Thursday, August 15, 2019

“GWEN” IS THE BEST HORROR FILM OF THE YEAR


In the new horror movie GWEN, an evil entity is laying waste to a 19thcentury South Wales town where people are dying, crops are rotting, and animals are being slaughtered. What’s causing such turmoil? Is it a plague, a beast, perhaps some sort of demonic force? Gwen, the title character of this unsettling new horror film, is a curious teen girl who will slowly but surely start to investigate all the strange occurrences. The more she discovers, the more terrified she will become. The same goes for the audience. 

It’s rare that a film can build a sense of dread from the first seconds to the last without any real respite along the way, but that’s precisely what writer-director William McGregor has done in his auspicious film debut. From the very get-go, he creates an unsettling mood that transports us into a particular world and a hellish one at that. The town where all the chicanery occurs is perennially overcast as if God can only mourn such a place. The rocks jut out of the land, threatening to cut any passerby. The palate of the townsfolk is just as ashen as the sky, and nary a sound is welcoming. What kind of place is this to raise a family?

And yet that’s what single mother Elen (Maxine Peale) is doing, trying to make a go of the family farm after her husband has mysteriously abandoned his brood. Teen Gwen and her younger sister Mari (Jodi Innes) are still not tainted by the cold, cruel world, but the machinations around them, from the landscape to the town elders to their mercurial mother, will challenge every fiber of their being.   

Gwen is barely in her teens, and yet her mother expects her to handle more responsibility than any reasonable 13-year-old could manage. She not only must do the majority of the chores, everything from farming to selling their vegetables at the market to watching over her sister, but she must also keep her mother on an even keel. Mom is still reeling from her husband’s absence, and to add insult to injury, she often has fits that mystify her eldest.

Is mom going insane? Is it a disease like epilepsy that no one knew of then? Or is it something far, far worse? Does she have the devil in her? Maybe that would explain her hair-trigger temper, her lack of sympathy towards injured animals, and her tendency to watch her daughter sleep at night from shadows in the corner of her room.

McGregor does sly work, creating in her a monster that may be the more likely culprit in town over any ghost or hobgoblin. And even with all of her duties to fulfill each day, Gwen can’t help but be driven to find out what’s wrong with her mother, as well as why so many tragedies are befalling the town. As the young woman starts to investigate the death of a local family that died overnight in their home, it appears to not be from the cover story of Cholera, but from a force far more sinister. McGregor turns her into a sleuth who puts everything together, even if she may be powerless to stop it. Such revelations are equally devastating and give this horror tale weight that few ever have. 

For a first feature, McGregor shows remarkable assuredness at every level. His direction, along with the cinematography by Adam Etherington, the dramatic score by James Edward Barker, and the production design by Laura Ellis Cricks should all figure in awards season in a few months. So should Worthington-Cox and Peake who give incredible performances. Peake goes over-the-top, and we feel her character’s building mania at every turn. In a storied career, this is her best work, and she will hopefully be a contender for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. 

Worthington-Cox’s performance goes in the exact opposite direction. She must be mostly reactive to everything around her. She keeps us invested in her and all of her pain throughout every reaction to her mother’s chaos, as well as the ills that show up at their doorstep, including hearts nailed to their front door. The actress may have only been born in 2001, but Worthington-Cox acts like a stage veteran with decades of work under her belt. 

In many ways, this film isn’t what we mostly think of as horror. It’s more psychological, and in many ways, it’s best described as a terrifying period piece about a disconcerting time in the world’s history. Still, this one feels like a horror film in much the same way that THERE WILL BE BLOOD felt like one in 2007. The characters and events at the center of will chill the bone better than any Jason, Freddy or Pinhead. And poor Gwen, she has to battle all comers bringing their evil. 

McGregor sympathizes significantly with her, as well as her family, and that elevates the genre as well. Still, he is brilliant and wringing every last ounce of fright out of every moment. Even when Gwen experiments with makeup, McGregor has her add rouge to her face by drawing blood from her cheek with a sharp instrument. Even beauty in this world bursts forth frighteningly.

This amazing filmmaker knows too that in some of the best horror tales, man equals, if not eclipses, the beast. The title character in Mary Shelley’s horror classic refers to the doctor - Victor Frankenstein – and not the creature he generates out of corpses. The monstrosity of man is evidenced throughout the best literature and films intended to scare the bejesus out of us. It’s there in MOBY DICK, ROSEMARY’S BABY, GET OUT, and here too. Such fears linger because they’re all too recognizable. GWEN may have a sweet-sounding name, but it’s a film that will disturb long after the credits roll. In fact, it’s not only the best horror movie this year, but it’s also one of 2019’s very best films. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

THE “EUPHORIA” FINALE WAS HIGH ON MORALITY

Original caricature by Jeff York of Zendaya as Rue in HBO's EUPHORIA. (copyright 2019)
The freshman finale of HBO’s EUPHORIA ended over a week ago, and I’m still thinking about it. Not only did creator and showrunner Sam Levinson leave several story threads dangling to tease directions for the second season, but he also satisfactorily concluded various cliffhangers to let his audience breathe a sigh of relief over what was concluded. No one died, including main character Rue (Zendaya), whom many believed to be narrating the story from the grave, and many of the show’s troubled characters were shown grace, even if they didn’t deserve it. Most importantly, the show went out the way it came in – big, bold, and spectacularly entertaining, yet slyly showing the path of righteousness the whole time. Despite its story of drug addiction and troubled teens, the series has a morality at its core that is breathtaking.

From the opening moments of the series, Levinson strapped us in for a series that was sure to be a wild ride. Not only was the story centered around an unrepentant drug addict, but the actress playing Rue used to be one of the biggest stars on the Disney Channel. The show wore its audacity on its sleeve at every instance too. Why, the very first images in the pilot episode followed baby Rue being pushed out of her mother’s cervix, followed immediately by a shot of the second plane crashing into the Twin Towers on 9-11. Rue, as she tells us in the voiceover narration, was born just three days after that earth-shattering event, and her feeling is that it doomed her from the start. 

As Rue’s narration continued, her words are blunt and chilling. She overdosed at 16, went into rehab, bluffed her way through it, and was now returning home no wiser for the wear. The fact that Levinson had Zendaya read all of her voiceovers in a world-weary monotone as well, finding no silver linings, and telling only ugly truths, made things feel all the more brazen. Her teenage character and the world she described is jaundiced, unable to wash away the taint of a generation already lost to terrorism, eco-disasters, and political ineptitude.  

Original caricature by Jeff York of Hunter Schafer as Jules in HBO's EUPHORIA. (copyright 2019)
Yet despite that cynicism, and Rue’s zombie-esque descriptions of the banality in her existence, Levinson ensured that we didn’t buy whole-hog into the doom and gloom. Instead, his show belies cynicism at almost every instance. EUPHORIA believes that life is worth living, worth fighting for and that even the beleaguered can triumph. It’s not a “Rah Rah” Hallmark Channel type of show, but it’s surprising how much it wears its heart on its sleeve. 

Levinson ensures that that comes through continually in two very distinct ways. First, he does so in how the series is produced, and second, in how deeply the characters are written. From those beginning images, Levinson utilized production design and all its details with a skill on par with Scorsese and Spielberg. His camera moves and zooms and tracks, never resting, always infusing each frame with a sense of verve and energy. Sure, his storytelling may involve horribly negative things such as drug overdoses, violence, and blackmail, but everything around those plot points crackle with energy. 

Kinetic production values belie all the despair, and nowhere was this more apparent than the series fourth episode which took place primarily at a carnival. There, on the fairgrounds, the inhabitants of the city were dealing with several awful, horrible things. Rue discovered that her younger sister Gia (Storm Reid) was doing drugs. Her best friend, the trans teen Jules (Hunter Schafer) was threatened with exposure by BMOC Nate Jacobs who had in his possession underage sexual images of her. College athlete McKay (Algee Smith) betrayed his girlfriend Cassie (Sydney Sweeney). The sexually liberated Kat (Barbie Ferreira) trysted with a carnie just a few feet away from the public on the midway. And worst of all, Rue and Jules discovered that her Grindr hookup was Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane), the biggest wheel in town, not to mention Nate’s dad.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Jacob Elordi as Nate and Alexa Demie as Maddy in HBO's EUPHORIA.
(copyright 2019)
Yet, despite all of the angst, the show snapped, crackled and popped the entire hour. The camera rocked and rolled all over the fairgrounds. The editing connected all the different story threads with precision and vigor. Best of all, the wondrous orchestral underscore added a cheeky sense of humor to the proceedings, cueing us into the show’s sly sense of self-awareness. It knows it was melodramatic, and the bombastic brass underlined that fact. 

Again, Levinson made sure that energy pulsated through it all, and it, in turn, seemed to help drive the characters towards trying to manage their angst, or at least not let it destroy them. Rue pulls her stoned sis away from her toking friends without it becoming violent. Kat walks away from her impromptu sex act with more self-esteem as she made her partner climax while keeping hers for worthier lovers. 

Most impressively, Jules’ cool head prevented bodily harm when both Cal and Nate confront her. The potential for violence was there in both scenes, and yet Jules rules as she takes control of the conversation and escapes with her life and dignity. It’s one of the reasons that Jules has become such a breakout character. She refuses to be a victim. She's smart, kind, funny, and lovely. And Schafer’s incredible screen debut is Emmy-worthy. (So is Zendaya.)

Original caricature by Jeff York of Barbie Ferreira as Kat in HBO's EUPHORIA. (copyright 2019)
Here, is where Levinson works further miracles with his characters by usurping stereotypes. Yes, the show is about addiction, and Rue isn’t clean, but she is trying. And the young woman is trying to keep her sister from following the same road to hell. Jules lives dangerously by fornicating with one-night -stands in cheap motel rooms, but she isn’t self-loathing and betters everyone who knows her. Even Cal has his moments. He’s living a lie, but he still tries to keep his dangerous son from wreaking too much havoc. 

