Wednesday, June 29, 2016

In Which I Review Dead of Summer (1x1)

Ah, summer television. A time of high drama, mostly poor narrative, and usually a fair amount of snark from yours truly. With Under the Dome off the air (mercifully) after three seasons, I desperately needed a new show to review while my normal TV shows are on hiatus. Thankfully (?) the creators of OUAT decided they didn't have their plates full with a 23 episode fairy tale drama and went to the more "family friendly" outlet of ABC to launch a brand-new sudsy camp filled program. Sounds like it is absolutely something I need to review! Reading the press releases and synopsis for Dead of Summer made both my eyebrows risee; a mix of LOST levels of mythology with OUAT fantasy and Pretty Little Liars type of cliche characters does not sound like recipe for anything other than a disaster. But summer TV is supposed to be slightly disastrous (maybe I'm biased after reviewing Under the Dome for three years) so I had prepared myself for laughable dialogue and an easy to read text and it's definitely all that, but what I got from the series premiere, "Patience," though, was something more and something unexpected. Don't misunderstand; this show is laced with the sort of cliches you'd expect from a summer-camp horror narrative, but these cliches are so apparent and so typical that it's hard not to wonder if the writers aren't playing to their audiences expectations and creating an overly dramatic, melodramatic, satire about teenage gothic summer camp stories. In other words, the show is laughably bad and predictable, but maybe it's supposed to be. Grab your hot dogs and marshmallows and let's go!

If anyone would like to hazard a guess as to why creators Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis set their campy camp (pun!) drama in 1989 then, by all means, lay it on me cause goodness knows I found the (semi) recent period piece aspect of this show a little too silly for words. On a network that targets directly to the generation that comes after me (still a baby chick, born in the twilight year of 1987) it's a weird step to take. There are no cell phones, no social media accounts, no insta-wifi connections that link our techno brains to the rest of humanity. Perhaps its nostalgia; the idea of being cut off from everything we think of today in terms of communication and connection creates a deeper story. Maybe it's fondly remembering when you could be one with nature without needing to snap a sunset photo to Instagram. Or maybe it's just that a soap opera derived camp horror flick doesn't make a lot of sense in the 21st century--everyone, at all times, has a camera, a video recorder, a phone, and literally a link to thousand, if not millions, of other people at their finger tips. Whatever the case, the 1989 setting gives rise to a contradiction for the viewers; it gives the show a totally out of touch feeling with the music, outfits, and general power dynamics between the genders it deploys; but at the same time, there is something very familiar about all this. It has been years (and years and years) since I attended a camp, but Camp Stillwater could be any Midwestern, off-the-beaten-path patch of youthful indiscretion that you remember from days gone by. Cliches might be obnoxious but we readily insert our own memories into their fully made forms. Everyone knew someone like one of these characters on Dead of Summer. Maybe you were even just like one of them--be it popular and cool, or a loner and struggling. Cliches don't necessarily have to be a bad thing and some of the best stories are as laudable as they are because of their rote direction, but in the 21st century, when TV is supposed to be making inroads in depictions of culture, society, gender, sex, and life in general, cliches are there to be made fun of; to be deconstructed so as to understand why certain attitudes, feelings, and sentiments belong to an age that has passed us by. And it's hard for me to believe that Adam and Eddy don't know this; I give them a lot (a lot) of grief over on my OUAT reviews--as does a good portion of the fandom these days--for adhering to traditions in storytelling that need to be placed by the wayside. After five years of that show, and the ever growing criticism around it, am I expected to believe that these two professional writers haven't realized that what their target audience wants is something that pushes the envelope beyond the stereotypical? That is why I'm inclined to read Dead of Summer as a clever satire of its tropes. These cliches are played to the hilt; played to such perfect type that if I didn't know any better, I would say this show was the first outing of a junior writer who is drawing from what he knows--and what he knows is the simple, un-nuanced, free from complications narrative that is like following a straight line from plot point A to plot point B.

