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Who You Gonna Call? Stranger Things Season 2 Gets the Gang Back Together For the Apocalypse



“Don’t you think it’s weird…that we only seem to hang out when the world’s about to end?” – Nancy, aka Nance

The residents of Hawkins, Indiana have been through a lot. At least the ones we got to know back in Season 1 of  Stranger Things: the Netflix show that unexpectedly became a meme-generating, merch- selling phenomenon last summer (#justiceforbarb). Whether it was losing a best friend, getting trapped in a supernatural underworld by a demonic presence, or having their very first crush on a girl, these characters endured some heavy stuff.

And that’s where Season two picks up. Enough time has passed (almost a year, or 353 days to be exact) so that it feels like things should be back to normal in this small Midwestern town. But “should” doesn’t always line up with reality, especially when trauma is involved. And that incongruity  is highlighted from the first episode of this surprisingly strong sophomore effort. On the surface, it seems like Will Byers has settled back into his old life after having almost died in the Upside Down. Remember how we barely ever saw Will in Season 1, except in flashbacks or as an unconscious prisoner? Well he’s now a main character, with the 80s bowl haircut that all of our moms really should have had the good sense to avoid. But in truth neither his mental nor his physical health have fully recovered – he’s secretly coughing up strange things into the sink and losing time to what appears to be flashbacks to the dark world he was caught in for so long.

I’ve seen other articles praising Noah Schnapp, the young actor who plays Will, and I agree that his impressive performance holds so much of this season together. From the minute he appears on-screen, there’s a specter of sickness and foreboding that hangs over Will, even as he tries so hard to fit back in with his family and friends. As much as they care and worry about him, they can never really understand what he’s experienced, so his isolation from them becomes another heartbreak he has to endure.

Of course Will may be the most traumatized of everyone – if that’s the sort of thing you can even measure – but he’s certainly not the only character dealing with grief, confusion and shock. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) seems happily coupled up with Steve (Joe Keery), but can’t get past her guilt at losing Barb (yes, Barb, she was a thing, RIP Barb and just fyi that Shannon Purser is on Riverdale now). Will’s mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder) has a wonderful new boyfriend named Samwise, I mean Bob (Sean Astin), but can’t feel safe whenever Will’s not in her sights. And Chief Hopper (David Harbour), who never tried to hide being a screw-up, is having secret rendezvous with someone in the woods. And then there also are plenty of new characters, all of whome seem just as damaged as everyone else.

And I haven’t even talked about Will’s brother, Jonathon(Charlie Heaton), Will’s friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas(Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin(Gaten Matarazzo), and this Eggo-fiend with a shaved head, you might remember she went by Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). One of the strengths of this show is that with an ensemble cast so big, you figure you’re bound to get stuck with a few dud characters or storylines that drag. But in the world of Stranger Things, every subplot or side character is moving enough, endearing enough, or at least has ridiculous enough hair, to keep you interested. And Season 2 plays to that strength by mixing things up and pairing people off in new ways. Ever want to see a buddy comedy starring John Hughs-esque heartthrob Steve and the adorable moppet/smart aleck Dustin? You will after this. And while none of the new characters really steal the scene (good luck with that with the incomporable Millie Bobby Brown around) – Paul Reiser’s suspicious doctor, the very sweet Bob and Max, the new kid in town, all come close – none of them diminish the amazing chemistry the original cast already established.

If the show – and particularly this season – has a weakness, it’s in the recycled feel of the scifi elements in some storylines. Why did it feel so fresh last year to see a bunch of rag-tag kids taking on all kinds of evil – real world and supernatural – as they biked through the 80s, the decade perfectly recreated with every shoulder pad and hair metal band on the soundtrack? Maybe because we weren’t yet in the middle of a Stephen King-assaince? (Seeing Finn Wolfhard in this and IT definitely blurs the line). Maybe just cause this season was bound to feel like a call back to itself? Anyway, it’s not the perfect pop culture reverence that bothers me – put an ET doll in a scene where a character feeds his new alien pet some candy any day – I get it and I love it. But some of the plot starts to feel like a paint-by-the-numbers for anyone who’s followed sci-fi movies or TV for the past 30 years. The aforementioned “cute” alien pet that quickly gets not so cute. Check. A ragtag group of rebel youth, some with special powers. Check. A bitter father-figure and precocious but violent child who team up to battle evil. Ugh, Logan was great though, wasn’t it? Let’s just say there were times when I wanted the show to surprise me and it didn’t get quite there.

