Monday, August 31, 2015

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Hannibal, pt. 2


There was once a hungry fox who noticed a succulent bunch of grapes hanging high over his head. Craving the grapes, the fox did everything in his power to knock them down, but failed. Finally, disappointed, the fox went on his way, muttering to himself that he’d never wanted those damn grapes in the first place. What I’m saying is, some people will write lots of flowery paragraphs about how three seasons of Hannibal were enough, about how the show needed to end while it was still strong and undiluted, how we’re fine without any more, really. They are lying. And though I’m trying to be mature about this, FUCK, I AM NOT READY TO LET GO. I’ll maintain my vigil over the grave of this wonderful show, hoping for a hand with perfectly manicured nails to pop from the earth, clutching a fondue fork.

The final six episodes took Thomas Harris’s first Hannibal Lecter novel and made it into a vivid epitaph -- for now, anyway. There was no last-minute rescue by some other network. It hurts. It hurts bad. But I’m happy to report that the Red Dragon story arc married all the show’s best elements. It wasn’t sluggish like the first half of the season; enough material was packed into the six eps to make it almost feel like a season in its own right. It did justice to the novel (mostly) while bidding farewell to its cast of partially devoured souls drowning in the crimson allure of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. It still wasn’t quite as good as this show has been in the past, but it sated my hunger until the next course, which I must believe will come in time.

Hannibal, the man, is a construct. A series of elegant puzzle-box layers surrounding an unspeakable core. He is all artifice, all facade. Red Dragon gives us a killer who is the opposite: all emotion, all pain and id and physicality. That’d be Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), dubbed “The Tooth Fairy,” who murders happy families. A man so bizarre and inhuman that only two men and one blind woman can make anything out of him. The men are Will Graham and Hannibal himself. Three years have passed and Will has fooled himself into thinking he’s normal again. He has a wife, Molly (Nina Arianda), who nurtures him while knowing in her heart she’ll never quite have him. Hannibal, meanwhile, previously gave himself up to the FBI for shits and giggles, and now resides in prison under the cold, watchful eye of his onetime lover, Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas). Hannibal’s cell is more like a vast, luxurious study; even in captivity, he requires comfort. Jack Crawford wants Will to assist on the Tooth Fairy case, and Will is yanked back by the hooks still buried in his psyche.

The Red Dragon arc has a lot of ground to cover. It hits all the beats from the novel -- the tiger, the flaming wheelchair, the dentures -- and at times it felt like a checklist. The show continues its knack for surprising Lecter fans, often by swapping out one character for another. Alas, that Red Dragon couldn’t have taken up an entire season, a recurring tale mixed in with other material for thirteen episodes. Instead, Hannibal returned to its crime procedural roots somewhat, while also running with its dream-images of grisly beauty; it gave us the best of both worlds. You see, Francis Dolarhyde is transforming in his mind, giving way to an entity inspired by William Blake’s watercolors of a savage and sexualized dragon-man. Armitage, best known for playing Thorin in the Hobbit trilogy, portrays Dolarhyde as a man attempting to move and speak through constant, excruciating pain -- the pain of being a monster in human skin. He has a raw beauty (he looks a little like Robert Patrick’s T-1000) and a haggard, harelipped scowl, and in his debut episode, he conveys all we need to know without uttering a word. He thinks he’s impregnable, until he meets Reba (Rutina Wesley), the blind woman, who refuses to judge him. The possibility of love and tenderness cracks Dolarhyde’s human suit before he’s ready, allowing Will and Hannibal to slither in.

All things come back to Will and Hannibal; Dolarhyde is simply a catalyst to bring the two star-crossed antiheroes back into each other’s orbit. Hannibal has less to do in these episodes; cozy in his cell, he pulls a string here, nudges a chess piece there. Will, Crawford, and Alana find themselves scheming amoral schemes in dim rooms, and Will comes to accept he’ll never be free. He was doomed from the moment Hannibal saw him as more than a curiosity. But how does it all end? Oh, it ends. The season/series finale is an ending, to be sure. It could also be a beginning. The Red Dragon arc abandons the source material to focus on its three main players, and what follows can only be called a consummation of sorts. I won’t spoil it. But it puts Will and Hannibal in a place from which they may never need to return. And it finally, finally, allows Will a position of dominance, of control. Meanwhile, we get more-or-less satisfying cap-offs for other characters, including a truly shocking and pitch-perfect revelation concerning Dr. Bedelia du Maurier. The show even continues the dark running gag of inflicting copious bodily harm on sleazy Dr. Frederick Chilton (Raúl Esparza) without actually killing him. Dry chuckles. (In the book, tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds meets a ghastly fate; on the show, Lounds, gender-swapped and played with amoral relish by Lara Jean Chorostecki, was too good a character to sacrifice.)

Yes, the ending is an ending, and still, Will’s final decision is sure to be debated. (And the post-credits scene with Bedelia may be dismissed as a tease for a phantom Season Four, but still wraps up her character pretty well, when you think about it.) I will wait for more forays into this universe, but in the meantime...thank you, Bryan Fuller, for never, ever compromising. Thank you for using your final season to craft two very different, sumptuous tales -- even if you did rush the story along in the process. And thanks to the cast! Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy have woven the narrative around their relationship and will always be linked in my mind. I love how Laurence Fishburne took Jack Crawford from angry doggedness to bitter acceptance of man’s evil. I appreciate Dhavernas’ Alana Bloom, who was really annoying in Season Two (“I am sleeping with him, therefore I refuse to hear a word against him! BAWW!”) before undergoing a killer metamorphosis. And I have plenty of affection for those two wiseass forensics guys played by Scott Thompson and Aaron Abrams. (They have names, but from the beginning, I have lovingly thought of them as Thing One and Thing Two.) Finally, I tip my hat to the late, lovable Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park); I hope your thinly-sliced corpse turns up in a modern art museum.

Thanks to all. And I will wait patiently until the players find a time and a place to reassemble. In the meantime, my consolation prize: Fuller is working on the American Gods TV show, a project which has my full attention. He’s going to make it beautiful and epic, and, God, do I hope it won’t sink in the tide of bullshit on TV. Yes, I am grateful that Hannibal got three seasons when it could have only gotten one. Yes, its story can be over. But it doesn’t have to be. A show this unique, this ambitious, defies TV Land. Wait with me. Sit at the table and chat with me while the next course is prepared. It takes a long time to make a meal, but the result is all the more mouth-watering.

A toast to Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Long may he simmer.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

ABCs of Death 2

My, my. I have been looking forward to this.

Back in 2013, I wrote a post about The ABCs of Death, an anthology of (mostly) horror-themed short films. I found it to be quite enjoyable, albeit with deeply unreliable quality control. Some of the shorts delighted me, some were “meh,” and others made me want to track down the filmmakers and stick their heads in urinals. I guess it’s inevitable that this concept become a franchise, so here we have ABCs of Death 2! Yes, I’ve been excited for it, but also nervous, because the law of diminishing returns almost always applies to horror film series. To my wonderment, ABCs of Death 2 is at least as good as its predecessor and possibly better. I bet the latest brat pack of filmmakers used the first film as a guide for what not to do; there’s less tedium, less “meta” bullshit, less poop jokes, and more clever ideas. Why, I hardly hated any of the entries! Certainly nothing ruined my good mood like the piss-awful “T is for Toilet” from the first film. Progress!

So. Once, again, 26 directors (or directing teams) from all over the world are given a letter of the alphabet and tasked with crafting a bite-sized film of five minutes or so, dealing with death and/or horror. No rules beyond that! This series may turn out to be a godsend for all the aspiring filmmakers whose names and filmographies I cannot be arsed to look up. Let’s break down the deadly twenty-six!

SPOILERS may follow.

