Sunday, September 10, 2017

Netflix reviews

There's a lot of viewing of Netflix going on in my new-to-Netflix household at the moment.  To update the one or two people (maybe I am being optimistic) who think my media reviews are worth reading:

Stranger Things (cont.):   nearly at the end of the first series, and I have to upgrade my opinion of it.  Something clicked in episode 5 about how much I was finding the acting of everyone involved very convincing and likeable.  The four child leads are really good, but the teenagers and all of the adults - they're just great too.  The Spielbergian mash up aspect of the scenario has stopped bothering me as I have realised that I just like being in the show's universe anyway.

I fear that there is a big danger that series 2 will disappoint - in fact, I think it quite possibly might follow a Twin Peaks spiral.   (Truth be told, I don't really recall anything about series 2 - I think I may have not watched it based on bad reviews coming out of the US.)   But let's hope not.

Norsemen:   who knew Norwegians could be this funny?   Have only watched the first episode, but there is a lot to like about its mocking of Norse cultural extremes.   It's a bit Monty Python and the Holy Grail (although more witty than absurdist); a bit Blackadder; even a bit The Office (according to someone on Reddit - I still have never watched either incarnation of that show despite its reputation.)   It can be gross and violent, but really, the writing is very amusing and unexpectedly good.  (Sorry, but I just didn't imagine the teeth chattering climate of Norway as an environment for producing good comedy.)

The show is made by Norwegians and shot in both English and Norwegian, and hasn't even been on Netflix in the US for long.   I strongly suspect it will develop a cult following.

The Babadook:    I knew this low budget Australian film, which I am not sure even got an Australian cinema release, was surprisingly well received by many American reviewers.  So, despite my quite intense, but readily justified, dislike of my own nation's cinema efforts, I gave it a go.

Let's just say, the reputation of Australian cinema remains for this viewer lower than a wombat's burrow.  (Go on, make up your own witticism, then.)

The movie exemplifies a couple of things that I have always disliked about Australian cinema:

* the low budget emptiness:  cheaply made movies in Australia somehow, more than low budget features from anywhere else on the planet, always manage to make the settings seem empty, lifeless and underpopulated.  Sure, you'll occasionally see some extras in this film, but it still manages to make everywhere look unrealistic due to a lack of, I don't know, normal people in the background doing normal things?  It's almost like a perverse special talent of Australian film makers:  do they never try to film secretly in a natural setting so that, for example, you actually do see streets or buildings with more than a handful of people in them?

* some arch, almost campy, acting.  Most of the supporting actors don't do well, in my opinion, and fall into some stereotypical (for Australian cinema) close to camp acting that doesn't ring true.  In this case, I point the finger at the Childrens Services couple, the police officers, the boss at the aged care home, the sister's friends.  But even the female lead, who has to carry the film, increasing struggles with the material, and becomes unconvincing in what is meant to be the scary climax.  As for the boy - he really is too irritating to be sympathetic for the first half of the movie, and his conversion to being the sensible one in the house for the second half doesn't make much sense.  (Nor does his precocious mechanical talent - no attempt to explain where that comes from at all.)

Which leads to my biggest complaint - the story just doesn't make psychological sense. It's presumably meant to work like a version of The Shining (one made with on a credit card budget in a friend's big old house,) in that it has deliberate ambiguity as to what is going on - just madness and mental health issues, or something supernatural, or a combination of both.   But at least in Kubrick's film there was some information of trouble in the father's past - alcoholism, domestic violence, perhaps a less than successful career - which you could see that, either through generic madness or a supernatural evil, were the seeds of his turning on his family.  In this film. there's nothing like that at all.

[Spoilers if you continue].   There is nothing to indicate the mother had a troubled relationship with the dead father - quite the opposite in fact.   And nothing to indicate why the father (if the babadook is him in some guise) would want to threaten the son who he never met.    If, as many reviewers say, the supernatural creature is a metaphor for grief,  I just don't see why grief would manifest in psychotic hatred for the son.  Sure, he was annoying at the start, but not so annoying that Mum would want him dead instead of getting him into counselling.   At one stage, I thought that the script was setting up for a split personality scenario, with the mother herself being the author of the book that is frightening her.  (She tells her sisters friends that she was a writer who had done some work for children.)   But that possibility goes no where - there are no further hints along this line - and if it was the old dissociative personality under stress situation, it doesn't really fit in with the possession by the babadook scene in the bedroom.

If it is meant to be taken as a supernatural cause, there is no hint as to why it is in the house - no hint of past violence there, for example.  Again, Kubrick gave enough (with the son's apparent psychic ability, the talk of past murders, not to mention the famous last shot) to give some reasons as to why there might be supernatural presences in the hotel.  In this movie, we have a boy who is having nightmares and worries about monsters under the bed - but we see nothing of what he is seeing. 

The final sequence of this movie continues the ambiguity but in an oddball, unsatisfying way.  Sure, use it as a metaphor for the Mum successfully taming but never banishing entirely rampant grief/psychosis, but how does feeding it work into that metaphor?   I don't think it does.  And if it is meant to indicate a real supernatural being of some kind - as I said before, where it came from remains completely opaque.

So - contrary to what a slew of American reviewers seem to think, I thought the story was a complete unconvincing mess from a psychological perspective.  It's not that I expect things always have to made clear in such a film (I love the discussion The Shining generates), but the film has to have enough in it to make possible interpretations plausible.  That's where this one fails utterly, if you ask me.

It's also, in my opinion, not even very scary.  My son watched it with me, and he is easier scared by ghost stories than me, but he also was underwhelmed.

So, no chance of me changing my mind about Australian cinema based on this.  No surprises of any variety, actually.


Paul Montgomery said...

I am also new to Netflix, and I must recommend Designated Survivor. Crazy twists, and there's a bit of suspension of disbelief that has to happen to make it enjoyable, but it's a cross between The West Wing and 24, but with few of the possible downsides to that mashup.

We are also watching Jack Taylor after watching all of Jack Irish. Pretty similar shows, set in Galway and Melbourne respectively. Irish has more humour, Taylor has more drinking.

Steve said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I hadn't heard of Designated Survivor, but I see it got good reviews. I'll have a look at it soon.

The Jack shows sound OK too.

Jason Soon said...

norsemen is a comedy? I thought it was a knock off of Vikings. will have to check it out.
designated survivor was alright but not enough to sustain my interest after a couple of episodes

Steve said...

Norsemen is a comedy?

Yes, I had no idea what it was when I tried it.

I see some reddit people are praising it as very funny, too: