Thursday, September 17, 2020

#2,517. The Villainess (2017)

The opening sequence of director Byung-gil Jung’s The Villainess is a straight-up adrenaline rush; the lead character, Sook Hee (Ok-bin Kim), is hopping mad, and has taken the fight to an entire building full of baddies (the opening moments are shot from her perspective, as if we were watching one of those first-person videogames). From hallway to hallway, and room to room, she battles guards, scientists, and a few skilled martial artists, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. It’s one crazy skirmish after another, and even when the point-of-view shifts from first to third person, this opening never loses an ounce of energy. 

Once the battle is over, Sook Hee, who was trained from an early age by the underworld to be a world-class fighter, is taken into police custody. But instead of throwing her in jail, the authorities turn Sook Hee over to the National Intelligence Service, which immediately “recruits” her into their ranks. 

Promised that she would eventually gain her freedom, Sook Hee follows orders well - carrying out one mission after another - until she is given a top-priority assignment. With a new identity, she moves into an apartment complex, and even becomes romantically involved with her neighbor Hyun-Soo (Jun Sung). But as she awaits more details about the mission, Sook Hee begins to realize that not everyone around her can be trusted, and that her past may have caught up with her in a big, big way. 

Ok-bin Kim delivers a strong performance as the film’s lead, handling both the physical aspects of the role (she’s a convincing badass) as well as the emotional (Sook Hee is shy and demure when she first meets Hyun Soo, and is the perfect mother to her young child, who is permitted to stay with her as she carries out her assignment). But what makes The Villainess such an extraordinary motion picture are the action scenes, from the tense-as-hell opening to Sook-Hee’s first mission (a violent swordfight that transforms into a pulse-pounding motorcycle chase through some city streets), all leading to a final 15 minutes that you’ll have to see to believe. 

South Korea has turned out its share of excellent horror films in recent years (Bedevilled, The Wailing, Train to Busan, etc), and with The Villainess they’ve given the world an amazing action flick. Combining aspects of La Femme Nikita with the first Kill Bill and infusing it with a hell of a lot of style, The Villainess is one movie you won’t want to miss. 
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 - Buy it and watch it over and over

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Capsule Reviews - South Korea

In recent years, South Korea has turned out some tremendous genre films.  Here are a few of them...

1. Bluebeard (2017)

Directed by Lee Soo-yeun, Bluebeard is a gripping psychological horror / thriller about a doctor (Jin-woong Cho) who is convinced the landlords of his apartment building (played by Dae-Myung Kim and Goo-Shin), proprietors of a butcher shop on the first floor, are serial killers. Bluebeard never once lost my interest, with excellent performances throughout and, more importantly, a few unexpected twists that continuously caught me off-guard. And those surprises kept right on coming until the end credits finally rolled. The horror in Bluebeard, though effective, is definitely more psychological than visceral. Still, I think this is a movie that all fans of the genre - regardless of their tastes or preferences - will ultimately enjoy.
Rating: 9 out of 10

2. Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is a found footage style movie about a team of investigators intent on spending an entire night inside the asylum in Gonjiam - ranked as one of the creepiest places on earth - and recording the experience for their internet show. To this end, the group sets up cameras throughout the facility, hoping to capture some supernatural events during the night, but as you might expect, they get a lot more than they bargained for. It’s a basic premise, and with the glut of found-footage movies released in the wake of The Blair Witch Project we’ve seen this sort of story before (Grave Encounters is one example that leaps to mind). And yet, somehow, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum still managed to feel fresh, and provided genuine ghostly thrills and some nail-biting sequences, including an ending that’s particularly unsettling. 2019’s Heilstatten: Haunted Hospital copied the premise of this movie, but wasn’t nearly as effective. I highly recommend this one.
Rating: 8 out of 10

3. Mother (2009)

Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother is a crime/mystery with splashes of comedy, and it is extraordinary. A widow (Kim Hye-ja) sets out to prove that her son (Won Bin), who is mentally backward, has been wrongly accused of murder, and the real killer is still on the loose. Kim Hye-ja delivers a superb performance as the title character, who is ready to do whatever is necessary to clear her son’s name. But it’s the twists and turns in the story, some of which are particularly dark (a late sequence, where the widow questions a homeless junk collector, is especially tough to watch), that make Mother such an outstanding film. Bong Joon-Ho won an Oscar in 2019 for the excellent Parasite, but he could have just as easily been nominated for this movie. Mother will stay with you for days!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

4. Thirst (2009)

Thirst is a fantastic take on the vampire mythos! Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a well-meaning Catholic priest, volunteers to act as a guinea pig to find a cure for a deadly virus - by becoming infected himself. But whereas the other 499 volunteers died from the illness, Sang-hyun recovers. At first, his survival is attributed to prayer, and many consider him a walking miracle. But it isn’t long before Sang-hyun learns the truth: while trying to save his life, the doctors gave him a blood transfusion, and the blood he received was “donated” by a vampire! His newfound vigor has also sparked Sang-hyun libido; he lusts after Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), the pretty wife of his boyhood chum Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), and Tae-ju, bored with her marriage, is only too happy to oblige! I was blown away by Thirst, so much so that it now ranks alongside Nosferatu and 1931’s Dracula as one of my favorite vampire films of all-time. Writer / director Park Chan-wook infuses the movie with just the right amount of gore and employs some cool special effects as well, all working in unison to make Thirst a fun watch. But it’s the characters themselves, played wonderfully by Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-bin, that remain the focus of the film, and the changes they undergo throughout are what make Thirst a motion picture you won’t soon forget.
Rating: 10 out of 10

5. Train to Busan (2016)

Directed by Sang-ho Yeun, Train to Busan is, hands-down, my favorite horror film of the 2010’s. Banker Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) board the KTX-101 train in Seoul, en route to Busan. Unbeknownst to them, a zombie outbreak is sweeping the country, and before they reach their destination, they and a handful of others will be fighting for their lives as - one by one - their fellow passengers succumb to the virus. Along with being a great zombie film, Train to Busan is a thrill ride from start to absolute (and I mean absolute) finish, with the action cranked up to 11. At one point, the train stops at the Daejoon station, which the survivors are told is a safe haven controlled by the army. This entire sequence is so intense, so exciting, it will have you poised on the edge of your seat. On top of the thrills, every character in Train to Busan has depth and, in many cases, their own story arch. Along with Seok-woo and Su-an, there’s Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), who are expecting their first child, and because we care about these characters, we root like hell for each and every one to survive. Bottom Line: I love Train to Busan, and I intend to revisit it at least once a year.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Thursday, September 3, 2020

#2,516. C.H.U.D. (1984)

People are disappearing in New York City, and the few witnesses who have come forward claim that underground monsters are responsible for this sudden rash of missing persons. 

 Wilson (George Martin), who heads up the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, knows more than he’s letting on but is refusing to talk. So it’s up to a local precinct Captain (Christopher Curry), a fashion photographer (John Heard), and a “Reverend” who runs a soup kitchen (Daniel Stern) to figure out what it is that’s lurking deep beneath the city. And what they find is more terrifying than they ever imagined.

C.H.U.D. (which is short for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers) is a slick sci-fi / monster movie shot on location in the Big Apple. Director Douglas Cheek does a fine job keeping his creatures under wraps for the first 2/3’s of the film, giving us nothing more than brief glimpses of them (like 1980’s Humanoids form the Deep, the monsters in C.H.U.D. are of the men-in-costume variety), and by the time they become more prevalent, we’re already invested in the characters and their story. 

The acting in C.H.U.D. is above-average for this type of film (with Daniel Stern delivering a particularly strong performance) and there are a handful of creepy scenes (an early sequence involving a Geiger counter is our first clue that something very sinister is prowling New York’s sewer system). Throw in some well-done practical effects (many featuring bloody body parts) and cameos by John Goodman and Jay Thomas (as two cops in the wrong place at the wrong time) and you have a monster flick that’s definitely worth checking out. 
Rating: 9 out of 10 (Buy it if you can)

Thursday, August 27, 2020

#2,515. Flavia the Heretic (1974)

Flavia the Heretic, a 1974 Italian film directed by Gianfranco Mingozzi, fits neatly into the nunsploitation subgenre, with sex and violence aplenty, but takes things a step further than most by presenting the story of a woman who has grown weary of living in a male-dominated society and decides to do something about it.  

Puglia, Italy, circa 1400: after angering her father by taking a lover, Flavia (Florinda Bolkan) is sent to a convent, where she witnesses a number of atrocities committed against women by the local men. Shocked and angered, Flavia risks her position as well as her life by siding with an invading Muslim army, hoping to use them to take her revenge against those who have wronged her and her fellow “sisters”. 

Flavia the Heretic has a rough-around-the-edges look and feel, which, seeing as its story takes place in the early part of the 15th century, works in its favor (you fully accept that you’re watching events set hundreds of years in the past). The film’s real strength, though, lies in the performance delivered by Florinda Bolkan, and the fact that her character is bold enough to do something most women of this time period (or, indeed, most leads in a typical nunsploitation film) wouldn’t dream of doing: hitting back against those who mistreat her, and fighting for her independence regardless of the consequences. 

As mentioned above, Flavia the Heretic has plenty of nudity and violence; the film features a graphic rape scene (set in - of all places - a pig pen), and when the sexual passions of Flavia’s friend Sister Livia (Raika Juri) are ignited by a visiting Tarantula cult (one of the movie’s most memorable scenes), the poor nun is punished for her “transgression” by being tied to a table, stripped naked, and having hot oil poured onto her breast. 

Flavia The Heretic does lose its way towards the end, when Flavia is in full revenge mode; after she leads the Muslim army into the convent, the nuns are made to drink an elixir that stimulates their libido, leading to what I can only describe as a drug-induced orgy (with a dash of cannibalism thrown in for good measure). Though certainly unique, this sequence feels out of place with what has gone before it. 

Still, as nunsploitation flicks go, this one is more interesting than the standard fare. Be warned, though: Flavia the Heretic is an often brutal motion picture (with its most disturbing bit of violence coming right at the end), so if you’re squeamish, you might want to think twice before sitting down and watching it. But by straddling the line between straight-up exploitation and historical drama as well as it does, I was ultimately impressed with the results. 
Rating: 7 out of 10 (worth watching if you think you can stomach it) 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

#2,514. The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

Director Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film The Draughtsman’s Contract is set in a bygone era (1690’s England, to be exact), and follows the exploits of the upper class, some of whom we meet at the outset as they’re attending a dinner party. Everyone is dressed elegantly, yet the various conversations we’re privy to are anything but graceful. There’s plenty of not-too-subtle sexual innuendo, and Mrs. Clement (Lynda La Plante) even tells a story from her childhood, about how her father, petrified of a fire breaking out in his posh estate, kept hundreds of water buckets in a small room to fight any potential blaze. During the course of the conversation, Mrs. Clement confesses that she and her brothers, when the need would arise, often urinated in these buckets.  

"Those buckets were filled before my mother died”, she says, “I expect them to be still there, with the same water of thirty years ago, I shouldn't wonder - mixed with a little of myself, of course. I used to pee like a horse. I still do”.  

As we see throughout The Draughtsman’s Contract, the 17th-century aristocracy, in spite of their titles and wealth, were not above scandal, intrigue, gossip, and, yes, even a little toilet humor.  

In an effort to win back the attentions of her estranged husband (Dave Hill), who is more impressed with his property than his family, Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) commissions noted draughtsman and amateur artist Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) to create a series of landscape drawings of the family’s estate while her husband is abroad. Mr. Neville, who fears he may be called away by another employer at any time, refuses at first, only to agree when Mrs. Herbert succumbs to his demands that she, in turn, provide him with room and board for the duration, and meet with him privately each and every day for sexual favors.  

Though it causes her some emotional distress, Mrs. Herbert acquiesces. As for the rest of the Herbert household, Mr. Talmann (Hugh Fraser), the Herbert’s son-in-law, objects to Neville’s abrasive manner, while his wife - Mrs. Herbert’s beloved daughter – Mrs. Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert), is agreeable to the situation. But as Mr. Neville draws, he notices several garments scattered around the grounds, all of which may point to the fact that Mrs. Herbert’s husband never made it out of town. In fact, he may very well have been murdered, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who it was that finished him off.  

The Draughtsman’s Contract is quite funny (along with the often-witty dialogue, there’s a recurring joke involving a naked man - painted head to toe to look like a statue - who appears in the background of numerous scenes), and the movie is also tastefully presented (Mr. Neville’s instructions to the household, telling them which portions of the estate they must avoid during the time he is drawing, are as precise as they are condescending). Then, when the potential murder mystery takes shape, the story grows a bit more complex, mostly because anyone and everyone, including Mr. Neville, had both opportunity and motive to kill Mr. Herbert.  

How it plays out was shocking, to say the least, and once all was said and done, I found The Draughtsman’s Contract to be a very satisfying motion picture experience. 
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 (buy it and watch it several times)  

Thursday, August 13, 2020

#2,513. Deluge (1933)

A pre-code disaster film with some astounding special effects (including the total destruction of New York City), 1933’s Deluge stars Sidney Blackmer (who years later played Roman Castevet in 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby) as Martin, a man who loses his entire family when unexplained meteorological events bring about the near-destruction of the entire planet.  

Convinced that his wife Helen (Lois Wilson) and their two children perished during the cataclysmic event, Martin eventually meets and falls in love with Claire (Peggy Shannon), a professional swimmer.  But can the two avoid a roving gang of thugs, one of whom (played by Fred Kohler) is bound and determined to make Claire his wife? 

Directed by Felix E. Feist, Deluge gets off to a quick start (the world is all but destroyed by the 15-minute mark) and features scenes that, even today, are a bit shocking (at one point, Martin stumbles upon the body of a young girl, and the inference is that she was raped and killed by the gang that’s harassing Claire). 

The cast is serviceable (Peggy Shannon delivers the strongest performance), and the post-apocalyptic storyline is good for a few thrills, but it’s the special effects, complete with a tsunami that obliterates the Statue of Liberty (a la The Day After Tomorrow), that make Deluge a must-see for classic movie aficionados.
Rating 8 out of 10 (watch it now!) 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

#2,512. The Captain (2017)

Written and directed by Robert Schwentke, 2017’s The Captain is a Black and White German film set during the final weeks of World War II. 

While trying to escape the authorities, a German army deserter, Willi Herold (played to perfection by Max Hubacher), stumbles upon an abandoned vehicle containing a Nazi captain's uniform. 

Initially, Herold puts on the uniform to hide from his pursuers, but it isn’t long before he starts acting the part, assembling a band of thieves as his own personal army and ordering them to accompany him to a nearby prisoner camp. Claiming he has direct authority from Hitler himself, Herold seizes control of the camp, inflicting harsh punishment on the German soldiers held there, all of whom (like Herold himself) have been accused of desertion. 

Expertly crafted by director Schwentke, The Captain is a brooding, often brutal motion picture about the corruptible influence of power (Herold not only joins the ranks of those who were after him, but becomes the very man he himself had feared the most). Yet what is most disturbing about this 2017 film isn’t the violence (which is plentiful), but the fact that it is based on the true story of a man history has dubbed the Executioner of Emsland! 

Hard-hitting and unflinching in its approach, The Captain features moments every bit as shocking as those Spielberg gave us in Schindler’s List. Believe me when I tell you this is a film you won’t soon forget. 
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 (Watch it now!)