Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Don’t Blame The Hollywood Reporter for the All-White Cover. Blame Hollywood. So, The Hollywood Reporter’s actress roundtable issue featured a cover with only white actresses. The magazine published an explanation for this written by editor Stephen Galloway, which hinged on the idea that women of color simply weren’t in the Oscar conversation, and thus they couldn’t justify putting them on the cover. The Washington Post’s Soraya Nadia McDonald compiled a list of black actresses in leading and supporting roles, and says not to blame the Reporter for the all-white cover, blame Hollywood.
The Post examined Galloway’s claim, which required scouring more than 600 films that had or are scheduled to have theatrical releases this year, in search of black women in lead and supporting roles. The resulting list was combed for memorable, meaty, realistic contenders in prestige roles that would honestly allow the woman portraying them to go toe-to-toe with the actresses (Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, Brie Larson, Kate Winslett, Carey Mulligan, Jane Fonda, Jennifer Lawrence and Charlotte Rampling) pictured on the Hollywood Reporter cover. More often than not, if films had black women in them at all, their characters existed as stick-figure love interests, mothers and minor characters with few lines or backstories. Others contained female characters whose sole purpose was to guide the male lead in whatever journey on which he was embarking. The standout exceptions included “Girlhood,” “Tangerine” and “Chi-Raq.” Given the circumstances, it’s no wonder Mark and Jay Duplass, producers of “Tangerine,” announced they were initiating Oscar campaigns for Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, the two stars of the small indie, which was shot entirely on an iPhone. Teyonah Parris delivers a masterful performance in “Chi-Raq” but faces an unconventional and frankly, unlikely road to the nominating process due to the complicated nature of director Spike Lee’s amazing, confounding film. Overwhelmingly, top black film actresses have found far more interesting fare and appreciation in television: Kerry Washington (“Scandal” and the HBO movie “Anita”); Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”); Regina King (“The Leftovers”); Gabrielle Union (“Being Mary Jane”); Taraji P. Henson (“Empire”); Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique (“Bessie”); and Angela Bassett (“American Horror Story”). During a quest earlier this year to find out why an actress as versatile, skilled and well-respected as Regina Hall wasn’t getting more substantive, higher-profile parts, virtually every director interviewed said the same thing: The number of parts written for black women such as Hall to shine come awards season is vanishingly small.
2. How “Scandal” Became Great Again. Yesterday, popular Shonda Rhimes TV show “Scandal” aired its mid-season finale, which had a shocking twist that generated much excitement and grumbling from TV critics. Ahead of that midseason finale, Salon’s Sonia Saraiya explores how “Scandal” became great again by replacing protagonist Olivia’s white hat with a crown.
One of “Scandal”’s storytelling issues throughout the third and fourth season — after the explosive and addictive second season that made the show must-see-TV — was that showrunner Shonda Rhimes tried to raise the stakes by demonstrating repercussions radiate far and wide from the event horizon of the destabilizing relationship between Fitz and Olivia. From that came B6-13, a shadow government that seeks only to consolidate power at any cost, and a brief war in (fictional) West Angola, after Olivia was taken hostage to manipulate Fitz. Both storylines — and B6-13 is ongoing — failed to really take narrative flight; an endless conspiracy and an unseen war are easy to introduce, but very hard to write well. With season five, Rhimes has contracted the story back to its epicenter—Olivia and Fitz, the relationship that for better or worse is the show’s defining characteristic. You don’t have to like them together to appreciate that they are the story’s narrative powerhouse. Washington and Goldwyn will go down in history as one of the screen’s most compulsively watchable couples; even when you hate them, it’s hard to take your eyes off of them. Now that they are out of the closet, so to speak, it’s even better; Fitz and Olivia manipulate each other all day and then attend state dinners together in the evening. Fitz’s chief of staff Cyrus (Jeff Perry) has found himself increasingly obsolete as Olivia becomes Fitz’s chief and most trusted adviser. In a universe where President Barack Obama never existed, Olivia Pope stands on the seal of the president in the Oval Office, and she tells the president what to do.
3. The “Star Wars” Franchise Is a Work of Weird Genius. It’s “Star Wars” week over at The A.V. Club, which means a litany of essays and pieces about the “Star Wars” franchise. The publication has a “Run The Series” column, which examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve. As a part of the column, veteran critic Noel Murray writes about the “Star Wars” franchise and how even with the prequels it’s a work of weird genius.
The problem with trying to approach the “Star Wars” series in any kind of fresh, forgiving way is that Lucas has done so much to flummox even his biggest supporters. His continued tinkering with the original trilogy to bring it more in-line with the look and narrative of the prequels means that even the previously powerful nostalgic kick of “Episode IV” has been dulled by scribbled-in CGI. It’s hard to judge any of these films on their own merits any more. They’re all too interconnected, with the worst elements snaking into the best. And that’s not even taking into account the pervasive, at-time-insidious influence of “Star Wars” on the Hollywood blockbuster industry, which makes defending the movies against skeptics feel a lot like “punching down.” This franchise has made billions of dollars, and introduced characters and concepts that are beloved worldwide. It’d be disingenuous to call Lucas underrated. And yet, he kind of is. What gets missed in all the lamentations about how “Star Wars” changed American cinema for the worse is that very few of the filmmakers who followed in Lucas’ footsteps have been able to instill awe the way he does, or build such a rich mythology, or put together action sequences so craftily. The others aren’t weird enough. They don’t have Lucas’ peculiar combination of film-school snobbery and unchecked preadolescent id. Regardless of the numbering, the best way to watch the “Star Wars” series is still to start with 1977’s “A New Hope” and 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.” The former is the simplest, most direct introduction to what this story’s really about: the adventures of a farmhand named Luke Skywalker who discovers that he has an important role to play in the ongoing battle between multiple independent interplanetary cultures and the seemingly all-powerful Empire that seeks to subjugate or eradicate them. The sequel then complicates that story by revealing that Luke is the long-lost son of the Empire’s most ruthless commander, Darth Vader, and that his growing mastery of the mystical power known as “The Force” could leave him more open to manipulation. Beyond establishing the “Star Wars” universe and then delivering the plot’s most startling and significant twist, episodes “IV” and “V” are the series” only A-grade/five-star entries. See those two, and the other four become more urgent.
