Stranger Things — a review

Lookit the lights...so pretty....

Lookit the lights…so pretty….

Netflix really broadsided me this time. When they premiered Stranger Things, an eight episode series about a bunch of kids fighting an unknown evil in 1983, it sounded like a hodge-podge of Stephen King’s It, and Super-8, the coming of age monster movie directed by JJ Abrams that came out a few years back, along with a good dose of Steven Spielberg (the early years) thrown in. I have to admit to being suspicious of films and TV shows that reek of nostalgia, because they usually depend too much on the nostalgia of a particular time to charm their viewers, instead of offering a decent story.

But that’s not the case with Stranger Things, oh no. I immediately wound up getting pulled into its gripping tale right from the get-go. After spending the day playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) seemingly vanishes from the face of the earth, never returning home that night. His older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and single mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, who’s fantastic here) are beside themselves as they try to track down where Will was last seen. When all else fails, Joyce goes to the local police, led by Jim Hopper (the superb David Harbour).

I'm getting Pluto on this thing--not the planet, Mickey's dog!

I’m getting Pluto on this thing–not the planet, Mickey’s dog!

Right off the bat, we’re shown that Will’s abduction has an otherworldly explanation, but while this is revealed right away, the actual cause–the who and what and why–is only slowly revealed over the course of the eight episodes. The Duffer Brothers (Wayward Pines), the creators and executive producers behind the series, have ingeniously created that rare TV show where you are truly caught up in the story because you feel sympathetic for the well-fleshed out characters, while also getting hooked on the mystery. And perhaps the biggest mystery here is who is the strange little girl with the shaven hair whose name is Eleven (played by young Millie Bobby Brown in a great and affecting performance).

The 1980s is used as a setting for the strong story, and there are many influences from that decade here, such as John Carpenter’s The Thing, Spielberg’s E.T., as well as the aforementioned Stephen King. But the series manages to juggle all of these science fiction and horror elements without getting overwhelmed by them–mainly by telling its own story in a supremely satisfying way. And it delivers a wonderful message, one that needs to be heard even now in the twenty first century: we can achieve the impossible only if we all pull together and face our fears. You see what I mean about being broadsided? Here I was expecting a cheesy little horror show, and instead I got a truly wondrous, heartfelt adventure that made me want to re-watch it the moment it was over. Good show, Duffer Brothers, and bring on season two. –SF

The Legend of Tarzan — a review

There can be only one!

There can be only one!

With his first story, Tarzan of the Apes, first published in the magazine All-Story in 1912 (later published as a book in 1914), Tarzan the jungle lord has dominated pop culture for over a century now. I was first introduced to Tarzan through the vastly entertaining films starring former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, and these remain a favorite of mine. Tarzan has been remade into new movies and even TV shows over the years (including 1981’s laughably bad Tarzan The Ape Man, where he was a secondary character in his own movie, with Bo Derek’s Jane taking the spotlight). Warner Brothers, who produced the stogy and dreary Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, has decided to give the Tarzan story another shot with The Legend of Tarzan.

Alexander Skarsgård stars as Tarzan this time, and he’s perfect casting. Not only is he physically fit, but he’s always been a good, sturdy actor, whether he was playing a vampire in the enjoyable True Blood, or as a Marine in the mesmerizing Generation Kill. Skarsgård shines as a jungle lord who is just as wise and book smart as he is adept at fighting apes in the jungle. This isn’t the monosyllabic Weissmuller’s version, but a Tarzan who can actually carry an intelligent conversation. Current ‘it-girl’ Margo Robbie is a pleasant surprise as Jane, the love of Tarzan’s life. She’s just as good an actress, and the script works hard not to reduce her to the typical damsel in distress. Her screen presence is just as bright and vibrant as that Skarsgård’s and Robbie easily holds her own with him.

Hungry, hungry hippo!

Hungry, hungry hippo!

The story line is technically a sequel, taking place some years after Tarzan and Jane first meet. They are married and living in England, where an envoy from the United States, George Washington Williams (the always good Samuel L. Jackson; Christoph Waltz, his co-star from Django Unchained, is also superb as Rom, the film’s villain), convinces Tarzan to return to the Congo to check up on illegal activities rumored to be undertaken by the King of Belgium. The Legend of Tarzan wisely sets its story in the nineteenth century, at the height of the colonial occupation of Africa. The time between the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries is really the best age for Tarzan to swing around, as it gives the filmmakers ample opportunity to romanticize both the jungle lord and his surroundings, which they do to great effect here.

