Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite Games of 2013

Another year, another parcel of games vying for my time. In 2013, of course, the 8th-gen consoles were rolled out, and I responded as I always do: by rolling my eyes and thinking that I’ll probably snag a PS4 in another couple years or so. I’m an adult with a job and other interests; how am I supposed to keep up? Once again, a lot of my favorite games of the year have been out for awhile, and I’m just now getting to them. And there were some upsets (Fez turned out to be way less cool than I thought, maybe because its puzzles are designed to make you feel stupid. On the other hand, my favorite game of the year came out of nowhere). Here, in my personal order of awesomeness, are...


Honorable Mention: InFamous (PS3)
This isn’t on the main list because I’m playing it right now and won’t finish it before the new year. Seems wrong to reward an incomplete experience. However, it belongs here because of the excited tingle I get at the thought of tear-assing around the cityscape as electro-avenger and parkour enthusiast Cole McGrath, flinging cars around and zapping the scrotums off hapless gangbangers while the cringing populace showers me with accolades. InFamous shares DNA with one of my favorite series, Sly Cooper (who will be appearing later), but redefines your typical superhero scenario into an engagingly gritty moral-choice-a-thon with a kooky, convoluted plot and the ability to treat Fake New York City as your personal jungle gym. What’s not to love? This game is just all-around solid. In fact, I’m gonna go play it as soon as I finish writing this paragraph. There are just too many non-electrocuted evildoers out there.

Okay, I’m back. Now for the “official” list!

7. The Cave (Multi-Platform)
First up is a game that squeezed onto this list by pure tenacity, its personality making up for major gameplay gremlins. In The Cave, you play as a trio of oddballs (chosen from a pool of seven) who enter the titular cavern to seek their heart’s desire and grapple with darkly comedic dilemmas that range from “Do we murder our parents with rat poison?” to “Do I cause nuclear war for profit?” It’s a point-and-clicker with pretty easy puzzles (find Object A for Slot B), and the characters control like they’re covered in bacon grease. As a funny game, it can’t compare to something like Portal or Monkey Island, but I grooved to its vibe anyway. It has a juicy streak of cynicism, sending up all those games that take the themes of Good vs. Evil way too seriously (hello again, InFamous!). The seven protagonists have nice wordless personalities and the art design of the cave is stellar. Bottom line: I played through this damn game five times to get every possible ending for every character. I can’t do that and then leave it off the list.

6. God of War III (PS3)
7th-gen was when games became a lot more like movies. Technical upgrades, processing power, and HDTV allowed for an emphasis on dynamic, cinematic gaming experiences. The downside is that games became less challenging and less interactive. Which sucks. But even a lesser God of War game is gonna show quality. Good old Kratos, mythology’s pissed-offiest antihero, is murdering his way through the Greek pantheon and it’s pretty ridiculous, but you can’t help but gasp when the camera pulls out to reveal a creature the size of Delaware. Which you are expected to somehow kill. This series stands out for its fluid combat, intricate puzzles, truly epic and creative setpieces, and for its seamless mesh of gaming and storytelling. Even if the story is dumb. Kratos isn’t gonna win any awards for charisma, but he persists in being one badass Spartan and quite the expert at destruction porn. I love this whole franchise in a guilty kind of way and the third entry didn’t disappoint.

5. Bastion (Multi-Platform)
Speaking of storytelling, Bastion builds a vibrant, unique fantasy world with the kind of ease I envy. And then it blasts its world to smithereens and sends its hammer-wielding young hero on a quest to pick up the pieces and construct a base of operations from which humanity can begin anew...or not. Damn, is this game cool as a cucumber. Hardcore isometric combat with a wide variety of interesting weapons? Check. Beautiful baroque graphics? Check. A deep sense of mystery, sadness, and wonder? Triple check. As is often the case, I play games (especially indie games) long after everyone else has heaped awards on them, so you should already know how good Bastion is. Maybe this’ll remind you to replay it, or campaign for a sequel. Because its makers seem to have made a deal with the devil to pull off such a quality product. Its only huge flaw is that it’s too freaking short.

4. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (PS3)
It takes a lot to get me to pay full price for a newly-released game. Because gas money. But I cannot overemphasize how excited I was for a new Sly Cooper adventure, and to my delight, it pretty much met my expectations. Why? Because it was made by mod-centric fanboys who faithfully recreated all the suave, stealthy, cell-shaded fun, then gave it a luminous graphical upgrade. Prowling around rooftops, picking pockets, stealing priceless treasures -- it never ceases to be enjoyable. And this one had time travel! Some might complain that Thieves in Time didn’t add anything to the formula, to which I reply: picture your favorite type of cake, then ask yourself if it gets boring after multiple nommings. Exactly. I really hope the franchise continues; it would make me ever so happy. Long may the raccoon scheme!

3. Batman: Arkham Asylum (Multi-Platform)
It’s fun to be Sly Cooper. It really is. But it is way, way more fun to be Batman. And this is the game that proved it. Yeah, another entry that everyone already knows is awesome. So? Tell me it’s not orgasmic to open your giant cape, glide bootheel-first into the surprised face of a hapless thug, then batarang his buddies into oblivion. Arkham Asylum perfectly marries the colorful, campy Batman of old with the darker, grittier modern version: one minute you’re haunted by your dead parents, next minute Harley Quinn is mincing around in a sexy nurse outfit and the Riddler is smarming it up in your earpiece. Great environments, great controls, great bat-toys, great villains...shitty boss battles, but you can’t have everything. Also, diehard Batman connoisseurs know that Mark Hamill is the best Joker. Not the funniest or scariest or best individual performance, just the overall best Joker. Hard to imagine a more perfect host for a near-perfect game. Arkham has since evolved into City and Origins versions, but the gaming glory began here.

2. The Binding of Isaac (PC & Mac)
I feel like I have to apologize for enjoying this game so much. It’s a game in which you play a naked child whose psychotic mother wants to sacrifice him to God, and who uses his own tears as a weapon as he battles aborted fetuses and giant tumors. It has gore, scatology, numerous allusions to child abuse...and let’s not even get into the religious symbolism, which seems calculated to give Ned Flanders a massive coronary. Despite all this, The Binding of Isaac is buckets of shameful fun and utterly addictive. No save points here; each playthrough is a go-for-broke sprint to the end boss(es), a challenge to always top yourself. Everything is randomly generated: the right combination of augments and power-ups will turn you into a blazing juggernaut of destruction, but even then, fate can still nail you in the sweetmeats. So you try again...and again. And you love it. Especially with the Wrath of the Lamb expansion, which more than doubles the content. As for the themes, I believe this game is so offensive that it settles safely into the cozy world of satire. At least, I hope so, because otherwise I just plugged countless hours into the game that will trigger the Apocalypse.

1. Waking Mars (PC & Mac)
As I said at the start, my favorite game of the year was a total surprise. I wasn’t amazed by Waking Mars for its graphics, controls, or atmosphere, but because it is a game that is utterly about the joy of discovery. It stars a cool-as-ice cosmonaut exploring a cave system below the surface of Mars. He is astounded to stumble upon an entire alien ecosystem, composed of lifeforms that are neither plants nor animals, but that coexist in very complex ways. As the game progresses, you learn to harness the Martian life by strategically collecting and planting seeds, creating cavernous gardens where each species plays an important role. There are no monsters or bad guys. There’s a token disaster at the beginning, but even then, the hero never seems to be in much danger. More like, he’s immersed in zen-like awe at being the first human to not only discover, but directly interact with aliens. And these aliens are so unique and creative that I want to give the developers a hug. Not only is the game fun and challenging to play, it taps into all the reasons I play games in the first place. A really good game can cause wonder as well as entertainment, and Waking Mars is entirely about such wonder. The teenage dipshits can play Modern Warfare all they want; just give me more indie games like this one.

Happy New Year. I’m already getting addicted to FTL, so it looks like the Best Games of 2014 list may be underway pretty quick. Raise your glass to the endless potential of gaming. And pray 2014 brings the richly deserved death of motion controls! Ahh, we can only hope.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Sing-Off (Season Four, pt. 2)

Aww. I feel a twinge of melancholy now that The Sing-Off is over. Well, okay, it’s Christmas and I can’t feel that sad. But seven episodes over less than three weeks seems like a tease. NBC could’ve spread them out more. Eh, well, each ep was still a blast. In a finale that surprised no one, country boys Home Free took home the grand prize, the soulful singers of Ten came in second, and high-school pack Vocal Rush took third. Based on the overall performance of the groups this season, this was the outcome I was predicting, even if my heart was rooting for it to be different. It’s a tribute to this show that I was never pissed off; even the groups I didn’t care for, I didn’t mind hearing sing. They all deserved kudos. I felt the love.

The finale took place amidst an assault of fake snow, giant novelty presents, and Christmas cheer that never quite became tacky. I mean, only someone like Shawn Stockman can mix crushed velvet with a violent paisley shirt and still look hip. It felt less like a stand-off between the top three groups and more like an overall celebration of everyone. All the eliminated contenders returned to help ring in the holidays, everyone was clapping and hugging and getting misty-eyed, and I fell right into the thick of it. The judges performed alongside the groups (Jewel and Home Free’s honey-smooth rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was the standout), 98 Degrees showed up so Nick Lachey could embarrass his fellow band members, Pat Benatar demonstrated that being a rock goddess is a lifelong privilege, and Pentatonix reminded us all how awesome they are in every way. Also, Lachey gave the other judges shirtless photos of himself. What a selfless guy. As for the top groups, let’s break it down.

