STRANGER THINGS 2 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 7 hours 38 minutes

Directed by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Shawn Levy, Andrew Stanton & Rebecca Thomas

Written by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Justin Doble, Paul Dichter, Jessie Nickson-Lopez & Kate Trefry

Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalie Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Sadie Sink, Dacre Montgomery, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser, Linnea Berthelsen & Brett Gelman

Over a year after STRANGER THINGS debuted as a massive Netflix hit and gained a dedicated fanbase, STRANGER THINGS 2 hit Netflix just in time for Halloween. While many Netflix subscribers binge-watched the entire second season over its opening weekend (myself included), I couldn’t help but feel that the series had gone through a noticeable decline in quality. STRANGER THINGS 2 brings back the characters that you know and love, but slow pacing and unbalanced storytelling really knocked this season-long sequel down a peg.

It’s been nearly a year since Will Buyers (Noah Schnapp) was rescued from a parallel dimension and he seems to be suffering from supernatural-related PTSD. Will’s trauma-fueled flashbacks might actually be current visions into “The Upside Down” and something very dangerous might be looking back at Will. Meanwhile, Will’s friends (Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin) begin a tepid friendship with new kid Maxine (Sadie Sink). Also, preteen psychic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is trying to find a way to get back to a depressed Mike (Finn Wolfhard), all while protective police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) keeps her under his watchful eye. And…this season also has interdimensional monsters and another tattooed psychic, but it takes a while to reach that point.

I want to make something clear, STRANGER THINGS 2 is fun. I like STRANGER THINGS 2. It’s a good season, but there are problems that cannot be ignored. This season’s flaws irked me enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of its nine episodes. One of the first problems arrives in the noticeably slower pacing. It seems like the viewer has to wait for a long while for anything of major consequence to occur within the first four episodes. A majority of the season’s first half is spent introducing/developing a couple of new characters, showing that Will has interdimensional PTSD, and delivering 80s nostalgia through the five (eventually, six) child characters. The GHOSTBUSTERS homage was funny and all, but what was really accomplished by showing that?

STRANGER THINGS 2’s off-again-on-again pacing and messy storytelling wouldn’t be so annoying, if the show didn’t try to distractingly shoehorn a few subplots in early on. The season’s very first scene involves a mysterious new character “Eight” (played by Linnea Berthelsen). Besides a useless opening prologue, Eight doesn’t return until the seventh episode(!) and this character didn’t have much of a purpose to serve at all in the grand scheme of the season’s story. Eight’s presence feels like arbitrary set-up for STRANGER THINGS 3.

To further harp on how dull and out-of-place Eight’s subplot was, she played a large(ish) role in Eleven’s storyline. Millie Bobby Brown’s performance is just as great as her work in the first season and she receives a bit more to do this time around. However, that damned seventh episode grinds things to a halt as a few episodes seem to forget about her presence altogether. It might have been better to intersperse her subplot alongside the craziness occurring at a nearby lab and Will’s increasingly alarming behavior. Instead, it felt like the writers and showrunners said “Oh shit! We have a ton of Eleven’s scenes and need some place to put them. Let’s just dump them all into the weakest episode of the season and grind all building momentum to a halt for an entire hour.” This was distractingly sloppy storytelling through and through.

For all of its messy pacing and distractingly uneven subplots, STRANGER THINGS 2 remains fun and entertaining. The storyline of Max joining the gang, the ever-present threat of her psycho older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), and a subplot about Dustin getting a secret otherworldly pet are fun to watch. One of the first season’s weakest points becomes this season’s biggest strength: the teenage drama between Natalia Dyer’s Nancy, Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan, and Joe Keery’s Steve.

As potential sparks fly between Nancy and Jonathan, Steve proves himself to be a better babysitter than a boyfriend (it helps that he’s adept with a spiked-bat against monstrous “Demogorgons”). I also thought it was extremely clever how the Duffer brothers took the inexplicable “Justice for Barb” movement that erupted in the wake of STRANGER THINGS and made that a crucial plot point during STRANGER THINGS 2. Brett Gelman also has a brief but hilarious role as a conspiracy theorist in this highly entertaining, intriguing storyline.

As far as STRANGER THINGS 2’s supernatural hijinks are concerned, the season has no problem in further fleshing out “The Upside Down” and its monstrous inhabitants. This season also has a big bad, though the finale’s “to be continued” final shot indicates that it will wind up possibly being a series’ big bad. The monsters are enjoyable to watch (there are multiple beasties in this season) and later episodes milk tense scenes for all that they’re worth. I won’t name names or spoil specific details, but this season’s most irksome character dies a painful death. It’s likely that this character will become Season 2’s equivalent of Barb. People will probably love this person and I’ll be just as baffled by the inexplicable fan following as I was for the briefly glimpsed Barb. Seriously, Barb was only in three episodes and barely a character. Why is she so special?

STRANGER THINGS 2 is fun, but suffers from an overall step down in quality. In some ways, this second season tries to be more ambitious than the first season (more monsters, Will is in a different kind of peril, and there’s the looming threat of a secret organization). However, this second season is too slow in its first half, has one annoying subplot that seems to be obvious set-up for STRANGER THINGS 3, and one episode that egregiously grinds everything to a halt for an hour. STRANGER THINGS was great and STRANGER THINGS 2 is only good. Though it references everything from GREMLINS to GHOSTBUSTERS to more King/Carpenter/Spielberg nods, STRANGER THINGS 2 seems to have unintentionally become the ultimate homage of disappointing (but still enjoyable) 80s sequels. I hope that STRANGER THINGS 3 pulls things back up to the quality of the stellar first season.

Grade: B

STRANGER THINGS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 6 hours 38 minutes

Directed by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Shawn Levy,

Written by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Jessica Mecklenburg, Justin Doble, Alison Tatlock & Jessie Nickson-Lopez

Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Matthew Modine, Noah Schnapp & Joe Keery

It’s been out for over a year and I’ve finally gotten around to watching Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS, a homage-filled love letter to 80s horror and science-fiction. Created by identical twin brothers who really love Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter, STRANGER THINGS is addicting entertainment from beginning to end. It’s safe to say that if you loved 2011’s 80s throwback SUPER 8, then you’ll probably love STRANGER THINGS too. This is like somebody threw FIRESTARTER, E.T., STAND BY ME, and other 80s horror/sci-fi creations into a blender and pureed them into a fine cinematic concoction!

The time is November 1983. After playing an intense game of D&D with his friends, 12-year-old Will Buyers (Noah Schnapp) disappears into thin air. This isn’t a simple kidnapping or abduction, because there were strange lights on the night that Will went missing and there also might be an unidentified creature on the loose. Meanwhile, a little girl with a shaved head, simply known as Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), shows up at a nearby diner and is being hunted by a very dangerous secret organization. Soon enough, Will’s concerned friends (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin) run into Eleven, Will’s frantic mother (Winona Ryder) experiences odd happenings in her home, and the depressed town police chief (David Harbour) finds himself caught up in a deadly conspiracy…and I haven’t even mentioned Barb (a fan favorite for some reason).

STRANGER THINGS’s first season has a lot going on within its fast-paced eight episodes. There are many subplots that weave themselves in and out of each other, connecting to a much bigger narrative. At first, it seems like this season contains lots of little mysteries, but these little mysteries make up one large sci-fi adventure. I found myself struggling to describe this season’s premise in one paragraph, because so much stuff happens in this show. There’s never a dull moment, even in the spots where the series slows down to develop its characters and builds itself up during the first episode.

