Movie Review: Palo Alto

A Review of Palo Alto, written & directed by Gia Coppola; based on the short story collection by James Franco

Palo Alto Gia Coppola James Franco

by REBECCA, May 26, 2014

Palo Alto is the directorial debut of Gia Coppola (Sofia’s niece), based on the authorial debut of actor James Franco, and starring Emma Roberts (Eric Roberts’ daughter; Julia Roberts’ niece) and Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s son). That is to say, it can no more escape a kind of in-group latitude and indulgence than can the characters it portrays.

Palo Alto James FrancoFranco’s collection, Palo Alto (2010), contains twelve stories, all with different first-person narrators, but which feature some of the same characters (such as April, Emma Roberts’ character). Coppola’s script is based on five of those stories—according to many reviews, the five least dramatic, as those not in evidence include murder and gang rape (a whisper of which filters into the film). As there’s little action, plot-wise, it’s the themes that tie the pieces of the film together: mainly the emotional and physical violence that accompany sex and love for the female characters, the antisocial behaviors that the male characters’ privilege makes acceptable, and all the characters’ attempts to mask boredom with mood-altering stabs at fun.

Responses to the film have been understandably mixed. I felt a bit conflicted myself coming out of the theatre. On one level, I loathed the film. The characters are all unappealing, some because they’re boring, some because they’re sexual predators, some because they’re selfish and mean. The dialogue is banal and uncreative, with nothing but a vague mutual yearning between April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), to suggest that these characters are anything more than attractive but superficial blanks. However, despite this—or perhaps because of it—emotionally, I found the film affecting.

Emma Roberts Palo AltoWe are introduced to Emily, who is called a whore throughout the film, when she confesses, during a game of Never-Have-I-Ever, that she has never been in love. For the rest of the movie, she repeatedly reaches out to boys at school and at parties, attempting to use sex to seek the love she’s never felt. In contrast, sixteen-year-old April, who “tries to be good,” is the victim of her sexually predatory soccer coach (a grinning James Franco) for whom she babysits. She’s flattered by his attentions and returns them initially, only to be confused and terrified when he confesses his love to her, their relationship suddenly elevated to a level more threatening to her than sex.

Jack Kilmer Emma Roberts Palo AltoThe film, that is, portrays the emotional and physical violence that accompany sex and love for these characters in no uncertain terms. What’s troubling, though, is that while the film seemed to critique this extension of rape culture, there were things that disabled the critique. The most troubling of these is the film’s singular use of voiceover, by one of the male characters (Fred), which seems to be taken directly from the book, describing how one of the characters subjects his girlfriend to a gang rape. It’s presented in the same manic, dreamy tone as the rest of the film, which places it on the same level as April staring dazedly out the car window into the California sun.

Thematically, then, the film was affecting, but Coppola’s style—dreamy pacing, close-ups of beautiful people looking forlorn, and a disjointed narrative frozen in one moment in time (which invites unavoidable comparisons with aunt Sofia’s)—refuses growth for the characters. The film’s aesthetic glorifies what it portrays by seeming content to linger forever in the suspended moment of this violence, this detachment, this adolescence. As such, I found it a truly upsetting and unsatisfying film. That isn’t to say that it had a responsibility to do something other than what it did; simply to say that I wasn’t interested in what it chose to do. According to a piece on Gia Coppola in the New York Times, James Franco actively wanted a woman to be the one to adapt Palo Alto because he thought it would “give the largely male-centered stories a more layered approach” (“Unto the Next Generation, Cinematically”). This sums up the film for me: it’s a narrative of sexual violence halfway repaired by the emotional depth Coppola lends it, but ultimately more troubling for the beautiful mask she puts on it.

“Geekers Have To Geek Out”

A Review of Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach

Sourcebooks Fire, 2014

Fat Boy Vs. The Cheerleaders Geoff Herbach

by REBECCA, May 22, 2014

hook

It’s war in a Minnesota high school when the creation of a new dance team threatens the funding for band, which has come from the school’s pop machine (yeah, “pop”; this is Minnesota). Gabe (aka Chunk) is ready to take on the system—even if he has to do it one Mountain Dew Code Red at a time.

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When I first read the premise of Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders it reminded me of a kind of The Chocolate War meets Pump Up the Volume meets Mean Girls. Well, maybe that’s just what I was hoping for.