Home Free did win me over this season. Although their country vibe made me Grinch out early on, I could not withstand the onslaught of grassroots charm and genuinely skillful crooning. If they’d just been cowboys, that would have been one thing, but they never felt trapped in a rut. Plus, they had a chubby goofball with an epic beard. Everything is made better by a chubby goofball with an epic beard. Now, I do feel like they were the frontrunners from day one; the judges never had anything negative to say about them, and if I were a conspiracy nut, I might accuse the show’s advertising and format of subtly favoring Home Free the whole time. But that’s probably straitjacket-worthy talk, so I’ll just say that they owned it, I warmed to them hugely, and congrats.

(Hopefuls take note: no group with more than six members has ever won The Sing-Off, and this is the second season in a row where a quintet took top prize. Seems the judges prefer the strengths of individual voices over the “wall of sound” approach.)

Ten never did it for me. I found them...pushy? Maybe that’s the wrong word, but they were kinda in your face about the competition. Soul music is not really my cup of tea, though I recognize its power and emotion. Ten’s “gimmick” was that they’d never performed together before The Sing-Off. They did become a very tight-knit group, but are they in this as a group, or to boost their individual careers? They already exist in the music industry, which makes them seem a tad more cutthroat. No underdogs here. Again, I certainly didn’t hate them as people or performers, but I wish other groups had been rewarded for their promise and Ten hadn’t made it this far.

Vocal Rush remained my number one pick throughout, and a testament to believing in yourself, cheesy as that sounds. They wore their hearts on their sleeves at all times; it was heartwarming and made for some savage performances. They wanted to win so bad, and that want was right out there in the open. And I found them wonderfully diverse: they had the Whitney Houston type, the big girl with big pipes, the dude who could rap (not a fan, but points for variety), and the humble beatboxing girl who turned out to have a lovely, vulnerable lead vocal. And more. I knew they probably couldn’t beat Home Free or Ten, but it was still a victory -- until now, no high school group had made it past the first couple episodes, let alone cracked the top three. So you can take your condescension and shove it.

As for The Other Groups, well, they all stood out in their own way. I was happy that The Filharmonic got fourth place; what they lacked in adaptability they made up for in exuberance and dreaminess. It was surprising to see Street Corner Renaissance dropped from the show so quickly; I thought their venerable status would carry them through. The cynics cry, “They never had a chance because they weren’t young and sexy enough!” but I prefer to think they were just too classy for TV. So there. My biggest lump-in-the-throat is reserved for Calle Sol. Yeah, I know why they didn’t last: you just can’t walk into a singing competition and go, “Our thing is that we dance!” Still. In terms of background and motivation, Calle Sol really won me over. I’m getting a sense of what the judges must feel, the hardship of assessing the groups on a technical level while your heart is telling you to give them more of a chance. The fact that they feel so bad about the eliminations is part of what makes The Sing-Off work so well. It’s about supporting aspiring performers instead of shooting them down. Bottom line, all the groups did great. Some didn’t connect with me, but then, music is sooooooooo subjective. Everyone can find something to groove to.

If I may use a pun that Nick Lachey would approve of...guys, The Sing-Off just hits all the right notes with me. If I root for the underdog, well, this show is the underdog of reality talent competitions, and its offbeat delights can’t be matched. It shows us the real performers, not just the masks they hide behind. Their voices, unmuddied by instruments or programming, tell us the story of where they’ve been and where they’re going. They hold each other up, they support each of the judges’ decisions, and they laugh and have fun. This show is hilarious a lot of the time, and really sad at other times, and has its share of wow moments. Moments like the judges’ delighted WTF faces when Tim Foust of Home Free somehow hit a low F-sharp during “Ring of Fire.” Or Filharmonic’s Joe Caigoy crying sweet man tears after a performance, just because. Or the running gag about Ben Folds’ borderline-creepy crush on Lachey; I dunno where the hell that came from, but I’m so glad they ran with it.

Now, the show couldn’t quite escape from the overly staged nature of reality TV. When one of the AcoUstiKats guys proposed to his girlfriend onstage, it was very cute, but also an obvious stunt (no WAY were the judges sending the group home that night). I got annoyed by the groups’ fake surprise at being mentored by the judges: “We were just innocently rehearsing when Jewel walked in! Minds blown!” Yeah, and there just happened to be multiple cameras present to catch this “spontaneous” moment. And then there were the Ultimate Sing-Offs, a new feature this season in which the bottom two groups of each ep performed the same song simultaneously, trying to avoid elimination. This gave us some of the season’s strongest performances (Vocal Rush’s take on Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” blew the roof off), and I liked that it was more about the groups working together than trying to drown each other out, but come on...the group with the weakest solo performance of the night went home each time, regardless of how they did in the Ultimate Sing-Off. Was anyone really fooled? It’s not the job of he judges to change their minds at the last minute. That would be, I dunno, too human and not television enough. You have to build up the faux tension. Nature of the beast.

None of which makes me enjoy The Sing-Off any less. NBC, for the love of the pantheon, KEEP THIS SHOW GOING. It is one of the best things to appear on TV in the Fall/Winter season. It makes me tingle with delight. True music will never die, so let’s keep it in the public eye! Hey, can someone put that last sentence to song? Can I write a theme song for The Sing-Off that Pentatonix can perform over the opening titles? Can I? Hmm, maybe I should just find four to fifteen like-minded people and start working on harmonies...

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


“My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”

Yeah, and your voice is sexy.

For the second year in a row, one of the wrapped presents under the tree is a new foray into Middle-Earth from Peter Jackson and his merry band. Given my excitement over the first film (here’s my review!), you can bet I’ve been waiting to tear open the wrapping paper and see what cinematic fireworks have been bestowed upon us this time. The Desolation of Smaug, part two of the saga of Bilbo Baggins, picks up right where An Unexpected Journey left off. Bilbo, Thorin Oakenshield, and all the other Dwarves are still being hunted by the orcish forces of evil, still struggling to reach the Lonely Mountain (jeez, the eagles couldn’t have carried them at least a few more leagues?). In their way are a few episodic escapades, including a brief visit with the ursine shapeshifter Beorn, an encounter with giant-ass spiders, and a tussle with the arrogant Wood Elves. Then it’s off to ramshackle Lake-town, and from there, Erebor, ruined kingdom of the Dwarves, where Smaug the dragon awaits foolish adventurers. Meanwhile, Gandalf has to take a detour to further investigate the shadowy Necromancer, leaving hero duties on Bilbo’s diminutive shoulders. But Bilbo has help from that mysterious ring he found earlier, and the more he puts it on, the more he wants to put it on...

This is a darker chapter than the first, largely (though not entirely) bereft of whimsy and lowbrow humor. It has been praised for leaving behind the goofball vibe, though I continue to believe that The Hobbit deserves a more kid-friendly tone. Still, you can’t help but feel the creeping dread of evil returning to Middle-Earth, especially in the Necromancer subplot, which doesn’t go so well for poor Gandalf. Of course, they’re still struggling to marry all the plot elements, and every time some “Big Picture” is alluded to, it feels forced. I think Team Jackson made a mistake in trying to overly prequelize their Hobbit trilogy; it struggles to hyperlink itself to the Lord of the Rings films when it could have simply stood on its own. I prefer to focus on the ways in which it does distinguish itself. Whole new geographies of Middle-Earth are unfolding, from the ghastly snarl of Mirkwood Forest to the delightful waterlogged disorder of Lake-town (seems like the ghost of Guillermo del Toro still haunts the films, bless him). Having witnessed the shining glory of Erebor in the first film, we now see it as an echoey ruin, its vertiginous layout giving M.C. Escher a run for his money. What a playground for the characters!

And the characters? Well, many of them are more broadly-defined than in the LotR trilogy, and that’s both good and bad. They entertain us and are often happily free of the arch seriousness you’d get from an Aragorn or a Théoden, but that also makes us less invested. Orlando Bloom reappears as a younger Legolas, and it’s kind of weird, because Bloom has become a better actor in the interim and you wonder when exactly Legolas lost the gleam in his eye and became so damn whitebread. It might have something to do with Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, way cooler than Arwen), a lady Elf who was entirely invented for the films, and who Has Feelings for Legolas in a rather generic way. She’s a good character but doesn’t feel very Elvish, more like Katniss Everdeen with a better complexion. For that matter, the Elven King Thranduil hit the wrong note for me; Lee Pace plays him as a paranoid asshole with a quavering note of dementia that’d be more appropriate for, say, the Master of Lake-town (portrayed with lovable repulsiveness by Stephen Fry). Compare that scenery-chewing with the effective work by Luke Evans, whose Bard the Boatman is not a dashing hero but a humble working man forced to dredge up ingrained reserves of bravery. And then there’s the continuing lame presence of Nasty Albino Orc Dude, who now has a sidekick, Nasty Fungus-Covered Orc Dude, who I care about even less, somehow. The tonal unevenness of the films stretches to the cast as well.

