Review: The Girlfriend Experience


The Girlfriend Experience

In 2009, Steven Soderbergh released a little independent film called The Girlfriend Experience starring, who at that time, was one of the adult industry’s biggest stars in Sasha Grey. The film explored and dealt with the life of a high-class escort by the name of Chelsea as she navigated the world of powerful men and the effect of money in monetizing something as intimate and personal as being someone’s girlfriend. It wasn’t a film that had many supporters. Most saw the inexperience of Sasha Grey as a dramatic actress hamstringing what was an interesting look at the dual themes of sex and capitalism.

It’s now 2016 and the premium cable channel Starz has released a new dramatic series inspired by the very same Soderbergh film mentioned above, but not beholden to it’s characters and storyline. Where Sasha Grey’s character of Chelsea seemed more like an on-screen cipher the audience was suppose to imprint whatever their expectations onto, this series has a more traditional narrative of a young woman whose attempt to balance in her life a burgeoning career in law (she’s just earned an internship at a prestigious Chicago law firm) with her discovery of her inherent sexuality while dipping her toes into the high-end sex-workers trade of the so-called “girlfriend experience.”

Riley Keough (last seen as the Citadel wife Capable who both romanced and mothers Nicholas Hoult’s War Boy Nux) plays Christine Reade as a struggling law firm intern who has worked hard to get where she’s at and continues to do so both as an intern and as a continuing law student. Yet, she also has the same problems many young people the past couple decades have had when it comes to earning their degrees. Debt has become a major issue and finding ways to make ends meet while still holding onto their dream profession becomes more and more difficult. Christine, at the encouragement of a close friend (played by Kate Lyn Sheil), tries her hand at becoming a high-price escort.

Girlfriend Experience 01

Just like the film it’s loosely based on, the series tries in the beginning to paint the high-priced escort profession that Christine gets herself into as very glamorous. Christine’s clients are white men who are older, rich and powerful. Men whose own interpersonal relationships with those close to them have been left behind in their quest for power. They see in Christine a sort of commodity to help fill in a need missing in their life even if false and just a transactional role-play experience.

Showrunners Amy Seimetz (who plays Christine’s sister Annabel) and Lodge Kerrigan (independent filmmakers and writers of renown) have created a show that explores not just the dual nature of how sex has become just another commodity in a world that’s becoming more and more capitalistic, but also a show that explores the nature of a professional woman in a world where they’re told that in order to fit in with the “men” they must suppress their sexual side. It’s a series that doesn’t hold back it’s punches in showing how the patriarchal nature of the professional world (it could be law, business, Hollywood, etc.) makes it difficult for women like Christine to try and be a successful professional and still retain their sexual nature. It’s a world up-ended and shown it’s cruel and ugly nature by Christine with every new client she meets and entertains.

The show and it’s writers (both of whom took turns directing each of the 13-episodes of the first season) don’t pass any sort of judgement on Christine’s choice of working as a high-paid escort. This series doesn’t look at these sex-workers as beneath what normal society expects of it’s women, both young and old. They instead want to explore the why’s of their decision to enter into such a career even if it means hampering their initial chosen profession. They’ve come up with some intriguing ideas of this world of escorts and powerful men walking through their lives always pretending to be one thing then another. A world where half-lies and made up personas have say much about the true natures of each individual as it does of the world around them.

Girlfriend Experience 02

Christine enters this world of becoming a “girlfriend experience” as a rebellious, adventurous lark, but finds out that her keen, observant and adaptable mind which has served her well in her rise as a law student and intern also serves her well in her new side-career. While her friend Avery who first introduces her to the world sees it all as a rush and exhilarating experience to be done here and there, Christine finds herself drawn deeper into the world as she goes from being represented to finally going off on her own as a freelancer. She’s her own boss and she controls what goes on with this new life.

Yet, The Girlfriend Experience is not all about the glass and steel, cold and calculating glamour of Christine’s new world. Just as she’s reached the heights of her new found power over the very system which tells her what she can and cannot be, outside forces that she thought was in her control brings her back to the reality of her choices throughout the first half of the series. For all the money, power and control she has achieved her old world as a law student and intern begins to fall apart as it intersects with her new one. It’s to the writers credit that they don’t give Christine any easy outs, but do allow her character to decide for herself how to get through both her professional and personal crisis.

While both showrunners Seimetz and Kerrigan have much to do with the brilliance of The Girlfriend Experience it all still hinges on the performance of it’s lead in Riley Keough. She’s practically in every scene and she grows as a performer right before out eyes. From the moment we see her we’re instantly drawn to her character. Hair up in an innocent ponytail and dressed very conservatively as she starts her internship, we still sense more to her character and we’re rewarded with each new episode as Keough’s performance with not just her acting both verbal and silent. Whether it’s the subtle changes in her expression as she transitions from an attentive “girlfriend”, supportive “confidant” and then to a calculating and all-business “escort” and all in a span of a brief scene.

Girlfriend Experience 03

Even the scenes where some audience may find titillating (even for premium cable like Starz, the sex in The Girlfriend Experience are quite eye-opening without being exploitative.), Keough manages to convey her true feelings with her eyes, while her body language convinces her latest client that it’s all real. She’s able to slip into whatever fantasy her client pays for and, in the end, whatever fantasy she wants to insert herself into in order to escape the terrible reality which has hardened and prepared her for the “real world” that all young people in college aspire to join.

The Girlfriend Experience might have been born out of an cinematic experiment by the icon of independent filmmaking, but it more than stands on it’s own take on ideas and themes (while adding and introducing some of their own) that Soderbergh tried to explore. With Sasha Grey’s performance as Chelsea proving to be a divisive reason whether Soderbergh’s film was a success or a failure, with Seimetz and Kerrigan they found in Riley Keough’s performance as Christine Reade a protagonist that engenders not just sympathy but at times frustration. Her Christine Reade doesn’t conform to what society thinks women should be when out and about in public and, for some men, when in private, as well.

The same could be said about this series as it doesn’t fit into any particular narrative and thematic box that we as a viewer have become trained to. It’s both a series exploring the existential idea of sexual identity and the commodifying power that capitalism has had on things intimate and personal. It’s also a series about a young woman’s journey of self-discovery that doesn’t just highlight the high’s but also shows how precipitous the fall can and will be when the traditionalists object. The show also performs well as a thriller due to the exceptional score composed by another brilliant indie-filmmaker. You may know him under the name of Shane Carruth.

The Girlfriend Experience doesn’t have the pulp sensibilities of such shows as The Walking Dead or the rabid following of Game of Thrones, but as of 2016 it’s probably the best new show of the year and here’s to hoping that more people discover it’s brilliance before it goes away.

Horror Film Review: Crimson Peak (dir by Guillermo Del Toro)


CrimsonPeak

The fact that Crimson Peak, Guillermo Del Toro’s wonderful new film, is only getting mixed or grudgingly positive reviews tells you everything that you need to know about the sorry state of modern film criticism.

Taking place at the turn of the 19th Century, Crimson Peak tells the story of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska).  The daughter of industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), Edith is haunted by a childhood memory, in which her mother’s ghost appeared to her and told her to never go to Crimson Peak.  Edith grows up to be an aspiring writer.  She writes stories about ghosts, though she is always quick to point out that the ghosts are just meant to be a “metaphor for the past.”  Her publishers tell her that no one wants to read a ghost story written by a woman and they recommend that she concentrate on writing a nice romance.

Following the violent death of her father, Edith marries the charming inventor Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and moves to his family home in England.  Still in shock over the death of her father, Edith struggles to make things work in England.  Tom is nearly penniless and seems to be more interested in his inventions than with her.  (Not only did they not consummate the marriage during the honeymoon but Tom sleeps in a separate bedroom.)  Meanwhile, Tom’s older sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), does little to hide the disdain that she feels towards her new sister-in-law.

As for the house itself, it is on the verge of collapsing.  At one point, Tom mentions that, because of the red clay that sits underneath the mansion, their new home is sometimes called Crimson Peak.  If that wasn’t enough to panic Edith, she keeps seeing mysterious figures wandering through the halls.  Edith swears that she is seeing ghosts and that they are trying to tell her something.  Tom and Lucille tells her that she’s imagining things and continue to insist that she drink a special tea.  Could that tea be the reason why Edith finds herself coughing up blood?

(Actually, there’s a lot of blood spilled over the course of Crimson Peak.  It’s not just the clay that makes the ground red.  If Edith Wharton had written a horror movie, the end result would probably be a lot like Crimson Peak.)

And let’s just get this out of the way right now — Crimson Peak is an absolutely brilliant movie.  Those critics who have complained that Crimson Peak doesn’t have any of the expected “shock” scares are totally missing the point.  Crimson Peak is not about cheap scares.  Del Toro is not looking to make you jump by having a cat jump out of a closet.  Instead, Crimson Peak is all about atmosphere.  Del Toro maintains an atmosphere of consistent unease throughout the entire film.  The scares come less from what is shown and more from what is implied.  In that way, Crimson Peak pays homage to the great gothic horror films of the past.

And remember when I complained about how terrible Jessica Chastain was in The Martian?  Well, she absolutely brilliant in Crimson Peak.  The role of Lucille is not one that demands a lot of subtlety and Chastain appears to be having a great time getting to play such a menacing character.  If anything, this is one of Chastain’s best performances.  (One need only consider how overly mannered Meryl Streep would have been in the role to realize just how great an actress Jessica Chastain truly is.)  Mia Wasikowska is the epitome of fragile loveliness as Edith and Tom Hiddleston is perfectly cast as a handsome, slightly decadent aristocrat with a secret.  In fact, all three of them are perfectly cast.  Taking their roles too seriously would have been a mistake but so would have not taking the movie seriously enough.  The entire cast strikes a perfect balance, embracing the melodrama without going too far over the top.

So, why are so many film critics having such a hard time embracing Crimson Peak?  It’s pretty much for the same reason that a lot of them had a hard time with Pacific Rim.  Guillermo Del Toro’s films are masterpieces of the pulp imagination.  As such, he exposes the condescending attitude that most contemporary critics take towards “genre” films.  When mainstream critics dismiss Crimson Peak as just being “a horror film that isn’t scary enough,” all they’re really doing is revealing how ignorant they are of the horror genre.

So, in other words, don’t listen to those mainstream critics.  They are not worth your trouble.  Crimson Peak is a wonderfully acted and visually gorgeous gothic romance and it needs to be seen on the big screen.

Reportedly, Crimson Peak struggled at the box office this weekend.

Well, you know what?

If you haven’t seen Crimson Peak, you need to go out and see it this week.  It’s a great film and what good are we if we let the great ones go unseen?

Crimson Peak’s Visually Stunning Gothic Horror


CrimsonPeak

Guillermo Del Toro has become the one filmmaker who seems to excite both the elitist cinephiles and the geek community whenever he comes out with a new film. He’s done both pop-friendly extravaganzas (Pacific Rim, Hellboy) to critically-acllaimed arthouse fares (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone). His name has been attached to so many projects of all stripe that one wonders if he ever gets time to rest.

Most of these projects never get past the concept stage, but when one does and he goes all out in directing such projects we get something that excites the fanbase like his upcoming gothic horror film Crimson Peak. It looks to be Del Toro’s love letter to gothic horror of the past with his own visual flair for the morbid and the beautiful in one package.

The film stars a who’s who of powerful performers from Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston to Mia Wasikowska and Charlie Hunnam.

Crimson Peak is set to haunt the public this coming October 16, 2015

Trailer: Crimson Peak


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When will studios finally smarten up and realize that Guillermo Del Toro is one of the preeminent fantasists of our time. Just give him the money and talent to finally make his dream project for the bigscreen: At the Mountains of Madness.

Until that happens we shall have to wait with anticipation for every new project he does see through to completion. This time around he leaves the world of Jaegers and Kaiju and takes us into the world of gothic horror with his upcoming film Crimson Peak.

The most talented cast he has work with to date, Crimson Peak is Del Toro’s take on the classic gothic ghost story but with more than just a tad and smidgen of his own narrative and visual style when it comes to horror. It stars Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Charlie Hunnam and Jim Beaver.

Crimson Peak is set for an October 16, 2015 release date. Just in time for Halloween.