She spilleth about Lilith.

So I learned from a friend last night about the mythical significance of Lilith in the Talmud.  This was Adam’s first wife, portrayed in the same books that would later comprise the Book of Genesis — though she was excised from them when they were incorporated into the Bible.  (Yes, I have weird telephone conversations with my friends before bed.)

Aside from being a notable figure for feminists (she demanded equality with Adam), Lilith is alternatively portrayed as an evil or demonic figure.  If I understand correctly, this is because she defied God’s law about Adam’s superiority, essentially “divorced” him, and left the Garden of Eden.  (Jewish tradition holds that Eve was actually Adam’s third wife.)

So now I understand why the name pops up so often for villains in horror films and fiction.  My own favorite is the vampire queen Lilith from the 2010 film adaptation of Steve Niles’ comic series, “30 Days of Night: Dark Days.”  (See the trailer in the first video below.  She’s the girl with the … dark eyes.)  “Dark Days” was a surprisingly terrific movie for a direct-to-video sequel … Niles seems to be the rare creator to have anything he touches turn to gold.  (In addition to the movies, the many comic book limited series under the “30 Days of Night” banner have been almost uniformly excellent … “Dead Space” was pretty clunky and the 2017 reboot was largely unnecessary, but they were both still enjoyable.)

Anyway, the Lilith you see in the trailer was played by the priceless Mia Kirshner.  If she seems a like a familiar female villain, it might be because you remember Kirshner as Mandy, the mysterious, cherubic assassin on “24” (2001-2014).

It also occurs to me now that the name of Frazier’s ex-wife on “Cheers” and “Frazier” was a subtle joke too — complete with an ostensibly psychic character calling her an “evil presence.”

You learn something new every day.

 

 

A review of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014)

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014) is easily the least of the Tom Clancy adaptations.  But that shouldn’t be enough to indict the film; the other film treatments of the author’s books have all been roundly excellent.  (Okay, 2002’s often-reviled “The Sum of All Fears” might be an exception, but I still like that flick even if I’m in the minority.)  I’d rate this outing a 6 out of 10.

It isn’t a bad movie … it’s just an average, generally undistinguished boilerplate spy thriller that seems half-heartedly rewritten as a reboot of the Clancy films.  Screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp pay cursory attention to the title character’s background, and a key plot development from the books that I will not spoil here.  But the film utterly lacks the mood, detail or methodical plotting of anything Clancy created.

It’s all very generic stuff.   We’ve got a generic, telegenic, twenty-something action hero (Chris Pine), his generic hot girlfriend (Keira Knightley), the expected Russian bad guy (Kenneth Branagh) and a by-the-numbers climax — including the last-second requirement to divert a bomb from its target.  Rounding it all out is Kevin Costner, the most generic good guy ever to behave predictably on screen — he characteristically projects the expected, wholesome gravitas.  Even this film’s title is generic — it sounds like the name a marketing department would come up with for an entry in a video-game series.

There are plot elements that are painfully implausible, even by spy-movie standards.  Jack Ryan’s new girlfriend, for example, surprises him by arriving in Russia in a flourish of quirky-girlfriend spontaneity, only to discover his secret career and then be fully enlisted in a spy operation.  Branagh doubles as the movie’s director; his work here is surprisingly problematic.  This is yet another movie in which important action sequences are barely comprehensible because of frequent, rapid cuts.

Oh, well.  It certainly isn’t all bad.  There isn’t a single bad actor in the film, for example.  If I don’t like Branagh’s directing, I love his acting.  The guy is magnetic — he alternately and convincingly projects menace and charisma to perfection.  Alec Utgoff shines too, in a small role as a soft-spoken, ironically disarming Russian assassin.

People tend to either love or hate Costner.  I like him quite a bit.  No, he doesn’t always demonstrate an incredible range.  But his acting is competent and he’s likable and consistently convincing.  He’s the actor equivalent of that old American sedan that isn’t flashy but always starts reliably when you need it to get you to work.

Hey, you might like this movie far more than I did.  I was an obsessive fan of the books, so my standards may be a bit high where they are adapted to the screen.  Your mileage may vary.

 

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A review of Season 1 of “Condor” (2018)

When Season 1 of “Condor” was good — and it almost always was — it was a cinema-quality spy thriller.  This was a smart, suspenseful, well made TV show that was very nearly perfect — I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

“Condor” was adapted loosely from James Grady’s 1974 book, “Six Days of the Condor,” and its famous film adaptation the following year, “Three Days of the Condor.”  I’ve neither read the former or seen the latter, but I can tell you that this new iteration of the story is intelligently written, nicely directed and edited, and well performed by its actors.  It seems to channel the modus operandi of Tom Clancy’s books and films — showing multiple thoughtful characters plotting and acting either against or alongside one another — while the show keeps the tension high with sequences of surprise violence.  (And there is indeed some disturbing violence here, particularly when the story calls for it to be perpetrated against non-combatants.  “Condor” aired on the Audience channel on DirecTV; I suspect its content might be too much for a regular network.)

William Hurt has always been a goddam national treasure, as far as I’m concerned.  (I may be biased in my appraisal of his work, as I grew up watching him in films like  1983’s “Gorky Park” and 1988’s “The Accidental Tourist.”  I think he’s one of the best actors out there.)  Seeing his talent colliding with Bob Balaban’s on screen should make this show required viewing for anyone who enjoys spy thrillers.  (There is an extended, loaded exchange between them in a coffee shop here that is absolutely priceless.)

The whole cast is great.  I’ve never been a fan of Brendan Fraser, simply because his movies are usually too goofy for me — but he shines in “Condor,” playing against type as an awkward villain.

Leem Lubany is terrific as the story’s merciless assassin.  (See my comments above about the violence.)  The role doesn’t call for her to have much range, as her character is a somewhat stoical sociopath.  But she looks and sounds the part — combining sex appeal with an incongruous, calm, homicidal intensity.  She reminded me a lot of Mandy, Mia Kirshner’s priceless, plot-driving assassin in Fox’s “24” (2001-2014).

If “Condor” has a failing, then it lies with its saccharine protagonists.  The screenwriters seem to have gone to great lengths to paint an edgy, unpredictable, violent world full of compromised good guys and moral ambiguity.  Why, then, are its handful of young heroes so implausibly perfect?  The putative hero is “Joe,” nicely played Max Irons, who is just fine in the role.  But the writers make him so idealistic, so gentle, so smart and so kind that it just requires too much suspension of disbelief.  At one point I even wanted to see a bad guy at least punch him in the face, simply for being a goody-goody.  It makes the story feel weird, too.  (Who wants to see Jesus in a violent spy thriller?)  The few other protagonists that we see here are also too good — they feel like thinly drawn, cookie-cutter heroes and not real people.

There are some plot implausibilities, too, that I’ve seen pointed out by other reviewers.  (I have arrived at the resignation that others are simply far more perceptive about these things than I am.)  But there was nothing that affected my enjoyment of Season 1.

“Condor” is great stuff.  I recommend it.

 

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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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