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Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: Stranger Things (Season 1)

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Stranger Things court NetflixOf all the TV shows that have debuted in recent years, nothing has compared to how much appreciation Stranger Things has gotten. Created by the Duffer Brothers, this grand throwback to everything 1980s feels more a time capsule of the decade. Coming from someone who is an easy prey for 1980s era movies, this series channels every 1980s pop culture trope/reference in existence and somehow weaves perfectly them together. One minute, it feels like Steven Spielberg is directing it, then it pulls something supernatural from a Stephen King story or includes teen drama from a John Hughes movie. For a series that offers so much, I didn’t think all these plot lines would somehow be tied together.

tumblr_inline_oac2ra1nhr1t6ym0o_1280Everything is centered on the disappearance of a kid named Will (Noah Schnapp) whose very vanishing triggers a domino effect of story. One minute, his mother (Winona Ryder) thinks found a way to communicate with her son through electricity, then suddenly the local police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) uncovers a bizarre conspiracy linked to Will’s disappearance. Even thought it all sounds complex on paper, this whole thing is easy to follow as we jump from one character to the next. Each plot thread either adds more clues to the odd things happening in town or helps the viewer get more acquainted with the people in the area.

boys-and-eleven-radio-roomThings get more complicated when a group of Will’s friends find a girl named “Eleven” (chilling performance by Millie Bobby Brown) who has telekinetic powers beyond belief and may hold the key to finding their missing friend Will. As expected, this is where most of the Spielberg-E.T. cliches kick in with the creature being hidden in the house as the thing tries to understand the world outside. But, there comes a set of fresh elements to keep it interesting. For one, Eleven looks like a normal girl and has the opportunity to hide within society. It gives the character more open freedom to act among people which is kind of a scary thought. Imagine if Carrie had the chance to mingle in a modern high school and you didn’t know she had these powerful abilities like channeling other worlds or destroying things with her mind. How would a normal human being be able to know she has the will to bend reality when they look like a normal person?

The John Hughes elements are centered around one of the boy’s sisters (Natalia Dyer) who pines for the hot jock and, you can sort of see where it goes. In laws of predictability, there is an outcast of some form she feels bad for, but believes he deserves help and it causes her boyfriend to act like a complete jerk about it-Again, you can clearly see where it goes. However, what you don’t except is the jock to actually turn around and even be some form of help at the end. At one point, he becomes useful in a fight against this bizarre monster near the climax and it shows that maybe he’s not that bad as you think.

21-stranger-things-steve-nancy.w1200.h630That’s what I love the most about this series. It keeps adding all these twists and turns keeping you second guessing about what’s coming next. For every new turn in the story, you just can’t help but wonder how it will all end. Even with things like the “big bad government agents,” which is a tiring cliche, Stranger Things knows how to use this well by showing how more devious they can be. Not since E.T. have I felt this trope can really pose as a huge threat. These are people that will do anything to keep a huge secret, even if it means faking a death or holding a family hostage.

There’s so much more I wish I could talk about, but it’s best for you to see Stranger Things for yourself. With season 2 around the corner, now would be a good time to catch up and see what everyone’s been praising about. For an 8 episode season, it’s really worth your time, If you like small tows with big mysteries like Twin Peaks or throwbacks like Super 8, this is worth the nostalgia trip. I’d go into deeper detail on why so much of it succeeds, but then I would have to ruin a good bulk of the plot your meant to discover. The best I can say is for anyone who grew up on a childhood diet of Spielberg, John Carpenter and Joe Dante with a small pinch of Stephen King’s writing, this is for the older crowd who grew up on those elements.

Stranger Things VHS Blu Ray DVD1On a side note, I should bring to light of the show’s recent Blu-Ray/DVD release. Target held an exclusive “special collector’s” edition where the packaging resembles an old VHS tape. Once the slipcover is removed, the discs are housed in a container that resembles a VHS tape with a “Be Kind Rewind” sticker for added nostalgia. It’s a nifty idea, but there is one major drawback. All you get is the entire first season on both Blu-ray and DVD in a fancy packaging…and that’s it. No audio commentaries from the Duffer Brothers, additional supplements or even a single behind the scenes featurette.

Stranger Things VHS Blu Ray DVD2Fans might be disappointed in the lack of extra material, but at least the first season can be seen in some physical form outside of the digital medium. The other additional plus is for people who don’t have Netflix can actually check this series out. Well for $24.99, it’s not a bad deal seeing this form of packaging is perfect for a show like this. However, it leaves you feeling there should be more to explore after binge watching a show like this. Considering there will be 3 more seasons (including the next one coming this Halloween) afterwards, it leaves one to wonder if there will be this “complete series” release. For now, I’m pleased to had this one in my collection, but this show deserves much better when housed in a grand box like this.

Why the Hate: Ghostbusters II

Who you gonna call...for a low brow but ok sequel?

Who you gonna call…for a low brow but ok sequel?

In honor of the new Blu-ray release of “Ghostbusters” and its 30th Anniversary, I felt it would be fitting to look at its sequel and where it stands. Not just with myself but even today as well. The general consensus is that more regard it as a waste of time while others are a bit more forgiving. Honestly, I was brought up more on the first film than the second one and there were times when the sequel did play on television but I only saw bits and pieces. When I finally saw it for the first time, I was probably 8 or 9 and just thought it was ok. Well, know that I’m older and my passion for films is expanding, I might as well get this one off my chest.

But let me start off by saying the first “Ghostbusters” movie was a tough act to follow up with. It was so well-done and everything seemed to wrap itself up nicely at the end. Even the finale which has a giant monster made out of marshmallows was so iconic that there was no way to top it. Well, they tried and I admit, there are some nice things about it but there are points when it feels too close to the first film. Instead of spirits plaguing Manhattan, its a giant river of pink slime. Worse of all, it feels off everyone’s emotions so the more aggressive the slime feels, the more damage it does. And it doesn’t help that New York is the angriest city on Earth to emit such a negative amount of energy.

A river of slime that feeds on negativity?!? I wonder if Internet trolls work the same way...

A river of slime that feeds on negativity?!? I wonder if Internet trolls work the same way…

So far a silly idea but maybe the old gang will be able to figure this out. Well, that would be the case if they didn’t go their separate ways. This is probably one of the problems I have with this movie. In the end of the first film, there’s a hinting impression they are hailed as heroes. Now, they are banned from continuing any Ghostbusting activity all because of the damage that was made. So all that supernatural Gozer stuff is now their fault? I guess you could argue the fighting with Gozer might have done something but if four guys take down an all-powerful being in the form of a tasty snack, you have to give them some leeway.

So now, the gang is split and doing different things. Peter (Bill Murry) has a short lived TV shows about the paranormal, Ego (the late but great Harold Ramis) is doing work on a university while Ray and Winston (Dan Ayrkroyd and Ernie Hudson) try to make a living with a bookstore and being child party entertainers. Its nice to see the group try to make it out in the real world and it does lead to some funny gags. But I still question how these guys who just saved the world can sink so low. The continuity of this movie which is set five years after the first one is a bit frustrating to comprehend. A good example is Dana (Sigourney Weaver) and her subplot as its revealed her interest as a cellist dropped when her ex-husband left her with a kid in her hands. It doesn’t help either they hint that Dana and Peter were once dating and you can see it considering the chemistry between Bill and Sigourney in the last movie. But to dump him and marry a violinist? I can’t picture that happening.

Peter MacNicol with a painting of Vigo the Carpathian. One of many intersting elements of the first film that is "borrowed" but not wated

Peter MacNicol with a painting of Vigo the Carpathian. One of many intersting elements of the first film that is “borrowed” but not wated

Dana works with an eccentric art preservationist (Peter MacNicol) at an art museum who are cleaning up the painting of a sixteenth century tyrant named Vigo the Carpathian. As it turns out the painting is possessed with the spirit of Vigo and plans to move his spirit into the body of Dana’s baby son. Its the typical exorcism route and I guess they wanted to step it up with having a kid in the mix. So the Ghostbusters have to come back to not only deal with the ghost of a magician but also a massive river of pink slime that keeps feeding off the negative energy New York’s civilians expel.

Its a wonder to see how two different ideas for a Ghostbusters movie could be molded into one. These are two interesting ideas but it feels weird to how they are connected. The first movie was a straight forward narrative that kept building and building while throwing in a few things that mattered to the storyline. Here, it feels like they looked at the elements that made the first one work and see if anything could be expanded on. Most notable is the ecto-plasma slime which becomes more of a plot element that part of the ghosts. Its interesting to see something small expanded on and it does lead to some creative gags and effects. But having connect to the Vigo storyline feels uneven to me. Its hard to explain but Vigo feels like a last minute seeing so much time is spent trying get the Ghostbusters back together and examining mood slime.

