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

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

211

211, starring Nicholas Cage and … some other people, has a reasonably good premise, plus I usually like Nicholas Cage. It promised to be a cops vs bad guys siege movie, which sounded entertaining. Once I started it, in the opening sequences, the blowing-things-up effects were good, so I was encouraged.

The subsequent action scenes were well done also, both in visuals and sound. The characters were fleshed out with minimal exposition, and some fairly current events – endemic racism in the school/legal system, social changes that have left a lot of people (especially men) wondering what’s good or bad or even real anymore – are explored with a fair amount of subtlety. The danger police officers face on duty, while presented a little heavy-handedly, is valid. The acting is good all around, and the premise is actually a fairly creative take on a not uncommon theme.

Unfortunately the story delivery is a bit of a letdown.

Even people who have watched overblown action movies would have a better understanding of military behaviour, tactics, equipment, and protocol than the ones who wrote this plot. A premise that hinted at a cyber-espionage or Inside Man sort of story ended up being an ordinary bank robbery that, had the robbers done it almost anywhere else, would have been far more successful. There also seemed to be an enormous disconnect about how banks receive and exchange cash money versus electronic deposits – it seems to have been written by someone who knows all the lingo but has never actually stepped foot into a bank or deposited money into an account. The woman from Interpol is allowed to walk all over the place without any other thing than her ID – no local liaison, no particular reason to be considered an expert, no train of logic or evidence that the viewer was made privy to as to why the Interpol agent had deduced this location for the bad guys’ attack. The bad guys themselves have a stellar plan that they recite (for some reason at the last second) to one another in the car on the way to the bank – and it makes perfect sense. Anyone who’s ever watched a bank robbery movie would recognize what they’re going to do and when, and it’s such a good plan that we’re super curious to see how the police thwart them … but then none of the bad guys actually follow their own plan.

They stop covering their faces and refer to each other – not even by military nicknames – by their proper names. Their plan involved killing no one, and none of the bad guys had been presented as any kind of loose cannon, but somehow they just start shooting hostages, and changing the plan for no good reason. When the driver outside is approached by our protagonists for having parked in the red zone, all he has to do is play it cool, show his ID, move his vehicle … but instead, to our head-shaking chagrin, he decides plans are for chumps and starts shooting at the officers. Within moments the place becomes an over-the-top bloodbath shoot-out between the robbers and the police – a shoot-out that somehow goes on for hours, until after dark. In no way, shape or form did any of the bad guys carry in that much ammunition.

The scenes of the secondary-character police officers at the precinct are presented in a comedic manner – not just that they’re joking around or lighthearted, but as though the film were an actual comedy. Absolutely no other moment in the film is presented this way. The comedy pointed to a camaraderie between two of the secondary characters, but this camaraderie didn’t translate into any poignancy about both of them being in danger later.

SWAT was depicted in a stereotypical fashion – slightly misogynistic, slightly incompetent in their haste, relying on superior fire power and equipment rather than on tactics. The man in charge of the SWAT team spoke to the Interpol agent in the stereotypical bombastic, condescending way … but times have changed so much even in the context of the film, that the actor playing the SWAT team leader seemed loath to deliver the lines, as though they had been forced on him from Corporate and he wished he had pursued his dream of being a science teacher instead.

The climax of the film is so abrupt that it’s almost like you forwarded the video accidentally. No mention is made of the final body count of good guys, of the reason why the bad guys did what they did (so why was the Interpol agent there in the first place?!), or of any of the killed characters’ loved ones – many of whom we had met early in the film – reacting to the death or heroism of the civilians or police officers who died. And truthfully – coming from someone who thought Commando was a perfectly reasonable amount of gun play and bloodshed – this shoot-out was completely beyond anything. Not only is the film being presented as realistic (rather than Commando’s fantasy-action), but the kinds of firepower being bandied about would have guaranteed the actual destruction of nearby buildings, of all the vehicles, of the bank itself, etc. So while it’s always fun to watch things blow up, realistic drama doesn’t mesh well with fantasy-level guns and bombs.

Was there anything good about this film? Definitely. In fact, I wouldn’t mind watching it again now that I know what I’m in for. Some of the things that at first seem like a drawback actually make very good emotional points: heroism in real life can lead to dying really quick; police officers are in quite a bit of danger in a lot of places; cops and civilians die all the time, in an instant, with no fanfare and no warning and no follow-up for closure – reality whizzes by, and life too, and maybe the only thing you can do is hope for a way to record a goodbye.

The actors in the film really do save it – they manage to evoke a lot of emotion with minimal time, they turn ham-fisted lines into something that sounds half-way decent, they bring poignancy to things that went by so fast the viewer might not otherwise have noticed. In a predictable plot, they put feeling into it and make it something you can get behind. The acting allows it to be a “simple story told by meaningful characters” instead of a hackneyed shoot-‘em-up with little direction.

Overall, 211 could have been a thousand times better, but it could also have been a lot worse.

popcorn icon     6 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

I Am the Pretty Thing described itself as an eerie story, and I like the actress who plays the lead, so I gave it a try.

It tells the story of a care-nurse (Lily) who is looking after an elderly writer (Iris) in the writer’s home. Lily begins to experience strange things, and finds what seems to be one of Iris’ abandoned projects. As Lily reads this “project”, she suspects that it actually tells the tale of a real murder that happened in the house.

The ghost of the murdered woman eventually has the last word, frightening Lily into having a heart attack.

Pretty Thing is well-written and well-acted. A lot of the creepy stuff feels genuinely creepy, and perhaps for someone who doesn’t eat a steady diet of various forms of horror – including gore horror – the film would have been suitably terrifying. The mystery of “Polly”, the murdered woman, is fairly engaging, but the ghost’s dislike of Iris and especially of Lily is not particularly logical. If she is in fact just angry at the living, then the overall tone of the film didn’t really set the viewer up for that, but instead seemed to want to make an emotional, sympathetic connection to the woman who was murdered … so why wouldn’t Lily, a nurturing woman who had concerned herself with the murder out of human compassion, meet with Polly’s approval? Ultimately the ghost’s motivations were neither fish nor fowl.

A lot of the shots were quite dark as well, making it difficult to get into the eeriness since it was just simply too dark to make out what was happening on the screen (although this may be a personal problem between me and my television settings). Ordinarily this wouldn’t have bothered me over-much, since, again, I’ve watched so many “eerie” horror films that I recognize the shorthand of what’s likely coming around the next corner – it allows me to fill in gaps when I can’t make out the details. But because the story itself seemed conflicted about whether we liked Polly – or Iris, or Lily, or all of them, or none of them – there wasn’t really an emotional link to plot or theme to replace the creepy visuals. I ended up feeling, “I can’t see it, and I don’t particularly care what I’m missing.”

The final showdown was a bit lackluster; in real life, the lengthy build-up of suspense followed by being confronted in the hallway by a ghost would be enough to give a lot of people a heart attack … but movies aren’t real life, and (almost) every viewer knows that. To make a scene look the way real life feels requires a bit more energy, and a ghost that just suddenly appears in the foyer just isn’t that terrifying, especially compared to images like La Llorona chasing your children or even The Changeling’s Joseph slamming doors and pushing wheelchairs around. “Polly” might as well have been the neighbour coming to complain about trimming the hedges.

The “twist” is fairly compelling, although not unpredictable, and, as I said, the acting is perfectly good. I will allow that in real life, the kinds of things Lily encounters would be pretty upsetting/off-putting, and to someone who doesn’t watch a lot of horror, the eeriness would likely be effective. But overall, I felt a bit disappointed in both the creepiness and in the power of the story. It wasn’t a waste of time, but I wouldn’t really have an interest in seeing it again.

popcorn icon  4 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

Office

[not that one – the one out of Korea]

Office is a film about a young woman working in an office with a man who has just murdered his entire family. When the detective on the case meets this young woman, he realizes that she seems to be the only one in the office who liked the man. She also seems to know a lot more about him than his other colleagues.

Security footage shows the man coming into the office building but never leaving; the detective believes the man is hiding in the building, and that his colleagues may be in danger. But will the detective reach them in time to save them?!?!?

No.

We watch as the employees who spend their day bullying the man and the young woman, sparring with one another, talking badly about one another, screwing each other over and treating each other poorly are killed in grisly, abrupt ways. We aren’t entirely sure if the man is still living, or if he’s some kind of ghost on an afterlife revenge mission. Ultimately, we aren’t sure if the young woman is part of it, but we’re fairly certain her future path will be a little more like his than before.

This film provides good suspense and a creepy atmosphere. The colleague characters aren’t particularly one-dimensional, even though many of them play the stereotypical bully; we actually begin to see some of the reasons why they bully, and we’re not entirely unsympathetic. The detective and the young woman are very well fleshed-out. There are a couple of jump-scares, but mostly the film is a build-up of tension, wondering where the man is and when or if he’ll strike.

We never really hear from the man – we don’t really get to know why he chose murder, or if he was particularly bothered by his treatment at work. We see flash-back moments and people describing things verbally, but the man is generally kind (one of the reasons the young woman appreciates him), and we don’t really see any turning-point moment where he decides to attack the others. In fact, the responses – and the murders in the office – seem to be more in tune with what the young woman is experiencing, leading to some of the ambiguity about just who’s killing who.

In the end, the slasher scenes are entertaining, the bullies are eliminated, the good guy pretty much catches the bad guy, and the woman is rescued. The atmosphere is effective and the characters are engaging. The ambiguity is deliberate, so that the final moment of the film causes us to reconsider in a new light everything we’ve already seen.

It’s a good film, well worth watching.

popcorn icon    9 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

Nappily Ever After

In Nappily Ever After, Violet, an African-American, describes her growing up in a family dynamic that was fairly obsessed about the controlling of hair – straightening it with hot irons, coifing it perfectly, and avoiding anything and anyone that might mess it up: no dips in the pool, no frenetic running around like other little children, no … relaxing.

She becomes a high-powered marketing executive with a handsome, successful boyfriend, a new little dog that she might put in her purse, and a perfect head of hair that has been rigorously straightened and styled. Her need to keep her hair perfectly straight and tidy affects even her love life, as she refuses to do anything intimate (i.e., lie down) that might disrupt her hair.

But her boyfriend, on the night she thought he would propose, does not propose. When confronted, he explains that it’s impossible to see a future together with someone who is so perfect, who can’t relax or enjoy life, who can’t let him or anyone else in because she needs to maintain a certain image – one that starts with her hair but continues through to her personality. Understandably, she’s devastated by his words and by their subsequent break-up, and she goes out and drowns her sorrows in alcohol (as one does). When she returns home, she thinks about her (ex) boyfriend’s words about her perfect image … and she shaves her head.

She had really beautiful hair. A lot of really beautiful hair. There was no trick photography here – the actress shaved her head. She was suddenly completely bald.

She’s obliged to change how she views her “image”, how she views protecting herself from a world that can indeed be hurtful but which is generally pretty good, and how she feels about herself as a person – with our without hair. It is a rom-com type film, so there’s a new “guy”, but their relationship is depicted fairly realistically, and he doesn’t play a prominent part in her transformation – it’s more about how she becomes willing to interact, open up, trust, and engage with him and with her life.

As a white person whose hair is bone straight and just sort of sits on my scalp, I wasn’t as able as women of colour probably would be to identify with the daily wrangling of extremely curly hair into shape and order. But I could definitely identify with everything else: being told from a young age that a person’s (especially a girl’s) identity and social value were contingent on a certain kind of appearance, that the way we’re born is probably insufficient or undesirable in some way, that for some reason never clearly explained we all owe others some sort of physical (and emotional) standard – whatever you do, we’re told incessantly, is for the love of the gods don’t be yourself. If you find yourself in a situation where you have inadvertently revealed your actual hair or face or body or personality or feelings or thoughts,  prioritize changing above every other thing, including the people in your life, until you can correct the “mistake” and once again be socially approved of and worthy.

I could identify with that very well.

The movie does a good job of illustrating how the above notion of value is a load of crap, but it doesn’t attempt to blame anyone for it – not her mother, who straightened her hair every morning of her childhood, not her boyfriend who was unhappy with his life but couldn’t articulate it for far too long, not society or culture or the government or history or peer groups or magazines. She just realizes the truth – she was already good enough the way she was – and moves into a life that reflects herself rather than the image she had always hidden behind. The freedom of that shift is what’s highlighted rather than any bitterness with the initial situation, and the movie stays focused on Violet throughout, rather than on her relationships with men or with anyone. It’s clearly from the perspective of a woman, but the message (especially as evoked by her new boyfriend, a talented hairdresser) is for anyone who’s had to deal with external judgments and expectations – anyone who feels squashed into a box, unwelcome to be themselves, unworthy, unfairly compared, constricted, confined, labelled … you get the idea.

Of course you get the idea – this is the world we all grow up in.

This movie does a good job of showing the joy and freedom of living in a different kind of world, and of being who we were meant to be in the first place.

popcorn icon  9 out of 10