Saturday, July 19, 2014

E. Lockhart's dazzling "We Were Liars" doesn't disappoint



My first foray into E. Lockhart's work was with the Printz Honoree, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, a story about a girl navigating the tricky terrain of her male-dominated, classist boarding school.  It was an excellent example of Lockhart's skill at developing a compelling protagonist (one of the great female leads of the last 15 years, in my opinion), incorporating thoughtful themes, and taking big storytelling risks.  What appealed to me the most, however, was its boarding school setting.  There's something about the idea of a boarding school that allows great young adult storytelling possibility, and many of my favorite books of all time -- Looking For Alaska, Harry Potter, etc. -- make use of them as a setting.

Her new novel, the mysterious We Were Liars, tells the tale of the Sinclairs, a rich family who spends each summer together on a private island near Cape Cod.  The story's told from the perspective of Cadence, the oldest grandchild in the family, and the main focus is on her and her cousins Johnny and Mirren, along with family friend Gat.  Because they're all a few months apart in age, they've formed a closed bond (the rest of the family calls them the "Liars"), even though they only see each other during the summer.  In a way, We Were Liars adapts elements from the boarding school narrative to a non-boarding school setting.  It's got teenagers left to their own devices, since even though their parents and grandparents also live spend the summer with them, the island is so big that the four Liars generally just hang out with each other and nobody else.  It's also got a contained location, but instead of a boarding school, the island is the setting where all the action takes place.  Location is so important that there's even a map of the island, which gives you the layout of all the different manors and their spatial relation to one another, at the beginning of the book.

There's no denying that We Were Liars gets off to a slow start.  Because there is so much history involved with the Sinclair family, whose ranks stretch past a dozen, the beginning chapters have to deal with a hefty helping of exposition.  The timeline skips around too: since the Liars only see each other over the summer, the story elides over many months to get back to the period they spend together.  It's an understandable move, but one that makes opening chapters woefully bereft.  None of the novel's many characters are able to make much of a mark, since those early stages get swallowed up in the budding infatuation between Cadence and Gat.  It's pretty standard stuff too, as far as teen romance goes.  Eventually, it begins to seem like the book is just about privileged white people and their boring problems.

Things don't really settle down and become intriguing until the "Summer Seventeen" section, where the story finally slows down.  The four Liars come into sharp focus and become interesting characters (all with unique voices), a welcome change from the beginning of the novel.  Lockhart once again proves that she's adept at writing fascinating, complex female characters, because Mirren and Cadence particularly shine.  You can see much of Frankie Landau Banks's DNA in Cadence, whose fiery, no-nonsense mindset makes her interesting to follow as she sorts through the mystery of what's going on.  Mirren, on the other hand, has an aloof personality that masks a delightful, biting wit.  Most of the novel's best lines come from her mouth.

By the time story starts ramping up, it becomes very clear that Lockhart is interested in interrogating the very same kind of privilege that I complained about in the first few parts of the novel.  It's hard to express the joys of We Were Liars without spoiling the plot, but it's best to go into the book knowing as little as possible.  With that being said, the final act of the book brings everything together in a way that's breathlessly paced, shocking, and emotionally rich.  With We Were Liars, E. Lockhart has crafted an intelligent, haunting novel that will linger in consciences long after the last page is turned.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Married and You're the Worst



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.

Married (FX, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
FX's Married opens in the middle of things.  It doesn't bother with much setup, and instead it gives us an in media res moment between Russ (Nat Faxon) and Lina (Judy Greer).  The relaxed way in which the show handles the guidelines of a pilot episode matches the lived-in nature of the central marriage, which effectively hones in on the feeling of being with a partner for so long that you've developed a rapport that's a mix of love and hate.  Promos can often be misleading, but my general predictions about the show based on the little snippets that appeared in commercials during the past few weeks bear out in the full episode.  The scenes between Faxon and Greer are the show's strength, mostly because of the easygoing chemistry between the two of them, but Married is just as shaggy as it appeared to be in the promos.  This proves to be a detriment to the pilot, which kind of drags.  It certainly doesn't help that the episode separates Russ and Lina for much of the middle stretch, and gives the former a subplot about a mistress that's largely unfunny and kind of off-putting.  If I'm being honest, I should probably give this pilot a C+, but I'm bumping it up based on the potential the show has with Faxon and Greer at the center.
Grade: B-

You're the Worst (FX, Thursdays at 10:30 PM)
If there's anybody who thought the pilot of Married was unpleasant, then after watching You're the Worst, they'll probably think Married is Parks and Recreation.  You're the Worst is a very, very unpleasant show.  Once again, the promos gave a pretty good idea of what this would be.  Those commercials were off-putting because they made the series just seem like a story of two jerks who join forces to act like jerks together, all the while dealing with the push and pull of their "I hate you...but I actually kind of like you" dynamic.  If that felt boring and unappealing in short snippets, then imagine how boring and unappealing it is for a whole episode.  It's not all bad though -- the sexual frankness of the pilot is refreshing and lead actress Aya Cash at least has a wonderful comedic presence.  Unfortunately, that's not enough to make up for the mountain of problems that exist in the rest of the show.  It's possible to make a good show that's full of repellent characters: Veep, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Seinfeld.  You're the Worst, however, doesn't even come close to pulling it off.
Grade: C-

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Begin Again is another great John Carney movie about music as a connecting force



Back in 2007, Once seemed to come out of nowhere.  It was the debut film from director John Carney, it had small ambitions, and an even tinier budget (approximately $160,000).  Its story was simple too -- a tale of two people (relative unknowns to the acting world, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) meeting, bonding, and recording music over a brief period of time.  But what captured audiences was the big, beating heart at its core.  Ultimately, the film was about the joy of making music and the power it has to bring disparate people together.

It seems like Carney didn't fully scratch that itch the first time, because he's back again with Begin Again, another story about people connecting through music.  This go-round, we follow Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a down and out record label executive whose best days are behind him.  Jaded from having to listen to countless generic, cookie-cutter acts, he barely gives demos more than a few seconds before tossing them aside.  A night of sulking and drinking leads him to discover Gretta (Keira Knightley), an independent singer-songwriter performing at a bar in the East Village.  So immediately enchanted by her performance, he attempts to offer her a record deal, which she declines.  See, she's got some reasons of her own to be jaded -- a bad breakup with her former writing partner (Adam Levine), who moved on to greater musical success, has caused her to want to leave New York behind and head back home to England.

Eventually, she gives in, and these two weary souls begin the process of making magic together.  At times, the film gets a little too wrapped up in statements about "authenticity" and "the power of music."  Where Once let those ideas sit there as subtext, Begin Again makes it a point to have characters talk about what is and isn't real music once every few scenes.  Yet that habit of grandstanding manages to not bring down the movie, simply because of how earnest it all is.  Ruffalo and Knightley's charming chemistry sells those dreams, allowing their characters to be lovable instead of pretentious.  Making music is less of a choice for Dan and Gretta than it is a calling, and if they're going to do it, then it has to be passionate and represent a clear vision.  For everyone in the movie, music works as a more effective form of communication than actually speaking.  An apology, a kiss-off, an embrace -- they're all conveyed through musical performances.

Those scenes are where Begin Again is at its most powerful.  They're filmed for maximum intimacy; you can just feel the energy and emotion pouring out of them.  Performances on a stage are lit to give the musicians an angelic glow, and the outdoor scenes use handheld camerawork to capture a raw, alchemical feeling.  Of course, none of them would work if the music itself was lousy, but the catchy songs (written mostly by Gregg Alexander) make the performances even more hypnotizing.  It's a wonder why the movie spends so much time explaining, when these sequences perfectly convey how stirring music can be when everything comes together.

If it seems like this is just Once but with more plot and a bigger budget, that's because it is, and sometimes that over-familiarity dulls its impact.  But it's got such an abundance of charm that it's impossible not to be charitable towards the film.  Everything about it is just so winsome and likable that even Levine's character, the closest thing the movie has to an antagonist, seems like a pretty okay guy at the end of the day.  Most of all, it succeeds where other movies about music fail in getting at something elemental with these people and their art.  Forget about the fame, the adoration, or the money -- it's the music that matters to them.  Begin Again makes that a believable, admirable goal.

