Tag Archives: Thriller

The Handmaiden (2016)

Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) returns to Korea with one of his best movies in years. The Handmaiden takes place during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s where a young thief, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), goes undercover as the personal servant to a wealthy, but mentally unstable Japanese woman named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee; Right Now, Wrong Then). Sook-hee’s friend and fellow thief (Ha Jung-woo; The Yellow Sea) poses as a Japanese Count so that, with Sook-hee’s help, he can marry Hideko and then have her declared legally insane, inheriting her family’s wealth for himself with a cut of the earnings going to Sook-hee.

The delicate approach taken to Hideko and Sook-hee’s relationship is easily the most shocking part of the film. Not that what is displayed is surprising, but rather who it is coming from. Park is known for his twisted violence and his often perverted characters. He has never shied away from portraying sadism onscreen which makes the genuine sweetness  of the romance completely unexpected. As Sook-hee cares for Hideko, she sympathizes with her plight and becomes attracted to her naivete. Both are inexperienced, but they discover themselves with and through each other. Even as it becomes explicit, their relationship creates a much softer, and welcome, core to the film.

The nature of her work brings Sook-hee closer to Hideko.
The nature of her work brings Sook-hee closer to Hideko.

When the times comes, Park quickly moves into his signature perversion. Characters have deeper motivations than what is first implied and noble pastimes are shown to have unseemly roots. Fortunately, the transgressions are displayed with a light tone. Park has the temperament of a child gleefully flipping through an adult magazine, excited more at the idea of breaking the rules than the actual acts themselves. This gives the film a much needed levity that creates laughter where on paper it could produce disgust.

What’s amazing is Park’s ability to blend these conflicting tones. The film is at times tender, as a romance grows between Hideko and Sook-hee, comedic, when the Count struggles to court Hideko, and, of course, violent. Park separates the film into distinct segments, mirroring the book the film is adapted from, to prevent the tonal shifts from becoming jarring. Furthermore, he uses them to add much needed variety. The film is 144 minutes long but rarely drags as each chapter reframes the audience’s perspective. With each section, more information is revealed and deceptions prove deeper than ever expected. The Handmaiden is a serpentine thriller that is as playful as it is twisted.

4/5 stars.

Under the Shadow (2016)

In Tehran, after the revolution but still in the middle of conflict, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) pleads with the director of her medical school. She left to be an activist during the revolution and now wants to return to her studies, but because she chose the wrong side is not allowed to re-enroll. Heartbroken, she goes home only to find out her husband, also a doctor, is being drafted to help the military. Tehran is a major target for bombings, so he advises that Shideh take their daughter Dorsa and go to his parents in the north where they will be safe. Upset and stubborn, Shideh says she will stay. She soon learns that there is more to be afraid of than the bombings.

Under the Shadow is a multilayered film and builds fear with each additional wrinkle. There is the physical threat of bombings that constantly looms over the characters, but Shideh is also dealing with her own failure and is questioning her ability to protect Dorsa by herself. On top of this, there are the supernatural elements. Why is Dorsa’s doll missing? Why won’t her fever break? What are the things she and Dorsa keep seeing? As Shideh tries to deal with these fears, she begins to crack under the pressure. Everyone in her building starts leaving the city so she has the additional fear of being alone in the building. Each of these aspects increases the baseline level of fear. Even if they are safe in one respect, there are still several other dangers to be afraid of.

Shideh and Dorsa are under constant stress.
Shideh and Dorsa are under constant stress.

Director Babak Anvari adjusts the camerawork to match the emotion of the film. Rather than maintain the same shooting style throughout the movie, he shifts his approach as needed. In pivotal sequences when a character is exploring the source of a noise, he uses perfectly fluid movements to indicate the danger lurking around the corner. When characters are scrambling in fear, the camera shakes softly reflecting their unstable state of mind. Anvari also deserves praise for creative framing. He films common scenes in portrait rather than landscape, allowing a character’s posture, and the sentiment it communicates, to dominate the screen. His expertly controlled cinematography precisely manipulates the audience’s emotions.

