“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!

Suburban Life Can Be Murder: “Crime of Passion” (1956) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, & Raymond Burr

A successful advice columnist at The San Francisco Post, Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck- 50 and looking fab), is an independent woman w/ no intention of ever getting married. She meets LAPD detective, Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden- age 40), during the investigation of a prominent case (which is resolved w/ her help). Sparks fly, they fall in love, and decide to get married (too fast). Kathy quits her job and moves to LA to be a housewife.

Bill is close to his colleagues and their wives; they have regular dinner parties at his home. The banal conversations of these women are almost unbearable for Kathy, who has worked mainly around men and (perhaps) prefers their company. The cops’ wives seem frivolous; she’d feel more comfortable playing cards w/ the men rather than trading recipes with the women. The lack of ambition on Bill’s part push Kathy to a scheme to improve his prospects in the police dept. Kathy “accidentally” has a fender bender on the street where Inspector Anthony Pope (Raymond Burr- also 40 and slimmed down) and his wife Alice (Fay Wray of King Kong fame) live. Social climbing, scheming, and more ensue!

Some women should just not get married; nowadays, there are other routes to follow. This unique movie combines elements of film noir and domestic melodrama. Some viewers have called it “proto-feminist” and “ahead of its time.” I thought that writing was intelligent and also witty at times; the screenplay was by a woman- Jo Eisinger. This is the last film noir for both Stanwyck and Burr; they’d transition to working primarily in TV and appearing only occasionally in movies. Burr moved from the “heavy” (shady/villainous) types he played in films to heroic defense attorney in Perry Mason.

[1] …turns out to be a fairly interesting, sexually frank, compact little noir, featuring a once-in-a-lifetime cast. Stanwyck… is as intense as ever (she always gave her all in every picture); Hayden is his typically macho, upright self; Raymond Burr, playing Hayden’s boss, is a tad less sleazy than usual but still not to be trusted…

[2] Sharper socially than even Fritz Lang’s late noirs, “Crime of Passion” reminds us of the “nostalgia” for the “happy family values” of the 1950’s for the wishful (?) thinking that it is. Stanwyck’s slow descent into middle-class torpor and madness (she’s a sharp, witty, intelligent woman who saddles herself with a maddeningly boring and conventional cop husband, played nicely against type by Sterling Hayden) lays bare the social nightmare presented to women desiring anything but the conventional patriarchal lifestyle…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Mother of All Horrors: Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, & Martin Balsam

Marion: Oh, we can see each other. We can even have dinner but respectably in my house with my mother’s picture on the mantel and my sister helping me broil a big steak for three.

Sam: And after the steak, do we send Sister to the movies? Turn mama’s picture to the wall?

A secretary in Phoenix, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), is tired of how her life is going. She has to meet her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), on lunch breaks at a cheap hotel. Sam has to pay alimony to his ex-wife and lives in the back of his hardware store, so thinks they can’t yet get married. One Friday, Marion is trusted to take $40,000 to the bank by her boss. (Pat Hitchcock plays Marion’s co-worker.) Marion decides to steal this money and head to Sam’s town in Northern California. When she’s caught in a storm, she gets off the main highway and pulls into the Bates Motel. It’s managed by a young man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who seems to be dominated by his mother. Later on, we meet others, incl. Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and a PI named Mr. Arbogast (Martin Balsam).

Marion: Do you go out with friends?

Norman: A boy’s best friend is his mother.

Psycho (iconic to modern viewers, yet controversial in its day) was made b/c Sir Alfred Hitchcock wanted to experiment w/ a sparser style of filmmaking. He used a crew mostly of TV veterans (incl. from his show– Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and hired actors who weren’t yet well-known. Hitch bought the rights to the novel from writer Robert Bloch for a mere $9,000. He also bought up as many copies of the book as he could find (to keep the ending a secret). Before cast/crew began work, they had to raise their right hands and promise not to reveal one word of the story. Hitch didn’t even tell his cast the ending until he needed to shoot it. The director made all the movie theater owners sign a contract that they wouldn’t let anyone in until the start of the film. Once they were late, they’d not be let in until the next showing. This started the process of mandatory seating times at theaters which continues today!

Norman: It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?

Marion: Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough.

Paramount gave Hitch a small budget (under $1M), b/c of the studio’s distaste of the source material. He shot in black-and-white b/c he thought it’d be too gory in color and to save money. The studio gave 60% of the proceeds to Hitch (in lieu of a salary), thinking the movie would fail. Though most film critics hated it, Psycho was a big hit and Hitch ended up earning over $15 million- LOL! Hitch was so happy w/ the strings-only score (by Bernard Herrmann) that he doubled the famed composer’s salary. Hitch commented: “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” The director originally wanted the shower scene to be silent, but Herrmann scored it anyway; Hitchcock immediately changed his mind when he heard the music!

Arbogast: All right, then let’s say for the sake of argument that she needed your help and that she made you out to be a fool in helping her…

Norman: Well, I’m not a fool. And I’m not capable of being fooled! Not even by a woman.

In the novel, Norman is short, fat, older, and unlikable; Hitch decided to re-imagine him as a “boy next door” type. He cast Perkins (his first choice) who has an earnest quality; he is tall and thin w/ boyish looks. Perkins does a terrific job, creating a subtle, creepy, and very unsettling young man. The dinner conversation w/ Marion (amidst the stuffed birds) is a scene studied by budding filmmakers in school. Sam is in most ways the polar opposite of Norman; he represents ’50s “old school” masculinity, while Norman suffers from gender confusion. Sam is bossy w/ the women around him; Norman is timid. Sam’s relationship w/ Marion is portrayed as healthy, but Norman’s relationship w/ her is predatory. Hitch didn’t want Gavin for the role of Sam, but the studio insisted (b/c of his “beefcake” status). Looking back, viewers thought Gavin did a fine job w/ the role.

The structure of this film is rare for its time. We think the protagonist will be Marion, but then the focus shifts to Norman; eventually we follow Lila and Sam. Lila (introduced just before the 1 hr. mark) may be conventional when compared to the risk-taking Marion, but she’s a determined woman also. Miles and Leigh look like they really could be sisters. Arbogast doesn’t have a big role, but he has a fine scene w/ Norman. Hitchcock wasn’t a fan of authority figures; notice how the highway patrolman is portrayed in a sinister manner (never even removing his sunglasses). Many have commented how they hated the scene just before the ending (as did Hitch); the studio insisted on having the psychiatrist wrap things up for the audience.

[1] We can see that he is moody when he angrily leans forward and delivers an angry, though controlled tirade against putting people in institutions. Every camera angle and line of dialogue in this scene has meaning and carries enormous weight, and yet the drama plays out in a light, relaxed mode, and the performers seems truly connected to one another at its conclusion, strangers no more.

[2] …this movie doesn’t have the shock value today for audiences

But, what you WILL see in this movie is (1) superb acting; (2) a fascinating lead character; (3) excellent photography, and (4) a bizarre story.

[3] You can feel the decade literally shifting out of ’50s and into ’60s with this one. Norman Rockwell touches abound, like the decor of the motel, but look at what’s going on around it. People dress well, they still wear fedoras and jackets, but in their tense conversations and hooded gazes, you can feel the culture just ticking away like a time bomb waiting to explode.

Most especially, there’s Anthony Perkins, who plays motel clerk Norman Bates in a very oddly naturalistic way, complete with facial tics and half-swallowed words, not the polished image one expected to see then.

– Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Wedding Guest” (2018) starring Dev Patel & Radhika Apte

Jay (Dev Patel) is a quiet/mysterious Muslim man who travels from London to the Punjab region of Pakistan, supposedly to attend the wedding of a friend. He brings along duct tape, guns, several cell phones, and a plan to kidnap the bride-to-be, Samira (Radhika Apte). Despite his cold efficiency, the plan quickly gets out of control, sending Jay and his hostage on the run across the border and through different parts of India. Jay has various names and identities, so carries several passports and credit cards. He was hired by a wealthy man who is now nervous to meet up and pay. The kidnapping and fallout make international news (Samira is a British citizen). The story evolves into a road trip, but w/ settings we usually don’t see in movies.

The film (which I saw last week free On Demand) has British and Indian producers. It has some twists and turns, but isn’t a typical thriller. It seems to me like a neo noir (in some aspects). The British writer/director, Michael Winterbottom, is known for out of the box films; I’ve seen Jude and The Claim. The cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens, has shot several films in India (incl. Earth, Fire, Water, and Midnight’s Children w/ director Deepa Mehta). The music, composed by Harry Escott, is unique and helps to create tension. The attraction between Patel and Apte develops as they open up to each other (slowly); they have good chemistry together.

[1] The movie benefits enormously from Dev Patel’s excellent work. He is in virtually every frame of the movie. Indian actress Radhika Apte… turns out to be a worthy sparring partner for Patel.

[2] You’ll like this movie if you like human characters, feelings, & relationships, along with a “slice of life” style, where you witness the characters move through a time & set of shared experiences together & may end well, badly, or anywhere in between.

Patel is now a mature leading man — in this movie, a bit of a Jean Reno type. He’s deadpan, but I like it.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Art, Gender, & Desire: “Venus in Fur” (2013) starring Mathieu Amalric & Emmanuelle Seigner

Based on the Tony-winning Broadway play by American writer, David Ives, Venus in Fur is a 2013 French film by famed/controversial director Roman Polanski. Alone in a Paris theater after a long day of auditioning actresses for his new play, writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), complains to his fiancee (on the phone) that no actress has what it takes to play the lead female character. Thomas is about to leave the theater when actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) bursts in, a whirlwind of energy. At first, she is pushy, desperate, and not prepared- or so it seems. Under her coat, Vanda wears a risque black leather and lace outfit (w/ a dog collar). Thomas reluctantly agrees to let her try out; he is stunned by her transformation. Vanda is perfect (even sharing the character’s name); she obviously researched the role, learned the lines by heart, and brought along some props! As the audition continues, Thomas’ feelings go from from attraction to obsession, and Vanda takes on a more dominant role in the story. Vanda comes to tower over Thomas as she becomes stronger.

This was Polanski’s first non-English feature film in over 51 yrs; I saw it several years ago (and didn’t realize he was the director). I re-watched it on YouTube (it’s available for rent). The lighting is superb and the music (composed by Frenchman Alexandre Desplat) is used very well. He moves the story from NYC to Paris, b/c Polanski wanted to work w/ his wife in her native language- French. Originally, Vanda was a 24 y.o. actress (thus her short resume) and Thomas was a young playwright (w/ a few plays under his belt). On Broadway, then recent NYU grad- Nina Arianda- made a name for herself (2010-2012) as Vanda opposite Wes Bentley and Hugh Dancy. In London, Natalie Dormer (The Tudors; Game of Thrones) played the role opposite David Oakes. Louis Garrel (who is young and conventionally handsome) was originally cast as Thomas for this movie. Amalric is middle-aged, w/ a small build, and dark/intense eyes. As some viewers noted, he resembles a younger Polanski. Amalric’s mother comes from a Polish/Jewish family; she was born in the Polish village where Polanski lived w/ his family before WWII. Directors don’t make decisions w/o a reason!

Forget that badly-written and adapted Fifty Shades trilogy! There are several layers to this clever story of power imbalance: woman vs. man (in the play set in 1870), actor who wants the role vs. director who decides who gets the role (in the theater), and man vs. goddess (Venus AKA Aphrodite). It’s also about life imitating art, hidden desires, misogyny, and role playing. Thomas has to read w/ Vanda b/c none of the actors are there; it turns out that he’s really into it. Thomas starts out directing Vanda, but later she doesn’t hesitate in directing him. She even knows how to adjust the lights in the theater- hmmm. They put on and take off clothing to create these characters, as is common backstage in the theater. They quickly and easily switch from being themselves to the characters in the play!

[1] Thanks to the brilliant connections between literature, stage and reality, and thanks to the many things that remain unclear about the character’s real identities and motivations, this movie sounds much more like a question than like a an answer…

[2] The characters conflict with each other perfectly, I don’t mean that they completely disagree on everything, I mean that they disagree on a certain number of things and they agree on a certain number of things for their characters to have great chemistry.

[3] What was most surprising for me is how much we laughed during the film. It was really hilarious…

[4] The mystery of who exactly Vanda is keeps getting bigger until it reaches deific proportions…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews