What I thought about: Cruel Summer (t/w: grooming)

I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked, stunned, and disappointed in a season finale cliffhanger than the one in this show. And now you get to watch me review it without spoiling it for you.

How did Kate Wallis end up here? The truth may shock you.

What’s it about?
In 1993, Jeanette Turner is living her best, if slightly nerdy and unpopular, teenage life. By 1995, she’s one of the most hated people in America. What went wrong? We actually find out quite early on: In late 1993 the popular, pretty, and wealthy Kate Wallis goes missing – kidnapped, in fact, by the principal at her school, Martin Harris. When she’s eventually rescued towards the end of 1994, she accuses Jeanette of having seen her chained up in Martin’s basement, locking eyes with her before walking away without alerting anyone.

Each episode in the series looks at a significant event in the characters’ lives which, due to the circumstances, plays out differently in each of 1993, 1994, and 1995. In 1993, Jeanette is on a mission to up her coolness by competing with her friends to complete a list of challenges (mostly petty crimes and pranks). But in 1994, she’s a totally different person, filling the void that the now-kidnapped Kate left behind. Literally – she has Kate’s friends and even her boyfriend. And things are going well. In 1995, however, Kate’s allegations against Jeanette have reverberated around the nation, ruined her relationships with friends and family, leaving her fighting to tell the truth in court.

What do I like about it?
Props have to go to the actors, Chiara Aurelia (Jeanette) and Olivia Holt (Kate) – it must have been challenging to convey three different personalities and they do it so well. You might think Jeanette’s change from nerd to popular girl is a sharp contrast, but if you look closer, you will see that she was developing her confidence in lying early on in 1993, still displays an element of self-doubt in 1994, and only drops her lip quiver in 1995.

I also think the show handles the topic of grooming pretty well, although I’m no medical expert in this area. Kate wasn’t especially vulnerable – she had friends, she was well liked, she even had a boyfriend! And, as the show carefully conveys, the kidnapping wasn’t anywhere near as violent as you might think. All of that culminates in a very disturbing penultimate episode dedicated to the time Kate spent trapped in Martin’s house. I actively squirmed throughout that one.

What do I not like about it?
The timeline can actually be really hard to follow – it often felt like we were really only guided by Jeanette’s completely different hairstyles in each year, and the harshly-done desaturated and darkened filter placed on the 1995 scenes. Even with these, it can be difficult to know where you are – the 1994 scenes include a mix of pre and post-rescue of Kate, and the narrative style shows the same event (and therefore the same setting) happening across three different years.

I am also really fucking disappointed in the ending, but I haven’t worked out if that’s because it’s so good or because I hate the writers for it.

Worth a watch?
It’s a bit of a slog at 10 hours, but if the premise interests you then I think you will find this quite a deep and captivating show. Give it more than the first episode, too, as it starts off slow.

By the way…

  • There are side plots in this show but none of them are particularly relevant, which added to my confusion when watching.
  • Olivia Holt was cast as a replacement for Mika Abdalla. I don’t know why, but Olivia was a great choice so there’s no complaints from me.

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What I thought about: Sweet Home

If you want to see a slideshow of horrible things happening to undeserving people; of despair and violence and gore and destruction, you’re in the right place. If not, run. Run far away from this show.

Monster or human? The answer is more complicated than you might think.

What’s it about?
One night, an infection (or some say a curse) sweeps across South Korea. The first symptom is a torrential nosebleed, and those unable to fight the darkness often turn into powerful monsters with various ‘abilities’ that are said to relate to their deepest desires. The residents of the Green Home apartment complex find themselves barricaded inside. When someone tries to leave and is promptly skewered by a monster, they realise it’s for their own good.

Essentially, it’s an apocalypse survival series. Except it somehow manages to weave an insane amount of backstory and side plots into its 10-episode run. It’s also ghastly and brutal. Bad things just keep on happening to the residents, relentlessly. The monsters, aided by some pretty impressive CGI (and some of whom are just plain human, if you catch my drift), keep coming.

What do I like about it?
I really can’t tell if this is a great show or a terrible one. On the one hand, it is technically brilliant. It’s gripping, the cliffhangers at the end of each episode are perfect, the acting is top notch and the audiovisual elements add so much depth to it (watching this with a 5.1 surround setup was a real treat).

