Adventures in Streaming: Veronica

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

* now with spoilers *

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

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

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

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

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

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

popcorn icon  6 out of 10.

Adventures in Streaming: Casting Jonbenet

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

* now with spoilers *

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

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

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

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

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

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

popcorn icon  8 out of 10.

Adventures in Streaming: Belief

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

* now with spoilers *

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

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

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

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

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

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

popcorn icon  8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: The Sea of Trees

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

* now with spoilers *

The Sea of Trees is the story of a Arthur (played by Matthew MacConaughey) who has planned a trip to the Aokigahara Forest in Japan; although he doesn’t seem particularly unhappy, and even looks around him as though the city and countryside were captivating, he is obviously coming to the Suicide Forest to end his life. Before he can take action, however, he encounters Takumi (played by Ken Watanabe) who is desperately lost, wandering around trying to get out of the forest. He’s injured and exhausted, but he’s changed his mind about killing himself and now just wants to return to his wife and child.

Arthur decides to help Takumi, leading him toward the trail he had just taken to get into the forest. Somehow, though, the trail has disappeared, and Arthur has become as disoriented as Takumi. The two men spend many hours together, searching for a way out. As they get to know each other, talking about the reasons they had come there in the first place, we see a series of flashbacks to Arthur’s life with his wife Joan (played by Naomi Watts). Through these flashbacks we come to understand why Arthur wanted to die, but we also want both men to find joy in living again.

Both Matthew MacConaughey and Naomi Watts are good actors who, therefore, are extremely effective at playing people who are difficult to like. When the flashbacks began, and I saw the two of them in a fairly rocky marriage, I almost gave up on The Sea of Trees, because I didn’t want to watch two gut-wrenching hours of their marriage devolving into suicidal mutual loathing. But I continued anyway, already curious about whether or not Takumi would make it home, and I was glad I stayed with it: the flashbacks ultimately portray a very real couple who are working through some difficult times in the best way they know how. They turn into people we can like, and it makes it even more tense then, to wonder what brought him from that home and marriage with Joan to a place where he could end it all.

The Aokigahara Forest, both physically and culturally, has strong spiritual significance, allowing the characters to have possibly otherworldly experiences that might have seemed contrived or ironic in a Western setting. The juxtaposition of flashbacks from that Western world with the dark beauty of the forest is a perfect metaphor for Arthur’s struggle between trying to die and wanting to live. Ken Watanabe conveys a lot of emotion with few words. The connection between Arthur and Takumi is genuine and believable, from the moment Arthur decides to help him. Arthur’s and Joan’s characters are well fleshed out without making the story-telling ponderous or overly maudlin. The various mysteries surrounding all three characters keep us interested, and the final reveal is truly rewarding.

The Sea of Trees is definitely worth watching.

popcorn icon  10 out of 10.

Adventures in Streaming – The Girl from Nowhere

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

[now with spoilers]

The Girl from Nowhere, a series from Thailand, introduces us to an interesting protagonist, Nanno, who has a knack for exposing the nefariousness of the people she encounters. She doesn’t particularly do anything to them, but instead gives them enough rope to hang themselves. Some of the people are taught a lesson from which they might ultimately recover, but others are punished severely for their wrongdoings. Some deaths even occur.

Nanno seems like an ordinary human being, but in more than one episode we realize that she’s supernatural in some way. Even in the two-part series end, when we see Nanno’s “real” past, we realize that this “past” is just another Nanno experience – coming into a school, enabling/exposing wrongdoing, and then disappearing as mysteriously as she arrived – and that even though several years have passed since those high school days, her ultimate lesson – delivered at the ten-year high-school reunion – is not really about anything they did to her but rather about what they’ve done to themselves and one another; this earlier Nanno isn’t any more “real” than in any other of the episodes, but is instead just playing a longer game. She is apparently ageless, invulnerable, and omniscient, and she takes delight in watching others give in to the darker side of their humanity.

At first, captivated by the slick opening sequence and the charismatic acting skills of the main actress, I eagerly began watching The Girl from Nowhere. Over time, however, the different stories became less entertaining and more real. Usually that feeling of gritty realism makes the stories more intense (which I suppose is true here as well), but with this show, it turned it into more of a fatalistic tragedy than a revenge tale. While some of the characters may have been getting what they deserved, others seemed to be entrapped by Nanno into making poor decisions. Especially where the people in question are still teenagers, the harsh punishments don’t feel justified but only cruel – the show highlights Nanno’s cleverness without also creating a solid need for said cleverness. The series ends on a high note, however, not only because the high-school-reunion group is appropriately guilty, but also because the punishment devised is shocking and thought-provoking.

