A short review of “Child’s Play” (2019)

“Child’s Play” (2019) actually surprised me by being a little more ambitious and well rounded than the typical reboot of an 80’s slasher franchise.  Screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith tries to present audiences with a fresh, updated horror film with funny, engaging, likable characters.  And he mostly succeeds — it helps that the cast is roundly quite good in their roles.  (The voice of Chucky is none other than Mark Hamill.)  There is some discomfiting dark humor here, too, that makes for some great, guilty fun.

But this “Child’s Play” is doomed to suffer in comparison to the 1988 original.  The very first “Child’s Play” was a particularly scary film, even if its sequels were much less so; I remember people screaming in the theater when I saw it with my high school friends.  This new movie doesn’t come close to matching it in that manner.

Smith’s update abandons the admittedly campy premise of the original, in which a serial killer employs voodoo to transfer his soul into an interactive doll.  Smith gives us something that is more plausible — a malfunctioning A.I. that turns homicidal partly because its programming leads it to.  His take is interesting … Chucky is even a little sympathetic at first — he’s a childlike, vaguely cute robot, and his mischievous young owner is at least partly responsible for his early, less frightening transgressions.

This all works on a certain level.  It’s smarter than its 80’s source material.  It might have been gold if it had been fleshed out by a science fiction screenwriting master like Charlie Brooker, of “Black Mirror” fame.  Or, better yet, why not the writers for HBO’s brilliant “Westworld,” which proceeds from essentially the same basic story concept?

Alas, we can’t have our cake and eat it too, at least in this case.  The new Chucky is a more intelligent story concept but a less menacing bogeyman.  He just can’t hold a candle to the voodoo-infused, sociopathic demon-doll voiced by the legendary Brad Dourif so long ago.  The new “Child’s Play” isn’t quite scary enough for our expectations, and that’s a serious criticism for a horror movie.

All things considered, I’d rate this a 7 out of 10.

 

childs-play-chucky_in_childs_play_rgb-h_2019_0

A review of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014)

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014) is easily the least of the Tom Clancy adaptations.  But that shouldn’t be enough to indict the film; the other film treatments of the author’s books have all been roundly excellent.  (Okay, 2002’s often-reviled “The Sum of All Fears” might be an exception, but I still like that flick even if I’m in the minority.)  I’d rate this outing a 6 out of 10.

It isn’t a bad movie … it’s just an average, generally undistinguished boilerplate spy thriller that seems half-heartedly rewritten as a reboot of the Clancy films.  Screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp pay cursory attention to the title character’s background, and a key plot development from the books that I will not spoil here.  But the film utterly lacks the mood, detail or methodical plotting of anything Clancy created.

It’s all very generic stuff.   We’ve got a generic, telegenic, twenty-something action hero (Chris Pine), his generic hot girlfriend (Keira Knightley), the expected Russian bad guy (Kenneth Branagh) and a by-the-numbers climax — including the last-second requirement to divert a bomb from its target.  Rounding it all out is Kevin Costner, the most generic good guy ever to behave predictably on screen — he characteristically projects the expected, wholesome gravitas.  Even this film’s title is generic — it sounds like the name a marketing department would come up with for an entry in a video-game series.

There are plot elements that are painfully implausible, even by spy-movie standards.  Jack Ryan’s new girlfriend, for example, surprises him by arriving in Russia in a flourish of quirky-girlfriend spontaneity, only to discover his secret career and then be fully enlisted in a spy operation.  Branagh doubles as the movie’s director; his work here is surprisingly problematic.  This is yet another movie in which important action sequences are barely comprehensible because of frequent, rapid cuts.

Oh, well.  It certainly isn’t all bad.  There isn’t a single bad actor in the film, for example.  If I don’t like Branagh’s directing, I love his acting.  The guy is magnetic — he alternately and convincingly projects menace and charisma to perfection.  Alec Utgoff shines too, in a small role as a soft-spoken, ironically disarming Russian assassin.

People tend to either love or hate Costner.  I like him quite a bit.  No, he doesn’t always demonstrate an incredible range.  But his acting is competent and he’s likable and consistently convincing.  He’s the actor equivalent of that old American sedan that isn’t flashy but always starts reliably when you need it to get you to work.

Hey, you might like this movie far more than I did.  I was an obsessive fan of the books, so my standards may be a bit high where they are adapted to the screen.  Your mileage may vary.

 

jack_ryan_shadow_recruit_ver3_xlg

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.

 

summer-feature-no

A review of “The Dead Don’t Die” (2019)

“The Dead Don’t Die” indeed has the greatest zombie cast ever assembled.  Seriously, just look at that poster below.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the best zombie screenplay ever written, or the best direction ever seen in a zombie film.  This would-be classic was a surprisingly average viewing experience; I’d rate it a 6 out of 10.

