Sunday, 2 November 2014

Book Report: Devious

This is the first Lisa Jackson book I've read, and it will likely be my last. In short, I hated it. At least twice I considered leaving it unfinished. Why did I continue to read a book I couldn't stand? I don't know. I think part of me hoped it might improve while another, more masochistic part, was curious to see how much worse it could get.

I both was and wasn't disappointed--Devious was so much worse than I imagined. Also, and this is the kicker, I traded a book I really liked for this stinker.

Valerie Renard is a former police detective living in New Orleans. On the eve of her divorce, her sister is murdered. The following morning, her soon-to-be ex-husband arrives at her door. These two events are unrelated. Slade is not a suspect in Camille's murder, but his presence is a blessing and curse for Val who's determined to find her sister's killer and divorce her husband.

Camille's murder, it turns out, is the first in a series of killings made all the more sensational by the fact that most of the victims are nuns. As Valerie digs deeper into Camille's life, she comes to learn new and interesting things about her sister. And about Slade. No longer so certain about the path she's chosen, Val's life becomes even more complicated when the killer targets her.

The book's cover identifies Devious as being "a Rick Bentz/Reuben Montoya novel." Jackson has written a series of novels about the pair, two homicide detectives with the NOPD. Past adventures are referred to heavily in the text, and not as a nod to die-hard fans of the series, but with the self-conscious attitude of promotion. One problem, though: Bentz and Montoya are background players in this story. They do a minimal amount of detectiving while other characters take up most of the story.

What little police work does take place seems sloppy and half-hearted. It's hard to say whether this is because Devious is really Val's story or because Jackson isn't very good at writing procedural. I'm inclined to go with the latter because despite Val being a former police detective herself, she's not very good at solving mysteries.

But then, Jackson's not very good at writing them. Take for instance Camille's cell phone. The phone is mailed to the police and then disappears from the story. A second phone turns up in Val's house and it, too, leaves the narrative once it's collected by the cops. Was it the same phone? Did Jackson loose track of evidence? The answers don't matter because, in the end, the phone doesn't matter. It's a meaningless plot point. Then there's the curious signature left by the killer, a pattern of blood drops on the victims' clothes. What does it mean? We never find out. And what about the disappearing wedding dresses? Or the possibility of a copycat emulating the ritual of a killer last seen ten years ago?

And there's Detective Montoya who singles out one suspect, to the exclusion of all others, without any solid evidence. His tunnel vision prevents both him and his partner from investigating all possible angles.

Jackson introduces too many plot points, following up on too few. Some revelations come much too late in the story to be properly developed, while others have no pay-off. Why bother harping on Sister Lucia's ESP if it serves no purpose other than to traumatize the poor woman? And what's the point of a coded message in a secret diary if we're not being led down a new path of inquiry and intrigue that will ultimately lead to the killer?

Devious has all the makings of a scandalous and sensational murder mystery/thriller but Jackson has no idea how to fit the pieces together into a well-paced and satisfying story. The book begins with the murder of a nun and then stops dead as people faff about and the author repeats herself in character descriptions and backstories. A badly handled misdirection results in near-total confusion at the end when the killer is revealed.

The book holds no suspense. The killer's identity is a complete surprise--there is perhaps one clue that suggests who the killer might be but this is only mentioned in passing and is then dismissed. Characters continually get in each other's way, preventing the story from moving forward, and the author holds back important information that turns out to have tremendous consequences for everyone.

I can't remember a book I've read in recent years that had as many problems, was as badly written, and was as dissatisfying as Devious. Perhaps the only good thing that I can take away from it is a lowered standard for publishing which I feel confident I can surpass when I finally get around to finishing my own masterwork of literary fiction.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Canada After Dark 2014

In addition to feature films, Toronto After Dark showcases short films from all over. Preceding each feature is a Canadian short, selected for its thematic similarities (the festival includes Shorts After Dark, a screening of international short films). Admittedly, I don't always go out of my way to see shorts so I'm always pleased with the opportunity TAD provides for interested but lazy filmgoer to catch some short genre films.

This year's crop of shorts ran the gamut from brilliant to not-really-my-taste. Because I had to miss out on a handful of features I also missed a few of the short films as well. But anyway.

Foxed (played with Housebound)

I loved it! A young girl has been kidnapped by foxes and forced to work in a mine. She escapes and discovers, to her horror, that a fox has replaced her at home. Foxed is four wonderful minutes of claymation and reminded me of a song on a Cabbage Patch Kids cassette tape I had as a kid.

