Review: ‘American Vandal Season 2’ (No Spoilers)

Disclaimer: No spoilers, but story elements will be discussed. If you don’t want anything that might influence you before watching, you may want to turn back now.

I’d like to open by being completely honest with you. I did not want to watch American Vandal at all. I was raised a film snob and I will die a film snob and that was something well-established in my circle. I still resent that I wasted space in my brain to hold information from Season 1. That said, I have acknowledged that Season 1 is not terrible. It’s great for an audience that just doesn’t include me. There are some genuinely funny moments, impressive acting from unknowns that add much-needed realism, and excellent production values. It’s even a good premise: Take the most ridiculous crime you can think of, and make a dead-serious investigative documentary on it. That’s great. I only watched it because my boyfriend and my sister wanted to and I live with them ergo I watched it too. I acknowledge it wasn’t terrible. I just felt there were better things I would rather have spent my time watching.

(Side note: I tried to hide it from my boyfriend when Season 2 came out so I wouldn’t have to watch it.)

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Season 2 is honestly a marked improvement. Again, it’s not one of the best shows you can spend your time on this year, but it’s an enjoyable diversion. The jokes are better integrated with the script, adding to the intended realism of the series. The characters are more relatable, and while still petty and irritating, as humans tend to be, you never really end up hating anyone, ultimately. It’s interesting to note that last season’s accused was a stereotypical low IQ stoner dude-bro, who isn’t what he seems, and this season’s accused is a stereotypical pretentious white privilege intellectual, who isn’t what he seems. In both cases, the dissection of their characters is the real heart of the story.

Let’s get the criticisms out of the way first: My two main complaints this season both involve the twists. And don’t worry, it’s no spoilers, I’m not giving any specifics. However, if you got used to the formula from the first season, Season 2 is very much the same. It follows the same pattern, the same conflicts, the same implications, the same cycle, which makes it easy to figure out where many of the story arcs are going to go. My issue with the final twist, is actually that it’s not obvious enough. I feel that there should have been more foreshadowing, more suggestions of the final solution than we got — which is none, really. It more or less comes out of nowhere. While technically you could have guessed the culprit from early on, there are certain elements you could not have guessed that would make your early deduction flawed. These elements are suddenly introduced, without any precedent. It doesn’t ruin your enjoyment of the show, and it’s not a major criticism. Just an observation.

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The thing I liked best about this season is the characters. I thought they were well nuanced, and behaved more like real people, than the more stereotypical behavior seen in the characters in Season 1. This series is all about subverting peoples’ expectations and straightaway the script makes it clear that these characters aren’t what you expect; it’s just that you’ve been viewing them from a certain lens. This idea is expanded on across the course of the season, evolving and finally becoming clear in the finale, where it unites the various ideas and philosophies presented to us and makes an ultimate statement on human nature and how we interact with our own life.

As with the first season, Season 2 does a good job of building a theme. In Season 1 the overall theme was “People aren’t what they seem so don’t judge too quickly,” and it was prevalent throughout the season. The theme is virtually the same this season, but its tone is very different. It infers that social standing is just an illusion, and that behind a beautiful facade is a real, broken person in need of connection. Because of this theme, social media is a much more important aspect of the mystery this season, bringing out some commentary on the nature of our dualistic, internet-oriented lives.

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In general, I liked Season 2 much better than the first season. I liked the actors, the jokes, and the characters better. This is not to say that it is inherently superior to Season 1, as both have their charms and their pros and cons. It’s just to say that Season 1 can be hard to digest if you’re not very much into it, and Season 2 holds perhaps a more widespread appeal. And while the series has been interesting and unique so far, I think it can only last so long on this premise, and is already starting to become predictable insofar as patterns go.

To be fair, though, whereas Season 1 is like a cudgel, necessary to break audience expectations and set its own standards and precedent, Season 2 is more like a scalpel, expertly dissecting the subjects it chooses for the audience to consider and, perhaps, learn from. If Season 1 didn’t win you over, I suggest you give Season 2 a chance, and its presentation and execution is only improving.

 

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‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ Review (No Spoilers)

On a very off chance, two or three years ago, I happened to come across a photo online that was taken of Nicole Kidman on the set of a new film. The name of the film? How to Talk to Girls at Parties. I was taken aback. Wait, what? Like that little story by Neil Gaiman that nobody’s really heard of? Curious, I looked into it, and proceeded to keep tabs on it. After a couple years passed, I figured, something must have happened, they never finished it, or they finished it but couldn’t get it distributed, or something. I was disappointed.

But earlier this year, a trailer for the film popped up, reigniting my excitement. Not only was this a take on a story from my favorite Gaiman collection (Fragile Things), but they’d merged it with the 1977 punk scene, a subject close to my heart. The trailer didn’t completely sell me on it, I was very skeptical. How do you stretch out an 18-page story and make a feature length film out of it? Did they just make up a bunch of nonsense to fill in the run time?

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How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a charming movie that, while it massively embellishes on a very short story, stays true to the spirit of Gaiman’s works: Fairy tales for grown-ups, that can still capture wonder and imagination no matter what your age or walk of life. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a lot of fun, and fits in very well with Gaiman’s world. I would even put it above Stardust (2007), which I thought was too exaggerated, too Hollywood, and didn’t do the source material’s endearing whimsical nature justice. How to Talk to Girls is an indie film through and through, and the creative enthusiasm of the team behind it shows. This isn’t a movie made to make money, to feed to the masses in convenient servings of banality; it is something either you like or you don’t, and it is unapologetic about its personality.

The plot goes as such: Enn, a teenage punk in 1977 Croydon, goes to the wrong party, and ends up meeting some very strange girls, including Zan, an outsider. She, like Enn, is frustrated with the status quo and restrictions of her society, and wishes to break outside of it. He takes her to explore the world of punk rock, in which she promptly flourishes. However, the true nature behind Zan, her people, and her purpose, slowly comes to light, until Enn realizes he and his friends must take action or risk losing her forever.

The film could certainly be accused of being built around the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, but I would argue that Zan shows too much agency, and that the story is truly about her journey to self-realization, while Enn is more there as an aid and witness to her development, and learns about himself along the way. At first blush, Enn does appear to be the protagonist, and he does have his own arc, of course, but Zan is the real hero of the story, who grows beyond her limitations into something greater. It’s a nice change of pace from so many films of this kind, that are about an awkward boy gaining confidence through his supportive girlfriend to achieve his dreams. This movie does service to all of its characters, Zan and Enn in particular, of course. They both have times to shine, arcs to fulfill, and greater things to become.

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That isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its low points. It is very obviously the victim of poor editing, as Nicole Kidman’s Bodicea character is under-developed, with scenes fleshing her out further seemingly missing, causing some of the dialogue between her and protagonist Enn make little sense. The special effects are also spotty, details of Zan’s collective are somewhat confusing, and some concepts are undercooked. There is a vaguely environmental theme that crops up from time to time, but it is inconsistent and never fully realized.

One thing I’m not sure if I should criticize or not is Vic’s arc. Vic attends the party with Enn at the beginning, and has an experience he doesn’t quite understand. Throughout the film, we see moments of discomfort from him, which, eventually, he is required to face up to. However, exactly what that is that he is facing is unclear. I could extrapolate plenty of answers, and just because something requires you to think and come to your own conclusions doesn’t make it bad, but I feel like the movie might have benefited from clarifying this particular plot point.

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Overall, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is not a perfect film, but it does its source material justice and is an enjoyable ride, and in this age of multi-million dollar blockbuster trash heaps, supporting indie films is important. While the special effects are low-budget, it remains visually striking, from the set design, to the costumes, and the group performances with the punks and Zan’s people. While the very basic concept behind the story is one of the oldest tropes — forbidden love between two teenagers — it manages to give it a fresh twist and subvert your expectations.

The movie is available for free with an Amazon Prime subscription, and you can stream it on YouTube and Google Play.

 

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The Post-Punk Band Nobody Ever Told You About

When I first heard about this band, I was angry. Angry that this band had existed all this time and no one had ever told me about them. This is how I found them: I pulled up a list of post punk bands from Wikipedia and just made my way down the list. If I didn’t know the band, I’d look them up on YouTube. Luckily, these English fellows were near the top so it didn’t take long for me to discover them.

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And Also the Trees are a stunning blend of sound, comparable to The Cure, Joy Division, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, yet retaining a mood all their own. They sound like the ghosts of the past come back to haunt you through your stereo, infecting your brain with a sickness divine.

Formed in 1979 (the same year Joy Division’s sophomore album Unknown Pleasures was released) in Worcestershire, the band was comprised of two pairs of brothers; Simon Huw Jones (vocals), Justin Jones (guitar), Nick Havas (drums), and Graham Havas (bass). They started very much from nothing, having no prior musical experience, requiring them to teach themselves to play their instruments. After a few rough recordings, they caught the attention of Robert Smith of The Cure, who brought them on tour. The Cure’s drummer, Lol Tolhurst, later produced their self-titled album.

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The band became popular in Europe, but never broke into the USA. It’s a shame, because I feel they should be held in the same esteem as other legendary post-punk artists. The band is still active to this day, though the Havas brothers have dropped out. Their latest release as of this writing is 2016’s Born into the Waves.

Their song “So This is Silence” has strong similarities to The Cure’s Pornography album, with it’s oppressively dark ethos of loneliness and despair, as if something horrible has happened and all the singer can do is wail in agony into the abyss. “Maps in Her Wrists and Arms” conjures the image of a frail dope fiend, like Mary Tyrone wandering through her house in a haze at night. “Slow Pulse Boy” tells the tale of a PTSD-ridden soldier remembering the tragedy of the lives lost in war.

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And Also the Trees have a deeply evocative and haunting sound. Within their songs you can find phantasmal murderers lurking out of the fog to stalk the London streets, the ghost of a long-lost lover now only remembered in images, and scenes of horror and violence driving one into shrieking madness.

Out of their discography, I would most recommend the album Virus Meadow, which remains my favorite of theirs.  Every track is a solid example of the band at their best, starting off with the ominous “Slow Pulse Boy” and closing out with the eerie, haunting imagery of “The Headless Clay Woman.” This album should have been one of the great post-punk albums, up there with Disintegration and Closer. It holds you in a mystical state of both terror and wonder, waiting for the next note, the next revelation.

If you fancy yourself an avid, deep-cut music aficionado, this is a band you need to discover. It’s an experience quite unlike any other, that transports you into a world of its own.