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Daily Reads: Aubrey Plaza's Sexual Revolution, How John Oliver Beat Apathy and More

Criticwire By Max O'Connell | Criticwire August 15, 2014 at 9:51AM

Plus: "The Congress" and the end of actors, and how "Let's Be Cops" shows marketing trump timing.
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Aubrey Plaza and Jason Ritter in 'About Alex'
Aubrey Plaza and Jason Ritter in 'About Alex'

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

1. Aubrey Plaza's Sexual Revolution. Aubrey Plaza has been a talented comic performer for some time, but there's a distinct difference between her early roles in "Parks & Recreation" and "Funny People" and her more recent turns in "The To-Do List," "About Alex" and "Life After Beth": sex. Or, more specifically, a more active pursuit and enjoyment of sex in an industry that so often marginalizes female pleasure for male pleasure. Flavorwire's Jason Bailey writes about Plaza's exploration of sexuality on screen.

And in "Life After Beth," a ravenous sexual appetite isn’t just a character quirk — it’s one of the key components of Plaza’s comic arsenal. Her character, Beth Slocum, dies almost immediately, and the story’s initial focus is on the grieving of her parents and surviving boyfriend (Dane DeHaan, finally finding a role where his jittery oddness fits). And then, out of nowhere, Beth just reappears, without explanation. She has no memory of her death, and has forgotten the tentativeness of her romantic relationship at the time; when he comes over for a visit, she looks at him like a freshly grilled steak and drags him down her hallway with wild abandon. 

Read more.

2. "Let's Be Cops" and How Marketing Trumps Timing. One would think that "Let's Be Cops" has a major hurdle (aside from being not very good), in that a film about men finding power in pretending to be cops is the last thing audiences might want in light of the tragedies in Ferguson. But "Let's Be Cops" debuted to a robust box office Wednesday night, showing that bad timing doesn't necessarily have a negative effect on box office, at least not when the film's been marketed out the wazoo. Scott Mendelson of Forbes explains.

I wondered if the Boston Marathon bombing last year would affect the reception of the terrorism-related "Iron Man 3" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" while admitting that the big movies usually survive this kind of thing. "Die Hard with a Vengeance" made nary a penny less than it would have made absent the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing one month prior to release, and "The Dark Knight Rises" didn’t suffer one iota from the mass shooting that took place in a public midnight showing of said movie two summers ago. "Let’s Be Cops" appears to have flourished despite the poor timing of its release and despite the absence of any critical reception leading up to its release. Read more.


3. The Cine-Essays of Chris Marker. BAMcinematek is hosting a retrospective of Chris Marker's films throughout the second half of August, starting tonight. Stephanie Zacharek wrote about Marker's enigmatic, fascinating cinematic essays, highlighting her love for his 1997 film "Level Five," a newly-restored "birth-of-the-internet meditation"  that has never seen theatrical release in America.

The sound-and-image collage of "Level Five" includes "Tron"-like grids of light (sometimes superimposed on a Styrofoam wig head, proof of his shoestring creativity), a rumination on the theme from Otto Preminger's "Laura" — as composed by David Raksin over an emotionally fraught weekend — and footage from a tense but blessedly unbloody Japanese bullfight. Most striking, and most unsettling, is the grainy footage of civilians dutifully committing suicide by leaping off the cliffs of Okinawa, to avoid being captured by the American enemy. At one point, a woman looks back toward the camera, a moment Marker juxtaposes with the image of a man who attempted to soar from the top of the Eiffel Tower in the early 1900s, knowing full well his homemade flying cape wouldn't save him but jumping anyway: The cameras were running, ready to record his feat, and he felt he had no choice. And the woman from Okinawa, Marker notes (through his narrator Laura), sees the camera and doesn't want her own cowardice preserved for posterity. She turns away from us and also makes the leap. It's a moment of both grace and horror. Read more.


4. "The Congress" and the End of Actors. "The Congress" has been praised for both its remarkable style and its look at a world where actors' physical bodies are replaced by digital recreations. That world might be coming closer to fruition, and Sloan Science & Film's Anthony Kaufman sat down with Paul Debevec to talk about the technology he helped develop, and what it might mean for the future of actors in film and television.

SSF: Is it a problem if you could make a digital Obama say something that the real Obama wouldn’t say, and no one knew?

PD: With enough money and a bit of time, you can make anybody from any time at any point in history look like they’re doing or saying anything. It’s not impossible and it hasn’t been impossible for five years now, since the "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." You can use a hammer to build a house, or you can use a hammer to bash somebody’s skull. It’s just a tool and it has multiple uses. And you hope that people will use it for good purposes. I don’t think anyone thinks we should ban hammers. We need to respect what the tool can do and use it appropriately and try to look after ourselves as a society in how we’re making use of these things. Read more.


5. Slow Cinema. What do we mean when we describe a movie as "slow?" Is it a combination of length and deliberate pace, or a favoring of long, static shots vs. montage and whip pans? Zachary Lewis and Michael Sicinski over at To Be (Cont'd) try to work that out in the first part of a four-part conversation on the subject, with Lewis starting by discussing the films of Bela Tarr, Hsiao-hsien Hou, and Andy Warhol, among others. 

The potential problem with any of these points lies in the actual term itself: What are we talking about when we talk about slowness? Consistent elements include: long, static shots with little to no narrative or dialogue, and a predilection for mundanity. But if we wish to outline the first sort of history, do we merely test for these components? Should we measure the films of Méliès and Lumiére for stillness (since, despite lengthy static shots, their frames are usually filled with action)? Do we include films like Louis Malle’s "My Dinner with Andre," which is visually static and has little action but also contains rapid-pace dialogue? To construct a history, we must separate what we mean by “slow cinema” from films that just happen to be slow in a few respects, lest we create a gray area even larger than film noir studies. This is an odd mission as we’re now concerned with something beyond “slow”, the sole distinguishing factor of “slow cinema." Read more.


6. How John Oliver Beat Apathy. The common read on activism in the age of the internet is...well, there isn't much of it, and what there is is pretty feeble. But with "Last Week Tonight," John Oliver's mixture of humor, passion and willingness to cross lines others won't has spurred people to care about political subjects that they might not otherwise. The Atlantic's Terrance Ross cites the FCC's website crashing after he implored commenters to flood their boards with their thoughts on net neutrality, but the show is having other effects as well.

And Oliver is not just influencing viewers; he’s actually having an effect on the people he's criticizing. In the wake of his neutrality rant, an official FCC meeting began with a mention of the show, much to Oliver's amusement. Later, Thailand—yes the country—denounced “John William Oliver” in an official military document after a segment made fun of its crown prince. Oliver welcomed the criticism. “Let’s burn more bridges,” he said, before dissing other countries that have anti-free-speech laws like Thailand's. Read more.

This article is related to: Aubrey Plaza, Life After Beth, Let's Be Cops, The Congress, John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, Daily Reads


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