Adventures in Streaming: Hangman (2017)

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

* now with spoilers *

Hangman is a film starring Karl Urban (Will), Al Pacino (Ray), and Brittany Snow (Christi); Will and Ray were partnered detectives until Ray’s retirement, and Christi is a journalist assigned to Will as part of a project. When a serial killer begins a “game” of hangman with human victims, Ray is convinced to come out of retirement to help Will catch him. Ultimately the killer – who is someone from Ray’s past – targets the main characters as well as their boss, and since he’s killing quickly, the detectives know they don’t have much time to track him down before he kills again.

So … where to begin here?

The three actors playing the leads offer the same good acting they usually do; the problem lies more in the pacing, the dialogue, and the editing: the characters don’t get to know one another, the audience doesn’t get to know them, and the dialogue is not only bare-bones but also disjointed, as though pieces of the film were spliced together (badly) after someone cut up the original.

We feel as though we arrived in the middle of a story, but this introductory scene has so little to do with the rest of the plot that the one connection – mentioned at the very end of the movie – seems to be completely contrived: “Oh, yeah, we have to have a reason why the van in the beginning was important.” It’s almost as though the director forgot himself what point he was making, and quickly tacked it on at the last minute.

Ray has the potential to be truly interesting, but he’s relegated to saying a couple of almost random things to the coroner and to Will; his conversations with Christi are structured as though they’ve known each other forever, even though he never laid eyes on her before that day. Perhaps the intention was to present him as a father-figure … but in the end, this presentation of his every word as somehow deeply meaningful just comes across as an old detective who’s trying to feel relevant but can’t deliver the way he once did.

Will has a tragic back-story that turns out to be connected to the killer, but not because the killer knew Will or his late wife; it’s simply a huge coincidence … or maybe it was supposed to be targeted, but the connection is never discussed other than to cast doubt on Will, or on his wife, or … actually, I’m not sure why it was in the story at all. Maybe it was to provide a reason for Will to be even more determined to catch the killer? – but he was already fairly determined, since, you know, he’s a homicide detective. Maybe it was meant to emotionally compromise Will, so that we would wonder if he would be able to handle tracking the killer down? – but Will is never emotionally compromised about any of it. He seems mostly just to be vaguely irritated. The movie takes the time to point out how much Will hasn’t gotten over his wife’s death, but all of his mannerisms and actions suggest that he’s recovered just fine – the alleged prolonged grief literally never informs anything his character does at all, ever.

Christi’s back story is fairly important, both as her motivation for the project she’s writing and as a parallel to what is offered as a theme for the movie: she has reason to know how much police detectives can give up for their demanding, emotionally draining jobs, and she wants to honour and reward them with her story. But Will and Ray aren’t presented as people who’ve particularly given up much on an emotional level; in fact, Ray misses the job so much that he can’t stay away. Is he having trouble feeling valuable in retirement, as so many people do? – maybe, but no one ever discusses that openly or even covertly, so this potential character development goes nowhere. Christi’s back story is offered in narrative fashion, half-way through the film, pursuant to nothing that’s happened in the film to that point, and in regards to a police officer in her own life who is completely unknown to either detective. It has no depth or significance other than that it meant something to her, but since we don’t see anything about it, it might as well be her ordering takeout.

The murderer is presented as a serial killer with an intricate message that he is sending to police/the world by requiring detectives to decipher clues at each crime scene. A hangman-game letter is carved on each victim, which is narratively compelling and visually interesting. But the clues are almost invisible to the audience, the visuals are scant and disconnected, a whole person seems to have been removed from the body count the detectives are using (even though they continue to mention this person as a victim), and until the literal last minute, there’s no real attempt by the detectives to figure out the word the killer is trying to spell.

Some of the murders are set up in interesting ways … I guess there’s that.

To the actors’ credit, I don’t think any of this is their fault. They bring the same good energy I’ve experienced from them in other roles, but even the best artist won’t win at Pictionary if no one tells them what they’re supposed to be drawing. They look and sound throughout as though they delivered a solid performance that was later hacked to shreds in the editing room and put back together by kindergartners.

The story is never focused on any one thing. Side stories are never fleshed out or addressed. No one is given the chance to seem like a genuine person. Events happen so quickly that we don’t have time to absorb what happened to one victim before there’s another, and even the nick-of-time rescues are performed with the same lack of urgency or tension as waiting for pizza delivery. Stuff that’s deliberately mentioned as potential clues is never brought up again. The introductory chase is never fully explained other than to suggest the killer seems to have been in the van – we don’t even know why we care about this van, other than that Ray was chasing it down for sideswiping him. Nothing happens with the van. Nothing happens in the van. Nothing happens next to the van. Ray sees an icon hanging from the rear-view mirror, but the icon isn’t particularly unique or pertinent to the killer’s character – he might as well say that we know the killer was the driver of the van because the killer had a driver’s license. The story itself is presented in such a disjointed way that it doesn’t even feel like a story, and, worst of all, the killer ends up being someone we have never seen or heard about in the entire rest of the film.

