REVIEW: “Stranger Things 3”

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With “Stranger Things 3” three things struck me right out of the gate. First, the little town of Hawkins, Indiana is a little bigger than I remembered. Big enough in fact to support a brand spanking new double-decker shopping mall that’s always full of people. Second, I was reminded of just how fast kids grow up. Seeing how the younger cast members have grown in only a year’s time really brought that to light. Third, if their security was half as bad as what we see this season, then it’s no wonder the Soviet Union crumbled.

“Stranger Things 2” ended on a sweet and tender note but with a brief reminder that things in the not-so-small town of Hawkins still isn’t quite right. Season 3 puts even more emphasis on its youngsters. We start out by seeing the relationship between Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Elle (Millie Bobby Brown) intensifying much to the chagrin of her acting father Jim Hopper (David Harbour). Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are still an item. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) returns from summer camp bragging about the perfect girl he met who may or may not really exist. And Will (Noah Schnapp) is left longing for the days of playing games with his buddies.

Elsewhere Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and full-time beau Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) both work at the hyper-chauvinistic local newspaper while Joyce still works in the general store on Main Street which is slowly drying up thanks to the the Starcourt Mall. Steve (Joe Keery) works at an ice cream parlor in the mall with new character Robin (Maya Hawke). And then there’s over-the-top bad boy Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who you could say triggers the story’s supernatural bend.

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“Stranger Things 3” sees the series take a noticeable shift. Show creators and overseers the Duffer brothers return and you can instantly see them moving away from their early roots. Season 1 was a near flawless eight episodes that steadily built tension while growing its characters and adding just the right amount of humor. Season 3 goes all-in with the comedy, leaning especially heavily on the tired ‘potty-mouthed kid’ trope. Yes, the horror/sci-fi elements are still there, but as someone who absolutely loved ST1, this felt like a departure.

Don’t get me wrong, the humor can be really funny. Minus the above mentioned annoyance, the kids still have a great chemistry and tons of personality. The showrunners use them to great effect and they continue to be characters we genuinely care about. At the same time, the season is decidedly sillier and not just the comedy itself but certain story beats as well. Take the multi-episode storyline that sees Steve, Dustin, Robin, and Erica (Priah Ferguson) investigating a possible Russian plot. It starts good but steadily gets more and more preposterous. I’m assuming it is intentional, but it’s hard to tell.

That gets to one of my biggest gripes about “Stranger Things 3” – its inconsistent tone. Maybe its my ingrained preference for movies, but tone management can be a big deal. All too often ST3 bounces back-and-forth between super serious and straight comedy. It makes tension-building needlessly difficult and robs several scenes of any real suspense. Again, Season 1 had its moments of humor and they were injected at just the right times, never subverting the tension and sometimes catching you off guard. I miss that.

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But enough of the negatives. “Stranger Things 3” gets a lot more right than wrong and it starts with the characters. Hopper remains the most entertaining character on the show. This season he’s still the short-tempered, impulsive, bull in a china shop who you can’t help but love. But we also see him attempting to fine-tune his fatherly instincts as well as wrestle with certain feelings the show has hinted at since the first season. And I still find myself drawn to Elle and the emotional tug of her story. The only characters that feel shortchanged is Nancy and Jonathan. Outside of the first episode, their relationship takes no meaningful strides forward.

It’s also worth saying this is the best looking season to date. The effects take a huge step up and they really add to the horror element. It don’t think it’s a spoiler to say there is a pretty grotesque monster that plays a significant role in the story. It’s visualized through some really good CGI and a couple of standout set pieces. And the Duffer bros still know how to capture the 1980s. From the most obvious inclusions to the smallest details, the sheer number of callbacks to the summer of 1985 is astonishing.

ST3 says some interesting things about small town Americana, Cold War paranoia, and the ups and downs of growing up. But ultimately it’s an adolescent comedy built around a science-fiction/ horror premise. That’s not a description that would have originally fit the series, but for better or for worse that’s what “Stranger Things” has become. Regardless, you simply can’t watch Season 3 and not still be attached to these characters and invested in their relationships. I just wish a little more energy was spent on the mystery and suspense; the science-fiction and the conspiracies. In other words, I wish it would get back to its Season 1 roots. But that’s just me.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “Stockholm” (2019)

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“Stockholm” begins by informing us it is “based on an absurd but true story”. Truer words have never been spoken. This off-beat movie from writer-director Robert Budreau is one part heist film, one part black comedy and all parts utter absurdity. I think that’s why I liked it as much as I did.

The film is set in 1973 Stockholm, Sweden and is based on an article written by Daniel Lan for the New Yorker magazine. It tells of a bank heist where the hostages begin to sympathize and side with their captors giving rise to the condition known as Stockholm Syndrome.

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Ethan Hawke adds yet another fresh and fun role to his resumé. He plays a rather doltish American named Lars who we first see arming himself with a submachine gun, a really bad wig, and an even worse jacket. He then moseys into a Stockholm bank for what looks like your prototypical stick-em-up. But we immediately begin noticing Lars isn’t your ordinary robber and he has more things on his mind other than money.

Enter the canny yet hilariously reckless Police Chief Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl) who immediately pulls out the hostage situation playbook. He starts by contacting Lars and getting his list of demands. They include $1 million and for his best friend and former cellmate Gunnar (Mark Strong) to be brought to the bank. Oh, and “a Mustang 302 like Steve McQueen had in Bullit” (actually McQueen drove a 390 V8 Mustang GT but Lars isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer).

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Inside the bank Lars takes a liking to cashier Bianca (Noomi Rapace) and the whole Stockholm Syndrome link is made. But don’t expect the movie to explore that link too deeply. Budreau isn’t that interested in the psychology. Instead he embraces the nuttiness of his story and gives the hilarious Hawke and subtly funny Strong some pretty good material to play around with. Plus, there are a handful of cheeky gags about the police and the media that land really well.

“Stockholm” ends up being a fairly light indie comedy that could probably dig a little deeper into its story and characters but seems perfectly content to just have fun. To be honest, that’s one of the things I like about it. It’s a breezy and often silly heist flick that is completely comfortable with itself. And Ethan Hawke continues his extraordinary run of solid and surprisingly varied performances.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars 

REVIEW: “Stranger Things 2”

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It took a special occasion (vacation), but I temporarily put aside my movies-only mentality and actually watched a popular streaming television series. “Stranger Things” seemed like an obvious choice and it ended up blowing me away with its phenomenal first season. Sure it was episodic like most television, but it played out like a well-constructed movie. So much so that it was easy to review as one continuous whole.

Right out of the gate Season 2 feels much more like a television series. Unlike the previous season, here we get some episodes that are clearly weaker or stronger than others (with one being distinctly bad). That’s a key reason why “Stranger Things 2” lacks the cohesion and steady movie-like flow that made the first season so intensely riveting.

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Now don’t get me wrong, those who are more attuned to the structure of episodic television may not see those gripes as a big deal. But considering how well every episode of Season 1 gelled together, this is a noticeable difference. Even the writing in “Stranger Things 2” lends itself to a small screen style of storytelling. But lets be fair, it’s no easy task building a second season when the first one felt like a completed story in itself.

Things start a lot slower this time around and it takes a couple of episodes for the story to really get going. Show creators the Duffer Brothers return and immediately begin threading together loose ends and setting the foundation for what is to come. Season 1 had a firm centerpiece – the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). This season doesn’t have that tight story focus and spends far more time developing characters and introducing new ones.

Interestingly, some of the main characters from the first season are back-burnered this time around (Finn Wolfhard’s Mike instantly comes to mind). Instead its those formerly in supporting roles that get more attention. Those benefiting most are Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). They are given some much needed depth despite there being some kinks in their storylines. Also Steve (Joe Keery) avoids being the stereotypical bitter ex-boyfriend and grows into a fun and fully-realized character.

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A lot of time is put into building up new characters as well. We’re introduced to the new girl in school Max (Sadie Sink) and her ‘bad boy’ step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery). We know he’s bad news because he smokes cigarettes, listens to hair metal, and constantly peels the tires of his Camaro. Max is a fun addition but Billy comes across as a weirdly out-of-sync caricature.

A new character who manages to avoid caricature is Sean Astin’s Bob, the boyfriend of Joyce (Winona Ryder). He’s a bit of a goof but an earnest one. At first he seems like an easy character to pigeonhole but the writing mixed with Astin’s warmth subverts our expectations. You can’t help but like the guy. Paul Reiser (who is no stranger to science-fiction) is a nice fit playing the new head of the Hawkins Laboratory.

David Harbour as Chief Hopper was a true strength of the first season. He’s still really good here, but his character arc isn’t nearly as compelling and he’s often relegated to a background player. Even Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who was a linchpin of ST1 and still very relevant here, disappears for huge chunks of the season. These aren’t critical flaws but still disappointing.

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It’s a good thing when a show invests time to grow its characters and the relationships between them. However in “Strangers Things 2” there is a negative effect. The narrative itself lacks the depth of the first season and you could say it retreads some of the same ground. Instead of rescuing Will from the Upside-Down, here it’s from a sinister supernatural virus. And the similarities to the X-Files mythology (government cover-ups, secret experiments, etc.) which I loved so much is ST1 pretty much vanish in Season 2.

Yet despite all of that the Duffer Brothers, along with their team of writing and directing collaborators, still manage to get their hooks in you and pull you into their ever-interesting sci-fi world. We still get so many wonderful 80s references scattered throughout which are tons of fun to discover and which add a thick layer of realism to the timeline. And once again we get to spend time with these characters who ST1 introduced so well. It all makes for a good follow-up season that may not live up to enormous strengths of the first, but does enough to keep us interested and excited for what comes next.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Stranger Things” Season 1

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Recently I spent a week with my family at a beach condo on the Gulf of Mexico. It was a time full of laughs, fun, and plenty of beach bumming. But something unexpected and extraordinary happened during our trip. I actually watched the first season of the much talked about “Stranger Things”.

To be clear, I didn’t watch it because of any built-up excitement or anticipation. I started watching it simply because I had heard so much about the series and it felt like I was missing out on what could be considered a television phenomenon. Oh, and our condo happened to have Netflix on its big screen TV so that made the decision even easier.

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This probably comes as no surprise, but I’m not a television guy. I only write about movies therefore this review will have a movie-like form. But with “Stranger Things” that actually works better that an episode-by-episode breakdown. Yes, Season 1 is broken into chapters with each picking up right where the previous one left off. But all eight chapters/episodes work beautifully as one cohesive whole (very movie-like).

“Stranger Things” is the brainchild of twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer. They not only conceived the story but wrote the first two chapters of Season 1 and directed all but two. Set in 1983, their series takes place in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. The story is launched by the mysterious disappearance of a young boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). We’re introduced to a host of well-developed characters who are unknowingly being drawn towards the strange circumstances surrounding his disappearance.

First among the characters is Will’s mother Joyce played by an exceptional Winona Ryder. Folks around town think she’s snapping under the weight of grief. Even her older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) doesn’t buy into her insistence that Will is trying to communicate with her through supernatural means. Will’s three best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin) set out to do their own search and in the process encounter a special young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) who is on the run from some pretty bad people.

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Perhaps the most fascinating character is Police Chief Jim Hopper (a superb David Harbour). He’s leading the official investigation despite carrying some pretty heavy baggage of his own. His personal life may be a mess, but he knows how to work a case and what he discovers goes far beyond one missing child. Watching Harbour really dig into this character is one of the season’s biggest strengths.

Several other characters have meaningful roles. Natalia Dyer plays Mike’s older sister Nancy and Joe Keery plays Nancy’s new flame Steve. Their story starts as a fairly familiar teen drama but quickly goes in a much different direction. And Matthew Modine plays Martin Brenner, a scientist with Hawkins Laboratory. Little is known about him or the shadowy operation he’s running just outside of town.

When watching “Stranger Things” so many comparisons immediately come to mind. Perhaps the most satisfying is classic Steven Spielberg meets Chris Carter’s “The X-Files”. You see the influences of Spielberg’s “E.T.” and “Close Encounters”; Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and Stephen King just for starters. And I especially love the cool X-Files vibe. Clandestine experiments, deep cover-ups, government conspiracies – it’s all there.

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And of course, how can I not mention something the show is perhaps best known for – the countless 80s pop culture references. My teen years ran through that decade so spotting them is a lot of fun. But they aren’t just added for nostalgia alone. They really do help create a convincing setting for the Duffer brothers and company to play in. And sometimes they play directly into the story. Take Cold War paranoia, something very real during the 80s and cleverly woven into the plot.

“Stranger Things” is a fascinating stew that juggles numerous genres and influences. Yet it all comes together to form an enthralling eight-episode television season that plays like one well-paced and impressively conceived movie. It does a great job of introducing and developing characters while featuring several stand-out performances (Harbour, Brown, and Ryder specifically). And perhaps best of all, it builds real excitement for Season 2, even for a ‘strictly movies’ guy like me. I consider that to be the highest praise!

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Spider-Man: Far From Home”

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Remember back when Peter Parker was a ‘friendly neighborhood Spider-Man’? His stories were intimate, personal and tied to his New York City roots. Despite their faults, the two previous series captured that element of the character very well. The MCU has taken Spidey in a different direction. They are much more interested in Spider-Man the Avenger and connecting him to their sprawling cinematic universe. I kinda miss the old days.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” saw the MCU rewrite many of Peter Parker’s most defining story arcs in order to both “modernize” the character and firmly tie him into their ever-expanding, multi-billion dollar cash cow. His second solo film “Far From Home” doesn’t exactly change course, but it does do several things that makes it a much better and more satisfying installment.

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First, while it certainly doesn’t dramatically change Spidey (played by Tom Holland), the film stresses his desire to be a ‘friendly neighborhood Spider-Man’. In his first MCU movies we saw Peter Parker caught up in the excitement and allure of being an Avenger. The events of “Avengers: Endgame” have clearly changed his perspective and he struggles with his desire to be a kid again versus the responsibilities of being an Avenger.

Another welcomed change comes in the handling of some of the side characters. Tops on the list is MJ played by Zendaya. In “Homecoming” every second of her screen time was spent selling her as a rebellious, eccentric loner with few discernible human qualities. “Far From Home” strikes a much-needed balance with the character. MJ still stands out among her classmates, but she’s given more layers and is finally allowed to emote. The same with Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). He’s still there to add humor, but this film makes him feel like more than simply comic relief.

I credit many of these changes (rightly or wrongly) to a more compact and focused writing team. “Homecoming” had six writing credits while this film sticks with two – Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. Along with returning director John Watts, they are tasked with wrapping up one MCU phase and kicking off another while also expanding Peter Parker’s story. The results are pretty impressive.

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The story sees Peter trying to put the events of “Endgame” behind him by going on a class trip to Europe. No Spider-Man, no Avengers. Just a getaway to spend time with his friends and finally tell MJ how he feels about her. Easier said than done. While in Venice, Italy a huge water monster attacks the city but is fought off by the mysterious, super-powered Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal).

To complicate matters Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up. He and Beck (aka Mysterio) tell Peter that the water monster was one of four Elementals. The most dangerous (Fire) is projected to attack Prague and they need Spider-Man to help defeat it. Peter declines but Fury has a knack for getting his way. This obviously puts a damper on Peter’s desire for a life of normalcy especially when he finds out there is more to the Elementals than meets the eye.

Just as before Tom Holland proves to be the ideal choice to play Peter Parker/Spider-Man. His look, demeanor, earnestness, and naïveté all fit well with the character. It has always been the writing that has either helped or hurt him. Here (aside from a few small residual gripes) the writing and Holland click from the very start.

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Back to the supporting side, Gyllenhaal is very good in what is a much different spin on Mysterio’s story. Jackson can do Nick Fury in his sleep. Jon Favreau returns as Happy Hogan and gets several fun scenes. The one remaining sour note for me is Marisa Tomei. Again, it’s no fault of the performance but the writing. Give me Aunt May over Sexy May any day.

“Far From Home” was a nice surprise and a welcomed step up from the previous Spider-Man film. It’s a breezy, light-hearted and fun MCU installment that adds depth to Peter Parker’s world while setting things up for an interesting third film (whatever you do, stay for both end-credits scenes). It may not completely cure all of my ills with the MCU’s changes to Spider-Man’s story, it certainly excites me for where things are at and where they are heading.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Sisters Brothers”

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A western starring Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed is an automatic attention-getter. It’s impossible to look at that particular cast and expect a traditional genre piece. “The Sisters Brothers” certainly doesn’t shy away from its western roots. At the same time it can hardly be called conventional.

Phoenix and Reilly play the title siblings, Charlie and Eli Sisters. They’re hired by a wealthy and crooked businessman known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer) to kill a man named Hermann Warm (Ahmed). It’s believed Warm stole from the Commodore but in reality he possesses a secret formula worth a fortune. The brothers discover the Commodore has hired a tracker named John Morris (Gyllenhaal) who is tasked with locating Warm and then rendezvousing with the brothers.

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Director Jacques Audiard and his co-writer Thomas Bidegain give us a story of McGuffins, quick twists, and shifting allegiances. The tone of the movie changes as often as the loyalties between characters (and that’s saying something), so much so it can be a little disorienting. It definitely aims at being a dark comedy and it sports a handful of genuine laughs. But the seriousness of some scenes can make it all tough to figure out.

The performances never miss a step. Phoenix and Reilly have a weird and off-beat chemistry that works really well within this unorthodox story. Both are remarkably versatile actors which proves to be a strength. But I found myself drawn most towards Gyllenhaal who is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. He brings a sophistication and mystery to his character which makes him stand out.

“The Sisters Brothers” Audiard’s non-traditional foray into the Wild West. He nails the 1800’s Gold Rush setting. Despite its shaky tone some of the humor lands really well. And it’s a lot of fun watching such an eclectic cast bite into this fascinating assortment of characters. The story doesn’t play out in the most satisfying way, but it still manages to add a unique and welcomed look into the western genre.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars