Mini Review: Stranger Things

Mini Review: Stranger Things

Hi everybody,

Just a brief detour from the usual genres on this site. A friend introduced me to a new series on Netflix called Stranger Things.

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It’s part Spielberg kid’s feature, with a good bit of Stephen King and a little HP Lovecraft mixed in.

Set in 1983, the show follows young Will Byers as he heads home after playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends. He quickly realizes something bad is following him and this leads the show straight into suspense/horror mode, as a shadowy form chases the kid through his house and out into the field.

The next few episodes show the investigation by the local police into Will’s disappearance, the appearance of a mysterious girl with superhuman abilities and the dealings of a shadowy government conspiracy as they try to hinder the investigation into Will’s disappearance and recover the girl.

At the same time, Will’s friends start their own search for him.

The show is steeped in nostalgia and does a good job portraying the world of 1983 and the people living in it.The plot is loaded with cold war paranoia about secret experiments and mysterious agencies.

While there is a fair bit of suspense and light horror it’s all pretty much PG-13 level, plenty of shadowy figures, jump scares and spring loaded cat stunts. Most of the really violent and/or gory imagery is obscured or masked by camera cuts.

The sound is especially well done. Some of the noises and synth stabs used will levitate you out of your seat and make your hair stand on end and really help the gloomy, creepy atmosphere of the show.

While there are some supernatural-ish elements, they are explained in a manner more in line with a science fiction film than a fantasy. A good portion of the show involves unraveling exactly what the government is doing in that mysterious lab and how it affects the town.

The overall tone and feel reminds me of a previous Spielberg effort, 2011’s Super 8. Production values are high and the show does a good job of drawing you into the story.

So far this show is proving to be an interesting diversion. My next review should be up tomorrow.

This Gun For Hire (1942)

This Gun For Hire (1942)

Opening Statement

 

Why don’t you go to the police?

I’m my own police.

 

 

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I’m my own police!

 

Review

 

Raven (Alan Ladd is a professional hit man. For the right price he will kill anyone or anything. At the start of the film he casually murders a man and woman who seem to be involved in some kind of blackmail plot. When his employer Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) pays him off in marked bills and sets him up to be arrested by the police, Raven decides enough is enough and decides to get his revenge.

 

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Just getting ready for work.

 

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The payoff
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and set up for arrest.

At the same time LAPD detective lieutenant Michael Crane (Robert Preston) is in San Francisco to visit his girlfriend, nightclub singer and stage magician, Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake). He is assigned to arrest Raven, but the wily assassin eludes him and coincidentally ends up sitting next to Ellen on the train to LA. Ellen has been hired by Gates to sing in his LA nightclub and several parties including the US government, Raven and the police are all interested in using this connection.

 

 

This sets up a deadly cat and mouse game between the various powers. Ellen and Raven are forced to work together to bring down their mutual enemy, despite an intense mistrust between them.

 

 

This Gun For Hire was the first time the Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake combination hit the screen and the chemistry between the two was a huge hit with the public. Really, this film launched both of them as major stars and set up several more collaborations with the two of them including The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia.

 

Lake is charming as a surprisingly capable Ellen, who gets herself out of several bad situations using her wits and sleight of hand abilities.

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Singer
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and stage magician, interesting combination of talents.

Ladd’s Raven, snears, snarls and glares his way through the picture. Perfectly happy to menace anybody who gets in his way. The only things he seems to have any affection for are the stray cats he feeds.

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Animals seem to be the only thing he does like.

The icy chemistry between Ladd and Lake is something to see and quite unique to that screen duo.

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Unlikely allies.

While Robert Preston is officially the lead in the film, he even gets top billing next to Lake. The Ladd and Lake combo make him seem almost non-existent. That doesn’t happen often to an actor of Preston’s caliber. His character, LAPD Detective Michael Crane, is completely overshadowed by Ladd’s dark and threatening Raven character.

 

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Robert Preston as Detective Michael Crane, nice guy but about as exciting as cold oatmeal.

 

Also notable is actor Laird Cregar who plays the villainous Willard Gates (ironic name). Big both in physique and talent, Cregar had a short but eventful career in Hollywood before being felled by a heart attack in 1944, at the young age of 30. Often compared to fellow suave, big man, Sydney Greenstreet, the 6′ 3″ 300 lb Cregar made a career playing heavies, suave villains and supporting characters. Unfortunately, passing away before we could see the full range of his talent.

 

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Laird Cregar, a big actor in every sense of the word.

 

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Here you can really see the height difference between the 6’3″ Cregar and 5′ tall Lake.

The film is beautifully lit and shows the classic light and shadow of a true film noir. The storyline, with foreign intrigue, spying and political games, is a little atypical for the genre. But Ladd’s Raven is a classic noir anti-hero, a dangerous, even “bad” person who ends up on the side of angels much to his own surprise.

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My primary issue with the film is that the antagonist’s (Nitro Chemical Corporation and its executives) motivation simply doesn’t hold water in my opinion. The original story was set in England and had the villains as Nazi sympathizers, not unheard of in England (or the US) at the time and Nazi Germany definitely had the intelligence network and funding to believably support a 5th column in England.

 

 

When the story was adapted to the US screen, the villain’s Axis connections were changed to Japanese. Even at the time, just after Pearl harbor, the idea of a powerful corporation allying itself with the Japanese would have been laughable at best.

 

 

Japan’s economy was a fraction the size of the US or even Germany’s and their political apparatus had little tolerance for foreigners and negligible spy networks and little to no support being quite literally the most hated people in the US at the time, just after Pearl Harbor. A clandestine alliance with Japan would simply not make sense to a major corporation for economic reasons and would offer little political benefit to them with a ton of risks.

 

 

The only way I could see this even working would be a case similar to Sydney Greenstreet’s character Dr. Lorenz in Across The Pacific, where the character had actually lived in Japan and adapted the culture as his own. The film really doesn’t give a reason for this treason and it is a very large hole in the plot.

 

 

Even with this flaw, the film is entertaining, with some great performances and beautiful black and white cinematography. The film is at its best when it drops the foreign intrigues and focuses on Raven and Ellen attempting to take down the corporation and its corrupt leadership.

 

 

Verdict 3.5 Gavels out of 5 Despite flaws in the character motivation and some muddled story line, This Gun For Hire is a classic in the film noir style. Great performances by Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Laird Cregar, along with beautiful cinematography, make the film worth a view for any fan of classic black and white cinema.

Mugshot: Veronica Lake

Mugshot: Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake was one of the most recognized and iconic actresses of the 1940s. The petite blond was known for her long blond hair that she usually wore in a distinctive peak a boo style. She was also known for a series of famous film noir classics with her frequent co-star Alan Ladd.

 

Early Life

 

Veronica Lake was born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman in Brooklyn NY in 1922. After the death of her father Harry Ockelman in an industrial accident in Philadelphia. Her mother remarried to Anthony Keane a newspaper illustrator. The family later moved to Florida where the future Veronica Lake attended Miami High School. By her own account in her biography her childhood was a stressful one with a great deal of tensions in the family, especially between her and mother Constance.

 

In 1938 her family moved to Beverly Hills, CA and she enrolled in the Bliss-Hayden School of Acting and within a year was appearing as an extra in films.

 

Her first major professional credit was in the military drama, I Wanted Wings. While not the lead, her performance as the doomed Sally got the attention of the critics and the public. Her appearance in the Preston Sturges Dramedy, Sullivan’s Travels only increased the attention.

 

Big Break

 

Her breakout film would hit the theaters the next year, in 1942. This Gun For Hire is considered to be a film noir classic for good reason. While there are some bugs in the script and motivations of the characters; the performances by Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Lair Cregar are iconic. Especially notable was the icy intensity between Lake’s character and Ladd’s professional killer.

 

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Hollywood Career

 

The chemistry between the Ladd and Lake combo did not go unnoticed by their bosses and they were quickly paired up in hits such as film noir classics, The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia. Another consideration of the studio was the petite, 4′ 11″ Lake, was perfectly proportioned to cast opposite the 5′ 6″ (maybe) Alan Ladd, who sometimes had to appear on a platform when cast against taller leading ladies.

 

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The Glass Key established both of them as A-List actors and Veronica Lake worked steadily through the 1940s. She appeared in a variety of genres from, mystery and drama, to comedies such as Hold That Blond and even a turn as a tough, widowed ranch owner in the western Ramrod.

 

She also found the time to marry and have a family. After her first marriage failed, she married film director Andre DeToth. She also became a licensed pilot and was known for flying cross country, no small feat in that era, especially in a small aircraft.

 

While talented, beautiful and very popular with the public, Veronica Lake had developed a reputation within Hollywood for being a difficult personality to work with. Several prominent actors and directors refused to work with her.

