Saturday, August 12, 2017

Webseries Review: Happy Playland

Jen Smith, Neena Dekkers-Reihana, and Dani Yourukova in Happy Playland.
The Candle Wasters' first original series lives up to its name.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Webseries Review: Edgar Allan Poe's Murder Mystery Dinner Party

Screenshot from Edgar Allan Poe's Murder Mystery Dinner Party, "The Bells"

A slightly spoilery review of Shipwrecked Comedy's very funny, very clever, slightly flawed murder mystery comedy. (Also contains small spoilers for And Then There Were None.)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Finale"

The finale of Bright Summer Night is more hopeful than it might appear at first glance. The Mechanicals reconcile and play their hearts out. The Lovers giggle and tweak each other’s noses. Awhina ends a bad night on a good note. And Puck… well, Puck breaks down.

Puck’s ending is unhappy, but not unhopeful. They’re in a bad place right now, and there was never any chance of fixing that in a single night. Puck went to the party a deeply unhappy person; they’re leaving the party a deeply unhappy person. (Not to armchair diagnose, but what they describe to Bryn certainly sounds like depression, and that can’t be fixed in a night.) The difference is that now, Puck is willing to show that unhappiness to someone who cares.

Puck has spent the night aggressively, often cheerfully, insisting that nothing and no one matters, scoffing at offers of friendship and concern. In “Finale,” they admit, at long last, that not caring isn’t grand, and it isn’t inevitable—it’s terrifying. And when Nicky, for the third time in the series, reaches out, Puck finally sheds their shell of nihilism, lets her in, and cries. They’re not happy. But they’re honest, and they’re not alone. That’s better off than they were at the beginning of the night.

Nearly everyone leaves BSN better off than they entered. Lena and Deme found someone they like to kiss. Petra put together a kick-ass musical protest piece with her band, which is now slightly more functional. Zander and Mia worked some kinks out of their relationship (in more than one sense). Nicky got to sing her song. Awhina freed herself of a stifling relationship. The only person who doesn’t benefit from BSN is Bryn. He starts the night selfish, lonely, and unhappy, and that’s how he ends it, brushing off Puck and heading off to nurse his wounds alone.

Bryn is not a villain. We’ve been inside his head just like everyone else’s, and we’ve seen that as much as his selfishness has hurt Puck and Awhina, it’s hurt Bryn himself as well. For all of Bryn’s charm and all of his friends, he is desperately lonely. His life is full of sound and fury and parties, but it lacks meaningful connections. Bryn could have stayed and really listened to Puck, and it would have helped them both. But instead he leaves insisting he’s okay. Not honest, and even more alone than he was to start with. And because Bryn is not a villain, that counts as a loss—perhaps the largest in the whole series.

That dichotomy—Puck’s honest break-down, and Bryn’s callous brush-off—gives the final episode of BSN an open-ended, bittersweet feeling, one that the (very fun, very funny) Mechanicals show in the middle only partially cuts. As lovely as it is to see the characters enjoying each other, to get a cap on all of the characters’ various subplots, to experience the glory of “Relationship Problems and the Environment,” Bryn’s and Puck’s stories bookend the episode. Bryn’s dismissive exit and Puck’s ongoing distress are what linger after the credits. And they do linger; one of BSN’s hallmarks has been its moody, memorable endings, and the finale is no exception.

It feels honest. As a whole, BSN does not feel rushed, but the endings of some of its subplots have felt that way—inevitably, perhaps, since most of those subplots have had to play out over less than 12 hours of story time and less than 12 minutes of real time. Funny and lovely as it is, even the Mechanicals’ part of the finale falls into that trap. (When exactly did the rest of the group learn to play Nicky’s song?) But some problems really are too big to resolve in one night. Sometimes the only change we can hope for is incremental. Sometimes, hope as we might, change never comes at all. A series that uses environmentalism as its binding metaphor should acknowledge that.

