Category Archives: REVIEWS

Reviews

REVIEWS: Doctor Who: Classic Doctors, New Monsters Volume 1 (Big Finish)

avatar-jackarnalBig Finish Productions, home of the licensed DOCTOR WHO full-cast audio dramas since 1999, recently released a new box set pairing four incarnations of the Doctor from the classic era of the show with monsters predominantly associated with the new post-2005 series. Overall, this collection of stories is enjoyable, serving as an excellent entry in the Big Finish DOCTOR WHO canon.

Classic_Doctors_New_Monsters_3D

1.1 FALLEN ANGELS by Phil Mulryne

fallen-angelsThe first story in this collection features the Fifth incarnation of the Doctor (Peter Davison) in conflict with a trio of Weeping Angels. This story serves as a prequel to the TV episode “Blink,” both in terms of the plot and the way time is manipulated in the story; there are even a few lines of dialogue meant to remind the listener of that first appearance by the Angels.

In a box set with “Doctors” and “Monsters” in the title, we should expect a large focus on both; here, the Doctor obviously plays a large role, and so do the Weeping Angels. Considering the Angels are heavily reliant on the visual medium of TV – they become ‘quantum-locked’ when a character looks at them – I was concerned by how they would come across in audio. Fortunately, the sound cues and dialogue are effective in portraying the Angels.

The Doctor and his companions Gabby (Diane Morgan) and Joel (Sacha Dhawan) meet out of order, creating an interesting dynamic in terms of who has more information. The Doctor does remain in charge throughout, and although there are a few points in the story in which Gabby and Joel seem to be better informed than the Doctor, they aren’t in that position as often as I would have liked. Both are academics – Gabby is a physicist and Joel is a historian – in a gender-swapped nod to Ian and Barbara, two of the Doctor’s original companions in 1963. I enjoyed that reference, and I also appreciated the specificity of physics. Given the elements of time travel inherent in the story, I was excited to hear what was in store for a physicist interacting with the Doctor. Unfortunately, Gabby was shut down by the Doctor almost immediately when he told her that most of what she knows about physics is incorrect; I think an opportunity was missed for strong interplay between a physicist and the Doctor.

There was also some wonky psychology presented in the story. As a cognitive psychologist, I can be a little sensitive to issues of mispresented memory science, but here the information presented is suspect at best. It wasn’t as bad as the issue in the next story, but it left me shaking my head. There is a way to make memory loss and recovery work, but the reliance on folk science hinders the story. The ability to suspend disbelief is necessary in any DOCTOR WHO story – and truthfully in much of science fiction – but this pushed me past my threshold.

Minor quibbles aside, the story is excellent, and I look forward to more Big Finish stories featuring the Weeping Angels.

08tardises

1.2 JUDOON IN CHAINS by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris

judoon-in-chains-2The second story features the sixth incarnation of the Doctor (Colin Baker) in a familiar setting – a courtroom. This time the Doctor is defending Captain Kybo (Nicholas Briggs), a member of the Judoon race. Similar to THE TRIAL OF A TIME LORD season, we have a story that starts in the courtroom and then flashes back to previous events.

The mix of courtroom drama, sci-fi outer space, and Victorian-era circus is an interesting mix, but I’m not sure it worked all the time. There’s a lot going on here, with elements of other stories like AVATAR as well as real-life events like the case of Edward Snowden (or, more generally, whistleblowing). For the most part, the story combines these elements well, but there are a few minor issues. The story might have been well served with a few extra minutes of expansion.

As with “Fallen Angels,” there is an issue with some basic pseudoscience. In one scene, the Doctor refers to activating the right hemisphere of the brain of a character, allowing that person to be creative. That combines two unfortunate neuro-myths: that we only use some small percentage of our brains, and that people can be right-brained or left-brained. This flaw does not ruin the story, but it is enough to take me out of it temporarily.

However, this story is worth your time, especially due to Colin Baker. The Big Finish audio stories have served Colin’s Doctor well in the past, and this story certainly allows for another excellent performance.

07tardises

1.3 HARVEST OF THE SYCORAX by James Goss

harvest-of-the-sycoraxThe third story in this box set features the seventh iteration of the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and examines a future in which the physiology of humans is constantly monitored by personal digital devices. Essentially, humans carry iPads with a constantly running WebMD app that gives them advice on which medications to take. This set up creates an interesting connection to the Sycorax, who manipulate humans via blood control. The Sycorax seek the data collected by the devices, allowing the story to examine Big Data and Big Pharma in a not-so-subtle allegory. Because of the story’s humorous approach, that aspect of the story works; at no point does it come across as overly preachy or critical.

Writer James Goss also does an excellent job of making this feel like a Seventh Doctor story. It features a strong female protagonist named Zanzibar Hashtag (Nisha Nayar) and a deceptive Doctor who manipulates the situation both to bring out the best in Zanzibar and to deceive the Sycorax. The story feels like it was written specifically for this Doctor, not for any other.

Unfortunately, the Sycorax are the weak link in the story. Similar to their characterization in their first TV outing, “The Christmas Invasion,” the Sycorax come across as unintelligent and, ultimately, unthreatening; they’re a little too “dude-bro-y” for me. I would have appreciated an expansion of the characterization of the Sycorax. It is especially glaring when heard alongside two stories (JUDOON IN CHAINS and THE SONTARAN ORDEAL) that flesh out two similarly two-dimensional monsters.

07tardises

1.4 THE SONTARAN ORDEAL by Andrew Smith

the-sontaran-ordealThe fourth story in this set begins when a part of the Time War between the Time Lords and Daleks leaks out of the barriers containing it, with severe consequences for the planet Drakkis. Perhaps not surprisingly, this brings the Doctor (in his eighth incarnation as played by Paul McGann) and the Sontarans to the scene.

This story does an excellent job of re-establishing the Sontarans as a race. They are warriors, but science and politics still play a major role in their society. Some past DOCTOR WHO stories have trended away from showing the Sontarans as much of anything other than warriors, but this story shows them as a more three-dimensional race. Familiar voice actors who have previously portrayed Sontarans on TV are employed here, which gives them both an old and new feel; it also reinforces the differences between clone batches. The Sontarans are made more complex, with a great deal of autonomy demonstrated by the main Sontaran, Jask (Dan Starkey), and a fair amount of crossing and double-crossing between other Sontaran characters.

About twenty minutes into the story, there is an excellent interaction between Commander Jask and Sarana Teel that explains how the Time War has affected Drakkis. The scripting and acting during this sequence is fantastic, creating and clarifying the motivation for multiple characters. It also likely serves as an enticing preview for what we can expect from the upcoming Big Finish stories that will be set during the Time War.

One minor quibble with the story rests on an old trope, drowning in quicksand. The Doctor has to rescue Sarana from quicksand and mentions that thrashing around will only make her sink faster. Like the neuro-myths in earlier stories, I would like to see this trope disappear. With that said, this was the best of the four stories in this box set, and probably the best Sontaran story I have seen/heard.

09tardises

In addition to the four stories detailed above, the box set includes an extended audio documentary with interviews and production information. Many of the larger releases from Big Finish include these extras, and they are consistently well produced. This one is no exception, so if you’re interested in this type of value-added material, you’ll be very satisfied with this one.

HELP US BY ORDERING THE BOX SET VIA THIS LINK!

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS: OF SAMURAIS AND SKELETONS

avatar-scottwoodardKUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is a sweeping, cinematic adventure that skillfully blends a few bits of biographical inspiration from creator Shannon Tindle (FOSTER’S HOME FOR IMAGINARY FRIENDS, THE CROODS) with a few lesser-known tales from Japanese mythology, gifting it to audiences through the almost mystical art of stop-motion animation.

An absolute feast for the eyes, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS presents us with sweeping colorful vistas, beautifully designed characters, and one of the largest, if not the largest, stop-motion animated creatures ever devised – a colossal and truly terrifying 16-foot tall skeleton! It also clearly and unapologetically draws upon the work of legendary animator and director Ray Harryhausen. For those unaware, Harryhausen was the artist who populated such films as THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and CLASH OF THE TITANS with a variety of fantastic beasts never before seen on the silver screen…and never better-presented since, at least in this author’s opinion.

Not only does KUBO lovingly and respectfully present us with homages to that late animator’s work, it also draws inspiration from the structure of some of those classic sword-and-sorcery adventures, framing a series of high-energy set pieces with a lofty quest that also finds plenty of time to remind us that behind the sword fights, the eerie opponents, and the rising threat, it is the bond between our leads that keeps us going and desperately hoping for a triumphant conclusion. As others have already pointed out elsewhere, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS also tugs at the heart strings, so prepare to shed a tear or two during the course of the film.

Returning to the film’s admirable structure, like those classic fantasy films of old, KUBO takes its time with character development, giving us enough back-story to understand motivations yet deliberately leaving a few gaps here and there that we know from the outset will be filled in as the story goes on. Before Kubo even sets off on his quest, the movie pauses to inform us that this is no normal, one-eyed kid. Kubo is a traditional bard in the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS mold, manipulating reality through a combination of tale-telling and music. He is also not just another whiny, cookie-cutter, entitled kid seen in so many other contemporary films. Kubo is brave, bright, and compassionate – three truly admirable traits for a hero.

Once the journey begins, the Harryhausen influence rears its head as the quest takes us from one encounter to another. Kubo and his anthropomorphic allies – a well-meaning samurai bug (Matthew McConaughey) and a wise, but stubborn monkey (Charlize Theron) – face sorcerous sisters, sea monsters, ghosts, and the aforementioned skeletal guardian. Each set piece is exquisitely presented and edge-of-your-seat exciting in much the same way as the battle with the giant Talos on the Isle of Bronze or the skeletal hordes spawned from Hydra’s teeth, both from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

Kubo-and-the-Two-Strings-New-Poster-movie-2016-1While I will stop short of offering an over-all review of the film due to the fact that my wife, TaMara Carlson-Woodard, was on the puppet fabrication crew for two years (mainly on the crew responsible for Monkey), I will say that despite my personal connection to the movie – which provided me with the chance to enjoy a crew screening a few weeks ago – I was blown away by the spectacle of KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, and I hope that you will be as well!

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is now playing in theaters. To learn more about the fantastic films of Ray Harryhausen, check out CINEMA AND SORCERY: THE COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO FANTASY FILM written by Arnold T. Blumberg and yours truly! Also check out the movie’s companion volume below:

REVIEWS: Love in the Time of Monsters (2014)

uJZDfxbFCheesy themed vacation destination + toxic waste = zombies in Bigfoot outfits = The key to my heart.

The story centers around Marla as she reluctantly accompanies her sister Carla to surprise her fiancé after she finds out he’s taken a summer job at a gimmicky lodge. When they come into contact with toxic water (a common zombie theme), the costumed employees go a bit off script.

love-in-the-time-of-monsters-58

In the event of a zombie swarm, the only thing I can think of that is worse than being turned is it happening while wearing a ridiculous uniform. I mean, if I’m going to be an undead menace, I would at least like to be a scary undead menace. But when it comes to watching a zombie swarm, it’s pretty satisfying seeing the disgruntled Bigfoot impersonators of Uncle Slavko’s All-American Family Lodge develop a taste for human flesh.

The film has all your classic horror archetypes, but treats them in a refreshingly new way. The weird bearded guy who lives nearby knows he’s the kooky neighbor. When some of the others take refuge with him and tell him to call the police, he sort of sighs and says, “Kid, I’m an angry old man who lives in a shack in the woods. I don’t have a phone.”

When the group of survivors is mulling over their options for getting the lodge doctor (who, despite the chaos, is still dressed as Abe Lincoln) the samples he needs to cobble together a cure, the only non-zombie Bigfoot left gets exasperated, shouting, “You’re going to kill more people than you’re going to save! That’s how these things always go!” I’ll let you guess whether or not he makes it through to the end.

It’s more Club Dread than Camp Crystal Lake…but it’s still enjoyable to watch.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF MONSTERS is campy horror at its finest, anchored by skilled veteran actors, punctuated by snappy dialogue, and propelled forward on continuous waves of gore. It’s more CLUB DREAD than Camp Crystal Lake, with some of the characters coming across a bit over-the-top, but it’s still enjoyable to watch.

There’s brief nudity, but it’s amusing nudity involving a menagerie of zombie woodland creatures and a lot of blood. There’s a rousing battle cry of “We love family vacations!” There’s an all-you-can-eat pie buffet. There’s this guy:

monster07-clip

The film is available both on DVD and VOD, though bonus features are only on the physical copy. I watched it VOD, but I’d be intrigued to see just how much bonus content is on the DVD and whether or not it makes it worth paying a few more dollars.

RATING

08brains

HELP US BY ORDERING THE MOVIE VIA THIS LINK!

REVIEWS: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

uJZDfxbFIt is a truth universally acknowledged that I have been excited for this movie to be released since I first heard about the project.

Despite the sarcastic exterior, I have a real soft spot for Jane Austen’s society stories. And you all know how I feel about zombies. So when the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novel adaptation was published, my inner romantic and inner apocalypse enthusiast finally found some common ground.

Final-UK-quad

Seth Grahame-Smith did an extraordinary job of taking the source text and reimagining it as taking place in the same period in time – except with zombies. The women still have to navigate the same social minefield, but they also have to navigate hordes of the undead as well. They have to figure out which type of weapon is both efficient at decapitating zombies and also ladylike enough to wear under a dress. They have to balance their training as warriors with the expectation that they will eventually be wives.

The women still have to navigate the same social minefield, but they also have to navigate hordes of the undead as well.

It is an incredibly novel premise, and something I had yet to see done before he wrote it. We may not live under the same social constraints of Austen’s time, but there are still a lot of deeply ingrained expectations of women-of-a-certain-age. In my eyes, the addition of zombies to a marriage plot is the ultimate mic drop.

As a fan of the genre, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the portrayal of women in zombie movies is often as objects one step up the chain from the undead. So the idea of seeing a squad of Regency era sisters smashing the skulls of “unmentionables” and blowing the minds of society snobs – on the big screen – was particularly tantalizing.

The Bennet sisters give off a no-nonsense vibe, sparring with each other at home and fighting alongside each other when the need arises. When their backs are up against a wall, they play it cool…though they perhaps play it a little too cool, a little too disaffected. Jane could have been sweeter; Elizabeth could have been more impertinent; Lydia could have been more flighty; Mary could have been more than a just a pair of glasses; Kitty could have been…more (I only knew her character was her because she was the fifth).

All of that is neither here nor there, though. Far be it from me to give notes to an actress on her lady-warrior balance. The fight scenes were satisfying, but short. The romance scenes were charming enough, but lacked any fire. The standout cast member, without a doubt, was Matt Smith in the roll of simpering nitwit Mr. Collins.

The standout cast member, without a doubt, was Matt Smith in the roll of simpering nitwit Mr. Collins.

The reason I enjoyed Smith’s performance above the others was the same reason, ultimately, I feel the movie didn’t fully reach its potential. He understood the wry humor of all of this – of the business of marriage, of Regency ladies fighting zombies, of zombies even as a general concept – and that understanding translated into the shallowest character of the book showing the most depth on screen.

I could have done with about 400% more humor in this movie. It was there from time to time in a passing line or a little gesture, but it was nowhere near as sharp as either author’s text.

When I first walked out of the theater, I felt like they had made an admirable attempt at translating the adapted text to the screen. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like something wasn’t sitting right with me. Not having read it since it was first published, I went back and thumbed through the book and figured out what felt so…off.

Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky

They added an entirely new story to the movie – not new like adding zombies to Austen, but new like adding an entire subplot that wasn’t originally added when he added zombies to Austen. Without getting into spoiler territory, I’ll just say that Wickham goes in a completely different direction from the book, and the movie is poorer for it.

It boils down to not having a clear audience in mind. In the Venn diagram of rabid Austen fans and rabid zombie fans, there is a limited overlap (of which I happen to be a member). Yes, the book sold well when it was released; however, I think a lot of that was due to the novelty that has since worn off with subsequent adaptation projects. It seems as though, in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, they amped up the action in all the wrong places. They added elements that were unnecessary. They flattened out a lot of character attributes.

Yet despite all that, I still believe if you enjoyed the book, you’re going to enjoy the movie. It’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s something different, and the fact that it was such a struggle to get it made is telling of why we need more movies like this.

RATING

05brains

HELP US BY ORDERING THE MOVIE VIA THIS LINK!

REVIEWS: Zombeavers (2014)

uJZDfxbFFor starters, I love comedic horror with a passion. My favorite kind is the particular brand of meta horror perfected by the late great Wes Craven (I’m watching SCREAM right now as I write this). My second favorite kind is comedic horror that is more self-aware than meta, and ZOMBEAVERS definitely falls squarely in this category. They know they’re campy, they’re proud they’re campy, and they’re just going to keep dialing up that camp-o-meter until they break off the knob.

534469-2The premise of the movie is fairly classic as far as zombie plots go: Toxic waste accidentally falls off a truck, resulting in the creation of zombies that terrorize hormone-driven coeds in a remote cabin…except the truck accident is a totally deadpan chuckle-fest, the zombies are beavers, the coeds are comically sex-crazed, and the remote cabin is adjacent to a second remote cabin where a charmingly foul-mouthed, totally hip-to-the-kids older couple lives.

Yes, there is gratuitous nudity, and yes, there are ample beaver jokes, but there’s also genuine hilarity in all of it. When the girls go swimming, one of them peels her top off and revels in baring her chest. Later on, one of the dude bros gets maimed by a zombie beaver and they need to make a tourniquet. The same girl goes to take off her bikini top and her boyfriend dismisses her, saying, “No, that’s too small,” grabbing her dog’s life vest instead.

Yes, there is gratuitous nudity, and yes, there are ample beaver jokes, but there’s also genuine hilarity in all of it.

It’s goofy, the special effects come in just above low-budget level, the zombeaver attacks are amusing to watch, and the characters develop in (very) unexpected ways. Perhaps what I liked most about ZOMBEAVERS is how the film thumbs its nose at the tired “final girl” trope. That and how the beavers were intelligent enough to chew through all the phone lines (those lovable scamps!), which were of course the only means of communication since the cabins were too remote for a cell signal.

All in all, it’s an enjoyable watch and the perfect diversion for a rainy Saturday.

RATING

07brains

HELP US BY ORDERING THE MOVIE VIA THIS LINK!