Levinson strives to find humanity amongst all the carnage. Despite characters being heavily flawed, both the adults and the teens, no one is black or white. Nate’s girl Maddy (Alexa Demie) is a conniving, spoiled brat, but she just wants to be loved and has a lot of it to give the right person. Kat may be camming to pervs to make coin and feel vindication for schoolyard taunts about her weight, but she’s smart enough to bond with good guy Ethan (Austin Abrams) at the homecoming dance. Cassie may let boys use her too often, but her bond with her sensible sister Lexi (Maude Apatow) ensures that there will always be solid love in her life. And even when Rue snorts drugs in the show's penultimate scene, she sings of her regret as Levinson showcases her dancing amongst a chorus of addicts all dressed like her. 

Original caricature by Jeff York of Sydney Sweeney as Cassie and Maude Apatow as Lexi in HBO's EUPHORIA. (copyright 2019)
That ending was as outrageous as most anything in the first season, but it showcases a Rue that is less cynical than we first meet. She’s found some inner morality and is starting to make better choices left and right, even if she’s still stumbling in her struggle with addiction. Ultimately, EUPHORIA has faith in its misfits, fuck-up’s, and lawbreakers. And it believes that we will see them for all that they are. The HBO show may have started as a cynical examination of Gen Z'ers struggling to matter in a world that is fraught with chaos, but by the finale, we see that an indomitable pluck resides in most of them. It will be fascinating to see how these lost souls find their way back in season two and beyond.  

Thursday, July 25, 2019

“ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD” IS MASTERFUL, IF NOT QUITE A MASTERPIECE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Brandy the pit bull in  ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. (copyright 2019)

As Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) carves a swastika into the forehead of Nazi Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, the American quips, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” It was a fantastic curtain line, as well as the filmmaker’s clever opinion of his work. Indeed, for my money, that film is his greatest accomplishment. His newest is ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, and while it’s often just as masterful, in the end, it’s not quite a masterpiece. The movie is funny, scary, and incredibly moving, but some of it meanders, it’s short on QT’s trademark dialogue, and the third act violence is so over-the-top that it feels like it belongs in an entirely different movie.

When this film was heralded at Cannes this past spring, much got made about the filmmaker’s detailing of 1960’s Hollywood. Indeed, Tarantino brilliantly recreates old TV shows, hippie and hipster costumes, and the 60’s Strip, ladling it all with Jose Feliciano and the Mamas and the Papas. Still, his enormous affection for Tinsel Town concerns those who toil in front of the camera, eking out a living, and struggling to stay relevant. This film is a bittersweet love letter to surviving show biz.

The main character, struggling to keep employed in 1968, is aging leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). In the 1950s, Dalton was a movie star, then a TV star, and now as he’s past 40 and closing out 1968, he’s close to being obsolete. Rick is already an insecure actor, but his heavy drinking only fuels his fears. Thankfully, he’s got his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) to help him through the day. Cliff’s comfortable in his skin, even if it’s getting leathery and craggy. Cliff would like more work too, but he understands it’s a younger man’s game, so he spends most of his time being Rick’s driver, gopher and ‘emotional support animal.’

Rick’s attempt to find meaningful work drives the plot, particularly when he gets a proper guest shot role as a juicy villain on the TV western LANCER. Rick dives in, working on an accent and running lines into his tape recorder, and sharing tricks of the trade on-set his eight-year-old co-star, played sagely by child actress Julie Butters. She’s all Method, one who doesn’t break character off-set, and she inspires Rick to give his all.

It’s a great relationship, even if Tarantino spends far too much time on the set of the LANCER show, eating up a good half hour of screen time. It leads the film to drag, something that’s become a bad habit of the filmmaker’s since THE HATEFUL EIGHT. That film was great for 90 minutes. Unfortunately, Tarantino dragged things out to two hours and 48 minutes. This one is almost as long, and some excess could’ve been trimmed.

The film’s better storyline concerns Cliff and his struggles. Sure, he lands a gig stunting on THE GREEN HORNET, but it isn’t long before he’s into fisticuffs with the show’s star Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). That gets him fired, and soon the meandering Cliff ends up picking up a sexy hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) to give her a ride home. The hippie girl’s residence happens to be the infamous Spahn Ranch. In another year, it will become notorious for being the stomping ground of the murderous followers of Charles Manson.

In the ’50s and ’60s, Spahn Ranch was a western movie set where Cliff often toiled, and he agrees to drive Pussycat home to catch up with its proprietor George Spahn (Bruce Dern). But once they arrive, the rest of Manson’s ‘family’ makes Cliff feel most unwelcome as they don’t want him to see how they’ve turned the old geezer into their veritable hostage. Manson’s away, but his No. 2 in charge is Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), and she’s anything but welcoming to Cliff.

The scene crackles with tension as Cliff pushes back against the hippie hostiles to meet with George. Here, Tarantino delivers the film’s best scene, capturing a terrifying sense of dread and potential violence that’s palpable throughout the entire set-piece. Adding all the more power to the terror is our knowledge of precisely what Manson’s followers did to Sharon Tate and her friends, not to mention Leo and Rosemary La Bianca, a year later. They may have seemed like flower children, but they exemplified anything but peace and love.

