Sunday, July 24, 2016

Degrassi is back, baby!!!

There were high expectations for the second season of the new Netflix exclusive series Degrassi: Next Class, at least for me.  The first season was so special that it caused me to write over 2000 words about it, and returned me to full-on Degrassi obsession after not having watched it for 2.5 seasons.  (I've since gone back and watched the 60+ episodes I missed because Degrassi is my life now.)  Even in my glowing review of the first season, I voiced some concerns about whether the show could maintain its quality or if it would lapse into the same kind of over-the-top melodrama that caused me to stop watching a few years ago.  But it looks like I can put my worries to bed for now, because the 10-episode second season that dropped this weekend is just as excellent as the first.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

I like Roadies ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I started this blog in March of 2013, and in the almost three and a half years since I've been an amateur critic, I've felt pretty secure about my opinions.  There have been times where I've liked something more than most of the Internet (like Degrassi) and times where I've liked something much less (something like Bojack Horseman comes to mind), and on every occasion I've felt confident about those takes.  And yet for the past four weeks I've watched Roadies, Showtime's new music dramedy from filmmaker Cameron Crowe, and after every episode I've thought to myself, "Do I have bad taste"?  Reviews haven't been kind to the show, which follows the touring crew of a successful arena-level quartet named The Staton-House Band.  Even I can acknowledge that many moments in the first four episodes have been quite poor.  Despite all of that, I absolutely love watching Roadies.

It's not like I'm even a Cameron Crowe apologist either.  I was young enough when I watched Jerry Maguire that the only bits of it that I remember now are the parts that have become entries in our cultural lexicon.   (You know, "Show me the money!," "You had me at hello," Jonathan Lipnicki's head.)  It wasn't until just recently that I finally got around to watching Almost Famous, which most people consider his peak, but I merely thought was solid.  And the only other one of his films I've seen is that treacly mess, We Bought a Zoo.  If there's anyone I'm rooting for it's Winnie Holzman, one of the other executive producers of the Roadies.  She created the greatest teen show of all time in My So-Called Life, and her involvement in anything automatically makes me excited, especially after the fallow period she's had for the last five or six years.  However, her voice is hardly anywhere to found in this show, despite the fact that she wrote the second episode.

Roadies is full of narrative failings.  Mainly, the issue is that promising setups get marred by shaky execution.  In the pilot episode we're introduced to Reg (Rafe Spall), a financial consultant hired to manage the tour's budget and prevent the band from hemorrhaging funds.  Somewhere in his storyline is an interesting examination of what happens when the corporate bottom line gets in the way of artistic freedom, but that conflict wilts under the weight of platitudinous dialogue about "the power of music" and "true art."  Then there's the story of Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), who works the set rigging and leaves the tour in order to go to film school, only to rejoin minutes after saying farewell.  It sets up a compelling dynamic, where the rest of the crew feels abandoned by her despite her very brief departure, and she has to work to win everyone back.  The show chooses to explore this story avenue by saddling her with horrible comedy runners, as we see Kelly Ann's bizarre attempts to rebuild her relationships with everyone.  Not even someone as winsome as Imogen Poots can save them.

It's indicative of a larger issue plaguing Roadies, which is that it doesn't understand what the proper ratio of comedy and drama should be.  Right now, it's pitched as a comedy with a few dramatic moments, but here's the thing -- the comedy often stinks.  Every episode incorporates at least one broad bit or character that just tanks the whole vibe of the show.  The first episode introduces a lunatic stalker character who is obsessed with the band, and the tone of her scenes imply that we're supposed to find her hijinks and the efforts the crew make to contain her entertaining, but they fall completely flat.  Later, in the third episode, we meet a ridiculous music blogger character (played by Rainn Wilson, doing some of his most irritating work) who holds more sway than any critic has ever had.  When those two characters' paths intersected in that episode, it made for some of the most ill-advised television of the year.

What a shame that the show is so determined to generate laughs, because there's alot of melancholy at its core, and I wish it would explore that more.  At its best, Roadies gracefully depicts how sad and lonely life on the road can be.  These characters are always moving around with no place to call home.  The relationships they form in certain cities cannot sustain themselves.  They're constantly cycling from large, sterile arenas to cramped, dehumanizing tour buses.  And all of this work is for a band that probably doesn't know all of their names, and fans who definitely don't.  The show doesn't necessarily need to become a bleak drama, but leaning into its dramatic elements would add layers that could help sell everything it has to offer.

