Adventures in Streaming: The Vault (2017)

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

The Vault is a supernatural heist movie.

The opening-credit scenes show clippings from a bank robbery in 1982, during which the hostages were killed and the bank set on fire. As the film begins, we see Ed in the bank breakroom, having apparent flashbacks to that bank robbery – clearly he had been there in 1982, and it still haunts him.

Two women posing as a job-seeker and a customer reveal themselves to be armed bank robbers; three firefighters who claim to be fighting a fire “down the street” turn out to be the women’s accomplices. They quickly take over the bank, putting the hostages in the vault and demanding money. When they’re given all the money that the tellers can find, the amount is far less than expected, and the robbers become angry and anxious.

To prevent any violent escalations, Ed gets up, identifies himself as a bank manager, and admits there’s a second vault in the basement with millions of dollars inside. The robbers split up, some staying with the hostages, some going to the basement vault, and one staying with Ed in an office where they can see the basement via security cameras.

This is the beginning of the supernatural portion of the movie, where we meet the ghosts from 1982: the masked robber and his charred and/or bloodied hostages. The robbers meet the ghosts too, and their heist goes decidedly sideways.

The atmosphere of Vault is consistent but, more importantly, not all that creepy. It looks like any other heist movie the entire time, even when ghosts are physically terrorizing their victims. This has the ironic effect of making the ghost images more startling and eerie; we feel the way we would if we just looked up and saw a ghost standing at the end of our couch. The ghost scenes are also orchestrated in a way that doesn’t immediately suggest they’re ghosts – they might very well be bank patrons and workers that we haven’t meant yet, that Ed knew were in the basement and could overpower robbers who had separated from one another. So whether they’re ghosts or not, the audience has that “ooo, they got you!” feeling as these unknown people creep up and surround the bad guys.

Ed, whose character has so many unpleasant memories of the earlier robbery, avoids becoming the stereotype of emotionally-compromised-hero-looking-for-redemption; he doesn’t get more and more agitated or battle increasingly loud inner demons while trying to make this event play out differently than the last one. Instead, he acts like a bank manager should act: prioritizing the safety of the staff and patrons, remaining deadpan-calm while dealing with the robbers, watching impassively as events play out so that he can better assess what to do next. He obviously knows that something is waiting in the basement, and he’s not surprised by any of the things that start happening.

The lead teller, Susan (as well as some others), is fairly open about the supernatural experiences she and her coworkers have had in the bank – she tells the robbers that she believes the masked gunman from 1982 haunts the basement. Of course, the robbers don’t listen … why would they? Susan doesn’t even say it in a frightened manner; she says it as though she’s revealing that there might be rats. Again, this makes the paranormal events seem more unexpected and therefore a bit more real.

The robbers respond to the ghost encounters in a very believable manner, and their actions make sense.

The final reveal of the film is satisfying. The bad-guy-wins horror ending is well-done – we don’t feel like we don’t understand what just happened – and since the good guys were watching as one set of bad guys battled another set of bad guys, we end up with the good guys winning too … so it’s a fairly good “heist” thriller too, in that regard. There’s enough of a twist that we want to go back and watch it again for clues. It’s a two-genre film, but both genres are blended throughout rather than starting as one and ending as the other – this makes all the events seem more realistic and more immediate.

James Franco plays Ed, and since at the time of the film he was coming off of some of his more zany-character roles, we’re kind of waiting for him to be that person now … but he is a straight-arrow, sedate bank manager the whole way, which makes his character seem a little more “cool” and also supports the realism: it seems less of a “role” and more of the way real people deal with real situations.

Overall, it’s not particularly more than a solid installment in the ghost genre, and the heist aspect is fairly by-the-numbers, but it’s done well, with good acting, good pacing, and clear resolution. It also creates an ambiguity about just who is “bad” and who is “good” and who we should be rooting for, which is an interesting layer.

It’s worth watching, even twice.

 

9 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: #Alive

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

#Alive is a Netflix original. It’s a standard zombie flick, with a vague premise as to how the zombies became zombies, and an even vaguer justification for newscasters’ advice on how to stop the spread of it. It’s set in the city, in an apartment complex with a broad courtyard; the place is swimming with zombies from one building to another – although the zombies seem a bit visually impaired, they move normally, so escape seems unlikely.

Joon-Woo is a young man very much living the video-gamer life. He wakes up to find his parents and sister are not at home, and settles in to play games and enjoy the day … only to find that the world has gone to hell, and neighbours are turning on one another just outside his windows.

