Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ariana Grande's "My Everything" is a beacon of light in the Top 40 darkness

I still remember the first time I listened to Ariana Grande's music.  My brother and I were driving to a baseball game and he told me, "You have to listen to Ariana Grande's new single" and proceeded to put on "The Way."  Beforehand, I only knew her as the burgundy-haired girl from that Nickelodeon show Victorious, and didn't even know she made music.  There was a large barrier to entry going into the song: I wasn't a fan of any other Disney or Nickelodeon star's music, so I had no reason to be optimistic about Grande.  Nor was I into Mac Miller -- this was before he began to gain goodwill by putting out respectable music -- who had a guest verse.  But you know what?  I was blown away by "The Way," which sounded simultaneously like a throwback and something new and refreshing.

The entirety of her debut album, Yours Truly, instilled the same kind of feeling in me.  It's an endlessly listenable record (my sixth favorite album of 2013), full of catchy tunes that were able to show off Grande's powerful pipes.  She effortlessly rode the line between pop and R&B of the mid-to-late 90s variety better than anybody since Jojo.

If that album's charming success seemed accidental, then make no mistake about My Everything, which is a clear attempt by Grande to rocket herself into pop's highest echelon.  Unfortunately, this leads to one of the least successful songs on the record in "Break Free."  It's not a bad song -- in fact, it's pretty catchy on every other listen.  The problem is that it's just generic dance pop fluff, lacking the personality that makes her best songs stand out.  There's just a semi-grating chorus, the obligatory EDM drop near the end, and some uninspired lyrics (just trying parsing the phrase "I only wanna die alive").  It sounds like a song you'd hear on the radio right between two songs that sound exactly like it.  It sounds like something that would soundtrack a scene in Jersey Shore if that show still existed.  It sounds like two rival nightclubs getting into a fight.  You get the point.

She goes way over to the other side of the genre dial with "Hands On Me," a sub-Beyonce strutter with a limp guest turn from A$AP Ferg.  There's something commendable about her trying new things, but stretching to the ends of the pop and hip hop spectrum just causes the songs to snap and fall apart.

When she does stay in the pocket that she carved out on her first album, it once again produces glorious results.  You can see this in the album's roaring middle stretch, which features midtempo bangers like "Be My Baby."  "Best Mistake" puts Grande's pristine vocals at the forefront, resting atop a simple but beautiful piano line that carries the song.  "Break Your Heart Right Back," perhaps the greatest summation of her 90s influences, repurposes Notorious B.I.G. by way of Diana Ross, stretching it out and turning the beat into a skeletal, bass-heavy slinker.  The latter two feature rap verses -- from Big Sean and Childish Gambino, respectively -- that are mostly forgettable, but Grande's sense of melody is strong enough to make up for it during her parts.

One of the most unique things about Yours Truly was just how old-fashioned it was, not just musically but also in terms of lyrical content.  It was an album of hand-holding, stomach butterflies, and kissing underneath the moonlight.  Listeners might be surprised by just how much more raunchy My Everything is, coming only a year after Grande's debut.  (Yours Truly might've been released in 2013, but many of the songs were written way before then.)  "Skirt off, keep my high heels on / I might be a little thing but I like that long" is enough to make an old man's monocle pop out.  But even ambiguous phrases that could be bent to the side of innocence on her last album take on a more sensual vibe on My Everything.

Though her carnal musings come off like a kid trying on their parents' clothes, many of her lyrics have surprising, nuanced things to say about relationships.  On My Everything, they're a real struggle.  It's full of songs where relationships are a fight to remain faithful, to keep the fire alive.  But to Grande, who sings, "I'm loving the pain, I never wanna live without it" on "Why Try," the battle is what makes everything worthwhile.  Later she sings, "We've been living like angels, living like devils."  This an album about how people in relationships can be many opposing things all at once.

