Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: American Horror Story "Birth"

Non Spoiler Review:
Madness! So much happened this week my head was spinning. As usual, American Horror Story never lets up, and Birth lived up to all the expected hype.

Remember the twins Vivien is carrying, one of whom is the Antichrist, and the plague of nations? Well, it's time for them to be born. How does Violet deal with being dead and keeping it from her family? How long before Tate's actions catch up to him? All of that, plus another obscure historical tie-in, and an awesome exchange between Zachary Quinto and Jessica Lange.

The ending is suitably climactic with many characters coming to a crossroads. The momentum delivers a somewhat inevitable conclusion, which leaves questions to what the finale will deal with (and who will be left). But it will leave you breathless.

Spoilers Now!
1984. As a drunk Connie is passed out among her overdue bills, little Tate explores the basement of the murder house. As he goes to grab his truck, he's snatched by Thaddeus. But Nora rescues him, sending Thaddeus off, and instructs Tate to just tell him to go away next time. But from now on she'll protect him. He wishes she was his mommy (but it's questionable whether Nora could do better than Connie).

In the present, Tate finds his rusted old truck, and hears Nora crying. She doesn't recognize who he is, though, and laments their lives as an eternity of sorrow. And where's her baby? Tate tells her that he can't give her the baby anymore, given he's in love with Violet. Oh, but Nora can, and will.

Ben is on a mission to get Violet out of the house given he doesn't trust her or Tate. He believes everything Vivien's been saying now (a little too late, if you ask me), and they're going to her aunt's in Florida to give birth. Violet is in a panic given she can't leave the grounds. He virtually drags her into the car, so she lies down in the back and Ben drives off. As he leaves the driveway Violet stares out from her bedroom window.

Violet tries to figure out how to keep her secret, given they'll go crazy if they find out she killed herself. Tate says they'll have each other, though they'll never have kids.

Speaking of kids, Chad and Patrick are decorating the baby room. They're totally adorable. Tate and Violet walk in and wonder who the hell asked them to decorate. Chad informs her they're having twins, and her mother is the surrogate. Violet clarifies that the Harmons are leaving as soon as her parents get back. Chad then makes reference to the rubber suit that gets Tate agitated and threatening, but what can Tate do now, murder him?

Violet summons Connie for help getting rid of troublesome Chad and Patrick, so she wants to talk to Billy Dean. Connie says she'll take care of it, and goes to find Chad. In the nursery, Chad has painted a white crib and a rather sinister looking red crib. Connie goes off on an anti-gay parenting diatribe and lets slip that she won't let him put his hands on her grandchild. She suggests he can take the one fathered by Ben, but not Tate's. He clarifies that they won't raise them, but wait until they reach the perfect age and smother them so they'll be cute forever.

Billy Dean suggests targeting a particular spirit will be difficult, given the house is so damn crowded (well, duh!). She can detect that Violet is dead and sends her a sympathetic look. The evil is a force like any other, created by events, she explains. Negative energy feeds on trauma and pain. The force in the house has a need to break through and move out into the world, using those trapped as conduits. But she might have a way to get rid of the gays. Then Tate appears, and Billy Dean gets agitated and tells Connie he can't be there. She sends him away. Violet wonders what that was all about, but Connie brushes off her questions.

At the hospital, Vivien asks why Violet didn't come, but Ben says she was having a rough time (he's assuming she snuck out of the car). The doctor is recommending bed rest, but she assures him they'll get a wheel chair and she'll rest all the way to Florida. Doctor recommends an immediate C-section, but she doesn't want to hear it. However, Ben asks for clarification. The one baby is developing at a rapid rate while the other is getting weaker. The alpha is devouring all the nutrients. Ben is angry with Vivien she didn't tell him (well, that didn't last).

Billy Dean explains that a successful banishment was completed 500 years before. In 1590, the inhabitants of the Roanoke colony died inexplicably. Their spirits remained and haunted the native tribes in the area. The elder cast a banishment curse by collecting all their belongings and burning them, then finished it by uttering a single word that was found in the colony—croatoan.

Violet needs to get Patrick's ring to use in the banishment, so Tate tries to make nice. Given he killed him, Patrick really isn't in the mood, but when Tate starts flirting with him it appeals to Patrick's wandering eye. Or so he thought, as Patrick proceeds to beat him up to make him suffer. Patrick declares he had fallen in love and would have been out of the house if Tate hadn't killed him, and now he's stuck here with him (Chad). Unfortunately Chad overhears that and runs off. Tate's managed to grab Patrick's ring in the meantime.

Ben and Vivien get home. She waits in the car while Ben goes in to get Violet, but she starts getting labor pains. She struggles to get out of the car as Connie runs up, escorting her into the house.

Violet has Chad's watch, too, but Ben knocks on her door demanding to know why she disappeared. She tells him just to trust her and to go far away, but she's not coming. Ben thinks she's high. Violet confesses she couldn't leave the house. He wants to know what drugs she's on. Then she comes clean that she's dead and she doesn't get to leave the house. He forces her to come downstairs as Violet tells him she took pills and didn't mean to kill herself.

Vivien arrives inside, and Ben can't get any cell phone service to call for help. Connie tells Violet to make the place safe and sends her away. As Ben goes outside, he finds the ginger kids bashing in their car (and this time he sees them as the bloodied corpses they are). All the power goes off in the house. Connie advises him it's time.

Ben walks in on a fire lit scene where Charles Montgomery (!) and the two dead nurses (!) are tending to Vivien. At that moment Ben seems to have his breakdown/epiphany. Connie slaps him and tells him the house is trying to help and he needs to be there for her.

Vivien wants to know who all the people are, but some ether knocks her out. Ben appears to be dissociating and momentarily flashes back to Violet's happy birth. Then Charles brings him back to reality and tells him that the baby is stillborn, but there's another one coming. Charles gives the dead baby to Nora.

Meanwhile, Chad and Violet are in the furnace room and she tosses the watch and ring into the fire. She utters croatoan and Chad begins to freak, but he's just joking. All those fairy tales don't work, he explains. It just makes regular people feel better to think they can control things. He breaks the crib up and throws it into the fire given there won't be a nursery. Vivien's babies are safe from them, at least.

Then he adds that it could be worse. Tate may always love her, but he'll always be a monster. Violet says he's changed. Oh really, Chad says...when he murdered him and his boyfriend, or when he raped her mother? 

Vivien is having a rough go with the last baby. It emerges, but Vivien has massive bleeding. Connie takes the child to get him washed up. Moira's getting all sentimental over it and says he's the most beautiful baby she's ever seen (no hooves, apparently). Hayden appears and asks if they got all the slime off her baby.

Vivien is bleeding profusely and Charles can't stop it. Violet shows up and apologizes for not seeing her at the hospital. Ben tries to tell her they can be happy, but Violet advises her if she's in pain to let go. Vivien doesn't think she has a choice and dies (!). Everyone disappears, and Ben is suddenly alone in the room with her body.

Violet runs upstairs and looks in on Tate who's lying on the bed. She lets him know her mother is dead. She is p.i.s.s.e.d. She wants to know why he started seeing Ben in the first place given he already knew he was dead, then goads him on about why he died, and forces him to hear that he murdered kids. And the guys who lived there before. And raped her mother. Tate is devastated and stunned, but apologizes. She says she loves him, but can't forgive him, and he has to pay for everything he's done. He is the darkness in the house. She orders him to go away. When she opens her eyes he's gone.

As she breaks down into her familiar messy Violet cry, Vivien shows up and embraces her, telling her she was very brave.

The Verdict:
Birth offered a lot of great exchanges, including the classic Quinto/Lange scene. But we also got Violet giving Tate a much deserved tongue lashing, and some crazy Ben moments as he finally realizes the house is as messed up as he is. The final shot of mother and daughter was a bittersweet one.

The birth of the Antichrist was sufficiently gory, and it made sense that no mother would be able to survive that. Now Nora has her baby, too. Does that mean we get a little eternal spirit baby in the house now?

The banishment story was interesting in presenting a possible solution to some of the ghost problems, but if Chad is to be believed, it won't help at all. Is there any way to free the spirits in the house if Billy Dean's Roanoke story proved to be a fiction?

I was never sure if they would go so far as to kill Vivien, but here we are, and it's really the only viable way of keeping her in Ben's life as they would likely not have ever gotten back together. But really, now Ben and Connie are the only major characters who are actually alive. My earlier crazy predictions that they all might die in the house doesn't seem so crazy anymore. But it will certainly make for an interesting and drastically different second season. This season has been an unexpected wild ride, so I'm sad to see it end next week.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review: The Walking Dead 92

Non Spoiler Review:
Issue 92 kicks off what appears to be the next major storyline as Michonne and Abraham encounter the guy with the binoculars from last month. That misunderstanding and subsequent confrontation fill the bulk of the story.

It was a good first chapter in a new arc and raises some intriguing questions about what lies beyond Rick's community, and if a repeat of the Governor awaits them.

Spoilers Now!
Carl wakes up from a nightmare where he killed a bad kid. He wonders why it felt so real. Rick says nothing, but Carl does apologize for his earlier behaviour.

Come morning, Rick sees off Michonne and Abraham as they check their new security measures. On the way, Michonne talks about feeling alone.

As they pick off random walkers, they encounter a man pinned down in a car. He'd been sleeping there, and when Michonne doesn't get answers fast enough she draws her sword, only to have him take it from her, leading to a standoff with Abraham. Michonne gets away and the man dives behind a vehicle under a hail of bullets, but this time he manages to get a leg up on Abraham, and demands to be taken to their leader.

Rick comes out and attempts to diffuse the situation. The stranger explains his name is Paul Monroe, but some have taken to call him Jesus (danger, danger!). He's from a community of two hundred and was investigating them to see if they would be interested in trading (his own people are low on ammunition and he sees they're running low on food). They have a farm, as well as new clothes to trade.

Rick is understandably skeptical, but Paul explains he was travelling to other communities as well. That comes as news to the rest of them and Paul realizes Rick has no idea of the other survivors out there. He lets them know their world is about to change.

The Verdict:
A good start to what could be an extended storyline. The introduction of Paul brought a lot of exposition and shows how quick to judge Rick's survivors are these days. I have no idea what to make of Paul yet, given it looks like Kirkman was throwing a lot of stuff to consider about him, especially the emphasis given to the part about him being called Jesus which set off warning bells. My first thought is that his settlement is a cult, but we'll see where that goes.

Michonne has been on the backburner for a few months, so it was good to see her voice some of her problems. While Abraham's loyalties remain in question, it always raises the spectre of who will throw their lot in with him if and when there's an uprising against Rick.

It's going to be exciting to get a sense of how civilization has restructured itself if we get a look at these new communities, the types of government, religion and societies that have sprung up among the survivors. I'm sure Kirkman's take on it will prove interesting.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: American Horror Story "Smoldering Children"

Non Spoiler Review:
A great episode, resolving the fates of a couple of characters, continuing the redemption of some, giving others their due, and ending on a shocking (while not unexpected) reveal. More of Tate's fall is captured in a new flashback that gives us some Adelaide, too!

Smoldering Children keeps the series' frenetic pace going by bringing Tate and Ben to conflict, while Travis' death leads to repercussions for several others. Meanwhile, Vivien languishes in the mental hospital, but is there hope on the horizon?

The tragedy, disturbing elements and laughs continue. Jessica Lange ate up the screen, but Taissa Farmiga continues to excel in this role and I'm hoping those two actresses get to share some more screen time together in the future. So much happens each week, I'm wondering what's going to be left for the finale.

Spoilers Now!
1994 (a lot seemed to have happened that year). Larry is having a family dinner in the murder house with Connie, Tate and Adelaide (yay!). Tate volunteers to say grace, which means he eviscerates everyone at the table (except for Addie) about how he hates them, and his mother using Larry to move back into the house. Connie launches into Tate about wiling away all his opportunities.

Tate accuses Larry of causing his family to burn themselves alive because he was cheating with Constance. And of killing Beau. He refuses to be her perfect son and leaves the table. In the morning he gets up, does some coke, and heads first to Larry's work, where he pours gas on him and sets him on fire (so that's what really happened!). Then he's off to school with his guns.

