Sunday, December 31, 2017

Holiday Horror: P2 (2007)

* spoilers *

Angela Bridges is working much later than expected on Christmas Eve and almost everyone else . Her sister and the rest of her family are waiting for her at a party that she's desperate to get to. Her car won't start, so, with armfuls of presents and a Santa costume, she gets help from Thomas, the security guard. When he can't fix her car, she calls for a cab and waits in the lobby. The doors to the lobby won't open when her cab arrives and it leaves without her. She returns to Thomas for help, but she finds chloroform instead. Angela wakes up in a white dress and red lipstick chained to a table all laid out for Christmas dinner with Thomas across from her.

P2 is another mixed bag horror Christmas movie. It starts with businesswoman Angela, completely unappreciated and bossed around despite her ability to anticipate her bosses' needs at almost every turn. She's every person working hard at a job with no recognition and her frustration is palpable when everything starts to go wrong. Her actions are reasonable and thought out from her decision to wait for the security guard to walk with her down to her car to her decision to take a taxi. Unfortunately, her character isn't very fleshed out through the course of the movie. It's revealed that she grew up on a farm, but it's not very relevant since she doesn't do anything to indicate that. It seems to only be there to justify why she is final girl material as if a woman from a privileged background can't do the same.

Thomas starts out as a helpful if odd security guard who tries to help her start her car. He orchestrated the entire situation to spend Christmas with her. He knocks her out, changes her clothes, puts on her makeup, and acts like this is a totally normal situation. While she is panicking and looking for a way out, he is asking her where she is from and trying to get to know her, oblivious to her emotions. Through his ramblings, he has some points of clarity like when he points out that she has no time for herself. Everything else is delusional nonsense that includes some of the most abusive and misogynistic garbage. Gaslighting and guilting are two of his favorite tactics, typical of abusers and manipulators. He thinks he loves her but only seems to truly hate her. Thomas' whole line of thought and how he treats Angela shows exactly how he values women as objects he is entitled to.

Angela and Thomas have many discussions where Angela tries to convince him to let her go and he acts like the situation is normal. She talks about a boyfriend that doesn't exist, an unfortunate but effective tactic against unwanted male attention. This doesn't work since he has been spying on her for a while and knows much about her life. At a recent Christmas party, an older colleague assaulted Angela in an elevator and Thomas tied up that man for her to kill as a present. She had already addressed the situation with the man and is understandably horrified at the prospect. I get that she wanted to save his life, but rationalizing his disgusting behavior and calling him a good family man was gross. Thomas wants Angela to prove she's not a "slut" with the murder and then does it for her since she's such a good person. He tells her to "stop letting these assholes have their way with you," completely missing the fact that he is in fact one of those assholes.

P2 is a decent movie overall, but something is missing. The tension I expected simply wasn't there throughout. The gore effects are impressive. Wes Bentley makes Thomas sound almost reasonable with his delivery. Rachel Nichols' performance and the writing for her character left something to be desired for me especially in the responses and reaction to Thomas' insanity. The fact she had to run around in that white dress the entire movie and how it seems to be a selling point of the film is infuriating. P2 has some interesting ideas, but fails to impress.

My rating: 2.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, December 29, 2017

Holiday Horror: Christmas Evil (1980)

Harry Stadling is completely obsessed with Christmas. Every inch of his home is covered in Christmas decorations. He dresses in a Santa suit for bed and he plays Santa in his own neighborhood. You'd think that it would just be dressing up and listening to the local children's wishes for Christmas, but it goes much further than that. He has ledgers full of notes about his observations in passing and with binoculars of each child in his neighborhood. This is a literal naughty and nice list made from creepy voyeurism and obsession.

Harry works at a toy factory and others think of him as a bit of a loser. He finally gets a promotion that only further exposes the corruption within the company. The higher ups create a program to donate toys to needy children with company money matching employee donations, but they lied. Only employee donations will go to the kids because the company wants to look good without actually losing profits, rightfully outraging Harry. His reaction is to become Santa (and truly believe it) in a fugue state on Christmas Eve, rewarding good children, punishing bad children, and killing bad adults. He takes a huge amount of toys from his job and delivers them to a hospital for sick children. 

This movie is a mixed bag a movie with odd editing and weird situations. The corruption at his work and in the adults around Harry seems to be enough reason for his mental break. He also has childhood trauma when he witnessed his mother and father (dressed as Santa) caressing each other after he was supposed to be in bed and then he dropped a snowglobe, cutting his hands on the broken glass. This part of film wasn't really needed and only served to show his parents' awkward foreplay scene several times throughout the story. My favorite scene is when Harry gives his neighborhood kids presents causing their parents to realize he's the killer Santa. The children form a shield around him and an angelic blonde girl gives her father's switchblade to Harry. It's a weird scene, but shows his genuine goodwill beneath the psychosis and voyeurism especially compared to every other adult (and some kids) in the movie.

Christmas Evil is a bizarre movie where creepy Harry who thinks he's actually Santa is the most likeable person in the whole thing. His grievances are valid and ones we are still dealing with today. The film has a weird mix of 80's tropes (consumerism and corruption), slasher tropes, and a heartwarming underbelly where hospitals and good children get deserved free toys. This film is surprisingly watchable and entertaining for what I expected to be a slasher dud. Despite the overall weirdness and bizarre ending, I enjoyed this killer Santa story that had much more heart than expected.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Holiday Horror: Jack Frost (1997)

Prolific serial killer Jack Frost killed over thirty people in eleven different states before being apprehended. He was on the way to execution when the police truck collided with a genetic research truck (like that's a thing). The accident and chemicals somehow made him melt and fuse with the snow. Jack Frost terrorizes the city of Snowmonton as a killer snowman, leaving bodies in his wake.

Jack Frost is one of the worst movies I've seen with terrible puppets, the worst fake snow, and the most dismal acting. The movie starts with an awful squeaky voiceover that sounds like an weathered adult trying to imitate a child. Cut to the police truck and the most comically filmed car accident I've ever seen. Somehow fire, chemicals, and a criminal makes him fuse to water which will become snow which becomes a killer snowman...Sure. The killer snowman has mitten hands that can launch deadly icicles and the ability to transform between water and snowman at will.

The fact that this serial killer's name is Jack Frost before anything even happens is both ridiculous and not apparent at the beginning of the movie. It seems like Sam, the sheriff of Snowmonton who took Jack down, has an irrational fear of Jack Frost, the personification of winter. For a town called Snowmonton, there is literally no snow in the town. It's all either ice on the ground and felt cut into vaguely icicle and other snow shapes, which the camera is unfortunately too focused on. The snowmen all seem to be made up of shaving cream and coconut.

The death scenes are predictably ridiculous, awkward, and ignore any sort of logic. Shannon Elizabeth's death in particular made me cringe as Jack mashed her against the shower wall while she was naked. Other deaths were more silly and ridiculous. Speaking of ridiculous, apparently the reason for his transformation is the soul as a chemical and his only weakness is antifreeze, discovered by Sam's son trying to murder him with antifreeze in his breakfast oatmeal. So of course they fill a whole truck bed with antifreeze (even though most of it will uselessly sloosh out onto the floor) to defeat the killer snowman terrorizing their town.

Jack Frost is a movie that you watch with drinking with your friends and shouting things at the screen. The Final Girls Horrorcast had a fantastic livestream with some of their listeners watching the movie. If you're expecting an awful movie, Jack Frost is a lot of fun with ridiculous kills, terrible writing, slapdash sets, and dismal acting.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Monday, December 25, 2017

Holiday Horror: Better Watch Out (2017)

* spoilers *

It's the Christmas season and 17 year old Ashley is babysitting 12 year old Luke when his parents go out for the evening. He's a bit old for a babysitter, but he sleepwalks and can't be left alone at night. The evening starts out a little bumpy as Luke is pushy and annoying until an intruder enters the house. They throw a brick through a window that says, "u leave u die." Luke and Ashley are cut off from the outside and have to rely on each other to survive this ordeal.

Better Watch Out is one of the best Christmas horror movies I've seen. It starts out with a tried and true formula: a teenage babysitter and her charge are under siege by an intruder. The very beginning of the movie invokes dread with a black car following Ashley as she walks to Luke's house. When she gets to the house, the rich parents are hilariously hateful to each other, Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton in tiny but impactful roles. Luke starts off as incredibly annoying as he chugs champagne to impress and awkwardly seduce Ashley, supporting his beginning conversation with his best friend Garrett where they objectify women and talk about how to have sex with them.

The home invasion aspect feels familiar and I start to make mental predictions about what's going to happen, which are all wrong. Ashley and Luke sneak around the house, dodging the masked intruder with a shotgun. Ashley is terrified, but Luke acts like it's another opportunity to prove how manly he is. He seems to be feigning bravery in the face of real danger. The intruder subtly leaves signs that he's watching them like ordering pizza when he knew they wanted to but hadn't don it yet, calling them with a Scream-like question, facing a glowing Santa towards the window when Ashley placed just outside the door, and leaving a knife in the tire of her car where he knew they would see it. Then the identity of the intruder is discovered due to Ashley's attention to detail and the movie takes a significant turn.