But as I said at the beginning, the note that BSN ends on is hopeful as well as bittersweet—fitting for a series that has been dark and funny by turns, but always, always humane. Relationship problems, like the environment, can’t be fixed in a single night. But progress is progress, and BSN insists to the very end that change is possible, if we care. If we do things for others. If we look outside ourselves. If we make connections.

Random Bits

“Relationship Problems and the Environment.” Oh my god. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make me laugh the hardest.

The lighting on that final bit is gorgeous. It feels just like the early morning after a party.

Okay, but how do Puck and Bryn know each other, damn it?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Awhina"

If “Deme” was an exercise in translating the experience of a pleasant high into video, “Awhina” attempts the same thing for an unpleasant high. The first half of the episode is (almost) all about conveying the feeling of being lost, out of control, and not knowing how to fight your way back to sobriety. As they’ve done throughout Bright Summer Night, the Candle Wasters use light and music and editing to great effect here, but Neenah Dekkers-Reihana’s acting deserves a lot of credit as well; the episode wouldn’t be half so effective if she weren’t able to let us right into Awhina’s head.

But mimicking the experience of a bad trip isn’t the point of the episode. The point is Awhina and Bryn’s relationship. When Awhina is at her lowest and most out-of-control, she wants Bryn. She dreams of him; she asks for him; she looks for him. But Bryn is nowhere to be found. And when she finally starts to come back to her senses, she realizes that being abandoned by Bryn isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Bryn and Awhina’s break-up has been inevitable from the beginning of BSN. From their very first conversation in “Puck,” it’s been clear how dysfunctional their relationship is. Since they graduated high school, their priorities and interests have wildly diverged, with Awhina diving deeper into Kaitiaki while Bryn focuses on his academic career. Awhina desperately wants Bryn to be more present, and Bryn desperately wants Awhina to be less demanding. But Bryn wants space to focus on the things he’s really interested in, and while he’s been away, Awhina has gained too much confidence to simply concede to what he wants. Awhina is blossoming, and Bryn doesn’t support her. If there was ever a time when they were a good fit, it’s long past.

All of this has been present in Bryn and Awhina’s relationship since “Puck,” and all of it is present in “Awhina.” But the best part of “Awhina” is that it doesn’t just focus on the dysfunction; for the first time in the series, it shows us why the relationship once worked. From Awhina’s visions and her monologue, we can see why she cares about Bryn, what he’s given to her, why she’s stayed with him so long. Which means that when she breaks things off, there’s a real sense of loss. Their break-up is necessary, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

Support and loss and moving on: That’s the major story of “Awhina.” But there are a few moments in the episode that are only tangentially related to that story. Poppy and Thea introducing themselves to Nicky, for instance, or Mia introducing herself to Awhina. Those moments are glaring in their straightforwardness; after nine episodes of atmosphere and mystery, of only catching stories out of the corner of your eye, it’s almost shocking to see someone simply walk up to someone else and say, essentially, “Hi, I’m Mia. Here’s what’s up with me.”

These moments aren’t really part of Awhina’s story; they’re a set-up for the endgame of the series as a whole. In “Awhina,” all of the characters start to come together. People who’ve been brushing past each other all night, dancing in and out of each other’s stories, are finally meeting and making connections. They’re congregating in a single place for a single purpose.

It’s thematic, of course, but I suspect that it’s also strategic. With all these people in one place at one time, we could be in for a really excellent final episode.

Random Bits

Let’s go ahead and call “Awhina” the “ACCOSTED” of BSN: On-the-nose monologues, painful realizations about one’s own life, and plenty of thematic parallels. (See Fairy Bianca’s quote, below.)

Fairy Bianca, talking about her old job, I think: “I kind of want to go back though, because, like, it was good before. But when I’m there, it is so soul-sucking. I don’t feel supported, and the service just isn’t that good.”

“Oh, yup, I see him.” I love you, Nicky.

“Where’s Puck?” 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Mia"

“Mia” isn’t entirely devoid of an episodic story, but it’s far less focused on its central character than any other episode so far. Not only do we occasionally step out of Mia’s head (as when Mia leaves the room, and the camera stays with Lena), but also the second half of the episode wraps up or furthers several narratives that have little to do with Mia at all.

