Sounds of Music

Songbook: At Seventeen

If I’d known this song in high school I’d probably have checked the closet to see if Janis Ian was not hiding there. Just kidding, of course (I didn’t have a closet in my room) but some things in this song sounded uncannily true to me when I heard it for the first time – though not all of them, and I’m not saying which is which.

“At Seventeen” by Janis Ian

Album: Between the Lines

Year: 1975

Category: Classic charmers

Why it rocks:
For the reasons I hinted at in the introduction: it’s an incredibly well-put description of a certain kind of adolescence. It feels very personal and thus relatable. It creates a nostalgic feeling with its swaying bossa-nova tune but the words clearly oppose any nostalgia – and I’m all for this kind of tension in a song.

Favorite bit of lyrics:
We all play the game, and when we dare / We cheat ourselves at solitaire / Inventing lovers on the phone / Repenting other lives unknown / That call and say: ‘Come dance with me’ / And murmur vague obscenities.”

Favorite moment:
The introduction itself shows you immediately all the strength of the song. And all the moments when her voice gets stronger.

Best for: Feeling glad you’re no longer 17.

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Cruel Intentions

After the seriously impressive Dangerous Liaisons we discussed recently (well, I did, while you politely ignored me, as is our deal), it’s time to turn attention to its younger bizarro cousin:

er-cruelintentionsCruel Intentions

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Imagine Dangerous Liaisons but among modern(-ish, it’s a 1999 movie) high schoolers. It’s exactly that.
It also stars Sarah Michelle Gellar, who was big in 1999 when Buffy was getting better, Reese Witherspoon and that third guy plus a plethora of allusions to its 1988 predecessor.

How I found it:
I saw it once or twice a couple of years earlier and quite liked it (you know me, throw a classic into a high school setting and I’m so in). This time I wanted to show it to R and boy, was he surprised.

Summary judgment:
It’s a… um… I guess it really depends on your expectations. It’s not good. But it’s not exactly bad.

Best things about it:
It’s a ballsy idea which actually makes sense. I mean, what’s the modern counterpart of the rotten pre-revolution French aristocracy? Spoilt prep-school brats with too much money. Someone was actually right to come up with the whole concept and they carried it out consistently.
And I loved the allusions to Stephen Frears’ movie: visual throwbacks and small plot details, like Cecile falling off the bed (though by itself it was so over the top) and even a wink like borrowing an actress just for the sake of it. I particularly liked the design of the interiors of Kathryn and Sebastian’s house with all the details that make them decadent pastiches. And those blue walls!

Worst things about it:
Well, the whole thing doesn’t entirely work. Watching the two movies one after another, you see the oceans that separate them, particularly in acting. I loved Buffy but Sarah Michelle Gellar is not Glenn Close and don’t even get me started on Sebastian.

Other pluses:
I prefer Witherspoon to Pfeiffer. Just me?

Other minuses:
I’m not sure if it’s a minus, more of an observation but the movie is so campy: from the humor to the way Sebastian dies (that’s hardly a spoiler, right?). So I guess it depends on whether you’re in the mood for camp.

How it enriched my life:
It probably didn’t enrich it a whole lot but it’s enjoyable enough.

Fun fact:
I dislike many things about Sebastian but one of them is his hair. Remember the 90s? When every boy looked like hair gel cistern exploded onto him? Man, I hated this hairstyle more than anything, including Back Street Boys. (Showing my age here, huh.)

Follow-up:
So did you know there were sequels? With completely different cast and, I’m guessing, mostly unrelated stories. I vow not to check them out though. And there seem to be other high-school-set adaptations of classics, like O – it was apparently a thing in the 90s and I missed it – but I think I need a break.

Recommended for:
People who like experimental adaptations – or just anything set among high school students. Researchers of the history of teen dramas – a few scenes are absolute classics.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Back to Orphan Black Thor

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Gaming Night

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: High School Drama

As a few weeks ago we dusted off one of the games that’s become a classic for us even though is pretty much unknown, let’s talk about it, shall we:

er-highschooldramaHigh School Drama

Category: Games

Find it on: you may try Amazon, I guess, or maybe eBay?

