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

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A short review of “Turistas” (2006)

“Turistas” (2006) isn’t quite as bad as all its countless negative reviews make it out to be; I’d call it an average horror film and rate it a 6 out of 10.  It takes the formula of 2005’s vastly superior “Hostel” (tourists at an exotic location are systematically kidnapped and killed) with a popular urban legend (organ harvesting).

I’d guess that there were two primary reasons why this disappointed audiences the way that it did.  First, it’s relatively slow for a mainstream horror film.  The “horror” doesn’t start until a full hour into the movie; the first hour is devoted to a lengthy setup and a (rather beautiful) examination of the natural beauty of Brazil, where the story is set.

Second, there is probably less gore than you’d expect, given the film’s story device.  Outside of the scene depicted in the poster below (and all of the film’s trailers), there’s actually very little to satisfy gorehounds excited by the movie’s premise.

It’s worth noting here, too, that the film was boycotted in Brazil — it certainly doesn’t portray its Brazilian characters in a favorable light.  (Lead actor Josh Duhamel even apologized publicly to the country.)

With all of that said, I don’t really hate “Turistas.”  It has has three actors that I enjoy watching.  Duhamel himself is just great, as are Olivia Wilde and Melissa George.  I thought Miguel Zamore made a pretty decent villain.  The scenery was gorgeous, the setup succeeded in building tension for me, and the story device was nicely unsettling.  (Yeesh.)

I can’t actually recommend this movie, as I doubt others will be as forgiving with it as I am.  But I liked it well enough.

 

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Season 1 of “Mr. Mercedes” (2017) was astonishingly good.

It amazes me how little fanfare that “Mr. Mercedes” is getting.  Season 1 was not only one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever, I think it has the rare distinction of being even better that its source material.  (I really liked 2014 novel, but I loved the show.) I might have a couple of minor quibbles about the ten-episode season, but they’re not enough to stop me from rating it a perfect 10.

I tend to think of this as more “mainstream King.”  As with the book, the story here is devoid of the supernatural elements that usually characterize King’s work.  It also doesn’t have any overt connection to King’s overarching, interconnected “Dark Tower” multiverse.  It’s a depressingly real-world story about a mass murderer whose weapon of choice is a stolen Mercedes.  (There is a plot-driving horror set-piece at the start of the pilot episode in which he mows down a crowd lined up for a job fair.)

What follows is a drama of surprising depth and authenticity.  We see the extended aftermath of slaughter, throughout the lives of people connected to it — including one victim’s family, the now-retired investigating detective (Brendan Gleeson), the young killer himself (Harry Treadway) and his alcoholic, incestuous mother (Kelly Lynch).  Gleeson was who first made me interested in the show, and his performance is outstanding.  Lynch is amazing and perfect in her role, and is even talented enough make her onerous character truly sympathetic.  But even they are outshined by Treadway’s frighteningly goddam perfect portrayal of the titular “Mr. Mercedes.”  The guy is incredible.

The script was nothing short of terrific.  There is certainly enough horror here — including one particularly cringe-inducing plot twist late in the game.  (It was so disturbingly presented that I almost had to switch the episode off — and I knew it was coming, as I’d already read the book.)  But the horror punctuates the unexpectedly touching drama among the story’s protagonists — and the sad relationship between the killer and his disordered mother.  There were also some great moments of humor, and the subtexts here dealing with friendship and loyalty were surprisingly moving.

The rest of the cast was quite good.  The directing shined as well — especially for a key sequence in Episode 7, “Willow Lake.”  Even the soundtrack was excellent.  Hell, they even referenced W. H. Auden in one episode.

My quibbles were minor.  One was the story’s pacing.  It’s actually quite slow for the first eight episodes — enough, I think to lose some viewers.  This didn’t bother me much — I took it as “slow-burn” horror, and it matched the very slow pace of the book.  Then the story seemed to move forward at a breakneck pace during episodes 9 and 10.  I can’t help but wonder if it could have been scripted differently, as that felt odd.

My second quibble lies with Mary-Louise Parker’s portrayal of Janey, the sister of one of the killer’s victims.  Parker is an excellent actress, but I found her version of the character to be remarkably detached for someone bereaved in such a horrifying fashion — to me, it seemed like a strange creative choice on the part of the actress.

I’d obviously recommend this; it’s currently the best horror show that I’m aware of.

 

 

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A few quick words on “Black Mirror” Season 1 (2011)

Season 1 of Britain’s “Black Mirror” (2011) was absolutely terrific.  (To be clear, this first “season” consists of only three episodes, although subsequent seasons have more.)  This looks to be a truly superb dystopian science fiction anthology series — I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

I’d point to two qualities that make this show stellar.  First, it’s truly smart stuff.  The story devices are thoughtfully invented and quite original.  (These are “near-future” -type sci-fi tales depicting how new technology or cultural trends can have unforeseen consequences.)  This show doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence, it relies on him or her to pay attention and think.

Second, the writers here have a firm grasp of genuine psychological horror.  There are no radioactive monsters in the sewers here, or killer robots from the future — but “Black Mirror” manages to be scary without those things.  It does just fine presenting the viewer with visions of human shame, fear, jealousy or existential loss.  These are stories that deal primarily with the psychology of their characters — and they truly get under your skin.

This is great stuff — I’d recommend it.

