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Josh Reviews Stranger Things Season Three

In Stranger Things season three, we rejoin the kids (and a few heroic adults) of Hawkins, IL in the summer of 1985.  The kids are enjoying summer and the brand new Starcourt Mall that’s been built in their town.  Mike and Eleven are a couple and are inseparable (to the frustration of El’s adopted father Hopper).  Steve is working at the mall’s ice cream shop.  Nancy and Jonathan are working as interns at the Hawkins Post, but Nancy’s desires to be involved in real news reporting are constantly thwarted by the condescending men who work there.  Dustin has just returned from a science camp, and detects a strange Russian transmission on the radio he sets up.  Will is frustrated that the gang seems to be drifting apart, and is alarmed when he begins to feel hints that the Mind Ripper has returned.

Season three of Stranger Things is, overall, a terrific new installment of this loving pastiche of the 1980’s films of Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment, the stories of Stephen King, the films of John Carpenter, and more.  (Click here for my review of season one and here for my review of season two.)  These eight new episodes are fun and exciting.  The story moves along at a rapid clip.  (We don’t get any episode-long digressions in the manner of season two’s much-criticized Eleven adventure “The Lost Sister”.)  I’m pleased to see the story and the characters moving forward.

My main complaint is that I wanted more!  We had to wait over a year between seasons one and two (from July 2016 to October 2017) and almost two whole years between seasons two and three (October 2017 to July 2019).  After so long a wait, I watched these eight new episodes in about a week.  It’s all over and done far too soon to suit me!  I know this is the model these days… and I prefer eight tight episodes to a longer season that drags in the middle.  But it seems to me that, despite how ambitious this show is, they should be able to get us eight new episodes annually.  After waiting almost TWO years for this new batch, it wound up feeling a little anticlimactic to me after so much anticipation.  I hope the Duffer Brothers and Netflix are able to bring us season four on a shorter timetable.

I also have to point out that the show is running into trouble because the show’s narrative timeline is unfolding far more slowly than the production schedule of actually making the show.  Season one took place in November 1983, season two took place in October 1984, and season three is only 9 months later, in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Stranger Things Season Two!

Like most everybody else, I quite enjoyed the first season of the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things last year.  (Click here for my review.)  But while I enjoyed that first eight-episode installment, by the end of it I wasn’t sure the show could sustain a multi-season run.  Would the show’s eighties-homage nature get old?  More problematically, while the final two episodes of season one were thrilling, I was disappointed by the number of narrative threads left hanging (read to the end of my review to see what I’m talking about); and if the show couldn’t be bothered to resolve these plot holes, it didn’t seem to me like a strong foundation for a lengthy run.

So color me pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed season two of Stranger Things.  While this second season doesn’t have the joy of discovery of this new and unexpected show that was part of what made watching season one so exciting, I actually think season two is a stronger piece of narrative story-telling, compelling from start to finish and with a more tightly plotted story.

I’ve read some complaints that the season starts too slowly, but I didn’t feel that way at all.  I enjoyed the way the show took the time to re-establish the characters and where they all were at, emotionally, a year after the events of the first season.  The obvious question was, why would any of these characters stay in Hawkins, but the show smartly answered that.  (Showing how Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper have become reliant on the scientists at the lab to monitor Will was a clever way to keep the characters tied to Hawkins.)

As always, all of the main kids are terrific, and the show smartly gave each of the main boys their own individual story-line here in season two.  We see that Mike has fallen into something of a depression at the disappearance of Eleven, while Dustin comes to care for a baby monster he nicknames Dart and Lucas begins to fall for the new-girl-in-town, Max.  Season one focused on the search for the missing Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), but that meant that Will wasn’t actually in the show very much.  Here in season two, Will steps to the forefront, and we discover that young Noah Schnapp is a fantastic actor, taking Will on quite a harrowing journey as he begins to succumb to the influence of what the boys nickname the “Mind Flayer” from the Upside Down.  There were more than a few scenes in which I was stunned by how great Mr. Schnapp’s performance was.

The older kids remain very interesting as well in season two.  Though Nancy ended season one in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Stranger Things

Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers, is an eight-episode Netflix mini-series.  Set in Indiana in 1983, the story begins with the disappearance of twelve-year-old boy, Will Byers, in mysterious and possibly supernatural circumstances.  Will’s three best friends Mike, Lucas, and Dustin set out to investigate what happened to their friend.  They soon meet a mysterious, near-mute girl who goes only by the name Eleven who seems to have telekinetic powers.  Does the government facility from which Eleven has apparently escaped have a connection to Will’s disappearance?  Will’s distraught mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is also desperately searching for her son, and she becomes convinced that she has been able to be in contact with him somehow through the electronics in her house.  Although the town Sheriff, Hopper (David Harbour), who has a past with Joyce, is at first dubious of Joyce’s claims, he gradually becomes convinced that she might be on to something.  Mike’s sister Nancy is going through her own drama, entering a new relationship with Steve Harrington, one of the most popular boys at school.  But when she sees something terrible in the woods behind Steve’s house, she and Will’s weird, outsider brother Jonathan start doing their own looking-into the weird happenings in their small town.

