Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Pass Me the Product Nineteen

After four years of ass-kicking, 2019 somehow finally served the impression things were improving. Or maybe that was a delusion brought on by all the buffeting; The New Cruelty is ongoing, to be sure. But it felt better all the same, and you gotta get your serotonin where ya can.

I hit 50 this year. It's still a little weird to reckon with. In fifth grade, 50 was old to me. And seeing that I'm still devouring the art and culture that I relished in fifth grade, it's hard not to sometimes wonder if I'm not really just a child on stilts and a long coat. Also considering that there's another deadass generation gap that's causing multiple stresses among the people, I feel a constantly increasing kinship with that forgotten Prince Don Fabrizio Cabrera in believing that I belong to an unlucky generation, astride between two worlds and ill-at-ease in both.

"That's why God made the movies..."

The highest honor I received this year, frankly the highest in many years, was a most unique form of cinematic immortality. After years of evolving from exuberant fan to thoughtful chronicler to trusted correspondent for his treasured cinema, my trajectory with Quentin Tarantino brought me (or, specifically, my Persian housewife hands) to a small but significant amount of screen time in his magnum opus ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, appropriately brandishing a reel of film and threading it into a projector, placing me in the august company of Jack Webb wielding a hammer or Dario Argento garrotting a dayplayer. I'd just as soon not go into the specifics of how my lovely knuckles made it into one of the most hotly debated films of the year in this forum. Maybe if you see me in person and buy me a boilermaker, I'll tell the tale.

Big thanks to Joon Kim for the screengrabs!

Naturally, since I had a literal hand in this epic production, I must respectfully render it ineligible for my list. I can, however, give it my Jury Prize, and proclaim without prejudice that in a similar manner which his Sundance '92 friend and colleague Allison Anders explored in GRACE OF MY HEART, it's a swarming swooning speculative fiction about artists in a time and place that may well have only existed in the minds of people moved by the movies, along with romantic fools like me. As I documented for the New Beverly, I could see the joists and the plumbing erected before the house opened to the public, and I am pleased that so many have come to visit it. But yeah, having bragging rights to a few flash frames therein feels great too.

And I meanwhile happily award a Runaway Jury Prize to Steven Knight's questionable but unforgettable mystery SERENITY. The less said about its daffy surprises, the better, but I'll sum up that if Strong Bad decided to follow up the Dangeresque series by writing an erotic thriller, it would be an awful lot like SERENITY.

(typing) "Get ye fish."

(processing) "You cannot get ye fish."

(typing) "No, for real, print me out a million dollar bill, man. Dot exe."

And then here will be some sort of convoluted wordplay or pun which introduces you to The Top 13 of 2019:

 12. US


“Curation, at its best, is not just how you like something, which is the most dangerous place to go, but what the music means to the band, what it means to the fans, and whether it should be part of how someone first connects [with the artist]."

-- Gary Stewart, February 10, 1957 – April 11, 2019

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The New Normal of NEXT LEVEL

Roughly nine years ago, I stumbled across a great glorious cinematic What-in-the-Sam-Hill called STANDING OVATION, which I described as the tweener intersection of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL and "JERSEY SHORE." I happily say that I have a fondness for films aimed at the grade school set, decades after they stopped being relevant to my existence, because more often than not I can imagine how li'l Mark (before he started spelling his name with a "c" instead of a "k" just to be difficult) would have reacted to them. Look, many of you have probably revisited the movies of your childhood and determined that they don't really hold up, but more often than not they still make you smile because you're remembering the wide-eyed hope of that earlier time. All I'm doing different is viewing such modern-day trifles through a theoretical fog of memory instead of an actual one.

So when I started seeing the advertising for another Pre-Adolescent Performing Arts Saga called NEXT LEVEL, naturally I was intrigued, being that ever since that previous jolt of kooky endorphins, I've been chasing that cotton-candy dragon for years since. I made the drive to attend one of the few theatrical playdates the movie has been granted - apparently the release is so small a theatre count or opening weekend gross could not be obtained from Box Office Mojo - and sure enough, I was the only person at my screening. For all I know, I may have been the only person in attendance for the whole day's worth of shows. To my mild disappointment, I was not treated to the same delirious array of plot turns and aesthetic decisions that made STANDING OVATION one-of-a-kind. Those looking for the next OOGIELOVES or THE IDENTICAL are thus duly warned. But, to my warm-hearted pleasure, I found just enough grace notes at play that I felt it worth expending space at this moribund blog to discuss them.

My close friend and esteemed colleague William Bibbiani, who was one of the few people to also take the time to meet this movie halfway and write a review for it, served up a thumbs-down pan for The Wrap that was nonetheless fair-minded, friendly, and respectful. His largest issue with the movie appears to be its lack of plausibility and stakes-worthy conflict, stating that, "the film’s production values [undermine] the story at every turn." On his Critically Acclaimed podcast with Witney Seibold, he further addressed that though it would be churlish to take issue with teenagers of limited acting experience and range performing as such, the experience of watching the film felt akin to being the parent of one of the kids who feels compelled to stay and watch the proceedings even though rooting interest dissipated shortly after their particular fave already did their number. Which is pretty much how my own father felt when he came to watch the big show at the performing arts camps he sent me to for my middle school years, not to mention how my friends felt about coming to see me during my open-mic stand-up years. (Plot twist: they didn't, and I wound up performing to the empty room that resulted after the audience members who came to see their friends split when their five minutes was up. But I digress) Much like me, he was hoping for a different kind of "camp" movie.

Bibbs has cogently assessed why he does not recommend it. I am not here about simply gainsaying his points, suffice to say that, in keeping with the principle coined by programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks as "neo-sincerity," what took him out of the movie never troubled me. Low production value? Sending me to Days of Creation cost my dad plenty, and their facilities were definitely not Camp Mohawk posh. The songs and choreography are so-so? Would it be better if Tommy French from SMILE were to have been in charge and turned a nice bunch of high school kids into Vegas showgirls? And, dude, it's not that Cindy turned on the house lights during Kelly's number, it's that her jerk move cut the power to her backing music and threw off the act. Didn't you ever have to solve the mystery of "The music stopped, and the lady died" when you were in middle school? But hey, consistency is a hobgoblin of small minds. And speaking of HOBGOBLINS...naah, we'll table that movie for now. The point is, he's already lain out what doesn't work. I've come to say here's what does work, DO MORE OF THAT!

The element that director Alyssa Goodman and screenwriter Byron Kavanagh bring to NEXT LEVEL which I believe help transcend it's outwardly ragged issues is how it quietly upends and thwarts the gender tropes that would normally be de rigeur in a PAPAS (yes, I am going to make that acronym happen). Press materials have openly name-checked MEAN GIRLS as an influence, though what I kept thinking of as I was watching was Jessica Bendinger's underappreciated directorial debut STICK IT, in how the ongoing theme is that shoehorning a young woman's desire to hone a talent into a winner-take-all environment will either curdle their personality or drain all joy from that pursuit, or both. Modern movies like to talk a good game of girl power and cooperation, but it's rare you see something where the lead is doing her damnedest to not be an Alpha in her group...and succeeds. It also keenly addresses that even if you outwardly eschew competition, it's often still ingrained in your thoughts. A particularly striking moment is when, after a boys versus girls dodgeball game, Kelly, the maverick who doesn't care about winning, initially resents that Hayden, the boy who likes her, effectively let her win; she considers it condescending that he didn't bring his A game. But Hayden points out that yeah, he could have flung the ball hard and beaned her, but then she'd be in pain and probably not in the mood to spend more time with him, and she agrees. Later, when Cindy pulls a boilerplate make-the-girl-jealous-with a hug scam, Hayden describes what happened and Kelly recognizes that Cindy's obsessed with manipulating people and bam, it's resolved. The contrivances of most teen stories are cut short here. It's refreshing that all the boys in this movie for once are not presented as antagonists or chaos agents, but just benign diversions. When they first appear, disrupting an initial rehearsal, they flat out say they heard the song and dance happening and liked it and wanted to watch, and after some chiding, are allowed to. When they acquiesce to their makeover bet payoff with the girls, none of them seem embarrassed or even that anxious to get it off, much to the chagrin of their female coach. Heck, the d.j.'s at the closing night celebration are girls. And the fact that at the end it is suggested that hey, why not allow boys in this arts camp as well, frankly I laughed heartily at that because after decades of having to sit through dozens of movies where "girls can do this too" is the moral, turnabout is fair play and overdue.

Another element that may seem incredulous to some but felt effective to me is the virtual lack of adult supervision in this story. Aside from the hapless camp director, there are no other adult males ever seen. And beyond some early comic relief with Cindy's enabling mother, a disheartening audio exchange between Becky and her pushy stage mom, and the one moment with the boys' basketball camp coach, no adult women either, Even the ostensible visiting mentor Jasmine Joel is herself just reaching college age, though she does have some lessons to impart. Thus, we are spared any kind of tired "the grown-ups have the answers" lecturing; the girls in effect are recognizing and solving their own problems. As FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH director Amy Heckerling once observed, "I hate parents. Parents open a whole box of stuff I [don’t] want to get into. I just [want] to say ‘Here’s the world of kids in their own universe.'" And in a film that is almost exclusively going to be viewed by the Tiger Beat set, agency and self-determination are good skills to depict.

I'll further throw in to say that I enjoyed how while there is a declared prize to be won within the story, it is deliberately undercut to the point of becoming an anticlimax. There's a nice resolution between Cindy and Kelly that dovetails to the earlier exchange between Kelly and Hayden, where the girls debate whether, if they had not been at loggerheads, the award win would have been different, and then decide it would have been the same because their essential temperaments for achievement have always been different, and there's more contentment from having good company. Even in an uplifting kids movie, one is risking massive mockery to go for a "the real prize was the friends we made along the way" ending. Seeing as how Kelly, in an earlier gloomy moment, assumes that her botched performance will shortly become a meme, and in real life all these eager young performers already have an internet presence, everyone involved in this film are aware that the snark brigade is always waiting. So woot to them for believing that sometimes if you leave girls to their own devices, they won't go LORD OF THE FLIES on each other; for the viewers about to start high school, that's reassuring. And for some of us arrested adolescents as well.

While NEXT LEVEL is not a strong enough movie to hold much interest for anyone who isn't a teenage girl or their sitter for the night, if you do find yourself watching it in such circumstance...your roommate absconded with your copy of the original HAIRSPRAY, and CAMP with Anna Kendrick got pulled from streaming, and you don't think your young charge is ready for Coco's breakdown in FAME, you will see a world where girls are valued, boys aren't toxic, and in a time of your life where it feels like Everything is Everything, it's possible to lower the stakes and find calm. Bibbs is right in that I won't likely remember any of the song or dance numbers that were supposed to be the big draw. But I will remember that I had a good time, and that's worth something too.

(P.S.: Thank you for the post-credit blooper reel. Since most indie movies don't get physical media releases anymore, I sometimes worry that little bonuses like this may fall by the wayside. Why should Marvel fans get all the cookies?)