Daily Reads: A24 Films Is Saving Hollywood (Or Is It?), the Oscarification of LGBT Pain, and More

Daily Reads: A24 Films Is Saving Hollywood (Or Is It?), the Oscarification of LGBT Pain, and More
Daily Reads: A24 Films Is Saving Hollywood (Or Is It?), the Oscarification of LGBT Pain, and More

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

1. Can A24 Save the Film Industry? 
Since 2013, A24 has distributed, produced, and financed films some of the most critically acclaimed films, including work like “Under the Skin,” “A Most Violent Year,” and “Ex Machina.” This year, they have released at least three films that are awards contenders and are only poised for greater success down the line. At Slate, David Ehrlich pens a stunning profile of A24 and how they’re saving the film industry.

In recent years, the recession and the concurrent rise of VOD streaming services have already torpedoed the mid-budget movie. Suddenly, in order to be financially viable, a project has to cost less than $2 million or more than $200 million. Anything in between is dead in the water. Many of the country’s most vital filmmakers, unwilling to accept that their next movie would have to be either shot on an iPhone or connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have begun to abandon ship. Steven Soderbergh “retired.” Spike Lee turned to Kickstarter. Steven Spielberg publicly predicted the implosion of the film industry, which is sort of like God telling you to brace for rain. Meanwhile, A24 has already been building an ark. At a time when young people are increasingly going to the movies only for blockbuster spectacle, A24 has established itself as the film industry’s most forward-thinking company by releasing the kind of mid-sized, stylish, quality films that seemed on the verge of going extinct, transforming them into a collective theatrical experience, and aiming them squarely at a demographic that would rather watch movies on their phones. It’s not remarkable that A24 had set such a goal — it’s remarkable that the company is accomplishing it. By surgically inserting each release into the zeitgeist, it has paved a new road for provocative, modestly sized cinema, bridging the gap between microbudget indies and monolithic studio products in much the same way Italy’s Autostrada A24 connects Rome to Teramo. As Korine told “Rolling Stone”: “I want to do the most radical work, but put it out in the most commercial way.” A24 just took him up on it. Other similarly sized outfits tend to flood the flooded marketplace with a steady barrage of quality independent and foreign fare in a way that can feel indiscriminate: Send the DCPs to Film Forum and let God sort ’em out. IFC earned a raft of Oscar nominations when it decided to put its muscle behind “Boyhood” and transform it into a phenomenon, but dumping all of its eggs into one beautifully textured basket helped to underline the paucity of love that most indies receive from their distributors, who ferry them from festivals to home video with all the solemn purpose of Charon taking passengers across the river Styx. Other indie labels, like Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures (which co-produced “Spring Breakers”), tend to go in the other direction, releasing a minuscule handful of movies into the currents of Oscar season in the hopes that the waters will carry them toward a crowd. (“Joy,” Annapurna’s only 2015 title, arrives in theaters on Christmas Day.) But A24 has the money to acquire a steady slate of releases, the model to support them, and the chutzpah to make nearly each one into a mini-phenomenon. In the last 18 months alone, along with “Room” and “The End of the Tour,” it has pioneered the abortion comedy with “Obvious Child,” scored a commercial hit with the seductive thriller “Ex Machina,” released one of the most daring science fiction films this side of “2001” in “Under the Skin,” and driven the most lucrative documentary in years with Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse portrait, “Amy.” Next year they’ll re-team with “While We’re Young” director Noah Baumbach on his brilliant doc about Brian De Palma, distribute one of the best horror films since “The Shining,” and release the first of the films they’ve financed themselves. The company has laid the groundwork to evolve from just another upstart distribution label into a multi-headed mini-studio capable of developing its own content — and so far they’ve done it by releasing movies that tend to earn more cultural cachet than they do money. But as A24 initiates the second phase of its existence, a transition that includes financing its own films and branching out into television, the company’s exponential growth may find it becoming part of the problem it had once seemed destined to solve. When your business model is predicated on treating each movie like an event, how do you get bigger without changing who you are?

2. No, A24 Can’t Save Hollywood. 
Though some have placed their faith in studios like A24 to show Hollywood that mid-budget film is profitable and worthwhile, others aren’t so convinced that Hollywood cares about being saved or needs saving at all. Vulture’s Kevin Lincoln argues that though A24 has an admirable ethos, the numbers don’t say that it can change Hollywood.

Most of the time, when the phrase “saving Hollywood” gets tossed around, it means shaping a Hollywood more in the image of the writer’s own tastes. I respect that inclination, and I’m certainly onboard with Ehrlich in thinking that A24 puts out far, far more interesting fare than, I don’t know, “Minions.” We just need to remember that A24 is fighting a battle that’s not only uphill, but actually, like Andrew Jackson in New Orleans, possibly already over. It isn’t that Hollywood can’t be saved. It’s that it might not want to be.