Ben comes to see Vivien with profuse apologies. She just wants him to leave and suggests he's the one who's crazy. He tells her he believes she was raped and explains that the doctor told him about the twins and their different fathers. She says she has no idea how the man got the suit, and doesn't know where Ben was when he was there. Ben says he can get her out in a day or two once they work out the hiccups over the gunshot, but she's not coming back to the house.

Detective Granger shows up to see Connie, telling her they've found Travis' body. They're calling him the Boy Dahlia, given the similarity to the Black Dahlia murder from the 40s.

At home, Ben is visited by a truant officer. Ben assumes she's there for Violet who's missed 16 days of school. Any more absences and they'll take him to juvenile court. So Ben goes to see his daughter in her room and apologizes for their crazy year. She says she can't go back to school but he promises to find her one she likes. She agrees. While he's on the phone he notices blow flies on all the fruit. 

Larry gets a visit from Connie, who tells him Travis was murdered. She pulls a knife, assuming he killed him. Larry admits he just moved the body because he pissed off someone in the house. Connie is shocked to hear Travis died in the house. She viciously tells Larry she never loved him, just endured him for the sake of her family. 

The detectives come back to see Connie, and have heard about the fights she used to have with Travis. Unfortunately, her knife falls out of her purse, which prompts them to take her in for questioning. They comment on the number of people dying around her—Beau, Addie, Travis, Tate. Then there's the missing ones—Hugo and Moira, both disappeared. In 1983 no one thought they were missing and the DA was close to filing murder charges against her, but they couldn't find the bodies (in a revealing flashback we see she fed Hugo's body to the dogs). 

Connie gets a lawyer, Harry Goodman, assigned to her. He explains the Boy Dahlia is going to bring a lot of attention to the department and they want to pin it on her.

Meanwhile, the unfortunate exterminator stumbles upon Tate in the crawlspace and is killed. Tate returns to Violet in the attic, and warns her that Ben is planning to send her away to boarding school and separate them. But he won't let him.

Larry is in the basement removing some of the wall when Travis startles him. He wants to know if he made the news and asks about Constance. Larry says she took it pretty hard. Two little girls call Travis over to come join their tea party—Margaret and Angela. They're all burnt up, and Larry recognizes them, but his wife suddenly appears behind him. She's pleased they're fond of Travis, as they've been afraid and lonely until now, and this is the first time Larry has seen them since their deaths. Loraine says she's ready now. He apologizes. She tells him to prove it. So Larry vows to ensure Connie pays and rots in prison. But it wasn't Constance, she points out. It was him. 

Ben's taking a shower when he's attacked by the rubber man. After a battle through the bedroom he's chloroformed, but gets the mask off to see it's Tate. He tells Ben the only reason he's not killing him is for her.

Violet wants to know what Tate's done to her father. He says he just scared him, and he's figured out how to keep them from sending her away—how about they commit suicide so they'll stay in the house forever? He's taken a lot of Ben's drug samples. Then he freaks out on her, so Violet tries to keep things calm and says she wants to do it in the bathtub. She goes to run the bath, then she screams and runs for her father, but Tate takes off in pursuit. She runs to the end of the property and calls for help—and ends up in the kitchen.

After several attempts it's obvious that something is amiss. She doesn't want to die, but Tate tells her it's too late for that. He takes her down into the basement up into a crawlspace. There's her dead body! Yes, Violet died from her drug overdose. Tate explains he tried to save her. He thought if she chose to die with him she wouldn't be so sad. Violet remembers nothing of dying. Nor does Tate, but he knows he is dead, and has known all this time.

Harry comes to see Connie as he thinks she's going to be charged. The cops have the murder weapon for Travis, and take Connie and Harry in to see Larry being questioned. He confesses he killed Travis alone and no one else had anything to do with it. Larry provided them with details they never released to the public. Connie has no answers for them, except that Larry is trying to pacify a guilty conscience.

Larry is put in prison and gets a visit from Connie. They're sending him out of state to serve his sentence. He explains he needs to pay for his crimes and can endure it if she can just say those words he wants to hear. But she won't say I love you and just hangs up. Cold.

The Verdict:
Poor Violet. No surprise there at this point, but a very well done episode. Violet's epiphany about her death was rendered quite effectively, especially her imprisonment in the boundaries of the house. Her dead body was pretty creepy, too.

Jessica Lange got another episode to chew up and spit out. The filling in of the various flashbacks brought a lot of insight into her character and actions, and at least some consequences to her behaviour was nice to see.

Larry's tall tales have left me a bit confused about his tenure in the murder house. I guess their earlier flashback was indeed in the house, and not next door. But his arc came to a satisfying conclusion (as I imagine he's leaving the show to play Russell in next season's True Blood). 

Yay for Travis for enjoying being dead and having little tea parties with the burnt up girls. I hope he takes Violet under his wing and provides a countermeasure to Tate's influence. He's such a nice character he fills in the void left by Adelaide (who we saw way too little of in this week's flashback).

Some other lingering questions: What happened to Ben? Is the exterminator another ghost in the house? And perhaps the biggest riddle is how Ben's towel could possibly stay on through his wrestling match with Tate. Impossible, I say.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review: Terra Nova "Within"

Non Spoiler Review:
The impending arrival of the Eleventh Pilgrimage pushes Taylor to try to expose the Sixer spy. Speaking of whom, Lucas engages Skye to help him finish his equations to make the portal work both ways. There are a few new revelations, and it's all a big push to get things ready for next week's finale.

Within was a decent episode, but the bar for Terra Nova has been significantly reduced, so that's not really a compliment. It suffers from having to drag the weight of this season behind it. Plus we're saddled with a bizarre subplot regarding Maddie and her computer that make Zoe's ordeal around her pet dinosaur look like an epic storyline. The writers continually fail to make us care about anyone, and those few with potential (like Mira, Washington, and even Taylor) have been diminished. What we get in spades is Lucas' moustache-twirling villainy. 

I'm guessing this show is not going to be renewed. It's just too damned expensive to be worth it, and frankly, it's stealing a lot of my time for what I'm getting out of it. I hope it ends on a bang, much like how it's very similar British cousin Outcasts did when it was cancelled. Given it's borrowed heavily from that show, I would have liked it to have at least stolen the more interesting characters and plotlines, as well.