Which is not to say that Mia doesn’t have a story. She does; it’s just a very small and subtle one, and in some ways, it wraps up halfway through the episode. Mia has spent this whole party—in “Lena,” in “Zander,” and in the first half of “Mia”—trying to cut loose and forget about her troubles. One gets the sense that Mia is a person who generally tries to forget her worries and focus on fun. But forgetting only takes you so far. Sooner or later, you have to reconnect with the world. For Mia, the tipping point happens when she sees Bryn trying desperately to hang on to a couple of people he barely knows. Thwarted, he turns to Mia—and Mia decides it’s time to find her friends, even if that means wading back into the awkward waters of her relationship with Zander.

Mia’s story works partially because it’s very simple, and partially because so much of it has been released in dribs and drabs through other people’s episodes. It doesn’t take much work in “Mia” to establish the troubles that Mia’s running from, because we got a good long look at one of the big ones in “Zander.” Similarly, the resolution to Mia and Zander’s relationship issues works because we’ve had plenty of chances both to see their problems and their love. Mia’s speech to Zander makes sense of a dozen moments that precede it; it doesn’t bring any new information to the table, only clarifies and resolves what’s already there.

Deme and Lena’s resolution does not benefit from the same groundwork. To be fair, their story is really too big to resolve in the series. They can’t hook up or even make meaningful promises to each other, because Deme’s high. The most they can do is what they do in “Mia”: say what they’re feeling right now, and plan to talk about it in the morning.

Which would be fine, except that in resolving Deme and Lena’s story, “Mia” introduces an entirely new element: Lena’s desire not to be in a monogamous relationship. That’s a perfectly valid choice on Lena’s part, but it’s neither referenced nor implied anywhere else in the series. In “Lena,” Lena is laser-focused on Deme, and nowhere else in Bright Summer Night does she express any sort of discomfort with being limited or boxed in. Lena’s emphasis on remaining non-monogamous in “Mia” makes it seem as though it’s a major part of the story between her and Deme—but if that’s the case, why are we only hearing about it now? And if it’s not the case, why distract from the story from making it such a central part of Deme and Lena’s resolution? No matter what The Candle Wasters were going for, it would have been better served by setting up Lena’s feelings on monogamy earlier in the series.

All of that said, the fact that the resolution to the Lovers’ problems is sudden works better than it has any right to, and that’s down to Puck. Given the short run-time of BSN and the number of characters with major storylines, some stories were always going to have to get a quick wrap-up. The Lovers are the obvious choice—their problems are considerably simpler than Puck’s or Bryn’s or (one suspects) Awhina’s—but their resolution still feels a little overly pat.

Rather than run away from that, TCW use it. The Lovers’ easy resolution becomes a challenge to Puck. Puck, we’ve seen, has a lot invested in their nihilism. The idea that people could just forgive each other—that they could simply love each other enough to screw up and argue and then let it go—is entirely foreign to Puck’s experience and their worldview. It’s almost an insult. Moving out of Mia’s head and into Puck’s turns the Lovers’ sickly-sweet resolution into something just a little bit sour.

Random Bits

I love the way the lighting in the bathroom changes between “Deme” and “Mia,” and the way that details like the watermelon soap have faded, signaling the shift out of Deme’s drug-addled vision.

I finally, FINALLY know what’s going on with Bryn. Thank GOD. (Although if we don’t get a solid answer about the specifics of his relationship with Puck, I’m not going to be happy.)

I’ve been wondering for a while now if the lack of water is a symbolic/thematic thing, rather than a plot thing. Time will tell, I guess.

“I like other people too. Not you, Zander.” Heh.

Monday, August 29, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Deme"

There’s characterization in “Deme,” there’s plot in “Deme,” and there’s certainly plenty of humor in “Deme,” but the primary aim of the episode seems to have been to convey the subjective experience of being a particular kind of high. As in “Bryn” and “Nicky,” we spend the entire episode in the titular character’s head. Unlike Bryn and Nicky, Deme is “off [their] face,” as they put it, so getting inside their head isn’t in any way a cerebral experience. Every moment we spend with Deme in this episode is immediate; we’re not learning about their past or their relationships so much as we’re feeling what they feel.

