The Soaking Dead: Doom drops down in The Rain (Netflix streaming)

Alba August in The Rain on Netflix
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Netflix has been dropping some stink bombs of late, so I was a bit skeptical wading into The Rain, a Danish post-apocalyptic contagion series that smacks of 28 Days Later and The Walking Deadsans zombies. Actually, the reason I was truly skeptical was because of its 6.1 score on IMDb. For non-IMDb adherents, it’s probably worth mentioning that the best series out there tend to have significantly higher scores than the best movies out there.

Here’s a little amateur research to support that theory:

SERIES IMDb FILM IMDb
Mindhunter 8.6 Zodiac 7.7
The Walking Dead 8.4 28 Days Later 7.6
Fargo 9 Fargo 8.1
The Killing 8.2 Insomnia 7.2
Black Mirror 8.9 Ex Machina 7.7
The Americans 8.3 Eastern Promises 7.7
Stranger Things 8.9 It Follows 6.8
American Horror Story 8.1 The Witch 6.8
Hell on Wheels 8.3 Bone Tomahawk 7.1
Narcos 8.9 El Infierno (El Narco) 7.8

Of the 10 comparisons here, I think I have a strong argument that at least seven are significantly better than their comparative longform peersall of which scored .6 to 2.1 points higher on IMDb. (And I know the horror comparisons aren’t as astute as the others; I just wanted to bring two of the best recent horror movies into the discussion.) Point being, a 6.1 for a series (The Rain) is basically like a 4 for a horror film, or a 5.1 for a crime flicki.e., typically an automatic “don’t waste your fucking time” signifier. (Which reminds me that I need to develop that IMDb-score-by-genre model I’ve brought up beforebecause I actually think the site is much more informative than say, Rotten Tomatoes, if you indeed know how to navigate its inherent biases.)

But before hypothesizing on why The Rain is underappreciated by the IMDb hordesand before boring you to death with numberslet’s talk about The Rain (a solid 7.8 in my book).

The eight-part first season centers around sister and brother Simone and Rasmus, pulled from school by their scientist father as the first whispers of a doomsday event begin to circulate. Soon thereafter, the siblings are trapped in an underground bunker in the forest, taking shelter from killer raindrops. After a brief six years, they emerge.

Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen and Alba August in The Rain

“Oh no, sis—I left meine groovy jumpsuit in zee bunkah.”

I don’t want to give too much away, so suffice it to say that they meet other doomsday survivors, and pretty much everything you’ve ever seen in an apocalyptic survivalist story plays out: battles with evil gangs, encounters with creepy cults, a search for a cure, ominous government forces at play, escapist sexall set to the grand existentialist query of “what the fuck is going on?”

If everything I’ve just outlined sounds completely unoriginal, that’s because, narratively speaking, it is. Apart from the fact that pathogenic precipitationnot the undeadis the enemy here, The Rain is pretty much a narrative rehashing of every doomsday road warrior screenplay ever written.

But this is not a series out to reinvent the wheel. It’s the details here that count. And a few of the most important details include a string of stellar performances (particularly that of Alba August) that bring emotional gravity to the series, as well as a soothingly bleak feel of placecaptured in perpetually gloomy and rainy skies, desolate cityscapes and verdant, mysterious forests.

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2,190 Days Later…

To this last point, The Rain is a perfect grim mood piece for those who find a calming effect in the brand of environmentally attentive cinematography used in other bleak offerings like The Killing, or the recent Nordic noir stuff I’ve been posting about, including Trapped, In Order of DisappearanceThe Oath, and Fortitude. (See my thoughts on bleak, thrilling cinema as ASMR for more.)

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The Killing, AKA “Visual Valium”

The Rain also maintains a strong pace throughout its eight 45-minute episodes. Brief flashbacks flesh out each of the main characters by giving a glimpse into who they were, and what happened to each on the day the world turned upside down. But these backstories don’t linger (ahem, Walking Dead). If anything, they bring intrigue to the plot line and a bit more humanity to a group of people living in an inhuman world.

the_rain_netflix_cast

With a tight ensemble, The Rain is far from… overcast.

And while certain elements of the show may be a bit predictable, the moral conundrums that normal people deal with in abnormal circumstances are handled attentively, with less of a formulaic good-vs.-evil approach than one might expect. To this point, when things aren’t exactly as they seem, they also aren’t exactly the opposite.

