Monday, December 31, 2012

Favorite Games of 2012

It was kinda a “meh” year for gaming in Dang-Blasted land. I played a lot of games and liked plenty of them, but found none that I truly fell in love with -- at least, not to the point where I was bursting to grab the controller and play more every day. Funny, since I finally got a PS3 this year. That might say something about the current state of console gaming...or not. Anyway, after much deliberation and reluctant pruning (sorry, Super Meat Boy, you came so close), here are...


Alice: Madness Returns (PS3 & Xbox)
To begin with, a game that just barely earned a spot on this list. I played and enjoyed the original American McGee’s Alice all those years ago, and this unexpected sequel does a lot of tweaking and tinkering with its dark, fucked-up, metaphor-heavy take on Alice and her jaunts in Wonderland. It’s certainly better than its predecessor, but the story’s a mess and the gameplay consists mostly of generic platform jumping. So why’s it here? Well, it looks amazing, for one, with bizarre and unique scenery you won’t find in many games. And the combat system is improved by about 500 percent, allowing Alice to insta-swap between four or five weapons in order to unleash creative death on a plethora of creepily-designed foes. Even the most frustrating enemies were a shitload of fun to battle, and I’m not a combat-loving guy, so kudos. It might have limited replay value, but as my intro to the PS3, it was fairly solid and I dug its acid-trippy vibe.

Botanicula (PC/Mac/iPad)
Amanita Design is pretty much the Pixar of indie gaming right now; their last major release, Machinarium, was one of the best point-and-click games...well, ever. Now we have Botanicula, which isn’t as good, but still better than most of the junk you’ll find on Steam. Set within the branches and roots of a giant tree, it stars a quintet of spritely little doodads who try to save their home from evil black fuzz. Or something. With its simplistic controls and good cheer, it’s clearly a game for the tablet-wielding younger generation, but it is utterly impossible not to love. Each new critter is brimming with personality, each maze-like area is wonderful to explore, and the puzzles, while easy for the experienced point-and-clicker, fit together very nicely. It doesn’t quite hold up to Machinarium, but in the same way that Ponyo doesn’t quite hold up to Spirited Away: the visionary minds decided to do something kids would like, and I’m fine with that. Amanita’s creativity and visual flair keep reaching new plateaus. Can’t wait for Samorost 3!

Limbo (Multi-Platform)
Bleak, monochromatic indie platformer dealing with the loss of childhood innocence #1! Limbo got all kinds of accolades from smug twats who pretend not to like mainstream gaming, but don’t hold that against it because it is one solid, engaging little homonculus of a game. You’re a little boy in a vast rotting world of shadows, searching. Just searching. As far as you know, there is no goal beyond simple survival, and everything you encounter -- creatures, machines, even other children -- can kill. Or are you already dead, as the game’s title implies? Is there any goodness or warmth left in your world? Yeah, Limbo is definitely the feel-bad game of the decade, but sometimes, a little bleakness is just what the doctor ordered. In addition, it has some really well-crafted puzzle sequences that make full use of your brain while freaking the shit out of you -- and, as is often the case, what you don’t see is infinitely worse than what you do. Also, there is a giant spider that will crawl out of your screen and into the part of your brain that births nightmares. Happiness and good cheer be damned; Limbo rocks.

Parasite Eve I & II (PS1)
Gotta save some time each year to remind myself that gaming used to be a lot more interesting. The first two Parasite Eve games are underrated gems of survival horror (ignore that fucking 3rd Birthday travesty), and I was pleased as punch to discover them and get down to the business of shooting the bejesus out of creepy mutants as leggy psychic policewoman Aya Brea. Each game is very different in gameplay and presentation. I’d say that the first one -- a strange, cinematic chimaera that steals a lot of DNA from turn-based RPGs -- is probably the more solid game of the two. However, I personally had more fun, on average, gunning my way through the sequel, which is a more traditional monster-killfest in the vein of Resident Evil. Whatever your preference, both feature unpredictable plots and lovely pre-rendered graphics. Why the hell don’t we do those any more? Come for the boobs, stay for the nostalgia!

Silent Hill: Downpour (PS3 & Xbox)
Aaaaaaand this is what we have for survival horror now. I won’t deny that it’s several steps down, but although the latest addition to my favorite horror series had some notable tumors and hairy moles, Vatra Games could’ve done a lot worse. Ignore the standardized plot (haunted dude runs from emotional demons, yawn) and enjoy the detailed and complex realization of the haunted town of Silent Hill, where every street and alleyway holds potential secrets and hazards. This entry really ran with the idea that the whole town is a malevolent entity and the environment itself is out to get you. Add in some neat sidequests and a refreshingly stripped-down combat system, and yeah...I definitely give it my stamp of approval. In fact, I’d be down with Vatra making the next Silent Hill game too (if Konami can’t be coaxed back, of course), because Downpour has many flashes of brilliance and I bet they could learn from their mistakes.

Torchlight (Multi-Platform)
Sometimes it seems like my video game attention span gets shorter all the time. Torchlight must be doing something right, because while playing it, I often caught myself going, “Oh, why not? I can totally spare another couple hours clicking my way through an isometric dungeon, slaughtering goblins and unloading excess loot on my faithful ferret, Tenzing.” Thanks to Torchlight, I will probably have carpal tunnel syndrome down the road, but whatever; stuff like this is what I do instead of popping bubble wrap. Some have sneered at this game for being an overly user-friendly Diabolo wannabe, but the thing is, THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED. And it’s fun. Lots of fun. It’s a good dungeon crawler for people who dislike dungeon yours truly. And I should point out that Diabolo III came out this year and proceeded to alienate absolutely fucking everyone. What’s that? You can’t access your single-player campaign because some remote World of Warcraft server is feeling cranky? Don’t worry, Torchlight loves you like Blizzard never will! Come hack mushroom-men to death with me!

The Unfinished Swan (PS3)
Bleak, monochromatic indie platformer dealing with the loss of childhood innocence #2! Don’t worry, The Unfinished Swan is far more benign than Limbo, and while it’s short and unchallenging, its depth of story is impressive and it’s a great example of doing a lot with a little. Beginning with the tale of a little boy who loses his mother, the game plunks you down in a blank white space where you must slowly reveal the world (an abandoned fairytale city) by tossing ink around. In a way, you create the game as you play it, and I won’t reveal how this concept develops (both in gameplay and story terms), but the ending of The Unfinished Swan is deeply sad, achingly hopeful, and a ton more satisfying than the figure-it-out-for-yourself approach taken by Limbo. If The Unfinished Swan seems insubstantial, well, it did begin life as a student project. But I predict that student will go places. Would-be gamemakers, you really should focus on making cool stuff like this instead of sending your resume to EA in the hopes of spending your wretched career rendering the deltoids of fake football players. Because if you do create your own gaming treasures, people like me will give you major kudos. And we matter. We do. Believe it.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

(Special Christmas Edition)

Marley was dead, to begin with. And Dang-Blasted? He was a Lord of the Rings movie fanboy. I walked into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a fanboy, and took it in with all the unbridled glee you’d expect. When Howard Shore’s music filled the theater and those familiar glimmery opening credits started up, I wiggled. Every time a familiar face popped into view -- Gandalf, Galadriel, Gollum, Grodo Gaggins -- my heart did a small cartwheel. It’s hard to believe a decade has gone by since Peter Jackson made the LotR trilogy, hard to believe that after all this time, we’re being gifted with more Middle-Earth shenanigans. Merry Christmannukahwanzaa or whatever the heck you celebrate!

And the thing is, I was nervous. I put this movie on my Cautious Enthusiasm list, and in the intervening time, my foreboding only increased. There was the splitting of the book into three films which, given the novel’s slender size and kid-friendly vibe, seemed like a folly -- or, worse, a cash grab. There was the whole 48fps thing, which got an extremely mixed response and branded Peter Jackson as a possible successor to George “Franchisepocalypse” Lucas, more interested in technical tinkering than making good movies. There was the alleged animal abuse (which, considering how late in the game it arrived, probably was a cash grab). There were some unpleasant reviews. I try to go into a movie with an objective heart, but damn, did this whole production cough and sputter its way to the finish line. And?


I can’t help it. I wanted to love it and I did. Do I love it as much as I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy? It’s kinda early to decide, but probably not. It’s not as grand, but then, neither is the source material. Some critics have sneered at the “dumbing down” of the old aesthetic, but I’d advise them to recall that The Hobbit was written first and was intended as a fun adventure for children, and everything else -- the scope of the world, the history, the exhaustive details and appendices -- were mostly mere sketches in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mind. Jackson’s Hobbit movies are lighter, goofier, faster-paced, less profound, and more tongue-in-cheek, and I am okay with that. After all, it’s sixty years prior to Sauron’s rise to power and Frodo’s acquisition of the One Ring. Things in Middle-Earth are pretty chill, and there are only vague rumblings of a future threat. (More on that in a moment.) Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is happily bourgeois, sunk in the stupor of good food, a cozy home, and pipeweed. When Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen, as endearingly mumbly as we remember) appears to yank Bilbo from his predictable life, it’s like the spark that kindles a fire in all Middle-Earth: the easy times will soon be over, but with danger comes great adventure!

I think the prologue was really what yanked me in. Sheer visual fireworks bombarded my senses as we were shown the glory of the Dwarven kingdom of Erebor, only to watch it fall to ruin under the clawed heels of a teasingly-glimpsed Smaug the Dragon. Since Dwarves are somewhat marginalized in The Lord of the Rings (except for Gimli), it was great to witness the sheer scope and beauty of their underground society, as well as have it visually confirmed that Dwarf women also sport beards. It’s the quest to reclaim Erebor that drives a motley crew of Dwarves to gather under their brooding leader, royal heir Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, who can barge into my home uninvited any day). Food is snarfed, booze is quaffed, things are decided, and the quest begins, with Bilbo Baggins getting a crash course in heroism, often literally. Freeman is terrific as Bilbo, with a whole catalogue of stammering protests and anxious hand gestures that gradually segue into square-jawed determination. The band of Dwarves are wonderful to look upon, each one visually unique, especially in the facial hair department. Sadly, it’s a lot of supporting characters to keep track of, and Tolkien never bothered assigning much personality to each Dwarf. As a result, most of them get a token character trait (the Badass, the Fatty, the Feckless Youth, etc.) and a line or two, then spend the rest of the time running and yelling in the thick of the mob. And there’s a ton of running and yelling in this film, so be warned.

Yeah, the plot’s basically a series of entertaining episodes, broken up by Big Serious Stuff. The former is what’s taken directly from the book, such as a hairy encounter with hungry trolls and an extended battle for survival in an underground goblin city. The Big Serious Stuff is Jackson and co’s attempt to plug the Hobbit films into the overall mythology of Middle-Earth by expanding upon Tolkien’s supplemental material. Suddenly, everything has to be connected. The angry politicking between the Dwarves and Elves gets more play, and much is made of the sinister Necromancer who has taken up residence in the vast forest of Mirkwood. FUTURE SPOILER ALERT: Tolkien buffs will know that the Necromancer is Sauron himself, clawing his way back to absolute power. The Elf rulers and Wizards confer about this shadowy threat in the arch, sonorous manner we recall from LotR, and it kinda clashes with the lighter, more boisterous feeling of Bilbo’s exploits. I’m not saying this clash of tones is bad per se, but it’s a wee bit distracting. So’s the overly waxy makeup job intended to make Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee look younger, but I digress. One thing that fits perfectly with the bouncy tone is the character of Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), a bug-eyed, tree-hugging nature wizard who careens around on a sled pulled by bunny rabbits and is either awesome or insufferable, depending on who you ask. Since you asked, I think he’s awesome.

Then, of course, there’s Gollum; I think that little bastard deserves his own paragraph, don’t you? Everyone else has said so, but it’s ever so true: “Riddles In the Dark” is probably the best scene in the whole damn movie. When Gollum first crab-walked onscreen, I heard an intake of breath throughout the theater: oh, yes, here we go. If the Academy is ever going to nominate Andy Serkis for an Oscar (they won’t, because they suck), this is the time. In the midst of fighting and yelling and goblins and mayhem, nothing was more thrilling than watching Bilbo and Gollum match wits and trade riddles. Their scene was creepy, hilarious, brilliantly acted, perfectly realized by the special effects guys at Weta Workshop, and all-around sublime. I won’t even spoil any of Gollum’s lines, because they’re just so much fun. I also appreciated that the Ring isn’t played up as THE RING, not yet. It’s just a magical trinket...for now. But when Gollum realizes he’s lost it, his panic and wretchedness is palpable. In a twisted way, he’s one of the more sympathetic characters in the franchise, and that’s why it’s such a shame when he vanishes again, presumably for the rest of the trilogy.

That’s actually one of my minor quibbles with the film: its treatment of its villains. Now, most of this isn’t the movie’s fault. They’re still working with the original narrative. Smaug doesn’t appear until later, and An Unexpected Journey gives us just enough of him to make us eager for the full reveal. The Necromancer is only fleetingly depicted and isn’t relevant to the main quest anyway. The trolls, the goblin king, and Gollum are fun, but they’re all one-shot antagonists. I can live with that. The problem is, the filmmakers apparently felt they needed a more consistent bad guy, and so we get this nasty albino orc dude who holds a major grudge against Thorin Oakenshield (it’s complicated) and spends the movie hunting the good guys down. Again, I didn’t HATE this, but Nasty Albino Orc Dude was the one element that just didn’t seem to fit. He had no personality, his connection to the plot was frayed and tenuous, and he served only to ratchet up the tension and look cool. I guess it was sort of important to the character of Thorin, who’s got some serious issues to work out, but I felt it was forced and arbitrary. In a film with several tones that often clash, the inclusion of this limited-edition bonus villain was the clashiest. They’re just twiddling their thumbs until Smaug takes center stage, that’s for sure. I’ll forgive them because there’s two movies to go.

Eh, whatever. If I watched these movies for their flawless plot trajectory, I’d have given up in disgust around the time Arwen showed up to sexily save Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring. I watch these movies to have a ball. I watch them to marvel at the swarming, dazzling special effects; to drink in all that gorgeous New Zealand scenery; to lose myself in the grand setpieces, the awesome costumes, the cool swords, the glorious beards. I watch them because of Peter Jackson’s reliable tendency to go over the top. (“Our heroes are trapped in flaming pine trees by giant wolf-hyena monsters? All well and good, but let’s also stick them atop A ZILLION-FOOT CLIFF, MWA HA HAAA SCHNAARGLEBARGLE!!!”) I watch them for the moments that make me guffaw, or make me tear up. And the little moments that are just plain cool, put there by people who are totally in love with making movies. Do I wish I lived in Middle-Earth? Do I want to meet and be buddies with Dwalin, Balin, Kíli, Fíli, Dori, Nori, Ori, Óin, Glóin, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur? Yes and yes. Did I willingly get the end-credits tune, “Song of the Lonely Mountain” by Neil Finn, stuck in my head? Yep. With all due respect to Enya and Annie Lennox, Finn’s thundering ballad kicks nineteen kinds of ass. Nineteen.

I watched An Unexpected Journey in 2D, without the 48-per-second frame rate. So I can’t say whether the tech gimmicks hurt the film or not. Maybe they do, and if so, that’s a shame. A film shouldn’t have to be be gimmicky to entertain. Nor should it be some kind of cautious, respectful ode to the films that have come before. The Hobbit trilogy is walking its own crazy path, and I’ll follow with a whoop and a holler. It has its flaws (I didn’t even talk about how much the goblin city action scenes reminded me of Angry Birds), but watching it, warts and all, just made me so, so happy. It’s not a film for the overly cynical. It is a film for those who want to have a blast of a time. And no, three films is not all that excessive, because this one never felt too long to me and I was pissed off when it ended, not because I felt let down, but because it’s gonna be another freaking year until we get Smaug and the giant spiders and Laketown and the dude who turns into a bear and, and, and....yeah, okay, I’m a hopeless case by now. Jackson, you sonofabitch, you’ve roped me in all over again. THANK YOU.

I remain a fanboy. May that truly be said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “The Valar bless us, every one! Especially Gollum; his Christmases tend to suck. He did have this one eventful birthday, though.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

AHS: Predicting Season Three

Can you stand yet another bleeping post about American Horror Story? No? Okay, here’s yet another bleeping post about American Horror Story. As we know, it’s an anthology show, which means that each season is basically a self-contained story, although some actors, most notably Jessica Lange, reappear in different roles. So far, this has worked out very well; a third season has been ordered and Lange, at least, is confirmed to return. The big question on the lips of all AHS fans (besides “When do we get to see Evan Peters naked again?”) is, “What will Season Three be about?” I’ve got some ideas! Wanna hear them? No? Okay, here they are!

Small Town Terror
The show’s all about archetypes, and the American horror genre loooooooves the archetype of the small town. Y’know, the kind of place that huddles within the mountains or in the middle of a flat, Midwestern wasteland. The American dream personified -- and then turned on its head when the town is ravaged by something unspeakable. Roughly eighty percent of Stephen King novels have this plot. The townsfolk all know each other, and secrets abound, leading to all sorts of mystery and red herrings. There’s two possible scenarios: either the town is harboring a horrifying conspiracy (The Stepford Wives, Village of the Damned) or the town must band together to survive a frightening siege (The Blob, Tremors, most movies about giant bugs). Knowing AHS, we might get some of both. I personally think this is the most likely option for the show, in part because it just begs for a killer ensemble cast.
Returning Cast:
Denis O’Hare as the sleazy, corrupt town mayor. Connie Britton as his boozy wife who drinks to forget. Fredric Lehne as the evil developer who wants to turn everything into a strip mall. Zachary Quinto and Lily Rabe as the fresh-faced new couple in town, who are about to be put through the wringer. Jessica Lange as a crazy cat lady who lives in a decrepit manor and knows all the juiciest gossip.