 

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A short review of “Miracle Mile” (1988)

“Miracle Mile” (1988) actually came highly recommended to me.  And that’s perplexing, because this is a pretty bad nuclear war thriller that I’d only grudgingly rate a 4 out of 10.

The script is terrible.  We know that from the film’s opening minutes, when it attempts to establish Anthony Edwards as a likable protagonist by showing him performing impromptu stand-up for schoolchildren on a field trip to a Los Angeles natural history museum.  (He is not a chaperone for the field trip, or connected with these schoolchildren in any way.  He apparently just hangs around alone at museums to inexplicably crack jokes for children he does not know.)

From there, we follow an abortive, cloddishly written romance between two mostly unappealing characters.  (Mare Winningham is the other half of the romance doomed by the impending apocalypse.)  I won’t bore you with the details about the ensuing end-of-the-world thriller, except that an implausible plot device gives the nascent couple and a handful of secondary characters advance knowledge of the nuclear missiles that will hit Los Angles in just more than an hour.

Even the acting was mostly poor.  Surprisingly, this includes the performance by Edwards himself, who has shown nothing but talent in every other role in which I’ve seen him.

The movie comes close to redeeming itself near the end.  Its obligatory chaos-in-the-streets set-piece is surprisingly well done for an otherwise mediocre film, and there are a few good lines when the couple reunites at the movie’s finale.  I suppose you can also have a lot of fun spotting a bevy of other character-actors from the 80’s and 90’s.

I … can’t actually recommend this, though.  I can’t remember the last time I was this disappointed by a film that my friends insisted was great.  Check out 1983’s “Special Bulletin,” instead.  Or, better yet, hunt down Britain’s superb nuclear war mini-series, “Threads” (1984).

 

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A very short review of the Season 7 premiere of “American Horror Story” (2017)

I finally got around to watching my first episode of “American Horror Story” last night; I started with this season’s critically praised premiere.  (People have been enthusiastically recommending this show to me for years, and “Game of Thrones” taught me that the bandwagon isn’t always a bad thing.)

I can’t say that I was overly impressed.  Season 7’s opening episode, entitled “Election Night,” consists mostly of heavy-handed political commentary with caricaturized portrayals of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters.  Nearly none of the characters are likable; not even the one played by the terrific Evan Peters.  (Yes, comics fans, that’s none other than Quicksilver from the latest “X-Men” movies.)

There is a lot of “scary clown” horror here, as anyone who’s seen any marketing for the show at all should know.  Between that and the political elements, I suspect I am not the right audience for this show.  I simply find clowns obnoxious instead of scary, and political commentary in horror usually falls flat with me.  (I’m the rare horror fan who loves George A. Romero’s work only because it’s scary, without caring much about the social statements he’s supposedly making.)

With all of that said, there actually were a couple of creepy moments late in the game.  And there was one (as of yet, minor) character that I liked — the child of the liberal couple who were so devastated by the election results.  He’s cute, and any kid who hides parentally forbidden horror comics under his pillow is one of my tribe.

I’d somewhat grudgingly rate this a 5 out of 10.

Anyway … scary clowns are ubiquitous now, and we already have the zombie shows we need.  I propose that we bring back … body snatchers.  Those can be terrifying in the hands of a talented writer, and they require no special effects.  Or, what about vampires?  Now that “The Strain” has concluded, how about a well written television excursion into Steve Niles’ “30 Days of Night” universe?  Or maybe a “Stakeland” TV show?  Looking at you, AMC.

 

 

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A short review of Season 4 of “The Strain”

The fourth and final season of “The Strain” was easily its weakest, but was still fun enough to merit an 8 out of 10.

Season 1 was a unique, detailed, methodically assembled techno-thriller crossbred with vampire mythology — you could tell that it was adapted from a pretty decent book series by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan.  The show’s subsequent seasons progressively meandered farther and farther into comic book territory … the fourth felt loosely and hastily plotted, with spotty and confusing exposition.  (I was considerably confused until late in the game about who deployed nuclear weapons in the war between vampires and humans, when they did so, and what their strategy was.)

But what the hell.  I still enjoyed this.  The writers here still know where their bread is buttered, and gave survival-horror fans more of the screwball guilty pleasures they were tuning in for.  There was plenty of blood and gore (even if it’s only the white, worm-infested vampire blood that I suspect was easier for the censors to approve). There were more of the show’s creepy, cringe-inducing monster effects.  And there was plenty of action — right up until a finale that was predictable but cool.  (If you’ve been following the show the way I have, do you not want to see machine guns, explosions, swords and severed vampire heads?)

Richard Sammel consistently outshined everyone in his role as the WWII Nazi turned vampire Himmler.  What an extraordinary villain.)  It’s a further testament to his talent that the man actually appears sublimely good-natured in real life.  (He interacts with his fans from time to time on Facebook.)

The show actually surprised me, too, by how attached I got to its characters.  It hasn’t always been a show that is strong on its characters, but … I’m going to miss them.  Vasily Fet (Kevin Durand) and “Dutch” (Ruta Gedmintas) were two in particular that I found myself surprisingly attached to — especially considering that Dutch was a superfluous character that seems to have been added only for sex appeal and romantic tension.  I was rooting for both of them.

So I’d still recommend “The Strain,” despite Season 4’s failings.  To quote Jack Nicholson’s Joker in 1989’s “Batman,” “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.”  (Yes, I do know that Walt Disney said it first.  Whatever.)

 

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