Scrolling Through Your Phone and Vacuuming: a Guide to Careless Reviewing

Standard

It has been a week since the second volume of Stranger Things season four has come out, so it’s probably safe to talk about it now. But I won’t. Not yet. 

I find myself starting blog posts all the time, and because I seldom write in this space, I find that I often try to make up for the number of posts with the number of words in a post, and that long-ass season would need an awful lot of words. 

So, instead, I’m going to try to post more often but to cover less each time.

This post contains spoilers for Stranger Things 4.

Back when season one of Jessica Jones came out, an author I like posted a negative review of it. Which is not a big deal. It would be a dull world if everyone liked the same things. But one of his big criticisms was that he didn’t understand why Jessica wouldn’t kill the villain. He thought she should just kill him and solve the problem.

After I read that bit, I thought to myself something like, Was he vacuuming during the scenes with no fighting? Because those characters debate–at length, over several episodes–Jessica’s determination to somehow capture him alive. How could this author have missed it?

Well, he missed it because he didn’t like the show and because he didn’t like the show, he wasn’t paying attention.

The same thing crops up everywhere. I was reading a review of a novel in which Our Hero has an extended part of his life where he spends his mornings training with weapons and his afternoon learning magic, and the reviewer was obviously much more interested in the magic than the weapons. After Our Hero’s first fight, the reviewer was mystified. They didn’t know how the character could win a fight, because they’d skipped over the part of the book where he trains to fight.

And like every reviewer, they did not look inward at this discrepancy. They didn’t think Maybe I missed something?

Nope. They decided the character was a Gary Stu or whatever and dinged the book for their own lack of interest.

So it is with the review of Stranger Things 4 by Freddie deBoer. (I’m not going to link to it, because links are precious gems that must be spent carefully, but you can google up the guy’s Substack if you want. Fair warning: his bio cheerfully discusses his own growing reputation as “an asshole”.)

As part of his criticism, deBoer complains that too many of the scenes are Big Emotional Moments, saying: 

Why not have Max give that tearful confession about wanting Billy to die for no discernible reason other than manufactured pathos?

Now, anyone who has watched the show and paid attention knows exactly why Max makes that confession. She’s trying to bait the season’s villain into attacking her. But if you don’t like the character and are bored with the show, you’re not going to keep track of the plot. What’s more, all those Big Emotional Moments is going to feel empty.

(In fact, at the top of his review, deBoer says, in drama, every scene cannot be climax. He then goes on to list a long string of scenes that all fall at the end of the series, and that were climactic moments for the many, many storylines in this 13-hour story.) 

But look, the guy finds most of the characters “profoundly annoying.” He hates the politics. He hates the tone. He thinks it panders to nerds.

And really, given all that, is it any surprise that he’s not moved by the big moments at the end of those storylines? Or that he doesn’t really seem to be paying attention at all?

To which I say: people, don’t watch shows that don’t interest you. Just turn them off. Your hate-watch is not interesting in and of itself, and your criticism is not going to be as insightful as you think, mainly because you’ve spent half the run time of the show scrolling through your phone, not to mention all that vacuuming. 

One other thing deBoer talks about is Barb, and he’s wrong there, too, but that’s for another post. 

Behold the Hairdo of Vecna: Predictions for Stranger Things 4

Standard

Okay, so the full trailer for Stranger Things 4 has finally come out. Here it is:

As a followup, the Duffer Brothers did an explainer video, where they talk about the context for many of the clips, drop a few mild spoilers, and generally hype the show.

So, in keeping with my tradition of making predictions about the upcoming season and getting everything completely wrong…

Let me say it again:

+++My predictions are always wrong+++

So there are no spoilers here, only anti-spoilers.

Anyway, here goes:

  • The Victor Creel storyline partially shown in the Creel House teaser will be the opening scene in the first episode, just as the frightened scientist was in S1, Kali’s gang was in S2, and the Soviet machine was in S3.

 

  • When part two drops on July 1st, I’m guessing the flashback sequence with a very young Eleven and all the other kids will be the opening scene for that episode.

 

  • Vecna’s very human looking eyes were once Victor Creel’s. The shot of Robert Englund, already confirmed to be an older Creel, shows him scarred and eyeless, and they named the bad guy Vecna, after all.

 

  • Because this eye-theft would have happened in the 1950’s or early 1960s, I don’t think that Vecna is an Upside-Downed Brennar. Nor is he Steve Harrington, turned into a demo-vampire by the bites of the demobats he’s fighting in that segment. Nor is he Billy Hargrove, which would make no logical sense but apparently people want it anyway because they want to see a handsome actor and Dacre Montgomery is the only one. Given his general shape, he might be an altered human but could be anyone, including someone like Percy Fawcett. [Update: it turns out that imdb has Dacre Montgomery listed in the credits for three episodes in this new season, including the last one. Still, I’m betting he’s in flashback scenes, not the Vecna suit.]

 

  • Billy’s tombstone is different in different shots because at least one of those scenes is a dream sequence. They did bring in Robert Englund for a small but pivotal role, after all.

 

  • Which means that several of the shots in the trailer are from Nightmare on Elm Street-style horror dreams, most especially the rock guitar jam session inside the Upside Down.

 

  • See also Max levitating above the grave. That’s another dream sequence. It could also be an effect of seeing the clock, as the Duffers say in their video, or a result of a few particles of the Mind Flayer that (flashback!) Billy slipped into Max’s body when she sleeping or eating Wheaties or something. But I think dream sequence is more likely. It’s not because Max is the new Eleven, the psychic girl with the ability to fight.

 

  • Then again, in a shot near the end of the trailer, Max is running away from (what appears to be) Vecna and toward some sort of portal. Through that portal, in the far distance, you can see what appears to be that same scene: a figure floating above three others on the ground.
Max running toward a portal out of the upside down, but is that Max herself in the portal, floating?

Click to open this full size to get a better view of the silhouettes in that white circle

 

 

  • So does that mean Floating Max is a doppelganger? Or that she’s trying to escape into the waking world, where Vecna’s influence has her entranced and floating? I’m not sure, but maybe I shouldn’t be making predictions about that shot of her floating.

 

  • In their comment video, the Duffer brothers say that the shot of Eleven screaming and blasting soldiers away from her isn’t unconvincing de-aging cgi. It’s not a flashback. High school age Eleven is back in her sensory deprivation tank bathing suit and her… hair is shaved again? I assume it’s a little hair piece, because how she going to do Enola Holmes 2 while sporting a Furiosa. Still, I’m 100% on board with Classic Eleven.

 

  • The rest of the (young) cast are going to move beyond the bowl haircuts. All these fans who want Will to come out of the closet, get a boyfriend, etc, but all I want is for him to get himself a decent haircut. Let Vecna steal it like he took Victor Creel’s eyes. Imagine here that someone took the trouble of photoshopping Will’s bowl cut onto Vecna. Anyway that’s my prediction: Will ditches the bowl haircut but doesn’t come out as gay. (Important Note: See line above between the triple plus signs.)

 

  • But Lucas does. In S3E1, it comes out that Lucas and Max don’t spend a lot of time making out. Lucas is making fun of Mike for wanting to kiss his girlfriend, and Max says, “It’s romantic,” in a way that suggests she would like that sort of romance, too. It’s obvious Max and Lucas like each other, but Lucas doesn’t desire her in the same way. See also this tweet about one of the new guest stars on the show. What if the “shocking event” (or one of them) is that he gets caught kissing Lucas? I’m saying that, whatever they decide to do about Will’s sexuality, Lucas is gay(, too).

 

  • Will Robyn and Nancy get together, romantically? I’m going to guess that’s a no. Yeah, Jonathan’s all the way across the country, but the “See you on the other side” exchange between her and Steve has some strong sexual chemistry going on. If Robyn is going to find love this season–and she should–it will be with Vickie, the “band nerd” played by Amybeth McNulty.

 

  • Chrissy, played by Grace Van Dien, is the one holding the mummified hand (presumably Vecna’s) in that one, too-quick shot. It was hard to see the actor’s face, though, which is why this is a prediction rather than me saying Oh hey, look who it is.

 

  • What will Joyce be wrong about in season 4? Nothing, as usual. Joyce is never wrong.

