Streaming Bleak This Week, #4: The Invitation on Netflix

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While this blog is a recommendation site and I do believe I’ve done my due diligence in that regard over the past few years, my last three picks in this series were, admittedly, an attempt to come up with worthwhile suggestions that I knew the vast majority of you readers wouldn’t have seen. As such, they weren’t all necessarily as savagely palatable as the typical fodder promoted herein.

They Look Like People, Bob and the Trees and We Are Still Here are all indie movies made on a shoestring budget. I think the most famous actor among all three was Barbara Cramptona name only dedicated horror fans would recognize. That’s not to say I think I fucked upI actually really liked all threebut this weekly pick series is an experiment, and your feedback has been hit or miss on said titles. Which means it’s time to recalibrate the meat grinder.

Back to the ol' drawing board...

Back to the ol’ drawing board…

Moving forward, I’m still going to err on the side of lesser-known titles, but I’ll try to keep in mind that I’m one of the few fuckers who’s exhausted the near entirety of everything bleak and horrific worth watching on Netflix. Point being that a hidden gem to me might justifiably be viewed as nothing more than a shiny pebble to you folks out there who have, ya know, lives.

That is why this week I’m going to offer up a really fucking awesome flick that any suspense-horror fan should be able to get behind. So without further adieu…

The Invitation
Michael Huisman (AKA Daario Naharis) hosts a dinner party from hell in The Invitation
Yep, that’s Daario Naharis from Game of Thrones (played in real life by Michael Huisman). See? This movie is already more relatable and less obscure!

The Invitation starts with a grieving father and his new lady going to a dinner party at the house of his ex-wife and her new feller (Daario Naharas, played by Daario Naharas). Actually you might also recognize the lead dude. It took me awhile to place him. At first I thought it was Tom Hardy from The Revenant reincarnated, but then I realized I knew him from … The O.C.

tom-hardy-logan-marshall-green-invitation-revenant

Apparently I’m not the first to notice that Bane has a doppelgänger…

That was another life. Moving on.

Anyway, a big group of folks who were tight two years ago get together. It’s an awkward reunion of sorts as no one’s really seen anyone else since the son of O.C. guy and Liv Tyler-lookalike ex-wifey tragically died in a freak pinata accident. (If there are truly 6 million ways to die, that sure is a motherfucker…)

It’s important to note that this is all taking place at a swank and secluded pad in L.A., which becomes a recurring excuse as to why everyone keeps acting so fucking weird. At one point a character even says of the freaky, culty, hippie-dippy hosts, “Yeah, they’re a little weird. But this is L.A. They’re harmless.” Famous last words, punto. Go ask Sharon Tate.

no more parties in la kanye

“No More Parties in L.A.” The one time Kanye gave good life advice…

One thing I love about The Invitation is how its first half is such a meticulous play between ebbing macabre suspense and one man’s struggles with grief, paranoia and anger. It’s like a delicately wired stage play that could easily go the route of heady psychological flick. Actually, unless you’d seen the previews (I hadn’t), this thing could have unfolded down several genre pathways at that midway markall with complete plausability. I even found myself thinking, Shit, I might be in for one of those moody indie dramas about coming to terms with loss and emotions and stuff.

megan fox tongue on fire jennifer's body

Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body: Never was self-immolation so hot.

With that in mind, director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Bodystarring Megan Fox and little else) deserves major credit for wielding such multi-layered sleight of hand in such deft fashion. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out exactly what type of film it is, but apropos of my earlier comments, let’s just say that there is nothing unresolved or left to the imagination here.

For comparison’s sake, think of something in the vein of Would Your Rather, Knock Knock and Kidnapped (Secuestrados). Then imagine the grown-folks’ version of Would You Rather, what some elements of Knock Knock would have been like if that movie had a pulse, and what Kidnapped would have been with better direction, a more fully evolved narrative and less torture porn.

All in all, The Invitation serves up the oft-visited “dinner party from hell” subgenre in delectable, ornate and satiating fashion. Look also for a brutally chilling monologue from the great character-actor John Carroll Lynch (who you may remember as Eastman from one of the greatest music videos Walking Dead episodes of all time!).

IMDb: 6.7
GRADE: B+

-Sam Adams

LAST WEEK IN THIS SERIES: They Are Still Here

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Wild Bill on Netflix Instant: British thuggery with a pulse

Wild Bill Movie Netflix Instant
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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.

MY COCAINE michael caine get carter

…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.

Andre Benjamin Revolver three stacks horrible

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
wild bill Charlie Creed-Miles

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.

billy bob thornton bad santa wild bill Charlie Creed-Miles

“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.

wild bill cast

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).

Iwan Rheon Pill Wild Bill Game of Thrones meme

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

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.

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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.

The best of Netflix Instant if bleak, thrilling cinema is your ASMR: Part IV

Headhunters
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For the meager contingent of American viewers not averse to subtitles, Netflix Instant has a king’s ransom of great suspense flicks (and horror, for that matter). I’ll cover some disturbingly sinister Korean flicks in an upcoming post, but for now let’s focus on Northern and Western Europe, the birthplaces of two of the best modern thrillers you’re likely to see. From a Norwegian art thief battling a Game of Thrones villain to France’s answer to The Fugitive, these picks just might change your attitude on how badass things can be in the lands of reindeer and berets.