Despite my love of the sadness at the center of the show, I do think when its frothiness works, it works really well.  Ultimately, that's what makes Roadies so enjoyable and easy to watch -- even its melancholy is light and low-stakes.  Cameron Crowe's golden-hued earnestness can be a little silly, but it goes down easily, which makes for an extremely relaxing viewing experience.  Roadies doesn't ask much from its audience, save the ability to stomach a bunch of indulgent musician cameos.  Maybe it's the minimal risk that makes the show's flaws simple to shrug off and its high points so charming.

No episode better embodies the push and pull between that capacity for greatness and pure trash than Sunday's installment, "The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken."  In it, the crew finds their rare day off thwarted when Reg breaks a sacred rule by uttering the word "Cincinnati" on the tour bus, forcing everyone to go through the bizarre, difficult process of breaking the curse inflicted on them.  The break from the usual concert prepping structure allows for the show to play around in its sweet spot, making ample time for the characters to just hang out and bounce off of each other.  What makes these people fascinating is learning all of the rituals and superstitions and shared history they have.  At a certain point though, the follow-through on everyone trying to break this curse becomes over-the-top and insufferable.  And between all of those lovely hangout moments comes annoying antics that threaten to ruin the goodwill built up a minute earlier.

This is the kind of episode that has that great scene in the beginning with the ladies of the crew using what little time they have to maintain their hygiene between cities.  Then it has scenes where it continues to try and push romance onto Kelly Ann and Reg, an awkward road best not traveled down.  There's a beautiful shared moment that the crew has while My Morning Jacket's Jim James -- oh yeah, he's in this episode for some reason -- performs a song by The Who.  But then there's also a moment where it checks in on former crewmember Phil, who is literally in outer space.  I wish I was kidding.

So Roadies isn't actually good, but it has the tools in place to get there.  The cast is appealing, the vibe is nice, and the show really does seem to be trying.  I can see this becoming a mix between Party Down (finding unique stories to tell within each week's venue) and Slings & Arrows (a behind the scenes series about performers and those who make those performances happen).  But even if it never does reach those heights, that wouldn't be so bad, because it's already one of the shows I most look forward to every week.  Let's hope it does get better though, so I could at least feel less bad about loving it so much.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Neon Demon is horrifying and beautiful, often simultaneously

My history with director Nicolas Winding Refn's films is checkered at best.  I like Drive just fine, but I don't see how it's a contender for one of the best films of the decade the way some people do.  Bronson is pretty well-liked too, but I think it's a messy slog.  And almost everybody hated Only God Forgives, yet I somehow hated it even more.  Maybe I'd feel differently about the Pusher trilogy and Valhalla Rising if I had seen those, but Refn always struck me as an enfant terrible filmmaker in the vein of Lars von Trier, except without any good movies under his belt.

His latest, The Neon Demon, changes that completely.  This time around, Refn applies his sleek style to the fashion world, a milieu that ends up being surprisingly well-suited for the kind of violent fantasia we're used to from him.  In the middle of it all is fresh-faced protagonist Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model who moves to L.A. to take a shot at the industry.  Forced to live in a ratty hotel and lie about her age -- 19, three years older than she actually is -- Jesse quickly finds opportunities after photographers and agencies are drawn to her ethereal nature.  For every bit of adulation she gets from those who hire her, however, she gets just as much animosity from other models in the industry, who see her fast rise as a threat to their livelihood.  Refn depicts this world as one of predators and prey, literalized at one point when Jesse comes home to find a cougar has somehow gotten into her hotel room.  Everyone knows that Jesse has "it," and even though they might not be able to put a finger on what it is, they're willing to consume her to attain it.

Usually, stories don't work when they're constantly telling the audience something about the character, but they can't back up those claims.  If everyone is always referring to a character as brilliant or magical, you need to show evidence that will make the viewer believe it.  I'm not quite sure that Elle Fanning reaches the level of allure that the film requires her to, but she comes awfully close.  Fanning has already established herself as a formidable actress, but she finds another level here, delivering a performance that's so internal and full of quiet power.  The film works as well as it does because Jesse is almost as mesmerizing as everyone around her thinks she is.

