“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

Spoiler-Free Reviews of Trending Movies (OCT 2020): “Borat 2,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” & “Rebecca”

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon Prime)

Yes, Rudy is in this mock documentary (and doesn’t come off as so innocent)! Of course, y’all can see and judge if you’re curious. This is NOT the type of humor for sensitive viewers, as some of it is quite gross, vulgar, and cringe-y. This time, Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) is joined by his wide-eyed teen daughter, Tutar (24 y.o. Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova), who may be interested in becoming a journo also. Bakalova may be the breakout star here, as she can go toe-to-toe w/ the British comedian/filmmaker! Look out for a touching scene involving Borat and two elderly Jewish women. There is also a Black woman (babysitter) who gives Tutar some good advice. If you’re already a left-of-center (liberal) individual, you may be LOL-ing at the politically-charged stuff. I almost couldn’t believe that Cohen snuck into CPAC (which took place in FEB 2020 in DC)!

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)

In Chicago 1968, the Democratic convention was met w/ protests from activists like the moderate Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and the militant Yippies led by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong from Succession), which led to violent confrontations w/ police. Seven of the accused ringleaders are arraigned on charges like conspiracy by the hostile Nixon administration, incl. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II- a rising star in Hollywood) of the Black Panthers (who wasn’t involved in the incident). What follows is an unfair trial presided by Judge Hoffman (veteran actor Frank Langella) and prosecuted by a reluctant, but duty-bound Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Two of the defense lawyers are William Kunstler (Mark Rylance- a British theater star) from the ACLU and Leonard Weinglass (character actor Ben Shenkman), an expert on constitutional law.

I saw this last week; I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s writing (though haven’t seen all of his shows). Sorkin was approached by Spielberg several years ago re: writing this film- WOW! If you’re into US history, costumes, legal drama, and politics- you’ll enjoy the movie. Otherwise, it could come off as a bit boring; the directing style Sorkin uses is simple/straightforward. I liked the humor (which was mainly provided by Baron Cohen and Strong) and I learned some new things, too. I enjoyed seeing the subtle acting from Gordon-Levitt (now almost 40- whoa), Rylance, and Shenkman (who you may know from Angels in America).

Rebecca (Netflix)

Here was the (short) review I shared via Twitter last FRI night: Not sexy, not suspenseful, not one bit scary- just cliched, colorful, & clueless! Fans on my Alfred Hitchcock Facebook group were (mostly) reluctant to watch this version, though it’s not a remake. This is an adaptation of the novel (which I didn’t read); I suspect it’s not totally faithful. Though it delves into class issues, there is very little age gap between the leads. Viewers looking for the LGBTQ element to be explored further (w/ Mrs. Danvers) will be disappointed. The director (Ben Wheatley) doesn’t do much w/ light and shadow- a missed opportunity!

I don’t love or hate Lily James, but I don’t think this role suited her. The same goes for Armie Hammer (tall/conventionally handsome); he acts wooden, lacks mystery, and has no romantic chemistry w/ James. His accent is way off- it’s more Mid-Atlantic than British. I haven’t seen much of his acting, but I thought he’d be a LOT better than this! I did enjoy seeing Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale) and the (still gorgeous) Kristin Scott Thomas. What we have is a movie where the costumes and scenery overtake the people in the story. The supporting actors did well w/ what they were given, esp. the prosecutor (in the third act). The ending scene looks like it belongs in a different movie- MANY viewers were confused!

“Mangal Pandey: The Rising” (2005) starring Aamir Khan, Toby Stephens, Rani Mukherji, & Ameesha Patel

Aamir Khan plays Mangal Pandey passionately with a complete conviction. All the scenes between Aamir and Toby are a delight to watch. Toby doesn’t fail to impress with his acting or his Hindi-speaking lines.

Stephens’ brief speeches about the ruthlessness of a private corporation pillaging a country seem all too relevant to our own time… The film is wildly entertaining, filled with the color and beauty of Bollywood- superb cinematography, epic sets and crowd scenes, music-and-dance numbers that pop out of nowhere, and a love story…

-Excerpts from reviews on Amazon.com

This is an epic set against the backdrop of what the British called the Sepoy Mutiny; for the Indians, it was the First War of Independence. It took two years to complete this film b/c of the research that went into its production. “Company Raj” (the British East India Company) had been plundering the country, treating the locals unjustly, and causing widespread resentment. During battle in one of the Afghan wars in the mid-1800s, Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan), an Indian sepoy, saves the life of his commanding officer, Capt. William Gordon (Toby Stephens- son of Dame Maggie Smith). He is indebted, even giving Mangal his pistol. The first act is focused on the friendship; historians have pointed out that this was unlikely. A few years later, the Company introduces the Enfield rifle, which comes w/ a new cartridge rumored to be coated w/ grease from cow and pig fat. This cartridge has to be bitten before it is loaded, which ignites resentment and anger among the sepoys; the cow is sacred to Hindus and the pig is forbidden for Muslims.