Perhaps reflective of Grande's hippie-dippy personality, this is a very even-handed album.  It's rare for pop stars to admit culpability as much as she does here, where more than one song is about her asking for forgiveness in the wake of mistakes she's made.  But even the breakup songs are about the ways in which both parties are flawed.  "Problem" might be lighting up the charts because of its blaring, hair-whipping horns, but take a look at the lyrics and you'll realize it's actually an interesting reflection on being unable to shake the desire to be with a guy she knows is wrong for her.  There are complex conflicts throughout My Everything, between trust and betrayal, giving and asking for second chances, one's wants and what's actually right for them.

Ariana Grande is only 21 years old, and My Everything feels like the work of somebody who is still figuring things out.  The album is a tug of war between the kind of music that will make her more popular and the kind that made her so good in the first place.  But it manages to be a success because her songwriting and vocal talents push her through the record's wobbly-footed moments.  This seems like something that history will remember as a transitional album, marking the time before she really comes into her own as a musician.  If an album as frequently great as this one is an example of Grande not quite reaching her potential, then the world might not be ready for when she finally peaks.

Monday, August 25, 2014

"Brill Bruisers" is the best New Pornographers album in nearly a decade

You'd be hard pressed to find another three-album stretch in the last 15 years that's as good as The New Pornographers' first trio of records.  From the power-pop confection of Mass Romantic, to the no-nonsense hook factory of Electric Version, to the widescreen tunes of Twin Cinema, the band was on a blazing streak of delivering songs as technically proficient as they were catchy.  After a run like that, it's only natural that anything after would seem like a minor disappointment.  Though it has its acolytes, 2007's Fleetwood Mac-influenced Challengers wasn't met with the amount of fervor that their previous albums had.  That album -- along with its follow-up, Together -- might not be as impressive, but they represent a tapped-brakes period that might have been necessary for the bad after their first three releases.

If that's the case, then consider their new album Brill Bruisers a return to form.  The whole record has a punchy, driving nature that the band's previous two -- despite their own pleasures -- just didn't contain.  Each song feels like those trick canisters that open up and release a bunch of fake snakes in every direction.  The New Pornographers have always been ruthlessly efficient, channeling their energy into four-minute pop gems, but "Another Drug Deal of the Heart" manages to be just as catchy and indelible in half the time.  "Backstairs" is the most fun song on the record, but it's also the best, featuring verses from AC Newman that work like a boxer feinting high, only for the Neko Case chorus to sweep the legs and knock you over.  Elsewhere, "Fantasy Fools" keeps things simple, barreling through with the forward momentum of a bullet train.

The cover art for the album, with its austere white background and simple black lettering offset by the neon rainbow lights layered over them, is both visually striking and representative of each track's mission statement.  The songs themselves, as always, follow a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, but the band lays flourishes on top that make them vital and invigorating.  Brill Bruisers mostly accomplishes this through the use of keyboards.  It's not exactly a new instrument in their repertoire -- in fact, they've been using them since Mass Romantic -- but they've never been consistently featured so prominently before.  Here, they saw through the melodies and settle front-and-center.  And they vary their sound through the album -- bubbly and effervescent on "Champions of Red Wine," twinkly and insistent on "Another Drug Deal of the Heart," then spacey and yawning on "Spidyr."

The term "supergroup" gets lobbed around whenever the band gets written about, but they're not exactly a supergroup in a Traveling Wilburys sense.  When the band formed in 1999, many of the members had their own ventures -- AC Newman was in Zumpano, Dan Bejar performed under the name Destroyer, Neko Case had a solo album -- but none of them were blockbuster names.  No, The New Pornographers are a supergroup because each of their albums feel like the joining of musicians who each have their own specific skill sets that mesh together like Voltron.  It's well known that Bejar is one of the band's greatest weapons.  He always shows up for three songs on every album, and his contributions feel like a change of pace without being completely out of place.  "Spidyr" is his peak on Brill Bruisers.  It's a minor epic -- compact in length, but sonically sprawling.  But the band's best kept secret continues to be drummer Kurt Dahle, whose pounding drums hold up every song on the album.  You can feel every thwack and bang like they're resonating in an empty auditorium.

