TV Review: Stranger Things (2017)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 9
Summary/Review:

When Stranger Things appeared on Netflix seemingly out of nowhere last year, it was the surprise hit of the summer.  Stranger Things 2 came with huge expectations, and I’m happy to see mostly lives up to them.

The strengths of Stranger Things is that it uses the tropes of horror and suspense films to explore issues like trauma, grief, friendship, and facing mortality.  The multi-episode set-up also allows it to delve into developing characters more than the films it emulates.  Plus, it has a terrific cast, especially the youngest actors, who continue to impress.

The nine episodes of the second season easily split into three sections.  Episodes 1-3 feel very much a continuation of the first season with the characters still dealing with the after effects of what happened a year earlier.  Episodes 3-6 raise the stakes, both with the growing threat of the Shadow Monster and Eleven discovering her own past.  Episodes 7-9 really take a left turn from anything we’ve come to expect from Stranger Things, most especially in the controversial episode 7 “The Lost Sister” which features only Eleven/Jane from the regular cast as she visits Chicago to meet up with a gang led by another young woman with powers from the Hawkins Lab.  I’m glad the Duffer Brothers decided to experiment and push the limits of the show, although I also have some problems with the episodes that I’ll go into later.

The second season introduces several new characters.  Bob Newby is Joyce’s nerdy new boyfriend played by Sean Astin, which is a direct tie to one of the 1980s movies that influenced this show, The Goonies.   I never saw that movie, but I thought that Bob had a lot in common with another Astin character, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, in the way that both Bob and Sam loyally help out the best they can and show surprising bravery even when they don’t know what’s going on around them.  Bob is a charming character and a great addition to the show.  Paul Reiser, known for his duplicitous character in Aliens, plays the Dr. Sam Owens who has taken over leading the Hawkins Lab.  It was an interesting decision to have Hopper, Joyce, & Will forming an uneasy détente, and Owens lends a funny, more compassionate face to the lab, but since he’s played by Reiser, you trust him anyway.  Finally, there are the step siblings Max and Billy, played by Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery.  Max is a new addition to our party of nerdy middle schoolers, and I thought Sink did a great job with developing Max in limited time.  Billy is the new bully in town, and Montgomery plays him convincingly creepy, but he seems one-note especially for Stranger Things which is usually better at letting characters develop organically.

If there’s one major problem of this series is that all the new characters and multiple plot lines happening at once make the show feel crowded and it works against Stranger Things strengths.  That being said, there was some great development for returning characters as well.  Will was missing for most of Season 1, so it’s a revelation to see that Noah Schapp is just as good an actor as his contemporaries and really sells Will’s fear, confusion, and possession.  It was also great to see Dustin and Lucas develop, really showing that they’re growing up, and getting to see into their homes and meeting their families for the first time.  Steve Harrington, the first season bully, has now fully transitioned from his experiences into a “great babysitter” leading the youngest characters against the demodogs and winning the hearts of Tumblr fans everywhere.

On the downside, Finn Wolfhard’s Mike seems underused this season, although his delivery of the line “It was the best thing I’ve ever done” was the most tearjerking moment of the season.  Similarly, Natalia Dyer’s Nancy and Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan have a subplot that’s okay but just doesn’t seem as interesting as what those characters could be doing.  Then there are some out of character moments. It seems unlikely that a smart kid like Dustin would continue to protect D’art after he knew it was from the Upside Down.  And I don’t think Eleven would be jealous of Max to the point of hurting her.  It would’ve made more sense if she overheard a conversation of how Mike and his friends were still in danger from the Hawkins Lab and that helped prompt her journey of self-discovery.

Which leads us to the final three episodes.  I can understand why people don’t like “The Lost Sister,” although I also understand and appreciate what The Duffer Brothers were doing.  It was good to take a risk and try to expand what was happening in Hawkins into the larger world as part of Eleven’s story, but for Stranger Things, it was rather trite.  Kali’s gang were a note-perfect recreation of a 1980s movie idea of a punk rock gang, but that was it, there was no effort to develop these people as real characters.  And Eleven’s Yoda-style tutelage under Kali happened so quickly that I can understand why a lot of viewers felt it was unnecessary to happen at all.   The final two episode have a lot happening and it seems that a lot of the dialogue is reduced to the characters providing exposition for the audience.  By this point, Stranger Things has developed their characters enough to coast on plot conveniences, but I thought the way that everyone came together in the conclusion of the first season happened more naturally.

The final moments at the school dance are charming and well-earned, and are built on what this show does best.  While there was some unevenness in the second season, overall I’m pleased, and I’m glad there will be another season.  There’s a lot of stories that can built on in future seasons, especially if they work on Eleven/Jane integrating into everyday society for the first time.  I also have many questions that may or may not be answered.

Previous post: Stranger Things (2016)

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TV Review: Stranger Things (2016)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The hit of the summer is an homage to horror and thrillers of the 1980s, mixing the film aesthetic of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter with Stephen King’s “kids and monsters in Maine” formula transferred to Indiana.  There are also elements of later works like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko (itself a 1980s pastiche), and Broadchurch among others.  Despite the effort to emulate the eighties ethos, Stranger Things is not a remake or a ripoff but a highly original work of its own.  I don’t think a show this sophisticated would be made in the 1980s and the movies of that time would not have the time to develop the characters and the relationships so well.  Movies in the 1980s would also rely on wowing the audience with special effects, but Stranger Things creates suspense by keeping most of the supernatural elements offscreen and in the imagination.

What’s great about Stranger Things is that it has three concurrent plots with different themes.  A 12-year-old, Will Byers, goes missing and his best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas go looking for him to be joined by the mysterious Eleven who has telekinetic powers, learning about friendship and forgiveness.   A teenage story features Will’s brother Jonathon forming an unlikely alliance with Mike’s sister Nancy to hunt down the monster with Nancy’s boyfriend Steve acting as antagonist and sometimes ally.  Finally, the adult story focuses on Will’s mother Joyce and police chief Hopper realizing that  Will’s disappearance is not a typical runaway or abduction case and involves malicious behavior at the government’s Hawkins Lab.

The whole series is 8 episodes of brilliance – great acting, plotting, pacing, and dialogue –  with a few scares thrown in.  It’s worthy of the accolades it’s receiving and I recommend watching it if you haven’t checked it out yet.

Book Reviews: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson


Author: Shirley Jackson
TitleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle
Narrator:  Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010)
Summary/Review:

This mystery/thriller focuses on the survivors of the well-to-do Blackwood family six years after most of the family met their end when a poisoner put arsenic in the sugar for their dessert of berries.  The novel is narrated by the teenager Mary Katherine or “Merricat” who had been sent to her room without dinner the night of the poisoning.  Her Uncle Julian survived the poisoning but is severely disabled.  The other survivor is Merricat’s elder sister Constance who did not take sugar on her berries and was tried and acquitted for the crime but is still seen as the villain in the local community.  Only Merricat ventures outside of the family home to do the shopping and there meets with open derision toward her family from the villagers.  This uneasy life is further disrupted when a cousin named Charles moves into the home in what only Merricat is initially able to recognize as an attempt to gain the Blackwood family fortune.  Merricat is an unreliable narrator and she is convinced that she must protect her home using sympathetic magic while her only “friend” is a cat.  I won’t go into the details of the revelations and incidents that follow but it is a moody and creepy novel balanced with sympathetic portrayals of unusual characters.
Recommended booksThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Rating: ***

Book Review: Closed at Dark by Rob Blackwell


Author:Rob Blackwell
Title: Closed at Dark
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2014
Previously read by same author:

Summary/Review:

This novella by my college friend Rob Blackwell introduces a new series about Soren Chase, a paranormal investigator.  This story combines parental fears of “stranger danger,” urban legends, and supernatural monsters to create an intriguing mystery thriller as Chase tries to figure out who – or what – is trying to abduct his long-time friend’s child.  The characterization is a bit thin, but I expect it will develop as did the characters in Blackwell’s Sanheim Chronicles.  We’ll find out soon when Soren Chase’s first full novel The Forest of Forever is released.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Monster in the Mist by Andrew Mayne


Author: Andrew Mayne
Title: The Monster in the Mist
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ISBN: B0056A295I
Summary/Review:

I got this eBook as a special deal for Kindle on Amazon, not knowing much about it other than it was a mystery set in Boston in 1890 with a steampunk vibe.  April Malone is a young woman whose mysterious job is to tend an office where no one works and take lessons on various esoteric topics.  All of this is preparation for the arrival of the also mysterious man who just goes by the name Smith who emerges from behind a steel door one day and sets the pair on investigating several disappearances of people in Boston.  Smith is reminiscent of The Doctor from Doctor Who (who also sometimes goes by the name Smith) and the relationship of April Malone and Smith owes a debt to Holmes & Watson, but it’s not entirely derivative.  I was won over by the first part of this book, but less enamored with the latter half.  This is because Smith goes off on his own adventure and while ultimately aided by April, I think the book lacks something when not seen from her perspective as well as the interesting chemistry between the two characters.  This book is the first in a series of Chronological Man Adventures, and I hope that in future installments that two leads stay together.

Recommended booksThe Technologists by Matthew Pearl, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch.
Rating: ***

Book Review: A Soul To Steal by Rob Blackwell


Author: Rob Blackwell
Title: 
A Soul To Steal 
Publication Info: 
CreateSpace (2011)
ISBN:
1466381213
Summary/Review:
A couple of disclosures before I begin this review.  First, I know the author as we went to college together and more importantly were both DJ’s at the college radio station, WCWM.  Second, I’ve always been drawn to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” – partly because I grew up 45 minutes from the town in New York (then known as North Tarrytown) and visited frequently – and the Headless Horseman is a prominent feature of Blackwell’s novel.  The story is part crime novel, part thriller, part supernatural and an original amalgam of all the above.  Set in a small town in Virginia, two reporters for a local paper Quinn and Kate have to deal with the return of  serial killer who tormented the town a dozen years earlier.  This would be bad enough but each character has personal demons to face as well, some of which appear in very tangible forms.  There are a few flaws to the book as events transpire and relationships form far too rapidly to be believable.   I also wonder why when Quinn runs a journalist’s writings through software that can help identify the author why he doesn’t do the same with the letters of the serial killer Lord Halloween (other than that the mystery would have been solved a hundred pages earlier).    These flaws can be overlooked though because this book really is a page turner and has moments of being very unsettling and very humorous.   The ending promises a sequel that I forward to reading.

Recommended books: The Dark Half by Stephen King, The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen, and Capitol Hell by Joseph M. Pendal.
Rating: ***1/2