Sunday, May 13, 2018

Classics: A Review of Notorious By Lauren Ennis

Nazi war criminals, jaded FBI agents, sultry playgirls, and a champagne bottle bubbling over with uranium mix nicely in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller Notorious. By combining the elements of the salacious Mata Hari legend with the horrors of World War II, Hitchcock crafted a thriller that highlighted America’s lingering fears in the aftermath of World War II while simultaneously predicting the moral dilemmas and paranoia of the Cold War. At once a mind-bending thriller and a spy story with a soul, the film’s subversive script and uniformly superb performances elevate what easily could have been a standard espionage tale to classic status.

And they were big pimpin' in the 1940's
The story begins with FBI agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) receiving orders to recruit the self-destructive daughter (Ingrid Bergman) of a notorious Nazi war criminal into government service. What begins as a standard assignment quickly spirals into a moral and ethical quandary as he finds himself falling for damaged party-girl Alicia. Just as Alicia begins to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, however, she learns the sordid nature of her assignment; to seduce one of her father’s former associates and fellow war criminals (Claude Rains) who is now living a charmed existence in Rio de Janeiro. What ensues is a tale of love, lust, betrayal, and redemption that takes viewers into the murky world of post-war intelligence and the darkest depths of the human heart.

While Notorious does contain staples of the espionage genre, what sets the film apart is the way in which it utilizes these familiar elements to explore the political and ethical questions of its day. At the film’s start the story’s moral lines seem clearly drawn as honorable federal agent Devlin offers disgraced Alicia a chance at redemption. As the story continues, however, the characters’ ethics become as convoluted as the spy games that they are engaging in as damaged Alicia becomes the film’s emotional center. Rather than focusing upon the greater good goal of her mission, the script frankly portrays Alicia’s assignment ass government endorsed prostitution with Devlin her reluctant pimp. This approach, while accurate, was nothing short of subversive in the tense atmosphere of the post-war era as the film called the war-time actions of allied governments into direct question. The film consistently maintains its political stance as its shows Alicia experience disillusionment, betrayal, and abandonment at the hands of the very government organization that claimed to protect and redeem her. The film even goes so far as to draw parallels between the brutal and deceptive methods of the ex-Nazi’s Alicia is infiltrating with the questionable counter-intelligence methods utilized by the FBI.

Explosive liquor; a surefire way to start your night off with a bang
Beyond its sharp political criticism, the film also offers social commentary through its portrayal of the twisted love triangle between Devlin, Alicia, and her mark turned husband, Alex. While Devlin is initially presented as the story’s hero, his treatment of Alicia is hardly knight in shining armor material as he constantly judges and berates her for her vices. At first glance, his attitude could be dismissed as understandable given her behavior and the norms of the era. The fact that he continues to malign her even after learning of her efforts to stop her father’s fascist activities and that she uses her vices to escape the guilt of failing to do so is nothing less than cruel. The script goes on to portray him in an even more negative light when he tasks her with selling herself under federal orders after previously chastising her for her promiscuity. His hypocrisy, and the film’s biting criticism of it, reaches its peak when Alicia reluctantly agrees to her assignment only to be confronted with rejection and condemnation from Devlin when she succeeds. In an interesting contrast, the film’s villain, Alex, is portrayed as understanding and tolerant when he not only pursues a relationship with but marries Alicia with full knowledge of her past. In its sympathetic portrayal of Alicia and its exploration of her relationships with the two very different men in her life, Notorious highlights the hypocrisies of sexual double standards in a way that few Hays Code era films would have dared. Through its scathing social and political commentary the film raises challenging questions that remain startlingly relevant today.

The film continues to thrill audiences thanks in large part to the stellar work of its cast. Claude Raines portrays Alex with a humanity and complexity that make him a surprisingly sympathetic villain. Leopoldine Konstantin rivals Hitchcock’s other infamously evil mother, Mrs. Bates, in her wonderfully wicked role as Alex’s oppressive mother. Cary Grant makes for an impressive anti-hero in a performance that combines his characteristic charm with an underlying bitterness and menace. Ingrid Bergman inhabits the outwardly tough but inwardly vulnerable Alicia in a way that will leave viewers as susceptible to her charms as Raines’ and Grant’s characters.

Easily one of the most intelligent films to tackle international intelligence, Notorious is another masterful effort from the master of suspense. At once a tale of political intrigue and a powerful political criticism, the film is far more than just another spy story. Through its gripping script and uniformly excellent performances the film weaves a twisting web of suspense and deceit that will leave viewers guessing until its final frame. With its scathing social commentary and subversive take on post-war politics Hitchcock’s 1946 hit remains Notorious.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Classics: The Formidable Females of Disney By Lauren Ennis

Since the 1937 premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Walt Disney Studios has become synonymous with excellence in family entertainment. The studio has faced criticism in recent years, however, regarding its depiction of female characters with modern critics accusing the studio of promoting outdated and sexist values. While many of the studio’s earlier efforts reflect the traditional values of the eras in which they were released, the studio has also created numerous heroines who are every bit as complex, clever, and capable as their male counterparts. This week, I’ll be shining the spotlight on three Disney ladies who personify what it means to fight like a girl.

I ain't afraid of no huns
Mulan: Joan of Arc had the Lord to guide her, she was a sister who really cooked, and then there’s Mulan. In the 1998 film Mulan, the title heroine defies both her family and the whole of society when she joins in China’s fight against the invading Huns. At the film’s start she resigns herself to the restrictive role society has assigned to her and prepares to enter an arranged marriage. Despite her best efforts, however, her unconventional personality shines through, leading the local matchmaker to deem her ‘unmarriageable’. She soon finds good use for her tomboyish lack of proprietary, however, when the emperor orders the conscription of one man from each household. To save her elderly father from the perils of battle she disguises herself as a man and enlists in his place. She then overcomes numerous physical and emotional challenges while shouldering the additional burden of concealing her identity, eventually becoming one of the best soldiers in her regiment. Just as her mission nears success, however, she faces ostracism once again when she is wounded in battle and her true identity is revealed. Despite being dishonorably discharged, she refuses to abandon her comrades and re-joins her regiment just in time to save China.

While Mulan’s deeds on the battlefield are the stuff of legend, it is her selflessness, humbleness, and resilience that make her an ideal role model. Throughout the film she dedicates herself to helping others both on and off the battlefield. It is this self-sacrifice that first prompts her to enlist and later leads her to return to her regiment even after her comrades reject her. As a result, her actions display heroism in its truest sense as she repeatedly risks her reputation and safety not for any personal glory or recognition, but to ensure the safety of her family and country. While she regularly faces physical dangers, it is her emotional resilience that holds greater resonance. Throughout the film she faces criticism from those around her, but rather than crumble she uses this criticism to motivate herself to succeed. Throughout her journey she also retains a sense of humbleness as she allows neither her fame nor her success to cloud her judgment. For a girl worth fighting alongside hop into the saddle with Mulan.

That slight come hither stare, it's witchcraft...
Esmeralda: When she first appears at the Festival of Fools Esmeralda is described as “the finest girl in France” and after one viewing of The Hunchback of Notre Dame you won’t have to wonder why. While she may not be a historic heroine or princess like many other Disney heroines, she is easily one of the most original and complex protagonists in all of Disney. At the film’s start she is struggling to earn a living as a dancer on the streets of Paris. When a group of soldiers harass her and accuse her of stealing the money that she legally earned, she refuses to tolerate either their accusations or racist taunts and defends herself despite the consequences. She later displays even more courage when she defends complete stranger Quasimodo against the wrath of the local mob for no reason other than because it is the right thing to do. She doesn’t stop at freeing Quasimodo from his attackers, however, as she then goes on to denounce both the mob for their abusive behavior and corrupt judge Claude Frollo for failing to hold them accountable. She continues to show compassion towards Quasimodo when she sets out to befriend him and teaches him to believe in himself when others shun him for his appearance. When her defiance inspires a fascination in Frollo that spirals into lustful obsession she repeatedly rejects his lecherous advances despite the power and influence that he possesses and threatens to use against her. Even when confronted with the terrible choice of offering herself to Frollo or facing execution she refuses to compromise her own values and submit to him. Throughout the film she is derided for her race, her profession, and her non-conformity, and yet she never loses sight of the fact that there are still others less fortunate then her. In a particularly poignant moment the script goes so far as to show that even in her prayers she puts others first when she says, “I ask for nothing, I can get by. But I know so many less lucky than I”. While Frollo may describe her as a witch sent by the devil himself, Esmeralda consistently displays a moral courage, selflessness, and sense of justice that are nothing short of angelic. For a character living in the 15th century she possesses all the intelligence and independence of the most modern of women. From the moment that she whirls onto the screen Esmeralda dances to the beat of her own tambourine, providing an example that we could all aspire to.

Real women read
Belle: She’s a beauty but a funny girl that Belle, and the Beast and viewers alike love her all the more for it. Many consider Beauty and the Beast’s bookish heroine to be Disney’s first modern princess. Unlike her predecessors, Belle longs not for a prince, but instead to find her own place in the world. While the other girls in her small town are ready to settle down and start a family she remains determined to find something more beyond the confines of her ‘provincial life’. As a result, while the other girls in town are charmed by local ladies’ man Gaston, Belle rejects his repeated proposals without hesitation. She also admirably stays true to herself by pursuing the intellectual interests that make her a subject of constant gossip and speculation. Even as she maintains her independence, however, she still dedicates herself to helping others, especially her father. When the townspeople routinely mock Maurice for his forward thinking and accuse him of suffering from mental illness Belle remains firmly by her father’s side. After he disappears on his way to a nearby inventor’s fair she springs into action without hesitation and sets out alone to find him. Later, when she learns that her father is being held captive at the Beast’s castle she makes the ultimate sacrifice by offering to take Maurice’s place as the Beast’s prisoner. Even when confronted with the daunting reality of her new life as a prisoner in an enchanted castle she refuses to fall into despair and instead makes the best of her situation by forming bonds with the household staff. Despite her confined status, she also continues to assert herself in her relationship with the Beast  by insisting that he treat her with respect and learn to control his temper. Even in her relationship with the Beast, however, she displays loyalty and selflessness. This is first shown when she stays at the castle to make sure that the Beast receives medical care after he is injured, when she easily could have used his injury to her advantage and escaped. Belle proves her loyalty and kindness once again when she pleads with the Beast to free her in order to tend to her ailing father, but returns just in time to help the Beast in his battle against Gaston. Over the course of her fantastic adventure she overcomes overwhelming obstacles with an intelligence and ferocity that rivals those of any Disney hero. Whether she’s facing local gossip, enchanted spells, or villainous schemes Belle maintains a fundamental grace, selflessness, and optimism that make her a true beauty both inside and out.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Classics: A Review of The Death of Stalin By Lauren Ennis

History and Hollywood are overflowing with tales of tyrants who dominated through brutality, repression, and manipulation. What is less widely discussed is what happens when a tyrant’s reign of terror is finally brought to an end. The 2018 dark satire The Death of Stalin explores the outrageous ways that the most elite members of the Soviet government sought to obtain and maintain control in the wake of dictator Joseph Stalin’s sudden death in 1953. At once a slapstick spoof of the corrupting influence of politics and an indictment of the all too real horrors that ran rampant in the Soviet Union, The Death of Stalin is a film that is certain to slay you.

Is anyone going to acknowledge the red elephant in the room?!
The story begins with a darkly ironic glimpse into the daily absurdities of life in the Soviet Union as a Moscow orchestra scrambles to recreate a concert performance in order to appease Stalin’s whim for a recording. Through this opening depiction of the hysterical levels of fear that the mere mention of Stalin inspires in the musicians the film perfectly captures the Orwellian nightmare that was everyday life under Stalin’s rule. The film then shifts its focus from the populace that the dictator brutalized into submission to the political cronies and henchmen who enabled his reign to endure. Following a brief introduction to the sycophancy and underhandedness that dominated Stalin’s inner circle, the film portrays the dictator’s sudden death from a stroke. The film then quickly spirals into a madcap race against time as the most elite figures in the Soviet Union face off in a power struggle that will define Russian politics for decades to come.

