Classic Movie Review: Jamaica Inn (1939)


 

Title: Jamaica Inn 
Release Date: May 15, 1939
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Mayflower Productions
Summary/Review:

This Alfred Hitchcock period drama wasn’t originally on my (growing) list of classic films I need to watch, but I decided to watch it on a whim.  This was Hitchcock’s last film produced in England before he went to work in Hollywood.  It’s also the first of three Hitchcock movies based on the writings of Daphne du Maurier (the others are Rebecca and The Birds).  But most importantly this is the major film debut of Maureen O’Hara, whom I’ve crushed since I was a callow youth.

Set in Cornwall in 1819, the titular Jamaica Inn is the headquarters of a crew of wreckers, who lure ships to wreck on the rocky shores, kill the crew, and plunder all the valuables.  The gang is lead by Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks), who is also the innkeeper and husband of Patience (Marie Ney).  Mary Yellen arrives from Ireland after the death of her mother to live with her Aunt Patience, but her stagecoach driver fears the seedy atmosphere of Jamaica Inn and drops of her off at the estate of local squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton).

Mary gets caught up in events when she rescues a member of the gang, Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), who the other members attempt to hang on suspicion of embezzling.  Jem ends up being an undercover law officer trying to find the mastermind behind the wreckers and teams up with Humphrey to investigate.  But all is not as it seems.

O’Hara is great in her role and shows a lot of agency for a female character in that era.  And yet, the film also depicts a society that’s absolutely terrifying for a woman as Mary’s life is in the hands of cutthroats and gentry alike, with implications of even worse things that the Hays Code wouldn’t allow to be shown.  There’s a moody atmosphere to the setting and some interesting camera angles looking through holes in a ceiling and a cave that add to sense of things closing in around the characters.

Laughton is suitably smug as the aristocratic gambler. Behind the camera, he was a pain in Hitchcock’s butt, taking control of directing the film.  He was also responsible for bringing O’Hara into the movie and they’d appear together again in The Hunchback of Notre Dame later that year. On the whole, the rest of the acting in the film is not too strong.  Marie Ney in particular appears to be reading her lines for the first time from a cue card.  The last third of the film veers toward melodramatic.  Still it was a suitably entertaining jaunt into the Cornish past.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: M (1931)


Title: M
Release Date: May 11, 1931
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: Nero-Film A.G.
Summary/Review:

Continuing with German cinema, this film by Fritz Lang (who also directed Metropolis) is a thriller/procedural drama that basically invented the noir genre.  Peter Lorre, an actor I’ve always liked in his Hollywood films, had is first major role as the serial killer of children, Hans Beckert.  Depicting a serial killer on the silver screen and the way the story unravels is strikingly modern, and is about 30 years of Hollywood doing something similar.

The film begins with chilling sequences of children chanting about murder and then Beckert luring away a girl while whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”  In the panic that follows, people turn on one another with suspicion, and the police crack down on the criminal underworld.  The city’s mob bosses decide that they also need to track down the murderer, and the scenes of cops and criminals preparing for a manhunt are intercut, with it being deliberately hard to tell which group is which.

Beggars are able to track down Beckert who then hides in the office building.  The criminals seek him out using all the means at their disposal, including rather comically drilling a hole through the floor to access a locked office on a lower level.  Once they’ve captured Beckert, the criminals put him on a mock trial. These scenes feel didactic as Lang’s characters overtly explain the moral message to a sick society, which is a weak way to conclude the film.  The command at the close of the film to watch our children seems torn out of the present day manual of helicopter parenting.  Nevertheless, the film on the whole is a compelling drama.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Stranger Things (2019)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The phrase “trying to catch lightning in a bottle” comes to mind as I ponder the third season of Stranger Things. The first season of the show came out of nowhere with a perfect recipe of writing, acting, setting, mood, and nostalgia. It’s a tricky thing to repeat, and just as the show was diminished some in season 2, it falls a bit further in season 3. By no means am I saying Stranger Things 3 is bad, I care about these characters and enjoy the stories, but feel it fails to live up to the high standards set by season 1.

