Sunday, February 26, 2017

Classics: A Review of Stranger Things By Lauren Ennis

In a world dominated by political unrest, violence, and economic upheaval it is all too tempting to yearn for the stability of a simpler time. Through the mere passage of time eras passed seem to lose their flaws as they take on the inviting glow of nostalgia.  Capitalizing upon the recent nostalgia for all things 1980’s the hit Netflix drama Stranger Things serves as an apt tribute to the sci-fi and adventure films of the 1980’s, while reminding us of the darker aspects of Cold War America that our nostalgia may have failed to account for.

And you thought middle school was frightening
The story begins as an homage to the stereotypical 80’s childhood with middle school sci-fi and fantasy fan Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) playing Dungeons and Dragons with his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarrazzo). In typical latchkey kid fashion, the boys end the night by setting off for their respective homes alone on their bikes. The plot then takes a turn into classic sci-fi territory as Will is pursued by a mysterious unseen force until he finally vanishes, seemingly into thin air. The disappearance sparks a town-wide man-hunt after Will’s dedicated but harried mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), enlists the aid of cynical town sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour). While the case leaves the small mid-western town of Hawkins, Indiana shaken as residents struggle for answers, the matter is treated as a standard missing persons case. As Joyce, Hopper, and Will’s friends experience increasingly bizarre paranormal encounters, however, it becomes clear that Will’s disappearance is anything but standard, and Hawkins is far more than the quiet town that it appears to be. Eventually, the disappearance of a local teen, the mysterious activities at a top-secret government lab, and the arrival of a truly strange little girl converge to expose a web of corruption, espionage, and abuse that plunges viewers into the darkest corners of Cold War America.

Through its loving tribute to 80’s pop culture and skeptical approach to government that is equally applicable to the past and present Stranger Things reminds us of all that we miss in our past while serving as an apt warning for the future. The inclusion of government test subject Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in particular fuses these two elements to create a character who is equal parts familiar and original. The efforts of Mike, Lucas, and Dustin to hide Eleven in Mike’s basement in a disguise comprised of costume accessories directly recall the adventures of Elliott and E.T. In the midst of her comic adjustment to the outside world, however, the series never lets viewers forget the disturbing events that led to her arrival in Hawkins. Similarly, the boys’ interactions are directly reminiscent of both Stand By Me and The Goonies but still keep viewers engaged in their adventures. The story arcs featuring Mike’s seemingly perfect sister, Nancy, and Will’s social outcast older brother, Jonathan, also contain the genre tropes that catapulted John Hughes’ teen dramedies to classic status, but use them to create a story that is emotionally honest and timeless. While remaining within the context of Cold War paranoia, the series’ portrayal of anti-Soviet hysteria and citizens dismissed as collateral damage remains eerily relevant in today’s fraught political atmosphere. Through its fond glimpse at the past with a knowing nod to our own age, Stranger Things tells a truly unique tale that will resonate in any era.

Welcome back, Winona
The out of this world plot would have remained grounded if not for the inspired performances of its cast. In a stroke of casting genius 1980’s and 1990’s indie ‘it girl’ Winona Ryder brings Joyce to life in a performance that covers all the stages of loss without striking a false note. David Harbour infuses his hardened sheriff with a charisma and cynical charm that makes Hopper a suburban take on Indiana Jones. Natalia Dyer is excellent in her role as good girl gone popular Nancy and brings a mix of innocence and adolescent angst to her role that would make Molly Ringwald proud. Charlie Heaton captures the awkwardness and kindness of social outsider Jonathan, making him a perfect foil to his rival for Nancy’s affections, charming but self-absorbed Steve. Even when surrounded by outstanding performances by their adult counterparts, the series belongs to its youngest cast members. Finn Wolfhard is a natural in his role as confident but protective group leader Mike. Caleb McLaughlin captures Lucas’ obstinacy and cynicism while still evoking the loyalty and kindness that he keeps carefully guarded. Gaten Matarazzo’s performance as Dustin strikes the ideal balance between comic and poignant as his character evolves from sidekick to the group’s voice of reason. Millie Bobbie Brown nearly steals every scene in which she appears as the enigmatic Eleven as she captures the role’s difficult combination of childlike innocence and beyond her years maturity.

Through its equal parts 1980’s nostalgia and modern insight Stranger Things relates an eerie tale of a community coming together in the face of adversity that will inspire viewers of any generation. The series’ combination of an intelligent script, retro atmosphere, and a truly stellar cast ensures that it more than earns its place as Netflix’s crown jewel. With laughter, romance, friendship, family, as well as the thrills and chills of the best in adventure and sci-fi, Stranger Things makes nostalgia the new cutting edge.

I better get a pension out of this

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Classics: Three Hollywood It Couples to Spend your Valentine's Day with By: Lauren Ennis

Winter winds are blowing, hearts are glowing, and almost every store is stocked with candy and flowers. This can only mean one thing; that equal parts anticipated and dreaded holiday, Valentine’s Day, is just around the corner. In recognition of this celebration of all things romantic I’ll be highlighting three couples who sizzled just as much off-screen as on. Submit your favorite on and off-screen couples in the comments!

