Stranger Things 2

Hold onto your Eggos, my friends! Stranger Things is back!

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Stranger Things 2
Creators: Matt and Ross Duffer
Starring: Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Noah Schnapp, etc.
Music By: Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
Rated TV-14

(Warning: The following assumes you have seen Season 1 of Stranger Things. Spoilers may abound.)

Season 2 of the ridiculously popular Netflix show starts in October of 1984, about a year after the events of the first season. The Byers household is back together again, with Joyce dating a supremely normal guy named Bob, and Will getting some much-needed therapy. The group of kids we followed in the first season have moved on from their traumatic experiences enough to focus on the really important stuff: celebrating Halloween and impressing the new girl at school. But all of them have a few lingering emotional issues, especially Mike and Nancy, who are still mourning their lost friends. As promised by the trailers, Eleven is alive and well after her apparent heroic sacrifice in the season finale, but she’s still in hiding. And it seems that, even after surviving a weeks-long ordeal of hiding from monsters in a terrifying hell dimension, Will Byers still can’t catch a break. He’s having frequent visions of the Upside Down–visions that seem a little too real. Visions that include glimpses of a huge, shadowy presence who seems very interested in the people of Hawkins, Indiana. Visions that are increasingly reflected in the mysterious blight poisoning the town’s crops.

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Dead pumpkins on Halloween are never a good sign.

One of the many retro sci-fi classics that have influenced Stranger Things from the beginning is Alien. It’s where the creators got the idea to have people cocooned and impregnated by a monster in the first season, but the series also seems to have borrowed some of its atmosphere of suspense and dread, along with the idea of giving the audience just a few scant glimpses of the monster until the grand finale. Well, if Season 1 was Alien, Season 2 is Aliens. It’s much bigger in scope, with more monsters, more action, and more Paul Reiser (he plays the scientist who replaces Dr. Brenner at Hawkins Lab). People tend to be split over whether they prefer the creepy, suspenseful horror movie that was Alien, or the full-blown action thriller that was its sequel. I suspect there’ll be a similar rift in opinions regarding this series. The second season is a bit more fast-paced and epic in scope, uses more big-budget effects, and tries some new ideas–like a particularly controversial episode that takes place entirely outside Hawkins. Some people may take issue with the changes in tone and be disappointed with the new season.

But I’m more of an Aliens fan myself, and to me, this second season does everything a good sequel should do. It expands the world of the original, raises the stakes, and moves the characters forward, with better effects thrown in as a bonus.

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Something tells me you’d need more than gasoline and a bat to defeat this thing.

Of course, this season is not perfect, any more than the first one was. The aforementioned controversial outside-Hawkins episode, while necessary to the overall story arc in my opinion, was placed in a rather odd spot considering what happens in the episodes immediately before and after it. And it contains a few annoying characters who I hope we’ll never hear from again. The season also spends more time than I would prefer on the ongoing love triangle between Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan. Outside that annoying subplot, Nancy and Jonathan are given less to do this season than before, which hurts both of their already less-than-strong characters. As for Steve…well, I’ll get to him later. Out of the characters introduced this season, the weakest is probably Max, the girl who moves to Hawkins with her step-brother in the first episode. She gets a few good moments in near the end, and her newcomer status creates some interesting situations with the boys, but for most of the season she seems to be there mainly so the group can have a new token girl.

My other complaints are pretty nit-picky, but they bugged me enough to mention. The larger budget for this season clearly allowed the creators to include more classic ’80s songs…but I think they went a little overboard including them in the soundtrack. I love classic rock as much as the next person, but if you use snippets of five different great songs within the first half hour of the first episode, the impact is greatly lessened. Also, a few other companies must have noticed the sales boost Eggo got from the first season, because the product placement is everywhere this time around. KFC and Three Musketeers candy bars practically get their own mini-commercials. It’s as annoying as it is inevitable.

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“It’s finger lickin’ good.”

Fortunately, all these flaws are overshadowed by the awesomeness of everything else in Season 2. I’m not quite sure where to begin, honestly, because everything about this story is so cool. First of all, the monster is ten times scarier this time around–not because it’s bigger, or scarier-looking, but because of what it can do. An extra-dimensional threat that can pop through your wall at any time is one thing; but an extra-dimensional threat that can send its evil essence to infect your world and your very soul, so gradually that you barely notice until it’s too late, is quite another. The army of mini-monsters it brings with it is just icing. There were hints of a larger supernatural world in the first season, but Season 2 is a straight-up cosmic horror story. My favourite kind!

But the monsters aren’t what make Stranger Things great. Neither is ’80s nostalgia, which is still present in spades this season. The heart of the story has always been about human interactions between the characters in the face of whatever threat they’re dealing with. And boy, does Season 2 give us some great character moments. We get to see a lot of new relationships between characters who didn’t really interact in the first season–like Dustin and Steve, who make a surprisingly awesome duo, and Chief Hopper and Eleven, who form a very touching (though complicated) father-daughter dynamic over the course of the season. And some characters who were a bit out of focus last year get much more development here. The best example is Will, who, despite driving most of the plot in the first season, barely got any screen time. That is more than remedied this season, as he once again drives the plot by becoming an unwilling conduit of the evil entering Hawkins. This means his actor, Noah Schnapp, finally gets to show off his acting chops–and it turns out he’s arguably the most talented in a cast full of amazing child performers. He delivers some of the most terrifying and heart-breaking moments in the season, and he pulls it off with a nuance plenty of adult actors would envy.

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“He likes it cold.”

Then there are the characters we already knew were awesome, but who become more so in Season 2. Steve Harrington, the annoying jock everyone hated at the beginning of the series, has fully graduated to “lovable action hero” status. He’s still flawed, to be sure, but it’s quite clear that he’s working hard to leave his old, irresponsible ways behind. With the help of his trusty nail bat, of course. His is one of the better character arcs I’ve seen in a TV show. Dustin and Lucas are also a bit more in focus this season. We even get to see enough of their home lives to learn that Dustin’s adorableness came from his mom and Lucas’s little sister is a force to be reckoned with. Lucas, whose paranoia sometimes got on my nerves in the first season, becomes much more likable here, and Dustin, the voice of reason last year, makes a few more mistakes this time around. And yet, he remains adorable.

Then there are the new characters we’re introduced to this season. Out of these, the best by far is Bob Newby, Joyce’s new boyfriend. He’s automatically awesome because he’s played by Sam Gamgee, but he becomes even more so after we learn that he’s a lovable dork who makes dad jokes, tries hard to cheer up Will, and shows unexpected bravery and brains in the face of danger, despite not liking scary movies. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Billy, Max’s step-brother, who fills in the “horrible jock we love to hate” slot that was vacated by Steve’s decision to become a decent person. With his hideous mullet, casual racism, and tendency to beat up children for fun, it doesn’t look like he’ll be leaving that spot anytime soon. But with the Hawkins Lab scientists showing a bit less malevolence than they did before, he does an excellent job filling the role of the season’s human villain. Then there’s Kali, the person most responsible for expanding the show’s horizons this season. She may not be the strongest character  Stranger Things has ever produced, but she does play a vital role in Eleven’s development, and I have to admit, I kind of like her style.

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Can’t compete with Punk!Eleven, though. 

All these character arcs and relationships build into a finale that is both epic and very emotionally satisfying. I got pretty choked up a few times in the last episode, both in a happy way and a sad way. My only concern is that I’m not sure how a third season can top this one, especially with most of the loose ends from Season 1 tied up already. But the finale makes it clear the Upside Down still has a few tricks left up its sleeve. Let’s hope the writers do, too.

Until then, at least the two seasons we’ve got are “totally tubular.”

Grade: A

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The Best and Worst of 2016

What a year, right? The main theme of the Internet right now seems to be that 2016 sucked. And most of the movies contributed to, rather than alleviating, the general suckage. But we shouldn’t forget that this year had its bright spots. There were even a few good movies. Here’s a list of my favourites from 2016.

But first, let me list my least favourites.

3. The Jungle Book

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I am morally opposed to live-action remakes of Disney cartoons. Especially when they aren’t really even live-action. Everything in this movie was CGI, except for Mowgli (which actually makes his acting pretty impressive). It was pretty great CGI, to be sure, but it was still incredibly unnecessary, since we already have the cartoon version. And it turned the fun King Louis song into a vaguely disturbing scene with a giant gangster orangutan.

2. Ghostbusters

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It’s not that I hated this movie. I actually found it pretty entertaining. It’s just that it was so forgettable. It’s only been a few months since I saw it, and I’ve already forgotten almost everything about it. There was just nothing special or unique that stood out to me. My feelings about it are a solid “meh.”

  1. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice

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I am still amazed by how terrible this movie was. Like, I knew it wasn’t going to be good, but I thought that a movie starring the two most iconic, beloved superheroes of all time couldn’t help having a few fun moments, even if it was directed by Zack Snyder. But no. It’s not even bad enough to be fun–except for the “Martha” scene. That was gold. I laughed my head off. But everything else was either boring or incredibly obnoxious (lookin’ at you, Lex). Between this and Suicide Squad (which I still haven’t seen, due to not wanting to spend money on it), I think it’s about time DC cut its losses and took a break from making live-action films. They can start again in a few years when they hire some decent writers and directors.

Okay, good movies now!

 

5. Doctor Strange

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It’s weird. It’s fun. It’s got amazing effects. It’s got Benedict Cumberbatch and the Cloak of Levitation (and if I’m being honest, I find those two equally attractive). Most importantly (spoiler alert), the titular hero saves the day by annoying a cosmic being so much it goes away. Plus, everything in the movie has an awesome name, like the Eye of Agamotto. I don’t care if it has all the usual Marvel problems, plus a nasty case of white-washing and a lot of plot ripped from Iron Man. I still love it, and no one can take that away from me.

4. 10 Cloverfield Lane

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John Goodman deserves an Oscar. Actually, with the number of movies he’s been in, I’m amazed he hasn’t won one already. But he definitely deserves one for this movie.

3. Kubo and the Two Strings

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It’s the most beautiful film of the year. The music is beautiful, the animation is ridiculously beautiful, and the story is beautiful. Pixar is spinning swiftly down the drain, but I think Laika is poised to become their successor in the “making amazing animated movies” category.

2. Arrival

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If I were a professional film critic with a degree in Film Studies or something (I’m not), I would probably say this was the best movie of the year. It’s artsy without being pretentious, surprising without being gimmicky, and understated without being boring. It’s full of great performances, great music, and fantastic cinematography. And it has arguably the most intelligent script of any movie in 2016.

  1. Rogue One

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But, because I don’t have any film-related degrees and my taste in movies is anything but sophisticated, this was the 2016 movie dearest to my heart. It was so exciting to see a Star Wars movie on the big screen that actually lived up to its predecessors’ standards. I had never experienced that before, and it was glorious. Besides, we lost Carrie Fisher this week. With the state my emotions are in right now, I would give this movie the top spot even if it were only half as good as it is.

 

TV bonus: Stranger Things

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Everyone’s seen this show by now, so I don’t need to tell you why it’s so great. Except I do need to say that Millie Bobby Brown deserves every acting award ever invented, because that can’t be said often enough.

B0nus bonus: Moon

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This movie didn’t come out this year, but I did watch it for the first time this year. I just wanted to mention it because it’s freaking amazing, and not enough people have seen it. 90 percent of it is two actors (one of whom is never actually seen, because he’s voicing a robot) in a space station on the moon, and it’s the most mind-blowing sci-fi movie you could hope to see. I can’t say anything about the plot, except that there are at least two or three times when I, the viewer, realised I wasn’t watching the movie I expected to be watching. And in this day and age, it’s hard to pull off more than one huge movie surprise that actually works.

See? 2016 wasn’t that bad after all! But let’s hope 2017 is still better. At least in terms of movies. Lord knows we’re going to need some distraction.

Stranger Things

I spent my summer vacation watching all of the latest Netflix show, because why not?

Stranger Things is a sci-fi/horror Netflix original that currently sits at a breezy total of eight episodes. Set in 1983, it opens with something nasty escaping from a secret government research facility near the Midwestern town of Hawkins. Soon after, a young boy named Will Byers disappears from the town. When his three best friends go out looking for him, they find someone else instead: a frightened, nearly bald girl of few words and many mysterious abilities, who only answers to the name Eleven. Meanwhile, Will’s mom is certain he’s alive, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, and starts searching for him in her own unconventional way, with support from the town’s troubled police chief. Will’s older brother Jonathan starts investigating, too. None of them have any idea what they’re getting into.

Lots more money spent on flashlight batteries, for one thing.

The show leans heavily on nostalgia for the “kid adventure” movies that were popular in the ’80s, which means most of those cliches and stock characters make an appearance. We’ve got a gang of bicycle-riding, D&D-playing middle-schoolers, a bunch of bullies, a gaggle of ghastly teens, a convention of clueless parents, a duo of dumb deputies (okay, I’ll stop) and, of course, the ominous Men in Black. The whole thing is so Spielbergian in tone that it’s actually a bit jarring at first to hear a spooky electronic soundtrack instead of something by John Williams (not that I’m complaining–the music is excellent).

But under the surface Stranger Things is entirely its own story, and it’s a good one. It’s suspenseful and, at times, genuinely scary. The mystery unfolds at just the right pace, tying up enough loose ends to bring some closure to the finale, and leaving enough dangling to make sure Season 2 has plenty to work with. While some of the main characters start out looking like cliches, they all undergo lots of development that pays off over the course of the season. It helps that they’re all played by excellent actors, even (especially?) the kids. Will’s mom spends a lot of this season crying or otherwise being hysterical, but she’s got her own kind of toughness that never fails to come out when it counts. His friends (Mike, Dustin and Lucas) sometimes seem a little too unfazed by what’s happening around them, but their loyalty and friendship feels genuine, and it’s the emotional heart of the show. The teenagers are, as aforementioned, ghastly, but even they step up their game when disaster strikes.

She’s sweet when she’s looking at music boxes, but if her nose starts bleeding, RUN.

 

The most memorable character, by far, is Eleven. She utters maybe a few dozen words in all eight episodes, but still manages to be equal parts creepy and vulnerable, innocent and  monstrous. One minute she’s shyly learning about waffles and television with Mike, and the next she’s snapping people’s necks with her mind. I loved her. The police chief, Hopper, is also a wonderful, complex character who gets in a lot of cool action over the course of the show.

The show does have its problems, one of the biggest being its reliance on the “clueless parents” trope that is so common in stories that focus on kids. I can buy a couple of bad parents, even downright stupid parents, but a “perfect suburban housewife” who fails to notice a strange child living in her basement for a week has gone beyond mere stupidity. All the kids, except the missing Will, seem to have parents who don’t care about them at all (I realise this set in the ’80s, when people were less paranoid, but I think even an ’80s mother would be a little worried if her kids were constantly roaming outside town by themselves, at night, right after another child’s disappearance). And none of them ever think to talk to any adult about their investigation, even when it turns life-threatening.

Not even this adult. I mean, come on!

It’s probably worth mentioning that, while 12- to 13-year-olds drive much of the show’s plot, it’s clearly not meant for young children. The monster from the research facility is truly terrifying, people die in pretty gruesome ways both on- and off-screen, and there’s a fair amount of language and sexually suggestive content. E.T. this ain’t, despite the homages.

That being said, it does promote some good values. Friendship and loyalty are major themes. The heroes are people who fight to protect and care for their loved ones, never giving up on them no matter what. The villains, and even just the more unpleasant characters, are those who use other people as tools rather than human beings and are willing to betray them in order to save themselves. Some of the “good guys” don’t treat their friends very well early in the season, but this always comes back to bite them, and the best characters learn their lesson by the end.

Friends have each other’s backs, whether it’s in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign or an actual monster fight.

Overall, I enjoyed Stranger Things. So far I think it would make Spielberg proud–it’s got the same mix of suspense, mystery and fun that I enjoy in his earlier movies. And while the season finale was satisfying in a lot of ways, it left me hungry for more. I’ll definitely be tuning in for Season 2.

Grade: A