 

  • There’s a gladiator scene in the trailer, where Hopper and a bunch of other prisoners face off with a demigorgon, using only axes and spears and other hand-to-hand weapons. I’m going to guess that cutting weapons will be more effective than guns, which got so many DoE agents and guards killed. I’m also going to say that the Soviets are arranging these fights because they’re hoping a wounded demigorgon will open a portal to the upside down, either to recover from its injuries or to feast on one of the corpses, and they intend to send troops through the portal after it in hopes of creating a stable gateway. The payoff to that extended gladiator scene is a frantic scramble by Soviet scientists to set up a smaller version of The Key (featured so prominently in the first shot of the trailer) so they can shoot it through the demigorgon’s little gate.

 

  • That package with the Russian stamps all over it that Joyce examines? Murray sent it. I’m thinking Murray has some reason to believe Hopper didn’t really die, either because there’s no pile of overcooked long pork where Jim was standing or because our Russian guest star for this season reached out.

 

  • Mike and Dustin are going to learn that Eddie, their new heavy metal DM, has been dreaming about the Upside Down when he incorporates it into their game.

 

  • Who is in the body bag? I’m going to guess that it’s the high school guidance counselor Ms. Kelly, played by Regina Ting Chen, if she’s been brought in to Hawkins High to help the kids deal with all the trauma they’ve suffered. If the guidance counselor is one of the California characters, which would make sense because Eleven would have a lot of trouble fitting in to high school, then I don’t have a prediction.

 

  • Who is in danger of dying this season? Let’s go through the list.
    •  Every guest star for the season, especially the guidance counselor, the new DM, the basketball star who’s life spirals out of control, every government employee/soldier making their first appearance, and the shady Russian guy.
    • Ted. Honestly, it’s time for Ted to die as a hero or as a villain.
    • Murray. Brett Gelman brings fantastic energy to the show but if he’s going to stick around he needs a new schtick. Otherwise, he should be a tragic sacrifice.

 

  • What about the deaths of Steve or Max? I guess there’s talk in the ST fandom that both are at risk, and it sort of makes sense. Joe Keery is playing a college freshmen and he’s about to turn 30. I’m guessing he’d like the show to wrap up before he starts greying at the temples. As for Max, the Duffers said that this is a big season for her, and that Sadie Sink gives a fantastic performance. If someone is going to echo Billy’s death here in S4, it would make sense to be her.

 

  • My biggest prediction is that Stranger Things 4 is going to end in loss and tragedy. Owens says there’s a war going on. We know the show will end with season 5. It would make sense for this extremely long season, which will have a much bigger scope than any season before, will end Person-of-Interest-style, with the bad guys triumphant.

And if anything I’ve said here annoys you, remember that I’m always wrong.

“There’s No Such Thing as an Anti-War Film”: Power Fantasies, Gritty Superheroes, and The Batman

Standard

Yeah, this post is full of spoilers for The Batman. The good kind, but still.

It’s probably not the case that Francois Truffaut explicitly said that it was impossible to make an anti-war film, although the sentiment is often attributed to him. He did said that he decided not to make a movie about Algiers because “to show something is to ennoble it”. He also said, in an interview published in the Chicago Tribune, “Every film about war ends up being pro-war”.

Because it just isn’t possible to make an audience, sitting in a comfortable theater with a bag of popcorn balanced on one knee, feel the same horror and despair that soldiers feel in battle. It’s the difference between skidding off an icy road then bouncing down a steep mountain slope with your kids in the back seat, and riding a roller coaster with them. One is a moment of terror in which an uncaring universe might take from you everything you care about, and one is a noisy thrill ride that might upset your tummy if it goes too fast. The latter simply can’t represent the feeling you get from former.

THE BATMAN has a similar problem, but instead of trying to be a war movie about the horrors of war, it’s a power fantasy about the dangers of misusing power.

Bruce Wayne starts off the film believing that he can make Gotham City a better place by terrorizing criminals. With the deaths of his parents giving him an excuse to do whatever he wants, he’s ruthless and pitiless, holding onto his personal rule against guns and killing as though that’s enough to make him one of the good guys.

Except he isn’t making things better, and he’s probably making them worse. Bruce admits to himself pretty early in the film that things have only gotten worse in the two years since he put on the suit, but his only solution (here at the beginning of the film) is to “push himself.” To double-down.

To exercise more power, and to be more ruthless about it.

Then the whole rest of the movie calls bullshit on every tactic, attitude, and assumption that Bruce Wayne has brought to his vigilante crusade.

Some examples:

* He has no interest in Wayne Enterprises or any aspect of the family business that has made him rich. Then he discovers that the Renewal program his saintly father created has become, after his father’s death, a slush fund that keeps mobsters and corrupt officials in power. Gotham is more corrupt because Bruce is not paying attention to the Wayne finances.

* He has no pity for the people who are caught up in Gotham’s criminal underworld. Then he discovers that his saintly father wasn’t so saintly after all. He made a mistake in a desperate moment and got involved with a mobster. But he still remained, basically, a good person and Bruce has to accept that people aren’t all good or all bad.

* He is driven by capital vee Vengeance for the sort of people who made an orphan of him, then he has to hear what it was like to be an orphan in one of the Wayne-funded orphanages, and it is a horror show. All of Bruce’s pain and rage at growing up without his mom and dad is a very small thing indeed beside the suffering Edward Nashton endured.

* He is convinced that the tool that will win the fight against crime is terror. If only he could frighten more people, make them afraid of every shadow, they might finally go straight. Never mind that the criminals who are afraid of him still rob bodegas and firebomb banks…

Also, never mind that Bruce’s terror campaign is indiscriminate. After he stops the clown gang from beating up a random subway rider, he doesn’t ask the guy if he’s okay. He doesn’t help the guy up off the ground. He just glowers at him, while the victim pleads, “Please don’t hurt me.”

At the end of the film, when Batman is reaching out to the people trapped beneath the scaffolding, everyone is too afraid to reach back. Except for the mayor’s son. He was the only person Batman has shown any empathy and that moment, early in the film was not something Bruce planned, and it’s definitely not something he thought would make Gotham a better place.

But it does. Because once the mayor’s son trusts Batman enough to let himself be rescued, others do, too. Without that moment of empathy in the middle of a crime scene, Gotham’s new mayor and all her staff would have rejected Bruce’s help. He couldn’t have led them to safety, and he couldn’t have helped coordinate rescue efforts. He couldn’t have comforted those who were frightened and in pain.

It’s a big pivot from the Please Don’t Hurt Me guy to the woman in the stretcher who holds his hand. Because what good is all of Bruce Wayne’s pain if it doesn’t make him empathize with other people’s pain?

But I want to return to that capital vee Vengeance scene. When I first saw Batman knock out that gang leader, then say, “I’m Vengeance,” I felt the tiniest twist of disappointment. I really didn’t want another gritty superhero, willing to do whatever it takes to out-violence and out-terrorize the worst of society. Someone willing to be the one guy who can give back to the bad guys what they’ve been dishing out.

To me, that’s an asshole’s way of being good, and it wasn’t until I realized the whole movie was designed to interrogate the idea of asshole-Batman that I could put aside that disappointment. I mean, Penguin and Cat Woman both make fun of Bruce for it, calling him, “Mr. Vengeance” or just plain “Vengeance”.

Then one of Riddler’s snipers delivers the “I’m Vengeance” line and Bruce hears it from the other side. He finally hears it the way I heard it, while I was sitting in my comfy seat in the theater. That changes him, and at the same moment, I realize this is the best Batman movie I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever.

Unfortunately, judging by the social media I’ve seen and the YouTube reviews of the film, a whole lot of people thrilled to that early “I’m Vengeance” moment. It’s The Batman! He’s a badass who beats people unconscious and then says badass things!

It’s a power fantasy that’s curdled like old milk, because it’s mixed with viciousness and contempt. But people love power, and they love to be vicious when they can convince themselves that viciousness is justified. It thrills them.

And even though the movie clearly repudiates that moment, they can’t help but smile as they think about it. The power fantasy just feels so good.

So how are we supposed to show a toxic hero’s power in a way that doesn’t make him unsympathetic or a villain, and that also doesn’t also thrill people? I’ve been thinking about this question quite a bit, and I’m not sure how to find the answer.

A Finished Draft of a New Twenty Palaces Novel, and More

Standard

If you’re a Kickstarter backer for the two new 20P novels, you’ve likely already received the announcement that the zero draft (aka: the vomit draft) of The Flood Circle is done. That means both this new book and The Iron Gate are ready for revisions, and since they sort of tie together, it’ll be good for me to tackle them together. So, Yay for that, and also I wish I wrote cleaner first drafts.

In other pleasant news, my months-long plan to say “Or we could just play Jinkies” every single time my gaming group was about to try a one-shot or switch games has had the desired effect. One of our players is taking a holiday trip, so I get a chance to try out this game I’ve had in my personal, figurative on-deck circle for months. It’s like getting an extra Giftmas present a week before the holiday.

In less happy news, I had to switch to a new doctor this year, and my wife convinced me to make an appointment for a minor health issue that’s been bothering me for (literal) years. Basically, I break out in itchy hives any time I get slightly warm. A hot shower will do it. A walk to the grocery store will do it. A tense conversation with my wife will do it. On the advice of my previous doc, I take an OTC allergy med, but that only eases the itching, it doesn’t eliminate it, and it does nothing for those ugly fucking hives. It’s just so gross and embarrassing, and it’s been getting in the way of my exercise plans for literal years.

So I went to the doc. I told him I’d spent months working hard to lose weight and had dropped 40 lbs. Then I went to my father-in-law’s house to help my wife deal with his estate, and the place was not exactly clean. (Which is not a dig on my f-i-l. He was a good guy, but he was in his eighties and his health had been terrible for years.) It was there, cleaning out that house, when I started breaking out in hives, and it took me weeks to figure out why. (Finally, I googled “I am allergic to my own sweat.” — It turned out I wasn’t actually allergic to my own sweat, although some people can be. It was just body heat.)

That was in January, 2012.  My appointment with the doc was last July, and after I ran through the whole thing, he ordered the usual tests, then said nothing about the hives. When I sent a note asking about it, he told me I’d need to make an appointment for it.

Which I already did. Last July.

I suspect he’s over-focused on my weight, which has indeed gone up now that any sort of exercise makes me look, feel, and act like a leper with fleas.

Eventually, I’ll have to go in for that followup appointment to cover the actual issue I went to see him for in the first place, but the holidays are busy and I have writing to do and whatever. I’d be more willing to go if I thought something good would come of it. Very discouraging.

On the plus side, the internet assures me that this issue usually goes away by itself in three to thirty years, so really, this will might be fixed any day now.

Anyway, that’s it. Take care of yourselves and happy holidays.

The Teen Romance Subplot in Stranger Things Season One (Happy Stranger Things Day)

Standard

First of all, I know this is (::checks word count::) Way Too Long. This is very much an Overthinking It-style analysis, and maybe it would be better if I cut it way back, or focused on only one of the characters, or even if I broke this up into a couple of installments, but fuck it. I’ve been itching to write something like this, because so much of the critical focus on Stranger Things is about nostalgia and movie references, but little attention is paid to how the show undermines those elements.

A few months back, I was looking for a podcast with a solid analysis of the show, and I happily started playing something from Variety. Almost immediately, one of the hosts said, while laughing, that the references in the show were the only thing to talk about, and I immediately turned that metaphorical dial. I don’t care how prestigious you are in the trade. If you’re phoning it in, I’m hanging up.

Second of all, so much of the fan discussion of this show falls into either shipper obsession or why certain fans stan certain characters and I honestly it’s rare that I find any value in those conversations

I can certainly understand fans of the show who root for the characters, or want to see them kiss or whatever, but I never really understood the fervor for this sort of thing. Maybe it’s my essential boringness, but I just don’t engage with media this way. As long as the story is good, I’m not thinking about which character ought to be pairing up, or who is simply The Best. Wash over me, Show. I will think about you after.

Which is me saying that, if you’re reading this and thinking “He’s criticizing [Character], so he must stan [Other Character]” I promise I’ll be picking apart [Other Character] soon enough.

Also, it’s 2021. Why is this a blog post instead of a video essay?[1]

I’m planning to analyze the subplot mentioned in the title of this post, and I’ll write a little bit about Nancy, but this will mainly be about Steve and Jonathan, the two guys who form a love triangle with Nancy in the first season. Steve has become a fan favorite over the course of three seasons, but Jonathan… not so much. 

Frankly, that’s exactly the right way for audiences to react. It’s also kind of unfair.

How do the teenage characters in Stranger Things absolutely explode the standard teen romance plot in 80’s movies?

Here are the basic elements of that plot:

    • the girl who serves as lynchpin, who is drawn toward the popular jerk at first but eventually realizes she’d be happier with Someone Else. She’s somewhat idealized and v sympathetic so the audience falls in love with her a little, too.
    • that Someone Else, a boy who is a bit of an outcast, a quirky striver who has, maybe, an artistic bent. He’s a bit of a weirdo but in a cute way and eventually winds up with the girl.
    • the popular jerk she’s already dating, who is handsome, wealthy, and athletic, and turns out to be a villain by the end. He’s The Guy Who Seems Right At First But Isn’t.

I mean, that’s not the only type of romantic plot, but it’s a pretty common one. And, being movies and being from the 80’s, a lot of these stories center the outcast character. Since ST is a (dreaded) “eight-hour movie” it has the time to center all three characters. 

If anyone has read the Duffer Brothers’ original pilot, MONTAUK, they would have seen a very different version of Steve. Instead of a clueless, sensitive baby-man, he’s an extremely troubled guy. When Nancy goes to meet him in the school bathroom before first period, he hides at first so he can jump out and scare her. Then, after they kiss, she asks him if he’s been drinking. Reminder: school hasn’t even started yet.

Later, at a party on the beach, he’s end-of-the-day drunk and stoned, and he physically drags her away from the party to assault her in the dark. That’s… not the same kind of story at all, and I’m glad they dropped it. The Steve Harrington we got was much more interesting than that villain would have been.

So what I’m saying is that, just as Steve (as he appears in the show, not in the pilot) doesn’t neatly fit the basic archetype, neither does Nancy or Jonathan. (For more about the pilot script, keep reading)

Let’s start this with 

Nancy 

since she’s the easiest to talk about. 

First of all, against all expectation, Nancy isn’t given an introduction designed to make us sympathetic toward her. The first thing she does is smirk at Dustin–adorable, fan-favorite Dustin–then slam a door in his face. Why? Because he dared to offer her a slice of pizza.

Personally, if a kid with the weapons-grade charisma of Dustin Henderson offered me a slice, I would thank him profusely and sincerely, then turn him down. No way would I eat the last of a pie that had been grubbed around by a bunch of 12-year-old boys playing in a basement. But I’d be nice about it.

Nancy clearly doesn’t feel the same way.[2]

She’s also not that sympathetic in the way she treats her best friend. Barb tells Nancy that she’d “better still hang out with [her]” after she becomes friends with Steve and his pals. Nancy immediately assures Barb that of course they’ll still be friends, she’d never ditch their friendship. Nancy ditches her the very next day.

What I’m saying is that Nancy is careless with other characters that we like, and that’s an odd choice for the lynchpin of our love triangle.

But once Barb goes missing, Nancy does another unusual thing for a character in a love triangle: she loses all interest in the romance plot. Honestly, once Nancy starts risking her life to find Barb, I started to sympathize with her deeply. (More on this later when we talk about Steve.) It’s not the first cool thing she did, but it was the one that made me change how I thought of her.

After that point, evidence of her actual interest in the romance aspects of the story are thin on the ground until the epilogue, when she gives Jonathan a Christmas gift that’s not really a gift, then gives him A Look. Being Jonathan, he thanks her and runs away, and she goes back to Steve and his awful Christmas sweater. New status quo: Nancy is back with the pretty himbo while Jonathan, the guy is actually seems to like, is still on the outside.

Speaking of 

Steve, 

he’s a huge fan-favorite, and it’s easy to see why. 

First is Joe Keery himself, who’s plays Steve as a guileless pretty boy who keeps trying to do the right thing but can’t seem to figure out what that is.

Second is that Steve is a villain who becomes good because of LOVE, which is a wildly popular trope. I’ve never really understood the visceral appeal of the Reformed Bad Boy, but I recognize that it has a powerful effect on some people. Adding it to Steve’s S1 arc is bound to give him a huge boost in popularity.

Third is that the show provides him with two friends who take on the role of scapegoat when he finally has his big villain moment[3]. It’s not Steve who does the spray-painting, it’s these other guys. Steve’s big regret is not that he tried to ruin Nancy’s reputation, only that he stood by and did nothing.

