Adventures in Streaming: The Chaperone

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

* now with spoilers *

The Chaperone

The Chaperone depicts the transition of the main character, Ray, out of prison and back into the regular world, and follows his attempts to reconnect with his teenage daughter Sally. He hopes to spend time with her, but she’s not sure she wants to spend time with him – he’s been gone for a few years – so he contrives to be one of the chaperones on her school field trip to New Orleans.

Unfortunately, the men from his prior life want him to rejoin them, and when he chooses the field trip over a bank heist, his former partners blame the heist’s failure on Ray. They follow him – and the school bus – to New Orleans, where they hope to punish Ray for abandoning them.

Ray has a mentor, a radio-show host, whose guidance helped him both to weather his time in prison and to become a better man upon his release. Her motto is applicable to anyone: “Confront your past, be truthful about it, and let it go.” When his daughter suggests that he had gone to jail for something he didn’t do, he says that, even though the others didn’t get caught for their part in the crime, Ray himself had actually done the thing he had gone to prison for, and there was no reason to pretend otherwise.

Ray demonstrates ethical and positive behaviour and decision-making, even when taking an easier, more lucrative, and less ethical path was consistently offered to him. Ultimately, he earns the respect of his daughter and her mother, avoids going back to the life that sent him to prison, and continues his journey to improve himself as a father and as a human being.

Obviously, action comedies (much like romantic comedies) rely on premises that are fairly unlikely and even ridiculous; this isn’t particularly a negative aspect of a movie as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into. The Chaperone’s premise is actually a more realistic one than some I’ve seen, and it’s consistent throughout. In fact, the bad guys – Ray’s former “friends” – aren’t presented as really all that scary, and are often comical in their words and actions, but this only makes it more jarring when it turns out they really are bad, and they really intend to hurt Ray and his family. Depicting the bad guys in this way supports the metaphor of Ray’s journey – we can see very well how he got caught up in criminal activities with these men who seemed so friendly and so harmless; we can see that Ray had probably started out as blind to their true colours as we were, and that he didn’t see how deep a hole he had dug for himself until it was too late. He never cries victim, though, which shows us that he’s living up to his mentor’s motto about accepting the truth.

The acting is solid – although some of the characters are stereotypical – and the pacing is good. Do school trips really look like that? Probably not. Does law enforcement really work that way? Almost certainly not. But the movie is an action-comedy, not a gritty drama, and the more lighthearted approach allows the focus to be on Ray and Sally rather than on the more difficult questions of good and evil. It also allows the film to be family-friendly, which is great, since it lets a good message be delivered to as many people as possible.

In the end, the film is about the truth motto Ray learned from his mentor – not just to accept our own truth and to be honest, but to realize that every experience is a lesson that can move us forward. We can be released from our personal prisons by seeing the possibility of change, growth, and redemption. We can learn, and improve, and become someone who deserves another chance.

This movie was one of my first streaming experiments – and one that I shared with my young son – and I’m really glad we gave it a shot.

popcorn icon   10 out 10

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

Killing Ground

Killing Ground (2016) tells the story of Sam and Ian, a young couple who has just decided to get married. They’re on a camping vacation together, picking a campground that had been recommended to them by someone who seemed to know the area.

Once they’re settled into their campsite, they realize that the tent next to theirs seems to be abandoned; when they investigate, they find a baby whose family has apparently left him behind. They then encounter the people who only days before had murdered the baby’s family, and Sam and Ian are obliged to fight for their lives as well as protect the baby.

In the end, Ian leaves Sam behind to go get help “because [he] didn’t know what else to do”, and while Sam believes he left her because he was taking baby Ollie to safety, he in fact had left Ollie behind as well.

Unfortunately for the audience, Ollie’s fate – although we know he’s alive as of the final events of the film – remains a mystery.

On one hand, this movie offers a fairly progressive depiction of women – they’re all empowered to save themselves and to protect others, and, even though for two of them their efforts result in failure, none of the women ever give up the struggle to survive. Also, Sam is the one who suggests marriage to Ian, which is still considered unconventional, and when the crap hits the fan, Sam kicks in without waiting for rescue and does what she needs to do to save herself, Ian, and Ollie. She even kicks in after the constabulary finally arrive and are promptly shot by the bad guys – this setback motivates rather than discourages her.

There isn’t anything wrong with Ian going for help, since he clearly couldn’t overpower the bad guys on his own and he and Sam needed help. But given all that Sam had been expected – and able – to do to overpower the bad guys, and the risk she consistently took to help the others, Ian’s inability to be brave or productive becomes more egregious and disappointing. More than once he tries to grab a gun from his assailant or to fight that assailant, but gives up and runs away instead; if it had just been a matter of him versus the bad guys, this might not seem so bad, but when we know he’s not taking the actions that will protect his partner and the defenseless child, he seems particularly unhelpful and, frankly, cowardly.

When Sam realizes that Ian had left her and Ollie behind, she is understandably surprised – she seems not to know how to process the information, and can’t even be dejected about it. After she and Ian are transported to the hospital, she makes her way to his room and watches him, her expression one of disappointed thoughtfulness.

The acting in the film is pretty good; the events are depicted in a way that creates significant tension as well as ambiguity about the timeline between the earlier family being butchered and Sam and Ian being attacked. We’re worried about the baby, who’s been on his own for some time now – we’re watching his family be butchered without knowing for sure how long ago that was. We’re hoping some of Ollie’s family survive, but we don’t find out until more than half-way through. We’re watching the bad guys catch up with Sam and Ian, and the urgency feels pretty real throughout. The bad guys aren’t painted particularly creatively: they’re just your run-of-the-mill woods-based psychopaths. But they do a good job of presenting that, and they seem genuinely unpredictable and pretty ruthless, so the stakes feel high.

What at first seemed like a gender-swap – reversing stereotypical roles like rescue or marriage proposals – ultimately becomes much more. It isn’t that Ian doesn’t act “like a man should”. It’s that Ian doesn’t act at all. “Well, that’s how women are often depicted,” you might say. But with few exceptions, women are presented as nurturers, protecting children at all costs. If they aren’t nurturers, then they aren’t considered to be good women … and Ian demonstrates a few times that his nurturing skills are not up to par either with his partner or with what the audience expects. The thought of staying to find the baby doesn’t even occur to him, and when he leaves to get help he doesn’t even take the time to see which way Sam had been taken. He doesn’t stay, he doesn’t fight, he doesn’t try. Whether he’s male or female, his actions – or lack thereof – cause a lot of trouble for those who thought they could depend on him at least to be there.

In a world where gender-norms are being rewritten consistently, the one standard that pervades is that two people of whatever gender need to be good partners for one another, and Ian has given a lot for Sam to think of in that regard.

The movie is a good mix of tension, action, and deeper themes. The audience is occasionally disappointed with some events – the killing of the family, the ultimate disappearance of Ollie, Ian’s whatever-he’s-doing – but not with the storytelling. It’s got some gory stuff, some gritty stuff, some it’s-right-behind-me stuff, and some heroic stuff. Overall, it’s pretty good.

popcorn icon    8 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 * 

Train to Busan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

popcorn icon      10 out of 10