Adding to the suspense is the story’s inclusion of Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie. Tarantino uses the character in a wholly unexpected way, focusing on her enjoying her life almost a year before that fateful night of August 9, 1969. Robbie's best moments onscreen showcase her as Tate sneaking into a movie theater where her film THE WRECKING CREW, a comedy she was in that year of 1968. There, she thrills to hearing the audience laugh at her comic performance in the film.

Despite the fun of Robbie’s bare feet propped up on the seats (Tarantino loves naked toes!), she’s not given a lot to do as Tate. She’s not a fully-rounded character, more of a symbol of youth and innocence really, and it feels like a giant, missed opportunity. The director compounds the problem by showing the actual Tate in the movie clips that Robbie is watching. It’s an odd choice considering that earlier in the film Tarantino dropped Di Caprio as Rick into THE GREAT ESCAPE replacing Steve McQueen. He had the technology, so why wasn’t he consistent?

Tarantino shortchanges other characters too. Al Pacino’s flamboyant agent isn’t around very long. Brenda Vaccaro gets credited as his wife, but she’s in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it second or two of screen time. The narrative also includes the characters of McQueen and Roman Polanski, but they’re little more than glorified cameos. Instead, the filmmaker spends way too much time on the actors making LANCER with Rick, and the balance feels off.

Making more hay out of the B list status of television in the sixties seems like a missed opportunity as well. Spaghetti westerns figure into the plot in the third act, but little is shown of Rick’s time making them. Perhaps the oddest move that Tarantino makes occurs with the whole last 30 minutes of the film. There, he incorporates some cartoonish violence that feels too over-the-top compared to the more serious mood the director has established throughout the previous two hours. The final set-piece may be a rouser, even a hoot and a half, but it’s also a head-scratcher.

Tarantino does work wonders with a lot of his young cast, particularly Qualley, Fanning, and Moh. And he gets fantastic performances out of his two leads. Di Caprio gives the sweaty, fidgety Rick his all, rendering a man-child who’s both comedic and tragic. Pitt is even better, making for one of the coolest heroes to ever appear in a Tarantino film. His Cliff is sly, confident, and a generous soul. His interplay with his lumbering pit bull is a delight, almost as endearing as his relationship with the needy Cliff.

Pitt also brings a tight, coiled physicality to his action scenes, dominating every scene he’s in, and putting him in the pole position for a lot of supporting actor awards later this year. Just how well the rest of the film’s attributes do in such contests remains to be seen, but like all of Tarantino’s work, this film is visceral, enthralling, and sure to make a splash. Its wildly veering tone feels unbridled, but the filmmaker’s affection for the town and those who work in it is laser-focused. He loves show biz and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is a bittersweet tribute to the fantasies, as well as the fragilities, of those who play in it.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

I WAS A GUEST ON THE PODCAST CINEMA JAW

This is the special CinemaJaw logo utilizing my caricatures of the three principles.
As many of you have probably realized, the PAGE 2 SCREEN podcast that I hosted for the International Screenwriters Association for three years is no more. It was an amazing run, distinguished by lots of great guests, thousands of listeners, and total support from the ISA. Still, due to some unconquerable variables, we could no longer keep the show going. 

So now, if you want to hear yours truly, you'll have to hear me guest on other podcasts. My favorite is CINEMAJAW and I'm proud to have been on their show twice now in the past year. In the latest podcast run by Matt Kubinski, Ryan Jagiello, and Pfil Fujiwara, we discuss THE LION KING, filmmaker Jon Favreau, and THE FAREWELL. You can listen to our fun chat here.

Yours truly flanked by Ryan Jagiello and Matt Kubinski.
Speaking of THE LION KING, you are also likely well aware that I am the film critic for Creative Screenwriting magazine online and have been since 2017. I write two pieces a week for them and my latest review is of THE LION KING. You can read my take on the remake here

If you'd like easy access to all my past work, click the link to the rest of my reviews. Of course, if I don't review a major film here at The Establishing Shot, it's very likely that I did at Creative Screenwriting. On occasion, I'll even review TV shows for the online periodical as well, and you can find those critiques here. 

If I make any other appearances on any other podcasts or shows, I'll try to let you know here, but you surely can keep abreast of all movie matters that I post on Twitter as @JeffYorkWriter

Thanks for following, my friends, and for keeping the conversation going all these years. Onward and upward!




Monday, July 8, 2019

THE STARTLING ERA OF THE FEMALE ANTIHERO

Original caricature by Jeff York of Carla Gugino in the TV series JETT. (copyright 2019)
There is a moment in the fourth episode of the new Cinemax series JETT, where the title character, a thief played by Carla Gugino, commits a mercy killing of a crime boss while robbing him. He’s an evil old coot, one who tried to have her killed, and he wakes while Jett is cleaning out his bedroom safe. Stuck paralyzed from the neck down due to an enemy’s bullet, he gruffly asks Jett to put him out of his misery. With barely a second’s hesitation, Jett calmly and efficiently suffocates him with one of his bed’s pillows. While doing so, her facial expression is so blasé; it’s startling. 

