Like Clockwork: Tom Hardy summons the ultraviolence in British gangster epic The Take (Amazon Prime)

Tom Hardy as Freddie in The Take
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Tom Hardy is a bit of an enigma. From his rise to fame in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Bronson to his portrayal of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, there have been times when it’s felt like we were witnessing a legend in the making. He was also impressive in Warrior, The Revenant and Locke (the latter being a highly underrated flick, and perhaps my favorite Hardy role). Actually, his filmography is littered with damn-good movies (Mad Max, Legend, Inception, et. al). But the more I’ve seen him, the more I’ve wondered, Is Tom Hardy a great actor or simply a charming, bi-polar psychopath who convincingly plays several hyperbolic iterations of himself?

I pose this question in thinking back to when Hardy mania was at  fever-pitch, around 2014. Teasers of his new role in Peaky Blinders had me wondering if some Daniel Day-esque transformation from mere mortal to acting god was about to occur. The table was set for the next Bill the Butcher to carve his mark into cinematic infamy.

But then Blinders slogged out his mumbly, odd-for-odd’s sake character of Alfie Solomonsnot a bad role, and perhaps one that was more the writers’ fault than his own, but still a bit of an anticlimactic thud in contrast with the reckoning that was Bane. And more importantly, one that brought the realization that, well, maybe this guy is just a very interesting character actor.

alfie-solomons-tom-hardy-cillian-murphy-peaky-blinders

“You coulda been a contender, mate…”

That’s not a segue into saying Hardy is one-notehis dramatic range is vast. But as he’s developed his laundry list of highly entertaining roles, I’ve seen a common thread: they’re almost all iterations of a morally conflicted, maniacal he-man with a glint of unpredictable deviance flitting across his expressive eyes. Which leads me to believe that he’s either the most typecast actor of all time or, likelier, less of a transformational talent than simply one of the most brilliantly unique character actors in film. (Here’s looking at you, Michael Shannon.)

I say this all to set the stage for what is perhaps “the most Tom Hardy role” of Tom Hardy’s careerhis turn as British gangster Freddie Jackson in the four-part 2008 Sky 1 series The Take, an engrossing and depraved epic filmed right on the cusp of Hardy’s rise to household name.

Shaun Evans, Charlotte Riley, Tom Hardy and Kierston Wareing in The Take

Evans, Riley, Hardy, Wareing (L to R)

The Take opens with Freddie being released from a prison stint in 1984, right back into the anonymous slums where his life of crime began. Freddie’s story is common, Scarface-esquethe brash, fearless young hurricane who could give a fuck about the old school rules of criminal code. Not interested in “waiting in line” for his rise, he begins bashing heads, making enemies and causing overall havocall as his crime don (a steely, menacing Brian Cox) attempts to call the shots while inside prison walls.

The yin to Freddie’s maniacal yang is his cousin and only trusted confidant, Jimmy (Shaun Evans), a scrawny, posh-looking Hugh Grant stand-in who makes up for his meekness with calculating business wiles. The key players also include Jimmy’s wife, Maggie (Charlotte RileyHardy’s real-life spouse), always looking to steer Jimmy away from Freddie’s mayhem. And there’s Maggie’s older sister, Jackie (Kierston Wareing), who also happens to be Freddie’s wife. It all makes for an incestuously close crime family, and one that toes a deadly line as rivalries begin to simmer.

shaun evans the take

Shaun Evans as Jimmy: The most menacing gangster since Hugh Grant in Mickey Blue Eyes

Encapsulating ten-plus years of Shakespearean tragedy over just four episodes, The Take has a lot of ground to cover. And to say it does so admirably would be an understatement. It’s first two episodes end on the type of multi-pronged bang that you’d expect most shows 12 episodes to deliver (or in the case of, say, The Walking Dead, more like 80 episodes). With a tight script, a breakneck pace of action, and Hardy, Wareing and Riley’s riveting manifestations of dynamically plotted characters, The Take’s well-fleshed resolution does not feel the least bit rushed.

Wareing, specifically, gives a remarkably devastating performance as the pitiable, hopelessly in love wife of a two-timing, absentee jailbird father (Hardy’s Freddie). It’s almost as if we’re witnessing the precursor to the drunken hot mess she played in Fish Tankanother bleak and superbly acted British slum portrait, released the same year.

Kierston Wareing looking like a hot mess in the take with tom hardy

Kierston Wareing: Slum Goddess of England


Hardy, in turn, manages the feat of being both one of the most thoroughly despicable protagonists I can think of and also the most compelling aspect of a brilliantly acted and scripted series. His Freddie is a fast-talking, psychotic hedonist; a primal animal driven by lust, booze, violence and power. He makes Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito look like a good fellamorally speaking. The extent of Hardy’s dramatic rangeeven if it’s an iteration of Hardy we’ve seen multiple timesis commanding, especially when he’s at his breaking point.

tom hardy and nicholas day the take

“Have ya seen me meds, Da? I believe I’ve gone in a bit mental!”

His character can pretty much be summed up in an early exchange with his boss’ flirtatious sister.

“You’re pushing your luck,” she cautions him.

“Yeh, well that’s what I’m good at,” Hardy responds through a crooked smile.

I have few knocks on The Take, although I have to mention the show’s laughable opening credits. Perhaps to draw in viewers with fireworks, perhaps just out of poor British taste, the show’s seriousness abruptly cuts to a trying-too-hard rock-riff featuring high-contrast graphics of Tom Hardy doing badass things. It’s a clear Guy Ritchie ripoff, and about as tone-deaf to the show’s gravity as re-dubbing the beginning of Schindler’s List with an Andrew WK ballad.

But all said this is a hellishly bleak and well-maneuvered gangster seriesmore Coppola than Guy Ritchieand also an early insight into one of the most compelling actors of his generation. If there’s a reason The Take only has a 7.9 on IMDb, it’s probably because it’s too depraved, and its lead too unlikeable for mainstream audiences and critics to stomach. 

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.9

-Sam Adams

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Unsung Gory: 26 lesser-known crime, thriller and horror movies on netflix instant worth watching

26 netflix crime thriller and horror movies
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If you dig dark cinema and/or frequent this blog, odds are you’ve already seen such Netflix-sponsored classics as I Saw the Devil, Tell No One, Headhunters, Blue Ruin and Stake Land. If not, refer back to this list, which contains arguably 18 of the best films and series that run in that vein of bleak, thrilling morbidity.

What’s compiled below is a list of slightly inferior (in some cases—not all) modern flicks that took a lot more digging to find than the aforementioned titles. In other words, they’re mostly lower-budget, less hyped in critical and social media forums, or simply just overlooked. And if you feel this list is slightly short on horror, just refer back to this post.

If you’re new to the blog and the list seems a little thematically erratic, I’ll just reiterate that the focus of this site is to recommend movies not from one particular genre, but rather a series (horror, crime, thriller) which are all connected by an undercurrent of grim suspense. (See: my first post where I equate bleak cinema with ASMR.) This 26-part novella is also my attempt to repent for blogging infrequently of late, and thus offering you a laundry list of some of the better stuff I’ve watched over the past half year.

And the nominees are…

Almost Mercy
danielle golden bloody sexy in almost mercy

The main reason I held off from writing a longform post on this is because it’s a little smarmy for my tastes. Essentially, depressed, bullied loner boy meets insanely hot badass outsider chick (Danielle Guldin). Friendship ensues, and so does mass killing. Think White Rabbit (farther down the list), but with more of a Heathers / Ginger Snaps / Horns vibe. My other comparison would be an amalgam of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired Elephant and Jennifer’s Body, with a tone and sardonic wit more in line with that Diablo Cody flick than the serious nature of Kevin and Elephant. Almost Mercy is definitely a lot of fun as 90s throwback black comedyjust be prepared for more tongue-in-cheek gore than actual horror or substance.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.2

Big Bad Wolves
Tzahi-Grad-Big-Bad-Wolves
It makes absolute sense why, in 2013, Quentin Tarantino called Big Bad Wolvesan Israeli murder-torture revenge thriller“the best film of the year.” I don’t say that because Wolves is a profound and overlooked piece of filmmaking. I say it because people with big egos generally tend to like what they see in the mirror, and Wolves is essentially a reflection of everything QT’s worked to stylistically cultivate over the past few decades. If you are a die-hard Tarantino fan, you might very well agree with him. If, like me, you think he’s gone into hammy, self-parody ever since his last great film (Jackie Brown), you might be of a couple minds.

Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown

Before the Gosling meme, there was this bad muthafucka…

 That’s not to say that I don’t think Wolves is a very clever and entertaining thriller with some wonderful style and plot twists. It’s just that QT’s character-as-caricature formulawherein corny jokes play substitute for human emotionseems just a little incongruent with a film predicated on child rape, child murder and agonizing revenge torture.

I guess I should briefly sum up the main premise here, which entails the father of said beheaded child and a vigilante cop using all means necessary to force a confession out of a potential perp in a secluded farmhouse basement. Directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado even give a wink to Pulp Fiction as the man is interrogated, using one of QT’s favorite tools for going “medieval on his ass.” I know fans of this blog might have a gripe with me calling this film insensitive, but it just seems that at the very least, the gravity of such vulgar material becomes rather implausible and divorced from reality in such slapstick kid gloves. In all, it feels like this film was created for the exact cine-sadist audience Michael Haneke was confronting and condemning in Funny Games.

OK, OK, I’ve cleared my conscience. If you can somehow cast aside the flippantly portrayed depravity this film addresses (not a small task), it then becomes a perfectly paced suspense-revenge flick, full of black humor, strong camerawork, memorable performances and some fantastic twists. It also gets points for the best use of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” this side of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Quite simply, Big Bad Wolves is a love it or loathe it movie, and I find myself caught somewhere between the two poles. But I can’t deny that it’s an impressive piece of filmmaking.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.8 

The Canal
the canal irish movie
When I put together a list of some of best lesser-known modern horror flicks on Netflix (see link in intro), The Canal was my glaring omission. Perhaps I held off on watching it due to the corny cover art on Netflix that makes it look like a generic, direct-to-DVD snoozefest. Or maybe it was the 5.9 score on IMDb (Reminder to self: IMDb scores are good signifiers for a film’s caliber in some genres, but they are to be distrusted like a back-alley three-card monte dealer when it comes to horror).

In fact, this film is so good that I’m doubling back on my claim that The Babadook was the best horror film of 2014 (granted, it was a pretty shitty year for horror). So what’s the deal with The Canal? Premise: An Irish film archivist moves his wife and son into a creepy old house located on a… canal, of all things. With a heavy tip o’ the cap to The Shining, our man starts losing his mind a wee bit, especially when he finds some films at work that reveal his house to be the scene of a century-old murder wherein a man killed his wife and kids.

the canal the shining here's johnny

“I think my dad’s gone craaazy!”



This familiar narrative I just described is pretty much where The Canal stops adhering to any genre conventions. I’ve stated on this blog that haunting movies generally don’t do the trick for me (just leave the fucking house, already!). But this one is more refreshing and palpable, if only because the majority of the film doesn’t take place in the house, and we don’t have to wade through an hour of creaking doors and power outages to get to the real meat. Moreover, The Canal operates on a heady, multilayered plain of psychological dementia that enters into a possessed mind in one of the most convincingand therefore terrifyingways I’ve encountered. Trippy, manic and skillfully crafted, the lack of recognition for director Ivan Kavanagh’s indie masterpiece is criminal. Queue it up without further delay.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 5.9

Blue Capriceblue caprice isaiah washington
Based on a wave of seemingly motiveless sniper killings that went down near Washington D.C. in 2002, Blue Caprice is carried by an air of unnerving tension as well as a sense of unavoidable dread. It brings to mind several sources, most notably Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), loosely inspired by Andrew Clark’s 1965 freeway killings. In both films, random “targets” are sniped by a psychopathic killer who seems to have little more incentive for the murders than his own psychopathy.

Blue Caprice also employs a father-and-son-like power dynamic, as an embittered man brings a homeless youth into his care, only to brainwash him into being a cold-blooded killer. In this sense, the film evokes both Beasts of No Nation and the character of Chris, the trigger-happy corner boy from The Wire. The senselessness of the entire drama is conveyed as the killing spree unfolds almost nonchalantlymore as a brief footnote to the inexplicable psychopathy of these killings than as a crescendo or climax. The strongest feature of this film is without a doubt the maniacally icy and dynamic performance of Isaiah Washington. In all, Blue Caprice’s characters are fleshed out, but their criminal psyche and murderous underpinnings beg more exploration. Perhaps that makes sense, however, given the utter senselessness of their actions.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.0

Cartel Land
Jose Manuel Mireles cartel land
One of my favorite films on Netflix streaming is El Infierno, a Sam Peckinpah-tinged tragicomedy dealing with the societal horrors of Mexican narco culture. In my post on that film, I also recommended Narco Cultura, a good documentary on the subject in its own right. Surpassing that, however, is Cartel Landa doc that brings a retrospective “how the fuck did they get that footage” type feel to a war playing out between druglords and an army of ordinary citizens fighting back against tyranny. Makes sense why this was just up for Best Documentary Oscar.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.4

A Company Man
Ji-seob So in a company man

Netflix’s most impressive foreign subgenre catalogue is arguably that of South Korean revenge thrillers. Oldboy and I Saw the Devil are the best of these, but they’re just part of a film movement that churns out great products at a breakneck clip, and A Company Man is a damn fine addition to the canon. Drawing a parallel between the corporate servitude of the Asian “salaryman” and the rigorously structured life of a hitman, Company Man excels as a bleak and action-packed, murder-revenge tale. There are a few other South Korean flicks on this list I’d check out before it (namely, A Hard Day), but if you’ve enjoyed the genre’s more popular offerings, you should be pleasantly surprised by this low-budget and high-grade counterpoint to Assault on Wall Street.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.7

Darkness on the Edge of Town
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This one’s a bit like that moody, bleak and cinematographically impressive country noir stuff that’s been coming out in droves of recent (Joe, Blue Ruin, Shotgun Stories, The Living, Winter’s Bone), but with more of a distinctly Irish feel. And not just in gorgeous shots of the 40 shades of green that canvass the hills of North Kerry. There’s a contemplative, almost mystical and dreamlike quality to the film, especially at its outset. The story revolves around Cleo, a fiery-tempered juvenile delinquent (Emma Eliza Regan) looking to avenge her sister’s death by going door to seedy door to find sis’ killer. Cleo is handy with a hunting rifle, and her house calls to shifty tinker drug dealers makes her character seem rather like a brogue-bearing mashup of Jennifer Lawrence’s character from Winter’s Bone and Katniss Everdeen. The film, also about friendship and duplicitousness, is nothing groundbreaking, but at the very least it’s a nice, little anti-Thelma and Louise b-movie with slick camerawork and an impressive performance from Regan.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.1

Dark Was the Night
kevin durand in dark was the night

In all honesty, this is probably the worst film on this list (OK, maybe with the exception of The Shrine). It starts with a hammy scene of mysterious terror that you’ve seen open any number of horror movies. But wait! From there, the next hour or so of Dark Was the Night ventures into a suspenseful and ominous creature feature that elicits a genuine fear of the unknown through a rather original premise and a lot more showing than telling.

Kevin Durandeasily recognizable from being typecast as the brawny asshole in just about every recent Hollywood action flickdelivers a complex performance that shows he’s more than just a b-movie Arnold. Sure, the main themes are trite and have been done ad nauseum, but the vast majority of the film delivers on good, old school suspense-horror (consider it a worthwhile M. Night Shyamalan flick, if there is such a thing). As for the payoffwell, that’s probably why you haven’t heard much about this movie. But sandwiched between two short and shitty bookends is a very compelling b-horror flick. I won’t say more other than that with a budget of about a million more and a few kinks worked out, this could have been a classic. And it’s always fun to see the great Nick Damici pop up in a horror flick, no matter how small the role.

Grade: B-
IMDb: 5.6

A Hard Day
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Combine the suspense and breakneck pace of Headhunters with the corrupt cop cat-and-mouse game of Infernal Affairs. Package it inside the South Korean murder-revenge template. Throw in a dash of Walter White-level maniacal crisis and a Michael Myers-esque killer and, well, you essentially have the recipe for A Hard Day. I’m actually surprised this movie doesn’t get mentioned more when the topic of South Korean “han” films arises and the ingenious, usual suspects are named (I Saw the Devil, Oldboy, The Chaser, The Man from Nowhere, etc.). If not up to those high standards, Hard Day is at least in the same ballpark. One of my highest-recommended flicks on this list.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

