Netflix

To the Bone – Review

Netflix Originals have found themselves the subject of controversy in recent months. 13 Reasons Why, released to much fanfare in March this year, was criticised by a number of mental health groups, with advocates suggesting that the depiction of suicide was potentially dangerous and questionable in its perceived glamorisation of suicide. Now its latest effort, To the Bone, has been scrutinised for the manner in which anorexia is portrayed.

Lily Collins, a former sufferer of an eating disorder herself, stars as Ellen, a twenty-year-old college dropout and artist, who has already participated in a number of in-patient programmes. Thus far these programmes have proven to be unsuccessful, and the narrative begins with Ellen being asked to return to her father, stepmother and stepsister due to her perceived poor influence on the other patients. Ellen’s mother, now remarried, has moved to Phoenix, neglecting to keep Ellen with her, citing her disorder as being too difficult to deal with at present. It is immediately apparent that the narrative is hoping to implicate Ellen’s dysfunctional family (her father lacks interest, and fails to attend a parent/ patient interview later on) as well as the impact her art has had on others. Her Tumblr page, which featured Ellen’s art, was referenced in the suicide note of a fan, and Ellen has subsequently found herself blamed for creating damaging art. Ellen is asked to join a programme run by Doctor Beckham (Keanu Reeves), in which she will live in a house with other patients. It is this experience that serves as the majority of the narrative.

Collins is certainly dedicated to her role and, as has been widely reported, lost a significant amount of weight to portray an anorexia sufferer. Her Ellen is engaging, and successfully serves as the film’s focal point. But Collins’ performance alone is not enough to help this film become anything more than, what is essentially, a one-note drama that is more likely to be viewed on afternoon television. The plot is predictable, and only hints at issues that may highlight why girls in particular experience such eating disorders, with Ellen noting that her developing body attracted unwanted attention, and her restrictive eating was, in part, a response to that. Ultimately, though, the film lacks any intellectual or thoughtful discussion of such a disorder, and, has been suggested by those qualified to do so, can prove damaging to some viewers.

Before its release, the concept of To the Bone meant that it was always going to court controversy. Collins, and writer and director Marti Noxon, have been at pains to note that, being survivors of an eating disorder, they are both equipped to portray such an experience. Certainly, both are suitable to depict an experience familiar to them, but presenting such an experience as being universal is reductive. No experience of an eating disorder is truly familiar, and to suggest otherwise indicates to the viewer that there is one way of experiencing such a disorder, a concerning conceit. Perhaps, ultimately, the medium chosen should be questioned. Is film a suitable construct to discuss such an issue? Certainly To the Bone, is not.

 

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G.L.O.W. Review

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There has been much fanfare surrounding the release of G.L.O.W. Netflix originals are becoming deluge like, and there is the risk that quantity is beginning to overtake quality. With so many originals released, it is becoming increasingly difficult, even for the most avid Netflix viewer, to keep track. Given that all episodes of a series are available instantly, and given the sheer plethora of choice, viewers are becoming increasingly discerning in their tastes. That is why then, it becomes increasingly important to highlight those programmes that are worth watching, and worth sticking with.

G.L.O.W, or the gorgeous ladies of wrestling, is one such show. A show entertains, but also highlights progressive and pertinent issues of race and gender. Based on the concept of the 1980s syndicated women’s wrestling circuit, the series follows the attempts to create a women’s wrestling TV show. Set in the eighties, the show follows Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) an actress who is either largely unsuccessful, or is consigned to the reductive female roles that are on offer at the time.

The opening scene in the series shows Ruth auditioning for a role, a role into which she has clearly invested herself in, only to be told that she is reading the man’s part. Quickly reading for the female character, we see Ruth’s lines reduced both in length and quality. Desperate, and struggling to fund her increasingly unrealistic aspiration, she auditions for G.L.O.W.

It is here in which the viewer is introduced to the eclectic ensemble cast which, initially at least, feels trope-like and rather regressive. Each character we are introduced to is largely defined by either a stereotype or an obvious characteristic feature. Kate Nash, as Rhonda then, is the British character. Jackie Tohn as Melrose, is the wealthy, spoilt party girl. These stereotypes and simple signifiers are, while seemingly reductive, actually both necessary and considered.

Firstly, as with all first episodes of a series, a stereotype is often necessary to allow initial engagement with a character; a simple signifier to tell us what we need to know about the character, and how the writer intends for the character to perceived. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, these stereotypes are then fed into the stereotypes that the female wrestlers create for themselves. Creating their own character, one over which they can claim ownership.

While the narrative of the series is largely simplistic, focusing on the creation of the show as well as Ruth’s difficulty in dealing with the aftermath of her own actions (sleeping with her best friend’s husband), it is the interaction between the women that help bolster G.L.O.W.’s quality. The female characters are individuals, each complete with their own motivations and desires. Importantly, the cast is made up of actors from a range of ethnic backgrounds, and while their representation is certainly not perfect, this is to be commended given the lack of representation of people of colour in mainstream television.

It is crucial that a show like G.L.O.W. exists. One in which the cast is female-focused, and successfully passes the Bechdel test. One in which the female characters are engaging, allowed to make mistakes, and allowed to take issue with their treatment. Debbie, in dealing with her cheating husband, highlights the standard by which her husband expects her to adhere to. Attempting to curtail her artistic ambitions if he deems them to be superficial or silly.

 

Master of None: Season two

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The first series of Master of None was certainly enjoyable. Well-written, with an engaging narrative, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s depiction of Dev (Ansari) and his life in New York, was an interesting and progressive concept, focusing on a positive portrayal of a young Muslim in contemporary society. Dealing with a number of prescient issues, including rape culture and the treatment and depiction of race in the media, the series largely felt fresh despite the intermittent reliance on tropes such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

This month saw the release of the second season. A season which demonstrates Ansari and Yang’s writing potential. The series is far more inventive, and the pair, with the backing of Netflix, have been able to experiment and play around with form and narrative. Thus the season, while containing an overarching narrative focusing on Dev’s relationship with the enigmatic Francesca, is given the freedom to focus on the development of minor characters, or at times entirely abandon its focus on Dev.

In this season Dev, after the breakdown of his relationship with Rachel, visits Italy, living there for several months as an apprentice in a pasta shop. Learning the craft, he also immerses himself in local life, and struggles with the decision to return to New York. Upon his return, he gains employment as the host of a reality TV cookery show entitled Clash of the Cupcakes. Dev’s ease in earning this role, and indeed his entire lack of apparent financial worries, does at times force the viewer to suspend disbelief, especially given the current economic climate.

The depiction of women too, is worthy of interrogation at times. Francesca’s Italian nature feels fetishized at times. Her difficulty in fully understanding English is, on occasion, held up for comedic purposes, or even as a patronising means of endearment. Her intelligence is only depicted through cultural signifiers (she regularly visits museums and art galleries and expresses her enjoyment of them) yet we learn little of her own interests or desires. As Dev battles with his feelings for her, there is very little sense that he is aware of what she wants or needs.

Despite this, there is much to be lauded about the series. Its handling of sexual harassment is timely, and Dev’s interaction with those that have experienced the harassment is positive. There is no question of the validity of the account that he hears, and when it is made public he quickly distances himself from those involved. Arguably he could have confronted the accused, but even this is more realistic and helps to highlight the difficulty for the women involved in that, while listened to, those allied to them may not always act quickly enough to condemn.

All ten episodes, with their varying duration, are worthy of praise, but three episodes in particular, through their form and narrative focus, are to be noted.

First Date

The episode centres around a number of dates that Dev procures through the use of a popular dating app. The narrative intercuts from date to date, allowing for direct comparisons between each dating experience. Some of the dates are laughably bad, and the connection between Dev and the date is non-existent, others show a superficial connection which is frequently rapidly undercut once the date continues outside of the restaurant. Importantly, we are shown each of the women deciding to go on the date with Dev, affording them a life outside of the narrative focus. Each woman is allowed the opportunity to make her voice heard, and they feel both real and recognisable. The experience itself, relying on viewer familiarity with the scenario, is acutely drawn.

New York I Love You

Using the form of the film of the same name, New York I Love You is perhaps the most experimental episode of the series. Beginning with Dev, Denise and Arnold embarking on a trip to the cinema to see the latest Nicholas Cage blockbuster ‘Death Castle’, the narrative focus quickly shifts to the various inhabitants of New York. Thus the viewer is shown the relationship between two hearing impaired people, with the entirety of their narrative featuring subtitles (and allowing the episode to play around with sound and music); the life of an immigrant taxi driver who embarks on a night out with his fellow taxi drivers; and a doorman who is poorly treated by those living in the building. Each narrative arc is held together by the aforementioned blockbuster, with almost every character expressing a desire to see the film.  Each character arc, while only afforded a section of narrative space, is still given the opportunity to grow and thus engage. The life of the taxi driver in particular is subtle, highlighting the cramped living conditions he is forced to ensure, as well as the ill-treatment he receives due to his ethnicity.

Thanksgiving

Dev, not celebrating Thanksgiving with his family, spends each year with Denise and her family. The episode highlights the strength and depth of their friendship, as it follows Denise negotiating her sexuality. Struggling to broach the topic with her family, she attends the family celebration each year hoping to find support from her mother. Revisiting the same day on different years can, when handled poorly, quickly feel tired. Here however, the device allows for character development and engagement resulting in a truly affecting episode.

In praise of Love

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To the undiscerning, Netflix’s Love may appear, at first glance, to be nothing more than a lazy, clichéd romantic comedy in which the geeky male protagonist improbably forms a relationship with the attractive female protagonist. Starring Gillian Jacobs as Mickey, and Paul Rust as Gus, the series focuses on the pair’s developing relationship, from initial meet-cute, in which Mickey asks Gus to pay for her cigarettes, to their eventual and inevitable hook-up.

Certainly its detractors have pointed out the unlikeliness of the relationship between Gus and Mickey  yet to highlight the disparity between the two involves only taking the characters at face value. One dimensionally, Mickey is far more attractive than Gus. She is largely successful in her career, whereas Gus, desperate to write his own screenplay, struggles with his role as an onset tutor (and often does a terrible job). Yet both characters have their unlikeable and difficult qualities which help to both develop and deepen their characterisation.

Mickey is, in part due to her various addictions (love, sex, alcohol, drugs), often selfish and thoughtless. In forming a relationship with her housemate Bertie, she relies on her for emotional support yet, at least initially, offers little in return. Mickey knows that she is often controlled by her addictions, but in turn, recognises that Gus, despite his perceived affable nature, is just as damaged and selfish as her. It is here, in this characterisation of Gus as the supposed nice guy, which helps to elevate Love beyond the standard rom-com and enables it to be both a thoughtful rendering of a burgeoning relationship and an effective depiction of individual damaged characters.

Gus, despite his apparent niceness and largely positive interactions (he has a plethora of quirky friends) is, in actuality, pseudo-nice. What makes his ‘niceness’ all the more damaging is the fact that he believes it in so earnestly. He truly believes that he is a good guy, who deserves to be recognised for his niceness. He doesn’t understand why his first girlfriend found his thoughtfulness and sincerity so suffocating. For Mickey, his congeniality is, at least initially, refreshing when compared to her past relationships, but she quickly realises that Gus’ presentation of himself belies his true nature.

Much of Gus’ life feels set up and constructed, down to his comical interactions with his students, to his ritual of writing movie theme songs with his friends for songs that don’t have theme songs (Carlito’s Way for example). This concentrated construction stops Gus from confronting his true desires, and when approached by an attractive co-worker, he finds that he is unable to resist the opportunity at playing another role. It is this that makes Gus and Mickey so ideal for one another. They bring out the truth and reality in one another, and only then can they begin to accept who they are. This is not to suggest that Mickey and Gus are reliant on one another in the manner of a co-dependent relationship, but rather, that their relationship with each other affords both the opportunity to try out different roles for themselves without the fear of being judged or treated differently.

In fact, despite Gus and Mickey’s attraction to one another, they spend much of the series apart. Indeed in one episode, Gus and Mickey make plans to see one another, but due to work commitments and social interests, the pair fail to see one another, showing that their characters can and do exist independently from one another. Gus and Mickey don’t need one another, they want one another, and this is an important distinction to make. It is this assertion that helps set Love apart. It features two protagonists who are fully realised, and developed in their own right. Each leads interesting and entertaining lives, and while many of these events mirror each other (with both struggling with issues at work for example) they are separate.

Season two of Love is released on the 10th March 2017.

Stranger Things: In praise of Nancy Wheeler

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Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) – source: Netflix

Stranger Things is great. A wonderful nostalgic series that creates its own original narrative that never feels derivative nor clichéd. The series has garnered much praise since its release on Netflix last month and rightly so, with many critics pointing towards the characterisation as being especially strong. Certainly the interactions between the young friends is believable and engaging, and the series has gained attention for its well-rounded and developed female characters.

For me, it is Nancy Wheeler’s character in particular that is worthy of praise. Her character begins the series as a seemingly archetypical love struck teen. The attentions of Steve (Joe Keery) apparently leads Nancy (Natalia Dyer) astray, at least, that’s what Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) believes when he remonstrates that Nancy is pretending to be someone else in order to gain popularity and Steve’s consideration.

At this point in the narrative, the viewer could find themselves siding with Jonathan’s assertion. While Nancy’s interactions with Steve, in which she readily mocks and laughs at him, have hinted at a more developed character, her rash actions and willingness to let Steve dictate her actions have indicated otherwise. She is, at this point in the narrative, seemingly another addition to the devoted, desperate female trope.

Her response, in which she angrily reasserts herself and tells Jonathan how wrong he is, is not only an indicator of great writing, but highlights just how brilliant Nancy’s characterisation is. In her diatribe she is simultaneously telling both Jonathan and the viewer that she is far more than first appearances may indicate. She is her own person, and she is making her own decisions. She refuses to allow Jonathan project his own fantasy upon her. Jonathan has clearly created a sense of who he thinks Nancy is, one that fits into the fantasy that he has of her, yet Nancy refuses to allow anyone to tell her who she is or how she should act.

It is Nancy, who after witnessing the monster, is determined to act in order to save her best friend. She willingly teams up with Jonathan, proving herself to more than adept with the typical masculine pursuits of shooting and tactically planning.

Most importantly, it is Nancy’s function within the narrative that is so impressive. She is not there to serve as a prize to be won. While it is clear that Jonathan has feelings for Nancy, his feelings are inconsequential. Nancy is friends with Jonathan, but she does not allow her romantic or sexual feelings to be dictated by others. She is firmly her own person.

Take the scene for example, in which Nancy asks Jonathan to stay with her after her experience in the Upside Down. A lesser writer would have used this scene as an opportunistic chance to introduce a sexual relationship between the two, reducing Nancy to a female foil for Jonathan’s male character. Instead, it is a moment in which Nancy is once again able to assert herself. Jonathan, seeking to comfort Nancy, tells her that the monster will not be able to attack them in the safety of their own home. Nancy, having been the person to actually see and interact with the monster in the Upside Down, quickly informs Jonathan that there is no way of knowing that, and that ultimately his comfort, while well meaning, is relatively useless. Nancy knows that the only way that they can be safe is to challenge the monster, and defeat it.

It is notable that in the scene in which Nancy enters the Upside Down, there is clearly a sense of gender role reversal at work. Typically, we would expect the male character to be the one to willing enter the sphere of danger, but here it is Nancy who takes the risk while Jonathan has to wait. Certainly Jonathan aids Nancy’s escape, but his help doesn’t extend to his entering the Upside Down himself.

Finally, it is Nancy’s role in attempting to defeat the monster that fully emphasises the development of her character. Purchasing various equipment, including guns and traps, with Jonathan highlights that Nancy is fully ready to undertake an active role in the monster’s defeat.

She is shown to be an equal; helping Jonathan and working with Steve in order to injure the creature. She doesn’t require rescuing, nor does she panic. She is level-headed throughout. She became involved in attempting to defeat the monster due to her friend Barb’s disappearance, but even though she now knows that this futile, she continues in the attempt. Nancy is truly an impressive creation: a developed, complex female character.

Stranger Things – two episodes in

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As evidenced by the recent vitriolic reaction to Ghostbusters nostalgia is a powerful thing. It is interesting that, for some, any sense of homage or reboot is offensive, altering their happy memories of a childhood experience. For others, myself included, a homage when completed by a writer or director who genuinely feels affinity for the era or source text, can be wonderful. J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is, for example, a sublime exercise in both playing reverence but also creating a new, original piece of work.

Stranger Things, one of the more recent Netflix efforts, has, thus far shown itself to be the latter. A well constructed, engaging series that has clearly been created out of love for the era which inspired it.

Two episodes in, and I am already in love with the character interactions, the setting, and the unsettling tone. While I may have been born towards the end of the 80s, I grew up watching the films that clearly so inspired the Duffer brothers; E.T. was the first film I ever cried at, and as such, left an indelible impact.

The narrative of Stranger Things may not be hugely original, featuring the disappearance of a young boy and the subsequent search to find him, but it is utterly enthralling. This is largely through the fantastic cast, as well as the wonderful soundtrack that has proven so popular that it is gaining an official release.

Will (Noah Schnapp) the young boy whose disappearance serves as the series central conceit is, despite his brief screen time, entirely affecting. It is his lack of screen time that in turn, makes his absence so notable. His mother Joyce’s agony and her subsequent desperation is completing believable. I have seen some criticism of Joyce’s characterisation, largely in regards to her already frazzled stated before Will is missing. While I understand that this might lead to Joyce’s character feeling one note, Winona Ryder’s performance allows Joyce to develop. She is struggling to keep herself afloat, and her youngest son’s unexplained disappearance could lead to a complete breakdown and yet, her determination and her belief that he is still around simply because she feels it, helps her character to transcend any sense of trope.

The interaction between Will’s young friends, Mike (Finn Woldhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is clearly reminiscent of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me and like Reiner’s characters, the group of young boys is both humorous and emotional without any sense of overwrought sentimentality.

The series thus far has successfully created a truly disconcerting tone, helped by the atmospheric soundtrack that aids the nostalgic tone without detracting from the immediacy of the story.

Special Correspondents – Review

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The Office aside, I have never really understood the acclaim or thrall that Ricky Gervais seems to inspire in his fans. Far too often I find that his mean-spirited humour is just that – too mean-spirited. Characters can still be held up for derision whilst retaining audience affection (Him and Her does this brilliantly) but Gervais seems to revel in ridiculing his characters to the extreme.

His latest effort, Special Correspondents, was released on Netflix with Gervais stating publically that the streaming service has allowed ‘auteurs’ like himself the freedom to express themselves creatively. Not only is his description of himself as an ‘auteur’ questionable, but his statement also belies the fact that the film was in reality shopped around various film before Gervais was forced to accept Netflix’s offer.

If Special Correspondents really does demonstrate Gervais’ own creative output, then it is apparent to me that Gervais lacks any real skill in narrative, acting and writing dialogue. There are not enough superlatives to convey just how frustrating a watch this film is. In time, Special Correspondents will be used as an example in Media and Film classes, highlighting to students how important well-written dialogue is.

Featuring a ridiculous and quite frankly dull narrative, the film focuses on Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana), a correspondent for a radio news station, and his interactions with Ian Finch (Gervais). Frank and Ian are instructed to cover a potential political uprising in Ecuador but are unable to attend after Ian accidently throws the pair’s passports away. Rather than treating the situation in a rational manner, the pair decides to fake their arrival in Ecuador, delivering daily reports of falsified, dramatized information.

In the midst of this is a love plot that is thoroughly uninspiring and unengaging and seems to have been added purely in the attempt to create an emotional connection for the audience. In reality, it fails to do so, especially when Gervais’ character, who is so irritating and loathsome has not only managed to marry Vera Farmiga, but also courts the attention of Kelly Macdonald. I’m not for one moment suggesting that Gervais’ character could not attract such women, but it seems unfortunate that in writing such a plot device, Gervais has fallen into using the improbable troupe of averagely attractive men ensnaring utterly beautiful women.

This is not the only stereotype that Gervais chooses to indulge in; he also makes use of the tired trope of female characters being entirely good or entirely bad. Perhaps Gervais, who regularly pontificates about his education in interviews, would do well to read up on his feminist theory, or at the very least read Gilbert and Gubar’s seminal text. In addition to this, he might want to check how to portray ethnicity in a more progressive way than he has chosen to do so here, in which the only characters of colour are reduced to idiotic, incomprehensible stereotypes.

If this wasn’t questionable enough, the film simply doesn’t work on a basic level. He defies the most rudimentary rule in scriptwriting: show don’t tell. The characters are constantly stating to us their feelings and their motivations, as if audience is unable to understand a character without having it explicitly highlighted and explained to them. In addition, the writing relies far too much on using simple signifiers to inform us about a character, as a result we are treated to endless scenes in which Frank is dressed in a leather jacket and wearing sunglasses in order to show how much of a ‘cool guy’ he is.

I understand that my critique may read as a diatribe, but when there are so many talented filmmakers out there who are struggling to get funding, I find it incredibly frustrating that Gervais is still able to write and direct his own projects when he clearly displays absolutely no artistry or even understanding of film.

The cast, with the exception of Gervais, do their best with the material given, but when it’s as bad as this, there’s not much even the most talented actor can do.

 1/5