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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Review: Valley of Saints

Valley of Saints: Written and directed by Musa Syeed.  Starring: Mohammed Afzal, Gulzar Ahmed Bhat, Neelofar Hamid.  Running Time: 82 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Oftentimes, the best films are the ones that eschew grander, more theatrical gestures.  The ones that rely on their own subtle self-confidence to draw us into their world.  The ones that stir us in the quiet moments.  Valley of Saints, the debut film by Musa Syeed, is a masterclass in this sort of film, a series of meditations and small moments framed by grand mountains and a quiet lake.  It lays a sturdy foundation of stones that, collectively, build a profoundly moving cinematic experience, centered on a love story as real as anything. 

            The story is set in the valley of Dal Lake in Indian-controlled Kashmir, a place incessantly plagued by armed civil strife.  Gulzar, a boatman, has spent his whole life here, born, as he puts it, “with a paddle in his hands.”  He and his best friend, Afzal, are technically grown men, but around each other they are little boys, laughing, piggybacking, singing, never needing to take each other too seriously.  Theirs is a profoundly deep love of the sort that transcends the usual notions of family and friendship. 

            They know there’s no future for them in Srinagar other than hawking wares and boat trips to foreigners, so for a long time they’ve been putting together money for bus tickets to Delhi and, so they imagine, a better future.  The day they try to leave, though, hostilities break out again, forcing them to stay put until another ceasefire is reached.  Stuck for the time being, they agree to help out another boatsman by agreeing to take care of the lone remaining guest on his hotel boat, a young woman named Asifa, who’s there to conduct ecological research.   

            Originally from the area herself, she’s returned to study the slow degradation of the river through lax environmental laws and oversight, and there is a bitter sadness in her voice when she notes just how devoid of life so many parts of the lake have become in recent years.  This is a film that is able to comment on our connection to nature and our dependence on it in ways that many films try and fail to.  The plaintive earnestness of the characters and cinematography doesn’t allow any room for cynicism or pandering in this regard.  There are more important things to think about than that. 

            As they take her around the lake, and learn more about each other’s lives, the romance that slowly blossoms between Gulzar and Asifa is quiet, underplayed, and effortless.  It’s one of the most compelling love stories I’ve ever seen in a movie.  Of course, this does lead to some jealous bickering between Gulzar and Afzal, and their anger with each other is real, but of course that could never be enough to seriously threaten their friendship- they know each other far too well for that. 

            In the end, of course, choices must be made by each of these characters, but as the movie itself intuitively grasps, having to face such choices in our lives is unavoidable.  As such, they don’t need to be viewed as solely good or bad things.  We will take one path forward over another, and there is always a way to live with that, as long as we don’t forget where we come from and what has, in some way, moved us.  This is a remarkable movie, filled with a grace and sense of self that most movies with bigger names and larger budgets lack. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo (2017): Written by Grit Kienzlen and Ali Soozandeh, directed by Ali Soozandeh.  Starring: Arash Marandi, Morteza Tavakoli, Alireza Bayram, and Zahra Amir Ebrahimi.  Running Time: 90 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            When I watch movies like Tehran Taboo, I can’t help reflecting on how absurd our efforts to regulate and control human sexuality ultimately are.  The harder we seek to dominate our most basic instinct from the top down, the more it all inevitably backfires in ways that completely undermine whatever you were trying to achieve in the first place.  It’s the states with the strongest focus on abstinence-only Sex Ed and the least comprehensive access to contraception that have the worst rates of teen pregnancy.  And the countries, cultures, and social systems that work the hardest to write sex and sexuality out of daily human life are the places where everything you say or do ultimately twists around on itself to, in the end, be ALL about sex and little else. 

            This rotoscope-animated work by Ali Soozandeh follows three women of various ages living in Tehran, whose lives slowly start to intersect more and more intimately.  A prostitute tries to raise her son alone, an already-hard task made harder by the fact that just about EVERYTHING in Iranian life requires a husband’s permission to do.  A young girl from the country, in the city to marry an arranged bride, has a drunken fling with an aspiring musician in an underground club shortly before the wedding, then realizes they have to find a way to medically “reconstruct” her virginity, otherwise her fiancĂ© will kill them both.  An older housewife is finally pregnant after several miscarriages, but despite her joy, this only complicates her desires for more than what her quiet life with a banker and his parents affords her.   

