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I read a lot. I also enjoy movies. Sometimes I write books.

Movie Review: “Promising Young Woman”

Carey Mulligan is perhaps best known for portraying tragic ingénues, turning in memorable performances in roles like Ryan Gosling’s doe-eyed (and criminally underwritten) love interest in 2011’s “Drive,” and the evanescent Daisy Buchanan in 2013’s “The Great Gatsby.” In Emerald Fennell’s new “Promising Young Woman,” Mulligan finally gets the chance to subvert that persona in an Oscar-caliber reversal, dominating a film that delivers lacerating cultural commentary in exploitation-flick disguise. Given the marketing for this movie, you’d be forgiven for expecting a conventional rape-and-revenge plot-line, in the vein of “The Last House on the Left” or “I Spit On Your Grave,” but what actually shows up onscreen is something much more unexpected.

(Some spoilers in the discussion to come. You’ve been warned.)

Fennell’s film centers on the thirtysomething Cassie (Mulligan) a medical-school dropout who works in a Los Angeles coffee shop by day and frequents the local bars by night, pretending to be hopelessly drunk. Over and over, Cassie lures lecherous men into compromising situations before turning on them like a vengeful Artemis, forcing them to come face-to-face with their predatory behavior. Meanwhile, at the same time she struggles to form a relationship with her former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), a successful pediatrician who’s committed to persuading Cassie that maybe there are some good men out there after all.

It soon becomes clear, however, that this isn’t actually the story of Cassie’s own trauma, but rather that of her late classmate and friend Nina, who was cruelly assaulted while blacked out at a drunken party. For Cassie, perpetually haunted by the fact that she didn’t stop Nina from going to the fateful party in the first place, the only way to expiate her guilt is to make the perpetrators pay. Her key targets aren’t limited to the rapist and his accomplices: also on her list are the school officials and lawyers who swept the offense under the rug.

And it’s here that “Promising Young Woman” runs into a bit of a thematic snag. On the one hand, it’s clear that Fennell’s film is committed to a compelling defense of female agency: women should be free to go where they choose without the threat of being raped. In so arguing, the film amounts to a bruising indictment of anyone who would excuse sexual assault by saying well, she shouldn’t have been drinking in the first place. Responsibility lies with the perpetrator, not the victim. But at the same time, its protagonist is consumed with guilt for not undermining that agency—not stopping Nina from going to the party—and in framing her as a genuine heroine meting out justice against evil people, the movie suggests that this guilt is justified. If indeed individuals are solely responsible for their own choices, though, is Cassie genuinely inculpated by Nina’s exercise of her own agency?

The overall effect of this paradox is that it’s unclear how the viewer should feel about Cassie’s onscreen experience of guilt—and, by extension, her whole crusade. Does Cassie need to atone for her sins in this way? Is she or isn’t she to blame for what happened to Nina? Perhaps Fennell means the audience to simply sit with this unresolved tension—to leave it ambiguous whether “Promising Young Woman” is a tragic meditation on cycles of guilt and recrimination, or a triumphant account of an avenging, atoning angel bringing down swift retribution. But I think the latter is closer to the truth: in many ways, “Promising Young Woman” is the same sort of celebration of postmortem vengeance that made Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” such a controversial hit.

That said, this whole issue is somewhat peripheral to the story’s intended direction. Far more memorable than its internal tension is the mood of pervasive threat that it conjures up, a mood rooted chiefly in its depiction of male silence—the willingness of too many men to make excuses for each other when forced to confront the impact of their actions on the women in their lives. And that, I think, is the film’s principal takeaway.

Technically speaking, “Promising Young Woman” is a standout, marked in particular by its arresting art design and cinematography. A pervasive 1950s aesthetic suffuses the film’s daytime scenes, which disappears entirely once the much grittier nighttime sequences begin—a nice visual evocation of the darkness that often lurks beneath the surface of everyday life. And to her great credit, Fennell avoids choppy editing in favor of lingering takes that her leads’ emotions to play out, lending real depth to her characters. Mulligan, as previously noted, is singularly great in the lead role—as is the supporting cast, notably Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Alfred Molina.

