Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Toronto Cons 2017

A map of conventions taking place in Toronto this spring, summer, and fall.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island

When I first saw the trailer for Kong: Skull Island, I joked about how it looked like a cross between a monster movie and Apocalypse Now. Turns out I was right on the money.

Just days after Nixon announces America's withdrawal from Vietnam, a team of researches under military escrot heads to the mysterious Skull Island in the western Pacific Ocean. Shortly after their arrival, the Landsat and Monarch scientists get to work mapping the island's geology. Their efforts raise the attention and ire of Kong, a giant gorilla who makes short work of downing the team's squadron of helicopters. Split into two groups, the survivors are on different paths: the civilians want to get off the island; the soldiers want to kill Kong.

For being a big, dumb monster movie, Kong: Skull Island is surprisingly nuanced. That's not suggest the film is at all subtle about its themes (it isn't) but it successfully captures the politics and ideology of the era. Sure, it overstates things at times--to wit, the animosity between the anti-war photographer and the commander--but the film is as much about the folly of war as it is about giant monsters.

Which brings me to Apocalypse Now and its source material, Heart of Darkness. Instead of a half-crazed army colonel, Skull Island features an obsessive lieutenant colonel, a soldier without a war. Echoes of Conrad's Marlow are found in Lt.-Col. Packard. Packard finds an enemy in Kong and insists his mission is to kill the giant primate. Packard's self-induced obsession is similar to Marlow's mild obsession with finding and meeting Kurtz.

Complicating this reading of Skull Island is the presence of a character named Marlow who's been living on the island for the past thirty years, having been marooned during WWII. This Marlow is a jovial fellow who made friends with the natives and serves as a kind of guide to the newcomers. Although he would make a fine parallel for Kurtz (minus the insanity), he welcomes the opportunity to return home, and is really nothing like his namesake.

There's also a character named Conrad. Just in case you weren't sure about the whole Heart of Darkness thing. And then there's the Japanese poster which makes it absolutely clear we're dealing an Apocalypse Now-with-monsters scenario.

If, like me, you were disappointed with Godzilla's misunderstanding of its own subject matter, you'll be pleased to hear that Skull Island knows exactly why people go to see monster movies. The human drama drives the narrative, but doesn't overshadow the monster. Indeed, Kong takes up a lot of the screen and his fights--and there are many--are easy to watch an appreciate.

Godzilla "fans" will notice a tie-in with that movie, but the real treat comes at the end of the film where, in a post-credits scene, the audience gets a taste of what's to come.

I hesitate to suggest that Skull Island is better than it has any right to be but still it's more fun and entertaining than expected. The film's second trailer, released just days before the premier, is a master class in editing and the film manages to deliver on its promise of thrilling adventure. Skull Island itself is beautiful and terrifying, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' patience with the camera means we get to see and experience all of the island's wonders. Moreover, the movie is violent and gross in a really satisfying way; a true creature feature.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Horror Movies as Memoirs

Horror movies re-titled as inspiring memoirs and self-help books.

A Mother's Love: A tale of grief and justice

Power Compels: Healing through faith

My Life as a Doll

Wishful Thinking: Overcoming Adversity with Hope

Confessions of an Unlikely Prom Queen

Retail Therapy: How to find your peace and place in the world through consumerism

A Long, Dark Night: Making sense of senseless evil

Swimming with Sharks

Sins of Our Fathers: Learning to live with my family's secrets and lies

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The OA

So I'm watching The OA and it occurs to me (more than once) that I've seen something kind of like it before. After I watched the last episode I googled "movies about cults" and I wasn't at all surprised to learn the same two people who created The OA also made The Sound of My Voice in 2011.

The Sound of My Voice--the film that I kept thinking about while watching The OA--is about a woman who claims to be a time traveler, but is really just a con artist. Or is she? In it, Brit Marling plays Maggie, a cult leader who says she's from the future. Two documentarians manage infiltrate Maggie's cult but as they spend more time listening to Maggie, one of them becomes increasingly convinced she's the real deal.

In The OA, Marling is Praire, aka OA, a woman who disappeared seven years ago. Now back with her family, Prairie steals away at night to meet in secret with a small group people to whom she tells the fantastical tale of her captivity. Prairie spins a yarn about medical experimentation with near death experiences and angels, and convinces her listeners that she holds the key to transcending death.

From what I gather, people liked The OA, except for the end and in truth, the series doesn't end well. But I think that's more a factor of the series not being well paced to begin with. The OA's a bit of a slog; it starts slowly, the story isn't developed evenly over all eight episodes and when the end comes, it brings with it more questions than answers. The Sound of My Voice has similar problems, specifically with how it ends. Toward the end of the film, a question is posed to one of the documentarians but we never get to hear the answer. I believe it's because the filmmakers themselves don't know what Maggie does with the kid. Similarly, I'm not sure if Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij know exactly what happened to Prairie when she was held captive.

I'm inclined to believe her whole story was bullshit but maybe that's because I'm familiar with The Sound of My Voice, which her whole story really is bullshit. That doesn't mean the story itself isn't any less compelling, but it does mean the story requires some kind of context or backdrop to make it meaningful for the audience. Were The OA better developed, if Prairie was able to change or enrich the lives of all her acolytes, and not just one or two, despite her having told them lies, then maybe the series finale wouldn't have been such a let down.

Rooted in scifi but bordering on fantasy, The OA leans too heavily on ambiguity in its final moments, undercutting its own premise. Also, I think it kind of forgets about or looses track of some of its story elements. But then again, because Prairie never gets to finish telling her story, the series can get away with loose ends. Personally, I find this kind of sloppy, a lazy writing trick to deal with an unresolved plot. Sure, I could think up my own reasons as to why everyone had to leave their doors wide open, but that's not what I signed on for.

If asked, I'll tell people I liked half the show. Prairie's story, even if it's all made up, is really interesting. It's a good story about one man's obsession with the hereafter. But it's unfinished and that lack of closure is dissatisfying.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Year in Review: 2016

So, 2016 is finally over and just to drive home the point that it wasn't the greatest year ever, most of the movies I watched over the last twelve months were either good but not great or fucking terrible. That having been said, there were some standouts on both ends of the specturm.

Things that make you go hmm: Amanda Knox
Eye-opening documentary about a young woman relentlessly persecuted for a crime she didn't commit.
Things that make you huh: The Phoenix Incident
Irritating mockumentary about four dudes who "went missing" but were really eaten by aliens and no one noticed even though it's all caught on tape.

Much-needed: Train to Busan
The South Koreans inject some new life in the tired zombpocalypse subgenre.
Unnecessary: Cabin Fever
An even worse remake of an already terrible film.

I wanted a magical adventure that's exactly what I got. With Mads Mikkelsen!

Intense: The Green Room
A punk band is under seige by neo Nazis, inside the skinheads' bar! Some of the best, if brief, gore effects.
Pretense: #horror
A terrible anti-bullying movie marketed as a horror film.

Success!: The Belko Experiment
Fun and tense Battle Royale-style free-for-all inside an office building.
Total failure: Suicide Squad
DC once again fails to get its shit together regarding the CU.

About time!: Deadpool
Ryan Renolds spent years trying to get this movie made, and it totally paid off!
Shoulda kept not seeing it: Silent Night, Deadly Night 2
Half new footage, half flash back, all crap.

Assault on Precint 13 meets Prince of Darkness.

Yay: The Wave
Disaster movie done right
Nay: Assassin's Creed
Videogame movie done wrong.

Everybody loves a clown: Clown
The best murderous evil clown movie to come along in a while.
Not be confused with a better British movie: Exeter
Marcus Nispel deals with his daddy issues.

For kids of all ages: The Witches
A Roald Dhal classic brought to life, but not in a creepy CGI kind of way.
For no one of any age: The Boy
A weird kid burns down a motel and it's SO BORING.

Omg wow: Nova Seed
Amazing labour-of-love scifi animated feature.
Omg: The Brain
Terrible bit of Canadiana about a giant brain.

Honourable mentions:
Phantom of the Paradise
I honestly don't know if it's good or bad, but I loved it anyhow.
Future Cops
Police from the future travel to the present for reasons. Began life as a live-action Street Fighter.

Maybe not for everyone, The Lure is something special.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Horror by the Numbers

The summer of 2016 saw a "resurgence" in horror, meaning a handful of studio horror films managed to garner positive reviews from critics. Whenever this happens, the mainstream media reports on mainstream horror like it's surprising or new. The fact of the matter is, horror always makes money (generally speaking), but it is unusual for mainstream horror to perform well both critically and financially.

I took a look at some of the horror releases of 2016 to see if there was anything else worth reporting.

At first glace, we can see that my Y-axes aren't properly formatted. That minor error aside, it's still obvious that horror movies make money. What might surprise some folks is that the smaller-budget films out-perform their more expensive counterparts. And while critics and audiences tend to agree on the films' merit, a movie's budget and box office aren't good indicators of critical reception. Crimson Peak, which cost more money than it earned, wasn't well liked, whereas The Witch completely outdid itself--and had a limited release.

More often than not, a film's budget is not a good indicator of how well it will perform. Crimson Peak, the most expensive film in the sample, did not meet expectations, pulling in $31m--that's a little over half its budget. On the flip side, Unfriended, which was in theatres for the same amount of time, made its budget 32 times over. Having seen both, it is my opinion that Crimson Peak is a better movie than Unfriended, but the latter is more likely to cater to younger audience members, even if most people who saw it don't appear to have liked it very much.

How important are the audience and critical response, and what impact do they have on a film's gross? That's a hard question to answer. As was mentioned above, there appears to be some correlation between reception and box office (better-reviewed films earn more money), but The Gallows, which wasn't well liked by critics or audience members, was still a financial success.

Movies with a longer theatrical run have the potential to rake in a higher gross than films with a short run or a limited release, but The Conjuring 2, The Visit, and Poltergeist, all of which were in theatres for 77 days, performed very differently. The Conjuring 2 earned 2.5 times more than its budget, The Visit a whopping 13 times more, and Poltergeist only made an embarrassing 1.3. Looking at the films' reviews, we see that Poltergeist--which performed the worst of the three--also had the lowest ratings at 31 and 22 from critics and audience members respectively, whereas The Conjuring 2, which didn't have the highest turn-around on its budget, had the highest ratings, scoring in the 80s.

Budget is in millions of dollars, US. Gross is domestic only. Critic and audience ratings are out of 100.
Data collected from The Numbers.

So what does it all mean? Disregarding the fact that we don't know how much of each film's budget is allocated to marketing and promotion, which will influence audience turn out, predicting which movies will and won't succeed is kind of impossible. It Follows came out of nowhere, cost very little to make, and did very well for itself, whereas both The Green Inferno and The Neon Demon were trading on the past successes of their makers (Eli Roth and Nicolas Winding Refn), neither movie appears to have lived up to expectations.

Looking at the top five movies from the summer, two were sequels, one was a sort-of sequel, and two were stand alone films. Sequels and remakes can always be counted on to do relatively well, and The Purge: Election Year, which suffered middling reviews, proves this point. The successes of Don't Breathe and Lights Out suggest that low-concept horror is more likely to appeal to a wider audience. Also of note is the absence of zombie movies, which might mean filmmakers and audiences alike are finally moving on from zombies*.

Horror's mainstream popularity ebbs and flows, and there's no real way to guess when the genre will see an uptick in mainstream media coverage. But when our preferred media outlets do turn their attention to horror, they would do well to dig just a little bit deeper to uncover how weird the genre truly is.

*Train to Busan is a notable exception. Everyone who's seen it loves it, me included.