TV Review: Stranger Things (2016)

Stranger Things 1A Netflix Series Reviewed by Kerry E.B. Black

“Stranger Things” starts off with a flashback bang, a scientist frantic to leave a facility with flashing lights and ominous sirens. Action moves on to a nostalgic-feeling small Indiana town and a group of nerdy twelve-year-olds. When one of their group, Will (Noah Schnapp), doesn’t return from a Dungeons and Dragons gathering, his single mother Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) seeks help from the police who inform her in 99 out of 100 cases, the missing kids is with his parent. “What happens the other time?” She demands. This series explores the 100th case, and so much more. The continued investigation reveals secret government experiments, turns up a claustrophobic little girl (Millie B. Brown) named 011 with extraordinary powers, and supernatural worlds.
Against their parents’ wishes and orders by the Police, the kids, headed by Mike (Finn Wolfhard), search for their friend, dancing closer to dangerous and unexplainably “Stranger Things.”
Stranger Things 2Engaging characters, good acting, a Goonies-like feel, and an authenticity of motivation makes “Stranger Things” an interesting viewing experience. Each episode written, produced, and directed by the Duffer Brothers seems like an installment in a series, building the tension and sentimentally nodding to horror from the 1980’s. The first season consists of eight creepy-fun episodes that aired on 15 July, 2016, all punctuated by a brilliant soundtrack.

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

ghostbusters-1Before its premier on 15 July, 2016, internet trolls raised an unholy hoopla about filming a remake of the classic 1980’s film, Ghostbusters, with comedic women as leads. Writers Paul Feig and Katie Dippold nodded to the original while presenting their own spin on the beloved franchise.

Movie action begins with Professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) meeting the dean about her tenure. To her horror, a paranormal research book she wrote with school days friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) becomes available for sale and ruins her advancement. Gilbert teams up with Yates and engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), forming what the media calls “The Ghostbusters.” Friendly, street-wise, and knowledgeable paranormal witness Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) joins, quickly becoming the most sensible member of the group.

Although peopled with a nemesis, unsavory mayor and staff, and of course plenty of spooks, the plot stumbles at times. The comedic acuity of the leads never quite gels, as though they present a caricature of themselves instead of proving again their usual, effortless comedic chops. The staggered dialogue is not always witty and is often peppered with off-putting pseudo-technobabble. Yates’ best interactions are with a negligent food delivery person, while Holtzmann begins as more of a teenage boy than an intelligent, almost steam-punk slick mad genius. Holtzmann is at her best when introducing inventions. Patty provides transportation and some great lines, and Gilbert should have been arrested for sexual harassment when the team hires Kevin, their receptionist.

Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin, an incompetent receptionist hired for his good looks, bordered on appalling. Hemsworth’s acting isn’t in question. In fact, “Thor” seemed to enjoy poking fun at himself. The writing, however, portrayed the sort of vapid beauty the likes of which haven’t been seen since Marilyn Monroe or Christina Applegate’s “Married with Children” role. Feminism is about equality of opportunity and acknowledgement of ability. To portray the receptionist as the very worst sort of dumb blond smacked of absurdity. In a reversal of the traditional roles, the team launches a rescue mission after the villain possesses Kevin, setting up a dance scene opportunity left unrealized until the very end of the flick.

ghostbustersThe special effects glistened with fluorescent slime, and some of the ghosts were quite beautiful. Plenty of familiar characters make appearances, and the cameos abounded. The new Ghostbusters struggle for acceptance, a way to climb above the “Ghost Girl” taunts from Gilbert’s youth. They react with enthusiasm when they encounter a fully formed apparition. Even when the tide of public acceptance turns against them, they bond together acknowledging, “We’re all Ghost Girl.”

