Where Was My Fault In Loving You With My Whole Heart?

Maybe this has never happened to you.  Maybe you have perfectly appropriate, clearly defined boundaries.  Maybe you’re able to appreciate what you’ve got while you have it without pining for more.  Good for you.  I, on the other hand, am one greedy monkey.  When I find something I like, I want to hold on to it.  I want to relish in it.  I want to stretch out my time with it, make it last as long as possible.  Maybe you don’t know that place, but it’s a place I’ve come to frequent so often, I might as well buy some drapes and call it home.  Thanks to countless creative minds and a handful of talented actors, I visit that place several times a week.  Allow me to introduce to you five “guest” characters I’ve become so fond of, I can’t bear to think of them as temporary:

Ray Romano as Hank Rizzoli, ParenthoodI am, truly, a fan of the adorable Jason Ritter, who has played the love interest of Lauren Graham’s Sarah Braverman for a couple of seasons.  And while I do think they make one damned cute couple, I have come to prefer the cantankerous Hank Rizzoli as her suitor.  He’s a little older but Sarah is such a spastic, whimsical thing, I think his stern introspective nature would compliment her chaotic personality, be the yin to her yang and allow her to grow and embrace adulthood with a seriousness she lacks but sorely needs.

Joan Cusack as Sheila Jackson, ShamelessCusack has blown me away as the emotionally unstable, sexually deviant girlfriend of Frank Gallagher for two full seasons and, sadly, judging by the turn of events surrounding her character at last season’s close, she’ll likely not join the cast for the upcoming third season.  I’m not typically an advocate for flimsy, convenient plot lines just for the sake of keeping a character around, but Cusack’s bold, hilarious performance brought such joy and raucous humor to the show, it’s hard to imagine it without her.

Zachary Quinto as Dr. Oliver Thredson, American Horror StoryIt’s hard to say how large a part Quinto will have in this current season of AHS but he’s listed as “guest star” in the credits, which makes me fearful that his Dr. Thredson will soon die at Bloody Face’s maniacal hands.  I sincerely hope not, since his delicious portrayal of the catty interior decorator ghost last season was one of the show’s highlights.

Chloe Sevigny as Shelley, AHSTruth be told, imprisoned nymphomaniac Shelley has had the least amount of character development, the worst lines and the most unfortunate haircut of all of AHS: asylum’s characters thus far, but, because Sevigny is such an absurdly skilled actor, I still like Shelley and want her to stick around in the hopes that the writers will improve her dialogue and give her a story line worthy of Sevigny’s talent.

Rupert Friend as Peter Quinn, HomelandProbably my favorite on this list, Friend has, in two episodes, become such a key player and an enigmatic force on Homeland that I’m not only hoping for a lengthy run for him, I’d really like to see him and Claire Danes’ character, Carrie Mathison, develop a relationship beyond the professional.  Both Quinn and Carrie are whip-smart, bull-headed and seemingly volatile.  Add to that each actor’s ability to steal a scene and I think a complicated, charged relationship between the two would make this show even more heart-poundingly intense.

~Nikki

If You Want To Be Awe-Inspired…

It’s been nearly a year since the tenacious Christopher Hitchens left us and, unbelievably, I only just found this lovely video.  The visual quality could be better but don’t let that deter you; this is a gem.

This is why you were one of the greats, my friend:

~N.

War, Children, It’s Just A Shot Away

Let’s talk Homeland – arguably the most exciting, well-written show currently on TV.  If you aren’t watching it, you’re missing out.  Claire Danes stars as Carrie, a CIA agent who suspects that Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), the marine who’s been held captive by al-Qaeda for 8 years, has turned against his country and is acting as a spy for the terrorist group.  Season one kept us in suspense, always questioning but never sure where Brody’s loyalties lay.  By its end, we knew – but we were the only ones.  Carrie’s mental health came into question, causing not only her family and colleagues but Carrie herself to question her sanity.

