Thursday, October 25, 2012

American Horror Story: Asylum--Episode 2

2.2: Tricks and Treats

--Exorcisms. I’ve never been a huge fan. As a sub-genre of horror, it hasn’t interested me all that much, in part because the tropes are predictable. Some poor young possessee writhes and salivates on a bed while a priest bellows in Latin and stuff flies about the room. At some point there will be A) speaking in tongues, B) levitation and/or unholy strength, C) a crucifix getting symbolically destroyed, and D) the “demon” reading people’s minds and calling them out on past dirty deeds. This episode of AHS had all those things, but you know? It worked pretty damn well. They knew that every single possession story is just riffing on The Exorcist, so they ran with that and focused on the freaky details. I’m down!

--Enter Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto, yay!), who has effectively made the power tug-of war in Briarcliff into a three-way struggle. If Sister Jude represents old-school faith and Dr. Arden stands in for quack science, Thredson is the avatar of modernity. Liberal, forward-thinking, appalled by Briarcliff’s stone-age approach to mental illness, Thredson stepped outside his bounds (he was ostensibly just there to judge if Kit was insane or not) and muscled his way into Sister Jude’s business, thereby helping to set up this ep’s One-Shot Subplot. A terrified couple brought in their teenage son, who was exhibiting such angsty behavior as frothing, speaking in a demon voice, and eating fresh cow hearts right from the source. Ironically, Thredson and Monsignor Howard had to work together in order to exorcise and/or cure the dude. In the process, the token rent-a-priest was defeated and the demon(?) forced Sister Jude to face her past: she used to be a hard-partying, cock-chasing lady of the night, until she killed a little girl with her car and fled the scene. Repressed guilt, yay!

--Here’s the kicker, though: the demonic possession seemed very real. Stuff happened that defied all rational explanation. So I’m very interested in what Dr. Thredson thought of the whole affair. Can he pull excuses out of his ass, or has he already come to see that this world is host to forces beyond our understanding? Also, considering that he’s not an actual Briarcliff employee, how are they gonna have him as a main character? I can’t wait to find out. Quinto’s always fun to watch, but I especially love that they’ve brought in a rational “nice guy.” You just know he’s gonna get fucking ruined over the course of the season. I like him!

--Know who I don’t like? Shelly the freaking Nymphomaniac. I have nothing against Chloë Sevigny, but honestly, what the fuck does she think she’s doing? Her acting is so over-the-top that I absolutely cannot take her seriously, and her backstory monologue to Dr. Arden felt very forced. That was my least-favorite scene; James Cromwell seemed really awkward, having to be all cruel to Sevigny while she spat exposition at him. Nope, don’t buy Shelly. But Arden’s getting more twisted by the minute. Hiring a call girl, threatening her, making her dress up like a nun...dude’s libido is seriously to the moon and back. And the call girl found some photos that implied Arden’s into bondage, S&M and....murder? Were those mangled bodies? I think we’re supposed to believe that Arden is Bloody Face. Maybe. Or maybe he’s a gigantic red herring.

--What about the good guys? Well, Lana’s a bitch, that’s for sure. She formulated an escape plan and enlisted Grace as an accomplice, but absolutely refused to bring Kit along, believing him to be guilty. (This subplot required Grace to be sensually nude for an entire scene; seriously, is anyone not gonna get naked at some point?) When the power went out as a result of the demon possession, the ladies made a break for it -- but when Kit insisted on accompanying them, Lana sounded the alarm, blowing her chance at freedom. Obviously, her Ruthless Reporter persona is still intact, but it may be cracking, because her “reward” was to watch Kit and Grace be caned bloody by Sister Jude. On top of that, Kit nobly took Grace’s punishment for her. So where are your damn principles now, Lana? God, I’m so looking forward to Grace’s backstory. It’s gotta be more interesting than fucking Shelly’s.

--I told you Sister Eunice was gonna be intriguing. As the demon(?) departed the dying body of the poor teen, she fainted. And when Arden visited her in the sick ward, supposedly to just be all fatherly and shit, she acted a wee bit...odd. Is it just more sexual repression hijinks, or has that demon found a new home? Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions, but let’s watch Eunice verrrry carefully from now on.

