Friday, August 14, 2020

Host (2020)

A group of friends meets on Zoom during the COVID pandemic to have a seance led by an experienced medium, Seylan. Everything is going as planned until Jemma claims to contact a friend who killed himself that she completely made up. Seylan informs them that not respecting the experience in this way opened up the group to forces beyond their control.

Host is the perfect immersive experience. I personally have been in countless Zoom meetings for work and for fun because of the pandemic, so viewing this movie on my computer made me feel right in the middle of the action. Haley hired the medium and urges the others to take it seriously while the others make a drinking game and mock the proceedings. I don't really blame them because I probably wouldn't take it very seriously either as someone who doesn't believe in spirits or ghosts. Things get deadly serious after Jemma's prank and each friend is confronted with a supernatural presence.

The film clocks in at just under an hour and moves quickly. The set up is just enough to get a general picture of each friend before the action moves forward. No scene is wasted. The mood goes from joking and silly to suspenseful instantly. While there are jumpscares which usually replace creating mood and feel cheap, these ones are earned and enhance the whole experience. It's everything I wanted from Unfriended, which introduced presenting a horror film entirely from a computer screen. Host has creepy, unpredictable kills and hapless, sympathetic characters where Unfriended prioritized teen drama over everything else. The performances are convincing, especially Haley's raw panic during the closing sequence. 

Host is such a fun, spooky, unpredictable movie. Even though the formula feels familiar, the manner of haunting left me guessing what would happen. Frankly, even if you end up hating it, there are worse ways to spend an hour of your time. 

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, August 6, 2020

My Pet Serial Killer by Michael Seidlinger

Claire is a criminology student looking for someone exactly her type. She looks for him at night clubs (never at parties) and finally finds the Gentleman Killer after he dispatches three women in quick succession. Their honeymoon phase has her keeping him in her apartment, complete with a kill room, as she brings ideal victims to him. As time goes on, he grows frustrated at her rules and interference, rejecting her altogether. Claire is determined to ride it out, abandon him to completely break him, and come back to a perfect pet serial killer. Is he the one or does she have to go looking for another one?

My Pet Serial Killer is a strange novel completely from Claire's point of view. She's a graduate criminology student who's effortlessly successful. It leaves a lot of free time to dedicate to her true passion: grooming serial killers to be her perfect, obedient pet. She uses accessibility to her pet and his murders for sexual gratification and academic success. Unfortunately, her narrative serves as a barrier to the action. Claire herself is an interesting character and so is the Gentleman Killer, but the first half of the book dragged with extremely wordy stream of consciousness musings. 

The second half of the book takes an unexpected turn when she tackles her doctoral thesis with a brand new killer for her to shape. That journey takes her all across the country visiting her incarcerated exes. She bizarrely grooms two TAs into acting as her clones as if they are all the same person. The previous storyline felt pretty fantastical with bodies moldering in her apartment for weeks without anyone complaining. They also abduct people in public and dispose of bodies with no problem. This second act turns up that fantasy into nearly telepathic communication with her new pet, more audacious kills, the weird TA's, and only a tiny threat of the real world that felt out of place after everything else. This section is much more action based and less steeped in Claire's inner monologue.

My Pet Serial Killer is experimental, ballsy, and lacking cohesion. I appreciated the effort of implicating the audience for observing and the flashes of a parody talk show that may or may not be part of Claire's imagination. However, it came off a little confused and didn't mesh with the rest of the story. The novel moves fast and I read it in a couple days. The overall concept is definitely unique, but would perhaps be more successful as a movie.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins   

Amulet (2020)

Tomaz is homeless and haunted by memories of war until he meets a nun that gives him direction. He is brought to Magda's dilapidated home where she cares for her dying mother who is confined to the top floor. Over time, he helps them out, softens emotionally, and falls for Magda, but strange events keep happening surrounding her mother.

Amulet is an interesting movie that keeps its genre a mystery right up until the end of the film. We follow Tomaz and his story jumps around in his timeline. While he's awake, it's the post-war existence where he's much more hardened and haunted. While he sleeps, flashbacks to the war play out where he was a sentry at a pretty deserted location. He runs into a woman desperate to escape and he lives with her for a while. The present day timeline echoes the past with Magda and her situation trapped with her mother. In both scenarios, Tomaz falls for what he views as the damsel in distress (which ends up not being reality) and ends up showing his true colors in the end, a turn that I enjoyed. A lot of this part of the film feels more like a drama or romance, which I didn't always connect with. It also makes the film a little slower paced.

The aspect that I especially enjoyed is the mystery around the mother, the creatures, and Tomaz's shaky mental state. The mother seems more than ill with preternatural strength and an overwhelming urge to kill herself to the point where they can't even use power in the house. She's horrifically violent to anyone within her reach and Magda takes care of her as best she can. Tomaz finds skeletal bat-like creatures in the plumbing that he's forced to kill. The practical effects of the creature and the mother look detailed, creepy, and delightfully disgusting. How they connect isn't explained until much later and it's pretty shocking. Tomaz also sees signs and figures appear and disappear, making him question his own sanity. I love mystery, cool creature designs, and questioning the main character's reality.

Amulet is completely different than I expected, skating a line between drama and horror before running headlong into the latter. The horror elements are well crafted and make big twists to the narrative. I wasn't on board with every development, but I had no idea where the story was going and the conclusion definitely surprised me. It was both incredibly disturbing and satisfying at the same time. I recommend Amulet if you aren't in the mood for something fast paced and are in the mood to be surprised.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Contagion by Erin Bowman

Hevetz Industries drills for corrarium all across the galaxy and high school intern Thea happens to be helping an esteemed microbiologist with measuring its ecological impact. Just as the team completes their project, a distress signal comes through from a remote planet, forcing them to take a two month detour to investigate. Once there, the entire planet's crew seems to be dead or missing except for one suspicious boy. What happened here and is he trying to hide something?

Contagion is a sci-for horror book that feels very familiar. Bowman manages to smash the plots of Alien and Aliens together. An ill suited crew has to answer a distress call on a planet infested with parasites like the first. And lone survivor (badass microbiologist Dr. Tarlow) has to return to the planet with an ignorant crew to face the parasitic enemy (like the second). Even though it’s not particularly original, I enjoyed the setup. The world building is interesting with interplanetary travel, advanced technology, and many present day social problems. Thea and Nova are the best characters (besides Tarlow). Thea is an orphan working as hard as she can to move up in the world and be a microbiologist. Nova was banned from piloting because of a degenerative eye disease (even though it’s been mostly corrected) and flies a transport ship. It’s all she can do to keep flying. They plus Tarlow are the most sympathetic characters. 

My problems with the book stem from forgettable or infuriating characters. Dylan is the inexperienced captain who was only placed there due to nepotism. I don’t know why she makes such horrible decisions. Maybe to prove herself as competent, but every one of her choices hurts her crew more. This one dimensional character never got a redemption or reason for acting like that. I forgot most of the other crew members because nothing stood out about them and they honestly didn’t affect the narrative much. I kept having to flip back to remember who they were. 

Overall, there was just something missing with Contagion. It felt like a rather shallow story and I’m not sure why. It has all the trappings of stuff I love like zombies, parasites, and horror, but it wasn’t my favorite. Maybe the developments were too predictable or convenient. I would check out the sequel from the library just to see what happened. 

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Ready or Not (2019)

* major spoilers *

Grace marries Alex Le Domas, heir to the family's board game fortune, at their luxurious, historical estate. The family requires that she play a game with them at midnight, chosen by a puzzle box. She figures it's a quaint, silly tradition and complies, picking Hide and Seek. While Grace obliviously  hides, the family gathers their weapons and prepare to hunt her through the night as they have done with others in the past.

Ready or Not is a horror comedy done right. The runtime is tight with not a minute wasted. The exposition is expertly handled. Grace's background as an orphan is introduced in a conversation with her fiance that also establishes their adorable relationship. Alex was estranged from his family until he met Grace and reconnected with them because family means so much to her. The rest of the Le Domas crew is seen during a photoshoot that includes a lot of snobbery and judgment. Alex's alcoholic brother Daniel and their mother Becky (also from a poor family) are the only outliers who seem to like Grace. Great aunt Helene is the most judgmental as she glares at Grace throughout in an amazing display of physical comedy, hunching over like a gnarled troll and scowling. The wedding is glossed over to get to the meat of the film.

Grace is understandably shocked and distraught that her in-laws seriously mean to kill her. The happiest day of her life turns into a night of fighting for her life. Scared and frantic, she hides and runs from the family until they force her to physically fight back. The horror of the situation never really goes away and I was thankful she didn't become some supernaturally tough final girl. Her actions are realistic and keep her alive despite some mistakes here and there.  Grace's emotions hover around hurt, scared, and panicked throughout the ordeal. Her anger starts to take over about half way through the film and only grows. Her rage and curse-filled outburst at a rich man rides away from her is particularly cathartic. She doesn't really want to hurt anyone, but she will in order to survive. Her physical transformation from happy, beautiful bride to dirt and blood caked, injured, and righteously angry shows everything she's been through and reflects her emotional journey as well. Samara Weaving is amazing as Grace and keeps her grounded in reality while navigating this outlandish premise.

Once the card is chosen and the family is on the hunt, everything changes. Established relationships are put into question and anything could happen. Alex has to choose to help his new wife escape or murder her along with his family, who have been indoctrinating him with their toxic ideaology his whole life. Every other member of the Le Domas family and staff is acting together to kill Grace, whether it's eagerly or reluctantly. Everyone buys into the idea that she needs to die for them to live to some extent. It's a running gag that all of the maids die gruesomely one by one (mostly due to Alex's coked up sister), but these people that make their house run mean nothing to the family except the inconvenience of the mess and body disposal. The family expects others to give their lives for their own wealth and prosperity, much like the incredibly wealthy making money off of the backs of minimum wage workers not able to easily afford the cost of living. The supernatural element is a fun twist and shows the evil nature of and exploitation necessary for this amount of wealth.

Alex and his brother Daniel grew up with the same indoctrination, but choose different paths. Alex goes along with the family eventually when he realizes that Grace will never be with him after this. The signs were there on rewatch because he almost kills his father (only stopping when Daniel intervened) and threatens to kill his mother if Grace dies. He separated from the family but when his life and wealth were truly threatened, he went with tradition. Daniel numbs himself with alcohol and goes along sarcastically with whatever his family does. He creeps on Grace in a feeble attempt to get her to leave, but also seriously gives her a way out while Alex keeps her completely in the dark. Later, he runs into Grace and gives her a significant head start before alerting his family. These small rebellions foreshadow his ultimate choice. He (mildly) poisons his whole family to save Grace and breaks the cycle of essentially feeding off of people. Aunt Helene used to be like Daniel, but through years of benefiting and believing in their satanic benefactor, becomes a hardened, cruel woman driven by greed.

The ending is incredibly satisfying and hilarious. The very last scene is one of my favorites of any movie. I convinced my mom to see this with me and she's completely obsessed with it, watching it at least once a week for months. I will never get tired of it. It's so much fun each and every time with just enough suspense, humor, and righteous anger with no wasted time. It also pairs well with Knives Out and Parasite with its "eat the rich" themes. Highly recommended.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Jude used to live a normal life with her family until her parents are killed in front of her. She and her siblings are spirited away to Elfhame, the world of beautiful and cruel faeries. Jude and her twin sister Taryn are treated by society as if they are fae, which enrages the petty youngest son of the king, Cardan. He and his cronies torment Jude because she won't back down or admit defeat. When her father makes it impossible for her to ever truly be accepted by fae society, the king's most likely heir approaches her to be his spy, entrenching her further in Court of Fae drama and the underhanded fight for the throne.

I waited years to start this series and thought the hype wouldn't live up to the book. I was totally wrong. The Cruel Prince is so different than I expected. The world of Elfhame is detailed and dark. The fae view humans as temporary lovers at best and playthings or beasts of burden at worst. Jude and Taryn would never be seen as equal in this society's eyes no matter how hard Jude tries to show her abilities. The fae can't lie, but don't hesitate to skirt around the truth or lie by omission. Each creature type is varied in anatomy, behavior, and diet. Jude's stepfather is a redcap who needs to bathe his cap in blood every so often, leading to a hot temper and a love for war. Humans are fooled quite easily into slavery or being playthings until the inhuman creatures get bored or hungry. Every interaction with them puts humans in danger, making living with them inspire constant terror at doing the wrong thing. It's even worse that Cardan has decided to torment Jude and no one will do anything to help her unless it goes too far.

The first and second halves of the book are starkly different. The first half establishes Jude and her situation, not quite fitting into either Elfhame or the human world. With the way she is cruelly treated by almost everyone around her and how she will never truly fit into fae society as a mortal, you would think she would just run back to our world. Wrong. Jude loves Elfhame for everything it is. It's her home and she can never be truly satisfied living away from it knowing it's still there. Her narrative is at times very frustrating to read because I can see how her decisions will turn out so terribly, but she does what she thinks is right. Jude wants to prove that she is equal to if not better than the fae. Taryn, her twin, is perfectly happy taking whatever the fae will give her, tries to fit in wherever she can, and taking it with a smile. She will turn her back on literally anything to just keep them from tormenting her. While she is also frustrating to read, the constant torment would be hard to live with and I don't blame her for doing what she has to for survival. I thought this book would stay as a conflict between Jude and various fae, but the rest is very different.

The second half of the book is much more about the inner workings of royalty and who is going to be crowned prince. Jude has plans, but multiple other parties have their own who are more powerful, well connected, and older than her not to mention essentially immortal. I didn't expect the book to delve so deep into the politics side. This twist upends the status quo of the first half and redeems Cardan somewhat which I thought was impossible. The end is an insane series of twists and turns that I never saw coming. The Cruel Prince proves to be deeper and darker than I expected. While there is a romance (as is annoyingly required in YA), it doesn't take away from the story and adds another complication to an already touchy situation. I can't wait to read the next in the series plus the Cardan novella was just announced.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Nightingale (2019)

* major spoilers *

In 1825, Clare Carroll lives in an English penal colony located in Australia working as a servant for a British military unit. Due to her beautiful singing voice, she is called upon to entertain and serve upon rowdy soldiers. While it looks to others that she gets preferential treatment, Lieutenant Hawkins treats her cruelly behind closed doors and dangles a promised letter of freedom for her and her family to keep her subservient. When his authority is threatened, Hawkins does the unthinkable, leaving an injured and enraged Clare to seek revenge.

The Nightingale is a brutal film that has several scenes of sexual assault, murders of children, and other acts of violence. Although it may not be for all audiences, the portrayals of rape are never meant to titillate. Each one is filmed to show the point of view of the woman and not to objectify her. Many claim this film isn't horror because it's a historical drama, but I argue that the horrific acts done by privileged men with bruised egos definitely classify it as horror. This also makes it incredibly relevant to modern times.

Clare Carroll does what she can to survive throughout the film and stays within the realm of reality. She never becomes a killing machine or supernaturally capable. As a servant for most of her life, weaponry and self defense aren't high on her skills list. However, her sheer determination for revenge takes her extremely far beyond what is expected of her because her life is essentially over when her husband and child are murdered in front of her. Lieutenant Hawkins's word will always be taken as fact above her own no matter the evidence as she saw when she tried to report the murders. Even before the murders, Hawkins raped her whenever he wanted because he knew no one would believe her because of her status as a convict and his own privilege as an officer. The authorities are on the lookout to send her to an even worse penal colony for the rest of her life because she said no to a man in power. Clare is far from perfect and makes many mistakes along the way, including showing the racism towards the Aboriginal people of the time.

Billy is an Aboriginal man Clare hires to guide her through the Tasmanian wilderness. Through him, the audience sees how the English have treated his people, stealing their lands, murdering them indiscriminately to the point of genocide, and destroying their culture. To Clare, this man is lower than an animal and she fears for her safety in his presence until they reluctantly get to know each other. When they share about each other's experiences, they see how similar they have been treated by the English. Billy's true name is Mangana and all the men in his tribe were murdered during colonization. He is essentially homeless, pushed to the edges of society, and works when the English deign to hire him as a guide. At the end of their journey, he would have no recourse if they refused to pay him or tried to murder him. The English have taken fundamental things from both of them by dehumanizing and enslaving them. They have also created a hierarchy to pit the Irish convicts and subjugated Aboriginal people against each other. 

Lieutenant Hawkins contrasts with Clare and Billy as the only main character with societal and political power. He represents all of their problems as a high ranking colonist that perpetuates the inhuman treatment of non-English people and genocide in addition to abusing his power for selfish gains. Everything is going well for him until he's passed over for a promotion he feels he deserves. Instead of accepting gracefully and perhaps improving his leadership for next time, Hawkins decides to traverse through the dangerous wilderness at a breakneck pace to speak directly to the man in charge and make his case. This is the only situation he couldn't kill or rape someone to solve his problem because the defiant person is above him in the hierarchy. His solution is to force those lower than him to go on a treacherous journey where he rapes, murders, manipulates, on his own quest for the promotion he thinks he deserves. Unfortunately, it's at the expense of many others and the example of yet another privileged. mediocre white man who can't take no for an answer. 

At the climax of the film, both Clare and Mangana use their culture, the thing the English tried so hard to destroy, to strike back at Hawkins. At the beginning of the film, Clare is commanded to use her voice for the enjoyment of English officers and sing English folk songs. Hawkins even goes further and demands a special song of his choosing in private that precedes assault. To her child and husband as well as on her journey for revenge, she sings traditional Irish songs in Gaelic. When Clare finally confronts him right in front of the officers he hopes to gain a promotion from, she sings an impassioned song in Gaelic just after accusing him of rape and murder. Although it would be satisfying to see her kill him, this form of revenge is more realistic and more meaningful. It throws her culture in his face and weaponizes the voice he always forced her to use to please her oppressors. Mangana, on the other hand, puts on his tribe's warpaint, attacks Hawkins in the middle of the night while he sleeps, and kills him. He escapes seriously injured. He and Clare celebrate their victory such as it is. It doesn't do much to change the oppressive English force and Billy is most likely going to die, but they did what they were able to and achieved revenge.

The Nightingale proves hard to watch and isn't an enjoyable film. However, it's an important film that sheds light on the background behind racism and bigotry indigenous people are still being treated with today. All over the world, there are similar stories of genocide and enslavement. I was pleased to find out that Jennifer Kent worked closely with Aboriginal Elders of Tasmania to portray their culture in the most respectful and accurate way. Clare's story is very relatable today to women fighting against established, privileged men in power who are still given more of the benefit of the doubt by wider society. I highly recommend this film. Every aspect of it is well made and doesn't lag with the long run time. I was riveted while angry and sad throughout the ordeal.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins