A very short review of Episode 1 of “Who Is America?” (2018)

So I just managed to catch the first episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?” (2018), and it was predictably jaw-dropping.  (I recently ran a couple of clips here at the blog that Showtime had released concurrently with the show’s July 15th premiere.)  I’d rate the first episode a perfect 10 for being both hilarious and an absolutely biting half hour of … prank comedy?  Subversive documentary?  Performance art?  I think any of those labels might apply in varying degrees, depending on how you view Cohen’s work.  It’s wacky stuff.

I opine that Cohen is a creative genius.  We can all debate the ethics of the imposter interviews that are his trademark (and there were a couple of moments during 2006’s “Borat” that made even me squirm).   But nobody can deny that the man is exceptionally good at what he does.  And I don’t think that his success derives from the false personas he adopts when sitting down with political figures.  (There are several new ones that he’s created for the show.)  They are funny by themselves, but not hilarious, and countless comedians can perform a character.  (One of Cohen’s creations, the “Finnish Youtuber,” even reminds me a little of Dana Carvey.)

Cohen has something more.  If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s a skill set that matches closely with that of any standard con-artist, allowing him to gain his interviewees’ trust to an extreme degree.   I’m willing to bet that he works hard at building rapport with his subjects long before the cameras start rolling, and that the feckless nature of his false identities further puts them at ease.

Anyway, Episode 1 features interviews with Bernie Sanders and Trent Lott.  A clip from the Sanders segment is below.  He acquits himself far better than other participants, although I also think Cohen went far easier on him.  (There isn’t actually a joke at Sanders’ expense; it’s really just Cohen’s character clowning.)  The humiliating interview with disgraced Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn’t appear until Episode 4, but I just had to include it here.

This is utterly bizarre, utterly funny stuff.  I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

A review of “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) is indeed a worthy sequel, even if it cannot equal Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 original film.  (And this is absolutely understandable — I opine that Scott’s dour, challenging “Blade Runner” is arguably the greatest movie of all time.)  Some of it worked, and some of it didn’t — but I sufficiently enjoyed this movie to rate it a 9 out of 10.

There is a lot going on here in terms of plot.  I won’t be specific about what I liked and what I didn’t like, because I want to avoid spoilers.  (There are definitely some surprise plot developments, and this is a relatively recent film that fans have waited no fewer than 35 years to see.)  But I’m happy to report that “Blade Runner 2049” satisfies by being a direct and logical follow-up in terms of character, plot and setting.

I do think that this would be a stronger standalone story if it had included the material that was relegated to the online short films that serve as its companions.  (You can find all three of them at Open Culture right here.)  The first one, “Black Out 2022,” is probably necessary to understanding the feature film’s story and ought to be required viewing.

The visuals were vivid and arresting, the action sequences were generally satisfying, and the acting across the board was quite good.  Harrison Ford was predictably perfect.  Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks are suitably intense and make terrific bad guys.  (I’ve always loved Leto’s work — even his criminally underappreciated, spot-on interpretation of DC Comics’ “The Joker.”)  And Carla Juri nearly steals the entire movie with her mesmerizing performance in a supporting role.

What I liked best about “Blade Runner 2049” was how surprisingly well it captured the … vibe, I guess, of the first film — its existential angst and the surprising tragic nobility of its characters.  Simply put, this film got the feeling right.  For me, this was best evidenced by a poetic subplot between the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas.  It’s great dystopian science fiction — a fusion of troubling futurism and genuine human emotion.  And the mood was greatly enhanced by an evocative score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.

There are were a couple of things that I didn’t like — they were plot points that I won’t detail here.  The pacing also felt too slow, at times.  (This is a long movie, at two hours and 44 minutes.)  And the the climactic fight scene felt just a bit claustrophobic and awkwardly executed.  (It’s a far cry from the epic feel of the original’s rainswept rooftop confrontation.)

I’d still cheerfully recommend “Blade Runner 2049” to fans of Scott’s film.  I’d caution them to sit down with it with as few expectations as possible, though, and to just enjoy this second chapter on its own merits.  It’s mostly great stuff.

 

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A few quick words about “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” (2017)

I was skeptical about “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” (2017), and I’m not sure why — maybe because I assumed it would be a failed and shameless imitator of “Black Mirror” (2011).  But I’m happy to be proven wrong — the first episode was damned good.  It isn’t quite as good as “Black Mirror” (the success of which doubtlessly helped this series reach fruition), but it looks like it could be a great show in its own right.  (None other than Ron Moore and Bryan Cranston are among the producers for “Electric Dreams,” so that should make us optimistic about the show’s quality.)

I’d rate the first episode a 9 out of 10.  (The entry I’m referring to here is the “Episode 1” with which Amazon Video audiences will be familiar — the episodes appeared in a different order when this series first aired last year on Britain’s Channel 4.)  It’s got a great cast, including Anna Paquin, Lara Pulver, and the incredible Terrence Howard.  (His acting skills are among the best I’ve ever seen.)  And its story is damned neat, even if it employs a Dick story device that we’ve already seen in some other adaptations.  (Can I write “Dick story device” without my Facebook friends snickering?)

This was good.  I recommend it.

 

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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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A short review of the pilot for “Night Gallery” (1969)

In some ways, I’m a poor excuse for a horror fan.  I haven’t seen any episodes of some of the classic anthology series that my friends regard as biblically important.  Such was the case with “Night Gallery” — at least until a couple of nights ago.  (You can find it online, if you look hard enough.)

I checked out the 1969 feature-length pilot for the series, and I’m glad I did.  It was good stuff, despite the now lamentable 1960’s music and camera effects that were occasionally distracting.  I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

There were three half-hour tales comprising the made-for-television movie: “The Cemetery,” “Eyes,” and “The Escape Route.”  “Eyes” was by far and away the best written and performed, but they were all quite good.  The twists for all three tales were quite satisfactory, and the tone was nice and macabre.  And the cast was terrific — Roddy McDowall and Ossie Davis starred in the first segment; Joan Crawford and Tom Bosley appeared in the second.  It was weird seeing such youthful versions of actors that were familiar to me in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

The format, along with Rod Serling’s unique narration, was engaging, if a little quaint.  It’s easy to see how this went on to become such a popular television show.

Here’s an odd trivium -in the establishing shots for the second segment, which takes place in New York City, the Twin Towers are missing.  That’s because construction had only just begun on the first tower in 1969, when this pilot was released.  The entire World Trade Center was completed three years later.

 

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A short review of “The Cloverfield Paradox” (2018)

As you may have heard, there were two major surprises connected with “The Cloverfield Paradox” (2018).  The first was its surprise release via Netflix on Sunday immediately after the Super Bowl.  The second was the surprise that it was a truly mediocre movie.  I can’t actually recommend “The Cloverfield Paradox,” and I’d rate it a 4 out of 10.

It’s a mess.  It’s crowded with too many characters, cluttered with too many plot points, and seems like at least three movies crammed into one.  The writing is lackluster — and characters appear to have minimal reactions to things that should astound and terrify them.  Much of my enjoyment was hampered by a bizarre and inexplicable plot point. (What was the deal with one crew member’s arm?)  And my mind was wandering toward the end.

What’s sad is this — hidden within the film is the germ of a vastly better movie.  Consider the plights faced by the characters played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Elizabeth Debicki, and the interaction between them.  (I’m keeping things intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers.)  How much better would this movie be if it was strictly about that subplot alone?  With some skilled screenwriting, it could have been a beautifully tragic soft-sci-fi drama — and it wouldn’t require much in the way of special effects either.  Both actresses were damned terrific here.  Given a proper script and a feature-length exploration, they could have given us a new sci-fi classic.  Oh, well — file this movie under “missed opportunities.”

One more thing — this actually does connect with the previous “Cloverfield” films, albeit in a surprising way.  It’s a result of the unusual story device that’s emphasized in the movie’s second half, and it’s pretty neat.  This is one of the things the movie gets right … if you’re still confused after the film is over, then google an explanation of it, as I did.

 

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A review of Season 2 of “The Exorcist” (2017)

A show like “The Exorcist” must be difficult to write.  It stands in the shadow of some of horror’s greatest films (William Friedkin’s 1973 original and the third movie in 1990).  Its plot device is inevitably redundant.  (How many possessed innocents can we see strapped to beds while priests pray at them?)  It seems easy to stray into camp.  And it seems like a story concept that is tough to structure into a serialized format.

But the second season of “The Exorcist” was … fantastic.  It surpassed the first season, and I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

The ten-episode arc wisely changes things up a bit from Season 1, which was maybe a bit too reminiscent of the films.  Our priestly dynamic duo are on the road in America’s northwest, and on the run from a Vatican that has been infiltrated by followers of the demon Pazuzu.  (As stupid as all of that sounds, the show actually depicts it quite well.)  As the story proceeds, there are a couple of surprise plot developments that will contradict most viewers’ expectations.  (I won’t spoil them here.)

The characters are all likable and all well played.  Ben Daniels remains possibly the show’s strongest asset as the senior priest; he’s just a superb actor.  John Cho also gives a fine performance as the head of a foster home where a demon runs amok.  Alfonso Herrera is quite good as the apprentice priest — his character is better written this time around, and isn’t saccharine to the point of annoyance.  And Herrera himself seems more comfortable in the role.  The kids are damned cool — all of them, and their interaction with their foster father was surprisingly sweet and funny — which raises the stakes emotionally when the entire household is besieged by a sadistic force.

The weaknesses here were minor.  I think the ten episodes could have been shortened to seven or eight, to make them tighter.  (I realize I write that about a lot of shows, and I’m not sure why.)  The first five episodes were tightly plotted, while the second five were a little loose.  I think better editing would have entirely excised the flashback scenes depicting Daniels’ character and this season’s new female exorcist, played by Zuleikha Robinson.  (Yes, that is indeed Yves Adele Harlow from “The Lone Gunmen” and “The X-Files.”)

The flashbacks were cheesy, even if they gave Daniels a chance to show his range.  They depict his tutelage of Robinson’s character decades prior, complete with some cliche pulp novel stuff.  (Ugh.)  We’re shown that the priest is younger because of his blond, surfer-esque haircut.  (Really?)  The flashbacks were out of place, and a little too campy.  They reminded me of the comic book style of the “Highlander” films and TV series — this show could have done without them.

I also found myself slightly annoyed by a dearth of exposition about the process of exorcism itself.  After the films and now two seasons of the show, I wanted to know more about the key actions here that affect the story’s resolution.  Do some prayers or methods work better than others?  Then why not use them all the time?  Why are some interventions more lengthy or difficult?  We are told that the demon attacking this family is different than Pazuzu, who we’ve seen in the past (though Pazuzu still puts in an appearance this season).  Can the demons coordinate their efforts, or at least communicate with each other?  If not, why not?  These seem like logical questions to ask, both for the characters and the viewers.

But there is something more that bothered me.  If a demon is intelligent and wants to harm people, then why make its presence known — and why torment or kill only a few people?  Why not remain undetected until it can commit a mass murder?  Or even perpetrate an act of terrorism, and harm far greater numbers of people by causing riots or wars?  That would suit evil’s purposes far more than the garish individual spectacles we find them performing in horror tales like these.  (Maybe I’m just analyzing too much.)

Anyway, I cheerfully recommend “The Exorcist.”  It might be the most grownup horror show on television.

And one more thing — there’s some fun to be had here recognizing actors from other roles.  Daniels was a member of the Rebel Alliance in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016).  And there is actually another “The X-Files” alum here — even if it was only a small role.  I thought that Harper’s mother looked familiar — the actress playing her was Rochelle Greenwood.  She’s none other than the teenage waitress who witnessed Walter Skinner getting shot waaaaay back in 1996’s classic episode, “Piper Maru.”  (Can I remember faces or what?)

 

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