Gerald’s Game: To Have And To Hold

Gerald’s Game is a novel, like many of Stephen King’s work, that I read when I was far too young for the source material. As far as I could tell it was about sex stuff but not the fun, interesting type. The weird, scary kind that I had no comprehension of (still kind of don’t, I mean handcuffs? Where does that get fun…), so the story drifted off into the nether regions of my memory and I haven’t thought about it much, if at all. When a trailer popped up for it a few weeks ago, I dusted off what recollections I had and tried to remember if it was worth checking out and although surveys said, “Nah“, the strength of the casting alone sold me on checking out at least a few minutes of the film. Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood are two of my favorite actors that are somehow both incredibly talented and relatively unknown, but they get work regularly on a variety of different projects, so I don’t complain, their presences are usually a barometer of quality. And while I typically do not like scary movies at all, particularly the gory, slasher type, I have a great love for psychological horror. Films like The Descent or Jacob’s Ladder where the monsters on the outside may or may not be worse than the ones in the character’s heads. This is where that ten minute experiment with Gerald’s Game grabbed me by the metaphorical throat and held me hostage for the next two hours (HA! Because it’s a movie…about being trapped in a…. ahem….analogy…..). I’d forgotten one of Stephen King’s most underrated and underappreciated gifts as a storyteller in the afterglow (or not) of his big epic adventures like The Gunslinger or It and it’s subsequent grown-up sequel coming in 2019 and it’s that he’s a fucking master of tense, low-key, surreal narrative. It’s that hearing his characters talk and think and imagine and recall are all something he can do while making the reader or viewer feel like they are a part of the experience, it’s as if he knows these characters before he knows the story and that we are all, including King, along for the ride. Director, co-writer, and editor Mike Flanagan is fully aware of this and does a spectacular job, possibly the best since The Shawshank Redemption/The Green Mile combo by Frank Darabont, of bringing King’s novel off of the page and onto the screen with such naturalism you’d forget which came first.

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Back to Gugino and Greenwood, without going beyond that first 10 minutes of film time or spoiling the situation as it unfolds from there, these two actors could not be more in their element, playing off each other with such a pitch perfect blend of tenderness and spite that it’s hard to believe they haven’t been working together for years. So affecting are the performances, and aside from a few practical impediments, a majority of this film could take place as a stage production. Writing like this, that is mostly dialogue and internal monologue (kind of), sinks or swims on the performances, this could easily have turned into a weak imitation of the Saw franchise and become a direct to DVD bore-fest, instead of the absolute clinic in character development and arc that it is. They are helped by the fact that veteran horror director Mike Flanagan knows exactly what the hell he is doing. Instead of trying to weird out or shock the audience with awkward angles or rapid cuts or the bane of my existence and sign of a cheap, lowdown, good-for-nothing hack, jump scares, he lets the actors create and build the tension. He lets the scene do the work, where the fear and horror comes from what might happen or what’s just out of view, rather than slapping the audience in the face with a loud noise or a piece of gore. If ever there was a genre that benefits greatly from effective suspension of disbelief, it’s this one and a director who knows how to keep stylistic flourishes or winks at the audience out of the picture is a smart one.

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Gerald’s Game, when not being a study in the simple, claustrophobic fear of being trapped alone in the dark, goes into some pretty dark subject matter in an intelligent, thoughtful way and King deserves more credit for depth than he’s usually given. For a good long while during his heyday, the writer was regularly mocked by so-called or self-described “serious” literary establishments for being a populist, no-talent shill, with no redeeming qualities or significance to speak of, and it’s not hard to understand why. But for all the books about cars coming to life and killing people or tractor-trailers coming to life and killing people or vending machines coming to life and killing people, there’s are some truly moving, exceptional stories that come out of the man’s head. Stand By Me, based on the novella The Body, is one of the finest coming-of-age stories of this generation, The Shawshank Redemption is basically a perfect film but the short story Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is just as magical and moving as the adaptation (a bit shorter, of course). And Misery is without a doubt one of the most terrifying, engrossing stories you’ll ever read and the thing that these all have in common, including Gerald’s Game, is how grounded they are in reality. When King sets down the supernatural element and focuses on the human one, he shows exactly how good he can be. The themes in this film, in anyone else’s hands, could have been an exercise in what horror and most mainstream film get wrong so often: objectifying and disempowering women with violence, sexual or otherwise. Instead, it does what great horror stories can do so well: humanize, redeem, and ultimately empower a victim. All credit to Mike Flanagan and company for understanding and realizing it so well, this is an adaptation that should not be missed, but a real tip of the hat also goes to the man himself for subverting the genre before it was cool. Long live the King.

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Iron Fist: Face To Foot Style

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If what follows sounds like I am teeing off with particular aggression on Iron Fist it’s because I am big fan of the Marvel/Netflix collaboration. More than that, I’m a lapsed comic book fan from back in the day and further, I happen to love storytelling in general. I believe that it’s magical, that it has a transformative quality, and that it can be, not always but sometimes, a sacred thing. I think not everyone deserves to be a storyteller on a large stage and if you are a shitty one, you should stop getting jobs telling stories. Now, I’ve never been a big fan of Dexter but the final seasons of that show, along with the idiotic finale, were remarkably stupid and I was able to deduce, decidedly, that Scott Buck is an absolutely shitty storyteller. In fact, I’m not going to use that word to describe him anymore. The point is, someone at Netflix and/or Marvel saw those critically maligned and audience hated seasons of Dexter and said, “Hire that guy to run Iron Fist.” And the result is exactly what one would expect. Iron Fist is abysmally bad. It’s stupid. It’s badly written. It’s glacially slow and uninteresting. It has no sense of itself or understanding of who or what its main character is or why. It’s not just bad for a Netflix series, it’s objectively terrible and would not last three episodes on network television without being cancelled. And the world would be a better place if that were its fate.

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Where to start. I recently encountered the term “idiot plot” coined by the late great Roger Ebert to describe a story whose resolution would be easily accomplished if the main characters were not idiots. This applies immediately to the first conflict present in Iron Fist: no one believes he is really Danny Rand, who supposedly died in a plane crash with his parents 15 years earlier. Danny is at first unable to convince his two childhood friends of his identity, even when sharing fun memories of playing soccer with them as children (Actual Dialogue: “…you don’t remember? I played the goalie.” You were the goalie or you played goalie, you fucking moron), but they are unconvinced so they drug him and send him to a psychiatric hospital where he is held against his will because that’s something you can do to people if you don’t believe they are who they say they are. This is resolved two episodes in when Danny sends his former bestie a package of M&Ms from the hospital with the brown ones taken out and she’s like, “It’s really him!” Because he couldn’t just fucking say “You don’t like brown M&Ms” on the multiple occasions they’ve interacted. Flash forward two episodes and Danny convinces Trinity (lawyer Hogarth) within thirty seconds of meeting her by immediately sharing intimate details of their past. Which now he apparently knows how to do.

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Finn Jones is a perfectly capable actor but in response to the negative reception Iron Fist is receiving he theorized that the current pop culture mindset is inherently anti-billionaire, and that people just don’t like the character of Danny Rand because of it which is stupid. Danny Rand is a prick but not because he’s a billionaire heir, he’s a prick because he’s a prick. When he decides to turn down a fortune in order to fight for majority ownership in his parents company his faux sister/bestie, who made the original offer, asserts, “My brother and I have been working our asses off for years to build this company up while you have been off living in a monastery.” It’s a perfectly fair goddamn point. But for someone who has no need for possessions or shoes, Danny sure is interested in taking back ownership of his billion dollar company and buying an Aston Martin as soon as possible.

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When the reviews started coming in for Iron Fist I was initially skeptical, as Marvel and Netflix haven’t missed a beat so far. Daredevil might be the best one-two punch introduction of a conflicted superhero struggling with his identity and purpose on a largely grounded scale. He fights for Hell’s Kitchen both as a vigilante and a lawyer and as a Catholic which informs his sense of responsibility and guilt and the fight scenes are jaw dropping at times. Jessica Jones is a snarky know-it-all with a neo-noir sensibility and one of the most compelling and terrifying villains in the Marvel canon. Luke Cage is a modernist blaxploitation masterpiece that embraces black culture and music like no other comic book adaptation ever has. But to play the devil’s advocate, the Electra story line is pretty boring and Daredevil does get lost in this drama with The Hand, which at a certain point just become a series of faceless goons for Matt to beat up. And Jessica Jones suffers the most from that third quarter slump that all these shows have suffered from, that period of filler episodes that seemingly have no bearing on the rest of the plot before it ramps up again for the final act, an act that absolutely ruins that same fantastic villain who largely carried the show. And the energy and focus that Luke Cage starts is ejected right along with Cottonmouth out that window, with the second half of the series suffering a lack of direction or purpose. And although these shows get more right than they get wrong, by and large, the writing was on the wall. There are flaws in Marvel/Netflix formula. Because if any of these showrunners had failed to at least get the core of the character right and embrace that as much as possible, all of these shows are going to be middling at best. And Iron Fist is just such a failure.

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How difficult would it have been to sit down with some classic Kung Fu films from the 7os and just indulge in the campy joy, to saturate the writers with some of the culture and art that inspired the original character and find a way to modernize it within what was fun about that genre. To take the subject seriously without the showrunner and writers taking themselves too seriously, that’s a recipe for success that other fringe characters were able to exploit, from Ant-Man to Guardians of the Galaxy, there needs to be at least some affection for the source material and a degree of effort made. Iron Fist has none of those things. No love, no effort, no thought, no logic. What it does succeed in is a few things:

  1. It proves that both Marvel and Netflix are fallible. This isn’t exactly revelatory but it shows that the two otherwise strong brands can not just be off the mark, they can miss the target completely in a full 13 episode series. My understanding of Netflix is that they are a showrunner’s dream to work with, they are hands-off, they encourage pushing boundaries, and don’t add pressure to appeal to a larger audience. This is great, but it also leads to things like The OA which, from an artistic standpoint, is incredibly bold but also desperately needed someone somewhere to shout “…interpretive dance…are you fucking kidding me?!”  from a place of power.
  2. Being the worst Marvel property to date by a huge margin, on par with some of the worst comic book adaptations of all time, along with CatwomanSteel, and pretty much all of the Fantastic Four films. Congratulations.
  3. It demonstrates the sad fact that Marvel is now a fully mainstream force in the entertainment industry in the sense that Scott Buck, who should not be allowed near so much as a typewriter, will follow the age old Hollywood tradition of successfully failing upwards by heading up the Inhumans franchise later this year.

 

Here’s hoping The Defenders really do save the day, if not from The Hand and Sigourney Weaver, than at least from the likes of the asshole who brought us this storytelling magic.

Five Theories on the Future of Stranger Things

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As happens when a pop culture phenomenon catches on the internet is awash with articles about the Netflix original series and 80s zeitgeist, Stranger Things. Reddit is plagued with them to the point that the comments sections are themselves bogged down with complaints about the number of articles that somehow still get upvoted. And I am guilty of indulging in these articles because like anyone else I crave details about a thing that I like as much as this show. I want to know more about the actors and the writers and all the trivia I can absorb because I have no social life to speak of and it fills the emptiness inside where my heart used to be it’s a fun hobby that compliments my other passion; writing. But the thing about all these articles, for the most part, is that there isn’t a lot of content to be found in them. Some of the interviews with the Duffer brothers have been fascinating regarding their inspirations and intentions with the story but the world of Stranger Things itself is very new. Part of its charm is how grounded and conventional and familiar it seems while at the same time, the supernatural elements are that much more intoxicating because of how little we know about them. Which leaves a big void for us nerds and geeks to stare into while we scratch our heads; we’ve been beating our chests and stomping up and down over Star Wars sequels and the future of the DCU but when it comes to a tiny 8 episode unique intellectual property there isn’t a whole lot to say other than, “Yeah. It’s uh…..really good.” And then we go make a Hot Pocket.

But because I’m a shameless opportunist and a nerd from back before it was cool I thought I’d get in on the action but with the objective of adding on to the conversation rather than reiterating it. For some reason folks are still wondering if a second season is going to be greenlit (it will) and I wanted to explore some ideas and theories about it using some imagination and my experience with the material that inspired the shows tone and direction. Also, I’m going on record that although I have read a few interviews and other reviews of the show I have not read any other season two theories with the intention of keeping other peoples ideas out of my head. So if anything I come up with bears any similarity to someone else’s….I thought of it first. *loads up a Hot Pocket*

 

Barb is Coming Back

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The Evidence: I liked Barb a lot. Not as much as some other fans of the show, but something about those glasses and her awkward sense of responsibility just struck a chord with me and although she serves her purpose perfectly in the story as our introduction to the Upside Down and our first real look at the Demogorgon there is something not quite right about her story line and here is why: what really happened to her? The monster attacks her in the pool, that much is clear but he doesn’t eat her like the deer or anything. Instead, we don’t see her again until near the end when Eleven locates her somewhere near where Mike will eventually be rescued so although she was in the other dimension for a shorter amount of time without being eaten how did she die? Why wasn’t she sitting upright with a slug down her throat?

Eleven never actually confirms that she is dead, she only apologizes, but there might be something else going on here. This is going to be one of the most trite things I’ve ever written but good storytelling is like magic; it’s not just about what you see but what you think you’ve seen and the Duffer Brothers left themselves an out here by being vague about her fate. So what is the alternative? Well, let’s walk through it. The Demogorgon is a terrifying, no-face having monster that appears to randomly terrorize the town of Hawkins but is that really all it’s doing? The fact is it must have somehow delivered Will to the place where he was being…incubated?…implying some level of reason or agency. That Barb, discovered by Eleven while searching for Will, seemed to be nearby also implies a pattern and if its purpose was only to kill humans why take them anywhere at all?

The Theory: Dark Side Barb. Or, alternatively, Upside Down Barb.

If she suddenly shows up back in the normal world seemingly unphased and with a new sense of confidence or mystique there are two basic possibilities. Either we have an Invasion of the Body Snatchers situation, which would be disappointing because that implies some kind of huge conspiracy and then a paranoid fear of who is really who, etc., etc. Okay, that actually sounds kind of cool. OR, Evil Barb is some kind of one-off projection of an evil Upside Down sentience, that is sooo evil. The thing about that other dimension is that it appears to be some kind of dark reflection of our own world, everything here has an analogue there. So what is the analogue of a human being or a society in that dark, ashen place?

Plausibility: Reasonable but not certain. If not I will miss her like the rains down in Africa.

 

Jim Hopper is Going to the Dark Side

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The Evidence: I’m cheating a little bit here because I have actually read the AMA with David Harbour where he discusses the future of his character and he comments on the idea that he thinks Hopper still has a ways to go before he becomes the hero he can be. There’s a lot of Han Solo in this character, I think, who was a little bit of a craven scoundrel to begin with and had to grow up a little bit before saving the day. Lest ye all forget, I know I did because I was blinded by emotion and also tears, but Hopper sold out Eleven in the end of the series in order to get the cooperation of the Hawkins Lab people. Ultimately, it was to save Will from the Upside Down but the fact of the matter is he traded her life in to do it. So whose shady vehicle did he jump into in the last episode? Why is he stealing food, specifically, Eggo waffles to leave in the forest? And what really happened to his daughter?

