Review : “Super Sons” #1

Posted: February 19, 2017 in Uncategorized

My latest review for Graphic Policy website.

Graphic Policy

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After originally being solicited for release back in September, one of the most-eagerly-anticipated DC Rebirth titles is finally here — Peter J. TomasiJorge Jimenez and Alejandro Sanchez‘ “kid-friendly” Super Sons #1. Methinks the delay, while admittedly somewhat aggravating, makes sense — after all, Jon “Superboy” Kent and Damian “Robin” Wayne needed to be teamed up elsewhere first to establish some sort of prior relationship, and a recently-concluded two-parter over in the pages of Superman managed that task of “groundwork-laying” quite successfully indeed. With all pretext and preamble out of the way, then, now is as good a time as any to strike while the iron is hot and turn things over to the next generation of heroes who are about to embark on what promises to be a decade or more of being stuck at right around 12 years old. Sigh, if only the real world worked…

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It may not be a “cool” thing to admit, but I’ll let you in on a little secret — it’s okay to just want to feel good once in awhile.

It is, after all, a hopelessly fucked-up world that we live in right now : our nuclear arsenal is in the hands of an unhinged, delusional madman who is clearly cracking under the strain of a job he probably didn’t even want and is in no way even mature enough to handle; a lunatic religious zealot is eagerly waiting in the wings to succeed him when he undoubtedly crashes and burns; our closest international allies seem to be inexorably lurking toward a barely-rebranded fascist nationalism themselves; rising global temperatures and sea levels probably threaten our future even more than the would-be despots do — if you think about too hard, it can all seem pretty hopeless.

Can these problems be solved? Shit, I dunno — the jury’s out on that one. But they certainly can be avoided for a couple of hours here and there, and there’s no shame in doing just that every once in awhile. For those of any age seeking temporary relief and solace, then, may I humbly direct your attention toward director Chris McKay’s borderline-astonishing The Lego Batman Movie.

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I admit to never having seen The Lego Movie “proper,” but if it’s anything like this one, that’s my loss — and one I intend to rectify pretty quickly. I can’t pretend to know what it is about translating the grittiest and grimmest of costumed vigilantes into a CGI-animated toyworld that’s such a stroke of near-genius, but the truth is that it not only works, it does something that no live-action iteration of the character has been able to do on the silver screen for the last couple of decades : it makes him fun again.

Make no mistake — the increasingly Dark Knight as envisioned by Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan and, especially, Zack Snyder is the elephant in the room here, but rather than take inspiration from it, McKay and his army of screenwriters choose, instead, to offer a rebuttal to it. Sure, Batman as voiced (superbly, might I add) by Will Arnett is a brooding and dour figure — albeit one who loves, even needs, the gratification that comes from the limelight — but this film isn’t afraid to say that this is a problem. To that end, butler-cum-father-figure Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) is doing his best to get the closest thing he has to a child to let other people in, to move past the loss of his parents all those decades ago and find a new family.  Too many nights alone with microwaved lobster thermidor aren’t good for anybody, after all.

Batman “purists” probably won’t be too terribly happy with some of the liberties taken here : Robin (Michael Cera) isn’t just Bruce Wayne’s ward but his (accidentally — its a long story) adopted son; Barbara Gordon assumes the role of new Gotham City chief of police, replacing her just- retired father, before she dons the Batgirl costume more or less by default; Daleks and King Kong don’t exist in the DC Universe, etc. Well, grouse away, fan-boys — no one else cares.

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Perhaps the most daring and unexpected twist to the Bat-mythos offered here, though, is the refreshingly honest take offered on the relationship between Batman and The Joker (Zach Galifianakis). Freed form the constraints of continuity and editorial protectionism, The Lego Batman Movie admits what no other Bat-flick can — that these two arch-foes need each other, and that any enmity this deeply felt can only spring from a place at least vaguely approximating (strictly platonic, rest assured, nervous parents) love. You know it. I know it. And it’s high time someone said it.

If you never expected this much pathos-via-broad-brushstrokes in what is still, after all, a kids’ movie, don’t worry — it’s all couched in laugh-out-loud humor, obfuscated under mounds of “Easter Eggs” for the observant fan, and delivered with an entirely un-ironic earnestness that you just can’t help but love. This is a movie that has no qualms about admitting that it wants you to like it, and then dares you to find a reason not to.

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I never did, of course, and neither will you. A world this colorful, this joyful, this smart, this optimistic, and this fun is probably one we’d all like to live in — but then we’d be made of plastic and lock onto sidewalks and streets with our feet. So, ya know, nothing’s perfect.

As the title for this review states plainly, though, this film really is about as close to it as you’re gonna get. The Lego Batman Movie is the best Batman movie ever, by far.

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Hollywood probably wore the term “re-imagining” to death even before comics did, but if we want to be brutally honest, it’s a word that’s become flat-out cringeworthy across all media by this point, and not without good reason. To “re-imagine” something, after all, means that time and effort that could go into actually imagining something new is going into updating an existing idea, and there’s also an implication, at the very least, that affixes itself to the notion that the original (often beloved) idea itself is in need of some touch-up work. The track record of “re-imaginings” is a pretty lousy one in the funnybook medium, of course — many a promising, or even established, creative career has been sidetracked by attempting pointless re-vamps of characters and concepts that originated in the minds of Kirby, Eisner, Ditko, Kurtzman and the like that had literally no chance to come anywhere near equaling (to say nothing of surpassing) their progenitors because said progenitors were still ahead of their time. So why even bother?

Here’s the damn thing, though — some concepts could desperately do with a revamp/re-launch/”re-imagining.” Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch re-built Swamp Thing from the muck up and I don’t hear anyone complaining about that. Ditto for Neil Gaiman’s completely different take on the idea of the Sandman. And there’s probably nothing that came out of the ’90s mainstream comic scene that wouldn’t benefit from a completely fresh take. Enter WildStorm comics, then — and, more crucially, Warren Ellis.

DC’s had pretty good luck with the notion of the “pop-up imprint” (whatever that even means) in recent months courtesy of Gerard Way and his Young Animal line, and so the idea of bringing back Jim Lee’s WildStorm label suddenly sounds a lot less ludicrous than it would have not so long ago, especially with Ellis at the helm. Planetary still stands out as the best thing to ever come out under WS auspices (Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics line notwithstanding), so why not give its creator the keys to the whole (admittedly dilapidated) mansion and see what he can come up with? I’m game if you are —

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The first book to come out from the “new” WildStorm is the 24-part eponymously-titled The Wild Storm #1, scripted by Ellis with art from 2000 A.D. and Clean Room alumnus Jon Davis-Hunt, and as far as exercises in so-called “world-building” go, they don’t come much more fully-realized than this. The Other Bearded One posits the universe newly-minted as his own to be one rife with uber-secret high tech, a small handful of spectacular “haves” and multitudes of “have-nots,” nefarious corporate espionage, and “deep state” conspiracies the likes of which numbskulls like Alex Jones couldn’t come up with in their most fevered imaginings. In other words, it’s probably not too terribly different from our own, barring the super powers.

“Classic” characters from across the spectrum of former WS books are either given cursory (Voodoo, Zealot) or somewhat detailed (Jacob Marlowe, Deathblow) introductions here, with more to follow, and sooner or later (probably later) we’ll be seeing WildC.A.T.S.StormWatch, and others spun off into their own mags, but if the pattern of this first issue holds, it’ll all be done in a manner most deliberate and planned, so a “title flood” seems like something we’ll be able, blissfully, to avoid here. Ellis moves just a few of his who-knows-many chess pieces here, and the overall flavor of the proceedings is far more Transmetropolitan than it is, say, The Authority, but in a way that makes perfect sense — the world of Spider Jerusalem was, after all, a “built-from-the-ground-up” affair, and that’s the wise approach to take when resuscitating a veritable boatload of properties that by and large haven’t even been kept on life support for over a decade. Why dust things off when it’s so much more fun to blow ’em up?

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I can’t fairly comment on too many differences  between “WildStorm Then” and “WildStorm Now” simply because so much of the “Now” has yet to reveal itself, but the six-page (!) “house ad” that DC included in most of its titles last week offers some intriguing clues — suffice to say it sounds like this is going to be a very tightly-controlled imprint with all individual parts playing into a mind-bogglingly comprehensive whole, and setting this well apart from and outside of standard DCU continuity is reason enough to breathe a heavy sigh of relief. After all, no matter how well things are chugging along with this line in a year or so, an ill-timed guest appearance from the likes of Aquaman or Robin (not to pick on those characters specifically, but you get my point) would still have the power to scuttle things up to no end. Walling this world off in a manner that would make Donald Trump proud? Hate the idea in reality, but in fiction, shit — I’ll take it.

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All the bold imagining in the world at the developmental stage doesn’t mean a damn thing, though, if the final product’s visuals aren’t up to scratch, but on that score, again, there appears to be nothing to worry about. Davis-Hunt’s art is a little less —- errrmmm — clean than it was on Clean Room,  where intricate detail and crisp, fine lines ruled the day, but it’s no less effective for that fact : this world looks and feels “lived in,” quietly oppressive, and maybe even just a touch grimy. I really can’t envision it being any other way, myself, and thanks to Davis-Hunt and colorist Ivan Plascencia (master of a palette that we’ll call, for lack of a better term, “modern muted”) I don’t even want to. I’m abso-friggin’-lutely in love with the art on this book, and after you check out, guess what? My money’s on the same being true for you.

Getting in on a sprawling, many-tentacled epic bursting at the seams with ambition and overseen by talent visionary enough to pull off everything they’re setting out to do is an opportunity that comes along once only every-so-often. You’d be a fool to miss out on it here. The Wild Storm is certain to be a twisting and perilous road, and we’re only able to see as much of the map as we need to in order to keep following it, but there’s absolutely no doubt about where it’s ultimately headed — straight up.

 

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I’m noticing something of a trend in some of the “found footage” horrors I’ve been watching lately — a rather hum-drum and predictable (if not dull as dry toast) opening two acts, appended by a surprising, perhaps even amazing, third act that almost makes putting up with all the earlier crap worth it. Such was certainly the case with Adam Wingard’s 2016-released Blair Witch, and the pattern largely holds for the next film in the subgenre that I watched (courtesy of Amazon Prime streaming, although I understand it’s also available on standard DVD), 2012’s micro-budget effort from co-directors Ben Martinez and David Benjamin Franco, Alien Valley.

As far as set-ups go, they don’t come much more bog-standard than this : the crew from the supposedly-popular “reality” TV show “Paranormal Mysteries” (hence this film’s alternate — and thoroughly uninspired — title, P.M.) have “gone missing” after heading out to the San Luis Valley of Colorado to “discover the facts” behind a series of cattle mutilations that have plagued the area for years. There’s a bit of truth to this, apparently — the valley did, in fact, see a wave of still-unexplained cattle mutilations back in the 1960s — but the “compilation of leaked footage, documentary analysis, and material provided by the ALC network” that follows is, of course, all bullshit.

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In this flick’s early-to-middle going, it’s also pretty dull bullshit — the pacing of screenwriter Kristopher Simms’ script is such a slow burn that it barely “burns” at all, largely focused as it is on the one-dimensional interactions between crew members Andrea (played by Madison Guthrie), Matt (Jared Van Doorn), Rob (John Campbell), Eric (Nathan Blackburn), and Claire (Meghan McMahon) as they go about the business of location filming and interviewing various principals and self-styled “experts” with something to say about the case, but there are at least a couple of above-average performances to be had from Nate Bakke as head cinematographer Dave and Nikki Cornejo as ostensible government liaison Rose, both of whom seem noticeably more comfortable in front of the camera than their cohorts and have a nice and easy chemistry between them that’s reasonably enjoyable to watch. Other than that, though, the first roughly 60 minutes of this 75-minute production don’t have a whole heck of a lot going for them.

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Tell ya what, though, when Martinez and Franco decide to pull out all the stops for the final 15, they really go all-out. Some very effective practical effects work complements a fiercely tense and constantly surprising sprint to the finish, and when the film finally figures that it needs to live up to its name (well, one of its names) by dropping an “actual” alien into the proceedings, it not only works, it works unbelievably well. You know how things are gonna turn out, of course — that’s telegraphed from the outset — but how they end up turning out that way is definitely something to see.

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Our guys Ben n’ David certainly know how to play up the sense of unease and terror that the “shaky-cam” game can still deliver when done correctly, and if they get their hands on some material that demands real creativity and gusto from start to finish, who knows? They might actually be able to come up with something that forces the studios to take notice. As it is, though, Alien Valley doesn’t really showcase all they’re capable of until the very late going — and by then, a lot of folks will have understandably hit “stop” and gone on to do something else.

I would advise you do anything but, though, if you opt to invest your time in this one. If you’re willing to be patient  — okay, very patient — Alien Valley will most definitely reward your perseverance and leave you walking away from it impressed. If your attention span falls into the short-to-medium range, though, then there’s not much chance you’ll be willing to wait around for the rather immense payoff that’s in store. I won’t hold it against you if you check out early, but I will feel sorry for you — this is a flick that tests your determination, absolutely, but  also one that is equally determined to reward its most loyal and/or stubborn (is there a difference?) viewers very generously indeed.

 

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After giving Bullseye #1 a richly-deserved rough time of it in my review last week, I was leaning pretty heavily towards giving the rest of Marvel’s “Running With The Devil” titles a pass, but some nagging little voice in my head told me that Kingpin would probably be worth at least an initial $3.99 investment. Okay, fair enough, Matthew Rosenberg’s earlier Civil War II : Kingpin series was generally savaged by critics (to the point where I stayed away), but I chalk that up to the fact that all “event” tie-ins are garbage weighed down by a shit-ton of editorial mandates — surely free of these constraints, the writer behind 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank and We Can Never Go Home can give us a decent crime story, don’tcha think?

Jeff Dekal’s cover doesn’t necessarily inspire a ton of confidence — he’s been absolutely killing it over on Hulk, but his composition on this one seems a bit curious, to say the least, especially considering that Daredevil, Elektra, and Bullseye don’t feature in this book at all (apart from a cameo by Matt Murdock in his civilian guise), and it seems to me that if you’re gonna include superfluous characters in order to drive up sales, it might be best if one of them doesn’t look like he’s hopped-up on cheap bathtub crank. But who knows? Maybe I’m just old-fashioned — and besides, as with prospective romantic partners, it’s what’s inside that counts, right?

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Fortunately for us all, Kingpin #1 grabs you immediately on page one and doesn’t let go. Rosenberg’s characterization of Wilson Fisk is definitely “in line” with Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of him on the Daredevil Netflix series — frightening, physically and psychologically imposing, ultimately unknowable — but with a crucial twist : his motives this time out appear to be far more personal and therefore more potentially dangerous. Yes, he seems determined to save “his” city and to employ his customary morally-ambiguous (to put it kindly) methods while doing so, but he knows that he’s got some serious image rehab to do first, and to that end he’s selected down-on-her-luck journalist Sarah Dewey to ghost-write his (auto?)biography. Dewey  is a fascinating and fully-fleshed out character who functions as both an eminently relatable audience stand-in and an immersive figure in her own right at the same time : her trepidation at “getting close” to such a dangerous figure mirrors ours, but her personal problems (divorce and custody issues, 12-stepping) are very much her own, and this comic ends up being every bit as much hers at it is the title-holder’s. She’s our “eyes and ears,” sure (and perhaps our conscience?) — but that doesn’t mean she can’t pull “double duty” and be very much herself while she’s acting in that capacity. I don’t know how many issues this series is slated to run, but I’m already hoping that Marvel finds a worthy spot for her once it’s over.

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But let’s hope this doesn’t end too darn soon — because not only does this book read well, it looks absolutely gorgeous. Artist Ben Torres borrows a bit from Frank Miller and Tim Sale here and there, it’s true, but he’s got a distinctive “medium-heavy” line all his own and, together with colorist extraordinaire Jordan Boyd, navigates the borderlands between noir and everyday urban not-quite-grime with a fluid ease that’s enough to make lesser talents downright jealous. A truly successful Kingpin book can probably only look one way, and guess what? This is it.

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Have I convinced you yet? If not, then I guess I’m just not doing my (voluntary, I admit) job well enough. Or maybe spot-on characterization, sparkling dialogue, superb illustration, and pitch-perfect colors all working in concert to accentuate a slowly-encroaching sense of dread and unease just isn’t your particular cup of tea. That’s entirely possible — but even if that’s the (unlikely) case, I’m still willing bet you just about anything that this issue’s simple-but-jaw-dropping cliffhanger will leave you wanting more.

So, yeah — I was all kind of impressed by Kingpin #1. Give it a chance I’m confident you will be, as well.

 

 

 

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I’m not really sure how to classify this one, to be honest — writer/director/producer Ryan Cavalline’s 2017 no-budgeter  Mountain Devil (now streaming on Amazon Prime) isn’t exactly a “found footage” flick so much as it is a “mockumentary,” which is to say, yeah, there’s plenty of phony “footage” of the “long-lost home movie” variety, but it’s also “supplemented” by “dramatized re-creations” and the whole package is “hosted” by some charisma-free zone named Duane Bradley — who, near as I can tell, isn’t an actor, but a real guy. Or maybe he’s just a real guy who’s never taken any acting lessons. I dunno.

Nor, frankly, does it really matter. Apparently this standard-issue Bigfoot yarn about a guy named Frank Peterson (played by Eddie Benevich) and his pal, Randy Wallis (Eric Koval), who decided to spend a weekend getting drunk and playing with firearms at a secluded cabin along the Appalachian Trail in BF, Pennsylvania is “true” — at least as far as the average “Squatcher” is concerned. But just because something (may have) happened, that doesn’t make it particularly interesting.

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Under normal circumstances, a more detailed breakdown of the particulars of the film’s plot would be in order here, but ya know what? I’ve honestly told you pretty much all you need to know already. One weekend in 1978 (if I remember correctly), a couple rednecks went to a cabin and got set upon by Bigfoot. Who, in this film, is only about — I dunno, six feet tall. And rented his costume from the local theatrical supply shop, who no doubt keep this one around for promos at the used car lots around town, where, truth be told, it’s probably put to better use — because there’s nothing even remotely good about this 80-minute celluloid abomination. It’s boring, it’s cheesy (without being “fun” cheesy), it’s dreadfully-acted, and it’s utterly devoid of drama, scares, suspense, or even purpose. Every second you spend watching it is a new opportunity to hate yourself for wasting your time on it and little (okay, nothing) more.

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Here’s the friggin’ goofy thing, though — in recent years, “found footage” and Bigfoot have sorta mashed together pretty nicely, haven’t they? Movies like Willow Creek and Bigfoot : The Lost Coast Tapes have done an admirable job of proving that these two genres go hand in furry, clawed hand really well. So I held out some faint hope that Cavalline might be able to continue that trend — but hey, what can I say? I was wrong. Painfully wrong. I might even go so far as to say dead wrong — but that would be a bit tasteless given the final fate that befell Peterson and Wallis.

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In any case, the least I can do is warn you good people off this thing. Before sitting down to write this review, I reached really deep into the most musty and under-utilized parts of my mind in order to come up with some reason — any reason — for perhaps the more morbidly curious among you to give it a go, and came up absolutely empty. I tried, I swear, but the task proved just too daunting for me.

And that probably tells you all you need to know right there — and certainly exhausts me of everything I wish to say about the matter. Mountain Devil made me want to run for the hills and never come back.

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As a general rule, I have precisely zero faith in humanity. Evidence for why this would be the case abounds, of course : the election of Donald Trump. Keeping wild animals caged in zoos for our entertainment. The wholesale destruction of our environment. The enduring popularity of Billy Joel. Yup, friends, there’s just no doubt — people don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.

But then along comes some (usually out- of- left- field and entirely unassuming) reminder that maybe — just maybe — all is not lost, after all. Maybe somebody out there “gets it” and knows what needs to be done in order to, if not save us, at least keep us good and entertained while the whole shithouse goes up in flames. Enter Leicester, UK-based brothers Carl and Marc (no relation to you-know-who) Hamill, masterminds behind the 2015 mini-masterpiece Toxic Apocalypse (or, as it was known upon its initial DTV release in its country of origin, The Wrong Floor). With only five thousand pounds to their names and a cast composed largely of friends and relatives, these two have single- (okay, double-) handedly restored my faith in our still-certainly-doomed-at-some-point species. Yup, it’s true — this flick (now streaming for free on Amazon Prime) is just that much fun.

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Read the following brief synopsis and tell me that it doesn’t sound like all kinds of awesome to you : Danny Green (played by our guy Carl) is searching for his recently-disappeared father, a scientific genius employed by the nefarious EKAF Corporation, a typically sleazy big-business outfit that’s promising the world a “free energy” breakthrough but is, in fact, surreptitiously supplying the criminal underworld with the suddenly-popular street drug known as “Haze,” which has the unfortunate side effect of turning a number of its users into bloodthirsty homicidal maniacs. Rumors of the company’s involvement in the “Haze” racket abound, but thanks to corrupt cops and government officials, nothing has ever been proven — until now. After hitting one brick wall after another trying to get dirt on EKAF, Danny has decided to take the direct approach by getting hired on as a low-level security guard in the hope of catching the bastards red-handed. Along the way he manages to make an ally in the form of the plant’s fetching receptionist, Clarissa (Heather Percival) and the two quickly discover that “mad scientist”-type Dr. Logan (M.J. Simpson) is in league with a couple of local thugs (played by Chris Postlethwaite and Tom Robinson) who provide him with homeless people to experiment on. From there the trail leads to crime boss Marcais (Ron Hamill — yes, there’s another one of ’em), who controls “Haze” distribution in town, policeman-on-the-take Blackwood (David Hardware), and eventually back to EKAF itself, where most of the research staff seem well aware that rather than working on a renewable fuel resource, their efforts are actually being used to refine an even more potent (and deadlier) new version of “Haze.” It’s only a matter of time before Danny’s true intentions are discovered, of course, but what does he really have to worry about — other than a lab full of doped-up crazed killers, the rest of the plant’s security staff, and Marcais’ vicious street muscle — all of whom are closing in on him at once? After all, he’s got the truth on his side! Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have much of a plan, but that’ll work itself out — won’t it?

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Obviously, writer/director Marc and script editor/star Carl have done their genre homework — Toxic Apocalypse plays out like the kind of film that could only be made by a couple of guys who have spent way too many hours watching The StuffStreet Trash, and Troma flicks like The Toxic Avenger. It has its tongue well and firmly in cheek from start to finish, and is blissfully unafraid to sacrifice logic, continuity, and even common sense on the altar of balls-out, ultraviolent hijinks. No one’s safe in this movie, anything can happen at any time, and none of it really matters, anyway, so why not be as absurd as your (admittedly limited) resources will allow you to be? If you’re tired of “micro-budget” productions that take themselves way too goddamn seriously, congratulations — your antidote to pretentious navel-gazing has arrived, and it doesn’t care whose delicate sensibilities it offends.

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Do you have to to make the usual allowances for a zero-budgeter with this one? Sure you do, to an extent, but these guys are so effing smart that they’ve even figured out a way to have fun with their own limitations — for instance, look for actress Claire Ball as a scientist, a hooker, a protester, an old lady, and a laser tag player. By and large the all-practical FX work is solid, the acting ranges from competent to actually pretty damn good, and the direction is surprisingly (and refreshingly) creative. At the risk of sounding like too much of a pathetic fan-boy, I honestly can’t think of anything to bitch about here.

And on that note, I think I’m done taking up any more of your valuable time. There are a million and one better things you could be doing other than reading this review — and watching Toxic Apocalypse immediately should be at the top of the list.