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?