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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“Phoenix Forgotten” (2017) is a found-footage horror film that didn’t pan out.

“Phoenix Forgotten” (2017) has a couple of things going for it.  The first is its use of real events as the MacGuffin for its found-footage horror story — the 1997 mass UFO sighting in Arizona known as “The Phoenix Lights.”  The second is the young Chelsea Lopez in a lead role.  She appears to be a gifted young actress, and she’s … astonishingly good here.  (The script, too, does succeed in painting her adolescent protagonist as likable and identifiable.)

Those two things, however, do not save “Phoenix Forgotten” from being a mediocre movie.  It’s sometimes slow and occasionally even boring, despite the fact that it picks up quite a bit in its closing minutes.

It also feels far too much like a beat-for-beat remake of 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project.”  Yes, it’s a different sub-genre, with a science fiction plot device instead of a supernatural threat, and a desert setting instead of the Maryland forest.  But its story, its conclusion and even its closing shots parallel that superior film very closely.

I’d rate this a 4 out f 10.

 

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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 short review of “It Stains the Sands Red” (2017)

“It Stains the Sands Red” (2017) is a pretty decent zombie film; I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

The fun starts with a truly impressive aerial shot of Las Vegas in the midst of a full blown zombie apocalypse — it’s great special effects work, and it’s almost enough to compensate entirely for the limited scope of the story that follows it.  (This film focuses largely on one stranded woman being pursued by one zombie antagonist through the Nevada desert.)

Although much of the film might be too slow for some horror fans, it’s actually surprisingly intelligent.  The movie focuses on things often neglected in survival horror scenarios like this one — factors like exhaustion, the elements, firearms proficiency, the availability of basic utilities and even the availability of addictive drugs.  There’s more to admire too — there’s a plot twist late in the game that I thought was skillfully executed.  (I won’t spoil it here.)  Finally, our ostensibly addle-brained anti-heroine does a couple of things that I never would have thought of in order to survive.

It also boasts an incongruously beautiful setting.  (This was shot in Nevada’s “Valley of Fire.”)

“It Stains the Sands Red” isn’t perfect.  There are a couple of stupid parts, particularly near the end of the story.  (Were these otherwise talented screenwriters just running out of steam?)  And there is one surprise plot development that will be sure to have some genre fans rolling their eyes and groaning.

Also, the makeup effects for the monster were good enough, but not stellar.  (Like many longtime fans of zombie horror, I think I’ve been spoiled by the genius of Greg Nicotero and Tom Savini.)

I ‘d still name this as a good movie, however, and I’d recommend it.

 

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A short review of “War for the Planet of the Apes” (2017)

Like the two films preceding it, “War for the Planet of the Apes” (2017) is an intelligent, well rounded science fiction thriller.  The newest “Apes” series has been leagues ahead of the campy late-1960’s original films, and of course Tim Burton’s bizarre 2001 remake.

There is more going on here than a simple “apes vs. humans” tale.  Nor does it engage in simplistic moralizing, in which the innocent animals must escape from their human oppressors.  There’s a hell of a lot of moral complexity — something noted by the many positive reviews for the film.  One of the things that I liked the most was a compelling new surprise plot element, even though it approaches deus ex machina territory.  I won’t spoil it here, but it’s bleak, it’s frightening, and it makes you think.  Given the new information one character explains to another … it’s hard to say who is the bad guy, isn’t it?  How this plot element plays out is damned effective too.

This movie also superbly renders non-human characters — both in terms of its smart script and its special effects (a combination of both CGI and human actors).  I was greatly impressed at the detailed and lifelike facial expressions.

The action sequences were well executed, too, and the film had an epic feel.  (Although this would be a decent conclusion to a trilogy, filmmakers Matt Reeves and Martin Bomback have gone on record stating they wouldn’t be averse to future sequels.)

Still, I must confess that my attention sometimes wandered.  I think the pacing was a bit off.  It also didn’t help much that the conclusion of the final action set piece was spoiled by one of the film’s trailers.  (What the hell were they thinking?  Who makes these decisions?  Was there any backlash from fans who didn’t want advance knowledge of the film’s ending?)

Although this was an exceptionally well developed film, I just can’t give an unusually high rating to a movie that didn’t always hold my interest.  I believe, therefore, that I’d rate this an 8 out of 10.

 

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A short review of the Season 4 premiere of “The Strain”

[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR PAST SEASONS OF “THE STRAIN.”]  I love “The Strain.”  It’s weird, it’s wacky, it’s usually creepy, and the screenwriters seem to want to throw in everything but the kitchen sink in order to please horror fans.  It’s also the most ambitious horror show on television — it endeavors to depict nothing short of an entire vampire apocalypse, from its inception back in Season 1 to what appears to be a complete victory by the monsters at the start of its fourth (and apparently final) season.  Only the outstanding “Fear the Walking Dead” has attempted something like that.  And although “Fear” is the better show, it can’t match “The Strain’s” epic storytelling goals and its level of detail.

The writers’ energetic efforts almost always pay off.  Part of “The Strain’s” appeal is that you never know how far they’ll go.  And they do push the envelope so creatively that they sometimes hit upon ideas and story points that are grotesque and darkly creative.  I’m still enjoying this show even after I predicted back in Season 1 that the plot-driving creatures themselves would grow boring after our repeated exposure to them.  (I’m happy to be proven wrong.)

Regrettably, the Season 4 premiere suggests that the writers are now reaching too far, too fast.  It continued the show’s pattern of brave creative choices, but it was sloppy.  There were enormous changes in story and setting with insufficient exposition.  We jump nine months forward from the close of last season, when a nuclear explosion devastates New York, and our heroes are scattered.  We’re offered little information about how our protagonists arrived at their respective new junctures, and that is forgivable.  (It’s a convention of serialized storytelling like this that things can be explained in subsequent episodes.)  But the enormous changes in the overall milieu left me a little confused.

Following the nuclear conquest of New York last season, why would Philadelphia and other cities also be ruled by the vampires?  I understand that the nuclear winter is to blame for this, because the bad guys can move about by day.  But would a single bomb cause a sufficient nuclear winter to affect the entire Eastern Seaboard?  (Yes, I am aware that I am illustrating my ignorance of this subject.)

Or … is it the entire continent that’s affected, or the entire northern hemisphere?  Have other cities been bombed or not?  Why are the vampires seeking out more nuclear devices?  (We are given confusing information about these things through new story elements and dialogue.)  Furthermore, why is Vasiliy Fet (the likable Kevin Durand) trying get his hands on a nuke on behalf of the human resistance?  Is he planning on nuking an entire city, with both vampires and their human slaves?  If he neutralizes “The Master” in the remains of New York City, will it be worth it?

These are important plot and story elements that left me scratching my head.  What’s more, the season opener was further marred by some pretty spotty scripting and direction.  (The action sequence at the end was poorly done.)

The episode was still fun enough.  I’d rate it a 7 out of 10.  I’m just surprised that an episode that seems so hastily developed served as the season’s opener.

 

A few quick words on the “Game of Thrones” Season 7 premiere.

The premiere of Season 7 of “Game of Thrones” was damned good … enough for me to give it a 9 out of 10.  (You know you’re enjoying a TV show when you are riveted to the screen.)

The dialogue and character development for this show is always first-rate, and the acting often is.  Last night was no exception — the exchange between Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), for example, was priceless.

The glimpse of The Night King’s wight army, however brief, should please any horror fan.  I watch a lot of horror movies, and I’m a tough fan to please.  Yet I am still surprised at how this fantasy show continues to succeed in scaring me.  It’s impressive.  If the leaked script for Season 7 is accurate, then the bad guys in the final episode ought to be damned frightening.

I will reiterate a very minor longstanding quibble that I have had with “Game of Thrones” as someone who has not read the books.  This story seems to attach tremendous dramatic emphasis to the movement and arrival of groups of people.  I do understand the need for this, and its appeal — the logistics are part of George R.R. Martin’s world-building, and they bring detail and a sense of realism.  There are times, however, when I feel like Daenerys’ defining character trait is that she … goes places.  (Look!  Now her army is here!)

I won’t say much more for fear of spoilers — this is a show where even mentioning a character’s name can suggest a chapter in his or her character arc.  (I will say that I loved the opening segment, even if I was understandably puzzled at first.)

This is great TV.