The sound design is also a major factor in the film’s success. Horror, more than any other genre, is reliant on audio cues to maintain tension. Normally this is limited to the interplay of quiet and loud that forms a jump scare but Anvari uses background noise to make the audience constantly uncomfortable. There is always rumbling, like the sound of heavy winds or the shaking of an earthquake, and it subtly increases as the film progresses. Low frequency noise like this creates a physiological response of unease. Gaspar Noé used this to great effect in Irreversible and Anvari is able to even eclipse that. The noise, like a tightening in the chest, gently suffocates any hope of relief.

The true nature of Under the Shadow sneaks up on you. It initially seems like a family drama about separation caused by war, but soon reveals its horror roots. The strength of the film is how it successfully combines disparate types of fear. As Shideh’s situation spirals out of control, she is not only sympathetic, but clearly unreliable. In most films, this would be counterproductive, but because of the very real threat of bombings, it only adds to the suspense. The physical dangers become interwoven with the psychological and even though we suspect she may be misinterpreting her surroundings, we can’t relax because there are other risks around her. The lack of release is almost unbearable and the tension escalates to the point of asphyxiation. Under the Shadow melds internal, external, and supernatural fears into a terrifying whole.

five stars

5/5 stars.

The Invitation (2016)

Every once in a while there comes a movie that you want to talk about, but can’t. A couple years ago it was The One I Love and this year it is The Invitation. The movie is best approached with no prior knowledge. No synopsis, no trailer, and even no review. If you’re interested in a film that is more than it initially seems, check it out. If you need more convincing, the review below features some details about the setup and style of the film, but no major plot spoilers.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green; Prometheus) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi; Middle of Nowhere) are driving to reunite with old friends at a dinner party hosted by Will’s estranged ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard; Moneyball) and her new partner David (Michiel Huisman; Game of Thrones). The initial encounters are uncomfortable. All of the guests are clearly avoiding mentioning some previous event and Eden and David are trying to prove that they have moved past it. As Will moves around the house, he sees brief, warped flashbacks of memories he has clearly suppressed. In the end it’s not what happened in the past that is important, but rather what it implies for the future.

The early acting is amateurish. The actors, while laudably diverse, behave like first timers in a student film, poorly attempting to replicate casual conversation between friends. The writing doesn’t do the actors any favors. Each character is painted in broad strokes and can be irritating initially. The one positive side effect is that their clumsy dialogue distracts from the events to come.

The dinner party never becomes comfortable.
The dinner party never becomes comfortable.

Those events take their time to arrive. The Invitation is at its heart a slow burn thriller. Director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) takes her time creating the setting and establishing the relationships between the characters. The home is an LA mansion that is well lit and eerily perfect in its interior design. It feels like a model home – extravagant, but by its nature sterile. Kusama makes this expansive house feel increasingly claustrophobic. The gated home is confined and the dinner party becomes a microcosm separated from the rest of the world. Every moment of conflict becomes momentous because the home is the only setting acknowledged.

The score and sound design play a key role in the suspense. The soundtrack features screeching violins and subtle white noise that immediately communicate dread. As certain characters become agitated, the sound design reflects their emotional state. Banal noises like the chewing of food or the clanking of utensils against plates become grotesque and cacophonous. Even when the dinner seems commonplace at first glance, the film’s audio always hints at more to come.

As Will’s unease evolves into suspicion, every action is called into question. Who are the two guests that the rest of the party doesn’t know? What is the real reason for bringing everyone together? Even small, innocuous gestures are implied to have ulterior motives. The tension increases and it’s unclear whether Will’s mistrust is warranted. Without revealing too much, the ending delivers an answer and has further implications for the world of the movie. The Invitation grows from a socially awkward dinner party to a paranoid thriller of potentially sinister intentions.