So, if the story is so rife in cliches, what kind of narrative are we looking at here? Well, I believe the entire thrust of the show can be summed up from a scene straight out of "teen horror 101." Sitting around a campfire, smoking weed, and drinking cheap beer one character (a cliche "watcher and storyteller" figure who records everything on a old fashioned video camera) says, "anyone could come in here and kill every single one of us. They wouldn't find out bodies for days!" This eye-roll worthy line is followed up with the equally tropeish creepy janitor--who takes a little too much enjoyment in capturing animals in traps--speaking cryptically to the lead character, Amy, informing her, in a dull monotone voice, to leave Camp Stillwater because "you have no idea what this place is!"A tree also bleeds at one point. Demons, literal and metaphorical, abound at Camp Stillwater. Amy, as is her right as main character, is damaged, haunted, and, of course, the new counselor at Camp Stillwater. She's the outsider, one of two characters who didn't spend her golden childhood years by the lake with the rest of the gang. Amy's story is to find herself while figuring out the mysteries of Camp Stillwater, navigating all things personal and mythical. These mythical mysteries include all the classics: ghosts, magic, Satanism, and weird local legends. It's hard to get a handle on the full scope of the mystery in the first episode but given that the show begins with the murder of a negro piano player a century ago, and that all the ghosts so far were seen in the piano player's lake, it's not hard to guess. Lemme take a stab...the dead negro was accused of witchcraft and killed by racist townies to "protect their own." It will turn out that the dead man was a practitioner of magic--and possibly a Satanist who killed all the folks in the lake to appease some sort of demonic entity that resides at Stillwater and to keep the world at large safe--and is seeking revenge (and/or continual appeasement of said demonic force) using the natural magical properties of Camp Stillwater to continue exacting his revenge. Deb, the head counselor (who was miraculously brought back to life and defrosted from her time as the Ice Queen), knows all this but can't bring herself to shut down the camp because she sunk all her money into trying to bring her childhood camp back to life (this action reawakens the camp ghost, if I read the cliches right!) On the whole, there are too many characters (each one as opaque as the next), too many mysteries, too many narratives balls in the air, for anything to make a ton of sense right now. But I don't know that it needs to; as terrible and hokey as the premiere was, it's not without action, intrigue, and it does manage to create a desire to see how it ends--even if you could write the ending without seeing anything else from Dead of Summer.

Miscellaneous Notes on Patience 

--There really are way too many characters on this show. It's as if the writers couldn't narrow down to just a few cliches--they needed to have ALL of them. There's the ugly duckling who became the super hot swan (Jessie); there's Blair (who is supremely gay and needs everyone to know it); there's Alex (the popular but probably insecure alpha male); along for the ride is Drew who's only character trait so far is long hair and sullen silence and Cricket who fills our quota for the "stupid nickname" cliche.

--Amy's flashbacks reveal that the first friend she ever had 1) died (of course) 2) is the reason she went to Camp Stillwater (again of course) and 3) imparted the great life lesson that sometimes you have to do stuff that scares you.

--How about a round of applause for me for NOT making an Amy/Anna joke? Elizabeth Lail isn't nearly as captivating here as she was on OUAT, but she's also just being asked to act mopey, sad-eyed, and scream at everything that startles her (which occurred approximately every 5 minutes).

--Do I smell a love triangle between Amy, Garrett the Deputy, and Jessie? Adam and Eddy just can't resist, can they? On the other side of cliche romances, we have the somewhat icky set up of Deb and Joel in an autumn-late spring type of romance.

--The lake is apparently shaped like a ram/demon's head and the Camp sits at its heart. Naturally.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

In Which I Review Finding Dory

Sequels are always a particularly hard creature with which to tangle. The first and original iteration of a franchise is obviously so beloved that it warrants another go around; but how exactly should a writer and director approach this new undiscovered work--should it follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, reminding the audience why it fell in love with the first showing, or should it branch off completely and find its own voice and un-trodden path?I was a junior in high school when Finding Nemo came out and, in spite of being well above the target demographic, I thought it was one of the best, freshest, and emotionally gut punching animated films I'd ever seen. The story--a basic one about a father searching for his lost child--was full of deep oceanic wonder, quirky secondary characters, and as much heart as the sea is deep. It became an instant classic and, easily, the most famous aspect of the movie was everyone's favorite blue tang, Dory. Voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, the forgetful fish packed one hell of a wallop and managed to imprint herself on our hearts somewhere between teaching us all to just keep swimming and speaking whale. So, in other words, it came as little to no surprise that Disney/Pixar trotted out a sequel staring Dory in the aptly named "Finding Dory." A secondary outing of the characters probably wasn't necessary but it doesn't mean that it wasn't welcome. Grab your favorite Dory plushie (you know you have one) and let's go!