What it is:
A board game (or, more precisely, a card game) by Shifting Skies, in which you build your high school clique by hooking up with students and organizations and breaking up other player’s cliques so that yours is the most popular. If that doesn’t sound awesome, I don’t know what does.

How I found it:
Very early in my days of interest in board games I came upon a description of this one and it sounded like something made exactly for me! So, as it was unavailable here, I went through heaps of trouble (okay, I just asked M, who lives in the States) and got it and it became one of our favorites to which we regularly return.

Summary judgment:
From a gamer’s point of view it leaves a lot to desire but the storytelling possibilities and the atmosphere more than make up for it.

Best things about it:
It’s a high school experience in a box – if anyone’s experience actually resembled the load of clichés that high school movies try to sell us. Of course, the game is created with this awareness and it drips with irony to satisfy even the most demanding hipster (I imagine?). The art also perfectly matches the tone with its crisp, cartoony illustrations of most high school archetypes one can think of.

Worst things about it:
The gameplay is a mess. It looks like it was barely play-tested at all and the instruction booklet makes it hard to understand whatever rules there are. Often once someone takes lead on the scoring board – which, quite nicely, is a yearbook – there’s no catching up with them and if you decide to focus on breaking up others’ relationships, you won’t have enough actions to build your own… Stuff like that.

Other pluses:
Having said all that about the gameplay, I must say that its faults barely matter because the game is just so much fun! With the right group of people it would be an enjoyable game even if it consisted of throwing the cards at one another and trying to catch them – and the actual rules are better than that.

Other minuses:
There might be minor graphic improvements one could suggest but let’s not be that kind of person. Not today anyway.

How it enriched my life:
It added something with a completely different flavor to our game collection and gaming nights.

Fun fact:
Some of the characters in the game include Cruelest Girl, Tortured Artist, Pretty Rich Girl and Emotional Vortex but my favorite by far is Sensitive Jock. If possible I will always choose to play a character I have little in common with.

Follow-up:
The game was quickly dropped by the developer (though they did publish a second edition that I don’t have: possibly the rules were fixed there) so there are no extensions but I’m sure it will enliven many of our future gaming nights.

Recommended for:
Anyone who loves high school clichés, obviously. People who value a theme beyond game mechanics. People who managed not to get traumatized by their actual high school experience.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Orphan Black

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: 10 Things I Hate About You

I caught a mild cold last week but I needed to get well quickly and not to pass it on to my son, so I spent a few days in bed, not working and watching bad stuff. I’m not gonna lie to you: it was fun. Totally worth the sore throat. One of the things I watched, and possibly even the best one (which should tell you something), was

er-10thingsihateaboutyou10 Things I Hate about You

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 1999 high school drama / romantic comedy starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger. But wait! It’s based on Shakespeare so it can’t be totally worthless, right? Weeeeell. It reinterprets The Taming of the Shrew, placing the two sisters and their suitors in high school – a move I always approve of (but that’s just me).

How I found it:
I knew it was a thing that existed. I never felt much need to watch it before.

Summary judgment:
I enjoyed it much more than I expected to but I still cringed every now and then.

Best things about it:
This movie possesses a surprising amount of charm, most of it owed to Ledger’s performance. He radiates warmth (to such an extent that he doesn’t really sell the badass he’s supposed to be at the beginning) like a playful, hunky puppy. What.

Worst things about it:
It includes quite a few cringeworthy scenes (though, to be honest, so does the original), two of which bother me immensely, for completely different reasons. The lightweight is Heath Ledger singing on the sports field. I know you need to swallow some saccharine and cheese when watching a high school romantic comedy but this exceeded my tolerance. But I have a real problem with the party sequence and the drunk girl Patrick just passes on to the next guy, which is played for laughs. I guess we should be glad the cultural sensitivity moved on and we may now recognize it for what it is? Namely, not a joke.

