fresh-faced protagonist capable of shadowy pursuits such as rough sex with someone else’s wife and blowing a drug dealer’s brains out. (It also underpins the emotional struggle at the heart of the film: at one point, Jeffrey breaks down sobbing to his love interest Sandy, saying that he can’t understand how a bad person like Frank Booth could exist.) Jeffrey, first introduced strolling through a field at midday on his way to visit his impossibly ill father in the hospital, becomes more and more nocturnal as he continues his investigations of Frank and Dorothy. Scenes are lit and staged to depict him emerging from and disappearing into total darkness; at the end, is glimpsed sunbathing before having lunch with Sandy and his family. (The finale’s other pointed detail is a mechanical robin holding a large, writhing bug in its beak, a restoration of order foretold in Sandy’s dream — but its falseness can be viewed as making this restoration ironic, or not real.)

5. New Directors/New Films: 
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Happy Hour.” The 45th annual New Directors/New Films series in New York just concluded this weekend after almost two weeks of screening all new films from fresh voices. Filmmaker Magazine’s Vadim Rizov praises one of the films that screened this past weekend, the five-hour “Happy Hour.”

“Happy Hour” initially presents itself as something like a shomin-geki, a term Wikipedia snippily notes is a “pseudo-Japanese word invented by Western film scholars”; Donald Richie defined it as “the drama about common people […] the kind of film many Japanese think of as being about ‘you and me.'” Think low-key family drama, day-to-day; think Ozu. The genre actually dates back to the days of silent film, but came to some kind of full definition with “Tokyo Story” and its famous climactic, smiling-through-the-tears delivery of “Isn’t life disappointing?” The foremost contemporary practitioner is probably Kore-eda Hirokazu, who repeatedly returns to this idiom in films like “Still Walking” and “Nobody Knows,” and the first 200 minutes of “Happy Hour” can feel like his work maximalized. After the intermission, all hell breaks loose, a left-turn that isn’t entirely unfamiliar; recall Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Ozu-nodding “Tokyo Sonata,” which starts quotidian and normalized before losing its mind, or Katsuhito Ishii’s mondo-bizarro “The Taste of Tea,” which punctuates family drama with regular doses of Miike-nutsoid grotesquerie. “Happy Hour” is closer in spirit to these films than Kore-eda, despite remaining fully realistic in its settings and characters. It should be noted that the first scene is pretty bad, with the kind of tackily placid score that inexplicably comes with the genre territory. Four friends ascend to a park’s peak for a picnic, their pleasure in a day outside marred by the fog around them; the line “this resembles our future” isn’t a subtle scene-setter. This four women seem like lifelong friends, but it’s hard to tell them apart when we’ve just met them and their behavior is all tuned in to the same scrupulously polite/mild wavelength and mode of expression. The friends split, and we get to know them one by one. Sakurako (Kikuchi Hazuki) is the housewife who can’t schedule a group outing without making sure her mother-in-law (roosting indefinitely with the family) will cover her on meals; Fumi (Mihara Maiko) is an arts space manager/de facto publicist (non-profits are small!) who the narrative will take more than two hours to actually define. My favorite is Akari (Tanaka Sachie), a nurse who always knows what metaphorical time it is and tells others bluntly. The plot instigator is seemingly happily married Jun (Kawamura Rira), who will (relatively) quickly drop a bombshell: she’s getting a divorce.

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