The Dark Valley on Netflix Instant: Sam Riley Takes Control in Spaetzle Western

the dark valley sam riley
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If I had to pick my top contributors to the Western movie genre, the name John would not be among them. I would forego Wayne, Ford and Huston for the likes of Sam (Peckinpah), Sergio (Leone), Larry (McMurtry) and Cormac (McCarthy). Now I know that the work of these later auteurs stands on the shoulders of classic Westerns of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Films like The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Searchers at one time defined the face of American pop culture.

John Wayne Camel cigarette ad

The Duke: as American as apple pie, Don Draper and lung cancer.

But in the same way that it’s a ridiculously antiquated, sentimentalist notion to call Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made, it should be acknowledged that Western filmmaking and its underlying ideologies have changed and, lord forbid, evolved since the era of neckerchief-clad, lassoo-twirling dandies roundin’ up Injuns.

More to the point: I like my Westerns weird, bleak and bloody. I love the heightened style and sparse dialogue that Leone and Eastwood pioneered. And while The Wild Bunch isn’t my favorite Peckinpah movie, it introduced concepts to the genre that had been missing—namely blood, the vulgarity of humans killing humans, and an outlaw’s sense of humor about these things.

Sam Peckinpah Isela Vega NSFW

Sam Peckinpah had his head in the right place (pictured with Isela Vega on the set of 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia).

But one thing hasn’t changed. From Ford to Leone and Peckinpah to modern classics like No Country for Old Men, Hollywood—and the world at large—seems as smitten with the genre as it was back in the days of Hopalong Cassidy.

The past few decades have seen some sterling additions, including Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, what an asshole of a title) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005).

Guy Pearce The Proposition

Guy Pearce in Australia’s The Proposition—one of the best Westerns of the past few decades.

Those last two films come from a Kiwi and an Aussie director, respectively. I mention this because the genre has become so widespread that the lore of the American West has perhaps been best expressed over the past decade via foreign manifestations.

Which brings us to Germany, where in the 1960s, a Western film movement based on Karl May’s Winnetou books brought cowboys and Indians to the Krauts. But times have changed, and the German-Austrian film The Dark Valley is to Winnetou what No Country was to those “John” classics.

It’s a Western that draws from several corners of the Earth to shape its familiar yet refreshingly stylized narrative. While the title of “Best German Western Ever” might not impress, I’ll further that by saying that Dark Valley is one of this millennium’s stronger additions to one of the most beloved and badass genres of all-time.

The Dark Valley
sam riley the dark valley

The first time I watched The Dark Valley, I couldn’t stop thinking about Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973). Like Drifter, Valley introduces us to an ominous and silent figure who enters a small town on horseback. In both films, it’s hinted at early on that our mysterious protagonist has arrived to avenge horrific sins of the past. And in both films, it is a dark, torturous secret in the town’s history that is the calling card for bloody retribution.

But High Plains Drifter isn’t the only film that seems to have heavily influenced director Andreas Prochaska’s suspense tale set in the 19th Century Austrian Alps. There’s an undercurrent of fear and unease among the townsfolk perpetrated by some dark secret that’s reminiscent of what was going on in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.

And then there’s the snowy, ramshackle lumber town itself—and one particular climactic scene involving this setting—that brings to mind Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (a film that’s in or near my all-time top ten). Finally, there’s some wonderfully stylistic audiovisual sequences that evoke that eerie theme from Ravenous, the score from There Will Be Blood, or really just about any moment in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive.

So there’s your laundry list of comparisons. I mention them mainly because The Dark Valley is a film of patchwork style and influence. This eclectic range extends to its superb lead, Sam Riley—the lone British actor cast in a German film with German dialogue (Important note: Netflix defaults to a dubbed version for U.S. audiences—switch to German with English subtitles).

Control: phenomenal movie.

Riley in Control: phenomenal movie.

Which raises the question, Where the fuck has Sam Riley been? He broke through with his incredible depiction of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007)—a film I’d put alongside Ida (also on Netflix Instant) as having the most stunning black-and-white cinematography of the 21st Century. Since, he’s had forgettable roles in big-budget flicks (Maleficent) and a few big roles in forgettable indie flicks (On the Road, Brighton Rock).

Anyway, old Sam returns to form in The Dark Valley as Greider, a Yank who’s travelled to an isolated Austrian mountain town under the guise of an Ansel Adams-inspired photographic mission.

greider sam riley dark valley

Portrait of the gunman as a young artist…

The town is run by Old Brenner, an iron-fisted tyrant who, along with his six sons, upholds a decades-old tradition of shame that keeps the villagers in perpetual fear. Tensions begin to mount as a girl whose family Greider is staying with finds herself in line for the sadistic ritual.

Like Riley’s performance, The Dark Valley builds with a slow burn that might detract viewers looking for a 3:10 to Yuma-style shoot ’em up. Valley is an atmospheric Western. Part of that means Sam Riley spending quite a bit of time brooding while he looks at himself in a mirror, backdropped by eerie noise music. It also means plenty of gorgeous camera work around the sublime snow-covered valley where the film is set.

the dark valley netflix

Ah, the Alps: Home to Sound of Music, frolicking goats and inbred psycopaths.

When the chips begin to fall, however, the film is as suspenseful and stylistically glorious as any of the recent Western triumphs I’ve mentioned. In particular, the brilliant cinematography mixed with Riley’s escalating emotional range bring us to one of the most phenomenal climactic shootout scenes the genre has seen in the past few decades. Director Prochaska embellishes all of this with a murderous montage set to the tune of a song by indie band Steaming Satellites (although I’m sure some purists may hate this scene for its hyperreal blending of new and old).

the dark valley netflix instant

Rooster Cogburn wants his eyepatch back…

Due to its initially tedious pace and rather conventional narrative, The Dark Valley isn’t exactly on the same level as modern classics like The Three Burials, The Proposition and No Country. Still, when pitted against the slew of simply above-average Western flicks of the past few years that Netflix Instant has to offer (Sweetwater and Blackthorn come to mind), Valley is a damn fine piece of filmmaking, aided particularly by Prochaska’s style, Thomas Kienast’s cinematography and Riley’s controlled performance.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2

-Sam Adams

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Joe on Netflix Instant or: The Beautiful Insanity of Letting Nicolas Cage Be Nicolas Cage

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If you filled a speedball with a dose of Winter’s Bone, a dash of Eastbound & Down and a hefty pour of old-school Nicolas Cage, the result—once injected into celluloid—would be director David Gordon Green’s Joe.