The setbacks here are minor, and mainly just require a bit of suspension of disbelief. (For example, why does Rasmus appear to have aged 10 years during the bunker hideout while Simone looks exactly the same age?) And yes, there’s a strong likelihood that this could go the route of The Walking Dead and get tiresome after a couple seasons simply because it doesn’t really have much of anything new to run with.
Rick Grimes The walking Dead

All said, this series is most likely getting that 6.1 IMDb hate due to the baseness of its plotline. But if you’re looking for a fast-paced, very well-acted, bleak post-apocalyptic mood piece that’s as paradoxically calming as looking out at cold rain showers from a warm window, The Rain is engrossingly bingeable.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.1

-Sam Adams

“I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters”
                            -Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
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Vengeance for Mr. Sympathy: Killer South Korean Thrillers on Netflix, Revisited

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Four film movements over the past several years have kept me optimistic about the direction of bleak cinema. In no particular order, there’s the new-wave of oft-’80s-inspired horror pioneered by Ti West and the like (see: You’re Next, V/H/S/2, House of the Devil, It Follows). Then there’s the existentially bleak bloodbaths on the Outback frontier of Neo-Ozploitation (see: The Rover, Animal Kingdom, The Proposition, Son of a Gun). I’ve also waxed gushy about my fondness for the “country noir” subgenre, highlighted by films like Winter’s Bone, Joe, Mud and Cold in July.

Last but not least, of course, is the most profilic of these movements, and coincidentally the one that Netflix sources most constantly for its streaming catalogue. I’m talking about South Korean revenge-murder thrillers, all recognizable through their dependence on the cultural notion of “han”perhaps one of the most brutal concepts to ever spawn a cinematic revolution.

american han korean han I Saw the Devil

American Han                                Korean Han

Eventually I’ll need to make a comprehensive list of the top films in this subgenre, but for now, suffice it to say that all the following should be watched: I Saw the Devil, The Man from Nowhere, Oldboy, Memories of Murder, The Chaser, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Host, Bedeviled.

If you’re a budding South Korean cinephile like myself, chances are you’ve seen most of the aforementioned titles. Or you’ve read about them on previous posts here. So let me offer forth three lesser-known South Korean flicks I just watched and thoroughly enjoyed. I’m not going to say they’re on the level of I Saw the Devil or Oldboy. They’re also all more fast-paced action-thrillers than what you might expect out of a Park Chan-wook film (i.e., they might be more accessible to those with weaker stomachs and shorter attention spans). Either way, if you have any interest in this movement, here’s a trifecta of very good titles that Netflix streaming currently offers:

A Hard Day
Sun-kyun Lee in A Hard DayFalling thematically somewhere between Infernal Affairs and Headhunters is director Seong-hoon Kim’s A Hard Day. The Infernal Affairs comparison comes from Hard Day being about a deadly game of cat-and-mouse involving crooked cops. The Headhunters one is mainly because Hard Day is the most nerve-wracking, tension-riddled thriller I’ve seen since that incredible piece of Norwegian cinema.

On the way to his mother’s funeral, homicide detective Go Geon-soo (Sun-kyun Lee) is involved in a deadly hit-and-run. He goes to excruciating levels to cover his tracks, with each of his deceitful moves testing the clock in James Bondian fashion.

a hard day Sun-kyun Lee

“I’m sorry mama!”

As his nightmarish evening continues, internal affairs exposes him and some colleagues for taking bribe money. And so it is that we begin our journey in rooting for a crooked, murderous cop, who somehow ends up being one of the film’s more endearing characters (that’s South Korean cinema for you).

As a multilayered web of duplicitous corruption unravels, our hero finds himself in an all-stakes deathmatch with a cunning psychopath who is essentially the South Korean Michael Myers (I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers).

Taking a page from common horror tropes, fast-action thrillers, and even Breaking BadA Hard Day is not a film for those suffering from heart problems, onychophagy or trichotillomania (although it may give your cinematic brain an erection lasting longer than four hours). Does it go beyond suspension of disbelief at times? Perhaps. But it’s also one of the most action-packed and entertaining South Korean thrillers I’ve ever seen.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

No Tears for the Dead
Dong-gun Jang no tears for the dead bloody
So about the title of this post: A main commonality between No Tears for the Dead and A Company Man is that they both follow world-weary assassins who are beginning to give in to a softer side when they’re roused out of bliss/apathy by a very personal offense. (It should be noted that this is a very common theme in “han” films.)

No Tears for the Dead is, after all, director Jeong-beom Lee’s folllow-up to The Man from Nowherea slightly superior film about… a world-weary assassin who is beginning to give in to his softer side when he’s roused out of bliss/apathy by a very personal offense. Often these offenses take place in the form of wives or young girls being kidnapped or murdered (happy holidays, by the way!).

