Here is the irony of “Bird Box’s” (2018) plot device.

The (entirely invisible) creatures need incredible illusions to provoke their prey to kill themselves, and the creatures never exhibit any physical prowess of their own. (Their victims are never so much as scratched or bitten by the monsters themselves.)

Maybe that’s because they have no teeth, claws, strength, etc. Maybe they’re as fragile as baby fawns, which is why they must rely on such a unique method of attack.

It would be nuts if a future film or book sequel saw a single immune human just kicking them over like a drunk college kid out tipping cows.

Even better would be if someone suffered a traumatic brain injury during the chaos of the invasion — harming their visual cortex, and rendering them unable to process any visual information. They’d have huge vulnerabilities resulting from this new disability, but also a practically messianic power to save everyone.

(I think too much about movies when I need to do laundry, in other words.)

 

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Throwback Thursday: “Laverne and Shirley” (1976-1983)

Rest in Peace, Penny Marshall.

This is one of only a handful of TV shows that I can remember watching as a tot in the late 1970’s.  “Laverne and Shirley” (1976-1983) was the kind of of thing I’d see in my older sisters’ room.  My Dad and older brother watched war movies, westerns and monster movies, but my two sisters preferred considerably lighter fare.  Two that they watched a lot at the time, if I recall, were this show and “Donnie & Marie” (1976-1979) — about the scariest thing you could find playing on their black-and-white TV was “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries” (1977-1979). (One of my sisters had a crush on actor Shaun Cassidy; I think there was a poster of him in their room.)

I loved “Laverne and Shirley” when I was that young.  Lenny and Squiggy were my favorite highlight of any episode, even if I was sometimes confused about whether they were meant to be “good guys” or “bad guys.”  I was in kindergarten, and not altogether bright, and I thought that men who wore black leather jackets (Fonzie notwithstanding) were usually “bad guys.”  I also remember thinking that hippies and motorcyclists were the same group of “bad guys” because they disobeyed God or something … my confusion at the time resulted from some vaguely moraled born-again Christian comic books I’d happened across somewhere.

I also remember recognizing “Laverne and Shirley” as being related to another show that a lot of kids back then loved — “Happy Days” (1974-1984), of which it was a spin-off.  This might have been the first time in my life that I was aware of two live-action television properties occupying the same fictional universe; I’d already seen it happen in the movies with the various incarnations of “King Kong” and “Godzilla.”

Here’s what makes me feel old — for both “Laverne and Shirley” and “Happy Days,” I probably watched a lot of the episodes when they were first broadcast, and not just in re-runs (although “Happy Days” was also played in syndication endlessly throughout the 1980’s — it remained a fixture of daytime television).

And I only just realized writing this that Lenny was played by the priceless Michael McKean.  As an adult, I know him primarily from his brilliant turns in “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984) and “The X-Files” (1998-2018).  He’s 71 now.  Wow.

 

 

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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A review of Season 1 of “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018)

Ghosts seldom scare me, because I’m never 100 percent clear on what sort of threat they present to the protagonists of a horror film or TV show.  They’re not like zombies, vampires, werewolves or serial killers, all of which will do predictably horrible things to their victims.

Can ghosts … kill you?  Injure you?  That usually doesn’t make sense, given their non-corporeal nature.  Can they … scare you to death?  How would that work?  Would they cause a heart attack?  Or drive you mad?  That’s fine, I suppose, but here they’ve taken a back seat to the demons of horror films since 1973’s “The Exorcist” spawned a sub-genre with far more frightening supernatural baddies.  Are ghosts supposed to inspire existential dread, by reminding the viewers of their own mortality?  For me, that backfires — their existence would strongly suggest the existence of an afterlife, which would be paradoxically reassuring.

It’s therefore a testament to the quality of Netflix’ “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) that it’s frequently so scary, even to me.  We find out in the first episode that its ghosts indeed do more than frighten the story’s protagonists, but it’s the show’s writing, directing and acting that make it so memorable.  It’s an a superb viewing experience, and I’d rate it a 10 out of 10.

The cast roundly shines — but especially Carla Gugino and Timothy Hutton (even if his performance was a little understated).  Catherine Parker is deliciously evil in a supporting role as the house’s most outwardly vicious spirit.  The best performance, for me, however, was the young Victoria Pedretti as the traumatized Nell — she was goddam amazing, and deserves an Emmy nomination.

Mike Flanagan’s directing was perfect — his use of long angles and colors to make lavish interiors disorienting reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s similar sensory trickery in “The Shining” (1980).  Michael Fimognari’s cinematography was beautiful.  Even the makeup effects were damned good.  (Nothing beats Greg Nicotero’s work in “The Walking Dead” universe, but the work here is sometimes horrifying.)

I’m not the only one who loved this show either.  It is broadly praised in online horror fan circles (though I’d recommend avoiding most of those for spoilers).  I haven’t read Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel that is its source material, but a bibliophile who I trust assured me that the show is even better.

Sure, there were some things that didn’t work for me.  “The Haunting of Hill House” actually does take a while to get where it’s going; it favors in-depth, flashback-heavy character development over advancing its plot, in much the same manner as “Lost” (2004 – 2010) once did.  And some viewers might feel the same frustration here as they would for that show.

Its story and supernatural adversaries are also distinctly Gothic.  (Your mileage may vary as to what’s a comfortably familiar trope and what’s an archaic cliche.  I myself was more interested the more modern and three-dimensional interpretation of ghost characters seen in 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.”)  I’d even go so far as the say that the first ghost that we see in any detail is actually disappointing — the otherworldly figure connected with the bowler hat felt too cartoonish for me, like something we’d see on Walt Disney World’s “The Haunted Mansion” ride.  (Trust me, they get more intimidating after that.)

Give this show a chance — and stay with it if you think it’s too slow, or if you find its characters a little unlikable at first.  You’ll be glad you did.

Weird world: if the diffident, sometimes off-putting character of Steven looks familiar to you, it might be because that’s none other than Michiel Huisman, who plays the charismatic Daario on “Game of Thrones.”

 

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