Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Trial By Blood" by John Macken

"Trial By Blood" by John Macken is a sequel to "Dirty Little Lies" and you probably need to read that first before tackling this one, as the two are closely related. The first book was a decent read, nothing special, but good enough for me to pluck this one off the shelf at the library.

Reuben Maitland, the main character of this series, is a forensics officer who has created some brand new process called "predictive phenotyping", in which DNA can provide not only an identity, but an identikit as well (i.e. what the person looks like). In the first book, Reuben lost his job at the police for misuse of his skills - he used predictive phenotyping to find out who his wife was having an affair with - and now works for himself as a kind of private eye who specialises in DNA. He doesn't like the fact he now sometimes works with the very criminals he used to put away.

The plot here has Maitland being anonymously informed that a man named Michael Brawn has been imprisoned on false DNA evidence that Maitland himself approved. Or so it would appear. His signature was forged! The Michael Brawn in prison is an alias. What is his real identity? Why is he there? Through contrivances too long-winded and silly to go into here, Maitland is the one sent into prison undercover to get a swab of Brawn's DNA. Huh? They couldn't have just launched an official inquiry? Obviously, being an ex-crime fighter behind bars, Maitland has to look out for himself....

"Trial By Blood" is all over the place. There's a subplot about a serial offender dubbed "The Thames Rapist" that the police are tracking. There's another subplot about a footballer client of Maitland's who winds up killing his wife and himself after obtaining DNA evidence from Maitland proving his wife's infidelity. The former links in somewhat to the main narrative, yet is resolved "off-scene" without much fanfare. The latter is so inconsequential that you wonder why it was even included in the first place. There's also the matter of Reuben's son Joshua, who is suffering from leukemia. However, he's not 100% sure Joshua is his son, as his wife had an affair, after all.

As the book nears the finishing line, it throws in twist after twist, each one a bit more ridiculous and desperate than the last. While everything is tied up at the end, you come to realise that none of the characters' actions or motives made a lick of sense. And there are plot inconsistencies and holes that you could drive trucks through. For example, when Maitland is put into prison "undercover", they don't bother changing his identity! He's put on remand for the (false) attempted murder of his wife. When he's forced to break out of prison (ridiculous in itself), and on the run, all of a sudden he's wanted for the flat-out murder of his wife! Couldn't a moment of research reveal his wife is alive and well and a HIGH-PROFILE LAWYER???

And, as for said wife - who's name is Lucy - could you find a more one-note character? She's portrayed as nothing more than a self-centred rampaging bitch. While you could hardly call the characters here fully-rounded and three-dimensional, her non-stop unpleasantness really grates after a while.

"Trial By Blood"s final sin is padding. Lots of it. About 150 pages could be shaved off this thing. Maitland's journey to prison to get Michael Brawn's DNA - the crux of the story - doesn't occur until well after 100 pages. The book has nice, short chapters that are handy for when you're reading on the bus, but it means an odd 3 pages of Lucy going "wah, wah, wah, my husband's a prick", or an odd 3 pages of Maitland's old boss pondering OVER AND OVER AGAIN whether he should be trusted or not. It contributes little to the narrative other than upping the word count.

So, no, I can't say I'd recommend "Trial By Blood". The idea of a DNA expert working outside the law would make a great television series, where subplots about bitter custody battles, tracking rapists or going undercover would be more acceptable and more entertaining. But in this book, even with so much going on, Macken still struggles to expand it over the length of the novel.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Eeeeeeek! Eeeeeeeeeek!

You can either interpret that as the cry of the "Blood Monkey", or cries of terror in general after sitting through both that movie and "Captivity". Having a kind-of last-minute movie marathon to watch all the movies I hired a week ago that are now due back.