General Thoughts

Whether or not Pixar suspected the sort of cultural collateral they were about to establish with Dory when she crashed into "Finding Nemo" we'll never know, but the little blue tang was always supposed to be a sidekick and comic relief. Her tendency to forget everything she knows in the blink of a fish eye and her propensity for hilarious one liners and endearing catchphrases made her ridiculously lovable. However, in terms of character, Dory is (understandably) a blank slate. Presented in the first twenty minutes of "Finding Nemo," Dory has no ties to the main family of clown-fish Marlin and his erstwhile son, Nemo. None, that is, except those that she establishes as the film progresses. Dory becomes one of the family as she helps Marlin along his Odyssey-like journey to find his fishy son, but her character history is a broad one and stays as such all through the first flick, and that's to the movie's credit, to be fair. Dory is not the lead in "Finding Nemo;" she need not be fleshed out and given a backstory to give her any sort of pathos (which she inexplicably has in spades even without any sort of history to ground her character). While the title "Finding Nemo" is a literal one--Marlin literally goes on a journey to literally find his son--"Finding Dory" takes a different approach. Dory does not need to be literally found; she's not lost in the traditional sense. She has a home and a family, albeit one of her own making, having taken up with Marlin and Nemo in their coral reef home at the end of the first movie. Dory is lost in a more metaphorical sense--she has no concept of who she is or where she came from. Dory's family is lost to her, along with her home and any sort of memories she may have once had about those two life defining things. While Marlin and Nemo provide her with a sense of belonging, all fish (and, really, everyone) need to know from whence they came, otherwise how can we really know who we are as a person? In this sense, "Finding Dory" is actually deeper than "Finding Nemo," though both touch on the same themes of loss and family. While Nemo centers on Marlin letting go of his son and learning to survive when bad things happen to his family, Dory focuses on the identities we build through our experiences with families---families that we define and create with all manner of peoples, be they of blood relation or not. While the adults in the room might get that message more than the little kids in the audience, it's never too early to start teaching said children the importance of communities and accepting those that are different than we are. We're all just fish in the ocean, looking for a place to belong. Disney/Pixar, it's not just about singing princesses anymore.

The major through-line for the entire film is Dory trying to find her biological family but at the same time comes to understand that her family is more extensive than just mom, Jenny, and dad, Charlie. Dory's family includes not only Marlin and Nemo, the two fish she discovers she misses just as much as her mom and dad, but all the characters that flicker in and out of her rather extraordinary life. This includes Destiny the nearsighted whale, Bailey the Beluga whale who has lost his ability to echolocate, and Hank the surly, cranky but tender septopus (he lost a tentacle), all of whom try to help Dory find her family, both of the blue tang and orange clown variety. Dory's emotional journey matches her outward journey of setting out to find her home only to discover that she has always had part of it with her once she found Marlin and Nemo. This, more than any of the other emotional beats in the movie, is what will get audiences to reach for their Kleenexes. Lovers of "Finding Nemo" will already recognize that Dory has a family and a home with the two clown fish in their anemone, but it's watching Dory come to the same understanding about just how big her family really is that plucks at the heartstrings. It helps that Marlin (and Nemo to a lesser extent) are fully fleshed out characters with a ton of history that we already know; we understand how much Marlin loves Dory, even if he's loathe to admit it and still finds himself exasperated with her at times. We know how strongly the ties between all three of them are and it's watching the three of them piece it together for themselves that will cause the waterworks. While this emotional journey is undergoing, there are, naturally, quirky characters, funny moments, and gorgeous CGI. It's exactly what you'd expect from a visit to the deep blue with these well loved characters. Somehow, everything feels familiar; Marlin is a worrywart and tends to snap when he's upset; Nemo's heart is the size of an ocean and loves unconditionally; Dory still manages to somehow pull off zany plans that make no sense except that she simply believes they'll work. There are shout-outs to the best moments of "Finding Nemo," tiny moments that let the audience chuckle at an inside joke. It's a thoroughly enjoyable film that swims down familiar territory while trying something new (and deeper) on for size.

What I Liked/What I Did Not Like

--I'm going to put likes and dislikes together because there are far more of one (likes) than the other (dislikes) as has probably become apparent with the above general review.

--While the new characters in "Finding Dory" aren't as memorable as the side characters in "Finding Nemo," they are still very enjoyable, if lacking in any sort of shading. Part of this is because of setting. The main action of the film takes place in an aquatic hospital and while that's a very intriguing idea, the film doesn't exactly go to any trouble or length to explain how many of those creatures ended up there. Yes, Destiny is near sighted but she's clearly grown up in the aquarium. Yes, Bailey has "hit his head" and lost his ability to perform echolocation and yes, Hank has lost a tentacle and is traumatized by the thought of the ocean but we don't get any indication as to how these issues surfaced, how they were noticed, and how the animals in question feel about these handicaps outside of sometimes melancholy but fully functional. It's an animated film that centers on three characters predominately, so I wasn't expecting a fleshed out story for each side fish (erm, whale and cephalopod) but it's worth noting that the film series has a tendency to give their side characters a certain trait that is clearly manifested (short term memory loss, nearsightedness, crazy as a loon, missing a limb,) without explaining it further. It's most disquieting in Gerald, a sealion that is drawn with wide, vacant eyes and give no dialogue as if he's mute and dumb and is simply played for laughs. While the movie is all about celebrating the differences in people, this one gave me pause, though I will be forgiving given how adorable Gerald is.

--With that said, if Dory stole the first film, then Hank steals the second. It's nice to know that Dory meets grumpy, cautious, orange sea creatures wherever she goes.

--No scene made me cry harder than the ending of the opening "flashback" when Dory literally runs into a frantic Marlin after swimming the length and breadth of the ocean looking for her family. Yes, it's the actual "Finding Nemo" scene but the major theme of the movie series is perfectly captured here: Dory needs Marlin and much as Marlin needs Dory. Families are built through love and trials as well as blood.

--Lots of callbacks to "Finding Nemo," including the return of several favorite characters like Mr. Ray and Dude Crush, the hippie surfer turtle. I do wish they had Bruce make a special appearance. Inquiring minds need to know if he's still living by his mantra that fish are friends, not food.

--The animation continues to be breathtaking, though in this case we aren't marveling at the deep ocean but the almost dingy water of an aquarium. There's an unspoken meta commentary about ocean pollution that does not go unnoticed.

--There were a few too many fast paced action sequences of getting one fish (either Dory or Marlin/Nemo) to another place but that's to be expected when you have to fill in some time.

--"Follow me!" "'re in a cup." "Okay, I'll follow you."

--I have no idea what kind of bird Becky is (though, I suspect loon), but she's fabulous and if there's a third movie, I hope she's there to carry Marlin around in a bucket.

--Seriously, I'd like to have a stuffed Gerald, please and thank you. I'll give him his own rock.

--Baby Dory is the cutest fish to ever exist.

--Sequels have an annoying tendency to take little quirks from the first film and explain them in a way that fits into the larger mythos of a story. Finding Dory does this but doesn't try to make them salient plot points that hint at something larger. For example, in the first film the most famous scene is probably Dory speaking whale while Marlin looks on in horror. That quirk of Dory's is explained in the second film. But instead of it being something that is important to the entire franchise, it's simply because she grew up next to a whale. Props to the writers for not making this multi-lingual ability something mega important but simply a fact of Dory's multicultural life.

--The animated short "Piper" that opened the film is equally cute if a little schmaltzy.

--There is an adorable post-credits scene that is worth sticking around for!

Final Rating: A-

Grab the family, grab the Kleenexes and go back home to the big blue one more time.