Netflix’s ‘Maniac’ Review (No Spoilers)

With such hit series as Stranger ThingsBlack Mirror, and Ozark to live up to, Netflix is under a lot of pressure to release the next great dark horse success. With Cary Fukunaga of True Detective and Patrick Somerville of The Leftovers as the director and creator respectively, you could expect great things from their latest effort, the limited series Maniac. The only problem is, you could expect a lot of bad things, too.

I could not have been more blown away by the first three episodes of Maniac. Stylistically and thematically, it heavily draws on the works of Philip K. Dick, the mind behind Total Recall and Minority Report. Like Dick’s stories, Maniac plays on themes of paranoia, isolation, and insanity. Our story follows two characters, Annie and Owen, who are both struggling with mental illness and family conflict. Their paths lead them both to a trial for a new pharmaceutical that promises to eventually do away with therapy, by resolving peoples’ psychological issues through induced dream-like experiences. During the course of the trial, we learn about the skeletons in Annie and Owen’s closets, and attempt to resolve these issues by going over them.

Again. And again. And again. And again.

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For at least five episodes, as the trial goes into the “B pill” testing phase, they go over the same information, and the plot goes nowhere. While the first three episodes do a good job of setting a tone, constructing a world, and getting us invested in our characters, all the episodes in the middle completely undo that. Rather than making good use of the world they’ve already done an excellent job in establishing, Maniac goes off in haphazard and pointless directions for no apparent reason other than to do something ‘wacky,’ because, apparently, going on inexplicable and self-indulgent tangents is a proper substitute for actual substance these days.

While there is some tongue-in-cheek humor established early on, by the middle, the series has gone off the deep end into over-the-top goofiness. It’s a true shame, because Jonah Hill and Emma Stone are better in this series than I have ever seen them before, and really proved that they have grown as performers since they appeared together in 2007’s Superbad and can deliver grown-up, mature, and compelling performances. While they still give good performances in the episodes after, it loses much of its impact in the flood of irredeemably lame gimmicks. By the ending, the series has regained some of its form, but, overall, it’s just a completely different show by then, and I hardly care what happens to the characters.

 

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Besides the terrible excuse for humor, the episodes in the B-pill phase have another inexcusable flaw: They essentially present us with a mystery to which we already know the answer, rendering the investigation next to pointless. And, in case we somehow didn’t get the “metaphors,” we’re given a lengthy exposition scene, explaining to us in unnecessary detail exactly what it represented. For clarification, but without spoilers, here’s what we sit through: First, we witness the back story of our characters. Then, we sit through a “dream sequence” full of metaphors for the back story that we just witnessed. Finally, the character explains their back story again, and how the metaphors tied in with it. This recycling of information over the course of multiple episodes is mind-numbingly boring, and absolutely killed my interest in the characters, their struggles, their development, their resolutions, etc. As much as I had empathized with them previously, I now just wanted to get to the end of the series so I could be done with it.

It’s a tragedy to see something as amazing as Maniac‘s first three episodes lead into something as trite, dull, and uninspired as its remaining episodes. What could have been a masterpiece ended up just a lot of failed potential. I wish I could whole-heartedly recommend this series to you. As it is, I’m left warning you ahead of time, you’ll never get to see the ending to the amazing story you’re presented with. Instead, you get to watch a so-stupid-it’s-offensive sketch show with some sci-fi wraparound.

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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.

‘Disenchantment’ Review (No Spoilers)

“Entertainment is just a tool that pacifies the masses and leads to the decay and ultimate collapse of the civilization. Let’s clap along!” -Luci (Eric Andre)

Look, here’s the hard and honest truth no one wants to accept.

Disenchantment. Is. Not. As. Bad. As. People. Say. It. Is.

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Sure, if you go in with expectations that it will be a Simpsons or Futurama clone that puts gags first and story after, then you’ll probably be disappointed. But that’s on you, and not the show. The show is fairly decent as its own thing. It is 100% plot driven, with jokes worked in there. The characters are interesting and compelling enough that you want to see what happens with their stories.

The story centers around the hard-drinking Princess Tiabeanie (“Bean” for short), an outcast Elf named Elfo, and a demon named Luci who has been sent to manipulate her. While the characters may at first seem one dimensional, they are further explored, and reveal new mysteries about themselves, as the series progresses. What appeared to be a simple fantasy tale with a Simpsons-y twist turns out to be far from what it seems. There are some dark moments, and some satisfying character development.

I’ll admit, I, myself, was extremely skeptical. I thought it was going to be utterly forgettable. The Simpsons took a sharp dip in quality after its “Golden Age,” and I found Futurama to be spotty in quality. (I think your enjoyment of Futurama is directly proportionate to how much you like Bender, and I found him annoying at best.) Maybe because I had low expectations and thought I’d tire after the first episode, I was greatly impressed and couldn’t wait to see what happened next.