That last question is the important one. And Harbour may have tipped his hat a little with regard to it because when it came up in the AMA he dodged the subject by saying it’s probably going to be explored more if (when) there is another season. Which means her fate is going to have some bearing on his motivations and this is where the theories start to crop up. I think that we’re going to be trading in the Hawkins Laboratory for something a lot scarier: the US Government. Specifically, the CIA and their ilk, and I think that Hopper’s success in rescuing Will Byers is going to make him their number one guy for exploring the Upside Down to a greater scale. Further than that, I think that they are going to use the fate of his daughter to somehow manipulate him into doing some unethical stuff, something that is going to lose him the trust of the folks he helped in the first season.

The Theory: Hopper will betray Eleven. Again.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. First, Eleven is alive in some form or another. Second, Hopper knows this and is somehow in contact with her, based on the Eggos. That’s given. What’s also apparent is that no one, including the shady government types, are aware of this. The portal is still open but without Eleven the normal world is basically defenseless and since a ton of Hawkins employees were violently and inexplicably murdered in a small town school it’s reasonable to assume the G-Men are going to want to figure out a way to deal with a threat from the Upside Down a little more effectively which, of course, means escalation. Experimenting on people even more with stuff that makes MkUltra look like the Pepsi Challenge. I’m going out on a limb here because I can’t make the exact connection without the plot points involved but I believe Hopper will be asked to choose between somehow getting his daughter back and sacrificing Eleven. And I think he’s going to make the wrong choice.

Plausibility: High. I’ve got a strong feeling about this one. I don’t like it, but this has classic Hero’s journey written all over it.

 

Will Byers is the Enemy

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This might be too obvious to figuratively put in print, but Will did not come back from the Upside Down without bringing back some demons. Possibly literally. The bathroom scene in the epilogue of the season showed us a couple of very important things. Either Will is now somehow able to flip back and forth between the two dimensions without a portal or he’s having severe PTSD and thinks he’s flipping back and forth. Neither of these possibilities bode well for his mental health. Second, he’s got some kind of extra-dimensional tapeworm situation going on and I almost threw up a little bit in my mouth just typing that. This goes back to the incubation thingy that Hopper and Joyce pulled him out of and whatever he spat up clearly looks like the thing they pulled out of his throat so here’s where it gets even more icky: who was feeding whom? Was the tube some kind of life support while he waited to be carved up like a Christmas turkey? Or was the pod feeding off of him somehow, absorbing his life….juice? Is it in some way related to all the slimy roots that are everywhere?

I have no idea. But what I do know is that Will is clearly hiding his condition from the group and, if it persists, he’s only going to distance himself from both them and any kind of help, it’s going to drive a rift between them all. This is also something of a trope in the fiction the show is emulating and I anticipate it being one of those frustrating arcs that could be resolved if the character would just say something but such is the nature of narrative suspense. However, I don’t think the goal of season two will be to save him, we already did that in the first. I think it will be to stop him.

The Theory: Will has powers now and/or is part of the Upside Down

At one point one of the Hawkins scientists comments on the other dimension and refers to its atmosphere as ‘toxic’ which is pretty non-specific and not very ‘sciency’. What are we talking here? Chernobyl toxic? Three Mile Island? Or a truck stop bathroom in West Texas? Relative to the biohazard suited scientists and Barb, Will spent a lot of time over there, including inside some kind of a cocoon but the doctors just seemed to let him sleep it off before sending him home. More than that, what incentive does the government have to leave the kid alone now? Without Eleven, he’s the most significant link to the other side and the only one to survive the place that we know of, why isn’t he in a lab somewhere being poked and prodded? What’s more likely is that the scientists haven’t let him go at all, they are just sitting back and waiting for him to turn into some kind of Mutant Will.

Plausibility: The part about him being alienated from the group? High, almost certain. The part about him being alien-ized? Not great. The best thing about this show is how grounded it is and if a small child turns into the Brundlefly in the middle of it they are going to lose half their audience. If you don’t understand that reference, sorry I’m not linking what it is because I’d have to google it which I’m not doing because I’ve eaten recently and intend to eat again in the future.

 

Eleven is Alive

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The Evidence: If this theory had subtitle it would probably be ‘No Shit, Sherlock’ but let me expound on how and why. Well, actually, the ‘why’ comes first. Earlier I pointed out that Hopper more or less sold out Eleven in order to save Will but this may have only been what it looked like to everyone but Hopper and Eleven. They both knew and understood that anyone she is around is in danger and in order to protect her new friends from the government she was going to have to disappear, in this case literally. So Hopper gave her up but with the condition that she pull a vanishing act where everyone could see (everyone who survived, anyway) and give the impression she was gone for good in order to stop anyone from looking. Which is why he was stealing food for her and leaving it in the woods, she didn’t actually explode along with the Demogorgon, she’s just in hiding. So now for the ‘how’ which I answer with a question: how did she escape from the lab in the first place?

She has telekinetic powers, some kind of astral projection power, and some form of ESPN (that’s a joke, I meant ESP, but then again so is ESPN these days, BOOM! Roasted!). So…why not teleportation? Who’s to say she isn’t able to flip over to the Upside Down and then flip back somewhere else? And that the reason she hasn’t up until this point is because there has been a bipedal nightmare on the loose over there.

The Theory: If and when Eleven returns she’s going to be a different kid than the one that disappeared at the end of season one. Less skittish, more mature, and probably more in control of her abilities. I don’t really have much else here except to say that if the Brothers Duffer don’t bring back El I’m going to burn down the building.

