Thursday, August 31, 2017

Favorites: August 2017

Favorites is a monthly feature that offers up quick thoughts on media, both new and old, that I've recently enjoyed.

Kathryn Bigelow made her return to theaters this month with Detroit, her first film since 2012's Zero Dark Thirty.  Like her previous work, Detroit is another collaboration with screenwriter Mark Boal, and the two of them bring the same journalistic grittiness to this story about an instance of racially motivated police brutality at the titular city's Algiers hotel in 1967.  That style doesn't lend well to storytelling angles other than fly-on-the-wall observations, which has led to people questioning the benefit of showing such brutality.  However, I think that criticism comes from the mindset of people who are fully aware of the fact that things like this can happen.  For most of America though, this supremely crafted film is necessary and vital.

Amine - Good For You
It feels like now more than ever, all of the up-and-coming rappers sound similar, incorporating a mumbly flow over gooey bass-heavy beats from Metro Boomin or one of his many imitators.  There are some who aggressively go in a contrasting direction, opting for a traditionally bars heavy style that ends up feeling the same as everyone else is doing it too.  A rapper like Amine stands out then, simply by virtue of not sounding like either archetype.  That's not to say that he's wholly original -- his debut album Good For You recalls the bright, playful music of D.R.A.M. and Chance the Rapper -- but it's path unbeaten enough to feel fresh.  He's not the most skilled rapper, but that's almost besides the point.  The entire album is so fun and vibrant, it doesn't even need to be technically proficient.

milo - who told you to think??!!?!?!?!
Milo is another rapper who seems to exists on a completely different trend cycle, maybe even a different plane of reality altogether.  Nothing about his verbose, unconventional style should work in 2017.  He constantly quotes Nietzsche and name checks Nabokov, he rhymes "diaphanous gossamer" with "blasphemous philosopher," and he makes a call to "the last real MCs" at one point.  It's enough to make you recall the days of calculator rap, where underground rappers were overly concerned with how smart and authentic they sounded, but only came off as corny.  But despite that, his new album does work.  He's a gifted rapper, riding warm but sparse beats with an exacting precision.  And all of the philosophical talk is a gateway to some incisive observations about being black and the crushing weight of simply existing.  I was mostly unaware of milo beforehand, but this album has turned me into a total fan.

The Deuce
This series doesn't officially premiere until September 10th, but HBO put the pilot online early, so this is as good of a time as ever to get in some advance stumping for it.  For those not in the know, David Simon is one of the most reliable television creators out there.  The Wire is his unanimous magnum opus, but Treme, Generation Kill, and Show Me a Hero are all excellent across the board as well.  He's back, along with frequent collaborator George Pelecanos, for The Deuce, which tells the story of the birth of the porn industry in 1970s New York.  The pilot itself didn't get anywhere close to that though, instead providing a 90-minute introductory course into the ecosystem that existed beforehand.  Usually, it would be frustrating for a show to take so long before getting to the actual premise, but Simon and Pelecanos are two of the best world-builders in the game.  Together with gorgeous direction from Michelle McLaren, they've given us a heavily textured, fully detailed world already.  I'm beyond excited to see where they go from here.

Drama Chameleon: Won't the Real Taylor Swift Please Stand Up? (article)
Let's get this out of the way: I, one of the biggest Taylor Swift fans in the world, hate her new song.  It sucks, the video sucks, the album title and cover sucks, the whole album rollout sucks.  But I read this Stereogum article from Michael Nelson that recontextualizes this whole situation today and I loved it.  I'm not sure I agree with every point it makes, but it made me think.  So few thinkpieces these days actually do that.

John Early dancing
You may know actor/comedian John Early from his appearances on 30 Rock, Broad City, High Maintenance, Search Party, or Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.  But you should know him for his amazing videos posts on Twitter of himself dancing in public.  I don't know why he does it, but I watch them over and over and never stop laughing.  Here's one.  Here's another.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Logan Lucky is one of the most entertaining films of the year

It has become so hacky to review a work of art and tie it to today's political climate.  Every publication is littered with takes about how a piece of pop culture speaks to what's going on in the world, and everyone's getting a little sick of it.  But sometimes those connections just call out and beg you to write that take nobody wants to hear.  That's the feeling garnered from Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh's latest film about a pair of brothers who formulate a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during one of the biggest NASCAR races of the season.  The driving force behind this decision is when Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a blue collar construction worker at the speedway, gets laid off for concealing an injury that deems him a risk on the job.  He quickly enlists his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a veteran-turned-bartender who lost his hand during the Iraq War, into the plan.  It's hard not to think about post-election America with that setup, where these likely Trump voters are driven to desperation after getting screwed over by Republican ideals.  (The term "pre-existing condition" is even used as a reason for Jimmy's firing.)

It's an especially easy connection to make in a Soderbergh film, given that he's stretched his political filmmaking muscles before, in films that were secretly about the recession (Magic Mike) and not-so-secretly about the recession (The Girlfriend Experience).  And just because he has his eye turned to the opposition this time around doesn't mean he's gazing downward.  He's much too sly to resort to simple hick-gawking.  Throughout Logan Lucky, Deep South traditions like NASCAR races, child beauty pageants, county fairs, and John Denver songs are treated lovingly.  There is humor drawn from the character's bucolic idiosyncrasies, sure, but it's all done with a gentle, laconic vibe.  One could draw comparisons to the work of the Coen brothers, but Soderbergh's offbeat comedic style is one that's all his own.

If there's one thing to draw from Logan Lucky, it's Steven Soderbergh's singularity.  At all times, it feels like a film that only he could pull off successfully.  Watching this caper that's simultaneously peculiar and crowd-pleasing is a reminder that Soderbergh is one of the true master filmmakers.  His visual style doesn't just trade in beautiful images -- though this is one of the most gorgeous films of the year -- his choices always tell you more about the story, these characters and how they relate to one another.  Take the introduction of explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), where his "thing of legend" status is emphasized through the decision to shoot him from behind for as long as possible.

The script is able to keep pace with the film's stylistic bravura too.  There's some question about whether first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt is an actual person or just one of Soderbergh's many pseudonyms, but whoever is responsible has crafted a classic caper.  The actual heist is constructed with Swiss watch precision, full of twists, obstacles, and a last-minute rug pull.  Yet it still finds space for quiet, odd little detours.  This willingness to stretch in all directions makes for some of the most memorable scenes of the year.  That ambling nature also almost becomes its undoing eventually, but the film is smart enough to end at the right time.

This is Steven Soderbergh's first film since his "retirement" a few years ago.  Nobody ever believed it was real or permanent, so it can hardly be considered a comeback.  Regardless of what we call it, it's still nice have him making films again, especially ones as entertaining and sneakily incisive as this one is.  With Logan Lucky, he's made the red state Ocean's Eleven that we didn't know we wanted or needed.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Degrassi: Next Class provides fun and farewells in its best season yet

I always worry about a new season of Degrassi: Next Class, because I constantly wonder whether this will be the one where its streak of quality ends and it slides into teen soap mediocrity, but I was especially worried about season four going into it.  After all, this was going to be the last season for the seniors (or Grade 12s, to use Canadian parlance) -- the first time Next Class has had to send off graduating characters.  Is the show, in its current 10-episodes-per-season incarnation, capable of sustaining this kind of arc?  Will storylines for the non-graduating characters fall by the wayside in service of wrapping things up for those who are?  How will they lay the groundwork for the show's future after parting with half the cast?  These were the questions on my mind as I queued up the premiere episode.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A postmortem on The Americans' divisive fifth season

From looking at the building adulation around The Americans, FX's simmering Cold War character drama, over the course of its first four seasons, one would think that it was essentially bulletproof.  But season five, which concluded a few weeks ago, proved that such a thing wasn't the case.  You can see the reaction to this season as evidence of just how thin a tightrope the show had been walking all along, as many took issues with this year's sense of pace and purpose, two things it always seemed to excel at.  In many ways, these grumblings are just part and parcel for series that decide on their endpoint more than a season in advance. By announcing last year that the show had been renewed for two final years, it effectively turned them into one season split into two parts.  That makes season five of The Americans similar to the first part of final seasons of shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad -- all of which received similar misgivings.

After such a propulsive and sweat-inducing fourth season, The Americans almost had no choice but to follow it up with a bit of a comedown season.  But season five seemed to take that to its extreme.  It was a season littered with anti-climaxes and half-storylines, starting from the very beginning.  First, we're introduced to a new project Philip and Elizabeth are working on to uncover America's effort to contaminate the Soviet Union's wheat supply, only for it to eventually be revealed that America is actually trying to create a strain of wheat that can withstand any infestation.  Then there was the whole Mischa business, a plot that seemed to be steadily building for a while and then petered out once he had to turn back to Russia without meeting Philip.  Not to mention the little Martha cameos or the quiet place the finale ends at.  Throughout the season, viewers were often left to wonder how all the pieces showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg were throwing out fit into the larger puzzle of the overall narrative, especially so close to the end.

So the problems that people had with season five could be boiled down to two main things: nothing happened and it was hard to discern what the point of all it was.  I take some issue with the complaint that nothing happened over the course of these 13 episodes though.  Actually, this season had quite a bit of movement, but if there was any problem with it, it was that the progression of the plot only seemed to serve to set up the show's endgame, as opposed to having meaning of its own.  That extends to the second issue as well.  I don't necessarily mind not knowing where everything is going while it happens.  The Americans has always been known to play its cards close to its chest, showing how everything comes together at the last possible moment.  It's just that this year, something like Oleg's arc in Russia wasn't really compelling from week to week.

Still, it's hard not to admire the wonderful interiority of the series, something it doubled down on even further this year.  This was a ruminative season that marinated on a variety of hefty themes, most notably the idea of family.  Whether real, surrogate, or manufactured, the family unit was seen as something that must be maintained, for its fracturing could cause the whole world to crack open.  And who can blame everyone for feeling that way?  More so than ever, The Americans is soaked in a sense of grim fatalism as characters concern themselves less with "how can we prevent this?" and more with "how long can we prolong the inevitable?"  The weariness from the grind is setting in.  It's no wonder the idea of steeling one's self was such a strong motif, from the indestructible wheat strain to the finger technique Philip and Elizabeth teach Paige to help her maintain her composure and shut out the pain.

The show is allowed to retreat inward like it did because it's still the best show around at building scenes and episodes.  The Americans lives on suggestion, calculating the perfect amount of time to let things linger, the optimal moment to shoot a meaningful glance.  The tiniest moments give you so much to chew on through the use of framing, blocking, and body language.  Even when the momentum wasn't there in season five, the craft always was.

Lately I've been thinking about how critics and the overall TV community approaches seasons like this.  There has been so much talk this year about how much prestige TV has become ossified, stuck using the same old trappings as a shorthand for quality.  And yet, there's grumbling whenever we get something that attempts to paint outside of the established lines.  It happened last year with Mr. Robot's oblique second season, it's happening a little bit with the gonzo return of Twin Peaks, and it happened with this perversely muted season of The Americans.  Television like this shouldn't automatically be celebrated.  But we would do well not to reject it as quickly as many have.