About smrcooper

I'm an author and artist whose fiction and non-fiction focus on the best qualities of humanity, and on using our "campfire stories" to create a better world that includes bravery, love, and positive problem-solving.

Adventures in Streaming: Ghoul

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

* now with spoilers *

Ghoul is a limited series out of India. It tells the story of Nida, a young officer in a dark-future world where free thought has been restricted, and speech against the government is strictly prohibited.

She’s put in the uncomfortable position of trying to protect her father from the government, and ultimately he is in fact taken to a detention center. After that, she’s transferred to a detention center as a guard, and immediately is made aware of a dark supernatural force that seems to be inhabiting the facility.

The atmosphere of Ghoul is dark – the lighting is minimal, many scenes outside are at night with the rest inside of windowless cells and hallways. But this literal darkness, which sets the mood very effectively, is not the kind where you’re wondering what the heck is going on or not quite being able to see the action. The sound is instrumental too, allowing the smallest sounds to be heard against the general silence of the facility – this illustrates the interpersonal tensions without even having to present them in dialogue.

The actors are all solid performers; the struggle Nida experiences about her father and about the new prisoner, Saeed, are conveyed realistically with minimal exposition. The people we don’t necessarily like are still presented as real people rather than as stereotypes, and the people we see as the “good” guys aren’t squeaky clean.

The supernatural aspect is presented successfully as something that isn’t normally believed in – we’re able to feel the strangeness of the supernatural occurrences as deeply as we would if it happened to us in our real lives. At the same time, because of the government oppression and some hypocrisy we see in the administration of the facility, we’re encouraged to see the supernatural whatever-it-is as a good guy of sorts. But since it’s coming after Nida, and we like her, we’re conflicted about whether the supernatural entity should win or lose.

The series is three episodes … which I didn’t notice when I first started watching, and after it was over, I was disappointed that I couldn’t watch more of it. It had a complete ending, but it ended in a way that, if they wanted to do more, that would be great.

Well worth watching.

popcorn icon 10 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Lake Mungo

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

* now with spoilers *

Lake Mungo at first seemed to be a regular entry into the found-footage genre, but it ended up not really being found-footage at all.

It’s presented as a mock-documentary about Alice Palmer’s drowning death, with interviews with her family – parents and brother. The interviews are interspersed with various videos taken from either Alice’s phone or from some video surveillance the family had done after Alice’s death.

Because it’s presented as a gentle sort of documentary, it amplifies the creepiness; possibly supernatural things start happening in what is presented as a pretty bland, realistic world, making it a lot more possible for the viewers to imagine being in those situations themselves. Because we don’t really get to meet Alice, and instead are left with memories of her through her family members, it feels a lot more like when we really lose a loved one, and all we have left are what we think we remember and whatever photos or other artifacts we’ve collected.

The strange things people do when they’re hurting is presented in a very kind and compassionate manner; no one seems crazy in their attempts to grieve.

There’s a cool aspect to the film where the first half goes in one direction (looking backward at Alice’s life) and the second half goes forward (how the family is dealing with things now); this is paralleled by a scene where the family has gone out to the lake where Alice died and, on the way back, their transmission malfunctions so that the only way to drive the vehicle is in reverse. The narrative becomes kind of like a rubber band that stretches to the full and then comes back: just like the car going forward, and then going backward to get home, the family are drowning in their grief and confusion over their daughter’s death, but what they discover as they learn more about her brings them – and us – full circle, back functionally to where we began, but with more awareness of why things played out the way they did.

There are significant narrative points embedded in the end-credits, so it’s necessary to watch to the very end, and the ambiguity of whether or not the events have actually been paranormal is resolved both in these final scenes and in some of the revisited dialogue at the end of the main film.

Overall, Lake Mungo delivers. It’s a slow build, but the story is compelling, the acting is good, and the questions are as interesting as the answers.

popcorn icon  9 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Don’t Kill It

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

* now with spoilers *

Don’t Kill It looked to be a reasonably entertaining Dolph Lundgren vehicle; I like him a great deal, and I like most genres of horror/comedy-horror. I wasn’t expecting a great deal, beyond a decent premise and tolerable acting.