Keep in mind, though, it’s not a laugh fest, and it’s honestly not meant to be. The story comes first at all times, and the jokes are just there to add some spice. The writers work on building up the mysteries, conflicts, and plot twists, which keep you wondering at all times. You feel like you’re always on the verge of discovering something in this show, and I promise you, it does reward you for paying attention and remembering plot details, as certain elements return, further developed, later on in the series.

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These ten episodes do a good job of world building, making you hope for a season two, in order to further explore the possibilities lying within each new place. There are many different creatures and races introduced that are only briefly touched upon, who could hopefully be expanded upon in the future.

Mark Mothersbaugh provides the music, which gives the series a unique feel. It captures the excitement and zaniness of Disenchantment with gusto, giving the feel of a medieval festival full of drunken knights, peasants, and jesters. Mothersbaugh has always delivered quality soundtracks for his projects, and this is no exception.

The title Disenchantment really says it all, as the epic presents you with all the tropes and stereotypes of a classic fantasy and slowly strips away the conventions, twisting them into something worth your attention. It demystifies itself and manages to ground its fantastical characters enough to make them not too outrageous.

All the voice actors do well, but Eric Andre is a standout. His performance as Luci manages to be simultaneously maniacal and endearing. Overall, though, all the actors deserve a shout-out for the amount of characters they voiced, with just 18 voice actors portraying all the characters in the series. Of course former Groening collaborators at present, such as Billy West, Tress MacNeille, John DiMaggio, and Maurice LaMarche, and all do a top notch job as always.

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Overall, Disenchantment is fun, and its something uniquely its own. It’s not The Simpsons, and it’s not Futurama, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. It builds its own intriguing world, and presents you with new characters to follow in their quest to self-discovery. Every character has a purpose and potential to grow, and even if you’re not sold on them at the beginning, by the end, you will care about what’s at stake for all of them. Even if you have low expectations, and even if you end up not liking it, I very much recommend giving it a chance.

The Simpsons: Lisa is the Villain in ‘Bart Sells His Soul’

The Golden Age of The Simpsons still holds up to this day, despite various modern controversies and some outdated stereotypes. The concepts and lessons contained within remain both compelling and hilarious. Lisa is one of my absolute favorite characters within the prodigious cast of the show. However, there is one episode I re-watched recently that made me re-think my opinions of the character.

In the Season 7 episode ‘Bart Sells His Soul,’ Bart and Milhouse get into a theological discussion (rather advanced for a pair of 10-year-olds) about the nature of the soul. Milhouse whole-heartedly believes in the concept of the soul as presented by organized religion, while Bart maintains that the soul is fake, made up by religion to manipulate the masses and make a profit off of tax-free donations. And he’s entitled to that opinion.

You know who’s not okay with that? Lisa.

While Lisa is generally portrayed as a liberal free-thinker, supporting the rights of the oppressed, her actions in this episode greatly contrast those character traits. Once she finds out that Bart sold his soul to Milhouse (it was actually just words written on a piece of paper), she is clearly disturbed by the fact that Bart doesn’t take the concept of the soul seriously. She presses her own agenda upon him repeatedly, and mocks him in front of their family for his beliefs.

Because she disagrees with Bart’s opinion, she ostracizes him, and uses a series of arbitrary coincidences to convince Bart that he has lost his soul. She even buys his soul when she finds it in the Android’s Dungeon comic book store, and then proceeds to withhold it from him. It is only after he goes through Hell, is missing all night, and comes home in a clearly broken state, that she concedes and returns his soul to him.

She takes advantage of his emotionally vulnerable state, and convinces him that all the trouble he endured was actually good, and was necessary for him to deserve his soul. She is basically using psychological torture to imprint Bart with her own beliefs, as many cults do in real life.This is very disturbing behavior for one of the most progressive characters in The Simpsons. Granted, the early days of the series have their problematic moments, and, whether or not you agree with these criticisms, it’s undeniable that society has come a long way in how we view women and minorities, putting these issues more under the microscope than ever. However, atheists and those with atheistic ideas (those who don’t believe in angels, heaven, or the soul, but may still believe in a higher power) are still one of the most distrusted groups in the United States. If this episode was made today, I’m sorry to say, I think Bart’s opinions would still be treated with scorn.

 

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Review – South Park Season 19, Episode 01: “Stunning and Brave”

After the disappointment that was Season 18, South Park returns to its roots and takes on PC culture in one of the most self-aware episodes yet.

Warning: Herein are spoilers for South Park Season 19, episode 01.

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Here is the basic gist of the episode: When Principal Victoria is fired from South Park Elementary (for making a joke about date rape and Bill Cosby), P.C. Principal is hired to take her place. He is a douchebag fraternity bro who pretty much bullies everyone — children and adults — into being politically correct. Nobody is happy about it, but Cartman, the eternal bigot, is the most terrified. He changes his attitude immediately, much to the chagrin, surprisingly, of his friends. Kyle becomes P.C. Principal’s main target, since Kyle was heard saying that he doesn’t consider Caitlin Jenner a hero. Kyle, Stan, Kenny and Butters beg Cartman to go back to his old ways and take on P.C. Principal, goading him by saying he should act more like his hero, Tom Brady. Cartman gives in, and attempts to frame the principal for child molestation. The principal becomes enraged when Cartman uses the term “spokesman” instead of “spokesperson,” and beats Cartman within an inch of his life, sending him to the hospital. Cartman once again vows never to return to his old ways, but is forced to break that vow in order to save Kyle, who is suffering worse and worse at the hands of the P.C. fraternity. Cartman tries to fight the fraternity off by sending in racial stereotypes, but all this does is cause more chaos. Kyle calls a halt to the madness, and tells everyone he agrees that Caitlin Jenner is “stunning and brave,” as everyone has been saying. This sates everyone around him, and the episode ends with the P.C. fraternity starting their own P.C. police force to oversee the city. Cartman has allegedly taught the P.C. bros that sometimes stereotypes and offensive humor can be used to discuss important issues, but Kyle is still dissatisfied, and points out that it seems that the only one who really won is Cartman. “And who does that remind you of, Kyle?” Cartman asks, referencing the boys’ earlier plea that he act more like Tom Brady.

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“Right, and what does Tom Brady do after breaking the rules?!” -Stan

“Deny and subvert.” -Cartman

Politcal Correctness (shortened as “P.C.”) has been an largely discussed subject lately, particularly by comedians, such as Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman. It’s only natural that it should be covered by South Park, the show infamous for breaking P.C. code in order to discuss important social issues. In essence, in this episode, Kyle is representative of South Park the show, who has issues with the politically correct state of the world. It’s important to note: Kyle is not a racist, a homophobe, a sexist, or any such thing. He’s actually a very sympathetic character. This drives home the point that Parker and Stone are NOT talking about actual bigots, but average and honest people who have the right to speak their mind, which doesn’t really harm anyone.

“I didn’t like Bruce Jenner when he was and athlete and on the Kardashians, and I don’t suddenly like him now.”

-Kyle

At the end of the episode, it is Cartman using offensive imagery to battle the ultra-P.C. frat boys, but all this does is make things worse. This is to show that two wrongs don’t make a right, and you can’t win by being a bigot, or by playing word police. Kyle is the one who has to make a sacrifice in order to calm things down. He knows he has to choose his battles in this situation, and has decided that this one isn’t worth fighting. He doesn’t want either side to win, so he ends the fight the only way he can think of.

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Cartman uses racist stereotypes to fight the P.C. frat boys

South Park acknowledges that there is a difference between being a dick and just speaking your mind. Not everyone has to agree on every issue, and disagreement isn’t fair grounds for social conflict. Kyle is stuck in an all-too-real situation where the rest of the world has come to a certain consensus, and if you do not conform to it, you are ostracized. Let’s be very clear on one point: Free speech should be untouchable. At no point should anyone be able to force you to say anything against your will. In the end, for better or worse, it IS Kyle’s choice to do what he does. No one forces him to change his statements, although they tried vehemently throughout the episode: He makes the choice because he believed, in this case, it was the right thing to do.

The dark side of anyone being able to say anything they want is that you will hear from a great number of racists, sexists and homophobes, and their opinions will be treated as valid. This is a different case than Kyle’s: Certain people are out just to be malicious and spread hate and fear. This problem won’t be solved with word policing; it can only be solved with edification. These people must be taught that such beliefs are absurd, and the best way to do that, is through the kind of satire that South Park delivers.

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On the question of where this is going: It does seem that South Park is trying out another continuing story-line that will last all through season 19, much as they did in season 18. However, now they may have had the time to work out the kinks, and figure out where exactly they want to go with this story. The final exchange in this episode between Kyle and Cartman, I feel is a hint: If I had to guess, Cartman has a plan. He’s not done breaking the rules. Something is going on beneath his calm, kind exterior. It looks like this arc will continue, which means that there is plenty more time for the children to take on P.C. culture, and eventually win a victory for freedom of speech and expression.

This season, I’m going to try to review every South Park episode, each week. What were your thoughts on this week’s episode? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Comment below. Until next time, lie, cheat, steal, and hug your cats!