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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Back for more: Unsolved Mysteries (Season 2)

Slightly less captivating than the first season, this show about mysteries which remain – literally – unsolved to this day, still managed to keep me hooked for long enough to recommend it.

A body found in a landfill – how did it get there? We still don’t know for sure.

The first season kicked off with a genuinely eerie mystery – a man found lodged in the roof of a hotel building, having seemingly fallen through it from a great height. Season 2 kicks off in similar fashion with the discovery of a body in a landfill site. Former White House aide Jack Wheeler showed up there after a short disappearance following calls of a disturbance near his house. We see lots of CCTV footage of Jack’s last hours, where he looks agitated and confused, which raises plenty of questions aside from the apparent murder.

For the rest of the episodes, we swap out last season’s broad theme of ‘injustice’ (recalling the murder of a black man at a house party in a highly conservative town) with one of sheer mystery, as we learn about abduction of two different toddlers from the same New York City park – just three months apart. Absolutely mortifying.

Another one for the mystery fans – and one that makes for really good book material – is the unexplained death of a woman in a hotel room in Norway. This was probably my favourite of the series. For starters, we don’t ever find out the woman’s identity, let alone how or why she died. But the story of how they tried to answer these questions is fascinating and a real treat for mystery fans. Of course, it is also grossly tragic – and one must remember that these are real cases with real people waiting on the end of a phone line to hear from viewers who may have information that can lead to the case being solved.

There is also, like last season, a paranormal episode, this time involving ‘spirits’ said to have appeared after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I gave this one a miss, as I usually don’t do paranormal stuff where it is represented as fact.

Overall, whilst I wasn’t quite as captivated by the mysteries from the first season, viewers who enjoyed that one will no doubt enjoy this one as well.

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Quickfire round: Enola Holmes

Put simply, this film delivered. A necessarily witty, intelligent, and stereotype-busting Enola Holmes, portrayed excellently by Millie Bobby Brown, investigates the disappearance of her mother, all while trying to outrun her two brothers (including, yes, that Sherlock Holmes).

Enola escapes to London dressed as a boy – the costume department did a great job.

Holmes spent much of her life being home-schooled by her mother, who taught her all manner of skills and knowledge which, if you were of the prevailing attitude of the time, girls ought not to know. Then, one day, her mother just disappears. Enola’s two brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft, return to the family home to investigate their mother’s disappearance. Mycroft, who in this adaptation is really a bit of a dick, disapproves of Enola’s education and arranges for her to be sent to a finishing school. The thought of attending such a place pushes Enola over the edge and she runs away in the middle of the night – taking clues of her mother’s whereabouts with her. Enola knows a lot of things – but does she know how to cope in the real world?

I can’t help but see this film as a box-ticking exercise. That’s actually a good thing – let me tell you the boxes it ticks. There’s a strong female lead. The costume design is on point. There’s a slight twist I didn’t see coming. The cinematography is good. There is humour. There is action. The mix of action and humour and violence and education is perfect for the target audience.

It could easily become a franchise.

But what the film doesn’t do is over-deliver. The mystery of her mother’s disappearance fizzles out and isn’t executed to its fullest extent. There could do with being a bit more mystery. I never gasped, I rarely laughed out loud, and I didn’t come away thinking ‘you know what, that was brilliant!’

It’s just a good film. Know that you won’t be disappointed if you watch it, and you won’t be missing out much if you don’t.

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Quickfire round: Unsolved Mysteries

We all love a good mystery, although most of us desire the satisfaction of having the mystery solved by the end of the episode. Thankfully, despite being deprived of it here, Unsolved Mysteries still manages to be an enticing watch.

Reconstructions and archive footage are blended together, which adds to the viewer’s immersion in the mystery.

Although there is one episode on a massively-corroborated UFO sighting, the rest of the show’s episodes cover murders. First, we hear about the story of a recently married man who goes missing and is found dead days later in an abandoned hotel building, having seemingly gone straight through the metal and wood roof, a feat that would have required jumping from an extreme height. However, nobody can work out a convincing-enough theory as to where he would have jumped from to end up there. I found this one to be the most sinister of the entire series because of the victim’s relations to a shady businessman who refused to cooperate with police and the documentary.

I like that one episode is entirely in French, covering the well publicised murders of the entire Dupont de Ligonnès aristocrat family (well, everyone other than the father). This episode is probably the most horrific, but you’ll eventually learn that what happened to the family is not so much of a mystery as some of the other episodes in the show.

I won’t spoil the rest, but I implore you to watch them. Each episode is well made, with reconstructions and archive footage interspersed with current-day interviews featuring relatives and officials who worked on the unsolved cases at the time. There’s no central narration, just a careful telling of the story all the way through.

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What I thought about: Control Z

Is Mexican Netflix as good as Spanish Netflix? If this mystery drama is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Featuring an excellent lead actress and supporting cast, I devoured this show in less than 48 hours.

Look at them, phones out, ready to record today’s mishap. Over-use of mobiles is what got them into this mess…

What’s it about?
Sophia is a bit odd. She lost her father many years ago in a fire, and recently returned from a mental institution after an incident of self-harm. But she’s also a thinker, able to spot patterns in behaviour and notice the little details. When a hacker hijacks the school assembly to drop a truly explosive secret about one of her classmates, they all turn to her for help tracking the hacker down. Sophia needs to hurry up, though, as the hacker continues to either reveal more secrets or blackmail students into doing their bidding, including taunting Sophia.

The show was described by a much better writer than me as “Gossip Girl meets Mr. Robot, with just a touch of Sherlock Holmes”, and I couldn’t put it better myself.

What do I like about it?
It has a similar salacious energy that we’ve seen before in Elite. These kids have some pretty messed up secrets, and as they start coming out, there are some truly catastrophic consequences. But the show also takes the time to illustrate how the students – many of them rather stuck-up, self-absorbed, or outright bullies, are quite emotionally fragile underneath, and the incident changes them for the better. I also enjoyed seeing Sophia become more accepted by her classmates who used to whisper about her mental health issues.

What do I not like about it?
With the advent of streaming services, episodes no longer have to fit neatly into an ad-friendly running time. This show runs anywhere from 35 to 41 minutes. It’s strange, then, that it felt like some connecting scenes were missing at times, as if they had been cut. Characters would get close to boiling point in one scene, and then are completely calm in the next. I remember a scene where Raúl is looking for Sophia, literally going up to random students and asking them if they’d seen her. The very next scene shows Sophia walking together with Raúl and Javier. I suppose we are to assume he managed to track her down eventually? That these elements were missing does raise some concerns about the solidity of the show’s plot.

Worth a watch?
Yes, as long as you’re not expecting too much. I enjoyed this show and can’t wait for the confirmed second season, but I can’t give readers the same encouragement as I did for The Stranger, as it’s just not on the same level. The childishness of the school’s students and the aforementioned plot difficulties might annoy the more seasoned mystery fan.

By the way…

  • This is fifth foreign-language show I’ve seen this year, and in fact the third Spanish-language one. The beauty of Netflix’s Originals is their ability to push it out to their entire global subscriber base without international licensing woes. The consumer ultimately benefits – if you’re not watching foreign-language titles on Netflix, you’re seriously missing out.
  • NME gave it 2/5. I think that’s a bit harsh, but then again, I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.

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