Monday, April 30, 2012

SKINS S2E2: The Sense God Gave A Lemon

One thing Skins does very well, which I haven't noted before, is visual storytelling. That's hard to do--I mean not only is it conceptually difficult to tell a comprehensible story in images instead of words but it's also like, literally logistically hard to move the camera and lights around and show all the stuff you need to show. It's much easier to just have a guy say, "Oh, so Maxxie's stalker lives on THAT floor." And this episode of Skins is a particular standout in that regard--multiple scenes rely on understanding spatial relationships between characters,* and a huge amount of information is conveyed visually. You could almost watch this episode with the sound off.

(*And if you think that isn't hard to do, watch most TV shows while trying to understand where everyone really is in a room. They're not usually really showing you!)
Of course if you kept the sound off, you'd miss all the 9/11 jokes. This episode is centered around a production of Osama! The Musical, an original work being performed by the Skins Repertory Theatre. One walks a fine line when one attempts 9/11 jokes, and the easy and usually irritating way to get away with it seems to be the "look how transgressive I am being" Family Guy madlib approach "(Hey Stewie did you hear about how the Pope aborted a 9/11 terrorist at George Zimmerman's house?"). It's not as though jokes coming from that dark place can't be funny, but truth be told usually they aren't, and using them too often suggests something uncomfortable about the joke-teller. It's not unlike the trend/problem of "hipster racism" that's been in the news lately, mostly because of Girls. 

("Hipster racism" is one of those things I want to say more about, but sort of can't yet, as it mostly a "know it when I see it" situation. It's definitely real, I mean it is the most predictable outcome imaginable--relatively affluent white people appropriate aspects of an ethnic culture without becoming assimilated into the original culture and a reflexive reaction to that embarrassment follows--but most of the writing happening (that I have read, anyway) on the subject is muddled and usually half-about something else. This article on Gawker just seems to be about regular racism, and The Atlantic Wire's articles on the subject are mostly about Girls writer Lesley Arfin and her tweets, which seems like a misguided focal point, to me. More on this story as it develops, in my brain.)
What Skins does differently, or at least seems* to do differently, is come at 9/11 jokes from a goofily earnest place. Their deluded theater teacher thinks he is telling a stirring, noble story. So much of the transgression on Skins comes from an innocent place, right? Especially in the character of Chris, who continues to be the best (at least while Cassie is in absentia).

(*I mean, yeah, the jokes are still being written by knowing, cynical people, and if you think the cuddly rubes of the Skins cast DON'T shield this gag from scorn I suppose I can't blame you.)
ANYWAY this episode follows the exploits of the appropriately named Sketch (full name Sketchy Misery McSwimfan), a single white female living with her disabled mother and building a One Hour Photoesque shrine to Maxxie in her bedroom. We get a headfake toward pathos for Sketch when we first meet her, helping her mother in the bathroom (yikes). But it's short-lived sympathy; Sketch's opening salvo is attempting to murder Michelle. Then she gets a teacher fired for (not really) molesting her. And then she ties up her disabled mother and goes full Black Swan during the play, poisoning Michelle and seizing her role then surprising Maxxie and making an overture to him onstage. Finally, it all comes crashing down on her.
Elsewhere: Michelle is having feelings for Tony, Tony is still mostly a vegetable, and Chris and Anwar have suddenly developed a strange habit of trading Tarantinoesque one-liners about pop culture (Star Wars, Driving Miss Daisy, and the complete filmography of Hugh Grant). It's not entirely unwelcome, and it at least works during the (semi-inexplicable) costume party, but much like the 2006 dark comedy American Dreamz, it sorta came out nowhere. (See?)
True story: in high school band we performed a piece that was meant to evoke 9/11. All noble soaring melodies with just a hint of something sinister from the brass section, and then, no joke: a long trombone slide followed by a cymbal crash. I'm pretty sure I skipped out on the final performance of that piece, lying about a dead family member so I could go to a Rilo Kiley concert. Fair enough, right?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