Fourth, that big villain moment, which usually occurs at the climax of the story, is actually shunted to episode six. And why not? The love triangle is a D-plot at best. The real resolution to this story comes from the confrontation with the Demogorgon/Brenner/the upside down, and a showdown with Steve in the middle of all that, would be a distraction from what’s important.

That leaves plenty of time for the previously mentioned reformation of poor Steve. The show transitions from Hopper saying “Losers? What losers?” straight to Steve and his friends. Tommy talks about plotting some further revenge [4], but at this point Steve has nothing but regrets. So, instead of lashing out yet again, the rich, popular Guy Who Seems Right At First But Isn’t does a sudden face turn.

And why not? There are two episodes left, and the plot is not interested in Steve’s heartbreak. The plot is bringing all these separate story lines together for the final confrontation, and the writers have to decide if Steve is going to be part of that, or if he’s going to vanish from those episodes. Or if he’s going to die.

So, face turn it is! And by the end of the season, he ends up with Nancy even though he’s STILL the Guy Who Seems Right At First But Isn’t.

And the right guy, judging by Nancy’s Christmas Gift Look (and subsequent seasons) is 

Jonathan

which invites an interesting question: At what point does Jonathan begin to have feelings for Nancy? 

I’ve thought about this for quite a while–and I think the show is a little confusing on this–but I don’t think Jonathan really begins to care about Nancy until the scene where he rolls out the flowery sleeping bag on the floor of her bedroom. 

This is going to take a little bit of text, but bear with me.

There’s a certain trick directors use when they want to show that one character secretly/quietly loves (or is infatuated) with another: The two characters have a scene together, usually a conversation. One of them walks away and it feels like the scene has ended. But no, actually, not yet, because there’s an extra shot that shows a character staring after the one that’s leaving with a look of blank interest. Call it a look of yearning or fascination, maybe, but their eyes are intently focused but the rest of their face is expressionless.

In the first scene where Jonathan and Nancy interact on the show, Jonathan gets one of those lingering shots of her as she walks back to her friends.

Except his expression is all wrong. He looks mildly confused, not fascinated. What’s more, the shot holds on him long enough to show him look away and walk toward the door. That is definitely not an unrequited attraction shot.

Context for the scene: Jonathan was all alone at the high school corkboard, hanging a flyer about his missing brother, and Nancy’s new friend group were standing in a row in the middle of the hallway, staring at him as though he’s some kind of zoo exhibit: The Weirdo and his Unnerving Tragedy.

Then Nancy crosses the space between them to offer her support and reassurance (the previously mentioned “first cool thing”) and Jonathan seems genuinely surprised. Is Nancy Wheeler one of them–the Steves and Barbs and Tommy Aitches standing across the hall, watching him like he’s barely a real person–or is she better than that?

Later, when Jonathan is taking pictures of the scene where his brother vanished, he hears a scream, runs toward it, and discovers Steve’s party. Now the situations are reversed, and it’s Jonathan looking at Steve/Barb/Tommy, etc as though they’re a zoo exhibit: The Social Habits of the Upper Class Suburban Teen. 

And because, as he later admits, he’d rather observe people than talk to them, he starts taking pictures. (I’ll get back to this in a bit)

There’s a final, lingering shot of Jonathan in the scene by Steve’s pool, too, but he doesn’t have a look of fascination here, either. It’s disappointment. Nancy has chosen Steve, which means she’s chosen the boring, normal people.

And of course, up until now we like Jonathan. He’s suffered a terrible tragedy, and he’s doing his best to look after his mother. He’s gotten a hero’s introduction, and because Nancy dared to leave her himbo boyfriend to talk to him, Jonathan is positioned as the Someone Else, the quirky, artistic outsider who’s a bit of a weirdo, who is also the right guy for Our Heroine. 

Right up to the moment we see him snapping pics of Nancy undressing in Steve’s bedroom window. He’s not supposed to be that much of a weirdo.

I get that the plot requires those photos for Nancy to spot the demogorgon so the show can combine the teenage Will and Barb plotlines. They really needed that cross. And sometimes, when the need for a plot solution is powerful enough, you can find yourself defining characters so that they fill that need. 

Which means that Jonathan, a caregiver character who makes breakfast for his family, works extra shifts (as a high school sophomore) to help cover bills, and who is trying to comfort his mother so she doesn’t go spinning off the rails, is also a creepy stalker dude who takes secret pictures of a girl during a very private moment.

That’s a bad look for the guy who is slotted into the role of the romantic lead of this particular subplot. So what the fuck?

I puzzled over this for a while. Sure, the show needed to have Jonathan accidentally snap a photo of the demogorgon, but why did it need him to take photos of Nancy in Steve’s bedroom window? Why not just have him see them, get that look of disappointment, then have him see Barb on the diving board. A lonely teenage girl sitting by herself, full of sadness, is a solid choice for an artsy photograph. Click. Demogorgon captured on film

Or why not have him snap a few photos of the kids by the pool, so they could keep the scene where Steve punishes him, then, through the viewfinder, he sees Nancy undressing in the window but doesn’t press the shutter. Let him make his disappointment face, then take the plot-necessary photos of Barb? 

Why not draw the line on the correct side of a picture of Nancy undressing?

I keep thinking about that absolutely electric scene with Dacre Montgomery and Cara Buono at the end of season 2. If the show had paid it off in season 3 with a night (or series of nights) at a no-tell motel, that would have been fine by me. Logical, even.

But there’s a significant portion of the population that has been badly hurt by real-life infidelity, and they would hate Karen forever if she cheated on Ted. Nevermind Karen’s loneliness or Ted’s neglect, they’d turn on her because she did things “the wrong way” (ie: not getting a divorce first). Therefore, the show has Karen back out of the tryst.

Part of me wonders if they made that decision because of the way fans responded to the stalker shit that Jonathan pulls in season one.

But Jonathan is a character, not a real person, and I’ve been wondering what character motivation, if any, they give for him to have taken that shot. 

I think the answer is revealed in the moment of conflict when Nancy and Jonathan are out in the woods with Lonnie’s gun, actively hunting the monster. In the earlier darkroom scene, Jonathan said he takes pictures because he thinks they’re “saying something” and he wants to capture that moment. In the woods, Nancy asks him what she was “saying” [5] when he took her picture, and Jonathan says that he could see a girl who was trying to be something she wasn’t.

Nancy immediately recognizes that as a dig and rightly calls bullshit. Jonathan, who apparently thought “I can see that you’re better than those people you call friends even if you can’t” was some kind of compliment, tries to retreat, but she keeps pushing him. He admits that he doesn’t like (most) people and then they trade insults. 

And they insults they choose are revealing. 

Nancy’s dig at Jonathan is specific to him (and aimed at his reputation). “Maybe he’s not the pretentious creep everyone says he is.” Oh no! His reputation is accurate! Better to stick with Steve, because why else would she date an earnest dope like Steve who (to quote Steve himself in another context) “is cute and all, but [is] a total dud” except that he’s the BMOC?

In contrast, Jonathan’s dig at Nancy is not specific to her at all. He talks to her as if she’s a type of person, a generalization instead of an individual. “The suburban girl who thinks she’s rebelling…” etc. [6]

Because Jonathan does not think of people outside his tiny circle as individuals. He sees them (to use his own words from season two) as “normal”, as people choosing to travel inside the ruts that society carved for them because those ruts are easy. They have pre-fab interior lives. They’re people with nothing interesting or worthwhile to offer. 

That’s why he was so contemptuous of Bob in the second season, and was also so very wrong about him.

That’s also why, when Nancy approaches him at the corkboard to offer a few supportive words, Jonathan looks back at the crowd she left–Barb with Steve and Tommy H and Carol–and they are framed as a cohesive group, all standing together the same way, looking at him with the same expression. To Jonathan, those are all the same type of people: normals. To him, it’s unremarkable for Barb and Tommy H. to be standing next to each other, because they’re both in the “vast majority” and his vision of them doesn’t recognize divisions of conflicts between them. They’re just… all hanging out together, as far as he can tell.

That is also why, I believe, he takes that picture of Nancy. What privacy do people like them really need when he’s so sure he already knows who they are, inside and out?

So we pit Steve, the villain with the hero’s flaw (he needs to figure out what’s *really* important) against Jonathan, the hero with the villain’s flaw (thinks most people suck and are beneath him) which is one of the reasons this dopey show about petal-faced monsters and psychic little girls has such interesting characters, and why all the talk about nostalgia and borrowing from other sources misses the subversive touches that make this show compelling. 