The plot is simple. Gabe is the class clown, a role he embraces in the hope of staving off bullying by laughing at himself for being fat before anyone else can laugh at him. His mother left him and his dad and has never looked back. His two best friends don’t make him feel great about himself. The only thing he really enjoys anymore is high school band. And now, even that is being threatened when the school board redesignates the funds from the school pop machine for the new dance team, which is really just all the cheerleaders with a more expensive coach.

When his beloved band and marching band camp are threatened, Gabe decides he has to take action, so he bands together (heh) with the other Geekers, as he calls them, for various protests, letter writing, and playing of “Tequila.” (Sidebar: I think it should be considered a literary crime to even mention songs like “Tequila” by name in a book as they then immediately become lodged in one’s brain. Other offenders include: “The Macarena,” “The Chicken Dance,” “Feliz Navidad,” and any song that has ever been blared out the speakers of a neighborhood ice cream truck.) Along the way, Gabe makes new friends and realizes that if he wants to stop being thought of as a clown then he needs to stop acting like it’s okay to treat him like one.

This is a light, entertaining read, and who doesn’t like a story where geeks take on the man—or, in this instance, the pop machine. Geoff Herbach does a great job of evoking a small Minnesota town and I enjoyed that the scale here is realistically small. Gabe et al aren’t trying to bring down the government or anything. They live in a small town and so one of their teachers getting arrested for drunk driving is a huge deal that instantly goes Minnekota-viral on Facebook, etc.

My two favorite characters were Gore and RC III. Gore (Chandra) is a six-foot-tall goth girl who everyone fears because she once threatened to kill some kids who were mean to her (hence, “Gore”). RC III (also not his real name) is a newly arrived jock who’s kind of a big deal but likes hanging out with the geeks more than the jocks. They are the voices of reason in a group of otherwise overreactive characters, and perhaps that’s why Gabe likes them so much. “You shouldn’t call cheerleaders bitches,” Gore tells Gabe. “Why not?” he asks. “Look what they’ve done to us.” “You don’t have to be like them,” she says (161). It’s simple and it’s true and I like her.

Gabe plays the 'bone

Gabe plays the ‘bone

Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders brings up lots of interesting issues—class, race, body image, self-conception, emotional abuse, surveillance culture. And I give it credit for its themes, certainly, even if they are laid on a bit thick. The use of names as a thing that communicate our sense of self is nice: Gabe transitions from being called Chunk because he doesn’t like it, but Gore likes the nickname she was given and reclaims it, whereas RC III chose to name himself after someone he admires and simply asserts it as his name. There are some nice moments of commentary, too. For example, Gabe makes the point that, because he thought his money was going to the band, he feels good about buying and drinking four or five Mountain Dew Code Reds a day because he’s managed to convince himself that he’s winning (for band) even as he’s losing (by drinking so much pop). But, though it raises many interesting issues, ultimately, it doesn’t really dig into any of them so, in the end, it feels like the content is just to fill out a relatively predictable storyline. As a result, it’s not terribly satisfying. It would have felt meatier if the plot structured the book but wasn’t so very foregrounded.

The Scar Boys Len VlahosAnd I lay this at the feet of yet another narrative frame that totally backfires. I discussed this issue when I reviewed Len Vlahos’ The Scar Boys, which is written as a college application. Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders is written as a memo from Gabe’s attorney, which is being submitted as context for the case against him (for stealing money from the pop machine). This narrative frame was totally unnecessary, as there is no threat that Gabe’s going to go to jail or anything (he stole $17.75 in change). So, no reason for it. But it has a number of downsides. The first is the one I already mentioned: that such a device foregrounds the linear this-happened-then-this plot at the expense of character development and richness. I mean, how much are you going to describe people when talking to your lawyer? And, if this were a mystery or a crime story or an adventure story, then maybe foregrounding the plot would be fine. But, though it would be a great armature for a book about Gabe, as storylines go, it’s not quite unique or unpredictable enough to be The Focus of the novel.

