American Horror Story, all boxed up

American Horror Story season 1

Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott and Taissa Farmiga arrive at the ‘murder house’.

Has it been a year already? Ghosts of Christmas past or what?

Last year we scoffed down American Horror Story, an incredibly thoughtful and homage-laden haunted house story with some exceptional ghost work. Well, season three has just been commissioned, and the first season has recently been released on DVD.

I got sent a review copy of the DVD package, and it’s handsome.

Do not watch the extras if you haven’t watched the show. Half the fun is trying to work out the back stories of the characters and, indeed, work out who’s a ghost and who isn’t, and who will become one and who won’t. So an extra profiling the who and the how of the spooks is great to recapture or put things in perspective, but will screw up the show.

Film fans will enjoy the info about the title credits — great to see some Nine Inch Nails input there! — and the ‘making of’ likewise sheds some light while talking up the show.

Strangely, for a show that worked hard to avoid cliche even while exploiting so many tropes, the ‘Murder House’ extra, dressed up as a ghost tour visit riffing from the show, added little that wasn’t covered elsewhere, and let the side down.

The commentary from creator Ryan Murphy on the pilot isn’t overblown and provides some interesting tidbits and insights.

Online, there’s a shallow doco site about crime scenes/haunted places, and it covers six in Australia. They’ve misspelt Boggo Road in Brisbane and bollocked up the text for Snowtown (awesome movie, by the way!). Sigh.

Still, watching the pilot again reminded me of just how superb Jessica Lange is in this show — indeed, the performances are first rate across the board — and I reckon it will reward a second viewing to appreciate all the bits ‘n’ bobs the makers have used to set up the succinct 12-parter. I remember being a tad disappointed with the final episode’s touch of twee and apparent set up for season 2 (falsely, because 2: Asylum, is all new), so another viewing could indeed be illuminating.

One for the Xmas pressie list, for sure.

Blake’s 7 remake: liberating, or a Federation of dunces?

logo for tv show blakes 7No sooner had we just finished watching the last episode of Blake’s 7 than the announcement hit the interwebs that an American outfit was interesting in remaking the cult British television show. First thought: this could be wicked, what with modern special effects and all. Second thought: another UK show mangled by Americans missing the point. Verdict: torn.

I loved Blake’s 7 as a kid; the 1978-81 show offered something different. A crew who were together by desperate convenience, who weren’t jumping each other’s bones but rather each other’s nerves, and who could lose just as easily as win. And, as io9 points out, led by someone who might just be a zealot dangerous to all around him.

servalan from blakes 7

The villain wears white … Servalan

The effects were hokey, the gender politics at times ghastly, the episodic plots sometimes dodgy, the fight scenes lamentable. We now have a ‘Blake punch’ in our house, whereby the merest tap on the shoulder will cause instant collapse. And yet, with the friction between said zealot Blake and self-serving computer whiz Avon, the equally self-preservationist thief Vila and the mercenary smuggler Jenna who found something — or someone — to believe in, the show is still enjoyable. There are the witty one-liners and put-downs, acerbic sniping all round. Dayna and Soolin can shoot straight, too; even Vila has his hero moments. And there’s Servalan, of course, a stylish, three-dimensional villain who has her share of travails. Talk about leave Buck Rogers for dead!

Add in some bold decisions: killing off a cast member mid-season, dropping the titular character for two seasons, destroying the uber-starship Liberator and replacing it with a far less ostentatious and well kitted out ship… Indeed, by the end of the final, fourth season, only two original cast members remain on the bridge. And then there’s the conclusion, of course: it’s hard to imagine an American television show in which the heroes totally and utterly lose.

If it does get up, it will be interesting to see in which direction the remake goes. Let’s just hope it doesn’t poke science fiction in the eye the way the remade Battlestar Galactica did.

Hurrah for Golden Globes winner Homeland … and Luther!

Homeland has been the compelling viewing at our place, so it’s grand to see Claire Danes pick up a Golden Globe for best actress and the show score one for best drama.

Based on an Israeli series — imagine the extra emotional baggage this storyline would have over there — it tells the story of a CIA analyst (Danes) tipped off about a US POW turned by Al-Qaeda. There follows a game of superb cat and mouse as the returned POW is feted as a hero while Carrie, fighting some nasty demons of her own, tries to unravel the alleged plot. Such murky waters, flowing superbly, with plenty of eddies and rapids as the camera reveals several sides of the unfolding story — inside the CIA, the soldier’s eight years of imprisonment, his family’s reaction to suddenly having him return after having been declared dead.

Homeland is not a Stars n Stripes show, but rather shares a more British sensibility in its approach to national moral issues and the way to conclude a spy drama. Gripping stuff, superbly acted across the board, and a big tick mark for its representation of the soldier’s wife — played by Firefly and V remake star Morena Baccarin, Jessica is far from window dressing.

A second season has been approved.

Stars of two other shows that have occupied our spare time were also acknowledged at the Globes (commentated entertainingly at ABC online): Jessica Lange for American Horror Story, which I’ve praised before, and Idris Elba for Luther. Luther is a superb British crime show with Elba playing the eponymous cop right on the edge — he’s starred in superb vampire UK series Ultraviolet and brilliant US crime series The Wire, amongst many other things; a chameleon of accents and wielder of a striking screen presence.

New series of both are in the works.


Treme: the power of music to heal

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped across the Gulf coast of the USA, taking a terrible toll on the city of New Orleans.

I’ve been taking a great deal of heart, particularly in light of the devastating floods hitting Australia at this time, from a HBO program called Treme (trem-ay), set in a neighbourhood of New Orleans where it’s all about the music, man.

There are a couple of things that make this show exceptional.

For starters, it’s so understated. There is no melodrama, no great conspiracies or car chases. It follows the lives of various residents trying to cope in post-Katrina New Orleans. A bar owner trying to get repairs made on her club. A restaurateur trying to keep her head above the financial waters. A uni professor struggling to deal with the reality of the destruction and the general poorness of the nation’s response. Musicians, trying to make a living in the empty city. And so on. It rings true. Victory is not guaranteed.

I love the way the lives of these people intersect, by circumstance and by happenstance. I love the way the story can move me to tears in one beat and have me laughing out loud in the next. I love the compassion. I love the way it deals, from a street level, with government inaction, corruption and ineptitude, and yet, it’s pretty even-handed, showing the good and the bad of the NOPD, for instance.

The acting from the main players is superb, so natural and measured, so dignified in the face of nightmare and frustration. When they blow, you feel it.

And there’s the music, of course; unifying and restoring pride, an anchor when all else is swirling. It’s not by chance the series opens and ends with second lines (funeral processions led by bands). Jazz, jazz and jazz, a touch of Cajun, but it’s the brass and the bass that’s driving this beat, with plenty of identities (Dr John, Elvis Costello, Kermit Ruffins and more) sprinkled in the mix.

It’s simply some of the best television I’ve seen: no vampires, no explosions, just … real.

New Orleans is one of my favourite cities, one I’ve visited most often: one that does indeed live in the heart and mind. It’s so refreshing to see such a portrait on the TV. I hope all of America is watching.

Afterlife — spirited television

Afterlife tv series

I finally caught up with the 2005-06 British television show Afterlife last night, wrapping up the concluding episodes of the second, final series, and I’m … touched. It’s sublime viewing, elegant and spare and raw, at times uncomfortable and others moving, and not always giving what you might expect but always satisfying.

Robert Bridge is a psychologist who sets out to tear down a medium, Alison Mundy, but finds that debunking her links with the spirit world is harder than he’d expected. Both he and Alison have their own ghosts to contend with over the short, sharp, beautiful 14 episodes, penned by Stephen Volk.

Lesley Sharp is brilliant as brittle Alison, lonely and alcoholic, beset by her ‘gift’, while Andrew Lincoln plays the cool scientist perfectly, revealing tenderness and vulnerability as the series goes on. The acting across the board is sensational, adding to the visceral feel of this beautifully shot, beautifully crafted story.

There are no easy answers, no glamour, no outrageous special effects. It’s simply some of the most effective, affecting television I’ve seen in ages. I can’t believe it took me this long to find it. I suspect last night’s conclusion will haunt me for a very long time.

Tip: don’t go hunting previews for this on YouTube or elsewhere. If you catch one of the segments from the final episode, it will spoil the series.

Books of 2009

Thank goodness for December. After a tumultuous 2009, it’s nice to have a month to draw breath in, to hunker down and finally get that heart massage I’ve been yearning for.

I owe Chuck McKenzie a favour for getting the ball rolling, passing around an email touting for stories. The anthology died shortly after conception, but it was the rare instance this year when, by the time I’d read the announcement, I had an idea for a story. Two, in fact. I took them both on long leads for a walk in the park, and by the time I was headed for home, had settled on the one I was going to write. I sat down at the keyboard and, naturally, wrote the other one. It’s still not quite finished, and needs a serious going over, and may never see the light of day. Thing is, it happened, it’s there. The wheels were in motion for the first time in far too long.

They’ve kept turning, too. The result is a file featuring a hodge podge of scenes, all as rough as guts, some contradictory, most muddled, but there’s a narrative in there somewhere. It’s slowly emerging out of the mist.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the words have started to come as I’ve finally got back into reading. Writing’s a machine: you need words in to get words out. That’s my assessment, anyway.

So what words? A few of us were yakking the other day about our best reads of the year, and I was struggling to recall what I’d read, particularly in the fractured, then limbo, period of the year. Mostly review books, I think. I guess there’s a reason I don’t remember them, but then, memory’s a tricky thing.

I do remember enjoying Glenda Larke’s The Last Stormlord, an engaging fantasy set in a beautifully realised world of desert, drought and political intrigue. Peter M Ball’s novella Horn, an urban noir featuring a murderous unicorn on the sleazy side of town, whetted the appetite for a sequel. Angry Robot offerings Slights by Kaaron Warren and Moxyland by Lauren Beukes were head and shoulders above their packmates.

rewired post-cyberpunk anthology

And then there was the back-catalogue stuff. A copy of Rewired: The Post-cyberpunk anthology proved enjoyable and wide-ranging, from post-apocalyptic (How We Got In Town and Out Again) to post-human (The Wedding Album), obtusely technical (Lobsters) to poetically obtuse (Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City, possible a view or two too many), and two close to my heart thanks to their Mississippi River settings, Calorie Man and Two Dreams on Trains.

A revisiting of Stephen King’s On Writing and Kim Wilkins’ The Infernal (every bit as good as I remember it; and due for a new release, I believe) preceded two visions of life after the apocalypse, sans zombies: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these science fiction novels, so beautifully told in both language and structure. I stumbled early on in The Road while I adapted to McCarthy’s degeneration of punctuation and assault with sentence fragments, helping to set his scene. The structure was very clever, a series of vignettes, Polaroids of memories, the order not always clear, his protagonists unnamed as they stumble their way through the blighted landscape, living off scavenged goods and in fear of cannibalistic gangs. A world where trust and compassion are casualties of the need for survival. The last scenes left me a little cold, but that might be my cynicism asserting itself. Atwood’s yarn, in which a race of gene-spliced humans have inherited the world, overseen by a wonderfully depicted, mundane narrator with the inside track on the apocalypse, proved compelling from go to whoa.

Films and TV

true blood dvd series

Not a good year for the moving picture in Jason-land this year, due to a protracted absence from attending either the big or small screen. The few new release movies I’ve seen just haven’t impressed. From the sofa, I’ve been enjoying revisiting Battlestar Galactica, and catching up with True Blood, Dexter, Being Human and Dead Set. I hope the new Sherlock Holmes movie might give the year a kick in the tail.

Gigs

In no particular order, this lot rocked: Nine Inch Nails, Gary Numan, Amanda Palmer, Jeff Martin, Emilie Autumn. At a local level, Sunas, Tycho Brahe, Felinedown, Bridget Handley, Dandelion Wine, Wendy Rule and The Wretched Villains made an impression on the synapses.

Two albums released this year remain on rotation here in the office: The White LiesTo Lose My Life and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz!. My retro buy of the year was Beautiful Day by defunct Brisbane duo Stringmansassy: just gorgeous.

Dead Set: zombies and Big Brother

I’ve always though the Big Brother artificial reality shows were daft, but finally, here they are in a context I can appreciate. The Brits have done a gorgeous job of setting up a bunch of BB cast and crew (some real, such as host Davina McCall) caught up in a zombie apocalypse in Dead Set. It’s gritty, visceral viewing, well crafted and superbly acted, and very clever. And in true British fashion, short and sweet and to the point. Tasty indeed! Here’s a trailer.