Thursday, November 22, 2012
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Well, the best of intentions and all that...
Simon Abrams and I are entering the final stretch of our extensive look at Season One of American Horror Story, and the ball has been in my court to return Simon's initial volley on episode 10, "Birth," ever since it was posted here this past Thursday. Truth be told, I think I can speak for Simon as well as myself when I say that the series is wearing on us a little bit. I'd already seen all but two of the episodes at least twice before, but Simon didn't need even that previous exposure to be driven to distraction by around episode six. And as I've only semi-facetiously mentioned before in our published exchanges here, I've come to believe that since we began this series in August we've probably put more thought into at least the artistic intent of the series than maybe even Mssrs. Murphy and Falchuk have themselves.
Truthfully, it's been an exhausting process, and I think both Simon and I are looking forward to wrapping it all up. But in order to do that, I need to hold up my end of the bargain and this week has not been a good one for obligations of bargain fulfillment. I've been scrambling to get ready for a much-needed Thanksgiving vacation, and the prep for that, not to mention the actual travel to get to the colder climes of Southeastern Oregon, from whence I'm currently posting, has taken up most every spare minute of the past few days. My only breathers have involved gnashing my teeth and mourning the Oregon Ducks' non-arrival at Autzen Stadium on Saturday for their contest against a victorious Stanford team and a little pre-Thanksgiving feast with the Los Angeles branch of the family on Sunday.
So I'm here to let you know, those few of you who are still with us at this point, that I'm going to cede to my surroundings, hang up the keyboard on American Horror Story for this week and enjoy the company of family and friends whom I haven't seen in far too long. I'll be back next week (around Wednesday time) with not only a response to Simon's characteristically articulate and agitated musings on "Birth" but also a recap of the season's final episode, "Afterbirth," which will initiate the closure of our time spent with this fascinating, maddening series and allow at least me to uncork the DVR on Season Two. (Simon is going to take a longer break from the Murphy-Falchuk madness, I suspect.)
I'll be back tomorrow with some random thoughts before the holiday. But as far as AHS goes, please stand by. We will resume our regularly scheduled programming after a short, tryptophan-laced break.
Posted by Dennis Cozzalio at 10:36 AM
Friday, November 16, 2012
Anderson is hardly a joyless filmmaker—I don’t think even at their most grim the visual palette of There Will Be Blood or The Master suggest anything of the sort-- and neither could he be credibly accused of lacking humor. But his latest movies never feel like they could take off, arrive as somewhere other than a predetermined destination, could act the fool, in the way that Magnolia or Boogie Nights, to their mutual credit and detriment, often did. The Master doesn’t seem as alive to myriad possibilities and happenstance as those admittedly uneven, unwieldy, infinitely more entertaining movies do, or certainly those of Robert Altman, Anderson’s declared mentor and inspiration. It’s mounted as sober, weighty, an art film with high-profile Oscar hopes (this is a Weinstein Company release, after all), and though I would never discount the seriousness with which it is being received by a lot of people I know and read and respect, that weighty quality doesn’t bear out with the sort of philosophical grasping at straws and strained elusiveness which I saw as, to paraphrase Vin Scully, The Master’s bread and butter pitch.
Posted by Dennis Cozzalio at 11:49 AM
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Flight is anchored (in good ways and bad) by Denzel Washington’s acting too. It’s not exactly a fearless performance in the way Hawkes’s is (or certainly Hunt's), but Washington fascinates throughout and his movie-star gaze, gravity and good looks hold you through some patchy storytelling. The movie is remarkable in that it never invites you to give Washington’s character, an alcoholic pilot who lands a crippled passenger jet through sheer skill despite the fact that he was drunk, high and exhausted from a three-day bender while flying, any undue breaks because of his skill. But the movie also never regains the highs it achieves during that white-knuckle disaster, and for all intents and purposes it’s a pretty square chunk of work. Director Robert Zemeckis, clearly a master technician, never finds a way to ignite the fear and disillusionment the story of this broken man clearly revolves around. He underlines almost every scene with thudding literal-minded classic rock that reflects his points with embarrassing bluntness, a holdover move from the ghastly offenses committed in this arena in Forrest Gump. We get Joe Cocker "Feelin' Alright" when Denzel snorts up before his flight, and "Sympathy for the Devil" to introduce John Goodman's Dr. Feelgood character, etc., etc., ad infinitum, yet somehow George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” is avoided. (I’d complain of missing the days of raucous Zemeckis comedies like I Wanna Hold Your Hand/1941/Used Cars mold, but what’s the point? Zemeckis seems far too complacent to ever access that hunger and boldness now— his late movies are those of a fat, sassy, complacent cat.)
