Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch. Directed by Zack Snyder & Written by Steve Shibuya & Zak Snyder.

Preconceptions: After re-reading my Source Code review, I realized I have been feeling way too much "meh" about the movies I've been watching lately. For weeks I've been reading the polarized opinions regarding Sucker Punch. Well, I say polarizing, but almost everyone has been slagging this flick pretty hard. I figured that no matter what, I'd have a lot to say, either hate-filled ranting or contrarian battling (because if there is one thing I love more than feminism, it's being difficult). Add to that, the fact that I've mostly enjoyed Snyder's previous movies (despite some of them being ill-advised) and I was rather looking forward to Sucker Punch. I gleefully rubbed my hands together and waited to be entertained, one way or another.

General Review: Well, that was a resounding meh. Oh sure, it wasn't very good, but if ever a movie lacked the teeth to be properly controversial, it's Sucker Punch. Here is a flick that died the death of the PG-13 rating . It never had a chance to properly soar or plummet, because it wasn't allowed to get its claws bloody. It isn't the badness that makes it not worth your while, it's the blandness. You may be wondering to yourselves why I'm not railing against a movie that has three (unnecessary) layers, each stripping more dignity away from women than the last. A movie peppered with attempted and off-screen rape and abuse. To understand my feelings on this, I'm now going to share a terrible secret with you: I have a deep abiding fondness for Heavy Metal. I love the magazine, the movies and the concepts. Yes, yes, I know it's exploitative, violent and occasionally even misogynistic, but I guess there is just a part of me that will always be a twelve year old boy. I love chicks with swords, chicks with ray guns and epic fantasy and sci-fi adventures. I love the droolingly lovely art of Simon Bisley and Luis Royo, despite the occasional tastelessness of it.

Sucker Punch had an opportunity to be something of a live action Heavy Metal mag: jaw dropping visuals barely held together by a story and kick ass (but scantily clad) gals killing awesome monsters. And y'know what, exploitative or not that would have been a rad movie that I would have defended tooth and nail. It's weird that putting the chicks in more clothes and scaling back the violence is what made this movie weak, but there you have it. It was milky pale the whole way through, from the villains being evil and sexually abusive almost entirely off camera, to the skimpy but entirely concealing costuming, to the dull, dull, dull fight sequences. Heavy Metal-type fantasy works because it's visceral, it appeals directly to our monkey brains. How can we be expected to be roused to anger, desire or bloodlust with this poor fare? Instead of mucking around in my guts, and taking me out for Amaretto Sours at a strip club, Sucker Punch patted me on the head and fed me a bit of porridge in its underpants (but no sugar, it's too close to bed time).

Alright, I suppose I should tone down the general ranting and give you some of the tedious specifics. We'll st
art with the acting (what there was of it). I can't believe that an entire, multi-million dollar movie could be populated by actors as untalented as these ones seemed to be. Every person in this from Emily Browning right through to Jon Hamm, was wooden, awkward and unconvincing. I'm not sure if they were all having bad acting months, whether they were directed to act stiltedly or whether they were just uncomfortable with all the green screen work, but truly, the entire lot was terrible. There wasn't one actor in this who I'm going to give a pass. Even the Offspring (one of the worst movies I've reviewed) had Pollyanna McIntosh's reasonably good performance. This had no one. Scott Glenn appeared to be doing a rather bad John Carradine impression, Jon Hamm looked like he was reading off of cue cards and Emily Browning seems to have forgotten how to close her lips over her teeth, ala Megan Fox. Yes, my dear, we realize that you're capable of fellatio, even if the movie isn't allowed to mention it.

Now the actors certainly had their work cut out for them given the s
cript. Sucker Punch took place in three layers of reality, like Inception (another great meh of this year), each more pointless than the last. In order to deal with the horrors of her life, our heroine imagines herself...in a whorehouse? At nearly two hours, Sucker Punch is far too long for such a simple, cliche escape story. It even lacked the questionable enjoyment to be found in the classic Red Sonja rape and revenge type of story. The dialogue trails along clumsily, rather reminiscent of porn talk scenes, leading from one fight scene to the next.

Speaking of the fight scenes, I usually like Zack Snyder's stylistic choices (though I'm tired of his slow things down and then suddenly speed things up version of the bullet time effect). They're usually over the top and heavily filtered, but in a way I enjoy. In this, however, I found that nothing was blended very well. Normally, I can suspend my disbelief because everything looks kinda unreal. In Sucker Punch, while everything looked unreal, nothing looked like it matched. The overall look was uninspired. I hear "clockwork zombies" and you've got my attention, but if you then show me guys in coats with Vader masks, you've lost me again (Doctor Who, now that show knew how to deliver a Clockwork Man).
The costuming (as I'm sure you've guessed by now) was just as nondescript. We had pigtailed school girls, pseudo-armor and WWI chic, yawn. And oh the fighting in short, slitted skirts...while Ripley proved to us that a hero can be tough while fighting in her underoos, nobody can keep up even a facade of dignity when we're slow panning over their be-pantied crotch. That was a lot more Streetfighter than it was Alien.

Even picking Sucker Punch apart isn't fun. It wasn't even bad enough to properly raise my hackles. Honestly, what bothers me most is that a whole range of people seem to think that this is somehow worse than a typical lame action movie. It really, really isn't. Baby Doll and Sweet Pea simply aren't a whole lot worse than Selene (Underworld) or Alice (Resident Evil). I'm not exactly certain when our tough action chicks turned into such blandly sexy, cliche, milk sops, but there are a lot of them to go around right now. Yeah, Sucker Punch was bad, I guess, but it wasn't unusually bad or a particular affront to my lady sensibilities. I'll tell you what, though, it sure was an affront to my 12 year old boy sensibilities - it wasn't hot or violent enough by half.

Aside: Since I feel my feminist cred could rightly be put into question by my scandalous admissions, have a look at this to distract you: Strong Female Characters.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Girl on...Movie? Action: Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian (2011)
Director: Marcus Nispel
Writers: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood; based on the character Conan created by Robert E. Howard 

My Thoughts:

First things first - let me assure you that my thoughts about this movie are not at all influenced by the fact that I think Jason Momoa is a delicious piece of man-candy.  While he was the reason I desperately wanted to see Conan, I was expecting to see Clash of the Titans 2: Now with More Sexy (for some thoughts on Clash of the Titans click here and be whisked away to Wren's review).  Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Conan the Barbarian was actually quite...charming.  I also have a confession to make, my dear daffodils, I, Doomwench, purveyor of good taste in all types of fiction, absolutely love silly, over-the-top action movies.  You should know, as well, that I attempted to watch the original Conan and I didn't even make it through the first 20 minutes due to extreme boredom.  I haven't read the novels either, nor the comics, clearly I'm not a Conan buff, or some kind of purist, so take this review for what it's worth: the thoughts of a fantasy fan, but not a Conan fan.

Here's a short anecdote about my movie experience.  Matt (yes, our dear friend RobotMatt) came to visit so we could see this flick together, but we hate 3D movies.  This meant we had to go see it at the old theater.  We were sitting there, waiting for our matinee to start and I looked around at the 4 other people sitting around us.  They were all, well, old people and I don't mean this in the funny "ha-ha you 30 year olds are so old" way, I mean actual senior citizens old.  For a moment I worried that we were sitting in the wrong theater, but, it turns out - they were all there to see Conan and none of them walked out after 20 minutes.  We concluded that old people must also enjoy violence.  Who knew?

Right, cute little stories aside, let's talk about the flick (for variety's sake I keep wanting to say "film," but that just feels wrong in this case).

In order to postpone fan-girl gushing about hot barbarians I'll tell you about some of the rest of the cast.  Ron Pearlman was epic.  He amazed from the opening scene where he cuts baby Conan from his mother's womb in the midst of a battle, to his intense and beard-y raising of his warrior son and into fiery molten metal death (although this did give me a Game of Thrones flashback).  Also, young Conan looked like he could grow up to be adult Conan, which was a nice touch (sometimes, child heroes look nothing like their adult counterparts in movies).  And Rose McGowan did a good job as the evil sorceress (some of you will be happy to note that there is a hint of incest!).  I really liked her spiky finger ring things.  I also quite enjoyed Conan's pirate friend and I wish that we would have spent a tiny bit more time in the City of Thieves with the guy whose name I'm not even going to attempt to spell.  Tamara, the female lead, last of the pure bloods and thus target of Khalar Zim's (main evil dude) nefarious plans, held her own, too.  It was nice to see that while she was a damsel in distress she killed her share of bad guys along the way.  While she might have screamed for Conan a bunch of times, he really only came in to finish cleaning up the enemies after she'd stabbed them with her dagger.

The only scene that really didn't fit for me was the sex scene.  It was...boring.  How sex with a barbarian in a cave can be boring I don't quite know, but that's what it was.  Fortunately, it was short so I didn't nod off or anything.

Since I highlighted a lackluster bit, I feel it's only right that I talk about something that totally worked for me, but it's hard to pick just one portion.  In the interest of not spoiling a big, dumb action movie for you I'll talk about something close to the beginning.  Conan lets himself get arrested to he can track down one of the men who helped kill his father - he recognizes the guy because young Conan cut off his nose - this entire sequence was amazing, but what I liked most is when our beloved barbarian sticks a finger inside this dude's face where his nose should be.  It. Was. Great.

And now for the unavoidable.  I can't put it off any longer.  I have to tell you about Jason Momoa as Conan.  He moved through every scene in this movie with swagger, with a warrior's grace, even.  Seriously, the role of Conan fit him like a well-crafted glove.  And, he was pretty funny (well, the script made him funny, anyway).  Somehow, he pulled off doing things that in a different movie with a different actor might have made me grit my teeth in the beginnings of feminist rage.  Stuffing a strip of cloth in Tamara's mouth and telling her to be quiet didn't make me want to smack him, because I fully believed that he'd have done the same to a garrulous male prisoner (no, this has nothing to do with my rather juvenile crush, though I sure do miss being a grown up).  My only quibble is that he spent way too much time holding his sword straight up in the air and I kept waiting for him to yell "by the power of Greyskull." Anyway, he needs to be Conan always.

Is there anything else you need to know?  I'm not sure how 3D would have added anything to this movie, but I don't see the appeal of 3D in any flick.  The effects were pretty standard.  I liked the costumes - especially Conan's kilt (to be honest, I did lament the lack of a beard, but the battle skirt made up for it, mostly).  What made the whole thing work for me was the funny script, the violence and the charisma of Momoa as Conan.  Contrary to the reviews I've seen, I had a good time watching this and I really don't know what everyone is complaining about.  It's not high art or ground breaking, but it was everything I wanted it to be (boring sex scene aside).  I walked out of the theater happy, because I'd seen an entertaining action flick.  Is there anything better in life?  Well, if you believe Conan there is: "I live, I love, I slay and I am content" (that's a great pick-up line if you ask me).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Source Code

Source Code. Directed by Duncan Jones & Written by Ben Ripley.

Preconceptions: I loved Jones' last movie. Moon was easily the best Sci-Fi (or Sy-fy, if you will-I know I won't) flick I'd seen last year. It actually remains at the top of the heap for this year as well and I've been anxiously anticipating the sequel. I didn't know much about Source Code, but I was pleased to hear Jones had done another film (though he hadn't written this one).

General Review: Overall, I was surprised by how ambivalent I was towards Source Code (and irritated because "meh" makes for a fairly lame review). Oh it was competent, certainly, and the bulk of my complaints are minor. But even though it isn't entirely fair to judge this by the merits of Moon (its older brother), I couldn't help but make comparisons. Moon made a strong impact on me, whereas Source Code simply didn't. Moon was interesting both as Sci-Fi and as character based drama, sure there was some of that in Source Code but not enough to fill its run time.

Before I go further, a plot summary: Jake Gyllenhaal plays Coulter Stevens, an Army pilot. He is part of an experiment that allows him to live the same 8 minutes of someone else's life over and over again. He can't change anything that actually happens in the past, just relive it. Vera Farmiga (as Goodwin) is the military scientist running the test with Jeffery Wright (Dr. Rudledge) supervising.

Despite my tepid reaction to Source Code there were two shining lights of success (do success lights shine? What the hell is a success light anyways?). The first was the fact that the main character picks up what is happening to him quickly. We don't spend hal
f the movie explaining concepts that are going to be understood early on by the audience. I like a movie that assumes I can keep up and that I know the Sci-Fi basics. Not being talked down to was a pleasant surprise. Secondly, it managed to keep my interest sharp even though we spent most of the movie reliving the same 8 minutes. Most movies that try this, no matter how skillfully they execute it, leave me feeling irritated and bored. The flashbacks were distinct enough from each other that my focus didn't wander. The visual and dialogue shorthand that reminded me that we were in the 8 minute period was varied and quick. I haven't been this won over by this sort of story telling since Run Lola Run.

The acting, like so much else in Source Code was adequate overall. Gyllenhaal and Farmiga were alright. They played the roles that were in front of them without dragging them down, but also without any real spark. I felt that Farmiga could have been tougher. We were meant to believe that she and Gyllenhaal shared a Brotherhood of Soldiers type connection. This was the reason for her going against orders and helping him when she could. Instead, it came off as a more motherly/sisterly desire to nurture. So, we ended up with one more example of a chick ruining her career because of her emotions, though to give Source Code credit, it wasn't due to romantic feelings. Oh, speaking of the love interest: zzzzz. There sure was one, I guess. Wright's portrayal of a callous, but genius scientist was one of the weaker performances. Again, not exactly bad, but unlayered and shallow.

The writing and the directing were both okay with dashes of excellent. Again, it was the pacing and the cleverness of the two that kept the movie from becoming stale. Shooting the same thing over and over again but keeping it fresh isn't easy and it's a credit to Jones and Ripley that they were successful in this. But their talents seemed wasted on such a bland final product. The action was bloodless and the resolution (which I won't give away, but prepare to be Battlestar Galactica'd) was pat.

Don't mistake me, Source Code isn't Priest. You won't regret that you'd even heard of it. However, you just won't still be thinking of it the next day. In fact, I'd be surprised if you think much about it after you turn it off. It's an alright sort of flick to watch while you're doing the ironing (if you've run out of podcasts) but not something worth running out to see. It's inoffensive, and has a few bright points, but is entirely disposable. If you're hungry for some reasonable Sci-Fi, you won't be disappointed, but don't expect more from Source Code.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Girl on Book Action: The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory

The Virgin's Lover by Phillipa Gregory
ISBN: 978-0-7432-6926-1


In the autumn of 1558, church bells across England ring out the joyous news that Elizabeth I is the new queen.  One woman hears the tidings with utter dread.  She is Amy Dudley, wife of Sir Robert, and she knows that Elizabeth's ambitious leap to the throne will draw her husband back to the center of the glamorous Tudor court, where he was born to be.

Elizabeth's excited triumph is short-lived.  She has inherited a bankrupt country where treason is rampant and foreign war a certainty.  Her faithful advisor William Cecil warns her that she will survive only if she marries a strong prince to govern the rebellious country, but the one man Elizabeth desires is her childhood friend, the ambitious Robert Dudley.  As the young couple falls in love, a question hangs in the air: can he really set aside his wife and marry the queen?  When Amy is found dead Elizabeth and Dudley are suddenly plunged into a struggle for survival.


My Thoughts:

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a review of The Other Boleyn Girl and while I had some issues with that book I still rather enjoyed it.  Based on Wren's review of The Constant Princess I picked that up and actually loved it.  So it is with a heavy heart that I come here to report that The Virgin's Lover left me disappointed.  Some of this feeling stems back to my feminist thoughts about The Other Boleyn Girl and some of it comes from some really jarring writing.

The court intrigue that charmed me earlier was absent from this book and the characters simply weren't as engaging.  For the most part, the people portrayed irritated me and I do so hate to be irritated (I am not amused).  It's not that they were unlikeable, I can deal with unlikeable protagonists, it's that I felt they were all somehow demeaned by the approach the novel took.  I never got a sense that the love between Dudley and Elizabeth was overwhelming for them both.  All I could see is that he was ambitious and she was weak.  And he uses her frailty to his advantage at every turn, not actions you'd expect from a man who supposedly loves her beyond reason.  The vulnerability and instability of Elizabeth grated on me.  To be honest, I get the impression that Gregory is somehow anti-Boleyn.  Her portrayals of Anne and Elizabeth show them to be petty and weak, dependent on the men around them.  They're portrayed as being villains for their coquetry, education and intelligence (the last is downplayed, but it's there), while characters like Mary Boleyn and Amy Dudley are set on some sort of pedestal of womanly virtue for the way they bear the great injustices inflicted on them by men and the shrewish women that supplant them.  Unsurprisingly, they are naive, relatively uneducated and not terribly bright.

Let me get back on my feminist soap box for a moment here and spout some personal opinion about the history of the world.  It's a sad fact that while there are countless great kings and scholars and poets, there are few great queens, female scholars and women writers (though this number at least seems to be increasing as we pry away the manly pseudonyms of female writers).  In the last couple of decades scholarship has focused more on including women in the history books, for which I'm grateful, but the fact remains, there were few great queens, because often women were not allowed to inherit a throne.  So why anyone would want to sling fictional mud at one of those few women is hard for me to fathom.

To be honest, I don't care if in reality Elizabeth I was a petulant young woman who couldn't make a decision on her own to save her life, wracked with anxieties and swinging from one spectrum of extreme emotion to its opposite in a matter of minutes.  It's fiction for a reason and why can't we celebrate her achievements in that fiction (and sticking to the "truth" isn't necessarily a priority in these historical novels)?  Casting her as an adulterous shrew under the power of Dudley made me gnash my teeth.  If anyone should be vilified in this book it's Dudley, and while there is some indication that he's not such a nice guy, it's perhaps not overt enough.  Surely, the way he treats Amy is shameful and I despised him for it, but the fact that Elizabeth never sees through him and his lies bothered me.  She only begins to assert her will when he threatens her position, not because he's using her, or because he's married and bringing a great scandal on her.

Right, enough with the feminist griping for a moment.  Let me complain about something else.  Every so often, and always in the midst of dialogue, there would be a jarring modern-sounding colloquialism that tore me out of the moment.  Off the top of my head someone said they'd "bring the stuff" or some such thing, and someone once went to "check [something] out."  Little phrases that pulled me into the present.  I'm no linguist so, hey, who knows, maybe they used these terms back in Elizabethan England, all I know is that I found them to ruin the flow of the conversations.

I'm trying to think of a redeeming feature so it's not just negatives in here and while I was irritated and forced to suspend my disbelief for sloppy dialogue, I did still turn pages.  I never thought "Oh this is so dreadful I have to stop reading it," no, I wanted to see how it would all turn out.  Ultimately, I was hoping to see some of the characters redeem themselves.  Elizabeth seemed to at least grow a bit of a backbone by the end, so I guess that was my reward for sticking with it - barely a reward at all.

I really wanted to have a fun romp with this novel and it just didn't work out.  I think that unless Wren recommends me another one of Gregory's books as being palatable I might stay away from them for a good long while, possibly forever.  Of course, this means that I'll have to find some other, equally trashy replacement for those times when I just need to read fluffy nonsense.  I fear my options are definitely running out - I've given up on paranormal romance (more or less) and now I might be turning my back in historical fiction/romance.  What other kind of fluff is left?  I don't like mysteries.  I won't read a straight-up-romance.  What's a girl to do?  Westerns?  Video game tie-ins?  Oh woe is me!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Guest Review - RobotMatt Dissects Audition

Aside:  Doomwench, here.  Wren is off traipsing through a field of gillyflowers, but she was thoughtful enough to twist Matt's arm into filling in for her.  So please enjoy this lovely guest review about a not-very-lovely movie (I've actually seen this one so I know what I'm talking about!).

Weeks Too Late: Audition
Directed by Takashi Miike and written by Daisuke Tengan based on a novel by Ryû Murakami

Introduction and Preconceptions:

Well, once again, I've been asked to write some sort of review for Girl On Book Action, despite a complete lack of the necessary genitalia. I chose the Japanese horror film, Audition, a movie I've been meaning to watch since it came out in 1999. I'd heard that the film was creepy, gory and genuinely unsettling, especially if you are sensitive about your eyes. It's been my quest over the last ten years or so to find horror media that actually scares or, at the very least, makes me uncomfortable. You watch enough people get hacked to pieces and it starts to lose its punch. My hope was that Audition would do the trick.

General Review: For the most part, I enjoyed Audition. The opening is too slow a burn for my tastes, as we are introduced to Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), his son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki ) and his friend, film producer Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura ).

I initially had real trouble warming up to Aoyama. His plan to use Yasuhisa's upcoming film to audition women to be his bride is both creepy and insulting. He has a close relationship with his son, but the boy doesn't seem to be a great champion of women's rights either. When Aoyama  finally meets Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina ), a former ballet dancer, he is instantly smitten. He calls her everything he is looking for (specifically beautiful, classy and obedient. Nice.), but Yasuhisa has some misgivings. A lot of Asami's resume doesn't add up and some of the people she's worked with have disappeared. Shiina does an amazing job as Asami. We get very few hints as to what she is really about and when the big reveal in her apartment comes, it is genuinely surprising, even if you, like I, knew that she was up to something. Asami spends most of the film quietly docile, her head down. It's only at the end of the movie when the blood starts flowing, that she becomes vibrant and excited. It's too bad for Aoyama that the source of her giddy excitement is from enthusiastically sawing off his foot with a length of piano wire.

People who have seen this movie talk a lot about the last twenty minutes, as Asami tortures Aoyama, but this is only a small part of an almost two hour film. Audition takes a gradual approach to horror, which is something I genuinely appreciate in a movie. Jumping straight into the action is fine for a lot of horror flicks, but a thriller like Audition benefits from getting all of its ducks in a row before it starts chopping off their bills. That having been said, I found the build in Audition too gradual. Much of the time feels like it's being spent setting up the audition, running through applicants and Aoyama and Asami dating.

The movie can also feel very confusing. Towards the end of the film, Aoyama is poisoned and begins hallucinating about Asami's past. How this actually  happens was not clear to me, although it allows us to actually experience Asami's history, while putting Aoyama right in the middle of the action.

As far as scariness goes, I can see why Audition is ranked so highly on lists of great horror flicks. The acts Asami commits are pretty disgusting and certainly not for the squeamish, but it's Asami herself that's really unpleasant. The joy she's clearly feeling as she slowly plunges a steel acupuncture needle in Aoyama's eye. The giddiness with which she saws off his foot. Watching this beautiful girl revel in these hideous acts is the most horrific thing in the movie.
If you can make it through (and you would be in the minority. The film had plenty of walk-outs when it was screened), Audition is certainly worth your time. It's not perfect, nor did I feel much in the way of actual fear when I was watching it, but it's an excellent horror story and well-acted.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Wizard and Glass: Dark Tower IV by Stephen King

Wizard and Glass by Stephen King
ISBN: 0-452-27917-8

Aside:  Once more I give you the obligatory spoiler-warning.  I'm reviewing book four of seven so spoilers are possible for all four books.  If you're interested in my thoughts on The Dark Tower series, but haven't had a chance to read the novels, I suggest you skip back to my review of the first book.  For the rest of you, keep reading!


Roland, The Last Gunslinger, and his band of followers have narrowly escaped one world, and slipped into the next.  It is here that Roland tells them a long-ago tale of love and adventure involving a beautiful and quixotic woman named Susan Delgado.  With shocking plot twists and a driving narrative force, Wizard and Glass is the book readers have been waiting for.  And the Dark Tower is closer...


My Thoughts:

So, yes, indeed, I am still slogging my way through these and I really do mean slogging.  If you've been following along, you know that I was looking forward to this part because it deals with Roland's past and his adventures with his friends Cuthbert and Alain.  Well, I was pretty disappointed.  Yes, Cuthbert and Alain were there, but for the most part we didn't see the Court in Gilead, instead, we wandered around some little nothing town uncovering a conspiracy.  Alright, that doesn't sound so bad.  Unfortunately, that becomes secondary to a boring, juvenile love affair between Susan and Roland (gag me with a spoon, why don't you).  I guess I should be happy that we weren't hanging around Eddie, Susannah and Jake as much as in the previous books, but I simply can't shake my disappointment.

I wanted to see the dazzling Gunslinger Court in Gilead, watch pageants and balls and the riddling contest, instead, I got dusty plains, a town full of shady people and teenagers making doe-eyes at each other (indeed, the vehemence of my reaction to the love-story leaves me worrying that I'm beginning to turn into Wren with her noted hatred of anything remotely romantic).

The content wasn't the only thing that bothered me.  I had some stylistic issues as well.  You see, the majority of the book is Roland telling the story of his past to his new companions, but he does so in third person point of view.  So, rather than saying "I did this as a youth" he talks about himself in the third person - Roland did this, Roland did that, Roland loved Susan very much, blah blah blah.  To be perfectly honest (when am I ever less), this...conceit drove me a little bit batty.  At the end of his telling he explains how he knew all the things that happened when he wasn't present, but it just didn't fly for me.  The narrative gains nothing from the way this information is withheld until the end.  Personally, I think that perhaps the story of love and loss would have been more poignant, more powerful and more emotionally engaging if it had been told as a first person account.  The detached third person limited omniscient point of view (thank you English major) left me too far outside of the relationship to care about its tragedy.  On the whole, I was with Cuthbert in wanting to deck Roland for most of the book.

And that brings me to one of the few positives - my literary crush on Cuthbert was confirmed.  The way he's always quipping at people, the fact that he carries a bird skull around with him and talks to it, and his ability to see Roland's great folly endeared him to me more than any of the other characters we've spent any amount of time with in this series.  Why can't it be the Cuthbert tales instead? (The answer is: probably because he's dead.)  I don't quite see the resemblance between witty Cuthbert and Eddie Dean that Roland is always going on about and that is probably for the best, since I am not a fan of dear old Eddie.

At least the last couple hundred pages were interesting - the showdown with the bad guys was well-paced and engaging.  While I got the sense that the young gunslingers would win the day, the way they won was a sight to see.  Susan's death, though announced at the outset, was still a surprise as there is the hope of rescue until the moment she's dead (I somehow thought that maybe she'd get away and the real tragedy would have been that she lived and Roland never knew until it was too late).

Overall, I'm frustrated with the quest for the Dark Tower.  I'm still fascinated by some of the underlying ideas about the interaction between different planes of existence, parallel universes or what have you, "other worlds than these" as people in the book keep saying. The notion that the world has "moved on" and things are not as they used to be I think is relevant to every day life no matter what time period you're living in.  On the other hand, I don't care about the characters and even the stories I'm excited to read leave something to be desired.  I'm beginning to suspect that I'm just not the kind of person who enjoys Stephen King novels.  That said, I still intend to finish my slog through the Dark Tower series if only to allow all of you to watch me suffer.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Anatomy Of Hell (Anatomie de L'enfer)

Anatomy of Hell. Directed & Written by Catherine Breillat.

Preconceptions: Well I've had quite enough of disappointing horror and summer blockbusters and so I decided to turn my attention to another one in Breillat's filmography (you'll remember her from my ridiculously gushy reviews of Sex is Comedy and Bluebeard). I'd been putting this one off for a while strictly due to this description on Netflix: "Catherine Breillat explores female sexuality and men's darkest fears about women's sexual power in this startlingly explicit and clinical film." It sounded a little on the hard edged side for my tastes, but she's proven me utterly wrong about Sex is Comedy (an unusually good movie about being a director) so I thought it was entirely possible that I'd dig this as well.

General Review: Before we get started, I want to be utterly, entirely, irreproachably clear: this movie is graphic. There are scenes that deal with the human body in gynecological/andrological (ooh I learned a new word) detail. I don't want to give any of the specifics away, because it'll ruin the punch, but seriously, if you're not comfy with up close and personal, mostly un-erotic examinations of people's bits, do not watch Anatomy of Hell. If you even think you're going to be bugged, I do so warn you to check out one of Breillat's softer films out.

Now that I've finished my seven million word disclaimer, let me describe the plot. A woman (Amira Casar) is turned down by a guy at a gay bar, for some reason this throws her enough to attempt suicide (not up for the Stable Personality of the Year Award). Another gay man (Rocco Siffredi) discovers her and takes her to get patched up. She then offers to pay him to "watch her while she can't watch herself" for four nights (an odd form of prostitution). Eventually, they have sex and a number of hammy philosophical discussions about gender issues.

I've been blown away by Breillat's other offerings, but I gotta say I was left feeling bugged by this. It had a lot of her signature moves (which I still loved): the over-bright colours, dreamy camera work and her ability to give harsh reality a fairy tale quality (I'd love to see her do a short film based on Charles de Lint, come to think of it). And it wasn't the stark, graphic portrayal of the human body (and bodily functions) that got under my skin (though there was a lot of that, sometimes almost laughably explicit). No, it was the themes that bothered me. The major bone that she was hacking at in this was masculine fear of female sexual power, something I can usually get excited about (though not usually something I'll wax on about in blog format). But her way of showing it was by insinuating that gay men are only gay because they fear female sexuality. Now, if this had been a period piece about Freudian psychology, that'd be one thing, but we're meant to buy this as viable in a modern setting. I just couldn't follow her there. While I've noticed the "all men act this way" dialogue in her previous movies, I've always accepted it because it's being said by unreliable and hypocritical characters. In Anatomy of Hell Casar doesn't exactly play a character, more of a stand in for scary womanhood, to hear her saying these things was difficult to swallow.

While trying to hash out my feelings about Anatomy of Hell, I naturally chatted with Doomwench (who else?). It sparked an interesting conversation about equality and how we're disturbed by certain feminist literature (and films) dehumanizing men. It's very possible that this was a conversation this flick was meant to pull out of us. That and stab in the gut outrage at the idea that gay guys are just scared of chicks. Since Breillat might very well be too smart for me, I did a bit of reading regarding her intentions for the movie. She said that she was just looking for a way to show a type of man who was disinterested in women. Reading that, I can't help but feel that choosing a gay man muddied the issue so badly that this was a misstep. There are plenty of straight guys who are disinterested in the company of women. Again to go back to something period piece-y (and I do love them), one of the confirmed (not gay) bachelors in English Men's Clubs (ala the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady) would have worked.

I realise that I've spent an awful lot of time pondering Anatomy of Hell and not a lot of time discussing the mechanics the way I usually do, but I simply couldn't get past the issues it has had banging around in my head. Now, onto the mechanics. As I mentioned earlier, it was as beautiful as any of her other movies. The sweeping (but not sickening) camera was very much present (and awesome), as was the vivid use of colour and contrast. I'm a bit limited by the naked content of the movie as to the pictures I can share with you (while we aren't entirely work safe, I do try and keep nipples and groin to a minimum), so you'll just have to take my word for it.

The dialogue was clunky at points (some of those philosophical discussions were too stilted even in her abstracted setting), but the long silences were utterly without awkwardness. You could feel the bond between the characters much better when they weren't talking. Partial credit obviously goes to the actors, but so much of it came across in the way the scenes were shot.

As I did my unusual (for me) research into the movie, I discovered that Casar was not entirely comfortable with all the up close nudity and sex. I never would have guessed it from watching. She came across as a confident (if chaotic), powerful figure. Her presence and looks put me in mind of a Lilith-type character and I couldn't stop thinking about Tanith Lee stories about demonic women. Siffredi, as it turns out, is mostly in pornography (ha-ha! something called More Sluts in Ibiza and Rocco Meats Prague) but you wouldn't know it from his performance (unless French porn has a ridiculously good class of actor). He's intense, troubled and penetrating (ha-ha again) in a way a lot of Hollywood actors fall ridiculously short of achieving.

All in all, I'm afraid that despite its good points, Anatomy of Hell is really Breillat's Inception. Do I still love her (and Nolan's) directing? Yes, of course I do. She's amazing, her work is beautiful to watch and teases my brain into interesting lines of thought. I could write a review of her work every week and have new things to talk about. But this was just too flawed. She assumed the audience would agree with (or at least be willing to accept) things as fact that I just couldn't swallow (not for all the fanciful camera work and rich colours in the world). While the clinically close look at the body didn't bother me, there were times where we were forced to look so closely that I was left with a sense of ridiculousness rather than disgust or discomfort. I don't think it was meant to be particularly silly. If you're strictly interested in seeing it because it's controversial or because you love her directing, go for it. However, if you just want to check out some of Breillat's work, look at Bluebeard instead. It has all of the skill and none of the failings.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Girl on Book Action: A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin
ISBN: 0-553-57342-X

Aside: Here is your obligatory spoiler warning – the blurb will contain spoilers for books one and two, so if you care about these things I suggest you stop reading now.  Perhaps I can interest you in my review of A Game of Thrones or Wren’s thoughts on the first episode of the TV show instead.  For the rest of you, let’s boldly forge on through Westeros.


Of the five contenders for power, one is dead, another in disfavor, and still the wars rage, as alliances are made and broken.  Joffrey sits on the Iron Throne, the uneasy ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.  His most bitter rival, Lord Stannis, stands defeated and disgraced, victim of the sorceress who holds him in her thrall.  Young Robb still rules the North from the fortress of Riverrun.  Meanwhile, making her way across a blood-drenched continent is the exiled queen, Daenarys, mistress of the only three dragons left in the world.  And as opposing forces maneuver for the final showdown, an army of barbaric wildlings arrives from the outermost limits of civilization, accompanied by a horde of mythical Others – a supernatural army of the living dead whose animated corpses are unstoppable.  As the future of the land hangs in the balance, no one will rest until the Seven Kingdoms have exploded in a veritable storm of swords...


My Thoughts:

I know that a lot of people started reading this series and just tore through it without a break, but I need to take breaks (which is to say I’m taking one again right now).  So much happens in each book that it takes me some time to process it all. I also try to read different stuff for the blog each week - you probably wouldn't want to read the Westeros 24/7 blog (Okay, you might, but I don't want to write it).

Overall, this book suffers from the same problems and has the same strengths as the previous instalments.  The Bran chapters are insufferably boring, Sansa still seems to believe in fairy tale endings despite everything that’s happened to her to show her otherwise, Catelyn continues to do stupid, hysterical things that make things worse for everyone around her.  And it wouldn't be part of the Song of Ice and Fire series if we didn't get two more points of view.  This time around we get to read about Samwell (boo) and Jaime Lannister (big, resounding yay!). Of course, Arya and Daenarys are still great; both of them continue to grow.  And Jon Snow continues to deliver appropriate amounts of broody, way-too-young eye candy (at least one of Dany’s new friends meets more of my literary crush requirements to distract me a bit).

Arya’s attempts to reunite with her family are especially sad – she comes so close only to be foiled again and again.  Her relationship with the Hound made me like that mean old guy a whole bunch more.  Seeing Lord Beric and his merry band of outlaws added another layer of intrigue to the Seven Kingdoms for me, too (and it was nice to see this particular fantasy trope put to good use).  Daenarys’ trip through the slaver’s towns and the battles she fights show her coming to terms with being a queen and having to make tough decisions.  I still miss Drogo as much as she does I think, but at least we have the prospect of Daario as a mediocre replacement.  Jon’s storyline is really picking up with each book and the end of Storm of Swords puts him in a very strange position.

And because I hate them, I won’t write any further insights about Bran, Sansa or Catelyn – out of spite.

Getting to see what Jaime thinks about the world and what’s happening was one of my favourite parts (I’m not on team Lannister, who says that I am?).  In a way, his point of view helps to humanize the Lannister clan since, aside from Tyrion who is a bit of an outsider within his family, we only see them cast as villains.  I’m definitely a Jaime fan.

Power has shifted significantly since the outset in Game of Thrones and I love that Martin is absolutely not shy about killing off his characters (I’m sure you’ve seen the meme of Martin and J.K. Rowling, right? If not, Google it!).  The Red Wedding scene is a good example of this lack of timidity and the whole sequence filled me with an increasing amount of unease.  In other words, it was really well done.  I think it might become one of my favourite scenes if I had to make a list of top events from all the books I’ve read (no, I don’t intend to actually write this list, unless you beg me and offer me cake).

Actually, without getting into too many details the ending of this book was the part I enjoyed the most.  The journey to get there was all well and good, but I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome (though in looking back I realized I should have seen it coming, woe for getting too caught up in the characters to pay attention to plot points.)  The last 150 or so pages (when did that start to be an ending rather than a whole book?) had me plunging ahead breathlessly to see what would happen and I was not disappointed.  The happenings at The Wall filled me with that rare breed of giddiness only found in good books while Tyrion’s struggles added an undercurrent of sadness.  And the revelations about how the Seven Kingdoms were thrown into this state of chaos confirmed my attraction to a certain side-character (I won’t tell you who so as not to spoil it) for being a devious scoundrel.  It was worth reading the 1100+ page tome just for the last bits.  It was engaging up to the last sentence of the epilogue.

Eventually, I will read book four, but I’m currently on another book-buying ban so it might yet be a while.  I am looking forward to seeing how things unfold, though I admit, mostly I want to read the adventures of Jon Snow and his roguish half-sister Arya, with a little bit of Tyrion and Daenarys thrown in for good measure.  For now, I'll go wear my "Winter is Coming" t-shirt with a sense of world-weariness and try to overcome my continued attraction to the oh-so-delectable, but way-too-young Jon Snow.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Weeks Too Late: The Haunting (1963)

The Haunting. Directed by Robert Wise & Written by Nelson Gidding.

: Well after having to sit on my hands and force myself to watch the 1999 version of this movie, I turned my attention to the original. Certainly, while it wouldn't have the benefit of modern effects, it would better capture the full range of scares from the book. I was looking forward to seeing a quieter, more introspective take, since much of the Haunting takes place in Nell's head. Oh and if you haven't already, check out the companion to this review, a look at the 1999 version.

General Review
: Eeesh forget quiet terror, this was slumbering nothing. With great reluctance, I put aside Source Code in order to finish watching the Haunting. I barely got through half of it when I decided it would be better to go see Captain America. And I could easily have seen myself putting off the rest of this movie for months. But dammit, I said I was going to watch them both and I did watch them both. Hells bells, but this was some serious tedium action.

I don't think the fault for this being a nap inducer can be entirely put at the feet of the Wise. It was competently directed. There was nothing incoherent or badly paced, all the scenes went by quickly and professionally. Also, there were a few good scary moments. Most notably, when Nell (our ingenue ghost hunter) is pulled away from Theo (our sexy, possibly lesbian, foil). She moves back into the darkness, the corridor supernaturally lengthens, and the camera, slightly askew, is pulled back further. We really get the sense that she's being dragged into otherworldly danger. It's one of the most effective and eerie parts of the movie. Nell dancing around the statue of Crane (who's probably the evil ghost, though nobody actually says it, because 60's directors have more faith in the audience than 99's ones) held onto some of the disquieting feel of the story.
Despite the few interesting moments and the reasonable directing, the movie was still barely watchable. A whole lot of the blame for that falls on the writing (eat me, Giddings). The writer seemed to be all about long, expository sequences and the dreaded inner monologue. I get why they'd try to use the voice over of Nell thinking frequently (despite its hackiness). So much of the action happens in her unbalanced little noggin and it'd be hard to show that, rather than tell. What I don't get is why they'd bother taking us in her head for long monologues about her wondering things. "I wonder who lives in that house? I wonder if anyone will be there? Blah blah blah." That does not show me her being ramped up into terror, it just fills time. This is particularly frustrating since there were perfectly good bits of inner monologue in the book that could have just been copied verbatim, if they had to employ the device. I will say that Gidding's ending was a lot more ballsy than the 99 version's (again, faith in the audience is nice). Nell is no kind of saviour in this, which is exactly the way I like her.

You know what was worse than the writing? The acting. I think this story is cursed to have reasonably talented actors giving some of the worst performances of their lives. Rather than Nell going from dreamy and susceptible to full blown hysteria (hysteria, Doomwench's favourite!), Julie Harris starts straight at hysteria. She was so over the top that I barely noticed when ghostly events started bothering her (though this could have been at least partially due to faulty directing). There was zero chemistry between her and Bloom (as Theo) either as sisterly companions or suppressed desire. Bloom wasn't at all sultry or intriguing, and she might as well have been using text to speech for all the passion in her delivery. Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn (Dr. Markway and Luke) felt like they belonged in a something from the 40's. I could easily see Tamblyn shouting "Hey-ya fella! Whaddaya know?"

I know that there is more than one filmmaker who considers this to be one of the greats of horror. But I just don't see it. There were some neat effects and clever directing, but it just wasn't spooky. I didn't feel any dread or oppression, the two things a haunted house is supposed to do best. Cracks at the actors aside, this felt like an older movie t
han it was. There are plenty of movies from the 60's that hold up to my delicate sensibilities. Hell, there are some from a lot earlier than that. This would have felt ten years out of date when it was a hot new release. If you're watching it because you're working your way through a best of horror list and you MUST see every one, more power to you, but otherwise, I wouldn't bother.

: As you may have noticed, I'm filling in some gaps in my classic horror reading, which is piquing my interests in the movie. I just finished the Yellow Wallpaper, another short, creepy story and I'm verrrry tempted by the movie (because I can't learn my lesson and will continue to touch the hot stove), so look forward to me being bored by that in future weeks.