(Netflix Streaming, October 2017) I probably expected too much from this first season of Stranger Things. Considering the massive amount of praise that the show received upon release in the summer of 2016, that’s probably inevitable. Few things survive this amount of hype, but I still held some hope: After all, I grew up during the 1980s (albeit the late eighties), I am a fan of the King/Spielberg/Carpenter mash-up that is Stranger Things and I’m always willing to give a chance to genre stories. As it stands, Stranger Things is actually quite good. The eight episodes may be one or two too many, but the series does benefit from having the time to develop its characters, carefully unveil its mysteries and allow a more deliberate narrative arc than if it has rushed everything in fewer hours. The lead actors are sympathetic (the kids are great, Winona Ryder earns an unexpected hit and David Harbour ends up getting a very good role), the Duffer Brothers’ directing is competent and the action ramps up to a very good finale. Memorable, well executed and filled with nostalgic throwbacks, Stranger Things is about as good as Netflix-era TV gets. The problem with it is that it’s consciously referencing and aping other works. It’s comfort food, not meant to challenge but to elicit recognition. It doesn’t try to pull narrative rugs, play with deeper themes or explore new ideas—it’s a mash-up of familiar elements, executed in such a fashion as to beg for sympathy. As such, there’s a limit to how exciting it can be—while the result is good enough to warrant a look, I suspect that it will fade fast and have a harder time reaching those who don’t have a built-in nostalgia for the eighties. On the other hand, I’ll watch the second seasons gladly … but only after I clean up the rest of my Netflix movie queue.
(Second viewing, On TV, October 2016) I’ve been re-watching a lot of pre-1997 movies lately, mostly films that I saw before starting to put capsule reviews on this web site. Much of the time, it’s an imposed event: the films haven’t aged well, fall short of what I remember, or don’t benefit from the power of discovery. And then there are exceptions like Beetlejuice, who ends up being just as good, if not better, than what I remembered. Beetlejuice is peak Tim Burton after all, blending gentle horror and black comedy in a mixture that remains largely unique even today. Alec Baldwin is fun as a good-hearted character (especially after his persona solidified in cad roles) while Geena Davis is spectacular as his wife. Winona Rider is remarkable as a goth teen, but it’s Michael Keaton who remains the film’s biggest asset, delivering an unbridled performance as Beetlejuice that remains, even today, a bit of an oddity in a far more restrained filmography. The special effects are still terrific, and their pre-CGI jerkiness adds to the film’s charm. Beetlejuice still works well largely because it’s so off-beat, doing and considering things that would be polished away in today’s far more controlled environment. The two musical numbers are a delight, and the macabre gags still feel faintly daring. It’s a film that certainly doesn’t overdo its welcome and scarcely more than 90 minutes, and it’s still a lot of fun as a comedic Halloween choice. See it if you haven’t, see it again if it’s been awhile—chances are that you will be surprised at how well it holds up.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) I may be off to lunch here given my lack of familiarity with the Adam Sandler oeuvre, but it seems to me that Mr. Deeds marks a bit of a transition between the violent man-child persona of Sandler’s early movies (most notably Billy Madison) and the more good-natured family-man persona of latter films (most notably the Grown-Ups series). This is not, obviously, a comment on increasing or decreasing quality of his movies – just an entirely predictable evolution from a young comic’s persona to a middle-aged actor’s most appropriate roles. Sandler still gets to assault someone (a fake mugging), but he spends most of the film as a likable small-town pizzeria-owner abruptly thrust in the cutthroat world of Manhattan finances after an unlikely inheritance. The plot mechanics are standard and the jokes are lame, but there are occasional laughs to be found in the details and the character work. Winona Ryder is at her peak-cute moment as the love interest, but John Turturro turns in much funnier material as a supporting character who then becomes far more important to the plot’s conclusion. Still, this isn’t even near close to middle-brow entertainment: The characters act in ways that make no sense away from dumb comedies or kids shows, while elements of the plot are brutally stupid. I suppose I’d feel outraged about this being a remake of a well-liked Gary Cooper film if I have a deeper knowledge of historical cinemas, but in the meantime I can just say that Mr. Deeds isn’t particularly good on its own merits.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) Stop the presses: It’s May, but I have already found my worst movie of 2013. And probably 2012 as well, given how bad it truly is. Oh, sure, there’s still months to go in the year… but I can’t imagine any other film approaching The Letter in sheer pointlessness, exasperation, and uninteresting actors. Here, Winona Ryder stars as a playwright slowly losing her mind while developing her newest play. Her anxieties about her lover, the actors working with her and her own talent are all reflected in the increasingly paranoid pages she gives to the actors. To be fair, there’s a kernel of interest in this premise, and the potential through which it could be developed. But hailing from the worst and most pretentious of the art-house film universe, The Letter strikingly fails to exploit any of the strengths at its disposal: Director Jay Anania doesn’t know what to do with a camera, the choppy editing makes the film near-incomprehensible at times, and none of the actors save for James Franco seem to know what they’re doing. (The film’s lone laugh belongs to Franco, and it feels like an ad-libbed line.) The plot make sense if you think about it long enough, but chances are that most viewers will never make it far enough in the film before turning it off. It’s that bad. I’ll gladly see dumb Hollywood crap over this kind of dull and pretentious trash. Bring on terrible SyFy made-for-TV catastrophe films: My expectations for what is a bad film have been recalibrated. [January 2014: I still stand behind my assessment: The Letter is the worst of the 184 movies I’ve seen in 2013.]
(On DVD, February 2011) Subtle, nuanced and character-driven, The Age of Innocence nonetheless never has to struggle to keep our interest. As a piece of American Victoriana, it’s almost endlessly fascinating: the New-York upper-class of 1870 had issues to work through, and director Martin Scorsese lavishly places us in the middle of that society. As a drama of manners, The Age of Innocence carefully establishes the rules than bind the characters, then follow them as they try (or don’t try) to rebel against them. Given that this is a Scorsese picture, both script and direction are self-assured and surprisingly timeless. Even the voiceover, usually a sign of lazy screenwriting, here adds another layer of polish to the film. Production credentials are impeccable, with careful costuming, set design and even split-second glimpses at elaborate dishes. Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional as a deeply conflicted man of his time, while Michelle Pfeiffer reminds us of how good she was in her heyday and Winona Rider turns in an underhanded performance as a constantly-underestimated ingénue. It all builds up to a quiet but shattering emotional climax that amply justifies the picture’s sometimes-lazy rhythm. Worth seeing and pondering as one realizes that the protagonist pays for the right crime but for the wrong reasons.