Monday, March 30, 2015

Forget the STD metaphor, It Follows is really about the fear of getting older

The most crucial scene in It Follows, this year's indie horror movie sensation, is disguised as a relatively minor one.  Young college student Jay (Maika Monroe, of last year's The Guest) is on date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a guy she just met, when she proposes that they play a game while waiting in line at the theater.  In this game, one must look at their surroundings and pick somebody they'd want to switch places with.  The other person then has to guess who that person would be and why.  Jay predicts Hugh would want to switch places with a guy in the crowd who has a hot girlfriend.  Hugh tells her she's incorrect, and points to a couple and their young son.  She assumes he means the dad, but no, he actually means the kid.  "Must be nice to still have your whole life ahead of you," Hugh remarks wistfully.

Once their relationship progresses a bit, Jay and Hugh have sex for the first time in his car, after which he chloroforms her.  The film's premise is then laid out simply and economically: Jay wakes up tied to a wheelchair, and Hugh explains that he's passed on a curse to her by having sex with her.  She will be followed relentlessly by a mysterious, murderous entity.  It can only be seen by those with the curse, it can take on the form of any person, and even though it's slow, it's not dumb.  The only way to get rid of this curse is to pass it on to somebody else, but if they get killed, the curse just reverts back down the line of transference.

It's easy to see that premise as one extended metaphor for STDs -- I mean, the film is essentially begging for that interpretation.  After all, it's about a supernatural force that's exchanged through sexual intercourse, something that follows you and haunts you constantly.  And indeed, many viewers have picked up on that explanation and ran with it.  But consider a secondary, deeper-seated metaphor, one that's clear from the aforementioned scene between Hugh and Jay at the theater.  It Follows is a horror film about the fear of aging.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell landed on the scene with his feature-length film The Myth of the American Sleepover, a dreamy panorama of teenage life on the last weekend of summer vacation in the suburbs of Detroit.  It got rave reviews at film festivals, and though I personally wasn't crazy about it, I did love the hazy mood of it all.  Either way, I don't think anybody could've guessed that his follow-up would be this.  It Follows exhibits such a technical mastery and distinct visual style that it feels like somebody with 10 films under his belt, not one.  The best trick in his repertoire is his use of the slow pan, circling around these perfectly choreographed scenes to give more visual information and map out the geography of a setting, priming the viewer to prepare for terror coming from any direction.  He uses those elegant, glacial camera movements time and time again for the film's many ingeniously constructed setpieces.

But though the film may be a gigantic leap-forward on a filmmaking level, it's very much in tune with his debut on a thematic and textural one.  That film was all about bottling up the experience -- the look, the sound, the mood -- of adolescence.  This one does the same, only in more oblique ways.  Though they may initially be skeptical of the veracity of what Jay is going through, she has her younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and her two friends Paul (Kier Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) to stand by her through this ordeal.  Mitchell puts such care into carving out the interpersonal relationships here, and the film would work well even without the horror plot, solely on the strength of their characterizations.  They become something of a Scooby Gang on their quest to rid Jay of this evil.

There's such an aching nostalgia for youth in the way he captures the specificity of being young.  The way the characters lay around in bed, curled up beside each other.  The way they spend vacant time, sitting on the porch playing cards because there's nothing better to do.  The way they watch old black and white movies and goof around.  It's a romantic view the film takes on, as if everything after is going to be all downhill from here.

But the clearest evidence of the film's true aim of being about the anxieties of getting older is in its many scenes where a piece of literature is read aloud.  The first instance is a scene where Jay is sitting in English class, a day or two after she's had the curse passed down to her.  Her professor is reading T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to the class, but Jay is too distracted by what she sees outside of a window: "It" staggering towards her in the form of an old woman.  Prufrock is a rambling, disorienting poem, but one of the prevailing interpretations is that it's about aging and decay.  It's no coincidence that as we hear a poem about a man who has "seen the moment of [his] greatness flicker," we see this harbinger of death inch closer and closer in the frame.

Or consider the film's penultimate scene, which would otherwise seem like it has no purpose being left in the final cut.  Throughout the film, Yara is reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot on her little clam shell e-reader.  After the climactic showdown with It lands her in the hospital, there's a scene that's just her reading this excerpt of the book to the rest of the gang:
"When there is torture, there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented only by the wounds until the moment of death. But the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant--your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain.  The worst thing is certain."
It's Mitchell last way of saying: death is coming for you, no matter what.  You can try to avoid it, but it will catch up to you eventually.  Sounds like something else in this film.

When you're young, you feel invincible.  Darker days may be in store, but you don't have to worry about that for now.  Your whole world is those card games on the porch on lazy afternoons.  But then at some point, a rewiring begins to happen.  Adulthood encroaches -- slowly, then all at once -- and with it comes an awareness of your own mortality, your eventual decay.  It Follows knows that that's the greatest horror of all.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The 100 proves that season 1 wasn't a fluke

I can't remember the last time I was more nervous about a show's sophomore year than I was for season two of The CW's post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama The 100.  After binging on the first season in the span of a few days, I wrote a piece that heaped praise upon the show, calling it the best sci-fi series on television.  My effusive adulation even convinced some friends to give it a chance.  So after all of the proselytizing I did after the first season, I would've had quite a bit of egg on my face if it completely tanked afterward.  That was a very real possibility.  When you're watching a show that's on a prestigious cable network and made by reputable creators, there's more faith that if it starts good, it will remain that way for a while.  With a show like this, it's hard to tell whether or not everyone involved just stumbled upon momentary greatness.  Not to mention the fact that genre concepts generally tend to have a shorter shelf life anyway.

Thankfully, creator Jason Rothenberg and his team of writers kept charging ahead, picking up where season one left off without missing a beat.  The previous season closed on that haunting image of Clarke trapped in a brightly lit, white room that we find out is in Mt. Weather, a massive underground bunker that has housed a society of people for the 97 years since the Earth was irradiated.  Above ground, the other surviving members of the 100 are greeted by the adults from the Ark, which crash-landed on the planet in the season one finale.  Uneasy alliances were a major theme of the season, especially in the beginning, where the teens who'd had months to handle things on their own had to deal with being under the strict rule of the adults from The Ark once again, while Clarke and the rest of the gang at Mt. Weather were left to figure whether or not their hosts were as benevolent as they made themselves out to be.

Season two made The 100 a bigger and more expansive show, both in terms of the amount of stories it was forced to juggle and the physical ground it had to cover.  It stretched out the episode count to match that ambition, increasing from last season's 13 to a total of 16.  This led to some more flabbiness in the storytelling, where it felt obvious that two or three episodes in the middle were just people either standing around or deliberately being moved like pieces on a chessboard, in order to set up the real action.  An increased episode order also carved out space for some iffy subplots, like Jaha and Murphy's trek through the desert, which had a satisfying and bugnuts conclusion, but required lots of meandering to get there.  With so much sprawl and ambition, I occasionally found myself missing the simplicity of season one's balance of Earth stories and Ark stories.

Still, those minor flaws did little to mar the season as a whole, which ultimately ended up being the stronger effort.  This year, The 100 continued its trend of tough, intelligent sci-fi, delivering some of the most brutal and unflinching conflicts on television.  When I wrote about the show last year, I made some superficial comparisons to Battlestar Galactica, but I think it mirrors BSG in much deeper ways too.  Those parallels really clicked when I listened to an episode of the Nerdist Writers Panel featuring staff writer Kim Shumway, when she said that they break stories based around decisions characters have to make.  That's vintage Battlestar, which continually had its characters show you who they are through the tough choices they were asked to grapple with.  The 100 did that in season one and didn't step off of these characters' necks in season two.

The bulk of those tough decisions seemed to rest on the shoulders of Clarke (or, I should say, CLARKE!).  One of the greatest strengths of the show is its ability to really dig into its characters and allow them to grow and change in fascinating and logical ways.  But nobody has gone through a better character arc than Clarke Griffin, who has not only evolved into the best character on the show by a wide margin, but one of my favorite protagonists on TV.  Last week, I found myself randomly going back to watch the pilot, and I was stricken by how different everyone is in it, but especially Clarke, who comes off as a major wet blanket in that first episode.  It's a real night-and-day difference from the Clarke at the end of "Blood Must Have Blood," hardened and scarred by all of the punishing ultimatums placed upon her.

One of the most crucial quotes of season one was, "Who we are and who need to be to survive aren't the same thing."  This season was about those contrasts becoming less clear.  All of their time on the ground has turned everyone into different people.  Their tough choices are no longer a thing they can divorce from their true selves, it's something they have to reckon with.  These are rich, complicated ideas the show is chewing on, and it doesn't get enough credit for taking them on and exploring them effectively.