Jack Strong
jack strong patrick wilson Marcin Dorocinski
Wait, I’m fucking serious: Despite being marketed with a poster that looks like some lowbrow Tom Clancy political conspiracy schlock and having a title that only furthers this notion, Jack Strong is actually a very intelligent and compelling spy thriller. And that’s because it’s the exact opposite of everything its Netflix thumbnail connotes. For starters, Patrick Wilson (whose face takes up most of the Jack Strong promo poster) actually has very little screen time in the film. Jack Strong is also largely in Polish and Russian, with English subtitles. While it may look like a low-budget rip-off of The Sum of All Fears, it’s really more in the tradition of heady espionage flicks like The Debt, Citizen X and Munich (I’m not gonna mention Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy because I still have no idea what the fuck transpired in that movie). Thrilling, suspenseful and very well acted, one need simply ignore its awful marketing, and a very good film lies beneath.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2

Kidnapped (Secuestrados)
secuestrados-Manuela-Vellés

Fuck, this one is bleak and grotesque. I mean, while not exactly A Serbian Film, it makes the Liv Tyler flick Strangers look like Home Alone. And it’s not even a horror film. Just a home invasion movie that takes us into the inner recesses of a horrific real-life situation, and then begs the question, “How much fucking worse could it get.” The thing is, it’s all very convincing, believable and well-acted. And I think calling Kidnapped “torture porn” would be a disservice to its vivid realism. I just don’t know why the hell anyone would be compelled to make this film. But it’s certainly better than Eli Roth’s Knock Knock, and if you liked Funny Games and are a cinematic sadist, you’ll most likely eat this shit up.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.5

Last Shift
last-shift-Juliana-Harkavy-bloody-sexy

Channeling the cult-classic Session 9, Last Shift brings us into the world of Jessica (Juliana Harkavy), a cop working her first shift. Of course she just happens to look like the half-sister of Jessica Alba and Hope Solo. Of course the shift is run alone. At night. In a precinct house that’s haunted by the spirit of a mass murder clan! Last Shift is one of those low-budget, sleeper Netflix horror titles that more than does the trick in terms of delivering continuous suspense and some good visual and psychological thrills. In fact, I’d go so far as to place it in the top ten horror movies of 2015. As a horror buff who is typically bored by paranormal films, this one easily kept my attention throughout. An impressive flick from up-and-coming horror director Anthony DiBlasi.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 5.7

The Living
Jocelin Donahue in The Living
If we can consider Blue Ruin, Joe, Winter’s Bone, Cold in July and Shotgun Stories as cousins related by the blood of country noir, than consider The Living their slightly jaundiced offspring. Director Jack Bryan takes the age-old formula of drinking, heartbreak, mayhem and embittered rednecks killin’ on other nearby rednecks for fuckin’ with their kinfolk. He then hands it over to a talented cast of horror and outlaw movie vets (including a few faces from Justified and House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue) and basically lets them shoot it out. While there’s a lot of good bleak-as-fuck hilljackery commencing here, veteran character actor Chris Mulkey absolutely steals the show as a two-bit philosopher hitman who’s just a few screws short of being a white trash Anton Chigurh. If you want bleak and backwoodsy, look no further.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.3

Man from Reno
Ayako-Fujitani-scary-sexy-in-man-from-reno

Man from Reno is, without a doubt, the best film ever made about the treacherous Japanese-British-San Francisco rare turtle smuggling syndicate. That absurd premise is what our heroine, popular detective novelist Aki, finds herself in as she struggles with a personal crisis and the task of cranking out her last opus. Then there’s the dark and handsome gentleman lover Akira (Kazuki Kitamura from Kill Bill and Killerswe need more of this guy), who’s got something to do with the whole shebang. Piecing it all together is a local detective working a murder casethe great character actor Pepe Serna (Scarface), stealing the show as a humble, aging version of Walt Longmire. 

pepe serna chainsaw scarface

Pepe Serna on the wrong side of a chainsaw in Scarface

So yeah, there’s a lot going on here, almost distractingly so (and sometimes the puzzle pieces collide a bit too quickly). But it’s all worth the slow grind. In the end, Man from Reno is a bizarre, multinational cinematic anomaly; equal parts Hitchcock and The Killing. And speaking of the latter, Man from Reno’s bleak Pacific Northwest cinematography brings a mood and visual flair that are as much a character in the film as any player. If you liked the Al Pacino and Christopher Nolan flick Insomnia, definitely check this out.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.9

Mea Culpa
mea culpa movie Vincent Lindon
Mea Culpaor as I like to call it, A Walk Among les Tombstonesis the type of gritty cop thriller that could easily rake in box office bucks with a Liam Neeson remake. The film opens with an older man in short shorts on the beach with his beautiful, much younger wife. The message here, I believe, is that it’s just another day in France.

Such sunny overtones quickly fade. A drunk-driving accident leads to a career and marriage flushed down the drain. It also leads to buddy-cop partners who were once thick as thieves now distanced by worlds of misery. But when a child is witness to a gangland murder, our fallen anti-hero must pick up the pieces in order to save his familyand perhaps even regain his sanity.

There are heavy undertones of Taken, including seedy Eastern European thugs and impromptu death-match boxing in dark warehouses with knives and towel-wrapped hands. I will say Mea Culpa suffers a bit from the old not-killing-the-bad-guy-when-you-have-the-chance syndrome, but it does the trick for a tense and action-packed thriller. Consider it the poor man’s Tell No One.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.1

Mystery Road
mystery road jason mask
Apart from what’s going on in South Korea and the slew of “country noir” films I can’t stop talking about, Australia has one of the stronger bleak, murderous film movements at the moment. Mystery Roada slow-burn detective thriller about an Outback sheriff trying to both solve a murder and navigate systemic and race-fueled corruptionfollows in the rich tradition of The Rover, The Horseman, The Proposition and Animal Kingdom, to name a few. Its existentially bleak, ponderous view of the Outback as expressed through vivid cinematography and minimalist dialogue is part of what makes this film compelling, and creates for a bit of an odd hybrid between Spaghetti Westerns, Samuel Beckett plays and the gonzo Ozploitation movement of the 1970s. It needs to be said that Mystery Road certainly puts the “slow” in “slow-burn,” but if you can dig a crime movie that’s predicated as much upon mood as it is upon plot, this one is certainly worth checking out. Bonus points: It also has a great side role from Hugo Weaving, as well a finale that makes up for the turtle’s pace of the whole affair.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.4

No Tears for the Dead
no tears for the dead bloody

As I said in my original post on the South Korean revenge-murder thriller No Tears for the Dead, “ It might not have the depravity or sophistication of some han classics, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exhilarating foreign popcorn flick made in the past few years.” Seriously, this one gives the first three installments of the Die Hard series a run for their money. There’s nothing all that heady here (it’s more explosion-enhanced, shoot-’em-up blockbuster fodder than the grim glory of South Korean classics like I Saw the Devil and Oldboy). Still, director Jeong-beom Lee’s folllow-up to The Man from Nowhere impresses as a non-stop visual spectacle, and is buoyed by an all-star cast from South Korean revenge cinema. If you’re a fan of the Vengeance Trilogy but are simply in the mood for sheer entertainment on a more brainless level, No Tears is a whole helluva lot of fun.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.7

On the Job
on the job movie on netflix with Joel Torre

Probably among my top five within this list, On the Job is a Philippine prison-gangster flick that toes the line between drama and thriller. That doesn’t mean it’s by any means slowit’s just a more artful (and well-acted) affair than some of the other stuff on here. If you want some context, combine the coming-of-age and coming-to-power story of Un Prophete (man, that was one of the best films on Netflix), the interwoven, seedy fabric of Amores Perros, and the bleak Philippine crimescape of Metro Manila. And seeing as On the Job details the dynamic of two generations of assassins and their worldly troubles, perhaps a non-comedic take on In Bruges. All the rest you need to know about this film is that it’s about hitmen who have a deal with a political mob to be secretely released every now and then in order to pull of high-profile murders. Oh, and that it’s a damn good piece of modern crime cinema.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

The Seasoning House
the-seasoning-house-rosie-day

This is one of those weird and really good gems that just got buried in the ether of Netflix; the kind that never popped up in any “because you liked” lists and took me half an hour of mindlessly browsing to happen upon. Perhaps that’s because it’s a pretty damn difficult film to market. Premise: A deaf-mute girl in The Balkans is abducted into a military sex-slave house after watching her family brutally murdered by soldiers. She uses her wiles to avoid death at the hands of her captors, while simultaneously coming to the aid of her heroin-fed sex-slave counterparts. Doesn’t exactly scream date-night, does it? And it also isn’t really horror, so you can’t just slap a ghoulish image on the front and get traffic that way (see: The Canal).

OK, now consider that extremely fucked-up premise being executed to near-perfection; no torture porn, no exploitative thrills at the expense of of a very serious and evil situation. Simply an engaging thriller with undertones of bloody revenge on par with what you’d expect out of a South Korean “han” film. For those who can stomach it, Seasoning Houseactually a British filmis suspense and terror at its finest. Rest assured, you will never want to visit The Balkans.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.1

Scenic Route
scenic route josh duhamel

Wait, Josh Douchehamel made a good movie? I thought he was only supposed to star in Katherine Heigl flicks in which Katherine Heigl realizes her life sucks and then she meets Josh and realizes her life doesn’t suck, and then they go through a period that sucks, and then things don’t suck again. But no, Scenic Route is actually a pretty damn-entertaining flick, thanks in part to an ambitious and humorous script from Kyle Killen. Premise: a cleaned-up, dumbed-down ex-musician shackled by a white-picket-fence existence meets with an old stoner buddy, who’s the same lout he was when they used to hang. Road trip commences. Car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Bros are stretched to the limits of their friendship and sanity.  It’s kind of like that movie Gerry with Matt Damon, except that I didn’t feel like I swallowed a handful of Ambien ten minutes into watching it (fuckin’ a, Gus Van Sant, fuckin’ a…). I’m not saying Scenic Route is anything existentially groundbreaking, but it’s just really surprisingly good for a movie starring Josh Duhamel, and you could do a lot worse in terms of survival flicks.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.5

The Shrine
cindy-sampson-in-the-shrine

As I’ve said before, good horror flicks are few and far between. And I can’t highly recommend this one until you’ve gone through the 30 or so other modern horror films I’ve suggested on this blog. But worth your time if you’re a horror fan? Yeah, it at least holds that standard.

The premise is even a bit more creative and new than a lot of the stuff popping up these days: An American journalist, her photographer boyfriend and her intern travel to a remote Polish village to investigate a series of odd tourist disappearances. Combining elements of Devil’s Pass (watch that on Netflix over this if you haven’t seen it), Hostel and any number of possession films, Shrine at least creates an interesting and multilayered narrative. There’s even some cinematographically intriguing segments shot in the eerie mist of Polish hill country. Why many of these are clearly shot in front of a green screen is a mystery, and adds an unnecessary element of b-movie laziness. And as a former journalist, I’d rather not even get into the financial implausability of a small-time journo living in a high-end condo and flippantly buying three last-minute transcontinental flight tickets on her own dime simply because she has a story hunch. But there’s some decent special effects here and enough ambitious thrills and chills to at least merit a gander. I’ll just reiterate that this one’s low on the list and I’m mainly just throwing it in here for hard-up horror fans.

GRADE: B- / C+
IMDb: 5.6

Suburra
subarra movie Greta Scarano Alessandro Borghi

Damn, this is a great movieprobably the best on this list. I love how the opening scene cuts from a boring Italian legislative session to a neon-lit mansion bumping M83’s club-classic “Midnight City” (arguably the most MDMA-conducive song ever created). From there, the tone for Suburra is set, and it’s one of a cross-section of corrupt humanity overlapping into one another’s seedy, carnal and ultimately deadly worlds. The idea of intersecting narratives tied together by some intrinsically morose fate certainly brings to mind the early work of Alejandro G. Iñárritu (see: Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), now probably the most lauded director on the planet.

And as the scandalous lives of a corrupt politician, a gung-ho mobster, a nightclub promoter, a beautiful prostitute and the old guard of gangsterism clash in and around modern-day Rome, the movie also delves into some of the bleak Christian themes Iñárritu explored, especially in Amores Perros. Suburra is divided into daily chapters, with each one being prefaced by text signaling a countdown to “the apocalypse.” The true nature of this apocalypse is more existential and character-related than it is literal, but it would be hard to argue that the movie is, on some levels, not a story about the descent and end of mankind.

Pierfrancesco Favino and Greta Scarano sexy in Suburra

“It’s the end of the world… might as well double up!”

Fans of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher series will most likely love this as well, as it delves into the same neon-lit, trance-music soundtracked netherworld that brought a surreal mix of doom and glory to those movies. It’s worth noting that this is somewhat of a companion piece to the great Italian slum-gangster flick Gomorrah, made a few years prior, as Suburra’s director went on to turn that movie into a TV series. From a cinematographic standpoint, however, Suburra is an improvement on its predecessor. Oh, and a final note: There’s a climactic scene here that rivals the horsehead scene in Godfather. Just sayin!

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.5

Uncle John
Uncle John Ronnie Gene Blevins John Ashton
I know nothing about the fresh-faced, first-time filmmaker Steven Piet, but if I had to guess one thing about him I’d say he’s has seen a little film called Blue Ruin. My second guess on Mr. Piet would be that he’s seen a film called The Living. I’d also venture that he’s probably seen David Gordon Green’s Joe and Jim Mickle’s Cold in July. Whether Piet saw any or all of these films before creating Uncle John? I’d also guess in the affirmative, but that in no way means that Piet’s feature debut isn’t a damn good foray into country noir-ish territory in its own right. It’s also arguably the most “Midwestern Nice” movie since Fargo.

A split narrative follows both the budding workplace romance of two typical city millennials and the boy’s titular uncle and father-figure, a farmer living a few hours (and a few worlds) away from them. John is a good, plainspoken Midwesterner who works hard and meets a group of similarly Midwestern chatty-Cathy buddies for coffee every morning at the local diner. But of course, he’s hiding a dark secret. The performances of John Ashton as Uncle John and Ronnie Gene Blevins as essentially the same character he played in the movie Joe are much more compelling than what’s going on with nephew and his office hottie. Still, Piet’s use of a split narrative to contrast the safeness and sterilization of one generation with the cruder, hands-on know-how of a bygone era isdespite being a bit heavy handedan effective tool for conveying how dull and sheepishly naive your average Millennial is.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.3

When Animals Dream
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To avoid spoilers, I’m not gonna classify the subgenre of this slow-paced and thoughtful Danish horror flick. That said, when its main character, Marie (Sonia Suhl), starts growing weird patches of hair on her body, the gist becomes clear rather quick. I want to re-emphasive that “slow-paced and thoughtful” aspectit’s not in an artsy fartsy way that people will either love or hate, as was the case with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s more about combating demons and conspiratorily safeguarding evils within a family dynamic. It’s also about female sexuality and love, but it’s really a lot more grim than that. So the main comparison would be Let the Right One In, a standard few films can live up to (including this one). Still, Suhl’s performance is understatedly compelling and complex. And the bleak cinematography of an isolated European fishing town provides the perfect setting and mood to complement one of the more introspective horror flicks of the past few years.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 5.9

White Rabbit
Nick-Krause-in-White-Rabbit

Harlan is an angsty loner who grew up with an alcoholic dad whose lasting legacy to his son was an appreciation for guns. Then a neurotic pixie dream girl arrives at his high school, and their relationship plays out a lot like what went down in the Daniel Radcliffe movie Horns. White Rabbit is also very similar to Almost Mercy (see top of list), albeit darker and more bleakly homicidal. Basically, it’s like Columbine meets Donnie Darko, as seen through the eyes of rapper Cage (specifically his “I Never Knew You” music video). Matter of fact, actor Nick Krause looks a hell of a lot like Cage here. Shia LaBouef should cast him if he’s still working on that Cage biopic. Anyway, if you want some really good, really bleak and bloody teen angst, check this one out.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.2

A Wolf at the Door
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I’ll quote from my original post here: “If Prisoners met Little Children and were lured into a back alley by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, you might have a rough idea of what the Brazilian abduction film A Wolf at the Door is about. But even such a miasma of grim, adulterous, child-snatching malevolence would fall short of matching the depravity that exists in director Fernando Coimbra’s 2013 suspense tale.” Yeah, that pretty much sums up this slow-burn story of psycopathic lust, adultery, betrayal and murder. This is another one hidden deep in the Netflix archives that deserves much more attention.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.5

-Sam Adams

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

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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

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.

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.

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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

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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.