Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

Killing Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

popcorn icon    8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

211

211, starring Nicholas Cage and … some other people, has a reasonably good premise, plus I usually like Nicholas Cage. It promised to be a cops vs bad guys siege movie, which sounded entertaining. Once I started it, in the opening sequences, the blowing-things-up effects were good, so I was encouraged.

The subsequent action scenes were well done also, both in visuals and sound. The characters were fleshed out with minimal exposition, and some fairly current events – endemic racism in the school/legal system, social changes that have left a lot of people (especially men) wondering what’s good or bad or even real anymore – are explored with a fair amount of subtlety. The danger police officers face on duty, while presented a little heavy-handedly, is valid. The acting is good all around, and the premise is actually a fairly creative take on a not uncommon theme.

Unfortunately the story delivery is a bit of a letdown.

Even people who have watched overblown action movies would have a better understanding of military behaviour, tactics, equipment, and protocol than the ones who wrote this plot. A premise that hinted at a cyber-espionage or Inside Man sort of story ended up being an ordinary bank robbery that, had the robbers done it almost anywhere else, would have been far more successful. There also seemed to be an enormous disconnect about how banks receive and exchange cash money versus electronic deposits – it seems to have been written by someone who knows all the lingo but has never actually stepped foot into a bank or deposited money into an account. The woman from Interpol is allowed to walk all over the place without any other thing than her ID – no local liaison, no particular reason to be considered an expert, no train of logic or evidence that the viewer was made privy to as to why the Interpol agent had deduced this location for the bad guys’ attack. The bad guys themselves have a stellar plan that they recite (for some reason at the last second) to one another in the car on the way to the bank – and it makes perfect sense. Anyone who’s ever watched a bank robbery movie would recognize what they’re going to do and when, and it’s such a good plan that we’re super curious to see how the police thwart them … but then none of the bad guys actually follow their own plan.

They stop covering their faces and refer to each other – not even by military nicknames – by their proper names. Their plan involved killing no one, and none of the bad guys had been presented as any kind of loose cannon, but somehow they just start shooting hostages, and changing the plan for no good reason. When the driver outside is approached by our protagonists for having parked in the red zone, all he has to do is play it cool, show his ID, move his vehicle … but instead, to our head-shaking chagrin, he decides plans are for chumps and starts shooting at the officers. Within moments the place becomes an over-the-top bloodbath shoot-out between the robbers and the police – a shoot-out that somehow goes on for hours, until after dark. In no way, shape or form did any of the bad guys carry in that much ammunition.

The scenes of the secondary-character police officers at the precinct are presented in a comedic manner – not just that they’re joking around or lighthearted, but as though the film were an actual comedy. Absolutely no other moment in the film is presented this way. The comedy pointed to a camaraderie between two of the secondary characters, but this camaraderie didn’t translate into any poignancy about both of them being in danger later.

SWAT was depicted in a stereotypical fashion – slightly misogynistic, slightly incompetent in their haste, relying on superior fire power and equipment rather than on tactics. The man in charge of the SWAT team spoke to the Interpol agent in the stereotypical bombastic, condescending way … but times have changed so much even in the context of the film, that the actor playing the SWAT team leader seemed loath to deliver the lines, as though they had been forced on him from Corporate and he wished he had pursued his dream of being a science teacher instead.

The climax of the film is so abrupt that it’s almost like you forwarded the video accidentally. No mention is made of the final body count of good guys, of the reason why the bad guys did what they did (so why was the Interpol agent there in the first place?!), or of any of the killed characters’ loved ones – many of whom we had met early in the film – reacting to the death or heroism of the civilians or police officers who died. And truthfully – coming from someone who thought Commando was a perfectly reasonable amount of gun play and bloodshed – this shoot-out was completely beyond anything. Not only is the film being presented as realistic (rather than Commando’s fantasy-action), but the kinds of firepower being bandied about would have guaranteed the actual destruction of nearby buildings, of all the vehicles, of the bank itself, etc. So while it’s always fun to watch things blow up, realistic drama doesn’t mesh well with fantasy-level guns and bombs.