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Stranger Things is a lot of fun, and I very quickly got sucked right into the story being told.  The series is a loving homage to a whole host of influences that many who were kids in the eighties (as I was!) likely have a wonderful warm nostalgic feelings for: Amblin Entertainment and the films of Steven Spielberg, particularly E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; and also The Goonies, which was directed by Richard Donner and released by Amblin; and also the novels of Stephen King.  There are a lot of common narrative threads that run through those stories, which have been adapted here in Stranger Things: a story set in a small American town with supernatural elements, focuses on a group young kids who come together to go on the adventure.  The combination of a coming-of-age story with some sort of adventure/supernatural/sci-fi element proved a potent combination for so many of those great movies/novels/etc. in the eighties and the combination works every bit as well here in Stranger Things.  The show is filled with lots of little touches that are designed to strike that nostalgia chord in viewers, such as the very distinct font for the show and episode titles in the opening credits, as well as the sight of the boys riding around their small town on their bicycles.  These elements are fun, but luckily they don’t overwhelm the show to become nothing more than reminders of things we’ve seen in other things … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Show Me A Hero

Is there a greater master of television working today than David Simon?  Had he never done anything else of consequence after the triumph that was The Wire (and seriously, if anyone reading these words has never watched that show, you really need to drop everything and remedy that immediately) then he would still be a master of the medium.  While The Wire remains his magnum opus, I was a huge fan of his follow-up show Treme (cut short too soon after four too-short seasons, though I thank the TV gods and HBO for those four seasons that we got) and now Mr. Simon has given us another magnificent piece of work, the six-episode mini-series Show Me a Hero.

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Show Me a Hero is based on the 1999 book of the same name written by Lisa Belkin.  The story, taking place between 1987 and 1994, follows the fight to desegregate Yonkers.  A Federal Judge, Leonard Sands, had ruled that Yonkers was required to construct 200 units of public housing on the white, more-affluent side of the Saw Mill Parkway.  This became a huge issue in the city, with many of the white population protesting this decision.

Show Me a Hero’s main protagonist is Nick Wasicsko, a young Yonkers city council member who was able to unseat the long-term Yonkers mayor, Angelo Martinelli, because Nick makes an issue of the fact that Martinelli had voted not to appeal the judge’s decision.  However, once he takes office, it becomes clear to Nick that there is no viable legal challenge to the judge’s ruling.  Nick, a former lawer, believes in the rule of law, and as such eventually becomes a supporter of enforcing the judge’s decision.  This is an extremely unpopular move in Yonkers.  The show follows the many years during which this argument raged in the courts, in the city council chambers, and on the streets of Yonkers.

The show presents us with a vast array of characters from all sides of the issue and from many different social strata.  This has always been a hallmark of Mr. Simon’s work.  It was one of the most remarkable aspects of The Wire, and its a huge component to the success of Show Me a Hero.  Throughout the six episodes we meet the Yonkers city-level politicians who support and oppose the housing initiative.  We meet the citizens leading the protest movement.  We meet Judge Sands and the architects and lobbyists pushing the housing initiative.  We meet many African-American families who will, when the new housing project finally becomes a reality, choose to apply to live in the new units.  Mr Simons and co-writer William F. Zorzi show great compassion for all of … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Black Swan

I’m not really sure quite how to put this so I’ll just go ahead and say it:

Black Swan freaked me the fuck out.

And I pretty much loved every second of it.

The one-two punch of The Fountain and The Wrestler have made me a big, big fan of Darren Aronofsky, and with Black Swan he’s pretty much made me a fan for life.  Black Swan is one of the most viscerally engaging experiences I’ve had in a movie theatre in quite a while.  The film is intense and erotic and gruesome and it grabbed me by the guts and never let go.  It only squeezed harder as the film built to the absolutely wonderfully madcap insane final twenty-or-so minutes.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is cast as the lead in her theatre company’s new production of Swan Lake.  The company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), knows that Nina has the technical perfection to play the White Swan half of the role, but he worries that her dancing is too cold, too polished, for her to embody the more sensual Black Swan half.  As Nina pushes herself harder and harder to satisfy Thomas, things start to fall apart for her in a big way.

Right from the beginning, Mr. Aronofsky and his team establish a creepy vibe for the film.  Nina is clearly an extremely tightly wound creature, so one immediately knows that the pressure of the starring role might be trouble.  This concern is only magnified when we’re given a glimpse of her home life.  Nina still lives with her mother (played by Barbara Hershey), and it’s clear that the two have a very weird relationship in which Nina seems to be extraordinarily infantilized.  For example, her little room is decked out with stuffed animals and other pink, frilly things as if she were as seven year-old girl.  There’s a great scene in which Nina is reluctant to eat a cake that her mom has bought her to celebrate her being given the lead role in Swan Lake, and her mom’s extreme reaction to this minor rejection clearly indicates that this co-dependant relationship is fraught with problems.

As the tension and pressure on Nina builds, things get creepier and weirder.  The film really plays with the notions of reality.  We never quite know if what we’re seeing is real or just in Nina’s head.  There are a few really quick, subtle visual effects shots that are dropped in at just the right moments to give the audience (and Nina!) a jolt.  Mr. Aronofsky’s camerawork also serves to keep the audience on our toes.  We’re continually pushed right up close to the characters’ faces.  The cinematography really keeps the … [continued]