DVD Review: The Spectacular Now

'The Spectacular Now': What's So Great About Being an Adult?

On the surface, it seems like The Spectacular Now is no different from your average teen movie. It starts off at an Atlanta, Georgia high school sometime during senior year. The all-around popular guy, Sutter (Miles Teller), meets the pretty-but-unnoticed shy girl, Aimee (Shailene Woodley). They strike up an unlikely friendship, then an even-more-unlikely romance, and then have to figure out what to do about the world after high school.

In the hands of James Ponsoldt —adapting the novel by Tim Tharp—what could easily become your typical end-of-high-school love story becomes something much harder to create: a teen movie that resembles real life more than other teen movies. In Ponsoldt’s commentary and a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes included in the Blu-ray, Ponsoldt says he was striving for authenticity and, for the most part, he achieves it.

Teller and Woodley, along with the rest of the cast, look and talk like real teenagers. Their clothes are worn and wrinkled and look like they were bought at Target. They sweat when it’s supposed to be hot out, and things like pimples and scars aren’t airbrushed out or caked over with makeup. (The authenticity spills over into the location as well; an Atlanta native, Ponsoldt notes in his commentary that he wanted to show off the city the way the locals see it, by including, say, his favorite college record store as opposed to the usual tourist attractions.) ...


Mental_Floss: Unseen TV Characters

This is my first assignment from mental_floss, based on an idea I pitched.

11 Television Characters You've Never Seen

Tino on My So-Called Life

What they're saying: "We have to go! With Sharon, to the hospital. I'll get Tino to drive us, he loves hospitals."

The lowdown: It's possible My So-Called Life heartthrob Jordan Catalano never got anywhere with his band, the Frozen Embryos, because Tino, its front man, wasn't very present. Then again, maybe he didn't have to be: possibly the most-referenced unseen character on this list, Tino is mentioned in a majority of the series' episodes, by almost every major teenage character. He can get a fake ID. He can get into an exclusive club, loft, or empty, for-sale house. He is, like, Mr. Halloween. When he quits the band, Jordan laments that "There's gonna be, like, this big empty hole where Tino used to be," but, for the audience, that's all he ever was.

Click through to see the full list at mental_floss.

Image credit: ThinkStock

PopMatters Year-End Lists: The Best TV of 2013 (and the Worst Movies)

The Best Television of 2013

No. 11
Girls
“One Man’s Trash”, a second-season episode of Girls, may have been polarizing even to the most strident fans of the show, but it proves why the series deserves a spot on any Top TV list. The episode finds Hannah Horvath (series creator Lena Dunham) spending a lost couple of days with a Brooklyn doctor (played by Patrick Wilson). The episode exists in a bubble; Hannah barely talks to any series regulars, and she and the doctor never venture outside of his brownstone together. It was so removed from the rest of the series, people speculated it was a dream. “One Man’s Trash” proves Girls’ originality and fearlessness. In a TV-watching culture that prizes serialized storytelling and binge-watchability above all else, Dunham isn’t afraid to take her show on a different tack and do a stand-alone episode. She’s also not afraid to go broad when other shows are trying to be grounded, or to show female characters spiraling out of control or refusing to grow up (normally the domain of male characters). It’s this willingness to take risks—some of which, admittedly, turn out to be more successful than others—that make Girls one of the most exciting shows on television.

No. 33
Sleepy Hollow
Sleepy Hollow throws everything at its audience. A time-traveling protagonist transported two centuries in the future? Yes. A menagerie of monsters? Why not. A secret, alternate history of the United States and Revolutionary War? Sure. Why not add in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (the famed Headless Horseman is one) and other Biblical catastrophes, too? It all works together, mostly because Sleepy Hollow moves along at such a pace that don’t have time to pick apart how any of it is stitched together. The mix of supernatural elements also gives the show a balance between monster-of-the-week episodes (which usually come with cool creature designs) and episodes that lay out the mythology for the oncoming war between good and evil. But what really sells it is the charm of Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), who sounds equally authoritative talking about 18th-century Freemasons as he does decrying the 21st-century “ten percent levy on baked goods”—aka the sales tax at Dunkin Donuts. Washington Irving would be tickled.


Click through to read the full list at PopMatters. I also had a few blurbs in The Worst Films of 2013 (#12, #16, and #23), but let's not dwell on the negative, shall we?

PopMatters Year-End Lists: The Best Films of 2013

Always happy to contribute to the year-end round-up features.

The Best Films of 2013

No. 25
The Bling Ring
Sofia Coppola has a way with lost young adults. The characters in The Bling Ring, based on real-life teenage burglars who targeted celebrities (as depicted in a Vanity Fair article), are certainly lost, being either home schooled or in the “dropout school” for past bad behavior. But instead of wallowing in their unsatisfactory home lives, Coppola shows how they’re swept up in everything they don’t have: designer clothes, huge mansions, access to the VIP celebrity lifestyle, and attention from the press. Coppola is able to dramatize this excess—shots of sprawling houses and overstuffed closets (including Paris Hilton’s actual residence)—and use it as both a critique of celebrity-obsessed consumerism and as a way of understanding why a gang of high schoolers would want to break in at all costs to steal of piece of it. She also makes the best use of the a slo-mo walking shot since Reservoir Dogs, only instead of identical black suits her characters wear pilfered couture.

No. 33
Prince Avalanche
With Prince Avalanche, you get the best of director David Gordon Green's two worlds: the lyrical prettiness and gorgeous compositions of his early indie movies (like All the Real Girls), plus the playfulness and humor of his bigger studio comedies (like The Pineapple Express). The film follows two lonely workers painting lines on a remote, fire-damaged road in the forests of Texas, and Green’s at his best when he’s working in this intimate scale. He’s a keen observer of human behavior, and he knows exactly what to slightly exaggerate for maximum comedic effect. Then again, there are parts of the story that are profoundly touching, especially when the main characters come across a woman who lost everything in one of the big fires. In this way, Prince Avalanche shows that you can do so much—evoke a whole range of emotions—with so very little—just two really strong performers (Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd), the bounty of nature, and a keen sense of the human condition.

No. 34
The Conjuring
Leave it to director James Wan, who kicked off the “torture porn” craze when he directed the first Saw movie, to be the one to lead the genre away from gristle and gore again. His two 2013 horror movies, Insidious Chapter 2 and The Conjuring, rely more on mood and atmosphere to ratchet up the tension and deliver their haunted-house scares. Of these, The Conjuring is more traditional, and more successful. It uses scares we’ve all seen before—from a menacing music box to a creeptastic twist on hide-and-seek—but uses them effectively; muscles will start to tense the minute you someone winds the gears of that music box or starts counting for that game of hide-and-seek. Wan elevates these tropes with a some visual flourishes, including an excellent tracking shot that follows multiple characters as they zig-zag through the haunted house on move-in day. There’s also an unexpected emotional core to the story, since The Conjuring portrays the interaction between two families: The Perrons, a boisterous family of seven that moved into the cursed Rhode Island farmhouse, and the Warrens, the demon-fighting couple that pledges to help them. (The Warrens are based on real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.) It’s rare to see loving families depicted in horror movies—let alone two of them in one movie—which give stakes that are higher than every-teen-for-himself slasher movies since the characters have something important that they can lose (other than quarts of blood). Wan proves that you don’t have to be grotesque or shock to scare, so long as you have real people, not stock types, living in that haunted house.

Click through to see the full list at PopMatters.


DVD Review: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones


...To watch The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones without having read the book is to always feel like you’re missing some crucial piece of information that would make everything click into place and make sense. Unfortunately, a Rosetta Stone for the movie never arrives. Instead, you’re left to guess at everything that goes unsaid.

“This is as far as I go,” Jace tells Clary as they wander through the subterranean City of Bones, a catacomb of expired Shadowhunters, toward a great circular room where a ritual is to take place. Why won’t he go any farther? He doesn’t say. He enters the room, just keeps to the edge of it. Is he not allowed into the center? Is he afraid of the ritual? Does he think it’d make Clary stronger to go on alone? It’s not explained—and, ultimately, not important—which makes you wonder why it was such a big freaking deal for him not to go any farther in the first place.

The entire movie is a string of such head-scratching moments. Characters jump from location to location, and it’s not always clear why they’re headed where they’re headed. (Ostensibly, they’re on the search for the Great MacGuffin, but it feels like the quest takes them in circles.) Some objects and people are invisible to mundanes, until they’re not anymore. Sometimes the Shadowhunters use runes to conjure magic, sometimes they use wands, and sometimes the magic is innate. One character is bitten by a vampire, and it isn’t brought up again for the rest of the movie. When Clary is taken to the Shadowhunter HQ, she’s shown a greenhouse with magical plants. Why would the plants be different? It’s still New York City, right? The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is proof that rule-making isn’t the same as world-building, and the rules that govern the movie are so thick and arbitrary that it sucks out any of the pleasure of being immersed in a new fantasy environment...

Click through to read the full review on PopMatters.

PopMatters Year-End Lists: The 75 Best Songs of 2013

I love participating in the year-end pop-culture round-up that PopMatters puts together every year. I contributed two blurbs to the list of best songs—albums should be next.

The 75 Best Songs of 2013

No. 16
Vampire Weekend - “Diane Young”
“Diane Young” is Vampire Weekend by way of Buddy Holly, albeit if an amped-up Buddy Holly had a bunch of sonic tricks to enhance his singing of “baby, baby, baby”. Holly may have been an influence on the lyrics as well as the sound, since “Diane Young” is about, well, dying young—the wordplay showing that the band has no intention of giving up the brainier aspects of their songwriting—only done in a catchy, upbeat way that steers clear of the usual moroseness that results when contemplating mortality. “Diane Young” almost conceals its inventiveness. It feels like a straight-ahead rock track and, coming in one, sub-three-minute burst. It cements Vampire Weekend’s status as creators of songs you can listen to four times in a row before you even realize it.

No. 24
Haim - “Days Are Gone”
Haim sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana packed the first half of Days Are Gone with quite a few top-10-worthy songs, but it’s the title track that shows that they’re not afraid to make pop music that prizes '70s Fleetwood Mac songwriting, '80s electronic drums and keyboards, and early '90s R&B over the typical trademarks of today’s pop songs. The result is simultaneously familiar and refreshing. The quietly chanted, repeated refrain of “Days Are Gone” offers an antidote to the current pop radio ballads that can’t help themselves from leaning too often and too hard on big, belted choruses. In that way, it’s almost hard to tell that the song was co-written with the UK’s Jessie Ware and Kid Harpoon (and recorded in London), especially since it’s still imbued with the L.A.-chic vibe that made us notice Haim in the first place.

Click through to read the full list at PopMatters.



DVD Review: Byzantium

Just in time for Halloween, a review of a movie about female vampires.

'Byzantium' Has New Vampires That Play by New Rules

...[Neil] Jordan also moves beyond the stage’s confines by putting together some strikingly composed images: a black beetle crawling across Eleanor’s pale face, a line of rich red blood dripping across white fingers, neon carnival rides glowing against a dark night. If there’s one good thing about a vampires that aren’t sensitive to the sun, it’s that they can walk around in the light, so you can actually see all of the art direction—from painstaking period details of the past to the dingy nuances of the run-down hotel where the characters hole up in the present...

Click through to read the full review at PopMatters.