The blurb for Hangman piques curiosity and promises a good installment in the genre … but in the end it’s a dumpster fire.

popcorn icon  0 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: Casting Jonbenet

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

* now with spoilers *

Casting Jonbenet is a documentary that looks not so much at the events and investigation surrounding Jonbenet’s death but rather at the opinions, feelings and perceptions of those who are auditioning to play various parts in the movie-documentaries about her.

Various facts about her death are presented as well as a timeline of investigation, and we see a lot of images of Jonbenet – at her pageants, a few family photos. The investigation is chronicled in a passive way as we hear from the actors auditioning to play the various roles – for instance, while talking to the men who are trying out to be Jonbenet’s father, we hear the facts and suppositions that have informed those men’s opinions about what actually happened.

It’s not action-packed, obviously, but the pacing is good. We never get to learn anything new about the case, which parallels very profoundly the initial event – when we all waited to hear what had happened and eagerly anticipated finding out that her killer had been identified and brought to justice. Some theories are put forth – everyone from her brother to random inmates who claimed responsibility – but DNA from the crime scene excluded these individuals … meaning that there was no proof they did it, but technically a great many things are possible, including that there was more than one assailant. No one theory – even in this expository documentary – ultimately carries more weight than another, and in the end, we’re left with the random statements and observations of people trying out for a part.

These people, though … taken all together, their collective opinions and sentiments paint an interesting picture. Especially as we watch the little girls who are trying out to be Jonbenet herself, it’s striking that we don’t really hear as much from these girls as we do from the older actors – of course we don’t, since the actors trying out to be Jonbenet are very little children, and may not even fully understand that they’re portraying a real person who died. Even with the supplementary information about the case and the investigation and all the competing new and old theories, it becomes quickly clear that people “remember” the case with the things that they supposed and surmised and felt about it at the time, rather than the factual particulars. In the end, we see why it’s “casting” Jonbenet – because we have no more handle on what happened, really, than we would if it were a made-up case in a show where the director wants to keep the audience guessing. Most importantly, even though this was a real event and Jonbenet was a real little girl, her story has crossed over more into legend than history, so much so that any new actual evidence would likely not affect people’s predetermined notions about what happened.

The little Jonbenets don’t say much, being five or six or seven years old … and that’s striking too. We can’t speak to the only person, besides her killer(s), that knows what happened that day, because she’s dead. We couldn’t speak to her before that either, particularly, because she was so little. I think that’s why her case was so compelling to follow even in its sadness – we wanted to know what had happened to her, we wanted to be able to protect her somehow even though it was too late, we wanted to know what happened so we could prevent it with other little people in our lives who were also too little to talk. But we didn’t get to know. The people auditioning for parts in the docu-movies don’t get to know. In the end, we’re left with no more information than a lot of us already had about the case … and the image of a little girl dancing who doesn’t say anything to us.

Casting Jonbenet is a really effective emotional parallel to the case itself, and an interesting look at how facts get subverted by our perceptions of them. Overall, it’s well-done and worth watching.

popcorn icon  8 out of 10.

Adventures in Streaming: The Sea of Trees

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

* now with spoilers *

The Sea of Trees is the story of a Arthur (played by Matthew MacConaughey) who has planned a trip to the Aokigahara Forest in Japan; although he doesn’t seem particularly unhappy, and even looks around him as though the city and countryside were captivating, he is obviously coming to the Suicide Forest to end his life. Before he can take action, however, he encounters Takumi (played by Ken Watanabe) who is desperately lost, wandering around trying to get out of the forest. He’s injured and exhausted, but he’s changed his mind about killing himself and now just wants to return to his wife and child.

Arthur decides to help Takumi, leading him toward the trail he had just taken to get into the forest. Somehow, though, the trail has disappeared, and Arthur has become as disoriented as Takumi. The two men spend many hours together, searching for a way out. As they get to know each other, talking about the reasons they had come there in the first place, we see a series of flashbacks to Arthur’s life with his wife Joan (played by Naomi Watts). Through these flashbacks we come to understand why Arthur wanted to die, but we also want both men to find joy in living again.

Both Matthew MacConaughey and Naomi Watts are good actors who, therefore, are extremely effective at playing people who are difficult to like. When the flashbacks began, and I saw the two of them in a fairly rocky marriage, I almost gave up on The Sea of Trees, because I didn’t want to watch two gut-wrenching hours of their marriage devolving into suicidal mutual loathing. But I continued anyway, already curious about whether or not Takumi would make it home, and I was glad I stayed with it: the flashbacks ultimately portray a very real couple who are working through some difficult times in the best way they know how. They turn into people we can like, and it makes it even more tense then, to wonder what brought him from that home and marriage with Joan to a place where he could end it all.

The Aokigahara Forest, both physically and culturally, has strong spiritual significance, allowing the characters to have possibly otherworldly experiences that might have seemed contrived or ironic in a Western setting. The juxtaposition of flashbacks from that Western world with the dark beauty of the forest is a perfect metaphor for Arthur’s struggle between trying to die and wanting to live. Ken Watanabe conveys a lot of emotion with few words. The connection between Arthur and Takumi is genuine and believable, from the moment Arthur decides to help him. Arthur’s and Joan’s characters are well fleshed out without making the story-telling ponderous or overly maudlin. The various mysteries surrounding all three characters keep us interested, and the final reveal is truly rewarding.

The Sea of Trees is definitely worth watching.

popcorn icon  10 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 – Switched

Switched

Switched is a live-action limited series from Japan that tells the story of an unattractive and unpopular high school girl who has switched bodies with an unwitting victim: the popular, pretty girl with a handsome boyfriend.

The story is well-told; the characters are deeply believable. No one is one-dimensional – in fact, if anything in the character feels stereotypical for more than a moment, the show immediately switches to that character’s personal journey and unique circumstance and perspective. Nothing and no one presented is ultimately what it/they seemed to be in the beginning.

The “science” involved in the switching of bodies is … creative. It’s also fairly glossed over; we’re just expected to accept the “specialist” Ukon’s word about what causes the phenomenon and what the procedure should be. But it is consistent, and the audience is always aware of what the characters are doing and what they will need to do going forward. Even though it is glossed over, the characters’ acceptance of it makes it feel real enough.

The solution is imaginative enough to hold our attention, and the outcome is hard-won enough for us to enjoy watching the process and to appreciate the return to the status-quo. The acting is incredibly good – especially for what could have been treated as an after-school-cartoon anime adaptation – and even the secondary characters, whose “dialogue” is largely thematic crowd-support, feel genuine.

The real draw of Switched is the journey that has nothing to do with the “science”, the problem, or the solution; it’s the journey each of the characters take through the switch experience.

If you’ve ever been hurt, if you’ve ever been bullied, if you’ve ever felt invisible … basically if you’ve ever been a human being and at some point a high-schooler, you will see yourself here, not just in Umine (the unhappy character who initiated the switch), but in the people she envies. As our assessments of the characters shift with each episode, we have to look at our own habits of stereotyping and compartmentalizing – putting the characters in the boxes we’ve devised and siding with the characters we feel are “good” … only to have our notions challenged in the next episode by the characters’ unexpected actions, ethics, and personalities. We get to hear the inner thoughts of each of the girls, and we see from the beginning not that one is bad and the other a victim, but rather that each girl has feelings, confusion, fears and anger that they struggle to resolve.

One of the bigger lessons – which we discover right away – is that no matter what body you inhabit or whose life you have stolen, you bring yourself with you. Without inner changes, your life will continue just as it did in your original circumstance, and you will only be ruining someone else’s life as well as your own. Another lesson, of course, is for the four main characters to develop compassion, forgiveness, hope and love for one another and for themselves. But one lesson I didn’t particularly expect is the one for the audience: our various nemeses (especially those pesky ones from school that might be decades ago now) – how real have we allowed them to be? How willing have we been to see their situations, their fears, their youth, their humanity? How much of our fear or sadness was in what we thought others meant, but may have been all in our heads? How many acts of kindness did we miss because we were focused only on our own pain? How much did we bully ourselves? We understand Umine’s pain, but does this really make her the victim? – especially when the target of her actions is one of the people who had tried to connect with her and been rebuffed by Umine’s paranoia. She hasn’t just become her own worst enemy; she’s become exactly the sort of person who doesn’t care how her actions hurt others – the sort of person she despised in the first place.

One of the more heart-wrenching outcomes (for me, at least) was that the character who had shown up the most consistently for his friends was rewarded with … friendship. There is absolutely nothing wrong with friendship; especially in high school, when a thousand little love affairs will seem ridiculous five years later, friendship is the sort of love that actually endures and nurtures and is real. In fact, looking at it that way, perhaps that character won the biggest prize of all – to have true friends, and to know that he had been a true friend to them and helped them through extraordinary adversity. But it seemed as though everyone else learned about themselves and one another – often through his efforts and his steadfastness – and that they were allowed, even when things go back to “normal”, to have a new and different (better) life, while he was brought back to exactly the place he had been. He’s learned just as much as they have, but the narrative “rewards” him by giving him the harshest lesson of all – sometimes no matter how deserving we are of love from someone, we just don’t receive it. Is friendship important? – it’s paramount, and this character would be the first to say so. His example throughout the series is a testament to friendship’s incredible value. But to watch the one you love wind up in the arms of another, and to be able to feel, not jealousy or anger, but instead gratitude for the person’s friendship and for the person’s happiness … this is the sort of person Switched is asking us to be, and it is, I believe, the hardest thing to learn to do.

The other characters learned that lesson through their experiences in the narrative, but when we see it happen to this character at the very end of the story – that is when we learn the lesson. We’ve seen what he’s like, what friendship can be, and we want him to be rewarded with every conceivable thing. We don’t think that what he’s left with is enough. … But he of all people would say that he indeed has more than enough. I know we’re being asked to believe him – that was the lesson we were supposed to take away from this series – but frankly I don’t know if I’m there yet. … or maybe wanting more for him, for his happiness, is learning the lesson.

I recommend Switched for a thousand reasons.

popcorn icon  10 out of 10.