4/5 stars.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Home invasion films are a well-worn genre, but Don’t Breathe makes  a smart twist on the formula. Imagine Home Alone from the perspective of the robbers, only instead of Macaulay Culkin setting traps it was an old, murderous man.

Alex (Dylan Minnette; Prisoners), Rocky (Jane Levy; Evil Dead), and Money (Daniel Zovatto; It Follows) are three 20-somethings making their living robbing homes and selling the goods on the black market. Alex’s dad runs a home security firm, so they are able to get passcodes and keys to enter and exit houses unnoticed. Rocky and Money have the intention of leaving town if they can get the funds, but they aren’t making enough off each house. Fortunately, they get a tip about an old man (Stephen Lang; Avatar) who won a six figure cash settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident by a wealthy teenager. He lives by himself in a mostly empty part of town and supposedly has the settlement money inside. The best part is the man is blind, so it’s an easy job…or is it?

Like the recent horror hit It FollowsDon’t Breathe uses modern day Detroit as its setting. Maybe it says more about the economic situation of the city than anything else, but the graffiti covered facades and overgrown lawns of the long abandoned neighboring properties hint at the situation to come. Why would someone, especially someone with a large sum of money, still live in a place like that?

As the team breaks into the house, director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) establishes the setting. It would be easy for the movie to feel like a bottle film, restricted to one main location because of financial reasons not creative ones, but that is not the case. The home has a maze-like architecture and Alvarez uses impressive cinematography early on to explore it. The camera weaves in and out of rooms, rarely cutting, and lingers on objects bound to be of importance later. These shots lay the foundation for the film and inform the audience of the possibilities that exist. In less skilled filmmaking, plot twists feel cheap and convenient, but here each twist is subtly foreshadowed early on. You may have an idea that something will be important, but chances are you won’t be able to guess how.

Lang animal-like behavior is always frightening.
Lang’s bestial behavior is always frightening.

The blind man is not what he seems and the team of robbers soon find themselves in trouble. Lang dominates the screen with his intensity. He becomes animal-like. Lang rarely speaks and relies on his other senses to find the robbers. He sticks his nose in the air and sniffs like a feral wolf searching for prey. Unlike the intruders, he knows his house intimately and takes full advantage of this as he walks through the halls feeling his way across the house.

His blindness makes for incredibly tense encounters. In most home invasion films, the characters are only worried that they will be spotted, but here they have to be wary of a tiny creak of the wood floors setting off Lang’s hypersensitive hearing. It also makes for near misses that come uncomfortably close to confrontations. Lang can’t see his uninvited guests and often moves within inches of them.

Lang’s sheer physicality makes him a terrifying threat. He is revealed to be a veteran whose sinewy arms and fast, focused movements show his prowess. At one point during my screening a woman shouted “He’s worse than the Terminator!” and she was right. Lang’s efforts are unrelenting and the justice he delivers is unforgiving.

In the last act, the film layers on multiple twists that will divide audiences. Some may view them as unrealistic while others will see them as depraved and unnecessary. Each additional wrinkle pulls the story further away from believable and turns Lang from a man to a monster, reducing the credibility the film had established. Yet, Lang is able to overcome these missteps. Even as the third act falters,  the strong setup, creative encounters, and Lang’s presence make Don’t Breathe a film of often unbearable tension.

4/5 stars.

The Neon Demon (2016)

Coming off the less than stellar reaction to Only God Forgives, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) returns with The Neon Demon, a film about a young woman, Jesse (Elle Fanning; Super 8), who moves to Los Angeles to become a model. She says she isn’t smart, has no real skills, but knows she’s pretty and she can make money off of pretty. The topic makes an interesting change of pace for Refn who has centered most of his films around hard men and criminal underworlds. What is fascinating is how little his portrayal of these seemingly disparate settings varies. He shoots the hyper-competitive field of modeling in the same way he normally frames opposing gangsters. The players are as vicious as they are unscrupulous and when Jesse quickly becomes the “it” girl leaping over established models who have been working towards the same goals for years, we see that these two environments are more similar than we had imagined.

