Don’t Let Us Lose Another Bookshop

Some grim news came out today regarding Notions Unlimited Bookshop, one of Australia’s favourite bookstores. Owner-operator, all round good guy, and king of all that’s spec-fic, Chuck McKenzie, announced that the bookshop is in very real danger of closing by Christmas or soon after, due to the ever rising costs of running a business.

The following is taken directly from the Notions Unlimited Bookshop‘s website:

Since the day we opened our doors, just 20 months ago, the staff and management of Notions Unlimited Bookshop have worked hard to create something more than just a specialist bookstore, and we feel genuinely proud of much that we’ve achieved during that time, such as:

# Continuing to offer a great range of publications, including the best of Australian small-press, rare and hard-to-get titles, genre classics, and latest new releases.

# Building and maintaining a reputation for friendly and knowledgeable service.

# Keeping our prices reasonable – no mean task in these days of Internet shopping and global economic downturn.

# Becoming accepted as part of the local community, plus creating an ever-growing community of our own, bringing together fans of SF, fantasy, horror, graphic novels, gaming, manga, esoteric interests and more – something we’re especially proud of, and that we hope to continue doing for a long time to come.

In order for us to reach that last goal, however, we really do need the assistance of our customers, general supporters, and Facebook subscribers at this time.

Currently, Notions Unlimited Bookshop is looking at the very real possibility of closure – if not by Christmas, then perhaps just afterwards – with the chief cause being the ever-rising cost of running the business. It’s not definite at this point, but the writing is on the wall, and this appeal is an attempt to reverse matters before it’s too late.

Our aim, therefore, is not just to increase our daily sales, but to substantially increase the number of potential customers. Previously, we have tried to boost customer numbers through signage, social media and print advertising – yet almost 80% of our customers tell us they discovered us through referral from friends, family or colleagues.

So this is exactly what we’re asking our friends and customers to do for us now – refer us!

In a nutshell, while we’d love you to pop into our shop over the next few weeks and purchase a book (or two) to help keep us afloat, what we really want you to do is tell other people about us. Jump on Twitter and Facebook, tell your friends, family, workmates, and anybody else you know who loves SF, fantasy, horror, graphic novels, manga, media tie-ins, gaming, esoteric subjects, and other such related genres, to come and check us out in person (and then tell all of their peeps!). We’re not looking for handouts – just introductions to potential customers who may help to keep us in business. And do be sure to mention to everyone you refer us to that this is all in aid of keeping Notions Unlimited Bookshop operating.

Finally, I just want to make it absolutely clear that this is a genuine appeal, not some fake ‘going out of business’ sale or marketing trick. If things don’t improve markedly for us over the next month, we will almost certainly be forced to close our doors forever. No business owner ever wants to admit that a business is failing, but there comes a time when that owner has to either quietly slide towards the inevitable, or step into the spotlight and ask for assistance. So, if you feel you can assist, and will do so, you will have the absolute gratitude of myself and my staff – as well as, hopefully, a future in which we may continue to provide you with the range, service and community you deserve.

In the meantime, a massive and heartfelt ‘thank-you’ to all of our customers, regular and casual, who have supported us already since we opened. We couldn’t have survived thus far without you.

With Thanks,

Chuck McKenzie (Chief Zombologist)
Notions Unlimited Bookshop
facebook.com/pages/Notions-Unlimited-Bookshop/
@notionsun
info@notionsunlimitedbookshop.com

Bookshops are an endangered entity in this day and age, and whenever one closes its doors for good, we are all a little poorer for it. Don’t let this happen to Notions Unlimited Bookshop. Please help in any way you can.

Dredd – movie review

Dredd is the second attempt to make a movie from the incredibly enduring 2000AD comic strip, Judge Dredd. The last attempt, with Sylvester Stallone in the title role, was such a smouldering pile of crap that I refuse to say any more about it. Does the new version make up for that? Actually, yes it does.

Dredd is the story of a future Earth where nuclear holocaust has reduced the vast majority of the planet to radioactive wastelands full of mutants, generally referred to as The Cursed Earth. The surviving, unaffected members of humanity live in massive, sprawling cities that cover thousands of square miles, called Mega-Cities. The biggest of these, covering the vast majority of the east coast of the US and home to some 800 million people, is Mega-City One. Most people live in Blocks, mega structures of some 200 stories each. As you can imagine, people crammed in those kind of numbers into that kind of space means crime and violence are everyday dangers. The only line between the people and utter chaos are the men and women of the Hall of Justice, known as Judges. They are judge, jury and executioner, dispensing justice and sentence wherever they go. Of all the Judges, Judge Dredd is the Judgiest. An absolute law man, with a perfect working knowledge of every aspect of Mega-City One’s fascist and brutal justice code and a black and white eye for resolution.

This is a world and a society that has grown incredible detail over the decades, so to tackle the subject in a single 90 minute film is daunting, to say the least. The makers of this film, however, were smart and, after some opening sequences through Mega-City One, they locked two judges in one block and the rest of the film played out there. It’s the story of one particular crime boss, known as Ma Ma, and her control of the new drug Slo-Mo. When you take Slo-Mo, you perceive the world as passing at 1% its normal speed, which gives the filmmakers an excuse for some awesome and beautiful super slo-mo sequences. Also some truly brutal ones, but we’ll get to that.

Judge Dredd is saddled with a new rookie judge, Anderson. The rookie failed her test to become a judge, but only just. She does, however, have a pretty powerful psychic ability and the Chief Judge tasks Dredd with taking her out for a day’s assessment to see if the slight fail can be ignored if Anderson’s psychic abilities prove her to be a good judge on the streets. On investigating a triple homicide in Peach Trees Block, they find themselves trapped in Ma Ma’s web and the crime boss seals off the block with war protocols and orders everyone inside to find and kill the judges. Thus begins a Die Hard-esque fight for survival while Dredd and Anderson try to stay alive and dispense justice.

Seeing as I’ve been a fan of Judge Dredd since before my age hit double figures, I was scared about how faithful to the comics this film would be. I have to say, they did a pretty bang-on job. I’ll list quickly a handful of things that deviated from the comics which I wasn’t so happy about. The Lawmaster bikes the judges use looked very different and I didn’t care for that change (though the Lawgiver guns were excellent). The appearance of Mega-City One was quite well done, but there weren’t nearly enough blocks and roads and other signs of density. When we got big aerial shots of the city, the blocks were far too spread apart and that killed what was, to me, one of the best and most horrible aspects of Mega-City One, being the absolutely crammed nature of the city with massive highways criss-crossing the bristling blocks, hundreds of feet in the air. But these are small gripes.

My one main gripe about a change from the comics was around Judge Anderson. In the comics, Anderson of Psi-Division is the best and most powerfully psychic judge in the division. In the film, there was no Psi-Division and Anderson was painted as a mutie, who was lucky enough to have a strong psychic mutation and none of the weird and horrifying physical disfigurements normally associated with denizens of the Cursed Earth. Within the comics, psionics and mutants are not the same thing, and it bothered me that they went that way in the film. And it was also a shame that there’s no actual Psi-Division in the film version, as that reduces by a great deal the stories that can be explored from the comic book’s history.

Anyway, on with the film. As the friend I went with said, “That was the most violent hour and half I’ve ever sat through!” And she’s right. The comic books are very violent, but, being comic books, there’s a certain remove from the actuality of what’s going on. When that is translated into a live-action film, with an R rating and no holds barred on showing what’s happening, the violence is sudden and brutal and unrelenting. But it’s a perfect example of violence in context. The film was far better for it. A place like Mega-City One is a very violent environment, where death and brutality are around every corner, every minute of every day. Life is cheap. That’s explored a lot in the comic books and the film doesn’t shy away from it. Bodies dropped from great heights with realistic impacts, shoot-outs with realistic injuries and so on, often shot in super slo-mo due to the nature of the drug in the story, makes from some very confronting viewing. But it also makes for a strong correlation between comic book and film. When you see someone getting shot in the face in super slo-mo, you’re seeing a filmic version of the single frame in a comic book where the bullet hits its target. As a homage to the style of 2000AD, I enjoyed the way this film was made.

The story itself was pretty much by the numbers. There were no sudden twists and turns, no surprises. The story played out in a fairly linear way and, while we could never be sure exactly who might survive and who might not, the film was more spectacle than deep narrative. The real narrative lay in the place, the people, the situation itself, not in how it played out. As a film, that works just fine when taken for what it is, but it did mean the film felt more like the pilot for a TV series than a standalone movie. And, in all honesty, if they made this into a series, with the production values of this film, I would be one happy monkey.

Dredd doesn’t explore deeply the nature of its dystopian future, which is a shame, but it shows it clearly. It lacks the depth and richness of social commentary it could have had, but it is a perfect example of a genre film. Gritty, relentlessly violent and realistic, this is simply a drug bust gone ballistic set in Mega-City One and it’s brilliant for that. I just hope it’s the first of many films and the subject matter can get deeper and more interesting with subsequent ventures.

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Book Review: House at the End of the Street by Lily Blake

Atom, 2012

Hmmmn.

I’ve tagged this review as both a book review and a movie review, because this “novel” is in fact a hastily written movie tie-in that reads like the Cliffs Notes version of the script. There is no author name on the cover. When exploring the title pages one finds the following explanation: a novel by Lily Blake, based on the screenplay by David Loucka, from a story by Jonathan Mostow. Lily Blake’s name is also attributed to the Snow White and the Huntsman movie tie-in “novel”, which I’ve got here somewhere for review too. A quick Google turns up no photos or meaningful information about Lily Blake, so I can’t tell you anything insightful about this author (except that I don’t believe she really exists and is instead probably a personification of a gaggle of entities churning out these sort of movie promotional tomes).

I repeat: hmmmmmn.

The House at the End of the Street starts off in Twilightesque fashion with a teen girl (played by The Hunger Games’ Jennifer Lawrence in the film) leaving the big city and moving to a quiet country town. Elissa and her mother score an impressive house cheaply due to its grisly history – the couple who lived there previously were murdered by their mentally handicapped daughter, Carrie Anne, who then disappeared without a trace. In true Twilight fashion, Elissa is the focus of many boys in her new town, but her own interest lies with strange and brooding Ryan, Carrie Ann’s brother, who still lives reclusively on the property in a separate house. Then, to use the phrase on the back of the book, “unexplainable events begin to happen” (ugh). There’s a twist that is fairly obvious from  early in the tale, although to be fair, it probably works much better onscreen. There’s also a lot of gratuitous use of “spooky” kids and tugging on the heartstrings ineffectively, which I tend to get my back up about these days, as a parent. If you’re going to use kids in horror, use them well, and use them with respect.

Putting aside my sneery judgemental jabs at cynical money-grubbing exercises masquerading as literature…the book goes through its motions pretty much as you would expect it to. I would class it as YA, and teens would probably enjoy it. It’s a quick read, not atrociously written, but certainly with nothing inspiring between its covers. The prose is cold and simple (and there are quite a few typos – hence my “hastily written” comment earlier). Whoever did actually write it phoned it in and didn’t bother to hide the fact – and why would they. This accompaniment to the movie is what it is. I didn’t hate it. I read it all the way to the end. I did feel dirty afterwards, but I read it anyway. I’ll probably go see the movie, as it’s a competent enough teen thriller, albeit predictable and cliched. What came across as one dimensional in print may do a far better job onscreen with Lawrence and others injecting life into it. It’s very hard to judge a movie when it’s slammed between paper covers and dubbed a “novel”.

Don’t bother reading it, but if you like teen slasher flicks with a bit of a psychological twist, you might enjoy the movie. I’ll go along to see if I do.

El Orfanato (The Orphanage) – DVD Review

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo Del Toro for a long time and his films are usually well worth the time. In this case, the Pan’s Labyrinth director is a producer for director Juan Antonio Bayona’s gothic horror about an old orphanage that is being reborn under the care of an ex-resident. As a child, orphaned Laura lived in the big old house by the Spanish seaside and has fond memories of her time there. She was adopted and left the home. Now in her mid-30s, Laura returns to the dilapidated institution with her husband, Carlos, and their seven-year-old son, Simon, to reopen the orphanage for just a handful of special needs children.

But, naturally, there is something weird going on in the beautiful old house. Simon’s behavior begins to grow increasingly strange and Laura and Carlos start to think the boy is getting carried away with his imaginary friends. On the opening day of the new orphanage, Simon’s bizarre behavior is written off as a bid for attention until truly strange events occur and Simon disappears. The search for Simon leads Laura deep into her memories of the orphanage and she begins to uncover troubling things that occurred after her own adoption.

This is classy and atmospheric film. It’s true gothic horror, with the tension and pace masterfully managed throughout. The acting is top notch, with all the characters utterly convincing. The film addresses the connections between the living and the dead in interesting ways. There’s nothing especially original in the ideas here, but the delivery and way the characters interact with the strange events is excellent.

The real power of this film is the subtlety and understated exploration of the horror as it goes for true emotional engagement. There are occasional old school shocks and a few typical tension-building filmic techniques employed, but they’re handled with as much subtlety as the plot. The cinematography is very good throughout, with the camera making great use of the locations and the architecture of the orphanage.

All in all this is a genuinely creepy and visceral horror film, cleverly written, beautiful shot and well acted. Highly recommended.

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Movie Review: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Directed and co-written by Drew Goddard

Co-written and produced by Joss Whedon

Starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kanz, Jesse Williams

Here’s the integral thing you need to know about me in the context of this review: I’m not part of the cult of Joss Whedon, because I’m largely unfamiliar with Joss Whedon.

I can say “I like his work”, but when I say that, what I’m actually saying is “I like the episodes of Buffy I’ve seen” (because I haven’t seen all of them – and while I do like Buffy, I wouldn’t say I’m a massive fan of the series – I enjoy it, but I’m not passionate about it). And that’s it. I know he also did Firefly and Dollhouse, but I haven’t seen either of those, and in fact I don’t even know what they’re about. I haven’t even seen Angel. I’m sure he’s done other stuff that I don’t even know exists, which is essentially my point – I’m not an avid Joss Whedon fan; I don’t even have a solid awareness of his body of work. Yes, I am a Bad Geek, but the flipside of that is that I went into Cabin in the Woods without preconceived expectations or a pre-existing unshakeable belief that it would be good because Joss Whedon is good.

I’m pointing this out because one of the criticisms I’ve seen of positive responses to Cabin in the Woods is that people are just enthusing about it because Joss Whedon! – which, in my case, is obviously not true.

Now, on to the enthusing. BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD. Seriously, spoilery spoilers of extreme spoilerdom. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read on, it will totally ruin the experience for you. Don’t read any other reviews, either. Just go see the movie.

Cabin in the Woods is ostensibly the story of five college students who drive out to a remote, uh, cabin in the woods, to drink and smoke pot and screw, following which, gory bad things happen to them. The end.

Not.

There’s overt foreshadowing (actually, “foreshadowing” isn’t an accurate descriptor, there’s no subtlety to it, it’s just shoved in the viewer’s face because it’s not a secret, we’re meant to think we know exactly where things are at here) that all is not as it seems from the very start of the film, with technicians in an unnamed facility watching the five teens through surveillance equipment and gearing up for some nasty process to take place that they have obviously overseen many times before. We assume it involves the five’s messy demise. We’re also shown a type of forcefield around the cabin site that a bird smashes into and is electrocuted by. Got it. Can’t get in or out unless something/someone wants you to.

So even now, we think we know what’s going on, right? Yes, the five hapless teens – archetypes from horror movies gone by, including the whore, the virgin, and the jock – are in a secluded cabin and horrific things will happen to them, and as an added twist, the technicians will watch, presumably for jollies or to produce some sort of warped reality show or…something. The end. Right? Nooooooooo.

Once in the cabin, our five become overstated parodies of the archetypes they represent, and there’s all the usual male-gaze and women taking off their tops and dirty dancing and tongue-kissing stuffed wolf heads (what?) and…all that stuff. In Cabin in the Woods, though, this is intended to be ironic. Y’know, the male-gaze here isn’t really male-gaze but a commentary on the male gaze in horror films, and also the product of deliberate manipulation of the five occupants into archetypal behaviours by the technicians overseeing the cabin. And I think, largely, this irony is successful. I still don’t enjoy sitting through pervy scenes of tits and bimbos. It’s still irritating and uncomfortable. But that’s kind of the point. It’s uncomfortable but Cabin in the Woods knows it’s uncomfortable – points out that it’s uncomfortable, and then laughs at itself. And us. And we let it.

And there’s a lot of laughter in Cabin. Scares, yes. Blood, yes. Authentic laughs? Yes. That’s a hard combo to pull off – comedy in horror rarely works well. It works here. And even that is a kind of ironic parody of itself, because the comedy in Cabin is silly and obvious and cliched. But it works because it’s meant to be silly and obvious and cliched and that’s why it’s funny. And we know it’s ironic and that our laughter is ironic and how silly and pretentious that is, and how silly and pretentious we are for buying into the irony, dahhhhhling, and that’s funny too. Aren’t we all so special and hip and bored with life. Ha ha ha. We’re laughing with the movie at the movie which is laughing with us at us laughing with it at it and who’s the idiot here, really?

So, the five go into the basement (which, of course, you should never do), and find weird and wonderful things, and touch the weird and wonderful things (another thing you shouldn’t do), and read out a Latin incantation (definitely never do that), and awaken a zombie redneck torture family who attack, maim, and kill them while the technicians watch and even manipulate to ensure maximum carnage. And eventually everyone except the “virgin” is apparently dead, the watching technicians are rejoicing, and the movie should end.

But that’s where it actually really starts.

Because someone who should’ve been dead isn’t, the order of things is destroyed, and the zombie redneck torture family turn out to be just one of an array of vast subterranean horrors housed beneath the cabin and brought up by elevator based on which object the five choose and activate in the basement.

Things go nuts. The scene where the elevators are all opened and all the creatures fly out and drown everything in all the blood is fucking awesome. The cameo by Sigourney Weaver is sweet. The old Gods thing is cool. The global perspective and the variations in horror between cultures is fun. It’s all massive rapid-fire sensory overload at this point, as the movie inverts itself over and over again, with so many homages and little treasures for fans to spot and enjoy, and it’s delicious.

Sure, some of it’s a bit weak, when you reason through it in hindsight. Like, for such a sophisticated and well-established facility, they sure don’t have any strategies in place to deal with things going wrong – one brain-challenged and easily overthrown guard to deal with escapees? No one thinks to go straight to the elevator the two surviving kids have entered to escape the cabin, despite it being easy to track it as it can only be the elevator the zombie redneck torture family entered the cabin from? Why are the elevators set up to bring all the horrors up from underground and give them free access directly into the facility, anyway? Isn’t there an easier way for the old Gods to get the blood sacrifices they require – like, just shoot the archetypal victims in the head, for instance? And even the archetypes are sort of confused and conflicted – the virgin isn’t a virgin, for example. I could go on. There are silly aspects. But, y’know…

I just didn’t care.

It was that good. I’ll pass them off as deliberate silliness, or more irony/commentary/enigma/critique, or hell, just genuine errors and oversights – whatever. I don’t care. They didn’t matter, the film worked, it was fresh, it was different, it had tension, laughs, surprises, a million small gore-geeky touches (like a device that resembled Lemarchand’s configuration, held by a Cenobite-esque creature called Fornicus, FTW!), it was smart and scathing of everything including itself, the climax just kept on climaxing, there were brilliant monsters and BIG SCENES OF EPIC  BLOOD AND HORROR, and I fucking loved it.

Brilliant. Best horror movie I’ve seen in a long time. So much more than just a horror movie, actually. It raised questions – was the whole thing a critique? A parody? A joke? A puzzle? Or a serious…something? What does it mean if I liked the movie? What would it have meant if I didn’t? The actors were all flawless in their roles (at face value, you’d think that would be easy to achieve in most roles in this movie, but I don’t believe that for a moment because nothing is what it seems here), the effects were fabulous, the aesthetic was gorgeously perfect, and I came out of the cinema reeling with bliss and raving with praise.

If I had a star system to rate movies,Cabin in the Woods would score five out of five.

Maybe I’ll have to consider joining that Whedon cult, after all.