Sunday, July 2, 2017

Summer Lovin’ -- Week 24

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Happy Fourth of July weekend, friends and readers! For our American friends, it means lots of fireworks and sparklers, cook-outs, and sunburns by the pool or at the beach. And for us, it means another week of our Summer Lovin' Series! We've got movies and finales, and everything in between for you this time around. So grab yourself a plate of your favorite cook-out food, pull up a chair, and join us.

Who else is lovin' stuff this week?

Let's get started!

What Jenn's lovin': Troian Bellisario's Pretty Little Liars finale performance

Why she's lovin' it: It's been almost a week now since the Pretty Little Liars series finale but I'm going to place a giant spoiler warning on this blurb for the plot for the finale.


It's no surprise that Spencer Hastings has always been my favorite character in Pretty Little Liars. She's obsessed with coffee (which automatically earns her points in my book), incredibly intelligent (I want to be on her trivia team always), logical without being robotic, and always thinking three steps ahead of the other characters on the show. Spencer, to me, was always the best character. She had an incredibly huge heart and empathy for the people around her, and she was stronger than most. She struggled through loss — a lot of loss, actually — and betrayals and addiction. And everything that should have knocked Spencer Hastings down only served as a stepping stone for her to walk forward again. In our roundtable prior to the series finale, Megan and I talked about our A.D. theories. For the longest time, I had hoped that A.D. would be one of the core Liars, because in spite of the logistical issues with that, I just thought it would be so fascinating to find out that one of our heroes was actually a villain. I REALLY hoped it would be Spencer.

I kind of got my wish in the finale.

In a convoluted plot that I still quite don't understand because it involved a lot of retconning and loose threads, it was revealed that Spencer has a twin sister — Alex Drake. Or, as her initials would imply, "A.D." That's right: Troian Bellisario played double duty in the finale and was both a hero and a villain. I've always been most impressed with Troian's work on the show. Some of my favorite episodes revolve around her (holla, "Shadow Play"), because she's so in tune with Spencer's emotions and conveying those honestly. Troian can make you believe absolutely anything, even that Spencer has an evil British twin who has been tormenting the girls and their friends this entire time.

The most impressive thing to me was that post-reveal that A.D. was Spencer's evil twin, we got to watch Troian play against herself in many scenes. She was literally acting against herself, and even though Alex was different from Spencer, there were still these fun little nuances and similarities that Troian drew from. Both young women were sarcastic and so it was really cool to watch Troian spin Spencer's good-natured sarcasm into dark territory for Alex. Even though we only met Alex for a bit and her motives were a bit weak, Troian brought life to the character. And that's ultimately the greatest accomplishment an actress can achieve — giving life to someone who, on page, would be flat.

I wholly believe that Troian handled Alex's reveal and her characterization impeccably well. There was this vulnerability to Spencer that has always existed and Troian draws from that, when transferred to Alex, was fascinating because it was a dark, twisted longing. Alex was willing to do whatever it took to acquire Spencer's life (come on, that scene where Alex is holding Emily and Alison's baby was creepy, right?), and Troian was able to make the transition from good-girl Spencer to evil villain with ease.

Troian Bellisario's performance was definitely the best part of the Pretty Little Liars finale. I'm incredibly grateful for the journey she took us all on for the past seven years as Spencer Hastings and the wild rollercoaster we got from her as A.D. Troian, you're amazing. I can't wait to follow the rest of your career and am grateful for you as an actress and a human being. Thank you for all you did.

What Deb’s lovin’: Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology audiobook

Why she’s lovin’ it: Once I realized I needed something to help while away the hours at my office job and music just wasn’t distracting enough, I tapped into the world of podcasts and, especially, audiobooks. It helps that my library system has a pretty great selection of audio and e-books available at the click of a mouse (special shout-out to libraries, by the way — they’re my perennial Summer Lovin’ choice, if that’s allowed to be a thing) so I can set myself up with a new book and, once I’m at my desk, spend the next eight hours “reading” while working. And for someone who always has a yearly reading goal set for herself, audiobooks are a double win: entertainment and productivity, rolled up in one convenient little package.

