A short review of “Truth or Dare” (2018)

Blumhouse’s “Truth or Dare” (2018) isn’t high art, but it isn’t quite as bad as everyone makes it out to be.  I’d rate it a 6 out of 10 for being a passably good fright flick.

It’s a gimmick horror film, but the gimmick kinda works –a powerful demon possesses an oral game of “truth or dare” — then follows its players home from vacation with lethal consequences. It’s actually not quite as stupid as it sounds; I had fun with the premise, which sounds like the basis for a decent “The X-Files” (1993-2018) episode.  An exposition-prone minor character explains to our protagonists late in the game that demons need not infect only people and objects, but also “ideas” like games or competitions.  The notion of an idea or a philosophy being demonically possessed has a hint of creative brilliance, and I’d love to see it fully developed in an intelligent, well written horror film.

Alas, this isn’t it.  And instead of lovable heroes like Mulder and Scully, we get a predictable, throwaway group of unlikable teens on spring break.  The movie’s most interesting character is the one it sets up as the stereotypical jerk, Ronnie, adroitly played by Sam Lerner.  The film would have been much better if it had fleshed him out as a three-dimensional character, and had the story revolve around him as a surprise anti-hero.

“Truth of Dare” also borrows maybe a bit too much from “It Follows” (2014) and “The Ring” films (2002-2017). Finally, it confuses the viewer with some head-scratching plot turns near its end.

Oh, well.  The movie still doesn’t deserve the hate it gets.  I figure it’s at least a fun time waster before bed on a weeknight.

 

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A short review of Season 1 of “Black Summer” (2019)

I don’t understand how “Black Summer” can be as good as it is.  It’s produced by The Asylum, the makers of low budget, direct-to-video ripoff films like “Atlantic Rim” (2013) and “Triassic World” (2018).  It’s a prequel to the horror-comedy “Z Nation” (2014-2018) — a show that was so bad I couldn’t make it through its first episode.  Yet “Black Summer” is inexplicably a great, albeit imperfect, TV show.  I’d rate it a 9 out 10.

I might be in the minority here; a lot of people are severely panning this show online.  And I do recognize its weaknesses — there is very little detail in its plot or character development … there is often even very little dialogue at all.  And even I recognized some plot holes.  (I’m typically a little slow on the uptake where these are concerned.)

But this bare-bones zombie story still manages to screen some likable characters, and then put them through a thrilling succession of hyper-kinetic chases and melees.  I was on the edge of my seat, and I consequently didn’t miss the methodical, detailed plotting of shows like “The Walking Dead.”  The season’s finale is crowned by an extended, eye-level, real-time action set-piece that ought to be considered a classic in the  zombie-horror subgenre.  It was mind-blowing. I just can’t dislike a horror property that genuinely scared me.

I could simply be out of step with everyone else; I often have different tastes in zombie fare.  I love Zack Snyder’s 2008 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” which this series reminds me of.  And I also love similar overseas productions like Spain’s “[REC]” films (2007 – 2014) and Britain’s “Dead Set” miniseries (2008), while those amazing entries are hardly known among my friends.  I also cannot understand why many people who love George A. Romero’s and Robert Kirkman’s productions must always compare other films and TV shows unfavorably to them.  We can love both.  Why not?

Hey, if you don’t want to make my word for it, here is what Stephen King tweeted: “No long, fraught discussions. No endless flashbacks, because there’s no back story. No grouchy teens. Dialogue is spare. Much shot with a single handheld camera, very fluid.”

I obviously recommend this.

 

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A short review of “Predestination” (2014)

Blog Correspondent Pete Harrison has been recommending “Predestination” to me for a couple of years now.  It took me the longest time to get around to it — I knew that the Spierig brothers’ mindbending science fiction film would be challenging, and I wanted to wait until I was in just the right mood to take it in.

It turns out Pete’s recommendation was a damned good one.  (Followers of this blog know he is our resident horror expert; turns out he knows his sci-fi too.)  “Predestination” is a grim, moody, well directed time travel movie, beautifully performed by Sarah Snook, Ethan Hawke and Noah Taylor.  The storytelling style reminded me so much of Christopher Nolan’s work that I had to check the credits again to make sure he wasn’t at the helm.  (Coming from me, that’s high praise.)  I’d rate “Predestination” a 9 out of 10.

I don’t think this movie is for everyone.  It’s hard-core sci-fi, adapted from a short story by Robert Heinlein called “– All You Zombies –,” and its stranger story elements will challenge the viewer instead of of pleasing them emotionally.  (This would be a very confusing choice for a date movie, for example.)

And there is a major plot element here that requires so much suspension of disbelief that I think many viewers will be put off by it.  (It doesn’t involve the plot-enabling time travel tehcnology.)  I truly enjoyed this film, and even I struggled with this element’s plausibility.  I feel certain it was easier for Heinlein to get across on the page than for any filmmaker to show on screen.  (Would any of us react the way these characters do if we were in the same situation?  I don’t think the human heart works quite the way the story suggests it does.)

Still, this was a very good movie for a science fiction fan.  If you are in the mood for something dark, different and demanding, then give it a chance.

 

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A short review of “Patient Zero” (2018)

I’d be lying to you if I told you that “Patient Zero” (2018) is an especially good movie.  It isn’t.  It plays a lot like the classic “28 Days Later” (2002) would play if it were produced by the SyFy Channel, and by that I mean it generally is a poorly written, low-budget cheese-fest.  (This is one of those movies where even the score was kinda bad.)  Still, there were some hints of greatness hidden within this lackluster zombie movie — enough to save it from being a complete failure — and I would reluctantly rate it a 5 out of 10.  (Most other reviewers are not even that kind.)

First, it has some fine performers. These include two “Game of Thrones” actors who are always fun to watch — the mesmerizing Natalie Dormer and the consistently likable John Bradley.  (The latter seems to specialize in winning audiences over as the “hero’s-affable-friend” role.)  “Doctor Who” fans will of course recognize Matt Smith in the lead role.  But by far and away, they’re overshadowed by a fantastic performance by Stanley Tucci as the zombies’ surprisingly eloquent leader.  (More on that in a moment.)  Tucci is truly a great actor and he makes a perfectly menacing bad guy; his voice, diction and line delivery are goddam perfect.  His talent for voicing a magnetic, highly intelligent antagonist reminds me of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal of Negan on “The Walking Dead,” or one of the better “big bads” seen on “24” (2001 – 2014).

Second, there are some really clever ideas hiding under this thin, hasty script.  (I strongly get the sense that “Patient Zero” was a rush job for screenwriter Mike Le and director Vincent Newman.)  The hyper-kinetic zombies here are afflicted with “super-rabies” and are reminiscent of their ilk from “28 Days Later.”  But there is a truly intriguing plot conceit — their roars and screams are perfectly intelligible to Smith’s protagonist.  He speaks their “language” because he’s infected, but also mysteriously asymptomatic.  When he interrogates the zombies for the military, their interaction is filmed as normal dialogue (creating the opportunity for Tucci’s terrific turn here).  Then things get even more interesting when it’s demonstrated that the ostensibly mindless zombies are quite proficient at planning an attack.

I … might be treating this movie a bit charitably simply because I liked some of its ingredients.  Again, I don’t actually recommend it.  But your mileage may vary.

 

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A short review of “Bird Box” (2018)

Netflix’ “Bird Box” generally pleases — I’d rate it an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a creative and effective apocalyptic horror film.  A few reviewers call it a “high-concept” horror movie because of its MacGuffin — an invasion of otherworldly beings causes anyone who looks at them to hallucinate and become suicidally depressed.  (A handful of survivors escape the chaotic mass suicides because they are lucky enough not to lay eyes on the mysterious, mind-bending creatures which can become images of their victims’ worst fears.)

It’s a hell of a setup — it reminds many people of this year’s “A Quiet Place” and 2008’s unfairly maligned “The Happening.”  (Hey, I really liked that movie.)  For some reason, “Bird Box” reminded me of the 1985 “The Twilight Zone” episode, “Need to Know.”  (It’s a great ep.)  And the plot device pays off — “Bird Box” is genuinely unsettling, and the whole story comes across as a blackly inventive end-of-the-world tale.

Sandra Bullock is good here; supporting actors Sarah Paulson and John Malkovich are even better. (Malkovich is mesmerizing whenever he plays an intense or unpleasant character.)

The film suffers somewhat from puzzling pacing problems — sometimes the story appears to be unfolding too quickly, but by the end of the two-hour movie, it feels too long.  “Bird Box” was adapted from a structured 2014 novel by Josh Malerman; I strongly get the sense that it tries to squeeze too much of its source material into a the running time for a movie.  I honestly think I would have enjoyed it much more if its frightening plot device and interesting, well-played characters were explored in a mini-series.

There’s another disappointment too — we learn very little about the story’s antagonists, beyond one character’s hypothesis that they’re archetypal punishing figures from a number of the world’s religions.  I wanted to know more.

 

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