The ballsy realism of HBO's Euphoria is worth the risk

Image: eddy chen/hbo

Euphoria is a jarring exploration into the dark gamuts of growing up with addiction, depression, and immense peer pressure among other coming-of-age obstacles. HBO’s gritty teen drama pushes boundaries in its attempts to realistically display the how and why of high schoolers indulge in drugs and sex.

The show found its way into the news before its June 16 premiere when it was revealed that one of the actors quit while filming the pilot after feeling uncomfortable with explicit scenes. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, show creator Sam Levinson said, “There are going to be parents who are going to be totally fucking freaked out.” 

I can see why some parents (and their kids) might need a trigger warning.

The students at the center of this show, led by Spider-Man actress Zendaya, live in an ordinary American suburb where social media, dating apps, and texting dictate their lives. They are thrust into adulthood while still discovering their sexual identities, coping with loss, and shedding inner childhood demons.

And yes, a lot of this happens through an assortment of graphic sexual displays: shocking, sensual, revelatory, unnecessary, empowering. Most of the superfluous physicality is used to enhance characterization and not further the plot. It’s to demonstrate why they engage with it, like when the new, trans girl in town Jules hooks up with older men in an attempt to find validation and love.

As episodes progress, the hyper-luridness tones down ever so slightly to let the narrative actually develop. The pilot episode is structured well visually but doesn’t do justice to the story you’re about to watch unfold. Once you get beyond the unfamiliarity of seeing this much male genitalia on-screen (it’s usually the other way around, so it’s OK to question the fuss surrounding this), Euphoria’s central protagonists find a way to reel you into their lives. The show’s message, if it has one, isn’t to find a solution for their problems. It’s to exhibit — quite extensively — their day-to-day challenges as they evolve with their trauma.

Zendaya plays Rue Bennett, a 17-year-old addict fresh out of rehab when the show begins. Within the first two minutes of episode 1, we learn that Rue was diagnosed with OCD, ADHD, anxiety, possible BPD as a kid. This becomes a basis for her escape into Molly, pills, and other drugs as she grows older. Her idea of euphoria is letting her head swivel in colors, glitter, and intoxication because it quiets the outside world. If and when she’s sober, she has to deal with the reminder that her younger sister found her OD’d on their bathroom floor during summer break. 

Her classmates are surprised to see Rue alive when school starts up but in fact, all of them are also chasing a distraction from their own dreariness. In the four episodes provided for review, we peel back the layers on Jules as well as the resident jock/bully Nate Jacobs. My favorite subplot is that of Katherine “Kat” Hernandez, a plus-sized girl who come to terms with her body in a sex-positive (again, more extensively than you would think) manner. 

Barbie Ferreira as Kat is a breakout performance

Barbie Ferreira as Kat is a breakout performance

Image: EDdy chen/hbo

It takes a couple of episodes but once Euphoria kicks into high gear, it’s impossible not to feel invested in the heart of the show: Rue and Jules’ kindred connection. 

We learn Jules’ heartbreaking backstory in the opening montage of episode 4. It helps frame her journey so far and also why she bonded with Rue so fast; Rue is the first person to accept Jules without any questions. And for Rue herself, Jules represents a certain degree of liberation and light that doesn’t involve getting high all the time. 

Rue is dressed in the same oversized hoodie and black shorts while Jules is a walking Manga girl, adorned with pink clothes and a tiny backpack to match it. They’re different on the surface but internally, their damage is extreme and in each other, they find true friendship for the first time. That’s why it’s impactful when they fight or when Rue begs for them to remedy it or the well-developed twist ending of episode 4 that sets up the rest of the season.

Zendaya gives a career-defining performance, letting go of every ounce of the Disney girl within her. Her breakdown in the closing moments of the third episode is wrenching to watch. Hunter Schafer makes a worthwhile debut as Jules and together, the two crackle with chemistry on-screen.

Image: courtesy of hbo

Euphoria works because despite the grim subject matter, the relative newcomers of the cast really sell the material. Barbie Ferreira and Sydney Sweeney are specifically wonderful to watch. Eric Dane’s turn as Cal Jacobs is unnerving, especially if you’re a fan of Grey’s Anatomy and McSteamy. Most of all, the direction and cinematography is as aesthetic as it is haunting. Shots that are slow-paced, zoomed in, run in parallels, and even animated help elevate what’s playing out.

Recent YA shows like Sex Education and Riverdale also let its teens gratify themselves with sex and narcotics but they’re lighter to take in. The CW’s Archie comics adaptation is downright unbelievable even. But Euphoria is unlike them because it steeps itself with troubles that go beyond angst. 

It’s not flawless. Nate’s aggressive behavior is addressed but doesn’t add any weight to the show’s overall appeal. The episodes are an hour long, which definitely makes the more tedious scenes stand out. 

But it’s novelty not just because it’s an HBO original but because the diegesis of these young adults is meant to be devastating, hyper-sexed up, and rarely hopeful. It’s not easy to digest but damn if it isn’t sincere in its effort to tell it. It’s a bold gamble to make but it pays off, turning it into an unexpected winner for the cable channel.

Euphoria airs Sundays on HBO at 10 p.m ET.

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Jabra Elite 85h review: Noise cancellation to rival Bose and Sony

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Jabra shocked the world (ok, maybe just me) in 2018 when it debuted the Elite 65t true wireless earbuds. Those headphones quickly shot to the top of a lot of “best of” lists, including a couple of Engadget Buyers Guides. The Elite 65t have dependable controls, solid audio and cost less than much of the competition. For 2019, Jabra is tackling over-ear, noise-cancelling headphones with the Elite 85h. However, no matter how good they are, they’re not as good of a deal at $300.

Gallery: Jabra Elite 85h headphones review | 17 Photos

The world of noise-cancelling headphones was dominated by Bose for years. It had the best noise-cancelling technology, even if most of us weren’t enamored with the company’s design choices. Then Sony introduced the 1000X line in 2016, a set of headphones that rivaled the Bose QuietComfort 35 (now QC35 II) in terms of blocking out sound, but also delivered high quality audio. Other companies have caught up to Bose too, and the field is increasingly crowded with legitimate contenders.

Like Sony, Jabra definitely offers a better design on the Elite 85h than the Bose QC35 II. Jabra’s latest headphones don’t look cheap, even though there was plenty of plastic used to make them. The headband and the outside of the earcups are fabric, which is a nice tactile change from many flagship models. It’s a canvas-like material that matches the color of the Elite 85h. But it does have one downside: If you leave them out of the case, dust and other debris sticks to it noticeably more than the typical plastic or leather. Those can be easily wiped off, and that’s not the case on the Elite 85h.

Jabra Elite 85h

Underneath the headband is soft, cushiony leather-like material which contributes to stellar comfort. And the portion of the headband that retracts when you adjust it is painted to look like metal. Again, this looks much better than colored plastic, even if it isn’t the real thing. The inside of the earcups are also wrapped in leatherette, and cushion your head without being too soft you feel the plastic behind them. In other words, they’re comfy, but still provide adequate support. At 10.4 ounces, the Elite 85h is 2.1 ounces heavier than the QC35 II and 1.5 ounces heavier than Sony’s 1000XM3.

Like many over-ear headphones, the earcups on the Jabra Elite 85h rotate flat and fold in for easy storage. That folding motion is also how you turn them on and off, which was super confusing to start. I spent a few minutes looking for a power switch to turn the headphones off. They automatically came on when I unpacked them and spun the earcups into the proper listening position, so getting started wasn’t a problem. Yes, I could’ve read the directions first, but what’s the fun in that.

Most of the controls are on the outside of the right earcup. Here, you’ll find three buttons, one in the center for play/pause and receiving calls with one above and one below for volume and skipping tracks. A single press on the two secondary buttons adjusts the volume while a long press skips tracks. A long press on the center button will put the headphones in pairing mode, and if they’re already unfolded, it will turn them on. You need that in the event you let the Elite 85h go into sleep mode. There are two more buttons on the rim of each earcup, in the same spot on each side.