Regular composer, Cliff Martinez, returns with another stellar soundtrack. He again uses a variety of electronic music to set the tone of the film. His pulsing beats provide an effective contrast to Refn’s slow camera movements. They add much needed energy and tension to what could otherwise become a lethargic film. Martinez has also expanded the emotional range of his music. His rhythms immediately create atmospheres of dread, adrenaline, or heightened reality, depending on the scene. Tracks like “Are We Having A Party” quickly set the tone of events to come. His score combined with Refn’s images make the film an audiovisual treat.

The setting is ripe for Refn's stunning imagery.
The setting is ripe for Refn’s stunning imagery.

Refn exploits the world of high fashion for his own visual sensibilities. The signature cinematography from Only God Forgives is further intensified here. The images look ripped out of an avant-garde art gallery with stark backgrounds and characters drenched in high contrast lighting. He adds depth to these images by examining the potentially abusive nature of their creation. These young women, Jesse is underage but is told by her agent to say she is older, are at the whim of older men who Refn rightfully indicts as predatory. Other models repeat that the quickest way to get ahead is often to give in to the sexual desires of these gatekeepers. The only flaw to the director’s analysis of these men is that he doesn’t acknowledge that he too may be in a similar relationship with his actresses. Fortunately, none of the sumptuous imagery, even when it becomes explicit, feels like it is shot with a leery eye.

The threat of violence and its attachment to beauty is present throughout the film. The opening shot tracks in slowly on a motionless Jesse, made-up and wearing a shining dress, with a stream of blood dripping from her neck setting an ominous tone for the story that follows. Characters rarely use dialogue with a natural back and forth. Instead, they spout sentences with long pauses between responses, creating a dream-like quality. This serves to make otherwise standard interactions appear foreign and forces critical analysis of what we accept as normal and why, similar to the way David Lynch often directs his actors.

The unintended effect of this delayed cadence is that it also distances the viewer from the story. While the plot is much simpler than his previous film, the characters again aren’t empathetic because they don’t seem human. Jesse begins the film with some understandable naivete but then quickly assumes the same cold demeanor of her peers, making even the audience vessel unrelatable. This reduces the impact of the film’s climax. While the images are still unsettling, it’s the literal actions that shock more than their implications. Without developing strong investment in the characters, The Neon Demon is a series of visually arresting, but emotionally lacking, images with a superb electronic score.

3/5 stars.

The Fits (2016)

Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut, The Fits, is a look into a young girl entering a new social group. Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11 year old girl who trains with her older brother’s boxing team at the local community center. In another wing of the building, there is a successful dance team filled with girls her age. To Toni, the dance team occupies a different world and she is curious. After some coaxing from her brother, she tries out and joins the group. The film explores her gradual assimilation in the face of a sickness that begins soon after she joins.

Holmer does a great job of portraying Toni’s outsider status. Even as the other girls are fairly welcoming, the distancing effect created by repeated shots with only Toni in focus show how foreign this new world is to her. She has only experienced the social dynamics of her brother’s friends and doesn’t know what to do when faced with the gossip, nail painting, and ear piercing of the girls dance team. Hightower’s stoic but wide-eyed stare convey her genuine confusion at the accepted customs of her team members. Her performance successfully balances her unfamiliarity while still charming through flashes of her youthful naivete.

The natural performances ground the film's plot.
The natural performances ground the film’s plot.

The film attempts to create tension using techniques most commonly seen in the horror genre. Holmer dials into the slow tracking shots, the muffled chatter, and the high pitched audio feedback found in a James Wan film. While these techniques establish a creepy atmosphere, the film isn’t able to build tension over time because of how the fits are depicted. Despite being the supposed center of the story, the fits themselves feel like background events. Toni’s detachment from the other girls prevents these episodes from feeling like credible dangers. Even as other characters begin to fear for their safety, Toni is never worried and this complacence extends to the audience. We too have little interest in the symptoms, effectively preventing any true fear from being created because we can’t be afraid of something that isn’t important.

