Sunday, April 21, 2013

"The First Time" Is a Rousing Teen Movie Success

My high school experience was pretty uneventful.  I was relatively well-liked as far as I know, but my social life never really extended much outside of my school's halls.  Instead of hanging out with friends or whatever it is that young people do, my after-school hours were mostly spent listening to music and reading books in my room.  I didn't drink, so I was never really invited to parties either.  When all is said and done, if I ever become somebody important, I imagine that my high school years will be glossed over in the story of my life.

I tend to latch on to tv shows and movies about teens, partially because I find that they are a way to fulfill all of the experiences that I lacked growing up.  There's a sense of emotional intensity during adolescence that dulls as you grow up, and it's an odd comfort to experience those feelings vicariously through stories.  I'm so fond of teen shows and movies that I even watched Degrassi, a show that exists at the very bottom of the barrel of quality, much longer than I should have.  And that's the problem with the "teen" genre -- far too many of the shows that exist within it simply suck.  Many are written by adults who can't seem to remember their teenage experience and that they weren't idiots, so they dish out material to today's youth under the assumption that they are, in fact, the lowest common denominator.  Even good teen movies and tv shows tend to be a bit unrealistic.  Films like Mean Girls, Easy A, and Superbad are terrific, but they all offer up heightened versions of what high school is really like.

The First Time, Jon Kasdan's 2012 Sundance darling, initially starts out feeling like it's going to do very little to differentiate itself from any other generic, inauthentic teen movie.  The film's opening, which shows a Friday night party in full force before transitioning to the two protagonists, Dave and Aubrey (Dylan O'Brien and Britt Robertson), meeting in an alley outside of the party, is easily the weakest part of the film.  Everything, from the stiff meet-cute of the leads to the homogenized nature of the party, feels a bit too generic.  Luckily, the film begins to gain confidence, and over the course of about 98 minutes, The First Time reveals itself to be an honest, earnest, big-hearted little film.

Most of the success of the film can be boiled down to its atmosphere and characterization.  Despite some stumbling out of the gate, everything afterward just feels right.  It quickly takes on that Friday night feeling of wandering around, just waiting for the next chapter of the evening to present itself to you.  Like I said, I never got invited to many parties in high school, but the few I did go to were always less about getting drunk and doing the craziest thing possible, and more about everybody cordoning off into different groups and having rambling conversations.  Where most films go for the former's more exciting prospects, The First Time stays grounded in the truth of the latter.  All of the interactions between characters feel so believable too.  There's an ounce of reality that anyone who can remember being young will find, from the rhythms of speech to the body language.  It's hard not to catch a bit of a contact high from the hypnotically beautiful mood of these establishing scenes.

There are never any bones made about the uniqueness of the plot here either.  Straight from the beginning, the formula of the guy (O'Brien) who pines after one girl (the surprisingly great Victoria Justice) and gets advice from another girl (Robertson) is laid out and you pretty much have a sense of where it's going to end up by the time the credits roll.  But if the structure feels formulaic, it's only because it falls in line with the larger point of the film, which is all about young people feeling depth in platitudes and wrestling with things that seem self-evident.  Plus, the joy is in how the film gets to these checkpoints.  The movie plays out a bit like a young Before Sunrise, building its central relationship through warm, tender conversations.  Unlike other films that throw out obstacles to keep two people apart, ultimately the only thing standing in the way of Dave and Aubrey is themselves.  Both are nervous and neurotic, and they let their own uncertainties and insecurities seep out.  All of this is wrapped up in the aching sadness of the end of a school year, which is always a time where one looks back wistfully on every missed opportunity.

Much of the credit belongs to Robertson and O'Brien, who keep the film afloat with their incredible performances.  They have great chemistry and both sell the intensity of their characters' rapid connection.  The film does a bit too much stalling and sweating near the finish line, but it eventually pulls itself together for a rousing conclusion.  It's a shame that it never got a wider release, because I could see a crowd-pleaser like this being a huge hit.  Nevertheless, The First Time will go down as a minor classic of the genre in my eyes.

The Strokes' "Comedown Machine" Brings a Bit of the Old and a Bit of the New

When The Strokes' 4th album, Angles, came out in 2011, it was after months and months of anticipation on my part.  After all, this was one of my favorite bands, responsible for the millennial masterpiece Is This It and the almost as brilliant Room on Fire.  The last time we'd heard from them was 2006's First Impressions of Earth, a great but bloated album that showed the band sloughing off some of its vintage scuzz for a slicker sound.  Many fans and critics felt less positive toward First Impressions of Earth than I did, so the release of Angles was not only looked upon as a return from a 5 year gap, but also an opportunity for the band to make a "comeback" and prove that they weren't another product of the derelict New York rock revival scene of the early 2000s.

Naturally, the album was never going to hold up to such a weight of expectation.  I liked Angles quite a bit when it first came out.  There were some botched ideas on there ("Call Me Back") but songs like "Under Cover of Darkness" and "Taken For a Fool" were some of the best material the band's ever produced.  Despite all of that, by the time the end of the year rolled around, the album failed to make my top 20.  In the two years that have passed since the album's release, I find myself rarely ever revisiting it, especially the lesser songs.  Often, I find myself wondering why the album had such little impact and a part of me does feel like it's because of the burden of the idea of the "comeback."  Angles is a good album, it's just not "first album in 5 years" good.

So maybe Comedown Machine is more enjoyable simply because there was less pressure surrounding this release, both from fans and the band.  Coming merely two years after Angles, there's less of a sense that the world was feverishly clamoring for a new Strokes album.  The band did very little press before the release of this album and it almost felt like Comedown Machine was quietly placed into the world, especially compared to the huge buzz that surrounded each of their previous albums.  Even I -- a superfan -- was just thinking of it as "another Strokes album."  This allowed for it to be listened to not as an event, but as just an album.

Perhaps all of this theorizing is useless and the reason Comedown Machine works so well is because it's a better, more interesting album.  The Strokes have always been traditionalists, but here we see the band begin to stretch their boundaries a bit.  Structurally, they don't deviate from the classic verse-chorus-solo format, but sonically the band jumps between various influences.  The highlight of the album is "Welcome to Japan," which is perhaps the most purely danceable song they've ever made, starting out as a slick and slinky rocker before hitting its surging new wave chorus.  Elsewhere, Julian Casablancas displays his talent for writing ballads with "Chances," a moody synth-heavy song that allows him to show off his impressive vocal range.  But perhaps the most interesting and different song on the album is the closer, "Call It Fate, Call It Karma," which feels and sounds like it exists within that moment between dreaming and consciousness.  Not all of the band's attempts to change things up are a complete success though.  "One Way Trigger" is catchy enough, but eventually becomes too chirpy, and "80s Comedown Machine" could stand to be a minute shorter.

Luckily, the rest of the album finds the band navigating their comfort zone with the same aplomb and precision that they've become known for.  I've always described their sound as "five perfect things happening all at once," and the album's two opening songs, "Tap Out" and "All the Time" recall that classic Strokes tightness.  Both are dynamic songs, the probing bass in lockstep with the workmanlike drums giving each of them a strong rhythm to support the indelible melodies.  Meanwhile, "50/50," an absolute barn-burner of a song, is all rough edges and Casablancas even uses his old school vocal filter on the song.  Somehow, the band has always managed to create songs that at once feel familiar and fresh at the same time, recalling a nostalgia for something that one has never actually felt.  In that way, these songs are something of a comfort and the album grows on you the more you listen to it.

More than anything though, this album feels like the first truly fun Strokes album.  Even at their best, the band always had a layer of chilly remove from the songs they were producing.  Although it added to the mystique of the band, it could be easy for some to find their songs cold and mechanical.  You wouldn't find that here, as the band manages to keep that innate cool while adding a sense of warm looseness to the proceedings as well.  Songs like "Slow Animals " and "Partners in Crime" are just a blast to listen to, with soaring choruses that are as catchy and fun as anything you'll hear from The Strokes.  "Happy Endings," throws everything at the wall and sees what sticks and miraculously, everything does.  Handclaps, video game-esque guitars, and a "baby baby" chorus litter the song, yet it never falters under the weight of it's own goofiness.  It doesn't sound anything like the band that put out the often labored Angles just two years ago.

That's a good thing too, because I was genuinely worried that Angles would be the band's last album after hearing about all of the behind the scenes details surrounding it.  With reports of Julian Casablancas recording his parts separately from the rest of the group and Nick Valensi stating that they had "a better album in them," it seemed like the boys were tired and really, who could blame them?  They were hailed as the saviors of rock and roll at the turn of the century and they released a debut album so classic that everything afterward has been deemed a minor disappointment.  With Comedown Machine, their final album under their RCA contract, it seems as if the band is at the start of the second act of their career, one where they settle into quietly making great albums without the pressure of having to churn out a masterpiece.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Canon #2: Mad Men - "The Suitcase" (2010)

My favorite image in the history of ever

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)

There's a frequent occurrence in my life that I have dubbed "Night Madness."  It's a term I use to describe what often happens to me at night when I'm trying to go to sleep.  My brain decides that since it doesn't have to devote its energy to walking and talking, instead of getting some sleep, it's going to reallocate that energy to fretting over everything.  And I mean everything.  Past mistakes and embarrassments, current predicaments, and future prospects all meld together to form a miasma of stress that clouds my brain and prevents it from any hopes of peace.  Eventually, all of this stressing just spins out of control, to the point where I feel like I'm going to scratch off my skin or that my brain will pop out of my skull at any moment.

Mad Men's classic episode, "The Suitcase," is Night Madness in televisual form.  Plopped right in the middle of the show's towering 4th season -- the 7th episode of each season is usually known to be the most experimental -- "The Suitcase" serves as both a detour from the action of the season and also a ruminative inspection of everything that has happened up to this moment.  It's a big night for America, as the upcoming fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston is poised to be the event of the year.  But it's also an important night for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with the deadline for their Samsonite ad looming.  The episode could be classified as a bottle episode, choosing to mainly focus on Don and Peggy as they toil away on a pitch in the dead hours of the night.  Incidentally, there's also a confluence of circumstances in both Don and Peggy's lives too that add to the stakes of the night.  Don receives an urgent message from California that's likely to be about Anna's deteriorating health and he's dreading making the call.  It's also Peggy's birthday and she's got big dinner plans with her fiancee.

One of the joys of long-running serialized television, and why I vastly prefer television to movies, is that it allows for a grand construction of character arcs and relationships.  There's this slow accumulation of information that you gain about everyone and if you have a show as good as Mad Men, which constantly calls back events from the past, it can be extremely satisfying to see small details pay off in big ways.  Part of the reason why "The Suitcase" is one of my favorite television episodes of all time (really, I'd only put Buffy's "The Body" and maybe an episode or two of The Sopranos above it) is because it's all about the payoff.  Everything we see is a result of things that have happened to these characters over the past three and a half seasons.  The main tension running through the episode is one that's been present throughout the whole season: Don and Peggy's growing distance.  Despite the fact that just at the end of the third season, Don was begging Peggy to come back and work for him, he's been unnecessarily cruel to her in the 6 episodes that come before this one.  Don's lack of appreciation, coupled with Peggy feeling like he stole her idea for what eventually became the award-winning Glocoat commercial and Duck Phillips courting her to work with him, are all ingredients contributing to the stew that is Don and Peggy's estrangement.

From there, "The Suitcase" lets the tension explode.  Don and Peggy argue, and the amazing performances by Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss -- neither of which won an Emmy that year -- really sell the raw emotions of these two fighting about everything that's been bothering them over the last few months (and years).  There's a weird flow of moods to these arguments too -- one second they're bickering and the next second they cool off a bit, only to get into a bigger fight.  Through these scenes, we get to see just how much they're tied to each other.  Both are guarded individuals, consumed by their work, and drawn together because of their mutual understanding of one another and the things they know about each other that nobody else does.  The episode makes a point of constantly giving Peggy the chance to choose between Don and something else and she always chooses Don.  When she has multiple opportunities to just leave Don to be a grouch all by his lonesome, she decides to stay with the man who gave her a career instead of being with her family.  Later, when Duck shows up and scuffles with Don, she could easily leave with Duck, who seems to appreciate her talent more, but she still sides with her old mentor.

The Don and Peggy relationship is my favorite thing about Mad Men.  Sure, I love its beautifully glacial pace and its examination of how people react to the societal changes barreling towards them, but the show would lose a significant amount of its heart without Don and Peggy on the fringe, occasionally having a moment of solidarity.  Much like Peggy does, all I want to see is Don approve of her and voice his respect for her.  This constant push and pull between Don's callousness and his need for Peggy doesn't seem like it would be fertile territory for dramatic tension, but it works immensely.  At the same time, if the balance veers too far in any given direction, then the whole foundation falls apart.  I always joke that I will stop watching the show if Don and Peggy ever kiss, and even though I'd never quit my favorite show on television, I'd probably never forgive it either.  Luckily, Matt Weiner has such a perfect command of the boundaries of their relationship that I trust him not to.  Platonic friendships are hard to come by on television, but Weiner has crafted one of the greatest of all time, and some of the best moments of "The Suitcase" come when Don and Peggy directly assess the state of their relationship.

Once all the fighting falls away, the episode slows down and takes on a more languid feel.  The two begin to open up to one another about their parents' deaths, relationship troubles, Don's experience in the war, Peggy giving up her baby at the end of season 1, etc.  There's a real somberness to these scenes and the script and performances perfectly capture the rhythm of a conversation between two individuals wearily commiserating in the dwindling hours of the night.  On a show that's built around opaque interactions, it's refreshing to see the rare moment of clarity that Don and Peggy share with each other.  The night is set to the backdrop of Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston, two titans battling until only one is standing, so how beautiful is it that Don and Peggy entered the night at odds and came away with a new appreciation of one another?

Night Madness is full of sorrow and regret and rage.  It's terrifying and it hurts.  What's worse is that you go through it all alone.  "The Suitcase" finds beauty in the idea that you don't have to go through it by yourself.  The sadness will still come, but it's so much less painful to suffer through when you have somebody to share it with.  Don may know that Anna, the woman who knew him the most, is probably dead, but he sees her ghost while laying in the lap of Peggy, the only other woman who understands him.  "Open or closed?," Peggy asks Don the next morning in regards to his office door, when the haze of the night has ended and the reality of daylight has set in.  They may never speak of the night before ever again, much like they never previously spoke about the things they told each other in the moment, but they'll always have that shared experience.  "Open," Don says.