Film: The DUFF

The main reason to watch The DUFF (2015) is that Mae Whitman is adorable. Of course in Hollywood this qualifies her to be the lead in an ugly duckling coming-of-age story. Bianca (Whitman) is your typical high school girl who has a crisis of confidence when the lovably dimwitted boy next door Wesley (Robbie Amell) tactlessly points out that she is the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” for her two besties, Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels). This new perception rocks her self-awareness, blows up her friendships, and leads her to take a drastic step: enlisting Wesley to help her transform her image.

The DUFF is an over-familiar, cliché-ridden amalgam of teen-movie tropes that bludgeons its message home with a hammer that would put a scare into Mjolnir. And I kinda liked it. It’s predictable as hell but it’s harmless, charming, and well meaning. It works because Whitman and Amell possess the needed chemistry, and there are enough genuinely funny bits in between the obvious plot turns to keep the story moving. Ken Jeong and Allison Janney provide some entertaining support as the requisite wisdom-imbuing adults. This is not high art by any means, and it won’t transform your understanding of the universe, but it’s a fun, well performed, low-stress diversion.

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Film: Advantageous

advantageous-2015-1If only we could decommission Michael Bay’s entire oeuvre and redistribute the budgets to smart science fiction films like Advantageous (2015). This earnest little independent could have used a few more dollars for visual polish, but otherwise it has plenty to recommend it.

In the near future, unemployment has become so dire that job prospects for young people entering the workforce — especially women — have become next-to-impossible to find. Middle-aged Gwen Kho (Jacqueline Kim) is one of the lucky ones, or so it seems: she’s the public face of an innovative biotech company, hoping to leverage her lucrative position to the best advantage of her talented daughter Jules (Samantha Kim). But when the company decides to go in a different direction, she’s faced with an impossible choice: throw away her daughter’s future, or keep her position, at great personal cost, by irrevocably altering her identity.

Alas, Advantageous doesn’t have an effects budget sufficient to fully realize its futuristic ambition. But it more than makes up for this with an intelligent script, thoughtful sociopolitical subtext, and an insightful vision of dystopia-in-progress. Samantha Kim is a very promising newcomer, while Jacqueline Kim effectively carries the narrative load. James Urbaniak, Freya Adams, Jennifer Ehle, Jennifer Ikeda, and yes, Ken Jeong, are all solid in dramatic support. Yes, the narrative pacing flags from time to time, and the tone is relentlessly solemn. But by and large it’s classy, satisfying science fiction, a haunting, feminist spin on Seconds that makes the most of limited resources.

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TV: Masters of Sex (Season 2)

mos2The first season of Showtime’s Masters of Sex proved that in capable writing hands, the peculiar requirements of the biopic could be shaped into effective episodic television. In contrast, the second season reveals some of the tricky challenges of translating messy real-life narrative into coherent and entertaining story. This season’s early steps are definitely on the aimless side — perhaps necessarily, based on its historical touchpoints — but it hits its stride in the second half to finish strongly .

Season one ended with Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) at a crucial turning point in their groundbreaking sex study. Kicked out of one hospital, Masters seeks to relocate it — and his practice — to a new one, which leads to frustration when his goals conflict with the suspicious motives of the men whose support he requires. As difficult as Masters has it, Johnson has it worse: a laughingstock and a pariah, she has neither the reputation nor the prospects of her male colleague. Continuing to work as a secretary for Dr. Lillian Depaul (Julianne Nicholson), she struggles to support her children by peddling diet pills on the side. Eventually, however, Masters meets enough resistance — and burns enough bridges — that he finds a new path: enterpreneurship. Renting an office building in a sketchy neighborhood of St. Louis, Masters and Johnson get their study back on track, and shift the work in new directions.

It’s difficult not to compare Masters of Sex to Mad Men: similar eras, similar thematic furniture, similar fashions, even a similar gruff antihero treatment for its male protagonist. But the most striking similarity between the two is the way they critique their eras. Both shows get loads of dramatic mileage out of depicting, with hindsight precision, how bad things used to be…but in a weirdly comforting way that indirectly props up the marginally improved, current status quo. I find this problematic, a kind of historical schadenfreude. Of course, both shows make other statements and do other things, but this negative gut reaction always strikes me, and distracts me whenever the story energy flags.

When that issue isn’t bothering me, though, I do find myself thoughtfully diverted. Masters of Sex is much less artistically interesting than Mad Men, of course, but it still has its moments, and is perhaps more forgiving of its characters and more hopeful, which makes it go down easier. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan enact complex roles, flawed but likeable, and if their tale isn’t always gripping, its easy to root for them.

The show does other worthwhile things, like confronting American sexual cluelessness head-on. Yes, it may have been worse back in the fifties, but the fact that its frank approach to the subject matter is still largely uncharted territory in serial TV serves as inherent commentary about America’s persisting tone-deafness about sexual issues. Masters of Sex also does something in season two that Mad Men never effectively managed: it acknowledges race. After many episodes of thankless, standard wife-role support, Caitlin FitzGerald finally gets something to do in season two. In the shadow of Masters’ work obsession and adultery, she finds herself confronting her own racism, her own servile inaction, and her own unexplored desires. The path this story takes is somewhat expected, but well played, and her struggles are far more compelling than the historical milestones that thread the sex study’s slow advance together. This thread, and other well done character moments — like the deep, troubled connection between Virginia and Lillian, and a renewed, complicated relationship between Masters and his estranged younger brother Frank (Christian Borle) — make the season worth watching.

Masters of Sex is not top-tier TV for me, but it’s earnest, quietly thought-provoking, and generally well crafted. As long as Caplan and Sheen continue to own these roles, I’m curious to follow their journey through this stretch of the American past.

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Novel: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

The premise of Claire North’s dazzling novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) is pretty simple. You’ve heard of the film Groundhog Day? This is Groundhog Life. But the execution of this premise is something else again: gripping, thought-provoking, and profoundly complex.

Harry August is an “ourobouran.” As soon as his life ends, it resets, sending him right back to the moment of his birth – but with a full memory of his previous lives. Harry’s story begins in northern England in 1919 and spans the twentieth century, over and over again. The specific details of his life change from one iteration to the next, and with each new life he gains more information about his plight, as well as connections with others who share his miraculous condition. But what doesn’t change is the greater arc of world history, which is doomed to repeat in an infinite loop…at least, so it seems, until the meddling of a fellow ourobouran threatens to change the course of repeated history forever, at great cost to the health of humanity and the planet in future cycles.

Told in an eloquent first-person voice, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a tour de force of fascinating history, science fiction, drama, and philosophy. North’s command of the alinear narrative is deft and intricate, toggling between Harry’s lives effortlessly in a manner that, in less sure hands, might have been disorienting. But the scattered parts do add up to a coherent whole as she first mines and explores history, then later subverts and alters it, all against a centuries-long canvas of repeated timelines. I think the early passages of the book are more compelling than the latter: the playful exploration of the idea, as Harry tweaks his skillset from life to life while uncovering the existence of a secret society of fellow travelers, is compulsively readable. The later, plottier rivalry between Harry and his friend-stroke-nemesis becomes darker and more philsophical. But all things considered, it’s a masterful novel, seamlessly blending small human struggles with grand skiffy ideas, personal journeys with time travel, alternate history, and eye-widening SF sense of wonder. Highly recommended.

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Film: Chappie

It’s official: I’m done with Neill Blomkamp. Chappie (2015) may be the most annoying film I’ve ever seen.

The streets of near future Johannesburg are patrolled by droids created by technology megacorp Teravaal. The droids are the brainchild of whiz kid Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who, in his spare time, also works on artificial intelligence programs. An unfortunate series of events leads Deon to implant his latest program into the chassis of a damaged police droid, which gives birth to Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley), the first sentient AI. Alas, Chappie falls into the hands of a desperate criminal gang, who raises Chappie as one of their own in order to deploy him in a last-ditch heist to save their skins. Ultraviolent chaos ensues.

This is deeply stupid science fiction. The only checkmarks in the “pro” column are reasonably competent performances from Patel, Hugh Jackman, and Sigourney Weaver, and I suppose the CGI is decent. But otherwise this is a profoundly irritating movie: tonally monotonous, full of shrill acting and relentless, emotionally empty violence, and noisy, nuance-free spectacle. Blomkamp’s early promise expired in the first twenty minutes of District 9; it’s been all downhill since then. Avoid this crap movie like the plague.

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Film: Inherent Vice

When Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston started mumbling their way through the first scene of Inherent Vice (2014), I had such a hard time hearing them I had to turn on the subtitles. Now that I’ve seen the whole movie that way, I’m not sure I’m any better off than if I’d continued struggling to decipher their dialogue over the drone of our air conditioner. This film, adapted from a novel by Thomas Pynchon, is a quirky, baffling snarl.

Phoenix portrays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead private investigator in 1970 L.A., hired by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Waterston) to save her current lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) from a heartless get-rich quick scheme. Motivated by his unresolved feelings for Shasta, Doc inserts himself into the mystery only to land in a dense quagmire of conflicting players with murky motives. A visit from an ex-con (Michael Kenneth Williams), the disappearance of Wolfmann, and the death of one of Wolfmann’s neo-Nazi bodyguards combine to land Doc in the sights of his police nemesis Lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). And everything is further complicated when Hope Harlingen (Jenna Malone) hires Doc to track down surf-sax player Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), whose clandestine work as a federal informant has him on the run, and seems somehow entwined with all the other shady goings-on. This further fuels Doc’s paranoia-laced, drug-addled scheming and angling across a crooked urban landscape.

This incoherent PI tale lurches through several other plot contortions, but after a while I stopped keeping score and just immersed myself in its weird, glacially paced scene-building and grungy ambience. I’d be hard pressed to say I enjoyed it, but I did find it a peculiar and diverting watch. Paul Thomas Anderson is an indulgent auteur, but his work is nothing if not interesting, and Inherent Vice is surely that – a deeply bizarre mess embellishing its noir detective trappings with countercultural paranoia, conspiracies, period politics, and a mumbling cast of distinctive oddball characters. It feels like Robert Altman adapting Philip K. Dick at his least accessible, and the results, while grimly amusing and visually arresting, are ultimately not all that satisfying.

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Novel: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Spending the last several years in California has made me acutely aware of the world’s current and forthcoming water woes, a subject Finnish novelist Emmi Itäranta tackles in her assured debut, Memory of Water (2014). It tells the story of Noria Kaitio, the daughter of a teamaster in the Scandinavian Union – a territory, in this future, that has been occupied by the empire of New Qian. In a post-collapse world wracked by drowned coasts, ecological change, and freshwater shortages, Noria and her family maintain a quaint, modest existence performing tea ceremonies in rural Finland. But as martial law expands to control the world’s dwindling resources, Noria’s gentle, simple life is about to undergo desperate challenges.

Memory of Water is a quietly compelling retrofuture with timely subject matter, sympathetic characters, and a confident voice. There’s an accomplished literary sensibility to its simple but effective narrative, and its atmosphere is immersive and elegiac. This isn’t a particularly cheerful tale, but it’s a powerful one, aiming for the kind of heartbreaking punch that Elizabeth Wein delivered in Code Name Verity. Itäranta doesn’t quite reach those heights, but she makes an admirable go of it, sure-handedly rendering Noria’s story as cautionary metaphor for the rest of us. Quite well done.

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Film – Mad Max: Fury Road

MM-Main-PosterHow to articulate my reaction to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)? Well, on the one hand it’s profoundly stupid. On the other hand, it’s stupidly profound. However you slice it this is a singular creation, perhaps disposable, but also oddly essential – a movie of its time.

In a radioactive, post-collapse world a pocket of survivors lives under the vile, ruling hand of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a repressive dictator who controls a rare source of fresh water and subjugates his people with ruthless abandon. The action begins when one of his trusted drivers, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), goes rogue during a convoy run. Driving a massive war rig, Furiosa has smuggled Joe’s enslaved wives out of captivity, determined to deliver them to freedom. Entangled in the ensuing escape is Max (Tom Hardy), a “blood boy” whose destiny crosses paths with the escaping women – and gives him a chance to redeem himself for a murky failure of his past.

Make no mistake, Mad Max: Fury Road is one long car chase. Comprised of lengthy, brutal action sequences, it’s a dystopian travelogue through an interminable futuristic desert, with Furiosa and Max leading a spirited resistance to Immortan Joe’s small army of vicious pursuers. On this level it’s a chaotic mess. The violence is bloody, the pace is relentless, the physics are suspect, and eyeball kicks never cease. And unfortunately character is at a premium. Hardy makes a decent action hero; Theron one-ups him, both in terms of formidability and charisma. But their characters aren’t so much people as they are emblems. I cared about them as a team fighting insurmountable odds, but there’s no depth there.

Which is probably deliberate. Because while it may be one long car chase, it’s also one long metaphor – an untraviolent, hilariously silly, often unsubtle metaphor. Consider this: wealthy old men literally trickle down their riches to the desperate masses. They wield an army of uninformed white (really white) men to perpetuate their rule. They’ll do anything in the name of gas, bullets, or power. And they treat women as property. It is, in other words, our world, painted in crude brushstrokes on the violent canvas of the blockbuster action film – a genre it has undertaken to slyly subvert.

This is a fiercely progressive film wearing the clothes of a reactionary, conservative genre. There’s a peculiar joy in watching it dismantle the tropes of testosterone-fueled cinema. The male heroes here are the ones who finally recognize the vileness of the status quo and decide to stand up to it. Take pasty skinhead warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who crumbles under the toxic masculinity of his culture, only to finally see through it and change his tune. And then there’s Max, the nominal protagonist, but more heroic in the way he supports Furiosa and her mission. The viewer’s heart is ultimately with Furiosa, and her charges, and their efforts to overturn a status quo that has long victimized and diminished them. There’s a level of crafty subtextual discourse to the film that renders its shallow characters, harebrained logistics, and simplistic plot surprisingly triumphant.

Of course, to absorb all that you have to get past the audacious idiocy of its details. I laughed for the wrong reasons as well as the right ones. But even the eyerolls come with a bonus spark of sociopolitical commentary. Or at least, that’s my take: I’m still not certain if I’m giving this one too much credit, or not enough. You know what they say: there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. Mad Max: Fury Road has plenty of both.

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Film: Night Train to Paris

Even though you haven’t seen Night Train to Paris (1964), you pretty much have seen it. This blend of slangy noir and Hitchcockian wrong-man plot is over-familiar even for its time, but it’s a passable, mindless entertainment that flies by at sixty-five minutes.

Alan Holiday (Leslie Nielsen) is a PR man for an airline with old ties to US military intelligence. His New Year’s Eve is interrupted by the arrival on his doorstep of femme fatale Catherine Carrel (Aliza Gur), who enlists him to help her and an old spy colleague make last-minute travel plans to Paris. In the end, though, the actions of a dastardly enemy agent force him to take the trip himself. Posing as a fashion photographer’s assistant, Holiday joins a train full of partying passengers heading from London to Paris; hijinks, treachery, romance and action ensue.

Night Train to Paris doesn’t have an original bone in its body. Its budget is low and its slim script is stretched to its limit. But it’s quick, painless fun, especially for fans of Nielsen’s later brand of deadpan slapstick who might be curious to see him earn his stripes in a jazzy, black-and-white B movie from the mod sixties.

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TV: Bloodline (Season 1)

BloodlinesPosterBigNetflix’s hot streak continues with Bloodline, a masterful slow-boil of a series that blends mystery and family drama in a distinctive Florida Keys setting. The Rayburns are pillars of a bright, sunlit community whose empire is built on a successful resort hotel founded by inscrutable patriarch Robert (Sam Shepard) and his wife Sally (Sissy Spacek). Their children are son John (Kyle Chandler), an upstanding local police detective; Megan (Linda Cardellini), an attorney who helps run the family business; and Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), who owns a boat charter. They’re a family whose reputation precedes them, and they’re about to be honored with a pier dedication, an event that lures the family’s drifting, black sheep son Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) back home after many years away. A trouble-making outcast, Danny immediately sets nervous ripples across the pristine surface of the family’s world…but it turns out the Rayburns aren’t as pure as they appear, and Danny is at the center of their dark past. His return dredges up tragedies and transgressions of family history that ultimately threaten to tear it apart anew.

Bloodline opens quietly and confidently, setting its hooks in with a combination of flashbacks and flashforwards that hint at the Rayburns’ past troubles and intense, forthcoming traumas. Watching it progress is a little like seeing a lit fuse crawl toward the looming shadow of a massive powderkeg: for all the calm surfaces, it’s clear that something horrible and explosive is coming. Structurally it’s exceptionally sure-handed, revealing just enough glimmers of backstory and foreshadowing to keep the viewer guessing about its past and future mysteries; then, gradually, it layers in detail to fill in the picture, clarifying both mysteries. It’s a gutsy strategy, and it pays off in a brilliantly woven finale that ties in all the audio-visual fragments you’re expecting, but in an arrangement that is subtly surprising and ingenius. Meanwhile the acting is exquisite, with all the primary players – especially Mendelsohn and Chandler – delivering Emmy-worthy performances. The handling of these characters is deft, particularly Danny; he’s a reprehensible, menacing presence, but nuanced enough and explored so richly that his viewpoint is almost sympathetic. He is no shallow, standard villain.

The show does have a few drawbacks. It’s not very diverse or progressive, and its tone is relentlessly dark and unforgiving, so I suspect not all viewers will welcome it. Those who do might find its perfectly elegant finale to be marred by an odd coda that open-ends an otherwise complete and satisfying mystery – perhaps to pave the way for a second season. Issues aside, I think it’s an immersive and worthwhile watch for fans of fine acting, intricate mystery, and patient, confident story-telling.

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