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Women in Horror: Maura McHugh

WiHMX-horizontal-WhiteToday we stop in Ireland to hear from Maura McHugh for Women in Horror Month. Maura gives a thoughtful review of a movie cult classic: Ginger Snaps.

Howling for Blood: Power and Puberty in Ginger Snaps

One of my favourite werewolf films is Ginger Snaps (2000), based on a story by Karen Walton and John Fawcett, with a screenplay by Walton, and directed by Fawcett. It has developed into a cult classic for a reason: it’s a well-crafted film about the body horror of puberty and learning to deal with new and powerful urges.

McHugh GingersnapsPoster

Cult classic Ginger Snaps explores werewolves and puberty.

Central to its story is the bond between two sisters, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) Fitzgerald, who don’t fit in at school due to their death obsession and Goth tendencies. Most of their peers are relentlessly replicating middle-class American attitudes exemplified by the boxy suburban landscape they inhabit. Although 16 and 15 years old, they remain on the cusp of puberty, so an interest in boys is just beginning to impinge upon their intense friendship.

Ginger is bitten by a werewolf just as she begins to menstruate, and she starts to change in literal and metaphoric ways. Brigitte tries to protect her sister as Ginger becomes more predatory and lost to her lycanthropic self. Power for Ginger is depicted as becoming more sexually aware and depending upon her ability to draw male attention. There’s the vamp walk down the High School hallway with the boys biting their fists at her attractiveness (a scene central to so many teen films), but this is not the “mousy girl becomes Prom Queen” dynamic. Ginger has always been attractive but was previously uncomfortable with the attention it brought.

This is the Jekyll & Hyde narrative with the girls representing both sides of the self. The werewolf is violent ID, rampaging without restraint. The more Ginger enjoys her destructive power the more alien she becomes. The physical transformation into a werewolf is slow in Ginger Snaps, it hits peak power during the full moon but it is a continuous build. As it progresses, the bond between the sisters erodes. Brigitte begins to embody the rational self that Ginger has rejected, so Ginger will eventually be driven to destroy her sister.

Brigitte attempts to figure out a way to stop her sister from becoming a beast (Ginger graduates from killing animals to killing humans with ease), but Ginger enjoys the power and has the strength to carry out her lethal impulses. “I’m a goddamn force of nature. I feel like I could do just about anything.”

The werewolf is a metaphor for the physical transformation (hair growth, strange appetites and smells) and the emotional roller coaster triggered by the onset of menstruation: mood swings, hormonal imbalances, etc. The film glories in its taboo subject and even offers a biology lesson about some of the more unpleasant aspects of monthly bleeding described in plain language. Older women encourage the girls to embrace it. Menstruation−that hidden, messy issue that usually described in euphemisms (one of the film’s taglines is “She’s got the curse”)− is central to the film.

An overlooked and under-appreciated character in Ginger Snaps is Pamela (Mimi McHugh ginger-snaps-sisters-togetherRogers), the girls’ mother. She has a calm, open and nice relationship with her children, but she doesn’t suppress or shame them. When she realises what’s happening after discovering a dead body, she tells Brigitte, “First thing tomorrow I’ll let the house fill up with gas and I’ll light a match.” The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. A mother’s instinct to protect is as strong as a werewolf’s need to devour.

When the two sisters confront their estrangement Brigitte says, “You want me? You want me, stop hurting everyone else and take me, take me!” But Ginger is too far gone, and Brigitte is unrecognisable to her.

Brigitte realises that she needs to reconcile the two parts and willingly takes the curse to demonstrate to Ginger that she will continue to have an ally who understands what she is experiencing. She has faith in a cure that will save them, as developed by the local weed grower Sam (Kris Lemche). Ginger’s earlier beau Jason (Jesse Moss) has not been a true threat to the girls, but Sam is thoughtful, smart and rejects Ginger’s advances. When he attempts to help Brigitte cure Ginger, the fully transformed Ginger attacks him with all her rage.

Brigitte shares a communion of blood with her sister (courtesy of Sam), and though she feels the draw of lycanthropic power, she cannot lose herself to it. She rejects this frightening power, doubting her ability to control it (and she’s given no sign that’s possible).

The final denouement happens in the sisters’ bedroom, place of their childhood and shared secrets. Now a symbol of their divide.

Brigitte knows what the uncontrolled monster will bring: a destruction of her ability to fit into the world rationally. “I’m not dying in this room with you!” she yells. But it is werewolf Ginger’s leap onto Brigitte’s knife that kills Ginger—a deliberate act or animal impulse? The beast cannot win against life’s sharp realities.

The girls had played at death in their earlier, staged death scenes, but truly being riven from each another is far more tragic than they ever imagined. Brigitte weeps over the corpse of her werewolf sister/self. To live in the world, she has given up something essential.

Ginger Snaps remains a rare horror film that concentrates exclusively on women’s struggles with their powerful urges and desires, and the double difficultly involved with inhabiting that power in a healthy way in a society that continues to mistrust powerful women−for at any point they might bleed, and of course, lose control…

mchugh-2018You can view a trailer to Ginger Snaps here.

Maura McHugh is a horror writer living in Galway, Ireland, who writes articles, prose, comic books, plays and screenplays. Most recently she wrote a book about David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and has a collection of fiction forthcoming from NewCon Press in the UK. Her web site is splinister.com and she tweets as @splinister.

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Movie Review: Bass Ackwards

movies, entertainment, film, bass ackwards, Linas Phillips, road trip

Bass Ackwards is about a road trip to find oneself.

This is a low-budget, independent film from 2010, written, produced and starring Linas Phillips. It was shown at the Sundance Film Festival.

This was on a disk I borrowed from a neighbor and would never have asked for it. Because of this I almost didn’t watch it. It starts out slow and seems a depressing tale of a guy who is lost, drifting, doesn’t know what to do with his life, lives on people’s couches and generally is failing at trying to have a relationship with a woman who is married. From what I can tell he never gets farther than chatting with her and playing cards. Up until this point I was pretty bored with the meandering, going nowhere life. Then the woman’s husband/boyfriend follows her and tries to beat up Linas. It’s ineffectual, involving two guys who aren’t very physical or macho, rolling about and batting at each other. Linas doesn’t even know why the guy is after him.

After he goes to work on a farm, where he finds some old VW bus that’s been shortened. Without money or purpose he decides to travel east and maybe see his parents. He still entertains a dream that the woman will join him, but the viewer knows that won’t happen. Thus begins another road trip movie.

I found this started slow, depressing, dreary. The cinematography is pretty straight forward, the colors a little subdued. Once Linas gets going on his road trip the tale picks up. The true gems are the people he finds along the way. The small cast, Paul Lazar, Jim Fletcher and Davie-Blue, are also co-writers, along with Sean Porter.

Linas avoids getting beaten, barely, by a yokel who’s woman he was hitting on. Then he meets some guy who just kind of coerces Linas to let him sleep in the van. At first you think he might be a drug addict or nuts and maybe he is a bit. He meets a mechanic who first yanks his chain, then opens up to him. Through these encounters and a few others, Linas begins to find himself. The people come across as real, and have more depth than you think they would at first.

These encounters are the true heart of the movie and make it worth watching. So while the pace is as meandering as the road trip itself, and there is flatness to the beginning, the film builds on its humanity. This is no startling revelation, nor sudden change of fortune. It’s a tale of what life is often like; it continues on, like a gentle curve in the road, sometimes revealing vistas, sometimes potholes, and slowly you see Linas climbing out of stasis and finding a path.  I’ll give this 6.5 gallons of gas out of 10.

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Movie Review: The Woman

I’m not a big gore and horror film watcher, which you might find surprising because I write a lot of darkly disturbing fiction. But I find often in movies, they’re going for the shock factor and splatter more gore than an abattoir. They’re disgusting but not necessarily penetrating, nor disturbing because of the story they tell. Maybe this is why zombies have become so popular. You can heap on the gore, entrails and gnashing of human flesh without much conscience. After all, they’re just undead, mindless animals and the real world has horrors greater than a shambling (or even fast running) zombie.

murder, feral people, cannabalisim, horror, Lucky McKee

Pollyanna McIntosh stars in the disturbing movie, The Woman

When I watched The Woman directed by Lucky McKee, written by horror writer Jack Ketchum, and McKee, I didn’t even know it was horror. I’d borrowed some movies from my neighbor and was just clicking through the unfamiliar ones. Right away I’m thrust into a situation that’s not what I’d call your every day world. Sure it looks like it. Streams, woods and sun filtered through the leaves. Except there’s a filthy feral woman, in tattered rags. These rags cover the essentials and she carries a knife so you know she’s been around civilization at some point.

The official site has the following description of the film: Family man and lawyer Christoper Cleek (Sean Bridgers) must do what he can to protect his family when he comes into contact with a feral woman (Pollyana McIntosh) living in the woods near his isolated country home. Through a series of harrowing encounters Cleek and his family quickly discover there is more to this woman than anyone would suspect and that sometimes the devil wears a handsome face.

This is actually an intentionally misleading write-up. I’ll be giving spoilers so if you want to watch this without prejudice skip to the last paragraph. From the beginning you see this very smiley family man but there is something wrong with the family. At the jarring switch from feral country scene to garden party you see a girl who ignores the boys flirting with her and looks back at another man. You see a man whose subservient wife gets him his drinks. His wife seems timid, his daughter cowed. But you don’t know the situation yet. As the story progresses you get the sense that there is something extremely wrong, yet Cleek seems a reasonable guy who loves his three children, who helps people out and believes in democratic decision making in his family. That is, until they disagree with him. When he goes hunting he finds the feral woman and decides to bag her.

While one could think he wants to help and humanize her his first thought is to keep her captive and of

The Woman, horror, abuse,

Zach Rand as the emotionally broken Brian Cleek

course chain her, hand and foot. Well, we’ve been shown she is an animal and will kill anything to survive…anything. But never is there any thought to calling some city service to help this injured and degenerate being. Cleek’s methods of cleaning her are already brutal, cold and suspect and when his wife questions keeping her he casually backhands her. Intimations of incest are also evident and his son shows a cauterised emotional state that reflects the father’s ideals. There are dogs locked away in the barn, never let out and a growing sense that even the son is damaged.

The males become obsessed with the feral woman. She’s beaten, tortured and raped, and she is unrepentantly hostile. Pollyanna McIntosh’s portrayal is stunning. She is so animalistic that the best acted zombie cannot compare. But she is a thinking intelligent if wild human in this film Her acting was all the more stunning because the actor/model is stunning in real life.

The movie slowly, horrifically spirals into more nastiness, with reveals of just how deep the depravity really goes. The depravity isn’t the feral woman, it is of course the smiling, reasonable Cleek who is really a subjugator of women, a rapist, and more depraved than a beast could ever be. The movie ends with mayhem, murder and some gore. One reviewer said they would have liked it bloodier but I think this made it more realistic.

There were a few things that didn’t ring quite true for me. The feral woman has bangs and if she was cutting her own hair with a knife they should have been more jagged. Otherwise McIntosh is more than convincing as uncivilized. Sean Bridgers as the father is convincing except possibly at the end when a few lines rang as untrue. The concerned school teacher is naively trying to help in the disastrous situation and when she is victimized I felt she gave in too easily and did not fight back when it was her life about to end.

Overall, this was a truly disturbing film that piled one horror on another. There is a comeuppance at the end for those who are the perpetrators and those too weak to stand up to them. This movie caused some outbursts and outrage at the Sundance Festival. But then, that is the sign of a horror film doing what it should. Often they’re filled with gratuitous violence and gore, and far too many women always the victims. The Woman turned the tables on that trope though it starts out that way. It definitely makes you think and shudder.  Yes, there was a bit of gratuitous violence and blood but actually fairly restrained. I’d give it seven blood splats out of ten.