In turn, this contributes to the theme tourism because there isn’t any reason for Gabe to delve deeply into any issue that isn’t directly connected to the plot. Sometimes Gabe will start to talk about something and then say, “Hey. Why are we talking about this, Mr. Rodriguez? Shouldn’t we be talking about how . . . how you’re going to keep me from going to jail or something?” (7) and sometimes feels the need to justify how things relate: “This totally has to do with the pop machine” (11). By drawing attention to how he’s shoehorning things in or where he’s cutting himself off, this narrative frame just highlights these superficialities.

Frankenstein Mary Shelley

The best narrative frame!

Finally, the kiss of death: I didn’t find Gabe to be a very pleasant narrator, either. He doesn’t have any interests besides band (that we hear about) and he’s very judgmental. I don’t feel like I know him well and the shifts in his character have to be taken on faith, since he simply asserts them. And the narrative frame didn’t help this either. Because every word is something Gabe’s saying to his lawyer, there’s no internal monologue. I hadn’t thought about it in quite these terms when I reviewed The Scar Boys, but it turns out that this is a huge problem for me, since what I like most about reading is getting to know new characters. In a third person narrative, we get to know those characters through what’s said about them as well as what they say and do. In a first person narrative, we get to know them by that unique voice that is unfiltered. But in a first person account to a lawyer, or in a college entrance essay? Despite (perhaps?) best laid plans, these narratives fail to engage me because their technique is neither narrative truth nor confession. And so I’m bored.

So, I discovered something about myself as a reader, and can make sure to cross off my list all YA novels with a narrative frame that means the story is being told to a grown-up. Well, it’s all about the lesson, no?

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Sister Mischief Laura GoodeSister Mischief Laura Goode

Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (2011). Also set in Minnesota! Best friends Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie are Sister Mischief, the all-girl hip-hop group that wants to take Holyhill (aka Holy Hell) Minnesota by storm. Along the way, they find first loves, lyrics, a PA hijacking, 4-H (Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, that is), and, of course, goats. My full review is HERE.

Fat Kid Rules the World K.L. Going

Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going (2003). Curt MacCrae startles Troy out of throwing himself in front of a subway train and demands that he is owed lunch in exchange . . . and that’s just the beginning. Soon, Troy finds himself one half of the punk band Rage/Tectonic, even though he can’t play the drums and hates anyone looking at him. Can Troy overcome his self-consciousness to embrace the musician inside? And can he save Curt from his own demons in the process? My full review is HERE

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach is available now.

Movie Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

A review of Only Lovers Left Alive, written & directed by the delightful Jim Jarmusch

only lovers left alive

by REBECCA, May 12, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive is a decidedly non-dramatic meditation on immortality and love. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are centuries-old vampires living in Detroit and Algiers, respectively. Adam is a somber musician who makes music that no one hears and collects vintage instruments while hiding from fans of the music he released when he was well-known. He’s depressed at the state of the world, which zombies—humans, that is—have polluted and detached from so thoroughly that even their blood has become poison. Eve is a dreamy appreciator of literature who lives in a home packed with books and hangs around with her buddy Kit Marlowe (yes, that Kit Marlowe) (John Hurt). When she talks with Adam and senses his depression, she comes to Detroit to reconnect with him. While there, Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), an irresponsible hedonist with a penchant for risk-taking behavior, comes to visit, throwing Adam’s routine into disarray.

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 5.53.04 PMFrom the gorgeous and vertiginous opening shots of a camera spinning around Adam, Eve, and a record (music is their shared language), the stakes of Only Lovers Left Alive are clear. This is a film about perpetuity and how people connect over and over through time. It’s a film that glories in the aesthetic, and Jim Jarmusch lingers lovingly over Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s faces and hair the way only a lover would. They are dark and light, gloom and resignation, creator and appreciator.

Only Lovers Left AliveThere is no complicated plot; indeed, not a whole lot happens. But the non-drama perfectly echoes the sense of longevity of immortality—the sustained state where even the most dramatic happenings lose their urgency and even the most minute of difference in repetition can assert itself as beautiful. Adam and Eve are aesthetes and appreciators, and the film echoes this, too. The camera caresses the curve of a Gibson and the tangle of wires that Adam patches together with the same appreciation as the curve of the lovers’ cheekbones or the tangles of their hair. Attention, the film seems to posit, is the antidote to boredom; fascination to despair. And Adam and Eve are indeed fascinated.

