Episode 1 of “Black Summer” (2019) looks quite promising.

The hectic first episode of “Black Summer,” Netflix’ new zombie series, looks like ambitious stuff — it plays like a hybrid of “28 Days Later” (2002), “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “24” (2001-2014).  While it seems unlikely that this show can emulate the greatness of those classics, “Black Summer” still gets off to a damned good start.  I’d rate the first episode an 8 out of 10 for being a pretty lean and mean start to a decent zombie series.

Part of the episode’s appeal is its frantic vibe and format — something that seems like a deliberate contrast to “The Walking Dead’s” slowly placed, methodical epic.  The viewer is plopped down into the middle of a heartland neighborhood evacuation effort, three weeks into a zombie epidemic.  With a series of lengthy, real-time tracking shots, we race beside a collection of unconnected characters who are desperately trying to reach United States Army pickup point.

The zombies are few in number.  But they are the “high-speed zombies” that most modern horror viewers associate with Danny Boyle’s film, so the arrival of even one imperils the fleeing families.  The makeup effects are good, the transformation process is effectively rendered, and the show is satisfyingly scary.  The show makes this even more interesting by filming each character’s dash individually, and then showing them as discrete vignettes that are out of chronological order.  

The story is weakest when it slows down enough to allow its characters to talk.  The dialogue is truly bad, even if the quick action sequences make up for it.  (Has there ever been a more generic bribery offer, for example, then the one we see here?)  But this weakness doesn’t much affect the overall quality of an episode that follows so much action.

I was even more surprised that the episode works when I googled “Black Summer.”  The Netflix series is produced The Asylum, the film company notorious for “mockbusters” like “Dead Men Walking” (2005), “Snakes on a Train” (2006) and … sigh … “Transmorphers” (2007).  What’s more, “Black Summer” is intended as a prequel series to  The Asylum’s “Z Nation,” the lamentable horror-comedy zombie series that ran for three seasons on SyFy.  (It was so bad I couldn’t get through a single episode.)

It’s a weird world.

 

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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 few quick words on the Season 3 premiere of “Fear the Walking Dead” (2017)

I’m going to go ahead and commit horror-nerd heresy here … at this point, I think I enjoy AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead” more than “The Walking Dead.”  The characters feel more “real,” and the stories move far, far faster.

Last night’s first episode was a hell of a lot of creepy, disturbing, pathological fun — enough for me to give it a 9 out of 10.  And to make it a little cooler, we’ve got a couple of terrific “that guy” actors in supporting roles.  The first is “Band of Brothers” and “24” alumnus Ross McCall, the second is “The Following’s” Sam Underwood.

Good stuff!

 

 

A few quick words on “24: Legacy” (2017)

I hate to say it, but “24: Legacy” (2017) was mostly average stuff; I’d give the 12-episode arc a 7 out of 10 for being a mildly engaging thriller, but nothing more than that.

I was one of the few people back in the day who opined that “24” could continue even without Kiefer Sutherland.  As priceless as he was in his role as anti-hero Jack Bauer, he wasn’t the only star of the show — the show’s gritty universe and its unique format could carry on without him.  I even thought, during the early years, that Fox was grooming Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) to be a viable lead if Sutherland departed.

I still think the show could manage without Sutherland.  The real culprit behind “Legacy’s” failure to stand out was its somewhat average writing.  It wasn’t bad, exactly … it was just average.  (Alright — for a little while, it was bad.  We see a key subplot/cliffhanger repeated three times, consecutively, in the same season. I’m surprised that major redundancy made it past the editing process.)  But mostly, it was average — we see thin staples of characters, and a plot that seemed largely reminiscent of … well, every other season of “24.”  (Admittedly, it must be tough after nine years to think up an original story for a serialized contemporary terror thriller in real-time format.)

The sad part is this — during the show’s final two or three episodes, it started showing more promise, with truly original plotting and unexpected conflicts.

The show got disappointing ratings.  We won’t know until at least May, but I think most viewers are guessing it won’t be renewed for another season.

 

A baffled review of “Lucy” (2014)

Everything you’ve heard about “Lucy” (2014) is correct — it’s exactly as trite and nonsensical as its multitude of unfavorable reviews have described it.  Maybe this was intended as some sort of weird, meta, inside joke by writer and director Luc Besson … after all, it’s a movie about increased “brain capacity” that is, ironically, really dumb.

I can’t imagine why Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman would sully their reputations by starring in this film.  Although, sadly, even the wonderful Johansson is not at her best here.  She seems to try to portray increased intelligence by delivering some of her lines like a robot.  (Seriously, she reads some of her lines like a speedy automaton, and it’s a bad creative decision for her performance.)

I could go on and on about the silly things in this movie.  So could you, if you’ve seen it.  But it’s a lot more fun listening to the surly wise-asses over at Cinema Sins.  Their trademark “Everything Wrong With” video for “Lucy” is particularly harsh.  At one point they call it “an aggressive dickhead of a movie.”  Here’s the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3rZmnJ66Po

There is one overriding problem I need to address myself … and that’s how its premise seems to relate so little to the events of the story.  We begin by understanding that the titular Lucy is affected by a drug that increases her brain capacity.  Before the movie reaches its halfway mark, she appears to gain omniscience.  (She doesn’t need to actually learn anything — she simply knows virtually everything already.  This is evinced by her ability to translate foreign languages instantly, with no books or instruction at all.)  She also appears omnipotent by the film’s end.  Her powers become literally godlike.  And I’m not talking about Thor or Odin from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — we’re talking the all-powerful,  Old Testament God of Abraham.

Why?  Why should increased intelligence, no matter how incredibly vast, give her power of matter, space and even time?  If she were as smart as a thousand Stephen Hawkings, she still shouldn’t be able to do the things she does in the movie.

Believe it or not, I’d rate this movie a 4 out of 10.  (That’s far kinder than the other reviews I’ve read.)  I managed to have fun with this movie by rewriting some of it in my head while I watched.  Instead of Lucy benefiting from a drug that increases her brain capacity (which borrows a bit from 2011’s excellent “Limitless,” anyway), I pretended that I was watching a movie in which Scarlett Johansson became God.  (Think of 2003’s “Bruce Almighty.”)  Honestly.  I swapped out the plot device in my head, and imagined a different movie.  That made it fun — watching Scarlett Johansson as a wrathful God was strangely satisfying, especially when she wreaks havoc on the bad guys.

And speaking of bad guys … that is actually one thing that this otherwise clueless movie manages to get right.  No, I’m not kidding — the Taipei gangsters that serve as the story’s antagonists were performed to perfection by their actors.  The villains were repulsive and terrifying, and they aroused more interest in me than the good guys.  Min-sik Choi was terrific as the homicidal patriarch of the Taiwanese crime syndicate.  Even better, though, was Nicolas Phongbeth as the cherubic-faced, vaguely androgynous, sociopathic lieutenant.  If they were vanquished in this brainless movie, it’d be nice to see them resurrected in a James Bond film or a season of Fox’s “24.”  It’s weird seeing a movie so bad do one important thing so successfully.

There are really only two reasons why anybody should see “Lucy.”  One is morbid curiosity.  Two is if they are a learning to be a screenwriter, and are looking for a feature-length example of what NOT to do.

 

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A quick review of “Re-Kill” (2015)

I want to give “Re-Kill” (2015) more than a 5 out of 10 rating.  I do.  It’s an ambitious post-apocalyptic independent zombie film that earnestly and unpretentiously tries to give fans of the subgenre everything they’re asking for: great action, decent makeup effects, gore, good scares and lots of creative world-building, all culminating in a nifty little sci-fi subplot that isn’t stupid and isn’t too forced.

There’s a wealth of fun ideas here — the original story was obviously developed by people with a love for zombie tales.  We follow a “COPS”-style reality-TV program documenting a”Re-Kill” unit, a squad of specially trained commandos who repel brushfire outbreaks during a global, stalemated war between the living and the dead.  They “rekill” the “re-ans,” this universe’s slang for re-animated dead.

We see the entire program, complete with commercials from this fictional world: PSA’s to encourage people to have sex (in order to repopulate the world), and drug companies opportunistically pushing drugs for PTSD and depression.  My favorite was an ad for a Desert Eagle sidearm marketed to protective mothers, “for the children.”  We get wicked-cool peeks into a fairly detailed fictional world, including the activities of the police, the military, the media and civilians.

This would have made a fine book series, in the manner of Max Brooks’ “World War Z.”  Or it would make a terrific TV series … like a far faster paced and more expansive equivalent of “The Walking Dead.”

Tragically, though, this movie’s execution is too often lacking.  The acting is sometimes poor (but not from the always awesome Roger Cross, who you and I know as Curtis Manning from “24.”)  The script has problems.  And worst of all is the absolutely unnecessary shaky-cam directing.  This movie could have been a fantastic action-horror flick … if only we were able to see the action a little better.  The style of shooting here was a disastrous creative decision.

Oh, well.  It’s still a fun watch for hardcore zombie fans.

 

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