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Movie Review: The Train Wreck of “I’m Still Here”

I got to see the preview of I’m Still Here last night, another in a long list of reality, documentary, “real life” stories on film. So it’s shot with a handheld video and is grainy and old looking, as well as bad to incomprehensible sound quality in parts. Just like Blair Witch Project and all those other made-to-be-real stories. But it’s a documentary, sort of. Joaquin Phoenix, the star, or anti-star, of this documentary was filmed by brother-in-law Casey Affleck. Now in a way it’s unfortunate that Affleck let the cat out of the bag so early that in fact this is a mockumentary and not really Phoenix’s plummet into eccentric weirdoness. We sincerely hope–though stars going crazy, or doing too many drugs or booze is an old story and Phoenix seems to have had his brush with this in the past.

Joaquin as crazed hip-hop wannabe (from x17online.com)

In some ways, this reminded me of the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which had grainy handheld images by a novice videographer, for part of it. But let’s look at I’m Still Here as if it were being filmed as a true documentary. First, if Casey Affleck was revealed as the director at the beginning we then have to wonder, why does an actor with money and names at his disposal decide to use the lowest level of technology available to make this film about his brother-in-law? Only because it will look more like reality, but already I’m suspicious because it’s not some no name Joe and at least the filming should be a little more even, and the framing and sound better. That’s my first raspberry to the film.

Let’s not forget that for Affleck’s directorial debut it does keep production values and costs pretty minimal, and producing a film can be very very expensive. Not to mention paying those high price actors of which Joaquin Phoenix is one. But hey, he’s in on it and he’s Affleck’s brother-in-law and we know the Affleck boys are talented. So let’s do this badass hoax.

Phoenix, as always, is such a consummate actor that he’s believable as the tripped out, pot-smoking, coke-snorting, beer-drinking crazoid who wants to give up acting and become a hip-hop artist. However…through this increasing train wreck of two years, Joaquin gets fuzzier with a big untrimmed beard, uncombed hair, massive sunglasses held together by duct tape, sometimes a torn toque or shirt on his head and generally a slovenly appearance that radiates negative sex appeal. I kept wondering if they put a fat suit on him but it looks too real as he gains weight. Now there are many actors who have put on weight, starved themselves or gotten buff to play a role and I don’t doubt that Phoenix would do this.

However, I find it unbelievable that anyone who actually cared for the man, including presumably his brother-in-law and a sister somewhere (or the brief cameo of his father) would let a man slide for so long without wanting to stage an intervention, and that Affleck would put that in the video. Phoenix is crazed,  he’s drugged, he mumbles, he rants and is basically so fucked up that he’s unappealing to anyone but the sycophants/aids/assistants who are paid to follow and help him. But no one, not publicist nor marketing people nor agents ever say, “What the hell? You need serious help.” They just let him ride and let him slide, and that to me is unbelievable and missing from this mockumentary, hence making it a noticeable fake documentary.

As for the film itself, well there are funny moments because Joaquin is so crazed and the way he dresses so bad (because we know he’s a famous star) that you just have to laugh. His home doesn’t look anything like what a star would live in and seems half unpacked with his assistants living in bare bedrooms with no pictures on the wall and only a single size bed (also unbelievable–no one can love him that much). So yeah we laugh at his crazy looniness and at the lame-ass attempts at hip-hop, which, because the sound is never mastered in any way is hard to hear at times.

But those amusing moments don’t warrant a nearly two-hour film. It’s slow and drags and whereas Exit Through the Gift Shop moved along, had tension, humor, drama and a good story on several levels, I’m Still Here falls flat. So flat in fact that I kept trying to see what time it was when I wasn’t closing my eyes. An hour would have been long enough to document this style of train wreck life, whether real or not. Some judicious cutting would have helped.

If Casey Affleck hadn’t revealed that it was a mockumentary so quickly I’m sure that the critics would debate its veracity for months, (and more people would see the film) but probably Joaquin Phoenix is truly worried that people will believe it and that his movie career will plummet. Plus, he’s gotta get back in shape now. But like the phoenix Joaquin is named after, I’m sure this star will rise higher and that the only truly good thing in this film was the caliber of his acting.  As for Casey Affleck’s directing, well, with the right money and people in the right place, I know I could do as well if not better. I’d only give this film four stars out of ten. Watching my cat groom itself is about on par for the excitement in this film.

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Movie Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Banksy's art

On the weekend I went to see a movie with a friend, and it’s not the type of movie I normally would see. Usually, I like my escapist mind candy. I see a lot of speculative (SF and fantasy) movies because it’s what I mostly write. I like a good drama; once in a while a good comedy. I don’t tend to go to horror/thriller movies, slapstick humor, chick flicks or documentaries. With documentaries I guess I feel I want to just enjoy a world of make-believe, of fiction, and not have my emotions tossed all over the place. Or I believe they’ll be boring.

So I wasn’t expecting much when I heard we were going to see a movie about graffiti artists, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The movie started out with this guy Thierry Guetta and his obsession with filming everything in sight. There was a little interview/statement at first by some guy in a black hoody whose face was hidden and his voice disguised. The shots are like old home movies, bad angles, out of focus, insipid color. I didn’t think much of the first ten minutes, but then the brilliance of the movie started to unfold.

Now I come from an art background and I know there is graffiti art, those jagged large letters on walls all but unreadable, yet of a discernible style. There are wall murals but they look to be done by artists hired by the establishment. There are some pictures or posters. And there is the slogan graffiti, like the one on the little bathroom in Grandview Park, painted with a simplistic landscape and some crows, but some anti-everything anarchist defaced the art by painting “F**k the pigs!” and “Kill the pigs!” Not particularly intelligent, deep or new and nothing to do with the most recent protest (on upgrading the park facilities) which was when it was painted.

What I had no clue about was the depth of graffiti art, or street art, where people devote their spare time and money to making images and posting them, usually illegally. How this relates to Thierry the obsessive videographer is that when he is visiting family in France his cousin makes these plastic tiles and sticks them up on walls and underpasses, and they, like his name, are all about Space Invader. Street artists have aliases (probably to protect them from police and being fined) and become known for their particular style. They will print 10-20-foot tall images and then paste them to sides of buildings. What I did notice of all the artists shown was that they use blank walls and never deface public art. They might paint over a previous artist’s work if it’s old and known as a graffiti wall.

The better artists have a good style and may also have a message to get across. Thierry in his obsession began filming his cousin and was then filming numerous street artists, in a way documenting a transitory art form that had not yet been captured for history or memory’s sake. One of the most notorious  and political street artists was in Britain and goes by the name of Banksy. As Thierry finally meets Banksy, Banksy tells him it’s time to get this documentary out there for everyone to see this impermanent form of art. But what they don’t know is that Thierry has thousands of cassettes and he’s never looked at any of them or cataloged them in any order. What results is an unwatchable 1.5 hour film.

What is evident through this film is that it’s a bit of a biography of Thierry, a documentary of street art, a commentary on art and value, a look at culture and a very complex, multi-layered piece. Along the way it’s obvious that Banksy and others stepped in to take some of Thierry’s footage and make something truly historic. And street art starts to move into the big LA and British galleries, being auctioned off and worth big money. Banksy tells Thierry to go home and make some art. But what he didn’t realize was how powerful Thierry’s obsession was.

Thierry goes from filming to wanting to be a street artist too. Banksy gives Thierry a quote: “He’s a force of nature and I don’t mean that in a good way.” (paraphrased) Thierry isn’t just doing a bit of street art; he’s doing a lot. Plus he mortgages his house, sells his business and mounts a truly monumental show. In essence, he makes himself an artist almost overnight. And the thing is, this guy isn’t the trendy artist, nor an anti-culture rebel icon. He’s very provincial, sort of an innocent, and not very eloquent, and yet, he has something. This film also is about what is art and can someone create art without going through the long steps of training and gaining notoriety.

The brilliance of this documentary is subtle and so multi-layered that I’m still thinking about it. And yes, it highlights the elusive Banksy, who remains mysterious, but then it looks like, in the end, that he produced the movie. And Banksy, well, he’s subversive, he’s political, he’s talented and really quite brilliant (I hope his head doesn’t swell too much should he read this.) I’ve included one of his images here, which says a lot , and his website from where I found this piece. You can also find out when the film is being viewed in your city. http://www.banksy.co.uk/index.html

Exit Through the Gift Shop is so ingenuous that it’s worth seeing, whether you like documentaries or not, or are interested in culture, art, history, politics or people. And this is a subtly funny film too. I know that when I go for walks from now on, I’ll be looking at graffiti with a different eye. I don’t know how big the street art movement is in Vancouver but I can say that the best of it is truly a form of unique art worthy of appreciation. I would give this film five stars.

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Movie Review: Avatar and a Comparison II

See Jan. 18 for Part I of this review.

Now a story or movie being derivative is not necessarily a bad thing. All stories build on those that have gone before, going back to the oldest tale ever told around a fire about heroes or how the world was made. Nothing is truly original. However, being cliché and stereotypical, done to death is a big problem.

Several people have compared Avatar to Dances With Wolves and Ferngully. I just watched Ferngully to see the comparison and it is pretty close. Avatar’s plot was unfortunately, extremely cliché. I found I was getting irritated at points because of the overused, predictable and shallow storyline. Humans want the resources (land, ore, food, etc.) and must get the indigenes out of their way. The indigenous people resist because this is their way of life and spirituality. The big bad corporation doesn’t care. They see only resources and money. The military thugs are the brawn behind the corporation and never seem to have anything more than vengeful tactics. There’s always that one guy that makes it his mission, who’s hard to kill, who’s vengeful, hateful, and stands in the way of decency and empathy.

There is the guy that goes native, who suddenly starts to see the world through indigenous eyes, and of course falls in love with the most desirable local gal. But the local gal is promised to the big tough warrior of the tribe who justifiably sees new guy as a threat. A power struggle ensues and the two guys establish the pecking order while the new guy gets the girl. Evil corporation and army thug move in, uncaring, and rape the land/people. In this case they want this rich mineral called unobtainium. Oh puhleeze. It could just as well be moremoneyium, hard togettium, makeusrichium. It’s as original as Darth Sidious. But the plot… New guy shows the locals how to come together and defeat the bad guys. Often he is better than any of the locals could be and gains their respect. It’s so cliché that it is absolutely Ferngully though the corporation is mostly missing in that (but logging is the bad guy) and the new guy doesn’t really get the girl in the end.

Here are a few ways in which Avatar could have been different. Jake Sully might not have been a stooge for the army to begin with. That he’s absolutely untrained and getting to use a very expensive avatar that only experienced xenozoologists, xenoanthropologists, xenobotanists, etc. are using is completely unlikely in any context. Security detail; why do they need it now? Not likely. They are there not only to study the people but to try to work with them. I do find it hard to believe that in this future anybody would be allowed to rape and pillage any new culture they found without some sort of analysis and diplomacy brought in first. We’re talking whole new worlds here.

The military and corporate guys calling the Na’vi savages and monkeys is such an obvious play on the audience’s emotions that it annoyed me. Jake might have fallen for Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver and one of the few characters that’s not totally predictable) who spurns him. He might not have got the local girl who still goes with her warrior guy. It would have been really nice if Tsu Tey, the warrior leader, was the one who tames the toruk, but asks for Jake’s help. The Na’vi aren’t stupid and know their planet better than anyone else (something that Jake seems to have to tell his people and us, to liken it to the resistance of Afghani rebels on their own turf). They should be able to figure out that they can toss spears and arrows into whirling blades themselves, as well as knowing shooting at metal is a waste of their arrows. Thankfully the women can be warriors too in this.

Maybe Jake dies at the end, sacrificing himself for what he now knows is real and good. It just would have been better not to have him be the hero of his adopted people. But then the outsider story is also a very common one.  Hello, Dances With Wolves. And the evil corporation, who of course somehow never sends in negotiators to find a way to mine the ore without even having to move the people is so thin it drove me nuts. Just how many movies have I seen now with the military guys just being unthinking thugs with no diplomacy? Oh yeah, remember District 9? Evil corporation and military thugs. So two-dimensional. Sigh.

Now I’m going to compare Avatar to “Finisterra,” a novelette by David Moles (http://www.chrononaut.org/) which appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction Dec. 2007. “Finisterra” won the 2008 Sturgeon award for best short fiction and was nominated for a Hugo award and it has stuck with me enough after two years because it was memorable and different.

“Finisterra” like Avatar is not so much a tale about white man’s guilt (as has been argued about Avatar) as it is one about humans plundering a planet or nature and killing things to take resources, something that is still happening on Earth today. We are losing species of flora and fauna at an alarming rate and killing our planet (fewer trees, more ozone) to the detriment of ourselves.

Finisterra takes place in a future where women don’t have a lot of rights in the Muslim controlled sectors and our main character, a minority Christian, is a husbandless woman who must try to survive where she can. She takes an illegal job, as an aeronautical engineer (already a job women aren’t allowed to practice) on the planet Sky. She sees the “continents” Encantada and Finisterra (the main languages at this time are Arabic and Spanish), which are floating bio-masses, both animal and land that travel in the breathable atmosphere around a poisonous gas giant. Finisterra is as big as North America, peopled, like Australia was, with refugees and criminals who are now in their sixth generation.

Soil, trees and fauna accrete to the zaratan, the monstrous whalelike creatures, which are being poached for bones and skin, killing off a whole ecosystem. Bianca is a small figure, not a hero, not living in an idyllic world, who must make or be forced into a moral decision. Her world/universe is not completely saved afterwards, and the struggles will continue but maybe it’s marginally better. Moles managed to relate this far future story to several items of import in our world today. Religion and the limiting of people’s rights/jobs/professions, religious bias of one religion over another, poachers and pirates, laws that don’t work, destroying an ecosystem for the sake of profit, and the common man/woman–what can one person truly do against a whole system?

Avatar is a hero tale, in some ways as old as those of Hercules and Gilgamesh. “Finisterra” is about you and me, people who can’t always be heroes, who must struggle to survive. And yet it touches on our fears of religious zealotry. It touches on those images of slaughtering whales, but not even for the whole animal. It touches on destroying something that can change life for thousands of people. Avatar touches on the latter as well and in that sense it is a message we need to hear again and again, but it’s truly our governments and our corporations who need to hear it and I don’t think they will, or they will choose to ignore it. But maybe as people move into positions of power, they will remember these tales.

It’s taken me a while to realize the true brilliance of David Moles’ story because of these delicate interweavings, messages for people of this age yet about of the future too, without hitting us over the head. (Would that I could learn this so well for my own writing. I doff my hat to you, David.) Avatar, by becoming so simplistic in plot and culture does hit us over the head. The evilness is premeditated and yet often such evils are more complicated than just “I’m evil, bwahahahaha.” Events happen for misguided, often good reasons and sometimes cascade out of control. I would have liked to see more depth all around to Avatar’s story.

If Avatar wins best screenplay in the Oscars it will be because people were dazzled by the very cool smoke and mirrors, as seems to have happened in the Golden Globes. So it goes. I see that there will be another Avatar in 2012. Cameron would have done better to have hired David Moles or his like to write the script, and if not that, at least someone to look it over and slash the clichés fom it. Let’s hope he does that for the second movie.

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Movie Review: Zombieland

Finding an interesting movie in the month or so before holiday season releases can be a bit of a challenge. I saw 9 a week ago and being the science fictional gal I am, when fellow writer Rhea Rose wanted to see a movie, we got it down to Where the Wild Things Are and Zombieland. For whatever reason, I decided that I’d rather see Zombieland.

We went to Silver City in Coquitlam, one of the most stupidly designed theaters, as parking lots go. It’s like a maze and some rows blocked so you have to backtrack or cross over the road that cars enter from, to get to the other side. This inefficient design takes up space that could have been used for parking. Let me tell you, if you had to run over zombies, you’d never get up enough speed and they’d take you down for sure. So stay out of badly designed movie parking lots.

Now the movie, which has a brilliant opener, with the narrator, who we don’t know quite yet, and slo-mo pastiches of people turning zombie and chomping on their friends and family. First there was mad cow, then mad people, then mad zombie, and so it began, spreading across the country and maybe the world. But for this movie it is in the ole U.S. of A and there is no saving the country because it’s too late (so much for flu preparedness). In fact, so destroyed by zombies is it that there are few people left alive and one is our narrator, a young, geeky college guy with few social skills and a lot of neurosis, including irritable bowel syndrome (probably from those pizza and Mountain Dew he lives  on.) He is known as Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), an unlikely survivor of the zombie apocalypse, partly because of his fastidious rules, (always wear a seatbelt, check the back seat, double tap, etc.) which are often demonstrated in other zombie encountering clashes.

He meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a lean, mean, zombie killing machine who has two goals in a world depleted of humanity: to kill zombies and find a Twinkie, which, he says, has an expiration date despite popular belief.  Tallahassee names Columbus and then two others they meet, the femme fatale Wichita (Emma Stone) and her little sister,  Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Why they have these names and don’t just say I’m Sarah, I’m Fred, is never explained. I mean, it’s not like they have to hide their identities in a world lacking humans, law and order. But that’s just one of the many thin patches on this barely held-together plot. Columbus is looking for…who knows but he’s like every person, trying to stay alive, despite the odds. Wichita and Little Rock are trying to get to the West Coast to the mythical Playland, which is supposed to be free of zombies.

Who told these people about this zombie free land? After all, there’s no one left to spread a rumor. Not that the zombies would encourage the meat to get away. Oh and the zombies. Well they are the most wholesome zombies I’ve ever seen. By wholesome I mean they seem to have all their limbs and haven’t been chawed apart, except for that initial chomp. But then as the zombie virus spreads it seems they all get bruised looking eyes, blood and gore on their faces and they spit blackish or green gorp from their mouths, which might be blood or rotting guts or who knows. Now these zombies aren’t the shambling creatures of other movies. They’re fast and can run (the fatties went first, says Columbus. Rule #1 is cardio.) and they seem to think to a degree, like wily animals, being able to smash in windows. But at other times they shamble, heads askew, wrists limp, legs at odd angles. I’m not sure why.

The zombies are also attracted to bright lights and sound and of course they want fresh meat. But with so few bodies around (a lack of extras or money for special effects), I wonder how it’s much of a problem to avoid them. And what do they eat if they’ve eaten all of the living? Well, one scene shows a zombie chomping on her “manwich” and drinking the marrow from his bones. If that’s the case, it seems that when all of the humans were gone and only zombies were left they’d turn on each other, but instead there are numbers of them waiting to congregate on our unsuspecting heroes.

When there are cars and keys  and homes with food, plus stores abounding, why is it that Little Rock and Wichita have to steal a car from Columbus and Tallahassee? If they’ve survived this long, they should be able to figure out how to get a free car, not to mention,outwitting mindless zombies would be harder than two men. So this unlikely plot thread throws our four nuts together. Columbus has feelings for Wichita which she rejects at first, but Tallahassee is older and weird. And Columbus really has no choice, if Wichita is the last woman alive (her sister being too young). Boy meets girl with a tag along “uncle” and sister in a land of zombies. Hmmm.

SPOILER ALERT. There is a gratuitous Bill Murray scene, which has the least well-planned out skit of the movie. Another rule: don’t dress up as a zombie if you’re not and try to scare people used to shooting zombies. All I can figure is that either Bill Murray put money behind this movie or they asked to use his house and he said sure, but I get a cameo. Of course, he is a legendary comic too.

This plot was very very thin, to the point that we came out of the movie going errr, where was the plot, but it was funny. And that’s just it. The one liners and the hilarious skits are timed very well and the actors all hold their own. Overall it’s a vehicle for Harrelson and we agreed he actually looked pretty good all buffed up. The unlikely teamup of the anal-retentive geek and the hard-edged badass work well and the pacing is good for this rather short movie. How long can you stretch out a zombie-chasing-human story anyways? I would give this a 6 out of 10 for the lameass zombies and gore, and the lacklustre plot, but the humor and the comedy hold this together and had us laughing out loud. So I’ll give it a 7  6.5 because of the good acting and the funny skits along the way to who knows where. The motto could be, family is who you pick.

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Movie Review: 9

Recovering from Thanksgiving meant that one day I did a lot of sleeping. I also went and saw the movie 9 playing in the local Dolphin Theatres, a 2-cinema venue that has no center section of seats but just right and left…oh, and no heat, but it’s cheaper and close. I had seen a trailer for this animation and Tim Burton’s name was involved so I thought it would be good. Of course, ole Tim hasn’t batted 100. I tried to watch James and the Giant Peach (have and love the book) but I just kept falling asleep. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an unfortunate timing with the child abuse lawsuits against Michael Jackson, and Sweeney Todd was just slow.

So Tim can get it and then miss. But one thing is for sure, his eccentric sense of imagery and pacing often add an otherworldliness to his films. Of course he does like to choose the quirky topics. So 9 is not the first animation that Burton has been involved with, though here he is only the producer along with Timur Bekmambetov. Shane Acker is the writer (screenplay by Pamela Pettler) and it is based on a short animation Oscar nominated in 2005.

The movie opens right away with a hand stitching together a puppet/mannequin. There are no credits, no film title (though there might have been and somehow I missed it in the subtlety). It just begins so the voices of each character aren’t really discernible as a particular actor. At the end you find out the voices of each doll being was played by well-known actors: Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Fred Tatasciore (the least known but then the character 8 is an overlarge, thuggish brute who speaks little). I wonder if  Hollywood’s penchant for using famous names in animations actually pays off. I could care less if the voice is Johnny Depp or Joe Blow as long as it suits the character.

So the movie opens with 9 being made and coming alive, a little stitched doll, with humanlike movement, intelligence and expression. He discovers a world destroyed by the vagaries of war and any human shown, the scientist who made him and a dead girl in a car, have no rot. In fact the humans have become inanimate, while the constructs have become animated. Those are really the only people in the film, whether dead or alive, except for some film flashbacks.

The cause of the “presumably” worldwide devastation was a war run by a dictator and a scientist’s wondrous invention that was taken from his control. That there is a close similarity to Hitler’s Third Reich and the inventions of J. Robert Oppenheimer (considered father of the atomic bomb) and the fears of Einstein is no coincidence. Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Vita back in his day: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Interestingly the actor who plays the scientist’s voice also has the name of Alan Oppenheimer.

The second world war is in fact iconic and symbolic to anyone born in the 21st or 20th century, so it is only natural that it is the template for wars in any movies that aren’t specifically historical. The time is hard to tell because there are advanced technologies (the thinking Fabrication Machine that can build and create new machines) to old phonographs. I would presume the creators wanted to keep it iconic and timeless on purpose. The tale is one of daring and fear, of curiosity and power. 9 worsens the situation but then tries to right his wrongs, at great cost to everyone.

The characters all have male voices except for the bold and fearless 7, played by Jennifer Connelly, but it’s hard to discern a sex per se of dolls that are sewn and sexless. They have no way of reproduction and they have no genitalia. Yet there is definitely the hint of a friendship/love forming between 7 and 9. Which is probably what puzzles me most about this world. The scientist created them. They are the essence of humanity but they have no way of bringing more life to the world, or do they? The ending gives a hint of change.

The story itself is not really new in plot but presented refreshingly enough. 9 can assuage his guilt of the others losing their lives by redeeming their souls. As many tales are, it is a tale of redemption and of good or the just conquering evil. Overall, I found 9 well done; the animation and the textures of each fabric made doll, the shine of broken statues, the dinginess of bombed out buildings adds to the complexity of the scenes. Yes it still looks animated and the humans look least real of all but then it would have been hard to do otherwise.

Technology starts out as a bad thing here, which we often see in mediocre science fiction but it is presented fairly, showing the good aspects (the dolls) and that people, not science can warp machines. Though in truth the machines are imbued with a life and intelligence that makes them sinister and vindictive. The movie was enjoyable and tense at times in evading mechanized monsters. I’d give it a 7 out of 10.

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Movie Review: The Triplets of Belleville

The other night I watched a DVD with a friend. We just had a few to choose from and between The Triplets of Belleville and some war film we decided to go with the Triplets, not knowing at all what it was. Les triplettes de Bellevilleis the true title as it’s French and made by a Canadian, Sylvain Chomet. It begins with a two-dimensional black and white cartoony animation of three women singing and various characters coming on stage like Fred Astaire and Josephine Baker. Josephine’s famous banana costume is attacked by male patrons from the audience who turn into monkeys.

I was a bit surprised when the movie started to see it was a cartoon. I wasn’t ready to watch a long one but the camera pulls back on the triplets, vaudeville singers to show it is on TV and that we’re in the room of a very short old woman, with mustache hairs, one foot shorter and a lift on her shoe, plus an eye that rolls which she must push up. Her grandson is a melancholy child and she tries to find ways to make him happy. His parents are dead and nothing seems to cheer him.

Although this is French with English subtitles, the main characters never really talk. It is only the background announcers for TV and the Tour de France who talk. The actions and images tell all. The style of the animation changes with the grandmother and her grandson, Champion. It is a painted set, with subtle colors, indicating and idyllic life, and shifts again when in Belleville. Grandma buys Champion a puppy, and he is momentarily elated but saddens again, until she discovers he has an interest in bikes and buys him a tricycle.

Bruno, the young puppy, has a traumatic experience with a toy train, and trains continue to plague him throughout his life, for real, and in black and white dog dreams. If a cartoon character could steal the show, Bruno comes close. This cartoon character displays dogness so well that you can’t help but laugh at his antics and his fat body and spindly legs. In fact, the attention to individual detail in this film is what makes it stand out.

Bruno would have won in the endearing category if it wasn’t for Grandma Souza. She loves her grandson dearly and clearly continues to innovate ways to do numerous things. Years span by in a lovely painted style of animation, where they live in a tall brick house, that is eventually encroached upon by building and expansion, until it’s not so lovely. But that doesn’t stop Grandma from helping her grandson train for the Tour de France. Nor Bruno from barking at every train.

Champion is really a two-dimensional character compared to Bruno and Madame Souza, but then all he lives for is bicycling and he is a passive character. Grandma on the other hand peddles along on Champion’s outgrown tricycle (still the right size for her tinyness) using a whistle to encourage Champion on his training. He is skinny except for massive thigh and calf muscles which she massages with electric beater, hand lawn mower and vacuum cleaners.  She fixes bicycle rims with a tuning fork and the use of a miniature Eiffel Tower. She carries her overgrown grandson up stairs, puts him to bed and sees to his every need. For every problem she finds a way to fix it. But she is a terrible singer.

Eventually Champion goes into the Tour de France only be to be kidnapped along with other exhausted bicyclists by the French wine mafia and stolen away to Belleville. However Madame Souza and Bruno don’t give up and through beautiful scenes find themselves trying to trace Champion’s captors in the big city. Belleville looks like it could be in France but there is a chubby statue of liberty and every person on the street is huge and round, probably a tongue in cheek comment about Americans.

Grandma has no money and as she sits under a bridge she finds an old bent rim and begins to play a tune on it when three elderly ladies, the triplets, appear and hum a tune. They take her in but they seem a bit crazy, not letting her use the vacuum cleaner or read a paper. But they too have a way of surviving. They hunt frogs with dynamite and there is frog soup, skewered frogs, cooked tadpoles and frog popsicles, much to Grandma’s dire dismay.

All of these truly funny antics are for a reason. Every nuance or little quirk ties back into the plot as Grandma discovers the mafia’s nefarious plan. She and the triplets, with the help of Bruno and some ingenuity, rescue Champion.

I can’t say when I saw an animated film that was as charming and truly funny as this. The imagery and design are beautiful and quirky. The mystery of the kidnapping is played out well and without words. The actions truly speak stronger than the words. The storyline is intriguing and complex in its way, and the characters are just so much fun to see. It is endearign to a point that I would see it a second time.

I started out thinking I didn’t want to watch a cartoon and was completely charmed by it. This film came out in 2003 and won numerous awards, including a Genie for best motion picture, and was nominated for many more. If you get a chance to rent this film, it’s highly recommended. I’d give it nine stars (or more) out of ten.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Triplets_of_Belleville

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Movie Review: District 9

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In a nice twist, the aliens haven’t invaded and just want to go home.

And this is your spoiler alert. I’m going to dissect the movie so move on if you don’t want to know what happens in some of it.

There’s been a lot of hype about District 9. It was discussed some on my writers group list and people have seen all the bus ads and trailers. My neighbor said, “Oh that’s supposed to be one of the best movies of the year.” It’s produced by Peter Jackson of  LOTR fame and director Neill Blomkamp. And while I found the movie good, it wasn’t great.

What works for it are quite a few things. This movie would not have worked with name brand actors like Pitt or Depp. It supposed to take on a realistic feel of our world today, with a mockumentary beginning, film clips of news reels, interviews with various academics and psychologists. These people are warty and blemished, tired and unkempt, everything that says it’s not all smoothed over Hollywood makeup.

If we saw Will Smith pop onto the screen, we’d know it’s another action packed movie where the US saves the day again and again and again. This movie begins with film clips (which I actually thought there were too many of and somewhat boring but does set the time and place) where we find that the alien ship came to rest somewhere over Johannesburg. The narrator quips that it wasn’t New York or Chicago or London. And when they looked inside the ship there were malnourished and starving aliens.

Aliens that are buggy or insectoid in appearance. At least they’re not Star Trek aliens, which tend to be humanoid with odd noses.

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District 9 is a thinly veiled commentary about segregation and xenophobia.

But how do you make an insectile creature sympathetic? With the alien in Alien, the antagonist, it was black and large, with no eyes and a very scary double set of very sharp teeth (interestingly enough this is the type of maw that eels have). The prawns, as they’re called in District 9, have antenna and instead of teeth, mouths that have tendrils like a carp’s. They can eat cans and tires and have a penchant for cat food. And the best way to get the audience to relate to the prawns is to give them big humanoid eyes.

That and to give them cute children, little miniatures. The main alien has a son, really the only child we see in the alien ghetto. Now it’s interesting that there is this attachment to offspring when it’s shown that they’re raised as eggs in a central feeding incubator. But then the aliens are intelligent so perhaps they know which egg is theirs. The only other alien creature shown is some creature used in illegal (equivalent of) cockfighting rings. The creatures are like giant shrimp, maybe a couple of feet long, with very sharp stingers, like long needles. They’re pitted against each other to death. So are they some sort of alien vermin, or prepubescent aliens (that have no faces) though stingers are not evident on the adults?

Eventually we get to some amateur filming of middle management and somewhat dweeby Wikus (pronounced Vikus) van der Merwe who is in charge of relocating 1.8 million aliens. The aliens are segregated in a slum, for 20 years, but protests have grown against them. Here we’re introduced to a host of smaller characters and your basic fodder for the carnage to come, as well as the guy in charge of the military end of the relocation, Kobus Venter. He’s brusque, aggressive and physically pushes Wikus in the beginning, setting up for further confrontation. So here we have the antagonist, the army.

This is in no way new to many films. What’s nice about this movie is that the aliens aren’t invading and really are downtrodden to begin with. But it’s cliche to have the bad army dudes who are shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of mentalities. The main guy is of course crafty and wily and vicious. And then there’s Wikus’s father-in-law who puts Wikus in charge and is all too happy to sacrifice his son-in-law without so much as a moment’s remorse when it turns out they can harvest him for alien biotech once he was infected by an alien device.

And here is the biggest cliche of all. The scientists/doctors who want to harvest him will of course want the heart first but don’t even anesthitize him. (Well, Jame Bond, let me tell you about my evil plan to take over the world while you dangle over a pit of sharks/fire/blades.) He can’t get away, you see, if he’s knocked out which any scientist would do, even to a lab experiment. Even if you don’t have a humane bone in your body, you don’t want your specimen jerking about and ruining the harvest (and they want DNA so why the hell do they need the heart?)

That alien device that caused Wikus’s predicament is the pivotal part of the movie. The aliens need it to get off of the Earth and it’s taken 20 years to gather enough fluid to make it work. Why is there enough alien junk on the ground for them explore is a mystery. Why no one really seems to be able to communicate with the prawns or try to understand them (where are the xenobiologists and xenobotanists, etc. in all of this?) is never explained. Only Wikus as he’s metamorphosing, from a squirt of the device’s fluids, understands the prawn and the prawns of course understand the humans easily. Earth doesn’t want them but won’t let them go. I didn’t quite understand this.

Nor did I understand that all of the aliens except for three (the dad, the son and the faithful friend who sacrifices him/herself) seem to be brawling and base, little better than animals, and no one remembers how the ship worked it seems. But then they were probably all just passengers and the crew was small. I guess I could accept that there is only one commander who knows how to run the ship. Doesn’t seem like a great failsafe though to have no other crew.

Except for their carapaces these aliens are pretty human in their emotions and lives. It’s a hard thing to do, to make an alien and make it sympathetic to humans, hence the big eyes, the kid and the emotions. They eat differently but they fight back, or they make bargains with the Nigerians who are known for their scams (yes, this is a little tongue in cheek joke). Why it’s Nigerians in South Africa is not clear and the major crimelord is in a wheelchair, therefore wants to eat parts of the aliens to give him power. A little convoluted since these aliens are living in the slums and have no power.

What really doesn’t make sense is that the aliens  do have power but don’t seem to ever use it. They are stronger than humans and can rip them apart with their bare claws. They also have loads of weapons that they sell to the Nigerians for cat food. How they got these items off of the mothership is unclear since all of the prawns were ferried 20 years ago by humans and they have no transport of their own to the ship. Yet these weapons are mondo in all sense of the word. They’re bigger (because it’s better) than our weapons and their power is decimating, yet the aliens never use them but live as subjugated second citizens.

So are there flaws in this movie? Yes, plenty. Are there cliches? Unfortunately enough to keep it from being a great movie. It’s obviously a movie about segregation and subjugation, about insensitivity to otherness and racism. Wikus is the reluctant hero who is almost brought down by the nearly invincible Venter. The actor Sharlto Copley does a good job and the effects are well done. But the problems with the plot and the cliches worked against the story and the great effects. Overall, I’d give it 3.5 stars out of five. Maybe four for the effects but there’s room to grow.

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