Stranger Things season 4

I never bothered reviewing the 3rd season of Stranger Things because I didn't really have strong feelings about it one way or the other. Season 3 was a bit of an improvement over season 2, but both were a resounding "meh" for me. The first half of season 4 is also kind of "meh", but I think that it's worth talking about this time around because it both succeeds tremendously where seasons 2 and 3 failed, but also then kind of ruins any goodwill that it had built up.

The fundamental problem that I have with Stranger Things after the first season is that a continuation of this same story simply doesn't need to happen. The first season worked so well, in large part, because of its intriguing mysteries. Aside from sequel bait, all the important questions and mysteries of season 1 were solved, and the first season felt satisfactorily resolved. If this show was going to have sequel seasons, then I think a more anthology-like approach would have been more appropriate, with each new season telling a new story, with new characters, confronting a completely new and unrelated horror, and solving completely new and unrelated mysteries.

By continuing with the same story, the audience gets to bring everything we know from the first season into the new story. Even though seasons 2 and 3 went in their own directions and took different inspirations compared to the first season (season 1 being kind of Twin Peaks meets E.T., season 2 being inspired by Aliens and Terminator, and season 3 being a play on a Body-Snatchers concepts), neither season 2 nor 3 introduced anything tremendously new. There wasn't much mystery because the workings of the Upside Down, the mechanics of the demogorgons, and the machinations of the secret government labs were all established. Season 3 shakes things up a bit with a body-snatchers plot and an ending that actually destroys the status quo and moves our characters forward with their lives, and is perhaps the only reason that season 3 did not feel quite as stale (for me) as season 2 did. But the fundamental problem was still the same: we've seen all this before, more or less.

Season 4's "monster of the week" approach feels fresh and new.

This is where season 4 kind of shines. It's new monster, Vecna, isn't just another demogorgon. He's something that feels completely new and threatening. His motivations are unknown, and despite being explicitly inspired by Freddy Krueger, the mechanics by which he operates are completely new compared to the previous monsters. This finally gives our characters an actual mystery to solve. For the first time since season 1, the threat of Stranger Things is finally mysterious and unknown again.

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If you want to depress yourself going into the new year, go ahead and check out the movie Don't Look Up on Netflix. It is categorized as a "dark comedy&qout; -- a parody of modern politics and plutocracy -- but it rings so true, and is so frustratingly believable given the events of the past 5 years, that I have trouble labeling it as a "comedy". It induced facepalms and fury rather than laughs, and its pervasive bleakness offers no hope for our future. It feels less like a warning, and more like a eulogy for the human race. And I recommend it so completely.

It's worth watching almost for Mark Rylance's performance of Bash Cellular CEO Peter Isherwell. His send-up of an eccentric tech billionaire (think Steve Jobs meets Jeff Bezos meets Elon Musk) is one of the few outright funny things about the movie that isn't also depressing.

I've read some people online suggesting that Don't Look Up might be this generation's Idiocracy. I'm not sure if I agree with the comparison. Idiocracy has a sort of naïve optimism that makes it charming. It is a stark warning of a possible dystopian future brought on by corporate greed, public ignorance, and the out of control birth rate of stupid people. But while the characters are all idiots, they are at least well-meaning idiots. They could and (more importantly) would do right by everyone else if they only hadn't been brainwashed by corporate propaganda all their lives ("Brawndo has the electrolytes plants crave"). It's a world run by, and completely populated by, Homer Simpsons: dumb, but well-meaning buffoons.

In Idiocracy, the average-intelligence time-traveler from the present gets a high score on an intelligence test, and is immediately sworn in as a high-ranking member of the president's cabinet. After demonstrating that watering crops with water instead of Gatorade will cause them to grow, he is promoted to vice president, and eventually elected president. The people of Idiocracy may be the dumbest humans to ever live, but they still value intelligence, competency, and demonstrable truth. There's a hopeful optimism there that things will get better if they can only be shown the error of their ways.

Don't Look Up - presidential administration
Copyright: 20th Century Fox, 2006.
Idiocracy - president
Copyright: Netflix, 2020.
Don't Look Up is being compared to Idiocracy. I'm not sure the comparison is apt.
Idiocracy is far less cynical and more hopefully optimistic.
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Having dislocated my shoulder a few weeks ago, I haven't been doing much video gaming. I can do some PC gaming on my laptop using my trackball mouse and wireless keyboard (and plan on having a new Civilization VI strategy published real soon), and I also finally started playing Breath of the Wild on the Switch, since the Switch controller is much more comfortable to use with my arm in a sling. I haven't touched the PS4 since the dislocation. I've also been watching a lot more TV and movies.

One such television show has been Netflix's new The Witcher TV series, based on the novels that inspired the video game series of the same name. The Witcher III is a fantastic game that I've come to adore due to its exceptionally well-written and thoughtful quests. But I never played the first two games in the series, nor read the books. So I was looking forward to the TV show hopefully filling me in on more of the backstory and history of these characters and this world.

I just wish that I was having an easier time following along with what the heck is going on in this show, as its plotting and structure seems to be rather muddled.

I'm not even talking about the large, big-picture structure of the show. I followed along just fine with the show jumping back and forth between Ciri's escape from the Nilfgardian invasion of Cintra, and the travels of Geralt that happened in the 15 or so years leading up that invasion. It took me a few episodes to wrap my head around it, but I'm fine with it.

No, what's confusing me is the minute-to-minute plotting and character motivations. There have been numerous times during these eight episodes that I just kind of threw my hands up and asked aloud "what is going on here?". Why are these characters doing what they are doing? And why do so many conversations feel like they are made up of non sequiturs? There's going to be some light spoilers here, so if you haven't watched the show yet, you can maybe skip the next two or three paragraphs.

I found myself very confused as to why certain things were happening.

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The Haunting of Hill House

Oh boy, this is going to be a tough one to talk about. I have very mixed, and somewhat polarized views of how this turns out, and as such, I'm struggling with whether or not I can offer a recommendation. The first five or six episodes are fantastic! After that, however, I really feel like the show peters out, begins to meander and run in place, and then kind of unravels in the end. Those first five or six episodes are so good, however, that I think I can recommend the series as a whole based on the strengths of its first half.

I can't discuss this show without getting into spoilers, so be warned that the further down you read, the more spoiler-y this will become.

A masterfully suspenseful start

Each of the first five or six episodes is told from the point of view of a different sibling in a family that is tormented by a summer spent in a haunted house. This structure creates a deeply textured and nuanced tapestry, in which each episodes recasts the events of the previous episodes in a new light. Giving each character his or her own episode provides us with a rich character study that helps us to understand each character's attitude when they all get together and the family drama gets rolling. All the while, the subtle supernatural elements create a building sense of intrigue as the mysteries surrounding Hill House, and the family's last night there, continue to mount and the plot continues to thicken.

Each of the first six episodes is told from the perspective of a different character.

I really love the camera work! Slow pans and zooms are used with excellent effect to draw out scenes and add tension and keep the scene mysterious. Sometimes, there's a creepy detail in the background. Other times, there's an ominous lack of anything creepy to see as the camera slowly pans from character to character across a room or down a hallway. In any genre other than horror, these labored camera movements would seem wasteful and pointless, but they really add to the atmosphere here.

The set design is also really great. The gothic Hill House provides an excellent and ominous set piece, but the other sets are also uncanny and unnerving in their own right, especially Shirley's funeral home. Around episode 6 or 7, I was really starting to struggle with reconciling the geometry of Hill House, and this is something that is paid off really well at the end of the series.

The geometry of Hill House becomes a source of unease as the series develops.

A meandering, incoherent ending

Unfortunately, the series faltered a bit for me after the sixth episode. At this point, all the characters are together in one place, and so no one character receives the focus of the narrative. The story starts to meander a bit here, while also running in place, as the intrigue that was so carefully crafted in the preceding episodes is squandered, new plot points and concepts are thrown at the audience, and old plot points and concepts just disappear.

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Netflix's extraordinary exclusive series Black Mirror recently released its fourth season, and it's premiere episode, "USS Callister", is already being praised around the internet for its spectacular deconstruction of toxic fandom and male-entitlement power fantasies. It deserves every bit of that praise. Jesse Plemons is also deservedly earning plenty of praise for his incredible performance as both a nerdy creeper and for his spot-on Shatner send-up. But Black Mirror, as a series, is so good, in part, because it works on many, many different levels. So I wanted to spend a bit of time praising the episode for some of its other concepts that are getting less attention in the mainstream.

Jesse Plemons puts on a masterful performance as a nerdy office creeper and a spot-on Shatner send-up.

Before I do that, I want to start by saying that I love Black Mirror as a series. It's a modern-day Twilight Zone with a specific focus on the social impacts of technology, and dire warnings about their dangers. Yes, it's pessimistic, but it's bloody brilliant! I haven't sat down to watch every episode yet, and have only seen a handful of episodes from the first three seasons and the season four premiere. That being said, the show's second episode "Fifteen Million Merits" is one of my favorite pieces of television ever. "The Entire History of You", "Be Right Back", and "San Junipero" are also some of my favorites so far.

These episodes (along with "USS Callister") work so well for me because they do such a fantastic job of world-building -- at least, when they are not unrealistically pretending that memories and personality can be replicated from DNA, which is a major (almost story-breaking) stumbling block for Callister. These deep, nuanced worlds create many levels of commentary to unpack. "Fifteen Million Merits" focused on reality TV and pervasive advertising, but it also has some scathing warnings about a culture of body-shaming, obsession over digital merits (read: XBox Live and Steam Achievements), and how corporate avarice could turn a post-scarcity economy into an absolute dystopia.

A friend of mine highly recommended "San Junipero" to me on the grounds that it's a more optimistic episode than many of the others -- even having a happy ending. But my takeaway was not a "happy ending" at all. The fairy tale ending hides a sinister metaphysical question that the text of the episode mostly sidesteps: the mind-body problem. Is the avatar of a deceased person living in San Junipero really that same person? Or merely a copy? Are they one power failure away from being snuffed out of existence? Are people committing suicide based on misinformation from a multi-billion dollar corporation promising that they can live forever in a simulated reality?

Black Mirror's exceptionally well-thought-out worlds always leave sinister nuances to unpack.

"USS Callister", on the surface, appears to be entirely about toxic fandom (along with male entitlement). It is absolutely about that, and it does a fantastic job of presenting it. As a Star Trek fan, I also enjoyed the deconstructive elements about Trek tropes and the unrealistic reverence that fans hold for the series and its established canon. As someone who blogs about Star Trek, Star Wars, video games, and other fanboy topics, I am certainly a target of at least some of this episode's criticism.

As someone who works in the software industry, I recognized the episode also taking swipes at the cult of personality attached to tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Gabe Newell, and others, and the idea that they may be taking credit and profiting on other people's work, and becoming filthy stinking rich at the expense of the consumers who mindlessly use and venerate their products, all with willful disregard for how those products may be misused. As someone who can't wait to put myself on the waiting list for a Tesla self-driving car, I'm also well within the cross-hairs of that line of commentary...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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