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Daily Reads: A Critic’s Journey to Cuba, Is 2015 The Tipping Point For Women and Minorities in Hollywood? and More

Daily Reads: A Critic's Journey to Cuba, Is 2015 The Tipping Point For Women and Minorities in Hollywood? and More

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

1. Is 2015 the Tipping Point for Women and Minorities in Hollywood?
If nothing else, this past year has seen greater visibility of race and gender problems in the entertainment industry. We’ve seen women and minorities stand up for lack of representation and employment in Hollywood more and more this year, but is 2015 finally the tipping point for them? Can we look back at 2015 and say, “Yeah, that was when the tide changed.” The L.A. Times’ Rebecca Keegan explores this notion at length.

Those who have long advocated for change are beginning to see the fruits of their labor. A steady drumbeat of data from researchers at USC and UCLA suggests women and minorities are at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring in behind-the-camera positions, and this fall, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began contacting female directors who said they have been subject to discrimination. At the same time that research suggests women and minorities overall are under-represented, some high-profile successes among films and TV shows headed by women and people of color this year have demonstrated their effect on the business — and the potential for more. Audiences have embraced F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Elizabeth Banks’ “Pitch Perfect 2,” Nancy Meyers’ “The Intern,” Lee Daniels’ “Empire” and Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal,” and studios and networks have happily tallied the cash they generated. In front of the camera, the year’s most anticipated movie, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” seems poised to be one of its most inclusive, with a black Stormtrooper, a woman pilot and an array of other key roles breaking the mold, while others of the year’s biggest box-office drivers, from the seventh film in the ethnically diverse “Fast and Furious” franchise to the closing movie in the female-led “Hunger Games” series, have confirmed that audiences show up when they see a heroic version of themselves represented on-screen. Over the course of the year, women and minorities in the business have been using their platforms as advocates with increasing power: Patricia Arquette tipped off the conversation with a fiery plea for wage equality for women in February at the Oscars and Viola Davis drove home the point with a poignant reference to Harriet Tubman and the lack of opportunities for women of color in September at the Emmys. Jennifer Lawrence published a widely circulated letter decrying the pay gap between men and women, and Spike Lee used the occasion of receiving his honorary Oscar in November to question the lack of black faces in studio executive suites.

2. Going Home for the First Time: A Film Critic’s Journey to Cuba.
When you’re the child of immigrants living in America, going back to the motherland is always a difficult journey. There have been a lot of built-up expectations and stories about the land you’re only aware of but haven’t experienced. At RogerEbert.com, Monica Castillo writes about traveling to Cuba, the place where her family emigrated from, for the first time to cover the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano.

