Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pillars of the Earth

Another day, another Starz historical drama. Only this one is a mini-series (remember those?) called The Pillars of the Earth and aired last year. So you can score it on DVD or through Netflix if you desire.

Let's start off with a personal anecdote. I know you guys love those like woah. About two years ago I was thinking to myself, "Self, there must be more to the audiobook genre than Harry Potter and Twilight*. Why don't you see what else is out there and start listening?"

I can't remember how I got turned onto it, but I decided that Ken Follet's, Pillars of the Earth, was a good place to start so I reserved the audiobook from my library. And then I picked it up and almost started laughing. You guys, this thing was massive. The unabridged novel was over 30 discs long. It took me a long time to get through it, but get through it I did. I wish I could say I enjoyed it, and while I certainly appreciated the story for it's epic scale, huge cast of well-established characters, and ability to hold my attention--all in all I was glad when it ended.

Because in my opinion, this was a story that made you care about a bunch of characters and then proceeded to shit all over them for 30 discs (let's say more than 40 hours). Seriously. Bad stuff seemed to happen to these people a lot, and sure that's realistic for a tale set in the medieval world, but as a reader or listener it gets draining.

So why did I decide to watch the mini-series that Starz aired based on the novel? Mostly because I was curious and wanted to see how an adaption went, but maybe because I'm also a glutton for punishment. Or because I needed something to write about here on the blog and I figured there were only so many posts I could squeeze out of the Best Christmas Movie teat.

I was all set to write this in-depth review and then I found this one from Time and it's pretty much exactly what I wanted to say. Allow me to shamelessly quote their sum-up of the plot and some of the review:
England is in a succession struggle (a period called the Anarchy) after a ship disaster killed a royal heir. The intrigue draws in the Church, which is experiencing its own power battle: the very very upright Prior Philip (Matthew Macfayden) rises in the Church and comes into conflict with the very very corrupt bishop Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane). Among the points of contention, the building of a planned massive cathedral. Around the edges of this story comes in a lot of the juicy stuff: warring nobles with their lusts and shifting alliances, and the trials of poor but virtuous stonemason Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) who wants to design the cathedral and whose life is complicated by his Wiccan consort Ellen (Natalia W├Ârner). (I would say Tom Builder is aptly named, but people were aptly named by design in the 12th-century.)

In 1980 on NBC, this show (with the sex and violence heavily cut back) would have been a landmark. But after a decade of complex, sophisticated, morally challenging cable dramas, it’s a letdown...All that said, the production values are high enough and the history heady enough that the show should appeal to fans of big historical pics willing to overlook some simplistic drama. Pillars can be an intriguing look at a period of history that we tend to see covered more in mythic stories of Holy Grail parodies.
I think that pretty much covers it. The show follows the book very faithfully, such that sometimes I was a little bored since I knew what was going to happen. But the entire cast is excellent and I found myself sucked in almost against my will. Let me put it this way: disc 2 got popped in as soon as disc 1 ran out even though I didn't think the show was that fabulous.

And I don't seem to remember that incest subplot from the book, but it's cable. Whatever.

A lot of the cast will be familiar to you, Ian McShane is of course from Deadwood, and you've got Matthew Macfayden from the most recent Pride and Prejudice movie. He's much better in this, by the way. Also Eddie Redmayne (from the recent My Week With Marilyn) is excellent as the real "hero" of the show, Jack.

MacFayden is MUCH better as a monk than Mr. Darcy, thank you very much.

I'll also give the show props for making all the political intrigue and shifting alliances easier to follow than the book. In fact, I think that's where the series' real pleasure lies. While the book seemed really depressing due to all the terrible things that happened, watching the characters on the television respond and try to bring themselves back from disaster (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) with quick-thinking, gumption, and good old fashioned wits was really interesting. The visuals of the cathedral are also quite stunning.

If you're a fan of historical drama on a grand scale with a side of violence and sex, then you might want to think about checking this out. A warning though: it's no Game of Thrones. But if you're looking for something to fill the winter hiatus that won't require a huge commitment (the entire series is only 8 episodes long) this could be just the ticket.

*don't judge.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Recapping AHS: The Jig Is Up!

1984. Young Tate plays in the house while Constance is passed out on the couch listening to Newhart when his toy truck as it moves down the stairs to the basement on its own. Young Tate follows, finding the toy truck in the darkness when something that looks hideous grabs him, pulling him into the dark. Lady Macbeth suddenly yells, “No, Thaddeus!” and pulls Tate away, telling him that all he has to do is shut his eyes and tell Thaddeus “go away” and he will. She comforts a very freaked out Tate, who says he wishes she were his mommy. It’s understandable – honestly she does “comforting” a lot better than Constance seems able to. In our time, teenage Tate finds the toy truck again and sees Lady Macbeth crying in the basement. Tate says he can’t give her Vivien’s baby any longer. Lady Macbeth is not to be dissuaded and says the baby is hers.

Dating's going to be hard on Thaddeus

Act I! Ben is dragging Violet through the house, trying to get her to go with him to pick up Vivien. Violet sobs and resists getting in the car. Ben throws her in anyway and as he pulls away, Violet is back upstairs. She and Tate wonder how she’s going to break the news about her death to her parents. Violet correctly surmises that they’ll always be stuck as they are now, never growing or evolving. They find Spock and Mr. Spock decorating the nursery and Violet tells them that the Harmons are leaving, but the gays point out that the family will never leave as long as Violet’s stuck there, which works perfectly for their plans to raise the babies themselves. Violet calls Constance over and she wants to talk to the medium about how to get rid of ghosts. Constance finds the nursery and the snarking continues. Blah, blah blah, everyone wants a baby. Babies all around. Constance says the gays can have Ben’s baby, but not her grandson. Spock says they need both – they’re going to wait until the babies are older and them smother them to keep them cute forever. With hypoallergenic pillows! Because this show is nothing if not sensitive to stereotypes about gay men. Or maybe just suburbanites. I’m honestly not sure which is more into specialty pillows.

Act II! The medium has arrived and it takes her all of two seconds to realize that Violet is dead. The medium says there’s an evil in the house, fed by the house’s traumatic history and trying to break through to our world. She says spirits can be banished, but the last time it was done successfully was 400 years ago at Roanoke, when the entire colony died and then haunted the local native tribes. According to the medium, the Indian Chief banished the spirits by burning the colonists’ personal items and saying the magic word “croatoan.” In the hospital, Vivien is being discharged. She’s planning on giving birth in Florida with her family, but the doctor says Vivien needs an emergency C-section and one of the two babies is ready to be born, while the other is slowly dying. Back home, Violet tells Tate they need the wedding ring from Mr. Spock for the banishment spell. Tate goes to Mr. Spock who is understandably a little bitter about Tate killing him. Tate offers himself to him, yes, in the biblical sense, and again he’s still totally not gay. Mr. Spock is not going for it, beating Tate up, confessing along the way that he was planning on leaving his husband right before Tate killed him and now they’re stuck together. Spock overhears this and runs off, but Tate managed to get the ring. Ben and Vivien arrive home when Vivien starts having contractions. Ben retrieves Violet, who says they need to leave and not let Vivien in the house. Ben wants to know how she got away from the car, assuming she’s on drugs because that totally explains teleportation when Violet drops the bomb – she tells him she’s dead and can’t leave the house.

Yay, motherhood!

Act III! Vivien is giving birth on the couch, attended by Constance and Ben. All the phones including cell phones aren’t working. Outside, the Evil Twins are trashing the car. Then the power goes out. Ever observant, Ben is starting to notice things may not be normal. The dead nurses and Dr. Montgomery are helping Vivien in the living room and Ben can see all of it. Constance says the house is trying to help them. Dr. Montgomery orders ether and Vivien flashes between the current birth and giving birth to Violet. Several horrific minutes later, the first baby is stillborn. Dr. Montgomery passes the “stillborn” baby to Lady Macbeth, who cradles it kindly. In the basement, Violet throws the ring into the furnace fire and yells “croatoan” to banish Spock. It…doesn’t work. Neither does burning sage or anything else. Spock says all those spells and chants are bullshit – attempts the living make to let them believe the world is more orderly and controlled than it really is. Spock recognizes that he’s doomed to spend eternity with a man who doesn’t love him, but of the two of their predicaments, Violet’s is worse because Tate will always be a monster. Violet says he’s changed, but Spock asks if that can be true given that he raped Vivien. Revelation!

Act IV! The birth is getting bloodier and screamier. Vivien says the baby is ripping her apart. Basically this is the worst birth since that Twilight movie. The baby comes out crying finally, with Vivien not looking good. Constance takes the baby then makes for the kitchen where she and Old Moira wash the baby. Moira cries and calls the baby beautiful, but Hayden suddenly is there to collect. In the living room, Vivien is hemorrhaging and sees Violet appear and says she’s sorry and if Vivien is in pain, she should let go. Ben sees none of this and begs Vivien to stay. Violet beckons Vivien as she goes limp and still. Ben’s left alone in the room, now ghostless, with just Vivien’s body. Upstairs Violet tells Tate that Vivien has died and wants to know if Tate knows why Constance wanted him to see Ben. She tells Tate that he killed the kids who came to them on Halloween and he’s dead because the cops killed him. Tate breaks down, swearing he’s different now, but Violet says he isn’t and she can’t forgive him. His baby killed her mother, so Violet shuts her eyes and tells him “go away” – the magic incantation that actually banishes him. Violet is left crying alone in her room until Vivien appears and comforts her, telling her she was brave. Violet says she's sorry Vivien had to die and lose her baby. Vivien responds that she didn’t lose her baby at all.

Next time – the season finale!

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Despite having watched very little of the show itself, Spartacus: Blood and Sand has gotten its fair share of coverage here on the tv blog during the last couple years. It all started when the TV Sluts got to sit in at the Comic Con panel which made us all feel extra special, and then when the show began the pilot was available on Netflix. But then I didn't have access to Starz and the show kind of fell off my radar.

Until September of this year, when the show's star, Andy Whitfield, died of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and all of a sudden Spartacus was back in the news.

The show had been working on a prequel series while Whitfield was in treatment, but as it became clear their star would not be up to returning to the physically grueling role, they replaced him (with his blessing I was gratified to hear). So here we have a hit show (by modest Starz standards) that was replacing its lead actor after only one season. My curiosity was raised and I found myself wanting to see if the show was actually any good.

When I wrote about the pilot episode it was in the context of a Secret Boyfriend of the Week post, and yeah, there is a LOT of flesh on display in this show. I am sure you all know of its hyper-reality elements similar to the film 300, and every episode has its fair share of fight scenes and sex.  But it's actually a lot more complex than that. After the pilot, the bulk of the action takes place in the villa of Batiatus and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless!), the folks who bought our hero at the end of the pilot episode. Basically, they are the people who train/own the gladiators and rich Romans rent them out to appear in games or in private exhibitions. Think of them as the people who own the racehorse--and have pinned all their future hopes on one particular stud.

I told you, I'm Lucy Lawless, not Xena.

The plots swirl around Spartacus sure, but it's more about how his arrival and rise to stardom in the arena affects the other characters. Batiatus' ambition knows no bounds and he'll do whatever it takes to increase his power and wealth. Then there's the other gladiators (who are none too pleased to have this upstart take all the glory) and even the servants in the home get in on the action. That's only the tip of the iceberg; there's a lot of subplots working here and the show has a feel of a manor house drama. Everyone is in the same place geographically, but not in terms of status or happiness.

Through it all, Spartacus is driven to be reunited with his wife who was also sold into slavery when he was captured as a deserter from the Roman army. I was happy to see that particular subplot got resolved about halfway through the season in a way that made sense (no spoilers here though). Just when I thought things were going to start to get old, the writers surprised me by taking the story in a new direction. Basically, there's more here in common with HBO's Rome than I had expected. It's clear this show was well thought-out before it ever started shooting and the pacing and complexity of the story really surprised me.

So it's kind of like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downtown Abbey...only with more swords and sandals. And boobs.

The first season certainly ended in an intense and surprising finale, and I definitely plan on watching Season 2 whenever I can get my hands on it. There's a new Spartacus to break in, and I can only hope that Liam McIntye can carry on Andy Whitfield's legacy. I was expecting someone who just looked good in a loincloth, but Whitfield really impressed me with his acting.

If you are a fan of period drama, naked flesh, intrigue, vengeance, and gratuitous yet awesome violence, I really suggest you check out the first season. The second season (Spartacus: Vengeance) is set to air in January 2012. There's a four minute preview of the new season available on the Starz website.

You've got your work cut out for you, Liam. And large shoes to fill.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Best Christmas Movies: Tim Burton Edition

Tim Burton is probably most known for his visual style, typically mashing up twisted and frightening images with the mundane world of American suburbia. Given the prevalence of ghosts, demons and creepity critters, Halloween is obviously his thematic holiday of choice, however it doesn’t take much digging to see that the guy has a major thing for Christmas. Almost all of his movies set at least some part of their action around the holiday season, so while he doesn’t make “Christmas” movies, per se, you can still find some truly innovative classics showing up around this time.

