“I May Destroy You” (2020) created by/starring Michaela Coel

The question of sexual consent in contemporary life and how, in the new landscape of dating and relationships, we make the distinction between liberation and exploitation. -Tagline for the HBO TV series

[1] Sexual assault story has never been told this way before. Groundbreaking stuff. A must see.

[2] It’s not meant to be Girlfriends or SATC and it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s not a sitcom or light comedy, it’s devastating at times, yet humorous.

[3] …this show is honest, heart-breaking, uplifting, funny and sad all at once.

[4] It’s definitely a hard show to watch but worth every moment. Love seeing a largely Black cast in a big network series too.

[5] To me, what it strikes similarity with is the Black Mirror. Almost each episode opens a certain problematic topic of the modern western world.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

There is much to discover in this HBO show (consisting of 12 eps, 30 mins. long). It’s dark (perhaps too much for sensitive viewers), multi-layered, and has some of the most unique characters you’ll see on modern TV. I esp. liked the scenes w/ the literary crowd, some of whom are quite problematic. Michaela Coel (now 32 y.o.) was sexually assaulted when she was making the second season of her comedy series Chewing Gum (2015) which provided the inspiration for this show. She turned down a $1M deal w/ Netflix for the series, as she would’ve lost ownership of the rights. Coel (named Michaela Boakye-Collinson) was born to Ghanaian parents and raised in Tower Hamlets by a single mother, a cleaner who became a NHS nurse. She attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (where she was awarded a scholarship named for Olivier). In 2013, Coel made her stage debut in Chewing Gum Dreams; in 2015, her sitcom Chewing Gum began on Channel 4 TV in the UK.

Arabella (Coel) is a 20ish writer in London working on her second book; her first book (comprised of her popular tweets re: millennial life) was published online. There are several fans who approach her on the streets, asking for a selfie and/or giving out praise. She lives in a humble flat w/ her friend, Ben (Stephen Wight), a quiet/white man who enjoys gardening. Arabella’s best friends are an aspiring actress, Terry (Weruche Opia), and an aerobics instructor, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu- the lead in Hamlet at RSC in 2016). These three pals (all of Ghanian heritage) have known each other for many years and talk about (almost) everything together a la SATC. Another old friend, Simon (Alm Ameen), works at a bank and lives in a fancy apt. w/ his gf of 8 yrs. Simon has a wild side; he plans a three-some and carries drugs (coke). Arabella is known for her partying ways, incl. sometimes using drugs. Some viewers were suspicious of Simon, guessing that he wasn’t going to be a good friend.

One night, Arabella takes a break from her novel to go out w/ Simon and a few others (on his b-day). It turns out that someone spiked her drink and assaulted her that night! The details are few and hazy; at first, she doesn’t want to admit something so terrible happened. Though disoriented, injured (w/ a forehead gash), and lacking sleep, Arabella goes to a meeting w/ her two literary agents. They’re worried re: her falling behind on providing chapters; they’re portrayed as typical white yuppie/liberals. Later, she goes to the local police station to report the crime; we see a few scenes not unlike those in Law & Order: SVU. The two cops on her case are considerate and professional women; they don’t act judgmental of Arabella.

The locations, sets, clothes, and accessories seemed true to life. Many critics and viewers commented that the city scenes looked like “the real London.” The scenes in Ostia, Italy were esp. shot well; Arabella is drawn to her on/off bf Biagio (Marouane Zotti). Though Biagio sells drugs, he seems to be supportive of Arabella (at first). (Coel said she took a vacation to Firenze after her assault and fell in love w/ the place and people.) Arabella wears a pink wig in the first few eps; this was purposefully chosen and dyed not suit Coel’s face/skin color. As the series progresses, the wig frays (symbolizing Arabella’s mental state). Casting directors question Terry about her hair (a wig) in a rather blunt manner; you can tell she is uncomfortable. Almost all of the characters are constantly on their smartphones. Later in the show, Arabella becomes huge on social media; her therapist asks if she really needs it. Kwame may or may not be addicted to a popular gay dating app (Grindr). One of his old friends (who is questioning his own sexual identity) worries about Kwame’s behavior. Kwame nonchalantly says that this isn’t Ghana, so he won’t be thrown off a building. This show is laced w/ dark humor (another element which sets it apart from US shows).

There are some flashback scenes where we see Arabella and Terry as H.S. kids (age 14); the casting of the kids was done very well. They support a male friend after he is (falsely) accused of attacking a white girl, Theo. In the present time, Theo is the head of survivors’ support group; though Arabella wants to know her better, Terry is still suspicious. Terry isn’t a “perfect” friend either, as we eventually discover. No one is totally a good or bad guy in this show! Kwame faces a difficult situation in the middle of the series; he’s not sure if this qualifies as sexual assault (so he Googles it). At first, he consented to hookup w/ a man, but then was forced into something else (w/o his consent). Arabella (thanks to a podcast) learns that her writing partner Zain (Hardip Gill) was “stealthing” when they slept together. She also didn’t give her consent; in fact, she hadn’t experienced this before. What did you think about Terry’s “wild” night w/ the two Italians- could that also be considered non-consensual? There isn’t always an easy answer!

“Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959) starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, & Ed Begley

Dave Burke (veteran character actor Ed Begley) is looking to hire two men to assist him in a bank raid: Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a white/middle-aged ex-con, and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte- also co-producer), a young/Black singer w/ a gambling problem. Ingram (who likes the finer things in life) is recently divorced from his schoolteacher wife, Ruth (Kim Hamilton), w/ whom he shares a young daughter. Burke arranges for Ingram’s creditors to put pressure on him. Slater (who has a quick temper) feels humiliated by his failure to provide for his devoted wife, Lorry (Shelley Winters), who works two jobs. The two men, though reluctant at first, eventually accept to do the crime. Slater loathes and despises Blacks; tensions in the gang quickly mount.

[after Slater insults Ingram]

Burke: Don’t beat out that Civil War jazz here, Slater! We’re all in this together, each man equal. And we’re taking care of each other. It’s one big play, our one and only chance to grab stakes forever. And I don’t want to hear what your grandpappy thought on the old farm down in Oklahoma! You got it?

Belafonte chose Abraham Polonsky (writer/director of Force of Evil) to write the script. As a blacklisted writer, Polonsky used the name of John O. Killens (a Black novelist/friend of Belafonte). In 1997, the WGA restored Polonsky’s credit. The director is Robert Wise (West Side Story; The Sound of Music); he used infra-red film in some scenes (to create a distorted feel).

This is the first film noir with a Black protagonist! The bartender at the jazz club is a young Cicely Tyson (her second film appearance); she passed away in early 2021. Noir icon Gloria Grahame makes a brief (yet important) appearance. The movie was praised highly by James Ellroy and influenced the work of Jean-Pierre Melville (a French director). The volatile chemistry between the three men is at the center of the movie. I liked the character development, on locations shots of NYC (incl. Central Park), and the slightly uneasy atmosphere. Jazz and Calypso music are played at the smoky club where Ingram performs.

[1] Good low budget heist film. Ryan’s character is one of the ugliest portrayals of a white racist in film. Belafonte’s character is one of the most multi-faceted and complex potrayals of an African American up until that time, and the performance doesn’t date at all. Wise keeps the pacing taut and the suspense high.

[2] Personally I found Belefonte’s contribution the most searing. He captures the role of the divorced father to a tee. The scene where he is awakened by his ex-wife after sleeping (ever so slightly) with is daughter is masterful. You can sense the longing in his heart for the nuclear family that once was.

[3] Wise wants to communicate a whole context, he wants to detail his characters to a fault. How many directors would dare that today? Robert Ryan’s part is very complex. First he seems friendly, but further acquaintance shows a lack of self-confidence (he’s getting old, he’s a washout, he wants to go for broke). And he is a racist. Rarely, this obnoxious feeling has been depicted with such wit.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMBD

“East Side, West Side” (1949) starring Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason, Van Heflin, & Ava Gardner

NYC financial advisor, Brandon Bourne and his socialite wife, Jessie, have a seemingly happy marriage of several years. However, about 2 years earlier, Brandon had an affair w/ a younger woman, Isabel Lorrison, who’s now back in town hoping to rekindle the romance. Through a young model/new friend, Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse- in a rare non-dancing role), Jessie meets Mark Dwyer (a cop-turned-writer just arrived from Italy).

Isabel: It’s all right Brand. What difference does it make? Today or another day? There’s no hurry. You’ll be back.

[Brand turns around and slaps Isabel. Isabel smiles]

Isabel: That’s better, isn’t it Brand! That’s what you don’t get at home. That’s what you’ve missed isn’t it! It’s so tiresome being restrained and soft-spoken and gentlemanly. What you really want is to be a little rotten, like me!

This is a well-made film w/ plenty of clever/memorable dialogue; the pacing is a bit slow at times. I would’ve liked to see more of the West Side (West Village) and more outdoor shots. As several viewers commented, Mason is cool/controlled; he has great chemistry w/ Gardner (and they both have fabulous cheekbones). True, Mason and Stanwyck look like a good couple, but there isn’t much heat. I enjoyed seeing Stanwyck w/ Heflin; his character is very caring, energetic, and charming. They acted together in two other films. There are some gorgeous outfits in this film; the strapless/black cocktail dress that Gardner wears in her first scene is stunning!

Brandon: [Desparately] Jess, can’t you understand what this is for me. I’m like a drunk who knows liquor will wreck him. He hates it. He hides from it. He… he tries!

Jessie: What are you asking for? Permission?

Future First Lady Nancy Reagan (credited w/ her maiden name- Davis) plays one of Jessie’s friends, Helen Lee. Greer Garson, Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert were considered for the leads. Gale Sondergaard, who plays Stanwyck’s mother in this film, was only 50 y.o. when this film was made; Stanwyck was 42 y.o. Sondergaard was blacklisted for refusing to testify before HUAC, so didn’t work for the next 20 yrs. Beverly Michaels (platinum “Amazon” Felice Backett) is the wife of Academy Award winning screenplay writer Russell Rouse and the mother of Academy Award winning film editor Christopher Rouse.

[1] One bit of casting that is interesting is Charisse, as she bore a resemblance to Gardner, so the initial attraction Mason has for Rosa bears out his obsession with Isabel.

Gardner provides all the excitement in “East Side, West Side”…absolutely gorgeous and just about burns a hole in the film with her steamy performance.

[2] Stanwyck and Heflin have a palpable chemistry here, and Ava Gardner is a most alluring vixen. Cyd Charisse is a delectable ingenue (and a tall drink of water)…

Stanwyck’s scene with Gardner is a standout — both actresses are well matched; Gardner’s feline beauty and laissez-faire romantic approach nicely complements Stanwyck’s humane fatalism — and Stanwyck and Van Heflin are an appealing couple.

[3] Screenwriter Isobel Lennart was usually good for some smart dialog, and she’s reliably industrious here, though there’s no truth at the center of these doings: People just don’t fall in and out of love as quickly as they do here, and the plotting takes some very improbable turns… Believable it’s not, but it’s very entertaining…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Bogart & Stanwyck Together: “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947)

Sally Morton (Barbara Stanwyck) and Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart)- a struggling artist- get married following the passing of Geoffrey’s first wife. Despite quickly falling in love w/ him while on vacation in Scotland, Sally never thought she’d marry him when she discovered that he was already married (regardless of his vow to get a divorce). Then the first Mrs. Carroll’s (called an invalid) passing changed the situation. The time of the first Mrs. Carroll’s illness resulted in Geoffrey’s greatest works, incl. a portrait of her as “The Angel of Death.” While Sally brings a house in the England countryside and a rough-around-the-edges housekeeper (Christine), Geoffrey brings a pre-teen daughter (Bea) into the marriage. Their happiness begins to change when glamourous/flirtatious Cecily Latham (Alexis Smith- who also co-starred w/ Bogart in Conflict) commissions Geoffrey to paint her portrait. Cecily and her mother were introduced to the Carrolls by a London lawyer, Charles Pennington (Sally’s former fiancé). The affable Penny (his nickname) is still in love w/ Sally, which doesn’t amuse Geoffrey.

Bogart says “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful hatred”, which is a nod to the famous line from Casablanca (1942). The movie was completed in June 1945, but released in March 1947, when Bogart’s box-office appeal was at a high (though most critics thought he was miscast). The role of an artist, a profession that viewers, critics, and even the actor himself felt deviated from his typical tough guy persona, there were limits to what he’d agree to. When the director (Peter Godfrey) asked Bogart to wear an artist’s smock and beret, he refused- LOL! I liked the chemistry between Bogart and Stanwyck; they got along well during the filming. I wasn’t a fan of the pacing, the child actress (calm and precocious), or the music (a bit overdone).

[1] Stanwyck has never been better as a panic-stricken wife, trying to survive her husband’s evil doings. Bogart gives a highly underrated performance as a psychopath, who gets brutal when his murder plot doesn’t go according to plan. His presence on screen is often frightening.

[2] Humphrey Bogart, for all of the heroic roles during this stage of his career, is cast against type, and Barbara Stanwyck, always the femme fatale, is now a damsel in distress as matters spiral beyond her control as grave danger closes in on her. The role-reversals of the stars works well and the byplay between them is good.

[3] One problem is that there is an enormous amount of subtlety employed in its unravelling. In fact I would say there is a little too much subtlety, to the point where the details that are supposed to be underplayed to maximise the mystery and suspense do not seem to be underplayed at all, but rather they appear to have simply been ommitted.

The second little problem is with Bogart’s character. He’s the centre of this story, a mentally disturbed and jealous painter who, it would appear, murdered his first wife… But we’re not really given any insight into his character until very late in the film. At first he appears to be just like your stereotypical artist; insular, unpleasant, cynical. But we know, or at least assume, that he has actual psychotic tendencies underneath that eccentric, but nonetheless ordinary exterior.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Film Noir’s “Romeo & Juliet”: “They Live By Night” (1948)

Opening Title Cards: This boy… and this girl… were never properly introduced to the world we live in… To tell their story… They Live by Night.

Chickamaw (Jay C. Flippen), T-Dub (Howard Da Silva) and Bowie (a young Farley Granger in his 3rd role) have just escaped from prison somewhere in the Midwest. Though Chickamaw and T-Dub are hardened criminals (bank robbers), Bowie is just 23 y.o. and has been locked up since age16 (wrongly convicted of murder). Instead of rotting behind bars, Bowie, when given this chance by these older men, believed his best path forward was to help in their upcoming heists. He wanted to make enough money to hire a lawyer to clear his name of the murder conviction. The plan is to hide out with Chickamaw’s alcoholic/older brother, Mobley, until they have enough money to make other arrangements. Also w/ them is Mobley’s daughter, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell- a waifish girl-next-door), who doesn’t much like her life. She and her father have small/run-down farm.

This unique film (now loved by critics and noiristas) is based on Thieves Like Us (1937), a novel by struggling journo Edward Anderson. It was identified by critic Thom Andersen as an example of film gris, a sub-category of film noir w/ a left-wing narrative. This was the debut of director Nicholas Ray and filmed in 1947; its release was delayed by 2 yrs. b/c Howard Hughes was in the process of buying RKO. Though well-liked by many Hollywood insiders, the film lost money at the box office. It was appreciated more in Europe, particularly France. Robert Mitchum lobbied to play Chickamaw and Jane Greer auditioned for Keechie; they’d soon be working on Out of the Past.

They Live by Night combines youthful innocence, first love, and the gritty world of crime. It’s not glam like many film noirs; this is a world of Greyhound buses, roadside diners, motor inns, etc. Granger asked to audition w/ O’Donnell (a close friend of his from MGM Studios); their onscreen chemistry is obvious. We see a romantic prologue showing Granger and O’Donnell (both newbies in the movie biz) w/ subtitles before the opening credits. The film’s opening action sequence was shot by a helicopter camera placed on a mount. Aerial helicopter photography was rare at that time; this is one of the first times an action scene was filmed from the sky. Bowie is the gang’s driver; he dreams of someday running his own garage/gas station. After he’s injured during a getaway, Keechie nurses him back to health. She doesn’t think much of him or his lifestyle; Bowie feels little shame in his role. There is something about Keechie that appeals to Bowie; both were abandoned by their mothers and inexperienced in romance. They form a strong emotional bond and begin to dream of a life together (where he won’t have to be on the run).

[1] Farley Granger is best remembered for his Hitchcock roles, and he gives a good, multifaceted performance. It’s clear from the get-go that despite the company he keeps and despite his time in prison, he’s really a scared, uncertain kid. Cathy O’Donnell is all but forgotten… extremely convincing and appealing

[2] Bowie, the innocent, sympathetic outlaw hero of “They Live By Night” is a wonderfully drawn. By no means is he the cliched nice-guy-in-a-bad-situation; though essentially good-hearted, he can be frighteningly callous at times. Farley Granger, working with excellent direction, he gives us glimpses of a violent yet passionate nature, struggling against the condemnation of society. Cathy O’Donnell is also entrancingly tender…

[3] In a sense this cuts right to the chase with the theme of doomed youth, years before Rebel Without a Cause yet with the given desperation of the noir films.

…a powerful mix of the bittersweet tale of a criminal and his love that would decades later meld with other crime-film elements into a work like True Romance.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews