Criticwire's Daily Reads brings today's essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Manic Pixie Hot Mess. Last month, The Dissolve's Nathan Rabin wrote an op-ed in Salon apologizing for coining the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," saying the type had gone from a critical observation to a reductive phrase. Time's Lily Rothman furthers the case for its retirement, saying that the fantasy love interests of sad-sack males have given way to more complex characters. They might be similarly cheerful, but their problems are more concrete and more central to the narrative.
Even "New Girl," despite the fact that its star Zooey Deschanel is often held up as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl exemplar, fits the bill: protagonist Jess drops into the lives of four men and adds a touch of fun, but she’s got problems and back story of her own, as well as the focus of the show’s creators. Just as Deschanel has made sure that her real-life detractors know that the bit of pixie in her personality doesn’t mean they can’t take her seriously, "New Girl" is best when Jess is messing things up and capable of getting herself together, all at once. Read more.
2. More Transparency for Netflix Needed. On paper, Netflix is an ideal outlet for documentary filmmakers, as their movies will be available for 50 million viewers online vs. a few screens and limited audiences in theaters. The problem? Netflix doesn't tell the filmmakers (or anyone) how many of those 50 million viewers are actually watching. Some filmmakers are OK having only a rough idea of who they're reaching.
But others in the documentary world say a rough idea is not enough, and argue that digital platforms—not only Netflix—should share more of the information they’re collecting...The lack of insight into audiences makes it hard for filmmakers to promote their work to future investors, he said. And in the case of Netflix, Block is skeptical of the license-fee model: “You don’t get any extra besides your acquisition fee, whether a million people rent it or click on it. It’s downright un-American.” Read more.
3. Why Jazz Sucks and Is Stupid, Signed a Jazz Fan. Last week, Justin Moyer of The Washington Post wrote an op-ed about how jazz, as a genre, was mushy, out-of-fashion, and that it suffered whenever it eschewed lyrics. It was a dumb piece. Critic Glenn Kenny, a jazz enthusiast, satirized the piece on his blog Some Came Running, adding points like "Music Without Words Is Kind Of Inherently Lame, No?"
In 1967, after the death of his Orchestra's vital composer, arranger, and pianist Billy Strayhorn (who succumbed to cancer at the age of 51), grief-stricken bandleader Duke Ellington and his musicians recorded the tribute album "...and his mother called him Bill," an arguably well-chosen selection of some of Strayhorn's best-liked tunes, including of course his melodic directions to Harlem, "Take The A Train." After the session proper, while musicians folded chairs and discussed plans for their evenings, Ellington himself sat at the piano and played a gorgeous, and plainly tortured-with-loss version of Strayhorn's ostensibly exquisite ballad "Lotus Blossom." Listening to it, Ellington's personal sense of loss is palpable. Still. One can't help but think how much strongly The Duke could have sold the tune with some lyrics. Maybe something along the lines of "I'm really sad/that you're dead/Billy Strayhorn./You played piano/but you /didn't play horn." Just give a listen and see if you don't agree. Read more.
4. The Worst "Turtles," the Best April. Even in the best iterations of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," April O'Neil has never been the best-written character, always playing damsel-in-distress without developing a satisfying storyline of her own. The new Michael Bay-produced version is, by most accounts, either the worst or one of the worst films in a series not known for consistency. Yet even those who balked at the casting of Megan Fox in the role might have trouble denying that April's at least given more to do here.
But Fox is actually perfectly cast as a woman who's long been dismissed as just a pretty face, and is itching to step into a more challenging role. In this iteration, April still ultimately chooses to team up with the ninja turtles instead of exposing them to make her name as a serious journalist. But this time, the movie actually writes April her own superheroine backstory (as a little girl, April bravely saved the mutant baby turtles that later grew into ninja teens) and gives her a real motivation for compromising her career (she does it, naturally, to avenge her father's death). Read more.
5. In Praise of the "Guardians." Jonathan Lisecki, the writer-director-star of "Gayby," is among the many to voice appreciation for "Guardians of the Galaxy," and he wrote about it over at The Talkhouse. Against the complaints of some, Lisecki praised the film for being such a clear and successful piece of storytelling that doesn't feel the need to overexplain. He also hailed the five heroes of the film.
Others will say "Guardians" is stolen by Groot, a tree that resembles a particularly knotty piece of ginger I bought at Whole Foods the other day, and I’d agree. Vin Diesel’s fantastic voice performance is matched with brilliant CGI, and his catchphrase/only phrase, “I am Groot,” is the line of the year. I have this sense “I am Groot” will penetrate all culture. AFI will add it to their all-time best movie quotes list, knocking off some "Forrest Gump" quote. Next season on "RuPaul’s Drag Race," a full-figured contestant will throw shade at a shapeless twiggy queen with a perfectly timed “She is Groot.” Read more.
6. The Best of "Step Up's" Dance Numbers. This weekend saw the release of the fifth (really, the fifth?!) film in the "Step Up" dance franchise, "Step Up: All In." Both Gwynne Watkins of Yahoo! Movies and Lindsay Weber of Vulture ranked the best dances in the movies, from the rooftop dance of the Channing Tatum-starring original to dance set in an art-gallery in the fourth film (I've never seen any of these, but I might have to now because that sounds rad).
Watkins: No. 5: "Step Up": Classical Dancers vs. Street Dancers. Jenna Dewan and Channing Tatum’s "Step Up" finale is less of a dance battle than a performance styled after a dance battle. Yet it pretty much nails the equation that makes the franchise work: the dedication of professionals plus the soul of street dancers equals true love. Read more.
Weber: 5. The art-gallery dance, "Step Up Revolution." Buried beneath the weirdness, there's one dance in "Step Up Revolution" that actually works, and it takes place in an art gallery — with ballerina jellyfish. Read more.