Pilot Talk 2014: The Strain



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.

Sundays at 10:00 PM on FX

I've noted before that I'm not really somebody who cares about plot very much.  And because I don't place alot of stock in it, I'm not particularly good at analyzing it.  I especially don't catch many plotholes or get hung up on characters making decisions that aren't exactly the smartest.  But sometimes a bit of plotting goes so far into the territory of stupidity that even I can't let it go.  Such is the case with parts of FX's new show, The Strain, which has gained buzz because it's based on a book series co-written by Guillermo del Toro (who directed and co-wrote this pilot as well).  It focuses on the CDC, as they try to uncover the mystery behind an outbreak that causes seemingly vampiric effects, and the pilot filled with moments of these trained professionals doing incredibly stupid things.  Literally every time somebody is told, "Don't go in there" or, "Don't touch that," they go in there or they touch that.  People don't call for back-up when trouble arises and they generally don't follow protocol -- it just feels like amateur hour throughout the episode.

What's worse is that the show wants to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the main characters' competence.  When a plane lands at JFK airport with the lights turned off and the doors sealed shut, authorities from different agencies arrive on scene to investigate, and the script goes out of its way to have CDC head Ephraim Goodweather (a poorly wigged Corey Stoll) explain the precautions needed to go into the plane.  But then whenever the episode needs to get to a dramatic moment, they reduce everyone to complete idiots.  Those dramatic moments -- scenes of shocking, delightfully gross horror and gore -- are often the pilot's highlights, to be sure.  It'd just be nicer if there was an organic lead up to them.

While the clumsy plotting certainly doesn't help, the characters aren't very well-realized in their own right.  Corey Stoll has proven that he has impressive acting chops, playing the most compelling character in season one of House of Cards and stealing every scene that features him in Midnight in Paris, but as much as he tries, he can't elevate Ephraim past being a bland protagonist.  Instead, he's just given quirks (drinking from milk cartons at crime scenes) and a domestic storyline that's simply dire.  The rest of the CDC agents don't even register enough for me to remember their names.  One character who does manage to make a mark is Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), who gets a scene where he exhibits some unexpected guile.  It's a pretty stock type in vampire fiction, the tough old man who knows more than he lets on, but Bradley plays it with a characteristic intensity that rises above any cliches.

In cases like these, where the storytelling has some hiccups and the characters aren't very interesting yet, style goes a long way.  And this pilot has tons of style to burn.  Guillermo del Toro gives the episode a movie-like quality that's befitting of its length (with commercials, the pilot is an hour and 40 minutes long).  It has his distinct look and feel, exhibiting his love of detail and great creature designs.  The color palette has a standard orange and teal contrast, but del Toro and cinematographer Checco Varese choose to make other colors -- the red and blue of police lights, the neon yellow glow of a CDC helmet -- pop beautifully.  The idea of a vampire story that treats vampirism like a disease is intriguing, and the excellent direction keeps the suspense high, leaving you wondering what's going on throughout the episode.  It remains to be seen if the show can keep up that style after del Toro steps from behind the camera, but for now, The Strain is solid dumb fun.

Grade: B-

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Episode of the Week: Nathan For You - "Souvenir Shop / ELAIFF"



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

Season 2, Episode 2

Nathan For You is the most difficult viewing experience on television.  Usually when you describe something as "hard to get through," it's because the show is boring or bad, but Nathan For You is neither of those things.  It's just an incredibly uncomfortable show to watch.  I don't want to say it's because I'm a highly empathetic person -- because at times I can be the total opposite of that -- but something about this show taps into a deep well of empathy and secondhand embarrassment within me.  It's hard for me to not feel bad about for the people who have to go through the process of dealing with Nathan Fielder.  At least five times per episode, I have to cover my face as an attempt to remove myself from the situation, because I feel like I'm right there with those unwitting subjects.

"Souvenir Shop / ELAIFF," the second episode of Nathan For You's sophomore season, might be the show's most awkward episode to date.  It starts uncomfortable from the very first moment when Nathan meets his latest client, an owner of a souvenir store that's located in a less than ideal spot in Hollywood.  "Why are you wearing a touk?," Nathan asks the man, who doesn't know it's a Canadian term for the hat he's wearing, and the two of them then have a nervous, stilted conversation about the matter.  After that blundering bit of business, Nathan shares his characteristically convoluted plan to drive more business to the store: pretend to film a movie there and allow people to be extras in a scene where they buy an item and pay for it.  As is the nature of the show, Nathan goes all out by setting up legitimate equipment and hiring a Johnny Depp impersonator to play the lead.

One of the great joys of watching this show is the way Nathan is able to twist and turn a concept, adapting in a way that feels like improvisation.  When some extras voice misgivings about having to actually pay for the items they buy in the scene, Nathan brilliantly comes up with the idea of allowing them to meet "Johnny Depp" and have him autograph their items so that they will no longer want to return them.  Yet the episode unfolds even further beyond that, when it comes back from commercial break by having Nathan explain that what he did could be accused of being fraud, causing him to consult a former judge, who tells him that he has to make a real film in order to avoid consequences.  Nathan then does just that, hiring an actress to film a romance scene with him, bringing back the Johnny Depp impersonator to get more shots, and cutting together the footage of customers buying items, in order to try to make this film with a threadbare plot.

Because Nathan For You is a Russian nesting doll of comedy, it doesn't end there either.  When Nathan shows the film to the judge, he says it won't hold up in court unless it's "embraced by the showbiz community."  Thus, the East Los Angeles International Film Festival, Nathan's way of giving himself an award, is born.  Between all of this planning and plotting, "Souvenir Shop / ELAIFF" finds little nuggets of funny as well.  For example, the moment when the guy Nathan asks to choose the winner of the festival, a B-level script supervisor, corrects Nathan on a credit from his resume, which leads to Nathan awkwardly announcing the correction to the rest of the crowd and asking for their applause.  There's also the choice of the camera cutting to the audience's uncomfortable reaction to the only competitor to Nathan's film, "Me Farting On Command," which is exactly what it sounds like.

Another of the qualities that makes the show genius is the way it manages to craft an unexpected narrative within episodes.  One of the running themes of Nathan For You is Fielder's attempts to find human connection through the work he does.  We see this time and time again in his requests to hang out with his clients outside of the show, which are usually rebuffed in hilarious fashion.  (Even last week, we saw a man hooked up to a lie detector tell Nathan he doesn't want to hang out with him later.  "True," the lie detector operator needlessly, but amusingly confirms.)  He does this in the most uncomfortable scene of "Souvenir Shop / ELAIFF" too, when he meets up with Jessie, the actress he kissed in the film, to tell her that he has real feelings for her.  It's funny enough that he gets rejected, but the voiceover narration that follows is what's really incredible.  Nathan says that he's the one who feels bad for her, noting, "To share a kiss with another person and feel nothing is a horrible way to live."  Moments like that are what elevate the show and make it unlike any other comedy.

Nathan For You is many things, but one of the most fascinating things about the show is that it serves as a sort of anthropological study.  You learn so much about humanity through the way people react to Nathan's uncouth, oddball energy.  The best moments often don't come from the construction and execution of the comedic bits, but in the small reactions from the other side: the way that Jessie tilts her head and pauses while figuring out a way to let Nathan down softly, the redhead in the souvenir shop's hesitance when she sees that Nathan is actually swiping her credit card, Crayton Smith avoid eye contact with the screen during "Me Farting On Command."  In my piece last year on the show, I mentioned that its realness doesn't matter, because even if it's completely fake, I would still marvel at how brilliantly written its little nuances are.  But it also doesn't matter because if it's fake, it still feels real.  That's what makes the show so difficult to sit through sometimes.  In the same way that awkward moments are unbearable in real life, they're unbearable in Nathan For You, which finds moments of reality in the midst of bizarre conceits.  It's a testament to the show's intelligence and hilarity that we're able to put up with the immense discomfort, and that uproarious brilliance is on full display in "Souvenir Shop / ELAIFF."