Neutral Magazine

Film Reviews

Neutral’s contributor base is largely made up of film scholars who are keen to share their passion and dedication to the film industry.

Neutral Magazine + Film Reviews

Big Cats, Bigger Problems

By Esther Roberts | esther.roberts@yorksj.ac.uk

Joe Exotic is a predator who preys on young men. Carole Baskin allegedly killed her husband for his money. And Doc Antle runs a creepy sex cult - is that what you wanted to read? Well, there you have it. Seemingly, the most important comments that people are sharing across the Internet about Netflix’s new hit series ‘Tiger King’ (2020). But is that all Tiger King is? Yes. Is that all it should be? No. A fan-favourite worker of Joe puts it best at the end of the documentary: ‘Nobody wins. Everybody involved is a so-called ‘animal advocate’. Not a single animal benefited from this. Not a single one’. That is the perspective that my review is going to take, as the humans of this intriguing tale have hogged the spotlight for much too long.

According to information given at the end of the documentary there are five to ten thousand big cats currently in the United States. Meanwhile, only four thousand are in the wild. To state what should be obvious, big cats - the overall classification used to group together tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards and snow leopards - are not the most ideal pets as they are not domesticated and as wild animals, they have naturally evolved to survive life in the wild. For the sake of the documentary I’m going to focus on just tigers and what makes them such a volatile pet to have. One thing many of the zoo owners make note of is how cute and adorable the young tiger cubs are, and the fact that they bring in most of the revenue. However, this only applies to the first couple of months after birth as they soon grow up to become some of the most dangerous animals that could easily rip an arm off - an incident which happens in the documentary. Tigers have the strength to take down five-hundred-pound antelopes, are extremely capable swimmers and very territorial. Not to mention male tigers do not mix well with other males due to these territorial tendencies.

Carole states that big cats need four hundred square miles of space to live comfortably, along with access to small ponds or lakes, nature and shelter. These are factors that many certified zoos are able to give tigers, along with large structures to climb on and plastic balls to play with to ensure a stimulated mental wellbeing. Housing is the main issue that perpetuates each of the zoos mentioned and clearly shows the lack of responsibility that Joe, Doc - and especially Carole, have for their main attractions.

At the time of recording, Joe Exotic ran the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, more commonly known as the G.W Zoo, in Oklahoma. It has sixteen acres that are used to facilitate the zoo, gift shop, café, music studio, staff quarters and Joe’s home. It held seven hundred animals across fifty species, and became a huge success, accommodating celebrities such as Shaquille O’Neil, one of their most famous visitors. But from an animal standpoint it fails to be a suitable home. The tigers live in big metal cages and have an average amount of space to run around and wooden obstacles to climb on, but one of the real failures of the zoo is the food that the tigers are given. The zoo gets a load of its meat from Walmart, expired meat that Joe also offers his workers, which they often have to ration between themselves and the big cats. Joe also had connections to local feedlots where he would be given any animals that died and the access to any roadkill in the area. Tigers should be fed about ten to fifteen pounds of fresh meat a day, not to mention the requirements of individual tigers can vary depending on the season and other external and internal factors.

Big Cat Rescue is owned by Carole Baskin, the antagonist of the series, and alleged killer. The conspiracy surrounds the idea that Carole killed her first husband by dousing him in sardine oil and feeding him to the tigers. Big Cat Rescue which resides in Florida, acts as a sanctuary as Carole does not breed or sell her tigers (unlike Joe and Doc). Instead she acts as a barrier between abandoned big cats and their reluctant owners. Carole seems to be quite knowledgeable about the animals, as she states, “big cats don’t belong in cages” before proceeding to hold her big cats in cages much smaller than her main nemesis, Joe. This hypocrisy is something that makes Carole the villain of this series as she states several times that her zoo is a sanctuary for big cats whose owners realise far too late that perhaps owning a tiger is not such a great idea. Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done legally to protect such animals once abandoned and the government regulation that Carole advocated for has still not been granted.

Doc Antle owns, in his own words, the ‘premium’ private zoo experience as he owns a fifty acre preserve which is home to not only big cats but also, cheetahs and an elephant. Myrtle Beach Safari, located in South Carolina, has a much more relaxed atmosphere as many of the animals are allowed to roam around or on leashes. Doc spends over ten thousand dollars a year on quality food and has the recommended water facilities for the tigers. Not much is shown of the day-to-day happenings of the zoo but Doc makes it clear that this is more about him than the animals as he boasts about the Hollywood films he has helped be a part of, lending his animals and using his experience as an animal trainer.

