Bridey Heing

Creative Control: If Tech Is Made to Be Addictive, ‘We’re F*cked’

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It’s almost cliché to say that our lives are becoming more and more dependent on technology, but the truth of that statement can’t be ignored. Although our near constant plugged-in state is, to most of us, second nature, the implications of a life lived behind a screen are always worth a second look. In the new film Creative Control, director, co-writer, and star Ben Dickinson takes the relationship we’ve fostered with our tech to a dark, funny, discomforting place, and once there, asks if we’re really able to deal with the reality we’re slowly working towards.

David (Ben Dickinson) is an ambitious young gun at an ad agency, working on the account of a new augmented reality device called Augmenta. He lives with his girlfriend, Juliette (Nora Zehetner), but he has a crush on Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), his best friend Wim’s (Dan Gill) girlfriend. David decides to use his own pair of Augmenta glasses to fantasize about sex with Sophie. Meanwhile, his world disintegrates to varying degrees around him. It’s a reliably complicated and dependably tense set up, but it’s really the augmented reality that makes this movie more than just another sad tale of a white dude who messes up his perfectly unfulfilling, comfortable life.

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The film is reminiscent of disparate genres and styles. There’s a mumble core off-the-cuff ethos to the dialogue, but every so often the deadpan calls to mind Wes Anderson. This is particularly true when the classical music starts and the action switches to slow motion. The cinematography is interesting throughout, and at times it’s beautiful, such as when David walks out of perfectly centered hotel room doors to watch faux-Sophie walk up a spiral staircase. The composition of the shot, just-shy-of-epic music and artful slow-motion all work together to create a scene that’s remarkably striking.

But it does give into an indulgence of the times: The characters are, without exception, insufferable. David, Juliette, Wim, and the myriad coworkers, partiers and models they interact with take themselves so painfully seriously that the viewer can’t. Theirs are the problems of the young, creative and affluent, which is to say problems engendered by having the means and access to everything they could want and nothing that seems to make them happy. Sophie is largely on the periphery, kept at arm’s length to allow David’s fantasies to bleed into her actual character, but even so she grates. Perhaps even more awful, their frenetic sense of constant connection and stress likely ring at least somewhat true to many of the same generation.

If it all feels a bit fraught –– my God, Juliette, how could you complain about a weekend in upstate New York teaching yoga? –– the strength of the plot’s basic components makes it fascinating and redeems what could easily be a weak amalgamation of stereotypical important millennial films. There’s a Black Mirror esque aspect to the technology of the film, which seems to take place in a familiar future. Computers and phones are transparent sheets of glass that react to brain signals and hand gestures. It’s a few steps further than we are now, but not completely unbelievable, which in turn makes the idea of reality augmenting hipster glasses not entirely alien. With the rest of the film grounded in a very zeitgeisty Manhattan (the oysters, the moustaches, the minimalist design), it’s the kind of theoretical that feels possible rather than rooted in sci-fi.

In fact, throughout the film it’s easy to see shadows of our relationship with social media today. Few can admit to never having projected or imagined interactions with people we see only through technology. We’ve welcomed voyeurism into our lives and allowed our image to be left at the mercy of those on the other side of a screen. So where is the line between moral and immoral use of that image in a private setting? When does the privacy of the individual supersede the imagination of the person doing the seeing?

It’s uncomfortable to watch David have sex with an augmented vision of Sophie, and the film makes clear that there are real life consequences for his doing so. David allows his version of Sophie to bleed into real life, complicating his relationships and making him draw deeper into his imagined affair with her. He is eventually unable to tell the difference between the digital and the real.

But there seems to be a much larger question at the heart of the film: Are the digital and the real truly two different worlds? And what’s more, can the digital be said to be unreal when the implications it has are fully tangible? In one scene, David is sitting at table with nothing in front of him. Quickly, he ends up on a call while tweaking his augmented Sophie, texting with at least three people, and working on a project for work. The tension is palpable as more and more screens demand his attention, a single bead of sweat rolling from his temple. When he clears them all away, he’s once again alone at the table, but the stress of constant connection lingers.

The film doesn’t make zombies of everyone. Reggie Watts checks out fully, asking his dinner guests to turn in their phones before eating and leaving the grid completely near the end of the film. There’s a balance, in other words, that can maximize the potential of technology while allowing a person to maintain an identity outside of the cloud. It doesn’t suggest how or pretend to have the answers to the questions we all ask on a regular basis, like how we can actually make ourselves get off our smartphones an hour before bed. Instead, in the midst of well-manicured facial hair and belabored conversations about third world labor, it presents a vision of the very near future when we all might be forced to fully reckon with our relationship with our digital selves.

