Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Alphabet TV - B is for.... Big Love

First off, Cinemania has my review of Unsolved. In the highly unlikely event you were contemplating seeing this fairly-obscure product of the Oklahoma University Moving Image Arts Programme, don't.

Second, on with Alphabet TV!

Though actually, I should probably clarify a couple other things about it first. One is, we're waaay ahead of where I'm writing in the alphabet - I've just been slack and busy by turns. The other is that we're not binge-watching things in the traditional sense. The rule of Alphabet TV is that we watch things a season at a time, at whatever season we're currently up to. So for the last post about American Horror Story I should really have clarified that I meant Season 1.

Now, though - B is for Big Love. In case you're not familiar with it, Big Love is a dramedy about Bill (Bill Paxton) who is a fundamentalist Mormon living the Principle (ie, polygamous marriage) undercover in mainstream LDS society in Utah with his three wives and all of their children (I've actually lost count of how many there are). We're currently up to Season 3, but in this case it's actually not super-important for you to know that.

Big Love is a weird show. On the one hand, the whole deceptive undercover element is pretty interesting - and the various ruses the family use to avoid detection are pretty clever, and when it reverts to essentially being a dramedy about family under pressure it's far from the worst one I've seen. On the other, the central conflict is between Bill and his friends (the "good" polygamists) and the ultra-fundamentalist compound of Juniper Creek where Bill was raised. That is, the conflict is between "good" polygamists and "evil" polygamists. Juniper Creek is definitely warped, but it almost feels like it needs to be in order for Bill to look ordinary and decent in contrast.

Bill attempts to treat his wives with respect and dignity, but his actual belief structure dictates that he is priest-king of his own house and that his wives and children are beholden to him as a result. It's a deeply misogynistic and patriarchal structure, and seeing the dictator attempt to be benign doesn't really change that. There are also troublesome elements of the history of Mormonism as a whole which briefly surface, then disappear without much attention. I'm thinking specifically of the overt racism in some of the early doctrines, which is raised by a random black walk-on character and never mentioned again.

That said, you don't have to  take the characters' beliefs on to enjoy the show. The acting is largely great - especially Harry Dean Stanton who brings a peculiar beauty and melancholy to the role of the head of the Juniper Creek compound - and the relationships between the characters play out in consistently interesting ways.

Maybe check it out, see what you think?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Alphabet TV! A is for.... American Horror Story

Having got bored of the movie offerings at our local DVD rental place (and with my wife feeling hard done by because we tend to watch a lot of my review movies that I pick from a list on Cinemania as well as any I pick at the shop) we decided to give TV series a go. However, as mild OCD is a guiding force in our lives, we decided the only rational way to do this was to start with the A's and work forward, watching one boxed set at a time until we loop around.

It's going well - we're currently watching the closest to a dire series we've gotten, and we're up to L. It also transpires that fitting TV epsiodes into our lives is currently easier than watching movies.

At this point it occurs to me that I really ought to document this in case anyone thinks it's amusing. Therefore behold and wonder at the awesome force of ALPHABET TV.

A is for... Amercan Horror Story
I didn't really have any expectations of this - though I was cynical about the capacity of a series to maintain the scares and atmosphere over a whole run.

I was initially really impressed - each episode seemed to have a new unique scary thing that genuinely creeped us out, and the theme music managed to give us the jitters pretty much every time.

The premise (only mild spoilers, I promise) is that a troubled family move into a house which for some reason causes everyone who dies there to become a ghost. The collection of ghosts are pretty unnerving (at least to start with) but toward the end of the season everything did kind of degenerate into "Desperate Housewives, but everyone's dead".

A noble experiment.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


Way back in 2011, in an attempt to stop neglecting this blog so much, I reviewed a terrible movie I'd watched called Asylum. If you can't be bothered going back and reading it my post in full, the movie was about teenagers being stalked and murdered by the ghost of a sadistic psychiatrist who wielded lobotomy picks as weapons. It was really very bad.

Anyhow, one of the things I mentioned in that review was that it was that the non-stupid bits of the killer psychiatrist's story loosely mirrored the life and work of Dr. Walter Freeman, the American physician who pioneered and did much to popularise the transorbital "icepick" lobotomy. I thought that it was a shame that Asylum ignored this connection in favour of really dumb slasher-backstory, because I feel like Freeman is kind of a tragic figure. He genuinely seems to have been motivated by what he saw as the best interests of people who would otherwise have been confined to state asylums.

The Psychologist has just put up a really interesting article about letters to Freeman from his patients and his responses - it's a really fascinating look at the way lobotomy was viewed at the time, and how it was able to continue for so long.

(Hat-tip to Mind Hacks for the link.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Pet Hens Fry

Cinemania have my review of the big boxed set Stephen Fry's Inquisitive Documentaries. Is it good? It's Stephen Fry talking about stuff he's interested in, so if that sounds good to you it's very good.

The set includes Stephen Fry In AmericaLast Chance To See, Return of the Rhino (basically just another LCTS episode), and Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press. They're all good, go check out the review if you want more detail on why (it's MAAAAASSIVE is why I'm not going to rewrite it here).

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Magic: part 4 - A practical example

Remember way back in the first one of these where I said I thought the distinction between "Magick" and stage magic was something of a false dichotomy? Here's what I mean: watch the video below - for as long as you can stand at least. Sorry for the random German subtitles - the version I watched initially has now been taken down.

Right. That woman's name is Kiesha Crowther, she calls herself Little Grandmother (here is her amazing personal website) and she is a Magus.

Depending on your personal definition of "Magus" you may well have a number of objections to that assertion. Her video is hokey as all get-out, and clearly bunk. Water is demonstrably not entirely made of crystals, there are almost certainly no "scientists" planning to hand out your personal stock of magic crystals to the people of Fukushima and dump them into the radioactive holding ponds because "love is stronger than radiation", and the idea that you personally will definitely have a large stock of magic crystals lying around is bizarre*. Moreover, if you've clicked through to her site you'll see that she's made a number of very bold claims about her supposed psychic abilities and the high degrees she holds in Native American traditional magics - these are all almost certainly lies as well.

But this misses the point.

A stage magician is not judged on their ability to actually saw people in half and magically heal them on the spot. A stage magician is judged on their ability to draw an audience into a consensus, misdirect their attention and provide a pleasing illusion that they have sawed someone in half. This takes a level of control over human perception which approaches the truly magical in the hands of a masterful practitioner - for a spectacular example check out this guy. Similarly, you can only judge the power of a Magus like Little Grandmother when you understand their true goal. In this case it's pretty simple - money, and the prestige necessary to create more money.

For those of you who didn't manage the whole video try it again, for those who did - pay close attention. Notice how crafted the whole thing is. She really does try to cover as many generically-New Age bases as she can, and even goes so far as to vaguely allude to some sort of Evil Big Government conspiracy to suppress True Knowledge toward the end there to try and bring in the survivalists. This is a magical ritual. She is trying to draw power from her followers to increase her stature and pull in some energy-in-the-form-of-money at the same time. The fact that her self-claimed powers are nonsense is entirely irrelevant because it's all misdirection - it's a carefully constructed mirage designed to hook into the cultural obsessions of largely white, fairly affluent, mostly-Americans, and me circa 1995.

And while she's no Crowley, Kiesha Crowther is powerful enough for her own ends. So long as she maintains her ritual Face Of Sincerity, keeps posing with massive crystals, and refuses to shut up she'll keep on getting speaking engagements and requests to run workshops and do rituals. She wields sufficient cultural force to have at least some of her detractors shouted down and shunned (if you really want you can check out the controversy on the New Age web here, but be warned - it's a hell of a rabbit hole). She's even been smart enough to keep her mythology sufficiently white-bread to leave her a back door out if she ever decides to "renounce" it all and "convert" to a more conservative racket like fundamentalist Evangelicalism.

Manipulation of the gap between perception and reality, resulting in a massive increase of personal power.


*Possibly less bizarre if you're one of the "Tribe Of Many Colours" she's addressing in this video, but still.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mouldy Sushi

Cinemania has my reviews of Dead Sushi and Mold. They're both deliberate attempts to make "good bad" movies, and both unusual in that they (mostly) succeed.

Mold is a homage to 1980s cheapies that manages to pretty much nail the tone (and horrifying-yet-hilarious practical effects) of its terrible source material and riff on it at the same time. The framing device about an American government desperate for a new weapon in the War On Drugs is an almost total red herring, but that's actually no bad thing as the real issues tied up with America's relationship with Colombia would probably have either been mishandled or have detracted from the film's manic go-forward energy.

Dead Sushi is the most-recent full movie* from porn-director-turned-total-insanity-director Noboru Iguchi who seems to specialise in this sort of thing. It's completely nuts from start to finish and, aside from a weird sense of permanent slight misogyny, is a lot of fun. All you need to know is that it involves zombie sushi and climaxes with a flying sushi battleship and an axe-wielding tuna-mutant.

*He directed the "F is for Fart" sequence in The ABCs of Death more recently. This appears to be entirely in character, if you look at his non-porn filmography. Actually, looking at his porn filmography on Wikipedia is pretty fun too, if only because the totally-functional-and-descriptive titles that pornos get are hilarious when translated from one language to another.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Cherry Psychomaniac and the Darkest Corner of Paradise

Cinemania has my reviews of Cherry, The Death Wheelers, and The Darkest Corner of Paradise.

Cherry and The Darkest Corner Of Paradise both felt like concept overreach to me. They seemed like they had big ideas in the back of their creators' minds which didn't end up actually translating to the screen. In Cherry, this was a meditation on the destructive capacity of human relationships and the "nice guy" myth which got muddied by the general unlikability of all its characters, while Paradise aspired to Taxi Driver but ended up with lots of scenes of a guy walking around in the dark (albeit attractively shot, and with a neat soundtrack) that led up to nothing much.

The Death Wheelers (originally and confusingly titled Psychomania) is an entirely different kettle of fish - an amazing 70s-kitsch time capsule and a great piece of English spooky-pagan horror. Sadly (I looked it up) the charmingly brutal Nicky Henson who plays the lead seems to have come to nothing in particular. This was also the last movie for George Sanders* before his suicide, and there's some suggestion that its poor reception at the time contributed to his depression.

Really the only downsides to Death Wheelers are its over-reliance on now-dated car chase scenes, and (on the version I got at least) the poor sound quality. Otherwise I'd highly recommend it to anyone who's into that sort of thing.

* The voice of Shere Khan in the Disney Jungle Book, amongst many many other things.