Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. On “The Good Wife’s” Lame-Duck Years: How Alicia Florrick Lost Her Audience When She Found Herself. In just a few short weeks, the beloved CBS legal drama “The Good Wife” will air its final episode. The L.A. Weekly’s Sophia Ngyuen examines the lame-duck years of “The Good Wife,” and how protagonist Alicia Florrick (Julianna Marguiles) lost her audience when she found herself.
“The Good Wife” got smarter about Alicia’s limitations in the broader world when the beginning of season seven stuck her in bond court. Her good conscience alone can’t make her into an effective representative of her working-class, majority-minority clients. And the show’s perceptions sharpen once it escapes to the familiar, lusher turf of private practice. There, the partners treat their new black hires, Monica and Lucca, with unthinking, casual condescension — a softer kind of bigotry that, however ugly, doesn’t lead anywhere dire. This marks a sympathetic shift from the show’s old habit, clever and cynical, of creating side characters who game the system’s biases in their favor, leveraging liberal guilt: Peter’s political adversary from season two, played by a silky Anika Noni Rose, was accused of “playing the race card”; in the courtroom, the sharklike Louis Canning used his disability to win sympathy while another, a new mother, brought her baby as a prop. The show found dark humor in how the powerful can weaponize identity politics. But only with gender did the creators feel comfortable enough to be genuinely playful. Take the cameo by Gloria Steinem, almost literally haloed, as she inspires Alicia to run. Or when, during a quickie with her husband, Alicia breathes in his ear: “You want me to lean in? How’s … that?” With a vision that was gauzy and jaundiced by turns, the show at its best peered into back corridors of wealth and influence: the deals cut behind closed doors, the settlements decided out of court, the squabbles in the judge’s chambers. That these small rooms were also sexy — romantic tensions rising in elevators; glass-walled offices enabling wistful stares — fit a drama whose most inspired turns emerged from the constraints of network and genre. More recently, the creators have made those close confines a bleak joke. Eli, demoted to a space that barely fits a desk, is reduced to camping out in the courthouse’s handicapped restrooms and eavesdropping through vents. Alicia gets in trouble for running her business out of her home until her kid defends her in the world’s lowest-stakes court: the condo association. It’s a visual symptom of the show’s shrinking scope: “The Good Wife” has gone private sector, keeping its concerns close to home.
2. Richard Linklater on “Everybody Wants Some!!” the Optimism of Youth, and Creative Compromise. Richard Linklater’s latest film “Everybody Wants Some!!,” which follows the lives of college baseball players over the course of three days, is a critical success. For Hazlitt, Adam Nayman interviews Linklater about the film, the optimism of youth, and creative compromise.
Were those pledges and rules something you had to put up with when you were playing baseball?
That was something that came from friends at another school nearby. They were making the players sign these pledges. There’s always been a thing where [schools] want to tamp down youthful fun. That became more governmental in the ’80s. There was a symbol of freedom in being able to choose. Anyway, if I could go back to “Dazed and Confused,” I don’t know if it needed that throughline. I’ve gotten better at storytelling since then. I don’t know if it needed an element like that, and “Everybody Wants Some!!” doesn’t have one. It doesn’t need it.
Are the challenges facing the characters in “Dazed and Confused” very different from the ones in “Everybody Wants Some!!”?
It’s really different. It’s as different as high school and college. College is about figuring out what to do with all the adult freedom that’s suddenly been dropped in your lap. “Dazed and Confused” was about the rebellion against oppressive forces in your life as a teenager, when you’re a high school student: the institution of school, of family. Then you cut loose from that, and you’re voluntarily in college. And then if you want to get a job, you quit. You don’t have to do it. I remember being exhilarated by that freedom, but also anxious too, because every decision you make, everything you do, every class you take…you’re making these choices that might affect who you become or who you are. Maybe you don’t know who you are yet. It’s a transitional time of self-exploration and self-discovery and it seemed very poignant. It never ends, by the way.
You mentioned that “Dazed and Confused” was all about music, and there’s huge pop presence in “Everybody Wants Some!!” as well. The characters listen to all different kinds of music, and it feels very utopian.
That’s how it felt. You were listening to funk, or you were listening to metal, you were listening to everything. The music I was trying to reflect in “Dazed and Confused” was the FM radio stuff that was just coming at you, before you developed your own taste. You liked what you liked, but you were very much steered by pop culture. In college, you learned so much. So many new influences, like your roommates. In “Everybody Wants Some!!” there are these sixteen guys living together, which was very much my experience in college. They all have album collections too.
3. In Praise of Deon Cole’s Charlie, the Lovable Wild Card of “black-ish.” ABC’s family sitcom “black-ish” is a critical and commercial hit. The series follows the lives of an upper-middle-class African American family and their struggles with daily life as well as maintaining their identity. Variety’s Maureen Ryan praises a recurring character on the sitcom: Deon Cole’s Charlie Telphy.
“Black-ish” is blessed with a wonderful cast, of course, one that has only gotten stronger and more impressive during the show’s two seasons. It’s a sign that things are headed in the right direction when each character of a TV comedy is so sharply defined that laughter or an amused state of mind can come from merely anticipating what a character might do in a given situation. To wit: The show’s never explained why Charlie and Diane Johnson (Marsai Martin) have such a profoundly frosty relationship (and I’m inclined to think “Black-ish” should leave that a mystery). But I’m chortling just thinking about what will happen the next time these frenemies meet. Charlie will sweat, Diane will sigh and more delightfully charged comments will be skilfully traded. A slight detour: “Black-ish” and Martin have done a great job of making Diane into a small but hilariously frightening character; it’s easy to imagine her running the country, but it’s also easy to arrive at the realization that doing so would only use up a tiny fraction of her mental energy. The neat trick of Diane is that she’s still a recognizable kid, and her and her twin brother’s antics are amusing as such, and yet she’s a believable and almost unholy combination of Olivia Pope, Steve Jobs and Queen Elizabeth II. Despite her small stature, Diane finds a way to look down her nose at people, and when she does, they quake a little bit. As they should. Charlie quakes in Diane’s presence, but then again, he’s generally a little nervous all the time, wherever he is. One of my favorite things in TV storytelling is the presence of a character who, even if we don’t see him or her much, indicates a life of great eccentricity and dizzying complexity. Two of “Black-ish’s” office characters fall into that category: Charlie and Mr. Stevens, Dre and Charlie’s boss, who is played with screwball virtuosity by Peter Mackenzie.
4. The High Road: The Complicated Landscape of the Los Angeles Stoner Comedy. Yesterday was 4/20, an unofficial holiday predicated on the idea that getting high should be celebrated just one day a year. In honor of the holiday, Curbed’s Adrian Gluck Kudler examines the complicated landscape of the Los Angeles stoner comedy.
Stoners have been getting high and getting into car trouble in Los Angeles since at least 1928, when Laurel & Hardy visited the dentist in a short called “Leave ‘Em Laughing.” Ollie and Stan pump themselves full of laughing gas and spend fully the last third of the roughly 22-minute film hitting every car in downtown Culver City, cracking up the whole time, more or less oblivious to the exasperated cop who eventually takes the wheel, drives them onto a street under sewer construction, and drowns them all in a sinkhole. (This is about as kind as an LA police officer ever gets in a stoner movie.) But stoner movies weren’t really a thing until the movies themselves got stoned, which happened in the late 1960s, as film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in his essay “What Dope Does to Movies.” By then, Baby Boomer filmmakers and audiences were fully doped up and focus began to wander away from coherent narratives toward “other possible pleasures”: Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetically perfect images in “2001,” Arthur Penn’s tonal recklessness in “Bonnie & Clyde,” Robert Altman’s distracting soundtrack and ambling camera in “MASH,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” and, eventually, “The Long Goodbye,” a perfect Los Angeles stoner noir that has plenty of brownie mix in it, but no actual cannabis. Rosenbaum compares the “purely visual masterpieces of the late Sixties” to the “purely aural experiences [of] record albums by the Beatles and Frank Zappa.” You know, great art that’s even greater…on weed. The first true stoner comedy — a comedy about someone who loves to get high — was released in 1968, a few months after the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and about a month before the Monkees’ “Head.” Both of those movies are way more fun to watch high than “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” the stoner movie your grandparents can feel cool watching. (Compare its psychedelia-lite theme song, by Harpers Bizarre, to “Yellow Submarine” or “Porpoise Song,” the theme from Head.) “ILYABT” was co-written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, who cowrote the less goofy “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” the next year, and stars Peter Sellers as nice Westside Jewish lawyer Harold Fine, played at fluctuating levels of Woody Allenness. For a movie about a square getting turned on and dropping out, it is almost entirely about what a nightmare it is to drive in Los Angeles.
5. How “Walk Hard” Ruined The Genius Biopic Forever. Jake Kasdan’s music biopic parody “Walk Hard” received a tepid response commercially and critically upon initial release, but has soon garnered cult acclaim in subsequent years. The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin examines how “Walk Hard” ruined the genius biopic forever.
When Don Cheadle started work on “Miles Ahead,” his Miles Davis biopic that arrives in UK cinemas this Friday, he was sure about only one thing: whatever happened, he wanted it to be as unlike one certain film as it could possibly be. Avoiding that film’s gravitational pull was tricky. Every treatment of Davis’s life story that Cheadle had been pitched, he told me the other week, had been a “slightly different version” of it – and in the end he had to co-write his own script to scrub out every trace of its DNA. Danny Boyle did something similar when he was preparing his Oscar-nominated Steve Jobs biopic: he screened the film to remind himself exactly what not to do. It’s not a notorious, studio-sinking turkey: in fact, it was released during the 2008 Oscar season to middling reviews, and quietly came and went from UK cinemas in less than a month. But its importance can’t be overstated. It’s called “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” – and it demolished an entire genre as we knew it. Fortunately for the cast and crew of “Walk Hard,” that was the idea. It’s a spoof of genius biopics that stars John C Reilly as Dewey Cox, a supposedly legendary singer-songwriter from rural Alabama whose entire life unfolds in only two modes: dizzying triumph and soul-tearing tragedy. It was prompted in part by the success of two real Oscar-winning genius biopics, “Walk the Line” and “Ray” – and retroactively made both of those films, and countless others, impossible to take seriously. Once you’ve seen “Walk Hard,” the two things almost every genius biopic gets wrong become impossible to ignore. Firstly, they rarely find a way to make the actual genius of their genius subjects self-evident. Instead, there’s always a supporting actor on hand to gasp something like “By Jove, he’s given meaning to the negative values of the gamma function!” – as Jeremy Irons does in “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” a recent biopic of the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. In “Walk Hard’s” note-perfect send-up of this moment, a record producer’s face lights up in astonishment when he hears the entirely unremarkable opening 15 seconds of what will become Dewey’s first single.
6. The Hateful “Man” of “Anomalisa.” Charlie Kaufman’s latest film “Anomalisa” follows a middle-aged man on business trip as he’s confronted with his own existential ennui. The stop-motion animated film garnered critical acclaim in some circles, but many balked at the unlikability of the protagonist. Cut Print Film’s Chance Solem-Pfeifer looks at the hateful “man” at the center of “Anomalisa.”
On the one hand Michael is a quintessential Kaufman protagonist: morose, detached, self-serving. But when it comes to other crucial traits, this man is strikingly different than the celebrated screenwriter’s parade of bigheaded, but absentminded, artists. First, of course, there’s the fact that this particular Kaufman vessel of maladjustment is not a man. Throughout the evening and morning the film spends with him at a Cincinnati hotel, the puppet’s face blinks strikingly and sags naturally, as though the tip of its nose were feebly magnetized to the floor. The lethargy to its squat kinetics meets the distinct curtness of English actor David Thewlis’ voice, suggesting Michael’s brain working quickly on its way to words. Still, brief obligatory exchanges with cab drivers or clerks are unbearable for him. This is, after all, a Kaufman world at the hotel Fregoli, which is named for a rare disorder causing multiple people to appear as the same person. (This, if you haven’t seen the film, is how Michael experiences everyone he encounters — bellhop, ex-lover, airplane seatmate, wife, son — before hearing Jennifer Jason Leigh’s voice as Lisa.) In a cozy and eerie 90 minutes, Kaufman has deceptively written and co-directed one of his most challenging features, reversing and displacing the colossal filmic challenges within the scripts of “Adaptation,” Being John Malkovich” and “Synecdoche, New York.” Even if “Anomalisa” is guided by surrealism, it’s some of the plainest wall-and-carpet realism he’s done, which seems crazy to say about a movie starring puppets. For audience and central character alike, the towering question of “Life, do you get it?” has been replaced by: “Life, can you stand it?” In his quiet sub-film-drubbing among reviewers, Michael Stone is a rare Kaufman protagonist, and his lack of charm isn’t what solidifies that distinction. There wasn’t so much problem-free entertainment in the delusions of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard tyrannically overseeing his life play (“Synecdoche”), Nicolas Cage’s Kaufman babbling through writer’s block (“Adaptation”) or John Cusack’s Craig Schwartz doing his double puppeteering (“Malkovich”). Their obsessions, self-monologues and waking dream states were hardly victimless. Often, Kaufman’s women characters bore the resultant suffering. But much of the relief with the traditional Kaufman protagonist is in that they want, in desperate and surreal ways, what we assume the writer himself wants: love, legacies, to create art so large and richly inscrutable as to merit a word like “genius.” Through most of his work, he seemed most interested in funhouse mirroring the pitfalls of artistic life. In that way, the endeavor often felt thorough, and you could take meaning from its archipelago of post-modern ideas, even they formed no traversable landmass.
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