Adventures in Streaming: Thinner

Thinner is the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. It tells the story of an extremely overweight man – Billy – who accidentally hits and kills an old woman with his car after not paying enough attention to the road. Because the man is well-known and well-liked by people in law-enforcement and the judicial system, he’s given a slap on the wrist for causing the woman’s death, an unfairness that upsets the woman’s (shockingly old) father.

Unfortunately for Billy, the old woman’s upset father is the head of a gypsy clan, and he places curses on Billy and on both the judge and the police officer who helped Billy avoid punishment. The judge begins to mutate into some sort of lizard creature, the police officer becomes a hideous mass of painful skin lesions, and Billy begins to get thinner. At first he’s thrilled, because he had the weight to lose, but he soon realizes that it’s never going to stop, and he starts looking for the old man to have him reverse the curse.

The movie is a strong adaptation, following the book faithfully and capturing the subplots and interpersonal exchanges very well. In addition, the special effects – noted quite positively at the time – still stand up: Billy’s overweight and eventual emaciation are both completely believable, and the make-up they put on Michael Constantine (who plays the head of the clan) is flawless – you pretty much forget he was ever a young man. The acting is solid, and even though Billy is not a squeaky-clean protagonist, he’s a good father, and we can easily find sympathy for his plight and balance his flaws against his deeper, basically decent character.

The only problem – and it’s not really a problem per se – is that Joe Mantegna plays a truly bad guy, a guy who’s helping Billy find the gypsy patriarch by sending some not-so-subtle messages to the other members of the clan. Mantegna is an excellent actor, and when he plays a bad guy, he really does seem like a bad guy. But through no fault of his own, at a couple of critical bad-guy moments, I could only hear his Simpsons’ Fat Tony character, which made me laugh instead of being intimidated by his bad-guy-ness. But then again, having that shift toward laughter and then watching him be pretty brutal and ruthless maybe made those darker images seem even more striking.

The change in tactics on the part of the gypsy patriarch is plausible, and the ending is satisfying with no particular unanswered questions. It’s a horror ending rather than a happily-ever-after, so if you’re looking for a feel-good film, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for a tight story arc, strong character development, and fairly realistic actions toward a rewarding conclusion, then definitely give Thinner a try.

10 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill!

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill! is … interesting.

It’s a B movie, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It has a lot of predictable secondary characters and plot points, and everyone who is killed by this wandering Easter-Bunny-costumed guy is killed at the time and in the way that is expected of a serial-killer Easter-Bunny-costumed guy.

The main characters – the teenager and his mother – are presented about as realistically as a B movie can do. At the beginning of the film, some sort of family discord results in the father of the family being lost in a fire. The mother and her son (who has a cognitive deficit of some kind and is mentally about six or seven years old) do their best to get along without him, which leads to the introduction of some unsavoury characters into their lives. But don’t worry – Easter-Bunny-costumed guy will take care of that.

We’re given a few tense scenes – scenes where the bad guys pick on the disabled teenager, which is upsetting and stressful, and scenes where Easter-Bunny-costume guy is watching the family in a creepy manner. But overall it’s a standard stalking-slasher movie, and we aren’t even necessarily surprised by who the Easter-Bunny-costume guy turns out to be.

There is one surprise, though.

When the mother and son learn who the Easter-Bunny-costume guy is – and learn why he’s been killing the unsavoury characters – they aren’t even mad. They’re glad. They forgive him not only for what he’s done to the unsavoury characters (which, really, in the context of the film, they got what was coming to them), but also for things he had done to the mother and son earlier. They all stand together, a little nuclear-family-esque trio, and stare at the dead bodies and the huge quantity of blood … and then they decide to eat dinner.

I tried not to like Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill! I don’t really have any reason why I don’t hate it. It’s not poorly done for a B movie, but it’s not particularly well done either. It’s not poorly acted for a B movie, but it’s not particularly well acted either. The plot is so simple as to be trivial, the bad guys are bland, the main characters aren’t fleshed out really at all. The final scene with them deciding to eat dinner is humourous, but it would have been even without the movie preceding it.

