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Promising Young Woman (2020)

“I’m a gentleman,” says a man at his bachelor party, trying to bashfully turn down any sexual antics with the women paid to entertain him and his friends for one boozy night. He’s also trying to indicate he’s “not like those other guys” and genuinely respects women. He gets it. “Well,” says the woman in the shiny fetish outfit, “I’ll have you know in my experiences that ‘gentlemen’ can often be the worst.” This line summarizes Promising Young Woman, a revenge thriller in a post-Me Too era that is unsparing to all those who would proudly say, “Well, I support women.”

Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) was the top of her class at med school. Then her best friend was sexually assaulted at a party while she was inebriated, which allows the university to paint her as guilty and the accused as blameless (“What do you expect when you get drunk?” kind of victim-shaming). Years later, Cassandra has never been the same. She poses as a drunk at clubs and waits for her knight in shining armor to take her home, and often these modern men of chivalry prove to be creeps looking to take advantage of women and in needing of some harsh medicine.

This is a movie that walks a fine line to stay out of the shadow of becoming just another exploitation film with a higher gloss. I was yelling at the screen early about the choices men were making with susceptible women in their care. Admittedly, it plays upon that icky genre and taps into our inherent feelings associated with it as well as vengeance thrillers, and writer/director Emerald Fennell (TV’s Killing Eve) smartly subverts our expectations and loyalties. We want Cassandra to achieve her righteous vengeance regardless of the moral or psychological effect it has upon her because vengeance is satisfying. We want to see bad people who have escaped punishment suffer, but Fennell challenges the audience to see how far we’re willing to go for this goal. There are moments where it appears that Cassandra is going to go the extra step to antagonize her targets, and this might involve facilitating other innocent women into potential danger. It’s a sharp turn that asks the audience how badly they want to hold onto that righteous sense of indignation. Do all ends justify the means? Now I won’t confirm whether or not Cassandra follows through for the sake of spoilers but this is one very knowing movie about how to make its audience uncomfortable. Obviously, dealing with the subject of sexual assault and predatory men, it should be uncomfortable because of the nature of the subject, but Fennell has a wicked sense of when to twist her audience into knots. She doesn’t let anyone off the hook easily and that includes her heroine and those close to her. Nobody looks clean here. It makes for a truly surprising experience. When I say that Promising Young Woman makes some bold choices, it really makes some bold choices. There were points I was sighing heavily and others where I was stunned silent. It brought to mind No Country for Old Men. The commitment that Fennell has to her excoriating artistic vision is startlingly provocative and effective.

One early scene stood out to me and let me know that Promising Young Woman was going to have more on its mind than bloodshed. Cassandra is walking home from a night out in her same soiled clothing and eating a sloppy hotdog with ketchup running down her body. A group of construction workers watch her and begin yelling from across the street, harassing her with unwanted sexual advances while they yuk it up. Cassandra stops, turns her head, and simply stares them down. She doesn’t glare at them or shout at them; all she does is look in silence. The workers get quiet very fast and then after several seconds they become angry and defensive, uncomfortable from her attention, and they walk away insulting her. Didn’t they want her attention? Weren’t they boasting? By merely drawing her focus onto these men and making them mildly reflective of their behavior they became uncomfortable and elected to leave. This scene only plays out for like twenty seconds and yet it serves as a symbol for what Fennell has planned with the rest of her thriller. She is going to take what you want and make you re-examine it with a fresh perspective that might just make you rather uneasy and disgusted with yourself.

The first half of the movie establishes a routine that explains what Cassandra has been doing since dropping out of med school. She’s never been able to move on from the trauma of her past and so she seeks out new potential perpetrators to inflict pain upon or scare straight through tests. By the second incident, we adjust to her formula and lie in wait for Cassandra to strike back. She’s the smartest person in the room and it’s deliciously enjoyable to watch her enact her plans. This avenging angel routine runs into a roadblock when she reunites with a friend from med school, Ryan (Bo Burnham), a pediatric surgeon. They share a meet cute that involves Ryan drinking a coffee that Cassandra has spit into as a declarative sign of his interest (trust me, I’m making it sound far creepier than it plays onscreen). They go on several dates and have a palpable romantic chemistry together. This is aided by Fennell’s excellent dialogue, which can be cutting when it needs to and also supremely charming when it wants to be. It’s a peculiar rom-com but on its own terms, including unashamedly reclaiming a forgettable Paris Hilton pop song with full sincerity. At this point, Promising Young Woman is sizing up a choice between following vengeance and following romance. It’s a formulaic fork in the road and Fennell completely understands this, as she’s also testing the audience how much they are willing to sacrifice to see Cassandra check off her guilty names. This storyline doesn’t feel like a cheap alternative either. I liked Ryan and Cassandra together. However, Fennell stays true to her poison-tipped plans and this storyline becomes another chapter in her larger thesis on the condemnation of “boys will be boys” rationalization.

