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'Stranger Things' have happened

July 27, 2016
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Netflix miniseries offers exceptional entertainment

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. So powerful, in fact, that many have sought to find ways in which to commodify it. The result of those efforts at monetization is a general thinning of quality across the board far too many of these memory-fueled projects wind up as disappointments on some level or another.

And then you have something like Netflix's 'Stranger Things,' which succeeds in ways many of us likely didn't even know we wanted until they were placed on the screen before us.

The eight-part series conceived and brought to fruition by the Duffer Brothers follows the adventures of a group of young people dealing with strange occurrences in their small town of Hawkins, Indiana in the 1980s. The series is unrelenting in its burning ardor for its place in time rather than listing the vast number of period-specific influences, it would almost be easier to list those aspects of 1980s pop culture NOT touched upon.

Central to the story is the cohort of Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will (Noah Schnapp). One night following a rousing session of D&D, Will rides off into the night to head homeand never arrives. Instead, he is taken by a mysterious entity one that may well be connected to the actions of the shadowy Hawkins National Laboratory, run by the enigmatic Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine).

Will's disappearance has a huge impact on the entire town. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is devastated, though she soon discovers that perhaps there's a way for her to make contact with her missing son. Will's brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) a high school loner is also left at a loss; he also winds up connecting with Mike's sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), much to the chagrin her cool-guy boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery). Meanwhile, police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) just wants to put the case to rest, but he soon learns that there's far more to Will's disappearance than meets the eye.

And then we have Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). This mysterious girl with even more mysterious abilities appears out of nowhere at the same time that Will disappears, falling in with Mike and his friends. She is the key to helping the kids understand what happened to their friend, as well as perhaps the key to his rescue.

As things progress, each of these people uncover their own pieces of the puzzle, but Dr. Brenner and the HNL folks have a vested interest in keeping them from assembling the big picture.

To go much beyond this point in terms of synopsis is to risk spoilers (frankly, I've probably said too much already), so we'll leave it there. To be honest, the narrative while compelling and watchable is just one part of what makes 'Stranger Things' such a fascinating viewing experience.

If you haven't seen it yet, it's difficult to articulate just how completely this show captures the era in which it is set. The world of 1983 utterly permeates the entire proceedings. And we're not just talking about finding the proper clothing and cars and hairstyles and music it's everything.

It's the stylistic homages to the work of 1980s juggernauts like Steven Spielberg, Stephen King and John Carpenter; you'll see 'E.T.' moments and 'The Thing' moments and 'Stand By Me' moments. It's the meticulous attention to detail with regards to things like the opening credits (seemingly sprung fully formed from an outside-of-time movie screen) and the incidental music (a synth-heavy score evoking the best 80s B-movie chillers); even the digital recording is filtered to achieve a more film-resonant aesthetic.

In short, 'Stranger Things' captures the feeling of the 1980s in a way that we haven't really seen since, wellthe 1980s.

And the performances oh, the performances. Ryder is probably the closest thing this ensemble-driven series has to a star; what could have been a standard grieving maternal figure becomes something more in her hands. She occasionally goes over the top, but it works. Harbour is a classic 'That Guy' doing maybe the best work of a long career; we get to watch as Jim Hopper's defiance and devotion to duty supersedes the fact that his understanding of the world is crumbling around him. Modine goes against type as the affectless and amoral Dr. Brenner; he gives surprisingly good villain.

The teen characters are good, though one could argue they get a bit too on-the-nose John Hughes-y at times. Dyer and Heaton have strong chemistry in their interactions both positive and negative while Keery manages a far more nuanced performance than you'd expect upon first meeting his character.

However, 'Stranger Things' belongs to the kids. In an entertainment landscape where the best case scenario for child actors is that they are tolerable, the four central figures here are absolutely outstanding. There is none of the hammy self-awareness that so often torpedoes kid performances. They are an exquisite unit, operating on a shared frequency that captures the beautiful spirit inherent to childhood friendships. Even their heroism is childlike in the best possible way. And if Brown's Eleven occasionally fails to strike the same notes as the trio of boys, it only serves to further accentuate her otherness she's an enigma because of her powers, yes, but also because she's a girl.

There have been a lot of attempts to describe 'Stranger Things' via its influences. Considering its pastiche of homages, that makes sense. My own efforts to boil it down has resulted in phrases like 'a Darkest Timeline Goonies'' or 'E.T' written by Stephen King' fine phrases, but they don't quite capture the spirit of the thing.

Nostalgia is indeed powerful and few have wielded that power with such joyful passion as the Duffer Brothers and the rest of the folks behind 'Stranger Things.'

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:41

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