A is for Amateur
The anthology begins at quite a clip! We find ourselves in a neon, modern-day Noir-verse as a bearded assassin sets out to bag his target. But, as with many of these entries, there’s a twist: we get a montage of the assassin seemingly making the kill, and then the film backtracks to show how, in reality, he royally fucked up. The frenetic editing confuses, but serves to set up the blackly funny payoff, and the alphabetic title (which comes at the end) makes us chuckle. B+

B is for Badger
A newly-built chemical plant is wiping out the local badger population? Wherever might this be going? Not to creature feature gold, I fear. It was a nice move to feature an obnoxious nature show host, but we know exactly where the story’s going (nom nom!) and when the money shot comes, it’s disappointingly low-budget. My thirst for mutant badgers is unquenched. B-

C is for Capital Punishment
See, I much prefer it when a film, even a gory one, aims to do more than shock. In this case, no dice. A kangaroo court of angry men plans to execute a guy they think is a murderer, but when the victim turns up alive, can they abort the beheading? No happy ending ensues. It’s too gory and too nasty-spirited, and has no point beyond gore and nasty spirits. C

D is for Deloused
I won’t bother trying to explain this one, because it doesn’t try to make sense...but it’s freaky and brilliant. Depicted in eerily fluid stop-motion animation, it opens with a man murdered by undead captors, but I’m only scratching the surface. A sentence like “There’s a clown-faced demon in the giant louse’s anus and it eats heads” sounds like William S. Burroughs’ darkest, druggiest ramblings. But there it is. A short film this unsettling and surreal doesn’t leave your thoughts quickly. A-

E is for Equilibrium
A pair of shaggy-maned louts are shipwrecked in paradise and living the carefree life. A beautiful woman washes up on their beach and teaches them some manners, but then the triangle erupts into jealousy and violence. This is presented as a comedy, but the final scenes are honestly kind of sexist, albeit in a self-aware manner. Maybe. B-

F is for Falling
Not a horror film, more a statement. A female Israeli parachutist is stuck in a tree and pleads with a gun-toting Arabic youth. Things don’t go well, and although the ending surprises, it leaves you feeling kind of sad. But is that all it’s trying to say? That the strife between Israel and Palestine is sad? We knew that already. This one needed to either take its concept further, or leave out such an obvious “moral message.” I believe it would have had greater impact. B-

G is for Grandad
What a weird little film this is, in part because both its stars have random Axl Rose haircuts. They are a snobby young man who’s living with his grandfather, and said grandfather, who seems stuck in the past but has sinister designs on his grandson. It’s all a bit muddled; we just want to see the young douchebag get his just desserts. We do, along with a pointless final “shock.” Sleepaway Camp did it better. Next. C+

H is for Head Games
Bill Plympton is an animator whose obsession with facial trauma is prominent here. In his instantly recognizable style, we see a man and woman kiss...which turns into a full-fledged war between their facial features. And I mean WAR, quite literally. It’s creative enough, although Plympton already used this premise with his 1988 short, “How to Kiss,” and it worked better then. B

I is for Invincible
This one tries too hard. A bitter group of grown siblings attempt to murder their mother for her inheritance, but nothing will kill her -- not stabbing, immolation, or decapitation. It’s implied that the poor woman’s under a curse of some kind, and I wish they’d developed that idea more instead of just flinging fake blood everywhere. The Gothic imagery is cute, but not redeeming. C-

J is for Jesus
Did I say “tries too hard”? Change that to “tries so hard it suffers a hernia.” Fuck, is this heavy-handed. A gay man is bound and subjected to a rabid Christian exorcism. Want more? The victim displays stigmata, his captors have demon faces, and then his murdered boyfriend returns as a ghoul and kills them. Boo hoo, religion sucks and gays are persecuted. Yes, I myself am gay. That doesn’t mean I like being hammered over the head with childish depictions of homophobia. The cure is more love, not ghastly revenge fantasies. Fun fact: Some guys I know from high school submitted a film, “M is for Messiah,” in which a guy was eaten by zombie Jesus. I’d rather have watched that. D

K is for Knell
But what’s this? A genuinely scary and well-made entry? Yay! It’s my favorite of them all. A woman witnesses an oily black orb appear in the sky, turning everyone around her into murderers. It’s beautifully shot, with outstanding use of color and an eerie sound design. It’s mysterious, but has no need to explain itself. There’s something about Eastern Europe that seems to inspire great horror filmmaking (see also: “R is for Removed” from the first anthology) and this is no exception. A+

L is for Legacy
I was happy to see this one here, because African filmmaking is too often overlooked. That said, I was unable to follow the plot. I guess it’s about a human sacrifice that goes awry and summons a demon, but I’m not too sure. Most of the dialogue’s in English, to no avail, and the ending is botched. Still, its old-school special effects and bold visual style win points, and remind us that making movies is not a first-world exclusive. B

M is for Masticate
This one’s stupid, yet oddly lovable. For most of the film, a hairy guy with freaky eyeballs and pee-stained Tighty Whities is barging down the sidewalk, randomly assaulting people -- in super slow motion! I will say that the short has a great sense of timing. It’s obviously a joke, and the punchline will make you roll your eyes. (Hint: What freaked us all out in May of 2012?) I guess if you’re gonna be juvenile, go for broke on style. B+

N is for Nexus
Two Gothy types hurry to hook up on Halloween, and, along with a few other characters, hurtle towards a lethal traffic accident. I bestow the “style over substance” label upon this entry. Everything foreshadows the accident, and then the accident happens, the end. A story needs more than that. However, the filmmakers make good, creative use of camera mounts and editing, and succeed in making Halloween itself look grungy and unnerving. B

O is for Ochlocracy (mob rule)
You shouldn’t need to explain your title. Still, this entry comes bearing a great idea. A zombie plague hits Japan, a cure is discovered, and the zombies put the non-zombies on trial for the “murders” they committed during their survival. I believe this might actually happen if a zombie outbreak occurred, and the short wisely lets its premise do the talking, no gimmicks needed. It’s both funny and horrifying. A

P is for P-P-P-P SCARY!
Fuck that title. I hate that title; it’s the world’s biggest cheat. The film ain’t bad, though. It pays tribute to early-20th-century comedy, shot in purple-tinted monochrome and starring a trio of stuttering, beaky-nosed jailbirds who have escaped. They encounter a man in the dark...but is he a man? I won’t spoil what happens, but it manages to be surprisingly creepy, given the overall humorous tone. A worthy homage indeed; I just HATE THAT TITLE. A-

Q is for Questionnaire
A lot of these entries have top-notch editing, and “Q” is no question. A guy falls victim to one of those “Instant Intelligence Tests” under a pop-up tent on the sidewalk. And “falls victim” is the right term; the man’s test is intercut with him having his brain surgically removed. For science? You’ll see. Besides the good editing, this one’s got a good soundtrack, with the victim’s horrid fate punctuated by the happiest, jauntiest music that ever felt totally inappropriate. A-

R is for Roulette
Three people sit in a basement, in formalwear, playing Russian Roulette. It’s a mysterious premise, and we spend the runtime waiting for the solution. When it comes, it’s maybe too obvious, but still neat. A pretty basic entry that features good acting and very good tension. B+

S is for Split
Oh, man, another good idea brought to amazing life. We’ve got a guy in France calling his wife at home in England, and their chat being interrupted by someone breaking into the house. The filmmakers use split screens to show us the husband, the wife, and the intruder simultaneously. I love it. The style would have been enough, but the plot also throws a couple killer twists in our face. I wanted to howl with glee at the final reveal. I’d watch a whole movie like this! Make it happen? Please? A+

T is for Torture Porn
...But not how you picture it. We see a sleazy porno audition, a lovely woman being treated with casual cruelty by the male film crew. Will the creeps get what’s coming to them? Yes, they will, but their exact fate is, shall we say, vague. This concept has been done plenty of times before, and better. Bonus: Sit through the anthology’s end credits to see a “continuation” featuring The Human Centipede’s very own Laurence R. Harvey! Uh.....yay? C

U is for Utopia
All together now: The future is cold and loveless, everyone is beautiful, and the imperfect are horribly persecuted. It’s every dystopian sci-fi ever, and here it goes again. However, the lack of originality is made up for in stylish filmmaking, as well as the disturbing fate of the poor schlub who doesn’t fit in with the Barbies and Kens. They didn’t reinvent the wheel, but they gave it a good polish. B+

V is for Vacation
This one’s a lurid and sorta interesting “depths of depravity” study. Shot entirely via smartphone, it features a guy calling his girlfriend from his sexy vacation spot. Then the guy’s drugged-up buddy snatches the phone and shows the girlfriend what they’ve been doing for fun. It’s cruel, its last-minute descent into bloody murder feels forced...but I can’t deny it’s effective at being distasteful. B-

W is for Wish
I laughed at this one, then felt a tad guilty. It begins as a 90s-style commercial for action figures, starring two bright-eyed boys who long to enter the toys’ world. They do, and discover it to be a grisly, violent war zone that only becomes more fucked-up. That’s the joke. Are ya laughing? I did laugh, as I said, so I suppose this succeeds, even if it’s sooooo mean. B+

X is for Xylophone
I imagine a lot of hair-pulling from whoever gets assigned the letter X. These guys just said, “Fuck it,” and went with the most obvious X-word. The result? A cute little girl whales on a toy xylophone, to the agitation of her grandmother, who looks like Wednesday Addams going through menopause. The moppet meets a grisly fate, and the film ends on a sustained note of...well, it’s more awkward than horrific. “Hey, look, gore! Can we be done now?” C+

Y is for Youth
I worried the anthology would pass by without any Japanese weirdness. Last-minute save! A teen girl composes angry texts aimed at her dysfunctional mother and stepfather. Her words become trippy revenge fantasies in which the adults are murderized by their own mistakes. Mistakes such as a giant hamburger monster. Just roll with it; it’s so bizarre and random that it passes tasteless and arrives right back at entertaining. Thanks, Japan. B+

Z is for Zygote
Unlike the first ABCs of Death, this one actually ends on an awesome entry! A man leaves his pregnant wife alone with a medicinal root that will delay childbirth. Thirteen years later, the husband isn’t back and the woman has a cheerful adolescent child...who is still trapped inside her womb. This fairy-tale-from-hell logic leads to one of the goriest scenes I’ve ever witnessed, but the film manages to be touching despite the body horror...and then ends on a note of sublime creepiness. Bravo! When they make the next one, whoever gets Z should watch this and take notes. A

And I’m sure they will make another one, because The ABCs of Death has turned out to be a gift that keeps on giving. I have no doubt they’ll find more filmmakers eager to put their visions up! I will happily keep watching, because this sequel quite possibly topped the original. Though I will dock points for its annoying theme song (a creepy little kid going “lah-lah-lah” for about eighteen fucking hours), which got super old as I sat through the credits to see if that really was Tom Felton in the “C” entry. (It wasn’t. Duh.)

But who cares about framing devices? Gimme more horrific and creative short films! Bring ’em on! Now I know my ABCs; next time won’t you scream with me? There, I wrote the third film’s tagline.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Myst Series, pt. 9

Daymare Town -- Unwanted Souls Down an Uncharted Street

Picture a map of all the games you like. An atlas with land masses, oceans, towns and cities. Ignore that each game exists in its own universe; mash them up. Here’s Raccoon City. There’s Midgar, on another continent...and over there, the ruined vistas from Gears of War. Look up on a clear night and you’ll see Rainbow Road. Now, turn your eyes across the sea. Somewhere out there is the archipelago that make up the Myst series. Myst Island, Riven, Tomanha, Serenia and its stupid hippie mushroom tombs -- they’re all accounted for. But a map has edges. What’s past them? What exists where the video game atlas goes blank?

Maybe it’s Daymare Town.

Once again, we’re diving into the mind of Mateusz Skutnik, Polish artiste of many mediums. You may remember my post about Submachine, an incredible little game series that may be reaching its conclusion soon, although it’s the sort of project that never quite ends, or shouldn’t. Skutnik’s done plenty of other stuff, and I’ve been wanting to discuss my second-favorite game series of his, Daymare Town, which you should totally check out and play. For free. Or buy it, because supporting artists is a good thing to do. Especially when they can create something so weird, eerie, unique, and impossible to forget once it’s over. When they fill in that blank space on the map, banishing the void with ink and whimsy. And bad dreams.

The Submachine games are not known for their bright colors, but they’re freakin’ Katamari Damacy next to Daymare Town, which takes bleakness to a whole new level. It’s a world of scribbles and shadows on an off-white background, like doodles in an old sketchbook, which may well be where it began. Once again, we have the profound sense of isolation that characterizes much of Skutnik’s work. His worlds are lonely...but Daymare Town itself is far from uninhabited. You’re never alone, but you never feel welcome. Daymare Town is composed of narrow, crooked buildings with yawning black entrances. The town’s inhabitants tend to be small, furtive, tangle-haired homunculi, though many of them defy such an easy description. They regard you with suspicion, and while some of them can help you, none of them are your friends. There’s no music here, just the howl of wind. And there’s only one goal: to leave. Find the exit. How hard could it be?

The gameplay of Daymare Town is very familiar. Simple point-and-clicking from screen to screen, as you collect items that you’ll use elsewhere to open new pathways, or solve the very particular problems of the townsfolk -- a thankless job. I would not call the gameplay flawless. As with many adventure games, these fall victim to Skutnik’s particular brand of logic. Just like in Submachine, or the Myst series, this world defies conventional reality. You can step inside a painting, conjure a hot-air balloon from thin air, summon a skeletal giant from the desert sands, you name it. This is all wonderfully fantastical, but it makes a lot of the puzzles deeply illogical, until -- you guessed it -- there’s nothing left but to try rubbing every item on every potential item-using-spot. There’s also a bit of pixel-hunting -- meandering the cursor all over the screen to try and find stuff -- but because the art style is so minimalist, it’s rarely difficult to miss even little things like coins. Still, making it through the Daymare Town games without consulting a walkthrough is...impressive.

I don’t mind. The atmosphere is what matters. Daymare Town is a very creepy series. It’s nothing like a conventional horror game, but it gets under your skin. A lot of it seems inspired by vaguely Scandinavian folklore, gnomes and trolls and the like. Maybe Daymare Town is where bad little boys and girls are sent when they don’t eat their asparagus. The first game plunks you down in the titular town and all you can do is begin to explore, to creep into the slanted, skewed buildings and find what you find. Who are you? How did you get here? These questions may have answers (the protagonist is eventually revealed to be a black-clad chap with haggard features; Roland Deschain, is that you?), but Daymare Town defies all explanations. Once you “escape,” you merely find yourself in Daymare Town 2, yet another labyrinth of streets, mocking you. Sadly, the series got more complicated than it needed to be. Daymare Town 3 is quite ambitious, introducing a tedious mercantile system and sidequests. I normally love sidequests, but in this case, they’re way too hard to grok (poison the guard captain? Why the fuck would it occur to me to do that?), and it’s impossible to do them all anyway because two of them require the same item and there’s only one such item in the whole game. My anal-retentive side screams in anguish at such oversights.

Daymare Town 4 is pretty cool, though. It takes you out of the town and into a wasteland of cliffs and dunes. It’s more fantastical than the previous three, and more detailed, and I love imagining Skutnik hunched over his drawing board (or his tablet; let’s be realistic here), conjuring such unforgettable places and creatures. There are more sidequests, and way more items than you’ll actually need, but while the third game committed the cardinal sin of a limited inventory, the fourth one hands you a gigantic backpack that can hold all the useless junk for you. Of course, sifting through the junk, trying to find the items that actually matter...not so great. I still say these games could benefit from better puzzle logic. But, then, logic has no place in Daymare Town. It’s devoid of context. It just is. If the Submachine was a dumping ground for all things forgotten, Daymare Town is the repository for everything, and everyone, unwanted. And you yourself don’t want to be there, because once you become a citizen, you’re trapped. You’ve lost yourself, just like all those scampering, trollish little wretches that lurk in the alleys and doorways.

Games like this evoke so much, and I wish I had a fraction of Mateusz Skutnik’s talent when it comes to creating worlds. What Daymare Town lacks in coherent gameplay, it makes up for in vision. Yes, it gets frustrating when you’re stuck in a rut and nothing in your inventory seems useful. I can’t always claim that playing these games makes me happy. (Except maybe for Daymare Cat, a spinoff platformer that weaves the austerity into joyous music.) But everything about them entices me. I can’t help being attracted to the blank space on the map, and wanting to help fill it in. That said, I’m glad Daymare Town isn’t real, because such a joyless, freaky, cryptic labyrinth of lost souls should not be wished on my worst enemies. Except maybe for that one guy. Fuck that guy. I’d send him to Daymare Town and let the shadows devour him.

Not you, though. You’re cool. And that’s why I invite you to appreciate the games I love. Wander my map.

Myst Review Series