For my money, the best Christmas-ish movie that he’s done is Edward Scissorhands. I admit a certain amount of nostalgia blinds me a bit on this one – without going too far into the Ghosts of Clovis’ Past, I confess that the first date I ever went on was to see this movie. It also hits my sweet spot of showcasing characters that are essentially damaged beyond repair, but still trying to be something more than what they are.

Edward Scissorhands is a fairy tale about change and how to become something better, more beautiful. Edward, played by Johnny Depp, is a not-quite finished creation of a dead inventor, played by Vincent Price in his final role. Edward is shy and unsure, but has developed a talent for using the scissors he has for hands to make beautiful sculptures out of plants, bushes and ice. He’s trying to convert the loneliness and darkness of his life into something beautiful. Likewise, Winona Ryder’s Kim starts off as the “cool kid” cheerleader dating the controlling and violent Jim. Kim comes to love Edward after seeing beyond what’s on the surface and grows as a person because of it. But the most obvious example comes from the movie’s epilogue, where (spoilers!) an aging Kim tells the story of Edward to her young granddaughter on a cold winter night, explaining that before Edward came down from his mountaintop castle, it never snowed and afterwards it did, showcasing an entire community the manages to change and evolve after its involvement with someone new.

I’m a sucker for the visuals of the movie. Winona Ryder dancing in the snowfall created by Edward’s gigantic ice sculptures while Danny Elfman’s angelic score plays is easily the movie’s most iconic scene and absolutely the one that I look forward to every single time I watch it. I think I was lucky to see the movie as a very young teenager. The illustration of the simple and sweet love between Edward and Kim, uncomplicated by messy adult reality of the same emotion, is pretty much perfect for someone that age. Add in a very unsubtle dash of angst about connection and the inability to touch and hold someone, made literal by Edward’s hands, and you’ve got the perfect preteen emotional cocktail.

I'm 33 years old and this still melts my sad, bitter heart.

As such, it’s easy to see how Burton isn’t exactly hiding that this movie is a fantasy of himself and his own childhood. The nondescript suburban community tracks nicely with his own childhood in Burbank, California and Edward himself, wild-haired, shy, misunderstood artistic marvel that he is, is an obvious placeholder for how Burton sees himself. It’s that kind of nostalgia that so easily brings this movie into the Christmas movie pantheon, and not just because the final act is set on Christmas Eve. It aims for (and, largely, hits) all the same themes that traditional Christmas movies employ – innocence, family, love. Even Christmas cookies play a role.

The lessons and themes of Edward Scissorhands are not overly complex, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. Christmas movies are largely stuffed to the gills with sentimentality, from Dickens’ miserly Scrooge to modern family holiday flicks where everyone lives in a large country house and there’s always snow on the ground. We watch these movies to feel sentimental; to hope for, as Bing Crosby sang, a Christmas “just like the ones I used to know.” For me, who first saw this movie a few weeks before Christmas at age 13, it exactly fits the bill.

And even though it’s been over 20 years since I first saw this movie, I still listen to the Danny Elfman soundtrack every single bloody time it snows.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Recapping AHS: We Didn't Start The Fire

Sorry for the delay, all. Vacation got in the way. That means two AHS recaps for you this week! Hooray!

In 1994, Constance is serving a ridiculously candied ham to Tate, Addie and Burning Man in what I suppose is meant to be a family dinner. Tate offers to say grace, which in true angsty teenage grunge fashion, is pretty bitter, citing his father who “ran away” from the family and being grateful that his mother is shaking up with a man she doesn’t love who let his original family burn. Addie, either being the cutest or the slyest person, offers a hearty “Amen.” Burning Man says Tate will understand better when he’s older, meanwhile who wants tickets to Brigadoon next week? Tate blames Burning Man for killing Beau but Constance tells him to shut it. Because she’s awesome, Addie just keeps eating dinner. Later, Tate does lines of coke in his bedroom and retrieves a weapons stockpile from under his bed, including sniper rifle, because I guess he was planning on joining the Michigan Militia? Survivalist fantasies be damned, he instead goes to Burning Man’s office and douses him with gasoline, setting him on fire before heading off to the high school to get in touch with his inner Columbine.

Monday mornings at the office can really burn you, you know?

Act I! Ben comes to the hospital to apologize to Vivien and says that he knows she was raped and that the twins have two fathers. He says she can be released just as soon as they work out the “legal hiccups” of Vivien shooting Ben. Vivien refuses to return to the house. Elsewhere, detectives tell Constance that Travis is dead and show her the gruesome crime scene photos, because the LAPD is nothing if not sensitive. Back in the house, Ben is dealing with a sudden infestation of flies and is visited by a truancy officer who says Violet hasn’t been to school in 16 days. Ben tells Violet they can find her a new school, but she has to start going, which she agrees to. Constance visits Burning Man, pretending she just wants comfort but quickly pulling a knife on him and blaming him for killing Travis. Burning Man says he only moved the body and that one of the ghosts killed him. Constance realizes tells Burning Man she never loved him and that even dead, Travis is still twice the man. Burning Man says, “He is now.” Oh snap. Back home, Violet is leaving to go to school when Tate forcibly stops her from leaving the house. (I see where you’re going with this, show!) The detectives are back, suspecting that Constance, who doesn’t help her case by insulting the Korean race and then accidentally dropping the knife that she threatened Burning Man with from her purse.

Act II! Downtown, the detectives remark how people close to Constance seem to end up dead, like her three children, or missing, like her husband and Moira. A flashback reveals that Constance is the one who buried Moira’s body and she did it in her shoulder pads and high heels. Also, she ground up her husband’s body and fed it to her dogs in the basement. Constance is hardcore. Before the detectives can j’accuse her too much, they are shooed out by a lawyer, who, because he’s a new character, I’m betting will either end up dead in the basement or having sex with Vivien. At the house, an exterminator is checking the crawlspace under the house for the source of the flies. He discovers something that freaks him out, but before he can scramble out, he’s killed by Tate. While making his way up to the attic where Violet is hiding out, Tate overhears Ben talking with a boarding school. He tells Violet Ben wants to keep them apart, but he’s going to take care of it and then dons the Gimp suit to become Justice Man!

Act III! In the basement, Burning Man is recovering Travis’ clothes. (Sidebar, how thick are the walls in this house that ALL these people can get in without anyone in other rooms hearing them?) Travis wants to know if he’s made the news and Burning Man tells him they’re now referring to him as the “Boy Dahlia”. They’re interrupted by two burned little girls playing tea party in the corner, who ask Travis to come back to play. As Burning Man watches them, his still-smoldering wife comments on how good Travis is with the girls, marking yet another time in Burning Man’s life where Travis has upstaged him with people he cares about. Burning Man asks why he’s finally seeing his family now, after all this time. His wife tells him that he’s “on the cusp” and it’s about as sweet of a scene as you can have with four people who are literally burned to death. Burning Man says he’ll make Constance pay for what she did, but his wife reminds him that Constance isn’t the responsible one. Cut to Ben naked in the shower, a return to earlier themes, when he is suddenly attacked by GimpTate. They tussle and Ben manages to unmask Tate just as he is losing consciousness from chloroform. Man, Hollywood loves that stuff, don’t they?

Pictured: The moment this show admitted it's just a vehicle for all your Dylan McDermott S&M fantasies.

In the attic, Tate tries to convince Violet to commit suicide with him, “like Romeo and Juliet”. Violet seems to agree, but then tries to get away from Tate. She runs outside and calls for help, but the passing couple on the street doesn’t hear her, although their dog does. She tries to run off the grounds, but is instantly back in the kitchen. She tries multiple times to leave, but always comes back to the house. She tells Tate she doesn’t want to die, but he says “it’s too late for that.” I TOTALLY CALLED THIS ONE! MUST CREDIT CLOVIS!

Act IV! Tate takes Violet to the basement crawlspace and shows her the source of all those flies – it’s her rapidly decaying body. She died back in the bathtub with that suicide “attempt.” Downtown, the detectives tell Constance that Burning Man has confessed to Travis’s murder and want to know if she can help ascertain his motive. Constance suggests he confessed to pacify his guilty conscience. Back in Violet’s room, Tate and Violet discuss the practicalities of dating while dead. Neither actually remember dying, but Tate says it’s okay because now they’ll be together forever. It’s not clear if Violet’s all that thrilled about this. In jail, and hilariously next to a “no smoking” sign, Burning Man tells Constance he confessed because he needs to pay for his crimes with her. Constance tells him, “You’re going to die in here.”

Next time – BABIES!!!