Friday, June 29, 2018

The Passion of Cleopatra by Anne Rice

Ramses the Great, now known as Reginald Ramsey, has turned his beloved Julie Stratford and his best friend Elliot Savarell into immortals with his elixir. Ramses and Julie prepare to marry while Elliot goes on an extended vacation to make money and live how he's always wanted to live. In the meantime, Cleopatra still lives and plans revenge on Ramses and Julie. Bektaten, an ancient and enigmatic empress, fights against Saqnos, her equally ancient rival who seeks out the true elixir and his attention draws to Ramses to get it. Will Ramses and Julie get their happily ever after or will one of their foes succeed in destroying their happiness?

The Passion of Cleopatra is the long awaited sequel of The Mummy or Ramses the Damned, published in 1989. I loved this book and never dreamed there would be another. I read the first book years ago and didn't have time to reread it before starting this book. The narrative does a good job of filling in pertinent details of the first book and moving forward from there. The beginning is extremely slow and plodding, reminding about old characters and introducing all the new characters. It takes quite a while to establish everything before the story moves forward. It also has the problem that most vampire shows or films have. They are said to be so rare, but they also seem to be everywhere! This elixir has a specific composition that almost no one knows, but now there are two immortals in addition to the 3 Ramses has created and the dozens of corrupted immortals that follow Saqnos. There are 3 ancient grudges between them, 2 romances, and a lot of drama.

The elixir and its effects are interesting in addition to the newer magic. Immortals obviously live forever as young as they were when they took it. Their bodies beocme stronger and heal from any chronic problems or ailments they previously had. Their stamina is limitless and they never tire. After years, they don't require sleep anymore. The drawbacks are few. They always feel hunger, never being truly satisfied by any food. Drinks and drugs have little effect on them. And of course all the general drawbacks of immortality like outliving one's family and having to hide and change identities. We get to see people go from human to immortal. Julie and Elliot in particular no longer care about what society thinks of them. Julie is free to wear out of fashion clothes and be with Ramses. Elliot, on the other hand, lives the lifestyle he wants, taking men as lovers more freely and gambling his way to wealth across continents. He no longer has to pretend to be straight as Edwardian society expects.

Once I waded through the drama and got used to the many characters, subplots, and romances, I started to truly enjoy the story. I remembered why I liked the first book and grew to like a few of the new characters. Sibyl is the human caught up in this whole thing and with a connection to Cleopatra. It was a bit of relief to read about a normal human instead of a supernatural creature plus I liked her kind nature and confidence at the end.. Bektaten was the best character, set up to be sort of a villain and proves to be so much more. She thought more about the world as a whole and made decisions to preserve it instead of doing whatever selfish, arrogant thing she wants like Ramses. I expected the end to be a huge fight or battle, but because of Bektaten, it was much different and unexpected.

The Passion of Cleopatra isn't a perfect book, but I found it enjoyable after the awkward beginning. I did find it odd that Cleopatra was more of a peripheral character than anything despite the title. There are tropes galore and melodrama along with some surprising elements I didn't expect to find. It's a good follow up to the first story and it makes me want to reread the first book to compare the stories so many years apart. I recommend this if you liked the first one.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)

During a police raid, a huge cache of videotapes is discovered, documenting a prolific serial killer and his methods. This includes everything from abductions, to torture over long periods of time, to post-mortem mutilations, and the murder itself. Some of the tapes are missing, showing that the killer meant for them to have the tapes and that he chose to keep some for himself. How many people has he killed? Will he ever be caught?

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a film that I have heard of over and over again over the years, but it never seemed to be available to buy legally. It was never released theatrically, briefly released on DirecTV on demand in 2014, and finally released on DVD and Bluray in 2017. It's been pirated, posted on Youtube, and made into GIFs (only the most disturbing scenes of course). It has been talked about for years and widely known as an infamous horror film even though few have gotten the chance to see it. The film lives up to all of this hype and more.

The story is told in a documentary style, similar to Unsolved Mysteries or America's Most Wanted or Forensic files with interviews from investigators, family members of victims, witnesses, and one survivor. Instead of cheesy re-enactments, the harrowing video footage is shown. The interviews and narration take up the majority of the film, telling their stories about the investigation, finding the bodies, and the fate of various victims. Many of the police officers and detectives spoke about the harrowing effect of watching the killer's videos, compounded by the fact that there is very little evidence to help find him. There is a subdued attitude to these interview subjects because of the horrific nature of these murders and the struggle to catch the killer. The killer manipulates them deftly and keeps them distracted. They also get caught up in an orchestrated red herring that devastates many. This part is just as interesting as the tapes themselves because we see the effects of these murders on the public and provide context.

The killer is never shown in the films unless he is in some sort of disguise, giving him a theatrical and creepy air. His favorite seems to be commedia dell'arte bird mask. He carries a camcorder with him to kidnap women, torture his victims, mutilate their dead bodies, and disposing of the bodies. These tapes can be incredibly creepy. He is shown kidnapping a little girl right in front of her house, chloroforming a couple when he asks them for a ride, hiding in a woman's house for hours before abducting her, various scenes of torture (mostly physical but mental and emotional as well). He started out as a disorganized killer, led by impulse, and then became measured and well planned as he went on. Then he purposefully targeted sex workers to keep the police from connecting his previous crimes. The most chilling scene was how he kidnapped a college student named Cheryl Dempsey and kept her for years, brainwashing her with abuse and torture until her mind essentially breaks. These tapes aren't extreme compared to many modern horror films, but they remain chilling, nightmarish, and memorable.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a hidden gem that not enough people have seen. It's an early found footage film melded with documentary-like interviews to piece together this prolific killer's journey and the effort to catch him. It seems like an homage to 90's crime TV that I grew up with. The only flaws of this film is one plot point being a little too unbelievable and the awful quality of the tape footage. It looks grainy and the tracking is off, which is expected. It's the wavy effect that is the most annoying and distorts too much of the picture. Other than that, I'm so happy that Scream Factory came out with the Bluray. I will be watching this film probably once a year or so from now on. 

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Map for Wrecked Girls by Jessica Taylor

Henri and Emma are sisters and have always been close, dreaming of a future by themselves in a beachside house with cats. Henri's behavior becomes more and more erratic with excessive drinking at parties. Emma is pretty straight edge, but becomes enraged when Henri seduces Emma's crush and strings him along, clearly planning to drop him soon. Emma acts rashly and simultaneously obliterates her relationship with Henri. Then, they get stranded on a deserted island with a boy named Alex. How long will they stay there? How will they survive? Will Henri let her anger win out over survival?

A Map for Wrecked Girls is a bit of a frustrating read overall. It sounds out fine with establishing Henri and Emma's relationship. Henri has always been the leader while Emma has always followed faithfully. Now that Henri seems to be spiralling out of control with risky behavior, Emma starts to be more assertive. She does something that is portrayed as unforgiveably horrible which really isn't. It's motivated by jealousy and anger, but it wasn't the wrong thing to do. The novel is told starting with the island and then going back in time to show what happened with all of this. It served to hold the audience in suspense as to what happened, but other aspects of the novel made this not work for me.

Henri and Emma are stranded on a desert island with a boy named Alex. From page 1, Henri holds on to her grudge like it's a flotation device. Even the death of Alex's cousin and the explosion of their boat didn't distract her from making Emma (and by extension Alex) as miserable as possible. I hated Henri for most of the novel because she kept valuable information that would lead to an easier life on the island and even sabotaged attempts to leave. It's incredibly and unforgiveably petty to keep up this act when their lives are in danger. Henri's personality and actions grew stale fast and she doesn't change all that much. Emma changes a little, but still lets Henri have so much power over her. The whole situation was frustrating to read and I wanted Henri to suffer from the consequences of her idiotic behavior.

I didn't enjoy A Map for Wrecked Girls. The toxic sister relationship had Henri being mean and dangerous all the time while Emma continually gave excuse after excuse to dismiss the behavior.  The only thing that kept me reading was Emma's huge faux pas and it didn't deserve the weight it was given. It took me over a week to read this even though it should have taken me a couple of days because I hated Henri that much. This was supposed to be an uplifting story of sisterly love, but it falls very short of that. I understand having a rough relationship with a sister, but there comes a time when you need to say enough of their bad behavior and abuse. Not recommended.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Upgrade (2018)

Grey Trace rebuilds old, analog cars and sells them to the very rich and his wife Asha works for Cobalt, a technology company. One day, he asks for her help to transport a car to a rich client, who happens to be the head of the company Vessel that rivals Cobalt. On the way back, their self driving car goes berzerk and crashes in the middle of an impoverished area. They escape the crash injured, but a gang of illegally augmented men kill Asha and paralyze Grey. The loss of his mobility and his wife puts him in a depression. When the head of Vessel offers an experimental augmentation called STEM that acts as another brain and will allow him mobility once again, Grey agrees when he realizes he has the chance for revenge.

Upgrade is a bit of a rollercoaster to watch. It starts off as many action films do, establishing our main hero, Grey, and his loving, perfect wife Asha. He enjoys working with his hands and doesn't use much of the fashionable technology (that includes implants in the body) that does everything for you. She is the opposite and works at a company called Cobalt that specializes in technological human augmentations. The world is futuristic enough to have some unfamiliar technology, but includes things we recognize like self driving cars and smart houses. Their marriage is adorable. They don't agree about some things, but they seem to be fine with that. Of course, this makes it all the more tragic when Asha is murdered and Grey is paralyzed from the neck down. This part of the film annoyed me as it's a tired trope that makes the woman a prop and the man so tortured and justified in his revenge. Grey becomes depressed, attempts suicide, and doesn't see the point of living until the head of Vessel offers him illegal technology to gain his mobility back.

This is where the film vastly improves. Grey has to pretend to be paralyzed when he isn't going out at night to find and kill the people who killed his wife. The varieties of technological enhancements is impressive, ranging from guns imbedded in arms to visual enhancements. Grey's puts them all to shame. The fight scenes show that he is essentially a puppet in all of this and have an efficient, mechanical style. He moves in ways no human should be able to and the camera follows him to give it an uncanny air. Grey himself is running around aimless trying to follow each clue while dodging criminals and police alike. STEM guides him and talks to him throughout his messy journey. He also doesn't have the stomach for torture or killing, opting to let STEM control his body while he closes his eyes and turns away. The ending smacked me in the face. I expected the typical ending of a hero victorious, but the trope is turned on its head. I should have seen it, but I was lulled into a sense of security by their use of tired tropes. This changed my perception of the whole film and I want to watch it again to catch all the clues.

I wasn't expecting a lot from Upgrade and the beginning met my expectations. The rest of the film exceeded them and surprised me. Logan Marshall-Green, who looks uncannily like Tom Hardy, keeps Grey sympathetic even when he's smashing faces and breaking arms. Harrison Gilbertson as Eron Keen, the head of Vessel, was the weak link acting-wise. It's as if he was trying to act as if he had autism or just bad social skills, but it came off horribly. Other than that, Upgrade is a fun sci-fi thriller that keeps you guessing.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, June 17, 2018

A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

Jess Wong and Angie Redmond are best friends, but Jess wants more from their relationship. Afraid of ruining their friendship, Jess hasn't said anything. Then Angie meets someone, a girl named Margot who steals from the cafe Angie works at while flirting with her. The situation instantly makes Jess hate Margot and creates a rift between best friends when Angie starts to date Margot. As Angie is drawn more and more into Margot's circle, Margot's best friend Ryan disappears and no one seems to know what happened.

A Line in the Dark is a dark contemporary teen novel that accurately shows the growing pains of friendship and the pain of unrequited love. Jess isn't the nicest person, but being inside her head feels authentic. She's not idealized or perfect and it's nice to see an accurate depiction of someone's inner thoughts and feelings. Jess loves Angie, but either doesn't want to ruin their friendship or is too afraid of rejection to reveal her feelings. As with any friendship that has one of the members finding first love, the relationship becomes strained when Margot and Angie date in addition to the gnawing jealousy Jess feels. Margot starts to keep secrets, dresses differently, wears more makeup, and starts to adopt Margot's mean girl tendencies. Jess starts to dig into Margot and Ryan's secrets to discredit them and get Margot back. She does turn into a bit of a stalker, following Margot and Angie around. My favorite part of Jess is her art. She draws in an anime style and has a fully realized world with ciphers for herself, Margot, and Angie to work out her feelings. It also led to some interesting revelations within her art that had a large impact on the story.

The lesbian characters are all varied and not portrayed as all evil or all good, but some sort of shade of grey in between. Angie at first seems like a genuine person, but she turns out to be extremely manipulative and pitting Jess against Margot to get what she wants. At first, we see her through Jess and her crush, so she is shown idealized, perfect in every way. Margot is a bit of a mean girl even when the Jess hate filter is taken away. She and Ryan seem to spread rumors about people and destroy their reputations for crossing them. Ryan has a secret affair with a teacher, exposed by the letter they leave for each other in the woods. I really hated how this abusive relationship was shown as totally fine and understandable. Maybe it's because it was from the point of view of high school students who see themselves as more adult, but it's not great to tell your target audience that affairs with teachers are ok.

The mystery with Ryan's disappearance makes the book take a turn. Suddenly, there are gaps in Jess's narrative and we don't know what actually happened the night of a party when Jess finds and picks up a gun and fights with Ryan. The interviews with the police are shown in transcription form and the stories Angie, Jess, and Margot tell are weirdly and similarly cagey. They all also don't seem affected at all by Ryan's disappearance when it hits rather close to home. While the mystery was interesting, the story didn't have much tension leading up to the reveal. The twists are laid out rather casually and the ending has a bizarre change from first person narration from Jess's point of view to third person omniscient. It was jarring, unnecessary, and distracted from the story. The reveal makes sense and blew my mind a little bit. It was unexpected and not at all satisfying.

A Line in the Dark shows a toxic lesbian love triangle going to extremes. While I liked the overall story, I felt that more tension could have been built. Classifying it as a thriller makes it seem like there is something missing. Maybe it was purposeful to show something about Jess, but there were quite a few runon sentences that just annoyed me. I read the book over the course of two day. I was enthralled and the pace is quick. However, the move from first to theird person felt super awkward and the reveal made me so angry. I enjoyed most of the book and I appreciate it, but I wouldn't revisit it.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Hereditary (2018)

* spoilers *

Annie Graham is not very sad when her mother dies. They always had a rough relationship and became estranged before she succumbed to dementia and other ailments. At the funeral, a surprising amount of strangers attend along with Annie's daughter Charlie, her son Peter, and her husband Steve. They all go on with their lives while Annie feels unresolved about her chaotic childhood rife with family deaths and mental illness. Then, the family experiences a new tragedy that begins the unraveling of their lives.

Hereditary has some wonderful individual scenes that hit extremely hard. The first hour or so of the film is memorable, uniqely filmed, and well done. It establishes the Graham family and their relationships with each other. Annie is an intense woman who creates miniature art. She dotes over Charlie, her daughter who constantly draws and makes figures out of found objects. Peter, Charlie's older brother, seems have girls and pot on his mind at all times. There is an awkward tension between Annie and Peter that could be normal teenager-parent conflict. Steve is on the periphery, but has positive relationships with everyone. The focus is on Annie as she attends a grief support group and reveals her sordid family history full of mental illness, suicide, and abuse. When she befriends a woman from this group named Joan, she later reveals a horrifying incident where she covered herself, Peter, and Charlie in paint thinner and lit a match while sleepwalking. This incident is the most telling as to why Peter and Annie don't get along.

Then a devastating accident tears their family apart. Charlie is killed due to a chain of events involving allergies, nuts, and a dead animal in the road. This scene blew my mind. We don't really see what happens, but we see Charlie hang out of the car, the approaching telephone pole, and the oppressive silence that follows. The car had been loud with her wheezing, trying to breathe around her swelling throat. After that, the camera focuses only on Peter as he goes through a number of emotions on his face: shock, hope, realization, sadness, and finally a numb calm. He drives home without looking in the back seat, parks as usual, and goes to bed only to lay there awake for hours. This scene had so much emotion. The carnage isn't seen there, but we know something terrible happened. The dread built over the night when he lay there is like a crazy amped up version of dreading your parents are going to find something you did when they wake up. I couldn't believe it was happening. The tension and dread didn't let me look away from the screen.

The aftermath is equally devastating. Annie is inconsolable, screaming and crying for hours. Peter is numb and doesn't seem to say anything or react. They collide during dinner one night when Annie explodes, claiming that Peter didn't take responsibility for his actions and that she hates him and his disdain. This seems to be the first time Charlie's death was discussed as a family, showing that their norm is not to communicate at all until it becomes a fight. A dream sequence also shows her revealing to Peter that she never wanted to be his mother and tried to miscarry him with a repeat of the paint thinner incident. These two scenes in particular show Annie's tendency to lash out and continue the cycle of abuse started by her mother. She also has built up resentment over Peter's very reasonable feelings of fear and distrust towards her. Instead of working through them or being honest in a constructive, nonaggressive way, she opts to hold grudges and leave all of it unsaid. Even with her husband, Annie chooses to keep even her need for support a secret and leaves room for doubt since she has been lying. Her only outlet for emotion is her miniature art where she constructs scenes from her life. Steve proves to be the most decent character of the film who offers emotional support without judgment or anger.

Unfortunately, I feel that the film falls apart after this. The seance scenes completely obliterate any tension or emotion that was built up. What follows is typical cult tropes that are scene in films from Rosemary's Baby to The Omen. Some of the horror elements are well done, but felt silly and compelely disconnected after the bombshell of Charlie's death. All of the truly shocking events were part of the family drama and not part of the supernatural aspects at all. While I enjoyed how all events were connected and essentially predestined, it also made the movie much more predictable, along with the tropes, so very few scenes were a surprise. Another thing that bothered me was how simple logistical things seemed to be ignored. Why did the family never have an epipen when Charlie was allergic to nuts? Why was Peter going to school so soon after his sister's death and why weren't people talking about it everywhere? Why wasn't he offered therapy? Why wasn't Annie's mother's whole deal a little more established so the ending made more sense? The last scene was a bit frustrating as well. If you need a whole exposition bomb right at the end of your movie, maybe you're doing something wrong.

Hereditary has some undeniably amazing scenes and masterful direction and acting. I wish the ending of the film would have had the same emotional weight as Charlie's death, but it seemed silly in comparison. The ending had too many typical horror tropes that cheapened it and made it predictable. A reveal about Charlie's character also made it quite ablist, implying that she is odd and/or disabled because of a possession. It left a bad taste in my mouth and yet another example of outdated, ignorant ideas still having a presence in modern day horror. I did enjoy all the performances, particularly Toni Collette as Annie, Alex Wolff as Peter, and Annie Dowd as Joan. Ari Aster has a unique vision as a director, but I found his writing not as impressive.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, June 11, 2018

Waste of Space by Gina Damico

A reality TV production company has the crazy idea to have a reality show in space with a bunch of teenagers. Of course, it's impossible to actual launch teens into space, so they hire NASAW (not NASA) and a special effects company to make the illusion complete. Ideally, the teens and all of America will believe the show is in space. Teens are interviewed, kidnapped, and sent to their "shuttle." In the meantime, others have their own interests in mind that threaten the success of the show and the lives of its stars.

Waste of Space shows the extremes of reality television. The producer and host Chazz Young is rich and connected. He says whatever is on his mind no matter how weird and makes it happen. Even when his ideas are crazy or expensive or hard to accomplish, he simply yells at people until they comply. He captures the demanding and uncaring nature of the stereotypical Hollywood businessman. The teens he chooses for his TV shows are based on stereotypes like the party girl, the overachiever, the hick, the artist, etc. Chazz cares nothing for their wellbeing and only wants to pull their strings to get ratings.

Each episode took a crazy amount of hours and stuffed into around 45 minutes of TV. I loved reading about the boring stuff where they just sat around, too awkward to talk to each other. The episodes are shown in transcripts of the dialogue and actions with indications on the side when the events are being broadcasted. Once things really go crazy, nothing is broadcasted or recorded and their entire setup goes missing. What follows is a zany chase around the desert as some escape, some stay trapped, and Chazz frantically tries to find his multimillion dollar show.

The brunt of the novel seems to show how relegating real people to paper thin stereotypes isn't realistic. The party girl turns out to have a lot more skill and intelligence, opting for that facade to guarantee a spot on the show. The only one who doesn't really break out of that is Louise who thinks they are in space (when everyone else figured out they weren't) and thought for sure her fictional sci-fi crush would come save her. The delusion was too complete and unshakeable. 

Waste of Space has an interesting concept and way of storytelling. The characters stood out and had their own unique interests. It's a pretty fast read and has some real suspense in revealing what's actually happening on the set of this show. My only problem is that a lot of the situations and characters still come off as cartoonish archetypes despite the message to the opposite. This book is a fun read, but not one I would revisit.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, June 8, 2018

Sci-Fi Movie Mini-reviews: Predator (1986) and The Fly (1986)

* Predator (1986)

A group of paramilitary men led by retired US Army Major Dutch go to Central America on a covert rescue mission. When they find skinned bodies strung up in trees and no living person to rescue in the enemy camp, it becomes clear that it was a cover to collect intelligence on the enemy. In the midst of this new conflict, an otherwordly monster starts picking them off one by one and collecting their bodies. Will Dutch be able to save any of his men from it or will their entire party fall victim to its hunt?

I remember watching Predator as a kid and I didn't remember most of the details. This is another film that is so fun to watch with priceless, cheesy lines (especially from Jesse Ventura), logic defying plot twists, and ridiculous scenes of 80's manliness. The beginning of the film shows the group's comraderie and that each person has a quirk that makes them unique. Even though there isn't a huge amount of character development, I grew to care about some characters before they died. Some parts had me laughing out loud like when Dutch and Dillon took off their shirts to build things in the jungle for absolutely no reason or when they had their arm wrestle at the beginning of the film. After they capture a guerilla named Anna, I expected the misogyny to flow, but they treated her pretty well and the men policed each other into treating her decently despite her allegiance. Dutch also convinced her to stop fighting them to be able to fight against the Predator.

The Predator isn't seen for the majority of the film. We get to see the aftermath of its actions, glimpses of it in camoflauge (which hasn't aged very well), and even through its eyes in infrared vision. The Predator is seen in all its glory during the final confrontation with Dutch when its camoflauge is damaged. The character design is amazing, especially the face prosthesis, and its MO is nothing short of deadly. I'm more familiar with the Alien vs. Predator movies and this initial film does a good job of setting up a single Predator as incredibly deadly and one of the universe's best hunters. There are some good horror elements here and I wish they were brought out a little more with the soundtrack and atmosphere. Action movie tropes and themes definitely dominate this sci-fi/horror feature. Predator is a fun film, but not as high on my list of 80's films.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

* The Fly (1986)

Seth Brundle, an eccentric scientist, and Veronica Quaife, a reporter, meet at a party and hit it off right away. At his apartment, he shows off his pet project, telepods that will eventually make human teleportation possible. Veronica jumps at the chance to report on such a promising project, but Seth wants to keep it secret, trading her momentary silence for exclusive coverage in the future. The project progresses from teleporting objects to baboons and he finally transports himself. Something goes wrong and his body starts to change.

The Fly is the iconic film that brought body horror to the mainstream with commercial success. The characters are sympathetic and their relationship is believable (probably due to the actors being in a relationship as well). Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, an awkward yet endearing man who is also a brilliant scientist. Veronica is much more direct and ambitious, hungry for ways to move up in her field. I love that she didn't let their attraction distract her from her job and stayed focused on her goal. They are the sweetest couple together which makes it all the more heartbreaking and emotional when things fall apart.

At first, Seth thinks the teleportation somehow improved him with increased strength and virility. He doesn't want to see gross changes like thick hair on his back and his intense cravings for sugar. The various stages of his transformation are an amazing example of special effects from prosthetics to puppetry. I appreciate how accurate the fly behavior is as well. Flies vomit digestive fluid onto their food and so does Seth as he transforms. The ending is a tragedy on all sides and no one comes out unscathed. The Fly is a solid remake that improves on every aspect of the original and updates it. Of course it looks dated now, but the story and characters are still relatable and well written.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Arsonist by Stephanie Oakes

Molly Mavity has a hard life for a teenage girl. Her father is about to be executed for burning people to death, her mother died a few years ago, and everyone at her high school hates her. Pepper Yusef is doing a bit better than her, but he's just found out that he won't be graduating high school. His last chance is to write extensive papers in all his failing subjects to graduate. He also has a seizure disorder, a useless service animal for said disorder, and major reputation problems centering around his crush Petra. When Molly crashes into his life and insists he has answers, Pepper thinks she's crazy, but she draws him into an international mystery that involves Ava Dreyman, the Anne Frank of the Cold War.