That said, the main characters are still awesome, when given the chance. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo has some good heroic moments but is often yoinked offscreen or into the background. Richard Armitage’s Thorin continues to smolder effectively, though he and Bilbo have a weaker “conflict” this time around and he has the unfortunate habit of pissing people off right when he should be winning their trust. Gandalf has less to do as well. The plot is swelling dangerously with peripheral characters, each of whom needs a token motivation and arc of their own. The supporting Dwarves have been shuffled around in importance: while the first film gave extra material to Bofur (James Nesbitt) the jovial one with the glorious earflaps, now the focus is on Kíli (Aidan Turner), Thorin’s prettyboy nephew, who gets both a life-threatening injury and a totally random romance with Tauriel the Elf that transcends a helluva lot of taboos (it’s even more surreal when you consider that she dated a Hobbit for awhile). It’s a tribute to a fine group of actors that they sell the script even when it’s pinballing all over the place.

And it pinballs, alright, often in a highly amusing way. I was a bit frustrated by how rushed the first half of the film seemed. We get Beorn (played with compelling mystery by Mikael Persbrandt), the spiders, and the Elves in a big lump, rushed across the screen so the more important stuff can start happening. The action, as usual, ignores the laws of physics, but I liked it more than the video-gamey Goblin City stuff from the first film. The spider sequence perfectly captures everything awful about spiders, and there’s a fun three-way chase between Elves, Orcs, and barrel-riding Dwarves that sweeps you up in its zany energy. But it’s all an extended prologue till we get to Smaug, and...hoo boy, paragraph break.

Smaug needs his own paragraph, you see, because he is one element of the film that delivers one hundred and ten percent. He’s been teased for so long, merely glimpsed in the first film and in previews. His slow reveal, emerging like a bad dream from towering mounds of gold and jewels, is calculated to make you as awed and terrified as Bilbo. The filmmakers wisely avoided an avant-garde design and just made the most dragony dragon they could. He’s huge, he breathes dripping gouts of fire, he’s not a lumbering brute but a sleek, clever beast who can glide around with the agility of a striking cobra. His face is frozen in a knowing leer, like he’s privy to all the dreadful secrets of the world. He’s voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, an awesome actor who specializes in arrogant charisma, and though his voice has been electronically dragoned up, it’s lost none of its unsettling sexiness. Smaug threatens Bilbo not just with his size and fiery breath but with his brain, and you never once feel like Bilbo’s gonna win the verbal battle. It helps that Freeman and Cumberbatch are super-tight, thanks to their roles as Holmes and Watson on Sherlock; even with one of them as a CGI reptile, their chemistry makes the screen thrum like a high-tension wire. Of course, Team Jackson had to go and tack on a more action-packed showdown with Smaug that drags on forever and seems to take its cues from Home Alone, of all things. Meanwhile, two or three other climaxes are occurring elsewhere, and it’s all a giant fake-out, since the film ends with the worst cliffhanger since Riker told Worf to fire. So, yeah, the final act feels bloated while the earlier stuff felt scrunched. But that dragon. Oh, that dragon. I might have a crush.

I loved the film. How could I not? My delight with Jackson’s excessive visual smorgasbord is well-documented by now. Even with their uneven tone and ADHD pacing, the Hobbit films are some of the best entertainment out there, simply because of how much is invested in making them look and sound like an entire fantasy world that really existed...or still exists, somewhere beyond our ken. Part of me would love to inhabit that world, though I’d probably need to be a native, since my IRL self would curl up and die without internet and Yoplait. There’s still one film to go, which is funny because the first two covered most of the damn book. Luckily, they’ve assembled quite a cast of heroes, nasties and oddballs who are all gonna bounce off each other in a big climactic fantasy smackdown. There will be death. There will be magic. There may be even more beards. And, one hopes, Bilbo Baggins will remember that the trilogy is named after him and step up. Lest we forget, a Hobbit is valued not for badass heroics but for holding onto deep empathy and compassion, even while the world around him goes up in flames. That’s what matters in the end.

Merry Christmas and a Hobbity New Year!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Sing-Off (Season Four, pt. 1)

I generally find reality TV to be just about the worst thing ever. It’s vapid, it glorifies the worst aspects of humanity, it gives a lot of attention to species of people who do not deserve one picosecond of the fame and money they’re getting by mewling on camera. Reality competitions aren’t much better, because of the whole Simon Cowell/Gordon Ramsey effect where the bigger a dick you are, the more ratings you get. But. I am willing to concede that a reality competition can be good if lightning strikes the right chemicals and triggers the right alchemy. Case in point: I love The Sing-Off.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s cheesy as hell. All those neon lights, those matching costumes, that ridiculous milking of suspense and toying with the audience’s emotions. What makes The Sing-Off stand out is...well, I have to call it joy. The judges are joyous. The performers are joyous. The audience shares in the excitement of performing. And because it focuses on a capella groups, it’s not about showmanship so much as it is about the simple power of the human voice -- its nuances, the ways in which it can be a musical instrument of its own. That is so much more impressive and interesting than “Who’s the next generic pop star?” Now that The Sing-Off has been dusted off for a fourth season, I guess I should blog some about it.

I found out about this show by chance. See, my native stomping ground is near Dartmouth College and its male a capella group, The Dartmouth Aires, were competing in Season Three. Thanks to a weird sense of geographical loyalty, my mother and our friends and I followed most of the season breathlessly. It helped me get through having appendicitis. We were quite pleased that the Aires came in second place (didn’t hurt that they were so darned cute, charming and talented), and the grand prize winners, five-member electro/techno/space-age/pop group Pentatonix, are one of my favorite things on the internet right now. Seriously. Go watch every Pentatonix video on YouTube and tell me they aren’t fucking angels sent from heaven to make the word cooler. After that, it looked like the show’d been unofficially canceled, but now it’s back (there was some random movie that might have helped) with ten groups competing. Let’s break it down!

The show is hosted by Nick Lachey, a guy with quite a bit of baggage, but his goofy charm works pretty well in a competition where everyone seems to somehow get along and be rooting for each other. The judges are just so......nice. Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men always has heartfelt words of praise, but can turn serious at a moment’s notice. Ben Folds is a total hipster but you gotta love him, especially when he’s the brunt of a ton of good-natured jokes. The new judge this season is Jewel, replacing sweetie-pie Sara Bareilles, who replaced dopey-ass Nicole Scherzinger. Jewel’s a good pick; though she sometimes tries too hard to be witty, I like her snark and she definitely knows the technical ups and downs of vocal performance. These three critique the ten groups and eliminate one each episode, as you’d expect, but, man, it just looks like so much fun is being had in the process. Even the losers tend to smile and cheer on their way out the door.

Okay, quick run-down of the groups and my personal feelings toward them.

The Princeton Footnotes
I’m putting these lads first because they were first to be eliminated...and, yeah, they kinda deserved it. A rather whitebread collegiate squad from Princeton, NJ, they were obviously going for the whole “lovable bros” thing perfected by the Dartmouth Aires last season. But the Aires had serious pipes whereas the Footnotes’ sound seemed generic to me. They didn’t stand out and came across as a tad smarmy, so I don’t miss them.

Calle Sol
Well, that was heartbreaking. Puerto Rico’s Calle Sol (four women, two men) mixed steamy Latin music with steamy Latin dancing, and they absolutely killed at it. I was rooting for them because A) they’re great to watch perform, and B) they have a sympathetic working-class persona. However, as the judges pointed out, it’s risky to be associated with only one flavor of music. The dancing hurt the singing and they were eliminated second. God...DAMMIT, I wanted them in longer. Sigh.

Five dudes from Universal Studios in Orlando who later added one female vocalist. They’re alright. They sound a lot like Pentatonix (kooky and space-agey), which isn’t a bad thing, though I doubt the show will award top prize to the same genre twice in a row. The lady singer, Honey LaRochelle, has a breathy coo with a lot of personality. VoicePlay was in the bottom two during the first episode; bodes ill.

Home Free
Okay, I hate it when an act is billed as the “first-ever” something, because it never is. In this case, Home Free is the “first-ever country vocal band.” Bullshit. This is like Urban Method, the undeserving third-place winners from last season, who smugly acted like including a rapper in an a capella group was groundbreaking. Home Free have charm and an incredible bass singer, but I don’t give much of a shit about country music, so I’m biased against them.

All-girl group from NYC. Ehhhh...this may sound sexist, but girl groups don’t always do it for me. They’re talented, to be sure, but they also come across as plasticky and craving attention. Victims, perhaps, of the stereotypes our society imposes upon aspiring young women. Well, one of them has lots of piercings and a Pepe le Pew hairdo, so maybe there’s hope. Still not really rooting for them.

Street Corner Renaissance
I’m gonna embrace yet another stereotype and say that few things are classier than middle-aged black men who can croon. This is the oldest group on the show; they’ve been doo-wopping in Los Angeles forever, and as you can imagine, they are amazing. In a brilliant move, their premiere performance was a soulful cover of “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction. Yeah, you show those douchebag kids how it’s done! I’m a tad conflicted: you have to love these guys, but I worry they may win the show simply out of respect. Doesn’t seem quite fair. But I could be way off.

Another all-male college group (University of Kentucky, in this case), but they are a much better surrogate for the Dartmouth Aires. They’re fun, breezy, very talented, and they jump all around the stage. In fact, their gyrations during the premiere bordered in inappropriate. Still, they succeeded where the Footnotes failed and overcame being in the bottom two during the second ep. Awful band name, though.

As the same implies, there’s ten of them. They’re all professional backup singers, based in Dallas, who decided to join forces and give The Sing-Off a shot. As a result, I don’t really like them. They’re good, but I’m always gonna root for the underdog, and a band of polished pros do not win my sympathy. They’ve already made it while some of these other groups are working their asses off to make it. And they too have an overly glossy veneer. Thumbs down for now.

The Filharmonic
These boys are freaking adorable. And I mean that in an utterly non-condescending way. Filipino-American lads from LA, they’ve embraced 90s boy band chic, only you can tell how much they love doing this and how thrilled they are to be here, so it’s utterly impossible not to root for them. As the token heartthrobs, they have a good shot at this, and I’d be more than happy with a Filharmonic victory. Although...

Vocal Rush
...this final group is the one I’m rooting for the most. The youngest of the batch, they’re highschoolers from Oakland and their toil and soul really shine through. Believe me, they’re professional-quality singers, but the fact that they’re still so raw, and come from a non-glamorous background, makes me think they deserve victory above all others. I like their spunk, their dance moves, their unabashed grins. I have my invisible little Vocal Rush pennant to wave while I watch the season. Go go go!

That’s the breakdown after two episodes. It’d be kinda redundant to do multiple posts on The Sing-Off, but I’ll definitely do one more after the season ends and I can sum up my feelings on the winners and overall performances. This should be a nice tidbit while I’m waiting for American Horror Story to come back. And everyone else should watch it too! Because that joy is real.

American Horror Story: Coven--Episode 9

3.9: Head

--Aww, Fiona ditched the headscarf already? She looked great in it! I prefer the scarf over trying to fool us into thinking Jessica Lange’s obvious real hair is a wig. But I guess it’s tasteless to rhapsodize over cancer patient chic, so let’s move on to other heads. Severed heads, bullets in heads, heads relieved of their eyeballs. No minotaur head, sadly, but I’m still holding out hope.

--It’s about time they stuck Lange and Bassett together again; we need our fix of incredible bitchy diva face-offs! This episode was a tad ungainly but went in directions I never guessed, and seemed to begin the process of uniting Team Witchcraft and Team Voodoo. Okay by me, mainly because I want to see more of Fiona and Laveau trying and failing to get along. And I would like to see a little more depth from Laveau’s character, which may well be forthcoming. That just leaves LaLaurie, who, as a disembodied head, was largely relegated to comic relief, except at the end, which I’ll get to. I admit, it’s always perversely funny to watch LaLaurie react to black culture. In this case, Queenie took charge of the decapitated Grande Dame and forced her to watch Roots. LOL. Kathy Bates is having way too much fun.

--Since this was Hank’s swansong, we got a lot of backstory on him and the peeps he works for: a sacred society of witch hunters, hiding behind a company called Delphi Trust, who have been battling witchdom since before Salem and oh my fucking Christ really? This is one subplot too many. I get it, I get it: evil male authority figures are evil and womanhood must win out. But the witch hunters just don’t do anything for me, and I’m dismayed that it seems like they’ll be the baddies from now on. Also, it was them who threw the acid at Cordelia, and that mystery could have had a better solution, IMHO. Anyway, in a childhood flashback, we learned Hank has always thought a little too hard about the ramifications of murdering women (fancy that!) and struggles to connect with his father, the hunters’ leader. Now Hank is torn three ways. His dad is telling him to smarten up, Laveau is telling him to snuff those witches or else, and his heart is telling him he still loves Cordelia. Boo hoo hoo. Never cared about Hank’s feelings and still don’t, though his final scene took my breath away. But, again, I’ll get to that.

--FANTASTIC episode for Myrtle, though she kinda vanished after the first half. I love how Myrtle is one of the good guys, yet capable of doing just as much horrible shit as Fiona. Case in point: she invited over the other council members, Pembroke and Quentin, fed them a luscious dinner of lobster and melon, then poisoned the shit out of them, SCOOPED OUT THEIR EYEBALLS, CHOPPED UP THEIR BODIES, AND PUT THE STOLEN PEEPERS INTO THE EYE SOCKETS OF CORDELIA. JESUS HAVISHAM CHRIST. Why does such a grisly sequence have me laughing and cheering, and why is Myrtle’s double murder about the most noble thing I can imagine right now? GAH, I love this show and I love Frances Conroy. So Cordelia’s sporting nice new two-toned eyes, but has lost her power of second sight. Which means she never knew what Hank really was. Which is too bad, because I almost wanted it to be Cordelia who dealt with Hank in the end. But, yet again, I’LL GET TO THAT.

--Token thirty seconds spent on the FrankenKyle subplot: Fiona discovers Kyle. Kyle kills Fiona’s new attack dog for no fucking reason. Fiona decides Kyle makes a better “attack dog” and fixes up his brain a bit. Oy. It’s like they’re laughing at my desire for Evan Peters to get better material. But at least he can talk again.

--I guess we now know more about Joan Ramsey than we ever wanted to. For some weird reason, Joan’s resurgence from the dead was never mentioned once. Wouldn’t that affect her, knowing she went where Jesus went? Anyway, Luke’s in a coma and Joan initially refused to let the young witches see him, but relented when Nan read Luke’s mind and conveyed his thoughts to his mother. So Joan changed her mind and decided Nan was awesome. But then she UN-changed her mind when Luke revealed, through Nan, that Joan murdered her cheatin’ husband with a car full of bees, which is an awesome way to murder someone, by the way. After chasing Nan away, Joan did what apparently comes naturally to her and smothered Luke with a pillow. Ouch. When you get down to it, Luke was a really tragic character. Sorry, Nan...if it makes you feel better, I’m rooting for you to be Supreme.

--Okay, so, I thought Myrtle’s little dinner party-turned-enucleation was gonna be the best scene of the ep, but I hadn’t counted on Hank’s desperate final gambit. Trapped between the witch hunters, Laveau, and his love for Cordelia, Hank did the one thing he thought would fix all his problems: he went after Team Voodoo. Holy shit. His bloody massacre in Laveau’s hair salon was intercut with LaLaurie watching 1960s Civil Rights footage and beginning, unwillingly, to weep. Only someone like Kathy Bates can sell such a character arc. And, yeah, I get the symbolism of a white dude murdering a bunch of black people at the same time. Thanks for being as heavy-handed as usual, Ryan Murphy. But it was just about the perfect cap-off for poor cowardly Hank. As he was about to kill Laveau, a wounded Queenie stuck a gun in her mouth and blew Hank’s brains out -- and, one assumes, her own. RIP, Queenie...you may have been angry and misguided, but you died a hero’s death, probably for the right cause. Laveau isn’t gonna forget that.

--Despite the exasperating witch hunter business, “Head” was an awesome note to end on before the winter hiatus, and I’m glad they didn’t stoop to a cheap cliffhanger. But you can bet we’re craving more, because we ended with Laveau turning up at Miss R’s, ready to discuss an alliance with Fiona. I love that Laveau now has no choice; she knows Delphi Trust will be gunning for her specifically and she has to choose the lesser evil. Brilliant. One more act, four more episodes, to go. How does it all turn out?

--Footnote: I suppose it’s possible Queenie isn’t dead, due to the nature of her powers, but since that seemed to be the perfect heroic/redemptive final act for her, her return would be lame as fuck. Sometimes, even on this show, people need to stay deceased. I know, right?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

American Horror Story: Coven--Episode 8

3.8: The Sacred Taking

--First of all, nothing that happened this week is quite as exciting as the news that Lance Reddick will be playing Papa Legba in the final episodes of Coven. I adore Lance Reddick and I’m happy that this season is kinda making up for its careless treatment of the male gender as a whole. I mean, it amuses me that the tables have turned and us dudes are getting objectified, but the concept wears thin after enough time has passed. Yay for FILFs who ooze charisma! Oh, yeah, and a bunch of stuff happened. Not quite enough stuff. After the week off, we’re getting a little two-part parcel before...sigh...the much longer winter hiatus. So all the explosive shit will hit the fan next week. But this ep was still alright.

--Fiona finally hit rock-bottom, only to pull herself back up again. And it felt a little rushed. The “Fiona-must-die” subplot built to a head after A) Queenie officially announced her conversion to Team Voodoo, and B) Misty and Myrtle turned up on the doorstep of Miss R’s after Hank (they didn’t show his face, but I’m assuming it was Hank) attempted to fill Misty and her swamp spa with bullets. Cordelia rallied the ranks and they performed the titular rite, which was an anticlimax. It was supposed to determine the new Supreme, but the problem is, the old Supreme needs to die. And...doesn’t the rite not work without the current Supreme’s participation? I was very confused about that. And I expected the Sacred Taking to involve more than red robes and pricking of fingers, especially after all the cool magical stuff we’ve seen already. Anyway, Myrtle believes that Misty is the next Supreme, which means she isn’t, because it’s too early in the season. Also, way to marginalize Zoe once again, screenwriters.

--The cancer is ravaging Fiona very quickly, but not quickly enough for Cordelia’s taste, so she sent Madison and Myrtle to torment Fiona and urge her to kill herself with sleeping pills. Bereft of the comfort of her cuddly Axeman, scared to die alone and humiliated, Fiona got dolled up and took the pills. But then Spalding turned up. Well, Spalding’s ghost, full of ugly truths and insidious words and brandishing a dose of ipecac. And Fiona changed her mind. Like I said, this all seemed a bit rushed, checking off the obligatory beats for her character to hit. Still, righteous badass Fiona is better than weak, tremulous Fiona. And she proves that cancer-stricken women can and do look amazing in headscarves. And even Cordelia admits that the coven kinda needs Fiona’s brand of bitchiness right now. Because outside threats abound!

--Threat #1: Hank. Oh, yeah, and I totally forgot Patti LuPone was in this freakin’ show! Joan Ramsey’s back, all pissed off and religious, and because none of the characters are allowed to not be fucked up in some way, we learned she’s also a sadist who likes tying her son up and giving him bleach enemas. But in a pious kind of way. Seriously? They already did the “horrible psychosexual mom” subplot! At least it gave Nan stuff to do. Angry because she fancies herself Supreme and the other girls won’t take her seriously (“You guys suck balls!”), Nan ran to rescue Luke from his mommy, who I’m pretty sure threatened to kill her son, which is KINDA SIGNIFICANT. But then Hank fired from the shadows, Joan was killed, and Luke took a nonlethal hit to the head. I’m kinda hoping Luke will be, like, utterly covered in wounds by the season’s end. Happily, Misty was on hand to revive Joan (seriously, why would anyone want her back?) and Cordelia found a silver bullet that clued her in to the fact that witch hunters are on the prowl. Though she doesn’t seem to realize Hank is one of them. That’ll be solid grounds for divorce, methinks.

--Threat #2: Team Voodoo, as usual. Queenie is cheerfully running Laveau’s sordid errands and cutting hearts out of hobos and such, but she does still feel kinda sorry for LaLaurie. How touching. In a fucked up way, it was satisfying to see LaLaurie revert to her old, arrogant, racist ways. I mean, she’s got nothing to lose at this point. Or so we thought. But Laveau responded to LaLaurie’s insults by chopping her hand off, and then building from there. The episode ended with LaLaurie’s severed, still-living head in a cardboard box, a twist that would have worked better if Entertainment Weekly hadn’t spoiled it on the cover of their magazine. Dipshits. I’m still happy, because this supports my theory that Bastien the minotaur will be back. I liked him. As monsters go.

--Oh, and Kyle still exists. And Madison is all sad because he said he loves Zoe. That is quickly becoming the derpiest subplot of them all, and it annoys me how badly they’re squandering Evan Peters. For two seasons now. Eh, at least he’ll appear as Quicksilver in the next X-Men movie...which means he’ll get three lines before all the other mutants shove him offscreen. Get this dude better roles! And get him a bunch of Blues Clues episodes; that shit was the best learning tool ever.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire



You know what really makes the Hunger Games films stand out from the pack of glossy big-screen YA spectacles? The suffering on everyone’s faces. The way the characters have to fight to keep their grief and rage from boiling to the surface. It elevates the material and makes these lovelorn sci-fi capers feel like high art next to the emotions conveyed by Twilight (“Romance is nice and my head is full of yarn”) and Harry Potter (“Golly gosh gee whiz, look at all the STUFF!”). Hell, that new Divergent thing (basically a Hunger Games knockoff with less poverty and more gun porn) looks okay, but the heroine appears to be stuck in permanent “adorable badass” mode. By contrast, the face of Katniss Everdeen is a wounded mask that repeatedly cracks wide open as she experiences more terror and pathos than any teen deserves. That is the selling point.

So the first Hunger Games movie was damn good (read my review here), and I was a tad concerned about the sequel because A) the second part of a trilogy is always tricky, B) the book has some problems, and C) wherefore art thou, Gary Ross? I’ve seen it, and my capsule review is: awesome sequel, great acting, doesn’t solve the book’s problems. But I guess that’s acceptable. Director Francis Lawrence lacks pedigree, but he does a fine job of making what is essentially a nuanced action flick with dramatic elements. I totally boogied to Ross’s stripped-down interpretation of the dystopian nation of Panem, but in retrospect, it might have been artsier than necessary. Lawrence’s sequel is more conventional and show-offy with little to no shaky-cam, which makes it both highly entertaining and a tiny bit less compelling. In no way does it dip below the quality line. But it does dip.

Catching Fire continues the adventures of the haunted Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) whose victory in the televised bloodsport known as the Hunger Games was short-lived. Now she and fellow victor/fake boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are being paraded around Panem, the latest Justin and Miley to distract the oppressed masses from how godawful their lives are. Problem: Katniss and Peeta fucked with the game’s rules in order to win, and are now seen as icons of social rebellion. The placidly evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) demands that Katniss toe the line and keep up the plastic smiles and smooches. Peeta really loves Katniss and is well aware that she does not love him back. Katniss’s childhood pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth) also loves Katniss but wants her to become a revolutionary figurehead. Katniss herself has no idea what she wants. But she has to decide soon, because the next Hunger Games are coming up, and because it’s the 75th anniversary of all this bullshit, Snow is planning to toss former victors back into the Arena to kill or be killed. And that very specifically includes our heroine.

That’s one of the book’s problems, actually: it removes the shock factor of children being forced to fight and murder each other. The sheer cruelty of the scenario is what lent the first book/film its edge. Catching Fire copies the structure, only now, Katniss and Peeta are up against a bunch of experienced adults, so there’s nothing to be appalled by. To be fair, the theme is now one of rebellion, and one point that’s effectively hammered home is how the players are all victims: they committed unspeakable acts against their will, they won the right to live in safety, and now it’s been stripped away and they’re all gonna die after all. This also benefits Katniss by giving her a ring of allies in the Arena. It’s fun to watch them work together, but it’s hard to feel like Katniss or Peeta are in much danger, despite an onslaught of computer-generated perils (the toxic fog is the only thing that succeeds in seeming lethal). As with the first film, the Games part isn’t quite as interesting as the pre-Games part. But the pre-Games part is one bleak, brutal image after another, and quite effective.

It’s all carried by the acting, and once again, Jennifer Lawrence rises far above the task. It’s painful to watch her attempting to smile and act like everything’s fine when the exact opposite is true. This time around, she has to be fraught and tearful more often, and it could become irritating in the hands of a lesser actress, but Lawrence’s raw emoting is never fake -- and the reward is the glint of joy in her eyes whenever she draws back her iconic bow. As the film progresses, she becomes more steely and resigned, and it’s actually kind of funny whenever Peeta or Gale try to make goo-goo eyes at her and she brushes them off because who the hell has time for that shit? While she slays the part, we get to watch the other actors chew on their own roles. Sutherland is insidious as Snow, Woody Harrelson remains an embittered blast as Haymitch, Stanley Tucci achieves new heights of camp as Caesar Flickerman, and Elizabeth Banks uncovers surprising depths to Effie Trinket (some of the most effective material involves Effie’s slow meltdown as she realizes what kind of evil she’s bought into). Standouts among the newcomers include Sam Claflin, way better than I expected as the dashing Finnick; Phillip Seymour Hoffman, all creepy ambiguity as gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee; Jena Malone’s Johanna, pissed off in the best of ways; and Lynn Cohen, wordless and radiant as old Mags.

It’s not all awards-worthy, however. We still have the big problem that neither Peeta nor Gale are particularly interesting; the former retains his boy-next-door blandness while the latter can’t seem to win more than a few minutes of screen time. I do look forward to seeing Hutcherson tackle the final chapter, Mockingjay, when (spoiler alert) Peeta is largely stripped of his cuddliness, but he and Hemsworth had better smarten up if they want any remaining hope of being taken seriously as love rivals. Also, while I really like Lenny Kravitz’s depiction of Cinna, he seemed to phone it in this time around -- disappointing, given Cinna’s more poignant role here. Katniss’s enemies in the Arena remain undefined, destined to look scary and then die with hardly a shrug. And, most annoyingly, this movie has a Nasty Albino Orc Dude. Remember my review of the first Hobbit film, when I complained about the generic and two-dimensional Nasty Albino Orc Dude who was just there to ratchet up the action? Catching Fire gives us a brutal Capitol thug (Patrick St. Esprit) who wreaks havoc in District 12 for a few minutes before the plot hurries onward. Yeah, he was in the book, but the movie makes him so over-the-top vicious and evil that it clashes with the more plausible performances of everyone else. Sadism is more effective when cloaked in decency; that’s why President Snow works as a villain while Nasty Pale-Skinned Human Dude hurts the movie.

I spoke of the plot a moment ago, and that’d be my last issue. It’s a very long movie that still has to rush through various events. It does so effectively enough, but it leaves you frazzled, and story details become a tad murky here and there. Especially at the end. I’m not gonna spoil any specifics, but the original novel had a lame ending, and my hopes that the film would improve upon it were dashed. After a bunch of foreshadowing, the climax is rushed and confusing, the fates of a couple major characters occur offscreen, and Katniss ceases to be an active mover and shaker in events. A film should not end with the protagonist having a bunch of stuff explained to her. But it does. “Hey, Katniss, all these things happened while you were unconscious! TO BE CONTINUED.” This flaw is the book’s fault, but the movie could have expanded and shown us more of what all happened. These movies have been moving above and beyond Katniss’s POV. So why make the same mistake the book did and cap off with a lame cliffhanger?

