Best New Views – October 2018

Not gonna lie to y’all: October was rough, and long. Somehow the last time I wrote in is both yesterday and also exactly 1,532 years ago. Luckily some of that is just because of the sheer amount of things that filled my life during the spookiest month of the year. Sure, there was the usual pumpkin goodies and candies and camaraderie, but there was also dozens of good episodes, movies, and people. (You’d think that last one would be covered in camaraderie, but hey! Whatever!)

Because the world was so hectic for October I didn’t get much of reading done (at least, not in the way that would show up here). But the good news is that I am mid-way through something like 4 books.

As if the world isn’t bleak enough (with mid-terms loooooooming on the horizon), beloved Filmstruck will be leaving us at the end of November. With any luck, when I next write you I’ll have plenty of older films to populate this list from a binge where and when I can.

So in lieu of getting back down to business:

In A Star is Born, Equality is Dead

I didn’t exactly know where to put A Star is Born on this list; on the one hand, I didn’t love it. On the other hand, I recognize that it was a strong enough movie that I had multiple fascinating discussions about it with people I love and trust throughout October. Luckily Manohla Dargis published this perfect piece at The New York Times, which dives into how exactly A Star is Born (arguably throughout the years) has failed the woman star of its narrative.

Shout Your Abortion

I don’t want to review this—how does on review a life story even work? Just go buy this book. Read it and be filled. Soak it in and put it back out in the world.

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

This show is utterly imperfect, and who the hell cares. Like Riverdale (which it shares a showrunner with), it’s a show that’s tangled and shoddy at times, and consistently fun to look at and take in.

220px-sydney_bristow_aliasAlias

I watched this show when one of my best friends loaned me her enormous box-set (as in, a literal golden box based on one of the relics from the show). In so many ways this show was an artifact of a bygone time: Dialogue laden with heavy exposition, a quaint conception of the government as indelible force for good, Bradley Cooper being shunted to the side.

But (not the first to say this), Alias is a crucial link between the TV era it was borne into and the one it would bow out to; a confirmation and heightening of the spy genre; a debut of the mystery box that would define at least the next 10 years of television.

God bless J-Gar and her inquisitive pout.

Frankenstein

Did I initially read this for a now-different upcoming project? Yes! Was I blown away in spite of it? Also yes.

It seems so odd that there was a world so hidden beyond “throw the switch!” and “I think you actually mean Frankenstein’s monster;” Frankenstein the novel is told so much differently than any of the adaptations I’ve ever heard of, and so at odds with its place in pop culture.

While reading (/listening, thanks to creative commons), I was grateful to have this New Yorker piece in the back of my mind.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Over the summer me and my partner made a sort of plan to watch Tennessee Williams movies every time it was unbearably hot; Seattle’s summer, with all its smoke, made it a bit more interminable than we expected, so we didn’t get all the way down the list. So how refreshing it was to get to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in October, and find a surprising hit of the warmth of summer without the sweltering depression that can come with it (and Williams’ work).

This movie is a classic, with so much written about it that there’s not much I can add in a quick graf. But let me just say: My they are an attractive couple, and boy does Williams have a way of making the heat winds stir up a bunch of trouble fairly naturally.

Two of my favorite shows: Superstore and The Good Place

Superstore is back baby! And so is The Good Place! God bless! Thank god for great-ass comedies that are providing a safe space.

I’m a little on the fence about The Good Place‘s future, but I have nothing but faith in their ability to make me laugh and take me to new places.

And Superstore — perhaps Gomez best sums up my feelings about Deena, and everyone else:

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Youtube jam of the month: 

Honorable mentions:

Designing Women (1957)

The Maltese Falcon

The Guilty

Collette

 

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Best New Stuff – August 2018

August was hazy. Literally.

Seattle was swamped by a smoke storm, and so for weeks on end what appeared to be fog or even low clouds was actually unhealthy, ashy air blowing in from wildfires on all three land-sides of the state. Do not recommend.

The whole thing left the last bit of summer in a bit of a drag, but not without its highlights. To name a few:

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

As one headline put it: America is horny for wholesome, and boy howdy, was this film wholesome. As if it weren’t enough that this film centered on Asian American woman finding love — which, despite the next entry in this post, is startlingly still a rare occurrence — this film takes the long-running trope of “fake relationship” and somehow makes it not just believable but grounded. For all there is to say about the internet’s burst of love for Peter Kavinsky, there’s something truly run and radically soft about the entire affair (with a large thanks to Kavinsky). The real star, here, is Lana Candor, who is the one to watch, and manages to navigate the startlingly human approach to the situation. Coupled with Set It Up, Netflix is on a roll with its rom-com offerings.

Sharp Objects

That Zepplin needle drop, I mean, goddaamn.

A massive improvement on the book, weaving various strands of mistreatment and anger together in an eloquent and ultimately gutting portrayal, all beautifully strung together by Amy Adams. The show (unlike The Leftovers the book, see below) manages to not answer any questions too concretely, helping (along with the sharp and lush editing) to make the whole thing feel like a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare. Its exploration of the harm that comes to women doesn’t shy away from the vindictiveness between women, and even manages to note that sometimes — perhaps more often than we’d care to admit — women’s anger is unjustified or mismanaged.

Some enthralling recaps on the show over at The AV Club and also at Tom and Lorenzo, now that HBO isn’t being a butt about it.

Crazy Rich Asians

The opulance. The decadance. The luxuiousness. And that’s just the wrapping. Crazy Rich Asians manages to be both an excellent rom-com, without skimping on the “personal is political” angle.

Trial and Error, season 2

The second season of this lovable goofball of a show was like watching someone juggle goldfish bowls while riding a unicycle. It’s possible the unicycle was more wobbly than it was on the first go-around, but the sheer accomplishment of staying steady and keeping those goldfish in the bowls is an achievement unto itself. Often times it seemed like it was getting too caught up in its own cleverness or random sense of humor, but just when I think it’d tipped too far the absurdity turned out to be a clue — and I got hyped to notice it!

At the very least this show deserves to be renewed for a third season, because I need to know exactly what the hell is happening with the witches of East Peck.

The Leftovers

This time, it’s the book. I didn’t love it the same way I loved the show — which makes sense, given that the book only covers the first season, the weakest of the show — but it was a fairly good read to try out. Where the show pivots the themes of mass loss and grief into spirituality and philosophy (while also maintaining the interpersonal affects of the disappearance), the book stays fairly grounded in the person whose head you’re in. It’s a great exploration of how two people can approach a meeting entirely differently, and still think they’re on the same page. I think it needs a bit more embroidery to fleece together the stories (for a book that’s all told from perspective there’s a lot left to the imagination) but it also steadfastly refuses to offer up any easy answers or conclusions about why or how these people’s lives are the way they are.

Honorable mentions:

The Feels

Blue Collar

Paterson

 

Youtube song of the month:

Best New Stuff – July 2018

 

 

GLOW Season 2

I always liked GLOW; I found it winning, and complicated in ways that most shows don’t let their women characters be. But its first season had some issues that I wouldn’t begrudge people for disliking — it had a diverse ensemble, but didn’t care to use much of it, for starters.

But season 2 — man, season 2 blew me away. What an exquisite way to expand on the concept of the first season, present two separate and totally fair conceptions of a coming out story, building and broadening the friendship at the core of it, expertly placing clues and pacing itself for the end of the season. This is a show to watch, more subversive in its portrayal of female life than something like The Handmaid’s Tale. Plus it’s got a truly kickin’ soundtrack.

Hereditary

I am not the sort of person who ascribes to the philosophy that a horror movie has to be scary, but if I was Hereditary would still hit the mark. The first 3/4 play out like an atmospheric stretching rack, until the final act really drives it home. It’s the sort of movie that’s impossible to market without audiences being familiar with it, even though it isn’t all that unfamiliar from horror movie touchstones. It’s just that the ambience is so enveloping, the execution so wholly authentic, it’s impossible to get the message across until the movie’s been seen.

But after you’ve seen it? Well, the dark of your bedroom will never be the same again.

God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty 

While last month (and a little of this month) is still dominated by Everything Is Love, I somehow missed the release of the latest FJM. Where before I had been kind of hot and cold on the folk star, I’m now enrapt by his crooning, which seems to covers everything from love songs to comedy pieces.

 

 

but the Youtube song of the month?  That’s Isakov all the way, baby. 

Best New Stuff – June 2018

Well golly, that was one helluva Pride wasn’t it? When we started the month everything seemed like a wide-open horizon. Now…well, it’s been a long month.

Writing about culture, in times like these can seem trivial. Unlike others, I don’t have any grand statements to opine about empathy machines or revealing who we really are; right now culture feels like a thing to do, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like the thing to do. I find more and more that I am explaining to people what actual representation looks like. It’s not always the stories in front of the camera, sometimes it’s the people behind the camera too — and the people who green light these things, and the people who shape political landscapes our art is born onto. That’s representation that we need to fight for, and that needs fighting for at the moment.

That being said, here are some things that just gave me life this month:

Nanette

Wow. There’s so much to say about Hannah Gadsby’s daring, groundbreaking, and gutting comedy special, but to put it succinctly: While the rest of the world was talking around talking about how to appropriately deal, as a society, with men who have hurt others, Nanette tackles it head on, forcing the issue in your face and elegantly circling the horses around you. By the end of the hourlong special, I was rapt, and the feeling has consumed me for days. Run don’t walk to your nearest Netflix outlet to hear on why Hannah Gadsby is the comic special to watch.

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The Good Fight

It’s become tired to say that something is (or will be) an important artifact of the Trump era. But leave it to the Kings (the writers behind this and The Good Wife) to find a way to make it wired, and—most importantly—fun. For all its pointed politics that can sometimes misstep or mis-swing, perhaps no scene has summed up like under this administration quite as much as a (liberal) judge getting a push alert to his smart watch, and uttering “Oh! This world!” and then continuing about the scene without a second thought. The Good Fight doesn’t always win its battles (its continuing blindspot for race relations, despite focusing on a Black law firm, is proof of that), but it did manage to be a fun 23 episodes, that didn’t pull back from the pulled-from-the-headlines nature the first show embraced—even as the headlines get more and more ludicrous.

For a Good Time, Call…

It’s hard to pull off a platonic love story between two female friends without it seeming too queer baiting, and For a Good Time, Call… definitely indulges those tendencies too. But by the end of this fun film, it’s clear that—on whatever level these women choose—they are soulmates, through and through. And their fights, to-dos, and deep affection finally reflect that of women friendships I know.

Plus, my god, they are funny.

APESH*T – Everything is Love

The release to end all releases. Once again Beyonce has stopped the world with a few Instagram posts, a video, and a full-fledged, long-awaited album with her husband. Everything is Love is neither of the artists strongest work, and coming off an album as strong and powerful as Lemonade it certainly falls short, just by nature of being more experimental and less nuanced. But the album has deceptive depth, and—honestly—all the songs are bops, in their own way. It would probably be better received if it had followed the self-titled album, but Everything is Love will likely hold more of a place in the zeitgeist than its initial response may reflect.

Also, I mean, this video, my god:

Ocean’s 8

It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, and it won’t fix anything. But good lord did I need a movie full of competent women wearing kick-ass outfits pulling off a heist. I now own a velvet blazer, so Cate Blanchett’s propaganda worked.

1528406019661-3e6935b8e43ce5e189a9309d47097a4bHonorable mention: 

Incredibles 2

Fahrenheit 451

The Assassination of Gianni Versace

The Color Purple (the musical)

Best new stuff – April 2018

What up what up, we’re back at the end of another month! Let’s get some of the more important visuals from this past month out of the way:

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BEYONCE AT COACHELLA

It was so momentous that during my mid-month check in, wherein I take notes about what I watched in the first fortnight of the month so that the end-of-month Zosha has more memory, Beychella was the only thing I managed to write down.

Anyway, suffice it to say this was a month, and now we’re on to May. But before we do that, let’s review some other stuff:

Solaris

There’s a lot I sort of wish I could change about Solaris, but I’m so immensely grateful for it. I love finally getting around to bigger names like this and seeing all the ways it shaped and informed a genre, like slotting in a puzzle piece — a middle one, not even a perimeter. Solaris is so raw for such a structured film, a perfect balance of wearing its ideas on its sleeve while also being a deep well to mine for philosophy.

Dirty Computer

Janelle’s new album is here! And guys, it’s good. At parts it feels not quite as good as the sum of its parts, but between the call to arms that double as bops, and the stunning visuals of her accompanying “emotion picture” there’s no reason to not be listening to Janelle right now. Seriously what are you doing? (Unless it’s Beychella; then you get a pass for whatever.)

Punch Drunk Love

After having heard people talk about this (as Adam Sandler’s best performance ever) for years, I finally took the plunge for a forthcoming essay I edited at BW/DR. And wow. Wow! So enchanted with Paul Thomas Anderson as an auteur so preoccupied with the alchemic magic that happens within relationships, and how beautiful—and challenging—it can be to find someone whose weird matches your weird. This film shared so much DNA with Phantom Thread, I can’t wait to watch them together.

Jane the Virgin

Well the latest (and, apparently, penultimate!) season has wrapped and dAMN WHAT A TWIST. But leading up to the twist the show managed to do something truly remarkable: Ground itself utterly and completely. Every move felt right, every pain cut deep, and every smile was like that first day of 60 degree sunny weather in Seattle after winter. So in awe of how much this show does while making it all look easy.

“How Riverdale Turned Archie Into a Facist”

This essay is exactly the kind of thing I want to do with all of my time. Focused, yet flexible enough to envelop broader criticisms and insights about the show, this piece grabs you with its title and earns its keep by tracing a path so eloquently I ended up thinking I hadn’t given the show enough credit for what it did. 👏🏻 👏🏻 👏🏻

Call Me By Your Name

As part of my reading books that movies I loved recently were based on, I reached for this one. So much more urgent than the movie, yet still just as sticky with heat. Spent a week after reading this thinking that I had already been through a week of summer weather, but realized it was just André Aciman’s feverish prose that painted such a vivid picture it was like I was right there in Italy with Oliver and Elio. Perhaps not quite as sophisticated as its cinematic counterpart, a bit less interested (and thus, neglectful) of the age difference at its core. But invigorating nonetheless.

“A Love Profane”

Two years of Lemonade, looking back at Deaux St. Felix’s stunner of a review from back then.

 

Honorable mentions: 

Death of Stalin

A Quiet Place

Bob’s Burgers

Superstore

 

And now to leave you with a distinct Youtube mood of the month: 

Best New Stuff – March 2018

In like a lion, out like a lamb.

While the first part of this month had a lot of senior editing for me over at Bright Wall/Dark Room, and producing at SeattlePI, the second half — well, it was more of the same. But I somehow carved out more time for some viewings on the side. Here’s what was the best of the docket:

3 Women

Initially picked up for an essay forthcoming at BWDR that I was editing, this Robert Altman classic has a sort of haunting, dreamlike (in the truest sense of the word) feel to it that will stick with you long after that final shot of the tires in the desert has left the screen. It’s ineffable and aloof, and yet somehow eerily familiar and reminiscent. Avant garde identity theft/personality melding in the 1970s with Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall. What’s to go wrong?

The Strange and Twisted Life of ‘Frankenstein’

The best kind of analytical essay is the kind that makes you want to immediately pick up the thing being dissected and revel in all of it. That’s exactly what this New Yorker piece by Jill Lepore does, weaving biographical details of Mary Shelley with historical meaning with quick hits of studied analysis. It makes me want to have a (preferably old and fragrant) copy of “Frankenstein” right in my hands, and to read the book and the essay all in one sitting.

Annihilation

Last week talkies, this week raw eBook (just kidding, it’s a regular book): After watching the movie, my boyfriend and I have taken to reading the book and — though there’s still more book to read, thank god — I’m confident to say that this is one of the better new reads I’ve done this month. It’s completely enthralling and diligently crafted to build and build and build, in a way that always leaves you wanting more no matter where you stop. Plus it’s a completely different taste than the movie (think man vs. man rather than man vs. nature) which means I have no idea where we’re going to end up.

Hold Up, They Don’t Love You Like I Love You

I mentioned before that great analytical essays make you want to immediately rush to the thing being dissected, but there’s other forms of great too (normally people who are better writers, or who write with more time spread these things out, but it’s my blog so enjoy the cracks, readers!). And perhaps no one is as good at the “Utterly catching you off guard with a funny, lighthearted tone and so intricately blurring the line between analysis and recounting that you’re not even sure how to pick it apart” than Fran. Her latest essay at BWDR is a masterclass, covering so many different things and handling it all with aplomb. Now how do I watch Ocean’s Eleven?

One Day at a Time

Norman Lear is still there, but the game has changed — and thank god it has. This (still unrenewed!!) Netflix sitcom follows a Cuban-American family through the ups and downs, comings outs and and coming ons, day-in and day-out of their lives and reader, it stunned me. I really didn’t think I could still do the tried and true sitcom formula, but One Day at Time knows when to keep the jokes down and focus on the heart. And though it often veers into Full House-esque, after-schools-special monologues, it’s masterful and empathetic in the way it tackles its subjects. Watch it now on Netflix, or just leave it streaming in the background so Netflix registers viewers and renews it already; I’m not your mom.

**since I wrote this review ODaaT got renewed! We did it America! #Blessed

Schitt’s Creek

This show — despite being recommended by so many people I love and respect — took me a while to get into, but thank god I did. “Girl’s Night,” in particular, bowled me over in the way it gracefully unfurled its true wingspan, swinging so simply from “wacky hijink” scenario to “grounded, interpersonal connections that make you want to reach out and stroke the screen.”

Honorable mentions:

Jane the Virgin (everything I need, and will probably be coming during its finale in April)

A Fantastic Woman

The H Spot

Youtube vid of the month:

Bonus: 

 

Rewind Review: ‘Interview with a Vampire’

Interview with a Vampire feels like the quintessential example of a bad book adaptation: You can tell there are big themes lurking in the background. There’s a sense that these emotions aren’t melodrama or camp but sincere. And yet, nothing about the movie is really able to connect.

Interview with a Vampire posterFor instance, the movie seems to revolve around the connection between Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt) and Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise), their sometimes diametrically opposed views on the afterlife and vampiric sensibilities. For the first two-thirds we follow as they banter between themselves, haphazardly drawing in victims and even a “daughter” in Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). Then the movie drops this plot line, in favor of a turn to Armand’s (Antonio Banderas) coven in Paris, only to return later with a flourish to the “central relationship.” In a book these chapters might feel a bit episodic, but in the movie there’s a lot more telling that Louis and Claudia digest the various pains of the world than there is showing you.

Instead the movie paints in broad strokes, favoring the book-translation that seems to name-check important plot points without paying much attention to the emotional weight of them.

Some of this is likely due to the casting. Young Brad Pitt clearly hasn’t discovered that he is a character actor in a leading man’s body—unlike co-star Tom Cruise, whose vivaciousness buoys nearly every scene initially. Pitt is utterly wooden; a precursor to Robert Pattinson’s later turn in Twilight. It’s clear that Louis de Pointe du Lac is tortured. But we, as an audience, mostly know that because he spends so much time communicating this in his voiceover, and sitting on the sidelines, peering into a world he understands but still doesn’t want to. Given his stiff and mopey state, it’s hard to believe that one of the through lines of the movie is that every vampire Louis comes in contact with yearns for his company above all.

It’s left to Cruise and Dunst to breathe some life into the film, and they each do so with great aplomb. Cruise manages a vibrant Lestat initially, seamlessly shifting between the vampire’s complicated desire for Louis as a dissimilar companion and his frustration with Louis’s inability to want to understand him. But it’s Dunst who manages to fully embody the complexities of the vampire lifestyle—not to mention the added complexities of her character, all as a child not nearly as aged as Claudia. Hers is the only performance that seems to be able to tap into the poetic and nuanced style of Anne Rice.

Otherwise, Rice’s novel and its shading is lost in a film that’s done away with subtlety and themes of grief in favor of what reads as gothic camp. Though its style and themes would certainly influence modern horror, and in particular vampire tales, Interview with a Vampire isn’t able to do much with the infinite lifetimes of its heroes. And we thought we could have it all.

500 Days Asunder

A couple gazes at each other, holding hands, overlooking a scenic Los Angeles. Already we’re getting mixed signals: A narrator illustrates the incompatibility of the two, her engagement ring dazzles, the writer calls his ex a bitch as an endearing whistle hovers in the air. (500) Days of Summer is already using the pathos and techniques of a traditional romantic comedy to create a classic romance tale, with one important caveat: “This is not a love story.”

The movie is about Tom wrestling with reality; the reality of his relationship with Summer, the reality of love, the reality of his life. The themes, when written out, sound weighty, too magnificent for a simple romantic comedy to take on. But in many ways this movie—which flits between romance and comedy—is not a romantic comedy at all, but a coming of age film.

(500) Days of Summer looks at the romances that scatter our past, how they can inadvertently lead to something totally different than a wedding (although the ending does allude to the fact that they can also lead to a better fit down the line). In order to really engage with those themes, however, it adopts the mannerisms of a romantic comedy. But by turning them on their head with the depth and seriousness, it also rewards those themes with more poignancy, living up to its declaration that it “is not a love story.”

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Perhaps one of the genres that requires the biggest leaps in imagination is the romantic comedy. Where else are two-dimensional characters, shallow emotional moments, and unbelievable gestures not just expected but encouraged?

Though the walls of a romantic comedy have been stretched and contracted since Hollywood came to be, its structure on film has always been remarkably similar. Whether as part of the present story or as part of an introduction to the plot, we usually we see boy meet girl, and then watch as they fall together over (usually) an abridged period of time.

(500) Days of Summer plays no such games.

When initially asked to tell his little sister what happened, we see Tom’s mental View Master flutter past us. Only later will we learn that only one of these memories held a deeper, darker, if ultimately rewarding, moment for Tom—the fight that pushes him to declare them “a couple, dammit.” The rest of the images are all smiles. That’s because this is how Tom remembers Summer: as Roger Ebert himself put it, a “series of joys and befuddlements.” To Tom, and by extension the audience, Summer is smart, funny, charming, beautiful, entrancing, and taken with him. And yet, she doesn’t think they’re dating.

500-days-109Often called “cutesy” or “utterly unhelpful” by some critics at the time, the movie’s narrative structure is actually a vital framing device for the audience’s understanding of Tom’s fact. Love stories—whether happy or not—sprawl across months, sometimes years, without a definitive end. No one remembers them purely chronologically; we jump between the “end,” and the middle, and the beginning we didn’t even know was a beginning, and then back to a different middle. We remember the laughs. We wince at the pain. The free-flowing structure allows the movie to explore that, while also interrogating it.

The truth is we’re never clear on what or how Summer thinks about her and Tom’s relationship. Things seem to progress to definitively “serious” but that is—like the whole of the movie—all Tom’s perspective. We see the interplay of the highs and lows of the relationship as Tom sees it: filtered, if not overtly white-washed.

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Like any film, a romantic comedy is an exercise in a very specific kind of world-building. Stretching all the way back to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, romantic comedies demand a viewer to expect the world to exist beyond our own. Be they faeries that seek to make a match or just a world built on loony humor, romantic comedies are always intended to be a fantasy.

In this respect, (500) Days of Summer follows in the footsteps of traditional romantic comedies by creating its own heightened reality: Director Marc Webb stated that he wanted to give the movie a “classic look.” And so production had rules about which buildings (only those built before 1950s) and what sounds (old phone rings, as opposed to digital) could be used. Likewise, Summer’s wardrobe is reminiscent of 50’s fashion.

This also plays into how color is used in the film. Webb has said that he drew out the blues as the color representing “love” in the universe of (500) Days of Summer because of actress Zooey Deschanel’s eyes. It helps remind the audience that what they are seeing is an augmented reality, both as moviegoers experiencing the film and as a one-sided love story. Summer is almost always dressed in blues, her hair ribbons and apartment are decked out in it—and yet very infrequently does that splash over to Tom. His color palette is decidedly browns, oranges, and tans; from his khakis and sweater vests to the warm, streetlamp that colors his apartment even at night.

And Webb uses this device to play around with how Tom’s view of Summer might be changing even if he refuses to recognize it: As the days progress she starts wearing more and more brown, covering herself up with tweed jackets and moving away from her summery blue skirts. When Tom is ultimately forced to confront the bad stuff in the relationship, we see her in more darker, muted clothes than ever before. Her deep blues seem almost black, as if the relationship is suffocating her vibrancy. In the initial three hangouts post-breaking up (the train, the wedding, and the house party), Summer’s clothes seem to have bounced back to their usual pop.

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These devices are used in order to invoke the feeling of a vintage romantic comedy, to inspire the feeling that love can conquer all madcap curveballs life throws at it. If this were a romantic comedy these signs, the vibe, this reality—it would all be a clear indicator that Tom and Summer would reunite, decked head to toe in blue, and ride off into the sunset. It’s what makes Summer’s defying of gender expectations feel all the more brutal to Tom. After all, this is not a love story.

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Romantic comedy leads can often get away with bothering their friend with every whim; their lives are seemingly the engine powering the universe around them. Their loved ones all have their parts to play; their friends link up; their sisters somehow get involved with their boss. We see this in (500) Days of Summer too, but once again, with an illuminating twist.

Very seldom do the lives of the supporting players seem to exist outside Tom’s. Each of them inhabits a sort of cliche from the romantic comedy genre: The wise beyond her years little sister; the troupe of off-kilter supporting players; the existing-entirely-for-the-male-protagonist love interest. It may seem cheap to offer it up as an excuse for a half-written woman when the fact of the matter is Summer’s chapter in Tom’s life, the 500 days he will look back on someday, functions on a story level as a tool in his development. But though the scope is shallow, perhaps it’s reads like a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmaker. In a world as manufactured as (500) Days of Summer it’s fair to say there’s more nuance to its players’ shallow characterization.

As I mentioned above, what we know about the ins and outs of Summer’s life are actually fairly limited. That’s because we’re seeing the world from Tom’s perspective, with occasional interjections from an omnipotent narrator. We know Tom to be a romantic—the narrator tells us as much (as well as confirming that Tom’s reading of The Graduate was wrong, for what it’s worth)—and so it’s not surprising that his reality is tented by pillars of romantic comedy.

These aberrations of reality are fairly revealing of Tom: The now classic examples include the “Reality vs. Expectations” split screen, and the Hall and Oates inspired flash mob after he sleeps with Summer for the first time. But when his expectations don’t align with reality the path in front of him literally gets erased, 500daysofsummer2009-0804suggesting he thought his life would find meaning if only he had the right partner. At his most depressed (and thanks to a doze in a cinema) his world takes on the framework of new-wave French film, devoid of color. While the emotions of the film stay grounded, the world is colored by Tom’s imagination. His friends appear to us as second bananas because in his story about Summer he sees them as such.

But in the “love documentary” sequence we see there’s more to them than Tom has shown us. Vance borrows a phrase from one of the cards to speak his truth about his 30-year relationship with his life, like Tom borrows from pop culture when he’s lovestruck. Though we know Paul is proud of his relationship with Robyn (goin’ strong since ‘97!), it isn’t until the black-and-white documentary sequence that he has a chance to really speak about her.

“Robyn is better than the girl of my dreams. She’s real.”

Which is why Summer seems so one-sided; she literally is. She’s her own person, but like the moon Tom can only see her in phases. “I think you’re just remembering the good stuff,” cautions his sister near the end of the film. “Next time you look back…I really think you should look again.” It’s then that Tom starts to realize how caged Summer was starting to seem; her big, doe eyes doubling as the wide-eyes of a frightened animal.

Harsh, yeah. But we see his blindness to Summer’s personhood in his first invitation to her apartment, when the narrator clues the audience in on Tom’s inner narrative:

For Tom Hansen, this was the night where everything changed. That wall Summer so often hid behind—the wall of distance, of space, of casual—that wall was slowly coming down. For here was Tom, in her world…a place few had been invited to see with their own eyes. And here was Summer, wanting him there. Him, no one else.

As he listened, Tom began to realize that these stories weren’t routinely told. These were stories one had to earn. He could feel the wall coming down. He wondered if anyone else had made it this far.

His experience is entirely in his own head, but with plenty of projections towards Summer. Even as he listens to her tell stories of his childhood, he’s caught up in the bigger picture of himself, and Summer, steamrolling whatever it is she’s actually been telling him. He’s strong enough to expect love, weak enough to be foolhardy, and too blindly in love with Summer to listen to her clear expression of boundaries.

“I’ve never told anyone that before,” says Summer cautiously.

“I guess I’m not just anyone,” Tom says, returning the focus to himself.

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So what does this mean for love? Where do the grand gestures and deep affection fall in the realm of (500) Days of Summer? Summer’s not a girl, she’s a phase. What does it say that the film doesn’t pretend she’s anything else? How can a movie get away with using these “clear signs” to light the way to the altar only to leave young Werther jilted and alone?

Some see it as a sign that Tom was purely right (that Summer was wrong about what she wanted all along). Summer even seems to imply as much. But its ending doesn’t compromise the premise. Instead it seems like it’s just one more way Tom blew past signals. Summer’s choice to marry someone else is inconsequential. It’s her wisdom to not marry Tom that matters.

The maturity of the narrative is all in not forcing Summer to buckle to Hollywood convention. Instead it pushes Tom to grow up. Introduced as someone whose misreading of The Graduate fundamentally lead him to believe that the right partner would solve all his problem, he, like Benjamin Braddock, is discontent with his place at life and ready to project himself forward with a partner, placing himself in what he believes to be the love story to end all love stories. Well intentioned as Tom is, it’s a selfish motivation. Instead of focusing on what he could bring to Summer, he sets his sights on what she can do for him—an easy, juvenile mindset that we all grow out of. He sees himself as fully baked, only missing Summer as the final ingredient. Only he’s not.

This is a story of boy meets girl. But this is not a love story. For Tom it’s almost a story about how love is a fantasy. To him, a brief and shining moment (give or take a couple hundred days) led him to nothing but ruin. “Complete and utter bullshit.” But then, one last time, Summer takes his hand and guides his way.

Summer: Well, you know, I guess it’s ’cause I was sitting in a deli and reading Dorian Gray and a guy comes up to me and asks me about it and… now he’s my husband.

Tom: Yeah. And… So?

Summer: So, what if I’d gone to the movies? What if I had gone somewhere else for lunch? What if I’d gotten there 10 minutes later? It was, it was meant to be. And… I just kept thinking… Tom was right.

Tom: No.

Summer: Yeah, I did…I did. It just wasn’t me that you were right about.

Instead the movie leaves us with an almost absurdly simple lesson with a complicated wake: Love is more than two-dimensional. It’s two-sided. The movie is about Tom coming to terms with that, finally understanding that it’s not as simple as he once made it out to be, nor as ruinous as Summer seemed to think it. (500) Days of Summer is not a love story. It’s a coming of age tale, wrapped up in a blue, romantic comedy bow.

Let’s Do The Twist!

People love to update old classics with modern twists and sensibilities. But be careful—it isn’t always so easy.

Take the Veronica Mars episode “One Angry Veronica.” Based on the timeless 12 Angry Men, Veronica gets jury duty and seems all too ready to dismiss a latina woman’s claim that she was assaulted by two white, well-off boys (09ers, as the show calls them) until one jury holdout makes a compelling case. After that it’s Veronica’s job—as teenage detective and jury foreman—to convince the rest of the jury to vote “guilty” on the two boys in question. vm_2x10

The “twist” is that this time instead of the defendant, a latinx person is the plaintiff, with the justice system still “working” to defend the actual (white) perpetrators of the crime. Problem is, there’s a big difference between 12 Angry Men’s use of the criminal justice system vs. Veronica Mars‘. For starters, the film had the “innocent until proven guilty” quality, where jurors are instructed to only convict if there’s no reasonable doubt in their minds. The entire movie centers on the bug of reasonable doubt spreading from one juror to the next until the climactic monologue that convinces the lone hold out. In Veronica Mars, it’s much less interesting—both legally and narratively—for the hold out to say that she has an inkling of the defendants lying to cover their ass; they’re not supposed to be guilty until proven innocent. I see what the writers were trying to do here, commenting on the racial and class divides in Neptune, but it’s not the update to 12 Angry Men they seem to think they’ve earned.

Same with Selfie, a single-season show starring John Cho and Karen Gillan in a modern retelling of My Fair Lady. Only this time it’s Eliza Dooley; a self-absorbed, social media obsessed pharmaceutical rep; and her straight-laced boss Henry Higgs, who she enlists the help of to assist her in learning there’s more to life than likes and shares.

selfie-castOnly here’s the thing: In My Fair Lady, Eliza was treated poorly because she was lower social class, and her manners are a reflection of that. Ass that he is, Henry Higgins’ “project” was ultimately set out to make high-society London the butt of the joke; he wants to illustrate the fact that the only thing that separates someone like Eliza from the upper-class is properly taught speech, an accent. His “experiment” is a stupid bet, but it also inherently implies that Eliza is worthy of good treatment.

Unlike Selfie, which instead of commenting on how a relatively arbitrary indicator of social class (speech) is used to artificually elevate one class over the other, is basically just saying that heavily gendered and youth-bent personality traits have no place in successful society.

While perhaps neither of these transgressions are so egregious that they can completely spoil what are essentially jumping off points, it’s as if the writers have a woeful disregard for the way the originals intended to jump off to. Ultimately their “twists” aren’t really twists are all, just poor adaptations.

 

Hunger Games is more than Battle Royale with Cheese

hunger-games-battle-royale-with-cheeseI’ve been thinking a lot about the common connection drawn between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. I can’t speak to whether Suzanne Collins saw Battle Royale, was inspired by it, lifted it wholesale, or whatever. To me the only clear thing is that while the films/books share a lot of similarities, they’re interested in wildly different things.

The Hunger Games starts out with the spectacle of it all. The egregious event floats a sense of dread throughout Katniss’ thoughts and action; looming tall over what is otherwise an ordinary day. And it does so because that’s what it’s intended to do: The government (“The Capital”) puts on the Hunger Games because they need to teach the outer districts a lesson in obedience, using the brutality they force their children into as a way to keep the status quo. It’s what makes the ending of the first Hunger Games so powerful, even when it’s stripped of the same savageness that gives Battle Royale its bite due to the U.S. film’s PG-13 rating. Katniss has learned to make the system work for her. The ending is abrupt, as her and Peeta go home in deception, but it works because the entire movie has been building to it; all that spectacle, now used to cage her in a very different way.

For whatever spectacle there is to the titular Battle Royale, it’s not entirely clear in the movie. The beginning shows us that there’s immense press interest in the winner of the games, but somehow the students have never heard of it.

Similar to the Hunger Games, the Royale was instituted to keep students compliant after 800,000 of them once walked out and utterly disregarded the rules of Japanese society. The focus, by director Kinji Fukasaku, is much more on the institutions of society, rather than the human nature of the “spectacle” in The Hunger Games. He interrogates what adults’ roles in the lives of the next generation are, how they communicate with them, the heightened melodrama of stories that—had the students lived longer—would’ve been blips on a radar.

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Even the posters reveal a crucial difference: Fukasaku initially (and brilliantly) focused Battle Royale on the way teens move and react as a group. Collins plucks Katniss out as a distinctive “YA protagonist” type.

That last point is why the characters come off so differently from each other. The Hunger Games focuses on kids who have had to grow hard, who have needed to become tough in order to function in the world. Battle Royale is about kids who have trauma suddenly and unsuspectingly thrust upon them. The former is about PTSD and adults, the latter is premature death in kids.

Whatever similarities there are—which, don’t get me wrong, are a lot, between the “kids killing each other because the government demands it” angle and the two lovebirds making it out together against all odds—they seem to be starkly contrast when held side-by-side. Collins went through great lengths to separate the government in her book from the government of the present, even if the media environment seems remarkably similar. Fukasaku’s work seems like a direct indictment of the government of both past and (at the time) present Japan.