Thoughts on Stranger Things, Toy Story 4, Dark, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Los Espookys, Das Boot, and more.
Stranger Things, Season 3 (Netflix)
This is the only entry that’s going to be spoiler-y, so skip on down if you haven’t finished the season yet. Hopefully you have, since it’s been out for a week.
This was probably the least of the three seasons to date (I go 2 then 1, even including the wildly misfiring “The Lost Sister”), but it was still a great deal of fun. The Duffer Brothers are still quite good at crafting a rollicking eight-hour ride, beginning the season with the characters split up into different groups, pursing different mysteries, only to bring them together for the (literally) explosive finale at Starcourt Mall. We had Nancy, prickling against sexism at the surprisingly well-staffed Hawkins Post, investigating a pest problem with Jonathan; we had Joyce and Hopper poking around a conspiracy involving Hawkins’s slimy mayor (an under-used Cary Elwes); we had kids looking for missing lifeguards, cracking secret Russian codes, and bracing for the return of the Mind Flayer, Season 2’s big bad, who is using Max’s terrible brother Billy as his new host.
In short, it was a lot of plotting — but it was paced exceptionally well, even if some of the characterizations got short-changed within its tight eight-episode run. Maya Hawke is this year’s breakout as Robin, Steve’s fellow ice cream scooper who is invaluable not just in discovering the Russian base under the mall, but in bringing a jolt of energy and humor every time she appeared on screen. (The late-season reveal about her orientation was strikingly well-handled, too.) The Duffers wisely don’t mess with a good thing in re-pairing Steve and Dustin, while also building in extra time for Erica (Priah Ferguson), Lucas’s mouthy sister who’s just in it for the free desserts.
But screen time is a zero-sum game, which means that a character like Will largely gets reduced to being a warning system, when he’s not begging Mike and Lucas if they could stop making out with their girlfriends so they can get back to D&D (I feel that, Will) — though the brief emotional moments we get with him, like his argument with Mike (where it’s possibly casually revealed that Will is gay) and his anguished destruction of Castle Byers in the rain, are really effective. I generally appreciated how the season was largely about the show’s female characters — Eleven, Joyce, Nancy, and Robin in particular — being awesome and smart and right, while the boys/men/Steve are unable to adequately deal with…anything.
And that leads me to Hopper, who gets an emotional “death” in the finale, but for me at least, that doesn’t make up for how boorishly his character is written this season. Instead of the grumpy but compassionate Hopper of the past, here he’s a violent, blustery alpha male with a Selleck mustache. And while I don’t want to lay too much blame at the feet of David Harbour, who loves being part of the show more than anyone, the portrayal borders on outright character assassination. It would have been so much easier to root for him and Joyce to finally hook up if he wasn’t so tempermental, even when he’s duking it out (repeatedly) with the Russian Terminator. While Season 3 doesn’t have a single-episode stinker like “The Lost Sister,” this is the most frustrating thing about it — not the cartoony Russians, not the repetitive Eleven ex machina, but the devolution of an appealing role model. Hopefully, assuming he is “the American” mentioned in the credits scene, that will be rectified.
The show’s still a blast, though, and I don’t feel like the Duffers have run out of story to tell. The Byerses (plus Elle, but without her powers) leaving Hawkins at season’s end suggests fresh new territory. Presumably there will be more for Suzie, Dustin’s long-distance, Never-Ending Story-loving girlfriend. The camerawork is fluid and the score rules. And there’s still all of the mythology stuff they attempted last season, and can hopefully do better. As summer hangs go, it’s hard to do better than Stranger Things.
Toy Story 4
I unequivocally did not want a Toy Story 4. Not only did the third installment end perfectly (scooping up a Best Picture nomination to boot), I didn’t think that the franchise had anything new to say. It was, in short, a terrible idea, and hired screenwriters Rashida Jones and Will McCormack leaving the project for troubling, culture-related reasons, before original director John Lasseter was disgraced and replaced by Josh Cooley, made it seem like a fiasco in the making.
But darn it, Pixar got me again. Even with eight credited writers and a slightly repetitive back half, Toy Story 4 not only serves as a stellar coda for the characters of cinema’s greatest tetralogy, its story of getting older and getting out of the way is uniquely, if accidentally, attuned to this moment. We see Woody (Tom Hanks) struggling with his role as one of the elder statesmen of Bonnie’s cadre of plastics and plushies, often finding himself left on the floor of the closet while the others enjoy playtime. He’s even desperate enough to sneak into Bonnie’s backpack on her first day of kindergarten, where he becomes inadvertently responsible for one of Pixar’s strangest and most endearing creations: Forky (Tony Hale), who is crafted, with love, from garbage.
