Monday, December 22, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD! Also, feel free to revisit my earlier Hobbit reviews here and here.

Sheep Ride of Destiny. That is one of the things I will always take away from the Hobbit saga. Sheep Ride of Destiny. Proof, in other words, that the strange goofy details of this trilogy persist even at the grimmest and most portentous moments. Thank you, sheep!

There we have it, then. The final Tolkien film, assuming they don’t start adapting The Silmarillion. The end of an era, although it’s hard to get choked up when the original Lord of the Rings trilogy felt so much more end-of-an-era-y. Some marketing schmo decided to label The Battle of the Five Armies as “The Defining Chapter,” which is very silly, because what does it define? The bridge between the Hobbit saga and LotR? Sorry, but a brief Sauron song-and-dance number and an overly smug reference to Aragorn do not equal the be all, end all of prequels. As I have said again and again, the Hobbit films are best when they do their own thing, worst when they scream, “We’re PREQUELS! Look at all these LORD OF THE RINGS REFERENCES! All this RETROACTIVE FORESHADOWING!” Not needed. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit blissfully unaware of what he would soon create. Team Peter Jackson is all too aware of what they have already created.

For the third time in a row, I loved the movie. I can be cynical but I can’t not be smitten with Jackson’s Middle-Earth. But I’m not blind to the people who dislike the Hobbit films. I confess, it’s a letdown that this trilogy cost so much more, yet looks cheaper. And I really wish Jackson hadn’t gone the lazy CGI route. And I wish Guillermo del Toro had stuck around. But to compare the Hobbit saga to the Star Wars prequels? Too mean. The worst Middle-Earth film is loads better than the least unbearable Star Wars prequel. And it’s in large part due to the actors.

Again, we pick up right where we left off. Smaug the dragon, royally pissed, unleashes fiery doom upon Lake-Town in a scene far more traumatic than any Roland Emmerich destruction porn could ever be. Not much of a spoiler to say that Smaug exits stage right very quickly, thanks to the bravery of Bard, who becomes the makeshift ruler of Lake-Town’s refugees. They seek shelter and mercy from Thorin and his Dwarves, but unfortunately, the allure of gold has turned Thorin into Middle-Earth’s biggest jerkface, and he refuses to give anyone the time of day. Thranduil and his Elves show up, also seeking treasure, and meanwhile, Nasty Albino Orc Dude is leading his legion of assorted lumpish ogre-type things toward Erebor, and more Dwarves are galumphing to the rescue, and it would be the battle of the ages if we hadn’t seen better battles in LotR. What we have is a 2.5-hour movie covering one fourth of a book. So the narrative is pretty damn padded out. When the titular battle begins, it’s very exciting and epic, but it also takes up at least half the movie and all the fighting wears ya down.

Meanwhile, in the other swift cliffhanger resolution, Gandalf is rescued from the eerie fortress of Dol Guldur by an all-star lineup of Middle-Earthians, including Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman. (If I may use a nerdy Dungeons & Dragons analogy, they’re the epic level party.) As previously noted, the evil Necromancer of Dol Guldur is actually Sauron, the big baddie from LotR, trying to regain power. This is unfortunate. Yes, it’s official canon, but it also forces the filmmakers to undermine Sauron’s effectiveness. There’s a huge gap between “dude lurking in a crumbly old castle” and “incredibly powerful godlike entity of evil and destruction.” What Team Jackson should have done is make this Sauron more cringing and pitiful, like the earlier versions of Voldemort -- a foul spirit barely clinging to corporeality. Instead, they try to recreate some of Sauron’s fiery terror, and it doesn’t really work in this limited setting. The Ringwraiths get an odd makeover, we see the return of Scary Green Galadriel (not exactly the most beloved image from LotR), and Sauron is ultimately more like a Final Fantasy boss. And not even a major boss. One of those optional bosses you can track down if you’ve leveled up enough. Yeah...what I said about tiresome prequel hijinks. Pity.

 You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Bilbo at all. That’s because he is infrequently in the movie. When he’s there, he’s delightful as ever, but (as with the entire saga) the Hobbit falls into everyone else’s shadow. This trilogy has racked up a very long list of characters, and that was before Billy Connolly showed up. Everyone needs screen time, even if it’s only a few seconds’ worth (sorry, Beorn). Thorin needs to face Nasty Albino Orc Dude! Legolas needs to face Son of Nasty Albino Orc Dude! The interspecies love between Tauriel and Kíli needs to resolve, one way or another! A lot of loose ends to tie up, and they still don’t hit every single one, except perhaps in the land of Deletedscenetopia. So I missed Bilbo. However, I did appreciate Thorin’s arc. It’s a hard one to pull off, because he has to suddenly turn into a paranoid, hateful creep, then just as suddenly rediscover his nobility and save the day. Richard Armitage plays this transformation with a kind of dazed horror, desperation in his eyes, as if some parasite (a Gollum, if you will) has taken over his body. This movie has a strong point to make about the things greed does to people. One character is killed by greed, another glosses over his greedy motivations, a third wastes the chance to be a better man. Only Thorin overcomes the worst in himself, and his battle with madness is well done.

The whole film is well done. It’s great entertainment. I know that the Hobbit films are not, nor will they ever be, as good as Lord of the Rings. There’s just not enough material, and, to be frank, Peter Jackson didn’t seem as committed. But the actors were committed. The art designers, the set and costume people, they were committed. Heck, even the CGI guys were committed. Yeah, okay, the video game physics are back in full force -- especially with Legolas, who bounds across collapsing bridges and hitches rides on monsters while we wait for “Press X to Not Die” to flash on the screen. But, y’know, the climax, which involves a mere handful of characters and takes place on some kind of frozen outcropping, has some moments of real, true, unadorned tragedy and poetry. I may not remember nor care about Nasty Albino Orc Dude’s motives, but the final moments between him and Thorin did not disappoint. As for the Kíli/Tauriel thing, I had a pretty good idea where it was going (spoiler alert: nowhere happy), but it had impact. Why they needed to dump this upon the only major female character is another story (the entire Middle-Earth film saga fails the Bechdel test). But all I have to say is: still better than Aragorn and Arwen. Yeah, I went there.

 I don’t feel like this is “the end,” even though, supposedly, there will be no more Middle-Earth films. Partly it’s because I found the finale of The Battle of the Five Armies to be a tad rushed. It’s like they heard all the criticism about Return of the King taking forever to end, and tried too hard not to repeat themselves. I could have used a better send-off for Bard, and also for all the auxiliary Dwarves, who may not have gotten much dialogue but were still the heart and soul of the trilogy. Along with Bilbo, of course. We end up where we began, back in cozy Bag End, waiting for the next great adventure. Now I get to rewatch the Lord of the Rings trilogy and bask in what are not only better movies, but also part of a grand saga that remains a delight. I see the Hobbit trilogy as a more than acceptable addition. They may stumble as prequels but they dazzle in their own right. I got what I asked for. So thank you, Peter Jackson. Thanks, Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage. Thanks to everyone who made this happen. I’ll take a flawed Hobbit adaptation over a lifetime without it, wondering what could have been.

They took us there. Now we’re back again. And happier for the journey.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 10

4.10: Orphans

--Well. I am now slightly more sold on the whole “crossover” notion. When Ryan Murphy revealed that there are, or will be, connections between all the seasons of AHS, I groaned, because it seemed like a ploy for attention. “People are complaining that the show is getting stale? Quick, toss out the anthology format and start retconning!” Except...this episode handled the crossover surprisingly well. By invoking Asylum, it tapped into some of the emotional power that made Asylum the best season to date. It was tragic and heartwarming and it also snuck in a shocking twist that had BETTER not be a fakeout. So high marks!

--Another freak bites the dust. In this case, it’s Salty, the male pinhead, who died of natural causes. The ep acknowledged that people with unusual traits tend to burn briefly and brightly. Needless to say, Pepper was devastated, and needless to say, Stanley swooped in and snatched Salty’s body so he could hack the head off and sell it to the museum of oddities. Now I’m starting to hate Stanley more than Elsa, which is probably a good thing.

--Elsa did win back a little of my sympathy this week. I mean, she remains a shitty human being, but at least within her heart there’s room to love her makeshift family. Over schnapps, she described to Desiree the origins of her Cabinet of Curiosities. After fleeing to America, Elsa spent time in the circus circuit but craved stardom, so she hit on the idea of gathering unique performers to draw the crowds, who would then bask in Elsa’s (largely imagined) talent. Pepper was the first, rescued from an orphanage, but what Elsa didn’t expect was that she’d come to love her pinheaded minion so readily. To make Pepper happy, Elsa created a family for her: first Ma Petite, hilariously purchased from a traveling maharaja for three cases of Dr. Pepper (whoever wrote that gag should win a fucking award), and then fellow orphan Salty. Now Pepper has lost her family. Her small, warm world has crumbled.

--With Ethel’s passing, Desiree has kinda become the moral center of the freak show, and I’m very happy about that, because she’s moral with a dash of ruthless. She was tender with Dell but firmly told him that they needed to go their separate ways. After all, Desiree has Angus T. Jefferson, and Angus T. Jefferson doesn’t seem to care that his ladylove has a phallus. They went to Esmerelda for a crystal ball gazing, but Esmerelda’s the latest character to become an obnoxious drunk, and she did the whole “love is bullshit” thing. Sigh.

--Hey, at least Esmerelda got actual material! Plus her moral compass finally swung in the right direction! It happened when Bette and Dot offered her their would-be surgery money to buy Jimmy a lawyer. Dot made the message clear: I love Jimmy but I know I can’t have him because he loves you, so, bitch, you better be the girl of his motherfucking dreams. Elsewhere, Esmerelda revealed to Desiree that she and Stanley are con artists (and she’s another orphan, naturally), but at least her mental filter was functioning well enough that she didn’t add, “Oh, yeah, and your husband murdered Ma Petite so we could stick her tiny ass in a pickle jar.” Desiree’s suspicions were roused, and that, coupled with Bette and Dot’s entreaty, caused Esmerelda to decide to do the right thing. Boo yeah!

--I have to point something out before diving into the emotional stuff. There were several scenes in which we saw Elsa’s legs, and they were clearly flesh-and-blood legs and not prosthetics. Blooper! Oh,’s like the “wig” last season that was obviously Jessica Lange’s real hair. Guys, stop giving Jessica Lange handicaps if you don’t have the budget to pull them off.

--This episode was all about Pepper, and I honestly think Naomi Grossman should be added to the list of AHS actresses who badly deserve an Emmy. I loved Pepper in Asylum but most of my love came after aliens fixed her brainbox. Here, though, we saw her heart, and saw that, even though her mind is crippled, she is aware enough to love, and to suffer. Only Elsa could see it; most people just view Pepper as a...well...retard. Elsa took Pepper to live with her sister. Trouble was clearly brewing, because A) Asylum told us of the awfulness to come, and B) the sister was played by Mare Winningham, the creepy incestuous mom from Coven. There wasn’t much horror in this episode, but I found plenty in the toxic, not-quite-right household in which Pepper spent the next decade. And then...welcome to Briarcliff Asylum. In 1962, Pepper’s sister gave birth to a deformed baby, and she and her husband entered a downward spiral which culminated in the husband murdering the baby and framing Pepper, with his wife’s implicit approval. It was vile and horrible and heartbreaking. Pepper was left in the kindly, if misguided, hands of Sister Mary Eunice. YAYYYYY! I love you, Lily Rabe! Seeing the goodness in Sister Eunice’s heart made me almost wish she hadn’t been possessed by Satan. But I’m still glad she was, because Evil Eunice is still my favorite AHS villain of all time. Bless her.

--The episode ended with a moment that was both poignant and startling: Pepper, in the Briarcliff library, gazing fondly at a Life magazine cover featuring...Elsa Mars. Elsa Mars, TV star. Whoa! I guess I never really thought that Elsa’d get her dreams. I’m not sure she deserves to. On the other hand, won’t the freak show be better off without her at this point?

--Let’s backtrack and discuss the other big twist. AHS goes on hiatus now, and we need to have something to make folks bite their nails for three weeks. Stanley visited Jimmy in prison, and (in another great gag) claimed to have hired Clarence Darrow’s son as Jimmy’s lawyer. But Darrow Jr. would need payment. What does Jimmy have that Stanley wants? OH, SHIT. Yes, Esmerelda took Desiree to the freak museum, spilling the beans on Stanley’s true motives. Desiree was appropriately appalled by the corpses of Ma Petite and Salty. But then the curator unveiled the newest exhibit: Jimmy’s severed hands. WHUMP. Esmerelda hit the floor. What the fuck happens now?! Assuming those are really Jimmy’s hands. They’d better be. You offer a tease like that, you better have the goddamn balls to follow through with it.

--The curtain closes till 2015...

Thursday, December 11, 2014

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 9

4.9: Tupperware Party Massacre

--This episode was originally entitled “The Fat Lady Sings.” It got changed pretty much at the last minute, causing poor Amazon Instant Video no end of confusion. I guess they thought the original title was, what, too tasteless? It seems to refer to Regina (RIP), although her doomed appeal to the authorities wasn’t that relevant. But, then, neither was the pastel-shaded abbatoir that ultimately gave the ep its name. The moral of either story, I guess, is that Dandy Mott is truly out of control, and the last hope of bringing him to justice may have failed. And who do we have to thank?

--Gee, Esmerelda, way to inadvertently cause multiple murders with your fake crystal ball bullshit! Are you EVER gonna be more than a plot device? Yeah, Dandy got a reading from Esmerelda and both participants did some double-talk, Dandy to hide his crimes (in this case, turning the corpses of Gloria and an Avon lady into a two-headed puppet), and Esmerelda to make her “fortune” sound good. Dandy sure did take her words to heart. He upgraded to slaughtering an entire houseful of ladies who were already having a bad day due to Jimmy’s magic fingers being too drunk Regina turned up again but was hapless in the face of Dandy’s cheerful, blood-spattered confessions. She went to the cops, but Dandy was counting on it, and proceeded to bribe the shit out of Detective Turdlicker, as I have chosen to call him. Offered one million smackeroos, Detective Turdlicker capped Regina without a blink.

--Uh....asshole white cop kills innocent black person. That’s...kind of awkward timing...isn’t it. Gulp. Moving on.

--Jimmy is drunk as FUCK and spent most of the episode being obnoxious. Chugging spirits. Boinking the fat lady where anyone can see. Sniveling, whining, puking, and you know something? I fucking hate it when characters have drunken meltdowns like this. It’s like a screenwriter’s shortcut, “insert clichéd lush behavior here.” Fuck, he even hallucinated Ethel, who told him to get over himself, and when your own delusion tells you to get over yourself, you oughta listen. All my life, I have had little sympathy for drunks, and Jimmy’s grief over his mother is no excuse to throw away everything he might have. Like father, like son.

--Truth. Because Dell is ALSO in a drunken, hallucinatory stupor. In this case, it’s about murdering Ma Petite and also about all his failures as a man, real or imagined or socially prescribed. It didn’t help when Stanley turned up long enough to display his mondo-member and make Dell fondle it. That and everything else drove Dell to hang himself, egged on by the Ethel hallucination, who is really quite well-spoken for a figment. Have I mentioned how Michael Chiklis is amazing in this role? I honestly didn’t know how that scene was gonna end, and I wanted Dell to live. He hanged himself, all right, but was saved at the last minute by Desiree. Reconciliation?

--Not sure, because, in a very brief set-up, a dapper gent arrived at the freak show and gave Desiree the most honey-smooth greeting ever. Angus T. Jefferson is his name, and the way Desiree said it made it clear that he is always to be called it in full. Angus T. Jefferson is Desiree’s “beau,” but what the fuck does that even mean? Hopefully something sexy and Angela Bassett-y.

--Deah dah-ry, thank you for making Bette and Dot interesting again, and giving both Sarah Paulsons some actual material. Ethel had stashed the twins in a motel but Elsa and Stanley found them and filled Dot’s head back up with promises of surgical separation (Elsa at least had the decency to not be crazy about this plan, though I still hate her bony ass). As Bette and Dot waited in the Murder Barn for the surgeon (actually one of Stanley’s derpy call boys), the twins had a real heart-to-heart, and we FINALLY got a Sarah Paulson Emmy Award Moment. Bette revealed that she’s not really dumb, just naive. Just eager to embrace her girlish fantasies. But she knows Dot is the stronger twin, the one who could survive on her own. She wants them to be together forever but, more so, she wants to stop seeing her sister suffer. In the end, Bette confessed that she wouldn’t mind dying if it meant Dot could have a normal life. Both sisters wept and comforted each other, and it was truly lovely and poignant. So much so...that it changed Dot’s mind.

--But this did not lead to a happy ending for Dot. She and Bette returned to Jimmy’s trailer, and when he stumbled in, Dot confessed her love for Jimmy. Bette gave her blessing. It was so sweet, and Jimmy was so tender as he gifted Dot with one kiss. But then he rejected her. Not cruelly or drunkenly. Mournfully. “I’m in love with someone else,” he said, and I kinda hope he’s referring to Esmerelda and not Barbara. Dot wept. Jimmy watched them go and his mouth twitched with all the things he wanted to say. But he held his tongue. Just like his dad, he blew it, and not in the sexual sense. Although...probably a good thing that Jimmy wasn’t making love to the twins when, moments later, Detective Turdlicker came tearing up and arrested Jimmy for all of Dandy’s murders.

--Christ, somebody had better stop Dandy, otherwise he’s gonna murder the entire female population of Florida. Maybe now that Dell has hit rock bottom, he can finally pull himself back up and do something good for a change. We shall see. Now, given that Evan Peters has just been framed for someone else’s murder spree, and given that Sister Eunice is scheduled to turn up next week, are we about to see some sort of surreal Freak Show/Asylum crossover? If so, can we lock Dandy and Dr. Thredson together in a room and see who out-batshits the other?

