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.

Friday, October 24, 2014

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 3

4.3: Edward Mordrake, pt. 1

--Let the record show that it took this season of AHS three episodes to introduce all its main characters. I still feel like things are getting overcrowded on this show, but luckily, nothing has felt wasted yet. YET. It’s time for a beloved annual tradition, the two-part, subplot-packed, Halloween-themed WTF-a-thon. But even now, Freak Show is keeping things to a steady pace and not flipping its shit too badly, which, again, means it’s outdoing Coven. Yay!

--If there’s one subplot that may turn out to be pointless filler, it’s The Tale of the Two-Bit Con Artists. We’ve got Denis O’Hare and Emma Roberts as a pair of identity-swapping shysters who were first seen trying to sell a “baby Sasquatch” to an oddity museum. Didn’t work, but the curator did admit she’d pay big bucks for something real. Off went our wannabe villains to Florida where the female half presented herself as a fortune teller named Esmerelda and floored Jimmy with her cherry-red smile. During her audition with Elsa, Esmerelda pulled a Keyser Soze, scanned the room for clues, gazed into her crystal ball, and demonstrated that weak-minded people will find meaning in the vaguest of images, especially if they’re hopped up on opium. Now Esmerelda’s gained access to the heart of freakdom, but isn’t quite sure she’s up for murder. Her male counterpart, meanwhile, is frolicking with a viking-helmet-clad hunk in a hotel room, and apparently possesses an organ of alarming dimensions, which makes him...a bit of a freak? Real men know that it’s not what you got, it’s how you use it.

--The biggest story this week was The Tale of the Bearded Lady and Her Many Misfortunes. Yes, spotlight on Ethel, who was informed by a kindly doctor that she’s dying of cirrhosis (that scene reminded us, not that we’d ever forget, that Kathy Bates is amazing). Rather than swear off booze, she dove back into the bottle with gusto, but that did lead to some quasi-reconciliation with Dell, who does kinda sorta regret being such a shitty father to Jimmy. Dell’s got a different health problem that is fatal only to his machismo: his candle keeps melting, and Desiree is getting fed up. Ah, yes, the most manly men are always the most insecure. Seriously, male frailty was a huge theme this week; we also saw it in...

--The Tale of the Bored Little Rich Asshole. Gloria tried to set up an awesome in-home Halloween party for Dandy, but failed wretchedly, as you’d expect from a woman who named her son “Dandy.” Infuriated (“HOWDY DOODY???!!!”), Dandy made himself a clown costume and soon was prowling the halls in a scene that paid cheerful homage to the most famous Halloween film of them all...Halloween. Sadly for Dandy, his “victim” was Dora the maid (I called her Nora last week but I guess I misheard), who’s way too badass to be intimidated by a whiny little bitch with a kitchen knife and a Bozo mask. So Dandy went to the Dharma van to bully some proper victims and Twisty, meanwhile, abducted an annoying teenage dude who totally deserves whatever clown-themed agonies he’s about to endure. Dora’s so cool. And so doomed. But death’s better than a Woody Woodpecker costume.

--Over in The Tale of the Very Close Sisters, we saw Bette and Dot about to get surgically separated, a bit of deliberately misleading trailer bait that was actually a dream both sisters were having. Thing is, Dot is all but sharpening the scalpels to excise her untalented sister, which will mean death for Bette. Dot thinks Jimmy is her man, but we all know he’s got his eye on Esmerelda, so that’s no good. Speaking of Esmerelda, she randomly made up some crap about a tall, dark, aristocratic gentleman, and unluckily for everyone involved, that happens to be a spot-on description of this week’s eponymous character...

