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 few quick words on the Season 8 premiere of “Game of Thrones”

I’ll keep this brief, because it’s unlikely by now that I can write an unbiased review of a “Game of Thrones” episode anyway.  The show is so close to my heart that simply seeing the characters again for Season 8 is like being reunited with old friends.  I’d rate the first episode a 10 out of 10 if only for the characters and dialogue.

And that’s mostly what we get in the premiere.  If you’ve been waiting for this universe’s apocalyptic war to escalate, then you’ll be disappointed.  The episode focused almost entirely character reunions, relationships and conflicts, laying out the stakes for what will be a bloody final season.  Nearly all of it was great stuff.  (Like a lot of viewers, I loved the closing seconds of the show.)  There was only one key exchange of dialogue that didn’t play the way the writers intended — an interaction among Sam, Danerys and Jorah that was blackly and unintentionally hilarious.

I read comments from a couple of fans online who were nonplussed by the episode’s lack of action.  I think we needed this character-focused groundwork to lend emotional weight to the war when it arrives at Winterfell.  (I think we can assume it will fall; I can’t imagine the good guys defeating the Night King in their first major battle.)

I loved it.

 

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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 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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