For those who might be put off by the subject matter, this is not an especially gruesome film—the real horror lies in the viewer’s imagination of what’s happening off-camera—but it is by no means an easy watch. It is, however, well worth your time. As an unsettling parable of deep wounds and delayed justice, “Promising Young Woman” is a tremendous success. (And I look forward to seeing whatever Fennell directs next.)

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Posted by on January 3, 2021 in Thrillers


Movie Review: “Wonder Woman 1984”

2017’s “Wonder Woman” was that rarest of things in the second decade of the genre—a genuinely earnest superhero movie starring a sincerely likable figure. In a marketplace of superhero content increasingly suffering from hardcore cynicism or obsessed with franchise-building, it was a breath of fresh air. For its part, “Wonder Woman 1984” arrives at a rather bleaker cultural moment, but mercifully, is no less upbeat. Like its predecessor, it trades vistas of cosmic destruction for a much smaller-scale story about human virtue and vice—a daring choice, but one that ultimately pays off.

We pick up with Diana Prince (the infinitely likable Gal Gadot) roughly seven decades after the original film, as she works as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian. An early jewelry heist gone wrong allows the Smithsonian to come into possession of a strange artifact—one capable of granting its holder a single wish, however extravagant. Such wishes, however, exact an unseen price. Diana wishes for the return of her long-lost lover, World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine)—who promptly reappears in her life, but at the cost of the slow degradation of Diana’s powers. Diana’s colleague, the hapless Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), wishes to be strong and sexy like Diana—a choice that paves the way for her transformation into the inhuman supervillain Cheetah. And erstwhile industrial tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) wishes to become a wish-granter himself, a choice that may have world-destroying consequences.

This isn’t the sort of superhero movie that one picks apart in search of plot holes, or tries to hammer down to fit into a seamless DC film chronology. Rather, like its forerunner, it’s best read as a sort of parable about the human condition (much like the Greek mythology that forms its thematic backdrop). Just as the 2017 flick used the figure of the god Ares to tell a story of war and vengeance, “WW84” uses Maxwell Lord and the wish-casting stone to undertake an exploration of disordered desire, of all-consuming avarice and the horrors that would follow if everyone received what they claim to long for.

Percolating beneath the surface here is a kind of Leibnizian theodicy: the world of truth, the reality we all actually inhabit, is in a way the best of all possible worlds. And in that spirit, “WW84” amounts to a repudiation of the comic book trope that, whether through maximum firepower or clever scheming, the hero can ultimately outwit fate and “have it all.” On this view, a measure of sacrifice—even crushingly painful sacrifice—is necessary to the rightly-ordered life, and characters can only grow to the extent they are willing to acknowledge that fact.

To my mind, this is a large part of what makes Diana a much more interesting lead than last year’s Captain Marvel. One can’t help thinking that Marvel’s screenwriters, in an effort to create a female lead who could be “just as tough as the guys,” wrote Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers to be little more than a snarky, emotionless force of destruction. But that’s not “empowering” in the important sense—it’s not an interesting way to write a character of either sex. Here, Diana doesn’t run from her emotions (she even cries at a pivotal moment), and that doesn’t make her any less of a heroic figure. Quite the contrary: it makes her a more interesting and relatable one.

Fortunately, viewers have plenty of time to get to know her: “WW84” is something of a slow burn (and probably could’ve shaved a half hour off its lengthy runtime), but for the most part this works to the film’s credit. Diana, Steve, and Barbara feel like genuinely realized characters, with motivations and life stories that make sense. And for his part, Lord does some excessive scenery-chewing early on, but once he becomes an avatar of sheer consumptive excess—something like a mixture of Elon Musk, a televangelist, and Norman Vincent Peale—his performance works. Nobody will win any Oscars, but the cast here has rather more gusto than the average Marvel contingent.

I don’t know how “WW84” would hold up on the small screen (I made the trek out to see it in IMAX, but it simultaneously debuted on HBO Max, where most readers of this review will probably be watching it), but in the end, I can’t help thinking that this is a movie that principally rewards viewers willing to be swept into its mood and momentum. Just like its star, “WW84” largely eschews irony in favor of sincerity and earnestness. And perhaps that’s naive in 2020, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s what we all need at this point.

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Posted by on December 27, 2020 in Fantasy

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