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Life is Strange: A Successful Mess

I’m not a massive video games guy. There’s a reason this website was, until yesterday, called Cinema Crunch and not something awful like ‘Vahrkalla’s Video Games’. I regret about 90% of all my video games purchases, getting bored after a couple of hours playing (which is really, really terrible for my disposable income) . If I want to enjoy a complex and exciting narrative which invites me to take it in at my own pace, then I’ll just go on Netflix.

With that in mind, I was surprised just how hooked I got on Life is Strange, a five-part episodic offering from Dontnod Entertainment. In part, that might have been due to the relatively minimal, simplistic gameplay that allowed even losers with a crippling lack of hand-eye coordination like me to punch through the story without getting stuck on a particularly taxing section for hours on end, which happens far too often. Mostly, however, I’m not entirely sure why Life is Strange elicited as much of an interest and desire to keep playing as it did. It’s especially perplexing considering that it’s a game that’s riddled with major structural flaws that are deal-breakers for any film or TV show I watch. The pacing is

The pacing is haphazard, oscillating between a snappy flurry of clues and reveals that quickly open up the game’s central mystery and a more relaxed, hang-out vibe in a way that creates a constant sense that the game can’t settle on one particular tone at a time. The dialogue, theoretically the linchpin of a story-driven game like this, is often cringeworthy and occasionally downright frustrating, depending on whether it’s awkward teen slang or forced and turgid exposition. There’s a couple of big sections of the story that turn out to be total narrative cul-de-sacs, barely affecting the ongoing story in any way – a trip to an alternate timeline is poignant on its own and does provide a Chekhov’s Gun that fuels the final episode’s time travelling, but it’s scarcely mentioned after it occurs despite the significant choices you have to make there. The villain of the piece, revealed to be photography teacher Mark Jefferson, has an exceptionally shallow reason for committing all the crimes seen throughout the game, which lands awkwardly after all the portentous build-up and red herrings of the previous episodes. And, most importantly, Life is Strange can’t reconcile the separate spheres of its narrative – the sci-fi time travel idea and the slasher-horror mystery end up being particularly awkward bedfellows when they’re mashed together in the final episode; giving a sense that the game is having a full-on identity crisis right in front of your eyes as these two narratives hang limply, failing to satisfyingly mesh.

Any one of those criticisms could sink other games simply on their own. Together, you would think that this would be a complete failure of storytelling – a trashy mess where the authorial intention ends up fifteen hundred miles away from the end product.

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Life is Strange, in my view, is not a failure. In fact, I think it’s fair to deem it a success, though I know that’s not a view that’s held everywhere. My best theory as to why the game feels like a satisfying story, well told despite all logic indicating that it should crash and burn is that Life is Strange isn’t really a game that should be approached logically, treated as a collection of individual elements that knot together to make something bigger. It’s a game designed to make you feel, an overwhelming mass of admirable intent and fascinating insights that combine to create a strong gut reaction to everything that’s going on. Frequently, even in small throwaway moments of little consequence, I powerfully felt something towards the events going on, whether that was relief, sadness or worry. When the central characters had a moment of peace away from the chaos surrounding them, that kind of felt like a relaxing breather and time out for me too, as a player. And when the big moments came, the carefully built-up establishment of strong emotional investment in the welfare of these people paid off – take the suicide attempt of Kate Marsh in episode two. I had seen this moment in a playthrough a few days back, I’d made every choice there was in favour of Kate and I’d noted down a few things I knew would be useful. I knew that I should be able to talk her down, and only a series of horrible errors would turn the situation away from the jaws of victory. But still, I felt genuinely nervous as I went through the answers, wondering whether I’d misremembered the choices made in the playthrough to keep her alive. And when I did save her pretty quickly, I felt a real sense of relief that I’d saved this vaguely realistic block of pixels – as if (and emphasis on ‘as if’) I’d actually achieved something meaningful rather than just pressing a few buttons I knew would work anyway.

(Oh, retroactive note, ‘Chariots of Fire’ would make a great soundtrack to that last paragraph. The paragraph has a similar feeling of triumph and is as equally well-crafted as the internationally renowned movie.)

In barely collected, vaguely articulate words, that’s why Life is Strange worked for me – because it made me care on a gut level that went beyond nitpicks about how, say, Kate’s tendency to treat me like a god for saying mildly comforting things was vaguely unsettling. It didn’t make me analyse and track through everything to make a logical value judgement – the game conditioned me, skilfully and subtly, to pick options that just felt right. Tying into that, one of the ways in which Life is Strange overrode the natural tendency to view things sceptically and with logical caution for me was just how sincere it was when it really counted. Talking to a friend, that sincerity and tendency to opt for serious melodrama over wry self-awareness was a storytelling choice that actively weakened the game. That’s a pretty understandable viewpoint, but on a personal level, I’ve found myself drifting lately towards works of fiction that treat uncomplicated heroism, idealism and a genuine desire to help the world as attributes that are aspirational and admirable rather than something to be mocked and laughed at. In today’s dark, paranoid and divided world, I think there’s far more value in works of fiction that offer up a better way for ourselves rather than shows that snidely put down certain groups of people or positive attitudes in a bid to seem worthy.

Life is Strange PC review

Life is Strange isn’t an entirely serious game, and it’s certainly far from gritty in its depiction of a golden all-American suburb and events that mostly unfold in glittering daylight. Nonetheless, it knows when to take things entirely seriously, and its choice of ideas and elements to present with no sarcasm or ulterior motive is part of the reason why it works so much. Max, the character at the centre of it all, is a somewhat nebulous presence by necessity, deliberately malleable so the player can imprint their own reactions onto her character, so there are definitely ways to play Life is Strange where you do treat certain serious events with a cocked eyebrow and a knowing smirk. Nonetheless, the basic core of her character is that she wants the best for herself and for others if they’re willing to hop on board with that strategy too. Her actions are motivated by a basic sense of human empathy, a desire to make more human connections and, finally, to find a reality where she can be with her best friend.  Those aren’t purely selfless, but they are simple, decent and empathetic motivations that the game doesn’t mock, and Max herself doesn’t sarcastically undermine or put down in her internal monologue. That sense of sincerity flows out to really touch all of the aspects of the teen drama, a genre that’s so often bogged down by ultra-sarcastic, cartoonishly cruel stereotypes who remain totally opaque action figures for any given hero to undermine at some point, or equally one-note wallflowers whose defining treat is that ‘they’re nice’.

Life is Strange starts with those basic templates, but it satisfyingly and incrementally expands beyond them in time, with every conversation digging deeper into their psyche, unearthing niggling insecurities and hidden dreams that humanise them. You can mock them along the way or offer up wafer-thin platitudes that are more motivated by self-interest than empathy, certainly, but the game pushes you away from that, nudging you towards enquiring and fostering unexpected connections on a basic human level. The crucial end result of all this is that more or less every character in Life is Strange is a decent person underneath it all, with malicious actions merely acting as a shield rather than a part of anyone’s core. Even the ostensible villain for most of the narrative, Nathan, receives some level of redemption in a deeply moving phone call that reveals him to be a sad, frightened and mentally troubled guy who acted out horribly because he never received a healthy upbringing or an inner circle with which he can honestly share his thoughts. That underlying faith in humanity, the belief that people are far more than their nasty or hurtful actions, is hugely commendable – a basic idealism that promotes faith in each other to solve problems rather than a narrow-minded dismissiveness. That’s the kind of philosophy we need in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, and I’m glad it came at the centre of such a widely popular game.

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To wrap things up, it’s worth going to the end. Rather, one of the ends – not the faux-optimistic ‘Sacrifice Arcadia Bay’ ending that glosses over what amounts to a selfish genocide of an entire town just so it can claim to be ‘bittersweet’, but the ending that seems like the game’s natural and fitting conclusion, resting at the logical end-point of every character’s arc. That ‘Sacrifice Chloe’ ending is bittersweet. In fact, it’s actually kind of a bummer for a while, with the erasure of all your fun times together hammered in as the photos of Max and Chloe hanging out are replaced by pictures of arrests and sad conversations over cheap coffee, all soundtracked by ‘Spanish Sahara’ by Foals, a song that practically symbolises aimless despair and melancholy.

But it’s the necessary ending for the game nonetheless – the one that illustrates, somewhat paradoxically, the value of Max’s experiences even as they’re totally erased in favour of a reality that seems darker and lonelier. It’s all summed up in the blue butterfly that lands on the coffin at the end of the game, a recurring motif used throughout the game to, somewhat heavy-handedly, symbolise the butterfly effect and the ways in which minor changes to the timeline can turn into enormous events later on. Chaos Theory is mainly used to illustrate how things can spin quickly out of control with no logical origin for the chaos, but, conversely, it’s equally a thesis about how life can turn in an instant, heading down paths and throwing up opportunities that seemingly come from nowhere.  In this ending, Life is Strange posits that to understand ‘the natural order’ of things, it’s necessary to understand that there is no order. With that chaos, and the innate uncertainty it brings, perhaps the best response is just to hope for something better, because there’s every chance it could come along, as if from nowhere. In short, Life is Strange‘s final, important thesis is that… well, life is strange, and that’s just fine.

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That is why, in my view, Life is Strange is a success, and an important one at that.

 

 

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Comic Con 2: Con Harder (Or The Story of How DC Raised Our Hopes Yet Again)

For all my grousing about how Comic Con has shifted away from being a fan event to a commercial outlet that mines fan enthusiasm for profits, it’s hard to deny that this year’s event was a wee bit of a cracker. Surprisingly for a con that’s usually kept things exclusive, the main takeaway from 2016 SDCC was the complete deluge of official trailers for upcoming movies. Sure enough, like last year, Warner Bros was leading the charge on this count (they even released a trailer for 2017’s hottest movie, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), which meant another brace of DC movie trailers once again meant to tempt people into believing that yes, they screwed up, but this time will be better, honest. As a highly-anticipated sequel to this article from last year which came with vaguely sad optimism about Batman v Superman, here’s my thoughts on the one-two punch of trailers DC served up for their 2017 movies:

Wonder Woman

WHAT IS THIS? A SUPERHERO MOVIE WITH A WOMAN IN IT?!

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was an all-too-fleeting bright spot in Batman v Superman. Sure, she did spend a bit too much time watching Justice League trailers when she should have been helping, but her charismatic, self-assured turn managed to neutralise some of the brooding machismo that had built up to ridiculous levels by her appearance – and, of course, she happened to be the most entertaining part of the otherwise awful final fight.

With typically cautious optimism that DC always requires now, it’s quite possible that director Patty Jenkins may have crafted a solo movie that’s befitting of that very promising entrance in BVS. It’s the first superhero movie with a female protagonist, somehow, in over a decade, but the trailer is refreshingly devoid of the smug lampshading of progressivism that can be seen elsewhere and contains just next to zero male gaze nonsense. The fact that a movie being confident and unapologetic about its female protagonist is worthy of commendation is a bit rubbish, really, but we have a pretty low bar to clear here.

More pertinently, the movie looks great. For all their flaws, Zack Snyder’s DC movies have unquestionably succeeded in crafting their own distinctive visuals and colour palette, with the routinely terrific cinematography and artful, painterly shots giving them a rare leg-up over Marvel where technical craft is concerned. That continues to be the case in Wonder Woman, from the looks of it – the trailer runs through about five different landscapes that already look and feel like they’ve been vibrantly realised, from the gritty hellscape of the trenches to the colourful exoticism of  Wonder Woman’s home turf, Themiscyra (that’s a dick to spell). And yep, Wonder Woman herself continues to look great in the action scenes – I could have done without the slow-mo overdose that uncomfortably reminds me of Zack Snyder, but the movie seems to have an entertaining and visually impressive handle on her fighting style.

Wonder Woman isn’t as off-the-book crazy as, say, Suicide Squad instantly appeared to be last Comic Con, but there’s real potential within this trailer for this to be a unique and worthy entry into the increasingly saturated genre, from the ornate period setting to the mostly-female cast.

On the other hand, Zack Snyder co-wrote the script for this, and everything he touches turns to machine gun smoke, most likely created by Ted Cruz cooking his bacon on the barrel of his gun like he did that one time.

That’s a forced in-joke by the way.

It was meant to be funny.

Anyway. Next movie.

Justice League

Coming into SDCC last week, just about everyone knew that Wonder Woman would show up. After all, it’ll be out by the time the next Con rolls around, and it’s already wrapped filming, so it was hardly surprising to see that above trailer pop up. This one, however, took just about everyone by surprise – it’s a full 16 months away from cinemas, and it would surely have made sense to let Wonder Woman have its time in the sun. To be brutally honest, I could not identify the noise I made when I saw this crop up on my timeline.

Here we are though, with footage that no-one expected. From a cold, logical perspective, this is a way less polished trailer than WW – the editing is rough around the edges, and the fact that the movie is still shooting means there’s no glimpse of the team actually fighting together, effects and all. It’s also nakedly geared towards showing a very significant tonal shift from BVS, putting the emphasis on jokey camaraderie and team spirit, with barely a touch of trademark Snyder brooding to be seen – in short, it’s basically a three-minute promise to the internet that the course has been corrected, and mistakes have been learned from. And, most importantly, it’s important to remember that this is a Zack Snyder joint, and the guy is developing a slightly undesirable reputation for editing brilliant trailers for awful movies – the promises being made here of improvement don’t exactly seem cast iron when he failed to deliver twice in a row.

With all that in mind, this footage is genuinely confidence-raising. Even if it is a course correction, the fact that the dark n’ gritty nonsense that clouded BVS is being dispensed with is a very encouraging sign that Snyder is beginning to really appreciate these characters for what they are, instead of manically deconstructing them like a kid who just discovered Lego. Another pleasant surprise is how downright fun Ezra Miller’s incarnation of the Flash appears to be. As a big fan of the character and the uncomplicated heroism he stands for, I was a touch concerned before that the Flash would be Snyderised and made into another brooding, abrasive asshole, but this footage just about entirely dispelled those thoughts. In this footage, this Flash is endearingly nerdy, earnest and sincere in his desire to help with Miller skilfully leaning into the humour veiling deeper loneliness – with fingers crossed, it looks like the Flash won’t be getting the Superman treatment of being physically prevented from expressing any kind of happiness. It’s a shame his suit is a bit crap, looking like a 14-year old’s overly elaborate attempt at creating a Halo multiplayer character, but I’ll take a faithful and sincere rendition of the character over a faithful costume.

