Review: Purge Status

Purge Status
Purge Status by Shawn Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A bleak, unsettling short story whose focus on corporate horror and the slow degeneration of the human psyche wears its Ligottian influence on its sleeve. There are echoes of Jeff VanderMeer in here too, with the story’s beautiful, liminal imagery. Mann builds the confusion and unease with masterful pacing, using architecture to unsettle the reader as much as the protagonist. Another excellent piece of work from the consistently weird and reliable Dynatox Ministries.

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Review: Death Warp

Death Warp
Death Warp by M.P. Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very odd, incredibly fun little chapbook from Dynatox Ministries. I loved the protagonists, especially Jillane, who’s developed in a really sweet, genuine way. Death Warp’s first third sets up a buddy road-trip story that promises to be weird, unexpected and grounded in the pain of its characters and the growing bond between them. When the bizarro element lurches into the story with its matter-of-fact swagger, the tension ramps up and it’s all enormously entertaining, but is left behind after only a handful of pages like a weird out-of-joint interlude. The third act left me a little cold; it felt a bit rushed and deprived me of the pay-off these fantastic characters promised in the beginning. Though certain characters’ reactions were expected in a way, that didn’t make them any less heartbreaking, or all the more annoying for their predictability.

The weird/horror element was great, and so were the characters, but I was left wanting a bit more of a pay-off.

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Kubo and the Two Strings (Film Review)

A studio that exclusively produces stop-motion animations, Laika’s previous creations have been magical, complex, enormously fun and utterly gorgeous. To such marvels as ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and especially the beautiful and terrifying Coraline, they can now add Kubo and the Two Strings. It definitely doesn’t break Laika’s so-far-perfect pattern. In fact, it’s probably one of my favourite films of the year, and stands well above the slew of big-budget disappointments and mediocrities we’ve been subjected to this blockbuster season. Kubo has in spades what most other 2016 releases have been devoid of: the brightest, warmest kind of magic; jaw-dropping, drool-worthy spectacle; and some real emotional heft.

I’ll only give away the bare bones of the plot, because this film is best experienced as a fresh wonder. We follow the titular Kubo (Art Parkinson) as he embarks on a quest, aided by Charlize Theron’s Monkey and Matthew McConaughey’s Beetle, to find the pieces of his father’s magical amour. Pursuing Kubo are his mother’s sisters (both voiced by a creepily crooning Rooney Mara), two terrifying witch-like creatures sent by their father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) to return his grandson to the family’s fold.

The film quickly develops a beautiful rhythm between its quiet, heartfelt moments and intense action sequences. The latter are mesmeric; they pull you into the frenetic dance of movement and colour and sound so that everything outside the screen ceases to exist.

There’s definitely humour in Kubo, but the film’s trailers made it out to be a much more comedic – read: mainstream – adventure. It’s an adventure, sure, and it’s both immensely fun and funny, but it’s so much more than that. There’s a sweetness here, a lovely heart-warming sort of magic to the characters and the atmosphere that made me swell with more emotion than I’ve felt in a film for a long time. It’s also more than a little creepy, with echoes of Paul Berry’s terrifying 1991 stop-motion short, The Sandman (which you absolutely need to see right here), both in its eeriness and the villain’s fixation with eyes.

All these tones are sharpened by Dario Marianelli’s beautiful, smooth score, which I think ranks among some of his best works, pulling together his softer sensibilities with his mastery for big action cues.

The story unfolds in a lovely tantalising kind of way, often giving us odd glints of detail and exposition that leave much a mystery. This gives Kubo the feel of a fairytale. It both narrows the focus onto the charming character interactions, and renders the world’s mythos nebulous, giving us the sense of something vast and exhilarating just out of sight.

The film’s message – about the power of stories, and family, and humanity – isn’t exactly an original one, and in a lesser film might have come across as hamfisted or disingenuous, but in Kubo this thematic core both strengthens the film and, most importantly, comes across as truly genuine and engaging.

Part of the strength here is the precision of the storytelling. Each element fits together perfectly so that the end result has a huge impact on the audience. The ending is bittersweet and understated, a climax that nails the film’s prevalent themes and will leave you with a glassy-eyed smile on your face.

Its script and voice work might be wonderful, but it’s Kubo’s art direction that really makes the film. Its colour palette is vibrant and beautifully balanced, the creature and character design is flawless (especially the antagonists), and the use of animated origami in the film is breathtaking. As with all of Laika’s previous films, Kubo is an absolute delight to look at, and it’s clear how much passion and work went into the creation of such a beautifully realised world. The director, writers, and every member of the crew should be applauded for the cohesive vision they’ve given us. Don’t forget to stick around during the credits, too; there’s a lovely behind-the-scenes clip that will drop your jaw at the work involved in animating a film like this.

This hasn’t been a review so much as a gush of adoring adjectives. I did try to find something at least mediocre about Kubo, but I could barely find a sliver askew in this film, aside from perhaps a predictable set of twists, but this is swallowed up in the spectacle and emotion that doesn’t let you go until the credits roll. This is a near-perfect masterpiece, and it moved and delighted me in a way that rarely happens to such an extent in a film. But ultimately nothing I say can evoke what it feels like to experience this film. So put your phone down and go devour Kubo and the Two Strings immediately. Just don’t forget to be back before dark.

Review: Letters to Lovecraft

Letters to Lovecraft
Letters to Lovecraft by Jesse Bullington
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fantastic “Lovecraftian” anthology that pays its debt to the father of cosmic horror with a really innovative and unexpected premise. Each story is its author’s response to a quote of their choosing from Lovecraft’s seminal essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” that speaks to them in some way or sparks an idea or an argument. This makes for some incredible stories that cover a much broader range of ideas and tones than the usual Lovecraft-inspired anthology.

The subtly skin-crawling “Past Reno,” “_____” and “The Lonely Wood” by Brian Evenson, Paul Tremblay and Tim Lebbon respectively, are both minor works of genius, crafting terror (and maximum impact) from only the slightest displacement of reality. Uncertainty creeps through every line, building and building to their incredible denouement’s of undiluted dread.

Nadia Bulkin’s “Only Unity Saves the Damned” is a wonderful ghost story and an even better study of the claustrophobia of small-town life.

“Allochthon” is another example of Livia Llewellyn’s sensuous, liquid prose telling a mind-melting story of displacement and horror in a world both alien and scarily familiar.

Stephen Graham Jones tears up a ripping werewolf yarn in “Doc’s Story” that throws authentic, no-frills characters in with a beautifully knotted narrative.

Cameron Pierce’s “Help Me” is a sharp bite of a story that will stick in your skin long after you’ve read it. It made me glad that I don’t fish.

“Glimmer in the Darkness” by Asamatsu Ken (translated by Raechel Dumas) uses Lovecraft himself in a dialogue-driven story that’s tense, unsettling and original.

In “The Order of the Haunted Wood,” Jeffrey Ford takes a subversive and hilarious approach to Lovecraft’s idea of a centuries-old cult.

Angela Slatter’s “Only the Dead and the Moonstruck” feels like a suburban fairytale, balancing mundane domesticity with a glistening, sleek horror element.

“That Place” by Gemma Files reminded me a little of the recent (and excellent) TV series, Stranger Things, although it’s less nostalgic and much darker. Her prose is everything; clever, understated, poetic when it needs to be. One of the highlights of the anthology.

Chesya Burke’s “The Horror at the Castle of the Cumberland” addresses Lovecraft’s issues with race in a story where humanity is the real horror.

Orrin Grey plays with form and self-awareness in his usual rampantly entertaining and innovative way in “Lovecrafting,” a story that’s as structurally engaging it is unsettling, with an ending all the more effective for its restraint.

“One Last Meal, Before the End” by David Yale Ardanuy is both a bloodthirsty take on the Wendigo myth in colonial America, and a smart response to Lovecraft’s white-washed views of Native American myths.

Kirsten Alene’s “There Has Been a Fire” is a dreamlike story with very tactile, raw imagery that reads as much like poetry as it does prose.

Don’t even try to imagine what to expect in “The Trees” by Robin D Laws, which is utterly weird and quite disturbing and left me feeling like I needed a scalding shower at the end of it.

Molly Tanzer’s “Food From the Clouds” is perhaps my favourite of the lot, a typically fizzing Tanzer-esque adventure that’s part romp, part immaculate world-building, all pleasure. Her use of the monstrous is brilliant and restrained. Her work here insettles, beguiles, and breaks the heart. She evokes a post-‘event’ London with so much pleasurable ease that the setting feels like it’s bleeding off the page.

Finally, Nick Mamatas pulls the rug out from under us in “The Semi-Finished Basement” in an incredibly clever and lingering way. I found it bleakly funny in a kind of matter-of-fact way that’s often hard to pull off, but Mamatas’ skill with tone, and his mastery at both character interactions and teasing out the Lovecraft references makes for the perfect gut-punch to round off the anthology.

Jesse Bullington has put together a lingering and versatile bunch of stories here in what is one of the better Lovecraft-inspired anthologies I’ve ever read. An original premise backed up by a hugely entertaining body of work, and one that I cannot recommend highly enough.

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Suicide Squad (Film Review)

Since that first Comic-Con trailer debuted last year, I’ve been increasingly excited to see David Ayer’s Suicide Squad for any number of reasons: its premise, its director, its cast, its composer. I even liked the pop-punk-grunge aesthetic and Jared Leto’s slick neon gangster take on the Joker, his (alleged) ridiculous onset antics notwithstanding. Even when I heard stories about reshoots, production issues, studio interference, and, as the film opened, a not-so-positive response from critics, I thought it might just end up being a case of the gratuitously negative reception that its predecessor in the burgeoning DC cinematic universe, Batman v Superman, received. Sure, it’s far from excellent, but I didn’t dislike Zack Snyder’s film quite as much as everybody else. Plus, surely a film that looked as promising as Suicide Squad just had to be damn good fun at the very least. Right?

Wrong. Suicide Squad is a shambling disaster that only gets worse as it progresses. It’s not without its good points, sure, but they’re far from enough to save it from being one of the most disappointing films of the year, or, hell, even the entire slew of comic adaptations of the last decade.

There are so many promises here that are never fulfilled.

The songs used in the film are all great on their own, but they become tedious and jarring when they’re simply thrown over scenes one after another without any kind of impact. Steven Price’s score is excellent though, capturing both the emotion and adrenaline that the film might have once, and should’ve, had.

Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller is probably the best thing about the film; she’s ruthless and badass, and one of the true “bad guys,” in a film where “the worst of the worst” aren’t actually all that bad. Jay Hernandez is a highlight as El Diablo, and Margot Robbie and Will Smith are of course excellent. Really, the whole cast is doing a great job here; the problem is more with how they’re used. Interesting character relationships are hinted at but never developed. Ditto with character development. Of the two main villains, one is a bland lump of sub-par CGI, the other an underdeveloped waste of what might have been an interesting character. Neither have any real motivation beyond the same old world domination/destruction gag that’s been boring since forever ago. Leto’s Joker has some weak moments but on the other hand his screen time has been dismembered to the point where he barely has a chance to prove himself; his scenes are mostly contextless floaters that come and go without any rhythm, and the only member of the squad he actually interacts with is Harley, which even then is only for two non-flashback scenes. Even all the talk of making Batman scary fizzles to nothing. He plods his way through two scenes like a cardboard standee with terrible dialogue.

But the worst part of the film by a league is the editing. Scenes come and go without any sense of narrative rhythm, and characters talk about events we haven’t even seen. The character introductions that open the film are stacked together like a Jenga tower made of turds and sprinkled with glitter. Apart from being clumsy and visually nauseating with its cheap post-production filters and effects, this amounts to a boring dump of information we could have learned through action and dialogue over the course of the film.

Some scenes from the trailers are noticeably absent, and even more strange is that they’ve replaced a couple of these with different takes of the same scene that are less effective than the trailers’ versions. The impact of the Joker’s reveal at the end of that first trailer where he tells the camera, grinning, that he’s “gonna hurt you. Really, really, bad,” had an excellent rhythm and dramatic pauses. The version they use in the film is flat and unaffecting. This is just one of many decisions that deepened my disillusion for that film.

As it is, the two-hour running time seems to drag on for about five. Suicide Squad comes across like a hipster dressed up as a hardcore punk, all gaudy two-dollar-shop bling and not enough depth to drown a baby. Ultimately, it’s just boring. If I wasn’t so angry about the way it turned out, I’d have forgotten it already.

I want to be clear on who I’m not blaming for this monstrosity, though, and that’s the actors and the director, all of whom have both excellent priors and are also, as I’ve said, doing a great job here, however buried it might be beneath the atrocious editing.

So whose fault is it? Looking at you, Warner Brothers. Stories have come out about the studio’s panic in the wake of Batman v Superman’s criticism as too serious and sombre, which resulted in them hiring a company who makes movie trailers to make their own, “more fun” cut of Suicide Squad with last-minute added reshoots. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a single example of a film that ever actually benefited from studio interference.

Thanks to Ridley Scott’s clout we eventually got the glorious director’s cut for Kingdom of Heaven (the theatrical version of which was over an hour shorter), but other films were not so lucky. The 13th Warrior’s final act is a hastily-cut, recycled mess (after firing the original director and leaving a heap of scenes on the cutting room floor). Paul Schrader’s Nicolas Cage-starring Dying of the Light was infamously taken from him in post-production and drastically recut. The most recent example of this is Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, which suffered from severe cuts, reshoots and character changes. All of these resulted in mediocre films at best, unmitigated disasters at worst.

After all these examples and more, can’t a studio just set aside its panicked money-hungry control-freakery (in this case over the critical and commercial reactions to an entirely different film) and just trust its director? Apparently not. What gets me in all this is that Warner Brothers’ seemed to genuinely think that their version of the film would somehow be more positively received and/or rake in more money than Ayer’s “darker” version.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Ayer’s version of the film might well have been a failure, but it would have been his failure. Say what you want about Snyder’s Batman v Superman, but at least it was mostly his child; the scenes that were cut out of the theatrical version have easily been reinserted into the ultimate edition recently released on Blu-ray and DVD. Sadly, I don’t know if we’ll ever see the film that Suicide Squad was supposed to be, what looked so promising in its cast, its director and its earlier trailers.

During the publicity for the film, David Ayer has repeatedly claimed that the cut everybody’s seeing in cinemas is unequivocally his, but he’s either lying or been lobotomised since his previous film. There is absolutely no way that the man who made End of Watch, Fury and Street Kings could have consciously – let alone proudly – put this version of Suicide Squad out to the public. One of this guy’s major talents is creating excellent character dynamics and interactions that drive the narrative and the action forward. His films all come across as fresh and interesting because of this.

Sure, his work has a tendency to be male-centric and a little sleazy at times, but I honestly wish that that had been the main problem with Suicide Squad. As it is, the film’s treatment of its female characters (Davis’ Waller being the glorious exception) is a footnote in the epic saga of its failings. You know when misogyny is the lesser evil in any scenario that things must be pretty bad.