But that’s not to say I was ever bored. I binged the entire thing in one day, and sure, maybe that’s partly because I was on deadline for this, but the truth is I would have done it anyway. Once things really start rolling at the end of episode two – and that’s the Halloween episode, so get ready for some throwback costume perfection – I was along for the ride. And I suspect you will be too. The Duffer Brothers – who created the show and write and direct a good percentage of the episodes – are just too good at getting you hooked, at making you care. You’ll notice in the first few paragraphs of this review I mention a lot of words like “trauma”, “foreboding”, “heartbreak” and “isolation”. So you might have been asking yourself if you were gonna have any fun watching this. Absolutely you are – it’s also a riot – with the jokes and callbacks you’ve been dying for since you binged season 1 last July. And that’s what gets you – that combination of so many great, original characters, who go through some really interesting and serious emotional development, plus all the meme-able dad jokes you could want. All that makes Stranger Things a highly addicting TV show and thoroughly satisfying way to spend nine hours on your couch, even if the world will be ending soon.



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Midnight Mass: The Blood of Life



The isolated island community of Crockett receives a mysterious new head priest, full of secrets and a brand new testament under a very unusual Messenger of God. 

Meet poor Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), freshly released from prison and wracked with guilt over what got him there, a stupid drinking accident that caused the death of his ex-girlfriend. The last thing he wants to do is go back to Crockett and the judgment of the mostly religious community there, his disappointed family, and the nightmares of his ex’s death that plague him. But where else would have him? Resignedly on the ferry, he goes. 

Riley’s dad Ed (Henry Thomas) isn’t the kind of man who talks very much at all, much less about his feelings, or his very real disappointment in his elder son. Riley’s teen brother Warren (Igby Rigney) has no idea what to say to him either, and just generally keeps mum. Riley’s mom Annie (Kristin Lehman) is accepting and loving, hesitant in how to help her eldest son but never wavering in her faith in the help of our lord Jesus. Mom seems to think a good heaping dose of the Church would set Riley right but is surprised to learn that the old priest of the Parish, Pruitt, has taken an extended leave of absence from the island, and his newcomer replacement Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) is young, charismatic, and bursting at the seams to tell the whole island about the gifts he brought them, most especially what he claims as a new testament under a messenger of God. 

We’ll get back to that whole ball of issues in a moment, the other interesting characters of Crockett Island. Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) is the nightmarish overly polite and gently, almost lovingly condescending neighbor Christian woman you’ve ever loathed, the kind of person who explains away every last thing her Church may do wrong or contradictory because, after all, God works in mysterious ways. Pfft. Of course, Bev immediately ingratiates herself as the second to the new Father Paul in their services and is the first to start covering up his transgressions as they become more rampant. 

Newcomers to Crockett Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) and his son Ali (Rahul Abburi) present a burgeoning problem to the plans of Father Paul and his shadowy companion, for they are both practicing Muslims. The practical side of investigating these so-called ‘miracles’ and strange happenings falls on Hassan’s shoulders, as he already struggles with barely-concealed racism and suspicion from his fellow islanders, and of course his son is being wooed away from him by the promise of actual, tangible miracles, but from a different whole faith and God. Father Paul definitely does not practice a traditional Christian faith and relies far too much on making use of the eucharist, the ceremony of the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ turning into bread and wine and, well, consumed. 

Wade (Michael Trucco) and his wife Dolly (Crystal Balint) are lifers of the island and both in general interested in one thing, the advancement of their own family, specifically their daughter Leeza (Annarah Cymone), who happens to be in a wheelchair. And that happens to be the canny Father Paul’s first real miracle-with-a-cost that he demonstrates to the astonishment of the parishioners, after a heartfelt and rousing sermon, Father Paul commands Leeza to rise, to stand, and to walk. And lo, she does. What parents wouldn’t wholly dedicate themselves to a cause after seeing this happen to their beloved precious daughter? The fringe benefits of healing, and power, the ones that come at a mighty, currently unnamed, cost, are simply a nice bonus. 

Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet) is the town drunk, and while his reasons for drowning his sorrows in the sauce might be understandable, absolution wears a very different face when it comes from Father Paul. While Leeza might be willing to forgive Joe, and even as Joe begins attending the newly-formed Al-Anon meetings on the island of course hosted by Father Paul, redemption might’ve been better sought from medical professionals, and not this newfound method of religious worship. 

Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish) is the islands’ kind of all-around medic, and this is how she and Riley’s old friend Erin (Kate Siegel), also newly returned to the island, a few months pregnant but traveling quietly alone, met when Erin comes to the Doc for obstetrics. Sarah’s older mother Mildred Gunning (Alexandra Essoe) has many medical and mental issues, and Sarah struggles in their shared home, to take care of her addled mom and balance her own life. Then Father Paul takes it upon himself to visit one of his oldest parishioners, bringing the sacred host and wine with him to give directly to Mildred, who starts looking and acting so much better under his loving care. 

The show is very much a slow slow burn, with a lot of the actual action taking place in the last two episodes. Much of the beginning and middle episodes feature two people just sitting alone, having quiet and seriously in-depth conversations about heavy subjects – grief and repentance, what happens when we die, the disasters that come as a result of addictions, how our actions’ consequences reverberate to those we love around us, faith and the foibles of man, and of course, the giving of oneself over to a higher power, for strength, and guidance, and love. 

