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 AndrĂ© 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.