            This is a movie that builds itself on small, quiet moments with the characters, revealing just how much of their thoughts and feelings they feel compelled to hide from society just to survive.  The prostitute is a particularly tough cookie, something she clearly has to be; when a taxi driver insults her, she simply scratches an insult into the back of his seat for the next passenger to see, then gets out at the next corner, and when a school director insults her child, she doesn’t hesitate to throw a few choice insults right back.  This seems to be the core of what draws the housewife to her when they discover that they live in the same apartment complex- the prostitute’s fearlessness is something the housewife has never had, could never have. 

            While the friendship between these older women blossoms, the young girl and musician find themselves forced to jump through one ridiculous hoop after another trying to find some solution, any solution, that will let them extricate themselves from their predicament scot-free, and as the film draws on they both become increasingly afraid that there really might be no way out.  So much of the daily inequities between men and women, and so many of the extreme consequences dished out for even holding hands in a world determined to keep men and women separate, are so laughably absurd, but at the same time so darkly sad.  In the end, stories like these can’t help but end in tragedy.

            The film is not without its flaws- the animation, while it does work for the film, is not of the highest quality, and there are some storytelling inconsistencies regarding the timeline of what is happening and when that struck me as being easily fixed- but this is still a powerful film regardless, an experience that will stick with you afterwards.  Every society in the world still struggles to handle the human sex instinct, and in every society in the world still, in their various ways, tries to keep the female half of the population in subservience, and all that accomplishes is to hold us all back and make life darker than it has to be.  Let’s be appreciative of the films that allow us to remember and refocus on that when they come along. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: Moonlight/Winter’s Bone

            Part of my intention when I began Films for the Trump Years was to provide something of a beginner’s guide to films of all ages and stripes that, in some way, dealt with themes that reflect or comment on the many issues we are currently facing at this particular fulcrum of human history (both Trump-related and non).  The easy way to do this would be for me to stick to historical dramas or documentaries that explicitly tackle the direct, real-world causes of this current wave of reactionary conservatism.  And indeed, that is mostly what I spent 2017 doing. 

            This was with good reason- all the films I’ve picked are excellent, must-see works- but going forward I’d like to at least occasionally branch out a bit and think a bit bigger about how we relate to storytelling, and how we can use storytelling as inspiration for real-world change.  With that in mind, for this month’s installment I am suggesting a double-feature that might sound rather odd, at least at first; the 2010 indie drama Winter’s Bone, and last year’s Best Picture Winner, Moonlight (2016). 

            Winter’s Bone is a 2010 indie drama written by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik (who also directed), and starring Jennifer Lawrence in the role that put her on the cinematic map.  She plays Ree, a teenager living in a dejectedly poor stretch of the Ozark Mountains.  With a no-show father connected to the area’s extensive methamphetamine underworld and a mentally ill mother, she’s had to grow up fast and basically be the lone providing parent for her two younger siblings.  What scraps the family has are suddenly threatened when the local sheriff shows up and informs her that her Dad failed to show for a court date, and had previously signed over the family house as collateral, meaning that if he doesn’t show soon (or if Ree can’t provide proof he’s dead), the state will be forced to collect, and she and her family will essentially be made homeless.  Left trying to navigate (and survive) a world built on family loyalty and absolute silence, she proceeds to fight tooth and nail against the grain of her community so as to find out the truth. 

            Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, came out in 2016, and eventually won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture in possibly the strangest moment in Oscar history.  Divided into three parts, we see different stages of the life of a black man named Chiron, first as a small child, then as a teenager, and finally as an adult.  The film is, at least primarily, about Chiron’s lifelong struggles to understand and accept his homosexuality.  It goes far beyond that, however, in its meditations on racism, toxic masculinity, cultures of drug abuse and prostitution, and the dynamics of broken families, and how each of these things contribute to making his journey of self-acceptance that much harder and more painful. 

            On the face of it, these movies may seem to be complete polar opposites; one is about a white woman in one of the most homogenously white parts of rural America, and the other is about a black man in one of the most ethnically diverse coastal cities in America (Miami).  And yet, the more I’ve thought about these two movies, the more similarities I see between the two main characters.  Both are struggling to achieve some form of material or emotional peace amidst worlds of depravation and violence.  Both are stuck in cycles of deep poverty, which inform the life choices they end up making about how to live.  For Ree, one of the only viable options open to her to make a decent salary is to join the military, where her life would be completely in the hands of higher-ups who literally can’t imagine what she’s gone through.  Chiron comes from a world suffused with drug use, and we eventually learn that, through either choice or circumstance, he ends up in the same boat as an adult, selling the very drugs that wrecked his mother’s health years earlier. 

            Even the respective obstacles they are forced to deal with are remarkably similar.  In addition to the limitations of poverty they face, both push against gender and sexual restrictions latent in society about how they each “should” behave.  Both worlds are filled with men, young and old, who exemplify various forms of toxic masculinity.  Ree is told perfunctorily by the men (and the women!) around her to just drop it, to stop asking awkward questions about her Dad, to just shut up and let things be.  Chiron is tormented by other kids at an early age for being a “faggot,” with even his own mother criticizing the way he walks.  He is provided some fatherly support and advice by Juan, but for all his wisdom, he’s every bit as trapped as Chiron by the environment he’s grown up in.  None of the men in these movies, for all of the swagger they possess, are in places of real security or happiness.    

            And though neither film focuses on racism, at least consciously, it’s worth viewing them a second time deliberately through the lens of this country’s racial history.  Look at the ethnically homogenous world Ree is from and ask yourselves; why, exactly, is this part of the country so white?  How would these characters react if a Trump-like figure came marching through, proclaiming his solidarity with their pain and an end to the dominance of those terrible city elites who scoff at their poverty and laugh at their silly accents? 

            Similarly, what are the racial dynamics in our history that led to Chiron’s community in Miami being so cut off, poorly-served, and plagued by drugs and crime?  How does the film’s treatment of this sort of environment comment on our broader history of explicitly shunting minorities into poor neighbors and promoting drug use there?  What can Chiron’s life tell us about the prison industrial complex?  What would it take to rectify all this pain, all this suffering, all this psychological scarring? 

            Part of the challenge we now collectively face, if we can summon the courage to really deal with it, is to finally own up to difficult, painful questions that need to be asked, again and again, questions that are without simple solutions.  Both of these amazing films allow us to do that, which is why, this month, I recommend watching each of these movies side by side, if you haven’t seen them already, and allowing yourself to ponder the questions they raised, and whether or not we can finally offer some answers to them. 

-Noah Franc 

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th

Part 4- Get Out

Part 6- The Big Short

Part 7- Human Flow

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Films for the Trump Years- Human Flow

            One of the most fundamental physical truths of the universe is that all things are forever in motion.  Every particle of every star and every rock has been moving for 13 billion years, and will continue moving for untold billions more.  And as it is with the universe we are part and parcel of, so it is with humanity, whose history is nothing more than the story of constant movement, of peoples forming and disbanding, and forever migrating from one corner of the globe to the other.  As long as humans exist, we will need to continue to move and forge ever-newer identities.  This basic truth is as impossible to stop as the gravitational trajectories of the galaxies.  We are human, and to be human is to move.    

            And yet, this primary truth is always shadowed by a second; as we perpetually move, there will perpetually be those who seek to deny this reality and to keep it at bay, no matter the cost.  They will insist that human affairs are something settled and separate from the rules of the larger world around them.  That the identities of the now are forever fixed and must be maintained, no matter what. 

             There’s a funny thing, though, about reality.  It has never and will never need our approval to be what it is.  The stars will move whether or not you accept their existence, and human beings will move when the times demand it, no matter how much the Trumps of the world will seek to prevent it. 

            The spike in numbers of people fleeing to Europe, primarily to escape ISIS, in 2014-2015 was, for most, the first time they woke up to what had already been a growing, global refugee crisis for several years.  We currently have over 65 million people (and counting!) displaced from their homes and countries of origin through violence, famine, oppression, and other calamities, the largest number since World War II. 

            While more and more filmmakers are beginning to tackle this massive issue in their work, Chinese artist and human rights symbol Ai Weiwei is the first to try and take a truly global approach with his new and masterful documentary, Human Flow.  He begins on the coastline of Greece with the arrival of a fresh boat of migrants seeking asylum in Europe.  From there, he hops across the globe to various hotspots of the refugee crisis, examining some of the varied circumstances, both man-made and natural, driving these people from their homes to seek their futures elsewhere. 

            Weiwei himself is often on screen with members of his crew.  We see him interact plenty with many of the people he travels with.  But his presence is minimal; he’s here to, as much as possible, put faces and images to the news stories so many around the world have willfully ignored or misrepresented for cheap political gain.  There are a few talking heads here and there to provide better context for the current refugee situation, as well as scrawls of news articles published during the height of the migration to Europe a few years ago.  But for the most part, we just see people. 

            It is a beautifully shot film.  There is extensive use of drone footage to provide big-picture images of the massive sprawl of many refugee camps around the world, with thin, temporary shelters stretching out for miles across barren landscapes.  Often, the camera hovers over the camps just high enough that the huge numbers of people in them seem as scurrying ants, individually tiny, but collectively conveying a powerful sense of immense momentum of human motion and the futility of trying to hold it all back.  These moments are simultaneously the most stunning and the most terrifying of the entire film. 

            One of the most important moments, however, is a sequence focused on Africa that reminds us that a growing proportion of the world’s refugees are climate refugees, forced to abandon their homes because the various effects of man-made global warming are slowly making more and more of the world genuinely uninhabitable.  This will be one of the most consequential issues we face in the coming decades if global policy towards climate change does not undergo an even more massive shift.  It will rely on ALL nations, not just the US or EU, radically reconsidering their policies towards the climate and towards refugees to prevent future waves of forced migration that will make the current situation appear tame by comparison. 

            This is a staggering, overwhelming film in its scope and ambitions.  It may well be said by some that the film stretches itself too thin, and by trying to include at least a little bit on every major hotspot of the global refugee crisis, it deprives itself of depth that could make it more impactful for some audiences.  However, I found this to be a rather fitting approach, because, in a way, the movie simply couldn’t be any other way and still have the power it does.  The film is vast, sprawling, overwhelming, and a touch unfocused because it’s subject matter is vast, sprawling, and overwhelming, and defies all easy explanations or solutions.  There is no easy way through this hell we have made for ourselves; just a lot of really, really hard work. 

            By often just letting us look at this rainbow collection of peoples fleeing depravation and seeking shelter, Weiwei forces the attentive viewer to do something most of us genuinely hate doing; to look at all these faces and truly struggle with ourselves to see each as human, with unique stories, motivations, and reasons for fleeing, each one with hopes, dreams and desires, all needing food, safety, shelter, and some sense of worth and dignity in their lives.  What if we saw each of them as ourselves?  How boundlessly large, then, would our sorrow and sympathy and compassion for them be? 

            Human Flow is one of the year’s best and most important films, given an added level of importance in a time when the governing party of the United States and major parties across Europe are actively trying to push back against the notion that all humans are worthy of safety, security, and dignity.  Those who would deny the “other” the blessing of common humanity must be fought, tooth and nail, without pause or reprieve.  Let this film be a wake-up call to action for us all. 

-Noah Franc 

Previously on Films for the Trump Years

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th 

Part 4- Get Out

Part 6- The Big Short 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: Inxeba (The Wound)

The Wound (2017): Written by John Trengove, Thando Mgqolozana, and Malusi Bengu, directed by John Trengove.  Starring: Nakhane Toure, Bongile Mantsai, Niza Jay Ncoyini, Thobani Mseleni.  Running Time: 88 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            As the push for recognitions and rights for LGBTQ peoples spreads around the world, more and more cultures will experience the uncomfortable tensions that are inevitable when longstanding norms and traditions are directly challenged by a rapidly changing world.  This has been most visible recently within the Western world, but other areas of South American, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are going through similar struggles as the world becomes more interconnected.  Movies like The Wound, the second feature from the South African director John Trengove, provide a cultural cross-cultural window for us all to consider the ways in which changing traditions around the world both mirror and differ from each other, and how we can best thread the needle between the two. 

            Twice a year, the young men of the Xhosa people in South Africa are gathered on a specific mountain for to be ritually circumcised.  This is the opening of the film, and it is as affecting and difficult a scene as any I’ve seen this year.  They then stay in specially-built camps on the mountain for a period of a few weeks while they heal, wearing nothing but a white robe and carrying a walking stick, and are led and organized by leaders who oversee the process and teach “the initiates” everything they are supposed to know in order to be seen as men within Xhosa society. 

            We soon learn that two of these leaders are, if not necessary gay (one of them is married with children), at least bisexual; every time they are on the mountain, they find secluded times and places to have sex.  But what this means, for them and for their identities, is never openly spoken of.  What they are and what they are doing is so wholly taboo and considered so entirely antithetical to what their cultures deem “acceptable” behaviors for men that, even when alone, they seemingly can’t allow themselves to contemplate it.  It just has to be hidden, no matter the cost. 

            This sort of unspoken tension between the single idealized image of “The Man” that permeates the words and deeds of the elders during the ritual, and the far messier reality of what these people, is what gives this movie its primary staying power.  So much is made of “being a man,” yet no one ever really seems to want to stop and ask each other- or even themselves- what, exactly, being a man means, and why it’s such a big deal. 

            How long these two have been doing this- coming to this mountain, leading the initiates, and stealing bits of time for their trysts- isn’t clear, but long enough that, perhaps, they’ve gotten a bit too complacent about it all, assuming that things could continue like this forever.  One particular initiate, picked on by the other initiates constantly for being a soft city boy from a wealthy father, sees the whole ritual with a much more critical eye, and soon realizes the truth about the men supposedly leading them to becoming men.  And from here, one secret after another starts to slip out, and it becomes clear that one thing or another will have to finally break. 

            It is, unfortunately, during this second part of the movie when the revelations begin that the film starts to lose a bit of steam.  Everything about how the story builds makes sense, but things start to get a little predictable when things start to go wrong, and given how well the film works in the first half, it would have been nice to see it be a bit more unpredictable or unresolved in its resolution.  This is also a film relying heavily on the handheld camera technique, and while that’s mostly fine, some scenes could have greatly benefited from a steadier hand. 

            But none of that is enough to weaken what is a remarkable film that offers a bit of a different cultural take on the struggles between homosexual identities and the cultures and traditions that still see it as something to be hidden and repressed.  The Wound is a well-made, remarkably-acted film that deserves to be part of our cultural conversation going forward over how to reconcile the old with the new. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Review- Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017): Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, and directed by Taika Waititi.  Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Hopkins.  Running Time: 130 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Thor: Ragnarok is the Marvel movie I’ve been waiting for my entire life.  While I am no doubt sure that, one day, someone very talented will take the legends of a space Viking and his lightning hammer, or the antics of a man with a shrinking suit, or the big green one, and create a very searing, dramatic, artistic examination of the human psyche, let’s not pretend that was ever what Marvel characters were meant to be.  And such serious angles have never been what make the Marvel movies fun to experience.  The more tongue-in-cheek the MCU is, the more colorful it is, the more focused on just how damn charming its cast is, the better it is, and with Thor: Ragnarok, this extended Disney branding exercise reaches a particular height it’s otherwise only achieved in the first Avengers movie and both Guardians of the Galaxy features.

            I don’t need Oscar-worthy acting.  I don’t need a script filled with gravitas.  I don’t want the brown pallet of most modern action movies.  Give me a handful of lead characters dripping with charisma and chemistry, with a campy-as-all-hell villain strutting up and down every piece of scenery handed to her.  Give me a vibrant color pallet presented via gorgeous cinematography and production design.  Give me a head-pounding score, with a few choice rock classics thrown in for good measure.  And give me the laughs and the one-liners.  Oh, give me all the one-liners. 

            I may be one of the few people left on Earth who actually thought The Dark World was not only better than the first Thor movie, but was (at the time) one of the best Marvel movies to date.  At the very least, it started to move sharply away from the more serious, tedious world-building of previous MCU films and started to embrace much more of the camp that makes all these various genre films feel a part of the same universe.  Ragnarok takes that shift and pumps its veins full of acid, spinning away from the past Thor movies so hard and so fast that it very nearly threatens to fall out of the MCU entirely and into a parallel dimension where Jeff Goldblum succeeded in becoming the Greek God he was clearly meant to be. 

            More than anything else, this film’s pacing sets it up right from the start for success- we are briskly reminded that Thanos is out there, there are infinity stones that need finding, and we get a short (but excellent) cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, but what little we need to know is explained quickly and let be so that we can get right to the fun times.  Pretty much every previous character from the franchise is summarily dropped- Natalie Portman and her coterie have been excised, and aside from Idris Elba (who remains one of the most underappreciated side actors in the entire MCU), the few Asgardians we knew from the past are killed when Thor’s long-banished sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett as Reverse Galadriel), returns to lay claim to the throne and launch war upon the universe.   

            Thor and Loki’s initial encounter with her goes disastrously- Thor loses his hammer and both find themselves cast into a parallel world ruled over by an absolutely delicious Jeff Goldblum, who’s so good he only fails to be the best new villain in the Marvel MCU by virtue of the fact that Cate Blanchett is also in this movie.  They soon find new allies- Tessa Thompson as a long-lost Asgardian warrior and Bruce Banner (who’s been stuck in Hulk form since Age of Ultron)- and have to fight their way out of enslavement and back to Asgard in order to prevent Ragnarok, the end of the world.   

            This movie is one of the best examples this year of the principle that the journey is always better than the destination, and that sticking to a time-honored, predictable formula is no problem as long as you do it right.  There are no big twists or attempts to make the film be more than what it is.  It just is.  Chris Hemsworth is as impossibly handsome and rogueish as ever, Tom Hiddleston is still having way too much fun with his life, and their chemistry with each other is so perfectly fine-tuned by now, I wouldn’t complain if they canceled the rest of the MCU (except Black Panther, obviously) and just let them both star in buddy comedies till they die, or bodily ascend to Valhalla. 

            They are balanced out by Mark Ruffalo giving two remarkable performances as both the aggressive Hulk and the mild-mannered Banner, as well as Thompson’s wounded and surly ex-Valkyrie, who better damn well get something to do in the next Avengers movie.  Even Karl Urban is finally back in a big picture as Skurge, a skeevy, opportunistic Asgardian who decides (slightly reluctantly) to hitch his wagon to the Hela Train as a means to wealth and power.    

            It’s amazing just how much detail is packed into every shot of the film.  Yes, the CGI use is extremely heavily utilized, but it’s gorgeous, detail-packed CGI, with a bounty of great character designs and a breezy, drive-by quality in how it takes us past one fascinating visual or new idea after another, but never bogging itself down trying to have it all make sense.  The new bits of the world we need to know about are explained, and those we don’t need to know about aren’t, which, in the best tradition of hint-don’t-tell, allows this film to be a fun, riveting, tightly-packed adventure that still feels like only a part of a larger universe, one that we may get to revisit in the future if we are so lucky.   

            The Gladiator-style planet Thor and Loki initially fall into is a perfect example of this; pretty much every other character, be it a named one or some extra in the corner of the shot, has a completely different costume design and look, with a thousand different styles and color schemes all intermingling on the screen.  And with each shot of a crowd or a street, I couldn’t help but remind myself that, whether what we’re seeing it CGI or not, someone still had to sit down and come up with each of the bonkers designs we see.  It’s the sort of obsessive effort that also made the luscious visuals of Valerian something to behold, but without the unequal acting that dragged that otherwise fascinating work down from the heights it sought to reach. 

            There will be many people wringing their hands over the lack of any real depth or variation to the story, or the fact that once again we’re given a villain below Iago-levels of complexity, or that yes, this movie is more about getting every laugh it can than about making you believe that the adventures of Space Argonauts matter in a broader societal sense.  I feel sorry for those people, for their lives must be dank, dark, and miserable indeed.  For Thor: Ragnarok is, put quite simply, fun as all hell.  It’s the most fun and hardest laughs I’ve had at the theater this year, and in these dark times there is a power and value in that that we underestimate at our own peril. 

            You may disagree.  You may want something else from your comic book movie.  And that’s okay.  I don’t, and now that Thor: Ragnarok has given me what I always wanted, I never will. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Reflections: Stranger Things 2

**minor thematic spoilers for season two of Stranger Things**

            As with many a good thing, I couldn’t help but wish at first for Stranger Things to be left alone as a stand-alone, great piece of television drama.  I’ve been burned far too often by later installments of once-great creations gone to seed; the scars inflicted by the Ice Age sequels and the third season of Downtown Abbey are still visible when I shower.  And yet, here we are a year later, and I am loving this tasty plate of crow.  The Duffer Brothers have proven their mettle with a second season that, like the first, is a wonderful bit of storytelling.  Despite its flaws, this new season hits my nostalgia bones in all the right ways and reaches such great heights at its best that I’m confident it will hold up in the long run.  We’ve got something special here, and let’s hope it lasts. 

             Not that the show has never been without flaws- I was part of the chorus of people disappointed in how Barb was treated in season one, and as part two admits in a brief fourth-wall break, the story was indeed a bit derivative- but it’s so often the very flawed works that stand out most in our minds later on if there is a beating heart at the center of it all.  And what a hell of a beating heart this cast is.  I love every single performer in this series, from the minors to the mains, with David Harbour’s Hopper easily being my favorite.  The tag-team journey of him and Eleven/Jane growing as both individuals and as a makeshift father-daughter duo made for the best drama of the season, especially the heated fights in the cabin that, psychic powers aside, are some of the starkest and realist depictions of family dynamics I’ve ever seen in a TV show. 

            True, this season also can’t shake itself of a certain amount of predictability.  Will once again is victimized as the one that needs saving from the Upside Down, even if he does get more on-screen time to shine as an actor.  My heart leapt when Sean Astin appeared as Bob, only to sink an episode later as I realized he could only be there to turn evil or die by the end.  The late-inning toss-in of the hot young Macho Man visually seducing the sexually frustrated suburban mother was one of the most uncomfortable (in a bad way) things I’ve seen all year.  And yet, such occasions are minor missteps, for a formula done with love is every bit as nutritious to the soul as a deconstruction of the same. 

            And this show has found a number of ways to quietly subvert itself and audiences expectations of it.  This has been most evident in the surprisingly round development of Steve Harrington (Joe Keery).  Framed at the start of Season One as the prototypical 80’s “cool kid” antagonist, we got to see more and more of his softer side towards the end, as he gamely stepped in to help fight the Demogorgon despite so clearly, and so hilariously, out of his league.
            This time around he gets to bond a bit more with the kids, admitting to himself that he makes a better babysitter than he thought he would, and clearly enjoys it.  And while this could certainly go south in future seasons (and please oh please, let it not go south), it was refreshing to see someone on the losing end of a love triangle not devolve into bitter vengefulness.  You keep doing you, Steve.  You and your weird hair tricks. 

            All in all, this re-entry into the world of Hawkins and its unseen fight against the Upside Down was exactly what the doctor ordered this Halloween, and so far, I’m all in.  Let this train go as far as it can, and be our perpetual guide into the odd months of Autumn. 

-Noah Franc