I nearly walked out of Cloud Atlas after 10 minutes, so impatient was I with its fractured sense of time and place, so sure was I that I’d never get my bearings. But this strange, impassioned, epic seduced me with sinuous weaving of its multiple story lines, interconnected as they are in sometimes obvious, sometimes offhand ways, and populated by actors playing multiple characters that cross boundaries of race, gender and some truly mind-bogglingly bad make-up. There are lots of conventions, like those strange make-up jobs, which I could have either accepted in deference to the emotional pull the movie exerts, or I might also have allowed them to throw me out of the movie. But the literally splintered vision of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's adaptation of David Mitchell’s popular 2004 novel held me, never bored, alive to its possibilities for the length of its three-hour running time. I’m not 100% convinced that the writer-directors have found a way to crack the code of how to tell such a complicated mélange of narrative threads that make up the book-- one friend likened it to a relentless session of channel surfing-- but it's a thrilling attempt nonetheless, and I'm grateful for the blissful result of the effort.
By the time the movie has devolved into its “this time it’s personal” mode, Skyfall has succeeded in making James Bond, and the very idea of a Bond movie, seem puny, laboring with increasingly meager returns within the shadow of the Bourne franchise and the increasingly unbearable heaviness of Bond in the Daniel Craig era.
Posted by Dennis Cozzalio at 5:15 PM
We're now down to the wire with our American Horror Story recaps as we tackle "Birth," season one's penultimate episode. And while I would gladly tackle season two with you (heck, I'd recap most shows recap ashow with ya), I gotta say, I really need a break from this show before I go anywhere near it again. There's some things I like about "Birth" but I'm starting to think that Falchuk and Murphy are relying on a crazy last-minute Hail Mary punt to score big points. I'm sure there's going to be an explanation for some of the gaping, man-eating chasm-sized plot holes that still plague the show. For example, something's gotta give with Ben's cluelessness. It's just gotta! Once again, I find myself exasperated by AHS's writers' need to gracelessly stack plot points upon plot points. The show is now a crazy Jenga tower of moronically inter-related plot points. These individual plot points necessarily support each other, but for no good reason other than that they were made to be stacked onto each other. I don't really think this needs saying but: this is not a good organizing principle, Dennis. It's just...it's just not!
Ok, let's get things rolling: "Birth" starts in 1984. Nora Montgomery tells a young Tate, who accidentally wanders into the Murder House's basement, that she'll protect him whenever he needs help. This is after the Infantata attacks Tate, dragging him under some piece of furniture obscured by the shadows that apparently no DP was encouraged to capably illuminate. It's spooky, ooh, you're not supposed to be able to see anything, oooh, ooooh. Nora offers to protect Tate thusly: "If Thaddeus [ie: the Infantata] comes to see you again, just shut your eyes and say: [in funny voice] 'Go away!' [end funny voice] You understand,Tate? He'll mind you. Because I'm going to protect you." Sounds like a plan! So shit gets real, time marches on, Tate grows up and he remembers something Nora says to him: "Life's too short for so much sorrow." But now, in the present, when Tate repeats Nora that line, she doesn't remember it. This is like that one Modest Mouse song that goes: "I never thought that the words you said to me meant more to me than they ever did you!" Nora tries to get Tate to help divest Vivien of her unborn children. Tate says he can't, trying to keep it so that Violet doesn't know that he, uh, raped her mom.
Then, we move on! Violet is dragged into the family car by Ben, who understandably wants his manically depressed teenage daughter to visit her manically depressed mother in the hospital. Violet feels ill and stomps her feet and says she can't go. We know why: she can't leave the premises of the Murder House. Violet's hoarding this little nugget of information to herself because like Tate, she wants to spare her loved ones the pain of knowing the truth: she's a ghost. So enter another giant fuckin' plot hole: car pulls away, Violet's ghost re-emerges, as an ostentatious crane shot shows us, looking out from a bay window or some shit. She's trapped, Dennis, she can't get out. But why doesn't Ben notice this? Better yet, why don't the show's writers expect us to notice this? Once, twice, maybe three times we can ignore Ben's forgetfulness. But if you (meaning the show's writers) take great care to remind us that this is just one of the show's loose-goosey ghost rules, but then don't even give us a tentative explanation for Ben's latest bout of selective amnesia, you're just fucking with me. Because at that point, you're relying on the fact that there's so many plot points and subplots and criss-crossing narratives and tangential anecdotes that the main ones don't even need to matter anymore because shut up, that's why, this is American Horror Story.
So Ben doesn't notice Violet's gone. Meanwhile! Violet talks to Tate, who tells her that she eventually needs to spill her undead beans to poppa Ben. "You can't control it forever, Violet. I mean, it is what it is." See, Dennis, it is what it is, so just do it, like Nike. Violet then panics some more, angstily talking about how scared she is of staying in the Murder House for-ev-er. She explains this in typically mawkish dialogue: "We'll be like all the others here: prisoners in a windowless cell. Who's going to show me the new ways of the world? Nobody here's happy, Tate." Tate replies, "Yeah, but they're not like us. They're all lonely. We have each other." Ah, young undead romance, blech, ptooey.
Then: Chad and Patrick return. Violet stumbles upon them as they gussy up a crib and decorate the room for Vivien's babies. You see, like Nora, they want Vivien's babies. This tidbit of information is of course only important now that the show has played its ludicrous Antichrist baby hand (superior to a Royal Flush but inferior to most other hands) last episode with its bizarre Vatican anecdote. Never before was it apparently important to know that Chad, Patrick, Nora, whoever-the-fuck, wanted Vivien's babies or had planned to do something to Vivien or the twins. All we, the audience, need to know is that somebody raped her and that's spooky, ooh, mystery rape. Yes, I know how petulant I must sound right now but damn it, I like it like that, and it suits the show, and raspberries to you!
Back to my recap: Chad and Patrick razz Vivien that they're gay and they're ghosts and they will steal her mom's baby...sorry, babies. Violet tries to make a deal with Constance to get her to get Billy Dee to come back so that she can get rid of Chad and Patrick. Constance meanwhile makes a deal with Chad and Patrick: they can keep Ben's kid, just let Constance have Tate's kid. Why exactly Constance is going to them to do this and not Tate is unclear. Presumably, it's because Tate got mad at her in "Smoldering Children" and now there can be no alliance between ghost son and psycho-biddy momma. Anyway, Chad and Patrick plan on smothering the babies with "hypo-allergenic pillows" at about 1-1.5 years old so that they can be cute forever. This scheme is simply diabolical, especially after the show flaunts how jaded it expects its viewers are by teasing us with Constance's insouciant gay-bashing taunts ("What you're doing is unnatural!" "So is deodorant!")...I honestly have no idea how we're meant to be shocked on this show when we're never seriously given half a chance.
Anyway, Billy Dee arrives, says that she can't just banish that kind of negative energy easily, says it's "pure physics," and does some dancing around the Laws of Energy Conservation. She says some mumbo jumbo like, "Like the way a battery restores energy," and "Negative energy feeds on trauma and pain," as in asylums and prisons. And hey, did you know season two is set in an asylum? What a ka-winky-dink. Billy Dee then says one way to get rid of ghosts is, uh, well, she's got a story. It's the story of the lost American colony of Roanoke, here recast as a stupid ghost story. As if it weren't fucking spooky enough that a WHOLE GROUP OF PEOPLE DISAPPEAR WITHOUT A TRACE AND ALL THAT'S LEFT IS THE WORD CROATOAN. THIS IS APPARENTLY NOT SCARY ENOUGH. NO, WE HAVE TO...sorry, the show's writers have to trivialize this true story by suggesting that a seance was held and that the Pilgrims were banished by Native Americans who destroyed the personal belongings of the Roanokens after uttering a magic word: "Croatoan." This gives Violet an idea. Good, somebody oughta be thinking around here...
But first, Ben visits the hospital. He makes no comment about Violet not being there, not even a, "Damn that girl, she appears to have escaped out of the car while I was not looking or something!" Before he can say, "Continuity Editor," the next canned shock is open him: Vivien probably needs an emergency C-section. Dr. Markazy says, "Don't go on that trip, pregnant lady, stay here, you could hurt yourself." I'm paraphrasing, sue me. Emotionally unbalanced Violet says, "Nah, let me out, please." Sweaty but poorly-defined Ben says, "Yeah, yeah, wait, maybe this one time I should at least pretend to give a shit and slow down and ask what Dr. Markazy means, an emergency C-section, golly!" And Markazy's all like, "Uh? Look one baby, the Alpha, is taking all the nutrients and stuff that the other, now-sickly baby needs. That's bad."
Then Violet gets a tchotchke too, this one belonging to Patrick. But then Ben comes home with Vivien and they try to leave but just as he's dragging Violet out, Constance is trying to drag Vivien into the Murder House. Ben at least remembers to ask, "Hey, Violet, where were you and stuff?" And Violet sputters out how she killed herself. But woops, hang on, Vivien's giving birth, all the ghosts come out and try to help. So since the story's events are speeding up here, I'm going to do the same. Okay, here's the short-short version: Vivien gives birth with the aid of the ghosts, including Dr. Montgomery. She flashes back to when everything was hunky dory with Ben as he blows on her tortured face (it's soothing, I guess). She likes him now, she never wanted to lose him, aaaand she's pooped out Thing #1. Then there's more vaseline-covered, bottom-of-the-beer-bottle-goggles flashbacks and Thing #2--the Alpha!--comes out. We don't see the Alpha. Nobody reacts to the Alpha's appearance. Constance absconds with that baby but is stopped at the 10 yard line by Hayden, who also apparently wants this kid. Meanwhile, Vivien dies. Yeah, sad, huh, and not at all predicta--oh, excuse me, sorry, yawning--predictable.
But before that happens, Violet tries to banish Patrick with fire and by saying, "Croatoan!" But it predictably does not work. Why they had poor Zachary Quinto even attempt a fake-out and spazz out before laughing mockingly at Violet and saying, "That does not work, baby puppy," is anyone's guess. We're so jaded, Dennis, laugh harder, jaded guy. I mean, one minute the audience is assumed to be as jaded as the day is long, the next as naive as Pollyanna. What gives? Feh. Look: Patrick tells Violet about Tate's raping Vivien, then Violet confronts Tate. Tate bawls at her, says he doesn't know why he'd do that, he really doesn't, no, no. For some reason, Violet believes him. I personally don't believe this, but hey, it's convenient, and there's only so much time in the episode so again, shut up, why don't you? And so there's a lover's quarrel as only American Horror Story can do it, complete with abysmal dialogue like:
Violet: Mimimimi, at first I thought, "That you were attracted to the darkness. Tate: you are the darkness."
Tate: "You're the only light I've ever known. You've changed me Violet."
Violet: "I believe that. I love you, Tate. But I can't forgive you. You have to pay for what you caused, all the pain and the sorrow."
Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and me by clicking on the following links:
"SMOLDERING CHILDREN" POST #2
"SMOLDERING CHILDREN" POST #1
"SPOOKY LITTLE GIRL" POST #2
"RUBBER MAN" POST #3
Posted by Dennis Cozzalio at 2:58 PM
Thursday, November 08, 2012
The high-highs and low-lows of this series sure are something, huh? If we were talking about any other show, I'd question my emotional stability just because I ardently love one week's episode roiiight after strongly disliking the week prior's pick'ns. But hey, that's where we are, I guess.
