A review of Season 1 of “Condor” (2018)

When Season 1 of “Condor” was good — and it almost always was — it was a cinema-quality spy thriller.  This was a smart, suspenseful, well made TV show that was very nearly perfect — I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

“Condor” was adapted loosely from James Grady’s 1974 book, “Six Days of the Condor,” and its famous film adaptation the following year, “Three Days of the Condor.”  I’ve neither read the former or seen the latter, but I can tell you that this new iteration of the story is intelligently written, nicely directed and edited, and well performed by its actors.  It seems to channel the modus operandi of Tom Clancy’s books and films — showing multiple thoughtful characters plotting and acting either against or alongside one another — while the show keeps the tension high with sequences of surprise violence.  (And there is indeed some disturbing violence here, particularly when the story calls for it to be perpetrated against non-combatants.  “Condor” aired on the Audience channel on DirecTV; I suspect its content might be too much for a regular network.)

William Hurt has always been a goddam national treasure, as far as I’m concerned.  (I may be biased in my appraisal of his work, as I grew up watching him in films like  1983’s “Gorky Park” and 1988’s “The Accidental Tourist.”  I think he’s one of the best actors out there.)  Seeing his talent colliding with Bob Balaban’s on screen should make this show required viewing for anyone who enjoys spy thrillers.  (There is an extended, loaded exchange between them in a coffee shop here that is absolutely priceless.)

The whole cast is great.  I’ve never been a fan of Brendan Fraser, simply because his movies are usually too goofy for me — but he shines in “Condor,” playing against type as an awkward villain.

Leem Lubany is terrific as the story’s merciless assassin.  (See my comments above about the violence.)  The role doesn’t call for her to have much range, as her character is a somewhat stoical sociopath.  But she looks and sounds the part — combining sex appeal with an incongruous, calm, homicidal intensity.  She reminded me a lot of Mandy, Mia Kirshner’s priceless, plot-driving assassin in Fox’s “24” (2001-2014).

If “Condor” has a failing, then it lies with its saccharine protagonists.  The screenwriters seem to have gone to great lengths to paint an edgy, unpredictable, violent world full of compromised good guys and moral ambiguity.  Why, then, are its handful of young heroes so implausibly perfect?  The putative hero is “Joe,” nicely played Max Irons, who is just fine in the role.  But the writers make him so idealistic, so gentle, so smart and so kind that it just requires too much suspension of disbelief.  At one point I even wanted to see a bad guy at least punch him in the face, simply for being a goody-goody.  It makes the story feel weird, too.  (Who wants to see Jesus in a violent spy thriller?)  The few other protagonists that we see here are also too good — they feel like thinly drawn, cookie-cutter heroes and not real people.

There are some plot implausibilities, too, that I’ve seen pointed out by other reviewers.  (I have arrived at the resignation that others are simply far more perceptive about these things than I am.)  But there was nothing that affected my enjoyment of Season 1.

“Condor” is great stuff.  I recommend it.

 

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A review of Season 1 of “The Exorcist” (2016)

I liked the Fox’s take on “The Exorcist;” I just didn’t love it the way that I thought I would.

It has a lot going for it.  It’s easily the most intelligent horror show on television — its characters and plotting are detailed, thoughtful and well developed.  It actually occupies the same universe as the classic 1973 and 1990 horror films.  (We won’t mention the 1977 abomination here.)  And, like those movies, this is a skilled, methodical screen adaptation of the universe imagined in William Peter Blatty’s source material.  (This show establishes its continuity with the movies in ways that are interesting and surprising, too.)

The script takes archaic theology and otherworldly events and makes them seem plausible in its real-world setting.  It also succeeds in giving a distinct and frightening voice and personality to its demon.  I was impressed — I’ve seen a lot of movies with this plot device, but I’ve never seen this kind of antagonist so fully realized into a distinct character.  This owes a lot to Robert Emmet Lunney’s outstanding portrayal as the demon personified.

The rest of the cast is also roundly excellent.  Geena Davis shines as the mother of the afflicted girl; I had no idea that she was this good of an actress.  So, too, does Alan Ruck, who stars as her kindly father who is affected by a traumatic brain injury.  Ben Daniels is also very good as the experienced half of the duo of priests who serve as the story’s heroes.  By the end of this first season’s ten-episode arc, both priests seemed like three-dimensional characters that I could like and root for.  I was impressed again — priests in stories like this usually tend towards stock characters, and I can only imagine that it would be challenging for a screenwriter to make them relatable to the average viewer.

Why didn’t I love “The Exorcist?”  First, the show’s story elements felt too familiar.  Once again, we have a possessed young girl, a desperate mother beseeching the church for help, and a pair of priests, one of whom is experienced and one of whom requires instruction.  Once again, we see that the personal lives and the metaphorical demons of both clergymen can be used against them.  Once again, we find the girl secured to a bed while the story’s protagonists pray and shout at her possessor.  I do realize that these tropes are to be expected.  (This is “The Exorcist,” after all.  Do we really expect the writers to not depict an exorcism?)  I can’t deny, however, that my attention wandered.

Second, it was sometimes too slow for me.  I do understand that the show’s creators are probably being faithful to the storytelling pace and style originally established by Blatty, as well as William Friedkin, the director of 1973’s “The Exorcist.”  (Blatty actually wrote the screenplay for that seminal film, two years after his novel was published.)  The tension sometimes builds slowly in its realistic milieu, and events gather momentum over the course of the story.  The show also goes to great lengths to offer us more than its boilerplate exorcism story.  (There are some major demon-related events happening elsewhere in its troubled setting of Chicago.)

Still … I again found my attention wandering.  I might have enjoyed this more if it were edited down to six episodes instead on ten.  And I can’t write a glowing review for a show for which my interest occasionally waned.  (Admittedly, I have a terrible attention span when it comes to TV shows.)

All things considered,  I would rate “The Exorcist” an 8 out of 10 for being a smart, grown-up horror series, even if its slower pace and familiar story elements detracted slightly from my enjoyment of it.  I would recommend this show — especially to those who enjoyed the better “Exorcist” movies.

 

 

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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 short review of the premiere of “24: Legacy” (2017)

Jack may not be back, but the premiere of “24: Legacy” suggests the magic of FOX’s flagship serial thriller can survive without him.  The first one-hour episode was damn good — I’d give it a 9 out of 10.

Maybe it’s too early to gauge how well the show will follow in its predecessor’s footsteps.  It indeed feels different with its new hero (Corey Hawkins as former U.S. Army Ranger Eric Carter).  Kiefer Sutherland is a superb actor who masterfully portrayed a disturbed-yet-noble antihero, the now iconic Jack Bauer.  Hawkins doesn’t shine much in this initial outing, but there will be time for the actor to grow along with the character.  (In the long ago series premiere of “24,” Sutherland’s debut as Bauer wasn’t terribly interesting yet either.)

But the creators of “24: Legacy” have carefully assembled nearly all of the components of “24’s” greatness: the real-time urgency and the frantic pace; the surprising violence; the twists and betrayals; the cool technology; and the converging plotlines as various actors affect key outcomes in the story.  A more critical viewer might complain that that these feel like common tropes after nine years of the original show.  (And “24’s” unique mode of storytelling kind of defines it as its own sub-genre.)  But these signature elements of the show, however predictable, are exactly what will keep fans coming back.

The only thing missing is an interesting villain.  The bad guys here are suitably nasty, and drive the plot from the story’s opening minutes.  But, so far, they’re fairly generic terrorists.  Like the Hawkins’ character, it remains to be seen whether the script can develop them further.

I had a blast with this.  If you’re a fan of the original “24,” then you ought to check this out.