Tuesday, April 30, 2013

TV REVIEW: BATES MOTEL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 7 - "The Man in Number 9"


Another week of Bates Motel, another week where I feel like calling up Gus Van Sant and letting him know he's not the worst thing that ever happened to the Psycho franchise.

To start things off, Dylan proves his continuing horribleness in the pre-credits scene by getting all haughty with Sheriff Richard Alpert. Why is he feeling so perturbed? Because he and his family are getting away with murdering a both Keith Sommers and a deputy and he's not getting any credit for it. I really hope he falls down a bottomless pit that's mysteriously located in the woods next to that marijuana field that obviously didn't matter. Maybe it leads to the overpass that Norma mentioned in the pilot, you know? The one that would affect her hotel's livelihood? The one that hasn't been mentioned for the entire season?

This is another classic Bates Motel episode where things do progress, but it doesn't feel like it at all. Norma finds out about Norman's tryst with Bradley, and gets...jealous? Protective? It's hard to figure out exactly what her response to this knowledge is, but that's probably because the writers don't understand their characters at all (there's a big rant at the end of this article all about that). Norman is all head-over-heels for Bradley, oblivious to the fact that he was a grief bang and nothing more. The only bright spot in this episode is near the end, when Norman goes to profess his love to Bradley and she shuts him down. He walks away and starts talking to himself, repeating the words his mother said about Bradley verbatim. This is one of the first real bits of familiar mythology the show has given us, and while it's not worth exalting, it is nice to see something resembling the Psycho characters we know. I wonder if the show will ever go the distance and have Norman speak in his mother's voice. Maybe he takes up ventriloquism? I won't hold my breathe.



As far as the titular Man in Number 9 goes, it's classic Lost mystery-baiting at its worst. Oooooooo, he's got lots of money but we don't know why! Stay tuned for more secrets. The show has an over-abundance of this kind of stuff, and I guarantee that whatever Nine-Man is involved with, it'll be thoroughly underwhelming. As boring as things have been, he better be part of a monster brigade that meet every two months to sacrifice virgins to the blood god Mammon. Or he's a government agent that meets up with aliens in the hopes of developing a serum that turns people into pure energy beings. That's the kind of batshit insanity the show needs at this point.

This episode does have one thing worth extolling, and it comes from the one area Bates Motel is spectacular at: unintentional comedy. Norman befriends a stray dog that slowly begins to trust him. When he returns from his "breakup" with Bradley, he sees the dog standing across the road and asks it to come to him. Well, what do you think happens? A car passes by and roadkills the poor mutt instantly. This leads to Norman cradling the canine corpse and sobbing, "I killed my dog!" Comedy. Gold.

And that's pretty much it for this episode. Another slog through various plotlines, all ending up as uneventful and uninteresting as the last batch, and just setting up even more threadbare plots. What follows below is a (probably incoherent) rant about the show that has been bugging me since last week's episode. The review is over, but the raving starts...now.



Last week, it was revealed that Norman actually killed his father and had no memory of it. Norma then reveals to Dylan that she has been "protecting" Norman from himself and the knowledge of what he did. When I first saw this (as I noted in last week's column), I really enjoyed it. It was a decent enough twist and it got the story back around to the character we came to see. But, over the course of the week, I started reevaluating what it actually meant, and I came to this conclusion: the writers/showrunners have absolutely no idea (or just don't care) what the characters of Norman and Norma Bates were about. Now, you can argue that since this is a reimagining (or whatever term you wish to apply) that these aren't the same characters as the ones introduced in Robert Bloch's novel, or more directly Hitchcock's film. That's fair, but there are fundamental things about those characters that make up the core mechanics of who they are. The big reveal that Norman actually killed his father and has always been crazy completely undermines what Psycho is about: an innocent boy driven completely insane by his domineering mother.

Hitchcock's Norman Bates was the poster child for nurture over nature. Norman Bates was a nice guy (except for being a perv), and would have remained that way if not for his dementedly overbearing mother. Bates Motel's Norman is troubled from the outset, and his mother (while not completely rational) is forced to try and protect him from himself. Now, this could all get rectified if they show flashbacks of Norma with Norman as a child, conditioning him and imposing a psychological control over him early on. They could end up (in a boringly roundabout way) still blaming Norma for the madman Norman becomes, but as far as we've seen, that's not the case. This Norman is the very opposite of Hitchcock's: his nature dooms him to evil. That makes Norma a fairly useless character. She is supposed to be the force that shapes an otherwise normal boy into a cross-dressing murderer. This show is positing that Norman was always going to be unhinged, and now his surroundings are simply bringing that part of him out. It not only makes the character predictable, but it takes away a crucial component of Norman Bates: pity.

In Psycho II, Norman is released from the mental institution and reenters society. All the while, he's afraid of "Mother" coming back, and the audience feels sorry for him. It's not his fault that he is the way he is, and we actually want Norman to stay sane and beat the curse his mother put on him. It's impossible to feel sorry for Bates Motel's Norman because it's not his mother's fault he is the way he is. He's crazy from the get-go, so why should I feel bad for him? This makes me feel like the show's creators had no idea what made these characters so morbidly enticing in the first place. I hope they do some retconning in order to course correct, but it'll still feel roundabout and lazy. They should have had a better grasp on the characters from the beginning. AND THEY DID! The first two episodes positioned Norma as a conniving manipulator, and even acknowledged the incestuous chemistry between Norman and his mother. At this point in the series, all that has taken a backseat to soap opera plots and mystery boxes filled with nothing but hot air. I'm committed to reviewing the entire first season for this blog (and will do so as objectively as I can), but it'll take time-traveling cyborg werewolves kidnapping Norma to get me invested into a second season. No matter what happens from here on out, I have to declare Bates Motel deader than Marion Crane.

