Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman

Carey Mulligan is a tornado of righteous fury and ruthless retribution in Emerald Fennel’s Promising Young Woman, an unconventional revenge thriller and icky glimpse into the world of men being horrible to women, and the often decades later snowball effect that can have on many lives. This is a crisply made, acid edged, cheerfully furious piece with a bubblegum pop-art visual and musical aesthetic that provides playful contrast to its very dark and fucked up subject matter and while I had a few major issues in the third act, I greatly enjoyed it overall. Mulligan is Cassie, a thirty year old girl working a humdrum barista job and living at home with her quaintly innocuous parents (Clancy Brown & Jennifer Coolidge). Many nights she gets all dolled up, hits the dive bars and takes guys home pretending to be too hammered to object to any advances, and then turns the tables on them in whip-smart fashion. Why does she do this? Well besides the surface level ‘teach shitheads a lesson’ aspect, there’s a much deeper and more personal reason for her actions that stems back to her days ten years earlier in med-school, where she has memories of a best friend who went through something terrible and isn’t around anymore. That’s all I’ll say about the languid and loose yet pointed and intricately structured narrative that is guarded about revealing backstory and let’s the expository nuggets land with devastating thunderclaps as they come. The soundtrack choices are all bangers that are fun yet have a menacing undercurrent, especially a choice like the unbearably eerie theme from the 1955 film Night Of The Hunter in which Robert Mitchum plays a terrifyingly misogynistic psycho disguised as a benign preacher. The supporting cast is meticulously peppered with an eclectic and multigenerational roster of names including Alison Brie, Adam Brody, that McLovin kid, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon and a very memorable Alfred Molina as a scumbag former defender attorney wracked with suicidal guilt. Mulligan herself seems to have been born for this role, or at least tailors her acting style quite a bit off her usual path to play Cass. She’s an actor who mostly finds herself in quiet, observant, introspectively wistful characterizations, full of long stares, sustained silences and expressions that constantly have you wondering what she’s thinking. Here she’s the antithesis of that, punishingly verbose, uncomfortably rambunctiousness and perpetually has her defences up like a cobra ready to strike. And strike she does, although I’m not sure I was quite okay with the script’s decision on her arc overall. Thats not to say I didn’t understand, appreciate and recognize the integral nature of such a turn of events and I can’t say much without spoiling it but I can say that as much as it’s a darkly poetic way for the film to go out, it didn’t quite run congruent with my aspirations for this horrific tale and left somewhat of a bad vibe in my soul. But I suppose in trying to make a story like this 100% effective and memorable, you’ve got to throw a few ‘shock and awe’ curveballs that shirk the usual limbo bar of predictable catharsis and aim to leave the viewer feeling pulverized, disoriented and unnerved to the maximum. In that aspiration, it has certainly succeeded. Great film, if one that left my mental/emotional equilibrium feeling considerably infringed upon. Mission accomplished, I suppose.

-Nate Hill

Simon Stone’s The Dig

Why do we dig through the earth looking for remains of those who lived before us long ago? Is it for posterity’s sake, for the people who will come we’re gone? Simple collective genetic curiosity for our fellow humans? Is it purely academic or is there some intrinsic burning impulse to unearth what was before in the hopes it might affect our own lives, in some invisible cosmic fashion? Simon Stones’s new Netflix original film The Dig is a phenomenal piece of work that asks these questions by showing us a varied ensemble of people working in the famed archeological dig of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk England, 1938, right before the outbreak of World War 2. The excavation is commissioned by widow landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), spearheaded by focused, workaholic expert Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) and assisted by others including junior archeologist Peggy Piggott (Lily James) and British Museum scout Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). While the film focuses intently on the dig and eventual unearthing of a wondrous find itself, what really stands out and feels important is the character work and how each person deals with issues like alienation, mortality and interpersonal relationships individually and as a group. Fiennes is wonderful as Basil Brown, a hard working guru who doesn’t want fame or acclaim, but simply has an organic passion for pulling back the curtain of history and illuminating the past. Mulligan is a staggering actress and displays great fragility and resilience in the face of looming adversity. James was such a bubbly presence in Mama Mia and she certainly draws attention but she’s much more restrained, subtle and heartbreakingly vulnerable here, stuck in a loveless marriage to a colleague (Ben Chaplin) and feeling trapped by circumstance. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Mike Eley (Touching The Void) with a lyrical feel for the scope, lighting and spacial dynamics of rural England’s elegiac fields and hills, scored to emotional, melodic perfection by Stefan Gregory, competently directed by Stone and stunningly acted by the entire cast. The menace of incoming war is always present here as fighter planes frequently careen across the overcast skies, but somehow we feel safe in picturesque Suffolk with this intrepid band as they dig and search, not only in the dirt below them but amongst themselves, inwardly and in relation to each other to find peace, love, sense and some kind of solace in an often sorrowful world. It’s early in the year but this is already one of the strongest films so far.

