Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Guest mixes thriller and midnight movie sensibilities

Right from the beginning, we're let on to the fact that something's wrong with David Collins (Dan Stevens).  The Guest, the latest film from the writer-director pair Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard (last year's romping You're Next), opens with a shot of him running down a dirt road in a rural landscape.  It's a mundane scene, not unlike other jogging scenes that are meant to establish a character driven by routine.  But then there's a smash cut to a black title screen and "The Guest" scrawled across it in an old-school purple font, complete with blaring grindhouse music.  It's a choice that completely upends expectations, dramatically changing the tenor of the introduction.  Wherever David is heading, it won't end well.

It turns out that he's just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.  His destination: the house of war buddy Caleb, who died in combat, but not before requesting that David deliver a message to his family.  He's greeted by Laura (Sheila Kelley), Caleb's mother, who is still heavily grieving the death of her son.  Perhaps that feeling of bereavement is what causes her to request that he stick around meet the rest of her family -- moody daughter Anna (Maika Monroe); younger son Luke (Brendan Meyer), who faces relentless bullying at school; and down-on-his-luck husband Spencer (Leland Orser).

The ominous knell of the opening scene begins to bear out as David slowly integrates himself into the Peterson family, parlaying the reception of his brief visit into a longer stay.  During that time, he concocts an elaborate (and violent) scheme to get back at Luke's bullies; tags along with Anna to a Halloween party, where he has sex with one of her friends; and sleeps in Caleb's room.  Dan Stevens gives the perfect performance, exuding an oiliness that causes skepticism to arise from some of the Petersons, but a good ol' boy confidence that eventually mollifies those concerns.  He completely exists within the pocket of the film's tone, stopping one step short of smirking and winking directly at the camera.

Wingard's previous film, You're Next, was heralded partially because it brought a level of a skill that elevated it above standard home invasion flicks.  He brings that same technical mastery to The Guest -- when the action kicks in, it's always terrifically staged and coherently edited together.  They're usually brief and infrequent, at least in the first two acts, but they make a strong impression.  The film is a full experience too.  It's not just that the shots are carefully composed, but there's also a wonderful atmosphere, thanks to the synth-heavy score and vivid lighting.

The problem, then, is that The Guest is slick but not tight enough.  Those action scenes are so good that some of the material in between the kicking and punching and shooting falls a little flat.  With a directorial style as precise as Wingard's is, Barrett's script feels all the more logy.  Consequently, there's a reveal late in the second act that feels like it should pack an enormous punch, but winds up falling short.  Instead of being a game-changer, it's just another incident.

Nevertheless, smart choices are made to save those flaws from completely tanking the film.  Though the dialogue-heavy scenes are sluggish, they'd feel even more so without the excellent, self-aware humor infused within them.  And though the late reveal doesn't have its intended power, it's a great excuse to add more obstacles for David to dismantle.  The Guest is never better than in those last 20 minutes, which feature a few setpieces that are brilliant in their conception but even better in execution.  Ultimately, the film doesn't feel like a full meal, but it provides a momentary jolt to the system in the way that a good snack can.  Sometimes that's all one needs.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Week 1 of Fall's TV Pilots

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Though it's become a year-round feature, Pilot Talk first got started last fall when I challenged myself to watch and review every network pilot, along with the major cable ones.  Despite the time it took to view each of them (and the mental fortitude required to get through the worst of them), I succeeded.  And because I'm nothing if not a masochist, I've given myself the same goal once again.  Luckily, with networks putting more pilots online early ever year, it should be a little easier this time around.

According to a few critics, this new slate of shows is the best fall in a few years (though the two I'm reviewing this week don't bear that out).  There are a few that I'm excited for -- The Affair, The Flash, Marry Me, Mulaney -- so hopefully they won't disappoint.  Either way, I'll be here to grade them.  Cheers to another fall!

