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Matt's Occasional Writing Blog

Stranger Things

I know I'm late to the party, but for the past couple of weeks, I've been working through the first two seasons of Stranger Things. Speaking as a child of the 80's--who played his share of D&D and rode a bike all over the place--let me just say this show hits a real sweet spot.


It's 1983, and a government lab in Hawkins, Indiana (something between a large, rural town, and a small suburb) has been engaging in covert experiments with telekinetic children. Why? Because their powers could be developed into a weapon against the Soviets--which is entirely plausible given the zeitgeist back then. But an especially "gifted" (but traumatized) young girl has unwittingly opened a hole into a dark, dangerous alternative reality. The "Upside Down," as this place is called, has all sorts of connections to our world.


Those connections, however, are mostly unpleasant. When ten-year-old Will Byers disappears into the Upside Down, his distraught single mother, his older brother, and his best friends and fellow D&D gamers, all go on the hunt to find him. There's deadly creatures, menacing fiends, and more 80's nostalgia than a New Wave Retro Night. High stakes, paranormal strangeness, government conspiracies, kids riding their bikes to save the day--Stranger Things is what you get when The Goonies meets The X-Files. It really is a delight to watch. 


A couple of small criticisms. The acting is a little bit uneven in the first season, but gets better as the show goes on. Also, the plot lines get machinated from time to time (mostly when the characters are getting moved about in clusters like chess pieces). But it's easy to gloss past those minor issues because the story is so fast-paced and foreboding. Highly recommended viewing for the Gen Xer who keeps a soft spot for malls, walkie-talkies, and classic role-playing games.

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GHOSTBUSTERS — Afterthought

Ghostbusters Afterlife dug up a nice piece of nostalgia from my childhood, pulled the corpse from its coffin, and made it flop around in a barnyard while mouthing unfunny lines from its dead, withered lips. Yeah, it was that bad.


The story has a basic "next generation" setup. Egon Spengler has died, alone, in a ramshackle farm in the middle of nowhere. I would have cautioned spoiler alert, but if you don't pick up who it is and what's happening in the first ten minutes of the film, you're just not paying attention (for which you should be commended). Apparently, Egon had an estranged daughter, who, in turn, has a 15-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, Phoebe, the latter being something of a replica of her late grandfather. They're also poor, apparently. The family is evicted from a pretty nice looking apartment, drives in a new-looking car to Egon's farm (now theirs). Phoebe discovers a ghost in the farm, who leads her to her grandfather's underground lab. Paul Rudd, a seismologist who is substitute teaching in summer school gets hooked in with the family. Ghosts start to appear in the little farm town. The kids and a really annoying sidekick take it upon themselves to take up the ghostbusting trade. And the last 45 minutes basically replicates what happened in the last 45 minutes of the original Ghostbusters movie.


The story was ... well, there was no story. The entire script was a patchwork of scenes machinated together for the sole purpose of having kids do "ghostbuster stuff" in a rural setting. The dialogue was horrendous. There was nothing resembling an authentic human relationship between anyone, at any time, in any part of the movie. The acting felt flat, but I pin that more on the terrible script than on any of the actors. It was, in short, a bad movie.


The premise was a good idea. And the special effects were fantastic. But they can't make up for a seriously flawed script. Which made Ghostbusters Afterlife not much better than an afterthought.

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Scream (2022)—It’s Pretty Bad

Run ... to another movie.

I've never been a fan of horror movies. And I grew up in the 80's. For whatever reason, slasher flicks just never did much for me. 


But when Scream (the original) came out in the 1990's, I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised. Sure, it had a typical horror movie's plot line (you've got a killer; you've got a bunch of teenaged potential victims; they run and, well, scream, and most of them get stabbed in various inventive ways). But the movie had a solid cast. It poked at the genre a little bit (all in fun), which gave it just the right amount of comedy. And it served up a neat twist in the end. I liked it. Apparently, lots of other folks did, too.


So, of course, Hollywood monetized the bejeezus out of it. And that is all the new Scream (2022) is--the last squeeze on the husk of a profitable franchise.