Monster/Ghost Hunters
There’s this ongoing fad for TV shows in which overdramatic dudes wave cameras around in remote forests or abandoned pulp mills, looking for evidence of the paranormal. These shows can get pretty silly (“It wasn’t until we looked at the footage later that we noticed this FLYING WHITE BLOTCH!!!!!”), but it’d be pretty amusing to see AHS take on the genre. We follow a feckless film crew as they hunt for monsters or ghosts or whatever, and then witness them gradually lose their cool as shit starts getting real -- until what they are recording is a fight for their own survival and sanity. This would be a departure from the style AHS has shown so far, but I’d dig it. They’d be paying homage to the new wave of found-footage horrors that began with The Blair Witch Project and was kicked into high gear by Paranormal Activity. Not that they should rely entirely on handheld footage. Just have some. Poke gentle fun at monster-hunting while throwing lots of jump-out-of-your-seat moments at us. And Mothman. Put Mothman in there somewhere; I love that guy.
Returning Cast:
Evan Peters as the hotshot, douchebaggy star of the show. Chloë Sevigny as the snarky, heavily tattooed sound lady. Michael Graziadei as the dumb yet lovable cameraman. Ian McShane as a rugged outdoorsman with a thousand-mile stare. Charles S. Dutton as a long-suffering local sheriff. Jessica Lange as a ball-busting studio exec who (unwisely) flies out to the boonies to protect her investment.

Southern Gothic
Visit the deep South, AHS! It’s a treasure trove! Alligators, voodoo, death cults, crumbly old manor houses, quicksand, rednecks, killer bees, racism, chupacabras...the list goes on. When I suggested this on a forum somewhere, a whole bunch of people said, “HELL, yes!” After all, Ryan Murphy has this thing about dragging past and present social issues into his shows in a really overwrought way, and AHS has yet to really sink its claws into race relations. (The Kit/Alma romance goes there, but since it’s just a prologue to alien abduction, I don’t count it.) Oh, and somebody non-white on the main cast list MIGHT BE NICE. I’m just saying. Also, a story set in the South would lead to all kinds of sumptuous visuals, a wonderfully eerie sense of decayed former glory. Speaking of which, this is another genre that could easily hop around between past and present, assuming the show creators aren’t sick of that by now.
Returning Cast:
Britne Oldford as a chipper young waitress whose older brothers seem to be getting involved in some sort of weird cult. Sarah Paulson as a racist housewife in the 60s (yeah, I totally want to see her play a villain). Alexandra Breckenridge as an ominous Southern Belle whose multiple rich husbands all died under odd circumstances. Morris Chestnut as a black shopkeeper, also in the 60s, who tries to do the right thing in the midst of racial upheaval. Jessica Lange as Breckenridge’s mother, a spiteful Grande Dame who’s also the leader of the voodoo cult.

The End of the World
This one’s a major long shot,’d be kinda neat to see AHS tackle an apocalypse scenario. Some might call that science fiction, but there’s always been an undercurrent of terror when civilization crumbles -- not only are there irradiated mutants and such, but you’ve got the breakdown of basic human values, the transformation of ordinary people into desperate, lawless monsters. The innocent are the first to go. Murderous nutjobs and sociopaths rise to power through fear and violence. You get the picture. It’s bleak as can be, so it’s right up the alley of the AHS team. The main problem here is that there are currently two successful shows, The Walking Dead and Revolution, that are tackling this exact scenario. No matter what its own take, AHS would come across as derivative, and not in the “loving homage” kind of way. So I doubt this’ll happen...but I can dream.
Returning Cast:
Evan Peters as an ordinary working-class guy who becomes the haunted leader of a band of survivors. Connie Britton as an abused woman (now widow) who discovers she’ll do anything to protect her young children. Taissa Farmiga as a shy medical student whose healing knowledge comes in mighty handy. Ian McShane as the outwardly dignified, inwardly vicious leader of a dangerous bandit gang. Jessica Lange as a kindly old hippie (and former lover of McShane’s villain) who shelters the heroes in her fortified, solar-powered compound.

The Weird West
Will AHS set its main story in the past for the second year in a row? Probably not, but if it does, I know just when I want them to visit. Ghost Riders In the Sky, baby! Western-themed shows never quite seem to die, so how about giving us one with a horrific spin? Ghost towns with a ton of actual ghosts, Native American spirits, cannibalistic outlaws, maybe some giant killer groundhogs? If their budget could handle it, I’d be so down for Wild West shenanigans. We’d see the clash between myth and modernity, as the noble archetypes of the Old West slowly and sadly crumble into the desert sand. It’d be a poignant rumination on the fleeting nature of humankind and our dreams, or not, but it’d have undead cowboys either way, so what’s not to love?
Returning Cast:
Evan Peters as a rootin’ tootin’ outlaw with a good heart, who becomes a beleaguered town’s main defender. Lily Rabe, Lizzie Brocheré, and Clea DuVall as victimized yet resourceful prostitutes. Mark Margolis as the snaky town doctor, who’s gained an unholy monopoly on the local resources. Teddy Sears as a strange, ghostly gunslinger who roams the desert under the full moon. Frances Conroy as the matriarch of a reclusive family of werewolves (dude, they’ve gotta do lycanthropy at some point). Jessica Lange as the madame of the brothel, who does all kinds of unscrupulous shit to keep her girls safe.

I can safely say I’d be happy with any of these options. Actually, I’ll be onboard with anything they choose to do for Season Three, because they haven’t let us down yet. Long as it’s not zombies. I am so corpsefuckingly sick of zombies right now. But anything else is okay. We’ll check back next year when I’m (presumably) recapping Season Three. Can you stand me recapping future seasons of American Horror Story? No? Oh, man, it’s gonna rock.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

American Horror Story: Asylum--Episode 9

2.9: The Coat Hanger


--Sorry. It’s typically my tradition to scream in rage during TV show season finales, usually at the unfairness that I’ll have to wait awhile for more, and at the devilishness of the inevitable cliffhangers. Well, since this was the winter finale of AHS and there were all manner of cliffhangers and maybe-cliffhangers, I guess a scream of rage is called for. Damn this show and its twists.

--Okay, where to begin? Well, how about with the title? Lana spent much of the episode carrying around the titular object as she tried to gear herself up for two unsavory yet intensely desired tasks: A) killing Thredson and B) aborting the bouncing baby boy Thredson just planted in her womb. Sadly, she failed at both these tasks, because A) the abortion didn’t take because Bloody Face Jr. apparently has some sort of Super Placenta Shield, and B) Thredson got away, as we knew he would, and is now lurking somewhere in Briarcliff. Maybe he’s hiding behind his own eyebrows? We know he probably hasn’t taken off yet because Lana, who has become all kinds of kick-ass, manipulated him with the knowledge that he’s a baby daddy and tricked him into chatting about his murders while Kit recorded the whole thing on tape. That tape is safely hidden, but you can bet Thredson won’t rest until he finds it. So, Lana, I hope you weren’t planning on sleeping any time soon. Eh, she’s still better off than she was a couple eps ago.

--SPEAKING OF Bloody Face Jr., we have met the present-day version (or so we assume) and he’s a mulleted, scruffy-faced dude named Johnny Morgan (Dylan McDermott). Visiting a hapless female therapist (Brooke Smith, the lady who had to rub the lotion on her skin lest she get the hose again), Johnny wasted no time in confessing his gradual transition from skinning dead cats to murdering women, then demonstrated by offing the therapist. He’s also pretty damn sure that he is indeed the spawn of Oliver Thredson. Sadly, this doofus lacks Thredson’s finesse and did a pretty sloppy job turning Teresa (RIP, I guess) into a lampshade. I’m wondering where the present-day subplot is going, exactly, though I do love its strange trajectory. Wonder if Johnny will get to meet his birth mommy?

--Every time you think ex-Sister Jude has hit rock-bottom, deeper she goes. Now, in the best kind of irony, she herself is an unwilling inmate in Briarcliff, because her enemies -- Evil Eunice, Arden, and a very much alive Leigh Emerson -- ganged up to frame her for the murder of Frank. Monsignor Howard, who’s so fucking dumb that he shouldn’t get to live (more on that in a moment), ate it right up, and now Jude’s had to trade her habit for an unflattering institutional nightgown and listen while a fake-pious Emerson forgives her for her alleged crimes. But Jude ain’t stupid, and she has her sights set on Lana as a possible ally. Lana, being kick-ass, isn’t impressed, but this did lead to the most awesome moment in the episode: Jude smashing the fuck out of a certain vinyl LP and forever silencing the cringe-inducing strains of “Dominique.” Also, the best line in the episode, Lana’s snarky reaction: “Well, hot damn.” Kick-ass lady super-team, AWAAAAYYYYY!

--Rest in peace, Monsignor Howard. Um, maybe. Have you noticed how freaking hard to kill everyone is this season? Howard, being dumber than bricks, totally fell for Emerson’s newfangled religiosity and set about converting him into a good little apologetic Catholic. In the most predictable response ever, Emerson half-drowned Howard in the baptismal font and then crucified him like Christ, sexy white loincloth and everything. Man, Howard is built! Things ended with Howard begging for help to a kind-faced, black-clad lady in red lipstick. Yay, the Angel of Death’s back! But we didn’t actually see her take Howard’s soul off to a higher (or lower) plane, so I’m guessing he’ll linger for another couple episodes, given the track record.

