Quick Review: Stranger Things 3

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Stranger Things is starting not to get the 80’s right.

Probably it never did. Nostalgia coasts on dusting off old images, making people say “Hey, remember this!” and that’s only fun if it’s in the brightest possible colors. So much of the charm of Stranger Things lay in seeing boys riding around on bicycles, unattended, just like they used to (What about Elle? She didn’t ride a bike. Max doesn’t either; she’s a sk8er grrl).

But one of the things that occured to me with this new season was how *clean* everything looked. And the fact that I noticed it is suggestive.

Folks, the 80’s were dirty. People didn’t care that much about littering, nor about drunk driving. A street that didn’t have broken beer bottles on the side of it was a street that hadn’t been built.

Also, nobody in the 80’s talked about Soviets as being “enemies of the state”, especially not radical journalists. The 80’s weren’t the 50’s. Yeah, the Cold War was an ongoing thing, but we’d all gotten used to it. We were tired of it and wanted it to be over. Not that we suddenly liked the Soviets or disliked Reagan (whose landslide 1984 re-election took place within the timeline of Season 2), we just settled into it as being normal. If anyone found a nerdy Russian in Indiana who wanted to go to a County Fair, we would have bought him all the cherry slurpees he wanted. The 80’s were the great age of Yakoff Smirnoff. That said, I’m glad the show didn’t make the Russians the secret good guys, which I kind of expected during the first episode.

As for the plot: I liked it better than Season 2, which really felt like Season 1.5. Granted, the bad guy was the same, but the approach of it was different. And creepily so: a monster dissolving it’s mind-controlled victims into puddles of flesh that it then draws into itself. The merely Lovecraft-derived Demogorgons and Demodogs from the previous seasons look almost adorable by comparison. Elle finally became an actual character rather than a victim/plot device, and they nerfed her at the climax to underscore this. And they did something useful with Billy other than make him the new Steve Harrington. On the whole, I’m fine with it.

Let’s hope they stop after Season 4.

Quick Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-and-vile-549dda557f5e5c9f5632a216886432b2 I detest serial killers. By which I mean, I detest the attention paid to them by popular culture. There is a sickness in being as aware of them as we are, something concupiscent in our fascination with twisted pyschopathy. That being said, I am hardly less guilty. I regard From Hell (the graphic novel, not the movie) as a work of art. I have rewatched Mindhunter (in fairness, this series is largely about the FBI’s early exploration with the phenomenon of the serial killer, and is as deeply ambivalent with the fascination with them as I am). And I watched this, despite never giving a damn about Ted Bundy. He was a beast in human flesh, and he got what was coming to him. More than that need not be said.

But this film, like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, does an admirable job of explaining the fascination with the evil character that sits at the heart of it. The mafia was a way for immigrants to break the rules and get paid. Wall Street is a way to manufacture wealth out of nothing by selling people the promise of wealth. Extremely Wicked doesn’t have the ambition to explain why Ted Bundy murdered 30+ women in the 1970’s – what explanation, really, could there be? – but it does go a long way towards explaining why his case haunts us, forty years after he was finally caught.

Everyone says Zac Efron is great in this, and he is. The camera still loves him, and he makes every use of it. But what makes this film worth watching is its mis-en-scene. We don’t see Ted Bundy as a killer. We don’t see him cut a swath through innocent co-eds. We see a handsome fellow pulled over in his VW Beetle by a cop and arrested. We see him stand trial despite maintaining his innocence. We see him intimate to his longtime girlfriend that someone is out to get him. We see him withstand prison with stoic spirit and determination. And gradually we get wrapped up in his worldview, his frame, until we find ourselves perversely believing that he’s the protagonist, despite knowing full well that he’s everything the title says he is. It’s a marvelous exercise in structuring a film to drive home the real story, which is that this man was a handsome and charming shell, capable of pulling people into his orbit, and successfully hiding the demon underneath.

But only for a time. Reality will out, and eventually even Bundy is no longer able to maintain the pretense. The climax of the film is the moment where Bundy’s almost self-gaslighting persona cracks – not fully, not in the spittle-flecked Hollywood way – but enough to confirm for us that what we know to be true really is. And that’s both satisfying from a film point of view and deeply sickening from a human one. As with MacBeth, this film about a killer has a weird way of condemning all of us.

Quick Review: The Highwaymen

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This little NetFlick represents the third time Kevin Costner has played an historical lawman up against a famous criminal. In 1987, he did the Hollywood version of Elliot Ness, playing a bright-eyed young crusader forced to get rough to take down Al Capone. In 1994, he did the opposite of that, giving us the grim dirty reality of Wyatt Earp as a thoughtful counterpoint to the previous year’s Tombstone. 

Both of these roles depend to a certain degree on Costner’s trademark flintiness. One of my favorite moments in The Untouchables is when Ness, having been suckered by a bum tip on his first bust, cuts out the headline “Crusader Cop Busts Out”, and pins it to the corkboard behind his desk, then turns around and stares down the rest of the Chicago PD squadroom, a sea of hostile faces silently watching him. His face says “You wanna laugh at me? Go ahead, laugh. I haven’t even started yet.” Underneath the law-and-order, square-jaw good intentions is a quiet fury, which will break loose over the course of the film and throw men off of buildings. He gets his knuckles dirty, because that’s the Chicago Way, and that’s how you get Capone.

Wyatt Earp takes this theme to extreme. The film spends a good hour giving us Earp’s failed first life as a young husband and businessman, who loses his mind when his wife dies, and heads west a jump ahead of a possy, never to return to the land of his birth. Something in him died, the film tells us, and this made him precisely the kind of iron man needed to impose order on the chaos of Dodge City and Tombstone. There is no sign of the killer with the heart of gold, as in True Grit, or even the man haunted by his sins, as in Unforgiven. Wyatt Earp feels neither joy nor remorse in violence. He does what must be done. He’s as cold as a pistol in the rain, and the film is relentless in telling us that by men such as this, and no other, was the wilderness tamed.

In The Highwaymen, the theme encounters variations. First of all, in the story of Bonnie & Clyde, the men who caught them are virtually unknown to the public at large. Frank Hamer has never had a movie or a radio show about his exploits, and previous Bonnie & Clyde films have had the law as a faceless entity, a nemesis that catches up with the romantic pair as it eventually must. Much of The Highwaymen is a reversal of this trend. In fact, we hardly see Bonnie or Clyde in the film, and when we do, we tend not to see their faces. In this film, they are the shadowy enemy, the thing that strikes unseen. Instead, we see Frank Hamer and Maney Gault (an excellent Woody Harrellson), two old Texas Rangers in an era that has ceased to appreciate them even as they make a desperate call for their skills learned, occupying center stage.

On one level, Frank Hamer is as storied a lawman as Wyatt Earp or Elliot Ness, and as feared for his toughness (he’s credited with saving 15 Blacks from lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan). But there’s a reversal here. Hamer is hard on the outside, but inside has moments of vulnerability and understanding. His conversation with Clyde Barrow’s father in particular is a moment of confession and of near-empathy. But he does what must be done.

As with the 1967 Bonnie & Clyde, the film leads up to the young criminals death by bushwacking, and does not spare the audience the reality of that shooting. But if Bonnie & Clyde was all “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, the bright Rebel Yell of the New Hollywood, this film is as dour in tone as its protagonists, and seems to take as its soundtrack Johnny Cash’s “Someday God is Gonna Cut You Down”. We recognize the humanity of Bonnie & Clyde even as we know they’ve got it coming, and we feel a certain horror at the men who gunned them down even as we appreciate their efforts. Nothing is ever as neat and clean as we want, which is why sometimes containing evil requires methods extraordinary.

Quick Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

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People always make the mistake of thinking art is created for them. But really, art is a private language for sophisticates to congratulate themselves on their superiority to the rest of the world. As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance.

-Bill Watterson

Modern art is good for nothing so much as the joy you experience in hating it. A trip through MoMA in New York is a wonderful opportunity to sneer, and it is a merited sneering, because most people not in the modern art scene have intuited that the singular mood of that scene is one of sneering at them. Whether modern art has any aesthetic merit is a separate question. The bulk of it doesn’t, as it is driven by the sneering to produce anti-art more than anything else.

There is thus something disturbingly satisfying to the Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw, which inflicts horror-movie tropes upon art-scene stereotypes. Horror is largely a genre of Judgement, and one of its unspoken messages is that the victims deserve their fate because of their ignorance. The drunk girl who swims out into the night ocean at the beginning of Jaws is a fool tempting fate, and fate devours her. To see this applied to the brokers and curators and critics, to see them killed, as all of them are, by Art, cannot but evoke a knowing nod of the head.

And yet, it doesn’t quite work. The other unspoken rule of Horror is that the Dread Thing, the Monster, have clear rules, thereby giving characters an opportunity to escape. At some point, late in the second act, it is traditional for some Outsider possessing knowledge of the Monster to explain to our protagonists how to avoid it. This never fully happens in Velvet Buzzsaw (some underdone investigating occurs), consequently, the Monster is never fully seen, and can pretty much do whatever it wants whenever it wants. The film thus devolves to an indie version of Final Destination; Death comes when it needs to, for no particular reason.

Probably there are two many characters in the narrative, each traveling their own arc, to give the Monster enough development. One of the reasons its handy to put horror protagonists in a single Place (an island, a cabin in the woods), is that we don’t have to give time to exploring their unique lives, and can so focus on the encounter with the Monster and so figure out how to escape it. But Velvet Buzzsaw is so determined that we find these snobs execrable that they end up without the advantages of a bunch of teenagers in a Slasher flick.

Bottom Line: fun mis-en-scene, almost rises to satire, but incomplete. On the other hand, it’s on Netflix, so watching it won’t cost you anything you haven’t already spent. That’s more than most Modern Art can say.

Movies Have To Be Seen in a Movie Theater, Because Something Something Nostalgia Something Something

Owen Glieberman, pondering in Variety, avoiding the point like it carries Bubonic Plague.

And that’s why, more than not, I’m with Steven Spielberg on his likely proposed change to the Academy guidelines. He is not dissing what Netflix does. He is trying to isolate and hang onto the DNA of cinema — to preserve an essential definition of what movies are, as distinct from what we watch on television. The notion of an extended theatrical window, or something comparable to it, would be the updated version of the old requirement that a movie had to fulfill to be nominated for Oscars: the one-week qualifying run. That was before streaming, but it’s only natural that just as technology changes habits, it changes protocol and it changes rules. It’s the one-week qualifying run that’s become a relic, a trivial hoop that Netflix (or anyone else) can jump through.

But…

Why, though?

Consider film as a form of art. Consider the things that make a film a film. Ask yourself why a film ceases to be a film based on the location of it’s viewing audience. What is so essential about the public movie theater?

If I’m watching Citizen Kane in a theater, I am watching a movie. If I’m watching Citizen Kane on Blu-Ray in my house, I am still watching a movie. If I’m watching it on my tablet streaming from Amazon Prime, I am still watching a movie.

Are we prepared to argue that the only reason I can say “I am watching a movie” is the fact that, thirty-five years before I was born, it was shown in the only venue that was available to the viewing public at the time?

That’s absurd. A requirement that movies be shown in theaters is absurd. It’s not just that theaters are unnecessary; they’re actually sub-optimal. The expense and aggravation of seeing a movie in a theater is no longer worth the minor technical quality of the viewing experience, in an era when wide-screen TV’s and home audio technology is within most people’s grasp. There is no downside to watching Mad Max: Fury Road in my basement, with my own snacks.

The communal experience, you say? If I really want that, I can invite people to my basement. Movie Theaters have nothing to offer but nostalgia, a habit of thinking “this is what a movie is”.

A long-form cinema narrative can be shown on any device. This rear-guard action will not hold.

The End of House of Cards: Sound and Fury Signifies Nothing

p15818372_b_v8_aaWell, not nothing. There’s something to the final image in the final episode (I’m not going to spoil it. Watch and you’ll understand me). But it comes across as incredibly anti-climactic, given the sturm und drang it tries to build. I watched it last night, and my initial response was “non-ending”. Which, on further reflection, it isn’t exactly. I suppose the real meaning of the ending is that we’re right back at the beginning and nothing really has changed.

The mammoth task of ending House of Cards without its main character would probably have defied any creative team. But there was another problem: the character they had, by default, to replace him with was an enigma for six seasons, and the new season did nothing to illuminate her.

Who is Claire Underwood/Hale? What does she want?

One did not have to ask these questions about Francis Underwood. He was a politician;  he wanted power. He was Richard III re-imagined as an American Congressman, complete with scene-chewing asides and soliloquys thrust like a dagger through the Fourth Wall. The point of this was to take the audience on a journey into the dark heart of the City of Washington, to show us how the sausage is made via one man’s struggle to be the Greatest of Butchers.