This fascination makes Only Lovers Left Alive an incredibly poignant love story. Immortality is the premise that gives scale to their love, but it’s their respect for and fascination with each other that has sustained that love. With very little dialogue, Adam and Eve manage to communicate the connection they have through touch, gaze, and pointing out to one another the things that fascinate them. Jarmusch may be indulgent with his camera, but he shows amazing restraint with his script, giving us peeks of the characters and their histories but only hinting at the majority of their story. The effect is of a snapshot in time—a mere episode in lives so long we cannot conceive of them.

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 6.39.04 PMAdam and Eve have changed their appearance over the years to match the world around them, but in the privacy of their homes they wear dressing gowns from the 18th century and speak about friends like Mary Wollstonecraft. Detroit and Algiers are on display as similar collections of old and new, of the deterioration and resurrection of art, culture, style, and taste. The grand Michigan Theatre, which is falling down around them, but will be reclaimed, is the logical analogue to Adam and Eve’s recursivity: they reinvent themselves each generation, the world they knew before swallowed up or torn down before it’s reincorporated into the next one. The film is melancholy in its meditation on humans’ ruination of the world and its beauty, but there is a necessary hope there, too. For one like Eve, who has seen these cycles so often, destruction and death are necessary for reinvention and new life. Adam hasn’t quite her scope, and he feels the losses more acutely.

only lovers left aliveOnly Lovers Left Alive was everything I wanted a Jarmusch take on vampires to be. Swinton and Hiddleston are perfect, beautiful casting, and the glimpses we get of Detroit and Algiers are the perfect atmospheres for the film. Add in the wonderful John Hurt as Kit Marlowe, who actually wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, Mia Wasikowska as a thoroughly charming vehicle of chaos, and the always delightful Jeffrey Wright as a stylized doctor, and it’s a pitch-perfect cast.

The only thing that irritated is the way these preternatural beings split down such traditional gender lines. The two men are creators—Marlowe a playwright and Adam a musician—and their lives are their work. The women are appreciators and consumers: Eve reads voraciously and supports Adam’s every endeavor, but creates nothing herself. Ava’s consumption is more literal; she chugs blood and makes demands, paying for them with a winsome smile.

only lovers left aliveMy favorite thing about all of Jim Jarmusch’s films is how he approaches the topic of each with such incredible respect and fascination. Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception. Each element feels considered and selected, leading to a film that looks like a beautifully curated slice of life. It’s just that these lives have been going on for quite a while.

The Knife: September Girls Cuts To The Heart

A Review of September Girls by Bennett Madison

HarperTeen, 2013

September Girls Bennett Madison

by REBECCA, May 5, 2014

hook

When Sam arrives at a small beach town with his dad and brother for the summer he notices that something is strange about its other inhabitants—all beautiful blonde girls—but can’t quite figure out what. When he starts to fall for one of them, he’ll get answers he never could have imagined.

review

I’ve been meaning to read September Girls all year and now that it’s getting warm, I finally sat down with most poignant of beach reads. After Sam’s mother takes off, his father loses it, sinking into a drunken depression and then diving manically into the task of finding himself. That summer, he decides that he, Sam, and Sam’s collegiate brother, Jeff, should leave town and take to the beach, where they’ll stay until September.

Sam’s father quickly throws himself into searching for buried treasure with a metal detector, and Jeff treats him to lectures on how this is the summer he should lose his virginity, but Sam misses his mother and finds himself walking alone for hours in a landscape that never quite seems the same twice. He’s a little sad, a little bored, and a lot anxious about growing up.

“[Dad often told me] that it was time to be a man, or man up, or act like a man, et cetera, et cetera. The whole subject was creepy—with vague implications of unmentionable things involving body hair—but the most embarrassing part was basically just how meaningless it all was. As if one day you’re just a normal person, and then the next—ta-da!—a man, as if anyone would ever notice the difference.

Like you can just instantly transform like that. Like manhood is this distinct thing with actual markers and consequences. Well, maybe it is. But even if it is—if there is any person on this planet who actually knows what it means to be a man, anyone who could truly sum it up—I would guess my father to be among the very fucking last to have the tiniest clue.”

He’s self-conscious that he’s a virgin, knows that he looks skinny and unimpressive next to his brother, and isn’t particularly interested in doing anything about either. So, when the swarm of beautiful, voluptuous, blonde girls who work at every business in town seem to be interested in Sam, he’s understandably confused. Even if most of them don’t speak to him, he sees them staring, smiling, and paying a kind of attention to him that he’s never received. And, because he’s not an idiot, he’s pretty weirded out by it.

The first night they’re at the beach, Jeff and Sam see a girl washed ashore from the ocean pull herself to hands and knees and scuttle away into the dunes. And this is just the first of many strange and confusing things that they witness. Little by little, his brother starts to fall for one of the girls, Kristle (pronounced like Crystal), and he strikes up a confusing and intense friendship with another, DeeDee.

As he and DeeDee get closer, the secret of the girls—or the Girls, as Sam thinks of them—slowly comes into focus. They aren’t human; they come from the sea, cursed to live in human form for a limited time, and unable to leave the beach town. Call them mermaids if you like, but they have no gender. They merely assume the form that instinct tells them will be most beneficial to beings who arrive on land with nothing: young, beautiful, female, and blonde.

September Girls has been a wildly divisive book in terms of public reviews, with a number of 5-star raves and even more 1-star pans. Nearly all of the latter are given with reference to accusations of the book’s sexism and misogyny. I’m gobsmacked by this truly careless reading, and desperately sad that the book’s public reputation has been tainted by it because it couldn’t be further from the truth. To the contrary, September Girls engages with our widespread culture of sexism and misogyny—sex as power; trapped girls; sex as necessity; addlepated boys—and skewers it. (I won’t do a point-by-point rebuttal of the accusations because The Book Smuggler’s review HERE does a great job of that.) Bennett Madison raises questions not only about gender, but about the power of narratives to concretize, challenge, reinscribe, and invert gendered tropes.

We have learned that we are beautiful. All of us. We are all beautiful. To those who may read this: we are more beautiful. No matter how beautiful you are, we are more. We just are. . . . We say this with no pride at all. We say it, maybe, with a little sadness. Our beauty is a gift that we have had no choice but to accept. . . . We were offered only beauty. We took it and we use it. It’s nothing special. It’s how we survive.

Since we have no word for beauty, we use the closest word we have. We call it the knife. Our beauty is only our knife. Our beauty is our only knife. It’s just a knife: rusty blade, ordinary handle. But it’s sharp. It does its thing. Nothing special.

When is nothing special the most important thing? When it’s the only thing. . . . We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with a sexiness that appears unconsidered. . . . So. We learn how to use our breasts, our asses, our eyelashes, our lips. We learn how to get what we want.

No. Not what we want. We never get what we want, do we? We learn how to get what we need.”

September Girls is a dreamy, beautifully-written meditation on how the unstructured time of summer allows for self-exploration and change that the school year makes impossible. Absent anyone from home who really knows him, Sam is on a scary but necessary journey to find out who he is. Part of that is figuring out what it means to engage with a gendered world (because such attitudes are, unfortunately, pervasive). Part of it is learning to appreciate himself. Part of it is learning how to be sad, how to be bored, how to admit to yourself that you aren’t special all the time.

Some have found September Girls a bit dull or slow-paced, but for me it perfectly echoed the feeling of standing in the surf, feet in the sand as the ocean drags it from under you. After each chapter told from Sam’s perspective is a section told from the Girls’ perspective (like the quote above), creating a give and take of ocean and land, and when Sam loses time it’s like the exhausted, lightheaded, salt-drenched moment when you fall asleep on the beach, too sun-drained and beach-blind to notice the hour.

September Girls is a beautiful piece of speculative fiction that’s as dreamy as the ocean and as rough as sand in your underwear. I can’t wait to read whatever Bennett Madison writes next.

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Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989). September Girls’ placiness reminded me of Block’s L.A.—something about the combination of heat and love.

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (2011). In Stiefvater’s tale, it’s horses that come from the sea, but it’s similarly dreamy, with harsh reality abutting the speculative. My full review is HERE.

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz (2013). When Rudy leaves everything he knows to move to an island whose magic fish might be able to cure his brother’s cystic fibrosis he knows things will never be the same. What he can’t know is that he’ll meet someone who changes everything he knows about himself . . . and presents him with a life and death dilemma. How will Rudy choose between two people he loves? Check out my full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. September Girls by Bennett Madison is available now.

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