A review of Season 1 of “The Exorcist” (2016)

I liked the Fox’s take on “The Exorcist;” I just didn’t love it the way that I thought I would.

It has a lot going for it.  It’s easily the most intelligent horror show on television — its characters and plotting are detailed, thoughtful and well developed.  It actually occupies the same universe as the classic 1973 and 1990 horror films.  (We won’t mention the 1977 abomination here.)  And, like those movies, this is a skilled, methodical screen adaptation of the universe imagined in William Peter Blatty’s source material.  (This show establishes its continuity with the movies in ways that are interesting and surprising, too.)

The script takes archaic theology and otherworldly events and makes them seem plausible in its real-world setting.  It also succeeds in giving a distinct and frightening voice and personality to its demon.  I was impressed — I’ve seen a lot of movies with this plot device, but I’ve never seen this kind of antagonist so fully realized into a distinct character.  This owes a lot to Robert Emmet Lunney’s outstanding portrayal as the demon personified.

The rest of the cast is also roundly excellent.  Geena Davis shines as the mother of the afflicted girl; I had no idea that she was this good of an actress.  So, too, does Alan Ruck, who stars as her kindly father who is affected by a traumatic brain injury.  Ben Daniels is also very good as the experienced half of the duo of priests who serve as the story’s heroes.  By the end of this first season’s ten-episode arc, both priests seemed like three-dimensional characters that I could like and root for.  I was impressed again — priests in stories like this usually tend towards stock characters, and I can only imagine that it would be challenging for a screenwriter to make them relatable to the average viewer.

Why didn’t I love “The Exorcist?”  First, the show’s story elements felt too familiar.  Once again, we have a possessed young girl, a desperate mother beseeching the church for help, and a pair of priests, one of whom is experienced and one of whom requires instruction.  Once again, we see that the personal lives and the metaphorical demons of both clergymen can be used against them.  Once again, we find the girl secured to a bed while the story’s protagonists pray and shout at her possessor.  I do realize that these tropes are to be expected.  (This is “The Exorcist,” after all.  Do we really expect the writers to not depict an exorcism?)  I can’t deny, however, that my attention wandered.

Second, it was sometimes too slow for me.  I do understand that the show’s creators are probably being faithful to the storytelling pace and style originally established by Blatty, as well as William Friedkin, the director of 1973’s “The Exorcist.”  (Blatty actually wrote the screenplay for that seminal film, two years after his novel was published.)  The tension sometimes builds slowly in its realistic milieu, and events gather momentum over the course of the story.  The show also goes to great lengths to offer us more than its boilerplate exorcism story.  (There are some major demon-related events happening elsewhere in its troubled setting of Chicago.)

Still … I again found my attention wandering.  I might have enjoyed this more if it were edited down to six episodes instead on ten.  And I can’t write a glowing review for a show for which my interest occasionally waned.  (Admittedly, I have a terrible attention span when it comes to TV shows.)

All things considered,  I would rate “The Exorcist” an 8 out of 10 for being a smart, grown-up horror series, even if its slower pace and familiar story elements detracted slightly from my enjoyment of it.  I would recommend this show — especially to those who enjoyed the better “Exorcist” movies.

 

 

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“You call her Doctor JONES, Doll!”

God damn, Netflix’ “Jessica Jones” (2015) looks like a great show.  I finally got around to watching the complete pilot episode, due to my interest in the upcoming “The Defenders,” which features the character.  And “Jessica Jones” was frikkin’ terrific.  I’d rate the first episode a 9 out of 10.

At first, there were aspects of the pilot that annoyed me.  We’re told virtually nothing about the origin of the title character’s superpowers, and not much about the powers themselves.  They’re also a fairly generic power set, as far as I can tell.  She has enhanced strength and agility and … that’s it?  So she’s a low-grade Superman or Spider-Man, more or less?  We also learn somewhat little about what looks to be the series, antagonist, Kilgrave, played by David Tennant.  We see Kilgrave only briefly, in flashbacks that seem reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder.  (These are sometimes weirdly delivered, for a show that is otherwise well directed.)  He has mind-control abilities that resemble the “push” ability seen in Stephen King’s “Firestarter,” as well as my favorite short story of all time, “Everything’s Eventual.”

But … hell, this was just an extremely good show.  For starters, Krysten Ritter is perfect as the wisecracking anti-heroine.  She’s funny; she’s got great, dry line delivery; and she’s a decent actress.  (I know that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s more powerful heroes rarely visit Hell’s Kitchen, but I’d love to see her trade quips one day with Tony Stark.  She couldn’t beat him, but she’d come closer than anyone else.)