Female title characters in television series have come a long, long way from the lovable leads in the likes of MAUDE, LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, and even those scandalous DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. It’s a new era of antiheroes in Hollywood, as more and more films and shows offer actresses the chance to play characters as cold as ice, just like Jett. Such roles used to be consigned to the villain column, but now, they're fronting more and more franchises as the 'heroes.' They're unapologetic scoundrels, reflecting a more morally compromised and complex world, with audiences clamoring for them more and more.

Antiheroes, the male kind, are nothing new on either the big or small screen. The list is lengthy, including characters like John Wick killing hundreds at the AMC Cineplex, and Walter White breaking bad on AMC television. But now, women are joining in the skullduggery, and these new films and shows cheer on their character's often vicious amorality. Perhaps it's a sign of the growing influence of tables getting turned via the #MeToo movement, but the female characters at the center of such fare are more often than not wholly righteous in their indignation and actions, even if it includes murder or breaking the law. They're not asking for permission any longer to join in the fray, and it makes for fascinating new female characters to follow, as far from the cliched girlfriend and wife roles as you can possibly get. 

The phenomenon likely started with Stieg Larsson’s 2005 bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, not to mention the subsequent international film hits his books inspired. The story of Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker who helped journalist Mikael Blomkvist solve a missing person case and a series of serial killings, presented an unconventional heroine, to say the least. She was unlike any the world had seen before. Salander was a small framed twentysomething, tattooed and pierced, prone to wearing a scowl on her face along with her extreme antisocial disposition. 

Original caricature of Rooney Mara in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. (copyright 2011)
The punkish lawbreaker displayed a penchant towards violence too, not to mention a coarse tongue that could be bluntly sexual or cut a man down to size with an easy insult. Salander was so outrageous and bold a creation that she challenged most norms of storytelling. Gone was a warm, kind, and lovable female sidekick, replaced by someone who was practically a Manson girl. Yet, audiences loved her nonetheless. Her badass ways were what made her so fun. Soon, other antiheroic female characters would start popping up everywhere with their writers and filmmakers feeling little if any need to soften them.

In the 2009 Swedish-made adaptations of Stieg's Salander triptych, actress Noomi Rapace rendered Salander as an almost feral animal, black of eyes and soul. For the American remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO in 2011, Rooney Mara played her slightly more likable, mostly due to her using her big expressive blue eyes to suggest Salander's haunted past. The recent reboot, with Claire Foy taking over the role, attempted to make Salander even more vulnerable by a plot that asked her to play 'stand-in mother' for a lost child, but audiences rejected this softening and the film bombed. Audiences wanted Salander pitch black. 

Moviegoers have loved female antiheroes for decades, that's nothing new, but never as dark as they are being served up  Sure, antiheroes like Scarlett O’Hara, Thelma, Louise, and Beatrice Kiddoe are iconic, but today, more and more filmmakers feel less inclined to burnish down the sharp edges as they once did with such characters. 

One way that the movies have enabled female toughness in storytelling is through the vocation of government assassin. Such occupations can refrain from typical morality and societal constraints, and that's why there's been such a proliferation of such films, be it ATOMIC BLONDE in 2017 or this year with ANNA. Luc Besson wrote and directed ANNA, a film not far from his LA FEMME NIKITA back in 1990. It felt overly familiar, what with Sasha Luss playing a Russian government assassin in the '80s and we've all seen that kind of story told too many times by now. My God, even the teenage Saoirse Ronan did it in HANNA back in 2011. 

More interesting is how the thieving character of JETT is not an assassin, but one who acts violently to enable her to steal with efficacy. Gone too, for the most part, are any of the gooey, warm middles that evened out such previous badass characterizations. Jett is hard, bitter, and no-nonsense. She steals and hurts and kills as casually as most people breathe. In one scene, Jett mauls and humiliates a hapless office worker to get a file with such brazenness; it borders on cruelty. And in one flashback in the show, Jett is in prison where she defends a prisoner against three gang-bangers. She beats them down in the shower, even cutting the throat of the leader. The wound isn't deep enough to kill her, mind you, just enough to let the perp know who's boss. Jett even instructs the bleeding woman on how to stem the flow on her way to the infirmary. That's about as warm as this antihero gets.  

Even male antiheroes dominating the TV screen for the past decades, such as Tony Soprano and Dexter Morgan, showed far more vulnerability in their series than Jett has so far. Granted, Gugino is such a terrific talent that she manages to infuse flickers of humanity into Jett, especially when mothering her child, but by and large, she has chosen to play the character almost as cold and calculating as THE TERMINATOR. Only Jett doesn't need to scroll through her brain's Rolodex to find a fitting insult; her "fuck off" answers comes naturally.

Such a cold character appeared in the first season of KILLING EVE with Villanelle, the international assassin (again, with the assassin vocation!) As played by the marvelously droll Jodi Comer, this menace to society made for an enchanting villain, even though she was a psychopath. Indeed, Eve (Sandra Oh), the British intelligence investigator hunting Villanelle for her crimes, was enthralled. Eve grew to not only appreciate her prey but to envy her, even desiring to emulate her devil-may-care approach to life. 