At the core of Stranger Things is a pastiche to 1980s American culture.  In this season, the story draws upon the renewed Cold War hysteria of Reagan’s America and the trope of the “evil Russian” that found its way into propagandist movies such as Red Dawn, Amerika, Rambo, Top Gun, and The Day After.  There’s no deconstruction of the trope as the show plays it straight depicting the Soviets having the ability to secretly build a massive laboratory under the Starcourt Mall in the heartland of America at a time when the real Soviet Union was crumbling.  In a show with monsters that invade from a decrepit mirror universe, I found this premise to still be too unbelievable.

Much as the 1980s Cold War hysteria was a gritty callback to the Cold War panic of the 1950 and 1960s, the 1980s was a time when classic horror movies were remade with graphic violence and gratuitous gore.  Stranger Things 3 draws a lot of influence from horror movie remakes such as The Thing, The Blob, and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (which was made in 1978, but I’m including in this list because it is clearly referenced). As a result, this is the goriest and most violent season yet, the sequel that decides to be a full-on action film.  In a great moment of metafiction, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) explains his love for New Coke as it being a remake, like The Thing, that he thinks improves upon the original.

The heart of Stranger Things is its characters, and this season’s biggest struggles are with characters being too broadly characterized.  This is true for Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) who was the creepy, abusive metalhead teen with a traumatic past in season 2, and becomes the creepy, possessed by the Mind Flayer teen with a traumatic past in season 3.  Billy deserved better characterization, especially to make his ultimate heroic moment pay off. Priah Ferguson returns as Lucas’ little sister Erica, bumped up from a bit character to one of the main storylines, and although she’s very funny she’s written entirely as a sassy, precocious kid, a la Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes. The final episode seems to indicate a new role for Erica in season 4, and one hope that they flesh out her character.  And really, there was no reason to bring back the obnoxious Murray (Brett Gelman), who appeared in a couple of episodes in season 2, much less make him a character who seems to get more screen time than the core children.

My biggest disappointment with this series is with the character of Jim Hopper (David Harbour).  He’s always been depicted as a cop who will punch first and ask questions later, but previous seasons revealed that under his gruff exterior is a gentle heart.  It’s really distressing to see Hopper’s anger over El (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) spending too much time together, and worse, threatening Mike.  Later in the season he completely brutalizes the mayor of Hawkins (Cary Elwes cosplaying the mayor from Jaws, right on down to be named “Larry”).  One of the most moving parts of the season is Hopper narrating a letter to El about his feelings, but I’m distraught that this side of Hopper’s character was ignored for the previous 7 episodes.

Like in previous seasons,  large cast is split up into different storylines that come together at the end.  The kids are becoming teenagers, and Hopper is right about Mike and El spending too much time together. El breaks up with Mike and Max (Sadie Sink) breaks up with Lucas, and in some wonderful scenes El and Max become closer friends.  Meanwhile, Will (Noah Schnapp), who lost part of his childhood to the Upside Down, wants to cling to being a kid a bit longer and play D&D.  The teenagers from the earlier series are becoming adults.  Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) attempt to prepare for a career by interning with the local newspaper.  Steve (Joe Keery) works for a paycheck, and maybe to meet girls, at the ice cream shop in the mall alongside an “alternative” girl who he never paid attention to in high school, Robin (Maya Hawke). Robin is the breakout character of the season and seamlessly fits in with existing characters, but I can’t help feeling that she looks like a time traveler from the 1990s (perhaps because Hawke is the daughter of iconic 90s stars Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke).  And the grown-ups, Hopper and Joyce (Winona Ryder), are concerned for the kids, challenged to move on from previous traumas, and resisting their attraction for one another.

In a town with both a Mind Flayer and evil Russians at work, bad things are going to happen.  El, Max, Mike, Lucas, and Will discover that Billy is possesed and recruiting more people for the Mind Flayer, and attempt to stop him. Nancy and Jonathan’s investigative reporting uncovers strange behavior in rats that leads to even stranger behavior in humans.  The Scoop Troop – Steve and Robin joined by Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Erica – investigate Russian ham radio messages and strange goings-on around the Starcourt Mall.  While the “Evil Russian” plot is ludicrous, these four definitely get the best storyline, dialogue, and character development.  Joyce investigates why magnets are suddenly falling of her refrigerator and convinces a reluctant Hopper to join in. I really like how Ryder plays Joyce as someone who has seen weird shit before, was right about it, and defeated it so now she has a greater confidence and seems more relaxed as she jumps into doing it again.  Along the way they capture a Soviet scientist named Alexei (Alec Utgof as the other breakout character of the season despite speaking no English) and get Murray for translation.

While I’ve expressed my reservations about Stranger Things 3 not living up to its potential, the show clearly attempts and succeeds at trying new things, drawing on new influences, and building on the existing story.  It’s a great bit of mind candy – with both brains and heart – for summer viewing.  I look forward to a fourth season and becoming further acquainted with these characters.

Previous posts:

TV Review: Stranger Things (2017)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 9
Summary/Review:

When Stranger Things appeared on Netflix seemingly out of nowhere last year, it was the surprise hit of the summer.  Stranger Things 2 came with huge expectations, and I’m happy to see mostly lives up to them.

The strengths of Stranger Things is that it uses the tropes of horror and suspense films to explore issues like trauma, grief, friendship, and facing mortality.  The multi-episode set-up also allows it to delve into developing characters more than the films it emulates.  Plus, it has a terrific cast, especially the youngest actors, who continue to impress.

The nine episodes of the second season easily split into three sections.  Episodes 1-3 feel very much a continuation of the first season with the characters still dealing with the after effects of what happened a year earlier.  Episodes 3-6 raise the stakes, both with the growing threat of the Shadow Monster and Eleven discovering her own past.  Episodes 7-9 really take a left turn from anything we’ve come to expect from Stranger Things, most especially in the controversial episode 7 “The Lost Sister” which features only Eleven/Jane from the regular cast as she visits Chicago to meet up with a gang led by another young woman with powers from the Hawkins Lab.  I’m glad the Duffer Brothers decided to experiment and push the limits of the show, although I also have some problems with the episodes that I’ll go into later.

The second season introduces several new characters.  Bob Newby is Joyce’s nerdy new boyfriend played by Sean Astin, which is a direct tie to one of the 1980s movies that influenced this show, The Goonies.   I never saw that movie, but I thought that Bob had a lot in common with another Astin character, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, in the way that both Bob and Sam loyally help out the best they can and show surprising bravery even when they don’t know what’s going on around them.  Bob is a charming character and a great addition to the show.  Paul Reiser, known for his duplicitous character in Aliens, plays the Dr. Sam Owens who has taken over leading the Hawkins Lab.  It was an interesting decision to have Hopper, Joyce, & Will forming an uneasy détente, and Owens lends a funny, more compassionate face to the lab, but since he’s played by Reiser, you trust him anyway.  Finally, there are the step siblings Max and Billy, played by Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery.  Max is a new addition to our party of nerdy middle schoolers, and I thought Sink did a great job with developing Max in limited time.  Billy is the new bully in town, and Montgomery plays him convincingly creepy, but he seems one-note especially for Stranger Things which is usually better at letting characters develop organically.

If there’s one major problem of this series is that all the new characters and multiple plot lines happening at once make the show feel crowded and it works against Stranger Things strengths.  That being said, there was some great development for returning characters as well.  Will was missing for most of Season 1, so it’s a revelation to see that Noah Schapp is just as good an actor as his contemporaries and really sells Will’s fear, confusion, and possession.  It was also great to see Dustin and Lucas develop, really showing that they’re growing up, and getting to see into their homes and meeting their families for the first time.  Steve Harrington, the first season bully, has now fully transitioned from his experiences into a “great babysitter” leading the youngest characters against the demodogs and winning the hearts of Tumblr fans everywhere.

