Thursday, October 20, 2016

American Horror Story: Roanoke--Episode 6

Chapter 6

--I guess now we know the difference between real ghosts and fake ghosts. Fake ghosts are “characters.” They may be scary and deadly, they may scream and gibber, and they may be coated in blood and ichor...but they are, on some level, meant to entertain. Real ghosts, though...real ghosts are faceless shapes, distantly glimpsed. They don’t talk or explain themselves. They just haunt. They just attack. In a sense, American Horror Story is admitting that the past five seasons have been fakery, and now we’re seeing the real deal. But, in trying to scare us even more deeply, it still aims to entertain us. Is this ridiculously meta or what?

--This was the episode of the Twist. The Twist that Ryan Murphy was so excited about, he was stuffing his fist in his mouth to keep from revealing. The Twist the end...wasn’t too hard to figure out. Let’s face it, of all the directions Roanoke could have gone, plenty of people (myself included) considered this particular possibility. However, the way they’re handling the paradigm shift, the way in which this episode mixed black humor and real dread, bodes ever so well. If the first half of Roanoke paid homage to lurid TV documentaries “inspired by true events,” these next episodes blow a raspberry at reality TV in all its awful glory.

--Due to the brand-new storyline, I’d better include all the real actors’ names again, or we’re gonna get super confused. So. My Roanoke Nightmare was a smash hit and garnered everything from fan conventions to multiple Entertainment Weekly covers, which I highly doubt would happen with a five-hour miniseries, but whatever. We met the show’s charming and utterly amoral creator, Sidney Aaron James (Cheyenne Jackson), who was pitching the next iteration of his brainchild. He wanted to recruit both the real Millers and the actors who played them, stick them back into the real Terrorbithia, and let the sparks fly. As Sidney explained to his increasingly appalled assistant, Diana (Shannon Lucio), the house would be filled with cameras, which the residents would know about, but would also contain an assortment of remote-controlled fake scares, which they wouldn’t know about. Sidney is a creep, and his supposedly noble justification was that he wanted to tie up the original’s loose end: who killed Mason? If he could scare a confession out of Lee (Adina Porter), the audience would eat it up.

--Of course, getting the gang back together had its hiccups. Shelby Miller (Lily Rabe) had tried hard to put the past behind her, but she and Matt (André Holland) were on the outs, in large part because Shelby had a brief fling with Dominic Banks (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the actor who played her husband. Shelby hoped that Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell would allow for a reconciliation. Sidney assured her that Dominic wouldn’t be involved, and was lying through his teeth. Then there was the matter of Agnes Mary Winstead (Kathy Bates), who played The Butcher. She seemed like such a pleasant lady...but the truth was, she’d gotten so deeply into the role that her brain short-circuited and she became prone to furious, schizophrenic outbursts. Sidney forbid Agnes from coming anywhere near the sequel, but inwardly, he was counting on it.

--Needless to say, haunts began a-hauntin’, and were somehow more unsettling than the shocks from the first half of the season. Pig fetuses were found. A crewman “accidentally” chainsawed through his own neck. Diana had enough of Sidney’s sociopathic behavior and quit, only to be run off the road by the Pigman, her body subsequently missing. Still, Sidney’s gaggle of victims soon arrived. We had the triangle of Shelby, Dominic, and Matt...who was still so haunted that he walked in already expecting horrors. There was Lee, her life ruined by the way My Roanoke Nightmare implied her guilt. Completing the dysfunctional tinderbox were the boozy Monet T-Something (Angela Bassett), who played Lee; Rory Monahan (Evan Peters), the redheaded doofus who played Edward Mott; and Audrey Tindall (Sarah Paulson), the rather snooty Brit who played Shelby.

--Yes, Sarah Paulson now has a British accent, which seems weirdly inevitable. Also, Audrey and Rory were happily married, never a good sign. It wasn’t long before the seven stooges were passive-aggressively dissing each other and getting into fights. Matt hated Dominic. Shelby was picked on. Lee and Monet each held the other responsible for her woes. This is a remarkably scathing attack on reality TV, which encourages the worst in its participants (both regular joes scrambling for a shot at fame and Z-list actors clawing at a higher tier of recognition), manufactures drama when there isn’t any, and repeatedly tears at the scabs when there is. It’s AHS social commentary in fine form. And everyone’s gonna die!

--We literally know this. As the houseguests tried to settle in, pig-faced men and colonial phantoms popped up here and there. They glimpsed Agnes in full-on Butcher mode. Is she actually lurking about, and if so, is she a red herring? Probably. Before the end of the hour, blood was shed. Alas for Rory: an old bit of foreshadowing paid off as two rotting nurses appeared and slashed him to death. “MURDER” written on the wall in blood. “R is for Rory,” Matt announced to the others, his dead tone of voice making it clear he knew this was coming. Expect lots of British-accented screaming next week, as well as more death. As a title card informed us, every participant in Return to Roanoke -- except for one -- died horribly. Place your bets on who survives, and hope Sidney is among the casualties, because I think we all want to see him eat a meat cleaver.

--This season is just so damn fun. And remarkably damn scary. Two for two! My current prediction is that Lee will survive, but all the other deaths will be pinned squarely on her. Given the mean spirit of Roanoke, it would fit.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

To Squee Or Not to Squee, vol. 6

I began this blog as a college student in 2010, just for fun. Six years later, I’m still just doing it for fun and have no delusions that it’s ever gonna take off and make me into an internet celeb. As for my Cautious Enthusiasm series, it began as an excuse to write more lists (I’m way too addicted to writing lists), while providing future blog fodder. Again, nothing’s changed, but maybe I find comfort in the familiar act of blogging about nerdy stuff. Sorry to be so reflective; today’s my birthday, and let’s just say my age has a zero on the end.

Yeah. Anyway. Here are a parcel of things I’m rather excited about, though not without reservations.


The Great Wall
WHAT IT IS: A monster movie, but with some exotic spices sprinkled in the recipe. Set in ancient-ish China, this blockbuster stars Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal as armored mercs who arrive to discover that, in this version of history, the Great Wall was built to keep out hordes of giant reptiles, or something. Sing with me: Let’s get down to business! To defeat! This shit! Did they send Matt Damon...when I asked...for Pitt?
WHY I’M EXCITED: Uh, I adore modern monster movies? I drooled on Pacific Rim and continue to defend the new Godzilla? However, what actually matters more to me is that The Great Wall is directed by Zhang Yimou, who makes unbelievably gorgeous movies. Drink in the wonder of Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, or House of Flying Daggers. Based on trailers, The Great Wall should be sumptuous and grandiose, again proving that you can mix high art with popcorn entertainment. Even if it’s a bad movie, it’ll be a sensory delight.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: When venerable directors take a more mainstream approach, it doesn’t always go well. Especially when your number one goal is to appeal to Chinese and American audiences hooked on Michael Bay. In other words, The Great Wall could represent Yimou compromising his usual flair in favor of mass appeal. Plus, everyone’s already mad about the main character being white, because we all have the luxury of being offended over shit that doesn’t matter. Yes, I’m getting more conservative in my doddering old age. I expect to have fun watching this, but given how high Yimou has set his own directorial bar, I really hope he hasn’t sold out.

WHAT IT IS: Long, long ago, the Banjo-Kazooie games delighted us on the N64, before Rare defected to Microsoft and the franchise dissolved into a puddle of knockoff Legos and bitter tears. Now some of the original creative minds have crowdfunded their way to this spiritual successor, which follows the adventures of a chameleon and a bat as they attempt to save whimsical worlds contained inside books.’s also a Myst sequel?
WHY I’M EXCITED: I’d say that the first Banjo-Kazooie might be the most perfect example of the “cartoony platformer” genre. And Yooka-Laylee simply and literally IS a Banjo-Kazooie game, just with new characters swapped in. Since I still like to power up the ol’ N64 and revisit the classics now and then, I’m so goddamned happy that shameless nostalgia has hopped into bed with gleaming modern graphics to produce this love letter. Thanks to this, we can just forget that repulsive Nuts & Bolts thing ever happened. I hope someone at Rare is really mad right now.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: First off, modern platformers never seem to recapture what made the genre so special in the 1990s. Worse, gamers tend to scoff, insisting that the medium has long since evolved past cute, furry heroes collecting golden thingummies. (I dream of an alternate universe where the blueprint for today’s games is Conker’s Bad Fur Day.)  The crowdfunding success of Yooka-Laylee bodes well...but, even so, the whole Broken Age letdown (see below) has made me highly disillusioned. It can’t just look and sound like Banjo-Kazooie. It needs cartoony-platformer soul. What does that mean? I’ll know when I play Yooka-Laylee and see if it has it or not.

