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Daily Reads: The Nonsense Concept of a ‘Female Friendly Film,’ the Harsh Reality of Building a ‘Star Wars’ Fantasy in Abu Dhabi, and More

Daily Reads: The Nonsense Concept of a 'Female Friendly Film,' the Harsh Reality of Building a 'Star Wars' Fantasy in Abu Dhabi, and More

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

1. The Concept of a “Female Friendly Film” Is Nonsense.
If you’re active on Twitter, you may or may not have seen some rumblings from certain close-minded individuals about whether or not Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” was not for women. Of course that’s ridiculous since the whole point of popular culture is that they’re theoretically for everyone, even if everyone isn’t interested in them. But a dumber idea is that the concept of a “female friendly film” The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard argues that the idea a “female friendly film” is nonsense.

Yet while [Jeffrey] Wells was getting a Twitter kicking [for his tweet]…JJ Abrams, director of the new Star Wars movie, was applauded for his reassurance that “The Force Awakens” would be “more female-friendly” than George Lucas’s originals. By which he meant there would be more women in it, including a space pirate, a mysterious newcomer, and a chrome-plated lady warrior. Plus, of course, Princess Leia herself – back and, according to Carrie Fisher, “defeated, tired and pissed” (i.e. no more gold bikini, no more complex hair). Yet this fresh injection of XX chromosomes does not alter my eagerness to see the new “Star Wars.” Abrams’ assumption that in order for a movie to be female-friendly it has to have women in it is on the same spectrum as Wells’s claim that women won’t cope watching men clobber each other for a couple of hours. Both are wrong. Women, after all, account for two-thirds of the readership of Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” stories – books which are all about the wallop. Last weekend at the UK box office, the top film was “Bridge of Spies,” Steven Spielberg’s cold war drama in which men in suits trade legalese in dusty rooms (the women are there to worry about Tom Hanks). It took nearly £1.6m, a fraction more than “Black Mass,” a mobster drama in which the only female roles of note involve being abused by Johnny Depp. Carol, meanwhile, an extremely well-reviewed romance whose femme credentials couldn’t be stronger, took just over half a million. Not only is it flawed logic to suggest that more women onscreen will make a movie appeal to real women, it’s patronizing. Confusing population with representation risks putting the debate into reverse gear. Remorseless cheerleading for female stories can take you back to a time when boys were denied dollies and pink wallpaper was compulsory for girls. Our capacity to identify with characters who don’t share our genitals shouldn’t be underestimated. And in an age in which gender fluidity is embraced, it feels jarring to hold up, say, self-possessed, drop dead gorgeous Katniss Everdeen as a refreshingly better role model for girls than, say, shy little Harry Potter. Not just jarring; muddled-headed too. The circumstances and experiences of both characters are wildly outside the orbit of most of us. Whether they are boys or girls seems pretty irrelevant.

2. The Harsh Reality of Building a “Star Wars” Fantasy in Abu Dhabi.
So there’s this new “Star Wars” film coming out in two weeks which will surely create a hullaballoo for fans, critics, and indifferent spectators alike. But did you ever wonder where on this planet they filmed “Star Wars”? The L.A. Times’ Lorraine Ali reports from the Rub’ al Khali desert in Abu Dhabi where J.J. Abrams filmed scenes for the new film.

