Descendants 2 (2017)

The VKs (Villain Kids) are back, wearing more leather than ever in this sequel to the explosive Disney Channel Original Movie Descendants. When we left them, the pack led by Mal (Dove Cameron) was accepted into the preppy Auradon fold with the children of fairy tale heroes and heroines, with the cliffhanger tease that “The story’s not over yet.”

Not over yet indeed, as the film opens with an epic opening number “Ways to Be Wicked,” in which the villain kids have spread their malice and thievery throughout the land, infecting the good with their evil. This (disappointingly) turns out to be a daydream of Mal’s, but sets the tone that something bad may still lie within these kids, and certainly within Mal. Overwhelmed by the pressure to conform and be good, she flees Auradon for her homeland the Isle of the Lost, where the exiled villains and their offspring live.

Mal’s boyfriend Ben and the remaining VKs head to the Isle of the Lost to bring her back, where the real meat and fun of the film kicks off. The first Descendants was a treat to watch evil kids in the world of good, so when it ended with the impression that all was well, I was worried the sequel would lack the original’s bite. I was so wrong; watching the VKs re-enter and re-embrace their homeland brings us one of the more delightful sequences of the whole saga: the groovy “Chillin’ Like a Villain,” where the VKs teach Ben how to act like one of them. Sofia Carson as Evie is particularly charismatic, with noticeably more poise and confidence in this go-around.

Meanwhile, Ursula’s daughter Uma (China Anne McClain, an enjoyable addition to the cast) is gaining power, accompanied by a pirate crew with the likes of Gaston and Captain Hook’s sons. There’s a hysterical rap battle face-off between Uma and Mal, building the rivalry up to a climactic cotillion-gone-wrong as Uma becomes a gargantuan octopus and threatens to sink a ship of teenagers.

I would be disappointed if Descendants 2 were anything but bonkers, and it miraculously meets the expectations set by the original. In fact, the sequel feels more sophisticated through its richer set design, more ambitious choreography, and even better music than its predecessor. It’s not going to join the Criterion Collection anytime soon, but Descendants 2 is a fun, musical treat that the whole family can enjoy.

Weekly Round-Up: July 03-09, 2016

I can’t believe I went an entire week (June 26 – July 02) without any movies. And this week was a slow one too! I saw:

  • The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) – Very thoughtful and respectful biopic of the pin-up queen of the 1950s. The film’s greatest strength, and bravery, lies in its blending of Miss Page’s career choices and spirituality not as contradictory, but complementary in forming a complex, confident woman of the 20th century. Gretchen Mol shines in the title role. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ghostbusters (1984) – Rewatching the original to prep for the remake’s launch the following week. It’s been years since I’d seen it, so I was a little surprised by the slower-than-expected pacing as well as the dirty jokes (PG was a different time back then!), but the moments of sheer insanity are still thrilling. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ghostbusters II (1989) – First time with this one – not quite as good as the original, but there were some great laugh-out-loud gags and character interactions. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see two weeks ago?

The Power of Glee

Glee has always been an underdog. Premiering in fall 2009 (spring, if you include the solo pilot episode before summer break), this musical dark comedy aired on network TV in an era where most anything worth watching was (and arguably, still is) only on cable. Ever an oddball series, starting out as what could be described as Election meets High School Musical, there was pretty much nothing else like it on TV. There still isn’t.

In my social circles at least, the pilot episode was a slow cooker, with only a handful seeing its premiere night (I did!) and others trickling in through the following months. By the time season 1 officially aired that fall though, nearly everyone I knew was hooked. I have fond memories of my college friends and myself rabidly hunting down common area TV sets and claiming them for the must-watch hour of television that week.

Glee was an absolute event, movement, phenomenon. There’s no word big enough you could use to describe it, because none of them would be an exaggeration. Each episode, the cast would pump out hit after hit, each digital single flying into the top rankings of the charts. It became such an important channel of culture that given any “real” hit pop song, the inevitable follow-up was when/where/how it would end up in a Glee episode.

And it was somehow in the midst of this highest cultural necessity that Glee started to stumble. Inclusion of the hottest hit songs became less of an inspiration and more of an obligation. The quality and integrity of the show suffered, turning many viewers (including myself) off – I all but abandoned the show during its often-unwatchable fourth and fifth seasons.

Thank the television gods though, as Glee did come around for its sixth and final season. While some questionable creative choices were made, it did feel like a solid return to the twisted humor and authentic characters which made the first season so magical in the first place. The finale is the warm, enjoyable sendoff that the characters, and we, deserve.

What’s amazing too is how much the world has changed since that fateful night when Glee premiered in spring 2009. In the first episode, Rachel explains that she is the result of a surrogate mother with one of her father’s sperm – told in rapid-fire speed, almost as a joke. Flash forward to nearly six years later, she is the surrogate mother to Kurt & Blaine’s child – and it is a perfectly accepted, legitimate, and loving family situation. (And rightfully so!)

Sure, sometimes Glee tried a bit too hard to be relevant – including but not limited to the overbearing emphasis on bullying, referencing viral videos (many of which, admittedly, went over my head) and an atrocious school shooting episode. Love it or hate it though, Glee was an undeniable voice and representative of our cultural moment.

Not to mention, at times, plain ol’ great television. In spite of the sloppiness it sometimes dumped on us, we have been blessed with so many iconic moments, both musical and not. Even the most cynical Glee viewer would have a hard time denying that television is a better place because of this show.

“Weekend” and “Looking”: Tragic Love Affairs

Now that the superb first season of Looking has concluded, we can now approach it as a singular, (sort of) complete work. It is so similar in tone and subject matter to Weekend, and of course they are both the brain-children of the brilliant Andrew Haigh, so it’s impossible not to compare the two.

In case you haven’t picked up on it, there’s a great wealth of material to draw on from both these works, so this will likely be the start of a series comparing the two. In order to tether down this can of worms, I’d like to focus first on the love stories these works present.

Weekend is a romantic tragedy due to circumstances beyond the characters’ control. The timing of Russell and Glen’s meeting is simply inopportune, as Glen has already made arrangements to leave the UK for Portland, Oregon to attend art school. Two days wouldn’t be enough time for Russell to drop everything and run away with Glen, nor would it be enough for Glen to justify giving up on his presumed dream.

In contrast, the romantic tragedy between Patrick and Richie of Looking is directly caused by the parties involved. Patrick is at once pushy and uninvolved, and Richie can only take so much of Patrick’s uneasiness. There are no circumstantial, destiny-driven forces at play; this one’s all on them.

It’s important to point out this distinction after the excellent episode “Looking for the Future,” which has been very favorably compared to Weekend; when taken just on their own, Patrick and Richie can make a very convincing couple with real potential. Throw Patrick into the temptations of his everyday life, though, like caving to his friends’ pressure or battling his irresponsible crush on his boss Kevin, and he can’t fight for what he tries to tell himself he wants.

In Weekend, as much as we want the two to find a way to make it work, the looming timeline keeps the clock ticking in the back of our head and we know all along they’ll have to part ways. With Looking, though, without a real time clock (beyond an eight-episode season) and no immediate obstacles in the way, we can’t help but root for Patrick and Richie to make it.

Side by side, this distinct set of circumstances almost makes the failed Looking romance even more heartbreaking. In Weekend, the two men are in love with one another, but it rationally cannot be; in Looking, the two men can be together, and one simply caves out of it.

The romantic tragedies of these works are both moving and thought-provoking in unique ways, simultaneously shaped by their narratives and strengthened when examining them at once.

“Looking” at Richie

So I’ve been saving the best for last… Richie is not only my favorite character on Looking but is probably one of my favorite television characters, period. He is the sole source of wisdom and true compassion in the Looking universe of chaos and often cruelty, and serves as a distinctive foil to the ruthless Patrick.

From their first meeting, Richie is portrayed as good-hearted though naive – relative to the cynics around him, at least. He takes Patrick’s false identity as an oncologist (remember the business card?) as true, a subtle touch of dramatic irony. Sure, he falls for it – but why shouldn’t he take others’ word for it? In a way, his good-natured ways come across as foolish, because those around him are so phony. He falls for the act.

His optimistic outlook does start to crumble, though, that fateful picnic in Dolores Park for Dom’s birthday – his first real meeting with Patrick’s friends Dom and Agustin. This is also one of his first times seeing Patrick interacting with others, whether seeing how Patrick represents himself through the humiliating “gay voice” display, or how Patrick misrepresents Richie to his friends.

This experience, though, toughens up Richie in a really strong and positive way. When Patrick tries to make up for the picnic fiasco by inviting Richie to be his plus-one at his sister’s wedding, the typically kind and easygoing Richie snaps back with an annoyed “I don’t think so,” and getting out of Patrick’s car on the way to the wedding just days later.

Richie’s thicker skin culminates in the season’s strongest, most painful moment. He meets Patrick outside his apartment building, clearly with something on his mind, and lays out everything he’s been going through since the wedding. A character who is in many ways a mystery, who we know solely through Patrick’s association with him, is brilliantly defined through his assertion: “I am this close to falling in love with you, but I’m not gonna do that to myself if you’re not ready. And I don’t think you’re ready.”

Watching this excellent conclusion to season 1, I can’t help but think back to Patrick and Richie’s first date and them dancing in the club. The song playing, Erasure’s “A Little Respect,” chants the chorus “Oh baby please, give a little respect to me,” an interesting framework to view their relationship by. When they meet in the first episode, Patrick does not respect Richie – he isn’t honest about himself, and throughout the season, continues to disrespect and humiliate Richie both to his face and behind his back. In these eight episodes, Richie comes full circle and does what he needs to in order to regain his self-respect.

“Looking” at Agustin

I’ve said in an earlier post that I find Agustin a frustrating, whiny character. His coldness toward his friends and even his boyfriend Frank are off-putting and make him a difficult figure to engage with as a viewer.

As the series has progressed, however, he grows more and more interesting. His approach to life is an almost-perfect foil to Patrick’s. Unlike Patrick, who labels individuals and actions into phony categorizes, Agustin takes the opposite approach.

After he and Frank engage in a three-way with another young artist, Frank asks if he and Agustin are now one of “those couples,” to which Agustin replies that they can be whatever they want to be. He evades labels, and instead acts according to his desire rather than binding himself to a type.

This philosophy is an interesting one to see play out. As someone who repels labels himself, he is drawn to those who do plainly describe themselves, like with his friend C.J. the sex worker. Agustin extrapolates C.J.’s line of business into C.J.’s entire identity, and views everything C.J. does as somehow representative of the sex worker personae.

To further this complexity, and reveal Agustin’s own hypocrisy, as he, Frank, and C.J. experiment in intimacy, Agustin is perfectly comfortable allowing C.J. to videotape he and Frank together – yet when he later records Frank and C.J. kissing, his seething jealousy is palpable. By not defining the terms of his relationship with Frank, he created an openness he may not have even been prepared for – and he regrets that.

While it is still a fresh storyline, his immediate repulsion to the Patrick-Richie relationship is very intriguing. He is quick to call out the romance as Patrick “slumming,” an accusation which at first comes across as harsh, but at the same time, nobody knows Patrick better than Agustin. Even we have only been with these characters a handful of weeks; Agustin has known him since college.

Agustin’s confrontation of Patrick also carries an interesting subtext; he lashes out at Patrick, but when Richie comes up, Agustin tries to backpedal and brush it aside. On one hand, he may have simply realized he’d gotten caught and was trying to get out of it. On the other, though, Agustin may have some long-standing resentment and frustration with Patrick, and was in a way trying to save Richie from the pain he feels Patrick would inevitably cause him. If Agustin can spot Patrick’s slumming so easily, Patrick has probably done this before – enough that Agustin recognizes the signs.

While he is in some ways unpleasant and even painful to watch, Agustin plays an intricate role in Looking through both his relationship with others, and his own struggles of identity.

“Looking” at Patrick as an Antihero

I decided to do some more digging into my earlier claim that Patrick from the new HBO series Looking is an asshole, and found some compelling evidence to support my theory. Whether he plays it off as humor or slides it casually into conversation, his words and actions demonstrate his snippy demeanor, aggressive attitude, and constant typification of himself and those around him.

He seems to be most outwardly vicious to his close friends, where he can say what he wants and get away with it. First thing in the morning, after Agustin and Frank hook up and Agustin emerges in the kitchen, Patrick shoots Agustin a Look and lets him know he could hear them this morning.

Soon after, as Patrick and Dom are helping Agustin pack up a car to move to Oakland, Patrick is smugly speculating the status of his burgeoning relationship with Richie. Whether casual or the “real thing,” Patrick asserts that he’s “gonna get [him]self a Mexican fuck buddy whether you like it or not.” Sure, it’s played for laughs, but it also says something about how Patrick views other people, as commodities for a story to tell his friends, rather than a genuine connection.

With others, however, Patrick says less of what he wants and more of what he wants to embody; ironically, showing his true colors by becoming a facade, a quality I’ve come to now associate with Patrick. He regularly typifies and qualifies those around him, and himself, to categorize individuals into clear definitions – but managing to avoid viewing himself in the same terms that he views others.

Patrick makes up his mind and forms a concrete idea that is hard to crack when disproven later. Whether being surprised Richie isn’t wearing a hat on their second meeting or shock that Richie’s necklace is “religious-y” (without even noticing the necklace earlier), to searching Google Images for uncircumcised penises to prepare himself, his mind is quick to freeze but hard to thaw.

His shallow, immediate setting of expectations also translates to how he likes to perceive himself, ultimately leading to the deception of others. When he first meets Richie, Richie mistakes Patrick for an oncologist, which results in a flirtation match, but Patrick never corrects him – he just rolls into the fake identity that was created moments earlier.

His sense of typifying also crosses over to his friends, like at Folsom Street Fair. Patrick has, on several occasions, expressed confusion yet fascination with Agustin’s sexual preferences, both not understanding it but loving to hear about it. At Folsom, though, Patrick first evades wearing leather, associating it with the lifestyle of people like Agustin, by asserting that he’s not the “kind of person” that’s into leather.

Patrick is such a fascinating character because he speaks in such defined terms that he invariably contradicts himself time and time again. We, the audience, have the benefit of all his faces, but it will be interesting to see how long it takes those around him to catch up to the “kind of person” Patrick really is.

“Looking” Ahead

So just three episodes in (two episodes for those of you without HBO Go) is too early to truly review the new series Looking. To be fair, I had impossibly high hopes for this series, from the same creator as one of my favorite movies Weekend (so good it’s warranted not one but TWO blog posts on here), about young gay men living in San Francisco’s Castro. Despite a couple problems, I think this show is heading in a very good direction.

Like any brand-new TV show, even one from glorious HBO, there have been some bumps along the way. I can frankly say I don’t even like two of the three main characters yet, whose overall glum and mopeyness are hard to sit through.

Dom is a hopeless loser who is too old to not have his act together, and even his exposition doesn’t make sense; at the latest, he and his wife would have gotten married in 1990, a time when homosexuality was WAY more acceptable than say 1980. And Agustin the artist (who somehow affords a pretty nice apartment) is so grumpy and stubborn it’s hard to root for him. I just look forward to his scenes ending so we can get to my favorite character.

The main protagonist (or is he?) Patrick, played with casual ease by Jonathan Groff, is what keeps me fascinated with this show. In this one, seemingly straight-man type character who on the one hand seems naive and sheltered, but on the other just as morally empty as those around him, we get a lot of the complexity and, honestly, hypocrisy embodied by so many young gay men.

Even in the first scene, he goes cruising in a public park as a “joke,” and just scenes later, on a first date, he insists he is the boyfriend “type” who doesn’t do the casual thing. One episode later, he teases his romantic interest Richie for a, let’s say, physical attribute that isn’t what Patrick expected.

I’m really interested to see how Looking is going to develop this main character who’s kind of an asshole; he’s not the gay best friend that you know so much of the audience is hoping to find in this series, and he’s definitely not boyfriend material. He makes a quiet revelation in the third episode: “I don’t think either of us are good at being who we think we are.”

And Richie, a character who’s barely been in the show at all, has already captivated me as one of the knockout figures in the series. Just like Patrick, he isn’t quite what you expect at first, and his decisions are surprising not just for him, but frankly for young gay men in general. Even a couple episodes in, we feel the surprise Patrick does by being eased into this world.

I truly resent Looking being referred to as a gay Girls or Sex & the City a) because I think those are terrible shows, and b) it reduces Looking and even those shows to just being a tight group of friends and their adventures in an urban setting. I’m not an avid viewer of those latter two shows, but I’m sure they have unique messages and themes all their own, just as Looking does.

The criticism around this show is pretty ill-informed, too – the most common complaint you’ll hear is how “boring” the series is (it’s not), or how being gay is not enough of a plot point. It’s disappointing to think that mainstream critics can’t handle a series about gay characters, without gayness being a storyline in and of itself; would most late-20somethings and early-30somethings really be going through “coming out” stories? Or facing discrimination, living in a neighborhood like the Castro? Gimme a break.

Despite some iffy characters and storylines, Looking has already demonstrated some fascinating insight and shows undeniable promise as to how far this show can go to illuminate the complexity of life as a gay man in the modern world.