Streaming Bleak This Week, #5: Cash Only on Netflix

cash only movie
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There are few recent non-Tarantino films that draw from such a comprehensive, patchwork assemblage of crime cinema as director Malik Bader’s Cash Only. While I know I’m prone to describing a film as a hybrid of other films (with, of course, the intention of letting you know what you’re in for), one cannot help but cross-compare when it comes to this guttural howl of a movie.

Blending elements of Mean Streets, Boston gangster fare like Gone Baby Gone, every film in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Pusher series, Eastern Promises, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and even the notorious horror flick A Serbian Film, Cash Only is a dark foray into one man’s quest to find his own morality, save his family and walk through hell and back in order to do so. That hell also includes a scene very reminiscent to one of the more oft-quoted Pulp Fiction set-ups. (And there’s your “if you liked this, you should watch these” paragraph.)

But as the saying goes, I watched it so you don't have to. Seriously. Stay away.

It’s a gas…

Unlike Scorsese and Tarantino, however, there is no slick style or tongue-in-cheek humor here. Any jokes are more out of that school of ethnic-enclave street wisdom that made Tony Siragusa one of the more enjoyable parts of 25th Hour, or made MC Slaine look wicked “authenticious” in The Town.

The film begins by introducing us to Elvis Martini (Nickola Shreli), a bald, strapping Albanian-American dude who looks like the lovechild of John Turturro and Juice from Sons of Anarchy. Elvis is a slumlord and single-father. Elvis is also in debt to everyone on both sides of the law in his crooked Detroit hood. (Kudos to this flick for not hitting us over the head with Detroitisms—what’s more important to the film’s identity is that this slum and its grind could exist anywhere.)

Elvis is also dealing with the fact that while burning down his house for insurance money, he forgot to check if his wife was sleeping inside. Thus the single-father thing…

I think it would be a stretch to call Elvis morally ambiguous. He’s generally a good dude with a good heart who just happens to have fucked up his family’s life in an unimaginably horrible way. (Enter Mean Streets Christian morality play.) And now, while dealing with that horror, he’s hit with the double-whammy of having to scam cash out of delinquent tennants so that he can keep both his hide and a roof over his daughter’s head.

kettle mean streets play with fire

Didn’t Mean Streets already warn us not to play with fire?


The first half of the film is more of a character set up, introducing us to Elvis’ colorful acquaintances. These include a dealer named Kush (played by director Bader) who operates a massive basement growhouse in one of Elvis’ properties. Then there’s his guy the mechanicanother man with one foot in the Old Country and the other still well outside the American Dream. Then there’s the Euro-trash buddy whose fiance Elvis is schtupping on the DL. And then there’s the crazy call girl who Elvis scams for a massive wad of cash after spying on her through these creepy cameras he sets up in his tennants’ homes.

I never said Elvis was on the level.

The second half of the film jumps from a week of these characters dancing around each other in cash grabs to a rapid, 24-hour search for Elvis to come up with 25 Large. Let’s just say that everything is at stake, and if the first half of the film seemed slow, the second pays off big time. There’s also a climax borne straight out of hell, but I’ll leave the particulars of that experience up to the viewer.

cash only nickola shreli

Writer and lead actor Nickola Shreli (LR) channels an Eastern Promises Viggo Mortensen in Cash Only.

I know that comparing any film to Mean Streets is a major declaration, and I’m not saying Cash Only at all lives up to that standard. But in the same vein that Scorsese went into Harvey Keitel’s hellfire-laced existential battle with Christianity and showed you the world of his nitty gritty neighborhood through a cast of lovable fuck-ups, the young director Bader ventures into very much the same territoryand with quite an effect, thanks in large part to the standout, naturalistic work of his lead.

Remember though… I also compared this to the Pusher Trilogy and A Serbian Film. So yeah, don’t expect a doo-wop ride through the quaint streets of old Little Italy. Because shit gets downright medieval on that ass in Cash Only.

IMDb: 6.2
GRADE: B / B+

-Sam Adams

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.

cannibal holocaust found footage

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!)

V/H/S/2 a ride in the park

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.

the man from nowhere

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.

bush whacked

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
mystery road
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.

jack charles

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.

Stake Land on Netflix Instant: Vampocalypse, Now!

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An original narrative is roughly as valueless to a post-apocalyptic film as a stack of Benjamins is to its characters. Need proof? Indulge me for a moment:

  • In Zombieland, a young, skittish boy is saved and turned into a man after being trained by a grizzled, hard-drinking reaper of the undead.
  • In Season 4 of The Walking Dead, the gang (including a boy who’s become a man through zombie-killing) goes in search of a reputed safe haven where a thriving society is promised.

Zombieland is, of course, a parodied recapitulation of every zombie movie ever (wherein boozing pretty much goes hand-in-hand with walker-slaying). And that Walking Dead premise of searching for the sanctum away from the undead hordes has been done ad nauseam (28 Days Later, I Am Legend, etc.).

harrelson zombieland

“Just ask my guy Rust Cohle—it takes whiskey to fight monsters.”

In 2010’s Stake Land, a young, skittish boy is saved and turned into a man by a grizzled, hard-drinking reaper of the undead, with whom he takes off for a reputed safe haven. Yes, the concept is about as fresh as a decomposing corpse in a farm house off a shady dirt road. But, as in all matters of postapocalyptic survival and success, its the execution that counts. And for a low-budget, devilish little vampire road-movie, Stake Land hits the wooden pike on the head.

stake land drinking

“Didn’t you see Zombieland, kid? We ain’t gettin’ nowhere without some car drinkin’.”

The acting is formidable enough, and the vamps—while nothing special—are far superior to the CGI bastardization that occurred in the aforementioned “meh”-inducing adaption of Richard Matheson’s brilliant novel I Am Legend.

i am legend bad cgi

I Am Legend: CGI that made South Park look like photorealism.

So if I’m pointing to one reason why Stake Land is among the best postapocalyptic films of the past decade, it comes down to one man: Jim Mickle.

Mickle is one of two up-and-coming, grim-bent directors whose every project I eagerly await (the same way I did for Neil Marshall after Dog Soliders and The Descent… Let’s just pretend Centurion and Doomsday never happened). The other would be Jeff Nichols, who’s basically the Daniel Woodrell of cinema. Nichols’ Take Shelter and Mud (on Netflix Instant) are both of the must-watch caliber. And his 2007 project, Shotgun Stories (also on Instant), is a great companion piece for anyone who liked Blue Ruin. I also love that Nichols has chosen to make the great Michael Shannon the Dicaprio to his Scorsese.

michael shannon

Michael Shannon delivering one of Take Shelter‘s more memorable lines.

But back to Mickle. He’s got a deft hand for filming the bleakest and moodiest of landscapes and imbuing his pared-down tales with an unrelenting current of suspense. After knocking it out the park with Stake Land, he did We Are What We Are (also on Netflix Instant—wouldn’t highly recommend it, but again, great cinematography and totally worth your while). His most recent project was Cold In July, which just so happens to be my favorite movie released this year (rent it if ye can).

OK, let’s get into the meat and bones of Stake Land—the best vampire flick since Let the Right One In. Our aforementioned boy-and-man duo are Martin (Connor Paolo) and  his mentor, known simply as “Mister.” After a crash-course in vamp killing played over title credits, Martin becomes the Karate Kid to Mister’s Mr. Miyagi (you obviously can’t go wrong with a good Mister.)

What also makes Mister cool is that he’s a dead-ringer for Jimmy Smits’ Nero character on Sons of Anarchy.

smits damici

“Let’s kill some vamps, mano!”

An opening montage of stark countryscapes is narrated by Martin, who lets us know that D.C. has fallen and with it, the nation as we know it. Major cities are to be avoided, and religious zealots run the show, capturing and unleashing vamps upon their enemies in the form of bipedal biological weapons. To avoid this shitstorm, Martin and Mister decide they better make their way to a purported sanctuary known as “New Eden.”

