Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

The Secret

The Secret (Netflix Original 2018 Indonesia) is in many respects a typical haunting movie.

Kanaya, a young woman upset with her father for marrying a woman half his age, drives angrily away from the house, swerves to miss something in the road, and crashes into a tree, knocking herself out and landing herself in the hospital. Her boyfriend is there when she wakes up, explaining that she’s been in a car accident and that he will take her to her family’s summer home in the country to convalesce.

While still in the hospital, Kanaya experiences a couple of paranormal things, and sees a pretty grisly looking ghost that attacks her in the middle of the night. The ghost seems to follow her to the summer home, but Kanaya’s attention is focused more on the neighbours, whose little girl introduces her to her nanny. The nanny befriends Kanaya, and the two spend time together looking after the little girl and playing games with her – games like hide-and-seek, during which Kanaya ends up in an abandoned house fleeing from the persistent ghost from the hospital. She’s also noticing that passers-by are giving her strange looks, but the nanny says they always do that, and refers to them as busybodies.

The ghost of Kanaya’s mother is also involved, trying to warn her daughter of danger.

In the end, Kanaya learns the truth about her car accident, about her boyfriend’s actions that night, about the busybodies, and about the identity of the ghost that’s been following her.

The Secret is actually pretty good – the effects are practical and therefore convincing, the storyline is typical but engaging, and the final little twists of the plot are unexpected. We feel a little sorry for the boyfriend, but not that sorry. We do feel sorry for the ghost from the hospital, who’s just trying to be heard and seek justice. The little girl is psychic, something that is apparently culturally normal for the people in the film, which is a nice change from the over-used Western trope of “no one really believes in psychics or psychic phenomena.” But of course, since the little girl is psychic, we kind of see a couple of the twists coming about who’s real and who might actually be a ghost. Still, there’s some mystery about how many ghosts there are, their motivations, and where Kanaya fits into all this.

There are a couple of fairly effective red herrings, as well, so that we’re not entirely sure who all is connected to the situation until the very end. And the typical horror ending – where the bad guy wins – is perked up a bit by the bad guy winning against another bad guy.

The actress who plays Kanaya seems a little flat at times, but overall she does okay, and there are a couple of humourous moments in the film as well that make a contrast to its overall creepiness – helping it to seem a bit more real.

The Secret is ultimately suitably eerie, with a good story and a good ending.

popcorn icon   7 out of 10

 

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

211

211, starring Nicholas Cage and … some other people, has a reasonably good premise, plus I usually like Nicholas Cage. It promised to be a cops vs bad guys siege movie, which sounded entertaining. Once I started it, in the opening sequences, the blowing-things-up effects were good, so I was encouraged.

The subsequent action scenes were well done also, both in visuals and sound. The characters were fleshed out with minimal exposition, and some fairly current events – endemic racism in the school/legal system, social changes that have left a lot of people (especially men) wondering what’s good or bad or even real anymore – are explored with a fair amount of subtlety. The danger police officers face on duty, while presented a little heavy-handedly, is valid. The acting is good all around, and the premise is actually a fairly creative take on a not uncommon theme.

Unfortunately the story delivery is a bit of a letdown.

Even people who have watched overblown action movies would have a better understanding of military behaviour, tactics, equipment, and protocol than the ones who wrote this plot. A premise that hinted at a cyber-espionage or Inside Man sort of story ended up being an ordinary bank robbery that, had the robbers done it almost anywhere else, would have been far more successful. There also seemed to be an enormous disconnect about how banks receive and exchange cash money versus electronic deposits – it seems to have been written by someone who knows all the lingo but has never actually stepped foot into a bank or deposited money into an account. The woman from Interpol is allowed to walk all over the place without any other thing than her ID – no local liaison, no particular reason to be considered an expert, no train of logic or evidence that the viewer was made privy to as to why the Interpol agent had deduced this location for the bad guys’ attack. The bad guys themselves have a stellar plan that they recite (for some reason at the last second) to one another in the car on the way to the bank – and it makes perfect sense. Anyone who’s ever watched a bank robbery movie would recognize what they’re going to do and when, and it’s such a good plan that we’re super curious to see how the police thwart them … but then none of the bad guys actually follow their own plan.

They stop covering their faces and refer to each other – not even by military nicknames – by their proper names. Their plan involved killing no one, and none of the bad guys had been presented as any kind of loose cannon, but somehow they just start shooting hostages, and changing the plan for no good reason. When the driver outside is approached by our protagonists for having parked in the red zone, all he has to do is play it cool, show his ID, move his vehicle … but instead, to our head-shaking chagrin, he decides plans are for chumps and starts shooting at the officers. Within moments the place becomes an over-the-top bloodbath shoot-out between the robbers and the police – a shoot-out that somehow goes on for hours, until after dark. In no way, shape or form did any of the bad guys carry in that much ammunition.

The scenes of the secondary-character police officers at the precinct are presented in a comedic manner – not just that they’re joking around or lighthearted, but as though the film were an actual comedy. Absolutely no other moment in the film is presented this way. The comedy pointed to a camaraderie between two of the secondary characters, but this camaraderie didn’t translate into any poignancy about both of them being in danger later.

SWAT was depicted in a stereotypical fashion – slightly misogynistic, slightly incompetent in their haste, relying on superior fire power and equipment rather than on tactics. The man in charge of the SWAT team spoke to the Interpol agent in the stereotypical bombastic, condescending way … but times have changed so much even in the context of the film, that the actor playing the SWAT team leader seemed loath to deliver the lines, as though they had been forced on him from Corporate and he wished he had pursued his dream of being a science teacher instead.

The climax of the film is so abrupt that it’s almost like you forwarded the video accidentally. No mention is made of the final body count of good guys, of the reason why the bad guys did what they did (so why was the Interpol agent there in the first place?!), or of any of the killed characters’ loved ones – many of whom we had met early in the film – reacting to the death or heroism of the civilians or police officers who died. And truthfully – coming from someone who thought Commando was a perfectly reasonable amount of gun play and bloodshed – this shoot-out was completely beyond anything. Not only is the film being presented as realistic (rather than Commando’s fantasy-action), but the kinds of firepower being bandied about would have guaranteed the actual destruction of nearby buildings, of all the vehicles, of the bank itself, etc. So while it’s always fun to watch things blow up, realistic drama doesn’t mesh well with fantasy-level guns and bombs.

Was there anything good about this film? Definitely. In fact, I wouldn’t mind watching it again now that I know what I’m in for. Some of the things that at first seem like a drawback actually make very good emotional points: heroism in real life can lead to dying really quick; police officers are in quite a bit of danger in a lot of places; cops and civilians die all the time, in an instant, with no fanfare and no warning and no follow-up for closure – reality whizzes by, and life too, and maybe the only thing you can do is hope for a way to record a goodbye.

The actors in the film really do save it – they manage to evoke a lot of emotion with minimal time, they turn ham-fisted lines into something that sounds half-way decent, they bring poignancy to things that went by so fast the viewer might not otherwise have noticed. In a predictable plot, they put feeling into it and make it something you can get behind. The acting allows it to be a “simple story told by meaningful characters” instead of a hackneyed shoot-‘em-up with little direction.

Overall, 211 could have been a thousand times better, but it could also have been a lot worse.

popcorn icon     6 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

Office

[not that one – the one out of Korea]

Office is a film about a young woman working in an office with a man who has just murdered his entire family. When the detective on the case meets this young woman, he realizes that she seems to be the only one in the office who liked the man. She also seems to know a lot more about him than his other colleagues.

Security footage shows the man coming into the office building but never leaving; the detective believes the man is hiding in the building, and that his colleagues may be in danger. But will the detective reach them in time to save them?!?!?

No.

We watch as the employees who spend their day bullying the man and the young woman, sparring with one another, talking badly about one another, screwing each other over and treating each other poorly are killed in grisly, abrupt ways. We aren’t entirely sure if the man is still living, or if he’s some kind of ghost on an afterlife revenge mission. Ultimately, we aren’t sure if the young woman is part of it, but we’re fairly certain her future path will be a little more like his than before.

This film provides good suspense and a creepy atmosphere. The colleague characters aren’t particularly one-dimensional, even though many of them play the stereotypical bully; we actually begin to see some of the reasons why they bully, and we’re not entirely unsympathetic. The detective and the young woman are very well fleshed-out. There are a couple of jump-scares, but mostly the film is a build-up of tension, wondering where the man is and when or if he’ll strike.

We never really hear from the man – we don’t really get to know why he chose murder, or if he was particularly bothered by his treatment at work. We see flash-back moments and people describing things verbally, but the man is generally kind (one of the reasons the young woman appreciates him), and we don’t really see any turning-point moment where he decides to attack the others. In fact, the responses – and the murders in the office – seem to be more in tune with what the young woman is experiencing, leading to some of the ambiguity about just who’s killing who.

In the end, the slasher scenes are entertaining, the bullies are eliminated, the good guy pretty much catches the bad guy, and the woman is rescued. The atmosphere is effective and the characters are engaging. The ambiguity is deliberate, so that the final moment of the film causes us to reconsider in a new light everything we’ve already seen.

It’s a good film, well worth watching.

popcorn icon    9 out of 10

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 *

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.