Stranger Things 3

Better than season 2.  Spoilers I suppose.

Stranger Things is an odd one.  Clearly, it’s an homage to the perception of the 80s, with very little basis on the actual 80s people lived through – so it comes across as super meta (anyone under 30 won’t get most of the references).  It’s also a mix of sci-fi/horror, of which there’s very little in today’s market.  Finally, it’s Netflix’s flagship series now that OITNB is on a downward trend.  That puts a LOT of eyes on it, and I can only assume a fair amount of pressure to deliver.

Season 3 follows the familiar formula – a bad force captures a character, there are bad scientists, Eleven has super powers, threat averted in final episode, cliffhanger.  What Season 3 suffers from is character bloat, or rather character redundancy.  Set in ’85, the kids are now 14/15 and Back to the Future is all the rage.

Let’s talk about the additions first:

  • Alexi – Used entirely for exposition as the portal can’t be closed without the information he provides over multiple episodes.  When the info is transferred, he naturally dies.
  • Murray – Was in season 2, but more as a nutso.  Still eccentric but the only real purpose here is to translate Alexi’s Russian.  Irrelevant otherwise.
  • Karen Wheeler – Mike’s Mom and used to project defeatism and regret.  Her chat with Nancy was tragic.  She does a great job representing “normal”.
  • The Russians – The super stereotypical bad guys, following every trope possible, including the inability to aim their guns.
  • Robin – Steve’s partner in slinging ice cream.  An older, female version of Dustin.  Stand-out this season.
  • Erica – Lucas’ sister realized she’s a nerd.  Audience surrogate for most of the story.

And the regular crew.

  • Eleven – fluent in English, goes through some self-discovery, loses her powers by the end.  Given that 99% of the heavy lifting is done by her powers, there’s no way to continue this series if those aren’t returned.
  • Steve – Honestly, he’s more of the star here than Eleven.  He rolls with every punch and has come miles from his start in Season 1.
  • Dustin – Same ol’ Dustin, though a bit more confidence. Most of the story triggers off his actions.
  • Max – Plays a ton of roles here.  Catalyst for Eleven’s growth, comic relief, voice of reason, Billy’s sister… a really strong role.
  • Lucas – Feels like he’s less present, though also the one who’s matured the most by the end.  His actions in face of fear are impressive.
  • Joyce – The derangement is gone and instead replaced by pure focus.  Sure, the focus was there before, but now it seems more tempered by her experience.
  • Nancy & Jonathan – It’s really frustrating to see kids act smarter than these two, and some seriously poor writing when it comes to their relationship.  Only saved by the fact the 2 actors clearly have good chemistry (and are dating).  I will say that Nancy with a gun is impressive.
  • Hopper – Episode 1 and Episode 8 are good.  Everything in the middle makes him look like a rageaholic.  Hopper’s strength lies in the excess of calmness, with odd bursts of emotion.  This season is the opposite and you lose a lot from it.
  • Billy – Episode 1 is great.  Then he becomes a blank faced bad guy until the last 20 minutes of the season.  His arc makes no sense, and the redemption even less so.  All he needed was a hug?  Really?
  • Mike – Even more useless than Season 2.  He’s the catalyst for many of the other character changes, but does little himself.
  • Will – Bad-guy detector, and only when the bad guys are 20 feet away.

The season splits up most of the crew into 4 teams, and has them join up near the end.  Which for story purposes I get.  The downside is that some storylines are really weak compared to others.  Steve/Dustin/Robin/Erica absolutely shine.  Eleven’s feels like Degrassi High.  Joyce/Hopper is like a bad rom-com.  The less we talk about Nancy/Jonathan the better (which is less about sexism than it is about a child in an adult’s world… which really seems lost on the writers.)

I will point out some scenes that have some great weight.

  • Nancy & Karen’s kitchen chat about chasing dreams.  Karen gave up on hers, and the pathos here helps drive Nancy to commit even more crimes in search of the story (which should be hyper obvious given the past 2 seasons).  If Nancy was smarter, then this would have had a different impact.
  • Hopper’s funhouse battle, as well as the basement battles are more rip-offs than homage to classic 80s action films.  Gregori’s Arnold/Terminator vibe really helps sell it.
  • Steve & Robin’s bathroom chat.  There’s an undercurrent that Stranger Things is just a story concocted from the imagination of the Breakfast Club to fill up time.  This scene really drives that point home.  Every beat here is well earned and dramatically changes the group dynamic forward.
  • Hopper’s letter.  This season is all about the transition from one stage of life to the next.  Seeing the kids understand that they are no longer kids.  The letter shows that Hopper understood that fact, and offered some solid advice.  Sure, overly sentimental, but it’s the Hopper than should have been there across the season as he was in season 2.

Frankly, if Stranger Things ended here, I’d be content.  There’s very little growth left for any of the characters, unless Mike & Will decide to actually do something.  The stakes can only get higher if it threatens more than Hawkins, and it’s hard to imagine anything other than a group of Elevens being purposeful in that situation.  The series needs less characters, and more focus.  There are stakes – since every kid is invincible.

Clearly Netflix needs a Season 4 more than the actual series does.

 

 

I Am Mother

Good but not great.  **SPOILERS**

 

 

There’s a very old sci-fi trope of the twisty story on who’s the bad guy.  The Simpson’s had a super take on this with their Treehouse of Horrors bit on “How to Cook Humans”, taking it to the nth degree, which itself was a riff on the a Twilight Zone episode.

The beats are simple.  An innocuous setup, a set of new data that changes your perspective, another twist, and then so on… until it’s over.  You get this emotional swap of who is actually the bad person in the story, and as the elements are gradually uncovered you come to your own conclusions.  Usually the final step of the story is some sort of ethical commentary.  When these stories are well done, the characters move the plot forward.

I Am Mother hits all these notes and takes an insanely frustrating turn at the mid point because it’s the plot that moves the characters forward.  There’s a much-too-thick amount of foreshadowing, where nearly every scene from 25% to 75% feels like it was written over a box of donuts, and filmed for a class in high school on exposition.

The concept that a sheltered (but not smothered) individual would swatch allegiances with the drop of a hat makes little sense.  The backstory for the stranger makes little sense.  The idea that no one thought that a robot would record audio is baffling.  When they do decide to run away and fall into a massive cornfield, never pausing to wonder why this exists on a desolate planet…Why is there a dog a few hours away from this robot farming operation?

When it reaches the summit of tension, the explanation provided seems insanely obtuse.  Like one of those elaborate Rube Goldberg machines, but spread over what appears to be centuries.  Things have to happen perfectly as planned, or the thing just falls to pieces.  And that the Mother robot somehow thinks that now is the time for the child to lead the next advent of humanity… after what appears to be 2 days of pure chaos.  What?

This is one of those sci-fi short stories where it’s better to have many more questions than answers.  Cut an hour from the film, put some scars or soot or something on Hillary Swank so that she doesn’t look like a CLONE of the protagonist, and there’s a solid idea here.

Main Issue

All of those details are things a lot of people will look over, but the purpose of sci-fi is to explore an idea.  And the idea here is that meritocracy is a valid form of government.  Many utopias are built on this concept (Star Trek TNG took this argument to the extreme).

The main problem with a meritocracy is that the people within the system must absolutely believe in it, and anyone who doesn’t has to be removed.  In this story, Mother did just that by killing anyone who wasn’t in that mindset.  When Mother leaves, the Daughter apparently has to maintain that mindset as it’s pretty friggin’ clear that if she doesn’t, Mother will just wipe everyone out again.  This infers that the Daughter will need to either teach, convert, or kill every new human.  Alone.  Where a perfectly programmed robot could not achieve that over many, many years of effort.

Which I suppose could mean this is a never ending cycle.  Which ARQ did excellently.

Summary

Decent film to watch if you don’t get invested in the concepts.  Otherwise, the film simply reaches too far without the ability to deliver.

 

Love, Death & Robots

I think sci-fi is my favorite genre.  My favorite stories come from the golden age, when people were chasing stories rather than paychecks (the 80s… ugh).  There’s a child-like vision in those older stories, where the science projections were more magical and focused on the psychology, rather than the technology itself.  Or from another lens, great sci-fi is about people, not technology.

Netflix has an anthology series Love, Death & Robots that tells multiple story lines, with a sci-fi backdrop.  They are between 5-17 minutes, so really quick bites.  Anthologies are like a buffet, there’s something for everyone, but not everything is for someone.  I used to have bookshelves full of them as a kid (Reader’s Digest is exactly that).  And in most sci-fi, the best stories are the short ones, where there’s plenty of open ended questions (see The Martian Chronicles).

There were quite a few highlights here for me, in my order of preference

Beyond the Aquila Rift

This plays out like golden sci-fi, with an interesting punch at the end.  There are some open ended parts, and a nice twinge of horror within.