"Smoldering Children" treated me considerably better than "Spooky Little Girl" for a number of the reasons that you've already hit on. I agree with a lot of what you wrote, as usual, though weirdly enough, Constance's admittedly weak subplot didn't bug me as much as it did you. I agree with much of the reasons you had for being down on her story this week, particularly the way that she's treated like a tragic shit magnet and not an active agent of emotional tumult.
But! As in "Halloween, Part 2," I feel like artful execution was more important than the concepts and soapy melodrama that were being established. It's not the story that got me this week or the characterizations, which are shot through with inconsistencies when you compare them with previous week's events. But as a stand-alone episode, there were real hints of heart-ache and sudsy pathos. I'm thinking particularly of Larry's story. I never really liked Larry until "Smoldering Children" but there were two scenes that really made me care about a character that for the most part, has been defined as a goofy, desperate stalker whose backstory, as it's recently been revealed, was never really substantial. So he had an affair with Constance and then torched his family. This might be less snooze-worthy if it were, y'know, executed with some skill. But because there's only so many minutes in an episode, and that many more skeletons that apparently NEED to come out of various characters' closets, Larry's recently revealed past never really stuck with me. Until "Smoldering Children," that is.
First, let me say that I don't think Larry's story, as it wraps up in "Smoldering Children," is flawless or even especially thoughtful. I still chafe at the thought that there are apparently gender-specific ghost rules. I hate that women ghosts are only visible to men once the planets align and the time is right, blah bleh barf.
Likewise, I don't like that Ben and other male characters see a young, lustful version of Moira when they look at Frances Conroy's character and not, well, Frances Conroy. Double likewise, I hate that Larry was only able to see his two daughters and the wife that he abandoned until now because, as his wife's ghost says, "You're ready now...you're on the cusp." That sentiment makes sense given how Larry's story concludes in "Smoldering Children." But gosh, come on! Is this really how we're going to address the oppression of women on this show, with an unflattering smirk? I can't help but be nettled when Murphy and Falchuk practically fall over themselves trying to poke me in the eye.
But hey, Larry's story in "Smoldering Children" is infrequently rather moving. There's something kinda haunting about the moment where Tate flicks a match at Larry and sets his surrogate papa on fire. Maybe the moment in question's just gotten more imposing as I think about it, but I swear that the short time it takes for that little tinder, whizzing across the room on a small bit of fishing wire, felt like an eternity in retrospect. It reminded me of the scene where the private dick falls down the stairs in Psycho, actually! Samewise, the scene where Larry hopefully relates how a paltry three words from Constance will put him at ease, and then extends his hand to hers? That made me want to care, Dennis! I was ready! I was on the motherfucking CUSP! I think episode director Michael Lehmann, most famous for directing Heathers, is to blame, really. He's obviously a very talented filmmaker and he paces and shoots this scene so well, and within AHS's house style of crash-zooms, jump-cuts, jagged extreme C.O.s, too!
Another aspect of "Smoldering Children" I really enjoyed was seeing Violet's romance with Tate finally start to blossom into more than just teenage bathos. Watching Violet realize for herself that she can't (meta)physically escape the Murder House was pretty neat, as the scene in question could have also just come across like a bad Marx brothers routine. Duration and timing is the key to making this scene work here. Lehmann did a very good job of taking just enough time to make Violet's revelation believable. This revelation can't just be another rug to be pulled out from under her, a fact that Lehmann acknowledges by minimizing the use of flashbacks during Tate and Violet's subplot. There's a brief cut to Violet's death in the tub, but Lehmann trusts the dialogue and the performances, and the lighting! Hoo boy, loved the scene where Tate returns to the attic after he dispatches Ben. So creepy, as if he were quietly emerged from the shadows.--to do the work here. And they do, thankfully.
I thought I had more to say, but really, the ephemeral pleasure of "Smoldering Children" are the ones that stood out the most for me. These isolated scenes made me want to believe that the show's clunkiness were at least deliberate, and sometimes even semi-thoughtful. So yeah, I'd call that a victory for this show, wouldn't you?
Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and me by clicking on the following links:
"SPOOKY LITTLE GIRL" POST #2
"RUBBER MAN" POST #3
Posted by Dennis Cozzalio at 5:04 PM