Movie Review – The Spectacular Now

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The Spectacular Now (2013)
Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Directed by James Ponsoldt

the spectacular now

Sutter Keely is a high school senior under the impression he and his girlfriend, Cassidy are the life of the party. Their relationship crashes and burns when he is caught in a compromising situation where he is honestly not cheating. However, as the film goes on, we begin to understand where Cassidy is coming from. In the meantime, Sutter goes on a bender and wakes up in the front yard of Aimee, a girl in his year. She is reserved and more studious than Sutter, but he feels drawn to her, both as a rebound and because she has such a pure caring spirit. However, Sutter begins to pull Aimee into his way of life, hiding a flask of liquor and coming to work and school at least buzzed if not more. There are also questions about Sutter’s dad and why his parents divorced. The answers will lead to the young man being forced to make tough choices about his life.

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Origins 2016 – Monsterhearts

monsterheartsFriday morning rolled around and I knew exactly what table I would be at. We had the great honor of playing Monsterhearts with Joe Beason. Joe has been a Google Plus friend for awhile and I’d been very interested in his variation on Monsterhearts, Elderhearts which focuses on a retirement home rather than a high school. However, we were feeling the original that morning.

Monsterhearts (Designed by Avery Alder McDaldno, Published by Buried Without Ceremony) takes popular media like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, Ginger Snaps and similar works and turns them into one of the most enjoyable systems I’ve ever run or played. Once again, this is a Powered by the Apocalypse game meaning it uses fictionally triggered Moves and two six sided die plus the relevant stat to determine the outcome of actions. The playbooks consist of what you would expect with some twists. There’s The Vamp, The Wolf, The Ghost alongside The Mortal, The Queen, The Ghoul and many more both official and fan made. In other PBtA games relationships between character are played as favors or debts, but in MH characters have Strings, representations of the emotional pull you have on others and they have on you. These are meant to be much more manipulative than debts or bonds and they help heighten that sense of adolescent emotional immaturity. Monsterhearts also heavily emphasizes the fluid nature of sexuality. Every character is expected to be able to be Turned On by any other character. The extent of how that arousal is acted on is determined in the fiction and how much detail the players want. Most games I play in typically fade to black or cut away before the descriptions get too gratuitous.

For Joe’s game we were students in a Florida high school that was in the path of Hurricane Danny, a brewing tropical storm. In our group we had The Ghost, The Chosen (a Buffy style hunter skin), The Witch, The Fae, and I played The Queen. Every experience I’ve had playing MH has been a lot of fun. Getting to indulge those over-dramatic hormone driven personalities of teenagers is a great time. I really hammed it up with The Queen, a stuck up rich girl whose twist involved her mind being taken over by a genetically engineered parasite her daddy’s medical research company brewed up. She was now the leader of a hive-mind (her clique) with a group text on her smartphone serving as the hub of communication. Lots of selfies were taken, many Snapchats were snapped.

Joe did a great job weaving a lot of elements through the fiction of the game based on the material we brought through our characters. The chief difference between traditional tabletop scenarios and PBtA is the planning. You can pick up Monsterhearts with no scenario in mind, sit down with friends, and simply listen and engage in conversation to build the world. Games like this will definitely stretch your mind and your creativity but you’ll up getting quicker on your feet as a result. Our high school Spring play had ground to halt with the death of the drama teacher. In his place an older, former teacher at the school was substituting, the same teacher responsible for our Ghost’s murder in the 1980s. My Queen was missing one of her clique, the girl was part of the trio of backup singers in the school’s production of Little Shop of Horrors. After a power outage, The Queen found her way to the auditorium and, along with the other player characters, got caught up in an occult ritual that was connected to the presence of the powerful storm outside.

This was one of those table at Games on Demand where everyone was firing on all cylinders and we were simpatico. The story flowed from player to player and GM. In those four hours we had a complete and satisfying narrative that left hints of other plots that could come from these characters had we been able to continue. That is also recurring note at almost every game I played: the players getting so deeply into the session they wished it was a regular weekly or monthly game so they could discover what happened next to these characters.