WHAT IT IS: This game is already out, but the more I’ve heard about it, the more I rub my palms together. It’s a very well-received indie hybrid of hack-n-slash and bullet hell, in which an archetypal Lone Warrior must carve and fillet his way through a string of powerful foes to unlock his memories, avenge somebody, regain his honor, or whatever cliché they’ve gone with this time.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Look, any game that consists entirely of boss fights broken up by peaceful treks through gorgeous scenery is going to remind me of Shadow of the Colossus. Which is my favorite game of all time. Have I not mentioned that in a while? Boss fights are often my favorite part of a game, and Furi’s showdowns look outstanding and unique. Plus the visuals remind me a bit of Killer7, another of my all-time faves. Was this tailor-made for weird, artsy little me?
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: This is gonna make me sound like the world’s biggest twerp, but...I tend to abandon really challenging games partway through. And not just because they have terrible gameplay elements. If playing a game starts to feel like beating my head against an Easter Island statue, it doesn’t maintain my interest. I was gonna put Bloodborne in the last Cautious Enthusiasm list, until I realized I’d likely give up after its first half-hour. Everything I’ve read about Furi confirms it’s quite challenging even for hack-n-slash experts. Of which I am not one. I so want to play this and my fingers are so tightly crossed that I won’t be utterly, wretchedly defeated by its difficulty. Sigh.

Seasons 3 and 4 of Black Mirror
WHAT IT IS: Black Mirror emerged from Britain and quietly embedded itself in our collective consciousness with a mere seven episodes. It’s been compared to The Twilight Zone, but rather than dealing in aliens or the supernatural, it imagines different futures in which our relationship with technology and social media has evolved in strange ways. It’s bleak, satirical, and smart -- and Netflix has gobbled up the rights to make two more six-episode seasons.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I really enjoyed the original Black Mirror, and I’m pretty confident that the folks at Netflix are equally adoring of the property and will treat it with respect. It’s obviously calculated to hook the Stranger Things fanbase...but, hey, Stranger Things rocks just as hard. Thoughtful sci-fi and social satire are hot right now. And check out some of the cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Kelly MacDonald, Michael Kelly, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and that’s just for Season 3!
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: I am definitely not one of those pop culture hipsters who insist that Americanized remakes always suck. However, I will admit that Americanized remakes can suck. The first seasons of Black Mirror had that unique British mix of manners and outrageousness; will Netflix’s continuation have the guts to show, say, a major political figure fucking a pig? Will they maintain the trademark dark cynicism? (Every original episode of Black Mirror ends unhappily.) Or will producers and marketing departments insist that us fragile Yanks can’t handle that much feel-bad storytelling? Black Mirror has teeth; don’t pull ’em!

Psychonauts 2
WHAT IT IS: Somehow I’ve never written much about Psychonauts despite the fact that it’s a fucking amazing game. It didn’t sell well, in part because of the aforementioned bias against platformers. But there’s nothing quite like it: a wacky, hilarious, and innovative adventure centering around a summer camp for kids with psychic powers. Creator Tim Schafer has turned once again to crowdfunding, and the sequel should hit us in 2018.
WHY I’M EXCITED: What a world we live in! My favorite games are getting new incarnations (Yooka-Laylee, Obduction, The Last Guardian, Silent Hills...wait, scratch that last one), but this isn’t a spiritual cousin or reboot, it’s a REAL SEQUEL. The first game ended with a cheeky cliffhanger and we never thought we’d see it resolved. There’s some sort of VR thing coming out as well, but I’m simply eager to step back into the heroic young Rasputin’s shoes, coast around on that awesome levitation bubble, set things on fire with my brain, uncover more evil conspiracies...aww, yeah. Trust me, there are a lot of cult gamers jizzing themselves over Psychonauts 2, and I am proud to be among those who require a change of underwear.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Because of Broken Age, that’s why. Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions already got everyone’s fervor whipped up for a crowdfunded game, and then they apparently spent most of that money on Twizzlers or something. Broken Age wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t anything special, either. Which was somehow worse. And Psychonauts 2 has even more riding on it, because the first game has such a rabid following. Imagine if they made a new season of Firefly but Adam Baldwin was the only returning actor. Broken Age gave us the kiddie-table version of a classic point-and-click adventure game. If Psychonauts 2 is similarly dumbed down, I’ll just be fucking done with crowdfunded dream projects. For a few months, anyway.

There. That should give me a smattering of blog posts down the road. Not that I’ve become sick of writing this blog or anything. I may be aging but I’m no less nerdy, and hallelujah for that!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

American Horror Story: Roanoke--Episode 5

Chapter 5

--Here’s your daily linguistic lesson. According to official sources, Gaga of the Woods’ name is actually “Scathach,” after a warrior figure from Celtic mythology. However, it’s surely no coincidence that the name is so similar to “Shachath,” the Angel of Death played by Frances Conroy in Asylum. Don’t ask for pronunciation; the internet can’t even agree on the correct spelling of “Thomasin.” But Frances Conroy (Frances Conroy Frances Conroy FRANCES CONROY) returned to AHS this week. And if you connect all these dots, they form a picture of a rubber duck!

--Seriously, though, Roanoke is aiming to be all seasons at once. There’s a Reddit theory that each episode chronicles the show thus far. Chapter 1 was Murder House: Fraught couple moves into a haunted mansion. Chapter 2 was Asylum: Creepy nurses and their ill-fated patients. Chapter 3 was Coven, with the introduction of witchy magic and the return of Leslie Jordan as a “magic user” of sorts. Next came Freak Show, tying Terrorbithia to the Mott family. And this week?

--Fucking brutal. The conclusion(?) to the Millers’ tale of woe was cruel, nasty, grungy, and brutal. And it wasn’t the stylized, borderline-goofy brutality this show often depicts. Horrible, vicious things happened to innocent people. Less Dario Argento, more Eli Roth. First, however, the Hotel allusion: we met the weirdo who built this year’s edifice of evil, and once again, he’s played by Evan Peters with a funky accent!

--Yes, Edward Phillipe Mott loved art, disliked human contact, and wanted a remote, isolated haven, a monument to himself, where he could enjoy his collection of priceless paintings -- and the attentions of his swarthy black lover. (“Let’s rouge each other’s nipples!”) So we did get Evan Peters naked, but we didn’t see his butt, so this season of AHS is not yet complete. When The Butcher and co. began their pranks, they targeted Edward’s art collection, and his resulting violent tantrum foreshadowed the lineage of shrill, entitled psychosis that would eventually culminate in Dandy Mott. That night, The Butcher sacrificed Edward in her usual over-the-top manner (impaled and burned alive), while the household staff starved to death, locked in the root cellar. Mean!

--We weren’t done with Edward yet, however. Still trapped, Shelby, Matt, and Flora had to fend off assaults from various phantoms, including a spidery little Asian girl in full-blown Ju-On mode. Shout-outs to specific horror genres are always welcome! Luckily for the Millers, Edward appeared in the basement and led them through some hidden tunnels, out of the worst danger. Briefly. In the woods, the Millers stumbled into the clutches of those damn dirty rednecks, the Polks. Remember them? Mama Polk made her appearance and was Frances Conroy! Hallelujah! She was only absent for one season, but it felt like an eternity! Also in attendance was Dr. Cunningham, who the Polks had kept alive just so they could eat segments of him. Mama ended his misery with a hammer to the face (mean!), so there goes my theory that he was a ghost. Mama also explained how her family had a deal with The Butcher...and sometimes brought her sacrifices. Well, FUCK.

--Yes, that’s Chaz Bono as the chubby, cognitively-impaired Polk. Proving that it’s possible to put a transgendered person onscreen without them being a cold, beautiful mannequin played by a Swinton or a Cumberbatch. Get a clue, Hollywood.

--Meanwhile, Lee spent 48 hours being grilled by her former fellow cops -- the span required to charge someone with a crime, and also a convenient time-delay for when you need a character to be offscreen for awhile. Free once more, Lee found a bajillion panicked messages from Matt on her phone. Here she comes to save the daaaayyyyy!

--Meanwhile meanwhile, Matt tried to escape the Polks’ clutches and killed one of them. In retaliation, Mama Polk obliterated Shelby’s fibula with a sledgehammer (MEAN!) before taking the Millers right back to Terrorbithia and the blazing bonfires and torture racks The Butcher had built for them. Alas, The Butcher did not comment on Mama Polk’s magical, ill-smelling horseless carriage emblazoned with the sigil of the god they call Chevrolet. Shelby, Matt, and Flora certainly looked doomed...and I even wondered if the big twist is that they did die, and the “real” Shelby and Matt are actually ghosts, telling their tale to a very ballsy documentarian. Nope! This time around, it was Ambrose who revolted, tackling his evil mother into the bonfire while Edward untied our heroes and Lee ran over the Pigman with a car. Badass. A flaming Butcher chased the Millers from Terrorbithia...and they never looked back. They got away with their mortal lives intact, and all that remains are the memories. And the nightmares.

--The End. But not really.

--I have not seen any promos for next week. And I don’t want to. I wanna be unspoiled, and therefore delightfully surprised (or disappointed) by whatever Roanoke throws at us next. I mean, this was definitively the finale to the Millers’ story, wasn’t it? What comes next? Hell, what’s even real? Keep in mind that we’ve been watching “re-enactments,” which means that everyone within them is a merely an actor, playing a role. A version of Shelby and Matt Miller’s tale, but not the real thing. So...all bets are off. Heh heh heh.

--PS: That lady historian at the beginning of the ep is an actual person, Doris Kearns Goodwin. No wonder she couldn’t act.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

American Horror Story: Roanoke--Episode 4

Chapter 4

--“Only men with full bellies have the luxury of conscience.”

--“Honestly, I’d murder for a Coke Zero.”

--These two lines, both spoken in last night’s episode of Roanoke, seem to perfectly sum up the human condition, don’t they? Especially when you consider that the first speaker ends up savagely eviscerating the second speaker. The philosophers would surely cheer.

--I’ve noticed that these episodes are building toward a very obvious climax that should be arriving very soon. Like, next week. Which makes it all the more likely that Roanoke is going to massively redefine itself somehow. Here’s an interesting theory: What if it’s all fake? What if My Roanoke Nightmare is entirely fiction (within the fiction of AHS, I mean), and even the “real” interviewees are hired actors? But then, when they all head out to the North Carolina woods to film fake scares for their fake documentary, a bunch of real spooks descend? And one of them is Evan Peters and he’s naked? Eh?

--More on Thomasin White and her merry band. The word “Croatoan,” it seems, has magical power; it’s like a verbal talisman. The Roanoke folk carved it into a tree at the site of the original colony, apparently just to confuse future generations (and it worked!), before moving deeper into the island and establishing a far more successful colony. Fields of corn! Bountiful feasts! And all it took was the occasional human sacrifice. Poor little Priscilla getting her skull caved in was surely a small price to pay. Hey, didn’t Shirley Jackson write a short story about this? Anyway, Ambrose eventually got sick and tired of the murder and turned the colonists against Thomasin a second time. But then she was all like, “I’ve totally seen the true light of God!” and they were all like, “We believe you without question even though you’re obviously evil and insane!” and then Thomasin fed them all poisoned apples, hacked them to death (Ambrose first), and offered her own life up to her mentor, Gaga of the Woods. More on Gaga of the Woods in a sec.

--Back in the present, Matt and Shelby snuggled and made up after last week’s strife, but Terrorbithia’s haunts were about to ramp it up. The Pigman appeared and chased them around with a knife, but was foiled by none other than Dr. Elias Cunningham, still alive. He’d maintained ownership of Terrorbithia for years, trying to keep innocent people away, but then...something about tax fees...and it wound up for sale. Cunningham showed the Millers some examples of the house’s past victims: hunters who’d shot themselves; a family of Asian immigrants (who got way too much screen time...guess a show needs its filler); the psycho Jane sisters. All done in by The Butcher’s band. One very noteworthy fact: the house was originally built by a man named Mott. Yes, fucking MOTT. As in, those rich inbred psycho assholes from Freak Show. More key trivia: there’s a six-day period in October when the moon turns red and the ghosts, usually reduced to scampering around acting scary, can kill. And guess what, Matt and Shelby? The maraschino cherry moon is nigh!

--I have a sneaking theory about Dr. Cunningham. It occurred to me when he and the Millers were in the woods, looking for Flora. They did find her, playing and/or being tormented by various specters. During this confrontation, Cunningham was shot with arrows by some ghost or other -- not the first time we’ve seen him get maybe-killed. Okay. My theory is that Cunningham is already dead. He’s a ghost. After all, if he’s trying to keep people away from Terrorbithia, why the hell didn’t he turn up to warn Shelby and Matt sooner? He’s a good ghost, more or less, but trapped on the property just like the rest. I’m not sure how the “red moon” thing ties into the overall AHS rulebook about ghosts. I thought they could kill you whenever they felt like it. Could Cunningham be full of shit? Regardless, he was full of arrows, prompting the Millers to flee back to the house, where they were greeted by the hybrid spawn of Edna Mode and the grandma from the Addams Family. By which I mean Cricket.

--One popular theory about ghosts is that they desperately want their stories told. Gaga of the Woods certainly does, though she might be a magically enhanced immortal, not a ghost. Gaga took Cricket on a tour through history, and later, as night fell, she lured Matt out to the root cellar and magic-roofied him. Then we learned Gaga’s story: she was a Druidic lass from the British Isles who stowed away on an ill-fated voyage to the Americas back in, I dunno, the 1500s or something. After murdering everybody else (as usual), Gaga embraced the wilderness, and her own Druid faith combined with the natural, organic, GMO-free magic of the New World to form a brand-new flavor of vaguely-defined spirituality. And then she founded the hidden wizarding school of Ilvermorny, but that’s a screenplay for another day.

--In the present, Gaga’s goal was to have awesome sex with Matt, but he managed to stay faithful this time. He returned to Shelby’s side and they watched as The Butcher emerged with her torch club...and prepared to sacrifice Flora. Luckily, Priscilla was all like, “This is for killing me with a rock that one time!” and little-girl-punched The Butcher, allowing Flora to escape. So Flora’s safe, only not really, because she, Shelby, and Matt are still trapped in the house. The episode ended with the horrific death-by-disembowelment of Cricket, who, in the end, was a decent man who really wanted to save Flora. Not bad for a guy who looks like if Lucius Malfoy suffered a transporter malfunction with a cockapoo. Cricket’s death was one of this show’s cruelest ever, but just remember: under the laws of ghostdom, his spirit might still stick around, hitting on Uber drivers for years to come.

--So next week is apparently going to be very action-packed, and then...who the hell knows? Chapter Six is when we’ll find out what’s actually going on, maybe...and it’ll be directed by Angela Bassett! Recompense, perhaps, for giving her lame, pointless roles for the past two seasons. I know I wouldn’t want to be on Angela’s Bassett’s bad side. She can kill people with her upper lip.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

American Horror Story: Roanoke--Episode 3

Chapter 3

--Sorry for the delay. I had a houseguest. AHS is hard to explain to houseguests out of context. “Yeah, that’s Lady Gaga getting fucked doggie-style by the guy from Jerry Maguire, and...hmm? A raw pig’s heart? Yes, I do believe you are correct, but lemme try and fill in the narrative gaps...wait, come back!”

--Anyway, I’m sure we’re all very excited and not at all exasperated by Ryan Murphy’s recent, puckish announcement that partway through AHS: Roanoke there will be a HUGE and MASSIVE twist that will redefine the entire season and make our fragile brainmeats go kablooey. Place your bets. Maybe we’ll go behind the scenes of the “reenactments” and meet, for example, the actress who is playing Shelby Miller and is played by Sarah Paulson (kablooey). Or maybe it’s all a book being written by Dr. Cunningham from last week. Or it’s happening inside somebody’s head. Or the real Shelby, Matt, and Lee are in prison after a shitload of murders were laid at their feet.

--This ep pleased me: it left behind the haunted house scares for a meatier story and the right amount of exposition. Flora still hasn’t turned up, alive or dead. For some reason, the cops let Lee wander around looking for Flora despite the whole kidnapping thing. She and the Millers found the homestead of those darn-tootin’ hillbillies, who were gone, save for a couple feral ginger kids suckling on a pig’s teats. Pigs, pigs, everywhere pigs. The kids only knew to yowl one word: Croatoan. Flora’s dad, Mason, was highly displeased with the entire situation and accused Lee of spiriting Flora away. Wouldn’t you know, that very night, Mason was found hideously burned to death. And Lee had been absent from Terrorbithia at the exact same time, and had no alibi. This rather significant hiccup was interrupted when the unholy love child of Andy Warhol and Zelda Rubinstein strolled in.

--Cricket. We need to talk about Cricket. I’m not sure how I feel about him, because A) he’s doing the “kooky psychic” archetype in a manner that edges past knowing homage and into the realm of the ridiculous, and B) he’s a cartoon character in a story that has been reasonably serious thus far. The sudden tonal shift was not entirely welcome, though I’d never ding this show for surprising me, I guess. As played by Leslie Jordan, Cricket is a fey, androgynous little gnome who you definitely wouldn’t want to share a train compartment with, but he looked capable of reading the aether and locating poor Flora. His candlelit séance was intended to conjure up Flora’s ghostly BFF, Priscilla; instead, it brought forth a window-smashing Kathy Bates, and, again, that word: Croatoan. Cricket figured out where Flora’d gone and was willing to help the tune of 25,000 dollars. Lee and the Millers were livid; Lee even pulled a gun on Cricket before common sense intervened. But when Cricket...

--Quick aside. This ep was a tour de force for Adina Porter as the real Lee (“ActuaLee”). Holy shit, where has she been? Her brief turn as a cripplingly boring psych patient in Murder House did NOT showcase her talent. Also, when ActuaLee had a meltdown, we got a glimpse behind the scenes of My Roanoke Nightmare. Foreshadowing? Who was the male voice asking the questions?

--Cricket made a reference to Lee’s first daughter, who vanished at age four (more foreshadowing?), and that convinced Lee to pony up the dough. Thus it was Cricket who finally tied this season to the lost colony of Roanoke. We now know the weird tale of Thomasin White, aka The Butcher, whose husband initially led the Roanoke colonists. In his stead, Thomasin ruled with an iron fist, and, well, the time period was unkind to independent women. The menfolk -- including Thomasin’s son, Ambrose (Wes Bentley) -- exiled Thomasin and left her to die in the wilds. She was saved by Gaga of the Woods, kickstarting some sort of unholy communion and exacting revenge with a meat cleaver. So Gaga’s the ultimate origin of evil this season? Sure, why not? The Butcher led the remaining colonists inland, hence their ghostly presence around Terrorbithia.

--His palms greased, Cricket contacted The Butcher and promised to keep future mortals away from Terrorbithia if Flora would be safely returned. Meanwhile, Matt wandered off, and Shelby found him balls-deep in Gaga of the Woods while some pervy rednecks looked on. He didn’t remember this event later (just as Lee didn’t remember possibly roasting Mason like a goose?), but Shelby threw down the next hand by calling the cops and having Lee arrested. Shelby’s a bit of a shithead, but can you blame her at this point?

--The shifting between serious horror and quasi-parody is an issue, but still, these awesome episodes feel way too short. I find myself scanning them for clues as to what might really be going on. Is anything as it seems? How many layers does the story have, or am I giving AHS too much credit? I’m ready for big twists, all right. Make them epic.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

American Horror Story: Roanoke--Episode 2

Chapter 2

--Dafuq are you doing, Cuba Gooding Jr.? You find a flaming effigy made of boughs and pig parts, and your response is to flail at it with a baseball bat? Do you want forest fires? Because that’s how you get forest fires. This isn’t Rat Race 2, guy.

--This season of AHS is my dream in terms of casting choices. Sarah Paulson is basically the main character, Angela Bassett’s finally playing somebody who fucking matters to the plot, and Lily Rabe is back full-time! (Though all she’s done so far is mumble in front of a gray backdrop. Lame.) As for Kathy Bates, she’s truly the queen of impossible-to-place dialects. Was that, like, Welsh or something? Kathy seems to be some type of tribal/colonial cult leader babbling about the mire and muck...or, as she put it, the MYRRRR and MOOOK. Picking up from last week, Shelby lurked in the bushes while Kathy and her torch club stuck a pig’s head on a dude and burned him alive. There’s the pigman from Murder House and the human/animal magic from Coven, so if you’re playing an AHS drinking game, knock a couple back.

--Funnily enough, our two main ladies switched roles this week. Shelby’s resolve hardened; the hauntings must be that dreadful redneck family playing pranks, and she’s not gonna turn tail. Good thing, because the Millers are stuck: they sunk everything into Terrorbithia and reselling would leave them destitute. Meanwhile, Lee has gone off the deep end. The trouble began when Lee’s daughter, Flora (Saniyya Sidney), came to visit. Kids in haunted houses, yikes. Sure enough, Flora began spending her free time in a closet under the stairs and talking to an invisible girl named Priscilla who claims that everyone in the house will soon be horribly slaughtered. Eh, I’m sure she’s just an energy-based life form struggling to understand us. Witnessing this, Lee’s ex-husband angrily dragged Flora away, and a despairing Lee hit the bottle hard. Cue the sad trombone.

--Lee also suffered some fresh scares, including bloody, squirming pig tails nailed to the wall, and a pair of unsettling nurses. Matt saw the nurses murdering an old woman. Mysteries abound! But not for long. A ghostly girl (Priscilla?) led Shelby and Matt to a root cellar in the backyard where they found a fresh VHS tape. On the tape: Denis O’Hare, bearded and babbling. He is Dr. Elias Cunningham, an author who moved into Terrorbithia to research past crimes. If you could follow his mile-a-minute exposition, you’d learn all about Miranda and Bridget Jane (Maya Rose Berko and Kristen Rakes), sisters who made Terrorbithia an assisted living home. Their true goal: to snuff residents in such an order that the first letters of their names spelled the word “murder.” That is such a bizarrely specific act of crazy that I really hope there’s an explanation for it. The Janes vanished, done in by a force even darker, and Dr. Cunningham’s video ended with him venturing back into the house and getting maybe killed by something-or-other. Matt tore down some wallpaper and found “M-U-R-D-E” inscribed on the wall. Key foreshadowing: the final R is missing. Has anyone with an R-name turned up yet? They dead.

--It would seem that every episode of Roanoke will end with a cliffhanger, which I like because it’s perfectly appropriate for the lurid TV documentary it aspires to ape. Fearful of losing custody of Flora, Lee essentially kidnapped her daughter and brought her back to Terrorbithia. Shelby and Matt did their best to clean up this hot mess, but Flora had enough time to vanish in the woods. Our three stooges went searching, and found Flora’s sweater hanging from the top of a very, very, very, very tall tree. Custody rights are now the least of Lee’s worries.

--Two eps in, and still going strong, though I’m getting a little sick of repetitive scenes in which people creep through hallways after strange noises. I’m glad they’re trying to have a logical reason for why Shelby and Matt don’t just move the fuck out (actual reason: they’re characters in a horror story). And, gosh, we still haven’t seen hide nor hair of Cheyenne Jackson or Evan Peters. It’d be funny if Jackson was the “real” Dr. Elias Cunningham in interviews. “Wait, I’m a bronze archangel of handsomeness and you have me played by Denis O’Hare the human ferret? Libel!”

--In the end credits, I noticed “special guest star” Lady Gaga. Apparently she was the crazed, antler-wearing person who scalped the guy in the first scene. Eh, she’s done weirder shit at the VMAs.

Friday, September 16, 2016

American Horror Story: Roanoke--Episode 1

Chapter 1

--Worst season of American Horror Story ever, am I right, guys?

--Hah. Not likely. But since hating on this batshit little show is probably more trendy than ever before, I figured I might as well throw a bone to the haters before making any serious effort to discuss the Season Six premiere. There is much to discuss, mainly because we had little to no idea what was coming. Like, at all. You may have heard: this year, the AHS showrunners decided to play a different gambit. Last time, it was all about the shameless stunt-casting of Lady Gaga. For Season Six, they went the other way, into the shadows. The great unknown, which is what scares us most, right?

--Yes, Season Six came shrouded in mystery, only slightly spoiled by leaked set photos and the online multitudes squalling, “It is Roanoke? IT’S ROANOKE! IT TOTALLY IS!” The posters and teasers hit us with a creative mishmash of red herrings, artsy doses of micro-horror that paid homage to the entire genre. We had spiders crawling from eyeballs, demon rednecks, amateur surgery, scarecrows, monsters, possessed dolls, Leatherface, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Children of the Corn, and Gordy, the talking pig from the ill-received 1995 family film of the same name. I may be misremembering that last one. But it was all intended to mislead and to get the hype machine a-chuggin’. What would Season Six really be about? And are we invested?

--Well. I’ve long said this show needed to really reinvent itself hard, and this may be the closest we get. The premiere felt pretty bare-bones compared to the blood- and sex-fluid-drenched spectacle of AHS: Hotel. Yeah, fine, this year it’s Roanoke. If you suck at history, Roanoke was an English colony established on a North Carolina island in the 1500s. The entire colony vanished without a trace, save for the word “CROATOAN” carved in a tree. It’s one of those mysteries that has more or less been solved (the colonists most likely moved elsewhere and intermingled with Native Americans), but enthusiasts of the paranormal love to speculate about aliens, time travel, etc. Roanoke is beloved by hack documentarians, which is quite appropriate...