To circle back to one of the earliest questions I had about this subplot, when does Jonathan actually start to have feelings for Nancy?

After he’s arrested, Flo says he beat up Steve because he’s in love with Nancy. Is she right?

I’m sure Flo heard about the circumstances of the fight: seeing the movie theater graffiti, beating Steve like a rented mule, then bloodying a cop’s nose. Nevermind that Jonathan didn’t mean to elbow Callahan in the face, no cop ever believes they got hit by accident. To Flo, it would make sense that there’s a coherent through line with these elements, and that Jonathan was motivated by love.

However, watching the scene again, its pretty clear that Jonathan doesn’t start throwing punches when Steve is insulting Nancy. At that point, he’s saying “Let’s leave. Let’s leave.”

It’s only when Steve starts insulting Jonathan’s family, saying Will is missing because he’s a screw-up from a family of screw-ups,[7] that Jonathan throws that first punch. The fight is evidence that Jonathan loves his little brother, not the cute girl beside him.

Even so, I don’t think Flo is entirely wrong, even if she uses flawed evidence to reach her conclusion. I think Jonathan does already care about Nancy by that point. Maybe it’s not full-blown, let’s-portmanteau-our-names lurve, but I think he started to care for her from the moment he pulled her out of the tree to safety, then rolled out the sleeping bag onto her bedroom floor. Before that, he was sort of figuring her out, swapping stories about their parents while they were shooting cans, talking about his photography, whatever. He was getting to know her.

Once Nancy crawls through some extra-dimensional mucus portal into a world of murder monsters, she levels up to Proper Show Hero. And when she returns to our world, she’s a complete mess, justifiably freaked out to have accidentally ventured into an alternate Earth where she was hunted by a monster.  

Jonathan is a care-giver and a helper. He cooks the family breakfast. He shops for a coffin, alone. He tracks down his deadbeat dad. 

Then he and Nancy venture into the woods to find the monster, and she’s confronts it all by herself. His voice leads her back to safety. He’s the one comforting her, just as he had to comfort his mom and would try to comfort Will in season two, when the kids are calling him zombie boy.

He also offers to crash on Nancy’s floor so she won’t have to be alone, if that’s what she wants[8], and when he says that, his tone has completely changed from the “What’s the matter? You tired?” moment from earlier that night. His relationship toward her has done a 180, because she needs his help and he’s giving it.

I’m pretty sure this is where Nancy genuinely starts to care for him, too. She’s intelligent and full of initiative, and she needs someone who can help her get shit done. Jonathan does that for her, while Steve very much doesn’t.

In the morning, when Karen tries to open the door, they do that panicky hand-grasp thing, a Stranger Things-specific indicator of growing closeness between two characters (of different genders, of course). Murray will call it “shared trauma” but up to this point, it’s Nancy’s trauma. Jonathan is just there to make it better.

Of course, later he gets monster snot dripped into his open mouth, so he eventually gets his trauma, too. 

There’s more to say about this triangle in the second season, when Nancy is trying to get Jonathan to go to a party so he could maybe meet someone, which he does and he does, and poor Steve, like so very many boyfriends and husbands, is shocked to discover that his partner is unhappy. Plus, Dorothy Sayers. But this post is already too long. 

Stranger Things! Where everyone sees the references to older stories, images, and tones, but no one seems to recognize how the show undermines them. [9]

If you’ve read this far, thank you! (Also: I write books)

 

 

[1] I joked about this with my son and he immediately started saying: “Do you want to make a video essay?” in the tone I always used with him when I was offering to jump into a big project. Like, he would help me make a video essay. I brushed it off, because of the time it would take, and also my ugly face and weird voice, but I’m sure that was a mistake. 

[2] Nancy doesn’t actually redeem that door slam until the Snow Ball at the end of season 2, when she finds poor rejected Dustin crying by himself, dances with him and tells him that everything is going to be all right. Of course, she also tells him that girls his age are dumb, which… come on, Nancy. No need to build up a young boy by dumping on young girls.

[3] Stranger Things has two types of human villains: First are the Connie/Troy/Billy types, people who are cruel or violent and who do traditionally villainous acts like punch, humiliate, or kill.

Second are the Lonnie types, who aren’t going to slap someone around or whatever, but who are selfish and lazy. Their priorities suck, so when Joyce calls Lonnie about Will, Lonnie does nothing. He doesn’t even return her call, because he’s hoping the situation will resolve itself without him having to be inconvenienced. And he shows up for Will’s funeral with a flyer from an ambulance-chasing lawyer, because he figures his son’s death is somebody’s fault, and he’s going to cash in. He’s selfish.

Hopper starts off the show as a Lonnie type. That’s why he responds to news of a missing kid with “Coffee and Contemplation.”

Early S1 Steve is a Lonnie-style villain, with his “Don’t tell them about the beers” and “Why don’t we see All The Right Moves tonight?”. Nancy has her priorities right: her friend is missing and must be found. Steve still thinks he can ignore all that and go on dates. He’s selfish. He doesn’t transition to the more active villain type until he and his friends try to ruin Nancy’s reputation with the movie theater graffiti.

[4] The way I see it, if Steve hadn’t made that face turn, and stuck with Tommy and Carol, he would most likely have died at the end of S1. If the three of them had turned up with some kind of stupid revenge scheme in the middle of the Demogorgon confrontation, it would have killed them. That’s just story logic.

And while “Complete jerks do something stupid and get themselves ganked by the monster” is so 80’s that it was designed by the Memphis Group, that has more of a slasher vibe to it. It wouldn’t fit the tone of Stranger Things, which is more about community and coming together. 

[5] For the second time. The first time she asks, he gets all embarrassed and apologizes. Which makes me realize that I can’t remember another time, in all three seasons, when he apologizes to anyone. He makes (well-intentioned) mistakes and he’s often wrong (Then again, anyone who disagrees with Joyce is going to be wrong) but the closest he comes to apologizing again is the hospital elevator scene in season three, where he admits that he was “mortifyingly wrong” but he never says that he’s sorry. Then again, “I was completely, mortifyingly wrong” might be better than “I’m sorry”.

[6] I thought it was pretty funny that Jonathan’s dig at Nancy, which is that she was on a path to an ordinary boring suburban life, is exactly the future that Steve, former jock, offers her in S2E1 when he says that he could skip college, stay in Hawkins with her, and go to work for his father. 

[7] Seriously one of the worst Steve moments of the entire series. It might not be as harmful as the movie theater graffiti, but it is absolutely vicious, and I never hear anyone talking about it.

However, it’s clear that Steve knows he crossed a line he shouldn’t have. When it’s time for him to bang on someone’s door and shout that he wants to apologize, he doesn’t go to Nancy’s house. He goes to Jonathan’s. 

[8] Another fun contrast between Steve and Jonathan: When Steve enters Nancy’s bedroom, it’s right after she’s explicitly told him not to come in. Throughout the rest of the scene, he tests her boundaries over and over, trying to get her clothes off, until she loses her temper. Then he gives a cutesy apology and everything is fine. Jonathan pushes exactly zero boundaries when he’s in Nancy’s room, checks with her that it’s alright for him to stay, and only gets into the bed (on top of the covers) when she asks him to. Steve is a guy who is accustomed to pulling shit on people, while Jonathan does not.

Unless he has a camera and you’re part of “the vast majority”. Get over that shit, Jonathan.

[9] Crap! I planned to talk a bit more about the original (and quite excellent) pilot for the show, but it’s just too much. It was called Montauk, and if you want to read it for yourself–tv pilots are quite short–you can do so here.

Even More Seen for Halloween

Standard

Hey, it’s Halloween time, which means I’m watching Halloweenish shows and movies. And I have even more opinions here in part 3, also known as “part last”. (Spoilers for everything)

The Innocents: This  from 1961 and stars Deborah Kerr. It’s adapted from the Turn of the Screw, just like Haunting of Bly Manor, but this keeps the original ambiguity about whether the ghosts are real or figments of the nanny’s imagination.

It’s pretty bloodless, in every way. Beautifully shot and acted, but bloodless.

Beyond the Black Rainbow: As a fan of Mandy, I dropped the director’s first movie into our Netflix queue right after we watched it. I loved this weird little art (school) movie, even though it’s full of wacky lighting and design choices. Plus, it features to slowest escape in the history of escapes. It’s more interesting than scary, and more fun than thrilling. Worth seeing on a quiet night.

Dracula (1979): Frank Langella is the sexiest Dracula of all time, pushing the plot of this film through all the usual beats with energy and presence that’s too often missing from these remakes. Plenty of actors go for, I don’t know, “stately.” But Langella gives the undead count real life.

Laurence Olivier plays Van Helsing, and his confrontation with his undead daughter is the most effective scene in the whole film. One of the better versions of this particular tale.

Horror of Dracula: Not the greatest version of this story, but it gets bonus points for being energetic and extremely clean. This movie has the tidiest Transylvanian vampire castle and the fakiest blood in movie history.

It’s still fun. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would never seem to be having this much fun in later movies. Worth seeing, I guess.

Something Wicked This Way Comes: I’d seen this several times on cable when I was younger, and while I’d remembered the plot pretty well, I’d forgotten how beautiful this movie is. Autumn hillsides, golden sunsets, steam trains in the night, leaf-blown streets, and the fanciest library small town America has ever seen.

Storywise, this is about an autumn carnival that visits a small Indiana town, granting people’s dearest wishes in ways that curse them and make them part of the carnival. Those elements are a little smug and moralizing, but the rest of the film makes up for it.

The dialog is self-consciously homey and elevated, and the adult actors really make a go of it. Jonathan Pryce, playing carnival owner Mr. Dark, really makes his mark with the lines he’s been given. The two child actors, the actual leads in the story, don’t fare as well, but they’re still a lot of fun.

It’s an odd movie, and I wish someone would remake it, self-conscious dialog and all.

Warlock: This was a big hit when it was released, and it still holds up today. Julian Sands is a warlock in pre-Revolution Boston who escapes to the future, and Richard E. Grant is the Witchcatcher who follows. Lori Singer is the bright, energetic, midriff-baring modern woman who gets caught in the action.

Plot wise, it’s a standard mix of fish-out-of-water and thriller elements, and the unusual magic makes the plot surprising. I honestly thought this movie would make a top-tier movie star out of Julian Sands, but oh well.

It’s not a horror movie, really, but it is dark urban fantasy, and it still holds up.

Border: Not sure why someone put this on a list (at #2) of best horror films of the last ten years, but it’s absolutely a good film. Not horror, but genuinely good.

Tina is a Border control agent who is prosthetics-ugly and who has the ability to smell people’s fear, shame, and other emotions. She believes she’s been born with chromosomal damage that has left her deformed, but one day she meets someone just like herself, and slowly comes to realize she’s not human at all.

This is more drama than fantasy, and more fantasy than horror, but it’s a terrific movie. Thank you, northern Europe and your fascination with trolls.

More Seen for Halloween

Standard

Hey, it’s Halloween time, which means I’m watching Halloweenish shows and movies. And I have even more opinions here in part 2. (Spoilers for everything)

His House: If it weren’t for the next film on this list, this would have been the best Halloween movie we’ve seen this year so far. It was impeccable.

The story centers on two Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in England who are given a space in a run-down housing project while they wait to hear if they’ll be sent back home to die. Except this little flat is full of ghosts, and it takes a while for the refugees to realize the ghosts arrived with them.

Most of the incidents and visuals related to the hauntings are familiar, but the story context added real meaning to the common tropes, and the way their memories and hallucination sequences were shot were startling and beautiful. Highly recommended.

The Devil’s Backbone: We were a few years late to this one, and it’s easily the best thing we’ve seen for this holiday (so far). More of a slow-burn thriller than horror film, the story takes place in a Spanish orphanage, surrounded by dry, barren fields, near the end of the Spanish Civil War. The orphans are the children of leftists fighting a losing war against the fascists, and they have few teachers, little food, and even less hope.

And right in the center of the courtyard is an unexploded bomb.

What’s more, one of the boys that the teachers believe has run away, has been murdered and is haunting the place.

This movie is beautiful in an austere way, and it’s full of wonderful characters. If you haven’t seen this yet, check it out.

The Call: South Korea has been hitting it out of the park in the last couple of decades, and they’ve been doing it without the reliance on established IP that has everyone complaining about modern American films. This movie is about two women, one living in the past and one living in the future, who can talk to each other over a single phone line. One is a virtual prisoner inside her home. The other wants to help her be free.

The girl in the future has nothing to offer except information. She can play new music from the girl in the past’s favorite band into the receiver, or look up news articles or whatever. She can tell her new friend what’s about to happen.

The girl in the past has all the agency. She can save lives, change history, do whatever she wants with the information her friend gives her. Except the girl in the past is actually deeply troubled–there’s a good reason she was kept locked away–and once they stop being friends, the girl in the future has no defense against her except the information she gives.

It’s clever as hell and a lot of fun. Check this one out.

Nightbooks: This is a terrific little horror movie aimed at kids—”gateway horror”–some have called it, and it thankfully doesn’t lean too hard on the moralizing and just-so lessons that often plague supernatural tales for kids. 

Starring Krysten Ritter(‘s wardrobe), it’s the story of a boy who loves horror who gets abducted by an evil witch’s magical apartment. Ritter, as the witch, demands a scary story every night, and the boy (along with another abducted kid who’s stuck with all the household chores) spend every day exploring the mysteriously expansive apartment, searching for a way to escape, when he should be writing.

Which, in its way, is like me and the internet.

This one is great for kids who are comfortable being scared, and also for adults who don’t mind kiddish things and/or love fantastic costuming and production design.

Come True: Ever watch a movie that was wonderful–not because they threw around a bunch of money, but because it was full of interesting ideas and visuals you had never seen before, and it seemed to be leading to something wild and profound…

Only to have it absolutely shit the bed in the last scene?

I really wanted to recommend this movie. it’s beautiful. It has a bunch of haunting visuals, and the set up is fascinating.

Essentially, a homeless teenage girl, who suffers from strange nightmares, signs up for a sleep study because it would give her a little pocket money and a place to sleep indoors.

But of course, there’s more going on than she realizes. Than any of them realizes. And there’s an extended scene at the end, where the girl is sleepwalking, that is so interesting and original, so beautiful in the way that it’s shot–and eerie, too–that I really hoped for something strange and profound at the end.

Nope. 

So very disappointing.

Wildling: There have been a number of movies since The Frighteners where a girl is being held prisoner there, and you root for her to get her freedom, only to discover that, whoops! she’s actually a deadly killer and her captors were right to lock her away. I just talked about one above.

It’s a fun twist the first time you see it, but as it comes around again and again, it sort of starts to feel gross. 

In this film, the girl turns out not to be a sadistic murderer, but a sort of werewolf who never changes back. After hinting strongly that this young girl, newly set loose on a small town, is some kind of threat, the film quickly pivots to Actually, it’s people who are the REAL monsters. 

Which is fine. That works for me, sometimes. 

The climax centers on our teenage monster girl–now a few months pregnant–evading a group of good ol’ boy hunters who make it their business to exterminate Wildlings whenever they turn up. And of course their leader is the same guy who held her captive all her life, now convinced he was wrong to try to rehabilitate her. And all our wilding monster girl wants to do is escape with her baby to the far northern tundra, which is apparently a wildling’s natural habitat. 

But the whole time I was watching the end of this movie, I was thinking main character’s love interest. Someone, somewhere, was going to ask him about his first time, and he was going to be either drunk enough or dumb enough to tell the truth, starting with “Well, she’d just been rescued from the attic prison where a creep had kept her locked away her whole life, and my family was the first people besides her captor she ever talked to,” and it would end with “then she sprouted fur and fangs, and fled into the wilderness with our baby.” 

I mean, I’m almost more interested in a movie about that.

A Chinese Ghost Story: I’m spending the entire month of October watching Halloween movies, and I’m sure there are horror fans out there who think much of what I’m watching isn’t actually horror. I’ve met my share of “If it’s not rated R, it’s not horror” folks and lets just say we don’t agree on much.

This movie has ghosts! And an ancient tree demon! And reanimated corpses! And wandering murderers! 

It’s also a comedy and a romance, plus, it has Daoist monks who can do magic, wire fu sword fights, a clueless but good-hearted hero who blunders through magical dangers, not to mention the odd bit of elaborate slapstick.

it’s great fun, and pleasant to be reminded of 80’s Hong Kong films, where every forest path had a blazing blue light just over the next rise. 

One Lane Bridge: This six episode series out of New Zealand combines supernatural elements with a police procedural, which are chocolate and peanut butter to me. Season one covers the arrival of a new junior detective to a small town with absolutely amazing landscapes and a bridge that causes some people (including our new protagonist) to have prophetic visions.

Will these visions help our hero solve the murder that opens the season? Well, a little. Mostly, it will send him visions that he will misinterpret, make him think he’s losing his grip, act out recklessly, and nearly tank his career. 

I’ll confess that I occasionally had a bit of trouble telling characters apart, but that’s a common issue for me. It’s a solid show that gets a lot of things right. 

Seen for Halloween

Standard

Hey, it’s Halloween time, which means I’m watching Halloweenish shows and movies. And I have opinions. (Spoilers for everything)

The Shining (1980): Supposedly one of the greatest horror movies of all time, this really hasn’t held up. Kubricks’ direction is terrific. The long, slow steadicam glide is unsettling here in a way it just isn’t in other films (and I don’t understand film well enough to know why. Soundtrack, maybe?). The performances are solid… except for Jack Nicholson.

When I was younger, people loved Jack Nicholson because he was doing that Jack Nicholson thing, with the raised eyebrows and the snide way of talking. Late in the movie, when he’s slipping into full-blown family killer mode, it works. Earlier scenes not so much. Kubrick let him mug his way through scene after scene, and instead of enjoying a movie I hadn’t revisited in a while, I sat there wondering how this dude managed to remain a movie star, and how he kept pulling in so many Oscar nominations.

Give me the Nicholson of Chinatown, not this. 

Insidious: I was surprised to see this was made for only one and a half million dollars. Watching it a second time, I was disappointed in how it looked–even Stranger Things put more effort into their otherworldly environment. But on a million and a half dollar budget? Hat’s off. 

It was also full of terrific performances, and the scares were clever, esp compared to the torture porn films this picture made unfashionable. And that scene with the mask? Thumbs up: solid scares.

Muppets Haunted Mansion: Here’s the deal: you watch this, you get great puppets, dad jokes, cute songs, and fantastic design. It’s the same thing the Muppets have been doing on screen for decades, and if you liked it in the past, you’ll like it even more now that the money they’re spending goes so much further. Plus celebrity guest stars having a blast playing broad comedy.

My only gripe: they mixed the music too loud, so it could be really difficult to make out the lyrics of the songs. I can’t tell if that’s a currently fashionable production choice (since it seems to come up in lots of different shows) or if it’s a problem with my aging hearing (since it seems to come up in lots of different shows).

Midnight Mass: I know reaction has been mixed on this, but I thought this was brilliant. Lot of folks thought it was talky, but sometimes I want to hear quality dialog, even in the horror genre. Reveal the characters with it. Create verisimilitude with it. Give the actors something really juicy to do. That’s why Child of Fire was so full of people telling their own stories, after all. I love books and shows where the characters tell stories that reveals who they are. 

Another thing it had going for it was that it was gorgeous. Too much horror ignores visual appeal–or goes in the other direction to show only things that are repellant–but Mike Flanagan wisely seized on the opportunity to show truly gorgeous skies over Crockett Island, and that’s important. It establishes a world is worth fighting for, or at least living in, and it provides the contrast that makes the gross and/or repellant stuff stand out.

More beauty with terror, please. Make the forests look deep and green. Make the castles gothic and beautifully ruined. Pay attention to the environment. Too many horror movies cast good looking actors, then make everything else ugly or gross. 

The Changeling (1980):

In a previous blog post, I’ve complained about ghost-oriented murder mysteries, because having a detective who depends on clues fed to them by a vengeful spirit makes your detective seem like they don’t detect very well. (I was writing specifically about the new Nancy Drew show, which I have since revisited and will talk about in another post).

However! When the lead character is not a detective, but is still driven by a haunting to look into a terrible crime, well, that’s a genre I really like.

In The Changeling, George C. Scott is a famous NYC composer who suffered a terrible tragedy and retreats to Seattle, to teach at the UW and compose in an overlarge house maintained by the Historical Society which turns out to be haunted by the spirit of a murdered child. 

The haunting stuff is all the ordinary things you’re used to seeing in a ghost house movie–opening doors, secret rooms, the works. It’s the murder mystery where this movie stands out. 

I should say that I like George C. Scott, but he never seems all that affected by the moving objects or thumps in the night. If Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrence lands on one end of the “frightened by all this spooky shit” bell curve, with her goggling eyes and wavering, one-second-from-fainting body language, Scott’s John Russell lands at the other end. He might be the most self-possessed hauntee in the history of non-comedic films.

Malignant: I really enjoyed this movie, but not as much as I should have. The buzz about it was that it had this gonzo twist that split audiences between those who noped out and those who thought it was new and weird and a goddam delight.

We fell into the second category. Unfortunately, it also felt a little flat. My wife kept saying “This is very TV” throughout, and not just because we kept recognizing the cast from Canadian SF shows. 

One of the downsides of enjoying scary movies is that you end up seeing a lot of the same things over and over. The figure in the mirror. The door that creaks open on its own. The frightened co-ed sprinting through the woods. I’ve talked often about having to forgive books, movies, or TV shows in order to enjoy them, and these old tropes are high on that list. Malignant managed to put shit on screen that I hadn’t seen in a horror movie before.

Then you have a climactic fight that feels small and same-y. When most of the participants are also character I don’t know and am not invested in, it takes the energy out of me. 

So, loved the movie but not as much as I wanted to. 

The Old Dark House: Before James Whale did Bride of Frankenstein, he made this little gem, about unlucky travelers forced to seek shelter from a (vividly portrayed) thunderstorm in a house filled with dangerous weirdos. 

It’s beautiful and a lot of fun. The camera work is inventive (for 1932) and we loved the characters, even the aggravated married couple. Great cast with terrific dialog (when they were given some, sorry Boris) and even though it’s not a horror film exactly, it was a perfect fit for the season. 

Binge-demic 3

Standard

Continuing my Binge-demic posts, let me move backwards to the show I watched before Veronica Mars.

STRANGE LUCK

It’s weird that this show has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Not that it’s bad. It’s not. You could even call it pretty good. Still, a hundred percent? If I had to guess, it’s a distortion created by the fact that the show predates the site, but a number like that promises more than Strange Luck can deliver.

Simply put: It’s the 90’s, and every place anyone goes to is actually Canada, where they hose down the streets at night so the puddles reflect the multi-colored lights. Chance Harper is a freelance photojournalist who drives all over the city in his beater, snapping pictures of the stories he stumbles across. And he tries to help people.

As the sole survivor of a plane crash–in fact, he had no injuries at all–Chanse has been cursed by powerful luck. Not good or bad, but powerful. Where ever he goes, weird and/or dangerous shit happens, and he does whatever he can to help (and get a shot he can sell). To quote main character: “If I go to a restaurant, somebody chokes. If I walk into a bank, it gets robbed.”

I’ve said one thing over and over in in these posts: one of the most important aspects of these shows is the relationships between the series regulars. Strange Luck has only two regular supporting characters: his ex, the hot newspaper editor who buys Chance’s photos and the hot owner/operator of his favorite cafe who has a crush on him. And they’re both fine, although the cafe owner gets more interesting story lines.

Anyway, there are a lot of pitfalls for a show built on a premise of coincidences, but Strange Luck avoids all of them. It’s too bad it only lasted one season. With a larger, crunchier supporting cast, I think it would have done well. Past time for a remake, I think, with shorter seasons and the obligatory modern mythology.

Finally, at least one person has asked me how I watched the show, since it’s not available anywhere to stream. Sadly, I had to go to YouTube. It wouldn’t be my first–or my fifth–choice, but it wasn’t available elsewhere.

KIPO AND THE WONDERBEASTS

I knew what I was hoping for when I put on this show (based on online recommendations–all the new shows that I watch, esp the cartoons, drop into the schedule because people rave about them). I expected what I got. But I didn’t expect I would get so much, or that it would be as fun and charming as it was.

Let me clarify: I expected a kid-friendly apocalypse, unusual “monsters”, and a heroine who makes the world better by doing what everyone around her thinks is impossible: finding common ground with her enemies. What I got was exactly that, but in a charming, inventive, and enjoyable way.

BREAKING: Cartoons are so much better now than they were when I was a kid. Maybe it’s because modern shows have to compete with video games, so they can’t half-ass it the way they used to? Or maybe the half-assed cartoons are still out there, invisible to an old like me because they’re aimed at very young viewers, but modern creators trust older kids with more complex story lines?

But there’s no way that kid-me would have been offered a show with astronomy-loving wolves lead by a wolf named Billions (voiced by John Hodgman) and a second wolf named Billions (voiced by GZA). Nor would I have gotten a surprisingly good song listing everything the wolves have learned about the stars.

The visuals are solid. The circle of regulars have great relationships. The music is a goddam delight. If you have any stomach at all for kids animation, check this out. The third and final season comes out in less than a month.

BLACK LIGHTNING S3

I was going to keep this to two shows per post, but what the hell.

I also binged the latest Black Lightning season once it hit Netflix. Here’s the thing about this show. The actors are great. The premise of a family with several members having/struggling with superpowers is absolutely solid, and the series regulars have that powerful web of relationships I keep talking about.

Also, the overall plot of the season, involving a government crackdown on the small city of Freeland, where the show is set, is just right for this particular political and cultural moment.

I’ll admit that I’ve mostly given up on the DC superhero shows. At least, the 20+ season, one-a-week broadcast shows like Arrow, Supergirl, or The Flash. Those shows started off with a touch of joy to them. Even Arrow, which was grim from the start, had moments where Oliver used his skills in a way that gave the audience a little thrill. After all, part of the appeal of the superhero genre is power fantasy.

New shows like Stargirl brim with that sort of joy. Doom Patrol subvert the power fantasy expectation in funny and interesting ways. Black Lightning has always done a good job managing the precarious balance between enjoyable power fantasy and credible threat to the main characters.

This third season, with its government occupation, illegal experimentation, and foreign superpowered commandos, leans heavily toward the latter.

Still solid, though. I’m waiting for season four.

Also, in case you didn’t know it, there are only a few days left to pick up ONE MAN, my dark fantasy crime thriller, as a $1.99 Kindle Monthly Deal. If you like books about desperation, magic, intrigue, expeditions to mysterious islands, giant skeletons, people living inside giant skeletons, creatures made of burning iron, vampire hobbits, and also the fear of failing the one person in the whole world who relies on you, take advantage of that deal right away.

Also, redux, the audiobook for Circle of Enemies drops on the 29th. More on that, including links, when I have them.

Binge-demic 2

Standard

Continuing my Binge-demic posts, let me move backwards to the show I watched before Korra.

BURN NOTICE

There was every reason for this show to be a forgettable one-and-done gunfight and bikini action series. It was on the USA network, it’s set in Miami, fills scene transitions with shots of beautiful young girls in swimsuits walking near water, and follows all the Action TV Show Gunfight Rules. 

Some of those rules:

  • Concealment = Cover, except those times when Concealment =/= Cover is cooler.
  • Everyone has terrible aim, except highly trained badasses (and their pals).
  • It’s pretty much impossible to shoot someone while they’re running, even with automatic weapons.
  • Every gunman, no matter how angry, sadistic or psychotic, will give their enemy time to say one more thing before pulling the trigger.

Person of Interest, mentioned in the previous post, had some of this too, but even that show didn’t compare to the number of bullets and bombs unleashed on Burn Notice. 

What makes Burn Notice a great show is, first of all, Jeffrey Donovan. He’s electric in the lead, and to this day I don’t understand how he didn’t immediately pivot to a starring role in something else. Maybe the dude was tired and needed a break. Maybe he found greater creative fulfillment as a character actor in supporting roles, and in a Hulu series that I’ve never had the chance to see. [Added later: he was exhausted when Burn Notice ended. He was in most of the scenes, did a lot of his own fights and stunts, and was utterly worn out by the time the series wrapped.]

The premise is straight forward: Michael Weston was a spy until the CIA burned him, freezing his bank accounts and cutting off all contact. He has lost the work that defined his whole life. The subplot of each season concerns Michael’s efforts to clear his name and get himself reinstated. For the main plot In each episode, Michael uses his skills as a spy to help some ordinary person in trouble. 

That makes it a heroic con artist show with car chases. 

Plus, at a time when Jack Bauer was still running around interrogating people under threat of torture, the makers of Burn Notice put a little more effort into it than that. They made it clear that these weren’t bad guys being bad for good ends. When Michael and his friends were forced to do something terrible, the show never portrayed that as heroic, and the characters always paid a price.

I love the second-person voice over, the split screen sequences, the humor, the whole deal. Gabrielle Anwar is great, once she drops the accent they asked her to do in the pilot. Sharon Gless is great as Michael’s chain-smoking mother. Bruce Campbell is great and also, on occasion, subtle (if you can believe it). 

So great. Love this show.

VERONICA MARS

But not as much as this show. 

I have all of Veronica Mars–original series, film, revival series–on disc, (rare for me–I was never a collector of dvds) and I used to own the two terrible novels. (I donated them to the library, which is how I throw away books.) One of the benefits of watching the discs is that the pilot episode is slightly extended, starting at the no-tell motel (first line is Veronica in voice-over saying I am never getting married.) instead of the school parking lot, and for once the extra scenes don’t feel like a waste of my precious time.

And yeah, that first season is iconic. The pilot has a little too much backstory to set up, and the second episode is marred by a bit of stunt casting, but both are still great. After that, it takes off running and doesn’t look back. 

It was renewed for two more (excellent) seasons, despite being near the bottom of the ratings every year. I sort of hated the way the third season ended, but this was a show that put its characters through the ringer. If the last thing it made me feel was Veronica’s regret at a harm she’d caused that could never be made right, that was perfect for the overall tone of the show.

Then came the Kickstarted movie. The show had been a critical darling and retained a dedicated fanbase, so the fundraising campaign was a rousing success. And sure, people complained that the movie that came out of it had too much fan service, but it would have made a fitting (and happier) ending to Veronica Mars’s story. 

But I guess the success of the crowdfunding campaign convinced someone there was an audience to be micro-marketed to, so we got two terrible novels that did not seem to understand the appeal of Veronica Mars as a character, then a new series on Hulu featuring Veronica as an adult.

Unfortunately, by the end of the Hulu series, every aspect of the original show had been brushed aside except for Veronica’s profession and her relationship with her father. Gone was Neptune High as a place where the young rich collide with the young poor. Gone was unincorporated Neptune, the place without a middle class. Gone was Wallace, Veronica’s first healthy peer relationship on the show, who is left behind in Neptune when she drives up the coast to a new case. Gone was Logan, the OTP that obsessed the most dedicated fans of the show. 

Killing off Logan seems to have squelched any hopes of a fifth season. The fans were furious, and I can’t really blame them. Thomas seemed to think that the romance elements were supposed to be a C-plot, bringing a modicum of soap opera conflict to contrast with the mystery plots. No one seemed to believe Logan could function as a support character like Keith, so out he went. 

Which is a shame. The setting and network of relationships are a big part of what we love about a show. You can’t just strip away that context and expect the character to thrive. If you want a brilliant, tough female private investigator in a new context, create a new one.

But still, Veronica herself is a wildly appealing character. In those first three seasons, she’s not just brilliant and funny, she’s fearless, too. Not, I mean, physically fearless. Threats of violence still terrify her, as they should. No, she’s been socially ostracized and come through it with exactly zero fucks left to give. Even when mortifying things happen to her, she refuses to be made ashamed or to back down.

That’s a powerful thing, especially for people of high school age (and near-high school age). I remain convinced that’s the secret sauce of Veronica’s appeal.

Anyway, I recommend the show, obviously. The first three seasons are genius, and the movie makes a nice little bow tie at the end. And, if you still want more of Veronica and Keith and Logan and Leo and so on, season four is only eight episodes long and has all the brilliance and wit of the previous incarnations, even if it does fundamentally break the old show and create a new one in the last twenty minutes or so. 

Up next: Strange Luck and Kipo and the Wonderbeasts

Also, in case you didn’t know it, there are fewer than ten days left to pick up ONE MAN, my dark fantasy crime thriller, as a $1.99 Kindle Monthly Deal. If you like books about desperation, magic, intrigue, expeditions to mysterious islands, giant skeletons, people living inside giant skeletons, creatures made of burning iron, vampire hobbits, and also the fear of failing the one person in the whole world who relies on you, take advantage of that deal right away.