Spoilers Now!
Remember the portal terminus? If not, Taylor provides Jim with a bit of a recap how it was constructed after the Fourth Pilgrimage with pieces sent from the future—it fixes the portal on their end so people (like in previous pilgrimages) don't end up in wildly different places when they step through. The Eleventh Pilgrimage arrives within days so Taylor wants that damn spy caught. Jim goes on to question others having access to the hospital, including Skye. She says she was with Josh when the spy tried to contact the Sixers. 

Maddie blew her prometheum core on her plex (which is not code for anything, but sounds like it could be). As Liz informs her, with foreboding plot gravitas, she may have to wait until the next pilgrimage because they just don't have prometheum cores lying around. Josh recommends she talk to the bartering guy, Casey, who's in the wheelchair (very important). 

Skye asks Josh to cover for her alibi, so he immediately starts quizzing her. She says she stole copper tubing from maintenance for a new still, so that's good enough for him to agree to keep her story. Jim later confirms with Josh that he was playing chess with Skye at her place. 

Later, she sneaks out to visit her mother, and is paid a visit by Lucas. She recognizes him and says he's supposed to be missing, but he just wants to be friends (not), given he's already friends with her mother. He needs her to help him as he's nearly figured out how to make the time portal work both ways. To factor the calculations by hand would take months, but if he gives her the data, she can use Terra Nova's computers to do it in a day. If she doesn't, he'll toss her mother over the side of their tree house. So Skye sneaks into the Eye and runs the program.

Maddie tries to barter with Casey for a prometheum core. Conveniently enough, his wheelchair is acting up so Maddie suggests she might get him a wheel. Why Casey can't manage to find a replacement wheel for his chair means that Terra Nova's bartering system is in a very sorry state, and, as the chief barterer, he's even worse. Maddie asks Reynolds for a wheel (?) to give to Casey (as apparently any sized wheel will do, but this plot is just so ridiculous I'm not going to think about it).

Sky returns with the data for Lucas. He won't tell her what happens when the portal opens both ways, though, and sends her away. 

Jim finally gets around to looking for ways that the spy may be getting out of the colony, and he and Washington find a spot they put under surveillance. Conveniently enough they see Skye sneaking out. So he confronts Josh and warns him not to lie to him again. Taylor takes the truth hard, but will confirm this with Curran, his man in the Sixer camp (who apparently had no trouble at all infiltrating them after Taylor told him to do it a few episodes ago).

Taylor gives Skye some false intel about a convoy and they monitor her as she sneaks out of Terra Nova. They set up an ambush for the Sixers but they don't show. Jim suggests Skye didn't tell her, and that she hasn't given them anything that would actually hurt the colony in the past. He guesses they're holding something over her. But Mira's mad at her because she didn't tell her about the convoy that her own spotters saw go through the canyon. She wants better intel or else her mother doesn't get her meds.

Maddie finds out someone's already given Casey a wheel for a prometheum core—Boylen. She offers to trade her accounting skills for a core given his bar paperwork is a fine mess. He's not keen on the sheriff's daughter organizing his books, so offers to just give her the core. She takes it. Problem solved.

Lucas has solved his equations. He's preparing to go through the portal and warns Skye not to go back to Terra Nova as it won't be safe for her, given his employers will be coming through to take control. Skye confesses everything to her mother. She urges her daughter to confess to Taylor, so she does so when she eventually meets up with him. He finds it hard to believe her story about talking to Lucas. She mentions 2138 as the date Lucas gave her to ask him about. Taylor believes her and Jim sends her home while he and Taylor head off to the portal.

There's problems at the portal as the guards posted notice that it suddenly activates as Lucas shows up, and they're disabled with a blast. Taylor and Jim appear by nightfall. Lucas says he won't fire his gun given one blast at the portal could cut them all off from the future (which would solve all their problems right then and there, so they don't do it, of course). He rants about finally winning, then jumps through and disappears.

Skye tells Josh everything that happened, but is summoned to the infirmary where Curran has brought her mother back, as well as some of the drug the Sixers were giving her so Liz can synthesize it. Taylor's happy to see her mother, but says nothing to Skye.

The Sixer camp has moved on once Curran defected. Jim is surprised that Taylor's done such an about-face and allowed Curran, a murderer, back. Taylor explains he earned himself a second chance. He's made a big mistake that his son has never let him forget. The year 2138 was the date Lucas' mother died because Taylor couldn't save her, so Lucas has hated him from that moment on. Now's the time to fight, and they need to be ready for the pilgrimage. So Taylor addresses the colony (again) and lets them know their home will come under attack.

The Verdict:
I had some vain hope that Maddie's prometheum core story actually was going to have some greater affect (maybe it still will). Was it a harbinger of problems with Terra Nova's tech in light of the imminent invasion? Or something else? No...she just broke her computer. And then it resolves just like that with a surprisingly impotent Boylen. What was that all about?

Finally we get the conclusion of the Sixer spy storyline. Curran's infiltration of the Sixers happened conveniently off screen between episodes with no effort whatsoever. But I question Taylor's rather maverick (bipolar) way of making decisions—bringing Curran back into the fold after he murdered someone, especially after making such a big deal of banishing him. What will the people think? Surely Skye can be easily forgiven after that.

And the throwaway line that Taylor needs to keep in contact with the future? Really? He's kooky enough to just shoot the portal and end the problem right there, but of course, that would be character driving the plot, and we can't have that. My hope for some levels of grey in the good guys/bad guys ain't gonna happen. It's clearly evident Taylor (despite his crazy) is the hero and Lucas, after this week's maniacal dialogue (really, this was too much) is the villain. So bring on the finale to at least see what comes through the portal.

We also get some explanation how the portal fixes the position of their end of the time rift. But Lucas says his bosses are bringing in the tanks. Is he kidding? What kind of heavy equipment does he expect will fit through there? That portal couldn't handle three Wal-Mart shoppers walking abreast. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review: American Horror Story "Spooky Little Girl"

Non Spoiler Review:
As American Horror Story races to its conclusion, Spooky Little Girl raises the stakes (nothing short of world-shattering ramifications, actually), and some characters move towards a glimmer of redemption. A new (infamous) ghost is introduced with a tie to the murder house, and Ben, now back in his home, finds himself dealing with the weirdness that drove his wife crazy and a whole lot of temptations thrown his way. Meanwhile, Connie and Travis try to work out their troubles.

Jessica Lange more than made up for last week's absence with a few new memorable diatribes. Noticeably absent, however, was Violet (in her room). The final five minutes pushed the series into new territory. I really have no idea how the season will end, but I'm really pleased with just how outrageous and bold the writers feel they can go.

My only critique—more damn ghosts. There are so many in the house now that I wonder why only some show up each week (aside from the obvious logistics of the show). Where do they go when they're not around?

Spoilers Now!
1947. A woman, Elizabeth Short, arrives at the murder house to see its current resident, dentist Dr. Curran running his practice out of the house. She's an aspiring actress and heard he sometimes makes special arrangements with girls short on cash. She also wears a dahlia in her hair. Later, a woman and her daughter find the girl mutilated and cut in half in the grass.

Ben walks in on (young) Moira making the bed. She asks for his help and comments how hard it must be with his wife indisposed. But she promises to keep the fact that he desires her their little secret. He muses that she must have low self-esteem given he doesn't want her, and rebuffs her advances. He just wants a normal, boring family and no more bullshit from her. Moira goes off to make Violet a sandwich, but comments it's just a matter of time.

Connie is in the midst of painting a demonic scene (similar to the painted wall in the murder house), when Travis comes in. She's a bit drunk and berates him for not walking the dogs, so Travis goes out to get cigarettes and takes the dog for another walk, but runs into Hayden as he passes by the house. Their flirting results in a romp inside. Hayden's disappointed he won't tell Connie that he just cheated on her, given the only point of sex is revenge. But Travis thinks he loves Connie. Hayden's still in love with Dr. Harmon, too, and wanted to see if she could still do it with a guy who's alive.

The cops show up to talk to Ben with Hayden's very angry sister, who knows all about her being pregnant with Ben's child. The detective remembers Hayden was there the last time he was there (regarding Ben's missing client), but her sister is out for blood. Then Hayden abruptly shows up in the kitchen, saying what's the big deal, and she didn't answer her sister's calls because she thought she just wanted money. That solves Ben's problem.

Later, Ben is furious she's back but Hayden is contrite and tells him she was upset about the pregnancy. She even had the abortion so he doesn't have to worry anymore. No more screaming and yelling for her.

Then Elizabeth shows up wanting to see Ben, telling him she's afraid something terrible is going to happen to her. Ben diagnoses acute anxiety. She confesses she does things with men but just wants a break in Hollywood. She seems to suffer from the same sex addiction Ben does, so he books her in for the next day. She can't afford to pay, but attempts to offer her services to him. Ben manages to send her away (not without a little fantasizing).

Then Ben gets a call from Vivien's doctor who tells him she's in no state to take the news she's about to tell him—that her twins have different fathers—a very rare situation. Vivien must have slept with two different men within a 48 hour period.

Connie confronts Moira that Violet is fooling around with Travis, given he smelled of something other than canine when he finally came home from his dog walk. Moira is smug and says she's too enamored with Tate right now, so that's highly unlikely, and even that won't last long once she learns the truth. And by the way, one of Vivien's babies wasn't fathered by Ben.

A shaken Connie heads down to the basement to find her son. She wants him to tell her that it isn't true what she's heard. He won't. He asks her not to tell Violet. Connie beats him and asks him if he knows what he's done.

Ben walks in on Moira and Beth fooling around on the couch and they invite him to play. He tells her to leave and says he can't treat her anymore. And he fires Moira on the spot, telling her to sue him if she wants. Beth says Moira told her this is what he wanted, but Hayden appears and tells her Moira is using her. 

Beth's worried her dreams will never come true. She wants to become famous. Hayden is incredulous that Beth isn't aware who she really is—cut to flashback with Dr. Curran having sex with an unconscious Beth and then realizing she's died in the chair. He takes her down to the basement where he sees Charles Montgomery, who takes over the situation and proceeds to disembowel Beth and cut her to pieces. 

Beth remembers how they found her, cut in half with a grin carved on her face. She was the front page news for months. She really did become somebody. Yes, she's none other than the Black Dahlia.

Ben visits a sleeping Vivien who's been restrained for attacking one of the orderlies. Ben starts off calmly by saying he'd move heaven and earth for the Vivien he thought he was married to, but she's not that person. He proceeds to tear a strip off her by calling her a sociopath who lied and betrayed him, and he wouldn't lift a finger to help her right now. He leaves, while Vivien has been listening the whole time.

Flashback to the innocent days when Ben is sharing a drink with Hayden at a bar in Boston. He's bitching about his marriage. She admits to having a crush on him. Ben tries to gently brush her off, but it's obvious that he's flattered.

In the present, Hayden tells him he was meant to meet her, but he admits he crossed the line and abused his authority. He corrects her by saying they were never meant to be together and he doesn't love her. Hayden manages to take that news without freaking out, but she wants a hug that turns into a kiss. She says she's been hanging around for a reason, given it concerns his family—she's seen the black guy leaving in the morning before Vivien was taken away. She has no idea how long it's been going on.

Connie confronts Travis and apologizes for her earlier behaviour. She asks him to marry her. There's going to be a child and she wants to bring it into the home and raise it as their own. Fatherhood is a little much for Travis. He's thinking of his career, which causes Connie to launch into a harsh attack on his dreams of stardom, given she had the same dream. After a lot of vicious words Travis storms out and goes to have sex with Hayden again to let out his frustrations.

Hayden is preoccupied with what Ben said. She wants to go again, but Travis wants to leave to make some peace with Constance given he realizes he still loves her. That's too much for Hayden, who wants a hug. She stabs him to death. Travis looks over his dead body. Then Beth appears, too. Hayden wonders what she'll do with the body. Charles appears and suggests the body doesn't have to be found there. Hayden realizes she knows someone who owes her a favor. 

Beneath an overpass, some guys are playing basketball when one stumbles upon the cut up body of Travis in the grass. Larry looks on from a distance.

Vivien gets a visit from Constance, who piles on the charm. The babies are growing very fast and Vivien has been ravenous. Connie's there to help her and knows herself how hard it is to be a single mother. Vivien admits she was raped and didn't hallucinate any of it. Connie tells her she believes her, and won't tell a soul. 

Ben sets off the alarm and awaits Lucas' arrival. He's smoking (!). He confronts him about having an affair with Vivien and getting her pregnant, but wants to hear it from him. Lucas tells him if it was his baby he couldn't keep him away, but he's sterile. He berates Ben for how he's treated his wife and suggests she's safer where she is. 

Ben later muses over the rubber mask as Moira walks in. He asks her what she knows of it, given she knows everything that goes on in the house. He wants to understand what really happened with Vivien because he thinks he made a horrible mistake and she was truly attacked by someone. Man-hating Moira seems to see some hint of an epiphany in him because she backs off and says "Congratulations" as she leaves. Ben suddenly sees her as her old self for the first time.

Connie has a lot on her mind as she entertains Billy, and asks what happens if a human copulates with someone from the spirit world. Billy says that's extremely unlikely, but brings up the Pope's box—every time a new Pope is chosen he's given a key to a box in the Room of Tears that contains the secret of the end of the world. The paper inside reveals the precise nature of the Antichrist—a child born of human and spirit who will usher in the End of Times, the essence of evil, a perversion of the immaculate conception. Uh oh.

The Verdict:
Travis took his death quite well, all things considered. He's such a nice guy, I'm kind of glad he's stuck in the house. But that scene with all the ghosts appearing really hammers home just how stuffed the house has become. The tie in with the Black Dahlia was a novel touch, but what happened to Dr. Curran after the murder? Did he eventually die in the house, or is that just a stupid question to ask at this point?

Ben's evolution seemed a little quick, but is it genuine? My thoughts are it is, given he's reached a point where he's seeing Moira as an old woman, and that in itself is going to make him question everything that's going on in the house. He was so horrible to Vivien and suddenly did an about face, which could just show how messed up and unstable he his. But Ben seems to be a smoker now, too—is he turning into Larry?

Really, the last five minutes with Connie and Billy had me in stitches. This show really knows how work such insane elements and pull them off. The Antichrist angle is back on (despite my fears that naming Tate the father meant that was off the the table), so I'm guessing the finale of the season will result in his birth. But what about his twin? Will he be normal (not really an enviable position, being twin brother to the Antichrist). And is Tate acting as some version of an unholy ghost?

After my thoughts on Violet last week, not seeing her at all doesn't bode well for her life among the living. One final quibble. Vivien's dog is nowhere to be found AGAIN. Where is it? In Violet's room having a nervous breakdown? This is probably the most egregious error from the writers—introducing a pet in the first episode that freaks out the moment it's inside the house, but we only see when plot points warrant it.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Review: Melancholia

Non Spoiler Review:
I walked into Lars Von Trier's Melancholia with memories of his other edgier film, Antichriststill fresh in my mind, so wasn't sure what to expect, despite a very beautiful and intriguing trailer. The opening few minutes lazily depicts the destruction of the Earth in all the stunning and elaborate style Trier is famous for. With that out of the way, the story gets into the nitty-gritty of the characters, focusing on sisters Justine and Claire in the days leading up to the apocalypse.

In the film's first chapter, Justine (Kirsten Dunst, in probably one of her best performances) is getting an elaborate wedding courtesy of her brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland) at his fancy resort. Everything looks perfect and the couple (including groom Alexander Skarsgard—Eric from True Blood) appear the perfect couple. Very quickly the wedding festivities, and Justine, display cracks, and finally some really awful cringe-inducing moments that make it apparent things with Justine are not as they seem. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is the enduring sister trying to make things perfect, and be there to pick up the pieces for Justine whenever she needs it. She has a stable life with her ever impatient husband (Sutherland) and their son on their lush resort. She gets the focus of the final half.

Set behind this family dynamic and the aftermath of the wedding is the discovery of a rogue planet (the eponymous Melancholia) that is making a flyby of the Earth. There is just the barest hint of it during Justine's story, but by the time it's Claire's turn, Melancholia becomes increasingly prominent (and ominous) in the sky. As Justine's emotional state begins to crystallize, it's Claire who grows paranoid it will hit, despite that her husband (and amateur scientist) assures her it will not. 

The film is a novel exploration of depression, striking a parallel with the aptly named planet that is a constant reminder in nearly every scene. I found myself gripped by the drama pretty quickly after sitting through the horrible wedding and its subsequent fallout. It is certainly much tamer than Antichrist (barely a flash of naked breasts and not a bit of genital mutilation this time around).

I've read criticisms of Dunst's performance, but I found it to be quite powerful. She was both sympathetic at times and horrible to look at, eliciting empathy for her suffering sister who has to deal with her manic states. Gainsbourg managed to cleanse my palette of her scissor shenanigans in Antichrist, and I really enjoyed her here, as well. As the stable sister, she convincingly portrays a woman who realizes her happy life is abruptly going to end, and struggles to cope with the enormity of their situation.

While the female characters get the focus, the men range from inept to impotent, and fall by the wayside by the end. Visually, Trier excels with his slow motion vistas and vibrantly coloured landscapes, this time including the beautiful and terrifying orb of Melancholia as it grows ever closer in the sky. The opening sequence is subtle and graceful, set to a powerful and memorable score.

As far as an apocalyptic movie, Melancholia treats its subject matter on an intimate level rather than the blockbuster style we're accustomed to, set entirely on the grounds of the resort and with little indication of what's going on in the outside world. If you've seen Don McKellar's Last Night (1998), it shares a similar tone in how it treats the end of the world—character over spectacle.

Showing the Earth's destruction at the beginning is to the movie's benefit as that removes the anticipation of whether the rogue planet will actually hit, and focus all the more on the characters struggling with it. Given the contrasting attitudes of the sisters, it does make one ponder how you would treat your final days if the end of the world was imminent.

Melancholia more than lived up to my expectations from what I could glean from the trailer, so I really have no major criticisms. I would recommend it for anyone familiar with Trier's work, or who might be looking for a thoughtful exploration of depression salted with some neat science fiction elements. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review: The Walking Dead "Pretty Much Dead Already"

Non Spoiler Review:
The Walking Dead reaches its midseason finale with a decent showing after what could be described as a rather lazy first half. Shane's frustration with Rick's decisions reaches a boiling point while Rick is doing his utmost to convince Hershel they can all work together to make a successful future on the farm. 

The status quo is overturned by the end, and there is a resolution on Sophia's disappearance. The character drama was delivered in heaps (like it has been the last several episodes), but I was left feeling it was all coming up short when the final credits rolled. Was the twist really any surprise at this point?

My suspicion (and hope) is that this first half of season two has set up all the threads necessary for a more exciting and fast-paced conclusion in the new year. I love the character development that defines this show, but at the same time I want a sense that the survivors are actually heading in a particular direction rather than spinning their wheels.

Spoilers Now!
Breakfast at camp is quiet and pensive. Glen looks off towards Maggie standing on the porch who shakes her head no, but Dale nods to him. Glen then makes an announcement that the barn is full of walkers which gets everyone's attention. Rick is not impressed.

They all go over to have a look. Diplomatic Rick is not alright with it at all, but reminds them they are guests there. Crazy-bananas Shane wants to make things right (kill the walkers) or just go (on to Fort Benning). They can't go, because Sophia is still out there, Carol persists, leading to Shane suggesting they consider she's dead. Daryl steps to Carol's defence and he and Shane nearly come to blows. Rick wants to talk to Hershel about it all. Dale explains he sees them as sick people, and admits he knew a day earlier than the rest. That scores him no extra points with Shane for putting the camp in jeopardy. Glen wanted to be the one to say something.

After everyone's hissy fits, Shane ultimately stands guard at the barn and ensures the doors remain strong, while Glen attempts to make peace with Maggie who is angry with him again. Carl declares to his mother he's not leaving unless they find Sophia, and he doesn't want to go even after that. He thinks she'll like it on the farm. Daryl is preparing to head out on the trail again, but Carol tells him to stop, given he needs to recover. They don't know if they'll find her, and they can't lose him too. Daryl calls her a stupid bitch and leaves. 

Andrea advises Dale she's going off with Rick to look for Sophia. First she's going to stand watch at the barn as per Shane's request. Dale tries to be delicate, but suggests she doesn't really know Shane. Does she want to be like him? He's not a victim, she replies. Andrea says Dale must stop looking out for her, especially now that they've come to some peace. Dale's quite upset over all this and asks Glen to go get him some water because he needs a second (with the guns).

Rick has his discussion with Hershel, who isn't receptive at all to any overtures to help his family out on the farm. When he explains they found the barn Hershel tells him to leave it be and then announces he wants their group gone by the end of the week. Rick suggests the farm is special, shielded from the reality of what's happened in the outside world, then, to add some incentive, reveals Lori is pregnant. Rick tells him to think about it again, because they can't go out there.

Rick advises Shane of his negotiations. Shane is clear he wants to leave or clear out the barn to make the farm safe. Rick seems to think they can make it safe without going against Hershel. Shane doesn't see how, so Rick reveals Lori is pregnant and they need to stay so they'll just have to make it work. Shane manages to hide his shock, but offers congratulations.

Maggie's at odds with her father. He's not impressed she's now referring to the barn's inhabitants as walkers. She starts quoting Bible versus to show he needs to give Rick's people sanctuary. She tells him to stop calling Glen the Asian boy, too, considering he saved her life at the pharmacy. It's all about who Hershel is and who he's going to be. Jimmy comes in telling Hershel it happened again.

Rick and Andrea are planning their search route when Hershel comes over. He wants their help, but just needs Rick. They've found some walkers trapped in a muddy swamp again. Hershel asks him if he can stop killing walkers, given he believes they can be restored, and if Rick's people are to stay that's how he'll have to treat them. Rick agrees. This was a job Otis used to do, Hershel informs him as they snare both walkers with some leashes and collars, and lead them back to the barn.

Shane comes by to see Lori to convince her that Rick is not built for this world. He wants to know how many times Rick saved her life compared to the four times Shane has. Rick's decisions have cost them people all along their journey, including his trip back into Atlanta to free Merle. Shane also knows the baby is his. Lori tells him even if it is his it won't be his and there's nothing he can do to change that. He says he doesn't need to, and walks off.

Carl intercepts Shane as he walks back. He tells him not to stop looking for Sophia and they'll stay there until they find her. Shane seems to agree that they stay, but suggests he will have to do whatever is necessary to make that happen. Lori doesn't like what she sees and calls Carl over. Shane storms back to the RV but finds the guns missing. 

Daryl brings Carol to see another Cherokee Rose growing and apologizes for his behaviour in the morning. She just wants to know why he keeps searching. He thinks she's still out there. And he has nothing else to do, he answers.

Glen tries to make peace with Maggie and explains he told his friends because he had to. As time has passed, he's forgotten the walkers were dangerous and he's sick of secrets that get people killed. That does the trick and she forgives and kisses him. 

Dale is in the woods with the guns preparing to hide them when Shane catches up. He wants the bag back, but Dale won't do it and says he'll shoot him if necessary. Shane dares him to, but Dale ultimately can't. Dale tells him this world is where Shane belongs now and gives him the guns, but at least Dale can say the world didn't take him down with it.

T-Dog and Andrea go to the house and rendezvous with Daryl, Carol, Glen, Maggie, Lori and Carl and wonder where the heck everyone else is. Shane shows up with the guns and announces to everyone it's time to grow up. Maggie tells him if he hands out guns Hershel will make them leave. Shane's through negotiating and tells Carl to take a pistol. Lori is furious and warns him it's not his decision. T-Dog looks down the field and sees Hershel and Rick returning with the walkers. Everyone comes running.

Shane intercepts them and rages about them being dead. To prove it, Shane continuously shoots the walker Hershel is leading, but it won't drop until he finally puts a bullet in its head. As Rick yells for him to stop (he's still holding on to his own walker) Shane runs to the barn and breaks the door down, forcing them to fight. Hershel falls to his knees in shock as the walkers spill out. Andrea joins Shane, then T-Dog, Daryl and Glen to fire at the zombies piling out until they're all dead.

