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

Adventures in Streaming …

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

* now with more spoilers *

Tu Hijo [Your Son]

Tu Hijo tells the story of a doctor, Jaime, whose son Marcos is attacked at a nightclub and left for dead. The young man is left in a coma with extensive injuries to body and head, and his father, grief-stricken and upset, searches for the people who did this to his boy.

He tries at first to work with the police, but the police haven’t been able to find any particular leads, so the doctor starts looking for the culprits on his own. He confronts his son’s friends and girlfriend, only to find that the friends seem scared to talk about the perpetrators and the girlfriend, Andrea, is now an ex-girlfriend who doesn’t want to talk about Marcos at all.

Jaime doesn’t let this set him back; he persists in seeking answers, until finally stumbling upon first a name of one of the attackers, and then a video of the attack itself. Unfortunately he has not come across the video in a way that allows the police to use it as evidence, putting Jaime back at square one where he feels even more desperate than before.

When we meet Jaime and Marcos, we see a close and loving relationship between father and son; they care about each other and enjoy spending time together. We also see Jaime at work, where he’s saved a little boy who doesn’t seem to want to go home; Jaime intuits that the boy’s father is abusive and tries to come forward about it, but his colleague reminds him of the strict protocols about evidence and procedure that attend such an accusation … basically, we’re introduced to a man who wants to protect children, but he’s limited by the very systems he needs to use to do the right thing.

When Jaime becomes desperate and even angry at Marcos’s silent friends and at the boy whose name he was given, we understand completely. We watch the video as Jaime does, and the brutality of the beating Marcos endures is difficult to see. Even if we’re not ourselves parents, we have no trouble justifying Jaime’s feelings of rage and his desire for justice. As he takes more and more into his own hands – venturing into a world he may not be able to get out of – we’re on his side, fully comprehending where he’s coming from and why he needs to do this. We share his frustration with a system that has to follow every protocol and dot every “i” before making a move even against the obviously guilty. We want to champion him, because we can sympathize with his grief, and we do so in this film even after it’s become evident that we might want to reconsider.

Eventually it comes to light that Marcos had cornered Andrea at the nightclub and, in the guise of “staying friends”, convinced her to sit with him in his car for “old time’s sake”. Once she was in the car, Marcos and his friends attacked her, filming the rape on Marcos’s phone so that he would always be able to see how he had gotten back at her for dumping him.

Marcos’s sister, who is Andrea’s friend, finally shows Jaime the video, but instead of being horrified at what his son had done, Jaime is angry at Andrea – he realizes that the beating was a retaliation against Marcos by Andrea’s new boyfriend, and he decides that this makes the attack her fault. Even in this moment, we still want to like Jaime, to understand that he’s a father gripped by grief and sadness, and that learning such a dark truth about his son must be incredibly difficult to process. But at this point in the narrative, we’re beginning to see why it’s called “Tu [Your]” Hijo instead of “Mi [My]” Hijo: we’ve watched what we thought was Jaime’s descent into a dark world, but in fact he had always been in it, and Marcos is in fact his son – like father, like son.

Jaime’s final act – the final scene in the film – shows us conclusively that the apple has not fallen very far at all from the tree, and that neither of the two men we had been connected to since the opening credits were particularly deserving of our support.

Is it all right for Andrea’s new boyfriend to beat a man nearly to death for her rape? In a different kind of film – an Equalizer or Deathwish sort of film – it would have been acceptable and even necessary. But we’ve been watching a more realistic film, filled with straightforward characters whose depth and motivations parallel real people. Their actions are the kinds of things that actual people are able to do – no heroics or fanfare or unnecessary drama – and when they’re unable to act, this mirrors reality as well. So we’re left asking ourselves, do we feel good about Marcos’s attack now? Do his horrible actions justify what was done to him? Should Andrea and her boyfriend not have followed the same protocols and procedures that have been presented throughout as the “right way” to do things? Probably they should have … but we also understand their motivations as completely as we ever understood Jaime’s.

Ultimately, no one really wins in this film. Marcos is still in a coma and not likely to recover. Jaime has lost connection to his wife and daughter, who haven’t been able to reach him through his feelings of vengeance and despair. Lives have been lost, lives that may or may not have deserved to be cut short. “Truth” and “justice” have most certainly not been served. Andrea has suffered cruelly at Marcos’s hands, but would have a hard time proving that at this point; she also has to live with what has been done to Marcos on her behalf. Should she care about that? Maybe not, but since this isn’t an Equalizer or Deathwish sort of film, there is that lingering question: do two wrongs make it right? The part of us that loves Equalizer and Deathwish wants so much to say YES! This was justice! But the part of us that was worried about Jaime as he seemed to be losing himself in a world of darkness – that part of us isn’t so sure. And the part of us that watches Jaime cover for his son’s misdeeds certainly feels like two wrongs didn’t make any part of that “right”.

The hardest part of this film is also the best part – we feel very attached to Jaime, to Marcos, to their family, and to the tragedy that has befallen them. We’re encouraged to imagine, through the realistic depiction of characters and events, what the situation would be like if we were in it. Jaime’s helplessness is our helplessness. His pain as he watches his son be beaten into unconsciousness – that’s our pain. Marcos’s mother is innocent, but her son has been taken from her, and we sympathize with her extremely; we can see her suffering and it hurts us too. But precisely because we’ve been so easily drawn into the film, when we discover what Marcos – and then Jaime – really are, we feel the betrayal and the disbelief and the heartache almost as though they were actual people who’ve actually lied to us personally. Andrea’s hurt becomes our hurt too, and we want justice for her at least as much as we did for Marcos.

Tu Hijo is incredibly well-balanced, well-written, and well done. It is definitely worth watching. Having said that, it did punch me in the gut in the end, since I had become so invested in the father’s struggle for his child, and the rude awakening to the facts of the matter were unexpected and not entirely pleasant. Would I recommend it? – definitely. Would I watch it again? – probably not; it’s just so deeply sad.

popcorn icon  8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

Bushwick

Bushwick tells the story of a girl coming home from school only to find her neighbourhood – and pretty much the whole city – in a shambles: people who may or not be military are shooting at anything that moves, and no one around her seems to have any answers. She wants to get home, to get to her family, and to get said family to safety, but the road is treacherous.

She encounters a couple of people who are willing to help her, or more properly, they are convinced to help her as long as it also helps them. She does reach an extraction point of sorts, but the situation is ultimately even scarier than we had witnessed to that point.

Bushwick opens with a continuous shot that lasts uninterrupted for much of the movie – this unusual approach allows the audience to feel engaged with the scenes much more than with conventional filming. The sound effects are immersive and fairly realistic; the visuals are interesting. The girl’s primary companion tells part of a compelling back story that we want to hear more about, and there are several clues to what’s going on (from radios, other characters, etc.) that convince us to stay with the story.

Where it starts to fall down is in the lack of follow-through: the clues and explanation don’t indicate where the story will go, and her companion never really fleshes out his whole story and subsequent motivation. His training would suggest that he can triumph over their attackers more effectively than the untrained girl could do alone, but he’s really just more of a sidekick following her grudgingly from place to place. Their chemistry is good, but in an attempt (I think) to make the chaos of the strange situation feel … well … chaotic, the characters are brought together and torn apart in an abrupt manner with little closure – like real life, yes, but for most of us, we watch films – even gritty films – because we want to escape real life for a little while. We generally want to get to know the characters, and, if something happens to one of them, we want the other characters or the events to reflect that the character mattered in some way.

For the chaos to have been an effective build-up to final events, we would have needed a solid ending – but Bushwick ends on almost a cliff-hanger, leaving more questions than it answers. If it’s meant to be the start of a longer story, that would be great, but it doesn’t look like that’s in the works.

Ultimately, the movie is worth watching for the experimental cinematography which is pretty effective and creative, and for the chemistry between the characters, which is believable and engaging. It does achieve its goal of bringing us into a chaotic world, and one of the many questions we’re left with is, “What would we do in that situation? It’s pretty scary to think about.” But unless they manage to bring out another installment of this story, we’re left with a tale that ends kind of in the middle of a sentence.

 

popcorn icon    7 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming …

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

* now with spoilers *

Plus One

The thumbnail for Plus One – and in fact the cover art for the film – looks sort of like the cover of a 1980’s tweens book (not my usual taste, so not very appealing), but the blurb made it sound a little more interesting, so I gave it a chance.

We follow a group of just-grew-up-a-minute-ago people who are attending a party; we also see something they don’t see: a strange electrical disturbance that creates a bifurcation, so that each of the characters exists again a few moments later.

Unfortunately, only the audience is privy to the electrical disturbance, and only the audience realizes that these duplicates the party-goers are seeing are actually just themselves a few moments later. So they all do what people tend to do in these situations – they panic about what they believe to be evil doppelgangers, and try to kill them. They even succeed a couple of times, clubbing their counterparts to death with gardening tools and ripping their faces off.

As the time bubble (or whatever you would call it) slowly collapses, the few-moments-later them are fewer and fewer moments later, until finally the duplicate group is trying to exist in the same moment with the primary group. This does not go well for anyone.

Especially since the audience knows what caused the bifurcation, it’s surprising how effectively the actors evoke tension and alarm about the possible intent of their other selves. Many of the characters are stereotypical – the drunk jock, the nice guy who finishes last, the popular girl who isn’t particularly pleasant, the loner, etc. – but the actors are solid and tell a good story.

Because the “effects” are just the actors themselves and straightforward blood-and-fisticuffs, everything is extremely believable; the juxtaposition between the primary group and the duplicate group is easy to follow, and I didn’t experience any continuity errors in that regard, which felt impressive since so many people and interactions were involved in the scenes. Because the audience is aware that the second group is really just the first group again, the scenes of panic and the final physical conflict feel pretty gritty – they’re not aliens or pod-people or government robots or anything; they’re just people, being clubbed to death with garden tools.

The metaphor of being afraid of ourselves is a nice touch, in addition to the more obvious metaphor of being afraid of new things we can’t understand. The primary group’s sudden willingness to annihilate other human beings (humans that look exactly like them, to boot) is fairly chilling and yet not surprising – it’s an excellent comment on letting fear make our decisions.

Some of the interactions between the two groups are surprising for other reasons: the loner has an interesting exchange with her other self, and the main male character’s resolution to conflict with his girlfriend is unexpected and thought-provoking – he’s not exactly “the bad guy”, but suddenly we’re left wondering, who have we been watching? Would we do the same in his place? Is what he does even wrong, given the context of the film? What about the people ferociously killing their other selves? Their actions may be understandable, but are they acceptable? Would we behave that way in that situation, and would that be good or bad?

Ultimately Plus One is entertaining and well-done – definitely a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours.

popcorn icon    10 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

Fever Night

Fever Night, also known as Band of Satanic Outsiders, is a movie with a catchy Netflix blurb and a striking thumbnail image. … so I ended up watching it.

It follows the attempt by three friends to perform an obscure ritual deep in the forest. One of them is injured, forcing the other two to go in search of help; instead they encounter nature – birds and trees and such – behaving in strange ways, and ultimately they’re confronted with the very kind of demonic entity they had been hoping to conjure.

The acting wasn’t the worst acting in the world; the plot was generic but not uninteresting. There’s a little bit of comedy that occasionally is really funny. But in the end, it’s the sort of film that you don’t really intend to watch again and aren’t entirely sure why you watched it all the way to the end.

… except the end is actually pretty thought-provoking.

The shape the demonic entity takes is basically that of a hermaphroditic goat-headed sort of creature, and it clearly frightens and disgusts the friends, but it was conjured as a manifestation of their desires, so … on some level, they had wanted such a creature.

They had wanted this.

What does that mean? If you had asked them what they wanted, they wouldn’t have said they wanted a hermaphroditic goat-headed creature; when they see it, they’re horrified. But the ritual has worked – clearly it did, since the creature is there at all – so this must have been what they wanted deep down.

The ending of Fever Night can cause us to think about your own desires and motivations, and all the things that are deep-down that we don’t let come to the surface … things that we may not even know are there. Even beyond the typical musings about the darkness that can reside in all of us, even outside of notions of good and evil, the question comes up: how well do we know ourselves? More to the point, how would we feel about those things we might discover? How would we handle it if we found it disturbing? Can we truly become someone separate from desires we don’t want to have, or do they eventually bubble up no matter what we do?

Ultimately, Fever Night is not a horrible way to spend a couple of hours; it invites the audience to do some introspection, and there are a couple of laughs to boot.

 

popcorn icon  5 out of 10.

Adventures in Streaming …

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

* now with spoilers * 

Train to Busan

A father struggling to balance his work commitments with his daughter’s needs finds himself accompanying her on the train to Busan to see her mother. The daughter is unhappy with him because he phoned in her birthday – as he seems to phone in a lot of his interactions with her – and he in fact missed her musical presentation at school, even though she had been practicing the song specifically for him. She no longer has much faith in him, and she’s going to her mother’s because she doesn’t want to be with him.

Unfortunately for her, for her father, and for everyone else on the train, a zombie apocalypse has begun.

As everyone tries to learn what’s going on and what they should do to be safe, the girl and her father are separated, as are a blustery man and his pregnant wife, an athlete and his girlfriend, and a pair of elderly sisters. To complicate matters, a pompous businessman has responded to the entire situation with fear and panic-mongering, turning many of the train passengers against one another. And the zombies in this particular apocalypse are fast-moving, making it hard to get ahead of them.

Several of the zombie scenes are visually engaging and offer a few images that I hadn’t seen in other zombie films. The atmosphere of confusion is effective; it’s easy to place ourselves in the place of the trapped train passengers. The zombies aren’t intelligent, and some of the strategies to escape them are almost too good to be true, but of course they always end up right-behind-you. The pompous businessman’s panic is well-presented, and we’re genuinely disappointed in him and everyone who listens to him.

The relationship between the little girl and her father is realistic, and she remains fiercely independent until the very end of the film, not re-opening her heart to him until dire circumstances threaten to take him away from her forever. Because it’s realistic, their emotional reunion is particularly touching.

We don’t even ultimately hate the businessman – although he’s caused more than one problem – because his pomposity is revealed to be a cover, and he’s really just a pitifully scared man looking for assurance of safety, much like any of us.

Ultimately, Train to Busan tweaked the standard formulas of character stereotypes and group dynamics, offering something with a little more feeling and more creativity. The fast-moving zombies provide an effective tension, and the zombie scenes are entertaining. The little girl’s performance is believable and compelling. And because some of the elements – such as the father’s phone calls with his colleague who’s asking if this is their fault – are delivered subtly, we find ourselves thinking about them long after the movie has ended, encouraging us to watch it again.

Overall, this is an incredible zombie film and an excellent film in general.

 

popcorn icon      10 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming …

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

* now with spoilers *

RADIUS

Radius tells the story of Liam, who has no idea who he is other than the information on his driving license. He wakes up, injured and confused, after having been in an apparent car crash; when he flags down a passing motorist, the motorist suddenly dies. As Liam makes his way down the road, trying to find help, he encounters more people who have mysteriously died – sitting at tables at the café, slumped over their food.

Eventually he reaches the house his license tells him is his, but he still can’t remember anything about himself, his life, or the accident. He assumes at first that there’s some contagion, but ultimately realizes that it’s proximity to him that’s killing people. When Jane appears he’s terrified that she’s going to die too, but for some reason she doesn’t. Unfortunately she has no answers, since she also has no idea who she is or how she ended up in the hospital in a truck that belongs to Liam, but if Liam stays within a certain radius of her, no one around him dies.

From there, their adventure begins, and the story stays compelling throughout. The people are genuine, the supernatural element is presented in a way that immediately pulls the audience in – so that we feel as nervous as Liam and Jane do when they get too far from each other. There’s a little action, a good amount of character development, eerie sets and situations, and series of flashbacks (as the characters remember glimpses of who they are and what’s happened) are well-integrated into the scenes of the present – we feel like we’re solving the mystery with the characters.

At the same time, there are significant twists that take us by surprise.

The underlying theme starts out as solving mysteries, but by the last act, we’re actually confronted with the same dilemma the characters are facing – not who they are, but what they’ve done. If we’ve truly forgotten who we were, does that exonerate us from the consequences of our crimes, our failings, our mistakes, our earlier darkness? Is darkness something that we have inherently or is it attached to our bringing up and life experiences? Can we shed our earlier personalities if we’re unable to recall them, or will they still be there, hardwired in our heads and bodies like our eye-colour? Finally, what would we be willing to do to prevent ourselves from re-becoming that earlier person who wasn’t so wonderful? – what would we be willing to sacrifice to stop our former selves from returning?

Radius shifts more than once into a different kind of story, and it does so in a seamless way that mirrors how real people would face strange experiences. The build-up of tension is consistent, the characters are believable and sympathetic, the twists are reasonably unexpected, and the characters’ final decisions – as they answer the above questions – are heartfelt. In the end, we don’t know who, in fact, has been the bad guy, since we’re still exploring those answers in ourselves.

I decided to watch the movie because of the interesting sci-fi premise, but I was surprised by a story with a bit of depth and an emotionally engaging conclusion.

Overall:

popcorn icon  10 out of 10