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

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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

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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

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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

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REVIEW: “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith”

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When it comes to the prequels Star Wars mastermind George Lucas certainly saved his best for last. “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” is a fabulous final chapter to the sequels and a movie that stands firm on its own individual merits. Rewatching it I was reminded of just how much I enjoyed it not only during its initial release, but during every subsequent viewing.

Episode III begins three years into the Clone Wars. The opening sequence is an eye-popping rescue attempt in the atmosphere above Coruscant. Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has been captured by General Grievous, the commander of the Seperatist’s droid army. Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) lead the successful rescue but fail to capture Grievous. It’s an exhilarating way to start the film full of action, stunning visuals, and some meaningful story nuggets. It also gets in some genuinely funny humor before the inevitable darker turn.

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 Lucas moves things along at a much faster pace than the previous two films mainly because he has a lot of ground to cover. Obi-Wan sets out to track down Grievous with hopes that his capture would end the war. Palpatine continues his quest for power through the manipulation of politics and war. But the Chancellor’s biggest target is Anakin who he secretly works to sway to the dark side. Anakin and Padme (Natalie Portman) continue to hide their marriage which proves tougher after Padme reveals she is pregnant.

The sheer number of dangling story threads is pretty daunting but Lucas ties them up nicely and his management of both narrative and tone is superb. He keeps his focus and doesn’t wander off into needless side-stories. The movie stays centered on Anakin and those closest to him – Padme and Obi-Wan on one side, Palpatine on the other. We already know Anakin becomes Darth Vader and Lucas chronicles His turn in a powerful and often heart-breaking way.

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That doesn’t mean other key characters and plot points are overlooked. Yoda (so perfectly voiced by the great Frank Oz) gets some big moments as does Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu. Lucas answers questions concerning the Jedi Order, the Trade Federation, and of course a few bigger ones that directly connect to Episode IV. As a long time fan of the original three Star Wars pictures it’s pretty amazing to watch these two trilogies connect in such a satisfying way.

Several things take a step up from the previous film, most importantly the performances from Christensen and Portman. Christensen takes a huge step up which is impressive considering he is given much trickier material to work with. The range of emotions and the level of character transformation isn’t easy to pull off but he does a nice job. You’ll cringe at a couple of line deliveries but as a whole its a solid performance. Same with Portman who just feels more comfortable with her Character. McGregor is outstanding as is the conniving McDiarmid).

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 Even visually Episode III seems more focused. The special effects are simply stunning but we get none of those shallow sequences that feel like nothing more than a CGI showcase. Here everything serves the story, the environments, and the atmosphere. And of course you have John Williams. The man is a musical genius and has 51 Academy Award nominations to his credit. Star Wars fans know him best as his music has played pivotal roles in the storytelling for every Star Wars film (minus “Rogue One”). Episode III features some of his best work especially in the darker second half.

In case you can’t tell I still love “Revenge of the Sith” and that enthusiasm was only strengthened with this rewatch. It’s a fantastic conclusion to the prequels and a satisfying segue to the classic original films. It all but wipes away concerns for the previous episodes especially when watching them in succession and viewing them all as one 415-minute whole. They most definitely have a place in the Star Wars universe.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Star Wars: Episode II – “Attack of the Clones”

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For many the second film in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy holds a rather unflattering honor. More than a few consider it to be the worst movie in the entire franchise. As someone who truly loves the series to varying degrees, it’s hard for me to christen any of the films with such a title. But that doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to its flaws.

“Star Wars: Episode II – “Attack of the Clones” does hold a particularly surprising movie record for me. I saw it six times in the theater, more than any other film. Overkill? Perhaps. Star Wars fandom run amuck? Most definitely. I’ve seen it a few times since then but this recent rewatch was the first time in several years.

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“Attack of the Clones” takes place ten years after the events of “The Phantom Menace”. Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his apprentice Anakin Skywalker (now played by Hayden Christensen) are summoned to protect Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) after she narrowly escapes an assassination attempt. The former Queen of Naboo and now Senator holds a key vote in the decision whether or not to create an army to fight a growing Separatist movement.

For me one of Episode II’s biggest attractions (and often overlooked strengths) is in how it draws from numerous classic movie genres. It’s very much a political drama. But there is also a mystery element to it as Obi-Wan sets out to investigate and track down Padme’s potential assassin. We get winks to old-school fantasy pictures in the vein of “Sinbad” and “Clash of the Titans”. And of course the influence of war films, particularly World War II documentary footage, is clearly seen in the final act.

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I also think the writing deserves more credit than it receives (at least a portion of it). For me it’s a tale of two parts – the story and the dialogue. Lucas and co-writer Jonathan Halles give us a well-conceived story with tons of depth that moves the overall narrative forward in a satisfying way. I remain impressed with its numerous threads, none better that puppet-master Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and his secret, multi-layered quest for power.

But then there is the dialogue which ranges from good to atrocious. There are times in Episode II where the dialogue is painfully bad. We see it in a handful attempts at humor but mostly its in some of the film’s heavier scenes. Accentuating the problem is the fact that a couple of the performers haven’t the chops to overcome it. Christensen’s performance is all over the map. There are scenes where he is really good, but others he simply can’t sell and Lucas’ dialogue doesn’t help a bit. Portman is a little better but not much.

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Visually you can see Lucas and company flexing the new technology available to them in a variety of ways. There are a couple of scenes that feel like nothing more than showcases for the special effects – an overly long care chase through the city planet of Coruscant, a battle in a Geonosian droid factory. But the CGI can also look extraordinary and it often adds a ton to the settings and action sequences. The clone army battlefield scene is nothing short of spectacular.

Fans of Star Wars have some legitimate gripes about Episode II, but overall I think they often undervalue its contributions to the franchise. It advances the stories of its three pivotal characters in meaningful ways. It’s a technical marvel despite some visual overindulgences. Plus it supplied the framework for what was a fantastic television series “The Clone Wars”. Those are just a few of the key reasons Episode II still works for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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