The film goes from a home invasion to a hostage situation. Garrett was the invader, but Luke masterminded the entire thing. All of that detail that the intruder designed was his, showing his conniving and intelligent nature. Ashley is tied up, after Luke slaps her and causes her to fall down the stairs, and she tries to logically lay out for them the consequences so they will let her go. Luke enjoys his power over Ashley as he grossly touches her and forces her to play truth or dare. When Ashley's boyfriend and ex-boyfriend arrive (and then die), it's clear that Luke has much more in mind than he has shown. Garrett has no idea Luke would murder someone, but he follows his friend anyway. It's what he's always done.

I was mildly annoyed by Luke at the beginning of the film, but completely infuriated by him after the reveal. Luke is a sociopath with absolutely no regard or empathy for everyone else. He cleverly combines this with his privileged background and the sickly, stunted persona he has built up over the years. In his everyday life, he uses all of this plus charisma to get out of trouble at every turn whether it's getting Garrett out of detention or killing Garrett's gerbil. Whenever anything goes wrong and he loses control, he yells that someone made him do something, mentally absolving him of all blame. Even though he's completely naive, he acts confident that everything he does will turn out fine because it always has. Luke and Garrett talk about sexually assaulting Ashley and then making her forget as if it had never happened. The way we as a society treat young privileged white men and the very different way women are treated is exactly why he thinks and acts like this. 

Ashley, on the other hand, is right about to leave for college. She makes measured, though out decisions at every turn in the film. If it wasn't safe to move, she quietly waited, looking weak and complacent to her captors. When logic doesn't work with Luke, she pits him and Garrett against each other. She knows both well and takes advantage of the secrets she knows about them. When her boyfriend stumbles in (much better in person than what we had heard about him), she isn't sentimental about leaving together. Whoever gets free first gets out of there and brings help. I felt so much anger and frustration for her as well as admiration for how she kept a cool head through the whole thing. Olivia DeJonge, the actresse portraying Ashley, captures reactions very well. Much of the gory violence is off camera and we only get the horror due to other characters' reactions to the event.

Better Watch Out is a refreshing film. It starts off very much like The Babysitter and veers off into its own, much more interesting direction. All of the characters (except Garrett who stays a loser stoner kid) are dynamic and nuanced. Although Luke is an unrealistic version of a child, he still makes human mistakes. This film also puts ridiculous humor right next to tense and uncomfortable scenes that make it border a horror comedy. It's a must watch, especially for Christmas.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, December 22, 2017

Knuckle Balled

RJ is back, escaped from LA into Austin with Bait's little sister Pinball and Eldritch, a Lestat wannabe. Austin has a new slew of vampire gangs with their own weird gimmicks and codes. Together, RJ and Eldritch aim to take orphaned and sickly Pinball to L. Byron Nightshayde, the onscreen vampire heartthrob who is apparently also a vampire in real life. He runs charities that help sick children and he's Pinball's best chance at getting treatment and a good life outside of dangerous vampire politics. Unfortunately, RJ is still a self absorbed junkie who creates more trouble than he solves.

I had a couple issues with Knuckle Supper, the first installment of this series. Knuckle Balled is leaps and bounds better. I couldn't put it down. The move to Austin and addition of Eldritch as a main characters are particularly welcome changes. First, the change of scenery throws RJ into a state of complete ignorance. He has no idea about vampire society outside of LA. The gangs are weaker, considering how he always pisses them off then tears some of them apart without fail. My favorite was the Chaplins, a group that dressed up like classic Hollywood stars. The drugs are weirder with the introduction of sunrise, a drug that replicates its namesake and also causes rot and accelerated healing in its users, namely a gang called the Real McCoys who could be mistaken for zombie burnouts. Some humans in the drug trade are actually aware of vampires’ existence instead of just providing food. The Minutemen are human mercenaries that clean up vampire messes and the vampire that caused them to keep the peace and vampire stay out of the public eye. Austin is hugely different and offers RJ an education of sorts.

RJ is continuing his growth started in the previous book. He ultimately wants to help Pinball especially after brutally killing her scumbag parent she in front of her. Pinball is rightfully terrified of him and is the complete opposite of Bait and brainwashed by her parents. Unfortunately, his drug addiction, general scumbagginess, and complete inability to recognize when someone is lying to him gets in the way. He’s always on the lookout for heroin and settles for other things like PCP that makes him rampage or coke which makes him incredibly manic. He takes everyone at face value and then acts surprised when there is much more to the person than they appear. The incident with the possum completely sums up RJ. He crashes under someone’s tarp to get out of the sun, kills an aggressive possum (to protect himself and take some heroin), and then guiltily tries to help after seeing the babies it left behind. He spectacularly fucks things up time and time again despite the good heart he has.

Eldritch is an amazing character. In the first book, he’s a bit of a punchline as a physical embodiment of Vampire Chronicles and Twilight type romantic vampires. He dresses in ornate style with stereotypical vehicles and furnishings that aren’t exactly low profile. Even his speech takes on that formal tinge that implies he’s much older than he is. His history is completely fabricated as he tells people he was raised by wolves. Unlike RJ, his real history is privileged with vampirism coming as a desperate cure instead of a Catholic experimental alternative to abortion for junkie mothers. His responsibility, caring, and civil nature contrasts greatly with RJ. Eldritch keeps Pinball safe, locking RJ out when he’s high or acting erratic, and is the most virtuous vampire in the series. It's nice to see someone whose morals haven't changed just because they became a vampire but it also probably helps to remember your childhood and have a conventional life.

Knuckle Balled is a another fun vampire novel with gore, violence, and heart. RJ is slowly changing and falling into drug addict traps along the way. The basic concept of the Catholic church inadvertantly creating these creatures because of their extreme aversion to abortion is awesome and sets the series apart from other vampire novels. I can't wait for more books in the series to see where the characters and the world as a whole will go.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Doki Doki Literature Club

* spoilers *

You are a high school boy uninterested in clubs, but Sayori, the annoying girl who lives next to you and is always running late, ropes you into to attending one meeting of her Literature Club. It only has three existing members, Monika, Yuri, and Natsuki, and they are all very attractive girls. How could you resist joining if only to spend time with them? The gameplay is conventional for a visual novel as you get to know these girls and start to share poetry with them. You have to choose which one to try to impress and choose words for your own poem that would mesh well with their style. It's all going well as you build your relationships and improve your writing skills by workshopping them with the other girls until something horrible happens. You are forced to restart the game without Sayori and without your previous safe files.

* major spoilers after this if you haven't played the game *

The second play through starts with glitched text that should have been Sayori's, glitches out, and then restarts once more. This game plays generally as it did before with some notable changes. Because Sayori was the peacemaker, the other girls are more argumentative and irritable without her. Natsuki seems much more rude than before as Yuri is much more obsessive than before. What is happening with this game? It is revealed that Monika somehow became sentient and is trying to manipulate the game so that you choose her for your romantic relationship. Through most of the game, she isn't even available as a choice, so she manipulates the game script and the other characters' stats to make herself more desirable in comparison.

The game starts out pretty slow with about 2 hours played with everything going as a romantic visual novel would. It does get a little dull because I was there for the horror, not for the conventional aspects. The music during these conventional hours is adorable, cheery, and catchy, although the piano music may mean a little more than it appears. The first indication that something creepy lurks around the corner is the complete absence of music. During those moments of horror, the music transforms from a conventional instrumental soundtrack to an electronic, ambient one with deep pulses, dissonance, and distortion that gives me that sinking feeling in my stomach. The horrific moments are deeply uncomfortable and suspenseful. I found myself constantly guessing what was going to happen and was only right a couple times.

This game has so many meta moments that puts itself in a game genre of its own. Just the fact that your save files are gone as you progress made me uncomfortable because a basic rule of this type of gameplay was broken. Monika herself is unsettling because she knows your name and that you aren't a game character. She also deletes other characters from the game and knows if you're recording her. She seems much too aware for a character in a game. Her sentience and manipulation of the other characters shows that these characters don't really belong in a visual novel game, as shown in a Game Theory video, and hint at a future game by the same company with a completely different plot and world but the same characters. This other Game Theory video shows the crazy amount of easter eggs and information in the character files showing addition clues that take some time and computer knowledge to crack (which I would never be able to do myself). I can't wait for that new game coming out later next year to see how the two games connect and what other craziness is up the creator's sleeve.

Doki Doki Literature Club is a fairly short game that only took me a few hours, but left a lasting impression on me. Depending on your decisions, a variety of endings can happen from a bleak ending where Monika destroys the game to a sweet one where you are thanked for getting to know the girls so well. The amount of theory videos on Youtube is staggering as people have theories about everything from the music to the meanings to the book inside the game to the endings. This game is completely free and well worth your time.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Knuckle Supper

RJ Reynolds is head of a vampire gang called the Knucklers addicted to heroin. They, and all the other vampire gangs, are under the rule of King Cobra, who sets all of the boundaries and jobs in LA. Dez, one of RJ's underlings, has an idea when they find a huge amount of unexpected heroine to sell it and undermine King Cobra. At the same time, a human girl named Bait latches herself to RJ, making him care for the first time about something other than drugs. Can RJ keep this scheme from the other gangs and keep control of his own while caring for a human child?

Knuckle Supper is a brutal disgusting book with heart. These creatures aren't the angsty Twilight vampires or the beautifully tragic vampires of The Vampire Chronicles. All of the vampires are photophobic, have superhuman strength and fast healing, and need to drink blood to survive. They are also addicted to some form of drug, forcing them to either mix the drug with blood or have a person ingest it before drinking from them. Most vampire lore is false like the effect of mirrors, anything religious, and fangs. Their origin is fascinating, twisted, and deeply topical to today's politics.

The cast of characters is an odd bunch. RJ Reynolds is a reprehensible person who thinks nothing of tearing people apart, stealing, or treating his own gang like garbage. His past is a blank as he only remembers scavenging in the streets as a teen. When Bait comes on the scene, he immediately refuses to kill her, an odd choice for him. Over time, he grows to really care about her and treat her better than he's pretty much ever treated anyone. Bait herself is a 12 year old runaway and sex worker who is attention seeking and kind of annoying. RJ keeps trying to show her how horrible his life is, but she's only amused and delighted. They have kind of a brother/sister relationship that brings RJ to really look at his life.

Knuckle Supper is a fun novel that isn't afraid to go to extremes. Bodily fluids are spewed on many a page in cartoonish quantities, so it's definitely not for the faint of heart. The only problem I had was how the one of the gangs were portrayed. This particular gang has members that are transgender, but are described by many other inaccurate terms, played for laughs, and all killed brutally. In the current climate when transpeople are the target of disproportionate violence and intolerance, this portrayal is tonedeaf. I get that it's from RJ's point of view, not the most sensitive person, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. Other than that, Knuckle Supper is a bold start to a new vampire series.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Shape of Water (2017)

Elisa Esposito goes through the same routine every day, sleeping during the day and working at night at the Occam Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore as a cleaning lady. She is mute due to scars around her neck from infancy and communicates with sign language. When the facility brings in an "asset" that turns out to be an amphibious man, Elisa is immediately fascinated. The creature is kept in shackles, cut, electrocuted, suffocated, and all other manner of torture inflicted by the military, spearheaded by Colonel Richard Strickland. Elisa spends as much time as she can with the amphibious man, introducing him to music, feeding him hardboiled eggs, and teaching him sign language. When the military decides to terminate "the asset," Elisa gets her few friends to attempt to free the man she fell in love with.

Guillermo del Toro's vision is always exciting, fresh, and steeped in horror. The Shape of Water is another fairy tale film for adults that deals with love in unexpected places, outcasts, and the toxic nature of the patriarchy. Elisa is a generally cheerful person who goes through her daily life with few friends and simple pleasures. As a cleaning lady, she can't afford lavish things, but manages to make the things within her means special. Most of the people in her life dismiss her out of hand due to her mute nature, but her true friends, who are her neighbor Giles and her co-worker Zelda, treat her as they would anyone else. Giles is a struggling artist and closeted gay man in an era where coming out would mean losing everything. Zelda is a no-nonsense African American woman in a time of segregation and overt racism. Elisa finds kinship and respect with both of her friends despite how the world treats them and they find the same in her.

The amphibious man is essentially the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He was taken from a river in South America where he was worshipped as a god. In the US, the military abuses and tortures him. They only find value in a dissection of the creature to find out how it works even though he may be the only one of his kind. The Russians, on the other hand, care more about destroying the creature to keep the knowledge from the Americans. The amphibious man has intelligence and the ability to learn along with animalistic instincts and behaviors. He is in between human and animal with traits of both. His relationship with Elisa starts off as friendship and progresses to attraction and love. Their relationship will never be a conventional one, but they make each other happy and that's all that really matters. Elisa and her friends, along with a Russian double agent who values the man over his country, break the amphibious man out of the lab in a half baked, pulse pounding heist. His life at Elisa's home has some hiccups, but is generally beneficial until his health starts to decline.

The villain of this piece is Colonel Richard Streckland, a man completely confident in himself. He treats those he views under him like garbage shown when he unabashedly pisses on the floor in front of Elisa and Zelda who just cleaned. Racism and sexism color his point of view and he tosses out comments no matter who is present. The patriarchal society has told him his whole life that he is worthy, special, and above everyone else. The scene at the car dealership encompasses this when the salesman feeds him a line about being a man of the future. Streckland falls for it and buys the car because it's in line with what he's been fed his whole life. When he loses the "asset" to what he thinks is a sophisticated Black Ops team, his whole career, all that he's worked for his whole life, could be destroyed. The creature bit off his fingers early in the film and those slowly necrotizing digits symbolize his fall and his self perceived value influenced by the patriarchy. He rips off those fingers in a fit of rage, showing that he will find the creature and destroy it even if it means destroying himself as well. Streckland could have easily been a one dimensional villain, but his motivation and reasoning give him dimension.

The Shape of Water is an absolutely beautiful film with love and friendship right alongside violence and cruelty. Fantasy exists with harsh reality and social issues that are still relevant today. Every performance is exceptional, especially Richard Jenkins as Giles and Michael Shannon as Colonel Streckland. The pacing is a little unexpected, but perfect in retrospect. The mystery of the creature isn't dwelled upon because we all know what it is. More time is dedicated to getting to know all the characters, building up their relationship, and moving the plot along. Guillermo del Toro made a wonderful movie with a bizarre premise and makes it a touching, emotional work of art.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Cube (1997)

Five strangers (Quentin, Worth, Holloway, Rennes, and Leaven) wake up in an unfamiliar room dressed in generic clothing. The room has a hatch on each wall, the floor, and the ceiling. They have no idea where they are or how they got there or why they are there. No common denominator between them explains why they would all be abducted. Together, they have to work together to figure out how this building works and how to get out of it.

Cube is a mixed bag of a movie. The best thing about it is the concept and the limited view of this world. The cube is a huge building and its location is never known. Rooms move at measured intervals and come in five different colors. Some rooms are completely innocuous while others have elaborate traps, including acid spray and deadly wires. Between each hatch is a series of numbers. The people have to band together and find out how this place works. Are the colors significant? What do the numbers signify? Trial and error can prove fatal, but it's a necessary evil when there are no guides or indications as to how to solve the puzzle. This mystery is compelling throughout the film and the sets are ingenious in their simplicity.

The characters have nothing in common and bring different abilities to the table. Rennes has escaped seven prisons before, which makes sense why he's there. Quentin is a police officer, giving him an air of authority whether deserved or not. Holloway is a clinic doctor. Leaven is a math student who works out most of the number puzzles. Worth is an architect. Kazan is a mentally challenged man that proves to have an uncanny ability with numbers to help Leaven. This diverse cast gives rise to differing opinions on how to proceed and rising tensions as the plot goes on. All of the characters are named after prisons, coloring the story as a critique of prisons and driving the Kafkaesque themes.

Cube is a high concept film that goes beyond its low budget. The fact that only one room was actually builtThe aspect that keeps me from loving this movie is the acting. All of the acting is pretty mediocre, but Quentin is the absolute worst. His shorthand for intensity is bulgy crazy eyes and shouting erratically. It made dramatic scenes laughable and destroyed the atmosphere at times. Other than that, Cube is a memorable film with a justified cult following.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Strangers (2008)

James and Kristen come home from a friend's wedding to a remote cabin, James' childhood summer home. A stranger comes to the door at 4am and leaves, only to return multiple times despite being told she has the wrong house. The incidences get more and more frightening as the phone stops working and noises are heard throughout the house. A trio of people torment the couple throughout the night and only time will tell if the couple will survive the encounter.

I first saw The Strangers in the theater when it came out and it still holds up. The characters, the eerie suspense, and the villains make the film memorable despite it's pretty basic plot. James and Kristen are going through a hard time. While most times home invasion movies target happy couples without a care in the world, there is already tension when the movie starts. They should be elated, but instead, they drive home in silence, refusing to look at one another. Kristen refused James' marriage proposal because she wasn't ready and both are pretty upset. They get to a place where they can both move forward and talk rationally about their relationship, but intruders interrupt their relationship problems.

The eerie atmosphere stays throughout the film. It starts with the couple's emotional tension and progresses to quiet, mundane moments punctuated with either intermittent loud bangs or silent intrusions. The loud bangs show how the people outside could be doing anything and use the loud noises to both distract and frighten. The most memorable scene is when Kristen is smoking and getting a glass to drink while a man in a sack mask simply observes from behind her. Our most mundane moments are supposed to be safe and private while these scenes have the intruders boldly observe them without really hiding. This type of scene repeats throughout the film and makes the danger real. Silence and sounds are used effectively from the strained silence of hiding in a closet to the blaring record music to cover James' brother's arrival.

The villains are memorable because of their masks, bold attitude, and surprisingly competent tactics. Nothing is really known about them as people because it doesn't really matter. They randomly chose this couple to terrorize and seem to work well as a team. With three people, it's much easier to strategize and keep eyes on the couple at all times. They anticipate what the couple will do and respond to surprises with supernatural calm. They remove their masks at the end, but their faces are thankfully kept out of the frame. The ending confirms that this is likely be their first kill and they want to do it again.

The Strangers is such an atmospheric movie that feels realistic. James and Kristen fight these intruders and honestly do their best. They don't make many obvious mistakes and they don't make it easy for the intruders. The Strangers: Prey at Night is coming out next year and even though it's coming out a decade after the original, I'm pretty hyped. I hope they follow generally the same formula with the atmosphere and the treatment of the villains at the very least.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, December 4, 2017


Abby Williams returns home for the first time since she left a decade ago to investigate a large company. Traumatic events haunt her there  from the cruel teasing of a high school clique to her father’s anger. Returning makes these suppressed feelings and memories rise to the surface. As her investigation deepens, it seems to be inextricably tied to her past. Her actions get more desperate and erratic, calling into question if she’s simply traumatized by the past and having a mental break or if the company is really the cause of the trouble of her teenage years.

Bonfire drew me in with the concept of a small town with secrets and kept me glued to the book with the characters, the writing, and how deep those secrets go. Abby Williams went from high school outcast to environmental lawyer. As a teen, she was tormented by a clique of popular girls who went so far as to make fun of her mothers' death and her own suicide attempt. They made public polls about her and offered to help her with her next suicide attempt. As an adult, the town hasn’t physically changed much and the same people live there. She's the one who has changed, gaining fame for actually leaving and building a new life for herself. While people tend to speak highly of her, the company she's investigating pretty much owns the town, leading the townspeople to mistrust her and make their allegiances clear.

The mystery had some predictable elements and other surprising turns. History is repeating itself. A tactic to humiliate teenage girls in the past was to get them drunk, take compromising pictures of them, and circulate them around school. The present holds the same, but is there a more insidious reason? Why would this practice be exactly the same after so many years? Abby finds out much more about her main tormentor, Kaycee. In the past, Kaycee and her friends came down with a mysterious sickness that proved to be fake in all but Kaycee, who is conspicuously absent in the present. Abby delves into the past and discovers that there was more to Kaycee than she ever expected. As she gets closer and closer to the truth, Abby starts to break down, drinking too much, sleeping to little, exhibitng erratic behavior, and bending or breaking laws to get information, calling into question her capability of completing her investigation.

When I picked up Bonfire, I expected a fairly generic book. Krysten Ritter weaves a compelling story with a flawed protagonist who can't truly move on with her life due to her unresolved pat. Although I didn't agree with everything Abby did, I understood and related to her overall reasoning. I hope Krysten Ritter writes more books after this. I would recommend this to fans of Gillian Flynn and other twisty mysteries.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: The Invisible Man (1933) and Vamps (2012)

* The Invisible Man (1933)

Dr. Jack Griffin stumbled upon a serum to make himself invisible, unaware of the toxins that are driving him insane. He goes to a remote town to figure out how to turn himself back, but he doesn’t get the privacy he needs. Flying into a rage, he terrorizes the town and plans to commit more murders and larger atrocious acts. Can his loved ones get him to listen and stop his reign of terror?

The Invisible Man is a late entry into the Universal Monsters and feels different than the previous entries due to the time period and the mood. It feels much more modern than its time and more malicious, on a larger scale than other Universal films. The special effects are impressive and revolutionary for the time. Jack is invisible for the entire film save for the last few minutes and it isn’t hidden. The technique looks like today’s green screen effects, but was achieved with a black velvet, a black velvet background, and a matte process.

