Thursday, September 24, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Sept. 24, 2020

A random selection of films

1. Come And See (1985)

This 1985 Russian film is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Set in the Belarus region during World War II, Come and See introduces us to Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a young boy who finds a rifle and joins an underground regiment to fight the Nazis. Skillfully directed by Elem Klimov and beautifully shot by Aleksey Rodionov (who employs a number of uninterrupted – and highly effective - long takes), Come and See is nonetheless a harrowing depiction of warfare and the effect it has on the individual (hopeful and vibrant at the outset, Flyora looks as if he’s aged 15 years by the end of the movie), and a late sequence in which the Nazis terrorize a small village is among the most disturbing I’ve ever seen. Ranks right up there with All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory as one of the cinema’s all-time best anti-war films.
Rating: 10 out of 10

2. The Editor (2014)

Written and directed by the gang at Astron-6 (the creative minds behind 2011’s ultra-entertaining Father’s Day), The Editor is a crazy, often hilarious spoof of Italian horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The dialogue is so incredibly over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh, and affectionate jabs are taken at movies like Fulci’s The Beyond (tarantulas turn up throughout, for no good reason), Hitch Hike (there’s a fireside rape scene), and The New York Ripper (a dog playing fetch retrieves a severed hand). The Editor also features tons of nudity, plenty of nods to the Giallo subgenre (including a killer with black gloves), and blood and gore aplenty (in one very funny scene, a woman at an aerobics studio has her entire face ripped off). Put it all together and toss in Paz de la Huerta (as the lead character’s wife) and Udo Kier (as a bizarre doctor) and you have a movie you won’t want to miss. The Editor is an absolute blast!
Rating: 9 out of 10

3. Next Door (2005)

Wow, does this movie mess with your head! John (Kristoffer Joner), recently dumped by his girlfriend (Anna Bache-Wiig), is drawn into the bizarre world of next-door neighbors Anne (Cecilie Mosli) and Kim (Julia Schacht), a pair of promiscuous sisters intent on making his life a living hell. The theme of sexual violence runs rampant throughout Next Door, and often crosses lines that might make some audience members uncomfortable (especially a scene where John is seduced by one of the sisters), yet the ever-growing mystery that envelops the lead character is intriguing enough to keep even the easily shocked on the edge of their seat. This, along with its strong performances and a story that remains a fascinating enigma through much of its runtime, lifts Next Door to a level above that of simple exploitation.
Rating: 8 out of 10

4. Spider Forest (2004)

Spider Forest is a nifty whodunit-that also works as a horror film. Kang Min (Kam Woo-sung) believes he’s stumbled upon a murder scene in the middle of a forest and gives chase to the suspected killer, only to be struck by a car and left for dead. He ends up in the hospital, yet even in his weakened state is drawn to this mystery. With the police convinced he himself is the killer, Kang-Min decides to conduct his own investigation, but is he prepared to uncover the real truth behind these strange murders? The story eventually branches off in a number of different directions, though I never had a problem following along (thanks in no small part to Song Il-Gon’s solid direction), and while the final reveal wasn’t much of a surprise, the journey to get there - coupled with a handful of very brutal scenes - makes Spider Forest a mystery / horror hybrid that’s well worth your time.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

5. Visiting Hours (1982)

A Canadian horror flick with a solid cast; Lee Grant plays a TV newscaster who is being stalked by a killer, and William Shatner appears briefly as her boss. The highlight, though, is Michael Ironside’s amazing turn as the psychopath at the center of it all, a truly despicable guy who enjoys torturing women and photographing his victims while they lay dying. As its title suggests, the majority of Visiting Hours is set in a hospital (where Grant is recuperating from a run-in with Ironside), and there are some effectively creepy scenes. But as the story progressed, and Ironside continued his killing spree, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the complete incompetency of the hospital’s security force (which included a strong police presence). Even when the authorities knew he was coming (and where he was going), Ironside’s killer had no problem taking out patients and nurses alike. After a while, it was almost laughable, and actually detracted from the movie’s overall effectiveness (with security forces running in every direction and never finding anything, there were times when Visiting Hours looked more like a Mack Sennett Keystone Kops short than it did a horror film). Still, Ironside’s performance is reason enough to see it
Rating: 6 out of 10

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,

These initial moments are shot from her perspective, as if we were watching one of those first-person videogames. From hallway to hallway, 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 its 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 she will eventually regain her freedom, Sook Hee follows orders well, carrying out one mission after another, until she is finally given a top-priority assignment. 

Provided 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 her past may have already 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 i
s 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 the 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)