“Promising Young Woman” film review

An intriguing story on a timely topic with lots of promise; however, it ultimately leaves little room for redemption. But hey, Mulligan’s performance was truly outstanding! After being away from the cinema for over a month in the wake of my grandmother’s passing just before Christmas, I returned to the Universal Cinemark. Usually, I am on top of new theatrical releases, but I was unable to attend the cinema while out of town. So I am just now getting to Promising Young Woman. As such, I’ve been able to read tweets, read blogs, and listen to reviews of this film. Needless to say, I was expecting one of the best films of 2020; unfortunately, that is not the case. While the film showcases an exceptional performance by Carey Mulligan, and even a solid performance by Bo Burnham, the film fails to follow some basic narrative conventions. There was such a fantastic opportunity to comment on toxic college culture, including the epidemic of higher education covering-up sexual assault, the rationalization of not taking responsibility for one’s actions, and (this is where the film fails its audience) the ability for one to have a redemption arc. Where is the redemption in the film? Nowhere to be found. However, we have an excellent example of what happens when one refuses to forgive. Unforgiveness is like a poison that eats away at the mind and soul. Forgiveness does not equal forgetting nor pretending that everything is okay. For a film that was full of promising teachable moments, it succumbs to the narrative trap of an inability to acknowledge that change is possible. If Scrooge can be redeemed, so can we all.

Synopsis: Nothing in Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan) life is what it appears to be — she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter with a former colleague Ryan (Bo Burnham), she sees this as a chance to right the wrongs from the past.

Before I get into the issues I take with the message, plot, and narrative, I want to highlight what the film delivered well. Standing out, is the phenomenal performance by Mulligan. While my personal principle of only watching/reviewing films that have an exclusive theatrical run limit the scope of what I can cover, from the 2020 films that I did see, her performance is certainly a standout from the year. This showcase performance is likely to land her a Best Actress in a Leading Role nomination at the Oscars and Globes. I greatly appreciate how the character of Cassie is both colorful, and glossy one moment, and dark and terrifying the next. Even simultaneously conveying the complexities of a character suffering from a personal hell brought on by unresolved trauma. The other performance of note is Bo Burnham’s as Ryan. While not as notable a performance as Mulligan’s, there is still a lot to be admired in this role, which is largely a departure from the majority of the roles from his past. This film serves as a conduit for him to showcase his acting chops in a more serious role. Even though his performance may not land him on any awards lists, it’s still a performance that will undoubtedly land him future leading roles. And hopefully one of those future roles will give him a more complex character to portray.

Despite my reservations with the plot, I cannot not acknowledge this directorial accomplishment by Emerald Fennell. Clearly, Fennell’s penchant for direction is witnessed in this film. While she has been nominated for her television screenwriting, where she shines in this film is in her role as director. Each scene is directed skillfully, and thoughtfully. Of all the great scenes, the one that stands out the most is the showdown between Cassie and Al Monroe at the bachelor party. Clearly, Fennell understands the power of nuance, and can communicate that throughout the film. Screenplays need writers who care, and films need directors who care. And Fennell inarguably cares about how each scene is executed and the characters therein.

Representation vs reality. There is a grand discussion topic; one that is core to film studies. In fact, just today, I was lecturing to my film studies students at the University of Tampa on representation vs reality. Whether or not the subjects on screen (people, places, things) exist within our reality, they are certainly representative of that which is real. And Fennell certainly leans heavily into representation of her version of reality. Unfortunately, in her warped version of reality, no one is written with an ability to acknowledge or take responsibility for past/current sins and then CHANGE, to experience a redemption arc. Instead, our central character of Cassie is written as a narcissistic, self-righteous young woman that goes through life as judge, jury, and executioner; she is prohibited from changing her worldview; likewise, the character of Ryan is prohibited from changing for the better, and is viewed through the lens of his reckless youth.