I suppose I liked the fact that, even though Easter-Bunny-costume guy is the killer, he’s not really the bad guy, and in fact was acting in the defense of the mother and son as a way to redeem himself; tucked into this little, fairly silly B movie is this interesting take on good, evil, forgiveness, intention … all the things that people ponder every day as they make mistakes and try to make up for them.

I can’t really recommend Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill! because either you find B movies entertaining or you don’t. But I didn’t hate it.

And the last scene was funny.

— 4 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: The Vault (2017)

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

The Vault is a supernatural heist movie.

The opening-credit scenes show clippings from a bank robbery in 1982, during which the hostages were killed and the bank set on fire. As the film begins, we see Ed in the bank breakroom, having apparent flashbacks to that bank robbery – clearly he had been there in 1982, and it still haunts him.

Two women posing as a job-seeker and a customer reveal themselves to be armed bank robbers; three firefighters who claim to be fighting a fire “down the street” turn out to be the women’s accomplices. They quickly take over the bank, putting the hostages in the vault and demanding money. When they’re given all the money that the tellers can find, the amount is far less than expected, and the robbers become angry and anxious.

To prevent any violent escalations, Ed gets up, identifies himself as a bank manager, and admits there’s a second vault in the basement with millions of dollars inside. The robbers split up, some staying with the hostages, some going to the basement vault, and one staying with Ed in an office where they can see the basement via security cameras.

This is the beginning of the supernatural portion of the movie, where we meet the ghosts from 1982: the masked robber and his charred and/or bloodied hostages. The robbers meet the ghosts too, and their heist goes decidedly sideways.

The atmosphere of Vault is consistent but, more importantly, not all that creepy. It looks like any other heist movie the entire time, even when ghosts are physically terrorizing their victims. This has the ironic effect of making the ghost images more startling and eerie; we feel the way we would if we just looked up and saw a ghost standing at the end of our couch. The ghost scenes are also orchestrated in a way that doesn’t immediately suggest they’re ghosts – they might very well be bank patrons and workers that we haven’t meant yet, that Ed knew were in the basement and could overpower robbers who had separated from one another. So whether they’re ghosts or not, the audience has that “ooo, they got you!” feeling as these unknown people creep up and surround the bad guys.

Ed, whose character has so many unpleasant memories of the earlier robbery, avoids becoming the stereotype of emotionally-compromised-hero-looking-for-redemption; he doesn’t get more and more agitated or battle increasingly loud inner demons while trying to make this event play out differently than the last one. Instead, he acts like a bank manager should act: prioritizing the safety of the staff and patrons, remaining deadpan-calm while dealing with the robbers, watching impassively as events play out so that he can better assess what to do next. He obviously knows that something is waiting in the basement, and he’s not surprised by any of the things that start happening.

The lead teller, Susan (as well as some others), is fairly open about the supernatural experiences she and her coworkers have had in the bank – she tells the robbers that she believes the masked gunman from 1982 haunts the basement. Of course, the robbers don’t listen … why would they? Susan doesn’t even say it in a frightened manner; she says it as though she’s revealing that there might be rats. Again, this makes the paranormal events seem more unexpected and therefore a bit more real.

The robbers respond to the ghost encounters in a very believable manner, and their actions make sense.

The final reveal of the film is satisfying. The bad-guy-wins horror ending is well-done – we don’t feel like we don’t understand what just happened – and since the good guys were watching as one set of bad guys battled another set of bad guys, we end up with the good guys winning too … so it’s a fairly good “heist” thriller too, in that regard. There’s enough of a twist that we want to go back and watch it again for clues. It’s a two-genre film, but both genres are blended throughout rather than starting as one and ending as the other – this makes all the events seem more realistic and more immediate.

James Franco plays Ed, and since at the time of the film he was coming off of some of his more zany-character roles, we’re kind of waiting for him to be that person now … but he is a straight-arrow, sedate bank manager the whole way, which makes his character seem a little more “cool” and also supports the realism: it seems less of a “role” and more of the way real people deal with real situations.

