A short review of Episode 1 of “The Passage” (2019)

I’m all for a good vampire story.  But this isn’t a particularly good vampire story.

Or, at least not yet, it isn’t.  Don’t get me wrong — the premiere of “The Passage” wasn’t the worst hour of television I’ve ever seen.  I’d rate it a 5 out of 10 for being somewhat average.  It has two good leads in Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Saniyya Sidney.  Gosselaar is no Laurence Olivier, but he’s good enough, and he looks and fits the part.  He seems like an excellent physical actor in the premiere’s brief action sequences, which weren’t altogether bad.  Sidney is downright terrific — and she’s an adorable kid too.

The show also has a great plot setup going for it, which I won’t spoil here.  It’s based on a trilogy of dystopian horror novels by Justin Cronin, which actually sound like some quite interesting books.  There are even a couple of sly references to well known horror films like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) and “28 Days Later” (2002).

Regrettably, however, “The Passage” suffers a lot from rushed and clumsy storytelling.  The script is a poor one, with a lot of awkward exposition and forced emotion.  (It shares a weakness with this year’s vastly superior “Bird Box,” in that it tries to fit too much of its source material into too little screen time.)  It falls well short of being scary, too, which is probably what will alienate modern horror fans, unless it improves.  (This is a primetime network TV show, and isn’t any more frightening than the average episode of “Star Trek.”)

Weird world — Gosselar is none other than the Zack from “Saved By the Bell” (1989-1993).  And am I the only one that thinks he is the spitting image of Chris Pratt in a lot of shots.  I almost thought it was Pratt from the ads.

 

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A very short review of Episode 1 of “Who Is America?” (2018)

So I just managed to catch the first episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?” (2018), and it was predictably jaw-dropping.  (I recently ran a couple of clips here at the blog that Showtime had released concurrently with the show’s July 15th premiere.)  I’d rate the first episode a perfect 10 for being both hilarious and an absolutely biting half hour of … prank comedy?  Subversive documentary?  Performance art?  I think any of those labels might apply in varying degrees, depending on how you view Cohen’s work.  It’s wacky stuff.

I opine that Cohen is a creative genius.  We can all debate the ethics of the imposter interviews that are his trademark (and there were a couple of moments during 2006’s “Borat” that made even me squirm).   But nobody can deny that the man is exceptionally good at what he does.  And I don’t think that his success derives from the false personas he adopts when sitting down with political figures.  (There are several new ones that he’s created for the show.)  They are funny by themselves, but not hilarious, and countless comedians can perform a character.  (One of Cohen’s creations, the “Finnish Youtuber,” even reminds me a little of Dana Carvey.)

Cohen has something more.  If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s a skill set that matches closely with that of any standard con-artist, allowing him to gain his interviewees’ trust to an extreme degree.   I’m willing to bet that he works hard at building rapport with his subjects long before the cameras start rolling, and that the feckless nature of his false identities further puts them at ease.

Anyway, Episode 1 features interviews with Bernie Sanders and Trent Lott.  A clip from the Sanders segment is below.  He acquits himself far better than other participants, although I also think Cohen went far easier on him.  (There isn’t actually a joke at Sanders’ expense; it’s really just Cohen’s character clowning.)  The humiliating interview with disgraced Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn’t appear until Episode 4, but I just had to include it here.

This is utterly bizarre, utterly funny stuff.  I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

A very short review of “The Walking Dead” Season 8 premiere

My enjoyment of “The Walking Dead” has waned sufficiently to make me wonder whether I should still call myself a fan of the show; it was sometime during Season 6 when I really began watching simply to see if it would get better.  With that said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy last night’s premiere of Season 8.

I’d rate it an 8 out of 10 for its creators’ wise reliance on fan service to salvage a weary narrative.  They were successful enough to make me enjoy the episode, which was quite generous with action and special effects, including the show’s state-of-the-art zombie effects.

If you squint just a little, you can still see that “The Walking Dead” is worn at the seams.  This just isn’t a program that does dialogue or character development very well.  Dear God, am I sick of the saccharine pep talks among Maggie, Rick and Jesus.  It’s like a bowlderized menage a trois scripted by Hallmark card writers, in which everyone is masturbating one another verbally and metaphorically instead of literally.  (Strangely enough, though, the show does just fine scripting and characterizing its villains.  Negan and his henchman — including the traitorous Eugene — all seem to have distinct voices, are interesting to watch, and are well portrayed by their actors.)

There were plotting and logistical problems too … it seems to me that our heroes had ample opportunity to finally shoot Negan (in a story conclusion that we should have seen ages ago), yet inexplicably chose to expend countless rounds at his building’s windows.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the episode, though.  There was a lot of childish fun to be had with the explosions, armored vehicles, and grotesque zombies, not to mention the long overdue emotional payoff of watching Rick and company finally take the fight to Negan.  If you used to love this show and want to love it again, the premiere will at least give you a little hope.

 

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A very short review of the Season 7 premiere of “American Horror Story” (2017)

I finally got around to watching my first episode of “American Horror Story” last night; I started with this season’s critically praised premiere.  (People have been enthusiastically recommending this show to me for years, and “Game of Thrones” taught me that the bandwagon isn’t always a bad thing.)

