Tag Archives: 2008

A short review of “Black Mirror” Season 3

“Black Mirror” (2011) remains the best science fiction show on television; I’d rate the six-episode third season a perfect 10.  The show continues to succeed at every level with its story concepts and their execution.  And I think it’s actually getting better.

It’s getting darker and harder hitting, too.  I’d guess that this season’s blackmailing-hackers episode (“Shut Up and Dance”) would be the one that the majority of viewers find the most disturbing.  For some reason, the man-vs.-monster story of “Men Against Fire” is the one that really got under my skin.

I was surprised to learn that nearly all of “Black Mirror’s” episodes are penned by series creator Charlie Brooker.  I’m still surprised at how many clever ideas and lean, smart scripts could spring from one writer.  I was so impressed that I looked Brooker up on Wikipedia — but was surprised to discover I’m unfamiliar with nearly all of his other work.  The one exception is “Dead Set” (2008) — the truly fantastic British zombie horror miniseries that I’ve been recommending to friends for ages.  That makes sense.

Anyway, I am fully and happily converted to “Black Mirror’s” cult following, and I enthusiastically recommend it to people who ask about it.  (The show’s popularity is still growing — I believe it appeals to the same kind of fans as those who flocked to the various iterations of “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” of generations past.)  But I might actually suggest that newcomers begin with the second or third season, rather than the first.  Season 1 is terrific, but it’s three episodes are more subtle and thematic, while the latter seasons follow a more conventional story structure that might better appeal to more mainstream audiences.  (They have more satisfying twists and emotional payoffs, too.)

And a quick caveat — I’ll reiterate that this show is indeed dark.  There is a strictly human element to most of “Black Mirror’s” twists that is intended to surprise the viewer by provoking anxiety or dread.  For a show that relies on technological story devices, it succeeds even more with its old fashioned psychological horror.

 

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A short review of “Death Note” (2017)

True to its manga origins, Netflix’ “Death Note” (2017) seems cartoonish and sometimes intentionally silly.  That doesn’t stop it from being a lot of fun, though — this is the most original, offbeat horror tale I’ve seen in a while, and I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

It’s definitely a genre-buster — it’s one part comic book, one part horror tale, one part eastern theological fantasy and one part dark teen romance.  It succeeds in part because it has an interesting supernatural story setup that seems reminiscent an episode of “The X-Files.”  (A magical notebook allows it owner to sentence anyone to death, simply by writing the victim’s name down, and describing how they die.)

It also succeeds because it has a great bogeyman — a seemingly omnipotent demon named Ryuk.  His visual design is creative and wickedly creepy, and his character is menacingly voiced by none other than Willem Dafoe.

Finally, Shea Whigham is very good as the teen protagonist’s tough but likable dad.  I thought I remembered him only from his relatively minor role in this year’s “Kong Skull Island.”  But, as it turns out, he was actually the sympathetic escaped convict from 2008’s criminally underrated monster movie, “Splinter.”  He’s a great actor.

I really liked this.  I’d recommend it.

 

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A very short review of “10 Cloverfield Lane” (2016)

“10 Cloverfield Lane” (2016) is a capably written and well performed thriller; it might not be quite worth the high praise it seems to be receiving elsewhere, but I’d still give it an 8 out of 10.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead actually is terrific actress.  She has far more to do here than her one-note heroine in 2011’s underrated “The  Thing” prequel, and she performs beautifully.  John Goodman is perfect as a mentally ill, dubious savior.  John Gallagher, Jr. does just fine as a good-natured everyman in over his head.

I did think that “10 Cloverfield Lane” ran a little long for its content.  This could have easily been an especially well executed episode of a one-hour show like “The Outer Limits” or “The Twilight Zone.”  It’s feature-length format felt a little padded.  We don’t need the prologue explaining why Winstead’s character is traveling.  Nor do we need the movie’s slowly building character arc for Goodman’s “Howard.”  (We know to suspect his stability from the trailer.)

This appears to have very little to do with “Cloverfield” (2008).

 

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“Emilie” (2015) is a superb, gut-wrenching thriller.

I’ll come straight to the point — “Emilie” is an exceptional horror-thriller that belongs on your list of films to see, provided you can stomach some disturbing content.  This movie hooked me in under a minute, even before its title appeared on screen.  Then it kept me glued to it throughout most of its running length.  It could have been an even better film — a classic on par with “Psycho” (1960) or “Fatal Attraction”(1987), were it not for some key creative choices about halfway through.

I’d give this movie a 9 out of 10.  It succeeds for two reasons — great acting and a script that perfectly employs dialogue that is at first subtle and nuanced, and then increasingly frightening.  The title character is a babysitter who is not what the parents expected, in more ways than one.  After some deliberately awkward character interaction with the departing parents, she proceeds to subject the children to a series of progressively more demented psychological games.  What follows is a thriller brimming with pathos.  The movie reminded me a lot of the critically acclaimed and controversial “Funny Games” (2007). That film also showed ostensibly innocent adversaries entering a family’s home after gaining their trust, and then doing awful things.

Emilie is played to perfection by Sarah Bolger, who has a beautiful, kind face, which only makes the character’s incongruous psychopathy even more unsettling for the viewer.  It took me a while to place the actress’ face, until I recognized her as the somewhat feckless protagonist of 2011’s “The Moth Diaries.”  I was impressed with her talent then as a hapless good guy, and I think her performance here was phenomenal.  She plays the innocent-looking, yet icy antagonist here with subtle, unnerving malice.  The rest of the cast is also uniformly quite good.  This is true even of the young child actors, but most especially of Joshua Rush.

The movie is briskly paced, but its sparing dialogue still manages to rattle and then shock.  It’s a sometimes obscene story of imperiled children that really gets under your skin.  Most of its directing is clean and clear.  Combined with the unusual score, it gives the story a dreamlike quality.

The movie loses its way just a little at about the 40-minute mark, when its perverse, moody dialogue and strictly psychological horror give way to the familiar elements of a boilerplate thriller.  An unnecessary backstory is given for our antagonist, delivered by an overly convenient, standard flashback sequence that feels out of place and that disrupts the pacing.  (“Her mind was shattered.”)  Then, other plot points also feel just a little by-the-numbers, moving “Emilie” away from true cinematic greatness and toward just being a very good horror flick.

Finally, Bolger’s villain is defanged a little when the script calls for her to lose her calm demeanor after the plucky, oldest child (Rush) defies her, in a well executed but entirely predictable David and Goliath story.  And her character’s reliance on a nameless, voiceless and superfluous confederate here also makes her a little less enigmatic.

How much greater would this movie have been if Emilie’s motivations remained a mystery?  What if, like “Funny Games” or “The Strangers” (2008), all we knew is that she was an highly intelligent sociopath acting for no discernible reason?  What if she were acting entirely alone?

And what if the horror remained strictly psychological, with no actual violence to up the ante until the closing minutes?  The most disturbing scenario I can think of is this — what if she were able to psychologically manipulate the children to violently turn against one another, or against their parents upon their return?  That could be an ambiguous, darker and far more thematic story than the second half of the film we see here.

Still, this was a damned effective scary movie, and that’s good enough.  I recommend it.

One more thing — there actually is a famous, heartwarming French romantic comedy entitled “Amelie” (2001), which I have not seen.  I think it would be blackly funny if some sentimental filmgoers wanted to rent that and accidentally picked up “Emilie.”

 

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“Terminator Genisys” Terminated My Boredom!

There.  You see that truly sucky play on words that I employed in the headline for this blog post?  That should give you a sense of the quality of this film’s script.  I’m serious.  When one character expresses their desire to rule the world, another character shouts “Rule THIS!” before blasting the former with a laser.  Because the future is a long, looooong way from Tennessee Williams, Baby.

But hold up.  Believe it or not, this will actually be a positive review of “Terminator Genisys” (2015).  I’d reluctantly give it an 8 out of 10, because it was a fun summer popcorn movie, despite its flaws.

And there are flaws.  It isn’t high art, and it can’t even approach the pathos, drama, characters, rich themes and great old fashioned movie thrills of the true terminator classics: the 1984 original and James Cameron’s astonishingly superior sequel in 1991.

The dialogue for “Terminator Genisys” is terrible in many places.  The story’s most important character, Sarah Connor, falls flat.  She’s scripted as a chipper, upbeat, 20’ish “It Girl” who utterly fails to win viewer loyalty, as Linda Hamilton’s traumatized crusader did so beautifully in 1991.  I also humbly opine that Emilia Clarke did poorly with the role.  This is the first time I’ve ever seen her perform — I’ve heard that she’s actually considered a very good actress playing a queen on … that TV show.  “Game of Bones?”  “Crones?”  Or something?  People like that show, right?

A lackluster Sarah Connor might be a serious transgression in the fan community.  For a kid who learned to love science fiction movies in the 80’s and 90’s, Ellen Ripley will always be the paradigmatic heroine, but Sarah Connor was second.  No, no one can equal Hamilton’s performance, but others can still perform the role quite well when it is competently scripted.  Just see Lena Heady’s inspired turn in television’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (2008).

The “timey-wimey” stuff lost me early on.  Seriously — the time travel story elements confused and annoyed me as soon as Kyle Reese (Jesus, I almost wrote Corporal Hicks) entered the time machine and began having inexplicable memories of another timestream.

Who is sending multiple terminators on multiple missions?  Are they from various timelines and various iterations of Skynet, or are they from a single future?  Our heroes have an unknown benefactor with access to time machines?  A T-1000 attacks people on a rowboat?  Does it … float, then?  Walk on water?  It seems to me that hopping on a boat would be a rather ingenius way of escaping an unstoppable robot, unless he commandeers his own vehicle …  Hell, it’s something I’d never thought of, and I am precisely the sort of weirdo who thinks about things like that.  (Is it any worse than when other people have zombie contingency plans?)

I’m not even sure I understand the motives of the story’s antagonist who we see the most.  Is this character on nobody’s side, exactly?  If this character is a superior model composed of nanobots, shouldn’t Skynet be manufacturing and deploying dozens, instead of just one?  For that matter … why do individual terminators each have an individual consciousness and point of view?  Can Skynet simply download its own single collective consciousness to every unit?

I felt a little embarrassed at first, but the Internet reassures me that most, if not all viewers, are puzzled about these things.  The wonderful io9.com, for example, has an excellent tongue-in-cheek “FAQ” pointing out this movie’s surprising multitude of unanswered questions.  Warning: SPOILERS.

http://io9.com/terminator-genisys-the-spoilyr-faq-1716548070

Also … I really disliked this movie’s central plot twist.

Still, I have to give this movie a free pass.  I simply can’t give a negative review to a film during which I laughed and smiled throughout.  This is a fun summer event-movie.  It’s a fast-paced, sci-fi actioner with fantastic special effects, the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and tons of fan service and Easter eggs.  (Recreating the 1984 film’s sequences shot-for-shot?  C’mon!  That was just cool and fun.)

We’ve got nanobaddies, liquid metal terminators (made of mimetic polyalloy, to those of us in the know), aging T-800’s with stiff joints, time machines, terminators arriving in multiple decades, Bot-on-Bot violence, a schoolbus flipping over on the Golden Gate Bridge and … somebody does something totally sweet with an oxygen tank.  They really threw in everything but the kitchen sink for this movie.  The result is only kid stuff, but it’s still a good time.  If you see this movie, and you don’t smile when a T-1000 emerges from a police car windshield, then you have never been a 10-year-old boy.

This year’s “Jurassic World” had none of the earmarks of a great film, but it still entertained.  I gave that a positive review, so I’m going to go head and recommend this as well.

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