Adventures in Streaming: The Sea of Trees

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

The Sea of Trees is the story of a Arthur (played by Matthew MacConaughey) who has planned a trip to the Aokigahara Forest in Japan; although he doesn’t seem particularly unhappy, and even looks around him as though the city and countryside were captivating, he is obviously coming to the Suicide Forest to end his life. Before he can take action, however, he encounters Takumi (played by Ken Watanabe) who is desperately lost, wandering around trying to get out of the forest. He’s injured and exhausted, but he’s changed his mind about killing himself and now just wants to return to his wife and child.

Arthur decides to help Takumi, leading him toward the trail he had just taken to get into the forest. Somehow, though, the trail has disappeared, and Arthur has become as disoriented as Takumi. The two men spend many hours together, searching for a way out. As they get to know each other, talking about the reasons they had come there in the first place, we see a series of flashbacks to Arthur’s life with his wife Joan (played by Naomi Watts). Through these flashbacks we come to understand why Arthur wanted to die, but we also want both men to find joy in living again.

Both Matthew MacConaughey and Naomi Watts are good actors who, therefore, are extremely effective at playing people who are difficult to like. When the flashbacks began, and I saw the two of them in a fairly rocky marriage, I almost gave up on The Sea of Trees, because I didn’t want to watch two gut-wrenching hours of their marriage devolving into suicidal mutual loathing. But I continued anyway, already curious about whether or not Takumi would make it home, and I was glad I stayed with it: the flashbacks ultimately portray a very real couple who are working through some difficult times in the best way they know how. They turn into people we can like, and it makes it even more tense then, to wonder what brought him from that home and marriage with Joan to a place where he could end it all.

The Aokigahara Forest, both physically and culturally, has strong spiritual significance, allowing the characters to have possibly otherworldly experiences that might have seemed contrived or ironic in a Western setting. The juxtaposition of flashbacks from that Western world with the dark beauty of the forest is a perfect metaphor for Arthur’s struggle between trying to die and wanting to live. Ken Watanabe conveys a lot of emotion with few words. The connection between Arthur and Takumi is genuine and believable, from the moment Arthur decides to help him. Arthur’s and Joan’s characters are well fleshed out without making the story-telling ponderous or overly maudlin. The various mysteries surrounding all three characters keep us interested, and the final reveal is truly rewarding.

The Sea of Trees is definitely worth watching.

popcorn icon  10 out of 10.

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Adventures in Streaming – The Girl from Nowhere

*reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix*

[now with spoilers]

The Girl from Nowhere, a series from Thailand, introduces us to an interesting protagonist, Nanno, who has a knack for exposing the nefariousness of the people she encounters. She doesn’t particularly do anything to them, but instead gives them enough rope to hang themselves. Some of the people are taught a lesson from which they might ultimately recover, but others are punished severely for their wrongdoings. Some deaths even occur.

Nanno seems like an ordinary human being, but in more than one episode we realize that she’s supernatural in some way. Even in the two-part series end, when we see Nanno’s “real” past, we realize that this “past” is just another Nanno experience – coming into a school, enabling/exposing wrongdoing, and then disappearing as mysteriously as she arrived – and that even though several years have passed since those high school days, her ultimate lesson – delivered at the ten-year high-school reunion – is not really about anything they did to her but rather about what they’ve done to themselves and one another; this earlier Nanno isn’t any more “real” than in any other of the episodes, but is instead just playing a longer game. She is apparently ageless, invulnerable, and omniscient, and she takes delight in watching others give in to the darker side of their humanity.

At first, captivated by the slick opening sequence and the charismatic acting skills of the main actress, I eagerly began watching The Girl from Nowhere. Over time, however, the different stories became less entertaining and more real. Usually that feeling of gritty realism makes the stories more intense (which I suppose is true here as well), but with this show, it turned it into more of a fatalistic tragedy than a revenge tale. While some of the characters may have been getting what they deserved, others seemed to be entrapped by Nanno into making poor decisions. Especially where the people in question are still teenagers, the harsh punishments don’t feel justified but only cruel – the show highlights Nanno’s cleverness without also creating a solid need for said cleverness. The series ends on a high note, however, not only because the high-school-reunion group is appropriately guilty, but also because the punishment devised is shocking and thought-provoking.

The girl playing Nanno is absolutely perfect for this role, and is good enough in it, in fact, to keep me viewing a series that I had become conflicted about early on. There are some fairly intriguing glimpses into human nature and the bizarre things we’re capable of. All of the actors are solid performers, and even the stereotyped high school characters are presented with sufficient depth. If I had realized beforehand that the stories would be tragic in nature, I might have been able to approach the show differently, but since I went in looking for revenge tales, I felt that overall it fell short in that regard.

I do recommend The Girl from Nowhere, but I probably wouldn’t tune in for additional seasons.

popcorn icon  6 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming – Switched

Switched

Switched is a live-action limited series from Japan that tells the story of an unattractive and unpopular high school girl who has switched bodies with an unwitting victim: the popular, pretty girl with a handsome boyfriend.

The story is well-told; the characters are deeply believable. No one is one-dimensional – in fact, if anything in the character feels stereotypical for more than a moment, the show immediately switches to that character’s personal journey and unique circumstance and perspective. Nothing and no one presented is ultimately what it/they seemed to be in the beginning.

The “science” involved in the switching of bodies is … creative. It’s also fairly glossed over; we’re just expected to accept the “specialist” Ukon’s word about what causes the phenomenon and what the procedure should be. But it is consistent, and the audience is always aware of what the characters are doing and what they will need to do going forward. Even though it is glossed over, the characters’ acceptance of it makes it feel real enough.

The solution is imaginative enough to hold our attention, and the outcome is hard-won enough for us to enjoy watching the process and to appreciate the return to the status-quo. The acting is incredibly good – especially for what could have been treated as an after-school-cartoon anime adaptation – and even the secondary characters, whose “dialogue” is largely thematic crowd-support, feel genuine.

The real draw of Switched is the journey that has nothing to do with the “science”, the problem, or the solution; it’s the journey each of the characters take through the switch experience.

If you’ve ever been hurt, if you’ve ever been bullied, if you’ve ever felt invisible … basically if you’ve ever been a human being and at some point a high-schooler, you will see yourself here, not just in Umine (the unhappy character who initiated the switch), but in the people she envies. As our assessments of the characters shift with each episode, we have to look at our own habits of stereotyping and compartmentalizing – putting the characters in the boxes we’ve devised and siding with the characters we feel are “good” … only to have our notions challenged in the next episode by the characters’ unexpected actions, ethics, and personalities. We get to hear the inner thoughts of each of the girls, and we see from the beginning not that one is bad and the other a victim, but rather that each girl has feelings, confusion, fears and anger that they struggle to resolve.

One of the bigger lessons – which we discover right away – is that no matter what body you inhabit or whose life you have stolen, you bring yourself with you. Without inner changes, your life will continue just as it did in your original circumstance, and you will only be ruining someone else’s life as well as your own. Another lesson, of course, is for the four main characters to develop compassion, forgiveness, hope and love for one another and for themselves. But one lesson I didn’t particularly expect is the one for the audience: our various nemeses (especially those pesky ones from school that might be decades ago now) – how real have we allowed them to be? How willing have we been to see their situations, their fears, their youth, their humanity? How much of our fear or sadness was in what we thought others meant, but may have been all in our heads? How many acts of kindness did we miss because we were focused only on our own pain? How much did we bully ourselves? We understand Umine’s pain, but does this really make her the victim? – especially when the target of her actions is one of the people who had tried to connect with her and been rebuffed by Umine’s paranoia. She hasn’t just become her own worst enemy; she’s become exactly the sort of person who doesn’t care how her actions hurt others – the sort of person she despised in the first place.

One of the more heart-wrenching outcomes (for me, at least) was that the character who had shown up the most consistently for his friends was rewarded with … friendship. There is absolutely nothing wrong with friendship; especially in high school, when a thousand little love affairs will seem ridiculous five years later, friendship is the sort of love that actually endures and nurtures and is real. In fact, looking at it that way, perhaps that character won the biggest prize of all – to have true friends, and to know that he had been a true friend to them and helped them through extraordinary adversity. But it seemed as though everyone else learned about themselves and one another – often through his efforts and his steadfastness – and that they were allowed, even when things go back to “normal”, to have a new and different (better) life, while he was brought back to exactly the place he had been. He’s learned just as much as they have, but the narrative “rewards” him by giving him the harshest lesson of all – sometimes no matter how deserving we are of love from someone, we just don’t receive it. Is friendship important? – it’s paramount, and this character would be the first to say so. His example throughout the series is a testament to friendship’s incredible value. But to watch the one you love wind up in the arms of another, and to be able to feel, not jealousy or anger, but instead gratitude for the person’s friendship and for the person’s happiness … this is the sort of person Switched is asking us to be, and it is, I believe, the hardest thing to learn to do.

The other characters learned that lesson through their experiences in the narrative, but when we see it happen to this character at the very end of the story – that is when we learn the lesson. We’ve seen what he’s like, what friendship can be, and we want him to be rewarded with every conceivable thing. We don’t think that what he’s left with is enough. … But he of all people would say that he indeed has more than enough. I know we’re being asked to believe him – that was the lesson we were supposed to take away from this series – but frankly I don’t know if I’m there yet. … or maybe wanting more for him, for his happiness, is learning the lesson.

I recommend Switched for a thousand reasons.

popcorn icon  10 out of 10.

Adventures in Streaming: The Humanity Bureau

The Humanity Bureau

The Humanity Bureau is a Nicholas Cage vehicle, but unlike 211 I reviewed earlier, it’s a lot less predictable and, ironically, a lot more realistic.

It’s set in the near future, after we’ve decimated the planet in ways that are only alluded to and which may include excessive warring; the economy is in the toilet, resources (even food and water) are scarce, and those who can’t demonstrate that they contribute meaningfully to society are exiled to New Eden, a place where people are allowed to live comfortably on the government’s dime. Nicholas Cage’s Noah is tasked by the Humanity Bureau with investigating people and rounding up non-contributors to be sent to New Eden.

One case in particular touches him, and he is reluctant to send a woman – Rachel – and her son Lucas to New Eden. In addition, he’s heard rumours about New Eden that suggest it is not a peaceful retirement community. His side investigation into these rumours as well as his connection to Rachel and Lucas prompt Noah to escape with them into the North, hoping to cross the border into Canada before his employers catch up to them.

To some extent, the New Eden secret is fairly predictable – eliminating people is a lot more economical than putting them in one place and on a government stipend. The people Noah and Rachel encounter are the stereotypical post-apocalyptic people: the man whose family has been attacked, killed, and violated but who continues to wage the good fight, the man who sacrifices himself for what he considers a good cause even though he doesn’t know Noah, the woman who once knew someone and will help them for a price. The ending isn’t unexpected, although we may be hoping for a cheerier outcome, and the purpose of the rabbit’s foot Noah gives to Lucas might as well be accompanied by a sign that says “important plot element”.

The ending is solid, however, and a bit jarring – we really were hoping for a cheerier ending. Noah comes across as a very real person, dedicated to a job that deals with the dregs of humanity because he believes it will help the people and the economy as a whole. When he discovers the secret of New Eden, he doesn’t waste a lot of time crying about it or feeling stupid, but simply adds it to the list of things that have given him slumped shoulders and a cheerless expression. He doesn’t play on his bureau-friend’s connection to him – he doesn’t trust it anyway. He just makes a plan and executes it to the best of his ability, and he’s not a ninja or even a higher-up in the bureau, so things don’t go his way particularly.

The “bad guy” – Noah’s bureau buddy – seems every once in a while to be a regular not-always-bad person … but this misdirect only makes it double disappointing to see him commit to the wrong path. His depiction of the bad guy, at first just the typical “working for the really bad guys but without any power of his own”, changes definitively and subtly when we see him in his swimming pool – while Rachel and Lucas struggle to have enough water to drink each day. In fact, until then, there was room to see, in the presentation of some of the bureau higher-ups, that maybe New Eden was really the best solution for the current situation – a tough choice in a dark time; after we see the pool, though, we know that the Bureau, and the people who created it, are simply not good.

There’s a bit of action, but largely this is a sci-fi thriller where the bulk of the uncertainty is in how Noah, Rachel and Lucas will get away and how many of them will make it across the border. The end of the movie isn’t just about their journey but also about the outcome of their decision to flee – others would certainly benefit from knowing what Noah has discovered.

The acting in Humanity Bureau is good across the board. Few can deliver the sense of tired resignation about reality as Nicholas Cage, and it keeps us wondering if we should be optimistic about their chances or not. Even the stereotypical characters have some depth to them, some feeling. The reason for their post-apocalyptic landscape isn’t described in any particular detail, putting the emphasis thematically on the choices of the survivors – it’s more of a tale of how to behave and what sort of person to be than it is about any message about the earth or the economy. But the flashbacks Noah has to his childhood (before the apocalypse) create a real sense of nostalgia, guaranteeing that we want those kinds of memories for ourselves and that we want to avoid whatever people did to create such a  horrible world.

As with most stories of this type, where the control of information is presented as even more evil than the control of people’s lives, one quote from Humanity Bureau sums it up very well: “It’s easier to build fear than to build a wall.”

Overall, The Humanity Bureau is well worth watching, and is a strong addition to a genre that has become a bit saturated of late.

popcorn icon 8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: The Chaperone

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

The Chaperone

The Chaperone depicts the transition of the main character, Ray, out of prison and back into the regular world, and follows his attempts to reconnect with his teenage daughter Sally. He hopes to spend time with her, but she’s not sure she wants to spend time with him – he’s been gone for a few years – so he contrives to be one of the chaperones on her school field trip to New Orleans.

Unfortunately, the men from his prior life want him to rejoin them, and when he chooses the field trip over a bank heist, his former partners blame the heist’s failure on Ray. They follow him – and the school bus – to New Orleans, where they hope to punish Ray for abandoning them.

Ray has a mentor, a radio-show host, whose guidance helped him both to weather his time in prison and to become a better man upon his release. Her motto is applicable to anyone: “Confront your past, be truthful about it, and let it go.” When his daughter suggests that he had gone to jail for something he didn’t do, he says that, even though the others didn’t get caught for their part in the crime, Ray himself had actually done the thing he had gone to prison for, and there was no reason to pretend otherwise.

Ray demonstrates ethical and positive behaviour and decision-making, even when taking an easier, more lucrative, and less ethical path was consistently offered to him. Ultimately, he earns the respect of his daughter and her mother, avoids going back to the life that sent him to prison, and continues his journey to improve himself as a father and as a human being.

Obviously, action comedies (much like romantic comedies) rely on premises that are fairly unlikely and even ridiculous; this isn’t particularly a negative aspect of a movie as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into. The Chaperone’s premise is actually a more realistic one than some I’ve seen, and it’s consistent throughout. In fact, the bad guys – Ray’s former “friends” – aren’t presented as really all that scary, and are often comical in their words and actions, but this only makes it more jarring when it turns out they really are bad, and they really intend to hurt Ray and his family. Depicting the bad guys in this way supports the metaphor of Ray’s journey – we can see very well how he got caught up in criminal activities with these men who seemed so friendly and so harmless; we can see that Ray had probably started out as blind to their true colours as we were, and that he didn’t see how deep a hole he had dug for himself until it was too late. He never cries victim, though, which shows us that he’s living up to his mentor’s motto about accepting the truth.

The acting is solid – although some of the characters are stereotypical – and the pacing is good. Do school trips really look like that? Probably not. Does law enforcement really work that way? Almost certainly not. But the movie is an action-comedy, not a gritty drama, and the more lighthearted approach allows the focus to be on Ray and Sally rather than on the more difficult questions of good and evil. It also allows the film to be family-friendly, which is great, since it lets a good message be delivered to as many people as possible.

In the end, the film is about the truth motto Ray learned from his mentor – not just to accept our own truth and to be honest, but to realize that every experience is a lesson that can move us forward. We can be released from our personal prisons by seeing the possibility of change, growth, and redemption. We can learn, and improve, and become someone who deserves another chance.

This movie was one of my first streaming experiments – and one that I shared with my young son – and I’m really glad we gave it a shot.

popcorn icon   10 out 10

Adventures in Streaming

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

The Secret

The Secret (Netflix Original 2018 Indonesia) is in many respects a typical haunting movie.

Kanaya, a young woman upset with her father for marrying a woman half his age, drives angrily away from the house, swerves to miss something in the road, and crashes into a tree, knocking herself out and landing herself in the hospital. Her boyfriend is there when she wakes up, explaining that she’s been in a car accident and that he will take her to her family’s summer home in the country to convalesce.

While still in the hospital, Kanaya experiences a couple of paranormal things, and sees a pretty grisly looking ghost that attacks her in the middle of the night. The ghost seems to follow her to the summer home, but Kanaya’s attention is focused more on the neighbours, whose little girl introduces her to her nanny. The nanny befriends Kanaya, and the two spend time together looking after the little girl and playing games with her – games like hide-and-seek, during which Kanaya ends up in an abandoned house fleeing from the persistent ghost from the hospital. She’s also noticing that passers-by are giving her strange looks, but the nanny says they always do that, and refers to them as busybodies.

The ghost of Kanaya’s mother is also involved, trying to warn her daughter of danger.

In the end, Kanaya learns the truth about her car accident, about her boyfriend’s actions that night, about the busybodies, and about the identity of the ghost that’s been following her.

The Secret is actually pretty good – the effects are practical and therefore convincing, the storyline is typical but engaging, and the final little twists of the plot are unexpected. We feel a little sorry for the boyfriend, but not that sorry. We do feel sorry for the ghost from the hospital, who’s just trying to be heard and seek justice. The little girl is psychic, something that is apparently culturally normal for the people in the film, which is a nice change from the over-used Western trope of “no one really believes in psychics or psychic phenomena.” But of course, since the little girl is psychic, we kind of see a couple of the twists coming about who’s real and who might actually be a ghost. Still, there’s some mystery about how many ghosts there are, their motivations, and where Kanaya fits into all this.

There are a couple of fairly effective red herrings, as well, so that we’re not entirely sure who all is connected to the situation until the very end. And the typical horror ending – where the bad guy wins – is perked up a bit by the bad guy winning against another bad guy.

The actress who plays Kanaya seems a little flat at times, but overall she does okay, and there are a couple of humourous moments in the film as well that make a contrast to its overall creepiness – helping it to seem a bit more real.

The Secret is ultimately suitably eerie, with a good story and a good ending.

popcorn icon   7 out of 10

 

Adventures in Streaming

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

Killing Ground

Killing Ground (2016) tells the story of Sam and Ian, a young couple who has just decided to get married. They’re on a camping vacation together, picking a campground that had been recommended to them by someone who seemed to know the area.

Once they’re settled into their campsite, they realize that the tent next to theirs seems to be abandoned; when they investigate, they find a baby whose family has apparently left him behind. They then encounter the people who only days before had murdered the baby’s family, and Sam and Ian are obliged to fight for their lives as well as protect the baby.

In the end, Ian leaves Sam behind to go get help “because [he] didn’t know what else to do”, and while Sam believes he left her because he was taking baby Ollie to safety, he in fact had left Ollie behind as well.

Unfortunately for the audience, Ollie’s fate – although we know he’s alive as of the final events of the film – remains a mystery.

On one hand, this movie offers a fairly progressive depiction of women – they’re all empowered to save themselves and to protect others, and, even though for two of them their efforts result in failure, none of the women ever give up the struggle to survive. Also, Sam is the one who suggests marriage to Ian, which is still considered unconventional, and when the crap hits the fan, Sam kicks in without waiting for rescue and does what she needs to do to save herself, Ian, and Ollie. She even kicks in after the constabulary finally arrive and are promptly shot by the bad guys – this setback motivates rather than discourages her.

There isn’t anything wrong with Ian going for help, since he clearly couldn’t overpower the bad guys on his own and he and Sam needed help. But given all that Sam had been expected – and able – to do to overpower the bad guys, and the risk she consistently took to help the others, Ian’s inability to be brave or productive becomes more egregious and disappointing. More than once he tries to grab a gun from his assailant or to fight that assailant, but gives up and runs away instead; if it had just been a matter of him versus the bad guys, this might not seem so bad, but when we know he’s not taking the actions that will protect his partner and the defenseless child, he seems particularly unhelpful and, frankly, cowardly.

When Sam realizes that Ian had left her and Ollie behind, she is understandably surprised – she seems not to know how to process the information, and can’t even be dejected about it. After she and Ian are transported to the hospital, she makes her way to his room and watches him, her expression one of disappointed thoughtfulness.

The acting in the film is pretty good; the events are depicted in a way that creates significant tension as well as ambiguity about the timeline between the earlier family being butchered and Sam and Ian being attacked. We’re worried about the baby, who’s been on his own for some time now – we’re watching his family be butchered without knowing for sure how long ago that was. We’re hoping some of Ollie’s family survive, but we don’t find out until more than half-way through. We’re watching the bad guys catch up with Sam and Ian, and the urgency feels pretty real throughout. The bad guys aren’t painted particularly creatively: they’re just your run-of-the-mill woods-based psychopaths. But they do a good job of presenting that, and they seem genuinely unpredictable and pretty ruthless, so the stakes feel high.

What at first seemed like a gender-swap – reversing stereotypical roles like rescue or marriage proposals – ultimately becomes much more. It isn’t that Ian doesn’t act “like a man should”. It’s that Ian doesn’t act at all. “Well, that’s how women are often depicted,” you might say. But with few exceptions, women are presented as nurturers, protecting children at all costs. If they aren’t nurturers, then they aren’t considered to be good women … and Ian demonstrates a few times that his nurturing skills are not up to par either with his partner or with what the audience expects. The thought of staying to find the baby doesn’t even occur to him, and when he leaves to get help he doesn’t even take the time to see which way Sam had been taken. He doesn’t stay, he doesn’t fight, he doesn’t try. Whether he’s male or female, his actions – or lack thereof – cause a lot of trouble for those who thought they could depend on him at least to be there.

In a world where gender-norms are being rewritten consistently, the one standard that pervades is that two people of whatever gender need to be good partners for one another, and Ian has given a lot for Sam to think of in that regard.

The movie is a good mix of tension, action, and deeper themes. The audience is occasionally disappointed with some events – the killing of the family, the ultimate disappearance of Ollie, Ian’s whatever-he’s-doing – but not with the storytelling. It’s got some gory stuff, some gritty stuff, some it’s-right-behind-me stuff, and some heroic stuff. Overall, it’s pretty good.

popcorn icon    8 out of 10