A review of the “Westworld” pilot (2016)

Blog Correspondent Pete Harrison suggested I give the Westworld” series (2016) a try, and I’m damn glad he did.  The first episode was superb, and it’s safe to say it’s reeled me in.  I’d give the pilot a 9 out of 10; this seems like it could be the best science fiction television show I’ve seen in a long time.

I still think the premise is just slightly cheesy — grown men and women spending a fortune to visit a western-themed amusement park with interactive android cowboys.  (I think maybe westerns were a more mainstream genre in 1973, when Michael Crichton’s original film was in theaters.)  And there are times when the show’s central western-themed motifs are a little annoying to me … even though I know the park is supposed to appear superficial and cliche.

But “Westworld” is a highly intelligent thriller — it looks like a hell of a lot of thought went into the script.  Just about every aspect of the show seems like it was well developed — everything from the actors’ performances to the set design.  And don’t let the gorgeous, idyllic, sunny landscapes fool you — there is no shortage of pathos here.  It’s brutally dark in its storytelling.  (By the way, if you happen to be a fan of this show, I must recommend 2014’s “Ex Machina” film — it is similarly cerebral and dark in its outlook.)

Anthony Hopkins is fantastic, as usual; Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton are all very good.  They’re all overshadowed here, though, by two stellar performances.

The first is Ed Harris as a black-clad psychopathic visitor to the park — I had no idea he could be so frightening.  Dear God.  Has he played bad guys before?  I’ve always associated him with nice-guy roles — even his antagonist in 1996’s “The Rock” was misguided and sympathetic.  I’d love to see him get a role in an upcoming “The Dark Tower” film, maybe as one of the Big Coffin Hunters, if they are ever featured.

The second is Louis Herthum, the ostensible “father” of Wood’s heroine.  (They are both androids within the park — I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler, as it’s all over the show’s advertising.)  Herthum may be a lesser known actor, but he stole the show in a tour-de-force performance, in my opinion.  And that’s no small feat in a cast including Hopkins and this surprisingly vicious Harris.  I haven’t seen a performance that good on television since NBC’s “Hannibal” went off the air.

Anyway, I noticed something funny here.  Steven Ogg plays a bandit who invades people’s homes and murders them … this is basically the same role he plays as Negan’s chief henchman on “The Walking Dead.”  It must be weird to be typecast like that.

Hey … it is only just now that I realized the logo below is a riff on Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.”

 

A review of “The Monster” (2016)

What a neat little horror movie.  “Monster” (2016) is unencumbered by any sort of belabored mystery or backstory — or even the need for familiarity with werewolf or vampire lore.  Its title baddie appears to simply be a horrible, nameless, forest-dwelling predator that waylays and assails a mother and her young daughter along a lonely highway at night.  The story’s simplicity alone makes it interesting.

And it’s a well crafted, thoughtful story.  It focuses heavily on its characters while its plot-driving antagonist is concealed in the rainswept woods, and the movie’s extensive use of flashbacks isn’t too jarring and is generally very good.  We see two interwoven stories — the first is a bare-bones scary campfire tale, while the second is about a mother-daughter relationship effectively destroyed by alcoholism.  The flashbacks do not feel like filler, nor are they maudlin.  They pack a decent enough emotional punch and, despite being sparsely scripted, they seem to reflect a sophisticated understanding of alcoholism on the part of screenwriter and director Bryan Bertino.

Bertino also shot this movie beautifully, making the most of its primary location on a rainy rural road.  It looks just great, and the isolated, pretty and nearly surreal environment here lends itself well to the movie’s horror elements.

The many positive reviews for “The Monster” point to a great performance by Zoe Kazan; I definitely agree with them.  Equal credit, I think, should go to 15-year-old Ella Ballentine (who is playing a much younger character here).  She brings a mixture of vulnerability and intensity to her role …  I actually think Bertino could have improved his story somewhat by allowing her to have a bit more pathos, and having her fight a bit more — both against her mother and against the monster.  In the latter half of the movie, she does feel underused when depicted only as an imperiled child.

If I had a major criticism of “The Monster,” I’d suggest that it is maybe 20 or 30 minutes too long.  Yes, the simplicity of the story is what makes it interesting.  But … it also feels like too little to sustain the full length of a feature film.  There … actually isn’t a hell of a lot of story here.

I would also better conceal the monster itself to the shadows.  We do indeed get a good look at it — and its artistic design is actually great.  But Bertino obviously didn’t have a tremendous special effects budget, and it shows a little — particularly when the monster should be shown moving.  For a movie that succeeds so well in being character-driven,  I think a less-is-more approach would have worked just fine here.

I’d rate this movie an 8 out of 10 and I’d recommend it.

Weird trivia — that violent, abusive prick of a boyfriend that we see in flashbacks?  That’s none other than Scott Speedman, who plays nice-guy Michael Corvin in the “Underworld” movies.  I thought that was funny.

 

 

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A short review of Season 1 of the “Wolf Creek” TV series (2016)

“Wolf Creek” (2005) and “Wolf Creek 2” (2013) are among the most chilling and effective horror films out there.  (They can be difficult for even seasoned fans of the genre to watch.)  And last year’s follow-up television series faithfully channeled so much of their mood, tone and atmosphere that it should have been just as effective.  What a shame that its first season falls short due to tremendous problems with pacing and story structure.  I’d rate it a 6 out of 10.

The six-episode arc has the feel of the films.  It was written, directed and produced by Greg McLean, as they were.  Once again, the forbidding Australian outback is itself a central character, gorgeously captured and lovingly presented by the show’s cinematography.   I think it’s been a long time since I saw a horror film or series so successfully project a mood.  Also returning, of course, is John Jarrett in his perfect and perfectly frightening portrayal of the serial killer Mick Taylor.

Lucy Fry’s young American antihero, Eve, is the latest to face off against him, but there’s a twist — after surviving the slaughter of her family, she resolves to find and kill him.  Fry is just great in the role; Dustin Clare is well cast as the nice-guy cop who alternately pursues and tries to rescue her from danger.  The rest of the cast is also roundly terrific.  The soundtrack and scoring are beautifully atmospheric.

Unfortunately, though, all of these elements appear within a plot that moves at a snail’s pace.  We actually don’t see much of Mick for many episodes — the story focuses on Eve’s haphazard, calamitous odyssey through rural Australia, encountering criminals, good Samaritans and just plain lunatics.  McLean scripts a protagonist that is compelling and cool, and Fry is a good actress.  But many of the events of her journey are only tangentially related to the story’s central conflict, which is her duel with Mick.  I get the sense that fans might tune in to see a horror film, but might be disappointed by a moody, loosely plotted travelogue through McLean’s brutal fictional interpretation of the Australian outback.

I wondered how the screenwriter here could make such a major miscalculation.  Then I remembered that the “Wolf Creek” films, despite their brilliance, were also quite slow.  They contained what seem like lots of supporting or ancillary material connected with Mick’s victims, which were ultimately interspersed with the intense violence that made them terrifying movies (not to mention Jarratt’s flawless portrayal of a violent sociopath).

But those movies both had an hour-and-forty-minutes running time.  These six episodes add up to four full hours.  The slow pace of films was a forgivable flaw — it even came across as deliberate pacing.  It’s frustrating, though, for any onscreen story lasting more time than that.  I honestly think I would have enjoyed Season 1  much more if it had been edited down to half its length — into maybe three episodes or one feature film.

Oh, well.  This series is still remarkably well made, and I do think it will please many fans of the films.  If you enjoyed those, I would recommend giving this series a shot.

 

A review of “Logan” (2017)

I’m not sure I agree with quite all of the accolades that “Logan” (2017) has been receiving.  (It’s being compared with Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” for example, as well as Frank Miller’s medium-altering 1986 graphic novel, “The Dark Knight Returns.”)  It’s still a damn good movie, though, and easily among the best of Fox’s “X-Men” series.  I’d give it a 9 out of 10, and I’d firmly recommend it.

This absolutely doesn’t feel like a “comic book movie.”  It feels more like a brutally violent, sometimes introspective, road-trip drama — though all of the comic book elements are still there.  I’d caution comic book fans that “Logan” was actually much darker than I expected — and, no, it wasn’t just because of the visceral violence that could only be afforded by this movie’s unusual “R” rating.  There was a lot more that went on here that got under my skin … I just can’t say more for fear of spoilers.

There is one thing I can tell you — there is none of the escapism of past “X-Men” films.  (C’mon, for being about a supposedly oppressed group, those movies always made being a mutant look fun as hell, and even glamorous.)  This film follows an aging, ailing Wolverine, and an even worsely afflicted Professor X — subsisting in secret in the Mexico desert.  What’s more, they and their aging friend, Caliban, appear to be among the last of their kind, thanks to an unexplained, decades-long absence of new mutant births.  And what little exposition is given about the other X-Men suggests that they are dead.  If you’ve been a fan of these iconic characters for a long time, then seeing Wolverine and Professor X being so painfully not larger than life is jarring, and even sad.  No matter what is the outcome of its story, this movie’s plot setup alone can make an “X-Men” fan a little despondent.

The action is damned good.  The movie surprised me by how smart it was, too.  Its examination of violence and its consequences is unflinching.  Also, we’ve been instructed through so many “X-Men” movies that humans should not seek to contain the mutants out of fear … yet “Logan” adroitly and subtly questions such one-sided moralizing.  The acting, across the board, is extremely good — predictably from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, and surprisingly from 11-year-old Dafne Keen.  She’s perfect as the young, imperiled, yet ferocious Laura.

My complaints with “Logan” were minor.  One thing that irked me was my own confusion about whether it was “canon.”  Are we to assume that this takes place in the “X-Men” movies’ “main continuity?”  Or is this a parallel universe or a different timeline?  The feel of this film is so radically different that I found it difficult to imagine it following the previous films (although the post-credits sequence in 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” seems to set up “Logan.”)  I thought that this was based on Marvel Comics’ “Old Man Logan” storyline … wasn’t that an alternate universe story?

Maybe adding more to my confusion, “X-Men” comic books actually exist in the universe of this film.  Laura carries a bunch of them, and they are a minor plot point.  Does this mean that the humans in this universe have finally accepted mutants, enough to create comic books about them being heroes?  How did that come about?

My second criticism of “Logan” is that the character of Laura is thinly rendered.  Saving her is the plot device for the entire film, and Keen is absolutely talented.  Shouldn’t we know more about her, and about her relationship with Logan and Charles?

All in all, this was a superb film, though — with an unexpected tone and a surprisingly sober, risk-taking approach to Jackman’s avowed last appearance as Wolverine.  If you like the “X-Men” movies at all, then you should definitely see it.

 

 

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A very short review of “Arrival” (2016)

“Arrival” (2016) is an unusually smart and thought-provoking science fiction film.  It isn’t really intended by its creators as a “twist movie,” but it does include an unexpected component that should surprise and challenge the viewer.  (I don’t want to say more about it, for fear of spoilers.)

Amy Adams actually is a terrific actress, and she seems to do well in understated roles that require her to be thoughtful and deliberate.  (Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are both quite good too, even if they seem confined to roles here that don’t require much range.)

One caveat — this isn’t a standard science fiction thriller.  (Although “Arrival” has some decent suspense, I’m inclined to think that this shouldn’t be considered a thriller at all.)  I do think that viewers expecting a more mainstream film will be disappointed with this story conclusion’s more subdued and unconventional payoff. (Again, I just can’t say more here.)

I’d rate this an 8 out of 10; and I would recommend it to science fiction fans.

 

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A tiny review of “Stake Land II” (2016)

“Stake Land II” (2016) can’t match the magic of the original, but it’s still good enough to recommend, I guess.  I’d give it a 7 out of 10.  (I’m told that an alternate title is “Stakelander,” but I refuse to call it that, because it sounds too much like a spoof of either “Zoolander” or “Highlander.”)

This sequel has a direct-to-video feel to it.  Set a decade following the events of the original, the movie reunites Connor Paolo and Nick Damici, as the now-adult Martin and the enigmatic, vampire-killing powerhouse, “Mister.”  Paolo feels flat this time out, the movie is occasionally slow, and the action sequences are a little underwhelming.

Still, Damici shines.  And I couldn’t help but find myself engaged by the movie as a whole.  Even if the film isn’t a classic, the brutal, unflinching “Stake Land” fictional universe is still front and center.  The post-apocalyptic setting and character backstories are so dark and unpredictable that the film is still fun for a seasoned horror fan.  It’s at least as interesting as an average episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

 

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A few quick words on “What We Become” (2016)

“What We Become” (2016) is a competent, serviceable Danish horror film that nevertheless could have been better.  (The film’s original title was “Sorgenfri.”)  It’s capably written, nicely filmed, and well performed by its actors, and there is genuine suspense once its zombies are allowed to run amok.

The trouble is, that takes far too long.  Like America’s “Viral” (2016), this is a zombie movie that spends so much effort on its setup that there is little time left for enough payoff.

This is another thoughtful apocalyptic monster movie that pays a great deal of attention to the media and military response to the emerging crisis.  (And it’s creepily effective the way this is told exclusively from the point of view of a Danish suburb’s residents.)  It will hold your attention as a kind of “slow burn” horror film — it reminded me a little of the first season of AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead.” Ultimately, however, the zombies get too little screen time.  And that’s a shame, because what we do see as a horrifying, tragic climax is actually very well executed.

Overall, I’d rate this a 7 out of 10.

 

 

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