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 pan of “Velvet Buzzsaw” (2019)

Sorry, but for me “Velvet Buzzsaw” (2019) was a bust.  I’d rate it a 3 out of 10 for being an interesting and ambitious Netflix horror film that nevertheless failed to hold my interest.

My interest was piqued along with everyone else when I first saw the trailer for this earlier this year.  It looked amazing.  It was a high-concept supernatural horror film with great visual effects and a cast that included Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and John Malkovich.  (The cast also includes Toni Collette, who I’ve recently come to understand is a damned good actress.)  It looked funny too.

But “Velvet Buzzaw” fatally suffers from the characters that it depicts.  All of the above actors portray profoundly irritating characters, and not even their formidable talents make these characters any fun to watch.  The movie takes place in the Miami Beach art world, and the major characters are artists, critics, or gallery owners and employees.  (The plot device here is a collection of haunted paintings that kill their owners.)  With the exception of Malkovich’s artist (“Piers”), these characters are so cloying, trite and pretentious that seeing them on screen is nearly nerve rattling.  You don’t care much that they’re imperiled.  You just want to see them die, so that the movie will be over.

This would have been a far better movie if screenwriter Dan Gilroy chose to depict its events mostly from Piers’ point of view.  I suppose that would have been difficult; he isn’t central to the plot.  But it would have been worth it.

There are some things to like.  Malkovich and Russo re always fun to watch, a lot of the special effects are quite good, and the final demise in the film is actually very well rendered.  (Given the mediocrity of the movie as a whole, I was surprised at how clever and unsettling this was.)  A college buddy of mine with excellent taste in horror actually liked “Velvet Buzzsaw” quite a bit.  So maybe this is just a matter of taste.

I can’t recommend this, though.

 

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Check out “In Darkness, Delight: Masters of Midnight!”

I just learned about a hell of an interesting horror anthology coming down the pike — “In Darkness, Delight: Masters of Midnight.”  The tome will be published on May 6th by Corpus Press, but you can pre-order the Kindle edition right here.

It looks like a great book with a diverse variety of modern horror tales.  (Read the synopsis on Amazon.)  As it happens, one of its featured authors is the daughter of a friend of mine. (This is Espi Kvlt, author of “Pulsate.”)  It also includes a story by Josh Malerman, who wrote “Bird Box,” the novel upon which Netflix’ hugely successful film adaptation was based.

And it’s only $3.99!

 

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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 petition to save Netflix’ “Daredevil?”

I CAN’T SEE why I wouldn’t sign something like that.

That was terrible.  If this were the Marvel Cinematic Universe, people would actually ask Thanos to ash me.

Anyway, the petition over at Change.org has 48,840 signatures as of this writing, and it’s climbing quickly toward its target goal of 50,000.  It’s even been endorsed by Vincent D’Onofrio, who portrays “Kingpin” on the program.

I swear that it takes all of three seconds to sign.  And what could it hurt?  It worked for Fox’ “Firefly,” right?  (Although it didn’t work for NBC’s “Hannibal.”)

You can find it right here.

 

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A short review of “Bird Box” (2018)

Netflix’ “Bird Box” generally pleases — I’d rate it an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a creative and effective apocalyptic horror film.  A few reviewers call it a “high-concept” horror movie because of its MacGuffin — an invasion of otherworldly beings causes anyone who looks at them to hallucinate and become suicidally depressed.  (A handful of survivors escape the chaotic mass suicides because they are lucky enough not to lay eyes on the mysterious, mind-bending creatures which can become images of their victims’ worst fears.)

It’s a hell of a setup — it reminds many people of this year’s “A Quiet Place” and 2008’s unfairly maligned “The Happening.”  (Hey, I really liked that movie.)  For some reason, “Bird Box” reminded me of the 1985 “The Twilight Zone” episode, “Need to Know.”  (It’s a great ep.)  And the plot device pays off — “Bird Box” is genuinely unsettling, and the whole story comes across as a blackly inventive end-of-the-world tale.

Sandra Bullock is good here; supporting actors Sarah Paulson and John Malkovich are even better. (Malkovich is mesmerizing whenever he plays an intense or unpleasant character.)

The film suffers somewhat from puzzling pacing problems — sometimes the story appears to be unfolding too quickly, but by the end of the two-hour movie, it feels too long.  “Bird Box” was adapted from a structured 2014 novel by Josh Malerman; I strongly get the sense that it tries to squeeze too much of its source material into a the running time for a movie.  I honestly think I would have enjoyed it much more if its frightening plot device and interesting, well-played characters were explored in a mini-series.

There’s another disappointment too — we learn very little about the story’s antagonists, beyond one character’s hypothesis that they’re archetypal punishing figures from a number of the world’s religions.  I wanted to know more.

 

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A review of Season 1 of “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018)

Ghosts seldom scare me, because I’m never 100 percent clear on what sort of threat they present to the protagonists of a horror film or TV show.  They’re not like zombies, vampires, werewolves or serial killers, all of which will do predictably horrible things to their victims.

Can ghosts … kill you?  Injure you?  That usually doesn’t make sense, given their non-corporeal nature.  Can they … scare you to death?  How would that work?  Would they cause a heart attack?  Or drive you mad?  That’s fine, I suppose, but here they’ve taken a back seat to the demons of horror films since 1973’s “The Exorcist” spawned a sub-genre with far more frightening supernatural baddies.  Are ghosts supposed to inspire existential dread, by reminding the viewers of their own mortality?  For me, that backfires — their existence would strongly suggest the existence of an afterlife, which would be paradoxically reassuring.

It’s therefore a testament to the quality of Netflix’ “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) that it’s frequently so scary, even to me.  We find out in the first episode that its ghosts indeed do more than frighten the story’s protagonists, but it’s the show’s writing, directing and acting that make it so memorable.  It’s an a superb viewing experience, and I’d rate it a 10 out of 10.

The cast roundly shines — but especially Carla Gugino and Timothy Hutton (even if his performance was a little understated).  Catherine Parker is deliciously evil in a supporting role as the house’s most outwardly vicious spirit.  The best performance, for me, however, was the young Victoria Pedretti as the traumatized Nell — she was goddam amazing, and deserves an Emmy nomination.

Mike Flanagan’s directing was perfect — his use of long angles and colors to make lavish interiors disorienting reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s similar sensory trickery in “The Shining” (1980).  Michael Fimognari’s cinematography was beautiful.  Even the makeup effects were damned good.  (Nothing beats Greg Nicotero’s work in “The Walking Dead” universe, but the work here is sometimes horrifying.)

I’m not the only one who loved this show either.  It is broadly praised in online horror fan circles (though I’d recommend avoiding most of those for spoilers).  I haven’t read Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel that is its source material, but a bibliophile who I trust assured me that the show is even better.

Sure, there were some things that didn’t work for me.  “The Haunting of Hill House” actually does take a while to get where it’s going; it favors in-depth, flashback-heavy character development over advancing its plot, in much the same manner as “Lost” (2004 – 2010) once did.  And some viewers might feel the same frustration here as they would for that show.

Its story and supernatural adversaries are also distinctly Gothic.  (Your mileage may vary as to what’s a comfortably familiar trope and what’s an archaic cliche.  I myself was more interested the more modern and three-dimensional interpretation of ghost characters seen in 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.”)  I’d even go so far as the say that the first ghost that we see in any detail is actually disappointing — the otherworldly figure connected with the bowler hat felt too cartoonish for me, like something we’d see on Walt Disney World’s “The Haunted Mansion” ride.  (Trust me, they get more intimidating after that.)

Give this show a chance — and stay with it if you think it’s too slow, or if you find its characters a little unlikable at first.  You’ll be glad you did.

Weird world: if the diffident, sometimes off-putting character of Steven looks familiar to you, it might be because that’s none other than Michiel Huisman, who plays the charismatic Daario on “Game of Thrones.”

 

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