Other pluses:
The contrived story manages to make some degree of sense and, arguably, more so than the original? With the father being an obstetrician and Kat rejecting high school culture, their motivations make sense.
At first I was worried they would be dropping Shakespeare-like sentences left and right but they showed uncharacteristic restraint and only did it half a dozen times or so.
I liked some of the music (and all of it places the movie in a very specific moment of history).

Other minuses:
Other cringe-inducing things include many failed attempts at humor and general cutesy-ness (see the detention scene. And others. So many.).

How it enriched my life:
It made my sick day more fun. I also felt obliged to reread the plot of The Taming of the Shrew and I’m sure one day I will remember the names of all the characters of this play.

Fun fact:
Apparently the cast had a lot of fun working on the movie and all became best friends (it’s an IMDb kind of fun fact, sorry). You can tell some of it because the whole movie has a very lighthearted atmosphere, which often feels unforced (though sometimes it really, really doesn’t).
Another thing: The Taming of the Shrew is awful, right? I know you can justify anything that’s old enough, especially written by a venerable author, but it’s plain awful.

Follow-up:
I can tell you what similar thing I’ll be reviewing next (some time next) because I’ve already watched it: Cruel Intentions. But I can’t think of more movies of the kind to watch.

Recommended for:
This is unsurprising: fans of lighthearted romantic high school comedies and/or Heath Ledger. Not necessarily for Shakespeare buffs.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Continuing the theme, High School Drama

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Spider-Man Homecoming

Welcome to an unusually timely review because again I managed to catch a movie in the theater. I know I promised a different review this time but I want to talk about Spider-Man while the impression is still fresh and you might still care. So,

er-spidermanhomecomingSpider-Man: Homecoming

Category: Movies

Find it in: theaters, for now

What it is:
The newest version of the Spider-Man franchise when Marvel has finally managed to regain its flag hero (or partly regain him because it was still branded with Sony; I don’t know, you don’t come here for insider gossip, do you). For the first time ever we don’t get an origin story – instead Peter Parker is getting his sea legs (spider legs, maybe?) as the masked hero and trying to be both a high school student and a wannabe Avenger.

How I found it:
How could I not. I obviously saw the proto-trailer in the third Captain America. Then I saw the really bad actual trailer, which made me think “No way, this is going to be stupid.” But then I listened to a podcast where they said this was more of a high school movie than a superhero movie and I suddenly got way more excited.

Summary judgment:
It’s really pretty good. Not my favorite superhero movie by far but it has many things I normally miss in those. Like actual character moments.

Best things about it:
The tone. It was just light enough, without the unbearable grandiosity of most superhero movies, which made Peter believable. And it did manage to incorporate pretty well the high school aspect of the story, which also gave the creators a chance to dig deeper into character development rather than just to escalate battle scenes (looking at you, Ultron).
And super extra points for the animation in the first part of the credits, it was pretty great: creative, edgy and imaginative. It looked almost like a student project, only a really good one. I salute Marvel for keeping the art of credits alive.

Worst things about it:
Just skip this part because I’m sure I’m irritating you by now with my predictability but, you guessed it, the part I liked the least was the fight on the plane. It took too long – but at least there were just two people fighting, not a whole army of copy-paste aliens/robots.

Other pluses:
Tom Holland is great as Peter Parker. Again, a fantastic casting choice for MCU, up there with Robert Downey Jr even.
Vulture was a decent villain for Marvel, with believable (if boring) motivation. At least he didn’t want to destroy the world, he was just selfish and careless.
MJ! If she is to be a new Mary Jane, I’m all for it because it’s such a good take on this traditionally irritating character. If not – why not?!
I liked that most women looked like real women (more or less), even aunt May, whose beauty everyone was praising. And that her glasses weren’t props (pet peeve).
The school was realistic and neither glorified nor too depressing, with very naturally introduced diversity.
Oh, it had possibly the most successful product placement (the Lego Star Wars set) I have ever seen in that it didn’t bother me at all. I only noticed that it was a product placement when I read it in the credits.
And, most of all, it was a pretty funny movie.

Other minuses:
I didn’t care for Liz. She was one of those too-perfect, boring love interests and I hope MJ will be so much better. I don’t see how she wouldn’t be.
And that’s all! Can’t come up with anything else.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed myself. And I really like seeing how superhero movies try new modes and, pretty much, genres.

Fun fact:
So I know everyone has their canonical Spider-Man but mine is probably unsual: it’s the 90s cartoon that I was watching as a kid and it was one of the most exciting cartoons on TV at that time (but only because they didn’t show X-Men here). That, and Captain Planet. They should totally reboot Captain Planet.

Follow-up:
Next up Thor, of course.

Recommended for:
Fans of Spider-Man. Fans of MCU. People who want to see slightly differ superhero genres with actual characters.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: It will be Lizzie Bennet Diaries this time

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Bookworming

Teenagers, Murders and Secret Societies: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

er-specialtopicsEven though I don’t specifically search for stories about high school girls, I find them in the strangest places, my latest one the once-controversial Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

This début novel tells a story of 17-year-old Blue van Meer in an unapologetically postmodernist fashion, rife with literary allusions and metaphors. Blue travels the country with her father, a professor of political science, to finally settle for her senior year in a mountain town. She gets involved with a mysterious group of pretentious teenagers led by an even more mysterious, and probably insane, teacher. It’s then that life-changing events unravel (they include hanging; and it’s not a spoiler because the book tells you on the first page).

Like a precocious teen, the book can’t decide between its two preoccupations: does it want to be extravagantly fun (as a whodunnit) or seriously ponder life questions. Sometimes it manages to merge these two, but generally it’s better at the page-turning aspect because once the revelations start coming, you can’t put the book down – even though you rightly suspect in the end you’ll be treated to an open ending.

The open ending is interestingly solved, though. The whole novel is structured like a syllabus, each chapter titled with a famous book’s title. Sometimes this casts an important light on the events, sometimes it seems more like playing with the phrase from the title itself (“Things Fall Apart,” “The Trial”). At first I welcomed the game of allusions but after a while you realize that the very amount of books referenced requires a determination of a Bible scholar and you focus less, especially as the events speed up. At any rate, the syllabus ends with a “Final Exam” where all the possible answers to the story are gathered as multiple answers to test questions. This is an interesting and quite effective way to sum up the unanswered mysteries and at least give the reader a selection from which to pick out their favorite ending.

Just like literary allusions multiply beyond reason, metaphors crowd one another. Most of them are surprising and fresh, sometimes also awkward and confusing. I didn’t mind but I only occasionally interpreted them, again overwhelmed by their amount. But not a single one stood out to me as much as this one used by this reviewer: “she seems to think that if you fling enough metaphors at your readers’ heads, their ducking can be interpreted as bows of reverence.” Pessl doesn’t usually reach this level of accuracy in her metaphoric choices.

While the elaborate story leaves us wanting for final answers, another motif gets precedence: how growing up means emancipating from your parents. Blue’s father, professor van Meer, is definitely the most interesting character in the novel that you can’t decide whether to love or to hate. He’s charming, self-assured and intelligent, treats his women like doormats, thinks himself a wonder and refuses to apologize for anything. Obviously for Blue he’s the center of the world. The mysterious teacher, Hannah Schneider, serves as a mother figure and will also turn out a disappointment. In two poignant scenes, Pessl presents them in a similar way, their faces lit orange and monster-like. This emancipation from parents is a fairy-tale motif, very Bruno-Bettelheimian. In the end, in the world devoid of competent adults, Blue will learn to stand on her own and even, despite endless bad examples, form a romantic relationship. This is the true closed ending of the novel and I actually liked it.

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