--Finally, the big question: who is Bloody Face? I was all set to predict the first character to die on the show, but the show’s two steps ahead of me. In a brief prologue, present-day Bloody Face stabbed the fuck out of Leo while Teresa watched helplessly. (Is it just me, or did she hide in the same room from which something tore Leo’s arm off?) And moments later, 1964 Bloody Face turned up in the home of Wendy, Lana’s partner, and appeared to slay her too. Are Leo and Wendy truly murdered? And, assuming one of the characters is Bloody Face, can we now rule out all of the Briarcliff inmates, since they’re locked up and couldn’t be at Wendy’s home? The show’s jerking us around a lot, and I kind of like it. Not gonna rule out two Bloody Faces, an “original” and someone else who takes up the mantle later. Ahhh, mysteries upon mysteries. Till next week!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

American Horror Story: Asylum--Episode 1

2.1: Welcome to Briarcliff

--Heart pounding. Eyes jittery. Brain a bit fried. Yeah, this seems about right for my mental state after watching American Horror Story. Also jazzed that I have a new show to bore you with by recapping, episode by episode. MWA HA HA HAAA! Read if you DAAAAARE!

--Okay, that was cheesy. SO, right off the bat, I can say that the second season of FX’s hit show, subtitled Asylum, is a very different creature from Season One. That story, about a family’s internal and external struggles within a very haunted house, took its time and built on its dread and characters. Asylum, however, hits you in the teeth and then grabs you by the armpit hair and yanks you through an old-fashioned printing press. Loud noises! Quick, jagged editing! Characters barking rapid dialogue at one another! I can’t decide if I like it more or less than the quieter approach of Season One. It definitely glues you to the screen, but I think I’d prefer character building over hyperactivity. Oh, well, this ep had to cover a lot of ground; future eps may be slower-paced.

--We’re moving from the present to the past (mostly) and from bad things happening in old Victorians to bad things happening in an institutional setting. Briarcliff Manor is a tuberculosis-ward-turned-sanitarium that we first saw as a torn-up wreck in modern times. A quick audience briefing was delivered by a pair of lovebirds, Leo and Teresa (Adam Levine and Jenna Something-Hyphenated), with some sort of bizarre haunted building fetish. They showed up for a self-guided tour and some kinky sex, but got more than they bargained for when Leo’s arm was ripped off by...something...and Teresa, fleeing for help, encountered a dude who either has no face, or has made a new one out of someone else’s face, whichever’s nastier. I kind of like this as a framing device; it has the feel of a modern slasher film and says something about the mental shift regarding what we, as Americans, find scary. Which leads us to...

--The main storyline, set in 1964 during Briarcliff’s heyday as a loony bin. See, back then, people were scared of things like social change, sexual deviance, people who dared to be different, and the idea that Science might be about to permanently snuff out Faith. Thus, a mighty power struggle between Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), head nun of the asylum, and Dr. Arden (James Cromwell), head quack. Seeing these two screen titans getting to exercise their snarling muscles at one another was possibly the most satisfying thing about the ep. God, Lange is so fucking good! Remember her grande dame from Season One? She now disappears inside a very different character, a fast-talking ball of religious fury and sexual repression with a “Maaaary Muthuh of Gawd” accent who’s doubtlessly going to dominate the season. But she has plenty of competition from Cromwell, whose sinister doctor appears to be chopping up inmates and remaking them into...something. Caught in the middle of the feud are the smarmy Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes), whom Sister Jude totally wants to bone, and Sister Eunice (Lily Rabe), a submissive shrinking violet with a masochistic streak.

--Noticing all the sex? You should be. I’d suggest making a drinking game wherein we tip one back every time the show focuses on themes of psychosexuality, but we’d be dead after three episodes. Back to Sister Eunice...I find her “little lost lamb” schtick oddly intriguing, and she also got the best line in the episode (“She’s not harmless. She drowned her sister’s baby and sliced his ears off”), so I’m gonna watch her closely. It’s often the seeming innocents who have the most to hide.

--SPEAKING OF WHICH, our sort-of hero figure is Kit Walker (Evan Peters, last seen as the creepy undead teen in Season One), a nice guy who makes the mistake of being in love with a black woman in 1964, and the even bigger mistake of telling the truth when he is apparently abducted by aliens. Yes, aliens. As if there wasn’t enough weird shit in this show. Kit is convicted of his wife’s murder, not to mention the murder of other women, and is dubbed “Bloody Face” by the media. Tossed into Briarcliff to await his fate, the poor guy gets caned by Sister Jude, terrorized by other patients, and put under Dr. Arden’s knife, all in 45 minutes. Sucks to be him! But are the aliens real? We see flashes of Kit’s otherworldly encounter and Dr. Arden finds a spider-legged microchip thingy under his skin, but I’m dubious. More on that later. At least Kit’s made friends with Grace (Lizzie Brocheré), another maybe-not-insane inmate accused of killing her loved ones. Verrrrrrry intrigued by her as well!

--The other lost soul thrown into the nightmare of Briarcliff is Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), a reporter who makes the mistake of being a lesbian in 1964, and the even bigger mistake of poking into Briarcliff’s seedy underbelly. After witnessing Sister Eunice tossing raw meat to something in the woods, Lana plays Nancy Drew and soon finds herself strapped to a cot. And she’s not going anywhere soon, because Sister Jude blackmailed Lana’s lover (Clea DuVall, typecast as usual) into having her committed. Now she’s due to be “cured” of her lesbianism the Catholic way. Ahhh, moral corruption in the name of a so-called higher power! Good thing that doesn’t happen any more, right?

--So, anyway, this episode rocked and I loved it, even if it was a bit headache-inducing. Plenty of subplots and questions have been introduced. I’m assuming that the scary chap Teresa met in the present-day asylum was the real Bloody Face, but which of the characters, if any, is under the mask? What’s lurking in the forest, and does it have anything to do with Arden’s experiments? Is Grace really innocent? Is there any point to Chloë Sevigny’s goofy nympho? And, most intriguing, is Kit crazy or not? Insanity is clearly a big theme here, so I wonder if we can trust our own eyes. I have a theory that the alien abduction thing is Kit’s mental coping mechanism for something worse -- like, say, his black wife getting killed by racist creeps. The alien doohickey Arden found in Kit’s neck seems to challenge this theory, but I’m not giving up on it. Can’t wait for the next episode, when we will meet Zachary Quinto’s nice-guy doctor and learn if Adam Levine’s guest spot is already over!

--I’m buckled in for the ride, alright. I’ll be laughing and screaming through the season with great enthusiasm. Mostly laughing. But still.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

To Squee Or Not To Squee: American Horror Story

Returning once again to my Cautious Enthusiasm posts, here’s something I was looking forward to, yet simultaneously skeptical about. Now that I’ve experienced it, what’s my verdict?

People will sneer. A horror show? Why would anyone want to watch something as trashy, icky, dumb, and derivative as American Horror Story when they could be sipping a martini and imbibing Mad Men? C’mon, do I really need to make this argument again? The horror genre is awesome. It fills a void in our twisted little psyches. And television is one place where it’s very sparse. Because anyone could be watching, you can’t make the horror too horrific, lest you get attacked by packs of conservative mommies. That’s why it’s awesome that one thus-far successful horror series is rearing its head. I’ve just bulldozed through Season One, and while I personally wasn’t too scared, I had a blast.

You just have to put your eye-rolling on hold. This show is meant to be lurid and tacky. It’s not aiming very high. It doesn’t want to “redefine” horror, it wants to pay loving homage to the biggest horror tropes, which must work, because the genre recycles them over and over anyway. The very premise of Season One is the oldest in the book: dysfunctional family moves into vast, creaky old house where Awful Things Happened and the Dead Still Linger. Throw all the usual clichés in the cuisinart and you get a rather delightful explosion of kooky grue. We know there’s gonna be ghosts, but holy shit, this place is crowded! If you die in the Murder House, you’re bound to it forever, and most of the fun is in the various undead occupants who drift in and out of the storyline. Indeed, the living are rather overwhelmed; although we’re supposed to care about the Harmon family (Connie Britton as the weary mom, Dylan McDermott as the tail-chasing dad, Taissa Farmiga as the pouty teen daughter), we really just want to see them get jerked around by ghosts and ghouls. And they do. From the shape-shifting maid to the rapist in the rubber fetish suit to the whatever-the-fuck-it-is lurking in the basement, there’s no rest for the living. And, oddly, it’s funny. The grimmer the story gets, the more perverse humor is squeezed from the scenario.

I think AHS succeeds because of that tongue-in-cheek attitude it has to horror. I’m not sure I’d want to watch it if it were totally straight-faced. But it throws so many bizarre, WTF details in our faces that you just have to laugh. Fireplace poker up the ass? Okay. Stitched-together demon babies? Sure. Killing off the character with Down’s Syndrome? Wow. Fuck political correctness, eh, Ryan Murphy? But if you’re attentive, you won’t get mad because you see how hard the show is winking at you. There’s this balance of realism and kookiness that works surprisingly well. The creepiest thing in the show isn’t any ghost or monster, it’s the character of Tate (Evan Peters), a deeply scarred and psychopathic teenager who segues between teary-eyed pathos and cold murderousness in a manner that’s way too true to life. On the flip side of the coin is Jessica Lange, who waltzes away with every scene she’s in as the Harmons’ tortured, acidic grande dame of a next-door neighbor. She’s basically the villain, yet she’s so fun to watch that we root for her over the poor hapless protagonists. The supporting cast is good too; gotta love Zachary Quinto as a snarky undead gay dude and Christine Estabrook as a cynical, bitchy real estate agent, to name but a couple. They picked the right actors and actresses to romp about their haunted playground.

Perfect show? Nah. I was not a big fan of McDermott as the cheating husband; he does okay at times but is a bit campy otherwise. Yeah, Jessica Lange is campy too with her Tennessee Williams-style delivery, but she makes it work while McDermott edges toward Keanu-Reeves-in-Dracula doofusness. Also, the more ghosts are packed into the house, the sillier it gets; how they hell do they even have room to move? A more solid explanation of the Murder House’s “rules” would have been nice; sometimes it felt like they didn’t care how anything happened, as long as it happened. And we’re teased with a, shall we say, biblical plot twist that’s never resolved -- and may never be resolved, as each season of AHS tells a totally different story. (Which, by the way, is a cool idea that I’m onboard with.) So don’t expect the show to break new ground. But do expect it to scratch that horror itch, because it satisfied mine to the fullest. I’m so pumped for the asylum-set Season Two, and to learn what weird places they’ll go from here.

VERDICT: A big squee, partly of chills but mostly of thrills.

(PS: I plan to recap Season Two of American Horror Story episode by episode, as I did with the final season of Lost. Thou hast been warned.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

There was a little movie that appeared this year, that I became desperate to see as soon as I learned what it was about. That movie, of course, was Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Ha ha, no. Actually, it was Beasts of the Southern Wild, and depending on how big a film geek you are, you’re either nodding wisely or making a Derp face. I just saw BotSW and was pretty floored. I loved it. It thought it was amazing. So did my parents. So did most film critics, judging by the amount of drool pooling on the floors of film festival screening rooms. My boyfriend, on the other hand, was baffled by it. And I have since heard from people who absolutely hated it. I’m fascinated by a polarizing film and it appears we have one on our hands here. Time to blog about this weird little movie and why it succeeds or fails, depending on who you ask. Keep in mind I’m biased in its favor. Kind of.

The plot of Beasts of the Southern Wild in one sentence: A young girl finds that her world has been thrown into turmoil, and tries to put things right. The girl is named Hushpuppy; she’s six years old, talks to the animals, and, like many girls her age, is fairly sure that she has the Universe figured out. Her home is the Bathtub, a ramshackle knot of people clinging to the soggy, frayed edge of Southern Louisiana. These people are desperately poor, but happy; they basically exist on another planet, cut off from civilization by levees. Everyone looks after everyone else. Everyone feels wealthy. Hushpuppy and her dysfunctional father, Wink, live in separate shacks and watch each other’s backs, or try to. It’s an unlikely Eden, just begging to crumble. And crumble it does. Things go wrong with implacable awfulness, and in the mind of little Hushpuppy, the Wrong in her life meshes with the Wrong in all nature, all things. Her father disappears for awhile, then returns in a hospital gown. He won’t talk to her. Storm clouds loom. Hushpuppy starts a fire in a burst of petty impulse. Her father hits her. She punches him in the chest, and countless miles away, at the bottom of the world, an iceberg cracks to reveal something huge, bestial, and still alive within. Then all hell breaks loose.

Long story short, Hushpuppy is certain that the Universe is out of whack, and it’s her fault. We’ve all been there. We’ve been that small child who did something naughty, then wept as we became convinced that big, awful, earth-shaking things would happen as a result. Hushpuppy watches as her home floods, her neighbors flee, her father sickens -- but she is so clear-eyed and practical that she reacts, not with dread, but with sensibility: I did it, it’s done, I’m sorry, now how do I fix it? Maybe her long-lost mother, said to possess a supernatural beauty, can be of assistance -- if Hushpuppy can find her. She sets out on a quest that isn’t too far removed from Homer’s Odyssey. Meanwhile, those unfrozen beasts from the glacier are on the move. They are Aurochs: massive and boarlike, they once roamed the primordial wilderness, and now they’re back, and getting closer by the minute. (I have to say that the Aurochs in the film are truly stunning, a flawless example of how to do special effects right.) Obviously, everything is going to collide, but will Hushpuppy make it through with her parents and home intact? Or is she about to learn some harsh lessons that will shatter her bubble?

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie about feelings and emotions, mostly. Shot with a hand-held camera, it gives us a child’s eye view. Things seem both less and more real at once. The Bathtub doesn’t seem like an actual place (not to me, anyway), but more like one of Hushpuppy’s charcoal drawings brought to life. Likewise, the Aurochs look like what she thinks, not what science thinks, and the movie refuses to admit if they’re even real, or if Hushpuppy is giving ordinary events a mythic slant in her own head. It’s a beautiful use of an unreliable narrator, and it wouldn’t work half as well without the actress who plays Hushpuppy, Quvenzhané Wallis. She’s gonna get an Oscar nod. She’s like a stabilizing bolt of lighting driven through the film. Her little face is solemn, stubborn, scared, curious, and utterly real. I find it interesting that some of the best “acting” I’ve seen comes from very young children. I guess they’re still at the point where there’s little difference between the real and the cinematic. They can more easily make the movie real in their minds. Appropriate, since BotSW is about a child’s idea of reality. We hear Wallis narrate the film, her Southern drawl betraying nothing but utmost conviction. She’s luminous. And here’s an amazing thing: for once, her race is utterly superfluous. Hushpuppy and Wink are black, but no one cares. The residents of the Bathtub are an ethnic mishmash, and even when “outsiders” appear, the segregation is social rather than racial. How many films can say this? How many films about black people can say this? I’m impressed, and hopeful.

Just like all those other critics, I’ve made this movie sound amazing. But like I said, some people hate it with a passion. I’m not gonna say they’re wrong, because I’ve heard them make valid points. The main argument against BotSW is that it glorifies things that we should be moving away from. Our heroes are dirt-poor, anarchic, lawless, and often drunk. They look with suspicion and hostility upon “civilized folk,” and fight like jackals when the authorities try to evict them, even after the Bathtub becomes unlivable. Wink is quite the piece of work, ranting and posturing and trying to force manhood upon his little daughter (Hushpuppy is quite androgynous for most of the film, and you get the sense it’s to please her dad). We’re supposed to root for this behavior, apparently. We’re supposed to ignore the fact that the Bathtubbers are being kind of stupid and irresponsible. Their dirty, hardscrabble, alcohol-soaked community is supposed to be some sort of Utopia because neighborly bonds and spiritual freedom are way better than material wealth. Right. Fine. Good argument. If you want to hate this movie’s philosophy, go ahead. But I do have a counter-argument.

I say, Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t real. Well, duh, it’s fiction. But more than that, it is not supposed to depict the real world at all. It’s a bit of an allegory, really, quite open-ended. Are we seeing inside Hushpuppy’s mind? Is the whole thing just a story being told, a tale-within-a-tale? Everything is a bit too stylized. The plot runs on fairy-tale logic. It would be one thing if there were clear boundaries between Hushpuppy’s point of view and reality, but there’s no boundaries at all. The impossible things that happen, happen. The Aurochs are real and solid. And we all know that’s impossible, right? So if that’s the case, the whole film is impossible. So I say, it doesn’t matter whose side we’re on, because the movie’s using a real-world context to create a world that’s notably sideways from the real. Besides, it’s Hushpuppy’s movie. It’s her POV. We’re seeing the Bathtub as Paradise and her deadbeat father as a good guy because she does. She’s allowed to be wrong. Who the heck has the world truly figured out when they’re six? The point is Hushpuppy knows what she knows, and it doesn’t matter if that’s strictly true or false. It’s her reality; we’re just visiting.

This is a movie about innocence. The painful thing is that we, as adult viewers, know that Hushpuppy’s innocence isn’t going to last. Her world is hard and tragic, and she’s eventually going to grow up and discover reality for herself. But for now, she’s a little girl with magic powers, and she lives in the most marvelous place on Earth, and the ground shakes with the hoofbeats of terrifying, amazing creatures who have either come to protect or to destroy, whichever one she requires. Nothing in BotSW may be real in a technical sense, but it’s real in the mind of a six-year-old, and how cynical do you have to be to deny this little girl her fairy tale? Let her be happy. Let her figure things out for herself. Or, if you disagree and think this movie is sloppy and irresponsible, keep in mind that it’s all just a story.

And I find this particular story worth listening to.