Plausibility: Duh. The plausibility is ‘duh’. Of course, once she does come back…

 

The Others Will Come For Her

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The Evidence: Why was the Hawkins lab a part of the Department of Energy? Was this to hide their true purpose or scientific experiments? To hide in plain sight? Because for every Area 51 where conspiracy nuts and ufologists like to converge there are a dozen CIA black sites that no one will ever know about all over the place. It’s the Cold War for goodness sake and the potential Eleven has to be a game changing psychic weapon is unprecedented. So why the rinky-dink lab next to a small town run by the star of Memphis Belle? And the rent-a-cop security that four kids on bicycles were able to elude? Not to mention the kids who spent so much time hanging out with that potential weapon were allowed to just go on with their lives without having to sign so much as an NDA. The reaction to the whole situation seems a little bit…tame. And I think I know why: Eleven is not unique at all.

The Theory: Seems pretty obvious when you think about it. Her frickin’ name is Eleven. Not Three or Four. Eleven. Which is why the lab is so low key and no one is having religious experiences in her presence, she’s completely unremarkable with regard to the rest of the MKUltra program. Which means there are others out there like her with comparable abilities who might be loyal to the CIA who are going to hunt her down and the second season will play out like a dangerous game of cat and mouse that will culminate in an all out battle of psychic powers for the fate of the town Hawkins which threatens to be sucked into the nightmarish hellscape never to return unless Eleven can…..

/passes out

….*breathes*, I’m okay.

Plausability: Next to nothing. That would probably be a pretty amazing direction to take the next season and although it would be cool to do basically Aliens to the first seasons Alien, that is, a big budget explosive story on a large scale versus the intimate, detailed tone of the first, Stranger Things is great for many reasons but the best one, in my opinion is this one:

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So here’s hoping I’m wrong about that last one. The others I feel pretty good about, with the exception of the Barb theory. The reason being, while doing research and searching for pics I came across one of her dead face, and, well. That one isn’t looking so good. But I have to hope because Nancy is just not the same without her and I still don’t trust this Steve guy. This has been fun but my brain is tired and I need a nap. Maybe a drink. Definitely an Eggo waffle.

The Little Prince: This Is Only A Shell

 

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The following is going to sound like a thinly disguised backdoor brag but it’s not meant to be. I started reading at a very advanced level at an early age so, if I did read The Little Prince, I don’t remember it. The reason this is not me patting myself on the back is that I also encountered a lot of adult oriented drama waaay too early in life. I was reading Stephen King when I should have been reading The Hardy Boys and although I didn’t understand all of it, it may have warped my psyche to the point that I don’t relate to the classics, at least not anything before discovering Grimm’s Fairy Tales and how dark children’s stories could be. So what I’m trying to say is, I am familiar with the cover of the book and some of the quotes that people sew onto pillows but I don’t harbor any particular sentimentality towards The Little Prince. But I do now.

It all started with this damn trailer that is so magical I didn’t even want to watch the film because there is no way it could live up to its promise. But by framing the original story within a new one Mark Osborne and company are able to tell two narratives, the former about the wonder of youth and the absurdity of adulthood and the latter, about the power of storytelling and the imagination. Both overlap somewhere along the way without overwhelming one another; both, ultimately, become fables about growing up, love, and death. The new plot line is cut directly from the Pixar formula combined with a touch of Miyazaki; it’s clear, expository, and charming. On the other hand, the dream-like sequences that recall the Prince’s story are cryptic and obscure but somehow just as clear, the transition marked by a switch to paper-cut animation and traditional stop motion from CGI. And the effect is hypnotic. It would also be easy to confuse its elegant dialogue for New Age pablum until you remember the novel was originally written in French and published in 1943. Although some of it can be confused with spiritual platitudes and semi-profound insights, some ideas are beautiful enough to transcend both language and generations. And instead of trying to duplicate whatever magic is found in the book, the filmmakers only tease the Prince’s story, touching on its themes without relying on it to carry the film.

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The voice talent on this film is out of this world (said stupid Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, probably). Jeff Bridges and Mackenzie Foy, Paul Rudd, Rachel McAdams, Ricky Gervais, Benicio Del Toro and the list goes on, it speaks to the quality of the story how many big names are on board for what are essentially cameos. The emotional center is Bridges who could be creepy or off-putting if his performance weren’t so heartrendingly genuine. When the story takes a mature turn I was heartbroken at his delivery, in all its simple grandeur or lack thereof. I can never remember loving the man’s voice as much as I do in this film or becoming attached to an animated character so quickly. Also, apparently this is Rachel McAdams first animated feature which is surprising, she has a real gift for it and brings a wounded diligence to the mother without coming off as villainous. But the real star of the film is 15 year old Mackenzie Foy who has done nothing but make me cry since her breakout performance in Interstellar as young Murph (don’t let me leave, Murph!). She simultaneously grounds the film while also elevating it with a surprisingly tender performance, all while handling the comedic beats like a champ.