The script is good enough to make her a likable character, and the story itself is scary and compelling.  Considering the plot-driving capability of the show’s villain this … looks like it could become a King-style horror thriller.  Between this show and “Daredevil’s” bloody second season (2016), I’m starting to understand that Hell’s Kitchen might be the MCU’s stage for more horror-type stories.  And I’m fine with that.

 

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A review of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017)

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) isn’t a bad movie.  To the contrary, it’s a very good one — I would even rate it a 9 out of 10, if a little reluctantly.

The action, humor, surprises and special effects are all top-notch; it’s got a slew of fun Easter eggs and great continuity within the Marvel Cinematic Universe; and Michael Keaton hits it out of the park as the story’s villain.  (As Ed Harris did recently with HBO’s “Westworld,” the sublimely likable Keaton really surprised me with how he could become so intimidating.)  Furthermore, the screenwriters wisely omit another redundant re-telling of the web-slinger’s origin.  (Even a die-hard fan like me is sick of seeing or reading about it.)

I think your enjoyment of this movie might vary according to what you want Spider-Man to be.  This isn’t a movie in which Peter Parker or his alter ego stand out as his own man (despite its plot resolution’s heavy-handed efforts to tell us that).  I submit that it’s fairly undistinguished as a standalone superhero film —  it feels like an ancillary, companion film to the “Avengers” movies, including last year’s de facto installment, “Captain America: Civil War.”  Indeed, fan-favorite Tony Stark is “Spider-Man: Homecoming’s” most significant supporting character — far more than any of the many friends, family, love interests or villains that have long inhabited the iconic hero’s mythos.  Peter’s primary motivation throughout the movie is his desire to become an Avenger, like a normal kid would aspire to the varsity football team.  Many of his powers stem from a ultra-high-tech costume designed and given to him by Iron Man; it even has an advanced A.I. that is a femme fatale equivalent of J.A.R.V.I.S.  (Fun fact: that alluring voice belongs to none other than the alluring Jennifer Connelly.  The actress is the wife of Paul Bettany, who is the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. and then the actor portraying The Vision.  And Connelly herself played the love interest of 1991’s mostly forgotten “The Rocketeer,” a World War II-era hero with the a similar character concept to Iron Man.)

I was a big fan of Spider-Man in the 1990’s, and, believe me, the ol’ web-head did just fine with his own powers, intelligence and character — and without any sort of “internship” with Iron Man, either metaphorically or otherwise.  He was also a far more popular character with readers.  I was buying comics regularly between 1991 and 1996 — while Spider-Man books and merchandise were everywhere, I don’t think I ever remember seeing an “Iron Man” comic on the racks at my local comic shop.  I kept thinking inwardly of Spider-Man during this movie as “Iron Man Jr.,” and, for me, that wasn’t a good thing.

I also found myself musing during the film that this felt like “Spider-Man Lite.”  While “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was fun, it doesn’t have the depth, character development or gravitas of the Sam Raimi trilogy.  (Yes, I even liked the third one, despite its bizarre flaws.)  I know that critics are praising the movie’s lighter tone, and I realize the need to avoid a simple rehash of the Raimi films.  (Nobody would want that; we can rightfully expect more from the excellent MCU.)  I actually prefer the Raimi films, though.  While Tom Holland might be the better Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire was a strange casting choice), the Raimi movies were more … heartfelt.  They were an earnest exploration of the Spider-Man of the comics, and they felt … truer.   “Homecoming,” in contrast, is yet another cool installment in the “Avengers” series.  “Spider Man 2” came out 13 years ago, and I can still remember how that movie made me feel — not to mention how its sheer quality vindicated “comic book movies” like no other film before it.  This new movie will not be memorable that way.

Anyway, although my criticisms above are obviously lengthy, please know that this is only because I love the source material so much — and we comic book fans have a tendency to analyze.  I certainly enjoyed the movie, and I’d cheerfully recommend it.  (Note my rating.)  The MCU continues to entertain with quality movies; its consistency, even with its expanding group of ongoing Netflix series, is kind of astonishing.

Go see this.  You’ll have fun.

 

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A few quick words on “47 Meters Down” (2017)

Yes, “47 Meters Down” is silly in places, and I don’t think it will ever be held up as an example to students of good screenwriting.  But I can’t slam any horror-thriller that scared and entertained me.  And the sharks here (which were surprisingly well rendered by CGI) made me jump a few times.  Furthermore, there are a couple of surprises late in the story, and I thought that one of them was wonderfully well executed.