3. The Oscarification of LGBT Pain. 
Next week, there will be two films in theaters that focus on the historical and contemporary struggles of the LGBT community. The first, of course, is Roland Emmerich’s misjudged “Stonewall,” and the next is Peter Sollett’s “Freeheld” about a woman’s struggle to transfer her pension benefits to her lesbian partner after she’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore explores how LGBT struggles have been “oscarified” this film season.

“Stonewall” belly-flopped at the box office, with dozens of critics calling it out for, among other things, its whitewashing and cutifying of history, its invention of an insipid hero to play tourist in a community and an era that was anything but, and its toxic serving of factually dubious cheese. “I’m too angry to love anyone right now!” is its worst howler, directed at gender-fluid Puerto Rican street urchin Ray, played by Jonny Beauchamp, whose yearning for Danny is depicted like that of a charismatic drama kid hopelessly pining for the oblivious high school football star — which, we see in flashbacks, is exactly what Danny was, having been secretly involved with, of course, the quarterback. All of these criticisms are true, but what they don’t capture is the heedless earnestness with which the film was made. It’s the aspect of “Stonewall” that, once the smoke has cleared on the streets of Montreal-somewhat-passing-for-New York, is actually the most difficult to contend with. The movie may have been directed by Roland Emmerich, king of blockbustery destruction like “2012” and “Independence Day,” but it’s personal, a passion project, the misbegotten product of good intentions. It wasn’t studio pressure that led Emmerich and writer Jon Robin Baitz, both gay, to frame their story this way but their own thoughts on the best way to make the Stonewall riots palatable to broad audiences. “You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people; I made it also for straight people,” Emmerich told “BuzzFeed News.” “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting.” If the idea that audiences require this sort of “in” feels woefully outdated, well, it was only four years ago that “The Help” nabbed a bunch of Oscar nods with what was essentially the same approach to its story of the racism experienced by a group of black maids in 1960s Mississippi. “Stonewall” was clumsy enough to be both laughable and enraging, but as we get into Important Movie Season, it’s also a good reminder that many of the films that will be trotted out soon and taken more seriously do their own sanitizing of social issues and historical injustices, using characters as symbols rather than as people unto themselves, and mediating stories through the more “relatable” perspectives of outsiders and allies. Sometimes they bring national attention to under-discussed problems by demanding empathy for and understanding of their characters’ struggles. And sometimes they’re just a way for the industry to pat itself on the back for its own supposed relevance, so that Jared Leto can blithely thank “the Rayons of the world” for providing “the inspiration” for his “Dallas Buyers Club” Golden Globe win with their difficult lives and tragic deaths.

4. “Review” Is the Bleakest, Most Hilarious Show You’re Not Watching. 
Comedy Central’s “Review” starring Andy Daly is simply one of the absolute best show currently on television. (Its second season finale is tonight.) The premise of the show is simple: A guy who reviews life destroys his own in the process in terribly ironic ways. The show can be cringingly uncomfortable but also laugh-out-loud hilarious as we watch protagonist Forrest MacNeil flounder in a mess of his own making attempting to leave a lasting effect on the Earth. Grantland’s Eric Thurm explains why “Review” is one of the best shows you’re not watching.

“Review” is like many great TV shows in that its appeal boils down to a single character, and like a lot of the most popular TV characters, Forrest has become a kind of single-minded cockroach. But instead of pursuing sex (George Costanza), sex (Don Draper), or, um, sex (Gob Bluth), he hunts for a sense of purpose and intellectual fulfillment through the success of his show. This wreaks havoc on his life, radiating outward from the divorce and infecting everything from his future romantic entanglements to his relationship with his father. When Forrest’s attempt at space travel caused the death of his ex-father-in-law, I thought there was no way he could cause any more oblivious harm. I was wrong. Like its protagonist, “Review” is mercilessly committed to the bit. Where other shows can drop their façades for a moment, allowing BoJack a real (if fleeting) epiphany or Rick of “Rick and Morty” a display of affection for his grandson, “Review” shows only what makes it on “Review With Forrest MacNeil” and nothing more, relying on viewers to work at understanding the sadness and pain in the cracks. And where many of the best sadcoms are animated — which makes for a bit of a buffer from depression — seeing Forrest destroy his life without the chaser of cartoon horses or aliens is just too much to swallow. The show builds up a horrible tension between his ideal of criticism and its consequences (including being stranded at sea, burning down a house, and getting sent to prison), with no release. After this insanity, the prompt of tomorrow’s season finale — believing in a conspiracy theory — seems a little tame. But its simplicity is deceptive, because while it doesn’t have quite the same immediate weight as the recent episode “Murder, Magic 8 Ball, Procrastination,” it pries something loose that’s even harder to pin down. Forrest’s attempt to believe in a conspiracy taps into the same obscene singularity of belief he’s poured into the show, but directed toward an end that is, by contrast, less ridiculous. Choosing to believe in a conspiracy theory should be hard — you either have faith or you don’t. (In this respect, it’s similar to the procrastination episode, a review Forrest vetoes because he finds it logically impossible to complete.) Still, accepting life as a series of random occurrences is equally difficult. In a rare use of archival footage, the episode rapidly depicts all of Forrest’s mishaps in a short span of time. When the viewer is confronted with every disaster that’s befallen the show’s protagonist at once, the only logical conclusion is that some unseen entity is manipulating him.