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I don’t often watch animated films and that’s not an attempt to seem superior. I appreciate them but my taste in film has to do with nuance and imperfection and all the little ways an actor, director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and so forth compose a scene. I like to go back and rewatch those scenes come together, like a chemical reaction where you see something new every time. Animation, on the other hand, is precisely executed, there is no spontaneity. Hundreds of artists and designers and writers contribute to each frame which is not an inferior product, just a different one, the same way a three piece rock band can be as thrilling as a full orchestra, depending on the context. The Little Prince is both. Big and majestic and beautiful. Intimate and sweet and endearing. It succeeds in being both unique and familiar and instantly memorable. It’s on the nose with its message, unapologetically so and it’s an urgent one, a sadly beautiful reminder that growing up is inevitable but not the end of youth. That animated films and children’s books can be more than they seem and aren’t only for children. And that the most important things in life are invisible to the eye but not the heart.

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Stranger Things: Like Coming Home

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Minor spoilers involving tone and some general stuff…

I saw an article the other day that referenced Stranger Things, with the question ‘Has homage become a genre of its own?’ and it made me hesitate. Then I got defensive because, as will soon become apparent, I am madly in love with this single season of Netflix original television and I don’t want it to be disparaged at all if I can help it. It’s a valid question, though and I would love to hear the opinion of someone who somehow grew up without John Carpenter, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, et al. who so clearly influenced the tone and atmosphere of this show. Would it still be as magical without the nostalgia and familiarity of that generations biggest fiction influences? If it can stand on its own, which I think it would, then it is possibly the best first season of television I’ve ever seen and without a doubt one of my favorite shows of all time.

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Am I having a side of overstatement with my hyperbole? Also possible. If someone were to draw a big dartboard that described this shows targeted demographic my dumb face would be sitting squarely in the center of the bullseye just like this. I accept that. Stranger Things is E.T. and Stand By Me and The Explorers and The Goonies all crossed with It. And if it were just those things I would probably be less infatuated with the show. Impressed with the production value, charmed by the low-fi soundtrack, and pleased with the suspense, sure. Thanks for stopping by. But what Stranger Things also has is the best, most charming group of child actors that I have seen since Freaks and Geeks. It has a frantic, heartbreaking performance from Winona Ryder. And an absolute prodigy in the form of 12 year old Millie Bobby Brown, who kills it in every single scene she is in while having next to no dialogue to work with.

In Stephen King’s On Writing he mentions that the story itself is not always as important as the storyteller. And in good writing every character thinks and behaves like they are the hero of their own plot, everyone has their own pathos and it’s this fidelity to the characters that makes that homage to 80s pop culture a good familiar. Everyone feels like real people. And even though the ‘normal looking town with a dark secret’ is a trope that has been done to death in television since the early days of the medium, it works here because the town doesn’t know there’s a secret, it hasn’t been weird forever. There isn’t a vast conspiracy (or is there) that would turn the whole thing into a cliche, no conniving Big Bad wringing their hands at the end who would have gotten away with it, and, best of all, not a totally happy ending.

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I don’t know who the hell the Duffer brothers are other than they are apparently twins and are around 34 years old but they have no right being this adept at filmmaking. Which is what it is, by the way. I know the medium is television and it’s serialized, but Stranger Things is an 8 hour film that is never boring. One of the things that makes Netflix’s other series feeling bogged down is the amount of filler content, from House of Cards to their Marvel series, that feel obligated to be around 12 or 13 episodes when they really have around 7 or 8 hours of content. And Stranger Things is exactly as long as it needs to be, no more no less. To be fair, if there is an arc that is too color by numbers to be enjoyable, it’s the older sister dating the rich kid while the sensitive loner pines away in the background but even that took an unusual turn I didn’t expect.

So if the opening and suspense is Stephen King-esque, the brothers Duffer do something unexpected and brilliant in the finale of the season. Where the horror and supernatural elements are expertly creepy and engrossing, in closing they pivot to Spielberg. I am a great admirer of King but if there is one glaring flaw in his writing it’s in his endings. Often the idea overwhelms the humanity in his characters and the suspense and his spontaneous writing method can sometimes fizzle or land with a thud, but Spielberg is a more mainstream storyteller, he has his audience in mind from start to finish. And here Stranger Things, as fantastic as it gets, reminds us that the whole ballgame is really about a mother trying to find her son, a man trying to save what he lost, and a group of friends trying to protect each other. It’s why another homage to Spielberg, Super 8, failed to be anything other than charming spectacle. For some reason JJ Abrams saw E.T. and thought the climax of the film was the spaceship flying away but it wasn’t. It was the love that had developed between two friends who couldn’t be together and the loss of that love.

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It’s the most difficult thing to write about something I really care about. On one hand I want desperately to share it with people but on the other I don’t want to ruin the joy of discovery by rambling about it for a thousand words. Suffice it to say Stranger Things made me forget some of the more cynical approaches to… no, that’s not right. It reminded me of the fort I built in the hills behind the house I grew up in and the poison oak that I kept stumbling into back when it was still okay to tell kids ‘be home before dark’. It made me think about the time my uncle told the worst ghost story of all time while sitting around a campfire that I knew was completely nonsense and I believed every word of it. It made me remember what it was like to sit curled up in a closet with a flashlight and a dog-eared library book. And a show that brings all that back and reminded a bitter old man like me what it was like to be kid again is more than just homage. It’s inspired storytelling.

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House of Cards, Season 4: No Good Deed

House of Cards, Season 4: No Good Deed

Minor spoilers, because I do not really care for this show. 

