Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Party's Crashing Us: Spring Breakers Explores the Glamor and Horror of Youth

Magic Mike was one of my favorite films of 2012, mostly because it's just a genuinely good film, but also because of the trick that it managed to pull off.  When it was released last summer, it was a huge box office success, totaling a gross of almost $40 million in the first weekend.  The cause of this is not hard to see -- audiences flocked to see what was marketed as "that Channing Tatum stripper movie."  There's certainly some quality Channing Tatum stripping in the movie, sure, but mostly people got roped into seeing what is very much a Steven Soderbergh film.  Beyond all that male eye candy lies a talky movie with odd lens filters and shot compositions that's essentially a very cold and clinical breakdown of the state of the American economy.

Harmony Korine's latest curiosity, Spring Breakers, attempts to pull off the same feat and more or less succeeds.  Starring former Disney darlings Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, along with Pretty Little Liars actress Ashley Benson, the film was bound to catch the eye of young audiences from the get-go.  However, the idea of seeing these "good girls go bad" was enough to make the buzz surrounding the film reach an enormous swirl, and early box office averages seem to prove that the marketing was successful.  Over the course of the past few weeks, the anticipation has built up to the point where the release was like an event for anyone between the ages of 16 and 25.  Despite the fact that many people expected to get a pretty straightforward film about young people partying in the vein of Project X, what they got was a Harmony Korine film; one that eschews a conventional narrative, features patchwork editing, and has a pretty grim worldview.

In a landscape where The Hunger Games rules the world and Tom Cruise's upcoming live-action Wall-E remake is bound to pull in big numbers, Spring Breakers might just be the most apocalyptic film of the last 10 years.  The film offers up a literalization of the concept of the "teenage wasteland," where everyone is driven by their id-like desires to party and make money.  Allusions to the golden age of MTV's Spring Break specials and old Britney Spears songs abound, and the film is so drenched in the idea of 90s culture that it almost seems to be an examination of a generation as a whole.  It might not be Korine's goal, but the film makes a great case for the argument that the world is screwed if this is our future.  Characters hurt others and make terrible decisions with very little regard for the consequences of their actions, as if life is just some video game.  Everything is underscored with a foreboding tone, indicating that there is no floor to this downward spiral of moral depravity.

Straight from the opening of the film you know that you're in for a treat.  Spring Breakers puts all of its debauchery out on the table with a beach sequence that is vivid and lurid and loud, and the rest of the film follows suit.  In fact, the entire first half of the film feels like a giant music video, with its rapid editing and unrelenting soundtrack jumping from beach to backstreet with an effortless fluidity.  Korine manages to employ impressively economical storytelling, using these little snapshots of scenes to construct the story.  Dialogue is used sparingly, only a sentence or two is needed to serve as transitions from one sequence of images to the next, and the audience is left to fill in the small gaps on their own.  This method works because of the way that scenes spiral and circle back on each other, wandering lazily like the central youths do.

Even if the storytelling in the first half is a bit too lax for some, the film is simply gorgeous and likely to hold everyone's attention.  Tampa during Spring Break is depicted as being all neon lights, smoky interiors, and street-lit nights; a believable paradise for these four girls looking to escape the collegiate hell they exist in.  Visually, the film's style is used in a smart way, constantly juxtaposing glitzy surfaces with grimy underbellies.  The girls are drawn to the allure of Spring Break's promise of nonstop booze and drugs, but they slowly stumble into a darker corner of this world.  Adding to the ominous nature of the film are the constant gunshot sound effects that appear during scenes and the cuts from a current high to a later comedown.  Whatever happens next, we know that it won't be good.

The introduction of James Franco is both a gift and a curse to Spring Breakers.  On one hand, Franco disappears into his role, giving a riveting and entertaining performance as Alien, a larger-than-life rapper/drug dealer.  He's ostentatious in a cartoonish way, while also managing to retain a sense of danger.  Unfortunately, with his character comes the narrative drive of the film.  As it begins to have more of a concrete story, Spring Breakers loses a bit of its magic.  It's easy to deal with these thin characters and their flimsier motivations when the film is just an odd little worm, undulating around with no real destination.  Once the film has an actual goal, those elements become harder to overlook and the film falters a bit.

This is most problematic when it comes to Selena Gomez's Faith, the slightly purer goody-two-shoes of the group.  During the first half, her archetype seems like a perfect fit to this glossy puzzle -- the innocent who slowly succumbs to the pull of a debased world.  When the plot kicks in, her character starts to seem lazily-written and derivative.  Korine expects us to recognize the cliche and roll with it, but the thin characterization makes her feel like she exists solely to fulfill a given arc, as opposed to vice versa.  It's a shame too, because Gomez is pretty fantastic in the film.  Granted, she gets the most heavy lifting out of the four lead actresses, but she imbues her character with such humanity that it's almost enough to forgive some of the weak writing.

Recognizing the grimness of the world it's depicting, Spring Breakers actually begins to take on the structure of a horror film.  What could have been an interesting direction ultimately isn't fully explored, as the film zigzags to a truly bizarre ending.  Without spoiling it, the conclusion of the film works thematically if you try hard enough to make it work, but it still stretches the boundaries of believability that have already been established.  Mostly though, it's just kind of goofy.  However, those faults aren't enough to make me think that Spring Breakers is anything other than a wild success.  It's an odd beauty that is unlike any wide release you'll see all year.  Although it may not always work as a film, it's definitely a fascinating experience.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Girls Concludes a Messy, Complicated Season With a Messy and Complicated Finale

It feels like everybody watches Girls for slightly different reasons.  Some watch it to get a laugh, finding the show to be a comedy about the misguided lives of 20-somethings living in New York.  Some watch it just for the nudity and raunchy sex, as if there aren't a million places on the internet where you can find that.  There are those that watch it for the well-observed character drama, and even those people can be split into subgroups.  Half of them might be able to relate to the struggles that the characters are going through, while others may watch from week to week wondering just when these spoiled, narrow-minded upper class people will just get a grip already.

Even though it took a few episodes to nail the tone down, season 1 of Girls managed to maintain a great balance of all its elements, which was probably why it was able to gain such a wide variety of acolytes.  One week you'd get an episode like "The Return," a meditative episode that delved into Hannah's life back at home, and then the very next week the show would drop something like "Welcome to Bushwick aka The Crackcident," which was 30 minutes of pure comedy.  Season 2 shifted the weights of its various tones and I wouldn't be surprised if it lost some fans in the process.  It was messy and complicated and by the end I was marveling at just how dark things became.  Surely, this wasn't the Girls that the people who tune in for the weekly sex scene bargained for.

Yet, for all its structural looseness, I can't help but be more enamored by this second season than I was by its first.  Part of this is because of how much deeper the show began to look inward and explore its characters this year.  If season 1 was about chronicling the relatively unchecked lives of 20-somethings with myopic worldviews, then season 2 was largely about those same characters being forced to examine themselves and their actions.  This season wasn't just about Hannah either, it gave the other 3 girls much meatier stories, and if the show lost some narrative tightness because of that, it gained back tenfold in thematic connectivity.  Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa interacted with each other much less than they did in season 1, which made the fact that they all were struggling to obtain some direction in their lives even more poignant.

It's ironic then that season 2's 4th episode, "It's a Shame About Ray," was the installment that kicked off the show's great creative stretch.  Perhaps the last episode to put everybody together, "It's a Shame About Ray," let all of the characters play off each other and slowly showed things come to a boil.  What followed was a string of great episodes that are notable for just how different they feel.  "One Man's Trash" and "Video Games" couldn't feel less alike, but they both are incredible half hours.  For a while, Girls ascended to an "art" status, where it just didn't feel like anything else being produced on television.  In that way, it reminded me of season 5 of Mad Men.  Now let's be clear, this season of Girls is nowhere near being as good as the most recent season of Mad Men, which belongs in the pantheon of all-time great seasons of television.  However, I often remarked how season 5 of Mad Men felt like Matt Weiner was just doing whatever he wanted and letting the story follow.  Nobody would confuse "Signal 30" with "Far Away Places," but they're each their own little masterpieces.  Lena Dunham also seemed less interested in the common conventions of television and instead told each story in whatever way she found to be interesting that week.  It resulted in sometimes frustrating, but often fascinating television.

Everything culminated in "On All Fours," the penultimate episode, which was one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I've ever had.  Taking cringe drama to a new level, "On All Fours" showed everyone at their lowest lows, a rock bottom that was at once inevitable in its occurrence and surprising in its depth.  With the way everything was building up, we were being primed for some kind of catharsis in the finale.  Well, what we got was...something.  For the first two-thirds of the episode, "Together" looked to be snaking down the same dark hole that the other nine episodes slowly were, only to end on a complete turnaround into sweeping romantic territory.  This caused much consternation with many people who were fans of the show.  They wanted to see Hannah and the gang wriggle off on dry land after drowning in the depths of their own despair for so long, but not in a way that felt out of the blue and unearned.

It was only in the second viewing that I was able to confirm what I already had a sneaking suspicion of when I watched the finale for the first time.  "Together" reveals alot of information through its clever editing, which constantly links these characters who've been so disparate all year by choosing how to cut scenes together.  Where the meaning of a scene may be a bit opaque in isolation, it becomes completely clear when paired with similar scenes featuring different characters.  We see it in the very beginning where three awkward sex scenes are shown one after another, indicating that nothing good will come of any of these pairings.  It's a neat little trick really, allowing for a wonderful build that feels like emotional dominoes crashing down.  The technique is employed again in a series of knockout scenes, Shoshanna's breakup with Ray and Hannah's voicemail message to Jessa, where simmering emotions finally explode.

What follows is where people begin to have problems, with Adam running across town to find Hannah and Charlie and Marnie choosing to be together.  If those moments felt off, like something out of a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy, it's only because they were supposed to.  Girls has always been about being aware of something in its characters that they don't see within themselves.  So when Charlie and Marnie think that they've finally worked things out between each other and Adam "rescues" Hannah from herself, with swelling strings scoring both scenes, we're supposed to not buy what we're seeing.  It's an unhappy happy ending of sorts, informed by everything we've seen before to indicate that things most likely won't end well.  The show has never been about finding that one person to save you and make you feel whole.  Instead, it's about having this small subset of people who are the only ones willing to put up with you and make you feel just a little less broken, and that idea was reinforced in the finale.  It's there in Shoshanna and Ray's relationship, it's there in Hannah's phone call to Jessa, it's everywhere.

A recurring element of this season has been people calling others out on their crap, demanding for them to get their act together.  Everyone wants the next person to pull themselves out of the ground, but nobody realizes that they're saying it while their own head is only just crowning above the soil.  "Together" brings the gang closer to a point of clarity, while also showing that there are miles to go before everything will be fully okay.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Looking Back on Ben & Kate

In terms of new quality comedy, the fall 2012 season didn't exactly set the world on fire.  Most networks bet on one horse when it came to what type of comedy they wanted to produce and they didn't stray outside of that zone.  NBC decided to go considerably broad, debuting shows such as the extremely bland Go On and the extremely goofy Animal Hospital.  Elsewhere on the tube, ABC looked to bolster their family block with the odd, but supposedly not terrible The Neighbors.  Meanwhile, CBS was being CBS, only this time failing with Partners and Made in Jersey.  Only Fox's two freshman comedies, The Mindy Project and Ben & Kate, appeared to be trying anything interesting last year.

The Mindy Project, with its more popular lead and higher critical and marketing buzz, seemed poised to become network tv's next big hit.  Unfortunately, the show was bogged down by constant casting changes, messy storytelling, and lower-than-expected ratings.  On the other hand, there was Ben & Kate, which was equally low-rated but much more confident in its voice.  While I initially despised The Mindy Project in the nascent days of the fall TV season, I found Ben & Kate to be charming and winsome straight from the get-go.  Even the best comedies have slow starts.  Seinfeld, Parks & Recreation, The Office, 30 Rock; they all showed rough edges in their beginning stages before smoothing things out to reach the classic status, that version of the show that we all remember.  That's what made Ben & Kate so impressive -- it was one of the strongest starts for a comedy in recent memory, up there with the likes of Arrested Development and Modern Family (which sadly stopped being good a long time ago).  If you weren't a fan of the show's voice, then it was unlikely to ever hook you, but I just loved rolling with the rhythms that creator Dana Fox and her writing staff created.

Some might read the premise of Ben & Kate or watch a scene or two and think, "Who needs another hangout comedy?  How is this one any different"?  Hangout comedies tend to allow for more character development, which is why I've always preferred them to pure joke machines.  As far as I'm concerned, there can never be too many hangout comedies when you can have so many different kinds of character combinations.  Ben & Kate didn't exactly reinvent the wheel for the genre, it just created great material within the constructs of the hangout comedy.  Because of its strong cast, who had an easy chemistry with one another, scenes had such a loose improvised feel.  Most of the funniest bits felt like casual, off-the-cuff remarks that were thrown in on the last take.  Even when the show wasn't at its funniest, it was just so much fun to watch the characters do their thing.  The show also contained some of the warmest, most organic interactions on television.  Ben and Kate Fox felt like real siblings, the kind that may get competitive from time to time, but ultimately love and support each other.  It was in the titular relationship that the show was able to create such a great balance between comedy and emotional beats.  Unlike latter-season Modern Family and The Office, the emotional material on Ben & Kate never felt forced, mostly because of how well Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson always nailed the sappy stuff.  Sometimes, episodes would end on genuinely heartwarming and goosebump-inducing moments that would just floor you with their surprising effectiveness (see: "21st Birthday" and "The Trip").

I tend to fall in line with the general critical consensus when it comes to TV shows, but Ben & Kate was one of the few on which I was out of sync with critics.  Even those who liked it weren't particularly enthusiastic about it.  Most wrote it off as "light, pleasant fun with little substance to it."  Others went as far as saying that the show doled out the same joke types, emotional beats, and generic sitcom plots.  The most baffling criticism is when people said that they didn't laugh at all at the show, yet they laughed at The Mindy Project.  I'll be the first to admit that the plotting was generally weak, relying far too much on Ben and Kate having some kind of sibling competition in the early going and too much on Kate constantly needing her status as a mother to be reaffirmed late in the first season's run.  However, I tend to think that the internet overrates plot, especially in comedy.  If I laugh at a show and it makes me happy -- and I can't stress enough just how darn happy this show made me -- then that's usually satisfaction enough.

By the time the end of 2012 rolled around, the show landed at #3 on Favorite TV Shows of the Year list, but its cancellation looked to be imminent.  Ratings were low and not very stable and Fox seemed more invested in The Mindy Project.  When the show was officially cancelled in late January, I wasn't shocked, but I was still devastated that such a promising show wouldn't live to see a second season, or even a completed first.  As the months passed, however, I found myself surprised by just how little I missed Ben & Kate.  Part of this was because the 2013 episodes were the weakest of the season and it certainly didn't help that I now had higher expectations after such a strong 2012.  Another reason could be that I also caught up on New Girl, a show that began to fill the same slot in my heart that Ben & Kate did, while also revealing some of the weaknesses of the latter.  Was it best that Ben & Kate ended when it did, before it began to stagnate?

If the 3 yet-to-be-aired-in-the-US episodes that recently surfaced on the internet are any indication, then Ben & Kate was definitely taken from us far too soon.  These installments breathe new life into a show that I briefly feared might have shown all it had to offer, delivering tons of laughs on top of a characteristically strong emotional core.  By introducing Kate and Ben's father, the show is able to explore their dynamic and help the audience understand just why they're so dependent on each other.  What's more is that their relationship with their father is a wonderfully nuanced one.  He isn't cartoonishly absent and heartless, just aloof.  Throughout his mini-arc, you can see just how much Kate and Ben long for his attention and affection, even as adults.  These new episodes also show that the writers weren't afraid of moving the plot forward.  Without getting too spoilery, the four main characters each find themselves in a different place in life by the end of the three episodes.  It's certainly a shame that we won't be able to see where the threads set up in episode 16 would have eventually led to, but the show ends on a touching note that feels satisfying nonetheless.

RIP Ben & Kate (2012-2013)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Canon #1: (500) Days of Summer (2009)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the now-defunct podcast, Extra Hot Great)

It's funny how time works, constantly re-informing the way we think about life as it progresses.  You may feel one way about something and then look at it in a completely different way just a year later.  When I first saw (500) Days of Summer in 2009, I absolutely loved it and eventually it ended up being my second or third favorite film of that year.  Since then, I hadn't rewatched it, and a part of me worried that I wouldn't like it as much as I did when I first saw it.  I worried that what 17 year old me found to be genuine emotion and insight lying under a thin layer of twee, might seem like a bit of inspiration completely obscured by a thicket of cloying cuteness to 21 year old me.

Fortunately, four years haven't done much to change my views on this wonderful little film that's all about the flaws in our perception when it comes to relationships.  Marc Webb's playful directorial touch in lockstep with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's charming script effortlessly convey the complexities of male-female interactions.  No matter how old you are or what your circumstances may be, there is probably something that you will be able to relate to in (500) Days of Summer.  Some of the scenes are so well-observed that they feel achingly real, even if they don't fall in line with your own history.  Falling in love is full of generalities, yet we all feel them with such an intense specificity, and the film's greatest strength is its ability to capture that very abstract idea.

The film's narrative is built on this nifty little trick, where the scenes are a nonlinear collection of days that chronicle the relationship between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.  But this concept is not just a gimmick; it's used to tell the story in a way that's even more powerful than following it from start to finish.  Scenes that happen later in the relationship sometimes play right before a scene that happens early in the relationship and vice versa.  Something as small as Levitt making a joke and Deschanel not responding will be informed by the proceeding scene, where they make the same joke and are blissfully content earlier in the relationship.  With this constant temporal shifting and pastiche of film styles, the film feels less like a journey through the rise and fall of the love between two people and more like whirling fragments of exuberance and heartbreak.

Initially, it seems as if (500) Days of Summer portrays the relationship as an event of mythic proportions.  Narration is used to give this central romance a storybook feel, as if every moment of existence has been leading up to their pairing.  Upon further examination, though, the film is actually a takedown of the concept of all-consuming love.  As much as we would like to think so, the "dream girl" just doesn't exist, and treating women as objects is ultimately destructive.  That's why the famous Expectation vs. Reality scene is so fantastic -- it shatters all of the fantasies that Levitt has and reveals just how much of what we've seen has been his internal perception.  The film stumbles a bit with the little sister character (played by Chloe Moretz) and its overly-neat ending, which both try to underline the film's themes and overdo it.  But when it's just letting the story organically show how much the initial rush of infatuation may blind us to what's really going on, it's about as thoughtful and emotionally affecting as anything I've ever seen.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Americans and First Seasons of Television

When I think about my favorite dramas of all time, it's rare that my favorite season is the first one.  Part of it is a personal thing, where I tend to find later seasons of shows more compelling because of my familiarity with the characters, even if the earlier seasons may be better in terms of writing and plot (prime example: I'm the only person in the world who favors season 2 of Downton Abbey to season 1).  Another reason is that, much like I pointed out with comedies in a previous post, dramas take a little bit of time to figure things out.  With comedies, however, it's more about giving the time to let the cast gel together and for the writers to find what is and isn't funny and tweak accordingly.  The slow start that dramas often face is more of a structural problem.  Despite the fact that it may not be the way that you or I consume television, shows are built upon the idea that viewers may not be tuning in every week or paying attention to every detail.

This is where the battle of serialization vs. procedural comes in.  How much serialization is too much at the outset?  If you have an overly serialized narrative right from the beginning, it's possible that the average viewer will be lost and never come back.  On the other hand, starting out with full-on procedural episodes will cause viewers like myself to get bored and drop the show.  Usually, a mix of the two elements is what new shows go for, and the difference is how each show goes about balancing the two.  There's the method that Joss Whedon seems to be fond of, where he starts out very procedural and sneaks a serialized narrative on you so subtly that you don't even notice.  Then there's the X-Files and Fringe model.  Both shows, the latter especially, became more serialized as they went along, but they still followed the format of switching between mythology-heavy episodes and monster/case-of-the-week episodes.

The Americans, FX's latest show about a couple of Soviets spies in the 1980s, is in the process of crafting one of the strongest debut seasons of a drama that I've seen in recent years, partially because of how effectively they've been managing to balance the serialized narrative and the weekly procedural stories.  Every episode has a singular objective, but these weekly missions or scenarios act as pieces that fit together to build towards moving the larger story forward.  This is an example of why I prefer the FX/AMC model of storytelling to HBO's model.  A show like Breaking Bad is heavily serialized, but it's also really good at making every episode have a clear beginning and end, a general goal that must be achieved.  On something like Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire, seasons are constructed like novels and each episode is merely chapter.  In the same way you're not going to remember what happened in chapter 13 of a book, you probably wouldn't be able to give an answer if somebody randomly decided to ask you what happened in the Game of Thrones episode "The Ghost of Harrenhal."  On the other hand, an episode like Mad Men's "Signal 30," which aired around the same time, is easy to remember because it can just be described as "the Pete Campbell short story episode."

Mad Men's episodes provide individual stories that differentiate themselves from one another while also contributing to the arc of the season, and The Americans is doing a similar thing in its construction of the season.  It'd be hard to confuse what happens in one episode with what happens in another because of the clearly delineated objectives in each, yet the show cleverly avoids feeling like a "mission of the week" show.  This is because every mission has direct implications for Elizabeth and Phillip and moves their relationship forward.  Strangely enough, the marriage/partnership between the two main characters is the serialized element of the show.  The state of their relationship is constantly shifting and reformulating, always being driven by the circumstances around them.

Having the show be as much about marriage as it is about being a spy is a really smart choice, allowing for there to be many parallels to be drawn between the two.  Marriage is built upon trust and honesty, two things that don't mesh well with being a spy.  The idea of two conflicting desires is one that drives many narratives, from Walter White's desire for power conflicting with his desire to protect his family to Amy Jellicoe's desire to be altruistic conflicting with her quest for revenge.  At its core, The Americans is about being caught between two poles.  Elizabeth and Philip's marriage is an arranged one, but over the course of their assignment there's a real affection that has grown between them.  They're devoted to each other, but they're also devoted to their duty and the goals of their nation.  "Which devotion is stronger?" looks to be the driving question of the season thus far, with the concept being literalized by introductions of Elizabeth and Phillip's past lovers.  There's been a constant building upon the theme of couples coming together and couples crumbling, as seen in the romantic troubles of Stan, an FBI agent and Elizabeth and Phillip's neighbor, who could cause problems for them in the near future.  "If all of these normal couples are falling apart," the show seems to be asking, "what chance do Liz and Phil stand"?  The decision that the two make at the end of last week's episode, to really put effort into making things work, is even more moving under the weight of this thematic portent.

If there's one flaw I could point out about the show, it's the "why now?" factor of it all.  Elizabeth and Phillip have been working undercover for 15 years, yet this discovery that they may have genuine feelings for each other is just happening now.  The alternating vulnerability and coldness that both Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys bring to their roles help make this easier to overlook; both of their killer performances just sell every moment and make anything believable.  As each episode progresses and is better than the last, I find that every element of The Americans is growing on me and being scratched into my soul.  I even like the opening credits, which many people seem to hate.  The blending of American and Soviet imagery until you can't tell what's what anymore is a great summary of a show that constantly asks just what is real and what is a cover. If The Americans continues its exponential improvement, it could quickly become one of my favorite shows on television.

I Don't Completely Understand Holy Motors (And That's Okay!)

Even before I started this blog, I always consumed any piece of pop culture -- film in particular -- with an idea of how I'd write a review of it.  Personally, I find that formulating a review in your head, even if you never write it, is helpful when trying to nail down exactly why you like or dislike something.  When I am actually planning on writing a review of something, I try not to read other reviews of it beforehand.  The reason for this is that I enjoy feeling like I came up with an idea on my own, so if I read a review where the same point is made and then I write a review saying the same thing, it doesn't feel as satisfying.  A second, more minor, reason is that there's a good chance that the review I read will bring up something that I hadn't even thought of and it'll shame me out of even wanting to write the review.

When Holy Motors first premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival, it was met with awe and adulation.  During the festival and in the subsequent months afterward, I heard it being described as a "genre-bending masterpiece" and some people would say things like "I have no idea what went on in the movie, but I loved it!"  Whenever somebody on the internet would shoot the movie down, saying that it was pretentious dreck that made no sense, I'd always see somebody scoff and talk about how that person "just didn't get it."  Clearly, as I eagerly anticipated the DVD release, there was a great deal riding on liking and "getting" the film.  So it was particularly daunting to have my "no reading reviews" policy on this one.  What if I didn't get it?  What if somebody read my clueless review and angrily thought "this dolt doesn't see that the film is obviously about the debt ceiling and why Obama is a terrorist?!"

Well I finally watched Holy Motors earlier tonight and I can't say that I have a concrete interpretation of this loopy French flick.  Even still, I came away from the film being thrilled by what I just saw.  I was so satisfied that I'm even happy with not offering any interpretations of it.  However, this blog post would be pretty boring if I didn't, so here goes nothing...

Interpretation #1: Holy Motors is Meaningless
"Meaningless."  Film enthusiasts tend to cringe at that word.  It threatens everything that defines them and their active viewing in search of a theme or universal truth.  What they often don't realize is that a meaningless film is not the same as an empty film.  Holy Motors may very well be a meaningless film, but it is so full -- full of surprise, full of wonder, full of genuine beauty.  The scattered nature of the film could be evidence to the fact that the film has no real meaning.  It's a film that features random musical interludes, scenes that constantly pull back the layer of reality, a CGI sex scene, etc.  Surely, there's no way that all of those bizarre elements can make up anything more than a collection of scenes that have nothing to do with each other, right?  Even if that is so, that doesn't take away from how fascinating each individual scene is.  Oddly enough, the first vignette that really made me sit up and pay attention was the one that ended in the CGI sex scene (which is really the closest way I could describe what actually happens).  The entire thing is at once mesmerizing and perplexing.  You find yourself wondering what is going on and why it's happening but impressed by the sheer beauty and strangeness of it all.

Interpretation #2: Holy Motors is a Meditation on the State of Film
One of the few through-lines of the film is Mr. Oscar, played by Denis Lavant, a man who is constantly changing his appearance in each scene with the help of wigs and makeup.  Somehow, it's almost as if he's inhabiting completely different people whose lives have nothing to do with any of the others.  In one scene he's pretending to be a homeless woman on the street, in the next he's a father picking up his daughter from a party and scolding her.  With every wardrobe change and wig removal, the film is continuously telling you that what you are seeing is not real, yet each story is so compelling that you completely forget for the first handful of times that the rug is about to be pulled from under you.  This idea of inhabiting a role and creating an illusion for the audience is eerily similar to the concept of acting.  The peculiar van that Mr. Oscar travels around in is filled with props that make it look like the inside of a wardrobe department.  It even has one of those mirrors with the lights around it that we see in actors' trailers.  Throughout the film's elliptical narrative, there are occasional bits of dialogue about "people no longer buying the act" and cameras becoming so small that they are almost nonexistent, that seem like a lamentation of the change of film as an art form.  Coupled with the fact that this is Carax's first feature film since 1999, it's hard not to see how this film could be an elegy for his career.

Interpretation #3: Holy Motors is About Death, Man!
Perhaps Holy Motors has an even broader scope and is explicitly about what all art is implicitly about in one way or another -- our headlong race toward the grips of death.  Early into viewing the film, I was struck by the idea that it was about conveying the entire spectrum of humanity.  There is such a diversity in the people Mr. Oscar plays that it can be read that it's life flashing before your eyes and seeing the world for what it is, whether it be full of people deranged or somber or content.  The song near the end of the film, a moving French dirge about reliving life and experiencing both joy and pain all over again, backs this theory pretty strongly.  Even the way that the vignettes are at first quicker and more extreme before settling into longer, more solemn ones feels like the slowing of age.  Death seems to be a recurring feature of each of the little stories in Holy Motors.  Illness is frequently mentioned, Mr. Oscar plays a dying man in one "role" and a murderer in another, and he even encounters a woman living out her last day.  The final scene, which is too brilliant to spoil, is all about the innate fear of fading away.