I almost feel guilty for feeling so unenthusiastic, because I like so many of these actors so much.  Bill Murray and Adam Driver actually are quite funny as the movie’s two torpid police officers; Chloe Sevigny makes them even funnier as their panicked straight man.  And the addition of Tilda Swinton’s zany Scottish samurai undertaker makes them the perfect comedic quartet.  (I think this is the first time I’ve seen Sevigny in a movie, as she mostly does arthouse films — including 2003’s ignominiously reviled “The Brown Bunny.”  And I had no idea that Driver was this talented, given his milquetoast turn as a villain in the most recent spate of “Star Wars” films.)  I honestly would love to see the four of these characters battle apocalyptic threats in a series of comedies — aliens, vampires, killer robots from the future … whatever.

Other big names shine here as well.  Tom Waits and Caleb Landry Jones are both surprisingly funny, delivering little bouts of quirky, laconic, character-driven dialogue in a film that seems intended as mashup between “Cannery Row” (1982) and the first two “Return of the Living Dead” films (1985, 1988).  (I first saw Jones as the creepy kid in 2010’s “The Last Exorcism;” I suspect that more of my friends will recognize him as Banshee from 2011’s “X-Men: First Class.”)

The problem is this — although many of the characters are engaging, they populate a subdued, disconnected movie that is frequently quite slow.  Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s heart is in the right place — assembling this oddball ensemble cast for the mashup I mentioned above is actually a terrific idea.  But “The Dead Don’t Die” ultimately lacks punch, and even a tongue-in-cheek horror-comedy needs a minimum of tension.  The movie is a bit too lethargic to become the truly great film that the trailer led us to hope for.

Complicating matters is the fact that that several groups of characters follow story arcs that go nowhere — sometimes literally.  (Where did the kids from the juvenile detention center run off to?  Why were they included at all?  Not much happens to them and they have nothing to do with the rest of the movie.)  This movie often felt like a number of comedy skits stitched together — some were admittedly quite funny, but they didn’t add up to a cohesive story.

Oh, well.  It’s possible that you will like “The Dead Don’t Die” much more than I did.  I might be the wrong audience for this, as I’ve never cared much for horror-comedies.  (The aforementioned “Return of the Living Dead” films are on the short list of those that I like.)  Your mileage may vary.

 

deaddont775

A short review of Season 1 of “Jack Ryan” (2018)

I didn’t quite love the first season of the “Jack Ryan” television series, but I still really, really liked it.  It’s a decent adaptation of Tom Clancy’s source material, albeit a very loose one.  (And that’s just fine — we already have a number of excellent films that closely adapt the events of the books; we don’t need another methodical retread of the author’s novels.)  I’d rate this an 8 out of 10.

There are some narrative weaknesses, particularly in the show’s failure to sustain tension between its episodes.  And there are some surprise plot developments that the show telegraphed a bit obviously.  (I usually don’t pick up on these things, but even I saw the clues.)  There is also a subplot involving a drone operator that is largely unnecessary … some viewers will find it interesting while others will not.

“Jack Ryan” also suffers just a little in comparison with the Audience network’s superior “Condor” (2018).  That excellent show covered much of the same subject matter, with its own ordinary CIA-analyst thrust into deadly game with terrorists.  Season 1 of “Condor” was better written, boasted an amazing cast, and was far more frightening.

John Krasinski does a good job as the title character.  I’ve always thought that this character would be tough for an actor to play, simply because he is so consistently nondescript.  (The whole character concept is that he usually appears to be an especially bright but otherwise ordinary civil servant … his background as a United States Marine and his patriotism and courage aren’t things that he advertises.)  Krasiniski’s Ryan is closer to that of the books than the version we see in the Harrison Ford films.  I love Ford as much as the next person, but his interpretation of the character was too a bit too meek and diffident for me.  That wasn’t quite the Jack Ryan that Clancy created.

What’s strange about the show is that it truly shines when deviates widely from the source materiel — especially in the character of Jim Greer.  He is played to perfection here by Wendell Pierce, and he is no longer the gentle, wizened father figure that we saw in his counterpart from the books and movies.  Nor is he a minor character — Pierce’s Greer is a gruff, pissy operations man fresh off of an ominous and unfair demotion, who shoots and runs right alongside Ryan when the bad guys attack.  It sounds preposterously stupid.  But … it works — largely, I think, because of Pierce’s talent.  He’s a good enough actor to sell the idea and he invests Greer with a kind of perpetually disgruntled, antisocial charm.  I honestly would continue watching this show if it focused on him as the main character.

 

Jack-Ryan-Campaign-Poster

A review of HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019)

HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019) is … flawless, as far as I can tell.  I can’t name a single criticism I have of its writing, directing or performances.  It is among the best miniseries I’ve ever seen, and I don’t hesitate to rate it a 10 out of 10.

I can’t comment with any credibility about its historical accuracy, of course.  I know that the character of Ulana Khomyuk (wonderfully played by Emily Watson) was a composite meant to represent a number of scientists responding to the world-changing 1986 nuclear disaster; HBO notes this in its closing notes of the last episode.  But, to an average viewer like myself, the show certainly felt accurate — not once did I pause to remember that I was watching a TV show, and not getting a real-life glimpse into the closing days of the Soviet Union.  There is an immersive authenticity to “Chernobyl” that underscores every second of the horrors it depicts.