The film was offered to Bollywood superstar, Shah Rukh Khan, but he declined (thank goodness). Director Ketan Mehta first thought of making this film in 1988 w/ Amitabh Bachchan. Hugh Jackman turned down the role of Gordon; this required Stephens to speak w/ a Scottish accent and also in Hindi. A very young Kiera Knightley was considered for the role of Emily Kent, who is new to India and develops a crush on Gordon. After Aishwarya Rai turned down the part of Jwala (due to contract issues), Rani Mukerji was given the script to consider taking the part. Mukherji, however, liked the character of Heera and asked if she could play her instead. Khan requested to cast Ameesha Patel as the young widow, Jwala, after he saw her on a BBC game show. Patel wears no make-up; this was Khan’s suggestion.

We only sell our bodies; you sell your souls. -Heera explains to Mangal re: the difference between her girls and the sepoys

The BJP wanted to ban the film, as it showed Pandey visiting a prostitute (though their scenes are platonic in the movie). As Lol Bibi (veteran actress Kiron Kher) points out, her house is only for white men (mainly the British officers). Though this is not a “typical” Bollywood film, it contains songs and dances. One number by Heera and other nautch (dancing) girls, Main Vari Vari, created controversy due to Mukherji’s outfit (where her cleavage was covered by transparent fabric). This song serves a dual purposes- to entice the British officers and to show how conflicted Mangal feels re: trusting Gordon (and biting the new bullet). A.R. Rahman was the music director on this movie; the music flows w/ the story. My favorite song is below- Rasiya.

In your Ramayana there was one villain “Ravana” who had ten heads, company has a hundred heads and they’re all joined by the glue of greed. -Gordon replies when Mangal asks re: the Company

I think this movie is a must-see, though it is uneven (particularly when it comes to editing). The narration (in Hindi) done by veteran actor Om Puri is repetitive; I think it was used to appeal to Hindi speakers who may not be fluent in English. There is a mix of English and Hindi spoken in this film, which I’m sure was accurate for the period. The bromance is much more stronger than both the romances. The relationship between Mangal and Heera was underdeveloped, but I could see the chemistry between the actors. I liked the wrestling scene and hand-to-hand combat between Mangal and Gordon. The sepoys and villagers confronting the British one night w/ their torches stood out to me. However, the scene where Gordon stops the sati (bride burning) looks disorganized. Mangal Pandey: The Rising was shown at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. The screenwriter is British of Parsi heritage- Farrukh Dandy- associated w/ black (as in minority in UK) and left-wing intellectuals and activists.

You have tasted a black man’s loyalty – now taste his fury! -Mangal declares to Gordon

On second viewing, I noticed how colonialism was compared to slavery (which we may associate w/ the American South and West Indies). Hewson beats a waiter and insults him w/ “kalla kutta” (“black dog”). One of the villagers near the cantonment, Kamla, works as a wet nurse for one of the British officer’s wives. When she gets home, there is no milk left for her baby. Perhaps the most direct correlation to slavery is made in the market scene; Emily is appalled to see an auction of men and women (incl. Heera). It turns out that the Company buys girls, too!

“Spartacus” (1960) starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons, & Tony Curtis

There is so much cool BTS info (trivia) re: this film! Kirk Douglas (who died at age 103 this month) wanted to play the title hero in Ben-Hur (1959), but director William Wyler wanted Charlton Heston in the role. Douglas was offered the antagonist role of Messala, which was eventually given to Stephen Boyd; he didn’t want to play second banana. Later, Douglas admitted that he made Spartacus to show Wyler and his company that he could make a Roman epic also: “That was what spurred me to do it in a childish way, the ‘I’ll show them’ sort of thing.”

In order to get the large number of big stars in supporting roles, actor/co-producer Douglas showed each a different script (written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo) in which their character was emphasized. Stanley Kubrick (known for his perfectionism, vision, and difficult personality) was brought in as director after Douglas (a real-life tough guy) had a falling out w/ the original director, Anthony Mann. According to actor Sir Peter Ustinov, the salt mines sequence was the only footage shot by Mann. In his autobiography, Douglas wrote that he replaced Mann b/c he felt he was “too docile,” esp. for the powerful actors dominating the cast. “He seemed scared of the scope of the picture.”

Kubrick (then only 31 y.o.) felt the script was full of moralizing; he wanted more focus on the Romans. He also complained to Trumbo and that the character Spartacus had no faults nor quirks, so was interchangeable w/ any other gladiator. Kubrick thought the “I am Spartacus” scene was “a stupid idea”(and said so in front of cast/crew)! Douglas promptly chewed Kubrick out. The disagreements between Kubrick and Douglas got so bad that the men reportedly went into therapy together.

Kubrick was a professional photographer who had shot some of his previous movies by himself. He did the majority of the cinematography work on Spartacus. When you see the way that Kubrick shot the battle sequences, you’ll be impressed! All the battle scenes were filmed near Madrid w/ 8,000 trained troops from the Spanish army (serving as Roman infantry). Kubrick directed the armies from the top of specially constructed towers. He later cut all but one of the gory battle scenes (b/c of negative reactions at previews).