The album offers quick moments to catch your breath -- the string-plucked "Hi-Rise," the open and expansive "Wide Eyes" -- but it's generally a wild ride.  It's the kind of album that can fit in such an array of odd little musical choices -- a harmonica solo that bursts out in the middle of "Spidyr," a skronky breakdown in "Dancehall Domine," a Daft Punk-esque vocoder intro to "Backstairs" -- and make them completely work.  While it may not be at the level of something like Twin Cinema, it comes shockingly close.  The band once wrote an ode to comeback kids, and now with Brill Bruisers, they've managed to achieve a resurrection of their own.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Offering a mea culpa on You're the Worst

Every critic has reviews where they feel like they were off base or that their words didn't do a good job of reflecting how they actually felt about something.  In that regard, I'm certainly no different.  In my year and a half of writing this blog, I've written some reviews that I don't necessarily stand by anymore: my Star Trek Into Darkness review, which reads like a B when I thought the movie was a C-; my negative review of Earl Sweatshirt's Doris, an album I later grew to really enjoy; and my pilot review of Halt and Catch Firea show that later stumbled in a way that didn't reflect an A-.  It looks like I might have another one on my hands with You're the Worst, one of FX's two new summer comedies.  I gave the pilot a C-, but I wonder if my judgment of the previews got in the way of reviewing the actual show, because I've become quite a fan of it.

Part of the reason why I've warmed up to the show is that it has softened the edges of the two leads, Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Beere).  My biggest complaint about the pilot was that Gretchen and Jimmy were so unlikable, and in a way that made them uninteresting and not enjoyable to watch.  Now, they still say and do horrible things, but there's less of a wink-wink, "ain't I a stinker?" air to it.  Plus, it doesn't hurt that the jokes have gotten better.  Showrunner Stephen Falk and his crew of writers have been gradually delivering stronger scripts with sharp, biting humor.  It's much easier to stomach the antipathetic nature of the characters when you're laughing along with them.

The show takes place in Los Angeles, and it's really about the city in a low-key way.  It populates the world with weirdos and people who are just as terrible as Gretchen and Jimmy, contrasting the bright prettiness of the city with the off-color people who inhabit it.  Even Gretchen and Jimmy's jobs -- she's a PR executive, he's a failing novelist -- feel very Hollywood.  You're the Worst uses these professions to have its leads come into contact with the colorful characters of Los Angeles, like the rapper that Gretchen is representing.  He's a clear Tyler the Creator analogue, complete with a skateboarding, cargo short wearing crew of lackeys, and he's just as obnoxious.  The show's fourth episode, "What Normal People Do," perfectly skewers Hollywood with Edgar's (Desmin Borges) storyline, where he initially thinks he's met other war veterans, only to eventually discover that they're just actors who are studying him for an upcoming movie.

Edgar, who is Jimmy's roommate and best friend, along with Gretchen's best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue), round out the show's small cast.  Though it may be limiting, having only two supporting characters has allowed the writers to flesh Edgar and Lindsay out in a short amount of time.  The first few episodes featured them solely bouncing off of Jimmy and Gretchen, but the most recent couple have shown that they're able to hold their own in individual storylines.  In the process, they've actually revealed themselves to be the heart and soul of the show.  The writers have done an excellent job of handling Edgar's past wartime activity, making his PTSD quietly sad, but not depressing enough to throw off the tone of the show.  Meanwhile, Lindsay's marital problems and self-esteem issues are fertile material for them to explore in the future.