On the right, that button activates your virtual assistant with a single press or mutes the microphone during calls with a long press. The 3.5mm jack and USB-C port are located beside this button . On the left earcup, a single press switches between ANC on (active noise cancellation), ANC off and hear-through/transparency modes. With a long press, you can select what Jabra calls Moments inside its Sound+ companion app.

Basically, Moments are EQ and noise cancellation presets that you can enable based on your environment. You can have different settings for your commute, in public and in private. There’s also a fourth option called “My Moment” that you can adjust how you see fit. And instead of remembering what those were, you can save them for easy access on the headphones themselves, without having to fire up the app to change modes. The headphones themselves can analyze noise to try and detect which location you’re in before switching to the appropriate Moment — a feature called SmartSound. This tool worked for me for the most part, though a few times it selected public instead of commute. It was much better at gauging when I was in a quiet or “private” setting. Like many features on the Elite 85h, you can turn SmartSound off if you don’t want to use it.

Inside the Sound+ app, you can quickly change the ANC mode and adjust the EQ sliders or choose one of six EQ presets. The software will also show you what all the on-board controls do, allow you to change your voice assistant preference, help you find your headphones if you lose them and more. The Elite 85h offers on ear detection, a feature that senses whether or not you’re wearing the headphones. When active, you can automatically answer calls or resume audio simply by putting them on. It’s handy, but Jabra gives you the choice to turn it off completely inside the app.

Unlike some headphones, the EQ tools make a noticeable difference in the tuning. The default sound profile is fine, but you can definitely improve it with the EQ sliders and presets. Or at least, you can tweak it to fit your taste. After testing all the premade options, I found manually adjusting the curve was best for me: more bass, a little more mid and a touch more treble. With that change, hip-hop, electronic music and metal had the thump it needs without overpowering everything else. I found the sweet spot for things like Com Truise’s Persuasion System, Denzel Curry’s ZUU and Gojira’s Magma. All of which are best served loud and bassy.

Jabra Elite 85h

The Elite 85h also handles softer genres like bluegrass well, with a nice clarity and depth to the instrumentation that keeps things from sounding compressed and muddy. With Punch Brothers’ All Ashore album and anything with an upright bass, the low end can get boomy if you aren’t careful, and I had to adjust the EQ so that it wasn’t too overpowering. The default setting is nice for this genre, but the more aggressive styles I mentioned tended to feel flat. It’s nice that you can make these changes with the help of an app, but at the same time, you also shouldn’t have to. On truly great headphones, the default tuning would handle all genres well.

Jabra promises a whopping 36 hours of battery life with ANC on, six hours more than Sony’s 1000XM3 and 16 hours more than Bose’s QC35 II. Turn off noise cancellation and the company says you can expect up to 41 hours between charges. Basically, if you can limit yourself to 7 hours a day (lol), you can listen to these all week (five days) before you’ll need to charge them. To me, that’s ridiculous, and during my tests, I found out just how outrageous it was. Starting with a full charge, I used the Elite 85h for around 2-3 hours a day for seven days — with a weekend-long break thrown in. At that point, I still had 85 percent left, according to the Sound+ app. Needless to say, you won’t be reaching for that USB-C cable very often. And like many headphones nowadays, the Elite 85h has a quick-charge feature that will give you five hours of use in 15 minutes if you completely run them down.



As I’ve already mentioned, the two closest competitors to the Elite 85h are the Bose QC35 II and the Sony 1000XM3. They’re all the same price at $300 (Bose was $350 at launch), and the noise cancellation will adequately block out any ambient noise with all three. The deciding factor is overall audio quality, and Sony has the edge there. The 1000XM3 will be a year old in a few months, and Sony could reveal a new model at IFA in early September. The company also has XB900N on the way that looks very similar to the 1000XM3, but with the promise of more bass. Sony has already said the noise cancellation is different on this XB model, so if blocking out the world is your goal, you might want to wait and see if those are still up to par when they go on sale later this month. I really like the sound profile on the Master & Dynamic MW65, but at $499, it’s hard to justify the extra expense, even with its stunning design.

