A short review of “Brightburn” (2019)

For all of its promise, “Brightburn” (2019) is the kind of movie that you can wait to rent from Redbox, rather than paying for a theater ticket.  It isn’t a bad movie, exactly — I’d rate it a 7 out of 10, due to its admittedly great premise and some nice visuals.  But you can wait for the DVD for two reasons:

  1.  The film does little with its wicked-cool premise (what if a super-powered child like Clark Kent became a homicidal bad guy?).  After walking the viewer through a horror-movie version of Superman’s origin story, the movie does almost nothing to expand on the idea.
  2. If you’ve already seen the trailer for “Brightburn,” then you’ve already seen most of the important parts.  Seriously — this is another instance where a movie’s trailer reveals too much, and shows you virtually the entire story.  I can’t see spending the ticket price to see what you might feel is mostly filler.

One of the more interesting things about “Brightburn” is its story concept, which is borrowed wholesale, of course, from DC Comics — apparently without any agreement with the company.  I’m no expert on intellectual property rights, but … isn’t that kind of a big deal?  Why is nobody commenting about it?  This is essentially an unauthorized “Elseworlds” tale.  (For those who don’t read comics, “Elseworlds” was an official DC imprint series where its characters were re-imagined in “what-if” scenarios, unconnected with the “real” DC universe’s continuity.  What if Superman landed in the jungle as a baby and was raised by animals?  What if he landed in Soviet Russia?  What if he were found by Thomas and Martha Wayne, whose subsequent murder motivated his emergence as Batman?)  

To make matters even more interesting, I’m willing to bet that some people will like “Brightburn” better than a few of the official Superman movies, especially 2016’s head-scratching “Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice.”

The filmmakers appear to making no effort to lampshade the intentional similarities, even in the movie’s marketing.  (Even the boy villain’s “logo” in the story is like a twisted cubist remix of Superman’s logo.)  I suppose if they claimed that “Brightburn” was a deliberate parody of the Superman mythos (and you could kinda view it that way), then it seems acceptable as satire.

 

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A review of “Hush” (2016)

I feel like I should have enjoyed “Hush” (2016) more than I did.  It isn’t a bad movie — it’s well made, and it stars Kate Siegel, who this year’s exceptional “The Haunting of Hill House” has led me to really like as an actress.  (Siegel also co-wrote the film with director Mike Flanagan, who is her husband and who was also the writer and director of “Hill House.”)  Siegel is again quite good, and their collaboration here results in a competent, serious horror-drama with no glaring flaws.

Yet my mind wandered.  Even if there was nothing seriously wrong with “Hush,” it didn’t much distinguish itself.  Just about everything you watch here is a standard stalker-vs.-lone-woman scary movie, with little in the way of twists or unexpected plot developments.

Yes, the difference here is that the protagonist is deaf and mute, and is therefore less able to defend herself — but Siegel and Flanagan don’t capitalize on that much in conceiving this story.  By the end of the film, I didn’t get the sense that the character’s disability even affected the course of the story very much.  Events would have unfolded more or less the same way if she hadn’t had this disability.  (Or am I missing something?)  I also get the sense that the protagonist being an author was supposed to affect her choices and strategies in trying to survive, but that didn’t come across consistently or well.  (And it results in “tricking” the viewer at one juncture in a way I didn’t like.)

I can’t actually recommend “Hush” to others because it didn’t thrill me.  But I can’t objectively say that it’s a bad movie.  So I figure I’ll rate it here a 7 out of 10.

A few random observations:

  • Siegel is a talented performer.  I predict she’s going to go on to great things.  Don’t let my lukewarm response to this film dissuade you from catching her elsewhere — especially in “The Haunting of Hill House.”
  • The story’s antagonist is fairly generic; he appears to be simply be a random serial killer in the script, and we get hardly a hint about his motivations.  But John Gallagher Jr. breathes plenty of life into him with a disturbingly authentic, naturalistic performance.  He’s also a very good actor.
  • I saw a plot twist coming that didn’t actually occur, and I wonder if what I saw was a vestige of an earlier version of this movie’s script.  (And it isn’t a spoiler if it didn’t happen.)  During a stalk-and-talk scene in which the bad guy taunts his victim, he inexplicably addresses Siegel’s character as “Squish.”  That sounds like a pet name that parent would give to a very young child.  The twist I predicted was this — Gallagher’s character was not a serial killer who selected his victims at random, but a long lost, homicidal brother who was then parodying the parent by invoking the pet name.  He was motivated by pathological jealousy after growing up with his disabled sister, who he felt monopolized his parents’ attention and sympathies.
  • We learn from dialogue that the protagonist became deaf and mute after contracting meningitis when she was a child.  I knew that meningitis could make a person deaf (or blind).  But … also mute?  Why am I skeptical about that?  Wouldn’t that only happen if someone became deaf when he or she was a baby — so that the disease could delay key early childhood language-acquisition processes?  I have no idea why I am so hung up on this minor bit of exposition.  Maybe watching so many zombie or plague movies has made me a stickler for the way diseases are portrayed in a horror story.

 

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“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? THE SHADOW KNOWS!”

The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.  Crime does not pay.

Dabbling in old time radio inevitably brought me to “The Shadow” — a character I’d heard about periodically when I was growing up.  My Dad had been a fan of the radio program and film serials when he was a kid, and he was fond of rattling off that tagline you see in this blog post’s headline.  (The radio shows were broadcast in to the mid-1950’s, long after they started in 1937.)  I also remember the character from the truly unfortunate 1994 feature film with Alec Baldwin, which I actually saw in the theater with my college girlfriend.  (The less said, the better.  About the movie, I mean.)  The Shadow is also cited periodically as an influence in the creation of my own favorite iconic dark detective, Batman.

The Shadow has a loooooooong, varied and occasionally confusing history – spanning radio, pulp magazines, comic books, television and film.  He’s still being portrayed in comics.  DC Comics released a crossover with Batman last year that looks interesting, and the incomparable Matt Wagner produced a couple of books in 2015 and 2016 that I’d love to get my hands on.  (He fights Grendel!!!)

The radio shows are a lot if fun, just like the antique horror and mystery programs that I’ve linked to here at the blog.  And, just like those, they’re easily found on Internet.  (How my Dad might have marveled at that!)  They’re definitely more campy.  And I suppose that makes sense, as they seem aimed at children, whereas the horror shows seem intended for general audiences or just adults.  The period commercials for Blue Coal are a weird glimpse into the past, too.  If I had to name one thing that I found annoying about all of the old time radio shows I’ve found, it’s the omnipresence of that damned organ music.  (Was it just a cultural staple of the time?)

If “The Shadow’s” stories are a bit hokey, the show’s voice acting and production are just terrific.  I particularly like the actor performing The Shadow for the episode in the first link below — “Death is a Colored Dream” (1948).  I believe it is Bret Morrison.  (And I was surprised to learn that the famous Orson Welles only voiced the character for a year or so a decade earlier.)

But what’s most interesting is the character’s inception.  He didn’t start out as a character in a story at all … “The Shadow” was simply the name of the generic host for a series of unrelated mystery stories comprising “The Detective Story Hour” in 1930.  After a surprising fanbase developed around the creepy-sounding host (voiced at the time by Frank Readick, Jr.), people started asking for stories featuring “The Shadow” at the news stand.  Street & Smith commissioned writer Walter B. Gibson to write up some tales featuring a supernatural detective; the first came out in 1931.  The iconic character was just sort of made-to-order for confused customers who might have thought he already existed.  That “Shadow” later arrived at the airwaves in 1937, with Welles voicing him.

Seriously, though, I totally need to get my hands on “Grendel vs. The Shadow.”

 

 

 

 

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A review of “The X-Files” Season 10

I breaks my heart to say this, but 2016’s long-awaited return of “The X-Files” was not a triumphant one.  (Indeed, I am writing this review nearly two years after its conclusion because I only recently got around to watching the last of its six episodes.)  I’d rate the brief season a 4 out of 10 — the lowest rating I’ve ever given to a season of the show.

I hope this year’s Season 11 proves me wrong, but I’m finally starting to wonder of “The X-Files'” time has come and gone.  (This is coming from someone who was a lifetime fan.  I even thoroughly enjoyed seasons 7 through 9, which was when much of the show’s loyal fan-base began truly eroding between 1999 and 2002.)

So many of the show’s core elements seem outdated now.  The character arcs of its two heroes and their relationship were resolved seasons ago.  Its central overriding story arc — an elite cabal’s conspiracy about (and with) aliens — appears to have been milked for most or all all of its entertainment value.  And the show’s format of mixing a handful of “conspiracy episodes” with standalone “monster-of-the-week” episodes feels awkward compared with contemporary programs that better integrate multiple plot lines.  (Consider HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” for example, or even the various Netflix and television series that are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

The truly fatal blow to “The X Files'” staying power, though, runs a bit deeper — network television just isn’t as positioned as it used to be to tell the scariest stories to a wide audience.  There is too much competition from sources less beholden to censorship or to the milquetoast sensibilities of mainstream appeal.  The first is easily accessible cable channels like HBO and AMC, which can shock viewers with visceral violence.  The second is subscription services like Netflix.

And third is simply the Internet at large, with its endless cornucopia of morbid or bizarre content.  “The X-Files” was created before the Internet was a common household utility.  Part of the show’s appeal was that it offered people the creepiest stories they’d watch anywhere anywhere outside of a movie theater.  And those stories at least seemed well researched by the program’s writers, who did a tremendous job for most of the show’s run.

Today’s Internet-connected entertainment marketplace is different.  No matter how much weirdness “The X Files” can pack into a 43-minute episode, the average consumer can find material online that is darker or more frightening in less time than that.  Compare the average “X-Files” episode, for example, to the array of material devoted to real-life “paranormal” subjects, like “Slender Man,” alleged UFO footage, or tragedies like the mysterious death of Elisa Lam.  (That last one is truly shudder-inducing.  Google it at your own peril.)

The only way a show like “The X-Files” can hope to compete is with excellent attention to tone, tension and character — something I thought that seasons 7 through 9 did pretty well with, despite a gradual fan exodus after David Duchovny’s awkward departure from the series.  Season 10 just didn’t follow suit.  It really was as though a range of previous “X-Files” episodes has been thrown in a blender, so that their component parts could be served yet again.  The conspiracy stuff, in particular, was poorly executed, too hastily paced, and just a bit too campy for my taste.  Mulder and Scully’s return was also too self-conscious — as though Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were reunited for a tongue-in-cheek reunion special.

It wasn’t all bad.  These two leads are always fun to watch.  The fourth episode was superb — “Home Again” served up both a creepy, macabre story and a meaningful character arc for Dana Scully.

Episode 3, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” was also fun enough.  But while a lot of other fans absolutely loved this humorous entry, I personally didn’t feel its central joke merited a full episode.  Besides, this particular twist has been done before, in a 1989 book by a well known speculative fiction author.  (I won’t name the book or the author here, in order to avoid spoilers.)

The rest of the episodes were … fair, I suppose.  Oh, well.

I’m thrilled that we’re currently being given Season 11 of “The X-Files.”  As someone who was a longtime fan, I never envisioned the show lasting this long, even after a hiatus of many years.  I just hope the show matures and grows in quality after this disappointing rebirth.

 

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