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Daily Reads: The Hidden World of Digital ‘Beauty Work,’ the Evolution of the Perfect Superhero Body, and More

Daily Reads: The Hidden World of Digital 'Beauty Work,' the Evolution of the Perfect Superhero Body, and More

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

1. How Actors Get Plastic Surgery With a Click.
In the movies, some special effects are showier than others. There are the giant spaceships, the big explosions, and such that receive the lion’s share of attention, but then are other, more subtle effects that often go unnoticed. Vulture’s Logan Hill examines how special effects can shave years off an actor’s life, reshape a performance, or recast a role after a movie’s been shot.

Until recently, vain actors were limited to makeup, flattering lighting, corsets, plastic surgery, Botox, crash diets, personal trainers, steroids, muscle suits, color grading, lenses and filters, body doubles, and spray-on abs. Now they also have software: Zits vanish with a click. Wrinkles ­disappear. Abs harden. Jawlines sharpen. Cellulite vanishes. “In postproduction, if they want your nose to be a little smaller or a little bigger, that’s up to them, man,” says actor Michael Shannon. “Some attractive person gets out of a swimming pool dripping wet? Nobody wants to see how they really look: It’s fantasy.” The industry leader in “beauty work” is Lola Visual Effects, the company that aged Brad Pitt up and down in “Benjamin Button” and wimpified Chris Evans in “Captain America.” Citing the “sensitive nature” of its clients, Lola declined interview requests, but co-founder Edson Williams explained in the book “Masters of FX” that a “love scene may not have the same impact if the stars have deep eye bags, rough skin, and puffy cheeks…My specialty is invisible cosmetic effects: If you leave the theater thinking your favorite actor has perfect skin and no body fat, then I did my job.” In 2015, Lola worked on 14 films, including “The Big Short,” “Joy,” and “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.” Until 2003, Williams digitized pop stars with that “blurred grain that gives you that porcelain, perfect skin, Britney Spears look,” he told “FXGuide.” Then a studio called that “wanted to add a six-pack to its aging action star.” He co-founded Lola three months later with a business model based on blockbusters’ budgets. At first Lola struggled to get faces right but then achieved an industry breakthrough by hiring an actual plastic surgeon and adapting his techniques. Today, Lola might begin with a “digital dermabrasion, removing any age spots or imperfects,” then reduce “eye bags,” use a “mesh warp” technique to tighten sagging skin or bulging flab, and perform a “digital face-lift” to trim jowls and areas like earlobes and noses that grow larger with age, while meticulously relighting every pixel. Throughout the industry, such work is “completely routine,” says veteran visual-effects supervisor Jim Rider (“Vinyl,” “Focus,” “Foxcatcher”). “I’ve done beauty retouching on women who are practically supermodels, but because they’ve got an extra few ounces…” Often, technicians will simply stretch actors’ bodies vertically to make them appear leaner. “There was one actress where we had a 95 percent squeeze to make her thinner, where it’s barely noticeable,” says Oscar-nominated editor Joe Walker (“Sicario,” “12 Years a Slave”). “The 95 percent trick works, but I feel immoral doing it.”

2. Superman, Batman, and the Evolution of the “Perfect” Hero Body.
Since superheroes reflect cultural ideals, it’s only natural that the superheroes evolve along with the culture, especially in relation to physique. The Atlantic’s Maria Teresa Hart examines the evolution of the superhero body from the mid-20th century to now.

In the ’50s and ’60s, the film and television industries began their love affair with men in capes. Though these heroes stopped locomotives, jumped over buildings, and retreated to secret lairs, they didn’t have quite the same look (massive shoulders, V-shaped torsos, and rippling abs) as today’s superheroes. Kirk Alyn, the first actor to play Superman in 1948, looked more like a college athlete than an alien Adonis. Later the role was taken over by George Reeves, the quintessential ’50s Man of Steel. Reeves was a broad, barrel-chested hero with a square torso, long limbs, and barely a muscle in sight. But he had a John Wayne-esque brand of masculinity — solid, stable, and strong-jawed — that made him compatible with the times. In 1966, Adam West took on the role of Batman in the eponymous TV series. West’s runner’s build was sturdy, and out of costume, his Bruce Wayne looked more like James Bond than Charles Atlas. (Incidentally, West was tapped for the role after he played a Bond-inspired spy in a Nestle Quik commercial.) Unlike later Batmans, West didn’t physically transform when he donned his batsuit, morphing from Bruce Wayne to the otherworldly Batman. His simple gray and black outfit only heightened how ordinary his physique was for a man regularly tasked with saving an entire city. West later joked about his appearance on the show when he made a cameo appearance on “The Simpsons,” saying, “Back in my day, we didn’t need molded bodysuits, [it was just] pure West.” At that time, Hollywood hadn’t yet discovered skin-tight Lycra or molded plastic pectorals, so costumes were mostly full-body stocking knits. Overall, they revealed little to no hint of the muscles below, highlighting that the physical image of these superheroes was much closer to that of their viewers. In the early 1960s, adult men had an average BMI of about 25, which sits in the “normal” range — a healthy mix of muscle and fat.