The destination is frustrating but the journey was worthwhile. Catching Fire may not be as good as The Hunger Games, may trade in the horror of social injustice for cooler special effects, but it remains far superior than its YA franchise peers. And Jennifer Lawrence remains a powerhouse of defiance, vulnerability, and wounded stoicism. She makes the film, and the film makes me satisfied. At least until the two-part Mockingjay brings it all to a close. Spoiler alert: way more bad shit happens and way more people are miserable. Isn’t it exciting?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

American Horror Story: Coven--Episode 7

5.7: The Dead

--This was an interesting episode: quieter and talkier than previous eps, it built on where the characters have been, and where they’re going. The title being the big clue. Madison and Kyle were dead. Spalding is dead. Fiona is going to be dead. Madame LaLaurie wishes she were dead. The Axeman is somewhere between life and death. And all are seeking something, some answer to the all-powerful je ne sais quoi of the great beyond. We as a species are obsessed with mortality, and previous seasons of AHS have touched quite heavily upon that -- first by depicting an ordinary house as a kind of one-way roach motel for the soul, then by depicting Death Herself as a living entity, a manifestation of what we wish, and fear, death could be. And now? Now we’re getting jaded. Death is oblivion. Death is a lack of all senses and thoughts. It’s the scariest thing you could imagine. But is it also somehow comforting?

--Not to Madison. Her evocative opening monologue set the scene as she drifted about Miss R’s like a spectre, trying everything she could think of -- drugs, booze, food, self-injury -- to feel. Just to feel SOMETHING. But it’s like she’s experiencing the world through a down mattress, and she hates herself for taking it all for granted back before her death. Meanwhile, we saw how truly pitiable FrankenKyle has become. In the opening flashback, we got another look at the happy, sassy, vibrant young man he should have been. Dammit, he was gonna be an engineer and bitch-slap all future Hurricane Katrinas! And now he’s a golem, his flesh borrowed from others, frustrated by Zoe’s stupid pity but unable to express his torment. Weirdly enough, these two zombified souls found comfort in one another; Zoe was upset to see Madison and Kyle doing the nasty, but afterwards, both seemed...warmer. Able to smile. And, hot damn, Zoe joined them for a three-way. Sex heals, especially if you’re an ex-corpse or your ladyparts are fatal to men.

--I’m down with sex healing, all right. Fight the forces of prudence and repression! It also seems to be working on Fiona, who allowed herself to be drawn into the seductions of the Axeman despite A) her hair coming out from chemo, and B) that dead guy in the bathtub of the apartment the Axeman claimed was his. She knew, on some level, that she was bedding a monster, but she wanted the danger. The affirmation that she’s going to take death on her own terms. The Axeman revealed to Fiona that he’s watched her, and loved/craved her, his entire life -- which makes him the man Spalding could never be, huh? Fiona initially hated the idea that a man, living or dead, had been witnessing her descent into old age. She almost shaved her head and gave into the sickness. But she returned to the Axeman in the end -- and, y’know, I honestly don’t believe he means her any harm. Both have always been driven by their passion, their need to pluck life like a ripe fruit, damn the consequences. Talk about rooting for evil.

--Speaking of Spalding....he dead. Like, so dead. Like, OMG dead. Cordelia, who’s transmogrified into a somewhat hilarious super-bitch, learned the truth about Madison’s death and passed it onto Zoe, claiming that Fiona needed to be killed before she could wipe out all her potential successors. (Again: not quite buying Zoe as ruthless badass. Eh.) Zoe then found Spalding’s tongue, awesomely kept fresh and undecayed by Myrtle’s decades-old truth-telling spell, and used a spell of her own to attach the organ right back where it belonged. So Myrtle vicariously got her way after all, as poor Spalding was forced to spit out the name of Madison’s real killer. And then Zoe stabbed Spalding in the heart. And this death, I suspect, is actually gonna be permanent. Farewell, you twisted, lovelorn, pitiable pervert. Look where devotion got you.

--And look where honesty and an open mind got LaLaurie! Her bond with Queenie seemed to strengthen even more, but what she didn’t know was that she unwillingly sealed her own fate by pointing out that Queenie’s skin color can’t be ignored even by those who’d be her equal. Queenie went to see Marie Laveau (I’ve been predicting this’d happen for ages), and Laveau laid on the syrupy words of praise better than Fiona ever could. So Queenie gave into her worst instincts and turned LaLaurie over to Team Voodoo. Discussion question: are we sorry for LaLaurie or not? She revealed what was possibly her worst deed ever: killing the newborn baby of a slave who was hitting the sack with LaLaurie’s husband. Was any of this the fault of the slave? Of course not, which is why LaLaurie’s reaction was even more appalling. Yet now...now she seems capable of change. But Laveau, the other monster in the room, is beginning a regimen of torture and horror upon her enemy...with Queenie’s help. Is Queenie gonna crack? Is she gonna get another shot at minotaur sex? (My current theory: Bastien is still alive, albeit bodiless, and Hank is going to become the new minotaur body.) And how much blood will LaLaurie have to spill before it’s all over?

--Another discussion topic: the final shot, which showed Laveau smearing her face with LaLaurie’s blood, just as LaLaurie did in an attempt to stay youthful. Was this just a symbolic act of revenge, or had LaLaurie been onto something? Could it be that Laveau stole the secret to eternal youth from LaLaurie? And consequently, does that mean LaLaurie, without realizing it, is a witch? That would explain the immortality and Bastien’s conversion to an actual minotaur. Hot damn again!

--Death is all around our characters, and it seems as if those who reject it are suffering more than those who embrace it. What’s better, using sex as therapy or keeping yourself alive for over a century because you harbor such an ugly grudge? I thought so.

--PS: Hank has a whole lot of guns. And he seems ready to use them. Can’t wait for the scene where Zoe catches bullets with her teeth and Queenie empties an entire clip into her own face to save the day. Death is also funny!

Friday, November 15, 2013

American Horror Story: Coven--Episode 6

5.6: The Axeman Cometh

--Gather round, kiddies, and I’ll tell you a tale. A long time ago, in the dawning of the jazz age, New Orleans was terrorized by a very bad man. He killed a lot of people, killed them with an axe. He wrote mocking letters to the media, calling himself the Axeman, toying with the populace. He loved jazz, and insisted that everyone else love it too, or pay the price. After awhile, he disappeared, never to be caught. That much is known. But what the history books can’t possibly say is what really happened to the Axeman. You see, there was one house in New Orleans full of very special women. Women with a very special power. And they’d had enough. So one night, they set a clever little trap for the Axeman. He went into that house, axe in hand, and he never came back out.

--Until now.


--If we didn’t know already, AHS is all about the awesome hired talent. Please welcome Danny Huston, scary FILF extraordinaire, with his gravely, drawling, creepy/sexy voice. Hard to imagine a better Axeman, and hard not to be pleased that this further dive into sordid Nawlins history won’t just be a One-Shot Subplot. Hell, LaLaurie didn’t even appear this week; it was all about the Axeman, whose angry spirit has been sealed up in Miss R’s ever since those 1919 witches (oy, another not-terribly-talented Meryl Streep daughter?) lured him in with classical music and stabbed him about a zillion times in the everything. When Zoe, Nan, and Queenie used an old Ouija Board to try and figure out what happened to Madison, they inadvertently contacted the Axeman. And he’s mad. Mad, mad, mad. But sexy.

--Not sure how I feel about Zoe right now. I’m glad she has more to do, but her character development is a bit hard to swallow. Going from scared innocent to hardass leader figure? Taissa Farmiga’s good but she’s not selling it for me, not at the moment. Still, she’s getting good lines (“Witch up!”) and beating up other characters, so it ain’t all bad. Against the advice of the other gals, Zoe pretended to strike a deal with the Axeman’s spirit, which led her to Spalding’s doll-filled attic of creepy paraphelia, and Madison’s ripe corpse. Interrogated by the witches, Spalding continued to protect Fiona by presenting himself as a scuzzy, murdering pervert. At least Zoe’s smart enough to not buy his act, which makes me wonder how soon she’ll figure out Fiona killed Madison. Maybe soon.

--So Cordelia’s a bit more interesting now. Her blindness has given her Second Sight, which has led to all kinds of revelations about Hank’s infidelity, though his murder(s) continue to elude her. Speaking of which, the show thankfully didn’t dick around when explaining why the hell Hank killed Alexandra Breckenridge two eps ago. In a big ol’ twist, it turns out Hank is a PROFESSIONAL WITCH HUNTER working for Marie Laveau, and his entire marriage to Cordelia was part of a long con to insert him into witch society. As Cordelia attempts to track down other witches, she’s been unknowingly helping Hank murder them -- Alexandra, for instance, was a pyrokinetic who turned down a slot at Miss R’s and sealed her own fate. Now Laveau, reaching new plateaus of fury, has ordered Hank to commit full-blown witch genocide. Only Hank kinda sorta really loves Cordelia, so OOPS. The only downside to that sequence was that Josh Hamilton looked like he was doing middle-school theatre next to Angela Bassett, who chewed the scenery in great, greedy gulps, leaving a gaping hole where she will display her inevitable Emmy award. I had no idea human lips could curl into such shapes. Wild applause!

--Welcome to Misty Day’s Health Spa for the Undead Soul! Recently burned at the stake? Just chill under a relaxing heap of herb-infused swamp mud, and you’ll be right as rain! Still dunno what Misty’s up to, but sadly for her fangirlishness, FrankenKyle blundered back into the storyline and had a naked flip-out (is Evan Peters, like, contractually obliged to show his ass or something?), smashing Misty’s beloved stereo and silencing Stevie Nicks. (Don’t worry, Misty, you’ll likely get the real thing soon.) Since Misty’s generally a nice person, she still went with Zoe to help resurrect Madison. Pretty sure it was Zoe who did most of the resurrecting; also pretty sure it was her and not Misty who brought Kyle back in the first place. More Supreme power! So Madison’s back, and I realize that I honestly kinda missed her. But Misty wants nothing to do with Miss R’s. Says there’s something rotten about the place. Gee, ya think? Every central location on AHS -- the Murder House, Briarcliff Asylum, and now Miss Robichaux’s -- is tainted by generations of dirty deeds that seep from the woodwork.

