Season One of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS Perfect Mix of Horror and Nostalgia

0

stranger-things

STRANGER THINGS (2016) premiered on Netflix earlier this year to instant acclaim from critics and audiences alike, which is no surprise since it’s one of the best new shows on television.

It’s one of those rarities of rarities in that its eight episode first season was pretty much perfect.  Nearly everything in this show worked and worked well.  And I say first season because it’s already been renewed for a second season.

STRANGER THINGS takes place in the 1980s, which is the first fun thing about this show. It captures the mood and look of the 80s perfectly, from vintage movie posters like from John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) to the hairstyles, clothing, and sets, from the old style televisions to land line telephones.

The whole thing plays out like a long lost John Carpenter movie.  Even the music score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is reminiscent of Carpenter’s film scores.

There are a ton of other 1980s film references and homages as well. So many in fact I could write an entire column just on its 1980s horror homages alone, from the episode names themselves, like “The Body” a reference to the Stephen King novella, to character names, to other neat touches like having the sheriff’s uniform and his vehicle as well as the deputies’ uniforms being identical to the ones used in JAWS (1975).  Okay, so that one’s a 70s reference.  So, if Sheriff Jim Hopper’s uniform had you thinking of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, there’s a reason for that!

STRANGER THINGS takes place in a small town in the 1980s.  It opens with a man running in panic from some unseen threat inside what looks to be some sort of research or government building.  We hear growls, and the man is snatched away by an invisible presence.

The action switches to four middle school friends.  Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) are playing Dungeons and Dragons in Mike’s basement.  After their game, they bike home.

Alone, Will sees what looks like a monster in the road, and he flees as fast as he can back to his home.  When he gets there, no one is home.  The unseen monster pursues Will into his house.

Later, when Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) come home, they discover that Will is missing.  Joyce goes to their sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and demands that he find her son.  Hopper advises her to take a deep breath, that nothing sinister ever happens in their town, and that he will look for her son. Hopper actually has deep wounds when it comes to children, since his own daughter recently passed away from cancer.

The news of Willl’s disappearance rattles the town.  Friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas decide that they have to be the ones to find their missing friend.  One night in the woods while they are searching for him, they find a mysterious girl who’s about their age wandering in the woods.  She says she is running from some bad men, and so they take her back to Mike’s home, where they hide her in his basement.  Her name is Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), and she also seems to know about Will, as she tells them he is still alive.  More than this, she possesses certain powers which Mike and his friends cannot ignore.

Meanwhile, Joyce receives a strange phone call in which she hears weird cackling sounds, but she’s also convinced she heard her son’s voice on the line. She believes he’s still alive.  Her oldest son Jonathan blames himself for Will’s disappearance, because he wasn’t home that night, and he makes it his mission as well to find his little brother.

And while he initially expected this to be a simple case, the more Sheriff Hopper investigates, the more he realizes that something very sinister and deadly is descending upon his town, especially since the clues lead to a top secret government research base located just outside their town run by a shady scientist Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

There are so many cool things about STRANGER THINGS it’s difficult to know where to start.  If you’re a 1980s horror fan, you can have a field day with the show based on its references to that decade alone.

But aside from that, the story itself is a strong one, and it’s tight.  It fits perfectly within the eight episode season.  There’s no fat on this monster, and there aren’t any dull episodes either.  (Hear that, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD?)  STRANGER THINGS starts out intense and it stays that way, never letting up.  And the intensity actually increases during the final couple of episodes.

The main story of Will’s disappearance works and is the force which drives this series along.  Who isn’t drawn into a story about a missing child?  And then it builds.  What exactly is going on inside that strange government facility?  What is Dr. Brenner up to?  What exactly is that monster that is on the loose and where did it come from?  Where’s Will?  What is up with Eleven?

And the characters and the actors who play them are phenomenal.

When talking about STRANGER THINGS though, you have to start with the kids.  Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike, Gaten Matarazzo who plays Dustin, and Caleb McLaughlin who plays Lucas, are all excellent.  Wolfhard is also going to be starring in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT.  Noah Schnapp who plays Will is also very good.

But the best performance by a child actor in STRANGER THINGS is Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Brown is amazing in this role.  Eleven is the most interesting character in the series, as you don’t know much about her at all at first and the more you learn about her, the more interesting she becomes.  The best part of Brown’s performance is she captures Eleven’s sensitive side.  Her scenes with Mike are tender and innocent.  Of course, she can make an effective bad ass as well when she has to use her powers.

Natalia Dyer is very good as Mike’s older sister Nancy, especially later on as her character becomes more involved in the hunt for the monster.  Likewise, Charlie Heaton is excellent as Will’s older brother Jonathan.    I thought Heaton’s performance was one of the best in the series.  I really enjoyed his scenes later in the season when he teams up with Nancy looking for the monster.

I’ve seen David Harbour in a bunch of movies, from the Daniel Craig Bond flick QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) to this year’s SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I’ve never seen him as good as he was here as Sheriff Jim Hopper, with the possible exception of his chilling portrayal of a sadistic kidnapper in the Liam Neeson movie  A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014).  Harbour was excellent in that movie as well.

But this is a terrific role for Harbour.  He’s perfect as the responsible yet haunted small town sheriff, the man who does his job well in spite of the ongoing pain of his young daughter’s death.  One of the reasons I enjoyed Harbour so much here in STRANGER THINGS compared to other things he’s done is simply because a lot of his previous roles he played weasels and jerks. It was fun to see him play a hero for once.

For me, though, the best performance by far in this show belongs to Winona Ryder as Will’s mom Joyce.  Honestly, I’ve never been much of a Winona Ryder fan.  She blew me away in this show, and for me, this is easily the best thing I’ve seen Ryder do.  She’s flawless as the panicked mother who refuses to believer her son is dead.  She’s terrific to watch in this series.

And Matthew Modine makes for an effective cold-hearted scientist as Dr. Martin Brenner.

The monster here is pretty cool looking too.  It reminded me of the CLOVERFIELD monster’s baby cousin.  And it was just as frightening.

STRANGER THINGS was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, who work under the name The Duffer brothers, and they deserve a lot of credit here.  They also wrote and directed most of the episodes.

I loved STRANGER THINGS from start to finish and can’t wait for Season 2.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Weak Writing Slays Season 2 of DAREDEVIL (2016)

0

daredevil_poster

I absolutely loved Season 1 of the Netflix/Marvel TV show DAREDEVIL.  It was dark, gritty, and had a definite edge to it.  The writing was superb, the characters fleshed out, and it had a helluva villain, Wilson Fisk, masterfully played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who for my money was better than any of the villains seen in the Marvel Superhero movies.

But Season 2— well, simply put, Season 2 was a major disappointment.

Yup, Season 2 of DAREDEVIL fell short on so many fronts.

We can start with the absence of Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio).  Both the character and D’Onofrio’s performance were clearly my favorite parts of Season 1.  With Fisk caught at the end of Season 1, it meant there would be a new villain in town.  I hoped the writers would be up to the task of filling the void left by the departure of Fisk.  They were not.

Fisk was such a dominating force in Season 1, the villain who pretty much set the tone for the entire series, and who made the hero Daredevil stronger because of his presence.  In Season 2, there was no such driving force.  The main villains this time around, the shadowy Ninja group known as The Hand, and their leader, the nearly supernatural Nobu, mainly remained in the shadows, their motives barely expressed.

But the lack of a strong villain on its own wouldn’t be enough to sink the entire second season of DAREDEVIL.  There’s more.

Let’s start with the main character himself, Daredevil/aka Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox).  I hate to say it, but simply put, Matt Murdock became a complete bore in Season 2, which is a complete turnaround from the compelling character we met in Season 1.  One of the best things about Murdock in Season 1 was his relationship with his friends Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll).  Nelson is his best friend from law school, and the two practice law together at their own tiny firm.  Karen becomes their secretary, and in Season 1 there was a fun sexual tension between the three of them.

All of that disappeared in Season 2.  Matt becomes distracted with the return of a former lover, the unpredictable and dangerous Elektra (Elodie Yung), and he ends up spending nearly the entire season in an on again/off again relationship with Elektra, while also using most of his energy to help her combat The Hand.  As a result, he blows off Foggy and Karen at nearly every turn, leaving them to spend nearly the entire season reacting to his terrible treatment of them.  It gets so bad that eventually Foggy calls it quits and dissolves the firm.

To make matters even worse, Matt finally acts on his feelings towards Karen, but then does an about face and dumps her for Elektra, which was too bad, because Matt and Karen shared some chemistry.  Matt and Elektra do not.

As such, two of the more enjoyable characters from Season 1, Foggy and Karen, get reduced to being emotional punching bags for Matt Murdock.  Even worse for Karen, once she leaves the firm, she enters a ridiculous storyline where she becomes a reporter and suddenly is a major newspaper writer because she “has a knack for that sort of thing.”  I have a knack for cooking too but you don’t see me suddenly hosting my own TV show on the Food Network.  Writing is hard work, and any story that implies otherwise is difficult to take seriously.

The dialogue in Season 2 also did not help matters.

The philosophical conversations Daredevil had with the Punisher were trite, cliche, and hopelessly dull.  They basically debated over vigilantism, with the Punisher arguing it’s okay to kill while Daredevil would display his halo— is he Daredevil or Dareangel?— and say klling is always wrong.  Daredevil’s stance is admirable— heck, Batman lives by the same creed— but the writing here was so bad, the dialogue so basic it was laughable.

Speaking of the Punisher, Jon Bernthal’s performance as the Punisher was one of the highlights of Season 2, and he got to enjoy a few decent episodes.  But as the season went on, his storyline got pushed into the background, taking a back seat to the Elecktra plot with the Hand. Anwyay, I’m glad he’s getting his own Punisher TV show soon.  I’m looking forward to it.

The other new character, Elektra, I didn’t like as much.  I never warmed up to her.  A big reason why was I enjoyed Matt’s chemistry with Karen more than his chemistry with Elektra.  She was also stuck in a story I didn’t like, the whole plot with the Hand.

What exactly was the Hand up to?  Their motives were never made clear, and the show clearly suffered for it.  There was so much screen time devoted to Matt and Elektra discussing the Hand, and I just didn’t care about any of it.

Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) does show up for a couple of episodes, where he’s in prison and his path crosses with The Punisher’s, in what clearly were the best episodes of Season 2.

Season 1 of DAREDEVIL had a central villain, Wilson Fisk, who had an agenda, and who’s violent antics gave Daredevil a major challenge and a reason for being.  With Fisk gone and without a powerful foe, Daredevil morphed into a far less interesting character in Season 2.

All of these flaws revolve around one central weakness:  inferior writing.  The writing in Season 2 was far less impressive than the high quality writing from Season 1.  The plots were all over the place and hardly ever came together.  The strong trio of Matt, Foggy, and Karen were divided and left weaker and far less interesting.  Newcomer the Punisher was given little to do, and newcomer Elektra failed to impress.

The villains in Season 2, the Hand, were never fully developed, and for most the season, Daredevil was reduced to a whiny pontificating pacifist with a mask and bad taste in women.

Here’s hoping Season 3 will be an improvement.

Wilson Fisk can’t get out prison fast enough!

—END—