4. On Satyajit Ray’s “The Apu Trilogy”. The Criterion Collection just released Satyajit Ray’s world cinema classic “The Apu Trilogy,” which follows the adolescence and early adulthood of a young boy raised in a village who dreams of becoming a writer. For AKLASU Magazine’s Watch Better column, Peter Labuza examines “The Apu Trilogy” and what makes it such a stunning achievement.
While known as the “Apu Trilogy,” the young boy is less the protagonist of “Pather” than casual observer. He only appears on screen a half hour into the story, bursting into the frame with wide eyes and an open smile. His grin balances the narrative’s often-devastating melodrama, tracing his family during their impoverished struggle in rural Bengal. Ray never fetishizes the poverty, using deep focus shots to allow his actors and story to take center space. (Actress Chunibala Devi’s matured face is haunting and unforgettable.) Ray uses the stifling contexts to center melodrama. When Apu’s mother and sister fight over a stolen necklace, the mother throws her daughter out through their gate. But the director cuts to a divided frame of their unfinished wall, showing both women privately collecting their pain, hidden away from the other. Cinematographer Subrata Mitra’s camera paints light with an impressionist’s brush, while editor Dulal Dutta and composer Ravi Shankar pace the story with stately reverence. Rather than charting a tale of desperate living with frenetic urgency — few other filmmakers capture the agony of waiting so well — the director transitions blissful discoveries of childhood toward inevitable deaths. Yet Ray never suggests causality and avoids moral juxtaposition; he simply uses the ebbs and flows of poetic rhythm to create a fluid melodrama. In fact, “Pather Panchali” concludes not with death, but a revelation about the nature of the world that awaits Apu, one that paints jadedness onto his rose-colored eyes. The rustling wind sways in one direction while the railroad steams toward modernity. Some have described Ray’s adaptation of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s 1929 novel as something of a national epic, which certainly takes shape in the film’s latter chapters, as “Aparajito” follows the young boy from the tranquil forest to the hardened city. If “Pather’s” melodic swaying created a sense of a space in which time felt static, what remains so surprising of Ray’s follow-up is its economical delivery, speeding from the oceanside city of Varanasi to a religious outpost and finally to Kolkata, as Apu abandons his religious roots to become a modern man — though not without cost. Although the three films focus on family, “Aparijto” stands out for slowly capturing the increasing generational distance between mother and son. This work best resembles the charge of “neo-realism” often used to describe Ray’s approach, where the film’s initial flirtations with the modern city’s whimsy give way to the constant fans and dirt that pave every road through Apu’s hope for good intentions.
5. Killer Queen: Shekhar Kapur’s “Elisabeth.” Oscilloscope Laboratories is an independent film distribution company started by the late, great Adam Yauch, a former member of the Beastie Boys. The company has a “Musings” blog that has published great film writing, including plenty by ex-“Dissolvers,” including Scott Tobias, Mike D’Angelo, and Noel Murray. This week, Chris Evangelista explores Shekhar Kapur’s “Elisabeth” and how it turned the Virgin Queen into Michael Corleone.
Kapur lucked out in the casting of the then relatively unknown Cate Blanchett, who brings the perfect blend of humanity to a figure who had long been flattened into an emotionless, mythical figure of history. Blanchett starts the film as a romantic, hopeful, idealistic girl who holds fast to her principles. When she stands accused of treason and faces possible execution, her sister, Queen Mary, gives her an easy out: proclaim that if somehow crowned queen, she will retain Catholic beliefs rather than Protestant ones. The headstrong Elizabeth will not yield, declaring she’ll instead “act as [her] conscience dictates.” As “Elizabeth” progresses, Blanchett hardens her performance into something like all that cold white stone that surrounds the characters. She rages, she suffers, she loses any trace of mirth or innocence, while retaining her steadfast adherence to her principles. As the film draws to a violent conclusion, the almost childlike girl that she was has been replaced by a resolute, powerful woman. “I have rid England of her enemies,” she says, her voice flat and cold. “What do I do now? Am I to be made of stone? Must I be touched by nothing?” By the end of the film, she’s slathered in ghoulish white make-up, her red hair sheared from her head and replaced with a towering wig. Elizabeth’s final, absolute control is aided in part by her advisor and hitman Sir Francis Walsingham, played devilishly by Geoffery Rush as a cool, irreligious enforce, unlike the fiercely Protestant historical figure. The film also has him murder one of Elizabeth’s rivals, Mary of Guise, the French Queen of Scots – an event that absolutely did not happen. When grilled by advisors about the murder, Elizabeth promptly replies, “I never sanctioned it!” but she shoots Walsingham a knowing look. Around every shadowy corner in the vast, stone structures that the characters drift through, there seems to be another enemy hoping for – or literally plotting – Elizabeth’s death and refusing to recognize a Protestant queen. Walsingham protects and enables her.
Tweet of the Day:
I Put The Word Best In Scare Quotes On My Year-End List, Thereby Undermining Your Preconceived Notions About The Hierarchy Of Taste.
— Vadim Rizov (@vrizov) November 19, 2015