Sunday, July 24, 2016

Degrassi is back, baby!!!

There were high expectations for the second season of the new Netflix exclusive series Degrassi: Next Class, at least for me.  The first season was so special that it caused me to write over 2000 words about it, and returned me to full-on Degrassi obsession after not having watched it for 2.5 seasons.  (I've since gone back and watched the 60+ episodes I missed because Degrassi is my life now.)  Even in my glowing review of the first season, I voiced some concerns about whether the show could maintain its quality or if it would lapse into the same kind of over-the-top melodrama that caused me to stop watching a few years ago.  But it looks like I can put my worries to bed for now, because the 10-episode second season that dropped this weekend is just as excellent as the first.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

I like Roadies ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I started this blog in March of 2013, and in the almost three and a half years since I've been an amateur critic, I've felt pretty secure about my opinions.  There have been times where I've liked something more than most of the Internet (like Degrassi) and times where I've liked something much less (something like Bojack Horseman comes to mind), and on every occasion I've felt confident about those takes.  And yet for the past four weeks I've watched Roadies, Showtime's new music dramedy from filmmaker Cameron Crowe, and after every episode I've thought to myself, "Do I have bad taste"?  Reviews haven't been kind to the show, which follows the touring crew of a successful arena-level quartet named The Staton-House Band.  Even I can acknowledge that many moments in the first four episodes have been quite poor.  Despite all of that, I absolutely love watching Roadies.

It's not like I'm even a Cameron Crowe apologist either.  I was young enough when I watched Jerry Maguire that the only bits of it that I remember now are the parts that have become entries in our cultural lexicon.   (You know, "Show me the money!," "You had me at hello," Jonathan Lipnicki's head.)  It wasn't until just recently that I finally got around to watching Almost Famous, which most people consider his peak, but I merely thought was solid.  And the only other one of his films I've seen is that treacly mess, We Bought a Zoo.  If there's anyone I'm rooting for it's Winnie Holzman, one of the other executive producers of the Roadies.  She created the greatest teen show of all time in My So-Called Life, and her involvement in anything automatically makes me excited, especially after the fallow period she's had for the last five or six years.  However, her voice is hardly anywhere to found in this show, despite the fact that she wrote the second episode.

Roadies is full of narrative failings.  Mainly, the issue is that promising setups get marred by shaky execution.  In the pilot episode we're introduced to Reg (Rafe Spall), a financial consultant hired to manage the tour's budget and prevent the band from hemorrhaging funds.  Somewhere in his storyline is an interesting examination of what happens when the corporate bottom line gets in the way of artistic freedom, but that conflict wilts under the weight of platitudinous dialogue about "the power of music" and "true art."  Then there's the story of Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), who works the set rigging and leaves the tour in order to go to film school, only to rejoin minutes after saying farewell.  It sets up a compelling dynamic, where the rest of the crew feels abandoned by her despite her very brief departure, and she has to work to win everyone back.  The show chooses to explore this story avenue by saddling her with horrible comedy runners, as we see Kelly Ann's bizarre attempts to rebuild her relationships with everyone.  Not even someone as winsome as Imogen Poots can save them.

It's indicative of a larger issue plaguing Roadies, which is that it doesn't understand what the proper ratio of comedy and drama should be.  Right now, it's pitched as a comedy with a few dramatic moments, but here's the thing -- the comedy often stinks.  Every episode incorporates at least one broad bit or character that just tanks the whole vibe of the show.  The first episode introduces a lunatic stalker character who is obsessed with the band, and the tone of her scenes imply that we're supposed to find her hijinks and the efforts the crew make to contain her entertaining, but they fall completely flat.  Later, in the third episode, we meet a ridiculous music blogger character (played by Rainn Wilson, doing some of his most irritating work) who holds more sway than any critic has ever had.  When those two characters' paths intersected in that episode, it made for some of the most ill-advised television of the year.

What a shame that the show is so determined to generate laughs, because there's alot of melancholy at its core, and I wish it would explore that more.  At its best, Roadies gracefully depicts how sad and lonely life on the road can be.  These characters are always moving around with no place to call home.  The relationships they form in certain cities cannot sustain themselves.  They're constantly cycling from large, sterile arenas to cramped, dehumanizing tour buses.  And all of this work is for a band that probably doesn't know all of their names, and fans who definitely don't.  The show doesn't necessarily need to become a bleak drama, but leaning into its dramatic elements would add layers that could help sell everything it has to offer.

Despite my love of the sadness at the center of the show, I do think when its frothiness works, it works really well.  Ultimately, that's what makes Roadies so enjoyable and easy to watch -- even its melancholy is light and low-stakes.  Cameron Crowe's golden-hued earnestness can be a little silly, but it goes down easily, which makes for an extremely relaxing viewing experience.  Roadies doesn't ask much from its audience, save the ability to stomach a bunch of indulgent musician cameos.  Maybe it's the minimal risk that makes the show's flaws simple to shrug off and its high points so charming.

No episode better embodies the push and pull between that capacity for greatness and pure trash than Sunday's installment, "The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken."  In it, the crew finds their rare day off thwarted when Reg breaks a sacred rule by uttering the word "Cincinnati" on the tour bus, forcing everyone to go through the bizarre, difficult process of breaking the curse inflicted on them.  The break from the usual concert prepping structure allows for the show to play around in its sweet spot, making ample time for the characters to just hang out and bounce off of each other.  What makes these people fascinating is learning all of the rituals and superstitions and shared history they have.  At a certain point though, the follow-through on everyone trying to break this curse becomes over-the-top and insufferable.  And between all of those lovely hangout moments comes annoying antics that threaten to ruin the goodwill built up a minute earlier.

This is the kind of episode that has that great scene in the beginning with the ladies of the crew using what little time they have to maintain their hygiene between cities.  Then it has scenes where it continues to try and push romance onto Kelly Ann and Reg, an awkward road best not traveled down.  There's a beautiful shared moment that the crew has while My Morning Jacket's Jim James -- oh yeah, he's in this episode for some reason -- performs a song by The Who.  But then there's also a moment where it checks in on former crewmember Phil, who is literally in outer space.  I wish I was kidding.

So Roadies isn't actually good, but it has the tools in place to get there.  The cast is appealing, the vibe is nice, and the show really does seem to be trying.  I can see this becoming a mix between Party Down (finding unique stories to tell within each week's venue) and Slings & Arrows (a behind the scenes series about performers and those who make those performances happen).  But even if it never does reach those heights, that wouldn't be so bad, because it's already one of the shows I most look forward to every week.  Let's hope it does get better though, so I could at least feel less bad about loving it so much.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Neon Demon is horrifying and beautiful, often simultaneously

My history with director Nicolas Winding Refn's films is checkered at best.  I like Drive just fine, but I don't see how it's a contender for one of the best films of the decade the way some people do.  Bronson is pretty well-liked too, but I think it's a messy slog.  And almost everybody hated Only God Forgives, yet I somehow hated it even more.  Maybe I'd feel differently about the Pusher trilogy and Valhalla Rising if I had seen those, but Refn always struck me as an enfant terrible filmmaker in the vein of Lars von Trier, except without any good movies under his belt.

His latest, The Neon Demon, changes that completely.  This time around, Refn applies his sleek style to the fashion world, a milieu that ends up being surprisingly well-suited for the kind of violent fantasia we're used to from him.  In the middle of it all is fresh-faced protagonist Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model who moves to L.A. to take a shot at the industry.  Forced to live in a ratty hotel and lie about her age -- 19, three years older than she actually is -- Jesse quickly finds opportunities after photographers and agencies are drawn to her ethereal nature.  For every bit of adulation she gets from those who hire her, however, she gets just as much animosity from other models in the industry, who see her fast rise as a threat to their livelihood.  Refn depicts this world as one of predators and prey, literalized at one point when Jesse comes home to find a cougar has somehow gotten into her hotel room.  Everyone knows that Jesse has "it," and even though they might not be able to put a finger on what it is, they're willing to consume her to attain it.

Usually, stories don't work when they're constantly telling the audience something about the character, but they can't back up those claims.  If everyone is always referring to a character as brilliant or magical, you need to show evidence that will make the viewer believe it.  I'm not quite sure that Elle Fanning reaches the level of allure that the film requires her to, but she comes awfully close.  Fanning has already established herself as a formidable actress, but she finds another level here, delivering a performance that's so internal and full of quiet power.  The film works as well as it does because Jesse is almost as mesmerizing as everyone around her thinks she is.

Refn's aesthetics go a long way as well.  No matter how much everything else has failed him in the past, his films have always looked and sounded incredible, and fittingly, The Neon Demon looks and sounds better than anything he's ever done.  Right from the opening title card, we're given an amazing collection of synth smears from Cliff Martinez, matching perfectly with Natasha Braier's chilly, but colorful cinematography.  On a pure sensory level, this is one of the finest experiences of the year.  Refn provides a thrilling tug-of-war between icy moments of elongated silence and bludgeoning bits of sound and texture.  Like the industry it depicts, Neon Demon is a beautiful, queasy nightmare.

So many reviews have latched on to the points the film makes about the cannibalistic nature of showbiz and the fashion industry.  And yes, that material is delivered with a pretty heavy hand.  But peel back a layer and you'll see that Refn is trying to say something more subtle and skillful about what it's like to go about every day as a woman, and a beautiful one at that.  Everyone wants Jesse, from the male photographers attempting to capture her essence to other women who appear to be helping her at first.  And at some point, the pursuit always becomes aggressive and violent.  It's exhausting to watch Jesse have to rebuff so many unwanted advances.  The film takes its point a step further by showing how it's even more damaging for a woman to be beautiful and confident about it, because that just inspires more anger and desire from others.  Once Jesse truly acknowledges her star quality, that's when the carnage really begins.

All of these themes come together in a dreamy splash of violence, but if there's one disappointment it's that the film hammers all of its ideas home to the point of redundancy.  The Neon Demon arrives at a perfect ending, but then repeats itself for another 10 to 15 minutes that don't work as well as its frenzied, feverish climax.  Still, those excesses aren't enough to take away from the unique satisfaction the movie's cumulative experience provides.  Nicolas Winding Refn might go a step too far, but then again, he's also the only filmmaker willing to take the 10 steps before.