WORDS BY: BRIDEY HEING

Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.

Netflix Gems: Master of None is The Kind of Pop Culture We Desperately Need

Once known primarily for his role as the luxury-loving Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, Aziz Ansari has spent the larger part of 2015 positioning himself as an astute observer of our culture. His book Modern Romance was a bestseller, and now he’s at the helm of one of the breakout shows of the year. In Master of None, on Netflix, Ansari balances wit and wisdom as he approaches pressing issues with a relatable sense of confusion.

In addition to creating and writing the show, Ansari stars as Dev, an Indian-American actor and son of immigrants. Dev is doing alright for himself, working steadily and enjoying his youth with a tight knit quartet of friends. But when he’s up for a big movie role in a “black virus movie” and he meets a woman he really likes, he’s confronted with some of the largest questions facing society.

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The show has been receiving rave reviews, and is already finding its way onto “Best of” lists for the end of the year. And it’s no wonder, given the heart and humor that Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang have brought together. Small details, like casting Ansari’s parents in a delightful series of appearances or shooting the show in favorite NYC haunts, go a long way to making the show feel intimate even as it grapples with significant issues.

If it sounds heavy handed, fear not. Each episode is focused tightly on one overarching theme, including racism in the entertainment industry, how to properly thank parents who gave their kids everything, and the differences between how men and women perceive sexism. Under that broad umbrella, Dev confronts smaller, more immediate dilemmas.

But for all that, the show remains light. Dev doesn’t have the answers, neither do his friends nor Busta Rhymes. Everyone is doing their best, and more than once Dev finds himself having to apologize to his girlfriend, to strangers, or to friends. In a rapidly changing society, it’s easy to find oneself on the wrong side of the latest debate not by any malicious intent, but by a slight overlooking of the details. In Master of None, legitimately good people are given the room to muddle through culture at large, and the result is a delightfully relatable and human show.

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In addition to the larger questions, a subplot about Dev’s developing relationship with Rachel (Noel Wells), a woman introduced in the opening scene during a Plan B and Martinelli’s Apple Juice run. They circle each other for a few episodes before heading on a first date to Nashville, then eventually move in together. The show treats the relationship much the way it treats large societal questions: unflinchingly, with no easy answers.

While Dev and Rachel are both funny, interesting people, the show doesn’t force them to be perfect. On their first date, the camera stays tight while they muddle through awkward silences and uncomfortable surprises. But much like in life, the moments pass and they are back to making each other laugh. Without ever making explicit statements about those random early relationship moments, the show captures them perfectly.

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In a later episode, a one year jump is handled smoothly by showing the couple at various mornings throughout their first year living together. The effect is powerful, showing them in the early and thrilling days of their time together and in the later days when the newness has worn off and the business of living as a team becomes more strained. They both mess up, say the wrong thing, apologize, and make up. It’s one of the most striking and real portraits of two people attempting to bring their lives together in recent memory, and one that’s haunting in both its ups and downs.

Although it doesn’t have the answers, or suggest that it does, the show opens up a space where we can all candidly look at the world and ourselves. Ansari has made a TV show that balances deep reflection and easy laughs, and is just the kind of pop culture we desperately need.

WORDS BY:  Bridey Heing

Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.

PHOTO CREDIT:  Netflix

Youth is a Breathtaking Dive into the Meaning of Legacy

It seems necessary to point out from the very beginning that nothing really happens in Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, Youth. But the film is nonetheless one of the most powerful, enjoyable, and moving films of the year. From the opening shot the viewer is transported to a visually striking microcosm of time and space. Centered on two men grappling with their legacies, the film is a warm, touching, entirely human exploration of what it means to age.

PHOTO CREDIT: GIANNI FIORITO

PHOTO CREDIT: GIANNI FIORITO

Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) has been vacationing at the same Swiss luxury resort for over twenty years, first with his wife and now with his daughter (Rachel Weisz). He’s an honored and celebrated composer and conductor, sought after by Queen Elizabeth to perform his iconic “Simple Songs” for Prince Philip’s upcoming birthday. Also at the resort, a classic spa in the Alps, is his friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), working on a script that he calls his “testament,” and Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a young actor pigeonholed by a sci-fi role he’s struggling to get out from under. Surrounded by an eccentric, mostly silent cast of spa employees and guests, the characters grapple with their lives, their loves, and their losses.

The composition of each shot is incomparably stunning, and the entire film feels like a photo essay come to life. Full of jump cuts and wide shots of the beautiful resort, Sorrentino captures elegance and vulnerability with an unflinching willingness to allow them both to exist simultaneously. Be it the juxtaposition of an age spotted arm and the languid rhythm of a masseuse or slumped bodies reposing in a dimly lit swimming pool, the effect is both disquieting and calming, confronting the human body as it is.

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Set in the lushly green and densely foggy Alps, the resort feels like a world unto itself. The easy familiarity of the guests gives rise to moments of surprising intimacy, such as when a veiled woman shows her face in an elevator as she makes her way upstairs for the night. In this secluded place, Jimmy, Mick, and Fred grapple with what they will leave behind and confront the next generation as they realize their legacies are greater than themselves.

For Fred, the Queen’s multiple requests for him to perform at the Prince’s birthday celebration bring to the fore the darker corners of his marriage, a sense of guilt exacerbated when his daughter’s impending divorce pushes her to speak honestly about her childhood. Mike and Jimmy, at differing ends of their cinema careers, are faced with what the sum of their works adds up to. But in touching individual scenes, each man learns that their work exists outside of themselves in a way that transcends generations, even if they don’t immediately see that legacy from where they stand.

But for all the heady subject matter, the film manages to keep a light sense of humor running throughout. Early on in the film, Fred and Jimmy discuss the temptation to give in to levity, and that’s a temptation Sorrentino is more than willing to indulge. For a film that grapples with some of the most weighted issues of the human experience, it may come as a surprise that a Michael-Bay-in-the-Alps pop music video stress dream takes place. It’s just one of many scenes that will draw a good laugh.

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Moments that could give over to unnecessary sentimentality are cut off at the knees by frank conversations, and Sorrentino doesn’t allow the film to become too precious to be poignant. Although at times the symbolism can veer towards the heavy handed, the beauty of each shot makes allowances easy to give.

At just over two hours long, the silence and slow burn of focused shots pays off for those willing to push through the slight drag closer to the end. Youth is a meditation that, when allowed to meander at its own pace, inspires deep thought and reflection, and a few surprising moments of pain and humor. In that sense, it’s a lot like life.

WORDS BY:  Bridey Heing.  Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.

PHOTO CREDIT:  Fox Searchlight Pictures, unless otherwise noted.

A Nuanced Look at the Meaning of Home at the Heart of Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan as "Eilis" in BROOKLYN. Photo by Kerry Brown. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Saoirse Ronan as “Eilis” in BROOKLYN. Photo by Kerry Brown. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s book of the same name, is many things. The story of a young immigrant making her way in America. A complicated love story that eschews easy answers. A look at the bonds between two sisters an ocean apart. Each facet Eilis Lacey’s tale is fascinating, beautiful, and nuanced. But the heart of the film is the universal conflict that faces anyone who builds their life away from their home, and the impossibility of truly bringing differing worlds together.

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) has spent her whole life in County Wexford, Ireland, before boarding a steamer bound for New York City. Her sister, Rose, stays behind to care for their mother, having ensured that Eilis walks into a fairly complete life. The young woman doesn’t have to navigate her new world alone — her boarding house is run by the motherly Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), she works at a department store where she’s managed by a kind and sympathetic woman (Mad Men’s Jessica Pare), and she’s looked after by the intuitive Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). But all the same, she’s far from home and isolated, even in the Irish community that has sprung up in Brooklyn.

Things begin turning around for Eilis as her first winter passes, particularly when she begins taking bookkeeping classes at a local college and meets the charming Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). The two begin a romance that takes Eilis’s mind off her far-away home, and soon the two are considering a future together. But Eilis is called back to Ireland when her older sister passes away, throwing her back into the world she thought she’d never see again. Separated by an ocean from her new life, Eilis begins questioning why she was in America to begin with, and finds a companion in local Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson).

2015, BROOKLYN

Although certainly an immigrant story, Eilis doesn’t face many of the hallmarks of traditional immigrant dramas. She steps into a pre-fabricated life, doesn’t experience the sort of discrimination that has defined immigration to the US during the first half of the 20th century, and enjoys a relatively carefree time in both Brooklyn and Enniscorthy. She’s young, smart, employed, in school, and enjoys a support system that deeply cares about her emotional well being. Her relationships aren’t fraught, and both Tony and Jim clearly respect Eilis a great deal. Instead, the drama of the film rests on the way Eilis relates to her own life.

For anyone who has moved away from the familiar and built a new life, be it an ocean away or a few states away, the roller coaster Eilis experiences will ring true. Upon arriving in America, even with her good fortune, Eilis feels isolated as she works to build her own life away from everything she has ever known. It’s a daunting task in the best of circumstances, and one that she’s perfectly capable of pulling off. The slow integration into her little community is brilliantly tackled, as Eilis finds her own place in a huge city that feels small in the film. Eilis’s feelings of homesickness are never dismissed or discouraged, and instead of being forced to forego her old life all together, she’s afforded the opportunities she left Ireland to find.