3. An Interview with “Everybody Wants Some!!” Breakout Star Glen Powell.
The new Richard Linklater film “Everybody Wants Some!!” follows a group of college baseball players in the first days before class starts at a Texas college. Billed as a spiritual sequel to “Dazed and Confused,” the large ensemble cast of mostly new faces will surely have its partisans, but one of the most obvious breakouts in the group is actor Glen Powell who plays the smooth-talking Finnegan. Rolling Stone’s David Fear interviews Powell about his role in the film.

“Rick kept saying this character was the hardest one to cast,” the 27-year-old actor says via phone from Arizona, where he and his costars are killing time before a screening. “Finnegan can seem self-righteous and come off like an asshole; people have to listen to him talk a lot and they’re going to get sick of hearing his voice. The key to him was…everybody looks back on their past with a certain type of nostalgia. Most folks go, ‘Oh, I was the best player on the team, I dated everyone, I was great!’ Rick has no sentimentality for that; he’s the kind of guy that would say, Well, that just wasn’t the case. The guy has an incredible memory — we called him ‘Rickapedia.'” “Most people are just bullshitting,” Powell continues. “So Rick said, play him like the person everybody says they were in college. The bullshit version of their story? Make him that guy!” Though “Everybody Wants Some!!” is most assuredly an ensemble movie, and Finnegan is only one of several older ballplayers who take the rookie pitcher Jake (“Glee’s” Blake Jenner) under their wing. But he’s undeniably the film MVP: the charismatic smooth-talker with the shit-eating grin and the infectious let’s-go-have-some-fun attitude. Linklater referred to this long-in-the-works comedy as a “spiritual sequel to ‘Dazed and Confused'” — and Powell is the movie’s Matthew McConaughey, the sort of scene-stealing performer that leaves filmgoers shaking their heads and saying, who was that guy? A native of Austin, Texas, he started as a child actor, racking up credits in movies like “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over” and “The Great Debaters.” As a kid, he gravitated more toward football and lacrosse (his uncles were MMA trainers, so he also “learned how to fight competitively early”), although it was a particularly fateful baseball game that endeared him to his future “Everybody” director. “When I was 16, I’d been cast in ‘Fast Food Nation,'” he says, referring to Linklater’s 2006 adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s polemic on food production. “And while I was playing in a charity baseball game, I ended up breaking my arm about a week before filming was starting. I had to call him: ‘Um, Rick, I broke my arm…can you please not fire me?” I was waiting to get the axe. Then he said, ‘Wait, do you have a cast? There was always a guy in high school that had a cast, you gotta keep it! It’ll be great.'” Years later, after he moved to Los Angeles, Powell ended up getting a script from his agent — the first iteration of what would become “Everybody Wants Some!!” “This was about seven years ago,” he says. “It ended up taking this long to get made. But I remember thinking, Finnegan…he’s the Otter from ‘Animal House’ character. Rick wrote a jock-poet, and I’ve never seen that kind of guy in a movie.”

4. “Everybody Wants Some!!” Sensual Physicality, and the Hormonally-Driven Male.
We at Criticwire don’t usually highlight straight film reviews in the Daily Reads section, but we make exceptions for well-written, evocative reviews that get at the essence of a particular film. Case in point: Reverse Shot’s Michael Koresky reviews “Everybody Wants Some!!” and focuses on the film’s sensual physicality as well as its examination of the hormonally-driven male.