Refn's aesthetics go a long way as well.  No matter how much everything else has failed him in the past, his films have always looked and sounded incredible, and fittingly, The Neon Demon looks and sounds better than anything he's ever done.  Right from the opening title card, we're given an amazing collection of synth smears from Cliff Martinez, matching perfectly with Natasha Braier's chilly, but colorful cinematography.  On a pure sensory level, this is one of the finest experiences of the year.  Refn provides a thrilling tug-of-war between icy moments of elongated silence and bludgeoning bits of sound and texture.  Like the industry it depicts, Neon Demon is a beautiful, queasy nightmare.

So many reviews have latched on to the points the film makes about the cannibalistic nature of showbiz and the fashion industry.  And yes, that material is delivered with a pretty heavy hand.  But peel back a layer and you'll see that Refn is trying to say something more subtle and skillful about what it's like to go about every day as a woman, and a beautiful one at that.  Everyone wants Jesse, from the male photographers attempting to capture her essence to other women who appear to be helping her at first.  And at some point, the pursuit always becomes aggressive and violent.  It's exhausting to watch Jesse have to rebuff so many unwanted advances.  The film takes its point a step further by showing how it's even more damaging for a woman to be beautiful and confident about it, because that just inspires more anger and desire from others.  Once Jesse truly acknowledges her star quality, that's when the carnage really begins.

All of these themes come together in a dreamy splash of violence, but if there's one disappointment it's that the film hammers all of its ideas home to the point of redundancy.  The Neon Demon arrives at a perfect ending, but then repeats itself for another 10 to 15 minutes that don't work as well as its frenzied, feverish climax.  Still, those excesses aren't enough to take away from the unique satisfaction the movie's cumulative experience provides.  Nicolas Winding Refn might go a step too far, but then again, he's also the only filmmaker willing to take the 10 steps before.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Orange is the New Black returns to form with a masterful 4th season

The critical narrative behind last year's third season of Netflix's popular prison dramedy Orange is the New Black is that it was a misstep, an exaggerated opinion as all internet opinions tend to be.  Season three was good, but the problem is that it clearly wasn't as good as the two that preceded it.  Some of that can be attributed to the fact that it's simply difficult to follow up on television that was as inventive and compelling as the first two seasons were.  But there are also concrete reasons to point to when it comes to the show's slight dip in quality last year: the increasing "summer camp" vibe sucked out the sense of danger and conflict, the rhythm of the show got too lackadaisical, and the flashbacks started to feel a little stale.

Needless to say, season four had alot at stake, and it does not disappoint.  Fittingly, the fourth season course corrects nearly every single problem that plagued the third.  Picking up right where they left off last year, the story tackles the influx of new inmates from the maximum security prison, which leads to an array of problems that create a beautiful, furious season about privilege, power, abuse, and institutional failures.

The show is overcrowded, but that's not a bad thing.
One of the biggest selling points of Orange is the New Black since its inception is the large cast of colorful characters it possesses.  And with each year, its rich bouquet of inmates keeps expanding, to the point of bumping against the limits of being able to keep track of it all.  So it's a pretty bold move for the show to shove an entirely new set of characters onto the audience right from the start of this season.

The massive size of Orange is the New Black is what makes it unique, but it also can be one of its weaknesses.  At this point, everybody has their own list of favorite characters, and it can be difficult for the writers to serve so many masters.  There are times in season four, especially in the beginning stretch, where the show runs into what I like to call "The Game of Thrones Problem," where we just cycle through snippets of each character's story before moving on to the next one and never returning for the rest of the episode.  It's just as likely that a character who stood out in previous seasons gets completely lost in the story.  (If you're Vicky Jeudy, who plays Watson, you have to be a little annoyed that you haven't gotten any meaty material in the last two years, right?)  It's impossible to get enough of the characters you love, simply because there are so many to love.

However, this isn't the worst problem in the world to have.  At a certain point, it's important to take a step back and be in awe of the sprawl that creator Jenji Kohan and her crew of writers are able to achieve.  I'd much rather have a show that's too immense than too narrow.  If anything, season four of Orange is the New Black suggests that we adjust the way we absorb these stories.  Maybe not every character needs to have a complete arc, especially when this season is full of such lovely and interesting little bends.

This is one of the most elegantly plotted series on television.
Part of the reason why the sprawl of the show goes down so easily is because it has the storytelling chops to match its size.  Audiences tend to associate good plotting with shows that do it in flashier ways, like Breaking Bad.  What Orange is the New Black has done for the last four years is more subtle, but just as rewarding.  Time and time again, I found myself surprised by how organic some of the plot turns of season four were.  You think a thread exists to serve its own purpose, but it also ends up tumbling into some larger story avenue.

Season four loads itself with so many recurring themes and motifs, these small stories that run parallel and add up to one larger story.  This is a strategy the show has been scratching at since day one, but it really crystallizes this year.  For structure nerds, it's one of the most purely satisfying seasons of televisions in a long time.

Season four tweaks its approach to flashbacks.
When Orange is the New Black began, its Lost-esque flashbacks of the inmates lives before they arrived at Litchfield were a vital part of the show's makeup.  Not only did it give an episodic backbone, but it served as an easy way to flesh out the characters and provide a break from the Litchfield setting.  However, by the time the third season rolled around, the show ran into the same problem that Lost had -- the flashback gimmick was getting a little creaky.  Lost found a way to revitalize its structure by incorporating flash-forwards, but Orange is the New Black arrived at a simpler solution this year: completely abandoning flashbacks in certain episodes.

Four of the 13 episodes this season don't feature any flashbacks, and those episodes end up working just fine.  They still employ scenes that serve as a breather from the usual Litchfield material, like chronicling Nicky's weeks at maximum security in "Piece of Shit," which allows the writers to only use flashbacks when the story calls for it.  And indeed, we do get some great first-time flashbacks for characters like Lolly and Maritza (for whom it's hard to believe there hadn't been one yet), as well as fascinating returns to characters like Healy and Soso.

That's not to say that there still aren't duds.  The Blanca flashbacks in "Turn Table Turn" fall particularly flat.  She's exactly the kind of character who has the mystique that would warrant a flashback, but what we were given just wasn't enlightening enough to match the power of her prison story, which lays ground for some of the most essential moments of season four.  Still, one miss is a much better ratio than last year, where it seemed like at least half of the flashbacks were unsatisfying.

Infrastructural changes abound at Litchfield.
The show is often at its most interesting when it's exploring the infrastructural and institutional issues occuring at Litchfield.  And with the massive increase of inmates, season four has no choice but to dive deeply into what it does so well.  In fact, so much of the major conflicts are borne out of the general frustrations that come from these people's spheres bumping up against each other more often than they usually would.  But I also love all of the small ways that overcrowding effects the day-to-day life at Litchfield, like the tampon shortage that arises.  It's stuff like that that add to the color and texture of the show, making the prison feel like a living, breathing place that functions even outside of what we are seeing.

The mass migration from maximum security, along with the walkout by many of the guards last season, leads to the prison incorporating a program to hire veterans as guards.  We quickly see all of the problems that arise when ex-military are guards of a prison.  They still treat everything like it's a war and they're an occupying force.  Throughout the season, we see them subjecting the inmates to stuff straight out of Guantanamo Bay, like making Blanca stand on a table for multiple days straight, or forcing two inmates to fight each other.

More so than ever before, Orange is the New Black is interested in the dynamic between guard and prisoner.  There's a deep power imbalance at work, and season four seems to be making a point of how those who are the most likely to exploit that imbalance are the ones who seek out such a position.  We see it in Captain Piscatella and the facility with which he strips away prisoners of their rights.  We see it in the contuining story of Coates and Pennsatucky.  And we see it in the psychotic guard who forces Maritza to swallow a baby rat.  These separate storylines all come together to paint a pretty clear picture.

Privilege, power, and race are examined more thoroughly than ever before.
If there's one main theme of season four, it's privilege and how people wield it.  And the show comes at that idea from a myriad of angles, but most notably via the arrival of celebrity chef Judy King (played by Blair Brown).  Every season, Orange is the New Black has a character that mirrors Piper in some sort of way -- think of how season two used Soso as a way to reflect on how Piper had progressed since she arrived at Litchfield -- and season four uses Judy King's outsized celebrity persona to further underline the points it has made about privilege since we were first introduced to Piper years ago.  In Judy King, we see a person who didn't ask for her privilege, but is well aware of it and will milk it for all it's worth.  And the privilege she manipulates makes life difficult for almost everyone else, as all the resources being devoted to her could've been distributed equally amongst all the inmates.

But this season also explores the ways in which privilege can be less conscious and deliberate through Yoga Jones.  She just stands to the side and soaks up all of the perks that come with being roommates with Judy, self-aware about it all but not truly self-aware.  It's an excellent observation -- even the most self-righteous can be intoxicated by power and privilege.

And of course, there's Piper, the show's original icon of privilege.  The panty smuggling business almost seems like a game to her -- emphasized by the way she does all that goofy posturing about being a "gangsta" early in the season -- because she has that luxury.  Nobody's really going to suspect her because she's a pretty white woman, and even if she was caught, the consequences wouldn't be that severe.  That's why she feels comfortable shifting the blame on to Ruiz, because she doesn't truly understand the gravity of what that means.  It's funny, then, that she inadvertently falls in with a group of neo Nazis -- that's a metaphor for the ways in which being problematic on a small scale can be just as harmful as overt racism.

Perhaps the most damning statement the season makes about privilege is how the people who have the power to enact change never do.  Caputo and Linda go to a prison convention in "We'll Always Have Baltimore," and we see them stumble upon multiple solutions to the feminine hygiene product problem at Litchfield, each of which they completely bypass and ignore.  Then there's Judy King again, who has an opportunity towards the end of the season to use her influence to make the world aware of the injustices happening in the prison, but chooses not to.  Over and over, we see people in power this season neglecting to help, simply because they can afford not to.

Orange is the New Black displays a sense of community not seen since Deadwood.
One of my favorite scenes in the classic HBO drama Deadwood, one of my favorite shows of all time, occurs in the third and final season, which finds the denizens of the titular town banding together when a man named George Hearst arrives with plans of taking over.  Hearst has men shoot at prominent citizen Alma Garrett in the middle of the town's thoroughfare, hoping that this will provoke a retaliation that will give him justification to crush those who stand in his way.  Seeing this, saloon owner Al Swearengen leaps to Alma's rescue and escorts her to safety.  Al doesn't even particularly like Alma that much.  But in a way, she's his people and when it comes down to it, he must stand with his people against injustice.

Orange is the New Black shares alot of DNA with Deadwood, but never more so than when it depicts characters seeing injustice and feeling compelled to act.  It happens in all the best moments of season four, like Red being moved to help Piper when she sees that Ruiz's crew have branded a swastika on her arm, or when Piper chooses to stand in solidarity on top of a table with Blanca, or when the conflicting races try to get on the same page to bring down Piscatella.

Like Deadwood, Orange is the New Black is fundamentally about broken, disparate people coming together to build their own community.  Season four solidifies the idea that these characters are small parts of a much larger body, constantly framing as many characters as possible in the same shot (particularly in penultimate episode "The Animals," brilliantly directed by Mad Men creator Matt Weiner).  Sometimes that body is at war with itself, but when a great pain strikes one part of the body, it's felt everywhere else.  The season builds to a tragedy that's almost Shakespearean in its chaos and inevitability, and its reverberations throughout the prison are some of the most gut-wrenching moments of the year.

Season four of Orange is the New Black is an exhausting experience.  It's so dense with themes and ideas that another 2,000 words still wouldn't sufficiently cover its depths.  And after a third season that left a few people worried, it's good to know that this show is still capable of telling vital, thoughtful stories.

Monday, May 30, 2016

How to fix Drake's "Views"

We're witnessing a change in discourse regarding music that's both a gift and a curse.  Spurred on by the rise of surprise releases and the ubiquity of social media giving us an all-access pass to the thoughts of critics and fans alike, the gestation period for albums is becoming shorter and shorter.  In a way, that's exciting.  Even as a mild Radiohead fan, I couldn't help but get swept up in the fervor a few weeks ago when they dropped a new album on a Sunday afternoon with very little lead-up.  That collective listening experience is intoxicating.

