kingdom

My relationship with zombies is conflicted. I find the whole zombie genre fascinating, but also too scary to indulge in very often. I never could watch The Walking Dead. But Kingdom, the new South Korean series streaming on Netflix, definitely has my attention.

Set in Joseon Korea sometime in the later Middle Ages, Kingdom is as much a sweeping historical costume drama as a horror series. The zombies here are called simply “monsters”, and despite the medieval setting they are approached with scientific rigor. The reason they exist is known. Their capabilities are being observed and noted. Variations in how the infection is transmitted are recognized. And the race is on to find the cure before they overwhelm the nation.

***

Giving a new twist to the old saw “a fish rots from the head down”, Kingdom’s threat begins at the top with a weak king and a treacherous minister willing to use unnatural tactics to gain power. The first words spoken in the series are “You must never look inside His Majesty’s bedchamber,” and they serve as a warning of both the political consequences and the supernatural danger involved in disobeying. But what is inside soon escapes.

As so often happens, the poor bear the brunt of the suffering that follows. Starved by war and heavy taxation, the peasantry have resorted to cannibalism to simply survive– an act of desperation that allows a new disease to spread with terrifying speed. The noble classes think they can outrun the disease, or wall it away.

We all know how that goes.

kingdom
***

Kingdom is beautifully shot, with dramatic lighting and fierce action, serene architecture and monumental landscapes. It’s plot is elaborate, full of court intrigue, dynastic jockeying, and the scars of a recent war. The characters are well-acted and of all the familiar types, with a brave prince, a scheming nobleman, a loyal warrior, a smart and plucky woman, and a mysterious man drawn into the fray. And, of course, ravenous zombies. It is compelling stuff.

Kingdom’s first season ends, expectedly, in a cliffhanger. Season two is already in production. As long as the zombies don’t get too rotten, I’m ready.

dragon prince

dragon princeThe Dragon Prince is quite simply wonderful. Netflix’s new epic fantasy is intended for kids, but like all great literature it is able to speak to everyone.

There are often facile lessons, or missing nuances, in young adult fantasy (okay, in adult fantasy, too). But not so The Dragon Prince. The balance of light and dark rings true. There are unlikely alliances, unbreakable oaths, and awakening magic. The action is exciting and the world-building immersive.

And while The Dragon Prince is an unabashed, sweeping saga, it is also warm and funny. There are elements of Heavy Metal, hints of ElfQuest, a healthy dose of Lord of the Rings, and even a bit of Archer in the character renderings. Snarky and self-aware, the dialogue slips in plenty of pop-culture: “I was trying to sweep the leg”, “Winter is coming…eventually”, and “Say ‘hello’ to my little friend” are all uttered at various points.

It’s been a long time since I so thoroughly enjoyed an animated series the way I enjoy this one.

The Background

dragon princeLong in the past, humans discovered dark magic and were driven to the edge of the continent by elves and dragons. The story begins a few years after King Harrow murders the ancient dragon king and destroys his egg, bringing the humans and the elves to the brink of war. Elvish assassins infiltrate the kingdom to kill Harrow and his heir, Prince Ezran. Rayla, a young elvish assassin, finds she cannot take an innocent life. Instead, she helps Ezran and his half-brother Callum escape the assassination attempt after Ezran discovers the dragon’s egg hidden in the castle dungeons. The three then embark on a dangerous, epic quest to return the dragon’s egg to its mother.  

The Details

Created and written by Aaron Ehasz (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Futurama) and Justin Richmond (Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception), The Dragon Prince is richly imagined and beautifully presented, with gorgeous artwork, a soaring score, and a full magical world.

Like many fantasy sagas, The Dragon Prince is stuffed with creatures borrowed from the classic, but they have been tweaked to fit their new world. The huge worm is a mountain dweller. The giant spider is an illusion. The dragon-slayers are not the good guys.

The characters are fully developed, diverse and inclusive, with their own complicated relationships and internal lives. The emotions behind their actions feel honest. The moral lessons are clear but the story refrains from hitting viewers over the head with them. The characters are almost entirely normal people–or as normal as elves, mages, and royalty can be. Some are clearly the bad guys, but they have recognizable reasons for what they do. There are, so far, no real caricatures among them.

The Actors

dragon princeThe three main characters are strongly drawn without falling back on genre stereotypes. Jack De Sena plays Callum, the fourteen year old half-brother to the heir apparent, with an excellent blend of adult responsibility and adolescent insecurity. Paula Burrows portrays the elf-assassin Rayla with terrific conviction and a charming, thick Scottish accent. Sasha Rojen plays the child-prince Ezran as a thinking, feeling, learning person with convincing agency and autonomy.
The secondary characters are also well done. Luc Roderique is King Harrow of Katolis, stubborn, proud, and trying his best to protect his people. Jason Simpson plays Viren, the King’s treacherous advisor, who may or may not be a good man underneath it all. Viren’s children Claudia and Soren are portrayed convincingly as close siblings by Racquel Belmonte and Jesse Inocalla. And Jonathan Holmes gives the elvish assassin leader Runaan a fierce and enduring code of honor.

The Conclusion

It’s rare to find something so well-done, so dedicated to its vision, so vibrant and enjoyable.

The Dragon Prince is that something. I recommend it without reservation.

ghoul

ghoulGhoul, the new three-episode miniseries from Netflix, generates its chills with a blend of tried-and-true tropes borrowed from multiple well-known films and a dash of modern dystopia. While the derivative nature of the scares is a downside, Ghoul political dimension provides a different layer of darkness. Overall the film is a predictable but effectively-done horror movie, with an engaging cast and plenty of well-placed gore.

“False sense of patriotism that seems to be spreading through the country.”

Ghoul unfolds in a near-future India that has fallen into fascism, with secret prisons, brutal re-education, enforced political orthodoxy, and questions of how religion impacts patriotism.

The story centers on Nida, a young Muslim woman training to be a government interrogator. Her father refuses to toe the political line. She turns him in, choosing patriotism over faith and family. Soon after, she finds herself assigned to a secret interrogation center where the arrival of a dangerous new prisoner sends the whole command structure spiralling into chaos and death.

Nida is played with great sincerity by Radhika Apte. S. M. Zaheer is her stubborn, seditious father. Manav Kaul is sympathetic as the drunk and troubled Colonel Sunil Dacunha, the man in charge of the prison. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee’s Lieutenant Laxmi Das is convincingly twisted as Dacunha’s duplicitous second in command. And Mahesh Balraj brings a creepy stoicism to the monstrous terrorist Ali Saeed.

“The ghoul shows as the reflection of our guilt.”

ghoulAnyone who watches horror movies will recognize plenty of familiar tropes. But an old story told well is still worth watching. And I think Ghoul tells its old story well.

The film is atmospheric, with a haunted house vibe that uses the desperation of The Blair Witch Project, the industrial oppression of Alien, and the paranoia of The Thing among its many inspirations.

Visually, the decrepit prison setting where Ghoul happens is also very familiar. Built as a bunker against nuclear attack, the site is of course not in any official records. But the film adds a few extra details that ramp up the totalitarian mood. Black-painted windows disguise night and day. Exterior shots of brutalist architecture reinforce the heavy-handed repression at work in this society. The incessant rainfall outside the massive buildings produces its own claustrophobia.  Everything is bleak, dull, and colorless, except for the stunning splashes of red when the monster is revealed.

And the reveal comes quickly. Unlike the graveyard-dwelling, corpse-eating demon of pre-Islamic folklore, the ghoul in Ghoul is a demon of vengeance summoned in retribution. It takes the form of the last person whose flesh it ate, but here it teases out confessions of guilt before it attacks.

“Finish the task, reveal their guilt, eat their flesh”

ghoulGhoul is written and directed by Patrick Graham with inconsistent levels of subtlety. The dialogue is at times very formal and stagey, with power struggles and plot turns telegraphed far in advance. The plotting is slow, grim, and pointed. Terrorism and political orthodoxy are major themes, as is suspicion of any display of faith. If there was any doubt about the point Graham was aiming at, the pile of pulled gold teeth and a crematorium should remove it. The three episodes could have easily been trimmed to two hours. The padding betrays its origins as an intended feature film.

It is still creepy as hell. The slowness, the obvious references, even the predictability of events do not diminish the skill of the cast and the strength and style of the storytelling. Ghoul may not break any new ground, but it is a solid reminder of why stories like it continues to be retold.

disenchantment

disenchantment
Bean, Elfo, and Luci

Disenchantment, Matt Groening’s new series for Netflix, certainly has its own unique charms. It is no Futurama. It is certainly not The Simpsons. While there are, of course, similarities to Groening’s earlier work, this new show is something that aspires to be a heartfelt, ongoing saga while still capturing the goofy spirit of the other series.

So far, Disenchantment has had some difficulty in finding its direction. The first season is a rather uneven journey, but it’s definitely on the right track.

***

The series follows the adventures of Princess Tiabeanie Mariabeanie De La Rochambeaux Drunkowitz of Dreamland, known more economically as Bean. She is a boozy, rebellious teenager who is constantly at odds with her father, King Zøg, her stepmother, Queen Oona, and her half-brother, Prince Derek. Bean’s only friends are her nursemaid, Bunty, Elfo the renegade elf, and Luci, Bean’s very own personal demon. She is also dealing with the loss of her mother, Queen Dagmar, who died when Bean was just a baby.

There are arranged marriages, diplomatic debacles, political machinations, crusades, curses, enchantments, and the occasional tavern brawl. There are witches, wizards, debauched fairies, transformed princes, giants, griffins, and three-eyed counselors. Castles, dungeons, and side-quests abound. There is also a whole lot of family drama.

disenchantment
Zog and Oona, Rulers of Dreamland

I think Bean’s relationship with her father is well-done. King Zøg has what may be a good heart inside his crusty royal shell. And for all her push-back, Bean loves her dad. I also find Queen Oona refreshing as the not-actually-mean stepmother, who manages to be both bizarre and boring in her stepdaughter’s eyes.

***

The characters are portrayed by Abbi Jacobson, Eric Andre, Nat Faxon, John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Matt Berry, David Herman, Maurice LaMarche, Lucy Montgomery and Billy West, with great enthusiasm and thoroughly random accents.

Unfortunately, the main characters’ personality traits are also somewhat random from one episode to the next, which makes it harder to become fully invested in them. Bean’s scattershot behavior is at least excusable for a confused teenager, but the writers don’t seem to have a good handle on Elfo and Luci. Both of these characters are frequently out of character, with Elfo in particular swinging wildly from innocent to cynical and a number of points in between.

On the other hand, the minor and incidental characters are wonderful, my favorites being the King’s two pages (who I suspect are Akbar and Jeff) and a knight’s overprotective mother.

***

Disenchantment is not quite a sitcom like Groening’s other shows. It is a sharp comedy with a lot more going on inside the jokes. It mocks the conventions of the whole fantasy adventure genre while embracing the threats and dangers inherent in it. Disenchantment is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and other times quite sentimental. The show has already taken a few serious turns. There have been several on-screen character deaths (some more permanent than others), played for comedy and for genuine tragedy.

The initial impression I get of the series was that it is still feeling its way. The thread connecting all the scattered plot points was too obvious to ignore, but still hard to follow. Then the final few episodes managed to not only tie most of the story together, but to take it into unexpected and promising territory. That sudden turn is one of the strongest reasons I can give to watch.

With all its inconsistencies and slightly blurred focus, I like Disenchantment. A lot. There is an unexpected and welcome warmth to it, and what I hope is the promise of something more substantial to come. 

 

cargo

 

cargo
Into the unknown

Cargo begins with so much potential. A zombie plague. A family struggling to survive. The wilds of rural Australia. A top-notch cast to bring it to life. It packs a real emotional punch inside a small story. And then…it loses momentum and falls back on several common stereotypes and sentiment to fill in the gaps. Cargo is a good movie, but it should have been better.

Some small spoilers ahead

Set in an Australia ravaged by a zombie-creating virus, Andy, Kay, and their infant daughter Rosie, are struggling to find a safe haven from the end of the world. When Kay is attacked and infected they must change their plans to get her help. But she turns, attacks, and infects Andy before they find any, and he is left alone to save Rosie before he also turns into the undead.

cargo
Family is where you find it

Martin Freeman is his sincere, exceptional self as Andy, a man out of his element and trying to keep his family alive. Suzie Porter is a great match as his wife Kay, strong and determined and brave in the face of inevitable disaster. And newcomer Simone Landers is completely convincing as Thoomi, the young Aboriginal girl trying desperately to save her own father before she joins up with Andy and Rosie.

The small cast is filled out by Bruce R. Carter and Natasha Wanganeen as Thoomi’s parents, and David Gulpilil as the tribal elder Daku–the Clever Man. Kris McQuade, Anthony Hayes and Caren Pistorius are other struggling survivors.

Cargo is all about family

Cargo is not actually scary–the effect it produces is more unsettling and sad, with some very striking monster reveals. But as an addition to the already-loaded zombie genre it works, and works pretty well.

Some of the strongest scenes in the movie are the early ones between Andy and his wife, as they struggle to make increasingly urgent life and death decisions, first as healthy humans and then as infected pre-zombies. The later development of a family bond between Andy and Thoomi is also surprisingly touching and believable, if at times throwing a heartbreaking amount of emotional weight onto the child.

cargo
Other monsters

Cargo also chooses to touch on major social issues like racism, funding cuts to resources in aboriginal areas, and environmental concerns about fracking. Given the characters involved, it makes sense to be aware of the issues even if they are not dealt with in depth. There is, after all, a zombie apocalypse going on.

However, the other side of acknowledging the issues is turning them into cliched plot devices. The racist, survivalist gas-line worker and the Aborigines shown as noble savages are reduced to stereotypes, and cheapen an otherwise compelling plot.

And another thing…

Unfortunately, with such a small cast and limited focus, Cargo’s 105 minutes prove too long to spend on telling the story. In between genuine character development and forward plot motion, the pacing lags. There are too many long shots of Andy trudging through the outback with his daughter strapped to his back and slow-motion scenes of Aboriginal warriors destroying the undead. While the scenery is beautiful, less of would have been enough.

But there are also some wonderful details.

The government-issue medical kits are a great, grim touch, with their basic fact sheet, wristband timer, mouthguard, cuffs, and spring-loaded spike for ending it all. The variations on the old zombie theme are bizarre and intriguing, with the copious, sticky pus and the need to hibernate in the dark. And the carrot and stick trick is brilliant, if a bit overwrought at the end.

Carrying on

The real strength of Cargo is the intimate drama of it, and the 2013 short Cargo was based on was as tightly put together as anyone could wish. Stretching it to feature length required some padding and diluted the raw power of a man’s determination to save his child. In the end Cargo is a movie that, while beautifully made and touchingly acted, ends up being less than it should be because it thought it needed to be more.

The middle-school heroes of Stranger Things

Stranger Things, Netflix’s latest series, launched its first eight episode season on July 15. I had to drag myself away after the first three episodes to write this review, because it is simply that good. Created by Ross and Matt Duffer, Stranger Things uses pop culture familiarity as its hook, and then moves the story along rapidly while still paying a huge amount of attention to detail and character development. I’ll be watching the rest in one long gulp very soon.

Set in the small rural town of Hawkins, Indiana, Stranger Things begins its tale on November 6, 1983 with the mysterious disappearance of a young boy. From there things really do only get stranger.

Titled “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”, the first episode plays like a mash-up of all the classic horror and fantasy films of the 1980s—there are elements that remind me of Aliens, The Shining, Silver Bullet, E.T., Firestarter, Halloween, Poltergeist, The Goonies…even the town center is reminiscent of Back to the Future, and the missing boy’s house looks an awful lot like the cabin from Evil Dead. In addition to tidy downtown Hawkins, the action ranges through woods, fields, a deep quarry, and a convenient government-run laboratory. It all looks familiar. We’ve been scared here before. But Stranger Things is not just a derivative of all these touchstones and references. It manages to be something original and disturbing in its own right.

Things are getting strange
Things are getting strange

Winona Ryder is back as Joyce Byers, the missing boy’s mother. She plays the character as worn thin and harried and histrionic, and she smokes with the same intensity she did in Heathers. Her attempts to find her son look a great deal like a descent into insanity.

Matthew Modine is cool and slick as the primary bad guy, Dr. Brenner. He works at Hawkins National Laboratory for the Department of Energy and is aligned with government agents and the CIA, among darker things.

David Harbour is the hard drinking local police chief, Hopper. In only three episodes he has already been given a colorful backstory and fascinating growth, and a deep well of personal tragedy to draw from.

Even with the adult star power, the juvenile characters are the main focus—especially since the missing boy was part of their group. With the exception of a couple of older siblings, the kids are in the 11 and 12 year old age range that Stephen King is so fond of. It ties neatly to the many King-like plot details.

The group of boys are introduced as Dungeons and Dragons players, then as now shorthand for a certain kind of nerd.  Finn Wolfhard is Mike, the leader of the gang and someone who looks quite a bit like the brother in Poltergeist. Gaten Matarazzo is Dustin, very much playing him as Chunk from The Goonies. Caleb McLaughlin rounds out the group as smart-mouthed, skeptical, and practical Lucas. To add to the mix there is the high school crowd, with Charlie Heaton as the missing boy’s older brother, Johnathan, and Natalia Dyer as Mike’s older sister Nancy. And there is also a mysterious, semi-verbal little girl named Eleven (played by Millie Brown), who is connected to both Brenner and the missing boy.

Teenage wasteland
Teenage wasteland

A theme of communication is dominant, so far. The initial episodes are heavy with ham radio, walkie talkies, wiretapping, ghostly phone calls, psychic powers, and weird electrical disturbances harnessed as a rough Ouija board. There is a lot going on, much of it messy, but it is just controlled enough to be engrossing. The only complaint I can make is that the periodic flashbacks are too blunt, and move things along with backstory info dumps.

Stranger Things is at once creepy, sentimental, realistic and action-driven. The Duffer brothers have a great eye for family dynamics and a clear affection for the cinematic 1980s. The combination of powerful storytelling, exceptional acting, and well-done nostalgia is totally worth the look back.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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