On the way, we’re introduced to several interesting vamp mutations. There are “beserkers” (the oldest of the vamps, and hard to kill), “scamps” (kiddie vampires who are still in the teething stages), and a more evolved brand of vamp that harkens the character of Robert Neville from I Am Legend. There’s also some great George Romero camp thrown in by the way of an undead Santa.

santa-vampire-stake-land

All I want for Christmas is my two front fangs...

Stake Land borrows across genres, tropes and oft-explored notions (Does garlic work? Maybe, maybe not, but it can’t hurt.) In no way is this film reinventing the wheel, but for a beautifully shot, low-budget vampire thriller, it really couldn’t get much better. Fans of The Walking Dead, particularly, should watch this without hesitation. After all, it does in 98 minutes what that show’s been grinding at for five years.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 6.6*

*Remember: IMDb grades for horror movies run much lower than for dramatic fare of equal caliber.

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

great korean thrillers
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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.

El Infierno on Netflix Instant: Narcocorridos, the Scarface effect and Hell on Earth

El Infierno
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El Infierno (2010, aka El Narco, aka Hell) is in equal parts one of the best and also most disturbing films on Netflix Instant. To be clear, it’s not the cinematic violence that’s so disturbing—although the brutality inflicted on screen is just as vicious as that of your average Tarantino flick (and many heads do roll, quite literally). What’s deeply unsettling about this film is the harsh realities it’s steeped in, and how gruesome they are when confronted.

Confrontation, as a matter of fact, is exactly what director Luis Estrada employs—only he does it in a way that’s as morbidly ironic as the “narcocorridos” (celebratory druglord ballads) that revel in the bloodlust of the film’s villainous protagonists.

But before we dive in to the not-so-subliminal politics of one of the greatest and most important Mexican movies ever made, let’s start with the premise.

Benny García (Damián Alcázar) returns home to Mexico after 20 years of working stateside. An early sequence—set comically to the tune of a ballad about Mexican-American pride—shows Benny deported and robbed blind by cops and criminals as he makes his way back to his mother’s house, where he set out from two decades ago. He greets his mother as a ragged man with nothing to show for himself, save his boyish smile.

el infierno

“Hi, mom. It’s me! I’m broke!”

Benny soon begins facing some hard truths. His hometown (the fictional San Miguel Arcángel) has become a haven of crime and murder, and his brother was killed as a byproduct of the drug violence that’s devastated the area. He views all this with the wide eyes of a man who seems to be setting foot in a foreign country.

While Benny makes a go at keeping on the straight and narrow by working at his godfather’s auto repair shop, it proves just as futile as everything else he’s done in his forgettable existence.  Then he takes up with the drop-dead gorgeous, prostitute ex-lover of his brother. To provide any sort of life for her and her son (Benny’s nephew), it becomes clear that a grease monkey’s paycheck simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

el infierno

It’s hard out there for a pimp…

That’s where one of El Infierno‘s best characters comes into play. Benny runs into a boyhood friend who’s become a mafioso known as “Cochiloco.” Cochi is played by the great Mexican character actor Joaquín Cosio (who you can also see on Netflix Instant in A Night in Old Mexico and Saving Private Perez—both of which are campy genre fun, but neither of which I can highly recommend).

Joaquín Cosio

Joaquín Cosio as Cochi—one badass narco.

With the aid of Cochi, Benny breaks bad and begins working as a cartel enforcer. Speaking of “breaking bad,” if you’re at all familiar with narcocorridos, it’s most likely through Vince Gilligan’s show:

Before we continue, I can’t help mentioning some interesting parallels between this movie and Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film which ranks firmly in my all-time top ten.

In the one movie where Peckinpah was given absolute creative control before he went batshit on tequila, the great Warren Oates plays a down-on-his-luck guy named Bennie. Bennie is in love with a beautiful Mexican prostitute. Bennie loves tequila blanco. Benny is searching for the head of a man named Garcia.

el infierno and bring me the head of alfredo garcia

“Nice dame, Bennie.”                               “You too, Benny.”