It actually turned out to be pretty good.

The acting is tolerable and the premise is decent … but in a genre where demon possession and haunted objects, etc., are very commonplace, it’s hard to make it feel new or creepy or emotionally affecting. This succeeded in doing that, and in fact the initial scenes of the wandering demon in question were a little disturbing in their bluntness.

Dolph plays an interesting character who brings some humour to the situation as well as the coveted knowledge that the unsuspecting town-folk require to escape the peril. He almost seems to be a man out of time, although there’s no particular mention of it. He has a history with the demon.

The method of tracking down the demon and trying to stop it is a little different from anything else I’ve encountered; the action is presented almost in real-time, so that it feels immediate and engaging. The primary female character is presented in the same tone as the primary male character, and both play the hero.

Some of the tropes are a bit … trope-y: the demon hunter is not believed, and possibly drinks too much; the other main character is law enforcement, and only believes the demon hunter because of events in her own life rather than because of the evidence; the demon seems to hold all the cards, including an extra deck, but somehow is constrained by one thing that just happens to be available to anyone.

The movie is in a slightly awkward place between being serious horror-drama and being a more comedic horror offering such as Tucker and Dale vs Evil, but it doesn’t handle it awkwardly. The pacing is good, the visuals are good, and the ending is satisfying.

Overall, pretty good, actually.

popcorn icon   8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Oceans Rising

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

* now with spoilers *

I’m someone who really, really loves disaster films. I wrote my Master’s thesis on disaster films – the conventions, the deeper meanings, the value. I’m pretty forgiving of unrealistic reasons for the disaster in question, especially if it’s a made-for-TV movie. I’ve watched hundreds of eighties films, so I’m pretty forgiving of made-for-TV lackluster special effects. Basically, I’m fairly easy to please with this genre.

But …

Oceans Rising did not quite make the cut.

Some of my friends are sensitive to children’s acting – if a kid is in a film, they’re kind of on edge, waiting for the film to become cringe-inducing. I do understand where they’re coming from; I have a high tolerance for children’s acting, but, particularly if the child is very little, a single iota of poor direction can really ruin the scene. But they’re kids, you know? None of my friends or myself, no matter how much we’re cringing, blames the kid, because they’re just a kid.

That said, the kid in Oceans Rising delivers possibly the best performance in the film. He’s a good actor, actually … but it wouldn’t have mattered if he was a cardboard cutout, because almost any level of good acting would make you the best actor in this film.

The disaster premise starts out fairly believably with the melting of the polar ice caps. The melting shifts all the tectonic plates – I guess that could be a thing, maybe? – and then the magnetic core of the Earth weakens. Well, I’ve actually seen the magnetic-core premise in a different sci-fi movie, so … okay. I’m in. How do we fix this? By creating tiny black holes at the CERN institute. Okay – CERN makes black holes. It was in the news. You know, the news about scientists. Scientists who are actually really smart and spend all day thinking about theoretical and practical science and doing all kinds of smart scientist-y things … but who, for some reason, are utterly clueless about all the things our main character somehow figured out in his hidey-hole in the US. In fact, although the news indicated that CERN works in conjunction with scientists around the globe, our main character is the only one in the world who can rally support between national leaders and CERN for the building of the two black holes.

… okay … I guess? Maybe national leaders stole CERN’s boyfriend?

The disbelieved scientist is a major convention in disaster films, but typically that scientist has stumbled upon something in keeping with his or her expert research, and it’s something unusual, and it’s more a matter of presenting his or her findings in time to do something about it. But Oceans Rising’s main character is apparently the only person on Earth with a truly functioning brain, and he only needs to convince CERN and national leaders to help him because he only has two hands and can’t build two black holes by himself!

