Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Book Mini-Reviews: Poison's Kiss and Optimists Die First

* Poison's Kiss

Marinda wasn't expected to survive as a baby as she was bitten by snakes in order to become the visha kanya or poison maiden. After many painful and horrific treatments, she can be ordered by the Raja to kill anyone anywhere. Marinda hates it and only copes by repeating to herself that these are enemies of the state and people she doesn't know while she keeps her sickly brother healthy. She's finally ordered to kill someone she knows and likes, which causes her to question much of what she's been told, unravelling their secrets.

Poison's Kiss is an interesting fantasy that infuses Indian folklore into the story. Marinda is a sympathetic character who would do anything for her sickly brother Mani, who she cares for like a mother. Her handlers threaten him constantly to make her comply. Other than that, I had nothing but problems with her character. I found it a little unbelievable that she never asked questions about anything until now, but I guess curiosity was taken from her through such an abusive, extreme childhood. Unfortunately, her reaction to almost everything is sitting and crying about it at length. I liked that the books went into much darker places than I expected with assassinations and living gods.

However, it was balanced by Marinda's flatly good outlook on everything and apparently her inability to figure out anything at all. I wanted inner conflict and an antihero, but she had very little agency throughout the book, just going with the flow. Another problem was Marinda's role in the assassinations. Even though she had to kiss to kill, she never really seduced anyone maybe to keep her "pure" in a totally outdated, backwards way. Ilya is the girl who seduces for information (which is an arrangement that doesn't really make sense) and Marinda views her as more terrible for some reason. Marinda was the only part I really had a problem with, but she's the main character, so I don't feel enthused to read the next book.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

* Optimists Die First

Petula De Wilde is terrified of accidents. Anything could happen. Freak accidents occur everyday, so she will minimize her risk as much as possible no matter how much people tease her. Her family is torn apart and unrecognizeable since her little sister died due to a freak accident that she blames herself for. After counselling at school failed disastrously, she has to go to art therapy led by a woman who would rather work with elementary age kids. Then a very tall boy walks in with a prosthetic arm named Jacob and her whole life changes.

While I don't like the cliche a boy changes a girl's life thing, Optimists Die First is adept at dealing with grief, anxiety, and making amends. I've heard some criticism about the portrayal of Petula's anxiety, but it is dismissed as trivial by other people. To Petula, it's very real and very serious that she do everything she can to avoid fatal accidents. She has pushed everyone in her life away and opted to wallow in guilt and sorrow while her family reals from the loss and copes in their own ways. Her mother collects needy cats to take care of and her father throws himself into work. No one acknowledges each other's pain, too busy feeling their own. When Jacob walks in, they are forced to work together and both hate it at first. Their romance is sweet and develops organically over time. Birth control is acknowledged and used which is rare. The one mar on it is that Jacob doesn't really share about himself, opting to give fake names and movie plots instead of what really happened to him.

The art therapy is my favorite part of the whole book. At first, everyone is miserable and just going through the motions. This Breakfast Club-esque group of misfits all have their own trauma to deal with. Jacob's filmmaking talent gives each of them the tool to communicate something in a way they never thought of before. Koula apologizes for all the thoughtless, mean things she did when she was drunk or high. Alonzo expresses his journey and pain through mime. Ivan gets to hold a funeral for his mother when he was barred from the original one. Petula made a video archiving her family's life and Maxine's life. When Jacob's secret comes out, everyone is hurt. The ending has everyone on the road to rebuilding and reconciling, but it's not perfect. Petula still has some doubts as one would after being lied to. It's the most realistic representation of a teen relationship I've seen. This book has real emotions and shows different ways of coping with grief and trauma. Optimists Die First is a short, heart punch of a read that I enjoyed.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Scarlett and her sister Tella live in constant fear of their abusive father. Scarlett is extremely protective of her sister despite Tella's wild energy and hedonistic tendencies. For years, Scarlett wrote to Master Legend about his magical game Caraval, a fantastical and world famous event, to see if he would bring it to her hometown. She finally gives up due to her impending nuptuals that will finally free her and her sister from her father's abuse even though she doesn't know who her future husband will be or what kind of person he is. However, Master Legend sends her a letter and three tickets so they can attend. She wants to stay because she has accepted reality, but her sister has other plans. With the help of roguish sailor Julian, Tella kidnaps her and takes her to Caraval, which proves to be much darker and more real than she ever imagined.

Caraval is a magical book with harsh realities mixed in. Scarlett is a character grounded in reality. After the disappearance of her mother, the continued abuse from her father, and the serious threat to her sister, much of her love for the whimsical and fantastical went away. Her thoughts are constantly running through ways to keep Tella safe and out of trouble. When she gets to Caraval, Tella is missing and Scarlett quickly finds out that the whole game is based around finding her. It's surreal to have so many people looking after the same thing without the same emotional attachments. The game is so much more real from the start for her. The world of Caraval is beautiful and written so lyrically. Stores have items that do the impossible like see the future. Payments are just as bizarre, ranging from secrets to days of your life to deepest desires to the last lie told. The world building is thin because Scarlett has no idea how any of this works or why. It bothered me a little, but the descriptions were phrased so wonderfully that it was easily overlooked.

Some aspects of the book didn't work for me as well. Scarlett has a one track mind that looks for her sister, guesses that every man under the sun is Master Legend, and swoons over Julian while she denies her feelings. These three thoughts are repeated so often that it becomes predictable and boring at times. She makes some horrible decisions that go completely against her oft repeated goal and it's frustrating to read. Some days seem completely wasted for no reason at all. Tella was insufferable and selfish through the whole thing, so I didn't really care about the object of the game. Master Legend disappoints when he appears and I wasn't very impressed by Julian, who is supposed to be a typical swoon worthy bad boy with a heart of gold. Most of the characters fall flat and don't really develop at all. The plot twists are inelegantly revealed and the last half of the book didn't live up to the expectations of the first half. Deaths are used for inept emotional depth and then aren't even permament, which is a trope I hate so very much.

Overall, Caraval has quite a few good ideas and descriptive language, but twist after twist and repetitive thoughts and situations make the book fall apart by the end. The characters stagnate about half way through. The ending doesn't even answer some significant questions as a ploy to get the reader to pick up the next book. The lack of a magic system did annoy by the end with some of these non-deaths, so I hope it will be more defined as the series goes on. I have what I need from the series and I'm not enthused to see what happens next unless I see tons of rave reviews. The book didn't live up to the hype and proves to be a lackluster version of The Night Circus.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien: Covenant

* spoilers *

In 2104, the Covenant vessel, home to 2,000 people and 1,000 embryos, is on a mission of colonization aimed for a planet that they will terraform and develop. During synthetic Walter's routine energy harvest, a neutrino blast out of nowhere damages the ship and kills the captain along with some of the colonists. The crew, awakened by Walter, reels from the loss and scrambles to assess damage and do what they can to repair. They pick up a transmission from nearby unknown planet that just so happens to be a better fit for human habitation. The new captain makes the foolish decision to investigate the planet where it becomes clear that people have been there before and that an incredibly dangerous race of creatures lies in wait to gestate inside of them.

Alien: Covenant is a mixed bag of a movie that's a decided improvement over Prometheus in the horror aspects, the creature evolution, and the villain. This film has much more horror scenes that are expected of an Alien movie from chest bursting to ripping people apart to brand new, unexpected forms of carnage. The alien seen on the planet is unlike anything seen in the Alien universe. It has somehow adapted from being stored in jars and deployed as a weapon to being released as spores from plants. People become infected without even knowing it and the resulting xenomorphs are much speedier bursting out, smaller, faster, and more vulnerable. The xenomorph from Alien is bred and painstakingly produced by David, the synthetic from Prometheus, setting him up as the Big Bad of the franchise. David is a fascinating character with the drive to create the perfect being, outdoing humans and effectively destroying them. He sees synthetics as superior to humans in every way and doesn't feel any affinity or loyalty to them. What makes him truly special is his creativity, free will, and love for art, shown in a beautiful scene between him and Walter. The combination of the human and inhuman elements creates a delightful villain who has the utmost joy for his endeavors.

The film has quite a few pitfalls like the forgettable human cast, their ridiculous decision making skills, and its reactionary gender politics. We don't get a lot of character development or background before they start dying. All of the crew is married to another member to manufacture emotional stakes that aren't really there. I didn't even realize that some of them were together until it was mentioned out loud because they barely interacted. They also make the dumbest decisions known to man, calling into question their qualifications to lead this mission. A few egregious examples are following the advice of a lying synthetic, ignoring quarantine procedures, and risking the lives of 2,000 people for 2 people. One of the worst is when a panicked woman is fighting a xenomorph inside the shuttle and flamethrowers the combustables, causing it to explode and implying that women are just too hysterical despite extensive training. This troubling theme extends to other parts of the film. In a weird slasher-esque scene, a couple is slaughtered in the shower while they have sex, but first the alien tail lewdly ventures between the woman's legs. This show of sexual violence feels out of place and frankly gross. Elizabeth Shaw's fate is revealed and while it's probably due to Noomi Rapace not wanting to or able to appear in the film, it's a terrible, exploitative end for such an interesting character. This series has characters like Ellen Ripley and Elizabeth Shaw, amazing women who fight against human and alien opposition. There's no character that even comes close to being any sort of equal adversary to David.

Alien: Covenant has some improvements over its predecessor. It takes the philosophical questions, David, and new forms of the xenomorph mixed with more quality horror scenes. Unfortunately, the paper thin human characters, forced emotional connections, and weird bits of sexism bring the film down. It's sad when the original films spanning the 70's and 80's are more progressive than this one. I don't hate the film, but I hate aspects of it. The ending in particular is completely predictable and the characters are completely oblivious. I will be watching the next installment even though it seems like these films will consistently have the same mistakes.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Strange the Dreamer

Lazlo Strange grew up an orphaned nobody, first callously raised by monks and then callously raised by librarians. Since he was a child, the legends of a forgotten land called Weep have fascinated him. From then to adulthood, he compiled every scrap, every story, and every mention of the lost city that everyone else think is a fairy tale. As an adult, Lazlo is a lowly librarian, but inadvertantly helps an enemy discover his beloved city. He seizes the opportunity to help Weep and its envoys with a unique problem that the envoys won't reveal until they get there. The problem is hugely obvious, puzzling, and the reason why the inhabitants of Weep have travelled the world so the smartest, most skillful, and most innovative people can try to solve it.

I was a bit doubtful going into this book because the beginning took a little bit to get started. As the story goes on, I was completely hooked. Lazlo is such a relatable character because he comes from so little and keeps his kind heart despite the way everyone above him treats him. His polar opposite is Nero, the privileged golden boy who is miserable, rich, and given every opportunity under the sun. Lazlo is happy despite his low standing and even goes out of his way to selflessly help Nero who works to steal everything Lazlo has worked for. He doesn't let rivalries or even his own frustration and anger get in the way of his kindness. In a rare moment of confidence, Lazlo convinces the Weep envoys to take him with them and his lifelong dream comes true. Unlike the others invited, he doesn't have special skills and isn't widely known, but he learned the language of Weep and everything he could about their culture and history.

Five teens live above Weep who are half god and half human known as godspawn. They all have magic abilities. Minya can command the souls of the dead. Sparrow has power in plants and nature. Feral influences the weather. Ruby can create and control fire. Sarai has the most unique ability to put her consciousness in a swarm of moths and enter the dreams of mortals to either observe or control the events. The people of Weep slaughtered the gods while Minya, the oldest of them, rescued as many babies as she could. The gods ruled tyrannically, kidnapping people for their whims and bringing them back with no memory. Both sides have legitimate grievances and committed terrible atrocities towards each other. Minya is filled with rage and literally stunted her own growth because she can't move on from the slaughter she witnessed. Sarai has done so many things against humans because of Minya coaching her from a young age, but she's beginning to doubt Minya's way after realizing that humans aren't that much different than her.

Sarai meets Lazlo in his dream and he can actually see her unlike any other person. They form a relationship and get to know each other, leading to the one of the sweetest Romeo and Juliet type romances ever. Although it is a trope, the interactions are so organic and the language is so lyrical and beautiful that it seemed like new. The world building amazed me. Taylor creates such mindblowing worlds that I have trouble putting her books down. The beginning goes a little slow to get to know Lazlo, but once the group heads for Weep, the pace takes off. This is the rare book that I want to read slowly to savor the world but I also want to devour it as fast as possible to find out what happens. The ending has so many twists and turns that I never saw coming. It does end on a bit of a cliffhanger and I can't wait to see what happens in the second installment, Muse of Nightmares. After this novel and the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Laini Taylor has a lifelong fan in me.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, May 20, 2017


Gloria is going through a rough patch in her career and life as she drinks too much, parties too hard, and lives off of her disapproving boyfriend's resources while she does it. He's finally had enough of it all and kicks her out, forcing her to return to her parents' deserted house in her home town in shame. While gathering supplies to make the house a little more comfortable, she runs into her childhood friend Oscar, who owns a bar. They quickly fall into the habit of hanging out at the bar and drinking until morning. More often than not, Gloria wakes up with no recollection of the night before and only gets clues from Oscar. Meanwhile, a giant monster is terrorizing South Korea, but only for a short time at one particular time of day. Gloria figures out that the monster follows her own movements when she's in a local playground at exactly 8:05am. Of course she's horrified and has to decide what to do about it when Oscar's true colors are gradually revealed.

I expected Colossal to be a fun giant monster film that had a quirky, independent feel and I was partly right. However, it proved to me much more emotional and hard-hitting. Gloria is a mess of person who slinks off to her childhood home to figure out what to do next. She falls into a habit of ignoring her problems and hanging out with other toxic people who support her alcoholism. The giant monster debacle is her first wake up call to do something more productive than working in a bar or getting blackout drunk. It's symbolic of the damage she inflicts on people around her with her thoughtless actions and excessive drinking. It also forces to her to reflect upon how many people were hurt by her thoughtless actions and make a real decision about what do moving forward instead of continuing the same avoidance behaviors. She eventually writes out an apology in Korean and vows to leave the city alone. Oscar during this time seems supportive, friendly, and willing to help her out. He gives her a job at the bar, helps furnish her house, and lends an ear when she needs one. Unfortunately, this behavior isn't reflective of his true feelings.

Oscar turns out to be one of the most odious, enraging characters I've ever hated. The first indication of this is during the first night she spends hanging out with his friends. She moves to kiss Joel, the most attractive of them, and Oscar suddenly yells at her our of nowhere as if she's ruining something. Gloria most likely doesn't even remember the interaction (plus who knows how many similar ones) and goes on as normal. When Gloria reveals her odd ability to him and his friends, he discovers he has his own giant robot avatar that appears in the same place. He doesn't share Gloria's feelings about the unexpected power and starts to drunkenly terrorize the city on his own. He apologizes, but the cyle of abuse continues. When she refuses to drink, he threatens to terrorize Korea if she won't comply with his demands. This starts a series of uncomfortable and enraging displays of his attempts control over her (because she doesn't want Korea smashed) interspersed with increasing insincere apologies. It all culminates when she lets him know she will return home with her boyfriend. He goes to smash up Korea in the playground. When she tries to physically stop him, he overpowers and beats her in a disgusting display of abuse.

Up until that point, I had hoped that Oscar was just a damaged person making mistakes much like Gloria, but he proved that his ultimate goal is control her and continue his sick cycle of abuse out of self loathing and failure. That beating also showed that this film goes a lot deeper than I expected. Much of the earlier events were more comedic and light, downplaying a lot of his earlier abusive actions. This method makes us feel like Gloria, finally realizing that previous actions weren't mistakes or misunderstandings. This scene felt like the genre of the film changed. It was looking like she had to choose between these two men who ultimately want to control her as is typical in romantic comedies, but she chooses a much more realistic third option. The ending was incredibly satisfying and a sound deconstruction of the romantic comedy formula that continues to insist that women need men to feel complete and solve their problems. The last scene shows that Gloria is still a flawed person who has to work through her issues.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, May 19, 2017