Even at times, it feels there is much material that is being “borrowed” too heavily. Its almost like taking the first draft, erasing out the dialogue and story and re-writing it with something similar but with different concepts. On one hand, Rick Moranis returns as the nerdy Louis Tully who tries to be a lawyer/financial adviser to the team with some great laughs but on the other hand you have Kurt Fuller playing Jack Hardemeyer, a slimy assistant to the mayor who feels like a clone of the Walter Peck character from the first film and he just wants to see the spirit fighting team out of business. Its obvious they knew the surprise and excitement of the first movie couldn’t be topped but I can’t say the effort was wasted. Like I said, there’s a nice gag once in a while and I can’t remember a time when I felt like the Ghostbusters were out of it or too aged. The chemistry is there with Ray and Ego spouting more science jargon while Peter has to deal with a kid he thinks is “ugly with a short nose and a bellybutton that sticks out.” And there is some great set piece moments I didn’t even talk about like a brief joke where the Titanic arrives or the gang using the Statue of Liberty  at one point through matters of possession.

Rick Moranis and his attempt to capture Slimer in a deleted scene that can be found on the new Blu-ray

Rick Moranis and his attempt to capture Slimer in a deleted scene that can be found on the new Blu-ray

There’s even talk of some missing scenes that could improved the movie or at least strengthen it. The new Blu-ray release contains roughly eight minutes of material that didn’t make it in but fans might be disappointed to see its not all of the material. Not available is Eugene Levy’s cameo as Louis Tully’s brother and additional effects scenes like a deleted subway frog ghost are unknown to be existing or lost. But I can say the material that was placed on the new release is interesting to look at. There’s more banter between the gang that is amusing and a few Bill Murray moments I wish they kept in. The biggest highlight I’m sure everyone will talk about is a cut scene included on the Blu-ray where Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) tries to capture Slimer and tells Jannie his dream to a be a Ghostbuster. It enhances a big plot hole in the final act and does something different enhancing some character development.

So this movie has a lot of problems that go against it, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. It follows in the view of sequels that at the time where more low-brow and less “let’s try and overdo what we did.” I did manage to see this on the big-screen as part of a Midnight Screening ordeal at a local theater and I did have some fun with it. Its not as good as the first film but there is a nice charm to it. They knew there is only one “Ghostbusters” and did what they could. Once in a while, there is a nice gag and an impressive special effect but its recycled status is questionable. I saw in an interview once that script writer Dan Aykroyd (who also was the brain child of the first film) wanted to reflect the depressing times of the Reagan era. Hence the idea of the mood slime. Well for a movie to come out at the end of the 1980’s, it certainly reflects that but I wish there was more social commentary and subtext to it. Overall, not as bad as many make out to be but it could have been better and it could have been worse. A decent follow-up that deserves a good re-watch.

Rental Corner: “The Missing Pieces,” or Signs of a Lost Good Movie

Prior to its Blu Ray release, The Missing Pieces had its unique premier

Prior to its Blu Ray release, The Missing Pieces had its unique premier

“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” has been known for two things in the Twin Peaks fanbase. First being a prequel to the TV series in revealing the moments up till Laura Palmer’s death. The other thing is the never-ending mound of deleted scenes that exist. Now, it is common for a movie to have certain moments removed up during post production wither it be an entire sequence or a conversation that needs to be trimmed down for pacing purposes. Less is more. But in the case of “Fire Walk With Me,” more apparently was needed.

The recent Blu-Ray box set, dubbed “The Entire Mystery,” has both the original TV series that started the cult craze and its prequel movie to accompany it. But the biggest highlight of all is a supplemental section of the deleted footage from the movie dubbed “The Missing Pieces.” Now normally a typical movie could have anywhere up to 10 or even 20 minutes of removed scenes. “Missing Pieces” on the other hand contains roughly 90 minutes of deleted/extended scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut and could have improved David Lynch’s strange big screen adaptation in many ways.

Fans will be pleased to hear that many discarded moments will be seen in their glory as they refer to it as the “Holy Grail” of Twin Peaks fandom. Indeed, a lot of the footage does brush upon certain aspects like the spirits of the Black Lodge and many subplots that could have been better fleshed out or developed better. Among the batch is more of Bobby and Laura as we see a relationship on the rocks. One notable highlight is Laura visiting his boyfriend Bobby for something less intimate than he thinks. Its made quite clear that she only wanted him for the drug trafficking he’s been doing. I do admit when these two are on-screen, you can feel a tragic sense greater than Romeo and Juliet. That is if you knew the show well-enough that is.

We also get to see more of the Palmer family but not as sublime in the final cut. One scene that I’m sure everyone will be talking about is Leland Palmer teaching his wife and daughter some Norwegian which references a key element in the pilot. Scenes like these show that not everything is gloom and doom in the family while giving us a bittersweet feeling in contrast to later when Laura becomes suspicious and fearful of her father. Its a nice and humorous moment that could have balanced the dark nature.

Another crucial addition is David Bowie’s appearance as the strange agent Phillip Jeffrie whose brief moment in the final cut is expanded upon just a little bit. We get to have more time and devotion to his appearance as opposed to the theatrical cut where his moment is jarringly edited with the inhabitants of the Black Lodge mugging at the screen. Unfortunately, we may get to see more of Phillip and elaborate on his talks of “Judy” (a character that we never see in the show or the movie) but some things are never explained like his odd power to teleport from one place to the next. “The Missing Pieces” does show where he came from but never elaborates on the strange phenomenon.

Certain elements are made more clearer like the ring Teresa kept which could have played a bigger role in future continuations and the motive behind Tersa’s death in the beginning. But much like most of these scenes, we get new information but at the same time raises more questions. I’m glad to see more of the Black Lodge and its bizarre inhabitants but it only leaves me wondering exactly what kind of people they truly are and the reason for their existence. But moments like Kyle McLaughlin’s Agent Cooper talking to/practicing to talk to Diane really has me raising eyebrows. In the series, he would often recap events into a tape recorder supposedly for a secretary named Diane. We never do see this “Diane” (not even the deleted scenes hint who this is) and this only questions further if she is real or not. My argument for the series is that “Diane” is the tape recorder but then this bit completely obliterates that theory.

Also in the mix are a series of characters from the show that intended to make an appearance.  Among the notable include footage of the late Jack Nance as wood mill lumberjack Pete Martell arguing with a customer over a two by four board. It doesn’t add much to the plot or enhance anything but something about it feels humorously engaging. Others include some extra bits in the Sherif’s office that never made it into the final cut and more of Ed and Norma’s romance fling is expanded upon considering where it leads in the series. Bits like this could have allowed more time in the town of Twin Peaks and even see about the place. Wither it would have detracted from the main storyline is their own to question.

However, not every additional moment is good. As said above, the “two by four” argument really has no value or place and there’s little moments here and there that just don’t work. There’s a physical fight scenes that goes on for quite a while but something about it doesn’t work. There’s a purpose for it but the way its staged with the handheld camera and the awkward pans around the two duking it out really kills the excitement over the clumsy execution. I’m sure fans will be pleased to see this “long talked about” sequence but I unfortunately found it as too poorly shot. But does it deserve to be seen? Well, yes.  Most cut footage has a right to be examined and looked at to understand why it got cut or why one thinks it could have helped the movie.

But the biggest moment I’m sure fans will be talking about is the “extended” ending we get. Included is a five minute sequence that elaborates more on the final moments of the season two finale and while it does answer a lot, it sets things up for a sequel that never came to. Again, I’m glad to have seen this but it only makes matters more frustrating when you hope for an answer and instead just adds more cliffhanging frustration to the point you feel the story is unfinished.

Its best to see “The Missing Pieces” as a supplement as opposed to the “deleted movie versions” of the Anchorman films considering the string of “lost vignettes” that are included. While edited in a continuity form to help understand how it would have played out, I do think this could have benefited earlier on with that footage added in for a two-night TV airing. Now that would have been something back in the day. As it stands, “Missing Pieces” is more of an interesting afterthought much like its feature film revealing the biggest mysteries that were left behind from the show. The only negative is that while it does enhance and expand on a few things, not everything is going to be adjusted. We don’t know if one character escaped from the Black Lodge (possibly stuck there for life) and we don’t know much about how the supernatural elements work here. Perhaps to best quote David Lynch himself, “There is no end to the mystery.”