A very short review of the premiere of HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019)

I’m arriving at the opinion that Jared Harris is one of the finest actors working today.  His performance in last year’s “The Terror” was nothing short of beautiful.  So I tuned in the other night to the first episode of HBO’s “Chernobyl” miniseries, in which he is the protagonist.

I wasn’t disappointed.  “Chernobyl” is gripping.  I’m no expert about the 1986 nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union, but this certainly comes across like a meticulous historical adaptation.  But what’s surprising is how its smart, relatively spare script moves so quickly and so adeptly incorporates the human horror of the event.  (After a brief prologue with Harris’ voiceover, the story begins almost immediately with the accident occurring.)  The plot points that follow are by necessity mostly technical.  But the pitch-perfect writing here makes the story quite easy to follow.

It’s gut-wrenching stuff — made even more frightening by the Soviet administrators who cared little about whether the power plant’s workers died an agonizing death.  It’s the kind of story that would be frightening even if it were pure fiction.  But the program’s authenticity and attention to detail are constantly present to remind you that it is not.

There’s some impressive camera work, too — especially the final shot, which will feel like a punch in the stomach.

I’d rate this a 9 out of 10, and I highly recommend it.

 

chernobylposter

A review of “The X-Files” Season 10

I breaks my heart to say this, but 2016’s long-awaited return of “The X-Files” was not a triumphant one.  (Indeed, I am writing this review nearly two years after its conclusion because I only recently got around to watching the last of its six episodes.)  I’d rate the brief season a 4 out of 10 — the lowest rating I’ve ever given to a season of the show.

I hope this year’s Season 11 proves me wrong, but I’m finally starting to wonder of “The X-Files'” time has come and gone.  (This is coming from someone who was a lifetime fan.  I even thoroughly enjoyed seasons 7 through 9, which was when much of the show’s loyal fan-base began truly eroding between 1999 and 2002.)

So many of the show’s core elements seem outdated now.  The character arcs of its two heroes and their relationship were resolved seasons ago.  Its central overriding story arc — an elite cabal’s conspiracy about (and with) aliens — appears to have been milked for most or all all of its entertainment value.  And the show’s format of mixing a handful of “conspiracy episodes” with standalone “monster-of-the-week” episodes feels awkward compared with contemporary programs that better integrate multiple plot lines.  (Consider HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” for example, or even the various Netflix and television series that are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

The truly fatal blow to “The X Files'” staying power, though, runs a bit deeper — network television just isn’t as positioned as it used to be to tell the scariest stories to a wide audience.  There is too much competition from sources less beholden to censorship or to the milquetoast sensibilities of mainstream appeal.  The first is easily accessible cable channels like HBO and AMC, which can shock viewers with visceral violence.  The second is subscription services like Netflix.

And third is simply the Internet at large, with its endless cornucopia of morbid or bizarre content.  “The X-Files” was created before the Internet was a common household utility.  Part of the show’s appeal was that it offered people the creepiest stories they’d watch anywhere anywhere outside of a movie theater.  And those stories at least seemed well researched by the program’s writers, who did a tremendous job for most of the show’s run.

Today’s Internet-connected entertainment marketplace is different.  No matter how much weirdness “The X Files” can pack into a 43-minute episode, the average consumer can find material online that is darker or more frightening in less time than that.  Compare the average “X-Files” episode, for example, to the array of material devoted to real-life “paranormal” subjects, like “Slender Man,” alleged UFO footage, or tragedies like the mysterious death of Elisa Lam.  (That last one is truly shudder-inducing.  Google it at your own peril.)

The only way a show like “The X-Files” can hope to compete is with excellent attention to tone, tension and character — something I thought that seasons 7 through 9 did pretty well with, despite a gradual fan exodus after David Duchovny’s awkward departure from the series.  Season 10 just didn’t follow suit.  It really was as though a range of previous “X-Files” episodes has been thrown in a blender, so that their component parts could be served yet again.  The conspiracy stuff, in particular, was poorly executed, too hastily paced, and just a bit too campy for my taste.  Mulder and Scully’s return was also too self-conscious — as though Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were reunited for a tongue-in-cheek reunion special.

It wasn’t all bad.  These two leads are always fun to watch.  The fourth episode was superb — “Home Again” served up both a creepy, macabre story and a meaningful character arc for Dana Scully.

Episode 3, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” was also fun enough.  But while a lot of other fans absolutely loved this humorous entry, I personally didn’t feel its central joke merited a full episode.  Besides, this particular twist has been done before, in a 1989 book by a well known speculative fiction author.  (I won’t name the book or the author here, in order to avoid spoilers.)

The rest of the episodes were … fair, I suppose.  Oh, well.

I’m thrilled that we’re currently being given Season 11 of “The X-Files.”  As someone who was a longtime fan, I never envisioned the show lasting this long, even after a hiatus of many years.  I just hope the show matures and grows in quality after this disappointing rebirth.

 

XFilesStillOutThere

A review of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017)

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) isn’t a bad movie.  To the contrary, it’s a very good one — I would even rate it a 9 out of 10, if a little reluctantly.

The action, humor, surprises and special effects are all top-notch; it’s got a slew of fun Easter eggs and great continuity within the Marvel Cinematic Universe; and Michael Keaton hits it out of the park as the story’s villain.  (As Ed Harris did recently with HBO’s “Westworld,” the sublimely likable Keaton really surprised me with how he could become so intimidating.)  Furthermore, the screenwriters wisely omit another redundant re-telling of the web-slinger’s origin.  (Even a die-hard fan like me is sick of seeing or reading about it.)

I think your enjoyment of this movie might vary according to what you want Spider-Man to be.  This isn’t a movie in which Peter Parker or his alter ego stand out as his own man (despite its plot resolution’s heavy-handed efforts to tell us that).  I submit that it’s fairly undistinguished as a standalone superhero film —  it feels like an ancillary, companion film to the “Avengers” movies, including last year’s de facto installment, “Captain America: Civil War.”  Indeed, fan-favorite Tony Stark is “Spider-Man: Homecoming’s” most significant supporting character — far more than any of the many friends, family, love interests or villains that have long inhabited the iconic hero’s mythos.  Peter’s primary motivation throughout the movie is his desire to become an Avenger, like a normal kid would aspire to the varsity football team.  Many of his powers stem from a ultra-high-tech costume designed and given to him by Iron Man; it even has an advanced A.I. that is a femme fatale equivalent of J.A.R.V.I.S.  (Fun fact: that alluring voice belongs to none other than the alluring Jennifer Connelly.  The actress is the wife of Paul Bettany, who is the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. and then the actor portraying The Vision.  And Connelly herself played the love interest of 1991’s mostly forgotten “The Rocketeer,” a World War II-era hero with the a similar character concept to Iron Man.)

I was a big fan of Spider-Man in the 1990’s, and, believe me, the ol’ web-head did just fine with his own powers, intelligence and character — and without any sort of “internship” with Iron Man, either metaphorically or otherwise.  He was also a far more popular character with readers.  I was buying comics regularly between 1991 and 1996 — while Spider-Man books and merchandise were everywhere, I don’t think I ever remember seeing an “Iron Man” comic on the racks at my local comic shop.  I kept thinking inwardly of Spider-Man during this movie as “Iron Man Jr.,” and, for me, that wasn’t a good thing.

I also found myself musing during the film that this felt like “Spider-Man Lite.”  While “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was fun, it doesn’t have the depth, character development or gravitas of the Sam Raimi trilogy.  (Yes, I even liked the third one, despite its bizarre flaws.)  I know that critics are praising the movie’s lighter tone, and I realize the need to avoid a simple rehash of the Raimi films.  (Nobody would want that; we can rightfully expect more from the excellent MCU.)  I actually prefer the Raimi films, though.  While Tom Holland might be the better Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire was a strange casting choice), the Raimi movies were more … heartfelt.  They were an earnest exploration of the Spider-Man of the comics, and they felt … truer.   “Homecoming,” in contrast, is yet another cool installment in the “Avengers” series.  “Spider Man 2” came out 13 years ago, and I can still remember how that movie made me feel — not to mention how its sheer quality vindicated “comic book movies” like no other film before it.  This new movie will not be memorable that way.