--The Tale of Edward Mordrake, and the reason freaks won’t perform on Halloween. Ethel laid down the backstory: Mordrake (Wes Bentley) was a British noble prevented from happiness by the teensy fact that he had a demonic face on the back of his head, a face which whispered the most horrid things to him, day and night. Ultimately, Mordrake was committed to an asylum, but what Wikipedia leaves out is that he escaped and joined a freak show. And then he murdered all the freaks and hung himself. And if you perform on Halloween, Mordrake will appear and claim a new member of his undead troupe. Elsa called bullshit on that, or maybe she figured an undead Voldemort-faced fanboy is still a fanboy; she got right up on stage for a “rehearsal,” belted out some Lana Del Rey (why the hell not?), and sure enough, Mordrake appeared, ushered in by a cheesy green fog that only this show could pull off. But Mordrake wasn’t much interested in Elsa...

--Nope, he had his two sets of eyes on Ethel. When he visited her in her trailer, it was truly the battle of the awesome fake accents, with Bentley’s “Pahdon me, meddem” more than a match for Bates’ “Dewn’t knew whuuut’s goooin’ awwn!” As apologetic as you’d expect from a well-bred man, Mordrake asked Ethel for some exposition, and boy, did we get it: Ethel’s early, successful Vaudeville days; her relationship with Dell; her utterly failed attempt to do Shakespeare in Europe; and the ultimate shame: Dell turning the birth of Jimmy into a sleazy live event, just to make a bit of dough. Poor, poor, poor Ethel. With the life she’s had, no wonder she kinda started thinking she was ready to be spirited away by Mordrake. But his demonface said no. Ethel’s not the one. But...someone’s soul must be hoovered up by Mordrake on this Halloween night. Whose?

--Silly monkey, that information is for next week. Believe me, I’m as curious as you are.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Marvel Movie Villains

So how about those Marvel superhero movies? I hear people like them or something. Me, I wound up a hopeless convert, going from, “Man, I just can’t make myself give a shit,” to, “MUST...WATCH...ALL...MARVEL...IN THEATER...(except maybe Ant-Man)!” I’ve seen most of them by now, and will continue to follow the mythos as it wends its way toward...whatever the hell they have planned. So maybe I should do a blog specifically about the Marvel movies, yeah? But simply listing them has already been done to death, and I’m not quite highbrow enough to pen an academic thesis on the changing face of blockbusters and what our infatuation with self-kidding billionaire alcoholic Iron Man says about the current American zeitgeist. Not today, anyway.

So let’s critique all the bad guys!

(A Work In Progress)

It’s a work in progress because I will continually add to this blog post as new Marvel films come out. Or if I ever get around to seeing Edward Norton’s Hulk. So for all we know, this list will never end. Also, I’m just doing MAIN villains. Sorry, Zola fans. Here we go!


Played by Christopher Eccleston
Thor: The Dark World

Let’s immediately address the problem Marvel movies tend to have wherein their villains are bland and cardboard-thin, each Big Bad slotting into the lazy template of “I am evil and therefore I’m gong to use [insert Infinity Stone here] to destroy and/or subjugate this planet/galaxy/plane.” Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Thor 2, which I liked, but which had THE most fucking forgettable baddie of them all. I don’t remember a single one of Malekith’s lines. I barely recall his backstory. I do recall that he had less personality than anybody else onscreen, including the floating bus and Kat Dennings’ doofus boyfriend. You can kinda blame the comics for the character, but...come on. A whole pantheon of Thor villains and they went with “evil Legolas”? Bonus shame points to Eccleston, who is apparently okay with playing this type of role, but not with returning for Doctor Who specials. And I’m not even a Doctor Who fan. Thank Christ Loki was also in this film. We’ll get to him much later.

Played by Sam Rockwell
Iron Man 2

Not to say that having a personality makes a villain any easier to bear. Case in point is Justin Hammer, the most grating Marvel baddie that we will probably ever have to suffer. Hmm, Howard Stark’s rich, reckless playboy persona might make him less sympathetic over time. Let’s give him a sleazy business rival who’s like him but with the weasely douchebag dial cranked up to eleven. GOD, is Hammer annoying. A Marvel villain should inspire at least a little fear, and Hammer only inspires an itching need to give him a hanging wedgie and beat him with a pool noodle. You never get the sense that he’s a match for Howard Stark, or even his hired goon, Ivan Vanko. He’s just...a pile of suck. Everything he does fails. At the end of the film, he’s all whiny and self-pitying, and it’s like, that’s what you get for sucking THAT HARD. I guess what I’m trying to say is that he sucks. Also, he sucks.

