Tag Archives: Netflix

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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Throwback Thursday: “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (1973)

I was only a baby when ABC debuted the original “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” in 1973, but I caught it when it was rebroadcast around the end of the decade, when I was … six or seven years old?  And dear GOD did it scare the crap out of me.

Since then, it’s become a minor legend in the horror fan community as one of the rare made-for-television movies that is easily as scary as something you’d see in a theater.  This was the film that was remade in 2010, produced by Guillermo del Toro and with Katie Holmes in the lead role.  (And I thought that the remake was a fun horror fantasy, even if it wasn’t terribly scary.)

I actually caught the film again about ten years ago, courtesy of Netflix’ DVD-by-mail service.  And it was still creepy enough.

 

Throwback Thursday: WOR-TV Channel 9’s “Million Dollar Movie” intro!

This will probably be a pretty obscure Throwback Thursday post, but the segment below should be recognized by people who grew up in the New York metropolitan area in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  It’s none other than the intro for WOR-TV Channel 9’s “Million Dollar Movie.”  (That music you hear is a particularly brassy rendition of Max Steiner’s “Tara’s Theme” from 1939’s “Gone With the Wind.”)

If you were in the New York area at that time, it ought to bring back memories of the old days of broadcast television.  (It’s actually surprising how much nostalgia people online report at seeing this 44-second clip.  And it’s amazing what you can find on the Internet.)  A few commenters note sardonically that the clip makes Manhattan look like a nighttime paradise — while The Big Apple in the 1970’s was not always an easy place to be.  (The city if far cleaner and safer today.)

Some of the comments I read were befuddling.  There is one blogger who wrote that he remembers this intro from as far back as the 1950’s.  (Had they really used it for more than two decades?)  And a populous minority of commenters remember being unsettled by the clip.  (They describe it as ominous, and the music as creepy, which mystifies the rest of us who remember “Million Dollar Movie.”)

This intro had an indelible effect on me.  While it recalls monster movies like “King Kong” (1939) and “Godzilla” (1954) for a lot of others, it will always remind me of my father watching war films and cowboy movies on his days off — along with the occasional Charles Bronson flick.   “The Great Escape” (1963), “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) and “Shane” (1953) all spring to mind.

When I was in the first or second grade, I habitually enhanced my Dad’s enjoyment of the “Million Dollar Movie” by peppering him endlessly with questions about whatever was playing — even if I had only wandered into the room for a few minutes.  “Why did they call it ‘a bridge too far?'” “Why did they fight World War II?” “The British and French were good guys in the war, right?” “Why did the cowboy drop his gun on purpose?”  “Why did the guy fake his death?”  (Bear in mind, folks, this was broadcast television — long before the days of Netflix and DVD’s.)

If any kid did that to me when I was watching my favorite movies, I’d go nuts — even if I had a pause button.  My father was a saint.

 

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.

 

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