The Mysteries of Laura (NBC, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
For a while, I was wondering why so many critics were excoriating Mysteries of Laura so much, with some even going as far as saying it's the worst new show of the fall.  And sure, its premise of a woman (Debra Messing) who struggles with being a cop while also being a mom, is pretty dated.  But for the first few minutes, the pilot mostly feels pretty harmless.  Once it started rolling, however, I began to see just how awful this show was.  Mysteries of Laura is pure dreck -- full of horrible characters, a myriad of tones, and tired plotting.  We frequently see Laura being a terrible cop, using her resources to blackmail a pre-K teacher to get her children enrolled in the right school.  Later in the episode, she breaks into a suspect's car to gain evidence illegally.  But she's an even worse mother.  Look no further than the scene of her drugging her monstrous children in order to get them to behave during an interview.  It doesn't help that this is all played for laughs, and people tell her that she's a good at her job and at motherhood.  The show itself seems like it can't handle the burden of being about a mom and about a cop at the same time.  As a police procedural, it's pretty generic.  As a family dramedy, it's execrable.  Can Laura -- and by proxy, all women -- truly have it all?  I won't be tuning in to find out.
Grade: D

Red Band Society (Fox, Wednesdays at 9:00 PM)
Red Band Society feels quite a bit like Glee.  You've probably heard that from a few people and have greeted it with a degree of skepticism.  But really, it wouldn't be surprising if this pilot was ghost-written by Ryan Murphy.  It takes the panoply of singing outcasts at a high school and swaps them out for sickly angst machines residing in a hospital.  There's the same kind of overwritten, faux-snappy dialogue that Glee was known for (in the first minute alone, the nauseating portmanteau "manstruating" is thrown out) and it's just as insufferable.  It's the kind of show where a teen reveals he's missing a leg and it's played like an edgy punchline, and the term "YOLO" is used unironically.  Not to mention the fact that the show features narration from a child in a coma, who -- despite his lack of consciousness -- is the worst character on the show.  That narration is where we get some of the show's worst writing: it's repetitive (take a drink every time a sentence starts with "when you..." to try to give perspective), intrusive, and cringeworthy.  These people aren't characters so much as they are archetypes.  The tone is completely cloying.  There's an unbearable sequence set to a Coldplay song.  (Can you feel the "and yet..." coming?)  And yet, when the show stops being arch and glib, it can really nail the emotional moments.  There's something interesting buried very far down into Red Band Society, so I'll stick around long enough to get better sense of whether that'll ever get unearthed.
Grade: C+

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Episode of the Week: Space Dandy - "Lovers Are Trendy, Baby"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 2, Episode 10

One of the greatest joys of Space Dandy this year has been watching Shinichiro Watanabe gather all of his friends in the anime industry and allow such a wide array of writers, directors, and animators to let loose every week.  It's the kind of show where fellow auteur Masaaki Yuasa (The Tatami Galaxy, Ping Pong, Kaiba) can take over creative duties for an episode, the wildly inventive "Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Baby," and make something that's distinct but still feel like it's of a piece with the rest of the show.

Given the round robin nature of writing and directing duties the show, it's been fun to compare and contrast the general style and recurring themes of each creator's string of episodes.  Clearly, the shining light of this all-star cast of writers is Kimiko Ueno.  She's written the brilliant zombie romp "Sometimes You Can't Live Without Dying, Baby," the first episode that indicated Space Dandy was willing to go for broke with its storytelling; the time loop nightmare of "There's Always Tomorrow, Baby"; and the absolutely wild alternate dimension riffing in "I Can't Be the Only One, Baby," to name a few.  (The less said about lone stinker "Rock 'n' Roll Dandy," however, the better.)  Judging from her body of work, it's clear that she has the best handle on the show's mercurial tone, deftly blending high-concept ideas, comedy, and earnest emotions.

Her latest and final episode, "Lovers Are Trendy, Baby," keeps things relatively simple, but that doesn't stop it from being a terrific piece of television.  When an ex-lover returns to her life to try and reconcile their relationship, Scarlet enlists the help of Dandy to pretend to be her boyfriend in order to convince this former beau that she's moved on.  Dandy, forever in a cash-strapped state, accepts the job solely because of the easy money.  Scarlet, unbridled in her annoyance with Dandy, specifically seeks him out because she feels secure that she'd never actually fall for a guy like him.  It's pretty clear from that point where things are going to end up.