A good body with a dull brain is as cheap as life itself. -Batiatus explains while examining the slaves in the salt mines

Kubrick spent $40,000 on the 10+ acre gladiator camp set. On the side of the set that bordered the freeway, a 125-foot asbestos curtain was erected in order to film the burning of the camp, which was organized w/ collaboration from the LAPD and Fire Department. 5,000 uniforms and seven tons of armor were borrowed from Italian museums, and every one of Hollywood’s 187 stuntmen was trained in the gladiatorial rituals of combat to the death. Modern sources note that this production used 10,500 people- wow! Richard Farnsworth (who moved into acting after 30+ yrs as a stuntman) and five other stuntmen worked for the entire filming; they doubled as salt mine slaves, gladiators, and generals in the slave army.

Gladiators don’t make friends. If we’re ever matched in the arena together, I have to kill you. -Draba tells Spartacus when he first arrives at the gladiator school run by Batiatus

This movie parallels ’50s American history, particularly the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, where witnesses were ordered to “name names” of supposed Communist sympathizers. This closely resembles the climactic (“I am Spartacus”) scene; Howard Fast was jailed for his refusal to testify and wrote the novel (Spartacus) while in prison. This film also has something to say re: race/segregation/civil rights, as I noticed on this viewing. The best fighter owned by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov)- Draba (Woody Strode, who is black)- sacrifices himself by choosing to attack Crassus (Laurence Olivier), rather than kill Spartacus. Not only is Draba the tallest and most handsome warrior, he projects a lot of dignity in his few scenes. There is no differentiation between the slaves of different races who train w/in the gladiator school and- later- serve in the army of Spartacus.

Who wants to fight? An animal can learn to fight. But to say beautiful things, and to make people believe them… -Spartacus tells Varinia (after listening to a story told by Antoninus)

Ingrid Bergman was one of several actresses who rejected the role of Varinia. Sabine Bethmann was then cast, but when Kubrick arrived, he fired her and offered the part to Jean Simmons. In the 1988 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Douglas explained to host Terry Gross that he was reluctant (at first) to have Simmons (who is English) portray Spartacus’ love interest. He had cast the English actors as aristocratic Romans, b/c he felt they “had a more elegant pattern of speech.” He explained: “All the slaves, like myself, were Americans… it’s just that Americans have a rougher speech pattern.” During the long shoot, Curtis allegedly asked Simmons, “Who do I have to f*ck to get off this film?” Simmons may have shouted back, “When you find out, let me know.”

I thought Simmons and Douglas had strong chemistry, so you can believe them as a couple. As w/ great actors of any time/place, the acting comes from the eyes; you don’t need dialogue to express yourself. As slaves who fall in love, Varinia and Sparticus don’t have the luxury of speech or much time alone. Others in the household notice that they care for each other, so try to put a stop to it. When they are suddenly reunited, they laugh (w/ a lot of joy) and embrace as free individuals. Of course, their relationship made me think of how life might’ve been like in the time of slavery in US.

My taste includes both snails and oysters. -Crassus tells Antoninus

Sir Laurence Olivier gave Tony Curtis tips on acting to improve his performance; Curtis gave Olivier tips on bodybuilding to improve his physique. The original version included a scene where Crassus attempts to seduce his body slave, the young Sicilian- Antoninus (Curtis). The Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency both objected to the “oysters or snails” scene seen in the 1991 restoration. Since the soundtrack had been lost, the dialogue had to be dubbed. Curtis was able to redo his lines, but Olivier had died. Dame Joan Plowright, Olivier’s widow, remembered that Sir Anthony Hopkins could do a dead-on impression of her husband. Hopkins agreed to voice Olivier’s lines in that scene (and it’s seamless); he is thanked in the credits for the restored version.

You and I have a tendency towards corpulence. Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin? – Gracchus comments to Batiatus

I liked seeing the evil side of Olivier; Crassus was very convincing as a powerful/tough/smart villain w/ a hint of insecurity. You buy him as a senator and as a soldier, unlike his wimpy brother-in-law Glabrus (John Dall). He is best-known as the villain in Hitchcock’s Rope; here Dall portrays an inept leader of the Roman forces. A lot of the light/humorous moments were given to Batiatus (Ustinov), the wimpy slave peddler who is a follower of the powerful senator, Gracchus (Charles Laughton). When Crassus and his family come for a visit, Batiatus rushes to cover up the bust of Gracchus. As w/ Olivier, Laughton gives gravitas to his character, but also humor. When Batiatus comments on the many beautiful women in Gracchus’ household, the older man laughs and comments: “Since when are women a vice?” Gracchus is considered eccentric (for that time/society), b/c he is a lifelong bachelor; he explains that away by saying he “holds the institution of marriage in too high a regard.” I almost forgot that the (also very handsome) John Gavin portrays Julius Caesar; he doesn’t get as much of a role as Curtis. Both Gavin and Curtis have shirtless scenes- why not!? Gavin co-starred in Hitchcock’s Psycho (also released in 1960).