He can sail across the Atlantic Ocean in the equivalent of a dinghy … did I mention solar flares knocked out communications satellites? No phones. I wonder how science accomplished things before phones? Probably in a poorly maintained dinghy. “We’re in a HURRY! TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE BEFORE WE’RE ALL KILLED BY SOLAR FLARES! …let’s row to Switzerland in this dinghy – it’s actually a motorboat, so it has a motor, so this is completely believable!”

You know, even all that could have been fine – it really could have.

But …

The kid (who’s young enough this film hopefully won’t affect his career) is the only one who’s demonstrating genuine emotions. The actors “emote” – sort of – but their delivery is staccato at best and their relationships feel contrived and cliché, as though they all just got the script this morning, but the light was good, so let’s make a movie! There’s very little transition between scenes, the exposition sounds like the writer took the info from a CERN brochure, the effects are only so-so, the action is either abrupt or plodding … I guess the camera angles were acceptable? The recording levels were consistent. … I did care marginally for the kid and what happened to him and his family, which was almost the only reason I finished watching.

The other reason is because you can’t look away from a train-wreck until the last car finally comes to a stop amidst the twisted burning rubble; only then can you try to blink away the images and ask yourself in horror, “What did I just see? Did this really just happen?”

Unfortunately, Oceans Rising happened, and I did in fact see it.

The kid did a good job, though … so go out and watch some other things with him in it. Watch the heck out of them, to make the kid feel better. And if he’s reading this? Well, kid, my actor friends tell me that it’s better to be a good actor in a bad film than a bad actor in any film; you were truly the only bright spot in this actual disaster, and I sincerely hope you go places.

popcorn icon  1 (for the kid) out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Veronica

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

* now with spoilers *

Veronica is a horror film revolving around the possession of a young woman by a malevolent spirit or demon. It’s based loosely on the first case in Spain wherein the detective involved stated that he had witnessed paranormal activity.

It’s visually well-constructed, and the acting is fine, even from the younger kids. The story is solid, and, although nothing is particularly surprising (especially for those of us who have seen a bazillion movies in this genre), the ending wraps things up nicely. The kids who are the most vulnerable are also ultimately rescued, so the movie feels pretty good in the end on that level, but like a lot of horror, the “bad guy” does win on another level, demanding the ultimate sacrifice from the character who’s responsible for those children.

Some elements seem a little strange, like unusual teachers whose unusualness seems to be more for visual entertainment than for any plot point, and the cobbling together of different religious cosmologies for no meaningful purpose. But overall the visuals and tone are balanced, and the rapid buildup to the possession that Veronica experiences is presented with believable pacing.

The only problem with Veronica is that it presents itself – and is from more than one voice presented by others – as the scariest film … but it isn’t scary. It’s disturbing on the level of Veronica dealing with a possession while caring for her younger siblings; it’s not, I suppose, for the squeamish. But it has neither a strong tension (the jump-scare type of scary) or a lot of gore or even a creepiness about the possession. It’s almost as straightforward as a Forensic Files re-enactment, where the topic might be alarming but the audience doesn’t necessarily feel like they’re in it or that the horror might somehow leak out and get them too.

Looking at it as a story based somewhat on real events, this straightforward presentation is actually pretty effective. But it’s also not presented as a docu-style horror drama, so the audience isn’t given the extra “horror” of real investigators weighing in on a real situation. The movie gets stuck in the middle, where it’s good but it’s not that scary, and it’s based on real but it’s not that real.

Overall, it was pleasant to watch and an acceptable entry into the genre, but the people saying it’s the scariest thing ever? – I’m not sure if we watched the same film.

popcorn icon  6 out of 10.

Adventures in Streaming: Casting Jonbenet

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

* now with spoilers *

Casting Jonbenet is a documentary that looks not so much at the events and investigation surrounding Jonbenet’s death but rather at the opinions, feelings and perceptions of those who are auditioning to play various parts in the movie-documentaries about her.

Various facts about her death are presented as well as a timeline of investigation, and we see a lot of images of Jonbenet – at her pageants, a few family photos. The investigation is chronicled in a passive way as we hear from the actors auditioning to play the various roles – for instance, while talking to the men who are trying out to be Jonbenet’s father, we hear the facts and suppositions that have informed those men’s opinions about what actually happened.

