Monday, July 18, 2016

FEMALES, FEMINISM AND FUN ON FILM IN 2016

Original caricature by Jeff York of the new GHOSTBUSTERS (copyright 2016)

Why is anyone still questioning if women are funny?

Or for that matter, why are any of us concerning ourselves with the petty gripes regarding such matters by sexist Internet trolls? For almost two years they’ve been foaming at the mouth over the thought that talented comedic actresses like Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig would dare pick up the mantel where Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray left off in the GHOSTBUSTERS franchise. The original 1984 movie may be a beloved classic, but giving it a ‘sex change’ is hardly worth all the anger and ink expressed over it. It’s laughable how vicious the hysteria over central casting has become.

So…you want to know what’s really funny?

The fact that the problem with the new GHOSTBUSTERS movie lies not in its cast of McCarthy, Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. It’s in its screenplay.

A rather tepid script is why this much-anticipated remake opened to just good reviews, and not great ones. And that’s more than likely the reason it came in second at the box office. (Although it did haul in an admirable $50 million in its first weekend.) The new take on Manhattan’s paranormal gunslingers isn’t anywhere near the dog that all those S.O.B.’s on the Internet predicted that it would be. Still, it’s not a homerun either. It may be frothy, summer fun, but it should have been a lot smarter and yes, a whole lot funnier too.  

As the saying goes, if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. And the page here is filled with all kinds of errors, from continuity issues to wide variances of tone. You may think that just because it’s escapist entertainment that one shouldn’t judge it too harshly, but even fluff needs to be whipped into a concoction that goes down smoothly. And this one doesn’t quite do so.

For starters, a movie that is a horror comedy should be scary. And frankly, there’s one good scare in it, in the first 10 minutes when the ghost is trying to escape in the museum. The original GHOSTBUSTERS had quite a few frights in it, what with Gozer and those demonic hounds growling during the climax, let alone the genuinely unsettling vision of the satanic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man lumbering maleficently through Times Square. I wish this one had more at stake with ghosts other than fear of being merely slimed with green goo. Who you gonna call? More like a good dry cleaner. 

Even a comedy needs decent character arcs too, and this one doesn’t really have any to speak of. Really, what’s at stake for Wiig and McCarthy’s lead characters here? Reconciling with each other after going their own ways? Well, that happens in the first 30 minutes. And after that? Not much. They beat the ghosts back to hell, but still…

Also, both of those women are essentially playing ‘straight’ here. Where’s the fun in that? Why are they both playing the wet blanket, the scold? McCarthy’s specialty is playing the wild card. She doesn’t impress in this confining role, and even Wiig has played prissy and put-upon better elsewhere, most notably that of her wonderful screen work in BRIDESMAIDS. The failure to really utilize either of these great comic talents is not a casting issue as much as it’s a screenwriting issue. If they had better written roles to play they, and the movie, would be more uproarious.

And then there’s the cartoonish miscalculations of the Kevin character, played by Chris Hemsworth. When needed to eke out laughs in the THOR movies, he’s got a light touch and is charming as hell. But here he’s playing the ridiculously caricatured himbo secretary working for the ghostbusters and every scene he’s in brings the movie to a screeching halt with how utterly dumb his character is written. He doesn’t know how to answer a phone? That’s funny? And to make matters worse, the worthless villain of the piece (not even worth going into) becomes a ghost and inhabits Kevin so we have to watch Hemsworth strain to be a vampy villain. He's directed to pummel every joke with more impact than Thor's hammer. Painful!

Kate McKinnon comes very close to playing a cartoon herself here, though one could argue she’s just exploiting a certain New Yorker kind of eccentricity. She’s amusing, lurking around the edges of the frame like the bastard child of Harpo Marx and a Manson girl, but more often than not she doesn’t seem to exist in the same world as her ghost hunting cohorts. Zany can be grounded, just look at Zach Galifianakis’ character in THE HANGOVER. He was odd and outrageous, but he still stayed tethered to the other players. Here, McKinnon struggles to define her character as a believable creature. 

And heavens, where are the quips? Bill Murray riffed through the first one like a modern Groucho Marx. He was playing the scene and making fun of it at the same time. No character gets that fun task here. As for any clever dialogue, forget it. A few scattershot lines register, seen in the trailer so there’s no surprise, and instead laziness seems to seep in far too often. When McCarthy has the invading ghost who's taken over her body EXORCIST-style slapped out of her by Jones, all she can say is, “Oooo, that’s going to leave a mark.” Really? That 's the line? That line that has been around for two decades? It was most memorably uttered, of course, by Chris Farley in 1995’s TOMMY BOY, but joke writing today shouldn't simply reboot old lines too. At least if you’re going to use that line, create a running gag where McCarthy’s face shows a mark and everyone asks about it. Instead, that opportunity dies on the vine too.

Did the studio interfere? Did director Paul Feig and fellow screenwriter Katie Dipold overreact to all the web complaining? They acknowledge it more than once in the film, so it would seem so. It’s unfortunate, as is the clumsy editing, not to mention the egregious continuity errors that none of Feig’s previous work ever suffered from. At one point the female characters in this one complain about being called ‘ghostbusters’ by the media and then as they go outside to their souped-up hearse, it’s emblazoned with a paint job that has the Ghostbusters logo on the side as well as the term “Ghostbusters” on the car door. Dumb.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick in MIKE & DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES. (copyright 2016)
Two other talented actresses struggle to transcend their so-so material as well, this time Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza in MIKE & DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES. Kendrick and Plaza are two of the sharpest and confident talents working in the entertainment business today, and in this dirty R-rated comedy they have a field day tallying up all kinds of debauchery: binge drinking, sexual trysts in the sauna, getting stoned and swearing like sailors. They’re as bad as the boys who are their doofus wedding dates (Adam Devine and Zac Efron). The girls are so hilarious here, they not only eclipse the guys in laughs, but you wish they were the stars of the movie instead.

The film seems to be content with letting them be as outrageous as their male counterparts, but the two talented actresses imbue their characters with sly layers of nuance that Devine and Efron just can’t manage in their creations. The actresses add a sense of hurt and self-awareness to their plight, as if they are doing all the things they do to run away from the boys who want them to be squeaky clean to take them home to mother. Is such pain informed by the difficulty of working in Tinsel Town where every actress is judged just as unfairly on their worth? Even here, these two women have to show off their bikini bods in slow motion, better for all the junior high boys who snuck into the theaters to ogle them, of course. No wonder Kendrick and Plaza paint bitterness around the edges of their characters. They know where they are coming from.

And how wonderful that their characters refuse to conform to those perfect ingénue types that Mike and Dave want them to be. It’s actually quite feminist in how the girls here stiff the boys, and do what they want, how they want, utterly unapologetic in their hedonism. Well, not until the end when the screenwriters insist on a Hollywood ending where everyone is happy of course. But up until those final moments, Kendrick and Plaza seem to be playing on a whole different playing field. And they're kind of giving the whole movie their middle finger. (I guess they're the ones picking up Bill Murray's vibe, commenting on the movie they're in while they're in it!)

Original caricature by Jeff York of Kate Beckinsale in LOVE & FRIENDSHIP.
It’s funny, but the best and most modern comedic portrayal of a woman in a movie so far this year concerns a woman from the 19th century. It’s the portrayal of Lady Susan Vernon in Whit Stillman’s sublime Jane Austen adaptation LOVE & FRIENDSHIP that is the true revelation. In the movie, Lady Susan finds herself a widow, and desperately in search of a new husband to keep her in the style she’s accustomed to. To keep up her status quo, she starts an elaborate scheme to get exactly what she wants, even if it requires pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. It’s her only recourse of course, as in those days the options for a widow were paper thin. Thus, she chooses to play their confining game with the intent of beating all the one-percent white males at this asinine and rigged game.

It all makes for a hilarious comedy of manners, as Lady Susan has only her brain and verbal dexterity as a weapon to fight society, but my what weapons they are. And use them she does, with the precision of a ninja, to cajole and convince everyone that her way is the best way and to get exactly what she feels she's due.

Kate Beckinsale has never been better on screen, clearly delighting in all of these verbal acrobatics, and she stays controlled and deliciously cool the whole time. (If there’s any justice in awards season, she’ll be remembered come winter.) We root for her to win, even though Lady Susan is actually quite monstrous. But this vampire, leeching off of the kindness and gullibility of the upper class, never bares her fangs. And Stallman keeps it all subtle and straight too as he refuses to let her show sideways glances or arch a knowing eyebrow. He instructs her to play it utterly straight, and Beckinsale does so perfectly. She may be pulling off a ginormous ruse, but Lady Susan never gives up her tell.

The closest Stillman comes to commenting on her villainy is in her costuming. She's almost always swathed in black. Sure, it’s ostensibly because she is a widow in mourning, but it’s really there to reveal the color of her soul. Even her outlandish hats are symbolic – they match the huge and outrageous scheme she’s concocting, one she wears upon her person wherever she goes.

She bests everyone throughout, and at the end, surprise surprise, she wins. And without anyone really becoming the wiser to her charade. She’s like a master magician in that, pulling off an incredible trick, yet a feat that no one can truly see how it is being accomplished.

How ironic that in the modern world of 2016, when the argument is still being waged about a woman’s worthiness as comedian or whether or not an actress can properly head up franchises and tentpoles, a 200-year-old comedy sets the best example of how it should be done. All it takes is the right script, a complex female character, and a well-cast, accomplished actress to create the perfect storm for film comedy. Let’s hope there are a few more hurricanes left this cinema season.  

Saturday, July 2, 2016

MY OFFICIAL MOVIE CRITIC DUTIES FOR EXAMINER.COM END AS THE NEWS SITE FOLDS


This week, the Examiner online, the venerable catch-all of news, opinion and every topic under the sun, sent out emails of notification to its “examiners” to let us know that it was ending. No more articles would be accepted and the entire website would fold on or around July 10th. My days as one of their Chicago film critics, and their main Chicago Horror Movie Examiner, are now over. No chance to even say “goodbye” to my followers there. Hence, I'm telling you here if you follow me in both venues.

It was great while it lasted. Truly. 

It was really fun writing for them. I was published practically every week and built up quite a following. The editors at the Examiner were terrific people and I had great interactions with them. And being able to be one of their venerable movie critics, one who outlasted a lot of his contemporaries over the years there, gave me a forum to put forth my take on movies, write about the trends and big themes in them, as well as Hollywood, and contribute to the awards season by publishing a year-end best list that was quoted and referenced on Twitter and other social media. All very fun, all very flattering. And it went on for five and a half years. It was a great privilege to be an Examiner. 

The gig also pushed me to see more movies than I probably would have normally, particularly on the horror front, and it was great to see all that was out there. Granted, being the Chicago Horror Examiner meant I often saw the bad and the ugly, along with the good, but it was fascinating to dig so deep into what scares people. And it was a pleasure to come into contact with many of the filmmakers and fans who loved the genre as much as I did. 

I met a lot of others too in my travels within the press world of the Examiner. I met a number of wonderful folks at the Chicago Film Festival. I was invited to be a member of the terrific new Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle by fellow Chicago Movie Examiner Don Shanahan, a great guy with his own movie blog too. (EveryMovieHasALesson.com). Plus, I developed quite a following of Twitter followers waiting for my reviews from the Examiner, as well as followers and friends on Facebook who did the same. 

What the Examiner contributed to the conversation online cannot be underestimated either. They were in so many cities, with so many niche Examiners covering all sorts of things, from local art scenes, high school sports, community colleges, various music venues, all sorts of cultural festivals, and every kind of eatery, bar and restaurant - it's a wonder that they're stopping. Who will cover so much after the Examiner is gone?  

Yet, they are about to shutter in the next week or so. In case you're interested, my Examiner reviews will be up on the site for the next week, but after that, they’ll likely be gone forever. You know, I got the gig because of this blog, and it was fun doing them in tandem for these past five and a half years. This blog will continue, having gotten better because of my time at the Examiner. I shall remain here, writing it in my spare time about the movie business and what captures my attention, and hoping that you will continue to follow me here. (And if anyone wants to offer me another critic gig somewhere, just holler!) 

Oh, and I’m still doing the movie review podcast series for the International Screenwriters Association too, and you can listen to “Page 2 Screen” at networkisa.org or on iTunes. They’re downloadable for free in both locations too. 


So, the only thing left to say really is, "Thank you, Examiner, for the great opportunity and experience and memories." It was a privilege and an honor, and I appreciate all those who read my thoughts and followed me so faithfully there. I hope you will follow me here as avidly. Indeed, The Establishing Shot will remain, but how very, very sad that the venerable and vast-reaching Examiner will soon be no more than a very fond memory.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

NO HORROR MOVIE WILL BE AS HORRIFYING THIS YEAR AS "O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA"


Technically speaking, it’s a documentary, one that premiered on ESPN this past week, and played at the Tribeca Film Festival in May for Academy Award eligibility. However, no matter what you call this 7.5 hour work done for the network's 30 FOR 30 documentary program, it is one brilliant series, worthy of Emmys and Oscars. It’s also likely to stand as the greatest horror story on any screen this year. After all, horror doesn’t need ghosts or goblins to be terrifying. It only needs a monster of some kind. And there are many of them in O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA. 

The late, great screenwriting guru Blake Snyder wrote that every horror story has a “monster in the house.” JAWS had the Great White in its residence, PSYCHO had Norman Bates, and even FATAL ATTRACTION had Alex Forrest. Here, the main monster isn’t O. J. Simpson, the titular villain at the center of it all, but rather, America. Indeed, it is our nation that filmmaker Ezra Edelman is truly pointing his finger at in his new documentary. Our shameful racial divide, as well as our outlandish obsession with celebrity, is the dual-headed monster at present in this haunting tale. Simpson is part of it, of course, but it took a lot to create such a Frankenstein’s monster.

As everyone knows, former football great and Hollywood celebrity Simpson stood trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1995, and that story is the focus here. Simpson is at the core of the narrative here, a Jekyll & Hyde figure both loathsome and pitiable, but he was also a product of American culture that for decades had allowed such a celebrated man to feel above the law. 

Edelman starts his narrative by concentrating on Simpson's escape from his broken home in San Francisco into the world of sports where he excelled as a football running back. His sense of entitlement started then as he was worshipped as an athletic god, one who created enormous pride and revenue for his college USC. Suddenly, he wasn't black, as Simpson once observed, he was O.J.  It was the start of the celebrity being on a first name basis with his adoring public.

Winning the Heisman Trophy, breaking all sort of college and NFL rushing records, being treated as an Adonis, it all pumped up Simpson's ego. Normal rules didn't apply to someone of his stature. And Edelman shows us how enablers of Simpson’s kept that narrative a reality for him at every turn for decades. His shenanigans were tolerated by all. Even when they turned into great sins or even crimes.

His friends, family and both his wives, by and large, ignored his numerous infidelities. His violent outbursts were suppressed by the same people, even the LAPD who should've arrested him when Nicole called them because she feared for her life. More and more, Simpson was demonstrating that he had become a very bad man, but because he was a celebrity, most were willing to look the other way.

That is, until the deaths of Brown and Goldman. When his wife divorced him, gained the upper hand, and moved on without him, Simpson couldn't take it. No one defied him in such a way. So he exploded, showing her that she wouldn't get away with it.

It didn’t help that his career at the time was also on the downswing, having failed to become the top sportscaster and/or actor he wanted to be when he retired from the gridiron. Indeed, one of the more interesting stories in the documentary is how Simpson desperately wanted to play the part of Coalhouse Walker in the movie version of E. L. Doctorow’s bestseller “Ragtime.” He was cocksure he'd secure the part, but failed to, and his pride took a big hit. That was the first of many ego bruises that Simpson suffered after he hung up his cleats. And many more tore down his ego along the way too, culminating with Nicole's rejection of him. It all set off the powder keg inside.

The documentary does a superb job of burrowing into Simpson’s psyche along the way. Perhaps the most shocking of all was how he embraced a “gangsta” lifestyle after losing the respect and goodwill of the public. The public trial and civil trial left him a pariah so Simpson found refuge in South Beach where he lived an ultra-hedonistic lifestyle filled with overindulgence, including drugs, strippers and dangerous friends. Even if they were the wrong kinds of people, they still worshipped O.J. and he needed it more than any drug. Celebrity was such for him that he needed to constantly be adored, even if it was for his sins.
  
Even with most of the focus of the series on Simpson, there are many other monsters at play here as well. His ex-agent Mike Gilbert admits he knew his client was guilty of the murders at the time, yet he still helped hide Simpson’s assets from the Goldman and Brown families. Another villain is Mark Fuhrman, the detective at the scene of the double homicide. He lied on the stand about using racist epithets and thereby doomed the prosecution’s case. He made it appear as if this was just another example of the LAPD having it in for an African-American. It's amazing to see the dead-eyed Fuhrman on camera here, bragging about himself and dismissing his slurs as mere language. 

The greatest monster that Edelman indicts is the LAPD and its history of racial profiling and abuse. For decades, the cops had acted insidiously and the two hours of the documentary covering their history is the most horrifying part of the show. From their trampling of civil rights, to the Watts riots, to the Rodney King beating in the early 90’s, justice for blacks was dealt out horribly wrong. No wonder the trial of Simpson became such a referendum on race.  
And even if you saw Sarah Paulson’s superb performance as DA Marcia Clark in FX Network’s brilliant scripted miniseries THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON this past spring, it is amazing to hear the real prosecutor give her take on things here. She’s very clear about the mistakes she made and her naiveté in assuming that the “mountain of evidence” would be enough to convict Simpson. Sadly, her co-counsel Christopher Darden declined to be interviewed for the series, and his presence is greatly missed. It would have been wonderful to hear insights from Simpson chief counsel Robert Shapiro too, but alas, he is not here except in old news footage. 

Edelman did get F. Lee Bailey to go before the cameras, however, as well as two of the jurors who are quite candid here about their takes on the prosecution and defense teams. Edelman also interviewed various civil rights leaders from Los Angeles, reporters, legal experts, and other key players from the time to add great context to it all. 

Most impressive is the ever-candid Fred Goldman who doesn’t mince one word about his feelings, even so many decades after. At times the lurid and outrageous story of the trial plays like some sort of Kabuki theater, but Goldman reminds us that people died, horribly, and one of them was his son Ron. 

Edelman also gets extraordinary candor from many others as well. Defense attorney Carl Douglas brags, without batting an eye, about changing the framed wall hangings in Simpson’s home from photos of him with dozens of white celebrities to more admirable pictures of his black family for the jury tour. Also, one of the black jurors admits that she voted to acquit Simpson as payback for the police officers who got off scot-free from beating up Rodney King. And Bailey gleefully brags about how he goaded Darden into getting Simpson to try on the gloves when he insulted the assistant D.A.'s manhood. One of the most revelatory testimonies is when Gilbert tells of how he and Simpson rigged the glove test when O.J. purposefully stopped taking his arthritis medication so his hands would swell. 

And some of the footage and pictures Edelman presents here are simply stunning finds. Outtakes of Simpson rehearsing for the cameras, home movie footage of him at Rockingham, and extensive video from the hotel cameras when he and his thugs stole the sports memorabilia that led to his current incarceration for 33 years - it's all here. And fascinating.

And then there are the explicit shots of the neck wounds that Brown and Goldman suffered, two pictures that up until now had always been presented with black bars over the wounds. This time the camera is unflinching as it forces us to see just how violent those murders truly were.   

In the final analysis, Edelman is suggesting that our society is both the villain of the piece, as well as its greatest victim. Our country's shameful racial history and out-of-control celebrity culture created such a toxic environment for Simpson and other participants to exist in. And Edelman makes us wonder if much has changed in the 21 years since the "trial of the century."

Yes, racial relations have improved in many respects, as the election of an African-American president twice in this nation will attest. Yet “birther-ism” and bigotry continue to plague that feat, and xenophobic citizens still chomp at the bit every chance they get to discredit the accomplishments of Barack Obama by suggesting he's not even American, or a secret Muslim, or worse. Some even end up being their political party's presumptive presidential nominee. 

Edelman asks if our justice system has gotten any better since O.J. Is the racial divide less? Are we still a nation of haves and have nots? Is the nation’s celebrity culture more obsessive than ever? Clearly, this documentarian believes that our tragic story continues, with the United States not being much wiser for having lived through it all. O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA remains not only a great documentary, but ultimately a terrifying tale of horror. It's also quite a tragedy. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

FOLLOWERS AND FRIENDS, DID YOU KNOW I'M HOSTING A MOVIE PODCAST?


This blog is now in its sixth year and I humbly appreciate all those who follow faithfully. There are many opining about the movie industry online, but here at The Establishing Shot the attempt is to not be just another voice in the wilderness. Rather, I truly try to blog about movies from atypical perspectives. I hope those of you reading my posts agree with such an assessment.

I have written more standard types of critiques about the movie industry elsewhere, namely in my weekly film reviews for the Examiner online. I'm in my fifth year writing for them, covering general cinema, as well as a concentration on the horror genre. And, as many of you know, I'm also a budding screenwriter. (My day job is in advertising where I've been working as a creative director for many years.) Speaking of an industry that's all about selling, I've gotten close to a few sales with some of the 10 scripts I've penned, and I continue to have faith that one of these days something will go before the cameras. Right now however, I'm an observer who's hoping to get into the game.  

It is that intersection of blog, Examiner reviews, and screenwriting (I've figured in the finals of 51 screenwriting contests in five years, and counting) that has attracted the attention of the powers that be who are running the International Screenwriters Association online. I'm a member of that prestigious group and last November they asked me to host a movie review program for them that they had in mind. Their desire was to showcase two members discussing a movie that had just opened from a screenwriter's perspective. I accepted their offer to host, and even came up with the name for it - PAGE 2 SCREEN. And I'm proud to say that we've been doing the show for over 7 months now, and we've just posted our 25th podcast, with many more to come. I wanted you to know about all this because I think you'll really enjoy the informative chats. 

Since launching in December, I've had the opportunity to talk to a lot of different writers as my guests, some who've even made movies. Most though are like me and are waiting for their "big break" from Hollywood. We see a lot of movies and are paying close attention to them, figuring out what works, what doesn't, and what is selling. It's been a ton of fun getting to know these talented writers I have the privilege to talk to, and I've enjoyed hearing their unique takes on all the various movies that have come out these past months. We've analyzed the good, the bad, and sometimes the ugly. But even when the films have been quite awful, we've examine them judiciously and with a mature eye. We're never been snarky for the sake of being snarky. Instead, bad movies are mournful if anything. They are cinematic opportunities that have been waylaid by misjudgments that hopefully the industry, and our listeners, can learn from. 

Each episode lasts between 30-40 minutes, and we rigorously dive into the weeds, but in a way that movie buffs will appreciate. As the saying goes, "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage." That's where each review of PAGE 2 SCREEN starts. What is the story the filmmakers are trying to tell? And were they successful at it? That is really the only criteria I have as a film fan, critic and podcaster.

You can listen to all the podcasts of PAGE 2 SCREEN, and download them as well, for free on the site and at iTunes. We've reviewed everything from Oscar contenders like CAROL to tentpole hits like CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR to arthouse horror like THE WITCH. My guests never fail to surprise me with their passion for the medium, their clever insights into the writing, and their ability to say very witty things that make me guffaw. I hope you'll take a listen to what we're up to and see for yourself how educational and entertaining our podcasts are.  

You can subscribe to them both at networkisa.org and at iTunes if you'd like to get alerts about the latest one popping up. You can do that here too, as well as with my reviews on the Examiner. Love those following loyally and avidly, so please do. And please, if you have some thoughts about what I've written, do leave a comment below. I read and reply to all of them.

Movies are such a great pastime, allowing us to escape the normal daily existence and visit a whole new world up there on the big screen. Whether it be an action/adventure, drama, comedy or thriller, it's the best  ride going, and the cheapest. Moviegoing is also communal, incredibly social, and you never know what will happen when those lights in the theater go down. That's why people like me invest so much in the film industry. It's fun, and we could all use a little more of that in our lives, couldn't we? If you agree, I know you'll enjoy PAGE 2 SCREEN.  

Saturday, May 28, 2016

REVEALING THE DARK SIDE OF KIMMY SCHMIDT

Original caricature by Jeff York of the cast of UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT (copyright 2016)

I don’t often write about television here. This is a movie blog after all. However, when a program stands out to me, like MAD MEN, SHERLOCK, GAME OF THRONES, BREAKING BAD, BATES MOTEL or THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON, I feel compelled to share some thoughts. And the latest program that has really moved me in such a way is the Netflix original sitcom UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT. I adored its first season and laughed out loud at it more than any show I’ve watched in eons. Still, it was its second that truly blew me away and compelled me to devote a blog post to it. Why? Because while its latest 13 episodes continued to be hilarious, the main thrust of its story arc this year concerned Kimmy dealing with the fact that she had been raped.

Yep, that’s right. Despite its candy-colored, almost cartoon palate, along with its title character’s Pollyanna-esque naiveté, UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT is a rather dark comedy. And this season, it explored subject material as dark as just about any sitcom on television has ever produced. And it was even more brilliant because it tackled such a subject as sexual abuse.

Much of Kimmy’s story is standard sitcom heroine trajectory. She is a young woman venturing to the big city, trying to make it there, turning the world on with her smile. And just as Mary Richards did when she moved to Minneapolis to work in television news in the legendary 70’s sitcom THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, Kimmy comes to Manhattan with a lot to prove and more than a few people to win over. But from there, the comparisons to Mary, Rhoda, two broke girls, or just about any other female sitcom leads ends. Kimmy’s back story, you see, was that she was held captive in a bunker for 15 years by a crazy religious zealot. And the gravity of such a scenario gives this series its darkness, as well as an umbrella of out-and-out tragedy.


Not to say that the show is a downer in any way. Quite the contrary, it may have more laughs per episode than THE SIMPSONS did in its heyday 15 years ago. Still, this show mines huge comedy out of one of the strangest and most startling starting points ever for a TV series. Kimmy and three other women were kidnapped and held against their will by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. He claimed to be protecting them from an apocalypse that laid waste to the world outside their bunker. It was the first of many lies he told them to keep them down and force them to serve as his cult members, companions, servants and yes, sexual slaves. Any similarities to the Ariel Castro kidnappings were purely intentional.

When the women were finally discovered, and escaped their imprisonment, Kimmy decided to make the most of her life. She refused to live as a woman angry and disgruntled by her awful history. Instead, she used her new freedom to launch into an incredible journey of self-discovery. That’s where the Mary Richards part comes in as she started out on an adventure to find her new self. And through thick and thin, Kimmy has shown that indeed, she is unbreakable. Kimmy is nothing if not a walking seminar of positive thinking as she tries to flap her wings while remaining unflappable at whatever is tossed her way.

Still, the history of her incarceration is constantly referenced on the series, usually in flashbacks. A lot of the comedy comes from how Kimmy (the truly Emmy-worthy Ellie Kemper) views the world. Having been kidnapped when she was just 14, Kimmy at 29 is a woman-child whose stunted growth has turned her into a person out of time. She’s unfamiliar with all that the world has been up to due to those years she was underground. Her warped sensibilities, based on such limited perspective, are where the show derives most of its humor from. But despite being so out of sorts, her pluck and positive outlook ended up affecting the downtrodden, modern day New Yorkers she came into contact with that first season. Her roommate Titus Andromedon (Titus Burgess), landlady Lillian Kauschtupper (Carol Kane), and employer Jacqueline White (Jane Krakowski) all became better and more generous people because of what Kimmy had to offer them. Her effect was contagious. 


In season two however, Kimmy discovered that her sunniness could only carry things so far. More and more, as frustrations of life grew exponentially, Kimmy’s past angers and vexation surfaced. Being held underground for the prime of one's young adult life would naturally take such a toll, and the show increased the specter of the shadow it continued to cast on her. 

Kimmy did admit it in the very first episode that there was sexual abuse in her past, telling her new roommate Titus (Titus Burgess) that there was “weird sex stuff in the bunker” but the rest of the original 13 shows that season dealt mostly with her learning to survive in New York. She found a place to live, got a job, and made friends. But her admission left many unanswered questions. Just what kind of weird sex stuff was she talking about? And whom was it with exactly?

When the show flashbacked back to the bunker throughout both seasons, they were mostly scenes of her interacting with the three other female hostages. We got to see how the four women existed, sometimes in the most absurd of ways. They made games out of their hair or whatever meager accessories were at their disposal, and Kimmy learned to do without most luxuries that we would take for granted. She stated that she hadn’t had a clock since her Tamagotchi died. These women were surviving as best they could, making the most of what they had, even if such meager means were mined for some of the biggest laughs on the show.


The one character we never saw in those flashbacks was their incarcerator. The reverend was not revealed to the viewers until the last few episodes of that first season, allowing us to build up our image of him in our minds. What did this awful man look like? Did the monster have a Charles Manson quality to him, or David Koresh? Was he some inbred country creep? The mystery was answered when he was finally shown, and quite the contrary, Wayne could almost have been Bruce Wayne. He was played by Jon Hamm and the casting of such a handsome leading man in such a despicable role threw off our expectations. Sure, Hamm may have done seven seasons as Don Draper, the antihero of MAD MEN, but his persona outside of that show is a beloved one. In talk show visits and interviews, he never comes off as less than affable, courteous and delightful, as charming as anyone in Hollywood. And his appearances as host on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE were always utter comic delights.

Yet Hamm was playing a monster here, and his reptilian charms were on display even when Wayne was on trial. He represented himself and nearly convinced the jury to let him get away with all of his unforgivable sins. Still, he was brought to justice and when he was sentenced to a long prison sentence, it appeared that perhaps the show was going to move past that storyline.

And indeed, the first half of season two dealt with Kimmy’s growth beyond those horrors. She attained two new jobs, finding employment working in a Christmas store and as an Uber driver. (Even though she had no formal license, her pretend driving in the bunker helped her naturally navigate the dangerous roads of the Big Apple.) Kimmy also started expanding her portfolio of friends, even desiring a boyfriend. She had become friends in the first season with Dong (Ki Hong Lee), a student she met, and in season two she was ready to explore their relationship by taking it to the next level. And it was the intimacy of sexual relations that triggered the turn into an even darker comedic tone. 


Wayne may have been jailed, but his crimes were not so confined. The residue of what he did to Kimmy came to fruition when she attempted to tryst with Dong in a hotel room. Every time he tried to make a sexual move on her, she clobbered him with the phone from the night stand. Over and over again, her instinctive reaction was to defend herself against a man who was trying to touch her in a sexual way. It was hilarious physical comedy, worthy of Blake Edwards, but it was shattering too as we knew what it meant. Her defensiveness was echoing fighting off Wayne, her rapist, all those years. 

It was an amazing sitcom moment as Kimmy was no longer able to compartmentalize that which she had suffered. The rest of the five remaining episodes of the second season then thrust her into therapy to deal with the tragedy. With the help of a smart therapist (slyly played by Tina Fey), Kimmy learned to reckon with all of her past, including the details and tragedy of what she had merely categorized as “weird sex stuff” early in that first season.  


It was an amazing turn for a show that is always bordering on farce. True, the topic of rape is not a  rare one on television. It can often be found in television dramas, be it daytime serials or nighttime shows like SCANDAL, but rarely is it mined on sitcoms. ALL IN THE FAMILY, that landmark 70’s show, famously dealt with the topic in an episode where a rapist broke into Archie Bunker's house and tried to attack wife Edith. But here, on UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, the second half of its sophomore season was dealing with the revelations of such an assault on Kimmy. Suddenly, her childlike qualities took on an even darker meaning. Was she like that because it was all she really knew, being snatched by Wayne when she was just starting her teen years? Or was she perhaps clinging to that part of herself that represented who she was before her sexual abuse? Might her squeaky, often pitched delivery even been a reflection of that trait of sexually abused women who often speak in such high tones? 

Rape statistics are horrifying, and while the show doesn’t overplay the topic, the facts inherent with what Kimmy is dealing with are unavoidable. According to the Department of Justice, one in six women in America will experience a rape or an attempted rape in their lifetime. 83% of the victims will be under the age of 25. 54% of them will be under the age of 18. And 22%, under the age of 12. According to the "Rape in America" study done in 1992, a third of rape victims were between 11 and 17. Kimmy may be a fictional character, but her story is speaking to such awful revelations.  


Fey, who along with Robert Carlock, has designed this show to be a laugh machine, but in the latter half of season two, raucous humor was juxtaposed right up against the tragic revelations of Kimmy’s past, creating one of the truly most unique shows ever created. To explore that much of a woman’s character, warts and all, is incredibly rare in any medium. It was a daring display for a show that could have been content with producing more laughs a minute than any show this side of ARCHER. And it truly should net the show a Peabody, as well as Emmys, if there is any justice in the entertainment world.

So where will the show go in season three and beyond? We know that the season two cliffhanger had Wayne calling Kimmy from jail to tell her that he’d met and fallen in love with a woman he'd met through correspondence and visitation at the prison. He desired to marry her and that meant that in order to do so, he'd now have to  divorce Kimmy Schmidt. Yep, as if her world of woe wasn't filled with tragedy already, the SOB somehow married her in that bunker. His history of abuse was even more extensive, and it will be fascinating to see just how Kimmy handles all of these new revelations.


In that first season, Kimmy was stuck at the age of 14, stunted by, and frozen in time, by the moment she was snatched by the reverend. Then, by the start of season two, she had matured more, entering what could be characterized as her surly teen/young adult phase. Kimmy was now dealing with her needs as a burgeoning woman approaching adulthood, including sexual intimacy. Perhaps what Fey and Carlock have in mind for each season of the show is to represent a growth spurt in Kimmy's maturity. It would appear that each season is covering about five years in her coming-of-age, and if that is the case, then Kimmy's personality will arrive at 35 years of age after a five-year sitcom run. At that time, she will finally be her true age physically, mentally and emotionally. It truly is one of the most enthralling character arcs in any medium.