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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}


‘Fear the Walking Dead’ Features Fresh Zombies, Family Tension, And A Familiar Story

By Sara Smith, The Kansas City Star (TNS)

The zombie apocalypse goes viral in “Fear the Walking Dead,” a serviceable but less-than-stellar spinoff of AMC’s hit series “The Walking Dead.”

“When civilization ends, it ends quickly,” one wise kid observes when things start to fall apart. For the ramshackle family of three adults and three teenagers at the heart of this new show starting Sunday, things weren’t holding together so well in the first place.

To understand where “Fear” fits in the world of “The Walking Dead,” you have to rewind all the way to that show’s very first episode, which aired on Halloween 2010. “The Walking Dead” began its story through the eyes of sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who had nearly died from gunshot wounds after a high-speed chase.

When Rick emerged from a coma in an abandoned hospital, he found a world already torn apart by the undead. Rick figured out that he’d been in the hospital for about 90 days while chaos raged. “Fear the Walking Dead” takes place during those three months.

Just like its predecessor, “Fear the Walking Dead” begins with a central character opening his eyes to a nightmarish reality. Nick, a junkie college dropout, wakes up from his latest needle nap to see his pretty blond girlfriend snacking on a dead guy’s face.

Because he has been addicted to heroin for years, no one’s taking Nick’s word for what he saw, especially after he runs into traffic and ends up strapped to a hospital bed. Nick (Frank Dillane) wants to believe he might have been hallucinating those ravaged bodies and pools of blood, too.

When Nick’s mom, Maddie (Kim Dickens), and her boyfriend investigate the abandoned church serving as a drug flophouse, they find the pools of blood but no bodies. “They didn’t just get up and walk away,” says Travis (Cliff Curtis). Oh, the naive disbelievers of the early days.

Sirens blare and traffic clogs as rescue vehicles speed through neighborhoods, but no one has begun to connect the nasty virus keeping people home and the increase in police shootings. Its prequel status makes “Fear” a bit predictable, so its observations on societal breakdown are more compelling than its main characters during the initial exposition-heavy episodes.

The Internet gives Angelenos their first clue that something is very wrong. Leaked news footage of paramedics being attacked by recently dead victims of a car crash leads to rumors of a potent new drug or virulent illness. The video ends with police filling a staggering citizen with a staggering number of bullets, until a shot to the head finally takes him down.

Kids with iPhones watch the scene on their 5-inch screens, not knowing they’ll soon get better phone service from tin cans and a string. One of those kids is Maddie’s daughter and Nick’s little sister, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a junior in high school who clings to her snotty attitude, her artist boyfriend, and her acceptance letter to Berkeley.

Alicia’s school shuts down right around the time that her mom and Travis are getting their first glimpse of the threat up close, leading to a frantic search for Travis’ ex-wife, Liza, and teenage son, Chris. Roads are being closed, the power grid flickers, and suburban doomsday preppers are starting to look pretty smart.

While Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) assumes that Travis’ frantic calls are a custody power play for an extra weekend, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) gets caught up in one of the spontaneous protests caused by police interacting with the undead. It’s not hard to imagine a scared public blaming cops for executing the “homeless” without the knowledge that they’re really zombies. With their bad posture and tenacity, these L.A. undead very well could be listless drunks, zonged out on bath salts, or just lost on their way to Starbucks.

The zombies in “The Walking Dead,” or “walkers,” as they’re called, are slow-moving, half-rotted, dull-witted. They don’t stop in their relentless pursuit of fresh flesh, but they don’t exactly sprint, either.

But these new walkers are freshly dead, and they’ve quickly lost their coordination, but they’re not apathetically shambling through the backwoods of Georgia. In “Fear the Walking Dead,” the zombies are faster, and the living are slower.

A day before the inevitable riots, Travis was teaching Jack London survival metaphors to sleepy-eyed teenagers who scoffed at the idea that they’d ever have to build a fire. Suddenly he’s holed up with strangers in a barbershop, waiting for the worst to pass so he can gather his makeshift family and head for the desert.

“The Walking Dead,” like “Revolution” and other post-apocalyptic fare, dropped its viewers into a world where technology had become irrelevant and survivors had embraced their inner Boy Scouts. “Fear the Walking Dead” is a mid-apocalyptic tale where no one is equipped for the coming reality. Naturally, they turn again and again to their failing gadgets. “Dead again!” they complain, thinking they’re just talking about their phones.

“Fear the Walking Dead” isn’t essential TV for anyone but “Walking Dead” fanatics, but with just six episodes in its first season, it’s a fast-paced, character-driven look at the power of information. Travis and Maddie know more than most people, and that’s the only reason their family might last until the fires die down.

“Fear the Walking Dead” premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on AMC.

Photo: Elizabeth Rodriguez and Lorenzo James Henrie in “Fear the Walking Dead.” (Frank Ockenfeis 3/AMC)

‘Good Kill,’ With Ethan Hawke, Targets Human Costs Of Drone Warfare

By Glenn Whipp, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Form matches content in “Good Kill,” a movie about the desensitizing effects of drone warfare. Repeated, suffocating scenes of remote warfare make you acutely aware of the soul-draining despair felt by its pilot protagonist.

That makes writer-director Andrew Niccol’s achievement notable, even if his movie sometimes feels as stifling as the shipping container that Air Force pilot Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) and his team occupy in the desert outside Las Vegas.

Egan works a 12-hour shift flying unmanned aerial vehicles over Afghanistan and Yemen, performing surveillance and launching missiles toward sites that may (or may not) be occupied by Taliban forces. There’s a lot of killing, all of it deemed “good” and “necessary.” When he’s done, Egan drives home to the suburbs to his wife (January Jones) and kids, puts some burgers on the grill and helps with homework.

The contortions needed to make that kind of compartmentalization work are nearly impossible for a man like Egan, a veteran of six tours, a pilot who misses the fear of combat and, yes, flying an actual plane — an idea that Niccol, showing F-16s gathering dust on the base, implies is almost ludicrous.

“We’ve got no skin in the game,” Egan tells his commander (Bruce Greenwood). “I feel like a coward every day.”

Though Egan is a man of few words (he becomes even quieter when he’s angry, his wife tells a friend), the movie makes up for his reserve by explaining and informing to a fault. You will possess a clearer understanding of the ins and outs, the pros and cons of drone warfare after viewing “Good Kill,” but the arguments sometimes feel like talking points awkwardly wedged into the action.

Where Niccol (“Gattaca”) succeeds is in creating an atmosphere of self-loathing, both for those manning the drones and the audience watching them work. Midway through the movie, the CIA takes over command of the missions, ordering a series of killings that are debatable on moral and strategic grounds. (“Permission to prosecute” is the dispassionate order coming from Langley in a voice that feels modeled on HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”) Niccol conveys this chilling disconnect, showing how the ease of their actions absolves the participants of responsibility and robs them of their humanity.

That cost can be seen in the tight strain on Hawke’s face. An actor with the gift of gab (most notably in his collaborations with Richard Linklater), Hawke here delivers a nuanced turn as a man on the threshold of emotional ruin. It’s not that Egan opposes war. He’s begging to be shipped out for another tour. He just can’t wrap his head around what war has become.

“Drones aren’t going anywhere,” says his commander. “In fact, they’re going everywhere.”

“Good Kill” forces us to deal with the implications of that new reality.

MPAA rating: R, for language, sexuality, violent content including rape
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

‘Reagan: The Life’ Review: Not Always What He Seemed To Be

By Peter M. Gianotti, Newsday (TNS)

“Reagan: The Life” by H.W. Brands; Doubleday (805 pages, $35)
Ronald Reagan upended his critics and unsettled his idolaters. He also has thwarted a third group: his biographers.

The outline of the 40th president’s remarkable story is generally well known. Compiling the details, the dates, the references, and providing a lucid beginning-to-end tale is the easy part. Many authors have done that. Getting to know what made Reagan what he was is a lot harder.

H.W. Brands, a respected historian and University of Texas educator, has written persuasively about presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He’s the latest author for whom the inner Reagan has proved elusive.

Brands does chronicle plenty and offers a lumbering, supportive chronology. You learn about the “rootless” childhood and the “indifferent” student. He describes the radio announcer who “spun a good yarn,” facts notwithstanding.

He shows you an optimistic young man who revered FDR, and whose family benefitted from the New Deal — though, later, the candidate would build “a political career bashing what Roosevelt had created.”

Here, too, is the aspiring actor who “loved the camera”; a performer comfortable in his roles, on TV with The General Electric Theater and Death Valley Days, and as leader of the Screen Actors Guild. “He discovered he liked the politics of the film industry,” Brands writes.

Reagan’s position would lead him to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Reagan enjoyed the “openly political stage….And he was good at it….He could feel the room and sense its mood.” But, after discussing the committee’s work and the blacklist, Brands concludes, “Creative work suffered when fear ruled. But the risk was worth taking, for the good of the country.

By now, you may start thinking that Brands is a bit too sympathetic. That forgiving, friendly point of view shades his writing about Reagan’s decision-making and actions before, during, and after the White House. And it undermines Brands’ valuable spadework, from documents to interviews. The result suggests more Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on JFK than Robert A. Caro on LBJ.

Reagan’s story needs insight and perspective, analysis and context. His record as California governor and as the pivotal president in the second half of the 20th century can withstand the scrutiny and the fallout.

Brands is better when focusing on Reagan’s skills as the most effective voice for conservatism beginning in the 1960s, specifically his televised speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. “People could disagree with Reagan, but rarely did they find him disagreeable,” Brands notes.

Reagan would easily win the GOP gubernatorial primary and the 1966 general election. He’d be re-elected in 1970. Reagan could speak as an ideologue, but he ran the state as a pragmatic politician. He opposed abortion, for example, but also relaxed abortion laws. “Reagan’s pragmatism was a reflection of his ambition,” Brands writes.

That would carry over to the presidency. Reagan stressed tax cuts but also agreed to raise taxes; he assailed communism, yet dealt with Soviet leaders; he’d nominate Robert Bork to the Supreme Court but be content with Anthony Kennedy. “He took what he could get,” Brands explains, “never holding practical results hostage to ideological purity.”