Young Blood (played with Suburban Gothic)

A boy is forced to spend a few hours with his deadbeat uncle on is birthday. During his visit, thugs break into his uncle's apartment and the kid witnesses the violence that takes place. This one didn't really speak to me. It's a bit slow to start, but the kid grows up fast when the thugs turn up.

Lumberjacked (played with ABCs of Death 2)

An animated music video with a story to tell. A lumberjack living happily in the woods, at one with nature, watches in horror as his beautiful forest transforms into an urban wasteland. Really liked this one. Watch it here.

Day 40 (played with Zombeavers)

Another one that wasn't really me. In this animated short, we're privy to the terrible things that went down on Noah's ark once it became clear to the animals they were in for a long ride. I did appreciate the end, which I won't spoil.

Period Piece (played with Dead Snow 2)

I'm torn on this one. I liked it, although I wasn't surprised by the turn it takes toward the end. A film crew is madly racing to finish shooting their movie before it gets dark. There's some disagreement about how it should end but after a brief skirmish the director is encouraged to shoot the ending she wants because it's "what the world needs." Why? Check out the preview. The filmmakers are hoping to turn it into a feature.

Rose in Bloom (played with Wolves)

Told by her mom to play outside, Rose peeks in on her sister and father in the garage then hides in the van, hoping to surprise them. Instead, she's the one in for a surprise when she finds out where they're going. Also, it's her birthday. While I can appreciate the story here, I couldn't tell if the film's awkwardness was intentional.

Dead Hearts (played with Late Phases)

This was delightful. So good! A kind of love story between a boy and a girl. Quirky in a Wes Anderson sort of way. Funny and heartfelt. Also, zombies.

The Monitor (played with Open Windows)

Based on a weird story about a hacked baby monitor, a woman is woken up by a phone call from a man claiming to be the nursery. It reminded me, in a good way, of a similar short film by Fewdio, which I also really liked.

Migration (played with Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter)

This was absolutely wonderful, if maybe a touch sad. But sad in a good way. A creature drops to earth and journeys across the country, where it finds other creatures like it falling from the sky. The whole thing looks like it was shot on 8mm and the creature animation is brilliant.

Lazy Boyz (played with Wyrmwood)

True story; I have a script I was going to produce about a killer couch. And now I can't because someone beat me to it. Lazy Boyz is about two hosers who bring home a couch that eats people. It's hilarious.

Satan's Dolls (played with The Town that Dreaded Sundown)

This was great. A sleazy, seventies-era nun movie about a criminal who escapes the cops by hiding in a convent. Lots of over-the-top drama and intrigue with just the right balance of seriousness and humour.

Intruders (played with The Babadook)

Watching this I thought it was too disconnected, like the two stories being told had nothing to do with one another. Turns out, the short was inspired by two different indie comics. The film's well made and looks great and all, but there's no reason the two storylines should occupy the same space. One is about a boy who lives alone in a house with the desiccated corpse of his caregiver. The other, which I really enjoyed is only a couple minutes long and is about a guy who spies on his neighbours and sees something awful.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Babadook

The Babadook has been making waves all over the place. So much so, that I feel the film has become a victim of over-hype. That's not to say The Babadook isn't any any good, but the glowing press creates expectations that can't ever be met. I even heard it said this was a top-notch possession film, which it isn't. A possession film, I mean. The Babadook is a psychological musing on grief.

Nearly seven years have passed since her husband's death, but time holds little meaning for Amelia. She lives day-to-day, nursing the raw, open wound left by Oskar's unexpected and violent passing. Her young son, Sam, reminds her too much of Oskar and Amelia has a difficult time loving her child. Into this unhappy home enters Mr. Babadook, a shadowy monster brought to life in a pop-up book. Sam insists the Babadook is real, which only angers Amelia, but even she can't explain or deny the strange voice she hears or the dread she feels at night.

The film is set mostly within the suffocating space of Amelia's house. As Sam is taken out of school, and Amelia looses her job, the movie turns inward cutting itself off from the rest of the world to focus on Sam and Amelia's growing psychosis. Journeys outside the home end badly for everyone and so the film takes on an enclosed feeling as Amelia becomes more withdrawn, shutting herself and her son inside their home.

The Babadook is a slow burn and, like Poltergeist, endings don't come easy. As a manifestation of her grief, the Babadook has power of Amelia, and she will be haunted by her husband's ghost until she can find it within herself to move on. More to the point, Amelia's tragic inability to let go is having a negative effect on Sam. If she can't get it together soon, she risks losing her son. But Amelia revels in her grief, identifies herself through her suffering, and letting go is scary for her. Scary like the Babadook.

The Babadook is more atmospheric than it is outright terrifying, although the film does reward the audience with a few glimpses of the monster. Most of the runtime is held over for exploring Amelia's and Sam's fractured psyches. Visual cues remind us of the ever-present threat of Mr. Babadook, while the look and feel of Amelia's home pays homage to the German Expressionism cinema of the early 20th century. There's no intensified continuity here, no fast-paced editing or shakycam. The Babadook trades on stable camerawork, some clever effects, and a brooding pace that leaves time to think and worry about what will happen next.

The film's warm reception and glowing reviews earned it a special place on the Toronto After Dark programme: the closing gala. Having sold out in record time, the festival added a second late-night screening to accommodate disappointed horror fans. Most sold-out shows have one or two empty seats, but The Babadook played to a full house, which included the grandparents of Noah Wiseman, the boy who plays Sam. I hope they're proud of him.

The Babadook's praise is well-deserved but audience members should be cautioned against falling victim to the hype. I hesitate to suggest part of that hype has to do with The Babadook being helmed by a first-time female director, but the fact of the matter is there are few women out there making horror movies and so we tend to give special attention to those who are.

All caveats aside, Jennifer Kent has delivered a wonderfully crafted psychological horror movie full of atmosphere and suspense. If you're growing tired of jump scares and torture porn, have a look at The Babadook.

Friday, 24 October 2014


Remember when zombie movies were about something, something other than running away from zombies? Or, if they didn't lay on the social commentary, the movies at least tried to do something fun or interesting with their story? Seriously, think about it. Carriers was well done but formulaic. 28 Days Later was all window dressing. But Shawn of the Dead? That was a mildly critical of modern society while also being a slacker comedy. And Zombieland had characters you cared about who had places to go and things to do.

In the better zompocalypse movies, the zombies situation gets the plot rolling, but it's the characters and their stories that keep it going. And I mean proper characters, not the stock players and stereotypes that populate a lot of horror movies, but real people you can sympathize with. Wyrmwood, as crazy and ridiculous as it is, is full of people you like and feel sorry for.

One night, apropos of nothing and with no warning, the sky is full of shooting stars. The following morning, for no apparent reason some people have turned into zombies. Benny's out pig hunting with his brothers when it happens. Barry is at home with is wife and daughter, and his sister Brooke is working in her studio. When the zombies happen, each one is caught up in a different situation; Benny and Barry intersect and together they set off to find Brooke.

Wyrmwood is advertised a cross between Mad Max and Dawn of the Dead, which I think is more telling of the film's atmosphere than its plot. In short, it's high energy craziness. Thankfully, the movie doesn't waste any time on inter-personal drama. In fact, everyone's pretty likeable and complete strangers easily band together to deal with the situation. It's rather refreshing to watch a zombie movie that doesn't feel the need to cram in a lot of conflict within and between survivors, and Wyrmwood understands that cutting down on needless human drama leaves room for more important things like zombie-proofing your ride and performing weird experiments on people.

Even though Wyrmwood features a kind of action/adventure plot, the film does leave time for musings about how and why the zombies happen. As the title suggests, the movie takes its end-of-days scenario literally, drawing inspiration from the Book of Revelations. Again, its a nice change from the constant onslaught of viral- or radioactive-led zombie plot. Moreover, Wyrmwood's writers have thought this thing through, giving reason to why some people survive and others don't. Most impressive of all is the attention to detail given to the zombies themselves, to how they operate and what it means for the survivors.

Wyrmwood is not without its problems. A great deal of this movie appears to have been shot in close-up which creates a certain amount of disorientation. Adding to this is the constant racking focus which, under normal circumstances would focus viewer attention, but in this case only serves to create too much chaos in an already chaotic space. The film's zany enough without the need for additional “creative” camerawork.

The film ends at an odd point in the story, one might even call it a turning point. Friends of mine took it to mean the movie didn't actually have an ending. I think the opposite. I think after witnessing everything that happens, you know where the story's headed and don't need to see it. Ending with the big, expected confrontation would be too much, too Hollywood for an indie Aussie zombie movie. Rather, the film ends on the build-up to that moment and it feels more personal, more invested in the characters.

I hesitate to call Wyrmwood a mad-cap thrill ride through the zompocalypse, but it does present us with some fun, new ideas about the zombie uprising.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Open Windows

I have a fondness for cyber thrillers. 1990s cyber thrillers in particular. Back then, connectivity and the Internet were still fresh and new, ready to be explored and exploited. A new frontier, as it were. We imagined the web as a kind of megalopolis, a giant city that lived inside a network of computers and phone lines. It's not a bad analogy and it allowed for some interesting and creative visuals.