Despite its title and my initial criticisms, You're the Worst is one of the sweetest comedies on television.  Gretchen and Jimmy are slowly coming to grips with the fact that they actually genuinely like each other, despite his hatred and her fear of commitment.  First, their pairing appeared to be a union of two people whom nobody else wanted, but now it's transforming into them being together because they truly want each other.  They're beginning to compromise on their hard-hearted beliefs, subtly making each other better, kinder people.  It's a surprising joy to watch.

Like Married, the new show that airs before it, You're Worst still feels a little bit too shaggy and small.  Yet there's also something charming about its ragged nature.  I was watching with the wrong lens at first, and now that I've adapted to the rhythms of the show, I can see that the pilot was pretty solid.  And it's only gotten better, funnier, and more assured in the past few weeks.  The cast is great, the jokes are strong, and the heart is there.  If it keeps improving at this rate, You're the Worst could become one of TV's best comedies.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"They Want My Soul" shows that Spoon is still going strong

It's hard out there for older bands.  The music business thrives on the "hot new thing," constantly talking about up-and-coming buzz bands and pushing established acts further and further towards the fringes.  There are some bands, like Radiohead or Animal Collective, who still get consistent attention and critical praise whenever they put out a new album, but for the most part end of the year lists are dominated by artists with three albums or less.  Bands like The Decemberists, Belle & Sebastian, and The New Pornographers are still putting out terrific records, but they don't get the critical adulation to match that quality.  It's especially rough for Spoon, who might be the most consistent band of the last two decades.  They've put out so many good albums that now people take it for granted, as if to say, "oh, another good Spoon album.  So"?  That's the kind of attitude that lead to Transference, an otherwise great album, becoming perceived as a step-down for them when it was released in 2010.

"Rent I Pay," the first song on their new album They Want My Soul, finds the band firmly planted in their usual pocket.  It's been four years since we've heard those jagged, wiry guitars and that lean rhythm section, so it feels good to have them back.  But at the same time, it's easy to be disappointed with getting the "same old Spoon."  Smartly, the band follows it up with "Inside Out," which is decidedly not the same old Spoon.  From the little plinky piano, to the harp instrumental break, to the spacey synthesizers, it's a song that finds them embarking on completely new sonic terrain.  That risk turned out to be a success, because it's a beautiful track, perhaps their most earnest, open-hearted one yet.

That one-two combination of those opening songs represents the overriding theme of the album.  They Want My Soul is about the push and pull between familiar rhythms and innovations around the margins.  It's an album that alternates between being loose and tightly-wound, with longer-than-usual instrumental breaks among their typical bare bones verses and choruses.  "Knock Knock Knock," for example, has crisp acoustic guitars that give way to some squealing electric ones in the break.  Each song offers a slightly different flavor of the band, from the Ga...-era pop of "Do You," to the bass-heavy groove of "Outlier," to the ragged ragtime cover of Ann Margaret's "I Just Don't Understand."

They Want My Soul is also the first Spoon album to feature a title track.  Just as it was probably a deliberate decision for them to not have one on any of their first seven offerings, it's also most likely not an accident that this was the album on which they chose to break that trend.  Better yet, it's one of the more traditionally Spoon songs on the record.  New and old, new and old.  It even namechecks Jonathon Fisk, the figure around which one of their best songs revolves.  That choice seems to get at one of the other themes of this album: being stuck in cycles.  "Do You" might sound peppy, but the lyrics in the first verse allude to some kind of unshakable addiction.  Meanwhile, the chorus of "Knock Knock Knock" obliquely talks about an abusive relationship.  All of a sudden, the automaton precision and unadorned nature of their sound takes on a more morose, sobering vibe in that context.

Nobody is going to argue that this is the band's best album; few eighth albums are.  But it signifies that they're in a very healthy place in their career, and is a sign that they're not gradually down-sliding, seeing as this is a hair better than Transference.  (Time will tell if it proves to better than 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, though it's doubtful, since that's a modern classic.)  With bony songs full of great guitars and Britt Daniel's versatile vocals, They Want My Soul is by and large what you'd expect from Spoon.  Clearly, that's not a bad thing.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The debut album from Alvvays is a perfect summer listen

There seems to be a ubiquity of bands who make reverb-laden indie pop in today's music climate.  Most of them are pretty interchangeable too, pushing out the same peppy melodies, the same wall-of-sound guitars, the same wistful female vocals.  When done well, it can make for a sublime listening experience, but far too often bands are content with bringing the same generic sound to the table over and over again.

Up-and-coming Toronto band Alvvays was initially pitched to me as Best Coast meets Camera Obscura.  I'm always a little wary of a new one of these bands, but that combination immediately piqued my interest.  I don't listen to Best Coast much anymore, but liked them quite a bit at one point, and I consider Camera Obscura -- my favorite band -- the gold standard of reverb-heavy, catchy indie pop.  And in listening to the debut self-titled album from Alvvays, I can definitely see where the Best Coast-plus-Camera Obscura description comes from.  Similarly to the former's first and best album, Alvvays is perfect music for a warm sunny day.  It's also ruthlessly efficient, containing nine indelible songs that average about three minutes.  And like the latter, the band has found a classic female indie pop vocalist in Molly Rankin, whose sweet, dreamy voice rests snugly in the mix of bright guitars.

Lead single "Archie, Marry Me" is a perfect encapsulation of the album's catchy simplicity.  There are no frills, it's just a childlike, innocent profession of love to a boy named Archie.  Rankin talks about "sailing out on the Atlantic" and being taken by the hand in a gentle, traditional way that'll warm hearts and faces alike.  Even the name Archie recalls something very simple and old-timey.  "Ones Who Love You," the best song on the album, shares that lovely and infectious quality.  Sunny, bobbing guitars in the verses and choruses give way to a swooning bridge.  The first half of the album is full of these kind of uncomplicated structures and head-swaying melodies.

On the second half of the album, the band begins to tap into the other side of the emotional dial.  Much of the more somber songs are about the difficulty of reading and communicating with people.  On the plaintive "Party Police," Rankin sings, "I cannot decipher conversation in your head."  "The Agency Group" is all about a hazily defined relationship, centered around the chorus' revelation of, "When you whisper you don't think of me that way / when I mention you don't mean that much to me."  Album closer "Red Planet" takes the idea even further, telling a story about two people who are seemingly from entirely different worlds.

Nobody's going to mistake this album for being original, but it contains endless pleasures nonetheless.  Alvvays is unashamed about its influences and the band executes its vision with charm and confidence.  There's so much of this brand of indie pop that it's hard to stand out, but Alvvays does so due to the strength of their melodies and the acuity of their emotions.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: The Knick

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Fridays at 10:00 PM on Cinemax

There's no doubt that television is a writer's medium.  We tend to talk about episodes at a script level, and shows are known for their showrunner and writing staff, not their stable of directors.  It's notable, then, that the buzz surrounding The Knick involved Steven Soderbergh's work behind the camera.  Of course, it's not the first time a big director has lent their talents to a TV show -- think Martin Scorsese's work on the pilot of Boardwalk Empire or David Slade's time on Hannibal.  But Soderbergh's ties to The Knick are different and exciting for two main reasons.  The first is that he directed and edited every single episode of the season, instead of just the usual pilot job that these noteworthy directors do.  More importantly, he does more than just make the show "look pretty."

Take the surgery at the beginning of the episode for instance.  It's an intense, precise scene that looks great, but conveys meaning in a crucial way.  The Knick is a gnarly show, and if the idea of graphic guts and gore makes you nauseous, then you'd do best to check out.  But if you tune in, you'll see that the opening scene, and the show by proxy, is giving you a close-up look at the way surgery worked back in the early 1900s.  It's as illuminating as it is disgusting.  Soderbergh is able put forth ideas visually without relying on the script, just through choices with blocking, composition, and camera movement.  You can tell so much about the balance of power by the way characters are oriented on the screen in one scene; in another, the camera rotates perspective to communicate a shift in that power.  Throughout the hour, the show is always reminding you that it's being controlled by a master.

That directorial strength is invaluable, because it isn't breaking any new ground storywise.  The pilot is basically a greatest hits collection of brooding drama tropes.  Main character Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) is a brilliant surgeon at the New York Knickerbocker Hospital, but here's the catch: he's nursing a horrible cocaine and opium addiction.  Not only does the episode check off the "great man hiding a dark secret" box, but he's also stubborn and plays by his own rules, as we see him butting heads with his superiors when he's given more responsibility after the death of his mentor.  Elsewhere, you can see the DNA of Peggy Olson and Virginia Johnson in Algernon (Andre Holland), an African American surgeon who's brought on to the hospital staff against John's wishes.  It'll be interesting to see whether the writers can find new shades to the story of a member of an oppressed group fighting against adversity to prove their worth, because it's as common as they come with period pieces.

Part of the reason why none of this feels like a complete carbon copy of previous dramas is because of Soderbergh's direction.  It can't be emphasized enough how much his work enhances the pilot, where he does his best to make the story not feel stale and suffocating.  And he succeeds, because it's a thrilling, intriguing, artistically satisfying introduction.  This is not a case of style over substance, but style adding substance.  The Knick may be playing the hits, but it plays them extremely well.

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Outlander

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Saturdays at 9:00 PM on Starz

Initially, I was only going to watch Starz's new fantasy show Outlander because it was developed by Ronald D. Moore.  Having created Battlestar Galactica (one of my favorite shows of all time) and Virtuality (one of my favorite pilots of all time), he's one of those writers for whom I'll give a chance to anything they're involved with.  (This is what led me to sticking with Helix way longer than I should have, given its gradual slide into inanity.)  Though the Diana Gabaldon book series on which this show is based is popular, I've never read them, so I didn't have any built-in knowledge of the story.  A quick glance at the premise -- a former World War II nurse finds herself transported back to 1743 Scotland -- made the whole thing seem a bit silly, if I'm being honest.  But despite all of those misgivings, Outlander's pilot turned out to be shockingly great.

Part of the reason the show manages to be palatable is that the pilot takes its time introducing the actual concept.  The episode rounds out at a full 60 minutes and completely swims in it.  Before giving off any whiff of time travel, the show smartly lets you have ample time with Claire (Caitriona Balfe) as a person.  In that long introductory portion, she's shown to be determined, sensitive, thoughtful, and hard-working -- all of which make her a truly compelling protagonist.  To get in her head space even more, Moore chooses to have her narrate the events of the story (a vestige of the novels, no doubt), which is usually damning but totally works here.  If we didn't get to know Claire in the 1940s, then her getting blasted back to the past wouldn't matter much.

The pilot really soars once she gets mysteriously travels back to 1743, though.  It's truly commendable that the show has the conviction to keep its two leads apart until the last 20 minutes, especially because when Claire does meet Jamie (Sam Heughan), a Scottish civil war soldier, it's electrifying.  Clearly, Outlander is going to lean heavily on romance in the future, and the crazy chemistry between Balfe and Heughan ensures it'll be something worth looking forward to, not an element to merely put up with.  The scenes in the past are also deceptively funny.  As to be expected, some jokes derive from the fish out of water aspect of Claire's story, but more importantly, the laughs are very character-driven more often than not.

So far, the show is sexy but not sleazy, deliberately paced but not stuffy, and fun but not mindless.  Most of all, it proves that Ronald D. Moore -- a writer who hasn't had much success in the last few years -- can do great work outside of his usual realm of sci-fi.  Outlander is a spectacular fantasy program.  Yeah, I'm just as surprised as you are.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

All aboard!: The insane delights of Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho making his English language debut feels like a long time coming.  His Korean films like Memories of Murder, The Host, and Mother were not only financial hits in his home country, but critically acclaimed internationally as well.  Across those films he's shown a wide mastery of tone and genre, possessing a talent that indicates he's poised to break out with a larger audience any day now.  Just last year, two of his Korean New Wave contemporaries, Kim Ji-woon and Park Chan-wook, made their English language debuts with The Last Stand and Stoker, respectively.  Now it's Joon-ho's turn with the VOD release of his sci-fi actioner, Snowpiercer.

In an effort to quell the onset of global warming, scientists drop an experimental cooling device that fails, freezing the Earth and killing most of its population.  The only survivors left exist on Snowpiercer, a high-tech train that circles the world and is built to withstand the Earth's varying climates.  Each of the train's cars are divided by economic strata, with the poor residing in grimy, cramped cars in the tail end of the train, and the rich in lavish cars closer to the engine in the front.  Tired of living in squalor, the tail end citizens -- helmed by leadership-averse Curtis (Chris Evans), sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), and mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) -- decide to launch an attack to get to the front of the train and overthrow the wealthy who are in charge.  The divide between the rich and the poor is so pronounced that the people in the back of the train don't even know what any of the front-end citizens look like, save the elite minister (Tilda Swinton) who delivers orders on behalf of Wilford (Ed Harris), the train's creator and quasi-president.

The film is as unsubtle as that description makes it sound, which would usually be cause to write it off.  It's consciously, unabashedly unsubtle, but it basks in that heavy-handedness, dialing its subtext up to 11.  Snowpiercer is not meant to be a deeply probing film, it just wants to take the idea of class disparity and apply it to an interesting, contained setting.  And it certainly makes the most of that setting.  Joon-ho establishes an excellently realized world through the use of great set design, contrasting the sludgy cars in the back with the ornate ones in the front.  Always a highly visual director, he tells you so much about the train's ecosystem through quick visual flourishes, trusting you to pick up on the details without dialogue.

There's a very simple, clean structure to the story, which follows Curtis and his crew's progression from car to car.  It's kind of like levels in a video game, and like all video games, there are some objectives along the way.  In order to progress past the gates between the later cars, they must unlock security expert Namgoong (Joon-ho regular, Song Kang-ho) and his daughter (Go Ah-sung) from a morgue-like prison car.  During the quick succession between compartments, Snowpiercer flies with a forward momentum not unlike its titular train.  It's even able to get a bulk of its exposition out of the way when the main characters trek through the classroom car in the middle of a history lesson led by the train's teacher (a scene stealing Alison Pill).  Despite the long crawl through the length of the locomotive, the film fights off becoming repetitive by giving each of the checkpoints a different flavor.  One second there's an action scene, then in a typical Bong Joon-ho turn of tone, there's a scene of comical lunacy the next second.

Things threaten to grind to a screeching halt in the third act, which devolves into a level of monologuing that almost becomes excessive.  After such a propulsive beginning and middle, the fizzle is even more jarring.  Fortunately, the film turns around near the conclusion and delivers an explosive finale.  Snowpiercer is a messy, lumpy movie, but it's all in the service of something wild and ambitious, melding an array of tones and genres to create a thrilling experience.  We wouldn't want it any other way with Bong Joon-ho.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Episode of the Week: Masters of Sex - "Fight"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 2, Episode 3

"I don't want my son to be a boxer.  Nope.  When he's hurt, I don't want him to act like he's not.  That is not a lesson he needs to learn.  And I don't think that's going to make him a man." --Virginia Johnson

It would have been easy to characterize Masters of Sex as Showtime's version of Mad Men, and many did at first.  After all, both shows depict a similar era, and thus share an interest in exploring the ways in which society has changed or stayed the same since then.  But in its first season, Masters of Sex quickly broke free from those comparisons, revealing itself to be much livelier and more devoted to examining the many definitions of intimacy.  This week, it circled back around to taking a page from Mad Men's playbook with "Fight," which resembles the "two characters confined to one space, talking for an entire episode" format of "The Suitcase."  The latter is one of the best television episodes ever made, but the former comes as close to filling those large shoes as a TV episode can.

Like "The Suitcase," "Fight" is framed around a monumental boxing event.  Here, it's the 1958 match between aging defending champion Archie Moore and young up-and-comer Yvon Durelle.  It occurs on one of the nights that Bill and Virginia spend at a hotel, under the guise of a long-distance married couple, to conduct their sex study.  The night is one full of intercourse and boxing, but in between that is an illuminating character piece.  "Fight" feels like a lovely little one-act play in the way that Bill and Virginia trade off monologues and revelations.  Talky episodes can sometimes feel too laconic, but this one is absolutely riveting.

It has been said many times before that Masters of Sex is a show about intimacy.  But it's not just about intimacy of the sexual nature, but also the emotional kind, and the latter often takes on more importance than the former.  This episode functions like a fist slowly unclenching, with both Bill and Virginia starting off with their cards close to their chests and then incrementally letting their guards down.  All of it builds to the moment when they're finally able to briefly drop their hands and allow themselves to let somebody else in.  Early in the episode, there's a crucial scene of Bill and Virginia talking to each other in front of a mirror, so that you can see only their reflections, as if to say that you must confront yourself before you can truly be open with others.

Role playing is key to this episode.  Boxing is not an actual fight, at least not really.  It's all for sport -- there's a winner and a loser, but no life and death stakes.  And yet, you're still capable of getting hurt.  In the same way, Bill and Virginia's stories and fake identities reveal some truths.  "Just for the study" isn't just for the study, and as much as they try to make their relationship purely scientific, reality seeps into every crack.  There's nothing but unspoken communication in the sport of boxing, which takes on it's own sort of intimacy.  "It's alot like love that way," Virginia notes.  While Moore and Durelle fight it out on the TV set, she and Bill are involved in their own delicate dance in the hotel room.

What makes "Fight" so terrific is that there's so much to unpack in it.  It's got the framing device of the boxing match, but it also starts off with a hospital subplot that carries out in brief snippets over the course of the episode.  When Bill delivers a baby who's born with both sets of genitalia, he recommends that the parents wait a few weeks to have the child -- whose blood tests reveal X & Y chromosomes -- undergo a procedure to sew up the vagina.  But the father, thinking that the child will never truly be a man, orders Bill to just cut the penis off and deny his baby of its true identity.  Learning more about Bill's backstory with his own macho, abusive father makes it clear to the audience why he has such a personal investment in the outcome of this case.  In the end, he's able to do what he couldn't with his own dad -- beg -- when he desperately implores the baby's father to reconsider his choice.  That it ultimately turns out to be too late is a devastating cap to the storyline.

The story of the baby born with both parts is just one of the many instances where gender roles come up within the episode.  There's also the bit in the beginning about princes and princesses between Virginia and her daughter, which pops up again later when Virginia tells her daughter over the phone that she can choose to define her fairy tales however she wants to.  At the center of it all are these two characters, Bill and Virginia, who defy the traditional perception of their genders.  In the case of Virginia, that's mostly proven to be to her benefit, as we've seen how men are attracted to "the girl with sass," because she's not like other women.  But Bill's failure to live up to his father's perception of masculinity caused him nothing but pain his entire life.

With all these themes and ideas running through the hour, "Fight" proves to be an incredibly dense episode, but writer Amy Lippman and director Michael Apted pull it off with absolute aplomb.  It's also an incredible showcase for Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan.  The two of them are completely magnetic, alternately revealing their vulnerabilities, and displaying an electrifying chemistry.  It's only three weeks in and season two of Masters of Sex is already aiming to surpass the first.  "Fight" manages to be one of the very best episodes of the year, simply by putting two people in a room and having them discover that there's no defeat in opening up.