Played by Lee Pace
Guardians of the Galaxy

Ronan is essentially another Malekith, and it’s possible the only reason I’m putting him higher on the list is that I saw GotG more recently. But, yeah, he’s generically evil and he wants to join the Infinity Stone of the Month Club and wreck all the shit, as you do. In this case, he’s a religious zealot who would like to “cleanse” the galaxy, and he sees his own species as a bunch of wishy-washy liberals who don’t have the balls to lay down holy fury on their enemies. Which at least makes him kinda socially relevant. But it doesn’t make him any less boring, especially in a film as zany and comedic as this one. Maybe that’s supposed to be the joke. Eh, well, at least Ronan has a couple different ways to glower and snarl. Malekith couldn’t even half-ass his evilness. But Ronan is scarcely more memorable.

Played by Mickey Rourke
Iron Man 2

He’s Russian. He’s tattooed and bespectacled. He’s built like a dump truck yet he still has time for blonde highlights. And he wants his bird. No, not that other bird. His bird. Anything else? Ivan Vanko is a scattered collection of vague ideas in search of cohesion, which makes him the perfect poster boy for Iron Man 2 in general. Yes, I agree, his car-bifurcating laser whips are pretty damn cool. But Rourke’s choice to play the character as an enigma backfired, resulting in a baddie who doesn’t really seem like a character at all. His motives are jealousy and revenge, I guess, but is that supposed to make him sympathetic? Even at the end, when he tosses Justin Hammer to the wolves (points for that!) and unleashes his remote robo-suits on our heroes, we don’t know what he actually wants or why. And then he lamely commits suicide and...yeah. Head-scratcher. And nobody cared at the time because they just wanted The Avengers to happen already.

Played by Jeff Bridges
Iron Man

Jeff Bridges is a good actor and in the first Iron Man, he turns in a good performance. The problem is that the role of Tony Stark’s backstabbing mentor is lame and unconvincing. If you’re gonna roll the dice on a third-act twist -- this “good guy” is actually the Big Bad! -- you need to make the character in question believable as an evildoer. Dunno if anyone remembers, or wants to remember, but in Season Three of Heroes, there was a major villain played by Robert Forster who had the same problem: you didn’t ever buy that he was the most evil person onscreen. Obadiah Stane is just so damn twinkle-eyed and kindly-seeming that his evilness feels tacked on. When the big twist comes, his mouth is saying, “I’m going to murder you and use your company to sell arms to terrorists,” but his face and tone of voice are saying, “Let’s go fishing on Saturday, l’il buddy!” Also, he established the really annoying trend of bad guys in robot suits that hangs over the Iron Man films like the reek of old mayonnaise.

Played by Josh Brolin and CGI
The Avengers films (very briefly), Guardians of the Galaxy (slightly less briefly), and...I guess Avengers 3?

High in his asteroid fortress, he sits upon his baroque golden toilet, glowering down at us mere mortals, and waiting....waiting...waiting for a film in which he actually matters. It almost seems unfair to stick Thanos on this list because he hasn’t had a chance to be the main villain yet. We have such a vague impression of the dude, not helped by the overly computer-generated veneer that makes him look like Hellboy’s pedo uncle. At least in GotG, Josh Brolin delivered his three or four lines with decently evil relish. I just worry that when they finally bring Thanos front and center, no one’s gonna care because we’re sick of being teased by cameos. Or it could be the coolest thing ever. Jury’s super hung on this far.

Played by Corey Stoll

Bald equals bad, we know that -- but, man, one look at Corey Stoll’s shit-smeared grin and you instantly know this guy would murder you in a heartbeat if it improved his market share. Just as Ant-Man is not a very important Marvel film, Darren Cross is not a very important villain, but both have a delicious streak of mojo. Stoll is aware he’s just the latest in a string of Evil Marvel Corporate Guys, so he plays up the self-aware bad-guy details -- the grin, the creepy touchy fingers, the bad suits -- and gets us invested, so that when he finally dons his militarized Yellowjacket armor, he is effectively evil and imposing. Sadly, his screen time is limited and they awkwardly tried to cram in some extra depth with Villain Cliches #413 (The Embittered Former Protege) and #1,936 (Driven Insane By His Own Technology). Darren Cross is one hundred percent throwaway. Still, a guy who literally kills baby lambs can’t help but leave an impression.

Played by Sebastian Stan
Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I have to flagellate myself for being a huge nerd. Yes, I admit, I put The Winter Soldier this far up the list mainly because I think he’s really cool-looking and badass. That’s it, honestly. I like his outfit, his weapons, and the fact that he’s actually a match for Captain America, which few non-Avengers can say. That said, he’s more a plot device than a person. The big “twist” about his true identity -- Bucky! NOOOO! -- wasn’t really a twist, because FUCKING EVERYBODY knew about it, even non-comic-readers like myself. The film was left with the task of cramming the entire long, convoluted Winter Soldier backstory into a brief montage, then starting up the “Who am I really?” machinery so he can presumably go from villain to reluctant hero in Cap 3. He would have been way stronger if they’d focused more of the movie upon him, especially since he’s in the damn title. Still, they didn’t mishandle the character too badly, and as I said, he’s super badass with his face mask and cyborg arm and car-exploding frisbee thing. NERRRRRD.

Played by Ben Kingsley
Iron Man 3

I gotta bow to Iron Man 3 for the iron balls they displayed in first taking one of the comic’s most iconic villains, then re-imagining him as a creepy bin Laden-esque terrorist for the YouTube age, and then revealing that he’s actually a drunk, washed-up British actor hired by the real villain to impersonate a bin Laden-esque terrorist. Somehow, this whole clusterfuck sums up modern life: the intangible threat of “Terrorism” that we can’t quite pin down; the idea of villains as pop culture celebs; the twisting of facts by a desperate, attention-seeking media; the notion of a public figure being a prop for a corporate agenda. All of it. The Mandarin may be one huge red herring, but he’s still a really successful Marvel bad guy because of how utterly plausible he feels now, in the age of such bullshit as Kony 2012. Plus, let’s face it, the reveal of the man behind the topknot was a delicious dose of black comedy when you least expected it. Is he a “real” villain? No, but he makes us wonder what’s real at all.

Played by Hugo Weaving
Captain America

What’s missing from most of the weaker Marvel villains is a sense of fun. Think about the really entertaining baddies, the Emperor Palpatines and Khan Noonien Singhs. They all relish their own badness. Enter Red Skull, played by one of the best evil-relishers we’ve got, Hugo Weaving. Watch him devour the role. He knows he’s not gonna win any awards for portraying a crazed Nazi occultist, so he just goes for broke, eyes blazing, mouth contorting, the works. He even rocks the maraschino cherry face, a makeup job which would break lesser actors. I imagine diehard comic fans were saddened that Cap’s most tenacious and defining foe was reduced to a single film that’s basically just a feature-length prologue. They could have done more with Red Skull. But what they did is pretty damn entertaining; some evil archetypes never get old.