Man of Steel and BVS ensured that I’m coming into any future Snyder movies with a sceptical outlook, so I’m reserving any ‘Justice League is going to be great!’ judgements, because I just know I’ll look back at this post and hate myself for being bored enough to look back at this post, while briefly thinking how dumb my past self was (did that sentence make any sense?). Time will tell, but this looks like a genuinely substantial shock to the system for DC in a way that BVS never appeared to be. Could this be… the first good Zack Snyder movie? Could the man be capable of… decent filmmaking?

Hold the phone – only 16 months to find out, if President Trump hasn’t participated in the destruction of Western society by then.

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Stranger Things: Mega Review

Quick note: for this review, I have shamelessly ripped off the format of video game reviews that my ‘friend’ uses on his blog. Check out that blog right here if you want the real deal/actual journalistic talent.

People are pretty divided on summer. Some, who are idiots, enjoy it for the hot weather and mild disappointment, while others, who are good and nice because they agree with me, hate the oppressive warmth and also the mild disappointment. One thing that we can (probably) all agree on, though, is that summer is absolutely appalling for TV. Most network shows are on a summer break, while all the critically acclaimed shows are biding their time for parts of the year when there is actually some level of night. All that’s left is the shitty leftovers of particularly piss-poor shows whose existence is regretted by everyone, placeholder summer shows before the more popular ones come back and the occasionally enjoyable one that would probably not survive for a second when the number of competing shows rises above 3, like Preacher.

Netflix, however, cares very little for those established rules, so they’re still putting out show after show despite the fact it’s the dead of summer because they either have a literal bottomless pit of cash or, more likely, they’re in crippling debt. Still, it is summer, so imagine my surprise when Stranger Things comes along, a show that crept in under the radar with relatively minimal publicity and a short season length that defies Netflix’s near-ubiquitous pledge to flaunt their crippling debt by making every season just a few episodes too long. Running at a slender eight episodes, Stranger Things really does feel like a beefed-up movie that just happens to be four times the length of your typical 80s sci-fi flick, so it seems fitting to give it a singular review. Here, I’ll take a look at both the episodes as a whole and then the separate layers of plot that dominate the story, hopefully answering the question as to whether this nostalgic sci-fi/teen drama/monster movie hit the mark.

There’s four main strands of plot within Stranger Things; these start off disparate and begin to intertwine across the season to the point where they’re inextricably linked by the end, but each provides a very different style of drama/intrigue, so I’ll be looking at each strand one by one.

 This review will be mostly spoiler-free. Yay! 

The Kids (are Alright)

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A good child actor is hard to find. Your standard young performer is, naturally, pretty one-note in their performance and thus the character in question only ends up having one distinctive trait. Too frequently, they’re also irritating presences, with the writer’s crippling misunderstanding of how young people act manifesting itself in constantly attention-seeking, annoying behaviour.

Having said that, it’s all the more impressive that every one of the four central child actors in Stranger Things are exceptional for their age. The central trio of Dustin, Caleb and Mike exude a lived-in chemistry that convincingly implies a deep shared history in a way some adult actors fail to really pull off – from the get go, these actors spark off each other and carve out their own very distinctive persona with tics and habits that distinguish them even further than the writing allows. The MVP here is probably Gaten Matarazzo, whose toothy Dustin becomes the social glue that holds the whole group together (I’m so, so sorry for using ‘social glue’) as he rises above the hot-headed disputes of the other two, but they’re all terrifically likeable performers. The scripting from the Duffer brothers backs up these prenaturally talented kids with very strong characterisation which really just allows these kids to be… well, kids. None of the characters conform to a two-dimensional archetype, and the common mistake of simply making young characters precocious and wise beyond their years is averted by the way in which the kids constantly screw up, squabble over petty disputes, make selfish decisions and fail to take situations seriously. Rarely for child characters, they’re believably flawed yet remain ultimately loveable heroes who become perhaps the easiest characters to root for in a show where almost every older character carries serious emotional baggage. Their likeability doesn’t feel forced – it simply emerges because these are kids who, for all the mistakes they make, are a tight-knit group of friends who have a pure and earnest desire to help their friend, especially if they get to hunt some monsters along the way.

And then there’s the mysterious outsider, Eleven, who quickly becomes a fascinating enigma at the heart of the show. Even considering the high standard elsewhere, Millie Bobby Brown’s performance wipes the floor with the other child actors because she achieves a much harder task with amazing sensitivity, emotional honesty and nuance. Eleven has a fraction of the dialogue of any other kid, including the missing Will, which means Brown has to rely merely on the tiniest facial expressions to convey emotions the other kids can just say out loud, yet she rises to the task with levels of expressiveness that do so much to reveal the tumultuous thoughts and fears bubbling inside. Eleven isn’t quite as successful in terms of characterisation, partially because she comes across often as a convenient plot device in action scenes – especially in the season’s second half, she becomes an easy ‘get out of jail free’ card for any type of peril that the kids face, which does lower the tension somewhat of certain action scenes.

But that’s a niggle, and that doesn’t take away from the pleasant surprise that one of the best aspects of the show is the aspect you would easily assume would be a total chore without watching.

The Teening of Life (I Mean The Teenage Characters)

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Ah. Well. Less good, this.

I would consider the teen drama to be the weakest aspect of Stranger Things. It’s simply too flawed, too lax in its writing, to be considered good television, and while it’s occasionally diverting, its flaws are simply exposed when it immediately follows a moment of exciting intrigue following the monster or a fun moment involving the kid characters. The problem here isn’t the characters – a couple, who I’ll get to below, are simply awful, but the main trio who fuel this drama are interesting, fleshed-out characters who all get their own rewarding character arcs in which significant, and unexpected change, is undergone.

Rather, it’s simply the trite and unoriginal framework that these interesting characters are forced into. For the first half of the season, at the very least, the situation is riddled with cliches and entirely conventional in structure, taking the affectionate homages of the rest of the plots and essentially dialling it up to full-on imitation of a dozen high school movies before it. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: ‘overachieving, smart girl meets bad boy and gets in with the wrong crowd, leaving her other nerdy friend(s) behind’. Yep, for four episodes, that’s it. For the scenes that don’t involve supernatural elements (and some do, which does spice thing up a wee bit), it’s so utterly predictable and well-trodden that everything just feels like it’s going through the motions. This is the smallest part of the show, but it’s a drag on momentum when the rest of the show is dialling up the pace, which unfortunately inhibits the otherwise smooth cranking up of tension throughout the season. It’s also not helped by two teen characters whose names I cannot remember and don’t deserve an IMDB search, representing the ‘bad crowd’ protagonist Nancy falls into. These two characters are just appalling. They’re like stick figures masquerading as humans or really well-disguised parrots, repeating the same nonsense throughout the season to the point where it detaches from all understandable human contact. There’s genuinely nothing to redeem about these monsters; hyper-sarcastic assholes stuck permanently in ironic mode who are incapable of human empathy. Okay, they’re tertiary characters at best, and their presence is five-minutes-an-episode tops. But my God, these little Hitlers are a pain in the butt.

However, the teen drama does become considerably more compelling when the show takes the characters from their basic starting point and begins to really subvert genre tropes with unexpected developments. The development of Nancy from spoiled teen wannabe rebel to a hardened, more compassionate person is far richer than you may expect because it’s not a clean transformation – one of the most satisfying parts of the show is the way in which Stranger Things wrongfoots the audience by the end with Nancy, as it maps out a clear and predictable trajectory for her love interests, takes that to almost its natural conclusion and then swerves at the end in a way that’s credible and far truer to the messy complications of tangled teen relationships. Likewise, her ‘bad boy’ boyfriend Steve becomes so much more than that – he’s far from an awesome and all-loving hero from the end and there’s a sense that he learns less from the experience than you may expect, but the hidden depths that unfurl towards the end of the season hinting at a softer personality that he lets on makes him a really believable character by the end; like the best characters here, there’s no real way to box Steve into an obvious character type by season’s end.

On the whole, this is a pretty slow-going plotline, needing an injection of urgency from the sci-fi ongoings elsewhere to really kickstart the character development and big twists. Nonetheless, it’s a far more complex story than it lets on, and the story begins to take a few pleasantly surprising forks in the road that indicates a growing level of confidence on the writer’s part in sketching out these characters.

Still, though, those two characters. Ugh. One of them actually looks like an entire tin of coffee was thrown onto his face and has festered for his entire adolescence, and one looks like a sphinx. Awful. Really bad.

Grown Ups

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There are really only two central adult characters here, and they don’t really get their ‘own’ plotlines that are entirely standalone because they’re most directly tied into the monster arc, but the characters of Joyce and Hopper are probably layered enough to warrant their own section.

The casting of Winona Ryder was one of Stranger Things‘ biggest marketing hooks, and befitting of that star status, she gets top billing in the credits. That’s probably more to do with the big name than her role, which doesn’t feel like a lead role even if she takes up perhaps the most screen-time of any given character. Ryder’s character, Joyce, is a bit confounding to analyse because she has the very convincing sheen of a developed and emotionally complex persona, yet remains hollow in her characterisation throughout. Joyce is taken to some really interesting emotional places as she spirals into anxiety following her son’s madness and that leads to some great moments, all of which Ryder knocks out of the park with an intensity and rawness that belies the thin scripting, but it’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that Joyce doesn’t develop. There’s no real arc for here – aside from a brief narrative cul-de-sac with her ex-husband that doesn’t factor into the endgame at all, Joyce learns basically nothing and ends up the same character as when she started.

And yet, that doesn’t feel like much of a problem. Stranger Things is so rife with the changes that are always ten times more rapid in childhood and so focused on meat-and-potatoes character arcs that a bit of stability is more or less necessary to keep everything anchored. In that case, the stability comes from Joyce and the constant worry and empathy that she exudes as the search for Will continues, which does help to keep the mystery grounded in sympathetic, understandable humanity even when the sci-fi elements are dialled up. It may sound like I’m making excuses for the show, and maybe I am, but my wish that the show did a little more to change her doesn’t mean that she’s an inert and dramatically vapid character – far from it; the opening episode lays strong foundations for her character that are enough to power through to the end, so Joyce’s lack of development is actually far less frustrating than it sounds.

Yes, that paragraph went in a different direction than I thought.

And then there’s Hopper, Stranger Things’ resident sheriff. There are so many Hoppers in fiction – middle-aged white guys with a tortured past involving a lost family who handle their grief through emotionally shutting down – that his introduction is a bit of an eye-roller, but his journey is, without a doubt, one of the most pleasant surprises that the show serves up. Most importantly, Hopper’s arc is subtle and deliberately paced – it doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with clunky signposting about major changes regarding his psyche, which means his transformation feels smoother and more consistent, as if his personality is constantly in flux throughout the season. With Hopper, Stranger Things manages to carve out a classic reluctant hero who discovers his dedication to the cause of saving Will and busting open the mystery runs to an extent that surprises even him. Hopper is a complicated character, wracked with guilt and pursuing the current case as a way to exorcise his past demons, but his heroism is refreshingly uncomplicated, making him a constant figure to root for as the kids squabble and the teenagers fall apart. David Harbour’s performance really solidly complements this, with a layered turn that keeps a cocktail of emotions always ticking away just below the surface, with the stoic exterior clearly just a facade to keep out the trauma that becomes more apparent as Hopper opens up.

This show’s casting is ace, if you hadn’t noticed. Top notch.

What’s That Coming Over The Hill?

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That is not the monster, by the way. That’s actor Matthew Modine, who is generally not regarded as a monster. He is related to the monster, however. Not Matthew Modine, his character. No offence, Matthew Modine.

Spoiler alert: in Stranger Things, there is a monster. Its existence is far from a secret, and it’s mainly its origins and whereabouts that are the most pertinent parts of the season’s central mystery. There’s less sci-fi monster hunting than you might expect – the personal drama mentioned above takes up a lot of space, but the monster mystery is perhaps the season’s trump card. It’s great because of its precise, careful construction, in which small kernels of information and clues are scattered throughout the season, increasing in significance while building organically upon the last, to the point where the barrage of clues gathers enough intensity that it’s hard to take all the answers in. This is a jigsaw puzzle that’s completed in just the right way, walking the delicate tightrope between (NO I AM NOT MIXING METAPHORS) tantalising teasing and satisfying pay-off without ever overdoing it on either. Moreover, the season’s slender episode count really works in the mystery’s favour, ensuring that significant and meaningful developments occur each episode, avoiding the trudge that a lot of Netflix shows fall into when there’s simply too little story for the season’s length. It’s a lean, pacey story, ensuring that the show as a whole has a clear sense of urgency at all times even when it’s dealing with the more ponderous teen drama or the back-and-forth of an argument between the central group of kids.

The monster itself is just okay. The mystery is well-constructed, but the answers we get are just a few clicks away from pure predictability (it’s the second or third option on the list of ‘where could a monster come from?’ sci-fi tropes), so there’s no real shocks regarding the monster’s origins. The design of the monster is also a bit sloppy, with its strange look compounded by ropey visual effects that make it look really unconvincing in action scenes – that robs a key last moment of its power and takes away some of the horror. It’s decently scary, nonetheless, and the show’s usage of blinking lights and darkness when it’s around is a smart way to circumvent the surprisingly threadbare effects, making it look imposing enough most of the time to be taken seriously.

Stranger Things is more of a ‘come for the mystery’ joint, anyway, and considering how compelling the sci-fi stuff consistently is, I’d call it a success in this regard.

Season 2?

Stranger Things‘ first season is a satisfying standalone story, and most loose ends are tied up by the end. It doesn’t conclude on a cliffhanger and leaves most characters’ stories wrapped up for the time being, so this could very well stand on its own as a great seven-hour story that doesn’t need to be revisited.

However, I think there’s still some story to be told here. There are two obvious sequel bait moments that are, thankfully, not crucial enough to the plot to damage its standalone enjoyability, but are intriguing enough to act as starting points for season two storylines. There’s also very much a sense of unfinished business with the shadowy government organisation that lurks at the side of the show, whose motivations and background remain unrevealed by season’s end.

Stranger Things deserves a season two, but it doesn’t need one. That’s a happy medium to be stuck in, meaning that it’s really a win-win situation regardless of whether it continues.

Let’s face it, though, it will continue. Netflix renews everything. Literally everything. I cannot think of a single show that they haven’t renewed.

Wrapping it Up

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The bottom line: Stranger Things is really good. It’s a compelling, well-paced show that deftly blends genres and delivers unexpectedly strong characterisation, backed-up by a uniformly excellent cast. At just eight hours, it’s absolutely worth a watch. It is also, however, about nothing at all.

I haven’t mentioned this.

Stranger Things is stuffed to the gills with story and twists, but if you’re looking to analyse the show on anything deeper than its construction and characterisation, good luck. It’s strange in a world where TV is renowned for its ability to explore complex themes that films simply can’t do justice to, but this is a show that basically says nothing at all about the world we live in, or the world we lived in back in 1983, the season’s setting. It answers nothing about the human condition, about stories and the monsters we face in real life.

It’s simply a good, solid tale, but it’s strange to see how it’s utterly devoid of any kind of thematic depth. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, simply an observation that this is really something that plays purely to the part of ourselves that wants to curl up with hot chocolate (I mean, it’s too hot for that at the moment, but hey) and distract ourselves from the world with a bit of entertainment. It’s great comfort food TV, but it’s still comfort food TV. Whether that bothers you or not will be absolutely vital to your enjoyment of Stranger Things.

I seem to have ended this more ambiguously than intended.

Oops.

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Comic Con™

Hey, guys, I have somewhat, slightly, to a certain extent, overcome my writer’s block! Well, I’m still feeling a wee bit creatively lethargic, but this post is being written as a placeholder before another post I have on the go, which will be a bells-and-whistles full review of Netflix’s new drama, Stranger Things. I know, I’m talking to myself again. I’ll stop soon, I promise.

It’s that time of year again! No, not the arbitrary three-day UK heatwave that ensures everything, everywhere, is sweaty and briefly creates the new ethnicity of ‘red-white British’ in all local parks. Nope, it’s San Diego Comic Con, the annual July hoopla where the entirety of geek culture is scooped up and dropped into one undersized and presumably overheating building for all to see. As a Geek On The Internet™ for a few years now, SDCC has become a summer touchstone for me, briefly compensating for the appalling lack of TV and disappointing blockbusters with a flurry of information and trailers for my favourite shows and anticipated upcoming movies, all so densely packed within a few days that it’s somewhat hard to remember that there are other things going on in life.

And yet, the mass of information about upcoming stuff is what makes SDCC such a fundamentally hollow enterprise. Much like its video game counterpart, E3, SDCC delivers excitement and anticipation that’s pre-packaged and artificially engineered. While SDCC does allow the key opportunity for creators and actors to interact with their consumers in a way that the unfiltered sewage of Twitter makes much harder, and while many of the talking points come from a place of genuine love and excitement for the product, it’s still, fundamentally, a big product. Look at Warner Bros, whose annual Comic Con institution is to pack its entire upcoming slate of blockbusters into one slot. This is a very smart idea as a business proposition – for many, including myself, ‘Warner Bros’ is just a shorthand for ‘DC’, because it’s where DC Films will spill the beans on Wonder Woman and probably Justice League. People are really, genuinely excited for that, because these characters and films have a long-term following that’s organically emerged, and WB could be seen as quite rightly just tapping into that already-existing vein. But, if you want a ticket to see Wonder Woman footage, you’ll have to sit through the joy of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a reboot that currently has literally no following or anticipation, and will almost certainly bomb at the box office. I may be generalising, but there’s piss-all fan following for this movie. And yet, because WB’s shareholders would really like an end-of-year bonus, it receives equal status and equal hype – the difference to DC being, obviously, that any anticipation generated will be artificial and contrived, purely created on purpose by WB with only commercial interests at heart. Considering how SDCC is meant to be, at heart, a place for people to share what they love, isn’t this showreel of commercially necessary titles, only some of which people genuinely care about, selling the soul of the whole enterprise?

And even then, it’s arguable that the entire event is tainted by this. Hell, while there’s a lot of stuff people really want to see at Comic Con, their anticipation and excitement has undoubtedly become a commercial tool. Marvel may have an enormous fandom and a rich history stretching back decades, but the main intent for their appearance at SDCC is, plainly, to drum up excitement for movies that have become merchandising events with toys, spin-off books and other sponsorship deals all needed to fulfil the commercial imperative of balancing the books on budgets that frequently total almost half a billion dollars when everything is taken into account. These movies and shows that will dominate the online conversation this week and the next are increasingly products that near-uniformly exist because of commercial interests rather than creative necessity – and perhaps that’s just a given, and it’s churlish to rag on what will always be a commercialised industry. Nonetheless, as a Consumer of Pop Culture, I have a small, probably futile hope that the shows and movies that I plug so many hours into watching have a valuable reason to exist – that someone, somewhere, felt passionate enough to bring the idea to life, with the commercial benefits effectively coming secondary to the fact that someone really put care into bringing the product to life. While creators are wheeled out constantly at SDCC to explain the creative reasons behind their project, SDCC doesn’t put the focus back on the creative side over the commercial – instead, it essentially enables and accelerates this commercialisation. With the glossy trailers and cast appearances, the sad truth is that SDCC is little more than a hard sell from companies to up their profits by tapping into a rich vein of enthusiasm that can be converted into cold, hard, cash.

I’m still absolutely looking forward to SDCC, but it’s a real shame that an event created by fan passion for their favourite things has become so hollow and vapid at the centre, with a sheen of artifice that indicates that all the excitement is simply something designed by some corporate higher-ups who realised just how commercially valuable fan anticipation really is.

Sorry, for the record, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. It’s coming summer 2017, from the director who said that ‘good guys are boring’.

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Writer’s Block

 

Evalast-Background-Aggregate-Block
artist’s impression of writer’s block

 

look guys someone’s writing about writer’s block hold the phone

Look, for all my jokes about having two followers that are actually not really jokes at all, I do get that virtually no-one is actively waiting upon new posts for my blog. A couple of people might click a link on Twitter if they’re sufficiently bored, and someone might look because I messaged them saying ‘I DID NEW BLOG POST’ and they’d feel guilty otherwise (you know who you are), but I can say with confidence that approximately zero people are wondering when I’ll post again. That’s not meant to be self-aggrandizing or anything, although it kind of is. In fact, it’s something of a luxury, because it means I have virtually no pressure to ever hold any kind of regular schedule, meaning I can post whenever I like and no-one will ever get mad at me for my shocking inconsistency.

And yet, despite all of that, I do feel a bit guilty for my ridiculously infrequent blogging. Sure, there’s been other things to do, but when I set this up, and for a good amount of time after, the intention was always to post at least once a week. This was going to be the fountain of my ideas, everything I wanted to do at other sites but couldn’t – a place where I could pretty much be 100% creative and work by my own rules. A bit like my Twitter, really, except my Twitter comes from the trash compactor at the back of my mind where all the shitty, awful thoughts go.

The funny thing is, I have genuinely been trying to post more. My first response to coming up with a new idea that I really want to talk about is to whack it down on the blog, and that’s still the case. However, none of those ideas have ever made it to the point where I’m interested enough in them to publish. There’s about 12 partially written articles with a good 500+ words written, some of which are fully complete, lurking in my drafts folder, for context. However, uniformly, I’ve ended up hating them – each time, after a half hour or so, I’ve grown bored with what looks like a bunch of dry explanation and clicked off the tab, leaving those articles to fester in the ether forever or wherever substandard 17 year old ‘film blogging’ goes.

 

To loop back to the post’s title, the whole point of that was to say that the blog has been caught in the middle of an especially long bout of writer’s block – a weird, confounding mix of motivation and laziness, in which quick bouts of inspiration that once made it into the real world linger in the drafts page once the familiar wave of ‘oh dear this is shite’ has come through. That’s the problem with writer’s block, and what makes it more frustrating than simple laziness of the ‘let’s just watch Game of Thrones and do literally nothing else of value’ today – it’s a genuine desire to do something, only that ‘something’ is literally everything other than the thing you are currently doing, meaning that in the end you end to doing nothing at all. If that makes any sense. In fairness, I’m rusty. Thanks, writer’s block.

I’d love to end on some uplifting or meaningful pep talk/motivational statement, but really this was more of a reflection of how a creative and exciting venture becomes bogged down in the mind’s annoying tendency to contradict itself and reject ideas that sounded absolutely great, earlier. I’m almost certainly not alone here, as I think I’m approximately the 95384574th person to write an article about writer’s block as if it’s the greatest problem that has ever faced mankind. But that’s where my blog, and to a greater extent, my creative drive, is at the moment.

Writer’s block sucks. Don’t get writer’s block, kids.