Director: Turner Clay
Writer: Turner Clay
Starring: Justin Ray, Jerod Meagher, Stefanie Estes, Ron Hanks, Michael Taber, Dennis Leech, Morgan Jackson
Some dudes are hanging out in one of their many really nice apartments in LA, wearing striped shirts in neutral colors and drinking and generally being awesome, when meteors strike the city, bringing with them a toxic smoke that kills and reanimates the dead into mutated killers. It’s time to head for the coast, bro!
Ever felt like you couldn’t find your way out of a parking garage? You know, like in that classic SEINFELD episode? Well, get ready to relive the nightmare, because besides shooting most of their movie in a few square blocks of LA – probably in and around their own apartments – the team behind DISASTER LA decided that an action-packed location for much of their zombie romp was the nearest underground parking palace. Presumably, however, they didn’t want to risk having to clean up after themselves when filming there, leading to the awkward and frankly laughable use of CGI glass and identical sound effects every time someone smashes a car window.
There are more than a few nods to the 1984 mutant zombie classic NIGHT OF THE COMET.
There are more than a few nods to the 1984 mutant zombie classic NIGHT OF THE COMET in this lackluster effort, from the harbinger of apocalyptic doom arriving from the skies over LA to the occasionally amorphous skull-like prosthetics for the zombie creatures. There are also some genuine attempts at humor here and there, but like everything else in this movie – except the meteors, that is – nothing quite lands. Oddly, the movie is also a partial remake of film maker Turner Clay’s earlier (and I’m reliably informed, superior) effort, the slightly more CRAZIES-like 2011 STATE OF EMERGENCY. So why make it again, and not as well? Beats me.
Effects-wise, the zombies are mildly interesting, attracted to sight and sound, but barely ever seen – seems they could only afford to make up a few people and do their best to avoid showing them the rest of the time – but the production team must have fallen in love with the CGI helicopter model they made or acquired, since copied-and-pasted groups of them fly by endlessly throughout the film. Oddly, we hear jet fighters without seeing them, prompting us while watching to assume that they must not have had a plane to show. Then, toward the end, the jet fighters turn up on screen too, inexplicably held back in the mix until the final act.
As for other production notes, the wardrobe people must have decided that the apocalypse will best be weathered in muted colors of striped polo shirts. Oh, and hoodies…tons of hoodies! Everyone is wearing them, living and dead. Honestly, did someone on the production have a hoodie store or get a ‘discount’ shipment off the back of a truck?
DISASTER LA dwells in that middle ground between almost competent storytelling and “so bad it’s good” ineptitude.
Truly the worst part of DISASTER LA is that it’s not really all that bad while not being all that good. Although this review may suggest otherwise, the movie has enough in terms of generally decent performance and production to hold interest through most of its running time, even though it fails to deliver on anything too dramatic, meaningful, or even entertaining, and then expects you to just walk away from its beach-based finale with anything more than utter disappointment. DISASTER LA dwells in that middle ground between competent storytelling and “so bad it’s good” ineptitude, a not-at-all-sweet spot of failure that nevertheless results in something dedicated zombie fans might find themselves watching once just for the hell of it. Just don’t blame me when you do.
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Director: Logan McMillan
Writer: Logan McMillan
Starring: Morgan Williams, Robert Faith, Ashleigh Southam, Stacey Stevens
Three house-hopping layabouts slacking their way through the zombie apocalypse find themselves thrust into the role of unlikely heroic trio when they have to help a scientist make her way to an island base to deliver a potential cure. Can they overcome the horrific horde – and their own lack of energy – to make it there in time and in one piece?
There’s a halfway decent zombie movie here, but it’s let down by a less than polished production and an apparent waning interest on the part of the film makers, who late in the film utterly give up on scene transitions and then completely fumble the ending, cutting to black when they simply run out of things to do…or money, based on some behind the scenes reports.
We have a very good trio of unlikely heroes, each with their own distinctive personality quirks and some reasonably satisfying comedic timing (although Ashleigh Southam’s constant geeky gurning gets a bit hard to take after a while). Tooling around in an almost potentially iconic Ford Cortina Mk3, this is a zombie-fighting team you could find yourself rooting for, and indeed I did from time to time. Sadly, however, it isn’t worth getting invested in their efforts, and not because of the genre’s predictability when it comes to the mortality of a movie’s main cast.
This is a zombie-fighting team you could find yourself rooting for, and indeed I did from time to time.
One major flaw is the movie’s desire to get a bit more serious instead of sticking with the tone of a light-hearted romp as our less-than-sharp survivors hop from house to house. Once they meet the all-too-earnest scientist and become part of her crusade, we’re in for a poorly paced ticking clock of a plot that only serves to unravel the already threadbare proceedings.
What I initially took to be the clever if familiar tactic of naming the main characters after zombie genre icons – Ash (EVIL DEAD), Morgan (LAST MAN ON EARTH), and Johnny (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) – turned out after seeing one of the cast interview extras to be less than calculated, with the characters simply named after a couple of the actors playing the parts! So much for giving them credit for nods to zombie history…except of course for when they blatantly lift entire shots from films like 28 DAYS LATER.
Ultimately, my main disappointment with LAST OF THE LIVING is not that it’s a bad movie, but that it occasionally shows signs of having the potential to be a halfway decent one, or at least a “so bad it’s good” experience. There’s the aforementioned rapport between the leads, a few good lines, some reliably impressive New Zealand landscapes as backdrop, and even a couple clever ideas desperately looking for a better film to surround them. The worst part is that after investing the time and being buoyed by those few positive factors, the final ten minutes or so plays out like less than an afterthought, with two major deaths and a non-ending that almost rivals that of MONSTER A-GO GO.
The final ten minutes or so plays out like less than an afterthought.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe – to paraphrase the ending of that infamous MST3K subject – there were no zombies, no hapless trio, nothing in my living room but two puzzled zombie fans of courage who suddenly found themselves alone with shadows and darkness.
*instantly cut to black*
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32 years ago today, American audiences were first introduced to the screen versions of Atreyu, Bastian, and Falkor the Luck Dragon, a few of the main characters from THE NEVERENDING STORY, directed by Wolfgang Petersen.
Based on the 1979 novel by German author Michael Andreas Helmuth Ende, this epic, big budget (at the time, the most expensive movie in German history) 1984 fantasy film took audiences to the incredible world of Fantasia, where the mysterious Nothing was threatening to consume the limitless realm of imagination itself!
For many viewers (especially kids), the dramatic loss of Atreyu’s horse Artax in the Swamps of Sadness (spoiler alert!) left deep scars, but despite persistent rumors, no horses (or actors) perished during the filming of that sequence.
THE NEVERENDING STORY starred a young Noah Hathaway (Boxey from the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) and Barret Oliver (D.A.R.Y.L.) as well as a number of other talented performers buried inside suits and under layers of elaborate makeup.
To learn a lot more about this film, check out CINEMA AND SORCERY: THE COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO FANTASY FILM – written by G2V’s very own Scott Woodard (that’s me!) and Arnold T. Blumberg – in either print or e-book!
…And at this point, we’re just assuming the theme song performed by Limahl (lead singer of ’80s band Kajagoogoo) has now found its way back into your brain. “Turn around, look at what you seeeeeeee…”
UPDATE: You can see the film in a special Fathom Events screening on September 4 and 7, 2016, accompanied by an introduction from critic Ben Lyons and a “Reimagine the NeverEnding Story” featurette!
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Big 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.
1.1 FALLEN ANGELS by Phil Mulryne
The 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.
1.2 JUDOON IN CHAINS by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris
The 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.
1.3 HARVEST OF THE SYCORAX by James Goss
The 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.
1.4 THE SONTARAN ORDEAL by Andrew Smith
The 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.
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.
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KUBO 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.
While 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!