The girl playing Nanno is absolutely perfect for this role, and is good enough in it, in fact, to keep me viewing a series that I had become conflicted about early on. There are some fairly intriguing glimpses into human nature and the bizarre things we’re capable of. All of the actors are solid performers, and even the stereotyped high school characters are presented with sufficient depth. If I had realized beforehand that the stories would be tragic in nature, I might have been able to approach the show differently, but since I went in looking for revenge tales, I felt that overall it fell short in that regard.

I do recommend The Girl from Nowhere, but I probably wouldn’t tune in for additional seasons.

popcorn icon  6 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming – Switched

Switched

Switched is a live-action limited series from Japan that tells the story of an unattractive and unpopular high school girl who has switched bodies with an unwitting victim: the popular, pretty girl with a handsome boyfriend.

The story is well-told; the characters are deeply believable. No one is one-dimensional – in fact, if anything in the character feels stereotypical for more than a moment, the show immediately switches to that character’s personal journey and unique circumstance and perspective. Nothing and no one presented is ultimately what it/they seemed to be in the beginning.

The “science” involved in the switching of bodies is … creative. It’s also fairly glossed over; we’re just expected to accept the “specialist” Ukon’s word about what causes the phenomenon and what the procedure should be. But it is consistent, and the audience is always aware of what the characters are doing and what they will need to do going forward. Even though it is glossed over, the characters’ acceptance of it makes it feel real enough.

The solution is imaginative enough to hold our attention, and the outcome is hard-won enough for us to enjoy watching the process and to appreciate the return to the status-quo. The acting is incredibly good – especially for what could have been treated as an after-school-cartoon anime adaptation – and even the secondary characters, whose “dialogue” is largely thematic crowd-support, feel genuine.

The real draw of Switched is the journey that has nothing to do with the “science”, the problem, or the solution; it’s the journey each of the characters take through the switch experience.

If you’ve ever been hurt, if you’ve ever been bullied, if you’ve ever felt invisible … basically if you’ve ever been a human being and at some point a high-schooler, you will see yourself here, not just in Umine (the unhappy character who initiated the switch), but in the people she envies. As our assessments of the characters shift with each episode, we have to look at our own habits of stereotyping and compartmentalizing – putting the characters in the boxes we’ve devised and siding with the characters we feel are “good” … only to have our notions challenged in the next episode by the characters’ unexpected actions, ethics, and personalities. We get to hear the inner thoughts of each of the girls, and we see from the beginning not that one is bad and the other a victim, but rather that each girl has feelings, confusion, fears and anger that they struggle to resolve.

One of the bigger lessons – which we discover right away – is that no matter what body you inhabit or whose life you have stolen, you bring yourself with you. Without inner changes, your life will continue just as it did in your original circumstance, and you will only be ruining someone else’s life as well as your own. Another lesson, of course, is for the four main characters to develop compassion, forgiveness, hope and love for one another and for themselves. But one lesson I didn’t particularly expect is the one for the audience: our various nemeses (especially those pesky ones from school that might be decades ago now) – how real have we allowed them to be? How willing have we been to see their situations, their fears, their youth, their humanity? How much of our fear or sadness was in what we thought others meant, but may have been all in our heads? How many acts of kindness did we miss because we were focused only on our own pain? How much did we bully ourselves? We understand Umine’s pain, but does this really make her the victim? – especially when the target of her actions is one of the people who had tried to connect with her and been rebuffed by Umine’s paranoia. She hasn’t just become her own worst enemy; she’s become exactly the sort of person who doesn’t care how her actions hurt others – the sort of person she despised in the first place.

One of the more heart-wrenching outcomes (for me, at least) was that the character who had shown up the most consistently for his friends was rewarded with … friendship. There is absolutely nothing wrong with friendship; especially in high school, when a thousand little love affairs will seem ridiculous five years later, friendship is the sort of love that actually endures and nurtures and is real. In fact, looking at it that way, perhaps that character won the biggest prize of all – to have true friends, and to know that he had been a true friend to them and helped them through extraordinary adversity. But it seemed as though everyone else learned about themselves and one another – often through his efforts and his steadfastness – and that they were allowed, even when things go back to “normal”, to have a new and different (better) life, while he was brought back to exactly the place he had been. He’s learned just as much as they have, but the narrative “rewards” him by giving him the harshest lesson of all – sometimes no matter how deserving we are of love from someone, we just don’t receive it. Is friendship important? – it’s paramount, and this character would be the first to say so. His example throughout the series is a testament to friendship’s incredible value. But to watch the one you love wind up in the arms of another, and to be able to feel, not jealousy or anger, but instead gratitude for the person’s friendship and for the person’s happiness … this is the sort of person Switched is asking us to be, and it is, I believe, the hardest thing to learn to do.

The other characters learned that lesson through their experiences in the narrative, but when we see it happen to this character at the very end of the story – that is when we learn the lesson. We’ve seen what he’s like, what friendship can be, and we want him to be rewarded with every conceivable thing. We don’t think that what he’s left with is enough. … But he of all people would say that he indeed has more than enough. I know we’re being asked to believe him – that was the lesson we were supposed to take away from this series – but frankly I don’t know if I’m there yet. … or maybe wanting more for him, for his happiness, is learning the lesson.

I recommend Switched for a thousand reasons.

popcorn icon  10 out of 10.

Adventures in Streaming: The Humanity Bureau

The Humanity Bureau

The Humanity Bureau is a Nicholas Cage vehicle, but unlike 211 I reviewed earlier, it’s a lot less predictable and, ironically, a lot more realistic.

It’s set in the near future, after we’ve decimated the planet in ways that are only alluded to and which may include excessive warring; the economy is in the toilet, resources (even food and water) are scarce, and those who can’t demonstrate that they contribute meaningfully to society are exiled to New Eden, a place where people are allowed to live comfortably on the government’s dime. Nicholas Cage’s Noah is tasked by the Humanity Bureau with investigating people and rounding up non-contributors to be sent to New Eden.

One case in particular touches him, and he is reluctant to send a woman – Rachel – and her son Lucas to New Eden. In addition, he’s heard rumours about New Eden that suggest it is not a peaceful retirement community. His side investigation into these rumours as well as his connection to Rachel and Lucas prompt Noah to escape with them into the North, hoping to cross the border into Canada before his employers catch up to them.

To some extent, the New Eden secret is fairly predictable – eliminating people is a lot more economical than putting them in one place and on a government stipend. The people Noah and Rachel encounter are the stereotypical post-apocalyptic people: the man whose family has been attacked, killed, and violated but who continues to wage the good fight, the man who sacrifices himself for what he considers a good cause even though he doesn’t know Noah, the woman who once knew someone and will help them for a price. The ending isn’t unexpected, although we may be hoping for a cheerier outcome, and the purpose of the rabbit’s foot Noah gives to Lucas might as well be accompanied by a sign that says “important plot element”.

The ending is solid, however, and a bit jarring – we really were hoping for a cheerier ending. Noah comes across as a very real person, dedicated to a job that deals with the dregs of humanity because he believes it will help the people and the economy as a whole. When he discovers the secret of New Eden, he doesn’t waste a lot of time crying about it or feeling stupid, but simply adds it to the list of things that have given him slumped shoulders and a cheerless expression. He doesn’t play on his bureau-friend’s connection to him – he doesn’t trust it anyway. He just makes a plan and executes it to the best of his ability, and he’s not a ninja or even a higher-up in the bureau, so things don’t go his way particularly.

The “bad guy” – Noah’s bureau buddy – seems every once in a while to be a regular not-always-bad person … but this misdirect only makes it double disappointing to see him commit to the wrong path. His depiction of the bad guy, at first just the typical “working for the really bad guys but without any power of his own”, changes definitively and subtly when we see him in his swimming pool – while Rachel and Lucas struggle to have enough water to drink each day. In fact, until then, there was room to see, in the presentation of some of the bureau higher-ups, that maybe New Eden was really the best solution for the current situation – a tough choice in a dark time; after we see the pool, though, we know that the Bureau, and the people who created it, are simply not good.

There’s a bit of action, but largely this is a sci-fi thriller where the bulk of the uncertainty is in how Noah, Rachel and Lucas will get away and how many of them will make it across the border. The end of the movie isn’t just about their journey but also about the outcome of their decision to flee – others would certainly benefit from knowing what Noah has discovered.

The acting in Humanity Bureau is good across the board. Few can deliver the sense of tired resignation about reality as Nicholas Cage, and it keeps us wondering if we should be optimistic about their chances or not. Even the stereotypical characters have some depth to them, some feeling. The reason for their post-apocalyptic landscape isn’t described in any particular detail, putting the emphasis thematically on the choices of the survivors – it’s more of a tale of how to behave and what sort of person to be than it is about any message about the earth or the economy. But the flashbacks Noah has to his childhood (before the apocalypse) create a real sense of nostalgia, guaranteeing that we want those kinds of memories for ourselves and that we want to avoid whatever people did to create such a  horrible world.

As with most stories of this type, where the control of information is presented as even more evil than the control of people’s lives, one quote from Humanity Bureau sums it up very well: “It’s easier to build fear than to build a wall.”

Overall, The Humanity Bureau is well worth watching, and is a strong addition to a genre that has become a bit saturated of late.

popcorn icon 8 out of 10