“I am God!”
“There is no God. Let me help you with your mommy issues, Dandy. I have a few myself.”
“That is a stylish human skin mask, Doctor. I had a mask once. Care to join me in bathing in the blood of women?"
“I’d prefer to freeze and then fuck their corpses.”

--Good times, good times.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Top TV Shows, Continued

In the not-too-distant past, I graced this blog with a Top Ten list of my favorite TV shows. In that post, as a droll recurring gag, I made repeated references to how much I hated television, how watching TV is like eating a sack of horse tonsils, and then occasionally you’ll find a delicious marshmallow (sorry. When I picture horse tonsils, they look more like marshmallows than anything else). Things have changed since then. TV seems to be expanding its horizons, thanks especially to the new model of original web-based programming, where quality can matter more than popularity. Yes, there are hopeful signs. Utopia, the latest we-swear-it’s-not-a-Survivor-ripoff, failed so hard that the THUD of its faceplant was picked up on Alpha Centauri. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was canceled, proving that network execs actually draw the line somewhere, even if it’s all the way up at “dating the man who molested your underage daughter.” I discovered the simple pleasures of cuddling my boyfriend in the evening as we half-watch something on Netflix.

I still am not fond of television as a medium. But I’d probably sound like way too much of a hipster douchebag if I said I still hated it. Especially when I’ve found plenty of new shows to enjoy. Looking back at my old list, I am, of course, bemused by some of my choices. Metalocalypse, for instance, may have been a lingering scream of defiance from my college-age self...but I can’t be sure, because I haven’t watched that show in years. Oops. Still, I don’t want to go replacing items on the list; that way madness lies. So here’s...a supplement.


It’s hard to pull off R-rated cartoons. Since the main demographic is college douchebags, way too many adult toons focus on easy douchebag humor. Archer, made with love and mercifully separate from Adult Swim, is one of the funniest things I have ever seen on television. Yes, every single character is an asshole, but they’re such distinct assholes with such great chemistry that their insults and put-downs form a verbal ballet of inspired meanness. Set time period or other...the show is less about espionage and more about spy Sterling Archer’s ego, insecurities, mommy issues, sexual hang-ups, and tendency to destroy everything in his path. His coworkers are the Greek chorus, and all of them, from the Hitler-cloned mad scientist to the ditzoid secretary with the murder fetish, can only clean up Archer’s messes...or worsen them. Archer has some of the best comedy writing out there: a wealth of catchphrases (“Nooooooope!”), running gags (everyone has Tinnitus), and bizarrely sophisticated one-liners (“Corinth is famous for its leather!”). It keeps getting better. Somehow.

Cutthroat Kitchen
This one is quite a recent discovery. Normally I hate reality competitions where everyone acts like a jerk, but in this case, the jerks are all tongue-in-cheek. Professional chefs must cook gourmet food as the clock ticks, same old, same old...only in this case, they get to use their own prize money to purchase outrageous bonuses and handicaps. One chef gets the exclusive right to taste their food. Another must use doll-sized cooking utensils. A dude finds himself attempting to make “dessert mac-n-cheese.” Velveeta is substituted for Roquefort. You never know what these poor saps are gonna endure next, but often, they persevere, and their stubborn love of cooking leads to some truly inspired and tasty culinary innovations. And some epic flops. The best part is, the chefs can’t tell the judges what they went through, and it’s so shamefully amusing to watch them stand there, grinding their teeth, while the person who will decide their fate asks, “Why the hell are there Pop Rocks in my Baked Alaska?” Oh, Food Network.

I hesitated when this show first appeared, looking for cracks. Then I dug in like a true horror gourmand. I’m not sure I’ve seen ghastly murder presented with the same unique, dreamlike style anywhere else. This ain’t Anthony Hopkins biting off prison guards’ faces; this Hannibal is low-key, elegant, and all the freakier for it. Baroque murder dioramas are juxtaposed with hallucinations and fine dining, and the lines between all three blur like watercolors. The entire supporting cast is great (Gillian Anderson’s subtle turn made my heart thunder), but it’s all about the twisted love/hate/dread relationship between secret psychopath Hannibal Lecter (played by the charming and ominous Mads Mikkelsen) and jittery FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, eyes haunted, self-control slipping). Two men who aren’t quite human beings, and who need each other, either as friends or adversaries. And if you think you know all the plot twists because you read the books...sorry. This is rich, savory, revisionist Hannibal Lecter, cooked to perfection.

I almost forgot to include Sherlock on this list, but then I noticed irregularities in the grain of my carpet which led me to deduce that my gait had altered slightly, indicating something in my pocket. So I looked, and found a receipt, and by backwards-tracing my thought patterns while I was buying a baguette and some frozen tamales at City Market....okay, okay, I’ll stop. I could never compete with Benedict Cumberbatch’s standoffish Sherlock or Martin Freeman’s worldweary Watson, and that’s a good thing. Despite its modern setting and thrilling, kinetic style, BBC’s Sherlock is one of the best-ever depictions of the famous detective, because it nails how Holmes does what he does, and why he is as far removed from normal human beings as a waffle iron. He loathes his own humanity yet is terrified of losing it, and one look at Andrew Scott’s creepy, unhinged, bestial take on Moriarty shows where Sherlock could be headed if he lets himself. That’s incredible drama and it’s what makes this whole show incredible. Plus all the nifty deductions and stuff.

The Sing-Off
Wanna hear something obnoxious? This year’s “season” of The Sing-Off is going to be a one-shot holiday special. What the FUCK, NBC. You have this amazing competition that showcases real vocal talent and, for once, isn’t about making the contestants feel like scum...and you marginalize it like this? What about people’s love for The Sing-Off isn’t penetrating your skulls? I guess it’s better than nothing. Last year’s blog posts regarding this show (one and two) summed up what I adore about it. It’s a burst of unbridled happiness in the midst of the drear. I suppose I’m fated to watch their “holiday special” and hope that it’s a placeholder for a later, PROPER season. With actual episodes. And more time to know and love the earnest a capella groups busting their pipes for our enjoyment. Keep on harmonizing!

Star Trek: Voyager
And now I shall demonstrate why I am no true Star Trek nerd. Yes, I’ve seen at least a bit of every show, even Enterprise, and I can’t help but follow my heart, and my heart says Voyager. It’s not just that it has better special effects. It definitely doesn’t have a superior plot, although the premise -- the titular exploratory vessel is lost on the far side of the galaxy and must find a way home before its crew dies of old age -- raises the stakes considerably. I admit, a lot of it is a retread: look, ghetto Klingons! Look, the latest godlike being! Look, a new bad guy worse than the Borg!’s the characters. On average, Voyager has the most characters I love. I love Chakotay’s zen-master cool. I love the Doctor’s prissiness. I love Seven of Nine’s...Seven of Nine-ness. And most of all, I LOVE Captain Kathryn Janeway. Because she’s a total badass who’s kicking her enemies in the balls when Picard would still be scrabbling for diplomacy. Because she would die for every one of her crew. And because, despite constant peril and the grief of being far from home, she is never without a sense of awe and delight in the unknown wonders of the cosmos. She reminds us why we want to explore space in the first place. Voyager is far from the most loved Star Trek show, but I don’t care. It wins my everything.

Next year...will I finally get around to Orphan Black? Will I find the time for one of those anime shows I keep eyeing? Will I (gulp) actually watch the last couple seasons of Fringe? Shame on me. I guess TV is as legit an art form as any other. Just don’t tell anyone.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 8

4.8: Blood Bath

--DANNY HUSTON! Wheeeeeee!

--Last week I had a totally WTF, made-my-day moment. I was watching Noah -- y’know, with Russell Crowe, Hermione Granger and some rock biters -- and as the end credits rolled, I gaped at a familiar name: Finn Wittrock. WHA?! I rewatched the opening scene of the movie, and sure enough, there was Dandy, hidden under furs and a beard, playing the younger version of Ray Winstone’s villain. It was a delightful shock and it made me think that Wittrock (who’s thirty, if you can believe it) may be destined to really break out as an actor. God knows Freak Show is giving him mucho exposure. In more ways than one. Naked butt.

--So. Am I shocked at the people who died this week? Well...kinda. I saw Ethel’s death coming a mile away, though the nature of her exit was compelling and provided many more Kathy Bates Emmy Award moments. Dell made it look like Ma Petite got nommed by some wild animal, and Elsa wept and moaned over the death of her “little angel,” and for once, I think she was actually sad about it. Not sad enough for Ethel, who bitterly confronted Elsa in her tent. This show loves to stick two of its Grande Dames together and let them have at it. Ethel was through with Elsa’s mama hen schtick and accused her of being a liar, a manipulator, a would-be murderess. She even whipped out a gun and shot Elsa in the leg, not realizing it was wooden. Ah, the pain...the pain of two best friends ending it like this. Elsa surely felt some pain too, but because her heart is rotten and maggot-infested, she talked Ethel into delaying her murder/suicide spree...and then flung a knife straight into Ethel’s eye. Just like that, the beating heart of the freak show was gone. If Ethel was the heart and Ma Petite was the joy, then what’s left?

--Okay, the flashback was annoying. It interrupted a great scene that should not have been interrupted, changed the tone, and was really kind of pointless. BUT, it allowed for Danny “Axeman” Huston to return unexpectedly as the kindly Italian prop-maker who gave Elsa her prosthetics. So I’m forgiving, because Danny Huston makes me tingle. If the next season stars Huston as a Gepetto-type who brings puppets to life, I’ll be so happy.

--Another sequence with a weird tone was the next stage in the Penny subplot, and I really hope it marks the end of the damn Penny subplot. With the aid of Stanley and Esmerelda, Elsa made Ethel’s death look like suicide-by-car-crash. Jimmy sank into booze and whining...dammit, just when he’d gotten over Meep! Desiree, meanwhile, somehow decided that Ethel’s death was a metaphor for the overall man’s war on womanhood, so she enlisted Penny, Eve, and Suzi, and they kidnapped Penny’s mean daddy and tarred/feathered the guy. Satisfying, maybe, but also a tad gratuitous. Bizarrely, it was Esmerelda who burst in and gave an earnest “you’re better than this!” speech to prevent them from straight-up murdering Penny’s dad. I have no freaking clue what’s up with Esmerelda. She’s always appearing in scenes that focus on other people, but we never know what’s going on in her head. My “Emma Roberts shouldn’t just be Emma Roberts” request has been denied. So far. Now can Penny just settle into tattooed bliss with Paul and stop hogging screen time?

--Elsa’s weepfest over Ethel’s death was her corniest yet, and she wasted no time in waltzing down to a cartoonish weight loss clinic in Miami and recruiting a plump lass named Barbara (Chrissy Metz) to be the freak show’s new Fat Lady, and also to be some kind of weird-ass psychosexual mommy figure for Jimmy. Yay, another subplot. I think Barbara is supposed to be a metaphor for the passive, self-harmful complacency that allows Elsa to stay in power. Maybe? She’s what we got instead of Bette and Dot, who Ethel cryptically said are “somewhere safe.” Hopefully she didn’t ensure their safety by breaking their legs with a sledgehammer. Reference joke!

--There was another big death this week that I did not see coming, although since Gloria got so much screen time, maybe I should have. The world kept closing in on Gloria, and they stuck her in a red dress and routinely bathed her in red light, just to foreshadow even more. Dora’s daughter Regina turned up, more determined than ever to ferret out what happened to her mom. Gloria coerced Dandy into seeing a therapist, which led nowhere. We never saw the therapist’s face, but his voice...was that Danny Huston again? I wouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, Gloria and Dandy were caught in a twisted dance, both loving and hating one another. Thanks to the wonders of Frances Conroy (Frances Conroy Frances Conroy), we saw how desperately Gloria needed Dandy, how much it hurt her that she’d produced a lifelong monster. When Dandy tearfully put a gun to his head, she begged him not to, said she couldn’t live without him. Whereupon Dandy said, “Okay,” and shot Gloria in the head. Then he bathed in her blood. DEAR LORD. His “Okay” was the best line of the episode and sums up the hollow void inside Dandy’s body and soul. He’s up there with Tate Langdon and Dr. Thredson as one of AHS’s freakiest bad guys. Kudos.

--RIP, Ethel and Gloria. Damn you, show, for always killing off your best actresses too soon. You’d better make up for it with some SERIOUS Angela Bassett exposure.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, pt. 1


Hollywood. Stop playing with your action figures and park your ass for a second. We need to talk about the “Two-Part Finale” thing. I'm starting to believe that the jig is up. I mean, I get why Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows did it – the book had major pacing problems and by splitting it into two films, they made each half distinctive and arguably more compelling. But you couldn't leave it alone. Twilight did it, Divergent is gonna do it, I'll be surprised if The Maze Runner limits itself to a trilogy...hell, even those Marvel boys fell victim. “It's to make the adaptation better!” you bleat. No. It's to make more money. A better adaptation is just a perk. You're lucky that the Hunger Games franchise is a cut above most of the others (catch up with my earlier reviews here and here), because, really, what did “Part One” of Mockingjay accomplish?

That sounded mean. Is Mockingjay, pt. 1 a bad film? Not at all. Is it the weakest in the series? Yes. I can say that with relative confidence even though we don't get Part Two for another year. You see, of the original novels, Mockingjay is the least liked. It's long and extremely bleak; it has no actual Hunger Games; beloved characters are killed off in a way that George R.R. Martin might chortle at; and heroine Katniss Everdeen suffers emotional gremlins that make her a tad less enjoyable. And guess what? All the most exciting and relevant stuff happens in the second half of the book! Thus, Part One dumps us into District 13, long believed destroyed by the Capitol, actually an underground fortress inhabited by military sourpusses, and frankly, a boring place to spend so much of the movie. Here is where we find Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who has now sabotaged two Hunger Games and incited many of the outlying Districts of Panem to revolution. Her home of District 12 has been reduced to rubble and corpses, but she remains, as does her family, her possible love interest, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and any allies who haven't been killed or imprisoned. Sadly, the latter category includes her other possible love interest, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Alma Coin (Hunger Games newbie Julianne Moore), president of District 13, and spin-doctor Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) have Big Plans for Katniss. She's going to be crammed into awesome body armor and stuck in front of a greenscreen as The Mockingjay, the face of the revolution! A symbol of defiance and unity! Katniss initially wants none of it. She wants her loved ones safe, and she wants Peeta rescued. But then Peeta starts appearing on Capitol television, perfectly dressed and polished, urging the rebels to surrender. Gasp! A traitor! Katniss refuses to believe it. She Mockingjays out, and the film becomes a series of conversations and hellish warzone escapades in which...not a lot happens, really. Oh, there are explosions. There is bloodshed that pushes the limits of PG-13. Katniss shoots more arrows, always a pleasurable sight. But it all seems muffled somehow, hidden behind a layer of who-really-gives-a-hoot.

All these characters are so familiar to us by now, and it's kinda interesting to see them grapple with a script that's basically a two-hour tease for the rest of Mockingjay. I can never not praise Jennifer Lawrence, and here, we see Katniss becoming a woman while still hanging on to the last glimmers of a childhood she never really had. I was also impressed by Hutcherson's unsettling portrayal of a guy who's seemingly sold out, until the cracks in the Capitol's makeover start to show. But Liam Hemsworth...hoo boy. He finally, FINALLY gets a decent amount of screen time, and all it serves is to show how uncharismatic he is. Gale should tick like a time bomb, torn between his love for Katniss and his need for bloody vengeance. Hemsworth is just...there. A hunk-shaped lump of nothing much, stalwart and pointless. And he's not the only one. After early attempts at Mockingjay propaganda fall amusingly flat (it's fun to watch a good actress portraying a bad actress), Coin and Plutarch send Katniss into the field accompanied by a film crew, led by the punk-styled Cressida (Natalie Dormer). This would have been a great opportunity to poke fun at stereotypes of guerilla filmmaking and hotshot young documentarians...but, no, the film crew is simply occupying space, like Gale.

The film just has too many characters for its stagnant plot. It could have used a lot more of Woody Harrelson's Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks' Effie, an invaluable duo who are largely sidelined here. When Harrelson first appeared onscreen, a fond guffaw rippled through the theater. And there's a running visual gag about Effie's determination to wrangle high fashion from a world of gray jumpsuits and formica. But both have to ration screen time and neither is present enough for my liking. There's a lot of Hoffman, who always seemed like he wasn't comfy in the role, and Moore, who's one of the best actresses of our time but injects a bit too much warmth into the role of Alma Coin, considering her complete character arc (no spoilers). Yeah, I know, we're really here to watch Katniss. But even Katniss threatens to disappear into the scenery. Brief sequences in rebellious districts are way more exciting than anything happening in District 13. There's an effective bit late in the film in which a covert mission into the Capitol is intercut with a tortured testimony from ex-golden boy Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin). But Katniss isn't really in these scenes. She's treading water like everyone else.

I've been dragged down by this movie's weaknesses. It's still a fine film. This series is admirable for its subtleties, and for the ways in which certain crucial images – a rose, a cat, a pearl – are repeated in silence, their significance unspoken. The Hunger Games movies have never insulted our intelligence, and have found a kind of stark beauty in future dystopia. There's an artful moment in Mockingjay, pt. 1 where a hovercraft flies over an endless forest, and in among the trees, almost subliminal, are the ruins of buildings and bridges. And the final shot of the film is a moment of horror that guarantees we want Part Two to be out RIGHT NOW and not in another goddamn year. But if it were one movie, we wouldn't be waiting, would we? And it could have been one movie, guys. I would rather sit through a complete, three-plus-hour Mockingjay, numb buttocks notwithstanding, then experience two hours of a screen with unimportant things on it. Yeah, I'd watch Jennifer Lawrence and her supporting cast peel potatoes for two hours if I had to, but it's like they got trapped in another, less compelling film and occasionally Skype with the actual Hunger Games series. (“Hi, Donald! How's things? Still rocking the evil Kris Kringle beard?”) This is really a case where franchise-mania trumped the need to make the best film possible.

Still entertaining to watch. But maybe the odds aren't ever in Hollywood's favor.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Interstellar

Cautious Enthusiasm: To infinity and beyond.