But it also leads to everyone feeling the need to be the fastest one to deliver the hottest take.  Can we really determine if Beyonce's Lemonade is a masterpiece on the first night of listening to it?  Likewise, was The Life of Pablo really the mess everyone instantly declared it to be after Kanye West finally let us listen to it?

This year's biggest victim of this phenomenon is Views, Drake's expansive sad-rap rumination on fame, loneliness, and the city he calls home.  Once it dropped, the early opinion deemed it a bloated, monochromatic letdown.  Official reviews ran with that idea too.  Pitchfork, one of Drake's biggest acolytes, gave the album a 6.8.  Stereogum, The AV Club, Hip Hop DX, and various other sites were similarly lukewarm.  Advance copies weren't given out for this album, and if you look at the dates that these reviews were posted -- some of them on the same day it was released -- it's clear that reviewers didn't give Views much time to marinate.  I can't help but wonder if the general consensus on the record would be a little different if there wasn't such a rush for everyone to get their official opinion on it out into the world.  After all, the album has a 68 on Metacritic, a score far more mediocre albums regularly eclipse.

I, too, was in the negative camp when I first heard the album.  I've always had issues with Drake's music, and Views initially felt like all of his worst impulses compounded into an LP that heavily emphasizes the L.  After a few listens, it started to grow on me considerably, to the point where I've become somewhat of a champion for this deeply underrated album.  Views has some gems to offer up.  The problem is that it asks the listener to sift through a little bit of rubble to locate the shiny bits.  So I've proposed a solution, what I like to call Views: The Antonio Whitehead Cut.  It looks a little something like this:

1. Weston Road Flows
2. 9
3. U With Me?
4. Feel No Ways
5. Hype
6. Controlla
7. Redemption
8. With You
9. Still Here
10. One Dance
11. Child's Play
12. Too Good

The biggest sin Views commits is that it's way too long, clocking in at 81 minutes but feeling more like 100.  So the initial step is to start chopping off songs.  First to go is "Keep the Family Close," which actually is a good opener in concept, but in execution it's mostly just a slog.  Nix "Faithful" because it's boring and not very memorable.  "Grammys" sounds like an outtake from What a Time to Be Alive, a mixtape that already feels like a collection of outtakes.  Every incarnation of "Pop Style" stinks, so that can go too.  "Fire & Desire" feels twice as long as it is, and the fact that it's near the end of the album doesn't help matters either.  Once that song gets cut, there's no real reason to keep "Summers Over Interlude" either.  Trim all of that fat and you've got a lean 53 minutes of music, almost the perfect length for a rap album.

Then there are finishing touches to put on the sequencing.  Without "Keep the Family Close," the album is lacking a fitting opening song.  The terrific "9" has 40 and Boi-1da combining their powers to create a beautiful, chattering beat but it doesn't exactly set the stage for the album.  That's why I propose putting "Weston Road Flows" in the leadoff slot.  With no chorus and four minutes of Drake spitting some of the best bars on the album, it's a perfect shot in the arm to start the record with, and it bookends nicely with the straightforward rapping approach of the album-closing title track.  The only other minor problem is that "Controlla," "One Dance," and "Too Good," the trio of dancehall-tinged tunes that are all highlights, are way too clustered together.  Moving "Controlla" closer to the front of the album helps spread that sound out a little bit, and also keeps the three songs in an order of increasing excellence.

Views: The Antonio Whitehead Cut isn't a perfect album.  It can't escape one of the other big issues with the record: Drake's persona, which has grown more oppressive and exhausting with each release.  Reducing the track length also reduces how much of Drake you get, but you're still bound to hear alot of his weird issues with women and his "woe is me" posturing, only seeming half-aware of how much he actually sounds like a jerk in most of the scenarios he describes.  And for what it's worth, this is a mood piece album that's trying to evoke some very specific vibes, so removing the sprawl makes it harder to appreciate what Drake and 40 are aiming for.  Still, this streamlined version of Views goes down much easier.  If it had been released in this incarnation, it would be considered one of the best rap albums of the year.