Russian Dolls: We’ve Only Just Begun

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Netflix, Season 1
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett
Created by: Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, Lesyle Headland
Reviewed by Jade Sharma

For a lot of people life consists of repeating the same self-destructive patterns. That girl who can’t permanently shake the doucebbag who everyone can see treats her like garbage. The guy who lets some girl string him along, uses him to build furniture from Ikea, ditches him for anyone else, but picks him back up anytime she feels like it. We kinda know when we don’t see a friend for a long time that means they’re probably using again. Instead of lecturing the people around us, we listen patiently as they share their litany of reasons of why this time it was different, and we hear the words: This is the last time. One of the lesser known clichés of addictions is that relapsing is part of the nature of the disease of addiction. But for the person who is in the cycle it really is always different. The idea that it’s laziness or weakness that leads us back is offensive. We’re not idiots.. Yes, we know how it seems but the truth is always complicated. And it all looks easy to the outsider but even when we are brave and end the cycle, we have to deal with the messy parts of life that are harder to solve like loneliness and emptiness.

Russian Doll is about 36-year-old Nadia, who is stuck in a loop, re-living the same day. This isn’t a grungy hipster version of Groundhog Day. Russian Doll has bigger existential fish to fry than finding how to give love another chance. Russian Doll does a good job of showing us the messy complicated parts of life but packages it in a tight well-written narrative that moves at a good pace.

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Russian Doll starts in the bathroom. Where we find Nadia (played by Natasha Lyonne in all her androgynous, sarcastic, ranting, glory. Side note: Lyonne is one of the creators.) in front of the mirror. She swings the door open and we find a refreshingly diverse hipster wonderland as her best friend Maxine (played by scene-stealer Greta Lee) exclaims, “Sweet Birthday, Baby.” Nadia, after bemoaning mortality, and asks whether women have mid-life crisis, urns to the party goers “to make some decision.” She decides to have meaningless sex with a pretentious douchebag named Mike, whose mouth is constantly expounding opinions, illustrating that too much Académie can be a bad thing. Nadia’s first death is being hit by a cab. As a viewer it’s jarring to see a character to get hit by a car and then cut to the next scene to find her standing in a bathroom, completely fine, like someone who wasn’t just hit by a car. But that’s we get used to in Russian Doll and what becomes even comical: like the montage of scenes where she seems to die every single time she tries to get down the stairs.

The first thing Nadia does is to figure out what the hell is going on. The earie part of the show is Nadia does what most people would do in her position: sharing what is going on with her friends and getting frustrated when they don’t seem to take her seriously. How frightening/maddening would it be to try to get the people around you to believe you, as you go through this, totally terrified and alone.

Her first theory is that is must be the drugs but after a few deaths, her investigation, confronting the dealer, is that the only thing laced with the joint is anti-depressants and ketamine (which she first blames as the reason as she swears she has never done ketamine, only to be reminded by Maxine that she had actually done ketamine) which ends the drug theory.

After finding out that her party is being thrown in what used to be a Yeshiva school, the next segments, finds her investigating the clumsy idea of something religious/supernatural/has to do with ghosts that is thankfully short and concludes with Nadia turning to a homeless guy that lurks throughout the show, named Horse, who probably is the key to something but somehow, for me, this is the part that drags in this show. I don’t care about Horse and it seems both heavy-handed and nonsensical that Horse, a random homeless dude in Tompkins Square, could hold answers. He doesn’t but he does take up too much screen time to not hold some importance that I’m not interested enough to investigate.

Then we have a phase where Nadia parties, does whatever drugs or drinks are in front of her, and dies in whatever way, taking a break from trying to figure anything out. That’s what there is to love about this show: the pacing is great. I love how though it meanders it still manages to stay compelling.

So, as much as we’re with Nadia we also find relief when she finds a fellow being who is also stuck. After death has gotten to just be a normal part of her routine, she finds herself on an elevator that starts to plummet to the ground and Nadia says to the guy next to her, who is not freaking out either, “Didn’t you get the memo?” she asks, and tells him that ‘We’re all going to die.” He responds, deadpan, “I die all the time.” This new turn in the narrative is a welcome one, we are relieved that finally Nadia isn’t alone in her loop, and that the narrative is extending past just Nadia and her world.

While Nadia’s been agonizing in her loop and trying to figure out what has been causing it; Alan (Charlie Barnett) has been finding comfort in his loop. He likes knowing the rhythm of what’s going to happen but Nadia messes all that up. But Nadia also jars herself and Alan back to figuring out how to get out of this.

They team up, going through each other loops and meeting back at Nadia’s party after they die. They figure out that the very first death, the first night, they actually ran into each other which leads them to the theory that neither of them was supposed to die. That somehow this leads to the universe catching a virus, leaving both Alan and Nadia in this loop.

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Russian Doll ends in what could look like a heavy-handed  mantra to reach out and save each other, as the key to ending the loop turns out to be that Nadia intervenes on Alan’s first night so he doesn’t jump off a building because his girlfriend dumps him and Alan stops Nadia from being hit by a cab, this corrects, or as Nadia sees it de-bugs the universe, and we finally see our characters break free from their loops and move forward.

When Nadia and Alan are both in their loops we see them meander through, following different paths, to find the same outcome: They wake up from their deaths in the same place. This metaphor of being stuck in the same loop, is how a lot of us feel, like someone hit the pause button, and like Nadia, we may spend some time dwelling on the sofa doing nothing until something jars us awake, and we look for answers on how to break free. This is where the metaphor ends. Sadly, the solution to breaking free in real life isn’t ever an universe-bending puzzle with the solution lurking in some obscure part of our world, like a random person in Tompkins Square, or someone going through the same thing but lies in our boring selves (like the title Russian Doll, where going inward to find replicas of the self) to make the steps out of the rut by doing real work that wouldn’t be entertaining to watch. There is something to be said that having real friends to be present to do the dull work of listening to us and doing things like taking a walk with us, or going to a movie to calm the agony of making the hours go by, slowly, stepping forward, one step at a time, or as they say, one day at a time, until we are free and can then investigate what plagued us to find solace, again, and again, in the same self-destructive tendencies.

Back to Russian Doll: The series has been green-lit for another two seasons. Where exactly does a series go, after it’s untangled an extensional crisis and what exactly could be in store for our characters with a-dozen-or-so deaths behind them? Russian Doll has created a feat for itself, it’s hard to imagine what Easter eggs of wisdom will emerge in the narrative space it’s created once life goes back to normal.

The Tethering of Classes in Jordan Peele’s Us by Cherish Pierre-Louis

Jordan Peele’s Us has taken the media by storm perhaps more than his debut blockbuster film Get Out. Peele’s use of satire throughout the film leaves the audience to feel one out of two things: Enlightened or Confused?
- The movie Us begins with a young Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) peering at a tv screen that displays the Hands Across America campaign in the late 80’s, when approximately 6.5 million people held hands across the United States for fifteen minutes.

Jordan Peele uses a memorable event in the United States and creates a film with the abbreviation and gives the audience migraines. He shows us the irony in unity in a world where our President is Donald Trump. There is a scene where Adelaide’s doppelganger s Red tells Adelaide in Us that they are “Americans ,Tethered together”. But is there more to it than that?
- The idea of being tethered is repeated all throughout the film. Red tells Adelaide that they are “tethered together” numerous times. Besides the tethering being seen in the Hands Across America Campaign, there are other moments where the tethering is emphasized.

Red refers to herself and her people as “Shadows.” Shadows are soulless and dark. They are our outlines but what makes them truly shadows? Red, dressed in a red jumpsuit and wielding golden scissors, explains to the audience that they were created by a powerful faction to control the population, but the project is abandoned and so are the doppelgangers. They are forced to fend for themselves in abandoned underground tunnels and copy every single movement made by those on earth above.

If we were to compare Peele’s film to modern day civilization, we could see the “shadows” as the less fortunate. The idea of one group of people being above another is shown literally in Us; we see it amongst our people as well. Those who are fortunate live their lives in ignorance and bliss while those that are unfortunate must live off their scraps. They must get the bud of all the decisions made by the fortunate.

Another identification of the “tethered” might be those who are incarcerated today. This theory was taken from the fact that the doppelgangers are adorned in orange jumpsuits and are living someplace where they are boxed in. Those incarcerated also connect with the ideology of the “forgotten” in Jordan Peele’s Us.

Jordan Peele’s film set social media on fire. Fans were enraptured with the usage of Jeremiah 11:11 all throughout the movie. “Therefore, thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them”. This biblical verse explains Jordan Peele’s breakdown of Us. Peele tells Empire’s Chris Hewitt that the film is about the monster within us. The idea is that the hero is simultaneously the villain in this film.

The film’s soundtrack further intensifies the idea of the conflict with the self. In the beginning if the movie we hear Janelle Monae’s “I Like That,” Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleur” and “I Got 5 on It” by Luniz. These songs play on Adelaide and Gabe’s ride to their vacation home, and Adelaide snaps her fingers to the song, off key. The last scene of the movie where Adelaide goes toe-to-toe with Red is the most chilling of all. We realize that the tethered has no rhythm and that Red is not in fact a part of the tethered. The tethered remix to “I Got 5 on It” plays in the background of their encounter. This composition is composed by Michael Abel and features Michael Marshall. The orchestral track gave the film a haunting and unforgettable effect.

According to Slate______, Composer Michael Abel’s goal with the track list was to try playing instruments that don’t belong together, creating a sense of dissonance that speaks to the scenes where the tethered fight those they are tethered to. This helps to amplify the horror and the sense of violence within the film. A true horror, thriller masterpiece.

“Edmond,” Alexis Michalik’s Love Letter to Cyrano de Bergerac

by Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac was a French novelist who lived during the 17th century and inspired the most notorious play written by Edmond Rostand in 1897. The love triangle between the shy, poetic and large-nosed Cyrano, his less articulate friend Christian and the charming Roxane, has been staged across the globe and adapted for cinema several times; as well as reworked into operas, ballet and other literary forms.

However the young director Alexis Michalik, through his theatrical background and experience behind and in front of the camera, brings to life a witty and enthralling ode to the author of Cyrano de Bergerac and his creative process.

Michalik’s first feature film, Edmond, is set in Paris in December 1897, exactly when the young French playwright was struggling for inspiration. Thanks to his admirer, the legendary Sarah Bernhardt, Rostand meets the most famous actor of the moment, Constant Coquelin, who insists on acting in his next play and having it debut in just three weeks. But Edmond has a wife and two children to take care of, many bills that are due, and most importantly he has yet to write the pièce. However he eventually finds his muse who will inspire the famous ‘Cyrano de Bergerac.’

Director Alexis Michalik sublimely retraces Rostand’s use of verse, creating parallels between Edmond’s mundane activities and his poetry. The entire film is paced by rhyming couplets, with references to the classical alexandrine form, whilst homaging the great legacy of the Académie française. Michalik’s approach in intertwining the biopic with the fictional work, reminds of John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love, but in this case the focus is on the genesis of the most famous story of the French Theater.

Michalik, who is also a stage actor and playwright shares some similarities with Rostand: they both had their first theatrical success at 29 years old. The contemporary metteur en scène turned réalisateur, notwithstanding his extensive career as a performer, did not choose to keep the role of Edmond for himself, casting Thomas Solivérès to play Rostand. Michalik opted for a cameo as Rostand’s rival: Georges Feydeau — who was much more successful than Rostand during the 19th century and was also known for being unsympathetic. By playing this role Alexis made a humble choice, mocking his position as an acclaimed author.

Olivier Gourmet performs majestically as the actor that Rostand cast to play Cyrano, Constant Coquelin; and the flamboyant Clémentine Célarié makes a stupendous Sarah Bernhardt. Lucie Boujenah is gentle and courteous in portraying Jeanne (who will inspire the character of Roxane), and Alice De Lencquesaing intensely embodies Rostand’s wife, Rosemonde, who is torn between jealousy and the demeanor that is required by the spouse of a writer of that time.

This film powerfully conveys the elements of dramedy of the original play, through the suave original score composed by Romain Trouillet. The music instills raw authenticity to the historical narration, making it a universal parable about an ambitious artist tackling with the turmoils of an ordinary man. The experience that is left with the audience is the desire to go back and read the original text and discover the nuances of the French hero par excellence: a man without beauty and ambition, but who placed his feelings above anything else…and with great panache.

With Edmond, Alexis Michalik enacts a magnificent cross-fertilization of the arts. He lyrically brings to life a work of metafiction in which theatre acquires a new dignity through motion pictures and where all the world is much more than a mere soundstage.

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A Star Is Born: A Showcase of True Stardom

I have been counting down the days to the opening of A Star is Born, teased by the alluring trailer which so well paints the image of an enticing music-meets-love story. With the trailer flashing scenes of the talented dreamboat Bradley Cooper, fashioned like the dingy, drunken country star I always found secretly charming, and the iconic Lady Gaga flawlessly belting the earworm ‘Shallow’, I knew that this was going to be the movie to look out for. I hyped myself up for a love story full of song and fun; when I hit the theater the weekend A Star Is Born opened, I had no idea that I was headed for a nearly perfect storytelling of love, passion, sacrifice, and disease.

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The new critically acclaimed film is one of Spike Lee’s best, contending with his 1990’s blockbuster movies (Malcolm X, Jungle Fever), pushing the limits on social issues including racism, community and police brutality.

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