This movie actually reminds me a little of last year’s “The Shallows.”  Neither movie is 1975’s “Jaws,” but neither pretends to be.  They’re both perfectly serviceable monster movies that present horror movie fans with a great way to kick off the summer.

I’d rate this film an 8 out of 10 for being a fun, if forgettable, shark flick.

 

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A tiny review of “Dead Rush” (2016)

“Dead Rush” (2016) isn’t quite as bad as other reviewers have made it out to be; it’s a passably entertaining zombie feature that I’d rate a 6 out of 10.  It occasionally rises above its central gimmick to create a few moments of suspense and emotion.  (The gimmick here is that the entire film is shot from the point-of-view of one man in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.)

That point-of-view device does wear a little thin by the end of this feature-length film … and I’m a found-footage horror movie fan who usually doesn’t mind that sort of thing.  This movie might have been better overall if the viewer weren’t required to follow those “shaky-cam”-type visuals for quite so long; my understanding is that it was adapted from a well received short film.

If there was one thing that bothered me the most, though, it wasn’t the POV.  There is a recurring shot in “Dead Rush” that I liked a hell of a lot, involving the main character’s memory of a loved one.  It’s made even better when it is rather creatively used as a framing device at the film’s end.  A little reflection, though, made me remember that this shot seems to crib a little too much from a similar effective recurring shot in 2011’s “The Grey.”

What the hell … if you need a zombie horror fix, you could do worse than “Dead Rush.”

 

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A short review of “The Belko Experiment” (2016)

“The Belko Experiment” (2016) is a fairly gut-wrenching and potent horror film.  I was going to describe it as “Battle Royale” (2000) meets “The Office” (2005 – 2013).  But, from the looks of the poster, somebody more or less beat me to it.

As you can imagine, there is a sequence of blood-curdling events after the workers of an entire office building are forced to fight one another to the death.  It’s made all the more horrifying (and a bit sad) by a surprisingly effective early montage that shows these people are indeed likable and relatable.

I’m not sure how I feel about the ending.  There’s a twist that is nicely satisfying, I’ll grant the movie that.  But there was far too little exposition, and a closing shot that was a little too ambiguous and open-ended … maybe even abstract.  I’d be happier if the person doing the talking told us a lot more.  If you think about it, they mostly just reiterated what various characters had hypothesized earlier.

This film has a couple of “I swear I know that guy” actors.  These include Tony Goldwyn, who I last remember from 1990’s “Ghost.”  Turns out he’s a damn fine actor (in addition to being one of those people who weirdly appear to age little or not at all).  They also include John C. McGinley, Owain Yeoman and Michael Rooker.  And if you think you can recall the gentle giant played by Abraham Benrubi, the actor is none other than “Big Mike” from the classic “The X-Files” episode, “Arcadia.”

I was going to rate “The Belko Experiment” a 9 out of 10; it was exceptionally good.  But I was just too nonplussed by that rushed ending, and I think I’ll settle on an 8.

 

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A short review of “Underworld: Blood Wars” (2016)

I’m not sure what to say about “Underworld: Blood Wars” (2016).  It really differs little from the previous “Underworld” movies.  If you’ve seen those, you’ve kinda seen this one.

The vampires look like underwear models, or maybe a goths-only high school drama club.  The werewolves look … not homeless, exactly, but like burly, long-haired, unemployed grunge rockers.  Both groups speak portentously and repeatedly about things like “LINEAGE” and “BLOOD LINES” and “THE WAR” and “AMELIA.”  (Who was Amelia again?)  There are the requisite betrayals and forbidden inter-species romances.  The entire thing felt like a feature-length music video.

Maybe I’m being too harsh.  I would actually give this film a 5 out of 10 for at least bringing some good things to the table.  Kate Beckinsale is a good actress, and she brings the same magnetism that she always does to Selene, the franchise’s protagonist.  Charles Dance is always superb, and is always fun to watch.  (There are at least two “Game of Thrones” alumni here — one is Dance as a vampire elder, and the other is Tobias Menzies as the leader of the “Lycans.”)  The nicest surprise, though, was seeing Lara Pulver as an ambitious vampire alpha female — fans of “Sherlock” (2010 – 2017) will recognize her as that series’ incarnation of Irene Adler.  She’s a great actress, and she seems to relish this kind of role.

All in all, though, I can’t say I actually recommend this.

 

 

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