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: 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: 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: Polaroid

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

* now with spoilers *

Polaroid is a fairly standard horror film, with a haunted object that kills whoever interacts with it. We follow a group of friends as they try to figure out how to stop the murderous entity before they’re all killed.

Um … yeah, that’s a standard plot – no surprises there.

But Polaroid delivers well on an oft-used premise.

The acting isn’t bad at all, and in fact the characters react a little more realistically than in other films to the deaths of their friends and to the weirdness of what’s happening. In other examples of the genre, we’re usually given a peek into why the characters who die are deserving of their fate, but in this one they seem to be completely blameless; unlike other random-victim tales, though, like Grudge or Ring, the entity haunting the object (in this case a Polaroid camera) seems truly vengeful toward these particular teenagers. It creates a pretty good sense of mystery as we try to figure out how the deaths could be both undeserved and targeted.

The gimmick lends itself well to the solution – the ultimate method for stopping the entity is a believable outcome of stuff we’ve already seen. Technology featured in the attacks and the final boss-battle is ordinary and accessible; no one has to be an expert, and there are no futuristic requirements.

Some people die that we don’t expect, which is a thing that’s harder and harder to achieve as the genre gets more saturated. We also encounter a couple of twists that aren’t exactly unpredictable but also aren’t obvious or contrived.

The effects are solid. The final boss-battle is engaging and rewarding. The atmosphere throughout conveys the sense of urgency and impending doom. It’s not a particular deviation from the standards of the genre, but it tells its story well and delivers emotionally.

It’s worth watching.

popcorn icon 8 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 – The Girl from Nowhere

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

[now with spoilers]

The Girl from Nowhere, a series from Thailand, introduces us to an interesting protagonist, Nanno, who has a knack for exposing the nefariousness of the people she encounters. She doesn’t particularly do anything to them, but instead gives them enough rope to hang themselves. Some of the people are taught a lesson from which they might ultimately recover, but others are punished severely for their wrongdoings. Some deaths even occur.

Nanno seems like an ordinary human being, but in more than one episode we realize that she’s supernatural in some way. Even in the two-part series end, when we see Nanno’s “real” past, we realize that this “past” is just another Nanno experience – coming into a school, enabling/exposing wrongdoing, and then disappearing as mysteriously as she arrived – and that even though several years have passed since those high school days, her ultimate lesson – delivered at the ten-year high-school reunion – is not really about anything they did to her but rather about what they’ve done to themselves and one another; this earlier Nanno isn’t any more “real” than in any other of the episodes, but is instead just playing a longer game. She is apparently ageless, invulnerable, and omniscient, and she takes delight in watching others give in to the darker side of their humanity.

At first, captivated by the slick opening sequence and the charismatic acting skills of the main actress, I eagerly began watching The Girl from Nowhere. Over time, however, the different stories became less entertaining and more real. Usually that feeling of gritty realism makes the stories more intense (which I suppose is true here as well), but with this show, it turned it into more of a fatalistic tragedy than a revenge tale. While some of the characters may have been getting what they deserved, others seemed to be entrapped by Nanno into making poor decisions. Especially where the people in question are still teenagers, the harsh punishments don’t feel justified but only cruel – the show highlights Nanno’s cleverness without also creating a solid need for said cleverness. The series ends on a high note, however, not only because the high-school-reunion group is appropriately guilty, but also because the punishment devised is shocking and thought-provoking.

The girl playing Nanno is absolutely perfect for this role, and is good enough in it, in fact, to keep me viewing a series that I had become conflicted about early on. There are some fairly intriguing glimpses into human nature and the bizarre things we’re capable of. All of the actors are solid performers, and even the stereotyped high school characters are presented with sufficient depth. If I had realized beforehand that the stories would be tragic in nature, I might have been able to approach the show differently, but since I went in looking for revenge tales, I felt that overall it fell short in that regard.

I do recommend The Girl from Nowhere, but I probably wouldn’t tune in for additional seasons.

popcorn icon  6 out of 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