But on returning to Ireland, a new drama unfolds. Here the film shines. As Eilis falls back into the familiar, she quickly romanticizes what her life would be like if she stayed in Ireland, and her community certainly rallies around the idea. Being in Ireland is suddenly the easy option, as a job opportunity and a boyfriend fall into Eilis’s lap. The power of distance is palpable as she loses sight of the life she has in Brooklyn, until the reality of the town she left collides with her doubts about leaving.

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There’s a subtly to how the film captures the complex relationship between person and place. When Eilis returns to Ireland, she’s told how glamorous she looks, and small things she picked up the States contrast just sharply enough to remind us that this Eilis isn’t the same girl who left just a year ago. Meanwhile, Eilis is struck by the just-different-enough perspective she has on her former home, and the people in it, as she navigates it with new education and experiences. It’s home, but both she and it are not the same as they once were.

Breathtakingly shot and magnificently acted, Brooklyn is strong without relying on heavy handedness and moving without relying on cheap drama. Instead, it relies on real human emotion and the complexity of home as both concept and place to tell a universal story. In an age when so many move so far around the world, the fact is that home is never as simple as we’d like it to be.

WORDS BY:  Bridey Heing.  Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.

PHOTO CREDIT:  Fox Searchlight Pictures, unless otherwise noted.

Suffragettes: The Story of a Working Class Woman’s Gradual Political Awakening

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PHOTO CREDIT: Focus Features

History has a way of defanging heroes. Time and distance can smooth out the rough edges, take away the radicalism that defined them in relation to their time, and eventually they become little more than black and white pictures in history books. It took less than a century for that to happen to the Suffrage Movement; however Sarah Gavron’s new film, Suffragette, shares a very different view of the women who won their British peers the right to vote.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a 24-year-old worker at a laundry, where she’s been employed since she was 7 years old. She works alongside her husband for a sexually abusive manager.  She manages to work her way up through the ranks because of her skillful ironing of collars. One day, while on a delivery, she gets caught up in a riot as Suffragettes, called to rebellion by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), start smashing windows.

As it happens, a co-worker is part of the movement, and Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) encourages Maud to get involved. Initially, she’s hesitant; but, when Violet arrives to give testimony before the Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George with her face badly bruised, Maud steps in to share what life is like for the women at the laundry, and why they deserve the right to vote. From there it’s a steep road to protesting, prison, and eventual exile from her family as Maud becomes more and more involved in the fight for voting rights.

Carey Mulligan as Maud in SUFFRAGETTE

Carey Mulligan as Maud in SUFFRAGETTE. PHOTO CREDIT: Focus Features

In truth, the film isn’t really the story of women’s suffrage in Great Britain. It’s the story of one working class woman’s gradual political awakening and empowerment. Although the fictional Maud is dropped into a cast of historical figures, including Emily Davison, the film is tightly focused on a small group of activists. The Suffragettes of the film are local, tight-knit, and working class.

The incredible struggle for women’s rights is explored through the small band of women. Until now, the most prevalent pop culture reference to the Suffragettes has most likely been the flighty and upbeat Winifred Banks singing of how their daughters’ daughters would adore them.  Far from this image, Suffragette doesn’t shy away from showing the very real danger of speaking up. Maud is beaten, arrested, thrown out of her home, separated from her son, force fed … and she’s just one woman.

The film also shows the layered oppression of women. It’s not just the law that keeps women living as second-class citizens. While the cruelty of Maud’s boss is immediately evident, her husband, Sonny, seems kind at first. Eventually, when Maud dares to join the fight, he lashes out against his wife’s “shaming” behavior. Violet’s husband beats her, and when she becomes pregnant she has to back away from activism. Alice Haughton, the privileged wife of an MP, is financially controlled by her husband, who is willing to “indulge” her but refuses to bail out her fellow activists. Despite being empowered and strong women, the precarious nature of their own involvement is underlined by these subtle moments when the men who are ultimately in charge draw a line in the sand.

The most interesting male character, however, is Inspector Arthur Steed, played by Brendan Gleeson. He’s brought in to investigate the wing of the Woman’s Social and Political Union that Maud becomes involved in, and is clearly drawn to Maud as a possible weak link. He repeatedly makes clear that he’s just there to enforce the laws and to follow orders. When he overhears Maud’s anguished choking while being force fed, his discomfort is made clear.  The film doesn’t try to make him a convert to the good fight, which would feel like a cop-out. Instead, he’s a manifestation of the passive maintenance of the status quo.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Focus Features

The film has many touching, moving, inspiring and harrowing scenes. But one that stands out as particularly relevant given today’s resurgence of feminism occurs early on in the film. Maud, having just been arrested at a protest, is being interrogated by Steed. When he begins questioning her activities as a Suffragette, Maud is quick to clarify: “I’m not a Suffragette.” She repeats it several times, clearly terrified and desperate to get home to her family, as Steed asks what she was doing there, why she gave testimony, and why she’s been photographed with known activists.

The fight for equality is already Maud’s fight, regardless of whether she uses the word “Suffragette” or not. Shortly after that conversation, Maud joins full-force.  Nevertheless, her initial hesitation to align herself with the women decried by the media, hunted by the government, and reviled by her community says a lot.  In it, there are echoes of women who today refuse to describe themselves as feminists. As Emmeline Pankhurst once said, what matters are “deeds, not words.”

It is without a doubt that the Suffrage Movement deserves to be brought to vivid life after so many years of blurred photos of women holding banners. And Suffragette does that, balancing the many dangers women who fought for the right to vote withstood and the bonds they made while changing the lives of women and their political futures forever. Finally, their daughters’ daughters’ daughters can get a glimpse of what their fight truly meant and a more accurate picture of what it might have looked like.

WORDS BY:  Bridey Heing.  Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.

Netflix Gems: The Awakening: A Chilling Look at How the Past Haunts Us

As the nights get longer and the winds pick up, few things are as gratifying as a truly good scary movie. But with the reliance on gore and shock in mainstream horror, it’s not always easy to find one that walks the line between viscerally scary and thoughtful. That’s a line walked carefully and brilliantly by 2011’s The Awakening, a classic thriller with engaging twists.

Released four years ago by BBC Films and Studiocanal, The Awakening boasts a stellar cast. Rebecca Hall stars as Florence Cathcart, an author and supernatural debunker helping combat the rise of spiritualists in 1920s England. She’s approached by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher at a boys’ prep school in the country, with a chilling account of a young ghost who may have been involved in the death of a student. Unconvinced, Cathcart agrees to investigate the school on the assumption that she’ll disprove the haunting ahead of the next term. But when she arrives, she finds her nerves and beliefs rattled by what she discovers.

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The isolated and disciplinarian world of British boarding schools in the early 20th century offers endless fodder for tension. Here, the setting plays well into tropes — Mallory is a sympathetic teacher, while a colleague uses corporal punishment to discipline his charges. The students bully one another relentlessly, while the administration looks the other way. Echoing halls, violent paintings, and a shady groundskeeper who skulks around the woods at the edge of the school’s property round out the chilling locale.

Set in 1921, the film draws on the deep sense of loss and instability that confronted Britain after the First World War. In some ways, that particular time period invokes a harder to fathom pain, born of a culture that was grappling with the meaning of an unprecedented conflict and that faced another in just over a decade. Regret and mourning are at the forefront of the internal struggle for each character, be it Cathcart’s continued agony over an unnamed lover who died in the war, Mallory’s complicated sense of guilt for having survived, and groundskeeper Judd’s reactionary defensiveness over not having fought.

The general atmosphere of suppressed sadness, and the shared trauma of the war lend the film a tension that rests beyond the possible existence of ghosts. That the spirit haunting the house-turned-school has nothing at all to do with the First World War doesn’t feel like a mistake. Instead it lends an emotional weight to the deep need to find an answer to the haunting. If ghosts exist, is death forever? Do our memories haunt us beyond moment of quiet when we can’t keep them away, and what possible powers do the totems we cling to hold? For the characters in the film, bridging the gap between life and death has immediate consequence.

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The most engaging part of the story, though, might be Florence Cathcart’s place in the world. An educated woman, she’s not an overly made-up lady playing at work. She’s in charge, delegating tasks to those around her, writing books and carving out a space for herself as a leading expert during a time when women were rarely given the honor. In brief scenes of sexuality, she’s shown as capable and unafraid, an equal to her partner. She’s a woman who stands out in her time, but it’s never turned into a punchline.

But while the tension keeps you on the edge of your seat and the film is thoroughly enjoyable, it takes a Bababook-style turn that doesn’t quite do the rest of the story justice. Things come together in a way that doesn’t feel quite right, although elements of the resolution are gratifying. In the end, the film hits the note that our past can haunt us, especially when we fail to confront it. While that’s a good lesson, it’s one that ends up being a bit on the nose for an otherwise subtle film.

WORDS BY:  Bridey Heing

Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.

Netflix Gems: Narcos: What About the Ladies?

Netflix long ago established itself as the go-to source for movie streaming. But the site is growing into a media powerhouse in its own right with sensational original programming that routinely rates highly among both critics and viewers. Titles that are now ubiquitous, like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, defined the slow-burn formula that makes Netflix drama so bingeable. Their latest tackles the business behind an addiction that took the United States by storm in the 1980s: cocaine.

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar and Juan Pablo Raba as  Gustavo in the Netflix Original Series NARCOS.  Photo: Daniel Daza/Netflix.

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar and Juan Pablo Raba as Gustavo in the Netflix Original Series NARCOS. Photo: Daniel Daza/Netflix.

In Narcos, a ten part series that hit Netflix in late August, Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) rises to the top of the Colombian drug war, controlling the Medellin Cartel and funneling cocaine in the United States. Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal), two DEA agents hoping to bring down the kingpin and the empire he’s built, struggle to confront the complex web of smugglers, dealers, and corrupt government officials fueling the spiraling drug war.

Although the plot itself takes some time to unfold, the show is a testosterone fueled ride through some of the most well-established organized crime tropes in pop culture. The sheer unfathomable nature of Escobar’s lifestyle and fortune — the billions of dollars, the sprawling estate, the level of control he had — feels mythic. This dramatized retelling of his career, spliced in with actual news footage from the 1980s, is a story of sex, violence, and drugs. Everything needed for a dramatic series to keep viewers entertained as the story itself picks up speed.

But among the tropes, one feels particularly overplayed: Women.  In Narcos, like in most works within the organized crime and gangster genre, women are peripheral at best. The world exists in two poles – the crime bosses who rule and the authorities out to take them down.  Along the spectrum between the two, a spectrum portrayed much more completely in this show than in other similar works, is where the women live.  They  bounce back and forth between the roles of prostitute and informant, wife and accomplice, mistress and professional. They are able influence the men at the center of the story, but never quite get that center themselves.

In many ways, this feels true to life. Cartels and organized crime are male-dominated worlds, with women more often the victims of violence and exploitation than the perpetrators of it. But that’s not always the case; in Mexico, female leaders like Claudia Ochoa Felix have carved out a space for themselves in the bloody drug wars. In the 1980s, cocaine had Griselda Blanco, a major player alongside her husband and in her own right in the rise of coke in Miami. It says a lot that Narcos makes no mention of Blanco.  This isn’t just the story of the drug trade; it’s the story of the men who built and fought it.

Escobar himself has all the charm of a very bad man who is very good at what he does. Moura plays him with subtlety, dropping information about the families of the authorities who could arrest him or casually telling security forces to choose “silver or lead” when they stop him on the road. His reach is long, and his methods so brutal that it doesn’t take more than a few words for him to threaten anyone standing in his way. Escobar is a legend, albeit one soaked in blood, and Moura brings him to life.

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Pablo Escobar and his wife, Tata. PHOTO CREDIT: Netflix

His relationship with his wife, Tata, shows another side of the brutal drug kingpin. From the very beginning and despite his continued affair with journalist Valeria Velez, there’s never any doubt that Escobar adores his wife. And yet, she’s given very little development. Instead, she’s the same-old wife married to organized crime. When the DEA is closing in on their sprawling mansion and Escobar tells Tata that they have to leave immediately, she protests because she’s been cooking all day, but quickly reassures him that she’ll do anything for him. In another scene, we get a glimpse of Tata’s limited role in the operation when she tells Escobar that he has to do whatever it takes. Beyond this, she seems to be a sheltered and protected, or willfully naive, woman happy to live in luxury with the man who loves her.

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Pablo and his lover, reporter Valeria Velez. PHOTO CREDIT: Netflix

The story of women in these types of stories is always one of extreme juxtaposition. While Tata and Valeria, who is given the closest access to power due to her understanding of politics and role in the press, enjoy comfort, other women are subjected to the violence that defines the drug war. In the second episode, we meet Helena, a prostitute with whom Agent Peña has a mixed relationship of business and pleasure. A few scenes after meeting her, she is repeatedly subjected to horrific sexual assault after one of Escobar’s associates suspects she’s up to something. When Peña saves her and Murphy finds out he was left behind on purpose, a few lines are shared between the two about Helena before Murphy demands to be included fully in operations. Helena never makes another appearance; she’s just a tool through which the show can demonstrate Peña’s heart and Holbrook’s career trajectory.

