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 review of the “Black Mirror” episode, “Bandersnatch” (2019)

“Bandersnatch” is a difficult episode of Netflix’ “Black Mirror” to review — it isn’t really an “episode” or a “movie;” it’s more of an interactive online game that is reminiscent of the “Choose-Your-Own Adventure” young-adult books of the 1980’s.  (I believe they are actually name-checked in “Bandersnatch’s” main narrative, before it branches off into multiple stories.)  This main narrative follows a troubled young computer programmer (expertly played by Fionn Whitehead) as he begins to question his own reality while struggling with demons from his past.

From there, “Bandersnatch” unfolds according to the viewer’s choices.  (Netflix has configured the episode so that viewers control the protagonist simply by clicking options with their computer’s cursor.)  The meta-fictional twist here is that Whitehead’s protagonist is himself developing a groundbreaking multiple-choice style video game for his employer.  (The episode is set in 1984, when interactive games had not yet developed alongside arcade-style games.)  What follows is a seemingly indeterminate number of stories, with “Black Mirror’s” predictably disturbing surprises.

I’ve read that there are four “main endings” at which the show’s writer, Charlie Brooker, thinks most viewers will arrive.  There are supposedly a great number of other endings, as well — and the viewer can reverse the course of a narrative and follow a different path.  It’s all interesting stuff, even if it’s a little complicated.

So I’m not sure how to review it.  And I’m not sure I’m the best guy to offer such an opinion, as I am not the target audience for an experiment like this.  I’ve always been a “movie guy,” and not a “video game guy” — I’m the kind of milquetoast man that would rather be passively entertained by a story than involved, in real-time, in its creation.  I want a cohesive story with a clear denoument that was intended by the writer and director — not a mongrelized story that I helped come up with myself.  (Yes, I know that makes me sound like the precise opposite of cool and fun and creative, but I’m just being honest.)   I trust “Black Mirror” to knock my socks off with it’s storytelling — Brooker is a goddam genius, and this show is nothing less than the 21st Century’s “Twilight Zone.

I certainly liked “Bandersnatch.”  A key expository sequence in the first pathway I selected made me smile and laugh (due to the show’s intended black humor, of course).  I’d rate this viewing experience an 8 out of 10, for the fun I had with it.

But I do hope this is the only episode of its kind.  There are disadvantages that this experimental format probably cannot escape.  Pacing, plot structure and story cohesion all typically go right out the window after “rewinding” and story options are introduced.   I also had the compulsion, upon completing my first story arc, to return to the action and find an ending that was “correct” or possibly better.  And when my next narrative meandered, I wondered whether I was “doing it right.”  This lacked the cinematic quality that is characteristic of “Black Mirror” episodes, and ultimately felt like a video game.

I had another quibble too, and it’s admittedly a strange one.  Many elements of “Bandersnatch’s” 1980’s setting here are garish, bizarre or unpleasant.  (Some of the characters — particularly the father — were so off-putting that they made revisiting a story sequence almost irritating.)  I suppose that this was probably a deliberate choice by Brooker and by episode director David Slade — possibly to capture the vibe of the Philip K. Dick stories that are this episode’s obvious inspiration.  But I don’t think it was necessary to the plot.  Consider how different a story like this might be if it were filmed with the starkly beautiful visuals of the 2017 “Crocodile” episode directed by John Hillcoat.

Postscript — there was one metafictional twist that only I could enjoy.  And that’s a shame, because it was pretty neat.  When Will Poulter’s character here tells Whitehead’s that they’ve “met before,” that struck a chord with me personally — because Poulter, who has blond hair here, looks a lot like an old pal of mine from college.  That was weird.

 

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A short review of “Black Mirror” Season 3

“Black Mirror” (2011) remains the best science fiction show on television; I’d rate the six-episode third season a perfect 10.  The show continues to succeed at every level with its story concepts and their execution.  And I think it’s actually getting better.

It’s getting darker and harder hitting, too.  I’d guess that this season’s blackmailing-hackers episode (“Shut Up and Dance”) would be the one that the majority of viewers find the most disturbing.  For some reason, the man-vs.-monster story of “Men Against Fire” is the one that really got under my skin.

I was surprised to learn that nearly all of “Black Mirror’s” episodes are penned by series creator Charlie Brooker.  I’m still surprised at how many clever ideas and lean, smart scripts could spring from one writer.  I was so impressed that I looked Brooker up on Wikipedia — but was surprised to discover I’m unfamiliar with nearly all of his other work.  The one exception is “Dead Set” (2008) — the truly fantastic British zombie horror miniseries that I’ve been recommending to friends for ages.  That makes sense.

Anyway, I am fully and happily converted to “Black Mirror’s” cult following, and I enthusiastically recommend it to people who ask about it.  (The show’s popularity is still growing — I believe it appeals to the same kind of fans as those who flocked to the various iterations of “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” of generations past.)  But I might actually suggest that newcomers begin with the second or third season, rather than the first.  Season 1 is terrific, but it’s three episodes are more subtle and thematic, while the latter seasons follow a more conventional story structure that might better appeal to more mainstream audiences.  (They have more satisfying twists and emotional payoffs, too.)

And a quick caveat — I’ll reiterate that this show is indeed dark.  There is a strictly human element to most of “Black Mirror’s” twists that is intended to surprise the viewer by provoking anxiety or dread.  For a show that relies on technological story devices, it succeeds even more with its old fashioned psychological horror.

 

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