--...because this season is a freakin’ mockumentary! Titled My Roanoke Nightmare, it provides a pitch-perfect homage to/parody of shows like Paranormal Witness, in which ostensibly real people recount their ghostly encounters and actors reenact the events they describe. I like it. It’s different. And I totally, sort of, a little bit, predicted that AHS might try this approach! So. Season Six (so far) is about the series of unfortunate events befalling Shelby and Matt Miller, played in the reenactments by Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. We also see interview footage with the “real” Shelby and Matt, played by Lily Rabe and André Holland. Confused yet? Shelby and Matt were happy as clams until a terrible gang attack and a miscarriage. Broken and reeling, they sought to reboot their lives.

--Thus, the Millers came to inhabit this season’s evil edifice, a very old colonial manse in the middle of a vast North Carolina forest. Nature! Peace and quiet! Shelby can do her yoga in the light of the pancreas-shaped windows and indulge her gluten-free diet in the way-too-huge kitchen! Buildings like this can’t not be haunted, and the Millers -- but mostly Shelby -- were soon experiencing spooky shit. Items moved by themselves. Something outside squealed and shrieked and flung garbage cans. In a very cool and freaky scene, human teeth rained from the sky. Unless Shelby was just off her rocker. She drinks a lot of wine, after all. And Matt was more inclined to suspect the gang of hillbilly stereotypes who’d also wanted to buy the house. Were he and Shelby being targeted because they’re an interracial couple? Maybe. Can AHS leave race issues alone for five seconds? Of course not! I did like how they nailed the subtle daggers of modern racism (that cop never would have drawled, “You her husband?” at a white man) while also making Matt a bit of a douche who was quick to take umbrage. The world of today, huh.

--Matt wanted someone to look after Shelby while he was on business, so he installed his sister, Lee, an ex-cop who got fired for her painkiller and booze addictions. How I smiled when Angela Bassett appeared. All is well in AHS land. Bassett is Lee in the reenactment and “real” Lee is Adina Porter, last seen all the way back in Murder House. Lee thought Shelby was a bit of a dumb honky. But she was more than reliable when dudes with torches started breaking into the house late at night. They, or somebody, left a video playing in the basement; it depicted a man hunting a humanoid creature with a pig’s head. Or was it just a pig mask? Ultimately, the torch club didn’t harm Shelby or Lee, but they did leave Blair Witch stick figurines hanging all over the house, as one does.

--Suitably hysterical, Shelby tore off in her car, only to run over Kathy Bates. We only caught a glimpse, but it was definitely Kathy Bates. Shelby chased Kathy into the woods and found more stick figures, then witnessed the ground itself breathing like it was blanketing some vast, slumbering giant. I dunno what to make of that, but it’s bizarre and neat, so I’ll roll with it. The torch club reappeared (one of them looked a lot like Wes Bentley), and the ep ended with Shelby screaming her butt off at a guy with his scalp missing and his brain exposed.

--So here we are with an inkling as to what Season Six is about, and a multitude of questions. My big concerns have to do with this mockumentary format and if it can last a whole season. Will they stick with it? Drop it after a bit? Weave in the stories of other rubes who tried to live in that remote colonial armpit? Shit, will we even get real opening titles? No clue. But the teasing, cryptic build-up to Season Six seems to have worked, because I had no idea what to expect and I really liked each new surprise and familiar face. Compared to the last, like, three seasons, this is bold. And scary-fun. Whether it will stay bold and scary-fun remains to be seen. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

--I need a name for the haunted colonial house. I’m gonna call it “Terrorbithia.” Heh.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Kung Fu Panda 3

It’s another one from the Cautious Enthusiasm backlog! And before anyone says anything...yes, I incorrectly stated that Mads Mikkelsen and Rebel Wilson were in this movie, but only because, at the time I made the initial post, they fucking were. Blame fickle acting schedules.

Now. Let me make a confession for which I’m not at all sorry. I don’t like pandas. I don’t find them appealing. Yeah, they’re cute, but they’re also stupid, belligerent creatures that natural evolution does not favor. When you only eat one plant as food, when you can barely figure out how to fuck and tend to eat your own newborn cub because you don’t know’re at a dead end. And now we’re pouring oodles of time and resources into trying to save the wretched species from extinction, China is cheerfully bartering panda cubs to other countries in return for uranium (seriously. Look it up), and it’s all because we’re stupidly in love with pandas even though they are NOT WORTHY OF OUR LOVE. I don’t care who hates me for this. I don’t like pandas at all.

That said, I like the Kung Fu Panda movies a whole lot. Dreamworks doesn’t always produce winners, but with this franchise, they’ve got a really good formula and the boundless opportunity to produce gorgeous, exciting animation. The setting, a highly stylized version of ancient China, allows for every cherry blossom, lily pond, phallic mountain peak, and swooshy martial arts move to be given the attention it deserves. The KFP series follows Po (Jack Black), a corpulent panda who is chosen to be the Dragon Warrior and protect his valley from the forces of evil. Though he may seem a terrible champion, Po has his own unique brand of floppy, improvisational, oddly effective kung fu; one of his greatest strengths is that he can’t believe all the awesome stuff he gets to do. Assisting him are the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). Their mentor is the cranky, wisdom-filled, occasionally insecure Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).

But you knew all that already. Recapping the premise is tedious, I know. The first two movies weren’t just beautiful and reasonably funny, they achieved a surprising amount of emotional resonance here and there. Po is the only panda in the world, as far as he knows -- raised from infancy by a loving duck named Ping (James Hong), who runs a noodle shop. Eventually, he learns the truth, and Kung Fu Panda 2 has one scene, in which Po remembers what happened to his mother, that actually makes me cry a little. Which is not what I expected from a movie full of fat jokes. The question is, could KFP3 possibly be as good or profound, given the tendency of animated sequels to get progressively lazier? It’s not as good as the first two movies. But I figured. This time around, the valley's period of peacetime is broken by the arrival of undead bad guy General Kai (J.K. Simmons), who looks like a horned and hoofed Genghis Khan, who dual-wields swords on chains like he’s freakin’ Kratos, and who has a habit of vacuuming up the chi of other kung fu masters and turning them into skittering jade golems.

That’s all sorta cool, but Kai is not as compelling a foe as Tai Lung or Lord Shen from the previous films. He has a very perfunctory vendetta indeed, and Simmons voices him like a douchey college football jock. (The running gag is that Kai expects everyone to know who he is, and no one does.) Po and co. are all that can stand between Kai and blah blah blah. But, in the meantime, who should turn up but Po’s biological dad, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), who reveals the existence of a secret panda village. Why, pandas are known for their ability to manipulate chi! Po can learn how to defeat Kai and reconnect with his species! Thus, a huge chunk of the film takes place in the hidden village, and...ugh. After three films, I have come to like Po. And Cranston is very good as Li. But we didn’t need an entire mob of goddamn pandas. They’re presented as genial, roly-poly nincompoops who live in their own private eden of gluttony, and they are not as funny or lovable as the filmmakers seem to think they are. At times, the endless fat/dumb/lazy jokes border on grotesque. Kate Hudson pops up as a she-panda who wants into Po’s pants; luckily, the KFP team seem to have realized what a terrible subplot that was and written most of it out.

A big issue with this series is that each movie’s plot is more or less the same. Po doubts himself, everyone else doubts Po, and then Po unlocks some new level of kung fu coolness to defeat the latest baddie. I was okay with KFP2 rehashing Po’s journey because of the time and respect given to the darker elements of his past. what? Isn’t Po already the Dragon Warrior? What the hell else does he need to learn about himself? How to be a panda? Pandas suck, and this film doesn’t make me like them any more. The character I really relate to is Po’s adoptive father, Ping, who plays a prominent role here but doesn’t get enough real emotion. In the earlier films, we saw how devastated Ping was at the thought of losing Po. Here, he’s too often reduced to a comical worrywart. Still, they avoided making Ping and Li into rivals, which was nice, and by the time the film got to the line, “Po needs his two dads!” I realized how subversive things had become. Yeah, they went there. Sort of. Good for them!

Anyway, I should make it clear that this is still a really fun movie. It’s no less beautifully-animated than the first two, and by throwing in supernatural elements, they’ve taken their visuals to new, eye-popping heights. And the cast do a great job, when they can. The Furious Five are still given very little to do, sadly. But Hoffman’s Master Shifu has a meatier role here than in KFP2, and Jolie’s Tigress is still in a league of her own. Seriously, I fucking love Tigress. I love how subtle the animators make her, how she leaves things unsaid, how she shows her fondness for Po in tiny ways and knows exactly when he needs a pep talk or a kick in the ass. I bet these actors really enjoy returning to voice their characters.

I just hope their interest doesn’t wane. Because I’ve heard Dreamworks wants to make three more KFP movies. Why? Didn’t I just say that KFP3 doesn’t really add much to Po’s personal journey? Okay, does bring his Dragon Warrior arc to a sweeping pinnacle. There is grandeur and emotional power to be found here...but practically every serious moment is interrupted by a lame joke or pratfall in short order. It’s an insult to our intelligence. We do get a pretty awesome climax (well, two climaxes -- the real one and the dumb, slapsticky one), and an ending that seems extremely definitive in terms of where Po stands and how happy everyone is. Three more films? How could they not seem forced? Just as the Shrek series should have ended after the second one, Kung Fu Panda really ought to be a trilogy and not a damn sextology. But it’s not up to me, it’s up to box office receipts, as usual.

But Kung Fu Panda 3 is good. It’s not quite on par with its predecessors, but it’s perfectly entertaining, visually outstanding, well-voiced, and not too lazy. And if, like me, you find its overuse of chubby, mentally deficient pandas to be obnoxious, keep in mind that I’m a bitter party pooper who wishes he wasn’t about to turn thirty. Ugh. At least kids these days have quality stuff like Kung Fu Panda as well as pandering, lowbrow shit like Angry Birds. It could always be worse.

VERDICT: The third squee in a series isn’t the loudest, but it’ll do.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Top 10 Obscure Films (pt. 2)

Loads of films are obscure for a very good reason. Browse through Netflix and you’ll find an endless supply, most of which have names like Alien Terror Train and star some poor motherfucker like James Van Der Beek. Death metal screeches on the soundtrack as James battles CGI aliens that look like they were created on a Lite Brite, it any wonder my boyfriend and I just watch Top Gear over and over?

Anyway. Some films don’t deserve to be obscure. I once made a list in order to draw attention to lesser-known cinema of real quality. Time to add to the museum! Try out the following films; each one’s a modest little gem.


Delicatessen (1991)
The whole world fell in love with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie in 2001, but a full decade earlier, he was fine-turning his unique brand of clockwork whimsy, and wasn’t afraid to weird people out. Delicatessen is a film in which every aspect -- characters, setting, plot -- seems to function as a piece in a twisted game of Mousetrap. Set in some vague, post-apocalyptic hinterland, the film concerns the inhabitants of a ramshackle boarding house, most of whom have resorted to murdering and eating new tenants. But they’re French, so they’re at least somewhat polite about it. Jeunet’s invaluable collaborator, Dominique Pinon, plays the latest victim-to-be, who turns the tables on les cannibales in a mix of pitch-black comedy and Terry Gilliam-style surrealism. It’s a hoot. It’s far from Jeunet’s best work (that’d be A Very Long Engagement, with Amélie as a close second), but as a debut, it could hardly be juicier.

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Let’s do a test. I’m going to give you a list of names: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong, Zlatko Buric, Sergi López. If you recognize at least two of these people, there’s hope for you yet. If you just went, “All those guys are in a film together? Hot damn!” then you’re one of the tribe. This global cast of awesome character actors join forces to play London immigrants who discover a sinister, gruesome conspiracy within the hotel where some of them work. (Hint: Human organs come into play.) Stick “traditional” actors in this scenario and it might be a good thriller...but when it stars refugees, vagabonds, the forgotten and ignored, it gains a fascinating resonance. I love when a film’s genre is merely an excuse to dive into a deeper issue. This grim little caper has a lot to say. Tautou leaves behind her adorable pixie schtick (see Amélie, above), and as for Ejiofor, well...long before 12 Years a Slave, some of us knew how great a career he had coming. Just saying.

Dog Soldiers (2002)
Dog Soldiers is the sickest, dirtiest, grungiest, and meanest werewolf movie I’ve ever seen. All of which is intended as high praise. Right now we’re enjoying a high-minded horror trend with films like The Babadook and It Follows, but let us not forget that good horror doesn’t need underlying themes and symbolism. It doesn’t need to be discussed in film studies classes. Dog Soldiers is about a squad of British troops training in Scotland, who find themselves utterly besieged by vicious lycanthropes. That is all the plot we need or expect. Director Neil Marshall would later make The Descent, a truly great horror movie, and Dog Soldiers was his gore-drenched warmup routine. The werewolves -- bodybuilders with fake wolf heads -- look and feel so much realer than any CGI could accomplish; I stuck them on my Top 10 Movie Monsters list so long ago, and they haven’t gotten any less awesome. Wanna see Liam “Davos Seaworth” Cunningham turn into a hairy, fangy murder machine? Of course you do. All horror buffs should have this in their archive.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997)
The best documentaries conduct their images like an orchestra, each new movement composed of an intricate array of different elements. Director Errol Morris is a helluva conductor. He’s made plenty of films, but I’m always mesmerized by this one, which stars four men: a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a robot scientist, and a mole-rat expert. What’s a mole-rat expert? Only he can say for sure. Morris doesn’t just intercut these eccentric dudes’ testimonials, he interweaves and overlaps them until they become a single story: the endless struggle of humankind to tame chaos. These four guys are compelled to take something that doesn’t make sense -- a shrub shaped like a giraffe, a rodent that lives like an insect -- and construct their own little microcosm, their garden or circus ring or museum exhibit, where they may impose order. That sort of insecure god-play is what drives our species, for better or for worse, and Morris’s collage of stock footage, Super 8 mm, old Clyde Beatty serials, and tipsy circus music demonstrates his own controlled chaos. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a universal, provocative theme disguised as a documentary.

Help! (1965)
I fucking adore this movie. It is so stupid, so ridiculous, so lacking in brain cells, and I’ve loved it since childhood. Yes, it stars the Beatles at the height of their fame. Someone decided it’d be cute to stick the Fab Four in a James Bond spoof, and cobbled together a plot in which Ringo gets a sacred Hindu ring stuck on his finger, and is chased across the globe by a sacrificial cult and a mad scientist. John, Paul, and George just kinda tag along, pausing now and then for musical numbers (they do “Ticket to Ride” on skis!), and once I reached adulthood, I came to appreciate how utterly, cripplingly stoned all four Beatles were during the entire shoot. You can smell the roiling waves of Mary Jane seeping from every cranny of the film. And that makes it even more endearing. Rife with kooky humor and unfocused one-liners (“Hey, it’s a thingy! A fiendish thingy!”), not to mention timeless pop music, Help! is all I really need to appreciate the glorious stupidity of the 1960s. Pure fun.

Ma Vie en Rose (1997)
Next up, two films that examine the innocence of children in a hard world -- and do so with great poise. Ma Vie en Rose translates to “My Life in Pink,” and it’s a sorta sweet, sorta cynical tale about a young French boy named Ludovic who believes he’s a girl. That’s it. Too young to be gay or trans, to wear any sort of political or social label, he simply knows, with cute tenacity, that he’s a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and that one day the universe will correct this oversight. We watch, wincing somewhat, as the adults in little Ludovic’s world react with all the offended bluster and close-minded bafflement you’d expect. If that sounds too depressing, don’t worry. The film uses the visual language of a sitcom -- cozy suburbs, 50s colors -- to paint its hero(ine)’s dilemma with comedic love. When Ludovic schemes to marry the boy next door (his father’s boss’s son...cue laugh track), we chuckle and then feel melancholy. But it’s not a hurtful film. It inspires thought.

Mysterious Skin (2004)
This one is hard to watch. Very hard. But its sheer power deserves notice. Based on the equally unflinching novel by Scott Heim, it stares straight into the abyss of pedophilia -- not by draping it in horror-movie slime, but by unpacking the psychology of its victims. Thus, when two young Kansas boys are sexually preyed upon by their Little League coach, one of them thinks he likes it and grows up to be a gay hooker, while the other is so traumatized that his brain flips an emergency kill switch and he becomes convinced he was abducted by aliens. The boys turn into damaged young men, as the film moves from the dreamy expanse of the Midwest to New York City during the AIDS crisis. Yeah, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who plays the gay one) is quite fine, but the story’s “sexy” elements are like a wound. You may not find a better argument against sexual abuse; it doesn’t rant and rave, but merely follows the abused down their quiet, broken path. We all know someone on that road.

Rivers and Tides (2001)
Now for a gentler which relaxes the viewer with zen. Art is subjective, and the worst kind (in my opinion) feels it has to make some sort of wannabe-profound statement, some political or social claptrap that only makes sense in the artist’s ego. However, Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy merely...creates. This dreamy documentary shows off the man and his work. He wanders the wilderness -- forests and beaches, placid rivers and snowy mountaintops -- and crafts amazing sculptures with the materials he finds at hand. Stones become a mystical dolmen; ice turns serpentine; trees are woven and leaves are blended like paint, all from Goldsworthy’s patient and skillful fingers. The “message” of his art is that beauty is all around us and nothing feels more beautiful than to create, even if your creation vanishes within the hour. The movie drifts along, showing us all manner of visual poetry, and as I watched it, I felt the pleasant urge to make something myself. So I wove a potholder. My fingers pulled and teased the loops of fabric, and I felt a little of the pleasure Andy Goldsworthy must feel. Try it sometime.

Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
For the best animated film you’ve never seen, we can thank Nina Paley, who made Sita Sings the Blues after her husband moved to India and dumped her. Heartbroken, Paley found a spiritual sister in Sita, heroine of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, who was similarly done wrong by her man. From this ancient tale, Paley creates a kaleidoscopic visual marvel, utilizing five or six different animation styles, each of which has more character than ten thousand Minion sequels. Sita’s ordeals take the form of Bollywood musical numbers, paired with old recordings by Jazz Age crooner Annette Hanshaw, intercut with droll nitpicking from a trio of shadow puppets and snippets of Paley’s personal ordeal. It’s all a big revenge fantasy, but it’s beyond entertaining. Paley seems to have been inspired by everything from Monty Python to “End of Ze World,” and the result is that the animation itself becomes an endless source of deadpan comedy. Sita Sings the Blues laughs at genre. It’s gorgeous to look at, it’s educational, it’s feminist. It’s on YouTube. Watch it. That’s all!

So Dear to My Heart (1949)
Let’s end on the warmest, coziest note. Disney’s Song of the South, with its archaic racial attitudes, is considered an embarrassment. However, at around the same time, they made So Dear to My Heart, a guileless buried gem. It’s about a young Indiana boy (Bobby Driscoll) who adopts a black lamb and raises it with aspirations of winning blue ribbons. G-rated tribulations and life lessons follow, as our hero receives guidance from a conspiratorial uncle (Burl Ives) and a pragmatic granny (Beulah Bondi) whose role is to say no, then immediately relent. The plot is punctuated by delightful, impressionistic animated sequences -- an example of Walt Disney’s boundless need to experiment with the medium. Is it sentimental? Pious? Simplistic? Yes to all three, and don’t you feel like we need that more and more these days? So Dear to My Heart gives me the warm fuzzies, and not just because of Burl Ives, whose singing voice could have ended wars. It represents an innocence that no longer exists (more so if you consider what happened to Driscoll), and that kind of nostalgia should never become obscure. I’ll keep fighting the good fight. Help me out and spread these films around.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Swallows and Amazons

I don’t tend to wax political on this blog. It’s for movies and video games and being nerdy. However, I can be a bit topical now and then. For instance, while recapping American Horror Story: Hotel, I had the opportunity to make some bitter comments about the state of America’s youth. To whit: I believe we coddle and shelter our children far too much, leaving them A) hideously ill-prepared for the real world, and B) toxified with entitlement, with the belief that life will be a series of blue ribbons just for existing. It makes me very angry. But y’know what’s better than anger? Antidotes. Today, I’m not here to rant and rave. I’m here to examine children’s entertainment...not as it is today, but as it once was. Let’s visit a place where kids are allowed to fly free, yet still held accountable. A place where adventure means ADVENTURE and not a heavily chaperoned Easter egg hunt where Daddy finds all the eggs for you. Let’s talk about Swallows and Amazons.

I feel like a ton of people have at least heard of this book series. Swallows and Amazons was written by Arthur Ransome in the 1930s and ’40s, and read to me by my parents when I was a tyke. Lately, I’ve been revisiting the series and have just finished the fourth book. Imagine my amazement when I abruptly discovered that they just made a freakin’ Swallows and Amazons movie and it’ll be released this very month. What a coincidence, because rereading them, I feel like they represent a very good, very important mindset in regards to children. They were written for kids and represent a world of adventures and discoveries that lacks any Harry Potter-style trappings. Most of the books contain nothing that couldn’t plausibly happen in real life. There’s no fantasy or magic. An antagonist here and there, but no real villains. The young heroes have some scrapes but are never in actual danger. And they succeed, not because they’re the Chosen One or the son of Zeus or whatever, but because they are smart, resourceful, learned, brave, and commonsensical. And, most of all, because they are allowed to be kids.

The first book, Swallows and Amazons, takes place during the summer holidays in Britain’s lake district. The Walker siblings are chilling by a gorgeous lake, praising heaven that jet skis haven’t been invented yet, when they find a little sailboat, the Swallow, and make it their own. John Walker is the stalwart (if insecure) eldest. Susan is the mother figure, cook, and voice of reason. Titty (yes, Titty; stop snickering, assholes) is the dreamer and schemer whose imagination fuels the others. And Roger is the hyperactive little brother who can’t wait to show you his airplane impression, his loose tooth, and the fact that he’s maybe possibly almost able to swim. Aboard the Swallow, the four kids quickly brand themselves explorers. Their mother (a badass Australian) and father (an absent military man) give their blessings, and the “Swallows” are soon camping on their very own island. Turns out they’re sharing space with Nancy and Peggy Blackett, aka the Amazons, a pair of local sisters who cheerfully despise all things feminine and would rather be pirates. Then there’s the Amazons’ uncle, known as Captain Flint (and based on Ransome himself), who owns a houseboat, a parrot, and a lifetime of cool stories. There’s buried treasure too. There’s everything a child could dream of.

The Swallows and Amazons books are clearly set during a particular period, yet have a timelessness; the kids don’t really seem to age, and Ransome is always vague on what year it is. What’s important is that the books fall between the World Wars, a period when England had realized just how bad things could get, and responded with appropriate brio. Kids didn’t need to be pampered; they could be handed adult responsibilities early. They could be trusted and encouraged. Throughout the twelve books in the series, the Swallows and the Amazons experience one awesome holiday after another. They shipwreck and climb mountains, dig mines and build igloos and accidentally sail across the North Sea. In the fourth book, Winter Holiday, they’re joined by two new friends, Dick and Dorothea Callum, who represent the nerd demographic; they’re bookish and ditzy and their extensive knowledge of astrology proves mighty useful. Ransome clearly wanted his young heroes to be every child, every boy and girl with a spirit. He wanted all kids to read his books and go, Wow, I could do that! I should do that!

This, I think, is what we need more of. I’m not saying kids shouldn’t happily hope for a letter from Hogwarts. But if they go out and explore, build, create, and imagine, they’ll have their very own Hogwarts, Narnia, Terabithia, you name it. The kids in the Swallows and Amazons books make their own world and inhabit it with only minimal chaperoning. Oh, they’re always under the benevolent eye of adults, but never in a stifling way. The character of Captain Flint is crucial; he pops up to mentor the kids and occasionally save their bacon, but he’s still an honorary kid himself. Two of the books, Peter Duck and Missee Lee, feature less plausible stories, with actual danger and high-seas swashbuckling and evil characters (some racism, too...but we must forgive this as a product of its time). We’re meant to believe the Swallows and Amazons themselves “wrote” these two books, an act of metafiction that allows them even more imaginative freedom as characters. Their world is just as cool as Harry Potter’s, but nobody dies and everything is always perfectly fine in the end. That’s what’s great: Ransome isn’t arguing that we should just let kids do whatever they want...but he does insist that they be handed the keys to their own kingdom.

I was thinking the books would make a great movie, but I wondered if it’d ever come to pass in this day and age. Some modern kids would, alas, certainly find Swallows and Amazons boring compared with the usual stuff they read. And Hollywood producers would likely feel the same way. “How can this be a movie? Nothing happens in it!” Stories aren’t allowed to take their time any more. The new movie’s made by the Brits, which is good, but still feels it has to shoehorn in some “cinematic” elements. We have the Swallows, the Amazons, the sailboats, the island. But now Captain Flint is an ex-spy being chased by bad guys, or something, and certain parts of the trailer look like a throwback to the 1990s when most kids’ movies were riffing on Home Alone and/or Free Willy. Also, Captain Flint has gone from a big fat guy in his late middle age to the modestly hunky Rafe Spall. And Titty is now named “Tatty,” for obvious reasons. I guess I’ll reserve judgement, because this is better than nothing, and it does capture the right sort of time and place. I wish they could have preserved the innocence of the book and avoided having adult villains, but concessions must be made.

After all, the movie might lead more kids to the books. And if they can get past the books’ lack of “modern” story elements, they may find themselves inspired. Every one of the young heroes is a fine role model for some age demographic or other. And let’s talk about gender! Not only are there more girl characters than boys (a major rarity in kids’ books with coed casts!), but none of the girls are any weaker or less capable than the boys; they may have flaws (Peggy’s afraid of thunder), but nothing ever stems from gender stereotypes. Susan is the most “girly” girl character, but she’s not portrayed as a wet blanket, a nag, or a scaredy-cat. She can tie nautical knots with the best of them, and then make wholesome rice pudding and afternoon tea. The highly tomboyish Nancy and Peggy, the quixotic Titty, and the scholarly Dorothea likewise avoid typecasting. When combined with the boy characters, this group of pals form a perfect cross-section of childhood, leaving no one out, sharing that unique sense of daring and discovery.

I’ve seen what kids are like when they explore. I’ve watched kids build shelters from tree branches, or take apart computers, or turn over rocks to reveal gross, slimy glory. I’ve been a kid like that. And, yeah, I also see kids lost in iPhones and banality, their parents too listless to nurture their minds, or too paranoid to allow their progeny off a short leash. A lot of what you see in the Swallows and Amazons series has gone dormant. But not extinct. You can’t kill a particular mindset. It’s still there, waiting to emerge from its cocoon. The notion that kids’ lives need a little more wonder, a lot more hands-on discovery and practical application of skills. Teach a kid to cook. Or to identify constellations. Hell, teach a kid to program their own computer game. It’s one step away from the death of the imagination, and one step closer to a group of young friends sailing their own little boats, camping on an island, never out of sight of their parents, but free just the same. If you like, take out the boats and the lake and substitute your own preferred adventure.

The Swallows and Amazons series won’t solve any societal problems on its own. But it might help. It could ignite a spark in the right child’s mind, or (just as crucial) the right parent’s mind. So when I say “A great series of books for all ages,” that is what I mean. When my parents read it to me, we all gained something from it. Now, lacking kids of my own, I pass on the spark to you, reader. Begin Swallows and Amazons and note what happens. How you surprise yourself. Then read it to a child, or give it to a child to read, and watch their face.

There. See it?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

I wasn’t going to review this, but then my dad said he was looking forward to it. Looking forward, presumably, to me waxing poetic about a film in which evil aliens give Planet Earth a good spanking for a couple hours before we spank back at the last minute. A film not unlike 1996’s original Independence Day, which crystallized the “disaster porn” genre and established director Roland Emmerich as its playful hack emperor. It wasn’t the first time the world got destroyed on film, but it was probably the first time modern special effects created a sense of real shock and awe as cities crumbled and Nothing Would Ever Be the Same. Twenty years later, we’ve seen plenty of ID4’s spiritual children, several helmed by Emmerich. And now a sequel. Independence Day: Resurgence would be the worst title in years if Terminator: Genisys didn’t have the category locked forever. Since I have such a nostalgic fondness for ID4, am I gonna be down on its successor?

I mean, I know it got awful reviews. And I pity anyone going into this expecting a “good” movie. Can it overcome sheer, waste-of-time wretchedness and at least be entertainingly goofy and fun? Well, I think I did, more or less. It takes itself far, far less seriously than the first one. It kinda has to, because modern blockbusters are different. ID4 was most effective when it was building dread: portents, everyday life about to be upended, the feeling that something unspeakable was creeping up on our planet. In the 2010s, ain’t nobody got time for that. Resurgence briskly uncorks an alt-history where we recovered from the first alien attack, assimilated their advanced technology, and became a better species as a result. We have solar system outposts, a planetary defense system, tons of neat gadgets. This leads to the same dilemma I had with Pacific Rim: I’m more interested in the backstory than the current situation. I want to know more about the nuts and bolts. Hell, one of the film’s throwaway ideas -- Congolese guerillas fought a bitter ground war with alien troops in ’96 -- would make a damn compelling film all on its own. But Resurgence whips through its establishing scenes with hardly a glance. The new Star Wars had the same problem: too much momentum, not enough worldbuilding.

At least Resurgence loves to show off. The film contains wall-to-wall special effects and they all look absolutely groovy. There’s a decent variation from all the dark brown, tractor-tire surfaces we got last time. For instance, a misty wormhole opens near the moon and snorts up a large, cryptic alien sphere. The Clinton-esque President Lanford (Sela Ward) errs on the side of caution and has us blast the sphere with moon lasers, despite speculation from Prof. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum, yay!) that these ain’t the same aliens as before. Very soon, who should show up but the same aliens as before, in a far huger ship. It’s big enough to straddle the Atlantic Ocean, and does, and let me just say that what befalls the White House this time around made me giggle unreasonably. The new ship has its own gravity field, which vacuums up Singapore and Dubai, then drops them on London. I love how Emmerich constantly strives to outdo himself in city-destruction mayhem -- though here, it’s kind of token. A ship that big should damage Earth irreparably, yet once it arrives, it just kinda sits there, preparing to extract the planet’s molten core and thereby providing the obligatory Ticking Doomsday Clock.

The relative passivity of the aliens allows for another battle, that of the old salts from the first film vs. the sexy young commandos who are onboard to appeal to kids. The old salts win. Goldblum is easily the best player here, delivering every moment with a sly wink. Bill Pullman, Vivica H. Fox, Brent Spiner, and others slip right back into their old roles. The new kids suffer, I’m afraid, because of how thinly they’re all defined. Jake is a cocky pilot. Patricia is engaged to Jake. Patricia is buddies with Dylan. Jake and Dylan are on the outs due to past baggage. That’s about all we get. Oh, and Patricia (Maika Monroe) is the daughter of traumatized ex-president Whitmore (Pullman), and Dylan (Jessie Usher) is the son of the late Steven Hiller (Will Smith, killed off between films due to his high price tag). As for Jake (Liam Hemsworth), he’s supposed to be the main hero and is reasonably bland, but I found him a lot more bearable than in the Hunger Games movies, so that’s something. All these dudes and dudettes form humanity’s last hope -- so we’re fine, because Jeff Goldblum can do anything.

I needn’t bother describing much more of the plot. You probably remember the first film well enough. Having had twenty years to prepare for the second wave of aliens, we are, of course, utterly unprepared, and soon enough, it all comes down to frantic, makeshift plans concocted in dim strategy rooms. There’s time for the usual random subplots, the shittiest of which involves Judd Hirsch and a carload of whiny teens. There are slots for offbeat supporting characters, like DeObia Oparei as a badass African warlord and Charlotte Gainsbourg (no, seriously) as an eccentric linguist who apparently exists because someone asked, “What if there was a second Jeff Goldblum but he was a French lady?” There’s way more room for Dr. Okun (Spiner), who didn’t die in the first film after all and has been retconned into a gay superhero. Some characters perish, but none of the deaths are especially surprising and only one took me by surprise with its sadness (and it’s not at all who you’d expect). The final act seems to be taking a familiar route: pilots infiltrate the alien ship and somebody has to sacrifice themselves à la Randy Quaid. But then the climax goes in an unexpected direction. And it was pretty cool! If only for injecting some novelty.

After helping define the modern blockbuster, Independence Day now looks derivative of all the movies it spawned. I could have used a real dose of character development (poor Vivica H. Fox is onscreen for about two minutes, and her fictional son, Jessie Usher, is almost insultingly boring) -- and, yeah, I wanted more disaster porn. I’m way too into that stuff. Resurgence wasn’t really a disaster movie like ID4. It was a science fiction action something-or-other with a lot of discordant ideas and performances. Only Jeff Goldblum and Brent Spiner hit the perfect balance of doom-laden gravitas and tongue-in-cheek jollity. The question is, did this film even need to exist? I mean, everything has to be a franchise now. Resurgence introduces those two words that make movie scholars scream in anguish -- Expanded Universe -- and teases at least one more sequel. Does the studio care about this property beyond forcibly squeezing forth more revenue? I have no idea, but at least some of the actors care. And I think Roland Emmerich cares; I think he had a whole lot of fun returning to that which gained him his unique reputation. Me, I got what I wanted: a stupid summer movie that was a blast to watch.

Also, I’m relieved that Colorado hasn’t been attacked by those aliens yet. We don’t really have any famous, signature buildings or bridges, you see. To quote Dr. Levinson, “They like to get the landmarks.” Yes, they do. I like to watch.