It’s worth mentioning that STRANGER THINGS is astounding on a technical level. The cinematography looks phenomenal and the effects work is of the same quality that you typically see in summer blockbusters. The Duffer brothers clearly had careful eyes towards their creation and Netflix gave them the financial means to bring their 80s-centric vision to life. STRANGER THINGS also knocks it out of the park in its soundtrack, which consists of lots of great 80s tunes that never get distracting in a style-over-substance manner. Song selections are put into the background noise, hammer home the emotions of certain scenes (especially in the episode three’s emotional climax), and even make their way in as plot points. At any rate, STRANGER THING’s use of music is pretty damned ingenious.

Solid narratives that pay loving homage to 80s entertainment and great production values wouldn’t be nearly as effective without believable performances and well-developed characters inhabiting them. STRANGER THINGS delivers in its performances across the board. Finn Wolfhard is compelling as young leader Mike, while Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin serve as Will’s two other friends/sidekicks. Winona Ryder sells her role as a desperate mother who’s being driven to the edge by paranoia, coming off as a nutjob to anyone around her and yet actually experiencing pretty strange things. David Harbour plays Jim Hopper with a combination of biting sarcasm and a tragic backstory.

Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, and Shannon Purser make up a teenage subplot that is also connected to the strange supernatural happenings. Though this subplot threatens to become clichéd and is easily the weakest spot of an otherwise stellar season, it does have its charms and doesn’t necessarily do anything wrong. It’s just a bit too familiar and sticks out in a show that seems to have been made based off nostalgic love for other stories and movies. At any rate, Shannon Purser’s Barb has become a fan favorite for some reason. I don’t see why, but maybe I’m just not seeing the charm about this nervous, nerdy ginger who’s barely in the show.

STRANGER THING’s real show-stealer comes in young Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven (a.k.a. El). With only occasional lines of dialogue, Eleven somehow becomes the most fleshed out character of the entire season. We see flashbacks that give us ever-emerging details about her traumatic past. I felt sorry for El and, at the same time, rooted for her to kick some ass. When she lays down the supernatural smackdown on a few bullies and ultimately comes into her own as a strong young heroine, I was ecstatic. El was easily my favorite character of the entire show and she also reignited my hunger for Eggo waffles (you’ll understand when/if you watch the series).

STRANGER THINGS is pretty friggin’ great and lives up to its much-hyped reputation. This first season is filled with great effects, a rockin’ soundtrack, solid acting, and fast-paced storytelling that lovingly references loads of 80s horror/sci-fi. Though it might be a tad too homage heavy for some viewers, this very well could go down as one of Netflix’s best series. My only minor complaint comes from the angsty teenage subplot that seems to stick out in the midst of everything else, but I loved STRANGER THINGS through and through. If you haven’t watched this show yet and you’re a fan of horror/sci-fi, then jump on this immediately!

Grade: A

THE HOUSE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, Sexual References, Drug Use, some Violence and brief Nudity

Directed by: Andrew Jay Cohen

Written by: Brendan O’Brien & Andrew Jay Cohen

Starring: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Allison Tolman, Rob Huebel & Jeremy Renner

Despite starring in hilarious comedies throughout the 2000s, Will Ferrell has been in some real stinkers lately. With the exception of a few animated comedies (MEGAMIND, THE LEGO MOVIE), Ferrell’s recent output has included stale attempts at recapturing past comedic magic (ANCHORMAN 2), lazy executions of fairly funny premises (GET HARD), and some of the worst films of his entire career (DADDY’S HOME). I was hoping that THE HOUSE might wind up being Ferrell’s return to form. The premise was funny, the cast looked solid, and the R-rating allowed extra room for irreverent hijinks. THE HOUSE falls between GET HARD and DADDY’S HOME on Ferrell’s cinematic totem pole. This film is mostly lazy and lots of dull patches frequently overshadow its better moments.

Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate (Amy Poehler) are ecstatic for their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) to head off to college. Alex has been accepted into a prestigious university, but Scott and Kate realize that they don’t have the cash to cover her tuition. To make matters even worse, the town’s annual scholarship program has been shut town by shady councilman Bob (Nick Kroll). Things might turn around though, because Scott and Kate’s eccentric friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) has a brilliant idea to raise lots of funds in a short amount of time. Frank turns his house into an illegal underground casino, while Scott and Kate become his business partners. Wacky hijinks ensue.

I’ll address THE HOUSE’s positive qualities first because there are a few redeeming factors. One of those factors arrives in Jason Mantzoukas. Though the selling points of this film were Ferrell and Poehler, Mantzoukas steals most of the show as the overly eccentric Frank. A subplot about him trying to win back his recently separated wife is tedious, but Mantzoukas even makes these scenes watchable in his absurd line delivery and over-the-top body language. Mantzoukas was one of the best things about last year’s not-as-bad-as-they-said-it-was DIRTY GRANDPA and he’s easily one of the best things in THE HOUSE. Maybe, Mantzoukas’s roles are simply meant to improve low-quality comedies, because he seems to be doing a bang-up job so far.

I’d be lying if I said that THE HOUSE didn’t have a couple of funny scenes. The best bit has already been given away by the red band trailer, though the actual scene lasts longer than the 30 seconds and had me cracking up. If the entire film was as funny as that single sequence, then this would be a very different review. Unfortunately, this scene and a couple of other bits (mostly involving Mantzoukas) are the only things worth praising about THE HOUSE. The rest of this film feels boring, lame, and lazy.

Even though they are the main selling points, Ferrell and Poehler really don’t have much to do in this film. Aside from occasionally mugging at the camera, their married couple characters mostly remain straight-faced and don’t receive many great jokes. We see them acting like dorky parents with their daughter. We watch as they worry and celebrate with Mantzoukas. By the time the film tries to throw them into an over-the-top style, it feels drastically out-of-place and unearned. Most films like this have a natural progression as a character transforms from a boring suburban nobody to a stylish interesting somebody. THE HOUSE never executes that story arc in a natural or funny way, so the viewer is left to roll their eyes and remain completely disconnected towards these characters.

THE HOUSE’s plot troubles don’t stop at its unconvincing story arcs for the two dimwitted protagonists though, because a lot of this film feels like filler. It’s as if somebody was brainstorming what happens in Las Vegas casinos and decided to write those ideas down…and then just threw them into the movie with no rhyme or reason. Stand-up comedians, air bars, massages, fight night, and CASINO-style torture all just come and go, leaving few laughs to be found. Bits of this film might have served better as Funny or Die/College Humor web skits…as opposed to scenes in a comedy that was funded on 40 million and had big names attached to it. A subplot with an unnecessary bland antagonist feels like an afterthought, while Jeremy Renner as a mobster (who shows up for two scenes) would have been a much better baddie to focus on.

THE HOUSE is a missed opportunity. The pieces were there to craft a really funny R-rated comedy, something to draw in crowds who wanted to laugh in 2017’s lackluster summer movie season, and a possible comeback film for Ferrell. Instead, THE HOUSE is lazy, uninspired, and drowns out its funny bits with lots of filler and a script that feels like it never got past the brainstorming stage. There are loads of better Will Ferrell movies and far funnier R-rated comedies out there. If you bet on this flick, everybody loses.

Grade: D+

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, some Sexuality, Nudity and Language

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Hampton Fancher & Michael Green

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Dave Bautista & Jared Leto

In 1982, Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER bombed at the box office and polarized critics. Throughout the following years/decades, the film drew greater appreciation, gained a strong cult following, and is now widely considered to be one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. If anyone were to helm a sequel, they would certainly have their work cut out for them and would need to be among the top tier of modern filmmakers. Thank God that long-awaited sequel BLADE RUNNER 2049 (released 35 years after its predecessor) has master director Denis Villeneuve (ARRIVAL, SICARIO, and PRISONERS) as its guiding source. To put it bluntly, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is one of the best sequels to ever hit the silver screen.

Set thirty years after the events of the previous film, 2049 follows blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) as he goes about his daily job of “retiring” (code for killing) older replicants (bioengineered robots). When he’s not at work, K spends his free time with his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). However, K’s depressingly simple existence is about to get a lot more complicated as his latest job unearths evidence that a replicant child has been born. This was thought to be impossible and seems like an “abomination” of nature, so K is instructed to “retire” the replicant child and uncovers a deeper mystery that takes him to dangerous places, puts him in the sights of the evil Wallace Corporation, and brings back a blast from the past.

BLADE RUNNER 2049’s marketing is deceptive in that it paints this film as an action-packed sequel that has Harrison Ford playing sidekick for a majority of the screen time and sees Jared Leto as the main villain. However, the film is far more subtle than that and has occasional spurts of action…very much in the same vein of the 1982 sci-fi noir. It’s also worth noting that Jared Leto only has about 2-3 scenes and yet makes the most of every second that he’s on screen. The real threat comes from Sylvia Hoeks’s psycho replicant Luv. She’s scary as hell. Also, Harrison Ford’s Deckard doesn’t pop up until the film is over halfway over, but his presence is a strong point in the film’s complicated, super bleak plot.

Ryan Gosling is a fantastic leading man in the role of protagonist K. This blade runner is very much a replicant (while Deckard’s identity was merely an ambiguous idea at the end of the original) and struggles with his “soulless” existence. Gosling’s K is a depressed robot-killer who undergoes a transformation over the course of the film’s storyline, in a similar way to Harrison Ford’s Deckard in the first film. However, BLADE RUNNER 2049 differs in many respects and takes place during a whole new chapter of this neon-lit, robot-inhabited future.

One of the more twisted elements of this future setting is embodied by K’s holographic girlfriend Joi, played the gorgeous and extremely talented Ana de Armas. Even though she’s a literal two-dimensional character, Armas is fully fleshed out as Joi and is (pardon the pun) a joy to watch on the screen. The romantic chemistry between a robot detective and his holographic girlfriend is one of the most fascinating, emotional, and surprisingly believable things that I’ve seen on the big screen all year. Gosling and Armas have palpable on-screen chemistry and they share tons of scenes together throughout the running time. There’s also suspense built as we pray that nothing will tear their bond apart.

BLADE RUNNER 2049’s storyline is intelligently told in a deliberately paced manner that feeds the viewer small chunks of information and turns their eyes towards strange clues, but doesn’t ever talk down to them by spoon-feeding massive details in a giant exposition dump. Instead, conversations between characters feel entirely natural and director Denis Villeneuve shows us lots of things rather than simply telling us. Some of the BLADE RUNNER 2049’s most powerful scenes don’t have a bit of spoken dialogue and that’s something truly special to behold. It’s also worth noting that Hans Zimmerman’s score is fantastic and noticeably seems to have a bit of Nine Inch Nails influence thrown into it.

2049’s spectacle is impressive as hell. The blending of computer generated imagery with heavily detailed sets is seamless. I couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended. The neon-lit, orange-dusted, and watery-colored locations all built their own atmospheres (from eerily creepy to just plain cool). The 2049 future was the most creative and believable cinematic setting that I’ve witnessed since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD‘s apocalyptic world. It felt like I was whisked away to another place while I was watching BLADE RUNNER 2049 and when I finally exited the theater, nearly three hours had flown by without my knowledge of them passing. You lose yourself in this film’s spectacular visuals and engrossing plot; and those are two of cinema’s most beautiful qualities.

With fantastic performances (from old cast members and new), smart storytelling, amazing visuals and effects, and a purely cinematic vision, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is easily one of the best sequels to ever hit the silver screen. This follow-up brilliantly connects to the classic predecessor, while also serving as its own original story. I can’t think of a single complaint that I had with this science-fiction noir. I cannot wait until I am able to watch the double feature of BLADE RUNNER and BLADE RUNNER 2049, because these films fit together like two pieces of a giant movie puzzle. BLADE RUNNER 2049 is easily one of the best films of 2017, one of the best sequels ever made, and one of my favorite science-fiction films in years!

Grade: A+