Monthly Archives: July 2019

Stranger Things Season 3 Review

First Half of Review is spoiler-free. Second Half has full spoilers after warning.

Stranger Things is easily Netflix’s most popular Sci-Fi show. Black Mirror may be better, but Stranger Things seems to grow in popularity year on year. This is in large part to its fabulous cast, including the established veterans such as Winona Ryder and David Harbour, but also the incredible young cast (no weak links among them). Millie Bobby Brown has shot to stardom because of this show, and rightly so. The cast are as good as ever here. The show plays around with some of the established pairings and focuses on new ones – seeing Eleven (Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink)’s friendship blossom is one of the most entertaining parts of the early episodes, as well as a key part of Eleven’s character development (first female friend she’s really had). Dustin and Steve’s comedy bromance also returns, and is only enhanced by their adventures with snarky newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) and Erica, Lucas’ precocious younger sister. While I took to Robin immediately, I wasn’t sure about Erica’s inconclusion till about the halfway point, where I began to warm to her (pairing her and Dustin up as a team really worked). Lucas and Mike get their share of moments too, but Will has the standout ones amongst the boys with Noah Schnapp nailing Will’s PTSD and struggles to adapt to the fact his friends has changed since previous seasons. If any characters are poorly served, its arguably Nancy and Jonathan – their storyline at the Hawkins Post newspaper may have a political point to prove, but it isn’t that entertaining or even interesting. Fortunately, by episode 5 they’re back helping the youngsters and instantly get better material to deal with.

Visually, the show looks as good as ever (has Netflix ever hired a bad director? Yet to see it – BBC take note) and the special effects are great throughout. The new monster is far more imposing and memorable than the Demodogs in Season 2, but is somewhat undermined by the fact it doesn’t kill anywhere near as many as the less-powerful Demogorgon in Season 1 managed. Still, its horrific in its design and inventive in how it gets created, so I won’t criticise it too much. Arguably the season’s human villains are more memorable, particularly the grizzled, Schwarzenegger-esque thug who has several brutal fights with Hopper over the course of the season.

The humour can be hit and miss (Dustin’s group gets the best of it, Mike and Lucas less so) but mostly it works well and establishes a lighter tone. Arguably too light – while the writers were clearly deliberately drawing a line between the light-hearted, hormonal teen dramas and the horrific mind flayer plot, it ends up slightly jarring – seasons 1 and 2 were more consistently dark in tone, but with great lashings of charm and humour to lighten the mood. I have to say I preferred that approach – this season is entertaining, but it lacks the persistent tension of earlier sessions (at least for the first four episodes – the last four were definitely better balanced and to my mind, more effective). Ultimately though, the writers do a good job – the character arcs all make sense and feel realistic and earned, and while there are undoubtedly plot holes and conveniences, they tend to be minor blips rather than irritating missteps.

Overall, its an entertaining, visually splendid instalment of one of Netflix’s best shows. The writers keep the plot grounded for the most part, and showcase the talent of the wonderful actors involved. However, for all that, its probably my least favourite of the three – but given how good the first two were, that doesn’t mean all that much. Just don’t make us wait as long for season 4, okay Duffer Brothers?

For those of you wishing to avoid, spoilers, my season rating is below, so stop there.

Rating: 4 out of 5

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!!! DON’T READ ON UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FINALE!!

Kudos to Dacre Montgomery – he made Billy someone you could empathise with and even feel a bit sorry for – which isn’t easy when he was so unlikable in season 2 and helped the mind flayer (unwillingly or not) kill a lot of people in S3. Sadie Sink in particular helps us care about Billy’s fate – whatever the issues between them, its clear that Max wants to save her step-brother if she can, which only makes his heroic sacrifice to save Eleven all the more tragic. His death wasn’t exactly a surprise – I’d called well before the season started, but it hit hard nonetheless.

Somewhat surprisingly, so did Alexei’s. Given that he was working for the bad guys and seemed quite a dick in episode 6, the show did well to make us care about him. His banter with Murray and his obvious joy at experiencing an American Fair did much to humanise him – which made his callous execution all the more horrific.

But obviously, the big hit is Hopper. He wasn’t particularly likeable this season, but ultimately, he was there to do the right thing, and this time, his decision to risk all in the final episode cost him. At least, we think it did. The post-credits scene in Russia cast some doubt on his death, but Hopper isn’t the only possibility for the American prisoner. Who knows – maybe the Russians snatched Murray after their base was shut down. Or maybe, just maybe… Eleven’s Father from S1 isn’t dead. Hell, if they know about Eleven, it might even be her Mother they’ve kidnapped or maybe her ‘Sister’ 8 from Season 2. To be honest, any of those options is preferable to Hopper – its too obvious and too easy a way out. Besides – could you imagine the effect on Eleven if she believes its Hopper they’ve got and it turns out to be Father instead? That would really be a great twist for S4.

Next: Reviews of other Netflix titans, such as Jessica Jones, Black Mirror and Orange is the New Black will follow in the next few weeks – along with Spiderman: Far from Home.

 

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Avengers Endgame Review

Starring Paul Rudd, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Scarlet Johanson, Karen Gillian, Josh Brolin, Zoe Saldana and Robert Downey Jr. (i’m not listing the whole cast, it’ll take forever).

Warning: Major Spoilers for Infinity War and Endgame! But then again, you’ve all seen them by now.

Infinity War was my favourite of the three avengers films, primarily because Thanos was the first Marvel villain to seriously impress me, but also because of the sheer entertainment factor of seeing all these disparate characters and groups interacting with each other (in many cases for the first time). However, I couldn’t give it more than 4/5 because of a couple of big flaws in its third act – namely the mishandled ending and the pointless Wakanda battle. Up until that point the only minus had been Alan Silvestri’s lacklustre soundtrack, but a familiar grievance I have with Marvel then reared its unwelcome head once more: no believable stakes. The battle on Titan between the Guardians, Spiderman, Iron Man, Doctor Strange and Thanos was immense because there was real tension involved – Thanos was clearly more powerful than them, and it always felt like the heroes were at their limits fighting him – and predictably, they all lost after Star-lord’s stupid blunder. Wakanda on the other hand, was back to the worst of marvels previous efforts: too much quipping mid-battle, no main character deaths despite ridiculous odds and a CGI army of forgettable villains who don’t make any significant impact. Only when Thanos finally shows did it have any real tension.

He wins, and then the snap happened. This could (and should) have been one of the best cliffhangers in movie history. Two things utterly scuppered its effectiveness: first, the lack of music/shit music when it finally came in. Compare the snap, which should have been one of the most devastating events in any superhero movie, to Superman’s death in Dawn of Justice, or Wolverine’s in Logan. It doesn’t work anywhere near as well, because the music, which always adds to the emotion of such deaths, isn’t there or isn’t effective. If you cried at the snap I’d be a bit confused, whereas if you cried at deaths in DC films or X-Men films, I wouldn’t, because Hans Zimmer and John Ottman know what they’re bloody doing. They always consolidate big moments with heartwrenching soundtracks, and their films are always better for it. That said, you don’t necessarily need music to make character deaths impactful/emotional, there is one other way: shock value. Infinity War bungled that as well, because the lack of significant character deaths in Wakanda or Titan, along with the bad choices the heroes had made throughout the film, made it inevitable (and bloody obvious) that Thanos would win. Hence the snap is no surprise. The best cliffhangers are always the ones you don’t see coming, and if you didn’t see that coming, you weren’t paying enough attention. The fact that everyone who was snapped was guaranteed to be in a future movie also kinda undermined the whole thing. Only Vision’s death had meaning, because you suspected he couldn’t be resurrected as easily.

So we come to Avengers Endgame. I really hoped it would avoid the (few, but significant) mistakes that Infinity War made. And believe it or not… it did.

The humour is noticeably dialled down here – there’s far less of the annoying mid-battle quipping, and what humour there is far better than usual (fat-thor threatening an online troll in a video game has to be an unexpected highlight). There’s plenty of fan-service, but seeing as this is the culmination of 11 YEARS of build up, its entirely justified. You won’t get the full experience here unless you’ve seen every single MCU film before it (okay, except the Incredible Hulk). Seeing Thor talk with his dead mother or Stark have a heart to heart with his oblivious father tugged at the heartstrings for long term fans, and rightly so. The film also delivers on several things we’ve waited years to see (a final battle with every single surviving hero and Captain America lifting Thor’s Hammer!!!). It also doesn’t completely undo the events of its predecessor, which was my main concern. Heimdall and Vision stay dead, Gamora is resurrected but only the younger, harder, less likeable version of her. Loki is ‘probably’ still dead in this timeline, despite escaping with the Tesseract in 2012.

The direction and special effects, like in Infinity War, are flawless. The final battle is amazing in terms of scope and a feast for the eyes the whole way through. The segment on Vormir alone shows how far Marvel’s ability to create convincing alien worlds has come. The acting is again, top notch, particularly from Jeremy Renner, Chris Hemsworth, Paul Rudd and Robert Downey Jr., who do much of the emotional heavy lifting here. Renner in particular gets better material than he’s had as Hawkeye in the entire series so far, while Hemsworth’s arc as Thor is becoming one of the best character development arcs I’ve seen in a superhero series on screen. Johanson also takes the lead for the first half of the film and excels at it, which leaves me very optimistic that she’ll ace the upcoming Black Widow movie. But ultimately, the movie belongs to Downey Jr., who has in many ways been the heart and soul of the main Avengers films since the first one, which makes his (inevitable) sacrifice here all the more hard hitting.

Endgame’s climatic battle packs a real punch and is full of tension. Even though the heroes have the edge this time round, Thanos still makes them really work for the victory. Seeing Thanos go toe-to-toe with Iron Man, Thor and Cap at once was epic, and him going one v. one with Captain Marvel was up there as well. Thanos was pushed to his limit this time, but fighting without a gauntlet or any stones, he still pushed everyone else beyond their limits. That cemented his place as Marvel’s all-time best villain. The CGI armies aren’t as annoying, because the Black Order and Thanos are there to pose an actual threat, and we don’t focus on the more one-sided larger battle. Plus, seeing the entire Marvelverse come together to fight Thanos… I don’t see how Marvel (or anyone else) can top that anytime soon.

Any minuses? Well I would’ve liked to see a bit more Thanos and a bit more Captain Marvel, but I understand why they were both sidelined in the middle of the film. Captain Marvel is like superman. She’s too OP – there’s no threat of the heroes losing fights with shield agents or past-timeline heroes with her around. As for Thanos, the film was already pushing 3 hours, so I can understand why he was kept in the background until the final showdown. I did feel he got better material in Infinity War though. However… I’m nitpicking. There’s no major flaws in this film and precious few minor ones. Even Silvestri’s soundtrack is an improvement on Infinity War (though someone like Zimmer would’ve still done a lot better).

Overall, Marvel delivers with a well-directed, fearsomely entertaining tour-de-force of a finale to their Phase Three. The actors are on top form, the action sequences are breathtaking, the plot accessible and the humour well-judged. I’d have preferred a bit more screentime for Thanos, but that’s a minor quibble, not a huge flaw. So now the question of what score to give it…

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Endgame finally does the impossible: getting a Marvel movie a perfect score from me. It took a lot longer for the MCU than for DC or the X-Men films, but hey, I honestly wasn’t sure they were ever going to do it. I’m glad they proved me wrong.

It becomes only the fifth superhero film I’d give 5 stars to, after Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel and Logan. That’s a pretty exclusive club right there.