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. This is not a secret. I mean, I’ve gushed about his American Gods book on a Summer Lovin’ post before and I review the Starz TV series based on said book here on Just About Write. Looking for his books in audio form was a good way to ease myself into a medium I’d never really been sure about — and what luck! Not only were so many of his books available in audio format, but Gaiman’s narration of his own work has the same simple, effortless quality distinct to his prose, making for an incredibly enjoyable listen each time. His latest work, Norse Mythology, was no different.

Norse Mythology is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of Norse myths, filtered through Gaiman’s usual writing style to make them more like the stories they really are and less like the prosaic text rendered in your average mythology collection. With Neil Gaiman’s lovely voice added into the mix of good stories and good storytelling, I kind of felt like a kid during elementary school story time again... you know, if elementary school story time included descriptions of Odin losing an eye or Loki getting his mouth sewn shut by dwarves for being a sneaky little sneak.

Basically, this book has not only been a fantastic tool for passing the time at work during a particularly difficult week, but just a terrific piece of entertainment in general. Gaiman manages — through his writing or the way he reads or both — to make these ages-old stories come alive and capture the imagination in an engrossing, fun way that I genuinely loved.


What Kelly’s lovin’: Invisibilia

Why she’s lovin’ it: I have always said there are podcasts and there are Podcasts. I feel like some people think all podcasts are just comedians internal monologue-ing into iPhone microphones, which like, some of them are, so: fair. But some of them are beautifully researched and edited and produced capital “P” Podcasts, that can make you shout, “FOR REAL?” and “SHUT UP” and “THAT’S SO COOL” during your morning commute. One of those is my current favorite: Invisibilia. This shining gem of an NPR podcast just finished its third season, and it was SO FUN. (All Invisibilia’s seasons are fun, so that was no surprise.)

This season was created to be a “concept album” — because it’s all about concepts. Invisibilia’s central guiding topic is “the invisible forces that shape human behavior,” which sounds kind of esoteric and broad, but turns out to be a pretty rad theme that can encompass a lot of unexpected and delightful stories. It’s one part philosophy, one part science, one part conversations with really cool and funny women who you just want to hang out with all the time. This season they had a story about a man who discovered a new emotion, one about high-schoolers using hypnotism to improve their SAT scores, and one about a real-life bear fairytale.

Hosts Hanna, Alix, and Lulu have a way of breaking down concepts you thought were totally fundamental to your existence and making you see them in a different way. It’s like peeking under the hood inside your brain to see how everything works. What would it be like if you couldn’t feel fear? How do our brains categorize things, and why? What is a personality and do we even have them? Everything seems to have hidden depths to plumb in this podcast and I am HERE FOR IT. There’s nothing I like more than a little light neuroscience on the way to work in the morning. Every episode also has corresponding art and bonus features on their website, which is a good way to make the fun last a little longer between seasons.

If you haven’t listened to any of it, I recommend starting at the very beginning and listening all the way through. It’ll add a little science to your lazy summer days.

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What Ashvini’s lovin’: “Want You Back” by HAIM

Why she’s lovin’ it: I usually don’t listen to HAIM’s music. Their sound doesn’t quite match up with my tastes, though that’s not to say their music isn’t lovely. It is, with a sunny ferocity that’s unlike any other.

What I like most about “Want You Back” is that it’s a simple declaration. Each sister (shout-out to Danielle, Este, and Alana) sings that they’ve learned from their mistakes, grown, and now they’re ready for that love that they lost to return to them. There’s a hint of desperation, sure, but more than that — it’s an optimistic acknowledgment that they want someone back. Nothing about it is proud, but instead it’s honest and the music pulsates with that realness.