Most individuals, male or female, from Cassie’s past, are depicted as exhibiting deplorable behavior. The men of Promising Young Woman are especially depicted as reprehensible people. Even the likable character of Ryan, who is supposed to represent the actual “good guy” is sent to the metaphoric gallows for his past, despite the fact that he had demonstrably changed since college and had healthy, genuine romantic feelings for Cassie. The fact of the matter is, observational and statistical evidence shows that most men are NOT like the ones at the bar or in that video footage of the shameful, contemptible, disgusting sexual assault in college. Yes, some are, and they need to be held accountable for their egregious actions by law enforcement. And the leadership at universities needs to be held accountable for covering up these sexual assault crimes. Where the film excels is confronting both the dean of the college and the lawyer that protected Al Monroe from prosecution; these scenes are particularly powerful and provide commentary on a real problem that needs to be dealt with. Even the showdown between Cassie and Monroe provides thoughtful content to discuss and provide a wakeup call for those that engage in sexually criminal behavior as college students. Furthermore, the film does a brilliant job at exploring just how those that commit “drunken” sexual assault can rationalize why they aren’t actually responsible for their actions. Terrifying, but true.

The films does the characters of Cassie and Ryan a gross disservice. We’ll start with Ryan. While he was certainly complacent in the sexual assault against Nina, and should be confronted, he changed since his college days. He should’ve been given the opportunity to acknowledge his past, and demonstrate how he has experienced a personal redemption arc. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still consequences, but people CAN change. He could’ve also been an example of the fact that there are actual good guys out there. This would’ve shown Cassie that she cannot assume that all men are despicable, despite the narrative she has experienced; thus acknowledging the error in judgement of her worldview. She isn’t without blemishes on her own record either; therefore, she cannot personally go around condemning all those she deems unworthy of forgiveness. Ryan is a relatable character because he is the most human out of all of them. He isn’t perfect, and he certainly doesn’t pretend to be. He has made mistakes, just like all of us. Granted, his mistake in being complacent during and after the sexual assault he was witness was a terrible one; but he certainly changed in the years following the tragic crime.

And now for Cassie. When we refuse to forgive someone that has wronged us (whether that wrong is mostly harmless or criminally abominable), it’s important to forgive as to not become a prisoner of our mind. Now, forgiveness does NOT mean forgetting, nor does it mean that everything is as it was before. Trust is still broken, lives are still lost, trauma is still experienced. Unforgiveness is like drinking poison; it’s like constructing a personal prison because it’s a toxic mindset that still allows the wrong-doer to have power over the life of the individual that was wronged. To the film’s credit, this toxic behavior is depicted quite well in the character of Cassie, as her refusal to forgive, to release herself from the prison of her mind, ultimately leads to her destruction. Much like the plot does not allow Ryan to be forgiven after his demonstrable change, the film also does a disservice to its central character, because Cassie never changes. There is a glimmer of change, but is quickly shattered. In this film, there were great teachable opportunities (1) to illustrate that there are good guys out there even if their past isn’t spotless (2) that Cassie’s lack of forgiveness is toxic, and prevents her from experiencing a healthy mind and spirit and (3) Ryan could’ve acknowledged and dealt with the idea that complacency contributes to the larger institutional problem of sexual assault in college. This film paints a portrait that change and redemption are impossible concepts.

For all the promise that this film had for a comprehensive approach to teen and college sexual assault, and the cover-up thereof, it fails to provide any avenues for redemption, which hinders the narrative from having the emotional impact it should’ve had. It ultimately falls victim to its own narcissistic self-righteous central character in a revenge plot that leaves no room for redemption. But, this film is a great exercise in the emotional and psychological affects that the lack of forgiveness has upon the mind and soul that ultimately leads to a toxic self-prison.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Coda: the Death of Michael Corleone

