TV Review: Stranger Things (Season 2)

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Will (Noah Schnapp) and the gang (Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo) notice something weird for the second time in their hometown in the new season of Stranger Things. (Source: Nerdist)

I had no idea what I was in for before watching the first season of Stranger Things last year. From the very first scene (paying homage to E.T.), I knew I was in for a treat! Each episode did not disappoint. It never ceased to surprise me, make me laugh, scared, and imagining I lived during the Reagan era. I recently rewatched it in preparation for the new season. It was great to see these characters I have known and loved (and loved to hate). With season two, the Duffers continue to bring back what made its previous season a joy.

In 1984, a year after Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) returned from the Upside Down, the town of Hawkins is preparing for Halloween. However, it’s struggling to go back the way things were. Pumpkins are beginning to rot, Will is being picked on at school (“Zombie Boy” is what his classmates call him) and is suffering from post-traumatic stress. He is seeing visions of a giant monster terrorizing the entire town. His condition is worsening every single day. His mom Joyce (Winona Ryder), his older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and the new kid Maxine (Sadie Sink) are with him every step of the way trying to get rid of his condition.

It’s great to see these characters evolve over the course of one season (also continuing to deliver wonderful performances). Officer Hopper (David Harbour) is still dealing with the loss of his only child. He’s trying to do it all over again while protecting Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown)–now with slightly longer hair. Of course, there will be discipline. For Eleven, however, she is wondering all her life who her real parents were. She goes through Hopper’s paper clippings, and goes out of his way to meet her mother (prepare the tissues). Meanwhile, after what she put Will through last time, Joyce will always be there to protect her kids. This time around, Joyce has never experienced Will’s peculiar behavior until his return from the Upside Down.

The most interesting story arc of all is of Nancy (Natalia Dyer). She is grieving the loss of her best friend Barb (a favorite among fans; not to mention social media users using #JusticeforBarb). She and Jonathan decide to take a road trip on whether authorities know where she is. I love their dynamic because they trust in one another–in my opinion, they make better pair than Nancy and Steve (Joe Keery)–and, just like the younger kids, they don’t take shit from anybody.

There are new faces in the new season. Joyce’s new boyfriend Bob (Sean Astin) is a particularly great addition. A techie who works at the RadioShack hopes to be a positive influence on the family, especially Will. There is a great scene where they are talking in the car. Bob understands Will’s situation. He talks to him about standing up to his biggest fear. He explains that he used to have nightmares about this monster as a kid. One night, he tells it to simply “go away”. Then, his nightmares washed away. He’s suggesting to step up and be a man.

The Shadow Monster, inspired by H.P. Lovercraft, is just as eerie as the Demogorgon. The soundtrack features some of the best songs of the time, from Bon Jovi’s “Runaway to The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (also used in the first season where Jonathan reminisces him listening to this song with Will) to Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film”, and the list goes on and on. I would like to have the next season to feature A-ha’s “Take on Me”.

While I enjoy the show, it does drag a bit and the tone shifts during the seventh episode. It doesn’t feel like I’m watching the same show at times. But–the Duffers put things back on track to provide the thrills, pure emotion, and laughs (i.e. Dustin making a new pet gets a chuckle here and there). The finale is some of the craziest fun I’ve ever had. And the very last scene in the episode is nothing short of perfect! I hope the Duffers keep it up in the future.

3.5/4

BONUS!

My Top 5 Favorite Episodes:
1. “Chapter Nine: The Gate”
2. “Chapter Eight: The Mind Flayer”
3. “Chapter Five: Dig Dug”
4. “Chapter One: Madmax”
5. “Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak”

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TV Review: Stranger Things (Season 1)

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Joyce (Winona Ryder) notices something strange in the first season of Stranger Things. (Source: The Verge)

Netflix has produced hundreds of movies and television shows over the past few years. Coining the term “binge-watching”, this is the way of the future for both cinema and television. Stranger Things feels more cinematic than any other show out there. Even so that it would have been a popular film series in the 1980s. Along with producer Shawn Levy, the brother duo, Matt and Ross Duffer, do a wonderful job paying tribute to Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, and ‘80s nostalgia.