--None of these things were quite the Big Twist, were they? The Big Big Twist began when Arden approached Kit and admitted his newfound belief in aliens, and unlike Emerson, he wasn’t kidding. In yet another unexpected alliance, Kit agreed to let Arden bring him to the brink of death, the reasoning being that the aliens have some sort of investment in Kit...or at least his sperm. It’s nice to see our good guys regaining control of their own destinies, even if it means taking such risks. I mean, what’s Kit got to lose at this point, except the chance to see Alma again? Arden rammed a needle into Kit’s finely sculpted pecs, and within seconds, things had gone all flashy and hummy. Only the aliens weren’t there to save Kit’s nicely toned ass, they were dropping off a couple passengers: Pepper, the long-vanished “pinhead,” now apparently cured of her mental handicap; and Grace, very much alive and very much pregnant. That’s the good news. The bad news is, Arden was so gobsmacked, he kinda forgot about the whole “bring Kit back to life” thing. But it’s okay, since NO ONE FUCKING DIES THIS SEASON. Can’t wait for Shelley the Nymphomaniac’s return!

--Yep, and now we get a winter hiatus, and things stand thusly. Kit is speeding toward death on an operating table. Howard’s dead or dying. Two psychos (Thredson and Emerson) are on the loose, two kick-ass ladies (Lana and Jude) are out for justice, and two wombs (Lana’s and Grace’s) are carrying presumably abnormal babies. Thus ends Act II of American Horror Story: Asylum. See you in January for the big four-episode climax, which is going to be bugfuck in sooooo many ways.

Monday, December 10, 2012


I love books; they’re one of my favorite things in the world. I also love movies based on books, although my love is thoroughly sprinkled with skepticism and paranoia. If a book you like is made into a good film, it’s kind of like tasting one of your favorite desserts after it’s prepared by a different talented chef. Problem is, sometimes the chef puts clam broth in the cake batter. It’s truly agonizing when a good book gets made into a bad movie, and the adaptation process is very fragile; it only takes one nervous studio exec to castrate a film with promise (ahh, Golden Compass, you coulda been a contender). Awesomely, this Fall saw a tilt in the opposite direction, as two movies based on “unfilmable” books were released to critical and commercial success. Both get my stamp of approval. So what makes a book “unfilmable”? Well, maybe nothing. Let’s have a look.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a book that basically screams, “DON’T FUCKING FILM ME, DAMMIT.” Six tenuously connected stories, each existing in its own time period and genre, presented in a distinctly un-cinematic format. It’s a good thing I hadn’t read the book far in advance, or I might have been terrified by the fact that the film version was being tackled by the freaking Wachowski siblings, last seen faceplanting with Speed Racer. On the other hand, joining them was Tom Tykwer, who made one of my favorite films (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), so there’s that. What they did was take a book that didn’t work as a movie and reassemble its stories in a way that did. And it was awesome. It works, oddly enough, because it isn’t a slavish adaptation. It is, instead, an explosion of interesting places and people all hitting our senses at once. We are seeing through the eyes of (in chronological order) a sickly American lawyer in the South Seas; a suicidal young composer; a spunky 1970s journalist up to her nostrils in corporate corruption; an elderly publisher wrongfully imprisoned in a nursing home; a revolutionary human clone in a futuristic Korea; and a humble goatherder from a tribal post-post-postapocalypse. These six stories are nested in the novel: each one is interrupted by the next, after which they all resolve themselves in reverse order. In the movie, all six occur at the same time, with much cross-cutting, and I admit that it’s not kind to the uninitiated. You may be confused, but you won’t be bored.

Why does such a fundamental change work in the movie’s favor? Well, I’ve always believed that a film adaptation should be able to stand on its own. Look at how much better the Harry Potter films became when they stopped diligently checking off plot points and began building actual atmosphere. The Cloud Atlas movie isn’t as profound as the book, isn’t as interested in exploring deep, almost subliminal themes of humanity and consciousness. Instead, it presents an easier-to-digest parable about the struggle for freedom and the constant reincarnation of ideas. This is demonstrated via the movie’s much-touted gimmick of having a core group of actors play multiple roles, often switching gender or race. This makeup-heavy process has mixed results; sometimes it’s inspired (Hugh Grant in a topknot and warpaint as a savage cannibal) and other times it’s grotesque (Hugh Grant in a blond jewfro and three inches of latex as an aging bourgeois). I think what matters most is the simple ability of the actors to slip comfortably into different skins, suggesting the reincarnation of a soul without overplaying it. As is often the case, the top-billed stars (Tom Hanks and Halle Berry) are less compelling than the B-listers. Jim Broadbent (as both a crotchety composer and the hapless book editor) is an absolute delight to watch, Ben Whishaw (as the young musical protégé) smolders like few actors can smolder, and Doona Bae (as the martyred clone) allows all kinds of complex emotions to simmer behind her placid, lovely face. The interesting mix of actors, and the range of characters they embody, imply that we’re all just variations on a theme, similar to the classical symphony, also titled Cloud Atlas, that stretches through all the time periods. The book was brilliant. The movie ain’t exactly brilliant, but it works as high-quality cinematic entertainment, balancing Big Ideas with rapturous visuals and expressive movie language. Filmable? Sure.

In another year, Cloud Atlas might have reached higher esteem, but it has the poor luck of sharing the season with Life of Pi, a goddamn masterpiece. The original novel by Yann Martel was also considered unfilmable -- not for its structure or themes, but for the sheer novelty and technical challenges of its premise. If you haven’t heard, it’s about a young Indian boy who spends the better part of a year aboard a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, sharing this tiny space with a bengal tiger. How the hell do you depict such a journey on film? More importantly, how do you not mishandle the book’s graceful themes of faith and fate? Well, for starters, you hire a director as consistently good as Ang Lee (Jesus, I remember when I was excited that M. Night Shyamalan might helm this. How times change). Then you ignore any concerns about dark subject matter or technical obstacles and just stick closely to the book. You invest in lyrical special effects that add great beauty to the story rather than burying it. And you utilize 3D as a tool, a paintbrush that layers image on top of image in a dreamy collage, rather than a ploy to put more butts in theater seats. Blend well, serve with a side of childlike wonder. Boom.

I loved Life of Pi, as did most critics. The book is one of my favorites and my optimism about the film version was rewarded. While Cloud Atlas took a tricky novel and made it into something more accessible, Lee and the team behind Life of Pi simply said, “Why can’t we make this story as the author made it?” I’m so happy they had the freedom to do so. Neither the boy nor the tiger is diminished or sentimentalized. Pi (played with fierceness and grace by Suraj Sharma) is defined by his faith, religious and otherwise, but although he’s a lovable hero, he also does all the stupid, awkward things we would do in a crisis. He’s real, even though his adventures may not be, and as an older man (Irrfan Khan) telling his story, he never glosses over the things that haunt him. The tiger, named Richard Parker and played mostly by a lifelike collection of pixels, is a fucking TIGER, not a Disney cuddlepuss. He wants to eat Pi. Pi wants to not be eaten. Therefore, some common ground must be painfully carved out between the two as they rub elbows in the fragile, floating space that has become their entire world. The great triumph of the film is not that Pi and the tiger become “buddies,” but that they come to acknowledge each other’s right to live. That’s all they can hope for. It’s a harsh world, so harsh that the film’s escape into dream logic comes as a relief. Late in the story, truly fantastic events occur, and the film presents these with an unforced realism, as it does the final “twist” that redefines everything we see. It’s possible that Pi adapts his own story into something easier to bear, and that makes Life of Pi so much more powerful as both a book and a movie. It becomes metafiction. Filmable? Good grief, yes.

I have one more movie to bring up, and just to warn you, this might turn into a mild rant. I haven’t seen the new Anna Karenina with Kiera Knightley and Jude Law, but I’d like to; the trailer made it look sumptuous, striking, and steamy. I’ve never read the book, either; not my preferred genre at all. But I don’t need to be a Tolstoy buff to be amused/annoyed by the lukewarm critical reaction to this film. It hasn’t gotten awful reviews, but it has plenty of detractors and, according to Rotten Tomatoes, holds a lower approval rating than Cloud Atlas. The biggest complaint? Style over substance! The filmmakers are more interested in visual fireworks than really unpacking the characters and story! Bah, humbug! And this is where I have to roll my eyes. Anna Karenina 2012 certainly looks cool; much of it was filmed on a single stage and said stage is frequently visible onscreen, presenting the story as an archetypal play, the Famous Love Story. And such flair is unacceptable? The original novel is far from “unfilmable”; this is only the latest in a series of film adaptations. Yeah, the novel is considered a classic, but then, it is agreed that Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi are both modern classics. So why is poor Anna held to a harsher standard?

The unspoken rule seems to be that, when it comes to an older, more revered story, you’re required to be more respectful. Well, do you think the people who made Anna Karenina 2012 weren’t intending to be respectful? What they’ve made is a film that takes an old story and realizes it in the language of modern cinema. Modern cinema speaks to us visually, with sights and colors that engage our senses. It’s sumptuous; it begs to be devoured. Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi are such feasts, and they received accolades for it. But Anna Karenina doesn’t deserve a place at the table because it should be, what? More austere? Less opulent? Gimme a break. I’d bet you anything that the new Anna will be viewed and enjoyed by a lot of people who wouldn’t have touched the book with a ten-foot pole, and maybe some of them will go on to read the book and be enlightened. What’s wrong with that? A classic work of fiction is not reserved for dusty academics who will “respect” it more than other people will. What a weird double standard. Here we have two “unfilmable” novels that were made into wonderful, gorgeous movies, and a very filmable novel that, apparently, is punished for attempting the same thing. I call bullshit.

My final take? Nothing is unfilmable. It’s just that some things are filmed poorly. However, the movies I just discussed reveal a possible, exciting new trend, the blending of a novel’s highfaluting themes with a dynamic modern filmmaking style to create something enticing for the senses, the mind, and the emotions. I say, all three of these films succeed. In fact, I wouldn’t mind more adaptations like them, especially of all those venerable classics that are supposedly on too high a pedestal. I love books, I love movies, and I love their latest marriage. And...what’s the tagline? You can’t ask why about love. So there.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

American Horror Story: Asylum--Episode 8

2.8: Unholy Night

--Ian McShane plays a killer Santa Claus. Seriously, should I even keep writing? Ian McShane plays a killer Santa Claus. Yeah, no real need to extend the recap beyond this point. Ian McShane plays a killer Santa Claus.

--In the name of professionalism, I shall keep writing, even though this ep was basically a blip. The thing about Christmas episodes is that they tend to focus more on one-shot holiday hijinks than actual plot momentum. Of course, you know that this particular take on Christmas is gonna make Bing Crosby turn over in his grave, and sure enough, the episode was basically a 45-minute raping of the holiday spirit, from the opening bloodbath to the tree decorated with false teeth, human hair, and IV bags. It was nihilistic, it was perversely fun, and not much happened, really. I’ll let that go this one time. Because it’s Christmas.

--Mmm, Ian McShane. Some people were just born to play bad. The craggy face, the drunken-Shakespeare voice -- you can’t picture him as a romantic hero, but you can sure as hell picture him attempting to violate a nun. McShane played Leigh Emerson, a man imprisoned for minor crimes one lonely Christmas, then gang-sodomized by prison guards. The result? He snapped, and in 1962, he donned a Santa suit and went on a Christmas Eve murder spree. He’s been rotting away in Briarcliff ever since, but for this ep, he got to run amok one last time as part of Evil Eunice’s rather convoluted scheme to get rid of her enemies. Kinda nice, to get a reminder that Sister Jude has, in the past, been a gigantic bitch who’d torment a man, even a psychotic man, with little care for curing him. She threw Emerson into the darkness and tonight, it came back to haunt her. Locked in by Evil Eunice and savaged by Emerson, Jude had the strength to stab and kill the brute, but now what? One demon is dead, but Jude’s still more or less at the mercy of a greater foe. Or foes. Because...

--Arden’s as evil as ever. Who else would think a set of ruby earrings that had repeatedly passed through a death camp victim’s digestive tract would make a lovely holiday gift? Arden may be pissed that he no longer has his perverted psycho-sexual-religious-daddy fantasies about Eunice, but he fears her more than he hates her. Poor Jude should’ve realized, but when Arden came seeking her help in dealing with Eunice, her pride and ego were just intact enough that she fell for it. It was a double-cross, of course, all designed to get Jude locked in with Emerson. Okay, I have to finally say it: I am not a fan of James Cromwell’s performance as Arden. It’s not really his fault; dude’s one hell of an actor. But Arden is a very one-note character, more ghastly archetype than human, and Cromwell’s perpetually bitchy, pissed-off delivery has worn thin with me. I almost wish they’d killed him off in the first act; let him do his mad doctor bit and then pass the reins entirely over to more entertaining villains Evil Eunice and Thredson. Buuuuut, you don’t hire James Cromwell and not go for your money’s worth, so I’ll suffer in silence from now on. Maybe.

Other, more relevant stuff that happened:

--Grace’s body was alien-snatched as Arden attempted to dispose of her in the Death Chute. Wonder if the aliens are gonna occupy her form or something. Also, Arden sure is calm considering all the crazy, impossible-to-explain shit he keeps bumping into. Spider-legged microchips, telekinetic nuns, body-snatching lights...all in a Nazi’s day’s work.

--Lana and Kit have become a super-team, yay! Good thing, since they have zero allies otherwise. When Lana tried to phone for help, Thredson appeared boogeymanishly and revealed that he’s destroyed all the evidence that would incriminate him. But before he could drag Lana away for live skinning, take two, Kit saved the day. Now our two wrongfully imprisoned hotties have the best piece of evidence possible: Thredson himself, bound and gagged in a remote closet. Niiiiiiice. Kick his ass, Lana!

--Frank the guard was murdered by Evil Eunice, and it was actually pretty sad. He started as your typical unpleasant minion, but turned out to be a decent fellow with plenty of compassion for those who deserved it. His death was easy to predict, but he’ll be missed.

--Monsignor Howard is a huge tool. A huuuuuuuuge tool. Which we already knew. But still.

--This was all fine and dandy, but since Christmas only comes once a year and Ian McShane is only affordable for one episode, can we get back on track next week, show? We can? Good; I’m gonna hold you to that. Don’t make me deck your halls.

--PS: Thanks to various interviews and the power of Twitter, it’s now 100% confirmed that Dylan McDermott is Bloody Face 2012. Ah, well, I can’t be right about everything. Now we get to speculate on who the character really is (biggest theory: he’s Lana and Thredson’s rape-baby). Also, is he gonna get naked a lot like last season? I’m down.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

American Horror Story: Asylum--Episode 7

2.7: Dark Cousin

--I think a few people might worry that the show jumped the shark with this episode. Don’t worry, guys; if there’s one show that’s immune to shark-jumping, it’s American Horror Story, because their storytelling strategy is to seduce and have sex with the shark on a bed of flaming bacon. The Angel of Death? Well, why not? There are plenty of forces beyond our understanding at work here, from aliens to the (apparent) Devil himself. Are they all just different manifestations of the same intangible cosmic Whatever? Maybe. But I thought it fitting that we should get a glimpse of the mysteries beyond, as well as a kinder, more tender interpretation. Anyway, I’m too busy mourning the death of one of my favorite characters to worry about shark-jumping. Sniff.

--Death is a gentle-faced woman all in black. Death has red lipstick, a cool hat, leather gloves, and fearsome black wings that pop open as she does her work. Death is played by Frances Conroy, who was the ghostly housemaid in Season One. And Death She was summoned to Briarcliff to take a sad, demented prisoner named Miles, but she’s always out there, everywhere. Evil Eunice was frightened by her appearance, even though Death didn’t seem all that interested in dueling with her fallen cousin. Interesting to note that even the Devil fears some things. There’s a hierarchy at work here. If you take the Biblical version at face value, then the thing currently occupying Eunice’s body is a fallen angel itself. If you take Neil Gaiman’s Sandman at face value (which I totally prefer), Death is the anthropomorphic manifestation of something that’s been around for as long as the Universe itself, and will be the last thing to exit when it all comes to an end. Am I getting too big-picture here? Probably. But I like these themes, and Conroy was elegant in her role, implying much while remaining a true enigma.

--Death was there for Sister Jude, who’s not ready to die just yet; nope, she’s got more painful soul-searching to do, and one huge wrong to right. She knows it’s Evil Eunice who’s the real monster. Evil Eunice knows she knows. But the law ain’t exactly on Jude’s side, and she had to flee Goodwin’s death scene. A chat with Death in a diner revealed that Jude’s been brushing against those dark wings for a long time, ever since her husband gave her syphilis, left her barren, blamed her for it all, and tossed her aside (welcome back, heavy-handed misogyny!). Jude decided she had to finally confess to her hit-and-run of that little girl, Missy, so she went to Missy’s parents...only to discover that Missy survived the crash and is now a nurse. Awkward turtle! Yeah, but did you see the look on Missy’s dad’s face? He figured out that Jude was the driver of the car that almost killed his daughter, but he stayed silent. Forgiveness? Let’s hope so, because SISTER Motherfucking Jude needs to slap that habit back on and go exorcise the FUCK out of a certain possessed bitch.

--Death was there for Lana, and though it was surely tempting, she said no. For now. Tormented and raped by Thredson (lending more strength to the popular theory that Lana will be the mother of 2012 Bloody Face), Lana actually managed to beat up the bastard and escape when he lost patience with her. Wow, that was sooner than I thought! Sadly, Lana jumped into a car driven by William Mapother, aka, Ethan from Lost (AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!), here playing a fucked-up asshole who was about thirty seconds away from blowing his own brains out, and did, after ranting about how evil women are (we sure didn’t miss you, heavy-handed misogyny!). And where did Lana wake up? Fucking BRIARCLIFF. For fuck’s sake. If there’s an Angel of Shitty Luck, she must be following Lana everywhere with a giant spiked hammer. Anyway, now Evil Eunice knows for sure that Thredson is Bloody Face, and it’s unclear what she’s gonna do with this info. Ah, well, her Evil Master Plan is nothing if not flexible.

