TV Review: MTV’s “Faking It”

Like many people, my initial exposure to MTV’s show Faking It was the controversy it raised as a result of its subject matter. And, again, like many people, I avoided the show altogether. But after reading a little more into what the show actually involved, I gave it a chance. I found myself watching all of season one in one night, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Faking It is not a perfect show, it’s far from it. But it’s much more than I was expecting from MTV. We’re talking about the MTV that gave us the debacle that was the American version of Skins. The MTV that introduced the world to Teen Mom. The very same network that is still derided, a decade later, for their decision to stop running music videos. So, needless to say, I went into Faking It with very low expectations.

To explain why my expectations were so low to start with, I have to give the basic premise of the show, so here goes.

Faking It is about two (very close) best friends who decide to fake being lesbians to become popular.

There it is, the basic premise. This is something that could have easily been done by following a formula, and thereby offend a large amount of people; but Faking It takes this premise and turns it on its head.

Karma, a girl who is unhappy with her social standing in high school (big surprise) enlists her reluctant best friend Amy to pretend to be her girlfriend after the two are (mistakenly) outed at a house party. The two girls quickly find themselves thrust into popularity at their Austin, Texas high school. Soon They are nominated to be homecoming queens, and it’s at this nomination ceremony where everything changes.

At the behest of the large, cheering crowd, Amy and Karma kiss to prove their “Relationship” is the real deal. And while Karma is ecstatic that their kiss was believable, Amy finds herself reevaluating her feelings for her best friend. And thus ends the first episode of Faking It.

This seems, again, like it could go very, very wrong. But, fortunately, for the most part, it doesn’t. What first sets this show apart is the acting, especially from Rita Volk, as Amy. The rest of the cast does a decent job, most are relatively believable, but Volk stands out all on her own. She captures the role of someone suffering from unrequited love perfectly, and she really sells her character.

The writing also isn’t too bad, and while some jokes fall flat, most of the dialogue is solid, and the characters are varied. So, let’s start with what else this show does right.

Aside from the acting and writing, there’s the characters themselves.

Every character feels like their own person. You’ll never hear Amy saying something Karma would say, and vice versa, and, most importantly, no character is truly a stereotype. Sure, they have stereotypical qualities, but those are (wonderfully) parodied with each passing episode. But I think the best characters are the ones you’d normally root against.

Amy has a very Christian, and very rude stepsister named Lauren. And she is wonderful. She’s mean, and crude, and just an all around bitch, but she’s not a bigot. Her Christianity is just a part of who she is, and it’s not overall part of what makes her a bad person, the writers are content with letting her actions play that out. But at the same time, she is sympathetic. We see her soften around her gay best friend (because of course she has one), and she’s even sometimes nice to Amy. Which brings us to the “Good” characters.

I have to admit, at first glance I hated Karma. She’s just the kind of attention seeker that makes you find her insufferable, and sometimes downright nasty. But, her attempts at popularity do make her somewhat endearing, and when she’s around Amy, she shines. We see how warm and decent she can be when shes with her best friend, and, as a result, we see part of what Amy loves about her. Karma is very, very flawed, but deep down, she’s a kind and decent person.

Amy is by far my favorite character on the show (followed closely by Lauren). She is somehow both deeply insecure and strangely confident. She balances out Karma’s oddities quite well, and brings some of her own to the table. When she gets angry, or sad, we see her make highly regrettable decisions, and we see her beat herself up for it. Seeing her pine after her best friend is pretty heartbreaking, to say the least, and extremely relatable.

Which brings me to the relationship between Amy and Karma. These two best friends are insanely close, and with the chemistry that Rita Volk and Katie Stevens have, it’s no surprise that they’re mistaken for lovers. You can see the history these two have whenever they’re together, it really makes their friendship believable. And as something that’s the crux of the show, it speaks for the talent of the two actresses that they can pull it off.

Enough about what this show does right, what does it do wrong?

Well first off, as an MTV show, it’s still got quite a few problems. There’s the ridiculous censorship, for one thing. Which, after a while, I stopped noticing, but when the first “bleep” comes, it takes you out of the show entirely.

Then there’s the fact that it doesn’t quite know what audience to appeal to. There’s lots of, for lack of a better term, fanservice, and most is male-oriented.

And then there’s Liam. No offense to Gregg Sulkin, who, try as he might , can’t lock down a believable American accent, but Liam is boring. He is so, so boring, I almost find myself dozing off when he’s onscreen. The love triangle is such a tired trope I can’t believe it’s even in the show to begin with, and then I remember this show is on MTV. The very fact that Liam is a main character hurts my brain, he’s secondary character material at best.

Next is the complete disregard for the idea that either one of the girls could be bisexual. Sure, it would be contrived if Karma was also in love with Amy, but they could have at least made Amy bisexual. But no, as soon as she kisses Karma it’s made explicitly clear that she is a lesbian. To me, that’s just lazy writing, and missing a chance at even greater conflict for a greatly varied character.

So all in all Faking It is a show I’ll be adding to my weekly roster. It holds my attention, and it’s pretty well done. But, I feel the need to conclude with this. Please, writers, let Amy and Karma at least stay friends. I’ll at least accept that they won’t get married (even though they’re so obviously in love), if you’ll give me that.

Movie Review: The Lovely Bones (2009)

Before i start this review, I feel the need to say that this film covers some very disturbing subject matter. This is a warning for those who cannot handle such subjects.

 

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Saiorse Ronan, Rachel Weisz

Based on the novel by Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones is not just another story about a murder. It explores how such a tragedy has a profound effect on all involved, not just the victim, but the friends, family, and yes, the murderer themselves.

Yes, this film is first and foremost about Susie Salmon, a fourteen year old who is brutally raped and murdered, but we also see the way her murder changes the lives of those who care about her most. We also get to see how it changes her. We see a father’s torment and obsession as he searches for his daughter’s killer, we see the marriage that was already on tremulous ground crumble before our eyes, and we see every stage of grief of all who were involved.

That, in my opinion, is what makes this story so unique.

We don’t follow the police in search for Susie’s murderer, We follow her father, her sister, and her friends. So, in my review, I’m going to cover the perspectives of each of these characters, starting with the father, and concluding with Susie herself.

Jack Salmon (Wahlberg), becomes obsessed with finding the man who killed his daughter. In the process, he harrasses the police with possible suspects, alienates his wife, and falls into a downward spiral that is frankly hard to watch. His devotion is both touching and worrisome. You can see the depth of love he had for his daughter with every scene, and how it strangely seems to be a detriment to his personal life and to his investigation. Wahlberg gives an excellent performance, you can see the seeds of his obsessive personality in early scenes, and, as a result, it feels like a natural progression instead of a slap in the face. And when we see him start to piece together who killed Susie after he’s made steps to move on, he’s thrown back into his obsession.

Susie’s sister, Lindsey (played by Rose McIver), also feels compelled to find out who murdered Susie. She, however, is much more subdued in her interest than her father, at least at first. We see her seemingly move on and even find a little bit of happiness, but she is suspicious of the real killer long before her father is.However, it’s only when her father shows signs of suspicion that she acts on her own feelings. She also finds herself obsessed with the killer, to the point where she risks her life to bring him to justice.

George Harvey (Tucci), is Susie’s killer. He lures her into a “clubhouse” where he rapes and murders her. (The rape is omitted from the film, but is presented in startling detail in the novel, so I’m leaving it in). In the events after the murder, he calmly resumes his regular routine, but is discouraged when he discovers that Lindsey is suspicious of him. Stanley Tucci adds depth and humanity to a role that could have easily been horrifically miscast. We see him unravel and make mistakes that could easily implicate him. And the subtle edge Tucci gives to the character is one that makes him almost sympathetic. That being said, due to his actions, I couldn’t wait to see him get what was coming to him.

Susie (Ronan), starts out in the film as a typical teenage girl. She is heavily invested in her own problems and somewhat dismissive of her parents. After the events leading to her death, however, we see that she s very reliant on her instincts. She recognizes Mr. Harvey as a killer too late for it to make a real difference, but early enough the we see her change from optimistic and friendly to horrified within seconds. That’s what makes her death in the following scene even more heartbreaking than it is. Her realization that following Mr. Harvey into his undergond clubhouse was the worst decision she could have made, and she couldn’t do anything to stop what was coming was what turned Susie into an incredibly realistic character. As we see her watch her loved ones from “the inbetween”, we see her grow and change along with them. 

Overall, I’d say that The Lovely Bones is an excellent film. Peter Jackson’s direction, along with the stunning visuals and phenomenal cast, make it incredibly memorable. But what set’s it apart for me is Alice Sebold’s story. While this changes quite a bit from the source material, mostly the order of some events and omission of certain elements, the overall plot is the same, and you get the sense that Jackson respected the novel. I can see why the changes were made (especially leaving out the rape scene), and those changes do not undermine the story. This is how all novels should be adapted.

I’d definitely recommend this film to almost anyone. It is criminally underrated, and, in my opinion, one of Peter Jackson’s best.

Review: Frozen

I’ve seen Frozen at least ten times. Not because it’s good, which is something I’ll get into in my review, but because my nieces cannot stop watching it. okay, onto the review.

Frozen is one of those movies that you desperately want to be great. You watch it and you tell yourself “This will get better, this will live up to the hype. Let it go isn’t that bad of a song.” Unfortunately, none of that is true.

As an animated film Frozen hits all the notes that make films like it successful. The songs are catchy, the acting is decent, and the animation is absolutely gorgeous. But, somehow, it still doesn’t register as good. And the reasons for that are simple.

The fact that the songs are catchy doesn’t disguise the fact that they’re also woefully generic. only two of the songs are memorable enough that they make me want to watch the film again, and neither of those are the Oscar nominated “Let it go”. “Let it go” is a song specifically made to be played on the radio. It’s reasonably good, it gets stuck in your head pretty easily, and it’s not hard to remember the words, but it’s not big, not in the way a song in a Disney film that’s garnered this much praise should be. And that’s a detriment to the film itself. It’s also a shame, because Idina Menzel has shown in previous roles that she can go big (“Defying Gravity”, anyone?). When your big song doesn’t even let your Broadway star belt it out, there’s something wrong with your big song. Before this starts to look like a rant against “Let it go”, I should talk about the songs I do like.

The first is “Fixer Upper”: this is my favorite song in the whole movie. It’s everything that a memorable Disney song should be, big, catchy, and actually good. “Fixer Upper” is sung by kristoff’s troll family, and it’s upbeat, joyous, and adorable. I really found myself unable to do anything but sing along to it. The fast lyrics are fitting for the characters dripping with personality, and it’s really a shame that this is the only ensemble song in the film, because with a few more, this film would be elevated from mediocre to great. This song is up there with “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” in my book.

The second is “In Summer”: sung by the sometimes insufferable snowman Olaf, “In Summer” is equal part uplifting and comedic. You really can’t help but laugh at the fact that a snowman is singing about frolicking in a meadow in full sunlight. And the fact that his dream is unattainable (and it is revealed later that he knows this) adds a surprising element of pathos to his character. the song makes his character a snowman, into one of the most genuine characters in the film. I think this song gets far less praise than it deserves.

Next up, the characters.

Kristen Bell has been one of my favorite actresses since Veronica Mars and I’m happy to see her in such a big role. She absolutely shines in Frozen. As Anna, Elsa’s sister, Bell gives an excellent performance. She perfectly voices Anna’s mixture of innocence and (sometimes) arrogance. And she manages to match Idina Menzel’s powerful vocals with her own, which was a complete shock to me. As a character, Anna honestly doesn’t bring much to the table, she’s kind of a mixture of previous Disney princesses, mostly Belle and Ariel. However, Kristen Bell adds a nuance to her character that I feel Anna doesn’t live up to. Of course, that could be my bias speaking.
Idina Menzel is excellent, as usual, as Elsa. Elsa is a strange example of a protagonist. She’s not featured that heavily in the film, so her big number falls a little flat. We don’t really learn much about Elsa at all. She’s the classic Tortured soul type, forced to ostracize her sister because of her power, and that really comes through in Menzel’s performance. You can tell how much her power has hurt her, and in her isolation, we also see how much it empowers her. it’s a shame that such an interesting character got so little screen time over all.   
Jonathan Groff actually surprised me in this film. I’m not a huge fan of his acting style, but I didn’t hate him as Kristoff. He’s got a great singing voice, as we know, and he brings a lot to the character. Kristoff is an orphan, raised by trolls, and heavily attached to his reindeer, Sven. Kristoff and Sven actually have a great amount of chemistry. And, although he speaks for Sven, you can actually see a friendship in their silent interactions. Kristoff is a very real character, and Jonathon Groff really helps to jump off a great base and add even more depth to him with his voice.
Now I want to talk about the animation.
The film is entirely computer generated, but it’s done Beautifully. It doesn’t have the feel of a Computer Generated film, and if you close your eyes, you can almost see the film as hand drawn in your mind. That’s not to say that I like it any less because of the form of animation they chose. Computer animation adds an element of depth to the film that just wouldn’t have been there of it was drawn by hand, in both the literal, and figurative sense. You can almost feel the snow as the characters make their way through it, and the colors, though exaggerated, ring true. Especially notable is the animated sequence that accompanies Elsa’s big number “Let it Go”. The way the character flows on screen, and the use of ice in her movements, is beautifully cohesive. Elsa almost seems like a real person.
Overall, I would recommend the film to a select few people. The musical aspect isn’t for everyone, I know, but I’m one who usually likes it, and it didn’t feel right for this film. The story was perfectly fine on its own, and most of the musical numbers felt tacked on. I stand by my opinion that “Let it go” is the worst thing about this film, and I might get a lot of grief for it, but so be it. 
Now, if you’ll excuse me, “Fixer Upper” is stuck in my head again, I’m gonna go give it another listen.
 

 

 

Why does the internet hate “Man of Steel”?

Man of Steel came out nearly a year ago. I’d like to remind everyone of that before you pile hate on me. Warning: Major spoilers ahead.

Now, to the point, I saw this film on opening day, in 3D, what’s my verdict?

I loved it.

In my opinion, Man of Steel was the best superman film since Superman II. Why? For the first time, I felt like he was a relatable character. He felt like someone who had been ostracized by his peers his entire life, like he couldn’t relate to to any of the people around him. And that’s exactly the way he should feel.

Superman is an alien (sorry for the spoilers), so he should feel alien. He shouldn’t be instantly accepted by society as a hero, because that just wouldn’t happen. If you saw a news story about a super-strong man with X-Ray vision, flying around your city in blue underwear and a red cape, you wouldn’t be excited about it. No one would be excited about it, especially not if someone demanded his head in exchange for the safety of your planet.

But I’m getting slightly off topic. I came out of Man of Steel being pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. imagine my surprise when the first review I read tore the film a new asshole (for lack of a better phrase).  Most of the complaints came from the different interpretation of a few main characters, like Superman and Jonathan Kent, but mostly Pa Kent.

Jonathan Kent, in the comics and many (many) adaptations. Served as a voice of reason for Clark. He fit this role in Man of Steel as well, but more as a father who wasn’t sure how to raise a son so radically different from himself. I liked this interpretation because he didn’t sound like a platitude spewing robot, like in many adaptions in the past. A perfect example is when Clark, as a child, saves his classmates fro drowning in a schoolbus using his super strength. Kent confronts his son, telling him its something he shouldn’t have done, but quickly backpedals when Clark asks him if the kids should have died. This is a major scene in the film, and one that is disliked by most critics. But, really, what is he supposed to say: “Good job on potentially blowing the cover you’ve maintained for your safety, Clark!”?

I don’t think so. Instead, he tells Clark that maybe it was the right decision to save his classmates, but he’s also exposed himself as different, more different than his classmates already thought he was. This makes his decision later in the film, at his death, well within his character. He knows the world isn’t ready for Superman, and he’s right. The first thing the military does to Clark is put him in handcuffs.

The second thing that is most criticized about the film is Clark killing Zod. We’re talking about a man who held an entire planet hostage in the pursuit of one man. Zod was planning on turning earth into Krypton on top of the corpses of his human victims. This is a man who made it clear that if Earth wasn’t going, he was.  Clark actually actively avoided  killing Zod for most of the film. it wasn’t until he was faced with an ultimatum that he finally resorted to killing the only remainder of his entire species. Critics act like this is an out of character decision for Clark, claiming that Superman doesn’t kill. But he most certainly does. Superman killed Zod at least three times in the comics. But again, not the point.

Man of Steel introduces us to Superman essentially before he was Superman, and thus with none of the preexisting “rules” that Superman comes with. The action of killing Zod could be the catalyst for him swearing off the act of murder. It could be the formation of his no killing “rule”. Presenting us with a Superman this early in his superhero career will help to establish him as a more complete character. We could see him learn what it truly means to be a superhero, and see him become the “golden boy” that fans know him to be. It opens the door for growth and change in a previously dull as dishwater character.

To me, this is the film that finally made Superman interesting.

As for the level of destruction, it wasn’t Clark, not all of it anyway. Most of the destruction is a direct consequence of Zod’s actions, either from the terraforming machine, or him literally slamming Clark into buildings, it was all Zod. But that’s a whole different rant entirely.

I totally agree with the critics about the “Romance” though. As much as I love Amy Adams, it was too early for Lois to be romantically involved with Clark.

And by the way, Superman Returns wasn’t that bad either.

Review: NBC’s Hannibal season one

In 2011, NBC announced Hannibal; a Brian Fuller helmed drama based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. At first, people were skeptical that something with such gruesome subject matter would work on network television. Skepticism turned into anticipation as the cast list was slowly released. Finally, in February 2013, the first teaser aired on NBC. The internet went wild; everyone was basking in the hype. The teaser promised a new interpretation on Hannibal Lecter, delivering intrigue that kept people asking “Will this work?”. The short answer is “Yes.”

Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham in a way the is slightly different than Edward Norton’s performance. He’s a former detective, now working as a teacher. Graham is someone who experiences “pure empathy” (as Hannibal puts it). This allows him to approach crime scenes as if he were the killer. This is a talent that Graham clearly does not welcome. Dancy plays Graham as antisocial and direct; someone who will go on at length about why he won’t look people in the eye. Soon, due to his talent, Will is approached by Jack Crawford and pulled back into the world of law enforcement; this time as a criminal profiler. We see him as his mind unravels, case after case, as he is pushed to his breaking point. It is an excellent performance, making you feel as though he’s not just a Character, but a living person.

Laurence Fishburne is Jack Crawford, an FBI agent who contacts Graham for help in various cases. He plays Crawford as a by the books agent, aggressive, but not threatening unless the situation calls for it. He is an obvious foil for Graham, offsetting the profiler’s reluctance to work on cases with his determination put criminals away. Crawford gives the sense that he will manipulate anyone, if necessary, to solve a case.

Caroline Dhavernas plays Alana Bloom (originally Alan Bloom). She is an FBI consul, ant with a “Professional curiosity” for Will Graham. She is highly critical of Crawford, predicting that he will cause Will psychological distress. Dhavernas gives Bloom an air of sympathy. She connects with Will, and is very protective of him. She is strong willed, and quick to voice her disagreement with Crawford’s treatment of Will. She is a romantic interest for Will, but she is a defined character.

There are a handful of other characters; including three members of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, played by Hetienne Park, Scott Thompson, and Aaron Abrams. There’s also Freddie Lounds (formerly Freddy) a crime reporter for a local tabloid called “The Tattler”. Also worth mentioning is Crawford’s wife, played by Laurence Fisburne’s real life spouse, Gina Torres. Torres brings a lot to he relatively small role, and makes you want to see more of her. Another interesting character is Hannibal’s own therapist, Dr. De Maurier, played by Gillian Anderson. She is a woman who clearly knows more than she lets on about Hannibal. These are supporting characters, and very well defined. Each has an established personality and sticks to it.

The standout character is, of course, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Played brilliantly by Mads Mikkelson, he toes the line between a terrifying killer and the perfect gentleman. He gleefully serves pieces of his victims to guests at dinner parties, and, one scene later, debates music and philosophy. Mads gives a deliciously layered performance, forming a close bond with Will while at the same time manipulating him. He serves as Will’s psychiatrist (as recommended by Bloom), and quickly decides to use the profiler’s talent against him; making Will believe that he is unhinged.

In the first episode of Hannibal we’re introduced to Will Graham (played by Hugh Dancy) as he enters a crime scene. He surveys the evidence before him, and we soon see him placing himself in the killer’s shoes, literally. He stands on the stairs, looking at the entrance to the house. “This is my design.” he says, uttering the show’s first line.

We flash back to the crime scene. Will moves through the house as the killer, taking out his victims with pinpoint accuracy. The scene is gruesome and quick, almost methodical. Will pauses, and we’re jerked back into reality as if from a dream.

This opening scene  sets up the feel of the show, and Will’s character, in one fell sweep. You’re left with a feeling of stretched reality, and it is decidedly nightmarish.

The rest of the episode focuses on the Minnesota Shrike, a serial killer targeting college girls. Will’s pursuit of the Minnesota Shrike is the catalyst for the events of the first season. The killer sticks in Will’s mind, and every case of the season is effected by it. The show moves at a slow pace, but it’s not agonizing. The buildup only increases the anticipation of what is to come. I found myself engrossed i the show’s gruesome world. Surely, that is helped by the gorgeous cinematography and production design. The colors are vibrant, contrasting very well with the shows dark atmosphere. The costumes are well chosen, modern without dating he show to its era, and believable for each character.

The writing is solid, but I was distracted by the heavy use of sentences like “Must not dwell on what we fear.” These truncated sentences took me out of a scene every time. It would be one thing if only one character use them, but it’s everyone, and nearly every other line.  I suppose it was a technique employed to make the dialogue sound more realistic, but I don’t know anyone who speaks this way in reality.

The crime scenes also grow more gruesome with each episode. The show is surprisingly graphic for network television. There is some dark humor, such as descriptions of Hannibal’s murders being punctuated by scenes of him preparing meals. The characters, for the most part, feel organic and complete. The show is excellently cast, from the one-off villains to the long runners.

Overall, it’s an impressive effort by NBC. One of their best dramas in a very long time. The season was well received, by critics and fans alike, and the reason for that is not hard to find; with it’s stunning visuals, Excellent casting, and (relatively) great writing, Hannibal has the makings of a long lasting addition to NBC’s roster. I’ll give you one warning, however, it is definitely not for the faint of heart.