Unsurprisingly, The Candle Wasters are extremely successful in that endeavor. The feeling you get watching “Deme” is probably as close to the feeling of being pleasantly drunk as you can get without actually consuming alcohol.  The swaying close-ups, the fuzzy pink light, the wandering music, the way certain sounds and sights suddenly overwhelm everything else. Even the way Puck suddenly appears in the background of the shot, with no fanfare announcing their presence, while Mia appears with a thunderclap. It all feels right.

Of course, because Deme is high, we have to take everything with a grain of salt. Being high can feel like being in love, but it’s not the same thing. We feel what Deme feels, in this episode, but Deme’s feelings can’t be trusted. Only time will tell if they’re truly in love with Lena. (If you’ve read a plot description of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you probably have an idea, but there’s nothing in Bright Summer Night to tell you.)

Which also means that, although we get inside Deme’s head, we don’t learn very much new about them. Every other episode that Deme’s been in has given the sense that, with the exception of their infatuation with Mia, they have their life pretty much together. They’re both confident of and happy with their place in the world. They know what they want, and they have no qualms about declaring and pursuing that. “Deme” doesn’t alter that idea at all. It gives Deme a different person to pursue, but it neither challenges nor changes anything else about them. Which is fine, because Deme’s doing okay for themselves.

Zander, on the other hand, gets some development here. The Idleness actually makes Deme feel like they’re in love with Lena, but it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t do the same for Zander. He feels affection for Lena—who’s quietly taking care of him—but his declarations of love are driven by his competition with Deme and his unhappiness with Mia. The exact nature of that unhappiness remains somewhat unclear, but this episode repeats and expands upon Zander’s claim in “Zander” that Mia is “too much” for him. Combined with his breathing exercises, you start to get the idea that Zander’s an anxious person, and that Mia touches that anxiety off somehow. With the Idleness breaking down some of his inhibitions, he fixates on Lena because she’s quiet and kind and she doesn’t push. Mia pushes.

It’s a good thing Mia’s episode is next up. After an episode’s worth of people talking about her, worrying about her, reacting to her, I’m ready to get inside her head.

Random Bits

As far as I can tell, there’s no particular plot or thematic reason to put Puck in this episode, but Puck accounts for about 97 percent of the best moments, so who cares? (It also lets Puck do some pointing and laughing, as called for by the source material.)

What is it with TCW and bathtubs?

That bathroom must have been a nightmare to shoot in: Confined space, four characters, tricky lighting, and there’s a mirror that I imagine prevented filming from certain angles, lest the crew’s reflection show up on-screen.  They did a good job with it, though.


Monday, August 22, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Nicky"

“Nicky” is more dreamlike than any of the episodes before it, not just because of the music and editing—though the last two minutes lean hard into the dream-like music and editing—but because the entire narrative hangs together like a dream. Nicky floats in and out of different scenes, and people float in and out of her proximity, with little or no explanation. Her friends disappear in the blink of an eye. Puck pulls her away toward an unclear destination, for no reason they’re willing to say aloud. Awhina flags Puck down and then immediately moves on. Puck hands Nicky a set of pajamas and then leaves the room without saying goodbye. She passes by Bryn being sick in the garden, Poppy and Thea looking after Awhina in the bedroom, Puck laughing at Deme and Zander in the hall. More of the cast shows up in this episode than in any other, most of them for less than a minute.

The episode therefore works to the extent that you can deal with uncertainty. We’re entirely inside Nicky’s head. There’s no cheating—no camera angles or music or lingering shots that emphasize anything Nicky wouldn’t find important. The camera keeps its distance. We see only what Nicky sees, and by and large, we learn only what Nicky learns. Why is Awhina looking for Bryn? The answer isn’t in this episode. Why does Bryn blow up at Puck? You might be able to tell from information in “Puck” or “Bryn,” but nothing in “Nicky” will tell you. Why does Puck latch on to Nicky? Nicky herself has no idea, so the episode provides no obvious clues. These questions have answers, and they take only a little thought to figure out, but that little bit of thought is important. It aligns the initial viewing experience of “Nicky” with the experience of Nicky, who doesn’t know most of these people, and who has no context in which to understand Bryn or Puck or Awhina’s actions.

In contrast to the impenetrability of the plot, much of the dialogue in “Nicky” is pointed. Nicky and Puck basically speak in nothing but thematic statements (digressions on the fashion of rock stars excepted). Neither teenage nihilists nor teenage activists are known for keeping their life philosophies quiet, so the conversation doesn’t read as particularly forced or unrealistic, the way it might if two adults met at a party and immediately started arguing about the meaning of life. But we’ve already seen Nicky and Puck have this argument, in “Petra,” and their conversation here covers no new philosophical or personal ground. Nor is it as funny or tense as the conversation in “Petra.” In fact, it drags a little, something no other scene in Bright Summer Night has yet done.

Tellingly, the most interesting—and revealing—part of Nicky and Puck’s conversation has nothing to do with philosophy. Puck, trying to elicit a reaction from Nicky, steals a drink from a passerby and splashes it on Nicky’s shirt. Nicky leaves the room, and Puck follows her, saying, “Are you angry at me, Nicky? Tell me that you hate me.” “It’s okay, Puck,” Nicky says. “I forgive you.”

It’s been clear from the start that Puck intentionally alienates people to cover up their real desire for connection, and here’s a concrete example of that: Puck antagonizes Nicky, spills a drink on her, but also follows her from the room. And though Nicky’s speech in the wash room about kindness mattering more than being cool tells you something about her, her reply to Puck tells you the same thing much more convincingly. One character’s actions match their philosophy, and one’s don’t. Puck talks a lot about nothing mattering and no one watching, but when it comes down to it, they want to matter to others. But Nicky both speaks and performs kindness, and the giraffe pajamas prove pretty well that she doesn’t care about being cool. There’s no artifice to Nicky. She’s not covering for anything.

Nicky knows who she is, and she’s bursting with things to say, but she has no one to say them to. That’s the story of “Nicky”: a girl wandering through a confusing world, looking for someone who will listen to her. Perhaps that’s why the tone shifts when Puck disappears. For the first time in the episode, Nicky is alone, and the music turns “eerie” and “unnerving,” as the closed captioning accurately puts it. Then she stumbles across Awhina, who’s high out of her mind, and is perhaps the one person at the party who’s happy to sit and watch the girl in the giraffe pajamas rap about climate change. The music clears—still dream-like, but now pleasant, almost triumphant—and Nicky finally gives her performance. Now that Nicky’s story is resolved, the camera leaves her for the first time in the episode, pulling away in a series of jump cuts until she’s just a blur in the background. The music turns eerie again as Deme and Zander and Lena run by, Puck laughing behind them, heading straight toward the next episode.

It’s an incredibly effective sequence, of a kind with the endings of “Lena” and “Bryn,” with its moody, off-kilter open-endedness. Some of the most memorable endings in film and television are questions; they leave you in the middle of a thought, with the unsettling feeling of having run off a cliff. Think of the spinning top in Inception, or Jack and Ana Lucia staring at each other in Lost’s “Collision,” or Dawn’s hand reaching out to but not quite touching the cadaver in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Body.” None of BSN’s endings are quite that good (“The Body” is in the running for the best episode of television ever made, so, y’know), but they’re in the same family. They stick in your mind the same way. The Candle Wasters know how to end an episode.

Random Bits

Still no water, hmm?

I laughed for a full minute when Nicky put on the giraffe pajamas. If TCW were really committed to transmedia, they’d have had a note thanking Beatrice Duke for her contributions to costuming. (Although I note that Harriett Maire and Jake McGregor are credited as Beatrice Duke and Benedick Hobbes, which is kind of hysterical in its own right.)

“And I shall sing that they shall hear, I am not afraid!”