Checking into ‘American Horror Story: Hotel’

One of the scariest parts of “American Horror Story’s” fifth season, “Hotel,” isn’t when a monster rips apart the seams of the bed to pull you under with him. It happens at broad daylight on any ordinary day.

You take your son to the carnival and turn your back for just a second. When you look back, he’s gone. You and your wife file police reports and send out search parties, but even after a year, there’s no trace of him. The chances he’s alive are slim, yet the lack of a body fuels your hope, which wavers with each passing day until it’s tiny and dim.

Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, “American Horror Story: Hotel” is filled with the pain of existing without a purpose. That’s what the Hotel Cortez feeds off of — the pain and despair of its guests and patrons. Most of them are stuck for eternity inside the Hotel Cortez, forever destined to haunt the art deco hotel’s endless hallways.

Our entry point inside these horrors is Homicide Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley), whose working to catch a “Se7en”-style L.A. serial killer he nicknames the “Ten Commandment Killer.” After the killer calls Lowe’s cell phone from inside the Hotel Cortez, Lowe checks into the hotel to catch the killer. The hotel gives him answers, alright, but perhaps they’re more than he’s looking for.

While each season of “American Horror Story” can live solely on its own, this season of the anthology most closely resembles “Murder House.” Not only is the setting a character of its own, but the hotel’s also founded in the same city and era as the “Murder House.” Murphy and Falchuk bridge the “American Horror Story” universe further by featuring some cameos from the first season including Murder House owner Dr. Charles Montgomery (Matt Ross) and realtor Marcy (Christine Estabrook).

But while “Murder House” made you feel alive, “Hotel” makes you sad. Designed in the 1920s by nouveau riche oil baron James Patrick March (Evan Peters), the Hotel Cortez is a place of art deco grandeur that loses it’s luster and purpose with each passing year. Originally, it was built as “a perfectly designed torture chamber” by March, a man who killed for sport. (March is loosely based off of real-life serial killer H.H. Holmes, who built his own “Murder Castle” during the late 1800s in Chicago, Illinois.) Now, it’s fate is undetermined as designer Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) threatens to buy it.

While its future is debated, the hotel’s experienced a ghastly past. Loosely based off of Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel, which was the home of serial killer Richard Ramirez (Anthony Ruivivar), the Hotel Cortez is the type of place where you drown yourself in the tub, accidentally overdose on heroin or blow your brains out. If that’s not morose enough, all the ghosts who died there can’t leave.

“Hotel’s” haunting and scary in the way that depression is scary. You’re not exactly afraid of it, but you’re afraid all the same. You wake up one morning feeling sad or restless or angry or not feeling anything at all, going through the motions but wondering why. Meanwhile your mind’s checked into this dark place that you’re not sure you’ll ever check out of.

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‘Glee’ exists beyond ‘2009’

Kurt Hummel almost didn’t exist. He wasn’t in “Glee’s” original scripts.

After actor Chris Colfer auditioned for the role of Artie, “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy was inspired to create Hummel.

I was reminded of this when I watched “2009,” the first half of “Glee’s” two-part finale. The story airs like an alternate pilot. This time, Hummel (rather than Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry) is the helm of Murphy’s band of high school misfits.

“I feel like I could die tomorrow and I don’t think anyone would really care. I’m not sure if anyone would really notice,” Hummel says as he picks up an informational pamphlet from the guidance counselor’s office (this one’s called “Ending it All: Pros and Cons”).

It would be a shame if Kurt Hummel didn’t existed because his story’s consistently been one of the most powerful and easily identifiable ones of “Glee.”

More than one out of 20 Americans older than 12 are depressed. And according to the World Health Organization, between 10 to 20 million people attempt suicide every year. It’s also the leading cause of death for people between ages 15 and 34.

Dr. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz estimates that about 5 percent of Americans are gay and that many are still in the closet. “Glee” brought some of these social issues to the primetime screens of American households every week, and might have even inspired some teenagers to come out to their parents — or at least realize that they’re not alone.

“2009” reminds us of why we fell in love with “Glee” when it first aired six years ago. It’s stars are invisible and angry and jealous and vulnerable teenagers filled with dreams and ambitions. While we may not have been a Kurt Hummel, we may have been a Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley), a Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz), an Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale), a Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron), a Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith), or an entirely different type of Gleek.

Week after week, they’ve inspired us to keep dreaming — from the walls of McKinley High School to the streets of Broadway.

Sure after six seasons, the plot’s been “watered-down melodramatic slush” recently, but at times, it dealt with real-life issues (from coming out of the closet and peer pressure to teen pregnancies, eating disorders and school shootings). Meanwhile, it’s reminded us that even if we’re different, we’re not alone.

“Glee” was created in 2009 by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy; and produced by Ryan Murphy Television. “2009” aired on March 20, 2015. 

Conducting ‘Whiplash’

When you think of the jazz greats, there’s Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker and Andrew Neiman. You probably haven’t heard of the latter, though, unless you’ve seen Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-nominated film, “Whiplash.”

In the 107-minute drama, Miles Teller stars at 19-year-old Neiman, an aspiring jazz drummer attending the prestigious and cutthroat Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York City. He could be one of the kids from “Fame.” His dream is to become a household jazz icon and to do so means earning the respect of Shaffer’s studio jazz band conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).

Fletcher is not the encouraging chorus instructor in Ryan Murphy’s TV comedy “Glee”; instead, Fletcher resembles the abrasive cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester or a male version of Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada.” He’s the type of virtuoso that you both love and despise; you secretly hate him while constantly seeking his approval. Meanwhile, Fletcher spews cruel, racial, homophobic and religious slurs at you. He sounds like a football coach rather than a conductor, punctuating his speeches with curse words. But he can also be deceptively sweet.

In one scene Fletcher is reassuring Neiman: “The key is to relax,” Fletcher says. “Don’t worry about the other guys. You’re here for a reason. Have fun.” In the next scene, Fletcher humiliates Neiman in front of the band, hurling a chair at his head while enacting his favorite didactic story:

“Imagine if [Jo] Jones had just said: ‘Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job,'” Fletcher says. “And then Charlie thinks to himself, ‘Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story. No Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy.”

Simmons is absolutely captivating as Fletcher, abruptly changing his voice and moods like a finely tuned fiddle. One minute, he’s calm, melodic and inviting. The next, he’s loud, harsh and grating, instilling fear among his students. He dismissed his fourth chair trombone player, Metz (C.J. Vana), because the musician couldn’t answer if he was playing out of tune. He wasn’t, Fletcher later discloses, but that’s even worse.

Simmons and Teller jerk you back and forth from sympathy to disgust. Teller’s Neiman is driven, passionate and ambitious — literally drenching his drum sets with blood and sweat. But he can also be self-centered and high strung. At times, Neiman reminds you of Jesse Eisenberg’s antisocial portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s 2010 drama “The Social Network.”

When he prematurely breaks up with his love interest, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), you expect her to slap him. His reasoning seems distorted and he drowns a guarantee for normalcy with a slim chance for greatness. Drumming becomes his obsession; Fletcher, his role model. But this relationship is an abusive one.

The antagonistic relationship between a mentor and his young protégé isn’t new. We’ve seen this in dozens of films from “The Devil Wears Prada” to “Varsity Blues.” But director and screenwriter Chazelle (both literally and figuratively) drums up new momentum with the soundtrack (composed by Justin Hurwitz). Trumpets provide the sexy backdrop to young love while the breakneck double-time drumming provides the pulse in an adrenaline-driven frenzy. It’s uneven and all over the place —  just enough to give you whiplash.

Of course, the title of the film works on multiple levels. It’s the song that Neiman is learning to play when he joins Fletcher’s band. It’s also the visceral feeling you get when you watch some of the performances. (Chazelle’s even incorporates a car crash into his script, putting triple entendres to use.) It’s almost packaged too neatly, undermining the film’s playful and improvisational subject matter. That’s doesn’t mean this concert isn’t worth listening to.

Although “Whiplash” is only Chazelle’s second feature-length film, he’s a master conductor — cuing exacting cuts and powerful performances. It’s predictable and the story ends much like it begins — with a coda to Fletcher and Neiman’s perfect duet.

“Whiplash” was written and directed by Damien Chazelle. J.K. Simmons won a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actor for his role. “Whiplash” was nominated in the 87th Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing.  

‘American Horror Story Coven’: addictively bewitching

The third season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s sensational television drama “American Horror Story” returns with a new haunted house, but familiar faces and friends.

There’s the evil narcissistic queen from Snow White (Jessica Lange), searching for eternal youth and beauty. There’s Romeo (Evan Peters) and Juliet (Taissa Farmiga) — only these star-crossed lovers meet at a frat party where they get only a few hours rather than three days.

Like season one and two of “American Horror Story,” Murphy and Falchuk take familiar stories and weave them into a coherent narrative. This one follows Zoe Benson (Farmiga), who finds out she’s a witch when she accidentally kills her boyfriend, Charlie (Kurt Krause). Zoe’s sent to Miss Robichaux’s Academy in New Orleans, a Hogwarts for young witches. At its helm is Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulsen), the daughter of coven leader Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange). Her young charges includes D-List movie star Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer) and human voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe).

New Orleans is the perfect tapestry, full of creole culture and history. Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) is part of that history, a wealthy bigoted slaveowner who allegedly tortured 150 slaves. Cursed by Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), Madame LaLaurie’s immortal and buried alive in an unmarked grave. That is, until Fiona digs up LaLaurie, reviving a feudal war between her coven and Marie’s witches.

Once again, Murphy and Falchuk brew a powerfully addictive potion. They fill their dialogue with witch references (and there are a lot of them) from “Sabrina: the Teenaged Witch” to “Charmed.” They draw from a vast amount of sources from historical ones like the Salem witch hunts and Hurricane Katrina to fictional ones like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Natalie Babbitt’s “Tuck Everlasting” and Josh Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

This makes “American Horror Story Coven” read like a YA novel — punctuated with the tried-and-true formula of love triangles, betrayal and cliffhangers — while dosed in mature themes and images (a lot of sex and blood). When you wake up from Murphy and Falchuk’s spell, you’ll wonder how you binged-watched all 13 episodes in one sitting. If anything “AHS: Coven” will make you lose track of time.

Staring into the abyss of ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’

It’s “The Blair Witch Project” meets “The X-Files” meets “The Poltergeist” meets “A Clockwork Orange” meets “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest” meets “The Exorcist” meets “I Know What You Did Last Summer” meets “Saw,” with lots of blood and fortification in between. And that’s just the first couple episodes of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s second season of their macabre freak show, “American Horror Story: Asylum.”

This time, we’re guests at Briarcliff Manor, a mid-1960s Massachusetts insane asylum.

Like season one, “Asylum” is told through flashbacks and multiple interconnected narratives. Present-day couple Leo (Adam Levine) and Teresa Morrison (Jenna Dewan Tatum) are celebrating their honeymoon with a self-guided tour of every haunted happening across America. Their stumble through the Manor’s steps awaken monsters from its past.

Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), a anti-semitic doctor who believes in electroshock therapy; Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), a removed state psychiatrist assigned to diagnose Bloody Face’s mental condition; and Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), a weak-willed nun who enjoys little sins, used to roam the sanitarium’s halls.

But the warden of this prison was Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), who plays Briarcliff Manor’s Nurse Ratched.

When Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is admitted into Briarcliff as the infamous local serial killer, “Bloody Face” during the mid-1960s, investigative reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who fancies herself after Nellie Bly, sneaks into the mental ward to profile him; what she uncovers there is more horrific than her nightmares, especially when she finds herself admitted as a homosexual.

Murphy and Falchuk’s amalgamation of slasher flicks is a bloody mess. At times, it feels like they’re squeezing as many horror film allusions into an episode as possible. (“Nightmare Before Christmas” is even referenced more than halfway through the season in the “Unholy Night” episode). At other times, it’s like we’ve stepped into an episode of “Glee” (during a hallucination, Lange’s character sings “The Name Game” as the cast performs a choreographed musical number).

That doesn’t mean “American Horror Story” isn’t addictive. In fact, we can’t look away from this sensational and deliciously sacrilegious train wreck.

Perhaps that’s the problem.

As Sister Jude warns in the show’s finale, paraphrasing Nietzsche: “If you look into the face of Evil, Evil is going to look right back at you.”

Moving into an ‘American Horror Story’: season one review

Ryan Murphy is known for creating freaks. His melodramatic hit television dramedy “Glee” stars the teenaged rejects of the McKinley High School show choir.

His newest Frankensteins are even better. I’m talking about the revolving cast of characters in FX’s “American Horror Story” (2011).

At the center of its 12-episode pilot season is troubled couple Ben (Dylan McDermott) and Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton). After Ben cheated on his wife with his student Hayden McClaine (played by the wonderful Kate Mara of “House of Cards”), Ben, Vivien and their teenaged daughter Violet (played by Vera Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa) decide to literally “move on” from the affair, taking up residence in a beautiful 1920s Victorian-style Los Angeles mansion.

Of course, the Harmons aren’t the only ones residing in what’s dubbed the “Murder House.” Its tenants include the house’s founders and former residents including surgeon Charles Montgomery (Matt Ross) and his wife Nora (Lily Rabe); housekeeper Moira O’Hara (played by Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge); gay couple Chad (Zachary Quinto) and Patrick (Teddy Sears); and next-door neighbors Constance (Jessica Lange) and Addie Langdon (Jamie Brewer).

“American Horror Story” is a culmination of spooky ghost stories from campfire tales like Bloody Mary to scary film creations including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk also draw inspiration from real-life murders including the unsolved Black Dahlia case and the Columbine massacre.

Evan Peters, who plays a deeply disturbed teenager who falls in love with Violet, channels a young Christian Slater from Michael Lehmann’s dark comedy “Heathers.” Constance’s a southern Sue Sylvester — biting, racist and cruel, but also a little sad.

“One of the many comforts of having children is knowing one’s youth has not fled but merely been passed down to a new generation,” she says. “They say when a parent dies, a child feels his own mortality. But when a child dies, it’s immortality that a parent loses.”