There are many stones to Doc Antle’s story which have yet to be uncovered, but I think that is for the best as, like Saff said, “nobody wins”. Joe, Carole and Doc are people who all profit from exploiting wild animals. Their crazy, sensationalised tale of murder and cult-like activities has garnered them most of the attention, when in reality the main focus should be on the fact that owning exotic animals is a completely legal venture and question why that is. Why are there no laws prohibiting people from owning such animals? Why are these people allowed to profit from mistreating endangered animals? Why are there no procedures put in place to rehabilitate these animals once their owners want to get rid of them? If there is anything that people should take away from this series, it’s that animals need our help and that there are people who actually dedicate their lives to protecting and caring for these animals.

Here is a list of documentaries which will actually teach and inspire:
• Planet Earth
• Life
• Africa
• Blackfish

Neutral Magazine + Film Reviews

Parasite

By Maia Gunning | maiagunning221b@gmail.com

I honestly did not know what to expect walking in to go see Parasite. I hadn’t seen a trailer or any kind of promotional material; all I knew was that it was a scathing critique of capitalism and that it was meant to be incredible. Now that I’ve seen how much of a masterpiece it is, I can see how it will bring a change to the cinematic world.

It’s not a film that eases you into the narrative, immediately you are slammed into the reality of the Kim family’s life. The opening shot is of socks hanging on pegs in front of a tiny window that only allows half a view of the street above, instantly telling us that the Kims are impoverished. First impressions of the family are filled with pity. They are all sitting at the kitchen table folding pizza boxes for petty cash just to get by, just as we see a man fogging pesticide in the street outside. The daughter, Ki-jeong, says, “shut the window” but her father, Ki-taek says, “leave it open. We’ll get free extermination. Kill the stink bugs”. The thick, white fog comes rolling into the cluttered basement apartment, obscuring the family. Their hacking coughs show their willingness to expose themselves to poison because it’s the only way they are able to get the stink bugs out of their house.

By including this scene so early on, director Boon Jong Ho makes sure that the audience knows exactly what they’re in for. This is a film about capitalism and poverty. This is a film about how capitalism destroys lives and squanders potential, about how people are trapped folding pizza boxes to get by when, if they had the money, they would clearly excel in education and go on to do impressive things. But the Kim’s don’t have the money. So when the son, Ki-woo, is offered a job as an English tutor for a wealthy family he jumps at it; it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a degree, “just fake it” his friend says, and that is exactly what Ki-woo does. He fakes his way right into their fancy house and his façade is so successful that when the mother, Mrs. Park, mentions that she’s looking for an art tutor for her son, Ki-woo offers his help, saying his cousin would gladly take on the role. Mrs. Park asks him to bring her over with almost no questions asked.

Ki-woo brings his sister, Ki-jeong, who somehow manages to fake it even better than her brother. She tricks Mrs. Park into believing that she is an art therapist and should be paid more to help Da-song. There are now two members of the Kim family in the Park household. They waste no time manipulating Mr. Park into firing his driver and replacing him with their father and, although getting rid of the housekeeper proves more of a challenge, she is soon replaced with their mother, Chung-sook. They now have complete control of the house and, when the Parks leave on a camping trip, they decide to celebrate in their new home, taking complete advantage of the Parks. But then the previous housekeeper comes back, and things get difficult… I won’t spoil too much for those who haven’t yet seen Parasite but be aware that it is full of twists and turns. You may have a vague expectation of where the film may go but remain open-minded, it might surprise you.

Director Boon Jong Ho keeps the tension palpable right until the closing credits, it is a film that engrossed me like nothing else has in a long, long time and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s a film that sticks with you, that makes you question things, it worms its way inside your head like the parasite it’s named for and I assure you that it will stay there. Class struggle is becoming more of an issue in Britain by the day and although Parasite is a film very much about Korea, it speaks to the darkest aspects of our own society. As Boon Jong Ho himself says “I tried to express a sentiment specific to Korean culture…but upon screening the film…all the responses from different audiences were the same…essentially, we all live in the same country called capitalism”.

Parasite’s Golden Globes win for Best Foreign Language Film sparked a mass of well-deserved awards including four wins at the Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film. It is a beautifully crafted masterpiece with characters that feel so deeply real that you find yourself rooting for them. Despite their actions being clearly manipulative and deceitful, their motivations are so familiar to ninety percent of the audience that you find yourself saying, “you take these stupid, rich people for every penny you can, good for you”. It’s a film that will make you question yourself and what you would do for a better life. But most importantly, who in today’s capitalistic society where money is all that matters, can be considered a parasite?

Neutral Magazine + Film Reviews

Hollywood: A Review of Ryan Murphy’s Dreamland

By Morgan Barr | mnbarr98@gmail.com

The introduction of the new Netflix show Hollywood starts at the epicentre of a gas station prostitution ring in the 1940s. The rich and powerful drive up casually in their cars and ask for ‘dreamland’, and it is this opening that encapsulates a big part of this world. It’s a dream, one that Ryan Murphy, of Glee, American Horror Story and Pose fame, presents to the audience. A glittering alternate reality, where those unheard voices are spoken loud over the action of Hollywoodland. Its production, cast and music take the audience back to a version of tinseltown that is presented as truly valuable: the pavements are clean, the skirts are modest, and the hidden desires of most are kept under the perfectly maintained rugs. But there is more to this version of the city, because within it there are characters who represent the people who were lost in this time, those whose desires are considered immoral, their skin colour a trope, and their gender a setback. However, what is even more lost in this production are the voices of those who actually existed in this time - Anna May Wong, Rock Hudson, and Hattie McDaniel are but a few of the Old Hollywood hands who play alongside the new characters created by Murphy.

It’s a lovely sentiment to believe in a world where a film adapted from the story of Peg Entwistle, an actress who committed suicide off the Hollywood sign, could be one that represents hope to people who aspire to it, and what it means to succeed against the odds. A film about this woman does not exist in our time but in Murphy’s America, it is the catalyst for change. In this adaptation of the tragedy, the story is changed to fit Laura Harrier’s character Camille, a young black actress who - like Peg - struggles to make it in the industry and throughout the following episodes, the story of Peg Entwistle is slowly changed to that of Meg Ennis. The change becomes a representation of our collective past in the industry and while the story of Peg is that of a distraught actress consumed with the grief of failing, Meg is saved by the hope that she can change the world around her. Murphy tries to parallel his vision of the industry with Meg’s and it becomes an alternate reality of our past that we cannot change.

Murphy has a history of hits and misses, where the earlier seasons of Glee captivated that cultish teen dynamic and Pose gained huge successes in portraying the New York ballroom scene. Hollywood shows us a ‘what if?’ fantasy that seems to be intended to give the real big execs the middle finger yet gives the audience a sad reality check. Re-writing the history of the film industry for the better is a wish that is well-intentioned and yet doing so erases an entire history that shapes the current culture.

Murphy seems to forget this as his characters all represent minority and difference in 1940s tinseltown who overcome their struggles of making it. They succeed in creating a film that outdoes all others and changes the minds of its audience. However, our audience knows that history was never so kind. The fictionality of the show reminds us that nothing has changed; women still get paid less than men, inclusive filmmaking is still disregarded and Scarlett Johansson is still taking all the tree roles. It is an example of escapism that is marketed and packaged well, but the end result seems to be a little underwhelming for some.

What stands out as a descriptor of the show is the opening titles. It shows the main characters climbing the unstable rungs of the Hollywood sign. It shows them slipping and grasping as they help each other along until they all reach the top. This becomes a theme that is featured throughout all the episodes, but this notion of solidarity is a far cry from the cutthroat business of Hollywood, a business that has no doubt benefitted Ryan Murphy’s career. We as an audience want the stories we see to be on the right side of history, a concept that is even discussed by the characters, but the erasure of those who made the real changes make it hard to believe there was any. The characters help each other, but don't necessarily help those who came before them. There are characters within the show who are representing the real stories of Hollywood, such as actress Anna May Wong. Yet instead of utilising the narrative arc of her well-documented struggles in Asian type-casting, her story is nothing but a cautionary tale in Ryan Murphy’s take on what the industry should be doing.

Perhaps the benefit of this show has been in its controversy, the many articles that have surfaced criticising Murphy’s erasure and ignorance of prominent figures in the industry have encouraged audiences to seek out the real stories. This has caused a flurry of renewed interest in those who made bold changes in the film and TV industry and means that their work has been recognised by those who may not have even known about their existence.

This controversy does not mean that the show does not have its merits. Its casting is impeccable, along with its production and costuming, which help soften some of the jagged moments into something more palatable. Stars like Patti Lupone, Holland Taylor, and Jim Parsons portray the older Hollywood puppeteers who both conform to the older regime while aiding in its development. LuPone for example, plays Avis Amberg who becomes the first female studio exec; a Jewish woman, she campaigns for change and fights against the choices made by her white male partners. Darren Criss, Jeremy Pope and Jake Picking similarly portray fresh characters who are at the crux of this narrative and utilise their surroundings to create the feeling of old Hollywood with a contemporary twist.

While these merits are a testament to Murphy’s ability to create a popular show, his timing has condensed his vision of a new Hollywood into something more shallow. The depth of character that can be seen in his previous works is muddled in with simple descriptors of difference. We see Anna May Wong become a supporting role, Vivien Leigh is transformed into a mentally unstable representation of aged stardom, and Rock Hudson’s tortured relationship with his own sexuality becomes reduced to him being a bad actor who simply falls in love. Perhaps it is easy to reduce these people into smaller plot points, since this series consists of only seven episodes, but the unsung heroes of the industry are not represented in their vibrancy and talent but are instead echoes of a struggle that is forgotten.