‘Day of the Dead’ and ‘Back to the Future’ in ‘Stranger Things’

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Lucas on New Coke: “Sweeter, bolder, better.”

The Netflix series Stranger Things has two things in common with The Sopranos. First, it’s very good. Second, a lot of television is watched in it. I just went through the IMDB “Connections” for the 1980s-set Stranger Things and was reminded that the material visible on characters’ TV sets over the course of three seasons includes the series Knight Rider, All My Children, Magnum P.I., Punky Brewster, Cheers (three times), and Family Feud (twice), and the movies Mr. Mom, Frankenstein, and The Thing (John Carpenter’s 1982 remake).

The show, which was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, collectively known as the Duffer Brothers, is quite smart about all of this, with the TV stuff often implicitly commenting on the characters and action. Thus Hopper (David Harbour), a well-meaning but perpetually frustrated paunchy cop in small-town Hawkins, Indiana, is shown watching Tom Selleck’s glamorous Magnum. And Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who is ambivalent about her extraordinary powers, to say the least, is transfixed by Boris Karloff as the monster first imagined by Mary Shelley. As Anna Leskiewicz observed in The New Statesman,

Eleven sits on a sofa, hugging a teddy bear tight to her chest. She’s watching a black and white film on a static-filled TV screen. “Who are you? I’m Maria,” a girl says. “Will you play with me?” It’s the 1931 Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s monster looks at Maria with the same blank expression Eleven has when she’s learning a new word. As Maria and the monster wonder off, hand in hand, Eleven looks as though she’s on the verge of tears. She’s just a child, but it’s clear that she feels caught between both characters: the monster and the girl.

There’s a lot of what you might call intertextuality going on here. A Terminator trailer turns up on TV in season two, and a major bad guy in season three is Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko), who’s one big Terminator callback, down to the big gun and the Schwarzenegger-esque hairdo. The likable Russian informant Alexei is seen laughing uproariously at a Woody Woodpecker cartoon; a couple of episodes later, he wins a big stuffed Woody Woodpecker at the town fair. The glimpse of John Carpenter’s Thing (a character also has a poster for it in his room) is perhaps an acknowledgement that the demon/monster in Stranger Things is quite Thing-y. In Season 3, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) cracks open a can of New Coke. (Stranger Things’ shamelessness about product placement is part of its cheesy charm.) His buddy asks, “How do even drink that?” Lucas responds: “It’s like Carpenter’s The Thing. The original is the classic, no question about it. But the remake … sweeter, bolder, better.”

It goes on. Red Dawn (1984) gets several mentions in season three, because the Soviets-take-over-small-town plot of that film is pretty much what’s going in on ST. And, more broadly, the whole series respectfully and artfully borrows themes, look, and vibe of ’80s kids-against-the world movies like E.T.., The Goonies, and Stand By Me.

But only twice do characters see a movie in the theater, both times in season three. In the first episode, “Suzie, Do You Copy?” (written and directed by the Duffers), Steve (Joe Keery) is working at the Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop at the Starcourt Mall, hence the ridiculous sailor suit. He shows the kids a back way to sneak into the mall’s multi-screen theater.

Day of the Dead (1985) was written and directed by George Romero, and is a sort of sequel to his seminal zombie pic Night of the Living Dead. One obvious connection is that zombie-like creatures will indeed show up in Hawkins later in the season. Another is that, as Elena Nicolaou pointed out on Refinery 29, the movie and the series have “uncannily similar music. The Dead Suite, played in the opening scene of Day of the Dead, sure resembles a simplified and slowed-down version of the Stranger Things theme. Those staccato notes in a minor key are staircases to the same conclusion: We’re not headed anywhere good.” The temporary electrical blackout at the mall portends bad happenings as well.

Six episodes later, Steve, his Scoops Ahoy coworker Robin (Maya Hawke), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and the breakout character of the season, no-nonsense Erica (Priah Ferguson), are sneaking into the mall multiplex again. This time it’s more urgent: they’re on the run from the Russian bad guys, who have given Steve and Robin some nasty bruises and (via a truth serum) a bad case of the giggles.

On the screen, of course, is Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, and Jen Chaney has made the case in Vulture that “Stranger Things 3 Is Basically One Big Back to the Future Homage.” She lists a lot of small and large similarities, including a scene in episode 1 where Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is late for work (the power outage messed up his alarm clock) and has to get dressed in a hurry:

Jonathan, wearing just a pair of briefs, puts one foot into his pants and loses his balance, falling forward out of the frame.

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That is an exact duplicate of what Michael J. Fox, as Marty, does when he tries to get his jeans back on after his first 1955 meeting with the teenage version of his mother, Lorraine. Just in case you didn’t catch these Back to the Future hat tips, the Duffer Brothers, who created the series and wrote and directed this episode, follow them up by blasting a Huey Lewis and the News song — “Workin’ for a Livin’,” not “The Power of Love” — as Nancy marches purposefully to the office.

Vulture.com/via GIPHY

I have to admit I skimmed a lot of her article. That’s because she dealt with how the season ends and I haven’t watched episode eight yet. I’ve enjoyed this show so much I’ve kind of put it off as long as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ in ‘The Big Sick’

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In the autobiographical The Big Sick (2017) Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays a Pakistani-American comedian named Kumail Nanjiani, who meets and falls in love with a woman named Emily Gardner. In real life, Nanjiani’s wife (and co-author with him of the Big Sick screenplay; Michael Showalter directed) is named Emily Gordon. I guess that counts as poetic license.

I really can’t tell you if the couple’s first date in the movie is true to life but it’s pretty funny. They meet cute when Emily heckles Kumail at a comedy club. Well, he calls it heckling when they talk afterwards; she says, “I didn’t heckle you, just woo-hoo’d you. It’s supportive.”

One thing leads to another, and pretty soon they’re back in his apartment watching a movie.

If this did happen in real life, I would be hard-pressed to tell you why Kumail would have shown the uber-schlocky Night of the Living Dead (1969) to a woman on whom he presumably wants to make a good impression. If he didn’t, then I imagine screenwriters Nanjiani and Gordon chose it because the  lumbering old-school zombies are funny and Big Sick is, after all, a comedy.

We don’t find out if the couple sees a movie on their second date. On their third date, however, it’s back to Kumail’s apartment and back to schlocky horror: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). IMDB’s synopsis: “A doctor, scientist, organist, and biblical scholar, Anton Phibes [Vincent Price], seeks revenge on the nine doctors he considers responsible for his wife’s death.

Emily asks, “Is this your compatibility test? Like, the way people are with Vonnegut or The Big Lebowski?” (An interesting feature of Big Sick is that while he’s the comedian, she gets at least as many funny lines.) Once again, it’s hard to imagine that Kumail actually likes it, or, even more improbably, that he thinks she will. Or maybe his ulterior motive is to show terrible movies so there won’t be any resistance in moving to the next order of businesss. If so, well played, sir.

 

 

‘The Story of Ruth,’ ‘The Little Colonel,’ etc. in ‘The Shape of Water’

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) is soaked, saturated, inundated with movie love and consciousness, pun definitely intended. The look of the underwater creature around whom the plot revolves, identified in the credits as “Amphibian Man,” is copied from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The beauty-and-the-beast story is a King Kong update. Amphibian Man and Elisa (Sally Hawkins), the heroine, do an imaginary (?) black-and-white dance number that’s based on the Astaire-Rogers “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet. (The song they dance to, “You’ll Never Know,” first appeared in the 1943 musical Hello, Frisco, Hello and is more or less the theme song of Shape of Water.)

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A gif of the big dance number, thanks to sixactstructure.com

Elisa’s close friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist, has an in-progress drawing of Audrey Hepburn on an easel in his studio. He and Elisa live in apartments above The Orpheum cinema, and del Toro gives us to understand that the movies being projected seep through the floorboards and cast a spell on them.

As the film opens and the credits roll, we get a glimpse of one part of the double bill, the 1960 biblical epic The Story of Ruth (Shape of Water is set in 1962), playing to a near-empty house.

An article on the website Vox finds significance in the director’s choice of this film.

The most famous passage from the Book of Ruth is when Ruth, who is a Moabite, entreats her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to let her come to Israel with her, even after Ruth’s husband (Naomi’s son) has passed away. “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you,” Ruth says. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

The words are spoken between a widow and her mother-in-law, but most people know the passage as a familiar reading at weddings. The devotion it expresses — love that transcends the speaker’s home, family, and beliefs about the world — is the purest distillation of what it is to fall in love and give oneself over to the commitment that entails.

It can’t be an accident that The Story of Ruth is invoked in The Shape of Water, a film about the kind of love in which we both abandon ourselves and discover our true selves in the same moment. And del Toro imbues that idea with an additional insight: To love another, we have to learn to see the ways they’re different from us as well as the ways we’re profoundly the same.

I can’t argue with any of that but I prefer to heed the filmmaker’s own words, regarding  all the films seen in The Shape of Water. That sizable list includes Mardi Gras (1958), a Pat Boone musical that makes an unlikely Orpheum double bill with Ruth, and four ’40s and ’30s musicals all seen at various times on Giles’s apparently never-turned-off television: That Night in Rio; Sun Valley Serenade; Hello, Frisco, Hello; Coney Island; and The Little Colonel, featuring yet another unlikely couple, Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. They inspire Elisa to do her own lovely impromptu dance.

Interviewed by Jason Garber shortly after the film’s release, del Toro said,

I spoke to [his friend director Alejandro Iñárritu] and he said to me I think it would be wise that the more obscure the movie, the better it is. The only one that is sort of famous is Little Colonel with Shirley Temple; the rest are really not well-known. Alejandro said that gives the movie a reality even in the fantasy. If everything is heightened, then tonally you’re screwed. I followed his advice and looked for specific movies that were in some instances kind of crappy, like the dancing horse number with Betty Grable or the beautiful but cheesy stuff in The Story of Ruth and the [truly goofy] bouncing giant ball in Mardi Gras.

In other words, sometimes a toga is just a toga. One more thing: Shape of Water was a Fox Searchlight production, and all the movies shown came from its predecessor company, Twentieth Century Fox, making it easier and cheaper to secure permissions.

There’s an interesting tension in The Shape of Water concerning screens. On one side is the big, enveloping one at the ornate Orpheum movie palace (actually the Elgin Theatre in Toronto), which never seems to have more than four or five patrons. On the other are comparatively tiny TV screens, which, when you look closely, are everywhere in this movie. As mentioned, Giles always has his set on, and so does the family of bad guy Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). At various times we see his kids watching the TV shows Hong Kong and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and the 1959 animated Mr. Magoo comedy 1001 Arabian Nights. (How’s that for obscure and cheesy?)

But that’s not all. As Elisa walks to her bus shop, she passes a TV shop with what appear to be nine sets in the window, all showing different hot-button news events of the early 1960s: JFK speaking, civil rights marchers, Vietnam helicopters. Not only is del Toro collapsing time but the very presence of nine TVs with different content is anachronistic: in 1962 there were only three networks and two or three independent stations in a market like Baltimore (the film’s setting); and they would never all be running news at the same time. Of course, you don’t watch a movie like The Shape of Water expecting realism.

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Television turns malignant when the scene moves to the top-secret research center where Amphibian Man is being kept. Whenever we see Strickland in his office, behind him are banks of monitors on which he keeps watch on everything and everyone in the facility. In a film that’s not infrequently heavy-handed, this is a subtle nod to a future (ours) where the promise of privacy is more and more swiftly starting to recede.

 

‘Hail, Caesar,’ ‘Merrily We Dance,’ and ‘Lazy Ol’ Moon’ in ‘Hail, Caesar’

The most purely fun movie I’ve seen in the past five years, or maybe longer, is the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016). It’s got a solid story, good performances, and some hilarious moments, but the really special thing about it is the take on peak-studio-era Hollywood, which combines a very knowing spoof with a very knowing appreciation.

The year is more or less 1951, and the main character is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who’s based on the real-life Eddie Mannix, for many years a notorious “fixer” at MGM. But the Coens’ Eddie has a grander portfolio: he’s “head of physical production” at (the fictional) Capitol Studios, which involves not only covering up the stars’ imbroglios but managing all details of Capitol’s many offerings, from casting to budgets to editing to locations.

The movie revolves around five in-production Capitol films, all depicted with that knowing mix of spoof and appreciation, and all but one era-appropriate. The eponymous Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ is a religious sandals epic that combines elements of Quo Vadis, The Robe, Spartacus, and Ben-Hur. (The novel Ben-Hur, published in 1880, had the same Tale of the Christ subtitle.) Lazy Ol’ Moon is an “oatuner” — Variety-speak for a cowboy picture, aka “oater,” with music — of the kind Roy Rogers churned out for Republic Pictures through 1950. Jonah’s Daughter is a musical featuring Busby Berkeley-style water ballets, which seems like an odd idea today but was a staple for MGM and Esther Williams, in movies like Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Channing Tatum channels Gene Kelly (in On the Town and Anchors Aweigh) in “No Dames!”, a sailor production number with a hilarious homoerotic-themed subtext. The only movie-in-movie that seems a bit anachronistic is Merrily We Dance, an arch and “sophisticated” black-and-white comedy of manners, something like Design for Living (1933), directed by an Ernst Lubitsch/George Cukor figure flawlessly played by Ralph Fiennes.

I’ll focus on Lazy Ol’ Moon, Merrily We Dance, and Hail, Caesar, since we view finished footage from those three; for the others, we only see scenes being staged and filmed. We take in Moon at its world premiere, attended by its cowboy star, Hobie Doyle (Alben Ehrenreich), a cross between two cowpokes named Rogers: Will (Hobie is a whiz at rope tricks) and the crooning, six-gun-toting horseman Roy. (The latter, born Leonard Slye, chose “Rogers” as his stage name in honor of one of his heroes, as I learned while writing Will Rogers’s biography.) Hobie’s date, arranged by the studio for the publicity value, is the Carmen Miranda-inspired Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osario). Here’s the opening, climaxed by Hobie crooning “Lazy Ol’ Moon” (a tune actually sung by R. Rogers in a 1939 picture, The Arizona Kid).

 

To me, the most striking and somewhat unnerving thing about the scene is the high-contrast color. But it’s true to its models, if not life. As Bill Desowitz observed on IndieWire, for this sequence Hail, Caesar! cinematographer Roger Deakins “emulated the two-strip (red and green) Trucolor process utilized at Republic.” This still of Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, from Sunset in the West (1950) gives the idea:

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The other notable quality of the Lazy Ol’ Moon scene is how dad-burned ridiculous are the carryings-on of Curly (J.R. Horne, doing his best Gabby Hayes.) But Carlotta and the rest of the audience roar with delighted laughter — an example, as in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (a favorite of the Coens), of the grace of silly comedy. As the narrator (voiced by Michael Gambon) intones, the picture is “another wave of gossamer, another movie, another portion of balm for the ache of a toiling mankind.”

Eddie’s headache vis-a-vis Merrily We Dance is that the head of the studio, the unseen Nicholas Schenk (who actually was the boss of MGM in the early ’50s), decrees that the lead role has to be played by Hobie. It’s a disastrous call, as Hobie and sophistication are polar opposites. After trying to get the lad to make a “mirthless chuckle,” and “trippingly,” “with a certain ruefulness,” say the line, “Would that ’twere so simple,” Laurence Laurentz seems ready to tear out his remaining hairs. But what the boss says goes and the kid stays in the picture.

Eddie goes to visit editor C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand) to look at a cut of Merrily on her Movieola, and manages to do so, after a near-Isadora Duncan-type mishap with her  scarf.

 

Wonder of wonders! Improbably, Hobie’s performance does the trick, even if it doesn’t quite reach Oscar™ proportions. His natural physical grace comes though, and the execrable line “Would that ’twere so simple” has been shortened and improved. And who would have thought it possible — his closing smile is actually rueful. Here’s to the magic of movies.

For the scenes of Hail, Caesar: A Story of the Christ, as Desowitz describes it, the filmmakers mimicked Technicolor epics — “that gold and red look with warm, rich tones.” There are also the matte backgrounds characteristic of the times, which look especially fake today as computer-aided graphics have become more sophisticated. We look on with Eddie Mannix as he watches a rough cut in the studio screening room. George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock (Robert Taylor, kind of) plays the Roman tribune Autolycus; the narrator is the same Michael Gambon.

 

That missing “DIVINE PRESENCE” remains a problem. Eddie takes a meeting with a rabbi, a minister, a priest and a Greek Orthodox priest to see what sort of representation of the godhead might be inoffensive to them all; the results, perhaps predictably, are a joke. The Coen Brothers didn’t manage to solve the problem either, as we learn at the very end of the movie, seen just as the credits finish rolling. Wedged between thanks to various municipal film boards and assurances that no animals have been harmed is this disclaimer: “This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.”

‘Rebel Without a Cause’ in ‘La La Land’

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No one can say they don’t make movies-in-other movies anymore. The current Blackkklansman (post to come) puts a not especially flattering spotlight on two old films. La La Land (2016), which famously won, then didn’t win, the 2016 Best Picture Oscar, features just one, but it’s in a pivotal scene.

In this musical, aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) don’t-meet cute a couple of times, then manage to connect and have some conversations that suggest they are kindred spirits. Sebastian is movie-besotted. He  quotes some lines from Rebel Without a Cause, and when he realizes she’s never seen it, he invites her to meet him at the Rialto, where it’s playing, later that week.

Because of plot complications, she arrives at the Rialto — and by the way, both exteriors and interiors were filmed at the real Rialto Theatre, in Pasadena — after the movie has already started. She stands in the front, looking for Sebastian, and he sees her with appropriately cinematic illumination.

They settle in to watch the movie, as the famous Griffith Park scene is about to begin, but just as things are about to heat up between them, something burns up and spoils the mood.

At that point, Mia suggests they take a drive to the real Griffith Park, which they do, director Damien Chazelle’s camera recreating the scene from the original. They break in to the Observatory through in open door and share a celestial dance. It’s a nice movie-loving scene, in a nice movie-loving movie, and if you haven’t seen it I heartily recommend you rent it, or stream it, or, on the off-chance it’s playing at the Rialto, go see it as films were meant to be seen.