A short review of “The First Purge” (2018)

“The First Purge” (2018) isn’t the best horror-thriller I’ve ever seen, but it certainly isn’t the worst, either.  I thought that I would be all purged out by now, but this fourth entry in the film series is a solid prequel — I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.  (There is also a TV show set in “The Purge” universe, which USA has renewed for a second season, and I’m told that it’s pretty good.)  I suppose this is a durable franchise because its premise could be explored through countless different characters.

The movie has some weaknesses.  The pacing is off, and you could argue that the political theme of “The Purge” films, though compelling, is getting redundant by now.  (There are some specific jabs this time out at Donald Trump and his following; they’re heavy-handed, but they’re fun to spot.)

But “The First Purge” is still a suspenseful and disturbing dystopian horror film.  It’s got a terrific bad guy in Rotimi Paul’s “Skeletor” psychopath and some surprisingly damned good action sequences.  There is another difference here, too — this “Purge” is far less campy than the second and third films.  There are fewer plot twists, fewer over-the-top characters, and far fewer trippy visuals — it feels more like a straight horror film instead of a zany one.  Depending on your preferences, you might find it superior.

One more thing — given its obvious love for Staten Island, this film would make a great double-feature with “Bushwick” (2017), another thriller which seems like a love letter to its own setting in Brooklyn.  And they are both urban neighborhood thrillers with a similar storytelling style.

 

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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 short review of Episode 1 of “The Passage” (2019)

I’m all for a good vampire story.  But this isn’t a particularly good vampire story.

Or, at least not yet, it isn’t.  Don’t get me wrong — the premiere of “The Passage” wasn’t the worst hour of television I’ve ever seen.  I’d rate it a 5 out of 10 for being somewhat average.  It has two good leads in Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Saniyya Sidney.  Gosselaar is no Laurence Olivier, but he’s good enough, and he looks and fits the part.  He seems like an excellent physical actor in the premiere’s brief action sequences, which weren’t altogether bad.  Sidney is downright terrific — and she’s an adorable kid too.

The show also has a great plot setup going for it, which I won’t spoil here.  It’s based on a trilogy of dystopian horror novels by Justin Cronin, which actually sound like some quite interesting books.  There are even a couple of sly references to well known horror films like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) and “28 Days Later” (2002).

Regrettably, however, “The Passage” suffers a lot from rushed and clumsy storytelling.  The script is a poor one, with a lot of awkward exposition and forced emotion.  (It shares a weakness with this year’s vastly superior “Bird Box,” in that it tries to fit too much of its source material into too little screen time.)  It falls well short of being scary, too, which is probably what will alienate modern horror fans, unless it improves.  (This is a primetime network TV show, and isn’t any more frightening than the average episode of “Star Trek.”)

Weird world — Gosselar is none other than the Zack from “Saved By the Bell” (1989-1993).  And am I the only one that thinks he is the spitting image of Chris Pratt in a lot of shots.  I almost thought it was Pratt from the ads.

 

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A review of “Hush” (2016)

I feel like I should have enjoyed “Hush” (2016) more than I did.  It isn’t a bad movie — it’s well made, and it stars Kate Siegel, who this year’s exceptional “The Haunting of Hill House” has led me to really like as an actress.  (Siegel also co-wrote the film with director Mike Flanagan, who is her husband and who was also the writer and director of “Hill House.”)  Siegel is again quite good, and their collaboration here results in a competent, serious horror-drama with no glaring flaws.

Yet my mind wandered.  Even if there was nothing seriously wrong with “Hush,” it didn’t much distinguish itself.  Just about everything you watch here is a standard stalker-vs.-lone-woman scary movie, with little in the way of twists or unexpected plot developments.

Yes, the difference here is that the protagonist is deaf and mute, and is therefore less able to defend herself — but Siegel and Flanagan don’t capitalize on that much in conceiving this story.  By the end of the film, I didn’t get the sense that the character’s disability even affected the course of the story very much.  Events would have unfolded more or less the same way if she hadn’t had this disability.  (Or am I missing something?)  I also get the sense that the protagonist being an author was supposed to affect her choices and strategies in trying to survive, but that didn’t come across consistently or well.  (And it results in “tricking” the viewer at one juncture in a way I didn’t like.)

I can’t actually recommend “Hush” to others because it didn’t thrill me.  But I can’t objectively say that it’s a bad movie.  So I figure I’ll rate it here a 7 out of 10.

A few random observations:

  • Siegel is a talented performer.  I predict she’s going to go on to great things.  Don’t let my lukewarm response to this film dissuade you from catching her elsewhere — especially in “The Haunting of Hill House.”
  • The story’s antagonist is fairly generic; he appears to be simply be a random serial killer in the script, and we get hardly a hint about his motivations.  But John Gallagher Jr. breathes plenty of life into him with a disturbingly authentic, naturalistic performance.  He’s also a very good actor.
  • I saw a plot twist coming that didn’t actually occur, and I wonder if what I saw was a vestige of an earlier version of this movie’s script.  (And it isn’t a spoiler if it didn’t happen.)  During a stalk-and-talk scene in which the bad guy taunts his victim, he inexplicably addresses Siegel’s character as “Squish.”  That sounds like a pet name that parent would give to a very young child.  The twist I predicted was this — Gallagher’s character was not a serial killer who selected his victims at random, but a long lost, homicidal brother who was then parodying the parent by invoking the pet name.  He was motivated by pathological jealousy after growing up with his disabled sister, who he felt monopolized his parents’ attention and sympathies.
  • We learn from dialogue that the protagonist became deaf and mute after contracting meningitis when she was a child.  I knew that meningitis could make a person deaf (or blind).  But … also mute?  Why am I skeptical about that?  Wouldn’t that only happen if someone became deaf when he or she was a baby — so that the disease could delay key early childhood language-acquisition processes?  I have no idea why I am so hung up on this minor bit of exposition.  Maybe watching so many zombie or plague movies has made me a stickler for the way diseases are portrayed in a horror story.

 

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A short review of “Patient Zero” (2018)

I’d be lying to you if I told you that “Patient Zero” (2018) is an especially good movie.  It isn’t.  It plays a lot like the classic “28 Days Later” (2002) would play if it were produced by the SyFy Channel, and by that I mean it generally is a poorly written, low-budget cheese-fest.  (This is one of those movies where even the score was kinda bad.)  Still, there were some hints of greatness hidden within this lackluster zombie movie — enough to save it from being a complete failure — and I would reluctantly rate it a 5 out of 10.  (Most other reviewers are not even that kind.)

First, it has some fine performers. These include two “Game of Thrones” actors who are always fun to watch — the mesmerizing Natalie Dormer and the consistently likable John Bradley.  (The latter seems to specialize in winning audiences over as the “hero’s-affable-friend” role.)  “Doctor Who” fans will of course recognize Matt Smith in the lead role.  But by far and away, they’re overshadowed by a fantastic performance by Stanley Tucci as the zombies’ surprisingly eloquent leader.  (More on that in a moment.)  Tucci is truly a great actor and he makes a perfectly menacing bad guy; his voice, diction and line delivery are goddam perfect.  His talent for voicing a magnetic, highly intelligent antagonist reminds me of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal of Negan on “The Walking Dead,” or one of the better “big bads” seen on “24” (2001 – 2014).

Second, there are some really clever ideas hiding under this thin, hasty script.  (I strongly get the sense that “Patient Zero” was a rush job for screenwriter Mike Le and director Vincent Newman.)  The hyper-kinetic zombies here are afflicted with “super-rabies” and are reminiscent of their ilk from “28 Days Later.”  But there is a truly intriguing plot conceit — their roars and screams are perfectly intelligible to Smith’s protagonist.  He speaks their “language” because he’s infected, but also mysteriously asymptomatic.  When he interrogates the zombies for the military, their interaction is filmed as normal dialogue (creating the opportunity for Tucci’s terrific turn here).  Then things get even more interesting when it’s demonstrated that the ostensibly mindless zombies are quite proficient at planning an attack.

I … might be treating this movie a bit charitably simply because I liked some of its ingredients.  Again, I don’t actually recommend it.  But your mileage may vary.

 

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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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