“I left, why do you want to go back?” she asked me. My mom and abuela reluctantly helped arrange my trip to stay with my great uncle, one of the few Cuban members of my family I knew in person rather then in pictures. Less than two months before my trip, he passed away. I felt guilty for not having gone sooner. My aunt took me in, and my cousin offered to help me navigate the city without a map or Wi-Fi, and hell, sometimes no electricity (apagones, or blackouts, have become so routine it’s normal to carry a flashlight at all times). Several family members passed on tips on what not to eat to skirt food poisoning, to live soaked in mosquito repellent to ward off Dengue Fever, and which cabs were more likely to swindle visitors. But all the stress, worry and sadness melted away the moment I woke up on the plane over the luscious green campo (countryside) dotted by the occasional tin-roofed farm. When we landed at the Jose Martí airport, the plane erupted in applause with some feet-stomping and sniffles. A woman behind me burst into tears, saying it had been decades since she’d seen her island. It was my first time, but I resolved to keep my face straight as I headed into the airport to have my bags searched. Nothing could have prepared me for the humidity or the first sight of Cuba outside the airport. If my Northern or Western friends complain that Florida’s tropical climate feels like swimming in a lake, then stepping into Cuba’s was wading into a hot waterfall that pushed you down into the soggy earth. After the cadeca (where one exchanges money) and customs, I exited into a pen surrounded by Cubans eagerly waiting for relatives. If you couldn’t find your family, there were a line of overzealous cabbies ready to sweep you to the capitol. Not too long after, my prima scooped me up in the biggest hug as if she had known me all her life. We did in a way, but only in pictures in our grandmothers’ houses. I bounced in the backseat of my cousins’ car (seat belts are not required here), straining to take in the ungodly bright greenery on either side of us, the chipped paintings, billboards singing praises of the Revolution and the occasional Jose Martí statue. We run errands around town, and, at a mall that’s half eaten by malanga vines, we get my first round of groceries. At the top of my to-see list is to walk the Malecón, Havana’s famous walkway by the sea. You’ve probably seen it in pictures or on an Anthony Bourdain special, but for me, it was where my mom and her brothers would carefully climb down the rocks to go swimming. At night, my cousin, her husband, and I walk along it, passing fishermen using nothing but a hook, string and their hands to catch a last minute meal. She and I take our first picture together as the sun sets behind us. We walk on, and her husband points northward joking that I should yell to let my family in America know I’m okay. I look out into the horizon slowly disappearing into darkness, the direction my mother tearfully faced before disappearing into the hull of a small boat bound for the United States all those years ago. I think of the cousins who have since fled towards that horizon and the many relatives I never knew who didn’t make it.

3. Spike Lee’s Necessary, Overwhelming “Chi-Raq.”
Spike Lee’s newest film “Chi-Raq” has garnered a predictably mixed reception. Some have championed it as a vital, angry political work that turns its sights on gang violence, guns, and an indifferent government that allows chaos and destruction to become normalized. Others described it as a tone-deaf, unfunny mixed bag with a muddled execution. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody named “Chi-Raq” the best film of the year and writes at length about how it’s a necessary, overwhelming film.

In building a movie about contemporary Chicago on ancient Greek foundations, Lee also builds on the mighty founding principles of political and philosophical thought. Far from mocking the subject or approaching it lightly, Lee takes on gun violence with a scathing seriousness that spares nobody — not the characters in the film and not its viewers. Just as Scorsese did, Lee turns his fierce gaze back at the members of the audience. Here, he forces us to consider the grim and gory pleasures that have, in the past, led us into those very seats to watch movies in which the violence that “Chi-Raq” decries is the very source of entertainment. In the beginning is the word — a song performed by Nick Cannon (who’s also one of the movie’s stars) about gun violence in Chicago that plays on the soundtrack, accompanied by a black screen on which his lyrics pop up, and a sermon on the same subject by Father Michael Pfleger, the real-life priest who’s the basis for the character of Father Mike Corridan, played with passionate commitment by John Cusack. Together, the song and the sermon, heard when no image is seen, are a gauntlet that Lee throws down to himself: What can popular art be in a time of crisis? How can a work of mass entertainment live up to the moral challenge that the priest poses? How can art depict and respond to the crisis, reflect the monstrous societal forces that render many black lives unlivable or simply unlived, and yet be — as art — free, personal, intimate, and beautiful? Amazingly, Lee creates such a work of art, not by tamping down his style, suppressing his personal impulses, or subordinating his intuitions to principles, but by heightening and extending his style. He renders it inseparable from the ideas that he offers and the ideals he exalts — and fuses those analyses with a fierce, tender, overwhelming emotional power. With the burden of incommensurable pain that suffuses the movie from start to finish — a burden that the movie helps to bear with its own flamboyant fury — Lee has created a raucously joyful yet howlingly haunted jazz requiem for a ravaged city and a ravaged generation.

4. “Transparent” and the Female Gaze.
Creator of the Amazon original series “Transparent” Jill Soloway has talked extensively about how feminism has impacted the direction of her show. She has been up front about “inventing the female gaze” and really trying to shift the concept of camera-as-male-apparatus by using it as a tool of empathy instead of domination. Salon’s Sonia Saraiya examines “Transparent” and the female gaze in her review of the series’ second season.

What is particularly thrilling about “Transparent’s” second season is how it serves as a canvas for Soloway’s broadest imaginings on a feminist and/or progressive process of filmmaking — from casting to script, from breaking stories to cinematography — while also being incredibly, beautifully well done. Ideology and creative vision do not always create brilliant results, when mixed. In Soloway’s hands, the ideology and the vision inform and enhance each other. “Transparent” is not didactic, but it does not pander, either; relatedly, it is both about the most intimate dealings between humans and also the grand ideas that move them. “Transparent’s” second season is a technical tour de force, and one that begins to forge what a cinematic female gaze would look and feel like. The result is not quite as purely id as something like “Magic Mike XXL” (which in addition to being over-the-top is also heteronormative), and not quite as inaccessible as a Marina Abramović show (which are generally in just one art gallery at a time). It’s about more than just flipping the camera around, and about more than including female voices, stories and characters. As Ariel Levy writes in the New Yorker, Soloway recruited writers from well outside the Hollywood industrial-complex for Season 2, and gave them a scriptwriting bootcamp to put them in shape. She called at least some of this mission “transfirmative action,” in an attempt to incorporate a “trans-feminine perspective.” It’s brought the show its first trans writer, Our Lady J, and another trans actor, Hari Nef. Only one writer has worked on a show before, besides Soloway herself, and that’s Bridget Bedard, previously of “Mad Men.” In the terrifically mechanized world of television writing, especially for comedy — especially for a network’s flagship show, as “Transparent” has become — this is unheard of; it’s even more out there than the auteur model adopted frequently by HBO, where one writer churns out every script, because at least that has a basis in film. And Soloway’s process for working with her crew is similarly idiosyncratic. Levy writes: “We’re taught that the camera is male,” she said, turning to walk uphill, backward, to tone a different part of her legs. “But I’m not forcing everybody to fulfill something in my head and ‘Get it right—now get it more right'” Directing with “the female gaze,” she asserted, is about creating the conditions for inspiration to flourish, and then “discerning-receiving.”

5. California Teeming: An Interview with “You’re The Worst” creator Stephen Falk.
FXX’s “You’re The Worst” had one of the best second seasons in recent memory, expanding the series’ universe as well as thematic palette. It tackled coupledom and clinical depression, emotional and physical separation, as well as the illusion of a “fresh start.” At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Nandini Balial interviews creator Stephen Falk about his show, his interest in East L.A. life, and the depiction of depression on television.

Nandini Balial: You seem to have an interest in East LA life and its trappings. I think that episode where we follow a couple we haven’t met before is fascinating, because we don’t know who they are. How much of that couple is something that you pulled from your own life?

Stephen Falk: I think more generally the thematic stuff. I live in LA, I’ve lived here for a long time now, and so anything LA-centric crept out of my or my writers’ direct experience or observation. But writing that couple came out of a lot of my general ambivalence about growing up and having a family and that sort of stuff. I’m not one to hit on random girls who come over to my house, but the feelings that Rob expresses near the end, that sends Gretchen into a spiral, is sentiment that I can understand but that was rendered and written purposefully to make the character [Rob] look kinda stupid and clueless. Which is generally what I do with a lot of shows — to take arguments or thoughts or observations that I have, and then just render them in stupid ways to show the folly in that kind of thinking, but also the truth in those kinds of fears at the same time.

You’ve mentioned that you wrote this for yourself. The NBC sitcom you wrote didn’t work out, and it affected you, so you sat down and wrote something you wanted to read. How has your approach as a writer changed?

