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Stranger Things

In 2014 the creative minds of Henry Gayden and Andrew Panay brought us Earth to Echo, a labor of love, in the vein of 1980s coming of age films, but updated for the digital age and flecked all about with cell phones, cameras, and other hallmarks of generation Z living.  I found the film to be enjoyable; the cutting in and out of cell phone footage struck me as rather authentic despite the film’s outlandish premise and director Dave Greens documentarian approach towards adolescent adventure felt fresh and new.  Ever a fan of ET’s climactic bike chase I saw the clear parallels in scenes where the kids of this movie drive down a dark country road in the middle of the desert.

Nonetheless, this movie was lambasted by critics as a rip-off of  E.T. the Extraterrestrial, and criticized (rightfully so, I must admit sullenly) for its inconsistent lens.  I perfectly understand this; no critic wants to be thrust back and forth between the seat of a theater — watching the epic spectacle take place — and the adventure itself — seeing shaky cam documentation of the event as it happens.

Even at a cramped and frenetic 82 minutes, the movie feels long. That’s what happens when the audience can guess everything that’s going to happen in advance. Even the 12-year-olds the movie is aimed at weren’t born yesterday

–Kyle Smith, New York Post

What really struck me about Earth To Echo was the review by Adam R. Holz of Pluggedin in which said writer described his conversation with the Andrew Panay (also the film’s producer) at a screening of the movie.

 “Don’t you think it’s weird that your generation hasn’t had a Goonies to talk to you? … I thought it was about time you kids had the same experience us adults have had.”

–Andrew Panay

This is an admirable pursuit, these stories of timeless adventure, heroism, and growing maturity will always be important.  There remains however, the troubling fact that they must be told well.  Enter… Stranger Things.  

This is an eight episode miniseries created by the Duffer Brothers and dropped onto netflix last year.  The show stars a whole gaggle of excellent actors including Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb Mclaughlin.  All give excellent performances, which can be attributed to their merits as actors, but also the balanced, symetrical writing that weaves the plot together without ever dragging.

In Stranger Things a small town is thrown in to turmoil when a young boy named Will goes missing.  His mother begins communicating with him via supernatural means, while appearing to descend into madness.  Depressed cop Hopper is reinvigorated in his search for answers, and three friends of Will’s take it upon themselves to find where Will meant and bring him back.  All of this stacks up to roughly six hours or so of rock solid character development.

As one of tv’s most shallow viewers ever, I’ll admit that in a show like this, it’s not unheard of for me to clock out on certain character arcs that fail to engage.  Don’t ask me a thing about Karen Page in season 2 of Daredevil, because I’ve completely forgotten it.  It’s just what dramatic shows tend to do these days.  Give you something to move the plot along, but then turn to the actions of a side character, doing something that doesn’t connect with the plot whatsoever, and may or may not be resolved.  The Duffer Brothers avoid this by centering every plot event and character motivation upon the supernatural events plaguing the town.  The result is a sight to behold; 45 minute episodes that feel like they’ve just breezed by in fifteen; such is the caliber of this show’s construction.

The series climax is pure brilliance.  The climactic action scene, in which the monster that has been the cause of everyone’s pain is finally seen.  It is made more terrifying by the flashing lights in the room.  The first confrontation with the beast, in which three outleagued teens take it on ought to be seen as a master class on shooting action with suspense.  First they set up their ambush, Home Alone style.  Laying out a bear trap, loading a revolver, driving spikes through a bat, and finally, stringing up lights to fortell of the monster’s arrival and ready them to wish merry christmas to that filthy animal.

When the monster finally enters from its parallel dimension, the lights begin flickering like crazy.  Our vision is greatly occulted, but not really.  We see just enough to perfectly understand what is happening.  Like a hyper-sped slide show, the Duffer’s deftly communicate the dialogue of the struggle, keeping us invested, even as we creep closer and closer to the edge of our seats.

