Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Encanto, or: Don’t Rat Me Out

*Spoilers follow*

I don’t know quite how it happened except that Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to be determined to earn EGOT status at the moment…but our Oscars theme for the month has basically become Lin-Manuel Miranda fest. With the exception of Licorice Pizza, all of our films have ended up involving him in some capacity, though he’s still missing the Oscar for the EGOT. Hopefully that just means he’ll be involved with significantly more film productions then.

The Film:

Encanto

Directors:

Jared Bush & Byron Howard

The Premise:

When the magical Madrigal family’s home and powers are threatened, teenage Mirabel sets out to solve the problem.

The Ramble:

As it turns out, miraculously acquiring special powers and an enchanted, sentient house isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…especially when those come along with intense familial pressure.

The central Madrigal family’s origin story is pretty dark, as it involves the murder of matriarch Abuela Alma’s husband shortly after the birth of their triplets. Alone and a refugee, Abuela is granted a miracle when the spirit of her husband, uh, becomes a candle, more or less. The candle represents the family’s magic, and causes a new home to spring from nowhere as a safe haven. What’s more, each member of the family is born with a unique gift, from healing with cooking to influencing the weather and shapeshifting.

Unfortunately, there are two members of the family who aren’t living up to the legacy: Mirabel, who didn’t receive a special gift, and Bruno (who, famously, we don’t talk about).

To make up for her perceived inability to contribute to the family, Mirabel overcompensates, attempting to solve everyone’s problems and make things better for all. Of course, the more she tries to impress, the more Mirabel falls short. This is particularly true on the evening of a big celebration to mark youngest Madrigal Antonio’s new gift (the classic & enviable ability to talk to animals). Having visions of the family home cracking and falling apart, Mirabel disrupts the party with all of this doom and gloom.

Sensing that (like Bruno) there are things troubling the Madrigal family that they’re not discussing, Mirabel is determined to surface the truth and heal what is broken…which may be difficult with her super strong but anxious sister Luisa and seemingly perfect sister Isabela. Accompanied by some memorable musical numbers, Mirabel eventually learns that fortune-telling Bruno had an ominous prophecy before suddenly disappearing. When she realizes that the prophecy seems to predict that Mirabel will bring about the family’s doom, will there still be a place for her as a Madrigal?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Sometimes the plot is stretched a bit thin, but the fun songs, refreshing message, and beautiful animation are enough to keep me entertained. The dancing donkeys during Luisa’s excellent song “Surface Pressure” are by far my favorite.

Possibly because I watched my share of (dysfunctional) Disney romances as a child, it always feels extremely welcome and fairly radical for the studio to release films that have almost no romantic love story. It’s about damn time, honestly. The emphasis is entirely on Mirabel’s growth as a character and the evolution of her family’s perspectives on the nature of their miracle. I really appreciate the way the film tackles heavy themes like healing from intergenerational trauma, the circumstances in which a gift can become a curse, and the toxic nature of perfectionism. It’s quite sweet and very needed that Mirabel’s gift is (spoiler/not really a spoiler) her empathy and curiosity in problem-solving.

Possibly my main criticism here is that some of the themes are wrapped up neatly rather than adequately explored. Part of me wanted an even more radical message from Disney in which the Madrigals lost their powers. It’s a little odd how the family is almost worshipped by the others in the village, and it seems like the power dynamic could very easily take a dark turn. People of the village, at least draft up some kind of constitutional framework.

And, though Abuela certainly is carrying a lot of grief and trauma as a widowed refugee, she does get something of a free pass to carry out some really toxic behavior. Her attitude to the family’s legacy results in her own son living inside the walls of the house for YEARS because he’s tired of hurting and disappointing the family with his gift. Which, by the way, he doesn’t control. Abuela also shames Mirabel when her granddaughter is 5 years old because she doesn’t receive a gift…which, again, is out of her control. The ways in which family compromise means Mirabel has to overlook a lot of toxic patterns does feel realistic, but maybe not the most satisfying conclusion for a children’s movie.