The Legend of Tarzan works so well because it’s a nice balancing act between a more down to earth view of the jungle lord and the world he lives in, without actually throwing out all the stuff that made him so much fun. Tarzan is basically a superhero, one of the first, and the film realizes that by giving him several spectacular action sequences, including a fight with a great ape and a marvelous, knock-down, dragged-out battle between a fierce Tarzan and a railroad car filled with hapless soldiers. There are some stumbling blocks, like the characters using modern day slang (“How are you going to play this?”), but overall, The Legend of Tarzan is a great deal of fun. Highly recommended. –SF

Marcella — a review

Where's a time machine when you can really use one?

Where’s a time machine when you can really use one?

I first took notice of Anna Friel in director Richard Donner’s Timeline, based on the late Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name about a group of archeologists who travel back in time six hundred years. It was a fun flick; I enjoyed it, and Friel was good as a French woman from the past whom one of the archeologists falls in love with. I’m pleased to see that she’s still working, having appeared in the lead role in the British detective series Marcella. Marcella is a woman who finds herself being dumped by her husband, who tried to break the news with a nice dinner. But Marcella, understandably upset, winds up trashing his car.

Marcella is diverted from grieving for the abrupt end to her marriage by the police, who come to consult with her for a serial killer case that has seemingly been revived after being dormant for eleven years. It turns out that Marcella is a former detective who worked the original case ten years ago, and after consulting for her former colleges, she feels a strong desire to return to work. Fortunately for Marcella, her former partner is now in charge, and is more than happy to have her back.

Just when this starts sounding like one of these sappy detective shows, with a perky cop solving crimes while juggling her disastrous personal life (like the really sucky Mysteries Of Lara), Marcella thankfully takes a very dark turn when it shows that its lead character has a nasty habit of losing time whenever she faces a great deal of stress. She’ll wake up, on one occasion completely bloodied and bruised, with no idea of where she’s been or how she got to where she is. At one point, thanks to her affliction, it looks as though Marcella might even be the prime suspect in a murder.

Through superb writing (the writers manage to expertly dovetail Marcella’s home life problems into the main story and make it all work), as well as Friel’s marvelous performance throughout, we still care for this woman as she frantically tries to not only solve the serial killer case, but also tries to sort out whether she murdered someone while in a fugue state without her colleges catching on. With the first season being only eight episodes (and available on Netflix), Marcella is the perfect crime series to binge watch on a weekend, with its enthralling story line and sympathetic heroine pulling you right along to the end. Highly recommended. Don’t miss it. –SF

Independence Day: Resurgence — a review

Um, the alien is humming. Why is he humming? Is that a good thing?

Um, the alien is humming. Why is he humming? Is that a good thing?

The original Independence Day was a silly but fun popcorn movie that retold the classic ‘aliens invade Earth’ story with a massive budget and eye-popping special effects. It became a monster hit, riding mainly on the charms of its strong cast, which included Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Twenty years later, the sequel is finally released, where those pesky aliens return, looking for a rematch. And they get one. Once again directed by Roland Emmerich, the German-born master of disaster (replacing the late, great Irwin Allen, who produced cinematic catastrophes like the Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure, along with memorable TV series such as Lost In Space), Independence Day: Resurgence is also a lot fun, despite some major stumbling blocks.

Also taking place twenty years later, the sequel smartly has the people of Earth living in high style and comfort, thanks to the advanced alien tech that they blended in with their own. As a result we have a far more sophisticated society that has already built a moon base that serves as a forward operating center that’s armed with a huge freaking laser. When an alien ship arrives at the moon base, the nervous humans, fearing the beginning of another assault on mother earth, blow it to bits. The president then orders Jeff Goldblum’s character to attend the twentieth anniversary celebration of the end of the ’96 war, overriding his strong desire to check out the wreckage to see who or what they shot down.

Looks like more aliens are in the forecast for today. We'd better get back to port!

Looks like more aliens are in the forecast for today. We’d better get back to port!

Right off the bat, this behavior doesn’t make any sense, as the first thing the military would want to do is scour the wreckage of a potential enemy combatant in order to gather intelligence about them, regardless of whatever the holiday was. But, rest assured, our heroes manage to find a way to ignore official orders and get up to the moon to investigate the crashed ship–just as the second alien invasion against earth has begun. The original film had a marvelous, epic feel in how it slowly unfolded its story, but the sequel, with a shorter running time, feels very rushed. Thus, Resurgence lacks the gravitas that the original had, with the sequel on the whole feeling like it’s nothing more than an afterthought.

Another problem is that while Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman have returned for the sequel, Will Smith is absent. And since the original film rode high on Smith’s charisma, the sequel falters when it has to make do with a replacement cast of bland twenty-somethings who all feel interchangeable. Still, despite the flaws, the sequel to Independence Day is far from being a terrible film; it’s fun eye candy, promising a third chapter that will take the fight against the aliens to the stars, which is something I’m looking forward to. I just hope they don’t wait another twenty years to do the next one. –SF