Twenty years later, the Internetropolis seems dated and quaint. Our ideas about the Internet haven't changed any, but how the Internet is represented in film has. This is due in part to the fact that everyone knows about it, knows what it is and how it works. No sense wasting valuable story time on a lesson in network connections. Instead, contemporary cyber thrillers use that time to mine our fears about surveillance and privacy.

Open Windows brings a new dimension to the paranoia that permeates most contemporary cyber thrillers: control. Nick is a normal, nice guy who's just a touch obsessive about Jill Goddard, a popular actress. Nick manages a Jill fan site where he posts pictures and articles about his favourite star. After winning a contest, Nick flies to Austin where he'll have dinner with Jill. While he settles into his hotel room, he's contacted by someone from Jill's entourage telling him the dinner's been cancelled. Nick's understandably upset about it, and his disappointment makes him easy to manipulate. First he's guided to surreptitiously film Jill and things progress from there.

Voyeurism has always been an important aspect of any good cyber thriller, and Open Windows takes the idea of constant surveillance to another, creepier level. By hacking her devices, Chord is able to activate the cameras on Jill's phone and computer, thereby allowing Nick to always see her. But this potential benefit for Nick is just another way for Chord to leverage his control. Nick can watch Jill, but Chord is watching them both.

Open Windows wouldn't be a true Nacho Vigolando movie if it didn't toe the line between contemporary thriller and scifi, and for some members of the audience this is where the film falls apart. Chord's almost super-powered hacker ability is made possible by next-gen equipment. He's also in possession of special video cameras that can be networked to visualize their environment. For a movie that gently pushes the limits of believability, the introduction of science fiction-y elements late in the story can cause some viewers to disconnect from the movie. And that can be a bit of a problem for a film that's all about being connected.

In Open Windows that connectedness is displayed visually through the open windows on Nick's computer. The entire story is told through the different points-of-view displayed on his screen: Jill's cell phone, Nick's own webcam, CCTV feeds, ect. The movie cycles through these different windows as the story unfolds, sometimes getting two or three generations removed from the action. It's no wonder the film took a year to edit so that it all seamlessly fits together.

With its themes of voyeurism, control, and connectedness all relayed through a first-person POV, Open Windows is a cyber thriller for the 21st century. In the 90s, Hackers told us to “hack the world,” and it would appear that Open Windows has done just that.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014


I'm generally not one for werewolf movies. I think it has something to do with the monster being human some of the time. I like my monsters monstrous and my humans monstrous without changing into a different creature altogether. Maybe I just find the whole werewolf metaphor a bit too on-the-nose.

There are exceptions of course. An American Werewolf in London, obviously. Gingersnaps. Dogsoldiers. I like these movies because their stories deal with the change and what it represents in interesting ways. David doesn't understand what's happening to him and has trouble dealing with his guilt; Gingersnaps is as much about sexual maturity as it is about subverting conformity; and Dogsoldiers is a cautionary tale about trusting women, I guess.

Wolves, David Hayter explained at the North American premier, is a kind of homage to the monster movies he grew up with. He must mean Teen Wolf because I didn't see a lot of American Werewolf or The Howling in Wolves (I've yet to watch In the Company of Wolves because I'm scared of the box art). And even though he's too old to have grown up reading young adult fiction, Wolves reads more YA than it does straight-up monster movie.

Looking back over his writing career, it's easy to see Hayter's influences for Wolves. X-Men and Watchmen are about special, outstanding individuals, supermen who are different from the rest of us and who sometimes have trouble with human ethics and morality. In Wolves, Cayden first struggles with being a “monster” then find peace and meaning in a new home with people who are just like him.

Star quarterback in a small town, Cayden's got everything going for him until a make-out session with his girlfriend triggers his first transformation and he turns violent. Further violence that same night prompts him to run away from home and he drifts aimlessly, not sure about himself of what he's doing. He tries to use his powers for good, but he can't control them. A chance encounter with another werewolf leads him to Lupine Ridge where he hopes to find answers. There, he finds standoffish townsfolk and more trouble, until a farmer takes him in.

Cayden's peaceful sojourn on the Tollerman farm is short-lived. Not long after his arrival he's tempted again to transform and although the experience is a positive one, it results to him learning more about his past and where he fits in with the rest of the wolves of Lupine Ridge. Cayden is even more special and important than he ever imagined and he believes he's the only one who can bring a lasting peace to the wolves of Lupine Ridge.

Wolves (much like Chronicle) is cinematic YA, which is just a way of saying the movie is best enjoyed and understood as a mature teen melodrama. Granted, there are only two young people in the movie, but that only serves to highlight Cayden's struggles; Cayden is fighting against a power greater than himself, meaning the wolfpack that lives in the hills and his own lycanthropy.

Speaking to the After Dark audience, Hayter talked about how, as a writer-director, no one other than himself is making changes to his script. One the one hand, I can understand how great that must feel, to be able to see your script made the way you imagined. On the other hand, this kind of auteurship can blind you to the problems in your story. And Wolves is not without its problems.

A big exposition dump late in the movie reveals story developments that should have been teased out over the course of the film. Nothing is gained by holding back this information from the characters. In fact, had Cayden known Connor's side of things, it would have added more depth to their relationship. Moreover, a great deal of the film's backstory involves Cayden's grandfather, who isn't present in the movie. He, in addition to Connor, seems to be the root cause of all the conflict in the story but he's not around to sway opinions one way or another. Rather, someone else in the present has gone to great lengths to manipulate Cayden but this character is so marginalized that when he makes his motivations known, it just feels tacked-on.

Everything else about the movie is well done and Hayter made of point of having his werewolves look and fight like human animals. “I wasn't going to put a snout on an actor,” he said, preferring instead a creature design that allowed his actors to emote through the makeup. Jason Momoa does such a fabulous job being powerful and overbearing in human form, the werewolf seems almost unnecessary, which is the point, but everyone else does a good job balancing their human-shaped civility with their werewolf-shaped brutality.

As a YA genre tale, Wolves checks all the boxes and will certainly delight young horror fans. Whether the film will resonate with the old school monster crowd remains to be seen. The film opens in the US and Canada on November 14.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Dead Snow 2

This movie made me want to watch Frankenstein's Army again. And I'm not just saying that because of the Nazi zombies. I freaking love Frankenstein's Army and any film that positively reflects all inventiveness and fun of FA deserves high praise indeed.

Picking up shortly (one might say immediately) after the events of Dead Snow, Martin finds himself a hunted man. He's wanted by the police for the murders of everyone who died in the first movie as well as a few other people who get offed at the start of the sequel. He's also wanted by the Zombie Squad, a trio of nerds from the US who've taken an interest in his case. The only folks who're fine with just letting him go are the zombies, but that's because they have more important business to take care of.

When the Zombie Squad arrives in Norway and hooks up with Martin, they set about trying to defeat the platoon of Nazi zombies that are marching across the country. In order to do so, they quickly realize they need an army of their own, and through some clever borrowing from other genres, Martin and his new friends reinvent the zombie movie.

If I was worried Dead Snow 2 would suffer the same weird tonal problems that plagued the first movie, I needn't have. The film never lets up being hilarious while still managing to take itself seriously enough for everyone to connect with the story. The gore is on par with the original, which is to say it's outrageous. I've never seen intestines used in such an interesting and creative way.

A message from the director, Tommy Wirkola, that played before the film warned the audience about the film's potential to offend. Talking with my friends afterwards, we agreed the movie pushed the limits a bit but all the violence was contextually appropriate. You would expect a rampaging hoard of undead Nazis to slaughter everyone in their path unconditionally; you'd be upset if they didn't.

Dead Snow 2 is painted in broad strokes. There's very little subtlety or nuance here but still the film manages to tug at your guts. Witness Martin's pet zombie who's repeatedly maimed—you can't help but feel sorry for him, he's so pathetic. Or Glenn, the poor schmuck who gets pulled into the mayhem. Even though the movie plays with your emotions, waffling between amused and appalled, it stops short of being overly sentimental. It also shies away from too much self-referential humour, with just one good meta-joke.

Dead Snow 2's carnage is nearly unrelenting. The film is wall-to-wall zombies, violence, and gore. And it never gets tired. Unlike other zombie attack/survival movies in which everything grinds to a halt when the zombies show up and the majority of the film is spent defending or running away from zombies, Dead Snow 2 keeps the story going by putting the humans on the offensive. Moreover, its zombies have a purpose which gives the film structure.

Everything comes to a head in the final confrontation, the ultimate zombie throwdown between the Nazis and Martin's army. There's nothing particularly unexpected about how the fight goes, but the scene is filled with inventive kills and some first-class ass-kicking. Not satisfied to just sit back and let the fight play out, the movie briefly cuts away to a zombie triage unit where we get to experience zombie battlefield medicine. This kind of care and attention to detail is present throughout the film and speaks to a genuine love for the genre.

Working in the US studio system takes its toll, and upon returning home to Norway Wirkola was looking to just relax with good zombie flick. As he explained in his address, Dead Snow 2 was meant to be fun. Fun for him and fun for all of us. And it is. So. Much. Fun.