TV Review: Dracula


This American 'Dracula' Proves to Be Simply Irresistible to the English

...But apart from these familiar names, this Dracula has as much in common with The Count of Monte Cristo as it does to its own source material. In this iteration of the story, Dracula awakens in Victorian England. He adopts a false persona—that of Alexander Grayson, super-rich industrialist from the United States, “as American as God, guns, and bourbon”—and sets out to get revenge on the old order that imprisoned him in a coffin for centuries and murdered his wife.

Grayson decides that the best way to exact his vengeance is through emptying his foes’ wallets. The adversaries inhabit the entrenched upper echelon of society, fully at ease with their “overtly grotesque sense of entitlement,” with their money tied up, of course, in the oil industry. Naturally, Grayson takes them on by starting a green energy company, harnessing the power of wireless electricity. His attack sets up the most insistent, and strangest, theme that carries throughout the series. It’s a sort of class warfare, with Grayson positioning himself as an outsider determined on destroying the established societal order.

He seems an unlikely class warrior, considering his vast fortune, but his opponents consider his wealth “new,” and so, beneath their own. This gives him some odd moral authority, at least in this show’s version of such things. Plus, Grayson has a fondness for outsiders and misfits. The most obvious embodiment would be his second-hand man, R.M. Renfield (Nonso Anozie), a lawyer who’s often misjudged by the old money folks because he’s African American. It happens that Mina is also a nonconformist of sorts, as too many male doctors underestimate her.

Wealthy and well situated as he may be, with friends like these, Grayson takes on some underdog sheen, applied mostly to his business dealings, along with Grayson’s acquisition of patents, testing of alloys, and uncovering of bribes. The couple of high-energy action scenes and bouts of bloody violence might be said to punctuate these more mundane bits of corporate espionage. While these scenes can be unsavory, they’re hardly frightening and rarely suspenseful...

Click through to read the full review at PopMatters,




DVD Review: The Bling Ring


...While Coppola doesn’t dwell on the situations that made the Bling Ring what they were, she does give you an overwhelming feeling of who they are: young, attractive, savvy, plugged in, and celebrity-obsessed. She scrolls through images of the Ring’s targets—Paris Hilton on a runway onDlisted, Lindsay Lohan at a court date on TMZ—then follows up with the Facebook photos of the Bling Ring members, often making the same poses. Even the celebrities’ bad behavior is mimicked; Lindsay Lohan gets a DUI, then so does Chloe. You can sense the characters’ attitudes towards these celebrities shift from admiration to a darker kind of “Why can’t that be me?” envy.

And if you’re looking for envy—or, depending on your attitude towards consumerism, revulsion—more than anything Coppola emphasizes the material aspect of Los Angeles’ celebrity culture. There are shots upon shots of enormous closets, with racks stuffed with designer dresses, drawers overflowing with jewelry, and rows upon rows of shoes in a spectrum of colors. Paris Hilton allowed Coppola to film inside her house—at the real scene of the crime—and it’s a good thing, because a fictitious version of the Hilton closet probably would not have been over-the-top enough. (A DVD featurette with Hilton gives a tour of her closet and house, complete with her backyard doghouse, modeled after her own, for her seven dogs.)

When Coppola shows these lavish closets or the celebratory club-going after a heist, it looks like a fashion photo shoot. Other times, she switches to a reality-show-style handheld, reflecting how the Bling Ring participants saw themselves—as the stars of their own series. Other times, she shows them as shadowy figures on green, night-vision security cameras, or how they looked to the outside world. In the most interesting scene in the movie, the characters barely register at all: the camera stays outside a celebrity home, and all you see is the lights flick on and off in different rooms as they burglarize the house.

The range of shooting styles gives the movie interest, but like her protagonists, Coppola has a problem with excess. The cycle of Googling celebrity houses, breaking in, luxuriating in other people’s property, and heading out to party repeats itself too many times in the middle of the movie, with nothing extra added except another celebrity name to the list of victims...


Click through to read the full review at PopMatters.