The Arsonist is a twisty, light hearted mystery told through three perspectives: Molly, Pepper, and Ava. Molly is convinced that her mother, who killed herself ago, isn't dead and is sending her clandestine messages. These messages lead her directly to Pepper, who doesn't conciously know anything about her situation at all. Pepper is kind of stumbling through life. His crush pretty much used him to get into a prestigious school through an embarassing interview that exploited his background as an immigrant from Kuwait and his dream to become the president of the United States. Molly and Pepper are both on their way to being alone and alienating everyone around them until they join forces and work together. Ava's narrative is her diar published in book form, detailing her experience from her mother and her friends murdering GDR officials and police to her death as a young adult.

This book deals with a lot of dark subjects such as murder, oppression, and death. However, it always has this quirky, comedic tone that makes everything have a lighthearted feel. I think things like living in the GDR under threat of death for being revolutionaries and Molly's dad killing numerous people in a fire should be looked at a little more seriously. There are also a number of bizarre incidences that seem a bit out of place and weird like Molly drinking 30 small milk containers and peeing herself in class when the teacher wouldn't let her go to the bathroom or when Papper takes ipecac to avoid graduation and then acts like he's fine later. Some of this could be edited out to make a more streamlined book. The actual mystery is pretty convoluted in and of itself, so this stuff feels like time wasted.

The Arsonist is a bit of a mixed bag. I really liked the journey, but I wouldn't reread this book. I really liked that everything is somehow connected in the novel. Even through every bizarre development, the plot is moving towards revelations and unconvering a mystery. It's practically impossible to guess what it is, but the journey is fun nonetheless. I did want to know if Pepper actually passed high school with his essays as they were written in the book. Even though it takes a very healthy dose of suspended disbelief, the story is a fun, weird mystery that takes our odd heroes out of their comfort zones.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Annihilation (2018)

Lena is a cellular biologist and a former US Army soldier who teaches at a university. Her husband Kane, a current Army Special Forces soldier, has been on a mission for years and comes back injured and the only survivor of his team. He had gone into the "Shimmer," an expanding anomaly in an evacuated location. After being debriefed, Lena decides to volunteer to be in the next group investigate its mysteries.

Annihilation is a mind bending sci-fi/horror film told in a disjointed way. The narrative intersperses flashbacks to fill in character background and motivation. The most intriguing thing about the film is the Shimmer itself and how it changes the world inside it. The changes are both beautiful, eerie, and dangerous. At first, all they notice is how flowers are bursting from everywhere in all configurations and mutations even though they shouldn't be blooming together in that season. The animals are mostly nightmare fuel. The first animal seen is a deer with flowers blooming from its antlers. A bit eerie, but beautiful and not dangerous. The next one is a crocodile fused with a shark, combining the most frightening things about both animals. Nothing compares to the half zombie bear that mimics human screams. The horror elements of this film are pitch perfect. I felt frozen in my seat as the bear walked around the house with the women hiding in it.

The female cast is not well treated by the film. They are all supposedly there because they have essentially given up on life and I didn't really feel that at all. Josie is revealed to self harm, but that doesn't necessarily translate to being suicidal. All of these women have experienced awful things, but are shown to just give up in the face of it instead of showing the exploration as a sign of strength. The audience really didn't get a chance to get to know them much. This group of women is also only exploring because all other qualified groups have died and that isn't a great implication either. The human transformations near the end of the film were too fast and stretched believability

The main concept of the film is amazing and well done, but I felt that it fell apart in the end. I like the concept of an alien that harms us without even meaning to. There's no malice or or plan to take over Earth. It didn't even seem to realize its effect on the beings here. The Shimmer itself acts like a prism and mixes animal, plant, and human works in concept as well as in practice and visuals. The lone alien shown at the end of the film is interesting, but not as well done as the other creatures. The sound design in that scene also practically massacred by ears. It's a high pitched whine that's hard to escape in a movie theater with such a loud sound system. I get what they were trying to do, but it's not necessary to hurt your audience.

Annihilation is a very different science fiction film that shows an alien force changing and melding animals, plants, and humans. The concepts and products of this are intensely interesting, but I felt the characters were pretty awfully treated in the film for what I saw they were. The horror elements are on point, especially when the fate of Kane's team is shown and the nightmarish animal amalgamations. I am definitely interested in reading the book to compare the differences and I would see another of these films if the next book is made into a film.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins