Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Brilliant Hack Work of "Stranger Things"

The one-sheet by Kyle Lambert.  I would
call this composition form "Drew Struzan
Baroque:" The color fields, grouping
and eye-lines are nearly identical to
any number of his 1980's posters.
Watched all 8 episodes of this Netflix series in short order: it’s slow and convention-bound in the first few episodes, but it soon stretches out into a satisfying-- if strangely derivative-- science fiction/horror series.

In 1983 Indiana, a young boy suddenly vanishes after a game of D and D with his friends. This sparks several searches and investigations by the missing boy’s friends, family and local authorities, which soon start turning up something unsettling, malevolent and supernatural lurking in the woods outside town. At the same time a strange girl appears, an escapee from a secret government site, embodied with telekinetic powers-- who may prove to be the key to finding the missing boy.

Millie Bobby Brown as "Eleven." Apparently
that buzz cut was not all that easy to achieve.
The direction in these eight episodes is remarkable. The visual style is striking, the art direction is thorough and the individual shots are extremely well-composed (in 1.85:1 Spherical Widescreen, the most popular aspect ratio in the 1980s). The central cast are young teenagers, and every one of them offers realistic, emotive performances— in particular Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the mysterious Eleven. Strong performances by children is an indication of a strong director— or, in the cases of some episodes, directors (the show's creators, the Duffer Brothers).

The Duffer Brothers with Winona Rider on the
set of "Stranger Things." Or is this an homage
to Dead Ringers (1988)?

As stated in the title "Stranger Things" is, nonetheless, “hack work of the highest order.*” A little Poltergeist and E.T. here, a little Evil Dead and Firestarter there, litter the sets with vintage movie posters, and it's a solid tribute to the era. If you were able to subtract these period elements, I doubt there would be enough to fill a single hour-long episode. The title sequence is a well-imitated optical-effect-looking shot, complete with negative specks and vintage fonts (Korinna and Avant Garde). As solid and satisfying as the main plot threads are, there are also weak subplots about bullies and ex-husbands and past loss. Still,  "Stranger Things" is very much worth a good binge-- If anything, it’s fun to watch the show and pick up the 80’s references as they come, flashing like bulbs on a string of Christmas lights.

A few notes:

Castroville in da house!
Acknowledgement of a classic era: “Stranger Things” is set in 1983-- and going past the period setting,it just strip-mines the cinema and popular culture of this era. This was a good choice, as it was a remarkably fecund time for original science fiction, horror and fantasy. Bladerunner, E.T., Mad Max 2, Excalibur, Dragonslayer, Heavy Metal, Conan the Barbarian, The Dead Zone, John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Shining, Poltergeist, The Evil Dead and especially Firestarter were all released around this show’s setting. “Stranger Things” is a pastiche of many of these works, perhaps underscored with a narrative form borrowed from Stephen King. So this isn’t an mere exercise in period visual authenticity: it is also a reworking of genres, kept inside the generic rules of the era. It’s less like, say, “The Americans” or “Fargo,” which are set in past eras, and more like The Artist (2011), which reproduced the narrative and social trappings of the silent era in a silent film.

Cinematic New Mexico: this was the name of a TV and movie trope where cell phones are useless. In the days before wireless become omnipresent horror stories were often set in rural areas, so the instant communication afforded by cell technology was eliminated, which increased the isolation of the characters and intensified the drama. ("New Mexico" was, for a time, a mythical movie region where cell phones didn't work.) 1983 was definitely the pre-cellphone era. This allows places like a regular rural house to be completely cut off and vulnerable to attack from inter-dimensional monsters. The filmmakers even hang a lantern on this by having a regular land-line phone fry into uselessness not once, but twice. This was obviously not the entire reason to set “Stranger Things” in the pre-cellphone past, but it sure didn’t hurt.

Local Angle: Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), a friend of the missing boy,  wears a “Castroville Artichoke Festival” t-shirt for several episodes. It’s totally unmotivated— He lives in Hawkins, Indiana: Castroville is in Central California, south of Santa Cruz. I do appreciate the shout-out.

* h/t to Jared N. Wright, who coined this one-line summary. Once he wrote it, I couldn’t get past it, so I just included it.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Weekend Box Office





I got a new shirt, and it's more interesting than the numbers this week. Thanks to boxofficemojo.com for them, by the way

Weekend Box Office





I got a new shirt, and it's more interesting than the numbers this week. Thanks to boxofficemojo.com for them, by the way

Monday, August 15, 2016

Weekend Box Office





The 2nd most popular movie will make you want to take a shower. But it's summer, you should take a shower anyway. Thanks to boxofficemojo.com for numbers!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Weekend Box Office





This ain't rock 'n' roll - this is suicide! Thanks to the boxofficemojo.com people for numbers.

Suicide Squad: Why So Serious?

Maybe reviewers saw the subtitle "Worst. Heroes. Ever."
and took it at face value.
After a week of reading many delicious, angry, mean reviews for Suicide Squad, the latest entry into the DC Extended Universe, I did something somewhat contrary to my usual instincts after feasting so well on such a banquet of snark: I went out and saw it.

I left the screening wondering if the film’s many critical detractors and I saw the same movie. I thought it was pretty enjoyable.

Let me clarify.

We’re living deep in the Comic Book Movie Era. Superhero movies rule box offices worldwide. They are now nothing less than a fully formed cinematic genre, with major and minor characters, multi—year story arcs, and very solid and reliable generic characteristics. So, as an new entry into this well-defined genre, Suicide Squad fulfills most of its expectations: it’s filled with action and cross-franchise references and juvenile humor and even more juvenile depictions of adult relationships. It’s PG-13, so they are holding back quite a bit on the gore on this one, but the body count is also near the normal level for this genre.

I kept getting the feeling that critics were slagging on Suicide Squad as a bad film— compared to the totality of Hollywood movies. Maybe that’s true: it isn’t as good as Chariots of Fire or Michael Clayton or L’Avventura or Dodgeball: a True Underdog Story. But as a comic-book movie, it’s truly right in the middle of the pack. If you approach Suicide Squad as an entry in a superhero universe franchise— but if you are NOT a comic book fan or even that familiar with comic books— than the film works perfectly well. We are introduced to a group of new characters via backstory, given the signposts and guides to these new characters inside the universe, and the plot is set into motion. Sure, it was dumbed-down and expository scene’ed to death, but without exposition most audiences would be totally out to sea because this films stars some decidely minor DC characters.*

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) in a rare publicity still
with another character.
I agree with most the of reviews that in Suicide Squad there are things that work and things that don’t work. In the minus column, much has been made in the reviews of what a misfire the villain was: The Enchantress (Cara Delevigne). She was, according to some, a cookie-cutter villain whose ultimate goals were poorly defined. Funny, but to me that sounds a lot like MOST comic-book movie villains of late: Thanos (Guardians of the Galaxy) or Apocalypse (X-Men: Apocalypse) or General Zod (Man of Steel) or Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron) are not much more than an interchangeable bunch of power-seeking super beings.

The main story— a group of rag-tag villains is banded together to fight an evil superpower— is another misfire, poorly motivated from conception, really. The main characters are so unwilling to be heroic that at one point they all check out of the story and go get a drink in a bar. From a screenwriting perspective, this is hilariously telling. There is an uncanny and spooky effect in the writing process where characters who are stuck in bad plots will try to get out. They will talk to the writer: “This is stupid: I shouldn’t even be here!” There’s a scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron where Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) hangs a lantern on this effect: “The city is flying and we're fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. Nothing makes sense.” But poorly motivated final battles are a hallmark of comic-book movies, so again: I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

What does work in Suicide Squad are the characters you see in every publicity still: Harley Quinn and The Joker. the sheer amount insane energy Margot Robbie and Jared Leto put into their interpretations is evident on-screen, and both are so vivid they make every other character fade into the background— even Deadshot (Will Smith). People have been looking forward to Harley Quinn’s big-screen debut with as much anticipation as Wonder Woman’s— and she does not disappoint. Funny, sexy, wisecracking and fearless— she’s a character who will go into battle with a super-powered villain armed with a baseball bat-- and think nothing of it. Very much looking forward to her inevitable solo movie.

The Joker, breaking the fourth wall to make you pee a little.
Bad teeth and no eyebrows are menacing enough.
Her relationship with The Joker is as weird and creepy as it is in the comics. He is an abuser who both loves Harley and has zero value for her life and well-being. Some have said Leto’s interpretation of The Joker is too creepy and off-putting. Well, not to sound like a fanboy, but: he’s supposed to be creepy. He’s a villain, a murderer. Even at his charismatic best he should still make you pee a little. I’d take Leto over Heath Ledger, who I thought was a bit too fussy and borderline silly. The Joker should make you uncomfortable. And what he has done to Harley Quinn should make you uncomfortable too.

Strangely, what this film reminded me of most was not another DC or even a Marvel movie: It looked and felt a lot like Mystery Men (1999) a high water mark of the heyday of the Dark Horse Cinematic Universe. It has the same colorful design, outlandish, hand-made-looking costumes and grungy detail. it also featured a rather large roster of fairly unknown comic-book characters, juvenile humor and a somewhat limp main story. Much better villain: tho: I’ll take Casanova Frankenstein over The Enchantress any day.

* Both Marvel and DC superhero movies bury easter eggs in the credits. True fans always advise to stick around for these. But the coda at the end of Suicide Squad— no spoiler— I swear is nothing but Viola Davis and Ben Affleck spewing dense comic-book implications at each other for three minutes. I didn’t understand any of it.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Box Office Report





Not the actual figures, but they'll be close! Thanks to Box Office Mojo for good rough estimates.