Was there anything good about this film? Definitely. In fact, I wouldn’t mind watching it again now that I know what I’m in for. Some of the things that at first seem like a drawback actually make very good emotional points: heroism in real life can lead to dying really quick; police officers are in quite a bit of danger in a lot of places; cops and civilians die all the time, in an instant, with no fanfare and no warning and no follow-up for closure – reality whizzes by, and life too, and maybe the only thing you can do is hope for a way to record a goodbye.

The actors in the film really do save it – they manage to evoke a lot of emotion with minimal time, they turn ham-fisted lines into something that sounds half-way decent, they bring poignancy to things that went by so fast the viewer might not otherwise have noticed. In a predictable plot, they put feeling into it and make it something you can get behind. The acting allows it to be a “simple story told by meaningful characters” instead of a hackneyed shoot-‘em-up with little direction.

Overall, 211 could have been a thousand times better, but it could also have been a lot worse.

popcorn icon     6 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

I Am the Pretty Thing described itself as an eerie story, and I like the actress who plays the lead, so I gave it a try.

It tells the story of a care-nurse (Lily) who is looking after an elderly writer (Iris) in the writer’s home. Lily begins to experience strange things, and finds what seems to be one of Iris’ abandoned projects. As Lily reads this “project”, she suspects that it actually tells the tale of a real murder that happened in the house.

The ghost of the murdered woman eventually has the last word, frightening Lily into having a heart attack.

Pretty Thing is well-written and well-acted. A lot of the creepy stuff feels genuinely creepy, and perhaps for someone who doesn’t eat a steady diet of various forms of horror – including gore horror – the film would have been suitably terrifying. The mystery of “Polly”, the murdered woman, is fairly engaging, but the ghost’s dislike of Iris and especially of Lily is not particularly logical. If she is in fact just angry at the living, then the overall tone of the film didn’t really set the viewer up for that, but instead seemed to want to make an emotional, sympathetic connection to the woman who was murdered … so why wouldn’t Lily, a nurturing woman who had concerned herself with the murder out of human compassion, meet with Polly’s approval? Ultimately the ghost’s motivations were neither fish nor fowl.

A lot of the shots were quite dark as well, making it difficult to get into the eeriness since it was just simply too dark to make out what was happening on the screen (although this may be a personal problem between me and my television settings). Ordinarily this wouldn’t have bothered me over-much, since, again, I’ve watched so many “eerie” horror films that I recognize the shorthand of what’s likely coming around the next corner – it allows me to fill in gaps when I can’t make out the details. But because the story itself seemed conflicted about whether we liked Polly – or Iris, or Lily, or all of them, or none of them – there wasn’t really an emotional link to plot or theme to replace the creepy visuals. I ended up feeling, “I can’t see it, and I don’t particularly care what I’m missing.”

The final showdown was a bit lackluster; in real life, the lengthy build-up of suspense followed by being confronted in the hallway by a ghost would be enough to give a lot of people a heart attack … but movies aren’t real life, and (almost) every viewer knows that. To make a scene look the way real life feels requires a bit more energy, and a ghost that just suddenly appears in the foyer just isn’t that terrifying, especially compared to images like La Llorona chasing your children or even The Changeling’s Joseph slamming doors and pushing wheelchairs around. “Polly” might as well have been the neighbour coming to complain about trimming the hedges.

The “twist” is fairly compelling, although not unpredictable, and, as I said, the acting is perfectly good. I will allow that in real life, the kinds of things Lily encounters would be pretty upsetting/off-putting, and to someone who doesn’t watch a lot of horror, the eeriness would likely be effective. But overall, I felt a bit disappointed in both the creepiness and in the power of the story. It wasn’t a waste of time, but I wouldn’t really have an interest in seeing it again.

popcorn icon  4 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming

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

* now with spoilers *

Nappily Ever After

In Nappily Ever After, Violet, an African-American, describes her growing up in a family dynamic that was fairly obsessed about the controlling of hair – straightening it with hot irons, coifing it perfectly, and avoiding anything and anyone that might mess it up: no dips in the pool, no frenetic running around like other little children, no … relaxing.

She becomes a high-powered marketing executive with a handsome, successful boyfriend, a new little dog that she might put in her purse, and a perfect head of hair that has been rigorously straightened and styled. Her need to keep her hair perfectly straight and tidy affects even her love life, as she refuses to do anything intimate (i.e., lie down) that might disrupt her hair.

But her boyfriend, on the night she thought he would propose, does not propose. When confronted, he explains that it’s impossible to see a future together with someone who is so perfect, who can’t relax or enjoy life, who can’t let him or anyone else in because she needs to maintain a certain image – one that starts with her hair but continues through to her personality. Understandably, she’s devastated by his words and by their subsequent break-up, and she goes out and drowns her sorrows in alcohol (as one does). When she returns home, she thinks about her (ex) boyfriend’s words about her perfect image … and she shaves her head.

She had really beautiful hair. A lot of really beautiful hair. There was no trick photography here – the actress shaved her head. She was suddenly completely bald.

She’s obliged to change how she views her “image”, how she views protecting herself from a world that can indeed be hurtful but which is generally pretty good, and how she feels about herself as a person – with our without hair. It is a rom-com type film, so there’s a new “guy”, but their relationship is depicted fairly realistically, and he doesn’t play a prominent part in her transformation – it’s more about how she becomes willing to interact, open up, trust, and engage with him and with her life.

As a white person whose hair is bone straight and just sort of sits on my scalp, I wasn’t as able as women of colour probably would be to identify with the daily wrangling of extremely curly hair into shape and order. But I could definitely identify with everything else: being told from a young age that a person’s (especially a girl’s) identity and social value were contingent on a certain kind of appearance, that the way we’re born is probably insufficient or undesirable in some way, that for some reason never clearly explained we all owe others some sort of physical (and emotional) standard – whatever you do, we’re told incessantly, is for the love of the gods don’t be yourself. If you find yourself in a situation where you have inadvertently revealed your actual hair or face or body or personality or feelings or thoughts,  prioritize changing above every other thing, including the people in your life, until you can correct the “mistake” and once again be socially approved of and worthy.

I could identify with that very well.

The movie does a good job of illustrating how the above notion of value is a load of crap, but it doesn’t attempt to blame anyone for it – not her mother, who straightened her hair every morning of her childhood, not her boyfriend who was unhappy with his life but couldn’t articulate it for far too long, not society or culture or the government or history or peer groups or magazines. She just realizes the truth – she was already good enough the way she was – and moves into a life that reflects herself rather than the image she had always hidden behind. The freedom of that shift is what’s highlighted rather than any bitterness with the initial situation, and the movie stays focused on Violet throughout, rather than on her relationships with men or with anyone. It’s clearly from the perspective of a woman, but the message (especially as evoked by her new boyfriend, a talented hairdresser) is for anyone who’s had to deal with external judgments and expectations – anyone who feels squashed into a box, unwelcome to be themselves, unworthy, unfairly compared, constricted, confined, labelled … you get the idea.

Of course you get the idea – this is the world we all grow up in.

This movie does a good job of showing the joy and freedom of living in a different kind of world, and of being who we were meant to be in the first place.

popcorn icon  9 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming …

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

* now with more spoilers *

Tu Hijo [Your Son]

Tu Hijo tells the story of a doctor, Jaime, whose son Marcos is attacked at a nightclub and left for dead. The young man is left in a coma with extensive injuries to body and head, and his father, grief-stricken and upset, searches for the people who did this to his boy.

He tries at first to work with the police, but the police haven’t been able to find any particular leads, so the doctor starts looking for the culprits on his own. He confronts his son’s friends and girlfriend, only to find that the friends seem scared to talk about the perpetrators and the girlfriend, Andrea, is now an ex-girlfriend who doesn’t want to talk about Marcos at all.

Jaime doesn’t let this set him back; he persists in seeking answers, until finally stumbling upon first a name of one of the attackers, and then a video of the attack itself. Unfortunately he has not come across the video in a way that allows the police to use it as evidence, putting Jaime back at square one where he feels even more desperate than before.

When we meet Jaime and Marcos, we see a close and loving relationship between father and son; they care about each other and enjoy spending time together. We also see Jaime at work, where he’s saved a little boy who doesn’t seem to want to go home; Jaime intuits that the boy’s father is abusive and tries to come forward about it, but his colleague reminds him of the strict protocols about evidence and procedure that attend such an accusation … basically, we’re introduced to a man who wants to protect children, but he’s limited by the very systems he needs to use to do the right thing.

When Jaime becomes desperate and even angry at Marcos’s silent friends and at the boy whose name he was given, we understand completely. We watch the video as Jaime does, and the brutality of the beating Marcos endures is difficult to see. Even if we’re not ourselves parents, we have no trouble justifying Jaime’s feelings of rage and his desire for justice. As he takes more and more into his own hands – venturing into a world he may not be able to get out of – we’re on his side, fully comprehending where he’s coming from and why he needs to do this. We share his frustration with a system that has to follow every protocol and dot every “i” before making a move even against the obviously guilty. We want to champion him, because we can sympathize with his grief, and we do so in this film even after it’s become evident that we might want to reconsider.

Eventually it comes to light that Marcos had cornered Andrea at the nightclub and, in the guise of “staying friends”, convinced her to sit with him in his car for “old time’s sake”. Once she was in the car, Marcos and his friends attacked her, filming the rape on Marcos’s phone so that he would always be able to see how he had gotten back at her for dumping him.

Marcos’s sister, who is Andrea’s friend, finally shows Jaime the video, but instead of being horrified at what his son had done, Jaime is angry at Andrea – he realizes that the beating was a retaliation against Marcos by Andrea’s new boyfriend, and he decides that this makes the attack her fault. Even in this moment, we still want to like Jaime, to understand that he’s a father gripped by grief and sadness, and that learning such a dark truth about his son must be incredibly difficult to process. But at this point in the narrative, we’re beginning to see why it’s called “Tu [Your]” Hijo instead of “Mi [My]” Hijo: we’ve watched what we thought was Jaime’s descent into a dark world, but in fact he had always been in it, and Marcos is in fact his son – like father, like son.

Jaime’s final act – the final scene in the film – shows us conclusively that the apple has not fallen very far at all from the tree, and that neither of the two men we had been connected to since the opening credits were particularly deserving of our support.

Is it all right for Andrea’s new boyfriend to beat a man nearly to death for her rape? In a different kind of film – an Equalizer or Deathwish sort of film – it would have been acceptable and even necessary. But we’ve been watching a more realistic film, filled with straightforward characters whose depth and motivations parallel real people. Their actions are the kinds of things that actual people are able to do – no heroics or fanfare or unnecessary drama – and when they’re unable to act, this mirrors reality as well. So we’re left asking ourselves, do we feel good about Marcos’s attack now? Do his horrible actions justify what was done to him? Should Andrea and her boyfriend not have followed the same protocols and procedures that have been presented throughout as the “right way” to do things? Probably they should have … but we also understand their motivations as completely as we ever understood Jaime’s.

Ultimately, no one really wins in this film. Marcos is still in a coma and not likely to recover. Jaime has lost connection to his wife and daughter, who haven’t been able to reach him through his feelings of vengeance and despair. Lives have been lost, lives that may or may not have deserved to be cut short. “Truth” and “justice” have most certainly not been served. Andrea has suffered cruelly at Marcos’s hands, but would have a hard time proving that at this point; she also has to live with what has been done to Marcos on her behalf. Should she care about that? Maybe not, but since this isn’t an Equalizer or Deathwish sort of film, there is that lingering question: do two wrongs make it right? The part of us that loves Equalizer and Deathwish wants so much to say YES! This was justice! But the part of us that was worried about Jaime as he seemed to be losing himself in a world of darkness – that part of us isn’t so sure. And the part of us that watches Jaime cover for his son’s misdeeds certainly feels like two wrongs didn’t make any part of that “right”.

The hardest part of this film is also the best part – we feel very attached to Jaime, to Marcos, to their family, and to the tragedy that has befallen them. We’re encouraged to imagine, through the realistic depiction of characters and events, what the situation would be like if we were in it. Jaime’s helplessness is our helplessness. His pain as he watches his son be beaten into unconsciousness – that’s our pain. Marcos’s mother is innocent, but her son has been taken from her, and we sympathize with her extremely; we can see her suffering and it hurts us too. But precisely because we’ve been so easily drawn into the film, when we discover what Marcos – and then Jaime – really are, we feel the betrayal and the disbelief and the heartache almost as though they were actual people who’ve actually lied to us personally. Andrea’s hurt becomes our hurt too, and we want justice for her at least as much as we did for Marcos.

Tu Hijo is incredibly well-balanced, well-written, and well done. It is definitely worth watching. Having said that, it did punch me in the gut in the end, since I had become so invested in the father’s struggle for his child, and the rude awakening to the facts of the matter were unexpected and not entirely pleasant. Would I recommend it? – definitely. Would I watch it again? – probably not; it’s just so deeply sad.

popcorn icon  8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming …

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

* now with spoilers *

RADIUS

Radius tells the story of Liam, who has no idea who he is other than the information on his driving license. He wakes up, injured and confused, after having been in an apparent car crash; when he flags down a passing motorist, the motorist suddenly dies. As Liam makes his way down the road, trying to find help, he encounters more people who have mysteriously died – sitting at tables at the café, slumped over their food.

Eventually he reaches the house his license tells him is his, but he still can’t remember anything about himself, his life, or the accident. He assumes at first that there’s some contagion, but ultimately realizes that it’s proximity to him that’s killing people. When Jane appears he’s terrified that she’s going to die too, but for some reason she doesn’t. Unfortunately she has no answers, since she also has no idea who she is or how she ended up in the hospital in a truck that belongs to Liam, but if Liam stays within a certain radius of her, no one around him dies.

From there, their adventure begins, and the story stays compelling throughout. The people are genuine, the supernatural element is presented in a way that immediately pulls the audience in – so that we feel as nervous as Liam and Jane do when they get too far from each other. There’s a little action, a good amount of character development, eerie sets and situations, and series of flashbacks (as the characters remember glimpses of who they are and what’s happened) are well-integrated into the scenes of the present – we feel like we’re solving the mystery with the characters.

At the same time, there are significant twists that take us by surprise.

The underlying theme starts out as solving mysteries, but by the last act, we’re actually confronted with the same dilemma the characters are facing – not who they are, but what they’ve done. If we’ve truly forgotten who we were, does that exonerate us from the consequences of our crimes, our failings, our mistakes, our earlier darkness? Is darkness something that we have inherently or is it attached to our bringing up and life experiences? Can we shed our earlier personalities if we’re unable to recall them, or will they still be there, hardwired in our heads and bodies like our eye-colour? Finally, what would we be willing to do to prevent ourselves from re-becoming that earlier person who wasn’t so wonderful? – what would we be willing to sacrifice to stop our former selves from returning?

Radius shifts more than once into a different kind of story, and it does so in a seamless way that mirrors how real people would face strange experiences. The build-up of tension is consistent, the characters are believable and sympathetic, the twists are reasonably unexpected, and the characters’ final decisions – as they answer the above questions – are heartfelt. In the end, we don’t know who, in fact, has been the bad guy, since we’re still exploring those answers in ourselves.

I decided to watch the movie because of the interesting sci-fi premise, but I was surprised by a story with a bit of depth and an emotionally engaging conclusion.

Overall:

popcorn icon  10 out of 10