Overall, it’s not particularly more than a solid installment in the ghost genre, and the heist aspect is fairly by-the-numbers, but it’s done well, with good acting, good pacing, and clear resolution. It also creates an ambiguity about just who is “bad” and who is “good” and who we should be rooting for, which is an interesting layer.

It’s worth watching, even twice.


9 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: #Alive

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

#Alive is a Netflix original. It’s a standard zombie flick, with a vague premise as to how the zombies became zombies, and an even vaguer justification for newscasters’ advice on how to stop the spread of it. It’s set in the city, in an apartment complex with a broad courtyard; the place is swimming with zombies from one building to another – although the zombies seem a bit visually impaired, they move normally, so escape seems unlikely.

Joon-Woo is a young man very much living the video-gamer life. He wakes up to find his parents and sister are not at home, and settles in to play games and enjoy the day … only to find that the world has gone to hell, and neighbours are turning on one another just outside his windows.

He was supposed to go shopping but had never gone, so his food stores quickly deplete, and his water situation isn’t much better. He believes his family to be dead, and although he’s streamed a couple of videos to the outside world, there are no services, so he doesn’t feel there’s much chance of rescue.

It’s at this point that he realizes there’s a girl (Yoo-bin) across the way who has also been barricaded in her apartment. She’s in another building of the complex – across the zombie-infested courtyard – so she might as well be on the moon, but he uses his drone to send messages to her.

The rest of the film revolves around their finding ways to communicate, to transfer food and water, to finally meet face to face, and to try to escape to the roof – typical zombie plotline, I suppose.

In fact, the plot is so typical that the movie itself comes as something of a surprise: none of the scenes seem sluggish, everything moves at a good pace and keeps the viewer’s attention, and the various elements that it shares with other zombie films actually provide a nice bringing-the-viewer-in experience – we’re pretty sure we know what’s about to happen, so rather than the tension of wondering what they’re going to face we feel the dread of certainty, and watch anxiously to see how they get out of a pit-trap we recognized all too well.

Of course it’s a girl and a boy – of course – but neither is cast in a know-it-all role; sometimes Yoo-bin knows more about something than Joon-woo, and sometimes he knows more about something than she does. Both of them exhibit bravery and clear thinking, and even when they don’t think there’s any hope, they keep moving toward escape and rescue.

Is it a wildly outside-the-box zombie tale? No, it’s pretty standard. But the characters are very likeable, the pace is decent, the atmosphere alternates effectively between serious and light-hearted, and the ultimate showdown is suitably tense and satisfying. There’s also a significant comment on the interconnectedness of online communities, something that is still criticized by people who grew up in a more face-to-face world but which has its own adaptations for creating friendships, connection, and community.

All in all, #Alive is a very good installment to a saturated genre, and well worth watching.


10 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: The Final

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

* be aware: this is a synopsis review, so it is one big spoiler *

The Final (2010) tells the story of a group of high school outcasts who decide to exact revenge on their tormentors.

It begins in a restaurant, where a girl with a burn-scar over half her face experiences stares and whispers from the other patrons. She finally lashes out, saying that she didn’t ask to look that way.

The film then turns to the group of outcasts (Ravi, Emily, Jack, Dane, and Andy) and follows their fairly significant bullying by the “popular” students; we also see each outcast’s home life – none of them have pleasant home lives, their parents being either neglectful, chaotic, distant, or hostile. We meet Kurtis, an agreeable young man who seems to like everyone and to treat them all equally (and kindly). When he witnesses Ravi being bullied, he stands up for Ravi. The outcasts discuss Kurtis, in fact, deciding that he’s a “good guy” and that he should not be allowed to attend “the party”.

“The party” is the site of the outcasts’ revenge, where they get all of their tormentors into the same house in the woods, drug them, and then torture them. Kurtis has shown up after all, so Ravi allows him to escape before the torture begins, and points out that if everyone were like Kurtis, none of the film’s events would be happening.