Headhunters
headhunters
Norway has become a relatively quiet and peaceful place ever since the vikings battled and killed off the last of the trolls in the 1400s. Known chiefly for lutefisk, good healthcare and really nice people, it’s not exactly the most thrilling spot on the globe. However, Norway did produce the great author Knut Hamsun (literary father of John Fante and Charles Bukowski), and has more recently been churning out some eerily good cinema (TrollhunterDead Snow).

keef hates lutefisk

Lutefisk makes malort taste like Hawaiian Punch.

Headhunters (2011) is a brilliant thriller that significantly bolsters Norway’s list of hallmark achievements. It tells the story of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a corporate job recruiter (“headhunter” is a fitting entendre here) who moonlights as an art thief. Aksel is a deceptive, philandering little man who’s main concern in life is making enough money to keep up the lavish lifestyle that he believes will keep his Norse goddess of a wife (Synnøve Macody Lund) from leaving him. His concern is palpable. After all, wifey could be a doppelgänger for a younger Heidi Klum, whereas Roger looks more like the middle-aged brother of Christopher Walken and Ron Weasley. (#nodisrespecttochristopherwalken)

weasley

Photo courtesy of norwegianancestry.com

Headhunters—or as I’ve retitled it, The Roger Brown Affair—spirals into a thrilling manhunt after Roger decides to steal an original Rubens painting from a mysterious, dashing man he’s introduced to at wifey’s art show. The “victim” in question is Clas Greve (Kingslayer from Game of Thrones, who plays Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in real life). Clas is an ex-special ops assassin who specializes in military tracking methods. From here, things literally go to shit for Roger (see: the best use of an outhouse since Slumdog Millionaire).

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Slay on, Slayah!

The game of cunning deceit that unravels is filled with striking imagery, non-stop suspenseful action and some great tongue-in-cheek Norwegian humor (you might notice a Lillyhammer cameo, if you bothered to watch that halfway-decent show). All said, Headhunters is a bloody thrill ride that’s some of the most damn elegant popcorn entertainment on Netflix Instant. Plus, it’s got the fucking Kingslayer going balls out as a special ops manhunter, for Chrissakes! Almost makes me want to down some lutefisk and hop a jet to Norway.

IMDb: 7.6
Grade: A-

Tell No One
tell no one

If I had to make a list of the top ten thrillers of the last decade, it would include the 2006 French film Tell No One. That may sound bold, so if you can’t take my word for it, take the word of Sir Michael Caine. Actually, Master Wayne’s Cockney butler listed director Guillame Canet’s film among his all-time top ten—regardless of genre. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that Tell No One is easily one of the best modern movies on Netflix Instant.

michael caine

…says, “Watch this bloody film already!”

Thematically, it falls somewhere between The Fugitive and, I don’t know, The Bridges of Madison County ? I write that hesitantly because romantic movies ain’t really my area of expertise. My idea of a great love story story would be something along the lines of Leaving Las Vegas or Blue Valentine, movies that most normal folk would call more depressing than being locked in a closet with a mime.

blue valentine

“You have to understand, honey. This is my way of making it up to all the guys who sat through The Notebook.”

Don’t get me wrong—this movie is definitely bleak and morbid enough to fit within the not-so friendly confines of this blog series. But part of what makes it so great is that not only is it a masterful thriller, but it’s a masterful thriller that somehow pulls off a love story with enough soul to live up to Otis Redding’s version of “Your Precious Love” (as played during an opening scene).

This rarely occurs in a genre wherein love is almost always used as an ancillary tool, carelessly crapped in to appease the Hollywood formula (did you really give two shits about what happened to Jason Bourne’s girlfriend?). Here, love manifests itself in a way that only makes the quest of our protagonist more thrilling, more suspenseful. The stakes are that much higher simply because of the vicariously personal, life-altering possibilities tied to our man’s mission.

Said man is Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet, aka the French Dustin Hoffman). Beck is a doctor whose wife was murdered eight years ago as they went night-swimming in a lake they used to frequent as children, when their romance began. He’s a good man, but he’s gloomily pensive and hasn’t really moved on from his wife’s death (he visits her parents every year on the anniversary of the occasion). Out of the blue, he gets an email from a woman claiming to be his dead wife. And that’s where an exceedingly complex plot begins to take root. 

hoffman Cluzet

Hoffman (L) in Rain Main, a movie about a guy who counts toothpicks and suffers from autism. Cluzet (R) in the lesser-known Le Raine Man, a movie about a guy who counts cigarettes and suffers from B.O.

There’s not much more that can be said without divulging details of a narrative in which every intricate detail counts. What can be said is that Cluzet’s performance is remarkable, that this film has one of the best chase sequences I can think of, and that I haven’t been so smitten with anything French since I was a 12-year-old schoolboy in love with a Provençal exchange student.

Maybe that’s a good way to end, because Tell No One is about young love, everlasting love and what happens when the two are shattered. (And also what revelations can be found when you start picking up the jagged little pieces.) If you’re sick of me waxing mushy, remember that this is one of the best (and most suspenseful) thrillers you’ll ever see. And even if you don’t trust me, it’s not like you’ll turn down a sniff from My Cocaine.

IMDb: 7.6
Grade: A

-Sam Adams