Winona Ryder, how we’ve missed you. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, Ryder was working so much it’s amazing that she had time for lunch, Heathers, Beetle Juice, Edward Scissorshands, Little Women, Girl Interrupted, The Age of Innocence, Reality Bites, iconic films that shaped decades of entertainment. In Stranger Things, a circa 1980s show that comes with all the fixings — the big hair, the fantastic music, the terrible architecture, even the acne — Ryder shows us why she’s still one of the most relevant actors of her time. She plays Joyce Byers, a divorcé whose younger son, Will (Noah Schnapp) has gone missing. Ryder’s Joyce is raw, unnerving, intelligent, almost unhinged, her life held in check, but barely, by sheer force of will, her own and her older son, Jonathon’s (Charlie Heaton). She and we both know that no matter what anyone says, something is definitely going bump in the night and if she doesn’t find her son, no one can.
The problem is, Joyce is considered a bit of a whack job around town so at first, no one believes her which makes Joyce even more hysterical. Prepare to experience heart palpitations right along with her.
The story opens with four friends and science geeks, Will, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), playing Dungeons and Dragons. They’ve been at it for the last 15 hours. When Mike’s mom calls the game, there’s a moment of confusion — the die is lost and Mike goes upstairs to negotiate more time. The die is eventually found, but it’s not good news for Will who decides to play it straight. In a move that foreshadows the entire season, Will is captured in the game by the Demagorgen, the game’s worst of the worst as monsters go. Rather than cheat, Will comes clean, remarking to Mike on the inevitability of fate before Will, Dustin and Lucas mount their bikes and head off into the darkness. (It’s still the 80’s and parents didn’t worry as much about stuff happening to kids out alone at night as they do now.) As the kids race home, Will chooses a shortcut through the woods, splits off from Dustin and Lucas and disappears. Will realizes a bit too late that he’s being pursued. Despite making it home and loading a shot gun to fight the beast, the Demagorgan still gets him, but no one realizes it until the next morning.
It’s The X-Files meets Stand By Me and the rest of this Netflix Original Series, eight episodes in total, focuses on the town’s search for Will led by Chief Hopper (David Harbour) and propelled by Joyce’s urgency. The day after his disappearance, the Byer’s receive a phone call. No words are spoken, only breathing on the other end, but Joyce is sure it’s Will. The call ends abruptly when an electrical jolt buzzes through the line (yes, in the 80’s phones had wires connecting them to a box on the wall!), with enough voltage to shock Joyce and scar the mouth and ear pieces of the phone. Lights have been flickering on and off in her house, a boom box randomly plays Will’s favorite Clash song, and Joyce believes
Will is trying to contact her through the electricity. She buys boxes and boxes of Christmas lights, strings them up everywhere, and writes letters below them, creating a life-size Ouija board so she can talk to Will. Time is limited. Joyce knows this.
Shades of the X-Files overlay each episode — the government conspiracy; the crusty cop, good at heart, but decimated by a life event that left him with a fatalistic edge; the creepy dark way the series has been filmed, adding to the broody horror of the story.
The home run of “Stranger Things” though, is the relationship between the four friends, plus the add-on of “11” (Millie Bobby) who appears soon after Will disappears and is the key to all the crazy unfolding events. Mike, Dustin and Lucas find 11— who they rename “El” — in the woods while searching for Will. She’s scared and hungry and they decide to hide her, stashing her in Mike’s basement while his parents carry on upstairs. Turns out, some creepy shadow government guys, particularly Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), who plays mean magnificently, really are looking for El, so now it’s not just clueless parents the kids have to outsmart. Each of the characters has their own hero’s journey, and every episode has life or death consequences, especially for the kids.
My own kids turned me on to Stranger Things, but I couldn’t wait for them to finish watching and blew through all eight episodes in less than a week. (Seriously, try to find eight hours in a week just to watch TV. It’s not that easy.) The satisfying final episode resolves many of the strands even while leaving a giant cliffhanger for us conspiracy theorists to cogitate over until the start of Season 2 which is now upon us!
At a time when many of the movies and much of TV programming consists of stories about a dystopian future — one that looks strikingly similar to the place we are living now what with one environmental, military, and hacking crisis after another — it’s great to have a nostalgic throwback to a time when we only thought that government conspiracies existed. Retro aside, to me it feels shiny and new (and I invite you to call me, Netflix, if you need help with the soundtrack).
