Adventures in Streaming: Aaviri

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

* now with spoilers *

This review does indeed have significant spoilers.

Aaviri is an Indian horror-thriller, wherein a family’s older daughter dies of an asthma attack after being left alone in the swimming pool. After this tragedy, her parents decide to leave the house because there are too many sad memories; they move with their younger daughter into a new house, where the little girl has supernatural experiences and seems to be talking to a ghost or imaginary friend.

In the end, this ghost/imaginary friend ends up being the spirit of the older daughter, who’s trying to protect her family from a vengeful ghost. Her efforts are not particularly helpful, as the mother is possessed by the angry spirit and nearly kills the younger daughter. In the end, though, the little girl is rescued, the mother de-possessed, and the guilty party caught and punished for his crimes.

The atmosphere in Aaviri is good – suitably creepy, not hidden in deep, unnecessary shadows. The characters are presented fairly realistically, although the mother is a little histrionic and the father is randomly detached and then jovial. The scary effects are largely practical, and since they typically happen in daylight or brightly lit rooms, they seem more unexpected and effective. We’re not sure at first if the little girl’s imaginary friend is good or bad or even real, and this ambiguity goes all the way to the final act of the film, when we’re introduced to the vengeful spirit that’s actually behind the negative supernatural experiences.

We get to see pretty early on that the father is cheating on his wife and is basically sexually harassing women at work, but since we witnessed the older daughter’s death, we don’t associate the father with any kind of murderous tendencies. We don’t particularly like him as far as a husband, but he seems to be a loving dad. This helps set up the reveal at the end … but ultimately we weren’t disposed to like him anyway, so we aren’t surprised or disappointed when we find out what he had done to anger the vengeful spirit. We also don’t get any back story on him or on the family, though, so we have zero clues to what the vengeful spirit might be upset about or even to the existence of said spirit at all. We’re asked to think that the angry ghost is the older daughter, but … why? Nothing in any interaction suggested a negative home life for the girls or any tension between the parents. It’s just a red herring that’s not even plausible enough to really fool the audience.

Not being from India myself, usually when I watch something that doesn’t explain the mythology or the interactions with the supernatural, I just assume that in the film’s country of origin, these things are a given that the general local audience would understand. But even with that assumption, I felt that the segue into the vengeful spirit and the possession and the escalation of paranormal occurrences was super abrupt, with no lead-in or connection to existing events – we’re just supposed to know that this was going to happen, even though the creepy atmosphere the whole rest of the film was subtle and slow-paced. Basically, we’re settling into a slow-burn, tiny-clues sort of film and then – BAM! – we’re drenched with a bucket of cold water. Maybe he wanted us to feel like we were suddenly possessed? We also don’t get much of a timeline for the abduction of the little girl, so our fear for her is pretty much nonexistent, but then suddenly she’s at death’s door and we’re supposed to feel the nervous tension of an undetonated-bomb action movie.

The father’s crimes aren’t that connected to his philandering and creeping on his coworkers. Maybe the director didn’t think being an unfaithful creep was “bad”, and that we would be stunned by the revelation that the father did the thing (dun-dun-duuunnn)?

The mother, who’s been on edge the whole film, somehow recovers from being possessed as though it happens every Tuesday; the vengeful ghost isn’t acknowledged for what she went through as much as I would have hoped, since the whole movie is about how she was wronged. The older daughter seems to have died for no reason, and the ghost’s targeting the father’s family instead of just him directly didn’t mesh with what we knew of her.

Overall, it was not super bad … but it was not super good. The atmosphere was compelling, but to be honest, it was the only reason I kept watching after the half-way mark, because the plot moves pretty slowly. The kids do a good job acting, but the adults aren’t as consistent at it, and that imbalance makes the flaws more obvious. The director is also the man who plays the father, and I’m thinking he should not direct himself. The practical effects made for a creepier experience, but the possessed effects sort of … didn’t. It’s not a waste of your time, but it’s also not the end of the world if you don’t get around to it.

popcorn icon  4 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Hangman (2017)

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

* now with spoilers *

Hangman is a film starring Karl Urban (Will), Al Pacino (Ray), and Brittany Snow (Christi); Will and Ray were partnered detectives until Ray’s retirement, and Christi is a journalist assigned to Will as part of a project. When a serial killer begins a “game” of hangman with human victims, Ray is convinced to come out of retirement to help Will catch him. Ultimately the killer – who is someone from Ray’s past – targets the main characters as well as their boss, and since he’s killing quickly, the detectives know they don’t have much time to track him down before he kills again.