Toni’s alienation and desire for acceptance into this new group mirrors the spread of the fits. The leaders of the dance team are the first to contract the issue and it slowly works its way down the food chain. The fits become an initiation rite as the kids start to divide themselves based on whether or not they have experienced them. The metaphorical implications of the fits during an exploration of gender roles alone would have made a compelling narrative, but the adherence to horror trappings without being able to produce the desired dread create a promising film with divergent goals that never reach fruition.

3/5 stars.

The Wailing (2016)

In a small village outside Seoul local policeman Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) is called to a crime scene. A previously normal man has viciously killed his family through repeated stabbing. The trend continues as more crimes occur featuring average people suddenly going on murderous rampages and losing their minds. All of these events began soon after a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) moves into town and rumors spread in the village that he is somehow connected to the murders.

The Wailing starts out as a standard police procedural but soon hints at a supernatural bent.  The culprits of these horrific crimes have a feral quality, growling and convulsing as if possessed. Some are seen prowling naked in the night before the crimes are committed. When people begin indicting the Japanese man for these horrendous happenings, they claim he has cast some sort of spell…literally. This is a setting where demons and witchcraft are very serious concerns.

The shaman makes his attempt to remedy the situation.
The shaman makes his attempt to remedy the situation.

The film establishes several potential sources of unnatural intervention. The Japanese man, a Christian priest, and a shaman all have their own rituals and beliefs. Whether it’s holding a cross, sacrificing animals, or dramatic rites, each custom is portrayed in the same alien fashion. As the film progresses Jong-Goo must decide who to believe, but there is no clear answer. They all seem strange in their own way and the confusion only adds to the heavy dread already present.

There are strong resemblances to Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece Memories of Murder. A somewhat competent cop, a series of murders in a small town, and near constant rainfall. Director Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea) uses the torrential precipitation to demonstrate the hopelessness of the situation. He also contrasts the idyllic countryside filled with lush forests against the gruesome murders. Like Bong, Na skewers the desire to describe complex issues with clear, understandable principles. The townspeople try to attribute the crimes to religious beliefs as a method of deflecting reality. What is the better conclusion, that a person has been cursed or that they knowingly committed a heinous crime? As Jong-Goo navigates this spiritual struggle, director Na expertly balances the human fears with the magical possibilities.

4/5 stars.

Green Room (2016)

A lot of bands spend time living out of a van and traveling from gig to gig. For hardcore bands, the venues can range from heavy to dangerous. Green Room, the third film from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, follows a little known heavy metal band as they tour. Struggling to make ends meet after a canceled concert, a journalist friend gets them the chance to headline at a place his cousin knows. What he doesn’t tell the band is that this show is in the middle of nowhere at a bar filled with white supremacists. A normal person would immediately turn around and get the hell out of there, but this is an metal band. So what they do? They get on stage and open with a new song whose only lines are “Nazi Punks! Nazi Punks! FUCK OFF!!!”.

The bulk of the movie is about the aftermath of their concert. Surprisingly, it’s not the lyrics that get them in trouble but rather an event they mistakenly witness in the titular green room. Now a liability to the owner of the venue, the band is stuck in the middle of the woods locked in the green room unable to get help. What happens next? That is where Green Room separates itself from Saulnier’s previous film, Blue Ruin.

This band is hard, man.

Green Room has noticeably lesser ambitions than its predecessor. Blue Ruin was a taut deconstruction of its genre. The hero wasn’t a John Wayne-like badass. He was a regular person, unskilled in violence. It was the rare revenge movie where violence had consequences for everyone involved. While Green Room retains the high level of suspense, it chooses to stay within the confines of its genre – a slasher movie with a metal band and white supremacists instead of teenagers and a serial killer. The limited nature of the film does however lessen the overall impact when compared to Blue Ruin.

