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.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

American Horror Story: Hotel--Episode 5

5.5: Room Service

--This episode could get American Horror Story canceled. Oh, I don’t believe for a second that it will. But it could. An army of indignant moms could start a letter-writing campaign, because how DARE this show depict something as tasteless as an elementary school massacre! Children can’t be exposed to this! If my child watches a show not intended for children, it is not MY fault, it is the SHOW’S fault. My child needs to be protected from EVERYTHING! No vaccines! No trick-or-treating! If I see my neighbor’s kids outside without an adult, I’m calling the police! This will definitely ensure my child becomes a proper adult as opposed to a paranoid, entitled shithead like me! My parents failed! I will not fail!

--I just summed up a lot of what’s wrong with America right now. So did this ep. The Countess’s brand of vampirism became a conduit for razor-edged social commentary. And the school massacre scene blew me away, because it was so unexpected, so offensive, and because it felt so important somehow. In addition to that take on modern fear culture, we also saw self-entitlement, contempt for the elderly (in the US, “elderly” now refers to anyone over thirty-five), sexual repression, the well-meaning idiocy of parents...hell, they even got in a brief dig at cultural appropriation. (“You’ve got that dot on your forehead.” “I’m Hindu.”) For these reasons, this is my favorite episode of Hotel thus far. Which may be a problem, as it all felt more interesting than ghosts, vampires, or dildo-demons.

--Both members of our Vampire Mommy Brigade experienced the unpleasant effects of changing. Alex was forced to guzzle bags of blood at the hospital, and also to endure having a fisheye camera clamped to her ear, because it’s artsy! Seeing the impending doom of Max the Measles Kid, she used her blood to save him...and convert him. He promptly killed and ate his parents, but that was only the beginning of young Max’s adventures! Meanwhile, Iris got a big wake-up call. All her life, people have shat on her. As she suffered through new-vampire tremors, did her own son care for her? Nope! Donovan dragged Iris to Ramona’s McMansion and offered her up like a Christmas goose. A pawn in their petty little scheme to topple The Countess. Back at the hotel, a miserable Iris found comfort, and a blood cocktail, in Liz Taylor, who...

--Well. This ep ensured Liz Taylor as one of my favorite characters this season. Denis O’Hare seems born to play the role. I always assumed Liz was a ghost with a lurid backstory. No and no. In his old life, he was a thoroughly wretched little man, stuck in a utilitarian marriage, happy only when he checked into hotel rooms and indulged in his private fantasies of wearing fur and silk, of being glamorous. Beautiful. Perfect. The Countess smelled his unhappiness, and did something that proves she’s not all rotten: she liberated him. She showed him how glorious he could be, and his reaction, his shyness and joy and relief, warmed the room. The Countess also murdered Liz Taylor’s homophobic coworkers. And he’s been reading Voltaire and delivering sassy barbs ever since. For such an act of twisted kindness, The Countess wins karma points.

--Nobody cares about John Lowe. Boo hoo, he’s having a meltdown and he got fired from the force. At this point, he’d better be the Ten Commandments killer, otherwise he’s useless. Not surprisingly, he fell into bed with Sally. It’s funny that they’ve given Sarah Paulson her best AHS character since Asylum, and are kinda wasting her. Every minute she’s onscreen, with her parched voice and eternally tear-filled eyes, I’m riveted. So how about giving her more than one freakin’ scene per ep?

--Alex, who could have been the pointless filler character her husband has become, hijacked the episode when she vampified young Max. And that led into the amazing, horrible chaos I couldn’t help but admire. At school, Max began slaughtering adults and infecting kids. Lockdown ensued. The media descended. Worried parents clumped behind the police lines. When the bloodied, shaken students were led to safety, they had their story straight: it was a guy in black with a mask on who did the killing. An archetypal Bad Man whose existence will be accepted without question. “How could this happen?” the public will wail. People will demand more gun laws, even though guns weren’t involved. They will waste their time on armchair outrage and superficial, useless “solutions” while ignoring the deeper problems, like an army of vampire kids lurking in LA. But take away the bloodsucking and this bullshit logic could just as easily be applied to Sandy Hook. Sorry if that upsets you. But it’s true. Our fear, our belief that we need to be afraid rather than prepared, is our greatest enemy.

--So vote for Bernie Sanders! Just kidding. Maybe.

--Iris had to deal with perhaps the scariest creatures ever to appear on American Horror Story: HIPSTERS. Two smug, whiny twentysomethings (Jessica Lu and Darren Criss) checked into the Cortez because Halloween sucks, #StrollerVermin. If the twelve-and-unders have been raised to fear life, the next-oldest generation is worse, because they believe they deserve a medal just for existing. Their theme song is “First World Problems” by Weird Al, only they’d hate that, because Weird Al is a pitiable relic who’s only funny to six-year-olds, #HighFive. They will never get within fifty feet of a celebrity, but demand a discount just for name-dropping. The fact that they despise anyone older or younger than them reveals their social toxicity. Non-shitty Millennials such as myself apologize for the hipsters. We really do. Anyway, this pair of vape-heads heaped all their disdain upon Iris...and, with Liz Taylor’s help, she fought back. Cat food passed off as paté? How about some old-fashioned stabbing? Yes, Iris murdered the hipsters, but it wasn’t played for laughs. It was a tearful, furious catharsis for a woman scorned by everyone around her. “I MATTER!” Iris howled, on behalf of all the mothers who gave their children love only to become a cruel Tumblr meme, #DinosaurMom. And her new boldness spells trouble for Donovan and Ramona’s plan. Good. Fuck those two.

--For some reason, when The Countess and Tristan simultaneously craned their necks forward to scrutinize Iris, I lost my shit and giggled for a couple minutes. Why was that so funny? Maybe I needed it on account of this episode being very, very unfunny. Reminding us that real horror involves misguided values and ingrained dread. The kids who are taught to stay away from school windows. The fifteen-year-old who steals his dad’s car, kills three people with it, and thinks he’s the victim. The parents who attack a teacher for giving their child bad grades, while their child is online, bullying a chubby girl into committing suicide. This episode made me angry. I hope I’m not the only one.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Myst Series, pt. 10

Fez -- THERE... ARE... FOUR... OWLS!!!

There are four owls. They can be found somewhere in the game. You need to speak to all four in order to unlock the secret of the giant stone owl statue. What? You didn’t have a clue? You saw an owl once, but assumed it was just part of the scenery? Oops. What a silly fool you are. Better get searching. Yes, I know the map is gigantic. Didn’t you realize there was a clue to the owls’ locations in a random room way back near the beginning? Well, it’s not our fault if you’re unobservant! Oh, and the owls only appear at night. Good luck, ya sorry bastard.

Welcome to the unique mix of glory and utter frustration that is Fez. I have such a weird relationship with this game. I recognize it as one of the coolest games I’ve ever played, but at the same time, it pisses me off to no end. The first time I played it, I was so nonplussed that I left it off my games-of-the-year list, which was probably a mistake. I included it in the Myst review series in part so I could bitch about it. But doing so meant replaying it, and, dude, I liked the game so much more the second time around. The great things about it loom larger, while the shitty things about it have...well, not entirely diminished. So brace yourself for a schizophrenic post.

Once again, we have a game that barely seems to relate to the Myst series, until you pay closer attention. It’s heavily pixelated like The Dig, but this time, that’s a style choice, a little slice of retro 8-bit hipsterdom. Its initially flat, boxy aesthetic certainly can’t compare to the sumptuous vistas of the Myst games. But there’s plenty in common. You’re a blank-slate protagonist tossed into a dreamlike open world consisting of several distinctly color-coded environments, and there’s no way to die, no enemies, and lots of cryptic, world-spanning puzzles to solve. Our beloved formula returns! Fez stars a little marshmallow-dude named Gomez who lives in a comfortably flat, two-dimensional plane, or so he thinks. Then the village elder summons Gomez for an epic quest! He is brought into the presence of a giant yellow cube that’s supposed to give him quest instructions, but the cube explodes and Gomez must hunt down all its fragments to save the universe. Since the cube presumably did not intend to explode that day, one wonders what Gomez’s quest was supposed to entail. Doing the cube’s tax returns?

This is where the very cool, unique mechanic of Fez comes into play. Gomez receives the titular accessory, which gives him the ability to perceive and manipulate a third dimension. You see, Gomez’s world is fully 3D, but he (and the player) perceive it from a fixed 2D perspective. Thus, you can fuck with spatial physics by rotating your view ninety degrees. Is a platform too distant to reach? Rotate, and boom, it’s now inches away. Are two patches of climbable moss annoyingly far apart? Rotate, and blam, they connect. Gomez must study the world from all angles as he hunts down the little golden cube pieces, and his hunt takes him in a non-linear fashion through a variety of vibrant zones. I’m not exaggerating when I say Fez is one of the most gorgeous games I’ve ever seen. The retro graphics fool you, until you begin to notice the sheer amount of detail crammed in. Beautiful textures. Ambient light and water. Color gradients that make the artist in me swoon. Each area is a vertical labyrinth and finding the correct path of ascension enables the player to study all these amazing little throwaway details. Fez feels like an actual world with actual history; its crumbling ruins suggest epochs we can only guess at, and each new zone (an island chain, a neon-lit city, a gothic graveyard, and much more) ties into the overall archaeology. This alone is reason to bump up the game’s letter grade.

But if we’re scrutinizing a potential successor to Myst, we can’t just go by looks. What about the puzzles? Here’s where things get weird. On the surface, you only need to collect the golden cube bits, which form 32 larger cubes and can be collected via basic exploration and platform-hopping. New areas introduce mechanics -- bombs, moveable sections, invisible platforms, time challenges -- that keep things from feeling repetitive. However, there are also 32 “anti-cubes,” and getting them is in no way straightforward. The anti-cube puzzles are all over the map, figuratively and geographically. Some are benign enough: move some blocks into the right pattern, use this treasure map to spot a hidden platform, etc. Others ooze past frustrating into the realm of unfair. There is an anti-cube that only appears once per week, in real time. Several require you to translate a made-up alphabet and a numeric system. There are puzzles that demand you visit a certain place when night falls; miss it and you’ll have to wait around for an in-game day. Other puzzles are impossible unless you’ve beaten the game and unlocked stuff. And what makes all this annoying isn’t difficulty so much as lack of obvious clues.

Kindly peruse this cute webcartoon about furries playing Until Dawn. It’s a good litmus test for what type of gamer you are. Me, I’m Rick the lizard. I’m a completionist; I like the feeling of knowing I’ve found everything, or as much as possible. Fez is incredibly daunting to me. Yes, I’m good at solving puzzles, but a lot of the puzzles in Fez aren’t what I’m used to. Translate a fucking alphabet? That is a job for a linguistic anthropologist, not a gamer. Fez accommodates the casual player: you can beat the game’s story without collecting a single anti-cube. But if you’re like me, you’ll feel inadequate. The first time I played Fez, I was left confounded and unsatisfied. When I went back, I was determined to penetrate deeper into the game’s secrets. Having done so, I feel better. Fez does reward your obsession: decrypt its codes and entire new vistas open up. I did what most people will do: I cheated. But is it really “cheating” at this point? Yes, someone online translated that damn alphabet for me, but that’s kind of the world we live in now. Fez is a game that requires a support structure.

I don’t believe you can make a game with such deeply-buried treasures and expect everyone to spend the time and sanity digging them up. One big problem I have with Fez is that playing it gets exhausting. If I find a crucial clue to something on the far side of the map, it’s gonna take ages to transport Item A to Slot B. There’s a warp system, but it doesn’t make re-climbing all those platforms any less tedious. Yes, the map screen tells you which areas still contain items and secrets, but was that one treasure chest near the ruined observatory, or in the crypts, or back in Gomez’s home village, or....? You see the problem. Even the gorgeous details begin to mock you. Is that pattern on the wall important? If the owls can talk, what about the frogs and worms? Did I miss something crucial in this area, and will I be able to remember it for future reference? It’s a completionist’s nightmare: a disorienting game that doesn’t provide the clues needed to point you in the right direction.

Still, Fez does grow richer the more time you pour into it. I’ll keep chipping away. Got plenty of time to do so, because designer Phil Fish had some sort of ugly meltdown, decided the gaming industry was bullshit, and canceled a planned sequel. Thus we can lump Fez into the same category as Braid: a well-made but highly pretentious indie that pompously deconstructs the very DNA of classic gaming, created by an artsy dude who sneers at us poor, unenlightened plebes for merely wanting to push buttons and collect stars. Funny thing is, a game can be all of the above and still be awesome. I would say that Fez is awesome. But if you’re gonna play it, you need to take deep breaths, align your chakras, and summon up reserves of patience you didn’t know you had. Because maybe this time around, you’ll notice the paintings that pinpoint the locations of the four owls. And you’ll remember to visit those spots during the nighttime. And you’ll already have a guide to morse code open in your browser. And your phone will be ready to scan the QR code in the throne room. But you still haven’t translated the riddles in that one chamber, and you forgot to lower the water level on the islands, and the Black Monolith is still a fucking mystery, and what’s with that creepy skull artifact? And...

Deep breath. Let’s start with the owls.

Myst Review Series