Danielle sings: “I said we were opposite lovers, you kept trying to prove me wrong. And I know that I ran you down, so you ran away with your heart. But just know that I want you back.” I relate to this a lot because I have somewhat of a commitment problem — when people get too close, I get scared and I end things because I don’t know what else to do. I feel out of control and lost. And I, like the Haim sisters, have a “wanderin’ heart.” I have a difficult time pinpointing exactly what I want from someone when I’m with them. When we’re not together, it seems I know exactly what I want from them. And so the Shakespearean irony sets in.

But that’s life, yeah? Onto bigger and better things! This song conveys that so well. It’s a fun dance song, so the three sisters don’t want you to be sad about you feeling this need to reach out to someone you miss. They want you to be happy about it. Sing, dance, get jiggy with it.

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Bonus Lovin’: The Secret Life of Pets 

I watched The Secret Life of Pets recently, and it was so cute. I don’t watch a lot of animated movies, having only watched Moana in the last year, but I saw this on Netflix and remembered seeing the trailer for it in theaters. The concept was this: What do your pets do when all day when you’re not there? A whole lot, apparently. I was intrigued, so I gave it a watch.

And I regret nothing. The animation in this movie is fantastic — so bright and captivating. It’s set in New York City and follows Max, an adorable dog who, after leaving his home and his beloved owner, through a series of mishaps gets into all kinds of shenanigans with his animal friends and enemies. Also, Kevin Hart voices a murderous bunny named Snowball, and had me giggling non-stop at his lunacy. I’m a teensy bit embarrassed to admit that, but who cares. It was entertaining and the perfect way to spend a rainy, Friday afternoon. So I can’t complain.


What Hope’s lovin’: Evolve by Imagine Dragons

Why she’s lovin’ it: I’ve been following the evolution of Imagine Dragons for years. I fell in love with Night Visions, their first full-length album, almost immediately. And since then, they’ve been my favorite band. That album is also probably my favorite by any artist ever, so my expectations are always high. And I’m never let down. I loved Smoke + Mirrors, which sounded different from their first and yet... not. I don’t know how to describe it other than that they always sound like themselves, while still always trying something new.

Which is, I suppose, why they named their latest album Evolve. I have to admit, before I went and bought my hard copy of the CD I listened to some of the previews on iTunes and thought they sounded different. This is true and false at the same time. On one hand, the more I listen to the album, the more I can see their signature complex and thoughtful lyrics, their layering of instruments (especially drums), and their usual soulfulness. On the other hand, you can tell that they are in a different place from where they wrote their previous songs.

Their songs have always been upbeat, even when about darkness, something that I love this band so much for. From “Amsterdam” to “Fallen,” to “Shots,” to “Polaroid,” and many songs in between, they have sung about the frustration of always messing things up for yourself, letting others down, or having the cards stacked against you... all with a joyous tempo. Their songs have been celebrations of being human in a world where everything doesn’t have to be okay.

Many of the songs in Evolve — like “Yesterday” and “Believer” — are about being grateful for everything you’ve struggled with and worked hard at, because it’s a crucial part of your destination. Listening to these songs, I realized what was so different about this album — they’re happier. And that, perhaps, is what I love the most about this LP. They’re a great group — they don’t take themselves seriously, they’re always doing things for fans, and they’re just grounded, good-hearted people. It’s beautiful to see them release their most positive album yet. They’ve earned every ounce of success they’ve had and I’m so happy for them.

I’m not sure if I have a favorite song yet. Right now, I’m really into the great beat and super-fast lyrics of “Whatever it Takes,” the drums in “Believer,” and the catchiness of “Thunder.” Each of the eleven songs have a different sound, making for a very interesting record. The bridge in “Rise Up” is fantastic, “Yesterday” and “Start Over” are unique and upbeat, “I’ll Make It Up To You” and “Walking the Wire” have slower verses that really highlight Dan Reynolds’ voice, and “I Don’t Know Why” and “Mouth of the River” are just plain catchy and now permanently stuck in my head. The album closes out on another positive note with “Dancing in the Dark.”

All I could ask for is a deluxe edition with acoustic versions (because this band sounds just as good with only a piano or an acoustic guitar as they do with all their usual layers) and maybe an extra couple of songs (because this album is too good to be this short). I’m looking forward to having Evolve on repeat (I can see it being great writing music for my last year of college) and I already can't wait to see what they do next.


What Jon’s lovin’: Baby Driver 

Why he’s lovin’ it: The original plan this week was to discuss one more podcast in my Summer Lovin' podcast trilogy but that might get put on hold for a couple of weeks because there's QUITE a few good movies coming out/currently out that I want to discuss. 2017 has been an absolutely stellar year for cinema. At the halfway mark for the year, we've already seen some truly fantastic films and we're not even close to being done.

Two weeks back, I was able to get passes to see Baby Driver a week early in NYC. The film is the latest from director Edgar Wright, who is responsible for genre-defining masterpieces such as Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Baby Driver focuses on the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young man who received tinnitus as a kid after a car crash that killed his parents. In order to drown out the constant ringing, Baby plays music to help him focus. This earns Baby some notoriety, as he's also one of the world's best getaway drivers. Baby drives for numerous heists orchestrated by criminal kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), who coerces the young driver to work for him in order to settle a debt. Baby soon meets a young waitress named Debora (Lily James) and is immediately smitten. However, in order to  live a normal life with the girl of his dreams, Baby has to get out and do one last job.

While this premise may sound familiar, Wright — as he has done with previous films — twists the conventions of the plot far enough to the point where it's recognizable, yet entirely different and exciting. Every single actress and actor in this film absolutely crushes it. While it's difficult to pick a favorite, special shout-outs go to Ansel Elgort in a star-making performance, Jamie Foxx who is absolutely terrifying in every scene he's in, and Kevin Spacey who oozes sinister cool in every scene.

Wright directs every scene with such fervor and intensity that your heart starts racing the moment the film begins. Wright's normal quick-paced style is on full display and used to utter perfection. The car chase scenes are some of the best chase scenes ever put to film, as they're an utter blast to watch.

But the biggest reason to watch this movie is the soundtrack. Due to Baby's condition, Wright peppers the film with one heck of a playlist for him to drive to. The way that the sound editing makes the songs go in tune to the actual beats of the film itself (there's a whole gun fight set to "Tequila") makes this film a musical of sorts.

Baby Driver is easily one of the best films of the year, hands down. Wright's crackling script, excellent direction, amazing performances, and a KILLER soundtrack combine to make one of the most original and engaging films I've seen.

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What Megan's lovin': The House

Why she's lovin' it: You guys. I have to tell you something. I am sort of, maybe stupidly, in love with Amy Poehler. I already loved her before this film — her lack of shame and her penchant for not giving a crap are great. Then I read her book Yes Please and realized she's just perfect. I also really love Will Ferrell. So knowing that they were going to be in a movie together was incredible.

And it was. The House tells the story about a married couple — played by Poehler and Ferrell — whose daughter got into a great college, but loses her scholarship because their town wants to build a luxury public pool. So what's the next logical step? Well, you go to Vegas with a depressed friend, hit a heater, and then totally lose all of your money. Okay, so, what next? Obviously to bring the feel of Vegas to your small town and create a high-stakes casino in aforementioned depressed friends home.

Of course, things go awry. There are plenty of complications and setbacks. But it's a wild ride and one that helps them realize that while they're willing to do any and everything for their child, their lives won't stop once she's away at school. It's all just so fantastic.

Let me tell you, I was laughing so hard this entire movie. I mean, there are definitely parts that had to be mad improv. With the two of these comedic geniuses, how could there not be? And I personally loved the small role Jeremy Renner played because honestly, how often do we see him get to do comedy? (That does not include his random funny lines from the Avengers films. Sorry.)

If you want a really fun time at the theater this summer, go and see The House. It's smart, funny, and it'll give you that good feeling inside. I laughed, I may have teared up a little at the end, and I definitely affectionately grabbed my boyfriend's arm on the car ride home because I would totally start an illegal casino with him.

This film is a good one, I promise!

What are YOU lovin' this week? Sound off in the comments below!


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