The Arabian Peninsula’s Rub’ al Khali desert is the stuff of fantasy, which is precisely why “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was shot here. In early 2014, director J.J. Abrams and nearly 800 cast and crew trekked into the largely uninhabited region known as the Empty Quarter to build, film and blow things up. They had plenty of room to stage intergalactic battles. Rub’ al Khali is the world’s largest contiguous desert, a sea of sand stretching from Oman to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (of which Abu Dhabi is the capital) to Yemen. Presumably lured by the planet Jakku-like landscape — and the 30% cash-back rebate the government offers to those who shoot in the emirate — the “Star Wars” crew spent six months filming key scenes on a secretive closed set that was said to resemble a small city. From Abu Dhabi, a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles, the “Star Wars” crew would have been shuttled past the city’s modern high rises, its suburbs’ pristine Mediterranean McMansions, the outskirts’ shabby workers quarters, then desolate salt flats, an occasional goat herder taking refuge under a makeshift tent and grazing camel herds. In the company of a guide from the Abu Dhabi film authority, I am making a similar three-hour journey by SUV to the Empty Quarter. A dead, shriveled camel laying on the side of a sand dune is just one reminder that even the hardiest of creatures is no match for the Rub’ al Khali. The guide finally stops our vehicle in an area of the desert known as Liwa, adjusting his head scarf before stepping out of the air conditioning and into the heat. “See this hill?” he asks, pointing off into nowhere. “Behind that is where ‘Star Wars’ was shot. Now maybe you will know us for something more than camels and sand. Stormtroopers and sand,” he says, laughing. The “Star Wars” set was off-limits to press and visitors, and those who worked on the movie during filming were sworn to secrecy about everything having to do with the production. “We used the code Avco in everything we did in relation to ‘Star Wars,'” says Noura Al Kaabi, CEO of Abu Dhabi’s Media Zone Authority and production facility, twofour54. On her conference wall in Abu Dhabi is a giant mosaic of the emirate’s late ruler Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan (a common sight in the region), and on the floor below, a life-size C-3PO (not so common around here). She picked up the latter from a prop store in the U.K. “Even with the government we had to use code when speaking about it,” she says. “When I asked, ‘Why is the code word Avco?’ they said it was the name of the cinema in Los Angeles where J.J. Abrams watched ‘Star Wars’ for the first time. So sentimental, right?”

3. “You’re The Worst” Is The Best Structured Show On TV.
Stephen Falk’s FXX show critically-acclaimed yet low-rated “You’re The Worst” was renewed for a third season on Wednesday. The series follows the relationship between two self-destructive, immature people as they struggle with professional and personal problems, but that bare-bones description doesn’t account for the series’ accurate depiction of clinical depression, social smoking, and media-saturated culture. For Inverse, Rowan Kaiser argues that “You’re The Worst’s” second season is the best structured season on TV.

So what makes for good structure? How did “You’re the Worst” incorporate so much good across a dozen episodes? The first thing a good seasonal structure needs is an instantly recognizable story and/or theme. This often takes the form of a season-long villain, as popularized by “Buffy” and “The Sopranos,” with their “Big Bad.” Each season is directly associated with a villain: Season 3 of “Buffy” is The Mayor’s season, Season 2 of The Sopranos is the Richie season. Or there’s “The Wire,” which used each season to examine a different part of an American city, Season 2 for blue-collar unions, Season 4 for public schools. “You’re the Worst” absolutely nails this. This is the season of Gretchen’s depression. What’s more, it’s arguably the best depiction of depression in popular visual media, looking at it as a complex force of near-inexplicable personal difficulty, instead of something with straightforward causes and solutions. And both Aya Cash, portraying it, and Chris Geere (Jimmy) trying to help as her boyfriend, nail it from a performance perspective. She spends the better part of three episodes as little more than a miserable lump, doing next to nothing. But the potential for her to break out, to snap an angry or hilarious monologue, laugh at Jimmy’s pain, or burst into tears, makes her utterly magnetic at doing nothing. Second, a structurally great television series needs a variety of storylines. This can mean a few different things. First, the show can’t have the same plot throughout. It needs multiple smaller stories alongside the big one, like the fourth season of “The Wire” covering the personal stories of its five teenagers alongside the wider stories of the mayoral election, school district plans, and the rise of drug lord Marlo Stanfield. “You’re the Worst” has done a remarkable job of this, incorporating all of its major characters, and several of its minor characters, throughout the season. Gretchen’s client Sam and his rap group had a fake feud, but its resolution ends up helping her best friend Lindsey attempt to fix her life. That all collides in “Other Things You Could Be Doing” which gives the episode a huge sense of resolution. That variety of storyline also works linearly — a show can’t just say what its storyline is, and stick with that for ten or 13 or 22 episodes. Perhaps the best example of this is arguably my favorite season of serialized television, “Justified’s” second season. That season introduces its villain (the superb Margo Martindale) and its themes of the inescapability of history almost immediately. But every three episodes or so, the plot focus shifts: here the villains are just getting in the way, but the introduction of a coal mining company and a new criminal force upset the balance, leading to multiple climaxes across the season.

4. The Genius and Jazz of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
It’s Christmas season, which inevitably means the handful of holiday classics will play on televisions across the nation. Though there are many terrible films in the Christmas canon, looking at you “A Christmas Story,” there are a couple that really stand out. One is “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a delightful, melancholic tale about grounding a commercial holiday in religious and historical terms. Pitchfork’s Ron Hart writes about “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and its iconic score, and interviews all types of musicians to comment on it for its 50th anniversary.

The legend of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a strange one. Many of us who grew up watching the Peanuts gang attempt to put on a Christmas play are anchored in fond memories of laughing with loved ones as Lucy pulled that football trick on Charlie Brown for the umpteenth time, and, of course, the wild dance scene that’s spawned scores of GIFs and YouTube remixes. But the story behind the Coca-Cola funded adaptation of Charles Schulz’s comic strip, which was put together in just three months by producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez and originally aired on CBS two weeks before Christmas in 1965, is one filled with a surprising amount of controversy. Much of the crew fretted over the quality of the product, which was completed just 10 days shy of its air date. Melendez was said to be embarrassed of the final cut, while executives fretted over the cartoon’s darker themes of depression, anxiety, alienation, secularism and, perhaps above all, the sharp criticism it expressed about the commercialization of the season. And then there was the soundtrack, composed by jazz piano impresario Vince Guaraldi along with Fred Marshall on double bass and the great Jerry Granelli on drums. “We did the music in a day and a half, two days,” Granelli tells me. “That’s just how you recorded records back then.” These days, it’s quite possibly the most ubiquitous and universally lauded holiday album out there, not to mention the gateway for generations of children who would go onto explore the bottomless chasm of the jazz idiom. Yet for the network suits expecting some Burl Ives-type maximalism, Guaraldi’s quaint score was deemed too weird and dark, even though the soundtrack — released on the Fantasy label right around the time the special aired on TV — received rave reviews by such legendary critics as Nat Hentoff, who in 2010 wrote a beautiful tribute to Guaraldi in “JazzTimes.” Yet despite such grumblings within the operation’s corporate infrastructure, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was seen by almost half of the American population watching television on the night of its premiere — something like 15 million homes — on its way into the holiday canon. What’s more is that in the years following that debut, Schulz saw his little existential comic strip transform into one of the biggest marketing juggernauts in kid culture this side of Disney, making Snoopy one of the most visible and beloved characters in American pop history through an onslaught of lunch boxes, shirts, stuffed animals, posters, key chains, little rubber figurines, Halloween costumes, school supplies and, of course, that classic snow cone machine. Meanwhile, the same soundtrack that was derided by the suits has proven to be durable to this day — its melancholic musings offering a more realistic musical reflection on the mixed emotions this time of year can bring.

5. Director Oliver Stone on “Talk Radio.”
Oliver Stone’s 1988 film “Talk Radio,” stars Eric Bogosian as a caustic politically liberal radio personality that expresses his rage on his popular show only for it to negatively affect his life and relationships. It’s one of Stone’s relatively smaller films, but it’s also surprisingly effective and Bogosian shines in the lead. Filmmaker Magazine’s Jim Hemphill sits down with Stone to discuss the film.

 Both films – “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Talk Radio” – have an extremely sophisticated approach to point of view, something you would develop even further in something like “JFK,” which is all about shifting perspectives and perceptions. In “Talk Radio” you constantly use glass and mirrors and split diopters to not only expand and contract the space, but to shift the viewer’s eye from one character’s point of view to another.

A lot of it was Bob Richardson and I learning how to use space by shooting in that tight little studio, which was cleverly built by Bruno Rubeo. As you noticed, we used a lot of glass and reflections, bringing the lights up and down so that characters would appear and disappear, playing with different levels of reality within the studio. We got very comfortable with the idea of confinement on that set, which meant that then we could apply those ideas to a larger canvas when we moved on to “Born on the Fourth of July.” There was a lot of location shooting on “Born” and very little on “Talk Radio;” we did have the middle section with the basketball game and some scenes in cars, but all of that stuff in the studio was methodically shot. We shot it in around thirty days, and every one of those days was thought out to the max – boarded, rehearsed, with poor Eric Bogosian saying forty or fifty lines of dialogue while moving and hitting marks. He didn’t even know what marks were when we started, coming from the theater. We threw the first few days of rushes away, in fact, because they were so terrible. If you look at the movie we don’t introduce him right away, you just see other characters and hear his voice for a while before you see him.

That makes a great opening though, because as an audience member you kind of lean forward wanting to see this guy whose voice is penetrating your brain. By the time you see him, the anticipation has really built up nicely.

 That’s because it stank. [laughs] It was just an accident that worked. It’s funny, because you can call it a small movie, but it has a muscularity to it and we really tried to push that as far as it would go. It contributed greatly to “Born on the Fourth of July” and everything that came after it, because Bob learned a lot about lenses, and I fell in love with the split diopter. Bob didn’t like it for some reason, but I loved it and I used it to death. I didn’t care how crude it was, I loved the feeling of it. We built a three-sided set with a translight of the Dallas night skyline outside the window, and Bob used light banks with everything on dimmers so that the lights would come in and out at very precise moments, and he had to figure out how to deal with all of those crazy reflections. Often he would find magic in things that weren’t expected or planned for, even though we very carefully designed our shots ahead of time. That was part of the discovery process. There’s an existential void to the movie, where if you ask the kinds of questions this character is asking you’re only going to end up facing yourself in the end, experiencing an immense loneliness and emptiness. You’ll be looking in the mirror at “good old hateful me,” as Jack Kerouac said. Getting back to your point about Barry not being a heroic character, I think what I didn’t like about him is that he just exhausted everyone. His ex-wife was the only person who could really put up with him. If you only probe for the truth and don’t have a heart, you’re lost, and Bogosian’s character gets lost – that’s why it’s important that you don’t see his listeners. We could have done split screen when they call in, but it’s more interesting not to know who the listeners are. They’re not really an audience, they’re fractured individuals.

6. The Past Ain’t Through With Us: On Aging and “Magnolia.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” is his longest, most operatic film of his career, and one that’s still a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Its detractors will call it a loud embarrassing mess, while its supporters will say it’s a moving depiction of grief, loss, and moving forward into an unknown future. On his blog, Josh Spiegel writes about revisiting “Magnolia” and how he became more in tune with it now than he did over 15 years ago.

So I did watch “Magnolia” again. And I have, a number of times over the past 16 years. I did so in the last few days, too, and was struck anew. I had seen “Magnolia” before, but I had not quite seen it in this way. I have no conscious way of knowing what to attribute the shift in my appreciation to: is it because I’m watching the movie now as a father to a son? No doubt the paternal issues present in the film are enormous and undeniable, even when they’re just alluded to in dialogue. Maybe it’s how my life has changed in that tangible sense; maybe it’s just that I appreciate and admire the film more as I grow older. Whatever it is, watching “Magnolia” now was as distinctive of an experience as it was to sit in the theater and see “Punch-Drunk Love” for the first time, or seeing “There Will Be Blood” two times in the same day. I’ve always been enthralled by the energy of the film, even more so now than before if only because Anderson doesn’t make movies quite like “Magnolia” or “Boogie Nights” now. (Arguably, “Inherent Vice” has some of the same elements on the surface: a sprawling, lengthy California-set drama with moments of outrageous comedy and a massive cast of overly talented actors. But the tone of that film, in keeping with something like Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” is deliberately more laid-back and low-key; it’s a hangout picture in some respects.) When I watched “Magnolia” now, I was struck by a few points; first and foremost, I kept thinking, “It’s as if he thought he would never make another movie.” Look at the film. Don’t just focus on the frogs or on the ensemble cast. Everything about “Magnolia,” and to a lesser extent, “Boogie Nights,” suggests that Paul Thomas Anderson thought these films were his shot. He’s making “Magnolia” as if it’s the last film he’ll ever make. I see the phrase “go-for-broke” used maybe a bit more often than is necessary in cultural criticism, but it’s hard for me to deny that this movie earns that adjective. The world we visit for one very long day–the pacing achieved by Anderson, his brilliant DP Robert Elswist, and his no-less-brilliant editor Dylan Tichenor is propulsive for an 188-minute movie, but even with such breathless speed, the movie does feel like it takes place over a 24-hour period–is given life at all corners. Jim Kurring, Earl Partidge, Claudia Wilson Gator, Stanley Spector: yes, these leads feel fully realized, but even the smaller characters like the belligerent Marcy or little Dixon or Ricky Jay’s TV producer (hell, even Jay as the narrator) were created by someone who thought about who they were before we meet them.

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