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Stranger Things 2 Ep. 1: “Mad Max”

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To say the newest season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” starts with a bang is a bit of an understatement. Not only does the first episode of the second season begin with a cast of hoodlums we’ve never met before, but we follow the meth-head Scooby-Doo gang on a high-speed pursuit through the streets of Chicago.

A long way from Hawkins, Indiana.

From there this first episode “Mad Max” gets right back into the now-classic “Stranger Things” vibe we all know and love. And the episode couldn’t have kicked off better than to begin its new tale following our favorite character Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) around as he scavenges frantically for quarters.

Turns out Dustin and his buddies, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp) are all headed to the arcade were Dustin will realize someone – a mysterious entity know only as Mad Max – has (gasp) beaten his high scores to not only “Centipede” but “Dig Dug” as well.

Turns out this Mad Max cat is a redheaded girl new to the town of Hawkins. Maxine is played by series newcomer Sadie Sink and she is (almost) immediately a much-welcomed addition to the gang. Her brother, not so much.

But we’ll get to him later.

While our gang of misfits are lamenting Mad Max’s rule over their domain, plucky little Will Byers feels something odd on the breeze. He then steps outside and has a full-on living nightmare. One where the upside down has taken over Hawkins (and the world?) and the whole mess is lorded over by a tentacled creature straight out of Frank Darabont’s The Mist. Or Monsters Inc. for that matter.

Cut to the next day where we’re reintroduced to David Harbour as the rough and tumble sheriff of these parts, Jim Hopper. Dragging himself into work, Hopper is immediately met by the town conspiracy theorist played by Brett Gelman. The man thinks something is rotten in the state of Illinois, and boy is he right.

After that bit of setup, we join Hawkins’ two resident couples: Nancy and her boy-toy Steve (one of my favorite returning characters), and Joyce (Winona Ryder) and her new man, played by Mikey from The Goonies. Or, you know, if we want to go by his real name, Samwise from Lord of the Rings.

The two couples talk and kiss and we move back to Hopper.

Jim Hopper aka Hop has a problem: all of the pumpkins in Hawkins are rotten from the inside out. Being that Halloween is in two days, this presents a (slight) problem for the residents of Hawkins. Don’t worry, they’ll get over it.

We then meet another new series character in the form of Paul Reiser’s Dr. Owen, a doctor (natch) at the sinister energy plant upon the hill. Young little Will Byers has to have weekly checkups with the d*ck from Aliens and we learn that the tentacles monster from the mist that Will saw outside the arcade wants everyone in the world dead.

How are them pumpkins doing, Hopper?

Speaking of bigger fish to fry than sour pumpkins, Nancy and Steve have a dinner date… with Barb’s parents. Cue the KFC awkwardness. Turns out, and rightly so, Nancy feels guilty about Barb’s death, and how she has been restricted from telling the redheaded future librarian’s parents the truth behind their daughter’s disappearance.

Wrapping up the episode, Mike misses Eleven, Will sees more siniter visions and the Byers clan is forced to watch Mr. Mom. Just when things seem to be winding down, however, the show drops a bombshell. Eleven is alive and well and living in a cabin in the woods, protected and taken care of all these last 353 days by the noble Sheriff Hopper.

Cut to credits.

This first episode of “Stranger Things 2” is all we could have asked for in a re-introduction to the world of Hawkins. We meet all our old favorites again, while still finding the time to meet a few new friends along the way.

If “Stranger Things 2” can at the very least keep up the quality of this first episode, I think we’re all in for a killer season. But we’ll see soon…

Make sure to check back tomorrow for our recap/review of “Stranger Things 2” episode 2: “Trick or Treat, Freak”.

 

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THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH Review: Friedkin Goes Mondo Catholic

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Starring Father Gabriele Amorth

Directed by William Friedkin


Hitting theaters this weekend in NYC and LA is William Friedkin’s new documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth. And right away I am asked: “Is it ‘good’?” You don’t watch a documentary like this with that in mind. Faces of Death, Traces of Death, Mondo Cane. They are not here to be “good”—they are beyond words like that. Beyond good and bad.

It is more like the sideshow—Behold! See what has not been seen before! The Horror! The Forbidden! And you hand the man your ticket — you see The Arabian Giantess at the flea market in New Jersey, and maybe it is a sleight of hand and made of papier-mâché, but it was worth that dollar, and now you have a story. You have bought your way into the unknown.

The Devil and Father Amorth is light on science (and length – it runs just 68 minutes) and heavy on faith. If you have been exposed to Friedkin’s — or more specifically, William Peter Blatty’s — work, there is the struggle with belief in the Roman Catholic faith, and also in the search for evidence of the miracle. You could also prove the Force of Divine Good if you could face the opposite side of the coin—the Force of Evil, in the vernacular of Catholicism—the Devil himself. Paradoxical, yes—faith exists without proof; and so what is the drive to tell the world God exists, the Devil exists?

In the documentary we learn Rome is filled with the possessed. Hundreds of people are contacting the Church about their own possession or the possession of their loved ones. The Most Holy Father Amorth is the person the Vatican has tapped to perform exorcisms—thousands of them. And sometimes he has repeat business. Christina is one such woman, exorcised nine times and still susceptible to the Force of Evil. Those of us who are non-believers look at this woman as someone who is troubled—but “through the eyes of faith,” obviously it is a demon.

Surrounded by her family, the rite begins, and you see… an actual exorcism. There is no enhancement, no Dick Smith make-up; it is not as dramatic as we want it to be. Should we get her help that is not in the form of a witch doctor? What about doctors? And so we meet them.

Friedkin brings the footage to top hospitals in NYC. Psychologists give their point of view. Then neurosurgeons. They don’t know what’s going on—the exorcism seems to help, but they do see that it might be a cultural remnant. There is a medical diagnosis for it, as it can affect anyone of any faith. But the doc never digs too deep. I am disappointed: I needed to know more. I don’t believe it.

Are they hurting Christina? Is she just another female the Church is suppressing, as they did with witches—the control, the stigma, of the female body and identity? None of this is explored because it’s just a 1-dollar ticket under the striped tent, just left of the dancing girls and the strong man—Actual! Exorcist! Footage! Hurry up and see!

As Friedkin mentioned himself, when someone asks you to film an exorcism, you say yes. So see it for the freak show. Expect nothing else. And either you believe or you don’t, based on how you were raised — mythology, religion, or superstition.

  • The Devil and Father Amorth
2.0

Summary

See it for the freak show. Expect nothing else.

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Tribeca 2018: The Dark Review – Atmospheric Zombie Horror Done Different

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Starring Nadia Alexander, Toby Nichols

Written by Justin P. Lange

Directed by Justin P. Lange


The zombie subgenre often goes through waves where it focuses on one aspect that changes the status quo before overdoing it completely. Romero’s slow shuffling zombies were the norm until we got fast moving zombies with Return of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. There was even a period where we had smarter zombies, like in Fido and Warm Bodies. Now it seems like we’re about to enter an era where the undead are meant to elicit emotion, making us feel for those who have no feelings themselves. Such is the case with Justin P. Lange’s The Dark.

The film follows Mina (Alexander), a young woman who was murdered and stalks the forest that saw her demise. Anytime some unfortunate soul enters her area, they are quickly dispatched and become her feast. But when she stumbles across a young boy named Alex (Nichols) in the back of a car who shows signs of clear and horrifying abuse, she can’t bring herself to do away with him. Rather, she becomes his protector while trying to protect her own little world. As police and locals search for Alex to help bring him home, their own growing relationship seems to be changing Mina in ways she never thought possible.

Stylishly shot by cinematographer Klemens Hufnagl (The Eremites, Macondo), The Dark lives and breathes along with the forest in which it spends the majority of its time. The film feels very natural, as though no artificial lighting was used and we are brought into the world in which these characters live. Steel blue washes over the screen as dusk turns into night while light and dark contrast during the day. The only visuals that didn’t play well were Mina’s undead look and Alex’s scarred eyes, which were both distracting but possible to be overlooked.

Both Alexander and Nichols performed well enough, although the film spent too much time on the first two acts of their story, their combative phase and then the period where they build trust, leaving them scrambling at the end to show that they not only trust but are reliant upon each other. Alex finds trust in Mina after his horrific ordeal while Mina’s choice to protect and guide him sees her humanity slowly coming back.

Where the film goes awry is that it doesn’t know how to convey its message. We learn that Mina’s death was the result of a sexual assault by her mother’s boyfriend, who can barely look Mina in the eyes, turns violent. Alex’s captor is also a man of violence but that’s mixed with weakness and timidity. This is a theme throughout the movie, where the adults are wicked and/or self-serving and it’s only these teenagers, who certainly have endured a fair share of suffering, can be seen as worthy of empathy and understanding.

Also present and enough to stay in the back of my mind while watching The Dark were the strange and inconsistent ways it handled time. We learn that Mina’s death was several years, possibly more than a decade, prior to where we see her now. But when presented with an iPhone, she first doesn’t know that it has a history of previously made calls and then, without anyone explaining it, she knows exactly how to use it. Meanwhile, Alex’s scars on his eyes, which the movie hints were done by his kidnapper, suggest that he’s been held captive for months if not longer but the the opening of the movie suggests that it’s been a few weeks, at most. While not overly distracting, these are certainly issues that pop out.

These faults aside, The Dark is still effective and emotionally charged. With enough kills to satisfy the bloodthirsty, it will certainly have an audience who love films about the undead but are craving something with a different taste.

  • The Dark
3.0

Summary

Poignant and original, The Dark is not without its flaws. But it sure does know that horror doesn’t have to be solely of the flesh. It can just as easily be horror of the heart.

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Sinfonia Erotica Blu-ray Review – Jess Franco Meets The Marquis De Sade In This Romanticized Roughie

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Starring Lina Romay, Armando Borges, Aida Gouveia, Mel Rodrigo

Directed by Jesus Franco

Distributed by Severin Films


After going my whole life without ever seeing a Jess Franco film, Severin Films is slowly forcing me to appreciate the man’s work. Previously, I had only ever seen Franco’s gargantuan output as an exercise in quantity over quality, which it arguably still is, but viewing the two recent “lost” pictures Severin just released has brought about a new appraisal. Franco’s films may have been done on the cheap, but the man clearly had vision, ambition, and brought as much production value to his films as budgetarily possible. He also brought controversy and damnation, since many of his works seem heavily focused on nudity and all manner of depravity. Even by today’s standard, when you can see virtually anything sexual on the internet, Franco’s level of lasciviousness is mildly shocking, if only because certain acts are typically verboten on the silver screen.

Sinfonia Erotica (1980) plays like it was trying to keep up with Tinto Brass’ Caligula (1979), only swap out Roman decadence for the posh trappings of a chateau in the French countryside. Franco remakes his own 1973 film Pleasure for Three here, though without having seen that picture I can’t say what he’s done differently. The storyline comes from the writings of the Marquis de Sade, whose writings were infamously erotic and dripping with all manner of sin. Franco brings as much of the page to screen as possible, leaving little to suggestion. Homosexuality, a “Devil’s threeway”, oral sex between all parties, rape, manual stimulation… all graphically presented in a way that is between Skinemax and actual pornography. But is there anything more to this threadbare feature than a storyline skeleton on which everyone can hang their clothes before getting down?

Kinda. The general plot here is the return of Miss Martine (Lina Romay) to the palatial estate she shared with her husband, Marques Armando de Bressac (Armando Borges), a notorious hedonist. Upon arrival, Martine is not greeted by her husband because he’s off gallivanting with Flor (Mel Rodrigo), his younger male lover. During one of their trysts in the fields they come across Wanda (Aida Gouveia), an unconscious nun who is about to be rudely introduced to some bad habits. After Marques and Flor molest the barely coherent woman, she develops a craving for their brand of unorthodox lust. Martine, meanwhile, is struggling not only with the fact her husband is essentially ignoring her after returning from a lengthy absence but that he now plans to enlist Flor and Wanda to help kill her. Of course, none of these machinations or revelations will stop any of these pleasure seekers from continuing to drown in the Devil’s work and writhe in passion.

While I can’t say this is a good movie, I do give Franco credit in a few areas. For one, I find it commendable that he’s chosen to redo an earlier film of his in the hope of making something grander. It shows maturity as an artist as well as a refusal to allow a perceived past failure to remain stagnant. Secondly, his location scouting ability is really something because one constant I have noticed across the three Franco films I’ve seen thus far is the man loves to shoot at places that seem like they’d be out of his budget range. The mansion and its impressive grounds are the ideal setting for this posh perversion picture, allowing Sinfonia Erotica to feel less like the Eurosleaze it is. Likewise, costuming and production design are a notch above what viewers might expect from such a ribald title.

In terms of horror, aside from watching two men rape an incoherent nun the only murder comes during the climax. The deaths are quick and simple, with no lingering shots or impressive effects work. Violence is wholly secondary to sex here.

The real coup here is that Severin Films is able to present this film in HD at all, sourcing their release from a newly unearthed 35mm exhibition print found in a crawlspace in Spain. Although scanned in a 4K the disc opens with a disclaimer discussing the provenance of available materials and suggesting viewers cut a little slack when watching something that might not have otherwise seen the light of day. That said the 1.66:1 1080p image isn’t awful by any means. Soft shots are frequent, film grain is often heavy and sometimes clumpy, and colors are lacking punch. Still, given what Severin was working with the picture does look reasonably cleaned up, though white flecks and damage are still visible, and the overall image is acceptably presented. Plus, like I’ve said many times before some films just look better when they stay rough around the edges and this is definitely one such example.

No dub is available, leaving the only audio option as a Spanish DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. This is a simple track with minimal sound design. Dialogue is understandable enough, though for most viewers this won’t matter since the subs are doing all the work. There is some hissing but it remains a minor issue. The score, composed by Franco, has a classical romantic feel, heavy on the piano and adding an air of regality to the proceedings. Subtitles are available in English.

“Jess Franco on First Wife Nicole Guettard” is an interview with the director in his later years (the year isn’t stated) discussing his working and personal relationship with the woman he divorced in the late ‘70s.

“Stephen Thrower on Sinfonia Erotica” is a typically informative featurette wherein Thrower discusses the period in Franco’s career during which he made this film, as well as covering various edits and title changes.

Special Features:

  • Jess Franco On First Wife Nicole Guettard – Interview With Director Jess Franco
  • Stephen Thrower On Sinfonia Erotica – Interview With The Author Of ‘Murderous Passions – The Delirious Cinema Of Jesus Franco’
  • Sinfonia Erotica
  • Special Features
1.8

Summary

This is probably the sort of film that appeals to only the most fervent of Francophiles out there but the work Severin Films has done to bring it home is commendable and the results, while far from earthshaking, are impressive given the difficulty level. As for the film, it’s an interesting exercise in debauchery and not much more.

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