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: 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: 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

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: 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