Monday, July 18, 2016

Stranger Things - Episode 1 review

  Yes, yes - everyone else is talking about it. But never let it be said I never indulge in me-tooism.
  Last night I watched the first episode with my four oldest sons. Now, for slug reviews followed by a real review.

General Notes:
Acting: Surprisingly good. The kids were above average for child actors, Winona Ryder reminds us that she is an old pro and turns in a decent performance. David Harbour as Hopper was surprisingly good in the role, and I was expecting that role to be good, anyway. Other nice standouts were Matthew Modine (not a shock, but impressive given his short time in the pilot) and Charlie Heaton.
Cinematography: Impressive. Tim Ives has only been nominated for one cinematography award - he will get more nominations. The camera work was crisp, smooth, and not intrusive. His use of angles, lighting, and movement were great - he has obviously studied Allan Daviau and is a fan of Kurosawa. Want to see how you can use the camera to indicate awareness vs. distraction? Re-watch the scene when a certain young character first enters a diner until they are noticed. Great, subtle, effective use of the camera.
Editing: Like cinematography, the editing is well done. It took us about 15 minutes to catch the subtle color bleaching used in outdoor scenes to make things look... off. The editor keeps the scenes moving and does that hardest of things - the quick cut that doesn't break the flow.
Directing: From the cold open to the last shot the directing was very good. It is hard to keep plot, pace, and interest all moving along in a pilot when there is so much information to share. Speaking of which, the cold open was great and a good example of how to set them up. It reminded me of the better cold opens from the Venture Brothers (yes, that is a compliment).



SPOILERS FOLLOW - DO NOT CONTINUE UNLESS YOU WANT SPOILERS



Characters:  Will didn't get a lot of time, for obvious reasons, but his character as honest, bold, and brave was well established. When he ran into the shed and began loading a gun my sons all laughed,
 "Finally!" they said, "a tough, smart, brave kid does the right thing. I love this guy!"
  Will's borther Jonathan and mom Joyce got a solid intro. Joyce will obviously be central to many stories, and Jonathan is already fleshing out a bit. While the 'lower-middle-just-barely-class single mom with sons' thing is done to death, there is a reason - it is an easy opening to understand how the people must rely on outside resources for help. Remember how in Poltergeist the well-off protagonists waited months to bring in help? yeah - Joyce can't wait that long and hasn't the savings to take off work, either.
  Will's nerdy friends Dustin, Lucas, and Mike are allowed to be properly talkative, obnoxious, and funny. Mike's older sister is a little more developed than the usual big sister, but we'll see if that lasts. The science teacher, Mr. Clark, was a nice entry and I hope he keeps being fun, funny, and informative.
  The real fun character was the sheriff, Hopper. The actor, script, and director did an amazing job of showing him transition from hungover and bored to deeply concerned in a very realistic manner. Watching him figure out that this is a Big Deal was more entertaining than 2 seasons of CSI. 
  The odd little girl, Eleven, didn't have enough screen time to be more than interesting, but she did that well.
  Matthew Modine as the Evil Scientist was only seen briefly, but it is freakin' Matthew Modine: he'll deliver.
  A great bit of acting was the diner owner that caught, then cared for, Eleven. From the viewpoint of showrunning, creating such a memorable character, investing so much in showing him as a complex, kind, decent character and then unceremoniously killing him off? A great way of showing how evil and merciless the villains are and letting us know - we might be surprised by who dies.

Story: There are many great run throughs, so mine will be brief. 
  The cold open in the lab was a nice set up and a quick bit of exposition. A few minutes in and we know - something got loose from the lab, it is sneaky, and at it eats people. The introduction of the kids show them playing D&D or something like it.
  Note: Although it might be a stretch, there is an implication that Will's mage is 18th level.
  Anyway, the kids wrap up their game and head home. Will see Slender Man-, uh, the creature from the lab, wrecks, and runs home. When home the monster pursues, so Will goe to the shed for a gun, but is ambushed and carried off.
  The next day his mother and brother slowly realize he is missing and start the process of finding him. Sheriff Hopper slowly, but firmly, realizes Will is missing for real. Exposition at the lab reveals a girl is missing just as a nigh-bald young girl in a hospital gown and no shoes sneaks into a diner to steal food. The owner catches her, feeds her, and calls the authorities. She reveals little before the evil scientists show up and, with some death, the girl gets away.

This isn't meant to do it justice - like I said, there are really good synopses online.

  References: Hoo-boy, this show is dripping with references. Here are the ones I noticed.
-The shot of Will racing to the shed was similar to the shot of Elliot finding E.T. However, Elliot went to the shed slowly and the yard was well-lit; in a dark yard Will races to the shed. This implies an evil alien.
- The boyfriend comes through the girl's window, similar to Scream.
- They flatout name-drop Poltergeist, a movie about a child kidnapped to a parallel dimension.
- X-men #134 references. The issue (which I have is storage, I think) is about scrappy kids fighting wealthy, powerful moguls. Oh, and about a telekinetic hero, Jean Grey, becoming the Dark Phoenix.
- The font for the titles looks so much like a Stephen King/Dean R. Koontz novel from the '80's I can't stand it.
- White-haired, well-dressed villain? Matthew Modine's character reminds me of Nightbreed.

Huh. That's interesting: Since I was looking for E.T. references, i was looking for keys. And there are a LOT of them. Key's in the lab, keys in the sheriff's office, mom looking for keys, Will's having of a key being important, etc.
  Know what keys do? They open doors.

I look forward to the next episode.