Sunday, December 27, 2015

Favorite Music of 2015

2015 was quite the year for music! Adele thundered back. Taylor Swift pretended to care about her fans. “Hotline Bling” got stuck in my head. And not even the whole song; just the eponymous couplet. Ugh. If we zoom in on my personal musical odyssey of the past twelve months, we find it skirts the edge of mainstream and sometimes skids off into the great blue yonder. Take a look.


9. Seal, 7
This past year saw an interesting mini-trend: venerable musicians of a certain age releasing mid-life breakup albums. But is 7 really a breakup album? It’s clear Seal used songwriting as therapy following the derailment of his fairytale marriage to Heidi Klum (which, I gotta say, oozed cloyingly into his last couple albums). Luckily, Seal’s heart and soul -- and voice -- transcend us mortals, and the overall tone of 7 is cathartic rather than mopey. He draws upon his entire career and takes inspiration from his early, club-friendly work, blending it with modern pop and R&B savor. This does make 7 a wee bit too disco-flavored here and there, but most of the album is a home run, quivering with complex emotions. We may not know if he’s singing about his breakup with Klum or not (though it’s pretty obvious that “The Big Love Has Died” is autobiographical) but what matters is that he’s singing from deep recesses, pouring himself out and finding peace.

8. Nightwish, Endless Forms Most Beautiful
Here was my most hotly anticipated album of 2015. The fact that it let me down doesn’t make it unworthy or lacking in quality. It’s just...Nightwish’s last album, Imaginaerum, set the bar outrageously high. Armed with a new female vocalist, Floor Jansen, and with bagpiper Troy Donockley joining the group full-time, my favorite epic metal act has proceeded it utterly safe. Oh, believe me, Endless Forms is almost desperately high-concept, with Richard Dawkins guest-lecturing and quite the gamut of song topics. (Darwin! Thoreau! Fantasy gypsies! This lady!) It’d suffer less if it didn’t have to follow the triumph of Imaginaerum, and that’s why it’s only at number eight. But, ya know? It rocks my world anyway. Jansen is a great pick for vocals; not only can she blast the roof off, she’s more versatile than her predecessors and always looks like she can’t believe how awesome her job is. If this album was a test run for “Nightwish ver. 3.0,” I can’t wait for the full product launch!

7. Eiffel 65, Contact!
No, you’re not hallucinating. It’s that Eiffel 65. The Italian guys who did “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” and drove us all insane back in the late 90s. Confession: I always liked their sound, and their 2001 sophomore album, which barely registered in the US, is a happy endorphin rush if you’re shamefully into this particular style of Eurodance. I’m not going to make any arguments in favor of Eiffel 65, but for me, Contact! provides a parade of electronic, sugar-coated anthems to which I can dance when no one’s looking. If you grooved to Europop back in middle school, well, this is more of the same. More quirky beats, more sideways English, more blissfully stupid lyrics (“I live my life like a vampire sucking music”), and way, way more nostalgia. Remember: contemporary pop music will always be called crap by hipsters, no matter what year it is. So check your cynicism and join me in bouncing around to Eiffel 65. If only to get “Hotline Bling” out of your head. Fucking Drake...

6. Woodkid, The Golden Age
The Golden Age was my big discovery of 2015, and is also the single weirdest album I’ve listened to in a long time. What to say? Woodkid. Real name: Yoann Lemoine. French videographer and music video director, rocker of a gnarly beard, who decided to compose an album somewhere between allegory and memoir, in the musical genre of...uh...Jesus, to call it “Alternative” seems like an act of cowardice. It’s grand and cerebral, an ambitious clash of orchestrations -- strings, tribal drums, furious horns -- barely tethered by Lemoine’s plaintive, heavily-accented warbling. Vocals may not be his strong suit, but composition definitely is, and even if it’s impossible to figure out what The Golden Age is trying to say (loss of childhood innocence? Romance is bullshit? Romance is everything? Beards are cool?), this is not an album that leaves your mind in a hurry. Haunting, portentous, and emotionally titanic, it makes me wonder if Woodkid has more up his sleeve, and if we should be bracing ourselves for his next symphonic atom bomb.

5. Pentatonix, Pentatonix
I love Pentatonix. You love Pentatonix. But are they more than a YouTube novelty? Yes, they’ve helped lead the new wave of talented young e-celebrities, but they cover more songs than they write. No more! Their first full-length album contains mostly original material, and is so gosh-darned bright and joyful that it’d melt the heart of any Scrooge. Oh, but it’s in no way juvenile; this a capella quintet has allowed its distinct sound to mature and evolve. Avi Kaplan, Scott Hoying, Kevin Olusola, Kirstie Maldonado, and Mitch Grassi are a single, well-oiled unit that eschews any one style. Yeah, the album is mostly pop-flavored (and, if I’m honest, leans a little too heavily on Hoying’s boy-band whine), but it also taps into R&B, soul, gospel, 50s doo-wop -- hell, it even ends on a beautiful lullaby. Don’t call these kids imitators just because they do a lot of covers (especially if their covers are as gorgeous as this one). There’s no one quite like Pentatonix and they love their songcraft. They’re ready to join the big leagues.

4. Avril Lavigne, Avril Lavigne
The weirdly ageless Avril Lavigne has no lack of haters, and it’s fascinating to me how she dons and then sheds one persona after another. Is she trying to find the real Avril, or is she just desperate to suckle at the latest trends? With her fifth release, it’s like she gave a rebel yell and decided to no longer give a shit, and the result is the most balls-out fun album she’s ever done. It starts with a bang and never really comes down from that high; it’s all giddy momentum, even if it’s all over the place. She plays up her girlishness but also gives us the knowing wink of a mature woman. From the Peter Pan defiance of songs like “Here’s to Never Growing Up,” to the smoky melancholy of “Give You What You Like” and the sweet vulnerability of “Falling Fast,” to whatever the almighty fuck “Hello Kitty” is supposed to be, Avril is dancing out of her twenties and into some sort of strange, snarky goddess-state. I’m down with that, because I loved the shit out of this album. Even the Chad Kroeger cameo.

3. Lorde, Pure Heroine
Okay, okay, but we all know who’s hip, right? I may be late to Lorde’s party, but once I actually decided to see what besides “Royals” she has to offer, I was quite entranced. It’s not just how she molds pop elements into something wholly her own. It’s not just her lyrics, with their superior vocabulary, deconstruction of teen angst, and bodily preoccupation (drinking game: knock it back every time Lorde mentions teeth). It’s the voice. That throaty, parched drawl, the way she rolls the lyrics around to achieve maximum flavor before letting each syllable glide off her lower lip. Lorde has the voice of one much older and wiser, but that’s a wonderful thing, because imagine the evocative songbook she has yet to write! Her poetic teenage ramblings may be the prologue, but they’re never going to become dated, either. They’ll keep speaking to music lovers young and old -- anyone who craves a different kind of buzz.

2. Adam Lambert, The Original High
While we weren’t looking, Adam Lambert wove himself a sequined cocoon and emerged as something unexpected: no longer just a glam, fabulous party boy, but a fashionably gaunt, brooding outlaw of spectacular pop glory. Or so his third album would imply. I knew it’d be great, but the minute I first heard “Ghost Town,” its bluesy acoustic strum giving way to eerie synth echoes, I understood: The Original High marks the end of the Adam Lambert I knew. Oh, is it glorious. He hasn’t lost touch with his flashy side, but he’s found a richer and more adult sound overall, helped by his recent symbiosis with Queen. Pretty much every track on this album is amazing in one way or another. Lambert’s rockstar howl has never sounded more sincere, and his evocation of pop music’s glory days has never been more relevant. He’s making real music without any agenda beyond blowing our minds. This was the album I enjoyed most in 2015. So why isn’t it number one...?

1. Björk, Vulnicura
Because there’s more to music than pleasure. If it evokes raw emotions from the listener, it will have better staying power. I can’t believe what Björk just recorded. This is the mid-life breakup album to end them all. It’s raw, it’s hurtful, it will make you feel like shit, then patch things up and soothe your ache. Björk has always been powerful, but her last couple albums were complacent -- slick and gimmicky with no new emotions to unpack. Then came her breakup with artist Matthew Barney, which fuels the chronology of Vulnicura, beginning with unease and tentative optimism, then spiraling into shock, despair, and rock-bottom surrender. The album’s keystone, “Black Lake,” is ten minutes of beautiful, beautiful misery, as igneous drums and endless, keening strings frame Björk’s rising tirade of righteous bitterness. Make it through the abyss and you can let your muscles relax as the album’s second half chronicles the process of closing wounds and carrying on, one step at a time. Björk is fifty years old, her musical career has spanned universes, but it took bare heartbreak to ignite a flame and produce some of her very best work. I did not “enjoy” Vulnicura, but it touched me to the very core like few albums have ever done. It deserves far more praise than I can give it here.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Favorite Books of 2015

Man...when I was a kid, I read books like some people inhale and exhale. And not just Goosebumps and junk; I tackled Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle at age fourteen, like a boss. These days, I still read lots of books, but never quite as many as I’d like. Being an adult with a job and multiple interests and published short stories and all. Sigh.

But here are the most enjoyable books I did read in 2015. I’ve realized that these best-of lists are not based on number of entries, but on whether a book (game, album, etc.) took me to that certain special zone of happiness. In the case of books, the big question is, did I want to read them again someday? I could have lengthened this list with Stephen King’s The Stand, which I liked a lot, but I can’t quite say it captured me like the following seven titles did. And seven is a highly appropriate number, as you’ll see...


7. Marrow by Robert Reed
Sci-fi dominates this list. And none of the sci-fi I read this year was quite as wonderfully mind-exploding as Marrow. I tip my hat to authors who exceed the farthest reaches of what might be possible. Marrow begins with our discovery of a space vessel, bigger than Jupiter and immeasurably ancient, drifting through the cosmos. Its builders are long-gone, its destination unknown. On the principle of “Why the hell not?” we commandeer the ship and sell passage to whatever alien species want to hop aboard for the cruise to end all cruises. By the time the main narrative kicks in, the humans aboard the worldship are so advanced as to be essentially immortal. An entire functioning planet is discovered at the ship’s core. There is a sinister conspiracy that lasts millennia, an adventure that stretches across generations. What Reed does best is dream up a future where the human lifespan is so long that time itself barely has any meaning. Where “history” no longer exists because everyone has lived it. Thinking outside the box? THERE IS NO BOX. And novels like Marrow show us how limitless the imagination may find itself.

6. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
I’ve been on a David Mitchell kick that will continue into 2016. While The Bone Clocks was awesome, it felt mired within his personal comfort zone. I hope he writes more stuff like The Thousand Autumns, which eschews his usual genre-hopping style in favor of thrilling, grimy historical fiction. Jacob de Zoet is a morally upright clerk plopped down in the snake’s den of a Dutch East India Company outpost clinging to the edge of Nagasaki like an engorged tick. De Zoet soon finds that nice guys finish last, that only the biggest bastards walk away with their fortunes made and their flesh intact, and that when you’re trying to be faithful to a girl back home, it is a spectacularly bad idea to fall in love with a scarred Japanese midwife who is herself coveted by an insidious shogun. The book would be fine enough if it were merely Jacob’s tale, but it keeps shifting perspective when you least expect it, giving us many vibrant points of view as its cast of dreamers and schemers stagger toward a conclusion where nobody may be left in one piece. Who says history is boring? In Mitchell’s hands, it’s an ill-mannered and playful-minded tour de force.

5. Planesrunner by Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald is quite possibly my favorite author ever, but not every author can pull off the transition to the seductive YA market. McDonald can; his criminally obscure YA trilogy is creative, thrilling, whip-smart, and never panders. Our hero isn’t the Chosen One for once; he’s Everett Singh, a London teen who comes to possess an app that acts like a GPS for an infinite number of parallel universes. McDonald’s knack for the baroque comes into play when bad guys chase Everett into an alt-verse powered by electricity instead of oil. It’s all the airships we could wish for, but it also demonstrates the sheer fun of imagining sideways Earths. The narrative is crammed with hip little details (Everett wins a spot on an airship’s crew via his mad Indian cooking skills), the stakes are high, the characters are delightful...and, hey, for once a YA hero isn’t white! Progress! I can’t wait to read the two sequels. In a perfect world, this would be the next Hunger Games. Maybe it can have a belated success? Anyone?

4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Bookworms will know this one. It got great reviews. Here’s another. Short, lovely, and profound, it rises high above its premise. Apocalypse tales are very vogue right now, but St. John Mandel’s global disaster (a flu pandemic) is so much more. Hopping around in time, she examines the hyperlinked lives of those before, during, and after the terrible event -- a venerable actor who dies onstage, an old-school theatrical troupe roaming the ruins of America, a community of travelers destined never to leave the airport, and others. Her chronology is spiritual rather than temporal, showing how, in the midst of massive upheaval, small events touch people, planting seeds which are carried for years, maybe lifetimes, until they find a place to take root. There is so much light in this particular apocalypse; despite its dark moments, the underlying tone is deeply optimistic. Base survival is not enough, this story argues. In order to exist, we as a species need beauty. We need joy. Rejoice, for we will always, always conjure it. I agree.

3. The Familiar (vol. 1 and 2) by Mark Z. Danielewski
Danielewski is not for the faint of heart. The House of Leaves scribe hasn’t become the cultiest of modern authors by following rules, and now he’s booted the rulebook all the way to Pluto. 2015 brought the first two volumes of his...let’s just call it a “project”...which I’m not even gonna try to describe. I mean, the plot is all well and good -- eccentric young girl rescues kitten; kitten is more than it seems -- but simmering beneath is something massive, strange, confusing, and glorious. Let’s just say that The Familiar contains nine POV characters, that each volume stretches past 800 pages, that Danielewski morphs and molds the printed word like a mad trickster god, daunting us with an Escher-maze of divergent fonts, color tags, nested parentheses, dialects, untranslated Cantonese, HTML, and a trio of metaphysical entities who drift through the narrative like sentient annotations. Also, the finished project will consist of twenty-seven fucking volumes. The audacity terrifies me...and yet, under all his tricks and gimmicks, Danielewski is a red-blooded writer whose breathless, intensely modern prose keeps you in its grip. I’m hooked. I’m onboard. I’ll be there when The Familiar finishes up in the late 2020s or thereabouts. Let’s watch fiction be redefined.

2. Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones
I love the Muppets, but my knowledge of their bearded creator was always superficial. After reading this biography, I’ve learned oodles about Jim Henson, yet he remains an, perhaps, he should be. Providing a blow-by-blow account of Henson’s career, the book overcomes a slow start (did we really need his grandparents’ backstories?) and rockets into high gear once Henson and his googly-eyed, fuzzy-faced characters conquer television. What a fascinating man of contradictions he was: naive but always ahead of his time; a hippie who disdained worldly possessions and a Gatsby-style hedonist; a devoted father who became weirdly, almost cruelly detached from his wife. He not only rescued the dying art of puppetry, but dragged it, flailing like Kermit, into the modern age. He accomplished more in his lifetime than ten ordinary men, but it wasn’t enough, and the headlong pace of the book leads to the gut-punch of Henson’s abrupt, pitiable death at age 53. The sheer unfairness of his end had me biting back angry tears, but his legacy remains intact, and you won’t find a better retelling. An epitaph for one of the greatest visionaries ever to love life.

1. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Last year, Reamde entertained the shit out of me. This year, Seveneves brought me to rapture. Neal Stephenson’s dive into nuts-n-bolts science fiction is everything I could have hoped for and more. It’s the end of the world again: the moon explodes, giving humanity scant time to prepare before trillions of falling fragments turn Earth into a lifeless lump of magma. The only option is to modify the ISS into a long-term habitat -- a zero-gravity archipelago that will house whoever remains of us. Stephenson cleverly imagines how near-future technology might allow for our relocation into orbit, and focuses in on the women who will bear us up from extinction (hint: read the title carefully). As if that weren’t enough, the final third of the book is a leap forward into the far, far future, to see how we evolved, and how we reclaimed our ruined planet. This (literal) world-building offers one speculative fascination after another. It’s an amazing book, heavily technical but never dull, rife with surprises. I demand a sequel. Neal Stephenson has proven that he can do anything, as far as I’m concerned. And he’s just one of the talented authors who push fictional boundaries further and further. Long may they weave ideas.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

American Horror Story: Hotel--Episode 10

3.10: She Gets Revenge

--Discussion question: Who is the “She” referred to above? It ain’t Ramona, not this week. And I’m afraid The Countess’s odyssey of petty vengeance has come to a screeching halt. Based on the final shot, that cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers, I guess it’s Liz Taylor. And I’m happy about that, and also happy because this was a FUCKING GREAT episode, full of good dialogue, powerful emotional moments, unpredictable plot turns, zingy one-liners, and the rich, meaty development of subplots. I feel gleefully gorged, and I should be able to last through the hiatus after this. But not without the screaming need to see what happens next! Wow!

--Death was inevitable, but who would be biting the bullet? Alas, alack. While The Countess was luring Natacha into her spider’s den, Donovan was paying Valentino a bitchy little visit. These two confrontations cut back and forth, boxing in our love quadrangle as it became a two-way street. Valentino dramatically brandished a scimitar...and Donovan shot him in the face. Natacha sexily rolled around with The Countess, then pulled a knife...and The Countess shot her in the face. This type of totally ghastly humor can only be given proper justice by AHS. The Countess then called the cops, all “Boo hoo, my husband is missing, woe betide me!”...before Will Drake strolled in, more than a little pissed. I love it! Maybe Drake won’t be a pointless character after all! Once he gets the hang of being a ghost, he can make life quite inconvenient for The Countess. OH, WAIT...

--What was the most disturbing story element this season? Well, it’s subtle, but my pick would be how Lowe and Alex have casually abandoned their daughter, and can barely muster any guilt. “We’re terrible parents,” Alex mumbled half-heartedly. Acknowledging your faults does not excuse them. Jesus! Lowe was fresh off his ninth kill, a trio of voodoo practitioners whose ears he sliced off (hello, AHS mythology shout-out!). Under threat from The Countess, Alex needed help to deal with the junior vampire brigade. Not sure why Alex and Lowe thought it’d be a good idea to stroll into their lair...but the sight of little Kimmy croaking from malnutrition was enough to make the kids follow the adults meekly into the Cortez. Whereupon Alex and Lowe locked them in the prison hallway, leaving them to rot just as they did to their own daughter. This nasty deed re-ignited their passion, and I love how conflicted I am about this! Alex and Lowe are scum, yet I want them to be happy together? Kind of? Anyway, Ramona now has her own mini-army and I can’t wait to see the payoff.

--And the most heartfelt Hotel tale? Liz Taylor’s. Talk about lumps in throats. After witnessing an elderly couple lovingly take their own lives, Liz decided to follow suit. No family, no Tristan, nothing to live for. Iris, raw from Donovan’s rejection, jumped aboard the suicide train. First, though, Liz wanted to reconnect with the son he abandoned decades ago. Which makes him a better person than Alex and Lowe, huh. This led to some outrageous material for Miss Evers, who is an absolute treasure. From her pronunciation of “Los Ang-hell-ays” to her referring to Liz as “the ghost of Theda Bara” to her joy at being bribed with a bottle of detergent and a fancy washer-dryer. I adore her. This season may be wasting some of its ladies, but it ain’t wasting Mare Winningham. She could be the new Frances Conroy. I don’t say that lightly.

--James March lit his building contractor on fire. It doesn’t have much to do with the plot, but it happened, so I may as well mention it.

--Liz nervously arranged a visit with his grown son, Douglas (Josh Braaten), who deserves a T-shirt: “I checked into the Cortez and somehow didn’t die horribly.” At first glance, Douglas seemed to embody the old Liz: a banal man with a hideously boring job and no lust for life. Liz couldn’t bear to reveal his true identity to Douglas...but he didn’t need to. After they’d talked and drank and bonded, Douglas revealed he’d known who Liz was the whole time. And his reaction made it clear he’s a fine, fine man. He didn’t gloss over Liz’s abandonment, nor did he hold a grudge. He is happy. He’s gonna start a kayak store in Boulder. And he wants Liz back in his life. The scenes between father and son were deeply poignant, vibrant with truth. Well done, show! Liz no longer wanted to end his life, and his newfound carpe diem was enough to convince Iris as well. Why, the two of them can turn the Cortez into more than just an outdated murder parlor! BUT FIRST...

--In a moment. We’ve gotten some very good payoffs on our subplots, but the tale of Sally remains dangling. No sooner had Lowe fallen back into bed with Alex than Sally appeared, wrathful and seductive. The drug, demanding that Lowe relapse. But Lowe found the strength to break free. After a joyous reunion with Holden, Lowe took his wife and son and proudly exited the Cortez, while Sally, unable to follow, screamed dire threats. All Lowe has to do is never return. But he will. One more bell jar needs filling with meaty tidbits. And Sally’s in the way. Guess which “She” wants revenge now?

--And thus we return to The Countess, the great mover and shaker of this season. Final(?) costume commentary: In the closing scene, she dressed all in black. Mourning her years of wasted time, her mistakes. After she learned what had become of Valentino, she returned to her penthouse to kill Donovan. And Donovan was okay with that, because he’d realized something: he’s just another Valentino. So was Tristan. So was Drake. All these dark-haired men with their swoon-inducing cheekbones, all The Countess’s attempt to craft a Pygmalion copy of her original beloved. She made Donovan everything he is, which makes him absolutely nothing. A shell. He fell to his knees before The Countess and asked her to kill him, and she gazed sorrowfully at the beautiful, hollow man she’d pretended to love. Who knows what she would have done. She didn’t get the chance. The penthouse door banged open and in charged Liz and Iris, brandishing two pistols apiece. They fired. Again and again and again and again and again. But we did not see where those bullets landed.


--I loved the episode. I love how good this show is when it takes the time. And while I wait, I demand to see all of Iris’s self-tribute video! That was perhaps the most hilarious, tragic, hilariously tragic thing I’ve seen all season. If this season has its finger on the pulse of modernity, then make that shit go viral!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Death Note

Long ago and far away, I stuck some old anime shows on a Cautious Enthusiasm list. I am delighted to say that after all this time...I have watched one of them. Oy.

“Anime as an Art Form.” That was the name of a program in my college dorm, and my first major exposure to weeaboos. Now, my own program was called “Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror in the Arts,” so I’m not gonna say I was any less nerdy. But we, with our Dungeons & Dragons, our earnest discussions of Tolkien and Firefly, still kinda hated on the weeaboos. For those of you fortunate enough to not live entirely on the internet, a weeaboo is a white person who worships, idealizes, and emulates Japanese culture. They wore Rising Sun headbands. They addressed each other as “Ashley-chan” and “Jeff-san.” They turned up their noses at all things Western. And, most of all, they fell into a violent, frothing rage at the very IDEA of watching anime in English. Unthinkable.

This post is dedicated to them. Because I watched the English dub of Death Note and I thought it was great. All those American-accented voices. Speaking English. So nice, not to have to focus on a bunch of subtitles. God, I hate weeaboos. They’re annoying as fuck and need a serious beatdown from reality. But I digress.

Death Note is beloved for its mix of Serious Adult Themes and supernatural thriller elements, plus its Gothy aesthetic. I found it to be a very good anime series (no, I haven’t read the original manga; shaddup) that doesn’t feel dated and takes an engaging approach to its premise. It falls under that cool subgenre where a single improbable or supernatural element is superimposed onto the real, everyday world. In this case, we learn of the Shinigami, Japanese spirits of death, who reside in their own realm and regard humanity with jaded amusement. Each Shinigami posseses a notebook that can end the life of anyone whose name is written in it. One such Death Note plops down in Tokyo and is found by Light Yagami, a brilliant high school senior who sees in it a golden opportunity. He’ll use it to kill all the bad people clogging society, creating a brave new world! Light is a sociopath in need of an outlet. Give him a country to rule, and he’d terrorize its inhabitants while insisting it’s for their own good. Give him a Death Note, and he’ll literally murder anyone he needs to in order to justify his precious Utopian vision.

The Death Note provides us with another beloved storytelling trope, the Three Rules. Don’t feed a mogwai after midnight. A robot may not harm a human being. The Three Rules are fun because of how much mileage one can get from exploiting them for loopholes and side effects. The Death Note’s rules are 1) Write someone’s name in the notebook, and they will die forty seconds later; 2) You must picture the victims’s face in your mind, in order to avoid killing the wrong John Smith (crucially, this means you can’t kill someone if you don’t know what they look like); and 3) The victim will die of a heart attack by default, but you can customize the time and manner of death by writing it down. Oh, and a human who touches the Death Note can perceive Shinigami, which is why Light finds himself bantering with Ryuk, a wry, apple-chomping spirit with Gollum’s eyeballs who dresses like the most punchable Goth who ever slouched through a Hot Topic. As Light begins snuffing criminals, the world takes notice. Not everyone wants to stop the unseen death-bringer, whom the media dubs “Kira.” Some want to sing his praises.

This is where the ethical richness of the scenario unfolds. A world free of murderers, rapists, drug dealers, dictators, warlords, war? Sounds pretty awesome. On the other hand, how does one man have the right to judge an entire species? Is Light a savior or a psycho? A special task force is formed to catch Kira, and teams up with a reclusive detective known only as L. L is the best character by far: disheveled and detached, snarfing sugar to fuel his superbrain, he soon has Kira pretty well pinned down. But Light is counting on being hunted, and Death Note comes alive when it focuses on the psychological ballet between Light and L. As if the intrigue wasn’t piled on heavily enough, Light’s dad is chief of police, and Light finds his way onto the task force. Light can’t kill L without his true name -- and killing wantonly would blow his cover. L thinks Light might be Kira, but doesn’t want to waste him as an ally. Thus, they circle, probing each other. It’s an ongoing game of strategy in which each must play their best cards without revealing their hand. It’s pretty riveting.

Death Note would be amazing from start to finish if it were entirely about Light vs. L. It’s a great 24-episode anime. If only it didn’t last for 37 episodes. I enjoyed the whole thing, but it felt bloated overall, and frequently lost its way. For instance, at one point Light willingly loses his memories of being Kira. While it’s interesting to see how the move fits into Light’s larger scheme, it reduces Light to a bland boy scout for way too many episodes.  Around this time, the show twists itself into something resembling a wacky espionage thriller, with an unpleasant aftertaste of romantic comedy. Yeah, things get more fun when a second Death Note appears, but unfortunately, its bearer is Misa Amane, a shrill pop starlet who attaches herself to Light. Misa is the Jar Jar Binks of Death Note. She’s an entirely juvenile character, she embodies every negative female stereotype, and the show stubbornly keeps her around till the very end, long after she has anything to contribute to the plot (the real romantic tension is between Light and L, as anyone can see). In general, the show doesn’t portray women very well; they’re often hapless, and the stronger female characters tend to get killed off.

But the big issue is L. As I said, he’s the best character, and the subtle internal war between him and Light is the best interaction. However, at around the two-thirds mark, L is booted from the storyline and replaced by a character who, while interesting enough, lacks L’s unique pizzazz. The post-L portion of the show struggled to hold my interest, introducing too many new characters and plot details as the final episodes huffed and puffed toward a resolution. The three cardinal rules of the Death Note were joined by many more, some quite redundant, and it became difficult to keep track of who had a Death Note, how many there were, and how Light’s plans kept changing. Light was diminished without a worthy nemesis. I like a character-driven story, but Death Note should have limited itself to a small cast while broadening its exposition. I wanted to see more of how the existence of Kira affected the world, how different societies reacted, what circumstances arose. And I wanted way more of the Shinigami realm, which all but vanished after its introduction.

Still, what a beautifully made anime! You can’t tell this kind of story without getting biblical, and here, we get tons of appropriate imagery (apples, winged beings, shafts of light) while the soundtrack hits us with ominous chimes, Gregorian chanting, and “O Fortuna”-style choral yelps. Anime dialogue is often heavy-handed, and in this case, time keeps freezing as Light delivers a smug interior monologue. But it works, because it ties into the thriller elements: there’s a reason the villain always describes his plans for our benefit. I really loved the use of colors and monochrome, the low-key art style that occasionally exploded with stylistic flourishes. And even when the plot spun its wheels, it remained enjoyably unpredictable. I even liked the opening credits, because they bombarded me with visual clues that I could gradually decipher. (I did not, however, enjoy the opening theme songs, which began with a whiny, barely-pubescent rocker and ended with shrieky death metal.) I’m hardly an expert on anime, but on a scale of one to ten where one is DBZ and ten is Miyazaki, Death Note is at least an eight. Its technical and artistic quality never slips.

But the weeaboos would tell you that I have no right to be reviewing Death Note at all, because I committed the cardinal sin of watching the English dub. See, if I could appreciate the great subtlety and flawless delivery of the original Japanese, I would actually understand the show’s true meaning. And the manga is still better, obviously. Because everything Japan does is superior in every way. Kawaii. You can see why I prefer to blot out the weeaboos and their delusional standards and just focus on enjoying Death Note on my own terms. It’s an excellent anime with great ideas and a couple truly definitive characters. Watch it sometime, and ask yourself if you’d oppose Kira, or root for him...

VERDICT: A solid squee! In English.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

American Horror Story: Hotel--Episode 9

5.9: She Wants Revenge

--I noticed something: the opening credits to Hotel read kinda funny in places if you combine the Ten Commandments with the actors’ names that follow. Thou Shalt Not Covet Cheyenne Jackson. Thou Shalt Not Steal with Angela Bassett. Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery and Lady Gaga. The Countess needs committing, all right. Does Briarcliff do vampire fashionistas?

--Speaking of Cheyenne Jackson...plenty of this year’s cast drew short straws. I mean, Angela Bassett has been in like three episodes, and Sarah Paulson’s appearances are as sporadic as, well, a ghost. Poor Will Drake got it worst, though. Clueless to the end, serving as a mere plot monkey. And now he’s dead, I guess. Yeah, Hotel picked the least-surprising main cast member to eliminate (ghostly return pending), but that’s okay, because this episode contained lots of forward momentum leading into the winter hiatus. Everyone’s plotting against everyone else, but who will out-plot whom?

--The Countess is just royally pissed. Pissed at March for being responsible for a near-century of lonely misery. Pissed at Alex for creating non-Countess-approved vampire children. Pissed at Liz Taylor for taking the murder of his one true love so damn personally! Why’s everyone gotta be so butthurt? The Countess is done with not being entirely in control of the situation, so she pressed on with marrying Drake while turning Valentino and Natacha’s former prison hallway into...a prison hallway with a door. She also took back Donovan, who seemed smitten with her all over again. And she tracked down Valentino, who truly was delighted to have her back in his arms. Yeah, The Countess juggled three men this week, though Valentino’s the only one she cares a whit about, presumably. Miss Evers, forever friendzoned by March, popped up to deliver a snappy warning to Drake. No one escapes the Countess. Miss Evers promised she’d watch Drake die with a smile on her face. I don’t think I’ve seen a more gratuitous use of foreshadowing all year.

--Right now, Iris seems mostly interested in snuffing people she doesn’t like -- porn stars, in this case -- and the number of murders we’ve seen in the Cortez is really starting to bug me. The LAPD has never investigated the hotel? Never? Even after dozens, maybe hundreds, of people have disappeared there? Gimme a break. Fresh off her latest murder spree, Iris was happy to see Donovan but dismayed to find him under The Countess’s thumb. Only, surprise! Donovan is still scheming with Ramona, and took the male porn star to be an hors d’oeuvre for them both. And then...random flashback time!

--Ramona’s such a weird character. She’s barely been around, yet the show has given her these huge, gristly lumps of backstory. It wouldn’t work if Bassett didn’t sell the bejeezus out of it. Ramona explained why it took her so long to plot revenge: she was busy with her parents, who took her in after her bloody fallout with The Countess. But then her mom died of cancer and her dad succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Withering away while Ramona remained helplessly immortal. She vampified her dad, hoping it would make him strong again, but a shattered brain is beyond even supernatural repair. All Ramona could do, in the end, was euthanize her father, which shocked her awake and ended her rather contrived twenty-year absence from revenge-seeking. Thank you for a flashback we didn’t really need, show, but I’ll forgive you because of who it focused on.

--I was worried the show would forget all about the newly-created vampire kids’ subplot. Nope! Alex found Max and his creepy little tribe in a house, feeding on pizza delivery guys and various other hapless adults. She tried to get them to follow her to the Cortez, but they refused to listen. Vampire tweens are no less stubborn and self-centered than normal tweens. I’m concerned for Alex -- she may be in The Countess’s crosshairs next.

--Drake was dumb. But Donovan is dumber. He lured Ramona into The Countess’s boudoir, promising that he’d drugged her into oblivion and Ramona could murder her with impunity. Double surprise! Donovan really is under The Countess’s thumb again! He tazed Ramona, who was soon crammed into one of those neon-lit gibbets in the prison hallway. Donovan’s such a fucking tool! God! Iris really needs to admit that her son is a banana slug, and move on with her fucking life. Go to Alaska or something. No sun; easy to murder peeps.

--And Drake? The Countess married him, with Liz Taylor as a pouty witness. Twoo wuv! But Drake’s bliss didn’t last long. March still seems beholden to The Countess despite her newfound loathing for him, and took Drake to see creepy little Bartholomew. He did not react like a proud stepfather. Then The Countess stuck Drake in the prison hallway, and when he freed Ramona from her cage, she showed her gratitude by eating him alive, while Miss Evers I-told-you-so’d and The Countess relished the whole thing via security cameras. RIP, Drake. When Lachlan learns of his dad’s death, I’m sure he’ll respond with the same stoned detachment as always. Kids these days. With their blood orgies and their stylish ennui. Right?

--The Countess’s plans are proceeding swimmingly, but I dunno about her luck lasting, because events on AHS can always execute a screeching hairpin turn. Liz could still be a threat. And although The Countess has a plan to get rid of the increasingly valley-girlish Natacha, she didn’t notice Donovan snooping on her visit to Valentino’s motel room. Man, The Countess just sucks at keeping her infidelities hidden. Maybe Donovan will be less of a tool now? I suspect that next week will not go well for The Countess. Should be fun! Bring popcorn and Swedish fish!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

American Horror Story: Hotel--Episode 8

5.8: The Ten Command- ments Killer

--“It’s you, John. It’s always been you.”

--So sayeth Sally, as well as most of us out there in TV Land. I’m thankful to this ep for wasting no time. We pick up where we left off: Wren the vampire girl, road pizza’d before Lowe’s bleary eyes. Lowe staggers into the Hotel Cortez, demanding ANSWERS, DAMMIT. Doing his Dark Knight Rises impression: WHURR’S TH’ KILLURRR?! Sally and Liz Taylor sigh, because they’ve been through this bullshit before. Sally takes Lowe to good old Room 64 and points him toward a secret chamber behind the armoire. Ten bell jars, seven of which contain grisly trophies of flesh and bone. As Lowe’s memories come flooding back, we get the classic montage-o-revelation. A round of applause for John Lowe, Ten Commandants Killer and clueless drip extraordinaire.

--I can be mean. The ep felt weak to me, because A) I have no problem with a flashback-filled episode focusing on a single character, but two in a row makes me fidgety, and B) I never thought the TCK subplot was super amazing. Maybe if the killer’s identity had remained a mystery. But many of us guessed it was Lowe early on, and everyone else must have realized before this week. Still, it was handled okay. Over Wren’s cold corpse in the morgue, Lowe poured out his sins, or perceived lack thereof, to his faithful buddy, Detective Hahn. The calm Morgan Freeman to his jittery Brad Pitt. See, Lowe’s a longtime patron of the Cortez. The staff all know him, even if he doesn’t always know them. Back in 2010, down and needing a martini, Lowe entered the Cortez and sealed his fate. Oddly enough, it was Donovan who brought Lowe into the presence of James March, smelling potential in him. Why Donovan? Does he have a hidden motive, or were the showrunners trying to atone for their criminal underuse of Matt Bomer’s cheekbones?

--March lit up like a jack-o-lantern when he perceived Lowe’s inky-black aura. He saw a man who could finally take up his mantle. March kickstarted the Ten Commandment killings, but only got two under his belt before his death. But Lowe? An officer of the law, filled with rage at all the little injustices he sees every day. Innocents who die at the flip of a cosmic coin. Vile human scum who float away scot-free on a cloud of red tape and compromise. If Lowe had his way, the scum would not get a token slap on the wrist, but Punishment with a capital P. March wormed this out of Lowe, and sealed the deal with a vile deed of his own: The Countess didn’t just abduct Holden because he was cute and platinum-blonde. March asked her to, in order to shove Lowe all the way over the brink. Five years passed, during which time March and Lowe talked and talked and talked, and drank and drank and drank...

--Countess costume commentary: Weird, I thought she owned the hotel. Judging by the outfit she wore during one scene, she is also employed as its bellhop.

--By 2015, Lowe had been well-marinated in a cocktail of booze, grief, fury, and self-righteousness, stirred constantly by March’s toffee-like voice. Can I just say again how much fun Evan Peters is having? Everybody wants to be the one cheerfully evil, irredeemable character. But not everybody can pull it off. Lowe also had Sally, who attached herself to him with sex and need. She could take his rage inside herself and leave him at peace, for a bit. A drug, sucking him in again and again. The lost souls of the Hotel Cortez turned Lowe into the perfect weapon. A collaboration, twisted and artful. In time, Lowe committed his first kill: the movie critic, worshipper of false idols, who was also a pedophile, just in case we felt any qualms with his getting an Oscar up the poop chute. Horrified by how much he relished killing, Lowe tried suicide, but March saved him. And we got an interesting tidbit: March and Sally have some sort of deal going, and if Sally doesn’t feed victims to that demon with the pointy strap-on, it will devour her instead. More, please?

--So that’s the big origin story. Lowe began carrying out his baroque murders. Sally assigned Wren to protect Lowe outside the hotel. And due to his shattered mental state, Lowe usually doesn’t remember what he’s doing, what he has become. No more! After hearing all this awfulness, Hahn still tried to be the good buddy and console Lowe. Alas for Hahn. Previously, when Alex came to him for comfort, he responded, and maybe they never had sex, but Hahn definitely got close. That was enough for Lowe. Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Lowe stabbed Hahn and took his penis (sufficiently mangled to slip past the censors) as trophy number eight. Rather chillingly, Lowe now seems happy. Or, at the very least, at peace with himself. The good man inside has died; the Ten Commandments Killer rules.

--Which is interesting, because we’re left without an everyman. A normal, sane character who can be our surrogate. Maybe that’s a good thing, because the audience stand-ins of the past (Kit from Asylum, Zoe from Coven, Bette and Dot from Freak Show) tend to get badly sidelined, unable to compete with the monsters, weirdos, and Angela Bassetts. Now Lowe is a willing monster himself. It’s gonna be interesting when I re-watch Hotel down the road, because I can study the first half of the season with new eyes, with the knowledge that all the hotel folk already know John Lowe as a kindred spirit, and are merely humoring his memory lapse. It was nicely executed, even if the twist surprised nobody.

--Thou Shalt Not Murder. Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me. Two more Commandments to go, and I’m interested to see what Lowe cooks up. Will he end the spree with his own death, in case we somehow missed all the allusions to Se7en? If so, let me get this out of the way now:


--What? You knew it was coming.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, pt. 2


What follows is my final review of the Hunger Games franchise. If you need a refresher, why not revisit my posts on The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, pt. 1.

Thus another titanic film franchise draws, panting, to a close. And what a close. Four films might not seem as momentous as six films, or eight films. But those other guys seem determined to chug onward with their Silmarillions and their Fantastic Beasts, while I must believe that we really have seen the end of Katniss Everdeen and the war-ravaged dystopian playground of Panem. I’ve been waiting eagerly for this finale for two years, since the first half of Mockingjay had little to offer beyond an extra movie ticket lightening our wallets. All it could really do was lay down groundwork for the future-deciding war to come. Now that we’ve suffered through that gray, soupy cash grab, here’s Part Deux to explode our brains with tragedy, victory, special effects, and closure. About damn time!

Okay, where were we? Panem has gone to war. We have the decadent, clueless Capitol, under the thumb of the increasingly frail President Snow (Donald Sutherland). And we have the ragtag grassroots Districts, led by the not-exactly-benevolent President Coin (Julianne Moore). And we have Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who has been a powerful symbol of rebellion but is in danger of losing her relevance once the professional fighting begins. She’s not ready to lay down her bow, because Snow went and did something personal: he turned Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the man Katniss sort of loves, into a brainwashed assassin who can’t look at Katniss without seeing slavering monster fangs and a big red sign saying, “MURDER ME NOW.” Katniss wants to see Snow’s defeat with her own eyes. She wants to cause it with her own hands. But first, there’s some loose ends to tie up. Sadly, the first half-hour of the film is basically Mockingjay, pt. 1.5, with even more somber war-room conversations and even more bombed-out concrete! Yay!

If you can sit through the extended prologue, you will be rewarded. Because Part Deux comes to life once Katniss hits the Capitol streets. She’s assigned to a military team that’s supposed to be shooting low-risk propaganda (ha ha, yeah right), and sees an opportunity to get close enough to Snow’s mansion to put an arrow in his crusty old eye socket. Her teammates include her saber-rattling secondary guy, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), brave merman Finnick (Sam Claflin), subtly subversive Commander Boggs (Mahershala Ali), and guerilla filmmaker Cressida (Natalie Dormer), plus a handful of soldiers and key grips and such. Also, Peeta, who is struggling to sift through the drug-induced sludge his mind has become. (This would have been more effective if Hutcherson didn’t seem like a puppydog even when he’s supposed to be an angry mutt.) Could Coin have stuck all these volatile folk together in the hopes they’d be killed? It won’t be the last dirty trick Coin pulls. As Katniss and co. scrambled through the rubble, as supporting characters croaked left and right from vicious booby traps, I breathed a sigh of relief. The story and environment got interesting again! I love how they showed us the gaudy, sparkly decadence of the Capitol all torn to hell; it made a great contrast.

Yes, the film builds awesome momentum with few missteps. Even the quiet scenes are generally effective; we need time to come down from our adrenaline rush, mourn the latest deaths, and discuss the stakes. In a kind of reverse Bechdel Test, Peeta and Gale are given a moment to talk honestly to each other about their feelings for Katniss. I’m glad they weren’t just whiny rivals, even if neither one really clicked as a solid character. Action-wise, the big show-stopper is a trip through the sewers and an attack by lizard-creatures. This sequence worked so well because it took the time to build quiet, dreadful suspense before exploding into ghastly action; it was like a deleted scene from Alien that suddenly turned into a deleted scene from Aliens. It’s one example of how brutal Part Deux can get. Yes, the violence is bloodless; we haven’t gotten any less PG-13 since the Tributes vaguely waved knives and spears at each other in the first film. But, can’t slap a rating on grimness. One death involving black tar and razor wire is straight out of Silent Hill. The final action scene is not victorious, but achieves a downward spiral of sheer horror, and they did something from the book that I was sure they’d leave out. But they went there. The children and the silver parachutes. I’m kind of awed.

The thing you have to understand about the Hunger Games series is that it becomes a parade of terrible events, death, and war crimes, in which Katniss is reduced to a PTSD-ridden shell and must somehow start anew from the ashes. Jennifer Lawrence has made this franchise her own, and thanks to her face, her eyes, she’ll remain in our memories for a long time to come. The story doesn’t come down to Katniss and Peeta, or Katniss and Gale. It’s Katniss, Snow, and Coin. Sutherland plays Snow as a man who’s realized he’s going to lose, but wants to cause as much anguish as possible, simply out of toxic bitterness. Moore plays Coin with calm, snakey artifice. The scenes following the rebels’ victory are crucial, and the film nails them. What Katniss realizes about good and evil. Snow’s final speech to her. The council of the surviving Hunger Games victors, in which Katniss does entirely the wrong thing for entirely the right reason. And then a scene that I’ve been waiting for since the beginning. It’s where Katniss fires her final arrow -- the last one that matters, anyway. This scene is a keystone. In a sense, the entire franchise leads up to it. It was perfect. The timing, the use of silence and music, the reactions of each character. Perfect. It’s so good that the last few scenes barely register. But they’re still important in their own way. I think the ending does a good job of showing that some wounds never heal, but that it’s possible to live with pain, and live well.

So that’s Mockingjay, and that’s Katniss’s journey done. I think that, in the end, Catching Fire was the best film. I initially thought it was weaker than The Hunger Games, but I’ve changed my mind. Yes, the kid-on-kid violence was more powerful, but the sequel balanced all its themes with real flair. I will say, however, that some scenes in Mockingjay, pt. 2 rose above all the other films. If the finale had a flaw, it was mismanagement of its bloated cast. This is partly the book’s fault, but the movie had to abridge the book (though not as badly as I was expecting). Thus, everyone got shuffled around and some were shuffled out the door. Blink and you’ll miss Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, and Gwendoline Christie. Thank God, though, that they made extra room for Jena Malone, whose psychotic Johanna is the only person onscreen who can cut through all the bullshit better than Katniss. I wish we’d gotten a better depiction of Katniss’s sister, Prim; Willow Shields was okay but not great, and Prim’s overall symbolic significance was definitely lacking. Still, pretty much everyone (beyond the two love interests) did a very good job, and the film acknowledged them when it could. Elizabeth Banks’ Effie and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch may have been scarce, but the final close-up of each one was spot-on. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch got some great closing material. Sutherland’s take on Snow was nothing like I’d always pictured from the books, but he turned out to be just right; I prefer a smiling, smooth-voiced villain to a slavering creep.

All well and good, but it’s hard to call these films an ensemble when so much is on the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence. She was amazing from start to finish. The books are Katniss’s inner monologue, and Lawrence is able to convey it with a simple gesture, a flick of her eyes. She’s the main reason I’ll return to the Hunger Games movies in the future. They took a strange, compelling, bleak trilogy and turned it into mature and artful blockbusters. They didn’t pander. Yeah, we could talk about how the story slams the cynical fetishizing of a young woman for marketing purposes, while the films’ marketing does exactly that. (That sexy, skintight red outfit Katniss wears on the posters? Completely absent from the film.) We could sigh at the movies for not pushing their topical themes even farther. Making people suffer for televised entertainment? The media mangling the facts? The upper class willfully ignoring those who labor to provide their stuff? Terrified refugees being shat on because of their origin? At least the movies show these issues. They’re trying to handle a very dark story in a way that still entertains. We can provide our own commentary. Mockingjay, pt. 2 is a solid and powerful finish to an exceptionally well-done franchise, and I don’t think it will become any less relevant. Because, as the far-future nightmare of Panem demonstrates, we’ll always live under the threat of repeating our mistakes. I hope we’ll keep that in mind as we move ever forward.

I hope the Katniss Everdeens of history are ready and waiting.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

American Horror Story: Hotel--Episode 7

5.7: Flicker

--Marcy! NOOOOO! Damn you, Rudolph Valentino! Damn you and your silent-movie vampire virus!

--I just demonstrated how utterly bonkers this show is when taken out of context. Or even in context. What a weirdly awesome episode this was. It can be risky to ignore most of your subplots, or it can really pay off. “Flicker” gave most of the cast the week off in order to unveil the backstory of The Countess, and it’s just as glamorous, gruesome, tragic, and sexy as one could expect. It began when Drake’s renovation crew discovered a barrier of solid metal...and behind it, an entire section of hallway, moldering and forgotten. But not unoccupied. A pair of decrepit vampires lurched from the shadows and fed upon the work crew. The Countess, for once, had no explanation. But, Iris noted, she looked afraid. Maybe she smelled something she recognized. A trace of cologne, an echo from far in the past...

--A creature like The Countess can only hail from a time when beauty and pleasure ruled the landscape. She has worn many guises, but it’s inevitable that the 1920s birthed her. Tinseltown. The flickers: those soundless, treasure-box films that changed America forever, blazing on screens, turning men and women into gods, before sound came along and snuffed the careers of the shrill-voiced and foreign-accented. Elizabeth, as she was once known, began her career as a cleavage-baring extra, but had the amazing fortune to catch the eye of film titan Rudolph Valentino...played by Finn Wittrock. My guess is that this dual casting is a nod to the monster movies of old, when vampires and mummies pined for long-dead lovers and set their sights on modern-day doppelgangers. Elizabeth was claimed by Valentino and his sultry wife, Natacha Rambova (Alexandra Daddario), and apart from the amazing sex, she found love. Real love.

--Valentino died. Elizabeth got the news during the inauguration of the Hotel Cortez, and prepared to fling herself out a window before a lusty James March saved her. Broken and jaded, she married March and descended into his twisted world. What did she care, as long as she had pretty things to distract her from the wound in her heart. Turned out Valentino not only lived, but held life eternal. I really dig this particular origin of vampirism: the “blood virus” was unearthed deep in the Carpathians by German director F.W. Murnau, as he filmed Nosferatu, which most agree is the first and greatest of classic vampire films. Nosferatu is not about charming, sophisticated blood-sippers. It is about a primal, bestial vampire who doesn’t even try to pass as a human being. Murnau embraced the virus, sharing in the savagery but ushering it into society. He saw the coming of the sound pictures, the death of silent Hollywood, and he sought to preserve something of the old ways. Murnau vampified Valentino, Valentino vampified Natacha, and both of them vampified Elizabeth, planning to spirit her away to a life of eternal bliss. And so they would have...if March hadn’t been listening in.

--Elizabeth never got her Hollywood ending. She lost her great lovers twice in a row. She inherited the Cortez and became The Countess, aloof and loveless, drowning in earthly pleasures. In the present day, The Countess visited March for a cool, cordial private dinner. She wanted to tell him she’s marrying Drake. March had something to tell her, too: he’s the root of all her misery. He nabbed Valentino and Natacha and bricked them up in that hallway to rot, unable to die. What will The Countess do, now that she knows the truth? It’s not like March can die twice...but maybe she can strike at him in other ways.

--“How would someone even know their anus needs bleaching? I couldn’t pick my butthole out of a lineup.” Oscar winner Kathy Bates, ladies and gentlemen.

--So, yeah, it turned out that the creaky old vampires in the hidden hallway were, you guessed it, Valentino and Natacha. And, to my sorrow, their third victim of the day was Marcy the realtor. Alas. She survived the Murder House only to gurgle her last on the tacky carpet of the Cortez. I shed a tear. Snark has lost one of its champions. After Marcy, the vamps devoured some Aussie strippers, because any nutritionist can tell you that Aussie strippers are high in antioxidants. Just as The Countess was learning what really became of Valentino and Natacha, they were striding from the hotel, young and healed, ready to enter a new age. Can Hollywood handle such a comeback? Can they be put in charge of that new brood of vampire kids?

--Besides giving us quality backstory, this ep made me care about Lowe’s odyssey again! Seemingly contrite, Lowe checked himself into a hospital for psychiatric help, but he had an ulterior motive: he’d discovered that the suspect in the Ten Commandment killings was being held there. Lowe busted into the suspect’s cell and found....a spooky girl named Wren (Jessica Belkin), one of The Countess’s little blonde vamps. Lowe listened, stunned, as Wren revealed she’d been helping the Ten Commandments killer. His semi-willing accomplice the whole time. Lowe’s this close to catching the killer, but he won’t like what he finds. Because I watched Wren closely, and I saw how she looked at Lowe and reacted to his words. And I knew. Lowe busted them both out of the hospital and promised he’d end the Ten Commandments killer for good. “You’re going to kill him?” Wren asked. Then: “I really like you. I’m sorry to see it end. Goodbye, John.” And then she flung herself in front of a truck. Her last words are the key. John Lowe is the Ten Commandments killer. Two men in one body. Wren knew it, and now, so do we. And that’s why I really can’t wait for the next episode. Stupid Thanksgiving, forcing us to take a week off!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

American Horror Story: Hotel--Episode 6

5.6: Room 33

--There were four naked guys in this episode. We are truly living inside Ryan Murphy’s sex fantasies, people. To be fair, the ep served up a heaping helping of Nordic boobs and legs as well, plus The Countess’s pert, leather-clad booty. I believe sex is good for the soul, but the Hotel Cortez negates that effect. The only people who had good sex this week were bound for a tragic fate. And let’s not even get into childbirth!

--Actually, let’s. The “thing” in Room 33 was fleetingly mentioned ages ago, but now we’ve got the whole scoop. Room 33’s occupant is Bartholomew, the eternally crib-bound vampire son of The Countess. And how did little Barty-Boo come into the world? Heh. In 1926, The Countess needed to expel her rapidly-gestating bundle of joy, so where did she go? The fucking Murder House. Great to see that awful edifice again! The good Doctor Charles Montgomery (remember him?) was all too happy to abort The Countess’s baby, and utterly fascinated when said baby ate his nurse. Barty-Boo’s been in Room 33 ever since, never aging, ever hungry. Which may explain The Countess’s need to abduct actual children. Her one flesh-and-blood progeny will always be...a THING. It’s almost tragic.

--How low can Lowe go? Pretty low. He found the swimming pool coffins, requiring Alex and Liz Taylor to execute a swift cover-up. Their timing was excellent, because The Countess jetted off to Paris with Will Drake, Iris blew the whistle, and Donovan and Ramona slithered in to commit some righteous infanticide. No vampire kids were to be found, but that didn’t stop Ramona from visiting Room 33. Killing Bartholomew Countess (I’m gonna pretend his last name is “Countess” because it’s funny) would have been the ultimate act of vengeance...only Barty-Boo’s a trouper, and he escaped both Ramona’s blade and the room. Meanwhile, the yellow-bellied Donovan moped around the penthouse suite and encountered, of all people, the blonde Swedish babes from the premiere. Dead, of course. He explained to them that it’s easy for a ghost to become trapped in a behavioral loop (this was hilariously demonstrated by last week’s dead hipster stomping around, squalling for kale) and they need to find a “purpose.” Like that one waterlogged lady ghost on the fifth floor. Yeah, remember her? Me neither.

--Anyway, the Swedes tried some violent murder and didn’t enjoy it, so Alex recruited them to break Lowe’s widdle bwain and drive him out of the hotel. The sight of Lowe running around the lobby, butt-naked and covered in ghost blood, really made me think they’re taking a satirical approach to his mental ruination. “This is MY meltdown! I’m havin’ it!” And it stung, being kicked off the crime scene when the Ten Commandments killer struck yet again (Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord’s Name In Vain!). Hounded at every turn by various spooks, Lowe finally fled the Cortez, little realizing that Bartholomew had stowed away in his suitcase. Yeah...Lowe’s attempt to patch things up with Scarlett backfired (no pun intended) when he spotted Barty-Boo and emptied several rounds into the kitchen floor. Jesus, I feel so fucking sorry for Scarlett right now. She’s got a mom who’s flat-out ditched her, and a dad who still loves her but is a whackjob. She’s become the saddest tale Hotel has to tell.

--Or has she? In a very abrupt twist, we learned that Liz Taylor has fallen head-over-Pradas in love...with Tristan. Do I buy this? I believe in Liz’s love, but I can’t quite swallow that somebody as vain and superficial as Tristan would come to love Liz. Still, let’s learn us a lesson and not judge a book by its cover. Tristan had already figured out that his days with The Countess were numbered. Liz was hoping for one act of selflessness from The Countess. Just one. And Liz has become such a full-bodied character that I really felt for him, especially since it was obvious how this story would end. Liz should have paid attention to Ramona’s warning -- Ramona, who’s witnessed The Countess’s lethal jealousy firsthand. Instead, Liz and Tristan appealed to The Countess for mercy. For her blessing. Oh, she gave it, all right. She blessedly slit Tristan’s throat and told a weeping Liz, “He’s yours. Bury him.” I saw it coming, but it wasn’t any easier. Maybe Tristan will become a ghost; that’d be an okay consolation prize, right?

--Countess costume commentary: Brussels sprout hat. That is all.

--I have some extra space, so let’s finally talk about this season’s opening credits. The fact that I haven’t mentioned them yet shows they don’t do much for me. I mean, they’re fine, but the past couple years gave us artistically striking openers, and now they’ve fallen back on a lot of standard fare. Blood! Babes! Bad interior decorating! I do like the recurring theme of peering through a peephole, and I like how the actors’ names are spelled in mournful orange neon. But cramming the Ten Commandments in there makes things far too busy. And they need to stop adding crap to the theme music; it’s spookiest in its original, minimalist state. Eh.

--Overall, a brisk and gripping ep that covered good ground and made room for everybody on the main cast...except Sarah Paulson. FUCK. It’s like they’re openly mocking me at this point. But I have to give them credit for actually making little Bartholomew Countess scary. Less is more! The vampiric infant was freakier when we never quite glimpsed him. Until the end. And what a good final scene! Alex, who has turned into quite the calculating schemer, rescued Bartholomew from the Lowe residence and returned him to a very flustered Countess. Now Alex has something major to hold over her mistress’s head, which will add even more dynamics to the hotel’s power struggle. And at the very end, we finally got a brief look at Bartholomew’s face, and it was HORRIFYING. That is the kind of scary payoff this show needs more of!

--There’s less of a three-act structure this season, but since we’re just about at the halfway point, I trust Hotel can maintain some narrative momentum. Many questions remain to answer. And many mattresses remain to sweatily hump upon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Bless me, horror movie gods, for I have sinned. In the wake of October, I can actually justify making a Halloween-y post, and what movies have I been watching? The fucking V/H/S franchise. Blame Netflix. At least I didn’t spend movie ticket money on Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, the “final” (har har) entry in a tired, wretched series that’s trying to rely on the even tireder and more wretched gimmick of 3D. If you did, the more fool you.

This post will look similar to my rundowns of The ABCs of Death and its sequel, but while that other horror anthology series is like an experimental art show, V/H/S is like the strip club down the road. It’s grungier, trashier, more juvenile (about thirty seconds into V/H/S/2, the screen is filled with a pair of bare boobs)...and more true to the horror genre, if I’m honest. I started watching on a whim and didn’t hate it like I thought I might. The gimmick of V/H/S is, of course, found-footage, and I think we’re all glad that the trend for el cheapo handheld camera hijinks is waning. Still, there’s a reason why it took off like it did. Found-footage horror, with its shakiness, long takes, and non-acting, looks and sounds real enough to get under your skin. And the V/H/S series, lowbrow though it may be, does showcase some interesting twists on the idea that any random rube can film something horrifying.

Here’s the entire series thus far! Each main entry is broken up into several short films, with a wraparound tale that ostensibly connects the dots.


Tape 56
We’re off to a lousy start. The events of “Tape 56” are a bit too mysterious and feature the most unlikeable characters I can imagine. They’re a group of assholes who get off on being assholes (property damage! Sexual assault! Fun!), and who break into an old man’s house to find the guy sitting dead before a strange shrine of old TV sets and VHS tapes. As the burglars view the tapes (which are represented by the entries below), ghostly shit starts occurring. Problem is, we never get an idea of what’s going on, or why we should care. As I said, the assholes are utterly irredeemable, which might have been fine if they’d gotten cool death scenes. Most of them croak offscreen. Considering the balls-out gore of the other entries, this wraparound is just toothless. C-

Amateur Night
More assholes, yay! This time, the assholes are young brobags who want to film their own porno flick with a hidden glasses-cam and unsuspecting female partners. I think this anthology could use a bit less rampant misogyny, but it’s the bros who suffer the gruesome fallout when they recruit a spooky young woman who turns out to be...other than human. This entry features alllll the nudity, alllll the gore, and very few surprises. But it aims low and connects with a bang. Good makeup and special effects, and Hannah Fierman, who plays the predatory succubus, has an eerie, riveting screen presence. I could believe she was a monster. That’s a compliment. B

Second Honeymoon
Not really a horror story, more like a weird urban legend. A young couple are vacationing out West, trying to rekindle their dried-up passion, and someone might be stalking them. The story takes a slow-burn approach, with excess footage of the couple doing nothing in particular, in an attempt to build suspense. It doesn’t quite work. Yeah, after a long time, we get a gory payoff and then a final plot twist that works okay, I guess, but leaves plot holes. I think it’s supposed to be a modern-day Hitchcock story, complete with its very own Bates Motel. But if you’re gonna twiddle your thumbs for most of your runtime, make sure the payoff is all the way to the moon. C+

Tuesday the 17th
Okay, this feels like horror! Even if it doesn’t entirely make sense. A girl named Wendy takes three friends to her family’s remote cabin in the woods, or so she claims. I’m not spoiling much to say that Wendy has an ulterior motive. In the middle of nowhere, the four kids face an...entity...who appears on camera as a staticky glitch. This is actually very frightening, demonstrating how it can be way scarier to imply something than to show it. The film bets everything on how freaky its killer looks, and almost wins out, but suffers from not-great dialogue and odd character behavior, especially on Wendy’s part. She’s played very inconsistently, which distracted me right up until the end. But I did get scared, so thumbs up. B+

The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger
This is definitely the best entry in the first V/H/S, if only because of how it teases our expectations. The titular Emily has moved into a new apartment and is video-chatting with her long-distance boyfriend. She thinks the place is haunted, and sure enough, we soon begin glimpsing ghostly children in the background. The ghosts are somehow tied into Emily’s childhood trauma and a mysterious lump on her arm. What’s going on? Is Emily crazy? Then how can we be seeing the ghosts too? I particularly liked the non-acting in this one; both the main characters feel like real people trying logically to explain what can’t be explained. The climax plays out very well, with a big, fat plot twist that makes you kick yourself for not realizing what was really going on. Lastly, the video-chat format offers a nice break in style. Well done all around! A

1998, a time when VHS tapes actually still existed. This final entry is just plain fun. Four dudes are off to a Halloween party, only they get the address wrong and barge into a house that is very, very, very haunted. True, their behavior follows dumb movie logic (once they established the clear lack of any Halloween party, why didn’t they leave?) and they remain pretty clueless even when the supernatural shit hits the fan. But these guys, at least, aren’t assholes. They try to do the right thing, and you kinda want them to escape a horrible fate for once. On the flip side, the special effects are really good, both scary and goofy, no holds barred. We are not meant to take it seriously. We are meant to jump, shriek, then laugh. Mission accomplished. B

Overall Grade: V/H/S is too long and still finding its footing. If they’d cut “Second Honeymoon” and made “Tape 56” way shorter and less muddled, it would leave a better impression. Still worth it for the good bits. B


Tape 49
The wraparound is obviously supposed to be a sequel to “Tape 56,” as it features the exact same premise: amoral schmucks break into a house, find VHS tapes, die horribly. One problem I have with this whole premise is that these people are watching tapes that are ostensibly real and contain ghosts, demons, murder, you name it...and their response is never anything more than “Huh.” Still, I found “Tape 49” more bearable than its predecessor. The burglars are boring but not such horrid scumbags, the pace is brisker, and there are actually some scary moments. The camera keeps catching glimpses of a lurking threat the burglars don’t see, and it did give me shudders. It still doesn’t really explain what’s going on. Comes a little closer, though. B+

Phase I Clinical Trials
These directors are trying different things with the found-footage concept, and kudos to them. But this short fumbles. The main character has an “ocular implant” and we’re seeing everything through his eyes. Didn’t you know we can now turn people into cyborgs? Skynet, baby! Anyway, the dude starts seeing ghosts through his robo-eye, and the entry is content to rip off Paranormal Activity and feature the most typical and predictable of jumpscares (every time the guy turns around, there’s guaranteed to be a phantom right behind him). Being startled does not equal being scared; thus, nothing here scared me. I could have accepted either the lame premise or the uninspired ghosties, but not both. Also, this story was already done ages ago. C

A Ride in the Park
Looks like somebody wanted an excuse to shoot lots of bloody zombie mayhem! If there’s anything more tired than found-footage horror, it’s zombies. However, this entry works because of how it approaches a well-tested story. A bicyclist with a helmet-cam stumbles into an undead outbreak. But it’s not a survivor’s tale: our hero is very quickly zombified, and before long he’s filming his own grisly attempts to feast on the living. When you think about it, we don’t often get to see a zombie’s POV, so the novelty factor makes up for the lack of originality everywhere else. Also, there’s tons of cheerful, old-fashioned gore and guts on display. I think I would have preferred an explosive climax over the more “thoughtful” ending we get. But it manages to inject some juice into the genre. B+

Safe Haven
This is the centerpiece of the entire film, and everyone knows it. It’s the longest entry and by far the best. An Indonesian film crew obtains permission to enter the compound of a religious cult and film their everyday life. Wouldn’t you know it, the hapless wannabe journalists arrive right when the cult decides the End of Days is nigh and it’s time to break out the cyanide punch and prepare for the coming of the Dark One. The plot takes its time in getting to the good stuff, and when it does, hoo boy. We’re dragged into a crimson maelstrom of shocking, outrageous, unapologetic, capital-H Horror. The carnage keeps finding new ways to surprise us, and everything -- the setting, the people, the effects -- is played for maximum HOLY SHITBALLS. I loved it. It really is a horror junkie’s dream and it sets the bar super high for everything to come. My only real complaint is that, again, the ending didn’t quite satisfy. The final shot comes off as unintentionally funny. Was that deliberate? A punchline to a very black joke? I can’t tell, but if you ignore that one misstep, “Safe Haven” is one nasty, vicious, raging little ball of horror-movie greatness. A

Slumber Party Alien Abduction
They really should have ended with “Safe Haven” instead of this nonsense. Now that you’ve read the title, you don’t need to see the film. Aliens abduct kids. Really, that’s all they’ve got. The kids are so fucking annoying that we feel nothing when they meet their poorly-defined fates. And the aliens are just as bad: generic gray-skinned types who lurch about, bellow, and wave their arms in the air. Y’know, just like you’d expect from an advanced race with interstellar travel. The aliens from Signs look like Vulcans by comparison. And the “scary” scenes are composed of loud noises, bright lights, and more shaky-cam than all the other entries put together. Hard to be frightened when you literally can’t tell what the fuck is going down. There’s only one decent idea: the camera is mounted on a live dog. Spoiler alert: the dog dies at the end. Just to ensure your mood is ruined. D

Overall Grade: It’s funny how V/H/S/2 has both the best and the worst entry in the entire series. Things sort of even out overall, helped by a tighter pace and a much better wraparound segment. I’d say it’s a leeeeeetle bit better than the first one. B+

V/H/S: Viral

Vicious Circles
The latest wraparound story wisely breaks with the old format and tries something new, with generally successful results. One dark night, a sinister ice cream van leads the police on a chase through the city, while the general public circles like sharks, smartphones in hand, hoping to land the ultimate viral video and be briefly Youtube-famous. The story focuses mainly on a dude who thinks the van snatched his girlfriend, but other characters pop in here and there, making the mayhem into an effective ensemble piece that grows increasingly end-of-the-world-ish. The moral is that our voyeurism may be our undoing, and it’s delivered via decent acting and some freaky gore. Way to up the ante! A-

Dante the Great
Say hello to the gritty reboot of Now You See Me. A trailer-trash magician happens upon a black cloak that allows him to perform real magic -- but the garment demands human sacrifice in return. Interestingly, this is presented as a faux documentary, complete with stock footage and smug interviewees. Probably the best approach to what is, a heart, a profoundly ridiculous story. By the time the climax hits, with SWAT team guys getting ripped apart and two characters flinging magic tricks at each other, we realize we’ve been humbugged. The nonstop special effects are very good but almost too slick, and the filmmakers totally cheat with their handheld footage: certain shots occur when there is no one who could possibly be filming them. Maybe it’s magic. Maybe it’s laziness. C+

Parallel Monsters
This one’s got a sci-fi twist, and is actually my favorite of the Viral bunch for how far it takes its premise. It’s about a guy who invents a gateway to a parallel universe. He comes face to face with another version of himself, and they agree to explore each other’s lives for fifteen minutes. The fun, if you can call it that, comes from the, shall we say, provocative ways in which the B-universe differs from ours. It made me chuckle like a weirdo when...well, I won’t spoil anything. But I liked how the entry presented the B-universe’s, um, abnormalities without explaining them. No need. After all, it’s all perfectly them. And the unhappy ending proceeds with a dark and grisly logic. Good effects, lots of surprises, and a playfully over-the-top aesthetic make for quite the roller-coaster ride. A

Why must some filmmakers act like fucking thirteen-year-old boys behind the camera? I ask you. “Boneshaker” follows some douchebags who head to Tijuana to film their bitchin’ skateboarding video. Some occult crap happens and the gringos are attacked by a horde of zombie cultists or something. The film quickly devolves into an endless orgy of first-person murder, a cheerless video game in which the “heroes” behave like, well, video game characters, apparently thrilled by the prospect of beating Mexicans to death. There’s even gangsta rap on the soundtrack. It’s boring, then it’s stupidly violent, then the violence gets boring. And it’s a bit racist too. So I won’t waste any more time on it. D+

Gorgeous Vortex
Bonus round! This short film was cut from the final anthology and appears as an easter egg on the DVD. Having hunted it down, I found it visually striking, but I can see why they gave it the axe. It is insufferably avant-garde. It has no dialogue and basically no plot...just a series of artsy, sorta-connected scenes and images. There is a gorgeous supermodel drifting through urban decay. There are creepers with white stocking masks. There is oral sex. There are many, many shots of dead and/or kidnapped women. A hideous monster turns up near the end, why not? The director definitely has a major fetish for high heels. And half of it isn’t even found-footage. Many of the images are evocative, and the score is quite good...but it’s just too obtuse. It obviously wants to be “interpreted,” but I’m not sure there’s much to interpret. Just well-shot vacuity. B-

Overall Grade: I’d say V/H/S: Viral is by far the weirdest and most unpredictable of the series. And that’s good! I much prefer it over the same old ghosts and jumpscares. You can’t accuse this threequel of recyling.’s not scary. At any point. Lack of actual horror is pretty damn significant. They’ve gotta balance the fear and the creativity to really hit gold. B

Will there be any more entries in the V/H/S series? Maybe. Like The ABCs of Death, it’s a decent showcase for filmmakers, and while it’s not nearly as sophisticated, it offers up some nice nuggets of low-budget fear. Found-footage may be going the way of the VHS tape, but in this little haven, perhaps it can still thrive. We’ll see.