Our lead here is Gon, a hitman who has a change of heart after an assignment goes south. As his comically evil bosses press him to take care of a woman he’s beginning to fall for, he decides to go rogue and flip the script on them. What ensues is one of the most action-packed, high-budget thrillers this genre has spawned. Die Hard is channeled in bloody, explosive tower scenes. Flashy, well-choreographed action comes straight from the Jason Bourne playbook. Taken is also an obvious thematic influence.

Min-hee Kim no tears for the dead bloody

Gon’s girl…

No Tears also has some nice side roles from recognizable han-thriller regulars, including the creepy fucker who likes to bowl with human eyes from Man from Nowhere (Hee-won Kim), and the ever-sinister Dana Lee (OK, you might know him more as  Mr. Takahashi from Curb Your Enthusiasm)…
kyoko black swan curb your enthusiasm

As for drawbacks, Jeong-beom Lee lays the melodrama on a little heavy here just as he did in The Man from Nowhere, but I guess that goes with the geo-cinematic territory. Also, as the film attempts to emulate some of the aforementioned American action-thriller classics, there are some hammy performances that unnecessarily rely on actors attempting to say hard-ass things in English when they clearly have no grasp of the language. (As opposed to, say, my immaculate mastery of the Korean tongue.)

Still, production and action-wise, this film accomplishes as much as any American action-thriller blockbuster in recent memory. It might not have the depravity or sophistication of some han classics, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exhilarating  foreign popcorn flick made in the past few years.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.7

A Company Man
Ji-seob So in A Company Man

While A Company Man is predicated on the not-so-subtle parallel between the dehumanizing realities of Asian corporate servitude and the commitments of a hitman, I’m more interested in recommending it based on it being one helluva bitchin’, kickass action-thriller.

In this installment of world-weary South Korean assassins and their moral awakenings, our man Hyeong-Do (So Ji-Sub) works for a company that does ruthless contract killings. Of course, he meets a beautiful lady with a kid and he decides it’s time to hang up his cleats. Of course, this doesn’t work. I honestly have no reason to give you more of a premise, because it’s the exact same thing that was done in No Tears, Man from Nowhere, etc. The thing is, it’s a formula that works, and Hyeong-Do is just as brooding, handsome and homicidally superhuman as any of his cinematic forebears.

The action is especially strong here, including a wall-scaling, bullet-eluding opening sequence that would make both Jackie Chan and Neo from The Matrix proud. And then there’s that Office Space on PCP moment where our man goes to town on a knife-wielding foe with a rolled up office calendar.

a company man tps reports office space

“If you could get me those TPS reports, that’d be greeeat…”

The production value and cinematography here are certainly not on par with No Tears or Hard Day, which is why I’d say try one of those first (Hard Day is the best of these three, in my opinion). That said, the action is first-rate, the thrills and kills come a mile a minute, and there’s at least a semblance of something to chew on intellectually hereas opposed to No Tears. If, per chance, you viewed Assault on Wall Street (it was bannered on Netflix for awhile) and deemed it at least somewhat worthwhile, Company Man is basically the same movie. But with much better figurative and literal execution.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.7

-Sam Adams

Brazilian Bleak: Wolf at the Door on Netflix Instant

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If Prisoners met Little Children and were lured into a back alley by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, you might have a rough idea of what the Brazilian abduction film Wolf at the Door is about. But even such a miasma of grim, adulterous, child-snatching malevolence would fall short of matching the depravity that exists in director Fernando Coimbra’s 2013 suspense tale.

While this film is not for the faint of heart, it’s also a bit of a departure from the material I typically recommend on this blog. It’s slow-burn suspense at its best—chiller, not thriller; horrific, not horror. It’s also a reminder of how many fantastic, bleak movies are coming out of South America (and often landing on Netflix) without ever getting much of any widespread appreciation (see: Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Pescador, Carlos).

Essentially, where slum tales like Amores Perros and City of God left off, a new generation of excellently devastating filmmaking is taking place south of the border. So without further ado, here’s the rundown on another black diamond in the rough I stumbled upon deep in the ether of Netflix’s foreign catalogue:

Wolf at the Door
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The film begins with a panning shot set to creepy synth music that leads us to the door of a preschool. It’s here that a mother learns her daughter was taken by an unknown woman posing as a family friend. The investigation for the girl is Wolf at the Door‘s narrative premise, but the story unwinds in a much more elegant and mysterious structural fashion than your typical whodunit thriller.

As police investigate, we meet our key players: Sylvia, the slightly clueless neglected wife; Bernardo, the creepy father who’s a slimy John Turturro lookalike; and Rosa, the psychopathic, attractive young mistress who for some unexplained reason is stalkerishly drawn to a slimy John Turturro lookalike.

john turturro Milhem Cortaz lookalike

“Ladies love the creepy teeth, bro.”