So I don't what Leos Carax really had in mind when he was making Holy Motors, but the film left me with an unease that I still haven't shaken.  Now I'm off to the rest of the internet to see how wrong I am...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Parks and Recreation is Settling Nicely Into Old Age

Recently, I had a revelation that the way most viewers feel about a comedy's lifespan is similar to the way they do about relationships.  There's that beginning stage, say season 1 or so, where you're still feeling out the show, trying to decide whether this will be the one.  By season 2, everything has clicked and you're at the height of your infatuation with the show.  This could last another season or two, but eventually you hit a point where that "newlywed" phase ends, and you just don't love the show with the same intensity as you used to. With every show, this next stage progresses differently.  Sometimes you find a new show to fall in love with (for many right now, that's New Girl) because it's fresh and it makes you feel all of the things you forgot that a show could make you feel.  Other times, you stay "happily married" with a show for its duration -- most fans of Cheers would argue that it was consistently good-to-great for the majority of its run.  The worst case scenario is when a show begins to treat you so poorly that the relationship completely corrodes and rots, to the point where you can't remember how you could ever love it in the first place (The Office).

Then there's Parks and Recreation.  I don't think many fans of the show would go as far as saying "Parks and Recreation sucks now!" but there has been some grumbling about the show lately.  It started from a few in season 4 who were displeased with the election arc, but it's even harder to ignore the cries of the show's complacency in season 5.  Like any other show, Parks is following that relationship trajectory.  Season 1 was the feeling-out phase, where the show was rough and still trying to define itself outside of being an Office clone.  For the next two years, the show was at its peak, producing two of the finest seasons of comedy ever, and hardly anybody could complain.  But eventually, like being in a relationship with a real person, that sheen begins to wear off.  You've been with them for so long and known them so intimately that nothing feels like a surprise anymore.  Little things about them start to bother you, like the way he/she speaks for you sometimes when people ask you a question.

Similarly, little things about Parks and Recreation have been starting to bother fans of the show.  Many people have complained about the show's lack of conflict.  Where before it found ways to make the constraints of bureaucracy roadblocks for the goals of the Parks Department, it now felt like the show was content with just letting everybody succeed with no real difficulty.  It's one thing to have a hangout comedy, but could a show sustain itself on the fact that every character loves each other and is warm and fuzzy all the time?  Along with the gripes about a lack of conflict, fans have been upset with the character development.  Andy's intelligence seemed to be regressing, Ron hits the same 3 beats every time in an episode, Ann's plotlines still never work, etc.

Personally, I've never been as down on the show as some of its more unhappy fans have been.  Do I feel as enthusiastic about Parks as I did in seasons 2 and 3?  Of course not, but just because the show is not at it's peak doesn't automatically mean that it is no longer good.  I think that much of the grumbling about the last season and a half are exaggerated by how familiar people have come with the show.  Parks and Recreation season 5 is not drastically less funny, it's just that we're so used to what the show does.  This is the dangerous territory that shows find themselves in when they reach this age.  Do they try to shake things up and risk betraying the core of these well-established characters or stay in the same gear and risk becoming repetitive?

Somehow, Parks has managed to take a little bit from column A and a bit from column B and retain its pluck and charm.  The show may not deliver laughs as big or emotions as raw (and even that's debatable after "Ben & Leslie"), but it's settled into a breezy, enjoyable groove.  In that sense, Parks and Recreation is like the old married couple of the comedy world.  That's not to say that I don't have problems with a few elements -- particularly Councilman Jamm, who was a weak villain along with being unfunny -- but I still consider it to be my favorite comedy on television right now, even though there are some weeks where I adore New Girl.

One edge that I would have given to season 4 over this current season is that it seemed to have a stronger stable of "minor" episodes.  Because the election storyline began to consume the back half of season 4, it's easy to forget just how many great episodes there were that felt small, like the brilliant "Trial of Leslie Knope."  Season 5, on the other hand, has seemed like it's swinging for the fences on every at-bat, as if it's aware of some impending cancellation that the viewers aren't privy to.  There had been some fantastic episodes, sure, but they all felt big and sweeping.  "Halloween Surprise," "Ron & Diane," "Ben & Leslie" -- they all were engineered to provide that all-consuming sense of crowd-pleasing joy that the show excels at.  However, the season often stumbled when trying to tell smaller stories about Pawnee, as seen in the season's two worst episodes, "Leslie vs. April" and "Correspondents' Lunch."

Last night's episode, "Bailout," was remarkable not only because it was extremely funny and heartwarming, but because it proved that the show was still able to do a "minor" episode and make it feel as satisfying as something like Ben and Leslie getting married.  It would've felt right at home in the middle of seasons 2 and 3.  Each of the storylines were enjoyable, but the most notable was the A-plot, where Leslie's desire to provide a bailout to the local movie rental store causes Ron to wake from his apathetic stupor and stand up for his Libertarian beliefs.  The storyline was an example of the show generating a solid internal conflict, which has been largely absent from the season, and did a great job of representing Leslie and Ron's ideals without making their opposition feel cruel.  Elsewhere, April and Ann bond in a particularly sweet way and Tom tries to mature a bit more by learning how to properly handle Jean Ralphio's little sister (played by the perfectly cast Jenny Slate).  Throughout the episode, I was almost taken aback by how joyous I found the whole thing to be.  It reminded me that although the newness is gone in my relationship with Parks and Recreation, it's still capable of making me feel things that no other show is able to.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Justified's Rich History is Its Greatest Weapon

In order to sustain a multi-season show with a serialized narrative, you must always be expanding the world. If not, you risk the story becoming stagnant or, even worse, running out of stories to tell altogether.  The way that most shows go about this is that they expand "outward."  Gradually throughout the seasons, new characters are introduced, old ones are jettisoned, and new areas of the setting are developed.  By nature, plot moves forward, and so too does the world of a show.  Even on a show like Lost, which in its early seasons was contained to a single island, found new aspects of the island to explore.  It's not so much that the old features of the island were gone as much as the way that we thought of the island was changed.

Over the course of three and a half seasons, Justified has fleshed out Harlan County into this living, breathing entity.  Just like we would imagine any rural southern county in reality to be, Harlan is full of intricacies, from its various factions and their myriad feuds between one another to its old urban legends.  All of the major players on the show come with their own past connections with everybody else, dating back years and sometimes generations.  It wasn't until last night's episode that it really clicked for me, but the way that Justified progresses is that it expands its world "backwards."  Every episode, it seems like we gain a little insight into the past of Harlan and its citizens, through a funny little anecdote or reminiscence about an old squabble.  Watching Justified can often feel like you're only getting a glimpse into 1% of these people's lives.  Ties run deep in Harlan, and with every new detail, those ties come into sharper focus.

In that way, the show Justified is most similar to is my favorite show of all time, The Sopranos, where tales of "the old days" were doled out more frequently than wackings.  On both shows, knowing about the pasts of the characters are essential to defining how they are in the present -- why they are so damaged, distant, and duplicitous.  Perhaps the reason why both of these shows are able to expand backwards the way that they do is because the process is so thematically tied to the shows' foundations.  The Sopranos is all about being haunted by an imagined past, one that may not be exactly what existed, but is close enough to inform the reality of the present.  Justified, with all its concerns about familial ties and the difficulties of escaping ensconced labels and habits, equally lends itself to constantly reminding us of the past and uncovering more facets of it.

I thought about this alot earlier today when I was watching Angel, as a part of my continuing obsession with Joss Whedon.  One of the episodes I watched was season 3's, "Double or Nothing."  It's a frustrating episode, because it's the type of momentum staller that seasons of Whedon shows usually have around episode 18, when they realize that there's still time to kill before the finale.  However, it's even more problematic because the main plotline revolves around learning something about Gunn that happened 7 years in the past.  An argument can be made that because Angel, the show's main character, is constantly dealing with the bad things he did in his past, that it's fair game to spring a random detail about a secondary character on the audience with no warning.  Unfortunately, the execution of it in "Double or Nothing" just feels clunky.  Because we have very little basis for Gunn's past life, suddenly learning something that is so crucial to driving the plot of the episode just doesn't feel right.  On a show like Justified, when we're introduced to a new element from the past, it feels like a natural addition to the tapestry that is the history of Harlan.

These well-established backstories can lead to some problems as well, primarily when a new detail gets introduced and it doesn't gel with what we already know.  Fans of The Sopranos might've had a problem with season 5's introduction of Tony B. (played by Steve Buscemi), Tony Soprano's childhood best friend who'd spent the past few years in jail, yet the show never made any mention of him in the previous 4 seasons.  (Of course, it's easier to roll with since The Sopranos was famous for introducing characters and pretending they'd been there all along).  With something like the introduction of Noble's Hollow in season 3 of Justified, it makes sense that we wouldn't hear about that side of town until it was completely necessary, given the racial divide that still exists within Harlan.  On the other hand, the big reveal of last night's episode isn't sitting well with some, who find that it doesn't map out correctly with the rules of the past that Justified has so thoroughly established.

This meticulous attention to the past is the vein from which Graham Yost and the writing staff of Justified draw much of the conflict each season.  Their rich histories give each character on the show a sense of community; one that constantly seems to find itself at odds with outsiders of some kind.  Season 4 in particular has been leaning heavily on the past to inform the present -- in fact, the main mystery this year revolves around something that happened over 30 years ago.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the distant memory of this event, all of Harlan County is thrust into action by old feuds and transgressions revisiting.  Who knows whether the fraught past of these characters will lead to a grim and short future, but it's responsible for a rollicking and tense season of television.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Happy Casimir Pulaski Day

I'm not much of a crier when it comes to music.  Maybe it's because I tend to not be a lyrics person, favoring the instrumentation of songs over the words.  Or maybe I'm just a heartless, soulless bastard.  Even if I do get a little teary-eyed, it's usually due more to outside circumstances than the actual content of the song.  ("Call Me Maybe" isn't sad, I was just having a bad day!)  However, the one song that makes me verklempt on a pretty consistent basis is Sufjan Stevens' "Casimir Pulaski Day."

Illinois, Sufjan's most universally praised 2005 album, is a towering achievement; an ode to the storied Midwest state featuring a litany of brilliant and beautiful songs.  It's an album that's clearly the work of an artist at his peak and it's never more apparent than on "Casimir Pulaski Day," which starts with spare beauty and slowly builds to a cathartic conclusion.  The story of the song, loosely based on the real life of a friend of his, is about a girl who's dying of bone cancer.  Left with a terminal diagnosis, the speaker and everybody around him is left to watch her waste away.  There's such a helplessness and desperation that fills every line, which contain mundane but evocative details.  When tragedy strikes, you somehow become hyper-aware of everything -- an untucked shirt, untied shoes.  Yet at the same time, the sequence of time is a blur.  Sufjan recalls details in a frenzied order; one minute he's recollecting the two together in her room, the next he's recalling a moment where he breaks down in a bathroom.

Sufjan Stevens is a famously religious man and he laces his lyrics with Biblical references and a strong sense of faith.  From the outside, that can seem like a big turn-off, but what makes his songs so universal is that his faith could be substituted for any abstract form of love and also because his faith is not blind.  Some of his best songs are undercut with a quiet doubt that's niggling its way to the surface.  Doubt is indeed very prevalent in the most powerful passages of "Casimir Pulaski Day," as this event sweeps up the whole community, whose united efforts ultimately prove to be futile:

"Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens"

Eventually, his friend passes away, and Sufjan still holds strong sensory memory to the first Monday of March, when she finally goes.  When somebody you love dies, you're overcome with a flurry of emotions, winding and twisting inside of you.  Anger and doubt begin to settle in.  What kind of God would let this happen?, you ask.  "Casimir Pulaski Day" closes on my favorite passage, which perfectly encapsulates the doubt that the speaker feels when he's supposed to take comfort in his faith:

"All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes..."

The song lasts for another 90 seconds or so, with an instrumental coda.  In a way it feels like a funeral procession, its swelling horns contrasting Sufjan's defeated tone.  The song plays on, the senses linger, but she is gone.

The Carrie Diaries is a 15 Year Old Girl's (and 21 Year Old Man's) Dream

AnnaSophia Robb as young Carrie Bradshaw

I often say that if some strange disease were to wipe away everyone on earth older than the age of 12, all children would need is Pixar films and Avatar: the Last Airbender and they'd be fine.  Granted, they'd probably know too much about balloon houses and waterbending and not enough about scavenging food to realistically last in this imagined apocalyptic scenario, but you get what I mean.  The magic and depth of Pixar films have been well-documented, but Avatar: the Last Airbender is essentially the television equivalent of them.  When you strip away the impressively serialized narrative and the breathtaking action choreography, Avatar: the Last Airbender essentially teaches kids everything they need to know about life, love, friendship, responsibility, good/evil, heartbreak, etc.  It's probably too early to make any declarations (or devote 1000 words to it), but I think The Carrie Diaries may be doing the same thing for teens.

Of course, there are many barriers to entry with The Carrie Diaries originating from both ends.  Fans of Sex and the City, to which The Carrie Diaries is a prequel, may be offended by the way that the show plays fast and loose with the continuity of its originator.  Those who were never fans of Sex and the City in the first place have no incentive to watch the early life of a character whom they didn't care about as an adult.  It's a shame that there are so many preconceived misgivings about The Carrie Diaries, because millions of people are missing out on a fun, charming, and really refreshing show.  Listen, I didn't like Sex and the City much either, so I'm just as surprised to find The Carrie Diaries to be the best teen show in a very long time.

Central to the appeal of the show is AnnaSophia Robb, who plays teenage Carrie Bradshaw, caught between her suburban home life in Connecticut and the glamorous pull of Manhattan.  Robb's performance is a star-making turn, imbuing young Carrie with a level of warmth and endearment largely absent from her adult counterpart.  With a lead as talented as Robb, it'd be easy for her to feel above the material if the writing wasn't up to par, but Carrie Bradshaw is a surprisingly strong female character, especially in the landscape of current teen shows.  There are certainly some well-drawn teenagers in dramas, like Dana Brody on Homeland, but I can't remember the last time one has been as insanely likable as Carrie is.  She constantly makes the exact opposite decision we've been trained to expect from the lead character of a CW show.  It's kind of amazing the way that the writers have been able to manage to find drama for a character who's smart enough to not really engage in petty conflicts or play games with guys.  On paper, "Carrie reacts to almost every obstacle with level-headedness and aplomb" doesn't sound terribly interesting, but eight weeks in and the concept still hasn't gotten old.

Part of why the show is able to continually depict Carrie as a logical, normal teenage girl is because it rarely ever scandalizes any of the elements that these kinds of shows usually scandalize.  The show treats sex, alcohol, and drugs with the casualty that real teens do.  Consequently, the show's worst episode was the 4th episode, where it turned ecstasy use and a character's closeted sexual orientation into an after-school special.  Most impressively, The Carrie Diaries is one of the most sex-positive teen shows on television right now.  When you think about it, this should come as no surprise, since it is the prequel to Sex and the City, a show that is famous for revolutionizing the way in which women speak openly about sex.  Even still, it's remarkable to have a show with younger characters that neither villainizes nor objectifies sex.  The show's lax attitude about sex leads to some problems -- a statutory rape storyline is one of the weakest, simply because it never feels as wrong as it should -- but overall, it's pretty realistic to what I've experienced.

This lack of scandalization is a problem for some, who accuse it of being too low-stakes, but I like how small these initial episodes feel.  The show is not perfect, not even close.  Overall, the plotting is pretty shaky -- many storylines isolated from Carrie seem pretty useless, they still haven't gotten a good handle on Carrie's little sister Dorritt or her mentor Larissa, and the writers often have trouble concluding an episode in a way that isn't completely dumb or goofy.  However, what the show lacks in plot it makes up for in relationship building.  In general, there's a nice sense of warmth that presides over the interactions between characters, giving everything a more real feeling.  Carrie and her two best friends feel like people who would actually be best friends, with their inside jokes and level of support that they provide one another.  Additionally, Carrie's relationship with her father is refreshing, given how many times we've seen the "angsty teen, parent who doesn't understand" formula.  Carrie and her father often find themselves in conflict with each other, but the state of their relationship never seems like its in jeopardy, and she more frequently serves as a consultant for dealing with the very moody Dorritt.

Ratings aren't great for The Carrie Diaries, so who knows if the show can survive past the first season.  Perhaps the low-stakes nature of the show is too quiet for a network that's increasingly becoming vampire and action oriented.  Tragically, the fact that the show is unlike almost anything else on tv is what makes it so appealing and also so unpopular.  If we ever get to see it live to a season 2 or 3, I wouldn't be surprised if it became one of the great teen shows of our generation.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Something is Rotten in the State of Scotland

What is it about Scotland that causes its bands to be so morose?  There must be something about the breeze that rolls in from the harsh moors that puts a chill over its denizens, because there's another band doling out its unique brand of melancholy around every corner.  There's Camera Obscura, whose catchy tunes underpinning lovelorn tales of woe are a solemn comfort for any season.  Belle and Sebastian have been churning out their bookish songs about outcasts and isolated youths for almost two decades now.  And you don't even need to dig under the layers of distorted guitar in The Twilight Sad's songs, the despondency is right there in the title.  Of course, this theory works much better if you ignore Franz Ferdinand, a bunch of Scots whose music comes packed to the corners with exuberance (it's the year 2013, so most people do ignore Franz Ferdinand).

Frightened Rabbit, another member of the squad of sadsack Scottish songsters, returned a few weeks ago with their 4th album, Pedestrian Verse.  They're no strangers to traveling down into the muck for their song subjects, most famously in "The Modern Leper", the opening track on 2008's The Midnight Organ Fight, which uses leprosy as a catch-all metaphor for mental illness, addiction, etc.  In the four and a half years that have passed since the penning of that song, the band's sound has changed slightly -- trading in their former ragged and ramshackle nature for more polished and expansive sonics -- but their hangdog worldview remains.

Many have said that if The Midnight Organ Fight was like a novel in album form, then Pedestrian Verse more closely resembles a collection of short stories.  Like a great short story collection, Pedestrian Verse has a thematic through-line that carries from song to song.  "Oh, there's something wrong with me," lead singer Scott Hutchinson explicitly sings on one song, but it's hard not to miss that pervasive attitude in all 12 tracks.  The album does such an effective job of conveying that sense of something being broken inside of you, something rotten within, even if you don't know what it is.  Each song contains anxiety and a sense of unease that invades your ears and permeates throughout your body.  You can't put plaster on a shattered bone, the album claims, and makes clear that this ache is not one that is a quick fix meant to subside any day now.  With songs like "Dead Now," the album exists in a world where the universe is against you, but you're also against yourself.

If Frightened Rabbit were only capable of producing this lyrical doom and gloom, it would become a suffocating listening experience.  Fortunately, they are smart enough to match these grim stories about the downtrodden to rousing songs with meaty guitars.  It is certainly not a wheel that they've invented, this "sad lyrics, ferocious instrumentation" technique, but the use of it in Pedestrian Verse creates an even larger sense of vitality and desperation.  Plus, for all of Hutchinson's morose tendencies, his real power as a lyricist comes from the fact that there's a glimmer of optimism buried deep beneath the surface.  There may not be a promise of positive change, but there's always the hope of it.  The album ends, perhaps fittingly after all of the moping, with the line, "We've still got hope so I think we'll be fine/In these disastrous times, disastrous times."  As much as it often may seem so, all is not lost.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Can't Escape the Failings of the Book

Despite the fact that it came out in 1999, Stephen Chbosky's coming of age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower suddenly became very popular amongst my peers back when I was a 9th grader in 2006.  Like The Smiths or Sandman comics, the novel is one of those things that exist in cycles to greet every new generation of 15 year olds trudging through the loneliness and confusion of their burgeoning adolescence.  Even back in 9th grade, I had an incessant need to keep my finger on the pulse, so I saw that everybody was reading and loving this book and I thought "I'm a depressed teen and people seem to really like this book.  I should check it out."

Unfortunately, the general taste and recommendations of my friends let me down.  I went in expecting a story that was going to "change my life" and reconnect these threads inside of me that felt like they were increasingly coming loose, but instead I got a poorly written novel that painted the adolescent experience in very broad strokes.  Chbosky manages to churn out a passage or two that are brimming with insight and pathos, but for the most part, he peddles flat cliches and empty platitudes (such as the "we are infinite" quote that has become so famous since the book's release).  Wrapping the story in its epistolary format doesn't help either -- the gimmick serves very little purpose and just makes the protagonist's overwrought musings seem even more stilted than they would normally sound.

So it came as quite a shock that once the film adaptation, also written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, was released, it was met with general acclaim.  The adulation that the book got from my 15 year old classmates was one thing, but now the largely faithful-to-the-book adaptation was getting praised by 45 year old critics.  Was I missing something when I first read the book?  Did I judge it too harshly for not perfectly matching the way I experienced angst as a teenager?  After watching the film, I'd say that the answer to both is a resounding no.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower film tries its best to bolster the weak foundation of the book with a winsome cast and an evocative soundtrack, but its insistence on hewing as closely to the source material as possible ends up being the biggest downfall.  Logan Lerman as Charlie, the blank-slate of a main character in the film, plays the role with an endearing level of fragility, yet he never makes Charlie feel like more than a composition of every single meek and isolated teen protagonist imaginable.  The world that Charlie inhabits, where outcasts are the coolest, most misunderstood, Smiths-loving misfits and jocks are brutes who just don't "get it," feels like a largely outdated and generic construct.  Layered on top of that is the melodrama that presides over the whole affair, constantly trying to find the small beauty in these big sweeping pains and tragedies, but completely missing the mark.

One of the biggest points of contention in the novel, even among its most ardent fans, is near the end, where a past trauma plays a significant role in Charlie's growth as a character.  In the book, this reveal is just another mawkish element to pile on top of the mountain of melodrama that the story had built up over the course of a few hundred pages.  Fortunately, because the film doesn't focus heavily on the epistolary nature of the book, it's able to devote more time to subtle character building and the third act feels like less of a left-field turn.  However, the implications of the development are as troubling as they are in the novel.  Essentially, the film offers this trauma up as an explanation of why Charlie is the way he is, which is just a lazy and inexcusable device.

Central to the story of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the theme of the importance of the teenage experience.  Even though you may become an adult and find the intensity with which you felt emotions -- both pain and pleasure -- to be trivial, in the moment these stories matter.  However, by making Charlie's story so drastic, the film contradicts the relatability of the small teenage experience.  There are enough wonderful performances and memorable songs choices to trick you into thinking that you're actually feeling something real, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower inevitably becomes empty the more you think about it.

A Smile and a Ribbon: Bunheads Tackles a Worn-Out Story With Surprising Grace

"The bigger my toothy grin is, the smaller my troubles grow
The louder I say I'm happy, the more I believe it so" 
-Patience & Prudence 'A Smile and a Ribbon'

When making a show about teens, there are a few boxes that you have to check in terms of ground that is going to be covered.  Perhaps the most common of all them though is the subject of characters losing their virginity.  Like any well-established trope that's been done frequently and for many years, there are only so many broad ways in which you can classify the methods of execution of these storylines.  One fairly common category, which felt especially popular for teen shows in the 90s, was the couple who waited for a long time and finally decided to seal the deal.  But for every David and Donna on 90210, there's the story of a pairing where the choice was a mistake and things don't end so happily.  Either way, both avenues share the themes of anticipation and regret and the idea that losing your virginity "changes" you in some way.

Even the two shows that did my favorite tackling of the virginity story, Buffy and Friday Night Lights, don't stray too far from that general template of storytelling.  Buffy, a show that always used its supernatural elements as a metaphor for growing up and the general teen experience, found its most potent metaphor in the middle of season 2 when Buffy loses her virginity to Angel.  When you strip away all of the plot elements and mumbo jumbo about gypsy curses and losing souls, the arc is really just about sleeping with a guy who turns out to be different than you initially expected him to be.

Friday Night Lights, on the other hand, handled the topic of teen sex on multiple occasions through its five season run, but perhaps its most famous episode about the subject is the stunning season 1 episode, "I Think We Should Have Sex," in which nobody even ends up having sex.  In that episode, it's all about the anticipation and hand-wringing over the big event between newly formed couple Matt and Julie.  Once Julie's parents catch wind of this idea, it becomes more about the how they react to and handle the situation.  Despite the slight spin the episode puts on the structure of The Virginity Plot, it still explores the idea of sex irrevocably changing you and just the idea of having regrets is enough to postpone the deed from being done.

Sexuality and virginity weighed heavily on the mind of the final two episodes of this season of Bunheads.  Initially, when it was introduced in the penultimate episode, it seemed like a bit of a throwaway plot; a planted seed to be harvested at some point in season 2 (which, at this point, we don't even know is going to happen).  However, the finale showed that this idea isn't going away as Sasha, masking her own anxiety about taking the leap with her boyfriend, forces the rest of the three girls to dive headfirst into a crash course in sexual education.  For a while, it seemed like the show wasn't going to be up to the task of tackling this topic with the depth and nuance I hoped it would.  Bunheads is a show that seems to exist in its own little universe, where everything is breezy and low-stakes, and it would be easy to imagine the show approaching this episode with the same level of quirk and light charm with which it approaches every other episode.  And indeed I was a bit disappointed with the execution at first.  The girls seemed a little too naive and innocent about sex (I was 17 recently -- 17 year olds know alot more about sex than Sasha, Ginny, Boo, and Melanie seemed to).

At a certain point, the episode slowly and continually begins to show its hand, with creator Amy Sherman-Palladino revealing a sly depth to the proceedings.  The entire theme of the episode is about the harsh realities of adulthood, exhibited by when the girls follow Michelle to her audition and see just how ruthless the process can be.  Being a professional dancer, much like having sex, is something that you can't just know about from hearing stories and reading books.  It can seem exciting in the abstract, but frightening when made real.  These girls are set on a collision course between adolescence and adulthood, at no point more apparent than in one of the highlight scenes of the episode, a montage set to Patience & Prudence's "A Smile and a Ribbon".  Juxtaposed together are the girlish tone of the song and the womanly images of the bunheads standing in front of a rack of condoms at the store or checking out books on sex from the library, a perfect representation of the mysterious void they find themselves within.  All the while, the show is taking a very sex-positive stance on the matter, a nice change from the "sex = BAD" tone in teen shows of days past.

Upon further inspection, "A Smile and a Ribbon" seems to serve another purpose.  The lyrics I quoted at the top of this post could be interpreted as optimistic -- as changing your fortune by the sheer force of effort, but to me there's something so wonderfully sad about having to will yourself to be happy.  Throughout the episode, the focus was being put on Sasha and Boo, who actually have boyfriends, as the ones confronting virginity head on.  However, near the end, in the most gutwrenching scene of the episode, Ginny reveals to Michelle that she already had sex with her crush, the aloof and mysterious Frankie, a week ago and he hasn't called her back since.  Not only does this device allow Sherman-Palladino to sidestep the issue of tackling the idea of virginity directly, but the moment with Ginny packs even more of a punch because it happened offscreen.  All this time, we've been watching Ginny have to deal with her friends fretting over having sex (and if you watch the episode a second time, there's some killer foreshadowing in a scene or two), when she's already had her heart broken.

Throughout the first (and maybe last) season of Bunheads, I've been surprised by just how confident this show has become in its voice.  Sherman-Palladino's odd sense of humor can still grate on me from time to time, but for all the quirk that she throws in every episode, she really does know how to wallop the viewer emotionally.  Bunheads is a breath of fresh air, and I'd be sad to see a show that has basically no male main characters go, especially when it found a new way to approach an old topic, simply by checking all of the boxes at once.