--Like, for instance, the Axeman, who terrorized poor Cordelia for a bit before Zoe used yet another witchy power to find the right spell to stop him. (Subliminal comic relief: one of the old books on the shelf appeared to be a reference guide to gynecology.) The terrible downside, though, was that the Axeman was freed from the house and is now apparently back to being all flesh and blood. He needs a woman, and the PERFECT match for him is Fiona, who’s submitted herself to chemo treatments for Cordelia’s sake, but kinda blew the whole mother/daughter bond when Cordelia had a vision of Myrtle’s death. Fiona’s weaknesses are eating away at her, and the episode ended with her and the Axeman flirting in a bar. Weirdly enough, I feel like this might be good for them both. Seeing as how the witches have more and more enemies, I hope Fiona’s upcoming dose of awesome sex gets her ready for the battle to come. And that her paramour only uses two of his axes (the musical one and the one in his pants) on her.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

American Horror Story: Coven--Episode 5

4.5: Burn, Witch. Burn!

--Sorry for the delay; I was moving. Took a couple days to switch the internet on. But look what was waiting for me! A new episode of a crazy-ass show that keeps getting crazy-assier. Crazier-ass? Not sure. Anyway. This ep, despite its zombie kill-a-thon, was all about That Scene, which I’ll get to at the end. Because That Scene can’t be topped.

--I’ll cover the zombies first, because they were lame. At least, lame compared to That Scene and the other stuff that happened. There’s only so many ways you can stage a zombie attack. Lots of running and yelling “SHIT!”, lots of people saving other people’s asses. The usual. There were some good moments; I loved Queenie’s attempt to stop the zombie by wounding herself, and Zoe’s blood-spattered chainsaw spree could not not be amazing and wonderful. I figured Luke would die, but luckily for him, some random extras showed up to get devoured instead. The main thing was LaLaurie’s guilt at the sight of her zombified daughters, and the steadily-growing bond between her and Queenie, which is awfully touching...

--...even though LaLaurie lost some of her newly won sympathy during the opening flashback, which revealed that the former Grande Dame of Nawlins didn’t limit her cage-torture sessions to hapless black slaves. Nope, she did unspeakable things to her own children too -- although, to be fair, they were semi-seriously talking about matricide. The point is, LaLaurie was more of a monster than can be imagined, and her climb from the depths of damnation is slow, painful, and lined with barbed wire. But maybe not impossible.

--Zoe stepped up this week, unburdened by the absent FrankenKyle. And, rather significantly, she discovered that she has a whooooole lot more power than mere ladyparts of death. She somehow undid the zombie spell, ending the Halloween havoc and giving Marie Laveau a rude awakening. So is Zoe gonna be the next Supreme? She seems too obvious a choice, but you never know.

--Meanwhile, Cordelia lay in the hospital from Silent Hill, horribly scarred and blinded by acid. Fiona wandered the gloomy, nightmarish halls, tripping on stolen meds and awash in guilt. This led to That Scene, but it also led to a nasty confrontation with Hank, who seems legitimately devoted to Cordelia, so maybe the whole fucking-some-random-chick-and-then-murdering-her thing has some ulterior explanation that we can’t guess at. Interestingly, when Hank took Cordelia’s hand, she awoke and appeared to have a vision of his crime. So has being blinded opened her inner eye? Has her true witchy power been revealed? Is she about to actually become relevant? Hope so. The other thing that happened during this time was that Fiona saw the black-clad figure who flung the acid. Who could it be?

--Yep. Once again, I’m weirdly good at making predictions. The Council turned up again, full of bluster and accusations, demanding Fiona’s resignation as Supreme. Fiona was cool as a cucumber. Because she knew who the real evildoer in the room was. Myrtle Snow, ladies and gentlemen: a tormented, insecure, alienated woman so desperate for revenge that she’d, I dunno, fling acid in the face of her enemy’s daughter? Yep. Called it. However, it was a little unclear as to how guilty Myrtle was. Flashbacks seemed to confirm Fiona’s accusation and Myrtle folded under pressure, but Fiona sealed the deal with a little dirty trick, getting Queenie to use her powers so Myrtle would sport a damning acid burn of her own. The result? Myrtle Snow was burned at the stake for crimes against witchery. Great execution scene: elegant, disturbing, ironic, pitiable, highly fashionable, all of the above. It wasn’t That Scene, but it was close. Now the guilty Queenie has been charmed by Fiona and all is calm.......for now. At least until Madison’s corpse gets too stinky for Spalding to Febreze away.

--Now. That Scene. This ep played with the themes of bad mothers, as demonstrated by LaLaurie and Fiona. During her trippy stroll through the hospital, Fiona encountered a weeping young woman whose baby daughter had been stillborn. Cutting through the woman’s horror and self-loathing, Fiona placed the dead infant in her arms and told her to speak to her lifeless child. To say words of love and devotion, the words Fiona herself never said, or never meant. And then Fiona brought the baby back to life, sacrificing a little more of her power, her lifeforce, so a young mother could have a chance. The scene almost brought me to tears. Jessica Lange’s acting was so good that it utterly eclipsed anything else that might or did happen. See, Fiona is not evil. She is cruel, desperate, confused, guilty, angry...not evil. Maybe that’s what’s going to matter in the end. Man, how can the season top itself now?

--I’m sure it will. After all, there’s soooo much more craziness to come. As demonstrated in the closing scene. Who should come drifting in to visit the site of Myrtle’s fiery death? Misty Day, of course. And Misty proceeded to resurrect Myrtle. Yep. I’d say that Team Witchcraft and Team Voodoo are about to face a new threat. Team Outcast? Team Swampgirl? Team Stevie Nicks? Take your pick, but it’s gonna be awesome. Mainly because Frances Conroy (Frances Conroy Frances Conroy) is still around. We need to know if Myrtle was really guilty, and, more importantly, how she’s gonna get back at Fiona.

--I also want to know more about the albinos in black suits who do the Council’s busywork. Spin-off?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The ABCs of Death

For me, horror movie season is pretty much endless. I could call this a Halloween post, only it’s too late for that, so whatever. I just watched The ABCs of Death, a sort-of-horror anthology of short films, one of the current projects waving its blood-soaked hands for our attention in this crazy new world where anyone with a camera can make a horror film. In this case, 26 directors each got a $5,000 budget, a five-minute time limit, and one randomly-assigned letter of the alphabet, and were encouraged to go hog-wild. Anthology films are fun because no one entry lingers long enough to bore you, but their inevitable downside is the miles-wide spectrum of quality. Some entries are inspired, even elegant, while others are pure shit. Sometimes literally.

As a whole, The ABCs of Death pretty much works, although it does run awfully long. Maybe a shorter time limit would have forced the various directors to be a little less self-indulgent in some cases. The best entries are the ones that stick to a very simple premise, focusing on style and striking images over gimmickry. There’s a lot of humor and a lot of pure horror, and no less than four of the shorts are scatological in nature, because obviously when you think of death, you think of things that come out your anus. Obviously. Here’s my rundown of all 26 short films, complete with letter grades. And just to warn you, I’m not the type of person who’s gonna be all like, “This next film was directed by Fleeble McFleeble, who made Escape From Fleeble Island!” If you want to know about the directors, look them up yourself.

Oh, and there will be SOME SPOILERS.

A is for Apocalypse
Good beginning -- simple, effective, and packing a proper punchline. A housewife attempts to violently murder her husband as he eats breakfast in bed. The gore is excessive and rather amusing, but what makes the entry work is the ending, which, yeah, is given away in the title. (I guess there’s a reason the makers of the anthology stuck the credits at the end of each short.) Sometimes what is implied is better than what’s shown -- a lesson many future entries could have learned. B+

B is for Bigfoot
A randy young couple wants to fuck blind, but this little girl won’t go to bed, so they tell her a made-up story about a boogeyman figure who eats kids’ hearts. Gee, wonder what happens next. It’s nicely made, for sure, but I was confused about the characters’ relationships and the entire story arc is sooooo easy to predict. Nice use of a pizza cutter, though. B

C is for Cycle

Okay, this one I found really neat. A dude finds himself in some sort of temporal loop, visualized by a creepy shrubbery tunnel in his backyard. Ultimately, he is his own worst enemy. There’s barely any dialogue; images (often revisited) tell the story as we gradually see what’s going on. It may not entirely make sense, but it gets the point across and projects a nicely dread-filled atmosphere. A

D is for Dogfight
This is the first entry to tell the story entirely without words, and man, does it work. We’re in a sleazy underground fighting ring, where a scruffy man battles for his life against a savage dog. Only the man and the dog, shall we say, already have a history. Muffled soundtrack, tons of slow-motion, intense music -- there’s a reason such filmmaking tropes work over and over. Also, damn good acting from the dog. I’m serious! This is one of the anthology’s big showcases, for good reason. A

E is for Exterminate
Basically an urban legend brought to life in an icky/funny way. A dude is being bothered by a spider, who seems capable of holding a grudge -- unusual for an arachnid, but it sure pays off at the end, when we learn just where the spider laid its eggs. Not terribly profound, but the SFX are convincing and the overall timing makes you giggle and cringe. B

F is for Fart
Sigh. Japan...why are you so fucking weird? I mean, I love it, but sometimes I wonder what the point is. In this short, a cute schoolgirl dwells unduly on the flatulence of her equally cute teacher. Somehow, this unleashes a vengeful act of God, I guess; hapless victims catch fire and die while the two leads wind up in some kind of fart-themed afterlife. Look, I DON’T KNOW, okay? I’d say this entry is trying too hard, and I also pray the director hasn’t been waiting to make this inexplicable ode to female poots his whole life. C

G is for Gravity
Bare-bones filmmaking, and it works, I suppose. The short is told from the POV of a dude who arrives at the beach to go surfing, except what he really plans is to kill himself. We have to guess this, as the wordless images quietly speak for themselves. It’s haunting, to be sure. B+

H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion
This might be the goofiest entry, but damn it, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. A British WWII pilot encounters a sexy burlesque dancer who turns out to be a murderous Nazi bitch. Also, for no real reason, both are anthropomorphic animals. Why not? It’s a live-action cartoon with a triumphant ending and a creative use of testicles, so ridiculous it works. Impressive makeup job, too! A-

I is for Ingrown
Aaaaand this next one turns the mood right back to bleak, chronicling the death struggle of a bound woman after her captor gives her a lethal injection. No melodrama, just a pitiable, plausible horror scenario. Apparently, this film was made to recognize all the women murdered in real life (in Mexico especially). Although the woman’s narration is too cryptic, the short works because of its minimalist terror. A-

J is for Jidai-geki
The title translates to “Samurai movie,” and I guess this is a parody. A samurai is committing seppuku, and the man chosen to behead him is having a hard time concentrating, possibly because of the victim’s whacko facial expressions. We’ve all had those moments where we cracked up at the worst possible time; this is kind of like that, only with levitating eyeballs. Did I mention Japan is weird? B

K is for Klutz
Scatology #2: Woman vs. Poo. This one’s a cartoon of a glammed-out lady using a public restroom, then having to wrangle her own feces as it tries to escape its porcelain fate. It’s like a deleted scene from Ren & Stimpy. It’s funny (I loved the squeaky noise made by the wayward turd), but it feels like it belongs in a different anthology, and the grisly ending is like they suddenly remembered the whole “death” theme at the last minute. At least it’s off the beaten path. B-

L is for Libido
This is the entry that’ll cause half the viewers to quit in disgust. It begins with a sexy, half-naked guy strapped to chair, which sounds fun to me, but soon enough he’s forced to compete in a twisted psychosexual game where he must out-masturbate other men or be killed by a drill up the poop-chute. Meanwhile, the stuff he has to jerk off to gets progressively more twisted. I am not sure why this had to exist, but it actually escapes pure dreck by being tongue-in-cheek. But just barely. I didn’t like it, but at the time, I didn’t realize worse was coming. C-

M is for Miscarriage
This is the shortest entry, and barely qualifies as a film. A woman is bothered by her clogged toilet, and the problem turns out to be...well, once again, the title’s a spoiler. And that’s all. It’s just a brief, icky snapshot, and you can’t help but wonder if the director thought this somehow made it more effective. Instead, I found it lazy, and shocking in a way that doesn’t have much impact all by itself. Try harder, please. C

N is for Nuptials
Seems like these days, you need a creative way to propose to your girlfriend. A talking parrot is a fun idea, but make sure it’s not gonna repeat things your girlfriend shouldn’t hear. Short but sweet, this entry is a cute joke with a morbid punchline. Again, the “death” part feels forced; this is really a skit, not a short film. But it ain’t bad. B

O is for Orgasm
The French call an orgasm “La Petite Mort” -- the little death. This short is very French, and pretty cool, visualizing a woman’s orgasm(s) with dreamlike imagery: bubbles, creaking leather, crackling cigarettes, color filters. It’s hard to tell if the death is meant to be literal (there’s some erotic asphyxiation near the end), but I enjoyed such an artsy take on mortality, such a sumptuous blending of sight and sound. A-

P is for Pressure
I’d call this a decent short film that deserves a better ending. With no dialogue and handheld footage, we see a prostitute care for her children, dream of making enough money to treat them, and sink into despair. Her need drives her to participate in a shady film shoot; we think it’s gonna be a snuff film, and it kind of is, but...well, I couldn’t tell if the “punchline” was supposed to be funny or not. Very good filmmaking, but what exactly is it trying to say at the end? Beats me. B

Q is for Quack
Leave it to the Americans to get meta. In this dry, amusing short, the director and producer agonize over the fact that they got saddled with the letter Q. To spice up the production, they decide to feature an actual killing -- of a duck, in this case. The payoff may be somewhat predictable (karma, bitches!), but it’s still really damn funny, and I hope that duck had a long, happy life off-camera. This upending of the formula is done a hell of a lot better than the guys who got the letter W. We’ll get to them. B+

R is for Removed

This is my favorite entry in the anthology: it’s grim, it’s mysterious, it hints at things but leaves you to decide the answer for yourself. We see a grisly hospital patient, his flesh like pulled pork, held prisoner and displayed to the public. Strips of his skin are removed and turned into 35MM film -- at least, that’s what it looks like. His face is unseen -- is he a modern Frankenstein monster? A warped messiah? The final image of the film may imply the latter. I loved how this short toyed with our expectations and stayed unique from start to finish. If all the entries had been like this, we’d have a horror masterpiece. A

S is for Speed
It’s 1970s grindhouse style! A leather-clad vixen tears through the desert in a bitchin’ set of wheels, pursued by a sinister man in black. Spoiler alert: the woman is actually a dying junkie, and the desert scenes represent her inevitable date with the reaper. Effectively done, though it loses points just because I’m sick of 1970s grindhouse style. Damn you, Robert Rodriguez. B

T is for Toilet
I HATED this one. Fucking hated it in ways I can’t quite describe. It’s claymation: a little kid is afraid to use the toilet, his dad is a total asshole, then the toilet turns into a slavering monster and murders the parents. I’m baffled by other reviews I’ve read that praise this entry. It’s bottom-of-the-barrel bad. The animation is beyond crude and sloppy. The gratuitous gore isn’t even gratuitous in a funny way; it’s just ugly, cruel, and mean-spirited. The ending dives even deeper into nasty nihilism. Fuck this entry; they should never have allowed it to stand alongside the rest. F

U is for Unearthed
A vampire attacks people, then gets destroyed in the standard stakey way. But, OMG, everything is seen from the vamp’s POV! Not a bad gimmick, but the thing is, you need more than a gimmick to carry a movie, even a really short one. There’s really nothing to this beyond the POV hook, and it left no impression on me. C+

V is for Vagitus
Ahhhhh, failed ambition. The filmmakers of this entry decided to make an entire sci-fi epic, set in a dystopian future where there’s robots and telepathy and it’s illegal to have babies, or something. A policewoman is sent to oust some rebels and soon finds herself Questioning Authority, blah blah blah. Nice production values, but the acting is quite schlocky and trying to cram this much story into five minutes just leads to a muddled mess. I guess they win points for trying. C+

W is for WTF!
This was where I could really feel the movie running out of steam. Again, it’s dumb Americans bemoaning how they can’t make a good short film, but the meta-trick was only funny once. Worse, this entry quickly devolves into a psychedelic clusterfuck involving zombie clowns, a giant walrus, and a lot of self-congratulatory wanking. It’s the film equivalent of people who throw a lot of random MS Paint effects together and call it a webcomic. And it’s putrid. D

X is for XXL
I found this one to be the most disturbing of them all, because it’s a horrific bloodbath with real-world implications. It features an obese woman, cruelly mocked by society, surrounded by the perky faces of stick-thin models, who decides to forcibly shed weight via various sharp implements. It lingers for far too long on her suffering and crimson self-mutilation, but that’s kinda the point. I really hated watching it, but I felt like it was somehow important to. Grand guignol with a message; the victimization of women with all the masturbatory bullshit stripped away. A-

Y is for Youngbuck
I thought maybe Danny Boyle made this, what with the queasy oversaturated colors and dizzying synth score. No such luck, but I’ll take it anyway. Another wordless drama, this one shows us a creepy school janitor who looks like Steve Buscemi’s dad, and who tastes violent vengeance from a boy he molested. A severed deer head is involved. No way can this be taken seriously, but the colors and music lend it dream logic, so it gets away with excess. B+

Z is for Zetsumetsu
The one big problem with the alphabet gimmick: you’re stuck with a predetermined order. Otherwise, they could’ve ended the anthology with something better than this nonsense. The title means “Extinction” and is even MORE proof that Japan is weird, weird, weird. This final short doesn’t even have a plot. It’s just gross, random, pornographic pseudo-satire. A Nazi chick wields a giant killer phallus. Naked men make sushi and are executed. A women uses her vagina to fire vegetables, and one dude is apparently supposed to be an Asian Dr. Strangelove. Any “message” or “analogy” gets lost in the muddle; it’s frankly a shitty note to end on. D

My final verdict on The ABCs of Death? Eh, I give it a solid B overall. If I were the editors, I would have paid more attention to the quality of the entries and maybe laid down a few more ground rules. That said, this is a tribute to the sheer, nutso, balls-out creativity of moviemaking, for better and for worse. And there are a few real gems in there. I’m down for more experiments like this, especially if they help jump-start movie careers. Sky’s the limit!