Adventures in Streaming: Thinner

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

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

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

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

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

10 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Anjaan – Rural Myths

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

* now with spoilers *

The series Anjaan: Rural Myths takes a look at local myths and urban legends from across India.

I know very little about Indian myths or urban legends, so I was eager to have them presented by people from within the culture. I was not disappointed – the illustration of the myths was creative, engaging, and suitably eerie; nothing was presented in a way that made it inaccessible to those not familiar with the culture.

It’s sometimes hard to assess acting ability when the actors are speaking in a language I don’t know, and I try to stay open to acting styles that aren’t what I’m used to but may be preferred in another culture. That said, some of the acting seemed a bit melodramatic, and some of the emotional transitions were abrupt and therefore not as believable. But overall, the acting was good, the atmosphere consistently creepy, and the visual effects were decent.

These myths are true horror, so don’t expect a lot of happy endings – even the most determined heroes and heroines are usually thwarted by the supernatural enemy (or at the least, the enemy gets away). Usually, it’s clear to the audience what the characters have “done wrong”, so some of the enemies’ victories are a little frustrating in their needlessness. Other times, the characters seem to be doomed no matter what they choose, or the enemy is obviously unstoppable.

Some of the tales are similar to legends in my own culture, while others are completely new to me, and are sometimes grounded in local occurrences that I’m not too familiar with … but in the end, people are people, fear is fear, and the stories come across really well even to an outsider who might be missing some of the subtler elements.

If you’re looking for a fairy tale, you won’t be happy with Anjaan: Rural Myths. But if you’re looking for a bit of horror, this series delivered.

popcorn icon 7 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming …

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

* now with spoilers *

Plus One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

popcorn icon    10 out of 10

The Thing I Like About …

… sci-fi/horror from the fifties: they seemed to think the audience had a brain.

From Monolith Monsters to Tarantula to The Incredible Shrinking Man, these movies employed practically no exposition whatsoever. If there was “science” to be explained – whether real or fanciful – it was presented in clear terms as though anyone could understand it – because anyone can. Especially if the science was the actual established science of the time, the moviemakers made the rash assumption that people might actually be learning things in school all day, and that they might be paying attention to the world around them.

People acted the way people act, without a lot of interpersonal drama about it, because it was assumed that the human beings in the audience might actually know about human nature. Since sensibilities then were different – and you couldn’t just put a bunch of gore or violence or swearing or sex in the film just because – the moviemakers had to learn to imply – and this was pretty easy to do, because – can you believe it? – the audience actually had functioning brains that could fathom what was being implied.

I don’t know how it happened, or when, but today we have films that take over an hour to set up the personal relationships, history, and science before the story-proper can begin; we have “drama” so dramatic that real people would need to be having heart attacks to look that upset; we have a level of gore that (while visually interesting, especially from a special-effects standpoint) is so unrealistic that even procedural crime-dramas are technically sci-fi/horror now … and we have audiences that are becoming so unaccustomed to bringing their brains to the cinema that I predict we will soon see disclaimers in the credits that explain “these words are not part of the story”.

In In Time, when the main character says that he doesn’t have time to explain how it all came to be, and tells us, basically, just to roll with it and suspend our disbelief … I was thrilled beyond words. It was so nice not to be talked down to! – or to have it assumed that I was stupid, or ignorant, or unimaginative. Say what you might about the simple plots and ambiguous creature effects – the fifties’-sci-fi/horror filmmaker thought I was smarter than the seat I was sitting in … and that goes a long way.