I can’t say that I was overly impressed.  Season 7’s opening episode, entitled “Election Night,” consists mostly of heavy-handed political commentary with caricaturized portrayals of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters.  Nearly none of the characters are likable; not even the one played by the terrific Evan Peters.  (Yes, comics fans, that’s none other than Quicksilver from the latest “X-Men” movies.)

There is a lot of “scary clown” horror here, as anyone who’s seen any marketing for the show at all should know.  Between that and the political elements, I suspect I am not the right audience for this show.  I simply find clowns obnoxious instead of scary, and political commentary in horror usually falls flat with me.  (I’m the rare horror fan who loves George A. Romero’s work only because it’s scary, without caring much about the social statements he’s supposedly making.)

With all of that said, there actually were a couple of creepy moments late in the game.  And there was one (as of yet, minor) character that I liked — the child of the liberal couple who were so devastated by the election results.  He’s cute, and any kid who hides parentally forbidden horror comics under his pillow is one of my tribe.

I’d somewhat grudgingly rate this a 5 out of 10.

Anyway … scary clowns are ubiquitous now, and we already have the zombie shows we need.  I propose that we bring back … body snatchers.  Those can be terrifying in the hands of a talented writer, and they require no special effects.  Or, what about vampires?  Now that “The Strain” has concluded, how about a well written television excursion into Steve Niles’ “30 Days of Night” universe?  Or maybe a “Stakeland” TV show?  Looking at you, AMC.

 

 

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“The … Stalking Dead?” (A review of “Daredevil” S2E1)

[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ONE SPOILER.]  So the fantastic John Bernthal is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Punisher,” debuting (however briefly) in the first episode of Netflix’ “Daredevil” Season 2.  I just know that there is a great “Walking Dead” joke hiding around here somewhere; but I can’t seem to put my finger on it …  (Something about … Blind Grimes?  Disabled Rick?  Daredevil can’t see “stuff?”  Or “thangs?”)  You people work that out for me.

Bernthal’s arrival is dream casting, every bit as perfect as bagging the inimitable Robert Downey, Jr. as the MCU’s Iron Man.  Even though the actor speaks only a single word, it’s goddam beautiful.

That’s one of the better things about Season 2’s first outing, which, for me, fell into the category of “good, but not great.”  (I’d still give it an 8 out of 10, and I feel certain the season will get better.)  What we see in S2E1 is mostly setup.  The episode clearly tried to introduce tension by grooming the Punisher as a frightening antagonist, with limited success.  Even casual Marvel fans know that Frank Castle is a good guy, and nothing close to a Big Bad.  Yes, he’s an anti-hero who fatally shoots villains, and will be a foil for Matt Murdock’s Boy Scout restraint (as he was in the comics, back in the day).

But I doubt that the Punisher can be made scary or truly tension-inducing.  (Are we afraid of Wolverine?)  We know that his shoot-em-up tactics won’t leave Daredevil dead.  (This isn’t “Game of Thrones” or TWD.)  And I’d guess that most viewers, like me, aren’t too emotionally invested in this show’s minor characters.  (The only exception would be the quite interesting and three-dimensional Karen Page, still wonderfully portrayed by Deborah Ann Woll.)  Hell, I think the show would be better if the painfully annoying Foggy Nelson were made an early casualty.  Finally, if the show stays true to the original comics, then the Punisher has that most sympathetic of “origin stories” — a murdered nuclear family.

Both the Punisher and Bernthal have such devoted fanbases that a lot of viewers will probably root for him against Matt.  (Our very own Blog Correspondent Len Ornstein, for example, was known for firmly being on “Team Shane” for TWD.)  Looking back at my fervent comic-collecting days in the 1990’s, I seem to recall the Punisher having a far bigger fan following.  He was a mercenary and Vietnam veteran who simply shot up whatever corner of the Marvel Comics universe to which his quarry had tried in vain to escape.  Fans compared him to DC Comics’ iconic cash cow, Batman.  Matt Murdock, on the other hand, had niche appeal.  He was a liberal superhero if there ever was one — a Columbia-educated defense attorney who employed nonfatal force, and who fought for the “everyday man on the street.”  He was like a grownup, thoughtful, socially conscious Spider-Man.  If ever there was a comic book hero who would join the American Civil Liberties Union, it was Daredevil.

Moving forward, I think that Netflix will need an altogether different adversary than Castle to raise the stakes emotionally, and bring suspense to its second season.  Maybe the show will accomplish that with Elektra, who we know will also appear.  (And fans of the comics know that this integral character has far greater implications for our hero.)

The new season’s inaugural episode might have been slightly better if it had been tweaked elsewhere, as well.  Much ominous language is devoted to characterizing the Punisher as a killer with military proficiency.  We kinda don’t see that.  The largest action set piece shows no precision or professionalism, just a room full of gangsters being hosed down by gunfire from an offscreen shooter.  And while the sequence itself was dramatic, it seemed like something that could have been perpetrated by a (very well armed) street gang in a drive-by shooting.

We also see some of the dialogue problems that were so evident in the first season — as superb as the screenwriters are, they don’t do casual conversation among friends very well.  There’s the same forced banter and an embarrassing lack of chemistry among the three lead protagonists, this time on display during an awkwardly staged after-work barroom pool game.  (It’s particularly puzzling because Woll and Charlie Cox are both very good actors.)  This show scripts its villains, petty crooks and adversaries with such flair — why does it seem to fail so often with friendly conversation?  And why bother with these strange attempts at Scooby-Gang camaraderie in the first place?  I think it’s a weird creative choice.  These are serious characters leading serious lives.  It seems implausible to me that they should be so frequently upbeat anyway.

Hey — if I’m nitpicking a lot here, it’s only because I love the show, and consequently hold it to a very high standard.  It really is the best superhero adaptation on television.  My review of last season was absolutely glowing, and I honestly think that Season 2 will be just as good.  If you haven’t checked out “Daredevil” yet, you ought to.

 

 

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When Academics Attack — A review of the Season 3 premiere of “Hannibal.”

If you catch up with “Hannibal” via DVR or NBC.com, I might actually suggest you begin with the amazing and beautiful second episode, and not the Season 3 premiere.  I enjoyed the season opener, but not quite as much as everyone else did.  (Seriously, guys, if you think I am alone in lauding this program, google a few reviews.)  The first episode falls firmly for me into the “good, but not great” category; I’d give it an 8 out of 10.

We’ve got an interesting basic story that pays very close attention to Thomas Harris’ source novels and Ridley Scott’s 2000 film treatment, and we’ve got great directing, cinematography and acting.  Gillian Anderson shines, outperforming even the terrific Mads Mikkelsen in the title role.

It was creative and different, with dramatic changes in point of view, tone and setting, as Hannibal absconds from Baltimore to Florence with the extorted Bedelia du Maurier.  It held some nice thematic surprises, as the script humanizes Hannibal unexpectedly — and this is helped by flashbacks in which we actually get to see Eddie Izzard’s bad guy from Season 2 get one up on him in some verbal sparring.  (I am entirely unfamiliar with Izzard’s comedy performances, but damn if he doesn’t make a sweet super-villain.  The guy’s got perfect diction and line delivery, and can be damned frightening when he wants to be.)

But, for me, this episode failed in terms of momentum and tension.  It does very little to move the overarching narrative forward — so little that I suggest it could be seen as ancillary material appropriate for a webisode or DVD extra.  (Yes, I do realize that Hannibal “missing” Will Graham is important in setting up themes and character relationships for the rest of the season, but … whatever.)  This is really a kind of … “milieu” episode that establishes his arrival in Europe and the means to arrive at his cover identity.  The fates of the victims of the Baltimore massacre?  They’re unknown to us.

We can’t feel too much tension — of Hannibal’s two murder victims, one is hardly known to us, and the other is flat out unlikable.  We can’t identify with them.  Nor can we take any pathological satisfaction in Hannibal’s modus operandi.  He kinda shows up and says “Bonsoir” a bit undramatically, and we cut to another scene.

I had the occasional nitpick as well.

1)  The viewer is asked to identify with Bedelia.  For some reason this character has never worked for me.  It certainly isn’t Anderson’s fault.  She’s fantastic.  Maybe the problem is me.

2)  I actually do really like Mikkelsen.  But his stoical approach to the character is nowhere near as satisfying as Anthony Hopkins’ iconic, nuanced, expressive, darkly charming take on the character.

3)  We live in an age of Google image search.  Does no one in Florence notice that “Dr. Fell” looks nothing like an online photograph?

4)  After the climax of Season 2, shouldn’t Hannibal be easily recognized as the world’s most infamous fugitive and alleged serial killer?  Is his image nowhere on CNN.com?

5)  What about facial recognition software?  If a photo of Faux Fell is ever uploaded, might Interpol or the FBI locate him at once?

6)  Seeing Dana Scully (sorry — BEDELIA) sexually harassed at the dinner table just makes me angry.  Fox Mulder needs to appear and kick some ass.  Actually … scratch that.  Send John Dogget.

7)  I don’t like seeing Hannibal appear with even a putative “spouse.”  He’s a lone wolf, to me, anyway.

8)  The dialogue, yet again, is occasionally too overly stylized for me.  Even ingenious people communicate prosaically in their everyday lives.  Do these people sound like Shakespeare when they say “Pass the salt,” or ask what time to set the alarm clock for the next day?

9)  Once or twice, the dialogue is just … bad.  Bedelia:  “Your peace is without morality.”  Hannibal:  “There is no morality — only morale.”  (You can’t call it Shakespeare if it’s trying too hard.)

10)  The symbolism and the references to the feature films are maybe a little too heavy-handed.  I’m talking the hand-on-the-shoulder during the lecture, and seeing one character bashed over the head with a bust of Aristotle.  (“When Academics Attack.”)

Don’t let my compulsive griping get to you if you are a fan of the show, however.  This wasn’t a bad episode, just not the best.  And the second episode of Season 3 is goddam PHENOMENAL.

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