Anyway, although my criticisms above are obviously lengthy, please know that this is only because I love the source material so much — and we comic book fans have a tendency to analyze.  I certainly enjoyed the movie, and I’d cheerfully recommend it.  (Note my rating.)  The MCU continues to entertain with quality movies; its consistency, even with its expanding group of ongoing Netflix series, is kind of astonishing.

Go see this.  You’ll have fun.

 

Spider-Man2

A review of “The Conjuring” (2013)

I feel the same way about “The Conjuring” (2013) as I did about its prequel, “Annabelle” (2014) — it has all the earmarks of a bad movie, but it inexplicably succeeds anyway.

Seriously — this film has clunky exposition, cheesy dialogue and over-the-top plot developments (toward the end), not to mention a plot setup that’s in questionable taste.  (The movie suggests that the innocents condemned by the infamous 1692 Salem witch trials were indeed witches.  This feels a bit awkward to anyone who read Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in high school.)  “The Conjuring” also plays out like a love letter to Ed and Lorraine Warren, the controversial paranormal investigators who are largely the subject of the film (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).  This last offense is forgivable, I suppose — the film was made with the Warrens’ blessing, and Lorraine Warren was even present as a “consultant” during its production.

Strangely, however, these flaws were barely noticeable to me when I watched it.  I had a good time.  “The Conjuring” just happens to be a decent fright flick that delivers on the scares.

I think James Wan’s skilled directing has a lot to do with that; the film works visually.  (I could name specific instances where it works especially well, but I want to avoid spoilers.)

The acting helped a lot too — Wilson and Farmiga are both damned good, as is Lili Taylor as the afflicted family’s mother.  (I’ve admired Taylor’s acting since her long ago 1998 guest appearance on “The X-Files,” and she was equally good as a bad guy in 1996’s “Ransom.”)  Ron Livingston was also quite good in the role of the father — if you have trouble placing his face, as I did, he also played Captain Nixon in HBO’s “Band of Brothers” (2001).  He seems to have a talent for playing the likable everyman — he’s great here as the somewhat feckless father, and functions well as a kind of viewer surrogate.  I should also mention the young Joey King as one of the family’s daughters — she played the role of a terrified child to perfection, and really raised the stakes emotionally.

Despite really enjoying most of the movie, some of my enthusiasm for “The Conjuring” flagged a bit toward the end.  The denouement here includes an exorcism, and those are almost always boring.  There are only so many ways that scenario can play out, and we’ve seen them all — and I shouldn’t even need to name that certain 1973 film that did it best.  Furthermore, we see our story’s demon do some pretty extraordinary things, even by demon standards.  It can apparently transport itself great distances (using an inanimate object as a kind of fax machine?), and can manipulate both the laws of physics and the area’s wildlife.  It was all a little too much for my willing suspension of disbelief.

Again, though — this was a good movie.  I’d give it an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good scare.

 

Season 1 of “Westworld” was fantastic.

The premise for HBO’s “Westworld” sounds like a bad situation comedy — robot cowboys entertain the rich at a futuristic theme park.  There are showdowns and shootouts, and hilarity ensues when the guests fall in love with the coy robot ladies.

But “Westworld” is an arguably brilliant serial science fiction thriller, far transcending its gimmicky central plot contrivance.  It is occasionally weighted down by some challenges with pacing, story structure and exposition.  But I still loved it enough to get hooked on it immediately, and I’d give it a 9 out of 10.

I think it’s the smartest science fiction show I’ve seen in a long time.  Its brilliance doesn’t stem from its kitsch premise.  (I haven’t seen the original 1973 film based on Michael Crichton’s screenplay, but I’ve seen it lampooned at least once.)  It generally doesn’t extend from the show’s many twists and surprises, however well executed they are.  Nor does it stem from the show’s ambitious discussions of the nature of consciousness.