Except, for the higher power that Father Paul brought back with him, to share with his beloved flock of Crockett Island, while it may be extremely powerful and full of what could be considered miraculous magic, everything comes at some kind of a cost. And when the Messenger of God is finally revealed to the shocked denizens of Crockett at Easter Mass, with Father Paul rapturing on about rebirth as the bloody massacre begins in earnest, it’s faith, not in any kind of God or religion, but faith in each other, that may save a few hardy souls. 

Question the wisdom of your religious leaders along with the rest of us in a fine slow-burn addition to the Flanaverse, Midnight Mass is on Netflix now! 

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Saw X: It ain’t brain surgery!



Legendary executioner Jigsaw returns to exact revenge on a cadre of scam artists who promised him a bogus cure for his cancer! 

First off, be aware, that this is what I call an interleaved sequel, a movie set between previous films in the franchise. In this case, Saw X occurs after the events of the very first Saw film, and before Saw II. Everybody got where we are? Good! Into the madness, we dive! 

So, as we all know, John Kramer’s been diagnosed with cancer, very aggressive brain cancer, and likely doesn’t have much time left. And he’s tried everything under the sun, doing a ton of meticulous research, we’d expect nothing less from our master of the art of murder, and not one thing has worked. Yet one man from the support group for cancer sufferers, Henry (Michael Beach), offers an off-the-books supposed miracle cure, and John jumps at the chance. 

Why does this nonsense always sound too good to be true? Because it is. Deleted scenes from the first Deadpool movie already told us why traveling to Mexico for any kind of medical cure is a sublimely stupid move, but Kramer is desperate. And while he might be sick and dying, John Kramer has never been what anyone could call stupid. So the villa out in the Mexican countryside, the affable cab driver Diego (Joshua Okamoto) professes surprise at Kramer being highjacked for his good, the nervous muttering from assistant Valentina (Paulette Hernandez), the side-eyeing from little housekeep Gabriela (Renata Vaca) and her tequila, and most especially the smooth and smarming reassurances of head “doctor” Cecilia Pederson (Synnove Macody Lund), all leave a kind of sour taste in John’s mouth. 

The whole cluex4 scene is done in the style that the Saw films are known for, where we the audience are treated to cut-together explanatory scenes in a flip-flash fashion of usually about two minutes, for poor John when he realizes he’s been hoodwinked and just how badly, seems a little contrived. But then it’s entirely possible that we the audience truly expected our genius mastermind of the infamous Jigsaw murders to have realized what was happening sooner, and got enraged along with Kramer. And cheered as he prepared to take his bloody and ultra-violent revenge! 

First up in our grand guignol of executions is the return of Jigsaw’s first protégé, Amanda (Shawnee Smith). And despite her avowed reverence for Jigsaw and his proven “therapy”, Amanda does waver a bit when the scammers are put through the paces of their specially-made Saw traps, and they shriek and blubber and bleed out. The appearance of the ringer of the bunch, Parker (Steven Brand), doesn’t even slow our beloved engineer of the damned down, because we knew Jigsaw would have his other apprentice waiting just off stage, the deliciously vicious Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). Even the monkeywrench of involving little-boy soccer fan Carlos (Jorge Briseno) in the traps, is just another cog in the machine that is the brilliantly plotting mind of John Kramer. 

A fine addition to the Saw legends, showcasing a return to the beloved style and panache of the original Tobin Bell-starring Jigsaw films, Saw X is splashing gore and gallons of blood in theaters now! 

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Scott Pilgrim Takes Off



“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” Netflix’s latest series, is a rollicking journey through the world of video game culture, blending nostalgic references with a fresh narrative twist. Centered around Scott Pilgrim, portrayed with magnetic charisma by Michael Cera, the show skillfully integrates gaming elements into its storytelling, creating a delightful homage to the video game subculture.

The series cleverly employs pixelated graphics, power-up animations, and game-like sound effects to bring the virtual world to life. These visual cues, reminiscent of classic video games, enhance the storytelling and resonate with audiences familiar with the gaming landscape. The attention to detail in recreating iconic gaming moments is commendable, creating a visual and auditory treat for enthusiasts.

The exploration of video game culture goes beyond mere aesthetics; it becomes an integral part of the characters’ identities and interactions. The script intelligently weaves gaming terminology and tropes into the dialogue, effectively blending the real and virtual worlds. The series navigates the challenges and triumphs of the characters through the lens of gaming, making it a unique and engaging experience for both gamers and general audiences.

The ensemble cast, including standout performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, and Chris Evans embraces the gaming theme with infectious enthusiasm. The chemistry between the characters is palpable, adding emotional depth to the series.

“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” successfully taps into the zeitgeist of video game culture, offering a nostalgic yet contemporary take on the gaming phenomenon. It’s a must-watch for those who cherish the pixelated roots of the gaming world while providing an accessible and entertaining narrative for a broader audience. The series takes off not only in its title but also in its ability to soar within the ever-expanding realm of Netflix originals.

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