The premise is basically the same as the original. A group of teenagers who are, we are told, friends (you'd never know it from the acting) find themselves in the sights of Ghost Face, the masked killer who once plagued another group of teenaged friends in their small town. The story of the first group of friends became the subject of a film-within-the-film franchise called Stab. That movie (Stab) became serialized to the point of weariness, which kind of plays into the actual movie's plot, eventually ... assuming you care. 


The new kids immediately suspect the killer is one of their number--because they're all friends, and that's what friends do. Indeed, Gen Z of this little town is pretty darned sanguine about getting murdered. They sit on couches and chairs and type on their phones and riff off horror movie tropes and get killed. Eventually, the original crew of kids who were stalked by the first Ghost Face (Cox, Arquette, and Campbell), all grown up and a little grayer, get roped in to help deal with this new(ish) threat. Maybe you'll care about what happens to everyone. Maybe you'll be surprised that there's another "twist" ending machinated like a pretzel weave into the stumbling plot line of this movie.


But you probably won't. Because the acting is almost as bad as the script. With the lone exception of Jenna Ortega (as Tara Carpenter), everyone in this film is just going through the motions. Who knows? Maybe that was purposeful. Because if there's one thing Scream (2022) assaults you with, relentlessly and agonizingly, is how consciously "meta" it is. It's so very aware of itself, and its genre, and the conceit of highbrow art within its genre, and telling its audience about its awareness of itself, that no one involved in its making bothered to put together an actual story. 


Which makes this "requel" of Scream both tired and tedious.

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DUNE IN REVIEW (the Good, the Bad, and the Awful)

Could you brood a little more?

It's not often we get out to sci-fi movie premiers, but the Missus and I teamed up with another couple to check out the latest film adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 classic, Dune. Two and a half hours later (and with the tinnitus still ringing from the Dolby surround sound), here's the Good, the Bad, and the Awful of Denis Villeneuve's attempt to mash a wonky, complicated, pseudo-psychedelic 188,000-word novel into big screen, mass entertainment....


The Good


The cinematography in Villeneuve's Dune is fantastic. The settings were sprawling, beautiful, and at times, haunting. No doubt much of it is computer-generated, but still, every scene is intricate, and well-crafted, and carefully thought out--from the varying art styles in textiles to little details that only serve to pay homage to trifles in the novel (repeated closeups of a mounted bull's head trophy were a nice air kiss to Herbert's book). And if you like big machines, if you've ever gone to a monster truck show and said to yourself, "If only they could do this with space ships," well, strap yourself in, my friend, because believe you me, a $165 Million budget can whip up some thumping big machines and blow them up big-time. And since that's pretty much become the "spice" of modern sci-if movies, the sheer volume of metal and explosions in this film will all but guarantee it will be a money-maker.


The Bad


Villeneuve had a talented cast playing beloved, complicated characters. But apparently he gave them all the same direction: brood. You can almost hear him shouting in his director's horn: "I want those frowns to hurt, people!" Every actor on the screen, from every planet, great or small, came across the same--broody men and women brooding on their broodiness. Even the knife fights looked mopey. 


And some of that may have been a function of the script, which served up a heaping helping of flat blandness. In some places, the lines were just outright silly (note to screenwriters: when characters find themselves in a confined place that is literally exploding all around them, it is completely unnecessary to have one of them calmly suggest, "Let's get out of here."). It's all the more a pity because you could tell the actors were trying really hard to wring the most out of what they were made to work with (Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica deserves a "Bread Upon the Waters" award (if there were such a thing) for putting together a solid performance despite mediocre material, not unlike Bryan Cranston's surprisingly moving character in that 2014 Godzilla remake).


The Awful



The soundtrack. Oh, dear God. Hans Zimmer picked out a harmonic minor chord and pounded on the poor thing for two and a half hours. It was like Peter Gabriel's Zaar, amped up to 11 and set to play on an endless loop.


To Wrap-Up ...


So overall, the movie was "meh."' Which is a huge improvement over David Lynch's god-awfulness. But like the prior version, this version is going to be incoherent for anyone who hasn't read the book. Maybe that's the rub. Maybe Dune is just one of those stories that only works as a novel.

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