Friday, April 26, 2013

TV REVIEW: HANNIBAL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 5 - "Coquilles"


Before getting to this week's episode, some clarification is needed. Showrunner Bryan Fuller personally pulled the actual fourth episode from airing, due to some reservations over content being insensitive towards those affected by the attacks in Boston. The parts in question had to do with the "freak of the week" killer, nothing involving the over-arching plot. NBC has truncated the episode into a series of webisodes, excising all the possibly upsetting material. From what I gather, they will eventually release the episode (on home video, I'm sure), but this does make things a little weird from a reviewing standpoint. I caught last night's episode (which I'm labeling as "Episode 5" since that is the intended slot it fills within the show's timeline) first and still have to watch the webisodes as of this writing. I'll do a follow-up article once those have been viewed. I also won't get into my personal feelings about the episode being pulled or anything like that. If you are interested in that kind of discourse, please comment below and I'd be happy to discuss it. Now, on with the episode!

This week is another solid episode, mostly focusing on Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and his newly introduced wife Bella (Gina Torres). It's nice to see Fishburne play something other than stone cold hardass in this show, and this week reminds us that this guy was the kid who conned his way in front of Francis Ford Coppola's camera in Apocalypse Now. The moments we get to see Fishburne vulnerable are really strong stuff. I hope the show gives him some more versatility, and he's not just back to being the boss-man with a face like granite and an attitude to match next week. The guy has serious chops. Gina Torres, however, is just okay. Her character as written is pretty good (with an interesting bit of development along the way) and her acting isn't bad at all, it's just kind of...there. She's a little too stiff, and although that can be attributed to what her character is going through, it doesn't make for a very relatable performance. Still, I hope we get to see more of her since she has great potential. Plus, it's just more of an excuse to see Morpheus get all teary-eyed.

I've heard some people aren't too crazy about the "killer of the week" format the show has going, but not only am I enjoying it, I understand it. The showrunners need to wrangle in those CSI viewers, and trick them into watching a show that explores the nature of evil and violence in man. Padding things out with a weekly investigation will help ease those people in with familiarity. I'm sure if the show goes on for another two seasons (fingers crossed), we'll see a move away from that format into something more directly serialized. I'm fine with a "freak of the week" if they keep being so delightfully grand guignol. This week's madman (The Angel-Maker. I love how each killer gets a comic book villain name) gives us some of the goriest displays yet seen on the show. People's backs skinned and hung so they look like angels? Fantastic! The show can continue to get away with such incredibly gruesome displays because everything is composed beautifully. The screenshot below is damn good enough to be a painting. And I love that we are getting to see what the killer's "see", enforcing the show's theme of perception. It doesn't hurt that what this week's psycho sees is people WITH FLAMING HEADS! Hannibal, you know my twisted sense of enjoyment far too well.


Will's story continues to be interesting. He seems to be both sleepwalking and sleep-deprived, which makes for more hallucinogenic head-trips. Where things end with Will and Crawford at the end of this episode actually could spring the show into that slightly more serialized format I mentioned earlier. I doubt it will be permanent, but it'd be nice to get a breather episode that focused directly on Will and didn't have to worry about any other gory shenanigans. ...I do enjoy the gory shenanigans though.

At this point, Mads Mikkelsen has won first place in the "Reinterpreting a Well Known Character" competition. His Lecter is far more complex than Hopkins' Shakespearian monster. Mikkelsen's Lecter can be genuinely comforting and helpful at times, although you can still see the wheels spinning behind his dark eyes. He's always learning about people as much as he can, and it's a delight to see Lecter interacting with people in the real world. Even though we know he's a murderer (and a cannibal), it's impossible not to like him. I never wanted to sit down and chat with Hopkins' Lecter, but I would definitely schedule an appointment with Mikkelsen's character. He's very approachable and inviting, if you don't know what he really is. I can't get enough of him.

This show better go on for at least two seasons. It's leaps and bounds above anything else in it's genre, and things can only get better once we've gotten to know the characters fully. At this point, I want them to rewrite Red Dragon and do an entirely new version of the Hannibal Lecter story. We know that this show isn't connected to any other incarnation, so I hope it lasts long enough to get to that point. I also hope we get a completely different version of Hannibal's past than the abysmally absurd Hannibal Rising. I can't believe I even acknowledge that thing's existence. I'm going to go watch some webisodes.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

TV REVIEW: BATES MOTEL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 6 - "The Truth"


I think I may have discovered how to endure the rest of Bates Motel's inaugural season: viewing it as a comedy that's completely aware of its own absurdity. For the majority of this episode's running time, I was outright guffawing. Right from the opening scene, when Norma breaks into a jaunty little sprint, I couldn't help but find it funny. Everyone's facial expressions, lines and delivery all just seemed to tickle my funnybone this week. At this point, it's a welcome change from the casual disinterest the last few episodes have left me with.

And things actually happen in this episode! Deputy No-One-Cares-About is dispatched of, and in a pretty enjoyable (but not in the least bit suspenseful) gunfight inside the Bates house. There is still some horrible writing stupidity going on (Deputy Sexfiend runs after the Asian girl Norma was holing up in the motel, and right after that, Dylan, Norman and Norma proceed to have a conversation about Norman living with Dylan! WHILE THERE'S A SEX MURDER GUY IN THEIR IMMEDIATE VICINITY) and we get more development on Dylan's life of crime storyline (oh joy...), but for the most part, this is one of the more fun episodes of the season so far. That's mostly due to the fact that this episode has some momentum to it, and things actually get resolved. Well, as much as Bates Motel can resolve things. Events are written (like the trashy soap opera the show is) so that they can be ends to plot-lines, but also could be left open in case of a lack of ideas in the writers' room. Keith Sommers' belt? Could be gone for good, or could come back. Deputy Dumbo? He's offed, and we may deal with one episode of fallout, but he could easily be swept under the rug. Or they could stretch out his death's investigation for at least two or three more episodes. Considering how many plot branches the show has, I'm hoping these are definitely getting lopped off.




The most shocking thing about the whole episode is easily the ending, which is actually good. It almost starts to course-correct the fact that this is a show based on Psycho, and hopefully the writers stay on that track. We get the motel's first guest next week, so maybe things will start to fall into a better groove. I'm sure we'll still have to deal with uninteresting sub-plots (Dylan's hoodlum hijinks and Norman's high-school drama), but if the main thrust of the story can stay with what's revealed in the ending, things may be looking a tad bit up for Bates Motel. I won't hold my breath, but I will cross(dress) my fingers.

Monday, April 22, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: THE LORDS OF SALEM Is the Rob Zombie Movie You've Been Waiting For


Rob Zombie has returned to the cinema world with a bloodthirsty vengeance. The Lords of Salem proves that Zombie's auteur status cannot be challenged, as he crafts a gorgeously grotesque melting pot of influences into his own singularly horrific vision.

The story itself is devilishly simple: Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a radio DJ who receives a mysterious album from a group called "The Lords." After listening to it, she starts to spiral into a hallucinogenic Hell, all the while being guided by malevolent forces that have remained hidden in the storied town of Salem, until now.


Right from the opening scene, you know that this film is going to be way too "out there" for most casual viewers (the four other people in my audience were very vocal about their dislike, and I even had one walkout!). This isn't some "by the numbers" date flick of a horror film. The Lords of Salem is all about mood and atmosphere, and it's got loads of both. Out of all of Zombie's films, this one feels the most like it's from another era. It's like some unknown grindhouse Euro flick from the early 70's that just happened to be made today. It actually feels more in tune with that kind of filmmaking than even Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS trailer. It's screamingly original, considering the wet blanket most modern horror films fall under. The Lords of Salem also happens to be brazenly weird, with a plethora of sequences that would fit perfectly into one of Rob Zombie's music videos. But, instead of feeling incredibly out of place (like Laurie's fantastic dream sequence in Zombie's Halloween 2), these moments are the lifeblood of the picture, and help unify the madness that Zombie is cultivating. The film's pacing also helps ease you into the bad acid trip visuals, and may be one of the strongest aspects of the movie. The Lords of Salem is unquestionably a slow burn, but it's the right kind of slow burn: one that gradually escalates at a consciously measured rhythm.

This may also be Zombie's most personal film, dealing with the concept of satanic music and the powers it possesses. It almost seems like it should have been his first film, feeling like the best kind of reactionary statement to critics who label his (and other artists') creative work as nothing but blasphemous filth. If this movie had been released in the 80's, you can bet Tipper Gore would've died from disbelief.


While Sheri Moon Zombie does a very good job (this is her most subdued performance in any Zombie film), there's nothing particularly stellar about her. She's actually really good for the first act of the film, making the character of Heidi both charming and relatable. Once things start getting crazy, she's kept mostly silent so that the events surrounding her can take center stage. Still, there was actually a moment towards the end between her and her colleague/boyfriend (?) Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) that gave me a tiny lump in my throat. A Rob Zombie film did that! It's just unfortunate for Sheri Moon Zombie that everyone else in the cast is uniformly fantastic. The three sisters (Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn) steal every scene they are in, providing the biggest laughs of the entire running time. They are so excellent that I kind of want an entire movie about them! Bruce Davison gives a warm and welcoming turn as Francis Matthias, the scholar who figures out exactly what's going on with Heidi and her mysterious record. He has a natural charm about him that makes Francis immediately likable. Ken Foree shows up to do his thing, and does it well. It's impossible for that man not to be the epitome of cool. Meg Foster also gives a disturbingly effective performance as head witch Margaret Morgan, putting on a voice that's a mixture of a possessed Regan from The Exorcist and nails being put through a meat grinder. And the aforementioned Jeff Daniel Phillips offers up a touch of goofy heart to the proceedings, and I almost wish we had gotten to see a little bit more of him. Zombie always knows how to collect a solid stable of actors, and The Lords of Salem is no exception.

The Lords of Salem is also Zombie's most elegant film to date, proving that he's been honing his craft over the course of his Halloween movies. The look of this film is like a much more polished and refined House of 1000 Corpses: brilliantly vivid palettes and striking imagery abound. Zombie has also gained a better use of framing, creating shots that beg to become stills. The creepiest moment of the entire film (for me) actually has to do with this improved framing: a single hanging light swings ominously above a room that is believed to be vacant, and it's on the far left edge of the frame, almost out of view. It's such a simple yet eerie shot that solidifies Zombie's ability to make bits that are genuinely unnerving. While the film may not be technically "scary", it's certainly off-putting in a positive way.

I'm also amazed at the utilization of score in this film. It's unlike anything in any of Zombie's previous works, and it's creepily unsettling (in a good way). The track that plays on the titular record is still running through my head as I write this review, and the rest of Griffin Boice and John 5's score is equally hypnotic. It shapes the tone and mood of the film in exactly the right ways.


The Lords of Salem is probably going to be Zombie's most divisive film (yes, even more than his Halloween remakes) since it is undeniably the most "art-house" of his entire body of cinematic work. I can't help but love it, since it's unlike anything the American horror market has seen in a while. Unlike a certain other movie released this weekend, it manages to take it's multiple influences and amalgamate them into something relentlessly original. It's bizarre, beautiful and beastly, often all at the same time. After two disappointing (but interesting) forays into pre-packaged material, Rob Zombie has resurrected in a brand new form, showing that you can't keep a dead man down. The Lords of Salem is not for everyone, but for those it is for, it's damn near perfect.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: OBLIVION Has Plenty of Sound and Fury, But Signifies Mostly Nothing


On the Criterion Collection DVD of RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven discusses the difference between "eye candy" and what he calls "eye protein." The former is something that, while looking extravagantly polished and pleasing, offers little to no substance behind it. The latter is exactly what it sounds like: imagery that manages to be both visually and intellectually stimulating. Oblivion is an ocular diabetic's worst nightmare. It may quench your cinematic sweet tooth, but it will leave your soul (and brain) wanting.

Jack (Tom Cruise) is a drone repair man on an abandoned Earth. The planet was attacked by aliens and all of humanity has relocated off-world, leaving Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) to protect the giant water extractors that help power the off-world colony. After discovering a crashed ship with a human survivor (Olga Kurylenko), Jack begins questioning what his real purpose is and exactly what happened to the Earth.


Oblivion is a science fiction movie that wears its references on its sleeve. But, instead of amalgamating those influences into an original product, Oblivion is more than happy to directly co-opt the films it owes its existence to. Because of this, the film ends up being horribly predictable and kind of a chore to sit through when there isn't any action going on. But when there is action, it's fantastic. Each sequence is staged wonderfully and always manages to breathe life into the cold and sometimes flat-lining plot.

Tom Cruise is a master at leading man charisma. While Oblivion isn't a breakout performance by any means, it proves that Cruise has the ability to carry a movie on his likability and charm alone. While his character as written may not be entirely interesting, Cruise adds a lot of pathos for Jack with just the smallest of facial expressions. I don't like to equate actors societal personas with their work (unless they do so deliberately), so I have no problem saying that even though I disagree with Tom Cruise's beliefs and behavior, I will always go see him at the movies. Olga Kurylenko is the weak link in the chain, stuck with one continuous face for most of the film's running time and the inability to emote anything above disinterest. It doesn't help that her character is pretty much relegated to silent sidekick status once things get rolling. The best performance comes from Andrea Riseborough, and since she's the best, that means she needs to be taken out of the plot (and pretty much completely forgotten) once climaxes start...climaxing. She really is the standout performer of the whole bunch, and her character is also the best written! It was really disappointing when the film decided she wasn't integral to the story anymore, and her loss only helped to dampen the overall mood of the picture.


If director Joseph Kosinski was relegated to just taking care of the visual aspects of his films and not having any input on the story (Oblivion is based off of his graphic novel), I get the feeling he could deliver something truly spectacular. His sleek style is gorgeously ogle-worthy and he knows how to direct action so that you are aware of everything that's going on. While his imagery may not be wholly inventive, it's still very effective and looks fantastic on camera. It's too bad that he can't figure out how to create fully realized characters or a compellingly paced plot.

And if there's one thing that Oblivion completely fails on, it's pacing. The first act is actually really well done, setting up both the characters and the world in a very clear way (albeit thanks to copious Cruise voice-over), but once Olga Kurylenko shows up and things start getting revealed, the movie goes into a narrative nose-spin it can't pull up from. Important exposition is simply told to the audience by a paycheck-cashing Morgan Freeman (did the filmmakers not see the South Park episode?), scenes that should have been earlier show up way to late to have any impact, and the eventual threat of the film doesn't feel at all threatening since it's given no real backstory. The marketing for this film didn't help either, spoiling a big part of the movie and sucking out any surprise it was hoping to cultivate.


It doesn't help that the movie's influences also make it incredibly easy to figure out, making any attempt at third act twists fall flat. There is one movie in particular (which I won't mention for spoilers sake. Feel free to discuss spoilers in the comments!) that Oblivion rips off wholesale, and it irritated me not because the movie it stole from was very good (it was), but rather that the idea it took was not explored in any truly meaningful way. If you're going to take a concept, at least delve into that concept headfirst. Don't just tack it on because it's a good narrative twist.

Still, Oblivion (much like Kosinski's debut Tron Legacy) would make a great music video. It's expertly designed and well-photographed. I'd actually love to watch the movie with the isolated score by M83.

It's too bad that an original sci-fi movie with a great budget and plenty of pedigree feels so unoriginal and soulless. It's not a horrible movie, it's just extremely disappointing. The potential is right there on the screen: a good cast (with a criminally under-utilized Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a great design and a director who can deftly stage an action scene. The writing department is what needs some serious sharpening. If the script was as good as the production design, Oblivion would be one of the best summer sci-fi pictures in recent memory. Instead, it's a pretty but unsubstantial morsel of eye candy.

Side note: Anyone care to explain what the significance of the title is? Because it has no bearing in relation to the film, as far as I could gather.

Friday, April 19, 2013

TV REVIEW: HANNIBAL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 3 - "Potage"


Is it even possible for Mads Mikkelsen not to look like a stone cold pimp in every suit he wears?


This week, we get back to directly addressing the aftermath of Garret Jacob Hobbs' demise, namely his surviving daughter, Abigail. The pre-credits scene with Hobbs and Abigail hunting a deer is exactly the kind of character insight other shows desperately need to focus on. We learn so much about Abigail in just this one scene, and it informs our opinion about her throughout the entire episode. While everyone else is wondering whether or not Abigail was an accomplice to her father's crimes, the audience (and one other person, who I'll get to in a second) knows she's innocent. She had a moral dilemma about shooting and gutting a deer, so she's definitely no murderer. While this might run the risk of making everyone else's deductions about her seem wasted, the writers know how to curb that problem: Lecter knows she's innocent as well. This forces the audience into taking Lecter's view of events as the most informed, and that's wonderfully twisted. This show definitely wants to put the audience into some devilish places (like Will Graham's head!), and I enjoy that kind of storytelling. But, while a show like Dexter makes the protagonist debatably heroic or villainous, Hannibal gives us a lead character (Will Graham) who is definitely on the side of good, but cursed with a dark gift, making him much more interesting than a murderer who fancies himself a bringer of justice. On the other side of that, we get Lecter, who is unquestionably a monster but is so damn charming and intelligent that you can't help but find him extraordinarily compelling.


And Mads Mikkelsen makes Lecter even more enticing. Every shot of him standing by silently would be just another reaction shot in any other show, but here you can see every little machination behind his eyes. You can actually see him processing the information the other characters and surrounding events are providing him, and because this show has been so clever at crafting his character, you can deduce his line of thinking almost instantly. It's almost mind-boggling how, in just three episodes, we are inside of Hannibal's head just as easily as we are Will's.

I'm really enjoying Freddie Lounds as an antagonist to both Will and Hannibal, and I hope she's going to stick around for the whole season. For all intents and purposes, she's actually the villain of this episode, provoking Will into issuing her a veiled threat, and even sicking the brother of Hannibal's victim (who he thinks was killed by Hobbs) on poor traumatized Abigail. I wonder if she'll end up meeting the same fate as her former iterations?