I’ve endured another season of House of Cards hoping against hope that it finally lives up to its namesake and comes tumbling down. The shenanigans and tomfoolery that Frank Underwood has either orchestrated or somehow wiggled out of are stretching the bounds of believable at this point with the character himself absent of any of the charm or devil-may-care attitude that made him so watchable in the beginning. Now he is simply an asshole politician, if you’ll excuse the lack of delicacy. A lot of the fun of the first and second season was in watching him maneuver and beguile his way into power using his wits and bloodthirsty instincts. Even as bad a man as he clearly was, Underwood fascinated by winning at any cost and an audience loves a winner, morally bankrupt or not. It was classical, compelling, and Machiavellian until around the third season when the show shifted gears completely and became the Evil Twin of The West Wing, a far superior show in terms of scale and verisimilitude. Because as much as the acting and production quality had not changed much, the last thing we want to do, as an audience, is watch Machiavelli run for office, let alone attempt to govern. Make no mistake, though, the fourth season is a drastic improvement and a near return to form but like every season before it I was left with the exact same feeling by the end: just dirty all over.

When last we left off Frank is trying to save the economy by sacrificing Social Security and (failing at) matching wits with a thinly veiled mock-up of Putin (who is written as not such a bad guy, only putting up a front) only for Claire, his serpentine wife to turn her back on him at his most vulnerable, having suddenly come to the revelation that her ambitions would always come second to her narcissistic, murderous, amoral, power-hungry husband. Uhm. Hashtag Feminism? This abrupt about-face was supposed to leave us on the edge of our seats but instead felt unearned and not because her betrayal was unjustified, just long overdue if it was valid at all. And so from the start of the season Frank is scrambling for sure footing. Thankfully, the rift between the two of them is the dealt with efficiently allowing the rest of the story to mend itself into something resembling the real drama and suspense of a Presidential election. Because there isn’t nearly enough of that going on in the news.

Joel Kinnaman. Well. Joel Kinnaman is exactly as charming as a big wet blanket that someone has drawn a very handsome face on. I don’t understand the casting here because although he can play smart and confident, he’s absolutely tone deaf as a politician. I’m hoping that this season of House of Cards gets the Emmy nomination for Special Effects for its depiction of the man delivering a motivating speech to a crowd and then loses because I didn’t buy that shit for one second. His character Will Conway is very interesting, however, and a Conservative wet dream: Handsome? Check. War Hero? Check. Stepford Wife? British and hot, double check! Charismatic? ……….Pass. He’s also extremely tech-savy and morally flexible so he makes for an excellent opponent to Frank Underwood and a believable front runner in an election. Also, Neve Campbell is in this season. That’s really all I have there. The rest of the supporting cast does a lot to keep the plot moving along and is an absolute boon to the show as a whole. And they are finally, finally starting to close ranks around Frank. Suffice it to say things actually start to happen in this season and the high-wire act appears to be reaching a middle. For the first time since the end of the first season, I am genuinely looking forward to the next so whatever Beau Willimon put on his Wheaties, he needs to stock up on it. Oh, wait what? Strike that.

I don’t know if I’m masking my contempt for this show very well but let me be clear. I get that it is a quality television program with often great acting, good writing and directing, and the production value is on par with most HBO offerings, alright? That, I get. What I don’t enjoy is a show that bandies me about the head with hopelessness and despair from scene to scene. I’ll admit that I enjoy a show like, let’s say Breaking Bad, as dark as it is, because at most points there’s someone I can either relate to or root for and that’s just not the case in HoC. Every time a character even attempts to do the right thing or be good in some way the repercussions are almost instantly and staggeringly bad for them. I know this is the aesthetic that the show is aiming for, that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and only the strong survive and it achieves this kind of drama very effectively. But, and I know this is simply my personal preference, that’s just not the kind of world I want to settle down in for 13 hours at a time.

I will say this about Netflix’ flagship series House of Cards: it is a dark glass to see through that makes honest attempts at integrating real world scenarios into its plotlines. And where the aforementioned West Wing, which was admittedly an idealistic look at White House politics, would attempt and often succeed at solving these conundrums, HoC does no such thing. Instead, these events are used, as they often are in real life, to obfuscate or manipulate other players on the chessboard, or the public as a whole and again, although I respect that approach, it reminds me why I have such a hard time enjoying the show. The world is a cold enough place. Speaking of cold, my God the finale was chilling. Effective and truly disturbing, it stuck with me for a few days and, despite my preferences, I offer my sincere respect for how well it was executed. Which is the good thing to do, I feel. Which means if we were in the world of HoC I should subsequently be abducted by a pack of rabid dogs and framed for high treason.

 

Daredevil, Season 2: When a Good Man Goes to War

Daredevil, Season 2: When a Good Man Goes to War

I had a difficult time believing that the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil could outdo the first, which was mature and complex as well as intelligent and incredibly grounded for what it was. It never felt like a comic book adaptation and not simply because of its literal and thematic darkness; Drew Goddard and Co. seemed to take the source material earnestly without forgetting that storytelling isn’t just about beating your audience about the head with seriousness and themes (House of Cards, I’m not so much nodding in your direction as I am staring at you with piercing, accusatory crazy eyes). Storytelling can also be, you know, fun. It’s escapism. And as horrible and violent as Hell’s Kitchen seems to be at points, you never want to look away from the screen. It’s oddly beautiful in its own way and populated, lived in. Like these characters are living and breathing even when we aren’t around to see. I was wrong about Season 2. It not only embraces what was strong and effective about Season 1, it finds a much steadier and consistent tone, expands on an already great cast, and, like any good literature, explores some very interesting and divisive ideas, namely when, if ever, is killing in the name of justice justified.

It’s such a thrilling time to be a comic book fan, when comic book shows and movies are being made by other comic fans rather than adapted and watered down to satisfy a larger audience by people who seem to have a disdain for the source material. Mostly. Drew Goddard, again, did a great job as a writer and producer on the first season and has gone on to be nominated for adapting The Martian, so things are on the up and up for him. But he is also a Joss Whedon alum which is a good and a bad thing. The knack for story structure is there and he is still exec producing on DD but the humor, specifically the quirky, witty, often self-deprecating dialogue always felt a little forced to me when it’s coming from anyone but Joss. In Season 1 it often nagged at me, particularly coming from Foggy and the evil Warden from The Shawshank Redemption. With Whedon you are either all the way in his world or not at all, and one of the first things I noticed about Season 2 was an absence of that humor. This could have been a dangerous thing in an already dark and violent show that is introducing one the most dark and violent “heroes” in the Marvel Universe, Frank Castle as The Punisher, but it never seems to matter as the writing succeeds in accomplishing what it sets out to do. Of the three live action attempts at the character, all have succeeded in pissing off one audience or another. I would argue that the Thomas Jane film is not nearly as disastrous as people make it out to be and that I actually kind of liked it but I also don’t really want to be hunted down in the streets. So let’s pretend that I did not.

My opinion of Jon Bernthal was complicated in that during his run on The Walking Dead I hated his character. I was uncomfortable when he was on screen, even frightened of him as he was clearly becoming more and more unspooled but the funny thing is, as soon as he was dispatched from the story (spoilers, omg that’s like five seasons ago wth) I suddenly realized that I missed him. Desperately. He was the only interesting and compelling character at that point. While everyone else was hand-wringing and whining about all the things, Shane was quietly going insane which was awesome. And where Charlie Cox’ Daredevil is all focused and peripheral awareness when suited up, Bernthal takes that quiet rage that he bottles up so well and absolutely kills it as Frank Castle. The dynamic here is fantastic, I felt like a kid reading the page again simultaneously rooting for them to fight but also wanting them to become BEST FRIENDZ.

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I’m not your buddy, guy.

This season also improves the presence of supporting characters Foggy and Karen, who, up until this point in the show again, have been about as interesting and compelling as two characters named Foggy and Karen. The latter did have some kick ass moments in Season 1, but this time around she has actual agency and I found her interactions with Frank to be genuinely touching. Foggy also gets something to chew on this season, rather than being just the comic relief/complaining best friend, although he has not left that all behind just yet.

When it was announced that Elektra would be introduced my first thought was, there is no way that they can top the action/sexual tension of the film version, it’s impossible. And of course they pulled this off by ending their first confrontation, this time in a boxing ring, with its logical conclusion (minor spoiler alert): boning. To be fair, all they really needed to do to top the film in terms of drama and action was roll two russet potatoes down a slight incline and film it. The worst part? Affleck and Garner got married. How do you miss out on sexual tension between two people that are legitimately sexually attracted to each other? I digress. Elodie Yung is a definite improvement on the character and an exceptional femme fatale: at once bored and intelligent, deadly and sly. Like a….spider? A sexy spider. (Do not google ‘sexy spider’. Oh Lord.)

 

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An apology for the sexy spider metaphor.

 

So that conversation about killing, essentially a dialogue about the death penalty, is handled pretty literally. I remember being in support of it most of my adult life but now I am less convinced of its utility. Oddly enough, it was a comic book hero from my youth that introduced me to the debate years ago in the Spider-Man series Maximum Carnage, spread across 14 different issues and publications. Basically, the symbiotic offspring of Venom named Carnage goes on a mass killing spree through New York City and Spider-Man has to team up with a ton of other heroes in order to stop him. But every time Spidey catches up he stops short of killing the bad guy and instead tries to apprehend him which invariably leads to another escape, and another spree. More innocent deaths. I was confused by this as a kid and asked, as some of the characters do, at what point is Spider-Man responsible for some of those murders? For not taking that final step? It’s never quite resolved or explained well enough but years later, I have a better answer than what was offered before. The fundamental difference between Daredevil and Punisher is doubt or an absence of. It’s a subject the first season explored to great effect and what makes Daredevil the hero that he is: as a lawyer and a vigilante he is perpetually in conflict, constantly questioning the validity of his actions, much like the law should in a free society. When they have their showdown, their opposing ideologies come into conflict and where Castle is eager to play the role of executioner, Murdock makes his case. What about hope. Redemption. It’s real and it’s possible. The people you kill deserve another chance…to try again.

Season 2 of Daredevil is a phenomenal success and, again, raises the bar for what comic book properties can deliver in terms of dynamic, exciting storytelling. This may be a bold statement but with Phase 3 of the MCU set to kick off with Captain America: Civil War, the film universe will have its work cut out for it.