It’s not action-packed, obviously, but the pacing is good. We never get to learn anything new about the case, which parallels very profoundly the initial event – when we all waited to hear what had happened and eagerly anticipated finding out that her killer had been identified and brought to justice. Some theories are put forth – everyone from her brother to random inmates who claimed responsibility – but DNA from the crime scene excluded these individuals … meaning that there was no proof they did it, but technically a great many things are possible, including that there was more than one assailant. No one theory – even in this expository documentary – ultimately carries more weight than another, and in the end, we’re left with the random statements and observations of people trying out for a part.

These people, though … taken all together, their collective opinions and sentiments paint an interesting picture. Especially as we watch the little girls who are trying out to be Jonbenet herself, it’s striking that we don’t really hear as much from these girls as we do from the older actors – of course we don’t, since the actors trying out to be Jonbenet are very little children, and may not even fully understand that they’re portraying a real person who died. Even with the supplementary information about the case and the investigation and all the competing new and old theories, it becomes quickly clear that people “remember” the case with the things that they supposed and surmised and felt about it at the time, rather than the factual particulars. In the end, we see why it’s “casting” Jonbenet – because we have no more handle on what happened, really, than we would if it were a made-up case in a show where the director wants to keep the audience guessing. Most importantly, even though this was a real event and Jonbenet was a real little girl, her story has crossed over more into legend than history, so much so that any new actual evidence would likely not affect people’s predetermined notions about what happened.

The little Jonbenets don’t say much, being five or six or seven years old … and that’s striking too. We can’t speak to the only person, besides her killer(s), that knows what happened that day, because she’s dead. We couldn’t speak to her before that either, particularly, because she was so little. I think that’s why her case was so compelling to follow even in its sadness – we wanted to know what had happened to her, we wanted to be able to protect her somehow even though it was too late, we wanted to know what happened so we could prevent it with other little people in our lives who were also too little to talk. But we didn’t get to know. The people auditioning for parts in the docu-movies don’t get to know. In the end, we’re left with no more information than a lot of us already had about the case … and the image of a little girl dancing who doesn’t say anything to us.

Casting Jonbenet is a really effective emotional parallel to the case itself, and an interesting look at how facts get subverted by our perceptions of them. Overall, it’s well-done and worth watching.

popcorn icon  8 out of 10.

Adventures in Streaming: Belief

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

* now with spoilers *

Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses, based on true events, describes the exorcism of Janet Moses by the members of her family.

The family, residents of Wainuiomata, New Zealand, are depicted as loving, intelligent, and deeply embedded in their religious faith. We see the sometimes problematic aspects of blending newer faiths with their more traditional faith and cultural traditions. We also see how much they care about Janet, and how sincerely they felt her to be possessed by a demon.

The pacing isn’t too bad, although it’s sluggish in some places. The complex faith of the family is presented with respect and sensitivity; in fact, the viewer can see all too well the logic of the family’s decisions regarding possession and exorcism. By the time events get out of hand, they’re all predicated on so many smaller steps that it seems almost impossible to change course.

There was a lack of discussion in the documentary about the wisdom of exorcism – even within the context of cultural and religious respect, it would have been nice to hear a bit more from others in the family or community who felt differently about it than the family. It created an atmosphere of cultural assumption – as though anyone in this region would have done exactly the same – that I think is not particularly accurate, given the ultimate controversy about the exorcism.

One striking part of the documentary is toward the climax of events, when the family is circling the wagons in a desperate attempt to finally rid Janet and another family member of their demons: the girl screams, “You’re scaring me!” and one of the family screams back, “You’re scaring me!” This expressed sentiment in particular did make the exorcism feel like less of an event of faith and more of an event of hysteria, although the family is always represented as believing entirely in their interpretation of the behaviour, and acting for what they truly felt was Janet’s well-being.

Overall, the documentary is well-done and fairly matter-of-fact; it’s not for the faint-of-heart, but it’s worth watching.

popcorn icon  8 out of 10