But, the main focus of this episode is Abigail, and it's an interesting (if not entirely exciting) road her character is traveling. She wrestles with the idea if she's as messed up as her dad, and is forced to endure the scorn of her neighbors. Except for her one friend, who is immediately dispatched of after one scene! It was almost laughable how this poor girl showed up to be the one person who believes Abigail is innocent and wants to comfort her, and she gets murdered by Hannibal (in order to blame his victim's brother for his copycat murder) just minutes later. I'm actually a little pleased at this show's willingness to off characters as soon as we meet them. No one's safe, I guess! And now that Abigail and Hannibal are both harboring secrets against each other, I'm hoping Abigail pops back up around series end in order to throw a monkey wrench into Hannibal's attempts at covering up his darker side.

The visual style of this show seems like it's going to be consistent, and that appeases me to no end. The shot of Abigail stroking the deer carcass and then cutting to a hand running through a dead girl's hair is horrifyingly beautiful. This looks like it's going to be a show you could watch muted and still enjoy. Next week's "freak of the week" killer looks to have a ridiculously visual kick where they open up people's backs and style them like angel wings. I love it! It's so gratuitously violent, but passing it off in an artful way. I can't believe NBC even showed that in the preview, and quite extensively. I'm glad they know how to market a show about serial killers and a lead character who eats people.

This show has passed my "three episode" trial period and has hooked me for the entire season. It looks like we'll get a nice helping (it's hard to avoid food puns with this show) of one and done killers and a furthering of the main story arc. I'm fine with that, as long as Mads Mikkelsen gets to wear a new baller suit every week. Not even Anthony Hopkins made cannibalism so damn cool.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

TV REVIEW: BATES MOTEL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 5 - "Ocean View"


After last week's dismally disappointing excuse for an episode, I had hoped that Norma's arrest would help bring some focus to this week. I need to stop hoping when it comes to Bates Motel and just expect at least three or four plots an episode, laughably unrealistic dialogue (practically every scene between Norman and Emma is unintentional comedy gold) and characters ripped out of The Young and the Restless. I thought I could deal with the soapy melodrama and fluctuating character motivation, but after these last two episodes I'm ready to check out.

And for the second week in a row, even though things technically do progress, why does it feel like nothing happens? The only exciting bits come from Dylan's storyline, and they are so random and ridiculous that it's impossible to feel any dramatic impact from them at all. Why should I be shocked or concerned that some skeevy guy (who we've never even seen or heard of before!) shoots Dylan's partner-in-crime randomly? What does it matter that Dylan finds him and runs him over? Sure, on a purely visceral level it is entertaining, but there's no compelling narrative behind those actions that make them enjoyable. Maybe if Dylan was a more likable and provocative character, things would be better. But, he's not and neither is his relationship with his "Someone just gave me a new throat hole" buddy. At least we got to see some blood this week. Remember what movie this show is based off of? Me neither.

Also, I'm officially over iPhone text message screens in this show. Not only are they tiny and tough to read (that might just be my eyes' stupid fault) but they are so frequent that they become a lazy form of character interaction. It is incredibly difficult to make a text message dramatic, and this show isn't proving to be the exception to that statement.

I also can't believe how quickly (and stupidly) Norma's arrest is swept under the plot rug. Norma was the one character that really hooked me in when the season started, and now she's one of the reasons I want to tune out. Her screaming and childish behavior is just silly now, and any hints at her being a Machiavellian schemer have been thrown out the window in favor of her playing second fiddle to her deputy boyfriend. And looks like next week will just be a whole episode of her in denial about said boyfriend's serial killing tendencies. Greeeaaat.

The only way Bates Motel can possibly save itself is if all its plotlines get resolved by season's end and the show turns into what it's supposed to be: two crazy people running a motel. Get a focus on your main characters and let us see what makes their cuckoo clocks tick. No one cares about Bradley and if she updated her relationship status on Facebook (that line made me pause for an actual facepalm) or about drop dead gorgeous Deputy Sexfiend. The show is called Bates Motel. "Bates" should be the operative word.

Monday, April 15, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: TRANCE Wants to Be Great, and Very Nearly Is


When Inception became a huge hit and fully integrated itself into our popular consciousness, I was extremely excited for the wave of stylish science fiction Christopher Nolan's masterpiece would usher in. We've had a few good successors (Looper is the best that currently comes to mind) but Trance is the first film that completely owes its existence to Inception. While it's still doing it's own thing (and doing it quite well), the similarities do skate extremely close enough that someone crying, "Derivative!", would have a lot of ammunition for their argument. Just the framing device of a heist and delving into the subconscious are enough to equate both pictures together.

But it's tone that really sets the two films apart. While Inception is a cold and methodical Bond movie, Trance is a pulse-pounding Danny Boyle character piece through and through. The pre-credits sequence immediately hooks you in and gets you invested in Simon (James McAvoy), an art auction employee who helps steal a painting but, due to some blunt force trauma from his gang leader Frank (Vincent Cassel), can't remember where he stashed it. After some friendly finger torture, the gang decides to let hypnotist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) try and unlock his forgotten memory.


All three principal actors do a good job, but it's McAvoy who deserves special recognition. The arc his character undergoes takes him through an amazing range, and Simon ends up being an increasingly more complicated and multi-faceted person than you are led to believe during the earlier parts of the film. When his character takes a short backseat so the movie can focus more on Elizabeth and Frank, his missing presence is definitely felt. That's not to belittle Dawson or Cassel, but McAvoy is just so charming and electric that you don't want there to be a scene without him. But, both Elizabeth and Frank do get at least one or two scenes that help paint them as truly three dimensional characters and not just the romantic interest and the mob heavy. Dawson uses her usual brand of confidence well, and it pays off by the movie's end by showing her at her most vulnerable. Cassel does his patented creeper schtick, but actually gets a nice arc of his own that helps humanize him more than you would expect.

The look of the film is dazzling, with some very cool transitions for the hypnosis scenes. I actually wish there had been more time spent in Simon's head, since the few trips we take are both gorgeous and revealing in a purely visual way. There is one standout gag during a hypnosis (or was it a dream?) scene that, even though it was revealed in the red-band trailer, was jaw-droppingly effective. The movie could have used more bizarre and deranged moments like it (there is one other example, but it's equally short-lived). I hope that there's going to be some more ethereal bits on the deleted scenes portion of the DVD (or Blu-ray or Betamax, whatever your preferred format).


For the most part, the pace is practically non-stop until the aforementioned focus on Elizabeth and Frank. It's a very short lull, and a necessary one in order to give those characters some layers, but it's still noticeable. Even with that lull, the film is almost flawlessly structured, keeping things at a healthy beat without sacrificing character development or interest in the plot. If there's one aspect of the film that is unrelentingly brilliant, it is the score and music, which is almost constantly present. Composer Rick Smith had me rhythmically fidgeting during every pivotal sequence, and his score gave the movie a lot of its momentum.

The ending of the film is unfortunately predictable (for me, at least), but that actually doesn't manage to take away the emotionally thrilling impact the climax is going for. However, there is a major plot point (which I won't get into for fear of spoilers. We can spoil away in the comments section though!) that adds fuel to the Inception-inspired fire and yanked me out of the movie a bit. There's even an extremely similar ambiguous "happy" ending that no one could argue doesn't remind them of the final shot of Inception. Even though their tones are almost polar opposites, these two movies do share some similar strands of DNA.


Still, even if it has trouble establishing its individuality, Trance is an engrossing watch. It's well-structured, filled with great actors and is a joy to look at. James McAvoy and his character Simon are worth the price of admission. It's also my favorite Danny Boyle film he's directed since Trainspotting (28 Days Later lovers, let's have a discussion in the comments). But, it doesn't leave you with a burning urge to re-examine the film a second time. If it would've been a tad bit weirder and less...okay I have to say it, derivative, it might have been truly great. It will just have to accept being very good.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

TV REVIEW: HANNIBAL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 2 - "Amuse-Bouche"


First of all, those opening credits! They perfectly establish the blend of elegance and viciousness this show is striving for, and in my opinion, is achieving.

Looks like my prayers are going to be answered as far as the stylish aesthetic is concerned. The icy beauty of every shot gives me plenty of screenshot options. And we get plenty of striking imagery in this episode. From Garrett Jacob Hobbs' cabin, to our killer of the week's mushroom garden and plenty of Will's hallucinations and dreams in between. Even if people don't like the plotting, characters or anything else, it'll be hard to argue that the show doesn't look superb.


But, how could they not like the plotting or the characters? I hope each episode can stay as structured as these first two. While they are part of a continuing story, they manage to deal with their own arcs and themes in very dynamic and satisfying ways, helping to retain the "mini-movie" feeling the pilot established. In this case, the focus is Will's inner conflict in regards to him gunning down Hobbs. The ending with Lecter and Will discussing whether or not God feels good when he strikes down humans is wonderfully dark territory for a network show to be treading, and it also gives us even more insight into each of our main characters.

We also get introduced to tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds, who Thomas Harris fans will notice has undergone a gender change since his original appearance in Red Dragon. I really like her! I wonder if this means the show is willing to deviate from our expectations completely, and if it will eventually get brave enough to rewrite all of the established canon. If so, I'm all for it. It means we'll have no idea what's lying in wait around the corner, which is what you want from any suspenseful storytelling.


I'm also pleased that the show is going to keep a wry bit of dark humor in its pocket every now and then. My favorite moment of the episode was when Lecter confronted Freddie for recording his and Will's therapy session and after saying, "You've been terribly rude. What's to be done about that?", we cut to a dinner plate full of meat with a suspiciously red sauce being poured over it. Haha! While it turns out it's not actually Ms. Lounds, it's a great use of the audiences knowledge about Lecter. If we get little bits of beastly fun like that once an episode, I'll be delighted.

And I am sold on Mads Mikkelsen's Lecter. Although he's still being kept on the sidelines for now, I eagerly anticipate our first Lecter-cetric episode. Mikkelsen's calm and almost surgeon-like demeanor makes him the most interesting of monsters: one with precision. It's also clear that he's having fun with the character, really selling it in the few scenes he and Hugh Dancy have together (expect to see lots of these scenes in Lecter's office). If there's any compliment I can give, it's that I have put any preconceptions about the character off to the side and am just taking in every sinister scene Mikkelsen gives me.


Honestly, this show is proving to be better than the last two movies made about the Hannibal Lecter character. They have a definitive story they want to tell but manage to make each episode somewhat standalone as well, the look of the series is well-established and gorgeous, the characters (not just the villains, mind you) are interestingly twisted and compelling, the actors are doing great work and everything feels deliberately paced and thought out. Looks like I'll have at least one horror prequel show to look forward to every week. Start watching Hannibal, if you aren't already. This one looks like it's going to be tasty.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

TV REVIEW: BATES MOTEL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 4 - "Trust Me"


If it wasn't for the fact that I have committed myself to reviewing the entire first season of Bates Motel, this episode would have been the drop off point. Even though things "happen" throughout the course of the episode, it's all presented in such a bland and mechanical way that it feels like nothing really has progressed.

The only real event worth mentioning is the ending, where Norma is arrested for the murder of Keith Sommers, the rapist from the first episode. I'm sure she'll be out of shackles by the next episode's end, so that drama just comes off flat. I did love the sudden switch to slow-motion when the police come to arrest her. Vera Farmiga also gets two really unintentionally funny lines this episode ("I killed the crap out of him!" and "Putting up with my ass?") that saved me from total boredom.

Ugh, what else? Norman has sex with a grieving Bradley. Nothing really interesting there, except to fuel the high school drama plotline once Anna comes out of her episode hibernation cave. I'm so excited for those scenes.