Sonnie’s Edge

The main line story is great, the setting a bit less.

Secret War

Aside from the monster design, every other bit of this story hits near-perfect notes.  It’s very tight, and is eerily relatable.

The Witness

There are many stories like this, but none that look like this.  Apparently there was no mo-cap, which frankly, bodes well for CG as a whole in the genre.

Shape-Shifters

Werewolves in modern day setting… much better than Underworld’s gothic take on it.  The blending of genres works here… a bit like the Forever War.

 

Not to say that the other shorts are bad, they just resonated less with me.  When the Yogurt Took Over I’ve read a dozen times now in other formats.  A half dozen others seem like they are pulled straight from Heavy Metal.

Considering how short each episode is, it’s very digestible.  Most of us can spare 17 minutes to watch an interesting story.  Kind of hoping we get more anthologies in this vein.

Rim of the World

When homage turns to collage.

culture_rimoftheworld

Netflix has a new movie out, Rim of the World.  It’s a re-take on every single classic 80’s adventure ever produced.  To a nearly absurd level.  Just look at the picture and tell me it doesn’t look like a mash between a half dozen ideas (Red Dawn, Goonies, ET, Stand by Me are pretty evident.)

Loner/nerd kid gets sent to camp, to grow.  Makes 3 friends (female, mouthy kid, tough kid).  Aliens invade.  They need to save the world because every adult around them dies.  CGI is a wonderful pastiche of high-school attempts and purposeful stop-motion looks.  Montage included.  It’s worth a re-watch just to count the number of themes it borrows from other movies.

If Stranger Things hadn’t hit a few years ago, this would be  much easier to digest. Stranger Things uses the 80s as a backdrop to tell the story.  Here, the 80s are the story.

It’s a no-apology romp, with the hammiest of delivery, and most straightforward plot.  There are literally no surprises at all here, everything happens as it should.  Which in nostalgic terms, is certainly a plus.  People like the comfort of the familiar.  And it Netflix is any smarter about this, then we’re going to spent the next 5+ years with films in this vein.  80s/early 90s people are the main target for Netflix, so why not get those eyeballs?

It’s a solid B movie, where it doesn’t try to ever take itself seriously.

Also new on Netflix – Bash Brothers.  Now that is worth a watch, just not with the kids around!

Plot vs Character

Writing is hard.  No other way to put it.  There are hundreds of thousands of writers…and they follow a bell curve of talent like any other group.  When one of them stands out, it’s fairly obvious because of the sheer amount of material with which to compare.  And writing is one of those things that people do for 2 reasons – cathartic and exposure.  I do it for the former, I have no illusions that I am some grand auteur.  But I’ve met (we all have) many a writer who thought they were the next Stephen King…

And even the best writers have off days.  Back to Mr. King.  His “best” writing period was when he was on more drugs than a rock band.   His magnum opus series of the Dark Tower took a rather significant nosedive in quality once he got clean.  I’m not saying he should not have gotten clean, but you can draw a pretty clear line in terms of quality output. Bradbury wrote 5x as much that was drivel compared to noticeable.  Asimov was all over the map, and in later years admitted he was writing more for the paycheck than the story (which is crazy if you look at all the things he did).

Then you have writers who just can’t complete their work.  Robert Jordan passed away.  GRR Martin has writers block.  TV shows / movies swap writers over the years.  Point being, initial quality is not reflective of future quality – simply higher odds.

Character vs Plot

Arguably the best writers are those that write characters first, and the plot second.  They avoid tropes, and require some forethought to resolving situations as they are restricted.  I mean if you’re talking about a woman in the 20th century, they are not all of a sudden going to find a jetpack and escape a pack of wild gorillas.  Sometimes, these writers get painted into a corner.  The plot says that they need to be in a certain spot, but the writer knows that it’s going to take some logical steps to get there.  And we end up with extra chapters/books rather than a shortcut.

Plot writers are all about story and need the people in it to make wildly differing decisions to make the story move forward in interesting ways.  Dan Brown is a perfect example.  He writes great adventures, edge of your seat.  His characters are super heroes, who suffer from continual mental lapses, and the text is full of contradictory information.  In many cases, the writing is so poor that solutions become present without the reader being able to make any logical connections.

Game of Thrones

Books first.  I’ve read them and they are primarily character driven.  They make consistent decisions based on circumstances, and the fact that main line characters die is evidence that sometimes the plot takes precedence.  It’s not perfect, but it’s damn good to read though.  The important part of the books is that while set in a fantasy setting, the story is fundamentally about the character interactions.  The Red Wedding is a much more important event as compared to the Red Witch’s powers.

The TV series followed the books, with some artistic liberties.  Those liberties were a bit over the top in some cases (the crypt scene in particular).  Still, it generally followed the book story line.  Then the books stopped and the show continued on its own path.  While there were high spots, there were quite a few low ones.  All of a sudden characters could travel at the speed of light.  They’d miraculously survive insurmountable odds multiple times.  They’d charge into certain death when a more advantageous option was present.

But people still with it, because of the potential of greatness.  These last few episodes though… they are pushed almost entirely by plot.  A “threat” since the opening act of the first episode is dealt with in a single episode.  A hugely strategic advantage (dragon) would not be used on a kamikaze run.  When an entire army is exhausted, you don’t walk them hundreds of miles against a waiting foe.   You don’t pair up an asexual character with their entirely platonic friend… over a drinking game no less.

Writing endings is notoriously difficult.  In life, there are not clear ends and even less so when you are tracking dozens of character threads.  Lost did an amazing job at proving that point.  Sopranos was the exact opposite, since it focused every bit on the family and there wasn’t final closure, simply life moving on.  Breaking Bad is another good example of a solid writing due to narrow characters.

So while GoT certainly has spectacle attached, the odds of it finding footing in 2 more episodes are pretty darn small.   Too many spinning plates, not enough time to address them.

Russian Doll

The setup for this Netflix series is pretty simple.  Nadia keeps dying at various points, then restarting from her most recent birthday party.  The Groundhod Day mechanic has been used mainly in sci-fi (ARQ was solid) but here we have more of a black comedy.  Well, given Natasha Lyonne’s past issues, perhaps this is more of a twisted biography.

Nadia is not a sympathetic character in the hero sense.  She’s a messed up addict, with some pretty freaky friends, and generally wants to be left alone.  She has a mouth that makes sailors blush.  She’s not even an anti-hero, since her drives are nearly entirely self-preservation.  But, and this part is what makes the series, she’s human and makes reasonable decisions.  I mentioned this in the previous post about Dragon Prince season 2, how there was no growth, and only the plot made the story move.  That is not the case here. Really solid.

natasha-lyonne-russian-doll-netflix

This picture starts every new life

Nadia certainly has a loner persona, and that this only effects her makes it all the more odd.  What’s really interesting is that if you pay attention, you start noticing details.  Those details become much more explicit as the story progresses.  More than that, and it’s spoiler territory.  Let’s just say that as much as it’s binge-worthy, you still need to pay attention.

I’d be remiss to not talk about the soundtrack.  It’s a crazy eclectic mix of genres – Beethoven, Cults, John Maus – add just the right amount of mood to the scenes.

Interesting side note is that Amy Poehler is involved as a series co-creator.  You can see the influences in the absurdist in-your-face dry humor.  Natasha Lyonne’s sarcastic wit is in every scene, and her drive to explore every relationship, multiple times, is refreshing.  Greta Lee in particular…she’s the Ned Ryerson and her delivery of the same line, multiple times, doesn’t ever seen to get under the skin.

There are plenty of things to watch on Netflix, most of them mediocre.  It’s nice to be able to find something that really does a great job all around.  Solid recommendation.  Just not with the kids.

Dragon Prince – Season 2

I rather liked the first season.  The second season was supposed to get into the lore a bit more.  It sort of did that, but I find it lost track of pretty much everything else because of it.

When season 1 ended, the egg had hatched, the baby dragon king came about with an attachment to Ezran, Callum lost the ability to cast magic, Rayla gained her arm back, Viren killed the king and sent his daughter & son to capture the princes.  That was a solid set up.

When season 2 ends we still have a baby dragon, Callum regained the ability to cast magic, you learn a bit about the queen, Viren goes off the deep end because people see through his lies… and that’s it.

I could write a long summary, but if the series is of any interest all you need to do is watch episode 9.  Absolutely nothing that happens before that provides any payoff or value.  In particular the Claudia/Soren combo who make decisions based entirely on the plot rather than like actual people.  It’s mind boggling to have a series with zero consequences.  In fact, when there are consequences, the plot somehow manages to find a way to erase them.  A mile away.

There are plenty of good series on Netflix.  This is not one of them.  DC Titans is pretty good.  Next up, Russian Doll.