Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: Married with Zombies by Jesse Petersen

Article first published as Book Review: Married with Zombies by Jesse Petersen on Blogcritics.

Sarah and David have hit a rut. They fight all the time; neither enjoys the other’s company; and the most trivial of issues sets their teeth to grinding. After six tortuous months of couples’ counseling, the pair has just about reached the end of its rope.
But then something wonderful happens: the couple’s therapist gets eaten. And I mean cannibal-style. That’s right, folks. The proverbial zombie apocalypse has struck again. Only this time around it’s testing more than the mere fabric of our society. It’s going after the very bonds of marriage.
After something unspeakable breaches the labs at U-Dub, Sarah and David soon find themselves in a struggle to flee the treachery of a Seattle overrun with zombies. They must take up arms, loot stores for provisions, use their wits, and, above all else, keep their cool if they wish to survive this Armageddon. For the two may well tear out each other’s throats before the undead have a chance to do the honors.
Jesse Petersen’s debut novel Married with Zombies is a bloody clever addition to zombie fiction. Her married readers are treated to plenty of spousal head-butting and the diehard fans of the undead get all the headshots, dismemberments, and arterial spattering their hearts can desire.
The two lead characters, Sarah and David, are hilariously written. They bumble about the stricken northwest, dodging the infected, making one uproarious mistake after another. And they remain at each other’s necks the entire time. Indeed, Petersen does a bang-up job of reminding readers that legions of reanimated, cannibalistic corpses are not the only things keeping our hero and heroine on edge.
But all that’s not to say Petersen has skimped on her minor characters. Quite the contrary, this struggling couple crosses paths with a plethora of outrageous, well thought-out personalities that readers won’t soon forget. Throughout the book, the audience is introduced to impossibly stupid neighbors, creepy-as-all-get-out landlords, crack-shot hillbillies and post-apocalyptic cults whose members may be just a smidgen overzealous. Best of all, though, Petersen manages to make each new encounter at once hair-raising and sidesplitting alike.
I won’t go heavy into the story’s plot because, well, it’s pretty darn straightforward: patch a marriage and try not to get devoured (literally) in the process. Besides, what this novel really revolves around is the tenuous relationship held between the hero and the heroine.
A few dramatic moments are sprinkled atop the author’s comedic debut, but they are handled carefully and in no way jar the reader. Overall, it’s a bloody good jaunt, packed complete with decapitation, evisceration, social collapse, and good old fashioned couples’ bickering. Marriage can be tough, and zombies may be brutal. But, believe me, combined, the two make for an absolute – albeit gory – delight.
Published by Orbit September 1, 2010, Married with Zombies is available in mass-market paperback (spanning 272 pages), e-book, and audio format. Petersen’s upcoming sequel, titled Flip this Zombie, is slated for release January 3, 2011 and comprises the second installment to her Living with the Dead series.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Blu-ray Review: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas

In 2005, T.V. audiences were introduced to the peculiar proprietors of a bar in Philadelphia. Twins Dee and Dennis Reynolds (played by Glenn Howerton and Kaitlin Olson) worked at the bar with their legal father Frank (played by Danny DeVito), Charlie Kelly (Charlie Day) and Mac (Rob McElhenney).  There was something strange about these people and their run-down Irish pub.  They never seemed to have any customers.  But viewers soon came to understand the reason behind this lack of clientele – all five of the bar’s owners were disruptive, unscrupulous, misfits.

            Every episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia features outrageous situations that develop as a result of this gang’s inconsiderate actions.  One day they’ll attempt to be the next big thing on YouTube.  The next day they’ll be “getting racist.”  On any given episode, one can find this lot of cretins doing something that’s just plain wrong.

This holiday season, you can watch the gang from Sunny spread the yuletide cheer in A Very Sunny Christmas, an exclusive, 43-minute episode placing the group in yet another outlandish sequence of events.  Frank would always buy the presents Dee and Dennis wanted for Christmas.  The only problem was that he would buy them for himself.  As a result, the two seek revenge on Frank.  They are going to show him the error of his ways, and their going to do it a la A Christmas Carol.

Charlie and Mac, on the other hand, always got presents and they always got plenty of them.  They couldn’t have been happier with their childhood Christmases.  But once they finally learn of the true sources of these “gifts,” the two set out to right the people they’ve wronged in holidays past.  Along the way, the audience bears witness to some messed up Xmas family traditions – traditions that provide notable insight into just how these five grew to be the bunch of anti-social screw-ups we’ve come to know and love.

Blu-ray is perfect for viewing this exclusive and its wonderfully blasphemous rendition of the children’s classic Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).  With the AC-3 format you’ll feel like you’re actually at the North Pole with Sam the Snowman and his dentist-wannabe comrade Hermey.  By scene’s end, however, you’re going to be thanking Santa that you aren’t (I swear I may never look at stop motion animation the same way again.).  The 1080p HD visuals leave the viewer aghast as the gang commits act after unscrupulous act.  Not one shred of good will toward men is to be salvaged on this holy night.  However, it is the exclusive’s crisp-clear audio that’s most beneficial, as it easily catches the characters’ edgy, fast-paced dialogue.

Special features include deleted scenes between young Mac and young Charlie, a tripping Sunny sing-a-long, and a behind-the-scenes feature where the cast and crew talk about the filming of this most irreverent Christmas special.  This widescreen edition features DTS Surround Sound and an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.  Audio is in English and is presented in Dolby Digital, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Fred Savage has come a long way since his days playing Kevin Arnold on The Wonder Years (1988-1993).  Sure, as producer/director of the outrageous hit series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, he may have acquired an approach to comedy that’s just a tad less wholesome.  He might have taken a step or two away from traditional family values.  Oh, who am I kidding?  The show is bawdy, vulgar, and perhaps bordering on psychotic.  It’s an absolute delight.

You can catch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Thursday nights at 10:00 ET on FX.  But if you’re looking to see a sociopathic twist on the year’s most celebrated holiday, then gather ’round the television for A Very Sunny Christmas.

Why Is Bad Sci-Fi So Good?

I don’t know just why.  Maybe it was decreed by the Gods when they created the heavens and the earth.  Maybe the reason has been lost with the ages, or lies somewhere between this world and the next.  Maybe Dean Cain knows the answer  (He is, after all, in just about every one of these films.).

Whatever the case may be, I have grown certain of this:  Bad Sci-Fi flicks rock!  I don’t care if it’s zombies, ghost ships, giant spiders, shape-shifting aberrations, or abominable snowmen.  I don’t care if its zombies on ghost ships fighting giant spiders while an abominable snowman steers the ship.  Bring ’em all on at once.  The more the merrier.

I mean, I’ve got my favorites just like anybody else.  But in the end, if it’s on the Sci-Fi Network, and if it’s a movie, I’m probably going to watch it.  Every single aspect of these movies calls to me, beckoning me to invest two hours in the lowest quality television one can conceive.

But just what is a bad Sci-Fi movie?  Well first, off you must have a wretched screenplay – a screenplay so bad that one cringes when it’s read.  Clich├ęs must cover and tarnish every page.

Second, you must have B-list actors.  Dean Cain and Luke Perry are often your go-to guys for this.  One wants a cast that appears to have just been picked up off the street and thrown in front of the camera.  Some A-list actors from the 80s and 90s are acceptable, but only if they need work, and only on occasion.

Third is CGI.  Now, this might be disputable, as a plethora of wonderfully awful B-movies have been made without the “advantage” of low-grade CGI.  But bad science fiction movies have come so far with this new technology and in order to get the true, modern B-movie experience it is required.

Lastly, and most importantly, you’ve got to have a train-wreck of a plot.  The aforementioned yeti-steered ghost ship battle would work just fine.  So long as it’s bad it will suffice.  Indeed, this is the litmus test for all bad Sci-Fi.  If it’s clear that no thought went into making it, then you know you’ve got a gem.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Movie Review: The Box

In the 1970s (just as NASA is getting on its feet), a married couple is confronted by a man standing at their doorstep, carrying an unassuming wooden box.  In the box is a button.  If they push the button they will receive one million dollars, and somewhere, someone that they do not know will die.

            While rather venturous in substance, The Box has this viewer’s vote for most befuddling film of 2009.  This may be attributed to both complexity of plot (40 minutes in and I felt like I was taking crazy pills) and sheer disjoint.  Moral dilemmas abound in this semi-sci-fi thriller.  The audience is confronted time and time again with unthinkable decisions, nigh impossible for a moral agent to make.  They would tear at the heart of anyone who tried.

Therein lies the key problem with this film: the moral dilemmas projected on the audience do not tear at their hearts.  In fact, they barely yank the heartstrings.  This is due almost entirely to poor presentation.  The issues are there, but the audience does not care about them.  They are too dully and too artificially injected into the story to be of any intrigue to the viewer.

2008’s The Dark Knight couldn’t have featured a premise less inclined to waxing philosophical.  At its most basic level, a clown was fighting a man dressed like a bat.  But somehow, what director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan ultimately produced was a film so complex and so laden with philosophical quandaries as to render it worthy of Oscar recognition.  I’ll admit, however, that they had loads of CGI and special effects to work with, in addition to a slightly bigger budget.

All that aside, there is one gem amidst the muddled mess that is The Box: Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon).  Langella is absolutely phenomenal as the mysterious stranger who arrives with the ghastly proposal.  Unfortunately the same high praise cannot be offered to Langella’s co-stars, all of whom come off as wooden and heavily scripted.  Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary) manages to produce a fairly sympathetic protagonist, but her southern accent in the film detracts – I’ll never understand why filmmakers employ this needless countrified brogue (I’m not averse to southern cadence, just non-southern actors using it, as so few of them can credibly pull it off.)  James Marsden (X-Men) cannot even fall upon this excuse.

I will concede two points in favor of this film.  One is Langella, who is truly Oscar-worthy good.  The other is the film’s faithfulness to its origins: a short story titled “Button, Button,” written by Richard Matheson for the classic 1960s series The Twilight Zone.  I was not even aware of the origins of The Box until after having viewed it, and yet the entire time I felt like I was watching one great big Twilight Zone episode.  Unfortunately, the concise storytelling so memorable from the 1960s sci-fi series appears wholly lost to director/screenwriter Richard Kelly.

I admit it.  I didn’t get some of this film.  In fact, I didn’t get a lot of it.  But in all good conscience (indeed, on a moral basis) I cannot advise seeing this muddled, disjointed piece of cinema.

Dinosaurs Alive! on Blu-Ray and DVD

After sixty-five million years, the ancient world isn’t looking too bad.  Ankylosaurus is still the walking epitome of a good defense.  T-Rex still struts his stuff as the godfather to our culture’s dino fascination.  Nature is lush and green and flourishing.  Just throw in Michael Douglas and we’re good to go.

            In Dinosaurs Alive! The two-time Oscar winning actor provides the narration to a 40 minute adventure through the Triassic, the Jurassic, and the Cretaceous period – an adventure spanning from the Gobi Desert in East Asia, all the way west to Ghost Ranch amidst the buttes of New Mexico.  Writing/directing duo Bayley Silleck and David Clark succeed with an enlightening discussion of these animals that is both fun and quite enthralling (and it always helps to have a voice like Douglas to relax the audience with a tinge of familiarity).

            The film provides a sizeable amount of in-depth knowledge and paleontological insight while at the same time treating the kiddo’s to an enjoyable experience chocked full of the fundamentals, delving into the biology of these creatures without stumbling into the pitfall of overshooting younger viewers.  Discussion topics include the context in which fossils have been found (and the meaning behind it), as well as the correlation of feathered reptiles with their present-day avian counterparts.  All of these subjects are wonderfully cradled by the film’s overall framework: the research efforts made by archaeologists and paleontologists of the 1930s.

Blu Ray is perfect for viewing these kinds of natural history documentaries.  Scientific points can be easily driven home via CGI renderings, so the 1080p HD visuals offered by this format is prime.  This widescreen version, with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, comes complete with equally impressive audio features.  DTS surround sound brings the ancient world to life, each beast’s roar at once imposing and distinctive.

Of course, if you don’t have access to a Blu-Ray player, that should not deter you from picking up this fine natural history piece on the DVD format.  It may not run on the same high-powered engine and the picture might not have the same crystal clear quality, but it does contain all the special features offered on the Blu-Ray version.  Both feature widescreen (16x19) version, the making of Dinosaurs Alive! shot in HD, an educational segment where you get to meet the film’s colossal stars, and a fun quiz to test your knowledge of the beasties.  Trailers are included, with audio offered in English, French, and Spanish in Dolby Digital 5.1.

            At some point in just about everyone’s life, they have read of these legendary beasts, studied them in school, or watched, mystified, as they roamed across their television screens.  These dinocumentaries are, therefore, intriguing by their very nature, appealing to our children and the children within us.  And Dinosaurs Alive! does a wonderful job in carrying on this rich tradition.

Movie Review: Disney's A Christmas Carol

I went to see this on a cold and misty Saturday night, and it proved to fit the film’s atmosphere to a tee.  Director Robert Zemeckis presents the audience with 19th century London in all its wintry glory.  The streets are iced, the rooftops draped in snow as the nearby factories billow out their smoke.  A great many such shots can be seen in this Disney spin on A Christmas Carol.

            The Magical Kingdom takes many a liberty and displays quite a lot of poetic license with Charles Dickens’s classic, and this viewer could not have been happier about it.  After the great first impression given by the film’s wonderful CGI (and believe me, its top quality), I feared I would be forced to sit through an hour and a half of the same old tale, told word for word and motion for motion.

Don’t get me wrong.  The original story is an absolute masterpiece.  But after the fiftieth uninspired and unadventurous rendition of it, one’s interest may start to wane.  We all know the House of Mouse won’t stand for that, and so the audience is treated to flight at breakneck speed, colossal clocks, see-through floors, and one very angry pair of spectral steeds.  And that’s just skimming the surface.

Jim Carrey does a great job as the legendary curmudgeon of a protagonist and actually provides the voices for numerous characters throughout the film.  Gary Oldman gives an endearing quality to Bob Cratchet, among other characters, and Bob Hoskins is absolutely fantastic as the amicable Fezzywig.  I’ve got to admit, though, that Hoskins had me hooked ever since he knocked his role of Shmee out of the park in 1991’s Hook (another film that was based off a fantastical children’s classic and was in no way afraid to be adventurous).

            There are a few minor hiccups concerning the lack of human touch that comes with CGI characters.  But overall, I would definitely recommend a viewing of Disney’s A Christmas Carol.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blu Ray Review: Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead

Chavez (Tamer Hassan) plans on soon leaving the pen, and he’s not waiting for the legal system’s go ahead. He’s got the men and the means, the grit and the determination. There are just a few things standing in his way: the feds, conspiring fellow inmates, and a very ruthless pair of cannibals.

In this third installment to the Wrong Turn franchise, word of a possible breakout reaches the warden of a maximum facility prison. Fearing Chavez will go through with his escape plan, the warden decides to have him relocated to another penitentiary. But en route, the transport goes awry and society’s worst soon find themselves struggling to survive the madness of a backwoods mutant family.

Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead features all the gory violence (and then some) that fans have come to demand from their horror films today, in addition to elements that are quite unusual to the genre. The plot is intricate and multi-faceted, Connor James Delaney provides an adequate script, and character motivations are steady and unchanging throughout.  An overall good ensemble performance is given by the cast (particularly Hassan and Gil Kolirin, who plays the white supremacist Floyd Weathers to a tee), and the flesh-eating locals are at once terrifying and eerily humorous (This last element is actually a running theme throughout the franchise and it is always handled well.).

For those unfamiliar with the Wrong Turn franchise, all three films come complete with plenty of gore, myriad mutilation, and an ever-present air of flesh-eating.  The first installment, released in 2003 and starring Eliza Dushku (Bring It On), centers on a group of young people fighting to survive the hunting games of three murderous backwoods mutants.  Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007) offered a similar plot, as the contestants of a reality television show are pitted against a family of cunning cannibals.

As almost all 92 minutes of Wrong Turn 3 take place in the woods and at night, the Blu-ray AC-3 format is ideal for viewing the third installment.  In this widescreen version, featuring an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, not one single gritty detail eludes the viewer, be it beheading or evisceration.  Every grunt and brutal hack of the ax is also splendidly captured by an audio that is presented in Dolby Digital.  DTS surround sound is included, with audio in English, French, and Spanish, as well as subtitles in Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Korean.

Bonus features of the Blu-ray version include both deleted scenes and a sit down with director Declan O’Brien as he talks about the filming of Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead.  O’Brien discusses the stunts in the film, on-set chemistry between cast members, and the series of gruesome traps laid by the film’s cannibalistic star, “Three Fingers.”

Fans of the Wrong Turn franchise will find the third installment to be quite faithful to its origins, while at the same time not being too afraid to venture out and search new ground.  I’d certainly recommend a viewing of this gory chronicle to followers of the franchise, or any horror fan just looking for some bloody good fun.