In El Infierno, a man named Benny Garcia drinks a lot of tequila blanco and is in love with a beautiful Mexican prostitute. His cartel boss, who looks and behaves like El Jefe in Alfredo Garcia, demands that heads be brought to him. And to avoid spoilers, the fate of Benny and Bennie play out in almost exactly the same fashion. Shit, Damián Alcázar and Warren Oates even look alike with their white suits, tinted shades and Western mustaches.

el infierno

“Lookin’ good, Bennie!”                            “You too, Benny!”

Moving on.

The story of El Infierno is epic, to say the least. It’s a grand-scale tragicomedy that comes off both as a fiendishly entertaining gangster movie and an indictment of the cyclical, epidemic violence that is currently devouring much of Mexico.

Perhaps this is where I should address why I find it hard to write about this film. Obviously, this here blog is about all the violent and twisted entertainment that us crime/thriller/horror adherents adore. El Infierno, conversely, is a masterfully horrific, violent thriller that might as well be a mirror held to the type of psyche that appreciates such forms of entertainment. Furthermore—and only if one bothers to think about it—the film shows how such an appreciation can actually perpetuate unspeakable evils in that place out there called “real life.”

Don’t get me wrong—this movie isn’t going to make me stop writing about violent movies or appreciating them. But I would be doing a disservice to a great piece of filmmaking if I simply said, “You have to see this! It’s the best cartel movie since Scarface!”

scarface

“Ask the Bennies, mang—joo cain’t argue wit a fuckin’ white suit!”

Which leads to another another admission: I’m not a fan of Scarface. And not because it’s a piece of ’80s schlock with a shallow script and far too many canned performances. The issue I have is a moral one (yes, El Infierno has driven me to address that taboo subject).

Essentially, Scarface took something a little too bad and made it look a little too good. Case in point: Just ask any shitty mainstream rapper who touts gun violence, female subjection and murder what their favorite film is. The ubiquitous answer is, of course, Scarface.

chief keef scarface

Ask Chief Keef if he sees Scarface as a “cautionary tale”…

Brian De Palma’s 1983 cult classic has unfortunately transcended what crime-film lovers like myself deem a guilty pleasure. It’s become a badge of honor, a gang tattoo—the theme song to a generation of violence, with a message that killing human beings will get you ahead in this world. A message that, without a doubt, has inspired many human beings to kill other human beings.

I’m not trying to get all Tipper Gore on your ass and say that kids are gonna go kill other kids if they listen to The Slim Shady LP. But I am of the opinion that when impressed upon weak minds, glorified depictions of cinematic violence have the distinct possibility of influencing acts of similar violence in the real world. James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, would have undoubtedly done some awful shit if he hadn’t seen the Dark Knight movies. Still, he probably wouldn’t have killed 12 people specifically at a Dark Knight movie while dressed like the Joker if he hadn’t been influenced by those movies.

And the argument that Scarface is a “cautionary tale” is just ridiculous. Before he died, Tony Montana got rich and powerful as hell, fucked Michelle Pfeiffer and essentially got everything there is to get out of the material world. If you have nothing, a mere glimpse of that is probably worth a pine box to a lot of people.

Michelle Pfeiffer

Young Michelle Pfeiffer: A Dame to Kill For

That’s not to say that I’m judging anyone for buying into the narco lifestyle. El Infierno makes it abundantly clear that in a broken system, the choices for the impoverished are either a long, fruitless life of piety or a life of flashy crime. When Benny asks Cochi if he’s worried he’ll go to hell for his sins, Cochi responds, “Hell, my ass. Hell is right here.” And the landscape of El Infierno is hell, for both citizens and violent narcos alike.

The film’s method of portraying this violence while also ridiculing the viewer for watching it can be most aptly summarized through its use of narcocorridos. These are, after all, hero anthems about people who kill both gangsters and innocents. And those innocents who’re being gunned down every day in places like Juárez? They’re very much the same audience who’ve made narcocorridos the most popular style of music in Mexico over the past several years.

In other words, this violence exists in the mainstream because we as consumers demand it. Nevermind that it only further fuels the fire of a culture of murder and destruction.