Four episodes into season two, we know who’s playing for whom and exactly how high the stakes are.  Yet, the show has lost none of its excitement, none of the thrill.  And it’s because of the whip-smart writing and fearless performances.  Homeland consistently takes you to the edge but never goes too far, redefining its limits nearly every episode without ever losing its focus.

Danes and Lewis knock it out of the park every episode and I admit that while I know their story lines must keep them apart the majority of the time, the scenes in which they star together, playing off one another, their strong personalities sparring, are some of the most exhilarating.  Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s mentor, Saul, also plays his role to perfection and Morgan Saylor as Brody’s daughter, Dana, shines in every one of her scenes.  I can’t predict how her budding relationship with the son of the Vice President will come into play but I don’t doubt that it will have a larger, significant role in the grander scheme of things.  Nothing happens just for its own sake with these writers.

I was happy to see Rupert Friend guest starring as Peter Quinn, the guy Estes put in charge of Carrie’s operation.  He and Carrie have already established a tense yet charismatic rapport, both annoying and challenging each other, while each simultaneously intrigued by the other.  I’ve been a fan of Friend’s since Pride & Prejudice; I hope his run on Homeland is a long and relevant one.

Now that Carrie has forced the CIA’s hand in arresting and questioning Brody, I can’t see any other option but for Brody to turn double agent and spy on his benefactor, Abu Nazir.  With these writers, though, who knows what turn of events they’ve got planned.  Every time I think I’ve guessed what will happen, they surprise me.  Any other show would have dragged this out all season, gotten Brody closer to the White House, made his arrest the cliffhanger in the season finale.  But not Homeland.  No cheap tricks or predictable plot lines for this show.  Its writers are simply too smart for such frivolity.  Which is why Sunday night has become my favorite night of the week.

~Nikki

You’ll Be Dead Before The Day Is Done

Season 2 of American Horror Story begins entirely anew, independent of every story line and character that we watched in its first season.  Unlike the scattered, way-too-busy premiere of season 1, this new and different season begins with an evenly paced, focused and strategic start. Here’s what we’ve learned already:

1. Jessica Lange is still The Shit.  She’s back in all her menacing glory as Sister Jude, head nun of the Catholic asylum wherein this season takes place.  She does seem capable of compassion, which would mean she’s not entirely evil, but she’s certainly not a hero, either.

2. Evan Peters returns this season as well, not as Lange’s son, but as a troubled newlywed who witnessed his wife’s murder by what appeared to be aliens.  (Yes, I said aliens.)  No one believes such a story, of course, and Peters’ Kit Walker is admitted into the asylum while awaiting trial.  I have no idea if said aliens are real or a delusion created by Walker’s twisted mind (much like the cutesy inmate Grace, who is either a ghost or a figment of Walker’s imagination) but it sure is an unexpected complication.

3. Unlike his aforementioned co-stars who live in 1964 when the asylum was fully functional, Adam Levine’s character Leo and his newly-wedded wife Theresa (Jenna Dewan-Tatum) are members of the here and now.  They take a tour of the twelve most haunted sites in America, one of which is Briarcliff – the now closed and abandoned asylum – wherein something awful happens.  Not being a huge Maroon 5 fan, I wasn’t all that sorry to see Leo’s arm get mysteriously hacked off.  But I would like to know what that hideous monster-like creature was that did it.

4. Chloe Sevigny is just one of many superb guest stars this season and, of course, she’s starring as an incurable nymphomaniac.  Stick to what you’re good at, I say, and Sevigny is good at playing sexually deviant women.

5. Joseph Fiennes joins the cast as Monsignor Timothy Howard, the delectable priest after whom the seemingly tight-assed Sister Jude secretly lusts, and James Cromwell plays Dr. Arden, a mad scientist type of doctor who performs experiments (sometimes fatal) on the inmates without families and who probably created the monster that stole Leo’s arm.

6. Sarah Paulson guest stars as Lana Winters, a nosy journalist desperate to launch her career by getting an exclusive interview with Bloody-Face (the adorable nickname given to Walker, who is assumed to have killed his wife), but lands herself in the asylum as prisoner at the merciless hands of Sister Jude.

Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck seem determined to make some social statements here – what with two of the more victimized characters (Kit Walker and Lana Winters) voluntary participants in socially unacceptable (in 1964 and, to a lesser degree, today) relationships.  Walker and his wife were an interracial couple and Winters is a lesbian, which, no doubt, is the reason Sister Jude locked her up at all – to “cure her of her perversion.”

What made me most uncomfortable throughout is the knowledge that this inhumane treatment of mentally unstable people actually occurred.   The way mentally ill people were treated and abused by doctors, nurses, religious figureheads, police officers and prison guards is a reflection of one of many dark, ugly periods of human history and I’ve always felt so sorry for those poor folks who happened to have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or any other mental illness in a time when the most educated of humans thought they could be cured by torture.  A sad, shameful part of our collective history, but also one perfectly ripe backdrop for a horror story.

~Nikki

If Only My Eyes Were Not Pinned To Your Page

Being the intense fan of the horror genre (in either visual or literary form) that I am, I’ve recently decided to read a Stephen King novel in honor of the upcoming, most hallowed of contrived holidays.  I’ve actually only read two and a half of King’s works: Pet Sematary (one of my favorite books, EVER), Under The Dome and half of The Stand.  I’ve always wanted to read countless more but the list of books I plan to read is ever growing and his novels just seem to continuously get pushed to the side.  But not this October!  I’ve endeavored to read Salem’s Lot and now, slightly more than half-way through it, I know I’ve made one damned fine choice.

Not only have I not read Salem’s Lot before now, but I’ve never seen the film on which it’s based and haven’t really heard anything about the story except that it involves vampires.  Not the wimpy pseudo-vampires of Twilight fame but real, dangerous, predatory, blood-sucking, life-taking creatures of the dark.  As they were meant to be written.

What stands out more than anything, though, and no doubt what has made King the iconic author that he is, is King’s ability to slowly weave together a story.  His sense of timing – the pacing of the tale’s unraveling is sheer perfection.  It is damn hard to make words on a page scary but King has had no trouble.  He times it perfectly, giving enough suspense, enough eagerness, enough slow-burning interest to ignite your imagination and immerse you into the scene.  I’ve read a few books in recent years that made me wonder how the hell their author ever got published, let alone gained enough momentum to make a buck or two.  Never do I wonder such a thing while reading a Stephen King book.  Whether his work is for you or not, there is no question of talent.

I’d love to know which of his many, many novels is your favorite.  It’s too soon to tell how Salem’s Lot will rank on my short list, which means Pet Sematary is still number one for me.  What’s yours?

~N.

Stop Falling

It happened again.  When will I learn, dear readers?  When will I learn.  Here’s how it goes: I see a movie trailer.  An intriguing, thrilling scary movie trailer and it fills me with hope.  With promise.  With the kind of optimistic expectation I’ve felt before and once again, it sucks me in.  Somehow it makes me believe that against all odds, against years of experience, against the better judgment of my own black, jaded heart, this one will be great.  It will rise above the others in plot, in character development, in its story arc and it will scare me.  And once again, the movie itself lets me down.

Sinister appears to have it all – a driven, distracted lead character, a couple of precocious children, a distraught spouse, an eerie, seemingly haunted house (in which atrocities have taken place), the dead souls of children past, and one fierce-looking villain.  And the truth is, Sinister does have it all.  It has it all and even a bit more.  It just doesn’t know what to do with any of it.

It begins with the Oswalt family moving into a new home.  Ellison (Ethan Hawke, who now sounds like he smokes ten packs of cigarettes daily – his voice is wrecked), we soon learn, is a true crime writer.  He finds some interesting, unsolved case, moves into the neighborhood where it happened, conducts his own investigation and writes a book about the whole thing.  He’s done this thrice – the first time actually managing to solve the murder and bring about justice – the other two times, he got it wrong and led officials down the wrong path, all but ensuring that justice would never be reached.  This time around is different, he assures his wife, Tracy (played appallingly badly by Juliet Rylance).  This is the book that will redeem his career, that will get him a movie deal, the National Book Award, a talk show circuit, wealth, fame, prestige.  This book will be his legacy.  Without his family’s knowledge or consent, he moves them into the very home in which the murders have occurred.  Four members of the family who’d previously inhabited it hung in the tree in the backyard and the young daughter, Stephanie, missing since that day.  Ellison sets up his office and begins work that first night, ready and eager to claim his ticket to stardom.

And then, roughly 15 or 20 minutes into it, Sinister slows down.  Like, way down.  It gradually becomes painfully, boorishly slow.  The majority of the story unfolds through home movies Ellison finds in the attic – reels of super 8 film watched on a projector.  Which wouldn’t be terrible in itself if there were just a few minutes devoted to this, but nearly ALL of the action occurs in these home movies.  Which gives Sinister the feel of watching a movie about watching movies.  I very quickly grew tired of watching Ethan Hawke stare at the projections on his wall.  There are a few cheap shots throughout, sudden loud noises or flashes of a demonic face that might make you jump.  But Sinister never gains enough momentum to make you really afraid.  There is no real suspense because most of it is time spent watching Hawke watch amateur snuff films.  This kind of detached slow reveal prevented me from connecting enough with the story to ever feel scared.

The villain – an evil demon called Bughuul dating all the way back to Babylonian times – is hardly even in it.  We catch a few mere glimpses of him during the home movie-watching and a couple more flashes later on but there is no interaction between Bughuul and Ellison and only one very brief encounter between Bughuul and one of Ellison’s children at the very end (literally, the final scene).  Which, again, kept me so detached from him that it was impossible for me to find him frightening or intimidating in any way.

The end is the film’s only saving grace.  Or, it would be if I hadn’t seen it coming from an hour away.  If you plan to see Sinister, please stop reading here.  I’m about to unfold the entire not-so-complicated plot.

So, a family is murdered in the backyard and a little girl is missing.  Ellison sits down to watch a reel marked “Hanging Out, 2011″ and after a few minutes of family fun in the backyard, the film cuts to four people being hung from a sturdy branch.  Little Stephanie and the probable killer are not in sight.  Ellison jots down the obvious questions: “Who’s running the projector?” and “Where is Stephanie?”  These seemed like stupid questions nearly from the beginning to me.  Isn’t it obvious?  Okay, at the immediate start, I thought it was the killer taping the grisly scene and the abducted kid was off-camera somewhere.  But shortly after Ellison’s first video chat with Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio in a brief cameo) wherein we learn that the demon is Bughuul – eater of the souls of children – I began to think that the abducted child must be the one running the show at Bughuul’s bidding.  And surprise, surprise – I was right.  We never see Bughuul interact with either of Ellison’s children but we do see a painting of his face made by Ellison’s daughter, Ashley, on her bedroom wall.  Which, of course, leads one to believe she is his next chosen victim.  But she never seems afraid or taken in with him.  In fact, she and brother Trevor appear entirely unaffected by the move into the new home (with the exception of Trevor’s night terrors, which have increased in frequency since moving in, but, which, he never remembers).  Why are they unaffected?  Oh, that’s right.  Because NOTHING HAPPENS to anyone.  Ellison watches some disturbing home footage and hears a few bumps in the night.  His wife freaks out for no reason I can fathom and they pack it up and leave.

Which is where it finally becomes mildly interesting, now roughly 85 minutes into its 110 minute-length.  Or, it would become mildly interesting, if you haven’t already guessed at what’s to come.  Ellison realizes it’s the missing kid running the camera but only moments before being drugged by his baby girl, who promptly ties him up with her mom and brother and kills them all with an ax.  She’s then carried off by Bughuul into the netherworld to join his other claimed souls.  And that’s the most we see of him.

I like the ending.  I like the story itself and I even like the main character, a man so driven by his desire for success and recognition, he risks his family and marriage to achieve it.  And I like the idea of Bughuul, ancient demon-like entity who feeds on the souls of children.  What I don’t like is the story’s execution.  It leaves its audience too detached, too removed from the characters, the villain and the story itself to ever evoke a proper scare.

So, for now, my bitter, disappointed heart and I shall await Hollywood’s next attempt.  And try not to get our hopes up.

~Nikki

There Isn’t Room For Both Of Us – “Looper” Review

For the most part, Looper takes place in 2044, in Kansas City.  The future looks grim, the gap between rich and poor so hugely massive, it kind of feels like an Orwell novel.  There’s actually very little time travel in it, since it hasn’t yet been discovered in 2044 and 30 years from then, when it will have been, it’s quickly and strictly made illegal.  The mafia, of course, finds a way to use it for its own purposes.  That is, disposing of bodies.  They employ these “loopers” to swiftly kill the poor schlep they send back in time and then dispose of the body, essentially making all traces of that person’s existence disappear.  When a looper’s services are no longer needed, his future self is sent back to 2044 to be killed by his younger self.  The person being killed is always masked upon arrival and shot immediately.  The looper only knows it’s his older self when he collects his payment, significantly larger than usual.  His contract is complete and he’s free to live out the rest of his life.  That is, until he reaches the age at which he’ll be sent back to 2044 to die at his own much younger hands.  This is called “closing the loop.”

Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Joe, a looper with an unsavory childhood and a drug addiction problem.  He’s good at his job and is hoarding a cache of money (in the form of gold bars – the currency of the future) for when his loop is closed.  When that day comes, though, he sees his future self’s face – somehow not covered as it should be –  recognizes him and hesitates ever so briefly.  Future Joe (Bruce Willis) takes advantage of his momentary lapse to knock him on his ass and escape, putting his younger self in mortal danger.  The mafia does not look on this kind of error lightly.  What ensues is a clever game of cat and mouse and the slow unfolding of a surprisingly interesting plot, one I’d rather not reveal, lest it ruin your movie-going experience.  I walked into the movie thinking that the motivation for Willis’s escape was simple self-preservation, believable enough in itself but much too simple to carry a full-length film.  Turns out, my expectations were too simple.

Willis’s Joe has a motivation beyond survival for escaping death and the explanation behind them nicely closes several gaps between his Joe and Gordon Levitt’s Joe.  The film appears to be a futuristic film about time travel but really it’s about identity and sacrifice, the lengths to which people will go to protect what’s theirs.  This theme is present everywhere – in Willis’s motivation for running from his death, in Emily Blunt’s maddeningly relentless protection of her son, in her child’s (who, by the way, is played with icy perfection by child actor Pierce Gagnon) determination to protect himself and his mother, and finally, by the choice JGL makes at the film’s close.  It’s a gimmicky kind of movie done in a very non-gimmicky way.

The performances are solid, especially Joseph Gordon Levitt’s portrayal of twenty-something Joe.  My prediction: JGL is very soon to be an A-list actor.  The kid can act his ass off.  He has a compelling on-screen presence, stealing scenes from the very capable Jeff Daniels and ultra-action star Bruce Willis.  Daniels plays Joe’s boss, a Mafioso from 2074 living in 2044 to manage the loopers.  What a refreshingly different role for him, and one he plays convincingly well.  Emily Blunt continues to impress.  She seems to have all one needs to succeed in her chosen profession – beauty and a great deal of talent.  If she chooses the right roles, she’ll likely enter the realm of actors the likes of Natalie Portman and Naomi Watts – gorgeous and elegant and capable of carrying both major blockbusters and artsy character pieces.  And Willis delivers a perfectly adequate performance, doing those things – running from gunmen, shooting people, getting the snot beat out of him, beating the snot out of others – he does best.

I can’t say that Looper will blow your mind or change your life – it isn’t that kind of movie. But for what it is – an action flick with a twist – it excels above its peers. Its plot is more intricate, more interesting and better executed than many an action film and the performances from every major player completely sell it, making it a movie well worth watching.

~Nikki