I think it’s my job to be aware of excuses that writers make or that I make, or ideas that writers have about craft. And I have a great forum to cummerbund those and make fun of them. While I honor being a writer — I think it’s a great living and I’m blessed to be able to do it —people often talk about writing as this noble thing, and it just ends up sounding incredibly pretentious. At the same time, making the people in your life understand that writing is not always just actual fingers on the keyboard. There’s a lot that goes into it. And there’s a lot of gearing up. Often I’ll take an hour just preparing to write. It’s difficult for others to understand that. So again everything that I write are things that I argue with myself. I agree with Jimmy in that same episode that [breaks into exaggerated British accent] “being in a bar drinking is kind of writing.” In that case there’s certainly a kernel of truth.

I’m new to LA. I’ve only lived here for a year. I’m cynical about this city, having just moved here from New York. This might be contrary in spirit to both Jimmy and Gretchen but I felt encouraged by the show to go out. I recognized some things about certain settings, especially in “Sunday Funday,” like, “Oh, I know where that is,” or, “I’ve driven past that.” It made me want to explore LA, and make friends here. I was wondering if you were aware of that at all, that it could have that effect on people, or that it might be odd for someone to derive some kind of optimism from these characters since both are self-hating and narcissistic and self-destructive.

Yeah. I think that’s great. I share your journey of New York to Los Angeles; same hang-ups. The show is dealing a lot with one’s idea of something, of getting older, of LA being a shithole or whatever, and then the reality, and the fact that often clinging to an idea of something — specifically, the idea that New York is so much better than Los Angeles, that Los Angeles is somehow vapid — that it can end up, if you cling to those, seeming like a way to avoid really living life. It can keep you from actually growing. I think it’s always a good idea to observe yourself and see if there’s some prejudice you’re holding onto, to find if it’s so true or if it’s something that you are clinging to because it’s something you should think or what you used to think, and it’s no longer useful to you. That’s what a lot of what the show is about. And I’m glad! If you’re gonna live here, live here, be here. It’s very common but it’s ultimately immature to just walk around going, “This place sucks, New York’s better.” Because A, obviously. And B, it can only stop you from really living.

6. Scenic Routes: A Santa Hat, Timothy Olyphant, and Doug Liman’s “Go.”
Over at The A.V. Club, veteran critic Mike D’Angelo pens a long-running column called “Scenic Routes” that analyzes one scene from a film and illustrates how it is or isn’t effective. It’s a great way of highlighting the myriad ways that a scene functions in a film. This week, D’Angelo writes about Doug Liman’s 1999 film “Go,” and the scene when Ronna (Sarah Polley) picks up drugs from Todd (Timothy Olyphant).

Do people still watch “Go” anymore? It feels like a movie that never quite made it out of the ’90s, even though it was released in the final year of that decade; I can’t remember the last time anyone brought it up in conversation. Both director Doug Liman (who had previously made only the low-budget “Swingers”) and then-novice screenwriter John August have gone on to major Hollywood success, and neither man’s career feels in any way like a natural extension of this movie; Liman moved on to Jason Bourne and Tom Cruise, while August formed a regular working relationship with Tim Burton. That makes “Go” feel even more like a calling-card effort than it did at the time, when it was widely perceived as Tarantino lite. Nonetheless, I retain a lot of affection for this goofy, energetic triptych…and especially for the first of its three stories, in which a young woman named Ronna (Sarah Polley), who’s on the verge of being evicted from her apartment, tries to come up with the rent money by muscling in on a friend’s drug deal. This leads her to an actual dealer, Todd, played by Olyphant. I’d previously seen Olyphant in “Scream 2,” but that wasn’t really the best showcase for his talent — Kevin Williamson’s self-consciously florid dialogue doesn’t roll naturally off of many tongues. Todd the drug dealer provided him with an opportunity to channel his live-wire charisma into a more restrained, genuinely menacing form. And while few people think of “Go” as a Christmas movie, the character’s disarming no shirt plus Santa hat combo has somehow made a more lasting impression on me than any image from, say, “Black Christmas” or “Silent Night, Deadly Night.”

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