Does this all sound really fucking bleak and as if places like Juárez are eternally doomed because its victims support its killers? Good, that’s what Luis Estrada is going for. As the director said in an interview with the LA Times, “Mexicans have become the victims and the executioners, all at the same time.” (It should be noted that Hollywood and American consumers are equally to blame.)

El Infierno is as entertaining and hilarious of a gangster flick as I can think of in recent years. Underlying all that, however, is a deeply ingrained sociopolitical message that points a finger at those of us who tacitly support this violence by buying into the cinematic allure of it. “No one can see this picture as just entertainment,” Estrada told the Times. “There is no redeemable person in the film. There is no hero, no vision of hope. All the characters are bad or worse.”

El Infierno

A fool’s pride

Unfortunately, this message will no doubt  be ignored by many who see the life of a narco as a brief but worthwhile avenue to a level of power and respect that they could never accomplish as an ordinary citizen. So if you want a movie like Scarface and don’t need all this high-horse morality shit from me, I promise you’ll still love El Infierno. (However, it has subtitles, which you probably don’t fuck with if Scarface is your favorite movie.)

In all, El Infierno is a brilliant film in which Estrada accomplishes the unique feat of offering a desperate plea to the masses in the same breath that he appeases their bloodlust. It’s left to the audience which of these messages they’d like to take home.

-Sam Adams

Grade: A
IMDb: 8.0

NOTES: If you want a view into the subculture of narcocorridos and the destructive role of narco culture in Mexican society, check out the excellent documentary Narco Cultura (also available on Netflix Instant).

Other great Mexican movies on Netflix Instant include Amores Perros and Y tu mamá también.

 

Let the Right One In vs. Let Me In: Bleak landscapes, creepy kids and half-assed CGI cats

let the right one in vs. let me in
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BY ADAM FOX

Adolescent vampires, as they pertain to horror, represent a relatively unexplored genre. Maybe I should specify before incurring the wrath of Stephenie Meyer disciples everywhere: Adolescent vampires as the archetypal monsters-under-the-bed are a bit of an unknown commodity.

In fantasy lore, it’s probably understood that humans would wait until they’re at twenty-something Brad Pitt levels of attractiveness and physique before taking the immortality plunge. Why let the fangs sink in well before you develop a devil-may-care smile and a dashing ponytail?

interview with the vampire

“I’m … too sexy for my shirt.”

Perhaps this is why I felt Let the Right One In, based on the Swedish novel of the same name, was so groundbreaking the first time I watched it. Little kids (in all of their inherent creepiness) have been done to death in horror films, dating back to 1976’s The Omen and continuing through 2010’s Insidious. It’s the innocence paired with evil, along with active imaginations, that make the young such scary vectors of the paranormal.

horror kids

Damn(ed) meddling kids!

Let the Right One In—available on Netflix Instant—bites into this formulaic trope with fresh fangs and manages to give it new life. Bullied 12-year-old boy Oskar makes friends with a recently arrived neighbor named Eli, a girl around his age. After a little bit of hesitation on both ends, the two develop a very close friendship. Oskar soon discovers that Eli isn’t quite what she seems, and is in reality an ageless vampire that requires daily feedings of fresh human blood to remain satisfied.

(MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) After Eli’s human caretaker dies, Oskar assumes the role of her chef, wrangling human prey for her consumption. Eli eventually has to leave amid the unexplained disappearances of her victims, but not before she returns the favor and helps Oskar in one of my favorite final scenes in any horror film. Ever.

This movie was remade rather unnecessarily for American audiences in 2010 under the moniker Let Me In. The film wasn’t bad per se, but rather echoed the laziness of Hollywood in churning out unoriginal, low-risk product. To make up for this, director/screenwriter Matt Reeves changed a few components of the original, some for better and some for worse. So it wasn’t just Psycho, in color, starring Vince Vaughn.

psycho

“My hotel’s so fuckin’ money and you don’t even know it! I got this peephole for watchin’ all the beautiful babies.”