A testament to the timeless, evolving art of theatrical motion pictures! Cinematic genius Francis Ford Coppola reedits and retitles the past in the exclusively theatrical release of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Coda: the Death of Michael Corleone. Whoa, that was a mouthful. I can see why it didn’t exactly work for most marquees back in 1990. I appreciate Paramount gifting us with a limited theatrical run, which is positively the best way to experience and return to the complex world of the Corleone family. For those that are uncomfortable attending the cinema, The Godfather Coda will be available to own on physical media in the coming weeks. Other than the title, the most significant changes from Godfather: Part III are to the beginning and ending. But throughout the film, Coppola reedited and rearranged scenes so that this “director’s cut” is leaner than the original version. The Godfather series is no stranger to re-releases and supercuts for premium television. It’s as if this masterpiece is a work of art that Coppola is never truly satisfied or finished with, allowing him to tinker with it through the decades. One can liken his reedit of this film with his remix of Apocalypse Now. Since the very end is different from the original, I will not address the changes other than to state that it feels much more complete, and satisfying both narratively and emotionally.

In terms of the main action plot, this reedit is still about an aging Michael Corleone whom strives to abandon his old ways and become a legitimate businessman and philanthropist by developing a foundation and bailing out the Catholic Church’s crippling bank. Unfortunately, his personal journey of morality and redemption does not bode well for ancillary organized crime arms of the greater mafia. And thus, he becomes a target within the world he godfathered. Although concentrated in this installment, the global story in The Godfather saga is one of morality and redemption. As I regularly point out to my students, you may not agree with the business practices and skewed worldview of the Corleone family, but you have to admire the respect for tradition, family, and order. And in their own way, they adhere to strong moral and ethical values; and it’s that devotion to moral and ethical principles that we can admire. The collective history of The Godfather saga is as storied and illustrious as the history of the Corleone family itself. When discussions about the very nature of cinema are in discourse, The Godfather saga is one that is often cited as an example of a film that is the very definition of cinematic.

Harkening back to key moments from Godfather I/II, the reedits allow the film to better and more effectively mirror iconic and character-defining moments from the–let’s face it–stronger first two films. From opening the film on a party to intercutting violence against a high-profile public event towards the end, The Godfather Coda is a thoughtful exploration of dramatic irony and foreboding omen. By engaging in the art of montage (French for assembly), Coppola demonstrates how assembly can greatly impact the experience of the motion picture. Same story, but assembled differently in order to create a leaner, more coherant narrative. Upon watching The Godfather Coda, fans of Part III will appreciate how the plot is less (not far less, but less) convoluted than the original. Although there are still screenwriting and directing missteps, that are ostensibly ghosts from the past that will always be present, the changes greatly improve the story.

The coda to the Corleone family saga is a deeply moving cinematic motion picture that reminds us of the power of cinema. While even recut, it doesn’t match the level of critical and cultural success of the first two films, it is still full of excellence in visual storytelling for the silver screen.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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“FREAKY” Horror Movie Review

Friday the 13th meets Freaky Friday in the no-holds-barred, feel good horror movie of the year! Universal Pictures has certainly gone back to its horror roots in 2020. In February, it gave us The Invisible Man and on Friday the 13th of November, it gives us FREAKY. Writer-director Christopher Landon, who gave us many horror movies including Happy Death Day and Disturbia, delivers a refreshing horror movie filled with inventive kills, a fun plot, and frisky characters. Everything that you love about 80s slashers is here in this love letter to the horror subgenre that still brings friends together today. Funny how horror movies–movies filled with that which would repulse us in real life–have the opposite effect of promoting inclusiveness and community. And it’s that sense of community that separates horror, specifically the slasher, from other film genres. There was a magic in the decade of 80s horror that continues to greatly influence content creators and fans today. Landon knew this, and channeled so much of what made the slasher take the world by storm into this movie. While FREAKY is an entertaining movie regardless, it will be the nods to movies such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Child’s Play that will inevitably bring about the nostalgic thrill ride that Landon carefully crafted! Starting out as a masked killer, Vince Vaughn soon delivers the laughs as he captures every nuance of a mousey, bullied teenage girl trapped in a middle-aged man’s body. Likewise, Kathryn Newton perfectly captures a notorious slasher trapped inside a teenage girl’s body. Perhaps FREAKY is a little lite on the lessons learned from the body swap achieved through a Child’s Play-like mystic ritual, but Newton’s Millie does learn confidence. From the opening, that’s clearly an homage to the shock of SCREAM, through the hijinks and antics to the climactic ending, there is something for everyone in this movie–especially for geeky horror fiends like myself!

A mystical, ancient dagger causes a notorious serial killer to magically switch bodies with a 17-year-old girl. (IMDb)

That’s it. Simple, right? Some of the best movies of all time have simple plots and complex characters. Okay, so FREAKY may not have incredibly complex characters, but what it lacks in dimension, it makes up in a diverse cast plus doubling down on its identity as a genre film. Horror movies have long since been the most progressive of all the genres, and Landon keeps this value alive in his latest movie. Even before mainstream movies began including strong female characters, critiquing toxic jock culture, and including non-parodied LGBT+ characters, horror was a leader in inclusion and diversity. Has it too evolved over the years, of course; but my point is that it’s always been the leader. Using a reimagination of Freaky Friday as a slasher as the foundation, the movie is able to get incredibly creative with the conflict, character dynamics, and the kills! It is unlikely that any of these kills will make Top 10 lists one day, but they are mostly homages to past kills from tentpole horror movies. Is the plot predictable? Yes. But does that take away from the entertaining factor? Definitely not. This movie knows what it is, and delivers the laughs and squeamish winces in spades! Predictable as the plot may be, it is not without its unique twists and turns. I appreciate how those that are killed by either THE Blissfield Butcher or Murder Barbie are bullies in one way or another. Perhaps this movie doesn’t go very deep, but it’s certainly a cautionary tale on the deadly consequences of direct and indirect bullying and assault.

If you go into this movie wanting something completely new, then you’re going in with the wrong attitude. If you want to see a new twist on a foundational part of horror cinema, then you’ve come to the right movie! It’s been quite a while since there has been such an unapologetically fun movie in cinemas, and this is precisely the antidote to uplift the geeky horror spirit!

PS. Can we please stop using the Mystic Falls (Covington, GA) town square from Vampire Diaries in every movie that needs a small town? At least this time, I couldn’t make out the Mystic Grill in the background like I could in Doctor Sleep.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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“Kajillionaire” Film Mini-Review

An exercise in how bored can you leave the audience before they fall asleep. Miranda July’s Kajillionaire is a thoughtful story that attempts to explore how one’s family can hold one back from healthy personal and professional development; however, the method of plot execution leaves the audience wondering why they should even care about the story. Had it not been for the compelling performances by the ensemble cast, I would’ve lost completely interest in the film. Kajillionaire desperately wants you to be engaged, but outstanding performances alone cannot keep an audience’s attention for the duration of the runtime. The film is billed as a comedy, but I never found myself laughing or even chuckling. Tonally, the film is all over the place. Had the film committed to striking a consistent tone, then perhaps the comedic elements would have stood out more instead of feeling random and forced. Clearly July set out to craft a motion picture that commented on brainwashing, neglect, and child rearing with a lack of empathy, sexual discovery, and those elements are depicted; but the film delivers a narrative that was so preoccupied with the message, that it forgot that it also needed to be even mildly entertaining. Quite frankly, the film has the personality and dimension of cardboard. Which is unfortunate, considering that the subject matter aims to be thought provoking. This film strikes me as one of those that is tailor-made made for #FilmTwitter to posit as the next great indie darling, when the story and characters are largely forgettable. What I will remember most about the film is the excellent performances delivered by the cast.

PS. I hope to be back to full reviews soon, but assisting the Florida Department of Health with COVID-19 data collection and analysis and writing for Four’s a Crowd Podcast, and of course my academic work at the University of Tampa, leaves me with limited time presently.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Ryan is also the creator of the Four’s a Crowd sitcom podcast now streaming on your favorite podcatcher. Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1