04 October 2016

"Stranger Things" Review by Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker

Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

""Stranger Things,” the new sci-fi horror series on Netflix, is a cool summer treat. It’s spooky but not scary, escapist but not empty. It’s a genre throwback to simpler times, with heroes, villains, and monsters. Yet it’s also haunting, and has a rare respect for both adult grief and childhood suffering. It’s an original. 
This may seem like peculiar praise for a show that is explicitly a pastiche of eighties pop culture, a TV box made of movie memories. The show’s creators, the brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, who are in their thirties, are like baby Tarantinos, but, rather than pulp thrillers or spaghetti Westerns, they’re obsessed with Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. The neon-red title sequence could be ripped from a paperback of “Cujo.” The story, about a little boy who gets tugged into an alternate reality, includes visual references to “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Altered States.” There’s a superpowered girl, straight out of “Firestarter.” Goo pours down walls, as in “The Amityville Horror.” A gang of kids fights evil, just like in “Stand by Me.” I even got a “Breakfast Club” whiff from a montage of a weird girl who gets a makeover, in a scene with a Tangerine Dream-like soundtrack out of “Risky Business.” The show has a bifocal demographic appeal: it’s designed to charm both nostalgic Gen-X’ers and younger viewers who are drawn to a prelapsarian world of walkie-talkies, landlines, and suburban kids left free to roam wherever they want on their bicycles. 
Yet the story itself feels organic and immersive, not like a gimmicky trick—and, like some of the best recent TV dramas, it’s uncynical. Three threads follow the search for that lost boy, Will. Mike, Lucas, and the very funny Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) are Dungeons & Dragons buddies who stumble upon a girl with a mysterious past. There’s a heroic dirtbag cop, Hop (the fabulous David Harbour, hardly recognizable from his time as one of the few bearable characters on “The Newsroom”), who teams up with a single mom, played by Winona Ryder. And there’s Nancy (Natalia Dyer), a pretty, suburban teen-age virgin who, in a slightly different version of the story, would surely be stabbed to death and/or attending a prom with two dates. Nancy’s best friend is Barb, an echo of nineteen-eighties First Ladies that is typical of the show’s layer of in-jokes. 
These three plots collide with an “X-Files” scenario involving a scary monster (“Alien”-sticky) and a scarier governmental-scientific conspiracy (creepily clean). With so much going on, “Stranger Things” could easily have become structurally lazy, exploiting the Netflix viewer’s bad habit of hitting “Next Episode” no matter what we’re offered, like the experimental squirrels we are. It never does. I could nitpick a few choices: Does the “friends don’t lie” theme need to be so heavily underlined? Should the best character die so early on? But this is astoundingly efficient storytelling, eight hours that pass in a blink, with even minor characters getting sharp dialogue, dark humor, or moments of pathos. 
Still, “Stranger Things” might feel like a mere retro roller coaster were it not for that slow drip of sorrow and trauma, the residue of Reagan-era anxiety about the nuclear family. As the old P.S.A. used to put it, “Do you know where your children are?” This melancholy wells up most effectively during a set of beautifully constructed flashbacks, which appear whenever our heroes are under high stress. Without spoiling any plot points, some involve sweet memories of lost children, like the one of a boy, seen from behind, sharing a favorite song with his younger brother, as his parents fight in the next room; others sketch out disturbing scientific experiments. These flashbacks could easily be mawkish or cheesy, cheap shortcuts to establish motive and to jerk tears—it’s happened on some of the greatest shows, like “Mad Men.” But “Stranger Things” has the confidence not to show already awful things as being even worse than they are. The main plot is a swift-moving caper with jokes and jolts. The flashbacks are about vulnerability, how people are bruised in places that no one can see. The combination of those two tones is almost musical, with a sincerity that feels liberating. 
It’s a special pleasure to see the nineties star Winona Ryder—so solid in recent cameos in “Black Swan” and “Show Me a Hero”—get a starring role, as Joyce Byers, a frayed divorcée whose neighbors view her with suspicion, even when she’s crushed by tragedy. When Byers loses her marbles in her ramshackle home, or hacks Christmas lights into a communication device, Ryder turns a character who could be needy or shrieky into someone whose obsessive intensity is entirely sympathetic. Using the movie math of “Stranger Things,” Byers is on a Venn diagram of JoBeth Williams, in “Poltergeist,” and Richard Dreyfuss, in “Close Encounters.” But Ryder’s performance is much deeper, whether she’s furiously chain-smoking or glaring down doubters in a local store. In her early movies, beginning with “Lucas,” Ryder had a thorny, “Lost Boys” charisma; as an adult, she shrank, receding like the Cheshire cat into those huge brown eyes. Here, Ryder’s original eccentricity feels fully revived in adult form. She balances the show’s middle-school drama with a portrayal of a more unusual kind of outsider, the grieving mom as action hero. 
Ryder’s mirror is Millie Bobby Brown, who gives a career-launching performance as Eleven, the girl with something special—and who is, like Ryder’s tomboy character in “Lucas,” mistaken for a boy. Her head shaved, her face grave, she’s silent for much of the series, but she bends the story toward her, through fearless emotional transparency. In one scene, she tiptoes into an older girl’s bedroom, then opens a ballerina music box. Her eyes widen, and she takes shallow breaths, as if the music box were a bomb. It feels like no mistake that her nickname, El, is a soundalike for Elle. There’s a risk, a very eighties one, that the character could become a contrivance, the exotic among the boys: E.T. in a skirt; she-Yoda. But Brown lends her an air of refugee devastation that makes her much more than the subject of someone else’s fantasy, even when the dialogue threatens, once or twice, to lock her in a symbolic box."

Source: The New Yorker

28 September 2016

Who would make the perfect director for an adaptation of 'Dusty Answer'?

For a long time I've been waiting for someone to take up Rosamond Lehmann's highly underrated and obscure, interwar novel Dusty Answer (1927) and adapt it into a film. However, no one so far has seemed to grasp the chance to convey 26-year old Lehmann's first novel onto the screen. I hope someone will, but until then, here are some of my suggestions of some of the directors I would like to see adapting it:

After having watched Todd Haynes' wonderful Carol (2015) - adapted from Patricia Highsmith's groundbreaking book of the time, The Price of Salt (1952) - I think he would be a perfect director for the job. Having an utterly brilliant insight and grasp of period pieces and handling certain tabooed topics with great sensitivity, Haynes would certainly master an adaptation of Lehmann's work in my mind.

But also Joe Wright with his great sense of detail and observant (camera) eye would be able to catch the tone and mood of the novel - as he did so beautifully with the 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001) (which actually references Dusty Answer at some point).

Andrea Arnold is another favorite director of mine and in films such as Fish Tank (2009) and Wuthering Heights (2011) she conveys the troubles and ponderings of the youth in a very tactile, sensual and curious way that would mirror Lehmann's language extremely well.

I would also love to see James Kent give it a try - especially following his success of patiently adapting Vera Brittain's memoir Testament of Youth (1933) onto the screen in 2014. Absolutely breathtaking and I am already a big fan!

27 September 2016

'Bad' Movies that I Enjoy

We all have those movies that we just enjoy despite they're not exactly well-produced, critically acclaimed or even well-liked in public in general. They're not necessarily bad ... they're just not that good either. Sometimes they're so bad they're good. They are the guilty pleasures we put on every now and then just because we are entertained by their obvious campiness or bad production but still find we cannot bring our hearts to actually dislike. Right? I don't even have an explanation why for most of my own choices. 

I guess they are mainly feel-good films, cheesy rom-coms and silly fantasy/action/adventure flicks that play on all the clichés you could expect and with loads of campy acting. There may be little grains of golden moments in-between that you can learn to appreciate, but the overall picture isn't mind-blowing or groundbreaking. Just a bit silly. Still I find myself rewatching them from time to time. To relax, get a nostalgic kick and a laugh - at an ironic stance.

I think it's okay to have these guilty pleasures as long as you manage to be critical of them, not take them too seriously and appreciate the films of a somewhat higher quality as well. I find that you can actually be entertained AND think while watching movies, contrary to some of the opinions I have met which display a rather obstinate snobbery that honestly baffles me, but I guess every man to his taste.

In the case of "Practical Magic" (1998), one of the included movies below, Didion via Bitch Flicks makes a pretty good argument why campy movies such as these can be enjoyed and viewed.

Well, here are some of my favorite 'bad'/campy films, in no particular order. Feel free to laugh at me or with me at the end of the list. Anyways, I'll say we should embrace our campy side more often.

  • The Sheik (1921)
  • The Son of the Sheik (1926)
  • High Road to China (1983)
  • Jumanji (1995)
  • Six Days Seven Nights (1998)
  • The Saint (1997)
  • The Italian Job (2003)
  • French Kiss (1995)
  • Medicine Man (1992)
  • Casper (1995)
  • That Old Feeling (1997)
  • Life as a House (2001)
  • Domino (2005)
  • The Phantom (1996)
  • Death Becomes Her (1992)
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
  • It's a Boy Girl Thing (2006)
  • Constantine (2005)
  • The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (2008)
  • Heartbreakers (2001)
  • Sliding Doors (1998)
  • Child 44 (2015)
  • The Man With The Iron Mask (1998)
  • Anna and the King (1999)
  • Just the Ticket (1999)
  • Practical Magic (1998)

13 June 2016

Smilin' Through Because of Norma and Fredric

Smilin' Through (1932) is a great little gem of a movie. 

But that might be because the relationship between Fredric March and Norma Shearer outshines everything else; their chemistry is so very warm and at ease. I always loved them together in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and this one only amplifies how well they respond to one another. Not only do they both excel as actors on their own but together - as a screen couple - they just click! Like William and Myrna! Or Spence and Kate!

In my opinion, it’s rare to find a movie from the 1930s that has such believable romantic interaction as this one has. All those cute little gestures (as illuminated by the above GIFs). In general, both actors balanced the comic and dramatic timing with equal ease and managed to stay away from many of the - in my opinion - exaggerated acting theatrics that were typical for the 1930s' Hollywood.  

Besides, given that it’s a Pre-Code, they don’t have to skirt around certain 'racy' subjects, such as pre-marital sex, nor make a big deal out of them either in the film. At one point Norma's character makes it more than clear that she wants him in every way (and unapologetically so), that is, physically not just spiritually through the union of marriage (the latter will become awfully idealized after the Pre-Code era). Fred's character reacts appropriately (see seventh GIF in bottom-left corner) by first looking skywards in frustration from being torn between his sense of moral honour and equal desire for her. (Takes too long to explain the context so go watch it instead.)

This uncensored freedom makes the characters seem more human, believable and relatable, and somehow relaxes them as well as the (modern) viewer.

Their relationship in the movie appears almost genuine - Fredric and Norma look like they truly enjoy each other’s company - so it’s hard to believe Norma didn’t like making this movie (something about her role..?). But honestly, how can she complain when she gets to smooch Freddie all the time..?!

I particularly enjoyed Fredric’s rather modern acting in this one. Actually, I always do because he never seizes to surprise me in the most subtle ways. Is there anything that man can’t do?? I always found him to have this dry-witted, boyish charm and at the same time masculine groundedness, reminiscent of that of Spencer Tracy. 

March and Tracy were rather similar in many ways in fact; they were the always reliable, sympathetic and yet extremely versatile and multifaceted actor type. I think it's no coincidence that they were friends in real-life, both famously played the title character in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931 and 1941, respectively, which were much debated and compared) and played together in Inherit the Wind (1960). They could blend in and stand out at the same time. They had that down-to-earth and instinctive ease in their scenes and smooth, beguiling interaction with their co-players as well as the slightly rugged and characteristic handsomeness of the every-day man. Both so subtle, so good at acting that it didn't seem they were acting at all.

Too bad Fredric is so underrated nowadays. I easily regard him as one of the finest actors who has ever lived! And I think Norma would have continued to dominate the Oscars had she not cut her promising career short so early.

Oh well.

The film comes highly recommended simply because of the treat of watching the sweet interaction between Norma and Fredric. (And you get a couple of gracious scenes with Leslie Howard as well).