So grab the popcorn and the remote, people. The next eight-episode installment of Stranger Things begins on October 27, 2017 and all episodes will be released at once. I know what I’m doing this Halloween. May the best Demagorgen win.
I have adored M. Night Shyamalan’s work since the opening credits of The Sixth Sense and have maintained that level of adoration all the way through the closing credits of Split. There are some who may disagree with my assertion that he’s the living embodiment of one of the greatest movie makers of all time, Alfred Hitchcock, the master of the psychological thriller, and therefore, himself a master. Disagree if you must, but allow me to explain.
Shyamalan’s initial problem is also his inordinate initial success. When your first movie — The Sixth Sense — hangs around the movie theatre for the better part of a year — the theater, not Netflix — you become your own proverbial tough act to follow, and proving your brilliance again can be daunting if not impossible. To totally fool everyone is a big lift, but Shyamalan did it with The Sixth Sense and has paid the price of unrelenting critical comparisons since then. I feel for you, man, although I also realize it wouldn’t be terrible to have your particular problem. Still, Shyamalan seems to have said no worries to all that and gone about his business making movies — critics be damned — with his penchant for the hero’s journey, a la Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces on full display in every film.
Shyamalan’s movies combine a great plot with elements of psychology and mythology running through them, the individual human condition versus the world, the macro reflecting the micro, resulting in a polarity within his protagonists that is reflected back to us as ourselves. And you know what? The human condition really does matter to us, to all of us. Light, dark, black, white, the duality of earth, despite all the caterwauling and name calling, is the nature of our existence. Sometimes it’s darker and sometimes lighter, but it always both and in the space therein lies the fertile and fecund ground of storytelling, the one thing that helps us navigate our lives. Shymalan knows this, especially the parts that deal with things that go bump in the night, i.e., your deepest fears, represented onscreen as boogyman types, but the same fears relate to money or health or safety that keep us up at night.
The cast of characters inhabiting the body of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) are only allowed to share the light one person at a time. Kevin has 23 personalities living inside him and as of late, Dennis is in charge, along with Miss Patricia, a spinsterly 50-something, and Hedwig, a nine-year old itching to be accepted. Dennis kidnaps three girls on their way home from a party: Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and outsider Casey (Anna Taylor-Joy) who isn’t really friends with the girls, but got invited to the party because Casey felt sorry for her. Kevin and his 23 personalities are the ultimate outsiders so on some level, Casey can relate. Kevin also sees a psychologist who is on the cutting edge of dealing with schizophrenic personalities although she is having a hard time getting the medical community to pay attention to the disease. Moreover, she senses something is amiss with Kevin these days. Cue scary music. Kevin’s condition, brought on by repeated childhood abuse and trauma, and Casey’s introverted nature brought on by her own crappy childhood are both relayed in a slow rollout of flashbacks over the course of the movie.
As in all his films, expect to see Shyamalan in a cameo, and another by Bruce Willis in an ode to films past, and, of course, the movie to be set in Philadelphia. If Hitchcock could have handpicked a mentee, someone to carry on his legacy, he would have picked Shyamalan. Split is a thrill ride through the mind of a schizophrenic as he evolves into a killer. It leaves Shyamalan where he started — at the top of his game.
On January 16, 2017, Dr. Christiaan Morssink, Treasurer and Board Member at the Global Water Alliance (GWA) celebrated MLK Day by modeling. No, he didn’t walk down a runway in the latest Versace suit, he ran a Model UN Day program for high school and college students at the University of Pennsylvania, a day for students to learn, discuss, research, write, debate, give public speeches, and more all within a simulated and safe environment. Just as water follows the model of bed and bank, we model ourselves upon those who see the patterns in life and go beyond them to create and improve upon the world in ways that haven’t yet been thought into being. Dr. Morssink hopes the Model UN Day will help students reach beyond present thinking to solve some of the more vexing water issues the world faces today.
Also on January 16, 2017, the U.S. celebrated Martin Luther King day. Modeling himself on prior social change leaders who stirred the pot (e.g. the establishment) with their non-violent protests (think Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi) King was probably the greatest civil rights leader of recent times. His determination and vision gave millions of (African) Americans the courage to believe in themselves, their inalienable dignity, and their social equality. Dr. King’s genius lay in patterning behavior for others to follow, and he lived his life the way he wanted the African American communities to live theirs, combining pacifism and activism in order to show the world that black men and women as a group, and individually, can take their proper share as they contribute to mankind’s collective evolution.
Recently, I attended a showing of the movie, Hidden Figures, with the Jr. League of Lancaster (JLL) that featured archival footage of Dr. King’s legendary work as a backdrop to the story. The JLL is a women’s organization devoted to training and voluntarism. The JLL’s Girls in STEM Committee sponsored the movie for the STEM Sisters — a group of 6th – 12th graders who meet at the North Museum in Lancaster to talk science — and for several Girl Scout troops, and other young women interested in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM careers, to use the shorthand. Hidden Figures told the story of three African American women who worked for NASA in the early 1960’s during the United States’ Space Race with the Russians. For long unmentioned, and practically forgotten by mainstream history, these brilliant science-minded women were the forerunners of the STEM movement, before STEM even became a movement, and of the civil rights movement as well, the latter more by happenstance than design.
The multi-layered tale wove together the themes of civil rights, patriotism fueled by the need to be the first country to reach the moon, and of the tumultuous 1960’s where anything of the old order seemed to be tested and often uprooted— to wit, the demise of segregation. Hidden Figures is a play on words, the figures referring to the “computing,” or data review that these women did in support of NASA’s rocket building program. The women in the story, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson (NASA’s first black female engineer), and Dorothy Vaughan were real life mathematicians who were not recognized by history for their contributions to math and engineering simply because of the color of their skin. Yet, despite the obstacles, the women stayed true to themselves and their own intellect, modeling for the world something that had not yet been in existence.
Katherine’s “computer” job meant she searched for flaws in the mathematical calculations that would put a rocket into space and a man on the moon. Katherine wasn’t just a computer, but a real-life “genius among the geniuses,” someone capable of going beyond the math to write calculations that had not yet been created. Yet, because she was black Katherine had to use a segregated bathroom, lunch room, and even coffee pot. As one of only two females working in the engineering department with a couple dozen men, the other of which was a personal assistant to the boss, Katherine faced gender discrimination as well, but the worst ignominy: she couldn’t use the bathroom nearest her work station. In Langley, Virginia, 1961, racism and segregation were the norm. Katherine was forced to use the “colored” bathroom which meant she needed to walk — or rather, run, in heels because that was part of her uniform — half a mile back to the segregated West side of campus. When her boss found out that she was away from her desk for 40 minutes, twice a day, to relieve herself at a bathroom across campus, he was livid, not because Catherine’s basic human rights were being ignored — remember, segregation was the law in Virginia — but because the work wasn’t getting done and NASA needed to beat the Russians to the moon. Our very identity as a nation was at stake. The resolution of Katherine’s issue became a boon for the black women working at Langley but you’ll have to see the movie to find out how.
Martin Luther King knew that change was slow to come, that people needed a reason to believe, and that fear was a great deterrent to progress. Dr. King also knew that drawing on universal truths, ones that all people could relate to regardless of their skin color, was a way to bring the world together. His speeches were peppered with metaphors on a variety of themes, many related to water:
One hundred years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation], the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Anaphora is defined as “the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses”, such as in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King was an orator’s orator, a highly talented motivational speaker and community organizer. His “I Have a Dream” speech takes its place among the most well-known speeches ever given, a model for those who would aspire to use public speaking as a way to make the world a better place.
This morning, I went, as I’m sure the entire world does upon awakening, to relieve myself. I am lucky to have a toilet within which to do this. Many do not. When I pushed the handle down, nothing happened. At first I was annoyed, but then I lifted the lid off the tank to find that the pin had simply slipped off the arm that opened and closed the rubber seal holding the water in the tank. Easy fix, but I am a white woman living in one of the most resource-blessed countries in the world. I have both convenience and luxury, despite not being rich. Dr. King’s dream is that it would be so for all people of all races, colors, or household incomes, that we all are created equally in the eyes of God and the law and that we all should have access to such treasures.
The students at GWA’s Model UN Day learned from Morssink’s modeling, patterns were laid, ideas formulated, trends, perhaps a lifetime’s work, begun. This is how a movement starts. The UN, and by modeling, the GWA are doing their best to create a model that assures all people, regardless of race or color or household income have access to clean, safe water. Join us and let’s make it so.
As humans, the majority of us are predisposed to think visually which is probably why we love movies so much. Movies are like my lifeblood. Not a week goes by where I don’t watch something either at home or at the theatre. I love the combination of visual arts and literature that this medium allows and every time I write a work of fiction it starts as a scene in my head. Time then to start a page for movie reviews. I’m calling it CinePhilly, a small play on the word cinephile, meaning a movie lover, combined with the abbreviation for Philadelphia, my mother’s place of birth, the place I’ve worked for the last 33 years, and my adopted hometown. Movies are harder to review, I think, than books because you don’t have the whole period of reading time to formulate a review in your head. Instead you have about two hours. The pace is quick, it moves on a 3-act structure, and it’s all over before you’ve had time to think about anything. And most importantly, you don’t want to give anything away. So hopefully, I can keep this thing going.
On to the review:
Maybe it was the fact that my husband and I hadn’t had a date night in a while, or maybe it was the Ellen’s Coffee Stout we had before the movie, imported from Maine, as in my brother-in-law and his brother drove all the way up to Bar Harbor from Central PA for the weekend just so they could fill the car with microbrews from Atlantic Brewing Company, going so far as to remove one of the bucket seats to make room in the van for more beer, and then dropping a 4-pack on our doorstep when they got back — thanks, Wade! — but for whatever reason, I thought Keanu, the first feature length film by the comedy duo Keagan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele was hilarious. Yes, the premise is bizarre, but Key and Peele have made comedy gold out of weirder stuff, and the laughs are consistent and sometimes riotously funny. Plus you will repeatedly ask, “how the heck did they get the cat to do that?”
Rell (Peele) is hiding out in his apartment, smoking dope and relishing his full blown pity party following a bad breakup with his girlfriend. When Rell’s nerdy cousin Clarence calls, Rell refuses to engage and burrows deeper into the couch. Clarence’s concern for Rell’s mental health is real, and he doesn’t relent until Rell agrees to go see a movie the coming weekend. In the interim, Keanu shows up on Rell’s doorstep, dripping wet and hungry. It’s love at first sight. Rell feeds him, buys him toys, and puts him to work. Hello, attitude adjustment.
After Clarence’s wife and daughter head out of town on a scheduled trip with a family friend, Clarence heads to Rell’s for movie night. Instead of a depressed cousin, Clarence finds Rell hard at work photographing Keanu, casting him as the star of a cat calendar featuring classics like The Shining and Point Break. Rell reluctantly leaves his work but before they go, Rell makes a point of having Clarence say goodbye to Keanu. Rell’s doorknob comment to Keanu is to “get that bitch” referring to a picture of his ex taped to Keanu’s kitty gym.
When they return, Rell’s apartment has been burglarized, Keanu is gone and Rell goes ballistic. They ask Rell’s drug-dealing neighbor if he knows anything about the break in and it is then they realize that the burglars hit the wrong apartment but took the kitten anyway. Rell resolves to track Keanu down and Clarence goes along with the plan. This is all in the first fifteen minutes so I’m not giving anything away. Key and Peele also play the roles of the Allentown Brothers, the badass assassin/drug dealers that even the normal drug dealers are in awe of. As Rell and Clarence get pulled deeper and deeper into LA’s underworld in search of Keanu, they take step after hilarious step from which they may not be able to return. It’s unhinged humor that doesn’t flag except for the parts where the movie gets stereotypically gangsta shoot ‘em up with the boys taking a back seat to the action. Even so, the gangster parts don’t overrun the film so before long you are laughing once again, watching a suburban black dude asking a group of very tough drug dealing dudes to tell him “two things about yourself” in order to build trust, or ordering a white wine spritzer in a strip club, or witnessing Clarence’s near manic obsession with George Michael.
Keanu works on more levels than just comedy and the resolution is classic Key and Peele. Unfortunately, the movie is over before you know it, but you’ll be thinking of the one-liners for days to come. I can’t wait for them to do it all over again.