Friday, October 24, 2014

Bringing the Soapbox Out of Retirement: Reviews, Reviewers and Ethics

What the actual fuck is going on with the internet these days? On one side we have rabid crybaby gamers doxxing women and forcing them to abandon their homes in terror and on the other we have an author who overreacts to such an extreme that she stalks a blogger.

And apparently* at the heart of both of these issues is ethics and reviews.


In one case a blogger "reviewed" (which from some reports isn't actually correct. Apparently it was a series of Goodreads status update) a book harshly, accusing the author of promoting bigotry and rape and using offensive language. Something which she is free to do, even if the author doesn't believe those issues are part of her novel. In the other a demand for stricter ethics in game journalism is being used as a fa├žade to level hate at women and minorities who dare enter the precious world of the "average" gamer. If you want to know more about either of these issues I'll link up some articles at the bottom of the post

And here's the thing both parties need to understand. Reviews can not be objective. It's impossible and, let's face it, it'd be boring as hell. By their very definition reviews involve someone giving their opinion on a product. Even if all they were going to do was rate the gameplay or grammar out of 10, how can you possibly do that completely objectively? Who is to say that my 10 is the same as yours? And as a casual gamer I may rate something an 8 where my heavy gamer boyfriend with a background in developing would think it was a garbage-y 4. Or if I mostly read classics pre-dating 1700 how do I rate a graphic novel? If it's a game or a book aimed at children do we allow for weaker game play and simpler graphics, bright pictures and small words? If they do well within those parameters, do they still deserve a 10? Does this call for pigeon-holing reviewers into very specific roles that they can never branch out of in fear of delivering an "unethical review"?

This is why reviews are rarely, if ever, a numbers game. I once gave an author a 3 out of 5 on Goodreads which I thought reflected my general enjoyment of the book, while also letting people know it was unlikely to be reread. The author thought my review spoke more to a 4 and asked me to change my Goodreads rating accordingly. To me a 3 isn't a failure, it's a strong book that I am unlikely to revisit. To him it meant I had found major issues with his work. It's why we usually add a large bunch of text before our numbers, because if you just went of the star ratings it might be hard to truly gage how someone felt about the thing they were reviewing.

Purely technical reviews don't serve either authors/game designers or readers/gamers. The way we read and watch movies and play games it intrinsically tied to our emotions. We get invested and addicted and obsess over the art in our lives. But it's more than that, you can't divorce art from the real world.  It is impossible to expect one person to react to something the same way as another person would. The author of that horrific Save The Pearls/Revealing Eden book might not have realised that she was invoking complicated racial and class issues in her narrative, but the majority of the audience did and they found it offensive. A technical review may include valid and helpful information, but it's only part of the picture. Art is subjective because we bring our own history into it. When you review Breaking Bad you may remark on the beautiful cinematography, or the starkness of the setting and the emotive dialogue, but you also look at it in terms of the greater picture. The narrative of Breaking Bad does not exist outside of a discussion on American healthcare, or teacher's pay or the drug industry that operates between the American and Mexican border. You could write an entire thesis on Skyler White and the changing role of women within the American family, or Jesse Pinkman and the nature vs nurture argument. You can do this because it is art. Vince Gilligan has often come out and exclaimed how shocked he was to see everyone react so negatively to Skyler when her husband is not only lying to her, but cooking meth and killing people! But that's the way it goes with art, the creator and the public may not always agree, but amazing discussions can come out of it.

Addressing issues that you think are prevalent in a game or book in your review does not make you unethical. Whether you are a blogger or an professional reviewer you are well within your rights to let your audience know what you've found. And if you disagree with that interpretation then you are entirely within your rights. That's how opinions work. If you think, for example, that Polygon was completely off base with their review about Bayonetta 2 and sexuality then great! Go to a different website, because I can guarantee you'll find another mass-media review that either doesn't acknowledge that angle at all or looks at it as a positive rather than a negative.

Definitely no reason to bring up sexuality though, noooope.


If your opposition to an opinion is so great that you need to create an entire movement to "take down games journalism" or that you travel to another country to smack a blogger over the head with a bottle of wine,** then you need to step back and think about where your life is headed. Before you hire a PI to get the address of that super mean blogger or illegally obtain and share the details of a person who opposes you, STOP. Whether you're a creator or a consumer, this behaviour is absolutely abhorrent. Let's start being honest with ourselves. Gamergate has nothing to do with ethics. If it did it would have been the male reviewer who was criticised, not the female developer. And Kathleen Hale has a history of outrageous behaviour that isn't simply kooky or offbeat, it's horrific and not to be lauded as "what we all wish we could do". 

I love having a blog and reviewing books. I might not be a professional writer but I deserve to be able to express an opinion without fearing that an author is going to set her fans on me (*cough* Anne Rice *cough*) or travel to my home and call me at work. I should be able to write positive reviews and negative reviews without fearing that blogging under my real name is a mistake. I should be able to post an article to facebook without someone talking down to me and telling me that I'm "supporting the true evil" by standing up for women who are being attacked. I should be able to talk about any aspect of a book or game or movie in my review, regardless of whether other people agree. 

The beauty of the internet is that you can find absolutely everything. You can find positive reviews of your book, or review sites that deal entirely in technical or genre based reviews. There are so many websites that it's almost impossible to find one that doesn't have a niche. Want feminist nerd culture news? Go to The Mary Sue. Want intelligent, inclusive and hilarious content? Go to The Toast. If you are anti-feminist or simply don't give a shit about those sorts of issues then maybe skirt past those URLs. I applaud anyone who is willing to challenge their own position by reading reviews that focus on issues that impact a different section of the community. That's how you grow as a person and it's especially how you grow as a writer or reviewer. But I completely understand if you want to stay within your own specific parameters of interest. As long as you aren't hurting anyone, we can absolutely still be friends. But when you start using violence and aggression and insults to silence people who think differently to you? That's when our friendship ends and you need to take a good hard look at why you're really so angry.


If you want to read up further on the wider issues involved in both cases, here are a few accounts. I highly recommend looking wider though.

Gamergate 
~Jesse Singal wrote a fantastic article  for NY Mag about Gamergate and the many problems emblematic of their cause.
~Badass Digest wrote up an article article on why the "ethics" aspect of Gamergate doesn't hold water.
~Polygon addressed their position on Gamergate, and the charges levelled against them regarding their Bayonetta review.
~Fellicia Day was doxxed within an hour of writing about Gamergate, The Mary Sue covered it.

Kathleen Hale
~Hale's controversial article that started the whole thing.
~Dear Author addressed a lot of the charges Hale levelled in her article and also talks about the importance of pseudonyms.

*I say apparently because it's pretty clear that neither issue is about a review, but rather about personal issues, prejudices and broader problems.

**A different case of an author behaving badly.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Graphic Novel mini-reviews #25 - Heroes of the Past, Heroes of the Future

Guardians of the Galaxy: Realm of Kings (Volume 4)

Written by:  Dan Abnett; Illustrated by: Andy Lanning, Brad Walker

Published: 2010

My Thoughts: And so ends the original run of the Guardians of the Galaxy, not with a bang but an even BIGGER bang. Everything that's been building up in the previous volumes, the wars and the tender, fragile universe, the threats coming from every possible antagonist, explodes in a messy pile of bodies and gunk. There is a bit of a flip flop that I wish they hadn't gone with, it leads them down an interesting path but it does feel a bit like hand-wringing and not wanting to make any serious permanent commitments. It's like modern (like the last 2/3 seasons) Doctor Who, they do something devastating and then wave their wibbley wobbley timey wimey magic wand and make everything go back to normal. It's not a huge flaw in the narrative, more a disappointment*. I saw a comic comparing the Guardians with the team of Firefly and that's such a true comparison. They are these brilliant, absurd characters who care about each other and mean well but they are constantly making everything worse. They are ruled by emotion and stubbornness and they want to do the right thing and they usually do, but sometimes an old enemy or a powerful love throws a wrench in the plan. It's a pleasure to finish out the run of comics, now onto The Thanos Imperative, the Annihilation comics and the latest run of GotG!


1602

Written by: Neil Gaiman; Illustrated by: Andy Kubert

Published: 2003

My Thoughts: 1602 re-imagines the Marvel universe as though it existed in 1602. It basically takes the fear and confusion of this particular era and replaces well known events or historical characters with Marvel characters. So we have Doctor Strange as the physician to the ailing Queen Elizabeth while Nicholas (Nick) Fury is the Queen's enforcer/head of intelligence. There's a sub-plot about the troubled Roanoke colony in the 'new world', and the Spanish Inquisition is hunting witchbreeds (X-Men). The facet of the inquisition that we witness is led by a rather well known character who I won't name for fear of spoilers (although I picked it straight away). There's Doom and the Fantastic Four and Captain America and while some are very clearly identifiable (Peter Parquagh for instance), others are much harder to pick and are mostly identifiable through certain skills, clothing choices and the groups they travel with. The actual plot is quite meta, but I'll hold back to leave you something to discover for yourself. Broad picture though, there are a series of storms and weird occurrences which are plaguing London and the rest of Europe and which Strange believes are signs that the world is ending. The key to saving the world apparently lies with a weapon that is being delivered to London by one of the few remaining Knights Templar - but getting it across Europe will require the help of a certain redheaded feller. The story itself is a lot of fun, part action and part mystery, although it does seem to get needlessly complicated from time to time. But truly, the real fun is in working out which characters are which and seeing the inventive careers some of them are given.


Captain America: Winter Soldier (Volume 1)

Written by: Ed Brubaker; Illustrated by: Steve Epting

Published: 2005

My Thoughts: While I quite like the Captain America films I've never really had much desire to delve into the comics. Since Cap is one of the earlier incarnations of superheroes it's a pretty tough choice to work out where to even start. But Winter Soldier came up in a related search and since I have an affinity for Ed Brubaker's darker take on realism I figured I'd give it a shot. This Captain America is far, far darker than the one you see in the Marvel movies. Since waking up after half a century frozen in ice the world the Cap knew has changed into something unrecognisable and he finds himself doing the same. He's disillusioned and unsure and as a result he's getting angrier and tougher and more violent. It's bound to cause irreparable damage somewhere down the line, something Agent 13 (Sharon Carter) is more than a little aware on. Throw in Red Skull, a power cube and the haunting re-emergence of some old memories and you've got a rollicking good comic. On to part 2!


*sorry for the vagueness, I don't want to out and out spoil anything from this or the previous volume.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review: Wicked by Gregory McGuire

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

Written by: Gregory McGuire

Published: 1995

Synopsis: When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum's classic tale, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious Witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil?

Gregory Maguire creates a fantasy world so rich and vivid that we will never look at Oz the same way again. Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability, and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to become the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly, and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.
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“People who claim that they're evil are usually no worse than the rest of us... It's people who claim that they're good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.”

I bought Wicked on a whim after reading Michael's review back in August. It was right around the time I saw Maleficent and I felt a desperate need to see a "reimagining' of a classic villain done right. Or at least I hoped it'd be done right - having not seen the musical I had to hope that all of the fan worship and stellar reviews weren't about to shoot down my hopes.

And guess what guys - my hopes are intact!

In case you've been living under a rock, Wicked is the untold story of the Wicked Witch of the West. Rather than simply be a retelling of The Wizard of Oz from her perspective though, it actually chronicles a much larger time frame - from birth to death. The book can roughly be broken into four time periods in her life. Childhood, university, her post-university anarchist lifestyle and self-imposed exile/Dorothy's era. The entire narrative exists to not only subvert the very well known journey Dorothy takes through Oz and Elphaba's role as the evil witch but to also bring a weighty reality to this supposed technicolour wonderland. It is as much about the politics and morality of Oz as it is about Elphaba, or rather it is through Elphaba's tale that we are forced to remove our rose coloured glasses and realise that perhaps the Wicked Witch isn't the worst thing in Oz.

Before she was the Wicked Witch of the West she was Elphaba (and Elphie), a quiet child with green skin. Her father was a preacher and her mother an unhappy woman, and Elphaba's birth didn't make either of their lives easier. Her father saw her as punishment for his failings, her mother saw her as yet another disappointment in life. Be that as it may, they still loved the girl. Even if their love was maybe more of the stand-offish, hard to tell variety. In order to guarantee her next child wouldn't also be green, Ephie's mother took pills procured by her nanny in the Emerald City. When Elphie's little sister Nessarose is born she isn't green, but she also doesn't have arms. This family and good luck do not go together so well.

Elphie doesn't have an easy life, but neither does anyone else in Oz. The make-up of this imaginary country actually reminded me a great deal of the world in The Hunger Games. The majority of people in Oz are struggling. There is bigotry and new religions clashing heads, poverty and drought, building plans to eliminate the remaining natural landscapes. But in the Emerald City there is wealth and extravagance, and the people in the high society are completely removed from the issues facing the rest of the community. They dance and drink and flit around in expensive outfits, and at the centre of all of this is the wizard. The Wizard is actually quite a lot like he is in the film. He hides behind various masks and stand-ins and has created a mythology about himself that keeps everyone in line. But in the novel he's far more manipulative, pulling the strings of the majority of storylines that fill the book, although very few people seem to notice his presence.

I really adored the way McGuire used Elphaba and her notorious skin as a way to deal with issues of morality and bigotry. Elphie was held at arms length as a child and teased all through her life because of it. As a result she became withdrawn, quiet and struggled to trust any of the "normal" people she encountered. She was never a bad person but she was different, and for some people that's the same thing. So was Elphaba destined to be bad (if she can ever categorically be defined as such) or was she made that way because of the way people treated her? Was her sister (the witch of the East) destined to be born armless or did the pills her mother take transfer a greenish hue for the lack of appendages? How much of our lives is left to fate and how much is decided by our environment? Do we have any say whatsoever in what happens to us? If we're born green are we destined to tread the yellow brick road alone under the suspicious gaze of everyone else?
“One never learns how the witch became wicked, or whether that was the right choice for her~is it ever the right choice? Does the devil ever struggle to be good again, or if so is he not a devil?”
There are a lot of other interesting pieces in this novel. The good witch who is maybe not as good as everyone thinks (but hey, at least she isn't green right?), the slow de-evolution of Animals into animals, magic brooms and familiars and forbidden loves who return to haunt us. This book manages to pack a punch with its social commentary while also just being an entertaining fairytale retelling. You could very easily enjoy this book outside of the feminist, socio-political or moralistic themes, although I think you'd be missing a hell of a lot of the story. I haven't read any of the original novels so I don't know how much this book build onto themes or storylines from the original, but it didn't feel like McGuire was taking any shortcuts. I will say though that the first section of the novel was a little slow for my liking and McGuire does have an unfortunate obsession for occasionally sprinkling in commas, placed every, couple of, words, for, some, reason. There were also a few points in the narrative that felt off - like McGuire wasn't sure how to tie up certain loose ends or bridge two different points. But really, they were very small drops in a very large bucket.

Now that I've finished the book I'm kicking myself that I didn't buy tickets to see the musical when it came to Brisbane last year. It's no wonder it managed to sweep audiences away with its funny, heart-warming and thrilling tale of love, partnership, identity and morals. Not to mention a wicked dark wit.
“I shall pray for your soul,' promised Nessarose.

I shall wait for your shoes,' Elphie answered.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Pages to Panels: A Bookish Guide to Getting into Comics (1)

Comics are a hard medium to break into. Unless you're purely sticking with the literary graphic novels you have 60 years of convoluted, conflicting and confusing story lines to try and get your head around. There are a tonne of great sites online that can help you work out which story line to start with for certain superheroes or which to avoid, but since everyone who reads this blog is a book reader first and foremost I thought I'd write a bit of an introductory post for people wanting to break into the comic world.

There are the obvious choices that I'm sure most of your have already read or at least heard about. Maus by Art Spiegelman, From Hell by Alan Moore, Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. They're typically one off editions (or two in the case of Maus) and heavy on the literary angle. They're all brilliant and you should definitely read them *stares menacingly until you all add them to you Goodreads lists*. But what if you're thinking you want something a little more serial in nature? Something that tackles a particular genre or story line or character arc over a much longer time frame. Well aren't you a lucky duck? I'm here to do exactly that. And to make it even easier, rather than just list a bunch of awesome comics (I mean, you could just check out my review tab for that) I'm going to give you a neat little pathway to wander down, complete with shonky paint graphics.

I'm just starting with 5 recommendations today, but if people seem to enjoy these I'll plan out a few more posts*. And maybe work out a way to make these graphics look less pathetic. These are a mix of new and old comic series, but they're also all fairly straight forward. You're not likely to have any cross-over nightmares to deal with here, thank god.


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 1. Rat Queens - Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch (8 issues, ongoing)


If you like the comedic fantasy stylings of Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore you will probably adore Rat Queens. Rat Queens has the style of D&D fantasy world elements and characters you'd expect to find in a Discworld novel and it's fantastically coupled with the biting humour of both Moore and Pratchett. It's foul-mouthed and rough, but the camaraderie between the four female protagonists is the real motivator in the story.

Similar comics you might also like: Saga (Brian K. Vaughan), Chew (John Layman)


2. Transmetropolitan - Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson (10 volumes, completed)


Big fan of Hunter S. Thompson and his outlaw breed of gonzo journalism? Then you should absolutely follow Spider Jerusalem's antics in Transmetropolitan - since he's inspired by the gun-wielding, drug-taking, truth-talkin' HST. The books take place in a futuristic world where morals, ethics and anything resembling self respect has been traded in for cold hard cash. The humour is dark and the social criticism biting. This was actually my very first graphic novel series and (fun fact) the way Tom wheedled his way into my heart when he saw me in a bar wearing a HST t-shirt ("have you heard of the comic Transmetro - I have the whole series if you want to borrow it").

Similar comics you might also like:  Preacher (Garth Ennis), Watchmen (Alan Moore)


3. Ms Marvel - G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona (9 issues, ongoing)


Ms Marvel is a pretty big deal for a number of reasons. It's the first (or close to) comic to represent both a muslim and female protagonist in an incredibly progressive and positive way. It manages to take the stress of suddenly becoming a superhero and make it incredibly relatable. Khamala Khan deals with the issues every teenager deals with - doing her homework, abiding by her parents rules, conflicting with friends and school bullies, doubting with your self-worth and appearance every other minute - but it does it with the added lenses of being a Pakistani-American and a superhero. There are probably a half dozen YA novels I could have listed here, but one of the best qualities of Ms Marvel is how fresh and funny the dialogue is. Lots of pop culture references and self-deprecating humour, with  moments of startling reality thrown in to add weight. If you're a fan of Allie Brosh's ability to blend serious discussions on depression with ridiculous dog stories in Hyperbole and a Half and/or love Cline's pop culture rich Ready Player One then you should hunt this series down.

Similar comics you might also like:  The Runaways (Brian K. Vaughan/Joss Whedon), Lumberjanes (Noelle Stephenson), She-Hulk (Charles Soule)


4. Locke and Key - Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez (6 volumes, completed)


If I am going to recommend one comic it'll probably be Locke and Key. Like NOS4R2 and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Locke and Key blends horror and fantasy elements with stories of family and loss. They're fun and exciting and a teeny bit tense but they also pack a wallop of an emotional punch that hits you when you aren't expecting it. A horrific coming-of-age story, if you will.

Similar comics you might also like:  The Cape (Jason Ciaramella), Pretty Deadly (Kelly Sue DeConnick)


5. Fables - Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham (145 issues, ongoing)


Okay, so throwing in Once Upon a Time is a bit of a cheat since it's TV but it did begin as an adaptation of Fables, so cram it. Bookwise though, I see a lot of similarities to the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. While Thursday is an outsider coming into the literary world, Fables is told entirely from the perspective of the displaced fairytale characters. Both work hard to infuse clever nods and hints to their literary origins and are broad mystery series. They also have a lot of heart and a good idea at its core but didn't really come out of the gate at full speed. Which is a nicer way to say that I was pretty meh when I first read each of them, but ended up loving a lot of it in later volumes.

Similar comics you might also like: The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (Alan Moore), Kill Shakespeare (Conor McCreery), Unwritten (Mike Carey)

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* If people have specific genres or styles of books they'd like to find a comic partner for let me know in the comments and I'll see what I can do!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Movie Review: Annabelle (2014)

Annabelle

Released: 2014

Directed by: John R. Leonetti

Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard

Synopsis: A couple begin to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists.

*Spoilers ahead. Only read if you don't mind having major plot points revealed*



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This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I'm a bit of a fan of the horror genre.


I'm a fan of everything from the truly terrifying psychological horror to the Z-grade shlock or the ultra-generic slasher. Whether it's actually scary or a laugh out loud play on the genre I happily head along to every horror movie I can. In saying all of this, I do get disappointed when a horror film doesn't live up to its predecessor or the frights-a-second suggested in the trailer. Which was unfortunately the case with Annabelle, the spin-off/sequel of last year's breakaway hit The Conjuring. 

Annabelle, for those of you who haven't seen the trailers and posters, is a film about a possessed doll. It had a small cameo in The Conjuring to set up the backstory of Ed and Lorraine Warren as paranormal investigators. Like the Warrens, the story of Annabelle is based on events that happened in real life. Well... real in the sense that there is a doll named Annabelle locked behind a glass door at the Warren's home which supposedly has haunted multiple families.

The real life "evil" Annabelle (photo credit)
The "real" story of Annabelle is actually quite creepy. It's the kind of story that I love to read late at night when I'm surfing the web - dolls that seem to be shifting position, leaving threatening notes and strangling people in their sleep. It's also the story that the original segment in The Conjuring told - which leaves this movie with the complicated issue of trying to work out exactly how to tell a story that's already been told.

Their answer to this puzzle was an origin story. Rather than simply build on the mystery of an innocent figure turned nasty, they decided to take all of the magic out of it and give us a very by the book explanation. So by the book in fact, that I'm fairly sure it's the origin given to Chucky. In Annabelle we meet the Gordons, a young married couple who are expecting their first child. The movie takes place at the tail end of the 1960s, at the end of the age of innocence. As the Gordon's come home from a morning in church and watch the news they're blasted with information about cult groups, particularly Charles Manson and that vein of Satanist. Mia Gordon reminds her husband that he needs to start locking the front door because "it's a different world now". That night Mia stirs in her sleep and we see their neighbours bedroom light turn on. The husband/neighbour picks up a gun (or was it a bat?) and goes to investigate, while the wife jumps onto the phone. As Mia turns over in bed we see the husband back into the bedroom before BLAM he's killed, and as the killer moves to the wife the light switches off. This wakes Mia up properly and waking her husband John they go to investigate, Mia left on the front porch while John runs into the neighbours house and comes out soon after covered in blood. The tension picks up as Mia runs back into their house to call the cops and we see shadows moving in the babies room behind her. She hears a noise, investigates, and is stabbed in her womb. Her and her husband and their baby survive, but the two murderers are killed in their house, the woman dying with the doll Annabelle in her arms. Cue creepy doll antics.

So here is where I get into major spoiler territory (The above details all happen within the first 10 minutes of the film and are also in much of the trailer). There is a fascinating premise that could have guided this movie. In fact, there are so many hints of it in the script that I'm almost convinced it was the original narrative but was shot down by the studio. So I thought I'd write about the film that we get and the film that could have been because Tom and I literally spent 45 minutes discussing this and feeling completely let down.

Insidious and The Conjuring (two of James Wan's other films), take a lot of visual and narrative cues from seminal horror films from the 1960/70s. While this isn't technically a Wan film (however, he is signed on as a producer) this is absolutely the case for Annabelle as well. This time it is The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby that seem to have the heaviest influence, although more in terms of visuals than thematic cues - which is where my problems lie. Both The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby deal with shifts in social conscious. The world was changing. It wasn't a given that a woman would stay home with the children, they wanted careers and lives outside of the household. Religion was becoming less of a devout necessity and more something done out of routine. Scientific invention and medical discoveries were completely changing the way people thought and behaved and considered things. Not to mention cults and violence were happening in places that were previously believed to be safe and "out of bounds". In The Exorcist a great deal of the book (although less of the film) is the mother's conflict between psychological or medical explanations and a gut feeling that what was happening to her daughter wasn't right. The priest suffers the same struggle. Is it a demon possessing this 13 year old, or is that just a centuries old explanation for things we don't understand and can't control?

This movie sets up a very similar situation. There is a clear conflict in Annabelle between science and religion, the safety of the old world and the violence of the new. When John and Mia are in church they're playing thumb wars, rather than listening to the priest. John is a med student on the cusp of becoming a doctor and is presented early on as a voice of reason, injected rationalism and science into their conversations. Mia on the other hand is afraid. She worries about the cults she hears of on the news, she frets about their door being left unlocked, she worries that her child is being brought into a world of darkness and fear and violence. When the event with the cultists occurs her fear is dialled up to 11. Which is absolutely understandable as both she and her child were nearly killed. When they return home after a short stay in hospital Mia is relegated to her bed. She tries to sew and watch TV but she's antsy and there are these odd noises in the nursery that keep bothering her. She becomes obsessed with finding out details of the case, asking the detectives to help her understand why the cultists did what they did.

The biggest issue with Annabelle is a lack of conflict. This isn't a situation like Poltergeist where an entire family is against the external force, this is like Rosemary's Baby in that Mia is essentially alone in her fears and attempts to protect her family. Her husband is not an antagonist like in R.B but he also isn't really part of the story. He's in his first year of residency and as such can mostly be found at the hospital. Mia is essentially alone against Annabelle. However, in this sort of story you usually have external conflict. The doctor that prescribes medication instead of exorcism, the husband that thinks the wife or daughter is imagining things. In this film Mia keeps her fears to herself for most of the film, but when she reveals her fears first to her neighbour (who also happens to be a bookshop owner well versed in the paranormal) and then to her husband they don't contest her beliefs. They don't patronise her or agree with her to comfort her fears, they just straight out believe that when she says a demon is after their baby, that a demon is after their baby.

The things is, conflict would have been so easy. We've already set up that the husband is a rationalist and a man of science. We've shown that the wife was already nervous and then experienced a traumatic event that basically proved these fears right. When the wife starts to hear noises and constantly checks the front door is locked the husband could rationalise that she's still afraid from the experience. When a fire  nearly kills her, it could have been the combined trauma from the attack and her baby hormones that made her forget that she left the burners on. We, as an audience, know that she's being haunted. We see the door close by itself and see the burners turn themselves on and her ankle grabbed by something invisible which pulls her towards the fire. But to everyone in the film, it's completely explainable. Even at the end of the film when Mia is hounded by Annabelle and the demon, the final scene would have likely looked to the police like the scene of someone who had finally snapped after months of paranoia and fear.

A quick debriefing of the conclusion. After things escalate further throughout the movie and a priest is brought in (who simply attempts to remove the doll from the house) Mia is once again alone in the house with her child and the doll/demon. The baby vanishes and Mia runs around the apartment in terror, hearing her daughter crying but being unable to find her. In the nursery the walls and ceilings the words "Her soul" and "I want her soul" are scribbled with red crayon and the porcelain dolls that sat on shelves are now strewn across the room with their eyes gouged out. Mia grabs the Annabelle doll and starts to smash it against the crib and then throws it across the room. Suddenly the crying stops and we look to the Annabelle doll and see a baby lying still against a shelf instead. There is a gut-wrenching scene where Mia thinks that she killed her daughter and it was the most upsetting and terrifying moment of the entire film. She soon discovers it was another trick and that the only way to save her daughter is to sacrifice herself, by throwing herself out of the nursery window. She doesn't, her husband saves her and their daughter, but imagine for a second that she had. After a movie where the husband believes his wife is circling the drain mentally, haunted and incapacitated by the events that transpired 6 months earlier, he comes home to ambulances and police cars and the bodies of his dead wife and daughter. It looks like she snapped, maybe she truly believed she was acting against a demon and then killed her daughter in a psychosis. The movie could then end with the husband sitting at the dining table, his world utterly destroyed. And then we hear the creak of the rocking chair, the noise that haunted Mia for all those months, before going to black.

Or maybe there was no demon. Maybe the horror movie turns into a gripping psychological thriller about the damage of post-natal depression and psychosis at a time when we still didn't completely understand psychology and medicine but thought we did. This isn't a revelatory story, I'm definitely not reinventing the wheel. But if you are going to take massive visual hints from films that famously deal with issues of mental health, feminism, motherhood and science vs religion you should follow that through with your narrative. To have these markers throughout your film, to depict intense emotional and physical violence against a new mother with no thematic point - it's lazy and frustrating.

I may be happy watching any horror movie that hits the cinema but that doesn't mean I don't have a preference for meticulously plotted horror. Jump scares for the sake of jump scares may be fun in the cinema but when Mia tripped and fell onto her stomach while still pregnant I blanched. When Mia held the lifeless body of her daughter I held my breath. These moments were visceral and they were real. In this film they feel manipulative because they only have a tenuous link to the thematic motivations of the film, but if they were placed in a film that was actually about motherhood in this era? Damn it could be powerful. So that is why this film failed for me. Because it felt like the were on the precipice of something provoking and potentially great and they chose the easier route. And when you consider that both Insidious and The Conjuring were well-rounded horror it's even more disappointing that this one missed the mark.

The one positive that came out of seeing Annabelle is that I now have an intense desire to write a horror movie that checks all the boxes that this type of film avoids. So keep your eyes peeled, maybe you'll see my name on the big screen one of these days.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Back by popular demand: more bookish Q&A

I really like filling out these book Q&A's plus they have the added bonus of adding content to my rather sparse blog right now. So thank you to Sarah for bringing this one to my attention!

1. Favorite childhood book:
The Dangerous Lives of Alterboys by Chris Fuhrman. I found it in a bookstore when I was 11 and begged my mum to buy it for me for Christmas after I read the first chapter while standing at the shelves. It's still one of my favourite books.

2. What are you reading right now?
The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey is my main read at the moment.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
None at the moment. But my local library is pretty sparse, so if I want to borrow a book I almost always have to request it.

4. Bad book habit:
Buying books because I need them and then still having them unread on my shelves like 5 years later.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
Nothing from my regular library, but I have a few textbooks out from my uni library. Fun stuff.

6. Do you have an e-reader?
I do. Tom bought me one for my birthday last year. Although to be honest, I probably spend more time playing games on it than reading anything.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
I always used to be a one book at a time kinda girl, but now I usually have two or three books on the go, not to mention comics and audiobooks.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
I read more consistently. I started my blog at the tail-end of my literature degree so I was having to read about 16 books a semester for my classes and I barely read outside of those set-lists.

9. Least favorite book you read this year:
I didn't finish it but it's definitely Patricia Cornwell's Jack the Ripper true crime novel.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year:
Ohhh I don't know. But I think both of the Christopher Moore books I read (Fool and Lamb) would be up there.

11. How often do you read outside of your comfort zone?
I don't really have a comfort zone when it comes to reading. I mean, I tend to favour contemporary fiction over other genres but that's a preference rather than comfort zone. But really, if an interesting book comes along it doesn't matter what genre it is, I'll read it.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?
^^

13. Can you read on the bus?
I get hella car sick if there is any kind of bend in the road, car, bus or train. But that rarely stops me from reading. You wouldn't believe how nauseated I feel on the reg, but the books are worth it.

14. Favorite place to read:
On my back stairs. A little sun, a nice breeze. So relaxing.

15. What is your policy on book lending?
It depends on the person and the book. I have certain books and DVDs that are not available to borrow and it doesn't matter who you are. But for the most part I'm happy to share my books with friends and family. But if I don't get it back there will be hell to pay.

16. Do you dog-ear your books?
Not so much. Usually I use post-its.

17. Do you write notes on the margins of your books?
Not all books, but yeah, definitely.

18. Do you break/crack the spines?
Unless you are going to read your book with the book barely open you are going to crack some spines, and it's really weird that people get angry about this. If you crack it to the extent that you break the glue holding the pages though, that's a whole different story.

19. What is your favorite language to read?
English. But I don't really have a lot of options in this category...

20. What makes you love a book?
Well-crafted. Whether that's characters, narrative or writing style. Preferably all three obviously, but if there is a not great book with an amazing character I will potentially still adore it.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
If someone comes right out and says "I want to read a book like X" I'll recommend something, but outside of the book blog community I don't recommend too often.

22. Favorite genre:
A bit of everything really.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did):
Classics. Especially Russian classics - there are so many I want to read but the size puts me off.

24. Favorite biography:
I don't know if it technically counts as a biography but I freaking love reading Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism. And his autobiography is brilliant too. But I don't tend to read biographies too often, so that'll have to do.

25. Have you read a self-help book (and was it helpful)?
Not that I can recall.

26. Favorite cook book:
When I moved out of home mum bought me a copy of the Women's Weekly COOK cookbook and it has literally every recipe you could think of. From french toast to Christmas ham. It's amazing.

27. The most inspirational book you’ve read this year:
Ummmmmmmm, pass.

28. Favorite reading snack:
Frozen grapes. Actually, they're just my favourite snack of all time.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience:
This is usually less of a reading issue than a movie issue. But Gone Girl comes to mind, even though I avoided reviews as best as I could.

30. How often do you agree with the critics about a book?
I rarely read actual book critics (as in the newspaper variety) so I don't know. But I usually have similar reactions to books as the fancy folk reading this here Q&A. It's why I so rarely seem to read books I don't love anymore. You guys are too efficient.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
I'm fine with it, although I haven't written one in ages.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which would it be?
I think I have to agree with Sarah and say Russian.

33. Most intimidating book I’ve ever read.
Probably a classic of some kind, but I can't think of a specific right now.

34. Most intimidating book I’m to nervous to begin:
Anna Karenina and Les Mis. I've started both and liked them, but they're so freaking huge that I keep putting them down.

35. Favorite Poet:
William Blake is literally the only poet I can stand.

36. How many books do you generally have checked out of the library at a given time?
Maybe 6 or so?

37. How often do you return books to the library unread?
Not too often actually. The last time was just before Tom and I travelled to the US and that's because I simply ran out of time.

38. Favorite fictional character:
Jesus, hard question much? Probably someone from Harry Potter to be honest.

39. Favorite fictional villain:
Hmmm. Umbridge is a great villain. Maybe Amy from Gone Girl. I love a villain who is unapologetically villainous. No bullshit Maleficent garbage. Just embrace the evil.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation:
This is such a problem for me and why I'm so glad I have an e-book and book apps on my phone. My taste shifts so much when I'm on holiday.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading:
Maybe a week or two if I'm in a reading slump. But even then I tend to read comics.

42. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
If the tv is on then that. Otherwise food/getting the hungrys.

43. Name a book you could not finish:
Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

44. Favorite film adaption of a novel:
I quite liked the film Never Let Me Go and I preferred the film The Perks of Being a Wallflower to the book.

45. The most disappointing film adaptation:
There are so many.

46. Most money I’ve ever spent in a bookstore at one time:
There have definitely been times when I've dropped a couple of hundred, but that's with the birthday money my grandparents gave me and it's better than blowing it on booze right?

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
One of my worst habits is skimming ahead and reading the final line of a book. It's actually one of the best things about e-books, it's too hard to do.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through it?
If I don't like it. Except sometimes I read a book like crazy in a single sitting, put it down and can never motivate myself to pick it up again.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
There is a very broad system of organisation I use for my shelves. heavy on the broad.

50. Do you prefer to keep your books when done, or give them away?
Keep. Otherwise why buy them?

51. Are there any books that you’ve been avoiding?
A bunch of classics.

52. Name a book that made you angry:
Patricia Cornwell's Jack the Ripper book. What a waste of paper and ink.

53. A book I didn’t expect to like but did:
Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. It wasn't so much that I didn't expect to enjoy it, but I didn't really have a great urge to read it. I ended up loving it though.

54. A book I expected to like but didn’t:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I saw the film first and ran out to get the book as soon as I could and was just incredibly disappointed.

55. Favorite guilt-free guilty-pleasure reading:
I don't prescribe to this guilty-pleasure garbage. If I like it, I like it.

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