Avery McDaldno is currently looking at revising and releasing a second edition of the game. Since Monsterhearts’ publication in 2012, many more variations and hacks on PBtA have been released and the best iterations have brought new and intriguing mechanics to the community. As with Vincent Baker’s revision of the original Apocalypse World, I cannot wait to see what Avery adds and refines with Monsterhearts.

Even if you don’t care for the inspiration behind Monsterhearts, I’m confident you would love the game. The places the game explores aren’t represented in many other tabletop games and, with the right group of people who have buy in with the material, you’ll end up with some of the most satisfying sessions of gaming you’ve ever experienced.

You can purchase Monsterhearts here – http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/100540/Monsterhearts

Later today: Bluebeard’s Bride and Dungeon World

Wild Card Tuesdays – Afterschool

Afterschool (2009, dir. Antonio Campos)
Starring Ezra Miller, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeremy Allen White, Addison Timlin

Stanley Kubrick, probably my favorite director of all-time, once said, “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” The kind of films Kubrick made the most closely followed this philosophy, 2001 comes to mind immediately, were not films that met the aesthetic of pleasurable cinema. They were meant to provoke a reaction, positive or negative, and I suspect the negative would have interested Kubrick more. This is not to say director Antonio Campos is working at the same level of Kubrick, but is definitely more interested in cinematic language than plot or characters or dialogue. This sort of film is never going to appeal to a mass audience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly well made and through provoking.

Rob is a sophomore at Bryton, a fictional East Coast prep school where is a quiet, reclusive young man, preferring to spend his time watching viral videos and porn on his desktop computer. His interest in video leads him to joining the A/V Club after school pressures to participate in after-school activities. Amy, the girl he has a slight attraction to, is partnered with him to film B-roll exterior shots of the school for a collective club project. Amy can’t make it to one session, so Rob goes it alone and happens to witness twin seniors stumbling into frame, bleeding profusely from their noses and mouths. Rob silently walks over to where they collapsed and that is where the teachers and other students find him. It turns out the girls died of drugs that had been tainted with rat poison. Add to the mix that Rob’s roommate Dave is the known supplier in the dorms, and Rob must contemplate what he should do.

Don’t for a second think this is going to be some sort of taut thriller. This is a incredibly meditative and slow paced film, that isn’t about the death of the girls, rather it is about this young man and his personal psychosis. Rob is of a generation who filters reality through the pixelated grain of buffered video. We see portions of the film told through the lens of the digital video cameras handed out in class and through cell phone video. When Rob finally has a moment alone with Amy and they begin to get amorous, he mimics the actions he has seen on an incredibly misogynistic internet porn site. Amy is obviously shocked, but surprisingly not phased, as we can infer she has seen the same being from the same generation. Rob is an incredibly neutral protagonist, which has an odd effect on the viewer. While he does nothing to appear noble or heroic, I found myself rooting for him because of how I have been trained to view movies. Campos seems to be working to make us aware of this fact, that we have no reason to be on Rob’s side.

Michael Stuhlbarg, who made an incredible turn as the lead in the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man, plays Bryton’s headmaster and is a darkly phony figure. Afterschool definitely draws parallels to the archetypal teen stories like A Catcher in the Rye and Heathers, where the maudlin sentiment of the adults is seen through the stark, cold eyes of adolescents. Stuhlbarg expresses false sympathy for Rob’s condition after witnessing the deaths of the twins, and it is obvious every decision the dean makes is about saving face for the school, and making sure those parents who have influence are  not offended. He reveals his true colors to Rob when the young man produces a video that does reflect the false regret and sympathy the dean wishes. The guise of a compassionate and sensitive educator melts away and he chastises Rob in an incredibly cruel manner.

Once again, I emphasize that this is not a film that will appeal to everyone. I suspect the audience that will “enjoy” the film will be quite small. It forces the audience to question their relationship between the tangible and the virtual, and beyond that how our view of the tangible can be distorted and effect the way we interact with the world around us. The ending of the film is incredibly chilling and unnerving and would do the great Kubrick proud, as it shrugs off the plausible and chooses to focus more on creating an honest tone. For those who are fans of Michael Haenke, I suspect parallels will be drawn between this and his contemporary classic, Cache.

Wild Card Tuesday – Mean Girls



Mean Girls (2004, dir. Mark Waters)
Starring Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Amanda Seyfried, Lizzie Caplan, Daniel Franseze, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Ana Gastneyer, Neil Flynn

I know what you are thinking, “Why? Why would you watch this?” My excuse is that the screenplay was worked on by Tina Fey, who also plays the main character’s Math teacher, and I gave it a chance based on her pedigree. Well Tina, you didn’t completely disappoint me.

Cady Heron (Lohan) was raised by her parents in Africa, and subsequently homeschooled because of the experience. Now back in the States, Cady is going to a public school for the first time and completely unaware of the highly structured clique system in place. She befriends two of the art kids, Janis and Damian, who encourage her to infiltrate the Plastics (read: popular girls) and ruin the status of queen bee Regina (McAdams). The rest of the film plays out as a mix of typical high school comedy with moments that rise slightly above that.

The female cast was definitely a strong one. Every single one of the key actresses has done a lot of notable work before and since this film. I don’t think I had actually ever seen a Lindsay Lohan film (save A Prairie Home Companion where she played a very small role), but she is (was?) a very good actress. Her performance as Cady feels very genuine and I never saw the acting going on, which happens a lot with younger actors and actresses. For example, Lacy Chabert was very transparently acting and it showed. Rachel McAdams was also very good, especially knowing her from other such different roles. But the stand out, and you had to be watching closely to catch it, was Amanda Seyfried. Her role appears simple: the ditz, but the girl has some great comic timing. Pair that with her recent role in Jennifer’s Body, and I am excited about seeing her in upcoming films (particularly the soon to be released Atom Egoyan picture Chloe).

As good as these actresses were, it didn’t save the film. The parts I laughed the hardest at were the moments centered around the teachers. Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, and the rest of the cast in those teacher roles were awesome, and I found myself wishing the movie was about the faculty. We have so many teen comedies on the market, but a clever flick, scripted by Fey, about high school teachers would be a treat. The film will definitely make you laugh, but its nothing worth more than a single view. And I couldn’t help but wonder that instead of using director Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Just Like Heaven) they had hired JOHN Waters to helm the picture. Now that would have been a skewering of high school hierarchies.

Wild Card Tuesday – Fish Tank


Fish Tank (2009, dir. Andrea Arnold)

Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing
Mia is angry at everyone and everything. She headbutts a girl for simply mouthing off to her. She fights constantly with her mother. She’s considered an oddball by the boys. She’s been kicked out of school. This her last chance. Andrea Arnold’s portrait of a 15 year old girl growing up in contemporary Essex, England is an incredibly immersing film. I have to admit, I sat down to watch it less than enthused but found myself completely engrossed in the picture. Arnold’s emphasis on naturalism comes shining through and every frame of the film feels honest and real.
Mia’s world is changed when her mother brings Conner home. Conner is a handsome, charming man who treats Mia and her younger sister with kindness. The four make a nice little family, going out for a drive in the country one day, and Conner and Mia catching a fish together. But there is a palpable tension between Mia and Conner. The film constantly veers from her seeing him as a replacement father but also an object of sex. And for a girl in Mia’s situation, such a confusion would be understandable. There is no single strong male or female influence in the girl’s world, so when one comes along she clings to him for dear life.
There’s a recurring action of Mia’s that is glanced in the first moments of the film and repeated throughout. A ragged emaciated horse stands chained to large boulder in the middle of gravel covered field. Mia climbs a fence and uses a stone to smash at the chain and free the horse. With each attempt she find the action more and more futile. Another action which Mia repeats again and again is when she busts into an abandoned tenement flat and practice hip hop dancing. Music becomes a link between she and Conner and also a possible mode of escape. Where Mia and her family end up is a balanced mix of sadness and hope, and Conner’s role in it all is the most shocking.
The film is all about newcomer Katie Jarvis who, in her film debut, is absolutely amazing. Katie’s personal life is not too different from her character’s. She was a mother at 16 and was discovered while screaming at her boyfriend on the street. The same anger and fire in Mia is all brought to the film by Katie herself. Director Andrea Arnold is also a powerful force, making this world feel completely honest and knowing when and what to show the audience. An amazing achievement in contemporary British cinema.