Val Russel lives a normal life with an annoying mother, a loving boyfriend, and lacrosse. A bit hot tempered, she clashes with teammates one too many times and finds herself kicked off the team. Then she goes home unexpectedly only to find her boyfriend and her mother kissing. Distraught and betrayed, Val decides to escape for a while and goes to New York after impulsively shaving her head and going to the hockey game she and her now ex were going to attend. Two homeless teens happen upon her sleeping and take her under their wing, teaching her how to survive and their own tips and tricks. They also introduce her to the world of faeries much darker than expected, but with addictive faerie medicine that gives humans faerie powers for a short time. Val spirals out of control more and more until she's caught stealing some it by Ravus, an exiled troll, and he binds her as a servant until she has repaid her debt. As both her feelings for Ravus and her addiction deepen, Val finds herself the only one willing to save him and has to fight literal and metaphorical demons to do so.

I expected Valiant to be a direct sequel to Tithe with Roiben and Kaye, but it only exists in the same world. I would have been disappointed if Val and her story hadn't completely won me over within the first few pages. She feels like a real person with numerous flaws who just experienced her first real betrayal by those closest to her in addition to being soundly rejected by the only thing tying her to her school. Her escape to New York is far from idyllic, but it introduces her to a completely different world with ultimate freedom and very little repercussions. At first, the world is fun even with the seedier parts like digging through dumpsters and sleeping outside. Then, things improve even more with the discovery of the faerie world and "Never," a faerie medicine to help them cope with living so closely with huge amounts of iron.

The effects are much different for humans and allow them to have faerie powers of glamour and compulsion along with feelings of euphoria and dreamlike disorientation. She and her friends start by taking it sparingly to get what they need to survive and then progress to taking it at least daily and stealing from people off the street and upscale shops. The first half of the story moves rather slowly, focusing on Val and her descent. Despite poor decision making, I was on her side the whole time. I felt for her, especially when the more monstrous sides of her friends were revealed. The need to escape and avoid negative feelings is completely understandable. When she realizes how far into the drugs and horrible lifestyle she is, it's so much harder to go through the withdrawal and get out of that situation.

Val's relationship with Ravus bloomed organically and unexpectedly. It has a Beauty and the Beast dynamic that is much more complex. Ravus won't become a handsome prince with true loves kiss; he will always be a hideous troll, but Val loves him anyway. Val steals from him and lies to him before her feelings developed, complicating things and making it seem like she was just using him. Their sword sparring is one of my favorite parts of the story because it's where they get to know each other the most. With some subjects, they don't mind sharing, but others are avoided. From the time Ravus is introduced in the story, a murder mystery is revealed with Ravus as its prime suspect. This series of murders has ties to the Seelie court where he is from and exposes even more corruption of the supposed good side of the faerie world. Val is alone in fighting for Ravus' innocence. She's a drug addict, a thief, a vagrant, and casual with sex, all of which are seen in society as immoral. However, she's the hero of this story and fights with all her might to free the one she loves, showing that mistakes and others' perception doesn't define her. At her core, she's a hero through and through.

Valiant is a very different story than Tithe and one that I enjoy just a little bit more. The hero has so many things going against her that she actually has to deal with when her adventure is over unlike Kaye who then lived in the faerie world. Val's object of affection isn't a handsome prince (although Roiben is much darker than the usual), but someone she connects with completely. So much of the story portrays reversals of tropes that ring much more true to me. I read this installment in only a couple of days and I will devour the last of the series as soon as I can.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: Personal Shopper and Splinter

* Personal Shopper

Maureen mourns for her twin brother's recent death and returns to the place where he died in Paris. She's convinced that he will give her a sign of the afterlife (if there is one) as they promised. Her living expenses are paid for by being a personal shopper for Kyra, a moody and demanding fashion model. I had high hopes for this one because I thought it would be a film that never actually shows anything supernatural and deals more with her grief. I was wrong and it was also very boring. Kirsten Stewart sighs and mopes through the whole thing with her signature expression. A CGI ghost shows up to terrorize Maureen at her brother's house, which didn't look convincing and didn't seem to actually mean anything in the grand scheme of things.

The most interesting part of the film is when Maureen receives text messages from an unknown person, daring to her to do things she's afraid to do and pushing her boundaries. It's never revealed who this person is, but the implications expand when she finds her boss murdered. Nothing in the story really seems to connect with anything else. I started to like Maureen as she tried on her boss's clothes, but then she went way too far with it and lost me. The ending has a very cool moment that goes largely unnoticed by the characters, but proves to be rather anticlimactic. Personal Shopper is an incredibly boring film with some moments of brilliance and lots of wasted potential. Long stretches of time felt like nothing was going on at all. It's visually striking and Stewart is adept at moping, but it felt like a dull waste of time.

My rating: 1.5/5 fishmuffins

* Splinter

Two very different couples collide in a remote gas station. Seth and Polly are a young, sweet, affluent couple out for a romantic camping trip. On the other hand, Lacey and Dennis are out to rob people to feed Lacey's drug addiction and continue to flee from the law. Lacey and Dennis hold Seth and Polly hostage, but are forced to stop at the gas station where a mysterious creature infects the attendent. The two couples have to work together if they want to survive despite their differences. I wasn't expecting a lot from Splinter, but it was surprisingly decent. At first I was annoyed because Dennis was such a chauvinist idiot, but he was nicely balanced by Seth and Polly plus his obvious care for Lacey. Seth is not stereotypically manly or physically strong while Polly is very physically capable and knows much more about mechanics. I enjoyed the contrast of one couple portraying conventional gender roles while other breaks them. Polly and Dennis often clash, but work together weirdly well when everything goes to hell. All of the characters do whatever they have to in order to help each other escape.

The splinter here is an unknown parasite that grows rapidly in organic matter. Even the slightest bit of it can eventually take over a whole person in a matter of hours. If infected, death is definite and it's only a matter of time until that person attacks the rest. It doesn't attack like a zombie, but does whatever it can to impale its spikes on more organic matter. The way this thing makes living or dead bodies move is eerie and unique as bodies weren't meant to do that, even combining multiples together for a bigger organism with many more spikes. It hunts by sensing body heat and (of course) has one fatal flaw. The effects for the spikes and the performances of the infected were superb. The start of the movie seemed to stereotypical and dumb, but by the time the splinter showed up, I was hooked. The body horror elements made me so happy and everything from the arrival at the gas station on was incredibly suspenseful. Our unlikely heroes came up with surprisingly intelligent ways to try to contact the outside world, combat the creature, and escape. Splinter delivered a creepy body horror seige film that is definitely worth your time.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity

The New French Extremity film movement has been popular for years because of its tendency to push the boundaries of cinema even beyond the horror genre. These films are typically nihilistic with extreme violence, social commentary, and other taboo that most consider beyond the pale. Alexandra West's book starts out with a history of France with turmoil, resistance, tyranny, and blood soaking it all. It's completely the opposite of what people typically view as France: romance, the city of lights, and idyllic beauty. Their history (and present in some cases) of beheadings, fascism, concentration camps, and racism isn't widely known and not represented in their film. Charles de Gaulle famously advocated moving forward without acknowledging or coming to terms with French support of the Nazis during the occupation, causing any film to do so fail. Many of the films in this genre acknowledge this denial and cite it as the cause of reactionary attitudes and politics as well as the resulting public unrest and riots. I found this fascinating as I knew about Vichy France, but never studied the events that followed.

Then, West covers a brief history of French cinema, starting from the very first horror movie ever created, The Haunted Castle in 1896. Later, horror in France was characterized by surrealism and the conflict surrounding self and identity, especially after World War II. The New French Extremity movement took real life fears and made them even more horrific. Interior struggles become exterior and irrevocably damage the world around the characters. They also take the buried history of France, especially the atrocities of WWII that went largely unacknowledged, and make it a focus. Many of the films have that seed of racism, fascism, and violence either festering over years and growing or exploding. Many of the films have civil unrest in the background usually as a response to a conservative government. She mentions Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, which uses theater as a means of confronting harsh realities for an uncomfortable catharsis instead of escaping into fantasy in idyllic films such as Amelie and The Artist. The concept describes this movement well. These directors take the formula for horror films and alter them in unsettling ways to make something unique.