I kept myself in the dark about Interstellar. I watched the trailers but I avoided any and all featurettes, and did not read any reviews. I did not want to know. Of course, I couldn’t avoid gleaning the general critical consensus, which is that this film is not super great. Good, just not super great. I’m drawing my own conclusions, dammit! This isn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy where everyone knows the plot in advance! I want to form an untainted opinion!

I have. Interstellar is very good. And not super great.

Oh, well.

I now get what they mean when they say, “There’s a great movie somewhere inside this one.” With Interstellar, it’s obvious what’s great and what isn’t. It’s a powerful and moving two-hour film that just happens to be almost three hours long. Director Christopher Nolan makes brainy action films, and he does it extremely well. The Dark Knight remains something akin to a masterpiece and Inception is in my top five favorite movies of all time. He’s tackling something very different with Interstellar. A thrilling film that does not, or should not, rely on explosions, or chases, or villains. A movie where the adventure and excitement comes from discovery. Awe. Super-high stakes. It’s supposed to be very brainy and science-y, and, to be blunt, that’s not what the moviegoing public generally wants to see. Alienate the masses with an overly wordy and slow-paced film, or alienate smart people by making Aliens without the aliens? Nolan tried to compromise. The film shines for most of its run time, then comes dangerously close to suckage when it panders to a lower denominator. Look at me, all snotty!

WARNING: I’ll try not to spoil details but I may spoil generalizations. The film begins in the near future. The world is ending with a whimper. The details of society’s breakdown are kept somewhat vague, but there is drought, there are diseases, and we’re running out of food. Old-school farming is back in vogue, not out of yuppie ideals, but out of desperation. America’s heartland is covered in corn. When the corn dies -- when, not if -- we will starve. One of the farmers in this future dust bowl is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), formerly of NASA, now a widower with two kids. He wants his children to escape their hardscrabble life, but escape is no longer an option in a world where science and the arts have been deemed a waste of resources. Due to a convoluted series of events, an...entity...that inhabits Cooper’s daughter’s bedroom leads Cooper to discover what’s left of NASA: a handful of brains in a bunker, led by Michael Caine, constructing a last-ditch scheme to save humanity. A wormhole to another galaxy has opened near Saturn. Wormholes don’t just pop up like zits; someone put it there. Others have been sent through, looking for inhabitable worlds, but the latest mission will be the last, and Cooper’s the best man to fly the ship. Of course he is.

Yeah, the movie’s big on making Cooper a Jesus figure -- a humble man pushed toward his destiny by a higher power. Sometimes this works and sometimes it feels like the screenplay’s hard at work. (Considering that all the Earth scenes seem to take place in the same ten-square-mile chunk of the Midwest, it sure is convenient that Cooper happened to live so near to the secret NASA project!) It would work a lot less without McConaughey, who’s pretty much perfected the art of seeming like a normal guy, a hero, a wild card, and your best buddy, all at once. This movie is largely about human emotions, with space as the backdrop, and there are moments where McConaughey’s emotions are as raw as a wound. Cooper must leave his family, possibly forever, because this isn’t Star Wars: space travel takes years at best, generations at worst. The ship blasts off, carrying Cooper and three other makeshift cosmonauts (played by Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, and Wes Bentley), and it’s hardly a spoiler to say they make it through the wormhole. Next comes a hazardous cosmic ballet involving the humans, their ship, some planets, and a massive, syrupy black hole that adds even worse implications to the problem of time passage. Back home on Earth, Cooper’s daughter grows up to be Jessica Chastain, and works tirelessly to prove that the rest of humanity hasn’t been left to rot.

The movie is beautiful in its lack of spectacle. Yes, there are amazing starscapes and alien worlds, but, again, this isn’t Star Wars. Star Wars was a fantasy that happened to be set in space. Interstellar, while playing somewhat fast and loose with science and physics, is as realistic as it can be while still being a blockbuster movie. The look, sound and feel of the technology hammers home how fragile it all is, how we’ve always shot people into space in ramshackle vehicles that could be pulverized with the flick of a cosmic eyelash. It’s all a series of improvisations made by people who can only guess what they’re heading towards. The alien worlds are dreamlike, and the dangers faced by Cooper and his crew are all organic and real, except for the glaring exception I’ll describe in the next paragraph. There are a couple of wry robots aboard, and they look like, given thousands of years of natural erosion and geological forces, they might eventually turn into R2-D2. The special effects are amazing, but they don’t demand your attention; Nolan has always gone for practical, naturalistic effects whenever he can, and nothing we see here looks like something you couldn’t theoretically find in outer space.

And the script is...well, it’s sturdy. But it makes some grave errors. (SLIGHTLY MORE SPECIFIC SPOILERS AHEAD!) The first half of the film is ace, but the last block is...honestly...pointless. There is an element of human villainy. There are some action scenes that exist only to be action scenes. And it drags. On and on it drags, a tiresome detour before the big sound-and-light finale. They could have easily utilized the “bad guy” in a mature, thoughtful way, considering that character’s motives and circumstances. But apparently there needs to be an antagonist. Apparently the film can’t be too absorbed in science and discovery, or else the audience might fall asleep. Me, I became sleepier during those “exciting” action scenes, because they served no point beyond delaying the important parts of the climax. As for the climax itself, I won’t spoil a single detail, but A) I guessed the big twist very early in the film, and B) the film kept going long after I figured it should end. The “epilogue” was there because they wanted to tie up all the loose ends, but...considering where Cooper goes and what he does, was it too conventional an ending? Or too sentimental? Or both? Its clumsy third act is why I didn’t adore Interstellar, why I don’t think it’s as good as Inception, why Nolan can’t yet say he’s made his magnum opus. Sorry, sir. But you let conventional action clichés sneak in and you got overwhelmed by your own epic tale. Points lost.

Still. Don’t be deterred from seeing Interstellar, because it’s one of the best-made science fiction films in recent years. It looks great. It’s beautifully acted, though some of the supporting cast is marginalized. Nolan has struggled to write good female characters, but he’s found a muse in Anne Hathaway. Her playful turn as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises was such a refreshing surprise, and here, she goes the other way, giving a wounded performance that in some places is closer to her Fantine from Les Miserables. (Chastain fares worse; she doesn’t have enough to do and spends way too much of the film standing in a single room, staring into space.) And, again, Matthew McConaughey anchors everything with his easy charisma and boiling-over emotions. I don’t even mind how annoying it is to type his name. McConaughey McConaughey McConaughey. He’s just that good.

It’s a shame that Interstellar wasn’t that which I mean, as good as we all hoped. It’s not going to redefine movies and Christopher Nolan is probably going to make better films down the line. I’m glad he went outside the box to make this one, because it shows he’s not limiting himself to action and Batman. Trim the fat from Interstellar and it’d be another minor masterpiece. As it is, it’s worth your time. And time, as this movie demonstrates, should be spent well. Do not go gentle into that dark knight.

VERDICT: In space, no one can hear me squee. But it’s a solid squee anyway.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 7

4.7: Test of Strength

--First of five-year-old laptop is dying, as Apple products generally do when they reach the age at which Apple wants you to pay them more money. While I pursue various solutions and/or scrounge for a new computer, I'm using my boyfriend's. This post and possibly the next few will be my “Notes in Exile.” In case anyone cares.

--Now, then. Metaphors galore. Last week, the spinning bullseye stood in for the unpredictability of life itself. This time around, it was the famous sideshow attraction where you pound a button with a hammer and try to ring the bell. It tests your physical strength. It's how men attempt to prove themselves to their wives, girlfriends, secret mistresses, whatever. In Freak Show, the only guy who can ring that bell is Dell Toledo. What he may not realize is that a test of strength refers not merely to the brawn, but also the mind and soul. How strong a man are you on the inside? How can your character withstand certain moral challenges? This episode handed Dell a huge, whopping chance to redeem himself. He did, but not in the ways that mattered. And after teasing us by fake-killing half its cast, Freak Show finally stuck a dead freak in a jar for real. And it SUCKED.

--For once, we didn't get much of the Motts. Jimmy's ominous arrival at their manor last week was a fakeout, as he seemed to be in no danger. He tried to talk Bette and Dot into returning home – and succeeded, after Dot discovered Dandy had snooped in her diary. Jimmy also realized that, quite possibly, Dandy was the other dude in the clown mask on Halloween night. They left, and Dandy was so upset that his entire face appeared to be trying to hornk itself up his nose. Now, however, Bette's ego is out of control and she wants more of the high life: blonde ringlets, caviar, comedy routines. Bette is, quite frankly, a dingbat, and Dot knows it, so she spearheaded a blackmail scheme, using Bette as a tool to try and force Elsa into kowtowing to the twins' wishes. In Dot's case, she wants to skim half the ticket money so she can surgically banish her sister. As before. Tease.

--For some reason, Stanley is no longer concerned that Esmerelda ain't really onboard any more. He's got a new plan. After spotting Dell at the gay bar, Stanley initiated the second blackmail scheme of the episode, confronting the big galoot and demanding that he snuff a freak, else his man-chasing ways be exposed. I have no fucking idea why, but Dell chose Amazon Eve as his target. Yeah, Dell, go after the eight-foot-tall transgendered powerhouse. Great plan. Awesomely, Dell got his ass kicked halfway to Miami...and, worse for him, Ethel and the other ladies decided to straight-up black widow him in the dead of night. Ethel maybe had reason, for she and Desiree dropped in on their kindly doctor friend to find he'd killed himself. And his daughter, full of anguish and rage, blamed the freaks for her dad's demise and kicked them out. It was a moment of utter injustice, and it opened the floodgates for another Kathy Bates Emmy Award moment, as Ethel whimpered about all the evils of the world, all the rotten shit that life continues to dump on her. The target of her tirade, Jimmy, didn't get it...or didn't seem to.

--Jimmy had a lot going on this week, and I'm rather relieved that he didn't once mention Meep. (Though he did growl through some Nirvana. A lot of people hate this season's musical interludes, but I kinda like their offbeatness.) He tried to calm down the vengeful women, and then he confronted Dell himself. They went to a bar, and the problem is, when two guys go to a bar, bromance often occurs. Nothing like liquor to erode a man's mettle. Drunk and garrulous, Jimmy had no clue what father-son bonding felt like, and so didn't realize he was doing it. Or did he? In the alley outside, Dell considered braining Jimmy with a brick, making him the dead freak delivered to Stanley's greasy paws. But then Jimmy revealed that he'd figured out Dell was his father. And he just wanted Dell to confirm it. Dell did. I liked this so much better than the stereotypical “shocked revelation” scene. It also led to Dell and Jimmy doing a raucous, drunk double act. I suspect many actors secretly hope they'll get to play shit-faced at some point in their careers. So Dell's a real dad now! Can he clean up his act? Well........

--Before I get to the tragedy, let's briefly touch upon the random subplot of randomness. Penny wants to be with Paul and the freaks for good, and because most parental figures on AHS are over-the-top terrible in some way, her daddy said, “Okay!” and got a tattoo artist to turn Penny into an alligator girl. So what? She hated her old life anyway, and somehow I doubt Paul will care if his girlfriend's a bit inked up. I kinda like her with scales.

--Also, Elsa and Dot started up a secret comminique, re: Bette is an irritating problem that should be taken care of. But then Elsa told Stanley about all this, and Stanley's inner monologue went: I can snatch and formaldehydify the twins with Elsa's blessing, just like that? Bonanza! Ahh, but Ethel seems to have overheard. Tease.

--This show has characters I hate because they do shitty things, like Elsa. It has characters I hate because they do shitty things and are badly-portrayed, like Monsignor Howard from Asylum. And then it has characters that do shitty things and that I know I should hate, but can't bring myself to, because I see the pain in their eyes. Dell is such a character. He is so, so torn. Scared of his newfound tenderness toward Jimmy. Stuck in his macho rut, unable to understand his homosexuality. Hating himself. Hating the people who he thinks mock him. He could have fixed everything this week. Here is what I wanted to happen: I wanted Dell to go to Ethel and the ladies and admit that Stanley had blackmailed him. Tell them everything, so that the freaks could give Stanley the horrible death he richly deserves. Instead, Dell snuck into Ma Petite's tent, sweetly gave her a beautiful new dress, and then, his face haggard with self-loathing, killed her. Ma Petite is dead and in a jar, and this time...this time it's real. Why can't I hate Dell? What he just did was unforgivable. And yet...and yet...there is good in that man. I hope, I HOPE, he will accept enough of it to atone in some small way. Somehow.

--Unless, next week, Ma Petite isn't really dead! Jesus...I hate that she died, but if they fake us out one more time, I will go all Angry Ethel on their asses.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 6

4.6: Bullseye

--Deah dah-ry, it was nice to see Bette and Dot have some actual freaking screen time in this episode...even if they, like so much else, are a giant tease. “Bullseye” was all about teasing us with things that may or may not happen, and if at least some of those things don’t come to pass, I will leave Freak Show feeling like it was all foreplay and no real sex, if you know what I mean. The thing is, foreplay can be really awesome and feel great. Doesn’t mean it’s okay to be left with blue balls.

--The tease surrounding Bette and Dot is The Surgery. A grotesque thing to imagine, one which Bette refuses to think about and Dot desperately craves. Life within the Mott manor is quite plush for the Tattlers. As ever, Bette reacts to the change of scenery with dewy-eyed bliss, while Dot is pinched and suspicious. Dandy, however, is a boy transformed. He’s in love! He’s gonna marry the twins and be a real man, finally! Gloria is torn between hope that her son’s murder-a-thon is over, and selfish dread that she’s losing him in other ways. (I like to imagine that she’s thinking, “Dammit, if I hadn’t named him ‘Dandy’ none of this might be happening!”) Dot only warms up to Dandy once she sees a news article about conjoined twins who were separated. Oh, but one twin died. Boo hoo. Dot don’t care. She’s still smitten with Jimmy and she wants Dandy’s cash to fund her Bettectomy. So many characters, lovestruck over things they can’t have.

--Elsa. I kind of hate her, honestly. Like, even her tragic backstory came about because she was stupid enough to let evil men drug her and tie her to a bed. It’s her birthday week, and she’s getting all kinds of presents, one of which is a male phallus that’s possibly tattooed and hopefully not beflippered. Yes, Elsa’s sleeping with Paul the Illustrated Seal, and Paul can’t help but feel like he’s being used. Just as Elsa uses all her freaks, one way or the other. Yes, she rescued them from awful places, but it seems clear to me that everything she’s done has been self-serving. She saved the freaks because she knew they’d be in her debt and because, let’s face it, she figured most of them would be too mentally inferior to see her as anything other than a saint. Which makes her a shitty person, as she kept on demonstrating this week. So, another tease: how long before Elsa goes too far? If she hasn’t already.

--Paul got a lot of screen time this week, which was awesome. Shout-out to actor Mat Fraser, who has Thalidomide to thank for his small arms, and who is a also a drummer and performance artist. Dude has formidable screen presence! Paul may be schtupping Elsa but he’s also sneaking off to canoodle with Penny, that candy striper from the first episode. Penny, who is played by that not-terribly-talented Meryl Streep daughter who stabbed the shit out of Danny Huston back in Coven, is basically a whiny teenager who hates her whitebread life and gets into shouting matches with her daddy over who doesn’t appreciate whom. Sigh. Dunno why Paul wants her. But he does, and a trip to the pharmacy for some ritzy perfume led Paul to cross paths with Dandy, who is buying...two hairbrushes? Two ladies’ headbands? Hmmmmmm. Paul is vewy, vewy suspicious.

--The tease that’s really getting on everyone’s nerves is the con artists and whether or not they’ll actually murder a freak. With the twins gone, Stanley’s new target is Jimmy and his Shamu hands, only Esmerelda, who loves Jimmy?....I guess?...talked Stanley into snuffing a different performer: sweet little Ma Petite. Another shout-out to actress Jyoti Amge, who is officially the world’s smallest living woman, and who is (sorry if this sounds condescending) so bloody adorable that anyone with a soul fears for her safety. Hey, like I said last season, it’s a bad idea to ignore what makes some people different, but we should totally respect them for being the radiant folks they are. Ma Petite’s petiteness is why it was really fucking awful and disturbing to watch Stanley and Esmerelda stick her in a jar and drown her in formaldehyde. SHUDDER. But of course, it was just another fantasy/dream/what-if sequence. No more of those, okay, show? Especially if you’re not really gonna follow through with it. I don’t want to see any more freaks die, but in some ways it’s worse to have no payoff at all. Esmerelda found she couldn’t bear to kill Ma Petite, and now Stanley’s super-pissed and is demanding that Esmerelda ditch her soft side. Not sure what kinda leverage he has over her. Hey, Esmerelda, Stanley’s got a mega-penis. Why don’t you send THAT bad boy to the museum in a jar?

--Desiree and Dell were an effective tease this week in that they didn’t get one second of screen time. See, show? This is what happens when you overstuff your cast!

--All the suspicion, the behind-the-scenes grumbling both real and imagined, was too much for Elsa. When Paul confronted her about the twins, she threw a titanic Jessica Lange tantrum, which led right into this week’s ham-fisted metaphor, the bullseye. In her glory days, Elsa used to fling knives at a “victim” strapped to a spinning target, and she made sure we knew the symbolism. How fate spins you in all directions. How even a skilled human being can fuck up. How you can guess the trajectory of the blade, but you can’t predict it perfectly. Y’know, like life and stuff. Not a bad metaphor, even if Elsa’s VOs explained more than they needed to. Rather bizarrely, Elsa demanded that a freak get on the wheel and prove their trust. Paul volunteered, maybe because he felt bad, or because he didn’t want to see his fellow freaks in danger, because he’s a better human being than Elsa will ever be. The wheel spun; Elsa flung her knives. Was it all a big fake-out? No. Her third knife connected somewhere in the vicinity of Paul’s pancreas, and Paul is now bedridden, maybe dying. Elsa was all like, “OH NO WHAT HAVE I DONE REMORSE REMORSE”....but she didn’t call a doctor. Because she sucks that much.

--Pray for Paul. And pray the other freaks get a clue. Ethel bluntly promised Elsa that she’ll kill her if she discovers treachery. I kinda wouldn’t mind seeing that. It’s another tease, along with the tease that Penny’s shotgun-wielding daddy might follow her to the freak show and the peace between the freaks and the Jupterites may be ruined. Oh, and the tease that Jimmy might face a bigger threat than Stanley’s plotting. His suspicions roused, Jimmy went to the Motts’ to hunt for Bette and Dot...and Dandy, meanwhile, having read Dot’s less-than-flattering diary entries about him, has reverted to stab-happy mode and seems to think Jimmy’d make a good third victim. DAMMIT, GLORIA, DO SOMETHING! You’re the Angel of Death! Or you will be in twelve years.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 5

4.5: Pink Cupcakes

--Let it be etched into the stone tablets of history: American Horror Story is the show where Michael Chiklis played a gay man. Yes, world, It Gets Better.

--I imagine some people didn’t like this ep because, well, the show’s gotten a bit soap-operatic in places. Everyone has relationship issues and everyone has a torrid secret, yeah yeah yeah. Like I said before, I approve of the less zany pacing of Freak Show, and “Pink Cupcakes” mainly served to kick off Act Two and set up future strife. The big thing right now is our sleazy con artist (his actual name is Stanley. About time we found that out!) and his quest to turn a freak into a museum exhibit. Rather obnoxiously, the show kept faking us out by showing dead characters in jars and then going, “LOL, this hasn’t actually happened!” That is cheap storytelling, show, and to be honest, I half-hoped the “deaths” of Bette and Dot would turn out to be legit, because it would be such a grim and unexpected move. It was certainly a horrible sequence, as Stanley poisoned the Tattlers with the titular confections and Dot found herself sharing a body with her dead sister. But it wasn’t real. Obviously. Stanley is capable of murder, though, and Esmerelda was concerned enough to try and talk Jimmy into scarpering. But Jimmy...hasn’t gotten over Meep yet. Good lord, tell me that’s not gonna be his one big issue.

--Yep, Jimmy is still all, “Bawwww, I got the gimp killed!” and I sympathize, but it undermines his strength as a character. Jimmy wound up crying on the shoulder of Desiree, who’s also morose because Dell’s never home any more. The two of them started up some hanky-panky, interrupted when Desiree began bleeding from the place you don’t wanna bleed from. Ethel took the voluptuous herm to that kindly old doctor from before, who revealed the truth: Desiree ain’t a herm, she’s all woman. Her “ding-a-ling” is an oversized clitoris, and a bit of cosmetic surgery could make her fully normal. Plus, the blood was from a miscarriage, and now Desiree has a motherly glow in her eyes. Of course, her happiness can’t last, but I’m just pleased they gave her this much screen time. Because Angela Bassett is so awesome to watch. I can’t even.

--Not surprising for someone who named her son “Dandy,” Gloria Mott hasn’t a clue what to do. Upon discovering Dora’s corpse, Gloria was mad enough to not buy Dandy’s attempt to play innocent, but she did swallow the idea that her son just can’t help himself. After all, he’s a product of aristocratic inbreeding! Of course he is! The notion that Dandy’s parents were also cousins is amusing, but I’d almost prefer there to be no explanation for his lunacy. It’s scarier to imagine that sometimes, psychopaths just happen. Anyway, Dora’s body is buried and Dandy, like so many serial killers before him, has directly linked murder to his libido. Which led to him being disturbingly sexy, as he oiled up and worked out in tighty-whities and tennis shoes while composing some sort of mental manifesto about how his gorgeous psycho body is a metaphor for America. Or.........something. The amount of manflesh on display was no coincidence, because...

--Dandy went hunting at a gay bar, which was definitely the sexiest, hippest, and most crowded gay bar one could possibly hope to find in Florida in 1952. But what I didn’t expect, what kind of amazed me, was the other familiar face among the clandestine gays. Dell Toledo, ladies and gentlemen. The show just explained everything about his character. A man who’s never happy, who’s overly macho but also uncomfortable in his own skin, who seeks out women with male characteristics because he thinks, wrongly, that it’s a functional substitute. Dell suffers from the closeted, confused, alienated pain of being gay in 1950s America. Worse, he has a secret boyfriend, an artist/hustler named Andy (Matt Bomer), and Andy sees Dell as just another john, and Dell wants sincerity but doesn’t know how to be sincere himself, and Michael Chiklis fucking killed it this week. I never would have thought. But, hey, just shows we’re moving past stereotypes. Unfulfilled, Dell returned home to Desiree, who confronted him about Jimmy’s parentage and moved out. And then Dell went to that nice, kindly doctor, the one who treats freaks like human beings, the one who could make Desiree normal...and Dell snapped the doctor’s fingers like matchsticks. Poor Dell. Thug and monster by choice, because he thinks he has no other option.

--Maybe he doesn’t. Because Andy went home with a murderer. Home to the Dharma van. Andy and Dandy, what a pair. Two gorgeous guys stripping down to their underwear, as Andy contemplated his dreams of homoerotic art shows. Whereupon Dandy stabbed Andy a bajillion times and tossed his severed limbs in a bathtub full of acid, while Andy took a very, very long time to die. (“You’re making me feel bad!” whined Patrick Bateman Junior.) Vintage AHS: you cringe, then you laugh, then you feel horrible about laughing. RIP, dude who might have had a future one day. Now Gloria’s got more cleaning up to do, and meanwhile, she got a call from the last person you want pissed off at you: Gabourey Sidibe, playing Dora’s daughter, Regina, an upwardly mobile schoolgirl perturbed by her mother’s recent silence. Gloria’s between a hunk and a hot place. The former is her bloodsoaked son, still expecting Mommy to fix his problems, and the hot place is Hell, where she is probably going.

--Last but not least...Stanley wooed Elsa with tales of TV fame. Elsa scoffed, until her latest “Life On Mars” performance resulted in boos and flung popcorn from the local rubes. Meanwhile, Stanley was also seducing and/or attempting to murder Bette and Dot, so Elsa decided she’d had enough of the competition and dumped the Tattler sisters on Gloria and Dandy’s doorstep. Well, GREAT. Now nobody’s happy at all.

--I know I’m not. Because now I want some goddamn cupcakes.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 4

4.4: Edward Mordrake, pt. 2

--When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Dreams do come true! In my case, I prayed for the return of Lily Rabe and my prayers have been answered! She’ll pop up later in Freak one of my all-time favorite AHS characters, Sister Eunice, demon-possessed nun extraordinaire! Of course, this is twelve years before Asylum so she’ll be very young and demon-free, but still, I’ll take it. I’m delighted!

--Nothing in this episode was quite as exciting. It was quite a good ep, but I figured out most of what was gonna happen before it happened. Yes, in retrospect, Twisty the clown wasn’t the type of character who could carry an entire season, despite his visual creepiness. As for Edward Mordrake, he worked better as an idea than a realized character. The demonface was well-done and Wes Bentley played the role gamely enough, but Mordrake was basically just an Exposition-o-Matic, making various folks cough up their tales o’ woe. A lot of our cast had the week off, as the ep focused in on two key players. After some angsty backstory from Paul the Illustrated Seal and Legless Suzi (summary: it ain’t easy to be lacking limbs in the days before political correctness), Mordrake returned to visit Elsa in her tent.

--I kinda wish they’d give Jessica Lange a different character to play. This is the third season in a row where she’s portrayed a bitter former sex bomb torn between her mama-hen instincts and her selfishness. Mordrake, of course, saw right through her and wasn’t impressed by her “discount Dietrich” routine. Elsa finally owned up to her past, and it was pretty awful. Unable to become a real star, she settled for being a queen of BDSM during the depraved, sex-and-drug-drenched period Germany went through before Hitler came along and gave the populace something other than themselves to hate. Life was a cabaret, old chum. Dominatrix Elsa specialized in true kinky torture, and attracted the kind of people who dabbled in dark games she couldn’t even guess at. Her “patrons” wanted her to perform, but the performance turned out to be a low-rent snuff film in which Elsa was shackled to a bed while her legs were chainsawed off. In the cruelest of ironies, she got her stardom: she became the “Two Girls, One Cup” of the 1930s. This miserable confession was enough for Mordrake’s demonface, but as Elsa was about to meet her maker...hark! Music from the woods!

--You see, Jimmy and Esmerelda had earlier found themselves on slasher movie turf when Jimmy’s bike broke down and they witnessed Twisty snatching Bonnie after another failed escape attempt. Jimmy wanted to stumble to the rescue, and succeeded in getting conked on the head by Twisty’s new protégé, Dandy, who promptly presided over a makeshift magic show in which he prepared to saw Esmerelda in half. Because Jimmy is badass and Dandy is a pussy, Jimmy broke his bonds and returned the conk-on-the-head favor. Esmerelda distracted Dandy and led Bonnie, Corey, and Asshole Teenage Dude to safety. Twisty re-conked Jimmy, but before bad things could happen to our dreamy greaser...Mordrake cometh.

--Yes, as the showrunners hinted, Twisty’s tale actually made us feel sorry for the big lug. You see, Twisty is a Good Clown. All he wants is to be a Good Clown. He took off his mask and forced painful words through the gaping wound where his mouth used to be. Short version: he’s Arseface! Simpleminded, with a guileless love of children, Twisty was a star carnival attraction in 1943. Jealous of his success, the freaks drove Twisty away and spread the rumor that he diddled the kiddies. Homeless, desperate, Twisty moved into his Dharma van and tried building and selling toys from junk, but only succeeded in freaking people out. So Twisty put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger...and only succeeded in mutilating himself. When did his poor brain snap? Was he always going to turn to murder, or was he a genuinely sweet soul who was kicked in the balls so hard by Fate that murder became his sole default? The important thing is that all of Twisty’s actions spring from his pitiful need to be a Good Clown...and his story contained enough pathos to make Mordrake’s worse half weep. Thus, Mordrake ended Twisty’s luckless life. From hiding, Jimmy watched as the ghost of Twisty, healed and whole, joined Mordrake’s undead posse....forever. #RIPTwisty

--So Twisty was just the opening act, after all. The real showpiece of villainy? Dandy, of course, and can I just say that Finn Wittrock has one of the most unpleasant grins I have ever seen. But it serves him well. He found Twisty’s body, claimed his mouth mask, and returned home for take two of terrorizing Dora with a knife. Dora still wasn’t having it, but this time, to no one’s surprise, Dandy summoned up the psycho clown moxie he needed and slashed Dora’s throat. And then he giggled like a merry schoolboy. Is Gloria going to do the right thing and toss her nutjob son in an asylum? Heh. What do you think? (No. You should be thinking no.)

--Despite the ominous Dandy developments, things ended on a surprising note of joy for Elsa’s troupe. After all, Jimmy and Esmerelda just exposed the serial killer and saved three kids. A swarm of townies arrived at the demon-mouth gates of the freak say thank you. To meet the freaks as people. To be paying customers. Jimmy was uncertain, but it looks like being a hero is good for his complexion. Yep, everyone was happy...except Bette and Dot, who are now more sidelined than ever. Hate to say it, but those two are becoming the Zoe of Freak Show: important only at the beginning, to mislead us. Oh, and another ominous note: Esmerelda’s male partner strolled in and introduced himself as “Richard Spencer,” a Hollywood talent scout, which almost made Elsa sploosh on the spot. And she hasn’t even seen his mighty phallus of thunder! I’ll call him Spencer for now, but I hope his plans to cram a murdered freak in a pickle jar come to naught. I’m really committed to these oddballs!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Marvel Phase Three: The Beginning

October 28th, 2014.

Today was a reaffirmation of the way cinematic blockbusters now operate. A rafter-rattling day for geek culture and a day that made every major movie studio in America frantically revise their upcoming release calendars. A day in which the name “Carol Danvers!” was cheered to the heavens. In short...Marvel Studios just handed us Phase Three. Nine new movies were confirmed in one way or another, giving us a look at the Grand Plan all the way to 2019. By then, the world may be sick of superhero event films, but right now, caught up in the excitement of TITLES and SUBTITLES and CHADWICK BOSEMAN, I can’t imagine why.

My Marvel villains list has miles to go before it sleeps.

Once again, I am NOT a comic book fan. This is not going to be a terribly long post, and it will not be choked with breathless theories on what comic plotlines might be utilized and which supporting heroes or villains might crop up and what outfit they’ll go with for Maximus the Mad and so forth. Others are doing that already. This are just my initial thoughts, with a scant bit of fact-hunting on Wikipedia. Very scant. Ladies and gentlemen, here are the next nine Marvel films.

Captain America: Civil War
Everyone wondered if they’d do Civil War, and everyone was dead right. Basically, Iron Man 4 is never, ever going to happen, but as consolation(?), they’re putting Tony Stark in Cap’s next a quasi-villain! To condense a very long and convoluted story that I know next to nothing about, the comic book Civil War is a very “ripped from today’s headlines” saga in which the U.S. government decrees that all superpeople must register themselves and clip their collars to a federal leash. No more secret identities, no more unsanctioned day-saving. Iron Man, the conservative businessman with a public persona, is fine with this. Captain America believes it flies in the face of what it means to be a superhero, and becomes a fugitive. The cinematic version will follow its own narrative threads, and you have to wonder how they’ll do the “renegade Cap” thing when they already did it in Cap 2. Ah, well. Tony Stark as reluctant antagonist should be nifty. But how the hell are they gonna fit the Winter Soldier into this mess?

Doctor Strange
From what I gather, Doc Strange is a very, very, very, very bizarre Marvel hero who inhabits a world of magic and sorcery and psychedelic backgrounds. He may not seem to jive with the science-heavy Marvel films, but time’s gotta tell. And there’s probably gonna be another Infinity Stone in there somewhere. Nerd-dom blazes with rumors that Strange will be played by Benedict Cumberbatch. So far, Team Marvel has refused to confirm or deny this. I’d be down.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2
My boyfriend said of GotG that he hasn’t enjoyed a movie this much since Terminator 2. That’s a pretty impressive statement and a testament to how much unabashed fun the world just had with Peter Quill and co. We can’t wait for more. More weird humor, more fuck-you attitude, more retro soundtrack, more dancing Groot. There is some trepidation, touched upon by Entertainment Weekly writer Darren Franich in the link up above, that GotG 2 will be one of those annoying “set-up movies.” Like Cap 1 or Iron Man 2, it may be overly concerned with laying down groundwork for later franchising, and won’t be that great on its own merits. This is especially plausible given the OTHER outer-space superteam project that Marvel is doing; see below.

Thor: Ragnarok
It seems that of Marvel’s mini-franchises, the Thor films are the least-liked. Me, I actually enjoy them a lot. I acknowledge that their mix of high fantasy, bizarre tech, and inappropriate slapstick doesn’t always work. But visually, they’re a gas, and Chris Hemsworth brings a good tongue-in-cheek note to Thor. We knew we’d get Thor 3 and it looks like a doozy, but will it succeed at winning people’s hearts? More importantly, what’s Loki gonna be up to? That’s all we care about, right? God, I hope they don’t make him a hero at the last minute. He’s LOKI. He sells tickets by being nasty. Kill him off if you must, but give him an epic demise, not some weak-ass “For the Greater Good” bullshit.

Black Panther
Yay, Marvel’s finally making a movie starring a black superhero! Um, sorry, Falcon.

Captain Marvel
Yay, Marvel’s finally making a movie starring a female superhero! Um, sorry, Black Widow.

When it comes to Inhumans, I’m kind of like the older dog sniffing suspiciously at the new puppy that the family just introduced. It looks cute, but will it piddle all over the carpet? Will it steal everyone’s affections? Did we really need another “team” movie? Inhumans ties closely with Guardians of the Galaxy; it’s about a society of people who were born of human DNA but superpowered via genetic tinkering by the Kree (the race from which GotG’s Ronan the Accuser hails). Look, I really, really like the Guardians of the Galaxy (bitch) and I kinda resent the fact that they now have to share time and space with the Inhumans, who are a more somber and emo bunch. Again, I barely know anything about these guys. But this is why I’m worried about GotG 2. I fear it will be treated as the opening act for Inhumans. I’m hopeful as ever, but my bag of tomatoes is ready to fling, just in case.

Avengers: Infinity War
Part One and Part Two. Yes...the third Avengers film is so gigantic that it’s a fucking TWO-PARTER. Jesus Christ. It hasn’t just been a big bluff: Marvel is fully committed to making the biggest, hugest, most epic superhero adventure in the history of superhero adventures. Through one teaser image, they confirmed that Infinity War happens when Thanos stops sitting around on his purple caboose and acquires all six Infinity Stones, creating the Infinity Gauntlet and unleashing every conceivable kind of mayhem on the entire Marvelverse. Whoof. These movies are probably gonna have every goddamn character in them somewhere, and may utterly topple under the weight of their own ambition. I mean, what happens if Infinity War disappoints? It’ll probably be the worst example of cinematic hubris in human history. Or...Infinity War could be so amazing that no future superhero movie will ever match it. Nor should they.

So that’s what we have to look forward to. Oh, wait, almost forgot: DC is also making a bunch of superhero movies and they have some enticing new tidbits. “Wonder Woman’s name is now Wretched Woman,” came the official release, “as we feel the classic, beloved Wonder Woman is untrue to the themes of our DC Cinematic Universe. Wretched Woman’s costume will resemble a gray prison jumpsuit, she will have no hair, and her bullwhip will be lined with ground glass, so she can slash innocent bystanders out of the way as she battles Baroness von Gunther. Meanwhile, our Aquaman film will center on a bloody quest for vengeance after the entire Pacific Ocean is covered in a lethal oil spill, killing all marine life and leading to...hello? Hello?”

When asked to comment on the current status of the Spider-Man Cinematic Universe, Sony executives simply stared at their own hands and wept.