LOCALES: Wintry Sweden vs. barren Los Alamos

Let the Right One In’s environment is mysterious, still and snowy. For anyone who’s ever lived in cold climates that receive lots of the white stuff, there’s sort of a blanketing quiet that is the signature of the season. It lends itself so well to the film’s disturbing and contemplative tone, and the external shots are downright eerie.

let the right one in

Several scenes in Let the Right One In were shot in Luleå—a coastal city in northern Sweden with a subarctic climate.

In Let Me In, they choose the sandy scientific haven Los Alamos, NM as the backdrop. It’s not an awful choice for a horror film by any stretch, but you don’t see enough of the environment for it to be a major player like it is in the original. There’s some spooky shit that occurs in rural New Mexico that doesn’t involve meth or Los Pollos Hermanos distribution lines, but the remake doesn’t quite spotlight the “where” as effectively as the original. It just sort of comes across as Anytown, USA, which was disappointing for someone who lived for several years in New Mexico and knows how disquieting the desert landscape can be.

ACTORS: Kåre Hedebrant & Lina Leandersson vs. Kodi Smit-McPhee & Chloë Grace Moretz

Kåre (Oskar) and Kodi (Owen) capture the awkward dispositions prescribed to their respective characters quite masterfully. Both are bullied loners in their worlds, saving things like newspaper clippings reporting gruesome crime scenes while also electing to stay indoors at all times where it’s safe. The real edge of the original, however, comes in the strength of Lina’s performance (Eli) vs. Chloë’s (Abby).

Oskar

Oskar (Team Eli) and Owen (Team Abby)

Chloë Grace Moretz is a fine child actress who is no stranger to the genre, having appeared in a starring role in yet another horror remake (2005’s The Amityville Horror), but she’s just not … spooky enough? An important component of the vampiric character is that her/its backstory is never fully explained and is, for all intents and purposes, androgynous (alluded to in both films).

Lina’s Eli is neither too feminine nor masculine, and her eyes depict the knowledge and experience of someone who would be many years her senior. A difficult casting choice to be sure in choosing someone who is 12 years old and is in actuality thousands (?) of years old, but it’s an element of believability I felt the original film payed a significantly larger amount of attention to.

SPECIAL EFFECTS / CGI: Let the Right One In vs. Let Me In

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Americans. Let Me In had a much greater budget to work with than its predecessor did, and it certainly shows. Something I could never truly get over in the original film was a scene involving a person spontaneously combusting, and a room full of cats. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the fire I took offense to, but the litter of computer-generated cats. What is intended to be a shocking scene displaying how once again the animal kingdom is privy to any type of evil activity turned out to be nothing more than a lazily executed internet meme. I’m not positive on the animal laws in Sweden and how they pertain to treatment/screen time (I know the states have since revised their laws following 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust), but the whole scene is a little bit goofy.

let the right one in cats

Bad kitties! … worse CGI

All said, both films are certainly worth a watch, especially the original version (and its excellent corresponding novel). Let Me In and Let the Right One In offer a welcome departure from both found footage dump-offs and toned-down PG-13 monsters that have been cluttering the modern horror shelves.

Vampires have always been the “thinking man’s villains” of the genre—their clout further cemented by somewhat fictionalized historical tie-ins. It’s that foothold in reality, however misconstrued it may be, in which horror films really manage to hit their groove. Both LMI and LTROI prove that it’s still possible to breathe life into a genre without trying to completely reinvent the wheel.

Let the Right One In  (Available on Netflix Instant)
IMDb: 8.0
Grade: A

Let Me In  (On DVD)
IMDb: 7.2
Grade: B-

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adam Fox resides in West Hollywood, CA, with a wonderful lady and a crippled cat. When he’s not devising ways to get out of driving around the Greater Los Angeles Concrete Jungle, he is an unabashed Masshole with a penchant for drunkenly cheering on the Red Sox and Patriots. In addition to serving as the Assistant Editor for SB Nation’s Pats Pulpit, Adam has written for ESPN, Paste Magazine, the Weekly Alibi and the Mountain West Connection, among others. twitter.com/lefoxtrott