The show also benefits from typical K-Drama quality. You become attached to the characters, all of whom, besides the usual background characters, have such unique personalities and qualities. This allows the show to deliver some side plots and flashbacks that add a surprising amount of depth to the crisis, even if I wished they would tie together a little more neatly.

What do I not like about it?
On the other hand, this show is absolutely awful. The monsters are really, really bad. You can’t kill them unless you set them on fire. They are strong. People keep dying, all the time, in every episode. Whenever there is a shred of hope dangled in front of you, the show executes more characters all over the place.

There is so much violence and so much despair. Also, lots and lots of blood. This is not a show for the faint of heart. Blood pours out of infected people’s noses and splatters onto people’s faces. At one point, someone picks up a sword from his own severed hand in order to make one last attempt at stopping a monster from killing everyone else. It’s fucking horrific.

Worth a watch?
I don’t think I know anyone who would find this an enjoyable watch.

By the way…

  • There is a setup for a second season but, considering the characters who are left standing, I’m not sure if it would be worth watching
  • I kid you not, Imagine Dragons’ Warriors (a song they wrote for a League of Legends gaming tournament) is played at least 5 times during the show. Criticism of the show’s soundtrack is warranted.

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What I thought about: Alice in Borderland

Very Japanese, this part-sci-fi part-thriller part-horror series, based on a popular manga, has random citizens of Tokyo get teleported to an alternate universe where they must take part in sadistic games to survive.

Don’t get too attached to anyone in this show. Consider yourself warned.

What’s it about?
One moment you’re having a shower, or something. The next thing you know, the lights go out and, when they come back on moments later, everyone around you has disappeared. In fact, not just the people around you – the entire population of Tokyo. Gone. Just like that.

That’s the situation facing Arisu, Chōta, and Karube – a trio of delinquents and misfits. As night falls, the only source of light comes from screens around the city which read ‘this way to the game arena’. They follow the screens to a building with mobile phones set out on a table. Unbeknownst to them, they’ve just registered for their first game.

Two doors, one says ‘live’ and the other ‘die’. Two minutes to choose before the room is incinerated. Another player (they’re not entirely alone) freaks out and runs through the ‘live’ door, only to be zapped in the head with a powerful laser. The rest escape through the ‘die’ door into the second room, now with less time to choose another room. With some luck Arisu, good with puzzles, work out the shape of the building and draws a map that leads them confidently through the rest of the game. Their prize? A three-day visa, the importance of which is explained to them when a disheveled man rounds a corner and yells ‘I can’t take it any more, my visa has expired’. He is promptly blasted in the head by a laser from the sky. Your visa is your right to live, and you can only get them by clearing the dangerous games.

What do I like about it?
The games are cool, and most are well designed, if a little confusing what with the additional language barrier for on-screen cues. Along the way, more characters are introduced and we start to learn more about the pseudo-Tokyo and what’s going on. Also, in contrast to Escape Room (which you might consider to be a related concept), the set-up for the sequel is fantastic. No spoilers, though!

What do I not like about it?
There’s a little too much filler for my liking, Some scenes are long, drawn out, and emotional. I also wasn’t a fan of the fact that the ‘main character’ is basically a nobody except for the little nuggets of wisdom he occasionally dishes out, but then again, that is a trope of manga like this.

Worth a watch?
This is a very violent and miserable show. Things only really go from bad to worse for everyone involved, so be careful. But if, like me, you were intrigued by the mystery and are a fan of Japanese on-screen violence, Alice in Borderland is brilliantly produced.

By the way…

  • Much of the shots of an empty Tokyo city centre were filmed with extensive use of green screens, and they did a great job of blending it all together
  • Apparently this season covers 31 of the 64 manga chapters – so maybe Season 2 is all we’ll get

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Quickfire round: Escape Room

Overall a good horror movie that capitalises on the explosive growth of escape rooms, it was somewhat let down by the revelation of a slightly wider universe/plot towards the end which felt cheap.

It’s getting toasty in there.

Six strangers receive a cube, ostensibly from a friend or relative. It’s a mini-puzzle, and upon solving it a piece of paper pops out inviting them to test an immersive new escape room with a prize of $10,000 up for grabs. Amanda, an Iraq war veteran, Jason, a financier, Danny, a nerdy escape room enthusiast, Zoey, a genius physics student, and Ben, a stockroom worker. After being told by a woman behind a frosted glass screen to take a seat and wait, Ben decides he’d rather leave the room and go outside for a smoke. As he pulls the door handle it falls off, revealing what appears to be an oven dial. This is the first room.

So, it’s an escape room horror movie. It follows the basic premise of escape rooms – there are rooms, and there are genuine puzzles with cryptic clues. Only, the Game Master is nowhere to be seen, and you can’t ask for hints. Oh, and if you don’t escape the room in time, you genuinely die. I’ll spare the details of how each room becomes deadly because it’s a large part of the enjoyment of the movie.

And enjoy it, I did! Don’t get me wrong, it was terrifying and my anxiety went through the roof. But I couldn’t stop watching as the chaos unfolded. Towards the end, though, the story gets a bit more complicated, and not for the better. Up until the final room, the rooms could potentially be completed with everyone surviving (spoiler: they don’t all survive said rooms, but you must have known that would happen given this is a horror movie). But the final room is different, and after that the ‘reason’ behind the escape rooms existing is revealed. What follows is too much of a spoiler to write here but I think, although it was a decent plot twist, it felt tacked on.

The feeling of the plot being weakly tacked together continued after the events of the fateful day itself, with a cheap ‘6 months later’ cut which sets up the sequel to the movie (coming out early this year). Don’t get me wrong – I’m totally going to watch the sequel, but I’m not holding my breath for an improvement to the overall plot.

If you like horror and puzzles and escape rooms and acting that is not terrible but also not particularly impressive, I could think of worse ways to spend 99 minutes.

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What I thought about: The Minions of Midas

I am simply not smart enough to understand the plot. This Spanish thriller starts off with a bang, but its twists morph it into something that, right to the very end, had me scratching my head.

Victor has two expressions. His shocked face, which is this one, and his thinking face.

What’s it about?
Victor Genovés, an executive at media conglomerate the Malvar Group, has recently become the company president after being named heir to the late owner’s fortune in his will. Shortly after, he receives a letter at his office, closed with a traditional wax seal. It’s from the Minions of Midas or Los favoritos de Midas, a shadowy group who want to engage in a business transaction with Victor. That’s a very polite way of putting it – for in reality they are extorting him to the tune of 50 million euros. The consequence if he doesn’t pay? A stranger will die – and they give an exact time and place for the murder.

Like any self-respecting millionaire, Victor is a little spooked by the letter but ultimately ignores it. Sure enough, a woman is killed in a hit and run at the exact time and place specified in the letter. Unlike any self-respecting millionaire, however, he refuses to cut the loss-making Observer newspaper from the Malvar Group. This upsets the board of directors and they assemble enough votes to ditch him – that is, until another letter from the Minions shows up. “We have some information that can help you keep your position in the company,” they say, “remember, your gain is our gain”.

How mysterious.

What do I like about it?
The first half makes for a great thriller. The police scramble to hunt down the Minions as, every five days, exactly where promised, another seemingly random stranger is killed. It’s also mind-bending at times – some of the murders are arguably not caused by the Minions at all but rather by the police themselves and the hysteria invoked by the shadowy organisation.

The other events of the show are also pretty good – and pretty bleak. Victor’s love interest, Observer journalist Mónica Báez, uncovers the Bank of Madrid’s shameful financing of the Syrian regime, and there are mass protests verging into riots across Spain moments before they are due to host the European Summit. The polarisation of Victor’s penthouse apartment and the rioters below him make for a stark image of class divide, and tie in somewhat well into the extortion plot.

What do I not like about it?
This is probably just me but… I didn’t get it? I don’t want to spoil the plot but, towards the end, Victor changes how he reacts to the Minions and makes decisions which are unlike his character in the first half of the show. I just can’t quite work out what it all means – and I’m one of those people who longs for at least some kind of closure.

Worth a watch?
Probably not, unless you like the idea of it. Not to sound weird or anything but there wasn’t a lot of death and violence in it to make up for the slow parts.

By the way…

  • There is some nudity.
  • This is a limited series – it ain’t coming back.

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