Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The unexpected joys Starz's masterful Howards End adaptation

When you hear about a production like Howards End, which originally aired last year in the UK and just finished its four-part American run on Starz, you assume you know what to expect.  There will probably be a very stiff and stately air to everything.  Characters will be wearing fancy, finely tailored costumes.  And of course, there will mostly likely be lots of blustering about matters of propriety, inheritance, and who's going to marry whom.  So it would be understandable if somebody saw a promo for Howards End, figured they had seen everything it had to offer, and decided to give it a pass.  But doing so would be a huge mistake, because they'd be missing out on one of the most remarkable pieces of television to air so far this year.

The miniseries comes with an extra pile of "been there done that" baggage.  Not only is it based on a classic novel that many people read in school, there is also a beloved Merchant-Ivory film adaptation (which notably won Emma Thompson an Oscar for her performance).  I'll admit that I've never read the book or seen the Merchant-Ivory film -- both of which I plan to rectify soon -- so that could be lending to my feelings of goodwill towards this latest adaptation, but it feels so fresh and unlike anything else I've ever watched.

All four parts of the series are written by Kenneth Lonergan and directed by Hettie MacDonald.  Many may know Lonergan from his extensive work as a playwright and his three excellent films You Can Count on Me, Margaret, and Manchester By the Sea.  In both media, he's applauded for his ability to create deeply human characters and scenarios, reveling in realistic dialogue that reveals the core of those people.  You can see it in the way he brings this version of the story to life as well.

Howards End is the story of the oddly intertwining lives of the Wilcoxes, Schlegels, and Basts, three families who all hail from different economic and intellectual strata but find themselves inescapably in each other's orbit.  That is to say, it does contain many of the tropes one has come to expect from these kind of Victorian-era tales of social status.  But the Starz miniseries also feels radically spritely for its genre.  The look of the show may be lush and languishing, yet its energy comes from how it sounds. Every dialogue exchange has a brightness and bounce to it, somehow balancing witticisms with character building information.  Most of that can be credited to Forster's source material, but Lonergan and MacDonald do wonders with the pace of the words spoken, letting them overlap and spill out in unexpected ways.

Perhaps the greatest work the language of this adaptation does is capture the warmth between the Schlegel siblings.  So much of the miniseries' runtime is devoted to observing Margaret, Helen, and Tibby in their downtime together at their home in London, and it's some of the most authentic sibling interaction that's ever graced the screen.  Those scenes have a wonderful lived-in quality, and even in moments where the sisters are expressing annoyance at their kid brother Tibby, it feels rooted in a deep sense of love and history.  Part of the credit is owed to the actors, who all give assured and lively performances.  Alex Lawther knows how to milk Tibby's peevishness for maximum laughs, and Philippa Coulthard imbues Helen with a naive optimism that's both endearing and frustrating, but it's Hayley Atwell who steals the show here.  She's so present and engaging here as the open-hearted, fiery, progressive Margaret, commanding the ability to convey so many complex emotions with just the flick of a facial expression.  With these actors at the center, you'll want to spend forever with the Schlegels.

That time investment pays off in the home stretch of the miniseries, when complicated circumstances arise and drive Margaret and Helen apart.  Because the show attaches us so much to these characters, the stakes of their minor schism feels absolutely world-ending.  By the end, I wanted everything to work out for them so badly that my heart hurt.

That ability to wring big emotions out of relatively small events extends to the major conflict between the families as well.  Watching the conservative Wilcox worldview clash with the progressive Schlegel mindset, and the ways they manage to bridge the gap between their ideologies through empathy, kindness, and understanding, is riveting and moving all at once.  (And in this day and age, it feels like a downright aspirational fantasy.)  Howards End makes the case for the importance of humanity in storytelling.  Sometimes you don't need cataclysmic events to make an impact on the viewer, you can just start with real emotions and let the drama take its natural course. It's a lesson that so many shows and films could stand to learn.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Favorites: March and April 2018

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

Unlike many others, I don't think the trailers for Blockers made the film look bad.  Instead, it just made it seem like a different movie than it ends up being.  Sure, all of the broad hijinks with the parents trying to stop their daughters from having sex on prom night is still there, but the finished product is much more sweet than the trailer lets on.  The film ends up being an endearing look at the anxieties of three parents facing the prospect of empty nest syndrome, and it constantly lampshades the insanity and double standards of their quest.  As a lover of teen movies, I wish it focused more on the girls' stories -- all three actresses are terrific, but Geraldine Viswanathan in particular steals the show -- but I was still satisfied with what it gave the audience.

Game Night
2018 is apparently the year of the surprising studio comedy, because Game Night is another one that came out of nowhere.  While Blockers in the warmer film, Game Night has more laughs, getting tons of mileage out of the way it heightens this night that has spun completely out of control for its protagonists.  Plus, it has Canadian sweetheart Rachel McAdams fully committing to her wild goofball role.

I had been anticipating Thoroughbreds since it premiered at Sundance last year, and it did not disappoint.  This debut film from Cory Finley is a delightfully dark bit of formal rigor, full of austere shots that match the moral emptiness of its two murderous teen protagonists, played excellently by Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy.

Belle and Sebastian - How to Solve Our Human Problems Pts. 1-3
Belle and Sebastian are one of my top 10 favorite bands of all time, so I was pretty dismayed by the fact that I didn't love Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance back in 2015.  It's got some solid songs like "Allie" and "Cat With the Cream", but for the first time one of their stylistic switch-ups -- this time, solid gold disco -- didn't work for me.  Their How to Solve Our Human Problems series of EPs, released one month apart between December and February, work to win over those who were put off by their previous full-length.  It still retains some of their recent dancy leanings, but those songs are stronger and more concise than before, not to mention being balanced out by a majority of songs that feel like classic B&S.  Not enough people seem to be talking about this collection, most likely due to the odd release strategy, but combine these EPs and they make for a strong 15-song comeback album.

The DIY punk scene in Philadelphia just keeps producing great bands, and the latest to rise out of it is the trio Empath.  What makes them stand out is that they're a little more noise-pop than their peers.  I generally don't go for music that has a heavy noise influence like this, but their sugary hooks and clean guitar breakdowns that bubble up from the smear of sounds makes for a compelling dynamic.  If you're new to the band, their recent EP Liberating Guilt and Fear is a great place to start.

Frankie Cosmos' performance on Juan's Basement
When I was a burgeoning indie kid, I loved watching Pitchfork's Juan's Basement video series, where bands performed live sets in a dingy New York basement.  (This Beach House performance is still transcendent and other-worldly).  I was happy to learn that the show was not only back after a 10 year hiatus, but it also featured a new installment from Frankie Cosmos, where they play their incredible new album in its entirety.  Stick around for the band interview at the end, which is a batch of delight all on its own.

The Terror
Horror may be the hardest genre to do well on TV.  There's something about returning to a show's world week after week that doesn't lend itself to be scared as well as a contained two-hour film does.  The Terror, the AMC adaptation of Dan Simmons' best-selling historical horror novel, takes up that challenge and succeeds.  The show follows two ships from the British Royal Navy that disappeared while trying to navigate the Northwest Passage in harsh conditions.  It's not necessarily a terrifying show, but it mounts its dread so slowly and skillfully.  Even before mysterious things start occurring to the characters, there's a foreboding that soaks the series, thanks to its desolate tundra setting.  The first season is a little over halfway done, and if it sticks the landing, it will be one of the most impressive seasons of a horror show in a while.

Molly Ringwald's essay on John Hughes (essay)
If you're on Twitter, you've probably already read this Molly Ringwald piece from The New Yorker, but it's worth sharing just in case.  Ringwald offers a wonderful, measured take on the man whose work help put her on the map, and how she's had to reckon with the more problematic elements of those movies.  It's better, more nuanced writing than most culture critics who do this for a living could muster.

On Being Needy (blog post)
Lex Croucher has come up before in my favorite series, when I talked about her podcast Make Out With Him, and she's being mentioned here again because she's great!  This time I wanted to talk about her recent blog post on bad relationships, and when to recognize that you're not being needy, it's just that you and the other person have different expectations of the relationship.  I recently just ended a longtime friendship that was very important to me for similar reasons, so I found this very helpful to read.  Maybe it will help you out too.