I can't even muster up much else about this episode. Did the show forget it was a Psycho prequel and drift off onto the Lifetime Channel? When other networks are showing how to do a horror prequel right, it really makes Bates Motel look even worse. Any interesting and risque ideas that were being floated around seem to be drowned in the soap opera shenanigans this episode strictly focuses on. I kind of want the show to go completely bonkers and have alternate universes where a black and white Norman Bates appears and starts slapping everyone silly. I hope next week is better, or else alcohol may start factoring into my viewings.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

MOVIES AND ME: HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES

Everyone has a story to tell when it comes to the first time they ever saw a memorable movie (whether it be enjoyable or deplorable). Art is dependent on the experiences we bring to the table, and these are mine. Some are funny, some are sad, some are good and some are very, very bad. Hopefully, they'll all be worth a read.

The Film: House of 1000 Corpses (2003)


Let Me Set the Scene: With its tenth anniversary upon us, I felt it was appropriate to give a special highlight to Rob Zombie's premiere feature film effort. More importantly, it's a chance for me to reflect on a movie I anxiously waited years to see, and impacted my nerdy life more than I had anticipated.

I remember becoming a fan of Rob Zombie's music sometime in my young and formative years, probably because of my love for Twisted Metal 3 and things that my parents thought were way too gruesome for my juvenile brain. I can't remember the exact moment I heard about Rob's transition into the moviemaking world (probably online), but I do have a clear memory of seeing the trailer for the very first time. It was on the E! Channel show "Coming Attractions" with that guy who would later host the revamped version of "Press Your Luck" on the Game Show network. I watched the show religiously, proving that my rabid hunger for upcoming movie news had already permanently infected me. When they showed the trailer, I was aghast with delight. The psychedelic colors, the creepy atmosphere, and the only line I can even remember being spoken is Bill Moseley's perfectly inviting, "It's all true. The Boogie Man is real, and you found him." I creamed my Underoos. This was going to be the horror movie of my infantile generation. There was a release date posted for later that year, and I made a note (written with blood red ink) in my mental calendar.

That trailer featured under the logo of Universal Pictures. Little did I know of all the insanity going on behind the scenes, involving studio execs who were terrified the film would receive an NC-17 rating, making it even more desirable to incorrigible scamps like me. This insanity would lead to the film being delayed for three years, and switching hands from Universal to MGM until finally finding a home at distributor Lions Gate. Throughout those tumultuous three years, I scoured every Fangoria article, every website post, every scrap of info I could get my grubby little palms on. I kept the faith that entire time, and eventually, I was rewarded.



The First Viewing: Convincing my mother to buy me and my middle school date tickets to a movie titled House of 1000 Corpses was no easy task, but considering I had the hots for this girl (who was a Crow makeup job away from being full-on goth) and was not very adept at procuring dates, my mother thankfully relented and sent us on our gore-filled way. However, my heart sank when I saw the theater had posted a guard outside the door, and he refused to let us in since we didn't have an adult. But, the Movie Gods heard my fervent prayer, and the guy ended up being a Rob Zombie fan himself. After some banter and a skillful glance searching for managers, he let us slip in. I'll always be indebted to that man.

The theater was sold out, filled with the exact kind of crowd you'd expect to see at a Rob Zombie film: metalheads with enough black t-shirts to stock an entire Hot Topic. The fellas in the row behind us were pretty stoked to see some younglings present, ready for the desensitization that lay in wait. We situated our bag of popcorn between us, and strapped in.

It was impossible for me not to enjoy the film (my anticipation had already labeled the film a masterpiece), but the experience was something I didn't expect. The crowd's reactions, the spirit of camaraderie flowing through the theater, and the absolute joy every single person exuded filled me with a love of cinema I didn't completely appreciate until that moment. The fact that the movie was a fever dream of phantasmagoria certainly didn't hurt either.

At the end of the film, the entire audience applauded and cheered. I wish Rob himself could have been there, since it had to be the exact response he hoped his film would engender. Everyone walked out of the theater as hyped up as they had been going in. I wanted to relive that showing immediately after it finished. It was, to use an often abused term, awesome.



Lasting Effects: House of 1000 Corpses will always hold a dementedly special place in my black heart. Even though the film's sequel is actually superior in terms of structure, character and pacing, I can't help but fall fiendishly in love with the kaleidoscopic colors and madcap admiration of horror movies and haunted house shenanigans the original wallows in.

I won a copy of the poster (seen at the top of this article) signed by the writer/director himself from CHUD.com and it was one of my most prized possessions. Due to an accident, moisture got inside the frame and completely ruined it. That and the death of my father are the two greatest losses I've had to deal with in my life.

When I was taking acting classes in high school, I performed Captain Spaulding's murder ride monologue verbatim, even leaning into a girl in the front row to menacingly grumble, "Maybe he lives next door to YOU!" I garnered quite the freakish reputation after that, and loved every minute of it.

I try to get a showing of this in once every year around Halloween. It didn't make it in this past year, so for its ten year anniversary, I will be taking a trip to the house where nobody lives tomorrow.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: G.I. JOE: RETALIATION Can't Rise Above the Original


I can't profess to being a fan of the G.I. Joe universe, but I can swear allegiance to over-the-top cartoon action films. This was the main reason why I fell head over heels for Stephen Sommers' G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra back in 2009. Not having to worry about fealty to the source material, I found the Joes' first live-action outing to be an absolute blast, filled with grandiose play-set sequences and an aesthetic that knew it was based off a Saturday morning cartoon. While G.I. Joe: Retaliation has some of that spirit in it, it feels compromised in far too many areas to reach the childish absurdity of its predecessor.

The first compromise we're forced to deal with is the cast. With the exception of Ray Park portraying the stoic (and non-speaking) Snake Eyes, the entire hero roster has been replaced (minus a criminally underutilized Channing Tatum) with a crew made out of cardboard. Even Dwayne Johnson (who I'm a die hard fan of) gives a very by-the-numbers performance as de facto leader Roadblock. Only at the very beginning do we get some face time with him, but it's not enough to last throughout the picture. Even Bruce Willis feels checked out here, and I know he still has the capacity to deliver stellar work after seeing him in Looper. This feels like a quick trip to the bank for him. And the less said about D.J. Cotrona, the better. He is a black hole of personality. I actually thought his underplayed demeanor was going to mean he would end up being a traitor, but I was wrong. He's just like that, I guess. Rounding out the Joes is the token smokin' hot female member, played by Adrianne Palicki. She's alright, but the fault with her character lies in the writing more than her performance. An attempt to give her some emotional backstory concerning her father falls flat, and since that's the only real trait she's saddled with, she ends up just being another piece of eye candy for the teenage boys to ogle.


