Thursday, October 20, 2016

Seen… in September 

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in Netflix's Stranger Things. Image via IGN

September is film festival time in Toronto which can be a bit overwhelming. This year didn't disappoint, I was completely overwhelmed. I still managed to see a few things, but once again this month was memorable for two excellent television series, the BBC's magical Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (like a more grown up Harry Potter) and Netflix's Stranger Things. The more compressed our time becomes the harder it is to commit to watching a two hour film, but the easier it is to watch an hour long show and if you like that show, you can wait all week to binge two or three episodes on the weekend. And binge I did.

Messrs Strange and Norrell of the eponymous Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Image via The Movie DB

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
You like period dramas like Poldark right? You liked Harry Potter? Did you like Penny Dreadful? Trust me, you’ll like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Mr. Norrell endeavours to return British magic to its rightful place as a respectable sort of magic. Jonathan Strange would rather just save his wife.

Seven Days in Hell
Andy Samberg and Kit Harrington star in this HBO faux documentary sports parody of two tennis stars, one at the end of his career the other in his ascendancy, duelling at Wimbledon for seven days until their epic match ends in the most ridiculous climax. Peppered with celebrity cameos in small roles, this short film is just the right amount of silliness.

The kids are alright… strange but alright. Stranger Things image via The New York Times

Stranger Things
How do you pay homage to the movies, books and television shows of your youth? If you are the Duffer brothers, you make your own show on Netflix that references all of them. A 12-year-old boy, Will, disappears and his friends, along with certain authorities, try to find him. Simultaneously, a strange girl, named Eleven, appears from the nearby woods with hidden abilities and insights to Will’s whereabouts. This series is set in the 80s, seemingly at Neflix’s behest to tap into an unquenchable nostalgia for all things 80s. The Duffer brothers oblige with numerous pop cultural touchstones from film, TV and music. The music is particularly accurate, not only from ambient pop music but the style of the score (lots of synth and drum machine). Films and stories like Stephen King’s Firestarter, Stand By Me & Cujo, Alien, E.T., The Goonies, Poltergeist, John Carpenter’s It and The Thing, The Shining, The Lost Boys, Altered States and War Games are all represented in one shape or another be in framing, lighting, effects, tone or music. The story and its cast, including the once fallen Winona Ryder, are enough to make the show stand on its own but spotting and being aware of the sometimes obvious, sometimes nuanced references makes it a complete joy (for someone who remembers the 80s). Another significance of the time period is that it's a world before the Internet or mobile phones in which kids could explore the woods near their homes without supervision and had to depend on walkie-talkies and their bikes rather than smart phones and hover boards.

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea. Image via Entertainment Weekly

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea
This was a random TIFF pick I checked out one Saturday that was a complete surprise. Based on a cultish popular comic book, this quirky animated film is about how an earthquake pushes a high school into the sea and the dramatic efforts of staff and students to escape as it sinks. Imagine an after school special where betrayed friends rediscover their bonds, bullies drown, popular kids are found to have feelings too and a corrupt principal plunges into darkness.

Rome Season 1
After seeing an exhibit about the destruction of ancient Pompeii I decided I had to re-watch this gorgeous HBO series that depicts the rise of Julius Caesar as emperor and the fall of the Roman republic. Brilliant stuff and I’m sure what they learned on this series led to Game of Thrones.

Jim Gaffigan: Obsessed
I was told by someone that I reminded them of the comedian Jim Gaffigan. I really hope they meant comedically and not you know, physically? Gaffigan’s humour is neither shocking nor benign but finds the absurdity and ridiculousness of simple things like how weird lobsters are or the undeniable goodness of McDonald’s French fries. Netflix is full of stand-up concerts (perhaps following the HBO model) and you really won’t go wrong watching Jim Gaffigan whether he reminds you of me or not.

Ann Hathaway and Jason Sedakis star in what appears to be a familiar enough setting. Hathaway’s character is a once successful journalist who, a year after losing her job, is struggling with sobriety. She returns to her home town to hide and heal but finds an old school friend beckoning her to his late father’s bar. Then it gets weird and becomes an atypical Korean monster movie where two gigantic creatures stomp all kinds of terror over Seoul.

The River of My Dreams
The river of the title is the Exploits. The dreams are Gordon Pinsent’s. Unfortunately, Pinsent’s meandering retelling of how his life came to be, which is interesting in a Vinyl Café sort of way, is interrupted by strange computer generated re-enactments and an abundance of sappy music. The version I saw at TIFF was clearly unfinished and maybe taking an editor’s knife to this Canadian content friendly documentary would improve it.

Retired. Extremely Dangerous. That’s apparently what Bruce Willis is as a retired CIA agent. After someone attempts to kill him in his own home, Willis sets out to find out who hired the goons by reaching out to either retirees. This sits along with other films like The Expendables franchise as senior-empowerment porn. Elder actors, since put out to pasture get to shine as elder action heroes except for the most part these actors are still in high demand: John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and even Brian Cox are not exactly B-listers who have slipped off casting directors call sheets. Which means this well cast action-comedy is a lot of fun. Malkovich is particularly enjoyable as the kind of guy who is never too paranoid to pull a gun from a stuffed toy on a middle-aged commuter.

Spread your tiny wings and fly away, Angelina. Image via the Movie DB

Angelina Jolie relishes her role as a fairy done wrong in this imaginative Disney fantasy that tells the Sleeping Beauty tale from the so-called villain’s point of view. Apparently we had it all wrong before and besides, everyone has their own story to tell. This version is full of fantastical creatures, intrigue, action, folly and even true love, though, spoiler alert, it isn’t from a handsome prince.

Suits Season 5
Ugh! Why can’t I stop?! By now the “secret” of this show that wonder boy law associate and protagonist, Mike Ross, isn’t a lawyer at all but just some really smart guy with photographic memory (not a real thing) is known by a growing number of enemies but the show continues. It’s actually into its seventh season. Yet even if the show’s legal red herring plot lines have become formulaic I’ll keep watching because… Meghan Markle? And it is really fun Toronto spotting all the locations they’ve converted to New York City.

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