Tuesday, 7 February 2012

SPOILER ALERT: American Horror Story

This post contains spoilers. I really can't stand having a show spoiled, and I think people who do it without warning are hot bleach douches. So please understand that if you read on, you WILL find out what happens during the first season of American Horror Story.

This is not, I repeat NOT, a review meant to titillate and encourage you to rush out and purchase the DVDs. Nobody is paying me do that. It's a discussion meant for people who've already seen it to nod along knowingly with as they politely agree with me, based on their prior knowledge of the show.

There's also a Soylent Green (the movie) spoiler in here.

Okay, cool.
Let it not be said that I'm a douche.

I'm a fan of the horror genre, and I'm generally not a fan of television. So I was pretty skeptical of American Horror Story, but I kept seeing comments like "ZOMG, American Horror Story, Y U NO warn me? Ffffuuuuu."  No, nobody said that. Exactly. What I'm saying is that it shocked and amazed them into making use of cheesy internet nemes. (It's like a meme, but specifically with wordplay or acronyms.)

So I watched and I became one of the people who posted things like, "Oh my god, this show is so fucked up. I love it!" And I did. It horrified me. The reason it did is that it plays on a few basic human fears really well. It builds them so they all creep up on you and you don't even realize what it's doing until you're watching gape-mouthed and horrified as a woman eats a goat brain.

Even the opening credits are farking scary:

There are four basic fears (in my opinion) at the heart of this, and really the last one is probably not technically a phobia, but look, it's late and I need to get this posted. Anyway, here they are:

The fear of basements essentially boils down to just one thing: do you know what's in yours? As in right now, do you know what or who is in your basement? Really? When was the last time you checked?

Remember earlier today when you went upstairs, and the front door was unlocked? Wouldn't it have been so easy for someone to slip in the front door and down to the basement? Now he'll just wait, and listen. You'll move around your house and through your day, completely unaware that he's eight feet below you the entire time. Maybe he's flipping through your old CD collection, or admiring the bra you left on top of the dryer. Using your WiFi to check your Twitter updates on his cell phone. Maybe he just replied to you. As he stands right below you with his hand pressed to the ceiling above him, just a few inches of synthetic fibre separates his hand from the toe you're tapping on the floor as you sit and read this.

See? Basements are scary. That's all I'm saying. It's a very good place to start for horror. What it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in effectiveness. And all of the problems for the Harmon's begin with whatever it is in their basement.

My security company told me that home invasion is the single most feared event. I forget exactly how that was phrased, but basically, that's what people shit their pants over in real life.

Not only is the premise of American Horror Story essentially a permanent home invasion--these ghosts are in your house and there is not a god damned thing you can do about. Or they can do about it. And you're invading their house right back. Everyone is being invaded in the one place where you're supposed to get to feel safe.

But also there are multiple more literal home invasions during the first season. The first episode, in fact, begins with a break in. The neighbors and other former home owners are constantly coming in uninvited. Actual real psycho wacko murderer types invade their house. Ben's former girlfriend shows up at the door (while she's alive, I mean). 

The dead tenants are just as threatened by home invasions as the living ones--perhaps even more. There's just a perpetual lack of safety in one's own home being portrayed, and it's horrifying. It's awful to watch and want to scream at your TV, "Don't go in the bathroom!" or "Why would you leave your daughter in her bedroom alone?!? Are you an idiot???" That is basically the most terrifying existence imaginable this side of the Atlantic.

The beautiful thing about this is that the show begins with just a single ghost, the maid, and accompanying her, whatever that thing that killed those boys in the basement was. And you don't really know if maybe it's not just all one thing anyhow. 

I loved the way the writers built the cast of characters gradually. For many reasons, obviously, it made it easier to get immersed in the show than it would have been if we were overwhelmed by a huge ensemble cast. It also made it more--ahem--believable to begin with a small ectoplasmic infestation and watch the colony grow.

As each ghost is added to the ensemble, the horror grows exponentially, as we realize it wasn't just one little ghost in the basement. There's a freaking undead village down there and they have no idea. Toward the end of the season, they began to divide these characters more clearly into good guys and bad guys, and I think they've probably set up some cool possibilities for next season. Or maybe next season is when the shark comes and they all take turns jumping over it. I hesitate to make wagers.

When it comes down to it, what people are afraid of is people. And what the American Horror Story ghosts become is people. (Which is funny because normally people become ghosts.) They aren't caricatures. They aren't poltergeist. They're people, with twisted, dark, sometimes very malignant--but always understandable--motivations. You don't think to yourself, "Whoa! Psycho ghost!" when they decide to steal a baby, or kill an exterminator so he doesn't find a body, or rape someone. You think to yourself, my god, how could someone do that?

And the answer is never, "Oh, only a ghost would do that." Never. All of the acts perpetrated by the ghosts are things that we fear having another living human being do to us. Or maybe even things we worry we could do to someone else if we were pushed too far.

It's like they say, Hell is other people. 
But then so is Soylent Green, so sometimes you get your revenge.

I have to say one thing about American Horror Story: if it ended now, I'd be happy. It feels complete. They hung a piece of it out over the cliff at the end of Season 1, of course, but I don't even really care about that. If they called it a day, burned that in HD and shrink-wrapped it tomorrow, I'd buy it and watch it over and over until it wore out. For more on my feelings about short series, someday I'll discuss British television.

I could definitely level some criticisms at American Horror Story, but any and all of its faults included, I still think it was the single most enthralling, best-written series I've seen on American television in years. Granted, I don't watch a lot of TV. But it was way better than Whitney.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Amanda Says... Listen to This

Hey, remember Music Monday? Remember my "listen to an album a day" resolution?
Welcome to the return to both. Here I review several albums I listened to over the past week. I also listened to a couple albums that weren't really new new, so they're not listed here because nobody cares about them anymore but me.

I know NOTHING about music, really. I'm a complete moron. Consider these the musings of a layperson. I'm not discerning. I pretty much like every kind of music--as long as it's good. These are just my thoughts on what I heard last week.

The Maccabees - Given to the Wild
Released January 6, 2012

Most of the album is a parade of promising intros that melt into mildly soporific melodies and mournful vocals. "Ayla" is a notable exception, with its bright keyboard part playing the lifeline that keeps it from drowning in melancholy. Predictably, I also liked the single "Pelican" quite a bit better than the rest of the album. Given to the Wild is full of well-constructed songs, though, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear a few of them on Blockbuster soundtracks. They've got some intriguing lyrics and tonnes of mood. Just not my mood.

You might like this if you like:
Death Cab for Cutie, Christina Perri

"Pelican" and "Went Away" are worth a listen.

Enter Shakiri - A Flash Flood of Colour
Released January 16

Heavy metal protest songs featuring insightful thought-provoking lyrics speckled with metaphors that you'll wish you'd thought of first. With a voice that could sing you to sleep as easily as it riles your rage, Rou Reynolds is the ideal heavy band frontman. He also provides the pervasive electronic element, that despite my electroniphobia, doesn't prevent me from calling this real music. It actually gets categorized under, among other things, dubstep. Colour me corrected.

You Might Like This If You Like:
Taking my advice? I don't know. I don't have a huge reference bank for this type of music.

Best use:
Vehicular rocking.

Most of this album got my Grooveshark seal of approval.

Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur
Canadian; Released Jan 17, 2012

While there's nothing particularly painful about this album, there's nothing outstandingly pleasureful about it, either. Edwards is a talented singer, but not one of these tracks stood out as something to be remembered and re-listened. Most were sadness without soul, and that's just boring. The saddest part really is that there are some neat lyrics, but they needed better backup to make them worth revisiting.

You Might Like This If You Like
The Indigo Girls (but they were too interesting for you), Easy Listening

Best lyrics:
God doesn't know you like I do. - "Mint"

I gave it a wide miss.

Nada Surf - The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
Released January 18, 2012

If you're a fan of Nada Surf, this album is sure to leave you with one thought ringing clearly in your mind: Why did they do that? The album lacks personality and passion, and offers only a vague shadow of what you think of as Nada Surf.

You Might Like This If You Like
Sleeping, Not Nada Surf

"Looking Through"

Hit up iTunes for the one or two songs you like

Foxy Shazam - Church of Rock and Roll
Released January 24, 2012

This band is one of those few that will make you believe that Rock--the way you wish you were old enough to remember it--really isn't all dead or derivative. Finely-crafted songs are borne out in performances that are solid and human, and overlain with cleverly placed whimsy. The Church of Rock and Roll is the joyful, soulful, playful man child of decades of rock, and it got all the best of all of its ancestors.

Favourite lyric:
"Your eyes are filled with fire; your mouth is filled with cuss."

You Might Like This If You Like:
Music, Life.

In the rotation. So effing in the rotation.

John K. Samson - Provincial
Canadian; Released January 24, 2012

Provincial is post-modern folk rock. Samson lays his emotive voice over an understated but interesting drums-guitar-bass bed. His smart, pithy lyrics have a distinctly Canadian flavour and a unique frame of reference that brings an endearing sense of honesty to each song. My guess is that if you like this album, you'll love it.

Favourite Lyric:
I'm just your little ampersand. - "The Last And"

You Might Like This If You Like:
The Weakerthans (duh), hipster stuff

I bought this album. I PAID MONEY for it. I also bought a ticket to go see John K. Samson live.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

I review Dubstep

When I was a kid, we had an electric keyboard. It had a huge sound bank. You could do somewhere around a hundred different instrument sounds, and there were also sound effects, such as Street Sounds and Video Game Sounds. When I was eight or nine, I thought if you played those sounds in some kind of rhythm, with a bit of a beat underneath, you could almost make music with those sounds. And you know what? You almost can. And that almost music is called Dubstep.

Until recently, I had no idea what dubstep was. So to satisfy my burning curiosity, and to begin to catch up on my resolution, I decided I'd listen to a dubstep album. After some research, I chose Benga's 2006 album, Newstep.

I ought to bare my bias: I don't like electronica of any kind. There's even a Sting album that doesn't quite give me palpitations because it's a bit too synthetic. My music taxonomy begins with two Kingdoms: Made With Instruments and Made With Computers. The latter is like the Plant world: I'm sure darn glad its constituents are here, but it's nice that I don't hear from them.

I'd been told there'd be a lot of drums and bass in dubstep, and I thought I would like that. There are a lot of crappy drum machine sounds. And not that much bass. I will say that "6306" on this album had a really great bass line. Someone should use it in a good song that wouldn't hurt to listen to. But on the whole, I would not say that dubstep is bass-heavy.

If I had to describe this Benga Newstep verison of dubstep myself, I'd say, "Have you ever been in your dentist's office, and above the muzak you can hear drills and other tools screeching, and some kid is playing Space Invaders while another kid bangs a hollow metal toy on random objects? It's like that."

It's also very dark. I felt like any one of the songs on this album could have been the soundtrack to an anime snuff film. Even the song titles are nihilistic. For example, "World War 7"? Man, will humans never learn? And "The Future" symbolically ends rather abruptly (yet somehow, not a second too soon). And "Killerstep" kind of reminded me of Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time. So, Christmas is ruined now. Thanks, Benga.

Essentially, dubstep is what you would get if an emo kid with attention deficit disorder fell down and writhed on the keyboard from Big, and it had been programmed primarily with the following sound effects:

  • Commodore 64 and Tandy CoCo game soundtrack clips
  • Charlie Brown's teacher using a talk box. Or someone whacking a hand saw with a rubber mallet. They're virtually the same sound. 
  • Robots voices and other bodily functions

I only listened to one out of (far too) many dubstep albums, and a few other random songs, including, of course, some Skrillex. And, for a while, I started working and just had the Benga album playing in the background of my life, and I DID catch myself doing a bit of head-nodding and toe-tapping. And, later, at one point, I did a couple air snare hits. I'm sorry, Better Judgement. I failed you.

"The Real McCoy" Nothing to do with Star Trek. Sorry. But I did like it the best anyway. It felt like everything was in it on purpose, and not because somebody's asshole kid was playing in the control room and flipped a switch, and nobody noticed until they'd already pressed too many CDs to turn back.

"The Visitor" It was boring, but it didn't bother me exactly.

I would like Dubstep better if it were stripped down to about half of what's going on in the songs. I just don't know what you'd do with dubstep. If I had nothing else to compare it to or choose from, I wouldn't dislike it at all. If electronica and its ilk are where your musical world stops and ends, than I see how you might like it. Or if you do a lot of acid. That would help, I bet.

My negative experience with dubstep is probably my own fault anyway for choosing Newstep from Benga's early career, and not opting for a more recent album with a more mature, developed sound, such as 2011's Smack Your Bitch Up.


Better than dubstep:

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

I'm late, I know, but I've got resolve

I'm not one for the resolutions. I just think it's silly to resolve something when instead you could just make an effort to do something without building in a 90% chance of failure.

So I make very silly resolutions. Well, one year my resolution was to not use drive throughs, and that wasn't silly at all because I'm sort of an Earth-lover (aren't we all, though?) and I kept that resolution. But only for a year. Now I use drive-thrus again. See? Resolutions are silly.

My resolutions this year are more like 365 projects. You know the ones: where people do something every day for 365 days not because they believe their life will be in any way edified by it, but because... just... 'cause.

So my three 365 Projects / Resolutions are:

I bet most of you are thinking "How on Earth would a person have time to watch a new movie EVERY day?" and I'm thinking that, too, actually, and so far, I'm sucking at it. But it's okay, because that's a ridiculous resolution that doesn't in ANY WAY improve my life or help the world, so if I don't do it... meh.

But there's a reason I want to, and this is it: for a long time, I really didn't watch movies at all. And for a couple years, I probably didn't watch a single movie or television show. Certainly not deliberately. I may have caught a glimpse while visiting someone or walking through an electronics store. So I'm way behind. I miss obvious pop culture references and allusions. This bothers me. I need to catch up.

I've also developed an intricate, but constantly evolving rating system, which currently includes the following, from worst to best:

  • Pftpft
  • Meh
  • Rural salute
  • Okay, sure, I get that
  • One thumb up
  • Two thumbs up
  • Yeah, yeah, yeah! More! More!

I expect it will be adopted by some official movie-review organisation within a matter of days.

I just like music, that's all.
It's a short story.

I have listened, in the first 31 days of this resolution, to... wait for it... ONE ALBUM.
It was the new Black Keys album.
I didn't like it. Sorry, Black Keys.

Because I talk too much. Publicly. I post everything on Twitter. I say things I shouldn't say to close friends, let alone to total strangers. So maybe if I write them in a journal instead, I'll be able to maintain some dignity. I'm not 100% sure, but it's worth seeing how things pan out.

I was doing really well with this, and then I lost my journal. I think it's probably under my bed.
Maybe I should have made a resolution to keep my room clean.
Too late, though. Maybe next year.