Ghostbusters 2016 conjured some of the nostalgic feel of the original film while providing goofy, effects-heavy, summer fun. Some great potential setups fall forgotten, such as a charlatan tour guide who introduces the first class-four apparition at the haunted manor house or the real motivation behind government sweeping government cover-ups. However, Ghostbusters 2016 is better than Ghostbusters 2 or its resultant cartoons. It even delivered a mini-startle on an occasion. In all, as Holtzmann said, “Booyah, emphasis on the Boo.”

“We ain’t scared of no ghosts.”

Movie Review: The Rite

the riteAlthough there is debate as to the genre, “The Rite” packs thrills and dark subject matter into a religious film some feel qualifies as horror. Colin O’Donoghue portrays Michael Kovak, an American man whose family insists he become either a mortician or a priest. Rejecting his father (Rutger Hauer) and his preparations of the dead, Michael instead takes religious instructions at St. Osmund. After becoming a Deacon, Michael tries to withdraw from the priesthood, but his mentor, Father Mathew (Toby Jones) encourages him to take a prestigious two month course about exorcism in Vatican City instead. Father Mathew further explains Michael’s academic scholarship could be converted to over one hundred thousand dollars of student loan debt if he did not take the opportunity. “I see potential in you,” Father Mathew explained, pointing to Michael’s calm and lack of squeamishness. He compliments Michael’s handling of an accident victim’s request for last rites.

the rite img 2Michael travels to Rome and meets teacher Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds), a reporter named Angela (Alice Braga) seeking an understanding of possession, and Father Lucas (the impeccable Anthony Hopkins), a Welsh Jesuit exorcist. Michael struggles with his faith. He rationalizes apparent possessions, including that of Rosaria (Marta Gastini), a sixteen-year-old who became possessed when her father raped and impregnated her. Father Lucas enlists Michael’s aid in exorcising the girl, but unable to discover the demon’s name, Rosaria remained in its power. After she attempts to kill herself, she’s institutionalized, miscarries, and dies. Consumed by guilt, Father Lucas became possessed and turns to Michael (and Angela) to perform the exorcism. Michael battles his own doubt, believes in the supernatural, and saves the man from the demon Baal.

“Demons are the Devil’s foot soldiers,” and knowing their names gives exorcists power over them. “The Rite” provides a dark, atmospheric, and authentic look into an ancient religious ritual. Several scenes leap from their gloom to make viewers startle as well. Adapted from a true story by Matt Baglio by Michael Petroni, director Mikael Hafstrom released his film on 28 January, 2011. Although it does not feature vomited “pea soup,” “The Rite” does deliver regurgitation of palm-length nails, impressive contortions, and dark makeup transformations. Anthony Hopkins’ performance shone, and although his accent slipped several times, Colin O’Donoghue’s portrayal of conflict rang true. There were several untranslated scenes in Italian. Although they added to the feel, not understanding entirely what transpired annoyed me. The movie unfolds with methodical realization that some viewers find plodding but which mirrors the main character’s path of understanding.

(Book Review) Night Things: Undead and Kicking

 

Terry M. West tells twisted stories well. His “Night Things Undead and Kicking” is no exception.
In it, Carol, a social worker advocating for the rights of the undead, died and found herself reanimated after a brutal attack on her place of employment, the Children of the Moon Shelter. Dr. Herbert West achieved his greatest success with Carol, whose DNA may hold the secret to controlling zombie herds and overriding the “horde frequency” that inspires bloodlust in the zombies.
Johnny Stucke, self-appointed leader of the Night Things takes Carol under his protection, but his interests may have a sinister purpose. Also, an ancient being going by the name of Edmund Wraight proves ready to explore Carol’s insides to claim her power as his own.
Terry M. West includes nods to greats of literary horror including Lovecraft, Shelley, and Stoker. He reshapes familiar monsters and fleshes them out to suit his “Magic Now” world, a modern world where creatures of myth and nightmare coexist with humans. The undead navigate social dilemmas, civil rights violations, and less-than-human standing.
Enthusiasts of classic horror will recognize a kindred spirit in Terry M. West. Though many are renamed and “modernized,” the horror icons make themselves known through West’s creative interpretation. He introduces new characters, too, and gives them motivations and believability.
“Undead and Kicking” is an installment in the “Magic Now” series, which includes “Dracula versus Frankenstein” and West’s decidedly grittier prequel, “Monsters and the Magic Now,” but this newest novel stands on its own. With the back story established in the earlier books of the series, “Undead and Kicking” uses straight-forward writing, interesting characters, and flashbacks to provide a quick and enjoyable read.

Retro Movie Review: Death Becomes Her (1992)

death becomes her 2What do you get, when you decide to tell a tale where money is no object, vanity and ego have no limits, and revenge knows no bounds?

You “pretty” much get Robert Zemeckis’s modern Gothic horror-comedy from 1992, DEATH BECOMES HER.

Co-written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp earlier on in their collaborative relationship, Zemeckis was riding high on the crest of a wave of success when he decided to take it on, having already put out ROMANCING THE STONE, BACK TO THE FUTURE and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. Visual Effects Supervisor Ken Ralston, one of the leaders at ILM (now LucasArts), had his work cut out for him. CGI effects were still yet in their infancy, and many of the gags that DEATH demanded pushed the envelope, as they were of a brand of cinematic trickery that had never been attempted before.

As it stands today, watching this and thinking of the many advances in the field, (the magnificent dragon effects of GAME OF THRONES for one excellent example), the effects work does look a little dated by today’s standards. But what makes this a standard classic that fans can come back to time and again is the clever, blackly funny script, Zemeckis’s stylish direction, and the game performances of three of film’s most capable and talented actors, all working in tandem together here for the very first time.

You can think of DEATH BECOMES HER as a really well-developed, extended version of TALES OF THE CRYPT, (a series that Zemeckis also helped produce), but with less schtick, less gore and more mordant wit. “Frenemies” from childhood, severely insecure and neurotic film and stage star Madeline Ashton (MERYL STREEP) and equally introverted would-be author Helen Sharp (GOLDIE HAWN) have been bitterly competitive with one another, with Madeline usually coming out the winner, always managing to steal Helen’s beaus from her.

death becomes her 1It all comes to a brutal head, when Helen’s current fiance, the schlubby-but-brilliant plastic surgeon, Dr. Ernest Menville (BRUCE WILLIS, in one of the most atypical roles of his entire career) falls under ‘the Ashton spell’. Literally marrying Ernest right out from under her, Madeline causes her friend to transform into a psychotic, obese cat-lady, whose sole obsession of taking her revenge on her homewrecking BFF sends Helen to the nuthouse. Which is where she finally makes a ‘breakthrough’….

Meanwhile, Ernest and Madeline are living a Beverly Hills married lifestyle straight out of an Albee play. He’s become a henpecked, alcoholic loser whose surgical skills have so deteriorated, he operates mainly on cadavers now, making them look more ‘presentable’. When she’s not doing really bad musicals based on Tennessee Williams plays, (the film’s opening number is hysterically unforgettable), she’s dallying with much younger lovers in a desperate attempt to hold onto some kind of illusion, that her once-radiant looks are not failing her.

After a couple of really bad episodes that remind her of how futile her efforts to hold onto youth are, Madeline encounters the mysterious Mr. Chagall (Ian Ogilvy), who in turn directs her to Lisle Von Rhuman (a radiant and sublimely over-the-top Isabella Rosellini), who has the answers, it seems, to all of her problems. But what Lisle has to offer is much, much more expensive than what Madeline can write a check for. It’s also where the story begins to take its darkly funny EC Comics-style turn.

Here’s where we part company with any potential spoilers. If, like me, you’ve seen this movie about eighteen times, then you know that spoilers aren’t even possible. If you’ve never seen it, then I envy you the joys of being able to discover it for the very first time.

Playfully spanking the Hollywood conventions of beauty and vanity, and poking gleeful fun at all of the people who take both way too seriously, Donovan and Koepp’s sharp script afforded the three leads a rare opportunity to parody their own iconic images and reputations, and they dig into it with gusto. None of their characters are particularly nice people, to themselves and definitely not to each other, and are the complete antithesis of the kind of roles they usually are called upon to portray, to say the very least. Streep as a faded ingenue, Willis as a wimpy milquetoast and Hawn as a psychotic, revenge-driven femme fatale had the time of their lives here, and it shows.

Death-Becomes-HerZemeckis helms the proceedings accordingly, calling back to everything from old Hollywood Technicolor melodramas to ‘hag horror’ pics like WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, and HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, and does it with the same sure sense of style and twisted humor that made his other like-minded efforts like ROGER RABBIT, a delight to watch, even in repeated viewings. Favorite John Carpenter DP Dean Cundey matches him frame-for-frame, and frequent musical collaborator Alan Silvestri provides a great score that’s kind of a wink/nudge homage to Bernard Herrmann by way of William Lava, (the composer for many of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes features, appropriately enough.)

Scream Factory has done their usual stellar job of transferring this to Blu-Ray, where – dated opticals aside – the film looks as gorgeous as its stars do…even when for certain reasons, they don’t. And though the extras are kind of sparse by comparison to other releases, it’s still a kick to have Zemeckis, Cundey, Koepp and producer Steve Starkey discussing the making of this now horror-comedy staple.

DEATH BECOMES HER gets a definite four-out-of-five stars from this reviewer, plus a strong recommendation for all readers to add this to your DVD/BR libraries in lieu of just renting it. (You can thank me later.)

50th Anniversary of Dark Shadows

dark shadowsOn 27 June, 1966, ABC introduced an American Gothic Soap Opera. It aired after school, targeting a teenage audience, and despite a slow beginning, the show garnered a following. It ran until 2 April, 1971, resulting in 1225 episodes exploring the angst-filled lives of the wealthy Collins family of Collinsport, Maine.
“Dark Shadows” leaned on inspiration from classic writers such as Poe, Bronte, Shelley, and Wilde. After a year, the series introduced its most popular character, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), a Vampire with an infatuation. Ghosts, werewolves, witches and warlocks, and man-made monsters joined the cast. Action began when Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke), an orphan with unknown ties to the Collins’ legacy, travelled by train to the Collins’ Manor to serve as governess for the reclusive Elizabeth Collins Stoddard’s (Nancy Barrett) two children, Carolyn (Nancy Barrett) and David (David Henesy).
The series made use of flashbacks, time travel, and a parallel universe. Actors often portrayed more than one character or returned as ghosts. A storyline set in the late 1890’s aired in 1969 and boosted ratings. The series next introduced the idea of unseen forces, Leviathan, controlling matters, which did not inspire as much enthusiasm from its viewership, and ABC cancelled “Dark Shadows” on 2 April, 1971. Its cancelation left several storylines unresolved, including disclosing Victoria’s parentage.

barnabas collinsCreator Dan Curtis said he came up with the idea from a dream. Art Wallace wrote for the series and Sy Thomashoff designed the sets. Robert Cobert created the musical score which earned a Grammy nomination and reached the Billboard Hot 100 charts. “TV Guide” ranked the television show “Dark Shadows” among the Top Cult Shows Ever. It was released in syndication, and movies inspired by the series were released in 1970 (House of Dark Shadows) and 1971 (Night of Dark Shadows). NBC aired a remake of the series starring Joanna Going as Victoria and Ben Cross as the 200 year old vampire, Barnabas Collins, which ran from 13 January, 1991 until 22 March of the same year. Tim Burton directed a 2012 comical cinematic release of “Dark Shadows” starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas.
During the height of its television popularity, “Dark Shadows” also found its way to novelizations, features in magazines, and comics. Board games, coloring books, jigsaw puzzles, and a View-Master reel sported “Dark Shadows” images.
Episodes are available on Hulu and available for purchase through various media outlets. There is talk in Hollywood of a revival series.