What unfolds is a series of Rashomon-style flashback scenarios leading us to the kidnapping and its underlying motivations. The cards are laid out slowly, but the chaos and unsettling psyches of two of the main characters only plummet to grotesquely deeper realms as we get to know them.

Wolf at The Door accomplishes the task of seamlessly humanizing and then dehumanizing what on the surface would seem to be very ordinary people. It also excels as a captivating movie that runs for 101 minutes without really introducing a single likable protagonist.

landra leal sexy wolf at the door

Hell hath no fury like a psychopathic mistress scorned…

Every detail here counts, so I won’t go much further. But if you liked Prisoners (one of my favorite dark thrillers of the past few years) and don’t mind a slower-paced, less Hollywood-friendly suspense flick, Wolf at the Door is up there with other grim, foreign-language abduction tales like Big Bad Wolves and The Silence (both on Netflix, by the way). The performances by Milhelm Cortaz (Bernardo) and Leandra Leal (Rosa) are also insanely good, with both actors exhibiting a diabolical range that catapults an otherwise-solid suspense tale into an unforgettable prism of human savagery.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.5

-Sam Adams

The Babadook on Netflix Instant: Revisiting the Best (and Most Overhyped) Horror Film of 2014

The Babadook, Essie Davis
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Every couple of years, there’s that indie-horror darling that gets critics horny to affix their names to movie posters via hyperbolic soundbites. Thus was the case with The Babadook, Australian director Jennifer Kent’s debut about a mom and son who are haunted by a scissor-handed, pop-up book character come to life.

OK, to be fair, the most hyperbolic of these critics wasn’t actually a critic. It was William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, who tweeted, “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than THE BABADOOK.” That’s rather lofty praise from the guy who made what everyone and their mother seem to agree is the greatest horror flick of all time. (NOTE: I disagree with you and your mothers.)

Still, this seemed to unleash an avalanche of critical praise that built the flick up to near-Blair Witch levels of hype. So when I went to go see it in theaters last year, I knew a letdown was inevitable.

But wait.

The Babadook is actually a damn good horror movie. Let me illustrate this to you with my own superlatives. …  It’s the best horror movie of 2014 (not a great year for the genre, but still); it’s one of the most emotionally compelling horror films of the past decade; and it features one of the best female lead roles in the history of the genre.

Enough quotables for you? Let’s talk about the movie…

The Babadook
Essie Davis in The Babbadook
Amelia (Essie Davis) lives with her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) in a creaky, barren two-flat in Nowhere, Australia. She’s a lonesome, sex-deprived widow whose husband died six years ago when he was transporting her to the delivery room.

Samuelthe reward of that tragic nightis an amateur magician who shoots other kids with darts, is prone to fits of rage, believes in the bogeyman and regularly screams like a dying hyena. In short, he’s the type of problem child that makes one feel sympathetic toward the Chinese government’s stance on population control.

parenthood, The Babadook, Noah Wiseman, Norm MacDonald

Note to self: forget about fathering children…

Samuel is also the first of several shopworn genre motifs that Babadook introduces. He’s the prescient, mommy-coddled oddball plagued by demons (see: The Sixth Sense, Insidious,The Ring, etc.). I truly look forward to the day when the creepy-kid formula is thrown out the window of horror filmmaking. In the meantime—and to Wiseman’s credit—Samuel is more of a believably tortured soul than he is Child of the Corn. (It’s actually a very strong child-acting performance; I personally have just had enough children in my goddam horror movies.)

Anyway, one day Samuel stumbles on an ominous red book called “Mr. Babadook.” Amelia hesitantly reads it to himuntil she realizes it’s basically an Edward Gorey bedtime story from the depths of hell. And thus an unspeakable evil is released.
Edward Gorey the babadook

While all this may sound incredibly sinister, it should be noted that The Babadook is not the standard jump-out-your-seat horror thriller. It’s more slow-building, high-tension psychological horror with strong emotional overtones tied to the concept of grief. What makes this formula work so incredibly is, first and foremost, the transformative work of Essie Davis.

Her beautiful-but-disheveled Amelia wears an exhaustive home life on her face, and the weight of her hellish, grief-stricken burden is beyond just palpable. Davis’ acting is the kind of stuff Oscars are made for. Unfortunately, The Babadook is an indie horror movie, and therefore unpalatable to the mild-mannered octogenarian elite who bestow such honors. (I’d venture that the late Johnny Cochrane would find it humanly fucking impossible to make a compelling argument that Rosamund Pike’s performance in Gone Girl is on par with what Davis did here.)

essie davis the babadook

Heeere’s Mommy!

It should also be mentioned that this flick is the best tale of grief in horror since The Descent (a personal horror top-five). I can’t really go into the uncanny similarities between the two films without giving much away, but I think you’ll get the gist.

Another strong point of Babadook is that despite its tendency to rely on horror tropes, the narrative and emotional undercurrent of the film are anything but formulaic or stilted. The film is about the roots of a troubled child’s dark imagination as much as it is about a mother coming to terms with hell on Earth. Narrative analogies in the form of old cartoon and movie clips played in Amelia’s home bring both wit and ominous artistic flair to the mother and son’s predicament. (In particular, digging into the annals of Georges Jean Méliès’ work to provide imagery for the titular character is a stroke of cinematic brilliance.)

Georges Jean Méliès, The Babadook

You might recognize Georges Jean Méliès’ work from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

All said, while The Babadook is by no means one of “the most terrifying films of all time,” it is a beautifully imaginative horror flick, and one that relies more heavily on acting and psychological drama than the CGI, torture porn and “jump” factors that seem to dominate much of the genre’s modern-day output.

Sure, it’s slow and has its fair share of contrivances. But while you might want more monster out of something that masquerades as a monster movie, you couldn’t ask for more out of Essie Davis, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better allegory for the pitfalls of grief in any genre.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.9

-Sam Adams

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night on Netflix Instant: The Hipster Vampire Movie that’s Better than Jim Jarmusch’s Hipster Vampire Movie

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night best of Netflix instant
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Director Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the vampire movie Jim Jarmusch should have made. Or perhaps the one he would have made 30 years ago.

Instead, Jarmusch served us Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)a largely plotless mood piece about self-indulgent hipster vampires; a film that self-indulgent hipster critics saw their transparent, vain reflection in, and heaped with such enigmatic praise as “a meditation.”

Tom Hiddleston Tilda Swinton Only Lovers Left Alive hipsters

“I hope they serve PBR in hell.”

While we’re on the subject, don’t patronize me about how Only Lovers was an allegory to the plight of the aging rockstar, the death of rock and roll, or some other grandiose malarkey. Its attempts at tongue-in-cheek humor about immortals cavorting with dead artists was groan-inducingly pretentious to a Diablo Cody-esque level. (And I don’t see how the fuck Tom HiddlestonAKA morose, bootleg Jared Letowhining nostalgic about the merits of vintage guitars and LPs equates a “thoughtful, atmospheric” film.)

As a former Jarmusch fanMystery Train and Down by Law were at one time two of my favorite moviesmy two cents is that the guy hasn’t made a worthwhile flick since Ghost Dog. But hey, perhaps I just have a softer spot in my heart for the hipsters of yesteryear (Jarmusch’s castings of Tom Waits and John Lurie) than the egocentric shitbags he’s portraying nowadays.

Tom Waits John Lurie Down By Law

John Lurie and Tom Waits in the phenomenal Down By Law—back when being a hipster stood for something!

Oh, and about that other movie…

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
a girl walks home alone at night on netflix streaming

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, A Girl Walks Home at Night, that terrific Iranian vampire flick that feels a lot like those great Jarmusch films of old.

It opens in the fictional town of Bad City, as our brooding, Iranian James Dean of a protagonist Arash (Arash Marandi) steals a cat from a junkyard for no apparent reason. While this occurs, gypsy organ music that sounds like something off Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs plays in the background.

Then there’s the bleak, barren industrial cityscapes that Arash walks through as he puffs cigarettes in his dark shades. We see the recurring image of an open mass grave in a dried up canalan early signifier that rules of modern law and logic are less important to this narrative than the weird we’re about to be immersed in. And with these stylings of offbeat mystery, sinister imagery and grim coolness, the influence of black-and-white Jarmusch classics like Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise is undeniably apparent from the get-go.

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Cool Cats, B.A.D. City

After a bit more of Arash chain-smoking and cruising around in his vintage hotrod, we get a picture of his family life, which is far less hip. Arash’s dad is a feeble junkie, heavily indebted to a slippery goon who looks a bit like a hybrid of Ivan Drago and one of the Taken thugs.
Dominic Rains Hey Girl A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Our last major character (outside of House of Cards‘ Mozhan Marnò as a beautiful prostitute) is, of course, The Girl. Bad City is kind of like an underpopulated Gotham, and The Girl (Sheila Vand) is its vampire bat-woman. She patrols the streets in a black cloak and one of those black-and-white French sailor shirts that hipsters seem to fancy. She also rides a skateboard. Consider her the anti-manic, empowered pixie dream girl.

Sheila Vand Zooey DeSchanel A girl walks home alone at night

Sheila Vand: The Iranian-American answer to Zooey DeSchanel

A large part of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s intrigue is its balance of beautifully bizarre art-house stylings mixed with the type of live-undead romance that worked so charmingly in Let the Right One In (and failed so miserably with those apathetic, narcissistic mopes from Only Lovers). A magically lit scene set to the tune of White Lies’ aptly titled “Death” shows our lonely outcasts basking in the shadows of a disco ball as they come together in the night. Like so much of the film, it blurs the line between dream sequence and traditional narrative, and feels more like something out of Lost in Translation than your typical bloodsucker fest.

Sheila Vand Arash Marandi A girl walks home alone at night white lies death song

Love at first bite.

Then there are the parts of the film that feel more like art-house for art-house’s sake—but that’s really not a bad thing here in less you came looking for Blade 4. A scene halfway through shows the film’s randomly everpresent cowboy drag queen dancing with a balloon in an empty dirt lot. What does it mean? What does it say about the movie? Factually, little. Artfully, it’s one of A Girl Walks Home’s many bizarre and inexplicable gifts to simply take in. Or maybe it’s just a rehashing of American Beauty‘s plastic trash bag scene. You decide.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night drag queen

Stranger than purgatory...

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night leaves us with a few other unsolved riddles. Mainly, what the fuck is the deal with that cat? Still its blend of art-house, horror and romance makes for one of the best additions to Netflix’s recent catalogueand arguably cements it as the best vampire flick since Let the Right One In.

If you want a more traditional vamp story, try Stake Land (also on Instant). If you’re a Jarmusch fan with a dark bent, it doesn’t get much better than this.

IMDb: 7.1
GRADE: B+ / A-

-Sam Adams

Beasts of Western Europe: Bullhead and Wolf on Netflix Instant

wolf and bullhead on netflix streaming
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“Man is a rope, tied between beast and Superman—a rope over an abyss.” —Nietzsche

When you think of beefed-up Euros going apeshit on the silver screen, Van Damme and Schwarzenegger probably come to mind before heady art house flicks. Rather than glorify alpha-male violence, Bullhead (2011, Belgium) and Wolf (2013, Netherlands) are films that delve into its psychological underpinnings and criminal repercussions with stunning visceral and emotional results.

Both stories pit their protagonist as a man walking the tightrope between brutish beast and conscientious being. Both even go so far as to flesh this paradox out with a sort of reverse anthropomorphism (man becomes bull, man becomes lupine predator).

Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead drinking vodka

Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead: GOT VODKA?

I know I may come off as a bit of a horse’s ass (reverse-anthropomorphic pun intended) for opening with a Nietzsche quote, but I think it’s relevant here. The maniacal German philosopher’s notion of the “he-man”—or Übermensch—is probed bluntly and bleakly in both Wolf and Bullhead. Sure, we see the aesthetic glory and brutal splendor that Nietzsche lusted after (and that Hollywood loves to commodify), but we also see these notions deflated and emasculated in the most devastating ways.

If you want two great crime movies with similar themes, here they are. If you want two great crime movies that make you go off on Nietzschean existential tangents, here they are as well.

Bullhead
bullhead movie belgium netflix instant

Much like Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, director Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead is a devastatingly bleak European gangster flick that ventures into the more obscure areas of criminal enterprise. It also deals with the dynamic of a juvenile friendship, beginning in adulthood and flashing back to a horrific juncture that created a shameful rift between the boyhood mates.

In this sense, Bullhead plays a bit like a minimalist, apolitical version of The Kite Runner—if only Khaled Hosseini’s story had been put in the hands of Nicolas Winding Refn (a particular, neon-lit club scene could have been seamlessly woven into any of the Pusher films).

Bullhead sets its ominous tone from the opening frame, with a monologue played over a shot of a misty field. The not-so-upbeat narration ends this way: “No matter how long ago it was, there will always be someone to bring it all back. Because no matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure, you’re always fucked. Now, tomorrow, next week or next year, until the end of time, fucked.”

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Bullhead expresses the natural sentiment associated with sublime Belgian pastures: We’re all fucked.

The film’s tortured, brooding protagonist is Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts). Jacky has taken over his family’s corrupt livestock business, and for reasons I can’t disclose without playing spoiler, has an escalating habit of shooting himself in the ass with bovine growth hormones.

The film pushes this notion of the intermingled similarities between beast and man to the point that you almost expect Jacky to morph into a minotaur. But this isn’t necessarily a setback if you can dig a film based on slow, foreboding character study.

I also can’t emphasize the word “brooding” highly enough in regard to Schoenaerts’ magnificent portrayal of a gloomy beefcake who trudges through life with a menacing chip on his shoulder. And like any prodded bull, Jacky is prone to fits of severe, blind rage.

The film’s narrative unfolds around Jacky reuniting with his former bestie (Jeroen Perceval of Borgman) as the  Vanmarsenille farm is linked to a mafia hit. As Jacky meets with a gang boss and tries to keep his family business in check, a lost love from his past also enters the picture. With the pressure on, Jacky eventually breaks out of the pen. And what ensues is a bit like watching a bull in a China shop.

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Jeroen Perceval, most recognizable from Borgman—that creepy Dutch movie about the devil doing home invasions.

Bullhead excels as a disturbing character study of an alpha male in mental anguish and turmoil. It’s a refreshing departure from Hollywood, where a guy like Matthias Schoenaerts would be designated to mindless roles in movies where a bunch of shit blows up. In other words, it’s kind of like watching Requiem for a Dream… starring Vin Diesel.

The film’s conclusion isn’t exactly satisfying, but hey, it’s a movie about a guy who injects bull testosterone into his ass. What did you really expect?

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.4

Wolf
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If Drake were to make a biopic about Drake, he would probably want  his inflated ego to come across much like Marwan Kenzari’s character of Majid in director Jim Taihuttu’s Wolf. Drake, of course, likes portraying himself in gritty black-and-white videos as a version of himself that isn’t softer than a tumble-dryed down pillow. And like Drake’s vision of himself, Majid is a muscle-bound, culturally conflicted badass who started from the bottom and… well, you get the gist.

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Aubrey “Drake” Graham: the menacing figurehead behind albums like Take Care, and tours like Would You Like a Tour?

I digress. We meet Majid—a Muslim of Moroccan heritage—as he and his sketchy buddy Amil (Chemseddine Amar) casually discuss speed bikes on a vacant street while window-shopping. Next thing we know, they’re bashing in a storefront and going full-fledged GTA.

The laid-back dialogue of this scene contrasted with its ensuing criminal violence brings to mind Pulp Fiction. It’s a bit like watching very small-time versions of Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega chop it up about foot massages and Le Big Mac before unleashing their vengeance.
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This scene isn’t the only one in which Wolf borrows from the sleek badassery of American crime classics. There’s also as much Tony Montana shit going on here as the next rags-to-riches gangster flick. And in terms of that reverse-anthropomorphic thing, there’s a moment where Majid confronts his spirit animal and director Taihuttu essentially plagiarizes one of the most poetic scenes from Deerhunter.

But perhaps the most relevant comparison for Wolf would be Mathieu Kassovitz’s brilliant La Haine (1995)—another black-and-white flick depicting petty crook life in Euro slums and backdropped by a hip-hop aesthetic and soundtrack. (There’s a fantastic—albeit hyperbolic—montage in Wolf that shows Majid and Amil making their crime comeuppance set to hilarious Euro thug rap that name drops Keyser Soze and Julius Caesar. An American remake could definitely use this 2 Chainz song…)

Like La Haine, Wolf gets into the sociopolitical nature of racism and systemic corruption in what outsiders might typically think of as idyllic European cities (La Haine‘s Paris and Wolf‘s Utrecht). The inner struggle that Majid faces as a brutish kick boxer and criminal mixed with his family’s strict Islamic heritage is particularly engaging, and points to the film’s highlight—a remarkable and dynamic performance from Kenzari (who is starting to get some Hollywood play in the film’s wake).

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Majid’s two-timing girlfriend Tessa: the Dutch Alexandra Daddario

Wolf is certainly a more entertaining and more rapidly paced film than Bullhead. That said, it can easily be criticized of being influenced by American films like Raging Bull, Pulp Fiction and Deerhunter almost to the point of copyright infringement. Still, Kenzari’s breakout performance as a conflicted he-man struggling between family, pride, honor and infamy is worth the 122-minute runtime alone. Add in some fantastic cinematography and gripping fight scenes, and Wolf makes for one of the more impressive recent additions to Netflix Instant’s strong cache of foreign crime cinema.

GRADE: B+ / A- 
IMDb: 7.3

-Sam Adams

Wild Bill on Netflix Instant: British thuggery with a pulse

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Guy Ritchie is to modern-day British gangster cinema what Ed Sheeran is to teenage girls with cherubic hobo fetishes. When Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was released in 1998, a subgenre that had birthed such classics as Get Carter (1971) and The Long Good Friday (1980) was reanimated on a global stage.

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…a lesson the King of Cockney taught us in Get Carter.

No doubt highly influenced by Tarantino’s hyperreal stylization, Ritchie followed up his raucous debut with another cult-classic, Snatch. Since, however, his schtick has devolved into half-assed attempts like Revolver (most notable for Andre 3000 giving the worst performance by a rapper since Ice-T in Leprechaun in the Hood); the unwatchable remake of Lina Wertmüller‘s glorious sexistential 1974 film Swept Away (most notable for Madonna’s performance in the worst movie starring a pop singer this side of Gigli); and those Sherlock Holmes movies—which conjure a video game idea Michael Bay thought up while taking a shit.

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Q: What’s cooler than being cool?   A: Never acting again, Three Stacks.

That said, Ritchie deserves credit for his better “Mockney” efforts, and perhaps more so for the wave of UK crime cinema they’ve inspired. Sure, the movement has spawned its fair share of overstylized, horribly written filth that many a Brit no doubt loathe being associated with. Specifically, I’m referring to just about anything Jason Statham has ever done (full disclosure: I have lapped up every Statham movie on Netflix Instant with the guilty-pleasure-induced appetite of a middle-aged housewife with a box of Franzia and a Lifetime marathon).

But there have also been some absolutely brilliant films added to the canon. Sexy Beast (2000) is a genre-bending classic that features Ben Kingsley’s turn as one of the greatest big-screen villains of all-time. Terence Stamp killed it in the paternal revenge thriller The Limey (1999). And of course no one’s kicking Layer Cake out of bed for eating crumpets.

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Don Logan: All-around nice guy.

While Snatch—and at least six Statham-led movies—are currently on Netflix Instant, so is another fantastic, lesser-known modern British gangster flick:

Wild Bill
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There’s a storm brewing throughout Wild Bill, a film about a “nutter” who’s just come home from eight years in the pen and is reintroduced to his two slum-living boys. Our titular antihero (played by Charlie Creed-Miles, aka Billy Kimber from Peaky Blinders) is a small-time crook with a larger than life reputation.

In many ways, Bill’s disposition is much like that of Nicolas Cage’s in Joe (another film titled after—and focused mainly on the psyche of—its lead). Both men are ex-cons with unpredictable temperaments who could snap at any given moment. And as in Joe, much of Wild Bill’s tension lies in the fact that we know from the outset that Bill—at first feeble and aimless upon his release from prison—will once again go wild. The questions that drive the story are simply when, and to what consequence?

Pressure is added to these questions when Bill is unwittingly forced into a parental role he’s clearly not cut out for. Initially, he takes the responsibility as if he were Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. He uses the free lodging that his older, mature son has provided as a haven for pot smoking, drunkenly passing out on the couch, and consorting with a kind-hearted hooker.

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“Can we fix you some sandwiches?”

Reality soon hits Bill like a swift kick in the bollocks when a street gang from his past starts making threats on his family. From here, it’s on Bill to see what extent he’ll go to in righting a heretofore unremarkable and wasted existence.

A large part of what makes Wild Bill an exceptional British gangster flick is that it draws elements from both Guy Ritchie and another British filmmaking stud, Danny Boyle. It’s got the fast-paced, street-tough humor of a Ritchie flick, but also the more real-world-savvy emotional core found in the breadth of Boyle’s work (and the comedic flair of Trainspotting). In short, unlike what Ritchie detractors—and haters of other Mockney offshoots—might argue, it’s not simply style for style’s sake.

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Familiar faces from Wild Bill ‘s motley crew.

Another similarity Wild Bill shares with both Trainspotting and those better Ritchie films is its use of a colorful ensemble cast. Director Dexter Fletcher employs a who’s who of talented B-list British crime actors. Leo Gregory and Marc Warren (both familiar from Green Street Hooligans) play Bill’s shifty nemesis and a cracked-out dad, respectively. Neil Maskell (Kill List—also on Netflix Instant, and totally worth the watch), plays one of Gregory’s cronies. Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock, Snatch, Layer Cake) makes a brief cameo. Andy Serkis—Hollywood’s favorite CGI stand-in—sheds his Gollum and Planet of the Apes makeup to play a menacing crime boss. And Iwan Rheon provides a comedic turn as a petty crack dealer who thinks he’s a badass rasta (hard to reconcile when pitted against his role as Ramsay Snow the Castrator on Game of Thrones).

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Iwan Rheon, aka Ramsay Snow.

The only debatable setbacks in this film would be that it’s not really as much of an all-out “gangster” flick as some of the aforementioned titles, and it also leans a bit heavily on heartfelt drama (a taboo subject on this here blog) as it comes to a close. Still, there’s more than enough smashing of pint glasses, soccer hooligan head-butting and general badassery to appease those looking for a proper follow-up to Lock, Stock and Snatch. And beyond that, it’s just a bloody damn good film, spearheaded by the underused Charlie Creed-Miles’ magnificent work.

GRADE: B+/A-
IMDb: 7.2

-Sam Adams