Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"Anne with an E" is Intense with a capital I

The new adaptation of "Anne of Green Gables" (a Netflix/CBC co-production) makes a case for the classic children's story, set on scenic Prince Edward Island, as one of Canada's great national narratives. Emotionally raw, in ways reminiscent of Cary Fukunaga's stellar 2011 "Jane Eyre," "Anne with an E" doesn't sugarcoat the abuse and trauma Anne suffers at the hands of the foster family she lived with (and worked for) before coming to stay with the awkward, emotionally constipated Cuthbert siblings. It also doesn't downplay the wrenching uncertainty of being a foster child, which too often means feeling like a person no one wants. If ever I've seen a compelling moral argument in favor of adoption, this show is it.

As suggested by the show's theme song, the gorgeous "Ahead by a Century" (by Canadian band the Tragically Hip), Anne is a de facto feminist in the frickin' 1870s, at which point the word feminism may not have existed. However, "Anne with an E" isn't just about exposing the horrors of the foster system or celebrating rebellion against rigid gender roles. It's also about the importance of the emotional self. The Cuthberts request a boy to help the aging Matthew work the farm. When they're sent Anne instead, Marilla sees her as a purely emotional creature, incapable of concrete usefulness, despite Marilla's own, obvious gender nonconformity. Anne, being Anne, cheekily points out Marilla's nontraditional femininity to Marilla in an effort to avoid getting shipped back to the foster home. 

Matthew senses early what it takes Marilla longer to recognize: Even if Anne were a physically weak little wisp of a girl, there's something to be said for opening one's life up to the wildness -- the uncontrolled emotionality -- of a child. To see such a modern idea expressed through this adaptation of a 109-year-old piece of literature is thrilling indeed.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Yet another reminder of why I love pop culture

I was recently introduced to "Rick and Morty," an adult-oriented animated show that most geeks worth their PS4s discovered years ago. I don't need to add yet another glowing review, or detailed analysis, to an internet swimming with both. However, one of the show's most-discussed moments reminded me, quite compellingly, why I love pop culture so much. So I figured I'd write about that.

At the end of an episode titled "Auto Erotic Assimilation," in which Rick visits an old flame who turns out to be a body-snatching hive mind, the mad scientist retreats, heartbroken, to his garage-based lab. (If you haven't seen this episode, get thee to Hulu and watch it right now! And then come back here and read the rest of this post.) He removes a small, blobby alien from cryogenic deep freeze and insta-thaws it. The little creature is clearly distressed, as it likely was the instant he froze it to begin with. In a rare, and unexpectedly moving, show of compassion, Rick gently pets the poor creature.

It quickly becomes apparent that he's soothing it because he's about to zap it out of existence with one of his laser-y contraptions. After doing so, he sets the machine up to zap him -- but before it can, he slumps onto his desk. The killer beam barely misses his head. As he sleeps off yet another hangover, night turns to day, and we see Rick's son-in-law, Jerry, merrily weed-whacking the driveway just outside the garage, without a care in the world.

The tonal shift of this scene from the madcap, raunchy antics that preceded it is remarkable. The sad, beautiful song "Do You Feel It?" by Seattle indie band Chaos Chaos soundtracks the entire scene, and it perfectly complements the existentialism and emotionality on display. Wordlessly, this stunning scene humanizes Rick, helping us empathize with his loss of love and the frustration he feels as a genius surrounded by lesser minds. It also shows that he isn't simply a madman with zero regard for the welfare of other living things.

Part of what makes the scene great is the ambiguity baked into it: Did Rick mean to save his own life, or did he simply pass out before the laser energized? Did he unfreeze and kill the creature to "set it free" (rather than continuing to keep it cooped up like a lab rat)? Did he kill it because he planned to end his own life as well and wouldn't be around to take care of it?

Whatever his motivation, his tenderness toward the seemingly simple being adds depth to the character of Rick and to the show as a whole. This scene makes it obvious that Rick and Morty's interdimensional adventures, while often wacky and fun, come at a price, at least for Rick. It turns out that dating outside your species, galaxy, and reality isn't any easier than sticking to OkCupid. And being possibly the smartest human ever isn't all wine and roses.

I love how pop culture, at its best, can draw us in, get an emotional hold on us, and then upend our expectations, taking us somewhere, emotionally and otherwise, we never thought we'd go. The ending of "Auto Erotic Assimilation" blindsides you in the best way. Even within the context of a show about infinite parallel realities, this masterful scene knocks us off-balance and makes us wonder what kind of show it is, exactly, that we're growing increasingly attached to.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

"Adore" captures the blissful ache of infatuation

Even though "Adore" was released as a single in 2016, the EP it ended up on, Amy Shark's "Night Thinker," didn't come out until 2017. And until this year, the Spokane area's premier indie rock station, KPND, wasn't playing it. So I'm tempted to consider it my favorite song of this year thus far. Back in 2016, after all, most of the people who fell in love with Shark's spare, sharp lyrics and achingly expressive music were her fellow Australians. Now we in the Northern Hemisphere get our shot.

"Adore" begins with three fraught guitar chords, then adds Shark's bruised-sounding voice, supported by a simple beat and subtle backing vocals. The song builds in urgency and vulnerability, all the while maintaining a loping, mid-tempo feel. The first three lines capture something vital about the desperation that accompanies a serious crush:
I'm just gonna stand with my bag hanging off my left arm
I'm just gonna walk home kicking stones at parked cars
But I had a great night, 'cause you kept rubbing against my arm
In a quick but emotionally rich three minutes, Shark communicates volumes about romantic attraction that may or may not be requited. Eleven years ago, I wrote for Seattle Weekly about the agonies and, well, further agonies of the unrequited crush. It's a universal theme, but it's the rare song that honestly describes the torturous state of wanting someone who doesn't want you back.

In "Adore," Shark certainly shows both the overflowing passion ("I want the entire street out of town just so I can be alone with you") and combative spirit  ("Watch me watch him talk to girls / I'm known as a right-hand slugger / Anybody else wanna touch my lover?") of someone who isn't entirely secure in her bond with the object of her desire. That's part of what makes the song so great: Obsession has a mighty undertow, a dark pull that can make otherwise reasonable people do unreasonable things. No unrequited-crush song worth its salt tries to pretty up the ugly side of asymmetrical attraction.

This gorgeous, pained love song would be a terrific fit for "13 Reasons Why," a show similarly concerned with infatuation that exists in tension with darkness. 2017 is far from over, but I'm not sure anyone is going to top "Adore" for raw emotional power.

Curative power

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Always nice to get feedback

Not only did Grace Rex read my post about her film "This Is She," she was kind enough to tweet back, as follows:

I'll see if I can swing an (email) interview with her to post as a follow-up.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Gimmicks, tropes, and why we love them

Two horror trailers have grabbed my attention this year, but not because they're teasing some kind of innovative, genre-busting, or intellectual take on scary movies. It's because they demonstrate a combination even more addictive than Trader Joe's peanut butter cups: high concept and lowbrow. "Wish Upon" and "Happy Death Day" both set up either marginally likable or somewhat unlikable heroines using a tried-and-true trope, and it's catnip to me.

"Wish Upon" re-configures Richard Matheson's old "Button, Button" premise in which protagonists get their wishes granted, at the price of someone's death each time. Richard Kelly's "The Box" made something heady and fairly interesting of Matheson's concept, as befitted the writer-director of "Donnie Darko," but "Wish Upon" is aiming decidedly lower: at teens, and maybe even tweens who somehow sneak a horror rental into a sleepover, if those still even happen.

Star Joey King is best known for playing Ramona Quimby, fer chrissakes, so she's pulling a Selena Gomez-in-"Spring Breakers" and darkening her rep. Based on the trailer, pro tip for poor Sherilyn Fenn: Keep yer damn braid away from the garbage disposal next time! Anyway, King's character goes from zero to popular girl, lotsa people die in gratuitously gruesome ways, etc. I likely won't actually watch this dreck, but why do gimmicks grab me -- us -- so persuasively? Why do I even slightly want to watch this movie?

Maybe the answer can be found in the trailer for "Happy Death Day." Meet Tree, played by Jessica Rothe. Tree is a popular, bitchy, probably somewhat vapid sorority-type college student. Tree has a big birthday, everyone who's anyone attends, and somebody in a super-creepy mask kills her dead.

Roll credits? Nah.

See, Tree is stuck in a "Groundhog Day"-inspired time loop. She dies, she wakes up the morning of her "death day," and the whole kit and caboodle starts all over again. Fun fun! Tree has to solve her own murder, etc. ("I Don't Know Who Killed Me" -- alternate title?) Anyway, this one looks targeted at a slightly more sophisticated audience, in light of the fact that Blumhouse produced it. And it might be good fun, especially since bitchy vapid Tree gets help, evidently, from clean-scrubbed, geeky male classmates with whom I have to believe, if anything is sacred, she will mightily hook up with once he helps her save her own life from Masky McStab-Stab. But again, why is this trailer taunting me with its movie's theoretical entertainingness? Why do I want to see "Happy Death Day"?

I suspect it's mostly this: Tropes = comfort. When Blumhouse waves this particular product in front of our figurative and collective nose, we know what they're selling. So we have a general sense of the likelihood that we'll like it. That's something that's distinguished mainstream film from so-called art film for at least a few decades now. "Tree of Life" guarantees views nothing except multiple WTF moments. "Boo 2! A Madea Halloween"? The trailers are pretty much two-minute versions of the movie, and a bargain at the low, low price of free.

And yet... a movie like "Happy Death Day" also promises to have some wit up its sleeve. I wrote about horror-comedy recently, and how it's an ever-loving hassle to pull off. Well, "Happy Death Day" promises us it'll mine the existential-comedy antics of "Groundhog Day" while also tapping into the popcorn-y meta-horror of "Scream." As prepackaged products go, that sounds mighty tasty. Most moviegoers, I hope, don't want total paint-by-numbers gruel when they go to the theater or illegally download or whatever. But a familiar formula shot through with some offbeat humor -- or at least humor that's somewhat funny -- and an intelligence level that exceeds what is fundamentally necessary to plot and dialogue a film, well, that's sometimes exactly what the cinedoctor ordered. (In action, see: "Kong: Skull Island.")

We who love originality and realism in movies can also love watching old beats being skillfully hit. Not every horror movie needs to be "Get Out," and even there, Jordan Peele played with tropes. How can you not? Horror is one of cinema's tropiest genres. The worst horror flicks are built with tropes, zip ties, and fake gore. The best are much classier and, sometimes, sassier, but they're not from an entirely different family. Jump scares are scary! Shadows are shadowy! Icky-looking figures wandering slowly but unswervingly toward you are very unsettling!

Even arguably the best horror movie of the 21st century, "Cabin in the Woods," paid loving homage to the tropes it was upending. Ultimately, Pauline Kael was right: "Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them."

Friday, August 11, 2017

My favorite songs of 2017 so far

In no particular order:

*single released in 2016, album in 2017