There is another scene worthy of being hailed because it goes against your and the character’s expectations (some spoilers). Cassandra tracks down the lawyer responsible for defending the university and discrediting her friend once she came forward with her rape accusation. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is this man and he’s quite antsy because he has been waiting for months for a visitor he anticipated would inevitably arrive. He’s been let go from his firm after having what they refer to as a “psychotic break” and what he refers to as a crisis of conscience. He’s made a career over sliming victims’ reputations, a fact he confesses has been made infinitely easier by modern technology. “We used to have to go digging through the trash,” he says, “But now all we need is one picture on Facebook of the girl at a party and you’ve got jury doubt.” Cassandra is taken aback by how eager this man is, not for absolution which he believes he will never earn, but to be punished. It’s not like a weird fetish but a genuine accounting of what he feels he deserves. It’s a short scene but it challenges Cassandra and the audience about the potential of redemption and forgiveness. This is what she wants after all, people to account for their part in the injustice that happened to her friend and to make amends for their guilt.

Mulligan is ferocious and on another level with this performance. She’s listed as a producer so I assume she had a personal connection with the material because she feels so aligned with the character that she can make you shudder. Mulligan has been an enchanting and empathetic actress since her breakout in 2009’s An Education, the source of her lone Oscar nomination. I’ve never seen her quite like this before. She has a natural sad-eyed expression, which made her perfect for Daisy Buchannan in the new Great Gatsby. With this role, she’s taken those natural sad-cute instincts and carved them out and replaced it with bile. Mulligan gets to play multiple false versions of Cassandra as she adopts disguises and personas to dupe her prey. This also makes the viewer subconsciously question which version they see is the real Cassandra. Is it a distortion upon a distortion? How well can we ever get to know this woman? I think Mulligan is most deserving of her second Academy Award nomination for this bracing, incendiary turn.

This is Fennell’s directorial debut and it will not be her last time in the director’s chair. Her command of pace and visuals can be sneaky good, framing figures to squeeze in potent symbolism as well as ratchet up tension and discomfort. The visuals can also be comedic poetry, like the opening images of men in khakis gyrating and thrusting on a dance floor. She also demonstrates supreme restraint where needed. The sexual assaults of past and present are never visualized but they are not mitigated either. She also has a tremendous ear for music. This soundtrack is sensational from the club bangers to the old timey country ditties. It feels as exceptionally selected as any Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino movie soundtrack. The score by Anthony Willis is deeply emotive with its use of strings and cello. They deliver a cello cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and it’s as if the filmmakers made this choice specifically for me.

If there is one slight downside, I’d have to say many of the supporting characters are under developed. There are plenty of famous faces in this enterprise, like Adam Brody, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but most of them are deposed for a scene and then vanish. It starts to feel like a series of guest appearances from actors as they’re passing through town. Alison Brie (Happiest Season) has a longer and slightly more nuanced part as a former college friend who betrayed Cassandra when she needed her most. This character, along with Birtton’s school dean, illustrate that just because you happen to be a woman does not automatically mean you will be a helpful ally. I view it less as a snide “girls can be bad too” equivalency and more an indication just how insidious and prevalent rape culture can be and condition people into gross excuse-making complacency. I will say that it was nice to have Clancy Brown play a normal dad role and he was sweet too.

Beware, men of the world, the next time you size up a pretty young thing who looks meek and helpless. Promising Young Woman wears the skin of an exploitation movie but it’s so much more. Fennell has created a tart, twisted, and powerful film that is coursing with righteous fury. It’s a female revenge vehicle but with far, far more ambition than simply providing tingles to baser instincts. The artistry here is special and transforms the iconography of exploitation movies into a contemplative and jolting experience. Promising Young Woman is a definite conversation-starter and the first thing you might say upon its conclusion is a breathless exclamation of, “Wow.”

Nate’s Grade: A-

Bombshell (2019)

More an expose on toxic work environments than anything overtly political, Bombshell is an effective true-life drama about the many pitfalls, humiliations, traps, harassment, and compromises that women face in the workforce. We follow the downfall of news magnate Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), the imposing man who built the Fox News empire and who also bullied his employees and solicited sexual favors from the many women who were on his payroll. Margot Robbie plays an invented character meant to provide that entry point into Ailes the creep in creepy action. She’ll be harassed and pressured for sex by a man described as “Jabba the Hut,” and Robbie is terrific in her big dramatic moments portraying what the pressure and shame does for her ambitious anchor. The other two main characters wrestle with how far to go in a corporate culture of keeping secrets from very powerful, very dirty old men. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is consulting lawyers for a personal harassment lawsuit against Ailes the person, not Fox News, but she needs other women to come forward. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is struggling with the scrutiny she has endured after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump turns his small Twitter thumbs against her. The Fox bigwigs won’t go on record to defend her, and their journalists, because they need Trump to drive ratings. The movie uses several Big Short-style narrative tricks to help tell its sordid tale, including swapping narration and fourth-wall breaks; a run through of hearing from Ailes’ past victims in their own words is striking, especially a woman who says she was only 16 at the time. Part of the fun are the many many cameos and just watching actors portray different Fox News personalities (Richard Kind as Rudy Guiliani!). The makeup is also phenomenal and Theron looks unrecognizable as Kelly. The film itself doesn’t feel like it’s telling you anything you already don’t know about the subject; people will compromise their morals for personal gain, power leads to exploitation, women are unfairly treated, and it’s easier to fall in line than stand up to power. There’s still a thrill of watching the downfall of a serial abuser, and the acting is strong throughout, but Bombshell can’t shake the feeling of being a slicker, more star-studded TV movie version of recent history. Even with the urgency of the topic, it feels light, and not because of its use of incredulous humor. I could have used more behind-the-scenes details, and maybe that’s where Showtime’s miniseries The Loudest Voice comes in, retelling the same story with Russell Crowe as Ailes. It’s a solid movie on a very pertinent subject and worth seeing but it also makes me wish for a harder-hitting, more widely sourced expose on this very bad man who felt forever protected by the status quo of power.

Nate’s Grade: B

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Billed as a Trump-era satire, and given the fact that the premise involves a middle-aged, working class Mexican immigrant going head-to-head with a rich, bilious, selfish real estate tycoon who proudly skirts the law, you’d be expecting fireworks. That’s quite a culture clash and writer Mike White (School of Rock) serves up the making of a delicious and squirm-inducing evening as the titular Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a holistic massage therapist, is marooned at the house of a rich client (Connie Britton). They’re hosting a very famous, very influential business tycoon (John Lithgow), and his demeanor and perspective couldn’t be more opposite from Beatriz. As the night wears on, and the wine is consumed, Beatriz confronts these privileged and oblivious people. The most frustrating part about Beatriz at Dinner is that all the pieces are there for a terrific movie but White’s script goes slack in the second half. The film never really escalates the drama and you keep waiting for more confrontations. I think perhaps I wanted the stage play version of this story, a dialogue-driven debate between two combative characters buoyed by a sense of righteous indignation. Hayek is quite good and reminds you what kind of actress she has at her disposal. Her wounded expressions say volumes. The other problem is that this 85-minute movie ends on a note of baffling nihilism that left me cold. It’s like White threw up his hands and declared that as long as there are powerful men in the world like Trump, with an oversized influence the common man cannot compete with, then why bother trying to heal the world and make it a better place? It’s an abrupt ending and one that doesn’t feel in keeping with the character. I wish someone would take this story and adapt it for the stage and give it the treatment it deserved before White sacrificed all for his fatalistic message about the futility of trying in the Trump era.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

1800It’s the end of the world as we know it and I oddly felt fine… which is not a good sign for your apocalyptic movie. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a peculiar thing, all right. It takes place in the last three weeks of the human race. And lest you think the film wimps out on the promise of its title, think again. I was bemused for the first forty minutes, where writer/director Lorene Scafaria indulges in a series of one-scene vignettes of how humanity comes to terms with the certainty of annihilation. There’s an adult party where people joyfully try heroin, a hit man-for-hire service to bring back some of the mystery of death, and a restaurant where all the workers are spaced out on Ecstasy. I found each of these moments to be funny and a well though-out extension of the premise. But then the film’s diversions give way to the rom-com of our main characters, played by Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as your standard manic pixie girl. And the more time I spent with them the more I found myself not getting engaged. My emotional empathy was kept to a minimum; they’re nice people and all but I didn’t find them that interesting. The resulting movie feels like one of the weakest avenues given the premise. I credit Scafaria for not wimping out in the end, but as these characters faced oblivion together, I felt little emotional stirrings in my chest.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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