He was supposed to go shopping but had never gone, so his food stores quickly deplete, and his water situation isn’t much better. He believes his family to be dead, and although he’s streamed a couple of videos to the outside world, there are no services, so he doesn’t feel there’s much chance of rescue.

It’s at this point that he realizes there’s a girl (Yoo-bin) across the way who has also been barricaded in her apartment. She’s in another building of the complex – across the zombie-infested courtyard – so she might as well be on the moon, but he uses his drone to send messages to her.

The rest of the film revolves around their finding ways to communicate, to transfer food and water, to finally meet face to face, and to try to escape to the roof – typical zombie plotline, I suppose.

In fact, the plot is so typical that the movie itself comes as something of a surprise: none of the scenes seem sluggish, everything moves at a good pace and keeps the viewer’s attention, and the various elements that it shares with other zombie films actually provide a nice bringing-the-viewer-in experience – we’re pretty sure we know what’s about to happen, so rather than the tension of wondering what they’re going to face we feel the dread of certainty, and watch anxiously to see how they get out of a pit-trap we recognized all too well.

Of course it’s a girl and a boy – of course – but neither is cast in a know-it-all role; sometimes Yoo-bin knows more about something than Joon-woo, and sometimes he knows more about something than she does. Both of them exhibit bravery and clear thinking, and even when they don’t think there’s any hope, they keep moving toward escape and rescue.

Is it a wildly outside-the-box zombie tale? No, it’s pretty standard. But the characters are very likeable, the pace is decent, the atmosphere alternates effectively between serious and light-hearted, and the ultimate showdown is suitably tense and satisfying. There’s also a significant comment on the interconnectedness of online communities, something that is still criticized by people who grew up in a more face-to-face world but which has its own adaptations for creating friendships, connection, and community.

All in all, #Alive is a very good installment to a saturated genre, and well worth watching.

 

10 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: The Final

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

* be aware: this is a synopsis review, so it is one big spoiler *

The Final (2010) tells the story of a group of high school outcasts who decide to exact revenge on their tormentors.

It begins in a restaurant, where a girl with a burn-scar over half her face experiences stares and whispers from the other patrons. She finally lashes out, saying that she didn’t ask to look that way.

The film then turns to the group of outcasts (Ravi, Emily, Jack, Dane, and Andy) and follows their fairly significant bullying by the “popular” students; we also see each outcast’s home life – none of them have pleasant home lives, their parents being either neglectful, chaotic, distant, or hostile. We meet Kurtis, an agreeable young man who seems to like everyone and to treat them all equally (and kindly). When he witnesses Ravi being bullied, he stands up for Ravi. The outcasts discuss Kurtis, in fact, deciding that he’s a “good guy” and that he should not be allowed to attend “the party”.

“The party” is the site of the outcasts’ revenge, where they get all of their tormentors into the same house in the woods, drug them, and then torture them. Kurtis has shown up after all, so Ravi allows him to escape before the torture begins, and points out that if everyone were like Kurtis, none of the film’s events would be happening.

Kurtis encounters a racist man – Parker – who ties Kurtis up and goes to see if his story about the “party” is true. Parker is ambushed by a trio of students on motorbikes, but he’s able to eliminate two of them; Kurtis frees himself and calls police. By the time the police get to the party-house, however, the outcasts have turned on one another (Dane is particularly touchy, having expressed intense suicidal ideation and deep anger throughout the film). Jack is the only outcast still alive, and kills himself after telling the police that there are “more of us” out there.

Kurtis returns to school, where he recognizes the third motorbike rider; we realize that one of the bullies is the girl from the beginning of the movie – Emily gave her those scars, at a party that several other students did not survive.

On the surface, the story is one we’ve seen quite a bit – the bullied kids, who are always really good people, get back at their aggressors, who are always really bad people, and the aggressors finally see the error of their ways. We see how dismal the bullied kids’ lives are, how unworthy their families are, how mean the meanies can be. We do feel sympathy for the outcasts; we do feel outrage at the bullies’ actions. For anyone who’s been bullied themselves, the notion of revenge can be quite appealing, and the graphic torture of the bullies in the film might even act as a cautionary tale for any real bullies who might be watching.

But Final goes a little deeper into the matter.

We see the outcasts’ negative home lives, but the outcasts themselves aren’t all squeaky clean. Dane especially has so much misdirected rage that it borders on psychopathy; by the end, he’s lashing out in all directions, even at his own friends and allies, in his attempt to stop the pain he feels. He stops caring about revenge or lessons and focuses instead on hurting others for hurting’s sake. Most of the others, too, are so consumed by their pain that they no longer see the bullies as human beings – even though being unable to have compassion is usually described as the problem bullies have.

We don’t necessarily get a deeper look at the bullies, but they are presented more as real people than as stereotypes – during the torture experience, they exhibit concern for their friends’ lives (well, some of them exhibit concern). And the school hasn’t been divided into “us” and “them”, with only bullies and good-guys – Kurtis, among others, is just a regular person, not hurting anyone, not hating anyone, just making his way through school without an agenda.

The bullies are pretty solidly the bad guys … but the other characters aren’t so clearly delineated and compartmentalized. The atmosphere is one of stark realism, so we feel the pain inflicted by the bullies. We don’t like them. But we also can’t quite get swept away on a wave of revenge-porn, because all of the characters are just kids, just people: there’s no particular struggle between good and evil, but rather a grey and protracted conflict between teenagers of all stripes and the many parts of being human that hurt or don’t make sense. Instead of being able to vicariously feel avenged by the actions of the characters, we’re struck by how gritty and pointless it all is, by how important high school feels when really it’s just a small interlude in life, by how much life can suck for even the best of us.

Jack’s warning that there are “more of us” is no doubt true, but the effect isn’t one of chilling realization wherein we contemplate a world full of angry, disaffected outcasts who may finally snap. Instead, the thought that there are more people who feel such a deep pain is just kind of sad – the film has illustrated very well that people in pain, particularly those who don’t feel like anyone hears or cares, will eventually be overcome by those feelings. They’ll lash out at others or at themselves, they’ll feel more and more lost and broken, they’ll feel more and more helpless against the negative forces that seem to press in on them from all sides. Basically, the film shows that bullies and the bullied are all just acting out their anger, hopelessness, and confusion; that neither side has a corner on good or evil; and that so much of the “drama” grown-ups mock about adolescents is a fairly understandable response to a world that doesn’t seem as welcoming and warm as it did when we were small.

There were a few things that didn’t quite mesh with the rest: the families were all so uniformly unconcerned with their children’s well-being that it sort of felt like a ham-handed parade of dysfunctional stereotypes, and Parker’s random racism was out of place in a movie that dealt with a different kind of negative social experience. If the goal was to suggest that even Kurtis – whom everyone liked – had his own problems, then it fell a bit short because of its incongruity. Some of the torture scenes went for the gore-porn vibe, but most of the film went for realism, so there was some conflict there in how the audience was expected to receive the images. And of course, as with most teen-centered works, it’s a bit unlikely that absolutely zero parents were concerned about a teen party in the middle of nowhere.

But overall, the message and its delivery in this film far outweighed these flaws, and the feeling we’re left with at the end is one not so much of vindication or even enjoyment but of sadness and reflection.

 8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Clinical

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

* now with spoilers *

Clinical offered to show us a psychiatrist (Jane) whose patient(s) may or may not be trying to kill her.

Jane is returning to her practice after having been attacked by a former patient (Nora) who was upset about Jane’s advice. As the story progresses, we see Jane experiencing some sleep paralysis wherein she remembers all too vividly the incident with Nora; her trouble dealing with the event causes her own therapist to question the wisdom of Jane’s continuing her practice, especially after she starts counseling a man (Alex) whose behaviour toward her is decidedly odd even before she agrees to take him as a patient.

The atmosphere is fairly creepy and consistent; the acting isn’t bad. …

The story itself falls down pretty badly, however, and the delivery is a bit clunky.

Alex has facial disfigurement that he explains in what should have been a poignant and emotionally gripping moment, but it’s presented in such a low-key manner, with all the words of a poignant, gripping moment but without any corresponding feeling. Not only does this make it a little hard to care about Alex – whose feelings he describes as if by rote – but it makes it a pretty glaring clue: if we can’t really invest in his sob-story, then we instantly start to suspect him.

Jane experiences sleep paralysis and PTSD, but the film illustrates these events and feelings in a sort of visual shorthand, as though the director has assumed the audience knows not just what those things are but also exactly what they’re like. If the purpose is to invite the viewer to feel as confused as Jane, I suppose that maybe it achieved that a little bit, but again, the lack of real engagement or sympathy with her experiences just shines a light on them as a clue.

The story itself is pedestrian: woman questions her sanity, woman experiences events that could easily be interpreted in two different (fairly obvious) ways, woman ignores the advice of her therapist, friends, and boyfriend, and is betrayed by literally the only person presented who could or would betray her, the attacker employs mental trickery to fool her – without fooling any of the viewers, particularly, since the ham-handed treatment of Jane’s sleep paralysis, memories, and dreams points almost directly to someone drugging and manipulating her. Even during some of the “big reveals”, the revelations aren’t that surprising: it looks like she did it herself! … but it’s the middle of the film, so it can’t be! … please try to sustain your wish to know what’s going on a little longer! Big surprise: Alex – with his disfigured and mostly concealed face under which he could be anyone at all – isn’t who he says he is! Nora’s no longer in the treatment center! – which of course makes perfect sense, since we’ve seen her in Jane’s “visions” that are delivered so stereotypically and so banally that it might as well have someone walking across with a big sign that says “this isn’t a vision but is in fact really happening, but Jane doesn’t know because she’s insaaaaaane” … followed by a second person with a slightly smaller sign that says “… or is she?” and then a third person with a little placard that says “dun-dun-dunnnnn”.

The body count is pretty pointless, since we don’t really get a chance to care about any of the characters who get killed. Jane doesn’t really emote about the deaths, almost acting as though it’s a startling inconvenience to have a body lying in front of her rather than something that’s shocking, devastating, or unusual. She seems to care … but it just doesn’t matter enough to her for us to care.

We do see the original attack by Nora, but we learn next to nothing about why she did what she did or why she was upset; very much like the initial scene in The Sixth Sense, the patient has broken into the doctor’s space, attacked the doctor, and then attempted suicide. Unlike The Sixth Sense, though, where the entire film is the explanation for the patient’s actions, we just don’t see a compelling build of reasons why Nora would do what she did, and without that, the reveal is a little anticlimactic, especially given the huge clues that all pointed to the bad guy before we even knew what he was responsible for.

Basically, it’s visually not uninteresting, the acting is acceptable, but the mystery is never much of a mystery, the sleuthing is never very sleuth-y, the tropes are predictable, the body count isn’t particularly shocking or meaningful, the main character’s empowerment is done in possibly the most lackluster way possible, and the ending has no denouement. We’re glad she’s alive, I guess?

Overall, not the worst way to spend a couple of hours, but not the best either.

 

4 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Residue (2015)

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

Residue (2015) is a UK miniseries originally slated as a pilot of sorts for a longer series; unfortunately Netflix (nor anybody else) picked up the series, which caused a lot of confusion among the viewers as to the meaning and plot of the miniseries. As a miniseries, Residue poses more questions at the end than at the beginning, and literally answers none of them; we don’t know what happens to the main characters, we don’t understand what was happening in the quarantine zone, we don’t know who the “bad guys” really are, and we don’t see a path from where the story ends to any kind of resolution. This in turn causes the action to feel sluggish – since it leads to a non-ending – which casts a negative light on the acting, because they’re focusing on actions more than on character development.

But this assessment, although understandable, is unfair. When viewed with the knowledge that it was meant to lead into a fully-fleshed-out thriller-mystery, and that the cliffhangers were meant to be addressed completely in the subsequent series, Residue is in fact a really intriguing pilot; it presents interesting characters, a Big-Bad that may or may not include a supernatural component, and a creepy phenomenon that kills seemingly randomly and by unexplained means. The characters are well-placed within the action, their motivations are clear, and their basic … well … character is established (who’s good, who’s bad, etc.). The romantic relationship between the two main characters is realistic – neither unbelievably gushy or jaded or tense; they’re just two people who struggle to find time for one another with their time-sucking jobs.

Some of the criticism revolves around the secondary characters – the ones who fall victim to the creepy phenomenon – not being well-explored, or their deaths adequately explained. Their demise feels abrupt and occasionally choppy … unless you realize these images are overtures to later explanations and explorations that the series was going to offer. In that light, these people – whose faces we remember vividly but whose time in the story is so brief – provide a mystery that we want very much to solve.

It does have the trope that, in fact, the characters’ own government is either the Big-Bad or very well aware of the Big-Bad and doing nothing about it … but there’s a great deal of ambiguity about just where the conspiracy begins and ends, and which of the characters may or may not be fully on board with it. A secretive, uncaring government is almost a cliché plot device at this point, but on the other hand, a quarantine-zone situation would have to involve government somehow, so I don’t know how the trope would be avoided in this case.

Ultimately, Residue as a pilot gives just the sort of unresolved mystery and compelling characterizations that would make me want to go ahead and watch the series … but it was (very unfortunately, I think) not allowed to tell its full story. So we end up with a well-done half of something – not the best way to end a three-episode jaunt, but also not the fault of the show, which I believe made a very good start with a solid and engaging premise.

7 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Tale of Tales

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

Tale of Tales is an anthology-esque set of folktales with a solid set of overlap to connect them to one another. The tales are likely known, at least in part, to many viewers, since they are in fact based in folklore.

The film is visually really appealing, and the acting is excellent. Even the lowest-level characters are presented in a realistic and fleshed-out manner; everyone seems like a real person, motivated by real things that may or may not be “good”, and behaving in ways that make sense even if within strange situations. The set-ups for each “tale” are compelling, causing me to stick with them to the end just to see what happens.

That said, I really had to convince myself to “stick with them”, because for the most part, the tales end in a sort of dispirited fashion, wrapping up each segment of the story not so much in a bow as much as with a slow slog to its destination. The outcome of some of the tales relies on viewers’ prior knowledge to really understand the emotional significance of the characters’ decisions, and often the endings – or overlaps – of the stories are much more lackluster than the fairly entertaining or intriguing beginnings. For things to seem weird is not necessarily a deal-breaker, especially with folktales, but for the actual compilation of the tales to seem weird and disjointed is pretty disappointing.

The endings aren’t always complete, either – as though they’re the prelude to some longer or more in-depth work that doesn’t seem to have ever materialized. I’m all for letting the audience use its imagination, but I don’t think I should have to use my imagination to fill in plot points.

It’s especially disappointing because of the good acting and characterizations, and the exciting imagery and themes of the beginnings of the segments. Some of the overlaps transcend different time periods, which is conveyed skillfully so the viewer is never confused … yet the actions and outcomes themselves don’t seem necessarily to connect to the events that allegedly caused them. How can stories be so well-presented in one way and then so poorly-cobbled together in another?

Overall, Tale of Tales wasn’t a waste of time, and the tone is consistent throughout. Exposure to the folktales – and to the kind of not-quite-reality quality that is so common in folktales – are valuable and entertaining, no matter how the endings of the segments are perceived; some of the tales are quite thought-provoking, and there’s some well-built tension in a lot of places. Basically, it just kind of loses cohesion by the end, and ultimately feels a little boring.

5 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: The 33

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

* now with spoilers *

The 33 tells the true story of thirty-three Chilean miners trapped underground for sixty-nine days.

The story, especially knowing it’s based on true events, is very compelling: we want to know that they get out okay, we want to understand what they went through, we look with a suspicious eye on the higher-ups who all too often in our world don’t seem to show up as diligently as we would like in such situations.

The politics attached to the Chilean President’s response are presented in a straightforward manner – it’s clear that politics are a consideration, but the President isn’t depicted as any kind of heartless or thoughtless person, only as a person who has to balance varying demands on his actions. The families of the miners express their doubt in the government’s intentions and abilities, but other than this nod to the frustrations of bureaucracy, all the players are on the same side.

The rescue effort focuses more on the waiting families and on the engineers’ search for solutions than on the problems they face. The value of the miners is never in question, except perhaps in the mine’s owner being lackadaisical about safety maintenance … but even this corner-cutting reality takes second place in the narrative to the global efforts to get the men out of the ground.

Halfway through the film, the miners have run out of food and water, yet it’s only day 17; my heart sank, since the blurb for the film said “69 days” – how on earth are they supposed to survive another 52 days when they’re already dying? I was instantly struck by the impossibility of it all, by the apparent inevitability of their deaths hundreds of feet below the surface, their families never knowing if they survived the initial cave-in, their goodbyes never heard. I was uncomfortably aware, in the comfort of my living room, of the certainty of death.

As the film moves toward the ultimate rescue, we see the trapped men work through their conflicts, deciding actively to pull together as brothers and never to give up hope. Surrounded by gadgets and electronics, expensive shoes and potential book deals, the men hunger for the one thing we all take for granted: to see the sky again, to breathe the air, to hold their families.

Without ever stating it explicitly, The 33 shows us exactly what is really important. It showed the logistical and financial problems that plague such rescues without painting anyone as a bad guy. It showed the generosity and concern of the world who watched events unfold on the news, and it showed the determination and compassion of the Chilean authorities, their willingness to do anything to save the men, and their commitment of resources to an endeavour that seemed more than once to be a hopeless matter.

If you want to feel good about humanity, this is an excellent movie to watch. If you want to remind yourself about what’s important in your own life, this movie will do that very nicely. If you want to be vaguely afraid of going into caves, tunnels, or elevators, then this movie will help you out. And if you want to find yourself questioning the real value of gold, this movie – without saying a word – will deliver.

 10 out of 10

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