Watanabe's most popular works, Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, excellently weaved a serialized narrative into largely episodic stories.  And while each episode of Dandy has been much more self-contained from week to week -- heck, multiple episodes have featured one or more members of the crew dying in one week and appearing to be just fine in the next -- they've been very smart about their overall placement in the series order.  Just a few weeks ago, we got "Gallant Space Gentlemen, Baby," which introduced the idea of Scarlet as an unlucky-in-love potential spinster.  More recently than that was "A World With No Sadness, Baby," an episode that, underneath all of its surreality, revealed a more soulful, introspective side of Dandy.  Those two episodes aren't directly referenced in this one, but having them fresh in our minds depends the interaction we see between Scarlet and Dandy.

Much of the episode shows the two of them falling for each other, against their initial intentions.  Ueno's script playfully tosses common tropes into the mix -- Dandy realizing that Scarlet is beautiful when she lets her hair down, a montage that shows them doing a series of cute activities together -- making winks at the fact that their pairing is the product of a story formula.  But it also gives them moments where they reach a genuine, honest understanding.  Their previous encounters with each other have only been in a professional capacity, where Scarlet comes off as an uptight pencil pusher to Dandy and he seems like an irritating oaf to her.  Once they actually spend some quality time together, they begin to see each other in an entirely different light, discovering a shared love of dumb action movies.

When Scarlet's stalker ex-boyfriend tracks them down on the planet Trendy, he gets in a mech and begins firing missiles at them.  (This is Space Dandy.  Why not?)  Scarlet has to take drastic measures to prove that she's over him, resulting in a kiss with Dandy that's equal parts artifice and raw passion.  The results are (literally) explosive.  This coupling is funnier and more swooning than most romantic comedies.

Finally, the crazy ex-boyfriend gets arrested, but neither Dandy nor Scarlet have the courage to admit their true feelings for each other once their obstacle is out of the way.  The job ends, they part ways.  Yet they can't shake that feeling they had together and they're both disconsolate once they're separated.  For better or worse, Scarlet and Dandy have found in each other interlocking pieces to ends of themselves that they didn't even know needed a counterpart.

But there's still one more chance.  Both of them remember a plan they made when they were still operating under the guise of being a couple to meet at a bar and go watch an action movie afterward.  In true romantic comedy fashion, there's a thrilling crosscutting between Dandy rushing to meet Scarlet after remembering their planned rendezvous at the last minute and Scarlet at the bar, forlornly wondering whether Dandy will show up.  However, as he's told by the bartender, he arrives just a second too late.  When he rushes back out into the street to call her name, a train blocks her view as she turns to look around.  Just as the stars were aligned for them to fall for each other, they were also fated to never act on those feelings.

That shot of the two of them walking in opposite directions with their backs turned to one another says so much about the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of Scarlet and Dandy's relationship.  It's a devastating turn for this usually goofy show.  But that's the nature of a Kimiko Ueno episode -- she's always coming at you from the sides instead of straight on.  "Lovers Are Trendy, Baby," is powerful way to close out her considerable run on Space Dandy.  See you, space lovers.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Episode of the Week: The Cosmopolitans - "The Broken Hearted"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.


If nothing else, the Amazon Pilot Series will be remembered for providing a space for notable creators to birth projects with more freedom than networks would afford them.  This endeavor, which is now in its third cycle, has given us the first series from Chris Carter since The X-Files concluded (The After), an odd Roman Coppola-scripted pilot about orchestral musicians (Mozart in the Jungle), and an 80s comedy produced by Steven Soderbergh and directed by David Gordon Green (Red Oaks).

Enter Whit Stillman, the idiosyncratic indie auteur behind acclaimed films like Barcelona, Metropolitan, and Damsels in Distress.  His new Amazon pilot, The Cosmopolitans, doesn't find him straying away from his wheelhouse for his first foray into television.  He's still interested in telling stories about the cultured upper class, this time following expatriates Jimmy (Adam Brody, doing his best Chris Eigeman), Hal (Jordan Rountree), and Sandro (Adriano Giannini) as they walk, talk, and drink wine in France.  During one of those bantering sessions at a Parisian cafe, they meet fellow expat Aubrey (the utterly charming Carrie MacLemore) when they see her crying alone, due to her disappointment with Paris so far.  Naturally, they immediately recruit her into their ranks and invite her to a party thrown by French bigwig Fritz (Freddy Asblom).