And yes, the exercise wearied after a while, became a parade of improbables and extra-constitutional fancies, with freshly-minted secondary characters acting without clear motivation (Who the hell is Mark Bishop? Who the hell is Jane? What are they doing? Why?). Like Richard III, Frank Underwood loses his control of events when he wears the crown, and that got dull to watch.

But Claire is an enigma wrapped in a duality and seasoned with progressive bromides. Am I really supposed to believe that the woman who made the office manager of her charity foundation lay off half the staff, and then fired her, is a feminist? Am I supposed to buy that the woman who murdered her lover considers herself somehow better than Frank? Based on what?

The charm of the first season was that these two schemers were a team, they understood and complemented each other’s darkness, strengthened and enlightened it. Claire wasn’t, like Lady MacBeth, full of the wish to murder and empty of the capacity for it. She wasn’t Frank’s driver, she was his partner.

And then, for some reason, she wasn’t. At the moment of triumph, she pulls away from him. Sometimes it’s because she feels guilt, but only sometimes. Sometimes it’s because she feels like she wants her turn, but when Frank offers her exactly that, she becomes his enemy. Nothing she does makes any sense, except in the context of “I want it all, and I want it now.”

Which, I understand. Which even makes sense for the tone of the show. So why can’t she just come out and say it? Why does she have to pretend that she’s somehow better? Why can’t she wryly analyze the difference between her exoteric discourse, the performance for everyone else, and her esoteric doctrine, which she lets the audience see? In the end, it’s precisely when Claire broke the Fourth Wall that I found her least truthful. Unlike Francis, who showed us without shame the foulness within, Claire seems oddly insistent that I find her heroic. Sorry, lady, but the blood on your hands is the same as your husband’s. He was no hero, and neither are you.

There’s a lot of threads in this final season that go nowhere. The App business. Mark and Jane. The Shepherd’s family secrets. Eventually all these become nothing more than red herrings meant to drag our attention from the true conflict of the season, that of Claire vs. Stamper for control of Frank’s Legacy. Which has a logic to it: Frank as the Dead Prophet with a schism between a guided caliph (Stamper) and a blood caliph (Claire), to put an Islamic cast on it. I just wish I came away from the closing credits with a feeling of something other than “that’s it?”

Quick Review: The Outlaw King

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What the wags have called Braveheart 2 came out this week on Netflix, and being a medievalist nerd, I was all about it.

It is a more accurate film that Braveheart in several respects. For one, it gives us the real struggle Robert the Bruce had in claiming the throne of Scotland. None of this sudden Hollywood climax decision with a full army at his back for the Bruce: he had to claw his way to power, bearing a crown no one respected, hiding in the heather from his own countrymen for a number of years. For another, it’s depiction of Edward I of England is probably truer than the cartoon villain Braveheart gave us. If you loved Patrick McGoohan’s moustache-pulling (and who doesn’t? “The trouble with Scotland is that it’s full of Scots!” that’s A+ movie-villainry right there), you might not like the merely iron-fisted politician this film gives us. But Edward I of England wasn’t a cartoon, he was a real man, a puissant ruler and crusader, a man who struggled to restore royal authority after the turbulent reigns of his grandfather John and his father Henry III, and largely succeeded. Call out his excess in this if you like. Say that his cruelty to the Scots crosses the line into wickedness – I can’t refute it.  But he was a man, and not a devil, and this movie does him the courtesy of making that real. You may not recognize Stephen Dillane – Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones – in the part, but you will appreciate him.

However, when it comes to Edward II, I think the earlier film got it right:  the second of the Three Edwards (for a century, from 1277 to 1377, the King of England had the same name) seems to really have been a dilettante who had neither capacity nor wish to charge into battle at the head of an army. We see the younger Edward’s weakness in Braveheart, his terror of his father, and silent yearning to be utterly unlike him (a yearning that made him a poor ruler indeed). In this film, the younger Edward is just a bad chip off the old block.

The film doesn’t run the length of Braveheart, so it can’t spend the time building and enriching the emotional life of the characters. We don’t quite see Robert’s emotional motivation to rebel in the same way we saw William Wallace’s. Chris Pine holds more back than Gibson does, preferring to act with his eyes in something of a slow burn. How well he pulls that off is for the viewer to decide.

Bottom Line: it’s both less thrilling and less fanciful than Braveheart. It runs close to the truth, and is never boring. Worth a watch.