In many ways, it’s the kind of film that Scorsese and Bob Rafelson and Sam Peckinpah were making in their heyday. I’m not saying that Joe is as good as Taxi Driver or Five Easy Pieces or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but for the most part, it’s got the type of filmmaking balls that those flicks had.

And much in the same way that badass character actors like De Niro, Nicholson and Warren Oates were given free reign to go apeshit in those flicks, Nicolas Cage gets the opportunity to show why there are still those among us with faith in a guy whose recent filmography has redefined Hollywood’s Mendoza Line.

Nicolas Cage Warren Oates Jack Nicholson Robert De Niro

What’s not to love about morally conflicted men with the weight of the world on their shoulders and a vicious mean streak?

But before I get too much into Cage, let’s get back to that idea of why Joe, for the most part, feels like a fitting accompaniment to that period of unbridled, freeform filmmaking that was so excellently captured in the nostalgic documentary A Decade Under the Influence.

On the surface, Joe opens as a film about a volatile but goodhearted ex-con who’s gone semi-straight and now runs a work crew that poisons trees at the behest of a big lumber company. Joe hires on a 15-year-old boy (Tye Sheridan, Mud) to help out, and the two develop a close bond. Problem is, boy has a drunken, money-grubbing pappy who’s meaner than the day is long. A scarfaced nemesis of Joe’s also helps set the stage for the film’s storyline.

But the storyline is by no means why I’m gushing about this film. Joe excels much more as a series of  dark, improvisational backwoods vignettes than it does as a traditional narrative. It’s got that raw edge of ’70s classics like Deliverance, wherein much of the film’s wit, hilarity and unease comes from real folks (and a few trained actors) engaging in loosely directed, improvisational scenes composed of regional dialect.

joe movie gary pouter brian mays

“You betta get yo ass up out my mothafuckin’ jaw… Ya country mothafucka!”

Essentially, Joe is a mood piece set to the tune of barking dogs, rain, booze, skid row slumming and cigarette smoke. But the film’s mood is also just a backdrop, or a platform for two of the most unforgettable performances from 2013.

One of these comes through the off-the-cuff acting of Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless drunken drifter who was tapped to play Tye Sheridan’s dad. Regardless of whether you decide to watch Joe, I highly recommend reading his tragic story.

In one of the most equally unsettling and poignant cinematic scenes I can think of, Poulter’s character Wade (AKA G-Daawg), stalks a man over a bottle of cheap wine. Without giving anything away, what plays out in this scene is what makes Poulter’s character mesmerizing throughout: the depiction of a man hellbent on ruin and greed who, at the same time, hangs on to the most utterly minuscule shred of humanity that could possibly exist within a person.

In that same scene, Poulter also delivers a line that could easily serve as an epitaph for the actor, who died by drunkenly drowning in a puddle of water before Joe was released…

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“A person just don’t know from one day to the next which one is going to be their last.” -Gary Poulter, 1959-2013

You can’t write a character like Wade, who goes on a lengthy diatribe about “popping and locking” and shows off his own dance moves in a scene that’s kind of like Napoleon Dynamite meets the knee-slapping redneck gas station attendant from Deliverance. The only way you can get a performance like his is to drag a quasi-genius hobo like Gary Poulter off the street, stick him into your movie, and see what happens. In Joe—as in those films of yore—the gamble pays off with an almost hyperreal effect.

deliverance You don't know nothin

“You don’t know nothin’.”

And now I think it’s about time we discuss Nicolas Cage.

Perhaps you watched Ghost Rider and its sequel and wanted to swallow a cyanide capsule. Perhaps you watched Bangkok Dangerous, Drive Angry or The Wicker Man remake (truly one of the worst movies ever made). Perhaps you’re just so let down that an actor with so much promise decided to go the De Niro route, spending the last 20 years involved mainly in a series of disastrous money grabs. Or maybe you’ve just had enough of this:

(I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did.) Moving on…

I will admit that what I’m writing about Joe is by far the most biased recommendation I’ve given on this blog. There was a point in my adolescence when I idolized Cage the way Johnny Depp did Hunter S. Thompson. I didn’t merely admire the man—I wanted to be him. I took this obsession so far as choosing Nicolas as my Christian name when I was confirmed at age 13.

After all, three of the greatest action movies ever made had just come out: Face/Off, The Rock and Con Air (yeah, Con Air is a classic in my book… hate all ya want). There was not a man in Hollywood with the swagger or ability to deliver a line like Cage.

Then came duds like Snake Eyes, 8MM and Bringing Out the Dead, and all of a sudden, the Michael Jordan of acting was gone in sixty seconds.

At that age, I was unaware of a little flick—sandwiched between those epic blockbusters—called Leaving Las Vegas (also on Netflix Instant). Cage proved there his acting chops were both something extraordinary and something of a uniquely inimitable brand that only one man possessed.

Since Joe‘s release, it’s been billed as Cage’s return to form, and his strongest work since Leaving Las Vegas. The latter is true, but for every 10 Season of the Witch’s, Cage has managed to slip a few great, overlooked performances into his repertoire. Chief among these was his work in the great Werner Herzog’s miserably titled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. A lot of folks also liked Adaptation. (personally I could give two shits about the pretension of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, but Cage was good in it). And Lord of War was a thoroughly enjoyable machismo rip-off of Goodfellas.

So what is so damn special about Cage’s performance in Joe? Well, not only is he given free reign to be himself, but he’s given free reign to be a vile, hilarious psychopath, which if we’re being honest, is exactly where Cage excels:

Cage goes rogue-Cage in this movie, and for anyone who’s ever been a fan of his, it’s one of the most glorious damn things in years. This said, I think it would be a mistake to heap all the praise solely on the man himself. Which is where David Gordon Green comes in.

Green has a resume that makes very little sense. In the early 2000s, he was doing touchy-feely indie flicks. Then he joined the Seth Rogen-Jonah Hill bandwagon and directed Your Highness and Pineapple Express. And then he made that pandering piece of indie laxative that you’ll see on every Gawker-y Netflix list called Prince Avalanche. However, he also directed 12 episodes of the sensational John Rocker-themed HBO series Eastbound & Down, starring Danny McBride as Kenny “La Flama Blanca” Powers.

Kenny Powers David Gordon Green Joe

Eastbound & Down: one of the best comedy series ever made. Period.

EB&D merits mention in this growing novella of a post for a few reasons. Namely, co-creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride were executive producers on Joe (and also because of Green’s connection)For those who can detect it, Joe is full of the exact same brand of black humor that EB&D made a killing on. And that—combined with the improvisational acting and bleakness of Winter’s Bone—is what makes Joe such a fascinating, eclectic anomaly of a film.

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Cage’s fixation with referring to canines as “assholes” provides for some of Joe‘s better laughs.

Not everyone is going to love this movie. And since its much more scattered and unhinged than your traditional Hollywood narrative, I’m sure a lot of folks will just wonder what the fuck is going on. Which is fair, because Joe has its share of flaws. (For example, the constant shrouded-in-menacing-mystery dialogue about who Joe really is is played up more than just a little heavy handedly.)

But if we’re calling Joe a flawed movie, I’d add that it’s hands-down one of the best flawed movies made in the last 40 years. Joe is country noir at its finest, and a prime example of a national treasure getting back to what he does best.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 6.9

-Sam Adams

NOTE: I particularly recommend this flick to folks who liked Blue Ruin; Jeff Nichols movies like Shotgun Stories and Mud; and anyone who’s ever read a Daniel Woodrell novel.

V/H/S and V/H/S/2 on Netflix Instant: Found footage not to be frowned upon

V/H/S and V/H/S/2 on Netflix Instant
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“Found footage” has grown to carry a rather negative connotation amongst horror fans. Much of this is for good reason, what with the innumerable low-budget, low-quality and utterly braindead derivatives of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity (including several of the half-assed Paranormal sequels themselves). But recent strides have shown that there’s still sustenance waiting to be milked from this zombie-cow of a sub-genre.

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Cannibal Holocaust (1980): The grandaddy of found footage and one of the most gruesomely warped movies of all time.

Highlights among these modern additions include REC, the great George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, Trollhunter and 2014’s The Taking of Deborah Logan (the last two of which are available on Netflix Instant). Bigger-budget films like Chronicle and Cloverfield were also impressive, although I’d file them more under sci-fi-suspense than horror.

The psychology—not economics—behind why found footage films have become so successful is rather simple. On one level, we live in a culture that is unhealthily obsessed with voyeurism. On another, I would argue that this sub-genre caters to horror fans who, like myself, have trouble suspending their disbelief (e.g., I don’t believe in ghosts, so it’s hard for me to take exorcism or haunting stories seriously unless they get really damn creative.)

Watching a horrific tale unfold in what appears to be a more organic way works—at the very least—as a device that heightens the plausibility of such stories for viewers. Or put more plainly, the lifelike stylization of a movie within a movie overwhelms my ape brain, enabling it to quickly succumb to ideas I might have previously scoffed at. … At least that’s my two cents.

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Zombie rabies: somehow much more believable when shot with a shaky handcam on night vision.

So as a horror lover who believes found footage is by no means an exhausted fad, one might ask what took me so long to get toV/H/S and V/H/S/2. The answer, quite simply, is that they have absolute shit scores on IMDb. The first installment carries a lousy 5.8, and the second is just slightly higher with a 6.1.

I’ve warned readers several times that horror scores on IMDb are usually at least a point below what a non-horror movie of equal caliber would draw. Still… I can only think of a handful of movies that ever ranked at a 6 or below that were worth my while (Here’s to you, Beer League). So why did these two really good horror flicks score so low? Chalk it up to moral outrage from non-horror fans translating into IMDb lowballing. Which is a good segue for a more specific look at our first recommended film in this post:

V/H/S
Hannah Fierman V/H/S Amateur Night

V/H/S opens through the lens of a group of hipster jackasses going around and filming themselves in acts of torment and destruction. Their first “prank” is a pseudo-rapey act in which they attack a couple in a parking garage.

I’m fairly sure quite a few of those negative scores on IMDb came from viewers who couldn’t make it through the first 20 minutes of the movie. While the actions of these small-time goons is certainly morally reprehensible, the shoddy, shaky, handheld recording quality of the film in the opening sequences is even more of an affront to the general public. It makes Blair Witch look like it was shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki.

Emmanuel Lubezki Children of Men six minute shot

The brains behind Children of Men‘s famous uninterrupted six-minute action shot, Emmanuel Lubezki also killed it with Birdman and Gravity. Too bad he wasn’t available for V/H/S

For those who can exercise a bit of patience, V/H/S quickly takes a turn for the better as the criminals get a cash offer to break into a house and recover a video tape of unknown origin. As the baddies start popping movies into VHS players, they realize they’ve stumbled on a treasure trove of what are mainly supernatural snuff flicks.

Here, V/H/S begins its anthology format, diving into five shorts by five different directors. Thankfully, the earlier narrative goes largely by the wayside, and we’re treated to a series of immensely harrowing found footage tales, all shot in at least slightly superior quality to that barely watchable intro.

V/H/S isn’t the first horror movie to embrace the anthology format (Creepshow and Three… Extremes immediately come to mind), but it is a novel idea for the found footage genre. It’s particularly refreshing when pitted against all that Paranormal Activity jive in which we typically have to wait through about an hour of cabinets banging, chandeliers rattling and lights going on and off before we actually get to see the shit hit the fan.

paranormal activity

Paranormal Activity: Proof that you can make hundreds of millions by screening footage of people sleeping.

If you’ve ever been irked by comedies that are hilarious for the first 45 minutes and then fizzle out due to that whole “narrative thing,” V/H/S is exactly the antidote, except in horror form. The first short, “Amateur Night,” introduces us to more rapey dudes who go bar hopping and bring some drunk girls back to their hotel. Of course, said bros are looking for love in all the wrong places, and date rape quickly turns into a date with destiny.

“Amateur Night” is the strongest of the five shorts in V/H/S, but the other stories—about a couple being stalked on a honeymoon in the Grand Canyon; a demonic backwoods retreat; a Skype chat gone wrong; and a Halloween party from hell—are all intensely creepy shorts.

V/H/S may not be reinventing the wheel, but outside of come choppy camerawork, it’s about as entertaining throughout as a horror film could be. And it also gets some kudos for being the predecessor to one of the best found footage movies ever…

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 5.8

V/H/S/2
V/H/S/2 Hannah Hughes

The recipe for V/H/S/2 is essentially that of its prequel: gallons of blood, lots of boobs and an ever-present nobody-walks theme. However, it’s as if the directors came back and fixed every kink. For one, the main narrative—a dickhead private dick and his sexy sidekick looking for a lost kid and stumbling on more VHS tapes—actually weaves through the films shorts in a way that makes it more than just a castaway excuse for an anthology film.