Dale finally walks up and everyone is pretty much stunned with what's just happened. Only there's still a sound from the barn. It's Sophia, and she slowly walks out over the corpses. Carol runs up but Daryl stops her. While everyone else (including Shane) watches in silence, Rick goes up and shoots her in the head. 

The Verdict:
I left a bit disappointed with this mid-season finale. While the last ten minutes certainly ramped up the tension and promise plenty of conflict to come, the actual movement on plot was lacking in a few areas. Specifically, I wanted some indication about what Dr. Jenner told Rick, and we only got the (at this point, most logical) reveal that Sophia was in the barn all this time.

Sophia's death is the bold move from Kirkman, given she lives on in the comics. One positive aspect is that it's going to force Rick to come to terms with his decisions leading to her death. While effective, I question the longterm wisdom of leaving Carl as the sole child, given the behaviour of the kids in the graphic novels is a very important element of the story. It remains to be seen if he introduces additional kids (like the twins) or leaves Carl with no one his age to interact with. I realize there are some logistical challenges with young actors (a long hiatus versus little time passing onscreen), but I'll be disappointed if the themes Kirkman's touched upon regarding the brutal nature of childhood in this new world are absent from the television series. 

Unfortunately, Sophia's presence in the barn leads to some big questions. That was really only the last place that made any sense. But why would Hershel not bring up the fact they brought in a little girl? Or did he even know? How did that go unnoticed, especially since Sophia would have to have been caught nearly immediately before or after Rick and his crew arrived at the farm. We get an interesting bit of information only through external means—AMC's special preview of next episode implies Otis might have brought her in before they arrived, and subsequently on the Talking Dead, Kirkman himself explained that Otis did bring her in and was killed before he told anyone. That still doesn't really satisfy me, given there appeared to be such a tight window for Sophia to be infected and caught before Rick arrived at the farm. I guess we'll see.

Shane's behaviour seems to have reached a point where the survivors can't function as a single unit anymore. Rick's going to have to do a lot of smoothing things over and any overtures to Shane will just make him appear more weak. It seems more logical now that the group will split. Though Rick will have gained some moxie simply for being the one with the guts to put Sophia out of her misery.

Despite all the bickering between pretty much everyone, it has been nice to see Andrea and Dale reach a modicum of understanding. And Daryl and Carol make a great couple. Their scenes together bring out the best in both actors, so I hope something arises out of that. Several of the other characters need to get something to do soon—T-Dog, the Hershel children (other than Maggie), Patricia—we need to get to know and care about them so they actually matter when something bad happens.

Kirkman's proven that he's willing to divert considerably from the source material. But is he willing to put everyone on the chopping block (emphasis on chopping) as he is in the books? Sophia is expendable, but how is he going to write things when it really comes down to getting rid of major characters? I hope he doesn't wuss out on this aspect that is the series' major strength, because right now there's one biggie walking around who should be dying by the end of the season, as far as I'm concerned.

I'm ready for the gang to move on from the Hershel farm. They never seemed to hang out there this long in the books, and I want to see what's waiting at Fort Benning, and any new characters that may be waiting in the wings. The success of the first half is going to be measured by the strength of the second. If the remaining episodes of The Walking Dead knock it out of the park, then this will all be a very satisfying lead up to a thrilling conclusion. If not, it will begin to reinforce the fears of those who feel Darabont's absence will harm the series. But I'll be waiting eagerly for February to see what happens.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Review: Another Earth

Non Spoiler Review:
Another Earth is director Mike Cahill's Sundance Festival winning entry, a unique gem of a film that doesn't easily fit in the sci fi genre, despite the promotional images of the ginormous alternate Earth hanging in the sky. Rhoda (Brit Marling, who also shares writing credit with Cahill) is a promising graduate with a great future ahead of her. But the night a new planet is discovered, she causes an accident that links her forever with John (William Mapother—Ethan from Lost). The devastated and damaged Rhoda that emerges must deal with her mistakes and the similar ruin she's inflicted on this stranger. Meanwhile, in the sky, the mysterious new Earth grows ever closer.

Another Earth is beautifully shot, with depressing colours and textures to mirror the actors' despair. Only Earth 2, as it's been dubbed, remains the gleaming beacon of hope and redemption in the sky as the characters wander through bleached out backgrounds and wintery landscapes. 

Above all else, Another Earth is an extremely well-written drama. Marling delivers an extraordinary performance, and I hope to see her in other roles. Even Mapother (who still reminds me of Ethan, like, all the time!) shows his acting chops. The movie is so well-crafted that their intimate drama alone can carry the movie, even if you completely remove the second Earth plot. 

My criticism of Another Earth is unique in this case. It arises out of just how damn compelling the storyline and performances are. It's when the science fiction elements of the doppelganger Earth increasingly come into play that the story feels stolen (or interrupted, perhaps), diverging towards a conclusion that, while still very good and fitting (with some Twilight Zone twists), almost depreciates the relationship I watched evolve over the movie.

It's rare that I would criticize the writers for being so good at character development that their story might have been more suited grounded in our everyday realism. I get the impression that Cahill had this vision of an alternate Earth in the sky and was determined to develop a screenplay around it. What he did was create an even more riveting drama that I would have preferred to see resolved without the backdrop of the second Earth and its offerings of second chances. 

I don't think this movie is for everyone, and especially not for those walking into it expecting hard science fiction. Aside from the comments of scientists and philosophers in the background newscasts of the occasional scene, there is no explanation how Earth 2's proximity to our planet doesn't wreak havoc. For that, I would suggest Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, which, coincidentally, I also watched this week. Then again, I don't think that would please the hard sci fi crowd either.

I won't waste time languishing for what it's not. Another Earth was a satisfying little film and managed  to accomplish more on a minimal budget than a lot of blockbusters could hope to. I was pleasantly surprised, given I assumed from the trailer I wouldn't like it. I can't rave enough about Marling's performance and I'll definitely rewatch this again simply for that. And despite my wishes of an alternate version of Another Earth with a more mundane ending, the conclusion we got suited the story, and it still left me with plenty to ponder.
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