--Finally, Death was there for Grace. NOOOOOOOO, not Grace! I’m in mourning. But it kinda makes sense. Grace is the type of Dickensian character to die tragically. After her horrible vaginal ordeal at the three-pronged hands of the aliens (they must be heavy-handed misogynists too!), she was nursed back to health by Dr. Arden, who apparently gets really pissy when people accuse him of inhuman surgery that he didn’t do. Kit, meanwhile, went on the lam (you’d think they’d guard the supposed Bloody Face a little better), broke back into Briarcliff (guess the forest monsters had the day off), and tried to save Grace. If you haven’t guessed by all the parentheses, I found all this a wee bit contrived. Likewise, the sudden appearance of Spivey in psychotic monster form was...sudden. But what it all led up to was Grace taking a bullet for Kit, then smiling in relief as that gentle-faced, black-winged lady with the red lipstick appeared a final time to spirit her spirit away forever. RIP, Grace. It wouldn’t have worked out between you and Kit anyway -- after all, Kit’s wife is still alive on a UFO somewhere, and if Kit and Alma don’t get some kind of happy ending, I will be angry.

--Interesting ep, all in all. I doubt we’ll see the Angel of Death again, unless she reappears at the very end to kiss Sister Jude, who’s probably ready to pass on by now. But first, like I said, she has work to do. And (teaser alert) it’s almost Christmas. Silent Night, Holy Night, NUNFIGHT!

Friday, November 23, 2012

American Horror Story: Asylum--Episode 6

2.6: The Origins of Monstrosity

--It’s interesting...I really enjoyed this ep, yet I feel like it didn’t quite achieve its goals. As the title suggests, it was all about the backstories of its various bad guys, but while we learned a lot of info, the waters got muddied when it came to the actual why. Why are some people evil? What little brainworm causes dark deeds, and why can some seeming innocents (like Sister Eunice or Monsignor Howard) be so easily corrupted? Yeah, we got factual reasons (Eunice being sexually ridiculed in her former life; Howard’s misplaced nobility), but I’m not sure AHS is quite profound enough to go deeper. Evil happens, is the basic message here. Evil is a formless je ne sais quoi that you can never quite escape, and some people make the perfect vessels. I’d like a little more unpacking of the concept, but I may not find it here. That said, fun ep!

--I’m impressed by the present-day subplot. Each ep devotes mere minutes to it (or leaves it out entirely), yet it’s turning into a truly engaging mini-movie with twists and turns galore. It’d be kinda interesting to edit together all the present-day scenes by themselves and see how they held up. Anyway, a sinister voice on the phone summons the cops to Briarcliff, where they find the Bloody Face posers hanging lifeless from that cool central stairway. So much for them. They also found Leo’s body (looks like the dude’s finally, FINALLY dead), but Teresa’s was missing. Because she ain’t dead; she’s strapped down in yet another torture room, at the mercy of Bloody Face, 2012 Edition. Yeeeeeehaw! Okay, so we only got a glimpse of 2012 BF, but...did “his” arms look rather feminine, or was it just me? The voice on the phone could’ve been electronically altered (there’s a report that it’s Dylan McDermott, who is confirmed to return this season, but I’m not sure I buy that). I still love my pet theory that 2012 BF is Sister Eunice, but now we have a new suspect. Who?

--Why, the subject of this week’s One-Shot Subplot, that most beloved of horror archetypes, the Creepy Little Girl! Meet Evil Jenny (Nikki Hahn), a solemn-faced moppet who kills her pals with scissors, and who is obviously inspired by Rhoda Penmark, and also possibly by Wednesday Addams. Evil Jenny’s creeped-out mother tried to abandon her at Briarcliff, the worst possible place to stick a prepubescent sociopath, and sure enough, Evil Jenny’s little nose led her to Evil Eunice, who sent the girl further down the path of evilhood with a truly awesome-to-watch relish. By the episode’s end, Evil Jenny had slaughtered her entire family, and is now a candidate for modern-day Bloody Face. All this was great, but still didn’t quite shed enough light on the origin of evil. So, some people are inherently rotten, is that it? But Evil Jenny’s the only inherently evil character we’ve seen; even Arden thinks he’s doing good. It’s alarming to think people like her exist in real life (and they do), but are we just supposed to shrug and chalk it up as one of those Great Mysteries? Oh, well.

--Back to Arden thinking he’s doing good...his sort-of origin story was pretty sweet. The sad, drawn-out tale of Shelly the Nymphomaniac has finally come to a close. Who was there to give her last rites and euthanize her? Monsignor Howard and his weird accent, of course! And now we know the truth: Arden/Gruper worked in Briarcliff back when it was a tuberculosis ward, and Howard kept him on upon learning of his “noble” experiments. Using a lovely cocktail of syphilis and TB, Arden’s attempting to create superpeople who can weather not only disease, but nuclear war. Great! Too bad they eat human flesh and look like someone deep-fat fried them. Howard’s understandably pissed to see what Arden’s doing to his victims, but Arden cheerfully promises to drag Howard down with him if he’s exposed. Jesus Horrorshow Christ, Howard, grow a fucking spine. God’s on your side, remember?

--Awww, poor Sister Jude came this close to spilling the beans on Arden, but was foiled by Evil Eunice, who just can’t wait for Jude to be gone so she can do far more than prance around in stolen red undies. Arden arm-twisted Howard into giving Sister Jude the sack. Sister Jude managed to lift fingerprints off Arden. But then Evil Eunice found out about the hired Nazi-hunter, Goodwin, and murdered the shit out of him. Oh, but even the Devil can’t see everything coming: Goodwin stayed alive long enough to reveal to Jude that his killer was a nun. Ooohh, does Sister Jude get to play detective now? I sure hope so! I’ve gone from hating that bitch’s guts to really wanting her to kick some ass. But since I’m also perversely rooting for Evil Eunice, things are getting conflicted.

--One more sort-of origin story: Thredson/Bloody Face. He’s basically reverted to a combination of Norman Bates and Eli Roth’s character from Inglourious Basterds. It’s Mommy Issues, yay! Specifically, the fact that Thredson never had a mommy and is now projecting some sort of psychosexual motherhood onto dead women of a particular age. Only he can’t get his mental rocks off unless he skins them alive. Ooookay, we’ll go with that. He really wants Lana to be the Mama Bates to his Norman, and Lana’s smart enough to play along and humor him. She even talked him out of killing her at the last second, which struck me as slightly contrived. Zach Quinto’s doing a good job of selling the new Thredson (and making him distinctly different from his first serial killer role, Sylar from Heroes), but Thredson’s blended gazpacho of psychosis is a bit too cinematic and derivative for my taste. I still love the scenes between those two; such chemistry! Even if this episode didn’t really dive into the origins of monstrosity, it still gave plenty of bang for my buck. Is it okay to say this season keeps getting better?

--I miss Grace and the aliens. Bring them back! Also, “Grace and the Aliens” would be a good name for a pretentious indie band.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

American Horror Story: Asylum--Episode 5

2.5: I Am Anne Frank, pt. 2

--Yeah. Just gonna gloat for a few minutes here. Because, in fact, I called it. Called it ages ago. Bloody Face is exactly who I said he’d be. I am so fucking brilliant that I just want to buy myself an ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles. And if anyone wants to congratulate me on my brilliance, I will happily accept your accolades. Happily. Anyone?

--Okay, okay, I’m blowing this out of proportion. I’m sure plenty of other people guessed Bloody Face’s identity. It’s like last season when Taissa Farmiga didn’t realize she was dead for several episodes. Some things are just sooooo foreshadowed in every way. C’mon, it’s always the nicest-seeming dude who has the most to hide! And they’re always filming Thredson from demonic angles! And he totally does the Sylar voice half the time! So maybe it wasn’t really out of the blue, but because this show is what it is, there were still a few additional twists I didn’t see coming. Will I unpack them? I sure will.

--This week continued to focus on human evil, with an emphasis on the rotten things men do to women. This was best (worst?) displayed in the conclusion of the sad tale of “Anne Frank.” Only she’s not Anne Frank, is she? Nope, her husband arrived at Briarcliff and spilled the beans: Anne’s real name is Charlotte and she’s got massive post-partum. Trapped in the stifling, colorless existence of a housewife and mother (depicted in queasily-tinted home video footage; I love how this show does flashbacks), Charlotte found a bit too much solace in the tale of the little girl murdered by Nazis. Perhaps, to her, it became the perfect metaphor for the squashing of femininity by the all-mighty phallus of authority. When Anne/Charlotte went home to her well-meaning but smug husband and generic baby, her dementia only grew worse...and Dr. Arden was all too happy to tap an orbitoclast into her eyeball and turn her into the perfect Stepford Wife every man craves! So Anne’s gone...not dead, but gone. And her secrets die with her. Notice that it was never definitively proven that she wasn’t really Anne Frank. And a photo on her wall revealed young Dr. Arden -- sorry, Dr. Gruper -- standing right behind Hitler at a rally. Thus dies freedom; thus does the terrible cycle continue.