In the end, Stranger Things is a triumph of writing, acting, and direction.  It draws on elemental nostalgia, but only as a boost to an already proficient plot.  A surprise emotional and visual thrill ride, I enjoyed stranger things more than I’ve enjoyed any extended narrative in a long time, and I can’t wait to see what the Duffer Brothers have in store for us next season.

 

Into The Badlands Season 1

Daniel Wu in Into the Badlands

Into the Badlands, by now, is a show that everyone probably knows of, if not about.  With the mass popularity of other AMC shows like Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, high viewership was not difficult for the show to obtain.  I checked it out on  a whim back in 2015, and was instantly floored by the show’s combat.  The first fight scene happens fairly early in the first episode, with one of the show’s main character’s, Sunny, dispensing lethality to a group of outlaws along the side of the road.

I continued to watch.  The second thing that drew me in was the show’s world building.  The titular location of the Badlands is a place that appears as a cross between a southern plantation, and a feudalist monastery.  After some sort of unnamed fallout or disaster, the use of guns was abolished and powerful warlords called barons rose and claimed the territory.  The barons exist in harmony but rule with iron fists, sending “Clippers” like Sunny to eliminate resistance to their power.  Most enticing about this world though is the fact that pretty much everyone seems to grasp at least a basic knowledge of martial arts combat, opening the door for a variety of complex and vibrant combat set pieces that blend slick choreography with Tarantino grade stylized gore.  Think of the beautiful poetry of fight scenes in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon combined with the arresting blood spatters of Kill Bill.

Our story picks up when Sunny, our anti-hero discovers the strange abilities of a boy named M.K.  who suddenly gains superhuman strength, speed, and poise when his skin is broken.  He also bears with him a pendant indicating that there is a place beyond the badlands, where Sunny and his lover Veil — to whom he is essentially married — can escape and raise their soon to be born child.

A lot of what makes the first season of Into the Badlands so compelling is the fact that as a pilot season, its six episode deadline makes it a very self contained story.  There is a definite beginning and end to the narrative, and there is very little fluff along the way.  I won’t say that the plot was the most powerfully moving story ever, but it was simple enough not to trip over itself and allow the show’s excellent choreography and action cinematography shine through.

The way that this fight scene is shot goes beyond cool looking moves.  Look at how the rain drips off the brim of a fedora; how the muddy water splashes up out of a puddle.  This is a show that understands how to shoot a scene with an atmospheric tension that makes the ensuing battle that much more fascinating to watch.

If I haven’t made it clear enough, the sword fighting is the star of the show here;  Not the acting, or the score (as catch as the theme song is).  But the story is just coherent enough to string together some of the best action sequences you will ever witness.  As far as martial arts TV is concerned, that’s about all you can ask for.

Legion

Legion, the comic character is one of the most unsettling characters I have ever read.  His insanity (and his gravity defying hair-do) really don’t jive with the rest of the X-Men, or even the Marvel universe for that matter.  I checked out Legion as an obligatory measure, fully expecting it to choke on its own mediocrity, like Agents of Shield, and a whole host of CW iterations before.  But it doesn’t choke.  It breathes just fine, with deep, healthy breaths.  Legion’s first season is organized very uniquely, almost like an eight-hour movie.  Its first two episodes are the first act, the rising action.  The 3rd, 4th, and 5th are the rising action.  The final three are the climax, and the conclusion.

The show begins as sort of wry comedy.  David Haller has been diagnosed as insane, and he doesn’t understand his powers.  He doesn’t understand he has them for that matter, everything abnormal about his life is just marked down as a side effect of his schizophrenia.  He has learned to live with the voices in his head, but he only understands them as arbitrary voices, and not offshoots of his own personality.  In the first episode, when an interrogator asks him if the voices told him to kill himself, he answers with a face as straight as a line; “No, they told me to stop.”

David is broken out of his prison, and brought to Summerland, a place with like-minded people, and other superhumans.  He learns that he isn’t exactly crazy, but just special.  He is, in fact, one of the most powerful beings in the world.  He and his allies delve deep into his mind, bringing to the table some excellent visual effects.  The memories that David relived first episode are now walked through by Ptonomy Wallace, an “artist” of his trade, who can reconstruct and manipulate a person’s memories in exact detail.  The events transpire just as normal, but with David and those trying to crack the code of his abilities observing and subtly interacting with the things that happen.

A perfectly horrifying character appears here and there as the show progresses, and his appearances grow more and more frequent.  “The Devil With The Yellow Eyes” as he is known menacingly looks on at David, rarely making any sound, save for a disconcerting grunt.  This, as well as plenty of other terrifying figments of David’s imagination, make the show’s second “section” if you will, a bit of a cerebral horror mystery.  Some moments where someone is trapped in one of the various cranial spaces, with the evil monster approaching are nerve-rackingly unnerving, and downright fear inducing.  Without necessarily understanding what David goes through, we still are just as afraid as he is.  Show creator Noah Hawley is a modern genius.

Legion also manipulates reality, on a level just short of Deadpool’s obliteration of the fourth wall.  Legion doesn’t knock it down, but it definitely taps at the glass.  Sound, and color are the toys of the director, and he does with them what he pleases (this is one instance where six different directors, and four different writers isn’t really a bad thing).  At one point, a pitched ringing goes through the air, and the character’s mouths begin moving, with no sound coming out.  Another, more obnoxious still, features overpowering music, and all dialogue broadcast via intertitle cards like an old-fashioned silent movie.

The last couple of episodes take place in the same moment in time, with the clock frozen just before David and his lover are about to be mowed down by — an oddly included — Thompson machine gun.  The characters move back and forth on the astral plane, trying to figure out how to deal with this quite vexing conundrum.  Suddenly, Oliver, a confusing character, who has more or less lost his mind after years of cryogenic stasis appears to save the day.  He begins waving his arms like a conductor, and the smoke from the bullets transforms into musical notes, producing the music of a beautiful symphony.  Inside the astral plane, the same song rings out, but with technological manipulation, giving watchers (or listeners rather) a twisted, chaotic, distortion of the original melody.

There has been a lot of talk about how Legion will fit into the X-Men universe, maybe too much talk.  As many have pointed out, David is in fact the son of esteemed psychic Charles Xavier, and in a flashback sequence, we catch a glimpse of his Iconic wheelchair.  This is an enticing prospect, but if you ask me, Legion just isn’t compatible with anything else the FCU has produced.  Can the conflicted David Haller share the screen with the squarish Wolverine?  Only if Legion’s visual punch is severely neutered; otherwise, extreme tonal disagreement would ensue.  I’ve always been as huge a fan of the interconnected Marvel universe as the next guy; Combining five different movie characters into one alien blasting spectacular is one of the greatest decisions any movie exec. has ever made.  However, I think we as comic fans, moviegoers, tv watchers, and as members of a media consuming populace, have lost sight of what made these properties so compelling: the stories behind them.  Marvel’s Agents of Shield was a great show, until it introduced Lady Sif, and Enchantress, (not the hula-dancing one, although that is one hilarious premise) both characters from Thor.  After this, the writing floundered, and lost all the intrigue that propelled its first few episodes forward.  I’m happy to say that Legion has plenty of this energy to spare.  The psychedelic superhero vehicle has come blasting out of the gate with its foot glued to the accelerator for eight straight episodes.  I only hope that it is able to keep its foot on the gas.

The Wire: Season 1

As a lifelong resident of Baltimore there is a certain interest I took in The Wire; simply because it is set, and was filmed barely an hour from where I live.  The location of the show plays a major part in the show’s progression as it is partially based upon the accounts of the show’s creator David Simon who was a Baltimore City reporter during the 80s and 90s.  This basis in reality makes it more than a disposable cop show.  In fact, it really isn’t a cop show, as much as it is a show where a large percent of the characters are cops.  The drug dealers are focused upon very extensively as well, making the show a well-rounded experience.

The Wire details the ordeal of the Baltimore City Police Department and their struggle to bring to heel the illegal operations of drug dealer Avon Barksdale (who was based on a real Baltimorean kingpin).  Various people are introduced throughout the series, all of which receive a satisfying amount of development.  There are no disposable characters in The Wire; each serves as a driving force to the progression of the story, a cog in the machine of the narrative.  There is Jimmy McNulty, a detective, and the show’s main character for the most part.  He is a man motivated by a desire for justice, but increasingly frustrated with the bureaucracy of the city’s law system.  Almost parallel to him is D’angelo Barksdale, nephew to Avon Barksdale.  His arc is a fascinating one.  He feels a need to “get out of the game” and leave crime altogether, a feeling that strengthens as he sees more and more the horrors of Baltimore.  Also providing a fascinating performance is Idris Elba, as Russell “Stringer” Bell, Barksdale’s right hand man.  Bell seeks an exit to the dealing operations, but less because of moral obligation, than desire for entrepreneurial legitimacy; we see him working at a printing and copying business and taking business economics classes in his spare time.

Slightly outside the main story progression, is the arc of Omar Little, a stick up man who targets the gang men in Baltimore, but lives by a code that doesn’t allow for the hurting of civilians and innocence.  When one of his associates is brutally made an example of by the Barksdale organization, he embarks on a rampage, no longer using his sawed-off to rob the gangmen, but to kill them.  His haunting whistling of “The Farmer and the Dell” is genuinely intimidating, as is the way he casually strolls down a street in a trench coat while residents hurry away shouting “Omar’s Comin'”.

The Wire is what Simon calls, a “Visual Novel”.  The show’s episodes are like chapters in a book.  The first seven episodes or so are rising action, setting the stage for the main events.  The middle five are hectic and action packed climactic chapters, and the final episode is the falling action, and the closing off of all these loose ends.  As each episode is not in itself a story, but only a fragment of one, the larger story is made all the more impactful.  The show is also devoid of artificial stimulation of any kind.  There are no voiceovers, or on-screen texts.  Any music the viewer hears comes from a car radio or a restaurant sound system somewhere within the scene.  I’m not opposed to these things necessarily — as a matter of fact, my favorite movie of all time is almost always accompanied by background music, and begins with the mother of all onscreen texts floating through space — but their absence in this case adds to the story’s realism and authenticity.

Despite being made in 2002, The Wire somehow still feels fresh, and new.  Far from growing irrelevant with age, its deep story transcends time.  Simultaneously, it can also works as a period piece, reminding viewers of a time when cloning a drug dealers pager, so they could know when they were going to a wiretapped payphone was cutting edge police work.  Low-res box-shaped computers frequent the BCPD offices, and in some cases, reports are done with type writers.  The focus on technology of a decade past adds an entirely new layer of interest to the show’s events fifteen years later.

The Wire follows all of its characters through a three-dimensional lens.  Even the drug dealers — whose actions are nothing short of despicable — are given layers that make them interesting to the viewer.  Even though we hate what they do, we sympathize with them, and their plight.  The city really does trap people, and for many, the only way out is criminality.  Nothing illustrates this better than a conversation between D’angelo Barksdale, and Stringer Bell.  Stringer orders D’angelo not to pay their employees for a week, since he suspects a mole in the gang’s midst.  When D’angelo suggests that a man may not work without pay.  Stringer smartly retorts, (I quote from memory) “Where are they gonna go, college?”  We emphasize with the police and their pursuit of justice, but also with the men they hunt, trapped by circumstance in a viscous cycle of violence and illegal activity.  We condemn their action’s but in an odd way, understand the motivations behind them.  Nonetheless, the Wire  draws a line of morality, never in any way shape or form unsure about what is right or wrong.  It has been often hailed one of the best TV programs of all time, and while the truth of this is debatable, it is certainly worth consideration.