Its brilliance, in my opinion, stems from its nuanced and surprisingly disturbing depiction of human evil.  Of course there’s the obvious — the theme park exposes human depravity by allowing people to rob, rape and murder lifelike human surrogates with impunity.  But there is far more that the show has to say.  To get a sense of it, you have to watch the entire 10-episode season, and see several key character arcs reach completion.  One of these arcs was so dark and cruelly contemplative that it’s stayed with me long after I watched the final episode.

The show is well made at every level.  It’s gorgeously shot, at locations throughout California, Utah and Arizona.  The special effects are great.  Anthony Hopkins is characteristically perfect as the park’s patriarch, and Jeffrey Wright is terrific as his well meaning right hand.  (That actor is starting to grow on me.)  The entire cast is quite good — even those in relatively minor roles, like the two hapless technicians (nicely portrayed by Leonardo Nam and Ptolemy Slocum) who become entangled in the events connected with the park’s malfunctions.

Ed Harris, however, consistently steals the show as “the Man in Black,” a park guest who vacations as a brutal rapist and murderer (and who we learn has another agenda, as well).  He’s chilling.  I never really saw Harris as an amazing actor before, despite seeing him in many roles, including his memorable turn in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001).  But he was incredible here.

I wanted to give this show a perfect 10, but even someone who loves it as much as I do can see the weaknesses of this first season.  Overall, “Westworld” is sometimes too drawn out.  I feel the plot moves forward rather slowly, and I think Season 1 would be perfect if only it were carefully edited down from ten to maybe seven episodes.  I found myself getting a little frustrated by the the fifth episode, when we see two major characters follow arcs that seem redundant.  (I’m being intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers.)

The problem is compounded by the deliberately superficial nature of “Westworld’s” setting.  This is a theme park with stereotypical stock characters associated with Hollywood westerns.  Accordingly, its inhabitants have overly stylized speech and behavior.  Furthermore, these androids are programmed to follow the same “loops” repeatedly, as the same preconceived story “narratives” are reused to entertain new patrons of the park.

It gets annoying.  Yes, I know it makes perfect sense and is necessary in the context of the story.  But it can be grating to someone who tunes in to see a science fiction show, and not a cheesy western.  James Marsden is a decent enough actor, and he’s well cast as “Westworld’s” prototypical “good guy” cowboy.  But seeing this character’s shtick over and over was irritating.  So, too, were the sassy ladies at the brothel and some other minor characters.

Finally, I suggest that, for some viewers, “Westworld” may be hard to follow.  I occasionally found it that way.  There are twists that are wonderfully well crafted, gradually deciphered mysteries, and a very layered backstory.  Finally, the show’s discussions of things like consciousness, morality and artificial intelligence can sometimes border on the didactic.  (It helps a hell of a lot, though, when the actor delivering the exposition is the priceless Hopkins.)  It’s a lot to take in.  People tuning in should be prepared for some challenging, cerebral science fiction instead of easily digested, escapist fantasy.

All in all, this show was superb.  If you’re a science fiction fan, you need to at least give it a try.

Unnecessary postscript: actor Jimmi Simpson sure looks a hell of a lot like a young Christian Slater.

 

evan-rachel-wood-as-dolores-abernathy-ed-harris-as-the-man-in-black-c1

 

Throwback Thursday: “I want my MTV!!!”

This past Monday marked the 35th Anniversary of MTV.  It aired its first music video, ironically The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” on August 1st, 1981.

That’s a cool answer for a trivia question, but it’s not actually a memory for a lot of people.  Not everybody had premium cable packages back then.  My family didn’t.   And if we’d had fancy cable channels like that, I’d have been far more thrilled to get Showtime or the legendary HBO.  (We called the latter “Home Box” back in the day.)

The first time I laid eyes on MTV was at a friend’s house, and it seemed weird to a fourth grader.  I thought it was an inscrutably dumb idea — why did we need to see the music being played?  That seemed like something appropriate only for fanatical music fans.  In my child’s mind, I pictured them as the weird, overly nostalgic, long-haired men who purchased those “Hits of the 60’s” cassettes that were so often advertised on non-primetime television.

I  only gave it a glance; my friend and I then went on to play in the woods, maybe to build a tree-fort.  The 80’s were a different time.

Adults, too, scoffed at “Music Television.”  I heard more than one opine, disapprovingly, that “music is meant to be heard, not watched.”

MTV also arrived with little initial fanfare, of course, because nobody knew how big it would be.  By the end of the 80’s, even describing it as a cornerstone of popular culture would be an understatement.  It was … I dunno … a cultural conduit.  It was part of life, if you were a teenager.

By the time I graduated from Longwood High School in the spring of 1990, I was watching it nightly, just like countless other kids.  This was arguably MTV’s Golden Age — it would be many years before its inexplicable, universally maligned transition away from music videos to brainless, bread-and circuses”reality shows” and other questionable programming.

The countdown show in the late 80’s was “Dial MTV,” Wikipedia reminds me.  (Why do I feel like I remember it being called something else?)  I didn’t pay much attention to “120 Minutes,” which focused on alternative music.  And that’s weird, because I would go nuts for alternative music when I was bitten by the Depeche Mode bug early in my freshman year of college.

MTV could be found on Channel 25 in my part of Long Island; its sister channel, VH-1, was on Channel 26.  I remember thinking of VH-1 as “MTV for old people.”  And, by “old people,” I did mean people in their 30’s.

For some reason, I had quite a preoccupation as a teenager with Vee-Jay Martha Quinn.  I definitely had Martha on my mind, back then.  I’m not sure what was up with that.  Looking back, I think she resembled a mild-mannered, nondescript librarian who dressed just slightly cool, maybe because she just got a job at the local high school.  Or maybe because she was sneaking up on 30.

 

mtv_pakistan_logo_by_aash

 

1428066105-0

images

maxresdefault

 

A short review of “The Collection” (2012)

I have to give “The Collection” an 8 out of 10.

No, it’s not a classic horror movie — it’s derivative of the “Saw” movies, and it seems to result from too little thought by the screenwriters.  The antagonist is a serial killer (and here a mass murderer) who employs extraordinary Rube Goldberg-esque machines to brutally trap his victims.

We know nothing about how he arrived at his expertise.  (He appears to be a demon-possessed Thomas Edison.)  His choice of victims is random.  His modus operandi is puzzling.  (Why bring a prior victim to a new crime scene?)  And we’re not even shown how these machines work — only CG’ed tracking shots of cables and pulleys.  Neither do we know why he has unarmed combat training that seems to approach the level of Batman’s.  And the question I was left with by the previous film (“The Collector,” 2009) is still the most egregious omission — how on earth does our bad guy have time to invade a house or building and set all these things up?!  There is SOME nice exposition about the killer’s motivations in some closing dialogue, and it’s wickedly interesting, but it’s cut short.

But, hey — this still got under my skin enough to be an effective horror movie.  The opening action set-piece (YEESH!) was not only frightening, it was also something completely surprising.  I knew bad things were afoot when we spot our horrible machinist lurking above, but … I didn’t expect THAT.

Even with almost no speaking lines, Randall Archer deserves credit for terrific physical acting throughout — not to mention some the best (worst?) crazy-evil eyes in horror film history.  (Just LOOK at this mamajama in the second picture below.)  Archer is a professional stuntman, and his movement and posture sell the role perfectly.

Even better is the presence of Josh Stewart, who returns as the first movie’s nuanced antihero.  I’ll say it again — I love this guy.  He’s a damned talented actor, and he deserves more leading roles in major films.  He was even frikkin’ awesome in his small role as Bane’s craven little henchman in “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012).

And Lee Tergeson, who I remember best as Beecher in HBO’s “Oz” (1997-2003), is also great to watch.

There are other nice touches too.  Like its predecessor, this movie could be smart and creative when it tried.  The use of a gun here is pretty clever, even if it seems obvious in retrospect.  (I wouldn’t have thought of that.)  And the fate of some of our bad guy’s past victims is both fresh and very disturbing.  If those ideas had been expanded on much further, this film would have risen above its status as a “Saw” imitator.

Finally, I love endings like the one we see here.  I won’t say more for fear of spoilers.

collection_ver2

The-Collection-e1364275552414