Those songs are going to be stuck in my head until the end of time, though.

Would my blog wife carry this one’s heavy burdens or decide not to ever talk about it? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Summer of Soul, or: Are You Ready?

Unintentionally, my picks this month have featured a subtheme of music and its power in political activism. They also connect Lin-Manuel Miranda and members of The Roots, as Lin-Manuel and his father are interviewed here (and Black Thought had a brief cameo in tick, tick…BOOM!). This week, however, our story isn’t inspired by a true story…it is a true story. Time for a documentary, the ideal film to bring up at cocktail parties and book clubs.

The Film:

Summer of Soul

Director:

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

The Premise:

This documentary tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a huge celebration of Black music and identity that was largely erased from history.

The Ramble:

When the Harlem Cultural Festival was held during the summer of 1969, it was the event for the Black community of New York City. A celebration of Black music and culture at a time when the Civil Rights movement was at a crossroads, the event was ultimately overshadowed by Woodstock. Largely forgotten until the making of this documentary, archival footage and contemporary interviews recreate the festival and underscore its significance.

Starting off with an incredible lineup from Stevie Wonder to Mavis Staples, the 5th Dimension to Nina Simone, the festival wasn’t only an opportunity to hear a young Gladys Knight’s soulful sounds (though how amazing, right?). The massive gathering also represented an opportunity for the Black community of Harlem to come together and heal in light of trauma related to the Vietnam War and political assassinations of the decade, include the fairly recent murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the wake of grief, it was a time when the Civil Rights movement seemed to be splintering, and the fundamental split between violence and non-violence only deepened. There was a sense that revolution was coming, and a reevaluation of Blackness was on the horizon. Some speculated that the ultimate purpose of the festival was to ease tensions and prevent a riot.

Tony Lawrence was the organizer and host of the festival, described as a hustler and schmoozer in the best sense. Through his influence, some of the biggest acts of the time performed at the festival, and the mayor of NYC at the time, John Lindsay, made an appearance.

In addition to the performances, there are some excellent interviews, including from artists and attendees. The commentary from the Fifth Dimension is particularly moving, as Marilyn McCoo explains it was meaningful for the group to perform as their music was often not considered “Black enough.” Mavis Staples’ perspective on her father’s Blues stylings and her own due with her hero Mahalia Jackson at the festival make for fascinating stories as well.

The documentary is great about interweaving cultural, artistic, and historical elements together to enhance our understanding of the festival. The crossover between Latin and African music, and Afro-Caribbean influences get attention and analysis. At the same time, we dive into perspectives on the moon landing, the heroin epidemic, and struggles for liberation in African nations at the time.

Because the festival was largely forgotten until this documentary was made, the film is both an artistic work and act of historical and cultural preservation.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Hmmmm, I’ve never felt more like I’ve written a book report on the blog than with this review. I find it much more difficult to review a documentary than other films, especially one about a time in history where I have a significant number of gaps in knowledge. There were a lot of performers I didn’t recognize at all, not aided by the fact that many have fallen into relative obscurity. Truthfully, I’m not into religion in the least, but I do love the gospel sound, and I did appreciate the songs in that vein.

What’s most impressive to me about this film is that it does a great deal to recreate the experience of being there at the festival in real time. Beyond that, it also contextualizes things so we can appreciate not only what the festival meant at the time, but the broader significance it holds. One criticism to this approach is that we really just skim the surface on certain themes and events, as the film runs slightly under 2 hours.

Would my blog wife squeeze her way to the front row or be okay with this one getting rained out? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Licorice Pizza, or: Slow Your Roll (Downhill)

Based on the strength of the trailer alone, I was excited for this week’s film; admittedly, it’s difficult to go wrong with a well-timed David Bowie song. Considering our picture is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and features Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) in their first starring roles, it would seem destined for classic status.

To be upfront, this is my second viewing, as I was looking forward to this so much that I watched in theaters and risked contracting Covid for it (though the risk was relatively low at the time, and theaters have been pretty [depressingly] empty of late). Was it worth all of that trouble, or at least the trouble of sitting at home in loungewear for another showing?

The Film:

Licorice Pizza

Director:

Paul Thomas Anderson

The Premise:

While experiencing the 1970s in the Valley, a former child actor hustles and schemes while falling for a stubborn woman in her mid-20s.

The Ramble:

Alana Kane is a Grump, and she’s not having any nonsense from the greasy, unkempt teenagers roaming the halls on picture day. Working for a local photography studio that specializes in school pictures, 25-year-old Alana is extremely bored with her job, which almost entirely involves offering a mirror and comb to the teens waiting in line for a picture.

Included on the list of people Alana is very uninterested in speaking with is Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old actor and businessman who seems to be on a mission to charm the world. Impulsively asking Alana to meet him for dinner, Gary is astonished when the young woman actually shows up that evening. Unlike most other teenagers, Gary is driven, seemingly always on the lookout for his next opportunity. Along with his acting career, Gary manages a PR company, designing ad campaigns for local businesses.

Alana, eager to escape the Valley, feels stuck in a rut, destined to stay in the same dead-end job for the rest of her life. Gary senses an opportunity for both of them when he’s in need of a chaperone for a press tour as he’s underage (ay). Alana is attracted to Gary’s costar, Lance, and eventually invites him home to meet her family. Unfortunately, Lance blows his chances when he proclaims he’s an atheist in front of Alana’s observant Jewish father. (This does lead to probably my favorite exchange of the film, in which Alana’s sister advises her “You’ve got to stop fighting with everyone all the time,” and receives the realistic sibling response, “Oh, fuck OFF, Danielle!”)

Meanwhile, Gary is up to his next scheme as his charm as a child actor seems to have worn off. Since it’s 1970s Los Angeles, waterbeds are set to be all the rage. One step ahead of the trend, Gary starts up a waterbed business, eventually recruiting Alana to help with sales. This is only briefly disrupted when Gary is wrongfully arrested for murder after wearing the same shirt as the suspect.

Hijinks ensue as Alana attempts to land a breakthrough acting gig only to fall from a motorcycle in a pointless stunt gone awry, and the waterbed company makes a sale to Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend during the oil crisis. This leads to the most dramatically tense scene reversing a truck down a hill I’ve seen on film.

What is a moment of victory for Gary is a sort of turning point for Alana, who recognizes how little she has done with her life so far. Joining the political campaign for an idealistic young councilman, Alana seems poised to re-learn an essential lesson of this film: there’s always an ulterior motive involved.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Oh, wow. I sort of liked this the first watch through, and didn’t particularly appreciate it this time around. I had a lot less patience for the rambling, unfocused plot full of asides, and the (over)commitment to ambience & niche references. The title itself (which I had to look up as it’s never explained in the film) is another name for an LP and an homage to a ’70s-era record store in Southern California. To me, this goes well past the line from knowing nudge to extremely specific/condescending insider reference.

One of the challenges of this film is the rather vague character interactions to go along with the vague plot. There is frequent casual sexual harassment and racism, which is sort of presented as factual information rather than making commentary either way. Some of these elements (like the widely discussed scenes related to a Japanese restaurant and their anti-Asian racism) take on a supposedly comedic edge that just falls horrendously flat.

Based on the interactions between Gary and Alana as well, I don’t know if I’m supposed to like them, root for them as a couple, or feel the ever-present discomfort of knowing an adult woman is dating a teenager. The film consistently reminds us of this reality as its very setup relies on the strangeness of the Alana/Gary dynamic. Alana is an interesting character whose annoyance I appreciate, but it does indeed strike me as odd that she hangs around with teenage boys during her free time.

This brings me to Gary, who still in many ways seems the sketchier one in all of this (I KNOW). On first viewing, I was willing to give PSH’s son the benefit of the doubt with his earnest face and floppy ’70s hair. (And still no shade at all on the acting from either of our leads, who are both excellent.) However, Gary seems so much more manipulative upon closer examination, fully committed to getting the things he wants without respect for boundaries or at times integrity. This seems to be a reflection of Hollywood culture, then and now, though again presented confusingly free of commentary.

The focus is primarily on recreating a very specific youthful 1970s feel in the Valley…failing to make the specific seem universal in the process. It does succeed aesthetically, though I am baffled by the Oscar nominations (but also not because Hollywood). Who knows if PTA even gives a fuck if you like this or not, honestly.

Would my blog wife run around town with this one or wait until it’s…hmmm…legally an adult? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

tick, tick…BOOM!, or: Friendly Neighborhood Sondheim-Man

*Spoilers follow*

Full disclosure: I love a musical but have a love/hate relationship with the Theatre. I have a very surface-level musical theatre knowledge, and I’m extremely selective about which shows I’ll buy tickets for…largely because they’re so fucking expensive. Some of my favorite memories have been of going to the theater; by that same token, some of the times I’ve been most annoyed and resentful have been at the theater.

In light of this, it may be unwise to watch a 2-hour semi-autobiographical musical that I know very little about. Well, here on the Collab we’re nothing if not rebels living on the fringes of society and taking astonishing risks.

The Film:

tick, tick…BOOM!

Director:

Lin-Manuel Miranda

The Premise:

An adaptation of the Off-Broadway musical sees Jonathan Larson struggling to finally finish the show he’s been working on for 8 years before turning 30.

The Ramble:

On the verge of turning 30, musical theatre playwright Jonathan Larson is convinced he has only a few more days to seize long-desired Broadway success before he’s officially Old. Unfortunately, the only thing missing from Superbia, the dystopian rock musical he’s been working on for 8 years, is a second-act song. And while Jonathan has no problem whatsoever writing songs on any number of unlikely topics, he seems unable to finally write the missing song, which will make or break the entire production.

As Jonathan struggles to prepare his musical for a workshop, his hopes are high that he will get an offer to produce the show and stay on track to achieve the success of his idol Stephen Sondheim (whose first Broadway show was staged when he was just 27).

Predictably, as Jonathan focuses his energy entirely on the musical, he ignores the changes happening in the lives of those closest to him. Roommate and gay bff Michael has finally given up on his acting career, instead pursuing a well-paid advertising job and a luxury apartment. Long-term dancer girlfriend Susan abruptly decides to accept a teaching job in the Berkshires, hoping Jonathan will choose to move with her. Meanwhile, the AIDS crisis is hitting close to home as one of Jonathan’s diner coworkers contends with his HIV+ status.

While the workshop quickly approaches, Jonathan’s producer Ira has some hard truths: a) the show absolutely needs the completed second-act song, and b) Jonathan can’t afford the musicians he demands unless he finances them himself. Desperate for money, Jonathan accepts a gig Michael offers as part of an advertising focus group.

Unable to hide his disdain for the corporate world, Jonathan fails to take the focus group seriously, making his bff look bad. All of this leads to a major fight between the two friends, in which Michael points out the massive amount of privilege Jonathan has to live his life without shame as a straight man. At the same time, Jonathan is doing everything he can to avoid having a conversation with Susan about their future.

Ready or not, the day of the workshop inevitably arrives. Will Jonathan manage to write the musical’s hit song before the show starts…without burning all of his bridges?

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I enjoyed this film so much more than I expected. Further disclosures from above: I’ve only seen the film adaptation of Rent (not a stage production), and I didn’t particularly enjoy it (pretty sure theatre people will back me up on this). Beyond that, I’m not usually keen on biographical films, as it can be difficult to get the balance right without turning the subject into a god-like figure. AND I’ve been burned by quite a few musical films disappointing me of late (with the exceptions of West Side Story and Encanto).

This is great, though, and avoids the problems that concerned me. Lin-Manuel Miranda deserves a lot of credit for the directorial choices here, and the film succeeds both as a movie and in capturing the energy & approaches of a stage production. There’s not actually much that happens in terms of plot, but the themes focused on the creative process, relationships, and the feeling of running out of time do keep things moving. It doesn’t hurt at all that the catchy and heartfelt songs provide a solid foundation (all of which are penned by Larson), and the balance of humor and tragedy is spot-on as it is in the best shows.

Beyond the ups and downs of creating, Jonathan’s friendship with Michael is the heart of the story, and we’ll always appreciate that approach on the Collab. Both Andrew Garfield (who I admittedly know nothing about beyond Spider-Man) and Robin de Jesús are perfectly cast and have fantastic chemistry in their scenes. We get some high quality cameos as well, with Tariq Trotter/Black Thought’s performance a particular standout.

I will say Jonathan’s anxiety about turning 30 to the point that he imagines his life is over does get tiresome. Thankfully, he gets called out on this, as one of the film’s messages is about what a privilege it is to make it to 30 (with some irony given Larson’s short life).

A couple of issues: first, I find Susan a boring character who exists onscreen primarily to nag Jonathan. I’m honestly so relieved that she chose herself and career over staying with Jonathan, as he was awful to her. It would have been nice for her to feel more like a real character.

Additionally, the film has the challenge of deciding how closely to connect Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical with his real life, and it doesn’t always do this well. It’s impossible not to address Larson’s young death before seeing the success of Rent, particularly since that’s probably 75% of what I’d heard about the film before watching it. However, the film choosing to bring this up in the very beginning and the very end is odd, making this element feel tacked-on. What’s more, this takes away some of the focus from the themes around HIV and AIDS.

Overall, I’m really impressed and surprised by how good this was; that’s what I get for doubting Lin-Manuel. I’d say this is my favorite of the Oscar nominees so far, and it wasn’t even up for Best Picture!

Would my blog wife accompany this one on piano or skip its big premiere altogether? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Power of the Dog, or: Hiding Secrets & Secret Hides

*Spoilers follow*

For better or worse, most of the content we consume for the Blog Collab isn’t exactly an award contender. Let this month be the exception, then, as we catch up on some of the Oscar nominees we missed out on (which is most of them). And not to worry–I won’t be the 10 millionth person on the internet to weigh in on the slap.

The Film:

The Power of the Dog

Director:

Jane Campion

The Premise:

A controlling cattle rancher clashes with his sister-in-law and her son as everyone hides secrets from everyone else on a remote ranch.

The Ramble:

If there’s anything driving the economy of 1920s Montana, it’s cattle. Cattle and secrets. No one exemplifies this more than rugged, hypermasculine rancher Phil Burbank, as hot-tempered as his brother George is calm and compassionate. Phil seems to find joy only in belittling others (constantly calling George “fatso”) and fondly remembering his mentor Bronco Henry, no doubt an equally delightful legend of the West.

While driving cattle through the harsh Montana landscape, the Burbanks and their team stop at an inn owned and operated by widow Rose and her son Peter. Phil immediately makes an impression by mocking the sensitive Peter, an aspiring doctor, while George attempts to make amends. It’s not long before George and Rose are married, to Phil’s dismay.

As Peter goes away to medical school, Phil turns his full attention to tormenting Rose, already rather on edge. Phil undermines and embarrasses her at every turn, while easily earning points even in polite society based on his reputation for being an unrelenting asshole.

When Peter returns for the summer, he once again becomes a target of Phil’s scorn ostensibly for his tenderness. However, it’s when Phil has a change of heart that his attention acquires a troubling tone. Taking Peter under his wing, Phil teaches his new student to ride a horse and begins braiding a lasso, promising to show Peter how to use it before the season ends. And color the whole world surprised when it’s revealed that Phil has been guarding a secret for many years related to the nature of his relationship with Bronco Henry.

As Rose observes Phil’s influence on Peter, she despairs more and more, reflected in the secret liquor stashes she has throughout the house. The hostility between Rose and Phil reaches its peak when she trades cattle hides for a pair of gloves–hides that Phil considers his property.

In the midst of all this, Peter seems to be heading towards a rather dramatic choice between his mother and Phil–one that will involve more sexually tense rope braiding than expected.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

There’s nothing wrong with this film, and I do support Jane Campion getting the Best Director Oscar for this–despite that problematic comment about the Williams sisters in her Critics’ Choice Awards acceptance speech (which is not ok).

In thinking about the film itself, it’s not bad by any means, though its intentional pacing becomes plodding at times. This is a very classic Hollywood film, and it makes sense to me that it had so much Oscar buzz. It feels we’re about halfway through the film before much happens beyond setup, and it’s so subtle in places that I had to rewind to catch the intention behind certain lines of dialogue. I support the messaging on toxic masculinity so much, though it would have been nice for Kirsten Dunst to have something more interesting to do.

Benedict Cumberbatch deservedly gets a lot of credit for his performance in this film, and I can’t argue with that. He manages to pull off truly terrifying and charismatic without becoming cartoonishly evil. The cinematography is gorgeous too, though the film was actually shot in New Zealand, not Montana.

On the Collab, 75% (conservatively) of what we do is watch weird films, and this one honestly lacks some of the gutsy innovation that our favorite picks tend to share. I believe this is the 5th Best Picture nominee I’ve watched for the 2022 awards season, and I haven’t really been enthralled by any of them. I’m becoming a broken record here, but my favorite film release of 2022 by far was Titane, which is decidedly not the kind of film that the Academy goes for.

I’ll probably remember this one primarily for its inventive approach to murder.

Would my blog wife help this one round up some cattle or annoy it to death with her banjo strumming? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Sound of Metal, or: Drumming up Support

We’ve really gone the full gamut of human emotion this month: from plucky determination to existential dread to pure cynicism. Luckily, we’re ending the month on a high note with a film that’s maybe not a barrel of laughs, though it does promise not to be entirely bleak. And, honestly, it checks off the Riz Ahmed requirement that’s an automatic add to the queue for…almost everyone, I imagine?

The Film:

Sound of Metal

The Premise:

Losing his hearing, a heavy-metal drummer grapples with the possibility that his future may unfold much differently from the one he anticipated.

The Ramble:

The drummer in a heavy-metal band fronted by his girlfriend Lou, Ruben may not be rich, but he’s carved out a happy life for himself. Following some success, the band Blackgammon is touring and even signing a record deal. Now sober for 4 years, Ruben feels loved and accepted for the first time in his life, offering support in return to former self-harming Lou.

Ruben, a young man with bleached hair and a chest covered in tattoos, plays the drums onstage while shirtless.

Though Ruben is having trouble hearing the words Lou sings during their gigs, he’s quick to shrug this off. I mean, you don’t listen to metal for the clear enunciation of vowel sounds. However, as Ruben intermittently loses his hearing on and off the stage, he can no longer ignore the problem. After seeing a doctor in secret, Ruben learns that his hearing has deteriorated so much that he misses 70 to 80% of spoken words. The doctor’s advice to avoid further damage to Ruben’s hearing? Eliminate exposure to loud noise. Yeah, ain’t gonna happen.

Ruben continues to live his life as if nothing has changed, becoming laser focused on the possibility of hearing implants, which cost an unspeakably large sum and are not covered by health insurance. However, when Ruben can’t hear at all during a gig, he can no longer hide from Lou that his hearing is nearly gone.

In a rainy diner, Lou, a woman with long dark blonde hair, talks on the phone while sitting next to Ruben, who looks annoyed.

Upon learning of Ruben’s condition, Lou immediately calls his sponsor. On his recommendation, they find a rehab center for the deaf and hard of hearing, managed by Joe, a recovering alcoholic who is deaf. To stay at the center, Ruben must go it alone without Lou or even any contact with her. Afraid of losing the love of his life and accepting a new reality, Ruben resists…until Lou buys a plane ticket to stay with her father in Paris, leaving Ruben with no other option but to give it a go.

As Ruben navigates his new existence, the goal fueling him is to fix his hearing, reunite with Lou, and return to his life before hearing loss. He’s given one job at the center: to learn how to be deaf. Despite his reluctance to embrace life at the center, Ruben begins to bond with the members of the community, including the children he begins teaching to play drums. But Joe still feels Ruben is holding onto a need to “fix” his perceived disability and is unable to sit and appreciate silence.

Sitting around a table sharing food, Ruben communicates animatedly using ASL with those around him.

Eventually, Ruben is given the choice to stay at the rehab center or opt for implants that may restore his hearing and help him go back to the life he had before. But if Ruben had seen even one Bill & Ted movie or had one stoned conversation about killing baby Hitler, he would have realized the impossibility of ever going back.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I appreciate a lot about this film. The tone is subtle but effective; we certainly know Ruben has a difficult journey ahead, but we never get the feeling that all hope is lost. I can’t personally address the portrayal of the deaf community, but there has been overall a positive reaction to its depiction here. I enjoy the levels at play as well; the story works as a meaningful reflection on navigating circumstances beyond your control and adapting with some measure of grace to new ways of living and experiencing the world. A message I can appreciate if not apply to my own life.

What held me back slightly in my rating was the lack of narrative structure. Ruben’s struggle to accept his life as it is–all of the torment and back-and-forth agony–feels realistic, but it’s very frustrating at times. You most likely have some idea of how the film ends based on its tone and approach (along with all of the reviews about this as an uplifting story), so there are stages where it’s difficult not to will Ruben to get his shit together faster. However, this is also an approach that makes the last scenes feel earned and satisfactory. What can I say? Always a critic.

The performances are great (Riz Ahmed in particular carries this film), and I was happy to see the editing and sound crew receive Oscar wins for their work. Though I found the performances compelling, I didn’t always feel the supporting characters seemed real. Almost every character seems to exist to support Ruben on his journey, which is…nice? But at times took me out of the story.

Would my blog wife embrace this one with open arms or smash it in a rage like it’s fancy sound equipment? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Promising Young Woman, or: You Know That You’re Toxic

CW: sexual assault

Phew, this month has been a solid reminder that films getting award nominations or buzz aren’t here to play. It’s been a rewarding but intense month on the Collab, and this week is no exception. Our pick this week aligns so well with some of the themes we most enjoy here and that we’ve been looking forward to reviewing for months. Will we love what this one does…even if it’s toxic?

The Film:

Promising Young Woman

The Premise:

Years after her best friend’s assault at a party, a medical school dropout seeks vengeance against the people and systems that failed her.

The Ramble:

It’s tough being a business bro these days, isn’t it? You can’t schmooze your clients at the strip club or even go to the men only golf club for meetings with all of those pesky women coworkers around. Not like the good ol’ days.

As they bemoan their plight, a group of aforementioned bros notice a woman so drunk she can barely remain conscious where she sits. While a couple of the guys joke about taking advantage of the woman’s state, ahem, “nice guy” Jerry approaches under the guise of ensuring she makes it home safely. Because the woman has lost her phone, she can’t use a rideshare app, and Jerry gallantly offers to share an Uber-like but not Uber ride home. Of course, the ride ends up at Jerry’s apartment, where he invites the woman up for a drink. Though she is on the brink of passing out and repeatedly asks what Jerry is doing, he is determined to take advantage of the situation…until the woman lets him know very clearly that she is perfectly sober.

In a nightclub featuring red furniture, a man sits next to Cassie, a blonde woman who appears to be very intoxicated.

The woman in this situation is Cassie, a former medical school student who acts out this saga nearly every night–most memorably with a coked-out novelist who insists that he’s such a nice guy. Why? Because during a party that many of the med school cohort attended, Cassie’s best friend Nina was raped, disbelieved, and dropped out of school. The events destroyed the futures of two promising young women, as Cassie dropped out soon after to care for her traumatized friend, who ultimately killed herself.

By day, Cassie lives a rather bleak life, to the point that she forgets her own 30th birthday. Living at home with her parents and working in a coffee shop, her parents and boss Gail worry that Cassie has no friends and no interests…beyond keeping color-coded tally of her evening activities in a notebook under her bed.

In a pink and blue pastel coffee shop called Make Me Coffee, Cassie and her supervisor, a Black woman with long curly hair, serve a customer.

Out of the blue, Ryan, a guy from Cassie’s med school class, stops in at the coffee shop and recognizes his former classmate. Now a doctor, Ryan clumsily admits that he had a crush on Cassie during school and always wondered why she dropped out. Though Cassie is skeptical, she eventually agrees to a lunch date with Ryan. As a bonus, Cassie learns about the exploits of her former classmates, including a former friend’s recent delivery of twins, and Nina’s rapist, Al, preparing for his upcoming wedding.

Cassie, wearing a white dress covered in roses, sits in a diner booth across from Ryan, a man wearing glasses and a plaid shirt.

Though Cassie finds Ryan’s awkward earnestness sweet, their relationship moves with stops and starts as she navigates giving a functional relationship a go. However, the surprisingly sweet rom-com style romance (including the mandatory karaoke-inspired scene) takes a definite backseat to Cassie’s schemes. With more information about her former classmates, she hones in on those who failed Nina the most: former friend Madison who didn’t believe Nina’s story, the dean who dismissed Nina’s claims, the lawyer who pressured Nina to drop her case, and, of course, Al.

Cassie has some pretty twisted schemes up her sleeve for those who have wronged Nina, including setting Madison up to wake up in a hotel room with a strange man and no memory of what’s happened, as well as making Dean Blackwell believe her daughter is alone at a wild frat party. Using the same logic that condemned Nina, Cassie’s vengeance underscores the dangers of dismissing victims’ accounts while giving the benefit of the doubt to abusers.

Cassie empties the last of a bottle of wine into a glass for Madison, a woman with short dark hair, over a restaurant table.

Briefly, Cassie seems to embrace the advice of Nina’s mother to move on at last. But can Cassie really set aside her revenge plans when she still has her biggest fish to fry in the form of Al? After Madison reveals one of Al’s friends made a video of Nina’s assault, Cassie learns some new details that unleash a fresh wave of rage. Striding into Al’s bachelor party as a sexy nurse accompanied by a killer instrumental version of Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” you know it’s going to be a memorable evening…though perhaps not in the ways anticipated.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

There’s so much to like about this film. The themes that interrogate rape culture, complicity, and the failure of justice are powerful and very rarely receive much attention on film. I wonder if the persistent underrepresentation of women and people of color in director roles is at play here. *Shrug* And, truly, we are not worthy of the soundtrack and the beautiful, glossy colors contrasting with the awful behavior of the characters. I’m so happy to see Carey Mulligan onscreen again, and I can’t find fault with any of the performances, honestly. The dialogue is so sharp and made me laugh out loud at times.

However, there are some inconsistencies that prevent this film from being a new favorite for me. There are a lot of times this is frustrating to watch, as there are virtually no likeable characters here. If, like me, your cynical mind is always at work, you won’t be overly surprised by this…but you may still be annoyed that some characters are very close to doing the right thing only to easily backtrack into the convenient thing.

I feel like another broken record on the internet at this point, but I do take issue with the film’s ending as well, largely because of the abrupt tonal shift. There are some issues with tone throughout, as there are a lot of times during Cassie’s scenes with Ryan that we seem to be in a charming romantic comedy. We also get a number of satisfying revenge scenes with Cassie’s self-assured swagger, though admittedly some of her tactics are more unsettling than anything else. But both of these concepts give way to a bleak ending that really pulls the rug out from under the viewer and gives us the most dramatic tonal shift yet. It’s unsatisfying to feel that Cassie is a victim when she begins the film by reclaiming some degree of power, even though I suppose she is pulling the strings in the end. I can’t help feeling that if Billy Loomis can fake his own death in Scream, surely a scheming med school dropout could have done the same (does a spoiler from a 1996 movie count as a spoiler?).

I will say I got a lot of enjoyment from this film and will make plans to see Emerald Fennell’s next picture as soon as possible.

Would my darling blog wife plot an elaborate revenge scheme on this one’s behalf or pretend it never happened at all? Find out in her review!