There are two brief exceptions to the rule, however. Connie, Agent Murphy’s wife, and Elisa, a communist with guerilla group M-19, are given the chance to confront the violence of the cartel. Elisa becomes an informant, risking her life to connect Escobar to an attack on the Palace of Justice carried out by M-19. Connie takes a lead role in ensuring her safety, including a dangerous drive out of the city. But even so, a large part of the tension surrounding Elisa is her ability to torpedo the careers of both Peña and Murphy given her communist past.

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Shot in Colombia, Narcos is gorgeous and lush. The juxtaposition of the green, sweeping landscape and the brutality of the Medellin Cartel is striking, even as the frequent sexuality and luxury of the cartel leaders’ lives keeps the show in Scarface territory. But it doesn’t shy away from showing the larger context of Escobar’s reign, and the high cost it had for Colombia. That’s in part what makes it so disappointing that the show doesn’t offer women the same complex identities the men are given. In a show that blends fact and fiction seamlessly, the opportunity to explore the gendered nature of the cartels is immense and wouldn’t require a great deal of historical rewriting.

 

WORDS BY:  Bridey Heing

Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.

Netflix Gems: Rita, Not Your Average Teacher

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Netflix may be everyone’s favorite way to catch a flick at home, but it can be easy to lose obscure titles in the mass of films and shows available. To help you get the most out of your Netflix experience — and maybe find a new favorite — we’ll be bringing your attention to some that may be flying under your radar, but deserve a place in your queue.

Among the beloved series we binge-watch and movies we guilt-watch, Netflix has some of the most entertaining international programming to hit TVs. In some ways, Netflix’s access to shows from around the world is revolutionizing what we watch, removing country blocks and creating cultural touchstones across national borders. One example of this is Rita. The Danish comedy- drama was such a hit that the streaming company co-funded its third season.

The titular main character, Rita, is a free-spirited schoolteacher with a way of getting herself into trouble. She’s wildly popular with the students in her 4th and 9th grade classes, likely in part because she doesn’t pull punches and speaks to them in a way that many parents don’t find appropriate. She’s less popular with administration and her fellow adults, and a tense relationship with the principal, Rasmus, is only exacerbated by their affair. At home, Rita has two older children and one boy in high school.

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Ultimately, although at times frustrating, Rita is a totally loveable character. She’s compassionate and passionate, fiercely independent but insecure. She makes her decisions and is willing to live with their consequences, no matter what that may mean. While those around her may play the game, Rita isn’t out to change who she is for anyone else and that’s what makes her an ideal heroine.

The show is equal parts funny, dramatic, and at times absurd. The comedy is subtle, not an exaggerated caricature as much as a nudge and a wink. The drama, though, is realistically emotional, more about the interior lives and worries of Rita and her kids than anything overstated. The strangeness of Rita’s life, as a teacher and single mother, provides plenty of fodder for both laughs and tears.

Rita, like the woman it is named for, is a complex, many layered show that balances entertainment and relevancy, tenderness and harsh edges, and the complicated relationships between women and society.

Netflix Gems: Murder in a Small Town Reveals the Nature of Secrecy and Community in Broadchurch

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Netflix may be everyone’s favorite way to catch a flick at home, but it can be easy to lose obscure titles in the mass of films and shows available. To help you get the most out of your Netflix experience — and maybe find a new favorite — we’ll be bringing your attention to some that may be flying under your radar, but deserve a place in your queue.

Set along the picturesque Dorset coast, the show begins immediately after the death of 11-year-old Danny Latimer. Local Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) is assigned to the case with new-in-town, gruff Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant). Her own close connection to the Latimer family and the tight-knit sense of community in the small town of Broadchurch, makes the investigation particularly challenging. Detective Sergeant Miller’s desire to solve the murder while balancing her own relationships with suspects presents obstacles, particularly in working with Detective Inspector Hardy, who struggles with his own past demons.

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Broadchurch, unfolds slowly over the course of the first season. Each episode focuses closely on a particular resident, their history, darker corners, and links to Danny Latimer. In a town like Broadchurch, everyone knows everyone and possible motives or connections are easy to find. A former alcoholic parish priest, a scoutmaster who served time for a relationship with a minor, a father having an affair, all come under the close scrutiny of the investigation. For Detective Sergeant Miller, it’s a deeply personal experience trying to sort through leads while being a sympathetic and sensitive member of her own community. For Detective Inspector Hardy, the investigation is a chance to make right a former case he wasn’t able to solve, and his drive to bring justice in this case leaves little room for humanity.