Like almost all the others, the main character isn’t a flat villain, but the nice, normal person is never seen. All we see is the deranged doctor hellbent on creating as much death and chaos as possible. He gets worse as the film goes on, starting as generally ill tempered and rude and ending homicidal. His plans get larger and more elaborate, making him the most dangerous and mean spirited Universal monster. Trains The others focused on a small scale or didn’t even mean to inflict pain on others. They never went into full fledged terrorism, maliciously affecting anyone and everyone on a large scale like Jack. The Invisible Man is a wild ride for a Universal film and Claude Rains does an excellent job of embodying Jack's insanity without really being seen on screen.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

* Vamps (2012)

Goody and Stacy are two vampires who found each other in New York City. Goody was turned into a vampire in 1841 by Ciccerus while Stacy was turned by the same person in the early 90's. Both view their transformations as a net good because Goody was able to advocate for important issues over the years and raise her family while Stacy was cured of her drug addiction. Neither vampire drinks human blood. Instead, they opt to drink animal blood, usually rats. The downside of their vampire state is being at the beck and call of their maker who has no problem drinking human blood and doesn't care about leaving huge massacre tableaux around. Vampire hunters set their sights on Goody and Stacy when Stacy dates Van Helsing's son. Can they convince the humans that they hold no threat and destroy their maker before more innocent vampires are killed?

Vamps is a goofy, adorable horror comedy that puts female friendship and romance before any horror elements. Stacy is just starting out as vampire while Goody has seen over 200 years of human history. Goody lies about her age and claims to know so much about history from The History Channel. She is tired of trying to keep up with technology and fashion trends in addition to looking for love every night in clubs and bars. Her nostalgia for the past and her views on activism give the film a bit more meat and dimension. Goody is shown in many different stages of her life and when she looks at part sof Manhattan, she sees and muses about what used to be there. Stacy finds love in Joey Van Helsing and struggles to prove to his family that not all vampires are evil. The conflict comes from two sides: the Van Helsing patriarch trying to eradicate all vampires and Ciccerus killing people left and right and putting the other vampires in danger.

Where the film falls flat is in the over the top goofy elements and the poor writing. The makeup for every vampire except Goody and Stacy is downright ghoulish with white cake makeup and dark circles around the eyes. The vampire effects beyond the fangs are cartoonish digital effects. The writing is servicable for the most part, but Sigourney Weaver is absolutely wasted as Ciccerus. She isn't able to be completely evil and ends up being childish and more whiny than sinister. Other than that, Vamps is a heartwarming horror comedy that's worth a watch.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Ms. Marvel: No Normal

Kamala Khan is a teenage girl, living in New Jersey with her family and struggling with her identity. At school, she's teased for bringing food that "smells weird" and condescended to about her own faith. The mocking nature of this concern troll goes over Kamala's head because she wants to be More than anything, she wants to belong and be comfortable, not an outsider who doesn't belong. One night, she sneaks out to go to a party which she was expressly forbidden and feels rejected once again. The partgoers assume that since she disobeyed her family, she rejects everything they stand for including her Pakistani heritage and Muslim faith. This friction between her culture and the schools dominant culture wears on her.

Each of Kamala's family members put their own expectations on how she should be behave and what she should become as well. Her father Yusuf wants her to focus on her studies and become a doctor. Her mother Muneeba is more worried about her becoming pregnant and keeps her away from boys. Kamala fulfilling her familial duties out in public is also very important to her. Kamala's older brother Aamir is incredibly devout and strict in his religious beliefs, much more than their parents, and wants her to live as he does. With all these people pulling Kamala in different directions, she has to decide what she wants for herself.

On the way home from the party, a fog engulfs her and she emerges with shapeshifting powers, looking exactly like Carol Danvers' Ms. Marvel. With this transformation, Kamala gets everything she thought she wanted. She becomes the norm she sees around her with blonde hair, pale skin, and a skin tight revealing outfit. However, her emotions don't match her expectation. She feels uncomfortable and exposed instead of confident and comfortable. Over the course of the book, Kamala becomes more comfortable with herself. She creates a unique costume, gets more used to her new polymorph powers, and decides that she wants to save people. Her first super hero act is saving the girl who was so mean to her because that's the right thing to do.

Kamala is just learning to be a superhero so she makes quite a few mistakes. She gets shot and accidentally discovers that shifting back to herself makes her heal instantly and simultaneously exposes her identity to a friend. Second, she fails trying to save her friend from Robot Spiders. Her perseverence is eventually rewarded in victory, but it took a few tries. Then, her commitments to her family suffer as she tries to save Jersey City from various threats. Through it all, Kamala doesn't lose herself and finds inspiration from her faith. She's a relatable character struggling to see who she wants to be and I can't wait to read more of her story.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins