Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Pretty in Pink

I can’t seem to shake off the 1980s. Here we go again.

er-prettyinpinkPretty in Pink

Category: Movies

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
One of those John Hughes movies about American teenagers in the 1980s (though this time he’s only the writer and Howard Deutch directs). Molly Ringwald plays Andie, artistic, smart, on the verge of graduating from high school – and in love with a “richie”: a boy with money. When they start dating, two worlds collide and this turns out more difficult than fairy tales have taught us.

How I found it:
It was on the list of those movies I meant to watch because I heard it referenced often but I never felt that interested.

Summary judgment:
I liked it more than I’d expected to.

Best things about it:
The social part of the story makes it much more grounded than your regular Cinderella-meets-Prince-Charming. Interestingly, it focuses on the repercussions of such a meeting and how nobody really approves.

Worst things about it:
Some scenes take too long, including almost all that focus on Duckie. In fact, Duckie is not nearly as endearing as the makers of the film seem to think and shouldn’t have so much screen time.

Other pluses:
✤ I appreciate Andie’s clothes, horrific as they sometimes are. They almost become a character in the story.
✤ The city (town?) where the story takes places feel very real in its ugliness and stratification and so does the high school.
✤ I liked the father character.

Other minuses:
✤ The romantic interest is somewhat underwhelming, not just physically but mostly in his passive behavior.
✤ Too bad Iona has to get normalized at the end. I liked her bohemian style.

How it enriched my life:
It didn’t particularly but at least I got to tick off another classic of the very long list of classics I never saw.

Follow-up:
Now that I’ve seen this, Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club I feel the one thing left is Ferris Bueller, but I’m not particularly excited for this one.

Recommended for:
John Hughes’ fans who are in it for the social commentary.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Legion

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Riverdale (S1)

I never read Archie Comics. I was aware of their existence but I only knew that’s where “Betty and Veronica” came from (TV Tropes is my heroin). But I saw the trailer for Riverdale and decided it looked interesting.

er-riverdale-1Riverdale (season 1)

Category: TV show

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A CW reinvention of classic Archie characters, which tries to make the story dark. It starts with the murder of Jason Blossom (and some statutory rape, to be very strict about it) to make it sufficiently dark from the go. Archie, Betty and Veronica (and also everyone’s favorite pretentious Jughead) are all somewhat involved with the murder, and with one another. The whole other bunch of stories revolves around the parents (who include Luke Perry, so I’m all for it) and their mostly dark pasts. So you know, it’s not the classic Archie story.

How I found it:
After I saw the trailer, I watched a couple of episodes and while I liked the look of the show, I dropped it for a long time. But during our game of Monster Hearts (never mind), A was always using Riverdale for inspiration and it made me return to finish the season.

Summary judgment:
This show turns out to be a lot of fun.

Best things about it:
It looks great. The stylization, the colors, everyone’s eyebrows: it’s all to the point and makes watching the show a visual feast. I particularly like how they use colored lights, especially aqua, magenta and red, to create the mood of the whole thing. Seriously, there are no white light bulbs in the entire town – and it creates such a memorable look. Oh yeah, and the story is okay, I guess.

Worst things about it:
I couldn’t care less about Jason Blossom’s murder. This whole crime part of the show didn’t grab me at all.

Other pluses:
✤ Well, hello there, Luke Perry. I spent my late childhood in love with Dylan McKay and I’m glad to see Luke Perry mature well.
✤ Speaking of this, Mrs. Cooper looks great: she’s clearly not 30 but possibly one of the most attractive people on the show. I like that age shows on some of the parents.
✤ I like how the show is going for far-fetched rather than realistic and how it’s clearly a decision, not an accident. It (barely) saves it from just being a weird soap opera.

Other minuses:
So here are a couple of characters I hate: Mr. Blossom, Mrs. Blossom, Mrs. Grundy (ugh). Veronica straddles the line and Hermione often crosses it.

How it enriched my life:
At first it was a bit of a time-killer but then I got quite invested.

Fun fact:
It’s got nothing to do with Riverdale, just with Dylan McKay but close enough. So a couple of years ago we watched a few first episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 and wow, was Dylan a terrible boyfriend. At one point he tells Brenda that he has his “needs” and it’s not his fault that she finds him with another girl if she missed a train by which she was supposed to come see him. It ruined some of my precious childhood fantasies. Also, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re clearly not my generation.

Follow-up:
I’m ready for season two.

Recommended for:
Fans of teen soap dramas on the dark side who don’t mind them rather theatrical. People who miss Beverly Hills 90210.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Still at it with Riverdale After Dark

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Heathers

It’s the 80’s/90’s nostalgia wave and I am willing to oblige.

er-heathersHeathers (1989)

Category: Movies

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A 1989 dark comedy / high school satire or something like that. Three Heathers and a Veronica rule a school but Veronica, played by a really young Winona Ryder, doesn’t find it as exciting as she hoped. So when she meets a charming psychopath, played by a really young Christian Slater, she joins him on a killing spree. This, however, she doesn’t find that exciting either.

How I found it:
Now that people are remaking the movie as a TV show I remembered its existence. I once saw a part of this movie on TV but I didn’t know what I was getting into and the tone of the movie put me off immediately. I decided to give it another go now that I knew what to expect.

Summary judgment:
I don’t think I’m the ideal audience for this movie and I find it really hard to judge.

Best things about it:
It’s stylish, with all the main characters and even, alright, Slater, looking great. The visual side of the movie makes it clear how it works more like a film version of a comic than a portrayal of an actual school clique.
They created a whole dialect for this movie. People say of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that Whedon wrote a teen slang that is completely invented but sounds realistic and I think Heathers‘ writers tried to do it first. The dialogs don’t really sound natural but they are full of quotable gems, “f*ck me gently with a chainsaw,” being the most memorable.

Worst things about it:
I had a problem with the tone of the movie. Of course, it’s fairly obvious what it is going for but at least now, thirty years later, it feels particularly tone-deaf. Everything is drawn with such thick lines and you can’t really care for any of the characters. It really does feel like an adaptation of some nihilistic cartoon stripe, which would be fine, but then sometimes it goes for those analyses of the condition of (then) modern teenagers and of how high school reflects society, which sound false. I’d rather have a consistent collection of cartoonish sketches.

Other pluses:
✤ I liked the joke with mineral water.
✤ The color-coding of the girls, while obvious, always earns a plus in my book.
✤ I like the emancipated (and smoked) Winona Ryder in the end. But I still have a hard time understanding her character.

Other minuses:
✤ The last part with the bombing. And boy, did this film grow old when you think of it. It’s hard to imagine a modern teen movie, even a satirical one, using the same motifs (which makes it half-interesting how they’re going to pull off the remake).
✤ I really disliked Christian Slater in this role. And “Greetings and saluuutaations” earns the movie another minus in my book.

How it enriched my life:
I discovered a source of some quotes I sometimes come across. And if I were the kind of person to send people animated gifs in emails as emotional comments, I would find a ton in this movie.

Fun fact:
I can totally see myself saying “How very” for a while now. My husband will just have to deal ’cause that’s how I roll.

Follow-up:
I’m not coming back to this one and unless I read very interesting things about the re-make, I doubt I will be watching it either.

Recommended for:
People with a very serious case of 1980’s/90’s nostalgia or curiosity who don’t mind superficiality in their portrayal of social ills. Or fans of 80’s fashion, maybe.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Riverdale

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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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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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Bookworming

Story of Girls: In Zanesville

er-inzanesvillePeople who read some will have reading pleasures but those who read a lot will have guilty pleasures. These vary, from crime stories through harlequins to zombie horrors, but invariably an ambitious reader with a guilty pleasure will look for the holy grail: the novel which is both their beloved genre and simply a good book. As my guilty pleasure is – wait for it – teen drama, Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville comes very close to my holy grail category.

This is a story of a small town girl, not particularly popular, sort of attractive, sort of smart and a self-defined sidekick. At first, I sensed two red flags that tend to make me dislike a book. First of all, it seems very episodic and while the kind of story without an actual plot might be life-like in its randomness, it does not tend to grab you. But in the second half of the book a pleasantly non-grand plot actually emerges. Secondly, I am wary of books which use descriptions of physiological facts of life to prove themselves grounded in reality. Grounded they may be, but they tend to stuck your mental eye with images you did not want there which ruin your appetite (hello, Portnoy’s Complaint). However, as Zanesville tells more and more the story of a child turning into a young girl, the very physiology of this process becomes important and refreshingly honest.

A Bildungsroman has two ways to go. It can become a generational manifesto which you love because of affinity. You think to yourself: “I had the same shoes when I was a kid!”, “I listened to that song every Saturday too!” Obviously, Zanesville couldn’t work for me on that level, even though I found the details interesting in their own right. But other novels transcend this attraction and speak to any reader by finding the universal in the process of growing up and Beard’s story, to me, did just that. She manages to focus on the important detail with sharpness that teenagers don’t really have but sense, like in this favorite passage of mine: “It was a game of musical boys and I’m the one left standing.”

The story of becoming a girl will implicitly involve the story of the great Other: boys. Jo reaches the stage in life when boys are no longer playing companions: instead they become trophies on the popularity ladder. They are mysterious, exciting, but mostly interchangeable. While she “yearns” for boys, the real drama happens between girls. We get to know the narrator as a half of a duo, and, by her own definition, the less important half. Her friend, Felicia (we know her name and even how you can ridicule it but we have to infer the narrator’s name) is the one Jo considers important. Naturally, then, Jo’s growth will have to happen in opposition to Felicia and only after a period of dissent can they be reunited in the satisfying ending of the story. Ah, best girl friends like the ones from Zanesville have always been the stuff of the teen girl mythos: the friend that accepts you with all your weirdness, who knows you and your insane family, who has always been there and will come when you need her in the dark park. Now, I never had friends like that: the girls I grew up with were more the Carrie kind, except less enterprising and I don’t miss them one bit. But the less you know something good, the more its literary, unrealistic version will appeal to you.

The main thing that Beard does right is the tone of the novel, with its subtle shifts and the mystery that lies just beneath it, never completely surfacing. In one passage the narrator is increasingly sure her father’s dead body is lying in the coal cellar and
the terror of this, even though eventually dispelled, stays with you like in a good horror story: I think adults too often forget how much terror even happy childhood includes for a child with imagination. Jo’s childhood and adolescence don’t come from a Disney movie: they are bitter-sweet at best, with the bitter part well emphasized. All the characters are flawed, Jo perhaps most of all. But the warmth with which Beard imbues her story makes you accept it as the truth of growing up as a girl, not covered in pink glitter but real: sometimes painful yet eventually survivable.

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