"Blood Monkey" stars Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham as a slightly mad professor who wants to find a tribe of monkeys. Six students are along for the trip. The reason behind the expedition was probably explained at some point, but I was bored about five minutes into this tripe, and some early bits were missed because the disc was skipping. Nevertheless, barely anything happens until at least an hour into the movie, when the unseen monkey finally starts screeching and slaying. There's a bit of blood and gore, but why do we barely see the monkey? What's the point of making a killer-monkey movie if it's never actually going to make an appearance? It could actually be an ape or a chimpanzee, but we'll never know because the idiotic filmmakers couldn't be bothered (or maybe didn't have the money) to provide proper glimpses of the monster they were making the movie about! Tack on an ending that feels like they ran out of film, and the only thing you're left to wonder about is why anybody would care that F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar more than twenty years ago. He hasn't done anything worthwhile since and should probably give it back. Yet they can still advertise their movie as starring an Oscar winner! Let me tell you now - you don't hire a movie called "Blood Monkey" because it stars an Oscar winner. I was expecting some blood and some monkeys. I got a bit of the former and none of the latter.

The story behind "Captivity" is much more interesting than the piece of disgusting, worthless garbage I put in my DVD player. Originally devised as a "Saw"-like thriller, this has supermodel Jennifer (Elisha Cuthbert) kidnapped and imprisoned in a dungeon. She eventually discovers another prisoner (Daniel Gillies), and the two must band together to survive the mind games their captor is playing on them. Preview screenings of the film were so disastrous that the movie had to go back for re-shoots. They dropped about 90% of the cops-investigating-the-case subplot and replaced it with gory torture scenes. You see, apparently the original version of "Captivity" was a psychological thriller with not much gore. The movie I just watched had a woman receiving an acid bath. Another person gets their tooth pulled out. Elisha Cuthbert gets strapped down to a gurney, a funnel forced into her mouth, and fed a blended concoction of human body parts. She's also forced to shoot her dog.

The studio was obviously jumping on the torture-porn bandwagon, but far too late. "Hostel 2" and "The Hills Have Eyes 2" had already failed at the box office. Nevertheless, they put up billboards all over the city advertising their movie, with Elisha Cuthbert in various stages of degradation and torture. There was a massive outcry and the studio was forced to pull the billboards down. The publicity thankfully didn't equate to box office dollars, because this piece of shit doesn't deserve it.

Now, I've said before I don't mind what they call "torture-porn". It's actually a term I don't like, because many of the films unfairly labelled as that were simply trying to provide a more intense, visceral horror experience than the many light-weight horror flicks that had been flooding the market at the time. But when you watch something like "Captivity", there really isn't any other way to describe it. We don't learn a single thing about Jennifer before she's abducted and tortured. Are we supposed to assume she deserves to be force-fed human body parts, or gassed, or nearly buried alive? Maybe if the script had taken a couple of minutes to provide some, oh I don't know, CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, maybe I would have cared a little more about what was going down before my eyes. Director Roland Joffe has been nominated for an Oscar twice, for 1984's "The Killing Fields" and 1986's "The Mission" and writer Larry Cohen is the mastermind behind many cult movies, in particular the mutant baby movie "It's Alive". The studio should take some of the blame, but they're all responsible for delivering a movie that's made it onto my Top 10 Worst Movies list. It's a torture movie that's torture to sit through.

I hire movies and never watch them

Last Tuesday, while still on holidays, I dropped by the video store. I couldn't find anything interesting in the new release section, so I went to the weeklies. My Civic Video store in Maylands is pretty darn decent - stuff hits weekly quite quickly. I grabbed "Blood Monkey", "Vipers" (starring Tara Reid, no less), "Taken", an action thriller starring Liam Neeson that is still playing in US cinemas, "The Insatiable", "Hybrid", some ghost story called "Driftwood" and "Captivity", a torture-porn thriller I've tried watching at least twice already and failed, but since it was weekly figured I could give it another try.

And how many have I watched? None! I started watching "Blood Monkey", but as is typical when you hire movies from the video store, the disc started skipping after about 15 minutes. Every time this happens, I always wonder - WHAT THE HELL DO PEOPLE DO TO DISCS THEY HIRE? Do they find some olive oil in the pantry and rub it all over the disc? Do they spit on it? Piss on it? Stick it in the microwave or washing machine? How hard is it to slip your finger through the hole in the disc and put it in the DVD player? Instead, 90% of discs I hire have greasy fingerprints all over them, and God knows what else. It really pisses me off. And, when you think about it, really quite gross. You don't know where the hell these discs have been. Touching some icky DVD is probably how I caught chicken pox. It will likely be the explanation when I inevitably catch swine flu. At the moment I'm blaming work, and that will always be my "official" reason, but sometimes I wonder.

In any case, when "Blood Monkey" started skipping I just couldn't be bothered. I ejected the DVD and slapped in Season 5 of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit". Since I own it, I knew there were no scratches, no greasy fingerprints, no reason for the disc to skip. I watched four episodes in a row. By the way, if anybody knows where I can buy Seasons 6, 7 and 8, let me know.

The weeklies from Civic Video are due back today. Yet another late fee is coming my way. I'll try to watch a couple. I mean, Tara Reid in a made-for-TV snake movie? How can I look at myself in the mirror if I don't at least give it a try?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Home Before Dark" by Charles Maclean

Ed Lister is some sort of property magnate who is obsessed with finding the killer of his daughter. One year after daughter Sophie's murder, new evidence comes to light thanks to Sophie's friend Sam Metcalf, who has discovered some material on her computer, which Sophie used to borrow frequently. This leads Ed to a website called Home Before Dark and its sociopathic webmaster Ward. Ed hires cyber-detective Campbell Armour to track down Ward, whom he believes stalked Sophie over the Internet and finally killed her. Campbell's digging into the past uncovers Ward's haunted past, plus a possible connection to Ed, which makes Campbell suspicious of his client. Meanwhile, Ed is becoming increasingly obsessed by Jelena (aka Jelly), a girl half his age he chats with on the Internet.

"Home Before Dark" was a good book. It was never dull - the pace was fast, there were moments of genuine suspense, I kept questioning the true intentions of the characters, and I was gulping down Coke well into the night in an effort to stay awake long enough to finish it. While the solution to the mystery was much less interesting than what the set-up suggested, I can't deny this one kept me hooked. But where this book truly got it wrong was in the characters. First of all, I'm tired of male authors in this genre constantly painting the father as the one who truly cares for his kids, the one who will go to any lengths to protect/avenge them, while portraying the mother as uninterested, unsupportive and uncaring. I can't back up my claims with specific examples right now, but this is a blog entry, not a research paper....and besides, I'm right.

Anyway, Ed Lister isn't an engaging protagonist. He falls head over heels for someone he's never actually met. He and his wife actually have another child - a son, George - who gets mentioned a couple of times in the first half of the book, then basically disappears. Even the other characters describe Ed as pompous and unlikeable. So why should we, the reader, give him the time of day? Campbell Armour, the cyber-sleuth, is much more likeable. He obviously cares for his family, has a self-deprecating sense of humour, and comes across as plucky and intelligent. I cared about what happened to him. Finally, Jelena/Jelly is the most badly defined character to be found here. Maybe it was a male author inaccurately trying to create a complex female character, but I just found Jelly to pretty much be a prick-tease. She lies to Ed about every aspect of her life, keeps telling him that she can't talk to him anymore, only to egg him on a little more because she can't make up her mind, even pretends to be someone else so she can meet him. By the end of the book, I was hoping Ward might buck genre traditions and just cut off her head.

Even more pugnacious, and I'm going to get a little spoiler-ish here, but by the end, Ed's wife Laura admits she's been having an affair since before their daughter was even murdered, further pushing her into "uncaring bitch" territory and consequently justifying Ed's seeming abandonment of his family while creepily and obsessively pursuing Jelly. I don't know if the author has some sort of dislike of women, or is simply useless at writing about them, but it was certainly a huge drawback here. Anyway, I did enjoy "Home Before Dark" - if Maclean can work on his characterisation, the next book could be a real winner.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Vodka Doesn't Freeze"

"Vodka Doesn't Freeze" by Leah Giarratano is an Australian entry in the crime genre and although not as bad as anything written by Australian crime author PD Martin, it's certainly nothing to get excited about. Just like "Devil's Peak", this has a serial killer targeting child abusers and child killers, and our main character Sgt Jill Jackson isn't sure she wants to find the murderer. After all, isn't he doing the community a favour?

As the genre dictates, your lead cop needs to have a Haunted Past. Although Jill isn't an alcoholic (like what you'd usually find in a crime novel), she was kidnapped and raped for three days when she was twelve. This is a little more extreme than the Haunted Pasts you usually get for your main character, and it just doesn't quite work. Jill is still (understandably) deeply traumatized by this event, suffering frequent flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks. It kind of made me wonder how she managed to pass any police psychiatric exams before being allowed into the force, especially since she acts like a fruitcake half the time.

To help her deal with her demons, Jill likes to run obsessively (where have I seen that before?), and has tight control over her life. Giarratano is a psychologist in real life, and indeed presents a complex, believable portrait of an abuse survivor. But, like I said, it seems difficult to believe Jill would have ever been allowed into the police force, and she doesn't exactly come across as a particularly cluey detective. It wasn't terribly fun spending time in Jill's headspace. In fact, it wasn't much fun spending time in any of the other characters' headspaces, as most of them were paedophiles.

Giarratano has done her research, and it shows. She also strikes an appropriate balance between demonstrating this research and keeping the story moving (something PD Martin fails miserably at). But in her effort to be gritty and believable, things just go a little too far. By the time the story is over, Jill has been physically assaulted by a bikie, breaking some of her ribs, sexually molested by a prisoner, urinated on by a killer, temporarily blinded, and beaten a little more. The assault by the bikie in particular is ridiculously gratuitous nastiness, as it has little to do with the rest of the plot, and Jill is up and doing her obsessive running again within days, despite apparently having broken ribs!

I'm not one who typically balks at a bit of nastiness in books or movies, but even I have my limits. With Jill's frequent degradation, her presentation (intentional or not) as a not-very-effective detective, and frank depictions of child abuse, it's very difficult to recommend this one. TV's Law & Order: SVU deals with the same subject matter - in a visual forum, no less - with tighter plotting and better characterization.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"Devil's Peak" never actually peaked, despite Michael Connelly's promise

Having finished "Devil's Peak" this morning, I was quite underwhelmed. The subplot with the prostitute divulging her secrets to the minister barely amounted to anything at all. I'm impressed by author Deon Meyer's ability to stretch a plot where barely anything happens over 400 pages, but that's about it. No suspense, no real surprises in a book with a non-linear narrative that doesn't confuse, but certainly annoys. Apparently this won a literary prize in South Africa, so maybe it has really well-constructed sentences and a sense of style that completely flew over my empty head. All I could tell was that it was BORING. I know I've bagged James Patterson out in the past, but even if he and his co-authors are lousy writers, appealing on a lowest-common-denominator trashy entertainment value, at least their stories move. There was a very interesting interview with him in a Sunday Times lift-out, where he openly calls himself a "brand" and admits he's not terribly good a writing or constructing sentences. He comes up with the plots and the co-authors write the novels. If he can pick some better co-writers (chiefly, PLEASE get rid of Maxine Paetro), he could actually put out some decent books.

Anyway, after putting down "Devil's Peak" in disappointment, I noticed a quote on the cover given by Michael Connelly, one of the best writers in the genre. He says: "With Deon Meyer, you can't go wrong." And I realised, this wasn't the first time I'd seen an endorsement on the cover, or within the pages of, a crime novel. In fact, I see quotes from Michael Connelly an awful lot. Same with Tess Gerritsen and Harlan Coben, two other great crime writers. These three certainly show up with favourable quotes more than all the other authors. I've come to think of them as "Quote Whores". Do they get a little payment for these? Once, while on Gerritsen's website, there was a blog entry on how she gets sent manuscripts for all these unpublished novels for her opinion. So I'll give all these authors the benefit of the doubt and assume they read the novels they're championing, but surely when your name pops up again and again on the cover of a new book stating how wonderful it is, you start losing a bit of credibility? Or at the very least, your word starts counting for less? Celebrities cop a lot of crap if they start endorsing everything under the sun, so why should it be any different for authors?

"The Devil's Star" and "Devil's Peak"

These two books have a few things in common. They've got "devil" in the title, obviously. They have both been translated from other languages, and both feature a lead detective who is an alcoholic. "The Devil's Star" is from Norwegian author Jo Nesbo and is actually the third book in a series featuring detective Harry Hole, but it was the first one to be translated into English. Therefore, much of this book makes reference to events from a previous novel in which Hole's police partner was murdered, and he suspected co-worker Tom Waaler of the crime. In "The Devil's Star", Hole is forced to get over his alcoholism and learn to work with Waaler, since they have both been pared up to investigate a rash of murders in which the victims have been found with a diamond pentagram on their bodies, and one of their fingers removed. It's a fairly standard mystery, and I wasn't all that interested in the subplot about whether or not Waaler was a dirty cop, but it kept me reading. I don't know if I liked it enough to track down the other books in the series, which have subsequently been translated and released (out of order), but you never know. Maybe I'll check the library.

"Devil's Peak" is from South African writer Deon Meyer. I'm actually only half-way through this one, and it's been very difficult to get into. The plot has alcoholic inspector Benny Griessel having to get over his alcoholism or risk losing both his job and his family. There have been a number of murders committed by a killer nicknamed "Artemis", and he is only targeting people who have abused or killed children. He's on this rampage because his own child was gunned down in a drive-by and the killers are still on the lam. There's also a subplot in which a prostitute tells a minister about her life, but as yet this element has not revealed its relevancy. I'm hoping it will all weave together into something interesting and surprising, but the pacing so far is not what you'd call zippy.

Having an alcoholic cop/private investigator as your book's hero/anti-hero really is becoming an over-used cliche. Lawrence Block has had the alcoholism-as-personal-demon thing covered since the 80s with his character Matt Scudder. There have been plenty of other novels with this sort of character, but they're not coming to mind right now. A similar cliche is found with female detectives/investigators in that they all seem to love cooking and going for a run. Inspired, obviously, by Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta character. I know that, being a popular genre, crime novels are inevitably going to have their own list of cliches, but would it really be that bad if your main cop/investigator came home at the end of the day, enjoyed a couple of beers, watched TV and fell asleep at 8.30?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

No Man's Land: Rise Of The Reeker

Another day, another sequel. A few years back there was a horror movie called "Reeker" which involved a group of friends on their way to a rave getting stuck at a run-down gas station and stalked by a strange entity who always comes accompanied by an atrocious stench. It was actually the script that stank so bad - as it happens, that mild car accident that occured early on in the film was much more serious than originally thought and the friends are all in a state of limbo. There is no creature called the Reeker - it was literally the stench of death coming after those who didn't survive the car wreck. That's right, most of them were DEAD ALL ALONG. God, I'm sick of that ending.

For some reason, a studio let director Dave Payne take a second shot at the concept in "No Man's Land: Rise Of The Reeker". And guess what? It's not too bad. Somebody must have told Payne that almost ten years on from "The Sixth Sense" that the whole they-were-dead-the-whole-time twist is not so terribly surprising anymore. Instead, he immediately creates a legend, if you will, that explains the creation of The Reeker (usually the soul of someone who was very evil while they were alive i.e. a serial killer). He then introduces a motley crew of characters including a sheriff and his son, a waitress, a doctor and a couple of casino thieves who, after a big shoot-out and explosion, find themselves caught in a bizarre state of limbo. But this time around, the characters slowly manage to figure out that they are indeed caught between the living and the dead and are being targeted by some sort of soul collector - he's come to get the ones who are supposed to be dead. So instead of trying to surprise the audience with an overused twist ending, things zip along nicely until the end, which wraps everything up neatly. There's the inevitible set-up for a sequel, but it's in keeping with the mythology set up at the beginning of the movie.

So there you have it. "No Man's Land: Rise Of The Reeker" isn't a great horror movie - it wasn't remotely scary or suspenseful. But it contained a couple of original ideas, likeable characters, and a few gory moments. Which at least makes it a cut above a lot of the stinky competition.

Monday, June 1, 2009

An analysis of the Poison Ivy movies. Yes, they deserve one.

The "Poison Ivy" franchise has, if nothing else, been remembered as the one that got soon-to-be-famous actresses out of their clothes and simulating sex with male co-stars much older than them. Drew Barrymore was the first to do it at just 17. The first "Poison Ivy" came out in 1992, around the same time as other sexy movies like "Basic Instinct", "Body Of Evidence" and "Sliver" hit the big screen. There really wasn't all that much to it, other than the future "Charlie's Angels" movie star pushing former "Charlie's Angels" TV star Cheryl Ladd off the balcony. Oh yeah, and 17-year-old Drew simulating sex with 59-year-old Tom Skerritt. Ew. And don't think I'm spoiling anything, because you've had 17 bloody years in which to watch the thing!

"Poison Ivy 2: Lily" popped up a few years later, this time going direct-to-video. Alyssa Milano was post "Who's The Boss?" and pre "Charmed". She was trying to ditch her goody-goody image and had also just completed "Embrace Of The Vampire", a nudie classic that also starred Martin Kemp from 80's rock band Spandau Ballet and - wait for it - Cheryl Ladd's daughter Jordan! "Poison Ivy 2: Lily" was only vaguely linked to the original, as Alyssa finds Ivy's diary and lets it lead her on a journey of sexual discovery, including simulating sex with a pre-fame Jonathan Schaech. Or something. The movie was a heap of shit and I can't remember much of it. If you're after some Milano mammaries, "Embrace Of The Vampire" is the much better movie anyway, plus it includes a foursome.

"Poison Ivy 3" I cannot comment on, because I'm pretty sure the bloody thing hasn't even been released in Australia. Because believe me, if it had, I would have seen it already. Any movie title with a numeral after it, I've generally seen. Anyway, part 3 was the movie debut of Jaime Pressly, who's now winning awards (and deservedly so) for her role as Joy in TV's "My Name Is Earl". Some research on the trusty Internet Movie Database tells me she played Violet, apparently the younger sister of Ivy. She seduces Greg Vaughan, who would later be a regular on TV's "Charmed" and Michael Des Barres from 80's rock band Animotion. My God, the coincidences just don't stop!!!

The reason for this brief history? I was lucky enough last night to sit through "Poison Ivy 4: The Secret Society". Now other than the flower motif, there's no connection to the previous films. If anything, this should have been called "The Skulls 4", because it far more resembles those movies. Except with a lot more tits. This time around, naive Daisy (Miriam McDonald), fresh from the farm, arrives at University and because she is so attractive and smart, immediately attracts the attention of Azalea (Shawna Waldron), head of The Ivies, the secret society of the title. Except they're not so secret, because everybody knows about them. Azalea actually sees Daisy as a threat to securing some internship, and is simply following that old adage of "keep your friends close and your enemies closer". Azalea desperately wants that internship, not to mention some better grades, and does the usual sex trades in her attempts to score them, then resorting to murder when the sex doesn't work. She tries to frame Daisy for all her bad deeds. Daisy, despite being told that The Ivies are all-powerful and have been for decades and simply can't be stopped - achieves just that by simply recording Azalea's confession on a cassette tape. Wow. Pure genius.

This movie, unsurprisingly, was shit. Pathetic plot, pathetic dialogue and pathetic sex scenes. The Internet has some mild buzz about the movie, as star Miriam McDonald is one of the leads on TV's "Degrassi: The Next Generation" (which I've never watched), and she gets her boobs out a couple of times here. Although it's not her fault, I hated the character. At the start of the film she tells her boyfriend she's not ready for sex, but once she's at university, she gives it up to the first greasy, unattractive poon-hound who looks at her twice. It's hard to like a film when your main character is a complete wet blanket. No wonder her idea to bring down The Ivies was something an untrained monkey could have conceived.

Co-star Shawna Waldron was a child star back in the mid-90s and also goes topless, but she's the far better actress. She plays the murderous vixen well, conveying both sexiness and menace. Considering that what was on the written page was utter garbage, that's quite an achievement. Should she go onto bigger things (and she deserves to), the "Poison Ivy" franchise's legacy of undressing future stars will be maintained and all will be right with the world.