 

At the time, a “difficult” reputation tag being placed on an actress could mean anything from screaming tantrums on set, to refusing to sleep with the director or producer. Often the true source and cause of the “difficulties” was never disclosed. Regardless, even a hint of it, could often end an actresses career and by the late 1940s, starring roles had largely dried up for Lake and she was released from her Paramount contract in 1948.

 

Bankruptcy and the failure of her marriage to director Andre DeToth in 1951 also contributed to her departure from Hollywood. She relocate to New York that year and appeared in television and on the stage during the 1950s, appearing in many “Theater” format television shows such as Tales of Tomorrow, Goodyear Playhouse and Broadway Television Theater.

 

In her autobiography, Lake stated that she did not consider herself a serious actress she wrote: “You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision.” While her fans would disagree with her, it does show that her heart was not in her work.

 

According to some biographies, both Veronica and her mother may have suffered from Schizophrenia, but that has never been confirmed. It has long been suspected that problems with alcohol may have contributed to Lake’s reputation for difficulty in Hollywood. It is known that she battled alcohol addiction throughout the latter part of her life, chalking up multiple arrests and fines for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

 

By the late 1960s, she was almost forgotten, her only appearance on film was in 1966s Footsteps In The Snow. There were rumors, (that she angrily denied) that she was destitute. Sales from her autobiography, Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake, funded her last film appearance in the 1970 low budget horror/Sci-fi film Flesh Feast. After the failure of the film she relocated to Ipswich England.

 

Veronica Lake passed away in 1972 at the age of 50 from complications of renal failure and hepatitis. While she only had 38 acting credits, most from 1940 to 1948, many were high quality performances in successful films. She is also remembered as one of the defining ladies of film noir and her films are still appreciated by fans to this day.

Update on upcoming reviews

Update on upcoming reviews

Hi everyone,

I’m currently working on my mugshot bio of Veronica Lake. The article is taking a bit longer than usual due to the amount of bad information, hearsay and outright lies that have spread about her over the years. It should be ready to go tomorrow.

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I also have a few new films in the pipeline including the first Ladd and Lake collaboration, This Gun For Hire.It also stars Laird Cregar and Robert Preston.The plot is a complicated mess of hired assassins, foreign intrigue and high treason.

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Another upcoming review is the 1948 film noit The Big Clock about a man who is being framed for a murder he did not commit, typical film noir storyline. It stars Ray Milland, Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Sullivan.

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Finally the 3rd upcoming review is 1936 Fritz Lang drama Fury. Starring Sylvia Sydney and Spencer Tracy. Fury shows the brutal attempted lynching of an innocent man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and arrested on suspicion of attacking a local woman.

The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)

Opening Statement

 

Now the lid’s coming off the garbage can!

 

Review

 

Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, a hardworking, honest cop in a city full of corrupt ones. When he begins to look into the apparent suicide of a fellow police officer, he starts to discover evidence that the cop was taking bribes.

 

His investigation upsets the delicate balance of power between the police, politicians and the local mobsters. After a confrontation with local mob leader Mike Lagana goes bad. A car bomb meant for him kills his wife Kaite (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s older sister). Bannion resigns and quickly becomes a man possessed with getting his revenge on everyone involved in the plot.

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Happier times

 

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Lagana & his pet killer Vince

 

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Out for venegance

The Big Heat has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best in the film noir genre. Helping this is a power house cast including Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin and helmed by veteran director Fritz Lang (Metropolis, M, Fury).

 

While most films in this genre are known for their snappy dialog, this one stands out. Most of the characters have at least one good line (or more) and the banter and one liners crackle back and forth throughout the film.

The cinematography is classic Lang. While not as distinctly expressionist as Metropolis, or M, due to budget limits and Hollywood controls. The director’s distinctive style is apparent all through the film.

 

Glenn Ford plays the avenging hero perfectly, seemingly just on the edge of flying apart in a complete breakdown.

 

Also watch for Lee Marvin in a particularly vicious role as mob enforcer Vince Stone. While he seems to hate everybody, he takes a particular sadistic glee in torturing women, burning a waitress’ hand with a lit cigarette, for example.

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Vince Stone, all around scumbag

 

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He likes to pick on women and anyone weaker than him

 

One scene with Gloria Grahame is especially cruel. While not particularly graphic by today’s standards, the implied violence is brutal. It’s a testament to Lang’s skill as a director that they were able to get it through the censors.

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This and other scenes of often casual violence add a real authenticity to the film. You realize that everyone, heroes, villains, cops and mobsters are playing for real stakes and aren’t afraid to do anything to win.

 

An interesting trivia tidbit is that Columbia nearly made a deal to cast Marylin Monroe as Debby but backed out to the amount 20th Century Fox wanted. It makes you wonder how Marylin would have played the role and if it would have helped her avoid her battles with typecasting.

 

Gloria Grahame plays the role well, though. Her reputation for being flighty and neurotic works in this case, since it perfectly fits the character she plays. In the film her character goes from being the pampered pet of a mob enforcer, to a horribly abused woman bent on getting vengeance of her own.

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Verdict 4 Gavels out of 5 A classic film noir with terrific dialog and characters. Lee Marvin plays one of the nastiest roles of his career. A must see for fans of film noir, Fritz Lang fans and anyone who likes a good crime story.

 

Sneakers (1992)

Sneakers (1992)

Opening Statement

 

There isn’t a government on this planet that wouldn’t kill us all for that thing.

 

Review

 

The film starts with a flashback to 1969 and a couple of college students hacking bank accounts of important public figures. Marty and Cosmo are just a couple of goofballs having fun draining Richard Nixon’s (among others) bank accounts and transferring the funds to worthy causes such as the National Society to Legalize Marijuana. When Marty takes a break to go on a munchie run, he sees the police rushing in and his friend is arrested.

 

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Got the munchies.

Fast forward to 1992 and Marty is now Martin, with a new last name and a job leading an IT Tiger Team (a group of experts that specialize in testing IT and physical security at businesses.) He is forced into a dangerous game of intrigue after an “FBI agent” threatens to expose his past if he doesn’t steal a remarkable device being developed by a computer scientist.

 

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You know, I almost joined the NSA, but they fount out my parents were married.

The team succeeds in their mission, only to find out that what they have in their hands is political dynamite. The box they’ve retrieved is a secret weapon from the spy world that every intelligence agency in the world would kill to possess.

 

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The item.

Martin and his team soon finds themselves on the run and rapidly running out of time as assassins and government agents pursue them and the box. All the while, the various parties are being manipulated by a shadowy figure with an agenda of his own.

 

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The stakes get higher.

Sneakers is one of a genre of film that was popular in the 80s and 90s during the personal computer revolution. This genre could be loosely called hacker films, although most are as much about espionage and political maneuvering as they are computers. An early example is War Games, which Sneakers strongly resembles in tone. This isn’t an accident since they share the same script writer Lawrence Lasker.

 

The cast is a spectacular list of who’s who of Hollywood. Robert Redford, Dan Ackroyd, Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley and River Phoenix to name a few. The very smartly written script uses their talents to full advantage. The band of happy hackers are just about the most dysfunctional bunch of counterculture troublemakers you could imagine. Martin (Redford) is a competent team leader who hides some crippling self-doubt and guilt behind a mask of quiet competence.

 

Ackroyd’s character is just what you would imagine, a conspiracy loving, troublemaking crank who loves provoking his straight laced ex-CIA teammate (Poitier).

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Are you actually saying you think the CIA caused that earthquake?

 

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Well, I can’t prove it… But

While some may think that the characters are way too weird to be realistic. I can say that having been in IT for many years, most of these clowns aren’t too far off the mark. They resemble many of the old breed of programmers and engineers who built the modern computer age. Just with the major quirks dialed to 11. Highly intelligent, motivated and famously hostile to most forms of authority.

 

Compared to other “hacker” films of the era, Sneakers is a much smarter beast. While not everything shown is 100% correct, the film goes further than others in showing what 1992 era corporate espionage would look like. Bypassing alarms, hacking computers, physical breaking and entering and social engineering are all demonstrated in a plausible way.

 

The film has a very bleak, often tragic tone and shows a strong distrust of authority. This tone is softened somewhat by the camaraderie and humor among Martin’s team. While they fight like a dysfunctional family, they also trust each other and work spectacularly as a team.

 

Many of the questions raised in the film are still relevant today. Whether or not privacy still exists in the computer age, is the government holding dangerous secrets and how far does the corruption go in Washington are all questions raised by this fascinating film.
Verdict 3.5 gavels out of 5 Fans of caper films and Le Carre spy novels will find a lot to like in this clever thriller. Sneakers has just enough humor and very distinctive characters to balance out the darker elements. Come for the corporate espionage, stay for well written script and terrific characters.