Stranger Things (2016)

Note – spoilers abound in the links, but not the review.

Netflix has been on a roll with its incredible programming offerings, and none have created such an exciting and engaging stir than Stranger Things. An engaging universe that opens and closes a mystery cycle in a mere eight episodes, the Duffer brothers have written and directed a bingeworthy series that we destroyed in a record weekend.

Sending up all of the Stephen Spielberg and other grand spectacular film wonders of the 1980s, Stranger Things was an entertainment experience that was simply not wasted in any aspect of its production, from casting to budget. A gorgeous ensemble show that was a great deal of fun to watch, this piece creates something new from the old. This nostalgia overload combined with an entirely new storyline and universe concept has truly made something special. Without giving too much away, this show has captured elements from E.T., Close Encounters, The Thing, Twin Peaks, Stand By Me, Goonies, and a hundred other references, and blended it with a mysterious storyline that is half Mark Z. Danielewski and half Stephen King. we are very much looking forward to season two. Sexy design and hundreds of original props sweeten the deal, and the performance of the cast who are relatively unknown is not only impressive but entirely convincing.

It has spawned a great deal of excellent content beyond the show, and we’re very much looking forward to season two.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stranger_Things_(TV_series)

Anomalisa & 11.22.63 (2016)

Some culture that we’ve consumed not from our list recently has been Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa and the J.J.Abrams / Stephen King production of his novel 11.22.63.

Anomalisa

What a fantastic film. Written and directed by one of our favorite writers in Hollywood today, Anomalisa is a stop-motion animation film about a man whose existentialist difficulties with life have caught up with him on a business trip and subsequently have him teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Difficulties with his marriage, a relationship he really hasn’t gotten over that ended a decade ago, dissatisfaction with his calling, money, sex life, relationships, and loneliness have all culminated into one night. What is most striking about this story is not only the words the characters speak – something that is absolutely beautiful and unforgettable in John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine, Adaptation, and Synechdoche – but also the format and execution that he decided on for this film. With only three actors and no physical manifestations of any humans in the piece, the film does so much more than tell the story. What is most fascinating about this film is that on the surface it is the simplest film he has ever made, and yet it is dearly the most complex in terms of what it all means. It follows his normal themes of existentialism, a humunculus-driven examination of the curiosity of this life and how meaningless and meaninglessly complicated it is in the scope of actually experiencing real things while we are here… But he does it using the artificial itself, and there is even an artificial stand-in for what is real and what is needed in the form of an antique sex toy that is foreign in culture and language, disassembled, and leaking a fluid that the audience is left to deduce from where and what it is.

Regardless, the film was exactly what I expected from a Kaufman film. It is funny, disorienting, and full of human intricacy and questions about life and the nature of living. An absolute masterpiece.

11.22.63

I read this book as the first Stephen King joint since I was fifteen, and I was blown away. King is a master storyteller, and he is also a genius. He is a great writer, but you can tell he is constantly holding back to appease to the widest audience possible, except that there are little places in his books where the corners of the sticker tear away in a single sentence and his wings unfurl into something magnificent. When I read 11.22.63 as an adult almost twenty years and an undergraduate and graduate degree in literature later, I was seriously in awe at what he is able to manage on the page. I mean really. He is able to draw the most beautiful compromise between content, character, and context, and deliver something accessible and beautiful to his audience.

The problem with King is the problem with directors and other writers. His movies are garbage – not his fault, but the fault of the artists who try to fit too much in, do too much with their interpretation of the text that it loses its mood and tone, or simply don’t have the budget or the actors to do much better than a network television special. Why was Kubrick’s Shining so good? Honestly, because he didn’t try to make the book and he had the talent and the budget and he wrote it and ….hell, he is Kubrick.

This show, however, is insanely good. It leaves a lot out, and I mean a lot, but that is the beauty of what has been executed here. Enter Bad Robot and JJ Abrams. That said, it is well written, and focuses on characterization and making them three dimensional rather than the horror or the spooky aspects of time travel. If you explain it, you ruin it, right? It is also notable what the writers leave out – absolutely no need to cover everything. Next, fantastic performances and direction in every episode. Simply put, the manner in which the piece is executed shows an attention to detail and stunning dedication to authenticity and believability. The entire ensemble with Franco at the helm is something to be very proud of…That said, the piece isn’t filmed on location in New England and avoids the story about the town it takes place in, so that was a bit of a disappointment. Finally, the budget. They spent the money to make all of this a show to remember, and frankly, I can’t remember a piece taking King’s work as a series and executing it so well with the exception of Shawshank, Misery, Stand By Me, and Apt Pupil…Maybe Green Mile…But these are the drama pieces that he wrote with great characterization that focused on the work as a marker of mood and tone, and not just a plot while the characters walk themselves into a meat grinder.

