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Month: August 2016

Stranger Things S1E3: Holly Jolly

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Shame Is On The Other Side

One guesses this is the episode in which the creators of the show, The Duffer Brothers, for all the love and hard work they put into their creation, bite more than they can chew. Eighties nostalgia is a lore of its own, whatever questionable could be the urge to revisit it for nearly 8 hours. But the early stage of quote-mania are appearing: why a line of dialogue rechristening the evil lab “Emerald City”? Yes, the bros are Stephen King’s fanboys, and the Maine Master of Horror has used Oz references in his Dark Tower uncontrollably long cycle, mixed with rock n’ roll references to great effect. But what the heck does it do here, what purpose does it serve? Same could be said about a music box scene. But anyway, what happens next?

Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour, definitely very good after a consistent TV career and some appearances in an Oscar vehicle, a James Bond and, well, Suicade Squid) is somehow reviled from the locals since he was a cop in “the big city” (possibly Indianapolis, natch). His investigative competences are more than welcome however, as said locals would be unable to police work themselves out of a wet paper bag. Mind you, the evil lab itself seems pretty sloppy at discretion, as a casual visit to the Hawkins library proves a microfiche treasure trove. Ah, microfiches… They have a B&W negative poetry that a Google search could never pretend to.

A visit to the evil lab only confirms that they are lying through their teeth. Sheriff Hopper is definitely on for a rough ride and progressively acquires focus in a credible way as he realises something very wrong is happening on his watch. If only all characters were that well written. And by that you guess that it is time for our Winona moment.

The least that can be said is that Winona takes her comeback through a popular streaming series seriously. Watching her makes one feels both puzzled and very awkward. One means, what if Marlon Brando appeared now as a YouTuber? Would his talent be recognised or would he be just considered as one more freak? Just asking, is so much Method required in a supernatural series? Just as you think she has reached a climax in devious intensity she comes up with a new level of insanity of such proportion that it makes her desperate attempts to communicate with her missing son not desperate, but deranged. Here she successfully combines Xmas festivity with a oui-ja board, an idea she got talking to lights in a living room cupboard. There is a fair level of inventiveness at work here, and it could have work with another version of the grieving mother; but from her, it feels straight from Planet Schizo.

What else? The three kids have a search party. No, really. Again. This one is even more inept than the two previous ones, considering four kids on three bikes ride as fast as speeding police cars on an emergency. Magic, you know. Once a portal is open, everything becomes magic. That’s how things work. Also, Nancy discovers right after having her cherry popped that the very guys who told girls they are beautiful while making out fall asleep after sex, don’t kiss goodnight and act like jerks afterwards. She nevertheless takes her walk of shame bravely. Ata girl!

One saved the best and worst for last. Best is the opening sequence, Barb meeting the Monster in the Silent Hill version of the pool, a pretty good scene that would have been much better if not intercut with tepid Nancy/Steve making out. But in the credit column, teenage sex coupled with nasty retribution, check. One thing about Silent Hill, though: how comes ashes are flying everywhere but every horizontal surface remains clean? Worst is the final scene, set on a string-driven, tear-jerking, Peter Gabriel rendition of David Bowie’s Heroes, doing so much to convince the viewer that Will is dead that he is, obviously. Until next week, that is.

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Stranger Things S1E2: The Weirdo on Maple Street

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Saving Willy (well trying to)

No hommage to the early 80s would be complete without a reference to A Nightmare on Elm Street, so here’s The Weirdo on Maple Street, aka Eleven, brought home by Mike,the kid who’s not black (Lucas) or handicapped (Dustin). Mike must be older since he’s taller and seems to have a functioning brain, while the two others are catapulted into the farther reaches of horror and disgust when Eleven attempts at disrobing in front of them. Those kids are not half as charming as the writers think they are. Anyway, girl frontal nudity is much much worse than gun violence or alien abduction, this is America, check.

Winona, still off her meds, has a love/hate relationship with her phone, with already two casualties on the AT&T side. Will is calling her from wherever he is (Spielberg’s Poltergeist), and he… breathes and she… recognises his breathing. One cop describes Joyce at being one inch from the edge but man, the woman is way past that point by now. She also drives a Ford Pinto (King’s Cujo), and the kiddies namedrop Michael Myers. Is it one or is it becoming a drinking game on 80s horror quotes?

The search party goes on and on until it finds Will’s bike. At school, Mike’s sister, adorable A-level Nancy, is having the hots for philandering Steve, who invites her to a house party while his parents are away. The party turns nightmare when Barbara, Nancy’s fat sidekick, is attacked ? snatched ? eaten whole ? by the entity after she bled in the pool. A Jaws poster has been shown just before, maybe it would have been more effective to show it afterwards, but irony is not Stranger Things’ strong suit. It feels, in fact, like Scream in earnest, not meta but retro.

The pool party and Barb’s disappearance are witnessed by Will’s elder brother, Jonathan, who for some reason becomes a paparazzo although three minutes before he was taking flash photographs of sticks and leaves in near darkness. No one else sees or hears a thing, since they are all frolicking upstairs. This is not gonna make Sheriff Hopper’s life easier in any way, considering the guy thinks he’s already cursed: nothing ever happens in nice quaint Hawkins and now all hell is breaking loose.

Flashbacks about Eleven kind of uselessly inform viewers that she’s the product of some alien experiment and doesn’t know about human feelings or technology (Spielberg’s E.T.). Lights are flicking (Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind). “Will is that you?”, Winona asks to a lightbulb way brighter than herself. The worse thing is that in spite of all those referential vignettes nothing much happens in this second episode. Will seem to be in a parallel dimension, hiding from the series’ monster. They call it a Demogorgon, one is tempted to rather call it a Demagog.

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Stranger Things S1E1: The Vanishing of Will Buyers

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Have Happened Indeed

Stranger Things almost made it to our Life’s Too Short section because its pilot promises a fan fiction collage of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg with enough Dungeons & Dragons, Tolkien and early 80s pop culture references to give one a severe case of déjà-vu. And in 80s references we include Winona Ryder. But the series has a few things going for it: first, it’s mercifully short with only eight episodes; second, there are much worse references than Stephen & Steven, at the peak of their respective trade; third, for all its implicit boredom, the pilot has a couple of redeeming features. So let’s spend our August hiatus on the series, should we?

 

Stranger Things S1E1: The Vanishing of Will Buyers

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Boys Meet Girl

1983: something has gone wrong in the East wing of an American Department of Energy lab in Hawkins, Indiana. Little do the population know that a dark force has been unleashed and is about to change the course of their life forever. You, yawning on the back, just stop reading and go out, except if you are a Dungeons & Dragons fan, because look, they used the same font for the series’ credit! Also, the series’ title uses the same font than early 80s King’s novels! And that make sense, because in the first scene the four kid group lifted off from The Body (Stand By Me onscreen) are playing D&D, in front of Carpenter’s The Thing poster, no less. But it’s bedtime so they are sent home on their bikes under a stary sky. Does this scene feel familiar? Just wait, there’s more. Plenty more.

So Will Buyers, second son of a broken family, vanishes after being chased by a mysterious entity. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, obviously off her meds) instantly switches to hysteria and go move her hands a lot and shrills at the sheriff that school bullies have threatened her kid because he is special, and called him a fag. “Is he?” calmly asks the sheriff, and here’s a first redeeming point: a few characters are actually likable. Not many, mind, but some.

A search party takes place, whose purpose is not really to find Will but to inform viewers that if the sheriff had a beer, fag and pill breakfast of champions it’s because he’s in denial that his daughter died a few years before. Point taken. Also, the three remaining kids are super high on sugar and decide to go find Will themselves in the most unprepared way possible (King’s The Body, It, Dreamcatcher, etc.).

Meanwhile, meet the villain of the piece, Dr Brenner (Matthew Modine, as vintage as Ryder but looking far less demented). He grimly assesses that the East wing has been redecorated Silent Hill style, including living decay and falling ashes, and that a viscous thingy is developing on a wall. Would that be vintage latex practical effects? That would be a second bonus point. Hearing a lot of Tangerine Dream, real or fake, doesn’t really count though,as analogue synths, real or fake, are everywhere on soundtracks nowadays.

Enter Eleven, a young girl with a buzz cut who had escaped the laboratory (King’s Firestarter) and has some telekinetic powers (King’s Carrie). Millie Bobby Brown is a far better actress than her male counterparts and her scene with the owner of a diner (Chris Sullivan) where she finds refuge and food is the pilot’s best, as they convey a real Stephen King vibe of ordinary, decent people suddenly confronted with inimaginable events. It’s too bad than it stops abruptly while the early 80s synth score switches to Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit (not exactly period-relevant or even clever for indicating a switch in reality) and Toto’s Africa (alas, more so on both accounts).

Eleven runs into the woods and bumps into the three kids’ search party. End of part one. Well. One can understand the appeal of Eightiesiana even though one is unable to feel it. One can recognise the ambition – and no doubt the love – put into the writing of Stranger Things so far. It’s just, you know, it looks and sounds like a Best Of Eighties Supernatural Movies without anything to go for itself. Does the thing (pun intended) has a mind of its own, or is it just mimicking earlier – and not necessarily better, by the way – works? Stay tune, we’ll see!

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