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Month: September 2016

Stranger Things S1E8: The Upside Down

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The 40 Years Old Virgin

Having reached the end of the first season of the thing, it is time to wrap up this series of reviews on a mortified note as the last episode (for now…) does nothing but reinstate the status quo in Hawkins. One is unaware as it can count at spoilers, but all ends well at quite a discomfiting degree. Yes Will is reunited with his family after a rescue expedition through the portal into The Upside Down, yes the Monster is defeated in the most predictable way possible after worming his way in our dimension in the stupidest way possible, yes the villains get their comeuppance. Ten hour Dungeons & Dragons sessions can resume and Christmas can be celebrated. Quite cloying, indeed.

What has changed in Hawkins in the course of this yuletide season? Eleven sacrifices herself to vanquish the Monster she has unwittingly unleashed, which makes Mikes very sad until he’s not anymore, two minutes later. The girl’s character is truly tragic, as she has been robbed of her childhood, her innocence, and finally her life, but she’s dispatched in a fury of strobe lights and hysterical editing that, to add insult to injury, also debases the earnestness Mollie Bobby Brown has deployed bringing Eleven to life. The girl needs no pyrotechnics to convey a feeling of doom, and one is sure we will see more of her, in better vehicles for her talent.

Barb has definitely left the building, and that’s one of the most discomfiting plot failures. The character had potential, but is dispatched early, which no one seems to care about apart from a couple of offhand reminders. The writers’ intention in creating her was apparently that someone had to be killed to make the Monster “real”. But this kill is played for cheap and has no repercussions in what is essentially a moral tale, robbing it of any claim to succeed being one.

The last episode outdoes what preceded in terms of “hommage”, ripping off the obvious by placing an Alien egg in The Upside Down AND having Will be found intubated by a face-hugger. It’s surprising that any of the other Monster victims (which are unceremoniously ignored) doesn’t moan “Kiiiiiiill meeeee” at some point of the scene. The blatant copycatting of this Will liberation scene doesn’t leave any option left for the creators of the show but to follow the same logic that what they are so desperately trying to emulate.

So there is this final twist, sigh. Ending not with a bang, but with a retch, Stranger Things wants to have its cake and eat it too. It brings nothing new to the lengthy conversation Stephen King have with his readership for almost 40 years. It does not succeed in conveying a feeling of childhood irremediably lost in the throes of a particularly vicious winter. It does not scare or move, rehashing Spielbergian imagery without his particular talent to depict Kiddyland. It’s paranormal by connecting the dots, coloring by numbers, and it has all the honesty of a professional ingénue playing virgin.

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Are You A Character In A Slasher Movie?

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  1. You have never seen a slasher movie before.
  2. Your mother was a sadistic monster and so are you.
  3. You did something last summer that you wish you hadn’t.
  4. You are a girl so you can’t run for more than fifteen yards before falling flat on your face.
  5. You are black and you will die first.
  6. You are queer and you will die second.
  7. You are a promiscuous bimbo and you will die anyway.
  8. You are a promiscuous queer black bimbo and you are most likely the killer.
  9. Your son was born peculiar but he’s still more beautiful on the inside that any of those young punks from the town.
  10. You should know by now that hiding under the bed won’t do.
  11. If the landline rings it’s from inside the house. Do not bother about technicalities: it is.
  12. The owner of the derelict gas station will advice you not to go inside the woods.
  13. It’s either Friday the 13th, Valentine’s Day, Spring Break, Halloween or Prom Night.
  14. You wonder where Tom went.
  15. Your policy is exquisitely simple: kill, kill, kill, never die.
  16. You are a girl and that’s final.
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Stranger Things S1E7: The Bathtub

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Bed, Bath & Beyond

Admittedly the best episode so far, The Bathtub has plenty of all there is to be annoyed about about the series but some good moments too, even though those remain pretty residual. There is a dialogue scene between Nancy and Jonathan, sat on the floor in front of a red mural representing a giant roaring tiger head; there is a very nice editing of the same Nancy grabbing a fire extinguisher; and there is more excellent acting from Mollie Bobby Brown (what a glorious name!) as Eleven, “still pretty” without her blonde wig, and David Harbour as Sheriff Hopper.

On the other hand, very annoying is the way Stranger Things pilfers Under The Skin, a superior 2013 Jonathan Glazer movie featuring Scarlet Johansson, to represent The Upside Down. Copycatting early 80s paranormal movies and ad libbing Stephen King is one thing and it can be interpreted, or reconstructed, as hommage. Duplicating a great effect from three years ago (even if it could be argued that said effect has its roots in a Japanese contemporary art installation one once saw at the Venice Biennale, involving a vast dark space which ground was a water mirror, and where all spatial consciousness went awry) is a breach of contract and pure opportunism. The fact that those scenes are the most visually striking of the whole season definitely have the scale tipping in the “not half as good as it thinks it is” direction.

This being said. Conscious that it’s the penultimate episode of the season and that something better happens before it’s a wrap, everyone is suddenly very busy in Hawkins. The two opposing teams follow antagonistic curves, the villains getting desperate or tearing at each other while the ragtag Eleven posse of amenable losers tighten the ranks around her. A bicycle/van hot pursuit is the occasion for our mutant darling to demonstrate that she can do more, much more with her mind than just slamming a door. At the price of the exact same nosebleed, natch.

Even if Winona, true to herself, infuses any line with so much pathos she seems to be perpetually stuck on “Famous Last Words” mode, she actually has a scene with Eleven where she’s credible as a surrogate mother. One praises Mollie Bobby Brown for that. That scene, where a sensory privation tank is improvised by way of an inflatable kiddie pool and bags of salt, adds Minority Report to its already crowded dancing card and suspends disbelief a tad too high, since it is requested to admit that a science teacher, disturbed at night by a ten year old (while he watches The Thing, sigh) will goodheartedly provide information on the best way to achieve sensory privation. One guesses their next science project will be a meth lab.

To end up (for now) on something good, the fact that the Evil Lab white vans are labelled “Hawkins Power & Light” is a nice touch. The secret military facility is researching the way to achieve power, and they in the process have opened a breach to an obscure dimension, on which they have no control. Scientific and  political hubris triggering an unspeakable evil defeated by common human decency and love, we are definitely in King’s territory. Stranger Things, for all its shortcomings, gets that right.

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Elvis & Nixon (2016)

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One O’Clock, Two O’Clock, White House Rock

In December 1970, the most popular rock n’roller on the planet decided that the American way of life was going down the drain and blamed the Beatles, drugs and the Black Panthers. He hand-delivered to the White House a letter to the President of the United States, asking to be sworn a Federal Agent at Large to help fight this trifecta undercover and it promptly happened thanks to a quick call to the FBI director. If for you this elevator pitch is pushing the envelope too far, think twice: it actually happened and there are pictures to prove it, which actually are the most requested documents for consultation in the whole US National Archives. The head of FBI was J. Edgar Hoover. The President was Richard Nixon. The third man was the King, Elvis Presley, and he had a super power: the Autograph.

One doesn’t need to scrap one’s head for too long to figure out what interested the writers (Joey, himself an Elvis impersonator, and Hanala Segal) in such a subject. An odd couple so incongruous that they could as well come from different planets, the comedy of fame clashing with the comedy of politics, the utter ridiculousness of both sides’ agenda (gaining in appeal and humanity while “not giving a fuck about the youth vote” for one, “infiltrating the Rolling Stones or maybe The Grateful Dead” for the other), all make for a meaty subject matter which could have, in less capable hands, be all sting and sarcasm. But they are fond of their characters and chose to tap their humanity instead of their delusions of grandeur, and humour, omnipresent in their movie, is always sympathetic, if loaded with a healthy dose of irony. The poster offers “the meeting of two of the greatest recording artists in history”, which is quite succulent.

The first third of the movie deals with the impossibility of the meeting, the second with its difficulty and the third with the meeting itself. Meeting the Commander in Chief is no given even for Presley: “We do not expect any royalty today”, answers Nixon’s advisor when informed the King is at the door. A couple of autographs to the right kids and the promise of a photo shoot later, he’s in. What was supposed to be a five minutes meet and greet lasts much more as the two men discover themselves closer than they thought. Ingenuously, what brings them together after a first round of pissing contest is childhood and self-doubt.

Presley (Michael Shannon, not even close to the rockabilly cherub Elvis still was in 70, but impressively conveying his charisma and his innate sadness) is an icon, maybe the most loved man in America. His feral years are well behind him though, and he has lost touch with who he is, or was, enshrined as he is in clothes, jewelry and adoration. He only trusts his two oldest friends, Jerry and Sonny (Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville, good at playing the rock and the roll, respectively). The two scenes where his vulnerability shows are great; without them Elvis would be some kind of Yoda, imbued with so much self-confidence and poise that it would be difficult to respond to him in any other way than worship. When he meets Nixon and finds a level ground with him, he’s a kid for a while, then regain his composure and departs quite curtly. It is a perilous exercise of tightrope and it works.

Kevin Spacey is wonderful as Nixon. It’s almost scary, a short while after watching him as President Underwood in House of Cards, to see him inhabiting the Oval Office in such a completely different fashion. The two men have nothing in common, Nixon’s cynicism being routed in his hate for what the “genetic lottery” has attributed him. “I’m not looking like a Kennedy”, he says in a moment which is both acerbic and surprisingly fragile. Never Underwood would have these thoughts, or those mimics, including this infectious jubilation when Presley calls him “a cool cat”, much to the dismay of his two advisers, Chapin (Evan Peters, too juvenile for the role) and Krogh (Colin Hanks, perfect). The fact that the screenplay takes the trouble of building fully fleshed characters in both camps is highly commendable.

One has some reservations about the film but they are of the minor kind. The karate scene (which Shannon judged “in poor taste”) might be ill advised, even though Spacey suddenly unleashes an animosity that is both scary and poignant. The Watergate foreshadowing of the parking meeting is a bit on your face. Budget limitations show at times. But in any scene Elvis is in, there is always a reaction from passers-by, and those “Oh my God!” moments are not only fun to watch but the mark of attention to detail. And for our devoted followers, there’s even a “What’s in the box” moment. What’s not to like?

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