This also makes Forky a walking existential crisis: Astonished by his own sentience (as are we all) but determined to return from whence he came, Forky’s justifiable neuroses become the driving engine of Toy Story 4’s plot, and a thousand self-deprecating internet memes. What is he? What is his purpose? He thinks, therefore he is, but that knowledge alone is a constant source of abstract horror (and humor). The voice of a generation, Forky alone justifies the film’s existence, to say nothing of Keanu Reeves’ Canadian stuntdoll Duke Caboom, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a pair of carnival prizes, Christina Hendricks as the saga’s most three-dimensional antagonist, and the glorious return of Annie Potts as a swaggering, butt-kicking Bo Peep.
Honestly, Toy Story 4 had me from the first notes of Randy Newman’s iconic score, but the film’s final moments are no less poignant or well-judged than the series at its best. With Pete Docter at the studio’s helm and two original stories coming next year, Pixar is still going strong. Thank goodness.
Dark, Season 2 (Netflix)
I haven’t had my brain broken like this since the heyday of LOST, over a decade ago. Baran bo Odar & Jantje Friese’s utterly bonkers time-travelin’ mystery really outdoes itself in its second season (of three, we’re told), and the intertwining stories of the families Kahnwald, Doppler, Nielsen, and Tiedemann loop in on themselves in increasingly, preposterously exhilarating ways. (One vaguely spoilery example: Two characters are their own mothers!) If last month’s Chernobyl made me feel like an expert on nuclear reactors, Dark practically requires an advanced degree in theoretical physics and a dog-eared notebook. It does not help you along in any way, and woe befall the viewer who does not first freshen up on the first season’s story. I even had to re-read my own review.
But amidst all the bootstrap paradoxes, churning God particles, and accidental incest, how Dark has managed to stay atop this highwire is no mystery at all. It’s fanatical about its details, sure. The multi-generational casting is pitch-perfect, a life raft through every hard cut across time. But we’ve seen so many “puzzle box” shows fall apart as more is revealed — there’s always a shadowy outside organization, a Bigger Bad, a (cough) stopper in a pool of light — and Dark skirts that by making every conflict intensely personal. Even antagonists like Noah, the “ageless priest” who I thought was the dullest part of Season 1, turn out to more closely linked with our heroes than originally thought.
Dark also avoids one of the genre’s stickiest traps by actually having people talk to each other about what they’re uncovering. Every episode, there’s a meeting (or a reunion) that crackles like one of the Travelers’ devices. And with more characters finally in the loop of what’s really been going on in Winden, they start to take matters into their own hands, and consistently meet their destinies on the roads they take to avoid them. Such a starkly deterministic series might sound depressing (and reader, it is gloomy), but bo Odar & Friese do an exceptional job of not just layering on the dread (the season builds to a well-advertised “apocalypse,” after all), but always leaving you with hope that maybe — next time — someone can set all this right.
That final scene, guys, had me hollering.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
After the titanic (and Titanic-topping) success of Avengers: Endgame, we had truckloads of questions about what would happen next, both in the long and short-term. It is with the latter that Spider-Man: Far From Home entirely concerns itself: not just the aftermath of “the Blip” — some of the practical aspects of half of the Earth’s population suddenly returning, which suggests great misfortune for anyone who was in a moving vehicle — but what Tony Stark’s death means for Peter Parker specifically. The whole world wants to know, are the Avengers done? Who will fill Iron Man’s boots?
Peter (Tom Holland, delightful as ever) doesn’t think he’s up to it, and the film shows that he’s not necessarily wrong as he makes one boneheaded mistake after another. He just wants to enjoy a European vacation with his friends, and finally tell MJ (Zendaya, delightful as ever) how he feels about her, but things keep getting in the way — namely, an elemental threat that has Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) essentially hijacking the trip so Spider-Man can deal with it. Far From Home is a breezy variation on the MCU formula, a teen rom-com that happens to include superheroes, rather than the other way around. (Shout-out to all my Netty shippers!)
Spidey is joined on his mission by Mysterio, a hero from an alternate Earth who hopes to make up for past failures. His design looks straight out of Jules Verne, but as embodied by Jake Gyllenhaal (clearly having the time of his life), his arc resonates strongly with the present — both for the world of the film, and for our own. He provides a key sounding board as Peter struggles with his own inadequacy, and Gyllenhaal’s unavoidably rugged handsomeness is only matched by his charm. There’s actually a great deal of charm to go around; this iteration of cinematic Spider-Man is unique for its earnestness. We ache for Peter, who must learn to rely on his instincts (or his “Peter Tingles,” as Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May keeps calling them), and doubts his place in the world while even the villain can’t help but call him “a good kid.” You might see the story’s twists coming a mile away, but Director Jon Watts makes sure you’ll enjoy the trip. Outstanding credits scenes, too.
Los Espookys (HBO)
Best described as a “reverse Scooby-Doo,” this series from writer-stars Julio Torres and Ana Fabrega (with an assist from Fred Armisen) melds droll humor and casual magic — stylistically, it’s like Jared Hess, but good and entirely delightful. Also, it’s entirely in subtitled Spanish.
Torres and Febrega play members of the titular group, along with horror aficionado/leader Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco) and crafstwoman Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), who get hired to stage supernatural events around their unnamed Latin American city. In the pilot, a local priest is jealous of the attention a younger (hotter) priest is getting, and asks them to help him fake an exorcism; in another episode, a seaside town is in need of a tourist draw, and they provide a tentacled monster.
This is all fun, providing endless deadpan comedy (with Febrega’s Tati as the consistently guileless scene-stealer), but the real genius of the show is its slow-rolling undercurrent: that the veil between their clever fakery and real magic is thin indeed. As Torres’s Andrés seeks answers about his birth parents, he is visited by a water spirit. One job goes wrong when their client gets sucked into an actually enchanted mirror. Los Espookys is constantly suggesting a wider mythology, but unlike, say, Dark or Stranger Things, it’s not really about that as much as it is about watching the group accidentally create then wriggle out of fantastical situations. It’s preposterous and silly in the best way. And yes, it’s already been picked up for a Season 2.
Das Boot (Hulu)
In this month’s other German series, Johannes W. Betz and Tony Saint bring submarine drama to Hulu, but expand the scope of Wolfgang Petersen’s seminal 1981 film to include the Resistance in occupied La Rochelle. This usually works quite well, thanks to a strong central performance from Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps, whose military translator Simone inadvertently steps into espionage in her brother’s stead when he is posted aboard the titular sub. Tom “Jaqen H’ghar” Wlaschiha plays her superior; Lizzy Caplan plays an American spy.
But the bulk of the action is on U-612, a dark and claustrophobic boat where, for at least the first few episodes, the faces all blend together — until the plot really kicks into gear. Untested captain Hoffman (Rick Okon) finds his tenuous authority in jeopardy when he is ordered away from action to participate in a secret prisoner exchange (involving Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser!), as his true-believer first officer seethes and the tension amongst his squabbling men comes to a boil.
Das Boot doesn’t have the thrilling undersea action of the film or, say, The Hunt for Red October, and it sometimes feels like it’s spreading itself too thin, but it has me looking forward to a second season nonetheless. Director Andreas Prochaska shoots it all with a feeling of impending doom (at the story’s beginning, the U.S. has just entered the war), and I especially enjoyed the score from Matthias Weber.
- Pour one out for Netflix’s Jessica Jones, which closes the book on the streaming service’s partnership with Marvel. The third season was another great showcase for Krysten Ritter, but despite some interesting ideas (a big Hellcat twist, a very Philip Seymour Hoffman-ish Foolkiller), it never came close to the heights of its first.
- It’s early yet in this final season of Legion, but it seems like Noah Hawley’s bafflingly indulgent fever dream of an X-Men series might finally be crawling out of its own butt. At least, it’s done hiding that David is in fact the villain of the story, even if he doesn’t fully recognize that himself. I may have more to say next month.
- If you miss Mythbusters, you could do worse than Adam Savage’s new Discovery Channel series Savage Builds, where we see him try to create impossible things like a flying Iron Man suit or Mad Max vehicles. My kids think it’s cool, too.
- We also recently rented How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, which was fine. An emotional ending, boldly animated with a great score, just kinda dull for me.
- Finally finished my Documentary Now catch-up, so I’ll stop ranting about that now (or will I?). My favorites from Season 2: “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” (an astonishing Bill Hader tour de force) and the utterly charming “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken.”
- Looking ahead to: The Lion King (7/19), Quentin Tarintino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (7/26), new Veronica Mars on Hulu (7/26), Season 3 of Netflix’s Dear White People (8/3) and GLOW (8/9), The Terror: Infamy (8/12), the WWII interment camp-set follow-up to one of my favorite series from 2018.