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.