TV Review:  Stranger Things (2022)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2022
Season: 4
Number of Episodes: 9
Summary/Review:

The supernatural/horror/thriller/drama Stranger Things returns after a three-year (pandemic-delayed) gap with new adventures for a growing team of residents of the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana.  After diminishing returns in seasons 2 and 3, season 4 feels like a return to form that comes close to greatness of the debut season.  With a large cast of characters, the season is longer in both the number of episodes and the length of individual episodes to tell all their stories, so it can feel sprawling and uneven at times, but I personally feel the more the merrier.

The show reflects a bigger budget and more ambitious scope than previous series lending it a more cinematic feel. It also has more intense gore and horror elements than previous seasons. New cast member Joseph Quinn stars as the season’s breakout character Eddie Munson, leader of the Hellfire Club at Hawkins High School where the nerdy outsiders bond over Dungeons and Dragons’ campaigns.  Sadie Sink returns for her third season as Max Mayfield getting a chance to really develop her character and show off her acting chops.

My review continues below with spoilers, so beware!

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Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: The House (2022)


Welcome to my first Midsummer Recent Movie Festival!  For the past couple of years I’ve reviewed a bunch of recent movies on New Year’s Day.  But why wait when there are new movies to review now! My only qualifications for the Midsummer Recent Movie Festival are 1) a US release date January 1, 2022 or later, 2) a Letterboxd average rating of 3.5 or higher, and 3) available to me at no extra cost on my streaming platforms.

TitleThe House
Release Date: January 14, 2022
Directors:

I – And heard within, a lie is spun: Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels
II – Then lost is truth that can’t be won: Niki Lindroth von Bahr
III – Listen again and seek the sun: Paloma Baeza

Production Company: Nexus Studios | Netflix Animation
Summary/Review:

The House is an anthology film with three stories all set in a mysterious large house.  It is animated in stop-motion animation with characters made of fabric not unlike the style of The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

In the first segment, a poor family in rural England are allowed to move into the newly-built house but the mad architect continues to have the house built around them turning it into the maze.  9-year-old Mabel (Mia Goth) investigates what’s going on with the baby Isobel while her parents seem oblivious to the strange things happening.  This segment has the strongest elements of horror of the three.

In the second segment, an anthropomorphic rat contractor (Jarvis Cocker, of the band Pulp) is rehabbing the house and hosting a reception to entice potential buyers.  He has to deal with an infestation of beetles and then a strange couple at the viewing essentially move in without actually buying the house.  Despite the very creepy bugs, this segment is also the most comical.

In the final segment, the house survives in a world where everything around it has been submerged by a catastrophic flood. Rosa (Susan Wokoma), an anthropomorphic cat, is attempting to renovate the house while renting out the rooms.  She has only two tenants, Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) and Elias (Will Sharpe), neither of whom pay rent in cash. Things come to a head as the flood waters rise.  Despite the apocalyptic setting, this segment feels hopeful.

The animation in this film is beautifully done with great voice acting and music as well.  The combination of surrealism, fantasy, horror, and humor works well.  I think each segment is better than the previous, but maybe it’s just because I like cats.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)


Title: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Release Date: October 31, 1962
Director: Robert Aldrich
Production Company: Seven Arts Productions
Summary/Review:

Got to see this on the big screen thanks to a 60th anniversary re-release last week.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were known for playing … um … confrontational characters (and were even more confrontational in real life).  So it makes sense to channel their antipathy for one another into this psychological thriller about a lifelong rivalry between two sisters.  In 1917, we see that Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred) is a popular child performer on the vaudeville circuit while her sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie) watches from the wings.  By 1935, their roles are reversed as Blanche (Crawford) is now a Hollywood star who insists that the less talented Jane (Davis) get film parts as part of her contract.

But the story really begins in the present day when the aging sisters now share a decaying house on the outskirts of Los Angeles.  Blanche is unable to walk due to a car crash that broke her spine and Jane reluctantly cares for her.  A revival of Blanche’s old movies on tv seems to be the last straw for Jane who essentially imprisons her sister while she goes about trying to revive her childhood singing career.  There’s nothing quite as unsettling as Bette Davis with caked on makeup, greasy hair curls, and a babydoll dress singing songs about “Daddy.” But Blanche has her dark secrets as well.

David Lynch was only a teenager when this movie was released but it is nevertheless a very Lynchian film in nature.  Davis is great in her monstrous performance and Crawford has a more subtle role where she seems to wallow in her suffering.  It’s also brilliantly meta that this movie deals with the theme of women in entertainment being disposable once they reach a certain age and stars two women whose Hollywood careers seemed to be in the past. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? actually revived their careers which seems like a just reward.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)


Title: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Release Date: May 6, 2022
Director: Sam Raimi
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

I wasn’t a big fan of Doctor Strange (2016), but Benedict Cumberbatch has done a good job with the character in various other MCU films including Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021).  So I did look forward to this film, especially since it also promised the return of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) after the events of WandaVision.  The multiverse has been a recurring theme of Phase 4 especially in the tv series Loki and What If... and in No Way Home, and this movie leans into the “madness” of its title.

The basic plot involves a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who has the power to jump between universes although she is not able to control it.  America arrives in the main MCU universe (Earth-616) pursued by a giant demon who is sent after her by someone seeking to take away America’s power, which would kill her.  Doctor Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) agree to help and defend America leading into a heavily action-filled adventure. In another universe, they are aided by Stephen Strange’s ex Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). They also meet a crowd-pleasing team of alternate universe superheroes with actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Patrick Stewart, Hayley Atwell, Lashana Lynch, and Anson Mount reprising their roles from other Marvel properties and John Krasinski making a first appearance as a well-known character.

Director Sam Raimi is best known for his camp horror movies like Evil Dead and brings a horror aesthetic to this film as well.  That means we see our protagonists chased by demons and a blood-soaked villain as well as scenes with a heavily-decayed zombie.  There are a lot of brutal deaths in this movie which make it feel more dangerous than other entries in the MCU and may not be suitable for young children or anyone who is squeamish.

There’s a lot that I can quibble with about this movie, although it’s a definite improvement over its predecessor.  I especially felt that the chemistry between Strange and Christine was never strong and it makes the “lost love” element of the plot a tough sell.  America feels more like a MacGuffin than a character for much of the film, although she does get a good moment in the denouement.  Despite the multiverse being a recurring theme in the MCU, this movie felt oddly self-contained as it had no connection with previous multiverse stories.  I also felt that Loki and the non-MCU movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did a much better job with the possibilities of the multiverse for storytelling.  Ultimately, I enjoyed this movie as a it was pretty much nonstop action set pieces with a lot of visual flair.

SCROLL PAST THE TRAILER FOR MORE THOUGHTS WITH SPOILERS

Rating: ***

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Scary Movie Marathon: Midsommar (2019)


Title: Midsommar
Release Date: July 3, 2019
Director: Ari Aster
Production Company:
Summary/Review:

It’s hard to spoil this movie, since it’s pretty obvious that when American college students go to a remote village in Sweden to observe a folk ritual that very bad things are going to happen.  Nevertheless, I’m glad I went into this movie mostly blind. Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and several of his friends on the trip to the Hårga commune as she deals with the grief of a traumatic event in her family.  Swedish student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them all to observe a ritual that happens only once every 90 years, and Josh (William Jackson Harper) plans to observe it for his anthropology dissertation.

It doesn’t take long for things to start going weird in Hårga, but nevertheless the movie is a slow burn and really earns its long running time. It’s also unique for a horror film in that it’s almost entirely set in broad daylight with lots of bright colors.  Like any good horror film, it’s about more than just jump scares, with the horrific events serving as metaphors for the collapse of Dani and Christian relationships.  I also think there’s a commentary on American exceptionalism as the students go into the rituals expecting to just observe without affecting them.

This is a powerful film and I will be thinking about it for some time.  I expect I will need to rewatch at some point as well.  Even if you don’t typically like horror, this is an excellent film worth checking out.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Marathon: The Phantom Carriage (1921)


Title: The Phantom Carriage
Release Date: 1 January 1921
Director: Victor Sjöström
Production Company: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Summary/Review:

According to the legend at the heart of this film, the last person to die before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve will have to spend the next year as the driver of Death’s carriage and collect the souls of the dead.  Naturally, ne’er-do-well drunkard David Holm (Victor Sjöström) dies after hearing this story and is introduced to his new existence by an old friend Georges (Tore Svennberg).  Through flashbacks, they revisit David’s life and mistakes in kind of a topsy-turvy It’s a Wonderful Life.  The story is intercut with the present day story of Salvation Army Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) who is dying of tuberculosis and wishes to see David to see if her prayers have changed him any.  The movie is very much a morality play more than a horror film, but it does have a great spooky atmosphere and special effects that are still impressive 100 years later.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Marathon: Let the Right One In (2008)


Title: Let the Right One In
Release Date: 26 January 2008
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Production Company: EFTI | Sveriges Television | Filmpool Nord | Sandrew Metronome | WAG | Fido Film | The Chimney Pot | Ljudligan | Svenska Filminstitutet | Nordisk Film & TV Fond | Canal+
Summary/Review:

Let the Right One In is your typical romantic coming-of-age film about an awkward 12-year-old boy befriending the new girl next door and learning to stand up to the bullies at school.  Except that she’s not a girl but a centuries old vampire in the body of a 12-year-old girl.  This film is a fresh take on vampire lore that has elements of European arthouse drama with touches of Amblin-style films of the 1980s.  In fact, the movie is set in the 1980s in a mid-century style suburban development that gives it a universal feel beyond it’s Swedish setting. Kåre Hedebrant is strong as the lead character Oskar and Lina Leandersson is just phenomenal as the eternally young vampire Eli. While the movie has its share of blood and gore, it goes well beyond being just horror and is a great film worth watching.

Rating: ****1/2

 

Scary Movie Marathon: What We Do in the Shadows (2014)


Title: What We Do in the Shadows
Release Date: 19 June 2014
Director: Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi
Production Company: Resnick Interactive Development | Unison Films | Defender Films | New Zealand Film Commission
Summary/Review:

What We Do in the Shadows shows the everyday life of a quartet of vampires sharing a house in Wellington, New Zealand and how the deal with the struggles of the 21st-century world.  While the mockumentary format has gotten a bit tired it works well here, especially since the characters keep observing how absurd it is for a camera crew to be filming the vampires’ secret behaviors.  The vampires include the foppish Viago (Taika Waititi), the tyrannical Vladislav the Poker (Jemaine Clement), the playboy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and the ancient, Nosferatu-like Petyr (Ben Fransham). Tensions rise when Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a dudebro in his 20s, is accidentally turned into a vampire and decides to move into the house.

This movie is full of a lot of great gags that spoof horror tropes as well as the challenges of sharing a house with different people. While the movie is mostly played for comedy, it does have its share of blood and gore, so consider yourself warned if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing.  Waititi is extremely charming and sweet in his role as a fastidious vampire and kind of irresistible.  The jokes are fast and funny and I think I’ll have to watch it again to get the ones I missed.

Rating: ****1/2

Scary Movie Marathon: Ganja & Hess (1973)


Title: Ganja & Hess
Release Date: April 20, 1973
Director: Bill Gunn
Production Company: Kelly-Jordan Enterprises
Summary/Review:

As a film made in the 1970s by a Black filmmaker with a Black cast, I’ve seen Ganja & Hess filed under the Blaxploitation label.  I think this is a mistake as this movie is an experimental, art house film in the horror genre. In Ganja & Hess, the craving for blood serves as a metaphor for substance abuse. It also deals with issues of religion, Black assimilation, and relationships.  Pretty heavy stuff.

Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead) is a wealthy anthropologist who lives in a mansion in the Hudson River Valley.  He hires a live-in assistant, George Meda (Bill Gunn) who suffers from mental illness, and in an altercation stabs Dr. Green with an ancient artifact. The infection on the blade grants him powers over death and an insatiable craving for human blood.  Later, Meda’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes looking for her husband, but instead develops a romance with Hess and eventually is also turned into a vampire.

It sounds like a simple plot, but it’s hard to describe what’s so different about this movie.  The cinematography, the lighting, themusic, and the acting all create an atmosphere of the ordinary world turned akilter.  It’s definitely worth checking out, even as I can’t say I totally “get” it.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Marathon: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)


Title: The Cabin in the Woods
Release Date: April 13, 2012
Director: Drew Goddard
Production Company:Mutant Enemy Productions
Summary/Review:

Five college students (Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, and Jesse Williams) spend a weekend at a remote cabin which is full of oddities.  Soon enough they are being pursued by a Zombie Redneck Torture Family. But weirder still, through all of this they are being watched by engineers in an underground facility, lead by Gary Sitterson (Richard Jenkins)  and Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford), who crack jokes, take bets, and celebrate their deaths. Is it a reality tv show?  Is it a commentary on how audiences are appeased with increasingly graphic and torturous slasher films?  Or is there something bigger behind it all?

Hint:  there is something bigger behind it all.  As for horror films, this one feels somewhat tame up until the final act when it becomes horrifically bloody (although even then a lot of the carnage is filmed in long shots), so consider yourself warned.  The Cabin in the Woods is a clever, thoughtful, and funny addition to the horror film canon.

Rating: ***