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‘Primal’ and the language of evolution

Genndy Tartakovsky’s “Primal” is a masterpiece like no other. Through blood and prehistoric rage, the silence of a show without dialogue is drowned under the terrifying screams of beasts fighting their very extinction. But this is more than just a show about a caveman and a T-rex fighting duo. Sprayed across this show’s violent tapestry is a hunt for meaning.

Now that the show’s second and final season has ended, I think it works best looking at the series in its entirety. In the aftermath of losing both their families, a caveman, Spear and T-rex, Fang, team up to survive and overcome their mourning.Without dialogue, and without characters able to understand each other, the nature of the human individual is fully dissected at its most vulnerable state.

Spear cannot express the deep emotions he experiences. Why he decides to keep fighting is never about overcoming doubt, it’s out of necessity. No matter how much of his life disappears, the only way to keep it alive is for him to keep moving. Evolution is not kind to the lone survivor; the harder they fight it, the more they will be left behind.

Throughout the show, cultures are turned to rubble, and entire species are reduced to ash, yet episode by episode, Spear and Fang escape the hurricane intact. It’s only after the fights end that they realize the world is moving on without them. They are destined to be alone, agents of eras long buried, and the only way to not be swept away in the avalanche of time is to cling to each other. It puts our modern place in the food chain into question by examining our very understanding of evolution.

This show wouldn’t exist without the legendary Genndy Tartakovsky, who was probably a staple of your childhood entertainment. The mind behind “Dexter’s Lab,” “Samurai Jack,” “Hotel Transylvania” and my personal favorite, “Sym-Bionic Titan,” this guy knows how to craft dynamic stories with great action and unforgettable art styles. In a TV market booming with 3D animation, Tartakovsky’s drawings add texture through rough brush strokes and sharp character designs. The very outlines of Spear and Fang can puncture flesh. The physicality of their characters is visible in their silhouette, each shape and angle built to feel cold-blooded. The show contrasts this antagonism with vibrant colors, blending venomous greens with cartoonish volumes of bloodied reds.

Even the sound design feels like it’s calling from the stone age with low horns and deep drums. Nothing blends into each other; it all stacks into a mountain of iconic symbols and vivid memories. Tartakovsky has mastered his craft, emphasizing texture and style over a clean image.

I do want to specify the evolution of this show after its second season. The first five episodes of the show are a social experiment: could they successfully create an engaging story through teeth, blood and screams? The answer was a resounding yes. But with that foundation proving successful, there had to be a next step. An evolution.

Season two’s job was to put a spine to the muscle. The episodic adventures grow more serialized, more characters are introduced and themes drive the story rather than survival. I want to mention this because season one is a great way to pass the time, but season two is when it truly hones the story. Spear is no longer a simple caveman by the end of the show, he signifies something elemental about our species. That something is that this show promises to revive, hoping we never let it slip into the past again.

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

Contact J.P. at jpspoonmo@nd.edu.

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‘Juniper’: The emotional exploration of friendship

Notre Dame alum Katherine Dudas ‘14 just wrote and directed her own feature film, “Juniper.” That alone should be enough to convince you to see it, but ignoring the Notre Dame school pride part, this film is fantastic in its emotional evolution of grief and what we cling to when remembering lost loved ones, as well as the harsh reality that sometimes our memories aren’t always the full picture.

Being a film major, it’s so inspiring to know not only that Dudas once sat in many of the same classrooms as me, but also the knowledge that she has achieved what I’ve been dreaming of my entire life. What’s even more inspiring is that Dudas filmed this project during the height of the Covid lockdown, pushing through the toughest filming obstacles by keeping it small and isolated and using those limitations as part of the film’s premise.

 “Juniper” follows Mack, who decides to escape to her family’s summer cabin to mourn her sister’s death alone, but her old high school friend, Alex, has other plans. The film is an impressive first feature with emotional characters, great cinematography and fun editing. The props are a surprisingly fun highlight — especially Mack pouring vodka into the comically biggest water bottle I’ve ever seen. It’s a quick watch of only 71 minutes, and every person involved knocks it out of the park.

The core cast is fantastic. Katherine Dudas used her improv background in the writing process by letting the three actresses improvise the majority of their lines. Their chemistry strengthens the film, and it clearly shows when they naturally add and enhance each other’s dialogue to keep each scene snowballing into deeper emotions. The actresses even get their own writing credits, which I think is a nice touch and helps emphasize the collaboration that happens with such a small crew. In fact, there is an indie film genre called “mumblecore,” where the low budget filmmaking focuses on naturalistic acting with a lot of dialogue, prioritizing the relationship between the characters rather than developing an active plot. This film utilizes the genre perfectly, unfolding the complex relationship between two friends layer by layer.

