The Cutprice Guignol

The Sixth Year: American Sigh Story

Tag: review

American Horror Story: Burn, Witch, Burn!/The Axeman Cometh

I’ve noticed something about this series of AMH; each pair of episodes seems to play out at a set-up/pay-off rate from week-to-week. One week there’s a plot heavy furore where we get introduced to all the shit that’s going to go down in the next episode. I don’t particularly mind this set-up, but it still leaves the season with an overall sense of uneveness and lack of coherency.

Take the last two episodes as an example: Burn, Witch, Burn! was a ridiculous, thrilling, breathlessly entertaining hour that blasted through a bunch of brilliantly fun plot points, climaxing in an outrageously slick finale/tribute to Resevoir Dogs in which a stake-burning took place to the strains of Right Place, Wrong Time. It was sickeningly cool; fuck, Jessica Lange lit to pyre with her cigarette. Also scattered around the episode were some cool zombies, Taissa Farmiga growing some balls (and wielding a chainsaw into the bargain), and Jessica Lange winning herself an Emmy in the course of five minutes, a hospital room and a stillborn baby. It was a manic, hilarious, grotesquely affecting episode that hit all the markers set up by last week’s outing.

Then the latest episode-featuring Danny Huston as real-life serial killer The Axeman of New Orleans-just seemed to be preparing us for what was about to happen. Aside from Angela Bisset delivering the line “white-ass cracker bitch” and some gratefully recieved Lily Rabe, there wasn’t much actually going on in The Axeman Cometh. It was still entertaining enough (and benefited from a lack of Kathy Bates, who the writers just don’t seem to know what to do with), but there was a real sense of tantric TV; they brought us to the pitch of excitement then did nothing about it because they’re saving their metaphorical ejaculation for next week’s outing.

On a side note, I’ve been doing a bit of research into this series (which Stevie Nicks has confirmed her appearance in, yeah!), and discovered that no less than three characters are based directly off people who really existed. The least offensive of these is probably Angela Bisset as Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Because there’s clearly a lot of mythos surrounding her anyway, adapting her into a kick-ass voodoo bitch-slapper isn’t really much of a leap. But then you’ve got Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie. Now, forgive me if you disagree, but when you take someone who genuinley existed, and did some really quite upsettingly horrible things to innocent people for a large part of her life, and whack her in a semi-serious show as an immortal, highly racist bit of comic relief, aren’t you somewhat undermining the nature of the astoundingly awful things she’s done?

So, this week on AMH: I over-analyse my over-analysing. Great.

Movie Marathon #20: The Last Exorcism

As we move into the last ten days of my movie marathon, I’ve decided to bring up a movie I feel very strongly about. As if I hadn’t run out of them already.

I have very fond memories of The Last Exorcism, primarily because it’s the first horror film I ever had the pleasure of seeing in the cinema (and also because there was briefly a Sweded version in the works, my main memories of which involve birthing a troll doll and running around the woods with some big axes until we aroused enough suspicion to retire back into the shadows. And my brother delivering a monotone “No” in every scene.). It terrified the living hell out of me, and really sparked my interest in seeking out movies that genuinely made me uncomfortable to watch. I believe my viewing companion left the cinema with my nail marks in his arm, but I could equally be remembering my reaction to Sean Penn in Milk (vis; I hate Sean Penn).

I’m not convinced it’s a great film. Certainly, the first two acts- detailing a Reverend who has lost is faith but ends up involved in what appears to be a real demon possession- is adequatley interesting, poking some mild fun at the scores of exorcism movies that have infected our screens since Max von Sydow’s mother first sucked cocks in hell. And there are some pretty unnerving sequences-such as one where the main character beats a cat to death with a handheld camera, producing a really seasick, surreal affect that seemed to be lacking in most of the rest of the film.

However, the film fell flat on it’s face with the third act. Descending into possesed demon baby birth, redneck cults and Caleb Landry Jones sprinting around the woods slicing people up with big knives. As my viewing companion pointed out, it’s one of many films that could have the ending replaced with a choir singing “Everybody dies; THE END” in sonorously drawn-out monotone. All that said, there will always be a small place in my heart for The Last Exorcism. Crap as it is, it threw me down a mouldy well of horror that I never totally got out of.

Movie Marathon #17: Sinister

Now, I write quite a lot. Hence, I enjoy movies and books about writers. True, most of the time they make the lot of us seem like a ragtag group of garrulous scum, but nonetheless, it’s always fun to see how various people produce their own interpretations of what the glamorous and brilliant lives of writers are actually like.

And that’s what eventually turned me onto the Scott Derickson flick Sinister. Following the tale of writer Ethan Hawke trying to write a follow-up to his hugely successful true-crime novel by shifting his family across the country to live in a house that was initially home to a grisly murder.

Personally, and judging by the conversations I’ve had with other people who write lot, there’s a similar experience most of us have had. At one time, you write something you’re inordinately proud of; an idea so brilliant, so well-articulated, so utterly perfect that you can simply never top it-but you’ll spend years trying to do exactly that. And that’s entirely what Sinister is based around.

There’s an incredibly well put-together scene in Sinister where Ethan Hawke first encounters real evidence of some majorly unsettling events taking place in his new home. His immediate reaction is to phone the police and, as he does so, he paces around his office, coming face-to-face with a stack of copies of his last book. He’s presented here with a choice; take his family and run like hell, or have one last grab at the fame, fortune and respect he always dreamed of as an author. And what does he choose? Like any writer, he dobs in safety and sanity to chase after one more hit. It’s brilliant; Hawke’s writer isn’t a terrible man, but he makes some awful choices based on what he thought would lead him to his Capote-level discovery.

Aside from that, I think it’s a generally solid horror film; unrelentingly tense, very disturbing, and completely compelling. It owes a huge and obvious debt to Stephen King-the rural setting, the family in peril, the author as a lead character-but that works in it’s favour rather than against, as the straightforward and classical stylings of the plot work to elevate it above overly complicated fear fodder like Insidious.

Overall, it’s a film I have particular affection for because I like the character it follows and the genuinely fear-inducing scary bits. It might not be the best horror film ever made, but compared to a lot of the dreck currently being churned out in the name of fear, it’s a very tight piece of cinema.

Movie Marathon #12: Death Note

Continuing the theme of nicking every aspect of my interests and personality from anyone around, I was introduced to Death Note by my older brother when I was around fourtten. He passed me down the manga when I spent about ten minutes staring at him blankly while I tried to work out why he was reading a book backwards, and I devoured them in a ridiculously short amount of time. I will stand by ther Death Note books as a work of true genius; a ridiculously overwrought, convoluted story that only stops being fustrating after you’ve put down the last book. The art is beautiful, the ideas mind-bending, and the characters ridiculously compelling. With that source material, really-really-how badly could they fuck up the films?

Well, a lot. Seriously. Coming at the films with less an open mind than one that was an endless plane in every direction, I wanted it to be superb, and it was barely passable. You’d think that a manga (and anime) with such heavy influence and general, all-over popularity would have been able to garner, say, some people who could genuinley act. Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara (the lead in the equally dissapointing Battle Royale) as Light Yagami, the sociopathic student who ends up with Godlike powers after discovering the notebook of a Shinigami (God of death), and a perfectly-cast Kenichi Matsuyama as the mysterious and emotion-free detective L who’s constantly one step away from busting Light.

The story’s great but it’s been mangled almost beyond repair in the pair of movies, dobbing in Light’s brilliantly evil character for a matyred young man just trying to put the world to rights. Adapting a twelve-book series into a pair of relatvely short movies was always going to be a mountainous challenge, especially with a fanbase as dedicated as Death Note’s. But it’s not just that they’ve screwed up the plot.

Both films can relax in the knowledge that they have a solid, pretty huge fanbase for their creation, however brilliant or terrible the movies might be, and everything about them-the casting, the direction, the writing- smacks of this. It’s lazy. When you don’t have to fight to get yourself recognised, there’s always the temptation to just sit back on what you already have and point the camera at a couple of teenagers pouting at each other over a table.

Disclaimer: Kenichi Matsuyama is one of the most singularly beautiful men I’ve ever seen in my entire life and I would happily rub my head on his chest for days at a time.

Movie Marathon #10: Brazil

My earliest memory of Brazil-indeed, of any film, come to think of it-was growing up with a huge Brazil poster dangling above the stairs next to my room. I loved the wierd imagery; a great winged figure rising from a set of drawers in some existential office block, framed with the neon pink script declaring the movie’s title. It’s one of my dad’s favourite movies, and one that I received on the understanding I would watch it immediately the day I turned fifteen. It’s one of those wierd films that I was aware of in intimate detail before I’d even seen a snippet of it; so often a disappointment, but not in the case of this dystopian Gilliam masterpiece.

Brazil is one of the few films whose appeal I’ll admit is limited; it’s a deliberately wierd, passionately contrived, extremely dark sci-fi comedy set in an unnamed period of time that draws heavily from Orwell’s 1984 for themes and imagery. I know how awful that makes it sound, but none of that ever takes over Gilliam’s bonkers imagery and cunningly crafted story. Like Wes Anderson, I usually think Terry Gilliam’s makes interesting movies as opposed to perfect ones; somehow, he drew together the perfect cast-including an utterly fantastic Michael Palin as a professional torturer-and one of the most brilliantly depressing/life-affirming endings I’ve ever seen.

Much has to be said for the sheer creativity poured into Brazil; it would make no sense to spew it all up here, but when you do watch the film (and you will), the devil’s in the details. It’s like being squirted by a joke flower on the lapel of the Thought Police. I also developed a huge crush on Johnathan Pryce over the course of the film, portraying a beaten-down office drone who becomes a superhero in his dreams. Ridiculous? Almost as much as Jim Broadbent playing a questionable plastic surgeon. But fuck it: this is a film that defined my experience as an avid audience member because it was so unaplogetically ridiculous on every level. But that didn’t stop it being one of the most resonant, touching and consistently entertaining movies in existence. All hail Gilliam, except when he’s making yer Imaginarium shite.

Movie Marathon #8: The Mummy

Now, I believe there to be a real dearth in the world of family horror films. You know what I mean-the type that terrify the kids into silence while the grown-ups can drink wine and enjoy the general rollick and fun of a good story. Babysitting movies, essentially.

The Mummy is a perfect example of that; fun, light, exciting, entertaining and properly scary in places. I saw it when I was twelve and incredibly impressionable, and I was shit-scared by it. It didn’t help that my father spent the rest of that evening chanting “Ih-mo-thep..” whenever I was in a room by myself, but frankly that’s just good parenting. I needed toughening up.

It’s also a wonderful throwback to the Hammer Horror films of the sixties; all glamorous women, handsome heroes and bumbling sidekicks. It’s difficult to balance homage with making a solid film of your own, but here it works; there’s just enough tongue placed firmly in cheek for the movie to pull it’s own style out of film history. It’s also greatly blessed by a cast who look like they’re having the best time ever, especially the eccentric English collector played by a gurning, goggling, gaping John Hannah. And Rachel Weisz as the sexiest librarian known to mankind. Which certainly helps.

It’s properly scary, too; from the opening scene of live mummification to the slowly-regenerating ancient killer mummy running around Egypt waging war with a wannabe Liam Neeson on a horse, it doesn’t skimp on getting in some really traumatic scenes for the kids. And therein lies it’s allure-when you’re a kid, you secretly hunt out the scary stuff, the stuff you shouldn’t really be watching. I still think that one of the reasons I have such a passion for horror movies is that feeling of crawling into the comforting womb of Something You Shouldn’t Be Doing, and The Mummy balances the fun adventure story with the nasty, violent horror side with panache. It’s a brilliant way for kids to get into the scary side of cinema without staying up late and ending up wide-eyed with terror-fueled insomnia after over-indulging on some blood-soaked frames of film. And anything that gets kids into horror is something I love. Saves me the bother.

Movie Marathon #9: The Bling Ring

The Bling Ring marks Sofia Coppola’s fifth venture into feature film territory, her first since the 2010 drama Somewhere. Starring Emma Watson, Katie Chang and Taissa Farmiga as members of the titular crime gang, the film draws from the true story of a privileged group of teenagers in California who routinely burgled celebrities to collect trophies and trinkets from their homes-victims included Paris Hilton and Orlando Bloom, with some scenes shot inside Hilton’s own residence.

The film is filled with Coppola’s trademark ennui-the beautiful cinematography is chock-full of long, languid shots, and that very specific sense of disaffection and mild, middle-class dissatisfaction. Coppola’s ability to capture the frustration and discontent of beautiful young women-as she displayed in her first feature, The Virgin Suicides, and later in Lost in Translation-is brought to the forefront in a very different way in The Bling Ring, with a bunch of pretty young things and their social restlessness captured to a tee. One of Coppola’s key skills is her ability to remove herself from the action, acting only as a passive observer to the increasingly mad events taking place around her-she refuses at any point to become involved in the world of the girls or their high-profile victims. Instead, she focuses on what has driven these privileged young women, on the cusp of adulthood, to steal pointless knick-knacks from their idols; less a physical or psychological need to burgle, but rather for the pseudo-fame that came from the news coverage and social interest in the case.

Kudos has to go to the actresses who inhabit the challenging roles with ease. Finding young actresses who can convincingly portray, well, anything, really, is a challenge, but Coppola hit the jackpot with the lead five. Emma Watson, in the process of throwing of the shackles of her rise to fame through Harry Potter, rightly received buckets of critical praise for her performance as the leader of the group.

However, perhaps too much emphasis was put on her character at the expense of any sort of reasonable characterisation of the other four girls, as they begin to meld together with little defining characteristics. That said, this is a film about teenagers occupying the height of vapidity; the blank stares, mundane dialogue and overwhelming sense of senselessness, though sometimes seeming put in place just to emphasise how crushingly shallow these women are, are required to truly put across how crushingly shallow these women really, truly, and utterly are.