Reagan understood the role of the president, mastered the media, kept his image intact, resonated with voters, and was rewarded by them. The 1980 and 1984 contests were brilliant examples of political strategy, advertising, and the devastating one-liner. Candidates still ask voters, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Brands’ then-this-happened account of Reagan’s two presidential terms is highlighted by his discussion of the give-and-take between the president and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader. His narrative comes alive describing their relationship. Brands rightly says Gorbachev was “Moscow’s gift” to the president. “Perhaps the demise of the Soviet Union was predestined….Yet the timing of the demise depended on someone willing to acknowledge the undeniable.”

Similarly, Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker was a “gift” from his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Volcker curbed inflation, leading to economic growth at “just the right time for Reagan.” Reagan’s overall economic policy and its ongoing impact merit more examination, as do the intricacies of the disastrous Iran-Contra affair.

Brands concludes with the expected: He equates Reagan with FDR, as right-left bookends. He adds that “in certain respects, Reagan’s accomplishment was greater.” Brands will need a sharper, more searching volume to show that, and to give Reagan his due.

Photo: The Official CTBTO Photo Archive via Flickr

An Empire Without Heirs: Season 3 Of ‘House Of Cards’ Brings The Show Home

(Warning: This review contains Season 3 spoilers.)

“They rule an empire without heirs. Legacy is their only child.”

Frank and Claire Underwood, those Beltway Machiavels, have schemed and connived for so long, they’ve left a coat of fresh blood on every rung from the South Carolina state Senate to the Oval Office.

Now, at the start of House of Cards‘ third season—in the crosshairs of scrutiny unlike anything they’ve ever seen, and lacking another summit to climb—the Underwoods seem slightly lost, stumbling around the corridors of power without their coordinates. The same could be said of the show, which was all about the ruthless ascension of its antiheroes. When you get to the top, what then? There’s nowhere to go but down.

“I’m starting to question all of this. What are we doing this for?” Claire asks.

“For this house,” Frank replies. “For the presidency.”

But whose house? And whose presidency? That’s the rub at the heart of Season 3.

As if Frank’s asides weren’t enough, this year the show knocked a few more bricks out of the fourth wall by introducing a metafictional element in a new character: a novelist named Tom, who is commissioned to hype Frank’s domestic agenda, but ends up writing a tell-all about Claire and Frank’s marriage. “That’s the key to the whole thing,” he says. Subtle. Forget politics; it’s about couples counseling.

But House of Cards was never just the portrait of a marriage; it was about the whole rotten town. Every Washingtonian — from the pols to the staffers to the journos — was as vicious as the Underwoods, if less competently so. After two years of teeming depravity from all sides, the show finally has something new to report, some delicate possibility of grace lurking under the everyday parade of massacre: family.

House of Cards wasn’t very interested in who its characters were when they left the office, or what the “men in their smoky back rooms,” as one character puts it, did when they went home. The seats of power function as work/life diodes, channeling all of the characters’ time, energy, and passion into achievement and ambition, leaving nothing but a chasm of dread when they slow down or step away from the rat race long enough to look at themselves honestly. It took two seasons, but the family, with its quiet comforts and promise of deliverance, finally comes to the fore.

Early in the season, a Supreme Court Justice, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, wonders whether to continue working or retire as soon as possible to live out his remaining years with his wife — signaling the tension that is the primary focus of the new season. “I can’t remember the last time I had a home-cooked meal,” says Remy, a former lobbyist and now Frank’s chief of staff, quietly awakening to the cold void his life has become. Frank’s protégé Jackie Sharp marries a surgeon, instantly absorbing his picture-perfect two children, but it’s a political calculation; the true comforts of family elude her. Even Doug Stamper, Frank’s vicious fixer, gets to spend a few halcyon days with his brother from Ohio and his wife and two children, emblems of the simple pleasures of domesticity, home, and anonymity that he ultimately rejects when he buries poor Rachel Posner in the ground.

It’s a choice that every character must make in the third season, and it’s this dichotomy between the bottomless hell that comes with pursuing power and the redemption that comes with rejecting it that makes Season 3 the most compelling and devastating edition thus far.

Oh, but it’s not all dour, existential angst. The show’s ludicrous plot threads and flashes of high camp continue to abound, delightfully. It turns out House of Cards is escapist for an entirely unexpected reason. For all of the exaggerated (are they?) horrors of realpolitik on display, the show presents an alternate world that is actually very comforting: It reduces inscrutable dilemmas of international affairs to the daily trivia of domestic affairs.

What a soothing notion — that the fate of the Jordan Valley is tangled up in the squabbles of a high-functioning power couple. Wouldn’t it be nice if Russian-U.S. relations hinged on one gay-rights activist’s relationship with his husband?

Maybe this is the season in which House of Cards came clean. It’s not really about politics at all. It’s about the dynamics between husbands and wives writ large — forgiveness, resentment, compassion, and love that sours with time — playing themselves out in the global stage, dictating the fate of nations.

As if politicians were humans with beating hearts. Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?

Image: David Giesbrecht for Netflix