Sometimes even Garbo didn't want to be alone
Greta Garbo and John Gilbert: This silent screen duo proved that romance truly transcends words. The two first met on the set of the 1926 romantic drama Flesh and the Devil, in which Hollywood newcomer Garbo portrayed the wanton woman who comes between Gilbert’s smitten soldier and his best friend. The pair quickly embarked upon a tumultuous affair, which was reportedly so passionate that during filming of Flesh and the Devil director Clarence Brown and his crew would tiptoe off the set while the two leads continued their love scenes long after Brown called, ‘cut’. Initially, their relationship enhanced both stars’ personal and professional lives with Gilbert drawing the notoriously reclusive Garbo out of her shell and Garbo bringing stability to the volatile Gilbert, while their pairing proved to be box office gold. The duo went on to star in two more silent dramas, the modern update of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Love (1927), and the controversial (due to its thinly veiled references to homosexuality, addiction, and unplanned pregnancy) flapper tale A Woman of Affairs (1927). Tensions arose as he became frustrated by her refusal to accept his many marriage proposals and she became alienated by his increased drinking. Eventually, the pair went their separate ways when she left him at the altar after his drinking had begun to turn violent. Despite their less than amicable break-up, however, they did reunite for one final screen pairing in the 1933 historical drama Queen Christina ,in which Garbo played the Swedish monarch and Gilbert portrayed the Spanish ambassador for whom she abdicates her throne. By this time, her star had continued to rise, while his career was all but over after MGM executives used the transition to sound as an excuse to blacklist any stars they deemed troublesome. The blow to his career, combined with a crumbling personal life (including a bitter break up with Garbo’s rival Marlene Dietrich), proved devastating to Gilbert and led him to spiral even further into alcoholism. Despite their complicated past and his status as a studio liability, however, Garbo never forgot the ways in which Gilbert had helped launch her career and specifically requested that he be cast as her leading man. The sparks flew on screen (though Garbo remained aloof off screen) once again and their chemistry ensured that the film became one of her most critically acclaimed hits. Studio politics and addiction continued to plague Gilbert, however, and his career failed to revive. Shortly before his death three years later from a heart attack he was reported to have said of Garbo, “There’s never been a day since she and I parted that I haven’t been lonely for her”. Classic films fans remain just as lonely today for the pair’s timeless chemistry.

Insolence never looked so sexy
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall: “Anybody got a match?” was Lauren Bacall’s first line in her debut film To Have and Have Not, and there may be no on-screen match as smart and sexy as that of Bacall and her co-star and eventual husband Humphrey Bogart. The pair first met on the set of To Have and Have Not (1944) when nineteen year old Bacall was still adjusting to life in Hollywood and Bogart was struggling with his failing third marriage to actress May Methot. When they were first introduced Bacall was unimpressed with the forty-five year old star and requested that the studio cast her opposite the more conventionally suave Cary Grant instead. When filming began, however, Bogart did his best to put his inexperienced and understandably anxious co-star at ease and the two developed a friendship. Before shooting wrapped, that friendship had developed into a passionate affair that would go down in cinema history. The film was an instant success that left audiences wanting more of the duo’s no nonsense sex appeal, and led to Bacall being cast opposite Bogart’s cynical detective in The Big Sleep (1947). Despite the disapproval of her family, his marriage, and the efforts of director Howard Hawks (who had vied to start an affair of his own with the uninterested Bacall) to break them up, the pair remained devoted to one another and married in 1945. They went on to star in two more films together, the suspense thriller Dark Passage (1947) in which Bogart’s fugitive from justice finds love with Bacall’s lonely designer, and the gangster classic Key Largo (1948) in which the pair are held hostage by and eventually turn the tables on a ruthless mob boss. The couple remained married for twelve years and had two children together. Tragedy shattered their seemingly idyllic life together when Bogart was diagnosed with cancer in 1956 and died one year later. When his ashes were buried Bacall had the gold whistle he had given her when shooting wrapped on To Have and Have Not, inscribed with the film’s famous line, “If you need anything just whistle”, put inside the urn. Despite eventually remarrying and pursuing other relationships in the years following Bogart’s death, Bacall always maintained that she had never met another man or acting partner who could measure up to him, and to this day it would be difficult to find an on-screen pair who could measure up to Bogart and Bacall.

The couple that laughs together....
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward: Fifty years of marriage is impressive, but fifty years of marriage in Hollywood must be an all-time record. Hollywood legends Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward made marriage look every bit as glamorous as a movie romance in one of cinema’s most enduring love stories. The pair first met in 1953 when Newman starred in the sexually charged play Picnic on Broadway and Woodward was cast as understudy to the lead actress. While there was an immediate attraction between them, he was already married and their relationship remained strictly platonic throughout the production. They remained friends, but did not work together again until four years later when they were cast opposite one another in the sultry romance The Long Hot Summer, in which Newman’s charismatic drifter wins the heart of Woodward’s head-strong southern beauty. By that time, he had divorced his first wife and the sparks were free to fly as they embarked upon a whirlwind romance that culminated in their marriage the next year. Rather than continue to live in the Hollywood fast lane, they made their home in a Connecticut farmhouse and became involved in the local community, including restoring the Westport Playhouse, which Woodward remained artistic director of until 2009. Even after the births of their three daughters the couple continued to work together and starred in a total of ten films together, with Woodward starring in an additional five films that Newman directed. While they admitted that working together could be difficult, they credited relying upon humor and mutual respect to work through their differences. When sex-symbol Newman was asked how he was able to remain faithful in the notoriously racy industry he famously said, “Why fool around with hamburger when you have steak at home”. When asked what the secret to her lasting marriage was Woodward replied, “Sexiness wears thin after a while and beauty fades, but to be married to a man who makes you laugh every day, oh, now that’s a treat”. In 2008 their marriage reached a tragic end when Newman died at age eighty-three, three months after announcing that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. After fifteen film collaborations and fifty years of marriage Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward left a lasting legacy that extended far beyond the confines of the screen.