SKINS S2E1: Have Your Remorse Cake And Eat It Too

And we're back! Skins series 2. Tonally it doesn't seem that different, though we do have a new version of the intro music (and slightly less of a "glitchy Instagram" look to said intro). We pick up about six months after the last episode ended. So what has the Skins gang been up to? Dancing and feeling guilty, mostly!
So yeah, it turns out that getting hit by a bus is no fun at all! Kudos to the Skins team for not shying away from the real-world consequences of a cartoonish injury. Tony is suffering from impaired mental and motor skills, and his friends aren't really sure how to handle him. Sid is angry at everyone who didn't visit Tony in the hospital (which is to say, everyone), but at the start of the episode seems to have lost his will to stick by Tony, too. Tony's closest ally becomes Maxxie, who drags his vegetable ass around town but is nonetheless trying to drop out of school and move to London to pursue a career as a dancer. He's thwarted in this goal by his father, who owns like 85% of the best moments in this episode ("You're going to grow up to be a builder who dances on the side!").* By the end of the episode, Tony is showing signs of cognitive improvement. But interpersonally, he is as damaged as ever.
(*For an episode that deals with such dark subject matter, this was one of the funniest ones I've seen. Anthea Stonem approves! Plus it seems like the weirdness that crept up on S1's final episodes is here to stay. This episode has multiple dance sequences, and Effy has a new habit of seeming to address the camera (while sexually experimenting with Tony's bathroom safety equipment, natch). It will be interesting to see how that develops.)
Elsewhere: Michelle is drinking and fucking away her pain, Anwar is in an Ali-G sort of phase, and Cassie is in Scotland, corresponding with Sid through videos and drugs. Get back here, Cassie! Chris and Jal don't have much to do in this episode--they just sort of wander around making their signature facial expressions. But whatever, I like them!
The main thing I wanted to salute in this episode is the way Maxxie, who is harassed by slack-jawed yokels several times in this episode, never cowers in the face of bullying. He stands there and smiles, secure enough in himself and his life that words really can't hurt him. It's a wonderful thing to see. God go with you, Maxxie Gayskins (OK, probably not his last name, but whatever).

Sunday, April 15, 2012

BLOGGING LOOKING FOR ALASKA pt. 11: My Time Outside The Womb

The audio of this post is available for download here. Part 10 is here.

58 Days Before 

Pudge wakes up early one morning, and he's complaining because Alaska is playing video games and there's lots of loud noises and bright flashing lights and Pudge is 80 years old, basically. (What the fuck's John Green like NOW? Or is it a Benjamin Button thing?) Alaska says, I heard you heard I was a rat, and yeah, I am, so what the fuck now? (I'm paraphrasing.) And Pudge is like I don't know if I should trust her or not! And I (me, Zac) continue to NOT CARE about the ethics of Interstudent relationships at Culver Creek (that's John Green's next Crash Course, obviously) at all. Go ahead, trust her! Whatever!

I'd certainly had enough of her unpredictability. Cold one day, sweet the next. Irresistibly flirty one moment, resistibly obnoxious the next. I preferred the Colonel. At least when he was cranky he had a reason. 

WELL WHY DON'T YOU TITFUCK THE COLONEL THEN, PUDGE? Alaska proposes the idea that Pudge stay with her at school over Thanksgiving break, Harry Potter-style. Sounds like a good idea! You guys can have sex in everybody else's beds!

And she has a list that's like, if you've ever followed someone on Tumblr who has broken up with someone, you know how they publish a list of all the mundane stuff they used to like to do together? It reads like that: "Driving through the greater Birmingham area smoking cigarettes and talking about how boring the greater Birmingham area is... going out late at night and lying in the dewy soccer field and reading a Kurt Vonnegut book by moonlight..." (Sorry for your loss, anonymous Tumblr person I am mocking. But there IS a reason people my age just kept journals, which we could BURN, not things that live on the Internet forever. I do have some journals I haven't gotten around to burning yet, but I WILL.)

Then Alaska like, puts her face on his leg and Pudge spends some time thinking about how many layers of clothing there are between her skin and his penis, which is--I've made fun of Pudge for being weirdly clinical and cold about most stuff, and now--I mean, he's even horny in a nerdy way!

There are times when it is appropriate, even preferable, to get an erection when someone's face is in close proximity to your penis.

 It's also usually the polite thing to do.

This was not one of those times.

I don't know, give it a shot! Pudge calls his mom, she says Are you sure you don't want to come home for Thanksgiving? We've got "all the cranberry sauce you can eat." For whom is that a draw? And Pudge tells us he doesn't even LIKE cranberry sauce at all, and his mom is just a stupid ungrateful bitch for never remembering which food he likes (paraphrasing again, but all that Oedipal shit is there). GET OVER THAT, guys who complain about their mom not remembering things about them! SHE BIRTHED YOU and RAISED YOU, she doesn't have to remember your fucking name! Anyway Pudge's mom lays on the guilt a little, but he stays strong. I feel you, Pudge. Holiday planning only gets worse the older you get. You know how when you were little you'd count down to Christmas like, "Oh my god, it's only eight months away!" I sit here and I go, "Oh fuck, in eight months I have to deal with Christmas again." That's not true. I love Christmas. It's difficult for me because I CARE SO MUCH, okay?

Pudge spends the morning "flipping back and forth" between two papers--way to be, buddy--and, like, I don't know if you've been to college or boarding school or whatever yet, but when you get close to the holidays, shit shuts down. People just disappear, randomly, your friends leave early and abruptly. And I think this book captures that spirit pretty well, even though Pudge has a pretty limited social circle. He has three friends and two of them disappear abruptly.

Then, weirdly, Pudge has this moment where he feels really bad about abandoning his parents, and so he calls them and is about to say Never mind I'm coming home! And then he finds out that (in like, the ten minutes that have elapsed since his phone call) they booked a vacation without him. Of course they did. ALTHOUGH, it's weird that they were like, "Oh, our son isn't going to be home this week, lets go on a vacation!" Your son is home NEVER weeks. You can go whenever you want!

Anyway, he hangs up the phone and is about to cry, which again, was confusing for me. I am sure I have had those sort of homesickness-feelings, but I am so far from them now that I can't even find it at all, in my rolodex of feelings. Pudge goes out to the river feeling bad and homesick and Alaska comforts him, and then Alaska has another super MPDG line, when Pudge asks why she doesn't want to go home for holidays, and she says "I'm afraid of ghosts. And home is full of them." Cue the opening chords of a Tegan and Sara song or something.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


For a long time I thought Skateland was going to be my "Rosebud." I'd die with the title on my lips, the unseen film my final regret, my loved ones bewildered by what on earth my last utterance could have meant. And no amount of shoe leather from an intrepid reporter would uncover the mystery of what I'd been talking about, since by then (the year 2147) no one would know what the fuck Skateland was. But it shall not be so, now, as Skateland is finally on Netflix Instant! And so I saw it after literal years of covering its deeply troubled release. Was it worth it?

Hahahahahaha of course not.

Skateland is a coming-of-age story, and I mean so much so that I'm pretty sure at one point someone tells the main character, "You're coming of age, son!" (Of course I can't be entirely sure, since most of the dialogue in this movie is the speaking equivalent of white noise.) It follows Richie Wheeler, who has been spinning his wheels (sorry) for a while in Texas in the 1980s. He has a few friends, I think, and is sort of popular, I think, and he is a gifted writer, I think. But none of that is particularly emphasized (you can't even really say that his friends are stock characters, because even stock characters can at least be described in more than one sentence). And he works at a roller-skating rink and he loves it. (That much is very clear, from the idiot grin on Richie's face the first time we see him, at work. The first lines of this movie, by the way? Guy 1: "Woo!" Guy 2: "Yeah!")
Then Richie's parents announce they're getting divorced, and his boss tells him he's shutting Skateland down. WOMP WOMP. And so Richie must contemplate his next move. Or not.
From there, you could have a quiet, if derivative movie about young adult angst and small-town mentalities, and I wouldn't have begrudged Skateland for doing that. Instead, it oddly tries to balance being a quiet, modern (well, like 2006-modern) indie flick with being a throwback 80's teen comedy. I mean, look:
(That's real, I swear.) And those two tones are rarely, if ever, struck at the same time. So there are reflective montages (Richie walks, smokes, broods; Richie drives, smokes, broods) and long, static takes (two out of three of which are markedly stilted, the actors waiting and seeming to almost drift out of character between lines, as though they assumed there would be a cut somewhere). And Richie's family is so Indie it hurts (sad sack father, wise-beyond-years younger sister, difficult and complicated mother). But there are also corny camping sequences, and a kind of lame Greek chorus of nerds who comment on the party scenes.
Somewhere in the middle is Richie's friend Jeter Sarsgaard (okay, not his name, but it should be), who is every bastard child of Neal Cassidy ever written rolled into one guy.
There is exactly one clever sequence, in which Richie flashes back to a boat trip after a car accident. And by the way, let's hear it for Ashley Greene's pre-emaciated 2008 body! Woo! Yeah!
Speaking of AG, I think she acquits herself rather nicely. She doesn't have a lot to do for most of the movie, a lot of her scenes go like this:

GIRL: My boyfriend is abusing me.
AG: [Meaningful look]

RICHIE: My parents are getting divorced.
AG: [Meaningful look]

(Her underdeveloped motivations can be kind of interesting though--at one point she shows up at Richie's house and abruptly fucks him. And I'm all for abrupt fucking. I do wish that a thread about her character being a music snob were explored more thoroughly, though that is mostly for selfish reasons and wouldn't necessarily benefit The Good Of The Film.)
Toward the end, she gets to Act a little more. In fact, the one good long-take holds on her face during a long-ish, emotionally charged conversation with Richie. What's a little strange is that as the camera pushes in on her, Richie is gradually cut out of the frame until he's gone entirely--and he doesn't even seem to have a mic on him. He sounds distant, like in a gag reel. Not that I blame the filmmakers for ditching him when they can; Shiloh Fernandez is a black hole at the center of this movie, betraying human emotion almost never. I can't even imagine that he's very attractive to the womenfolk, either. Dude looks like Joaquin Phoenix got late-onset Benjamin Button disease.
(AG also manages a single tear with startling efficiency. Put that on your reel, girl! Not the rest of this, though.) So most of this movie is pretty dumb, and uninteresting, and atonal. And when Richie mentions someone calling his Skateland essay a "compelling portrait of suburban life" or whatever it feels like the director is high-fiving himself. Ugh. AND YET! And yet the end of this fucker won me over. I mean, there's a mix-tape-making montage. A MIX-TAPE-MAKING MONTAGE! How can you not love that unequivocally?
In the end, I guess I would recommend this movie to you, as something to watch on a Saturday afternoon or something. We used to call these movies "good rentals" but that is starting to feel like an outdated term. "Red Boxy," how about that? This movie is Red Boxy. Did you watch it? I sort of feel like you owe it to me to do so.

Monday, April 9, 2012

SKINS S1E9: Take Good Care

What a wonderful, weird episode! I just skimmed Alan Sepinwall's recap of this, the season finale*--I don't normally like to read established critics before I write anything, but I was just looking for a quote and I clicked a link and there it was, I'm sorry, what do you want from me--and I gleaned that he seemed to think the writers were asking for too much sympathy for Tony in the last few installments. I don't think so. (And here's the part I always forget to mention when I launch into a half-defense of Tony Soprano or whatever: I would not be interested in virtuous protagonists. Other people apparently are, to hear them complain about the Dons Draper and Nancies Botwin of the world, but I think that would be pretty boring! You guys really want TV to be full of a bunch of nice people doing good things for each other? So when I defend someone on a show, I mean "as a character," which is oddly a more complex calculus than it would be for "a person." And I think that is what the writers are getting at with Tony in the last few episodes. They're not asking for normal human sympathy for him, they're just asking that you not paint him into a black and white corner, so to speak.)

(*Technically it's the "series finale" because in Britain they don't say "season," but "series finale" means something more final on this side of the pond. And "blokes" are called "men" and "wankers" are called "Republicans" and "go up boxes" are called "elevators." I think those are all the major cultural differences.)
So, in this episode, Anwar and Maxxie reconcile their friendship. Chris and Angie's romance grows more complicated. Sid chases after Cassie. And Tony takes another step toward non-wankerness. Unfortunately that metaphorical step puts him in the path of a very literal bus, which hits him. Whoops! Multiple times in this episode, adult characters remind the Skins kids that the world is a complicated place. And they're right, sometimes it is, but also sometimes you just get hit by a fucking bus. Line drawings have to co-exist with all that depth and shading.
Runner-up best moment of the episode:

Anwar's father is immediately compelling. Rather than get a generic Muslim stereotype, we get a guy who is obviously serious about his religion ("Does it give respect to god? Does it help the poor?" He asks Anwar, about his birthday party) but present in the real world as well. And he pushes Anwar to make up with Maxxie, no matter what the issue between them. When Anwar and Maxxie finally both blurt out the fact that the issue is that Maxxie likes to have sex with dudes, the Father's response is surprising and kind of wonderful:

"Its a fucking stupid messed up world. I've got my god. He speaks to me every day. Some things I can't work out. So I leave them be, OK? Even if I think they're wrong. Because I know one day He'll make me understand. I've got that trust. It's called belief."

My friend Jory said, "'That guy just made homophobia sound like the most noble shit ever." But that's not quite what it is--I don't take that "I think they're wrong" thing as a re-affirmation of God being anti-gay. I take it as Anwar's dad admitting that God's stance is unclear. And, you know, it is. I can't remember where I read or heard this recently, but someone pointed out that the Bible tells you not to lay with a man "as you would a woman." For all we know, the Bible is just noting that sex doesn't work the same way between two guys. It's just a handy tip! "Hey, don't try to put it in his vagina. He doesn't have one!" Those who claim to be able to interpret god's word easily, paint him in broad strokes, are really the most sacrilegious of us all. Anyway it's a great little speech, delivered perfectly, and I loved it.
Best moment of the episode:

Seemingly defeated in his search for Cassie, Sid wanders into the bathroom as the opening notes of Cat Stevens's "Wild World" begin to play. And then shit gets Magnolia on all of us.

Now, I had a problem with the lip-syncing scene in Magnolia, it somehow felt unearned, like the wave of weirdness hadn't appropriated crested. The timing was off. Here (and maybe it helps that the characters are actually singing, or are depicted as doing so--it is not Cat Stevens or Aimee Mann's voice that we hear) it is perfect. I couldn't stop smiling.
In my first Skins recap I noted that Sid seemed to be the real central figure here. That's been true for a lot of this series, and so it felt right for him to walk us out. I was actually happy to see him and Cassie reunited at the end. He deserves her. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

SKINS S1E8: Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

Korean movies have an obsession with the nature of revenge, which is probably because of that whole North Korea thing, and if you've never seen any of Park Chan-wook's movies do yourself a favor and SEE THAT SHIT. I apologize for the emotional scars in advance, though technically they're not my fault.
Early on in this episode, Tony wanders around his bedroom, abandoned by his friends. ("Good."-us, for now) I actually absently thought of an early sequence in Chan-wook's Oldboy (which is one you should ESPECIALLY see. And do it soon, before Spike Lee's American remake ruins it forever. Also, given a certain recent incident in which Spike Lee summoned an angry mob to an elderly couple's house, maybe we should be questioning his nature-of-revenge bonafides). Thematically it's a totally different scene (Oldboy's protagonist is LITERALLY imprisoned whereas Tony is only that way socially), but from those two As we reach similarly disturbing Bs.

To some (or like, all) extent, Tony deserves to be exiled by his friends. But as I watched him help his sister Effy escape from home for the evening, I could feel my sympathies shifting back. Which was kind of uncomfortable.
Effy's a pretty rad character, right?--she doesn't speak a word for almost the entire episode, preferring instead to communicate via smoldering looks and also by burning shit with a lighter. Her anarchic spirit seems more pure than Tony's, like whatever genetic thread made Tony into the Nietzsche-reading semi-sociopath he is ended up even collecting even more strongly in her. The same way a mild poison in a plant ends up killing the bear who eats two of the rabbits who ate the plant. That happens, right?
Effy disappears after getting arrested, and Tony goes out in search of her. He enlists an only partly-willing Sid to help. And much praise is due to Nicholas Hoult in this episode--he slowly relaxes Tony's constant sneer into a very real, very open concern and fear. It's an acting choice that makes you retrospectively appreciate everything he's been doing all season long. Sid goes Ron Weasley on the search team for a brief apology/make-out session with Cassie (CASSIE!!!) and Tony's quest gets very Korean very quickly.
At a Masque Of The Red Death-esque rave, we learn that Josh, the victim of Tony's Murdochian prank, is orchestrating this new plot against Effy and Tony. At this point, the believability of this episode, vis-a-vis the rest of the season so far, should be kind of strained. But for whatever reason, it isn't. Perhaps it's the other-worldly quality Effy brings to the table. She finally speaks, delivering a great, Pinter-esque mini-monologue before overdosing on morphine.
When Tony finally finds Effy, Josh attacks him and promises to call an ambulance if Tony agrees to have sex with her unconscious body. It's a sick, if logical response to Tony's initial salvo, but after Tony tearfully apologizes, Josh backs down. (Part of me was like, "Don't be such a pussy, Josh!" but it was a very dark, dark part of my brain that I am blaming on Park Chan-wook.) Sid ends up risking Cassie's fury to come to Tony's rescue, and in the hospital afterward they have a heart-to-heart. "I don't want to be such a wanker," Tony confesses. OK, so it's not much of a heart-to-heart. But it'll do.
I love that way the doctor completely murders the tension at the end, telling Tony and his parents that Effy's totally fine and that the overdose wasn't even a big deal. It's a way of winning back the viewers who don't have very strong suspension-of-disbelief muscles, but it's also a great knock against other, more serious-to-fault shows. Just because the stakes didn't end up being ridiculously high ("Did somebody say "ridiculously high?"-Effy) doesn't mean what we just saw wasn't important!
Speaking of graceful transitions toward weirdness: this episode has a lot of bizarre imagery, and I love Chris and Anwar's marshmallow pyramid kind of serving as our introduction to it all. Tony knocking it over was his most despicable act this season. But I kind of like him again, I think?
We're one episode away from the end of series 1. Thoughts?