Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Beerening: Beer 101

I had originally begun writing a much different article to follow up my last beer op-ed about the problematic aspects of exposing non-beer people directly into the previously insulated internal conversation of the beer geek community.  As a quick summary, I felt that as nerds in love with the flavors of beer we tended to gravitate the conversation towards extreme styles with the current trend being extreme degrees of hop aromas and flavors.  This, coupled with the popular myth that hoppy == bitter, can lead people dipping a toe into the ocean of craft beer we're producing now getting a really skewed impression of what good beer is.

I once saw someone refer to Heady Topper as ho-hum because it's just another West-Coast-Style Double IPA, like any produced by a dozen other local breweries on that side of the country and the only reason it was being paid attention was because it was produced in Vermont instead of San Diego.  My own feelings about the beer aside, we have to admit that Double IPA is an extreme style and there are people complaining that this beer is not extreme enough to stand out in its category and warrant as much praise as it gets.  I can't even begin to imagine how I would have reacted to something with that much raw hop power 6 years ago, but now I'll gladly sip a can of it and pick it apart and feel like I know what I'm talking about.

So anyway, I began writing a follow up, setting out to educate the non-initiated about the whats and hows of beer.  Thinking it would be a great idea to try to talk in a clear and easy way about how what goes into a beer affects what it tastes like, that knowing about these things would help people nail down some flavors they liked and find other beers with similar builds.  After all, everyone knows that wine is made of grapes and no one thinks twice about ordering a wine while out for dinner: "I like red wine and robust seems like a good word, please give me this red wine".  But after reworking that about 3 times I felt like I was at an impasse.  And I think that's because I forgot to answer something very important: Why beer?

Because beer is cool, and I like it.

Alright so that's a cop out, but the fact that beer exists at all is pretty amazing, given the process.  Especially when you consider that people have been making beer intentionally or not for some 7000-9000 years and the act predates the written word.  There is a lot of cool history that follows the making of beer.  But really drinking it is what makes it fun.  Beer is a phenomenal confluence of so many little details that produce an incredibly tasty beverage, and there's so much variety in beer that I really think there's something for everyone.  Nothing tastes like beer and one beer can not resemble any other beer at all.

Beer is a simple thing that becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  Beer is so simple that in the late 1400s the Germans were able to decree that only 3 ingredients were to be used in the brewing of beer:  Water, Hops, and Malted Barley.  Yeast hadn't been discovered yet, we just knew that beer fermented.  But that's it, and for the most part these ingredients still make up the majority of any beer brewed in the world.

And that's the beauty of it to me...that I can decide on any given day that I would like to drink a beer that tastes like sweet orange zest and go to the store and buy a Belgian Witbier. The next day, maybe I want a beer that tastes like caramel and toffee and get a Scotch Ale, or maybe I've decided that I'm an adult so if I want to, I can have an entire wedge of brie for dinner so I go out and buy a bottle of a Rauchbier (a German style known for using heavily smoked malts, giving the beer a profoundly smokey and meaty flavor) which pairs great with creamy cheeses.

That variety is why I think beer and the associated community is such a great thing to be part of, but also what makes me a little sad when people get turned off to beer because they're not aware what they're drinking is actually an extreme representation of one facet of beer.  There's so much else going on that I feel like so much focus on the one style does beer a disservice.  And that's why I wanted to do a Beer 101 post/series, to talk simply about the "how" of all the different kinds of beer and hopefully give people an idea of beer beyond simple styles.

So that's why.  See you in another 12 re-writes.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Haunt

Haunt is another 2013 movie that hit VOD in early 2014.  It's also another debut, this time of director Mac Carter who's previous directorial work had been on a documentary.

Haunt as a film is a good old fashioned ghost story.  Something you'd expect to hear around a campfire or from some old lady at midnight at the local social lodge (Those are things, right?).  I enjoyed it, it wasn't bad, but I feel like it missed in a few ways.

First, the story (which I liked plenty), is about a house.  A haunted house.  In the mid-80's a couple, both successful doctors, moved their family into a large house.  In 1984 almost the entire family died tragically:  The son died in a car accident at 16, then the youngest daughter drowned, followed by the eldest daughter committing suicide, and finally the father in a mysterious incident at the house.  Fast forward a few decades and a new family, the Ashers, is just moving into the house.  The teen son of that family, while out for a walk, befriends a local girl named Sam and the two become involved quite quickly.  While their relationship blossoms, increasingly odd things happen around the house, culminating in the two of them delving into supernatural investigation.  Since it is a fairly straight and folksy ghost story I do want to try to stay away from spoilers so that's about all the detail I'll go into.

On to the odd: During the film the behavior of the Asher parents struck me as strange.  They seemed to be the most accepting and trusting parents ever portrayed.  As an example, one of the first few nights the Asher's son, Evan, meets Sam she follows him home.  Not wanting to go back to her house she sleeps the night in his bed.  In the morning he just brings her down to the family who had no idea she was there and they were completely unperturbed by it.  Everyone's cool with strange girls following their son/brother home and sleeping in his room.  Not this is really a bad thing that detracts from the story, but it just seemed so odd.

There are two more aspects I feel like they also missed with, and they're both part of the visual aesthetic of the film.  First off, a lot of lower budget supernatural horror movies seem to feel like they have to compensate for being a slower creepshow by nature and find ways to up their pace.  So when things that should be low-key and creepy happen, these movies try to amp them up and make them more intense.  Specifically what I'm talking about are shots where, because there's a ghost around, the movie will drop frames, random frames will be zoomed in and grainy or with weird color effects.  Basically this technique where they decide to make their movie resemble a mid-90's alternative rock music video.  I dislike this.  I feel like it cheapens the effect of supernatural elements.  The House at the End of the Street did this a lot, and it didn't even have any supernatural elements to its story, it was just being weird.

Second, I think ghost effects in movies tend to follow whatever precedent was set by the last really successful ghost movie regardless of their own aesthetic or what would actually look good.  The Ring ensured that every ghost story would have frame-skipped jerky moving ghosts for years.  I think Haunt is taking its cues from Mama, which featured a fast moving but very smooth ghost with lots of floating whispy strands of hair and clothing.  And while I adore Mama, I don't like this in Haunt.  The design of the ghost is very sensible.  It relates to the backstory, it looks's a totally competent ghost...but then in post they made it all floaty and it has those whispy bits around it which makes absolutely no sense.  Considering the ghost isn't actually on screen in full view very much, this is a really minor gripe...but it really just rubbed me the wrong way.

That aside, it's got some fairly chilling implications and I really did enjoy the story teller narration that bookends the film.  It's not really great by any stretch but I would definitely call it good enough and nothing about it is particularly objectionable so Haunt gets a "well done".


Monday, March 3, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Devil's Due

Devil's Due was released in early 2014, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett who did one of the more fun shorts in V/H/S, it's writer Lindsay Devlin's debut film.

It's a found-footage movie focusing on newlyweds Zach and Samantha McCall, who become pregnant after their honeymoon.  The initial camera is a small handheld bought by Zach so he can document their new life together, but is then upgraded to a multi-camera setup hidden throughout the couple's house.

Before I dive in, I should say that this should probably be read with a spoiler warning in effect.  I don't know how much of this movie was intended to remain a mystery since the trailer was pretty front-and-center, but I don't want anyone mad I spoiled this warned.

What goes on in this movie is basically: While on honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, the aforementioned newlywed couple wind up in an underground party where they're taken and some ceremony is performed on the wife.  Waking up with severe hangovers they assume they partied too hard and hurry to make their plane home.  A few weeks later Samantha discovers she's pregnant.  Strange things begin to go on and she has a lot of issues somewhere between "rough pregnancy" and "insane demonic possession things are not alright why am I carving symbols on the floor and beating up my cousins?".  As things progress, a cult inhabits the abandoned house at the end of the street and places multiple hidden cameras in the McCall's house to monitor Samantha as they wait for her to bring the anti-christ to term.

In a lot of ways I feel like Devil's Due is like a modernized, really crappy take on the Rosemary's Baby-type story.  The found-footage aesthetic being one of the things most responsible for bringing down the movie.  All the individual pieces feel like they could have come together into a decent story.  The Rosemary's Baby story is a really good place to start from for a horror movie because it is an alien and scary thing.  You'd need to trust people who've done this before, but what if you feel like they're not on the level?  Devil's Due does get points for a minor plot element where the original OB/GYN is replaced after the first appointment.  While it's cheese stuffing added to the cult plot, it definitely ramps up the wife's paranoia and it's nice to have a reason for the woman's increasing paranoia in a horror movie.  Some of the character and relationship beats are a bit over the top, but it doesn't stick with me nearly as much as the execution.

All the elements present are pretty stock and glossy, but it feels like the movie was never planned to be a found-footage movie, or at very least whoever decided to do it that way didn't really feel committed to it.  The problem is that found-footage movies, when they work, work by bringing the audience into the small world of the characters.  You stay set in a smaller location...a room, a single house, maybe the town.. When it feels natural that this could be someone's home movies happening to catch something going horribly wrong, found-footage works.  This is why Cannibal Holocaust worked, this is why Paranormal Activity worked, why Europa Report worked, etc.

When found-footage doesn't work, more often than not, it's because something's broken immersion.  This tends to be the "Why is he filming that?" or "How is he still holding the camera up?" moment where you tend to wonder why any rational person would film certain really uninteresting or awkward things, or you're amazed at this person's dedication to holding a camera up at eye level and facing forward while running for dear life.  Also, found-footage movies almost always have some pretext under which the footage was actually found.  However, in Devil's Due the footage comes from wherever it needs to come from without rationalization.  The footage sources in this movie are:
  • Husband's camera
  • "Adventure Camera" mounted to husband's chest
  • Hidden cameras placed in the house by the cult
  • Security camera in a grocery store
  • Interrogation camera in a police department
  • Some random kids' camera
  • Another vacationing couple's camera
And there might even be another I'm forgetting.  So how did we, the audience, get to see these?  Who found them?  Did the cult collect it all?  If they did, how did they get the police department footage?  Do they have agents there, well that doesn't make sense since the cult is implied to move around following whoever their target couple is.  And at that, even though I gave them points for it if the cult just follows couples did they manage to plant a doctor in a hospital so quickly?  What about the grocery store security footage?  The cult is really crappy about spying inconspicuously so how would they even have known something weird happened at the grocery store?  At one point in the movie they stole all the husband's camera's footage up to that point, but what about everything he recorded afterwards, or on the adventure cam?

All the questions just make it feel like they were lazy and wanted to do it as found-footage because it's cool and not because of any of the advantages the style gets you.

Makes me sad.