Jabra impressed us last year with a mix of quality and value on the Elite 65t. Those true wireless earbuds were every bit as good as competitors that cost over $100 more. With the Elite 85h, the company has built another solid set of headphones with amazing battery life and capable ANC. But, the sound quality isn’t as good at the Sony 1000XM3. And, other than keeping you away from a charging cable for insane lengths of time, these headphones don’t really impress. The trademark SmartSound feature works well for the most part, but I’m not convinced of its necessary. If these were even $50 less than Bose and Sony’s current flagships, Jabra would have earned my praise yet again. However, at $300, there’s not enough here to justify recommending them over the QC35 II or 1000XM3 unless you really need the absurd battery life.

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'Good Omens' welcomes you into literary adaption heaven

This adaptation is just the latest victory lap in 'Good Omens'  heavenly history.
This adaptation is just the latest victory lap in ‘Good Omens’  heavenly history.
Image: amazon studios

The following is a spoiler-free review of Good Omens. 

Rich with enchanting visual descriptions and dialogue that practically begs to be read aloud, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s 1990 fantasy novel Good Omens is one book that belongs on-screen. So, it seems only fitting that Amazon, a long ago bookstore, be the company to finally pull it off — releasing all six parts of its impeccable Good Omens miniseries to subscribers on Friday.

Those who haven’t even read the book may feel new affection for it.

Starring Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale and David Tennant as the demon Crowley, Good Omens chronicles the misadventures of a biblically opposed duo searching for the “misplaced” son of Satan before he can bring about the world’s end. 

The stakes couldn’t be higher, nor the beats more ridiculous. As such, the best possible way to bring the story to screen? Tell it just the same, right down to the pitch-perfect opening line.

“It was a nice day,” notes voice of God (Frances McDormand) in the first episode, bringing former readers immediately back to the page. “All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn’t been invented yet.”

Created, executive produced, and written by Gaiman himself, Good Omens maintains the spirit of the original so well, that those who haven’t even read the book may feel affection for it. Much of the text and characters have been preserved with the kind of weighty descriptiveness that only comes from literature. Uncovering more and more of this spectacular and complex world, new scenes feel like the turn of a page, credits feel like the end of a chapter, and the series’ final episode feels like a hard back cover.

Sheen and Tennant embody their iconic roles with mesmerizing consistency, while supporting characters, like the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse (Mireille Enos, Lourdes Faberes, Yusuf Gatewood, and Brian Cox) bring a much needed change of pace to the steady story. Benedict Cumberbatch, in particular, shines as the voice of Satan.

Of course, certain parts have been changed to accommodate the modern setting and six-part format. Notably, the role of Archangel Gabriel is much larger, allowing Jon Hamm to play more than a bit part. Some sections, including the culturally insensitive depiction of a Native American spirit guide, have been removed entirely. The series is inarguably better for it. 

Occasionally, however, the miniseries does struggle to feel as engrossing and binge-worthy as true-blue TV fanatics might like. Some scenes are so dialogue heavy that they can leave you wanting more details to look at while the plot develops. Alternatively, certain subplots feel so rushed that they go by too fast to enjoy. Loyal fans will feast on the adaptation’s adherence to the text, while first-time audience members may struggle to sink their teeth into the narrative.

And yet, Good Omens still makes for a generally spectacular watch. Stunning to see, bewitching to hear, and altogether entertaining, this is one heavenly series worth your time — flaws be damned. 

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Good luck fighting over Netflix's 'The Perfection' this weekend

Your horror opinions? Garbage. My horror opinions? THE PERFECTION.
Your horror opinions? Garbage. My horror opinions? THE PERFECTION.
Image: netflix

The following is a spoiler-free review of Netflix’s The Perfection.

After months of critic hype and fervent fan speculation, Netflix’s mysterious and controversial The Perfection finally began streaming on Friday — and already, it’s tearing the horror community apart. 

As vast and as varied as the many things that scare us, horror fans are a unique bunch. Whether you’re dealing with a pack of Conjuring stans or an offbeat group of indie pushers, nailing down exactly what will (and what won’t) satisfy any given audience can be tricky. 

So, The Perfection just tried all of it.

Without getting into any spoilers, here’s a simplified premise: Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams), a classically trained cellist struggling to cope with the passing of her mother, returns to the performance world after an extended hiatus. There she re-encounters her former music instructor Anton (Steven Weber), his wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman), and fellow prodigy Elizabeth (Logan Browning). Then, things get batshit.

Just when you think you know what this movie reminds you of, it’s mutating into something else.

Original, surprising, unique, bizarre, revolting, and sexy, this feminist fright sent straight from the bowels of hell will extract reactions from you like a deranged dentist pulling teeth. Delivering punch after punch, the beats of The Perfection are consistently jarring, but jarringly inconsistent. 

In one moment, you’re watching a bad Black Swan spin-off. The next, you’re knee-deep in body horror à la The Fly. After that, you’re reliving a scene from 127 Hours, a couple of scenes from Boxing Helena, and every last one of the Allison Williams-starring Get Out moments we’ve come to know and love. (Okay, minus the Froot Loops.)

Equal parts chunky and silky, the resulting horror blend that is The Perfection is something so new and surprising that you can’t help but be awestruck by it. It’s an assault on the senses and sensibilities — relying not only on shocking your adrenaline levels, but subverting the genre’s own referential rolodex to keep you off balance. Just when you think you know what this movie reminds you of, it’s mutating into something else.

1 in 2 cellists loved 'The Perfection.'

1 in 2 cellists loved ‘The Perfection.’

Image: netflix

Anyone who sees The Perfection will feel strongly about it. You might love it, you might hate it, you might not even know if you loved it or hated it. (I, for one, intend to watch this film at least 10 more times before rendering a full opinion — and still can’t be sure if that’s an endorsement or a red flag.)

In its final form, this one-of-a-kind genre Frankenstein is a stand-out terror in an increasingly inventive and competitive field. Controversial, slippery, and sickening, The Perfection will get you screaming, then talking. 

The Perfection is now streaming on Netflix

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The Kia Niro EV is relentlessly sensible

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The EV market is growing. More people are realizing that the majority of their drives don’t stray far from the cities or towns they live in. While a robust charging infrastructure still isn’t in place (unless you own a Tesla), topping up the battery at home and at work is typically enough to keep an electric vehicle on the road without range anxiety creeping in.

Gallery: 2019 Kia Niro EV review | 14 Photos

Engadget Score


Poor


Uninspiring


Good


Excellent

Key

Pros
  • ADAS features standard
  • Lots of cargo and passenger space
  • Just enough power to have fun while driving
  • Efficient
Cons
  • Aggressive brakes
  • No one-pedal driving

Summary

An outstanding EV for folks not looking to make a design statement. It’s comfortable, has plenty of room and ships standard with advanced drivers assist systems. The brakes are a bit aggressive, but being behind the wheel is otherwise surprisingly fun.


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For the average person looking to buy an electrified vehicle, Kia and Hyundai have become solid options. The Hyundai Kona EV is an outstanding crossover and the upcoming Kia Soul EV puts a lot of fun and storage space into a small package. But it’s the Kia Niro EV that bests them both. It’s not flashy or fun like the Kona or Soul; it’s an EV for grownups that will actually fit grownups.

The Niro EV starts at $38,500. A $1,500 premium over the Kona EV. But you’re getting more cargo space, more legroom (for rear passengers) and a design that’s appealing without being overbearing. It looks the part of an adult crossover and for that price, you’re getting a lot of features standard.

2019 Kia Niro EV review

Out the door, the tiny SUV comes with adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist. You don’t have to pay extra for these features that make traffic a bit more bearable. The cruise control does an excellent job tracking vehicles in front of it and easily handled merges or when I was cut off while in traffic. It steadily and smoothly slowed down and sped up to match the situation.

The lane keep assist is less robust. It did a fine job keeping the car centered in straightaways and around wide corners. But anything tighter and the system can’t handle it. It’s not as good at Tesla’s Autopilot or Nissan’s ProPilot Assist, but it’s adequate enough for dense traffic and long stretches of highway.

Plus, with all these systems, you need to keep your hands on the wheel and your focus on the road. A gentle reminder that the car is helping not actually driving.

Still, it’s the beginning of a trend where these advanced driver assistance systems become standard and Hyundai and Kia are at the forefront of that. Plus, adding features like this to EVs (which are easier for the car to control than a gas powered vehicle), is an additional incentive to go electric.

Kia sweetens the pot with heated mirrors, CarPlay and Android Auto support and a bunch of safety features like blind spot and driver attention warnings. The result is a comfortable vehicle that’s not even the best trim level (which starts $44,000). But frankly, you don’t need to pay the extra money for a genuinely nice crossover.

The niceties include comfortable seats that took me a while to adjust because of some aggressive lumbar support that’s only available on the more expensive trim level. But once the driver’s chair was ready to go the slightly firm seats are great for short trips around town and medium length road trips that last a few hours.

2019 Kia Niro EV review

The rest of the interior goes for logic over beauty. The hockey puck gear shifter is the exception. I thought I would tire of it, but it won me over after a few days. Shifts are quick and precise and better than most of the shift-by-wire systems found in other vehicles. Meanwhile, the dash is pretty much what you see in most other Kia and Hyundai vehicles.

The buttons are all where you would expect them to be and were easy to reach while driving. The climate control is a physical button affair with a few features available in the infotainment system. The addition of tangible controls in the dash for the various on-screen features is a nice touch when you want to quickly get to the home screen or media pages. It means you can build muscle memory with which is more difficult with a touchscreen.

As for the infotainment system, it’s what we’ve seen in Kias and Hyundais for the past few years. As always, it’s not breaking any new ground, but it works. It does have additional features for the electric powertrain, like info about the battery and the location of nearby charging stations. The only annoying bit of latency I encountered with the system was in the EV section. There was a pause while using the options. It didn’t happen all the time, but it was noticeable when it did.

Once you get past the tech, the interior is a surprisingly spacious area with enough room in the back for adults to sit. Even with a tall person in the driver’s seat, most full-sized humans would be comfortable relaxing in the back of the Niro.

2019 Kia Niro EV review

It’s got plenty of cargo space for whatever you throw at it thanks to the18.5 cubic feet of space with the seats up. That’s not that exciting, the Kona EV has 19.2, but once those seats are down, you get a whopping 53 cubic feet of space (he Kona only has 45.8). This means it has enough room for all your stuff and if you’re the outdoorsy type, the standard roof rails give the option to buy racks for the Niro.

Getting all your friends and their random stuff to their destination is a pleasant affair. The Niro EV’s 201 horsepower and 291 foot-pounds of torque made city and highway driving a trouble-free experience. The EV torque in Sport mode meant I was able to easily merge with traffic from the off-ramp and able to get ahead of other cars at the stop light. The more conservative Eco mode is fine for getting around town and cruising on the freeway. While Normal mode is a nice “set it and forget it” option.

The Niro EV, like other electric vehicles, has repurposed the paddle shifters as regenerative brake controls. On-the-fly adjustments are great for driving around town but I do wish the highest level of regeneration supported one-pedal driving.

All that energy goes back to the Niro’s 64kWh battery pack. With it, the vehicle is rated at a range of up to 239 miles. During my tests, I actually bested that estimate a few times. Only by a mile or two, but it’s better than coming in far below the EPA results. Hyundai and Kia have done an excellent job making these powertrains as efficient as possible.

2019 Kia Niro EV review

One issue I did find with the Niro EV is the brakes. They’re oddly aggressive for a crossover. I would gently depress the pedal and slow down when suddenly the car would brake far quicker than expected. This was especially noticeable in the rain on slick roads — I was like driving a sports car where having incredibly braking power is important. Instead, I was just cruising around in an electric vehicle.

Overall, the Kia Niro is an outstanding electric crossover that surpasses its internal combustion counterpart. It’s one of the best, if not the best EV on the road that regular people can afford. It’s comfortable, fun to drive, has a ton of space and comes standard with advanced driver’s assistance system (ADAS) features. It’s not a design maverick like the Kona or the Model 3, but it has nearly everything the average person wants in a car that just happens to be electrified.

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