V/H/S/2 would also probably be more aptly titled H/D/CAMCORDER, as all of its sequences are shot in much higher definition than the original—lending some strong visual appeal to the horrific bleakness of each. And the second installation is a bit more concise than the first, with four shorts instead of five, and 22 minutes less of run time. (Note to indie filmmakers: Editing is not your enemy!)

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I see dead people… in HD.

V/H/S/2 also has the crowning achievement of creating what’s at least debatably the best half hour of found footage work ever made. Directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans, the third sequence in the film, “Safe Haven,” is far and away the pinnacle of both V/H/S films.

The (comparably longer) short begins with a documentary crew filming a notorious Indonesian cult leader. Eventually, they persuade the sinister guru to let them bring cameras into his lockdown camp to expose the truth. Seeing as Ti West and Joe Swanberg have a heavy hand in both V/H/S films, it’s worth noting that this initial set up is eerily similar to that of The Sacrament, West’s 2013 found footage riff on the Jonestown Massacre, which stars Swanberg. (The Sacrament is on Netflix Instant, and is a totally worthwhile horror flick.)

safe haven

“Drink the Kool-Aid, motherfuckers.”

But where The Sacrament leaves your typical doomsday cult scenario, “Safe Haven” takes it a giant, cloven-footed step further. The end result is simply one of the most gloriously gory and innovative executions that modern horror has to show for itself.

The other three segments in this blood-red mosaic don’t disappoint either—both in terms of execution and innovation. Adam Wingard’s “Phase I Clinical Trials” is viewed literally through the eye of a guy with an ocular implant that records his surroundings and allows him a closer connection to the paranormal; “A Ride in the Park,” by Blair Witch alums Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sánchez uses a GoPro to capture a carnival of carnage in a quiet forest; and arguably the second-best short in this film, Jason Eisener’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” well, the title is kinda self explanatory.

Slumber Party Alien Invasion

A PSA from “Slumber Party Alien Abduction”: Dear Signs, you sucked.

In all, V/H/S/2 delivers more shocks and excitement over its 96-minute run time than the entire Paranormal Activity saga combined. It’s not only one of the best found footage movies of all time, but also arguably one of the best and most creative horror flicks of the past decade.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.1

-Sam Adams

Outback Invasion: Mystery Road and the Need for Neo-Ozploitation on Netflix Instant

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Australia is the new South Korea. No, that’s not the title of Jenji Kohan’s latest project about a ragtag Outback family that practices cutesy incest and quirky torture-porn revenge killings. It’s a realization I’ve come to after watching Animal Kingdom, The Snowtown Murders, The Rover, Wolf Creek and a handful of other extremely bleak, atmospheric and depraved Aussie films.

the rover

“Time to grow up and act, Pattinson. Fuck Team Edward!”

The common threads among these titles? They’re all good—some of them really good. They all also attract the same type of viewer that took pleasure in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, I Saw the Devil, The Chaser, The Man from Nowhere… again, the list goes on.

The bottom line: If you like cinematic savagery, revenge tales, serial killer flicks and moody, thought-provoking horror mysteries that make Saw look like the slasher genre’s village idiot, then look no further than eastward (South Korea) and Down Under.

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The Man from Nowhere introduces us to the increasingly popular South Korean sport of bowling with human eyes.

While I’ve already chronicled a few of the great South Korean titles on Netflix Instant, I must admit that I’ve had trouble coming up with a comparable streaming list for what some have dubbed “neo-Ozploitation“—the current wave of flicks that harken back to the blood, sex and existential bleakness that was low-budget Australian cinema in the ’70s and ’80s. One reason for this is that, at least in terms of modern-era comparisons, the South Korean flicks are, generally, slightly superior. The other is that Netflix Instant has a strong reservoir of dark South Korean titles, but a less impressive one for the Aussies.

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Dear Netflix: I humbly submit my pitch…

The Snowtown Murders, for example, is a more-than-decent, gruesome true-crime flick. And I’d say The Horseman, a bloody revenge tale, is even stronger than Snowtown. Both are on Netflix Instant. But neither of these stack up to heavyweights like I Saw the Devil or the Vengeance Trilogy (also on Instant). Chief among the best dark films to come out of Australia in the past decade would be Animal Kingdom, The Proposition (a Western), The Rover and Chopper. Unfortunately, none of these are available streaming. (Note: I have yet to see The Babadook or The Loved Ones, but… they aren’t on Instant either. And Wake in Fright, which would have been a great intro to this movement, just got removed.)

Wake in Fright

Wake in Fright (1971): a boozy, Ozploitation classic.

Which begs the question: What’s a poor guy who blogs about great, dark Netflix Instant movies to do when he wants to focus on Australian murder cinema?

I guess I’ll dive into a flick that was just released which, while not great, is a solid-enough addition to the canon of Australian crime cinema—as well as something that’s far less likely to be known than Snowtown or The Horseman. Then I’ll leave it up to the Redditing hordes to point and chastise me in the direction of a follow-up piece.

Oh, and as for Wolf Creek, it’s not available either. Wolf Creek 2, however, is. Now personally, I loved both of these. But there’s a certain level of campy horror you have to be into to like the Wolf Creeks. Still, if you dug the first one, Wolf Creek 2 is just as good, if not more outrageously enjoyable (and its best scene is a hilariously gory homage to Wake in Fright.)

Anyway, on to our feature presentation, and in the words of Mick Taylor…
Wolf Creek 2


 ….

Mystery Road
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Like many a recent Aussie crime flick, a mood of grim, existential pondering looms heavy throughout director Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road. This is achieved largely through lingering shots of sublime Outback landscapes and the depiction of one man’s quest for justice in a lawless and corrupt culture. For the majority of the film, the seeming futility of our hero’s endeavor only adds to this bleak aura.

This recipe has been done over and again in Aussie films as of late. Why? Probably because there’s a certain intrigue to the isolated creepiness of the Outback, as well as the question of which forces will emerge victorious in situational throwbacks to the uncivilized, badlands of Spaghetti Westerns.

mystery road, clint eastwood

Clint as The Man with No Name and Aaron Pederson as Det. Jay Swan: a pair of badass, cowboy-hat-wearing loners who don’t say much.

Set in rural Queensland, Mystery Road introduces the stoic Det. Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) as he investigates the murder of a teenage prostitute. Foul play is at hand, but because the deceased was Aboriginal, no one in “Jay-boy’s” white-bread department seems to give two shits. As Jay slowly (and I mean languorously fucking slowly) connects the dots between his family, trucker Johns, drug dealers and possible “wild super dogs,” he begins to realize that his department’s neglect of the murder goes much deeper than mere racism.

A strong supporting cast includes Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from The Matrix) as a duplicitous narc, and an uncle of Jay’s (Jack Charles) who bears a striking resemblance to traditional Western depictions of that “Jesus’ dad” guy.

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Jack Charles: Australian for God.

But back to that “grim, existential crime drama” recipe. Just because it’s an intriguing one, that doesn’t mean its inclusion automatically creates an intelligent thriller. I’m sure many would use the terms “contemplative” or “meditative” to express what’s going on in Mystery Road and films like it. Of course, to others, such terms are pretentious euphemisms for “really fucking long and boring.” Personally, I’d say Mystery Road falls somewhere in between those two realms of an artfully crafted mood piece and a film that, quite honestly, doesn’t have enough to say to justify its run time of 121 minutes.

mystery road

This Stephen Shore-esque still pretty much sums up the amount of action Mystery Road delivers for the bulk of its two hours.

That said, here’s why Mystery Road works for me: When this blog first started, I talked about the idea of grim, existentialist thrillers working as a sort of relaxant for certain cinematic brains—just like the fad of ASMR. Mystery Road is exactly the kind of movie I was talking about. The pacing is slower than a crippled echidna, but I found the entire ride very satisfying. Essentially, it’s just 100 minutes of high-tension, low-action crime trance, followed by a refreshingly loud and bloody payoff. In other words, I’d argue that the climax of Mystery Road not only justifies the prolonged lull that precedes it, but that the lull itself is intriguing in its own right. Then again, it’s really only worthwhile if you’re the kind of person that gets off on that sort of trance piece…

So let’s do a quick litmus test: Did you enjoy Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly divisive Only God Forgives? If so, you’ll be just fine with Mystery Road. If you didn’t like that as a mood piece (forget the narrative), you should probably steer clear of this flick—although, to its credit, the climactic scene is much more rewarding in Mystery Road. And while it doesn’t completely resolve itself, there is certainly more of a discernible story line than in Winding Refn’s feature-length karaoke video.

only god forgives

“Wanna fight? … Or would you prefer mood-lighting and an open mic?”

For another comparison’s sake, perhaps it’s best to view Mystery Road as a slightly better, artier, longform Outback rendition of an episode of Longmire. (Aaron Pederson could definitely hold his own in a cop series.)

Mystery Road doesn’t reach the heights of Animal Kingdom or The Proposition, but its certainly no disservice to the “neo-Ozploitation” fad. The only issue I have with the current state of this genre? We need more of it.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.4

-Sam Adams

NOTES: If you get on an Australian film kick and want to get back to some classics via DVD, also check out Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout. And here’s a fantastic list of some classic Ozploitation flicks.
-Also, Noise on on Netflix Instant is a strange-but-worthwhile modern Aussie cop thriller (its big-city setting, among other factors, rendered it unrelatable to other titles in this post.)
-And lastly, I made it through this entire piece without a “shrimp on the barbie” joke. You’re welcome.

The Slum Kids Aren’t Alright: Fish Tank and Gomorrah on Netflix Instant

Gomorrah
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On one hand, Americans are usually complete prudes when it comes to addressing vulgar adolescent behavior in film (Larry Clark movies not withstanding). On the other, Europeans seem to have no issue depicting teenagers in all manner of lude acts. When Blue Is the Warmest Color wasn’t busy being a great film, it was essentially a lesbian scissor-porno. And Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac saga, Alfonso Cuarón’sY tu mamá también and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers had enough teenage fucking to rival a sleepover party at R. Kelly’s house.

Foreign filmmakers also don’t shy away from adolescent violence. For every We Need to Talk About Kevin, one can easily counter with a handful of fantastic subtitled flicks. Amores Perros, La Haine and City of God immediately come to mind.

Most of these films take place in gritty, urban slums. So if Finding Forrester doesn’t really cut it for you as a coming-of-age classic, allow me to recommend two unfiltered and unforgettable Netflix Instant titles that make Spring Breakers look like High School Musical.

Fish Tank
Fish Tank kids smoking
Like the brilliant 1995 French indie hit La Haine, Fish Tank depicts European slum life set to the beat of bass-heavy American hip-hop. I must admit it’s a bit comical to see a bunch of anglo Brits with their Britty tea-and-crumpets accents vicariously living life to the tune of Nas, Gang Starr and Yung Joc (not to mention some great non-hip-hop in the form of Gregory Isaacs and Bobby Womack).

Of course there’s nothing new about this—white Brits (like most whites) have a long tradition of appropriating black music and culture. Perhaps I just think Amy Winehouse came from a more sincere place than, say, a corner kid in Marc Ecko who looks like Eminem but talks like Harry Potter.

kip napoleon dynamite

This about sums up how seriously I can take white British gangstas

To be fair, our 15-year-old protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis in a breakthrough performance) in no way comes across as a poser. In terms of being street-tough, she makes Drake look like Oliver Twist. (The film opens with a great scene where, in true British fashion, Mia breaks another girl’s nose with a football-hooligan-inspired headbutt.)

Fish Tank head butt

“Oi!”

Mia is a b-girl who plays classic hip-hop on her cassette player and break dances in vacant tower apartments as a way to escape her shitty existence. She’s a loner and a bit of a tough cookie—or as her foul-mouthed, chain-smoking younger sister, Tyler, would describe her, a “cuntface.” As for Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), she’s terrific as the anti-Abigal Breslin—consider her “Little Miss Moonshine.”

fish tank

Mia: Drinkin’ beer and smokin’ dope and fightin’ round the world!

If 10-year-olds dropping “C bombs” and drinking and smoking seem unnerving, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Mia and her sister live in a beatdown East London flat with their hot mess of a mom (Kierston Wareing). Mommy’s chief concerns seem to be nursing her hangovers, drinking, men and throwing white-trash reggae parties. The kids can pretty much fuck off.

fish tank

Bad, bad mommy…

One morning while gyrating in the kitchen to a Ja Rule video, Mia is walked in on by a handsome, shirtless Irishman. Mommy’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), is charming as all get out. “You dance like a black. that’s a compliment,” he says in his jovial brogue.

Fassbender Fish Tank

“Top ‘o the mornin’.”

Connor takes the family on fishing trips. He introduces them to soul music (see an amazing use of Bobby Womack’s “California Dreamin'”). He’s essentially the first decent thing to walk into their life in a longtime. Or so it would seem.

But wait. Let’s talk about Fassbender for a minute. Fish Tank was made before he was Magneto; before he got an Oscar nod for 12 Years a Slave. It’s fun watching a great actor at work in the days before he hit the big-time, and Fassbender’s work here is right on par with what I’d consider his two best performances: a hunger-striking IRA man in Hunger and a sex-addict in Shame. Speaking of Shame (which I highly recommend), if you found that bleak, just wait till you get toward the end of Fish Tank

sleazy fassbender fish tank

Does it get any sleazier?

As for the film’s drawbacks, there’s this slightly annoying, blunt metaphor in the form a sick horse that Mia finds in a desolate parking lot. I won’t even get into the heavy-handed symbolism—just consider it that magical fucking plastic bag that was flying around in American Beauty. Yeah, yeah, you’re artsy—we get it.

When it comes to strange scenarios involving horses in gritty, urban landscapes, personally I prefer whatever the fuck this music video has going on:

Fish Tank isn’t a perfect movie (the coming-of-age stuff gets a little sappy), but its view into slum life in East London is incredible in the most unsettling of ways. It’s also driven by two unforgettable performances (Jarvis, Fassbender), not to mention some strong side roles. And it’s a testament to the fact that a killer suspense flick can be made without much of anything in the way of action or bloodshed. Simply put, it’s just a brilliantly disturbing little film.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.3

Gomorrah
gommorah

It’s not the bloodshed. The thing that makes Gomorrah (2008)—a nonfiction-based tale about the disastrous societal effects of feuding Neapolitan gangs—most difficult to watch is the undercurrent of doom that pervades the entire film. If there is a moment in Gomorrah where it looks like things are trending toward uplifting, I must have missed it.

The film opens with a page straight out of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher Trilogy. A group of gold-adorned, Speedo-clad gangsters bask in the neon glow of tanning beds as atmospheric Euro-pop thumps in the background. Then a bloodbath ensues.

Gomorrah

“GTL, baby.”

Winding Refn’s work isn’t the only thing that comes to mind throughout the course of this deathfest. To say that director Matteo Garrone borrows heavily from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s pre-Birdman works (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) would be an understatement. Like much of Iñárritu’s résumé, Gomorrah is harrowingly bleak, and consists of a series of interwoven narratives following a cast of characters all playing out different roles in the same hellscape.

gomorrah slum

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…

Perhaps the most poignant of these stories is the one of Marco and Sweet Pea, a pair of teenage gangster-wannabes. Deluded by what I referred to in a previous post as the “Scarface Effect,” Marco struts around in Hawaiian shirts yelling, “I’m number one.  Tony Montana! … Shit Colombians. They’re everywhere!” Of course, all of this is taking place in the slums of Naples, where the closest Marco and Sweetpea come to Colombia is through the diluted cocaine they pilfer off a group of petty drug dealers.

scarface gomorrah

Tony Montana                                     Bony Montana 

As Marco and Sweetpea score a big bag of blow and stumble on a cache of machine guns and grenade launchers, their delusions of grandeur only become wilder. They have the tools of their fictional heroes, but they’re still just kids acting out a fantasy—and a very dangerous one at that. The most memorable scene in Gomorrah shows the pair blasting AKs and heavy artillery on the banks of a river, clad in tight, Euro underwear.

gomorrah

Walter White would be proud.

Other story lines in the film follow a masterful tailor who attempts to profit from covertly working for Chinese competitors; a grocery boy who gets caught in a blood war and must choose allegiances; a young man who works for a morally reprehensible businessman who disposes of toxic waste in deadly fashion; and a skittish, gangland accountant who distributes payoff cash to the slum-living families of incarcerated gangsters.

gomorrah

Don Ciro, the sketchy payoff guy

The prevailing theme is that each character in Gomorrah has a shot at monetary gain, but said monetary gain is always at the expense of bloodletting. For those who choose to profit, death is right around the corner. For those who don’t, hopeless poverty is the reward.

With all this bleak, unrewarding depression in mind, one might ask why in the hell I’m recommending this film. Fair enough.

Like Iñárritu’s Biutiful, Gomorrah isn’t exactly “fun” to watch. (Although, unlike Biutiful, viewing it does not induce one to seek out a Prozac prescription.) In the same vein as Amores Perros and City of God, Gomorrah portrays a brutally graphic and honest depiction of a drug-driven, gangland culture and its inherent casualties. Like those aforementioned gems, Gomorrah is the kind of cautionary tale that is realistic enough—and so unsettlingly bleak—that it reminds viewers why, just maybe, aspiring to be the next Scarface is a pretty stupid fucking idea.

Would this have been the same movie without the inspiration of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Nicolas Winding Refn? Probably not. But if you like the stark depravity those two directors seem bent on, Gomorrah is a welcome addition to the canon.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

-Sam Adams

NOTE: Of the laundry list of titles referenced in this post, City of God, Amores Perros, Y tu mamá también, Blue Is the Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II are all on Netflix Instant.

In Bruges on Netflix Instant: Holidaying Hitmen and Irish Wit, Low Assembly Required

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BY ADAM FOX

Three thoughts cross my mind when watching 2008’s cult crime-comedy In Bruges:

  • I remember when Colin Farrell was supposed to be the new action mega-star of our time;
  • I really need to visit Belgium, and;
  • I’m embarrassed how writer/director Martin McDonagh’s depiction of American tourists is regrettably and painfully spot-on.
farrell

“I coulda been a contender…”

Which begs the question: Why is this film perpetually in the monolithic wasteland known as a department store’s $5 “bargain bin?” That space is relegated to future installments of the Air Bud franchise, with the vacant-eyed golden performing in increasingly obscure sports. Perhaps the price tag is an accessible way to ensure that the film finds a home in every cinephile’s library. Either way, In Bruges is an excellent, tidy representation of the assassin genre, and is refreshingly cerebral in comparison with its like-minded counterparts.

bud

“HE’S ONLY GOT ONE SHOT…”

Rookie hitman Ray (Farrell) and his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent off to the quaint medieval town of Bruges, Belgium by their crime boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) after Ray mistakenly kills a child in an operation gone awry. They’re confined to a tiny, inconspicuous inn and told to wait for further instruction from Voldemort himself before departing. Ken is the glass-half-full vet who attempts to enjoy all of the cobblestone-covered offerings in this “fucking fairy tale” of a city, while Ray, rather ironically, despises Bruges and all that it represents. In what is essentially Disney’s Fantasyland spread over a more generous acreage, it’s humorous to witness Ray’s gigantic axe to grind with the innocently charming Bruges.

BRUGES

“I feckin’ love Bruges!”                      “I feckin’ hate it!”

Ray, at the behest of optimist Ken, begrudgingly tries to make the most of his time stuck in this desolate hell-hole and ends up meeting beautiful Belgian Chloë (Clémence Poésy) on a movie set not dissimilar to Eyes Wide Shut, but with little people amongst the Venetian masks. On an ensuing date, Ray is hilariously up front about his career choice and is somewhat nonplussed when Chloë reveals hers—a production assistant who also deals drugs (an important position undoubtedly high up on the Hollywood pecking order). Ray’s gloomy disposition changes drastically when in Chloë’s company. But he still fucking hates Bruges.

clemence poesy in bruges

Clémence Poésy: More beautiful than Bruges

(SPOILER ALERT, following paragraph only:)
After some time passes, Ken receives the call from Harry/He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to take Ray out on a boat and Fredo Corleone him. Harry is a complicated and neurotic character who also happens to be a man of principle, and decides that Ray must face justice for shooting a child, accident or not. Ken just can’t pull the trigger on his partner and, after attempting to get Ray out of Dodge completely, incurs the wrath of Harry who decides to head into town and deal with the situation himself. What results is an epically gorgeous beer-battered shoot-‘em-up through the windy, narrow streets of Bruges.

voldemort

“Kill the Irishman!”

The dialogue in In Bruges is particularly smart, snappy and positively Irish, driven by the strength of Farrell, Gleeson and Fiennes’ performances. There’s a moral gravity associated with the choices the characters make throughout the film, interspersed with sweeping commentary on ethics. But each of the three lead actors look like they’re having a fucking blast filming the scenes, which in turn makes it extremely enjoyable to watch, and much easier to swallow the larger story arc the film offers. In Bruges isn’t the reel companion piece to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or anything, but there is a little more at stake than just the lives of expendable characters the audience doesn’t actually care about (as crime movies can often stray).

Bruges, Belgium is obviously a major player and the unsung hero of the film, occupying significant real estate in the story without turning it into some type of travel documentary. I’m not exactly sure how an unassuming little village like Bruges came to be the consensus centerpiece of a crimedy, but it works beautifully. Eschewing more common European locales like London, Paris and Venice affords it an immense amount of unexplored flavor. The scenes themselves aren’t too unfamiliar for fans of the genre, but they’re somehow different and more memorable with a background of belfries and bridges that closely resemble Arthurian legend.

in bruges

“Feckin’ gorgeous, eh?”

In Bruges is viciously rewatchable, enormously entertaining, and Colin Farrell’s crowning achievement over a long-spanning career in films wholly inferior to this. There’s something very vintage about the character- and dialogue-driven In Bruges, easily dismissed by the short attention-spanned Michael Bay adherents but coveted by the jaded critic-codgers like myself. It tells a story thoroughly yet succinctly, hitting all the right strides in making its comedic moments actually funny and its action moments tense.

There’s a great chance you watched this back in 2008 as it was released along with a healthy amount of fanfare for a movie of its size, but it stands the test of time incredibly well and was even better than I remember it being. In Bruges is proof that if you want to keep your finger on the pulse of adrenaline-seeking theatergoers, you don’t necessarily need to beat them over the head with CGI.

IMDb: 8.0
GRADE: A –

I Saw the Devil and The Man from Nowhere on Netflix Instant: Vengeance, Horror and “Han”

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Over the past decade or so, I’ve probably watched more movies from North and South Korea than any region outside the U.S. This is not on purpose. By no stretch am I a Koreaphile. After all, the only words I know in Korean are bulgogi, banchan and kimchi. “Bulgogi,” as defined by Merriam-Webster’s, is the kind of meat I like at the Korean joint. “Banchan” is all that delicious free shit that comes with the bulgogi. And kimchi, which gets served as part of the banchan before the bulgogi, is, of course, kimchi.

Oldboy octopus

Live-octopus eating in Oldboy—definitely not banchan.

Now that we’ve been through this history lesson, I’ll get to a new word that speaks more specifically to the films I’m about to recommend. That word is “Han.” The problem with discussing “Han,” in my limited research, is that it has no English equivalent.

han

American Han                                                                 Korean Han

The great theologian Suh Nam-dong, whose work is rivaled in my intellectual storehouse only by my knowledge of the Korean language, defines Han as a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” Wait, I think we do have a word for that: “Coldplay.”

I bring up Han because it speaks in many ways to every Korean film I’ve seen. And even if you’ve only seen a few Korean movies, you’ve probably been dosed with the Han as well.

If one Korean film comes to mind for people who like the film genres I discuss on this blog, chances are its Oldboy (2003 original—not the bland remake starring Brolin and the Olsen Twins’ hot younger sister. If that was a “Spike Lee joint,” then dude must be rolling oregano into his Rizlas).

Spike Lee Oldboy

Facing Jordan in the playoffs and the Oldboy remake: Two things Spike would like to forget.

I apologize if I’m misappropriating the term Han, but it would appear that many of the primary themes in Oldboy—vengeance, gut-wrenching pain and helplessness—are all part of it. And so it is with every other movie I’ve seen by the masterful South Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose Vengeance Trilogy was my gateway into Korean cinema.

These movies are pretty much as grim, savage and unapologetically violent as anything this side of a snuff film. Chan-wook summons narratives straight from hell and puzzles them together in maniacal symphonies. His photography and imagery are stunning, and his actors constantly deliver riveting performances. In short, these are magnificent films—they’re just completely fucking sick and twisted.

This brand of Han-inspired horror seems to be a prevailing theme in Korean thrillers. Directors such as Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother) and Kim-jee Woon (I Saw the Devil) have employed the same grotesque violence and soul-shattering bleakness to similar degrees of cinematic success. In all, this recent Korean horror-thriller-Han movement can perhaps be best described as the eloquent, sophisticated cousin of “torture porn” (or whatever you want to call that Saw and Hostel stuff.)

