A short review of “Child’s Play” (2019)

“Child’s Play” (2019) actually surprised me by being a little more ambitious and well rounded than the typical reboot of an 80’s slasher franchise.  Screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith tries to present audiences with a fresh, updated horror film with funny, engaging, likable characters.  And he mostly succeeds — it helps that the cast is roundly quite good in their roles.  (The voice of Chucky is none other than Mark Hamill.)  There is some discomfiting dark humor here, too, that makes for some great, guilty fun.

But this “Child’s Play” is doomed to suffer in comparison to the 1988 original.  The very first “Child’s Play” was a particularly scary film, even if its sequels were much less so; I remember people screaming in the theater when I saw it with my high school friends.  This new movie doesn’t come close to matching it in that manner.

Smith’s update abandons the admittedly campy premise of the original, in which a serial killer employs voodoo to transfer his soul into an interactive doll.  Smith gives us something that is more plausible — a malfunctioning A.I. that turns homicidal partly because its programming leads it to.  His take is interesting … Chucky is even a little sympathetic at first — he’s a childlike, vaguely cute robot, and his mischievous young owner is at least partly responsible for his early, less frightening transgressions.

This all works on a certain level.  It’s smarter than its 80’s source material.  It might have been gold if it had been fleshed out by a science fiction screenwriting master like Charlie Brooker, of “Black Mirror” fame.  Or, better yet, why not the writers for HBO’s brilliant “Westworld,” which proceeds from essentially the same basic story concept?

Alas, we can’t have our cake and eat it too, at least in this case.  The new Chucky is a more intelligent story concept but a less menacing bogeyman.  He just can’t hold a candle to the voodoo-infused, sociopathic demon-doll voiced by the legendary Brad Dourif so long ago.  The new “Child’s Play” isn’t quite scary enough for our expectations, and that’s a serious criticism for a horror movie.

All things considered, I’d rate this a 7 out of 10.

 

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A very short review of the premiere of “NOS4A2” (2019)

So I checked out the first episode of AMC’s “NOS4A2” last night, after the ubiquitous ads successfully piqued my interest.  (I frequently get turned off to shows or movies when they’re overexposed by a bombardment of marketing, and resolve not to watch them out of spite.  Seriously.  But “NOS4A2’s” creepy trappings and the promise of Zachary Quinto as a child-abducting vampire were enough to get me to sit down with the first episode.)

This was decent!  I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.  The writing, directing and acting were all quite good, the protagonist’s troubled family drama was a lot more compelling than I expected, and this looks like a horror-fantasy series with some creative stuff going on.  I had a little trouble buying the 26-year-old Ashleigh Cummings as a high school student, but she’s great in the role.  And Quinto chews the scenery just fine as the vampire who apparently feeds off of the life force of the kidnapped children while they sleep.  (The character becomes more interesting when he grows younger — and the talented Quinto then infuses his interpretation with a manic, evil energy.)

The jury is still out with me, however, on this show’s horror elements.  They’re creatively conceived, but they might be a bit too campy and stylized for me.  (You know what I mean if you’ve seen the ads.)  “NOS4A2” was adapted from an immensely successful 2013 young adult novel by Joe Hill, and I suspect that the fantasy-horror mashup here is exactly what made the book appeal to fans of the YA genre.  It remains to be seen whether it will be too corny for more mainstream horror fans.

 

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A review of “The Dead Don’t Die” (2019)

“The Dead Don’t Die” indeed has the greatest zombie cast ever assembled.  Seriously, just look at that poster below.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the best zombie screenplay ever written, or the best direction ever seen in a zombie film.  This would-be classic was a surprisingly average viewing experience; I’d rate it a 6 out of 10.

I almost feel guilty for feeling so unenthusiastic, because I like so many of these actors so much.  Bill Murray and Adam Driver actually are quite funny as the movie’s two torpid police officers; Chloe Sevigny makes them even funnier as their panicked straight man.  And the addition of Tilda Swinton’s zany Scottish samurai undertaker makes them the perfect comedic quartet.  (I think this is the first time I’ve seen Sevigny in a movie, as she mostly does arthouse films — including 2003’s ignominiously reviled “The Brown Bunny.”  And I had no idea that Driver was this talented, given his milquetoast turn as a villain in the most recent spate of “Star Wars” films.)  I honestly would love to see the four of these characters battle apocalyptic threats in a series of comedies — aliens, vampires, killer robots from the future … whatever.

Other big names shine here as well.  Tom Waits and Caleb Landry Jones are both surprisingly funny, delivering little bouts of quirky, laconic, character-driven dialogue in a film that seems intended as mashup between “Cannery Row” (1982) and the first two “Return of the Living Dead” films (1985, 1988).  (I first saw Jones as the creepy kid in 2010’s “The Last Exorcism;” I suspect that more of my friends will recognize him as Banshee from 2011’s “X-Men: First Class.”)

The problem is this — although many of the characters are engaging, they populate a subdued, disconnected movie that is frequently quite slow.  Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s heart is in the right place — assembling this oddball ensemble cast for the mashup I mentioned above is actually a terrific idea.  But “The Dead Don’t Die” ultimately lacks punch, and even a tongue-in-cheek horror-comedy needs a minimum of tension.  The movie is a bit too lethargic to become the truly great film that the trailer led us to hope for.

Complicating matters is the fact that that several groups of characters follow story arcs that go nowhere — sometimes literally.  (Where did the kids from the juvenile detention center run off to?  Why were they included at all?  Not much happens to them and they have nothing to do with the rest of the movie.)  This movie often felt like a number of comedy skits stitched together — some were admittedly quite funny, but they didn’t add up to a cohesive story.

Oh, well.  It’s possible that you will like “The Dead Don’t Die” much more than I did.  I might be the wrong audience for this, as I’ve never cared much for horror-comedies.  (The aforementioned “Return of the Living Dead” films are on the short list of those that I like.)  Your mileage may vary.

 

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A review of HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019)

HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019) is … flawless, as far as I can tell.  I can’t name a single criticism I have of its writing, directing or performances.  It is among the best miniseries I’ve ever seen, and I don’t hesitate to rate it a 10 out of 10.

I can’t comment with any credibility about its historical accuracy, of course.  I know that the character of Ulana Khomyuk (wonderfully played by Emily Watson) was a composite meant to represent a number of scientists responding to the world-changing 1986 nuclear disaster; HBO notes this in its closing notes of the last episode.  But, to an average viewer like myself, the show certainly felt accurate — not once did I pause to remember that I was watching a TV show, and not getting a real-life glimpse into the closing days of the Soviet Union.  There is an immersive authenticity to “Chernobyl” that underscores every second of the horrors it depicts.

The entire five-episode program is an exercise in balance.  Screenwriter Craig Mazin deftly portrays terrifying events (including the effects of radiation exposure on average people nearby) without sensationalizing them.

The show does a masterful job of explaining the necessary technical information without overwhelming the viewer.  I typically have some trouble following material like this, and I understood most of it.  (The relationship between Jared Harris’ character and Stellan Skarsgard’s character helps quite a bit.  The former is a leading nuclear scientist who explains things in layman’s terms for the latter, who is a high-ranking Soviet official supervising the disaster response.)

And the script is ultimately quite moving, without once approaching the threshold of melodrama.  The character interaction and dialogue is a lot more restrained than you might expect for this subject matter.  But I was surprised at the sense of sympathy for the Russian people that this engendered for me, and at the dismay I felt for the visceral  technological horrors they faced.  (The show admirably highlights how average Russians were very much like Americans in 1986, albeit under an oppressive government.  It was ironic how some characters ominously referred to “The West,” with the same apprehension as people here in the 1980’s referred to “the Russians.”)

It’s a nuanced script too.  By the times the miniseries concludes, the viewer comes to understand that the putative “bad guys” are scapegoats who are not fully and solely responsible for the disaster.  (And the character arc for Skarsgard’s bureaucrat is a compelling redemption.)  More troubling, though, is that some of the “good guys” we are rooting for are also not completely inculpable.

For me, though, Chernobyl succeeded mostly because of Harris and Skarsgard.  They were both phenomenally good — perfect, in fact.  They are accomplished actors who have the subtlety and restraint to play men from a stoical culture who must nonetheless have human reactions to tragedy.

I obviously recommend this.

 

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“Jerry started to shell the beach at about 9 AM.  Suddenly, all hell let loose.”

Jerry started to shell the beach at about 9 AM.  Suddenly, all hell let loose.

The beach was under fire from shells, mortars and machine guns, we dived for cover. The sea was covered in blood and vomit and flies began to arrive by the thousands, which created another nightmare…

We continued all night and the following day without a break. Slowly, slowly we overcame all the nightmares …

There was no lack of humor.  A soldier coming ashore asked, “Is this a private beach? I was promised a private beach.   If not I am not staying.”

And we heard, “My mother told me not to travel by air, she thought it was much safer by sea.”

An army officer came ashore and instead of getting his men off the beach quickly, he stopped to consult his map. I approached him, “Sir, off this beach, now!” ‘

“And who are you?” he asked.  “Sorry, no time for introductions.”

— David Teacher, No. 71 Royal Air Force Beach Unit, No. 2 RAF Beach Squadron and No. 2742 Squadron, RAF Regiment.

Today is the 75th Anniversary of the Normandy Invasion.

 

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