The entire five-episode program is an exercise in balance.  Screenwriter Craig Mazin deftly portrays terrifying events (including the effects of radiation exposure on average people nearby) without sensationalizing them.

The show does a masterful job of explaining the necessary technical information without overwhelming the viewer.  I typically have some trouble following material like this, and I understood most of it.  (The relationship between Jared Harris’ character and Stellan Skarsgard’s character helps quite a bit.  The former is a leading nuclear scientist who explains things in layman’s terms for the latter, who is a high-ranking Soviet official supervising the disaster response.)

And the script is ultimately quite moving, without once approaching the threshold of melodrama.  The character interaction and dialogue is a lot more restrained than you might expect for this subject matter.  But I was surprised at the sense of sympathy for the Russian people that this engendered for me, and at the dismay I felt for the visceral  technological horrors they faced.  (The show admirably highlights how average Russians were very much like Americans in 1986, albeit under an oppressive government.  It was ironic how some characters ominously referred to “The West,” with the same apprehension as people here in the 1980’s referred to “the Russians.”)

It’s a nuanced script too.  By the times the miniseries concludes, the viewer comes to understand that the putative “bad guys” are scapegoats who are not fully and solely responsible for the disaster.  (And the character arc for Skarsgard’s bureaucrat is a compelling redemption.)  More troubling, though, is that some of the “good guys” we are rooting for are also not completely inculpable.

For me, though, Chernobyl succeeded mostly because of Harris and Skarsgard.  They were both phenomenally good — perfect, in fact.  They are accomplished actors who have the subtlety and restraint to play men from a stoical culture who must nonetheless have human reactions to tragedy.

I obviously recommend this.

 

chernobyl-hbo-miniseries-review-960x475

A review of the “Fear the Walking Dead” Season 5 premiere

“Fear the Walking Dead” has devolved.   It’s fallen a long way from its early years as an earnest, deadly serious prequel to “The Walking Dead.”  (I, for one, really liked the first season’s creative mix of slow-burn horror and family drama, and I loved the ambitious, milieu-exploring apocalypse-in-progress stories of subsequent seasons.)  Today, we’ve reached the point where the show has become so slapdash and campy that you have to wonder whether its creators take it seriously at all.

I’m sorry to say this, but the Season 5 premiere felt like pretty amateurish stuff.  Its writing, directing and acting (in some places) were really, really spotty.  Its early action set-piece involving a plane crash, for example, was choppy, confusing and awkwardly staged.  The plotting and dialogue were … poor.

Even the premiere’s marketing was goofy.  Its television ads seemed like an intentional self-parody — like maybe a Saturday Night Live skit lampooning zombie shows.  (See below.)  The poster is a mess too — even if the center image’s suggestion that John Dorie is a gunslinging Christ figure is pretty damned nifty.

With all of this said, it may surprise you that I still liked the episode well enough, and I’ll still watch the show.  I’d rate the premiere a 7 out of 10, because “Fear the Walking Dead” still has its merits.  I can think of three reasons in particular why I still had fun with the premiere, and why I’ll still tune in next Sunday.

First, some of the characters are terrific.  I’ll always love Victor Strand (Colman Domingo). I really like Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) and his mild-mannered girlfriend, June (Jenna Elfman), and Charlie (Alexa Nisenson) is the kind of child character that typically grows on me.  (Let’s hope Dorie’s posture in the poster isn’t a hint about his death.)  I still like Morgan, because Lennie James is always a pleasure to watch, even if I don’t share the immense zeal of his legions of fans.  (The writers need to do more with him beyond his weird, vaguely “Kung Fu,” born-again altruism.  I know he’s supposed to be the Eastern philosophy guy, but his dialogue sometimes makes him come off like a stereotypical, nattering Evangelical.)

The second reason I’ll stay with this show is that its stories move along quickly.  There are no static, Negan-centered endless epics here, like there are on this show’s plodding progenitor.

The third reason is this — “Fear the Walking Dead” has always hatched the most creative story ideas.  Whatever problems the show might have developed over time with character, dialogue or plot details, the basic story concepts have always been really damned inventive.  (They consistently offer much more than “The Walking Dead’s” two  boiler-plate plot arcs — group-vs.-group or refuge-with-a-hidden-danger.)  This season looks like it will be no exception.  There are two major reveals in this episode’s closing minutes.  One connects Season 5 with past seasons of “Fear the Walking Dead,” while another is a tantalizing hint about greater forces in the “Walking Dead” universe.

Oh!  One more thing!  There is an important new character here played by the terrific Matt Frewer.  If you’re a true zombie horror fan, then you’ll recognize him as none other than Frank, from Zack Snyder’s superb, unfairly reviled 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake.  And if you’re an 80’s kid like I am, then you might remember him as the original Max Headroom — from both the Coca-Cola ads and excellent but short-lived 1987 sci-fi series.  That’s some pretty fun casting — and the guy is a really good actor.

 

D5-Saa_X4AIh0Vn