If you’ve got the stomach for it and aren’t scared away by subtitles, there is a treasure trove of evil to access via the lands of Kim Jong-il and Psy.

Let’s start with a few of my favorite South Korean flicks on Netflix Instant (consider this Part One in a series):

I Saw the Devil
i saw the devil
You might recognize the bloody visage above as that of Choi Min-sik, the South Korean A-lister who starred in Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. In I Saw the Devil, Min-sik plays Kyung-chul, a psychopathic murderer who berates his victims in a cavalier tone as he goes to town on them with all manner of blunt objects.

The film’s first sequence opens in true slasher form, as a beautiful woman sits in her car in a desolate rural area, waiting for roadside assistance to fix a flat tire. Before the tow truck can get there, a school bus driver stops by and offers to give a hand. Within a matter of minutes, we’re introduced a villain who gives Hannibal Lecter a run for his money.

After this grim opener, what follows is two-plus hours of the most diabolical, depraved Han. Kim Soo-hyeon, the fiancee of one of Kyung-chul’s victims, happens to be a trained special agent. He uses his investigative wiles to track down the killer, and engages in a carnage-riddled game of cat and mouse, wherein the hunter becomes the hunted. Soo-hyeon’s mission is to inflict as much pain on Kyung-chul as possible before killing him. But someone should have told him that its much safer to bludgeon the devil to death than to dance with him.

I saw the devil

Kim Soo-hyeon takes a long cigarette break…

I’ll leave any further details of the narrative to the viewer. But one scene that really stands out is an impromptu dinner party at the house of Kyung-chul’s cannibal buddy. The flesh-eater is one of those grimly goofy caricatures that these films tend to rely on for comic relief. He fiendishly chuckles and cries as he feasts on some raw, human bulgogi complemented by a mean banchan spread.

I saw the devil banchan

“You gotta try the liver with the pickled bean sprouts. It’s to die for!”

I Saw the Devil is most definitely not for the faint of heart. This is some bleak, sick shit that makes Silence of the Lambs look like CSI: Miami. The story is superbly woven and gets bleaker with each step (and Devil‘s narrative is also much less muddled than some of Chan-wook’s stuff). Director Kim-jee Woon’s film is also beautifully photographed, almost to the point where you wonder how something so unabashedly gruesome could be so aesthetically appeasing. The crowning achievement, however, is Choi Min-sik’s portrayal of the homicidal maniac. The man is simply a fantastic actor (no wonder Hollywood recently tapped him for the big-budget Luc Besson flick Lucy).

If you can stomach suspense with a hefty dose of ultra-violent horror, I Saw the Devil is one of the best thrillers you’ll find on Netflix Instant.

GRADE: A- / A
IMDb: 7.8

The Man from Nowhere
the man from nowhere
Despite featuring a main theme of child-organ harvesting, The Man from Nowhere is actually pretty tame when it comes to bleak, Korean thrillers. This relative tameness is mainly because when a guy is maimed with a hatchet or immolated via a jerry-rigged propane-to-gas-lamp device, we don’t get a prolonged shot of his head being split in half or his body burning as he wails in pain. Somewhere, Park Chan-wook is shaking his head.

The Man from Nowhere begins with a drug-bust sequence where the estranged Korean cousin of Game of Thrones‘ The Mountain is ambushed at a nightclub. Amidst the shattering of tables and bottles, a junkie prostitute manages to sneak off with a brick of heroin.

the man from nowhere

“Hey, you’d be pissed too if Spike Lee was replacing you with Tony Siragusa in the remake.”

Fast forward to an apartment building where the junkie lives with her young daughter. Here we meet our protagonist, a brooding man who lives in the building and runs some sort of pawnshop. He doesn’t say much at first. He mostly just mopes around, looking like a K-Pop heartthrob who can’t bear the weight of the world.

the man from nowhere

It’s unclear whether our man is about to go on a hell-raising killing spree or join the Alkaline Trio.

Much to the chagrin of junkie mom, the man strikes up a friendship with the daughter, a bullied loner nicknamed Garbage. “Pawnshop Ghost and Garbage,” she says to him of their monikers. “Sounds like a rock band, doesn’t it?”

The close tie between the two becomes the reason Pawnshop Ghost breaks out of his gloomy shell and emerges as the Korean Jason Bourne. To keep spoilers to a minimum, Garbage gets in trouble, and Pawnshop Ghost is the only man who can save her (think Taken, but with much prettier male hair).

What ensues is a grim, fast-paced action-thriller that toes the line between mayhem and melodrama. And our man proves that he will go to any length to exact revenge. He eventually goes so far as cutting his hair, which defeated my theory that the final twist to this film was gonna be that Pawnshop Ghost is actually a modern-day Samson.

Man from Nowhere Hair

 “Not the hair bro, not the hair!”

As in most dark Korean films, there’s an array of oddball villains and inept cops who often serve as comic relief. One of the most effective of these is the devilish Jong-seok, an androgynous crime boss who deals in kidnapping and organ harvesting. He’s really fucking creepy, and like our protagonist, doesn’t seem to realize that bangs covering his eyes might be a hinderance to his ability to fight or operate a vehicle.

the man from nowhere

“Yes, my parents are Tilda Swinton and Cousin It. Have you heard Ziggy Stardust? Fantastic album.”

The Man from Nowhere excels as both an action-packed thriller and a dark drama that has a little more heart than what Park Chan-wook fans might be accustomed to (or at least a little more still-beating heart). This movie is also a lot more accessible to your casual American viewer than other Korean organ-harvesting gems like Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

My only reservation with this film is that while the relationship between Pawnshop Ghost and Garbage is certainly moving (and the child actress is fantastic), this connection is also used as a platform for a level of melodrama that verges on sappy. I understand that this smarmy, emo shit is a trait inherent to many forms of Korean entertainment, but personally I prefer my Han served a little less soap opera. Still, bolstered by a compelling narrative and incredible fight scenes, The Man from Nowhere emerges as one of the stronger films in this genre of dark, Korean thrillers.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.9

-Sam Adams

Note: All three films in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy are available on Netflix Instant. If you’re interested in this post and haven’t seen Oldboy, check that out before you watch either of the films I’ve recommended. It’s the gold standard—I just assume that most folks reading this blog have seen it.