review

Review of It: Chapter 2

movie.jpeg

Sounds like most people are on the same page: sadly, this movie doesn’t live up to its predecessor. It’s just not as smart or as scary as Chapter 1 but to be fair I also think making Chapter 2 was going to be a tall order any way it was done. It made me wonder: is It really possible in movie form? The book is just so long and weird, and it’s hard to have both time periods fully fleshed out. In the book, the best parts are the parts in the 50s when the characters are kids. And the mythology only really works because of kid logic—it’s harder to sell that when they’re adults. That in and of itself would have been a hard hump to get over, but ultimately this movie stumbled both over that hump and others.

This second part clearly lacked some of the magic of the first movie, which was some perfect configuration of well-cast kids and genuinely creepy and/or scary scenes. I loved how the first movie depicted the start of their relationships and spent the time on character development so that you really believed how close and important they were to each other. My only criticisms of it where the strange omission of the very overt racism against Mike, the omission of Patrick Hocksetter (and that deeply disturbing fridge scene), and how they set up the final confrontation to be about saving Bev, rather than running straight into the fire to kill It.

If this second part was going to—unlike the miniseries—get into the weird mythology in the book, it didn’t quite work to leave that out of the first part. Stephen King himself says that sometimes he makes things worse in his books by explaining why scary things exist in the way that they do. Do I really need to know that Pennywise is basically an alien that hitchhiked to Earth on a meteor? It’s almost more scary if you don’t know at all. The mythology in the book is just plain ridiculous—silver bullets and the ritual of CHUD and the turtle—but it works during the 1950s part because they’re kids. The book spends quite a bit of time on the silver bullet issue: finding the silver, making the bullets, testing to see who was best with the slingshot. The slingshot itself was so emblematic of the book: kids fighting a powerful entity with a slingshot—a literal David and Goliath. If the entire crux of the fight revolves around belief being the thing that gives them power, it doesn’t actually matter which mythology they happen to come across the the encyclopedia or whatever—as long as they believe it.

The movie handled this pretty clumsily in the second part. It takes a while for the Loser gang to reassemble in Derry—I guess I was okay with that. But rather than bringing in CHUD, and glamour, and silver bullets in the first movie, they kept it all for right when the adults get back to Maine. And it takes the form of Mike drugging Bill with psychedelics so the latter and re-experience the research that Mike did with unnamed Native Americans to figure out how to defeat It… The whole Native American mysticism might have worked better if they were actual people rather than a convenient trope. In my memory, the book handled it better—as kids, they build a sweat lodge and go into it and have visions—it works because it’s something that the kids would have seen on TV or read about in school and totally believed. Even as I was watching it I was pulled out of the story for a moment to think about how clumsy this was. It was infodump and also took away some of Bill’s agency.

It’s impossible to depict visually how CHUD was in the books—a battle of wills—so instead the ritual takes the form of each Loser having to go off by themselves to find an “artifact.” This is where the movie starts to drag. Each person has a flashback and as much as I love the child actors from Chapter 1, this started to feel laborious. Mainly because each person got their own scary scenes when they were off by themselves and I didn’t find the scary scenes that scary. The special effects weren’t that great, and seemed to lack some of the slow creepiness that wasn’t necessarily high tech but was good from the first movie. There are some great scare scenes in the first movie: when Stan first sees Pennywise at the stanpipe, the fridge scene, the movie projector scene, the scene right after Bev brains her father. And they weren’t dumb jump scares—they were good—like the not-from-the-book scene where one of the boys (Stan, I think) is forced to go into his dad’s office but he’s scared of a painting that’s in there. (the painting comes to life, naturally—but a painting is just the sort of weird thing a kid would be scared of). The scares in this movie felt too much like the effects you’d see in a low budget horror movie on Netflix: not that realistic and not that original. (With the exception of the fortune cookies—I’ll give them that.)

Despite being somewhat bloated, some significant angles were cut from the book, mainly Bill’s wife Audra also being in Derry (and bewitched by the deadlights) and the full context of Bev’s marriage. The adults in the film definitely felt like older versions of the kids, but they also didn’t feel as fleshed out. It’s hard to translate the internal narrative from the novel to film without voiceover. The novel has the space to really stretch out and fully characterize the entire ensemble cast. The end result is that the adult versions of the kids lacked a sort of fullness in the film. Bev and Richie felt like they had a bit more to them, but you could entirely forget that Bill was supposed to be their leader.

They did a couple things really well: the movie was really well cast (despite the fact that I would love loved to have seen Jerry O’Connell as Ben and Amy Adams as Bev). But the cast was underutilized. There’s one brief, really creepy scene of Bill Skarsgard without his clown makeup on. (Although as creepy as I found it, the introduction of the idea of It in human form but pre-Pennywise just raised questions that didn’t really have answers). I respected that the movie, unlike the miniseries of my youth, didn’t edit out the hate crime that occurs in the novel. (My recollection is that the novel opens with that scene). I saw a Slate criticism of this scene, but like pretty much every Slate article, it exists for the point of critiquing something from a political standpoint that lacks any sort of depth. The point of that scene (It was published in 1986, btw) was about how Derry is rotten to its core. Derry looks like an ideal New England town. But It isn’t the only thing deeply wrong about the town. This is a town where people observed Mike (as a child) running for his life from racists who are going to do god-knows-what to him when they caught him and did nothing. A town where a bunch of boys are carving an H into Bill’s stomach and a car drives by, pointedly sees this . . . and keeps driving. The same place where adults are weirdly blase about the fact that so many kids are missing, or don’t seem to notice that something is traumatizing their kids. So there’s a hate crime—which was written to mirror an actual gay bashing that really happened—and what’s terrible about it is that no one is going to help the two men who are being attacked. And one of the attackers is a teenager, maybe even younger.

But two failures I can’t really forgive: Bill Skarsgard was totally underutilized. I don’t know what it is about him, but he is just one of those actors that I absolutely can’t take my eyes off of, even when he’s in stuff that’s kind of bad (cough cough Hemlock Grove). The first part of It was at its absolute scariest not when he was biting off people’s body parts or turning into various monsters, but when he was being creepy and unnerving. Case in point: his very first scene where he meets Georgie— he’s sort of wall-eyed and out of it and drooling a little and being otherworldly.