However, the villains in this movie do seem to be having fun, especially Jonathan Pryce as the impostor President. He's easily the best part of the film, chewing up lines like he never left the set of Tomorrow Never Dies. It's a fiendish delight every time he's onscreen. Also worth mentioning is Ray Stevenson as main henchman Firefly. While he doesn't get quite enough screen-time, he still goes all out in each scene he's in, laying on one of the best (and thickest) bad guy accents I've heard in a while. He certainly gets the best gag in the film when his motorcycle disassembles into a bunch of missiles. Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey, stepping into the sorely missed Joseph Gordon Levitt's jackboots) also doesn't get quite enough time to really cast an imposing shadow, but he does an admirable job. His motivation is wonderfully delivered when he responds to the question of, "What do you want?" with a pitch perfect, "I want it all." 

The only one lacking in the charisma department is Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow, but that's more to do with his strange and out-of-place subplot. In fact, both he and Snake Eyes fall victim to this side-story so much that it actually pulls down the rest of the film. The only redeeming qualities come from a special appearance by RZA as a blind master, and the best action sequence in the film. You've seen it in all the trailers, the ninja fight alongside a mountain. It's exactly the kind of juvenile action figure mentality the rest of the movie doesn't seem interested in.


And that's where the biggest (and most fatal) compromise comes into play for G.I. Joe: Retaliation. The original film went out of its way to sell itself as an off-the-wall kids' product, complete with an attack on an underwater base and super-suits that enhanced the wearer's strength and speed. This sequel seems to think that people wanted a more "down to earth" take on the Joes, trading in most of its cartoonish heritage for a rather drab and more realistic aesthetic. You get little cartoony flourishes here and there (that motorcycle missile bit being the cream of the crop) but they are all in the first half of the film. The big climactic battle at the end is just people shooting people and some tanks. That's it. For something as outlandish as G.I. Joe, final battles should take place in space or something equally ridiculous. This film seems stripped down (I'm sure the budget is a big factor) and less silly, which is a disappointment after the goofy glee of the first movie. For a film that is tailor-made to sell toys, G.I. Joe: Retaliation feels like a bare bones package. Director Jon Chu is supposed to be helming a new version of Masters of the Universe, and if it's visual palette is anything like this film, I won't be too excited for another trip into Eternia (not that I'm at all excited for a Masters of the Universe movie).

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is at best a decent distraction, but it fails every criteria set by its predecessor. If another sequel is coming our way (and the box office returns seem to solidify that eventuality), I hope it returns to the outlandish roots it spawns from. This is a Saturday morning cartoon made into a feature film for God's sake. If there aren't lasers, robots or a guy dressed like a giant snake, I may just stay home and make a movie with my action figures.

Friday, April 5, 2013

TV REVIEW: HANNIBAL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 1 - "Apéritif"


After a certain other horror prequel show failed to completely deliver on it's promise, I had severely managed my expectations for NBC's new take on the charismatic cannibal Haniibal Lecter. Much to my delighted surprise, the inaugural episode comes out of the gate swinging and works like all pilots should: as a mini-movie. In fact, this episode is probably better than the majority of Brett Ratner's Red Dragon (Ralph Fiennes performance excluded). It sets everything for the series into place perfectly while simultaneously succeeding at telling its own self-contained story.


The opening scene lets us into the head of our main character (don't let the title fool you) Will Graham, as he visualizes how a murder occurred. It's a fantastic bit of flourish by director David Slade, and I hope the stylish liberties shown in this first outing stay consistent throughout the run. It gives the show an aesthetic that is sorely missing in genre television. Seeing what a character experiences isn't anything new, but given the dark nature of Will's ability to empathize with anyone (specifically murderers), it allows for some delightfully ghoulish bits of eye candy while also furthering the plot along in a compelling way.

Hugh Dancy plays Will with shaky certainty. He's a man afraid of the abilities he possesses, and Dancy conveys that fearful resolve very well. We also get a little peak into who he is at home, and it's a touching (if kind of goofy and sad) piece of character development. It's definitely the most complete performance of the character we've seen on the screen. Sorry, Edward Norton and William Petersen.


I'm sure plenty of people will complain about Mads Mikkelsen's accent, but those people would be taking into account only the most superficial aspect of his performance. While I didn't have trouble understanding him, I can see viewers getting caught up with that nitpick. Too bad, because Mikkelsen is doing some great stuff here. Instead of going the Shakespearian villain route Hopkins took with the character, Mikkelsen plays Lecter as cold and sharp as the scalpel he uses to sharpen his pencil. There are so many tiny moments in this hour of television that help formulate the kind of monster Lecter is. I love when he places the scalpel and pencil down and neatly arranges them on the table. It's an almost unnoticeable moment, but it adds serious legitimacy to the work Mikkelsen is cultivating. I'm very interested to see his more toned down and shark-like take on America's favorite cannibal.

The rest of the supporting cast are just as solid, specifically Laurence Fishburne doing his authoritarian thing like he wrote the book on it. I'm sure we'll be getting to know more about the investigative team we've just met, and I'm actually interested in that. Just as long as it doesn't take away from Will and his serial killer second sight.



Bryan Fuller is the showrunner for Hannibal and he also scripted this pilot. I hope his (and David Slade's) presence is kept strong, because this is a great introduction into this version of the story. It's tightly paced, a visual smorgasborg, transgressive yet not exploitative (there's a bit with Lecter chopping up some newly acquired meat that was pitch perfect), and has crafted multi-layered characters that leave me wanting to know more about them. I may have to jump ship from Norman Bates and his mother's hotel and start making appointments for Dr. Lecter's therapy.