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Daily Reads: Why Zack Snyder Keeps Ruining Comic Book Movies, On Being Christian and Hating Christian Films, and More

Daily Reads: Why Zack Snyder Keeps Ruining Comic Book Movies, On Being Christian and Hating Christian Films, and More

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

1. Why Zack Snyder Keeps Ruining Comic Book Movies.
America still has “Batman v Superman” fever, which means that many, many more people will watch Zack Snyder’s unique-but-polarizing visual aesthetic. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff examines Snyder’s films and why his direction keeps ruining comic book movies.

This is the tragedy of Zack Snyder. He’s the kind of bold, distinctive filmmaker who could really put his stamp on the superhero movie — a genre that feels increasingly formulaic. But he also completely misunderstands the appeal of the various characters he’s been asked to shepherd to the big screen, then overcorrects in subsequent projects for any criticism he receives — as when “Batman v Superman” seemed obsessed with winning over those who thought “Man of Steel” featured too much wanton destruction. Some of this is likely a result of being overburdened by working for a movie studio — Warner Bros. — that would dearly love to have its very own superhero franchise, the better to compete against the cultural behemoth that is Marvel. And any time any film has to serve as many corporate masters as both of Snyder’s Superman pictures have, the storytelling will suffer. But Snyder’s two other comic book adaptations have similarly struggled with the divide between the ironclad awesomeness of the source material and any deeper ideas it might contain. For example, “300” might be the most artistically successful film Snyder has made entirely because the comic it’s based on doesn’t really have much to say beyond, “Awesome men are awesome.” It’s no wonder that Snyder has connected so readily with “300’s” author, Frank Miller, who seems fond of the “one great man can change everything” trope…But this approach didn’t work as well on “Watchmen,” where the divide between text and subtext was the whole point. The text of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s game-changing comic was, “Watch these over-the-hill heroes get back in the game to save the world. Isn’t it cool?” The subtext was, “How messed up do you have to be to become a costumed vigilante? What’s the point of humanity anyway?” It’s a massive understatement to say that Snyder’s slavish “Watchmen” — which recreates a few sequences from the source material so that nearly every panel in the comic equals a shot in the film — missed the subtext. The movie’s gruesome ultraviolence is shot through with an assumed fist pump, and its handful of attempts at emotion beyond, “Fuck yeah!” largely fall flat (including in a much-derided love scene)…On the page, “Watchmen” has made a number of “best books of the 20th century” lists. But on screen, it’s a curiosity — a film with several riveting sequences…but a hollow core. Moore and Gibbons’s tale of a world slowly turning to ruin has been replaced by a high schooler’s doodling.

2. On Being Christian and Hating Christian Films. The secular multiplex can be a difficult place for those who have the faith as they try to find films with positive religious messages, and there’s a whole swath of low-budget Christian films that have found an audience with said people. But as to be expected, not all Christian find these faith-based films to be enjoyable. At Thrillist, writer Alissa Wilkinson explores being Christian and hating Christian films.

Fact: I am the intended audience for these movies. I’ve been a Christian all my life, attending evangelical churches, singing in the choir, and helping out at Vacation Bible School. I was homeschooled for religious reasons and grew up in a rural town. When I moved to Brooklyn, I became a communing member of an Evangelical Presbyterian church. Members of my family belong to a smorgasbord of churches all along the Eastern Seaboard, from Southern Baptist to Assemblies of God to Evangelical Free and Roman Catholic. I’m a film critic for “Christianity Today,” founded by Southern Baptist icon Billy Graham. I hold a full-time faculty appointment at The King’s College, a school founded by a radio preacher in 1938. I now teach undergraduates who were raised in churches across America. I am Christian. I also love good movies and watch and write about them for a living. I care that they’re good. And the deluge of Christian movies brought on a deluge of bad reviews. It’s practically catechistic among many faith-based devotees and movie producers that mainstream critics pan the films because they “don’t believe in Jesus.” The problems run deeper. Jesus is all right; the screenwriters, not so much. As onlookers laugh these movies off, I stand in the Internet’s corner, wincing and trying not to rail. I can’t just brush it off like others. Christian theology is rich and creative and full of imagination, that’s broad enough to take up residence among all kinds of human cultures. It contains within itself the idea that art exists as a good unto itself, not just a utilitarian vehicle for messages. (In the Greek, the Bible calls humans “poems” — I love that.) There is no reason Christian movies can’t take the time to become good art. Each one that fails leaves me furious. It all came to a head with “God’s Not Dead,” which grossed $60 million on its $2 million budget and essentially launched the faith-based production juggernaut, Pure Flix. It’s essentially an adaptation of an Internet meme, in which an atheist professor loses an argument with a lowly undergraduate about the existence of God. At first I avoided the movie, because I thought it would be another shoddy Christian film and I’d already been inundated. I wanted it to go away. I eventually borrowed a copy of the movie from a friend. We all make mistakes.

3. When It’s a Relief to Give Up On a Good Show. In this era of Peak TV, or this Golden Age of TV, or something or another of TV, there’s quite a bit of quality television to consider watching, and plenty more to give up watching. Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson writes on when it feels like a relief to give up watching a show.

An autumn-onset addiction to a crossword app has meant that a lot of time spent “watching TV” is really me typing “ETUI” and “ERST” into my phone instead of actually paying attention to what’s happening to Annalise and whoever else. So that’s a problem of my own destroyed attention span, scattered and unfocused and spoiled by an embarrassment of screens. But, I do put the phone down for some shows, ranging in quality from the beguilingly moody art project that is “The Leftovers” to the increasingly clumsy, but still engaging, nightmare generator “The Walking Dead,” from one Midwestern home (“The Middle”) to another (“The Carmichael Show”). I can pay attention — I promise, I can. Maybe, then, there is something unique about the particular brand of OMG TV, the shows occupying ShondaLand and points adjacent (looking at you, “Quantico”), that burn hot and bright, getting people tweeting and OMG-ing, and then, after a high, short arc across the prime-time sky, quickly begin to shed viewers. (Indeed, ABC has had some trouble with its “T.G.I.T.” Thursday night lineup this year.) With all the mysteries and flashbacks and cavalcades of characters, this is a crazy energy to ask a show and its writers to sustain, episode after episode, year after year. And it’s a lot to ask audiences to keep up with, given how many options — the genius and the junky — are calling to them from the twin “2001”-style monoliths of cable boxes and Apple TVs. What these shows really are, or should be anyway, are mini-series. A one-season “How to Get Away with Murder” that shocks and titillates, wins Viola Davis an Emmy, features some hot gay sex, and nets millions of viewers? That’s a great, pre-packaged, sellable success. Twelve stand-alone episodes featuring Cookie Lyon’s calamitous, triumphant return to the music business, re-solidifying Taraji P. Henson’s star and giving the broadcast networks some ratings hope? Sounds great. But multiple seasons of these busy, soapy shows seem to have rapidly diminishing returns, which is troublesome. That these are two of the rare television shows that star women of color (as does “Quantico”) certainly adds to that troubled sense — if only these important, necessary series felt sturdier, more sustainable. But there’s something undeniably wearying about them, flashy and fast and exciting as they are.

4. The Depths of What We Cannot Know: On “The Double Life of Veronique.” Though many films are turning 25 years old this year, few of them are as bewitching and powerful as Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “The Double Life of Veronique,” the story about two women who don’t know each other but share an emotional and spiritual that transcends their own immediate worlds. RogerEbert.com’s Jessica Ritchey examines the film on its 25th anniversary.

I see a woman. She’s walking in the late afternoon amber-green light of a college town. She makes films. She’s lived in New York and Chicago. She’s traveled all over the world. She wears her hair long. This woman is me. This is the me who finished college and went on to build a life of her own. I sense her every so often, an uncanny feeling where I’m certain she exists in the material plane. Right at this moment she is walking to keep an appointment. Few films have captured that feeling so well as Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “The Double Life of Véronique,” a beguiling film turning twenty-five this year. It’s a film resistant to pinning down, slippery and sensuous as water in its images. But its text is a thrilling, numinous reading of how the choices we make, and paths we don’t go down, can literally haunt us as specters of lives not lived. Véronique (Irène Jacob) is a French woman on vacation in Warsaw. She unknowingly takes a photo of her Polish double Weronika (also Jacob). Weronika spots Véronique on the bus and has only a few moments to stare in wonder as the bus drives away. Weronika prepares for an important debut as a singer. As she opens her mouth to sing, she collapses and dies from a heart condition. At that moment Veronique strangely finds herself in tears after sex with her current lover. She tries to explain to her partner that she just had the sense of suddenly being all alone in the world. That existential ache, of losing a part you didn’t know you needed, hangs over the rest of the film. The yearning for finding that missing part will lead Véronique into a relationship with a puppeteer. She first notices his reflection from behind the curtain as he performs a show for the school at which Véronique. The film subtly offers a warning on falling in love with an image as Véronique is drawn into a series of tests and games the man arranges, not for love, but for a curiosity that flatters itself as love. It’s only towards the end, and crucially after spotting Weronika in her contact sheets from Warsaw, that Véronique realizes this. The man she thinks she loves views her as raw material for the stories he creates. She won’t find that missing piece in him. And she won’t find that grand golden thread that connects everything and everyone and reveals the great pattern behind the universe. Life remains frustratingly elusive in its meaning.

5. The Strange Tale of Daniel Robinson and “Nestor,” the One-Man Movie. Plenty of microbudget filmmakers make movies every day, but most of those movies contain some of the standard hallmarks of narrative film, like a cast, or a crew, or any people at all really, but filmmaker Daniel Robinson tried to make a film all by his lonesome and succeeded. For The A.V. Club, Charles Bramesco reports on Robinson’s “Nestor,” the one-man movie.

Ontario native Daniel Robinson wasn’t setting out to make any grand symbolic statements about creative ownership when he began production on his debut feature “Nestor” in 2014. He was going to war with the army he had, and at the time, that happened to be an army of one. The 32-year-old graduate of the Toronto Film School figured that dispensing with all the stuff that unnecessarily complicates film shoots, stuff like a camera operator or a cast or any other people at all, would clear the path for him to complete his first full-length project. And he did it — but the astonishing part is that the final cut of this film is not a collage of the amateurish, incompetent ravings of a madman. Such endeavors had been completed before by experimental types — Stan Brakhage churned out loads of avant-garde films all by his lonesome — but Robinson’s distinguishes itself by virtue of its fundamental movie-ness; it has a character, a plot, a 61-minute run time, and the rest of the core components that define narrative cinema. And for a full-length feature shot by a guy working with a nonexistent budget in complete self-imposed isolation, “Nestor” is, incredibly, pretty good. Robinson knows how this all sounds. He’s a self-aware guy, and the first to dispel any sage-woodsman narratives that might romanticize his impulse to eschew the core nuts and bolts of filmmaking as some Bon Iver-esque retreat to commune with the restorative forces of nature. His threadbare process was a matter of necessity, he explains during a phone call with “The A.V. Club”: “I didn’t have any film community to do [a feature] with. It’s not that I didn’t have the ambition to mount a traditional production; it’s that I wanted to get started as soon as possible. I didn’t want to wait a year or two, writing a script and finding a budget. I wanted to get started, and the only way I knew how to do that was alone.” Famous last words, but to hear Robinson explain his process, it all makes perfect sense. In his estimation, this was the simplest way for him to complete a feature, counting on a wealth of ingenuity to compensate for a dearth of resources. He used his own standard-issue DSLR camera (a Canon T3i); recorded ambient noise on his iPhone and hid a small shotgun mic wherever he could to capture sound; completed post-production with the aid of user-friendly software; shot either at his parents’ vacant home or the great outdoors; and made use of no costumes or artificial set-dressing. He measures his budget not in money spent, but in money unearned; Robinson sunk precious little of his own worth into “Nestor” outside of his sanity, instead estimating a total cost of approximately $5,000 in terms of time taken off from his job. (Robinson daylights at an enormous, often empty self-storage facility.) This approach sounds almost hilariously impractical, a fool’s errand on par with dragging an entire ship through the jungle or shooting for months in the bitter cold using only natural sunlight. As Robinson would tell it, finding a place to stash his microphone in wide shots was the stickiest wicket.

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