5. NYFF ’15 Immediate Impressions: Todd Haynes’ “Carol.” 
Todd Haynes’ newest film “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, has garnered loads of acclaim for just about everything: performances, cinematography, editing, score, etc. One would be hard pressed to find an overtly negative review of the film. However, Keith Uhlich published a brief review of “Carol” that highlights some of his reservations about the film and Haynes’ work in general.

Think I’m at the point with Todd Haynes where he’s mostly ceased to surprise me. And by that I mean do much of anything unexpected. Of course there will be the slightly academic appropriations of Sirk and Fassbinder. But now there’s also a square respectability to his approach that I find deflating. I wish these recent women’s melodramas had more of the pranksterish qualities (in abstract) of his earlier work. Out of that attitude, strangely, came the genuine devastation of films like “Poison,” “Safe” and “Velvet Goldmine.” “Carol,” weirdly, comes off at times like “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” done straight (pun intended, girl). Haynes is just using porcelain figurines instead of plastic ones. I think I can pinpoint the camel’s back breaking: It was when T.H. said he made “Far From Heaven” because he wanted to make people cry. Haynes and emotional directness don’t mix; he needs to be roundabout in his methods in order to sear the soul. That’s part of the reason I proselytize for his “I’m Still Here” segment of the recent “Six By Sondheim” because it begins in such a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me! kind of way with Jarvis Crocker crooning the Carlotta Campion anthem from “Follies” to a nightclub full of gloomy biddies. But the hepcat archness slowly segues into crushing poignance; I caught my breath at the end in a way I haven’t since Julianne Moore, as Haynes’ other Carol, whispered her fourth-wall-breaking “I love you.” In contrast, “Carol” plays pretty conventional, beginning with your usual “great” Cate Blanchett performance that’s chiefly studied mannerism (watch the uber-rehearsed way she inhales/exhales a cigarette), though I do think she nails the climactic scenes with embittered, soon-to-be ex-husband Harge (a terrific Kyle Chandler) and department store inamorata Therese (Rooney Mara, affecting china doll inscrutability throughout). The latter sequence also revolves, as in “Safe,” around an “I love you” that sounds as if it’s being upchucked, though here with prim daintiness.

6. Sacred Secular Art: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and Faith. 
Many cinephiles can look back on their filmic education and point to a viewing of a specific film that qualifies as a quasi-religious experience, that feeling of being transported to another realm and experiencing newfound emotions via art. On her blog, Jessica Ritchey writes about “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” leaving behind Jehovah’s Witnesses, and how movies became her religion.

It’s not that I didn’t trust another denomination to produce a sense of the sacred and numinous in me. It’s more that I had never, ever had that feeling in all my years of being a Witness. Jehovah’s Witness’ Kingdom Halls tend to be drab looking buildings. And it’s an aesthetic that carries down to the faith itself. In an effort to purge itself of anything that remotely smacks of “Christendom” (read: Catholicism) Jehovah’s Witnesses have carefully soaked and stripped religion of any sense of ritual, celebration, and marking of time. The pagan origins of most major Holidays, and birthday observances, meant those went right out the window. And Witnesses had no youth programs at all. Why would you bother with those things after all, when the world is ending next Tuesday? And that meant life was carefully marked by all the things you avoided doing, instead of the things you did. I would always feel guilty about looking longingly at decorated Christmas trees. And I would feel even more guilty when we’d tour an old cathedral when traveling and I’d get a sense of reverence and of the centuries that had passed under its arches. In the immediate aftermath of leaving the Witness, or “The Truth” as insiders call it — big red flag right there — I longed for a sense of purpose. And it came via a video store rental box. I had picked it out because it had a spaceship on the cover, and I liked “Star Wars.” And I watched, with an increasing sense of the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, as a a great mystery unfolded. Strange lights were flickering across the sky, a group of pristine WWII planes lost decades ago are found in Mexico, an Indianapolis lineman can’t stop creating images of a strange tower. And in the middle of the Gobi Desert a cargo ship is found, the people documenting it taking an understandable moment to stare in incredulity before recording it. And I forgot it was “just” a movie. I entered into it, crouched behind the scrub grass, holding my breath as the ships came in for a landing at Devil’s Tower. And John Williams’ score, a perfect blend of the magisterial and the fragile sense of wonder wound around my cells and made them light up like the Mothership as it returned to the sky. I cried when Truffaut signed to the alien and it signed back and I felt so happy and alive as the credits rolled and I reveled in what I’d just seen. None of it was “real” and yet it’s not that I didn’t care, rather it’s that I saw stories, good stories, great stories, have a deeper truth and reality of their own. And that it did not diminish movies’ power to know they were the result of many different people pooling their skills to create worlds out of sound stages, costumes and matte paintings. Rather it spoke of the medium at its best, that when everything came together the viewer could be transported and changed. That secular art could be scared too.

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