Category: Foreign Film Fanatic

February 20, 2017 Jacob Holley-Kline

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It’s hard to add to an artistic legacy like Edgar Allen Poe’s. The first adaptation of his work was released over 100 years ago, and more have come out steadily since then. Master of the cinematic macabre Roger Corman secured his place in horror history with adaptations of Poe’s work, the best of them starring Vincent Price.

That’s one end of the spectrum. On the other, you have giallo master Dario Argento and George Romero’s “Two Evil Eyes” and the 2013 reimagining of a Poe masterpiece “The Mask of the Red Death.” The Luxembourger animated anthology “Extraordinary Tales” lands squarely in the middle. Some stories are better told than others, but none achieve greatness. Weirdly enough, the most inspired parts happen in the frame narrative.

Poe, in the form of a raven, lands in a graveyard and argues with Death about his obsession (or inspiration, as he calls it) with her. Each of the five stories told, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Masque of the Red Death,” are points in their debate, and the result is a humanizing look at Poe’s life. The stories themselves are (mostly) beautifully animated, but some are just boring.

“The Pit and the Pendulum” looks like a PlayStation 2 cinematic and moves just as stiffly. Guillermo del Toro as the narrator doesn’t help much. He’s a director, not an actor, and it shows. The final segment “The Masque of the Red Death” is wonderful thanks to its sharp visual style and near-absence of dialogue. At the end, though, two characters speak and it just takes the mystery of the adaptation away. Why include those three lines at all? They add nothing to the telling.

The opening story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” fares better. Christopher Lee’s aged narration adds serious poignancy, especially considering he died just four months before the movie’s release. At points, it sounds like he’s struggling to deliver a line, and that’s all-too-perfect for a tragedy like “Usher.”

The movie’s peak comes early, though. “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” acted and narrated by Julian Sands, is a vigorous callback to the heyday of horror comics. The art is just the right shade of sickly and warm with stark color contrasts built into every scene. It’s just an excellent piece of animation enlivened even more by Sands’ eclectic delivery.

But in the end, “Extraordinary Tales” doesn’t rise above its flaws. The point of an anthology like this is the stories, and the movie misses that point. Instead, it glues each segment together with a far more fascinating meditation on Poe’s work and identity. That alone is a worthy contribution to Poe’s legacy in cinema, but “Extraordinary Tales” adds little else.

February 14, 2017 Jacob Holley-Kline

There’s a moment in “The Last King,” a Norwegian historical action flick, where farmers turned royal bodyguards Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro, “Masteren”) and Torstein (Kristofer Hivju, “The Fate of the Furious”) improvise a story for the baby they’re tasked with protecting, and heir to Norway’s throne, Hakon Hakonson (Jonathan Oskar Dahlgren). They’re taking shelter in an abandoned barn while a snow storm rages outside.

It’s a sweet sequence, if a bit on the nose, with a rare kind of heart not usually found in action movies. Oftebro as Skjervald and Hivju as Torstein both have a fierce physical presence, but they’re skilled enough actors to soften those edges. When they do, “The Last King” slows down and lets the tension break. There’s no threat and no conflict: just two men trying to calm an upset kid.

Even then, the movie has remarkable momentum. The numerous ski chase sequences have a hypnotic speed that carries through even in the quiet moments. They’re made even cooler knowing they likely happened in medieval Norway. “The Last King” is based on the exploits of the Birkebeinar, a rebel party formed in 1174 around a pretender to Norway’s kingship.

When the movie starts, it’s 1206 and Norway is ravaged by civil war. Gisle (Pal Sverre Hagen, “What Happened to Monday”), the king’s opportunistic stepbrother, poisons the king. As he dies, the king declares his illegitimate son, Hakon, heir to his throne. Little does Gisle know, the boy is guarded by Skjervald and Torstein, two stalwart warriors and farmers. Now on the run, the two bodyguards have to get Hakon back to Norway’s capital before he’s killed by Gisle’s men.

The unique setting makes for some exhilarating action, but it’s not all excitement. Gisle’s storyline is mostly a drag save for Kristin, the daughter of the queen, and her exploits (Thea Sofie Loch Naess, “Mogadishu, Minnesota”). But her hamfisted relationship with her brother, Inge (Thorbjorn Harr, “Karsten og Petra ut pa tur”) bores quickly. Gisle himself is a typical Machiavellian figure. He’s shallow, power-hungry and helped little by Hagen’s comparatively boring performance.

Archetypal villains aside, “The Last King” isn’t your typical action movie. It’s willing to sideline the action for some serious character-building, and never loses focus of its emotional core. The setting is unique and makes for the kinds of sweeping vistas reserved for serious epics. Jakob Oftebro and Kristofer Hivju have an easy chemistry that makes those central warm moments all the warmer, and the propulsive set pieces even more dynamic. When a movie as relatively quiet as this goes by so quickly, why not stick around for the ride? It’s more than worth the time.

February 6, 2017 Jacob Holley-Kline

There’s something to be said for the horror genre repeating itself. Like other genre fiction, horror has some very specific tropes and archetypes it returns to. Recently, it’s been thorny parent-child relationships in movies like “The Babadook,” “Goodnight Mommy,” and, now, the haunting “Under the Shadow.” It’s hard to blame Shideh (Narges Rashidi, “Tigermilch”), the…

January 30, 2017 Jacob Holley-Kline

The martial arts genre is built on Wong Fei-hung’s life. Born in 1847, the Chinese folk hero ran a martial arts school and medical clinic in Guangzhou City in the day and moonlit as a bodyguard for local businesses at night. Over 100 Hong Kong action flicks are based on his exploits, from Jackie Chan’s…

January 22, 2017 Jacob Holley-Kline

It’s hard to make violence in movies meaningful. So hard, in fact, that most movies, especially big budget releases, can’t get their head around it. The Norwegian action “In Order of Disappearance” looks, on the surface, like it treats death with gravity. If you look any deeper, however, this isn’t the case. Thankfully, the movie…

December 11, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Finals week crushes even the strongest students. It’s a stressful, grating time where it’s not unheard of to break down every once and a while. With so much on our minds, it’s nice to escape in some mindless entertainment, and it doesn’t get more mindless than “Baskin.” This homage to Italian horror will shut viewers’…

December 4, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

The post “Breaking Bad” glut of anti-hero centric crime flicks only had so much to work with. A man, seeking fortune or some means of providing for his loved ones, descends into the criminal underworld and discovers his true self. “Serra Pelada,” save for an abrupt turn at the end, follows these beats exactly. Besides…

November 21, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Movies with a one-track mind can be frustrating. The needlessly titled “When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism” has just such a mind. Watching it is a frustrating, sometimes maddening experience, but it’s hard to deny its brilliance. Over 90 ponderous minutes, director Corneliu Porumboiu breaks cinema down to its bare essentials. But to what…

November 13, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

So many documentaries about North Korea focus on Kim Jong-un’s regime. Interviews with the citizens emphasize the horror they live under, but not who they are as people. In Álvaro Longoria’s excellent “The Propaganda Game,” however, those people are the focus. It’s a refreshingly humanist approach, one the opts for honesty over exploitation, and the…

November 6, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

It’s tiring sitting through the same horror movie time and again. There are a few diamonds in the rhinestones, but “When Animals Dream” is just another rhinestone. It’s got a diamond’s sheen, but with none of its strength. Sometimes, that sheen raises the atmosphere and tone well; however, the rest of the movie never follows. In fact, “When Animals Dream” is so underwhelming that it’s hard to form an opinion about it. At its deepest, it’s an average horror flick veiled by artistry.

Marie (Sonia Suhl) lives in a lonely fishing village with her father, Thor (Lars Mikkelsen, “The Day Will Come”) and her seemingly catatonic mother, Mor (Sonja Richter, “Gentlemen”). After a strange rash appears on Marie’s chest, she begins to change. Something is amiss in the village, however. It seems that everyone knows what’s happening to her better than she does.

Transformation narratives, broken down, are more about the “before” than the “after.” “Before,” the character is built up, given dimension while the affliction spreads. “After,” the man becomes the monster, and the attributes of both get too mixed up to tell who’s who. The problem with “When Animals Dream” is that the before establishes nothing about Marie, opting instead to build her relationships with other, equally vague people.

So when the after hits, it’s not scary or effective in any way. Things just kind of happen, and they’re left there. Viewers have to take it on faith that, without knowing who she was before, Marie is very different now, so she will do very different things. Horrible things. Look at how monstrous she’s become! But when you only see the monster, is it really monstrous?

Even worse, the movie falls back on the usual thematic territory: the dangers of female sexuality. This doesn’t hurt the movie, it just lumps it in further with most horror out there. It just feels so safe. And in a world with horror like “The Witch,” “The Babadook,” and “It Follows,” “When Animals Dream” just doesn’t cut it.

In the end, this movie is your typical werewolf flick, but it’s got enough of an artistic sheen to feel different. And that’s its biggest trick. Truly, the movie wants to be subversive and interesting. Its fascinating texture is evidence of that. But it just isn’t. It’s too familiar and indistinct to take on a life of its own. For a movie so focused on transformation, it’s ironic that “When Animals Dream” never evolves itself.

October 30, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Title: “7 Años”

Director: Roger Gual

Release date: Oct. 28, 2016

Genre: Crime drama

Country: Spain

Rating: 4 out of 5

Stick five desperate people in a room and bullets are bound to fly. But the tense and compact crime drama “7 Años” nixes the gunplay and focuses solely on character. After the nihilistic glee of Tarantino’s similar, though far less interesting, “The Hateful Eight,” “7 Años” plays like a return to the basics of cinema in the best way possible. There are five characters in one room with one problem. In the end, however, it feels too short. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it never really settles in.

Under pressure from the IRS, four friends are facing jail time for mishandling funds in their software firm. Here’s the catch: with a simple money transaction, only one of them needs to take the fall. So Marcel (Alex Brendemuhl, “Longing for a Kiss”), the CEO, Veronica (Juana Acosta, “Vientos de la Habana”), the CFO, Luis (Paco León, “Kiki, Love to Love”), and Carlos (Juan Pablo Raba, “Shot Caller”) hire a mediator, Jose (Manuel Moron, “Cerca de tu casa”), to figure out who that one person will be.

The movie’s short running time forces the characters to be direct. The dialogue is blunt but never boring. Viewers can be sure that what narrative layers it peels back only leave room for more. As the characters are stripped to their core, the dialogue only gets more terse. Honestly, while no grand battles take place, “7 Años” is violent in its language. Marcel and Veronica share the most brutal exchanges, and Carlos and Luis the most heartbreaking.

The characters start out vague, however. Carlos and Luis’ introduction is fairly bland. It tells us a little bit about them both. Marcel and Veronica’s opening scenes aren’t any better. As it goes on, however, the characters’ dynamic deepens and, frankly, gets pretty sad. When they come to blows, it’s not fun to watch. They just cut so deep with everything they say.

Director Roger Gual is careful in setting up these climaxes. He’s not one for visual flourishes. More than anything, his style serves the characters. It lacks the freneticism of Fabian Bielinsky’s similarly character-driven Argentinian crime opus “Nine Queens,” but has David Mamet’s command of dialogue ala “American Buffalo.”

It’s a damn good movie. It never tries to be anything other than what it is: an exploration of four characters during the tensest moment of their lives. Even with a light plot, “7 Años” feels too short. The conclusion certainly would have hit harder if viewers knew these characters more intimately. Director Gual’s barebones style helps move it along at a steady click. When the credits roll, no one is spared. Not even the viewer.

October 24, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

It’s easy to drive a joke into the ground. “No Filter,” for some reason, makes it a point to do so. Every gag, and there are many, are super hit-and-miss. Truthfully, some of the funniest moments in the movie happen early on. It has the patina of a studio comedy, always flirting with edginess but never getting there. As it goes on, the movie gets weaker, but the charismatic Paz Bascunan picks up the slack that her co-stars leave behind.

Pia (Paz Bascunan, “Alma”) is a middle-aged, down-on-her-luck, marketing firm representative. Her husband ignores her, she isn’t respected at work by her boss or coworkers, and, when she’s not being ignored, she’s constantly inconvenienced by everyone around her. Constant chest pain and a regiment of pills sends her to the doctor where she finds out that all her pent-up rage is bound to kill her and the only cure is to let it all out.

Pia’s not a hard character to wrap your head around. But “No Filter” spends a lot of time with the “down-on-her-luck” part. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield school of comedy. “I don’t get no respect” rings true through most of the movie, but it gets tiring just thirty minutes into the movie. The repetition is jarring, to be certain, but any fans of the James Franco and Seth Rogen school of improv won’t likely be off-put.

When stuff hits the fan, Pia confronts all these people. And while she does get brutal, the movie’s tone is too positive to let her get truly mean. In that way, it lacks the edge that it really needs. But it’s not all bad. There are some hilarious moments, and it’s easy to admire the weird progressive world that director Nicolas Lopez has created.

The true draw of the movie is Paz Bascunan’s performance as Pia. While the movie has the generic sheen of a studio comedy, Bascunan brings honesty to her character’s very real pain. In an especially poignant moment, Pia shares a hug with her ex. She nestles against him as if it’s the first time in years. More than anything, bordered by generic side character, she carries the movie on her own.

With a few gut-busting moments, “No Filter” is just funny enough to not feel like a waste of time. It takes a bit to gather momentum, and when it does, it’s a fun ride. It wouldn’t be as fun, however, without the Paz Bascunan’s presence. It doesn’t have the bite of a great comedy, but it’s got the filtered fun of a worthwhile one.

October 17, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Watching “The Second Woman” is a bizarre experience. To begin with, it’s bad with some good sprinkled on. The good is that it’s very self-aware and strangely allegorical. The protagonist, Hui Bao, represents director Miu-suet Lai, while her twin, Hui Xiang, represents the audience watching the movie. The bad is how Lai goes about putting…

October 9, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

A movie like “Dukhtar” has an inherent power to it. That power can be unlocked by a good director, but director Afia Nathaniel isn’t quite there. The setting makes for some haunting vistas, and truly powerful character moments are few and far between, but the movie is decent in its attempts. Like “JeruZalem,” “Dukhtar” aims…

October 2, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Reviewing two zombie movies in a row seems excessive, but hear me out. “JeruZalem” is another in a long line of Israeli genre flicks to come out in the past few years. This one, especially, has gotten a moderate amount of buzz, so why not watch it? Well, because it’s terrible. Even the good parts…

September 26, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Zombies have been done time again and again. “Maggie” and “World War Z,” while not great, managed to inject some originality into the genre. “Train to Busan” combines the emotional core of “Maggie” with the third act intensity of “World War Z,” and builds on them. It’s more action than horror, but the action sequences…

September 18, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

With so many grim movies being released, a crowd-pleaser feels taboo. Even superhero flicks like “Captain America: Civil War” and “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” felt dark. The latter more so than the former. Too much of that, however, is alienating. That’s why it’s nice, every once and a while, to find a movie…

September 12, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Icelandic humor has got to be the darkest kind of humor out there. Looking at the country’s history, it makes sense: in around 1260, deforestation, volcanic eruptions, and infertile soil ravaged the land. In the 15th century, the Black Plague hit twice, wiping out entire generations of settlers. One third of those bloodlines who survived would be killed by small pox three hundred years later.

It’s no wonder, then, that “Rams” is barely a comedy by American standards. To call it “bleak” would be an understatement. Director Grimur Hakonarson makes Iceland’s empty interior as much a character as the assiduous Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjonsson, “Brave Men’s Blood”) and his estranged, hard-drinking brother, Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson, “The Deep”).

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The two of them are farmers. For 40 years, they haven’t spoken a word to each other despite being neighbors. The only thing they have in common is their undying love for their sheep. When scrapie, an incurable nervous system disease, sweeps through their herds, the brothers find that they can’t deal with the plague alone.

There’s a great deal of unexpressed love between Gummi and Kiddi. But “Rams” makes a point of intertwining love and death. One does not, and cannot, exist without the other. In the opening scene, Gummi goes from nuzzling his prize ram to finding that one of his brother’s sheep has died. By the time Kiddi is introduced, the metaphor is clear. The title “Rams” is not about the rams at all, it’s about the brothers.

In 90 percent of their interactions, they butt heads, just like the animals they shepherd. It’s an on-the-nose metaphor, and one that’s done well. But Gummi and Kiddi’s relationship feels oversimplified because of it. Since their past is explored only vaguely, their arcs don’t have the cathartic quality that director Hákonarson attributes to them.

Of course, this all sounds very dark. And it is, but it’s also funny. It’s a desert-dry kind of humor, one that sneaks up on you. That stealthy quality makes the “gags” all the more hilarious. One of the darkest moments in the movie, how Gummi deals with his infected flock, for example, is immediately undercut by one of the funniest moments in the movie.

In the end, “Rams” is a movie for a particular mindset. It’s about as bleak as tragicomedies gets. From the barren setting of rural Iceland to the long, dialogue-free stretches that punctuate it, the movie lifts its desolation up. After all, if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you, so why not laugh at it?

August 23, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

As I see it, there are two stages to watching a great movie: recognition and surrender. Recognition is simply knowing you’re watching something great, but surrender is giving yourself over to it. “The Wailing” is recognizably great from the jump, but surrender comes during a climactic scene 40 minutes in. In this sequence, the movie…

August 8, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Title: “The Salvation”

Director: Kristian Levring

Release date: May 22, 2014

Genre: Western

Country: Denmark

Rating: 2 out of 5

“The Salvation” is anything but

By Jacob Holley-Kline

There are a lot of ways to squander a good cast. When this happens, it’s forgivable if one actor can’t shoulder the narrative weight of their cast mates. But if there’s no weight to the movie to begin with, is there really anything to waste? Enter “The Salvation,” a bloodless Western out of Denmark. It manages to waste veteran actors Mads Mikkelsen and the already underutilized Eva Green. Both of them work with what they’ve got. It’s just that they’re not given much.

It’s a sad thing, too, because it starts out well. Set in the American west, Jon (Mads Mikkelsen, “Men & Chicken”), a Danish immigrant and former soldier, exacts vengeance for the murder of his recently arrived wife and son. Among his victims is the brother of Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice”), a vicious oil baron. With a stranglehold on Jon’s frontier town, Delarue sets out to avenge his brother.

The first red flag comes right at the beginning. A few paragraphs of text fill in Jon and his brother Peter’s (Mikael Persbrandt, “Alone in Berlin”) recent past. This is a hokey move, especially since the brothers’ backstory is brought up later regardless. Even so, the movie begins well. It races through the opening scenes. At such a pace, there must be a lot of story to cover, right? Wrong.

“The Salvation” quickly exhausts any momentum it has. Jon’s wife and kid are killed before they’re given any kind of life. The fact that they’re related to Jon is supposed to lend them importance, but their lack of character comes off as lazy. In this way, the movie is so quick to get to the action that it forgets to make any of it feel important. There are no stakes, no reason to be invested. Jon is barely a character, and his struggle is ill-defined. Because of this, his actions are alienating. There’s no nuance to how he dispenses justice. Everyone gets the same treatment, no matter their transgression. This works against viewers’ sympathies.

Beside him, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is even worse. Delarue is a villain who was once a good man. An interesting character is there. Morgan, however, doesn’t have the charisma to play him.

Above all, Eva Green is the most egregiously underused actor in the cast. As the mute Madelaine, she has no lines. Her career-defining performance as Vanessa Ives on Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” prove that she deserves more than this.

What a disappointing and spiritless journey “The Salvation” turns out to be. It begins with promise, but wastes no time in squandering that. A weak script does the mostly talented cast no favors. The great Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green are both shockingly boring. Even less accomplished actors, like Morgan, fall by the wayside. “The Salvation” seems to bore its actors, so why should viewers feel differently?

July 26, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Title: “So Young”

Director: Zhao Wei

Release date: June 14, 2013

Genre: Romance

Country: China

Rating: 3 out of 5

To give credit where credit’s due, “So Young,” a Chinese romantic comedy, works hard to separate itself from the crowd. It’s not quite a romantic comedy, or a drama, or a melodrama. It’s a blend of all three. Together, those genres can be hokey, and the movie certainly has hokey moments. But its commitment to those moments is fierce.

On the surface, “So Young” is your typical romance. Zheng Wei (Zishan Yang, “Battle of Memories”), an incoming freshman, arrives at her college. When she meets her three eccentric roommates, Ruan Guan (Shuying Jiang, “House of Wolves”), Li Weiyang (Yao Zhange, “Love, at First”) and Xu Kaiyang (Ryan Zheng, “Running Lover”), she discovers that college is nothing like she imagined it would be.

Truthfully, the plot is thin. It mainly focuses on Zheng’s relationship with Chen Xiaozheng (Mark Chao, “Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe”) with detours into other characters’ lives. It lacks the focus of the more adult “In the Mood For Love,” but compensates with the meandering spirit of “American Graffiti.” With such a large cast of characters, balancing stories is a question of thematic importance.

What’s important here is that everyone overreacts. Characters don’t talk so much as spar. Each interaction is a fight or, at the very least, a heated disagreement. That kind of manic energy is hard to maintain, even in a melodrama, and the movie does suffer for it. Characters’ relationships seem to change on a dime.

One minute, Chen loves Zheng, but the next, he shuns her. Can that momentum truly be contained? With director Wei’s religious adherence to melodrama, the answer is a resounding yes. It is so consistently over-the-top that it ceases to be weird. Wei imbues each confrontation with a restless longing, something genuine underneath the artifice. Truly, the movie is an escape in the purest terms.

Wei takes the movie, adapted from the Chinese novel “To Our Youth that is Fading Away” by Xin Yiwu, a step further. She includes character back stories and an epilogue where other romantic comedies would roll the credits.

However strange it sounds, “So Young” is immensely ambitious, and it mostly pays off. The clumsy exposition and ridiculous drama combine to make something fresh. All the same, the movie gets tired halfway through its two hour length. When every conversation is a shouting match, it’s hard to tell what’s truly important.

In the end, “So Young” is an interesting addition to the romantic comedy genre. It adheres to the genre’s tropes, but takes them a step further. Often, the plot veers gracelessly, and characters lack consistency, but damn if it isn’t a fun time. While Wei doesn’t reach the fantastical heights she aims for, it’s hard to deny that she gets close. If that’s not ambitious, I don’t know what is.

July 11, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

A typical coming-of-age tale starts with a confused kid. Coming to understand what they didn’t before is what evolves the character, but “Theeb,” a bildungsroman from Jordan, isn’t a typical coming-of-age story. The titular character, Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), is self-assured, rarely questioning himself. He focuses only on what he understands. It’s a refreshing character…

April 17, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Horror has the potential to be the most culturally reflective genre in cinema. Beneath the darkness, beneath the bloodshed, there’s something deeper at work. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. “Sauna,” a murky shocker from Finland, seems deeper than it is. Its setting is unique, the cinematography is beautiful, and the story’s nonlinear. It has…

April 10, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

“District 9” was released seven years ago to critical acclaim. Much of it was well-deserved. Director Neill Blomkamp had managed, in many ways, to fulfill the promise of the high concept science fiction that came before him. Movies like “Blade Runner” and the lesser known “The Quiet Earth” proved that science fiction could be an…

March 27, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Sometimes, a simple narrative is best. It seems that the complex subject of intersexuality would lend itself to something more intricate. What’s so good about director Lucia Puenzo’s “XXY” is that the story is simple and deeply nuanced. It’s layered and frank, with a downcast tone. Above all, it’s a compassionate meditation on otherness and…

February 14, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

The best family dramas can be unbearable to watch. Anyone who’s had a tense confrontation with a loved one can attest that complicated dynamics and secrets bring out the worst in people. “After the Wedding” weaves such a web of relations. The characters are deep, their relationships complex, but the movie manages to be immensely…

February 7, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

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Well done genre fare is a treat. While “No Tears for the Dead” takes the action genre a step further, it works best when it embraces its roots. Despite many weaknesses, the narrative manages to hone in on one central relationship. It’s this focus that makes the film good, but it’s the action that makes it great. Beyond that, however, things begin to fall apart.

A disastrous hit job leaves a little girl, Yoo-mi (Kang ji-Woo, “A Man and a Woman”) dead. The man responsible, Gon (Dong gun-Jang, “Dangerous Liasions”), is sent by his employer to murder the mother, Mo-kyeong (Min hee-Kim, “Right Now, Wrong Then”) and finish the job.

The plot thickens beyond that, of course. But the many subplots add little to the movie. By far the muddiest part of the story is Mo-kyeong’s take down of her boss John Lee (Jun Sung Kim, “Innocent Blood”). Clumsy exposition and explanations of character motivations make the whole affair a confusing mess. Thankfully, Jang’s performance as Gon and Kim’s as Mo-kyeong provide a funnel for the narrative.

It begins with an arresting scene. Gon’s character is built well in ten minutes, and the main conflict follows soon after. “No Tears for the Dead” shows immense promise in its first half. But once numerous, many poorly acted, characters are introduced and given hammy lines of dialogue, the movie loses its ambition.

However, that’s when things take off. The on-the-nose dialogue and cliched posturing make the movie something truly memorable. It’s as if director Lee Jeong-beom gave into the trappings of action. Thank God he did.

The action sequences are mesmerizing. They have a rhythmic sensibility. Fight scenes have movements, a definite structure. Excellent sound design bolsters the cruelest moments of these scenes. The result is often stomach churning, cringe inducing violence. More than that, they inform character. Gon’s first act of violence ripples through the narrative, and affects every act of violence thereafter.

Characters are introduced and promptly killed, oftentimes with appalling brutality. The narrative takes so many twists and turns that they blur together. A lot of stuff happens over the film’s 116 minutes, but by the end, little of it feels important.

Ultimately, “No Tears for the Dead” is a pulpy, consummate action flicked dressed in high drama’s clothing. The trappings of the genre appear slowly, but once they appear, they stay. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it works in the movie’s favor. The best moments ignore the glut of characters and opaque criminal enterprises, and focus on action and Gon and Mo-kyeong’s relationship. With far more to offer than standard action fare, “No Tears for the Dead” never escapes its genre, but does what it does beautifully.

Title: “No Tears for the Dead”

Director: Lee Jeong-beom

Release date: June 4, 2014

Genre: Action

Country: Korea

Rating: 4/5

January 31, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

In a tight 77 minutes, “Them” manages to convey an unsettling message, one not easily forgotten. However, that message is enough to undermine the whole film. Like Joel Shumacher’s “Falling Down,” “Them” is a hopelessly xenophobic allegory. Thinly veiled, nationalistic treatises like this lose their luster quickly. This film is no exception.

Subtitled as “the movie that terrified Europe,” “Them” follows young teacher Clementine (Olivia Bonamy, “Chez nous c’est trois!”) and her lover Lucas (Michaël Cohen, “The New Adventures of Aladdin”) as they relocate from France to the countryside of Bucharest, Romania. On their first night home, someone, or maybe two, terrorize the young couple. Clementine and Lucas try desperately to escape before the perps make it inside.

In essence, a young, affluent French couple move to the wilds of Romania and are immediately terrorized. As viewers learn later, the perpetrators are Romanian. They are violent with no purpose, sadistic without reason, inhuman and devilish to the nth degree.

Considering France’s long history of xenophobia towards the Romani people, coupled with how they’re represented in the movie, “Them” takes on a political edge. Though it isn’t a welcome one. In 2009 alone, the French government forcefully expelled some 10,000 Romani back to Romania and Bulgaria. The following year, 8,300 more were kicked out by August. Since then, 51 Romani camps have been demolished with a little over 1,200 of their inhabitants shipped back to their respective countries. Each of these governmental crackdowns was preceded by a long history of xenophobia against the Romani people, especially Romanian French people.

That’s not to say the message is obvious at first. It isn’t. If you ignore it, the movie might be more enjoyable. That being said, it can pack a punch when it wants to. The opening scene for example, taking place on a deserted back road, is a master class in tension. This scene sets the bar so high that it’s a damn shame the rest of the movie falls short.

Such high tension is nearly impossible to maintain, but directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s efforts are laudable. They use darkness effectively, cleverly cloaking threats in the darkest parts of the frame. Sadly, the sound design is terrible. Sounds of all types vary wildly in volume, resulting in some overbearing jump scares and muted horror.

While “Them” is a laudable thriller, it falls short thanks to its divisive xenophobic subtext and its poor sound design. The best thrillers and horrors rely on subtle editing, sound cues, and darkness. Moreau and Palud use darkness well, but everything else is run-of-the-mill home invasion fare. What sticks with viewers by the end is not the horror of being stalked, but the horror of oppression and what role the media plays in perpetuating it.

Title: “Them”

Director: David Moreau and Xavier Palud

Release date: July 19, 2006

Genre: Thriller

Country: France

Rating: 3 out of 5

January 12, 2016 Jacob Holley-Kline

Title: “Goodnight Mommy” Director: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala Release date: Jan. 8, 2015 Genre: Horror Country: Austria Rating: 4 out of 5 Let’s get this out of the way: “Goodnight Mommy,” an Austrian horror movie, is predictable. It’s not narratively clever. Despite this, it’s scary as hell. That feat alone deserves recognition. Directors Franz and…

December 6, 2015 Jacob Holley-Kline

Rating: 3/5

Title: Only God Forgives

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Release date: May 30, 2013

Genre: Thriller

Country: Denmark

Director Nicolas Winding Refn creates worlds of color. The characters in them are hyper real, especially Driver in “Drive,” sometimes bordering on alien. “Only God Forgives” is an extension of that language. The protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling, “Gangster Squad”) is even more stoic than Driver. But where Driver’s stoicism suggested an inner life, Julian’s suggests nothing at all.

This problem extends to every character. Even Kristin Scott Thomas (“In the House”) fails to liven Crystal, Julian and his brother Billy’s (Tom Burke, “An Enemy to Die For”) mother.

Billy rapes and murders an underage prostitute, and is killed by the girl’s father. Police Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, “The Mark: Redemption”) gets wind of the case and arrests the father, killing him for allowing his daughter to be a sex worker. Crystal learns of Billy’s death and tasks Julian with finding the men who killed him.

Like its spiritual predecessor “Drive,” “Only God Forgives” makes more emotional than literal sense. Gosling plays a walking “Kuleshov Effect.” He seems little affected by the horrors on screen, but blank face allows for plenty of projection. The problem is that his stoicism lacks depth. It implies so little about his inner life that it loses its meaning. Gosling, as a result, looks like he’s sleepwalking through the role.

Burke, Thomas, and Pansringarm don’t fare any better. Burke dies too early on to have an impact, and Thomas is all vitriol and creepy sexuality with little else. Pansringarm’s quietude has an eerie power, quite unlike his costars, but there’s little beyond that. No one in the movie has any real depth. This extends to the story as well. Metaphorically, it could be about man’s battle against God. Literally, a man is killed and then more men are killed as a result. The narrative is too thin to be interesting.

That being said, it is a gorgeous movie. As per usual, Refn’s color palette is rich. Working with only primary colors, the world becomes a fever dream of reds and blues. By the end, the visuals become the movie’s only redeeming quality.

With little in the way of character or story, “Only God Forgives” rides on its visual luster alone. Gosling, Thomas, Burke, and Pansringarm are boring, with only Pansringarm holding any viewer interest. His quietude, however, fails to save the movie. The feverish surrealism of “Only God Forgives,” amplified by its concise visual palette, is reason enough to see it. Beyond that, expect little else.