Hulu, Bad Robot, and everyone involved should be proud of this one. Looking forward to the rest of the story in the next few weeks.

Downton Abbey, Mozart In The Jungle, SPECTRE, The Martian, and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

From time to time we will have a general update – tagged with “general post” when we are watching something that is not on the list but will include some worthwhile commentary on some things that we have been consuming otherwise….

Some things we have been watching…

Downton Abbey, The Final Season

Well, what more can be said – one of the greatest things to ever happen to public television is coming to an end this year. This is the only thing in the past twenty years I think that we have made a point to watch as it is broadcast when it airs. A beautiful dramedy, well written, with spectacular performances of a brilliant ensemble cast, it will be hard for PBS to one up this program once it concludes this year. Making a special late dinner and watching Downton along with The Great British Bake Off has been a highlight of the past six years. We’ll miss it… That is, until we start watching the DVDs over again from the beginning.

I guess I will also miss live tweeting the broadcast with a bunch of fellow dorks, as well.

Mozart in the Jungle, Season 2

What a fantastic dramedy! We started watching this right when it came on the queue for streaming Amazon Prime, and along with Transparent and The Man In The High Castle, this is a program that is entirely worth watching as part of a Prime subscription. Amazon definitely knows how to invest in their programming in terms of star power, great writers, brilliant storytelling, excellent directors and actors, and the investment it takes to make a quality production. Very impressed with everything they release.

SPECTRE

We are absolute Bond junkies, and it is is a little bit of a surprise that there are no Bond films on the 1001 as far as I can tell (but it is a long list I have passed my eyes over maybe too many times to find one… we’ll see). SPECTRE is another installment in Craig’s tenure, and he is one of my favorites. He is no nonsesnse, and takes his role seriously. The plot, action, and execution of SPECTRE didn’t disappoint until the final three minutes where I got a little confused as to why they included it… But one can complain about such a tiny thing with something they hold so dear. Great fun at the theater.

The Martian

I read this book and really enjoyed it for its intense and fun execution of a harrowing Robinson Crusoe in space story. My dorky nerves were tickled by all the math and humorous geeky pop culture references. The movie did not disappoint – as a matter of fact, my only complaint about the book was that it was missing an epilogue that the film actually had! Another great night at the theater.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

Wow. A shockingly dark and twisted tale that doesn’t entirely translate to the screen from the book, this tells the story of a woman who is keeping a town together through her various enterprises. When a long lost cousin arrives, it appears that she falls in love and hilarity ensues….That is, until her felon ex-husband returns from prison. She never loved him, but her cousin-boyfriend seems to fall in love with him, and he seems to want to do nothing but destroy his ex wife. A complicated triangle that is really folk-y and Keillor-y in the book, but doesn’t translate to the screen very well regardless of Edward Albee’s involvement. A great book, but feel free to miss the film.

The Hateful Eight

I (Garrett) went to see a late 70mm showing, and was absolutely blown away at how immersive the narrative was. I feel like my post from Facebook summed up the experience nicely: 

Just got home from seeing The Hateful Eight in 70mm on the really big screen. Incredible. Tarantino delivers one of the most scathing indictments of our collective white American racial history, but he manages to artfully and symbolically evoke blame with everything from slavery to lynching to Lincoln and a myriad others by literally leaving blood on everyone’s hands. An absolutely shocking, beautiful, disgusting, and funny film that does an incredible job raising some serious questions that have been around since the beginning of our nation. What’s more, as a filmmaker he continues to get better, while honing into perfection in being bloody, serious, and hysterical in the same beat.

And this is the film whose script was leaked during the Sony hack? Please…. The only way I was going to experience this film was going to be in the dark, with some popcorn, a group of strangers, and a smile on my face. Cinema is not dead, in fact, it is still very much a necessary experience that is unique in this existence.