The slow pacing of the show ratchets up the tension considerably, with drama drawn less from huge moments of action and more from the intimacy of relationships and the nature of secrecy in close communities. As each layer is pulled back on the characters, showing their secrets and regrets, the illusion of safety that at first makes Broadchurch seem so perfect fades away.

But the reality is that things like the murder of Danny Latimer happen in Broadchurch, and Miller’s shock as she learns the hidden truths about people she thought she knew well is juxtaposed against the casually cynical outlook that allows Detective Investigator Hardy to push past idyllic assumptions about small town life. Ill and self-medicating, Hardy’s growly voice and off putting distance make him a bit of a cop drama trope, but one that Tennant pulls off well. He’s not an easy-to-love hero, an outsider in a town full of insiders, but that’s what Broadchurch needs to see into itself.

Combining the grisly lure of cop dramas with a meditative approach to the nature of community, Broadchurch will hook you in early and keep you on the edge of your seat. Be ready to binge watch it, though. You’ll want to, and it will help you keep track the more understated details that make the story so engrossing.

 

 

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: The Coming of Age Film We All Deserve

When it comes to tropes capable of cutting both ways, the teenager desperate to navigate the first sexual encounter stands tall as a reliable box office draw and source of fodder. It can be comedic, jarring, dramatic, artistic – all the while maintaining the allure of those heady days when one’s body is flailing and one is trying to just figure it all out.

Then comes a film like Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and the trope no longer feels so commonplace.

Heller’s film, based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name, opens on Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley) just after having had sex for the first time. The fifteen-year-old, growing up in the 1970s in San Francisco with her mother (played by a magnetic Kristen Wiig) and sister, is euphoric and shocked and every emotion in-between, but more than anything she’s sure of one thing: Now, she is an adult. There is only one problem. The man she has just lost her virginity to is Monroe (Alexander Skasgard), her mother’s boyfriend.

Minnie begins exploring the vibrant interior world of a girl discovering her own sexuality for the first time by recording her diary onto cassette tapes and illustrating her thoughts in a notebook. She wants to become an artist; yet, at the heart of the story lays Minnie’s burgeoning sex drive, and the precarious nature of being young, horny, and testing boundaries.

While teenage boys are often the main subjects of sex comedies that show them desperate to get laid, their often ham-handed tactics played for laughs, girls don’t get the same treatment. Female sexuality, even in its first awkward forms, is either written for drama or covered up in order to play the foil to the boys around them. Minnie’s flowering sexuality, however, is not covered up, and her story isn’t necessarily written for drama either, although the dramatic element is there. For Minnie, as for many girls her age, sexuality and adulthood are so deeply linked that she is convinced she has changed forever after her first time with Monroe.

With the acquired gifts of time and distance, adults will immediately be able to see the major creep factor in the 35- year-old Monroe sleeping with his girlfriend’s teenage daughter. By the time Minnie comes around to seeing him for what he is – a good looking but ultimately dead-end guy – one can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. Nevertheless, for Minnie, getting there takes some time and the film has way more lines to blur beyond those that define her relationship with her mother’s boyfriend.

The genius of the film is in the room it gives Minnie to explore her desire and the unflinching look it provides of the moment when fantasy collides with reality. Minnie is learning through trial and error, finding her own limits as she goes. She sees herself as a “harlot” and finds her “all consuming thoughts about sex and men” distracting. Along with her friend Kimmie, Minnie throws herself head first into this new, adult world of sexuality, only to find herself startled from time to time with what she is willing to do. Take, for example, when she and Kimmie pose as prostitutes and get paid to give two strangers oral sex. The next morning, the two girls, lying on Minnie’s bed with smudged eyeliner and bewildered expressions on their faces, agree to never do that again.

Heller doesn’t moralize Minnie’s journey or the nature of her encounters. Instead, she allows Minnie to discover those points of discomfort for herself, and lets her leave the situation wiser and unpunished. It’s an admirable move, particularly when teen pregnancy, or worse, is often used to teach teenage girls that their sexuality is a thing to be feared. Minnie gets into trouble and puts herself in dangerous situations, but she learns from them and backs away to a safe distance before inching forward again in a new direction.

“This is for all the girls when they have grown,” Minnie says into her tape recorder. It feels so true too, but the film is also for girls in the process of growing. Many will see their own emotions reflected in the all consuming need to know more and experience more as sexuality is tested to its limits in order to see what it’s all about. Many will also recognize the pain of giving too much value to looks and desirability, looking outward for validation of one’s own existence and viewing sexuality as a ticket to love. It’s not always easy to watch, but it’s honest and that’s better than cheap laughs or a moralizing cautionary tale. This is the film teenage girls deserve.