Played by Guy Pearce
Iron Man 3

I dunno why it took Team Iron Man so long to get villainy right. But did they ever. Aldrich Killian is just a blast. He combines the backstabbing charisma of Obadiah Stane with the sleazy business rival factor of Justin Hammer, but he’s miles beyond either one. Again, he adores being evil, but unlike Red Skull, he has a personal vendetta: hey, Tony Stark, if you act like a giant asshole and treat people like shit, it comes back to bite you later! Surprise! Finally, someone who’s a real threat to Iron Man, and who hits all the right villainous beats (killing off your own accomplice when they start having second thoughts? Check!). Also, he turns traumatized war veterans into volatile super-soldiers, knowing full well he’s dooming them. BOO HISS! True, the ending bit with the tattoos was a tad goofy, but Killian never lost his charisma even when he bugged out. Last but not least, Killian came closer than any other Iron Man villain to A) boinking and B) murdering Gwyneth Paltrow. Hand him a freaking award.

Played by James Spader and CGI
Avengers: Age of Ultron

In the grand scheme of things, Ultron is not a villain who matters much. That said, it’s hard to imagine him being more entertaining. In a way, he’s one of the most dangerous: a rogue A.I. with a messiah complex who can cyber-surf anywhere, fuck up anything, and thinks our planet’s due for a good, refreshing sterilization. He’s got limitless knowledge and the mindset of a sociopathic teenage boy. And, being born from Tony Stark’s bottomless, insouciant ego, he’s a natural comedian! With the amused malevolence of Spader’s voice and that weirdly hunky vibranium bod (is it creepy to be attracted to an evil robot? Yeah? Don’t care), Ultron makes each scene hum. I do wish he had a better origin story (it felt rushed), less murky motives (was he predestined to be evil due to Infinity Stone mojo, or did the toxins of the Internet and media circus swiftly derange him?), and a cooler death scene (i.e., not upstaged by a talking grape in a cape). You could tell Ultron was a placeholder bad guy. Still, they took the killer-robot concept to its limits, including that cheerfully ridiculous ultimate evil plan of his. He’s elegance and id. Supervillain as self-aware pop art. I love it.

Played by Robert Redford
Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Why is a wise, mild-mannered politico like Pierce so scary? Not just because he’s a good guy who turns out to be evil. Not just because he’s secretly involved with HYDRA, or that he coldly murders innocents when he needs to. He’s scary because he’s real. Nazi conspiracies aside, you just know that our government has plenty of Alexander Pierces right now: men who have perfected the art of seeming to be on your side, while secretly going to any lengths to push their own agendas. I’m no paranoid radical type, but I appreciated Winter Soldier because it taps into our very modern fear that we can’t trust the people in charge of our own safety. As played by Redford -- the most venerable actor on this list -- Pierce never seems like he wants to rule the world or tap into some kooky cosmic power. No...he just wants to make us afraid. To make us suspect our friends. To tear our society apart, and to claim he’s doing it in the name of order and security. He’s real-world evil, rare in comic book movies, but that’s why he’s scary. And a great villain. But not the greatest. We all know who’s coming...

Played by Tom Hiddleston
Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, presumably Thor 3

Least surprising thing ever. No way am I some hipster who tries to be controversial by not picking Loki as the top Marvel movie villain. America loves Loki. The world loves Loki. A pissy god with major parental issues, played by an actor no one had ever heard of, with a really dumb helmet, and he walked away with the whole damn franchise. Again, he really loves being evil and craving power, but he also packs a well-rounded personality and a dose of personal conflict. Loki is riveting to watch because, even when he’s at his most dastardly, he still can’t help but allow a smidgen of compassion to guide his hand. It’s both strength and weakness, and it means we never know what he’ll do next. Like an evil Iron Man, Loki also has the wit and snark to deflate the arch seriousness of heroes like Thor and Cap. People adore Loki so much that Thor 2 made him into a quasi-hero, but they did it without rendering him toothless. No sappy change of heart here; he’s still happy to impersonate Odin so he can rule Asgard, spoiler alert. I can’t wait for whichever film he pops up in next. It’s gonna happen. Loki rules Marvel villaindom and anyone who disagrees is a mewling quim.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 2

4.2: Massacres and Matinees

--Time to divulge something I may have mentioned before: for many summers now, I’ve worked for a circus. It’s a great job and I love it. My particular circus is a youth circus, so all the performers are teens. In general, these kids come from happy, middle-class homes and lead normal lives. Nonetheless, many of them have this sense of not quite fitting in, of seeking some damn thing from life that they can’t quite define, and that isn’t quite fulfilled by family or school. The circus gives them a conduit to something very particular and special that they might otherwise never discover. What I’m trying to say is that I can kind of relate to Dandy Mott. I mean, if he weren’t an annoying little psychopath.