Movie Marathon #7: Talk to Her

Pedro Almodovar makes patchy, patchy films. Volver? Genius. Atame!? Pish. The Skin I Live In? Visionary. Bad Education? Bleh. And so on. Pretty much, when he’s on, he’s on with fireworks blowing out his arse and steam coming out of his ears, and when he’s off he makes soap operas with actresses who should be doing far better things.

Luckily for me, Talk to Her is an excellent movie; flawed, yes, but driven by two excellent central performances. Tracking the relationship between the male nurse of a coma patient and the boyfriend of another patient in the same hospital, it takes on a variety of typically huge themes; sexuality, love, rape, obession, men climbing up inside giant metaphorical vaginas-your usual Almodovarian affair. But what sets it apart, at least for me, is the quiter nature of the film- although it features some ridiculous sequences and powerful scenes, it eschews his usual shrieky stlye of direction to create a mournful, very modern tragedy.

The real kudos must go to Javier Camara for his performance as Beningo, the male nurse who looks after a young female dancer stricken into a coma. He’s an awful man, in so many ways, but he’s also an innocent; there’s only a small part of him that is aware what he’s doing is inherently wrong, and he is consistently misled by emotions only he truly believes he has. He’s ambiguos and interesting, and that’s more than can be said for most of Almodovar’s straight-down-the-line creation.

The developing relationship with the gorgeous Dario Grandinetti, who winds up meeting Beningo after his girlfriend, a bullfighter, winds up in a coma after a fight turns nasty, is also beautifully handled. Grandinetti’s Marco is reiticient and as weak as Beningo in his own ways, but gradually comes round to feel sympathy and to even care for the horribly misguided nurse. It’s an odd Almodovar film in that it doesn’t focus on the women in the story-for most of the film, the key female players are in comas- but rather on the way that, even when they are not physically or mentally present, these strong, ambitious women have an untold influence over both these men’s lives.

Christ, that was pretentious.

Go the Fucking Sisterhood

It’s been an alternately entertaining and soul-crushing day. I spent nine hours writing an essay, during which I dropped the complete works of Shakespeare on my face, nearly shattered my nose in the process, shortly afterwards became the first person to use the phrase “ow ow ow ow ow ow FUCKERS”, and had far too good a time twirling around on my desk chair, eating Skittles, and trying to stem the nasal bleeding with a discarded pair of pyjama bottoms. Taste the rainbow? Taste the mixture of my own phlegm and blood, more like.

Speaking of things that have been alternately entertaining and soul-crushing, I marathoned US sitcom 2 Broke Girls today. Aside from the fact that it stars my wife, Kat Dennings (Those eyes! Those lips! Those breasts! Those child-bearing hips!), I keep coming back to this upstart show. The premise is simple; sassy waitress Max (Dennings) takes in the newly poverty-stricken Caroline Channing, a shrill blonde pencil turned shrill blonde pencil, played by almost offensively less attractive Beth Behrs, and they resolve to start a cupcake business (disappointingly, not a euphemism for Kat selling her chebs on the street). The chemistry between the two leads is undeniable; a genius match of Behr’s superb physical comedy and Denning’s grimly amusing asides about her sex, drugs and childhood (summation: it was rubbish but it’s okay because she’s hot) that more or less carries the show. The supporting characters, namely the other employees at the diner where they both work and mad Polish Sophie played by a triumphantly crass Jennifer Coolidge, spend a good three-quarters of their screentime making foul sex jokes, drinking, being pedantic and managing to be both head-scratchingly racist and moderately bearable. Finally, somebody I can relate too.

And those are the good parts done with. It was “created by”  Micheal Patrick King who did Sex and the Shitty, and his “GO THE FUCKING SISTERHOOD!” stamp has been crapped indiscriminately all over the show. Now, I’m not a woman who buys into the whole “all girls together” shtick; frankly, I’m suspicious of anyone who thinks we should have some sort of instant connection and mutual respect because we both have labia. Menstruation has never nor will ever be the basis of any great friendship, as there are just as many women I’d like to shank as there are men. You get my respect by being sound, not by having breasts. Though that doesn’t hurt.

And that’s where 2 Broke Girls comes to bits. At the end of every episode, there’s a seemingly required scene where the stellar writing is undone by a presumably mad-with-power Caligula Patrick King cramming in an exchange where Dennings and Behr are essentially forced to platonically rub up on each other to justify their “friendship”. Their dynamic isn’t that of other odd-couple stylings on TV, like Chandler and Joey or another example. The couple that continues to rove into my minds eye is Basil and Sybil Fawlty; that sniping, unlikely, bitter marriage of two ambitious but stifled bastards. If they played to that dynamic, maybe it would work, but as long as they continue forcing the pair to emotionally finger each other (as if the relationship wasn’t sapphic enough) the whole thing smacks of wide-eyed innocence that it simply can’t carry off.

On a side note, wouldn’t mind a go on Jennifer Coolidge either.