The first wave of French Extremity was based in art house films by the likes of Gasper Noe, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Marina de Van among others. The most notorious of these was Irreversible, which many don't consider horror at all. It has all of the elements of this movement in the extended rape scene, its brutal violence, and its nihilistic ending. Its homophobia and racism were frequently called out by critics, but proponents argued that they are both an intrinsic part of France and its history portrayed honestly. Breillat's Romance showed that family isn't the happily ever after everyone expects in the face of an unstable and insecure society and critiques society's view and expectations of women. Palo X has a successful man rejecting the society that valued him and has the viewers act as observers rather than judges of his morals. In Baise Moi, lower class women inflict violence that they have become accustomed to onto others in a Thelma and Louise-esque road trip. My personal favorites of this sub-genre are the cannibal films Trouble Every Day and In My Skin. They act as this movements version of body horror. The former centers on love and desire as a disease and the other on isolation in success and the need for connection. Both have shockingly tender moments among their carnage that I respond to.Many of these films subvert expectations in the horror genre and in gender norms while pushing the boundaries of cinema and audiences.

The last evolution of the genre takes conventions of American horror films and infuses them with the brutality, nihilism, and social commentary of the art house wave. The first and most iconic is Alexandre Aja's High Tension, which takes a slasher film and twists it. I found the twist to be homophobic in nature, but West reads it differently. Although I don't agree with her, it shows how complex these films are and how even a decade later they are still being hotly debated. Calvaire is a particularly odd film that almost feels like it doesn't belong and the film I liked the least of this genre. West's observations let me see another side of the film. Xavier Gens' Frontier(s) is my favorite of the later wave. I had seen it years ago and dismissed it as a Texas Chainsaw ripoff, but I gave it another chance and it has so much more going on than that. The historical implications make the film so much more tragic and upsetting. Martyrs is the most notorious entry and even West can't convince me that it isn't poorly constructed, misogynistic, exploitative, and ridiculous. I do enjoy her reading and interpretation of it even if I disagree. For instance, although the plot is linear, the way it deals with trauma isn't. It starts with the aftermath, follows with the trauma, and ends capture and torture. Its condemnation of religion and the exposure of its inhuman sides set it apart from other religious themed films that usual uphold religion's patriarchal system. Inside is another amazing film, but the added critique of the media and their portrayal of violence and conservatism makes the film even deeper than I thought.

I have seen and reviewed many of these films throughout the years on my blog because I feel so strongly about them. (Here are my reviews for my more extensive thoughts on these films: Inside, In My Skin, Frontier(s), High Tension, Trouble Every Day, Martyrs, and Calvaire.) Whether I find them problematic or I absolutely love them, I keep returning to them because they have a singular element that combines violence, social commentary, and true emotions. I see the echoes of this movement in more recent films like Raw, which isn't as extreme, bleak, or violent, but shares a lot with films like In My Skin and Trouble Every Day in breaking gender and societal norms through cannibalism and body horror. Although I didn't entirely agree with West's reading of a few of the films, she still gave wonderful insights on all of the films as well as a look into the cinematic history, social history, and hidden conflicts within France that give much needed context to these films. I will definitely be watching more of these films as I didn't know some of them even existed before reading. I hope this book with help other viewers expand their view of this genre beyond the most popular films.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, May 11, 2017


* spoilers *

Justine, a lifelong vegetarian, goes to veterinary school where her sister already attends. She complies with her parents wishes in all things, shown when she refuses to eat when accidentally given meat. Her mother's reaction is way over the top as she berates the server who gave it to her. Justine dresses conservatively in clothing that makes her look much younger. She is woefully unprepared for the school's hazing and party atmosphere which hits her like a freight train. The very first night, students are dragged out of their beds and forced to party for hours while the elders trash their rooms and party even harder. It's the first time Justine has had so much freedom plus access to alcohol, drugs, and sex. Her initial reaction is confusion and withdrawal. She reconnects with her sister Alexia and avoids the rest of the party.

In one of many hazing rituals, Justine eats a piece of rabbit kidney, pressured by her Alexia after refusing. Despite the fact that she threw up just after she ate the kidney, the effects of the meat wreak havoc on Justine's body in the form of itchy, huge rashes that she scratches until they bleed. When she's treated for the rash and it finally goes away, she find herself craving meat. It starts out as attempting (and failing) to steal a hamburger patty from the cafeteria and then eating schwarma at a gas station, away from the prying eyes of classmates with her friend Adrien. It seems fairly normal for a person to push the boundaries past what they were allowed at home and explore other choices not endorsed by parents. But then she escalates to secretly eating raw chicken and finally eating human meat.

The scene where Justine finally has the opportunity to eat human flesh changes tone lightning fast. Alexia convinces Justine to let her wax her bikini line. Alexia views Justine's body hair as a sign of immaturity and naivete. The first side goes well, but of course it's painful. Justine tries to say no to any further, but Alexia already puts the gunk on the other side and it's stuck. This scene feels realistic and like the type of thing sisters would do together that goes hilariously wrong. The turn comes when Justine kicks wildly and Alexia's finger is lopped off by the scissors meant to cut out the wax. Alexia faints while Justine is left alone with the severed finger. Her fascination with and eventual consumption of it feels so forbidden and uncomfortable to watch. Every fiber of my being was silently screaming no. After the incident, Alexia covers for Justine and reveals she also eats people, but chooses to kill in order to do so. She opts to show Justine how she does it instead of talking to her about it, likely a familial habit to avoid uncomfortable conversations. Justine rejects Alexia's method as immoral, but she still craves human flesh.

Sexual desires accompany the craving as well. Justine starts to dress in more revealing, formfitting outfits, wearing makeup, and being more open to the school's party atmosphere. In one scene, she is splashed with blue paint and shoved into a room with a guy covered in yellow paint and told they wouldn't be allowed out until they are both green. Normally she would just leave, but she chooses to touch and kiss. The scene ends with the guy screaming with a chunk bitten out of his lip. Another instance of this when she has sex with her best friend Adrien. Throughout the encounter, her attempts to bit him were rebuffed and redirected. She only achieves orgasm when she bites on her own arm so hard she draws blood. Adrien seems fascinated by her but later lashes out when he feels his sexuality is threatened. Much like Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day, the cannibalistic urges are inextricably entwined with her sexual desires.

At the heart of this film, Raw is about two sisters dealing with the exact same feelings and trying to deal with them in different ways. Justine hasn't really decided concretely how to deal with it, but soundly rejects Alexia's method. The rejection causes an unspoken rivalry and enmity between the sisters that culminates a series of increasingly violent events. The first is Alexia's very public humiliation of Justine. The second is a fight between them involving savage biting that was also a public display in front of their classmates. The fight ends with others rushing in to pull them apart. Justine and Alexia fight free and go off together to tend each other's wounds, showing that they still care for each other despite everything. All of this culminates in Alexia murdering and eating Adrien, the object of Justine's affection, lust, and hunger. The central conflict is essentially a sibling rivalry that goes further than most.

After the murder, Justine returns home, forced to return to her vegetarian, controlled life with her parents. Justine isn't the same, rejecting their food and refusing to be the person they want her to be. Her father reveals that her mother has that same cannibalistic lust when he shows her his bare chest full of scars and partially healed wounds. He thinks she will find her own solution to the problem, which boils down to society's view of womanhood compared to the reality. This includes female sexuality, anger, and rebellion with an added fantastical layer of violence and taboo in cannibalism. Both Alexia and Justine were raised in a restrictive household that didn't prepare them for the realities of the real world, how to communicate in healthy ways, or even the changes of their own bodies, which caused this whole mess.

Raw is a fascinating coming of age film that takes the concept from Trouble Every Day and gives it relevant meaning, interesting characters, and a true plot with direction. The acting is superb, especially from Garance Marillier as Justine. Julia Ducournau's writing and direction put the viewers right into Justine's journey in alternately relatable and offputting ways. I didn't love Raw the first time I saw it because of the fainting people hype. I expected it to be a lot gorier. I braced myself for the worst and came away disappointed. However, after repeated viewings, the story and characters ring so true. The film has an odd, magnetic quality that shows an honest coming of age story with humor, horror, and emotion.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins