Stranger Things is a spooky summer delight

stranger things poster

At first my biggest complaint about Stranger Things is that I almost wish it had come out closer to Halloween. Three years ago Over the Garden Wall came out in September and the timing, coupled with that show’s sense of nostalgia, made it feel like I was watching something that was already an Autumn tradition.

But I think Summer was right for this show. There is something about summer that has a spooky vibe all its own. Perhaps its the coupling of freedom from school and lazy days with nothing to do but dream whatever one is compelled to dream that makes trees seem more sinister and full moons like beacons for things unthinkable.

Reviews of Stranger Things tend to talk about its nostalgia for the 1980s up front, so I’m going to veer away from that; my frame of reference is a bit too late to appreciate all the homages and nods, though there are undoubtedly many (enough for me to pick up on quite a few). Besides, nostalgia alone has never once been the difference between a good and a bad show, and Stranger Things is a very good one.

Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer are deft storytellers. They begin with a story that could be a one-shot fable: a young boy named Will goes missing in the woods in his small hometown in Indiana. From there, they mix in elements both familiar and fresh, creating a cocktail of plotlines that feels like it truly ought to be muddled. A monosyllabic girl with a buzzcut and the number 11 tattooed to her forearm appears out of nowhere. A government agent with white hair pursues her, flanked by a neverending stream of lackeys. A strange creature keeps popping up in shadows and on the edges of photographs. There’s even a John Hughes nod with a romantic triangle involving three teenagers. That plot is pretty disposable, though I credit the Duffers for resolving it in a way that is as surprising as it is entertaining.

Much credit goes to the cast. Every major character is splendidly cast. Good chemistry can bring perfunctory scenes to life. Consider the opening of the show, when we see a group of four boys, all about 11 or 12, playing Dungeons and Dragons. This is an establishing scene, yes, but the dialogue sounds perfectly authentic and the young actors bring these characters to life. Right away we get a sense of their personalities, the emotional weights and balances in this group. A scene that was likely purely expository in the script becomes a window into the bond these characters have; a bond that is crucial for the show to make the leap from silly entertainment into realm of pop delight that it reaches. It’s not enough to simply get to know these characters. We need to feel like they know each other.

This group of friends who form the show’s heart. Will (Noah Schnapp) is quiet and kind-hearted. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is the Elliot to the show’s E.T., his reserved nerdiness masking a deep well of resolve. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlan) is righteous to a fault, but the sort of person who you know from the start will rise to the occasion when needed. Dustin (Gaten Mararazzo) is the jolliest, most unabashedly nerdy of the group. Like any good summer tale, all of them will get a turn in the sun. Dustin’s moment to shine was the most entertaining for me, as he talks a science teacher and mentor into helping MacGyver a sensory deprivation tank when they need one (and yes, they very need one, very badly).

After that first scene, Will goes missing in the woods. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, God it’s good to see her again) becomes convinced that his disappearance is not as simple as it seems. However, the town’s sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is refreshingly aware of his surroundings. Far from a stock bureaucrat, Hopper searches relentlessly for answers until he finds them, no matter where that search takes him. He begins to see the shape of the patterns that Joyce insists are there. Part of that pattern is the emergence of a monosyllabic girl (Millie Brown) with a buzzcut and a trail of bodies in her wake. The girl, nicknamed Eleven because the number is tattooed on her arm, eventually runs into Mike, Lucas, and Dustin as they launch their own search for Will.

Ryder has always been a whirlwind of an actress, balancing between scenery chewing and a sort of heightened brilliance. She gets to play a very short role here, and at times I think she was the only actress alive who could pull this material off. Joyce is a difficult character. We need to believe in her completely while understanding why everyone else thinks she’s losing her mind.

But my highest praise goes to Millie Brown. Eleven could so easily have become a cross between a MacGuffin and a walking Deus Ex Machina. But time and time again Brown, often speaking only a handful of words at a time, makes her into the show’s most fascinating character. To watch her perform is to understand how much an actor is responsible for a character being “shrouded in mystery”. We don’t need her to talk much to see the confusion and horror and power and fleeting moments of joy and discovery in Eleven’s face throughout the show.

The Duffers never lose control of the story. The plot never feels bloated. One storyline might spin its wheels for an episode or two, but no plot is ignored or left to flounder entirely in cliche. Even the show’s most generally disposable plot- a love triangle involving Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and the town’s stock charming bad boy Steve (Joe Keery)- takes a turn right when I was ready to zip through it that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Much of Stranger Things alludes to its inspirations, but the Duffers are not here simply to praise their idols. This is their story and they tell it well. It is much more than a barrage of homages. Its roots are not just in movies and books, but in hot summer nights, when the shadows of trees are tall and the dark seems full of mystery and possibility.

 

 

 

 

Seasonal Cinema, Summer: Whisper of the Heart

whispermoon

I’ve been gone too long, readers. If you’ve read my blog at all in the last six months you’ll understand why. But I can’t let grief derail me. Not from movies, which have been so important to me for so long. My mom would want me to keep watching, keep writing, keep doing what I love. So I’m trying out a new feature to get the writing juices flowing again.

I’ve always felt a strong connection between certain movies and the seasons. I’ll step outside on a warm summer day and it will feel exactly how it feels when I watch Stand by Me or Floating Weeds. Winter can summon the warm nostalgia of Little Women or the ice-encased paranoia of The Thing. Certain movies encapsulate the seasons for me. As the seasons progress, I’m going to write reviews of movies that feel, well, how it feels at that moment.

I’m starting with my favorite summer film of all, Whisper of the Heart. Yes, I have written much about this movie. But it is comfort food, which is what I need right now to get back to writing.

It’s all in the opening. Whisper of the Heart kicks off with one of the warmest, and gentlest of opening sequences. A shot of the Tokyo skyline at night. A chorus of children singing John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads. A slow pan into one neighborhood, zeroing in on the film’s protagonist, 14-year old Shizuku, as she exits a store. Finally, following her home. It’s one of my favorite openings to any movie. I’ve talked before about the brilliance of this sequence. (As I said, I write about it a lot) This time, I just want to bask in its coziness.

It’s not just a cozy opening; it’s a welcoming, gentle, perfect one. We feel like we’re home within minutes. Whatever happens next in the film, we’re home.

Whisper of the Heart eschews most of the tropes of the “that one summer” genre that we expect. There’s romance, yes, but it’s not the center of the film’s plot. The center of the plot, really, is how  Shizuku realizes how quickly time moves when you get older. The movie’s sense of time closing, especially toward the end of summer vacation, is one of its canniest insights. Shizuku perpetually has something pressing on her mind, whether it’s cramming for exams, figuring out her blossoming romance with Seiji (the boy who shares her exact taste in books), or simply finding the time to enjoy the sunshine. As summer draws to a close, you always feel like you’ve been wasting it.

Yes, Whisper of the Heart transitions out of summer and into the school year, but this is always a summer movie for me. It’s gentle, always warm, almost always true. Every time I watch it, I am transported. Not because its events resemble much of anything in my life. But because that chill that runs down my spine is a time machine to how the end of summer felt when I was 14. It’s about warm sunbeams that feel like heaven and scorching hot days that feel like forever. It’s about a particular feeling that no other movie has captured: how summer really winds down for a teenager who is looking warily at the future for the first time. In reality, there is almost never That One Summer, the one with all the answers, adventures, and “coming of age”. There is, however, the anxiety of coming days that will come whether you’re ready or not. And there are warm nights that wrap you up and comfort you like a blanket, and views of the city that make you forget everything for a moment, and books that are the only thing that seem to freeze the inexorable march of time.

On not sleeping and “The World of Tomorrow”

worldoftomorrow

I don’t sleep easily anymore. It’s 3:45 am as I write this sentence. About 20 minutes ago I decided that if I wasn’t going to sleep easily tonight I might as well try watching The World of Tomorrow, a 16-minute animated short that I kept seeing pop up on my Netflix recommendations. I can safely say that it was a good decision. This is a rapid reaction to a very short movie, but I don’t think 2015 produced a better movie than this one.

The World of Tomorrow was created in its entirety by animator Don Hertzfeldt. His style is spare, as always. He has always used his stick-figures to make films that deep dive into absurdity. The cute style of his characters seem at odds with the black humor of his shorts. Here, however, there’s plenty of sincerity in the designs. The World of Tomorrow tells the story of two Emilys- one a young girl, the other her adult clone visiting from hundreds of years in the future. Clone Emily is continuing a tradition that repeats itself every generation: in the future, people with the means cheat death by preserving their memories and identities and passing them on to clones. She explains to her toddler of an ancestor, calmly and with little emotion, how the world will change.

The World of Tomorrow is most obviously a commentary on the inevitable digitization of everything. But its approach is deep and humanistic; this isn’t a screed against technology but a clear-eyed look into how things might be, for better or for worse, because despite its inevitability human beings fear death most of all.

To delve into the journey young and older Emily go on would be to deprive you of this film’s riches. There is a bounty packed into these 16 minutes. There is some of Hertzfeldt’s signature gallows humor, but he also celebrates childhood innocence, and imagination. The voice of young Emily is Winona Mae, Hertzfeldt’s niece, and the film at times whirls around what sounds like totally unprompted dialogue, building around a child’s world without an ounce of cynicism.

And Julia Pott, as clone Emily, spends most of the film speaking in functional, clinical monotone. But what a performance she gives. With the slightest alterations in her voice and timing she shifts from incredibly funny to heartbreaking.

The World of Tomorrow likely won’t help me get to sleep. It’s 4:15 am and my mind is buzzing. I don’t know if watching The World of Tomorrow at any other time would have led to the same impact. As I said, I don’t sleep easily. Since my grandmother died, sleep became difficult. Since my mom died, there are nights when it simply doesn’t happen. My mind buzzes with worry, with anxiety, with the total fog of grief.

But right now I feel good. I’m sitting at my computer, alone in the wee hours of the mourning, writing a record of myself. I imagine Hertzfeldt has done the same over the years, cataloguing his sadness with a paper and pencil. The World of Tomorrow about that feeling, about the deepest and most ineffable human needs. My mind buzzes right now with this film’s warmth, humanity, imagination, its understanding of sadness, and its love of the human spirit. I’m glad, for once, I that I’m awake at this hour.

Four weeks later

Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns you somehow.

I thought I understood this song before. I had no idea.

Sufjan Stevens released “Carrie and Lowell” last year and I went through the usual cycles of album appreciation. Repeated listens, changing rankings of favorite songs, long considerations of where it ranked in his repertoire, and finally moving on, returning to it once in a while but trying not to listen to it ad nauseum.

Carrie and Lowell feels new now, because before now I could not begin to understand it. The above lyrics used to strike me as poetic. Now I realize: like the best poetry, it is a description of real feeling, not a metaphor. I always assumed grief would be a single swing into despair. It’s so much more complex than anything I’ve been through. Since my mom died, some days go by and I realize I haven’t felt terrible and that feels triumphant. Car rides, dinner, and the routine of finding my mom every morning to greet her, to seek her out to say goodnight, are when I most notice she’s gone. That, and every single time I look forward to something and realize that I’m not sharing it with her.

Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow.

There are no stages of grief. If I didn’t know that was a myth already my experiences would have confirmed that anyway. Clearly delineated stages are far too neat to resemble life. At times “The Only Thing” is the only song- not just on this album, but ever sung- that feels true. But the disorienting haze of grief inevitably dissipates. I move on. And I will return to it, and then move on again. Grief has no stages. It’s not a path, but a whirlpool.


Should I tear my eyes out now, before I see too much?

Should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch

My mom died four weeks ago today. “Surrounded by her family” is how the obituary reported it. Obituaries typically attempt to paint death as something resembling idyllic. But the truth is, the last few hours of my mom’s life will haunt me forever. There is no softening that trauma; there is only not allowing it to paralyze me. The most vivid and difficult part of grieving for me has been realizing that there are no true comforts when someone you love dies. The best I can do is move on, and to be there for my family.


 

There’s another Sufjan Stevens song I’ve been thinking about and listening to a lot lately. It has nothing to do with death. It has everything to do with memory. The horror of the memories of my mom’s death are countered only by memories of her life. “The Only Thing” is the truth of grief. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” is the truth of memory.

Yes, it’s about children at a summer camp and first love and heartbreaking nostalgia and it has nothing to do with anything in my life. In the past I’ve always loved it for its sheer beauty.

But it’s the one song right now that truly comforts me. It is about feelings and moments and fragments of time long ago, so vividly rendered that I can place myself in them. And that is what I cling to. Someday the dark cloud, still so thick after four weeks, will dissipate enough that I will feel again the sunlight on the days I walked with my mom to the Dairy Queen in San Diego as a child, the evenings spent listening to her stories of growing up in the Philippines, of sharing our love of stories and telling them as I followed her footsteps into journalism school. Someday I will tell those stories myself, and if I can find a shred of the clarity and honesty that this song has, I can make sure my mom’s story continues to be told. Perhaps not today. Four weeks later, the sadness still sits heavily. The trauma, the horror, are still raw. But someday. Never trust anyone who says words don’t matter. Words have the ability to bring memories to life like nothing else. And my memories of my mom are what I have to hold onto right now. Someday, I will do them justice. That is my source of light.

The vicious catharsis of Green Room

greenroom

Lately I’ve been avoiding entertainment. So much reminds me of when my mom was alive. A week and change ago I saw a bottle of iced tea in the fridge that I had purchased for her. It set off waterworks.

New stuff is also hard to get into. I simply haven’t been in a good emotional place for movie watching. I watched Captain America 3: Civil War twice for its escapism. I saw Zootopia and enjoyed it for the same reason. I saw Green Room the other day for pretty practical reasons. It’s an indie film that was likely leaving theatres this week. I’d wanted to see it for some time. I love scary movies, and I loved Jeremy Saulnier’s first film, Blue Ruin. This was probably my last shot at seeing this movie in theatres.

I showed up at the theatre, got my popcorn and a blue raspberry Icee, entered the theatre and proceeded to almost have an anxiety attack right there as I took my seat. My anxiety has been through the roof since my mom died. It flares up unpredictably. The theatre was totally empty, had just gotten dark, and the trailer for The Conjuring 2 was playing, very loudly. I almost ran out of the back of theatre. Instead I went to the lobby, took deep breaths, and took a sip of my drink. I saw a young couple walk into the theatre. The thought of Green Room as a date movie amused me. That tiny shift into amusement, and not being alone in the theatre any more, just sharing a space with other people, calmed me down. I went back in, took my seat, and the movie began.

I’m not in a mental place right now to give this movie the proper review that it deserves. It is a sensational thriller. Tight, technically splendid, well-acted. All meat and no fat. When it was over, I was startled at how calm I felt. This wasn’t for the movie lacking intensity. Rather, I’d finally found an outlet for rattled nerves.

In tough times I’ve often found my outlet in expressive, fanciful fiction. I love horror. I also love science fiction, animation, video games, and musical theatre. Green Room is not the sort of escapism I’d think I would be drawn to in a time when the most overriding feeling in my day to day life is intense sadness, but here it was and so was I.

My favorite escapist entertainment engages and overwhelms my senses. My biggest escapes are less with movies that allow me to turn my brain off than those that don’t let my mind wander. This can happen in a number of ways. Mad Max: Fury Road was such an staggering experience that it propelled me out of my head and into the present like no other movie I’ve seen: there was no room left for thought beyond what was unfolding in front of me. Green Room isn’t such an overload. However, it engaged my anxiety in a way that few thrillers like it ever have.

Horror films aren’t usually so thorough and meticulous in their buildup. Opening scenes are usually perfunctory, the necessary steps to get to the action. Green Room presents an anxious person’s nightmare. It shows a fairly normal day for normal people suddenly turning into cold terror. It actually goes through the motions of a fairly typical day for a punk band, touring and living in an old van. Slogging through an interview for a college radio station. Muscling through a terrible gig. Taking another gig at a sketchy as hell location because they need the money. Realizing that the location is full of white supremacists, putting their heads down, and playing on but making sure to play an anti-Nazi song while they’re at it. The first half of the film could come right out of a punk rock band’s biography. And then, a wave of swift, remorseless violence. It all unfolds so indiscriminately, so randomly. I’ve had nightmares that resemble this movie; they’re the worst kind, that are so grounded in a sense of possibility that they are the hardest to shake when I awake.

As I said, I’m not in a place to give Green Room the review I’d like to, though I have a feeling it’s going to be high on my list of my favorite films of the year. I have no idea how others will feel about this film. It is certainly too grim and vicious for many. My feelings about the film, right now, are entirely about how it made me feel moments removed from an anxiety attack, weeks removed from the worst day of my life, and temporarily interrupting the routine of grief I’ve been working through since. Green Room didn’t really provide escapism, not the way the buoyant cheer of Zootopia and the action and broad pathos of Civil War did. Green Room trapped me, confronted me with some of my worst fears, and left me feeling exhilarated when I walked out of the theatre, having stared them down and not let them get the better of me. In a time when it hurts to feel much of anything, that was a thrill that I had missed.

Mother’s Day

mamababyJM

You never gave up. You always fought. It was second nature to you. You had no time for complaining. Complaining was wasting time that could be spent problem solving. You never, ever stopped looking for solutions.

You moved to the United States from The Philippines in a way that you absolutely would: getting off of your college chorus tour bus and simply not getting back on.

You nearly left us 11 years ago. Your doctors said you should have. There wasn’t much explanation for your surviving a stroke, pneumonia, and heart failure. But you survived. Your entire body conspired against your spirit, your life, and you fought back and won. When you could talk again you told us: you weren’t going to leave us, not then. Not while you could fight.

You always fought for your children. You listened to us, trusted us because you raised us to be honest and worthy of your belief. As I grew up I was astonished by how many people didn’t have that. With you it was never a question: if we needed someone to fight at our side, you were always first in line.

I know you fought until the end. I know that if you could have fought your illness any more, you would have. I know that your soul has an eternity’s fight in it. Eventually, cancer would no longer let your body keep up. But you never stopped stopped fighting. You let us know that, in your final words. Cancer didn’t win, mama. It could never conquer your spirit. Your spirit will continue to fight for our family, for us, and through us. We will continue your fight for you.

Happy mother’s day, Mama. I love you. Never stop fighting.

She’s gone

mamasmile

Those two words still don’t feel like reality. My mom Kathleen passed away almost precisely 48 hours ago. In the time since I have broken down sobbing dozens of times. And yet I read those two words and I still can’t quite grasp what they mean.

I know the rawness of her loss will linger for a while yet. There will be times when I can’t hold in my grief and I will stop in my tracks and allow my sadness to overwhelm me for a moment. I know that there are going to be moments of sadness that I can’t yet predict, as I go forward in my life and realize all the little things about her that I took for granted. I’ve begun to have some of those. I recently began work on a book. As I started it, before my mom died, I thought how much I was looking forward to reading her passages as I progressed with my writing. As much as I can continue my writing it in her honor, I know I will catch myself looking forward to reading to her in the future tense, to seeing her smile, hearing her laugh, feeling the love of writing that she shared with me.

I know that there will be times in years to come that I will miss her unbearably, in ways that I can’t begin to predict in the present rawness. A wound hurts differently than a scar.

I am more acutely aware than ever how my mom shaped who I am today. Once upon a time, her blog was something I occasionally read with a smile, a space that I let her have to herself to reminisce and reflect on her remarkable life. Now it is precious to me. It is the closest visible link I have to her love of writing and mine. I read her stories here and realize how much I owe to her, as a writer, and most of all, as a person.

My mom loved people and loved their stories. In the aftermath of her death, I have been stunned by the massive outpouring of support and love from so many people around the world. The morning after she died, I was awoken by a bombardment of texts and Facebook messages. Cataloguing every tribute to her, many from people I didn’t know personally, has been a nearly full-time effort. I’m not surprised, of course. I was aware that she kept regular correspondence with old friends, many of whom she joyfully reconnected with on the internet. The stunned feeling stems from the scope of it. I knew she was a remarkable woman. I didn’t realize just how many people knew that as well as I did.

She’s gone. I know that. She lives on in many ways. I think everyone who knew her can agree with that statement no matter what their belief system. As a Catholic, I believe her spirit lives on in a literal sense. As her son, I burn with a need to carry on her legacy of loving people and telling stories. She, herself, blazed a path that traveled the world and connected deeply with more people than I can comprehend. No matter your take on the aftermath of death, if you knew my mom, she lives on with you in some fashion. I can’t believe my mom is gone. Part of that is grief. But part of that is also the knowledge that she lived too fully to ever really leave.

mamagraduation   My mom Kathleen, my dad David, and me at my grad school graduation

mamababyJM                                                                                                                           My mom and me when I was newborn. I had life-threatening health issues as a baby; the joy on her face here reflects that I had just been given an all-clear and could soon go home. She was finishing college at the time and took me with her to her classes. She got me started on my love of learning, reading, and writing at an early age.

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