-Nate Hill

Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

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DRIVE is a film that could have easily been made by Michael Mann in the height of his 80’s neo noir phase. It would have starred William Petersen, Robert Prosky, Tom Noonan, Dennis Farina – the seminal Mann players. Tangerine Dream would have composed a remarkable score. But it wasn’t, and that’s what makes this film an undeniable masterpiece. It was made by Nicolas Winding Refn, with Ryan Gosling transforming himself into a top tier actor, and Cliff Martinez providing a hypnotic score in the year 2011.

There are many aspects of the film to marvel over. The vibrant neon color scheme, the stoicism and deep introspective turn from Gosling, Refn’s tranquil direction. Career pivoting performances from Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston. There is such a fertile quality to this film that sets the tone for this decade’s cinematic landscape.

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Gosling, who has been remarkable since DRIVE, is perfect in this film. His dialogue is minimal, as are his physical actions. His performance is commanded through his eyes. He’s always watching, always internal, he is slowly calculating everything.

The forbidden love between Gosling and Carey Mulligan is handled with such sensibility and grace by Refn. It is never overplayed, and at no point in the film does it become generic. The purity of their relationship splashes off the screen and leaves impending doom on the viewer.

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Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks are phenomenal in the film. Cranston completely shakes his comedic shtick as well as the trajectory of Walter White. He’s likable, due to his casting, but overall he’s smarmy and pathetic. Neck tattoos, chain smoking, hobbling around the frame looking for his next get rich quick deal.

Brooks, who was completely robbed of an Academy Award nomination, is a fascinating antagonist. Yes, he’s the monster, but he’s also genuine. He doesn’t want to do what he does, but his back is against the wall due to the unraveling of the plot. As the viewer, we like him, even when he’s pulling an eyeball from a guy’s head with a fork. Because the guy he’s doing it to had it coming.

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Refn struck gold with this film, and by making a mainstream-ish film, he was able to gather the clout to make whatever he wanted in the future, no questions asked. ONLY GOD FORGIVES and the much anticipated NEON DEMON are complete validations. Refn has a progression that is akin to post TREE OF LIFE Malick; with each new film, he’s not only challenging the audience, but himself as an artist. DRIVE is one of the finest films of this decade, and it only grows more poignant and incredible as time passes.

THOMAS VINTERBERG’S FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

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Charlotte Bruus Christensen is the true star of Thomas Vinterberg’s exquisitely produced film version of the classic Thomas Hardy novel Far From the Madding Crowd. Christensen is a camera artist that I’ve previously not been aware of, but now my attention is on full alert. Her work here is the definition of painterly and sumptuous, with one shot after another that feels museum worthy, utilizing lush color, a terrific sense of composition, and more than a few instances of natural light that felt like the actors and crew were filming at some very extreme or odd hours in an effort to capture the organic beauty of the landscape. I’m always ready to get swept up by intoxicating cinematic imagery, so I have to say, this one immediately grabbed me from that perspective. The film itself is a solid soap opera, anchored by the radiant Carey Mulligan, playing an interesting if emotionally prickly character that makes a bunch of mistakes along the way to potential happiness. The trio of suitors who all come calling for her are played by Michael Sheen (perfectly square), Jim Sturgess (perfectly sleazy), and Matthias Schoenaerts (perfectly hunky). All three men get some quality moments, and the script changes perspective a few times which I found clever, but this is certainly Mulligan’s story, and she, rather expectedly, handles it all with class and charm. There are some WTF? moments of character motivation and there’s a haphazardly directed scene involving Juno Temple missing her wedding (I know these were the days before texting but c’mon!), but overall, this is an enjoyable, comforting piece of costume drama, splendid in all area of production value (the costumes and set decoration are divine), but really bolstered by the magnificent eye of a cinematographer who took full advantage of the pristine landscapes, over-cast British skies, and lots and lots of sheep. Did I mention there’s tons of sheep in this film? Be still my heart.

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