--During her tragic monologue, Sister Jude had a line about how God always answers our prayers, but never in the way we expect. That line hung over the episode, I think. People got what they wanted, but always with that ghastly twist. Sister Jude herself completed her downward spiral, as she went and hired a Nazi-hunter to expose Arden, only to discover that her entire claim fell apart without Anne Frank. Arden, the ultimate smug male authority figure, shut Sister Jude down with a little help from Evil Eunice, and by the episode’s end, Judy had tossed aside her wimple and re-embraced booze, tobacco, and having depressing sex with random strangers she meets in bars. Yes, dammit, I do feel bad for her. In a twisted way, I do want her back at Briarcliff, terrorizing inmates and being a huge bitch. Why does this show jerk me around so much?

--Shelly’s subplot continues to crawl forward (lol, see what I did there?). Arden tasked Evil Eunice with disposing of the hapless amputee, but because it’s Evil Eunice, she decided to dump Shelly next to an elementary school so she could make some Dicks and Janes shit their pants. I do wonder what Evil Eunice’s ultimate scheme is. Is she blowing the lid on Arden? Maybe she’s trying to get rid of all her superiors -- Sister Jude, Arden, the Monsignor -- and reign supreme over Briarcliff. And then what a naughty, naughty girl she shall be! Is it wrong that I kinda want to see that?

--This week’s twist-I-in-no-way-saw-coming: Grace takes a trip to Alienville! Holy shit! The poor girl was alone and waiting to be sterilized, but before that could happen, they came for her. Nope, not the orderlies, the ALIENS. HEEEEERE THEY COME TO SAVE THE DAAAYYY! Or something. Grace got a repeat of Kit’s unpleasant prodding and probing in a bare, white-lit nether-space, but at least there was this lovely pregnant lady standing over her the whole time, saying, “Don’t be afraid. My name is Alma.” HOLY SHIT! Next day, Grace was dazed and bloody (bloody from the aliens, or the sterilization?), but she did manage to scream out this rather important bit of news to Kit as Kit was being dragged away to fry for the Bloody Face murders. Well, this should definitely start an interesting new chapter in both Grace’s and Kit’s stories -- but Kit has to avoid execution first. Why would the good Dr. Thredson betray him?

--OH, RIGHT. Because this whole time, Thredson was setting Kit up to be the fall guy. Poor, poor Lana walked right out of Briarcliff with Thredson, and right into mortal peril. Honestly, any sane person would take one look at Thredson’s sinister bachelor pad and guess the truth, even before they saw that the lampshades had nipples. That scene built and built and built and built in the best slasher movie fashion, and there was that sublimely awful moment when both of them looked at each other and silently acknowledged what was finally out in the open. Thredson dropped Lana through a trapdoor and she awoke in the Saw franchise: chained down in a tiled abattoir next to the frosty corpse of her lover with Thredson looming over her in full-on Bloody Face getup. Yep. Called it. Although...I predicted Thredson would be unmasked but I also kinda thought he’d be fucking caught. Now things ain’t looking good for Lana, but if Thredson’s a good little serial killer, he’ll toy with his prey before skinning it, and that should give our dogged reporter time to escape. Whether she escapes with all her body parts intact...that’s another story.

-Oh, my, this show has gotten juicy. I love never quite knowing what happens next. The first act of Asylum has drawn to a close. Act II is gonna be all the way to fucking Mars. Maybe literally.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Top 10 TV Shows

Here’s something you might find shocking: I hate television. Seriously. I didn’t grow up with that shit in the house and I see no reason why kids these days should be allowed to even watch. TV is, without a doubt, largely responsible for American’s steady decline in brains and increase in cholesterol levels. Don’t try to tell me I’m wrong, not when ninety percent of all TV shows are shrieking contests between vile, self-inflated “stars” whom we all want to drop into mincing machines. Or vapid popularity contests bolstering the myth that anyone can be famous. Oh, wait...thanks to TV, anyone can be famous, as evidenced by the fact that Jeff Dunham exists. Yeah, TV is a pile of festering sludge and I hate it.

That said, there are some really great TV shows out there. Hey, even a well-used toilet produces an occasional diamond amidst the floaters. (Or it does in my house; I always assumed that was normal.) I don’t watch television but I do seek out shows that catch my eye, and sometimes, I am rewarded. Here are my faves.

(Disclaimer: Dang-Blasted hates TV. Never forget this.)

10. Robot Chicken
I remember being in 5th or 6th grade when South Park came into being, and utterly obsessing over this cartoon that featured adult humor and that our parents didn’t want us to see. Since then, we’ve witnessed the rise of the grown-up TV cartoon (by “grown-up,” of course, I mean “primarily aimed at college fratboys”) and I confess to a couple faves. Robot Chicken has pretty much nailed the formula for lowbrow laughs; they know how to surprise us with hit-and-run gags and unlikely pop culture pairings, and since they’re making the show for their own generation, they’re fully aware of which facets of childhood we’d most like to see ruined. The Smurfs star in a parody of Se7en? Sign me up! I had trouble choosing between this and Family Guy, but the latter lost points for its regular forays into pointlessly cruel humor. Robot Chicken is only cruel when it honestly makes the gag funnier, and there’s not enough of that in TV cartoon comedy, so kudos. Also, they get an A for sheer effort. Stop motion ain’t easy!

9. The Adventures of Pete & Pete
As a tyke, I would watch Nickelodeon all day at my grandparents’ house (thinking all the while on how much I hated television, of course). Some of those shows stuck with me, none more than the ones that gained new meaning as I grew up. The Adventures of Pete & Pete is an absolute buried treasure of children’s programming. Its kooky, bizarre, stylized version of suburban life in the ’90s is dead-on. You see, from the point of view of a child or teen, the world is kind of like that. Mundane things like math tests, romantic prospects, and sibling rivalries take on the weight of an epic quest and the gravitas of a religious text. This show basically wrote its own mythology, and it’s beautiful. Just watch Mike Maronna (as Big Pete) intone the narration, his eyes locked onto the camera like laser beams. Didn’t matter what he was talking about; to him, it was always, at that moment, the Most Important Information In Human History. Every adolescent has felt that way, and it takes a retroactive viewing of Pete & Pete to make us realize that someone knew. And they made it into a show, bless them.

8. The Muppet Show
You may notice that all of these early entries (the next one, too) are comedies that rely heavily on out-of-nowhere humor. Guess my comedic preferences are pretty obvious, huh? I truly adore the Muppets, and although I was too unborn to appreciate their show back when it first aired, I can safely say that it’s utterly timeless. What you see when you watch The Muppet Show is a lot of people having a lot of fun, doing something they love so much that time and effort are no objects. Actually, you don’t ever really see Jim Henson and his merry band, because they disappear so well into the beloved fuzzy forms of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, Rowlf, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, the Swedish Chef, Dr. Teeth and his Electric Mayhem, and all the other dozens of characters they invented to entertain us. There’s so much for viewers of all ages to laugh at and I’m quite sure that the Muppets have achieved immortality by now. Introduce this show to a child sometime. If they’re going to watch, let them watch something joyous.

7. Metalocalypse
This show is disgusting. Tasteless. Degenerate. And watching it gives me many Earl-Grey-out-the-nostrils moments. Metalocalypse proves that gross-out humor works just fine when it’s played with a wink-winky satirical slant. It charts the adventures of Dethklok, the world’s most popular heavy metal band (despite the fact that they’re pretty fucking terrible), and provides a spot-on running parody of celebrity culture, as the delusional band members live out the American dream of ultimate excess and decadence, yet routinely fall prey to their own crippling insecurities. News flash: When you can literally have anything you want, it doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. You could read this show as a sobering look at how irrelevant our lives really are when you strip away material wealth...or you could just ignore all that and enjoy it because it’s rip-roaringly funny in the most NSFW of ways.

6. Mythbusters
A lot of shows are good for half-watching while you do something else. I could half-watch Mythbusters all day. It’s another example of people doing something they love, and it’s hard not to be jealous -- and hard not to appreciate the sheer amount of effort and resources (do they even have a budget cap?) put into each investigation, whether they’re trying to murder a motorist with a flying soda can (Busted!), scaring elephants with mice (Confirmed!), or seeing if a deep-sea diver can be sucked into his own helmet (Confirmed, in the grossest way possible). The contrast between Adam Savage’s cackling mania and Jamie Hyneman’s deadpan grouchiness is perfect; they’re the little angel and devil on everyone’s shoulder when we’re tempted to try something crazy just to see what’ll happen. The Mythbusters crew risk their necks and cause excessive explosions so we don’t have to, and I thank them for it. If I didn’t hate TV so much, I might think I was actually learning something!

5. American Horror Story
C’mon, I’m recapping this show right now. Would I do that if I hadn’t fallen in love with its particular brand of batshit? I’ve written a lot of stuff about AHS lately so I won’t go on for too long, but I honestly consider it a delightful love letter to the horror genre. Yeah, it goes over the top on a weekly basis, but like Metalocalypse, it’s tacky and grotesque in a very self-aware kind of way, and its cast is biting into their larger-than-life roles with relish. I’m intrigued by the contrast between the slower-paced haunts of Season One and the jagged roller-coaster ride of Season Two. Makes me wonder what they’ll do next! Occult terrors? Monster hunting? Evil kitchen appliances? Whatever ghastly object they pull out of their toybox next, I’ll be there. Hopefully, so will Jessica Lange.

4. Gargoyles
It can’t quite be emphasized how much ass this show kicks. It’s the sort of show people bring up when they grumble about how much better children’s programming used to be. Seriously, Gargoyles -- in which a clan of Scottish beasties (with American accents) are magically turned to stone, then awaken in modern-day Manhattan -- is dark, epic, thematically rich, and character-driven in a way that most cartoons can only dream of. Yeah, it was on the Disney channel and so included a bunch of wholesome moral messages, but wholesome moral messages are a lot easier to swallow when delivered by badass winged monsters. Didn’t hurt that they had such sexy voice talent as Keith David, Marina Sirtis, and Jonathan Frakes. Or that series creator Greg Weisman snuck a gay character past the censors (helloooo, Lexington!). Both the show and its spinoff comic ended too quickly, but they left an indelible impression; how many kiddie toons can boast their own fan convention? Yes, quality entertainment can be found in the most unlikely places.

3. Azumanga Daioh
Why do I love this weird anime about Japanese schoolgirls? Kinda hard to say. Part of it’s the aforementioned spontaneous humor, but I think it has more to do with plain old good vibes. It’s just a show about a batch of teenage girl stock types -- the space case, the prodigy, the ADHD victim, the hot introvert, etc. -- and the trials and tribulations of secondary school. It’s very wacky and random in that fluid anime way where the characters’ emotions alter their physical appearance to an absurd degree. It features, among other things, a creepy/goofy pedophile, a lovestruck budding lesbian, and flying pigtails. It seems dumb and probably is on many levels, but...watching it makes me feel really good. I adore, just adore, the characters. I root for them. I laugh at them, but in a sympathetic way. For all its weird shit, this show is incredibly faithful in its depiction of innocent adolescence. It’s more real than anything you’ll see in the cesspool of “reality TV.” And it makes me laugh my ass off. Two for two!

2. Fringe
I am amazed at how much Fringe has done with a tired premise. It began life as a seemingly blatant X-Files ripoff -- FBI agents investigate strange phenomena, case-of-the-week, yawn -- but those who stuck with it were rewarded, because everything changed when it became clear that its bizarre incidents and human mutations were caused, not by aliens or government spooks or the paranormal, but by an entire parallel universe bumping up against our own. Since then, Fringe has bent our minds into all kinds of strange configurations, as reality has shifted, the actors have gotten to play alternate versions of their characters, and each season has brought new surprises. It seems like too brainy a show to survive, but its fans (me included) have helped keep it going for five awesome seasons, the last of which is airing right now. This show DESERVED to go out with a bang, and happy endings of this sort are rare in the merciless world of TV ratings. I adore every gooey, freaky, shape-shifty, time-warpy second of it. And somebody should be arrested for never giving John Noble an Emmy for his work as brain-damaged scientist Walter Bishop; the man redefines not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

1. Lost
I just...couldn’t...put any other show at number one. I followed Lost through its entire run and the degree to which I got invested in it was frankly embarrassing. Is it a perfect show? Of course not. Its overly convoluted mythology alienated a ton of fans, especially when it ended. (Metaphysics instead of answers! You’re welcome!) But I forgive the show its trespasses, because for me, the journey really did matter more than the destination. You can call that a cop-out if you like. Lost succeeded when all its imitators failed because it was intensely character-driven, because its collection of dysfunctional souls stranded on a mysterious island became, over those six seasons, among the most rich and fascinating characters out there, each with his or her own personal journey. Yeah, there were polar bears and time travel, smoke monsters and 1970s-era comic book science and some bibble-babble about the Nature of Good and Evil, but what mattered most was that we cared for our heroes. We desperately wanted them to come out okay. Or I did. I may have cried a bit at the end. But don’t tell anyone.

Because, like I keep saying, television sucks and I hate it. These shows are just flukes. I swear.

Ooooh, Homeland looks really good...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

American Horror Story: Asylum--Episode 4

2.4: I Am Anne Frank, pt. 1

--We make our own demons, my friends. We create our own horror stories and then live in them. Sometimes we mean well. Sometimes we see someone who seems unnatural to us and want to help them in the only way we know. Sometimes we honestly think the human race will sicken and die if certain types of person are allowed to exist. Sometimes we’re pious, sometimes we’re guilty, sometimes we have no choice but to go down a terrible path. This week on American Horror Story, there were no aliens, no Bloody Face, no forest-dwelling monsters. Even Evil Eunice had most of the episode off. Nope, this week, it was all about human evil. And was it ever compelling!

--So, as teased last week, Anne Frank has arrived at Briarcliff. Or someone who claims she’s Anne Frank and is damned convincing. Played by the fiery Franka Potente, “Anne” sports a death camp tattoo and a martyr complex; according to her, it’s better to remain anonymous and let herself be remembered as the young girl who died because of Nazi evil. Which begs the question of why Anne got herself tossed into Briarcliff in the first place. Is she crazy? Does she believe her own story? She certainly seemed horrified and furious at the sight of Dr. Arden, who (according to Schindler’s List-style black and white flashbacks) was once an SS officer at Auschwitz, prone to experimenting on inmates. That sure does line up with everything we know about Arden. He’s guilty of something, that much is plain, and -- twist time! -- Monsignor Howard knows about it, and is covering for him. I knew Howard’s boring facade couldn’t last!

--Oh, Grace. Poor, poor fallen-from-grace Grace. She’s always been a mystery, but, as Kitt can attest, it’s hard to look into those doe eyes, hard to listen to that cute French accent, and imagine her to be a killer. But she is. She is because she had to be. At first, she lied, claimed she was framed for the brutal axe murder of her father and stepmother. All part of some evil scheme to steal the family farm. All someone else’s fault. But no -- Grace was the one swinging the axe. Because her father molested her and her stepmother looked the other way. She didn’t think she had any other choice. And Kit, after doing the nasty with her in the bakery (some old lady’s gonna get a loaf of bread with a comely ass-print on it) and sitting through Thredson’s compassionate-passive-aggressive act, began to think that maybe he’s guilty too. Maybe, as I theorized back at the beginning, his mind can’t accept what he has done, so it has concocted a convenient smoke screen of aliens and anal probes. Maybe Kit’s a monster too. Maybe. So many maybes.

--And, wonder of wonders, Sister Jude was almost one of the good guys this week! Of course, her eyes squinched in interest when “Anne Frank” ID’d Arden as a war criminal. Sister Jude was ever so quick to believe every nasty, vicious, damning thing about Arden -- but that in turn led to her questioning her own faith. Confronting the Monsignor didn’t help. Nor did a visit with her mother superior. Nope, it was Kit whom Sister Jude needed. Scared and confused, he came to her to confess to the murders he’s more and more sure he committed. For the first time, Sister Jude saw Kit as a kindred soul, torn apart by guilt. She actually found compassion for him. (Hopefully enough to reverse her earlier decision to have Kit and Grace sterilized. ’Cause that would suck.) The two bonded, sort of, and it’s all the more painful because we know Kit’s innocent. Isn’t...isn’t he?

--But I’d say the most fucked-up stuff happened to Lana this week. Didn’t see that coming. Desperate to escape, she took Thredson up on his offer to try and “cure” her of lesbianism so she could be let go. This led to a scene that made me, as a fellow gay, squirmy as all hell: her aversion therapy. She had to look at sexy pictures of women, including her lover, while Thredson injected her with a drug to make her ill. Then, in that maddeningly placid tone, he had her masturbate while groping a blank-faced male model. Her misery and disgust made me want to grab her puke-bucket and contribute some of my own bile, and hopefully, any decent person watching that scene feels the same way. It’s real-world horror at its finest, especially since we know this was how people really thought back then. They thought this shit was good for you -- or, at least, better than the crime of loving within your own gender. Hopefully we don’t forget the bullshit of the past. Oh, well, at least Thredson is determined to get Lana out of Briarcliff one way or the other. Oh, wait, that’s a terrible thing, because I’m more certain than ever that Thredson is Bloody Face and he’s reeling Lana in for the kill. Oh, what, he just happened to swipe a cheesecake photo of Wendy, just in case he’d need it later? Fuckin’ creep.

--Everything just seemed so wrong this week. In a good way, I guess. I’m glad the show took a break from its usual shenanigans to deliver a more sober look at the things that really scare us, thing number one being our own damn selves. But, of course, this is still American Horror Story, and the “part one” in the ep’s title promised a good cliffhanger. Sure enough, we ended with a vengeful Anne Frank(???) holding Dr. Arden at gunpoint and opening one of his doors to find Shelly, legless and halfway through monsterification, begging for death. What happens next? Something awful, I’m sure. More awful than what these characters have already done, or been forced to do? I doubt it. Some evils are peerless.