Sunday, June 30, 2013

Laura Marling's Sprawling "Once I Was An Eagle"

Laura Marling's age has always been the big talking point when it comes to her music.  She released her debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, in 2008 when she was only 17 and it was as assured and confident as anything a 30 year old could put out.  But instead of greeting it with open arms and warm adulation, some critics looked at it with a skeptical eye.  Her music was weathered and world-weary, and those who didn't like the album usually did so because they questioned the authenticity of somebody her age speaking with such raw jadedness.  These criticisms have mostly subsided, partially through the sheer power of Marling's prolificness, and over the course of her releasing 4 albums in the last 5 years, she's only gotten better and more polished.  Marling has gained relative popularity in the UK, her native country, but she hasn't made as big of a splash here, which is an unfortunate bit of irony, given that Once I Was An Eagle might be the Great American Folk Record that's been needed for a long time.

The album opens up with four songs that feel more like one, a sweeping entity with movements that shift and blend into one another.  It's fitting that a song called "Breathe" concludes this opening tetralogy, because the whole thing feels like a gigantic exhalation to start the album off, establishing its themes of love and loss and the hardened nature that results from it.  Eagle is about a clash of opposing compulsions; a toughened exterior masking a soft, damaged center.  On "I Was An Eagle," Marling steels herself, singing "Oh, I will not be a victim of romance / I will not be a victim of circumstance / chance or circumstance or any man / who could get his dirty little hands on me."  If that installment serves as the peak of emotion in the four-part introduction, then "You Know" takes a more measured step back, looking upon a separation with numb wisdom: "We were a child then I'm sure / but if we were a child then we are children / no more."  The album kind of works as Marling empowering herself to overcome men and heartbreak, but she wisely doesn't paint herself solely as the victim.  "Breathe" is all about how mutually destructive the relationship in question could be, plainly stating "How cruel you were to cruel I am to you."

Those four songs serve to inform the rest of the album, directly continuing with "Master Hunter," a ferocious, percussive song that's a splash of cold water in the face after the brooding acoustics that come before it.  After all of the trudging through the battlefield of failed love, she comes out on the other side hardened, snarling "I cured my skin, now nothing gets in."  Much of the tension on Eagle comes from this spectrum of calcification, which constantly shifts its position on the dial.  That's what makes songs like "Little Love Caster," the hypnotic Spanish-guitar inflected lullaby that follows, so interesting.  When the chorus hits and she says "I can't seem to say / 'I'd like you to stay'," it could have two different meanings: 1. Further affirmation of her emotional callousness or 2. She's become so used to being hardened that when she does find something real, she can't bring to herself to admit it.  Later, "Undine" also skates on this precarious middle ground.  It's a song about all-consuming love (notice how "undine" sounds like "undying"), yet it's one the few songs on the album that doesn't seem to be spoken from Marling's perspective.

With the exception of "Master Hunter," the first half sticks pretty closely to folk tropes, but the back half of the album is where it really begins to stretch out.  Back-to-back songs "Where Can I Go?" and "Once" both liven things up by adding an organ to the mix.  The latter in particular is a really soulful song; ironic, given that the lyrics almost function as an origin story for the guardedness exhibited on the rest of Once I Was An Eagle.  "Once, once is enough to break you / Once, once is enough to make you think twice / About laying your love out on the line," she forlornly sings, and it's one of the rawest points on the album.  This entire section is the highlight of the album, as "Pray For Me," Eagle's best song, comes right after.  It's a surging, galvanizing that just builds and builds until it's ready to topple over at any second.  Throughout many of the songs one the album, there's a recurring riff that appears in slightly different forms, and I've seen a few people complain that it gets repetitive, but I think it ties things together beautifully and it's used most effectively on "Pray For Me."

If the first quarter of the album chronicle the dissolution of a relationship, and the next two are devoted to the emotional fallout, then the last quarter is all about the healing process.  "Love Be Brave" is the turning point, "Here comes a change over me / Something strange takes over me / I am brave and love is sweet."  So much of what came before this section was about the inability to feel or running away from true feelings, but here things thaw, as exhibited in "Saved These Words," which starts out restrained until it can't help but burst open.  In one of the verses, Marling sings, "Love's not easy, not always fun," and that feels like the mission statement of Once I Was An Eagle.  It's a long album that's filled with peaks and valleys, and it's an emotionally exhausting experience, but one that's worthwhile.  There's an interesting pacing and rhythm, and the album forms knots and tangles, each song informing those before and after.  In the process, Marling reaches a sense of enlightenment, and you're likely to find some insight in there too.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Kanye West's "Yeezus" and the Year of Event Albums

People are always talking about whether a year is or isn't a good year for music.  Personally, since I've been alive -- or at least since I've been music savvy -- I haven't experienced a bad year of music.  Sure, I can say that I like 2006 more than 2007 musically, but I feel like there's always a handful of good stuff to find in any given year.  If there's one thing that distinguishes 2013 from every other year in recent memory, aside from the fact that it's been a particularly good one, is that it's the year of the "event" album.  More than usual, there seems to be a ton of big albums that have caused the world to collectively get excited.  Some albums created a buzz because they were a long-awaited comeback -- My Bloody Valentine released a new album for the first time in 22 years(!) and they picked up right where they left off, while Justin Timberlake followed up his breakthrough pop album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, 7 years later with an album that was somehow more expansive.  Others stirred up the masses just because of how surprising they were, like David Bowie and Vampire Weekend, with the former revealing that he's still got some creativity left in him and the latter dropping an album so mature and well-constructed, that it converted tons of haters.  Meanwhile, some albums made waves through the sheer power of marketing.  Daft Punk's Random Access Memories could also be seen as a comeback, but it's more notable for how well-planned its release was, a perfect combination of mystery and anticipation. And coming up, Jay-Z will release the first truly commercial album, with Magna Carta Holy Grail's interesting/soul-sucking partnership with Samsung.

Despite all of these event albums, none have been more newsworthy than Kanye West's Yeezus.  With just 10 songs and no real singles, it had all the makings of being a minor album (and the slightly lower sales seem to prove that right in the eyes of America), but it's turned out to be quite the opposite.  It may not be the album that breaks the Billboard charts, but it's captured the fervor of the critical community, sparking more thinkpieces than the internet can handle.  Reviewers always want to put Kanye's music in the larger context of his persona, with tons of paragraphs devoted to Kanye the character instead of Kanye the musician.  I had this noble idea that I'd write a purist review of Yeezus where I'd "just talk about the music, man."  There'd be nothing about Kim Kardashian, Kanye becoming a father, or any indulgent analysis of his psyche.

About two listens into Yeezus, I realized how much of a fool's errand that was.  The album seems to be more about himself than any of his other albums, somehow.  I eventually realized that it's not that his personality is more important than the music, it's just that his personality is so indelibly married to the music that it's hard not to at least consider it.  It's so fascinating to fall down the circular rabbit hole of figuring Kanye West out: has the persona bled into the person or does the persona exist because of who he already was as a person?  Kanye's songs have always been about the balance between his ego and his self-awareness about his own flaws, but Yeezus transitions into full ego.  It starts right out of the gate with "On Sight," a clarion call for how abrasive and unapologetic the album will be.  "How much do I not give a fuck?," he asks at one point, and it seems the answer is alot, as we see Kanye as angry and brazen as ever this time around.

Yeezus is full of willful contradictions, which just makes it more interesting to pick apart.  The largest aspect in this regard -- perhaps fittingly, given the title of the album -- is in relation to God.  He oddly mixes aggrandizing with humbleness, stating "I am a god," but immediately following it up with "even though I'm a man of God."  In fact, Kanye constantly makes parallels to himself as a god, and it's ludicrous, but at the same time, is it?  After all, he's got a heavy persecution complex, is misunderstood by many, and has a devoted set of arduous acolytes.  That certainly sounds familiar.  Like a Greek god, his wanton actions have averse effects on the less powerful ("When I park my Range Rover / slightly scratch your Corolla / Okay, I smashed your Corolla").  Yet for all the claims of being a higher being, much of the first half of the album is downright feral, like the outro of "Black Skinhead" or the screaming on "I Am a God."  However, the contradictions don't stop there.  "New Slaves" contains some interesting and thoughtful parallels between religion and segregation, yet on the very next song he talks about "owning" a woman.  If there's an overriding theme to Yeezus, it's this matching of opposites.  What shouldn't be good actually is, the ugly sounds pretty, and the one who is fascinated with himself also has others who are fascinated with him.

Musically, the album is just as scattered as it is thematically.  Over the course of 10 songs, Yeezus gives us acid house, spacey electronics, trap music, and most surprisingly reggae/dancehall.  There's no greater example of this than "I'm In It," which is just a giant mishmash, careening from style to style.  Sonically, it's brash and ugly, and I expect that it'll turn many off, but I think it completely succeeds.  There's a dark, industrial sound to many of these songs and listening to this album almost feels like a trip into the headspace of Kanye West, with random sounds popping up at will.  There's an autotuned bridge here, a synth bleat there; anything goes.  The album is all about expecting the unexpected, constantly shifting whenever you get anywhere close to reaching a comfort zone.  Take "Send It Up" for instance, which is a siren-blaring, cold song for much of its runtime, but suddenly ends with a Beenie Man sample that's a weirdly moving rumination on the nature of memory.  Then there's "Bound 2," my favorite song on the album, which recalls Kanye's old soul-sampling days.  Again, it's full of juxtapositions -- the verses are vulgar, but the chorus and the bridge are deeply romantic.  Yeezus is all about emptiness and disconnect, so to end on a note with just a glimmer of optimism floored me.  It's a song that'll linger in your mind long after the last "uh huh, honey."  Kanye saves the best for last, but the centerpiece that holds everything together is the mid-album cut, "Blood On the Leaves."  It's the imperial march of Yeezus, with a commanding beat co-produced by TNGHT, that's likely to get every synapse firing.

If there's any weak spot to be found, then it's definitely in the lyrics.  Some detractors have pointed out how uncomfortably misogynistic and hedonistic his lyrics are, and they're turned up to 11 here, but honestly I've never had a problem with that.  It's interesting and puzzling that we're allowed to separate art from the artist in movies and television shows, but we often have difficulty doing it with music.  You don't hear many people saying that Taxi Driver is a bad movie because Travis Bickle is a racist creep or that Mad Men sucks because Don Draper is a womanizing douchebag.  If we're able to make that disconnect with movies and TV, then I think rap music deserves the same type of consideration.  Plus, Kanye West is certainly doing a more insightful construction of a character than many other rappers who have a women problem.  No, my slight issue is that the quality of rapping has taken a bit of a hit.  Kanye has always been criticized for being a subpar rapper (claims I've never really agreed with), but many of those same people noted his gradual improvement and were impressed by how hungry he sounded on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  If that's the case, then Yeezus is a definite step back.  It's a quotable album for sure, but in a way that feels specifically constructed to generate a bunch of pull quotes.  The album could've been named Random Access Punchlines with all of the tossed off lines about Asian pussy and croissant demanding that it contains.  Even still, there's some interesting stuff to be found in the lyrics.  West doesn't make any apologies and he even goes as far as attempting to justify himself, rapping "you see there's leaders and there's followers / but I'd rather be a dick than a swallower."  In general, "New Slaves" has his most inspired bits, less of a rap than it is a ferocious barrage of Kanye riffing and venting.

In my review of Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap, I spoke about The College Dropout and recalled how warm Kanye West's music used to be.  It's almost hard to believe that the same guy could make something 10 years later that's so cold and mechanical, keeping you at arms length.  Every other one of his albums are so expansive, yet this one closes in on you.  In a way, it feels like a battle between a bunch of ideas trying to make it to the surface.  Kanye has always been able to rope things in and give his records a cohesive feeling, but here the hodgepodge is the structure.  In lesser hands, this album would completely fall apart, but somehow Kanye is able to keep it from doing so.  Yeezus is hardly his best work, but it's still a fascinating and arresting album nonetheless.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Assessing Mad Men's Strange, Ominous, and Revealing 6th Season

At some point, I'm going to have to start a tally on this blog for every time I reference season 5 of Mad Men, given how many times I've already mentioned it in just 35+ posts.  I only reference it constantly because it's such a towering work of art, one of my favorite seasons of television ever.  There's not a bad episode in the bunch, but the middle stretch of episodes in particular -- from "Signal 30" to "Lady Lazarus" -- are probably the best string of episodes I've seen since the last 9 episodes of The Sopranos.  After such an artful, auteur-driven season, anything after that was bound to be somewhat of a letdown.  Season 6 of Mad Men almost felt conscious of this fact, seemingly going down its own rabbit hole and becoming as weird as ever.

Not since The Sopranos (maybe I need to start another tally) have I seen such bizarre things seem so natural.  By the time the second or third strange plot point occurs, you just sort of roll with it, like "yeah, that happened."  In one season, we got: Peggy stabbing Abe with a makeshift spear, Bob Benson and his gay grifter friend, Ken Cosgrove getting shot in the face, and the entirety of "The Crash."  The reason all of it felt so natural is because of how much it was in tune with the season's goal of presenting this world as one that is slightly oblique.  Season 6's events took place in 1968, and it kind of paralleled the time period, which saw the nation witness a side of themselves that they'd never seen before.  So it was only fitting that Mad Men felt a little less Mad Men-y this year too.  There was so much violence and tragedy in the world that it couldn't help but make its presence known in the show.  Sirens and news reports of national unrest could be heard and seen in many scenes throughout the season, as if the background was slowly seeping into these usually sealed off lives.

The off-kilter nature of the season made it feel like a slight disappointment for a very long time, which was something I didn't know how to process coming from my favorite show on television.  It's not that I thought it was a bad season, I don't think I could ever truly dislike a season of Mad Men.  There were some superb individual moments and episodes, but to me it wasn't creating a satisfying whole.  Perhaps it was just a me problem and not the show's problem, but I found the thematic throughline of the season and a given episode much harder to suss out.  I loved "The Flood," "For Immediate Release," and "The Crash," but nothing completely bowled me over the way that other seasons were capable of doing.

It wasn't until near the end that things truly started to cohere.  As it turns out, the key to the puzzle of the season was, naturally, Don Draper.  At the beginning of the season, when it looked like we were going to get the same old infidelity story and we kept getting flashbacks to Don's youth (flashbacks have never been the show's strong suit), it seemed like Matt Weiner was just treading water with the character.  Much like on Weiner's old job at The Sopranos, he highlighted the fact that Don is not somebody we're supposed to root for.  He's a man who does what he wants, with little regard to others, just leaving destruction in his wake.  This all culminated in the penultimate episode, "The Quality of Mercy," where Peggy literally calls him a monster, giving voice to many of the audience's thoughts as we've watched him over the last few years.  It was then that everything with Don began to transform.  Don's been driving everyone away in his life, particularly the women closest to him: Peggy, Sally, Joan, and Megan.  All of the flashbacks about motherhood and prostitution take on more power in this light, and what initially seemed aimless and ham-fisted revealed itself to be informative in regard to Don's slow wilting.

So, aside from Don, what was the season about as a whole?  In the finale, Betty has a line when she's speaking to Don on the phone about Sally where she says "the good isn't beating out the bad," and even though it was specifically about Sally's behavior, it's fitting for a season that's all about personal wars being waged.  Some were internal, like Don vs. his past, and others were external, but there was a tug of war going on in every corner of Sterling Cooper & Partners.  From the merger between SCDP and CGC to Don and Megan's marriage, season 6 was all about sustaining that which cannot be sustained.  We know that both are doomed to crumble, or at least slightly fall apart, and every episode has an ominous inevitability that Mad Men excels at.  Another big element of the season was the idea of ownership over things that can't be owned.  Prostitution, which often makes the customer feel like they have complete ownership even when they don't, is brought up multiple times throughout the season, and it ties into many of the stories this year, like Don and Ted's battle for Peggy.  They both treat her like she's the concept that they want her to be and not the person that she actually is.

What intrigued me the most about this season was how it subverted our expectations of what television does, but taking common ideas and putting a little slant on them instead of just eschewing them completely.  "History repeats itself" is not exactly new territory, but when other shows or movies try to play with that theme, they always treat time as if its a circle, neatly looping back where it started.  Mad Men is the first show I've seen that really gets how time works, and season 6 wasn't just about how history repeats itself, but instead about how it often folds in on itself.  The season constantly played on the ideas of doubles and duality -- Bob Benson's false identity mirroring Don Draper's, Sterling and Cutler playing similar roles, a character named Margaret getting axed as soon as Peggy comes back -- but it wasn't neat and clean in its parallels.  Characters' pasts bled into their present, creating an inseparable mixture within them.

We're also trained to believe in the idea that "the truth will set you free," yet throughout the season we got examples of that not being the case.  When characters gave into their desires or admitted something about themselves, it usually turned out to cause trouble, like the romantic entanglements of Peggy and Ted.  Even if it was just momentarily, like everybody being mad at Joan when she tried to go after the Avon account by herself or when Pete found out that Bob was lying about his identity, the true sides of these characters often threatened to topple their carefully constructed fronts.  We see this most significantly in the finale, where Don Draper, a man who's kept his past so guarded behind walls of his own making, finally reveals the real nature of his upbringing during a Hershey pitch.  For once, he's trying to better himself -- quitting drinking, deciding not to run away to California, opening up about his past -- and what reward does he get?  He gets suspended from his job, Megan walks out on him, and though he's made some roads to connecting with his children, they're only baby steps closer to him than they were before.

I usually hate it when seasons completely structure themselves around the ending, but "In Care Of" really worked for me in the way that it snapped together all of the previously disparate pieces of season 6.  It was all about these pyrrhic victories, how we may feel like we've made progress but we're still not any further down the road.  I suspect now that I know what the season was trying to get at, I'd enjoy it much more on the rewatch.  Even at the end of this initial watch, I thought this was still one of the best things on TV this year, a strange season from a willfully contrarian show.  If anything, it served as a nice precursor to the end, an interlude bridging the gap between the restless 5th season and a hopefully staggering final run.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Am I Over the Moon For CBS's Under the Dome?

I just finished Stephen King's novel, Under the Dome, last week after starting it ages ago.  I had many problems with finishing it -- my tablet stopped working, the book was 1078 pages long, and I was incredibly busy with school -- but overall, I found it to be a pretty good book with a not-so-great ending.  In the months leading up to the television adaptation premiering, there were some things that gave me hope (the choice of Brian K. Vaughan to be the showrunner, the producers stating that they wouldn't follow the book's ending) and others that made me worry (the fact that it was going to be on CBS, the mostly bland cast).  Ever since Lost's popularity, networks have been desperately searching for the next buzzworthy, mysterious sci-fi show, and they've all been some combination of terrible, unsuccessful, and derivative, so I didn't have high hopes for Under the Dome.

If there's one thing that I'm still divided on is the show's decision to not be a miniseries, as it was originally conceived.  On the positive side, this choice could allow for more expansive stories that get into some of the less developed cardboard characters.  On the other hand, the ongoing nature of the show could cause the story to drag on, especially given the limiting premise and thin time frame of the book.  Some might say that critics lobby the "how is this premise sustainable?" skepticism all the time, particularly with Lost, a show that also had its characters isolated in one location, but managed to consistently blow the doors off of its original concept.  However, the castaways on Lost weren't trapped in the same way that the citizens of Chester's Mill are, where the dome literally gives them no other choice than to stay in town, not only cut off from others, but also being unable to hear what's going on beyond it (a small, but major deviation from the book).  The book takes place over the course of about 8-10 days, which can't really be done on the show if they want to run for multiple seasons, and any longer time frame would have to deal with many logistical factors that come into consideration.

Luckily, the pilot moves along at a steady enough clip that you don't trouble yourself with thinking about these things for too long.  One of the biggest improvements that the show makes is its handle on the morality of the characters.  A major problem I had with the book was that everything was so morally black and white; the protagonists are all unvarnished do-gooders while the bad guys are so cartoonishly evil that's it was hard to find the battle between them fully engaging.  Thankfully, straight from the first scene we get some shades of gray, as we see Barbie, the show's leading man, mysteriously burying a body in the woods.  Big Jim Rennie, the town's used car salesman and Second Councilman, also gets a bit more coloring too, thanks in part to the writing and his portrayal by the great Dean Norris.  The budget on this one feels appropriately big as well, giving the scene of the invisible barrier coming down a real, visceral feeling.  The image of a cow split in half will certainly be the lingering image of the pilot, but the effects in the scenes of planes and trucks crashing into the dome are stirring as well.  Brian K. Vaughan is a talented writer, responsible for one of my favorite comics of all time in Y: the Last Man and some great episodes of Lost, and while he doesn't get to put much of his stamp on the episode, his small touches of pop culture references are great to hear again.

On the other hand, as much as it hurts me to say it, most of the rest of the dialogue is horrible.  Most pilots have the problem of being a bit too heavy on exposition and I'm sure this one has that same problem if you look hard enough, but you'll most likely be too distracted by just how generic all of it is.  Matching the limp dialogue are the characters who, aside from Barbie and Big Jim Rennie, don't pop very well.  It's much like CBS's short-lived Jericho, another genre show about a mysterious event that traps a small town and also featured stock characters that seemed like a random hodgepodge of "diverse" people that didn't really fit together.  It certainly doesn't help that most of the casting is as uninspired as I initially suspected.  Aside from the actors I have residual love for, like Dean Norris, Mike Vogel, and Britt Robertson; nobody else is really that impressive.  The most significant in this regard is Alexander Koch, who plays Junior Rennie, the blandly evil son of Big Jim.  Koch isn't a great actor and probably skews a bit young for the role, but the writing of Junior is poor too -- less violent than it is in the book, but somehow more manipulative.

Overall though, I thought the pilot was a solid piece of television.  Summer is usually the time where the film industry releases their big-event, popcorn movies and most television shows go on a break before returning in the fall.  Under the Dome, with its expensive look and high-concept premise, looks to be the inception of summer blockbuster television.  I don't watch any other CBS dramas -- I'm working on catching up on Person of Interest and I've come to terms with the fact that I'm never going to get around to The Good Wife -- so I look forward to seeing the progression of Under the Dome, which isn't without its problems but has enough spark for me to want to keep watching.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Late to the Party #3: Undeclared (2001-2002)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

Earlier in the week, I wrote about Freaks and Geeks and everything I said in that introduction could be doubled here.  If Freaks and Geeks was perennially at the top of the list of shows that I wanted to see, then Undeclared was always firmly in the number two position.  Undeclared is a spiritual successor to Freaks and Geeks in more ways than one: it was short-lived, featured a few of the same actors, and always told stories that put character at the forefront.  Coming right off of the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks in 2000, Judd Apatow split off from Paul Feig to create Undeclared, which graduated from the high school setting of the former to the hallowed halls and dingy dorms of college.

Undeclared was much more of a straight comedy than Freaks and Geeks was, which was suitable, given the setting.  The show feels like college as you remembered it, whereas Freaks and Geeks felt like high school as it actually was.  Yet it still was never about the over-the-top partying that we see in other college stories, opting to find comedy in simple hijinx.  Characters play pranks on each other, come up with schemes to make their work or studies easier, and generally just laze around, giving the show a laid-back feel that made it so relateable.  If there's one main connecting thread that ties Undeclared to Apatow's previous work, it's how it showed that the anxieties and insecurities of your teens don't go away once you leave high school, they just transform.  Behind the laughs and antics, all of the characters are concerned with getting the girl/guy, looking cool, avoiding failure, and figuring out what to do with their lives.  That the main characters are funny is enjoyable enough, but their clearly defined tics make them exponentially more endearing.

Because of this strong stable of characters, the writers were able to have fun with their combinations of cast members.  Like all comedies, there were the common pairings -- Steven and Lizzie, Marshall and Rachel, Lloyd and Ron -- but some of the best stories came from when the dynamics of the group were mixed up.  It helps that they all feel like actual college friends -- forced together by proximity but growing on each other to the point of syncing up to a single rhythm.  One difference that comes from Judd Apatow having primary creative control is his famous improvised style, which is easiest to detect in the hangout scenes that give us a clearer picture of how these characters interact with one another.  Like Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared featured a stellar cast of actors like Jay Baruchel and Seth Rogen, who are now mainstays in the comedy world, but it also had people like Carla Gallo and Monica Keena, who haven't been allowed to be as funny as they were in this show since its cancellation.  Another trait that Undeclared takes from its spiritual predecessor is its excellent world-building and use of recurring characters, making the main dorm hall feel full and real.  Many of the plotlines feature the usual checkmarks of college storytelling -- fraternities, parent's weekend, cheating on papers, etc. -- but the execution is refreshing, unique, and low-key.  Despite that, episodes can seriously bring monstrous laughs when they want to.  "Eric Visits Again" and "Truth or Dare" are the two funniest episodes, and they both feature hilarious comedic setpieces that are big and broad but still feel truthful to the heart of the show.

Watching this show in 2013, it's easy to get distracted by all the "hey it's that guy/girl!" moments.  In just 17 episodes, there are appearances from Amy Poehler, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Kevin Hart, Jenna Fischer, Felicia Day, Fred Willard; and with all of that talent, it's retrospectively clear that we lost a special show.  I chose the exact right time in my life to binge on Undeclared, because all of the college aspects of the show really resonated with me.  I can certainly see its bones in something like the UK's Fresh Meat, another show that's set in college and has a killer sense of fun and a great group of characters.  Although it's not as praised or influential as Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared is a fantastic show that's a must-watch for any fan of comedy.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Bling Ring and a Defense of Sofia Coppola

Last week, film critic Sam Adams wrote a fantastic piece on Sofia Coppola and critics' relation to her.  In it, he wonders why critics seem to take her to task for her privileged upbringing in ways that they don't seem to with somebody like Jason Reitman (whose father was also a famous director).  In fact, many directors have come from some kind of affluent background, yet Sofia Coppola is the only instance where critics frequently make it a point to frame their opinions of her movies on.  I don't know whether it's because she's a woman (the aforementioned article also points out Lena Dunham, a person similarly criticized for her perceived "privilege") or if people are just still upset about the poor acting performance she gave when she was a little girl in The Godfather III, but something about the way her detractors judge her work smells awfully rotten.

We constantly see writers choosing to write about what they know, we see it across all media, and sometimes what a writer knows is the lives of the rich and educated.  Whit Stillman does it.  Woody Allen does it.  Yet there's rarely any kind of uproar about it when either of them do it -- in fact, they're two of the more praised filmmakers working today.  Despite this fact, I'm always coming across people on the internet who bash Sofia Coppola films, complaining that "nobody cares about rich people problems!"  Saying that nobody cares about your problems, whether you're rich or otherwise, is something that's so fundamentally cruel that it seems inhuman.  It's an example of one failing to acknowledge the rich as human beings with hopes and fears and anxieties just like the rest of us -- a point Coppola tries to make in all of her films.  In an effort to tear her down, people neglect to see the immense talent, exquisite sense of mood, and fair-minded writing on display in Sofia Coppola's work.  You may not care about the problems that rich people face, but Coppola imbues her characters with such an endearing loneliness that it's reductive to think of them in such a narrow way.  Even if you don't relate to their financial status, their emotions are as real and grounded as they can get.

Maybe I'm just in the tank because she's one of my favorite directors.  After all, The Virgin Suicides, is in the top 5 on my list of all time favorite films.  I've seen it 7 times and every time I watch it, I'm convinced that I'll have outgrown it, yet it only gets better with each viewing.  Lost in Translation may be most people's favorite Sofia Coppola film, but nothing will top her debut in my eyes.  Although I like Lost in Translation less than most people, I still think it's a great film.  It feels like every unexplainable emotion that any human being has every felt was bottled up and released in that film, resulting in a hazy, dreamy smear of sadness.  Heck, I even think the first half of Marie Antoinette is pretty solid!  When we think of famous people who existed before we did, our minds often reduce them to a series of facts and actions, and Marie Antoinette made its titular character human in a way that I've never seen any other biopic accomplish.  Her fourth film, Somewhere, wasn't as perfect as its trailer, but it's a small, personal father-daughter story that's quite emotionally affecting.

When I heard that she was doing a film about The Bling Ring, I thought that this was finally the point where I drew the line with Sofia Coppola films, stepping over to the side of the thousands of people who take issue with her narrow focus on the wealthy.  It certainly didn't help that I first saw the trailer in front of Spring Breakers, which seemed similar in style, but Harmony Korine beat Sofia Coppola to the punch by a few months.  Fortunately, The Bling Ring is a much more thoughtful film than the trailers suggested and instead of aping Spring Breakers completely, the two actually complement each other quite well.  Where Spring Breakers was very influenced by the late 90s, using pop culture from that era to define the generation that grew up on it, The Bling Ring serves as a logical progression, examining those same kinds of kids growing up to be teens in the mid-2000s, a landscape saturated with reality TV programming and tabloid publications.  

Like Spring Breakers, and all Coppola films, The Bling Ring is rich with detail about its protagonists and their surroundings.  You don't know that these girls (and guy) are obsessed with the Hollywood lifestyle simply because the film tells you.  Instead, it shows you with collages of starlets plastered all over walls, stacks of Us Weekly magazines, and the way they document their lives through pictures and videos as if they were the celebrities they idolize.  The film also takes on 2008 and 2009 with a period piece level of specificity.  Everything from the music choices to the lingo to Emma Watson's vocal fry was so dead on.  If this were a story about poor people trying to get rich, I could see how some would take issue with Coppola for making a film about it, but what's so fascinating about The Bling Ring is that it's about the rich wanting to get richer.  It's at its most compelling when it hones in on the frustration of almost being "there," to the point where it makes you want to actually be "there" more than if you weren't close at all.  This crew of teens live in affluent neighborhoods in California, at arms length from celebrities, and the allure of their lifestyle has even more of a pull because of it. The Bling Ring was cinematographer Harry Savides's last film before he died, and it's a fitting way to leave, because the film is absolutely sumptuous.  Savides always had a gift for making colors feel cool yet crisp, and it's no different here, as his lens work gives Los Angeles an appropriate sheen.

It's hard to tell exactly what the film wants us to think about these people, yet that's one of the movie's strengths.  There might be some cynicism to the way the main characters are depicted, but perhaps it just reads like cynicism because of how much more objective the camera is in this than in Coppola's other films.  The scenes of the crew partying wantonly near the end are some of the most mesmerizing, but it's never clear whether we're supposed to feel sympathy or pity for their dreams.   Obviously, their actions are painted as being wrong, but there's very little statement on the film's part about those actions.  Coppola's willingness to take a 360 degree look at the situation, however, lends the film much more depth than it would've had were it just a retelling of these robberies from the perspective of the thieves.  During the robbery scenes, the cameras always linger on just how much stuff these celebrities have, so much so that some don't even notice when things are taken.  Many of the celebrity houses that get robbed have large glass walls and windows, almost as if these stars invite the world into their lives like a sliding door.  Most notable in this regard is the highlight of the film, where two of the group go to break into Audrina Patridge's house.  The scene is shot in a continuous take with the whole house in frame, and from the camera's far away view, the house looks like something out of a Chris Ware comic, an exhibit for all who are curious to observe.

Things get shaky towards the end, where the film less successfully tries to broaden the scope even more, focusing not only on this group of young people and the era that cultivated them, but on the nation in general and the way they eat scandals up.  Fittingly, the actual details of the trial are glossed over in favor of the media flurry that surrounded them, but the film punctuates its point a tad too much.  At times, it's a bit leaden in the way it tries to indict America for the things it pays attention to (at one point, a character literally says the subtext of the film).  It leads up to a final scene that's both too on-the-nose and not big and brash enough to make any sort of impact.

We may not be at the peak of the fame-obsessed tabloid culture that's depicted in The Bling Ring, but it's still prevalent, and the main well of entertainment for much of America.  In a world where TMZ is our primary source for news and people clamor to learn the name of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's baby, the film still serves as a relevant examination of celebrity.  Some may argue that Coppola has no right to make a treatise against fame since she stands on the right side of the velvet rope, but to do that would be to ignore the larger picture she's trying to paint.  It's not one without smudges and blemishes, but it's a vivid portrait by one of Hollywood's most underrated directors.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Late to the Party #2: Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

I was born in 1991, which puts me at about 8 years old when Freaks and Geeks premiered.  Obviously, I was far too young and preoccupied with Hey Arnold! and black sitcoms for it to be on my radar, but as I grew up and became more TV savvy, this show was definitely one that frequently came up in the critical community.  Between all of the "Cancelled Too Soon" articles that always spring up and the fact that basically everybody in the cast moved on to do big things, it's hard not to know all about Freaks and Geeks.  For the longest time, it was at the top of the list of shows that I was dying to watch, and its recent addition to Netflix Instant finally allowed me to jump on the train and experience total turn-of-the-millennium television bliss.

Adolescene is all about the in-between.  You're no longer a kid but not quite an adult, and Freaks and Geeks explored all of the transitional troubles of the teenage years with grace and beauty.  Set in 1980, Freaks and Geeks paints the high school experience as one that is heavily compartmentalized, but focuses on those at the fringes -- the troubled burnout "freaks" and the gawky "geeks."  There's a Weir in each these two social circles, and the show often uses Sam and Lindsay as twin sides of a common theme.  Despite this equal division of screen and story time, it's very clear that Freaks and Geeks is about the emotional journey of Lindsay Weir.  The standing of the freaks in the high school ecosystem ties back into the idea of the in-between -- they're not quite the social outcasts that the geeks are, but they're not exactly popular either.  This existential limbo is what makes the show feel so wistful and relateable: we may not have been a dork or a burnout, but we all have felt the aching sadness of not fully knowing our place in the grand scheme of things.  Freaks and Geeks always took these kinds of problems seriously, where other teen shows often fail to.

Even within her own social stratum, Lindsay Weir faces a push and pull, torn between her ex-mathlete interior and her desire to look cool to others.  She's the essential representation of the teenage experience, constantly seeing how far she can dip her toes into the water of rebellion without completely falling in.  Straight from episode one we get a vivid picture of who Lindsay is, how deeply she feels and cares about things.  Freaks and Geeks is a show about good people and Lindsay is a good person at her core, but the writers aren't afraid to show her make mistakes, like in the pilot when she thoughtlessly calls Eli, the mentally challenged kid at the school, a retard while trying to defend him against other bullies.  Throughout the first season, we see Lindsay continuously disappoint those around her, particularly her parents and old friends who are bemused by her transformation.  Her story was frequently about making a choice between what she was and what she wanted to be, most notably in "Chokin' and Tokin'" where her plotline is mirrored with the bully Alan's, as they both push up against the limits of bettering themselves, before ultimately deciding that they're unable to change.  Yet this isn't some Sopranos-esque examination of an unlikable protagonist.  In fact, Lindsay is insanely likable, because of how much of your younger self you can see in her.  The key is that she's self-aware, as we see in "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers," where she knows enough about herself to decide that she doesn't want her wholesome friend Millie to be just like her.

Perhaps the thing I was most impressed by while starting out on Freaks and Geeks was its extensive world-building.  McKinley High feels like a real inhabited place, partly because of the large stable of recurring characters on the show (it doesn't help that they're usually played by an actor who would later become more famous).  The show didn't just treat peripheral characters as space fillers, as most shows do.  Instead, it fleshed out these characters and made them feel like real people.  By the end of the show's 18 episode run, almost every single character gets thoroughly explored, to the point where you completely understand their worldview and mental makeup.  An early favorite in that regard is the 5th episode, "Tests and Breasts," which brings nuance to so many different characters all at once.  One of the most interesting characters on the show is Cindy Sanders, the cheerleader whom Sam Weir pines for.  Instead of going down the common route of making her an object, The Unattainable Crush, they depict her as a real person, which makes Sam's affection feel more real.  In "Girlfriends and Boyfriends," there's a scene where she has to read some kind of poem that she wrote out loud to the class, and even though the show never makes any pronounced point about it, it's an intensely sad and lonely poem.  In fact, the show always subtly pointed out that there's a bit of sadness within all of the popular characters at the school.

That sense of melancholy spreads to the entire cast of characters, most surprisingly the freaks.  "Kim Kelly is My Friend," the show's fourth episode, does the common trope of looking into the life of a troubled kid, yet makes it refreshing with its specificity.  Later, Nick (played by Jason Segel) gets a spotlight episode in "I'm With the Band," which might be the most high stakes episode of the show, exploring that moment where you realize that all your hopes and dreams may not come true.  The glimpses that we see of Daniel's (played by James Franco) home life are brief, but they're quite grim as well.  The freaks stories are so compelling because they underline that these are kids who aren't lost causes.  There's always a point being made, most overtly in "Smooching and Mooching," that maybe if the rest of them had parents that were as loving and caring as Lindsay's are, then they'd have more of a future.  Speaking of parents, one of the greatest skills of Freaks and Geeks was its ability to define all of the adults well.  Many of the main parents and authority figures got just as much of a 360 degree look as the teenagers did.  And when they were tough or strict, it wasn't because they didn't understand, it was because they did remember what it was like to be young and make mistakes.

Freaks and Geeks was always at its loveliest when it was exploring generational parallels, like in the Halloween episode, "Tricks and Treats," which featured three plotlines about interlocking disappointment.  The episode follows three of the Weirs and shows how the night turns out to be a bummer for all ages -- Sam because he's too old to go trick or treating, Jean because everybody is too wary to eat her homemade cookies.  Tying things together even more is Lindsay's plot, which is all about how she is partially the cause of her brother and mom's sadness without fully knowing, because she leaves Jean all alone in order to go out with her friends, who accidentally end up egging Sam and his friends.  However, this generational sadness is perfected in "Noshing and Moshing," the show's best episode.  Here we see that at each stage of life -- Neil's adult dad, Neil's college aged brother, and teenager Daniel -- there's some element of pretending involved, presenting yourself as somebody you may not fully be.  By the end of the episode, which contains an incredible montage that's equal parts triumph and disappointment, it's clear how exhausting the artifice can be.  My vote for best individual moment of the show most definitely goes to the 7 minutes in heaven scene between Bill and Vicky in "Smooching and Mooching," which distills the show's meticulous crafting of peripheral characters and depiction of youth's tiny victories into a masterfully written collection of moments.  If there's anything resembling a low point in the show's near perfect run, it'd be "The Little Things," which ironically features two storylines that stray the furthest away from the low key nature Freaks and Geeks strove for, and even still it's saved once the two stories link up.

The first and only season ends with "Discos and Dragons," which reveals that the season had way more of an arc than I even initially realized.  In the pilot, Freaks and Geeks was all about the rigidly defined social castes that existed within McKinley High.  Throughout the season, there were cracks slowly showing in those boundaries, but the finale furthered them even more.  Between perennial bad boy Daniel Desario joining the geeks in a game of Dungeons & Dragons and realizing that he loves it, Nick betraying his classic rock roots and competing in a disco dancing contest, and Lindsay fully embracing The Grateful Dead, everybody was clearly at a different place than they started.  Unlike D&D, you don't just roll a die and accept your lot.  No, life is all about making choices and wearing many hats.  If nerdy Bill Haverchuck can kiss cheerleader Vicky Appleby, then maybe anything is possible.  That's why the finale is such a perfect little capper to this charming show -- it leaves us with the uncertainty that comes with adolescence.  Don't get me wrong, I would've loved to see more episodes, but like all pockets of nostalgia, we only got the show for a fleeting moment before it went away.

Being so light on plot, would that have been a benefit in multiple seasons or a burden?  Did the show say all it needed to say in the 18 episodes that we got?  We'll never truly know, but the short-lived nature of Freaks and Geeks contributes to its legacy as one the most special television shows of the last 20 years.  It's one of those pieces of entertainment that comes along and feels like it was made especially for me.  Somehow, the show hit on almost everything that I look for in a story, and it's no surprise that many of the recent shows that I love were influenced by Paul Feig and Judd Apatow's creation.  You can certainly see the respect that this show has for its teen characters in Friday Night Lights and the accumulation of character detail in something like Mad Men.  When I was done with the show, I felt the same pang that people must have felt in 2000 when they found out that they weren't going to be getting anymore episodes, but at least I have the comfort of knowing that the spirit and love of the show lives on 13 years later.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Why the World Needs More Bunheads

This is how they'll look if you cancel Bunheads, ABC Family.

Bunheads came into the world in June of 2012 and Amy Sherman-Palladino's little ballet show brought us the same quirk and small-town charm that Gilmore Girls did.  Although it took me a little while to warm up to Amy Sherman-Palladino's writing tics (I only watched a handful of episodes of Gilmore Girls as a kid), even in the early going, it was always an enjoyable watching experience.  In many ways, it was the perfect summer show, and some of my fondest memories of that time were the Monday nights when I watched Bunheads.  My enjoyment of the show seemed to have an inverse relationship with the ratings, as my love grew exponentially when it came back in January of this year, while viewership dropped down to the low 1s.  Now, a year after the show first premiered, Bunheads finds itself in a state of limbo, not knowing whether it will be renewed or cancelled.  Despite the fact that it may be the most critically acclaimed show on the network, it just doesn't fit in with ABC Family's branding, which has found a hit in Pretty Little Liars and decided to run with it.  Basically, the future of Bunheads depends upon the failure of the network's new shows, The Fosters and Twisted (both of which had lower premiere numbers than the Bunheads series premiere).  I and every other fan of the show have been clamoring for any kind of word on a pickup, so in the meantime, I've made a list of why the world needs more of this delightful little show:

1. The dance sequences
I don't know how the casting director was able to find four girls who could dance well and also handle ASP's signature dialogue, but thankfully they did, because it makes the dance sequences all the more enjoyable.  I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that they might be my favorite thing on television.  Shot in fluid long takes, the camerawork helps emphasize the beauty and poetry of ballet and capture the immediacy of the dancing.  Fatigue never sets in, because the dance sequences serve a variety of purposes.  They can be regular practice scenes, an underlining of unspoken emotions, free-form poems, or inscrutable bits of wonder.  That last Sasha one is everybody's favorite, but they're all so captivating and hypnotizing.

2. Its unparalleled warmth and positivity
So many of the great dramas on television are overwhelmingly dark and brooding.  The television landscape is at a point where we don't expect a show to be good unless it has some male antihero at the center.  Bunheads is among the rare crop of shows right now, like Parenthood and The Carrie Diaries, that aren't concerned with exploring the dimmest corners of the human condition.  These shows tend to not get the credit that they deserve, but they're a much needed respite from the Mad Mens and the Breaking Bads of the world.  Ultimately, Bunheads is about good people trying to do good things, and while characters may not always get along or see eye-to-eye, there's a deep love connecting all of them.  If the show were to get cancelled, we'd really be losing its special wholesomeness.

3. It features 6 regular cast members and they're all women
In Man of Steel, there's a female character who's clearly a military officer of significant ranking, yet her only role is to be a cipher and her biggest line of dialogue is when she calls Superman hot.  There are much greater problems with the movie than that, but it does underline the inequality that exists in Hollywood, both on the big and small screen.  Lately, there has been an increase in female-led shows, but even those tend to have pretty male-dominated casts.  Homeland, which features Claire Danes giving one of the strongest performances as the fascinating Carrie Mathison, is basically a gigantic sausage fest outside of the lead role.  Bunheads, on the other hand, is pretty much all female.  You'd have to go a little way down the billing of recurring characters before you reach a male.  A show shouldn't get an automatic pass for being female-centric, but when it's as good as Bunheads, it's practically a crime to cut such a radical show's life short.

4. It'd be a shame to leave on such a bum note
For as happy and quippy as Bunheads can be, it can also pack a heck of an emotional punch.  Some of my favorite moments of the show are the somber ones, such as the beautiful scene where Michelle and her brother dejectedly sing the song from The Jerk.  But what makes those moments easier to stomach is that there's always something that eventually picks a character up when they're feeling down.  Season 1 ended on a devastating note, as Ginny revealed that she lost her virginity to Frankie, who had since been nothing but cold and distant to her.  The dance sequence that closed out the episode was lovely as always, but it's quite a dark way for us to remember such a bubbly show.

5. Bailey Buntain the Blonde Bunhead
Television critics really latched on to the alliterative nature of Bailey Buntain's name, and more than the contests to see how long they can stretch the title out, I'd just miss Bailey Buntain in general if the show didn't get renewed.  I was a fierce Melanie guy in the first half of the season, but Ginny quickly became my favorite in the back half of the season, mostly due to Bailey Buntain's fantastic performance and superb handle on the patter of Amy Sherman-Palladino's dialogue.  Really, all of the girls had become so fleshed out by the end of the first season.  No longer was Sasha "the mean one" or Melanie "the tall one"; they were all fully realized human beings with their own little flaws and personality quirks.

When shows are on the bubble, people tend to exaggerate their love for them as a natural defense mechanism.  It's part of the reason for the internet's slavish devotion to Community, which constantly finds itself on the chopping block, only to get miraculously renewed through the sheer power of NBC's mediocrity.  Over the past couple of months, I had begun to wonder if maybe we were all just overdoing it with Bunheads, but in researching and finding clips for this post, I realized just how much I love this show and will miss it if it dies.  It's a show that really nests inside of you and fills your body with so much warmth and joy, you won't have room for anything else.  If I were to make a big list of my favorite moments on television this year, Bunheads would probably be the show with the most on that list.  I'd really like to see a second season, not just to see more of these characters that I love so much, but to also inhabit the breezy world of Paradise, California once again.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel's Futile Search For a Sense of Self

Despite the fact that he's one of the most popular and recognizable superheroes in America, Superman is a difficult character for many people to latch on to.  Some find him to be a problematic hero, stating a number of reasons, ranging from the fact that he's too plain and boring to his insane level of power removing stakes.  Those who write Superman stories run into the same problems that any writer bumps up against when writing about wholly good people.  Without the dark and tortured past or angsty present that many other heroes have, Superman stories can seem inert.  At the same time, it's interesting that the divide on Superman occurs because underneath the surface, he's quite a universal character.  His story can serve as a stand-in for many things, such as the immigrant experience, man's relation to God, and being a product of adoption.

There's no real point to that introduction, because Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is only briefly concerned with any of those metaphorical implications.  The early trailers focused on the more Malickian shots of the film, and the movie is at its best in these portions.  All of the moments set in Kansas, where Clark Kent is just dealing with the balance of his human exterior and his superhuman interior, are filmed with muted washed-out colors and there's a beauty and poetry to the look and feel.  In this stretch, things are appropriately mythic, and sometimes it seems like an indie film that just happens to have a super-powered alien in it.  Unfortunately, Snyder is preoccupied with donning as many suits as possible over its 143 minute runtime.  Throughout the course of the film, we get a splashy sci-fi epic in the first 15 minutes, a coming-of-age origin story in a few flashbacks, a summer action blockbuster in the third act, and even a bit of eerie horror in one scene.  Clark Kent assumes different names at various periods of his life in order to avoid detection, and the film itself suffers just as badly from a severe lack of identity.

Many people conveniently forget that Superman Returns got pretty positive reviews when it came out, instead choosing to adopt this revisionist idea that it was a critical and commercial failure.  Those who criticize the 2006 Bryan Singer installment complain about its lack of action, stating "The climax is basically Superman lifting a boulder!"  Have no fear about a lack of people punching things, folks, because Man of Steel is action-packed -- especially in the last 30-45 minutes -- and it's largely awful.  Nobody will try to make the claim that Zack Snyder can't do action -- after all, even Sucker Punch had some dazzling action setpieces.  Likewise, the setpieces in Man of Steel have an impressive amount of heft, but they're only thrilling for about 5 seconds.  After that it's just metal-crunching, concrete-smashing monotony.  Any heart and soul that the film may have had when it was trying to imitate a Levi's commercial is completely gone by the time the third act rolls around.  Once the first blow strikes, they seem to come endlessly, as we're given action scene after action scene with very little plot or character driving them.  Like General Zod, Superman's adversary, the film never wants to quit, and there were several times where I thought, "Oh, this isn't over yet"?

For as explosion-heavy as the exterior may be, there isn't much of a center to hold everything together.  There are many characters that fill the margins of the film, but they don't make much of an impression.  Everybody seems to be a generic authority type, from Laurence Fishburne as the Editor in Chief of The Daily Planet to Christopher Meloni playing Army Guy #1.  Amy Adams adds some sort of color to Lois Lane, but there's little reason for her to be doing anything that she does other than the fact that she's The Spunky Reporter.  The biggest problem though is with Superman and his lack of internal conflict.  Is there a place for Gods on Earth?  Will he have trouble choosing between humans and Kryptonians?  Fertile questions such as these are ignored,  making Superman's journey as straightforward and stakes-free as possible.  Don't let any promise of character fool you, Man of Steel is just as big and dumb as any other Zack Snyder film.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Camera Obscura's "Desire Lines" is Here, Everybody Else Go Home

Recently, Grantland's Steven Hyden wrote an article about lead singers, incorporating the site's incessant need to analyze pop culture through power rankings in order to rank various lead singers in active bands.  I don't have the time or desire to dissect the arbitrary criteria of that article, but if there's a conversation about the best lead singers in the business, then Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell deserves to be in the discussion.  There's a reason why she's the focus of almost every one of the band's pictures, because it's easy to associate Camera Obscura's wistful aesthetic with its blue-eyed and glum lead singer.

Since John Henderson's departure from the band after their second album, Underachievers Please Try Harder, Campbell has taken on full vocal and lyrical duties and the band definitely feels like it has more of a singular vision.  She may have an outwardly meek presence, but her vocals are magnetic and the songs on Desire Lines, the band's fifth album, coil around each of her carefully phrased sentences.  Campbell has the uncanny ability of knowing when to elongate a word or add extra emotion to a certain syllable.  In lieu of a review, I could almost just sit you down and force you to listen to the album, interrupting every few lines to say "I mean are you kidding me?!" after every interesting line delivery.  From the aching "Oh I could bottle up this love" on the title track, the dip in the second verse of "I Missed Your Party," and the way she breathlessly crams extra words into the end of the chorus on "Every Weekday," each vocal flourish keeps the listener and the songs on their feet.  It's these choices that elevate her past the rest of the crop of indie pop vocalists.  While it may be clean, simple and sweet, Tracyanne Campbell's voice manages to display a complex emotional range.

Lyrically, Campbell has always been quite underrated as well.  Each song has a nostalgic internalized feel to them, simultaneously reminding you of your warmest comforts and greatest pains.  Camera Obscura albums have always been full of heartbreak, so perhaps that's why Campbell sings about love with a hardened guardedness ("I've been cool with you...", Campbell admits on "New Year's Resolution").  Underneath that shell, though, lies the beating heart of a romantic.  "This is Love (Feels Alright)," "Every Weekday," and "Desire Lines" are all about cracking the ice and wholeheartedly embracing the warmth of love.  Some songs also have the band's signature sarcastic wit, like "I Missed Your Party," which sounds like a begrudging apology.  Desire Lines features many shades of emotion, and they all bleed with the same intensity.  As introspective as her lyrics may be, Tracyanne Campbell has always shown keen perceptiveness towards others, and the swooning slab of melancholy on "William's Heart" makes it one of the stronger songs on the album.

Campbell may get the most attention, but the rest of the members of the band are no slouches either, and they're as strong as ever on Desire Lines.  Even back in their breezier Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi days, they were always a band that kept things pretty tight, but their bigger sound emphasizes their dynamics even more.  They don't get enough credit for the way their clean and inventive guitar textures, buoyant synths, and stable low-end seem to smear together and sound just right.  Desire Lines is not as much of a leap forward as the wall of sound introduced on Let's Get Out of This Country or the cinematic pop of My Maudlin Career, but the band still finds some ways stretch their limbs.  Many of the strongest songs come from them tossing something new into the equation, from the Caribbean bop of "Every Weekday" to the full-on cabaret horns on "I Missed Your Party."  "Do It Again" even introduces a bit of disco and pulls it off successfully.  The more familiar songs are just as good too.  "New Year's Resolution," with its bright guitar squeal and cooing chorus, sounds like vintage Camera Obscura, but even more expansive.  Slow songs are still a strong point for the band -- when given the chance to breathe, they sigh accordingly, like on the torch song "This is Love (Feels Alright)."  Not to mention the veritably named "Cri Du Couer," which is a literal cry of passion with its swirling chorus, moody atmospheric synths, and loping rhythm.

Whenever Camera Obscura releases an album, it usually gets good reviews, but they're never glowing.  You certainly won't see them on many end of the year lists when December rolls around either.  It seems as if they're forever going to be that band that's being overlooked and underrated.  That's quite a shame too, because they've been making music for over a decade now and haven't had a single misstep.  After that long of a time together, many bands spoil like milk, but Camera Obscura have only gotten finer with age, like wine. This may be the best effort from a band who's already produced some of my favorite albums of all time.  It's rare that I'll listen to an album more than once a day, but I found myself dropping other things just to listen to this again.  Although the year may only be halfway over, I doubt that any album will come along and be as wonderful and delightful as Desire Lines is.

Late to the Party #1: Away From Her (2006)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

We're all going to die.  What's worse is that aging is a long and winding precursor to it.  Some of us may go quickly and unexpectedly like a candle blown by the wind, but for the most part we're going to stick around to slowly decay and deteriorate.  Our looks will fade, our bodies will wear down, our minds might even go; to the point where it's hard to remember ever being young in the first place.  People you grew up with will die, so will members of your family.  If you're lucky, you'll pass away before or after your loved ones do, whichever one you prefer.  But it doesn't matter if you simply slide down the gaping black maw or go clawing away at the earth, the one truth remains constant: we are all going to die.

If you're like me, this very idea haunts you to your core.  It may even leave you quaking in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.  With that in mind, it's easy to understand why mankind would want to push the concept of our inevitable demise far into the recesses of our minds.  The last thing some people want is to be reminded of death in our art, so they seek out stories that allow them to escape from it.  After all, art is entertainment, and what's so entertaining about wriggling around in the cold grip of death's hand?  Away From Her, the directorial debut from Canadian actress Sarah Polley, is all about confronting the fact that most of us will live to grow old and deteriorate.  Based on a short story by the brilliant Alice Munro, the film is about an elderly couple (expertly played by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie) and their struggle to deal with the onset of the wife's Alzheimer's disease, and what results is a beautiful meditation on life, love, loss, and fractured memories.

It's rare that a film just focuses on the elderly -- the only two recent ones I can think of are Mike Leigh's equally ruminative Another Year and last year's Hope Springs -- and Away From Her does a good job of portraying Grant (Pinsent) and Fiona (Christie) as a normal couple in the early scenes.  It'd be easy for this film to be nothing but a miserablist slog, but Sarah Polley is no Michael Haneke.  She has a deep understanding of the nuances of everyday life, so while the film is sad -- often devastatingly so -- it also is pretty beautiful.  The first half in particular is filled with lovely, poetic little snippets that give a bit of happiness here and a bit of longing and regret there.  Away From Her is not just about undying love, unflagging devotion, or the coldness of aging -- it's about everything all at once.  The film not only follows Munro's work in story, but more importantly in spirit.  Instead of making them bombastic and melodramatic, Polley constantly lingers on the smallness at the center of every single scene.  Life weathers us all down, not just the sick and dying, and the film is all about the things we do to try to remain upright for as long as we can.

What's most remarkable is that Sarah Polley was only 26 years old when she made this gorgeous, incredibly mature film.  While some may not want to give her credit because she already had Alice Munro's material to work from, the story could've gone completely awry in somebody else's hands.  In Polley's however, there's an aching pain that pours out of the corners of every moment, mostly because of her assured directorial flourishes.  There are visual motifs that revolve around trekking and travelling, whether it be through an open snowscape or down a narrow hallway, which is a fitting metaphor for the situation we find ourselves in.  After all, we're convinced that life is this expansive series of options and possibilities, when we're all really just making a singular march towards death.  Away From Her set up high expectations that Sarah Polley may never be able to live up to, but only because it's a work of astonishing power, raw talent, and emotional acuity.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Season 4 of Arrested Development Takes Big Risks and Mostly Succeeds

As the old saying goes, "Anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment."  If that's the case, then season 4 of Arrested Development had the potential to be a massively underwhelming endeavor.  After all, Arrested Development is my favorite comedy of all time.  Even season 3, which often gets maligned as being the point where the cracks in the show started appearing, is mostly brilliant in my opinion.  Since its cancellation, Mitch Hurwitz and various members of the cast frequently talked about doing a movie, but after so many false starts and dead ends, the internet became trained to just roll their eyes whenever another news story about a potential movie popped up.  Then there was the news that there'd be a new season on Netflix and up until the very moment the episodes dropped, some people were still convinced that this was just a giant practical joke.  Well, season 4 is here, and it was never going to live up to the massive expectations, so instead of just producing "more Arrested Development," they smartly decided to go in a different direction.  The end result -- 15 episodes that each spotlight a single character and interlock together -- is an ambitious mess.

Fortunately, I tend to like messy things.  Some of my favorite works of art -- Magnolia, The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- have a shaggy, inconsistent feel to them and season 4 of Arrested Development is no different.  Watching it, the thing I was most reminded of was the final season of Moral Orel which also played with temporal continuity, descended into darkness, and explored various character points of view.  Season 3 of Moral Orel is one of my favorite television seasons of all time, but I wasn't impressed with the first few installments of season 4 of Arrested Development.  I had a bit of a sweaty, collar-tugging, "oh boy..." feeling in those initial episodes, which are mostly bogged down by the nature of the season's structure.  Because of the narrative's building nature, those first couple of episodes are filled with a ton of exposition, trying to get pieces on to the board that the rest of the season will be operating on.  The choice of character spotlighting is a curious decision as well.  "Borderline Personalities" and "Indian Takers," the second and third episodes, focus on George and Lindsay respectively, and they're both kind of excruciating because they spotlight characters that can't necessarily sustain an entire episode.  Another problem is that the pacing feels a bit off in the early goings.  When Arrested Development was airing on Fox, the episodes were 22 minutes, and they were tightly constructed pieces of comedy, with three stories colliding into each other and ricocheting manically.  The majority of these Netflix episodes are 30 minutes or longer and even the best ones feel a bit flabby, but episodes 2 and 3 are especially airless.

Things quickly improve from there, as "The B. Team" comes along and shows the first signs of life in this new season.  Episode 4 marks the return of many familiar elements, as Michael's storyline gets to tap into a bit of the Hollywood satire that the show used to handle so deftly.  It also brings back Kitty, who's always been one the best side characters (her "no YOU watch YOUR back" is the biggest laugh in the trailer).  Episode 5, "A New Start," is even better, focusing on fan favorite Tobias and his life in the years since the finale.  These episodes serve as a single piece of an entire puzzle, but this one may be the episode that works the best as an individual installment.  The entire thing is just brilliantly constructed farce, using Tobias's aloof naivety to great comedic effect and concluding in a wonderful comedic setpiece.

After another George and another Lindsay episode ("Red Hairing," which lasts 37 minutes!) that are equally as soporific as their firsts, the season straps in for a final stretch of episodes that are magnificent.  "A New Attitude", "SeƱoritis," and "It Gets Better" are the three best episodes of the season and they all come one after another.  "SeƱoritis," which is a Maeby episode, might be my favorite of the season and it's an indication that if there's one thing that season 4 needed, it was more Maeby.  George-Michael's the focus of "It Gets Better" and it's the episode the best justifies the structure of the season, containing a reveal that was so meticulously built up that I was howling with laughter when the tables were turned.  Buster's episode, "Off the Hook," isn't as strong as the two that come before it, but it's got some pretty cutting political satire.  The final episode, particularly the closing scene, has been very divisive, but I found it to be quite cathartic.  If there's one main throughline to take away from this season, it's the growing rift between Michael and George-Michael.  In a season full of characters morphing into other characters and moments where it seemed George-Michael was becoming a "true Bluth," the final shot is a powerful button on the events leading up to it.

From the looks of it, everyone's enjoyment of this season is dependent on a few major factors: whether you enjoyed the "mystery," how much you laughed at the jokes, and how "complete" it felt.  While I don't think that the mystery alone is enough to satisfy those who are focusing on it, I thought it was quite fun to see things snap into place in the way that they do.  Snippets established back in episode 3 don't get revealed until episode 9, jokes get built upon in chunks, and the punchline often preempts the setup.  Quite frankly, I laughed a whole lot at these episodes, especially after the first few.  It would've been easy for the writers to just trot out the same jokes, as if to say "Remember that thing you liked?  Here's more of it!"  But there's a surprising amount of restraint in this fourth season.   There's a dreadful "loose seal" joke in one of the early episodes, but for every contrived bit of fan service, there are three more callbacks that get deepened (my favorite being the advancement of the "I've made a huge mistake" bit).  As I mentioned above, I wasn't unsatisfied with the conclusion and found these 15 episodes to be complete in their own incomplete way.  There are dangling plot threads, but the season told complete thoughts about the characters and where they were in life after the events on the Queen Mary.  This season is filled with darkness -- sex offenders, endless roofy cycles, methadone addicts -- and some people were put off by it, but nobody could've expected anything good from the Bluths after the season 3 finale.  There's something Sopranos-esque about these episodes, as characters flirt with the idea of changing and bettering themselves, only to come to the precipice and turn back around.

There are definitely things that about the season that didn't work for me as I was trudging through it.  Some of the plotlines were overly labyrinthine, to the point where I was never 100% sure what exactly was going on in the George and Lindsay stories.  Though I recognize the need to accommodate everyone's schedules, I'm still not sure if the one-character spotlight structure was the right way to go, since the show always thrived on the crackling interaction between the ensemble.  I watched these episodes in less than 48 hours and the experience was at once exhilarating and exhausting.  By the end, I had forgiven many of the flaws and just marveled at how impressively structured and insanely funny most of it was.  It's basically a gigantic, 8 hour long farce, one that I imagine will play even better on the rewatch.  Mitch Hurwitz is still pushing for a movie and these 15 episodes set one up pretty extensively, but even if we never get an Arrested Development film, I'd be satisfied with season 4, which was one of my favorite TV seasons of the year.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Orphan Black and the Nature of Plot

So many Maslanys!

As a whole, the internet tends to grossly overrate plot.  To me, focusing on plot will almost certainly lead to disappointment.  When the goal is to constantly think of ideas that are fresh, unique, and surprising; the end result is always going to have something that can be picked apart.  Plot is just harder to sustain long-term than character, which often finds beauty in the way it circles back on itself to reveal new things about an individual and their place within the world.  For that reason, I tend to prefer character development and thematic storytelling over sheer plot.  If the plot of a show is good, then that's just icing on the cake, but there's something innately more satisfying about a tightly constructed theme than a shocking twist.  Would people be as upset about series finales for shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica if they weren't so obsessed with uncovering some grand mystery?  Granted, both shows were set up in ways that promised some kind of payoff, but I was never convinced that they were actually going to be capable of doing it, so I was instead able to sit back and enjoy both for the often lovely stuff contained within their respective finales.

If there's one show that's proving to be the exception to my "plot will always let you down" theory, it's Breaking Bad.  Throughout its four and a half season run, Breaking Bad has been able to spin a yarn that keeps going to increasingly crazier places, and yet very few people have gotten tired of it or questioned the storytelling decisions.  At least some of that can be attributed to the show's descent into madness, which occurred as gradually as its protagonist's did.  Things started from a place of mild plausibility (high school chemistry teacher cooks meth to pay for cancer bills) and rose the stakes so slowly that hardly anybody thought twice when Walter White pulled off a train heist in season 5.  Even still, the twists and turns of the plot work so well because they rest on top of a strong foundation -- a deep sense of morality in a world full of three-dimensional, tragically flawed characters.  Plus, Vince Gilligan is a genius and not everybody can be him, nor should they try to.

Of all the shows to take up Breaking Bad's mantle, I never expected that it would be some BBC America sci-fi show called Orphan Black.  As anybody who reads this blog knows, I'm obsessed with television and I follow the TV world religiously, so it's rare that a show comes around and catches me completely by surprise.  Whether it be from the cachet of the showrunner or general screener buzz, I can usually tell whether I'm going to like a new show or not.  And even if something turns out to be better than expected, I at least know about it beforehand.  I hadn't even heard about Orphan Black until A.V. Club critic Todd VanDerWerff tweeted about it and sung its praises the night before the premiere.  I'm so glad that he did, or else I would've been late to the party on a great new show in a year chock full of them (Hannibal, Nathan For You, The Americans, Rectify, etc)

Even after the VanDerWerff Seal of Approval, I was still completely surprised by the pilot of Orphan Black.  For the first few minutes, I was put off by the "BBC America" feel it had and the overbearing score, but the episode quickly settled into itself.  By the time the end credits rolled, the show had instantly announced itself as a twisty sci-fi show that was going to be a blast to watch.  Over the course of the season, the stakes never stopped raising.  Much like the early days of Breaking Bad, it was so refreshing to see Orphan Black gleefully refuse to step on the brakes, as it veered from reveal to reveal with shocking aplomb.  The writers had a habit of writing characters into a corner and coming up with smart and surprising ways to wriggle out of it, another signature Vince Gilligan trait.  The Breaking Bad similarities don't end there though -- much like that show, Orphan Black has constructed a world that's just a wide net of complicating factors, most notably seen in "Variations Under Domestication," where almost every tangent of the season converged in madcap fashion at a suburban house party.

The real find of the show, however, is lead actor Tatiana Maslany.  Her performance carries the show, as she inhabits multiple roles with various accents and makes them feel like distinct people.  Maslany commits to everything so completely that sometimes you forget that all of these roles are being played by the same actor.  At certain points in the season, she has to play Alison pretending to be Sarah and somehow it manages to be different than when she's actually playing Sarah and it's absolutely nuts.  It's Maslany's performance that makes some of the season's goofier elements -- clones, silver-eyed science freaks, a guy with a tail(!) -- easier to swallow.

Yet for as rollicking and delightful as the show and Tatiana Maslany were, its lack of an emotional hook was keeping me from ever truly loving Orphan Black.  For all of the acid-dissolving, chemical exploding madness of early Breaking Bad, it still was about a man dying of cancer at its core.  A fun ride is fine enough, but I needed more of a personal connection to the show than Sarah's devotion to Kira, her mysterious moppet of a daughter.  Well Saturday's season finale took my complaints and completely smashed them to pieces, revealing that the show had a beating heart that wasn't just made of cogs all along.  "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" took the three main clones and put them all through an emotional wringer.  Cosima's ominous coughing of blood, Alison passively witnessing her neighbor's death and not doing anything about it (Breaking Bad similarity #475), and Sarah losing her birth mother were all happening separately, but they were tied together by the tragic weight they shared.  Yet even without those gut-punches, the finale was filled with so many other twists and plotlines converging in ways where I didn't realize they were being built up to until they happened.  It's a neat little trick that should stop being so impressive, but it's always surprising and satisfying when it happens.

The episode closes on a final reveal that's too good to spoil, one that should be a bizarre head-scratcher, but like every other element of the show, it's held together by the confidence with which they pull it off, and it ultimately devastated me.  After all, the entire season was about the clones' struggle for individuality -- their drive to want to get a new start and be free.  That's why the twist was so effective and brutal, because it establishes just how unattainable that might be for all of them.  Who knows if they can keep this highwire act up, but "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" made me stoked for season 2 and guaranteed a top 10 spot for Orphan Black on my end of the year list.