The Good & The Bad: Stranger Things

I’ve decided that, for any TV reviews (and maybe old films) I’ll do it a bit differently to Film Reviews.

For one, there’ll be spoilers.  Otherwise I’ll tie myself in knots trying to describe a show without spoiling it.  I’m also going to try a different format for these: if it works or doesn’t let me know!

So, using series 1 of Stranger Things as a starting point, here we go:


THE GOOD

That title sequence:   The creepy, synth-y score, the Stranger Things logo in the Stephen King-style font, the fact it looks like it’s been recorded on a worn VHS; it all set the tone perfectly.

The kids:  The five main kid characters (including Will) were great.  You completely believed in their friendship and they all brought something different to the dynamic.  Millie Brown was excellent as wide-eyed Eleven too.

Winona Ryder and David Harbour:  Both of their characters – the grieving mother and the police chief with issues – were pretty stock roles, but they not only avoided becoming irritating cliches, you were still rooting for them at the end.

It was (a bit) scary:  It wasn’t an out-and-out horror by any means, but it was pretty effective at ramping up the tension.  And there were a few jump-scares too;  mainly the scene where Nancy and Jonathan hunt the monster in the woods.

Steve:  Steve (Joe Keery) was a bit of a prat, but I actually liked his arc.  I was expecting him to go from ‘uncaring jock boyfriend’ to ‘full-on baddie’ by the end of the series.  He skirted close to it, but pulled himself back, ultimately helping Nancy and Jonathan to fend off the monster.

The Nostalgia Factor:  I know some people have had an issue with this – and I have a wider complaint about certain films feeling like Nostalgia-thons – but I liked it here.  Maybe (probably) because it’s referencing a bunch of things I like: 80’s horror films and the collected works of Stephen King.


THE BAD

The Monster:  It actually looked fine in the shadows – and was pretty effective there – but up close in the final episode it betrayed the relatively low budget of the series.

Dr. Brenner:  Again, a caveat to this being that Matthew Modine did a good job with what he had.  But his character was pretty one note (he’s just bad).  His relationship to the Upside-Down was a bit unclear too.  He didn’t know about the monsters initially?  And how did it work with Eleven hearing Cold War secrets?

Nancy and Jonathan:  Their flourishing romance was believable-ish.  I understood it on his part, but I wasn’t entirely sold on her feelings. They were obviously brought together by a tense situation, but he did photograph her, semi-naked, from the trees.  She’s obviously more willing to accept creepy behaviour than I am.

The decision to use the same cast/story for season 2:  Everyone I’ve spoken to disagrees, but I wish they’d just wrapped up this story in one series.   Up until the last episode – which left things annoyingly unresolved – it felt completely comfortable as a standalone series, True Detective-style.

The last episode left threads open for Will, Eleven, Dr. Brenner and the teenage love triangle, but it could have resolved all of these.  I was willing to accept Eleven dying to save her friends (or surviving, if they’d preferred a happier ending) and left Will’s link to the Upside Down as a dark coda.  They could have dealt with some of Dr. Brenner’s backstory in earlier episodes and, meh, who cares about the love triangle?

We could have had a new set of characters, in a new place, riffing on yet more 80’s horror nostalgia under the Stranger Things banner.  Instead, we’ll go back to the Upside Down to save someone.  Again.


SUMMARY:

Overall, it was excellent. A really enjoyable nostalgia-fest that didn’t overstay its welcome.  I just wished they’d called it quits there.

 

 

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Review: Hunt for theWilderpeople

 

There’s been a buzz about Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople for a while.  I heard the Empire podcast waxing lyrical about it a few months back, but it’s been receiving acclaim since its appearance at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

I’m pleased to report then, that’s it’s worthy of all the praise.

The film – a buddy adventure starring Sam Neill as irascible curmudgeon, Hec, and Julian Dennison as young tearaway, Ricky – is warm, funny and really entertaining.

The story revolves around Ricky, an orphan who’s been sent to live with new foster parents, Hec and Bella (a brilliant Rima Te Wiata), in the spectacular New Zealand bush.  After a series of events which I’ll not spoil here, Ricky and Hec find themselves both lost in the bush and at the centre of a national manhunt.

Like all good buddy movies, the central relationship is frosty at first; Hec irritated by the teenager and Ricky suspicious of the grumpy older man.  While the path to the pair’s eventual mutual affection follows well-trodden beats, the jaunty script and the performances from Neill and Dennison mean you don’t care.

The highest praise I can give Neill is that he so fully inhabits Herc and his foibles that you forgot it’s him.  Dennison, meanwhile, manages to straddle the line between irritating teenager and loveable scamp perfectly.  It’s not just in his line delivery either; like plenty of good comic actors before him he rings laughs and emotion solely out of facial expressions.

Wiatiti’s next film sees a massive step-up in scale as takes on the third in Marvel’s Thor franchise.  On paper, the decision to give a huge tent-pole movie to a director used to relatively low budget, very New Zealand films, seems an unusual one, but Waititi looks increasingly assured behind the camera.  While his previous film, vampire comedy What We Do In the Shadows, was a break-out hit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a more confident outing. The opening 30 minutes are handled perfectly and he manages to balance comedy and pathos expertly throughout.

There are some flaws with the film.  Once Hec and Ricky’s relationship has shifted from hostility to something approaching love, the film doesn’t seem entirely sure where to go and, for a while, becomes a bit repetitious.

Unlike the main characters, the Child Protection Officer (Rachel House) was also rather one-note and played entirely for laughs*.

In fairness, she has a number of funny moments (especially a line about The Terminator) but she jarred slightly against Hec and Ricky’s more rounded characterisation.

Having re-watched What We Do In the Shadows recently, I felt it sagged slightly in the middle – the laughs were harder to come by than in the rest of the film. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople though, the jokes fall often and naturally and, even when the plot seemed stuck in a rut, its humour – and it’s heart – remained a constant.

Rating: 4/5

 

*it was my pal, JG, that rightly pointed this out.

Review: Hell or High Water

hell-or-high-waterOh, I know what it’s like.  You’re reading someone’s new blog. You don’t know the writer.  So, first off, you’re thinking that the writing might be really bad. They might be an idiot.  And then you realise you’ve no idea what their film taste is like either. If they even have any taste.   And the review you’re reading is pretty gushing.  It gives a film 5 stars out of 5.  They call it ‘one of the films of the year’.  And you think, are they right?

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Hell or High Water revolves around two Texan brothers (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) who decide to rob banks in order to they save their oil-producing ranch from being taken by those very same banks.

It’s a smart concept brought to life by a trio of superb performances.

First off, Ben Foster and Chris Pine are completely believable as the brothers; down on their luck, desperate for something to cling to, but fiercely protective of each other.  Ben Foster manages to stay on just-the-right-side of likable as the chaotic, dangerous, Tanner while Chris Pine anchors the film as Toby, the smarter, more cautious of the two. I must admit that I didn’t expect them to impress as much as they did, but they’re terrific, career-best performances.

It’s the job of the third main character in the film, Jeff Bridges’ Sheriff Marcus, to catch the robbers.  Except catching them means ushering in his impending retirement, a situation that’s he’s none-too enthusiastic about. Like the brothers, Marcus is trying to ignore the emptiness just around the corner.  And yet, his interplay with put-upon deputy (Gil Birmingham) helps to lighten the mood throughout; keeping the story from becoming too morose or introspective.

It’s a film that revels in characters generally – from those three beautifully rounded main players to the bit part and cameo roles.  Not only are they all perfectly played, but they all feel authentic, injecting additional energy and pathos to the story.

Of course, the real Big Bad of the film is the banks.  It’s the banks that have their boots on the necks of the Texan working people, and it’s all the working people can do just to save themselves from being crushed underneath.

In the trailer, the message seemed a bit too thickly-laid.  A 90 second clip was swamped with images or dialogue that made the theme of the film a touch too clear.  Thankfully, over the running time of the film the message is sufficiently diluted that it feels important, but not overwhelming.

The film’s soundtrack is another reason why Hell or High Water deserves all five of its stars.  Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score is brooding and melancholic, much like their previous scores for The Road and …Jesse James, and hints at the drama to come as the film draws to a close.

And it’s a genuinely tense last 20 minutes that we watch as the brothers’ plan comes to a climax.  There’s also an unusual – and deliberate – feeling that you don’t want either party – the brothers or the two policeman chasing them – to lose.

After a few months of stolid blockbuster dreck, Hell or High Water is a welcome entry to late-summer’s schedule.  A sharp, often funny, script with tremendous performances and a worthwhile message means this’ll go down as one of the films of the year.

 

Rating:  5*****

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So, you’re reading this review.  And you think to yourself, ‘I should really watch this film and see for myself’.  And then you’ll realise I was right after all.  And maybe you come back here someday.

 

Hello!

Welcome to Fancybadger.net!

The name is, as you’ll probably have figured, absolutely nothing to do with films.  I can’t even remember a film that includes a badger (answers on a postcard…).  Instead, it’s a name from an old site coined by a pal (hello Boardie) and I wanted to keep it going.

In good time you’ll be able to find reviews, features and general thoughts on film and televison by me. It may not all be entirely serious.  At some stage, you might even find a podcast with the aforementioned Boardie, but that might come down to logistics.

You’ll also find some links to articles I’ve written elsewhere.  Mainly, these’ll be links to football pieces I’ve written, so if you enjoy any of this you can find them too.

Right, that’ll do.  Enjoy!

Andy