Made in the tradition of such biting political comedies as Ninotchka and The Great Dictator, The Death of Stalin provides a wry look at politics at their most poisonous. From the moment that Stalin is found unconscious in a puddle of his own urine the film morphs into something akin to ‘Survivor: Soviet Moscow’ as the dictator’s closest allies make and break alliances in accordance with the shifting political climate. All the while the wit remains razor sharp and the insults fly faster than a firing squad’s bullets as the USSR’s most elite bumble, bicker, and double-cross their way to the top. The shenanigans that ensue are comic in their absurdity, even as they highlight the brutality, paranoia, and hysteria that dominate life under repressive regimes. The film wisely maintains its darkly comic focus upon the hapless schemers jockeying to take Stalin’s place, rather than the ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire. As a result, the film functions as a scathing indictment of the lunacy that was Stalinism rather than a tasteless dismissal of its millions of victims. Although the central players are historical figures, the power plays that they ruthlessly engage in remain as startlingly relevant today as they were during the height of the Cold War.
Stay tuned to see who will be voted off the island next

The expert performances of the film’s international cast deftly keep the film balanced between slapstick spoof and historical drama. Steve Buscemi nearly steals the film in his slick turn as Nikita Krushchev, which plays like a Cold War twist on his popular role of Boardwalk Empire’s politician turned gangster Nucky Thompson. Jeffrey Tambor is hilariously inept as the ever one step behind Georgy Malenkov. Jason Isaacs lends roguish charm and plenty of swagger to his role as World War II hero and Red Army chief of staff General Zhukov. Simon Russell Beale manages to be both comic and chilling in his portrayal of notorious head of the secret police Lavrenti Beria. Rupert Friend is wonderfully outrageous in his performance as Stalin’s drunken buffoon son, Vasily. Andrea Riseborough aptly portrays Stalin’s sheltered daughter, Svetlana with an appropriate combination of snobbishness and naïveté.

A historical tale that could easily be ripped from today’s headlines, The Death of Stalin is simultaneously one of the most comic and tragic films of the year. Through its wickedly witty script the film sheds light onto the comically absurd events that transpired after Stalin’s death, while also reminding audiences of the millions who suffered under the rule of Stalin and his cohorts. The ensemble cast turn in expert performances that will have even the most casual students of history laughing out loud. For a film that will have you dying with laughter don’t miss The Death of Stalin.
It's funny because it's mostly true!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Classics: A Review of The Halcyon By Lauren Ennis

Dark days and bright nights beckon at London’s exclusive Halcyon hotel circa 1940. With the blitz raging outside while personal and political passions threaten to erupt inside the scene in ITV’s The Halcyon is set for drama. A Casablanca-esque atmosphere combined with a modern sensibility makes the series an enticing cocktail of the best of classic and contemporary. One visit with the series’ colorful cast of staff and guests is guaranteed to leave viewers wanting a return trip to the intrigue, opulence, danger, and romance that await in The Halcyon.

Downton, prepare to eat your heart out
The story begins as the threat of war ominously hangs over London even as life in the Halcyon’s hallways carries on. The problems of the outside world enter the hotel, however, with the arrival of the hotel’s owner Lord Hamilton and his fascist leaning mistress. While the potential for political and sexual scandal threatens the hotel’s reputation, the entirety of the establishment is thrown into upheaval when Lord Hamilton is found dead of a sudden heart attack. The hotel is then left in the hands of his scheming wife, Lady Hamilton, and two well-meaning but untrained sons, setting the stage for a power struggle between Lady Hamilton and the hotel’s general manager, Richard Garland. Meanwhile the guests and staff alike find themselves embroiled in both personal and professional crises as the Nazi bombs draw ever closer.

Although the series may tell a familiar war-time tale of love and glory it does so with just enough of a modern twist to keep audiences on the edge of their seats while still remaining true to the period in which it is set. One way that the script achieves this balance is by including elements that, while historically accurate, would have been censored by the media of the era. For example, the series approaches such adult topics as sexual assault, infidelity, and pre-marital sex with a frankness that, while true to life, would never have passed the restrictions of the Hollywood Hays Code. Similarly the taboo relationships between both interracial couple Betsy and Sonny and homosexual couple Toby and Adil are portrayed with a modern sensitivity, even as both couples confront the prejudice and intolerance of the period. The script also aptly portrays the class and gender struggles of the era and the ways in which World War II ushered in many changes to class and gender norms. Even in the midst of its most modern elements, however, the series never loses sight of such timeless themes as love, family, sacrifice, and patriotism. It is through its focus upon such universal themes that the series connects viewers to its characters and the distant world that they inhabit. Through its nuanced characterizations and multifaceted plot The Halycon is a series that is vintage but never old fashioned, with a modern sensibility that doesn’t sacrifice historical accuracy.

Let's party like its 1939
The stellar work of the series’ ensemble cast brings 1940’s London to vibrant life. Kara Tointon possesses all the sensual charm of Rita Hayworth as sassy nightclub singer Betsy Day. Sope Dirisu conveys equal parts debonair charm and quiet strength in his role as bandleader Sonny Sullivan. Olivia Williams portrays the by turns ruthlessly cold and achingly vulnerable Lady Hamilton with expert skill. Edward Bluemel aptly portrays the insecurity and frustration of the Hamilton’s neglected son, Toby. Akshay Kumar is endlessly endearing in his performance as conflicted bartender Adil. Matt Ryan possesses a world weariness and cynical charm worthy of Humphrey Bogart as reporter Joe O’Hara. Jamie Blackley makes for an admirable hero as the Hamilton’s favored son, ace flyer Freddie. Hermione Corfield expertly captures the warmth, wit, and resilience of receptionist Emma Garland. Steven Mackintosh nearly steals the series in his charismatic turn as the hotel’s enigmatic manager, Richard Garland.

With all the smooth charm of a black and white classic and the grit of a modern drama The Halcyon is far more than just another period piece. Through its array of colorful and fascinating characters and layered plot the series treats viewers to a swinging time that will leave hem begging for more. After checking into one episode of The Halcyon you won’t want to check out.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Classics: A Review of The Muppet Movie By Lauren Ennis

Family films are often dismissed as strictly juvenile fare that have little to offer adult viewers. Some family films, however, earn that family status by providing entertainment that truly is for the entire family. One such film is the 1979 adventure/comedy The Muppet Movie. Over the course of its ninety-seven minute running time the film offers so much laughter, life lessons, and inspiration that even the most cynical of viewers will be cheering for Kermit and company to find the rainbow connection and make their Hollywood dreams come true.

Moving right along, foot loose and fancy free!
The story begins as Kermit the Frog longingly daydreams about life beyond the confines of his swamp. After a chance meeting with a Hollywood talent scout who encourages him to pursue his dreams, Kermit leaps into action and sets out for Hollywood. Kermit soon learns that the road to fame is not paved with gold, however, when relentless restauranteur Doc Hopper attempts to persuade Kermit to become the face of his fast-fried frog legs chain. Despite Kermit’s repeated refusals Hopper will not take no for an answer and doggedly pursues Kermit on what is easily one of cinema’s wildest road trips. Along the way, Kermit encounters a colorful cast of characters including aspiring comedian Fozzy Bear, eccentric dare devil Gonzo, and model/actress Miss Piggy. Through their by turns slapstick and suspenseful adventure the group learn lessons in life and love that will hold equal appeal for the young and young at heart.

Much like Jim Henson’s previous success, The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie succeeds by prioritizing being a good movie over being a family film. The film merges the best in family entertainment and cinema at large to relate its wonderfully wacky tale. The central premise of a protagonist looking to find himself on the open road would be at home in a number of coming of age films directed towards adult audiences, as would the characters’ struggles to find success in Hollywood. Similarly, the dynamic between Kermit and his cohorts recalls the best in buddy comedies past and present. While the film’s inclusion of these cinema staples maintains the interest of adult audiences, the film’s child-friendly approach ensures that it is still age-appropriate. The script strikes an ideal balance between adult and child humor by including pop-culture references that will largely be lost on young viewers as well as more universal slapstick gags. In this way the film is able to maintain its madcap sensibility while still carrying broad audience appeal. The innovative visuals which largely utilize hand-made puppets in place of actors brings the whimsical world of the Muppets to vibrant life. The inclusion of Broadway-style songs also enriches the story by lending valuable insight into the characters while still keeping audiences’ tapping their toes. The now famous Rainbow Connection particularly stands out for its inspiring message and wistful melody.

Piggy believes in miracles...where you from, you sexy frog, you
The cast perfectly captures the anarchic spirit of the Muppets as actors work alongside their puppet co-stars, to bring the antics of the beloved puppets to life. Charles Durning and Austin Pendleton make an ideal comedic pair as the deranged Doc Hopper and his conflicted henchman, Max. The host of celebrities who pepper the film with cameos also lend apt support even as the spotlight remains firmly upon our felt heroes. The efforts of the voice actors and puppeteers combine to create top-notch performances that will have viewers forgetting that the leads aren’t flesh and blood.

Equal parts comedy and adventure, The Muppet Movie is a journey for the eyes, ears, and above all the heart. Through a combination of song, dance, and setting the film creates a whimsical version of our own world in which even our wildest dreams can come true. The film defies genre expectations through its use of witty but gentle humor, loveably flawed characters, and resonant but not forced life lessons, earning it a spot amongst the best in family entertainment. Nearly forty years after its release The Muppet Movie remains a must-see for the lovers, the dreamers, and the child within us all.


Saturday, March 3, 2018

Classics: A Review of Stranger Things Season 2

In 2016 Netflix viewers partied like it was 1983 with the release of the hit series Stranger Things. Inspired by the pop-culture of the 1980s’, Stranger Things proved itself to be more than a mere homage to cultural icons past by becoming one of the most hotly discussed and debated series of the new millennium. Following the first season’s success fans and critics alike wondered if a second season would, or even could, reach the standards of excellence set by the series’ debut. As 2017 approaches its end the question remains; was 1984 in Hawkins, Indiana as chilling, thrilling, and downright strange as we had hoped?

Who you gonna call?
The story begins roughly one year after the events of the first season as the residents of Hawkins attempt to return to some semblance of normality. For the series’ central players the emotional scars that they sustained in season one remain painfully raw one year later. Just as the characters come to terms with their traumas, however, events begin occurring across Hawkins which suggest that the government experiments in Hawkins’ Lab were just the beginning of the strange things to come.

This season largely manages to avoid the pitfalls typical of most sequels by continuing to build upon the events of season one, rather than placing the characters into a whole new adventure. The most obvious example is the use of the overarching theme of trauma to highlight the ways in which the characters cope with the losses that they suffered in season one. This exploration of trauma allows viewers crucial insight into the characters, while grounding the often fantastic plot through the inclusion of an all too real issue. This theme also offers ample opportunity for the script to address the questions raised in season one such as how will his time in the Upside Down affect Will and what were the consequences of Barb’s death. The series also provides viewers with much needed insight into the inner workings of the mysterious Hawkins Lab and Upside Down in a way that enrichens the story while still leaving room for future surprises.

Despite the script’s efforts to remain true to the spirit of first season, the second season contains enough twists of its own to keep viewers coming back for more. Most notably, the inclusion of the newest Upside Down villain the Shadow Monster/Mindflayer infuses the plot with psychological thrills that will have viewers keeping the lights on long after the final credits fade. Perhaps the most satisfying changes are those that the central characters undergo as they grow and evolve in response to a set of all new challenges. In spite of this season’s many praiseworthy aspects, however, season two did contain flaws which were largely the result of the writers’ efforts to expand the story’s universe too much too quickly. The script’s stumbles are most glaring in the scenes featuring new kids in town Billy and Maxine, who could have been compelling characters had they been given back stories that were more developed and more directly connected to the central plot. Similarly, Eleven’s adventures beyond Hawkins proved a distraction rather than a story thread, with her encounter with fellow lab experiment Kali/Eight significantly slowing the season’s momentum. Overall, however this second visit to Hawkins, Indiana was a worthwhile trip that already has this reviewer anticipating what thrills season three will have in store.

In a world full of tens be an Eleven
While Stranger Things contains a plot that is truly out of this world, its greatest draw remains the humanity at the heart of the performances of its ensemble cast’s performances. Wynona Ryder continues to shine in her complex portrayal of Will’s struggling mom, Joyce. David Harbour adds an essential vulnerability to his role as cynical sheriff Jim Hopper, particularly in his scenes opposite Millie Bobby Brown. Natalia Dyer infuses Nancy with an empowering spunk and resilience as she evolves from teenage follower to confident young woman. Charlie Heaton enlivens social outcast Jonathan with a boyish charm, especially in his scenes opposite Dyer, which crackle with chemistry. Joe Keery proved to be this season’s breakout star as season one’s stereotypical jock turned season two hero Steve Harrington. Gaten Matarrazzo rightfully earned plenty of buzz in his reprised role as the always endearing Dustin, with his scenes opposite Keery lending the season some of its most memorable moments. Caleb McLaughlin turned in another winning performance as Lucas, while adding a new dimension to his role as Lucas struggles with changing group dynamics and girls. Noah Schnapp finally gets the chance to show off his acting skills as Will evolves from plot device to compelling and tormented protagonist. Finn Wolfhard adds an edge to his role as Mike through his portrayal of Mike’s grief following the disappearance of Eleven. Millie Bobby Brown electrifies the screen once again as the enigmatic Eleven as she aptly portrays Eleven’s full range of conflicting emotions. Series newcomer Brett Gelman is endlessly entertaining in his performance as an eccentric freelance journalist. Sean Astin proves to be the series’ best addition in his role as underdog turned surprising hero Bob Newby.

Science fiction, supernatural thriller, coming of age tale, and homage to all things 1980’s; whatever its classification Stranger Things has become nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. Through its innovative scripts and heartfelt performances, the series continues to push the boundaries of television. Both a horror story with a heart and a period piece with lessons for today, Stranger Things is strange in all the best ways.

I don't think we're in Hawkins anymore, Toto

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Classics: A Review of Blades of Glory By Lauren Ennis

The Olympic Games are an event that has become synonymous with excellence, team work, and overcoming the odds. Perhaps no Olympic team has defied expectations with the originality and sheer hilarity of male pair skaters Jimmy McElroy and Chaz Michael Michaels in the 2007 comedy Blades of Glory. At once an uproarious satire of Olympic sports and a valentine to sports films, Blades of Glory is a comedy that goes for the gold.

The story begins with judges’ darling Jimmy (John Heder) facing his rival, fan favorite Chaz (Will Ferrell) in the Olympics. Both skaters turn in flawless performances; leaving skating’s ‘little orphan awesome’ and ‘lone wolf’ in a tie for the gold. Outraged at the prospect of sharing the title, they begin bickering in the midst of the medal ceremony in what escalates to a brawl that leaves both permanently banned from male figure skating. Years later, both hit hard times as Jimmy struggles to make ends meet selling skate equipment, while Chaz battles alcoholism and sex addiction as he drifts between kiddie skating shows. When Jimmy’s former coach, Robert (Craig T Nelson) approaches them with the unorthodox plan of returning to skating as a pair team, Jimmy and Chaz scoff at the idea. The lure of the ice proves too strong for both skaters to resist, however, as they embark upon an Olympic journey that is easily one of the most outrageous in sports history.

Through its by turns slapstick and sentimental approach, the film captures figure skating at its most ridiculous, while simultaneously showcasing the skill, teamwork, and perseverance that have helped make it an Olympic fan favorite. The gags surrounding the extravagant costumes, dramatic music, and over-the-top artistic gestures that have becomes skating hallmarks will have even casual viewers laughing out loud. Similarly, the references to the incomprehensible scoring system, and skating greats past and present will have ice aficionados roaring with laughter. Even in the mist of its most outlandish shenanigans, however, the film’s humor avoids attacking the sport by also paying tribute to its most admirable qualities as well as those of its competitors. This homage to all things ice shines through in the film’s depiction of the grueling training that athletes undergo, the pressures that they face, and the devoted fans that they win over. The film’s highest tribute to the sport by far, however, is its surprisingly inspiring portrayal of the bond between Jimmy and Chaz. Through its unique approach, the film merges the very best in comedy and sports cinema for a viewing experience that is truly glorious.

While the film’s premise made its script ripe with comedic potential, it is the expert performances of the cast that brings its slapstick world of sports to riotous life. Craig T Nelson is excellent in his straight-man role as dedicated coach, Robert. Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are wonderfully wicked as Jimmy and Chaz’s greatest rivals, the creepily close Van Waldenberg siblings. Jenna Fischer turns in an impressive transition from television to film as the Van Waldenberg’s conflicted younger sister, Katie. Nick Swardson is endlessly entertaining in his role as the duo’s biggest fan/stalker, Hector. Even while surrounded by superb performances, the film belongs to Ferrell and Heder as ultimate odd couple Jimmy and Chaz. Heder’s wide-eyed innocence is a perfect complement to Ferrell’s bad-boy machismo. Together, the two make a comedy team that is unbeatable on or off the ice.

Through its hilarious send-up of all things figure skating, Blades of Glory is an Olympic level comedy. The film’s combination of an uproarious script and expertly comedic performances ensure that it has plenty to offer both comedy devotees and skating connoisseurs alike. For a winning comedy, hit the ice with Chaz and Jimmy in Blades of Glory.