--The ep began with a beautiful establishing shot of Elsa’s freak show, which was appropriate, since the freak show is the only place in this horror-verse that seems real. Think about it: we’ve never actually seen the town of Jupiter, Florida. There are interiors but no exteriors. The world outside Elsa’s little realm is a series of rooms, nothing more. Look at the Motts’ mansion: it’s like a giant-sized dollhouse that no real person could live in. The rooms are too big, yet still seem claustrophobic. The happy, loud, musical realness of the freak show makes it a haven. It’s everything to the performers, and it’s in terrible danger from so many directions. Unlike the hostile environments of the Murder House, Briarcliff Asylum, or Miss Robichaux’s School for Witches, this season’s main locale is a node of good karmic energy. And that’s why I fear for it.

--Jupiter is gripped by terror, the terror of suddenly realizing, “Hey, we’re all dumb as a bag of wood chips!” Seriously, when you’re all alone and you discover blood and/or dead bodies, you do not investigate, you GTFO. Twisty the clown continues his murder spree, which leads to a citywide curfew, which is bad biz for a freak show. Thanks to Jimmy’s murder of the cop, more cops are sniffing about, and Jimmy is torn by guilt and dread. His predicament gets worse with the arrival of Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis), professional strongman and card-carrying macho asshole, who pleads with Elsa for work and then takes control with the effortlessness of a born alpha male. This pisses off Ethel, and no wonder: they have a history, and Dell is probably Jimmy’s father. Dell’s current squeeze, Desiree Dupree (Angela Bassett), is a female-slanted hermaphrodite with three boobs and the best of both worlds between her legs. I already love her, even though I have no idea what part she’ll play in the story. Dell’s solution to the curfew: just have matinees instead! What could possibly go wrong?

--I realize that, until now, I’ve never seen Frances Conroy play a stupid person. But unless there’s more to Gloria than meets the eye, she’s one dim bulb. She tries everything to penetrate her son’s petulant ennui, and when she spots Twisty wandering by the roadside, she hires him for a playdate. (It’s another blow against the Jupiterites’ intellect that they don’t run away shrieking at the sight of Twisty.) Dandy, meanwhile, believes he wants to join the freak show. It’s his true calling! Even though he has no skills whatsoever! Yeah, I feel the kid’s pain; too bad he’s legitimately crazy. Upon discovering Twisty’s true nature, Dandy was all like, “Neato!” and now he’s helping Twisty keep poor Bonnie and Corey locked up in his Dharma van. I’m really rooting for Bonnie (Skyler Samuels), who’s proven to be way more than a dumb blonde. Too bad she’s probably gonna die horribly. As you do.

--Bette and Dot struggled to find their place in the limelight, and made an ironic discovery. Starry-eyed Bette can’t sing for shit, while reluctant Dot has a voice so fine that she can...induce random blue-collar men into a spontaneous moshpit? Oooookay. Dell, a born huckster, quickly rewrote the show to showcase the Tattler twins and sideline Elsa. Elsa’s face clamped itself into a mask of cold fury, and now she’s conspiring with the jealous Bette to do bad things to Dot. My “one twin’s gonna die early” theory still holds, unfortunately. Elsa and Jimmy also conspired to overthrow Dell (who is wanted in Chicago for snapping a man’s neck) by planting the dead cop’s badge in Dell’s trailer. But Dell proved that he’s a smart macho thug and foiled their plan, and it was poor little Meep, the chicken-chomping gimp, who was arrested. Heartbroken, Jimmy decided to turn himself in, but it was too late, and the ep ended with Jimmy howling in grief over Meep’s battered corpse. See? I knew this season was gonna be tragic.

--So. Terrible events are being set in motion, as you’d expect from this show. We’ve glimpsed what’s under Twisty’s mask: it appears to be a gaping, diseased mouthhole, which is more predictable than I’d hoped, but I’m still eager for the clown’s backstory. We’ve also met the Motts’ maid, Nora (Patti LaBelle), whose facial expression says, “I am so the smartest person in the room.” Smart enough to unearth deadly secrets, perhaps. As for Dell, he seems like a villain, but I have a weird feeling he’ll be a redemptive character in the end. Of course, I thought that about Delphine LaLaurie as well, and all she did was disembowel more black people. Hmm.

--Best line of the episode was Gloria in her car: “Excuse me? Clowwwwwnnnn?” God, what a doofus. But then, she did name her son “Dandy.”

Saturday, October 11, 2014

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 1

4.1: Monsters Among Us

--Deah dah-ry, today I finally got to watch the season premiere of American Horror Story after being delayed by the fact that I was selfishly having fun on vacation. How dare I. This show has been haunting my dreams. As in, I am quite literally having dreams about Freak Show before I’ve even seen it. And now I have seen it, and I already like it better than Coven, which is saying something as Coven was a blast and a half. But it was also somewhat juvenile, and so far, Freak Show seems awfully...mature.

--Yes, mature. In an episode where a man uses his deformed flipper hands to pleasure housewives. There was something very understated about this premiere; it moved at a fairly sedate pace, it took its time establishing time and place, and although the expected fisheye lenses and off-kilter editing were present, they neither dominated nor distracted. Hell, check out that opening shot. Wanna hook your loyal viewers? Begin the season with an extended close-up of Sarah Paulson looking haunted. Gadzooks, what horrible things are gonna happen to her this year? Oh, I can only speculate.

--Outstanding opening credits, as usual. This time around, we’re given eerie calliope moans over the main theme, and a stop-motion promenade of clown dolls, deformed skeletons, knife-throwers, you name it. Meanwhile, the names of ten cast members are crammed in, the largest role call yet. Kinda crossing my fingers that the next season dials back the sheer number of peeps. I mean, I get it, once you snag a really awesome actor, you don’t want to let them go. But it’s tough to keep track of all the names while distracted by masturbating skeletons. Hey, but there’s Angela Bassett! ONE non-white person has made it onto the main cast of AHS! Bravooooooooo.

--Back to Sarah Paulson, or should I say, Sarah Paulsons. The episode thankfully didn’t rush its main plot. An old woman is murdered. discovered in her house and locked up in the secure wing of the hospital. In waltzes Jessica Lange, sporting an amazing wardrobe and a smooth-as-toffee German drawl, to sweet-talk her way into viewing the patient. Patients. Meet our kinda-sorta audience analogue, Bette and Dot Tattler, conjoined twins who mostly share one body. Leftie Bette is childlike, trusting, and enamored with the silver screen; rightie Dot is harsh and suspicious. And they can communicate telepathically with each other, which barely seems farfetched. Divine acting by Paulson as always, although the special effects work is fairly obvious (notice how, whenever we see Bette and Dot in close-up, they’re very immobile). Lange’s character, Elsa Mars, coerced the twins into working for her, using a mix of flattery and blackmail (Bette murdered Mommy! Oops!). And what is Elsa’s profession?