So … where to begin here?

The three actors playing the leads offer the same good acting they usually do; the problem lies more in the pacing, the dialogue, and the editing: the characters don’t get to know one another, the audience doesn’t get to know them, and the dialogue is not only bare-bones but also disjointed, as though pieces of the film were spliced together (badly) after someone cut up the original.

We feel as though we arrived in the middle of a story, but this introductory scene has so little to do with the rest of the plot that the one connection – mentioned at the very end of the movie – seems to be completely contrived: “Oh, yeah, we have to have a reason why the van in the beginning was important.” It’s almost as though the director forgot himself what point he was making, and quickly tacked it on at the last minute.

Ray has the potential to be truly interesting, but he’s relegated to saying a couple of almost random things to the coroner and to Will; his conversations with Christi are structured as though they’ve known each other forever, even though he never laid eyes on her before that day. Perhaps the intention was to present him as a father-figure … but in the end, this presentation of his every word as somehow deeply meaningful just comes across as an old detective who’s trying to feel relevant but can’t deliver the way he once did.

Will has a tragic back-story that turns out to be connected to the killer, but not because the killer knew Will or his late wife; it’s simply a huge coincidence … or maybe it was supposed to be targeted, but the connection is never discussed other than to cast doubt on Will, or on his wife, or … actually, I’m not sure why it was in the story at all. Maybe it was to provide a reason for Will to be even more determined to catch the killer? – but he was already fairly determined, since, you know, he’s a homicide detective. Maybe it was meant to emotionally compromise Will, so that we would wonder if he would be able to handle tracking the killer down? – but Will is never emotionally compromised about any of it. He seems mostly just to be vaguely irritated. The movie takes the time to point out how much Will hasn’t gotten over his wife’s death, but all of his mannerisms and actions suggest that he’s recovered just fine – the alleged prolonged grief literally never informs anything his character does at all, ever.

Christi’s back story is fairly important, both as her motivation for the project she’s writing and as a parallel to what is offered as a theme for the movie: she has reason to know how much police detectives can give up for their demanding, emotionally draining jobs, and she wants to honour and reward them with her story. But Will and Ray aren’t presented as people who’ve particularly given up much on an emotional level; in fact, Ray misses the job so much that he can’t stay away. Is he having trouble feeling valuable in retirement, as so many people do? – maybe, but no one ever discusses that openly or even covertly, so this potential character development goes nowhere. Christi’s back story is offered in narrative fashion, half-way through the film, pursuant to nothing that’s happened in the film to that point, and in regards to a police officer in her own life who is completely unknown to either detective. It has no depth or significance other than that it meant something to her, but since we don’t see anything about it, it might as well be her ordering takeout.

The murderer is presented as a serial killer with an intricate message that he is sending to police/the world by requiring detectives to decipher clues at each crime scene. A hangman-game letter is carved on each victim, which is narratively compelling and visually interesting. But the clues are almost invisible to the audience, the visuals are scant and disconnected, a whole person seems to have been removed from the body count the detectives are using (even though they continue to mention this person as a victim), and until the literal last minute, there’s no real attempt by the detectives to figure out the word the killer is trying to spell.

Some of the murders are set up in interesting ways … I guess there’s that.

To the actors’ credit, I don’t think any of this is their fault. They bring the same good energy I’ve experienced from them in other roles, but even the best artist won’t win at Pictionary if no one tells them what they’re supposed to be drawing. They look and sound throughout as though they delivered a solid performance that was later hacked to shreds in the editing room and put back together by kindergartners.

The story is never focused on any one thing. Side stories are never fleshed out or addressed. No one is given the chance to seem like a genuine person. Events happen so quickly that we don’t have time to absorb what happened to one victim before there’s another, and even the nick-of-time rescues are performed with the same lack of urgency or tension as waiting for pizza delivery. Stuff that’s deliberately mentioned as potential clues is never brought up again. The introductory chase is never fully explained other than to suggest the killer seems to have been in the van – we don’t even know why we care about this van, other than that Ray was chasing it down for sideswiping him. Nothing happens with the van. Nothing happens in the van. Nothing happens next to the van. Ray sees an icon hanging from the rear-view mirror, but the icon isn’t particularly unique or pertinent to the killer’s character – he might as well say that we know the killer was the driver of the van because the killer had a driver’s license. The story itself is presented in such a disjointed way that it doesn’t even feel like a story, and, worst of all, the killer ends up being someone we have never seen or heard about in the entire rest of the film.

The blurb for Hangman piques curiosity and promises a good installment in the genre … but in the end it’s a dumpster fire.

popcorn icon  0 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Polaroid

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

* now with spoilers *

Polaroid is a fairly standard horror film, with a haunted object that kills whoever interacts with it. We follow a group of friends as they try to figure out how to stop the murderous entity before they’re all killed.

Um … yeah, that’s a standard plot – no surprises there.

But Polaroid delivers well on an oft-used premise.

The acting isn’t bad at all, and in fact the characters react a little more realistically than in other films to the deaths of their friends and to the weirdness of what’s happening. In other examples of the genre, we’re usually given a peek into why the characters who die are deserving of their fate, but in this one they seem to be completely blameless; unlike other random-victim tales, though, like Grudge or Ring, the entity haunting the object (in this case a Polaroid camera) seems truly vengeful toward these particular teenagers. It creates a pretty good sense of mystery as we try to figure out how the deaths could be both undeserved and targeted.

The gimmick lends itself well to the solution – the ultimate method for stopping the entity is a believable outcome of stuff we’ve already seen. Technology featured in the attacks and the final boss-battle is ordinary and accessible; no one has to be an expert, and there are no futuristic requirements.

Some people die that we don’t expect, which is a thing that’s harder and harder to achieve as the genre gets more saturated. We also encounter a couple of twists that aren’t exactly unpredictable but also aren’t obvious or contrived.

The effects are solid. The final boss-battle is engaging and rewarding. The atmosphere throughout conveys the sense of urgency and impending doom. It’s not a particular deviation from the standards of the genre, but it tells its story well and delivers emotionally.

It’s worth watching.

popcorn icon 8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Await Further Instructions

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

* now with spoilers *

Await Further Instructions, set in England, is about Nick, a young man who brings his Indian-British girlfriend Annji home at Christmas to meet his family. Clearly he has been distant from them for a while; his mother is overjoyed to see him, because he hasn’t been home in so long. His father seems cold but not unfriendly. His grandfather is blatantly racist and a bit senile. His very pregnant sister and her boyfriend are happy enough to see Nick and Annji, but things are tense, especially after Grandpa makes offensive comments about Annji’s race and other topics.

Annji is suffering from allergies or perhaps a head-cold, a fact that suddenly matters when a mysterious black wall is erected around the house and the television tells them to stay indoors and await further instructions. There seems to be no way to break down the black wall (although some of them try), and when the television tells them that one of them is “infected” and should be isolated, they immediately turn on sniffling Annji, forcing her to lock herself in a bedroom.

Tensions continue to build while Nick’s father supports the wisdom of what he assumes is the government speaking to them through the television messages; he compares his cooperation with the shelter-in-place directives of World War II that were so important for survival.

The situation deteriorates until all members of the family are fighting with one another, some of them have died, and Nick becomes desperate to escape with Annji.

Visually, Await Further Instructions is quite engaging, deftly capturing the surreal feeling of being told via typical emergency channels (like the TV) that “something” has happened but not being told what it is. The black barrier is inexplicable, but Nick’s father suggests that the government has technology – a reasonable supposition, I guess. The acting is solid, to the point that you kind of experience the awkwardness of family members saying embarrassing things and the stomach-churning difficulty of spending time with the parent you like while avoiding the parent you don’t. The characters’ interactions are very believable, so as a psychological study, the film works very well.

Unfortunately, the sci-fi/horror nature of the unexplained black house-cozy and the increasingly sinister messages from the TV mean that a psychological study won’t really answer the questions viewers have, and the initial good balance of the two themes is completely destroyed by the ending.

The ending offers a weird “explanation” for the wall, the TV messages, and the bizarre tubes suddenly attached to the newborn baby … but other than backing away from the house and showing how the whole neighbourhood has been transformed into some kind of alien ant-farm, we don’t get a clear idea of what the purpose was here or how the family inside played into that purpose. Are they in fact aliens? For all we know it is the government, and the government has turned on the neighbourhood for some reason. If it’s aliens, are they taking over? Messing with us in the alien equivalent of cow-tipping? Doing their own psychological study? They obviously needed the baby for something, but we don’t know what – is the baby a new messiah? A new Adam to some alien Eve? A snack? We don’t know.

Even as a psychological study it falls down in the end, because none of the issues addressed throughout the film are ever really resolved one way or the other or even discussed by the characters. It’s just a nightmare holiday with family that gets worse because sci-fi-reasons. It’s just a possible-alien-takeover that gets worse because dysfunctional-family-holidays. Other films have balanced two themes before with great success – Mr. and Mrs. Smith, for example, where the spy-action-thriller is really about their marriage, or Shaun of the Dead, where the zombie film is really about Shaun getting his life in order. This film does not succeed. It ends up just being neither fish nor fowl with an ending so ambiguous that you wonder if you accidentally fast-forwarded over important plot points.

And it’s really a shame, because the atmosphere was so compelling, all the people acted so well, and the effects were creative and quality; this could have been both a really interesting explore into how people deal with the unknown and a suspenseful, creepy sci-fi/horror whodunit … but ultimately it was neither.

Plus there was a very pregnant woman whose baby had some mystical significance that we never discover – it’s just an overused trope of convenience at that point, and therefore just annoying.

Why did the baby have tubes put in? Was it that the TV was becoming sentient … maybe? If it’s so smart that it can take over the neighbourhood and build impenetrable barriers, why did it pick green arcade font? So many unanswered questions …

popcorn icon 5 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: What Happened to Monday?

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

* now with spoilers *

What Happened to Monday is a sci-fi futuristic film starring Noomi Rapace as all seven main female characters, and Willem Dafoe as their grandfather. In a world where over-population has forced a government restriction on having children, anyone with more than one child is obliged to give the “extra” children to the government to be put into stasis until such time the Earth can handle the extra people again.

The girls’ mother as well as countless others are affected by the genetic modification of food crops, resulting in multiple-child pregnancies. The girls are septuplets, left with their grandfather after their mother dies in childbirth, and he names them each after a day of the week; they can each go out in the world on the day that matches their name, and they all play one person: Karen Settman (their mother’s name). Needless to say, debriefing in the evening becomes incredibly important, as the next girl has to know what her sister did as Karen the day before.

One day Monday doesn’t return in the evening, and the movie revolves around the other girls’ investigation of her disappearance. They have to be incredibly sly and careful, so that no one realizes there are seven people posing as Karen Settman – if they get caught, they’ll all be put in stasis. The government – represented by Glenn Close – also has reason to hide the discovery of seven siblings surviving to adulthood, since this would undermine their image of authority over the child restriction.

The story itself is really good, although the twists aren’t entirely unprecedented in film; the acting is incredible, especially from Ms. Rapace, who plays basically eight people – all seven sisters plus their hybrid Karen persona. Each girl is easily identifiable by personality as well as differing hairstyles, etc. Glenn Close does an excellent job at being both the big-bad-government person with horrible secrets and also a human being who was making what she thought was the best choice for humanity. That character-trope isn’t exactly new, but she brings plausibility to it – we actually believe she was doing her best, even as we’re horrified by some of the secrets that come to light.

There’s some stark depiction of death – not particularly gory, but it feels a little more real because of its simplicity and abruptness. The film quickly brings us in to the story, so we’re suitably tense when anyone comes close to discovering the girls’ secret. Chase scenes are equally engaging. Nothing is wrapped up in a nice bow, but the ending is decently happy and answers the questions. Willem Dafoe is fantastic at being a loving father figure who needs to make tough choices to protect his granddaughters’ lives – each girl has to be able to look like the same Karen Settman every day, so if one of them, say, loses a finger in a careless skateboard accident, then they all have to sacrifice a finger (it’s not easy living in a dystopian future).

The futuristic tech is fairly believable as not being that far ahead of where we are now, although the tech used for the “put them in stasis” part is comparatively way more advanced, so a tiny bit of disconnect there.

The story would still have been solid without the hard-hitting actors, but they really bring it to the top. The social situation – the ethics of restricting people’s child-bearing – is addressed in the summed-up, sort of offhand manner that a lot of dystopian sci-fi addresses such things, but not so egregiously that we feel let down about it. The slate-grey colour scheme of the rest of the film is countered by the seven girls’ varied and colourful fashion choices, illustrating how they’re the counterpoint to the government’s sterile, soulless mentality. The effects – especially when some or all of the girls are present in a scene – are seamless. Everyone’s characters, even the secondary and tertiary characters, are real and not oversimplified or used as stereotypes. We don’t get to know each sister as much as we may have wanted to, but one of the points of the film was how little the girls ultimately knew about each other, so it was actually important that we didn’t know too much.

Overall, as long as you’re not hoping for a sugary-sweet wrap-up, What Happened to Monday? is well worth watching.

popcorn icon  10 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Aftermath

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

* now with spoilers *

Aftermath is a film based on true events – two planes colliding over Ueberlingen, Germany, resulting in the loss of 71 people, including many Russian school children.

In the film, the plot does not follow the actual tragedy per se, creating instead a fictional scenario set in the US, with a midair collision over New England. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Roman, a man who loses his beloved wife and daughter in the crash; he’s devastated by their loss, spends much of his time sleeping by their graves in the cemetery, and refuses to settle with the airline until he receives a proper apology.

The crash in the film – as in the real situation – was the result of an air traffic controller covering two stations while his colleague took a break. Work being done on the phone lines played a part, but ultimately it was the simple human failing of being unable to be in two places at once.

In the film, Roman tracks down Jacob, the air traffic controller, and attempts to force him to apologize. Jacob tries to explain that the crash was an accident; during this conflict, the pictures of Roman’s family get dropped on the ground, and Roman is overcome with rage. He stabs Jacob and leaves him to die. He doesn’t attempt to deny his actions, and he spends the next ten years in jail for his crime.

Although it changes so many of the details of the real crash, Aftermath captures very well the surreal nature of such a tragedy – the different ways that people grieve, the unpredictable time that grief takes, the way that life suddenly becomes a muddled fog with holes where loved ones used to be. Roman’s despondency is gut-wrenchingly believable. At the memorial dedication, he meets a man who also lost his wife in the crash, and he tells the man that things will get better and that life will go on … but this encouragement is almost more difficult to hear than anger or sadness: Roman clearly resents that our minds and hearts eventually begin to heal from even such a huge loss.

Because it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose roles historically have been comedy, action, and glib violence, it’s quite striking to see him weeping over his daughter’s body and to be trying to contain such deep and powerful grief underneath a stony face.

Scoot McNairy’s Jacob is also presented in a starkly realistic way; when he realizes that the planes have crashed on his watch, and that everyone aboard has died, he responds with intense emotion – trembling, sobbing without sound, crying uncontrollably. He does say that he did everything as correctly as he could, and that it was just an unfortunate accident, but he never recovers fully from what happened, spiraling into depression and breakdown. His family is the only thing keeping him from taking his own life.

After Roman’s sentence is finished, he’s accosted by Jacob’s now-grown son, and he sincerely apologizes for what he took from the boy – the same apology he had wanted Jacob to give to him. He even invites the boy to kill him if it’s what the boy needs to do. Roman isn’t glad about what he did; his heartbreak had forced it on him, and he doesn’t seem any less sad after Jacob is dead. This was also the sentiment of Vitaly Kaloyev, the man who killed the air traffic controller in real life: “Killing him didn’t make me feel any better.”

Everyone in Aftermath delivers an incredible performance, and the atmosphere is perfect at all times, creating scenes where the unspoken feelings are palpable. No one is painted as the bad guy. Even the jerks from the airline’s legal department are just run-of-the-mill jerks, asking Roman to be realistic about going up against an entity so much bigger than he when he had so few resources to fight them. They’re not depicted as evil people rubbing their hands together in delight at what they’ve gotten away with; they’re just lawyers – hired, after all, to defend the airline.

In the film and in real life is the same memorial: giant steel spheres scattered over the countryside where the planes crashed, simulating a broken strand of pearls. It’s a testament not just to the memory of those lost but of the feelings so skillfully evoked in Aftermath – something breaks when we suffer such a loss, something that can never really be put back together.

Very much worth watching.

popcorn icon  10 out of 10.

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