Saulnier again shows off his skills as a director. His visuals (he was also the cinematographer on Blue Ruin) continue to excel, using the serene forests to contrast with the dingy, propaganda-laden interiors. The film is well paced with tension built and released on point. The moments of violence, of which there are many, are visceral and significantly more explicit than most R-rated features. From hacked but not severed limbs to bullet-ridden heads, the gruesome details are happily displayed. Macon Blair (Blue Ruin) plays the role of the club manager and is again immediately sympathetic as the slightly incompetent everyman put in a difficult situation. Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) is the pragmatic owner who has to clean up the mess. Stewart’s performance is adequate, but he is perhaps miscast as he isn’t able to exhibit the degree of villainy needed for the role to be believable. Green Room has modest goals, but its creators have more than enough skill to achieve them. It won’t be acclaimed for its scope, but as a slasher film, it thrills and shocks with ruthless precision.

4/5 stars.

Eye in the Sky (2016)

What is the cost of fighting terrorism? That is the broader question looming over Eye in the Sky. Directed by Gavid Hood (TsotsiEnder’s Game), the film narrows this problem down to the scale of one single drone strike in Kenya. After trailing these terrorists on the East Africa Most Wanted list for years, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leads a mission to selectively bomb the house they are meeting in. Unfortunately, there are strict rules of engagement in this situation and before any strike can be launched she needs the permission of General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, Harry Potter) and several politicians who have conflicting viewpoints.

Drone strikes and questions of their legality and morality have been highlighted in the news recently and Eye in the Sky displays the complexities and minutiae that are inherent in military missions. A major theme of the film is responsibility and blame. Who really makes a decision that, while killing terrorists, could risk harming innocents? Is it the pilot who pulls the trigger? The Colonel that gives the order to fire? The general or several politicians that defined their rules of engagement? The film implies that responsibility is held at each point in the chain of command and the aftermath of these decisions is felt by everyone. One of the most interesting points brought up in the ongoing discussion is about the larger implications of casualties. If they kill one child to save 80 people from a potential suicide bomber, will the British government become reviled? Is vilifying the terrorists in the media worth allowing a bombing to occur? Again, the movie smartly avoids providing direct answers to these questions and is impressively balanced in portraying each opinion.

Every factor, political, moral, or legal is scrutinized.
Every factor, political, moral, or legal is scrutinized.

Furthermore, the film explores how political involvement in the military matters can undermine their efficacy. Beyond morality, each politician in the film considers the political impact of the bombing. How will this affect their career? Their party? In one case a ranking politician asks to a dissenting voice, “Will you be the one who has to go on morning news shows to explain this?”. The film shows how these considerations cripple the politicians with indecision as they continually “refer up” to avoid culpability, despite the time-sensitive nature of the operation. When they begin to rely on predictive damage models to make their decisions, the question of reliability of data is also raised. How much of these models are based on fact and can they change if a ranking military official wants them to? The films shows the desperation that can be created by indecision at a critical moment.

Eye in the Sky is primarily a film about these ideas but it does however have brief action scenes in Africa. Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips (He is not the Captain now) plays their man on the ground. Hood deftly uses these scenes to contrast the political risks with the dangers agents in that position take trying to fight terrorism everyday. For the the most part they are well staged. The only flaw is many of the effects are obviously computer generated and can break the otherwise successful immersion.

When decisions are finally made, the film avoids simple resolution. The actions taken – and the actions not taken – play out and the consequences are felt by all. Did someone “win” the arguments? Was the mission successful? What does “success” even mean in the this scenario? As the credits roll, these are the questions that linger over the characters and the audience. Eye in the Sky, succeeds by raising these questions and enforcing the uncertainty of any possible answer.

4/5 stars.