As the series went on, Eve started to break more and more rules, blurring the line between the hero and the villain in the show. Eve lied continually to her superiors, as well as her husband,  and she even let Villanelle go when she had her pinned down on numerous occasions. As the two characters formed an ersatz mutual admiration society, their roles blurred even further. Eve became the yin in Villanelle's yang and vice versa. After two seasons, with a third on the way, it's getting harder to gauge who's the most morally compromised of the two. No matter, they're both antiheroes now, and the show is all the more compelling for it.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Zendaya in EUPHORIA. (copyright 2019)
KILLING EVE may have even paved the way for more antihero duo's playing cat and mouse with each other on the small screen. Netflix had a big hit this spring with their TV-movie THE PERFECTION as it showcased two women just as cutthroat as Eve and Villanelle. In the 90-minute thriller, two classically trained musicians (Allison Williams and Logan Browning) fight each other on several fronts, from the orchestra hall to the bedroom. Their competition starts as a sexy, elegant Hitchcockian tale, but quickly morphs into a body-mutilation horror tale, followed by a revenge fantasy, before ultimately becoming a screed against the patriarchal society and all its sins. 

Throughout THE PERFECTION, the women are cruel, even savage, and their actions lead to a total takedown of the male miscreants around them. Up until the multitude of surprises in the final 10 minutes, audiences may not have been sure of just whom to root for during it all. But make no mistake, it was a daring and compelling narrative, made all the more enthralling by its two leads being so horrid and challenging to cheer on.  

Perhaps the most complex and nuanced version of an antiheroine fronting a show or film these days is on HBO's teen melodrama EUPHORIA. In it, Zendaya plays Rue, a teen with more baggage than a Samsonite showroom. She’s a drug addict, wholly cynical, a habitual liar, one whose moral compass seems to be without a dial. Rue all but sleepwalk through the first few episodes of the series, in a drugged haze, doing all she could to find her next hit. 

Naturally, such a negative portrayal of a teenager, particularly a young woman, has caused all sorts of controversy, but it's a stunning movement in the evolution of what kind of character can front a series. Granted, the show's proclivity to show male nudity, as well as the casualness of its coarse language, can easily be seen as the culprit in getting under the skin of the Twittersphere. But is the real controversy more in the casting of a former Disney heroine as a user of heroin? The show also blames parents for bad examples being set, so it's no wonder that various religious groups are furious. 

Sure to stick in the Christian craw is the fact that one of the most morally inclined characters in the series is Fezco (Angus Cloud), the young drug dealer who helped Rue become addicted to drugs. He’s consumed with guilt over his part in helping coax out her bad habits, as well as the overdose that almost killed her. By the show's middle episodes, Fez has cut Rue off and left her at a crossroads. Will her character return to her dark ways, with or without him?  It's interesting to think that in the new world of female anti-heroes, saving herself may be enough to make her heroic. 

With characters like Jett and Rue, shows are pushing the envelope by focusing on such tremendously flawed, even remorseless, characters. Even so, audiences are becoming more and more accepting of such figures, due in part to shifting morality, and burgeoning amorality being played out in the real world daily. Indeed, when villainous world leaders get coddled like allies, and laws and congressional duties are ignored due to cowardice, why shouldn't the entertainment world reflect such marred morality? We live in an increasingly unprincipled time, and we should expect filmmakers to reflect it in all characters, including those that are female. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

"SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME TELLS A MODEST TALE THAT TRAPS US IN ITS WEB ONCE AGAIN




Where should the Marvel Cinematic Universe go after the epic, all hands on deck finale of AVENGERS: ENDGAME? It looks like SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME has the right idea. This Spidey sequel tell a story that’s smaller, more intimate, and with a distinct emphasis on character. It may not reach the heights that last year’s animated and Academy Award-winning SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE achieved, but as superhero films go, it’s easy, breezy, and satisfying. Also, it has the best post-credit teasers in many a Marvel moon.

The film’s story picks up soon after the Avengers saved the planet and returned the population lost when Thanos snapped his fingers in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. And while Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is grateful that many of his classmates have returned, he’s still mourning the loss of his mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). It’s hard for the teenager to move on, especially when Happy (Jon Favreau), Stark’s right-hand man, shows up with a special gift for him - Tony’s A.I. infused glasses. Those glasses come in handy on his science class’s trip to Europe where he’s trying to figure out if his girl crush M.J. (Zendaya) is interested in the handsome and confident Brad (Remy Hii). Peter taps into their cellphones to read corresponding text messages and ends up unwittingly ordering a drone strike on Brad. Oops!

Peter gets out of that jam, but then Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up, demanding that he help thwart some environmental villains based on the elements, alongside a mysterious superhero named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) who hails from a parallel dimension of planet Earth. Mysterio, as Peter dubs him, quickly becomes a stand-in father figure to Peter, filling the void left by Stark’s death. And soon enough, they’re fittingly saving Europe together as they battle and prevail over two monstrous demons – a water monstrosity in Venice, and a fire demon in Prague. 

The fun of these set-pieces is two-fold. One, the CGI is deftly done, never overstaying its welcome and happening in real settings, so it’s all the more believable. And two, the characters really come through in the action. Parker’s uncertainty translates to his movements even as Spider-Man, and despite his extraordinary abilities, his hesitancy speaks volumes about his character. One of the reasons that Spidey is so beloved is that he is a vulnerable kid in these films, even though Fury insists he takes upon adult responsibilities. That makes for a more uncertain hero, one whom the audience isn't always sure will prevail.

Mysterio's backs story is fascinating and seems to want to play off of the alternate universes of Spidey from the Oscar-winning animated film this past spring. That opens up interesting possibilities for future films, but here, it's more of a tease. The truth of who this new foil is are much more grounded, though such revelations allow the special effects team here to mine some new territory - the world of VR that is becoming so prominent across all our entertainment devices.

None of the strengths, from the shrewd use of CGI to the deftly done action sequences to Parker’s vulnerabilities, would matter if we didn't care about the main character at the center of it all, and in Tom Holland, the MCU has found the most likable and relatable Spidey yet. Interestingly, Holland is given very little dialogue. In almost every scene he’s in, the other characters say much, much more. That means the young actor mostly reacts, but his facial expressions and body language speak volumes. He’s one of the best actors of his generation, and it would behoove the MCU to keep him for several other films in this franchise.

But he’s not the only game in town. Zendaya is terrific, underplaying the cynicism of M.J. and letting the sweet kid come through, even under all her sourness. Favreau is always a comic delight, and despite being one of today’s most sought-after directors, he should do more work in front of the camera as well. Gyllenhaal makes the most of all the layers revealed of his character as his true identity makes for one of the better rug pulls in the MCU history.

Additionally, the script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers gives a lot of the third tier characters a lot to do. Hii and Angourie Rice as his love interest Betty are cute and funny in their mismatched romance abroad. As the two teachers chaperoning the trip, Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove hilariously brighten the picture each time they show up. Only Marisa Tomei gets shortchanged, as one wishes that her Aunt May had more screen time, particularly when she can throw off sarcastic zingers with such aplomb. 

Jon Watts’ direction moves things along at a crisp pace, never dwelling on anything too long or underlining gags. There are posters and murals throughout the film of Tony Stark, as the sacrifice he made to save the world has turned him into a mythic figure, but Watts doesn’t oversell the idea. His ability with actors and comic sensibilities make this Spider-Man movie as funny as anything in the MCU, including the zany ANT-MAN films too. In fact, the only real quibble here is that Marvel produces so many films, their superhero specialness is starting to wane a bit. Luckily, this one is done so well that it never wears out its welcome even if we’ve seen dozens of superhero movies this past decade. 

And, as previously mentioned, the post-credit sequences are a hoot, nicely setting up the call for yet another web-slinger adventure. Just when we think we may have seen enough, we get stuck in the web again, wanting more. Bravo, Marvel.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

“MIDSOMMAR” IS AN ODD BLEND OF CLEVER HORROR AND HOARY CLICHÉS


After two ambitious but wildly uneven horror films, Ari Aster’s modus operandi as a writer/director of the genre has become apparent. His strengths lie in setting a mood, telling stories fueled by odd characters and demented behavior, and using sound design to make his well-thought-out visual schemes all the more disturbing. But just as evident are his faults. Alongside such virtues are an abundance of genre clichés, characters collapsing into caricature, and a loss of control over the material that usurps the third act. Aster is an audacious filmmaker, indeed, the kind who imaginatively sets a horror film in the sunny hillsides of rural Sweden of all places, but he’s also an unruly one. Too much of what he puts on the screen feels undisciplined, and often times, inept. 

Last year’s HEREDITARY was a wonderfully tense and insinuating frightener until its hellzapoppin’ third act dove headlong into silliness. Aster started out telling a serious-minded horror tale about a dysfunctional mom who was repeating a cycle of erratic behavior and endangerment similar to her past with her own mother. Toni Collette gave one of the 2018’s best performances as that complicated matriarch battling her demons, but then Aster turned her character into a cartoonish nutjob in the third act. Suddenly, she was rubbing shoulders with ghosts, cultists, septuagenarian orgies, and wall-climbing demons, all while trying to kill her teen son. She ended up, in the final moments, levitating in mid-air while sawing off her own head. Aster's serious psychological thriller had dissolved into a manic phantasm, something resembling an arch Freddy Krueger nightmare.

Aster’s new film MIDSOMMAR travels a similar course. It’s subtly unsettling at first, set up as a story that will examine and ultimately savage religion. The plot concerns four American college students who venture to Sweden to attend a mid-summer pagan ceremony and end up discovering practices there that are far more insidious than they could have possibly imagined. It resembles the 1973 horror classic WICKER MAN in its focus on an amiable, sheltered community where the smiling residents are not quite the loving commune at first believed. 

In MIDSOMMAR, Josh (William Jackson Harper) is an anthropology student anxious to do his senior thesis on European rituals, a young man chomping on the bit to witness alternative religious practices first-hand. His fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) is Swedish, and he invites Josh home to his native land to partake in his community's pagan festival during the summer break. Joining them will be Josh's buddies Mark (Will Poulter), a wise-acre horn dog hoping to score with a few blonde locals, and a couple now in their fourth year of dating. Christian (Jack Reynor) doesn't really want his needy girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) to tag along, but she needs a distraction after witnessing a horrendous family tragedy.

Dani had a feeling her sister was in trouble when she left a cryptic text ending with an ominous ‘goodbye,' but her concerns fell on Christian's indifferent ears. Her slacker boyfriend was more interested in chowing down pizza and playing video games, so Dani was left alone to discover a triple murder in the family home. Her psychotic sibling gassed herself, along with mom and dad, using a garden hose to pump exhaust fumes from the family auto into the residence. It all makes for one incredibly harrowing opening as Aster brilliantly sets up the film's sense of despair and inevitable doom. 

Pugh gives a knockout performance in the first act too, suggesting a teen girl on edge, rubbed raw by the events in her family, and aching to find solace in the arms of her lover. Unfortunately, Christian is a shit of a boyfriend, and we have a sneaking suspicion that their Swedish vacation will either make or break the relationship.

When Pelle and his four American guests arrive in Sweden, they journey to join the festivities already in progress far up in the mountains. There, the townsfolk greet them with warmth, enticing them with drugged libations before they barely drop their suitcases. The hallucinogens dazzle the boys but frighten the girl. Dani's reaction is that of a bad acid trip, filled with visions both idyllic and terrifying. Aster uses his camera to echo her loopiness as it vibrates and swoons along with his lead character. Dani even imagines her dead family members are there amongst the locals, and it's one of Aster's best set pieces in the film.

The filmmaker cleverly foreshadows disturbing events to come too as the camera lingers on pagan practices depicted on the historical tapestry and wall art in the cabins. One drawing shows a bear on fire, and another illustrates a woman’s private parts being cut out and turned into an entree. Then, when an actual grizzly bear shows up quietly sitting in a nearby cage, we in the audience start to put two and two together, even though Dani and the boys are slow on the uptake. 

Then, on only the second day of the festival, the students witness a ritual that concludes with two senior citizens throwing themselves off of a nearby cliff. The old-timers commit suicide in front of everyone as part of their religion's take on the cycle of life, but their ultra-violent acts sour the Americans. Aster shrewdly shows their deaths in all of its bloody grotesquery, horrifying his movie-going audience as well. But soon after such a dramatic highpoint, the filmmaker starts to lose his grip on the material. 

His faltering begins when two British students, also in attendance, overreact to those leaps of death. They scream bloody murder at the locals, and their petulant rage doesn't sit well with their hosts. Would guests in a foreign land genuinely behave so indignantly? Their furor is so over-the-top, you know that they're doomed, and it starts to caricature the horror. Indeed, soon they've both disappeared, yet the Americans continue to act oblivious. Even when screams are heard in the distance, suggesting torture, the remaining students stick their heads in the sand. 

Worse yet, the remaining students continue to partake in all the rituals, ingesting all sorts of drugged drinks and entrees willingly. Their stupidity starts to grate, and we begin to lose interest in rooting for them. Soon enough, Christian will discover a pubic hair baked into a pot pie, echoing the tapestry illustration, but doesn't see it as the clarion wake-up call it should be. Why aren't these characters smarter? Why do they stick around? Being so oblivious is a construct by Aster to keep them there, but such naivete on the Americans part rings false, especially as the creepy cult around them starts closing in. 

Aster clearly wants to ridicule religion in his telling, suggesting that the pagan practices depicted here aren't any more absurd than the Methodists who put on their Sunday best to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ at Easter over a potluck dinner of ham and scalloped potatoes. But as the film goes on, the filmmaker's points become more strident, his American characters become uglier, and the many deaths that occur feel as hoary as the easy ones perpetrated by the likes of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers in their 80's franchises. 

The audience even starts to get way ahead of Aster’s story. We can see the deaths coming a mile away. So why can't these smart college students? As they become dumber and dumber, continuing to let themselves be drugged, or walk into traps, or be coerced by their hosts, it becomes wholly irritating. And in his third act, once again, Aster cannot resist throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix. Full-frontal nudity, ritual sex, excessive gore, and over-the-top visuals that border on caricature appear, marring the ending just as they did in the finale of HEREDITARY.

It's such a shame too because Aster's film has many strengths. The cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is superb, as is the production design headed by Henrik Svensson. Pugh's performance is a standout of 2019 too. But then Aster blunders badly with the cartoonishness of some of the other characters, including a deformed pagan who shows up, supposedly the community's oracle. What he's really there for is to give one of the evil Swedes the unmistakable face of a monster. It's a hoary, horror movie cliche, a gilding of the lily really. Aster's pagans are already hideous enough, even though they're blonde and beautiful.

In THE WICKER MAN, a smiling group of cultists also lured unsuspecting lambs to the slaughter, but writer Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy got to their horrifying ending with fewer missteps. Aster overplays things, suggesting a filmmaker who doubted if his points were hitting home. (Really? Giving your most oblivious student character the name of Christian doesn't communicate enough contempt for Western religion?) In the end, the film makes for a monstrously witty riff on the extremes Dani will plumb to break up with her crap boyfriend, but the rest of the film lurches towards silliness that belies the often superbly rendered horror. By the end, Aster even has his crazed locals descend into dancing, cackling fiends. It feels like an insane move for a smart filmmaker who should have known better.