With its mellow groove, condensed time frame, and episodic half-narrative coasting on the breezy charms of young people trying but not always succeeding at verbalizing the challenges of getting older, the latest Richard Linklater film could never be mistaken for anything other than a Richard Linklater film. At the same time, there’s something unexpected here for the director: a palpable, sensual physicality, tied to an almost entirely male cast. Within the first five minutes of the film, as we’re introduced to the characters, we are treated to a parade of broad chests, bulging biceps, slim jeans, short shorts, tank tops, and tighty whities all flaunted by a group of remarkably good-looking men. The wardrobe itself might seem especially familiar to connoisseurs of vintage gay porn. These details are not gratuitous to relate, and they are not beside the point of the film: “Everybody Wants Some!!” follows a few crucially uncrucial days in the life of a group of promising college athletes in a Texas state school in 1980, young men whose livelihoods depend on their bodies and whose intellectual pursuits, at this stage in their incipient careers, are impossible to separate from the condition of their muscles. Here, a director whose oeuvre has often been called cerebral (or by the less charitable, “talky”) has partly given himself over to the animal, a portrait of homosocial ritual that verges on the homoerotic. It suits him well, like the appealingly tight pairs of chinos the camera often all but ogles. Without necessarily being a critique, “Everybody Wants Some!!” is concerned with the performance of masculinity. Its nonstop, butt-slapping bravado is what gives the film its distinct energy. Those who have heard the film touted as a “spiritual sequel to ‘Dazed and Confused'” might be surprised to find it so focused on the jocks rather than weirdos, outcasts, and geeks — in other words, the hazing, dick-swinging semi-villains that injected a bit of nasty energy into that beloved 1993 film are here the main attraction, with no sweet-souled losers to curtail their lunging for narrative control. This may prove to be too much machismo for some (let’s not pretend that many of us critics weren’t more squarely in the geek camp in high school), but in presenting them as they are, Linklater, ever the good-natured observer of human connection and sensitive American masculinity, creates something strangely beautiful. He sculpts decency from what might have otherwise seemed an undifferentiated mass of testosterone.

5. Violence Is a Very Sad Poetry: The Films of Sam Peckinpah.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center is running a Sam Peckinpah retrospective throughout the end of the week highlight the controversial director’s storied film career. For RogerEbert.com, Justine Smith examines the poetic violence in Peckinpah’s work in honor of the retrospective.

“I love you,” Benny (Warren Oates) whispers to his fiancee, Elita (Isela Vega), shortly after she is raped in “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” Sitting at the bottom of a shower, he holds her naked body, soaking his sweat-stained suit as he tries to comfort her. A day earlier Benny had asked her to marry him, even though it’s not something he particularly wants — but he is willing to compromise to make her happy. Benny really loves Elita but allows his insecurity to blind his affection. This moment of gentleness is counterbalanced by his obsessive and ugly quest to recover Alfredo Garcia’s head. The sexual violence experienced by his wife-to-be only serves to strengthen his resolve, in spite of the fact she begs him to drop it all and run away with her. Emotionally wounded and faced with a crisis of masculinity, Benny is the ultimate Peckinpah surrogate and he allows violence to infect his life. He cannot see that Elita is not interested in his performance of masculinity and has no desire to become intertwined in the brutal world of crime. Benny’s violence is born out of powerlessness. Violence grows in him over his feelings of inadequacy, but, in particular, his relationship with Elita. As much as he loves her, he senses that he is not man enough for her. He ignores the fact that Elita gives herself up to be raped in order to save both their lives. This final act of selflessness could have easily purged them of their former life, but Benny continues to lead them both towards their death. Elita responds gently to her rapist; she doesn’t fight back but softly and calmly begs to be let go. Her strength is palpable and challenging to audiences because Peckinpah doesn’t depict her as having shame about her body. Rape, like most violence in Peckinpah’s work, is rarely the way we imagine it. The scene is loaded with layers of tragedy: the sense that Elita had been raped before, that Benny cannot save her and that her rapist would choose to hurt her for no particular reason. Peckinpah’s preference for slow motion and intricate cutting amplifies scenes of cruelty, having them echo through time and spill into subsequent scenes. His best films are built around harsh and disorienting cuts; the impact of violence built through contrast, especially through the manipulation of temporality with slow motion. In the time it takes for a body to fall to the ground, bullets fly, people die, and an entire scene unfolds.

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