Kurtis encounters a racist man – Parker – who ties Kurtis up and goes to see if his story about the “party” is true. Parker is ambushed by a trio of students on motorbikes, but he’s able to eliminate two of them; Kurtis frees himself and calls police. By the time the police get to the party-house, however, the outcasts have turned on one another (Dane is particularly touchy, having expressed intense suicidal ideation and deep anger throughout the film). Jack is the only outcast still alive, and kills himself after telling the police that there are “more of us” out there.

Kurtis returns to school, where he recognizes the third motorbike rider; we realize that one of the bullies is the girl from the beginning of the movie – Emily gave her those scars, at a party that several other students did not survive.

On the surface, the story is one we’ve seen quite a bit – the bullied kids, who are always really good people, get back at their aggressors, who are always really bad people, and the aggressors finally see the error of their ways. We see how dismal the bullied kids’ lives are, how unworthy their families are, how mean the meanies can be. We do feel sympathy for the outcasts; we do feel outrage at the bullies’ actions. For anyone who’s been bullied themselves, the notion of revenge can be quite appealing, and the graphic torture of the bullies in the film might even act as a cautionary tale for any real bullies who might be watching.

But Final goes a little deeper into the matter.

We see the outcasts’ negative home lives, but the outcasts themselves aren’t all squeaky clean. Dane especially has so much misdirected rage that it borders on psychopathy; by the end, he’s lashing out in all directions, even at his own friends and allies, in his attempt to stop the pain he feels. He stops caring about revenge or lessons and focuses instead on hurting others for hurting’s sake. Most of the others, too, are so consumed by their pain that they no longer see the bullies as human beings – even though being unable to have compassion is usually described as the problem bullies have.

We don’t necessarily get a deeper look at the bullies, but they are presented more as real people than as stereotypes – during the torture experience, they exhibit concern for their friends’ lives (well, some of them exhibit concern). And the school hasn’t been divided into “us” and “them”, with only bullies and good-guys – Kurtis, among others, is just a regular person, not hurting anyone, not hating anyone, just making his way through school without an agenda.

The bullies are pretty solidly the bad guys … but the other characters aren’t so clearly delineated and compartmentalized. The atmosphere is one of stark realism, so we feel the pain inflicted by the bullies. We don’t like them. But we also can’t quite get swept away on a wave of revenge-porn, because all of the characters are just kids, just people: there’s no particular struggle between good and evil, but rather a grey and protracted conflict between teenagers of all stripes and the many parts of being human that hurt or don’t make sense. Instead of being able to vicariously feel avenged by the actions of the characters, we’re struck by how gritty and pointless it all is, by how important high school feels when really it’s just a small interlude in life, by how much life can suck for even the best of us.

Jack’s warning that there are “more of us” is no doubt true, but the effect isn’t one of chilling realization wherein we contemplate a world full of angry, disaffected outcasts who may finally snap. Instead, the thought that there are more people who feel such a deep pain is just kind of sad – the film has illustrated very well that people in pain, particularly those who don’t feel like anyone hears or cares, will eventually be overcome by those feelings. They’ll lash out at others or at themselves, they’ll feel more and more lost and broken, they’ll feel more and more helpless against the negative forces that seem to press in on them from all sides. Basically, the film shows that bullies and the bullied are all just acting out their anger, hopelessness, and confusion; that neither side has a corner on good or evil; and that so much of the “drama” grown-ups mock about adolescents is a fairly understandable response to a world that doesn’t seem as welcoming and warm as it did when we were small.

There were a few things that didn’t quite mesh with the rest: the families were all so uniformly unconcerned with their children’s well-being that it sort of felt like a ham-handed parade of dysfunctional stereotypes, and Parker’s random racism was out of place in a movie that dealt with a different kind of negative social experience. If the goal was to suggest that even Kurtis – whom everyone liked – had his own problems, then it fell a bit short because of its incongruity. Some of the torture scenes went for the gore-porn vibe, but most of the film went for realism, so there was some conflict there in how the audience was expected to receive the images. And of course, as with most teen-centered works, it’s a bit unlikely that absolutely zero parents were concerned about a teen party in the middle of nowhere.

But overall, the message and its delivery in this film far outweighed these flaws, and the feeling we’re left with at the end is one not so much of vindication or even enjoyment but of sadness and reflection.

 8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Discovery S3 Premiere

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

* now with spoilers *

I don’t usually comment on ongoing series, because it’s difficult to evaluate something that hasn’t finished its story yet, but in this case I want to look at just the first episode of Season Three of Star Trek: Discovery (now streaming on CBS-All Access).

Without wanting to give too many spoilers, let me sum up briefly: the Discovery has been obliged to follow their science officer into a time-wormhole to the distant future for the good of all creation; the ship will never be able to come back to its original time. For her part, the science officer (Michael) has had to go through the wormhole separately, landing in a time and space that might end up being far removed from the final destination of her ship and crew. She must ascertain where/when she is, and reach out to people with no particular ability to defend herself, no awareness of current politics or social dynamics, and no knowledge of the intervening history that she has missed. She’s cut off from everything and everyone she knew, she has few resources, and it turns out that the Federation to which she has given so much has apparently collapsed – only a few individuals, scattered across the galaxy, remain who still serve the Federation’s ideals.

Michael immediately begins educating herself about current events and works skillfully to gain resources and stability. She also vows to uphold the ideals of the Federation, and to rebuild it if possible into a beacon for the unity of diverse peoples everywhere.

This episode – and the stated intentions of its principle character – resonated deeply with me for two reasons.

First, as a long-time avid Star Trek viewer – since before birth, technically – I have grown up with the notions that people so different from us that they’re not even human beings are somehow still equal, valuable beings; that interaction with people different from myself makes for an exciting life; that at our heart, most living creatures just want to live and make little creatures; and that most of the time – most of the time – discord and hostility stem from misunderstandings and miscommunication that can easily be addressed if both sides are willing to talk about it. I’ve grown up with those ‘Federation ideals’ of discovery, learning, exploration and connection. I’ve grown up with the belief that we can go out into the universe and experience a billion things without hurting anyone, and that if people ask for help (and if we can give that help) then we are obligated to help. Of course, even in the context of the Star Trek world, there’s no room for naivety – there are plenty of enemies to go around, plenty of people who aren’t willing to sit and talk about it, plenty of ways that life can go wrong, and a thousand instances of the vicissitudes of history. Even if things are wrapped up in an hour-long episode, there’s no promise that everything is a bleeping bowl of cherries; even when things have been a certain way for generations, the Star Trek world is full of changes and pivots and unexpected occurrences. It’s full of, well, people, doing people things that sometimes don’t make sense and often are at someone else’s expense. One of the ‘Federation ideals’ I internalized even as a child was that the goal of the Federation was to keep trying even if it was difficult, and to stay true to values even when they’re tested.

So of course when Michael decides without hesitation to continue the Federation’s mission – even though many have forgotten it the way we’ve forgotten glass records – it was just another example of Star Trek characters doing what they always do: using the Federation as an umbrella label for their true mission of learning everything they can to make the world – the galaxy – a better place than they found it.

Second, I watched this season premiere during extremely challenging times. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. We’ve had – and are still having – wildfires that not only consume the forests around them but also the creatures that lived there; homes (and livelihoods) that took decades to build have been erased in moments, and the air for hundreds of miles around is clogged with smoke. In my country (and some others), civil unrest has intensified dramatically, robbing people of their sense of control and safety in a time when they were already being tested. In a lot of ways the world has been on fire, and it’s often seemed like things are flushing down a big ol’ toilet.

Compared to this reality, Michael’s ‘tribulations’ of getting a history lesson and some futuristic weapons don’t seem particularly relevant … but they are.

In one hour, we see her go through everything we’ve been going through: she faces strange creatures that try to eat her, enemies against whom she has never done anything and cannot effectively fight, the loss of everything she’s ever known with very little hope of returning, and a galaxy that is now rife with civil and interplanetary upheaval. Factions vie for power and individuals struggle against societally dictated life-paths, while endangered lifeforms and ecosystems are threatened by greed, corruption and general chaos. She has to find clues in a ‘past’ she wasn’t there for, and try to make something new from the discarded ashes of her former home.

So she falls back on those ideals – the ones I grew up watching and believing in – and gets started.

Does she cry about it? Of course. Is it what she wants to have to do, what she wants to have to go through? Not at all. Does she even have hope? It’s hard to tell, because she’s a very reserved person, but she certainly doesn’t have any reason to hope that her individual efforts will reach such a huge goal.

But that’s not the point.

Star Trek has never been about easy. It’s never been about sunshine and rainbows. It’s certainly never been about achieving some kind of irreversible utopia. All it’s ever been about is belief in peaceful exploration for the benefit of all. All it’s ever shown is the kind of world/galaxy we could have if we’re willing to work for it. Nothing has ever been a given. No one’s ever been invulnerable. People don’t just all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. But what we’ve called ‘ideals’ here has been their way of life; we’ve watched them sacrifice even their lives for it.

And one of the purposes of story-telling is to help the audience see how to proceed, how to do what is right, how to be the best people we can be. In this way, fictional stories can be extremely important, especially to a world on fire.

On one hand, this season premiere of Discovery suggests that you can’t have a phoenix without the ashes … and on the other hand, it reminds us that where there are ashes there can be a phoenix.

Overall, a very good beginning to a new Discovery story, a very good example of human possibility, and a very good image of hope and renewal for those of us who feel beset on all sides.

10 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Clinical

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

* now with spoilers *

Clinical offered to show us a psychiatrist (Jane) whose patient(s) may or may not be trying to kill her.

Jane is returning to her practice after having been attacked by a former patient (Nora) who was upset about Jane’s advice. As the story progresses, we see Jane experiencing some sleep paralysis wherein she remembers all too vividly the incident with Nora; her trouble dealing with the event causes her own therapist to question the wisdom of Jane’s continuing her practice, especially after she starts counseling a man (Alex) whose behaviour toward her is decidedly odd even before she agrees to take him as a patient.

The atmosphere is fairly creepy and consistent; the acting isn’t bad. …

The story itself falls down pretty badly, however, and the delivery is a bit clunky.

Alex has facial disfigurement that he explains in what should have been a poignant and emotionally gripping moment, but it’s presented in such a low-key manner, with all the words of a poignant, gripping moment but without any corresponding feeling. Not only does this make it a little hard to care about Alex – whose feelings he describes as if by rote – but it makes it a pretty glaring clue: if we can’t really invest in his sob-story, then we instantly start to suspect him.

Jane experiences sleep paralysis and PTSD, but the film illustrates these events and feelings in a sort of visual shorthand, as though the director has assumed the audience knows not just what those things are but also exactly what they’re like. If the purpose is to invite the viewer to feel as confused as Jane, I suppose that maybe it achieved that a little bit, but again, the lack of real engagement or sympathy with her experiences just shines a light on them as a clue.

The story itself is pedestrian: woman questions her sanity, woman experiences events that could easily be interpreted in two different (fairly obvious) ways, woman ignores the advice of her therapist, friends, and boyfriend, and is betrayed by literally the only person presented who could or would betray her, the attacker employs mental trickery to fool her – without fooling any of the viewers, particularly, since the ham-handed treatment of Jane’s sleep paralysis, memories, and dreams points almost directly to someone drugging and manipulating her. Even during some of the “big reveals”, the revelations aren’t that surprising: it looks like she did it herself! … but it’s the middle of the film, so it can’t be! … please try to sustain your wish to know what’s going on a little longer! Big surprise: Alex – with his disfigured and mostly concealed face under which he could be anyone at all – isn’t who he says he is! Nora’s no longer in the treatment center! – which of course makes perfect sense, since we’ve seen her in Jane’s “visions” that are delivered so stereotypically and so banally that it might as well have someone walking across with a big sign that says “this isn’t a vision but is in fact really happening, but Jane doesn’t know because she’s insaaaaaane” … followed by a second person with a slightly smaller sign that says “… or is she?” and then a third person with a little placard that says “dun-dun-dunnnnn”.

The body count is pretty pointless, since we don’t really get a chance to care about any of the characters who get killed. Jane doesn’t really emote about the deaths, almost acting as though it’s a startling inconvenience to have a body lying in front of her rather than something that’s shocking, devastating, or unusual. She seems to care … but it just doesn’t matter enough to her for us to care.

We do see the original attack by Nora, but we learn next to nothing about why she did what she did or why she was upset; very much like the initial scene in The Sixth Sense, the patient has broken into the doctor’s space, attacked the doctor, and then attempted suicide. Unlike The Sixth Sense, though, where the entire film is the explanation for the patient’s actions, we just don’t see a compelling build of reasons why Nora would do what she did, and without that, the reveal is a little anticlimactic, especially given the huge clues that all pointed to the bad guy before we even knew what he was responsible for.

Basically, it’s visually not uninteresting, the acting is acceptable, but the mystery is never much of a mystery, the sleuthing is never very sleuth-y, the tropes are predictable, the body count isn’t particularly shocking or meaningful, the main character’s empowerment is done in possibly the most lackluster way possible, and the ending has no denouement. We’re glad she’s alive, I guess?

Overall, not the worst way to spend a couple of hours, but not the best either.


4 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Residue (2015)

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

Residue (2015) is a UK miniseries originally slated as a pilot of sorts for a longer series; unfortunately Netflix (nor anybody else) picked up the series, which caused a lot of confusion among the viewers as to the meaning and plot of the miniseries. As a miniseries, Residue poses more questions at the end than at the beginning, and literally answers none of them; we don’t know what happens to the main characters, we don’t understand what was happening in the quarantine zone, we don’t know who the “bad guys” really are, and we don’t see a path from where the story ends to any kind of resolution. This in turn causes the action to feel sluggish – since it leads to a non-ending – which casts a negative light on the acting, because they’re focusing on actions more than on character development.

But this assessment, although understandable, is unfair. When viewed with the knowledge that it was meant to lead into a fully-fleshed-out thriller-mystery, and that the cliffhangers were meant to be addressed completely in the subsequent series, Residue is in fact a really intriguing pilot; it presents interesting characters, a Big-Bad that may or may not include a supernatural component, and a creepy phenomenon that kills seemingly randomly and by unexplained means. The characters are well-placed within the action, their motivations are clear, and their basic … well … character is established (who’s good, who’s bad, etc.). The romantic relationship between the two main characters is realistic – neither unbelievably gushy or jaded or tense; they’re just two people who struggle to find time for one another with their time-sucking jobs.

Some of the criticism revolves around the secondary characters – the ones who fall victim to the creepy phenomenon – not being well-explored, or their deaths adequately explained. Their demise feels abrupt and occasionally choppy … unless you realize these images are overtures to later explanations and explorations that the series was going to offer. In that light, these people – whose faces we remember vividly but whose time in the story is so brief – provide a mystery that we want very much to solve.

It does have the trope that, in fact, the characters’ own government is either the Big-Bad or very well aware of the Big-Bad and doing nothing about it … but there’s a great deal of ambiguity about just where the conspiracy begins and ends, and which of the characters may or may not be fully on board with it. A secretive, uncaring government is almost a cliché plot device at this point, but on the other hand, a quarantine-zone situation would have to involve government somehow, so I don’t know how the trope would be avoided in this case.

Ultimately, Residue as a pilot gives just the sort of unresolved mystery and compelling characterizations that would make me want to go ahead and watch the series … but it was (very unfortunately, I think) not allowed to tell its full story. So we end up with a well-done half of something – not the best way to end a three-episode jaunt, but also not the fault of the show, which I believe made a very good start with a solid and engaging premise.

7 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Tale of Tales

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

Tale of Tales is an anthology-esque set of folktales with a solid set of overlap to connect them to one another. The tales are likely known, at least in part, to many viewers, since they are in fact based in folklore.

The film is visually really appealing, and the acting is excellent. Even the lowest-level characters are presented in a realistic and fleshed-out manner; everyone seems like a real person, motivated by real things that may or may not be “good”, and behaving in ways that make sense even if within strange situations. The set-ups for each “tale” are compelling, causing me to stick with them to the end just to see what happens.

That said, I really had to convince myself to “stick with them”, because for the most part, the tales end in a sort of dispirited fashion, wrapping up each segment of the story not so much in a bow as much as with a slow slog to its destination. The outcome of some of the tales relies on viewers’ prior knowledge to really understand the emotional significance of the characters’ decisions, and often the endings – or overlaps – of the stories are much more lackluster than the fairly entertaining or intriguing beginnings. For things to seem weird is not necessarily a deal-breaker, especially with folktales, but for the actual compilation of the tales to seem weird and disjointed is pretty disappointing.

The endings aren’t always complete, either – as though they’re the prelude to some longer or more in-depth work that doesn’t seem to have ever materialized. I’m all for letting the audience use its imagination, but I don’t think I should have to use my imagination to fill in plot points.

It’s especially disappointing because of the good acting and characterizations, and the exciting imagery and themes of the beginnings of the segments. Some of the overlaps transcend different time periods, which is conveyed skillfully so the viewer is never confused … yet the actions and outcomes themselves don’t seem necessarily to connect to the events that allegedly caused them. How can stories be so well-presented in one way and then so poorly-cobbled together in another?

Overall, Tale of Tales wasn’t a waste of time, and the tone is consistent throughout. Exposure to the folktales – and to the kind of not-quite-reality quality that is so common in folktales – are valuable and entertaining, no matter how the endings of the segments are perceived; some of the tales are quite thought-provoking, and there’s some well-built tension in a lot of places. Basically, it just kind of loses cohesion by the end, and ultimately feels a little boring.

5 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: The 33

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

* now with spoilers *

The 33 tells the true story of thirty-three Chilean miners trapped underground for sixty-nine days.

The story, especially knowing it’s based on true events, is very compelling: we want to know that they get out okay, we want to understand what they went through, we look with a suspicious eye on the higher-ups who all too often in our world don’t seem to show up as diligently as we would like in such situations.

The politics attached to the Chilean President’s response are presented in a straightforward manner – it’s clear that politics are a consideration, but the President isn’t depicted as any kind of heartless or thoughtless person, only as a person who has to balance varying demands on his actions. The families of the miners express their doubt in the government’s intentions and abilities, but other than this nod to the frustrations of bureaucracy, all the players are on the same side.

The rescue effort focuses more on the waiting families and on the engineers’ search for solutions than on the problems they face. The value of the miners is never in question, except perhaps in the mine’s owner being lackadaisical about safety maintenance … but even this corner-cutting reality takes second place in the narrative to the global efforts to get the men out of the ground.

Halfway through the film, the miners have run out of food and water, yet it’s only day 17; my heart sank, since the blurb for the film said “69 days” – how on earth are they supposed to survive another 52 days when they’re already dying? I was instantly struck by the impossibility of it all, by the apparent inevitability of their deaths hundreds of feet below the surface, their families never knowing if they survived the initial cave-in, their goodbyes never heard. I was uncomfortably aware, in the comfort of my living room, of the certainty of death.

As the film moves toward the ultimate rescue, we see the trapped men work through their conflicts, deciding actively to pull together as brothers and never to give up hope. Surrounded by gadgets and electronics, expensive shoes and potential book deals, the men hunger for the one thing we all take for granted: to see the sky again, to breathe the air, to hold their families.

Without ever stating it explicitly, The 33 shows us exactly what is really important. It showed the logistical and financial problems that plague such rescues without painting anyone as a bad guy. It showed the generosity and concern of the world who watched events unfold on the news, and it showed the determination and compassion of the Chilean authorities, their willingness to do anything to save the men, and their commitment of resources to an endeavour that seemed more than once to be a hopeless matter.

If you want to feel good about humanity, this is an excellent movie to watch. If you want to remind yourself about what’s important in your own life, this movie will do that very nicely. If you want to be vaguely afraid of going into caves, tunnels, or elevators, then this movie will help you out. And if you want to find yourself questioning the real value of gold, this movie – without saying a word – will deliver.

 10 out of 10