--Back up. It’s 1952 and we’re in Jupiter, Florida. Everything is pastel-shaded. Elsa presides over a “cabinet of curiosities,” a ragtag jumble of tents occupying some poor rube’s field. Plenty of freaks to be had here! We’ve got tiny people, limbless people, a very tall lady, a British guy with Thalidomide arms. My beloved Pepper the pinhead is back, and she’s got a boyfriend! And this implies that Freak Show and Asylum take place in the same universe! Which is weird! But whatevs. Bette is delighted to exist in such a glitzy realm, while Dot is horrified and disgusted. But Dot’s got an eye for the handsome Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters), a syndactyl greaser who...well, let’s just say that if they made a silicone model of his flipper hand, bored June Cleavers everywhere would be saving up their allowance money. Jimmy’s mother, Ethel (Kathy Bates), is a bearded lady with a vowel-choked Baltimore accent who serves as Elsa’s right hand. The Tattler twins will hopefully inject new life into the freak show and bring in the crowds!

--Enter the Motts. Wealthy, snobby, clueless. Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy Frances Conroy Frances Conroy) is a condescending bourgeois who smothers her unhappy, entitled teenage son, Dandy (Finn Wittrock). They bought out the whole show and took in Elsa’s bedazzling, anachronistic cover of “Life On Mars.” Delighted by the freaks, Dandy asked his mommy to offer up thousands of bucks for the Tattler sisters, but Elsa told the Motts to take a hike. They’ll be back. And my wish about Frances Conroy being a villain? On its way to coming true. I definitely plan to punctuate everything Gloria does by pointing out that this woman actually named her son “Dandy.” I just hope we’re not gonna be as hung up on mommy issues as last season.

--I’m also glad to see Evan Peters returning to villainy! Kind of. Jimmy is fed up with the freak show and thinks the performers should strike out on their own. He rejects Elsa’s belief that for the unusual and deformed, a freak show is the best they can hope for in the cruel, judgmental world of 1952. She’s right, and he’s right. However, when a bigoted police detective showed up to arrest Bette and Dot on suspicion of murder, Jimmy murdered him, then led his fellow freaks in dismembering the body. Now, was that justified? The detective admitted that Bette and Dot’s freakishness would ensure a guilty verdict and close the case. On the other hand, Bette and Dot really did kill their mother. Is Jimmy’s jingoism going to save the freaks’ asses when the chips are down, or will it land them in unspeakable peril? I’m already predicting this season is not going to have a happy ending.

--And then, of course...that fucking clown. Bette and Dot are suspected of multiple murders, but we know who the real culprit is. It’s a tall, hefty man in a stained clown suit and wig, a ghastly grinning mask covering his real mouth. He doesn’t speak. His first appearance, distantly emerging from some shrubbery in broad daylight, was somehow way scarier than if he’d jumped out of a dark corner. He’s prone to berserker rage and stabbing the fuck out of people, but he’s also a showman, and he currently has a teenage blonde and a young boy locked up in his abandoned Dharma van of horror, where he is subjecting them to balloon animals. He’s also lurking at the edges of Elsa’s tent city. What are his motivations, if any? What’s his backstory? What’s under the mask? I can confirm that his name is Twisty and he’s played by John Carroll Lynch, the freaking Zodiac Killer. Further revelations await.

--The final revelation in this particular ep concerned Elsa, who is torn between protectiveness toward her freaks and a selfish desire to hog the spotlight and gain some showbiz glory. Is she merely a faded star, an aging Sally Bowles? Well, yes, but it’s more than that. The final scene shed light on Elsa’s easily wounded ego by revealing that she’s a freak herself: below the knee, her legs are prosthetic. Accident or birth defect? We shall find out. It was a sad and understated ending to a surprisingly restrained episode. Well, restrained by the standards of American Horror Story. But I am delighted by this tonal shift and hungry for the next act. I mean, half the people on the main cast list haven’t even appeared yet.

--Possibilities for what’s under Twisty’s mask: a lamprey mouth. A hole clean through his head. A smaller version of him, fused to his lips. Spider fangs. A giant sphincter. A mouth that opens sideways. The Fiji Mermaid. A really bad harelip. Do-it-yourself orthodontia. Eyeballs. A glorious handlebar mustache. Bees. A speakerphone. Tentacles. A gumball dispenser. Massive novelty dentures. Herpes. A Polish sausage where his tongue should be. Any more ideas?