On the downside, Finn Wolfhard’s Mike seems underused this season, although his delivery of the line “It was the best thing I’ve ever done” was the most tearjerking moment of the season.  Similarly, Natalia Dyer’s Nancy and Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan have a subplot that’s okay but just doesn’t seem as interesting as what those characters could be doing.  Then there are some out of character moments. It seems unlikely that a smart kid like Dustin would continue to protect D’art after he knew it was from the Upside Down.  And I don’t think Eleven would be jealous of Max to the point of hurting her.  It would’ve made more sense if she overheard a conversation of how Mike and his friends were still in danger from the Hawkins Lab and that helped prompt her journey of self-discovery.

Which leads us to the final three episodes.  I can understand why people don’t like “The Lost Sister,” although I also understand and appreciate what The Duffer Brothers were doing.  It was good to take a risk and try to expand what was happening in Hawkins into the larger world as part of Eleven’s story, but for Stranger Things, it was rather trite.  Kali’s gang were a note-perfect recreation of a 1980s movie idea of a punk rock gang, but that was it, there was no effort to develop these people as real characters.  And Eleven’s Yoda-style tutelage under Kali happened so quickly that I can understand why a lot of viewers felt it was unnecessary to happen at all.   The final two episode have a lot happening and it seems that a lot of the dialogue is reduced to the characters providing exposition for the audience.  By this point, Stranger Things has developed their characters enough to coast on plot conveniences, but I thought the way that everyone came together in the conclusion of the first season happened more naturally.

The final moments at the school dance are charming and well-earned, and are built on what this show does best.  While there was some unevenness in the second season, overall I’m pleased, and I’m glad there will be another season.  There’s a lot of stories that can built on in future seasons, especially if they work on Eleven/Jane integrating into everyday society for the first time.  I also have many questions that may or may not be answered.

Previous post: Stranger Things (2016)

TV Review: Stranger Things (2016)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The hit of the summer is an homage to horror and thrillers of the 1980s, mixing the film aesthetic of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter with Stephen King’s “kids and monsters in Maine” formula transferred to Indiana.  There are also elements of later works like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko (itself a 1980s pastiche), and Broadchurch among others.  Despite the effort to emulate the eighties ethos, Stranger Things is not a remake or a ripoff but a highly original work of its own.  I don’t think a show this sophisticated would be made in the 1980s and the movies of that time would not have the time to develop the characters and the relationships so well.  Movies in the 1980s would also rely on wowing the audience with special effects, but Stranger Things creates suspense by keeping most of the supernatural elements offscreen and in the imagination.

What’s great about Stranger Things is that it has three concurrent plots with different themes.  A 12-year-old, Will Byers, goes missing and his best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas go looking for him to be joined by the mysterious Eleven who has telekinetic powers, learning about friendship and forgiveness.   A teenage story features Will’s brother Jonathon forming an unlikely alliance with Mike’s sister Nancy to hunt down the monster with Nancy’s boyfriend Steve acting as antagonist and sometimes ally.  Finally, the adult story focuses on Will’s mother Joyce and police chief Hopper realizing that  Will’s disappearance is not a typical runaway or abduction case and involves malicious behavior at the government’s Hawkins Lab.

The whole series is 8 episodes of brilliance – great acting, plotting, pacing, and dialogue –  with a few scares thrown in.  It’s worthy of the accolades it’s receiving and I recommend watching it if you haven’t checked it out yet.

Book Reviews: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson


Author: Shirley Jackson
TitleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle
Narrator:  Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010)
Summary/Review:

This mystery/thriller focuses on the survivors of the well-to-do Blackwood family six years after most of the family met their end when a poisoner put arsenic in the sugar for their dessert of berries.  The novel is narrated by the teenager Mary Katherine or “Merricat” who had been sent to her room without dinner the night of the poisoning.  Her Uncle Julian survived the poisoning but is severely disabled.  The other survivor is Merricat’s elder sister Constance who did not take sugar on her berries and was tried and acquitted for the crime but is still seen as the villain in the local community.  Only Merricat ventures outside of the family home to do the shopping and there meets with open derision toward her family from the villagers.  This uneasy life is further disrupted when a cousin named Charles moves into the home in what only Merricat is initially able to recognize as an attempt to gain the Blackwood family fortune.  Merricat is an unreliable narrator and she is convinced that she must protect her home using sympathetic magic while her only “friend” is a cat.  I won’t go into the details of the revelations and incidents that follow but it is a moody and creepy novel balanced with sympathetic portrayals of unusual characters.
Recommended booksThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Rating: ***

Book Review: Closed at Dark by Rob Blackwell


Author:Rob Blackwell
Title: Closed at Dark
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2014
Previously read by same author:

Summary/Review:

This novella by my college friend Rob Blackwell introduces a new series about Soren Chase, a paranormal investigator.  This story combines parental fears of “stranger danger,” urban legends, and supernatural monsters to create an intriguing mystery thriller as Chase tries to figure out who – or what – is trying to abduct his long-time friend’s child.  The characterization is a bit thin, but I expect it will develop as did the characters in Blackwell’s Sanheim Chronicles.  We’ll find out soon when Soren Chase’s first full novel The Forest of Forever is released.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Monster in the Mist by Andrew Mayne


Author: Andrew Mayne
Title: The Monster in the Mist
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ISBN: B0056A295I
Summary/Review:

I got this eBook as a special deal for Kindle on Amazon, not knowing much about it other than it was a mystery set in Boston in 1890 with a steampunk vibe.  April Malone is a young woman whose mysterious job is to tend an office where no one works and take lessons on various esoteric topics.  All of this is preparation for the arrival of the also mysterious man who just goes by the name Smith who emerges from behind a steel door one day and sets the pair on investigating several disappearances of people in Boston.  Smith is reminiscent of The Doctor from Doctor Who (who also sometimes goes by the name Smith) and the relationship of April Malone and Smith owes a debt to Holmes & Watson, but it’s not entirely derivative.  I was won over by the first part of this book, but less enamored with the latter half.  This is because Smith goes off on his own adventure and while ultimately aided by April, I think the book lacks something when not seen from her perspective as well as the interesting chemistry between the two characters.  This book is the first in a series of Chronological Man Adventures, and I hope that in future installments that two leads stay together.

Recommended booksThe Technologists by Matthew Pearl, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch.
Rating: ***

Book Review: A Soul To Steal by Rob Blackwell


Author: Rob Blackwell
Title: 
A Soul To Steal 
Publication Info: 
CreateSpace (2011)
ISBN:
1466381213
Summary/Review:
A couple of disclosures before I begin this review.  First, I know the author as we went to college together and more importantly were both DJ’s at the college radio station, WCWM.  Second, I’ve always been drawn to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” – partly because I grew up 45 minutes from the town in New York (then known as North Tarrytown) and visited frequently – and the Headless Horseman is a prominent feature of Blackwell’s novel.  The story is part crime novel, part thriller, part supernatural and an original amalgam of all the above.  Set in a small town in Virginia, two reporters for a local paper Quinn and Kate have to deal with the return of  serial killer who tormented the town a dozen years earlier.  This would be bad enough but each character has personal demons to face as well, some of which appear in very tangible forms.  There are a few flaws to the book as events transpire and relationships form far too rapidly to be believable.   I also wonder why when Quinn runs a journalist’s writings through software that can help identify the author why he doesn’t do the same with the letters of the serial killer Lord Halloween (other than that the mystery would have been solved a hundred pages earlier).    These flaws can be overlooked though because this book really is a page turner and has moments of being very unsettling and very humorous.   The ending promises a sequel that I forward to reading.

Recommended books: The Dark Half by Stephen King, The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen, and Capitol Hell by Joseph M. Pendal.
Rating: ***1/2