Like all Stillman affairs, dialogue is king in The Cosmopolitans.  This is the kind of pilot where the first half of the episode mostly consists of the four main characters telling stories to one another about people who either appear only in flashbacks, much later in the episode, or not at all.  But what makes it work is that it's funny, funny, funny.  The spirit of Oscar Wilde lives on in Whit Stillman, who buries in these characters' verbose musings some devastatingly sharp lines.  No shortage of witticisms and drollery will be found here.  He also gets alot of mileage out of lines that only get funnier the more they are repeated (i.e. "Fritz is a ridiculous pipsqueak!," "Her coat's not gold...").  The dialogue has this hypnotic circular quality to it, calling back upon itself and twisting into an endless series of knots.  There's a snap, rhythm, and fluidity with which these scenes are strung together.

And yet, there's also an underlying sadness to the proceedings.  It's clear that these expatriates are trying so hard to integrate themselves into French culture because they feel terribly lonely.  Though they distract themselves with parties and wine, the moments where their melancholy about past failures and disappointments poke through are the ones that make the strongest impression.  The Cosmopolitans, at least based on the pilot, is a show about people finding community in their shared outsiderdom.  The final scene -- where Jimmy, Sandro, and Aubrey, after having been cast out onto the streets when Fritz removes them from his party, share a tiny smile on the cab ride home -- is enough to make hearts sing.

Many TV critics who I like and respect were left perplexed by this pilot.  They stated it was formless, odd, and light on laughs.  Some of them got caught up on the fact that it's incomplete -- Whit Stillman wrote this as an hourlong episode but didn't like the second half, so Amazon told him he could just shoot the first half and they'd air that as the pilot.  But you know what?  I say "screw structure"!  When a pilot is as funny, razor-sharp, and delightful as this is, it's hard to complain.  Plus, it feels like a proper first chapter to a longer story, and an intriguing introduction at that.

I decided to write about this episode as a part of my Episode of the Week feature, and it's a good thing that I'm not doing a Pilot Talk on it, because I'm not sure what I'd grade it.  Honestly, I'm leaning towards an A.  Sure, it's got a strange structure, but it's also refreshing in its oddness.  Shows that are trying something different should be greeted with more than bored sighs and raised eyebrows.  But even aside from questions of the show's uniqueness, it's also just an incredibly enchanting piece of television.  I've watched it twice now (and I'm considering a third) and I don't know that I've enjoyed any other pilot in 2014 more than this one.

Of course, such is the nature with the Amazon Pilot Series, that this may just exist as a single entity, never to be continued.  Amazon decides which of the pilots it wants to pick up, and even though the amount of shows that make the cut have increased in each cycle -- two shows in the first, three in the second -- it's still up in the air for The Cosmopolitans.  Fans can take a survey and give feedback on each show, but as much as Amazon likes to give off the impression that our thoughts matter, I suspect that series are granted more episodes based on unrelated criteria.  Still, I hope they search their hearts and realize that The Cosmopolitans should absolutely be picked up for a full season.  It's just too good and too special to let go.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Exploring the adolescent sexuality in It Felt Like Love and Young & Beautiful

We're at the particular point that exists between the summer and fall seasons of TV where there's almost no shows with which to occupy one's nights.  Luckily, that also coincides with the period when some of the smaller indie movies that came out earlier in the year start hitting Netflix streaming.  This past week, I decided to capitalize on this confluence of events and catch up on some films that I missed out on in 2014 so far.  Two of those -- It Felt Like Love and Young & Beautiful -- happened to form accidental mirrors, taking on adolescent sexuality in distinct and fascinating ways.

Young & Beautiful is the latest film from French auteur Fran├žois Ozon, whose work is usually characterized by its exploration of human sexuality, and this one is no different.  It tells the story of Isabelle (Marine Vacth), a girl who has just turned 17 while on summer holiday with her family.  She quickly loses her virginity to a visiting German boy, and though it's hard to gauge her reaction to the ordeal, it's clear that it had some kind of effect on her, since she decides to become a prostitute once summer ends.  The film chronicles her deep descent into the world of prostitution, as she lies about her age (20) to the much older men she sleeps with and keeps this double life secret from her family.

Where that film follows a headlong dive into the treacherous waters of sex, Eliza Hittman's feature-length debut It Felt Like Love is more like a timid dipping of the toes.  Lila (Gina Piersanti) constantly lives in the shadow of her more sexual and outgoing best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni).  She's more of a watcher than a participant, tagging along as the third wheel whenever Chiara hangs out and canoodles with her revolving door of boyfriends.  Taking in information is the way she learns what people her age do and, by proxy, what she's supposed to do.  It's that pressure that makes her pursue Sammy, a college guy in the neighborhood, so aggressively.  Hittman perfectly captures that feeling of infatuation, the confusion of lust.  Lila doesn't even know why she wants what she wants, but there's something that tugs away at her nonetheless.

The story of Young & Beautiful is very much of a time and place.  The structure is neat, parsing out Isabelle's journey in four seasons.  Each season has its own tone and is paired with a different Fran├žoise Hardy song, giving the film an episodic feeling.  Location choices progress as time does, and with each season change we are reoriented with Isabelle's head space through the spaces she occupies.  The summer scenes are full of bright beaches, representing her budding sexuality, while the fall and winter sequences increasingly find her cloistered in houses and hotel rooms.

Meanwhile, It Felt Like Love feels as if it takes place in an endless summer.  The film languidly follows these characters who mostly just hang out at the beach, lay around in bed, and party in dark houses.  It doesn't have any obvious signifiers that let you know where it takes place either.  Instead, it's just an amorphous teenage wasteland -- it could be set in any time and any place.  Where Young & Beautiful uses settings and seasons to emphasize the specific sexual history of Isabelle, It Felt Like Love could be a stand-in for anybody's teenage experience.

The two films also diverge in terms of technical style.  Ozon shoots Young & Beautiful with a very removed sense, all static shots and medium-length framing.  The sex scenes are graphic, but feel rather austere, as if we're observing them half-lidded and from far away.  That style matches the nature of Isabelle herself, given that it's hard to get a gauge on why she does what she does or how it makes her feel.  When the film cuts from the summer portion (where she's just lost her virginity) to the autumn portion (where she is already having sex for money), it's completely jarring.  As a result, we spend the rest of the film in search of a meaning that we never get.  Isabelle is meant to be observed, not necessarily understood.

On the other hand, It Felt Like Love strives for intimacy with every shot.  Hittman's swaying camera gets up close and personal, focusing on bodies -- the way they move, the way they bend and curve, the way they collide and rub up against each other.  The scenes are impressionistic, but the impression they leave is strong.  Not many words are spoken between the characters, but the emotions roll off of them like waves, to the point where there's almost no purpose in talking.  The way the camera slides up against Lila, you can always see the feelings conveyed on her face, every bluff and tell.  Unlike in Young & Beautiful, no sex is actually shown.  The implication is all that matters.  It Felt Like Love is overflowing with sexual energy.

Everybody is constantly trying to control Isabelle's sexuality in Young & Beautiful.  The prostitute-client transaction makes it such that she is at the command of her johns, and the sex is based upon their requests and desires.  When her mother finds out about what Isabelle is doing in her free time, she reacts harshly, excoriating Isabelle and forcing her to see a therapist.  Her mother does whatever she can to make sure her daughter isn't turning tricks.  All of these efforts, from her mother and the johns alike, are an attempt to make Isabelle's sexuality something that they can bend to their will.  But try as they might, sex is about pleasure for Isabelle, and prostitution is a decision all her own.

Sex is more an obligation for Lila, some kind of box she has to check off.  Adolescence rests squarely between childhood and adulthood, and is a period where most are desperate to leave the former in the dust by play-acting like they're already entrenched in the latter.  It Felt Like Love is all about the ways in which teens are desperate to look, feel, and be older than they are.  On numerous occasions, Lila mimics things that make her appear grown up, hiding that she knows less about sex than she lets on.  Not even she, it would seem, knows whether she actually wants to have sex or if she's just pursuing this older boy to catch up with everyone around her.

In both Young & Beautiful and It Felt Like Love, the protagonists get in a little bit over their heads.  Isabelle decides to become a prostitute without fully being able to deal with the implications of being underaged when the job goes wrong.  Lila pursues a college guy and winds up getting more than she bargained for by pretending she's readier than she actually is.  Yet neither Hittman or Ozon judges them for it.  Instead, they both acknowledge the universal messiness of sex.  Though the two films may be different in terms of style and form, they effectively navigate the weeds we all have to trudge through at some point in our lives.