Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Why Does Hollywood Keep Disrespecting Melissa McCarthy? Melissa McCarthy’s most recent film “The Boss” has garnered mostly mixed-to-negative reviews but has remained a top performer at the box office. As it stands now, McCarthy has enough star power to market films entirely around her presence. Yet, she’s still fighting for respect from trades, box office analysts, and certain dismissive critics. Vulture’s Mark Harris explores why Hollywood keeps disrespecting McCarthy.
Critics can like or dislike these movies and her work in them, but to survey them in toto and perceive uniformity feels like a willful refusal to see her at all, an insistence that the difference between her various performances matters less than the sameness of her strange determination to continue to be Melissa McCarthy while starring in movies. Is it because she looks so different than other movie stars that some people have convinced themselves she’s always the same? It’s tempting to argue that the coolness with which McCarthy’s success is greeted in some quarters is another example of the industry (and some of those who cover it) having a problem with powerful women. But this is 2016, and we’ve come a long way — today, people understand that they’re supposed to disguise that feeling! Hollywood is now fine with actresses being powerful, as long as it can maintain some control over how “power” is defined. The kind of powerful woman the industry likes is Reese Witherspoon, who uses her power to buy a lot of deserving books and give work to a lot of deserving scriptwriters, and every once in a while takes a role that will get her an Oscar nomination but is fine with doing supporting roles or HBO. It likes Charlize Theron, because she knows how the game is played and she keeps her “brand” current by doing “Fast 8” and “Fury Road,” the big stuff that’s at the heart of the industry, so that she can go off and do the little stuff that Hollywood doesn’t care about, because she’s earned it, just like, you know, a guy. It likes, or at least respects, Angelina and Julia and Jodie because they’ve all been around a long time, and these days they dip in and out of mainstream movies, but they don’t seem to want it that badly and isn’t that a kind of power, the power of graceful middle-aged retreat and occasional return, the power of not having to be No. 1 all the time? And don’t all those women look just great? Aren’t they aging well? McCarthy is different; she has set fresher terms. Although she is, at 45, roughly in the same age bracket as many of these women, as a box-office commodity she is much newer and younger — she came into her power in a more recent era. And her deal is she wants to work all the time, and she wants to be the star, and sometimes she wants her husband, Ben Falcone, to direct her, and she wants the industry to recognize that she delivers.
2. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” Post-Identity Comedy Utopia. Last Friday, Netflix released the second season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s series about a woman adjusting to life in New York City after being rescued from a doomsday cult in Indiana. Though the series is a critical favorite, it has garnered some criticism for its various “problematic” storylines, like the white socialite’s Jackie Lynn’s Native American heritage. In the third episode of the new season, the series examines Internet outrage. Salon’s Sonia Saraiya examines the episode and the series’ wish for a post-identity comedy utopia.
Whether or not “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is well-intentioned is open to argument, of course. But as I only realized when Emily Nussbaum wrote about Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) as a resilient rape victim, the Netflix comedy has hidden depths; a complex structure whose brilliance is partly conveyed in how simple it all seems. In season one, Kimmy’s journey outside the bunker was about reclaiming a snatched-away life by embracing the Technicolor world she’d been denied for 15 years. The show’s theme song — one of my favorites currently on television — is an anthem of empathy for some of the most victimized people on the planet. In season two, Kimmy’s attention must turn from survival to that other, subtler and more complicated goal of post-victimhood: contentment. Which means that season two of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is a smorgasbord of identities, and the people who uncomfortably choose to inhabit them. It’s not all just gay black men who are the reincarnation of Japanese geishas, either — Titus goes on a date with a construction worker (Mikey, played by Mike Carlsen) who isn’t out to his coworkers, hipsters infiltrate the neighborhood and get on Lillian (Carol Kane)’s nerves, Jacqueline navigates life as a single woman with a renewed passion for giving back to the tribe she left behind. Every character picks up and toys around with new modes of being, whether that is in a relationship status, a life mission, or an economic class. It’s a giddy and slightly terrifying amusement park of possibilities, and episode by episode, we’re offered the chance to watch each character choose to be a certain kind of person, with the stereotypes and perks that each entails. In some ways, this is part of Fey’s lifelong affection for New York City as a monument to perpetual self-reinvention. In other ways, this focus on creating identity is a sharp assessment of the stages of post-traumatic recovery. And more politically, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” interest in identities, in season two comes from having destroyed its own power structure in season one. On CBC’s “Q,” panelist Stephen Marche observed: “Straight white men have no presence on this show… [season one] was anti-patriarchal comedy. This is post-patriarchal.” It’s a brilliant observation. The entitled white men of season one, be it the Reverend (Jon Hamm) or Jacqueline’s manipulative husband Julian (Mark Harelik), have been expelled from the show’s universe. And because those men are the ones who would enforce racial, gender, or sexual hierarchies on the other characters — on the rest of the world — season two of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is infused with a special kind of utopian liberation, one where the great experiment of being is all anyone is concerned with.
3. Screening Room and Theater Pushback at CinemaCon. The theater industry trade show CinemaCon was held last week and as expected featured numerous announcements from theater chains and filmmakers alike about what to expect in the coming years. Vanity Fair’s Julia Miller reports from ComicCon and how Sean Parker’s Screening Room idea sent the place into a panic.
In any other year, Will Smith, Jennifer Lawrence, and Chris Pratt would have been enough to charm the socks off the cinema suits from multiplexes all around America. But this year’s CinemaCon — the annual Las Vegas convention where Hollywood’s biggest studios present their upcoming film slate to theaters owners — was different, and the world’s biggest movie stars weren’t talked about nearly as much as the newbie who wasn’t even presenting at the convention: Screening Room, Sean Parker’s plan to shake up the movie industry by offering new releases to at-home viewers for $50 a pop. Since news of Screening Room broke last month, Parker, who previously upset the music industry by co-founding Napster at 19, has garnered support (and in some cases, investments) from heavy-hitting filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, and Peter Jackson. Screening Room has also amassed the white-hot hatred of the theater industry, which has argued that eliminating the 90-day window between theatrical and at-home releases will collapse their already declining business. But Parker is pitching Screening Room as a means to go after the younger demographic that has stopped going to the theater entirely, with a $150 home set-up that will be piracy-proof. To sweeten the deal for exhibitors, he has even offered them a 20 percent kickback should they join him. Judging by the number of barely veiled Screening Room digs made by CinemaCon’s studio heads and filmmakers throughout the week, though, support from exhibitors will be damn-near-impossible to buy. The enterprise was alluded to so much all week that one attendee observed, “It’s almost like Screening Room was Voldemort, ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.’ I was almost happy when James Cameron, on the final day of presentations, came out and attacked Screening Room by name.” Cameron surprised CinemaCon on Thursday during Fox’s presentation, where he all but took a blood oath to protect “the sanctity of the in-theater experience.” He added, “Regardless of what the folks associated with the Screening Room say, I think it’s absolutely essential for movies to be offered exclusively in theaters upon initial release. Boom!” As if that were not enough, the “Titanic” filmmaker promised four more “Avatar” sequels in what started to feel like some kind of pledge drive for the sinking film industry.
4. The True Story of “Elvis & Nixon.” The new film “Elvis & Nixon” focuses on the serendipitous real-life meeting between then President Richard Nixon and famous rock ‘n’ roll star Elvis Presley, and the famous picture they took together. The New York Times’ Kathryn Shattuck expounds on the story behind the movie.
But what, exactly, is that truth? The encounter — which is the subject of the comedy “Elvis & Nixon,” due April 22 — took place on Dec. 21, 1970, when the two men, each teetering on the precipice, met in the Oval Office. Sometime the night before, Presley — incensed by what he considered the moral decline of America — wrote to Nixon requesting a meeting. Flying a commercial red-eye to Washington from Los Angeles and using American Airlines stationery, Presley said he’d been inspired to save the country from the scourge of the Black Panthers, hippies and Students for a Democratic Society (he would later include the Beatles on that list). Now he wanted to be made a federal agent at large with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the better to go undercover. “I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good,” he wrote. “I am glad to help just so long as it is kept very private.” He delivered the letter to the northwest gate of the White House and went to the Washington Hotel to await an answer. Presley as an all-American anti-drug activist — what better disguise? (Not incidentally, the entertainer, who had received death threats, believed that the credentials, which he longed to add to his collection of law-enforcement memorabilia, would also allow him to carry firearms — and prescription drugs — at home and abroad.) The president wouldn’t install his infamous taping system until the following February, leaving a blank space where the men’s words — let alone their emotions — were concerned. The creators of “Elvis & Nixon” — with Michael Shannon as Presley and Kevin Spacey as the president — tried to fill it in.
5. When the Maysles Brothers Filmed The Beatles. The Film Forum in New York City is currently running a Maysles brothers retrospective that celebrates the legendary documentarians’ storied career. Last Friday and Saturday, they screened the original 16mm 1964 documentary “What’s Happening! The Beatles In The U.S.A.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody looks back at the time when Maysles brothers filmed the Beatles.
For the Maysles brothers, the story of Beatlemania was a story of frames within frames, of media events that were no mere spontaneous happenings but virtual theatrical productions on the stage of the world, put on by means of radio, television, and the press. The movie starts in the studio of the Top Forty radio station WINS (1010 AM, which switched to all news the following year) with the yawping of the DJ Murray the K, who shouts to an on-air caller, “Here’s what’s happening, baby! The Beatles!,” introducing an airplay of “She Loves You” — which the Maysleses then show a group of teen-age fans singing while awaiting the band at J.F.K. Airport. Murray the K’s show is on the air when the Beatles, soon after their arrival, are in the limousine taking them from the airport to their hotel, and the Maysleses show the DJ in the studio playing “I Saw Her Standing There” (and getting his groove on while it plays) and the bandmates listening to their own record on that broadcast, by means of Paul’s pocket-size transistor radio. That radio stays in Paul’s hand, tuned to 1010, playing Beatles songs, for much of the time of their stay. “What’s Happening!” is an X-ray of the media landscape, with their song followed by a talking ad and jingle for Kent cigarettes, which the Beatles jovially mock. In the hotel room, still listening to his transistor, Paul seems bewildered at the brazen hucksterism of a wine commercial, saying, “It’s a funny place, this America.” A little while later, Murray the K is with the band in its hotel room, while George does an astonishing radio interview, by phone, in which the interviewer suddenly shifts the conversation, as if it’s the most natural subject in the world, into a plug for a bank, which then becomes a long, stentorian, scripted commercial. (It’s exactly the American media landscape, of commercial-riddled faux conversation, that Charlie Chaplin lampooned in his 1957 film “A King in New York.”) The Beatles react with astonishment to this advertising-infused, advertising-inured scene while riding a train from New York to Washington, D.C. In the midst of an amazing set of pranks on the train — Ringo carrying all the photographer’s cases, Ringo doing an odd spy routine, George climbing into an overhead baggage rack, Ringo putting on a fur coat and hat and jumping into Murray the K’s lap, George putting on a porter’s uniform — George asks for a cigarette. John gives him a Marlboro (joking about its “microneat finger”) and does a commercial, saying in a stilted voice, “It’s a big cigarette for a big man,” and George joins in on the parody.
Tweet of the Day:
Twitter is 50% the world’s best joke writers and 50% people who don’t know what jokes are.
— Mark Agee (@MarkAgee) April 16, 2016