It's able to ask difficult questions and present weighty themes, yet it never lets plot fall by the wayside either.  Season two just kept churning on, exploring the shifting conflicts between the various factions at play.  (And at this point, the numbers are piling up: the Grounders, the dwindling 100, the adults from the Ark, Mount Weather, etc.)  Many genre shows fall into the trap of having plot for plot's sake, and villains that are mere obstacles without logical motivations, but the writers managed to avoid both of those problems.  Every story development came from a place rooted in character, and though the people from the Ark are the focal point of the show, it's becoming increasingly clear that there are no real good guys or bad guys.  That's what makes the two major twists in the "Blood Must Have Blood" two-parter -- Lexa betraying Clarke, and Clarke choosing to irradiate all of Mount Weather -- such doozies.  They're both powerful moments that challenge our perceptions of characters and the places the show is willing to go.

In my blurb for this show on my Best of 2014 list, I wrote, "The 100 is dark stuff, and whenever you find yourself asking, 'are they really going to go that far?,' the answer is almost always 'yes.'"  If Rothenberg and company aren't careful, the show could become a tiresome series of progressively worse things Clarke must do, but right now the grimness is perfectly calibrated.  I still encounter people on the internet who scoff at The 100 just because it's on The CW, or because its first few episodes were a little on the rough side.  What a shame too, because they're missing out on one of the most gripping shows on television, one that just keeps getting better and better.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: iZombie

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

Tuesdays at 9:00 PM on The CW

It's very rare that I get so excited about an upcoming show that I pay attention to every new announcement, casting choice, and trailer release before its premiere.  For some reason iZombie, Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero's loose adaptation of Chris Roberson and Mike Allred's comic book of the same name, was that kind of show for me.  I loved Thomas and Ruggiero's mid-2000s classic, Veronica Mars, and I always admired the comic's artwork, so the show had some built-in goodwill going for it.  Plus, there's something amusing about a disaffected, hipster zombie who solves crimes.  My greatest hope was that iZombie would turn out to be the lovechild of Veronica Mars and Buffy.

Does it live up to that promise?  Well, it's certainly got a large amount of Veronica Mars in its DNA.  Though Veronica never had to deal with an attack that left her an alabaster-skinned, brain-hankering zombie like Liv (Rose McIver), the two of their stories both kick off with a traumatic event of some sort.  And though iZombie's banter isn't quite operating at peak levels yet, you could close your eyes and almost picture Kristen Bell delivering the lines Liv is given.

Thomas and Ruggiero don't just find themselves within their comfort zone in terms of style and plot, they also incorporate a crime-solving element too.  Here's the thing about Liv's condition: whenever she eats brains, she can see the last few memories of the dead person to which said brain belongs.  This ability, plus her job as a coroner's assistant, allows her to investigate various deaths in town and figure out who was responsible.  It's pretty easy to see the format the show will take on -- case of the week hijinx, while also pushing the overarching narrative forward.  Think of it like a less serialized Veronica Mars.

As far as the Buffy comparisons go, those aren't as apparent.  One of Buffy's strengths, even early on, was the excellence of its ensemble, and right now there isn't much interesting going on in iZombie outside of Liv.  That's fine in the pilot, since Rose McIver is so delightful in her leading role (there's a particular bit where she's imitating a cowboy near the end of the episode that's absolutely hilarious and adorable), but the show needs to deepen its bench if it ever wants to become truly great.  Right now there's just Liv's best friend and roommate (Aly Michalka), who doesn't get much to do; Liv's bland ex-fiance (Robert Buckley); and a detective (Malcolm Goodwin), whose role will probably involve being suspicious of Liv, but not quite sharp enough to catch on to the fact that she's not the psychic she tells him she is to avoid telling the truth about how she's able to solve these crimes.  By far the best side character is Ravi (Rahul Kohli), fellow medical examiner and Liv's boss.  It's a fun idea for him to be so unfazed by his coworker's undead state that he didn't even mention to her that he found out her secret weeks ago.  Not only will his character be crucial as the sole person who Liv doesn't have to pretend in front of, but he's got a fun sidekick vibe that's necessary for this type of show.

The pilot hints at some larger mysteries that could be explored regarding the specifics of Liv's condition near the end, and teases a character (David Anders) who may serve as an antagonist in the future, but it's mostly content with being a fun, fluffy version of a zombie story.  Time will tell whether it will transition into slightly heavier material, but I'm pretty content with iZombie being a fun, fluffy zombie story too.

Grade: B+

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week of 3/1/2015

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.

American Crime (ABC, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
For a while now, the major networks have been trying to create a drama that feels like it could be on cable, but what they usually get is something that's superficially "cable," but without the soul and quality of the best shows cable has to offer.  Consider American Crime another entry into that category.  It comes from Oscar winning screenwriter John Ridley -- a fact ABC wants you to remember in every one of its promos -- who's clearly trying to make an Important Show.  Above all else, American Crime is very impressed with its own seriousness, to the point of it being laughable.  The show is unsubtle in its statements about race within this story about the murder of war veteran Matt Skokie.  That's not to say unsubtle is automatically bad -- after all, Do the Right Thing isn't exactly understated -- but Ridley clumsily beats his point into the audience's head with his histrionic writing.

So is there anything to like about American Crime?  Yes, of course.  I do enjoy the way it's carving out the city of Modesto so far, even if it's not clear how everything connects.  We're introduced to everyone from Skokie's parents (Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman) to a Hispanic family tangentially connected with the investigation to a pair of wandering junkies.  And as blunt as Ridley's writing choices may be, this pilot is excellently directed, containing a film-like quality that you don't see on many other ABC shows.  For now, American Crime isn't all that satisfying, but it could come together and form something brilliant.
Grade: C+

Battle Creek (CBS, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Battle Creek is based on a script that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan wrote over a decade ago, so naturally CBS would want to capitalize on the interest his name brings now.  Really, that's about the only reason why anybody is talking about this show, which is an otherwise standard buddy cop procedural.  Dean Winters and Josh Duhamel star as the mismatched pair of Detective Russ Agnew and FBI agent Milt Chamberlain (yes, really), and they've got an amiably combative chemistry.  The pilot is bogged down with some cheesy and forced lines ("Milt, you're good at everything!"), but it generally hums along with a competency you'd expect from people like Gilligan and David Shore, who serves as the actual showrunner on this series.  Bryan Singer adds even more prestige, giving the episode a stylish look by directing it with lots of warm tones and smoky air to the Battle Creek police station.  Still, it's hard to begrudge anybody who comes away from this pilot feeling like nothing of substance happened.
Grade: C

The Last Man on Earth (Fox, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
In a TV landscape full of derivative ideas, The Last Man on Earth feels like an exciting breath of fresh air.  If its premise -- a virus that kills off the world's population in 2019 leaves Phil Miller (Will Forte) is the last man remaining -- feels like it would be better suited for a movie, that's because it originally started out as one.  Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Clone High, 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) came up with this idea as a feature film before bringing it to Will Forte, who turned it into a treatment for a television show.  As an actor, Forte gets to play squarely in his wheelhouse.  He's always been excellent at balancing unhinged and humane, and Phil Miller is the perfect vehicle for that, as we see the hilarious and harrowing effects being the last man on Earth would have on somebody.  As a writer, he's just as impressive.  Not only is the pilot very funny, it somehow never gets boring, even though there's only one character.  Credit goes to Lord and Miller as well, whose visual flair gives the episode a Keaton-esque sense of energy.

Anyone who thinks about the setup of the show for more than a second can suss out that it's unsustainable, and that The Last Man on Earth is a very deliberate title choice.  Kristen Schaal shows up at the end of the first episode as Carol Pilbasian, presumably the last woman on Earth.  The second episode is a significant step down from the pilot, mostly due to my hesitance about Carol as a character.  At first she seems like a relatively normal person, who just has different and funny personality traits.  But she quickly just becomes a stock crazy woman, and after an entire episode of Phil praying for a female companion, the punchline is "can you believe he's stuck with this nutjob?!"  That most of the second episode is focuses on their hacky "nagging wife, beleaguered husband" dynamic is a little disappointing.  Still, I love the tension between these two differing viewpoints on how to live as the last people on Earth.  If the show can focus more on that theme, it could turn things back around for episode three.
Pilot Grade: A-
Second Episode Grade: B

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, All 13 episodes released March 6th)
Ellie Kemper has always been underrated, so it's nice to see her finally get a leading role in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the new show from 30 Rock creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock.  Kemper plays the titular Kimmy Schmidt, a woman who attempts to start her life over in New York City after she escapes a doomsday cult, and she gets to do her over-the-top exuberance that she did so well as Erin on The Office.  There are some very funny jokes in this first episode, but it's also missing the snap and zip of 30 Rock at its peak.  Oddly, there seems to be something wrong with the background sound of the show -- in that there isn't any -- and it's really dulling the comedy.  It's like somebody forgot to record room tone and add it in post.  As of right now, it's nice to have the Fey and Carlock style back, even if it's not quite operating at peak potential.  Plus, this show is not really made for this style of review.  The Netflix model imagines that you won't just stop after watching the first episode.  So take this grade as a very optimistic B.  I'm with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for the long run.
Grade: B