Pandora at Animal Kingdom
Despite being a lifelong Florida native, I only became a Disney World enthusiast recently as an adult.  I've been to the Magic Kingdom a few times in my life but I had never been to Animal Kingdom or Epcot, so my most recent trip was the perfect chance to go and experience the new section of Animal Kingdom based on James Cameron's Avatar.  My family and I chose to go on the Na'vi River Journey first since the line for Flight of Passage was an insane three hour wait.  River Journey is a standard raft-based dark ride but it's the best version I've seen, full of amazing effects and gorgeous music.  Later in the day when the Flight of Passage line went down, we rode that as well and it was another incredible experience.  If you've been on the Forbidden Journey at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this is a similar motion simulator experience, except maximized times 100.  The simulator screen is blown out to huge portions and the riding seat is so advanced that you really feel like you're riding a banshee in Pandora.  If you're not into rides, there's still some great scenery in the theme world.  I particularly liked the Swotu Waya drum ceremony that plays once an hour.  Overall, the experience was totally worth the trip.

Paste's piece on The Assassination of Gianni Versace (article)
I thought the second season of FX's American Crime Story was absolutely brilliant.  While it may not have been as buzzworthy and entertaining as the first season, which centered around the OJ Simpson trial, but in many ways it was more challenging and moving.  So it was pretty disappointing to see many critics being so dismissive and underwhelmed by the season.  That's why I loved this Paste article, which not only captures the power of the series, but also rightfully calls out critics on their biases against its subject matter.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Pilot Talk 2018: Rise

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.

Tuesdays at 9:00 PM on NBC

These days, there's an extreme dearth of great network dramas.  With all the different options of places to make content, there's not much incentive for talented creators to bring their ideas to a major network, where they are more likely to receive interfering notes and punishing episode counts.  But if there's anyone you can rely on to deliver a great network show in this day and age, it's Jason Katims.  He's responsible for two of the greatest network dramas of this century in Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, and his gift of elegantly channeling relatable human emotions into his three-dimensional characters fits well with the format.

Well whatever the great savior of network drama is, Rise is not currently looking like it.  Katims' latest show follows Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), a restless English teacher who wants to revitalize his high school's theater department by having them do Spring Awakening, and when he asks the principal whether he can take over the position of theater director it's immediately given to him, much to the dismay of the woman who currently holds the position (played by Rosie Perez).  This setup leads to one of the most glaring issues that plagues the pilot: it seems as if the show wants us to root for Lou and his quixotic quest, but he mostly just comes off like a jerk for steamrolling in and taking a woman's job.  Not only is it bizarre that he would be given the position in the first place, we're given no context or history that would make such a thing seem reasonable.

If that were the only issue with Rise, it would be easy to overlook, but unfortunately there are many moments in the first episode that erode all of the goodwill its creative pedigree establishes.  Though it may have surface similarities to Friday Night Lights -- the intimate handheld camerawork, the muted palette, people saying the phrase "QB1" -- Rise fails to capture that same sense of emotion.  It's loaded with cliches and broad characters, like the star quarterback who tries out for the musical or the mean girl with a chip on her shoulder, all of which have been done much better by shows that came before it.  None of the conflicts laid out so far are enough to buoy those characters either.

Another network comparison that comes to mind is obviously Glee, since both shows have a musical element and wear their hearts on their respective sleeves.  But Glee was working from a different tonal framework, which allowed viewers to accept its more ridiculous moments.  The hyper-realism of Rise's aesthetic makes it harder to roll with the idea that a high school would ever entertain the notion of the drama department putting on a rendition of the sexually explicit Spring Awakening.  And without that sense of playfulness that Glee had in its early going, the earnestness of Rise just comes off as saccharine and preachy.

Still, there are embers of promise in the show that make it worth sticking with.  Moana's Auli'i Cravalho is great as Lillette, the young ingenue who's given the lead part in the musical.  She's got a great screen presence, and her level of earnestness seems properly pitched enough to work where other attempts in the pilot don't.  And the high school setting at least provides an interesting ecosystem, one that could lead to some rich storytelling in the future.  It's hard to make any show work immediately, not to mention a network one, where you have to appeal to the widest swath of people possible.  Despite the rough start, it's easy to see Rise becoming a great show if it's given enough time to grow.  Katims has earned that benefit of the doubt by now.

Grade: C+

Sunday, March 4, 2018

2018 Academy Award predictions

Another year, another set of Oscar predictions.  This year's Best Picture race is as wide-open as it's been in a very long time, so I'm very worried about how I'll fare.  Either way, it should be a fun ride.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Favorites: January and February 2018

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

Heat (1991)
I'm embarrassed to say that before last month I had never seen Heat, Michael Mann's crime epic in which Robert De Niro and Al Pacino become entangled in a cat-and-mouse game on opposing sides of the law.  It turns out the film lives up to the hype and more.  De Niro and Pacino are terrific, of course, but Mann is the one who elevates the film to its legendary status, imbuing the movie with a mythic quality that genuinely makes you ponder its musings on life and how we spend it.  Plus, the post-bank robbery shootout still might be the best that has ever been put to film.

Paddington/Paddington 2
Film Twitter was all abuzz about these films, and with good reason, because they are truly delightful.  Unlike everyone else, I'm slightly partial to the first movie, but both are heartwarming, funny, and astonishingly directed family films.

Kero Kero Bonito
I first became aware of KKB last year when Frankie Cosmos, one of my favorite artists, talked about her love of the band when she covered their song "Fish Bowl."  But I didn't get around to checking them out until this year, when I decided to listen to their album Bonito Generation and fell completely in love.  Their cutesy, playful style may not be for everyone, but if you can get on their level, you're in for music that's actually impressive on a sonic level (the amount of neck-snapping synth sounds on display in "Lipslap" is astonishing) and has some pretty thoughtful observations on that limbo period of semi-adulthood that is your 20s.  I haven't listened to TOTEP, their new EP that dropped last week, but they're one of the bands I'm most excited about now.

The Smiths singles and B-sides collections
I like the beginning of the year, because not many new albums have come out yet, and it gives me time to catch up on older music that I have been meaning to check out.  Despite being a fan of The Smiths' proper albums, I never listened to much of the singles collections like Hatful of Hollow, Louder Than Bombs, and The World Won't Listen.  And just as everyone has always been saying, they really do contain some of the band's best songs.  Most collections like these are inessential, but you're missing out if you've never heard songs like "Sheila Take a Bow" and "Unloveable."

Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche
I had also never really listened to The Avalanche, an album of songs that didn't make it to Sufjan Stevens' masterpiece Illinois.  I love Sufjan's recent changes in style, but a part of me misses that lush orchestral sound he was working with during his 50 States project.  This record is very clearly a collection of outtakes, but even his toss-offs have a million interesting ideas in them, and something like "The Pick-Up" is up there with some of his best work.

American Vandal
There was something that irked me about American Vandal, which caused me not to watch it last year.  Even with all the effusive praise it was given, I was convinced I wouldn't like it, due to my general apathy for true crime shows and podcasts.  My stubbornness ended up being unwarranted, because I loved it once I finally watched it.  The show builds off of its premise -- excavating the ins and outs of the case of a bunch of penises being drawn on all of the faculty's cars in a high school parking lot -- and goes deeper and deeper into the silliness.  But it also delivers a story that's terrifically constructed, making great use of the engaging high school world it sketches out.

The End of the Fucking World
Every week there's a new Netflix show that the internet insists I have to watch.  The overwhelming amount of content makes me want to give up on checking any of them out.  If there's one to prioritize over the rest of the deluge, however, it's British import The End of the Fucking World.  The less said about it the better -- just know that it's got an extremely original voice and two fantastic performances from Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther.

Ellen Pompeo's Hollywood Reporter profile (article)
I never thought I'd be recommending an article about Ellen Pompeo, of all people, but the profile on her that came out earlier in the year was hilariously candid.  She's an icon.

Hayley Ever After (blog)
Hayley G. Hoover is one of my favorite internet people, and I've missed her work ever since she stopped making videos on Youtube.  Her new blog fills that HGH hole in my content diet.  Even when she's talking about things I think I won't care about, I always find myself lost in her delightful writing voice.

We Are Okay (novel)
I loved Nina LaCour's YA novel Hold Still when I was in high school, but I hadn't read any of her books since then.  Reading We Are Okay, her highly praised 2016 novel about a girl isolates herself in her freshman year of college after a traumatic event in the previous summer, felt like being greeted by an old friend.  LaCour's writing is so gorgeous, and even though this is a sparse story, it's also full of complex shades of love, grief, and loneliness.