Set in November 1983, Hawkins, Indiana, is like your typical little town. Both quiet and mysterious. After returning home from a long day of playing “Dungeons and Dragons” with his friends, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) suddenly goes missing. His mom Joyce (Winona Ryder), older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), police officer Hopper (David Harbour) his three friends–Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and the entire town go on the lookout for Will. Hijinks begin to ensue when the kids encounter a buzzcut girl with telekinesis (Millie Bobby Brown) escaping from the Department of Energy. And she might have the answer on where Will actually is. They learn about an unknown world called the Upside Down.

Like a lot of people, I watched the entire first season in one day when it first came out. While the season consists of eight episodes (each about an hour long), the only problem is it feels relatively short. But–that doesn’t matter. The Duffers don’t waste any time. Stranger Things contains the whole package: it’s visually dazzling, intense, funny, sad, and straight-up nostalgic.

It’s hard not to relate to the kids interacting with another, playing games, riding bikes, and ones who like to go on adventures (easily a downset for the newer generation). I’m impressed this show features some talented child actors. They all act and feel like actual teenagers (not to mention this is Wolfhard’s pre-cursor to It). Millie Bobby Brown is a revelation as Eleven (named after her experiment number)! Although she has few lines of dialogue, she mostly uses her subtle facial expressions. She certainly has a long career ahead of her, especially after the new Godzilla movie coming out in 2019. Hell, I can see her play Elizabeth Taylor in a biopic (with a wig and contact lenses). She is so good!

The adults in the show are also pretty damn memorable. Winona Ryder used to be one of the biggest stars in the 1980s (i.e. Heathers). This is familiar territory for her. She plays the frustrated mother trying to communicate with her young son. She even goes out of her way to buy boxes of Christmas lights, and hang them around the house. Harbour’s Hopper is a complex character dealing with a tragedy of his own. Matthew Modine (Full Metal Jacket) plays sinister antagonist, who is experimenting Eleven.

So far, Stranger Things is one hell of a show! It’s filled with many twists and turns and amusing references to classic ‘80s films. Certainly one of the best shows I’ve ever seen! Bring on, season two!

4/4

BONUS!

My Top 5 Favorite Episodes:
1. “Chapter Three: Holly, Jolly”
2. “Chapter Five: The Flea and the Acrobat”
3. “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”
4. “Chapter Eight: The Upside Down”
5. “Chapter Seven: The Bathtub

Movie Review: The Snowman

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Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is trapped in a series of unfortunate events in The Snowman. (Source: IMDb)

The Snowman, based on Jo Nesbø’s best-selling novel of the same name, has the ingredients of a great thriller. They are: A talented cast, a talented filmmaker (Tomas Alfredson, of Let the Right One In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), edited by a legendary editor (Thelma Schoonmaker, who collaborated with Martin Scorsese for years), and it has an interesting mystery at its core. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer is simple: EVERYTHING!

Michael Fassbender stars as Harry Hole (I later found out it was pronounced “hol-eh”, not the correct English way), a police inspector of the Oslo Crime Squad. He is assigned to investigate a series of murders of women on the first winter’s snow Along with Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), Harry uses his police skills to take down the killer, who keeps threatening him with letters.

Believe it or not, legendary director Martin Scorsese was attached to direct the film at one point until Alfredson took the director’s chair. I love a good mystery, and there is so much potential to be had with The Snowman. But–it doesn’t deny it from being an incoherent mess. One of the main reasons why the movie sucks is that Alfredson stated that a part of the screenplay didn’t make it into the film, causing him to rush production. According to The Playlist, he said, “It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture.”

I did read the book prior to the movie’s release, and I enjoyed it. Comparing the movie to a good book, the film’s mystery hardly makes any lick of sense. None of the characters are interesting and the plot holes are massive.

Fassbender has been in a lot of great movies. Known for playing young Magneto in the X-Men films, a nasty slave owner in 12 Years a Slave (in which he received an Oscar nomination for), and the founder of Apple in Steve Jobs, I have never seen him play a character so dull and cliched. It’s clear from the beginning that he has a drinking problem and is a heavy smoker. The audience barely sees him do any police work that is considered great. With a supporting cast featuring Rebecca Ferguson, J.K. Simmons, Chloe Sevigny, Toby Jones, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, this is a such a wasted opportunity. Val Kilmer earns the strangest-performance-of-the-year award as a police officer whose involvement in the investigation is connected somehow. How can you not crack up at his overdubbed voice?

There is a possibility we will get another adaptation of The Snowman in the future that is worth watching. But–if you want to see a good Scandinavian thriller with a mystery that feels complete, watch either the original Swedish version or David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They are both brutal yet keep you on the edge of your seat. The Snowman is just as entertaining as getting your wisdom teeth removed.

0/4

Movie Review: The Foreigner

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Quan (Jackie Chan) goes on the road for vengeance in The Foreigner. (Source: The Playlist)

How can anyone not love Jackie Chan? The 63-year-old Chinese actor has starred in numerous action comedies and thrillers since the 1970s. Not only can he be really funny, he also can kick a lot of ass. Fresh from receiving a long overdue honorary Oscar this year, Jackie teams up with director Martin Campbell (who directed two of the best James Bond films–Casino Royale and GoldenEye) in a serious action thriller. The Foreigner is as raw as it is intense.

Based on the novel, The Chinaman, Quan (Chan) is a Chinese immigrant living in London as a restaurant owner. One day, he picks up his teenage daughter Fan (Katie Leung) from school so she can pick up a dress. The unthinkable happens when she dies in a terrorist bombing. Serving as a special forces operator in Vietnam, Quan brings back his skills and embarks on a search to find the terrorists. This leads to his encounter with IRA deputy minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), who might hold the clues about who is responsible for the bombing.

The movie might be to Taken, but Campbell takes it to his full advantage. After the disappointing Green Lantern, he returns to familiar territory of British politics. Along with screenwriter David Macroni, he creates a realistic glimpse of the conflict between England and Northern Ireland (which has been going on for centuries).

Chan stars in probably the most complete performance to date. He plays a broken, emotional man, who looks for vengeance after losing the last person he ever loved in his entire life. It’s amazing how Jackie can still perform his own stunts. His choreography in The Foreigner is more military-based than in his other movies. There is enough action to carry through. He and Brosnan play off together extremely well.

While it may have problems with the narrative (especially scenes that feel redundant), its fierce energy and interesting political background make The Foreigner good ol’ Saturday matinee entertainment.

3/4

Movie Review: Victoria and Abdul

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Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazan) of India strike up an unlikely friendship in Victoria and Abdul. (Source: Vogue)

This is not the first time Judi Dench has played Queen Victoria. Her first outing was in 1997’s Mrs. Brown, in which she received her first Oscar nomination. It simply follows a servant helping her recover from her husband’s loss. Twenty years later, she is back as an aging yet wiser version of the Queen in Victoria and Abdul. Stephen Frears (who has been directing for more than 40 years) and screenwriter Lee Hall recreate the “mostly” true story if the Queen’s friendship with Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim. The result is quite disappointing.

Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has held the reign for 63 years. Her Golden Jubilee is coming up. Since India is ruled by Britain, she decides to call upon Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a prison clerk, to participate. He–along with Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar)–arrive in Britain by ship. He eventually develops a beautiful friendship with the Queen. This pisses off her royal family, including her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), to no end. For the Queen, however, this is one of those moments she will never forget.

Dench has been in a lot of movies for a long time. Some of her greatest performances are M in the James Bond films, Lady Catherine in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, and an Irish woman looking for her son in Philomena (also directed by Frears). This is yet another miraculous performance to add in her long repertoire. As Queen Victoria, I just love how she is in control of everything. Nobody can stop her! It’s hard not to laugh or crack a smile when she is being taught by Abdul about his native language and the Qur’an. Their chemistry is so infectious.

While the movie is amusing at best and Danny Cohen’s cinematography is gorgeous (one scene involving having dinner in the hills of Scotland reminded me of The Queen), this movie is underwhelming. The tone shifts all over the place from very funny to very dramatic. The movie only pinpoints who Abdul is. The audience hardly know a lot about their friendship. Believe me, I know you want to Google about the entire story on which the movie is based. Hell, even the texts are rather vague. At the end, Victoria and Abdul feels incomplete. Now–I’m in the mood to watch Mrs. Brown.

2/4

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

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Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is on the search for some answers in Blade Runner 2049. (Source: Vox)

In 1982, Ridley Scott introduced a world unlike any other. From its imaginative sets and thoughtful allegory on life, Blade Runner is one of the best sci-fi films imaginable. It features Harrison Ford playing a quiet hero (as opposed to Indiana Jones or Han Solo) where he must get rid of a group of bioengineered people from the Earth. Since its release, people have been debating whether Deckard is a replicant or not. There’s no real answer to the debate; other than it’s up to the viewer.

Today, Scott returns to his futuristic world as producer, while Denis Villeneuve–whose Arrival has returned to the traditional, thought-provoking science-fiction–is in the director’s chair. Blade Runner 2049 is certainly up his alley!

30 years after the events of Blade Runner, newer replicant models are now becoming a part of society. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) works as the new “blade runner” for the LAPD. He is assigned to take down (or “retire”) older replicants. One day, he sees the remains of an adult replicant and their child. Preventing a possible war against humans and replicants, K begins to investigate the murder, which might connect to Officer Deckard (Harrison Ford), who went missing all these years.

What I love about Villeneuve’s direction is he never wastes anyone’s time relying on mindless action or manipulative emotion. With Blade Runner 2049, it keeps the similar tone and themes of the original while giving a fresh take on the futuristic world. Roger Deakins’ cinematography feels like a painting coming to life. From the 3D holograms to the impressive architecture to the scene where K walks through the ruins of erotic statues, this contains some of the most visually stunning visuals I’ve ever seen (Deakins has a good chance of winning an Oscar).

While the movie can be quite brutal at times, the movie contains the theme of nostalgia. It asks the important question: Are memories artificial memories implanted in our heads? Or is it the exact opposite? As a replicant, this is what K tries to figure out. In one particular scene, he explains his only childhood memory involves getting bullied as he plays with a toy horse.

Gosling is familiar playing characters who can be violent yet have subtle emotions (i.e. Drive). He and Harrison Ford lead a marvelous cast including Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Barkhad Abdi, and Jared Leto. Let’s hope Villeneuve crafts more original sci-fi films in the near future. Not only is Blade Runner 2049 one of the best sequels in recent memory, it surpasses the original by a slight margin.

4/4

Movie Review: Gerald’s Game

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Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) prepare to have some sex in Gerald’s Game. What could possible go wrong? (Source: Phoenix New Times)

Netflix is releasing two Stephen King film adaptations. Gerald’s Game, which came out last Friday, and 1922, which is coming out on the 20th. They both can be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home during this Halloween season.

Recently, I watched the home-invasion thriller Hush, directed by Mike Flanagan (Oculus). I was really impressed what he did with the movie. Featuring minimal dialogue; not to mention a deaf protagonist (different for the horror genre), he never lets up the suspense. Everyone can relate to this movie about having the feeling that somebody maybe watching you. However, in Flanagan’s latest, Gerald’s Game, the main fear is losing someone close, as well as the past.

Jessie (Cara Gugino) and Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) are a middle-aged couple struggling to keep their marriage afloat. They decide to spice things up a bit for the weekend at a lake house in the middle of nowhere. While having sex, Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bedpost. She thinks Gerald has taken things too far. “This is turning into some rape fantasy I never knew you had,” she tells him.

Then, the unthinkable happens. Gerald dies from a heart attack; leaving Jessie still in handcuffs. Spending hours on end yelling for help with any lack of thirst, Jessie begins to hallucinate and have terrible dreams.  She begins to fight for her life.

Since its 1992 publication, Gerald’s Game has been deemed as “unfilmable”. Fast forward to 2017, where anything can be possible. Flanagan simply breaks that barrier, and turns one of King’s least popular books into a disturbing work of art. His bag of tricks come to good use here. For instance, the use of the red filters during Jessie’s shocking flashbacks of her as a little girl anticipating the solar eclipse with her father (Henry Thomas, Elliott from E.T.) over the lake.

Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood are at the top of their game here. Greenwood, an understated actor, has starred in plenty of films for many years, from Racing Stripes to Eight Below to Star Trek to Flight, among others. His turn as Gerald is one of the best of his career. As for Gugino, it’s hard to imagine the physical and emotional pain she had to endure.

While Gerald’s Game is far from perfect (the final act is a little weird), this white-knuckling psychological thriller is what 50 Shades of Grey should have been.

3/4