The film utilizes each character in clever ways to keep the tension through every scene. Mack is on the verge of breaking the entire runtime, and any time she is about to feel in control, the film brings in another reveal to keep her on her heels. A surprise introduction halfway through the film especially flips every dynamic on its head when Alex’s brother shows up to also help Mack in his own way, breaking a girls trip getaway into an even more claustrophobic weekend. How Mack interacts with each character changes the longer she’s stuck with them, and each one sees a different side of her that challenges what she thinks is right. It all surrounds her in an unstable atmosphere that swings from peaceful to venomous without warning, and it feels like we’re getting just a glimpse of her life as she learns to open up again after her sister’s death.            

I’m really excited to see what Katherine Dudas does next. The way in which the camera follows her characters is personal, especially as it sits with them realizing their mistakes, yet she still knows when to cut to keep the story flowing. Her comedic timing offers a lot of entertainment to balance out the heavy emotions, both of which are earned through the fantastic acting and a great use of a single location. Even though there are not a lot of big names in this film — even with its incredible original indie-pop soundtrack — I believe we have the chance to give Katherine Dudas and the rest of her creative team the attention they deserve. More people need to talk about this film.

You can stream “Juniper” on Showtime. Go Irish!

Contact JP Spoonmore at jpspoonmo@nd.edu.

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‘Barbarian’ and its missing depths

Editor’s note: This review includes mentions of sexual assault.

“Barbarian” is a genre-twisting horror film preying on the fears of dark basements, “nice guy” strangers and rust-belt neighborhoods. What seems like a simple, entertaining premise quickly transforms into a lurking exploration of a horror found in real life. Unfortunately, its thematic mystery falls apart under its own hypocrisy.

I first need to give credit to writer-director Zach Cregger for the adrenaline rush that is his first horror feature. The constant character reveals and genre-switching works every time in escalating the real tension of the story. The visuals are the impressive highlight, emphasizing how clever each character is — or the lack thereof — in silently creative ways. Some choices the characters make pull genuine laughs out of the audience, while others are jaw-dropping in shock value. This emphasis on surprise is the film’s strongest feature. It does not last the entire runtime, but it keeps you guessing on the edge of your seat.

The story branches itself into three characters that play off different genres to clash against the scares. What starts as a stranger-danger thriller suddenly cuts to a horror-comedy with delicious parallels, before once again cutting to a period horror with 80s-era serial killer stereotypes. Yes, the stereotypes are rampant throughout, but they are oftentimes used to double down on each genre in intriguing ways. Sadly, this switching of genre-play only happens in the first half of the film and disappears before reaching its full potential. Once the story merges into one lane, it leaves a collection of questions to be discarded and the remaining conflict to fizzle out in the end.

Now to where this film truly fails: what the characters stand for. One is a blank victim that exists only to be the “final girl” and the other is a predator that never realizes that his excuses are fantasies. The former is supposed to be the central character, but the camera and theme only seem to care about the latter. This is because “Barbarian” secretly revolves around men in denial for being the monsters we read about in accusations. It’s an intriguing premise that is clouded in execution. The worst part is that this underlying reality of sexual assault gets painted over when the predatory man serves as the comedic relief while the female victim gets no characterization at all.

The hardest scenes to watch are intentional. Much of the male character’s past is hard to watch in his self-excusing negligence and false promises, while his actions show his true nature. The female character, on the other hand, doesn’t have a past. She has no inner conflict, flaw or even a purpose to be involved. She’s just stuck there. The comparisons to Alex Garland’s “Men” (criticized for a male writer’s use of a blank female character for a two-dimensional-anti-male, feminist horror film) are so laughable that it sinks this film into ruin.

“Barbarian” is a fun watch in the beginning that accidentally drops all promises by the halfway point. What is left is its broken theme that wants to speak truths too little too late in the runtime with no explanation as to why. It is too busy prioritizing the schock value of genre clash and horror set pieces to effectively present its actual purpose. There’s not enough time with the isolated characters to flesh out their struggles, and the actual, sub-textual horror behind the scares is left off screen. The film’s cracks in the foundation are invisible yet deep, causing the whole story to crumble under the quickest scrutiny. In the end, the risk of tackling guilty men’s response to sexual assault was too catastrophic in the name drops alone; it needed time to grow and be part of the film’s message, but it had no energy or depth to explore correctly.

‘Barbarian’

Director: Zach Cregger

Starring: Georgina Campbell, Justin Long, Bill Skarsgard

Shamrocks: 2 out of 5

Contact JP Spoonmore at jpspoonmo@nd.edu