A short review of Season 1 of “Black Summer” (2019)

I don’t understand how “Black Summer” can be as good as it is.  It’s produced by The Asylum, the makers of low budget, direct-to-video ripoff films like “Atlantic Rim” (2013) and “Triassic World” (2018).  It’s a prequel to the horror-comedy “Z Nation” (2014-2018) — a show that was so bad I couldn’t make it through its first episode.  Yet “Black Summer” is inexplicably a great, albeit imperfect, TV show.  I’d rate it a 9 out 10.

I might be in the minority here; a lot of people are severely panning this show online.  And I do recognize its weaknesses — there is very little detail in its plot or character development … there is often even very little dialogue at all.  And even I recognized some plot holes.  (I’m typically a little slow on the uptake where these are concerned.)

But this bare-bones zombie story still manages to screen some likable characters, and then put them through a thrilling succession of hyper-kinetic chases and melees.  I was on the edge of my seat, and I consequently didn’t miss the methodical, detailed plotting of shows like “The Walking Dead.”  The season’s finale is crowned by an extended, eye-level, real-time action set-piece that ought to be considered a classic in the  zombie-horror subgenre.  It was mind-blowing. I just can’t dislike a horror property that genuinely scared me.

I could simply be out of step with everyone else; I often have different tastes in zombie fare.  I love Zack Snyder’s 2008 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” which this series reminds me of.  And I also love similar overseas productions like Spain’s “[REC]” films (2007 – 2014) and Britain’s “Dead Set” miniseries (2008), while those amazing entries are hardly known among my friends.  I also cannot understand why many people who love George A. Romero’s and Robert Kirkman’s productions must always compare other films and TV shows unfavorably to them.  We can love both.  Why not?

Hey, if you don’t want to make my word for it, here is what Stephen King tweeted: “No long, fraught discussions. No endless flashbacks, because there’s no back story. No grouchy teens. Dialogue is spare. Much shot with a single handheld camera, very fluid.”

I obviously recommend this.

 

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A few quick words on “Fear the Walking Dead” Season 3 (2017)

For my money, “Fear the Walking Dead” is the best zombie show on television.  Yes, it has its share of stupid parts — sometimes the writers seem to throw in some incredibly implausible story points only to test viewers’ credulity.  (My favorite this season was the occupants of a heavy truck throwing a beeping keychain from a horde-infested highway — the zombies are attracted to the sound of the keychain, but not the rumble and movement of the truck that sneaks past them.)

On other levels, “Fear the Walking Dead” can be a relatively smart show — at least more so than its more famous progenitor, “The Walking Dead.”  I’m talking about being smart in terms of character, dialogue and themes.  Sometimes I think of it as “The Walking Dead for Grownups.”  The characters are … often more three-dimensional and compelling than their counterparts on the flagship show.  Not being based on a comic series, they’re not bound by the medium’s character tropes, the way that Rick Grimes and company always seem so inescapably tethered.   They feel more like real people, and not the disposable inhabitants of Robert Kirkman’s (admittedly excellent) comic series.   That makes the show scarier, because the characters are more identifiable.

The dialogue and story logistics are far more thoughtful.  The stories themselves are more expansive, more quickly paced and farther reaching.  Consider the three major locales covered this season — the ranch, the dam and the bazaar.  Two out of three of those settings are explored in depth — along with the characters inhabiting them. (I’d like to see more of that bazaar.)  Now consider how slowly “The Walking Dead’s” major plot-lines move.  It would take the latter at least three seasons to cover the major stories covered in a single season of “Fear the Walking Dead.”

I know this show has its share of detractors, but I’d rate Season 3 a 9 out of 10.

 

 

 - Fear the Walking Dead _ Season 3, Key Art - Photo Credit:  AMC

Throwback Thursday: the Launch of Image Comics (1992)

I talked about Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” in last week’s Throwback Thursday post; these are some very early issues of a few of Image Comics’ other titles when the company launched in 1992.  I remember snapping them up in earnest when I was 19 years old — as I said last week, it was exciting for a comics fan to see a new company challenge the “Big Two,” Marvel Comics and DC Comics, with a new superhero universe.

I and other ambitious collectors also grabbed these off the shelves because we naively expected they all would one day be very valuable.  (Investing in comic books is a little more complicated than that — they’ve generally got to be in extremely good condition to fetch high prices.)

The first Image comics were a mix of good and bad.  If memory serves, Jim Lee’s “WildC.A.T.s” was very good; Rob Liefeld’s “Youngblood” was less so, but was at least interesting.  The art and writing for Jim Valentino’s “Shadowhawk” was truly mediocre.  That didn’t stop me from buying a few issues, though — the novelty of these new books just gave them too much appeal.

There were a lot of creative things going on with early Image titles.  Some of the new characters were pretty neat.  I remember being partial to Youngblood’s “Diehard” for some reason, along with the WildC.A.T.s’ “Grifter.”  (The former has the red, white, and blue full bodysuit; the latter has the trenchcoat and pistols.)  And I definitely liked WildC.A.T.s’ “Warblade.”  He’s the guy below with the ponytail and the shape-changing, liquid-metal hands.  He was a favorite of mine despite the fact that he seemed to borrow a trick or two from the newly iconic liquid-metal terminator.  (“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” had hit theaters a year earlier.)

Image comics were quite different than those produced by Marvel and DC.  (As I explained last week, Image was formed by artists who revolted against their prior employers’ unfair, work-for-hire payment policies — their new company gave them complete creative control over their characters.)  Despite the popularity of Image’s new books, however, they sometimes appeared to have been developed without some needed editorial oversight.

The violence and gore was often far more graphic.  And Image’s creative decisions ranged from the inspired to the strange to just being in questionable taste.  (It all depended on your disposition, I guess.)  WildC.A.T.s, for example, portrayed Vice President Dan Quayle as being possessed by an unearthly “Daemonite.”  (Damn, those Daemonites were wicked-cool bad guys, and Lee Illustrated them beautifully.)  Shadowhawk’s signature move was breaking the spines of criminals.  He was also HIV-positive, the result of some gangsters’ reprisal — they captured him and injected him with infected blood.  The character thereafter spent some of his history trying in vain to locate a cure for AIDS.  (This was 1992, just after the epidemic became fully entrenched in the public’s anxieties in the 1980’s.)

My interest in these titles eventually waned, though I did still pick “Spawn” up when I had the money.  The Image universe was densely crowded with new characters, and it was just too much information to sustain my interest.  (Seriously, look at the first couple of covers below.)  I spent far more money on DC’s various “Batman” and “Green Lantern” titles.  And if I wanted edgy comics, I had discovered the various incarnations of Matt Wagner’s “Grendel” that were available through Dark Horse Comics.  Those boggled the mind.

But Image comics did burgeon into a great success, even if these early titles have since been retired.  “Spawn,” of course, is still being produced.  And today the company’s wide range of books includes Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead.”  It’s hard to imagine either of the Big Two picking up Kirkman’s gory epic masterpiece … so I suppose we have Image to thank for the TV show.

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A few quick words on “Train to Busan” (2016)

Everything you’ve heard about “Train to Busan” (2016) is indeed correct; it’s a first-rate South Korean zombie film that fans of the genre won’t want to miss.  I’d give it a 9 out of 10.

It’s maybe a little campier than I expected, with some over-the-top zombies that feel more reminiscent of the “Evil Dead” films than George A. Romero’s movies or Robert Kirkman’s work.  It’s also a bit long at nearly two hours — if I were editing it, I would have swapped out some of the time devoted to car-to-car melees with additional scenes showing what’s transpired beyond the train.  Imagine how a skilled screenwriter could further expand on the (really cool) train station plot points we already see … what if the train was forced to stop at every station?  What if it couldn’t stop?  What if its passengers were turned away at safe areas?  What if desperate stragglers tried to board the train?

This was a good one, people.  Check it out.

 

My review of “The Walking Dead” Season 6

Season 6 of “The Walking Dead” ended terribly last Sunday night, with a gimmicky, redundant, cartoonishly filmed cliffhanger that seemed like a power trip for the show’s writers and a shameless trick to ensure ratings for the Season 7 premiere.  Even that blunder, however, can only partially mar an otherwise great season of television; I’d still give the sixth season a 9 out of 10.

Seriously, Sunday night’s closing minutes were a big disappointment. We did not — I repeat, we did NOT — get to see which of our heroes would fall victim to new arch-villain Negan and his barbed-wire baseball bat, “Lucille.”  (I don’t think that I’m writing a spoiler here, as I’m informing the reader of an event that was not yet depicted.)  We get to see the dramatic and frightening events leading up our heroes’ capture — overall, the episode was pretty good, I think.  And we get to see some iconic images and hear dialogue that we remember from the original comic series.  And we finally get to see Jeffrey Dean Morgan appear as the new big-bad, something the show’s marketing suggests AMC believed fans would be happy with alone.

But the season ended with a cheesy point-of-view shot of the nameless individual who Negan executes, then a black screen along with the muffled screaming and shouting of those protagonists who are left to witness their friend’s murder.  (Check Youtube — some pretty ardent fans have actually analyzed the sounds and provided subtitles, supposedly providing clues as to who the victim was.)  And the manner in which it was filmed was kitsch — it reminded me of the over-the-top POV shots employed by Sam Raimi.

I think this is poor storytelling.  The Saviors storyline has been building for at least half a season (earlier if you consider the first encounter with Dwight), and the death of one of our heroes was the universally expected, logical conclusion of that.  The cliffhanger also felt like a little bit of a “f*&% you” to the fans.  The show’s creators know that its viewership was so eagerly anticipating an answer to the million-dollar question — “who dies?”  And they showed us that not only have they enjoyed stringing us along, they’re going to enjoy gratuitously stringing us along for another seven months until Season Seven.

And, hey, it looks as though this parsimonious storytelling will be the case with tie-in promotions as well.  I read today over at Hollywood Reporter that Robert Kirkman has produced a 48-page comic containing Negan’s backstory.  As you may read at the link below, however, only four pages at a time will be made available to fans, as they are released monthly in a comics preview catalog, “Image +.”  (And I’m unclear about whether readers will have to pay for that.)  C’mon.  Gimme a break:

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/walking-dead-see-first-page-881581

Furthermore, the final scene was a little problematic in other ways.  I liked Morgan’s performance, but I he didn’t knock my socks off as he apparently did for other fans.  The monologue scripted for him was far too long.  Much of it is lifted from the comics; I think that a lot of it did not translate well from page to screen.

Finally, the cliffhanger was redundant — didn’t the season’s penultimate episode also tease a major character death in its final seconds, employing a cheap visual trick to obscure this person’s fate?

Ah, well.  Like I said, I think Season 6 actually was stellar.  We hardcore fans tend to criticize our show a lot (hence my bitching above).  Our criticisms are often well deserved, but I think we might have been spoiled a bit by “The Walking Dead.”  After six years, five of which were downright addictive, it’s easy to lose sight of how groundbreaking the show has been.

There has never been anything else like it on television.  The fact that it’s the first real zombie apocalypse serialized horror show is obvious, along with its new levels of gore, pathos and goddam amazing makeup effects.  But think also about its breadth and scope — since Season One, I think it’s gone to great lengths to tell an epic story.  Budget constraints — including a limited range of shooting locations in rural southern Georgia — restrict it somewhat.  But like no other show before it, it portrays a horrifying apocalypse from the points of view of a very broad and constantly changing ensemble of characters.

Sometimes this broad and changing ensemble works against the show.  I think one of its weaknesses is that it sometimes doesn’t feel like a well crafted, deliberate story at all, but rather a kind of “reality show” like “Survivor” (2000 – 2016).  Instead of watching in suspense to see who is “voted off the island,” we instead watch in suspense to see whether our favorite fictional character meets a grisly end.  I wouldn’t be surprised if people placed bets.  (I’ve heard that people indeed used to bet on “Survivor” in Las Vegas.)  Consequently, it feels more like bread-and-circuses than real meaningful storytelling within a post-apocalyptic context.

But “The Walking Dead” still manages to be damned good.  Early on in Season 6, I commented to another fan that the show actually seems to be getting better.  It’s getting smarter, with more ideas, and greater attention to detail.  I honestly get the sense that its writers sit down and think about the plausibility and logistics of various elements of this imaginary world.

It has essentially become a war story, even when it’s often just a neverending war of attrition with a universal enemy.  The writers grasp this, and they pick up the ball and run with it.  Attention is paid to strategy, logistics, leadership, morale, levels of training and commitment — Rick’s grand plan to lead the newly released “herd” away from Alexandria in the season’s earliest episodes is a great example of this.

And there is far more world-building.  Based on my familiarity with the comic book series, I recently advised another fan that the entire structure of the show would change.  Instead of people moving place to place and negotiating the various threats there, we now see stationary groups of survivors either fighting or cooperating with one another’s societies — something we’ve previously only really seen with The Prison vs. Woodbury.  This creates a range of larger, more layered and interesting storytelling possibilities.  And there are more enclaves even than we’ve seen so far.  (I’m trying to keep this spoiler free.)

Complementing this new change in story structure are elements of the show that seem to have improved even further.  The action and suspense have increased greatly.  I found myself on the edge of my seat during a few episodes — the one that comes to mind is when our heroes invade the satellite station.

The horror elements are new and stronger.  Story arcs involving the Wolves were extremely unsettling.  (I myself wanted far more of that bizarre little clutch of psychopaths.  Are they a cult?  Do they have a coherent ideology?)  The Saviors, whose survival skills and competence match or exceed Rick’s group, are frightening, especially for those of us who are already acquainted with them through the comics.

I even find I like the show’s drama better in this and recent seasons — more so than in the show’s early years.  Yes, the sad, unsupported, inexplicable recent character change in Carol was a disastrous choice.  And Abraham’s love triangle was a mostly inscrutable nod to the comics.  But there were a lot of other good things to be found this season — Morgan’s backstory, Nicholas’ character arc, the arrival of Jesus and the outcome with Denise.

All told, it was a great season.  Maybe someday a DVD special edition can rectify its final minutes, and supply a necessary face for Negan’s anonymous victim.  Hey, the show obviously wants to milk each cow for all it’s worth, right?

 

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