The other thing? How It is actually defeated. Metaphysical stuff aside, even twenty-something years later, I still have a clear image of the adult versions of the characters at the end of the books, stomping on It’s eggs and ripping It’s heart out. The final fight in the movie, though, it ends up boiling down to the characters surrounding It and shouting, You’re nothing! This just . . . doesn’t work. We know the characters don’t actually think It is nothing because four seconds ago they were screaming hysterically and spoiler Eddie was just fatally stabbed spoiler. Contrast to in the book, the kids are young enough to actually believe in silver bullets, a verbal talisman, and that an inhaler can have magical properties. The Ritual of CHUD stuff is hard—and taking it away sort of negates Bill being their leader— but I think they could have made do with Eddie dealing the lethal blow with the piece of iron-wrought gate being used as a spear. Back to my point about this being a movie or not—I almost think the only way they could have done all the CHUD and turtle stuff was if this had been a TV show, where they would have gotten the time to flesh out the mythology (because if it comes in bits it seems more reasonable, as opposed to one bad acid trip at Mike’s house.)

TLDR: Don’t think you need to see this in the theater, in particular because it will take your entire afternoon, but worth renting.

Poldark Season Four: In Which Some Things Come To A Head

I finally got to finish Season 4 of Poldark—I got distracted with writing a book, rewriting it, and then this thing. Season 4 felt short—some things were very satisfying while others didn’t quite work for me.

ossie.gif

Let’s start with the weirdest and most moderately-warm-dishrag: Justice for Morwenna. 98% of Morwenna’s scenes have involved her suffering horrifyingly—if not by Ossie assaulting her then by him or his mother threatening to take away the one thing that seems to bring her any joy in life, her son.

Happy to see Ossie finally bite the dust, but his manner of death was pretty unsatisfying. I was hoping it would involve Morwenna breaking a wine bottle and going wild on him, or even just some good of fashioned poison; it’s been difficult to just sit back and watch Morwenna get shit on over and over. So ultimately Ossie’s undoing is self-made—the creepy affair he has with Morwenna’s sister results in the sister’s husband going Clue on his ass with a candlestick. A very nice candlestick. The fact that Morwenna doesn’t have a lot of agency in her situation felt reasonably fair at first— lots of girls were forced to marry whoever and were then unhappy—but the fact that she never ends up having agency is ultimately frightening. It just felt like her situation kept going from bad to worse with no end in sight. We do get a more-or-less happy ending with her tentative marriage to Drake—the one drop of sugar in a season finale filled with intense negative emotions.

The politics in the show aren’t really nuanced to be intriguing in and of themselves. Ross is always heroically arguing for something obviously right, like the idea that poor people who make terrible wages shouldn’t starve to death in abject poverty while rich dudes with monocles laugh heartily over bowls of caviar. The show always wants to give Ross the moral high ground on everything but Elizabeth. Wealth disparity, in this world, is due to men’s insatiable greed, but it doesn’t really get into, say, what was going on with colonialism at the time, and about where a lot of those men in London probably got their wealth. Oh well.

London also plays host to a wife swap: Ross heads off to the big city without Demelza and ends up spending a lot of time with Caroline, who has fled there in the wake of her losing her baby. Meanwhile Demelza and and Dwight do the same back home. Happily this didn’t devolve into another infidelity plot. I’ve always found Caroline and Dwight’s relationship to be cute but reasonably complicated enough to be interesting. They’re clearly different people from different walks of life, but I like how they make it work. In a red-herring subplot, Demelza accompanies Ross back to London, where she attracts the attention of high-“class” Monk Adderly aka #metoo in a tricorner hat. This plotline wasn’t particularly shocking (of course Ross responds withe righteous anger tinged with dudely violence), but the fish-out-of-water elements of London for Demelza were interesting. We’re used to seeing Demelza be fiercely competent and independent—she manages the land back at Cornwall entirely by herself in her husband’s absence, and this burden only gets bigger once Ross gets elected into office. But in the eyes of the London elite, she will always be the scullery maid Ross married. Some of this is legitimately how people look at her, but some of it is the differences in class between her and Ross that she doesn’t have to feel in Cornwall, or at least not that often. Back home, she’s afforded a lot more freedom as someone from the lower classes she’s able to do more and say whatever she wants.

But the main course of this season is really various explosions happening within the main conflict triangle of Ross, Elizabeth, and George Warleggan. Finally we get some really satisfying fireworks: mainly Ross explicitly saying what we’ve all been wondering—he confronts Warleggan directly (with Elizabeth in the room, no less) and says WHAT do you WANT exactly? You have wealth, you have Elizabeth, you have everything (including an impending knighthood). George doesn’t have a good answer to that question. He is weirdly obsessed with Ross, and it’s too easy to assume that assumption is based entirely on Elizabeth. (Or at least, the above statement has to be true if the show is to survive without Elizabeth.)

Oh Elizabeth. I was literally shocked when she died. When Ross stress-horsebackrides to the Warleggan home when he hears Elizabeth is ill, and walks into that room and George says, “Oh Elizabeth, she’s dead” I actually thought he was playing a terribly cruel trick on Ross. Because her character arc didn’t feel finished to me. There could have been another entire season or more of her moving toward something, or doing something. There was some satisfying confrontation between Elizabeth and her husband- when Geoffrey Charles points out that Valentine is “the spitting image of Uncle Ross” George flies off the deep end. He stone cold turns on Elizabeth (fair) and Valentine (not fair—and really heartbreaking to see). Particularly seeing how overjoyed he had been when he found out that Elizabeth was pregnant once again (and I thought it was nice that he specifically wanted a girl). Ah, what a way to manipulate us with that turn.

But ultimately, Elizabeth’s death doesn’t make sense to me. The show weirdly has a flashback (which I don’t think it has done before?) to show her getting a tincture that will cause early labor back before she had Valentine. So when George finally comes to once again question Valentine’s paternity, Elizabeth’s solution is to convince him by having another “premature” baby. . . ? So he’d think that she just has a tendency to have premature babies? I know she dies in childbirth in the books, but I always had the thought that Elizabeth could be more fleshed out. Now that this is her final demise, it just feels like her entire story is about her being the bone that two dogs are fighting over. I don’t know if she ever grows as a person—her plotline for several seasons revolved around her hiding Valentine’s paternity. All of the other major and minor characters in the show are capable of plotlines independent of Ross except for her. When I said I wanted her to more actively do things, I didn’t mean take a tincture and die (the plot equivalent of “go jump in a lake.”) She gets the short end of the stick—to be a plot device for Ross and George. Although it does provide the opportunity for Ross to point out that they (he and George) are the ones who have done this to her.

With the somewhat tiresome love triangle disposed of, maybe there is somewhere more interesting for the conflict between George and Ross to go. It’s a fair guess that George will go off the deep end, even though Elizabeth wasn’t exactly holding him back from being evil. The last shot of him this season is of him with his children, newly widowed, holding the newborn baby—I couldn’t help but feel for him, despite him being an awful person. Elizabeth was the only thing in his life that seemed to bring him any joy—will it now be nothing, or maybe will the focus move to the baby? Is poor Valentine about to be shipped off to boarding school? (On second thought, given the duels and fires and Dwight’s incapability to keep anyone alive, maybe Valentine would be better off . . . ?)

See you next season.

Here’s another Poldark post about the first half of Season 4.

Review of Midsommar (spoilers abound)

midsommar.jpeg

On a scale of 1 to What in Sam Hill, with 10 being Mother! and 1 being Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog, Midsommar probably ranks at about a 9. I wish I could say I recommend it, but I can’t.

My expectations were super high because it came from the same Writer/ Director as Hereditary, possibly the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, but also one I have enormous respect for for its writing, acting, and thematic content—I didn’t even care that the plot actually isn’t that interesting.

The first thing I heard about this movie was that it occurs almost entirely in daylight (this isn’t exactly true—only the Sweden parts are) which was certainly intriguing. The movie has the same slow pace as Hereditary and The Witch—it takes its time to unfurl, focusing a lot of attention on atmosphere. In the first twenty minutes, I definitely felt like I was heading toward something like Hereditary—I felt like something equally horrifying was around the corner and was cringing in preparation for it. The film opens with Dani (Florence Pugh) dealing with her douchcanoe boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor, who eerily looks like a young Chris Pratt). I liked that the movie was willing to spend the time to show their relationship dynamic: he’s already checked out of the relationship but is the sort that stays in it because he’s too cowardly to break up. Dani is in exactly the sort of relationship you are in during your twenties: trying to cajole emotional support about of someone with low emotional intelligence who is fundamentally selfish but unwilling to admit it. She tries to get comfort about a disturbing email she received from her sister who has a history of bipolar. Just as Douchcanoe is talking to his friends about how he has to break up with her, he gets a phone call from Dani.

I thought this was handled well— filmed in a way that was disturbing, tense, and well choreographed—Dani’s sister has killed both their parents and herself with carbon monoxide from their car. Although this is not the most violent way to die, its filmed in a way that is visually disturbing. You get the sense that you are seeing it from Dani’s imagined perspective. This makes the phone call to Christian appropriately disturbing: Dani is just screaming. Cut to him trying to comfort her as she is just primally screaming—this reminded me of the epic mourning wails of Toni Collette in Hereditary (for which she should have won an award). So … awkward.. not the best time to break up after all.

Rather than displaying any sense of emotional honesty, Christian lets Dani tag along on his bro-trip to Sweden, led by his so-nice-he-must-be-creepy Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Pelle is the only one who is actually nice to her, which immediately makes you think he is three steps away from putting them in an industrial-sized Vitamix. They are accompanied by Christian’s anthropologist grad school friend/ rival Josh (William Jackson Harper) (who, other than the floral arrangements, provides the movie’s only color), and Mark (William Poulter), the comic relief.

At this point, the movie moves away from a lot of the super atmospherey stuff that made Hereditary and The Witch so great and turns into the standard cult movie I’ve seen dozens of iterations of. You get to the isolated cult location. Everyone’s super nice. Something mildly disturbing happens, but because it’s a horror movie nobody Nopes the fuck out of there. Then people start to disappear one by one, and then it all comes to a head. I was kind of hoping for more than this, and ultimately the film doesn’t deliver more than this. It definitely makes its time to move through the trope though. We get to see a lot about how the commune that Pelle grew up in functions—more than we need to, because I’m not sure if it matters how they function, or that their holy book is written by a deliberately inbred prophet (who ultimately has some Chainsaw Massacre tendencies). The nope moment occurs when the outsiders are viewing a cultural ceremony which results in a man and a woman jump off a cliff to their deaths. Some of the outsiders are horrified, although more interestingly Christian and Josh really aren’t—they see the anthropology grad student equivalent of dollars signs in their eyes.

The movie probably is fundamentally about the relationship between Christian and Dani. He doesn’t really see her. He doesn’t, as Pelle manipulatively but rightly points out, make her feel held. This was a super interesting thematic aspect that I wish was tied more to Dani’s trauma. We know her sister’s action has basically orphaned her, but I felt like the movie was on the verge of saying something interesting about romantic relationships that ultimately it didn’t say. Christian is selfish. He doesn’t think, wow, we just witnessed two violent suicides while my girlfriend is still suffering from PTSD after her entire family was killed— maybe we should get out of here and eat comforting Toblerone at the airport ASAP. There always has to be some compelling reason why people in horror movies stay in bad places: haunted houses, creepy asylums, communes where people smile a little too widely. The reason in this case is that Christian and Josh have decided they want to do anthropological research at the commune. (One thing that felt spot-on about Christian was that he was lagging in trying to figure out what his thesis would be—ultimately his idea is derivative of Josh’s).

A lot of the foreshadowing is so direct that it isn’t even really foreshadowing: we see historical renderings of a woman feeding a man pubic hair and menstrual blood (Josh is then fed such a . . . meat pie. . . by a witchy ginger who wants his sperms); we see a bear being set on fire (Josh eventually goes out tauntaun style in a bear). This made things less tense. We know that people are going to get up in the middle of the night and do unwise things and get caught. I was more interested in Dani’s nightmares, which connected to the horror of her family’s death. Lately I’ve been thinking about how all horror, fundamentally at its core, is about the fear of death. We’re terrified of monsters, but we’re never going to encounter them—the only real terror is the very probable terror of having the deal with the death of loved ones (and ourselves, eventually).

As expected, both Christian and Dani are made to succumb to the cult. Dani feels some terror and confusion and gets drugged out of her mind, but in an interesting scene (that brought to mind the remake of Suspira) she connects with them emotionally as they mirror back her screams in a moment of emotional distress. She dances in an endurance contest, losing sense of reality and her identity. Ultimately, and as you suspect, she is named queen of the festivities and is given a choice to pick the last of the human sacrifices. Shall she pick Jorgen-or-whatever-blond-anonymous-dude, or Christian, whom she has just discovered having sex with the ginger witch? (to be fair the sex was bizarre and not exactly consensual—on the other hand, Christian is a douchecanoe, and you get the sense that her decision to select him isn’t entirely about that particular act, but her disappointment with him in general).

So . . there’s the movie. For all its flaws and ridiculousness, I liked Suspira for the thematic content about women, about power, and maybe even about dance. Midsommar felt like it started to kind of be about something (Dani’s orphaning) while also being about something else (her relationship with Christian), but then veered into something else (a LOT of showing things about the cult which ultimately don’t matter) without dipping its toes back into the first two things enough. What, then, is the movie saying — that douchcanoes are disappointing—? they are, but is the cult just a vehicle for demonstrating this? Texas Chain is not a movie about the relationships between the kids who eventually run into Leatherface—it’s a story about a family. Hereditary is a story about mourning; The Witch is a story about the control and repression of women. I think Midsommar is missing the final stitch or two that would have tied the whole thing together.

Review of HBO's Euphoria, episodes 1 -3

File this under “mildly chagrined, but would still watch.” Euphoria is not a high-brow drama about teens. It’s a well-filmed horror show for parents where you’re supposed to eat popcorn and think about the good ol’ days. Hear me out:

Rue (Zendaya, 23) is back from rehab with no intent on getting better. Parents in this show are easily fooled, absent, or are predators hunting teens. She forms a friendship with the new girl in town, Jules (Hunter Schafer, 20). I guess Rue is tapped in enough with the cool kids to get invited to the parties, but not enough to have any actual friends other than Jules. In this sense, she’s floating in the middle of no where without anyone sensible to ground her, and has no interests other than drugs. We get the sense that this is tied to her father’s slow death from something probably like cancer.

Everything about this show is mega-angsty with no levity whatsoever—that doesn’t make it unwatchable, but it creates this very specific category of watchable that I find compelling while at the same time significantly depressing. I felt the same way about Skins and 13 Reasons Why. It’s independent of whether or not these shows are actually well written, but for me it does throw a glare of nonreality to them. There is tons of angst in being a teenager, but these shows tend to show the most extreme version of this—I don’t think this is because it’s supposed to echo reality, but because older people—particularly people with kids—are drawn to it the way we slow down on the highway when we see an accident. If you were to make a list of things that make parents clutch at their pearls, this show is a grab bag of them.

THE INTERNETS! Kids use it to share sex tapes of other students as a form of shaming or humiliation. To use anonymous sex apps to meet up with strange S&M dudes in hotels. To buy fake urine to pass drug tests that oblivious moms force you to take. They definitely don’t use it to watch people play games on Twitch, to make funny videos on TikTok, or to do anything of substance related to an interest or hobby.

THE DRUGS! Peak pearl-clutching: your daughter may be in a drug-dealers house and somehow be forced into a situation where she will literally have to lick fentanyl off the knife of a brown drug dealer with facial tattoos. Rue is apparently isolated enough that none of her friends are willing or able to say, so . . . maybe this is self-destructive? (Edit, I wrote the above after episodes 1 and 2— episode 3 is a little bit better at indicating that Rue is friends with Jules and Kat, although on the whole, I don’t think these friendships are three dimensional, which kind of makes the first person narration from Rue telling her friends’ stories not quite work for me. We’re supposed to see Rue-Jules as one of these hyperintimate female friendships you have when you’re young—episode three has a drop of this— Jules saying, “I can’t watch you kill yourself” and some of Rue being jealous, but not too much of their actual bond, which is mostly shown by them riding bikes).

BOYS AND SEX! Pretty much every male on this show is a horrorshow nightmare dumpsterfire. The only halfway decent one is the drug dealer (not the fentanyl one—the white one that Rue is friends with). There’s the one who sort of shames/ manipulates Kat (Barbie Ferreira, 22) into having sex with him in a roomful of other boys, only to post a video of it online. When she discovers this no one (even other girls) seems to have any empathy for her, even though one must imagine these other girls are dealing with the same horrorshow nightmare dumpsterfire boys. There’s Nate (Jacob Elordi, 22) whose sociopathic tendencies are starting to evolve into controlling behavior centered around his girlfriend (who in an act of revenge, has sex with an older boy [played by a 24 year old] in a pool in front of him, then lies about it later saying she blacked out.) Girls are either hypersexualized or being raped—nowhere in between. Jules has been talking to someone online and meets up with him at a hotel for a disturbing sexual encounter she does not seem to enjoy—the man involved turns out to be Nate’s father.

This show feels like a dark fantasy—I can’t use the word idealized because that has a positive connotation, but in this world, everyone is beautiful and makes terrible mistakes. There’s no compassion, no friendship, no awkwardly fumbling toward sexuality with a boyfriend who actually has a soul. No one’s laughing at anything except ironically. Recently I talked to one of my friends who’s a child therapist and she said high school has radically different tracks— if you were on the nerdy honor roll track, the notion of a party where someone might legitimately die of anything other than a peanut allergy seems outlandish. So maybe my own high school experience was just vastly different than licking fentanyl off a knife. It was closer to Freaks and Geeks except I really didn’t have friends to play D&D with.

It made me think about why we like these hyperdramatic shows about teens that take themselves super seriously in their negativity. Consider Skins where there is, I swear to god, a situation where Tony (high school student) is in some sort of dangerous situation in a warehouse where a scary dangerous guy demands that he (Tony) have sex with his (Tony’s) own sister (Effy) in order to placate the scary guy. Compare to Friday Night Lights where Julie feels pressured to just get sex “over with,” arranges alonetime with her boyfriend Matt (insert heart emoji), only to have him discover that she isn’t really ready and to suggest that they could just, like, hang out, which they do, making fun of each other’s feet and goofing around.

Think about how these shows mix sex and lurid things in a bid to be “real” or at least this is what they say they’re doing. But notice how they tend to cast actors that are a lot older; they want to show good looking people having sexy times, or maybe even really being in peril, but then there’s the conundrum about feeling weird about casting people ages 14 to 18, the actual age of most high school students. If they were actually working with actors that young, there’s a variety of things they’d have to more seriously consider, and we as viewers would have to ask ourselves some difficult questions. This isn’t a “real” show any more than Skins was. There’s actually a scene where Nate buys his girlfriend lingerie. I’m sorry, but when in the history of the world has a high school boy 1) bought his girlfriend lingerie and 2) it fit perfectly even though men who have been married for 10 years are still mystified by the whole bra/band/cupsize thing and also even if you know the size that doesn’t mean that any particular thing will fit you?

TLDR: Euphoria= listening to a superhip soundtrack while being stuck in the passenger seat of a car driving very quickly towards a brick wall with stylized graffiti on it.

Review of I Am The Night/ Root of Evil

I don’t have cable, so didn’t have access to I Am the Night until well after it had initially aired on TNT— but as a true crime fan, it was definitely on my radar. I fell upon the Root of Evil podcast first and was blown away. I knew it had something to do with the Black Dahlia murder, but the Black Dahlia part of it was in now way shape or form the wildest, or most fucked up part of that story.

Review of HBO's Sharp Objects (has spoilers)

sharp.jpeg

I'll lead with the positive: the main reason to watch this show is not the murder mystery, but for the execution of how the story is told. (In a weird, obverse opinion of my last review of The Blackkklansman). 

Positives: the performances were incredibly strong all around, but in particular Amy Adams (Camille), Patricia Clarkson (Adora, her soft-spoken but histrionic southern belle of a mother), and Eliza Scanlen (Amma, her not-quite-right wild-child half-sister). I loved the Southern Gothic feel when Camille returns to her hometown, complete with a lovely-but-creepy house with a wraparound porch. 

The thing that kept me intrigued, and the thing I admired about it the most, is the way it was filmed to resemble human memory, as opposed to linear storytelling with breaks to make it easier for the viewer: ie, Camille sees the hingey-thing on the back of the toilet, then we stop the story for a liner flashback of that entire memory so that it's easy to digest. Even though I think they didn't do this because Camille is a damaged, fractured person, I think stylistically how they actually did it is closer to how people experience memory. A scene is interspersed with brief flashes with no explanation, sometimes so momentary we can tell that she's thinking of two things at once. Or even more than two. This felt literary to me, which is why I didn't need tons of intrigue to the storytelling aspect. I'm rewatching the first episode right now and they just showed a brief cut of Camille looking at the hingey part of the toilet--a full 6 hours before we actually see the story of why that matters. I hadn't even noticed it the first time around. 

Negatives: I never thought the show was boring like other viewers apparently did (I didn't mind the somewhat unnecessary Calhoun Day diversion), if you put the entirety of the show together, there's about 20 minutes of Camille driving, listening to music, or drinking vodka out of a water bottle. We get it--she's an alcoholic. I don't think people need to be shown more than two or three times. 

I was a wee bit frustrated with the (first) climax which occurs in the house. Ultimately, Camille is incapacitated with whatever poison her mother has given her, and is feebly trying to cry out to once-lover/cop Richard while she is prostrate on the bathroom tile. Ultimately it is Richard & co who rush in to save the day, arrest Adora, and spirit the sisters away for medical treatment. Was this not agentic enough? Just before this, Camille had made the discovery (..or rather, was given the information by Richard) that Adora had probably been poisoning Marian, Camille's younger sister who had died of a mysterious illness when she was younger. Death by munchausen by proxy so Camille rushes to the house, realizing that Amma--currently "ill" in the care of their mother--is in danger. She encounters a bizarre dinner tableau: a sickly Amma dressed in a white nightgown and a crown of flowers, her mother setting up a massive feast to her and her creepily silent husband. In an interview, Gillian Flynn mentions that she wasn't bothered by the show's decision to have Richard rescue Camille, more or less, because Camille did do something agentic: she takes her sister out of the line of fire by pretending to be sick and taking on her mother's "care" (ie, poison) herself. The action has the duel duty of both proving her suspicion, and giving Amma some time to recover. So she did do something agentic, but I realized this morning what really bothered me:

She runs into the house, thinking that her mother killed her little sister, and is possibly in the process of killing her other little sister... but she enters the house and silently sits down at the table? How about forming some distraction, grabbing your sister by the arm, and running off? What's to stop her? Her mother's in her 60s, and Camille is young. How hard would it have been to overpower her? How hard would it have been to grab that blue bottle of whatever noxious "medicine" and throw it across the room? Flush all the pills down the toilet?

Two practical things: can we please please please retire the female reporter who sleeps with people involved with her investigation thing? And did Camille really have no where where she could stay except for with Adora? No per diem from the paper? How much is a hotel in that small town? Given the high psychological price of staying in a home filled with trauma... why stay there rather than the Motel 6?

My only other problem was with the ending. It bothered some people, but I liked it. I was definitely not expecting an ending that abrupt, but stylistically it made sense to me. And I had already taken my eyes off the screen when the cut-scene appeared during the credits. If the entire story is through Camille's perspective, it wouldn't make sense for the cut scene of the murders to appear in the normal timeline of the show. My problem was that the scene itself was so fast it was sort of incomprehensible. I rewound and watched it 2 more times. While I think the images were great (particularly that really disturbing ending one of Amma) I actually misinterpreted what I had seen. The girl getting killed by the river I got, but I definitely didn't think that the image of Mae, Amma's new friend, gripping the fence was supposed to be her getting killed. I got that something violent was happening, but didn't necessarily think it was murder until I read recaps this morning. 

On the topic of Amma being the murderer (which I suspected the entire time), one plot-holey thing. They find the bloody pliers in Adora's house and it's assumed she was involved in the murders. Yeah, but fingerprints--whose fingerprints would be on those pliers? Amma's, not Adora's. (I doubt she wiped prints off if she didn't bother cleaning the blood off.) This made it a bit unrealistic to me that Camille would be the one to discover Amma, rather than physical evidence catching up with Amma. (who is arrested in the book, and her friend Mae's death is more in view.) 

And really smart to put the trailer for True Detective with Mahershala Ali right after.. It looked so good that I was sold before they even said the words "True Detective" (good advertising, considering I didn't like the first season, and skipped the second.) 

Review of Blackkklansman

blackkklansman-1.jpg

I hate to say it, but here is a thing which started with a great premise, but then failed in its execution. It had everything working in its favor: a great hook and timeliness. A black cop who pretends to be white over the phone in order to infiltrate the KKK. Even the pre-setup: he's the first black cop in this particular precinct, and they warn him that he is going to to have to "be the Jackie Robinson."

It's based on a true story, so I can't fault the story for going where it does which is to say to pretty expected places once you know the premise. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) enlists Flip (Adam Driver) to play the part in person, Flip is conflicted, Stallworth starts a relationship with Black Power activist Patrice (Laura Harrier) only she doesn't know he's a cop (and yes, she would mind.) 

This movie was startlingly long. When I was sitting there I was thinking, crap I wanted to get to bed at a reasonable hour. I left the theater and looked at my phone, expecting it to be 11 (the show started 7) and was surprised to see that it was only 9 pm. How on earth does a movie feel two hours longer than what it actually was?? Even while watching it I kept being pulled out of the story by thinking "this scene is much longer than it should be" and I found myself wondering about how established artists can get away stretching their arms and taking up space and making work that is too long but emerging artists have to trim their work to be beyond super-lean. 

So if it felt too long, I have to wonder if there was enough story to fill out two hours. Surely there should have been, but yet it didn't feel like it. The movie could have gone more into depth on both Stallworth's and Flip's characters. What's Stallworth's background, what did he study in college (there's a point to mentioning that he avoided Vietnam because he was in college), what is his family like, and what made him want to be a cop? For about ten seconds, the movie touches on the fact that Flip, while Jewish, grew up without really "being Jewish," and maybe an interesting conversation about identity could have been had here. We are given bonked-over-the-head examples about why Patrice might have been driven toward the Black Power movement, but this movie painfully, painfully lacks in subtlety. What, for example, distinguishes Patrice from any prototype of a young student involved in the movement? (Nothing). Maybe the heavy-handedness of the movie was intended to make it more easy to digest for people who don't know much about that time period. But I would have rather seen scenes putting everything in context than scenes that felt like 40% of them could have been cut without sacrificing anything. 

The unsubtleness of this movie is a mismatch with the sort of audience that goes to see a movie like this. The parallels to modern day America are really obvious--enough so that the obvious nods to the present day could have been written a bit more obliquely or even not at all and we still would have seen them. But if you didn't feel like everything was spelled out in enormous billboard-sized capital letters, there's the ending.. After the movie ends there's a few minutes of documentary footage ramming home the parallels today. As if it needed to be stated. This included the graphic footage of the people being murdered/injured in Charlottesville by a white nationalist plowing a car into them. We've seen that footage--everyone sitting in that theater had. It isn't news to us, and felt weirdly misplaced and jarring, like being hit over the head with a bat while hanging up anti-bat-hitting posters. 

Give Poldark's George Warleggan the plot he deserves

A couple of weeks ago, I blew through all three seasons of Poldark in one weekend, or maybe close to it. I had it on in the background as "period piece background noise I didn't expect to really capture my attention," but it totally did. (Apparently I also weirdly forgot my fetish for 18th century men's fashion.)

Not only is the show filled with lush scenery (waves crashing on rocks beneath dramatic cliffs, people riding horses in haste, etc.), but the writing is really, really good. Particularly in Season Two, with the infidelity plotline, every single character involved responds in a way consistent with their character, and in ways that highlight both their positive and negative traits.) (Well, I'm not sure Elizabeth has any positive traits, but whatever). 

Season 3 had me pondering the fact that the writer's haven't entirely taken advantage of villain George Warleggan. The WETA blog says he is a flatly evil character, one step away from twirling a mustache; I don't entirely agree, but they do have something of a point.  Over the course of the series, George shown himself to be cold and conniving when it comes to both business and life--sometimes playing unfairly. He is weirdly obsessed with taking Ross Poldark down--and what is this based on other than the fact that he basically hates Ross for having what he doesn't: the support of the townspeople, actual love from his wife Elizabeth, a sense of honor. Ostensibly, he has beef with Ross because Ross is "responsible" for inciting the riot that led to the shipwreck being looted (the shipwreck containing some of George's property). But we all know that he 2% cared about the property and 98% just wanted Ross to be tried and hanged--which seems a bit extreme. 

But I just rewatched Seasons 1 and 2 and took a closer look at him. The development of his relationship with Elizabeth is a weird mixture of creepy and pitiable. It's clear he likes her when she's married to Francis Poldark and is already attempting to put the moves on her. When he first propositions Elizabeth, more or less, unless I'm wrong, she didn't seem repulsed but genuinely caught off guard. Surprised, but not "oh God how do I get out of this." I think for her it came out of left field. I do believe, in his own strange way, George loves Elizabeth. (I'm not sure why, because everyone seems to fall in love with her based purely on looks...?) 

Maybe there was a world where Elizabeth and George could have been happy--this makes me sad. Her decision to marry him was both practical and eyeroll worthy. She's a widow and her mom has just had a stroke. Standing beside the drooling mother's bed she asks the doctor, "But who will take care of her--?" then a look of distain comes over her face when she realizes that the caregiver could be her. God forbid we don't have servants to do something, or have to get a job, or figure shit out for a while before she might actually fall in love with a man who wants to marry her. Okay, I realize that's unfair--the aristocracy didn't work back then. Although I did wonder how hard it would have been to scrimp and pinch for a while--sell off some of her crap and let some servants go. Instead, she spots George through the window getting rid of some pesky serfs who want to work her land, which apparently by law is their right. He could take care of her, and she wants to be taken care of. And I never go the sense that he was disingenuous in his offer to take care of her; someone purely evil wouldn't do that. 

She marries him, quickly, and for his money basically, but I got the sense that she had some hope that maybe it would work out. George quickly ruins any chance of this, mainly through his desire to get rid of his Poldark stepchild. Really much of her hatred of him stems from actions he does solely out of his obsession with Ross. (It's more like he himself is a worser enemy than Ross is.) It didn't have to be this way, but he does several things that destroy any hope between them: getting the governess and wanting to send the stepson away, and the trial against Ross which was overkill. A really unexpected turn for me at least was that Elizabeth and George start to become an evil couple together--which was relieving because many many many shows/books/movies fall into the trap of "the first love is the only-est, best-est love." Her turn toward the evil was somewhat satisfying because her unhappiness brought out the nastier parts of her personality and I didn't find much about her redeeming anyhow. 

But George is more interesting to me. Sometimes there's this one grain of humanity in him that makes me feel sympathy or want him to have a turn of character. He suspects that "his" baby with Elizabeth--Valentine--is actually Ross Poldark's but you get the sense that he's almost tricked himself into thinking the baby is his. At least until stonecold Agatha tells him the truth. He seems really broken by this, and I don't think it's just because of Poldark. No matter how despicable George is, Elizabeth wronged him and continuously lied to him. Sure, there were various strictures on women that made life hard for them, but I can't see Demelza making that series of decisions. Sure-- George is pathetic--he gets all sniveling when Elizabeth (lying about the paternity issue) threatens to leave their home, and let's be clear George is dishonorable and nasty and single minded. I don't know why he seems to love Elizabeth, but he does. I truly wondered if he actually loves Valentine and this was a serious blow to him (he doesn't have an heir after all). I love the moment that followed: Ross going out to look for Demelza in the dunes--of course we think he's about to catch her in the act of cheating--but instead he comes upon George, who is dazed with the realization about Valentine. For a split second George is a human, but then he goes back to being George. This moment echoed back to the moment when George found out that Ross's baby had died and for a split second was at a loss. 

Don't blame George for the infamous toad incident in season 3. Oh damn, this show got dark. What started as a funny prank against George--Demelza's brother Drake putting toads in George's ponds--gets hella dark when Morwenna has to marry the gag-reflex-inducing Reverend Osborne Whitworth. At first the Reverend just seemed like a pervier version of Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice--funny, foppish, and gross. But then it gets much darker than the tone of Poldark generally with him being physically abusive and a rapist--I kept waiting for Morwenna to be rescued at the last minute. And it's George and Elizabeth--who has now drunk the evil George Kool-aid--who have pushed this marriage into existence. Because it's a "good match." (There's one weird misstep in the plotting here: when Morwenna's weird sister showed up, I thought for sure she would pretend to try to seduce the Reverend and then murder him . . . but instead seemed to like boffing him??) [Another tangent, how on earth is the guy on the left played by the guy on the right??] 

Here's the thing: George has no idea how bad the Reverend is. He knows Morwenna isn't crazy about him, but how many women got to marry someone they were crazy about? You know who does know just how bad the Reverend is? The good doctor Dwight. And while he does try to press the pause on the Reverend's appetites for Morwenna after giving birth--that's all he does-- presses the pause button. George's sin, really, was that he wanted to control Morwenna and family wealth by marrying her off--Dwight's sin strikes me as worse (albeit not outside of what would have been typical male behavior back then.) 

It's clear that Poldark is headed towards more political storylines, and that both Ross and George will be players. The only two things George cares about are himself and Elizabeth and I'm not even sure about the second part. His political identity could easily get tied into his sense of honor; if Poldark wants to keep treading the same waters, we could have Ross and George square off again and again. Or . . .

Make George the villain he deserves to be. George should be smarter than he is on the show. He's made his wealth rather than inherited it, so it's a little unrealistic that his deviousness is pretty consistently ham-handed. I wish they would let him be as full blown smart as maybe a man who's made his own wealth might be. And while Ross clearly has flaws, sometimes he falls too hard on the "good guy who's always right" side (at least when it comes to the shows political plotlines.) Moving the show towards increasingly political plotlines leaves a lot of room for complex machinations--I would love to see George pull off some Cersei-level political maneuvering rather than say, printing slanderous pamphlets. I would love there to be something Ross and George could agree on--a common foe where they would have to work together despite despising each other! Someone who offends George's honor and Ross' political sensibilities-- but I'm not sure the show has that sort of sensibility, particularly after what happened with Morwenna. If Morwenna isn't going to save herself, it would be nice if we just didn't default to Ross saving the day. Too often shows default to "good guys save people, bad guys hurt people, and if bad guys save people they are redeemed." There's a few other options-- like bad guys doing the "right" thing for an entirely different reason. Bad guys responding with a level of retaliation that the good guys wouldn't "stoop" to in a way that is more satisfying to viewers. Bad guys outmaneuvering other bad guys because they are more clever.

Update 6/10/2019: a surprising number of people have read this article. Life has occupied me; I will return with another longform article about Poldark in June after I’ve had a chance to watch the most recent season. I’m hoping it will be me coming back after seeing some interesting developments in this villain.

8/13/19: and here’s that other post as promised, about the rest of Season 4

A spoiler-ridden review of Hereditary

hereditary.jpeg

Hereditary falls squarely in the center of what I think is an exciting development in horror movies: horror that leans more towards the literary. Reviews of this movie had a lot of "Not since The Exorcist..." language which made me skeptical, along with my friend's text along the lines of "Have you heard the hype about this movie? People are saying it's traumatic." Well that was enough to sell me. 

Hereditary very much reminded me of The Witch and It Comes at Night with some echoes of The Exorcist. I suppose I would consider The Exorcist literary horror, but it does lean more towards overt horror (ie, looking at horrifying and explicitly unpleasant things for long scenes.) The way this movie was filmed--as if the camera is lurking--and the excellent score reminded me of all three: unnerving drones, unpleasant prickly noises, indistinct sounds you can't quite pick out. With the exception of The Exorcist I generally don't find literary horror scary, but I do enjoy it. 

What I found most horrifying in this movie wasn't the supernatural elements, which I doubted the existence of for maybe four-fifths of the movie. There's some indication in a very Rosemary's Baby way that the recently deceased mother of Annie (Toni Collette) was a witch. The narrative does feel like it's headed for supernatural elements, particularly in the way it focuses on Annie's profoundly creepy daughter Charlie. She's unnerving (amazingly well acted by Milly Shapiro), but I thought she was headed for either demonic possession or a diagnosis of psychopathy (there's a scene where she finds a dead pigeon and cuts its head off to keep). But it was easy for me to push the supernatural to the side for most of the movie because an unexpected turn. 

This is the scene I keep thinking about even days later. The teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolf) lies to his mother that a party he wants to go to is more of a school BBQ and she makes him take his sister. He takes her, and leaves her alone for a minute so he can smoke pot with the girl he likes. Charlie eats some cake with nuts in it and starts going into anaphylactic shock. Peter puts her in the family car and hurries her to the hospital, and of course you can see the accident coming. But I was 1000 percent not expecting the way it would go down and how it would be depicted. The accident is horrifying, and it both is and isn't Peter's fault. You could see a teenager getting into this situation from being mildly irresponsible, but not outrageously so. We don't see exactly what happens and it isn't clear that Peter has. There's an incredible scene of Peter just staring straight at the camera for at least a full minute, stunned, and the sense of horror and dread and there's no going back from this is palpable. Alex Wolf, the by way, who I've only ever seen in Jumanji nailed this scene. He heads home, in a daze, lies down in his bed, and there's an extremely painful scene of his blank face as he can hear his mother's off-camera screams as she discover's Charlie's body. Toni Collette's screaming here was more disturbing than any piece of violence or weirdness that occurs in this movie. 

For almost all of this movie but the end, you could interpret it as being about the impossible task of the family dealing with this death. How does a mother then relate to her son? How can he possibly cope with being responsible for the accident? When supernatural things seem like they're happening--Peter and Annie seeing apparitions, Peter's self-injurious behavior--this can all be explained away by hallucinations they are experiencing from intense grief and guilt. There's also the issue of mental illness: Annie's family tree is rife with it, and she rather casually mentions at a grief counseling meeting that her mother had Dissociative Identity Disorder. Personally I don't believe in DID, and wasn't sure how I'd feel if the movie turned out to be about it. Abrupt changes in Annie's behavior--ostensibly from possession--could be explained by DID if you wanted to take a non-supernatural interpretation of this movie. It was this aspect of the movie--grief as the supernatural--that I found most intriguing. It could have ended ambiguously, and I thought the movie was headed this way, but then it goes full Black Phillip.  

black phillip.jpg

Black Phillip, if you haven't seen The Witch, is the family goat who at the end of the movie, starts speaking in the voice of Satan. The talking goat is the point of no return, and the same thing happens in the last fifth of Hereditary

We then get firmly grounded in the idea that the witchcraft angle is real. This leads to an ending that was very similar to The Witch with a dash of Rosemary's Baby thrown in. The one thing that left me a little puzzled is why--possessed or not--Annie bizarrely kills herself. Whatever entity that has taken her over (and it isn't clear who exactly) already has possession of the body, so why it needed to end her life was unclear (unless, I suppose, it was a human sacrifice). Overall, grounding it in witchcraft didn't take away the emotional complexity--much like how The Witch was still about all these strictures that were/are put on women. It still raised interesting questions-- was Annie's sleepwalking actually sleepwalking, some supernatural thing, or some form of mental illness? Was what Peter did something he could ever come back from? (I desperately wanted him to just leave the house and not come back.) How can the husband (Gabriel Byrne) draw the line between indulging his wife and allowing her outbursts while also being wary that she might be in the middle of a psychotic break? How can he balance dealing with his own grief while the tension between his wife and his son is becoming worse and worse? 

There is one thing about this movie that I did not like and found unfairly gratuitous: WHY WHY WHY the dog. Come on man. Any horror movie or thriller where there is a family dog, it is basically there for four-legged cannon fodder. Towards the end of the movie the dog isn't particularly present and I probably would have forgotten about it . . . Except then there is a one second scene that just shows the dog's body cast aside in the garden, it's murder, apparently, occurring off screen. By someone. For some reason. THIS WAS A SENSELESS DOG DEATH. WHY. It did nothing for the plot, and the dog did not get to fully develop his character arc as a result. 

Review of Picnic at Hanging Rock

pahr_samaraweaving_madeleinemadden_nataliedormer_lilysullivan_fxtl_fma_b.jpg

1. What in god's name was this show?

2. I could not stop watching it. 

There aren't too many things I'm willing to watch that are willfully confusing--or artsy for the sake of artsy. But this definitely falls into this category. 

Worth watching for Natalie Dormer's wardrobe alone. 

Picnic tells the story of a sketchy woman, Ms. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer) who flees from a mysterious background to start a finishing school for troubled girls in an absurdly beautiful estate. Like when you have fantasies of living in some Harry Potter boarding school, this is the estate you're thinking of. Three girls disappear during a picnic and the rest of the series attempts to cover what swirls around this scandal. Were they murdered, did they disappear, or did something mystical happen? 

Honestly, the plot is interesting enough to keep things moving, but the plot wasn't really why I kept watching. The series has interesting themes about the ways in which women are bound, sexuality, and class. But ultimately I watched this for the visuals and an arresting score. The visuals are dreamlike at times, and the scenery varies from this sumptuous estate where the school is, to these scenes from the landscape at Hanging Rock itself. The score is sometimes intense and deliberately unnerving (reminiscent of The Witch). 

I think the lower reviews of this show (currently 6.3 stars on IMDB) are due to the fact that the show didn't really ever intend to be about a neatly tied of mystery when people wanted it to be. The original Picnic at Hanging Rock was a popular Australian novel which the author occasionally implied was actually a true story. The novel's last chapter wasn't published with the original book, leaving it with an inconclusive ending. An . . . interesting decision. (In case you want the spoiler: the ending which was pulled from the book, then published later, also has a somewhat inconclusive ending. The girls disappear into some sort of void and time travel or another dimension may be implied.)