“American Horror Story” is chilling and creepy, feeding off our insecurities. But that’s what makes it so addictive. We want to see who or what’s behind that door or under that floorboard if only to ease our pounding hearts and racing minds.

While “American Horror Story” is an exaggerated and perverse reflection of humanity, we see bits of ourselves in murderers and psychopaths. We begin to understand their wants and motives. And how easy it is to lose one’s mind. That’s perhaps the scariest thing of all.

But like stumbling through a “haunted” attraction on Halloween, “American Horror Story” is scary good fun. Because in the back of our minds, we know these actors can’t reach beyond your tiny television or laptop screens. They can’t grab you and take you into their world. This mirror into death only makes you feel alive.

‘Glee’ Season 5 Episode 1: “Love, Love, Love’s” so yesterday

Who doesn’t love to watch an epic over-the-top musical proposal?

Certainly not Jodi Campbell — whose main man Dan popped the question after his flash mob serenaded her with classics like Rock of Age’s “Dancing on a Prayer,” Mama Mia’s “Dancing Queen” and Rent’s “Seasons of Love.”

And certainly not Amy — whose hubby Isaac planned a lip dub proposal, inviting 60-plus friends to lip-sync to Bruno Mars’ “Marry You.” Isaac’s proposal garnered more than 23 million YouTube views.

So if it worked for these couples, it would certainly work for Glee — Fox’s musical high school glee club dramedy known for its ridiculous and sometimes poignant musical numbers — right?

Glee’s fifth season kicks off with the inevitable proposal — the one Blaine (Darren Criss) had been planning to his on-again-off-again boyfriend Kurt (Chris Colfer) since the end of last season.

But another wedding isn’t going to revive a funeral.

Willy Shakespeare taught us that with his tragedy “Hamlet.”

“The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables,” said the wise Prince of Denmark.

And the fun-infused colors and mirth leaves a bad aftertaste — especially when the ghost of quarterback-turned-glee-coach Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) roams the halls of McKinley High School.

Although Finn’s name is never mentioned in the Beatles-inspired season premiere “Love, Love, Love,” he’s there when Finn’s ex Rachel Berry (and Monteith’s real life girlfriend Lea Michele) sings her rendition of “Yesterday.”

“Why he/had to go/I don’t know/ he wouldn’t say,” Michele sang — a sentiment shared by fans of Monteith, who suddenly died this summer from a drug overdose.

After all, it seems like yesterday when Monteith sang opposite Michele in those signature show-stopping Glee regional numbers like “Don’t Stop Believin.’”

While we, Gleeks, may still believe in yesterday, the first of a two-part Beatles tribute is hard to swallow — starting from wheelchair-ridden glee star Artie (Kevin McHale) and head Cheerio Kitty’s (Becca Tobin) secret, sudden and improbable romance.

For one: their carnival rendezvous (where they sing “Drive My Car” in bumper cars and “You Got To Hide Your Love Away” while wandering the halls of McKinley) isn’t so secret — not when seven of McKinley High’s Glee Club serve as musical double dates and backup singers/dancers.

Two: Kitty, Sue Sylvester’s (Jane Lynch) cheerleading protégé who fed laxatives to fellow glee star Marley (Melissa Benoist) last season, is nauseatingly sweet without a discernible ulterior motive — which, if you’ve been following last season of Glee at all, is extremely out of character.

“Even though I know he’s getting ready to graduate and we’re just as doomed as every other sad, backward relationship that’s ever started in this Jesus- and love-forsaken choir room, I do like you, Artie,” Kitty says during a glee rehearsal.

Glee’s at its best when it’s a self-aware — like when school counselor Emma (Jayma Mays) says, “You kids have dated so incestuously that I can’t remember who can tolerate who anymore.”

Or when self-imposed Grinch Sue says, “At the risk of stepping out of character, I’ve brought donuts to calm everyone’s frayed nerves.”

The satire is there when Kurt tells Blaine that he’s “not sitting down and listening to you sing to me anymore.” Klaine fans will remember that their budding romance began when Blaine sang Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” (This time, Blaine sings “All You Need Is Love.”)

 

But as cute and sincere as Blaine’s proposal is, Glee’s become little more than washed-out melodramatic slush, filled with forced, far-fetched plotlines and as many musical numbers as possible.

And as much as we don’t want to stop believin’ (because the show does make us feel sometimes and we love Klaine), you have to wonder if Glee will ever stop being lukewarm slush or when the writers will recover from brain freeze. Meanwhile, we long for yesterday.

“Glee” was created in 2009 by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy; and produced by Ryan Murphy Television. “Glee” airs on FOX at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. central Thursdays. Season 5, episode 3 “The Quarterback,” which airs on Oct. 10, will be dedicated to Cory Monteith’s character Finn Hudson.